What did I expect for seventy Egyptian pounds? Safety? Airco? Foreigners? No, I was all alone with all my luggage in a train not actually meant for foreigners. Foreigner train cost much more, so I had asked an Egyptian to buy me an “Egyptian ticket”. Accordingly, no one spoke English in the Egyptian train and the stares I received for breaking the unwritten apartheid rule made me feel like a criminal. The trip back from Luxor to Alexandria would take thirteen hours, which in hindsight, was much better than the 24-hour bus drive from Aswan to Alexandria my fellow interns had to endure. Yes, I had been sent back earlier by aiesec Alexandria for conflicting interests and would miss Aswan. I was angry, although I am grateful for the train trip experience.
So there I was, my luggage somewhat hidden a few seats away and me in my seat, which surprisingly had enough leg room. I was determined not to move for thirteen hours and sheepishly observed my surroundings, wiggling my eyebrows at the little children that were watching me a few seats further. They all had shoes that squeaked with every step and it did not take me too long to decide that whoever invented those shoes should be thrown in jail for violations against the human ear. Apart from that, the lack of airco and the fact that I was in Luxor at noon had me sweating from the very first minute. There were not many people in the wagon yet, although every stop until Cairo would bring more people. The train rattled itself into motion somewhat over twelve at noon and the nature of the Nile accompanied us as we went north. During the entire trip, through the rattling and the squeaking, I gave my mind a blank canvas to paint whatever it wanted. Whether through sleep or through staring out of the window, it painted a subconscious, yet vivid and colourful picture of what had been my trip so far. The yellow of the sun and the sand was used to paint the ancient architecture of the Giza Pyramids, of the Temple of Hatshepsut, of the Colossi of Memnon. Fine lines of green through the yellow illustrated the nature along the Nile and the Al-Azhar park in Cairo, where a single dot of the deepest red showed the first kiss, strangely familiar under the full moon. Blue depicted the Nile, the sea and the sky, the balloon trip over Luxor and snorkling in the Red Sea. In a corner, confused lines of all colours showed the word “Hurghada”. The painting was cluttered with dots of all sizes and colours, some only slightly visible, some big and thick, representing the people on the trip. It all made for an unusual image that certainly drew attention and was very satisfying to look at. But the painting was not finished yet, as even the train drive would add a few colours to it:
One of the windows shattered in a thousand pieces, showering empty seats and the walkway with sharp glass. Instead of gasps and cries, the Egyptians started cheering and clapping. Indeed, when I felt the refreshingly cool air filling the otherwise sweltering wagon, I could not help but smile myself as well. Apparently, the window had not been able to withstand the pressure from the sudden gust of wind the train coming from the opposite direction had brought forth. For the following hours, the soft crunch of shoe on glass would add to the wagon’s music.
“Do you have wife?” my neighbour asked in broken English. He was the first man sitting next to me that could somehow speak and understand a few words of English. I shook my head at his question.
“Not even a girlfriend, no.”
The man nodded in contentment. “I have very good daughter, twenty year, very good, give me your address.” He pointed at the pen and paper I was holding. I couldn’t believe my ears and laughed inwardly, although I shouldn’t have, as it is a sad thing when a father almost instantly offers you his daughter on the sole premise of you being a foreigner. I ripped off a piece of paper and wrote down a fake address in Ghent, as well as a false surname. In turn, the man wrote down his address and told me to write him when I returned to Belgium. Soon after, he thanked me and stepped off. Yes, I felt guilty, but what should I have done? The risk of he and his family showing up in front of my door was very minimal, I admit, but European prudency kept me from actually giving my real address.
The thirteen hours of watching Egyptians living their true life, unchanged and true, was a mirror reflecting true Egypt. It showed me anger, violence, poverty and danger. It showed me a people with a passionate fire burning in their heart, a fire long forgotten in Europe. The fire gives them the willpower to fast in the scourching heat, it gives them the strength to fight and give their lives for a cause, it gives them the generosity to hand out a free olive to everyone in the train when the sun goes down. The train mirror might have shown a country full of potential, but too many cracks were scarring its reflection to be certain of that.