Hi from Rick: Diving into Egypt
Yesterday I flew from Seattle to Cairo. I've been here just a day and it already feels like a week. I've already paid my respects to the Pyramids, been bounced around on a camel, and had a mug shot with the Sphinx. But the real fun — and fascination — has been to feel the pulse of post-revolutionary Egypt in the chaotic streets.
The revolution in Egypt is clearly about freedom. I begin with a nighttime welcome-to-Cairo stroll under once-elegant French façades, now weathered to a pulp and caked in soot. A four-lane street is now barely two lanes, choked with clothing racks swinging for sale under commercial neon. Women in scarves browse through displays of daring dresses in windows that light the commotion filling the sidewalk.
This nation has a young, fast-growing population, and no cushy oil revenues to fall back on. Egypt needs to work for a living, and tourism is a vital part of its economy (four million people work in tourism and many more indirectly). However, since the revolution just over two years ago, there has been almost no tourism here. I mention to a local guide, "The airport was quiet today." He says, "That's not the word. It is dead." Pointing to a towering Sofitel Hotel, he laments, "Only two floors are open out of twenty. This is killing us."
Walking along a street of government buildings and embassies — literally walled-off by six-foot-square concrete bricks — I see a limp stars and stripes hanging in the thick air of this city of fifteen million. Across the way, a towering concrete building stands empty, blackened by fire. This was the headquarters of former president Mubarak's party, now a vivid memorial to the revolution's swift initial success. Nearby Tahrir Square, the hub of this vast city with a traffic control situation permanently on yellow light (no red, no green) carries the mood of a party that's over. This city has endured a frenzied political mosh pit, and is nursing its wounds before the next round.
Beyond that edginess, I find that this revolution has emboldened people. Listening to the talk in the squares and in the cafes, it seems suddenly everyone is a politician. Women wearing scarves suck on hubbly-bubbly pipes in impromptu cafes set up on the streets under sexy MTV videos. There are dozens of new talk shows on TV, each filled with political and sarcastic content, see-sawing with the twenty or so government and religious channels pitching far-right rubbish to their less-educated audiences.
Working my way back to the refuge of my hotel, a car pulls a crazy U-turn in the middle of oncoming traffic, horns blaring. No damage, no problem. I'm thinking, "Cairo is too intense for many, but I'm really glad I'm here." I saw a few German cruise groups at the Pyramids, but I haven't seen an American tourist all day. This isn't the wading pool. It's the murky deep end. But if you can swim, the water's fine.
Try dipping your toe in. Like me on Facebook, and follow ten days' worth of dispatches from my Egypt trip, starting next Monday, April 8th. In the meantime, don't forget to check out this month's excellent, Europe-focused lineup of Travel News articles.
Good morning from Cairo. Happy travels,