*taking a break from your regularly scheduled programming of west coast trip blogs to post about the incredible weekend I spent in Cairo, because I just can’t help myself*
A few months before I came to Saudi Arabia, Daniel had an idea. He thought my visit here would be a perfect opportunity for me to cross “solo travel” off my bucket list. He said he’d take a day or two off work to be with the kids and send me somewhere for a couple of nights so I could rest and relax and explore a new city all on my own terms. No husband, no kids. He wanted me to book a nice hotel and sit on a beach where I could drink fruity alcoholic beverages and blog or rest or stroll around the shops. I laughed at this idea because A. it’s ridiculous. I enjoy traveling as a family and it wouldn’t be worth the price tag for just me B. I’d be too chicken to have my children separated from me…them in Saudi Arabia and me somewhere else. What if I couldn’t get back in? (he assured me this was a ridiculous fear.) C. The beach is nice but if we’re dropping that kind of cash I’m going to Petra or something. I need to see the wonders of the world and explore an ancient market, you know? No way was this happening. By the time I got here he’d mostly dropped it. It cost so much for us to get over here and I think he was ok with me being ok with not spending another penny. But two months in, we filed our taxes and started discussing where we’d go for dinner on my birthday and he said “Babe. Why don’t you take a trip? Go sit by a pool. Get a massage. Sleep. Look up at the sights instead of down at the kids.” And before I had time to talk myself out of it, before guilt or fear settled in, I said, “you know what? I think I will.”
Where to Go
Daniel had this vision of me lying in a lounge chair in a big floppy hat sipping drinks by the sea, luxury hotels and modern skyscrapers directly behind me. I was thinking something more like a scene out of Indiana Jones. Dirt, brutal sun, loud markets, the smell of sweat, spices, and camel poop. It needed to be close enough to Saudi Arabia that I didn’t spend the entire weekend on the plane. (Israel was completely out of the question because you can’t travel between KSA and Israel. Imma have to throw this whole passport out now that it’s got this stamp lol ) The thing about Gulf/Middle eastern countries is that in some of them you can drink. In some of them you can wear a bathing suit in public. In some of them you can do both. In some of them you can do neither. In the end we found a fantastic compromise. I’d go to Cairo and fulfill my ancient adventure fantasies, and I’d stay in a luxury hotel that caters specifically to European and American tourists. He found a reasonably priced roundtrip ticket, and I found a stunning pyramid view luxury hotel for an absolute steal thanks to an unfortunately struggling economy and a recent downturn in tourism in the area. Booked, booked, done. I was going to Egypt. In like 5 days. By. My. Freaking. Self. Cue major panic.
Calming My Nerves
I’ve traveled quite a bit, and often it has been just me and the kids, but driving across the US border into Canada for a few days, or driving 30 minutes from our old house in Germany to a grocery store in France is one thing. Travelling to a place that is so culturally different from your own is another thing. French and German can be figured out by an anglophone. Arabic, if you didn’t know, looks like noodles. Beautiful noodles of course, because they’re very into calligraphy. But exactly as intelligible to my uncultured self as a bowl of spaghetti. So as much as I wanted to believe in myself that I’m a grown woman entirely capable of exploring a city on my own, I was a little nervous.
Fortunately, I know people. I know all the best people. I don’t know why. I just do. So I know this fearless, fascinating woman named Stacey and this is the second time I’ve mentioned her on the blog because she’s always going in front of me and doing all the cool things first then I get to stand on her shoulders and reap the benefits of her experience and avoid some of the hardship, thanks to her willingness to share her wisdom. Things like camper renovation, camping in the wilderness, solo travel, beekeeping, being an admirer of llamas, relentlessly pursuing her dreams. That sort of thing. She’s also a veteran who served with my husband and is in fact actually his friend but I stole her because she likes me better. Just kidding. Anyway, it turns out Stacey very recently went to Cairo by herself also. Her first words of wisdom to me were “My advice is…don’t go solo. But if your choices are solo or not at all, definitely go.” She affirmed some things I’d read on travel blogs (like how traffic is insanity, and how tourists are very aggressively harassed to buy things, and a tip is expected for *everything* and Uber is safer than Taxis) she also noted that it’s very hard to find WiFi in Cairo and even if your international data plan covers Egypt…it doesn’t really cover Egypt. She gave me a little confidence boost and I made a plan to shuttle to the hotel, Uber to a few sites, and spend a lot of time at the hotel. I wanted to be realistic, and give myself lots of time, and not bite off more than I could chew on my first solo trip.
I had another person I wanted to contact. A friend from college named Islam who grew up in Egypt. He still lives in the US and we’ve kept in touch with each other a little on Facebook. I reached out to him and asked for any advice or must-see hidden gems. Not only did he give me advice, but he called his sister living in Cairo, right then and there, and arranged for us to get together, despite the fact that she works, goes to university, has a life, and is planning a wedding. What a relief it was to have the name and phone number of someone, especially a woman, who I could meet and reach out to. I was not so dedicated to “doing this on my own” that I would not take advantage of what turned out to be the first of many displays of Egyptians’ famed hospitality.
A couple of days before the trip, Daniel came home from work and said “so you know how Muhammed is from Egypt?” Muhammed is his friend and translator from work. “oh, right. He’s from Egypt, does he have any advice for me?” “No, no advice but um…his parents live in Cairo and they insist on picking you up from the airport and showing you around a little.” I thought, well, that’s very generous but surely they don’t want to hang out at all these places they’ve been a million times. So we told them I planned to spend a lot of time at the hotel, that I knew I wouldn’t be able to see much of Cairo, and I was just taking a relaxing vacation. I did not want them to feel like they had to do anything, but I also did not want to turn down their kindness because knowing the Egyptians that I do know, they are very genuine. They don’t say things they don’t mean. They are just extremely generous people. Also, as much as I wanted to prove to myself I could travel alone….I knew I’d see so much more of Cairo with natives of the city by my side and I owed it to the great city of Cairo and the wonderful people of Egypt to do as much justice as I could while I had the opportunity. So I removed my pride from the equation and threw myself at the mercy of whatever M’s parents wanted to do for the two days I was there, because I know a once in a lifetime opportunity when it hits me in the face. M’s dad is a history professor. A tour of the pyramids and museum from a history professor, a native of Cairo? Luck is not the right word here. (To be clear, we like and trust this person very much. I had no qualms about getting in a car with these complete strangers if M said it was ok. He sent me a picture of his parents so I knew who to look for)
My flight left Riyadh at 6am. I like the Riyadh airport. Friendly, helpful, straightforward and easy to navigate. Oh, and efficient. Got to my gate in no time. Saudia Air is a pretty decent airline too, besides their lack of booze, and I slept much of the 3 hours to Cairo. Only one other time in my life have I flown without a baby in my lap, and it was when I was 17. The day before my 31st birthday I finally got to experience what it feels like to close your eyes on an airplane. Also, I had a window seat so I was able to look out as we flew over Mount Sinai and oh my goodness, the Red Sea is beautiful and blue from above. Because of the time difference I arrived in Cairo at 8am, and the Cairo airport is NOT like the Riyadh airport. Confusing, nobody to help you, inefficient. I purchased my Visa and went through customs and found M’s dad, who we will call Dr. B, holding a sign with my name in large capital letters. After a warm greeting he did what all non-native English speakers do: apologized for his poor English in dang-near-perfect English. He explained that his wife would not be joining us today because she was helping their daughter with a school project, but that I would meet her tomorrow. I got in his car with no idea where we were going. I told him I had not used the airport ATM to get Egyptian pounds, because I had read not to do it there, so I’d need to get some cash. He said “There’s nothing you’ll need to pay for today. But if you find something you want to buy we can figure it out.” I told him I had hoped to buy meals for my gracious hosts and he laughed at me and no more was said.
I thought Saudi traffic was bad, but Egyptian traffic is worse. There are no rules. Literally none. But Dr. B expertly dodged and swerved and explained to me points of interest along our route. Cairo has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument with ever-present guards, just like we do. A museum here, a palace there. I had no idea where we were going and for some reason felt awkward asking. Finally we parked at an apartment building and he said, “This is the home of my sister Hannan. We will stay only five minutes, don’t worry. Two days is not enough time to see Cairo. You need a month. We have no time. We must hurry”
The building seemed very old, and the first floor was dark and apparently abandoned. We rode a tiny rickety elevator to the second floor, and it stopped, lurched, and the lights went out. He assured me it always does this. We stepped out into the hall and knocked on the first door. A glamorous woman answered the door, dressed head to toe like … an American. She introduced herself as Dr. B’s sister and her son Kareem came to the door and introduced himself. I was a little taken aback by their American accents. Hannan led me into her sitting room, decorated in a stylish blend of modern and antique. To say the inside of the house did not match the outside of the apartment building is an understatement. I don’t know how else to say it….her whole house was really fancy.
The reason I mention this is because Hannan’s house is sort of representative of all of Cairo. It is a very, very old city, but at the same time a modern city. It is at the same time a developing country, and a developed one. The old and the new are often right next to each other. The rich and the poor are right next to each other. And sometimes, right when you think everything around you is very Egyptian, you’ll be surprised by something American. Like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or at Hannan’s house, her son. Born and raised in the States. Just like there seemed to be no building manager keeping up the first level of the building or paying the electric bill, yet Hannan’s house was full of the most high tech appliances and every luxury available to modern man, the government is obviously trying to build Egypt’s infrastructure up in some areas, renovating and conserving where they can, but doesn’t have the resources for all the city and state programs westerners are used to. Nobody is cleaning the dead animals off the road or rounding up the strays. Nobody really seems to be protecting the pyramids. Traffic violations are the absolute last thing on the minds of the police. But still, the conveniences of the modern first world are near at hand. A barefoot man may be herding his underfed sheep past a brand new high rise of loft apartments in the middle of the city as both nice cars and donkeys pulling carts zoom by on the same street. Cairo is home to some of the most impressive museums, prestigious universities, and awe-inspiring works of architecture and feats of human genius and innovation in the entire world, but at the same time you find yourself going “hm, odd place for a trash pile and a goat herd, but ok.”
Understand, none of this is a criticism. These observations are a result of complex things I don’t understand. I’m not an economist or a historian, and I’m not an Egyptian. Just a grateful observer sharing what I’ve seen. I’ve noticed that sometimes these things are jarring to American tourists because we don’t have any truly old cities. We haven’t been around long enough to have as many overlapping layers of economic highs and low, peace and unrest. We’re very specific about zoning laws. Business here, residents there. We tend to have a wealthy side of town and a poor side of town. Cairo is so big and so old and has such a long history that I’ve barely scratched the surface, especially of their recent political history. I just wanted to paint this picture because photos on Instagram don’t always show the construction mess or the McDonald’s or the poverty or general lack of infrastructure in a place and then people (especially Americans) visit these places and are surprised by what they find in the vicinity of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, both in and out of western countries.
Anyway, that was a long rabbit trail, but back to Hannan’s beautiful living room. She immediately offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted, and then added “If that’s alright with Dr. B. I think we’re on a tight schedule.” He said there’s always time for coffee, so we went to her table where I had a great view of the city. I’d read three stereotypes about Egyptians. 1. They are hospitable 2. They love sweets 3. They will force feed you until you are sick. I can confirm that sometimes stereotypes are rooted in truth. Hannan told me she’d hosted a big party the night before for all her girlfriends and had some sweets leftover. She made me a plate of pastries to go with my coffee and kept adding more as I finished what I ate. It was all so, so good. I was so glad I’d decided to forgo the Dunkin’ Donuts in the Riyadh airport that morning. I had not even seen any of Cairo, but the fact that I was invited into an Egyptian home and served beautiful Egyptian pastries and coffee had me already overwhelmed with feeling so grateful for the experience. After I was allowed to be done eating (ha!), Dr. B, Kareem and I headed to the car. Kareem was asked to come along as a translator. Once again I had no idea where we were going.
Our next stop, just a short distance from Hannnan’s home, was the Baron Empain Palace. Baron Empain was a rich Belgian industrialist and Egyptologist who came to Cairo in 1904 and built up the part of the city known as the Heliopolis. He built roads, parks, housing, hotels and brought in electricity, sewer and running water. A lot of streets and businesses in the area are still named for the Baron. His house, the palace, stands out as an incredibly unique piece of architecture because it was mostly inspired by Angkor Wat and Indian temples but also has some Arab and European influence. It’s beautiful and was a tourist attraction for many years, but unfortunately was abandoned and completely vandalized. At the moment it’s covered in scaffolding and closed to the public. I was confused as to why we were here in this construction zone but we got out of the car and two men came to greet us, shaking my hand warmly and embracing the men with hugs and cheek kissing (seriously people, Americans are the only people in the world who don’t kiss each other.) One of the men was Dr. B’s friend Yasser, and I feel like a jerk because I don’t remember the other gentleman’s name, but he led us to a temporary mobile office with a large conference table and offered me more tea or coffee, and seemed unsure what to do when I declined. I’d read that public restrooms are not as easy to come by in Egypt, and listen…I’ve birthed four kids. I can only drink so much tea, ok? Anyway he explains to me what they’re doing at the palace and how he works for the University of Cairo in the restoration and conservation department. (All of this was in Arabic, with Kareem translating expertly for us) then he asked what my field…what my specialty was and I was horrified. This guy…a brilliant PhD is here assuming I’m some kind of academic because I was there with Dr. B and Yasser. I laughed awkwardly and told him I’m just a housewife. Just a tourist. He said “ok!” and led us toward the palace. Probably wondering why the heck he was wasting his time on this random college dropout, but as he gave us the tour he was so accommodating and informative and so very clearly passionate about his projects. If I was an inconvenience, or if he thought I was an idiot, he certainly made me feel very welcome. I was forced to drink some sort of delicious fruity malt beverage, and a bottle of water, and to put more water bottles in my purse (on top of the ones I bought at the airport and that Ms. Hannan had given me) I was so very adequately hydrated in Egypt. After the tour of the palace Dr. B, Kareem, Yasser and I got in the car and headed to the Museum of Egypt.
Kareem was great and really made the first day very comfortable. He’s a dual citizen, raised in the States but his mother keeps her house in Cairo to live in part of the year. He’s also about my age, maybe a little younger. So not only was he there breaking the language barrier, he was also bridging cultural and generational gaps between me and my host. It was nice to be able to lean over and whisper “what’s the polite thing to do in this situation?” and him immediately understand. Also, I was able to talk and joke about things that a fellow Millennial would understand. Because that is the thing that defines us as a generation: we’ve all been connected to each other for as long as we can remember, thanks to the internet. He sort of instinctively knew which things to explain to me, and how to make them relatable.
The Museum of Egypt
It seemed that Dr. B was flashing his University ID card a lot, and I think he was getting us into a lot of things for free, but honestly, I think he was also just paying for things behind my back. If this was happening, it was very discreet so that I was unable to protest. This is why, when we were approached by another man at the museum entrance who embraced and kissed everyone else, I assumed we were being met by another of Dr. B’s friends. Later I realized that no, this was just a paid tour guide, but Egyptians treat everyone like family the instant they meet them, so I misunderstood and assumed they were friends. This tour guide though, was certainly the best of the best. This guy LOVES ancient Egypt and has incredible energy. The museum is huge. It takes days to see the whole thing, sort of like the Louvre. We only had a few hours, so he was talking fast and moving faster, but he showed me all the highlights of the museum. The tombs, the contents of the tombs, the statues, the art, jewelry, furniture, the mummified animals. And of course the Pharaohs. You can’t photograph Ramses II, Amenhotep, King Tutankhamen, etc, but we got to see them and it was incredible. Between the tour guide and Dr. B, they made everything come alive, so to speak (fortunately the mummies themselves did not wake up) and I could not have planned a more perfect tour of the museum. It is absolutely a must see if you are ever fortunate enough to visit Cairo.
I had told Dr. B I wanted to see some of Coptic Cairo, specifically the shrine of St. George, so that was our next stop. On the way we drove along a scenic stretch of road with a great view of the Nile, passed some very old family cemeteries, and from a distance we saw the Fortress of Saladin.
Coptic Cairo is part of Old Cairo, and according to Christian tradition this is the area the Holy Family fled to during their flight to Egypt from Herod, and it became a Christian stronghold in Egypt. Today there are quite a few (super old!) Christian churches and museums in Coptic Cairo. Many of them were built as early as the 6th and 7th century, including the original monastery over the shrine. It’s a little confusing because there are multiple St. George’s churches, but the shrine was built over the prison where the martyr St. George was imprisoned and tortured, and the torture devices used on him are on display for all to see, along with many beautiful paintings and icons of St. George. You can go down into the prison cells, too, where people have left handwritten messages folded up and crammed into the cracks of the walls. Some of the letters are framed and on display, and since they are all in Arabic, Dr. B read some of them to me. Many of them are from not only Christians, but Muslims also who have come into the shrine and asked St. George to pray for them and then they leave notes telling how God delivered them from both physical ailments and demonic ones. After we toured the church, my new friends and I lit candles and asked St. George to pray for us.
Amr ibn al-As Mosque
Just down the street from St. George shrine is Amr ibn al-As mosque. Amr ibn al-As was a contemporary and companion of Islam’s prophet Muhammed, and the site of the mosque sits on the site of his tent while he was a commander of the Muslim army. Nothing of the original mosque remains, it has been rebuilt since its destruction, but when it stood originally it was the first mosque in the whole of Africa. It was prayer time when we arrived, so as a non-muslim I was asked to wait outside. Kareem stayed with me so I would not be alone while Dr. B and Yasser went in to pray. After the short prayer time, tourists were welcomed back into the mosque. We removed our shoes at the entrance and I was given a grand tour of the beautiful building, along with history and religion lessons from my hosts. As we were preparing to leave, a large group of people came running into the building carrying a lightweight casket. Dr. B explained that in Egypt, they prefer to bury bodies very quickly after death, so a funeral consisted mostly of carrying the body to the mosque where it was oriented towards Mecca while friends and family gathered around to pray. Dr. B, Yasser, and Kareem went to pray with and offer condolences to the family (who they did not know) and I was invited to sit nearby and pray for the soul of the departed and for the comfort of his family in my own way.
Once we left the mosque it was pretty late in the afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten anything since Ms. Hannan fed us enormous amounts of pastries, so we made the long drive back to her house to drop Kareem off, where once again we were going to go in “only for a few minutes.” This time it was my turn to assure Yasser that the elevator always lurches and goes dark, and it was funny to watch him make the same horrified face I’d made that morning. As soon as we sat down on the couch Hannan told me she had tons of leftover food from the party she hosted the evening before and asked if she could make me a small plate of samples of everything. Obviously, I accepted. Unsurprisingly, it was not a small plate. It was a huge plate of chicken, veal, spinach, mushrooms, dolmas, zucchini, and a bowl of Greek salad, and a separate plate of eggplant, plus some sort of tahini sauce. Hannan’s sister-in-law and a couple grown nephews were there too, along with Kareem, Dr. B and Yasser, and before I knew it I was in the middle of a big Egyptian family dinner, listening to the talk and laughter that I mostly did not understand but still felt incredibly honored to be a part of. Hannan kept adding food to my plate until I begged for mercy at which point she made me a large plate of pastries and a big cup of coffee with cream, sugar, and cinnamon. Not to be rude, and because that cake with fresh crème was too good to pass up, I ate most of that, too. Dr. B kept hinting that we could not stay long, but it was hard to leave.
At this point I was texting with Isam’s sister Asmaa, and we planned to meet up that evening. It was decided that she would meet me and Dr. B at the nightly light-and-sound show at the pyramids across from my hotel, near where she lives. However, due to my inability to eat so much food very quickly and terrible Cairo traffic, she told me that nobody is allowed to enter the show once it had begun, and we were very clearly not going to make it in time. Dr. B laughed and said “oh I will get us in. Her too, tell her not to worry.” I passed along the message but understandably skeptical she said she’d just see me afterward. Sure enough, we were late, but Dr. B asked for someone at the gate (in Arabic of course) and then we were escorted by a man in a suit, without paying, to the VIP section, front and center. (who IS this guy? Is he a Cairo celebrity? I don’t even know.) I didn’t expect to be impressed by the lights show. But I was. After dark, they project lights and pictures onto the sphynx and pyramids and tell the entertaining history over booming loudspeakers. It was beautiful and I hadn’t realized we’d be so close to them. I was so eager to see it all in the light of day.
By the time I’d checked into my hotel and found my room (with a great view!) around 8:30, my phone was almost dead and my charger wasn’t working very well. I was reluctant to Uber to Asmaa’s house with a dead phone so I told her I’d need to wait around til I had some charge. She understood that I’d been up since 4am and had not expected to have such a full day, and though I felt like a jerk we agreed that it would be difficult for us to get together that evening. But next time. I was certainly bummed not to get to meet her, but I was also very suddenly incredibly tired and relieved that I’d be able to tell Daniel that I DID relax at the hotel a little. I let my phone charge a bit and rested, and then I went downstairs to try one of the 5 star restaurants in my incredible hotel. Some people feel awkward eating at a restaurant alone, but let me tell you. For a mother of four small children, it is a dream. I had chicken piccata, risotto, and a glass of white wine. In the entry of the hotel in front of the grand staircase, an Egyptian wedding reception was now in full swing. Live music and elegant clothing and tireless dancing. The wedding party shook hands and hugged strangers and people joined in the dancing. I was struck with the realization that somehow today, I’d happened upon both an Egyptian funeral and an Egyptian wedding, not to mention the family dinner, and I felt like the most fortunate person to have been able to sit back and observe so many pieces of Egyptian life. I went to one of the hotel bars and listened to the live music and enjoyed a couple of drinks before I went back upstairs to take advantage of my huge rainfall shower and that big empty bed.
I thought I’d sleep in, but I was up, bouncing out of bed at 6am, having slept like the dead for the first time in ten years. I ordered room service for breakfast, a huge spread of Egyptian food, bread, and fresh fruit including fresh dates and fresh squeezed juice (plus coffee of course.) I ate slowly and watched the people down by the gorgeous pool. It was a killer way to begin my 31st year of life. I relaxed by the pool until about 10, then spent an hour searching in vain for my lost debit card.
When I went to check out at 11, Yasser was there waiting for me. We walked across the street to the pyramids. Never cross a Cairo street without an Egyptian on your arm. It’s a deadly game of chicken that only they know how to play. We were met there by Dr. B and his lovely wife Ms. Elham. Having heard that it was my birthday, she presented me with a gift, a statue of the goddess Bastet, and Dr. B gave me a gift and note for Daniel saying he hoped to meet him soon.
Once again, Dr. B went behind my back and hired a tour guide. He showed us around the pyramids and the sphynx, snapped lots of pictures of me, and even took us down into a tomb of priests which was that day closed to tourists. I had the whole tomb to myself (ha! How many times does one say that phrase in their life?) It was a dream come true. You’d think I’d have more to say about crossing that major item off my bucket list, but there is no more to say. The pyramids are incredible. They are huge. I was in awe to be standing there. It was surreal. Yasser bought a little box of pyramid sculptures for me from a vendor. Dr. B shook his head again that we had no time, because two days is not enough, and we hurried to our next spot. Mrs. Elham does not speak very much English, but she is a constant source of cheerfulness and laughter. I was able to communicate to her our very high esteem of her son Muhammed, and that was definitely the nicest thing someone could say to her. As the day went on she became more confident in her English, and it was a joy to spend the day with her.
Old Cairo Bazaar District
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Old Cairo is the bazaar district and it was high on my list of things to see. A huge neighborhood of streets enclosed in an ancient stone wall with eight distinct, elaborate, enormous gates, it is a pedestrian-only sect of markets (souks) and mosques frozen in time. It is not only popular tourist destination, but a big hang out for the locals, and we saw large groups of Cairo teenagers on “recess” from school playing soccer in mosque gardens, singing Arabic rap songs while standing on benches trying to impress the teenage girls, and just walking down the street arm in arm with each other. This is the place to buy souvenirs. This place is so distinctly old Egypt and was honestly one of my favorite things about Cairo. I asked if people lived in the district and Dr. B told me that few people have apartments here, as there are not many livable houses in these incredibly old buildings anymore. It would be expensive to live here. Mostly diplomats and the like. Plus, once the gates close in the evening, they are closed for good until morning. Having been force fed lots of water and juice, I found myself worried that I was not going to find a public bathroom in this place. “We’re going to a bathroom,” I was told. Ok then. We walked along the shops and I had this truly unique experience of being a western female tourist without being harassed by the shopkeepers, as I was surrounded on all sides by locals. I was able to browse and observe at my leisure. This is not the experience of most tourists. Vendors are pretty aggressive here, as I learned when I fell behind my group for a moment once.
Suddenly we were going in the narrow door of an incredibly old building and up an even narrower set of steep stone steps. We came to a door and Yasser invited us into his home, where I was happy to be allowed to use the coolest bathroom I’ve ever seen. Yasser’s house is like a museum. Being an artist and someone who loves Egyptian history, Yasser bought the house in bad shape and restored it to its former glory through the years. The house is a beautiful, perfectly curated example of what an Egyptian house would have looked like in this district over 100 years ago. The furniture, the décor, the fixtures, every little detail. Anything that was original that could be salvaged, he did. He even hangs a tapestry over his flat screen tv so that it doesn’t take away from the effect when you walk in. He laughed at me for taking photos of his bathroom, but Mrs. Elham did the same, so it wasn’t just me being an awkward American. She was wildly impressed too. We stayed there to rest and hydrate, and everyone else charged their phones (unfortunately nobody told me I’d have access to an outlet, so I left my cable in the car and being the odd man out without an Apple phone….I just went without a phone the rest of the day once my phone died in his fancy bathroom. They took pictures for me, though.)
Afterward we explored more of the bazaar and we went to several old mosques and admired the beautiful marble, woodwork, stained glass, and architecture. I couldn’t remember the names of them all, nor even try to pronounce them. I was surprised to see so few tourists at them, and I think part of it is that some people think non-muslims are not allowed to go in them. Some of them are not used as mosques anymore and are just historical buildings, but all were as visually stunning as many of the beautiful cathedrals we visited in Europe.
Finally we went back to Yasser’s house where he served us kebab, spicy fermented vegetables, bread, and coffee. We rested and talked and Yasser showed us his collection of old photographs of Egypt 100 years ago, and Dr. B, also an artist, showed me pictures of the many sculptures he’s made that are all over Egypt (including in museums!) Finally it was time to head back to the airport, and I was sad to say goodbye to my new friends. All of Cairo, really. Everyone I met was so kind and welcoming. Everyone I met thanked me for visiting Egypt, said they were glad I was there. These people are proud of their country and they feel they’ve been unfairly represented in the media as a dangerous place. They take a lot of pride in the fact that they live side by side peacefully with their neighbors who go to the synogogue and the cathedral. They hope that someday they will see their tourism industry thriving again.
Cairo Airport was once again a nightmare. This is the one thing Saudi Arabia does better than Egypt. You go through security more than once and they seem to be annoyed by Americans. The very young, very arrogant guy at the check in desk DID try to tell me I could not get back into Saudi Arabia, and as prone as I am to panicking, I did not worry too much because I knew he was just misinformed and/or being belligerent for the sake of belligerence, but he wasted a LOT of my time and I found that being polite was not helping anymore. “Listen. You and I both know that what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense or they wouldn’t have let me in the first time. I have a five year visa. I promise you the Saudis are ok with me being there. My children are there, as you can see from the email I showed you, so an inconvenient delay at check in is not going to dissuade me from getting on this plane. I am going to get on THIS flight.” He printed my ticket without another word, because obstinate little boys do not wish to tangle with mama bears. I bought a slice of cake at the airport Starbucks, because hey, it was my birthday and took my iced coffee on the plane with me where I did something I’ve never done in my life. I watched a movie on an airplane. I am sure listening to me giggle at Crazy Rich Asians was annoying the old man next to me trying to read his Koran, but like I said. It was my birthday. I came home (to a spotless house and all laundry put away!) where my love and our babies had a strawberry tart birthday cake waiting for me. We all had a piece and collapsed into bed and it was the perfect end to a perfect weekend.
Before I left, I thought I’d come back with all this useful advice for female travelers or solo travelers, or just anyone wanting to visit Cairo. I figured I’d have some crazy stories of overcoming obstacles and inconveniences, talk about how empowering solo travel is, and end on a note about girl power and how happy I was to have this learning experience and opportunity to challenge myself. But that’s not how it went down. Everything was handed to me and I did nothing to deserve it. I have a great imagination but I could not have conceived of an easier, more amazing time in Cairo. And that’s not necessarily how most people are going to experience a trip to a foreign country. Travel is exhausting, and frustrating, and confusing. It always takes more time to get from point A to point B than you think it will. Something will always be closed even if the website said it was open. You will lose your debit card (I did!) Your phone charger will stop working (mine did!) and, you know, in my opinion it’s usually worth it to travel anyway. But this just isn’t one of those stories. If I’ve learned anything useful about traveling on this trip, it’s just a confirmation of what I’ve always believed: that it’s best to have a plan, but an extremely flexible one. Don’t be so hung up on trying a certain restaurant that you pass up an opportunity to eat something even better. The best food always presents itself to you. Be safe, be smart, but accept kindness. Don’t be afraid to throw the itinerary and all of your expectations out the window and let a good trip happen to you. You may not find yourself having all the luck I had this weekend, but it is my experience that fortune favors the bold.