Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Egypt - Friday Morning Junk Markets

Dedicated to Jenna. Happy Birthday!

The world's greatest trash and treasure is held in Cairo every Friday morning, on the edge of the City of the Dead, where an archaic railway line cuts a thin flat strip around the perimeter of the Islamic tombs.

People who sift through untold mountains of landfill every other day of the week bring their choicest finds together for the admiration of the teeming swarms of people. Their audiences grind through densely packed pathways between stalls, ground blankets, or benches propped up by fragile timber bird cages. Like in the touristy Khan and other major souks across the Middle East, the stalls are divided into regions for specific products. Ceramics, toilet bowls, and incredibly manky urinals plastered with scunge of the most abominable composition are isolated along one dusty street. Old metal "antiques", notably baroque-inspired clocks, mirrors, incence braziers and dishes, are neatly displayed in well-built taurpaulin shelters alongside the carpet sellers. Book, coin, bead and jewellery stalls pop up amongst anything. A long promenade in the open sunshine hosts plastic items - dolls, toys, plastic bottles for water, shampoo, or detergents - piled in mounds like scrap metal.

The men's underwear souk is the most frenetic, with only a tiny walkway divided into two directions, and heaps of men shouting out for attention as they jovially waved pirated brand name products at passers-by. Maybe we received particular attention as the only non-Egyptians in the entire market. (It is definately "real Cairo" in terms of lack of tourist interference). More likely, we were there with my sister Tabbi, who was unquestionably the only woman in the entire area.

I bought several odd things - a handful of beautifully patterned Middle Eastern coins (nothing old but dead cheap), a school atlas labelled in Arabic, a gorgeously worn cigarette tin with fragments of text in French and Arabic amongst street scenes of Cairo in the 1940s, and a visa pass book, deteriorated from use and laden with exotic official's stamps and handwriting, for an Egyptian who appears to have travelled often between Egypt and Libya. It's a great piece of traveller's ephemera, but its appeal is most apparent when held than simply described.

The afternoon was spent in a western-style cafe in Zamalek. I was very suprised to discover it existed! It felt very cosmopolitan for a change to have real iced Thai coffee with great company, talking about all manner of travel-related topics.

Now the Grand Tour is slowly running to an end. Only a week to go before I arrive in Australia, and I've been liasing with family already for my exact arrival plans. I'm getting to a stage now of writing inventories for things collected, making lists of the best moments, remembering people I've met, and STILL ploughing through the 23,000 (12.2GB) photographs taken while travelling since August. I can feel the real world getting inexorably closer, and I'm doing what needs to be done to meet it head-on.


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