Within hours of hearing that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down from power, contributing editor Carl Hoffman was on a plane to Cairo. While working on an upcoming story for Traveler, he will be offering glimpses of the city here on the blog.
We have history with places, just as we do with people, and scenes of revolution in Egypt playing across the television brought me back.
I was tanned nut brown and young, just 24, with an unruly head of hair and scraggly golden beard, bumming around with a backpack and a new girlfriend just a few months out of college. I’d never been out of the U.S. but between the girl and some books I’d found plenty of inspiration; she had wandered through Mexico by herself at 15 and lived in Rome and had eyes the color of the sea, and I had been escaping into the works of T.E. Lawrence and Freya Stark and Alan Moorehead. And so off we’d flown.
Three months of Europe was fine, fun, but I had this desire to see a stranger, more romantic world. The night we dropped into Cairo destiny unfurled, as it always does out of nowhere, and I remember being disoriented by the darkness and smoke and the smell of rotting fruit and excrement. We took a long bus ride into the city, watching as exotic-looking men leered at us through the smoke of their hookahs, and then fell asleep frightened in a strange overpriced hotel. In the fresh light the next day we found a cheap bed off Tahrir Square. Morning always changes everything.
I have never loved a place like I loved Egypt. I felt free in Egypt, inspired, passionate, unleashed, invigorated. I loved the dirt, the chaos, the cacophony, the writing I couldn’t decipher. I felt flush with wonder. We rode a packed bus to the camel market and climbed a pyramid and spent hours on the banks of the Nile negotiating with a felucca captain for a voyage to Aswan. We spent five nights floating under the blinking stars on what seemed to me then to be the most beautiful river in the world.
In Egypt it all came together. It defined my life from that moment forth. What had been a vague idea of the world and maybe what I wanted to do in it, make of it, became reality: I wanted to plunge into it, not the normal parts, but the dusty corners and crevices, and I wanted to write about it, describe it, bring people to it.
That was a long time ago. I married that girl. Sold my first story–about that felucca journey–to the Boston Globe for $150 in the summer of 1984, a few months after returning. Our children now roam the world on their own.
Yet I’ve never been back. I’ve been to 65 countries, from Afghanistan to the Congo, written a book about traveling 50,000 miles around the world on its worst buses, boats, trains and planes. But every piece was, at its heart, a quest to feel that feeling I had in Tahrir Square and on the banks of the Nile in 1984.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
What better time to return to such a seminal place? I watched as Hosni Mubarak, the man who was president when I was there, stepped down, and a peaceful people’s revolution unfolded in the streets of the very place where the course of my whole adult life was set in motion. I had to come back.
I flew in yesterday on an empty plane to striking, chanting workers and children having their photos taken on army tanks in Tahrir Square. It looked the same and different. Gone are the donkey carts, and there’s even more traffic and far fewer men wearing galabias. But it also felt like home; I recognized it, its energy and dynamism and graciousness, as strangers bought me sweet tea and burst with tales to tell. I am going to explore it anew, a quest that seems in a way trivial compared to events here. But travel is about transformation and inspiration and witnessing, and I want to know how a place that had such power over me feels 27 years and many miles–not to mention a revolution–later.
Follow along with Carl in Cairo on Twitter at @LunaticCarl.