How one night in Africa’s New York City changed everything
A seventeen-year-old female solo traveller, takes on Egypt, the ancient desert metropolis
I was so not ready for something I had always wanted. Leaving behind the amenity of a secure job along the countries Red Sea. Now, with very little to my name I was due to set off alone. "It's just you and me again," I say with melancholy to my reflection in the mirror. Only to crack a smile when realizing how ridiculous that looked.
Two months spent living in this ancient nation, and I hadn’t yet even tasted the depths of this fierce culture. I sent myself diving headfirst into the deep end without any real thought as to what may go wrong. I’d had a turbulent last few months and now when stepping into my newfound freedom, I felt myself cowering and longing for the past I had just fought so hard to leave. Just 24 hours ago, I was being kissed by the gentle Egyptian sun whilst surrounded by a colorful swath of exotic marine life. Shortly after, I had come across a lagoon, which only just met the saltwater sea through a narrow tunnel. I spent hours soaking up the beautiful contrast of bright cool blue water enveloped by an enormous outstretch of dusty sand. I had felt truly free, completely isolated with a miraculous sight of nature. It was beginning to feel comfortable, to feel like home. Everything I aspired to run from. Except It all now seemed meaningless, a terrible mistake. I had to let it go. Temporary visits are still welcomed blessings, and this is just the nature of traveling, I reminded myself.
Determined to rise out of this sorrow and take advantage of my newfound freedom, I left the tiny hotel room to explore the “New York City of Africa”. Wearing black tights and a long shirt, I opened my door and was quickly welcomed by the familiar dry air. Having a location to visit in mind, I ordered a car and made my way to the other side of the city. I walked a few blocks from where the driver left me to reach the vast souk. I preferred walking when it was possible. Needing this time to look around and appreciate where I was going, reassuring myself that the future is yet to be another adventure. This giant metropolis has never ceased reinventing itself, and I’ve been invited to do the same. Although, Cairo is known as “The city of the dead”, I felt so alive participating in the city’s chaotic beauty. Exploring its backstreets and bazaars, its belly-dance performances, and not so subtly hidden hashish dens.
I walked the tattered streets of Cairo, crowded with locals celebrating the end of Ramadan month. Seventeen-year-old Australian female, vulnerable and alone. My future was unclear, and my safety net had diminished the moment I bought that one-way bus ticket from Hurghada to Cairo, into the unknown.
“Nonsense you’re in Egypt now!”
My new companion graciously shrugged as he handed the money over to the bus driver to compensate for my exceeded luggage amount. I had only met him five minutes earlier on the long ride into the city, and he was refusing to let me pay him back. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I repeated “Shookrun Katear” (Thank you so much) as many times as he’d allow me to.
The crescent moon hung in the air just between the highest point of the mosque and my destination, the night air hugged me as I walked towards the square. Pushing my sleeves a little further up my arms, I looked up again. There it was, the sight I had come to see. Khan El Khalil’s aura was unmistakable. My eyes frantically darted from each market stall to the dozens of cobbled medieval buildings within the square, frightened that I would blink and miss a glance. The sounds of traders making deals and working in their wares grew louder as I drew closer, the myriad of colorful lights swath the alleyways and stalls. Hundreds of faces reflected on the colored ornaments, I couldn’t help but dream of a house of my own decorated with those treasures. As I wandered through the magic that was Khan El Khalil, I learned that the buildings were hundreds of years old, and stores had been passed down families from generation to generation. Centuries of history hushed within these walls, so many stories that go untold.
The heavy stares from what felt like everyone was undeniable, I drew plenty of attention probably because I hadn’t spotted a single other westerner in the area that night. I took a deep breath and relaxed into conversation with the admiring locals. Generosity poured from them through their actions and complimenting words. They sought nothing in return and believe me, I insisted on returning. However, I was met with a slap on the hand by a gentle-faced lady, when reaching towards my purse in an attempt to repay her. From gifts to tours, to affection, to food and drink. I was left with a content stomach and a bag filled with gifts, without spending a single pound. My new friend, a store owner took my hand and swept me through the Souk, engulfed by sudden scents of cinnamon, cumin, spice, and saffron, laced with gurgling shisha smoke and spicy Turkish coffee.
Festivities continued until the morning light, and I embraced every moment. Joy radiated from every individual and contagiously latched onto me. I danced through the crowds and parted ways with many. All the while photographing my experiences, attempting to capture what I could not keep. Translucent waves stung my eyes the entire night and by the end, my heart was full to the brim. I experienced God through everyone I had crossed paths with. I was shown so much hospitality and kindness in a nation so undeserving of the stigma that has been placed on it, growing up in Australia. We were interconnected, the people and I, regardless of the obvious religious and cultural differences, I was welcomed. As comfortably as the petite Arab woman welcomed me, a stranger into her home. I welcomed the anticipated unknown. Would I run out of money and be stuck in Egypt? Or would I make a way to stay? I didn’t know. But that was no longer at the forefront of my mind. The bustling streets of the megacity that is Cairo, had captivated my full attention.