It was a three hour drive to Sharm El Sheikh and a seven hour ride from there to Cairo. I would get to Cairo tonight, I thought, as I stared out the window at the rocky brown mountains rising high, perhaps two thousand feet. Against the backdrop of the high blue sky, the mountains reminded me of the American West. Occasional desert trees stood alone in the brown grass. We drove past seaside resorts, mostly unfinished, sad cement structures left undone. Even the Hilton resorts had a certain ghostly feeling. At Dohab we stopped to stretch our legs. I had to go to the bathroom, but not badly enough to pay the 2 pounds. The well-dressed, hair-gelled man let me go anyway. Arabian hospitality. The cookies the Argentinian bought were expensive but tasty. I could smell the fruity odor of unshowered Daniel. I imagined bathing in the Red Sea at Sharm-el-Sheikh, palm trees in the background and descending darkness providing Romance and laughter.
How delusional. The bus station was a mostly marble building twenty miles from the sea, with three vendors and a rural feel. The only food was served from a cart: cheese sandwich or meat sandwich. The meat, which Nicholas the Argentinian joked, was kef kalash, the same unknown meat Homer Simpson eats from the cart at the World Trade Center. It came from a can with a picture of a cow. I took one bite and swallowed in disgust; I didn’t want to offend the proprietor by spitting out his local delicacy. The cheese sandwich was made with feta. I ate all of that.
A large English speaking man approached us. He was learned, one of the few English speakers in the station, which was filled with men, older men, working men. Our new friend was much read in Dickens and Shakespeare. “I love those guys; I am a writer.”
“You look like a writer.” I blushed. He took out a pound with King Tut on it and gave it to me as a souvenir, asked me if I had any coins or bills for him. I somewhat reluctantly gave him a dollar. He said, “I am not a beggar.” I said, “I know.” He said, “I bought a nice scarf today, twenty dollars.” He brought from his bag a beige wool scarf. “Take it.”
“No,” I smiled with hands up, “I couldn’t.”
“No please, take!”
“No really, I wouldn’t feel right.” He fished in his bag for another one, a traditional checkered black and white cotton scarf. “You choose.”
“No really, I can’t. It’s too nice.” He hung his head, folded his scarf and put it back in his bag. It was quiet for a moment. He turned to the Argentinians, took out Cup of Noodles and pastry treats. We ate some of the dry, sweet pastries. He left for his train. The Argentinian girl said, “I think you offended him by not taking his scarf.” I hung my head. I felt horrible. Not only did I need a scarf, but that was actually a nice one. I would’ve loved to have had it! Why did I deny him? Five minutes later, he returned and told us to wait outside, that we might miss the bus if we didn’t. I tried smoothing things over by telling him how kind he was, but he just thought I was a weirdo.
We followed him. Roughly thirty men sat outside in chairs, smoking, talking loudly. Arabs shout; it’s part of their culture. . They all watched us as we walked onto the platform, which was really just ten lanes with a few chairs. It was evident that foreigners didn’t use this bus station.
Our bus was part of the East Delta Company. I sat in the front seat with the Japanese guy, listening to the chilling Muslim music, which really just sounded like a beautiful prayer. There were no instrumentals; it was just a lone voice, singing higher and higher, never resolving the tension the song the way a Western song does. The front of the bus was decorated in Arabic characters and a long green stem wound its way from an empty water bottle in the left corner of the window to halfway over the entire six foot wide windshield. I felt the rush of adventure. I was going to Cairo! It had to happen this way.
Some local boys sat behind us. They worked two months in the hotels at Sharm El Sheikh, then got off a week to return home. They regaled us with potato chips and couldn’t understand when one of us refused. Which was perhaps why they took a fancy to me, since I accepted handful after handful. I had learned my lesson about Arab hospitality; I didn’t want to offend anyone else. They were fascinated with our cameras, taking pictures, posing with us, generally having a good time. This was the best part of traveling, meeting natives, boys just like me, except living in a country on the other side of the world.
Joseph was the prettiest, a young adonis with full lips and beautiful bronze skin, framed with redtinged, black hair combed in coils forward and to the middle of his head. He was thin and tall and wore pink underneath his black half-zip sweater. Mohamed was tall and bronzed, with balanced black eyes and cropped curls. He spoke the best English. He told me about his family and we talked of love. He said he loved me, and hoped I wouldn’t forget him. Then there was yelling from the back of the bus and it stopped.
I tried to understand what was happening. All of the men had to get off the bus because someone lost their phone. “In Argentina, this would never happen,” Agustina said to the boys. “You lose your phone, too bad.” The Cairoans looked around and didn’t seem to understand. The police came. To find a phone. But Joseph explained, “He was no smart. Now they take him to the box.” And he crossed his arms. The phone hadn’t been lost–it was stolen. A man had stolen another’s phone while on the bus, had been caught and was going to get the shit beat out of him in jail, Joseph implied. Twenty minutes later, the bus continued on.
We made another stop. I bought some fig newtons and a yogurt drink, complaining to the man that fifteen pounds was expensive for these items, no? and he replied this is bus station, not supermarket. Joseph bought seeds and we shared them, cracking them one at a time. When the bus stopped again, his pile had overflown the black pocket in his dashboard. We had pulled into an army checkpoint. Everyone had to get off this bus and remove their bags for a German Shepherd to sniff them. It was past midnight. La-Qaheera (Cairo) was two hours away.
Joseph roused me from a deep sleep when we were there. He asked for my camera. I gave it to him, fell back asleep. I was exhausted. I hadn’t really slept the night before on the bus to Eilat. The bus stopped on the side of a road. This was Cairo? This was scary. It was dark and we seemed to be on the side of a highway. What happened to the bus station? Joseph kept saying, “Reception,” and holding a flat hand to the side of his head. I had left my laptop on the bus! The driver wondered what I was doing and said something in Arabic like, “Be careful not to leave your shit on the bus, you dumb American.” I walked back to Joseph. I asked for my camera back. He said, “Yes.” I had a bad feeling.
Cabbies approached us, shouting. Joseph spoke to them and I showed him the address of my hostel. He said, “Come. Give me money. Hundred pounds.” That seemed like a lot. Wasn’t Egypt supposed to be cheap? “Another,” he said. I handed him another hundo, dumbly, trustingly. He told me to get in the cab. I knew better. “You go first.” He did. This was reassuring. But why wouldn’t he give me my camera? I asked him again. “Yes,” he said, “Reception.”
The cab wouldn’t start, so he and Gamar and the cabby got out and pushed it. I was worried. This was Cairo. I didn’t have my camera, didn’t know where I was going. Every fifteen seconds the cabby blew his horn. He didn’t know where we were going. I asked Joseph for my camera. He said yes. I said, “No I want to take a picture.” He didn’t understand. I said, “Joseph give me my camera.” He looked blankly at me. He held up his empty hands. “I give to sister.” “What?” I shouted. “Why would you give my camera to your sister?” He looked dumbly at me. “Why would you do that Joseph? I thought we were friends?!” “Friends?” he mulled. He pulled out a passport photo.
“Why did you give your sister my camera? And where is my money? 200 pounds for a cab ride. That’s too much.”
“No, this time is…”
“No!” I bellowed. “You gave her my camera? Why did you give her my camera?” I had a sinking feeling, knew that I should never have trusted these Arabs. He handed me the picture. It was the Argentinian girl. “Reception,” he said. “No,” I said, “I’m not going with them! No!”
“No!” He pulled my camera out of his pocket. “My camera…” The driver stopped the cab. Joseph gave me my hundred pounds back. The driver showed me he had my other hundred. Joseph and Gamar got out of the cab. I turned to Gamar who was outside, “Gamar, I’m sorry.” He nodded it was okay. Joseph was behind the cab, smoking. I turned to him, “I’m sorry Joseph!” But the cab was pulling away, driving down the banks of the dark silent Nile.
What the hell just happened? It must be three o’clock, I thought. There across the river, the huge river, the longest river in the world, was more light. And the cabby continually honking. I hadn’t lost my camera. Why didn’t Joseph give it back to me when I asked for it? How bizarre. I laughed. The cabby laughed. He accelerated onto a bridge, and we crossed the Great African River, past the streetcarts and green lights, past the wailing prayer music, past the burqaed women. An island, another river, one of the Nile’s arms reaching to the sea. I was gong to my hostel! This was Cairo!
We went to what looked like a nightclub. The cabby got out and asked someone where was the address of my hostel. I remembered seeing two Hiltons on the way down the river. Maybe I should’ve just stayed there. How can he not know this street? It’s downtown. I was afraid I’d have to push the car again to get it going. He got back in the car. The car started easily. We drove back across the river, the sprawling black river, sad and quiet, ancient in its flow, crawling, always crawling silently along. I saw signs for Tahrir Square and knew I was going the right way.
Down a black canyon of a street. He pulled up in front of another place, got out with the address of my hostel. I was safe with this cabby; he was dedicated. But Jesus, would this night never end? He got back in the car. Backed up through a red light. He knows what he’s doing, even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.
He pulled up in front of Jamaica Hostel. “Eh?”
“Well, this isn’t my hostel…” and I thought about losing the 8 dollar bed and just crashing here. It looked seedy though. Too seedy. My hostel had a 91% approval rating. I didn’t want to sleep in the Jamaican Hostel. It’s approval rating was probably in the 60s. Across the street a man scooped fallen trash into a dumpster. I swore. The cabby came back down with another big man. The other big man asked for the name of the hostel. “Divan,” I said. “Divan? Where is reservation.”
“On my computer.” I noticed the address. This was 34. Divan was 42. I showed this to him. He thought. “You sure it is 42?”
“Yes.” He thought. “Ah, Dinah!”
“Yes, Dinah hostel!” That was it! He told the driver in Arabic what to do and walked up the street as we drove. The driver got out. I wanted to take a picture of this cab that had caused me so much stress, but there wasn’t time. They were waiting, had already called the hostel proprietor to open the door. I rushed to join them in the threshold of this locked dark hostel. Cairo! “One hundred fifty,” he said. “One hundred fifty?” That was like thrity bucks. I fished in my pocket, said “I think I have…” He mocked me, hearing the jingle, “I think I have.” I pulled out a handful of coins, single pounds. “No. Fif-TEE.” I took out my wallet, and found a fifty, handed it to him. He looked at it in surprise, turned and left as soon as the proprietor opened the door.
I walked in, thanking him for being up, silently thanking him for knowing English. I felt bad about giving the driver so much money, especially since he hadn’t known where he was going. I asked the little old proprietor, “150, from bus station. Is that a lot?” “From where?”
“150! Yes. It is a lot. He is very bad man.” Great. Whatever, it was thirty bucks. I had made it to Cairo! I was going to catch my flight tomorrow.
It was four-thirty in the morning. The old man led me to a quiet room with ten other people sleeping. The ceilings were high and small Egyptian rugs were everywhere, creating a quaint, homely feeling. I checked in, told him my plan, that I was leaving early and needed to see the Pyramids before my flight. He said it would cost 220 for the car ride, which would take me there and directly to the airport after. That was fine. He said get some sleep. I brushed my teeth and lay in bed feeling how dirty I was, wishing for more time, wondering what the hell Joseph had been trying to do with my camera, thinking about how that cabby had ripped me off, and how scared and excited I was when we first drove down the banks of the Nile, in Cairo.