For months before I left to study abroad at the American University in Cairo, I was thrilled beyond belief. I told anyone who would listen about where I was going, what classes I was going to take and where I planned to travel. I was met with several responses, not all of them positive.
There were some who would joyously respond with “Oh that’s wonderful … Cairo is in Asia, right?” For those who knew Cairo was actually in Egypt, I met a different response prefaced with about a minute and a half of silence. With a look of disbelief and disgust they would then say, “How nice… ” and not knowing what else to say they would add, “I hear Third World countries are nice this time of year…”
The few positive responses were from those who had traveled to Cairo and Egypt. These seasoned travelers gushed about how wonderful it is and immediately began to list 70 restaurants/shops/attractions/sites I should go to. This was reason enough to go.
I wanted to study abroad in Egypt because I felt it would provide a completely different experience than any other study abroad program could. I was talking with a fellow American University in Cairo (AUC for short) study abroad student I met here and she explained why she chose Egypt. She said that she didn’t want a Europeanized experience where she would immediately feel comfortable in the culture. She wanted to go somewhere where she would be forced to step outside her comfort zone, with a culture completely different from her own.
I, too, wanted to transplant myself into a foreign culture to experience it for all its worth. Most of all, I never wanted to step outside my dorm room and feel like I was still in America.
The sights, sounds, smells
Cairo is completely different from any other city I’ve been to, whether in America or abroad. When I flew into Cairo International Airport I looked out my window expecting to see the usual runway lined with air-traffic controllers that I’ve seen hundreds of times. In Cairo however the runways are sand swept and the sand blows underneath the plane. The sky is almost the same color as the sand, giving it an eerie aesthetic appeal. I knew now that I was actually in Egypt, and my wish to be in an unfamiliar place was fulfilled.
My taxi ride from the airport was an experience in and of itself! Traffic is insane here. With a population of 20 million, it’s no surprise. Drivers beep their horns as a means of elaborate communication, which can mean anything from, “I’m passing you” to “I’m here, don’t hit me!” Whenever a driver is about to do something that could probably cause an accident, he beeps his horn. This happens probably once every three seconds.
Also Cairene drivers do not use lanes on the freeway; rather they drive wherever they wish on the freeway and on any street. While American drivers tend to use the street lines as guideline, Cairene drivers seem to think they are things to straddle rather than follow. On a three-lane road, many times there are actually five rows of cars, all trying to get somewhere. Needless to say this puts you in extremely close proximity to neighboring cars, often with about a three inches between cars.
The smells of the city are impossible to describe. Everyone smokes, so the air has a distinctive tobacco odor, but no matter where you are you can smell exotic spices and Middle Eastern foods flavor the air. It’s a beautiful city, though, filled with character. Each building has such different architectural details, and many things have such craftsmanship we would never find in America.
City that doesn’t sleep
The American University in Cairo has had numerous activities at night for study abroad students to participate in. I went on a Nile dinner cruise, where we sailed down the Nile watching traditional Middle Eastern performances. There was a belly dancer and a man who twirled swords around his head. The male singer, however, was my favorite part of this. Along with more Arabian beats, he sang Enrique Iglesia’s “Bailamos”!
The city seems to never sleep. Clothing shops and pharmacies stay open until the wee hours of the morning along with the restaurants and pubs. There are people walking around at all hours of the night, wandering after their nightly sheesha (waterpipe or Hookah) or cups of coffee.
The first night I was here, a group of study abroad students and myself wandered around Zamalek, which is the part of Cairo where the student dorms are located. It was around 6 o’clock and the sun had nearly set. All of a sudden I heard Arabic, which I had been hearing all day, but this was different, it was meditative and had a song-like quality to it. It sounded ever so slightly louder than the speech surrounding me. It took me only a couple of seconds to realize that I was hearing the Muslim call to prayer, which happens at five specific times of the day. It gave me goosebumps it was so surreal!
The call to prayer showed me just how different my life in Egypt will be compared to my life back home. It’s obvious now that I’m no longer in the States. Now I’m in Egypt.