Egypt, the crown of the Arab world. Cairo, the jewel of the crown. And the Egyptian Museum, the center of Cairo and the archive for most of the greatest works and achievements of the ancient world. And here we are, only a few blocks away from it in a small, cramped-but-clean room in the Australian Hostel.

Haitham and I left Amman at 3:30 promptly, thanks to the punctuality of the al-Moomayez taxi. Unfortunately that will be the last time I have anything good to say about this taxi service. I used them throughout 2009 to get me to the airport while praising them to friends and colleagues for their price and quality of service. The standard dingy yellow taxi wants JD25, but Moomayez only needs JD9 since they follow the meter! I would tell them. Today, however, the operator told me blandly that we would be required to use the Mercedes to get to the airport, instead of my usual Toyota, at twice the price per kilometer. I ranted at her for a few minutes, then hung up. Regardless of my rage, our JD20 chariot was waiting for us at exactly the time specified. Haitham was in shock that a transport service in Jordan would actually be on time. As for me, “being on time” for a taxi service shouldn’t be a charge that requires a double increase in fare prices all at once. Farewell, Taxi Moomayez.

Our driver was a huge hoout of a man who definitely had his seat pushed back all of the way. I made sure to offer him one of the brownies I’d made for Haitham and I, knowing that otherwise the delicious smell of chocolate might drive him insane and send us careening off the road. He and Haitham chatted amicably while I busied myself with taking the cornucopia of pills that Haitham had brought me, in the order he specified.

Like a kid in an amazing cancer-filled candy store...

Like a kid in an amazing cancer-filled candy store...

This was Haitham’s first time in an airport, and he was curious to see the duty-free shop. However, he railed against the prices, noting as I already had that the prices here might be without tax, but because of the rip-off nature of airports the price was essentially the same as in Zarqa’, although better than Amman. We found our flight and boarded right away, seated in the back of the plane behind a group of Westernized Ammani high school students on their way to a conference. Their clothes and 100% American accent made them stand out in stark contrast to the rows of robed men and women who sat quietly throughout the rest of the aircraft.

As the plane roared and picked up speed on the runway, Haitham gazed out the window, muttering to himself rapidly in Arabic, words that I couldn’t quite make out. At the second the wheels left the runway and we became airborne, he moaned briefly in a single monosyllabic utterance and his hands twitched briefly on the armrests. Once we were safely aloft, he only briefly paid attention to the flight, only while going through some brief turbulence which caused him to look up sharply from his music player and question to me as to why we were shaking and vibrating. Personally, I was more interested in the complimentary sandwiches being served to us – for a short hour-long flight, I was pleased with the treatment.

You're not going to believe this but yes, we did have to take this ridiculous roundabout detour around Israel instead of just flying in a straight line to Cairo

You're not going to believe this but yes, we did have to take this ridiculous roundabout detour around Israel instead of just flying in a straight line to Cairo

We descended through the roiling black clouds above al-Musr to a twinkling carpet of gold and red sparks, the lights of the buildings and cars below. They stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Haitham definitely seemed to be discomforted by the landing, and when you think about it, it’s perfectly natural to be alarmed when you see the earth rushing up to you with uncontrollable and implacable speed. I told him, “There’s going to be a bump when we land.” He whirled in his seat to stare at me. “Will it hurt?” I paused, then nodded as the plane touched down. “You tell me.” Along with all the other Arabs on the plane, he burst into applause, a cultural trait that I’ve gotten used to.

After a short bus ride from plane on the tarmac back to Cairo’s airport, I paid my $15 for the Egyptian visa (Haitham did not require one; the first thing of many he would be receiving for nothing or almost nothing in our journey) and we strode purposefully with our luggage through the relatively quiet airport towards the door. The final customs check and declaration were interesting. A tall, elderly woman asked Haitham to open his bag to have it checked, and I naturally followed suit and opened my bag on the table next to his and waited for her to finish with him.

Once the customs woman finished making sure that Haitham wasn’t importing anything dangerous or illegal in his socks, I called to her that I was ready. She looked at me, uncomprehending, and a short man with gold piping on his sleeves rushed over to her and hissed, “Why did you stop that American!?!” She backed away from him, pleading that she hadn’t stopped me and that she didn’t know why I’d opened my bag. Haitham came forward and tried to explain that I had just been following his lead, but commented drolly that it was interesting that Americans didn’t get their luggage checked. The officer paled and his bushy mustache bristled under his bulbous nose. “That’s not true at all,” he insisted, glaring at my friend. Haitham merely shrugged and gestured for me to close my bag; we left the airport without further incident.

Now the question of the night still remained: how were we to find our way to the Australian Hostel? It seemed that we had several options in front of us. If we had booked for three nights online at the hostel, they would have found us and picked us up for free from the airport directly for 60 pounds, the equivalent of 8 JD. Now, of course, we were being swarmed by eager taxi drivers who I’m sure would have liked nothing more than to escort us to our location for twice that. Haitham wasn’t having any of that, of course. He quickly found us a bus to our destination on Tahrir Street that had a fare of 1 pound per person. We brought our luggage inside, and when the bus’s assistant protested, Haitham gave him another 2 pounds and bought a third ticket for our good friend Luggage. He quieted down at that, and joked with Haitham that for that, they’d alter the route and take us straight to Tahrir.

It was definitely a joke because it took an hour by bus, plus another hour of walking, just to find the hidden hostel. After disembarking near that famous Egyptian Museum previously mentioned, we wandered about blindly for a long time randomly asking strangers for directions until we found someone who let Haitham borrow his phone. Thankfully, that was all it took to direct Haitham up the (apparently) famous Talaat al-Harb street, past the KFC (of which there are apparently many!) and to the small alley with the Australian Hostel building.

I like this room they’ve put us in. Tall ceilings, a nice red silk curtain over the balcony, and obviously, free and serviceable wireless Internet. Haitham is in the middle of praying at this moment so I’m trying to type as quietly as possible so as to not disturb him. He found which direction Mecca is, which ironically happens to be about 2 degrees to my right so it almost looks like he’s prostrating himself at the foot of my bed, directly towards me. I won’t tell him that, of course, or at least not for another few minutes while he’s busy…