Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world
Taking a Chance in Cairo: Our introduction to Couchsurfing
by Lucy Hornberger
Note: this recounts our adventures back in 2010, but the message still holds!
Tea and karkade in a Cairo café
The plane arrives in Cairo several hours late. It is evening, dark and warm. My first time in Egypt, but I have no hotel reservation, no airport taxi booked. Instead a man with whom I have swapped a handful of e-mails is waiting for me. I have his name and cell phone number scribbled on a piece of paper, and a description ("I'm wearing a black sweater and jeans") from hasty text message a few minutes ago. He claims to be a doctor. Back home in England this detail reassured me. But now I'm nervous. What am I getting myself into? What if he isn't what he seems, his intentions less than honourable?
When I outlined my plans to my friends, they raised their eyebrows and urged caution. One gallantly declared that if he didn't hear from me within 48 hours of my arrival; he'd fly out on a rescue mission. I laughed, confident all would be well. Now, standing in the rapidly emptying arrivals hall, I'm not so certain.
But I'm teasing you. While it is true that I was contacted by Ahmed on the Internet, all is not quite as it seems. I am travelling not alone, but with my husband and two small sons. And Ahmed, responding to a post I made on the Couchsurfing hospitality website, has offered to host us for the first few days of our travels in Egypt.
The feedback attached to Ahmed's Couchsurfing profile suggests that he is completely genuine, in fact a great guy and a wonderful host. But I'm still nervous, worried that we're taking a gamble. Not so much with our safety, but with the success - or failure - of our trip. What if we don't like each other? What if the children misbehave? And - always a worry - what if he drives like a maniac? I have worked hard to persuade my family that this is going to be a great adventure. I don't want to be proved wrong!
Despite Ahmed's generic description, it is immediately obvious who he is. He grasps my hand, a big smile, "Lucy, welcome!" We're immediately at ease. In the car, conversation flows comfortably. Ahmed is pure enthusiasm. "You're not tired, are you?" he asks. We are, but we're not about to admit it. We stop at a juice bar, brightly lit and festooned with garlands of oranges, bananas and pineapples. "When Colonel Gadaffi visits Cairo, he always comes here", comments Ahmed. We feel like we've stepped into another world.
Five large glasses of 'asab' are ordered. This is sugar cane juice, absolutely fresh, pressed from the thick fibrous stalks just moments ago. Our younger son immediately declares it to be the 'best juice in the whole world'. We drive on to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. It is now well past midnight and we have the streets almost to ourselves. The moonlit architecture looks magical. Our sons play on the medieval steps, hide in doorways and under arches. A white owl glides silently over the rooftops. We couldn't have dreamed of a more impressive introduction to Egypt or, indeed, a better start to our trip.
We get on so well with Ahmed that we extend our stay with him. Then we move, somewhat reluctantly, on to our next host. We can't be so lucky again, surely. But our luck holds and Mohammed is delightful, as are the Saad family later in our trip.
We are shown the sights and our hosts' favourite places, invited to dinner by their family and friends, and attend a raucous birthday party at a Coptic church - where we MUST dance, no excuses! All this not as tourists, but as friends (and, not entirely incidentally, saving us hundreds of pounds on hotels).
So were we lucky? Well, to some extent yes, of course we were! But the Couchsurfing system of profiles, feedback and vouching means that there is a lot more than luck to rely on when choosing a host or accepting a guest.
Wherever you live, and wherever you want to travel, there are people who want to meet you, share a meal, show you around, open up their homes - and to some extent their lives - to you. And all for free!
In Egypt we were wowed by the pyramids, impressed by the temples and entranced by the desert, but it was Couchsurfing that made our trip to Egypt something truly memorable. We have become evangelical about people-focused travel, dazzled by the possibilities. Travel, host, simply meet up for a coffee… but do take part. The whole world is there, waiting for us!
Article & photos posted March 5th, 2016
Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.