Originally, we planned on waking up at around 5 AM to board a bus to the Central Bus Station by 5:30, where we would wait in line to (hopefully) get spots on the 7 AM bus to Eilat, the southernmost point of Israel. Instead, I managed to call the bus’ main customer support line and find someone who spoke English after countless call transfers. This allowed us to book seats for the 10 AM bus, meaning that we wouldn’t have to leave the dorms so early, that we definitely wouldn’t have to sit in the aisle of a bus for 4 hours, and that we would definitely be getting to Eilat that day.
So, at around 8 AM, we left the dorms and stopped by the mail room to check it one last time before departing for two weeks. An announcement suddenly came over the loudspeaker, which was strange for 8 AM on a Thursday. After the Hebrew version finished, a woman took over and mumbled something about how “There was an explosion……………..(mumble mumble) …………… water pipe”. We all let out a relieved sigh- for a moment, we thought that there had been an explosion or bombing somewhere near campus or Jerusalem, impeding upon our plans. A broken water pipe in a building wasn’t a huge deal. Off to the central bus station we went.
The central bus station is like an airport, but with way more shops. There’s security to get in, lots of escalators and luggage, and people getting impatient. You can also literally buy anything you would ever need- case in point, we ended up buying a vast supply of face moisturizer, dead sea scrub, and hair conditioner while waiting for our 10 AM bus, not to mention the bagels, hot dogs, doughnuts, and coffee that we consumed there. Once the bus arrived, we ended up putting our luggage on the wrong bus (twice) before resorting to asking people to translate the Hebrew announcements for us. The ride was pretty bland once we got past the cool landscapes- I slept for most of the time, only waking for the single bathroom break. At the beginning of the journey, we literally drove right up against the coast of the Dead Sea, with the Jordanian landscape peeking through the haze on the other side. Burnt brown cliffs and rolling hills engulfed the road in front of us as we rode around the curves of the highway.
Eilat is kinda like Las Vegas. There are a lot of scantily clad 20-somethings, chain restaurants, big attractions (including the necessary fake pyramid), and sand. We were literally only there long enough to switch buses and cross the border, but that was about enough for me. The border crossing wasn’t too surprising, except for its price. We first walked into the Israeli portion of it, where a series of security guards asked us to stop, show them our passports, and go through a series of lines. The first allowed us to exchange currency, and demanded a 100 shekel crossing fee. The second was passport control, where I ended up holding up our group for a little bit. When I had originally entered Israel a few months earlier, I asked the passport control to not stamp my passport, just in case I wanted to visit Lebanon (which you can’t enter with an Israel stamp). A few of the other “Cairo Kids” did the same thing. This isn’t really a big deal, but it does end up taking up some time when you cross any other Israeli border in the future. At this border, the officer spent a good few minutes just flipping through the pages of my passport, looking for my Israel stamp. Upon realizing that I didn’t have one, he had to call another officer, who showed up a good five to ten minutes later with an additional form for me to fill out. I didn’t actually get any trouble for it, it just took a little bit more time.
We eventually got past that checkpoint, and made our way across a gravel parking lot to the Egyptian border control. There was a distinct difference in how things were run there, namely the fact that we were able to ‘baksheesh’ (or tip… some people say bribe) our way through the whole thing. Within the first five minutes that we had crossed out of Israel, we sweet talked our way through the x-ray machine (we had too many bags) and got a legitimate passport control officer to get us Egypt visas into Cairo, which is supposedly not allowed. Visas into the Sinai are free for up to two weeks, as a result of the transfer of land of the Sinai a few decades ago. Any official source will tell you that you must get visas for the rest of Egypt at least a week in advance, and that they’re only available in Tel Aviv or Eilat. Here we were, 10 feet into the border, getting visas with no problem. Welcome to Egypt!
As we stepped out of the border control center, we started getting almost giddy with excitement. We were officially back in Egypt! During the evacuation, I would have never expected to return so soon. The best part, though, was that almost nothing had changed- as we walked outside, a crowd of men were gathered by large taxi vans, just waiting to prey on new tourists. We walked up and asked which car would be going to Dahab, a beachy town in the Sinai. All of the men answered consistently- any car would take us, but it would cost 100 Egyptian Pounds each, and we would have to wait for more passengers. We continued asking around, but got the same answer from everyone. Finally, we discovered that rides to Nuweiba were half as expensive, and ended up somewhere just as relaxing. Another tourist man waiting for a car to fill up advised us that he knew of a great place with huts right on the water there, and promised that it was much better than Dahab. One of my travel buddies had already booked a hostel in Dahab, and wanted to make sure that she ended up there that night, but the rest of us were completely flexible.
So, we sat and hung out with the drivers while waiting for more border crossers to show up. Most of the men wore long gallabeyas (a man’s cloak), a piece of fabric wrapped around their heads or necks, and thick leather sandals. Younger men wore casual pants and t-shirts. At one point, one of the guys put on our hats and sunglasses and rocked the look with his gallabeya for awhile. We all sat around, drinking tea and talking about where we were from, and where we were going for an hour or two until we started getting antsy about hitting the road. Once we started investigating other (quicker) ways of getting to Nuweiba or Dahab, all of the sudden our original drivers decided that they would be able to leave much sooner (surprise, surprise). Soon enough, our 50 EGP would allow us to leave almost immediately, stop by Nuweiba on the way, and continue on to Dahab. We climbed in the van with a family of three and one solo man and set off into the Sinai.
The desert has definitely become one of my favorite landscapes since going abroad. It’s shockingly majestic, beautiful, and powerful, especially in the right sunlight. As we made our way south, the road wound alongside the Red Sea, with rolling mounds of sand coming right up to the deep blue water. The sun was just beginning to set over the horizon, casting long shadows over the neutral hues of the earth around us. I was exhausted from the long day of traveling, but fought to keep my eyes open to take in the scene. Over the course of our ride, one of the guys riding in our van started telling us about the place that he was planning on staying at during his time in the Sinai. He was Israeli and lived in Eilat, but came down to this specific spot every couple of months for some downtime. We agreed to swing by it on our way to Dahab and check it out, but didn’t expect much of it. An hour or so later, the coast was speckled with small beach huts, one of which was where the man in our van was staying. By this time, it had gotten dark, but two of us climbed out of the van nonetheless to check it out. This place ended up being exactly what we had been looking for- huts on the beach, right up against the Red Sea, with food, clean bathrooms, and a quiet, laid-back atmosphere. Neither of us had any reservations at hostels in Dahab, and after looking at each other for a second, we knew that we couldn’t pass this place up. So, the two of us grabbed our bags from the van and set off into the darkness, as the third of us stayed in the van to continue onwards to Dahab.
This place was literally paradise. We couldn’t even see most of the camp, but immediately knew that we had made the right choice. Two guys running the main hut area showed us to our hut, gave us a couple of candles to light it with, and pointed towards the general direction of the bathrooms and food. The camp was based around a point of land in the coast, with small mountains blocking it off from the single main road. The huts were sparse, scattered amongst the coast and raised up into the side of the nearest mountain. They were mostly built out of posts of wood, with dried palm fronds as a roof and Moroccan-inspired threaded rugs lining the walls and floors as insulation. None had any electricity- they were lit by a couple of candles out of a supply sitting in a seashell or two in each room. Our beds were a couple of mats, with cushions for pillows and a thick blanket or two at the foot of the mat. The huts were more of a shade for the sun than actual shelter- large gaps between the door, windows, and posts in the walls ensured that we could always feel the sea breeze and smell the water immediately beyond our hut. It was perfect.
After dropping off our bags, we headed towards the main area to grab some food. One larger hut with colorful designs painted along its borders served as a main desk, kitchen window, and restaurant. We decided to order some chicken tajine (a stew of chicken, vegetables, and broth in a clay pot), and wandered a couple of feet across the sand to a large Bedouin-inspired tent to sit down with our fellow camp visitors. The sitting area was constructed on the sand, right next to the water with a great view of the water, moon, and stars. More large, colorful threaded rugs lined the ground, as wooden posts held up tapestries billowing above our heads. Cushions of all shapes, colors, and sizes were piled along palm tree trunks which lined the edges of the sitting area rugs, serving as backrests to our seats on the rugs and sand. Wooden tables were raised slightly off the ground, with just enough room to sprawl out your legs underneath them. Light was provided by candles held up by rocks from the beach alongside us, and colorful lanterns hanging from the posts.
The people there completed the scene. Everyone had a different home, story, and perspective, and varied dramatically in age. The owners and creators of the camp were a couple in their late thirties or early forties who had two young kids. The man was a Bedouin (a kind of Arab, traditionally nomadic tribesman) who wore a long white gallabeya, white scarf and camel hair rings on his head, and could often be found chatting with fellow Bedouin friends around a burning log, smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon. His wife was white, and their children were a combination of the two- one was a young girl with blonde, curly hair, and the other was a boy with olive skin and jet-black hair. They had been running this camp for a decade or two now, and would often join their visitors in the sitting area to talk.
The Sinai, being the buffer land between Egypt and Israel, has always been an interesting piece of land. Israelis vacation there alongside the Bedouin and Egyptians, usually in peace. Ever since the Egyptian revolution, travel warnings have been sent out for the Sinai in general, warning Israelis to avoid the area. So, as one camp-goer explained to us, the camp usually has a pretty balanced mix of Israelis and Egyptians, but lately Israeli presence has been very rare. Some say that travel warnings have other objectives, like hurting the Egyptian tourism business in the Sinai.
Nonetheless, politics don’t really have a place in beach camps like the one we stayed in. Instead, we lounged on mats and took in the scene around us. The camp was also a magnet for musicians worldwide- while we were there, we were graced with music from a French clarinet player, Egyptian oud musician, and the pluckings of visitors sharing a single guitar. Anyone was invited to sing along. Various camp-goers would congregate under the tapestries every night, exploring different types of music and instruments. We sat with other visitors for hours each night, sharing stories of our adventures, eating amazing food (each order was enough to feed the two of us and then some), and listening to music. Our first night there, we both ended up falling asleep right on the mats in the sitting area, nestled into the cushions around us. No one seemed to care very much- they joked that this was probably the only restaurant in the world where no one cares if you fall asleep there after dinner.
It was a great way to recuperate from the seemingly constant tension we found in Israel- here, there were no politics, no arguments, and no plans. We spent our two days there bumming around on the beach, with nothing to do but eat, sleep, relax, and apply plenty of sunscreen (I promise, Mom!). Our first full day there, we slept in until noon, ate breakfast on the beach, spent the day switching between the sun, shade and water, talked to some new friends, and hung out in the sitting area- we were obviously pretty busy. We ended up hanging out with a Syrian-Italian translator who had grown up in the States, Canada, Egypt, and Italy, and an Egyptian who had gone to college in California. The man who introduced us to the camp in the first place also joined us for meals every once in a while- he filled his days leading yoga groups, reading, and hanging out with his dog, Yoshi, who he kept at the camp to “chase away the cats”. That was another great thing about this place- traditionally, animals are not very popular as pets in the Middle East, but the camp loved them. There were four or five dogs constantly roaming around there, and they were all in great shape and almost too friendly. One morning, I woke up to find one of them poking its head in our hut door to see if we were awake and ready to pet him yet. Yoshi did a pretty good job of chasing away the cats, but there were still plenty around, hiding under the tables and sunbathing on cushions.
So went our first couple of days in Egypt. We played cards (Egyptian Ratscrew, appropriately), dice, read, listened to music, ate too much, and lounged around each day before finally deciding that we would have to leave eventually. I could definitely see how you could get sucked into a place like that for weeks, months, or years. We fantasized about camping out there with some great books, music, a journal, and no phone or internet, and decided that we’ll have to come back eventually. For now, we had to move onward to Cairo. So, we tore ourselves away from the beach, put on “real clothes” (a.k.a. not a swimsuit), paid for our stay ($30 each for two nights beachside at the camp, plenty of food, fresh juice drinks, and dessert, and great music!) and asked around for the next bus to Cairo.
And then things got interesting. The guys working at the camp told us to just go down to the single road carving through the desert mountains to wait for the bus to pass by- apparently it was large, orange, and would surely stop for us. They even offered to drive us down to the road, which was only a couple of minutes away. We threw our bags in the back of a rusty pick-up truck, rode to the road, and then camped out under a single canopy which provided a little bit of shade. We were literally in the middle of nowhere- the road extended as far as we could see in either direction, surrounded by huge mountains of sand threatening to swallow it up. I had no idea what direction the bus would be coming from, whether it would actually stop for us, how much it cost, or when it could come- we had been told somewhere between 3 and 4 PM. So, we plopped down our stuff on the sand and hung out, assuming that we would figure it out eventually. If we missed the bus, we would just spend one more night at the camp- not a bad thing!
We got answers soon enough. Small, white microbuses flew past us at a million miles an hour, trucks drove on, and finally, a huge charter bus made its way over the hill to our left. I spotted it from a distance, and managed to say, “I think that’s…” before it zoomed right past us, honking wildly. We looked at each other for half a second with no idea what to do- until the rusty pick-up truck suddenly screeched to a halt alongside us. The man in the driver’s seat started hollering “Yalla!! Yalla!” (Let’s go!) at us, frantically motioning for us to throw our bags in the truck and hop in. A young boy with long hair, its ends bleached by the sun, started yelling in Arabic right along with him. We ran to our things, scooped up everything in sight, launched it all into the truck bed, and scrambled into the seats. As soon as we closed the door, the driver pushed the pedal to the floor and took off after the bus, which was quickly disappearing down the road into the desert.
The men in the front of the truck spoke no English, and we spoke almost no Arabic, so we sat in the back seat silently, our hearts beating wildly as the boys in the front chatted excitedly in Arabic. Our eyes flitted between the bus in front of us, as our truck slowly gained on it, and our bags in the truck bed- we kept our fingers crossed that none of our belongings would be blown out of the bed during the chase. As we got closer and closer to the bus, our driver started honking nonstop and flashing it with his brights, but the bus really did not seem to have any intentions of pulling over. We followed on its tail for a good couple of minutes before the bus driver conceded that we weren’t going to give up, and finally pulled over to the side of the road. Everyone in our truck cheered in victory for a moment, until our driver urged us out of our seats to get on the bus before the driver changed his mind. We hopped out, grabbed our things (all of which were miraculously still intact!) and ran to the door of the bus. In broken Arabic, we shouted our many thanks to the men in the truck, who smiled and bid us farewell before driving back down the single, dusty road into the middle of the desert.
The bus driver hurried us into our seats after the wild goose chase, eager to get moving. A few of the passengers on the bus (all of which were Egyptian at this point) were a little surprised to see two American girls climb onto the bus in the middle of the Sinai, seemingly emerging from the giant sand dunes around us. We settled into seats and pooled our money- at this point, we only had a few Egyptian Pounds left, and would have to pay for our $10 bus tickets in American dollars. The bus driver, a squat man with a strong personality, refused our dollars, still seemly a little angry that he lost the chase. An Egyptian man sitting next to us, who introduced himself as a pharmacologist from Cairo, quickly offered to give us Egyptian Pounds for our dollars and saved the day. We made it, and were able to settle into our seats for the next eight hours or so.
The ride was pretty anticlimactic, especially given all the hype that’s surrounding the danger of the Sinai right now. According to the news, we should have been robbed and kidnapped by Hamas. Instead, we drove through the desert at sunset, alongside long-abandoned mosques bleached by the sun and a few stray Bedouin leading their camels through the sand. The bus driver put on an old Egyptian movie, played music, and yelled at passengers to stop smoking on the bus for most of the trip- it felt great to be back in Egypt. As we traveled, we stopped at least once an hour at checkpoints. For most of them, we flashed our American passports and were left alone, but at others, military men climbed onto the bus and asked to see our Egyptian visas, bus tickets, and asked what we were doing in Cairo. The checkpoints were obviously new and hastily constructed- most of them blocked cars by stacking old tires, empty rusty barrels, and spare metal parts. Only a few had tanks waiting nearby. On a couple of occasions, a few military guys would join us for the bus ride from checkpoint to checkpoint, switching off shifts with other officers.
As we approached the city, a couple of Egyptian passengers sitting next to me started asking what we were doing in Cairo. One spoke English better than the other, but our conversation was still pretty broken. They were both students as well, and offered to give us a ride home so that we wouldn’t be stuck paying three times as much as we normally would for a cab from the central bus station. We agreed, and ended up talking to these guys about their experiences in the revolution, their travels (one had grown up in Dubai, hence his good English), and their plans for the future- namely, military service. Since we were arriving in Cairo so late, I ended up staying with my travel buddy for that night, instead of trying to find a hostel at 11 PM. So, the Egyptians drove us to her old houseboat in the Nile, where she and I would be crashing on the couch that night. Before leaving our new friends, we got some koshary (a traditional Egyptian dish) with the Egyptians at one of our old favorite spots, and settled in for the night.
I had never been on any of the houseboats in Cairo before, but soon realized that they’re probably the best place to live in Egypt. First of all, you’re literally living IN the Nile River. How cool is that?! They’re also much less hot than other places in Cairo, since you’re getting a nice breeze from the river, and they all have private gardens on the land that they connect to. They have amazing views of the water, feluccas, buildings, and mosques alongside the river, and aren’t too loud- the gardens and river block them from the city. If I ever end up moving to Cairo, I’m definitely taking a hint from these guys and renting out a houseboat.
We ended up staying at a friend’s boat a few places down the street, who was a Palestinian from New York that had moved to Egypt for a few years, just for kicks. His place was amazing- he’s not working during his time in Cairo, but he’s creative and very talented, so he just works on mini art projects all day, and his home shows it. Tapestries cover the walls, morphed balls of twine surround lightbulbs, and old wooden windowpanes have been filled with mirrors. As if this wasn’t cool enough, his place also has a patio with a swing bench and colorful lanterns that offers a cool breeze and great view of the Nile. Every once in a while, the boat would gently rock with the waves on the water, sending the lanterns undulating along with it. I would be eternally happy if I could just live there forever. And did I mention that he has kittens?! The garden in front of his boat has ended up being a kind of mini-zoo, with three goats, a puppy (!!), a couple of cats, two white doves, and a koi pond. One of the cats just had five kittens in a drawer in his bedroom a couple of weeks ago, so he took it upon himself to nurture them until they’re ready to be introduced to the world. They’re a lot of fun- every time I walked around the place, one or two would come explore wherever I ended up. At one point, I went in the bathroom to shower, and turned around to discover that one had wiggled himself under the door to come check it out with me. As soon as I got him back out of the bathroom, another one popped right back in. I also ended up finding them in my bags in the bedroom a couple of times. As a result, we were instructed to walk around the place shuffling our feet on the ground to avoid accidentally stepping on adventurous kittens.
We ended up staying up until the early hours of the morning sipping tea on the patio, talking about our time in Cairo, Israel, and the States. The guy was well-read and educated on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had even studied for a few months at Berzeit University in Ramallah, in the West Bank. He had also remained in Cairo for most of the revolution, and even ended up getting arrested while attempting to accompany a friend as she evacuated her apartment. It was a perfect start to our time back in Cairo- koshary, the Nile, hot tea, great weather, and good company.
During my first full day in the city, we slept in (only to be woken a couple of times by the call to prayer of the mosque down the street) before waking up and being served a delicious breakfast by our host. He made french toast out of a thick baguette, and served fresh juice, coffee, and tea, which we enjoyed on the patio alongside the early afternoon breeze of the Nile. We soon set off for Zamalek, crossing the bridge and passing a few local cafes before ending up at Metro Towers, a tall apartment complex that a few friends from AUC ended up living in. We split up as one of us went to buy an Egyptian cell phone, and I used a small internet cafe to check my email and look up names of hostels nearby. I eventually made my way towards downtown Cairo, taking my time and walking through Zamalek to take in all of the little things that I had missed about Egypt. It felt great to see that, while so much had changed internally, Egypt was still Egypt. Traffic was terrible, taxis honked constantly, stray cats roamed the streets, it’s hot, crowded, and chaotic. This was something that we talked about on the houseboat that morning- the country doesn’t try to win you over. It is what it is, take it or leave it. It’s crazy, but for some reason, you can’t help but love it.
I walked around for a good hour or so before finally hopping in a cab and braving the traffic into Tahrir Square. My driver spoke no English, but could say one thing: January 25, the first day of the revolution. He repeated the date three or four times, and once I acknowledged it and showed my support, he smiled and didn’t say a single thing for the rest of the ride, apparently satisfied by my response. We crossed the Qasr al-Nil bridge, and as we approached downtown, I could see that everything really was basically back to normal. The torched, gutted NDP headquarters still stood, its windows blown out and walls charred, but nobody seemed to take much notice of it anymore. Traffic was crazy, and young Egyptian couples stood along the sides of the bridge, chatting and taking in the view. Cars and people roamed freely about the square, with traffic being directed by policemen in white uniform. There was no obvious military presence to be found. Restaurants were open, and the square was surprisingly clean- it looked as though the grass and plants in the middle of the midan had been re-planted and maintained.
Only two new things stood out to me: carts selling revolution memorabilia, and remaining graffiti. You literally couldn’t walk more than twenty feet without passing by someone selling t-shirts, flags, pins, bumper stickers, or trying to paint an Egyptian flag on your hand. Souvenirs could be found everywhere- almost every car on the street had some kind of “January 25” bumper sticker, the most popular being a fake Egyptian license plate with “Jan 25” as the number. Most of the graffiti in the square had been removed or painted over, but metro stops were still marked with a few anti-Mubarak or pro-Egyptian statements. I was surprised to see that the AUC downtown campus had left a lot of graffiti up- images of the Egyptian flag and statements in support of the revolution were still standing. You could also tell that the Hardee’s, KFC, and McDonald’s had all had to replace most of their shopfronts with new glass and signs. Other than that, Tahrir Square was largely back to normal.
I ended up booking a bed at the Sun Hotel, which is literally right on the main circle of Tahrir and has windows offering great views of the now-historic area. The effects of the revolution could be seen in the absence of tourists there- the ten-bed dorm room that I was put into was largely empty, and I ended up sharing it with only one Italian girl. After booking, I walked around the square a couple of times, checking out the memorabilia, graffiti, and people before making my way back to the houseboat to collect my bags and move them to the hostel. Instead of just grabbing my things, I ended up sitting and chatting for a good few hours with our host. He offered me tea and a place to sit on the patio, which I welcomed after spending a hot afternoon walking around the city. We discovered that we were both members of Greek life in college, and he suggested places to check out in Israel. I complained about how my program won’t let us visit the West Bank, and he responded, “Honey, your university is IN occupied territory,” referring to the fact that Hebrew University is right on the border of the West Bank, technically in East Jerusalem. Eventually, he took me out to the garden in front of his houseboat and introduced me to the animals there. I watched as he let the goats out of their pen to snack on some tree leaves, with the puppy and cats watching curiously nearby. He even pulled out a homemade fishing pole, grabbed a worm from the garden, and caught a small fish from the Nile running under the short bridge to his boat, then fed it to the cats.
My short stop by the houseboat turned into an entire afternoon there. After an hour or two, my travel buddy showed up to change before going out to dinner with some old friends from AUC. I ended up joining along and abandoning my plan to bring my bags back to the hostel entirely. We grabbed koshary from a favorite place across the street, only pausing for a few minutes to wait while the entire staff finished praying on mats outside of the front entrance to the restaurant. We had planned to meet up with a few more old Cairo friends later that night for drinks, and made our way back downtown. ‘Horreya’ is a popular spot for Egyptians, expats, and international students. I’m pretty sure it literally only sells one thing (Stella beer for 10 EGP, which is under $2- and no, it’s definitely not the same thing as Stella Artois), but it’s one of the cheapest places in town and has a great environment. It’s basically just a huge open room with tons of stray tables and chairs. A couple of employees walk around with armfuls of Stella, replacing empty bottles with full ones unless you yell at them to stop. The left-hand side of the huge room is reserved for non-drinkers, and is usually full of Egyptians sipping tea, reading the newspaper, and chatting. The right-hand side is always packed with rowdy customers laughing and yelling at friends across the room. You always see someone you know there, and the employees know most of the customers by name and will greet you like an old friend.
That night at Horreya, I got to meet up with some old and new friends, including a couple of the ‘Cairo Kids’ that are studying in Jerusalem with me. One of the girls there had been working as a translator for the past couple of months for media outlets covering the uprising throughout the Middle East- she had spent more than seven weeks in Libya collecting interviews for the Sunday Telegraph, CNN and NFP. We really came full circle- when I first met her, we were also at Horreya, and she was telling me about how she has lived in Egypt her entire life, but her mother had always insisted that she work hard on speaking English well (which she does!). Now, months later, we meet again at Horreya, and her perfect English ended up getting her jobs translating for high-end news agencies on the front lines in Libya and Egypt. It was great to see her again and hear that she’s safe and doing well. She ended up riding along with me in a taxi that night to gather my things from the houseboat, accompanied me to my hostel in Tahrir, and ensured that we would all get home before curfew (which is still instated from 2-6 AM). She’s an awesome person.
That night, once I returned to my hostel, I ended up talking to the Italian girl in my room for a little bit. I noticed that she had spent most of her time in our room instead of sightseeing or souvenir shopping, as I would have expected her to. In broken English, she explained that she was only in Egypt in transition to go back to Italy. She told me that she had been “working with refugees in Palestine” for four or five years at this point, with various organizations and UN groups. Recently, she had been working closely with one family in particular, but was suddenly forced to leave after something went wrong with her visa. I had a hard time understanding exactly what had happened, but basically she had to leave her work quickly and against her will, and was now en route back to Italy after being away for years. She was obviously upset and hoping to return to her job as soon as possible. At one point, she asked me how I had liked living in Egypt, and mentioned that she might just move to Cairo if she isn’t allowed to return to Israel or the Palestinian Territories.
As I was getting ready to go to bed, the night took another turn- first, all of the power went out in the building… twice. It wasn’t a huge issue, as I could still use my computer, but then I heard some scuffling in the dark. Using the handy-dandy flashlight that’s built into my cheap (but amazing) Egyptian cell phone, I shone light across the room and ended up looking directly into the eyes of a tiny little mouse. After years of growing up with Monty, my family’s cat in California, I had grown accustomed to having mice brought into our house and having my mom return them outside. So, I didn’t want to bother the hostel manager or Italian girl, and just let the mouse be. A few minutes later, I heard it rustling again, but this time closer to my bags, and decided that I really didn’t want to wake up in the morning with a mouse in my things. So, I ventured through the dark out to the main desk, and mentioned that there was a small mouse in my room. The four or five grown Egyptian men immediately all took interest after they realized what I was talking about- I had no idea how to say “mouse” in Arabic, so it took a fair amount of charades and synonyms to get the idea across. They all came rushing into the room. A couple of them started moving beds around and shining cell phone light into dark corners, looking for the mouse. Finally, one saw it dart under a bed, causing the four other grown men to shriek and run around the room, leaping onto beds like young girls. It was priceless.
The men chased the mouse around the room for a good ten minutes, intermittently screaming, running after it, and daring each other to move more of the furniture. Eventually, they cornered the mouse near the door. It wasn’t until this exact moment that I realized that not everyone deals with mice like my family does- usually, we capture it and let it back outside. Egyptian men, I realized too late, have a different approach: they throw their flip-flops at it until it’s dead, and then throw it out the window. Needless to say, this was a little traumatizing for me and the Italian girl. I kind of wished that I would have just let the mouse rummage through my bags for the night, but at that point, there was no turning back. At least now I know why you usually don’t find mice in Egypt, right?
The next morning, I woke up to a call from one of the other Cairo-Israel kids, who had just arrived on the overnight bus from Dahab. Her hostel, another place near Tahrir Square, had apparently filled up and lost her reservation, so she ended up joining me at the Sun Hotel. We grabbed some of the free breakfast before she headed off to the Cairo Museum across the street (she had never been) and I showered and answered some e-mails. At lunchtime, I walked a couple of minutes to meet her at the entrance to the museum, and made a new discovery- about ten to fifteen huge military tanks were lined up along one of the back streets that lead right up to the museum, and military guys in full uniform lounged under the trees and in the tanks. So this was where the military presence was! They seemed to just be waiting it out, ready to emerge if protests got too out of hand or violence ensued. Tourists coming out of the museum approached the military guys, taking pictures with tanks and having officers hold their babies. I met up with my hostel-mate, took a couple of pictures (we had to!) and made our way towards lunch.
Being back in Cairo, I didn’t really feel the need to hit up any major sites in particular- I was lucky enough to have seen most of that last semester, before the evacuation. It was just great to be back in Egypt, in that kind of environment. I ended up spending most of my time just walking around or sitting outside, meeting up with people and taking it all in. For lunch that day, we met up with a friend in Zamalek, which allowed us to visit the AUC Zamalek dorms, see some favorite restaurants, and enjoy the great weather- it had cooled down dramatically since the day before. We got koshary (of course) at a place down the street before heading back to the dorms to try to locate some abandoned luggage- during the evacuation, most people were only allowed to bring one large suitcase, meaning that there were tons of bags left at the dorms. I was luckily able to bring all of my things, but she had left a bag, and it had not been sent to Hebrew University yet. An hour or so later, the security guys at the dorms still couldn’t locate it, meaning that it had probably already been put in the mail. Who knew when it would make it through customs and to the university.
We eventually made our way back to the hostel downtown, hopping on the Metro mostly just to show my hostel-mate what it was like and to ride in the women’s car one more time. We quickly noticed that on the metro stop map, the “Mubarak” stop had been scratched out on every sign. I heard a few weeks ago that it has officially been renamed “al-Shahada,” or “the martyrs” of the revolution. We soon realized that we had to figure out our sleeping situation for that night- my roommate from before the evacuation knew of an open apartment that we could crash at for the week, since AUC had the same spring break and most students were traveling. So, we talked to the hostel manager on the off-chance that he would give us a refund for that night (even though I had already paid for it, and we had both left our bags there all day)- we ended up only having to pay half of the rate. Woohoo! By the time we had that all figured out, the sun had set and I was getting hungry. We briefly considered going to Khan al-Khalili that night, the huge open-air bazaar near Islamic Cairo, but decided to postpone our trip until the next day, and walk around Tahrir Square instead. I picked up some tacky souvenirs, like a t-shirt and Egyptian flag, just for fun. A guy walking around with red, white, and black paint insisted on painting a flag on my hand, and sold matching beaded necklaces. As the square descended into darkness, people began to come out and socialize throughout the area- vendors sold everything from popcorn to t-shirts, restaurants were lively, and there was a real sense of community in the air.
We made our way to a restaurant for dinner, and decided on koshary… again. I honestly didn’t realize how much of it I ate until I started writing this post, but hey- you can’t get it anywhere else! Our Libya translator friend ended up meeting us there, and we all made our way back to Zamalek to meet up with a few more old friends at Metro Towers. I was eventually able to meet up with my pre-evacuation roommate at the Towers, where we got a key to the empty apartment and moved our bags there. Over the course of three nights, I had ended up sleeping in three different places. This would ideally be the last move for the next couple of days, at least! We returned to the first apartment in the Towers and listened to crazy stories about Libya before finally heading to bed (or couch, in my case).
The next day, I slept in a little bit while my hostel-mate (now apartment-mate) returned to Zamalek to try to track down her luggage one last time. I met up with my old roommate for lunch, who chose a nice Italian restaurant that served pork, which is an extreme rarity in Egypt. Finding a place that serves pork is like finding a needle in a haystack here. We caught up and chowed down on salad, pasta, and dessert before I made my way back to the apartment, gathered my things, and set off for Khan al-Khalili (the giant bazaar) with my apartment-mate. We both had tons of souvenirs to stock up on before leaving Egypt, and only wanted to make one trip to Khan. We were on a mission, bartering and picking up one item after another. I grabbed some colorful tapestries and bags, while my apartment-mate picked up maps, scarves, and jewelry. Khan was the same old Khan, with shopkeepers shouting out nationalities in an attempt to guess where we were from, but its narrow streets were much less crowded than usual. On some stretches, that made things a little more difficult, as we were getting twice as much attention as usual. On others, it came in handy- I was personally shown to shops carrying the style of bag that I was looking for, and we didn’t have to muscle our way through large tour groups. After only an hour or so there, we were ready to go.
We ended up meeting up with my old roommate for dinner at Felfela, one of my favorite restaurants in Egypt. It’s pretty touristy (the vast majority of its customers on any given night are not Egyptian), but the food is good, comparatively cheap, and it’s a nice, sit-down restaurant. I indulge in it every once in a while. It was a little bittersweet to be there- by the time we were evacuated, I had begun to recognize and know some of the waiters there, and definitely had favorites on the menu. This would certainly be my last visit for quite some time. So, I made sure to enjoy my falafel, tahina, and fried eggplant a little more than usual that night. We even got a favorite waiter, one who strangely resembles Christopher Walken, to take our orders, and had a busboy play the usual jokes on us, like pretending to almost drop our dishes. It’s always a classic.
The next morning, I wandered down the block to find a cafe to sit outside and start on some schoolwork. It was an absolutely beautiful day out, and I just wanted to hang out and absorb some Cairo surroundings. I ended up finding a nice table outside, and sat and drank tea while working on a couple of papers- as soon as spring break ended, we had to return to a couple of last weeks of school, and then finals. I had a lot of work to do. This was a great way to kill two birds with one stone by enjoying the city while being a little bit productive. In the afternoon, I met up with my old roommate again to head over to Dokki and visit our old stomping grounds. We wandered up and down the streets, checking out the familiar shops and some new patriotic graffiti. It was strange, and bittersweet- almost everything was exactly the same, except for the new street art and a few shops whose storefronts were still boarded up or painted over. The same old men sold fruit and vegetables from corner stores and donkey carts, and children ran up and down the street yelling and playing tag. It was a really nice day- around this time of year, the weather hadn’t yet reached its typical Cairo peak of heat, so we walked comfortably shaded under the trees hanging overhead. Our old building had one notable change- the front entrance, formerly a glass door, was now guarded by a barrier of thick steel wire. Rumor has it that the night after I left, our doorman tackled a looter who had made it inside, and shots were fired. Other than the new barrier, the building itself had returned to normal. The road blocks and makeshift bonfires had been cleared away, as the local men (and one feisty woman) had long relinquished their roles as the neighborhood watch.
Eventually, my old flatmate and I hopped on the Metro one last time (and he beat me to the ticket counter to purchase tickets, as usual) and rode into Zamalek. I had plans to meet up with the other students who would be joining me to Ethiopia so that we could put together a rough schedule of sights that we were interested in. We met in one girl’s flat right in the heart of the island, and rode the elevator (always a death-defying experience) to the top floor. She had a beautiful place with windows overlooking all of Zamalek and Cairo, making the view at night breathtaking. All of the furnishings were true to typical Egypt style- lots of antique furniture with an abundance of gold lion heads, plush cushions, and more chandeliers than you could ever need. It was great. We put together a general list of Ethiopian destinations- two or three cities, a few sights, and some hostels to start off at in the capital city, Addis Ababa, before securing plans to meet at the same place the next night in order to set off for the airport together. For the rest of the night, a couple of us returned to the flat that I was staying in to hang out one last time.
The next day, I set about checking things off of my to-do list, most of which revolved around getting my bags set for the trip. Over the course of the week, I had somehow attained about twice as much stuff as I had arrived with. The trip to the Khan al-Khalili souk had left me with an entirely new bag full of tapestries, shirts, and scarves, not to mention the various Egyptian flags and pins that I had picked up from Tahrir Square. So, I ended up packing up a bag of souvenirs and other things that I wouldn’t need in Ethiopia and planned on leaving it on the houseboat. I met up with my old roommate for lunch, and the two of us got koshary (surprise, surprise) one last time with my new flat-mate at Abu Tarek, a well-known restaurant in the backstreets of downtown Cairo. We spent a good deal of time just searching for the place, wandering down narrow streets of stray cats and makeshift tea and backgammon cafes. Old gallabeya-ed men smoking shisha pointed us in various directions until, about 20 inquiries later, we found it. The place was obviously successful- its two stories were packed with customers, both Egyptian and foreign. An enthusiastic waiter showed us his favorite ways to prepare koshary, which basically involved different combinations of tomato sauce, hot sauce, garlic, and fried onions mixed in a cup and poured on the rice and noodles in front of us. Somehow, the simple construction was always delicious.
We made our way towards downtown, emerging into more familiar territory near the Egyptian Museum, where the torched NDP building still stood and leftover graffiti proclaimed “freedom” and “January 25”. We made a decent effort at figuring out my temporary flat-mate’s train ticket for that night (she was making her way to Jordan to catch a flight out of Amman), only to discover that she would need to buy tickets from a different station. Oh well! The two of us moved on to the next thing on the to-do list: grabbing our extra bags from the flat to drop off at the houseboat. As always, we ended up sitting with its owner on the porch, drinking tea and talking for much longer than expected. The calm breeze and rocking of the Nile tends to suck you in like that. The houseboat owner was a little worried about my friend’s train schedule, seeing as this weekend was apparently a holiday in Egypt and tickets might be sold out. This prompted my friend to hurriedly get her bags together and head out to grab a cab from the busy street outside. We set her off, giving excited hugs in the middle of the ever-present Cairo traffic and shouting goodbyes. I finally tore myself away from the houseboat and met up with my old flatmate to visit a favorite shisha cafe one more time before sending me off to the airport. We walked down the street, making our way towards the Zamalek Hotel, which has a great cafe on the rooftop of the building. You have to make your way up a rickety old elevator and past some abandoned hotel rooms, but once you get to the top, it’s great. This was one of the first rooftop shisha places that I was introduced to in Cairo, way back at the beginning of my year abroad.
We secured a table right next to the railing, which overlooked the Nile and laid out all of the city’s blinking lights in front of us. After catching up for a good hour or so, I realized that I had barely enough time to meet up with my travel buddies, as we had agreed upon. We decided to indulge in the cheap taxi cabs and ride the whole five blocks to the building to pick up my bag, which ended up costing about 25 cents. I said goodbye to my old flatmate, gave him the keys to the spare apartment, and made my way to the McDonald’s across the street to meet up with my friends, who all grabbed some (extremely cheap) McNuggets before setting off for the airport. One of the guys traveling with me had taken a cab earlier that evening, and had absentmindedly mentioned that he would be going to the airport later that night. The taxi driver not only met us outside of the McDonalds to drive us there, but also waited a good hour past the time that we said we would be ready, with no guarantee that we would ever show up. Again, only in Cairo.
So, we were off to Ethiopia. That week in Cairo had been a great breath of fresh air after the hectic transition to Jerusalem, not to mention the little piece of paradise that we found in the Sinai It really allowed me to get the kind of closure that I had missed out on during the evacuation- I visited with old friends, saw favorite sites one last time, picked up plenty of souvenirs, and ate enough koshary to hold me over for a few years. It was also great to see post-revolution Egypt and talk to locals about their experiences. Despite the now-perpetual unrest around town, the people really seemed to have gained pride in their abilities as a nation and as a people. The trip got my spring break off to a great start. Now, onto Ethiopia!