The first thing I noticed as I was waiting to board my flight from Calgary to London was the fact that I had left my light spring jacket behind and was left with a thin Walmart cardigan. I had ditched my giant down-filled coat with my friend Nicole when she dropped me off at the airport, as it was about the same size as my carry-on and I had suspicions that it would not be necessary in Africa. I decided against purchasing a touristy sweatshirt with ‘Calgary’ or ‘Canada’ emblazoned on the front, because I can’t bear the smugness associated with having my country written on everything I bring overseas. It does not insult me to be occasionally mistaken for an American (the majority of Americans I’ve met are awesome), and while I have great pride in my country, I feel that the flag on the backpack thing is a bit much. That’s just my opinion.
It’s been a while since I’ve been anywhere (at least in the way I like to travel) but as I boarded the plane, I could feel myself relaxing almost instantly. I don’t really get those excitement jitters like I did when I first started traveling. I was in motion, on my way to Somewhere and I just find that extremely satisfying. I am probably one of the few people in the world who actually likes airports- even the annoying bits. Cairo Airport was a particular challenge, but I will get to that later.
I arrived in Gatwick around 10:30 local time and had a six-hour window to make it to the other side of London and catch my flight from Heathrow. It was Remembrance Day (Armistice Day in the UK) and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker as I waited to collect my bags. The airport would be recognizing two minutes of silence at the stroke of 11. I picked up my back and headed up to the main floor and by the time I got to the stairs to the main level, it was time. I stopped awkwardly halfway up the stairs for the moment of silence. I wasn’t sure if it would have been disrespectful to climb the last few steps before stopping so I froze in place. The European couple behind me had no such compunctions and continued up the stairs and out of the building. They were probably from an axis country anyway (kidding!).
After catching the train into central London, I stopped briefly at the Canadian War Memorial near Buckingham Palace and left a poppy I had brought with me from Calgary. It wasn’t too cold so my cardigan did the job well enough as I dragged my suitcase to the Green Park Underground station. I made it to Heathrow in plenty of time and arrived in Athens close to 11pm. Oh hello, Europe! There is a great tram system from the airport that I took to my hostel and after checking in I popped up to the rooftop bar and saw the Parthenon for the first time. The Acropolis overlooking the city really does dominate the landscape and seeing it lit up in the night was breathtaking. I’m not using that word lightly either- when I came up the stairs and saw it, I literally gasped.
This temple to Athena was built around 440 BCE and lasted over a thousand years (the current structure has been rebuilt from ruins, though some of the pillars remain in their original position; follow the link for more info or go to Wikipedia: https://www.ancient.eu/parthenon/). The construction was celebratory as the Athenians had just been victorious against the invading Persians. If you’ve seen the movie 300 or it’s sequel, you have a (very) vague idea of why that was a big deal. It was mostly blown up during the 1600s by invading Venetians against occupying Turks and much of the significant architecture and sculptures were carted away by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce in the 1800s. Those pieces currently reside in the British Museum under the archaeological regulation of “Finders Keepers”; the Greek government has been trying to get them back for years. But I digress; my point is that the Parthenon is a Big Deal.
I didn’t see much more of Athens as I only had until 2pm before I had to go back to the airport, but I did manage to find an amazing little restaurant that served Moussaka. It was called “All that Jatz” which maybe makes more sense in Greek: Κλείσε τραπέζι. No? Maybe not. In this lively little side alley, there were a bunch of locals smoking and haggling in a nearby market and some just sitting, enjoying the day. It was a perfect bookend to such a short time in the city. I also managed to try some Greek coffee which is a marginally weaker version of Turkish coffee. Still, not sure whether I’m a fan of having to chew my morning cup of joe.
Almost by accident I scheduled my stopovers on the way to South Africa to do a reverse trip through human history. I left the New World to land in the heart of Mother England and the origin of the Industrial Revolution. From there I went to the birthplace of Democracy. Next stop, Cairo, Egypt- a place so ancient that they invented writing on paper. And from there to the land that was literally the cradle of our entire species. Cool, right?
The plane to Cairo was operated by EgyptAir, which had no alcohol on board, but my flight attendant was nice enough to suffer a photo with me even though he didn’t speak English. It’s surprising what you can communicate by pointing. Arriving in Egypt was definitely a culture shock. The intensity with which I was accosted with taxi offers was jarring after the relative calmness of the plane. I knew immediately that I was being ripped off, but with the weakness of the Egyptian Pound and my lack of energy to barter, I took what was offered and paid the equivalent of about $14 to head into the city. The tout led me to a taxi where he then talked to the driver in Arabic for a while trying to explain where I wanted to go. Neither could quite figure it out so I dropped a pin in Google Maps (after having taken the time to download the offline map for Cairo while I was at my last hostel) and handed it to the driver.
The trip to the hostel was definitely an adventure in itself. Search YouTube for Cairo traffic videos to get an idea or click here: https://youtu.be/HZ3wtkTzyYE . Any guidebook or forum you read will tell you not to drive in this city. The traffic is almost like a living organism, or maybe a raging river. Cars flow in and out of lanes with abandon, you share the road with horse carts and motorbikes and rickshaws, lights and signs are just decorative. Through all my travels I have never encountered streets like that. When we arrived at my hostel, I tipped the driver handsomely for my safe delivery (though he did, of course ask for more because this is Egypt, after all). My accommodation was on the fourth floor and I had time to regret my full-size suitcase as I dragged it up several flights of stairs. I had booked a room to myself and did not regret it; for $30 I had a full sized bed and my own bathroom. I sat on the bed and it only just then occurred to me that I was officially in Africa. I haven’t been to a brand new continent since 2011. AFRICA! Holy shit. So far I have not needed nor missed having my coat.
Tune in next time for more Egypt and my arrival in South Africa.