To write about Egypt, I've had to leave it behind. I feel somehow defeated, like Joe tourist who has left this ancient land with little more than soured experiences and a few bad shots of the Sphinx's disfigured face. But so be it; what happened to us is probably happening to someone else as I write.
From the waiting room in the Algiers airport, we were whisked away to Paris where we spent three days de-adapting to off-the-beaten-path travel. Suddenly we were in a place where things had a fixed price, public transport was reliable, and we could be anonymous--nobody wanted anything from us. As a result, our guard came down. And then we flew to Cairo--a mega-tropolis of 18 million, which shamefully, either of us knows much about.
It was 9pm when the plane touched down. I withdrew money from an ATM at the airport and we quickly moved through customs without issue. So far so good. After a bit of waiting, we managed to get on a public bus to downtown Cairo, a 20km ride for 25 Egyptian piastres (about US$.07). The first thing travellers do when arriving to a new country is to get a grasp on currency and the relative cost of things. Not that bus fares are a good indicator, but the 1000 Egyptian pounds began to burn a hole in my money belt.
The bus was fairly empty--not many people transported themselves from the airport to the city by public bus, and we were the only foreigners. Our bus driver swung by the old terminal and picked up a few more passengers. A moustached man in a short-sleeve oxford got on and sat next to us in the back. "Welcome in Cairo," he said.
Learning that we were from San Francisco, he told us, in English, that he had a brother in Mountain View and was just seeing another relative off at the airport. He asked where we were staying in Cairo and we answered that we were going to try a few places near Midan Tahrir, the main square downtown. We asked if he wouldn't mind signaling to us when we should get off the bus. "Of course, of course," nodding reassuringly.
Outside, the streets of Cairo seemed to be in total disarray. We spent twenty minutes just trying to make a U-turn at a large intersection. Not a space was visible that was absent of people; not a storefront where there wasn't bright neon signs. We were in an area called Heliopolis, a bustling city-suburb northwest of Cairo's center. The energy, congestion, and sheer numbers of people felt familiar to me.
Our new friend introduced himself as Ahmed. He pulled out a few coins from his pocket and showed them to us, explaining how much each was worth. When we were done inspecting them, I handed them back. Ahmed insisted I keep them as a souvenir. I thanked him. Meanwhile, our bus hadn't budged. He told us the streets were particularly crowded because it was the first day of the annual 'Shopping and Tourism' festival and many people from the Gulf countries were visiting Cairo. I recalled seeing the row of banners advertising the festival at the airport.
It took us over an hour to get to the train station and to the nearby Ramses Square where streets were jammed with city buses, minibuses, taxis and private cars of all sizes. Ahmed asked about our travels and how long we would be staying in Egypt. He was an English teacher in a public school, and seemed to be saying that students didn't study with interest to learn, just enough to pass tests. As the bus inched forward, Ahmed suddenly gestured that we should get ready to get off. Just on our ride over from the airport, I'd seen how bus drivers were. They usually didn't bother to come to a full stop to let passengers on and off--and people were accustomed to running alongside a few meters and leaping on as the doors clunked shut. Gregg helped me with my pack and bracing myself for the dismount, I had the feeling I was jumping out of an airplane with a parachute.