Sandra Tsing Loh makes her way to Egypt.
I finally caught a presidential DEBATE last week— The final ONE, kicking off with Libya— And that’s always the presidential CONUNDRUM, with the Middle East, BE friends, DON’T be friends, SEND money, DON’T send it, SEND arms, withhold them—
The whole geopolitical AREA can start to feel fairly abstract, at least for me. And as I found, on a recent trip to Egypt, nothing can QUITE prepare one for the complexity. Not even my sister, the sort of globe-trotting veteran who will spend a year planning a trip, and who will take six months of Arabic lessons just to brush up on her pronunciation. Having practically memorized The Lonely Planet, she has instructed us to dress conservatively, out of courtesy to Islam. Our arms and legs fully covered in loose-fitting clothing, no skirts, no shorts, and no denim, so as not to signal Western disrespect. She has a full collection of Egyptian currency. She has a map that shows our hotel on it. We are armed and ready.
Still, even she is startled when we step out of Cairo International Airport and face less a taxi stand than half a dozen men running towards us, yelling different prices and beckoning us toward what seem to be... their private cars. “20,” she murmurs to herself like a mantra, “it should cost no more than 20.” She lands us a beige Citroen, not too beat up, with an effusive English-speaking driver who is either a charming sociopath or a sincerely nice and helpful person. Given that he got us to our destination, accepted the amount of money proffered and gave advice that turned out to be true, he proved to be the latter, but for a while I wasn’t sure.
Further, even if you’ve READ that Cairo is a city of 22 million people with no traffic lights nothing QUITE prepares you for the chaos. “Egyptian music,” our driver laughed, describing the cacophonous honking of horns. We arrive at a Marriott built in a former palace protected by bomb-sniffing dogs. It encloses—interestingly—not just the Omar Khayyam casino, but a steakhouse, an Italian bistro, a British pub and even, perhaps weirdest of all, a “Ray’s Country Kitchen.” Buzzing around the slot machines are Egyptian women dressed more gaudily than I’ve seen in Vegas—we’re talking off-the-shoulder mini dresses, pink sequins, six inch heels. Now floats by a woman in a burka—that’s a full burka, with only a slit for the eyes—but even she is sporting painted orange toenails and a sparkly Gucci purse.
Oh for a bottle of California Woodbridge wine—that’s two words, “Wood” “Bridge”—but it’s a hundred American dollars! What surprises are next?
Next week: getting around town... in a military convoy.