The streets and crumbling sidewalks are strewn with litter. The unimaginative concrete buildings are coated with blackish stains from years of pollution. The air is thick with dust and car exhaust fumes. The sounds of horns and bus engines fill the air.
I walked alone down the cracked and potholed sidewalks of downtown Cairo forcing myself to go against my natural instinct to make eye contact with people. It took nearly all of my energy to intentionally look through the crowds passing me instead of at them. Being a blue-eyed, blond-haired (at the moment) woman walking solo, I unintentionally attracted a multitude of stares, hisses, and comments.
I passed dozens of shops selling cheap-looking, yet trendy clothes and boots. Couples walked together. Women in colorful head-scarves walked arm in arm. Men walked together. It was the rare sight to see a woman alone. Some looked quite western and wore no scarf at all while very, very few passed me wearing the full chador – the complete black gown mysteriously and exotically covering all but the eyes.
When I arrived at Cairo International airport on my midnight flight from Milan, it was four o’clock in the morning. For the first time since I can remember on my trip, I arranged a pick-up transfer (taxi ride) from the airport. In most cities around the world from Asia to Europe, I’ve been able to hop on some kind of public transport – metro or bus to downtown. But here, I had decided to give myself a break knowing I’d be tired and not wanting be deal with aggressive salesmen (cab drivers).
But when I walked through the crowd of drivers holding up their placards, clipboards, and makeshift paper signs with passengers’ names… none said “Lisa Lubin.” Great. I decided to just hang around a bit before I went through immigration. Perhaps my guy was just late. I waited a half an hour. A few other drivers even tried to help me, but they just said to wait. I was tired and not in the mood to be ripped off nor was I in the mood to haggle – hence my foresight to pre-book a taxi… which, to my dismay was no where to be found. In the meantime, I bought my Tourist Visa from a man at a window who did not even want to see my passport, just my $15. I withdrew hundreds of Egyptian Pounds from an ATM and finally made my way through immigration. Soon after, my trusty bag came around on the baggage carousel and I decided to wait just a bit more before starting the dreaded haggling process with a cabbie who would no doubt make some extra cash off this weary American traveler.
I stared down every guy walking around holding a placard. One man was talking on his cell phone and slowly approaching me. We continued to make eye contact and I knew… this was my man. He was 40 minutes late and did not acknowledge this fact at all, but I was just thankful that he was there. He traded me off to another man, the actual driver, a thin Egyptian man with a tired leathery face who spoke with a very raspy smoker’s voice and appeared to be much older than he probably was. During our white-knuckle drive downtown, he told me he had eight children and one wife, but a second wife ‘from Chicago’, he joked, was not out of the question. He sped me to my hotel, most of the way swerving and straddling two lanes on the road.
At 7am, I was able to check into my room, inspected the threadbare sheets (where’s the plush Egyptian cotton?) in which I unhappily discovered more hairs than I was comfortable with (I am usually comfortable with zero hairs of a stranger in my bed), but in my exhaustion, just pulled out my sleep sack and dozed off only to call reception several hours later to actually get them to change the sheets and towels from my room which was obviously not cleaned since the last guest left – different country, different standards. But I am pleased with my new found flexibility for not-so-clean conditions and took it all in exhausted stride. I remember as a kid barely wanting to sit on the edge of a hotel bed in fear of getting the ‘cooties.’ And now here I was snuggling into someone else’s bed of dark curly body hair. Mmmm. I know you just cringed… okay, me too… I’m still no Irish Jesus Backpacker… but I’m working on it.