After my botched ascent of Mount Sinai, I decided to head to a city that had actual roads I could navigate. I chose the traffic-clogged streets of Cairo. I spent the next couple of hours at the local police station near Saint Catherine’s Monastery, getting the “right” tourist stamp for my passport. Then I hopped on a bus that promised to take me to the Land of the Pharaohs.
I was one of three white people on the bus (the other two were the French tourists I had seen at Mount Sinai)—and the only woman. I found an empty seat and plopped myself down. Nearly every single Arab was smoking hashish cigarettes (a kind of cannabis that is mixed with tobacco) and the air was so heavy with smoke it felt like I was walking through cobwebs. I smiled weakly at my two fellow tourists, and settled in for the long, hot, smoky ride. After about twenty minutes, I was dizzy from the smoke, and drenched with sweat; and my legs were stuck to the plastic seats. “Why the hell won’t someone open a window?” I couldn’t take it anymore, so I sat up and reached for the window. The man in the seat behind me clucked rather loudly. I squeezed its levers, yanking the window down; and was smacked in the face with a literal blast furnace—120° F air temperature, and sixty-mile-per-hour sand.
“OW!” I quickly realized my mistake and shoved the window up as fast as I could. The man behind me narrowed his eyes and glared. I stole a glance back to where the French guys were—they were happily ensconced in their own cloud of European smoke, sharing cigarettes with their neighbors.
I took a sip from my water bottle, covered my nose and mouth with my bandana, and resigned myself to being hot and sweaty for the rest of the ride. I dozed, dazed—I probably hallucinated!—and the hours passed. At one point, the man in the seat in front of me reached behind him, grabbed my water bottle, and turned back in his seat. I was so shocked by his move (and a little afraid of what might happen if I reacted), that I just stared at him without saying a word. Eventually, he gave it back to me—empty, of course.
Nearly twelve hours (and only one pee break by the side of the road) later, the bus pulled into a bustling city. I felt like pudding. I couldn’t even imagine what I looked like.
The locals quickly dispersed, and left us tourists standing there with our bags at our feet, and our mouths gaping. The bus hadn’t stopped at the main bus station, but rather a secondary one, that was, according to my guidebook (who writes these things?) less crowded. I had serious doubts that any place could be less crowded than this bus station. My trusty guide book (the very one that said the bus ride from Mount Sinai took six hours) said the secondary bus station was within walking distance of the main station—but after my Sinai fiasco and the bus ride from hell, I was in no mood to maneuver through the mean streets of Cairo with all of my crap.
Which is exactly what I ended up doing. Naturally. For some reason, I had a sense that I’d be better off following a map than taking my chances in a cab. So I slogged through the heat and the crowds until I saw my oasis: the Nile Hilton. Oh! I’d heard stories about this hotel and the luxuries it proffered! And I was ready to treat myself to every one of its five stars! Woo hoo!
I went up the to the front desk and asked for a room. “I’m sorry ma’am, but we have no rooms available.” “You’ve got to be kidding me! This place has, like, two hundred rooms. Surely, you have one room available.” The man looked me over, cocked his head, and calmly repeated his statement. Yes, I realized that I hadn’t bathed in three days, reeked of hash and sweat, had desert sand caked on my face like an action hero, and that I was carrying all of my worldly possessions on my back (and front)—but dammit! I had an American Express card burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted a room!
Apparently, there wasn’t a manager on duty with whom I could discuss the matter. After a couple more unsuccessful volleys, I lost my patience and left the hotel dejected. I was overheated, exhausted, and had a terrible case of cottonmouth (I hadn’t had water since yesterday). And now, I had no place to sleep. Tears welled up and I cried my way across traffic, trying to figure out what to do next. What I needed was to sit down and go through my guidebook, in order to find another place to stay. But I was fearful of pickpockets, so I kept moving. After about twenty minutes of wandering around, I looked up and saw a little blue sign, descended from heaven: an American Express office!
I wiped the tears from my face and B-lined it. As I walked into the chilly, air-conditioned office, a pleasant woman stood up from her desk and greeted me with a thick accent: “Good afternoon! Can I help you?” She handed me a Dixie cup full of ice-cold water.
The tears started coming, and I literally sobbed out my story of how the man wouldn’t give me a room at the Hilton and how I had good money and I just needed a place for the night and could she help me? She guided me to a chair, refilled my empty cup from a pitcher on her desk, and assured me in a soft, sweet voice, that, yes, she could indeed help me.
She helped me right into the Cairo InterContinental at $120 a night. She also let me use her restroom (where I got a look in the mirror at what the Hilton desk clerk had seen. Yikes! I looked awful!) and showed me on the map where the hotel was. I thanked her sincerely, gathered my belongings, and left en route to my five-star home for the night.
The towels were enormous and supremely soft (it’s true what they say about Egyptian cotton!), the bed was bigger than any I’d ever slept in, and the room service was out of this world.
The following morning, after devouring my breakfast in bed, I showered (again!) and dressed in my freshly hotel-laundered clothes (it was worth every penny) and returned to the Nile Hilton to register a complaint with the manager on duty. Embarrassed by his employee’s behavior, he apologized and offered me a room at a deeply discounted rate. I declined, telling him that I much preferred where I was staying—right next door, at his competitor’s hotel. I walked out feeling a bit like Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman… and ready for my next adventure—the pyramids at Giza.
A Photographer Abroad: Mt. Sinai
A Photographer Abroad: The Great Pyramids
Photo by Lori Epstein