Happy to be in Europe…

After flying from Dubai to Dammam to Cairo we arrived in Cairo on Sunday afternoon.  We only had 2 official nights in Cairo with a 2:25am flight from Cairo to Bucharest on Wednesday morning.  We leave Bucharest tomorrow afternoon for Moscow.  This is the toughest part of our trip with only 2 nights in each city and difficult flights.  We finish the trip with 3 nights in Moscow, 3 nights in Saint Petersburg, a day layover in Paris and 4 nights in Rio.  So we are looking forward to the next and last stretch of the trip.

After landing in Cairo, on our exit of the airport we were mobbed by myriad taxi drivers who, to say it nicely, wanted our business.  I negotiated a little with the least annoying one and we were escorted to our taxi.  The taxi ride to our hotel was one of the scarier taxi rides of my life.  Like Mumbai there were no lanes and general chaos but the stakes are higher in Cairo as there are opportunities to go much faster and our driver was determined to make good time.  Upon arrival at our hotel we had to pass through security.  This was a common occurrence on our trip as we had to do the same thing at our hotel in Mumbai and at every metro stop in Beijing.  We stayed at a dated Hilton right near the heart of Cairo – Tahrir Square.  The lobby was full of people smoking hookah’s – a pretty cool site.  Our room looked much like how it probably looked when the hotel opened in 1981 – lots of wood cabinets.  But overall it was a nice room.  It overlooked The River Nile.  A great view but they party every night on the river so we slept to blaring Egyptian techno music.

Right next to the Hilton was a neighborhood that could best be described as a shantytown.  We walked through it one day and this was actually the only place we walked in Cairo where we were not bothered by touts (more on those later) but the shantytown was pretty depressing – huge mountains of trash and random junkyards of rusted parts out of old cars on the side of the street.  It was very odd for this neighborhood to be right next to the Hilton – one of the largest (if not the largest) hotels in Cairo.

The Pyramids were truly amazing but Cairo was not enjoyable.  I look forward to talking with our friends who were in Egypt/Cairo pre-revolution.  While many people on the street were nice to us the city of Cairo is a wasteland.  Metro stations have no/limited lighting because of vandalism and there is trash and graffiti everywhere.  Our driver threw a bottle of soda out of the window – based on the amount of trash we saw I think this is what everyone does.   And the air quality is only slightly better than Beijing.

I just saw on the BBC that tourism in Cairo is down over 25%.  I can see why – I assume the city was not like this pre-revolution.  If the government had any control and wanted to increase tourism they should do something about the touts – they are aggressive, annoying and everywhere.  But the government doesn’t have much control right now – several Egyptians pointed this out to us.

Back to the pyramids – I knew they were close to Cairo but I didn’t realize how close – the city basically surrounds them.  Lots of touts to deal with but to borrow a South Park line, the pyramids are pretty god dammed impressive.  We went into the tomb of the second pyramid.  The tomb was empty except for the sarcophagus and some graffiti left by some jerk (an Italian explorer who broke in in 1818).  We were all alone in the tomb and it was pretty cool to realize what was above us.  One thing – tomb entrances were not designed for tall people.  Maybe the most impressive part of the pyramids was to see how large each of the limestone blocks was.  Truly amazing structures.

On our walk back to the hotel at the end of the day a store owner started talking to us.  He asked us where we were from and we made the mistake of saying U.S.  We had been going with Canada as nobody has a response to that.  One guy said, oh, it’s cold there, right?  Other than that it’s usually a conversation stopper.  But this time we said U.S. and he told us about his sister in California and a bunch of other things.  Even though we knew where this was going we agreed to check out his artwork.  He wanted to give us some because he was celebrating his sister’s wedding.  To make a long story short, after some spirited conversations with the guy, I ended up paying about $13 USD for some artwork that was supposed to be free.  I kind of wanted the art anyway but let’s just say I have some cognitive dissonance about how it all went down.  And I have a feeling his sister gets married every day.

I thought that was the worst I would be taken advantage of in Cairo but I was wrong.  When we got to the airport we were asked to pay a bribe to get through security.  We refused and because of this we had to wait 45 minutes before we were allowed to clear security.  At this airport you have to clear security before you check-in.  To my astonishment, even after clearing the first line of security we had to deal with touts.  People tried to take our bags and “help us” find our way.  They would then want money..or worse.  We made sure not to let anyone grab our bags.  Eventually we were able to check in and make it to our gate.  Although the entire time at the airport was generally unpleasant.

Upon arriving in Bucharest my friend Kyle realized that his bag had been rummaged through and they stole his digital camera.  Luckily I didn’t have any valuables in my checked bag – only clothes and bathroom stuff.  But once I opened my bag in Bucharest I realized that they also rummaged through my bag – it appears all that they stole was some allergy medication (Claritin) and a razer.  I’m guessing the guy who we refused to pay a bribe to had something to do with this.  But there appears to be corruption everywhere at the airport so it could have been anyone.  Needless to say we were happy to get the hell out of Cairo and into Europe (Bucharest).

We arrived in Bucharest early yesterday morning.  After leaving our bags at the hotel we went for a nice walk and found a park.  I’ve never been so happy to be in a park.  The park was clean, people didn’t bother us and the air was fresh.  It was amazingly enjoyable to breath.  Maybe I’m spoiled with clean Minnesota air but Beijing, Cairo and Mumbai all had horrible air pollution.  For that reason alone I would never want to live in any of those cities. I read an article that said Bucharest was voted the ugliest EU capital city.  I have to disagree – I found it pretty beautiful with lots of parks and a Champs-Élysées like roadway that’s actually longer than the Champs-Élysées in Paris.  But maybe my perspective is skewed after our experience in Cairo.

We have had great weather in Bucharest and have walked a lot of the city.  We visited the Romanian Athenaeum and the Palace of the Parliament – both very impressive.  My only issue with Bucharest is everyone appears to smoke.  We are going to have a few drinks tonight but are not looking forward to our clothes being unwearable afterwards.

View of The River Nile from our hotel balcony:

Cairo Night

Pyramids:

Pyramids

Graffiti in Cairo:

Graffiti

Park in Bucharest:

BucharestPark

View from Palace of the Parliament:

Palace of the Parliament