Footloose in Egypt
Egypt has only recently come on the radar of Indians who are on an overseas holiday splurge. These days however, Egypt is in the news for all the wrong reasons.
The daily headlines on Egypt remind me of the time when I, as a vagabond on the way home after a couple of years in USA, was in Egypt. I had been on the road for 90 days, having traversed from the snow fields of the Arctic Circle to the desert sands of Egypt. I found myself at a dead-end in Cairo, surveying my assets: one suit case, US$40 and a stand-by ticket to Mumbai.
$40 could not last me much, even in inexpensive Egypt. I was accosted frequently by foreign currency touts and I finally decided to answer one of them, thinking that I might make enough profit to let me stay a couple of days more. The tout took me through a labyrinth of alleys in a Cairo slum and in the end, presented me to a regal looking person seated in a chair with 3-4 people standing around him: he was a local don. The tout told him, “This young man would like to exchange some dollars”.
The don asked me “How much?”
By now I had realised my stupidity. I replied, sheepishly, “Er… ten dollars?”
The don stared at me for a couple of minutes. The silence was palpable. Finally, possibly concluding that I was a simple kid, he told the lout to see me to the main road, and dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
* * * *
So now, I had to head home. I had a stand by TWA ticket that I could use on any airline. On a standby ticket, I would have to wait till the last passenger had checked in and then try my luck. So I left the youth hostel in the evening and reached the airport. I found that there were no flights between Cairo and Bombay as there was a dispute between Air India and Egypt Air. I remember going over to an Arabic airliner which was going to Jeddah, hoping to get a connecting flight, but was turned away by the airline.
That night, I checked my bag in the cloak room, and slept on the floor of the Cairo airport.
* * * *
I went to Tahrir Square – yes the famous Tahrir square which these days is host to a million (!) protesters – to the office of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). It was afternoon, and I was clueless, hungry and sleepy. The middle-aged Pakistani lady was very kind. Those were the days when the airline office would send a “telex” to the head office and wait for confirmation. While sitting at the counter waiting for the return telex, I actually slept face down on the counter and the lady let me. When I opened my eyes, she greeted me with the news that my ticket was confirmed from Cairo to Bombay with a stopover at Karachi in Pakistan. I thanked her, but wondered at the irony of travelling by the carrier of an enemy country, and the prospect of stopping over in that hostile country.
* * * *
There were (at that time) several youth who would hang around Tahrir Square, mostly the educated unemployed. I met one such young man at one of the innumerable cafe’s where people spend hours drinking thick, strong, black tea and playing backgammon. Abdullah, his name was, I think, and I would be right 5 times out of 10. He accompanied me all day while I walked around the Sphinx and the pyramids. I could not shake him off, but he was a very helpful guide too. And he was not doing it for money. Actually he was a nice young man, educated, intelligent. When we parted, he gave me a kiss on both cheeks! I put it to the Arabic custom.
* * *
I travelled to Luxor, more famous now for Bollywood songs shot there rather than its heritage. I am sure Indian tourists would not marvel at the the grand temples and treasures and the Nile river, but would be more excited that Akshay Kumar and Katrina sang “Ji Karda” here. It was an overnight journey from Cairo railway station. The unreserved coach was full and I sat on the floor along with several other locals, who were very warm and loquacious. Everybody chatted through the night, and I didn’t sleep a wink.
On the return journey, I took a first class ticket, using up a few dollars. The first class coach had a few cabins. I got a coupe, which is a unit of 2 bunks, and I had the upper bunk. For a while, I was seated at the window, chatting with the other passenger in a dark brown suit. After a while, he took out a bottle of wine, and poured a glass for me. After a few polite refusals, and not willing to pass off any freebie that came my way, I accepted. When we were done, he suddenly grabbed me! I pushed him away and said something to him, after which he became very quiet. I went up to my bunk. I didn’t find him in the coach in the morning when the train rolled into Cairo.
* * *
I was in Port Said, at the mouth of the famed Suez Canal. It was a smuggler’s paradise. I bought some cologne (Lancombe or something) for my elder brother, who wanted a perfume called “Worth”. My brother would quietly take it but would be disappointed, so fond was he of that brand, but it cost several dollars. I felt sorry about it. Then, I watched the Suez Canal, and the ships passing through it, marvelling at this ingenious piece of engineering and the-then British political + economic wisdom which cut tens of thousands of miles of sea route. Those were the days, when nothing required any security, and I could stand right there, walk along the canal, undisturbed.
Post Said is about a 3 hour drive from Cairo. I took a share-a-cab Peogeot taxi with 3 other locals, who were – you guessed it – chatterboxes. I remember expressing that I wanted to see an oasis in the desert, and voila, we did stop at a palm-fringed Oasis and ate some dates.
* * *
Looking back, I might have been living dangerously and travelled with brigands. I could have been robbed, mugged, or worse, abused. But I hadn’t felt unsafe at all and found the people extremely friendly. In fact, I feel enriched, as I always do, when I mingle with the local scene in my travels.
* * *
I went to the main post office and booked a call to home. When I was connected, someone from my family at the other end gasped, “Where are you, we are so anxious!!!” I said quietly, “I am coming home” and gave him the flight details.
The prodigal son was returning home.
* * * But that little journey was also eventful. But that is another subject, for another day.