Having survived Jordan, I sat apprehensively on the plane for my next destination: Egypt. Land of the pyramids. I had heard mixed reviews from friends and family that had been. Many had been multiple times though, so I assumed it couldn’t be all bad. It was another destination that I was warned, by everyone, to be vigilant for my own safety and belongings. I tried to remain open minded (“careful but careless” has become the mantra now) but one can’t help but let their preconceptions be formed on such continual representation of a place.
## Day One
I have arrived at the airport. The first thing that strikes me is that the airport only accepts US dollars. It doesn’t even trust the worth of Egyptian Pounds. I find this odd as I have a lot of Egyptian Pounds on me but still have to exchange some money for US Dollars to get the visa! Now that I’m in there isn’t much of a plan. Someone from Couch Surfing has kindly agreed to meet me at the airport to give me a lift and I’m trying to arrange something with my other Couch Surfing host. The language barrier doesn’t help. I’m nervous about meeting both of them, not least because of stories from other people but also this being the first time I’m meeting people from Couch Surfing out of the comfort of my own country.
Here goes nothing.
“Yep, I’m guessing you’re Moody?”.
Thankfully, Moody has spent a few years in the UK and has fantastic English. This helps my nerves. The fact he wants me to go with him to Duty free to buy alcohol on the other hand, doesn’t. I hope that this transaction is all above board and dutifully the airport official signs my passport and we proceed.
I call my host, Amr, to find out where we can meet him. Unfortunately, he thinks I’m a telephone sales person and doesn’t understand my English before hanging up. I may need to learn a bit more Arabic than just “shukran” here.
Eventually, Moody gets through to my new host Amr and we arrange to meet at the metro which hasn’t yet been connected to the airport. “Maybe in a few years” I’m told. As I will continually learn, timekeeping in Egypt is not a hobby. “Give me 5 minutes” can safely mean at least half an hour. As a bit of a stickler for time I find the adjustment quite hard but strangely refreshing to just let things take their toll.
When I meet Amr, he is very tactile in directing me around. He offers to carry my bags, to which I feel uneasy about, and doesn’t take no for an answer. As we alight one of the trains, I notice two men talking with one’s hand on the other knee and the other’s arm around his shoulder. Wasn’t expecting Egypt to be so modern to be honest and it turns out, from the people I have spoken to, they’re not. Men are just really comfortable touching other men. Much more so than me and I thought I was comfortable with myself and my own heterosexuality that I don’t normally mind that sort of thing(!) Yet no one I met was comfortable with the idea of a homosexual. “It’s just not natural” I heard many a times. The juxtaposition of it is all quite funny if it wasn’t so sad. The world will catch up eventually, I’m sure.
As we continue to ride, Amr tells me his one “rule” for the time that I’m here. The first rule of Amr Club is that I should be his “brother” and, he adds, feel comfortable with him. Now I’m really starting to wonder: what on earth have I got myself in to.
I thought that would be the worst of it. As we approached closer, Amr goes on to tell me that where we are staying is a very “traditional” area of Cairo so I can see the “real Cairo”. I start to worry for my safety, just slightly. Then, I remind myself that this whole trip is supposed to be to broaden my mind and my experience. Keep my wits about me and just try to be “careful and careless”. Anyway, I haven’t seen anything to make me think anything untoward might happen just yet. Amr, perhaps sensing my worry, says “if you feel unsafe where we’re staying, just say”. Although said with good intentions, it didn’t help.
After the metro we hop on a “bus”. I say “bus” because the vehicle looks like it was from the last World War and doesn’t even have a door. You simply hop on, squeeze up tight and jump off when you’re passing your destination.
We make it inside. The neighbourhood is a little bit rough but OK, I think. We get into the flat, it’s pitch black and as my eyes adjust to the darkness and sees a couple of flies, my mind matches it to a drug den I saw in a recent movie. There’s a TV on a chair not plugged in, some mismatch future and stuff laying around. I silently panic, ask for the WIFI and WhatsApp my location to a few people. Just. In. Case.
As I settle in to the flat, we play a game of Pro Evolution Soccer on one of their laptops. An old version of the game, me and, my brother, John used to play about ten years ago. Still as fun as it ever was though!
One of them kindly puts together some food for the night and I take a selfie. Part of me just wants my friends to have a photo of these people. Just. In. Case.
When I go to bed, it’s 2am and I take a moment to reflect. These people have been nothing but kind to me. They put me up in their flat, have done nothing untoward to me and even bought me dinner. On top of that they want to treat me as “family”. Is that really so bad?
I decide that tomorrow I will be a little fairer, start with a clear mind, and develop an opinion tomorrow.
## Day Two
I wake up around 10am. Amr has already left for his engineering course so I take it easy. I meander around and grab a shower. This involves laying in the stained bath with a shower head on a very small lead. The water feels so fresh after a dry, hot night.
As I dry off, I bump into Adel (“like the singer”), one of Amr’s housemates. He asks whether I’m ready from breakfast and quickly heads to the kitchen. By the time I’m dressed, in front of me is a big feast of a breakfast. I ask who else is joining us. Adel looks at me confused. I guess no one. It smells, and looks, so good that I don’t mind with this lack of answer what so ever.
It was a mixture of falafel (real falafel, nothing like the supermarket) and beans (made up of beans, tomato and egg with spices) with a side mountain of bread. I remember, I had had this before. It was so good I would happily have it many times over. Something just tastes different when it’s local too.
Adel takes me to the train station where I will be meeting Amr. The public bus breaks down en-route and we all need to jump out. I query whether this happens often and Adel shrugs a little and says “not too much”. I translate from his facial expression that it probably does happens quite often.
Tonight we’re having dinner with some of Amr’s friends. Everyone’s referred to as a Mr. Tonight is Mr Sheek and his friend. The flat is getting tidied up so it feels like a big deal. When they arrive Mr Sheek tells me that they were a little late because they bumped into someone. He tells me they stayed with him for 3 (and at this points my head finishes it to say ‘minutes’) hours (wait, hours?!). Turns out the schedule was late by 3 hours (which by Egyptian time is apparently still on time I learn).
We had a great time socialising. The food was some of the best I’d ever had; it was beef with onion and “Egyptian potatoes” all simmered in together with gorgeous spices and served with side-mountains of rice for everyone. Absolutely incredible.
As the guys left, I threw some washing on and we hung it on the ledge outside overnight to dry. The air is so sandy and fumy that it has already turned my snot black. I didn’t have much hope for my clothes being any cleaner than before I washed them by the end of the night.
It’s 2am again. Time for bed. I always seem to be the first one hitting the bed and the last one getting up. Usually it’d be the other way round. I’m impressed.
## Day Three
This morning’s breakfast was a nice and relaxed tahini(? Sort of like a more liquid hummus) mix with bread. Again, another journey down to the trains (starting to get my bearings now!) As I waited a couple of hours for Amr (just a few minutes in Egyptian time) I notice on the opposite platform some skinny, small guy having an argument with (I assume) his wife (though both quite young) who is dressed in a full black, traditional burka. I suddenly feel really uneasy. He went to grab something out of her bag, some tickets or something, and then she slapped his arm hard. No one else is taking any notice. I wonder if this progresses will I get myself involved. Even I could take this guy. Surely no culture would tolerate this behaviour from him? My mind races as to the possibilities. If something kicks off, he hurts her and then they both skedaddle how am I going to describe her to the police. “She had eyes” may not cut it. As my ignorance keeps running away Amr turns up and when I point them out his response is “it’s his wife, it’s his business”. I don’t know if I like that attitude. After all, everything I’ve heard in terms of culture in this little place is neighbours looking out for each other. It’s not touristy at all in Faysal, so I’m told it’s impossible for anything to kick off because the elders are always watching the streets, the shops are open 24 hours and it just couldn’t happen. I must admit, I walked around this developing area feeling very safe. Why can’t this neighbour lookout extent to the wives of men, I wondered.
In the afternoon we went to the museum and went to go see King Tut. Amr was as excited as a school child. In my head, I thought it was going to be massive. Maybe a room filled with jewels, the King Tut statue, or whatever it was, would be big and mind blowing.
The museum really was packed. Artefacts and stones and everything just blends into one big bucket of ornaments.
When we made it to King Tut’s room I must say I felt slightly underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it was impressive: it’s a solid gold mask that was used, I believe, for the entering of the tomb, so the gods would recognise him as King Tut. Again, his sarcophagus was very pretty but it didn’t blow me away. I started to worry this whole travelling thing would just stop giving me that incredible feeling each time at one point. I just hoped that point wasn’t just a few weeks in!
To end the night, I rung my family. It was good to hear familiar voices. I tried not to concede quite how terrified I felt when I first arrived in Egypt, nor how squalor the area was. With so many amazing things, like riding horseback to the pyramids, it was at least easy enough to change the subject!
## Day Four
Time for a lazy day. I caught up on a bit of writing, did some drawing and organised my stuff. I felt good to do nothing. Especially when you’re moving from place to place and staying with people, there’s always a slight pressure to be out there doing something. Anything. Just so you can say you’ve had a good day and seen X Y Z. Sometimes a good day is just laying here enjoying the surroundings and daily life going by so that is exactly what I did.
For the evening we had a new experience booked. This was a river cruise on the River Nile, accompanied with Egyptian food and entertainment (belly dancing out on the river being an acceptable chance for the Muslim population to see some skin in a socially acceptable way!).
And it was incredible. The food was good. The entertainment was great. Just standing out on deck watching the night and the lights of Egypt was brilliant. Suddenly, the magic of travelling and seeing new things was back. It seems to come and go just as the waves did and right now I was making sure to ride this new wave of awe and excitement.
We’re up earlier today. It’s time to see the Citadel. To be frank, I wasn’t overly excited by this. As soon as we got there my opinion changed. Everyone was looking at me like I was a superstar (a friend later suggested maybe it was because they thought I was James McAvoy? Indeed, when I tell them my name’s James they do go a bit crazy). The entire day was spent high fiving people, having a line of people waiting for their photograph with me and women coming over to say hello visibly shaking like I’ve never seen it before. Hey, I could get used to this attention.
We go through the military museum, which turns out to be pretty anti-British it seems, detailing the various atrocities of the British army throughout the years and during occupation. Funny how you never hear of this in history class back home!
As we go to leave, one final queue of people develops at the gate. I think the novelty has worn off for Amr by now as he says “too many, too many”. Me on the other hand? I could do this all day.
We head home (I’m actually calling this place home now!), grab one of these lovely strawberry milkshakes that is literally frozen strawberries, water and sugar, need to start doing this back home (that other home!) and then it’s pretty much time to head to the airport.
I have maybe just under 100 (Egyptian) Pounds left at this point. Amr assures me this won’t be enough (I’m pretty sure it was) and offers to cover the rest. I don’t mind too much, as Egyptian pounds are useless to me when I leave here so I hand him the cash and he sorts out a taxi from the closest metro. We get to the airport around 10pm. My flights not until 9am but I wanted to talk my way into the lounge and with this Egyptian time keeping we’d have to get up at 1am to make it to the airport on time anyway so I play it safe. One night in the airport, watching Indiana Jones which features Petra and Zulu, which features Cape Town suddenly feel so much more fascinating than they ever did before.
With that, I say goodbye to Egypt!