I pictured spending my first days in Cairo with a group of students. Unfamiliar with the language and culture, I figured we would find our way around the city together. I knew I was arriving before the official opening of the dorm, but it never occurred to me I would be alone.
What if I got lost? What if I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English?
The street outside The American University in Cairo was lined with shops and men sitting outside them. Each time I passed a group of men, my body tensed and my heart raced. In all of the guidebooks warned women are often harassed while walking the streets and I was nervous. People looked at me as I passed but most said nothing. If they did, it was in Arabic and I didn’t understand.
I thought if I just walked straight and didn’t make any turns, I wouldn’t get lost. I was lost almost immediately.
I went out into the searing summer heat of Cairo without any water. I had my heavy camera bag with me and I didn’t want to carry the extra weight. I walked past several places selling water thinking I’ll just get some later. I didn’t realize that it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, and most of the shops closed and the streets became deserted. By the time I figured this out, I needed water and there wasn’t any to be found.
After walking for several hours, I spotted a man on the corner selling bottled water and I felt a wave of relief. When I picked up a bottle, I saw the seal was broken and the bottle had been refilled. I put it back and kept walking. I thought I was moving closer to the business district, but in fact, I was moving farther away. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of my situation. I was surrounded by the Nile but I was desperately searching for a drink.
I soon found myself outside a beautiful garden. People were laughing and having a good time. It sounded like a party. As I looked the entrance, I could see tables set up in the shade with tall bottles of cold water sweating in the afternoon heat.
A security guard was sitting at the entrance. I quickly realized his English was limited to “Private club, members only.” By now, my head was pounding, I was dizzy and I’d stopped sweating. I was in trouble.
He stood up and called out to someone and we were soon joined by a small group of men. A rapid-fire Arabic conversation took place. They looked worried until someone with a little bit of English was able to figure out I was asking for water.
Instantly, they sprang into action. While someone ran off the get the water, I was brought a chair and told to sit in the shade and rest.
I sat there drinking my water and questioning the preconceptions I brought with me. I wondered what would have happened if the situation had been reversed and it was an Egyptian woman who didn’t speak English and was lost and dehydrated in America.