When you wake up in the morning, an expectation that you'll be drag racing through the streets of Cairo in a car with three strangers, all from different countries, crammed into the back seat of a tiny, questionably powered car isn't usually near the top.
Though when I was in Egypt, it happened.
I’d gone with a few friends to visit Egypt for a couple of weeks during the fall break from University in Tel Aviv. We had stopped in a small border town on the Egyptian side called Sharm El Sheikh the night before and had taken a bus through the Sinai that day to make it to Cairo. Cramped, loud, and with a strange film on a built-in dvd player attached to the bus at the front playing some sort of Arabic language crime thriller, the early morning to evening ride was less than stellar. Between the heat, the flies, and the… interesting odors that rose to the nose, we were more than ready to breathe some open air.
We arrived in Cairo, hot off the bus into the swelter of the Cairo heat. It was only just becoming October and the heat even then was oppressive and brutal in the later stages of the day. We made our way to the hostel and got settled, finding a place to eat afterwards. Upon our return, however, we found four other travelers looking to make their way to a shisha or nargile or hookah cafe, whatever you’d like to call your variation of a water pipe, and we decided we may as well tag along as well and hit the night out.
Our hosts at the hostel were fantastic in that at six o'clock sharp they piled the eight of us into two cars and took off down the street, burning rubber as they swerved into the unending line of traffic. As we sped down the way dodging in and out of cars left and right, we looked at each with equal mixtures of alarm and excitement. The girls had gone in the other car so it was me, an Australian with a deep tan, and a short-haired Canadian snowboarder on his way to a tour of Africa. An eclectic mix and perfect for a strange ride in a strange land.
We hung on for dear life, and tried to hold on to our dinners, as we slid into one another; being by far the skinniest, I got the short straw of the middle seat so my ass was firmly gripped to the seat with no hand holds to rely on. As we almost careened into a couple of teenagers on motorcycles, and past tons of fist-shaking merchants in stands by the side of the road, we felt the warm evening air in our lungs, and the hot sticky humidity in our shirts. Flying down the road we whooped and hollered from the windows along with our guiding accomplices from the hostels, two young guys themselves. In fact, we were so engaged in our ride that we almost ran into the rear end of a cart that pulled directly in front of us with no warning. The smell of burning rubber came with the squeal of tires as our driver cut one of the tightest curves I’ve ever seen to avoid fusing the car with the poor mule that was pulling the cart out in front and, unlike us, completely unfazed by the incident. Our leaders from the front seat yelled at the cart as it receded in the back mirror and we in the backseat breathed a little more quickly and gripped a little tighter to our respective holds.
It was wonderful.
The lights from passing advertisements shone out at us like strange beacon lighthouses of Western consumerism, plastered on the fronts of buildings constructed when the British were still digging the Suez. The fading light from the desert sun had almost completely disappeared to a smokey blue grey that settled over the rooftops and filtered through the mist and dust that hung in the air, and the lights from the infinite cafes hung open to us, with all of the patrons of the day speaking of the day’s news, profits and losses, and anything under the sun. They provided their own fiefdoms of welcoming yellow light, in separate spheres, distinguished one from the other only by the patrons that visited that particular set of plastic chairs and tea cups. We were strangers from afar, rolling through the streets of Cairo in a caravan of one.
After our adventure in the car, and with several near crashes that left us white-knuckled and alternately swearing and praying under our breath, we finally arrived at the cafe . We sat in the night air, sipping tea and mint lemonade, letting wisps of smoke and water vapor escape our lips with grins and laughs as we exchanged names, then stories, then better stories. We talked long into the night, the cafe owner replenishing the coals of our nargile and our respective drinks of choice from hot, bitter black tea to sweet chilled mint lemonade. We were all but in the street but no car ever passed us, and we received little trouble. There were other nights, equally incredible in their way, but that night I could understand the allure of that city and what the old poets spoke of in their wide-eyed wonder at the mysteries of that part of the world.
There was, for lack of a better word, a magic, a mysticism that cloaked our conversation. An easiness that you can only find among strangers. Meeting once and never again, you talk of anything and everything and nothing all at once, and though you’ll never meet again, you’ll not forget that evening. There is nothing better than the ease that follows when you are placed in an intense situation with strangers, and afterwards look to each other to verify that it happened. After nearly crashing into a donkey cart, running over two teenagers on motorcycles, and doing a doughnut in the main square of a Cairo block, there exists a bond that makes the smoke all the sweeter as you pass the pipe from person to person, and breathe the air of life.