Forming A Monsoon: Return to Cairo

Forming A Monsoon: Return to Cairo

 

Only mere moments of a time prior, I had been paralyzed by fear in Cairo, unwilling to leave the train station because I was so afraid of wandering around a foreign country alone and without a plan.

But Cairo is where I would harness an impetuously delusional courage and dare a leap of faith. I had no idea how an act so simple (and so easily done by countless other individuals even younger than me) would forever change my life. It really would be the best bet I ever lost.

 

 

I felt like I was living Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist in reverse, where my self-discovery would instead begin at the Pyramids. But there are many ways of telling the same story: so much would happen in a handful of days thereafter. So many lives would be changed.

 

 

It was on my overnight train from Luxor to Cairo where a seed began to grow. Ideas began to wake.

I will have stories to tell.

 

I don't look so scared anymore, do I?

 

And even when it came down to this very city, I realized that there will be so many ways to tell my Cairo story.

There’s one where we went horseback riding by the Pyramids:

 

 

The one where I celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Sofitel:

 

 

The one where I would run into a familiar stranger at the Egyptian Museum, afterwards taking her to gallivant about a city we barely knew:

  

 

The one where a family graciously hosted me for a morning when their flight home became delayed, and in return I would show them around Cairo for the day:

 

 

The one a friend from college would show me around her second home for a night, while teaching me about her culture, her roots, her country and how much everything meant to her:

 

 

The ones I would find myself completely alone, like the time when I spent my last day at Al Azhar Mosque, Cairo’s oldest mosque and the 2nd oldest continuously run university in the world (after the University of al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco):

 

 

And then there’s the one where about an hour before my flight home, I spent a lazy afternoon in the middle of the mazelike souk of Khan el-Khalili, watching the world go by at the 200-year-old El Fishawy Café:

 

 

All these stories would define Cairo for me. But little did I know then that this would be more than just another trip.

Because somewhere in Egypt, a monsoon was forming.

 

 

- At time of posting in Cairo Airport, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

Forming A Monsoon: Luxor-ious!

Forming A Monsoon: Luxor-ious!

 

From Alexandria I headed south towards Luxor. I took an overnight train from Alexandria to Cairo, wandered around the capital, and then took another overnight train from Cairo to Luxor. Around this point I was starting to get the hang of this “traveling alone” …thing.

I still remember both overnight train rides fondly, where fellow backpackers and I exchanged stories as if we were catching up like old friends. The experiences would become my inspiration for Friends & Contributors later on, and I give them a lot of credit for giving me the perfect first impression of making friends abroad.

However, Luxor’s first impression was what you’d might expect: classic scams of cab drivers trying to convince you that the lodging you planned on had “burnt down” or “closed for business.” So when they say “I think you should come to this other great hotel that is much cheaper!” it’s really another way of their saying “this hotel is paying me to scam you!”

My fellow backpackers and I had talked about these scams prior to arriving at Luxor so none of us really fell for it. Nevertheless, it was baffling (and amusing) to see these scams in action after just talking about them on the train. So collect your wits when you get there.

Welcome to Luxor, the dynastic and religious capital of Egypt’s Middle and New Kingdoms:

 

 

Most likely you’ll be arriving into Luxor on its East Bank. If that’s the case and it’s still daylight out, your first stop should be up north at the Karnak Temple, an open-air museum and the largest temple of the ancient world.

 


The Karnak Temple just got served

 

Soak in a sunset on your way back to the city center. The timing has to be perfect…

 

…because you want to get to Luxor Temple by nightfall (and before it closes).

This is the first time my jaw ever dropped:

 

Valley of the Sphinxes

 

A place to fill your dreams with before heading to bed.

The next morning I realized I wanted to see everything on the other side of Luxor — the West Bank — in one day.

And the best way to do this is to haggle down a private driver and his car to a good price and you can drive around anywhere without wasting time trying to cab it from place to place.  This was one of my first time haggling something as extensive as a private driver, and I believe I got him for around $50 USD for the whole day (including tips). Maybe I could do better now.

 

Colossi of Memnon

Their first time seeing an Asian American

 

Your driver should be able to navigate you to all the important sites on the West Bank. Don’t miss the Deir el Medina:

 

 

Or the Temple of Hatshepsut:

 

 

The West Bank’s biggest and supposedly main attraction is the Valley of the Kings, where all the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs have been all kept. It pretty much feels and IS an adventure from Indiana Jones or The Mummy, as you hike up and down desert hills — sometimes all by yourself — to get to a site, and then finding relief from the blazing sun when you go spelunking underground tombs and feeling like you’re part of history all over again.

Cameras unfortunately aren’t allowed in the tombs themselves, so I’m going to have to be a tease here and leave those images up to your imagination.

 

 

For me, the highlight was arriving at Ramesseum (aka the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses II.) Having recently read and enjoted through the graphic novel The Watchmen, I was stunned to discover this was the site of that inspired the famous 1818 sonnet Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Ozymandias is the name of an important character from The Watchmen, and a big reason why they named him that was because of this sonnet):

Ozymandias of Egypt

 

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,

The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

– Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

 


Ozymandias

 

When all is said and done, treat yourself to a nice dinner and shisha somewhere on the East Bank, even if it’s by yourself:

 

 

If you’re lucky, find a rooftop pool to take in the nighttime scenery of Luxor (in my case, a view of Luxor Temple) before heading to bed:

 

 

- At time of posting in Luxor, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 29% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

Forming A Monsoon: To The Lighthouse – Alexandria

Forming A Monsoon: To The Lighthouse – Alexandria

 

From Alone 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 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.

 

I remember arriving in Alexandria in the late evening, still without a plan on where I would be sleeping. When I got off the train, I could no longer enjoy the security of procrastinating planning my next step to another train stop. Rather, I felt like I was once again a step away from being paralyzed by total fear; I was afraid to go outside but I was afraid that I wouldn’t leave the station. I was one step away from not taking a step at all.

But I kept telling myself: “keep moving, just keep moving, get the hell out of here and just keep moving.

So going blind I walked, stopped, turned around, stopped again, turned around, and kept walking a few paces, and stopped to make a random turn without quite sure where I was going. I went over a bridge, down random stairs, under a bridge, and before I knew it I was already lost. The utility of using the train station as a landmark to orient myself had long been ruled out, and I had not yet accustomed myself to read maps. So I bit the bullet and hailed a cab.

We headed to a popular spot at the Corniche by the Mediterranean Sea, and from there I figured I would find my bearings and choose a place to stay. It was getting late.

I arrived at the Corniche a few minutes later, stopping at a well known hotel landmark. After paying my fare, I walked past all the bright lights into a few darker alleyways. From there I would look for the words “HOSTEL” or “FAMILY GUESTHOUSE” and begin to knock on doors for the next hour. 3 years later, I can’t tell you how I arrived at my choice of stay….but wherever it was, it was cheap. And it was pretty spartan.

 

First hostel, first selfie

 

I woke up the next morning to a few mosquito bites and a horrible fever. But it wasn’t a real fever; rather, it was an unrelenting fear of leaving my guesthouse which I called a fever. This fear was becoming like a sickness.

How pathetic.

I remember sitting in the lobby for a good hour before deluding myself into some fake courage. I ain’t gonna lie; the thought of walking outside and exploring a completely foreign city from scratch — for the first time in my life — took a bit of brass. But I eventually got there.

I stepped outside and didn’t look back. I couldn’t anyways; the guesthouse owners made sure the door was locked from inside for the day. On any other day I would be pissed, but not today.

 

Sunrise by the Corniche

 

It wasn’t so bad. After about 10 minutes in, I forgot why I was so nervous about this in the first place.

 

 

No more whining. Onto Alexandria.

The great thing about this city is that it’s a living museum. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great himself, and it’s been destroyed and rebuilt by countless nations that once claimed Alexandria as its own: Greece, Rome, Byzantine, Persia, Egypt. That said, it’s still a sleepy, coastal city that only hints of a grandeur it used to enjoy in the ancient world. Don’t expect anything epic when you come; while there’s a lot of history on these streets, Alexandria is pretty modest. You’ll have to work hard and dig deep while here.

Similar to how you’ll navigate Beirut or Amman, on one street may be a modern apartment complex, but around the corner you might stumble upon some ancient ruins from the Roman empire (aka Kom el-Dikka, literally translating to “Pile of Rubble”. But with these ancient sites there’s no sign, post, tourist shop or epic light show…it’s just…there.

 

 

Find the Catacombs of Kom el-Shouqafa, known for its integration of Egyptian, Greeks and Roman styles for a public cemetery; one of Alexandria’s highlights.

 

 

Afterwards head to Pompey’s Pillar a 25-meter-high granite column constructed in honor of Emperor Diocletian in AD 297.

 

 

Then of course, is the famous (and rebuilt/modernized) Alexandria Bibliotheca. Don’t expect anything historic looking; while it stands on the same site as the ancient Library of Alexandria, those of you expecting a building besotted by time and conjures up memories of a foregone era of Greco-Roman classical architecture, will surely be disappointed. 

Although a national landmark and renowned research center nonetheless, this is as modern of a library as you can get.

 

 

The nearby “Death Star” is the new planetarium:

 

 

From there, take a stroll along the Corniche from east to west, making your way to the Citadel of Qaitbay. Along the way, take in the life of Alexandria along the Mediterranean Sea:

 

 

And on the eastern tip of the curved Corniche is the Citadel of Qaitbay, built in 1480 by Sultan Qaitbay to protect the city from the crusaders who used to attack the city by sea, and of course, built on the exact site of one of the original 7 wonders of the Ancient World: the Alexandria Lighthouse.

It’s now a museum, so go inside and take it all in:

 

 

Time to go back.

 

 

Time to go home.

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Alexandria / Nouzha, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 56% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds

 

Forming A Monsoon: Alone In Cairo

Forming A Monsoon: Alone In Cairo

 

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:

 

Protests in Egypt?

 

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:

 

The Egyptian Museum

 

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:

 

Citadel and Mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha

 

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:

 

The Saadawi family

 

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 32 °C - Humidity: 9% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

Forming A Monsoon: The Day My Life Changed Forever Happened In Cairo

Forming A Monsoon: The Day My Life Changed Forever Happened In Cairo

 
If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.
 

 

3am. My eyes open to an unfamiliar ceiling, and in the darkness I blindly salvage the little of what’s left of my short term memory. I glance around: I think I’m in Cairo. Memories slowly reemerge to prove that I’m not merely dreaming. The echoes of last evening’s adhan still reverberate within the space between my ears.

5 days ago, I made a bet with 2 friends that I would join them on a last minute trip to Egypt, on the condition that we could find roundtrip tickets less than a ridiculously low amount. I was half-serious about going; the serious part was realizing I hadn’t used any of my vacation days all year and I was about to let them go to waste, the non-serious part was that we all knew that flight prices were around $3000 at the time. But I joked that if I found tickets less than a third of that by the time they left, I would go.

To make a long story short, I checked the prices on a whim a few hours later: $650 roundtrip. Damn.

Within less than 72 hours I was on a plane to Amman, Jordan to catch a flight to Cairo.

 

Airport in Amman, Jordan

 

When I landed in Cairo, I paid the $15 visa-on-arrival and was greeted by my friends who had arrived in earlier. One of them showed off his new tattoo he had just got on the trip. The other wanted me to meet her cousins from Egypt. My senses were assaulted; I still was overwhelmed by the fact I had agreed to this trip in the first place. After eating a small dinner, they told me to sleep in a little while giving me directions to meet them at the back of the Oberoi Hotel in Giza by 4am. Like I knew what that meant at the time.

After being dropped off at a random hostel I sat down in my new bed and passed out.

 

Waking up at 3am

 

3am. In Cairo: I wake up and we’re back to where we left off.

We quickly gathered our stuff and snuck out into the darkness of the city.

 

The Oberoi Hotel in Giza

 

We found a lonely cab and made our way from Tahrir Square to Giza in 20 minutes. We then walked to the back of the hotel as directed and then met up with the rest of my friends. From there we approached a group of bedouins, a predominantly desert-dwelling Arabian ethnic group who live off-the-grid in Egypt.

And they happen to own a couple of horses:

 

 

I asked for one of their horses. They in return asked if I’ve ever rode one before.

I lied: “of course!”

 

My first horseback riding experience

 

And with a sound of a whip breaking through the cold air, my life would change forever. My horse raced off and so did my heart, and I held on for dear life. The poor bastard I was sitting on was galloping away as if we were trying to outrun a jaguar: we were outrunning fate. From the sound of crackling pavement to that of rustling sand, I slowly caught on that I was in the middle of the Sahara desert: Just my horse and I in the blind.

The darkness also overwhelmed me; I couldn’t see anything but the color black under a cloudy night sky. I’m not sure if I could brag that “I was riding that horse with my eyes closed!” but this was close enough. And I knew in my bones that if I had let go for a second, I’d fall and break something: my camera, my limbs, my head, my dignity. So I held tighter. I channeled prior experience on riding mechanical bulls back home. It seemed as if every gallop would be the last thing I would ever hear. I remember there was a little voice in my head telling me that I *really* wasn’t in New York anymore (a little slow, a little late).

Then with a high-pitched whistle in front of me I saw a fire burn in the distance. Shadows in the light of the fire pointed. I turned my head over my shoulder:

 

 

As if the muezzins were telling me to look alive, the morning adhan was beginning to resonate among the distant city lights of Cairo. The sun was beginning to rise.

Best bet I ever lost.

 

4652506201_66fae2a954_b

 

We would watch the rest of the sunrise at the bedouin encampment, enjoying shisha and hot tea with them as we communicated with them in smiles and appreciation.

 

 

They made us some breakfast. We wouldn’t care what we were eating at this point.

 

 

After an hour relaxing at their camp we got back on our horses and rode towards the pyramids.

 

 

 

 

 

A word of warning, though, The Sphinx is actually much smaller than you may have been led to believe.

 

 

The Pyramids themsleves, however, won’t disappoint.

 

 

Take it all in. You’re here.

 

The Pyramids of Giza just got served


And those were just my first 12 hours in Cairo. Little did I know that a life-changing surprise was about to befall me. . . .

. . . In the meantime, I’ll break off with a tangential story on my flight out of NYC to Amman:

While on my transatlantic flight to Jordan, we experienced a minor scare where one of the passengers was suffering from what seemed to be a heart attack. They were about to turn the plane around until 2 retired nurses and myself (2 years of emergency medicine volunteering counts!) offered our assistance. His eyes were rolled back, he was unresponsive and he seemed to be semi-conscious. We gave him some aspirin and as we prepared the onboard defibrillator, he immediately awoke and reassured us that he was feeling much better. He could not remember anything.

Whether it was low blood sugars, a seizure, a vasovagal response, or some cardiopulmonary event, he ended up being okay for the rest of the flight; I offered to sit next to him and measure his blood pressure every 30 minutes while forcing myself to stay awake by watching He’s Just Not That Into You twice. In return I was offered my choice of unlimited caffeinated beverages. I guess that’s when I realized I wanted to be a doctor.

 

 

- At time of posting in Cairo Airport, it was 18 °C - Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK