This is was what half our family told John and I when we booked our tickets to Egypt in December 2012. We were confronted with a lot of negativity about our plan to visit Egypt, given the state of the country. Egypt had recently been through a revolution and the country plunged in and out of civil unrest. Most of our friends and family were scared to death for us. The media showed this view of Tahrir Square over and over again—hundreds of people camped out, ready to rally against the government. The media did not, however, show any images of every day Egyptians. Just the same shot of a small section in downtown Cairo. Drama sells, not mundane everyday life.
Despite that we were determined to see Egypt with our own eyes.
We were beside ourselves with excitement, so after a long layover in Germany we were glad to finally arrive in Cairo. When people talk about culture shock, I always brushed it off, saying that I was open minded and ready to experience new things. But, wow, when you walk off the plane from Seattle to Cairo for the first time that culture shock punches you right in the face.
The place was bustling. Women dressed in all varieties of clothing from head-to-toe Burkas to fashionable head scarves to designer jeans and blazers. Men rushed around, some dressed in floor length Galabiyas, some wearing three piece suits, many wearing a Fez. It smelled of savory street food and exotic perfume, with a vague undertone of city stink . Everyone talked loudly, waving their hands at each other as dashed about.
We stood rooted in place and took it in for a few moments. I’m sure we looked like complete idiots, our mouths agape in awe.
In order to travel in Egypt you must purchase a visa at the airport. In order to purchase this visa you need to pay with Egyptian pounds. They don’t take credit cards, Euros, or any other type of payment. So we showed up ready to get some crisp cash directly from the ATM.
“There’s one ATM in this whole terminal. And it’s broken,” I said to John. I had walked up and down the entire airport terminal.
“No way,” John said, folding his arms across his chest.
“I’m serious,” I said and just the slightest tinge of panic began to set in.
We thought up a brilliant plan: we would ask a security guard to escort us outside the airport to some sort of bank. Upon reaching the end of the airport, we encountered a security guard who held up his hand. We tried to explain our situation and our solution. He seemed to understand most of it. But couldn’t let us out. He kept shaking his head, trying to be as nice as possible. We were stuck. I began to visualize us spending the night in the Cairo airport only to be shoved onto the next flight home in the morning.
Suddenly, a young woman appeared. She seemed to be friends with the security guard. She wore a classy cream colored suit and carried an expensive looking handbag. She flashed us a beautiful smile and talked quickly to the security guard in Arabic. The woman turned to us with a look of concern.
“How much do you need?” she asked.
“$300 Pounds,” I said, thankful that someone could understand what was going on. “We just need to get to an ATM, but the ones in here are broken.”
The woman reached into her handbag , pulled out her wallet and produced a handful of crisp bills, which she handed to me.
“Here’s $400 Egyptian Pounds.”
“I…wow. Thank you so much.” I said.
As a side note, 400 Pounds is a lot of money in Egypt. It’s like going out to dinner at a nice steakhouse.
“We will meet you just outside to pay you back,” John said. “Is that alright?”
“Please don’t worry about it.” She said, smiling and waving her hand. “Welcome to Egypt.”
With that, she bid her friend goodbye and rushed off.
Everyone had been so scared for us before we left. And for a split second, when we were in trouble in a foreign place, we felt just a little bit afraid, like maybe those people were right. But that woman’s hospitality was the first of many wonderful experiences in Egypt. Her generous welcome framed the rest of our journey through a warm and openhearted country.