We have a layover in Cairo. How do you think we spent it? A – in a spiffy hotel near the airport, or B – in a creaky houseboat on the Nile?
(Before I reveal the shocking answer, we’re not coming all the way to Egypt to spend one day in Cairo. We’re going to Luxor today and we’ll be back in a week, where will we resume our current accommodation.)
And now for the big reveal…we are staying on a houseboat on the Nile. It’s a bit rough around the edges, the shower is a strong trickle, it is definitely not in the chic part of town, but it has a terrace with a panoramic view of the river, and for the rest of my life I will get to say that I stayed on a houseboat on the Nile in the middle of Cairo.
There are many ways to travel. You can do it the easy way, you can do it the interesting way, or you can try to find some kind of happy medium. The easy way goes like this – you arrive at the airport, you are whisked to fancy hotel in the nice part of town, and you take tours in a bus with a guide who ties a bandana to the end of a selfie stick so that everyone can see her. You travel in a scrum and you move at the group’s pace. No dawdling, or you’ll keep others waiting (at best) or be left behind (at worst). Wanna check out that windy alleyway? Tough toenails. How about that cool café that you read about? Not a chance.
Don’t get me wrong, that way still has its merits. It’s more expensive, but you see a lot of stuff and your marriage stays strong. I would say that in her heart of hearts Janine leans ever so slightly in this direction, but bless her heart of hearts, she indulges me. Still, we both prefer something more than the vacuum sealed version. It can be really hard to break out of the bubble, especially in places as mystifying as Cairo, but it’s almost always rewarding. (Although when it’s not rewarding it can be a serious drag.) It can also be pretty exhausting, and there are things off the beaten path that can make people uncomfortable.
Our houseboat host is an American named Dan who has been living in Cairo, off and on, for fifteen years. Dan arranged to have us picked up at the airport and when we arrived at the houseboat he sat with us on the terrace and gave us the skinny on Cairo. He told us where to eat and what to see. He taught us how to deal with cab drivers and how to cross the street. (Don’t laugh – there are no crosswalks and no stoplights, but there are lots and lots of cars, motorbikes, minibuses, tuk-tuks, and donkey carts, among many other conveyances. Crossing the street requires equal parts confidence, telemetry, insanity, and a fervent belief in a pleasant afterlife.)
Dan works with a local guide who can give personal tours to the pyramids and other fun spots around town. He will negotiate for you in the markets and he’ll take you to the places that tourists don’t normally go. How cool is that?
Our houseboat sits between two worlds – a fancier section of town (fancy being a relative term, but still) called Zamalek, where you can find boutiques and cafés – and the decidedly less luxurious neighborhood of two million people called Imbaba. Dan then took us on a short walking tour of Imbaba, which brings to mind some of the poorer parts of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam that I’ve visited. Dan took us through a women-run vegetable market, and we saw a few live animal butchers, an ironworker artist, a bakery, and all manner of life in progress. It’s loud, dirty, smelly, and chaotic, but it was fascinating, and the sort of thing that tourists in Cairo rarely see.
We attracted a lot of attention, needless to say, but people were friendly and we felt quite safe. At the end of one of the alleys, Dan led us to the Swiss Club, an interesting oasis in this gritty neighborhood. The Swiss Club was holding a Christmas fair, and we wandered in to check out the stuff and stayed for lunch at their very pleasant garden restaurant. The Swiss Club is not at all fancy. It’s more like a clubhouse than a country club, but it would have been impossible to imagine that even this modest space would be sitting beyond the wall of such a neighborhood. Nevertheless, it felt slightly like the days of the Raj (although without the pith helmets and gaudy facial hair).
The houseboat itself is a trip. Evenings are delightful. Last night (Friday, which in Islamic countries is the first day of the weekend) a parade of neon-lit party boats floated past, thumping Egyptian technopop (imagine if Britney Spears woke up one day in a Bedouin camp in the Sahara and started singing without her autotuner). We sat on the terrace, sipped duty-free gin and watched the parties glide past. (You probably already know this, but we just realized that duty free shops will take all your excess local currency, charge the rest to your credit card, and you will be well provisioned for sundowners! This is particularly useful in countries that don’t sell booze.)
Mornings aren’t so bad either. This morning, as we had our coffee, a couple in a small wooden post paddled by – the wife was working the oars and the husband was pulling in a simple fishing line that had been set with hooks and bait every five feet or so.
We then watched boat after boat from the rowing club on the opposite bank slip into the water for a morning training. In the middle of one of the loudest, craziest, most chaotic cities in earth, there is another city that moves at the decidedly more leisurely pace of the Nile. Also, we have been regularly reminded that we are afloat – every so often a speedboat will whiz by, leaving a wake that rocks our world, literally. It takes a bit of getting used to.
We are now off to Luxor, where we will nod toward reality and take a boat tour down the Nile. Short of renting one’s own vessel, this seems like the best way to visit some of those famous sights that we’ve always dreamed of seeing. My guess is that there will be plenty of ancient relics on the boat as well – I have a vision of doing the hokey pokey with a few hundred elderly pensioners, dining with Captain Steuben, and dancing the foxtrot with a dowager from Notting Hill Gate, but we shall see.