A story based on my experience in Egypt. One of many.
|The plane’s tires smacked against the tarmac jolting me awake though my brain remained sluggish from lack of sleep. My hurried departure from New York City for Cairo, Egypt stemmed from one of those, “We need you there by tomorrow!” directives from senior management. Instead of time to plan for my first overseas business trip, I’d spent a harried day between the office, the Egyptian embassy, and home where I threw together whatever business clothes I could find that would work in the scorching temperatures of the Middle East. When I boarded the plane at eleven o’clock that evening I was exhausted, but way too wired from anticipation and so haunted by the fear that I wasn’t up to the task that I could only manage a fitful doze.
I stepped out of the jet way and was immediately accosted by a sea of men, all smartly dressed in white shirts, black slacks and waving placards in front of me and my fellow passengers. Perusing the neatly printed names, I searched for mine, the company’s, or the hotel’s, but to no avail. Twenty minutes later I remained unclaimed and alone. The bustling concourse had become a ghost town oddly lined with out-of-date, dusty refrigerators for sale, by whom to whom I couldn’t imagine.
Reasoning that my driver, who was to be a company employee, did not have the necessary clearance to go as far as the arrivals area it made sense that perhaps he would be waiting in the main terminal and not at the gate. Buoyed by my delusion I proceeded to customs.
, I juggled my briefcase and purse with one arm and rolled my suitcase behind me with the other. Before long I was sweating profusely because the air-conditioning system (if there was one) appeared to be broken. I arrived in the customs hall and found it jammed with travelers from my own and other flights which had recently (or maybe not so recently) arrived. The officials manning the lines looked sharp and extremely efficient in their grey uniforms and braided caps. However, that first impression failed to hold true because the lines progressed at a pace somewhere between that of a snail and a small turtle.
Hours seemed to limp by. I was close to dissolving into a pool of sweat when an arm was thrust out and my passport requested. Unhurried, the clerk perused the pages then casually stamped one of them and tossed the passport back to me. Hurray! Luckily, I’d obtained an emergency visa before my departure. It had taken most of a precious afternoon, but the effort allowed me to avoid becoming the caboose on the ‘Visa Applications’ line weaving around the perimeter of the hall. That line never moved.
I was a few yards away from the exit into the main terminal when I noticed several taxi kiosks. Intent on hooking up with my driver, I ignored the logic of stopping to secure ‘just-in-case’ backup transportation. Instead, I was convinced that my ride would be waiting on the other side. And if not, I could always return and arrange whatever I needed to make it to the hotel on my own.
I pushed through the turnstile into the terminal. Several minutes passed while I scanned the crowd swirling around me, but it was no use. No signs were waved, no glance of recognition in my direction. Refusing to accept the obvious, I continued outside and was immediately hit by a wall of heat that left me gasping. Shading my eyes, I peered into a large throng forced to wait outside for friends and families to join them. Once again, no one stepped forward with an offer of rescue. A sense of unease welled in my stomach. I quickly retreated.
Back inside the realization hit me: I had committed a major tactical error. Once through the arrivals exit, no one was allowed re-admittance. Need to arrange a taxi and get money exchanged? Too bad. Now what?
People pushed past and ignored my pleas of “Do you speak English?”
Signs were plentiful, but all in Arabic. I searched for the international symbol that might direct me to a restroom. Zippo.
I was silently cursing my stupidity, when a pudgy, middle-aged man dressed in a white, brimless cap and long, blue tunic sauntered up to me. “You, ride?”
It was more a statement than a question spoken in rudimentary English, but I was ecstatic thinking my driver had finally arrived. “Yes, yessss!” I cried.
Unsmiling, he nodded, took control of my bag, and abruptly started off. I trotted behind him thinking he wasn’t as solicitous as the typical company driver, nor was his dress the usual western business attire I’d been expecting. I asked if the company had sent him. He only shrugged. I tried again. “From the hotel?”
He simply gestured at a side exit somewhere ahead of us.
At that point, I could have told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going to follow him another step unless he addressed my questions. I could have. Maybe even should have. But I didn’t. I didn’t because even though I had yet to get a straight answer from him, and knew a few horror stories of women traveling alone in foreign countries, I did not have the ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ voice screaming in my head. So instead of running in the opposite direction, I trailed him out of the terminal listening to his sandals as they slapped against the pavement.
Outside, the sun was dipping in the sky, the temperature was stuck on broil and my scalp was starting to prickle. We traipsed along a narrow roadway split by a concrete divider. On the opposite side, several taxis were parked along the curb and a handful of men stood smoking and chatting. One bearded young man took notice of us passing by and yelled something. My driver looked straight ahead, pretending he hadn’t heard. The man yelled again, and this time my driver barked a short retort. Words were volleyed back and forth, and though the exchange was all in Arabic, I didn’t need to understand the language to know they were arguing. I asked what the problem was, but my question was ignored (as usual). Our pace picked up and a few minutes later he stopped, pointed and said, “Here.”
Sure enough, we rounded the corner and there it was –a dust encrusted, heavily dinged, compact car of antediluvian vintage. Before I could exclaim, “You’ve got to be kidding,” he stuffed my suitcase in the trunk and rushed to unlock the passenger door. That’s when it hit me. He wasn’t ‘my driver’. He was a gypsy cabdriver circumventing airport rules that probably stated that only specially licensed drivers were allowed to pick up passengers. If he was caught, I knew he’d be facing a heavy fine.
I actually felt relieved. I now understood his evasiveness, his ‘need for speed’. He wanted to get in and out fast before being caught, and since we’d been spotted, there was no time to spare. I climbed into the front seat and he slipped the key into the ignition. We listened to the engine wheeze, sputter and then roar into life. He shifted into reverse, rammed it into first, and gunned the gas pedal. We lurched out onto a service road and, with no other car in sight, made our escape.
“What hotel?” he asked.
I told him and he came back with, “How much?” My mouth dropped open when I realized I had no Egyptian money.
“Do you take Visa?” I asked.
“What’s Visa?” he replied.
Oh, oh. “Umm, would you take American money?”
His eyes lit up. “American? Oh yes, yes.” Then he asked how much.
I had no idea how far the hotel was, no idea what the typical fare was, or any idea of the exchange rate. I opened my wallet and drew out a few bills.
“Fifty. Would that be okay?”
I could tell from the way his eyes popped out of their sockets that I’d overestimated the going rate for a taxi ride, but it would be covered by my expense allowance and frankly even if it wasn’t, I’d have offered double and a bonus if necessary. He put the money in his pocket and continued driving.
My largesse made him talkative. He asked where I was from, but his driving was distracting me. I wasn’t sure if Egyptian drivers drove on the left or right side of the road, but it struck me as peculiar that he didn’t use either one. Instead he was weaving back and forth along the painted lane divider. I decided that with no traffic around us, did it really matter? I took a deep breath and tried to relax. “I’m from New York,” I told him and then laughed at the unexpected enthusiasm when he offered a thumbs-up and chanted, “U. . . S. . . A!”
We sped along at an encouraging clip then slowed to merge onto a main thoroughfare. At that point we entered traffic hell. I now understood his casual driving habits. Absolutely no one on the road paid any attention to lane markers. On the contrary, everyone appeared to be in an all-out, no-holds-barred competition for their piece of the road. I observed the vehicles as they zipped around us. They were covered with so many dents and rusted scrapes that it looked as if driving in Cairo was considered a contact sport. Ironically, it was the sheer volume of the traffic that provided the only margin of safety simply because it prevented anyone from speeding above twenty-five miles per hour.
My nerves were at the breaking point when we came to a stop. I opened my eyes and discovered we were at the foot of a winding drive at the end of which stood my hotel! He didn’t drive up to the entrance like I expected. Instead, his brow furrowed and concern crept into his voice. “You married?”
Startled, I replied, “Well . . . yes.”
He nodded, but his face remained serious. “And your husband,” he continued. ”He gives permission for you to fly?”
What? The question struck me as so absurd that I wanted to laugh. Was he serious? One glance told me he was. I wasn’t familiar enough with the laws or even the culture at the time to know, but I guessed that how I answered was important. I decided that my husband’s unwavering support of my career amounted to the same thing. “Yes,” I stated politely. “My husband has given his permission.”
My answer appeared to offer him great relief. He broke into a wide smile and continued up the drive. When he eased to a stop in front of the entrance he said, “You must be a most brilliant woman.”
Again I was taken aback at his words, and though flattered, I felt the need to set him straight. “I’m hardly . . .”
“No, no,” he protested. “You must be a very brilliant and important woman if your husband has given his permission to fly!”
I thanked him for delivering me safely to the hotel and tried again to correct his misperception, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he touched his cap in farewell and drove away beaming. I could hear his words echo around me as I stood for a moment and pondered the events of the day.
When I walked into the hotel I was smiling, and with each stride I felt more confident. I wouldn’t say the change was immediate, but eventually the doubts I had about my abilities faded, and I no longer bother to worry whether my instincts are good enough. After all –I’m a very brilliant and important woman.