Quirky is a good word
My first trip to Cairo that I can remember was for a conference in 2007, organized by the students at the American University of Cairo. It was during this trip that I was acquainted with – how do I say this without offending? – the quirky and comical side of the city, if one wanted to sound like a good-humored traveler about it all.
We were a small group of exemplary students chaperoned by our friendly but tense American advisor. I believe he was weighed down with the responsibility of being on the other end of the spectrum of a university trip. The dependable adult with five Arab students of both genders and different nationalities. I would like to state for the record that we made his job incredibly easy – it’s what happens when you take five nerds on a university trip… they actually show up to all the sessions on time.
So we arrived in Cairo in the late afternoon and I was glad that the host university had arranged a bus to pick us up – because the airport was overwhelming.
People were coming at us from every direction, large families greeting each other, security guards on a power trip and cab drivers trying to charm us into their cars. I’m not even sure they had cars. They all pointed vaguely and promised us a good fare. We stood stoically by our luggage for half an hour as our advisor and one of the students tried to track down the bus driver. We swatted cab drivers away and took silly pictures of each other.
Finally, we got on the bus and that’s where we sat for the next two hours through our first episode of Cairo Traffic. In a mixture of dread and alarm, we sat silently after failing to figure out the intertwined bridges and unmoving traffic.
Someone reassured us that this was not normal. Traffic was supposedly worse that night because of some big football tournament – which is also why the host university had to change our booking to a small, nondescript hotel. They said everywhere else was booked. Anyway, traffic was so bad that we rerouted to the university’s campus instead of our hotel for the welcome reception. Exhausted, cold, hungry and disoriented, I think we clung to each other at the reception. We may or may not have met anyone else – I can’t remember. At one point, we wandered away to explore AUC’s campus and my friends joined a random game of football in an attempt to blend in and convince ourselves we were having a good time. I watched from the sidelines and thought of how great it would be to have a bowl of hot soup appear in front of me.
Late, late into the night (at least that’s how it felt), we were finally bussed to our hotel, along with the other participants. Only two of the four international universities actually showed up to the conference, whereas the other universities and their participating students were mysteriously missing. We stumbled around in the dark, trying to negotiate with the staff in the lobby who insisted on holding on to our passports. Just as the negotiation was undeniably turning into a loud disagreement, the hotel staff suddenly acquiesced and gave back our passports. We grabbed our bags, keys and looked around us. It then dawned on us: we were staying at a one-star