Alexandria is located about 200 km north of Cairo. Instead of taking the train, we decided to get there by car, as suggested by a recommended local travel agent. Along the way, we passed by highways of a few sizeable lanes and in between, some poorly maintained passages that slowed us down tremendously. Our day trip came to an end around 3.30 pm and we thought we’d be able to reach Cairo before the traffic turns crazy as Cairenes rush to return home from work. It could have been earlier had we not argued with the restaurant manager for overcharging us with soggy fried calamari and frozen sea bass. I still love Alexandria, of course.
We passed by deserts and countless villages of houses made of bricks that were not unlike the ones we see in the movies. Like The Hurt Locker. As we’ve been instilled with this perception of the violence that constantly takes place in such setting through the news reports and blockbusters, I’m sure just the thought of being there would have terrified many of us. Not only did we survive, we even made an acquaintance.
Into the first hour of the journey back to Cairo, despite the cooling December air, the blinding sun and an exhausting day of walking from catacombs to castles had cast upon us (the driver included), a sleeping spell. We could see the driver dozing off a few times and despite the language barrier, took turns to keep him awake with simple conversations. I bet I could have spoken Russian to him and it wouldn’t even matter.
The car started shaking and that awoke us all. My first instinct was that we’d landed on a rough terrain. The driver said nothing and continued on. With each mile, the car shook even more violently and I was very sure that one of the front tyres had punctured. We okay? He nodded. And he slowed down, but continued to drive. What were we to do except to count on his skills and experience? We can’t possibly snatch the steering wheel from him, can we? We limped long while the driver appeared to be keeping a lookout for an auto mechanic shop among the rows of shophouses of the nearby villages facing the highway. Before losing control of the car, he desperately turned into one of the villages and began asking the locals for direction. They were of no help. And we crawled to another village.
At the second village, welcoming us was a quiet lane with rundown shophouses on both sides. Traffic was scarce and so were human activities. But we were luckier here as the driver managed to find a mechanic. But instead of checking the condition of the car, he just gave our driver a toolbox and returned to his workbench to continue welding some iron rods. We got out of the car and inspected the front tyres. Neither was flat. I seriously wanted it to be flat because, at least, it would have been an easier problem to manage. Much easier than a broken axle shaft.
Our driver started to loosen the lug nuts a bit, jacked up the car and completely removed the nuts and rim to expose the wheel hub. I had no idea what he was doing or whether he knew what he was doing. With the tip of a screwdriver, he began to remove the dirt and oil accumulated (over the years) at the hollow end of the threaded shaft connected to the hub. Was THAT the root cause to our problem? I would have removed the rims too, but would have never thought of cleaning the hollow shaft because it didn't seem necessary to me. Seeing him work with increasing momentum, we decided not to interfere.
Some kids playing soccer at the back alley took notice and stared curiously at us for a while before returning to their game. And there was one who approached us for a cigarette. A few puffs later and without any words exchanged, we got acquainted. He asked for my friend to show him the large tribal cross tattoo emblazoned across his arm and perhaps awed by the size of design, gave my friend double thumbs up. I obviously had nothing to show but he insisted that I perform some kung fu moves for him. My flying squirrel, hidden crocodile act must have been rather impressive because I’d gotten thumbs up as well.
The driver finished what he was doing and shooed the kid away. I honestly doubted the driver’s approach but miraculously, it worked, though still not as stable as before but was safe enough to bring us back to Cairo. Until today, I still can’t figure out how the scrapping of dirt and oil out of the shaft had in anyway, helped in reconciling the torque transmission.
One thing that I’d learned throughout this trip is when Egyptians suddenly disengage from a conversation, it usually means that they had started praying. Observed silence is followed by the quiet chanting of prayers. Our driver did just that as we sped back to Cairo. He must be praying for a petrol station as we were running very low on fuel. The sun had set and the highway was now in complete darkness, making it even more difficult to locate the lowly lit petrol stations. In the end, the driver decided to detour as we remembered passing by one not too far from the village where we repaired the car. It must have been around 8 pm then.
About 8 hours after departing from Alexandria , we reached the end of the last highway and were back in Cairo. A replacement car, arranged by the travel agent, was already waiting for us. Traffic was still rather congested but nothing mattered anymore. We had returned safe and sound.
To celebrate our survival, we headed to Al-Omda. It’s the place where young Cairenes gather with their laptops, mobile phones, trendy clothes or just chilling with a sheesha pipe in hand and some Arabic music videos. We had a great time sampling the unusually moist shish tawook (skewered, grilled chicken) and had the mother of all carbohydrate, the koshary - a bowl-shaped dish comprising of macaroni, rice, lentils, juicy sharwarma (grilled chicken) and blended with some aromatics including a generous amount of fried shallots. Savoury, well-spiced and slightly sweet, it was an Egyptian staple that was very much filling and delicious, of course.
Had the car behaved, the villages would have been nothing but some passing fragments of traveling on the highway. There wasn't much to learn from this bittersweet journey but to witness the tranquility of a village that is so perceived as being contradictorily dangerous on our screens was indeed an interesting experience. Our trip across Egypt would have been much less perfect if not for some of these unforgettable encounters.
6 Sharia al-Ghazza