The surprise came, well, at a surprise.
I was assured — after my ill-advised bet that got me to Egypt in the first place — that I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing; I didn’t need to plan that much, I didn’t need to carry too many things, and that I would be taken care of. There would be a plan for me. I didn’t even need to bring a travel guide. And then came the surprise: I was going to be all by myself for the next couple of weeks.
To no fault of their own, the people who were supposed to stay with me had to leave early and the people who were supposed to meet up with me, couldn’t. As if a comedy of errors, I would arrive into Cairo expecting some kind of well though out, organized itinerary. Within less than 12 hours in the city I would discover that I would be left to myself and a backpack, challenged to travel alone for the first time in a country whose language I couldn’t speak and where I had no place to stay.
I admit, I had thought about canceling the whole dumb idea altogether and taking a return flight home the next day. Well, that would’ve been even dumber. If I had done that, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
Well, let’s pause with the meta-analysis for a bit (I’ll go back to it at the end of this post).
You’d rather want to know what’s there to do in Cairo when you’re all alone and a makings of a revolution is brewing all around you…
First get in the heart of all the action and acclimate yourself to the grassroots movers and shakers of the contemporary Arab world of Tahrir Square (Midan Tahrir), epicenter of Egypt’s Arab Spring:
Within Midan Tahrir is the unmissable Egyptian Museum. A must-see, it holds everything and all things Egyptian including the real mummies of King Tut and King Ramses ($20 extra!).
The entire the history of Egypt as we know it from middle school history class is all here in one magnificent building. No cameras allowed:
Go to Islamic Cairo to check out the impressive Citadel there. Built by Salah Al-Din, it was home to Mohamed Ali, considered to be the founder of modern Egypt and the ancestor of the last King of Egypt, King Farouk.
Be prepared to walk up a steep incline while getting there:
In the south part of Cairo is Coptic Cairo, home of Cairo’s Coptic Christian community and arguably the world’s oldest Christian denomination:
Take a kindred soul to Al-Azhar Park for glorious sunset views over Cairo. If you’re with a special someone, remember that public displays of affection is a big no-no in this country. You can say we found out the hard way.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a caring family that will host you for an authentic Egyptian home-cooked dinner. One of my favorite meals:
And my favorite building in all of Cairo: Ibn Tulun Mosque, the oldest in Cairo:
10pm. I remember sitting alone in a train station in Cairo. The sun had set, it was getting dark, and I had nothing on me except for a backpack and a wallet. I had no hostel to stay at and I had no plan to follow. Throngs of people passed by me to and fro without a care who I was. I had no laptop, no internet, no cell phone, and no friends whom I could reach. I was a droplet in the fog.
For the first time in my life, I felt an odd, confusing mixture of diametrically opposed emotions: I was structureless, I was formless, and I felt refreshingly yet uneasily liberated. I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I wasn’t meeting anyone, wasn’t about to run into anyone, and I had no means to reach other people and nobody could reach me. Nobody was going to call me or give me a plan, or tell me what to do. I couldn’t even understand any of the advertisements telling me what to buy or what to watch. Everything was blank to me. I was wandering in oblivion. There was nothing and nobody in that moment whom I could communicate with other than myself.
This was one of those rare moments where you can finally say: “I’m truly free.” But what do you do with that freedom? For many going through this for the first time, it’s bondage: by freeing yourself from the entrapment of familiarity, structure and routine, you become enslaved by this bottomless fear of the unknown. This fear can choke you to the point of inaction; you may delude yourself into believing that by doing nothing you can hold onto any sense of stability or comfort. This inaction is what causes people to freeze in their tracks, get caught in the headlights, and forget what it means to be alive.
So when the thought of sleeping in the train station crossed my mind, I bit my lip and bought a one way ticket to Alexandria.
– At time of posting in Cairo Airport, it was 89.6 °F – Humidity: 9% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK