Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Birqash Camel Market

One thing I’ve been dying to do in Cairo is to get out to the Birqash camel market. The market is located on the outskirts of Cairo, and getting there is half the adventure. Three friends and I took a cab to the site of the old camel market where we picked one of the old, dilapidated minibuses to the market. Driving through the outskirts of Cairo was an eye-opening experience. Here, trash was left to burn on the side of the road. I could smell the rotting animal carcasses left in the open air. Goats scrounged through yesterday’s garbage in search of food. These were images of extreme poverty I hadn’t seen since my trip to Nicaragua in 2004. Although I attend the Ivy League of the Middle East, I must not forget that the majority of Egyptians are quite poor.

As the bus pulled out of the impoverished suburbs of Cairo, the city melted into a gorgeous countryside. Here, in the fertile Nile Delta, herds of goats meandered past irrigation canals, and farm laborers tended lush, green crops under the hot Egyptian sun. The date palms reached stunning heights and dangled their sweet fruits like miniature bananas. The road to Birqash oscillated between smooth pavement and eroded dirt, but the views made the entire journey very enjoyable. After about 20 minutes, when the fertile fields of the Nile Delta turned into khaki-colored sand, we reached our destination.

The first sign of the market was a small herd of camels galloping majestically across the sand just 50 yards from the road. The bus pulled up to the gate, and we all got out to buy tickets. The whole affair was very informal, and I would have missed the ticket booth altogether if it wasn’t for group of four Spanish women who were also sightseeing this morning. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, locals will attempt to sell you admission tickets for 20 pounds even though the official price is set at five. Lonely Planet was correct: the men did ask for 20 pounds at the gate. But we were prepared, and I felt as though I, a lowly ignorant tourist, would conquer this scam. Well, that was not the case. There was no other place to go, and nobody seemed willing to accept five pounds. It was 20 or nothing. Oh well. It’s no big deal; it’s still less than four US dollars, but I really want to have a chat with the Lonely Planet.

The market itself was amazing. The only tourists this morning were the four Spanish women I mentioned before and the four AUC students in my group. Everyone else was either a local buyer or a Bedouin camel trader. Most everyone wore traditional dress with a long, simple robe and a turban. Everything here was simple and authentic because there was no tourism presence. The only item for sale here is a camel, quite possible the most impractical souvenir one could buy in Egypt. A wishful purchase I must admit, but prudence won the day. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Bedouin camel traders. Camels come from places as far away as Somalia and Sudan. They travel north towards Cairo on the famous "Forty-Days Road."

I especially like this guy.

Camel traders bargain a price.

Two men drive the feed truck through the market.

This young boy tries a camel his own size.

The camel traders tie one of the front legs on each animal in order to prevent them from running away.

This camel is being unloaded from a truck. I was surprised at how agile these creatures were. They are certainly bred to live in the desert. Ever seen a dairy cow jump from a truck?

From left to right: Jack, Caleb, Dave, and me.

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