“Yalla, yalla! Fifty American dollars to the center of Cairo! Special deal just for you!” were the first words I heard in English upon getting off the plane in Egypt.
I was arriving around midnight and all of the services I expected in a large international airport were shut down for the night. I was on the first day of my epic three-year journey around the world and I was already lost. To think, only moments earlier as we circled over Cairo, I was desperately looking out the window searching for a glimpse of the Great Pyramids of Giza, thinking that maybe they’re too small to see from this far up, and at night as well. Then suddenly my window was filled with the half-lit outline of the largest of the three pyramids and emotion welled up in me as I thought, “This is going to be amazing!” Now I was in an empty airport except for the throng of taxi drivers yelling and grabbing at me to “Yalla! Yalla!” (Let’s go! Let’s go!), while being completely unable to answer any of my questions.
From Colliers to Cairo
It’s at this point that I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. I was born in St. John’s but lived in the town of Colliers, population 720, until I was seventeen. I spent nine years as an officer in the military, which brought me all across Canada and the northern U.S. but mostly to smaller towns outside of the bigger cities, and I always grew up with a dislike of ‘big’ cities like Toronto. Now I found myself in a city that the locals will tell you has 30 million people, and apparently the English language was nowhere to be found. So you can imagine my relief when a much calmer, well-dressed Egyptian who spoke good English came up to me and offered me the fifty dollar ride into town. I had no idea how much things should cost in Egypt and it was dawning on me just how unprepared I was for this world trip. Not knowing Canada was one of the most expensive countries in the world and Egypt one of the cheapest, I jumped at the offer without even attempting to haggle. As soon as we left the doors of the airport I started to panic…we were walking well away from the normal taxi area and down the road to a car parked on the curb. I started to voice my hesitation but then remembered the feeling of loss and confusion back in the airport and reasoned that at least I’m a lot bigger than him, so I’ll give it a shot.
The drive into the city center was long and very hot – over 40 degrees Celsius at midnight – and he wouldn’t let me put my hand outside the window because, he said, the cars regularly drive close enough to each other to knock off mirrors and I could lose my hand. During the ride we talked a lot and I answered all of his questions about Canada, and he told me all about himself, his family and Egypt. This was 2010, pre-revolution Egypt, and when he told me about the corruption and their dictator, Hosni Mubarak, I asked him, “Why don’t the people stand up to him?” His reply: “Because they are afraid. Every time somebody tries to protest against the government the police are sent out to beat them.” Seeing the genuine concern on his face, and that of every other Egyptian I would speak to about it, it is near impossible to describe to you how happy and proud I was to hear just a few months later about Egypt finding her courage and standing up to her oppressors. But at the time, sitting in that taxi and hearing the tale of the struggle of the common Egyptian, it seemed a long way off. This man’s name was Tarek and – for a lot of money – he would be the first person to introduce me to the world.
After more than an hour talking with Tarek we arrived at my hostel, which I booked through Hostelling International in hopes of having something somewhat Westernized for my first night alone in this world. The hostel advertised English speaking staff and Wi-Fi; they had neither, nor did they have my reservation. In fact, they didn’t even have a computer and instead relied on somebody who did to call them and tell them what reservations they had. Luckily Tarek had stuck around long enough to help me straighten things out, though it still took 45 minutes. Before leaving, he gave me his card and told me that he offered full day tours for $200 that would take me wherever I wanted to go in the city, not including entrance fees, for myself and him as well. Thinking that this was a lot more money than I wanted to spend, I thanked him gratefully for everything he did for me and let him go on his way.
Now, before flying to Egypt I did do one little bit of planning and that was to contact local Egyptians through a travel website, www.couchsurfing.org, in hopes that they could show me around and help introduce me to Egyptian culture. With plans to get together whenever I arrived and was ready, now my main task was to find a sim-card for my phone and internet. Since my hostel was not going to be any help I decided to lock everything in my room and take a walk down the street to get my bearings. The hostel was situated directly alongside the Nile, which, in the centre of Cairo, was very wide and extremely polluted. Since it was about 2 a.m. I was very surprised to find the streets crowded with people and cars. They say that New York is the city that never sleeps but I think Cairo beats it out. The first thing I noticed as I walked down the street was that every single person was staring at me. Being from Newfoundland you expect passersby to look at you but when you go to Toronto nobody looks at you so to have such a mass of people all staring at me was quite unnerving. Growing up in North America and being ex-military, I’ve always heard so many negative stereotypes about the Islamic world that it was hard not to be a little afraid in this new situation. But I kept my wits about me and kept walking, vowing not to stray too far and to stick to crowded areas. It turned out that the area I was in didn’t have much of anything in the way of business, and I was unable to see any phone stores or internet cafes. Though I did find a little kebab shop, filled with feeding families, which served delicious food – although I still have no idea what I ordered because there was no English menu or pictures.
I walked down the street in both directions from the hostel and every step gave me a further overwhelming feeling of being absolutely alone in the world, though I was surrounded by people in a city of 30 million. I began to think I was an idiot for assuming that I could just go off and travel the world, and that maybe I should cut my losses and go home. I went back to my hostel, back to the dirtiest room I’d ever stayed in, with peeling paint and wallpaper and mildew stains and cracks in the floors and walls, and set up my bug net over the bed, afraid of all the creepy crawly things that don’t exist in Newfoundland. And then, for the first and only time as a grown man, I cried myself to sleep.
I woke up a couple hours later feeling ridiculous for how I felt the night before. This was a challenge and I was not going to be defeated. I had one option: I had to call Tarek. He was the only person I knew in the world right now. I found his card among the pile of receipts and coins which I had emptied from my pocket the night before and went to the front desk where I used my not-yet-acquired miming techniques to ask to borrow their phone. I called Tarek and agreed to his day-trip as long as he got me set up with internet and a sim-card. He consented and we were on our way.
However, before heading out on a long, hot day trip, driving and trekking all over town, he said that I had to have a special Egyptian meal which gives you an amazing amount of energy. This was my first introduction to koshary, a dish of pasta, rice, fried onions, chick peas, lentils, tomato sauce and an optional extra spicy sauce. It was a true breakfast of champions which cost only 50 cents and was very filling. I would go on to eat this almost every one of the 80 days I spent in Egypt. And to add an extra experience to the meal, a car rear-ended Tarek’s vehicle while we were in the restaurant, though it didn’t do much damage. Some yelling and gesturing ensued but in the end no information was traded. When I asked what had happened he just said that nobody has insurance in Egypt and the guy obviously couldn’t afford to pay anything so why bother.
That day, Tarek took me all over Cairo, visiting pyramids, mosques, cathedrals, markets and museums. Every time we passed somebody obviously looking to swindle foreigners for extra money they would say hello to me and then say a lot, in Arabic, to Tarek. Later he would tell me that they were asking him to convince the stupid foreigner to pay as much as fifty dollars to take a picture with them and that they would give him half if he did. Tarek always refused, and when I did want a picture with somebody he would argue a fair price for me. He also told me that they only talked to him nicely because they thought he was a licensed tour guide. If they knew that he wasn’t they probably would have attacked him for turning him down. There is a very large tourist police force in Egypt that will beat and throw in jail anybody who gets caught doing anything bad to tourists or to the tour guides, but when you see a fight between locals nothing happens. He advised me that most tour guides in Egypt are very rich because they usually convince their tour buses to pay the exorbitant amounts while they take half of it. Based on the stories I heard from other travelers I can confirm that this indeed appears true.
All in all, thanks to Tarek, it turned out to be an amazing day full of amazing sights and eye-opening experiences. And I was also able to start communicating with Yasmin, who would come to be a true inspiration and one of my favourite people in the world – though that’s a story for another day. At the end of the day, when asked if I wanted to do a second day trip to the less visited, but more interesting Saqqara pyramids outside of town, I agreed, even though I knew the price was double or triple what I could have done it for. But he had earned it: he introduced me to this world, and you can’t put a price on that.
The Independent encourages submission of travel-related stories, guides, anecdotes, and more! If you’d like to contribute to our Travel section, email email@example.com.