Looking for weed as a woman traveling alone is, in the eyes of many, akin to declaring that you have zero moral compunction. Drug hunting abroad necessitates seeking out a series strange men, most of whom want to have sex with you. I’d felt this way at times in Europe, but Egypt is where it really begins to sink in.
Truly, who hasn’t dreamed of the pyramids? They were all that I could think about that winter, to the point of obsession, but the reality of my situation is only just now beginning to set in. I watch from my window seat as the plane glides over rippled caramel dunes on our slow descent into Cairo. My knuckles, bulging and white, grip frayed armrests as we make the bumpy landing, touching down into Africa at last.
It is 2010. As a newly minted junior executive of an international corporation, I have spent the past two years attempting to reverse the cultural isolation of having grown up in a highly repressive, wild-eyed Evangelical community, where the closest thing to a foreign language was the speaking of tongues. New York was, by my parents’ account, a modern day Sodom and certainly off limits, so naturally it was where I headed, sight unseen, practically the minute I left high school.
By this time, however, I have lived in the city for years, with several voyages to various European capitals under my belt. I no longer feel like the farm girl I once did. Yet with every trip I have felt a little more disillusioned by how similar everything was to life in America, once you got past the different languages and architecture.
Sitting in a rickety puddle-jumper, I have yet to accept the painful truth that no matter where or how far you go, you can never escape yourself. I am still convinced that in Egypt, I will find a truly different land, and maybe, I will finally be able to forge a new sense of self, free of the shackles of my past.
This hopeful feeling is only renewed as we slowly file out of the chilly plane. I shed my traveling layers like a snake does his skin upon feeling the welcome heat of the desert sun. And though I am glad to be in Egypt, I can’t help but feel an immediate craving for a joint — as a heavy daily smoker for over 6 years, the past 24 hours have felt far longer than I might have otherwise imagined.
Pro tip 1: Never try to bring weed or hash in or out of Arab countries. The penalties are harsh and the risk simply isn’t worth it. Your baggage will be searched and drug-sniffing dogs are prevalent. You may have heard that as a woman, you have a “special” place to hide your weed (for the idiots: your vagina). Don’t even try it! I have, and trust me, the scent of sweaty marijuana, no matter how tightly wrapped, is going to waft right on out, terrifying you and arousing any nearby aficionados. You’ll spend the entire plane or train ride in terror of being found out.
I settle for a cigarette and enter the terminal. I’m expecting to be welcomed to an ancient environment, perhaps fashioned from wood and stone. Instead, I am surprised to find a sleek and air-conditioned terminal with gleaming floors. The open-air modernity feels a bit anticlimactic, especially after the delightful exoticism of having been served an unrecognizable meat on the plane. (I mean, gross, but finally! Something I can’t buy in New York!)
This initial wave of disappointment doesn’t linger, as my ride from the airport is in a car with a gaping, rusted hole where there should be a floor. The unpaved streets pass beneath me, and I try to focus on the Arabic music blaring from the speakers. Anything functional is reassuring.
There are very few street lights and no lane markers, just a broad highway that I peg to be at least 8 lanes wide. People weave maniacally across lanes, honking and screaming out their windows, and I find myself wondering, in the chance of a crash, whether I’ll fly through the windshield thanks to the nonexistent seatbelt, or be sucked down through the floor-hole and flayed to tatters. (Still, all this being said, LA’s freeways are far worse.)
Nothing has prepared me for this city. It’s unlike anything I have ever heard or seen: teeming with crowds, chaotic, deafening. Cairo is like a post-apocalyptic Paris, with its Haussmann-style buildings and wide avenues. The colonial stamp can be seen everywhere, in between more recent concrete high rises which had been abandoned halfway through development, leaving the towers without roofs, windows, and often even doors. Colorful strings of laundry tell me that these buildings are all fully occupied. The white stone of once-magnificent buildings is everywhere covered in a thick layer of grey grime.
It is thrilling. Finally, a place that does not feel like just another extension of home.
We pull up to the hotel with a dramatic final screech, and the bellhop rushes to my window. “Welcome!” he cries, grinning with a new father’s excitement. “Welcome to Cairo!”
Pro tip 2: To find weed or hash in a foreign country, first ask your friends, or friends of friends. Get referrals and references before embark on your trip. Asking the wrong person can lead to jail or worse, so scanning the field ahead of time definitely helps. Last-minute Facebook messages also work. Never lead in with your real query; no one wants to feel like a drug dealer. Make sure the friend feels like you want to hang out, and a weed hookup is just an incidental afterthought.
Night has fallen, and I’ve managed to get in touch via Facebook with Anwar, my one friend in town. He’s the ex-boyfriend of my ex-best friend, Mariel, and it’s bizarrely complicated because she and I fell in love while she was dating Anwar long distance in college. He has no idea that she and I had kissed (and more); I feel a thin twinge of guilt as he excitedly confirms our plans.
An hour or so later, I arrive on the urban island of Zamalek, an upscale enclave of Cairo that feels more like Calabasas than North Africa. There are chain stores here, a Sofitel. The moon is out, reminding me with its pale, full face what a liar I am. I just wink back and stroll along with pure delight, hardly believing that I’m on the banks of the Nile River, in the land of Cleopatra and Amon-Ra.
Anwar’s seated at the bar of La Bodega, this exquisite 1920’s style speakeasy. Much of Cairo seems anachronistic — after the British Empire lost control, most development basically stopped, and so it’s almost like going back in time. Fans spin lazily from the ceiling and well-dressed Egyptians converse in hushed tones over small glasses of wine and mint tea.
I can’t keep from staring. The last time I saw Anwar, he was a student at university in London, and we chain-smoked bowls and pounded shots of absinthe and spent two glorious weeks with his drunken flatmates and Mariel, our mutual object of affection, in general debauchery in a rundown three story house in Hounslow. Now, less than two years later, at 24, he’s sporting a full mustache with curled ends, suspenders, and a bowtie. Everything about him smacks of a Mario brother, and I suppress my laughter into a welcoming smile.
The revolution of January 2011 is months away, but to Anwar, it’s already happening. He has joined the government as a civil servant, to the dismay of his secular Egyptian parents, who work for Citigroup in San Francisco and raised him like a young prince in finance capitals across the world.
We spend the next hours discussing the political and economic realities of Egypt’s educated urban youth. So many have gone to university, but upon graduating, can’t even find jobs as clerks in shops. There is no economy. It is no wonder that many children are sent to vocational schools to learn to make papyrus, pottery, and rugs.
Anwar is nationalistic and speaks excitedly of his work with the Muslim Brotherhood. Even with newfound reservations, as the night wears on, I feel the familiar craving for a joint. I am a heavy smoker, and it’s already been over twenty-four hours since my last spliff, an unheard of period of abstinence, ever since I took up with ganja in college.
“So, what’s the situation with weed here?” I ask lightly. No big deal, don’t even care.
Anwar’s brow furrows; his lips tighten. “Women don’t smoke weed here.”
Pro tip 3: Always make sure that your former stoner friend has not since converted to semi-orthodox Islam.
Needless to say, shortly afterward I head out into the night on my own, without weed and a rankling sense that I’m not sure I like this new Anwar. He is passionate about changing Egypt, but I worry. What has happened to the carefree boy debating presidential campaign politics with me over a bowl of green leaves? I hate to see him shoulder the burdens of a nation — but at the same time I am glad that Egypt has someone like him.
I haven’t slept in over twenty four hours and with a tired hand I hail a cab back to my pre-war hotel. Ahmed, my driver, has tobacco-brown teeth and the car, the acrid reek of stale cigarettes. I lean forward. “Is it all right if I smoke in here?”
“Yes, yes, is ok.”
“Do a lot of people smoke in your cab? Smoke cigarettes? Tobacco?”
“Yes, yes, everyone smoke. Is ok.”
I grow bolder, or rather, my cravings do. “How about weed? Hash — you know, marijuana? Hashish?”
Ahmed looks at me through the rearview with bright, inquisitive eyes. He has to be almost 60 but his eyes look much younger despite their yellowed glaze.
“Hashish?” he asks slowly. “You want hashish?”
“I mean... Yes. Yeah. Definitely!”
Ahmed may not have been educated at a liberal arts university in London, but his sexism is far less pronounced than I might have otherwise expected, given Anwar’s earlier reaction. Within minutes he detours to make a pit stop, run-walks into a coffee house, and returns with a small brown stick of hashish wrapped in colored wax paper. I overpay him by what must be a local margin of over 1000%, but the cost is actually a fraction of the price of weed in New York. A satisfied customer, indeed.
Pro tip 4: If you don’t know anyone in the country or city you’re visiting, cab drivers are a great bet for finding weed. Especially in less-developed places, cab drivers know everyone and are far less likely to be an undercover police officer. In certain countries, weed is considered less of a “serious” drug; cab drivers are often willing to make extra money by hooking you up. Your best bet is to ask the right questions in a casual manner and then arrange to meet the cab driver in a public space. Don’t do what I did and drive with them wherever they feel like taking you. This is bad.
Ahmed climbs backs into the driver’s seat, and I immediately hand him my BlackBerry, indicating he should enter his number. “For next time,” I say with a smile. I lean back, relieved that I won’t need to abstain again during my trip.
Ahmed is still smiling at me through the rearview mirror, and so I attempt to fill the silence. “My friend—he told me women don’t smoke in Egypt,” I say, miming my words to help get them across. Ahmed nods.
“Yes. Is bad...not moral. But West women, they are bad.” He shrugs as if we both knew this already.
“Not bad,” I protest. “I’m a good person!”
“Yes, yes, you are very good! Very good.” He pauses diplomatically before continuing. “Beautiful girl. You visit my home? No wife. We will have tea, you smoke. Come, come, we go to my home.” It is clear we have passed the line of kindly respect afforded to tourists with money. Ahmed keeps insisting, increasingly forcefully, despite my protestations. Only when I nervously say that I should get another cab does he resume our journey.
I am relieved when we arrive at my hotel and I am able to bid Ahmed adieu. He will text me every day afterward, for weeks on end, and it will be difficult to explain to my friends back home that we have only met once. He is convinced that, since I was willing to smoke, I’d also be willing to have completely wanton sex with him. I shrug off my frustrations and try to rinse my mind of this new, somewhat oily feeling of having been judged as a whore.
Pro tip 5: When looking for weed alone as a woman, always mention that there is someone waiting for you at your hotel, preferably a male. Pretend to call him from the back of the cab, saying you’re on your way. Repeatedly stress that you are married or have a boyfriend, even if, like me, you’re a lesbian. And if you are a lesbian in an Arab country, never reveal this to a drug dealer or cab driver.
Once safely ensconced back in my room, I shuck off the wax wrapper, revealing the soft stick of hashish. Running the flame of my lighter along one side, I crumble the heated bits into a thin piece of rice paper and roll a joint, my hands working off mere muscle memory. Pulling open the ancient shutters, I blow my smoke out into the night; watch it slowly twist into the wind.
I climb into my hard twin bed, alone, and clutch the covers tightly around me. The darkness closes in and I am left with my racing thoughts. I think of the terrible poverty evident throughout this city, but am somehow still unable to see myself as lucky, blessed. Anwar has his country. Ahmed has his home. Mariel will soon be married to a man, who has what I never will.
Once again, I have traveled so far only to be confronted with myself. Still, I am not yet bitter, and the hashish gently ushers me into yet another dreamless sleep. Tomorrow, I will see the pyramids, and be once again reminded that, after all, they are only tombs.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with“Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.