Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cairo - general

First impression

My first impression of cairo is that it is a very very old city.
We had to drive through the suburb of Heliopolis to get from the airport to central cairo, where our hotel was. Heliopolis had retro looking buildings with european influences. With old taxis (mostly boxy fiats and ancient peugot 504s) and vespas dominating the streets, vintage sounding music (trumpets and drums) blaring through the taxi's radio, and the near-sunset light washing a sepia tone over everything, it is not suprising that Ilham felt like he was in an old black&white movie. I half expected to see P.Ramlee walking down the street with a fez on his head.
The traffic in cairo was not as bad as I thought it would be. I had been in worse traffic jams in KL. You'd have to be a daredevil to drive in cairo, though. I don't think I'd have the guts to swerve and dodge traffic and pedestrians alike in cairo.
As we got into central cairo, the buildings got older and older, and if I may say so, also dirtier and dirtier. Some buildings still retain their magnificent carvings and decorations, but everything looks so dusty. As if someone had kept these buildings in an outdoor shed and have not been doing any cleaning for centuries. I still can see beauty underneath all that grime though.

When searching for an alternative accomodation to Sheraton, I noticed that that are really no mid-range hotels in Cairo. You have either the (supposedly) 5-star high-end accomodations (mostly hotel chains) and then you have the budget/hostel type accomodations. What I feared most was to pay 5-star prices and getting 3-star accomodations (which is very likely in cairo). So we had opted for Windsor Cairo, which claims to be 3-star, with 3-star prices.

Our hotel was right smack in the middle of central cairo.
We had a corner room on the 3rd floor that had one side facing a burnt down barbecue place, and another side facing a coffee shop slash sheesha place, that seemed to be open for business from 8am to what feels like 4am every day.
From our room, we could hear the buzz of male conversation and the rat-tat-tat of the metal thongs used to pick up the coals that burn the sheesha pipes. We could also hear vehicles that seem to speed up as the night grew later. By the 3rd night, however, we got used to the noise and now it feels kinda too quiet sleeping in my own room.

Windsor used to be a British Officer's Club, so the decor is a little antique.
It's really just a small hotel, with only 55 rooms on 6 floors. It is a very good 3 star hotel, in my opinion. About the only things that seperate it from a Sheraton were lavish decorations, a huge marbeled lobby, satellite TV, room service and a pool. The housekeeping is immaculate (our room and bathroom were cleaned and bed sheets changed every day. I know, because the room usually smells like puke in the mornings and smells fresh by mid afternoon).
The wooden floors are a little creaky, but couple that with the metal-spring rollaway extra bed and the sweet smell of cool clean cotton sheets on a lembek lembik (soft mattress), it instantly reminded me of my grandmother's house in Merang.

My kid's favourite part of the hotel is the open-shaft elevator. They like pulling at the grilled doors and help the bellboy with the lever controls. When they're not in the elevator, they look at the exposed pulleys and chains and wave at the people inside the elevator. They keep asking me what does "Appel" mean on the button that we have to press to buzz for the elevator. Their favourite bit of the day is when half of us would ride the elevator (it could only fit 4 people at a time) and the rest (usually Ilham and Ihsan) would wait till the bellboy says "Go!" and they would race down/up the stairs that winds around the elevator to see who reaches the lobby/room first.
I swear I've seen that happen on television before and it was confirmed when I saw a picture of Michael Palin on one of the hotel walls with the inscription "Around the World in 80 days" under it.

My favoutire part of the hotel is the 2nd Floor where the dining room is, with the sitting room (the bar) beside it. The dining room had huge windows that ran along one wall and is quite a pleasure to have breakfast in. The sitting room had a small library (only one book shelf, actually), but I still managed to find something to read on those days that we didnt go out. I finished reading Ben Elton's Dead Famous and Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception.

Windsor's complimentary breakfast was simple - a pot of coffee or tea, juice in a glass, a basket of toasts and buns and an assortment of butter, jam and cream cheese. We would always order a pot of hot chocolate and by the 4th day the waiter started to bring it without even asking and it was on the house. Certain days we would order scrambled eggs or cheese/mushroom ommelletes. It wasn't that heavy, but enough to hold us up till lunch time.
Their lunch and dinner menu is quite okay, with choices of western platters like roast beef or grilled fish, and also traditional egyptian food like koshary and grilled meats. They also make great pizza, which my kids really liked. Considering the exchange rate, the prices are reasonable.

Outside, the local food offerings have less variety. It's usually shawarma, kebabs, falafel, grilled meats with bread. We ate koshary (pasta and rice and lentils in tomato sauce) at the famous Abou Tarek restaurant one day, and the kids liked it, but I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I wasnt sick. We had a delicious lamb tajine (Lamb and vegetable stew) at Aly Hassan Al-Haty & Aly Abdou Restaurant, which was "once the haunt of cabinet ministers and movie stars" says the guidebook, but was a little run-down and overpriced in my opinion. In Zamalek, we had lunch at Beano's, a restaurant that also had shelves of books for sale, and I had the best Blackberry Hibiscus juice I have ever tasted. We frequented Gad restaurant which serves normal egyptian fare mentioned above and one day I tried the egyptian pancakes which was yummeh. Even then, we grew quite tired of egyptian food after a while and I longed for some sambal tumis or curry. I even wished I had the foresight to pack some sambal daging (spicy beef floss) with me. Our saviour was KFC and McD, which provided some form of respite from egyptian food. (the fried chicken was a little different though, and not as tasty as Malaysian KFC.. tak cukup ajinomoto kot? ha ha )

The 'Cairo Foxtrot'
It all started with Anis on the very first day we arrived in Cairo. She started spewing chunks and kept going to the bathroom. I thought maybe it was because she was really slow at eating lunch before we left and that she didnt chew her chicken properly, but when it went on for 2 days and she kept dozing off and being lethargic, I started to worry. We got her some anti-vomitting medicine from the nearest pharmacy and she got better.
On the third day, I started feeling a bit off. I thought maybe it was the mint tea I had in Khan El-Khalili (I knew I shouldnt have eaten/drank anything at such a filthy place), so I stopped drinking tea or taking anything dairy. I spent the next day just sleeping in bed and going back and forth to the bathroom.. pity my kids who had to content with watching arabic tv. I managed to take a short walk to the grocery store and bought them some writing books and asked them to draw what they had seen for the previous 3 days. That occupied them while we waited for Taufik to come back from his training. After dinner we stopped by the pharmacy and bought medicine for diarrhea.
Then Ihsan felt a little queasy and said he had a headache, but luckily we already had medicine and he felt better really quick. Then Izani started puking, so I was sure it must be something in the environment that made us all sick, one by one. From then on we treaded carefully when we were out on our walks, we watched what we were eating, we watched what Izani was touching and putting in his mouth, like a hawk.
Us getting sick really put a little damper in our plans. When I was sick we missed one whole day of sightseeing, and since at least one of us was sick in the following days, we had to limit ourselves to just a few activities (sometimes just one activity) a day. The Cairo Foxtrot also robbed me off doing one thing that I really really really wanted to do: watch the Whirling Dervishes. boo hoo!

What I like
I love the people!! The people who are not touts for stores or services are really friendly and helpful. And they love kids so much. I can't tell you how many times I got stopped and asked whether they could take a picture of or with my kids.
Most guards or custodians at tourists spots were also friendly and helpful. They helped me carry strollers up and down stairs, and I gladly gave them baksheesh (tip). I can't tell you how many times I asked a tourist police for directions and got to where I wanted to go. I expected to be hassled for baksheesh a lot of times and was suprised that I wasnt. The only time I was hassled was when I went for Friday prayers at Al-Azhar Mosque and the guy who helped put my shoes in the racks directly asked for some money in a gruff manner, like saying "you must pay! You must pay!" (I gave him one pound at it made him smile very widely). Even touts were gracious and unforceful when I decline their offer politely with a "La, Shukran" (No, Thankyou).
I love that you can walk almost everywhere. This city is quite pedestrian friendly. The taxis and subway is also very good. I can't comment on the buses or altremco (vans or minibus) coz I never had the guts to try get on one.
I love the architecture, be it the Islamic ones or the Roman-Greco ones or the French influenced ones. The Baron Palace in Heliopolis, which was inspired by a hindu temple in Angkor Wat of all things, was the first building that awed me and I was awed all through my visit.
I love the arts and crafts. Fabric and leather patchwork, bedouin jewellery, ancient carvings on granite walls, handmade rugs, copper plates, crystal vases, the hanging lights made of copper, even tacky papyrus ... *sigh* I wish I had the money to buy them all. Limited by the means to bring them home, I had to settle for one papyrus drawing of ducks, 2 patchwork leather poufs (*winks at Chandra*), 2 bottles of perfume essence, one patchwork large cushion cover that can also be used as a wall-hanging, and a mini tent for the kids.
Last but not least, I of course, love the history behind the different civilizations that the country has gone through. I think that is self-explanatory.

What I don't like
What I really dont like about Cairo is that it can be really dirty.
Just like Rome, which had places where you can get horse-carriage rides, some parts of the city is overwhelmed with horse poo and pee. In Zamalek, which I assume is where most of the expats live, the horse-poo is replaced by dog-poo. The thing is, sometimes even places where there are no animals found, you'd still get a whiff every now and again. It's really disgusting.
Store owners have this bad habit of sweeping the rubbish from their premises out into the street. Beware of walking across their path while they are doing this, they might just sweep their rubbish straight into you. They also have this habit of splashing water on their floors and infront of their stores. I think it's meant to be cleansing, but it only makes the rubbish that they have just swept out get wet and makes the street all muddy.
As I mentioned earlier, this made us watch carefully where we step and what we touch. I always keep wet wipes with me and we only drink bottled water. I try to avoid buying anything from street vendors and wipe down cutleries as much as I can. Even then we were still not safe from getting stomach upsets.
If you do get stomach upset though, the pharmacies are really helpful. Ask for Motillium (to supress the vomiting) and Antinal (to cure the diarrhea). It works really well and you should feel better within a day or two. It was a good thing that we were there for more than 2 days, or else our vacation would've really been blown.

In the days to come I will share pictures and stories about the places that we did get to visit :)


  1. aiyah
    i'm too lazy to fix spelling errors.
    Just ignore them please.

  2. no worry about spelling errors la.. the story is more important..

    wow!! a nice start about your hotel. I didn't get to stay in the hotel but we did go to one of the hotel room and tumpang pee..hehehe.. it was a 4 or 5 star rasanya.. but the quality was terrible. Glad that we didn't stay in those hotel. It was so difficult to find a clean toilet while we went sightseeing. That was why we requested to go to the hotel...

    can't wait for more stories and pictures :)

  3. I liked the way you described Cairo. About the dirty part, I felt the same too. I couldnt stand the heat ( that was in june ). The sightseeing, I do it better on my couch at home watching national geographics. Still if you invite me to Cairo now, I will not hesitate to go again! Hehe can't really explain why. There's still some attraction somewhere.

  4. neeza - The public toilets that we visited (not many, a few at restaurants) were actually quite okay :). I heard from taufik's colleagues that stayed in Sheraton that their rooms were not that big and it was really noisy 24by7 because it was near a very busy roundabout. At least I saved a few dollars :)

    Mak Teh - oh yeah Yanna told me how you had complained about the heat when u were there. ha ha :D I wouldnt want to visit it in the summer either. The weather when we were there was a little cold but got just nice towards the end.
    I too would go back if I have the chance, but maybe spend more time outside cairo. I liked the old buildings and the mosques!! so cantik!!
    The people were really friendly and helpful and I found the public transport wonderful. I also loved that you can walk almost anywhere.
    eh.. I should write this in the post, kan?

  5. I am not sure why I am imagining the hikayat 1001 malam when i read this! I've heard too many stories from my brother about the city's "cleanliness" and "hygiene" or rather the other way round!

    Fuh! nasib baik tak melarat2 the sickness. I cringed when I read about purging and puking! That's one of the toughest sickness to handle what's more kena kat anak-anak. That must be some experience for you first time in Cairo.

    Coincidently, I watched the movie abut Omar Khayyam of Parsi nak google more about Omar Khayyam and macam intrigued pulak nak cari buku about him..

  6. reading, i could feel myself in cairo, most likely dressed in an armour of protection frm the grime (paling takut)with only the clicks of my camera as proof of my existence.

    i think the fancy medical term they have for those sickness u guys have in close proximity and contagious is Rotavirus kot.

  7. Hmm.. interesting perspective. I guess it is not that fun when you get sick during a vacation. I think I got sick once (probably from eating fried food and chips and not much else) at Disneyworld Florida and did not enjoy it as much as my hubby did.

  8. Earthmom - No!how can you not enjoy Disney.ok, granted the fried food=sick which btw was where i fell in love with Churos.

    Elisa - I hear Sharm El-Sheikh is much cleaner.I dont mind dirty but poo of any kind, reminds me of India (spit,pee,even poo)