Cairo, ya habibi

Today is not a normal day. In fact, “today” is a term that I am using very loosely because I really have no idea how many hours this “day” has been. Maybe 24? 36? Too many time zone changes to keep track.

I wake up, anxiety and anticipation mixing together in my stomach and making me jittery. I fuss around my luggage and grin a little as I think, “Today’s the day. I’m going to Egypt.” Egypt–that ancient civilization that has survived thousands of years, numberless changes of government, and history so rich that you can taste it in the air. That Egypt. I look out at my quaint, quiet neighborhood street in Utah. This street is only 10 years old.

A few hours later, I’m trying not to cry as I wave goodbye to my kids and my oldest boy hugs me for the fifth time and tells me he loves me. The next 20 hours are a blur of driving to the airport, boarding my plane, flying across the Atlantic ocean and landing in Paris. Paris would be a lot more fun if it wasn’t cloudy. And if I wasn’t stuck in an airport. Ce la vie.

As my second plane starts crossing the Mediterranean Sea, I can’t help but feel giddy. I’m over Greece right now. Greece! Hey, that’s Alexandria down there! I’m over Egyptian soil! The plane lands and it has not escaped my notice that I’m in a country–alone–with several million people who speak Arabic. I speak English. It will be okay, I say to myself, insha’allah. God willing. I have promised myself that I will stop being an uptight American for two weeks and I will live the life of an Egyptian. That means being flexible, not expecting efficiency, and letting things happen in a very organic way. Which is, to say the least, not my way.

The first thing that hits me as I step out of the plane is the dry, musty scent of Cairo. It’s not unpleasant at all, just slightly different from what I’m used to. The second is the language barrier. I walk into the airport from the plane and have no clue where to go. One sign points toward the luggage claim to the left and I’m pretty sure I have to get my luggage before I go through customs, but nobody is going that way. People seem to be standing around in a line marked simply “Passports” on the right by some booths that are currently unmanned.

I see something that looks like a help desk and ask for help in English. The man tells me to go to the right, so I go right. After waiting in line, the man who has shown up to deal with the line tells me I needed to buy a visa before coming into this line. He points me in the right direction and I step out of line as approximately the entire population of some small country streams through the doors and the line I was just standing in quadruples in length. Okay. No problem. It will be fine, insha’allah.

Forty-five minutes later, I am officially on vacation in Egypt with luggage in hand, scanning the crowd for a familiar face, a face I’ve known for ten years online but never seen in person. Then suddenly, there he is smiling and hugging me and everything in the world is right. Another one of my friends is there, too, and I hug him before we head out to the parking lot. Cars are parked haphazardly all over the place but my friend’s car is nice and clean, so I feel comfortable. Until he starts driving and everything my sister told me about Egypt is suddenly real and not exaggerated at all.

Cars drive, literally, anywhere they want. As long as you honk loudly, you can apparently create whatever lanes you need at the moment. Street paint is unnecessary because the traffic weaves like a river, sometimes three lanes, sometimes four, with motorcycles squeezing through the smallest cracks between honking and swerving cars. My jaw drops as I see pedestrians darting into the road and hopping between lanes like a Frogger game.

We stop at a mall for some dinner and I feel at home in the modern-looking structure, full of cars and shining lights. I eat a dinner of chicken kebab and rice and then head to the restroom, where I get my first reality check that no, Toto, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. A woman hands me a small amount of toilet paper and I look through the stalls. Several of them are broken and the one I end up in does not live up to American standards of cleanliness. But at least it’s not a pit toilet and I have some toilet paper. Good enough. As I leave the restroom, I look up and see the ceiling of the mall patched up in several places and jimmyrigged with various materials.

An hour later, my friend has created a parking space for himself outside my hotel and I’m checking in. The manager I spoke to on the phone two days before is standing at the counter, waiting for me to arrive. He has upgraded me to a beautiful room with a view of the Nile, Tahrir Square, and the famous Egyptian Museum. Everything is breathtaking and I have hard time pulling myself away from the view to meet my friends again in the lobby.

“Do you want to go to Tahrir Square?” they ask me, knowing that yes, of course I do. I’m writing a book about the Revolution of 2011 and I won’t be persuaded to stay away. I didn’t think I’d go on my first night, in the dark, on foot, but it will be fine, insha’allah. They take me by the arm and we hop out into traffic, cars honking at us and braking. We don’t die, which is all I can ask.

The police (I assume) have set up a barricade all around Tahrir Square so that no cars can enter. As we step through piles of sand that have somehow accumulated in this spot, I see tents dotting the higher parts of the traffic circle that is Tahrir Square. All around us, groups of two and three young men wander around, looking vaguely discontented but not at all threatening. Signs all around the middle of the square proclaim love for past leaders before the days of Mubarak and Morsi. Small shrines honor those who have died in the 2011 revolution and the disaster at Port Said last year. Small tables are set up to sell tea, and one tantalizing street vendor is selling something that smells divine.

“You’ll get sick for sure,” says my friend cheerfully, pointing at the food. I nod sadly, knowing it’s true, but still tempted by the spicy scent wafting toward me. We walk all around the square and a group of three street children saunter up to us, asking for money. I refuse to look at them, like all the guide books suggested, because engaging with them will only encourage them to beg more. But my heart is stripped open as my friends explain they have never known their parents and will live on the streets probably their whole lives, one day being the tea vendors behind the small tables. I think my own children would survive about two days here.

My friends smile and laugh with the kids, though, eventually handing them a small coin and telling them not to bother us again. The kids walk away grinning, giving some cheeky reply that makes my friends laugh. Even the poorest Egyptians can smile and laugh. I wonder why Americans who have everything have such a hard time feeling content.

My friends want tea, so we sit along a small wall as a young man and a child prepare it for them. A slight breeze stirs the air around me and my friends ask if I’m cold. No, I’m sweating just a little in my black sweater. At home in Utah, the weather is below freezing and snow is on the ground.

“This is the best tea in the world,” my friend tells me as the tea vendor tells us to stand up so he can change the rug that is draped across the wall. Even here in Tahrir Square after midnight, people are hospitable and anxious to please. This is Egypt.

My friends take me by the hand and insist on sheltering me against oncoming traffic as we run through the streets again to my hotel. I ask them to walk me inside and I give them each a Pepperidge Farms chocolate chip cookie that I brought from Utah. They hold their cookies lightly between their fingers, inspecting them somewhat suspiciously before risking a bite. They chew their cookies thoughtfully and I’m not sure what they think. Maybe they’re being polite–after all, Egypt is known for their delicious desserts–but my friends seem to sincerely enjoy the cookies after they get used to the flavor. I offer one to a hotel employee and he accepts readily. I’m pretty sure I’m not the average American tourist.

Back in the hotel room, it takes me an hour to figure out how to get both electricity and an internet connection to my computer. I call my kids to let them know I’m safe and I love them. Then I collapse into bed, the distant cacophony of honking cars and Arabic music lulling me to sleep.

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