Go East Young Man
The year is 1993. My mother had taken up a nursing job in Sana'a Yemen and 16 year old me with a unquenchable thirst for travel is buzzing with anticipation for the trip ahead. Some years prior to this trip my mom was working on another assignment, but this time in Tripoli, Libya and after making my first ever trip abroad there I was forever hooked on travel & adventure.
The passport is ready, the bags are packed
Since there were no direct flights from Sofia to Sana'a the trip required a connecting flight in Egypt. When I arrived in Cairo. I was told by the airport staff that my connecting flight is not happening until the until next day and that the airport will be closing for the night.
A night under the stars
Here I was in a foreign country with a few dollars in my pocket, I couldn't speak arabic, and with the little knowledge of English that I had I found myself alone outside the airport with no hotel booked and no idea where to go. At the time I found it kind of amusing. Sixteen year old me was a little naive and simply excited about it. Looking back on it now as the father of 3 kids. My mind screams "MOM, DAD!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" Hahaha :)
Hundreds of people who suddenly found themselves in the same predicament as me were camping on the grass outside the airport and were settling for the night. Some were sleeping, some were still chatting in the distance. Oh well, a night under the stars I thought to myself. Thankfully it was the summer and the gentle evening breeze was a welcome respite from the heat the day.
A found myself sitting on the grass next to a lovely Somalian family who were brewing some tea. They looked at me and waved as to say "Come closer". I spoke English they spoke Somali and with the wonders of shared food, the language barriers were quickly broken.
THE TAXI SCAM
Since my flight was in the late afternoon the next day, I decided in the morning to take a trip to see the pyramids of Giza. Why not, I had a whole day to kill and was kind of getting bored anyway. I thanked my Somalian friends for their hospitality and headed to the nearby car park looking for a taxi.
I'm thinking, I need to get a decent looking taxi to take me there, you know something respectable and safe. I see this black Mercedes taxi and and head straight towards it. I ask the driver how much is a return trip to the pyramids of Gaza and says it's $40 dollars. We shake hands and set off. The car is nice, the AC is on and I’m living the dream. A 16 year old, alone in Cairo heading towards one of the greatest wonders of the world. What could go wrong right?
We arrive there and the driver says “Give me another $40 or I’ll leave you here in the desert and won’t take you back!”
Now I’m angry, scared and my heart is beating twice as fast.I jump out of the the care and refuse to pay him anything. I'm thinking if I give him the money he may leave and dump me here in the middle of nowhere. I start walking around trying to think what to do next. The taxi driver is following me a few meters behind on foot waiting to get his money. The sun is blazing mercilessly on us, it's over 40º Celsius. Eventually I spot a police car in the distance, it's parked near a tourist office/cabin of some sorts.
I approach the police and tell them the taxi driver is trying to scam me. The police start screaming and yelling in arabic at taxi driver. As they push him and shove him he gets back into his car and leaves. He gets paid nothing that day. Ha! The police then call another taxi to come and pick me up.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
While I wait for the next taxi cab to arrive from town. I finally have a moment to explore these majestical structure. The sheer scale of it has the ability to humble you in an instant. Monuments to human creativity and ingenuity from times gone by. What was it like to live in those times? Where did the stones come from? How did they even move them let alone stack them on top of each other. How many lives were lost so that me and countless others could stand here in awe of it all.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is the biggest Egyptian pyramid and the tomb of Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu. Built in the early 26th century BC during a period of around 27 years, the pyramid is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. It is the most famous monument of the Giza pyramid complex, in the Pyramid Fields of the Memphis and its Necropolis UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Giza, Egypt.
There are good people in this world
Feels like I just got here, there's so much to see, but my taxi is here says the policeman. An elderly Egyptian man with deep wrinkles on his faces has come to collect me in his old red Renault car. The police tell him what has happened and ask him to take me back to the airport. The old man is so embarrassed and apologetic for what the other guy did. He's literally ashamed. As we drive back towards the airport he says "I will take you on a sightseeing tour of Cairo". I'm thinking ok, is this another scam, but no, he just wants to be a good host. He drives me around for what felt like ages and then takes me to see the "City of the Dead".
The City of the Dead
The City of the Dead, or Cairo Necropolis, often referred to as the Qarafa (locally pronounced as al-'arafa), is a series of vast Islamic-era necropolises and cemeteries in Cairo, Egypt. They extend to the north and to the south of the Cairo Citadel, below the Mokattam Hills and outside the historic city walls, covering an area roughly 6 km long. They are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of "Historic Cairo". It's definitely worth a visit if you are in town. The place is fascinating if a little scary for a 16 year old Bulgarian boy who now finds himself with a complete stranger in a cemetery somewhere in Cairo.
Time flies when you're having fun they say. We get kind of hungry so we stop for food at a roadside café. The old man buys me lunch and refuses to let me pay for it. Shortly after he drops me off at the airport, gives me hug and as he slams his hand in his chest he proudly says: Egyptian! We good people, me not like him. I thank him for everything and we part ways.
Yemen here I come
The airport finally is open, it’s time to go. I board the plane to Sana’a and we're off. Half way through the flight we had crossed the Red Sea and are now somewhere over Yemen. We hear a strange whirling sound from the left engine, as it winds down and then starts up again. Cabin crew are running up and down the aisle, the seatbelt sign comes on and we are descending. At last we're about to land and I will meet my mom. I had not seen her for over a year.
As we start to get near the ground though all I can see is barren landscape. Where are the houses? Where is the city? We land on a tiny runway in the middle of the freaking desert. There’s nothing here but sand, rocks and a small wooden shack at the end of the runway. Is this the capital? Surely not. We are then told that indeed the left engine had developed a problem and we had made an emergency landing to asses things. I did not understand much of what was going on, but after about 40 minutes they either fixed it or decided to fly on anyway. We lift off again and eventually land safely in the capital Sana’a. My mom is waiting to greet me. Tears of joy streaming down her face. Reunited at last!
What an adventure. Scary, exciting and unforgettable. You never know where life will take you. Would I let one of my kids travel alone at 16 years old across two Arab countries, sleep under the stars and grab a taxi to the desert? I probably wouldn’t, we live in a different world now or at least that's what I tell myself. As for me... I don’t regret one bit of the adventure of a lifetime and would not change it even if I could. So go on, travel the world. Take that trip. Book that flight. You will never look back on your life and think "I wish I travelled less". I have yet to regret the places I've seen and the people I've met along the way!
Now you might be asking yourself. So what's Yemen like? Well, that my friend is a story for another day :)