My feet. Always dirty. And my soles? Cracked. They have turned hard from being exposed each day. My nose is overloaded: traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, cherry-flavored shisha tobacco, incense. I hear sounds in the middle of the night: the prayer on a loudspeaker, the voice haunting and mesmerizing. A cat’s shriek outside of the flat. The unfamiliar pipe sounds of the building. My beloved’s snore.
I have played Texas Hold Em with French teachers in Dokki; I watched Sufi dancers twirl in colorful skirts.
I navigated the traffic of Tahrir Square on foot; I pressed up against scowling veiled women on a crowded metro car to Coptic Cairo; I was harassed by camel touts at Giza and horse touts on the corniche of Luxor.
I ate pigeon at Farahat; I inhaled Yemeni cuisine. I tried the warm, sweet dessert dish called om ali, while dining in a garden across the street from Luxor Temple, lit up and golden. I drank guava juice and Nescafe and Stella and Saqqara. I enjoyed bottles of red wine, delivered to our doorstep.
I woke up to my first sunrise in the Egyptian desert on a bus headed to the Sinai coast; I fell asleep to the sounds of the waters of the Red Sea in a hut on the beach; I played gin rummy by candlelight.
I gazed at mummies of crocodiles and cats and ancient royalty at the Egyptian and Luxor Museums; I smelled the perspiration of other visitors in the rock-cut tombs of the Valley of the Kings; I strolled through the grand hypostyle hall of columns at the temple of Karnak.
And I sailed the gentle waters of the Nile on a felucca as the sun set on my last evening.
* * * * *
Egypt. Complex from afar and on the surface. Welcoming but intimidating. Beautiful in a sad way.
And so, Cairo.
At street level, Cairo is loud and hectic and intense and overwhelming. The horns, the exhaust, the harassment, the staring, the pollution, the traffic, the restrictions, the horns.
Did I mention the horns?
I realize, after wandering downtown, there aren’t quiet nooks and havens on the streets of Cairo to collect yourself, to breathe, to linger. I couldn’t sit on a park bench to read my book, or stroll down a street and window shop at my leisure. Or I suppose I could, but it wouldn’t be what I’d want it to be. I guess that’s just not what you do in Cairo—you don’t come here to unwind.
Unless, of course, noise and chaos keep you sane.
When I lived in Chonburi, Thailand, seven years ago, I was lured by this kind of energy and haphazardness on the streets, taking the bus each Friday after work to lose myself in the chaos of Bangkok. My lungs got used to the exhaust of tuk-tuks and songthaews; I haggled for scarves and jewelry and amusingly misspelled T-shirts; I scrubbed a layer of soot off my skin after days of exploring sois and wats and street markets.
But I think I’m slowly shedding the patience and adventurousness to confront these things. Or my travel preferences have changed. Or Cairo was more challenging than other cities I’ve visited. Or perhaps it’s all of the above, and also that I just couldn’t wrap my head around it despite being there with someone who knows it well and calls it home.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I felt like a speck in a vast, volatile place, one I can’t comment on after only a three-week visit. But the feeling of being lost, challenged, and insignificant is humbling and oddly satisfying. I studied the city in the same way I’ve dissected other places that had been jumbled canvases to me—I think of my first trip to Madrid, and also Vientiane, Siem Reap, and Hanoi—zooming in on moments and minutiae and details that offered glimpses into a culture I know very little about.
I did a lot of things in Egypt, my senses piqued in various ways. There were a few notable moments I saw and felt Cairo as a whole: in both instances I was physically above it, once at the Citadel and also atop the Cairo Tower. These were the only times I was able to look at Cairo uninterrupted: to see its complexity, its gorgeousness. To absorb its layers and contrasts: its beauty and ugliness and warmth and harshness at once.
These moments aside, my experience in Egypt is fragmented. But, if you know a bit about how I see the world, this is welcome. I’m keeping Egypt in pieces in a small, dark velvet pouch, here at my home: bits of vivid sights and sounds, strong scents and tastes, and rich textures that I can pick up and recall individually, yet don’t all fit together in a way that makes sense to me.
Because all at once? It’s a sensory overload. But, honestly, I don’t think Egypt is a place where all pieces fit perfectly.
That said, here are some notes and numbers I gathered in my notebook while was in the country: half-thoughts, personal revelations, small victories and defeats. I’ll offer something more substantial after a bit of marinating. I can put some pieces together, I think.
Notes (Which May or May Not Be of Any Interest to You):
- Walking in traffic = less difficult once I let go of the “car versus pedestrian” mentality. Cars aren’t out to get me. Be one with the traffic and I won’t get hit (in theory). Also, it appears Nick does not believe in sidewalks.
- Islamic Cairo. Holy fuck. Totally full-on. Hard to absorb when my senses can’t cool down. Nick kept talking about sandwiches at a place called Zizo’s. I liked the sweet ones.
- Shisha. Hookahs always remind me of my dear cousin Jadrec.
- Won several poker hands one night. Not sure what my approach to poker is in general, but I seem to be focused and willing to win hands in the beginning, but once I’ve got chips I’m too intimidated to win more. Must play more games with family.
- View from the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is stellar. Saw outlines of the Pyramids in the distance. Sky is not clear, but the tint and haze make outlines of structures in the horizon quite beautiful.
- Ate pigeon. Yum. Kinda rubbery. Had to eat around the bones to get everything. Reminds me of when Gunnar eats food with his hands.
- Easier to refer to myself as Filipino and Japanese, not American. In these cases, I’m usually left alone. Reminds me of traveling in Southeast Asia.
- The Pyramids? Wow. The Sphinx? Meh.
- Many missed photo opps. But it’s okay.
- In Ras Shaitan. Combing the beach. I finally decided I want to visit the Philippines. Never felt this pull before. Not sure why in Egypt, of all places, I’m feeling this.
- Personal space. Sometimes am claustrophobic in Cairo. In the metro, on the sidewalks, in between cars when walking. But sharing space with someone else for three weeks? Surprisingly easy. And nice.
- Recalling the beaches of Thailand a lot. Hat Salat, Hat Chaweng, Ko Samet. Felt younger then. Was younger then. The city makes me tired; this beach camp reminds me that I love the sea.
- I don’t think I can live in a place away from the ocean.
- Final days. I no longer use the sidewalk.
Numbers (Some Exact, Some Approximate):
Hours it took for me to be dragged into a perfume shop in downtown Cairo: 2
Moments I’ve been mistaken for Indian: 20+
Greetings on the street that have started with “Ni hao”: 3
Correct guesses of my family’s ethnic origin: 1
Encounters in taxis where I’ve been bullied to pay more than the agreed rate: 3
Times I’ve gotten sick from food or water: 0
Winning hands in a poker tournament: 4
Victories over Nick at German whist, Shithead, and/or Bananagrams: 10+
Winning rounds in which Nick has defeated me at Slam: ∞
Times I’ve gotten upset after losing a card game: 5+
Desert encounters with a man named Moses who said I was destined for greatness: 1
Collisions with a pedestrian in a fast-moving vehicle: 1
Pieces of food stolen by a gray-striped kitten on the beach: 3
Souvenirs picked up at an alabaster factory near the Valley of the Kings: 2
Souvenirs picked up at an alabaster factory near the Valley of the Kings that I paid too much for: 2
- Photos of Egypt, I: From the Citadel to the Streets in Cairo
- Photos of Egypt, II: The Desert, the Red Sea, and the Devil’s Head
- Photos of Egypt, III: The Temples and Streets of Luxor
- Photos of Egypt, IV: Cairo Street Art on Gezira
- Luxor and Las Vegas: Kitsch, Appropriation, and Ancient Egypt
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.