Wandering through the Cultural Wilderness

By Ayan Mukhopadhyay, Global MBA student from India, working on an International Immersion Project with PlaNet Finance in Cairo, Egypt

Today marks exactly 2 weeks of my stay in Cairo. The last 14 days has flown by and the experience so far has been enough to overwhelm and push my senses to the extreme. So much so that I have few ideas to share but I don’t know which one would be apt and a nice read for all. As I look back now on the days when the selection for the IIP in Egypt was done, I think I made a great choice in coming to Cairo and not paying any heed to the post revolution chaos in Egypt. Yes, I am alive, and to this point Cairo has left me feeling punchy, always ready to shell out some baksheesh.

Cairo is not only about the pyramids, world-class museums and riverside restaurants, but also the thousand year old mosques, stunning buildings from the colonial era and a web of walkways filled with people, cars, buses and whatnot. It has frequently been
said to me by fellow travelers at my hostel that a real experience of the sights and sounds of Cairo will only be complete when you bustling old Islamic Cairo which is around the Al Azhar mosque,Hossein mosque and the winding web of lanes inside Khan Al Khalili market. When Ahmed from Planet Finance offered to take us to the Khan Al Khalili market, it got me thinking. I was still
reeling from the insane heat waves of Giza, a place that marks the start of the Sahara desert and hosts the pyramids. Having had my brain thoroughly washed over the last few days by my experiences in Cairo and fellow travelers, I could not help but give in to the temptation of another riot on my senses.

I left my hostel at around 6pm when the sun has gotten tired of spewing heat and the light was a rich, golden yellow hue. Before leaving I wanted to be sure of the route I would take and so sought help of Hassan, the owner of the hostel. He said it’s very easy and took me to the window. Pointing to the Bank of Misr building faraway, he asked me if I could see this building “nearby” and added that the Attaba square, which is just behind that building will lead me to the Al Azhar mosque. I felt it was quite easy listening to the directions he gave. However, I was in for a surprise the moment I reached Attaba square. There were 5 streets branching out in 5 different directions and so “walking straight” was quite a meaningless term.

Instinctively I started approaching people for directions and came across a person from Sudan who knew that Hindi was the national language of India. He started explaining in his broken English which way I need to take and how far it would be. Sensing that I was too lost in the directions he was giving, he even called a taxi and was almost going to give me some money so that I could reach the mosque. It was quite a touching event for me, having a complete stranger come up and try to help as much as possible for absolutely nothing in return. It did bring back to my mind that idea of the kindness of strangers but more importantly it showed me the warmth of the African people towards strangers in their land. Usually when we are travelers we tend to avoid the random stranger in the street and keep conversations to a minimum and to the point. But we overlook the fact that as a species we are designed to support each other and a surprising amount of our safety and protection comes from the kindness of strangers. The man walked away after being convinced that I did indeed want to walk the whole way, but left behind a wonderful rush of emotions filling up my heart. I will probably not meet this person again but I will surely try to pay the kindness forward.

For the rest of the evening I kept walking along serpentine lanes of the Khan al Khalili market along with the IIP team and Ahmed while skirting the persuasive calls from vendors eager to make a quick buck. As I walked around the narrow and mesmerizing medieval streets of Khan al Khalili, which house gorgeous buildings, numerous road side caf├ęs and shops selling excellent handmade items, the evening slowly came to an end. It has been a day well spent, starting with the pyramids and ending with experiences that would reaffirm a sense of humility in anyone.

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