“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”
– Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca
The dingy, overcrowded and dark hotel bar at the Havana Hotel in Cairo is probably not the first choice of bar to meet up with a friend. Long and rectangular with just enough room between the lounges and seats to squeeze past, during a week in October 2009 it became my regular haunt.
With time off between the summer and winter seasons in Europe, but not enough to do things independently I decided to jump on board an overland truck from Cairo to Nairobi. First things first however, visas and welcome letters had to be arranged. It was at the Australian Embassy waiting to get a letter confirming my Australian passport was real for Sudan that I met Chris. After reading an inch thick travel advice, and followed by the question, “So you still want to go to Sudan?” we had our government stamped confirmation letters and we were on our way.
Over the next few days Chris and I spent the days rummaging through Cairo’s souks, hopping between the Ethiopian Embassy and generally exploring Cairo. Throughout we met several other travellers who would be accompanying us on our adventure south. Every night we would return to the Hotel Havana, where most people were staying before the trip, to have a few beers, catch up and get to know each other.
Chris had spent some time in Dahab before arriving in Cairo to sort visas. During his time there he had met a British girl who would be joining our trip. As Chris put it, “Natalie is a really cool chick”. As the week progressed the odd assortment of intrepid adventures travelling with us filtered into the hotel, but no Natalie.
One evening, several days before the trip, the band of merry adventurers had assembled in the bar. A thick smoke wafted up towards the ceiling from the various shisha pipes scattered throughout the bar and the heavy scent of apple tea hung in the air. In the background Arabic dance music rang out from an old CD player behind the counter and the low drum of hushed conversation would be broken by raucous laughter from one group to the next.
The rusty old metal detector at the front door would occasionally beep as a new guest entered but the fully armed security guard would only ever give a disinterested glance. I think the security was more there to make us feel safer but I had a feeling if something did happen they would be the first ones out the door!
It was at that point my life changed forever.
Against this backdrop of curling shisha smoke and apple tea the door from the hotel opened. A stream of bright iridescent light streamed into the bar followed by a ghostly silhouette. As the door creaked closed the beaming smiled Natalie replaced the silhouette. “That’s Natalie, the chick I met in Dahab”, Chris exclaimed. I don’t know how and I don’t know why but the moment I saw Natalie I knew I was going to marry her! Little did we both know, it was on that summery night in the smoke hazed hotel bar in Cairo The Smart Way Round was born.
That was five years ago. Our adventures have taken us all across the world, five continents and numerous countries. November sees the one-year anniversary of The Smart Way Round but the adventure started years ago. That’s the thing about travel, you never know who you are going to meet. I am always reminded of a comment a guest made on one of my first ever trips around Europe, “You make friends for a reason, a season or a lifetime”. Well in Cairo in 2009 it was definitely the latter….