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‘Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone.’ – The Dhammapada
Her life was a compendium of fears. Fear of darkness, fear of being alone, fear of not being good enough; just to name a few. She looked around nervously, self-conscious of the blobs of sweat around the armhole of her top. She began to make little knots on her scarf. It lay on her lap, a long strung fabric of endless knots.
The lights dimmed as the plane readied for takeoff. Darkness slowly enveloped her.
When the plane landed in Cairo, the sky was the colour of heartache. She waited by the taxi stand for deracination to take over her, but it eluded her.
She gave the hotel address to the taxi driver and they haggled over rates.
“Go by the meter and I’ll give you a good baksheesh.”
He relented in the end. She was Indian, and had a natural flair for bargaining.
The taxi sped out of the airport into the anarchy of the traffic. The incessant blare of honks took her back home for a moment. Soon, an endless landscape of red brick buildings stretched out before her sleepy eyes. The neon shaggy seat covers and flashy Christmas lights that lined the interiors of the taxi, kept her awake.
She had booked the hotel in a drunken stupor late one-night while trolling the Internet. The details of which hardly mattered.
She just needed to see him now that she knew.
The basic hotel room had a small balcony overlooking a crowded street. A large picture of the great pyramids of Giza hung crooked above the bed. She had to tilt her head to the side to take in the view.
It was hard to believe she was really there, on the site of the Babylon, near the ruins of ancient Memphis.
She felt guilty. As though she was tarnishing the sacred land of The Pharaohs by going there.
She lay on the bed and watched the dancing lights on the ceiling that came from the street below. After a while the lights stopped dancing and all the sadness that was hiding in the dark came out to meet her. Tears rolled from her eyes and made a constellation on her pillow. Slowly, the little stars were devoured by a tsunami.
“The best way to reach Aswan is by train.” The old man behind the reception beamed at her. “You are very much on time Madam, the next train leaves from Cairo in exactly two days.” His wide smile confused her.
She felt the heat rise to her cheeks. “Can I take a cab there? I have to get there as soon as possible.”
“Cab is not very best way like train. Not so safe for young woman as yourself, Madam.” His smile stayed glued to his face.
She muttered a thank you and walked out of the reception area. She felt adrift in an ocean, the currents lifting and carrying her as though they had plans of their own. One week she was shopping for her wedding with her best friend in Delhi, and the next, she was roaming the streets of Cairo.
“Give me a sign,” she whispered, “Please, I’ll take anything.” She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she saw a middle-aged woman in a purple hijab carrying a wooden basket full of bread. Her stomach grumbled at the sight of food. Her last meal was half a piece of roti before she left India.
She crossed over to a street café with a display board that read ‘Always welcome Egyptian food’. Bright plastic chairs and tables were arranged along the pavement, most of which were occupied by men watching the local news on an old portable television set.
She sat in a corner and waited. A middle-aged man in a grey ankle-length robe walked over to her table.
He placed a small glass of water before her and smiled. “Welcome Habibi.”
“Can I have the menu, please?” She asked awkwardly.
“You are from India?” He asked excitedly. Before she could answer he added, “I love Bollywood, we all love Bollywood. Your people very nice singing and dancing always.”
She had a strong aversion to the term ‘Bollywood,’ but she failed to find the words to explain to the nice man that Indians did many things besides ‘very nice singing and dancing always.’ She simply smiled back in acknowledgment.
“I bring for you the best of today’s special.” The man nodded to himself and was gone.
He returned with an ornate dinner plate with a steel bowl over it. “Kushari,” he announced, placing the plate before her and taking a seat at the next table.
Resigned from hunger, she devoured almost half of the large bowl of Kushari in just a few minutes. She slowed down when she noticed the man watching her with amusement.
The rice, macaroni and lentils were cooked to perfection and topped with a spicy tomato sauce, and the chickpeas and crispy fried onions added just the right amount of heat. It called her mother’s Biryani to mind.
Add some macaroni and sauce and Biryani becomes Kushari, she mused. Maybe it’s the same with people from other cultures too. All similar and dissimilar only by a small addition or subtraction of hot sauce or macaroni.
She realized it was the first time in days that she had thought of something other than him. The man sitting beside her walked back to the kitchen and returned with a small tray of tea.
“Habibi will now enjoy some sweet Egyptian tea.”
The tea was indeed sweet, brewed strong and dark, the way she preferred. Mint leaves added a refreshing flavour to it. She finished the pot of tea and thanked the man for his hospitality. He invited her over to watch the sunset from his terrace that overlooked the mosque, and to meet his daughters who loved Bollywood too.
She declined respectfully and paid the bill, leaving him a good Baksheesh.
The afternoon sun was harsh for November but she was used to the heat.
It was a city of breads. Everywhere she looked there was bread being baked, sold, consumed or simply carried home. She walked towards the nearby Souk to watch people and smell the familiar smell of spices and incense.
The open-air marketplace buzzed. The women wore long robes and hijabs in vivid colours, and the men in intricate turbans bargained with customers eagerly. All the bounty of the world was right there. Perfumes and spices, carpets and glass.
She caught her reflection in a mirrored wall behind a row of neat little mounds of yellow, red and brown spices. With her image framed by the ornate bronze, and her dark unkempt hair pulled back in a braid, she felt unlike herself. Her pain was safe there, amidst the smiles of strangers, and their food that spoke the secret language of the heart. Something tugged at her soul.
She hadn’t heard the silent steps of kismet that led her there. To that mysterious land that had decayed and burgeoned several times much like the land she came from. Both bearing the weight of their tormented history, both learning to bend so they wouldn’t break.
Go to Giza. Your path is open, it said to her.
And she decided she would.
She stood before the Great Sphinx of Giza at sunrise. She couldn’t bring herself to enter the mystical site that stood for rebirth, and the union of self and soul. Not while her own soul was afflicted.
First, she had to confront her fears.
She stared at the Sphinx bathed in the blush of dawn. She wasn’t looking for answers. She was looking for the courage to break her own heart.
They sat across from each other on the rooftop of The Nile Cruise café. Moments of silence stretched out between them.
“I feel terrible. But you should know that she seduced me.”
He drank the whole pint of beer in a series of consecutive gulps.
“It was irresponsible of you to come to Egypt. It’s not safe here.” He looked annoyed.
Since her arrival in Cairo, she had felt safe, and strangely at home. It wasn’t until she saw him at the Aswan train station that her insecurities resurfaced.
“We’re getting married in less than a month; all of Delhi society will be there.” He extended his hand across the table and she retreated. “Now is not the time for stupidity.”
She looked into his eyes and saw the empty parts of him.
“She was my best friend.” She looked away, her delusions shattered by the truth. “And you kept this from me for a whole year. I feel like a walking cliché.”
“We were both drunk. It only happened once. I never liked her anyway. I knew she wasn’t good enough to be your best friend.”
The pain she felt was beyond physical. The betrayal of a friend, of a lover.
She tried to trace guilt in him. Anything she could comfort herself with; but she found nothing.
“It happens, maybe I got cold feet.” He was fidgeting with the soggy coasters on the table.
“Cold feet? A year before the wedding?” She leaned back in her chair and looked straight at him.
“It was a mistake okay? I’m about to marry you. Does that mean nothing to you?
She shook her head.
It wasn’t his mistake. It felt more like hers; for trusting, for believing.
“Think of how happy your parents will be to see you married into a wealthy family. Where is your sense of duty?” He demanded anger rising in his voice.
She looked past him at the men serving at the café. She saw men with kind eyes and a warm smile for every approaching wayfarer.
Her thoughts wandered to the taxi ride she took through Cairo. The taxi sped through Tahrir Square where she saw dozens of multi-storied buildings burned down during the recent revolution.
The taxi driver had asked her if she knew anything about revolutions. She had nodded into the rearview mirror.
She came from the land of Gandhi; where every woman was a silent revolutionist.
“Are you listening to me?” he snapped his fingers impatiently.
Her spell was broken.
“I don’t have time for this. I’ve to leave for Luxor right away for the last leg of my conference, and then to India.” He gestured to the waiter for the cheque. “I have a plan for you. Take the keys to my room and rest there today, then take the first flight out to India tomorrow. I’ll arrange everything.”
She watched him in silence.
He paid the bill.
“I’ll make it up to you okay? Now be a good fiancé and let your man take care of you.” He kissed her on the forehead, left the key to his room, and was gone.
The unsullied blue of the Nile surrounded her. Blue as far as she could see.
Except, she didn’t know what to do with it.
She watched people glide in and out of the airport terminal with purpose. She clung to her overnight bag, her humble accomplice.
Thoughts of him with her best friend came to her. A plague of deception and desolation spread through her.
She looked before her, a long line of passengers waiting to board flights, to continue on their paths. She looked back and saw the decorated taxis, and the drivers waiting eagerly to welcome the travellers that walked through the doors. Beyond that, she saw the dusty open roads that stretched into the desert. Inviting, intriguing.
She took a long deep breath and picked up her bag. In that moment she felt utterly lonesome and painfully alive.
Go to Giza. Your path is open.
The words came from within her.
She was still a collage of all her fears.
She picked up heartbreak and wove it into the hem of her skirt, and walked away.