24 Hours In Cairo

A couple of years ago, I flew to Seoul with Ben Casnocha to speak at the Asian Leadership Conference. At the time, I thought I was crazy for agreeing to fly 12 hours to Korea, spend 24 hours on the ground, and fly 12 hours back home.

Earlier this month, I spoke at the RiseUp Summit in Cairo. I traveled 24 hours to get there, spent 24 hours on the ground, and flew 24 hours back home.

Apparently, I’m getting crazier with age.

Here are a few of the “adventures” I had along the way.

On the outbound part of the trip, I flew Air France from San Francisco to Paris (11 hours), had an eight hour layover in Paris, and then flew from Paris to Cairo (5 hours).

I find that I always overestimate the amount of time I’ll be able to work on flights. An 11-hour flight makes it sound like I’d be able to get a whole day’s work done. But the reality is far different. The whole first part of the flight is largely wasted, since I can’t use the computer until we reach cruising altitude, at which point meal service usually begins. One thing that my pre-trip reading warned me about was that Air France meal service tended to be leisurely (how French!) and that was spot on. By the time meal service was done, we’d already be 3-4 hours into the flight, leaving me about 4-5 hours to work and/or sleep before the second meal service began, followed by landing. I usually use that non-work time to read and catch up on movies. On this trip, I ended up watching two movies: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood and the Charlize Theron / Seth Rogen comedy Long Shot. These two movies have little in common other than the most important factor: I’m pretty sure my wife will never want to see them. I enjoyed both.

After arriving in Paris, I spent an eventful layover there, largely because I met I met a colorful pair of South African travelers. I’ve often thought of Afrikaners as crazy, and my new friends did not disappoint. They were a founder/CEO and executive on their way home from a business trip to Vancouver, and actually had a 16 hour layover at the airport. We struck up a conversation and ended up chatting amiably for hours (they were particularly fascinated by how Donald Trump had managed to get elected president, and whether or not he would be re-elected). We discussed the challenges of growth (I am, after all, the apostle of Blitzscaling) and how to best manage long layovers (they had apparently tried to sample all the whisky and bourbon varieties that Air France had in their lounge). But the single most unforgettable story was my new CEO buddy’s story of a recent robbery. At first, it was merely a brief throwaway reference while we discussed reasons why I should visit South Africa, but as the hours passed, I got the whole story. He was at home with his wife and daughter, but since he had to wake up very early the next day, he decided to sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night, he was awakened by a gang of robbers who had broken into his gated community and for whatever reason, decided to pick his house. My new friend, in addition to being a CEO, was also a practitioner of mixed martial arts (and he had the bulging biceps to go with those skills) so he began to beat up the robbers. The robbers were having a pretty bad time until they came in my buddy’s wife and daughter, whom they were holding at gunpoint. It was then that the robbers called for him to surrender, or they would shoot his wife. The leader of the robbers held his pistol up to my buddy’s wife’s head. Now comes the part which reinforced my prior impressions of Afrikaners. I’ll try to reproduce his words, which you should read aloud in the appropriate accent.

“I had grown up in a pretty rough neighborhood before I went into business and made a better life for my family, so I had some experience with being robbed. While I was fighting with one of the robbers, I saw that his gun wasn’t loaded. What that told me is that probably none of their guns had bullets. And even if they did, they wouldn’t dare shoot someone, since that would wake up the neighborhood and they’d never get away. So I knew that my wife wasn’t in danger of being shot. So I told the robber, ‘Go ahead. Shoot her.’ Now my wife didn’t grow up in a rough neighborhood, and didn’t know what I knew, so she was terrified. But I was right. He didn’t shoot her. Instead, he threatened to pistol-whip my wife and daughter if I didn’t let them tie me up. Then, after they tied me up, he pistol-whipped me and stole about $100,000 worth of jewelry and watches before they escaped. The police never found them; they basically don’t have time to investigate anything other than murders.”

Two things: First, he was quite proud of how he had fought the robbers and knew they wouldn’t shoot his wife. Two, he still got pistol-whipped and robbed. And something tells me he had to do some more sleeping on the couch later. “But honey, I knew he wouldn’t shoot you,” probably doesn’t cut it.

My final comment was, “So what exactly about that story would convince me that it was a good idea for me to visit South Africa?” Then they assured me that as long as I stuck to the rich areas of Cape Town, I’d have a lovely time.

After that, the five hour flight to Cairo seemed to fly by!

Now you might think that I would sleep a lot on a 24-hour trip, but I ended up only sleeping for a total of one hour on the outbound journey. This was by design; I knew that I would be arriving into Cairo at close to midnight local time, and that I would want to be completely exhausted so that I could fall asleep after getting to the hotel at roughly 3 PM Pacific time. And that’s exactly what happened.

After a solid night of sleep (about six hours), I had an excellent breakfast (shout out to the Dusit Thani LakeView Cairo!) while reading the excellent Eisenhower in War and Peace. I can heartily recommend both breakfast and book.

There was also an excellent buffet!

I spent the day touring Cairo, thanks to Ahmed Alfi of Sawari Ventures who engaged a guide and driver for me. We hit the sights in record time. In addition to the obligatory tourist trap visits to a perfumery, papyrus workshop, and bazaar (where the proprietor used some sort of magic on me to get me to buy a cat statue for nearly $70 when I had only intended to buy a $1 keychain–I’m not sure whether he drugged my tea, or hypnotized me with fast-talk), I did manage to visit the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (the oldest mosque in Africa, dating back to the year 876).

It’s a working mosque; a funeral started right as I was leaving!

And of course, I made the trek out to Giza to see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

I haven’t transformed into a kaiju; I’m standing a long way in front of the pyramids.
At “only” 66 feet tall, the Sphinx is surprisingly small in comparison to the pyramids.

That night, I had the chance to take in the RiseUp Summit, which took place in a beautifully decked-out campus of the American University in Cairo. After a pleasant tea with university president Ricciardone, I got on stage in front of several thousand attendees and talked about blitzscaling, followed by 1:1 conversations with about a dozen entrepreneurs. Then it was time to head back to the hotel, and pack up for the trip home.

My return journey was much less eventful (no Afrikaaners!) and included more sleep. This time, my strategy was to sleep for most of the transatlantic flight, from Paris to Los Angeles, since I was landing around 1 PM. The most notable thing that happened was that I ended up flying with the same Air France flight crew from Cairo to Paris as I had on the Paris to Cairo flight! They did a bit of a double-take upon seeing me. By the time I got home, I was pretty tired. I realized afterwards that I had gone on a 72-hour trip, but had only slept two “nights” (one in Cairo, one on the Paris to Los Angeles flight) which meant that I had somehow “lost” a night along the way.

Now that I’ve had a chance to recover and reflect, the most interesting thought that came out of the trip is probably the clear distinction between loose and tight cultures. Cairo exhibited all the classic signs of a loose culture–endless smoking, the constant barrage of people accosting you on the street, and a complete lack of obedience to traffic signs. I found this video on how the roads work in Cairo, and it seems to be highly accurate. Lane markers might as well not exist; drivers constantly weave back and forth even if there is no reason to do so. Any time a car approaches another one, the driver honks to alert the other car to his or her presence. The high beams serve a similar purpose at night. This means that the roads serenade you with constant honking and flashing. The highways seemed to have speed bumps at random intervals, which prompted all the cars that approached them to flash their hazards (presumably to warn the cars behind them of the upcoming obstacle). And since there are no crosswalks or traffic lights, pedestrians cross the highways at seemingly random locations, enacting a sort of real-life version of Frogger.

I found the same thing at the airport, where the security line had many prominent signs telling passengers to remove their shoes and belts…which everyone ignored. Porters tossed luggage onto a conveyor belt which kept reversing and spilling more luggage onto the ground. I just kept moving forward and made my way through.

The interesting thing is that I think that the best recipe for entrepreneurial success is to place entrepreneurs from loose cultures in an region with a tight culture. The improvisational nature of the loose culture helps the entrepreneur succeed, while the stable environment of the tight culture allows companies to grow more quickly and sustainably.

2 thoughts on “24 Hours In Cairo

  1. Brian V

    Great recap, very interesting side stories. The loose environment entails a lot of risks, and the culture of corruption is why so many flee to the tighter cultures for stability. I enjoyed touring Cairo and Giza and experiencing the history, and do not feel compelled to return. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the gorgeous expanse of South Africa, although I admit I had security tools which provided comfort in that very dangerous country.

  2. Puneet Wadhwa

    That was a hilarious post. We gotta get you in the screenplay business. Tarantino’s got nothing on you.
    Craziest part of the post? You purchased a $70 cat statue? Lol Since I’m in Los Gatos (the cats) I may be persuaded to take it of your hands – just waiting for the Egyptian pitch. Merry Christmas to you and the family!

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