14 Hours in Cairo: The Art of the Layover, or, Going Commando to Khartoum

There are not many options available if you want to travel from the capital of Ghana to the capital of Sudan.

The booking system I am obliged to use for my job often gives me routes and transits that seem like they were devised by Salvador Dalí throwing darts at a map. You want an example? Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 300 miles as the crow flies. I could drive it in 6 hours. Instead, I get routed through Istanbul with a 9-hour layover for a total trip of 23 hours and 6,000 miles.

But for Accra to Khartoum the only layover possible was in Cairo, and as I’d never been, I was hoping for the longest layover possible. The system gave me 14 hours. Which is more than enough time to see the only thing people go to Egypt for – The Pyramids.

I don’t need to describe the pyramids, or the Sphinx, or any of it. It’s a hundred times more humbling in person when there is nobody else around.

Africa is probably bigger than you think. Contrary to what you may have heard, it is not a country, but an entire continent. And it takes six hours to fly from Ghana in the West to Egypt in the East. Likely on a plane with no inflight entertainment system, so bring a book.

I checked my bag all the way, so as not to have to wait at the baggage carousel which can take anywhere between zero minutes (Hong Kong) and 90 minutes (Khatmandu). On a rushed layover, I didn’t want to deal with the risk, so a small carry-on containing my work laptop, three books, and a T-shirt with sentimental value was all I had.

Egyptian immigration is simple. Buy a $25 visa on arrival from the bank next to the immigration queue, wait in line for 3 minutes, then get stamped and you go through. They don’t even ask you any questions. Not one. I like that.

Best thing about Egyptian hotels? You can smoke everywhere.

Taxi to my hotel – $30. I picked the hotel closest to the pyramids that I could find, and it was surprisingly cheap. Maybe due to the downturn in tourism caused by A) The Arab Spring, Tahir square and Mubarak letting his police get trigger happy with protesters, B) Scaremongering over Morsi, the democratically elected leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, C) The ensuing military coup and swathe of mass executions by strongman Sisi, and D) the bombing of a plane full of tourists on its way to Sharm el Sheikh. All that will really give your tourist industry a kick in the nuts.

I get to my hotel about 1:00AM. Best thing about Egyptian hotels? You can smoke everywhere. By the pool, in the restaurants, in your room, checking in, in the lift….everywhere.  Side note – this is also the case in Kuwait. However, Kuwait is the most boring place on Earth. Never go there.

I stand on my balcony and I can see the vague outline of one of the pyramids about half a mile away, I’m looking forward to the view in the morning.

I wake up at 4:30am. I rarely spend more than 3 days in any one time zone so things like jet lag and body clocks don’t really apply. I make some coffee and watch as the sun comes up and I see the three biggest pyramids come into view. They’re big and they’re geometrically pretty perfect. Those were my first thoughts when I saw them. They are truly impressive, not beautiful – just immense. And to think that these huge triangular collections of a couple of million perfectly hewn stones were put in place over 3,000 years ago. It’s staggering. I don’t believe in ‘bucket lists’, but if you do have one, put these bad-boys on it near the top. In the three millennia that have passed since we built these things, we haven’t even come close to doing anything comparable.

egypt pyramids of giza sunrise photo

I head out at about 8:00am and spend a few hours walking around the pyramids before the crowds arrive. The crowds did arrive around 10:00, and you don’t want to be around when that happens. I don’t need to describe the pyramids, or the Sphinx, or any of it. You’ve seen the postcards, you’ve read about it.  It’s a hundred times more humbling in person when there is nobody else around.

I get back to my hotel at 11:00. I’ve got two hours to clean up before I need to get a car to the airport.

I strip off to take a shower and wash the desert dust off me. My clothes are filthy, especially my boxers, so I decide to give my smalls a rinse in the shower. Done with that, I hang them over the railing of my balcony to dry, sit back and have a read. I glance up after a few pages and notice the absence of boxers on my balcony railing. I go over and look down to the pool area. They’re nowhere to be seen. I can’t imagine anyone finding them and keeping them – they were pretty bad. Maybe they just got blown out of sight. I’m not worried. Hopefully, my luggage and its selection of fresh boxers will make it to Khartoum later. In the meantime, I slip my trousers over my bare arse, check out and get a cab to the airport.

Cairo traffic is horrendous.

Security at Cairo airport is pretty thorough. I watch the guy in front go through the metal detector – no beeps, but the guard gives him a thorough pat down. It’s then that I realise I’m hanging fairly loose and wearing a fairly lightweight pair of trousers.

I go through, no beeps, but the guy starts the routine. Shoulders, neck, feels my collar, squeezes my arms all the way down, round the back, waist. He squats down – ankles, calves, working his way up, gets to the tops of my thighs, squeezes. And pauses, looks up, I look down I raise my eyebrows as if to apologise. He stands up and waves me through. I’m not sure if we just shared a ‘moment’, but I’m glad to be waved through.

Layover over.

Next stop, Sudan.

This is a guest post by Jack Jmuir. Read about him below.

Post Author
Jack Jmuir

Jack has lived in seven countries and worked as a volunteer journalist in Hong Kong, Palestine and Venezuela. His current job takes him to approximately 30 countries a year.

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