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A large sign greeting travelers at Cairo's Airport reads: It is forbidden to possess drugs in Egypt. Any infringement will result in life imprisonment or death by hanging. People were posing for photographs beneath the sign, which went on to state, In the hope this warning is heeded, we wish you a pleasant stay.
It was Christmas, my first time traveling alone, and in that moment I wondered if I had made a mistake.
As travelers waited at customs, soldiers carrying AK-47s led dogs down the lines of people. The dogs put their noses to each piece of luggage, sniffing quickly and moving on to the next. I heard stories of drug smugglers who, to escape arrest, put their products into the bags and pockets of innocent travelers, who end up imprisoned.
Paranoia grew. A dog paused, sniffed my feet, snuggled its nose into my bag, and as heat flushed through my head, it moved on. Towards the rear, a man in a Bob Marley shirt looked pale, like a corpse.
A foreigner walking out of the airport in Cairo gets just as much attention as an ATM spitting cash.
I managed to wrestle my way through the mob of men shouting Taxi! Come with me, friend and agreed on a rate that was five times the local price but a good deal for a tourist.
Arriving at the Sun Hotel before dawn, I was given a windowless room. I lay in bed, too jet-lagged to sleep. I could hear the muffled arguments of men shouting in Arabic nearby. Knowing my mother was preparing a turkey dinner for Christmas 5,000 miles away, my eyes glazed with tears as the Islamic call to prayer echoed into my room, signaling the desert sun would soon rise.
With the sun, optimism returned. I was on the streets early in a T-shirt while locals wore heavy coats in the mild winter. Cairo is a massive, dirty, congested city, full of noises and smells - but an amazing place. The smell was of diesel mixed with cooking meat and the sound, muezzins competing with honking cars.
Merchants invited me into their shops for tea, and when I told them I was American, most wanted to discuss two topics: Israel, and if it was easy to go out with unmarried women in America. I didn't pay for a single cup of tea during my week in Cairo; I merely had to smile and sit.
When a foreigner hails a taxi in Cairo, they'll arrive at their destination only after stopping at the shops of the driver's family. You can argue and explain that you're not interested in buying a hookah or a carpet, but it's easier to just go for the ride. Besides, it does present interesting experiences.
The Great Pyramids of Giza were 15 minutes away, but it took two hours since I ended up buying paintings and papyrus scrolls from my driver's uncle.
As my taxi approached the Pyramids, a group of men spotted me and gave chase. They caught me as I got out of the taxi, shouting their offerings. Paintings! Drinks! Camels and horses! To be free of the harassing mob, I arranged to go around the Pyramids by horse.
Words cannot add to the greatness of the Pyramids, but what I remember most are the dessicated horse carcasses we encountered in the surrounding desert, guarded by snarling dogs with protruding ribs. The beasts snapped at each other and made bluffing charges at our horses, who ignored them.
On New Year's Eve I left by train for the southern city of Aswan, 13 hours away. Only seats were available, so it was impossible to lie down for the journey.
It was crowded with locals who cooked meals on their portable gas stoves. No one spoke English and I sat next to a woman in a burqa. Not even her eyes were visible. In vain I tried to sleep.
Halfway into the journey the New Year began. At home, people were falling in love and embracing. I was alone on an Egyptian train crossing the Sahara.
Then, in the distance, I heard a muffled radio. Listening carefully, I caught the nostalgic words of Auld Lang Syne: Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind... The tears flowed down my cheeks.
I never realized just how much I needed friends and family until then. When I look back on that train ride, I realize it was one of the better experiences of my life. I traveled on for two weeks, did this, did that, even spent two nights floating down the Nile on a felucca, but the mention of Egypt brings to my mind one thing: a lonely, tearful train ride on New Year's Eve.
John Salemme is a middle school science teacher in Billerica, Mass., where he lives with his wife Cindy and cat Bella. He has enjoyed both domestic and international travel to many U.S. states and over 50 countries. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at www.passportpossibilities.com.