(Written April 2008) When we first called home to let everyone know we'd arrived (finally), my sister-in-law asked me “What are your first impressions of Cairo?” Well, I'd been up for 31 hours, with fits and starts of sleep in various awkward positions, felt grimy, hungry, and so exhausted from stress that I was slightly slack-jawed, plus it was dark... so my impressions weren't too insightful. I think I told her that it initially reminded me of southern California, with the dirt/sand and the palm trees and the gentle warm breeze. Yeah, well in daylight and being bathed and awake, I don't think I'd say that again.
That first night, however, we did manage to see some classic Egyptian driving/pedestrian antics, such as a box truck careening along with an open door and a guy sitting on a milk crate siding around in the back. Not too unusual, except in Cairo they don't use traffic lights, but rather speed bumps, speed humps, and speed trenches (those will be explained later), so the likelihood of this guy being catapulted out of the truck was relatively high.
I saw people racing across highway-like roads as if they were being hazed into a frat; saw dilapidated ancient trucks puttering along, piled to the brim and over with every imaginable item and seemingly tied together with just twine and hope. There's an old Disney cartoon with Goofy or Mickey, where they're driving up a mountain with a car or truck piled high, like that which can only be done in a cartoon, or so I thought until the drive from the Cairo airport.
My primary impression of Cairo since the drive from the airport and some sleep: it's dirty. I mean really dirty. Not just sand/dirt, but trash, huge piles of it, and rubble, and rocks and concrete. But then throw in splashes of green bushy trees, and scraggly bushes, and amazing purple jacaranda trees, and palms, and bright colorful laundry hanging from windows and balconies everywhere. It's a city. A true, big, metropolis, bustling, ever-active, very much alive and organic city. Like NYC, with it's trash, rubbish, smelly alleys, rats and schmutz, there's an underlying life; a heartbeat that becomes infectious. What do most people, who like it, say about NYC? They love the energy. Well, I think the same can be said for Cairo. If you like calm, or serene environments, or peace and solitude, don't come to Cairo, or NYC for that matter.
There are horns blaring all the time, though we can't hear anything from our apartment. You also don't open windows here – the dust/dirt build-up would be fast enough for us to have to claim we had a sandbox in our living room. And yet the dust enters. In just five days, I could see a layer of it on the shampoo bottles. It seeps.
There was an article in the New York Times recently that stated “After five years of study, scientists concluded that the average noise in Cairo from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train only 15 feet away.” So far, I have not found the noise to be an issue, or even especially noticeable. I have noticed that people are friendly and smile a lot, most speak English or a form of, the sun is out every day, and some people call me Miss Julia (which makes me feel a bit like a character in an American southern novel, but I hike up my hoopskirts and go with it).
Like the driving here, there is a level of chaos in practically everything. From the half-finished buildings, to the crumbling walls, to the no traffic lights (or when they do have them, they have to be manually turned red or green by a traffic copy standing there), to the no street signs (that's a fun one when you're lost), to the traffic cops who merely stand and watch the melee of cars, to the armed guards all over with machine guns who look like they're all 18 (the guards, the guns look new, though there's doubt as to whether they hold any ammo), to the lack of logic in everything, to the toothless woman trying to sell you Kleenex packs through your car window, to the donkey carts pulling propane canisters down the Cornice (main road along the Nile) – I call these propane donkeys when we're driving and I'm yelling out things for my husband to avoid.
But, having said all that, and there will be more, there's a delight in the pure functionality of a city of such chaos. I smile when I realize that, while it may not run as I would design it or choose it to, this city runs regardless. And it has run far longer than most cities. So part of my time here will be adjusting my ideas of how things “should” be and trying to observe, maybe enjoy, or at least accept, things as they are and revel in the differences.