Of all the layovers I’ve had the past 10 years that have brought me back to the same places over and over again, I’ve never once stepped foot back in Egypt since my 2010 trip that started it all. Fateful isn’t it? And I knew the day I would return, it should mean something.
And of all the times to do so, it would be on my 10 year anniversary there. Oh boy how good it is to be back.
From our orientation 2 weeks ago in NYC…
…to JFK Airport 2 nights ago:
…to Egypt today:
After a week on Socotra Island, it’s time to take over the driver’s seat and revisit Egypt — this time I won’t be alone. This time I’ll have 19 others with me.
Once official re-introductions were made at our lodgings at Tahrir Hostel, we spent the first night getting acclimated to taxi hounds and figuring out the payment system for most of the fast food joints.
Meanwhile as we were running around getting accustomed to the hustle of Tahrir Square, Ji Won happened to be enjoying a 10 hour layover in Athens with Sidian, one of our loyal and most charming monsooners from Prague/Budapest, The Balkans, and Southeast Asia.
Even though I have yet to meet Ji Won at this point in person, I have to pat myself on the back for arranging this impromptu meeting on Whats App at the last minute, both just as I was about taking off from Socotra Island and an hour before Ji Won was due to land in Athens.
All props have to go to Sidian, however, for being lightning fast at responding to random Whats App messages from friends like me who reach out only once every few months. Eff haristó! Eesay mangas — U da real MVP!
The next morning after Ji Won and Neerharika arrived late into the night after everyone was already asleep, we began our day at 7:30am with one final orientation before taking the obligatory visit to the Egyptian Museum (opens 9am, and can cost up to 440 EGP for everything). A must-see, it holds everything and all things Egyptian including the real mummies of King Tut and King Ramses (for $20 extra!).
As I wrote 10 years ago: “The entire the history of Egypt as we know it from middle school history class is all here in one magnificent building.” That still remains true today. And there’s still no cameras allowed.
Although this is where King Tut lives, this is also where 10 years ago I went looking for a girl, actually found her with her family, took by her hand and whisked her away on our first date after convincing her parents to let us gallivant on our own.
Today I didn’t leave with a girl. I left with something better: 15 new friends.
After 1 hour and half at the Egyptian Museum before the crowds took over, we headed to one of my favorite mosques and Cairo’s oldest: Ibn Tulun (free to enter).
Then we cabbed it over to Citadel and Mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha (180 EGP). 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.
Afterwards we wandered inside Al Azhar Mosque (free to enter), Cairo’s oldest mosque and the 2nd oldest continuously run university in the world (after the University of al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco):
10 years ago:
We then kicked back briefly at Khan Al-Khalili souq . . .
. . . with lunch at the famous and hospitable Naguib Mahfouz.
After lunch we took a 5 minute walk to the City of the Dead, also known as the Cairo Necropolis or the Qarafa, a series of vast Islamic-era necropolises and cemeteries on the edges of Historic Cairo, in Egypt.
After about 10 minutes walking through here, we crossed the highway to enter Manshiyat Nasser. Here the city’s garbage is brought by collectors known as the Zabbaleen, who then sort through the garbage for resale or recycling.
Large rooms are stacked with garbage with men, women or children crouching and sorting the garbage into refuse or quality sellable items. Different families typically specialize in a particular type of garbage; for example in one room children sort out plastic bottles, while in another a group of women separate out aluminum cans.
The scene here can be described as “post-apocalyptic.” However, we were also met with unabashed kindness with locals shouting at us from the rooftops either welcoming us to their home or whenever we were going the wrong way.
We definitely got lost – many many times in fact, but the experience was only made better by a gaggle of children who led us back on the right path many times over.
The goal was to get to “Cave Church” or Saint Samaan the Tanner Monastery, built into the side of a cliff along Mokattam Mountain. Make sure you tell a whether a driver or a kid guiding you on your path that you’re heading to “Der Sama’an Kharraz” as locals won’t know what you mean if you say “Cave Church.”
Once here, ask for the viewpoint from a balcony at a 2nd floor restaurant for a look at the famous art mural, Perception. . .
Perception spans over 50 buildings and can only be appreciated from this vantage point. Designed by French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, this artworks spotlights the unique way of life of The Zaraeeb people living in Manshiyat Nasser, also known as “Garbage City.”
As per eL Seed: “Manshiyat Naser is perceived as dirty, marginalised and segregated because of the association with the trash. So I decided to create an anamorphic design, a piece that you can only see from one vantage point.”
In other words, while people in other areas of Cairo may only see scattered parts of the mural, it is only from Manshiyat Naser that one can see it in its entirety and appreciate the Arabic calligraphy that translates to: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.”
After about an hour here, the group split up for some free time with half heading back to Khan Al Khalili for some shopping and the other half returning to the hostel to freshen up. The bartering for cabs here became a challenge, but we worked it out before meeting up for dinner at swanky Bab El-Sharq.
The next morning we rose at 4am for sunrise horseback riding at the Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur, which I just blogged in a separate post here.
And after a whole day exploring the Giza plateau, we then had free time before congregating at the Cairo Train Station for our 10 hour, 7:45pm overnight Watania sleeper train to Aswan:
Ohhhhh I remember how this is where I truly first felt abandoned and alone a decade ago:
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 free.” But what do you do with that freedom? For many going through this for the first time, it’s an overwhelming bondage: by freeing yourself from the entrapments 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 train ticket to Alexandria.
But not today:
How much this train station means to me can be measured by the number of photos I took here during the 5 minutes it took us to find our platform:
Once our train departed (despite what you may have read in other sources, ours left a minute earlier than scheduled at 7:44pm!), we quickly dropped off our bags in our assigned rooms and got ourselves settled.
About 20 minutes in, we we were served our dinner that we had booked online beforehand. After finish, I broke out the music and speakers and we began the party (you can catch the NSFW stories on our instagram).
…so much for catching up on sleep tonight.
And on another note:
Today of all days (as is such with the stars constantly aligning in my life) — on both Thanksgiving Day and fittingly on the eve of my 10 year anniversary of traveling, beginning day 1 of 10 days in Egypt with 20 other monsooners — I am humbled and honored to join my inspiring and more deserving fellow colleagues (and more than that, personal friends) Ivy TL, Bing Chen, Jason Shen, and Tiffany Yu to also have been just featured on the Rock The Boat NYC podcast as Season 3, Episode #33 (BTW 3 also is my favorite lucky number!), where I happen to talk about my first trip in Egypt 10 years ago, my struggles with the Asian American stereotype in whether I should have become a doctor, and much much more.
And to further hammer home on the stars aligning with this post — I also want to give my personal love and thanks to the podcast hosts Lucia Liu and Lynne Guey, both of whom I’ve also known separately for nearly a decade (Ivy Summit! ECAASU: East Coast Asian American Student Union! SERCAAL! Crushing The Myth! Jerry Damon Chang!) before they even started their amazing work with Rock The Boat.
It has been a wild journey the past 10 years and to have all 3 of our paths cross, lose touch, and recross in this moment, of all days, have made me embarrassingly tear up more than I would’ve like in front of my 20 monsooners today while showing them around my beloved first city of Cairo (Lucia and Lynne — you’re distracting me from my job today!!! 😂😂😂 but this is the best kind of distraction I could have ever hoped for)
Love love love love. I hope y’all get something out of this podcast and listen to the plenty of other even more inspiring individuals that they have interviewed.
- At time of posting in Cairo, Egypt, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly sunny