Monday, February 14, 2011

Cairo



Back when I lived in Washington, DC, I had a job working as a paralegal for a prestigious law firm. I was assigned to big case that went to trial in San Francisco, so I flew back and forth pretty often -- always on TWA. After a couple of years, I had racked up a pile of frequent flyer miles.

My girlfriend, Sue, was traveling in Europe that summer. She and I had planned to meet up in Paris, so I went down to the TWA travel agency to cash in my miles. I asked the agent if I had enough for a ticket to Paris and two tickets back home. Turns out I had more than enough. In fact, I had enough miles for two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world -- including an open-ended stopover in Paris.

Anywhere in the world!

Where do you go when you can go anywhere in the world? I looked at a map showing every TWA destination. Hong Kong was the furthest. Bombay sounded exotic. There were so many others: Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Bangkok, Moscow. I wanted to see them all. But the one that I finally picked was Cairo.

I flew to Paris and met Sue, surprising her with the news that we were going to Cairo. She was thrilled. We stayed in Paris for a few days, then rented a car to tour through France, Switzerland and Italy for a couple of weeks. It was an amazing adventure, but the best was yet to come.

We planned our trip to Cairo using the Let's Go guide that had become our bible, with its listings of low-budget accommodations and must-see sights. We chose a cheap hotel in the center of Cairo, just off Tahrir Square, close to the Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton and the bus terminal. The shuttle from the airport dropped us off by the Hilton, so we had to walk across Tahrir Square and down a few blocks to the hotel. We lugged our bags along the crowded, narrow sidewalk, teeming with pedestrians and vendors. The street was jammed with cars, mostly taxis, every one of which was honking its horn in a seemingly random yet endless pattern. It was insane.

A spidery-looking man with a big smile appeared in front of us and offered to assist us with our bags. We were only about a block from the hotel, and I really didn't feel like handing over my bags to some crazy foreigner, so I politely told him we didn't require his assistance, but thanks anyway. He insisted. Again, I politely declined. He wouldn't give up. By now we were in sight of the hotel. He was getting a bit obnoxious at this point, so I asked him to please leave us alone. He stopped, his eyes widening into a furious glare as he sputtered: "You go to hell!"

Welcome to Cairo.

The "hotel" took up the top three floors of an old office building, reached by a rickety, claustrophobic elevator. I assumed it was hooked up to a pair of donkeys somewhere in the basement, but I was afraid to ask. The room was nice enough -- hell, for twelve bucks a night it was a palace. It had the distinction of having a western-style "shower" in the bathroom -- basically a pipe sticking out of the wall. We were informed that it was a good idea to turn on the "shower" well in advance of our ablutions, to give the water time to work its way up the pipes.

The windows looked out over the street, which, as I said, was filled with hundreds of horn-honking cars. Nonstop. The windows were open, it being August, and the sound of the car horns provided a constant cacophonous soundtrack, punctuated only by the periodic 'call to prayer' broadcast by loudspeaker from a nearby minaret.

Welcome to Cairo.

In the morning, we took breakfast on the rooftop, where the blazing sun drove the temperature well into the nineties by eight a.m. Hard-boiled eggs, olives, biscuits and hot tea gave us the fuel we needed for the day's adventures. First stop was the Egyptian Museum, a vast collection of amazing artifacts and antiquities, kind of like the underground chamber at the end of the movie National Treasure. It was a testament to a time of true greatness and achievement, long since buried in the desert sands.

We could have spent days in there, but we only had a week in Cairo.

After the museum we walked over to the Nile Hilton to poke around, and to cool off in the shady courtyard with some good old American Coca-Cola, served ice cold. The Hilton courtyard became our favorite hangout after a long day of sightseeing. And on one particularly hot afternoon, we even managed to bribe our way into the pool for a much-needed dip.

Thanks to the Let's Go guide, we found a great restaurant near the hotel that served a dish called kushari, a mixture of rice, lentils, chickpeas, and macaroni topped with salsa. It was very tasty and belly-filling and best of all, one bowl only cost a quarter. The seating was family-style and the clientele was made up of mostly working-class locals. Not too many tourists there. Quite a change of pace from the Nile Hilton. We ate there every night.

One day we took a minibus from Tahrir Square to Giza to see the pyramids. We went on a guided tour that took us deep within the Great Pyramid of Cheops. The air inside felt like it had been preserved for five thousand years. It was like going back in time. Outside, I climbed up onto the massive stones at the base of the pyramid, which is strictly forbidden, and Sue snapped my picture. We then trudged up to the only tourist restaurant within miles for a big glass of lemonade. In that heat, they could have charged me one hundred dollars a glass and I probably would have paid it. We stayed until evening to watch the spectacular Sound and Light show, then went back to the hotel to wait for the water to come up the pipe.

The next evening, after visiting the Muhammed Ali Mosque, we decided to explore a part of the city that wasn't on any tourist map. Actually, Sue decided to explore, I wanted to take a cab back to the Nile Hilton. But she felt that we needed to mix it up with the locals a bit to get a sense of the real Cairo. She was like that -- always up for a new adventure. It was one of the things I loved about her. So, off we went into the maze of mysterious and often nameless streets. We wandered around for a while and eventually discovered a narrow lane, far from the bustling thoroughfares, where vendors sold kebabs and falafel, fruit and vegetables, and people milled about unhurriedly. We sampled some juicy mango slices and bought a couple to bring back to the hotel.

At one point, a young man walked up to us and excitedly asked, "What nationality are you?" I wasn't sure what to say, fearing a replay of our encounter on our first day in town. Given that Americans can have a bad rep in certain countries, I was tempted to say we were Canadian. But, instead I blurted out the ugly truth: "American."

He took a step back. I half-expected to see the flash of a dagger, but instead he spread his arms wide and his face broke into a huge smile. He exclaimed:

"Welcome to Cairo!"

Later, back in our room, serenaded by the car-horn symphony from the street below, we savored the wonderful mangos while we waited for the gurgle of water to come chugging its way up to our shower-pipe. I was really beginning to like Cairo, for all its contradictions and peculiarities, it was a city with an amazing history and tremendous soul. It was hard to understand how a place that had once been the pinnacle of civilization could have fallen into such disarray. I wondered if that spark of greatness still existed somewhere in the streets of Cairo.


The other day, I turned on the TV and saw an amazing sight. Tahrir Square filled with throngs of jubilant people celebrating their liberation from thirty years of oppressive martial law. It was an inspiring moment that brought tears to my eyes.

Whatever happens now, one thing is certain, the people of Cairo, and Egypt, deserve another shot at greatness. I hope their time has come.