Ahlan wa Sahlan! Our 4-hour flight from Amsterdam was half an hour late which meant arriving into Cairo at almost 3 in the morning, or almost before the first prayer of the day. To my disappointment, Cairo's terminal do not have airbridges so all of us bleary-eyed passengers have to disembark from a remote stand and transported by bus to a gleaming main building. Before joining a long queue at immigration, I went to one of the banks selling $15 visas (Western-passport holders can get visa-on-arrival). Thankfully, my backpack was already waiting for me at the carousel by the time immigration let me through.
Waiting outside for me was a driver with my name on a placard. I've pre-arranged transfers with the hostel because of the ungodly hour of my arrival. It cost me 65 Egyptian pounds ($11) to travel almost half an hour from Heliopolis, a wealthy suburb in Cairo where the airport is located, into the wait-until-sunrise-and-it-will-be-madness downtown area where I will stay. I'm only staying for the day at the New Palace - one which I found for $16 a room at hostelworld.com - before moving on into King Hotel, the staging area of my Gecko's Trip.
Youtube video of New Palace Hotel courtesy of bootsintheoven
There's nothing palatial about New Palace Hotel: it's a hostel on the 6th floor of a grungy building with an elevator that has a missing door. The mattress is lumpy and the bathroom has no hot water. Although the bed sheets are clean, the blanket look like they've been there forever. I'm too tired and sleepy to request a move so I just pulled out my sleeping bag and prayed I'll be able to sleep enough before my noontime check-out. I woke up later at quarter before 1 PM.
In Cairo, the advice is to take the white taxis, not the black ones. And so I hailed a white taxi which runs with a meter. I showed the gray-haired taxi driver my destination written in Arabic, he squints at it and says "yalla!" - let's go. Little did I know that he had no idea where the street Abdel Rehim Sabri is, in a district called Dokki. While we were caught in the middle of Cairo's infamous traffic snarls, the old driver finds time to yell from his window to another taxi driver asking for directions. Our trip was slow as other cars and buses and the occasional donkey pulling a cart all vied for positions while the locals come dashing in and out between vehicles. It's 2:30 PM and the air is choked with smog.
We finally got to the hotel and I checked in. Surprise: the elevator here has a missing door too! My roommate, who got in before me, is somewhere in the city but his stuff is scattered all over his bed. I made a mess of my own as I lay all my bag's contents to sort the stuff I need while in Cairo. With time to spare before meeting our group, I went out to find a bank to change some money into Egyptian pounds. While waiting for my turn at the HSBC bank, I noticed how Egyptian men, irregardless of status, wears leather shoes - never mind if the street is dusty. Here I was wearing sandals and I felt like an alien compared to them.
I hurried back to the hotel and met my roommate for this trip, Nabil, a 26 year-old British of Pakistani descent. Our ice breaker as usual is about travel - it's his first time joining a group of "strangers". We met the rest of the group at the hotel's dining room: Waleed (our tour leader who's from Cairo), Lauren, Kristy, Emily, Jessica, Edith (all from Australia), Rochelle & Sharon (from Canada). This being my 4th time on a trip organized by an adventure outfitter (after ImTrav, GAP & Intrepid), I felt quite confident about our group dynamics. We swap travel stories right away - as usual, I got jealous of others who have plenty of travel time - they're either on their way to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda or they just came from there.
For our first meal, we wanted to go local and Waleed knew just where to send us to - a Koshary restaurant. We walked to the restaurant which only have an Arabic signage in front of it. It's apparently frequented by locals as we were the only foreigners invading two of their tables. We got the specialty of course - a Koshary meal - which is a traditional comfort food eaten by all Egyptians. We all thought it strange that the food has a mixture of pasta, rice, black lentil, chick peas, fried onions and garlic and topped with some tomato sauce. Our orders came quick, served on shiny aluminum plates. After the initial taste - the sweetness of fried onions blending well with the tartness of tomato sauce - we all declared it was good, not to mention very cheap at just 4 Egyptian pounds (about 80 cents) a plate.
We all went back to the hotel feeling so full while we continue to wonder if those missing doors in hotel elevators are the norm, rather than the exception, in Egypt.