TRAVEL REMINISCENCES (1): Cairo: midnight picnics, Hawa Yakubu and guava juice

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

Today, as the AFCON winners, runners-up and supporters head for the Cairo International Airport to fly out, I guess they will be taking with them mixed feelings about Egypt after such a nerve-racking tournament, which ended yesterday.

But I will still be reliving my pleasant recollections of Cairo 1994, which the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament brought back.

In 1994, I was a freelance correspondent for the Women’s Feature Service (WFS) based in India. I was one of a team of journalists the WFS had put together to report on the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

It was held September 5 to 13 and resulted in a “Programme of Action to guide nations in population policy and development planning”.

The team’s assignment was to produce the main, free conference daily newspaper, the ICPD Watch. (Incidentally, the ICPD was followed by the historic 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China – which our team also covered.)

Delegates from all over the world were pouring into the Egyptian capital and I was looking forward to the conference. Additionally, I was thrilled by the thought of experiencing Egypt, land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids. I was also keen to get a few of the famous papyrus paintings and some of Egypt’s acclaimed cotton fabrics, which I had read about.

My first abiding memory of Cairo is an astonishing scene as my taxi drove me to my hotel from the airport that balmy night: scores of people, men, women and children picnicking in a traffic island!

I couldn’t believe my eyes! But there was no mistaking the food hampers, drinks and people busy eating! Yet it was nearly midnight!

Amused at my evident puzzlement, the driver explained that during hot weather, some people liked to picnic at night because the weather would be cool by then.

But why in the central reservation, in the middle of the road? Because the space was available! He was still laughing at my bewilderment as we sped on.

I didn’t need anybody to remind me that I was in a different part of Africa, an extraordinary city!

Prior to that, an amazing incident had occurred at the airport. As I was making my way out, I saw my old friend, outspoken Member of Parliament (Independent, Bawku Central), ** Hon Hawa Yakubu!

When I tapped her arm she swung around and enveloped me in a bear hug, both of us erupting into laughter and joyous shouts. She, too, was attending the conference, but had been in the Business Class of the plane, while I was in Economy.

As we were talking I saw a uniformed official coming, showing something to people. Hawa and I were so engrossed in our conversation that we paid little attention to him, but I thought I heard him saying “watch?”

Hawa and I finally parted company as we were going to different hotels.

On arrival at my hotel, I automatically reached for my watch to set it to Cairo time, two hours ahead of Ghana. But, to my dismay, there was no watch on my wrist! I checked my handbag. No watch! Had I lost my favourite watch? I became frantic.

It was then that I remembered the official at the airport and what I thought I had heard him saying. So that had been my watch he had been showing around! The clasp must have come undone, causing it to slip down unnoticed.

I rushed downstairs, jumped into a taxi and headed back to the airport, to its ‘Lost and Found’ office. Fortunately it was still open. And they had my watch!

Having thanked them profusely, watch safely tucked away in my handbag, I returned to the hotel; showered and then to bed, exhausted.

The other members of the ICPD Watch arrived and we started work. I became good friends with Avian, the correspondent from Trinidad and Tobago. She, too, was in my hotel.

During the weeks we spent in Cairo, every evening we ate together in our hotel restaurant, exchanging information about our respective countries. We experienced Cairo and made discoveries together.

On the first evening, when we ordered our dinner, the waiter recommended that we should try some of the hotel’s fresh guava juice. He said Egypt grew a lot of guavas, so they always had fresh guava juice for their guests. We were somewhat reluctant, but in the end agreed to try it.

Our verdict? Ambrosial!

From that day, we never drank anything else with our meals in the hotel. Guava juice became our main discovery of the trip!

But probably sugar cane was more in abundance. Everywhere, there were kiosks where chilled, refreshing sugar cane juice was on sale. Lessons for Ghana, I thought, which has much more arable land than Egypt, as well as fruit and sugar cane.

In our free time, shopping was of course mandatory! The celebrated ‘Khan El-Khalili” bazaar, was wonderfully big and bustling. And who can forget the expert sales pitches of the traders?!

Even now I still remember with a smile, being addressed as ‘Nefertiti’ simply because a trader wanted me to come into his shop.

Who was I to resist being likened to Nefertiti, an Egyptian Queen fabled for her beauty, wisdom and power? I went in; and, after much haggling, I bought!

Another enduring memory of Cairo was its huge population, reportedly about 6,849,000 in 1994, while Accra’s was then an estimated 2 million.

No wonder Avian and I found the rush hour Cairo nightmarish when we were caught in it. The masses of people pouring into the streets, looking for transport home nearly gave me a panic attack. Luckily, we managed to get a taxi which battled the daunting traffic to get us back to the hotel.

Generally the visitor-attractions were marvellous, even outside Cairo.

My 1994 mementos include a lovely, still wearable cotton blouse; framed papyrus paintings; and a photo of me in front of a pyramid, standing uneasily near a camel – having declined an invitation to try a ride. I wasn’t that adventurous!

As for the lost and found watch, it’s even now in good condition, and I still wear it. But I check its clasp a lot, bearing in mind what happened at Cairo airport.

*TRAVEL REMINISCENCES will be an occasional column.
**Hawa Yakubu died on March 20, 2007, aged 59.

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