An Oasis In Cairo

Cairo had been giving us a bit of an edge. We bargained hard with the taxi driver at the airport to get the price we wanted but he got the difference back when he stuck us with the parking fee. En route to the Egyptian museum, a friendly older man “coincidently” exited the subway station when we did and told us about how happy he was that his daughter was getting married the next day. After a few minutes of genial conversation, he invited us to the wedding. We knew we’d been had when we somehow ended up in his perfume shop with the hard sell about to begin. Near the Al-Azhar mosque an affable souvenir salesman told us it was closed and offered to have his friend take us to a “much nicer one.” Once there, we decided not to enter because the price he quoted seemed high. We found out later that Cairo mosques don’t charge admission…and the first mosque we were headed for was really open! I was beginning to distrust everything that anyone said to me in Cairo.

A few variations of these scams were listed in our guidebook but when someone looks you in the eye and distorts the truth…and then gets outraged when you question their sincerity, it is hard to know the difference between ruse and reality. After walking around all day in a city of over 10 million people and harboring such suspicions, one needs a place of serenity; an oasis in the desert. For us, it was the African House Hostel.

African House is in the Midan Ramses section of downtown Cairo, located in an aging building with high ceilings, wide stone stairways, a barely-functioning antique elevator and original wood floors and shutters from the 19th century. The hostel has most of the key things we look for in a hotel: great location, breakfast included, wireless internet in the room (so kids can do online homework), and a large room with four beds and a bathroom. Our kids’ favorite feature is “Sphinx,” a kitten who comes running into our room every time he hears our squeaky door. The drawbacks – so-so showers and an occasional mosquito -- are more than offset by the intangibles…the pleasant and helpful attitude of the staff. The staff is comprised of 6 men who rotate at the front desk who seem to act as one. Begin planning a desert trip with Ali and follow up later with Mahmoud and you’ll notice that he knows all the details of the earlier conversation. Get directions to the souk from Zizu and when you return Karim will ask you how you liked it. Order your 24/7 complimentary tea with Abdul – “three with milk, one without” – and you won’t have to tell Nagy the details next time you order. When we told Mahmoud that we wanted to visit a camel market 30 miles outside of Cairo, he wrote the instructions in Arabic for us to show a taxi driver – essential to get anywhere in Cairo -- and gave us his cell phone number. Sure enough, our taxi driver got lost so we had him call Mahmoud, who guided our driver in the right direction.

Aided by the staff at African House, we became more comfortable independently navigating Cairo. We successfully came back from the Khan el-Khalili market one evening to see all six of them on couches watching the Egyptian soccer team in the finals of the African Cup – Africa’s “Super Bowl.” Instead of consuming beer and potato chips, as we’d see back home for a sporting event, they all leaned forward in the same crouching position, drinking their black tea and smoking cigarettes. We’d come home to our oasis.

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