CAIRO: Enchanted

137 years ago, Amelia Edwards wrote a delightful narrative of her journey up the Nile River called A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. It is lengthy, but charming, and surely only of interest to those who have a certifiable passion for Egyptology. So, when I finally found a copy, I devoured it and the opening passage, which I have transcribed below, has stuck with me since the moment my eyes first scanned them:

It is the traveler’s lot to dine at many table-d’hotes in the course of many wanderings; but it seldom befalls him to make one of a more miscellaneous gathering than that which overfills the great dining room at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo during the beginning and height of the regular Egyptian season. Here assemble daily some two to three hundred persons of all ranks, nationalities, and pursuits; half of whom are Anglo-Indians homeward or outward bound, European residents, or visitors established in Cairo for the winter. The other half, it may be taken for granted, are going up the Nile. So composite and incongruous is this body of Nile-goers, young and old, well-dressed and ill-dressed, learned and unlearned, that the newcomer’s first impulse is to inquire from what motives so many persons of dissimilar tastes and training can be led to embark upon an expedition which is, to say the least of it, very tedious, very costly, and of an altogether exceptional interest.

His curiosity, however, is soon gratified. Before two days are over, he knows everybody’s name and everybody’s business; distinguishes at first sight between a Cook’s tourist and an independent traveler; and has discovered that nine-tenths of those whom he is likely to meet up the river are English or American. The rest will be mostly German,with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. So far en bloc; but the details are more heterogeneous still. Here are invalids in search of health; artists in search of subjects; sportsmen keen upon crocodiles; statesmen out for a holiday: special correspondents alert for gossip; collectors on the scent of papyri and mummies; men of science with only scientific ends in view; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel or the satisfaction of a purposeless curiosity.

Now in a place like Shepheard’s, where every fresh arrival has the honor of contributing, for at least a few minutes, to the general entertainment, the first appearance of L and the writer, tired, dusty, and considerably sunburned, may well have given rise to some of the comments in usual circulation at those crowded tables. People asked each other, most likely, where these two wandering Englishwomen had come from; why they had not dressed for dinner; what brought them to Egypt; and if they also were going up the Nile—to which questions it would have been easy to give satisfactory answers…

Little did I know how accurate these statements were or how even all these years later that travelers to Egypt are no different from how we were a century ago. We may dress differently and carry a cellphone, but we’re all here for much the same reasons: leisure, inspiration, acquisition, research, and my favorite, the satisfaction of a purposeless curiosity. You may have noticed that phrase up top on my homepage. That’s what my life is about. I love it. I may get it tattooed on me someplace when I get back home. I’ve been looking for a tattoo to commemorate my trip to Egypt and I think that might be the ticket.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself, much more ahead of myself than usual, so let’s get back to Athens and start from there.

I was deeply in love with my hotel in Athens. The bed was ridiculously comfortable and the surroundings were blissfully peaceful and quiet even though we were in the middle of that busy metropolis. I woke up early with the intention of going out and seeing something or the other, but I decided it was probably wiser to freshen up, take a leisurely breakfast, and head out to the airport instead of stressing myself out.

I don’t regret that decision at all. I’m sure I’ll go back to Athens someday soon. It seems to be an interesting city, but I will need to do more research in advance so that I will better be able to appreciate it. I appreciated the rather expansive breakfast buffet instead and had a big plate of potatoes and feta cheese with some amazingly good coffee. I was thrilled by that coffee, reader. I think when I get home from all these endless wanderings I’m going to expand my coffee horizons from espresso. I love espresso, but it’s nice to have a big mug of coffee sometimes. Maybe a French press or one of those cone filter things? I don’t know. I’ll research that all later.

They had some tasty sesame seed pastries for dessert, but I was more intrigued by what I saw next. Strangely, at the end of the bar was a selection of shot glasses and liquors. I’m no puritan, so I took a shot of ouzo and discovered why it was included on the bar. If the coffee doesn’t get you going, that certainly will! It’s incredibly potent and rather tasty. I only had the one. There were a few varieties. I could have tried more, but I didn’t want to be thrown out of the airport for being a rowdy drunk. I’m not a rowdy drunk, though, I’m really just a happy drunk.

I checked out of the hotel and there was, of course, a long wait for the train. It leaves every five minutes but only goes to the airport twice an hour. So, you have to wait for the right one. I amused myself with my book and sighed. What could I do anyway?

It didn’t take long to get to the airport at all and it’s much smaller than I had realized when I arrived. I mean, it’s massive compared to Des Moines, but when you come from Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, it’s quite petite. I did a bit of shopping and then went through security. This is the best security I’ve ever gone through. Instead of all the passengers hustling each other in line, you’re personally escorted through the process and it makes it much less stressful and a breeze. I think we need to introduce this to America.

I was there early enough that I had an irksomely long wait to board the plane, but it was fine to people watch and try to absorb some of the Egyptian culture before I arrived. I don’t know what I was expecting, but they didn’t act any differently from anybody else. Some of the women wore head scarves and there were some Coptic priests, but other than that it was like anywhere else on earth. I was slightly ashamed of myself for assuming that they’d be so foreign.

I was called to the front desk for some reason. I like how they say my name with a Grecian accent. It’s a bit more musical. They didn’t really know why my name came up on their alert, but it was no big deal and I was soon on the plane next to a very friendly man from Peru who gave me lots of suggestions about places to go and what to avoid.

The first class area of the plane was massive, which makes me wonder if EgyptAir is used to carrying around more wealthy customers? There weren’t many flying up there that day. We were all in the back, and it wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. We were fed spring rolls — why? — and they filled us up with all the tea they could pour.

It wasn’t much longer and we began our descent into AFRICA. I was excited to check another continent off my list. I’m not doing all that well. I’ve only been to three now. I have some work to do. South America has been calling me for a while, so I assume that’ll be next. Anyway, the view out the window was barren — the Sahara Dessert spread out all around and there was no sign of life until we flew a little lower and headed into the airport.

We landed and I was in a daze. I was really here. I don’t know why it never really sank in that I was going and that all of my desires had come true, but when the wheels hit the tarmac, it all came crashing down on me. I was scared but I was far too excited to let that worry me.

It was simple enough to get into the country. You need to buy a visa before you can go through the passport control. This costs $25 €20, and it’s just a sticker. I also changed the rest of my Euros into Egyptian pounds and was amazed by the huge pile of money they pushed my way. I only changed €15, but that was about £145 in Egyptian money.

It wasn’t hard to find my driver; he was about 67 years old and absolutely out of his mind. This alarmed me, but he was so crazy that I couldn’t help but love him. His English was awful and my Arabic was pitiable, but we still had a good time chatting whilst we waited for two more passengers. For some reason, he thought I was from Chicago. I couldn’t convince him that I wasn’t, so I just went with it.

After what felt like ages, the other people came. I’m not sure what took them so long. It turns out that they were on the same flight from Athens as me. They didn’t bring any luggage, either. Maybe they were lost? It’s a huge airport.

Now that we were all together, Mr. Gab — the driver — hurried us outside and into the Egyptian air. It was incredibly hot, but it’s not humid at all so it’s perfectly fine. I mean, you wouldn’t want to spend all day out there, but I think it’s much more livable than back home. In Iowa in the middle of the summer, you swim through the humidity while batting away killer bugs. I don’t miss Iowa’s insects. At all. Whenever I get back from my travels, that’s always one of the first things I notice. In California, they have the occasional spider. In France, you might come across a mosquito. In Egypt, all the bugs are in the dessert. Back home, though, you swallow two flies with every breath. I need to get out of there.

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Our introduction to Egyptian driven was probably not the one you wanted to take to boost your confidence. Mr. Gab drives like a madman, and though there were times I thought we would surely slam into another vehicle, he knew exactly what he was doing. As we left the airport, there was a terrible accident. One truck was smashed to bits and on fire and there was a corpse on the ground, his neck clearly broken, with people gathered around. I’ve never seen anything like that, but everybody kept driving by as if it was nothing unusual. It was hard to get out of my mind.

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We continued to fly through the city at 100 kilometers per hour and I was absolutely mesmerized. It was so different from anything I’d ever seen. There are no real lanes of traffic and you might have a pedestrian jump in your truck if you’re going slow enough. Camels occasionally trot by on the side of the road. Tiny little trucks are loaded with massive crates of eggs or raw meat. People sit on top of huge piles of garbage as it’s being driven to the dump — where I learned it rarely arrives. In addition to cars and camels and donkeys and horses, there are minibuses with no doors that people leap in and out of whenever the fancy strikes them and motorbikes with passenger areas in the back. It was wild and chaotic and it rather charmed me.

As we wildly sped between cars and dodged camels, Mr. Gab taught us all sorts of awful words in Arabic slang. That was probably the highlight of my trip so far. It’s the kind of thing you can’t really explain and have to experience to appreciate how insane it was.

Soon we were near the residential area of town and the architecture was quite a sight to behold. It’s as if there’s no plan whatsoever and the levels rise whenever and wherever they want. Many buildings are gutted. Others are crumbling beside huge new constructions. Massive banners of their newly elected president line the highway. And then out of the distance, rising up like ghosts in the haze of pollution, were the pyramids and I couldn’t help but gasp in awe. There they were. They were here and so was I and it was all happening.

I became alarmed as we arrived in Giza, though, where my hotel is. This area was a Bedouin village and was horrifically poor. Garbage piled high on either side of the road — if you could call it that — it was more like a pitted path that we bounced down. There were more camels than cars at this point and every shop was dusty and sad. Wild dogs and cats were everywhere, digging in the trash or sleeping in the sand. In a way it was charmingly atmospheric, like going back in time, but you couldn’t help but feel distraught for these poor people and for yourself. I hadn’t realized that my hotel was going to be in a slum and that bothered me terribly. My favorite thing to do in any city is to spend hours walking around and soaking up the culture. I was sure as hell not doing that here.

We finally arrived at the hotel and were ushered upstairs to the lobby. I knew the place wouldn’t be the epitome of elegance, but it was a bit more downtrodden than the review on TripAdvisor had led me to believe. After a minor annoyance when my credit cards weren’t accepted — why am I even surprised anymore — I finally got one to work and was ushered up to my room. That’s all it is — a room. It’s like a boarding house or a hostel more than a hotel. It’s perfectly adequate, but it was an adjustment for sure.

A mysterious wonder of the world. And the Great Pyramid.

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My minor disappointment was relieved though when I was led up the rickety steps that led up to the roof. I didn’t notice the beautiful tents made out of tapestries at first — all I could see was the Pyramids and the Sphinx aglow in the evening sun. It was incredible. The hotel is right in front of the complex and up here is probably the best view in the area. You can see every pyramid, every detail, everything you ever wanted. I just stood and stared. I don’t know how long I was there taking it all in. Before I arrived, I said on Facebook that I thought I would cry. I didn’t, though, I was just so contented to finally get what I’ve always wanted.

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There were wild cats on the rooftop, none of them would come to me — I didn’t have any food to lure them in with. The cat looked at me warily and then hopped off to the next roof. I sighed, not terribly disappointed, but I did want to make a feline friend. So, I strolled over to the balustrade and watched as the sun began to sink over the Giza plateau.

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I don’t know if it’s mystical or spiritual, but there is something magical about sunset here. It’s looked the same for thousands and thousands of years and millions of people before have watched it and felt the same things. You look out and the Sphinx silently stares back at you. The sun gets lower and lower and dips down between the two big pyramids. As it finally sinks beneath the desert sands, the afterglow illuminates the pyramids and they look almost as if they’ve been gilded. To add to the mystique and the foreign enchantment, the call to prayer begins from down the road at the minaret tower. It’s so different and it’s completely magical.

Evening prayer on the Giza plateau.

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There was nothing on the hotel menu for vegetarians, so one of the boys up front offered to grab me felafels from a local place for £10. That’s $1.40 back home. I love me some felafel, so I readily agreed and they were absolutely delicious.

At 8:30, when there was not a hint of daylight was left, the Sound & Light show began. I didn’t know what I expected, but it was pretty lame. Still, it was good to say I’ve seen and it was rather beautiful to see the pyramids lit up in the darkness.

I was decidedly tired, and happily crashed in my bed. I had to get up early and climb through pyramids in the morning.

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