What did I expect for seventy Egyptian pounds? Safety? Aircon? Foreigners? No, I was alone with a big suitcase, on a train not actually meant for foreigners. Foreigner trains cost much more, so I had asked an Egyptian to buy me an Egyptian-only train ticket. On the train, perhaps obviously, hardly anyone spoke English and the stares I received for breaking the unwritten rule made me feel like a criminal. The trip back from Luxor to Alexandria would take thirteen hours, which, in hindsight, was much better than the 24-hour bus drive from Aswan to Alexandria my fellow interns had to endure.

So there I sat, in a seat that surprisingly had enough leg room. I was determined not to move for thirteen hours and sheepishly observed my surroundings, wiggling my eyebrows at the little children that were watching me a few seats down. They all had shoes that squeaked with every step and it did not take me too long to decide that whoever invented those shoes should be thrown in jail for violations against the human ear. Apart from that, the lack of aircon and the fact that I was in Luxor, possibly the hottest city in Egypt, had me sweating from the very first minute.

The train rattled itself into motion somewhat over 12:00 PM. There were not many people in the wagon yet, but every stop saw an influx of people traveling to Cairo. The nature of the Nile accompanied us as we went north. Halfway through, one of the windows shattered in a thousand pieces, showering empty seats and the walkway with sharp glass. Instead of gasps and cries, the passengers started cheering and clapping. Indeed, when I felt the refreshingly cool air filling the sweltering wagon, I could not help but smile myself as well. Apparently, the window had not been able to take the pressure from the sudden gust of wind of the passing train. For the following hours, the soft crunch of shoes on glass would add to the wagon’s music.

“Do you have wife?” my neighbor suddenly asked in broken English. He was the first man sitting next to me that could somehow speak and understand a few words of English. I shook my head at his question.
“Girlfriend?”
“Not even a girlfriend, no.”
The man nodded in contentment. “I have very good daughter, twenty year. Give me your address.” He pointed at the pen and paper I was holding. I couldn’t believe what I heard. It’s a sad thing when a father almost instantly offers you his daughter on the sole premise of you being a foreigner. I ripped off a piece of paper and wrote down a fake address in Belgium, as well as a fake surname. Soon after, he thanked me and stepped off. Yes, I felt guilty, but what options did I have? I admit that the risk of the man and his family showing up in front of my door was very minimal, but European prudency kept me from giving my actual address.

The thirteen hours of watching Egyptians live their lives was like a mirror of Egypt. It showed me anger, violence, poverty and danger. It showed me a people with a passionate fire burning in their hearts, a fire long forgotten in Europe. This fire gives them the willpower to fast in the scorching heat and gives them the strength to fight for a cause they would die for. It gives them the generosity to hand out a free olive to everyone in the train (including me) when the sun goes down. The mirror might have shown a country full of potential, but too many cracks were scarring its reflection to be certain of that.