Well, I’m here! My travel journal already has several pages filled–I’d’ve updated earlier but I had some problems with my so-called universal power adapter. After some fiddling with intermediary connectors finagled from the hotel desk, I managed to cobble something together–lets all just hope the computer doesn’t explode…
I think I’ll start with something that happened about a half-hour before landing at Cairo Airport. They hadn’t even fed us breakfast yet, and the entertainment system suddenly paused. Whatever movie or TV show was playing got replaced with an ad for two specialty cocktails designed specifically for Delta. My watch, still on Florida time, read about 3:30 AM. It was around 9:30 at our destination–A MUSLIM COUNTRY DURING RAMADAN. And they were showing ads for cocktails, before breakfast. Smoooooth.
As we circled around to land, the pyramids came up on our right–of course everyone was crawling over each other to see them, but I stayed where I was, looking down at the switch from tawny desert and green Nile delta into dusty, crowded Cairo. I marveled again at how sudden the transformation from wilderness into city is here. Last time I flew in at night, so my new revelation was how BEIGE Cairo looks from above! Really. Most cities I’ve flown over have more color; all the buildings look different. Cairo has a lot of architectural variety, it’s just the outside (and more particularly the roof) of everything is so dusty that it looks like a monochrome old film.
I could see an island in the Nile–Zamalek? No, no houses on that one. Then a bridge–Imbaba Bridge? No, there’s another one right there–is that it? Is that the tip of Zamalek? Looks promising, lots of big buildings and some fountains. There–are those the houseboats? Which one is mine? Is that really Zamalek? Yes, there’s Cairo tower. I wonder which of those is my boat?
As all these thoughts came spinning through my mind the plane swung slowly around, heading north over the city center. And there, over my left shoulder so I had to crane my neck to see them, were the Pyramids rising from Giza plain, barely visible through the dun haze.
I was really there.
Normally I’d avoid going to sleep in the middle of the day after flying but I succumbed to a nap: because of Ramadan all ordinary schedules are suspended. Museums, shops and cafes are all operating on different schedules, some opening earlier, some only in the evening and some not at all (like the electronics store where I want to buy a new adapter.) In the evening, people gather at restaurants or tables set up in the streets for Iftaar, the meal breaking the fast after sunset. There are tents set up on sidewalks and strings of lanterns hang over whole blocks.
When I was last here, the streets of Cairo were crowded every hour of the day and night, teeming with cars and people. Now, during the day things are much quieter. It’s like a different city. After dark celebrations begin. I’ve seen videos of Ramadan celebrations in Khan el-Khalili, riotous swirls of bright colors, loud noises and what I can only imagine are intense (and delicious) smells of towering piles of food. But the atmosphere on Zamalek was still quiet, there weren’t as many people out as I expected. It was festive, but not overcrowded.
While non-Muslims are obviously not expected to fast, it is rude to eat or drink in public in front of people who can’t. Plus, most restaurants are closed during the day anyway so finding sustenance is difficult. I do have an unfortunate tendency to suddenly pass out if I get overheated or haven’t had enough sugar (which often makes me reflect that, on balance, studying the traditional dances of Norway or Siberia may have been a wiser choice.) Despite my good intentions to go with the flow and wait till after dark for some grub, I cracked and headed off to the Marriot, which was sure to still be serving (very expensive) food. (Note for cultural non-aficionados: people not expected to fast include the elderly, the very young, pregnant, nursing or mensturating women, the ill, and travelers.)
When I sat down at the Marriot, I realized I had completely deceived myself. The last time I sat on that terrace I was with my boyfriend at the time, John. I thought that I couldn’t hide much further away from the cold reality that we weren’t together anymore than Cairo. It struck me as I sat there that I was very foolish indeed. Every corner of Zamalek, every dodgy sidewalk tile, every juice stand, every kiosk selling sweets, every stray cat is a reminder of the time we spent here. My profile photo? Taken by John in the Korean barbecue restaurant in Zamalek.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that I should have anticipated this. But that didn’t really make me feel any better. Fortunately a cold glass of lemonade, one of my absolute favorite things about Cairo, arrived quickly so I could nurse my sorrows.
To cheer myself up, I thought about the fun times we had in Cairo. I adored being with John on our trip here. That part makes me happy. The only part that makes me sad is thinking about splitting up. So I decided to skip that bit. What better place to flirt with denial than on an island in the middle of the Nile?
It’s now just after noon on the following day. I’m waiting for a call from Bee to make the final houseboat arrangements. It’s so hot I keep jumping in the shower and then standing in front of the air conditioner, and I know it isn’t even as hot as it was when we left here last time. Checking my e-mail I see the Cairo Scholars walking club is meeting tonight. They’ve charted an ambitious path for themselves. But I might just be ready to tag along.