Midnight in Cairo

Let’s set the mood.

To Egypt!

I have always intended to write the story of my life in three volumes, each book telling the story of 33 year bits of my time on this planet. I think they’ll be interesting enough to warrant reading, and even if they don’t warrant publication, they’ll be of interest to the genealogically and historically minded. The first one is to be titled Wake Me When the Crocus Blooms and is about discovering myself and what I love about the world. The next installment, about my adulthood and all that rot, will be called  Midnight in Cairo. Isn’t that just the most sumptuous combination of words? It evokes such images and ideas and really makes a lot of sense for what I intend to do with myself in the future. I don’t have a clue what the last, and likely final, volume will be called. Maybe A Million Dollars of Botox. Hopefully it won’t be too dark. Everything is too miserable. Life should just be a good time. And I really don’t want to die.

But let’s head back to Turin for now.

Luxor is not an easy place to get to. It’s not terribly far away, hardly in deepest Africa, but finding your way to ancient Thebes is a hassle. In the glory days of Egyptian tourism, there were direct flights from all over Europe. But I was never able to go in the halcyon days, I have only seen Egypt in the throes of recession and oppression. Threats of terror, lack of money, and a small trickle of tourists have cut direct routes. Now, you have to hop all over the continents to get there. I had to fly from Turin to Rome. Then from Rome to Cairo. And then from Cairo to Luxor. The flights don’t take long, but the layovers are brutal. Hours and hours and hours of airport sitting. And reader, there are few things I like less than spending twenty-two hours in an airport. It’s inhuman.

Back in Turin, I wasn’t able to sleep. The weather was boiling hot, my bed felt like a slab of concrete, and my emotions were all over the place. I couldn’t wait to see ancient ruins, but I was also stressed about the trip. Frequently, the flight that crashed into the Mediterranean en route to Cairo from Paris was on my mind. I didn’t want to be involved in anything like that. I have had a good time on the planet, of course, but there’s still so much that I need to get done. Sleep, though, that wasn’t something that I really managed.

Adrenaline had me feeling refreshed at 3:45 in the morning. I tidied the apartment, reorganized my bag, chugged coffee, and then shut the door behind me. I’ll be back again. I know that to be a fact. I love Turin too much to never return.

The streets were all empty at that time, and a beautiful chill hung on the air. It’s gorgeous to walk through those ancient roads without another soul. My imagination was in overdrive, and I was speculating on all sorts of story ideas and relishing the moment. I was so excited. The night was beautiful.

The bus was right on time, and soon I was winding out of the streets of the city and heading to the airport. Everything was perfectly timely, so I wasn’t worried about missing flights or being stressed. This changed at the airport. For some idiotic reason — probably for the health and well being of the employees — ticket counters aren’t operated at all hours of the day and night. So, a lengthy line of people were waiting to get their boarding passes for the first dozen flights of the day. I would have used the automated machines, but since I was flying on two different airlines, it wouldn’t work. Time was ticking. The people were agitated. I was worried. Every idiot ahead of me argued with the attendant about their luggage weight limit and the number of pieces they could carry on. It was endless. Finally they opened up one of the priority lanes and I was hurried over there. In two seconds I had the first two tickets of my journey to Egypt.

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The line had taken so long that I basically walked onto the airplane and right into row 2A. That’s luxury there, reader. These budget flights don’t have First Class anymore. It’s all coach. But we all know that the front of the plane is the place to be.

Rome isn’t far from Turin, so as soon as the flight took to the air we started our descent.

This airport is awfully confusing. The staff are lovely, though, but the layout of the gates is incomprehensible. My gate changed at least three times while I was waiting on my first lengthy layover (6 hours, reader…) so I had to keep moving to different areas of the airport. Every time this happened, I had to go through security again and occasionally immigration. They all thought I was insane to be there so early before my flight, but I had no choice in the matter. I would have gone into Rome if I had more time, but it wasn’t logistical. The train to town takes at least an hour without factoring in the ticket buying or potential delays. Then the security and checkin coming back takes at least another two hours. So I would have only had a couple hours in the city if I was lucky. I should have done it, but oh well. I’m more intrigued by Rome now, months later (I’m so behind on these) after reading the fabulous book Cleopatra’s Needles by Bob Brier that is all about the Egyptian obelisks that litter the city.

I dozed and I waited and I sipped espresso and I nibbled on sandwiches made of dry bread. It felt like forever, and it was forever. Finally though, boarding was called for the flight to Cairo. I was so excited by the interesting blend of Coptic priests, tourists, natives, and business people. The strangest people go to Egypt these days.

I was sat beside the most lovely family from Cairo. They reminded me what I loved so much about Egypt. The people are ridiculously friendly and welcoming. Not those in the tourist trade, of course, but the common people. They are so happy to invite you into their country. And of course they’re frustrated by their political situation and the way their nation is portrayed in the media, but they love their country. And that love is contagious. They were all charming. Rafik, the patriarch, was a retired Coca Cola executive, so I gushed about Diet Coke. He agreed that it was best. We chatted all the way from Rome to Cairo, and I was just so happy that they were so kind. I was offered their address and number and information so that whenever I was in Cairo for a longer visit, I could stay with them.

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Some of the better airplane food I’ve had. Cheers, Egyptair!

Then Cairo was in sight. As we dipped down lower, the yellows and golds of the desert filled the window and I remembered my first descent into Cairo a couple years back. Who could have predicted the wild situations I was going to find myself in on that trip. I think every day about my adventures in the souk with Lady M, the reincarnated Atlantean high priestess, and Nels and Lou, and Min and Gao, and all those wonderfully strange people. I hope they’re all doing very well.

Butterflies were in my stomach as the plane touched down, and I was beyond eager to get out the door and into Egypt. I grabbed my bag and hurried as fast as I could, and then it happened.

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I took a step out of the airplane, looked out around me, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I felt like I was home. I felt like I was being welcomed. I was overwhelmed by the sunset that cast the desert into a thousand shades of yellow, brown, and gold. The dry air filled my lungs with the most luxurious sensation. The heat made me feel alive. I had forgotten this. I love Egypt so much it’s unbearable. “Wow,” I remember muttering and seeing Rafik smiling at me. It was such a glorious moment. I adore this country and her people. It’s not at all what we think of it. It’s peaceful and beautiful and every day is a treat to be in that ancient land whether you’re visiting or if you have lived there all your life.

It didn’t take much effort to get a visa so that I could enter the country or exchange some money. I don’t know if it was easier this time around because I’ve been to Egypt before or if the people had been so beaten down by the years of strife that they didn’t bother bothering me? They were all exceptionally nice to me, though. After waiting for a computer that ran Windows 95 — seriously, reader — to load, a very patient gentleman printed my boarding pass. I had intended to go out to Giza or Heliopolis quickly, but decided against it. I remember how terrible traffic was out there and I was exhausted. I had already been up for like fifteen hours at this point. I thought it would be better to get some nibbles and board the plane in peace.

It was simple to get through immigration and find the boarding hall. My flight wasn’t listed, yet, so I sat in a coffee shop for ages sipping poorly brewed, overpriced java. Egyptians really don’t know what they’re doing with coffee. But that’s a story for another blog.

Sitting there, I read that awful Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play and routinely made this gesture to the people around me:

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That piece of garbage was totally shit. Every copy should be rounded up and burned. It’s a disgrace to the Harry Potter legacy. I won’t say another word about it because if I did I would write a dozen pages about my complete disgust.

Finally the gate was announced, and it was the farthest one possible from me, of course, so I lugged my heavy, yet elegant, bag with me and took a seat. The Cairo airport is immensely comfortable and I liked it better than any of the others I had been forced into that day. I waited for the other guests to arrive so that I could appraise them. There was an elderly woman wearing a sunhat. We bonded but she didn’t know that we were best friends. I’m trying to figure her out. I never did see her again, so I’m not sure if Luxor was not her final destination, or if she was in one of the hotels on the West Bank. I’d like to know. She was fascinating. Then there were loads of English people going on holiday. This warmed my heart. I mean, they were irritating as hell, but how wonderful that they were touring this beleaguered nation! I could deal with them all except the man who sat in front of me. He was shocking.

We were in a conservative nation, reader. Women don’t show much skin, and the men are clad in long pants and a polo. He was wearing skimpy shorts that hardly hid his gender. His shirt was a tank top that was barely holding itself together. I was shocked utterly by him. I couldn’t believe they let him in the country.

We were all finally loaded onto a bus and then onto the plane and then it felt like we were all in a party. The locals were ecstatic to go home, the tourists were thrilled to see ancient Thebes, and everybody else was just there for the ride. Mango juice was served in obscene proportions with pretzels and we took to the sky!

Luxor is only an hour from Cairo by air so it wasn’t long before we were back on land. It didn’t take long to find Hassan, my driver from the last visit. He was as friendly, charming, and handsome as ever, and it felt like only a few minutes passed as we sped through the massive flower blossoms and palm groves that line the road. Rising up in the distance were the illuminated pylons and columns of Luxor Temple. I felt my breath catch. Under the pale, clear moonlight, few sights are more spectacular.

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And then, there she was again, like I’d never walked down those steps, as if I’d never left this wonderful place, there was the crown jewel on the Nile, the Winter Palace. Resplendent and somewhat ramshackle, that hotel stands eternally along the banks of the world’s longest river, always eager to welcome and shelter the wealthy, the powerful, the important, and me. I was in heaven. Luxor is heaven. I can think of few places I’d rather be.

I was upgraded to a suite with a Nile view instead of the gardens, and after blissfully sipping hibiscus tea on my balcony, a few joyful tears silently streaming down my cheeks, and after being awake for over a day, I fell asleep.

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Me, utterly exhausted. Good evening.

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