Pam Mandel | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,605 words)
In 1982 travelers’ wisdom dictated it was a liability to have a stamp on your passport for Israel. This traveler’s wisdom, we relied on it all the time, though I could not tell you where we picked it up, exactly. And it did not help us when we went to Greece, where we’d hoped to find work and found nothing but vacationers and a few abandoned construction sites. Traveler’s wisdom guided us to take the ferry to Haifa, Israel, where we picked up farm work, enough to line our pockets with what little cash we heard we’d need for our target destination. This unofficial information was how we’d planned our route, leaving London in winter, our sights set on India.
Word was India would not issue you a visa if you showed up with a passport covered in Israeli stamps. You could, however, get a second passport issued from the embassy in Cairo and use that for traveling in parts of the world that were anti-Israel. We had been working in Israel, harvesting bananas, cleaning houses. Egypt was the launch pad to nations further east, a stepping stone on the way to India. That’s why we were going to Cairo, to get new passports.
We. Me, a California girl of 18, swept up in the transient population of unemployed British and German 20-somethings after a summer tour of Israel. That thing where Jewish kids go to The Promised Land to become one with the tribe, to form a bond with Israel. It didn’t work on me. I was instead drawn to the backpackers, the first edition of Lonely Planet’s India guidebook, and a middle class English non-Jew, Alastair, in his 20s, tall and skinny with deep-set blue eyes and a simmering anger at the world. We worked, we saved, and one day we decided we had enough money to go to Cairo and get new passports, and from there, continue to New Delhi.
The port at Sharm el Sheikh was a cinder block building on a flat dry arrowhead of land. There were some oil tankers offshore, a few dusty trailers. The town felt empty, temporary. There must have been a real village somewhere, but we did not see it as we lingered in the shade of the austere ferry terminal until it was time to board.
Word was India would not issue you a visa if you showed up with a passport covered in Israeli stamps. You could, however, get a second passport issued from the embassy in Cairo and use that for traveling in parts of the world that were anti-Israel.
The Sinai Peninsula had gone back to Egypt as part of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, which went into effect in 1980; the stories about what would happen to the land were conflicting. Sometimes we heard it was being developed for tourism, something the Israelis had not done much of. Other times we heard the Egyptians were blowing up the reefs to eliminate the mines the Israelis had supposedly anchored in the waters. All of it broke my heart a little because Sinai was where I’d slept under the stars with the Israeli boyfriend I’d met early in my tour. Later, when I was attending Hebrew language school — after I’d broken up with the Israeli — I went back there, with my roommate. We had coffee every morning, just out of the sun in the doorway of a palm leaf shack. I wanted Sinai to stay like I remembered it forever, as if I could, at any time, return to drink gritty coffee out of a hot glass in the shade of dry palm leaves or weave my way between the coral, knee deep in the shallow waters of the Red Sea while looking at the brightly colored fish just below the surface.
The ferry from Sinai to the mainland part of Egypt was a passenger boat with benches under an awning with a small cabin up front for the captain. There were no other Western travelers, just Egyptian and Israeli businessmen, and rugged workers. The ferry shuttled us across the channel, along the towering hulls of container ships and oil tankers. At the top of the gangplank on the other side, we boarded a bus to Cairo. It felt downright luxurious, with its reclining seats and curtains in the windows. I’d been used to rattling beat up Israeli long haul buses, which had no amenities. I pushed the curtains aside and looked out the windows at the countryside, date palms, beehive-shaped clay ovens, walled villages, people walking in the same kinds of fields I’d worked in Israel, cotton and citrus, under hot skies.
The bus dropped us in the middle of Cairo and we walked, using a map in our guidebook, to a recommended traveler’s hotel. The city was loud and strangely dark brown — and I don’t mean the people, though many of them were brown too. It was the buildings, the light, the buses and cars, like everything was made of walnut. There was stone and concrete and new modern apartment and office buildings, but somehow, everything seemed the same kinds of colors, everything filtered through a spilled coffee light.
To get to the hotel we had to go up a wide flight of spiral stairs to the second floor in one of these brown buildings, built in the 30s or 40s. There was a small cage elevator with a rattling gate, but I did not trust it. The hotel lobby was open to the stairwell; to the right there was a tall desk, behind it a quiet man who gave us a key from a mailbox cubby and wrote the price of the room on a scrap of newsprint.
The hotel was a strange dream, also brown, like Cairo outside, but quiet, muffled, the light softened by yellowed window glass, sepia colored, an old photograph. The ceilings were high overhead to keep the heat down, and the halls were lined with big, heavy brown wood furniture. The place was filled with wardrobes and chests of drawers and headboards, a flea market of furniture in the hallways. And nearly every surface was covered with stacks and stacks of faded Arabic language newspapers.
If there were other guests besides a trio of talkative German guys, we didn’t know about it. We never saw them. The German guys had been robbed a few weeks back in Sudan. We hung out with them in the restaurant downstairs at street level, drinking light Egyptian beer and eating plates of fuul — fava bean stew — and pita bread, talking about travel. The German guys wore leather pants and had almost no belongings. They’d been driving a Land Rover south when they’d been stopped by armed Sudanese rebels who took their car and left them at the side of the road with little more than the clothes they’d been wearing. They did not fight, the German guys said. Why would they? They were unarmed. They were not going to win. They handed over the keys and sat at the side of the road until someone drove by. They had hitchhiked back to Cairo and were hanging out at this empty hotel trying to figure out what to do next. They weren’t broke, but their plans to drive the length of Africa to Cape Town were interrupted. They were in good spirits for people who had been carjacked on a desert highway. Maybe they were rich kids? Or maybe they’d had nothing to lose when they set out, so this was just another story in their adventure.
Urban Cairo disappeared into the desert shortly before the Great Pyramids. We took the bus out to see them, these giant structures that made me laugh, so exactly were they like I had always imagined them, and also so much more impressive. It was strange to recognize them so completely and to be so surprised by the idea that they were real. I ran my fingers down the seams where the giant stone blocks that made up the pyramids sat tightly against each other, and they felt familiar and warm. We had stopped frequently on our journey from London and anytime we encountered an iconic work of art — the Great Pyramids, the Mona Lisa, the Acropolis in Athens, I was bright with the joy of recognition. Seeing any of the masterworks, from the modest-sized Leonardo to the massive stone pyramids, was like greeting a friend I didn’t know I’d missed so much.
The Sphinx sat quietly in the low sandstone trench in which she’d been built. We walked around the edges at about her shoulder level, looking at her distinctive profile, her neatly shaped paws, her powerful lioness body. I knew her already from history classes, but here she was, right in front of me, her broken nose detracting not at all from her strength.
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Here and there hawkers asked if we wanted camel rides; we stayed on foot and wandered around — and into — the monumental tombs. We were alone in one of them, with only the attendant, and he gestured towards Alastair that he could climb into the empty, lidless sarcophagus. Alastair declined. The next day we wandered the cavernous and uncrowded Egyptian museum through gallery after vast gallery stuffed with stunning artifacts, painted coffins, stone relief carvings, gold and lapis lazuli jewelry and scarabs and staffs. The kohl-lined eyes of past Egyptian royalty watched us wander around their treasures, and our footsteps echoed in the poorly lit rooms. Every now and then we’d encounter a khaki clad guard who would nod our way, silently, or maybe there’d be another pair of tourists, spotted through a glass case that held a gold leafed headdress, and then, we’d lose sight of them. I didn’t understand why there weren’t more people here. Athens was a hive of tourists, Paris the same. Cairo, home to the pyramids and the kind of artifacts that made our imaginations go crazy since King Tut’s tomb had been cracked open, was full of people — but hardly any of them were tourists.
Getting new passports was an administrative task, simple enough to complete — the staff had heard the story before. At the American and the British embassies, we filled out papers, handed over our street corner passport photos. Mine were completely blown out. There were dark shadows where my eyes were; my face was featureless and pale. The pictures were completely unacceptable and the embassy took them, along with my application. I paid my fee and was told it would take about a week — come back in a week. With our wait time, we would try to see Egypt, parts of it, anyway.
When we left Cairo city limits the light opened up. In the city, the light felt as though it were filtered through amber glass, but outside the confines of Cairo’s traffic and noise and high-rises, there was a lot more color. Everything was bright blue sky and the pale cream color of sand.
We took a bus to the end of the line and walked out a hot sandy road to see the Coptic churches. I didn’t know what the Copts were, but I had seen pictures of the icon paintings — saints with dark skin and almond eyes backed by gold leaf halos — and I wanted to be in their presence, so off we went. We had no idea how far the walk was to the churches from the end of the bus line, and we were used to Israel, where you could always get a ride. A taxi came along and picked us up — it was cheap — and dropped us in a silent complex where a whispering monk in black robes took us to wash our hands before leading us to a chapel full of exactly the icons I’d wanted to see.
We had not made any plans for the return trip, and as we set back out on the dry road, I wondered if we would be able to make the walk all the way back to where we’d got off the bus. It was hot, there were no cars, and Alastair was starting to get angry when a car stopped beside us and the driver asked us if we needed a ride. We were so grateful, and he seemed amused to find us. He would not take the money I insisted Alastair offer him.
We went to Alexandria, but beyond the beach there was little reason for us to be there. I knew it had been home to a library once, one of the great wonders of the ancient world, and I had imagined there would be remains. I was wrong; there was nothing to see. That was fine, but we became hopelessly lost in the back streets while looking for something, anything that would give us a reason to be there. Boys playing in the streets pulled up their long white gallabiyah to mock Alastair’s shorts as though he was walking around in his underwear. So far from the center of town he must have looked crazy, half dressed, far from anywhere an outsider should be. We wandered in circles until we found someone who spoke English, though all he could say was, “I’m sorry, I cannot help you.” I do not know how we found our way back into town but we got a hotel and walked on the beach until sunset. We were so out of place, always dressed wrong, standing out in our western clothes, our legs bare, my head uncovered. We wandered around looking at everything like we had never seen buildings or cars or people before, when really, we were the ones who were strange there. While we were looking for a place to get dinner, a man stalked us down side streets and alleys, and finally, Alastair turned and confronted him.
“Why are you following us?” His anger was right on the surface. I wondered if they would get into a fight.
“I just wanted to talk to you,” the man said. His English was good, clear. He looked scared.
“I don’t want to talk to YOU.” Alastair threw the words at him and pulled me away down the street. I looked back and the man was standing where we’d turned away, his shoulders slumped inside his clean white shirt. I believed him, and I was sad. He was curious but did not know how to break the ice with us. My guess is he had been trying to work up the nerve to say something. What he had been doing was creepy and wrong, but when I looked at him, I believed he just wanted to talk and he did not know how to approach us. He’d followed us like we were stray animals he was trying to attract so he could see where we belonged.
Back in Cairo we went to the central station to buy train tickets to Luxor. Afterwards, we had a fight on a pedestrian overpass, and when Alastair pulled me close to apologize, some men yelled at us to take that behavior back to our own country. Women were only a tiny percentage of who we saw out on the streets, and young women were not out on the streets in the company of young men, not with their hair flying free, not with their legs bare, ever. I saw some couples walking side by side, the women wearing long skirts and long sleeves, their heads covered in scarves. They were stylish, with makeup and jewelry, but so modest, and they did not hold hands with their husbands. It was the men who walked around holding hands. In their white shirts and dark pants, they looked like school children, and they had a companionship that I had never seen grown men exhibit before.
You could go overland all the way to Pakistan from Egypt, but it meant crossing Iraq and then, Iran…In addition to the basic logistics of getting across the two countries safely, neither was a great place to be a woman — and it was not ideal to be American, either.
I was another species entirely; women did not behave as I did in Egypt and as such, were not respectable. Though once a young man stopped me on the street to ask me about my t-shirt — it had the Hebrew name of my kibbutz on it. It was the rare moment when I was out alone; I had gone to buy postcards and stamps at a shop around the corner from the hotel. The young man had been to Israel, and his English was good. I greeted him with suspicion at first, not only because of what had happened in Alexandria. Because I was clearly not a good woman, men would shout after me, or press up against me on the bus. I had taken to making Alastair stand in front of me, using his body like a shield to keep the men from putting their hands on me. The streets were okay; the shouting just turned into noise. But I hated taking the bus because I did not just have to dodge the stares. The hands were everywhere too, and once, a man pressed his lips on my arm as I hung onto the rail to keep myself upright.
I could have disappeared here easily enough, a black scarf, a modest blouse, a long skirt. I would have looked like any of the Egyptian women, but it did not occur to me to do so. I dressed as modestly as I could in my only below-the-knee skirt, but it was not enough. I took a deep breath and turned to answer something the young man had asked me. He really did just want to talk. He asked me what I had been doing in Israel, told me he had worked there, and wished me safe travels.
The train to Luxor was quiet and clean, we were the roughest looking people in the car. A young girl ran up and down the aisle playing with a bright green parakeet and smiling. The bird was docile and clearly attached to her, and hopped in and out of her hands. Her family looked at us and smiled, shaking their heads indulgently. In Luxor we rented bicycles to see the towering statues of the pharaohs, the hieroglyph-covered tombs, the tulip columns, the partially excavated obelisks. The place seemed absent of visitors, just as vacant as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The sky was so blue, the carvings still so sharp. I carried a bundle of cheap newsprint paper and made pencil rubbings of the reliefs, the scarab shaped seals, and the profile of a princess with perfect braids, each twist of her hair in exquisite detail. At the entrance to each tomb we would trade a stack of battered piasters for a printed ticket, and then the attendant would turn a broken scrap of mirror to reflect the sunlight from outside into the fresco covered chambers. The light was imperfect. There were dark corners into which we could not see, and the rooms were empty save for the paintings on the walls, maybe a heavy stone coffin emptied of its occupant, in the middle. The objects I’d seen at the museum in Cairo, or the British Museum in London — this is where they’d come from, these cool stone rooms. It’s where they were meant to still be, hidden behind the sandy crenellated cliffs, were it not for archeologists and thieves waking the pharaohs from thousands of years of sleep to steal their jewelry. The avenues were lined with towering columns and nothing seemed quite real, including the silence. Every now and then we’d see another pair of visitors, over there, but then they’d be lost in the sprawling complex. How could we have this place to ourselves. Where was everyone?
The Germans were still in the traveler’s hotel when we returned to Cairo from Luxor. They had made plans and, like us, had set their sights on India. But there was another administrative hurdle: India visas meant mailing off your passport and waiting for weeks and weeks for it to come back. I was not keen on spending more time hanging out in Cairo. There was the relentless brown light, the noise, and it was getting to me that I could not do things on my own as a woman, without being harassed.
There was a faster way to get a visa, though you’d have to buy a plane ticket, the Germans told us. You could fly to Karachi, Pakistan, where getting a visa meant a visit to the Indian embassy, passport in hand, and you’d get your visa that same day. Then you could travel overland to Lahore, crossing into India in Punjab, in the north. You could go overland all the way to Pakistan from Egypt, but it meant crossing Iraq and then, Iran. The two countries were at war, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s oppressive government was in control of Iran. In addition to the basic logistics of getting across the two countries safely, neither was a great place to be a woman — and it was not ideal to be American, either.
For a few hundred dollars, we could fly east and leapfrog all of that. We’d land in Pakistan where what money we had would go even farther than it had in Israel, where there was little we needed to spend it on, or Egypt, where things were just cheap. We decided spending the money was a better idea than tackling the Iran-Iraq border. We went to a travel agent and bought plane tickets to Karachi. We had money for a cab but Alastair rarely wanted to pay for something that was easy when the hard way was so cheap. For the last time, we took the bus from downtown Cairo to the airport, where we boarded a flight to Karachi. India was that much closer and though I did not know why I was going, I was breathless with excitement all the same.
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Pam Mandel is a travel writer and ukulele player from Seattle, Washington. She’s currently seeking a publisher for her travel memoir.
Editor: Sari Botton