Cairo is the capital of Egypt. It is also the largest city in both Africa and the Muslim world with over 21 million residents. Cairo is world famous for being the home of the Great Pyramid, the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World. It is therefore a stop on almost every Egypt itinerary. For my trip, I both started and ended in Cairo. This post covers the beginning of the trip while Parts 2 and 3 occur after visiting the rest of the country.
March 26, 2021: Welcome to Egypt
My flight to Cairo landed around 19:00 in the evening. The sun was just setting, and I was amazed by the number of tall buildings visible from the plane. After a hectic immigration process, I was met by a shuttle from my hostel. I arranged the shuttle after hearing multiple horror stories of taxis stopping midway and holding passengers hostage to get outrageous fares.
The drive into the city was chaotic. There are no rules for driving in Egypt. Lanes are just a suggestion and drivers honk at all times. The only place where rules were followed were in a tunnel, which was equipped with speed cameras.
After 30 minutes of wild driving, we reached the center of the city: Old Cairo.
I then got out at the hostel and checked in. Backpacker hostels are still a new concept in Egypt and this one appears to be the only “high end” one. As a result, the place was packed! The owner, Mina, was around. I chatted with him a bit before setting out to find dinner.
It was just then that I learned my friend Murilo was in town. He was in Egypt with a big IESE group but decided to come 2 days earlier to explore. We decided to meet up at a famous koshary place called Abu Tarek. Rather than create new branches, Abu Tarek expanded vertically. The restaurant occupies 7 stories of a single building.
The mega-restaurant serves just one dish, koshary, the national food of Egypt. Even though most Egyptians don’t drink alcohol, the country managed to create what must be the world´s best drunk food: rice, macaroni, lentils mixed together and topped with chickpeas, fried onions and a tomato garlic sauce.
The waiter was a trip. Not only did he ask for payment ahead of time, but he also insisted on a 30% prepaid tip. Seems steep, but since the bowl of koshary was just $2, I was fine with it.
Our waiter also had a strange dark bump on his forehead. It turns out that these bumps are called zebibah or prayer bumps. They form from years of friction of putting one´s forehead on the carpet for Muslim prayer. Prayer bumps are common in Egypt and are considered a sign of piety. There is a local belief that on Judgement Day, the prayer bumps will glow. It turns out that prayer bumps are only popular in Egypt and are not found often in the rest of the Muslim world. That is because of a competing Muslim tenet that prohibits showing off (riya).
Anyways, the koshary was so delicious, I ended up getting a second bowl.
At dinner, Murilo mentioned that he was planning to go on a day tour of New Cairo tomorrow. He was 100% committed and said that if I joined, the per person cost would be half. I decided to take him up on the offer. I went back to the hostel to rest up.
March 27: New Cairo
I met Murilo and our guide George outside Murilo´s hotel in Old Cairo. We got into the car and drove east.
Way east past the airport, the landscape changed. The honking and lack of driving rules were still there, but the buildings all looked like large, gated housing developments. This was how the middle and upper class of Cairo live.
George pulled into one of these communities. We passed through a guard gate and suddenly were in a beautiful apartment complex. I was reminded of Florida, but denser and in the desert. This was George´s home.
We walked around the beautiful complex that could be in Arizona or Marbella or even a resort in Mexico.
When then visited the nearby Coptic Church that George belongs to. George said that Coptics are well-integrated into Egyptian society and generally live in the same neighborhoods as Muslims. When leaving the church, the security guard gave George a very hard time because I took a picture of the church. Eventually, we convinced them that 1) I was a tourist and not a security risk and 2) the church in on a street that is already on Google Street View so taking a picture is not exposing anything.
We continued on to a nearby outdoor shopping mall. It reminded me of the outdoor malls in Southern California such as Plaza Mexico or Citadel Outlets. The place was very orderly and calm. We stopped by a juice shop for smoothies.
Then we drove further away from the city. We continued to pass by dozens if not a hundred upscale apartment and housing complexes that looked just the US. In fact, some of these developments were US-themed. For example, one development had Cape Cod style homes and the name Mountain Village- a strange contrast with the raw desert.
Past the existing development was the start of the New Administrative Center, perhaps the world´s most ambitious construction project. The Egyptian government is currently building a 165 square kilometer development consisting of new offices for the entire national government, a new business district featuring Africa´s tallest building, 2,000 schools, and housing for 6.5 MILLION people.
George explained that the government of Cairo expects the city to add 20 million residents in the next decade. Projects like this are therefore necessary to accommodate this growth.
All of this is being built at the same time. There are mid-rise apartment buildings under construction as far as the eye can see. I have never seen anything like it.
There are a couple reasons why the government is doing this. One reason is that the city center of Cairo is so congested that the government cannot run efficiently. By starting from scratech they can build a congestion-free modern city. Another reason is that President Sisi wants to create a legacy just like the pharaohs once did. A third more sinister reason is that the government is now further from the people and better protected from mass rallies and revolutions that have happened twice in the past decade.
Despite all the construction, the project is somehow supposed to open this year.
The buildings were beyond impressive. But the burning question is who is paying for all of this? Certainly, the Egyptian government is a big stakeholder in the project using taxpayer money and loans. Apparently, China is funding 20% of the bill. The Emirati government also was funding the project, but recently pulled out. George is bullish on the project, but there are still some serious risks. First, the government does not have all the funding to finish it. Second, people might not want to move here- especially initially when it is a ghost town.
There are no completed buildings in the New Administrative Center yet, so we returned to New Cairo for lunch. Along the way we passed by a number of corporate offices: Uber and Dell. We ended up at an upscale Egyptian restaurant that opened 2 days ago. There we had a feast in a colorful space.
Then we drove back to Old Cairo and its endless symphony of honking and traffic.
The next day, I headed south to Aswan.
New Cairo is very modern, spacious and full of moneyed people. It is a far cry from the rest of Cairo which is very crowded and poor.
Egypt currently puts its worst foot forward with regards to tourism. Yes, the ancient sights are amazing, but I think that most visitors to Egypt are disappointed by the poverty and chaos of modern Egypt. By showing tourists New Cairo, the world will see that Egypt not just the Pyramids and Poverty. They will see that there is also a thriving middle/upper class with housing, jobs, and lifestyle not that different from the developed world. Despite its controversies, New Cairo and the new Administrative Center is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The world should see this.
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