AfricaMisc

Cairo Zoo, Khan al-Khalili and a sleeper to Aswan

posted by Stu 0 comments

I had hoped to get a ticket out of Cairo, and there was supposedly some guy that could get me a ticket. Essentially what happened was he told me he’d let me know by 11pm, then midnight, then first thing in the morning. It just kept getting put back and so in the end I knew he was just messing about hoping something would materialise.

The place we were staying in Cairo was the top floor of a 7 storey building kitted out with rooms, plants and a chilled out vibe. At just £2.50 (English) per night per person it genuinely is the beating heart of the backpacker community in Cairo and is always fully booked. With free wifi and prices geared toward the long term traveller it was perfect and checking out, and paying a fiver after two nights was an absolute bargain. The name of the place for anyone hitting up Cairo is Dahab hostel, Taal at Harb. Jack was adored, each night we all ordered pizzas and pasta because it was too dodgy to go out. I would have liked to have stayed longer actually, Jack felt right at home.

There was a rumour flying around the hostel that a guard at a station just out of Cairo (Giza) was dodgy and would take bribes like they were going out of fashion. I was told he was the ticket bloke in the porta cabin outside the station. And so we set off to see him. As we crossed the Nile out of Downtown Cairo smoke was still coming from Tahrir Square and the 6th October bridge was still barricaded. The driver was telling us that the government of Egypt had realised that the country was on the verge of collapse and so curfews throughout the country had come into force and the army was moving into Cairo to retake the area around Tahrir Sq. Later in the day we were to see the tanks and convoys rolling into the city. Leaving Cairo was no longer an option, it was an absolute must and the main priority. Whatever it took, whatever it cost, we were leaving.

At this point it’s worth pointing out Jack knew nothing. As explained earlier in the blog we are not a target, not the issue behind the anger and riots. He felt no tension, and was just Mr Jack, adored by all. That boy seriously has almost worn his hand out from the amount of high fives (or low fives in his case) that people have given him. Jack is living the dream!

Anyway, we made our way to Giza and I hunted down the portacabin. The conversation pretty much went like this:

Me – “I need a ticket out of Cairo today, what are my options”

Him – “All trains are fully booked, there is nothing”

Me – “I was under the impression you was the person to see about getting tickets that weren’t available”

Him – “There is nothing I can do, all I can tell you is that there is emergency tickets but you can’t get them until one hour before the train departs. But even then they aren’t guaranteed”

Me – “My boy and I, we need to get out of here today (I offered him a LE£100 note which is about a tenner in English money, and a days wage for him)

Him – “Ok, show me your passport”

Within a few minutes the emergency allocation had opened temporarily, and early and we had a ticket out of Cairo on the 8pm sleeper train to Luxor, and then Aswan. He didn’t scam me on the ticket price, it is a fixed $60 for adults and $45 for children. It’s a train complete with rooms with 2 beds in, evening meal, breakfast and is armed to the teeth with trigger happy police who’s sole purpose in life is to bolt up and down the Nile guarding tourists. In all honesty I’d have normally been slapping myself silly over having paid $105 for a train ticket, but the cost was no issue whatsoever. I was just glad to have a way out.

With that in mind we decided to head to the zoo since we had some time to burn.

Cairo zoo is on Giza and so away from the trouble of downtown Cairo. It’s school holidays in Egypt right now and I was hoping there’d be some kids Jack could associate himself with.

As we approached the zoo entrance 2 guys came over and were well excited about Jack, it dawned on me that he was wearing his Egyptian national football shirt and Egyptians are crazy about football. They absolutely loved the fact a little boy from the UK was wearing their national shirt. One of the guys was trying to give me a few smokes in recognition of my fashion abilities.

Entrance to the zoo was LE£20 (2 quid) with no charge for Jack. The best zoo I have ever been to, by far. And I’m talking as far as to the moon and back twice, is Singapore zoo. The worst was Beijing zoo and I was expecting Cairo to be something like Beijing and I was right. It is run down and the animals are in a poor state. Workers around the zoo kept coming up to us and asking if Jack wanted a photo laid with a lion, I was like “seriously, no thanks!” At one point Jack was feeding a monkey some Doritos and a guy came over asking for baksheesh since he’d turned a blind eye. But it didn’t detract from the fact we actually had a really good time. It was a little sad to see the animals in the state they were, but Jack didn’t mind. Too young to understand he was happy to be getting so close to the animals, who are not long away from escaping due to the rusted bars and falling apart cages.

The highlight for me though was the play area, quite a large kiddies play area built around the same time as the pyramids. In England it would have come complete with no win no fee lawyers.

I sat and relaxed making arrangements with Jacks mum for Aswan and a hotel. Jack played with the kids. Every time I looked at him he had a posse of girls excited about him, or parents keen to have their kids snapped with him. First he came back with a packet of crisps someone gave him, then an orange, then a sticky apple, then to tell me some woman “eurgh she just French kissed me dad” what he meant was some woman had kissed both his cheeks.

As we left the play area Jack was a legend in his own right, and I was now looking forward to a five star hotel on its own island, reachable only by boat in Aswan.

After the zoo I decided to take Jack to one of the most beautiful parts of Cairo, and perhaps my favourite part; Khan A Khalili – more commonly known as Islamic Cairo. I wrote about this last time and so will just sum it up by saying its a lot like Arabian Nights, think a souq selling spices, silver and all set to the back drop of Islamic buildings hundreds of years old. If Aladdin flew past on a magic carpet it would have felt so right.

As it goes we chilled in a few mosques and in some vain attempt to quell Jacks constant hunger I bought him a banana. He walked down the cobbled street a few feet ahead of me when suddenly he disappeared down a hole. I was convinced he’d broken something and his cries conformed it to me. I picked him up and sat him down checking his knee which had swollen up. He was in obvious pain, some guy came over and started rubbing something on Jacks leg (not a clue what it was) but he was adamant it would sort him out. It actually did, and when Jack had calmed down I told him I don’t like to see him cry, if he stopped I’d get him some cinnamon chewing gum. It worked a treat, he jumped up and it wasn’t long before we walked off, hand in hand. I said ‘hole-ey, shit Jack that was funny”. To which Jack replied “I know” figuring I’d try again I said “HOLE-d my hand jack” to which Jack replied ok dad. I explained it to him about five times and he had no clue what I was talking about.

Jacks leg only started hurting again when I suggested we walk back to the hotel. But given taxis are so cheap in Cairo it made sense to just hop in a taxi. The driver didn’t have change which got boring 4 years ago in Vietnam and so when I refused he suddenly remembered the change in his pocket, and after collecting our bags form the hotel we made a bee line for the train station in Giza looking to bail the city for good.

I wasn’t entirely convinced the train was sorted, and by 8.15pm I was even less so. Come 8.45pm and I’d spoken to Jacks mum that I felt we might have been scammed, but I still had hope. Absolutely no one spoke English and the best I could get from anyone was “Inshallah” which means “god willing” in other words, if it does it does, if it doesn’t then it wasn’t meant to be. Every train that came into the station assured me train 84 was the next one, and fifteen trains later I was a starting to make contingency plans. A group of Chinese girls had attached themselves to us. One of them was crying, the taxi driver had driven off before she could get her bags from the boot. She had lost her passport, camera, ipad etc. I then realised things could be worse, potentially she had been robbed and scammed.

Train 84, the best train in the whole of Egypt pulled into Giza at around 9.20pm. Within no time at all we were in our room, a beer was cracked open and Jack was eating the chicken curry he had ordered whilst I munched down on fish and who knows what. But the main thing was that we were on the train. And within no time at all it was steaming down the side of the Nile to Southern Egypt. Since we were in a sleeper and darkness, we were also supposedly missing one of the best train journeys on Earth.

I awoke as the train was leaving Luxor having just had a near solid 9hr sleep. Jack was just coming round, the reason we’d woken up was because half the train bailed at Luxor.

Jack was in charge of keeping the room tidy and he did a good job, he was like a little granny. It was now 9am and breakfast was delivered to our berth, it was a selection of croissants with cheese and honey and coffee. There was three hours left of the journey and so we opened the curtains, put some music on and had breakfast whilst watching the stunning Egyptian countryside go by.

During the train journey Jack was an absolute star, it was the longest single journey he had ever done and I didn’t have a single issue with him, and not once did he say he was bored, or that he had had enough. I spent a lot of the time thinking and reflecting on family life. Egyptians are very family orientated and its had a real impact on me.

We pulled into Aswan around midday and expecting chaos we were met with people just going about their business. Knowing Aswan proper was not too big we crossed from the train station and onto the bank of the Nile known as the Corniche, and headed south for about km or so, to where the boat left for our hotel.

Aswan is a world away from Cairo, and after a bit of messing about we found ourselves having a gorgeous evening meal, with a local beer, watching the sun set over the Nile. And as the skies turned red, and the West Bank sand dunes littered with ancient caves reflected in the Nile I got a tinge of excitement. Jack was using cocktail sticks to eat his cheese sandwich and he smiled in a way which melts my heart, and as I thought of those at home – Charlie and his garbage jokes, Abi and her countless pictures she makes for me, and Toby with his mid air star jumps. I realised just how lucky I was and just how important family was.

 

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