Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cairo proper

To say that Cairo is intense is understating things immensely. In fact, I think many of the photographs I have taken downplay the intensity here so much that I'm finding it hard to show them. At this point, I haven't captured a single image that approaches the feeling I get walking around the city. Cairo is a city of constant movement, so much so that moments of open space within a photograph are closed off again seconds later by moving traffic or pedestrians.

At the street level, Cairo is a bustling mess of activity, filled with pedestrians, vendors, traffic, refuse, sheesha smokers and tea drinkers, you name it. Almost every type of activity happens on the street itself because it is one of the few open spaces in downtown Cairo. This makes walking around an amazing and exhausting experience, as there is never a clear path to any point. The sidewalks are invariably blocked by cars and goods so you walk in the street with traffic zooming all around you.

Crossing any road requires stepping into oncoming traffic and weaving your way through, sometimes pausing in the middle to let a faster moving vehicle pass before you. Any hesitation and you will remain anxiously waiting at the side of the road for traffic to let up (which it will not). You quickly get used to standing between moving cars and buses and crossing with a certain nonchalance, without even quickening your step at the sight of a taxi bearing down on you.

Walking up two-lane sidewalk-less overpasses becomes an exhilarating but fast way to cross congested thoroughfares, and you are not alone, as children seem to frequent these routes the most.

After a few days, maneuvering the city and its bustle becomes much easier, but knowing where you are going does not. In the more congested downtown area, street signs are few and far between, so that you navigate by points of interest, instead of by road names you see on the map. You follow signs to the major tourist sites, never knowing exactly what road you are on, but knowing you are going the right direction. You plan your itinerary by obvious markers you will hit in order to locate yourself (such as a metro stop or a museum), then cross the city between hoping to miraculously land at your next marker.

And this is the real Cairo: the web of indeterminate city that stretches between the single points of interest to tourists. Most visitors to Cairo experience the real city only through the windows of a taxi or tourbus, which my feet certainly would appreciate. Yet it is this in-between that characterizes Cairo for its inhabitants. The life of the city happens here, interspersed with traffic, clouds of exhaust, and blaring car horns. It makes my previous destinations seem tame by comparison.

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