Bed bugs – a blessing in Cairo

My stomach tightened into a knot as we entered into the train station at 4:30 on Monday morning and  I saw the train that would take us to Cairo.  It was old, dirty, and marred with  cracked and broken windows.  The first class coach was marginally better, at least it had air conditioning and large, reclining seats, although it was still pretty grimy and grungy.  But when compared to the second class coach, I’m glad we splurged and paid the extra $10 CAD (total price per ticket: $21 CAD) for first class.  Most tourists travel this route at night on the sleeper train which costs more ($60 CAD + depending on what type of seat you purchase) and I was beginning to see why.  In fact, the day train has only recently become available to tourists.  In the past, it was limited to Egyptians only.

We weren’t alone for long…it filled up
pretty quickly as we stopped in every village along the way. 

The train left on time and 14 hours later we arrived on schedule in Cairo.  Those fourteen hours were spent bumping and swaying slowly along a rickety old track that snaked through the Nile Valley, stopping in every town along the way.  So much for being on the express route! The scenery was consistent and quite beautiful – men and women along with the odd donkey or two, manually labouring in their lush fields of corn, sugar cane, and cabbage.  There are two growing seasons for all crops in the Nile Valley, except sugar cane which takes a year to grow.  It looked like it was harvest and planting time.  The rural landscape was interrupted now and then by small villages, larger towns and a few cities which all looked very much the same as the towns we have already visited.  Surprisingly, we travelled in relative comfort – we even had food and beverage service of which we availed ourselves, at least for drinks.  We declined on the food as the canteen area looked pretty sketchy. There were a few precarious moments, though, when the train and the tracks did not seem to align and I was certain we were goners.  But, we got there in one piece, which is all that really matters at the end of the day.

Sadly, garbage is everywhere.

Before I tell you about Cairo, just a word or two about our weekend in Aswan.  We stayed at the Keylany Hostel which had very good Trip Advisor reviews.  I don’t know if it was because we had been spoiled on the luxury boat for five days, but we found this hostel to be quite grungy even though our room was adequate with comfortable and clean beds, and a usable bathroom.  It had an archaic air conditioner that was noisy as hell but it worked reliably.  We spent three nights here in spite of the grim surroundings.  The town of Aswan came alive at night in the bazaar which was just around the corner from our hostel.  But walking through the market was an exercise of determination to avoid all the shopkeepers who were very obnoxious and persistent, often blocking our way to try to force us into their shop.  We’re getting really good at ignoring these pesky irritants.

View from the front door of our hostel one morning.

A feast for under $10.

Food was a challenge in Aswan.  Our breakfast at the hostel was better than we expected – real filtered coffee, fresh fruit juice, fruit salad, Egyptian pancakes with jam, and toast.  Finding food for the rest of the day was difficult.  On Friday, their holy day, everything was closed and we resigned ourselves to lunch at KFC – yes, they have KFC in Aswan.  With a recommendation from our hostel, we reluctantly ate dinner at a rather grimy looking local restaurant in the market.  The food turned out to be plentiful and tasty and very cheap (about $6 CAD) and most importantly, we didn’t get sick afterwards.  The next day we ate at another restaurant that apparently is a historic icon in Aswan (why our hostel didn’t recommend it in the first place is beyond me) and it was much better in every respect albeit more expensive by Egyptian standards (a mere $10 CAD for the entire meal).

Although we had had our fill of temples this past week, we had already arranged a visit to Abu Simbel through the tour agency in Luxor.  This meant a ridiculously early morning start on Sunday, getting picked up at 3:15 am, spending the next hour picking up other people from different hotels, and then travelling in a very cramped, uncomfortable mini bus for 3 hours in order to get to the site by about 7:15 am.  The site was incredibly impressive, and certainly worth the visit.  The fact that this site had been completely relocated to higher ground in the 60’s when the High Dam was built made it all the more extraordinary.  They literally moved a mountain.

It took a couple of days to get our bearings in Cairo, it is such a huge, chaotic city.  As the capital of Egypt, it is the largest city in the Arab world and Africa, and its metropolitan area is ranked 11th in the world with a population of 17.5 million spread over 453 square kilometers.  This is the largest city we have visited so far.

We stayed in the Milano Hostel located right in the down town core.   We were a little intimidated at first as we ventured out to explore our neighbourhood.  Everywhere you looked, the streets were clogged with cars and people, day and night.  In every direction, there was a constant gridlock, often bringing traffic to a standstill.  I don’t know how anybody gets anywhere in a car.  It takes nerves of steel to cross a street, when the traffic is moving that is – you must boldly walk into traffic and trust they will yield to you.  But if you dare hesitate, they don’t give you a second chance and you’re left stranded in the middle of the street as they go around you.  For a while, I waited for a local to step foot into the oncoming traffic and then trailed closely behind.  But we quickly got the hang of it and soon we were walking into 5 lanes of oncoming traffic without breaking a sweat.

There were no signs of protests or unrest while we were in Cairo until Friday (more about that later).  Our hostel was a 15 minute walk from Tehrir Square where all the recent demonstrations have taken place, including the one on Friday.  We feel very safe and comfortable walking around this area day and night.  The shopkeepers don’t even hassle us as they seem more interested in serving their local clientèle than bothering with us tourists. I even went shopping and bought myself a dress without any problems whatsoever.

It’s been a bit of a rigmarole with our hostel.  In spite of their best intentions to make us feel welcome and comfortable, we had problems with this hostel right from the start.  First, nobody met us at the train station as promised.  They did, however, pay for our taxi from the train station to the hostel.  When we finally arrived late on Monday night, we were given a room facing a busy street which was extremely noisy.  Add to this, the ensuite bathroom was ridiculously small, so small in fact that the shower hung over the sink and toilet.  We weren’t quite sure where you were supposed to stand to take the shower.  You could literally sit on the toilet, brush your teeth into the sink and have a shower all at the same time.  Seeing as we were planning to stay in Cairo for a week, we complained, something we rarely do.  We insisted on a better room or we would be going elsewhere.  The next day we were given a new room that was still quite noisy but it had a half decent bathroom, and they offered us a better breakfast after Chris complained about that too.  I have to give them credit for trying to make us feel comfortable and for addressing our concerns.  On our third day, they offered us an even better room which we gladly accepted only to find it infested with bed bugs – something we discovered after we had moved all our stuff over and spent the afternoon napping.  We quickly moved back to our old room which was bug-free as far as we could see.  In spite of these issues, there were positive things about this hostel that made it worth staying – the beds were very comfortable, we had modern, quiet air conditioning, and it was clean.  And it goes without saying that the location was excellent – walking distance to the Egyptian Museum and metro, plenty of restaurants around, and lots of shopping.

Imagine, with all the places we have stayed, this is the first encounter with bed bugs and luckily we saw them before they saw us, or so we thought.

I thought this was the end of the story, but there is more.  When I woke up on Friday morning I was covered in bites, that’s right, bed bugs! That was the last straw.  We packed up our bags and we were out of there first thing in the morning.  We took a taxi to a southern suburb (Maadi), where we found a room at the Hotel Pearl, thanks to a recommendation by Steve, the manager at Roots Camp where we were diving a few weeks ago.

Ironically, this was the day riots and demonstrations broke out down town, apparently right near  our hostel.  If we had still been staying there, we would have walked right into all the commotion later that afternoon when we returned from our trip to the Giza Pyramids.  We avoided the entire down town situation thanks to a bad case of bed bugs, but we did have our own excitement at the pyramids in Giza that day which I’ll tell you about later.

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One Response
  1. Robin Spencer says:

    Kelly and I have been following your adventures and love it… (as Kelly would say) “Jelly”.