The following is an account of my first five days in Egypt- the experience that unwittingly introduced me to sacred travel.
Wednesday, my first day in Cairo, started with a midnight arrival. As we flew over the city, I was in awe over how big it was. It seemed we flew for miles and miles before we touched down. The lights chased away any fatigue I had been feeling. Excitement raced though me as I walked down through the dark and dingy hallways of the airport.
First stop was passport check. People milled around and stood wherever they thought they could, with no regard for the line. As a result, even though I was not far back, it took a while to get to the head of the line and be processed. Standing on the other side of the line were drivers holdings signs for groups and individuals. Though the driver from the hotel was supposed to meet me, he was not among these sign carrying men. I walked through the baggage claim area hoping to find him there. There were a few sign-holders out there, but not my driver.
I knew the flight had arrived early, so I was not in a panic yet. I looked around for a pay phone, but realized I didn’t have any Egyptian money even if I could find a phone. I asked around and was escorted to a cambio and to a phone. Apparently there were no pay phones in the airport because I was offered the one at a travel agency.
I called the hotel twice and twice they assured me a driver was being dispatched, but after waiting 3 hours, I realized something had to be done. I decided not to stay at the hotel where I had a reservation since they treated me so horribly thus far. I was meeting two dancers from the states whom I had not yet met, so I thought I’d just stay at their hotel. It was air conditioned and had cable, so it should be alright. After negotiating the price of the room and the driver with a friendly travel agent, Badr, we took off for the hotel.
The ride through the Cairo night was exciting. As we crossed the Nile, I sucked in my breath at the wonder of it all. I was in Cairo! Badr watched, delighting in my enthusiasm, as I grinned like a fool. He must have thought me stupid, but it felt great to be there.
Through dark alleyways and crooked streets we drove stopping in front of a shadowed building. The hotel was smaller and darker than I would have thought. Decorated like the inside of a temple, it gave me a lot to look at while the desk clerk tried to locate my dance friends, Danielle and Daleela.
Surprise! Danielle and Daleela were not at this hotel. Uh oh. What do I do now? I was too tired to deal with it then. I just wanted to sleep. I took the room key and followed the bellman to a doorway.
The door was actually an elevator, which opened to reveal a space just large enough for me, the bellman, and my two pieces of luggage . We stood rigidly and too close for a few moments, then the doors opened. So, this is where would spend the night. Hm. The dark hallway ended at my door and opened to another dark room. Heavy velvet curtains dangled from their rods, half on half off the window. The small television with the crooked antennae didn’t look like it could produce much of a picture. A tiny bed was covered with thin, lumpy cushion which passed for a mattress. I pulled back the covers to check for foreign creatures before getting in. Well, they advertised air conditioning, cable tv, and a private bath. It did have that. (sigh)
Though it was certainly not paradise, at 4:00 a.m., I was not about to argue. I would look for something else later.
I woke not many hours later, but too late for breakfast. As I walked into the restaurant, you would have thought I was from another planet the way the few male patrons stared at me. Unaccustomed to experiencing what “he undressed me with his eyes” felt like, I decided to get some bottled water and go back to my room. There I called the only contact I had in Egypt, Ahmed Khalil.
Ahmed was happy that I called. It seemed when Danielle and Daleela got to the hotel the day before, they were not as eager to stay as I and made reservations elsewhere. Ahmed said he would send a taxi at 11:30 and take me to them. My mind flooded with relief. Ah!
At 11:25, the phone rang. Ahmed was here. I had heard about Egyptians not being on time for anything, so I was very pleased. I didn’t want to stay here any longer than necessary. Ahmed greeted me warmly and off we went.
When I got to the Hotel Victoria, I was pleasantly surprised. It was much nicer than the place I left and lots cheaper too. I met the chattery Danielle and Daleela for the first time, got settled in, then we were all off for our excursion to Mohamed Ali Street.
Ahmed decided that we would walk as it was not far. The traffic was maddening, so we stayed close behind him. He walked fast, but Danielle and Daleela wanted to saunter along checking out different architecture and all the fascinating sights of life in the city. They took pictures of the laundry hanging out the windows far above the streets. They took pictures of donkeys pulling produce, furniture sitting out on the sidewalks, bicyclist with huge trays of bread on their heads, and of each other, all while trying to not get hit by the aggressive drivers.
We made slow progress, but enjoyed the walk. Our first stop was the post card seller. With so many different things to chose from, it was hard to pick out just a few. Each vendor had something slightly different, so we looked at everything. Kids in candy stores.
Once we crossed over to Mohamed Ali Street, there was an electricity in the air that seemed to be more than just our own excitement. We oohed and ah-ed as we passed the music stores. Ahmed shared bits and pieces of the history with us, enriching our experience. Inside a dark and winding stairwell, we walked up to Raks Sharki magazine and met the owner. He gave us copies of his latest issues and offered hot tea. Daleela and Danielle shopped in his costuming boutique, trying on this and that and asking advice about color and fit. We must have spent a lot of time there.
Right next door was a famous drum maker, Hasan Hasan Ali. He had pictures of himself with many famous dancers and musicians. His drums were of superior quality, and we were suitably impressed.
Our next stop was Madame Hekmat’s house. We risked our lives once again crossing the street, but made it in one piece. Up another set of winding, steep stairs was Madame Hekmat’s house. She was very happy and surprised to see us. She offered us tea, and we went about looking at all her beautiful work while she enjoyed a copy of Zaghareet!, which featured an article about her! I could not resist the quality and beauty of one of her costumes. Soon I was the proud owner of a Madame Hekmat design!
We did not stay long as Danielle was near fainting with hunger. Ahmed took us to a local restaurant where we feasted on salad, hummous, bread, rice, chicken, and lamb, all for less than $5. The room was clean and dark with huge windows which opened to the open air. We spoke of what we would do that evening, while the dark haired, dark eyed waiters stared at us. They took turns pronouncing our names, “Dah-lee-la, Teg, and Sam-ee-ah Ga-mal”, they laughed. The taller one walked us out while trying to whisper something in Danielle’s ear. That blonde hair got them every time!
From there we took the subway to the bazaar. The subway was like any other, except that we were not allowed to take pictures there. (Tourists! They want to take pictures of everything). Inside the train, we were surrounded by more men with staring eye balls.
At Khan el Khalili, we went to the Bedouin shop and looked at all the fancy bedouin jewelry and clothes. The owner took us up stairs to his secret hideaway where he kept his real goodies. Wow. I was impressed. There were all kinds of ethnic wear there. Very nice indeed. We played for a long time while he brought out more and more tempting items.
There were lots of souvenirs in the bazaar. It was full of beautiful things, full of useless things. Some very nice copies of the artifacts found in the tombs were for sale. I was too tired to bargain, so I left without getting anything. We took a taxi back to the hotel to get ready for Ahmed’s surprise.
Riding in a taxi is risking death. The drivers there have no regard for red lights or white lines dividing the roads into lanes. Pedestrians walk right out in front of you, and progress is made fairly slowly. I am not sure if I felt safer after walking or riding, but Daleela was so fascinated with the trip, that she video taped it. Evidence for those who would not believe our tales!
We arrived back at the hotel with only a few minutes to freshen up, then we were on our way to the surprise. We climbed up wide and dark stairs, passing people who appeared to be waiting in line for the same destination as us. Somehow we got right past them and into a T-shaped room full of people. We found seats on the floor and looked around in wonder at what could be happening there. We spied the high ceilings, carpeted walls, mosaic walls, and dusty floor. Intriguing, but it didn’t give us any clue to what was going on.
Though the room was already packed, in the few minutes we waited in anticipation, even more people were let in to further crowd us. Whatever it was, it must be something pretty spectacular.
Finally it began with a drum. Dervishes! Drums and sagat were the only accompaniment, but each soloist showed off his expertise then joined the group. The music was fabulous. The spinning was fabulous, but what made this choreographed presentation so wonderful was the absolute ecstacy on the faces of the dancers. To watch was to be drawn into the ecstacy yourself. It went far beyond the ecstacy of perhaps being with a lover, but was more like the ecstacy of being at one with God and the universe. I felt like I was spying on something so personal and sacred. It was truly heavenly.
Once everyone began filing out, we lingered to get our picture taken with the spinners and to compliment them on a job well done. They seemed genuinely pleased at the attention and were very warm. They were alarmingly humble. I could not believe that they did not receive this kind of adoration all the time.
The day had been packed full of wonderful things, but it was not yet over for us. After returning to the hotel, we changed into our evening finery and were off to The Meridian to see Dina’s show. A luxury taxi awaited, and we traveled in style.
The Meridian was a five star hotel fit for a five star dancer. The pictures of Dina and the singer, Ihab Tawfik in the lobby announced their appearance and gave me a feeling of dreaming. Could I really be here?
Up the mirror lined elevator we went to the top floor. The restaurant had a spectacular view of the Nile. Lit up like this, it looked like paradise. Giddy from all that had happened so far, and all that was unfolding around me, I could not believe life could be this good and exciting. Here we were among Cairo’s beautiful people!
There was a singer on stage entertaining rather discreetly while we waited for our dinner to arrive. When the soup was served, I was disappointed by its lack of flavor, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying their appetizers. The main course was slow to follow, and when it arrived at 1:45, we were all starving, and it was cold. My flat, dry-looking fish, accompanied by an uninteresting looking lump of rice didn’t look very good, but Le Meridian chefs must know a way of cooking that I didn’t. One taste cured me of that notion. No, it was as dry and tasteless as it looked.
It didn’t matter too much though because we were not there for the food. We were there for Dina. We sat excitedly looking around when her band began playing, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Suddenly, she ran on stage like a glittering track star. This dancer in a sequinless, ruby costume simply adorned with borealis was not what I expected.
I have seen Dina on video and thought she would walk around mostly doing a dance move here and there. She did do that, but it was the way she did it that was so endearing. She shone on stage. She knew we were there for her, not the food, not the singer, not the atmosphere, but for her. She smiled ever so sweetly and played with the audience. Wow. She certainly had it- star power!
Dina’s costuming “normalcy” was not to be long-lived. Each costume was less modest and less appealing than the last. The first was pretty simple, yet elegant. The next was an orange, spandex-y type evening dress with a plunging neckline made modest by flesh colored insets. There were hip high slits over each healthy leg and as she spun, she showed her flesh colored biker pants underneath.
The next costume was tight and white with white mesh in places. This one was a bit over the edge in that the mesh was sometimes in places not meant to be seen. Dina’s final costume was black spandex. The skirt was low cut, revealing, what seemed to be silver sequined underpants! But no, they weren’t panties. They were connected to her half sequined bra. It is very hard to describe. It’s something that has to be seen to be believed.
As for Dina’s dancing, she connected solidly with the audience and simply wept with emotion. At times it seemed rehearsed rather than real because it was so exaggerated. But, the audience loved it. I must admit, I was also overcome. She snared me in her web, a wiggling bug ready to die for her. She has a magic that cannot be duplicated on video. It must be seen to be appreciated. She had me on my knees.
We were so star struck and deliriously happy that we didn’t even think of trying to meet Dina, but we got our chance anyway. In an ugly incident I prefer to keep private, the love and devotion we felt for this star was dashed to bits. I was so disturbed by the turn of events that I could not fully enjoy the dashing, young singer, Ihab Tawfik, who came on stage after Dina.
My attention was focused back on stage when Ihab pulled a woman out of the audience and brought her on stage for a dance. She was a freak! Braless in a tight lycra dress, she seemed to be trying to do an imitation of Dina, but was horribly outclassed. I don’t think she knew it though. With that bit of surprising unpleasantness, we left the luxury of the Cairo beautiful people into the streets of the real people.
When we passed three sleeping children on the bare concrete curled up like donuts, Danielle burst into tears and woke the largest to give him money. Soon Daleela was also in tears and pulling at her purse. The barefooted children all began crying and kissing our hands. The cab driver began getting impatient, so he ran over and kicked them and told them to move on. He told us not to worry, they were “finished” anyway. Ahmed said good-night there and we drove off to our hotel.
The day’s events left us exhausted by the highs and lows of extreme poverty and riches, extreme kindness and avarice. With so many emotions crashing in on us, we had to unwind. We spoke of the snobbiness of Dina, the well-meaning but suffocating kindness of Ahmed and everything in between. Finally, the muezzin’s call to prayer signaled our bedtime and we let go of the events of the day.
I wished the night had ended with the high of Dina leaving the stage, but the experience was so like Egypt itself, a tangled mass of ugliness, beauty, and confusion. Experiencing Cairo assaulted my senses. I didn’t have the chance to process one thing before I was challenged with something else. …and that was just the first day…
Day two arrived for us at 2:00 in the afternoon. Danielle was simply exhausted and decided to stay in bed and recuperate. Daleela and I decided to walked down to Mohamed Ali Street, confident that we could find the way. After a few blocks, uncertainty overcame me. We stopped to ask directions, but got a few different answers. Then two western dressed, young guys appeared and offered to show us the way. They chatted amicably and offered to lead us to Raks Sharki, though they were not quite sure exactly where it was either.
Once we got to our destination, the friendlier guy decided he was entitled to payment for his services and asked for 15 pounds! Daleela offered him 13 saying she did not have the proper change, but he pointed out that she did have the right amount and waited for his money. Though we mistook his business arrangement for kindness, we were wising up to the ways of Cairo and would not make that mistake again. Needless to say, we found our own way back.
We went in search for food then. Without a translator, guide, or any sense of where anything was, that could have been quite an adventure. Luckily, we got a good tip from the doorman and found a sit-down restaurant near the metro. We walked across the sawdust strewn floor to our table and with unmatched, torn plastic chairs happy to be there. The wash area was filthy and the dirt from the road wafted up to meet us, but we were in Cairo!
We were served a delicious smelling salad (which I didn’t eat for fear of getting ill), bread, hummous, and grilled chicken. The attractive, dark eyed waiter was very polite and attentive, smiling when he didn’t understand us. Daleela and I shared small talk and stories of our respective dance communities while enjoying the high of being in Egypt eating real Egyptian food with real Egyptian people.
When it came time to pay the bill, we were charged 9 pounds ($2.65 US) each. Ah! We paid 15 pounds for lunch the day before and paid the cab driver 10 pounds for a ride the night before. Eyebrows were beginning to rise. With no set prices, we were on our own trying to figure out exactly what was a good price for things and what was not. We were catching on.
Back at the hotel, we needed to make arrangements for an escort. Walking to a restaurant and to Mohamed Ali Street was one thing, but if we wanted to go to see any more dancing, we’d have to be properly escorted. Luckily for us, Danielle and Daleela met a nice Englishman their first night here, and he happened to be available and had friends!
Though we did not inform them of our plans ahead of time, we took our escorts to Le Meridian where we hoped to see Fifi Abdo. We knew we didn’t have a reservation and that the place was full, but we were given the hope of a cancellation. We waited and waited in the lounge. It was getting later and later. The maitre d’ told us Fifi would be performing the following night, so we were ready to give up and try then.
As Daleela was going up to leave a magazine and a number for them to contact us, Fifi walked right up! Fifi was very approachable and agreeable to being interviewed. In fact, she invited us to be her guest at the show the following night and offered to bring us to her house afterward for the interview. We were ecstatic! What luck!
On that high, we were content to leave the hotel and search for some belly dancing. Since the night was still young (1:00 a.m.), we thought we had a chance of catching Jasmine, a pretty, British dancer we’d met the night before at the Tanoura show. We were told she was performing down the street at the Shepherd Hotel. She wasn’t. We did a mini wild goose chase before settling down at Jackie’s, a posh nightclub at the Nile Hilton.
Jackie’s was very international in music, clientele, and atmosphere. You’d never know you were in the Middle East, it was so like a big city western night club. The rules that dictated life for Cairenes did not apply here among the beautiful people. Men and women danced together, touched, and drank liquor.
Karaoke is big here with private rooms just for that purpose. Strange contrast to what was going on in the rest of the world. No Arabic music was played at all. Though Daleela requested an Amr Diab song, she had little chance of hearing it, and the d.j. told her so. Ah well, we could do the American thing for one night. We called it a night at 3:00, so that we would have energy for our planned excursion to the pyramids the next day.
We said good night to our very gentlemanly escorts and went up to bed. Though I was thoroughly exhausted, my mind did not rest. I thought and thought of all the events of the past two days and could not calm myself enough to sleep. I was too excited about our plans for the next day to stop thinking. I eventually dozed some, but was wide awake in time for breakfast (the first and only time I had breakfast in Cairo).
Day three began with Danielle feeling much better. We met in the dining room and chatted over some dry croissants and hard boiled eggs. Danielle said the fresh squeezed orange juice was the best she’d ever had, but I stuck to my bottled water. As we chatted, one of the hotel employees kept smiling at us and calling our names. He didn’t know much other English, so he kept smiling, calling our names, and shaking our hands.
During breakfast, I got a call from the travel agent, Badr. He was arranging a Nile dinner cruise for us and had a surprise. Would we like to perform on the boat? Would we?!!! Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a costume as my new purchase was still being fitted, but Daleela did and volunteered.
I waited in my room for the driver for our excursion to the pyramids to show up. Today was the sabbath and fascinating things were occurring outside my window. The streets began filling with prayer rugs, then men took off their shoes and prayed in the street. The voice over the loud speaker reached people from all over. I watched as women just like me leaned over watching too.
Once we realized the driver would not arrive in time for us to make our cruise, we scrapped our plans and took off for Khan el Khalili where I did some shopping for Zaghareet’s Boutique. Things were in abundance and were of nice quality, so I was happy.
There were also lots of things I might have been interested in had I not had to bother with the bartering. Greetings of “Welcome to Cairo” made me really feel welcome, but the more aggressive hawkers who said things like, “How can I take your money” kept my money in my pocket.
Food was always a primary concern on this trip, as we never knew where we would find it or when we would be eating again. We were starving by 4:00 p.m. and were delighted when we ran across a small restaurant. We squeezed into the fragile looking, doll-sized chairs and checked out the scenery. The occupants of the tables near us stared through kohl lined eyes. We didn’t know what to make of that at first, but when we smiled and they smiled back, we figured out that they were just curious. A child ventured a shy, “Hello” then broke up into laughter when we responded. With the success of the first child, the rest wanted to get a chance to speak, and did so whenever they could catch our eyes.
Our food took a long time to arrive. The overworked cook unceremoniously plopped a few dishes onto the table in front of us. Hummous and bread with salad again. We were hungry, so we didn’t care too much. A little while later, some blackened fowl arrived. It looked a bit like chicken, but smaller. Maybe pigeon? I don’t know for sure, but I was fairly certain it was poultry, and thus edible.
We shared some animated, getting-to-know-you conversation, then wiped the last greasy bits from our fingers, satisfied with the company and the food. As we passed the two groups seated nearest us, we made sure to say “good-bye” in English, bringing embarrassed blushes to their faces and smiles all around.
Rushing once again, we hurriedly returned to the hotel and dressed for the cruise. We decided to meet in the hotel bar. As I stood around waiting for the rest of the crew to join me, the hotel employees and some bar patrons began telling me “Madame Fifi” stories. (It seemed word got around quickly that we would be seeing her tonight). “Oh yes, she paid 5 million in taxes last year.” “She feeds the homeless and hungry”. “If you want to sleep with her, you have to marry her. She’s been married 5 times, you know.” Fifi was certainly well known in this group.
As we rode in the mini van provided by the tour group to the cruise ship, I could not help but feel like Cinderella. Everything was so beautiful, it must be a dream!
Since our escorts, Kevin and Dave, were working late that night, they met us at the cruise ship. We stood by the fountains taking pictures, permanent reminders that this night really did happen!
Although I was told it was a five star cruise, I was surprised to find luxury and comfort aboard. We smoothly departed the dock and began our dreamy journey on the Nile Pharoahs. The darkness cloaked the dirt and noise of the city and the lights twinkled gaily as if only for our enjoyment. I looked around the table knowing what a special night this was and realizing that I would never forget the night or the ones I shared it with. Happily, I smiled inside, feeling lucky to be right there.
Our fellow passengers signaled that it was time to eat, so we helped ourselves from the buffet. There was quite a spread of mainly American type foods, though not quite American. Despite the lovely way it was laid out and the beautiful environment in which to enjoy it, the food was just okay. It really didn’t matter too much though. I was still having so much fun. Gazing out the window at the thousand lights, I closed my eyes and smiled. I was on the Nile!
The dancer from the boat came on about half way through the cruise. She looked a bit bored and so did the band, but it was still exciting for us because Kevin and Dave, had still not seen a belly dancer! This was their first, so it was a pleasure watching them watch the dancer. The dancer performed two sets- one with a cane, and she brought some Japanese tourists on stage to dance with her. They were quite a hoot! It was an incredibly good time.
Next was Daleela’s turn. She bounded out full of energy, her veil flowing behind her. She seemed nervous, excited, joyous, and in control. She played with the audience and enjoyed the music. And too soon it was over. We were pulling near port already!
The last entertainment act was a dervish. Though he did many of the same things we’d seen the night before, it was not the same. This seemed more of a tourist show than something spiritual. Despite being residents of Cairo, Kevin and Dave had not seen the dervish show either, so they were quite impressed with this guy. And to his favor, his technique was impressive, but to me, he was a man in a skirt whereas the Tannoura were something else entirely.
We left the boat excited about our invitation to Fifi’s show, but that was not to be. When we arrived, we were surprised to find that there was no show. No musicians, no singers, no Fifi, no patrons. We were told that Fifi’s mother was ill and the show was cancelled. Though we were disappointed, we were not about to call it a night. There were other good dancers, and we would see them!
Our tips on who was dancing and where did not turn out to be so accurate. We ended up at Lucy’s club, La Parisiana, but Lucy was not dancing that night (she was there the night before and would be the next night). No matter, there was a dancer, and we would check her out.
As usual, there was a singer performing when we came in. Jasmine (not the British dancer) came out to an almost empty house. She was bored, but danced excellently from the neck down. I watched her with interest, even though she lacked energy. With such a small crowd, I could certainly understand it. I don’t know why she bothered getting anyone up from the crowd with it being so dead. Maybe we looked like tourists, and she thought we’d like being made fools of. Anyway, she chose me and Dave.
Though Dave would not dance at Jackie’s, he was quite the sport here. He wiggled in imitation of what he thought we looked like and did not look as if he wanted to stop. I thought Jasmine would split a seam watching him. She laughed and laughed, as we all did.
I also thought that she would not want to share the stage with someone who could dance, so after a minute or two, I started to sit down. She grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go, so I enjoyed my time on stage with her. She did a move, I copied her. She did something else, I followed. She tried to speak to me, but I don’t think she knew too much English, and I, of course knew only how to say, “no, yes, and thank-you” in Arabic, so we contented ourselves with smiling. I think she enjoyed it as much as I did.
Our cab ride back to the hotel was more adventurous than ever. Even though there were not many people on the road at 3:00 a.m., the driver found a way to make us feel as if we were risking our lives.
When we got back to the hotel, Mohamed, a hotel employee, was waiting for us. He had been keeping an eye on us making sure the three American women were safe. He wanted to play “dancer” with us (he’d been showing us dance moves and imitating all the famous dancers for our pleasure), but we were simply too exhausted. Another thrilling end to another thrilling day.
Day four arrived too late for breakfast, and I was starving! We didn’t have anything planned for today because we wanted to relax. The hectic pace was running us ragged. Though we didn’t want to miss a thing, we also didn’t want to make ourselves sick. A dance class would have been nice, but it couldn’t be arranged, so we just kind of hung out.
The main concern was food. The novelty of eating in diesel fumed places with people staring sweetly at us was wearing off for me, so we thought we’d find something edible in a nice hotel. We found an American style restaurant at the Flamenco Cairo and order grilled cheese, a tuna sandwich, and a club sandwich. Though it wasn’t quite the same as home, food never tasted so good.
Over lunch, Danielle, Daleela, and I discussed what we wanted to do that night. We tossed around the idea of going to a movie and decided that seeing a movie in an Egyptian move theater sounded like a proper adventure. But, first things first. We hooked up with our British escorts again, Malkie, Kevin, and Dave and were off to the bazaar again. The vendors and passers-by were enthralled with Danielle’s blonde hair. She smiled and spoke to every one of them. There were calls of “Samia” as we walked by. Ah, she was remembered from our other trips here!
While at Mahmoud Abdel Gheffar’s place, someone called my name. I looked up and saw none other than Hossam Ramzy! Small world indeed! We saw Dina, Fifi, and now Hossam. Everyone was suitably impressed to be in the presence of musical genius.
The trek to the bazaar took more time than we’d thought. We were welcomed to Cairo many times, offered tea, and were left to fended off some of the more ambitious pursuers of our affection. Danielle and Daleela bought music from several vendors. Dave impressed us with his expert haggling for a replica museum piece. We wandered around sniffing perfume oils and looking at various items.
After all that activity, we found it was too late for the movies, so we were at a loss for things to do. Danielle was tired and decided to call it an evening, but Daleela and I had not had our fill of the Egyptian night. Since we had missed out on our trip to the pyramids, the thought of seeing them at night was simply too much to pass up.
After donning clothes suitable for the cool desert and packing a bag, we sped off towards Giza. The driver seemed to have some difficulty grasping the idea that we wanted to go to the pyramids after dark. He stopped in front of a nightclub on Pyramid street. No, that was not it. He stopped in front of the Mena House. No, that was not where we wanted to go either.
Finally, when we could go no further, some guards pointed us to an unlit area off the street. The driver looked at us with a puzzled glance as if to say, “You want to get out here?” He shrugged his shoulders, took his payment, and drove away.
In the silence and darkness, I wondered to myself if this was such a good idea. I thought we were going to be robbed and dumped off in a deserted area, but they were only interested in settling on a price for a trek in the desert! Since we were in Egypt, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
They took us into a small, dark room where strangely scented smoke swirled around the air. A short, dark man offered us drinks and made small talk interspersed with negotiations. He asked if we were interested in meditation, drugs, watching the sunrise, or what? We just wanted to see the pyramids.
After agreeing upon a price, we were driven to the stables while we waited for our horses. After a few minutes, we were told that horses were not available because it was too cold, so we’d have to ride camels. Okay, camels have to do. As we mounted our ships of the desert, I laughed inside at the ridiculousness of me being on a camel, who’s behind is swaying like Marilyn Monroe’s, going to see the pyramids.
The humor of it changed to awe and wonder as we passed silently (silence in Cairo!) through the residential alleyways. The air took on a feeling of timelessness as I saw the same scenes people must have stared at a thousand years ago. I told Daleela, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus himself came walking up to us! It was that mystical.
But things only got more intense. Within the batting of an eye, the city became sand and disappeared behind us. The first grains of sand seemed like the familiar beach I know from home, but these were the largest dunes I had ever seen and the beach was by far the most expansive. Everywhere you looked was sand and silence.
Just as I was getting used to the wobbly gait of the camel, a man came running across the desert and mounted my camel! Now, I would have to share a ride with this fool? I dreaded enduring the inevitable compliments to my eyes and brown skin. Perhaps I would be spared the marriage proposal. (sigh)
The night was chilly. Light from an unseen source reflected off the sand giving us just enough luminescence to see by. Mist surrounded us like a dreamy, protective haze. Suddenly, crouching in the desert appeared the Sphinx! It sat unperturbed and uncaring of our passing, not knowing how deeply the passing was affecting me.
We all rode on lost in our own thoughts. Then out of the darkness came more travelers. Ah! I thought we’d hit upon such a unique and thrilling adventure, and here were people with the same great idea. They passed us without so much as a word, as if they too were caught in the mystery of this wonderful, indescribable place and were afraid to break the spell with words.
We plodded along some more, then out of the mist peeked the shadow of the first pyramid. The mist moved a little and more was revealed. Then two pyramids. Then three. As we got closer, we could see the baby pyramids along side. Oh, the sight of it caused goose flesh and overwhelmed me with my smallness. If ever there was a moment when words were inadequate, this was it.
I jumped off my camel as soon as I could (determined NOT so share my mount on the way back, thank-you very much) and sat gazing at the majesty I saw before me. We sat there a while in awe, not really saying anything, just experiencing!
Our guides and an armed guard stood unobtrusively by while we delighted in the night. Dave sat near me picking in the sand. I thought he was just running his hands in the sand, but then he presented me with a small, round rock. I took it, wondering what was its significance. Dave explained that this was no ordinary rock. This was the perfect specimen, chosen from all the jagged ones. This one was a piece of the pyramids which came from the floor of the Sahara! Daleela proclaimed him a poet.
A few moments later, we decided we wanted to climb a pyramid- the big one! They told us it was not possible, but we could climb a slightly smaller one. After paying the guide, we crept toward the languishing stone beast.
In the darkness of its shadow, it was hard to tell what a feat we’d set up for ourselves. Each step was between knee and waist high, so it was no easy climb. Loose dirt and rocks, combined with low visibility threatened to unbalance us, plunging us to our deaths like so many daredevils before us. Daleela climbed confidently, though barefoot, while I was cautious and a bit scared.
I stopped a few times to scare myself even more by simply looking around. The sheer height was enormous. If I could have seen how high we’d come, I’m sure I would have stopped long before the top was reached.
Reaching the top made it all worth while. The soft breeze coming from the desert, as we sat atop a pyramid, alone in the Sahara, gave me a feeling of timelessness like I have never before experienced. My breath slowed to normal, and I closed my eyes intent on capturing the magic of the night through meditation, but the guide rushed us down so quickly that I could only get a few breaths. Too soon we began our descent.
After only a few steps down, more guards came out yelling and flashing lights on us. My heartbeat quickened, sure that we’d be arrested and in some third world jail by morning. The guide told us to be quiet and get down. We squatted a while, then moved on. Then, I caught on. This was another attempt at getting more money!
Still descending butt-first, the guards called out in friendly tones. They greeted us with alcohol on their breath, wet kisses, and clumsy embraces, but were forcefully repelled. Once they realized they were getting neither money nor affection, they left us alone.
Trudging through the Sahara back to our camels, I couldn’t imagine a better way to see the pyramids. Lost in the ecstacy of the moment, and dreading the reality the morning and western life would bring, I wanted to clutch that camel to me and never let go. Each plodding step took me further away from the wonder.
We got back to the safety of our hotel only after listening to the spiel of the perfume seller and another death defying taxi ride. At 5:00, I reluctantly let go of the night and succumbed to sleep.
Day five. I woke depressed. I didn’t know if I wanted to do something or do nothing. I had to pick up my costume from Madame Hekmat, so I went to do that while waiting for the other girls to get up and get dressed. The taxi driver didn’t know where he was going, so I ended up at another designer’s place and found some beautiful costuming. Madame was luckily very near by, so I didn’t have any further problems. Since it wasn’t far from the hotel, I decided to walk back and was unmolested.
Danielle was ready to go to the bazaar, so we took yet another trip. The vendors were quite taken with her, her friendliness, and her blonde hair. They were getting quite aggressive in their comments, but she handled them nicely.
Starving once again, we were fortunate to find a driver who asked if we wanted to go to “Kentucky.” After a minute or two, we realized “Kentucky” was Kentucky Fried Chicken. Would we!? Armed with cash and dangerous, we scoped out the restaurant and brought some precious food back to the hotel where we ate with Daleela. We rested a bit, then a few hours later set out for Pizza Hut. (We were getting aggressive in our pursuit for food).
Pizza Hut was an adventure in itself. So much was just like being at home- except that we don’t have prawn or eggplant on pizza. The music was American. The Pepsi was American though with Arabic writing on the cans. The staff spoke English and stood a respectful distance away with questions on their faces. Once invited over, (these girls are friendly!), they were very open and willing to talk to us about Cairo. Though I was having the time of my life, I was happy to find some familiarity in this place.
Tonight was my last night. I was feeling overwhelmed, depressed, incredibly lucky, relieved, sad, hopeful, and so many other things. I took a long time packing my way overstuffed suitcases and wanted to be alone to wallow in my misery. When I went to the lobby, I found Danielle, Daleela, Mohamed, and another hotel employee trying to make merry. There was a little dancing going on, but I could not get in the mood. It was all too sad for me.
I paid my hotel bill, plunked my overweight bags down, and waited for the taxi, I sighed with confusion. How could I let go of this wonderful land? There was still so much to do, see, and experience, yet at the same time I hated the stressful way of bartering, getting around, and dealing with pawing men. Such confusion… and it didn’t matter because my taxi was here.
Dealing with the cab driver annoyed me. He wanted me to pay him 80 pounds for the ride! (My hotel was only 68 per night, and I paid a over inflated 40 pounds to get from the airport). I argued with him for a while, then went to catch my plane. Inside the terminal a guy lifted my bags off a SmartCart and took off with them, like he was helping me. He was mumbling, “Gimasumony”, which confounded me to no end. I couldn’t get my bags back. Then I realized he was saying, “Give me some money!” I was really irritated at his boldness and insistence. I was glad to put this Cairo behind me.
As the plane’s wheel lifted off the ground, I looked out at all the lights and felt the aliveness of the city (even at 4:00 a.m.). I was still bristling at the brazenness of the cab driver and the man in the airport, but despite that, I felt a longing to return. A longing that has only gotten stronger with each day that passes without me there. I welcomed the English speaking, bright, clean, hotdog smelling Detriot airport, but still could not escape my desire for Egypt. (sigh)
Five days in Egypt had changed me completely.
I love Cairo. I hate Cairo. Every day was a gift from God. Each moment assaulted my senses in ways I never knew possible. Just as I thought I had experienced the pinnacle of human expression, something happened to eclipse that.
Every day brought special moments that by themselves would have made the trip worthwhile. I dream of Cairo and cannot wait to return. I want to sit on the Sahara sand and watch the pyramids forever. I want to feel the smallness of my Self in the vastness of the desert. I want to touch the people that touched me. I want to be overcome by the joy the dancers feel when they shimmy on stage. I want to fill with hope that that dancer could be me. I want to be in Cairo!
My deliverance from despair comes from knowing this experience lives and breathes within me, can never be taken away or diminished, and that I will always return. I cannot escape Egypt’s grasp and will welcome her embrace again and again.