The Carlton Hotel looks like a nice place. Its vertical crimson sign proudly displaying its name against the exterior wall. There was an awning of similar color; tattered but an awning none-the-less. If ever there is a mark of a classy establishment it’s got to be the awning; nowhere else I had stayed on this trip had one.
The van I had traveled the desert spluttered towards the doorway like an emphysemic nomad; weather-beaten, ill-tempered, and unhealthy. Where it was going next I had no idea. The driver stopped talking to me shortly after his jubilant outburst following freedom from the hard-blowing Sinai sands.
I am not sure if he was a little embarrassed by his lack of survival skills or if something else was cooking and he just wanted rid of me as quickly as possible. Of course it would be the latter and this would be a lesson learned and re-learned many times during my stay in Egypt.
The word “Carlton” was emblazoned in thick gold lettering, on a slant, upon both glass doors. The “A” on one side was missing but the Carlton on the right-side door was complete and proud. I opened that one and entered a lobby of dark polished wood; from floor to wall-panels to beams supporting the ceiling.
It wasn’t a dingy dark but a well-lit pleasant entryway. To be honest, I was kind of surprised.
I figured I had done well.
My happiness was enhanced even more by the broad beaming smiles of two men behind the reception desk. They would become known as “Smile One” and “Smile Two”.
There was a bar and restaurant off to the left side. Kind of like Cairo’s version of Bennigans with booth seating and coat stands secured to the table partitions; all in the same darkened wood as the lobby.
I would come here and have a beer and a bite a little later in the evening. Right now it was time to get a room and take a shower. I was encrusted with a layer of post Sinai dust and new arrival Cairo grime from which I was keen to be extricated.
“Smile One” grabbed my backpack and, with key in hand, shuffled up the stairs in the direction of my awaiting room. I had been assured all was ready and that I would be very pleased.
As the door was flung open with pride I found before me a four-poster double bed all freshly made up with what must be Egyptian Cotton sheets. But as they call them here; sheets.
Again I was surprised. The room really was pleasant and a big double window opened up letting in plenty of light. It even provided a portal with a view out over a big pile of rubble on which kids played and adults screamed at them to get off.
There was a private shower and a basin. All the floor was horizontal and the ceiling followed suit. There was a chair and a dresser and a mirror. Not too bad for $15 a night and if a chocolate mint appeared on my pillow at dusk I would be ecstatic, but that wasn’t about to happen.
The tepid water of the shower did wonders. Even if the room wasn’t the cleanest I had ever seen, the removal of my own personal grime made everything appear pristine.
I was ready to wine and dine myself in the lounge area on floor one.
There were was no more than a handful of people in the bar when I arrived; no-one at all was in the restaurant section. In a pair of khaki pants and white linen shirt I looked conspicuous. Everyone else, all five of them, were local and I received the once-over; twice.
I took a seat in a booth and looked forward to the ice-cold beer I was about to enjoy. The beer that would wash away any remnants of the desert stubbornly hanging on to the walls of my throat like unwanted barnacles. This was my first night in Cairo and this would be my first beer in Egypt.
A waiter came over with tray in hand. On it was a bottle wrapped in a stained white cloth; similar to how a sommelier might deliver a carafe of fine wine. He bent down at the waist and placed the clothed Heineken in front of me.
“From the gentleman at the bar” he advised.
Feeling flattered, uncomfortable, and obliged, I returned the favor; letting the waiter know he should get the man a drink and I would pay for it. I watched as the waiter told my new friend and with a smile he thanked me. Then refused the offer of a drink and instead added two packets of Rothman cigarettes to my tab.
He waltzed over, sat down on the opposite side of the booth, lit up, and through a ring of smoke that hovered like an ethereal fog of welcome, he began to tell me the story of his entire life…and his wife’s.
She had passed away last year, he told me, of cancer; however I wasn’t to be concerned or feel bad because she was sitting right there next to him in the booth, he introduced her to me. Apparently she was very happy we had all met.
He began to laugh; then, while laughing, he pointed as if to emphasize even further the prank he had just pulled on this unsuspecting traveler.
When he collected himself he began explaining in more detail the story of his wife’s passing, the loving relationship they had once had, and that he missed her terribly. He always felt like she was with him and that was a great comfort.
I stayed and listened and as the evening wore on his story subjects changed; I was intrigued. He explained that he is a doctor and comes to this bar most nights after work. He doesn’t drink but likes to see old friends and possibly meet new ones.
I, apparently, was now a new one.
With the enthusiasm of a man happening upon a great idea he jumped to his feet and announced he would be taking me out to dinner at the Marriott. It wasn’t far and he would have his driver take us.
Sure enough, right outside the double doors of the Carlton was a car and driver. It kind of looked like a taxi to me but I was assured it was his personal transportation. We made one stop at a gas station where wads of rolled up money changed hands through the front passenger window. A half eaten gyro sandwich accompanied the money and it was given directly to me. Presumably to curb my appetite. As we sped off the gyro went out the back window and returned to where it had come.
Things were getting weirder.
The Marriott in Cairo is a gorgeous place and by far the fanciest restaurant I had eaten at for a long time. Huge crystal chandeliers hung from ornately painted ceiling giving rise to the notion that inspiration could only have come from the Sistine chapel.
Everything was fresh. The carpets, the flowers, the crispness of the table-cloth. Everyone there was suitably dressed and behavior was at a premium. Plenty of smiles and laughter to go round.
We ordered drinks, appetizers, main courses, and desserts. The bread basket was always full and the conversation had returned to a normal pool of topics for those who had newly met.
He seemed keen to assist in my endeavor to travel Egypt and wanted to help out. He promised me a first class train ticket to Aswan so that I wouldn’t have to take the bus. He didn’t like the bus and no friend of his should have to take the bus either.
I was having a good time and even his repeated requests for money did not dampen the mood nor did it set any personal alarm bells off; youth, oy!
Throughout the meal people had been approaching us and greeting the doctor with short bursts of conversation before moving on. There was really a sense of mingling and community going on. Almost colonial in nature.
Right before dessert arrived the doctor excused himself and made his way to the phone bank in the hallway. He had some business to take care of he told me. He would be just a minute.
After 15 minutes the waiter brought the check.
The slow rumble of discomfort began to invade my stomach as it began to knot; just slightly. I took a look at the check and it was easily a full weeks worth of three squares a day for me.
In the hopes I had gotten it all wrong I walked over to the phone bank to take a look and see if the doctor had really split. To my relief he was where he had said he would be. Conducting a conversation via pay phone; presumably business.
He waved and I went back and sat down.
That would be the last I ever saw of my friend the doctor. As 15 minutes turned to 30 to 45; it sunk in that I had been conned and I replayed the night in my head.
Maybe he was practicing. I certainly wasn’t a big target if financial gain was the motive. Could he just have been incredibly hungry? But then he could have simply eaten the gyro sandwich.
I took a taxi back to the Carlton; a very similar looking vehicle to the one I had arrived at the Marriott in. Smile One and Two were laughing as I burst through the double glass doors. Since they had known the doctor I asked them about him and in another equally naive show of stupidity I followed the first question up with an inquiry regarding the first class train ticket; had the doctor left one for me?
They almost doubled over. Everyone was in on it including the 5 at the bar who were once again giving me the once over, only this time with a sneer.
The doctor was a petty con-man. That is the only information I got. Oh, apart from the fact that he is not, and never was, a doctor.
I went to bed to bed and rested. Tomorrow I would face off at the dreaded Mogamma Building. The epicenter of Egyptian con and corruption.