I visited Cairo once before, with my parents and younger sister. It was a difficult trip even before my sister started throwing up into every trashcan she saw. It was summer, it was hot, and Cairo is a really overwhelming city. But the tourist economy meant that we could hire a guide, check off the appropriate tourist activities, and mostly stay out of trouble.
It’s been different this time. In a fit of motivation, we decided to do the whole trip from Amman in one day. This kind of plan is much less fun on a backpacker’s budget than when your parents are working through a travel agency. By the time we disembarked in Cairo proper we were all teetering on the edge of completely losing it. It was one of those moments in traveling in a group when things can get said that make the rest of the trip difficult. So it may, in the big picture, have actually been fortunate that just at that moment a young boy — probably not even a teen — biked past our little huddle and, as he passed, casually grabbed my breast.
It all kind of happened in slow motion. I realized what was happening… saw his bored expression… felt a surge of months of pent-up anger at the misogyny of my environment… and hit him. Hard. Still in slow motion, I saw the look of surprise cross his face as he rocked to the side and fell off his bike into the street.
In retrospect, I suppose I’m glad the taxi managed to swerve and didn’t run him over.
Now we’ve been here a little over a week, mostly lounging and sleeping in and eating. We did go see some amazing Sufi dancers with a bunch of other tourists, and of course we went to see the pyramids, which are still just as disappointingly nestled in a Cairo suburb as they were five years ago. We decided not to pay for a tour and slunk along after a group of Brits eavesdropping until they noticed and their guide yelled at us. We took a group camel ride, and now my only pair of jeans (this made sense when I was packing, I swear!) smells strongly of camel. We’ve struggled yet again with our in-yet-out status in this society: knowing when people are being rude to us or talking about us, but being able to do very little about it because we are, in fact, tourists.
We also ended up taking a sunset walking “detour” through Cairo that led us past a prison, randomly positioned right on a normal street. I don’t think I will soon forget that place. Presumably the bars and concrete and barbed wire had been keeping those men inside for some time, but not one of us felt safe walking past. The family and visitors lining the street stopped yelling up at their respective prisoners and watched us attempt to maintain our airs of nonchalance as we passed. The prisoners hanging out of the tiny windows were less quiet.
So it’s been a long week, and I think we’re all pretty ready to head home. We’re also all relishing the fact that Jordan is home. Better yet, our individual sites there are home. I’m not sure when that happened, but I’m 300% sure that Dir Edis is calling me and I can hear it all the way from Cairo.
We didn’t get up early this morning, though, because it is vacation and the guidebook very clearly says there’s a 10am bus to the Red Sea. But now that we’re here at the bus station, it turns out that this is not the case. It takes an hour of negotiation and what feels like begging, but finally a minibus driver agrees to take us to Nuweiba. We pay him half his fare up front and cheerfully climb into his vehicle. We ask him to hurry, but we aren’t worried. We have plenty of time to make the afternoon ferry.
We are feeling cocky, to some extent. We made a decision to go to Egypt for a week, and we did, and now we’re going home, and we are sophisticated world-travelers. We know what’s up. At least until the minibus pulls to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Literally. To our left is one of the awe-inspiring Sinai sand cliffs; to our right, a drop off another one; before and after us nothing but sand. The driver hops out of the car and vanishes by sliding down the lower cliff.
After what feels like forever, the driver returns and drives us around one more curve to a little alcove in the cliff we couldn’t see from above. Here we find a little local bus, empty except for a grizzled old man, and our driver announces that we will be switching buses as he will go no further. He demands the second half of our fare and hands most of it to the new driver. The new bus looks less luxurious, but at first we don’t really think this is a problem. It’s only after our original driver speeds away back up the cliffs and we don’t speed anywhere — or even move — that we understand the situation.
“Will we be leaving soon?” Jackie asks.
The driver gestures to all the empty seats on the bus and looks at Jackie like she’s an idiot.
“Wait, you’re going to wait for the bus to fill up?” Jackie demands, incredulously. “Out here? There’s not even a village nearby. We need to get to the ferry!”
The driver turns away. Alice stands up and takes over our advocacy. “No way,” she says. “We know how much you charge for rides on a bus like this. Our half fare was more than you’d make in two days. Drive us to the ferry now.”
The driver turns his back, leans back in his chair, and closes his eyes.
We make it to Nuweiba at the worst possible moment: just in time to see the boat not fifty feet off the dock, steaming away. We glare pointedly at the bus driver, who waves cheerfully at us as we disembark. Once he drives off, we find ourselves faced with a literal manifestation of the Peace Corps dilemma. To our right, a paved road stretches down the hill about a half mile, and at the end of the road is a Hilton resort hotel. To our left, a gravel road plunges down another short cliff to a little cluster of grass huts. We look at each other briefly and don’t need to say what we’re all thinking. We are strong! We are brave! We are independent women! We shoulder our bags and head for the huts.
In fact it’s a pretty little village by the beach, which is breathtaking. There are a couple of hut-clusters managed, apparently, by different glowering young men, so we select the one whose glower meets a perfect midpoint of not-threatening and not-salacious and rent a hut. He hands us three wool blankets which smell even more strongly of camel than do my pants. Then he looks carefully all around him and says “When you want the ganja, come to me — I’ll make you a good deal.”
We’re not sure we’ve heard him correctly. Jackie says, “Sorry, did you say ganja?”
He rolls his eyes at us and says with a sophisticated air, “Weed, hashish, whatever. Just don’t go to Yousuf, he’ll rip you off.” Then he walks away.
We spend a pleasant enough evening sitting on the beach and trying to see through the haze to Saudi Arabia. There are a few small cafes in which the menus are all in Hebrew — apparently we’ve ended up in one of the little hut-villages most popular with Israeli weekenders. We do not, in fact, buy any weed, but the marijuana smoke drifting across from the few other occupied huts is probably enough to take the edge off, and to supplement that buzz we do rent a shisha and enjoy a (legal!) after-dinner smoke. Finally we realize that there’s nothing to do here except get stoned or go to bed, so we decide it’s time for the latter.
There are two “beds” in our hut: woven mats suspended on tiny feet off the sand. Jackie has volunteered to sleep on a fersha on the ground. We say goodnight to each other cheerfully enough but it isn’t minutes before the gnats start biting. We can see them, even in the dark, illuminated against the even darker sky — which we can see through the six-inch smoke hole in the roof. We are also suddenly, painfully reminded that no matter what stereotypes we carry about Egypt, it is January. The camel-smelling blankets and the reed walls are all that stand between us and a truly miserable night.
We are all more than eager to wake up as soon as dawn peeks through our smoke-hole. It’s hours until the next ferry, though, so Jackie proposes a shopping trip. “In particular I want pants,” she says. “If I have to wear these jeans for another day I’m going to cry. ” She then surprises me by quickly managing to locate, haggle for, and purchase a pair of soft fleece almost-pajamas in a little hut-store down the path. I am fascinated by the economy here and the inventory of the stores: bikinis, basic clothing, snacks, and, of course, the winks and nods from storekeepers that appears to indicate weed. Clearly the tourists who come here don’t need or want alabaster scarab necklaces.
Eventually we pack up and take a minivan to the port where the morning ferry is already docked. Jackie steps up to the ticket window, sliding her credit card out of her neck-pouch as she climbs the three steps. “One ticket to Aqaba,” she says, in Arabic.
“One ticket to Aqaba,” the ticket-seller says, in English. Then: “No cards credit.”
“Sorry?” Jackie says. “You don’t take Visa? Uh… MasterCard?”
“No cards credit,” he says, sliding the ferry voucher back towards himself.
We exchange quick, unhappy glances. We have cash, but only a little. We consult together and between the three of us have just barely enough for three tickets. Jackie steps back up to the window and hands over the cash.
The ticket-seller frowns and shakes his head again, pushing the bills back at Jackie. “No. Dollars.”
“Wha– dollars?” she stammers.
He nods. “Only dollars.”
“American dollars?” I ask, stupidly. He looks at me but doesn’t bother answering.
I step up next to Jackie. “But we don’t have dollars. We have Egyptian pounds and…” I rummage briefly in my own neck-wallet. “Look, pounds and Jordanian dinar. Will you take dinar?”
“Dollars,” he says, decisively.
Just then, a pair of Egyptian men step up. If I were guessing I’d suppose they were on their way to construction jobs in Jordan, which are often performed by migrant Egyptian workers. Although they will be gone for weeks or months, their bags are half the size of each of ours. They don’t look at us as they purchase tickets with Egyptian cash and no incident whatsoever.
As soon as they’re gone I resume my position and say, “You let them buy tickets in pounds. What’s going on here?”
My ticket-friend says, reasonably, “Egyptians legal. Illegal you.”
I switch to Arabic and try one more time. “Uncle, we live in Jordan,” I explain. “We teach little Jordanian girls. We are volunteers, we are here only because we love Jordan. And we get paid only in dinar. Won’t you take that please?”
“ATM, there,” he says, in English. He points down the street and then gets up and walks towards the coffee pot simmering behind him on a little stove.
Outraged, we trudge down the street to the little “bank,” which is closed, and I insert my Jordanian debit card into the ATM. It is handily rejected. Jackie and Alice each try theirs — no dice. So we bite the bullet and decide to try a cash advance on Jackie’s father’s credit card. It is at that point that the ATM cheerfully informs us that it is out of US currency but expects a refill tomorrow have a nice day!
It’s time for a showdown, clearly. We march back to the ticket booth and Alice, who is often best at confrontation, steps up to the window. “Okay,” she says, aiming for a reasonable tone. “We can’t get dollars. We can’t use credit cards. But we have enough money, and it’s in the currency that is legal in this country. You need to sell us three tickets now, please.”
The seller gives us what can only be called a hairy eye and says: “Dollars, tomorrow. No dollars, no ticket.” Then he slides the plexiglass window closed.
Once we come to terms with the fact that we are really, honestly, truly not going to get on the ferry — I think we manage to fully internalize this only after it pulls away and heads northward toward sanity — we realize there’s another problem. It’s only an hour or two until sunset now and even in our outrage nobody is seriously considering sleeping on the steps of the ferry ticket office. But returning to Ali Baba’s gnat- and sandflea-infested huts seems almost as awful.
“I can’t do it again,” Jackie moans. “It was so cold.”
We look at each other, and then we tell the minivan driver to take us to the Hilton.
In the end, the Hilton isn’t that expensive. It is almost completely vacant so the manager is interested in hearing our pitch, and we do it up really well with tears and suggestions that he smell our camel-stinking clothing. He cuts us what must be a really remarkable deal at a place that feels like a Club Med and lets us pay with a credit card. Then we happily spend the evening taking turns with multiple hot showers (free packets of conditioner!) and eating passable French Fries in the bar.
Everything seems brighter in the morning, especially after we partake of the resort’s amazing breakfast buffet, which has been prepared as if the rooms were fully occupied. We therefore feel little guilt about eating enough scrambled eggs for six people and sneaking a dozen little containers of Smuckers jam into our pockets. This tiny moment of Western indulgence has been a blessing. Surely it’s a good sign about the ferry!
Our old friend greets us at the ticket window and squares his jaw before we can even speak. “Only dollars,” he grunts.
“Yeah, we got that yesterday,” Alice says. “So when does the bank refill the ATM?”
“No bank today.”
For a minute I worry that Alice is going to swing her backpack through the plexiglass and jump the guy. Or maybe that I will. But she says only “No bank? Then what, exactly, is it that we’re supposed to do? Live here forever? Nobody can ever leave Egypt unless you say they can? It’s Hotel California, but with sand fleas?”
Most of this has clearly escaped our ticket-friend. But he looks at Alice levelly and says, “Want buy dollars?”
“Yes,” we all breathe, in unison. “Where? Where can we buy dollars?”
The man sticks his arm out the hole in his window and gestures to his left. His immediate left. We notice that the second ticket window is open today. We’d assumed it belonged to a rival ferry company closed for the season. Maybe it does, but today the little room into which it opens is occupied by a shifty-looking man who is just sitting down. And in front of Mr. Shifty are a few grubby American bills.
Furious, but desperate, I hand Mr. Shifty the fare for one ticket on the ferry in Egyptian pounds. He counts the money and then says, “Ten more pounds.”
“That’s the fare in pounds. I know that’s the fare. Give me $45, please.”
“No — exchange fee ten pounds.”
Suddenly the racket is clear. Mr. Ticket won’t sell to us unless we buy in dollars, because we are Americans. But Mr. Shifty will only sell us dollars at an inflated rate. It’s brilliant — if you’re not on the receiving end. I bite my tongue and manage not to punch anybody as I hand over ten more pounds. I step to my left and hand the shabby US bills to Mr. Ticket, who silently prints out a ferry pass and hands it to me. Jackie does the same.
It’s when Alice steps up to Mr. Shifty that things really get good. She hands over the required sum in pounds and Mr. Shifty discovers that he is out of five-dollar bills and can only give her $40. He looks up at us and seems to decide we’re no particular threat. Then he bangs on the wall between his booth and that of Mr. Ticket and says “Hey, Hamza, I’m out.”
Mr. Ticket calmly tidies up the $90 he’s just received from Jackie and from me and holds it out his window for Mr. Shifty — who sells it right back to Alice.
When we arrive finally, finally, in Aqaba, it’s late afternoon. There will only be one or two more rounds of buses leaving for Amman tonight and nobody is inclined to pay for another night in a hotel. But we are at the front of the boat and hundreds of cheerful, clean tourists — who clearly have just been bused to the port in climate-controlled buses with soft seats and friendly tour guides — disembark before us. We mope sadly in line for a minute, feeling another night of shady accommodation coming on fast.
Then Alice has an idea.
“Hey, do you guys have your Ministry of Education IDs?” she asks.
We do. We hand them over with our passports and watch, a little nervously, as Alice approaches a Jordanian immigration officer. She lowers her head a little and looks up at him from under her lashes. We can’t hear what she’s saying, exactly, but eventually he nods and she waves us over eagerly. The officer unhooks a rope and allows us to walk past the crowd of tourists, some of whom shoot us evil looks. We approach the one customs booth with no line and are cheerfully admitted into Jordan… as citizens.
It’s good to be home.