If you could spend just one day in any major city, where would you go? A European classic like Rome or Paris? Or the Asian street food hot spots like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, perhaps? As we contemplated our path from Kenya, we knew we wanted to head back east, through Korea, on our way home. When booking our tickets in that direction, the cheapest flight on Skyscanner had a 15-hour layover in Cairo, Egypt. The beauty of that ostensibly heinous layover was that it would allow us to explore the only remaining ancient wonder of the world – the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Before touching down in the most northeastern of African states, we contacted a tour company that agreed to hire us a car and driver for the day for the bargain basement cost of $30. For the most part, Egypt is a very inexpensive place to travel these days, given the drop off in tourism after the revolution in 2010, from which the country has still not fully recovered. There’s now a democratically elected leader in office, unlike before, but the Egyptian pound is still at historic lows compared to the dollar, making it that much cheaper for us. Over the course of the entire day, we spent $50 for our tourist visa (just to leave the airport) and another $50 combined for all our activities.
After we touched down, we purchased our visas on arrival and got our passports stamped (our luggage was forwarded by EgyptAir), before being greeted by our driver/tour guide for the day, Ahmed. From the airport, he took us to Tahrir Square (where the revolution had been sparked years earlier), and walked us down a busy street to a food stall for an authentic Egyptian street food breakfast. We had fuol (beans), baso (onion salad), aish (chapati-like bread), eggs, eggplant, and naturally, falafel; it was all delicious. The cost of breakfast for three: 27 Egyptian pounds ($1.60)! After breakfast, we walked across the square to the Egyptian Museum to peruse the many caskets, masks, handicrafts, tools, weapons, and other relics of millennia past. There is just so much history there with so many years behind it, but so little description. Seeing King Tut’s burial mask and the jewels/decor that accompanied him in his tomb was a highlight, but the museum would do well to add more description including how old it all is. Most of it was obviously BC, but I really wanted to know how much BC.
From the museum, we sat in the car as Ahmed battled the unyielding traffic of Cairo’s streets for an hour and a half on the way to Giza – only 10 miles away. As we approached them, the massive pyramids, twice as big as any similar ancient monument, and many times older than most, rose above the rooftops of the sprawling, sandy, sunburned city. We had planned to watch the sunset from the dunes behind the pyramids, but the complex closes at 4:00pm, for whatever reason, meaning we’d have to soldier on there through the heat of the day. Luckily, it’s still winter in Cairo and the temps weren’t too bad. The structures there are difficult to really comprehend because they are so large. From far away, one appreciates the perfection of their form and alignment, while from close up, the massive blocks used in their construction conjure wonder and awe at the massive undertaking so many souls endured over so many years….which led us to wonder, “For what?”
After a couple hours of gallivanting around the dunes and pyramids, heading down a tunnel into the tombs below one of them, and checking out the great Sphinx, we headed toward the exit. We were late in leaving by 20 minutes…and Ahmed was nowhere to be seen. The sun was going down in an hour, we were on the other side of the city, probably three hours from the airport, and after 20 minutes of waiting, we were getting worried. Apparently, Ahmed had been kicked out of the parking lot because closing time had come and gone, and he was driving around looking for us. Luckily, we just stayed put and he eventually came back…with a cop…who we (of course) had to bribe…for $1. With the sun just dipping below the buildings on the far side of the river, we arrived at a brand new, super fancy dining boat on the Nile. Admiring the tangerine clouds turn pink to purple and then gray in the western sky, we enjoyed our meal, then headed back toward the airport, hoping to stop at the city souk (main market area) enroute. Unfortunately, the traffic was too congested, so Ahmed found us a curio shop so we could pick up a magnet (as is Jenna’s ritual) and some papyrus prints.
We spent only 12 hours in Cairo but were able to see the museum, pyramids, and sunset on a boat on the Nile River, among some other nice add ons. I’m sure Egypt has a lot more to offer than what we experienced, but I’m pretty happy to have been able to glimpse the magic of this history-steeped place, without even having to buy a plane ticket there.