(Editor’s note: Over the next two months, Meghan Thom will be posting about her recent trip across North Africa. A student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Ms. Thom resides in London. This post was co-written with Pete Yeung.)
As when Moses once descended from Mount Sinai, my arrival in Luxor airport was equally grandiose: at dusk, I descended down a narrow and rickety set of stairs adjoined to the plane. The atmosphere in the terminal was palpably manic, but some disorganization was expected, if not a little endearing. At least at this hour, all I had for company was a small mix of excited but sleepy tourists and galabeya-clad men. It was nothing too overwhelming.
Knowing I had to obtain my visa, but with no idea where from, I (like a good Brit) attached myself to the refuge of a queue. As it happened, this and the other gargantuan queue that swerved around like an anaconda were for people who had registered with tour companies and lone travelers were supposed to go to the currency exchange desk to get their visa—silly me.
After eight hours of lightly sautéing in our loud, ceiling fan-assisted oven of a room, my boyfriend and I were ready to be served—a 10-hour train ride to Cairo. The journey was surprisingly bearable, and for the equivalent of five pounds, who could complain? It was the time of Ramadan, so as a consequence most of our train’s population were fasting, which led to our highly-skilled employment of surreptitious scoffing and slurping of condiments, as to not offend. As the sun lowered, dates were passed around the cabin and our fellow passengers—predominantly young, male soldiers—produced food and drinks from their khaki-colored satchels. The wave of relief was tangible. On our arrival to Ramses Station in Cairo, we navigated through the (incredibly efficient and cheap) Metro network to be greeted by Phil’s family friend, a habitant and worker in Cairo, who hosted us for the next two days.
On Monday, we travelled to Tahrir Square where a disconcerting military presence of vehicles and armed soldiers are permanently stationed. I presume for the combined purpose of acting as a deterrent for protestors and making tourists feel safer. Where they achieve either of these is questionable. The solutions to all of our tasks for the morning (most importantly getting my Sudanese visa) had fallen like seedlings, not far from the square.
After surrendering my passport at the suspiciously modest Sudanese embassy, we felt it was time to feast, and quickly found a place serving tasty foul (bean) sandwiches. Following a bit of digestion, mentally and physically, we returned to the hostel where Phil had left his luggage, with the receptionist welcoming us to relax on the roof whilst waiting. It provided a panoramic view of Cairo, where although perhaps not as pulsating as the renowned Mumbai, traffic is like the constant current of a river and the unrelenting eruptions of horns are a good test of one’s patience. We settled down and despite the afternoon heat, I still managed to doze in my chair before a friend of Phil’s arrived to see him. The friend recently immigrated to Cairo because of the lack of career opportunities in England. Quite a character, he entertained us with his thoughts on life and British politics before recommencing his Egyptian voyage.
A few more hours passed, and we convened with my Egyptian friend to go horse riding by the pyramids as the sun set. Sounds idyllic? Well, if you can bring yourself to sit on what appears to be a half-starved animal, if you can overcome the abysmal safety standards, if you keep your cool when the horse goes charging off at speed in the wrong direction, hold on if she starts to rear or buck, and still find a way to relax and appreciate the views, then I would say it comes pretty close.
Our return to the stables was followed by a change of transport; a mechanical horse ride this time because we needed to drive around and find somewhere quickly to eat (our friends had been fasting all day). The first suitable venue was a lovely outdoor tented restaurant where we devoured barbecued chicken, scrumptious beef, and a bird that no knew the word for English. Nonetheless it was quite delicious. Well nourished, we changed out of our horse-scented clothing and went to wind down with shisha and smoothies in the town centre.
Things were beginning to run too smoothly, and sure enough the next day was spent lingering in the Sudanese embassy due to a problem with the computer, they were somehow unable to type my details onto the visa itself. The man at the desk told me to wait in the corner, “I will find a way to solve your problem” he said reassuringly. Six hours of “problem-solving” later his solution for my $100 visa was to write the details on by hand. The universal joys of bureaucracy.
In the evening we decided to stay in and have a lovely dinner—a smorgasbord of traditional Middle Eastern delights (humous, olives, and babaganoush) followed by steak and vegetables. Over dessert we glared over incredible news reports of the fall of Tripoli, which could have such a fundamental effect on the region. Soon enough at 9 p.m, Mark’s driver took us to the airport. Goodbye to Cairo.