Someone asked me recently if I, at anytime during my travels, had ever experienced culture shock. It really made me think. A true traveler, I suppose, approaches any exotic experience with a sense of trepidation and wonder. What I mean is that, if travel offers us anything, it’s a readymade opportunity to step outside our comfort zones. The challenge can be scary and, sometimes, even shocking. But the personal enrichment and cultural understanding gained through these foreign experiences is travel’s great reward. Travel without this reward, I would argue, is little more than movement from one place to another.
In response to the inquirer’s question, I replied that I had never experienced culture shock in the most severe sense. In other words, I have never locked myself inside my hotel room with a McDonald’s cheeseburger and a several-hour dose of Fox news. But, in my experience, there are certainly destinations on a not-too-distant map that can test a traveler’s mettle. Cairo, Egypt, for me, is one such place.
The Egyptian Museum is the central home of Egyptian archaeology. // (C) 2010 Egyptian Tourist Authority
I found that even the great Nile River had nothing on the sprawling, undulating city of Cairo. For a writer, charged with reporting the sounds, smells, sights and flavors of a place, Cairo can be an overwhelming experience. The traffic in Cairo is infamous. Cars and taxis compete with buses, bicycles, donkey carts, camels and pedestrians for a hard-won strip of road. (Imagine Los Angeles traffic but without stoplights, crosswalks or speed limits.) Simply crossing the street in Cairo is a daring exercise. On a recent trip to the city, for example, I witnessed two taxi drivers ramming their occupied cabs into each other in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, a smash-up derby of epic proportions. Road rage in Los Angeles seems dainty by comparison.
But Cairo remains a jumping-off point for visitors bound to explore the treasures of Egypt, and all of the famous exploration and scholarship surrounding such treasures has always been rooted in Cairo. No visit to Egypt, therefore, is complete without a traipse through the city called The Mother of the World. And despite her size (Cairo has a population of approximately 6.8 million) and sometimes harried exterior, Cairo has long been one of the safest cities in the world.
Must-see stops in Cairo include the Egyptian Museum, the central home to Egyptian archaeology since 1902. Many of the treasures excavated throughout Egypt over the last 200 years now call this massive museum home. Visitors queue up for the King Tut galleries where the boy king’s famous gold sarcophagi, death mask and priceless jewels are held. The museum’s Royal Mummy Room contains nearly 30 mummies of Egypt’s famously departed. The Egyptian Museum is a great place to launch any tour of ancient Egypt.
The next stop for visitors to Cairo is to take the roughly one-hour drive to the world-famous pyramids at Giza. Though it’s usually enough for visitors to gaze, awe-inspired, upon the 4,000-year-old pyramids (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World) and the adjacent Sphinx, those wishing to enter the pyramids should plan to arrive early as the number of visitors allowed to enter the structures each day is limited. Street hawkers and hustlers, another of the challenges of Cairo, are rampant at Giza so visitors should be wary.
The merchants are slightly less aggressive at Cairo’s maze-like Khan el-Khalili market, where shopkeepers have plied their wares since the 14th century. Expect T-shirts and trinkets, to be sure, but visitors venturing away from the market center will find elaborate spice shops, exquisite gold jewelry and local Cairenes sipping strong coffee and smoking apple-scented tobacco from shisha water pipes.
Some of the best views and more impressive mosques in the City of a Thousand Minarets are located within the confines of Cairo’s Citadel, the central palace complex for Egypt’s rulers from roughly 1200 to 1800 A.D. In addition to the mosques, popular museums within the Citadel include the National Military Museum, which was once Mohammed Ali’s Harem Palace, and the Police Museum, with its exhibits on famous political assassinations.
Whether browsing the halls of one of Cairo’s many museums or sampling fruit-flavored tobacco from a hookah for the first time, stepping outside of your comfort zone to explore the cultural wonders of Cairo is definitely a worthwhile experience — just be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.