I went to Cairo last year.
It was a little like coming home and a little like going to a foreign land. Many years have passed since I lived in that part of the world, so there was an element of newness. I tried to capture it in this description of my first impressions:
I arrive in Cairo and walk from the plane to the bus and then from the bus to the terminal. It’s a good thing I was warned ahead of time to buy a visa at a bank kiosk because there is no sign telling me to do so. At the third desk I finally find someone to sell me a $25 visa. Then I go stand in line in a huge room packed with people: from the immigration desks to the back wall…probably over 500 in number.
Welcome back to Africa!
I look across a sea of Arab men, dressed in suits or robes, and Arab women, robed black abayas and scarves to cover their heads. I wait a long time…but at least when I get to the front I have what I need, unlike the European guy I see in another line who finally made it, but hadn’t known to buy a visa first. To the back of the line he goes.
A short while after completing immigration, my suitcase appears on the luggage conveyor belt and I walk out the door. I am greeted by a thousand people, all crammed against the gates that block a path for passengers to exit. I see a man holding a sheet of paper with my name. He takes my bag and I follow him to his van. It’s not marked, so I hope it’s the right van and the right guy!
I look around…flatness…palm trees…cool breeze…brown…Egypt…Hello!
In the van I tentatively try out my rusty Arabic. The drive is about an hour. Cairo…you really could make your drive from the airport a bit more pleasant for tourists. But I sit back to enjoy it anyway…flatness, rubble, and factory-looking stuff turns to a million brown square buildings.
Ahhh, I settle in. I remember this.
It’s 7pm and a giant orange beach-ball sun is setting. AMAZING. A welcome gift from God. I thank Him.
Vehicles honk and jostle for spots on the road:
A pick-up truck laden with cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and a few hands of bananas clinging to the top.
A van: barely held together at the seams, perhaps by the rust itself that seems to be eating the vehicle alive.
A sedan: holding more than its allotment of Arab men.
A mom driving two young children.
A semi-truck loaded with long pipes that cuts everyone off to exit right.
HONK HONK means any number of things: “Hi”, “Hey, I know you!”, “#$%^!!!”, “I’m coming through in my own pretend lane”, “Sure, come on over”, “Hello, I’m right here”, “Move it buster!”, “Catch ya later suckers!”
I know that if I actually lived in Cairo, this craziness and so many near misses would be evidence of the pent up anger felt by a giant dirty city still reeling from a recent revolution.
But to me, it’s happy.
It’s life. Not the quiet humming of a perfect system where the only noise is the lone siren of a cop pulling someone over for signaling wrong. No, this is a giant moving cacophony of humanity, held together by dusty ropes; accentuated by flailing fists and animated yelling. Gas and brake peddles are to be stomped on; steering wheels are used for swerving out of the way just in time.
Anger or joviality?
I believe it’s just humanity in action.
And as the giant sun fades behind a set of glowing square buildings, I smile. I want to take a picture, but I’d rather just keep the memory in my mind. Some scenes are too special for pictures.