Sometimes known as “The City of the Dead”, Cairo is one of the most frustrating and incredible places to visit. Crammed in alongside the Nile and the desert, this city among the dust is home to 19.5 million people, making it one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
I arrived in Cairo and was immediately greeted by noise and confusion. Looking for my friend who was set to pick me up, I heard taxi drivers yelling, trying to get the blue-eyed foreigner into their car for a few extra bucks. Lines here seemed to be nonexistent as people pushed and shoved to get ahead, using luggage to bully others out of the way. The honking of impatient drivers was incessant as the hot, desert air wrapped around me like a winter coat. Sweating in my shorts and long-sleeved shirt, I put my head down and pushed my way to a relatively clear corner, where I awaited my Egyptian friend battling heavy traffic down the road.
My entrance to Cairo perhaps perfectly describes what life is like in this incredibly busy part of the world; the willingness to succeed - and oftentimes to simply survive - is an emotion worn on the shoulders of the city. Life in New York seems like a countryside farm in Iowa compared to the hustle and bustle of this historic corner of Africa. As we drove further into the city, I looked out of the car window and was shocked to see another car mere inches from ours. As I looked further, I realized that we weren't in an organized, lane-d road; rather, we sat in the middle of a mosh pit of cars that went on as far as the eye could see. Were we in a parking lot? Certainly not. This was a normal road in the city - three lanes turned into seven, and drivers tested fate at every turn, just trying to get a little bit further, a little ahead of another person.
Several hours later, (yes - several heavily trafficked hours) we arrived at our destination: the famous Pyramids of Giza. I put on the loose, light pants that my friend had brought for me, because showing off too much skin here would not only be disrespectful, but potentially dangerous. Moments after leaving the car, we were surrounded by guides trying to get us to take tours. (“Only €30! Camel ride too!”) My friend replied “La, shukran” (no, thank you) over and over again until I felt that it was the only thing we would ever say for the remainder of the trip.
La, shukran. La, shukran. La, shukran.
The pyramids are, in a word, breathtaking. The oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, (and the only one remaining mostly intact) they tower over you, a reminder that man truly can achieve anything. Three giant pyramids neighbor each other as the Great Sphinx statue (a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human) keeps guard in the distance. Entirely man-made, these enormous structures were developed with no help of anything close to modern machinery.
The pyramids are made out of millions of two ton stones, perfectly blocked together to stack up to 146 meters high, and The Great Sphinx is literally a giant carving of an animal/human, sitting right in the middle of a desert. As I stood there and looked at these incredible monuments, I wondered how humans could possibly have made something not only so huge and impactful with their bare hands, but also something that has literally beaten time and outlived generations upon generations. It's yet another testament to the tenacity of the Egyptian people.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the pyramids is their location; in one direction, all that can be seen is vast desert surrounding these magnificent, ancient structures. Turn around, however, and one can make out a shiny “M” in the distance - a…McDonald’s? Yes. Turn a little more and catch your breath, for the entire city of Cairo is laid out in the distance. Built up right alongside the pyramids, this is truly one of the only places in the world where you can have one foot in ancient history and the other in the modern world.
The pyramids weren't the only shock to my system in this conglomerate of a city. As we got back into the car to head to a park near my friend’s house, we found ourselves in more stand-still traffic. Looking out again, I saw half-finished buildings stacked on top of each other in the distance. Crumbled and windowless, it appeared that they were actually inhabited; colorful sheets lined the holes in each home, moving with the stale wind, and children could be seen sitting among the wreckage, playing with each other. Welcome to the slums of Cairo.
With 289 slums in Cairo, Ghada Wali, the Minister of Social Solidarity in Egypt, declared to the UN that ending poverty in Egypt is now among the top strategies for development as of 2018. However, this could prove difficult to achieve, as the poverty line here doesn't account for basic necessities, and some people earn as little as $3 a day. Subsidy food and water vouchers are not only available for those struggling - middle and upper class citizens can also access them, which has created a large wealth gap and less resources for those truly struggling.
All of the above facts were more than obvious as we continued to drive past these slums. Unofficial houses, these homes are little more than concrete squares that do little to protect dwellers from the intense summer heat or cold evening temperatures. With no running water, electricity, heat or air conditioning, these houses are literally just a roof over people's heads. It was amazing to see just how many of these run-down, should-be empty buildings were being used as homes. These were truly people living day-by-day.
In the end, Cairo is a city that won't soon be forgotten. From the kill-or-be-killed mentality to the immense amount of history sitting right alongside a bustling, massive metropolis, Cairo is a perplex, frustrating, and fascinating portion of the world. From the aggressive airport mentality to the insane drivers, to the magic of the pyramids and the toughness of the slums, it really is a city that stands alone. Cairo’s vibe runs through your body as soon as you step off of the plane - this is a resilient, tough group of people that will find a way, no matter what - much like the pyramid and the city itself continued to find ways to survive and thrive.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.