Old buildings of limestone, square simple shapes, dusty streets, more cars than one can imagine. A general rumour, car horns, constructions noises, traffic jam reached my ears. It was the most dense, vibrant and mindblowing top view of a city. It was so big and so alive as if it was breathing beneath my eyes. This is how the home of more than 23M people looks like. This is Cairo. And from the top, the tall wall of The Saladin Citadel, I saw for the first time, in the horizon, in a cloud of dust, two pyramids.
After 16 hours spent beautifully on the streets of Prague and a night spent in the plane, I landed in Hurghada, on the coast of the Red Sea. Second time this year at the Red Sea, first time in Egypt, first time in Africa.
The first challenge: finding a pen to complete my visa paper. It took me 15 minutes for that. Everybody seemed to be awaited by a tourism agency that was taking care of all. Everybody except me. So I was among the last to leave the airport and one of the few with no transport arrangements.
At 6am there were not so many options to take me to my hotel. I started regretting not taking the offer from the hotel when I couldn’t negotiate for less than 15$ with a taxi driver. He quickly placed me and my luggage to another taxi driver in the front and they started a minutes long fight in Arabic, not at all disturbed by me standing there and looking tired and pissed off. I guessed he wanted more money. We finally left in his very old car, with stickers in Arabic everywhere. In a few metres he takes a ticket from a machine and says, in a poor English, that will cost me 5 more euro. Snap! If 30 minutes ago I landed being quite frightened by the news I got from my mom the night before, while in Prague, about the bomb attack the day before, that had killed 4 in Gyza, close to Cairo, and I was promising myself I will be quiet, let it go, never start a contradiction with anyone, now I was ready to fight this guy who was rubbing me of my 5$. So all fear was gone and I raised my tone telling him to stop this price raising or I will leave the car immediately. I agree to pay the damn 5$ more, highlighting it’s just because I’m too nice to him. He ended this tourist scam wishing me Merry Christmas and welcome to Hurghada. Such a welcome! And anyway Christmas was ended two days before.
As we were driving, I didn’t like what I saw from the taxi window. At all. I was expecting the exotic images from the brochures, with posh pink large hotels, palm trees, vegetation, white beaches and turquoise waters. No sight of that. All looked under construction and never to be finished, with deserted streets where rare old cars, looking too old to be used were driving to fast. Small stores looking dusty and unwelcoming. The green tall palm trees of my imagination were small, looking dusty and dying. I was hoping this was probably outside the city. Nop, that was it. The so called centre looked just as bad.
With one last small hope I arrived in front of the hotel. And so this has vanished too. Golden Rose deserved a more suited name: Dusty Rose. It was surrounded also by buildings under construction. This seemed to be a pattern of the area. I descended the taxi in my winter coat and a cloud of dust made by the taxi wheels on something that looked like sand and small stones mixing the ground in front of the entrance. The only nice thing was a beautiful pink bougainvillea covering a corner of the green tall fence whose leaves were all yellow from the dust. When I approached the door, the scanning machine in front, which I first believed was deactivated, started an alarm that seemed at least to have woken up the guy at the reception. I entered a mall like this but never a hotel. I was never before in Egypt, true. A terribly looking Christmas tree in a corner, all covered in dust too, was trying in vain to charm up the place. I needed a deep breath. I got more cheered up by the hospitality of the guy at the reception. Happily my room was ready. Large and clean, with a nice balcony facing the sea, through some palm trees, dusty too. If I looked down, the view was bad.
I was so tired and wanted to sleep like a bear in winter but hunger and thirst were way stronger. And even stronger was my ambition to prove myself this trip was a good decision, that this was better than just another New Years Eve at home, in a restaurant of a nice hotel, a nice club or bar, with family and friends. But most of all I was keen to change the terrible impression this place have left me so far. I had a positive feeling in spite all of there.
Was anyway too late to catch one of the tours I was interested in, involving snorkeling, the no 1 reason that brought me in Hurghada, since all were leaving around 8:30. And seemed anyway too cold to such an activity. Where is the so praised summer in winter in Egypt, I was wondering, hoping that it was still to early in the morning. I forced myself to wear shorts and sandals and went out of the hotel to hunt something to eat. At first I was freezing. The second, I felt too naked for a place where I could see only men and literally no women. At least I had a wind jacket on that brought some confidence too. I went to see the beach next to the hotel. Close to the water was nice, with umbrellas made of palm tree leaves. In the back though, there was a bunch of broken beach chairs and God knows what else, left there for no reason but to spoil the image of the place. But there is no beach front I wouldn’t like. I left promising the guy at the entrance to come back later. The main street was getting more alive now compared to when I arrived, with shops selling golden jewelries, tons of them, or clothes, all too flashy and nothing of my taste, but I wasn’t there for shopping anyway and taste is not to be commented on. Still it had this feel of slum, of street that we see in the bad areas of a city everywhere in this world, except here with old commercials written in Arabic to remind one which part of the world it was.
One more last hope took me to Hurghada bay, where the port and the promenade were. On the way there I stopped and buy a pack of Cheerios with cheese and water. That’s what hunger and thirst does to me: reducing pretentions. I had to wipe off the dust on the pack of Cheerios with my hand before opening it. I was already getting used to this and find it funny. Not so funny was stepping accidently in a puddle of slimy water, while as has distracted with killing my hunger. Yeap, I was wearing sandals and was gross.
I saw a guy calling me and waving his hands to me from the entrance, he did not insist too much so I continued walking. Later I saw there the security check machine and I understand what he wanted from me, as from everyone else entering the area: to do the security check. He wasn’t insisting since I really looked like a lunatic tourist, nothing to represent a potential danger.
The promenade was beautiful, the first place I saw in this country that looked more taken care of, I thought then. In a few days after I was going to change my view and appreciate more quite the opposite of this, but more about that as my days in Egypt developed. If beautiful means nice restaurants, terraces, palm trees and spaces with vegetation, no dust here and the most perfect crystal clear turquoise water, with fancy white boats floating and colorful fish that could pe spotter in the water, than this was a beautiful place. Add a gorgeous limestone huge mosque a bit further and it’s a view impossible to criticise. It was empty still, no people.
At one of the two stalls there selling tours I meet Nura. There is no happier face than hers. She is a petite woman with nice forms and a robust and always allert body. Her face, framed by a black hijab was wearing all the freckles it could accommodate. It was that type of meet that transforms people into friends immediately. Her 4 years old daughter was like quicksilver. She offering me, out of the blue, her entire chocolate bar she was chewing, was the sweetest moment of a day with a crazy start.
Thanks to Nura I had a better deal than the one from the hotel for the last tour that day: 2h in a boat with glass bottom. Since I had nothing better to do, I took this.
I still had one hour left to kill. I spent it fully on the terrace of L’Imperatore, an Italian-Egyptian restaurant, conveniently placed in front of the boat for the tour, who’s owner was so nice to offer me a salad and a mango smoothie though the place was not open yet. More about the hospitality of Egyptians I was going to find out on many occasions the next days. In this country, this corner of the world that frightens the tourists, I was treated more as a queen or as a family member than as a customer.
Happily the sun was stronger now and was not so cold anymore so the boat tour was great. Seeing the shore from the distance was even more beautiful. Now it looked like the brochures images in my head. On the other side, a vast island, Giftun, was stretching like a yellow line in the turquoise waters, among darker spots of coral reefs. We saw plenty of fish and corals but I was expecting more from the famous Red Sea.
When I got back to the hotel I lost more than one hour in the lobby, the only place with wifi, searching on the net and trying to decide what to do next. Makadi Bay tempted me the most from the start, but Nura was saying there are only resorts there and nothing to see, she tried to convince me to arrange a taxi to take me to El Gouna, but the guys at the reception were saying there’s only beach and was too far away, they were suggesting Dream Beach instead. They made me crazy, all my initial plans of snorkeling in Makadi were not possible since it was too cold for me to jump in the water. I only had 3h of sun left and I decided I wanna spend them on the beach, any beach.
The closest beach, the previous one was the winning option. It was beautiful but windy and so cold. Still there were people in the water. 2. And 8 on the entire beach, with me included. I don’t need 30’ to convince me to go for a swim, but when a young blonde woman looking scandinavian came, dropped her clothes and in 1min she was swimming, while I was in a jacket and all covered in beach towels, I thought something’s not right. How warm that water could be? I had some conversation with one of the guys there which I wanted to be short to have a quiet moment.
I left the beach little before the sunset, I was literally frozen. I was in despair thinking at the possibility of being close of this underwater paradise and still not be able to take a swim. I decided I will take that swim no matter what the next days.
I wrote Nura on WhatsApp. She came with Jackie, her daughter and took me to a tour of the city as they were heading home. Jackie was on the back seat, her hands full of money and for the entire trip she talked to me in Arabic and a few words in English. She is adorable. We arrived in El Dahar Square right before getting dark. It was like madness, a crazy traffic, cars and people going everywhere. No rules, no lanes, no traffic signs, no crossing marks. Nothing. Only lots of cars, all sort and sizes and all looking really old (except Nura’s car) and lots and lots of people. All were crossing as they pleased, through the middle of the square, among the cars. But one thing mattered here, in this pure chaos: the car horn. This is how they are doing all the moves, outrunning another car, changing the direction or touring. That’s why it’s a madness of car horns.
I was still the frightened tourist, thinking about bomb attacks, stabbings and kidnappings, when Nura left me on the side of the square, promising to come back in 2 hours in the same place. The idea of getting lost there was a nightmare. I was comforting myself thinking Nura wouldn’t have left me there if it would have been dangerous. Many crazy paranoid thoughts were messing with my head.
She left and I was now all alone, trying to cross the large street full of cars driving chaotically. I got to the other side with all 2 legs and 2 hands. There were stores everywhere selling everything. I headed towards the most lighted street I saw there. I was aware, at first walking fast, trying to keep distance from every person. And there were lots of people but no tourists. I barely saw 1-2 couples of tourists, that’s all. This is what mass media stories do to us: scare us. I was alone, at dark, in the night bazar in central Hurghada. I bet on all the money in the world none of my friends would do it. But that’s why I was there alone.
With every step I was more confident. No one was staring, calling names or cat calling me. I actually got more of these in my own country. Sure, many were looking but just as people in my hometown would look to a woman wearing: because it’s different. Instead many were smiling friendly as an encouragement. It was an amazing vibe, so alive, so real, so natural, so true life.
A funny thing happened. I was invited in a shop with beautiful Egyptian pieces made of stone. I knew it’s a custom. Then I was invited in a small space in the back. At this point I became a bit stressed. The owner wanted me to write something about his store in my language. He saw I was standing there without moving and assure me nothing will happen if I sit a moment so I can write my message. A small table with small glasses of tea on it and colorful carpets on the chairs around. I wrote, in my language: welcome to the most beautiful store in Hurghada and teach him how to say it. Latin languages are so different from Arabic so this was so funny. Then I stand up preparing to leave when my heart stopped. They have closed all the lights. I thought that was it, I was looking for it since I came here and made a sudden move to try to jump and run outside, like a last desperate try to save my life. So help me God I thought. And then I heard the men around, about three of them: no, no, look, is shines. I thought: What the hell shines, as I was coming to realise I was a bit weird and maybe was not the case to be scared. I could hear my heart beating as my eyes were getting used to the dark and I finally could see the phosphor marks in the large statues in the store. Hieroglyphs and ancient Egyptian signs were so bright and incredibly beautiful. How stupid I was, I thought, trying to look as natural and relaxed as one close to have a heart attack could fake it. I just hope for them was not so obvious how I felt in what I thought to be my last moments in Cleopatra store. Before leaving, I told the owner the next day I will head to Luxor. He was from Luxor and was thrilled to tell me a little about his hometown. He taught me before leaving the magic sentence for a foreigner to say in Egypt, in case of trouble: ‘iinaa min huna (I am from here), he gave me a present, the Egyptian symbol for good luck, a scarabee bracelet I still have on my wrist when I write this and showed me where to eat good, right in the middle of that street. He put me to promise him I will go back in two days, on Dec 31, to tell him how it was in Luxor. I didn’t promise but I so regret I wasn’t able to go back and do so.
The place I was recommended to eat was a place I was just stepping by before and it shocked and amused me how incredibly dirty it was. A small room in white old tiles, with tall glass windows looking really oily, with small metal or wood stars, too dirty to tell, going upstairs, two huge pans outside with hot oil where a boy was frying something from time to time. Inside a man was grabbing food from the tins around him using only his hands, other two were bringing new tins full of all sorts of food. One was pouring something that looked really gross from a big basin, that looked as if no water and detergent have touched it for years. I do not exaggerate, the place looked terrible, rather suit for those missing a few days of food poisoning. I had no idea what to take, no one spoke a word of English. So I took what I saw. Someone before had a plate full of a few meals looking very good and fresh. But seeing the meat storage there, I thought I should better not go for meat in such a fancy place if I wanna leave the toilet the next day. But the place was full of locals buying food as takeaway. I said to myself: now or never and took a soup and some pasta in front, only because I could point them. I was shown to take a sit to the only table. Was smelling like food inside as if they were cooking for an army. The food was quite delicious. The next days I had many times that type of soup, called lisan asfour, or bird tongue soup, but that was the best. I ate my dinner under the surprised looks of people entering the place and seeing me there, eating. Their first surprise was immediately replaced by smiles. Two little girls watched me constantly while their mother, who was wearing al-amira, the two pieces of black veil leaving only the eyes visible, was in vain trying to stop them from staring. She also turned, I saw the smile on her eyes and I smiled back with a hand gesture and a blink instead of it’s ok, are kids. And like that, we understand each other. I paid and right before living a saw many people buying something then the window. I used the excuse I needed something for breakfast, on the way to Luxor. I aswed that were some small balls and I was immediately hand one, by hand, from inside. OMG. It was falafel, which of course I know, I had it in good restaurants, I had it in Israel, in Jordan but this was the king of falafel. The best I ever tasted. I took some fried spicy eggplants. Also delicious. I left and took a photo of the place from outside. I will never forget it as the place I was laughing about considering it too dirty and where I actually have such a good and authentic food experience. And the next morning I was in perfect health.
I walked among people, thousands of people on those little streets as if I really meant ‘iinaa min huna, I was from there. Men wearing taqyia, headscarves and long camel thobes with large scarves hanging down their neck, woman with their faces covered with al-amira or wearing only a hijab, holding grocery stores in one hand and the hand of a child in the other. And I felt secure. I thought it was the place to take amazing shots for a photographer which I am not but I did took some photos: with a store called ISIS, the name of an ancient goddess, with a spices store with tens of spices in colorful bags outside, with a stall where a woman was baking corn, waving her hand with an old newspaper as sparkles of fire were filling the air above her head, with the boy selling fruits in the market that wanted me to take his photo smiling, with the merchant who sold the first raw dates I ever had, with the cages full of hundreds of live chickens or the huge pieces of meat hanging outside, in front of the meat stores.
I bought a bracelet, a bag of tea and fresh dates, I was invited in more than 10 stores, I was asked where was I from and if I liked Egypt. I said yes and it was pure true. Those two hours showed me so much and turned upside down many of the perceptions I had before. I am definitely not someone who gets scared easily, but of Egypt, I was afraid.
Nura came for me as planned. She found me smiling with my entire body and carrying many bags with the things I have bought. I told her all, in one sentence: Nura, this is incredible I think I’m starting to love your country.
Wait to see Luxor and Cairo she said. And I couldn’t wait for more!