Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

GSP 16: The alleged Cairo spy with great coffee

I reached Cairo not long after midnight, so spent my first several hours attempting to sleep on an airport bench while a Muslim behind me tried to evangelize a European traveler. When I awoke … er, opened my eyes … I found that someone had left two bags of local bread near me, along with a cut of apparently raw meat so large it still had part of the bone sticking out.

Adventures continued by daylight, when it turned out my phone had lost the connection it first had in the airport, which meant I couldn’t hail an Uber to my hosts’ home. Instead, I had to try my luck bartering for a taxi.

Based on what I’d been told I ought to pay, I did a bad job trying to bargain my way out of a foreign-skin tax. But finally I found one, and we set off.

When the driver dropped me off at the multi-story building, I faced my next problem. I had only received a building address, not an apartment number. And since my phone still was not connecting to the network, I couldn’t contact my host to let her know I was outside.

This time, however, my foreign skin proved an asset. The man at the door got his daughter to help me carry my bags up a few floors, then attempted to communicate with me in Arabic. When we realized my Arabic equaled his English (nil), he went to a seemingly random door and knocked.

By some miracle, the fellow foreigner who opened it proved the husband of my contact. Since they’d recently moved in, the doorman thought it likely that a strange foreigner must want to visit the new foreign tenants. Thank goodness he was right.

For reasons neither I nor Google’s engineers ever worked out, my phone issues persisted until my very last day in Cairo. Fortunately, though, it turned out I could walk to many of my interviews, which reduced the amount of bartering for cabs.

Rare for Africa, Cairo has something of a metro system, but I only took it twice.

Waiting for the train.

Waiting for the train.

Both trips on the weekday when my host and I visited Coptic Cairo, an older part of the city, for some research.

We didn't get as far as expected, for our foreign skin attracted attention — and what proved wildly embroidered fictions — from two shops just outside the guarded entrance to our destination.

At the first shop, the owner spun his story from cloth — literally. He claimed to have made a part of my friend’s outfit, though she had acquired it many lands away. Though her follow-up seemed to bear him out, we later heard another name and account of his work, which construed him as some local eyes for the Muslim Brotherhood. (The group says it’s peaceable, but Egypt banned it as a terrorist group in 2013.)

Whatever his business, the man at least employed a good cook. I drank my best cup of Turkish coffee from this trip there, and ate a fantastic lentil-and-pasta snack called kushari. I may spend the rest of my life attempting to recreate the wonderful flavors I tasted that afternoon.

Perhaps my best meal in Egypt.

Perhaps my best meal in Egypt.

We had scarcely emerged from our food stop when we were stopped by another man, who claimed to love Americans. He managed it with slightly more charm than that statement implied, such that somehow we soon found ourselves drinking sweet mint tea in his shop and believing the fable of divorce and Christianity he spun.

After multiple claims of giving us prices so good we dare not possibly tell our friends what we paid, we somehow found ourselves leaving his shop much poorer.

Some of the shop’s allegedly floral essences. I think I ended up buying one.

Some of the shop’s allegedly floral essences. I think I ended up buying one.

So poor, in fact, that over the next few days, my host’s ire at his dealing with us grew.

Through a mutual acquaintance the man claimed to know, she got a different version of his name and story, too. So, a few days before I left, she took all the things we’d bought back to him, confronted him with some of what she’d learned, and returned with every cent of our money.

As a lesson in how even foreigners can barter, it remains the best work I’ve seen this trip. (It probably helped that she’d been studying the body language so central to communication in Egypt — which helped explain some seemingly aggressive interactions I’d seen among other north Africans. Apparently, in that part of the world, you sometimes have to act as if you’re showing emotion on the set of a soap opera.)

Normally, I prioritize research over sightseeing, so I didn’t see much of scenic Cairo beyond that eventful outing. But I couldn’t go to Cairo and not see the pyramids. Since my hosts had not seen them either, and had been given a package with tour guide and transit, we went together.

I have to admit I expected them to be bigger, but I’ve never seen such spectacular high-noon light. It must have been all the sand in the air or something. (As my frequent encounters with dust reminded me, Egypt’s basically a desert.)

By the end of my stay, I had started to learn what short-distance cab rides should cost (a great help) and begun to remember the Arabic word for “thank you.” On the downside, my Uber fare to the airport cost closer to my first ride than expected, but the upside: I must have bargained better, even while sleep-deprived the first day, than I realized.

As soon as I could upon leaving, I revisited Egypt through one of my favorite detective series, thanks to the San Francisco library’s excellent e-book collection. Some day I hope to revisit modern Cairo and finally see all the key sites of Amelia Peabody Emerson’s beloved city.

Country snapshot

  • Water: Drinkable after SteriPen treatment.

  • Beer: $.84 at the grocery store. Given the Muslim majority, I didn’t expect to find local beer, but apparently the beverage may have emerged in Egypt. Of the few Egyptian-made beers I found, each was notable for the remarkable strength. I think we found some as high as 14 percent in alcohol by volume! Though not as drinkable as the 10 percent version, the beer did fantastic things for some chicken strips I pan fried one night.

  • Luggage repair: After weeks of dragging a suitcase with a broken wheel — which an official Samsonite shop in Spain had refused to fix, due to lack of the proper parts — I found a Cairene shop willing to do the job. The new pair cost $9.81 in local currency, but only lasted me until Rome (three months and nine cities later).

  • Transportation: $.17 for a train ride, under $1 for some of the shorter cab rides (price depending on distance and negotiation skills). My Ubers ranged from $.92 to around $11 to the airport.

  • Phone service: Quite poor on the data side. I spent most of my visit troubleshooting with Google Fi. Despite the data issues, I was able to use the local cellular network for calls and texts when I had to.