I arrive in the airport in Cairo at 2am on Thursday. I’ve been traveling since 9am Tuesday. Three hours to Houston, ten or so to Amsterdam, layover for the day there (Pancakes! Walking the canals! Coffee shops!), then a four hour flight to Cairo.
Leaving the airport, I get hailed into a cab that I thought was occupied. In the front two seats are the driver, his wife, and two children. In the back seat is a third child. The kids all have paint on their faces, red and black for the boy, red and white for the two little girls.
“Do you speak English?” I ask. I try in Arabic. “Bititkallim ingileezi?”
“Yes, yes. Taxi? Get in.”
“I’m going to Dina’s Hostel. Know it?”
“Yes, yes, hotel. Get in. Welcome.”
Then we start driving. We’re flying through what little traffic there is. To the right there is a moped that has three men riding on it. I’m impressed. To the left there’s another moped with three men riding and one is holding a suitcase. Now I’m disappointed in the first moped.
The driver turns around, smiling, and says again, “Yes, yes, hotel.” It’s a statement, but it still felt like a question.
“Dina’s Hostel?” I ask, though mine should have been a statement.
He nods, then says, “Yes, yes, hotel?” this time, a question.
Immediately I realize I’m the only person in the car who speaks English. The driver and I keep saying words at one another, some English, others in Arabic, both of us attempting both, nothing being communicated. We both try speaking louder. Somehow that doesn’t help.
He says, “One minute,” then continues driving down the elevated highway in the direction we were going.
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There is a man walking down the middle of the highway with a broom. There’s a Bentley dealership beneath a rundown apartment building. There’s another man walking on the highway. I want to ask why there are people walking down the middle of a highway at 3am. I don’t know the Arabic. For the first time on this trip I think, “Man, I really wish I knew more Arabic.”
Then I could know why the guy with the broom was on the highway.
Suddenly we are going in reverse. At high speed. The car engine is screaming, but everyone but me is incredibly calm. I look out the window, we aren’t the only ones. There are three other cars with us going backwards, on the highway we were just going forward on.
“One minute,” the taxi driver says again.
We take a turn and end up at a gated compound where someone with some sort of a scanner that looks like a metal detector from the 50s scans the trunk of the cab. We’re allowed inside.
He gets out and speaks for a moment to the person at the entrance to this building. It’s fancy. Maybe a hotel? He keeps gesturing back to me. I’m hearing some Arabic I recognize, “fundu” is being said again and again. Satisfied, he comes back to the car.
“Do you know where we’re going? Do you need the address? Will that help?” I ask. I say, “Abd el Khalik Tharwat Street.”
“Five minutes,” he says, gesturing with five fingers and a reassuring smile.
I say “shukran,” which means thank you, because I don’t know the Arabic word for “I hope we find my hostel and I don’t end up becoming part of your family not that you don’t have a lovely family because you totally do.”
We’re back on a highway, more mopeds whipping around us. It’s 3:30am. We pull up to a hotel, but it’s not my hotel. The taxi driver points out the window, “Hotel.”
Shit. “Yes, this is a hotel, but it’s not mine. Not, uh…” possession is hard in Arabic, I don’t get it. “La’fundu-ee?” Nothing. “La’. La’. Bitaa. Fundu.” I’m just saying words. But I think we get it. He throws the car in gear and we start driving again.
We’re in front of another building, this one labeled, “Australian Hostel.” Warmer, I guess.
“La’. This isn’t mine. I’m in Dina’s Hostel. Abd el Khalik Tharwat Street? 42?” I say in Arabenglish.
“Abdel khalck sarwat,” he echoes back. Again, both of us saying words, no communication happening.
This trip was a great idea, I start to think to myself, when my exhaustion and pessimism are both interrupted by “ABD EL KHALCK SARWAT!” being yelled triumphantly from the front seat.
We pass two KFCs, go in reverse one more time, drive by Dina’s Hostel twice, both times with me yelling “There! Here! Stop!” Go in reverse one more time. Then I’m here, officially, finally, in Cairo. And it clicks.
I throw my backpack on, pay the driver, say goodbye to my almost-family, and take a 114-year-old elevator up five flights to my awaiting bed.
This trip was a great idea, I think, as I fall asleep with a cool breeze washing over me.