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Sunday, 24 July 2011

Cairo: INSHALLAH- “why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”

Vespas are quite the craze in Cairo!
Pensive biker...

Hmm… how to describe Cairo? Exhilarating for sure… full of history and full of 20 million people who are all competing desperately for a piece of a rather depleted economic pie! A city of massive contrasts! It is the ‘Paris of the Nile’ to the wealthy bourgeois classes that fill the trendy cafes of Zamelek but it is also a place where life is waged as a constant battle for the poverty stricken who pull carts laden with goods in the Khan al-Khali Market. Cairo is a place that will both enchant and drive you absolutely insane… ready to pull your hair out! It is a place where anarchy abounds… especially on the roads where there are no lanes, a safe following-distance does not exist and where everyone is screeching all over the road, competing for an open gap to ensure there is a constant block of bumper-to-bumper traffic! It must be the constant 40 degree + heat which knocks everyone into an anarchic coma where sense, reason and indeed propriety have no place.
Dad exploring the maze that is Cairo...

I am well aware that it is a pity to start this first account of our journey off with such a negative tone but… there is no faking it, no dressing Cairo’s bureaucracy up in pretty clothing… Cairo is a bureaucratic nightmare unlike any other place in the world! We arrived on Thursday and have still not managed to get our bikes- three days later! Never mind even attempting to tackle the god-forsaken registration process, we have heard such nightmarish tales about- EISH! Right from the very moment we landed we have been taken for a ride by Egyptians and their absolutely psychotic bureaucracy, which they have created to torture themselves and the crazy travellers that dare subject themselves to it. After landing we naively assumed we would be able to leave the airport with our bikes, which we paid a small fortune to get over here- after putting in a good 3 hour attempt (which I do not care to get into,) it was not to be so, we retired to our hotel in Cairo to rest our very tired bones.
Pickled head or intestine?

The next day, Friday, is a holiday in Egypt so there was no chance of retrieving our bikes from Cargo and so we resolved to explore the city a bit. We headed to “Islamic Cairo” which is a historic sector of the city comprised of a labyrinth of streets lined with markets, mosques, coffee shops filled with shisha smokers, madrassas (Muslim schools,) and caravanserais (merchant’s inns.) It is a feast for people watching and we reveled in just wondering around observing life around us. We wondered through the Sabil of Egypt’s infamous leader Muhamed Ali Pasha, through fresh food markets where I had a live fish thrown at me... past stalls selling anything from live pigeons to cow intestines and where the alleyways were so infused with the smell of roasting cumin that it makes your eyes water… although it is a welcome relief from the pungent smell of onion that seems to permeate through most of the city. Because it was Friday there was a constant chorus of pray and preaching coming from the hundreds of mosques that seems to be a very firm focus of life in this city. The adventure was a great change from the regular tourist areas where you are constantly hassled by taxis and quack-guides who try without rest to drag you to the pyramids!
Fresh produce market in "Islamic Cairo."

The straw that broke the Camels back!
We set off this morning extremely excited about the prospects of getting our bikes and finally being able to set out on the open road and oh so ready to trade in our air-conditioned room in Cairo for a tent perched under the stars! The “Cargo Village” which would be more aptly names “Torture Ville” is where our bikes have been held hostage for the last few days. Here we were truly exposed to the extreme nature of the bureaucratic beast of Egypt. It has come to light over the last three days that Egypt Air pays no sanctity to business contracts. It has allowed a system to ensue which allows rogue agents to take their customers for a torturous ride through thousands of layers of bureaucratic red tape to just be able to retrieve your goods… only we are yet to see our bikes! I

As soon as we entered Torture Ville one of the above mentioned rogue agents preyed upon us and thus began our laborious 5 hour ride. It became evident to us throughout the course of the morning that these ‘agents’ are in cahoots with the several hundred bureaucratic officials from the airline companies and customs which together form a ruthless gang whose aim it is to bully you into submission and push you to the point where you become so desperate you are willing to hand over ALL of your money in baksheesh (bribe) to get the hell out of there! There is absolutely no guidance as to how you are supposed to claim your vehicle, only hundreds of desks you are meant to cart back and forth between where you are asked to pay 100 Egyptian Pounds here, 50 there and it NEVER ENDS! These ‘agents’ aim to portray the system as so complicated that there is no way in hell you could ever navigate it on your own and so you have no other choice but to hand ALL your money over to them.

After a translation from a Arabic speaking woman who confirmed our suspicions that this guy was definitely a huge conman and was planning on demanding 700 Egyptian Pounds from us and ensuring we came back for another day to milk us further.... we could no longer take it! The camel was crippled and fuming… after having this crazy man running around with our passports and taking us for a ride for over 5 hours in the sweltering sun from one apathetic official to the next, we demanded to speak to a manager! However, to cut a long laborious story short… they are running an obvious scam and there doesn’t seem to be one competent member of staff there who is not in on it. We were told by the manager that there is nothing he can do because “it is the routine!” So… we still don’t have our bikes and now need to wait until Monday before trying again. Hmm… it is absolutely insane the system that is in place here! I could say a lot about it… the system here is notoriously corrupt and every overlander on this route complains about Egypt but it is hard to really imagine it until you have suffered it yourself.
Me walking through the Khan al Khali market

So Cairo has been a battle in this respect… but we were aware and prepared and I guess we just need to be patient and take comfort in the fact that this bureaucratic battle will be the worst of the lot! From here on nothing will be able to perturb us.

Hold thumbs that we are successful on Monday and hopefully we will be off to Luxor on Tuesday morning…. So looking forward to getting on those bikes!!!
Life happening on Cairo's streets....


  1. Geez sounds like a nightmare... one that will soon be over I hope... I am sure that you guys can't wait to hit the road. Wish you the best.

  2. Definitely not an easy start. From what I can remember, Egypt does not offer the most exciting of cuisines. Stuffed pigeon? No thanks. Hopefully it gets better as you move along.
    Well done on writing so much in such a short time - I'm looking forward to following you on this amazing journey. Keep it up! Karla - United Stations

  3. To think that I ever complained about South African bureaucracy when first coming here from the US (I have many a battle with Eskom chronicled on Joburg Expat)! That just goes to show you that it's all a matter of perspective (and that Americans are very spoiled when it comes to these things, which doesn't keep us from complaining about our government anyway)...