Cairo is a sprawling metropolis that veritably crackles with energy and potential.
Although the population is predominantly Muslim, there is a melting pot quality to the city that still seems unsure about its orthodoxy. Coptic churches dot the landscape, the call to prayer is largely ignored during important soccer matches, and alcohol is easily available to those who can maintain discretion.
The Egyptians are, in fact, proud of their tolerance for other beliefs and cultures. Surrounded by imposing monuments to the pagan gods of their ancestors, it would be hypocritical for them to be anything other than accepting of alternative faiths. In a word, they are open-minded, and that both surprised us and made us feel right at home.
As I mentioned in the introductory post, we had booked this adventure through an all-inclusive package with Indus Travel, and I was pleased to see our first facilitator waiting in the lobby as we entered the airport in Cairo. We were met at the gate by Ramzy, who was holding a sign that read “Indus,” greeting us with superb English and a smile. I call him a facilitator as opposed to a tour guide because his job was primarily to expedite our arrival, negotiate immigration and security, and transfer us the hotel. And he did all of that with the grace and ease of a professional.
Because we travel only with carry-ons, we were able to skip the long queues at baggage claim, move through security without a hitch, and step into the morning heat of Cairo within 30 minutes of landing. It may have been the fastest immigration I’ve ever experienced. There was an air-conditioned van waiting for us, and Ramzy pointed out some of the sights during our transfer to the Cairo Pyramids Hotel.
The rooms were modern, cool, and comfortable, with a view of the pyramids from our balcony. But this trip was on a tight schedule, meaning there was no time for idle monument gazing from a distance since we would be seeing them up close in minutes. We took quick showers to wash off the long flight, grabbed a portable brunch of bread and cheese, and returned to the lobby just as our first official tour guide, Dina, entered the hotel.
Tall, personable, and confident, Dina at once represented the new Egypt we were coming to appreciate. Her English was impeccable, and her knowledge of history, politics, and culture was beyond impressive. She commanded the room. And, once we arrived at the entrance to Giza, she appeared to command the entire plateau, ushering us through kiosks and past the throng of hucksters on our way to the pyramids.
During the tour, she would pepper in tips on how to identify quality textiles from less desirable versions, pausing at a shop to show us the difference. When the shop owner began pressuring us to buy something, Dina dismissed him with a gesture and a terse retort that showed us just how progressive Egypt had become.
We sauntered around the base of the Great Pyramid for a while and paid the 200LE fee (about $11 USD) to enter the pyramid and climb/crab-walk our way to the center burial chamber. While I’ve read some articles complaining that the fee is too high, I’m inclined to disagree. Perhaps it’s the thought of descending beneath all that weight of stone, or perhaps it’s the thought of walking where pharaohs, ancient architects, and grave robbers once trod. But I felt that welcome tickle of vertigo that comes only with adventure.
It was dank and close, and the air inside was stiflingly stale, but it was my favorite part of this particular excursion, and I would recommend you cough up the extra few dollars to experience it for yourself.
Part of the experience when visiting the pyramids involves the inevitable tour by camel. You aren’t obligated by any means, but riding a camel has almost become synonymous with sightseeing at Giza. My brother, Steve, rode a camel during our trip to Egypt in 1984, and it was a highlight of his early international adventures. During this trip, Ben said he would like to experience the same, and Dina said she could make that happen.
She knew a guy who took some amazing pictures during the camel ride and introduced Ben to the young man who would take him on the tour. Through a combination of advantageous camera angles and incredible leaping skills on Ben’s part, we got some of the best photos of the entire trip. Camel jumping is a real thing. If you go to Egypt, feel free to show them these pictures and ask to replicate them!
We gathered Ben up after his camel ride and loaded into the van once more. The afternoon was wearing on, and we had begun to feel the effects of jet lag. Back at the hotel, we bid farewell to Dina and thanked her for the informative and interesting tour. We had just enough time for a bite of supper before we were due back in the lobby to be taken once again to the Giza Plateau, this time for the iconic Sound and Light Show.
We all debated whether or not to skip the show and head to bed early. Ben opted for sleep, but Angela and I decided to press on. Angela is a huge James Bond fan, and, as the light show is featured prominently in The Spy Who Loved Me, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to witness it firsthand. As for myself, I had seen the show in 1984 and wondered if it had changed in the past 33 years.
And neither of us was disappointed.
The sunlight faded to an orange and purple glow, and we took our seats in the right-front section as recommended by Dina. The show began, with the unmistakable voice of Omar Sharif as narrator, dramatizing the history of the pyramids as told through the eyes of the Sphinx.
Like the pyramids themselves, the Sound and Light Show has remained nearly unchanged since its creation. The dancing lasers, a miracle of modern technology at their inception, seem quaint and campy now. The majesty of the pyramids turned into a carnival sideshow in the most adorably kitschy way. I smiled. A weary traveler returning to an exotic land, only to find it comfortably familiar. With Sharif booming, “The world fears time, but time fears … the Pyramids!” I began to drift off to sleep, the ten-hour flight finally catching up to me.
We had only just arrived, but we were already done with Cairo. No rest on this whirlwind, we were due back at the airport in the morning to catch a short flight to Aswan and begin our cruise down the Nile.
Expat Evaluation: +1 for wonderfully friendly locals, +1 for one of the world’s wonders, -1 for a big, dirty city