What did I expect for $4? Safety? Air conditioning? Foreigners? Big suitcase stored above me, I sat on a train with hundreds of Egyptians and not a single foreigner. This wasn’t entirely surprising, as Egypt has foreigner trains and Egyptian trains. Guess which one’s more expensive. As such, I had paid an Egyptian $6 to buy me a $4 ticket on the Egyptian train from Luxor to Alexandria, a trip that would take 13 hours.

Hardly anyone spoke English. I felt like a criminal for breaking the unwritten Apartheid rule. My seat had plenty of leg room and I was determined not to leave it for the entire length of the journey. A few seats down, kids were watching me. Kids with shoes that made a squeaking sound with every step. I took a deep breath. Sweat trickled down my spine. It was midday, there was no air conditioning and Luxor is probably the hottest city in Egypt.

The train rattled into motion just over noon. Every stop along the way saw an influx of people traveling to Cairo. At all times, I could see the Nile. It was quite peaceful. I wrote and read. But halfway through, a sudden gust of wind from an opposite train shattered a window in front of me. Sharp glass all over the empty seats and the walkway. Cheers and claps from the passengers. “Strange,” I thought, until I felt the refreshing cool air. It made the journey much easier. The soft crunch of shoes on glass added to the wagon’s music.

“Do you have a wife?” my neighbor asked in broken English. I shook my head.

“Girlfriend?”

“Not even a girlfriend, no.”

“I have a very good daughter, twenty years. You should meet. What’s your address?”

The man pointed at the pen and paper I was holding. I was mortified. Here’s a father who would instantly offer up his daughter just because I was a foreigner. I wrote down a fake Belgian address and a fake surname. He thanked me and stepped off. What options did I have? Sure, the risk of the man and his family showing up in front of my door in Belgium was very limited, but European caution kept me from giving my real address.

I arrived in Alexandria nicely on time. Somehow the train journey had left an imprint on me. It was the real Egypt, with people leading their lives as best they could, surviving together in a turbulent nation.

This article was written in the summer of 2013, when Egypt went through heavy protests and the military had a successful coup d’état.