All the talk of Cairo, and the glimpses of the Nile as cameras pan the crowd of demonstrators, takes me back to my own Cairo story, almost thirty years ago. In fact, just months before an Air Force Commander by the name of Hosni Mubarak would be named President of Egypt.
I had just graduated from the Wharton School with my MBA, and would be starting a job with Godiva Chocolatier in Brussels. But I had spent two years in Philadelphia, tied down to studying and earning enough to cover what my scholarships and loans did not. So when Campbell Soup—yes, they own Godiva Chocolatier—gave me a voucher for a business class New York-Brussels one-way ticket, I negotiated it into a New York-Paris-Cairo-Paris-New York fare in cabin class.
My ticket allowed one stop besides Cairo, so I flew to Paris, got off, and left all my luggage with friends there. On the way back from Cairo, I’d simply deplane in Paris, miss the last leg of the flight, and take a train to Brussels. (Things were different then, no Homeland Security.) But that meant I couldn’t have any checked baggage. So off I went to Cairo with a little carry-on bag.
My best friend Helen, a Canadian woman who had been my roommate in Rio for years, lived there with her American husband, Jim. He too was a Wharton MBA and now represented an international bank in Cairo. The bank provided them with a lovely apartment that overlooked the Nile where you could watch the felucca sailboats glide by. But as soon as you stepped outside the luxurious downstairs entry, you were standing in dirt and debris … an unpaved “sidewalk.” In my mind, that would come to represent the constant contrasts of Cairo.
Helen and I shopped the souks and visited museums. The smells and sounds were mesmerizing, although everything was covered by a layer of fine silt. Who knows whether it was from being surrounded by a giant desert or being in a dirty city.
Everything was an adventure, even catching a cab in Cairo. You’d stand on the side of the street where traffic was headed in the direction you wanted to go. You’d hail a cab, the driver would slow down, you’d yell your destination as you peered quickly into the back seat to see how many passengers were already there, what they looked like, and how thick the acrylic fur seat covers were. The thicker they were, the more flea-infested they might be. Then, with the cab still moving, you’d jump in … or not.
But the night-time light show at the pyramids, and being seated just feet away from a massive sphinx, was spectacular. And, for me, riding horses at dawn in the desert around the Giza pyramids was an experience only rivaled by one years before, of sitting alone on top of Machu Picchu in Peru after most of the day tourists had left, with someone playing “El Condor Pasa” on a flute. Both are utterly timeless. Ultimate bucket-list memories.
Brunches were lavish at the Mena House, a luxurious hotel in the shadows of the Giza pyramids that was used by foreign businessmen and diplomats almost like a private club. Guests from Winston Churchill to General Montgomery to the Duke of Windsor have punctuated the history that has unfolded in that hotel.
Going to the archaeological digs at Saqqara on weekends with Jim and sifting through the sand, looking for artifacts, made the history of Egypt that much more real as we’d find a shard here, a piece of something else there.
Then Jim went out of town on a business trip, leaving the two of us alone. We got the bright idea of going for a seafood lunch in Alexandria, the city made famous by Cleopatra and Mark Antony. We took a cab to the Cairo central train station, and rode the train north to the Mediterranean Sea. We walked around and then chose a likely restaurant. While being seated, we saw a waiter serve a table of American oil men their meal: huge, juicy shrimp piled high, almost falling off the plates. When the waiter finally came to wait on us, we said, “We’ll have what they’re having.”
After an extraordinarily long wait, with appetites primed, we saw our waiter bringing our dishes. At last, our jumbo shrimp! Our plates were partly filled with the saddest looking little rejects you could imagine. Not one to give up easily, I called the waiter back and said, “You must have gotten our order wrong. We ordered what those gentlemen were eating.” He looked at me in veiled disgust and implied that THEY were men …
We decided to see the humor in it and just enjoy our wine. Soon it was time to head back to Cairo, so we walked to the train station. By now the activity level had multiplied by ten. We went to buy our tickets and were told there were no seats on any of the outbound trains for the rest of the night.
The next day was the start of Ramadan, and everyone was headed to Cairo. Not to be put off so easily—after all, I had just spent two years at the finest finance school being told I could walk on water—I passed the ticket seller my passport and asked him to check it.
Inside was a bill—I don’t remember, a twenty or a fifty. As he flipped through my passport, he saw the bill. I figured I had finally found some use for all the corruption I had witnessed growing up in Latin America, but never even considered using. “Baksheesh” the Arabs call it, and “everybody does it.” The thin little man stood up, puffed out his chest, and started screaming at me: who did I think I was, trying to bribe an employee of the National Railroad of Egypt!
He threw my passport at me—with the bill still inside—and we ran out of the station. We hit all the travel agencies. All flights were booked, in fact, overbooked. The only remaining option was to share a cab with 4 other passengers, and cross 135 miles of desert in the darkness of night. No, thank you.
With panic now raising its ugly head, I decided we should go back to the station, sneak onto a train, and try to buy a ticket on board. They wouldn’t throw us off, would they? By now the little station was wall-to-wall people. I found a conductor out on the platform, said we needed to get to Cairo, gave him some money, and he sat us in two seats on the next train. “See, Helen, there’s always a way.” The train started up, went for about 5 minutes, and stopped. The doors opened and two huge Egyptian men walked over and literally ejected us from our seats. Those seats were theirs.
The conductor found an old wooden orange crate which he sheepishly stood on end out on the narrow little platform on the back of the last car. He pried several guys aside to make room for our crate. Helen and I shared it, each carefully perching half a cheek on it. I had a Time Magazine with me, which I tore in half so we’d each have something to read to avoid the uncomfortable stares of the men hanging off the back of the train with us. At least until it got dark.
We made it to Cairo, but arrived in a mobbed central station. Men in soft blue “galabeya” robes milled about, relieving themselves freely as there were certainly not enough facilities, if any at all. That was bad enough. But when we walked out into Ramses Square, we saw a pale blue ocean of what we were later told were over a million Egyptians, congregating from all over the country for the holiday that started the next day.
I never felt so insignificant, so foreign, and so small.
It was a long, scary walk back to Helen’s apartment on the Nile. Fortunately, there was a fine Swiss restaurant along the way with an exquisite wine list so we could wash the sandy grit out of our mouths.
In my mind, my Cairo visit coincided with the end of an era. A couple of months later, President Sadat would be assassinated for his role in the Egypt-Israel peace talks, and his Vice President Hosni Mubarak would become President.
I’m thrilled that I got to experience Egypt in all its “exotic”-ness: the hint of danger at almost every turn … mixed with the richness of its history and former grandeur.
Does my adventure give me any special perspective on what is happening in the streets of Cairo this week? Not at all. But what’s clear to me as I listen to all the Talking Heads on television is how little we can possibly understand of what’s going through the minds of Egyptians … young and old.