Monday, January 7, 2013

Cairo is like a troubled heart

"Cairo is heart city," the Egyptian locals tell me in response to my bewitched first experience. It is deeply beautiful in a way that stirs the soul, despite all the chaos, the dirt and the pain on the surface - and all over the news.

The pyramids were not built to mimic the stars for nothing. I always wanted to see the Great Pyramid of Giza but I had no idea that my life would be changed forever upon entering. I had dreams of light for days after my arrival and a new sense of direction that I hadn't known for months.

Yes, I'm gushing, but don't be deceived. It is not a comfortable place. Not by a long shot. As a tourist I was hassled and hustled for money everywhere I turned - and despite my stubborn sense of haggling and the few Arabic words I picked up in Dubai: la, shukran (no, thank you) - good quality Egyptian products can empty the pockets quicker than you can say 'pharoah'. 

Despite the revolution I never felt unsafe or threatened during two recent trips to Cairo. In fact I found the locals open-hearted and incredibly helpful once you get past the sales pitch and connect with them as people. It's not always as easy as you might think though, because the Egyptian oils, cotton, papyrus and trinkets can be enchanting in their own way - and the Egyptians are intuitive. If you're interested to buy they won't leave you alone.

Food can be tricky too, but luckily I have a strong stomach. Perhaps growing up in Africa helps. In general cooked food is recommeded, in order to get rid of bacteria.  Or simply choose a trusted local restaurant such as Barry's in Giza or the popular falafel chain Felfela, which is dotted all over the city. Egyptian falafel (mashed bean fritters) is made in the form of a patty. The falafel, flat bread, salads and dips are generally listed separately on the menu and meant to be enjoyed mezze style as opposed to the falafel sandwich. Make sure to add some grilled eggplant and tahini to the spread for a unforgettable flavour combination.

Many people advised me not to travel to Cairo alone as a woman, but when I went back for a second visit after an organised tour, I felt confident that, with a responsible attitude, there would be no reason to fear. I had a trusted contact in Cairo who organised my airport pick-up and new friends to ask for advice and assistance, especially since I'm not fluent in Arabic. Of course, local customs such as covering up should be respected at all costs. I wore long sleeves with skinny jeans (In Egypt the issue is with showing skin, not curves) and pashminas and never felt disrespected while walking around in the city. In general, the less skin you show in public, the more respect you receive.

Ah, just look at the soft pink sunset over the pyramids from the balcony of Yasmina of Cairo's Bed & Breakfast. I sat there mesmerised for hours. Somehow, somewhere amongst all of the dirt and the dust there is a beautiful energy that shoots straight for the heart. Everything in life doesn't always have to make sense. I am simply grateful for the magic that is Cairo.

If you would like to find out more about the Bed & Breakfast with the beautiful balcony, email Yamina at:

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