The Nile Hilton in Cairo was designed by the American architect Welton Becket in 1959. Egypt had just obtained its independence 6 years ago. This luxury hotel essentially was high-rise billboard for the Western way of life.
In our current expansion, Hilton Hotels International views itself as a medium for bettering the understanding of peoples by extending the best we have to offer in the American enterprise system to other countries.
The hotelier Hilton wrote.
The most expensive rooms in the hotel have the picture perfect view of pyramids, as if the Americans had effectively erased the glorious long history of this ancient capital. Did the Egyptians felt that the hotel had hindered their ties to the past?
It was the Eastern holiday 1984, I was living in Frankfurt. The Hartings had invited me to go to Sylt with them but I decided to visit Istanbul instead. I wasn’t crazy about long drive. When I got to the travel office near the Old Opera House, did I realize that tour needed an advance booking. (I used to go solo with a EuroPass. ) But the travel agent offered me Egypt as a consolation,
“Why don’t you go to Egypt, the tour still has a space.”
He consulted his computer and announced,
“The only thing is that you have to arrive the night before, because all the flights are sold out.”
Here came my first taste of Africa.
When I arrived at Cairo, the sense could not be more comical than the Indian Jones’ Iskenderun where Marcus Prody was wading his way and asking if any one speaks English. Whaling of children, shooting of women in black drapes – abayas, it was crowded and poverty seeping out everywhere. The orderly and efficacy manner that I got used to in Germany seemed a wider that the Mediterranean ocean. The only difference between me and Prof. Prody was he was on a street in broad daylight and I was at the airport in the night.
The young guide who came to pick me up, did not bother to introduce himself. Instead, he walked over to me, stuffed a wade of cash, and nudged me to buy the allowable amount of Johnny Walker at duty-free shop. It was so long ago I could not remember we conversed in German or English. For sure not Chinese. He waited at a respectable distance. When that was done, we plagued back into the masses.
Ops, I lost sight of him.
Just as soon as I was getting all crazy, Johnny Walker reappreared and grabbed my handbag belt and led me to a small car parked at the curb. He stepped on the gas paddle like F-1 champ, ok, like a maniac and whisked me to a hotel.
Dark lobby. One man was behind the desk. They exchanged one dialog.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow at eight.” He pointed to his watch, making sure I understood.
With that, he disappeared into the street.
The man behind the desk show me to my room. Saigon, a city I had never visited came to mind. Old, spare, window shutters, dim and foreign. I did not complain because I had not been seasoned in the American consumer right yet.
I sat on the bed debating if I should go out for a late night adventure. The excitement of arriving at a new city had clear lost on me, not the fatigue, but the foreignness. I felt a little unease. I went to sleep and thanking lord that I did choose to join a tour instead went solo, as I usually did.
The following morning, Johnny Walker was punctual, I was effectively transferred to Hilton, our normal dig in Cairo. It was early, my group was probably still in the mid air. The first schedule event would not start till 11:00. Looking at the Nile, I decided to wonder around.
Between the hotel and river there was a road. When I crossed it in the morning, it looked like a local street with few cars. I paced the bank of the Nile, took pictures and tried to figure out where the movie Death on Nile actually occurred. When I felt it was time to head back to the lobby and joint the group, the sleepy street had suddenly awaken; had becoming a heavily trafficked highway. The old cars and trucks kept floating. I looked from left to right, and back again, could not find a gap to cross and there was no bridge in sight. I became agitated as the time tickling down. I was going to miss the tour that was all I could think. A camera hang from my neck, I stood by the roadside totally lost; hoping the traffic would just stop magically to allow me to cross.
Than I spotted a black sedan. It was shinny and imposing, totally stood out in the traffic.
As a miracle, the sleek car scorched to a halt in front of me.
A Benz no less.
I remembered a friend from Hong Kong told us this encounter: as he was consulting a map in Toronto, he opened a car door and told the cab driver to get him to the next destination. Only to discover he mistakenly got into a police car. The nice cop told him he would if he’s off duty.
Anyway, I was Out [there] of Africa.
The driver, a middle-aged man in casual dress told me to get in.
“I need to cross the road, getting back to the hotel.”
I desperately pointed at the Hilton.
“No problem, just get in.”
Between the simplistic desire to make the tour and impatient beeping of other angry drivers, I got in.
Once I closed the door, I began none stop telling him that I need to get back to the Hilton immediately – because I was very nervous and had the sinking feeling that I’ve just done something very stupid, putting myself in a lousy position.
First in German.
When that failed, I switched to English, mixed with sign language, Chinese and Creole 🙂 .. you got the picture.
He in contrast, was non-stop assuring me that he’s not a bad guy.
When I became restless in the seat as Hilton apparently not getting any closer, he reached to the back seat and opened his briefcase.
“See, I’m not a bad buy. I have money.”
Arabs may loathe the Yankees, but they sure do love American dollars. Identical to old Saddam Hussein when he was seized from his hiding hole, the briefcase was filled with handsome greenbacks, neatly in stack, in hundred denominations. Suddenly, the car became deadly quiet. My anxiety of being late for my seemingly inconsequential tour had fly out of the window. The late model Mercedes did not divulge the luxury feeling; instead, it felt like a truck transporting goods, with untidiness.
The driver took my sudden calm as acceptance or he didn’t care to begin with, said with a relief,
“No worry, I’ll get you back to Hilton.”
I had no doubt, because Hilton was like a ghost, never out of sight as he maneuvered the streets.
The car got off to the local roads and soon stopped at a two-story house.
“Leave your camera and bag in the car, come in.” He instructed and nodded his head.
My legs seemed were not mine anymore. I followed him to the second floor. It was an empty restaurant or a private club, overlooking the Nile, and what else, the Hilton. Three men in abaya, oh sorry that’s for women. 3 men in white ropes complete with head pieces were sitting at a round table, their wardrobe matched the tablecloth. The men at table looked serious and their facial expression yielded neither a surprise nor annoyance at seeing a stranger, a Chinese woman in their domain. The driver said something and they barely nodded. A young boy came out and soon returned with a bottled Cock for me. I never enjoyed drinking soda but I gulped it down in a record time, thirsty, hungry and very scary.
The table was empty and the conversation was spare. Hilton was clearly in my view, but I could not think clearly as what to do and to make of my peril at the moment. I looked at those men inconspicuously, what would they do to me? Were they princes? One of them caught my glance and allowed a slight nod.
“You go down to bring up the money.”
The driver said it without even looking at my direction. I guessed that I was not a bad guy either, or at least did not want to betray his trust. So I went down to retrieve his briefcase.
I had never held that much money so was surprised at the weight.
The street was bustling with people, the little bay where the car’s park had few women and kids.
Would I be able to escape?
If I did, would I make back to Hilton on time? And how?
I absent-mindedly circling the car, even noticing the model of the car, it was 500 series, thinking to myself that Hong Kong had not yet had this latest model, while deciding if I should run for life or bring the money up.
Most people are not prepared to deal with sudden situation. I for one was still worrying something so trivia as if I could make tourist tour on time.
I brought up the briefcase and they shock hands just like in the movie. Soon we were back into the car and on the road.
“See, I said I will take you to your hotel.”
I leaped into the hotel lobby with pair of soft knees. The interior was featuring ersatz tomb relief and hieroglyphs. So majestic I wondered why I haven’t noticed before when I first checked in. The manger came over,
“Irene!?” if we were old friends.
I grabbed his arm and looked at him vacantly, still reeling from my ordeal. Then he asked again,
“Where have you been? They were looking all over for you .. ” A regretful look on his open face, “your group has already left.”
“That’s alright.” I assured him with a forced smile.
“They’ll be back for dinner.” He assured me.
The tour, I was so desperately to be with, even risked my little dear life to be on time had left me behind, I thought to myself. Was I being kidnapped? Had I just witnessed an arm sale? Did I help the driver to close a deal, me as an amusement to his partners?
It’s been more than two decades, I haven’t really told it to anyone because I could never gather enough courage to admit how stupid I could be. I was possessed by the moment – was in a zone – and lost sight of the bigger picture. Now I’m old enough to laugh at it. SO laugh till you cry too, to all your heat’s content.
What would you do if you were me, or being kidnapped? I reckon that most people were not equipped with the sudden experience thrust upon them, and plenty of people do things they think are wrong for no good reason. It was an easy answer for me at the moment, knowing well it’s 饮鸩止渴 drink poison to quench thirst – seek temporary relief regardless of the consequences. Hop on first then hope for the best.
Not very smart but I’m sure I’m not the only one who did it.