It’s 2AM by the time we arrive, in Cairo that is. It’s anybody’s guess what time it is state side. It is even less clear what time our bodies believe it is. To be honest, at this point I don’t think that anyone cares very much. After 36 hours (technically 3 day flight), to say that we are worse for wear would be an understatement. We are grimy, exhausted, and borderline manic in some cases. We brace ourselves for what we are told is going to be an extensive 3 hour visa check-in and customs process. We are instead treated to a 15 LE visa sticker and the grunts of a barely conscious security guard in a process that took all of 20 minutes. To be fair, it is 2AM and we’re fairly a fairly harmless looking bunch (though looks are often deceiving). And just like that we’re in Cairo. We’ve made it. Queue epic orchestral music please.
After some mild confusion about loading and boarding onto our inconspicuously disguised tourist bus (who’d ever look for Americans in a tourist bus?) We are on our way once again. The mood is light and cheerful as we drive through the streets of Cairo. Our eyes are graced with lavish hotels, a full moon, and beautifully aesthetic works of street art. We aren’t really absorbing any new experiences at this point as our minds and hearts are already saturated from the heaviness of orientation and the flight. We are instead having a much purer kind of experience. Letting the beauty and awe of a new place wash over us and immediately casting it aside each second as new beauty is grasped. It’s like trying to catch raindrops or pick up sand or date in college.
The bus comes to a slow stop as we approach something. We can’t quite tell what it is because of the darkness. We are off the paved roads now and there are no lights. We see only something large and metal, which I assume is a barricade of some kind and several men. Instantly, the bus falls silent and the mood grows tense. What is it about imminent danger that just ruins the natural ambiance of a cultural exchange? Seconds turn into minutes into hours into weeks, or so it seemed anyway. In reality, we were probably only at this check point for about 2 minutes (my best estimate). The bus start moving again and the cheery air picks up again for all of 15 seconds.
Mokattam greets us. She waves at us with her (relatively) tall dilapidated buildings. She beckons us with her strong odor of garbage and animal feces. She kisses us with her hard dust covered ground and crowded streets. She opens her arm wide to embrace us. Holding us tightly as if we were old friends and stroking our cheek lightly she whispers her ominous welcoming into our ears: “nothing will ever be the same again.”