Cairo - First Impressions
Although, geographically, Egypt is largely situated in North Africa, it is considered a Middle Eastern country. The largest part of the country stretches along the Nile in North Africa, while the Sinai Peninsula is sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, bordering Israel and the Gaza strip.
This part of the world is scary to many people, partly due to the ongoing political unrest. For women travelers in particular, it can be intimidating with its male-dominant culture and unfamiliar customs. But with both those things in mind, with some travel common sense and an open heart, Egypt can be a gratifying and rewarding experience. After all, it is the site of the only ancient world wonder of the Seven Wonders of the World that remains - the Great Pyramids of Giza. Isn't that a reason in itself to get on a flight out of your comfort zone?
As a traveler, there are some moments that stick in your heart and your mind forever. My first night in Cairo was one of those moments for me.
I had just left my teaching position on the island of Cyprus to embark on a solo backpacking trip around Africa before my return to the States to apply to medical school - Egypt was my first stop on that trip. I boarded the plane with an anchor in my chest, as I left behind people that had become family over the past two years. Tears ran down my cheeks as I pressed my forehead against the window, and concerned travelers spoke in hushed voices around me. I felt a hand slip into my own and turned to see a woman in a colorful head scarf next to me. She spoke of her own travels and how finally, she was going back to her home in Cairo. She offered me a place in her home for the night and as the others around us heard, they chimed in - offering a bed, a meal, a tour of the city. I politely declined, as I had an itinerary set, but they insisted on me joining travel plans with the only other white male on the flight, a young British Air Force pilot by the name of James. They rearranged themselves in their seats until I found myself seated next to James. We spent the rest of the flight excitedly planning the next few days in Cairo, and as we stepped onto the tarmac together after the flight landed, we turned to each other and laughed amidst the clapping from the other passengers.
As with most places, I recommend getting a taxi from the airport or a car to pick you up. Cairo is not somewhere you want to rent a car. To this day, I have never been anywhere else where the thought of driving scares me so much. On the way from the airport to downtown, I sat with my fists clenched in my lap, throwing prayers to whoever happened to be catching them. The cars wove in and out of each other in disarray, four or five lanes wide, sometimes bouncing off one another with a screech of metal, a shake of a fist, and a howl from the drivers inside. The smoggy air filled my lungs with heat and dust, and my eyes burned even in the darkness. I was suddenly glad to have James beside me. The Royal Air Force was paying for his stay at one of the nicer hotels in downtown Cairo and he offered me the spare bed in his room. I thought of my hostel reservation, the dark and unfamiliar night, and leaving my travel companion - and accepted.
That night, I lay awake, thinking of everything I was leaving behind. Closing a door is painful - yes. But on the other side of that door lies endless possibility. The city clamored in the darkness, with its cacophony of car horns and jumbled city sounds, but as dawn approached, it became still. The curtains stirred, and the breeze carried the call to prayer on its hot, dusty hands through our window. I got up and went to the balcony, bedsheet wrapped around my shoulders. I leaned on the railing, looking out over the city, as loudspeakers crackled to life, joining in the call to prayer. I knew - as one usually does - that this would be a moment I would remember forever. It felt like a new beginning, like possibility...like freedom.