Hopscotching across the globe. San Juan, Rome, Cairo.
Rome has the Rodeo Drive of airports. Bulgari, Dolce&Gabbana, Armani, Fendi, Gucci, Rolex. It’s like arriving in the Emerald City after traversing a yellow brick road through the sky.
Well-heeled travelers speak exotic tongues at information booths. Stylish stewards clip by to catch their connections. Glitz sparkles through shop windows that only cater to the select few. Cultures mix for the indeterminate time of a layover.
We have cappuccinos and fresh juice at the AlItalia club lounge. There’s quite a spread, but we had breakfast on the plane. Italians converse are lyricly, remeniscent of a visit several years ago. There is certainly something magic about Italy.
Our Cairo connection with AlItalia boards on the tarmac. I get a chance to spend a moment in a mild breeze under the Italian sun. I wish I could venture into the Eternal City for the evening – strange that it is so close.
We fly first class again. The European airline offerings are spartan compared to the luxury of our transatlantic flight. No matter. The cabin is quaint, with faux wood grain paneling and brown leather seats. I take the opportunity to catch a catnap.
In three and a half hours, we touch down in Cairo. The airport is calm, almost desolate. Clean modern lines. Art Deco. Quiet. Serene. It’s surprisingly cool, low 70s. I thought it would be much warmer.
$25 gets you a visa. A few relevant details scratched on a pamphlet and we’re basically in . There’s a quick pass by some stern looking Arab men at customs. The place is empty except for the passengers from our flight. Relief comes in the form of my red bag revolving on the luggage belt. It doesn’t always go as planned in my experience.
A driver meets us, our names on a placard. We follow behind with our luggage passing through a crowd of people. The silence is overwhelming. This size crowd anywhere else emits familiar sounds and moves about. These people are utterly silent and sedentary as they wait along the street in front of the airport.
The ride into Cairo proper is long. Car horns are more imperative than turn signals and the lanes marked on the pavement are merely suggestive. People slip past two at a time on motorbikes and most vehicles are crammed with passengers. Men and boys sit perilously in the backs of pickups. People hail the mini vans that serve as taxis from the side of the highway.
Our driver plays loud Arabian music and offers us cigarettes. It seems like everyone is headed in the same direction that we are. The pace of traffic pulses and jerks. Overloaded trucks carry bananas and building supplies.
Buildings abut the edge of the freeway and I am amazed at the number of vacant buildings . Some apartments have laundry hung out on a line to dry or some sign of life , but the majority are very obviously empty. Windows gape from facades without frames or panes. I later learn that there are 1.8 million empty units in the city.The sky is hazy and the amber disc of the sun is mesmerizing as it dips towards the west. Minarets poke from between shoddy looking brick tenements. It smells distinct, musky with a mix of industrial emissions and burning trash. But not unpleasant.
Once in the city, it becomes apparent how densely packed Cairo really is. Cars move with inches of each other, a frenetic stop and go. We pass brightly lit shops with neon signs in Arabic, but there is also a lot of English.
Ahmed is our travel coordinator. I learn that our groups is 49 people in total, not the 15-30 I was anticipating. I’m glad that the three of us arrived a day ahead of time. He gives us his personal attention and wants to fulfill our every need. In fact everyone at the Aracan Hotel is anxiously eager to help.
We are shown to the room. It is spacious, even with a king size bed and two twins. Large windows and look out over the palm lines boulevard below. In the distance, the Pyramids!
A short stroll to a 24-hour grocery gets us a few necessities. I take 50 Egyptian pounds from an ATM, only to learn that it’s under four dollars.
Across from the grocer is a bakery. Ahmed accompanies us, otherwise it would all be lost in literal translation. Breads, cookies, pastries, crackers – all of them foreign to me. It’s local though. This is what I thrive on.
I want something sweet. On recommendation, I select some oblong pastries stuffed with a date paste, glazed, and topped with sesame seeds. I get some others that are swirled with a sweet mix of honey and sugar, a sort of roulade, baked to a golden brown. They are chewy and airy and wonderful.
We finish the evening with hookah, or sheesha, and share some food at the cafe by the hotel lobby. It is open air and it gets chilly in shorts and a T. The service is warm and attentive and they make us promise to come back for music. It’s a night spot and the party starts later.
But not tonight. It’s time to crash. After a rejuvenating shower, I hit the sheets and sleep comes quickly.