This day has not started well. I got up to be ready for the tour bus at 9AM. Breakfast was continental, and I was worried about how soon I’d be hungry. By the time I went to the westernized lobby to sit with the other students who were part of the group, Moumoud and the tour bus were an hour late.
After another hour, I went upstairs with Dr. Rifai, our teacher and the leader of the group. He was Egyptian. Two other students, Ruth and Angie, joined us. When the elevator opened, instead of seeing another standard lobby like the one below, there was a less brightly lit, more intimate room. The carpet and furniture were the dark red and gold you immediately associate with the Mid East. The tables were lower and the overall feel of the room more voluptuous and exotic. This was what I afterwards called “the real lobby.”
We walked in. Waiters in white passed by with carafes of tea. The scent of perfumed smoke came from the right. I’m sure I was gaping – and looking very foolish – when I spotted a golden hookah sitting on a low table. Three or four Egyptian businesspeople in western dress were seated around the table holding green velvet tubes from which they drew smoke.
I drew closer but, as they spoke in Arabic, I didn’t understand anything they said. I nudged Dr. Rifai, whom we all called “Papa,” and asked about the smoking device.
“Would you like to try it?” he asked.
“Y-yes?” I replied, unsure whether I did or not. However, I had a powerful fear of missing any opportunity to experience “the real Egypt” as opposed to the bland Egypt of the main floor lobby. After all, this was not Indiana. I couldn’t come back next month to do “all the things I should’ve done.”
I sat and nodded a greeting to the Egyptians as Dr. Rifai said something to them in Arabic. They smiled in return. Dr. Rifai handed me one of the tubes, I inhaled and…
“GACK! HACK! ACK! What is this? HACK! URK!”
The Egyptians laughed, not in a mean way, but gently as if they had expected this reaction.
“What was it like?” Ruth asked, wide-eyed, after I emerged from the table area with tearing eyes.
“Like a combination of car exhaust, old sweaty socks, and perfume,” I managed to choke out. My first taste of “the real Egypt” had left me gasping for air.
One hour later, Moumoud and the tour bus finally arrived.
End Part 2...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.