Recently a friend and I spent a wonderfully relaxed afternoon in Khan al-Khalili; the tumble of falling-apart Mamluk architecture that was once the heart of the city and is now Cairo's premier shopping souq. I say 'wonderful' for us as we didn't have to deal with the usual tourist hordes who cram the medieval alleyways. But for the shopkeepers of the souq the recent laid-back atmosphere of their business site is a calamity.
"We have very few sales," one jewellery vendor sighed as my friend looked over his collection of delicate 'hand of Fatimah' pendants. His statement was unnecessary. We could see the lack of would-be buyers for ourselves. Egypt's tourism downturn since the revolution is a disaster for Khan al-Khalili's merchants just as it is for all the other Egyptians involved in this nation's massive tourism industry.
Shopkeepers with a glut of time on their hands sat on rickety wooden chairs outside their stores and smoked cigarettes. The fierce heat of the sun left many in a lethargic slump. In a dimly-lit cavern of an antique store, filled to the brim with household junk, my friend and I looked over a collection of fabulous block-presses and drunk multiple cups of mint tea followed by ridiculously strong tiny cups of ahwa (Arabic coffee) with the owner. We had been his only customers all day. When we left he carefully switched off the lights behind us to conserve electricity.
For many would-be visitors, the shaky new politics of post-Mubarak Egypt have caused them to adjust their holiday plans to less problematic destinations. But their perception of 'threat' is totally inaccurate. Tourists have not been targeted at all. Egypt itself is going through a particularly tough phase as it battles to find its voice after 30 stifling years of Mubarak's politics but that hasn't affected the country's attitude to foreign travellers. If anything, Egyptians have become even more welcoming since the revolution which is rather difficult when you consider that this was already one of the most welcoming nations to travel in as a tourist beforehand.
After a fair amount of browsing my friend chose the 'hand of Fatimah' pendant that she wanted. She is leaving as well. Without any tourists her tour leading work has dried up and the travel company she works for have put her job on ice. All our Egyptian tour guide friends are also planning a long summer of no work. Unfortunately the Egypt-is-open-for-business message simply hasn't got through and the tourists are staying away in bulk. We grabbed a taxi back to Downtown after our shopping session. The driver didn't even bother to try and charge us a 'tourist rate'. After all there are hardly any tourists here.
The crossing-the-road Cairo waltz is a battle of wits between driver and pedestrian. The bloke (or woman) behind the steering wheel doesn’t really want to kill you - that would involve way too much bureaucracy and headaches to be worth it for the average motorist - but that can be difficult for new arrivals to fathom when witnessing cars seemingly speeding up and swerving towards you when attempting to cross the road.
The secret to mastering the art of road crossings comes down to three points.
1. Eye contact. Always stare directly at the drivers heading towards you at breakneck speed. This lets them know you are actually concentrating on what is happening.
2. Perseverance. Don’t slink on the street corner willing yourself to run in an ‘I think I can, I think I can’ mantra only to get halfway across the street and decide to retreat in a scuttle. Or change your pace to a frazzled sprint, or - even worse - freeze. You need to cross at a steady pace. That’s what the drivers are depending on and judging their timing on.
3. Astena. Nothing throws a Cairene driver more than a foreigner using this Arabic hand signal. Astena simply means ‘wait’ in Arabic and is often used as a gesture rather than verbally. To make the signal cup your hand so that the tips of your fingers meet the tip of your thumb (and yes, that IS the same gesture that means something completely different in Italy and would probably get you beat up if you tried it out on the roads there). Show this hand signal to the drivers heading straight towards you as you cross the road and be amazed how everyone automatically slows down.
Believe me, it does get easier with practice.
I have always been good at doing nothing. My idea of perfect happiness is a book and a hammock with the sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatch roof. Or a window seat on a long train or bus journey where I can stare aimlessly at passing scenery for hours. I have a gift for accomplishing very little with no accompanying guilt and some of my happiest travel memories are of times when life slows down to a crawl.
Six weeks at a remote beach camp in Egypt’s Sinai with no distractions except the rhythmic slosh of the waves onto the shore. A week in the dinky Madhya Pradesh village of Orchha spent staring over to the ruined remains of ornate palaces while sipping chai on the wall of the hotel courtyard or sitting on the riverbank reading and watching the dhobi wallahs scrub the mountains of laundry clean. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. I have been known to while away half a day happily lying on a lumpy mattress of a cheap hotel room staring at the patterns of the mildew formations on the ceiling.
So it was with some trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in a town if I liked it. The idea of going on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the entire idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed...well...quick.
Blink and you miss them. A tour can take the hassle out of your travels. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and don’t want to spend a longer time on the road. But how much can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East? For just over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.
Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column and just survey the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as all the get-on-and-off-the-bus and packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on our weary backs.
It was a life of perpetual fast motion. Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.
The afternoon after I wrote my resignation email I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours. Just taking in the atmosphere of blissful contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter of Cairo rooftops, spreading out to the far distance, greeted me at the top.
Being able to travel so slowly is something of an indulgence and a frowned upon treat. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – ipod, plasma-screen TV, mortgage, kids – it’s a little bit naughty to be so lavish with time wasting. I know for me though, now that I've seen the other side of tourism up close, that this is a luxury worth savouring.