5 July 2008: Arrival in Egypt

In my first steps off the plane, I was met by a thick desert heat that even at 4:00 in the morning was oppressive. I had arrived in Cairo to begin a ten-day trip that would show me architectural wonders of the ancient world, provide me first first-hand taste of an Arabic nation, reunite me with my dear friend and four-year roommate from college, and expose me to a quite different extreme of weather from the Ethiopian rainy season.

Aside from all that, though, it would be the first time in nine months that I would have to consider myself merely a tourist in a foreign country. I felt all the uncertainties of that long-ago flight to Ethiopia, except that the inscrutable chatter around me was now Arabic rather than Amharic and produced not by an old tattooed woman but by dozens of senior Egyptian men dressed in their grayish galabeyas. Most of all, I felt clumsy, timid, and ignorant, having come from a country in which I had amassed now nine months of language and culture proficiency, to a country in which I was armed only with a phrase book and a booked tour itinerary.

The flight had gone smoothly, albeit mostly sleeplessly. On any other airline, one could expect a flight departing at 10 PM and arriving at 3 AM to pass quietly and rather uneventfully. But Ethiopian Airlines is not like any other airline. And so it was that my "red-eye" flight was filled with the constant glare of the artificial overhead lighting, the loud and jovial chatter of Egyptian men, two in-flight movies, two drink services, and a 2 AM dinner, for which occasion the flight attendant felt compelled to forcibly shake me awake. After now two international flights with Ethiopian and having been woken up for every snack, meal, and other offered service, I am beginning to think that they take sleeping on their flights personally.

After deplaning, I mentally braced myself for my first set of challenges. Buy visa. Exchange money. Pass customs. Find taxi. The first three were much simpler than I had envisioned, as the entire procedure for obtaining an Egyptian tourist visa consists in handing 15 USD through the money exchange window. (I was thankful that I had not bothered to complete forms and submit pictures beforehand to the embassy in Addis.) As for the taxi, I found myself apprehended by a small, wiry man at the airport information desk and shuffled upstairs to "an honest government tourist car." I'm sure the wiry man was simply a taxi operator, and I'm sure the driver was simply a friend of his, and I'm absolutely certain I paid double the normal going rate, but as a rather clueless tourist showing up alone in a country where I speak almost none of local language, I'm going to have to expect to get ripped off a little bit initially. The driver asked me if I would like to listen to Egyptian music, then asked me how much I would pay to hear it. He also told me several times during the drive that he hoped I would not forget his tip.

On the drive from the airport through the city, I felt like a little kid, wondering at the beautiful domed mosques and soaring minarets, the intricate palaces, the imposing stone citadel. I caught my first glimpse of the Egyptian Nile lying serenely between Cairo and Giza in the pale morning light.

I was staying with a friend of a friend of a friend, who was kind enough to offer hospitality to a total stranger (outside of the all-important Facebook friendship) for the several hours I'd have to myself in the city before meeting my tour group. When I opened the door to the flat, I was struck immediately by the wood floors, which I had seen in Ethiopia only in the Ambassador's residence. This shock was immediately supplanted in my mind, however, when a glass of ice cold filtered, REFRIGERATED water was placed in my hand.

I slept through most of the morning and took a cold shower upon waking in order to relieve the heat. Then I strapped on my pack and hit the streets.

For a large capital city, it seemed a relatively calm Saturday morning. Families strolled together in residential areas. In the commercial districts, business owners watched people in the streets from the cool shade of their breezy shop doorways. I stopped at a small snack shop and bought some coconut-flavored biscuits to get change for the Metro. Being confident in only three words of Arabic (the common two-word greeting and, thanks to watching Al Jazeera in Ethiopia, the word for "soup," which is the same in Amharic) and being unfamiliar with Egyptian currency and pricing, I handed over my purchase and a 50-pound note and hoped for the best. I'll never know if the wad of colorful bills I received in return was correct or not, but the elderly woman behind the counter seemed nice enough. Her son in the store with her asked me in English where I came from, and though I answered, "the United States," they somehow heard "the Ukraine" and seemed pleased by this.

Half an hour later, I found myself standing in front of my hotel, feeling quite proud of myself for having successfully navigated the Metro and city streets to arrive there. (I chose to ignore the fact that I had stood with my back to the door for about five minutes, looking undecidedly at the large stone building across the street, before the doorman told me to turn around because my hotel was probably right behind me.)

I had made it just in time for our tour group meeting. Introductions around the table showed us to be a well-traveled group, all of us coming to Egypt in the midst of larger overseas adventures. We were three Aussies, four Kiwis, and five Yanks, though three of us were living outside the U.S. To my great disappointment, however, my friend Suzanne had not yet arrived. I have to admit, I spent most of the meeting glancing over to the front door in hopes of seeing her walk in, but the meeting ended without her appearing. It was not until we were all assembled in the lobby half and hour later, ready to head out into the city, that I finally saw the familiar face I had been waiting for. We hugged and shrieked and made all the loud, dramatic, slightly teary scene that nine months apart necessitated, so much so that our tour guide ran into the lobby concerned that some disaster had occurred. The moment was finally complete, and I felt ready to set out on this Egyptian adventure.

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