After bidding good-bye to Hameed (the guy who had ceremoniously welcomed me saying “KILL KOMMADATH” ), I boarded my limo and started my journey through the busy Cairo streets towards my hotel in downtown Cairo. The roads were nice and wide, and the city seemed buzzing with activity …. The cabbie was a friendly, smiling guy ……and after some basic introductions, we quickly started out a conversation…….
Cabbie: First time Egypt ?
Me: Yeah, its my first time ….
Cabbie: So ..where you come from ?
Me: India !
[ He suddenly seemed quite impressed by this ]
Cabbie: India ?? India very nice ……..I love India !!!
Me: Oh great ! Thanks !! [Wow … normally, one does not get to hear even too many Indians saying that !!!]
Cabbie: [with a bit of a frown] “….but India …too many people !”
Me: Yeah , right ! [ Ok, so did I travel half the globe to hear this ? ]
Cabbie: “How many people ?? …… 1 Million ???”
Me: WHAT ??? ……..
[ Did he just say 1 M-I-L-L-I-O-N ????? …… as in, beginning with an “M” ???? …… “M” as in ‘Mallika Sherawat’ ??????
What the hell ? Are people really so dumb here ? Or are they just trying to be satirical ??? ]
…… I took another look at him, and realised it had to be option (a) ….for he seemed genuinely like a guy who must have had major trouble with numbers back at school !
Me: “No …its more like a little over 1 Billion !”
Cabbie: “1 Billion ??? ooohhhh !!! [ He turns around and gives me a big sarcastic smile as if I was the one responsible for it ! ]
Me: …….. [ Dude, turn ard and drive …. ! ]
The rest of the journey too was equally interesting ….with us chatting about a multitude of topics – he telling stuff he knew about India and me about what I knew about Egypt…… and at the same time, with him explaining to me about the various places and landmarks that we passed on the way ! We had passed by the Football stadium (where an important match between some local clubs was about to kick-off), Hosni Mubarak’s (the Egyptian President) fortified residence, the Ramses Railway Station, a couple of churches, quite a lot of mosques…….and finally the river Nile !!! ….. my hotel – ‘The Conrad’ was just alongside the banks of the Nile.
As I got down and the cabbie helped with my luggage, he asked for a tip. I was surprised …tipping cabbies was something that I’d never been used to doing …..My brain raised for an excuse …..finally I intelligently told him that I wasn’t carrying any local currency with me ! But this guy was smarter …..he quite conveniently said that US dollars were acceptable too !
Damn …….. !!! Refusing to give up, I lied that I only had Indian Rupees with me, whilst confirming that the envelope containing the 800 dollars was intact in my pocket.
But this guy was just too determined …….he could do with Indian money too !
Now I had no choice ….. I pulled out my wallet and took a Rs.50 note and handed it over to him ….. His eyes glowed on seeing the 50 !!! […..only when he goes to a Currency Exchange and convert, would he realise that 50 Indian Rupees is only about 6 Egyptian Pounds, just enough to fetch him a sandwich on the streets !!! ]
I pulled my luggage and walked into the grand lobby …..it was simply mind-boggling !!! The hotel itself was absolute luxury !!! I checked in and a guy took me to my room … Number 827 , on the 8th floor. As he ushered me in, I was literally taken aback !
The room was majestic ……much bigger than my modest apartment back in Bangalore, and totally luxurious ……It included a huge set of wardrobes, 2 large double-beds (as if 1 double-bed itself was not enough for me !!!), a study table, 2 sofas, 3 telephones, TV with cable, DVD player, a fridge (stocked with 6 cans of beer, 1 red wine and 1 white wine !!!) a majestic bathroom, huge balcony and much more !!!
The sight from the balcony was simply marvellous …….Right below was the swimming pool and on the right side – the River NILE ..in all its glory!!! I was completely spell-bound !!!
After quickly unpacking my stuff, I went straight for the pool……Later in the evening, I converted some of my US dollars into Egyptian Pounds and ventured out into the streets……
Immediately outside the hotel was this huge, landscaped Corniche alongside the Nile ! The Nile was simply majestic ……with the cool breeze blowing in and the waters- dark under the night sky, being so placid, had such a mystic feeling about it ! I stood there for a few moments simply staring at the placid waters; and absorbing the reality of the moment !
1000’s of years of history about which I had been religiously reading over the years, came flashing in front of my eyes ! ……….I mean, this was the river that Moses had turned into blood by wielding his baton ….. this was where the armies of Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony had sailed through in their conquests of Egypt !!!!! …….and here I was, standing on its banks …….. It was just MAGICAL !!!
What was surprising to me was to see the huge number of young Egyptian couples sitting along the railings on the banks, canoodling or simply holding hands, having quite a romantic time ! The strange thing about it all was that this was an Islamic country, and though I had travelled extensively across the Arab world, nowhere had I seen anything remotely like this !!! The Egyptians were clearly very liberal and forward-thinking ! I suddenly realised how badly conservative even our Bangalore was !
A few blocks away was this huge mall called ‘Arkadia’ ……sort of like Cairo’s answer to Forum mall – but just a lot less crowded and lot more peaceful. This happens to be one of the fave malls among Cairo’s urban youth, and quite conveniently for me, it had a huge Food Court with everything from junk (Mac, KFC, Hardees … ) to Pizzas to Chinese to some authentic Arab food.
I settled for some Chicken Shawarmas …..and that was when I realised that the people here somehow think that I look like an Arab ! The waitress came up to me and started speaking in non-stop Arabic, and I had a tough time trying to explain to her that I did not speak Arabic, and came from India. [ my birth and up-bringing in Kuwait was the last thing I wanted to reveal to anybody here……. they’d hit me on my face, for the fact that though I had spent half my life there, I still did not know proper Arabic ….]. I had faced the same problem with the porters back at the hotel …….
After the meal, I explored a little further up the Nile. The ambience was great ….Even close to mid-night, there were women, children, couples and people in general, strolling and relaxing along the riverside ! The city didn’t seem to sleep and also felt like quite a safe place to me.
The areas along the Nile in downtown Cairo are among the more modern quarters of the city. This is where all the big Sky-scrapers and the umpteen number of 5-star hotels are concentrated.
I walked back into my hotel and settled down in my room, quite tired from all the day’s travelling. Deciding on which of the 2 large double-beds to sleep in, was quite a task by itself….. Finally, I settled for the one near the wall and almost immediately , fell into a deep, sound sleep !