Egypt

Eyes wide open in a city that never sleeps

Eyes wide open in a city that never sleeps

When slumber proves elusive in North Africa’s busiest city, Ruby Boukabou gets creative.

It’s 3am. From my 12th floor room at the Four Seasons I can see the Nile snaking past and lights shimmering over the expanse of Cairo. It might be known as a city that’s on the go 24 hours a day, but it appears rather subdued from up here. In fact, I seem to be the only one not sleeping. I wish it was just jet lag so I could bounce about the luxurious suite, coming up with intriguing tales à la Agatha Christie; dive onto the plush bed and into a classic Egyptian film; or kick back with the view. But I’m feeling off.

An hour earlier I’d decided to try a bath to relax. I tipped a jar of Red Sea salts into the warm water and sank in, inhaling deeply from a bag of lavender I’d found in the room. Cairo is terribly polluted and my flight here was long. This fresh air was luxury in itself. Steam whirled therapeutically around the marble and I felt my body begin to unwind. Half an hour later I climbed out, pulled on a dressing gown and rolled into bed.

But before I can slip into comfort and enjoy a restful slumber, the nausea returns.

I get up and pace the suite. I call reception about a doctor and I’m told he’ll take an hour to arrive. In an hour I may be fine, I can’t tell. I’m probably just exhausted. I’d arrived from the other side of the planet only a couple of days ago and immediately started teaching tap dance workshops on both sides of town while battling a punishing case of jet lag. Inside me, an overload of sensory stimulation tussles with the need to relax.

It doesn’t compute that I possibly need antibiotics, but my body does realise that something’s up and kicks itself into revival mode. I need to move, to circulate my blood.

I throw on some clothes. I have to run. Somewhere. Anywhere. I grab my door key and head into the hall. I take the fire exit. I run down the 12 flights of stairs, stopping at intervals to tap. There are frenetic rhythms coming out of my feet onto the concrete landings. It’s frenzied, fierce and staccato. It builds and I begin to breath more deeply. For a moment I am swept into the scene and almost feel better. But no. There’s this unbearable feeling of internal pollution.

I dash downstairs and come out into the tearoom. No one is to be seen. I can’t stay still. I run into the bathroom and start jumping like a kangaroo. I have to get this energy out and keep my circulation going.

I run on, now down the waiter’s corridor. I get to a food station. Strawberries! I need fruit. I grab one and suck on it immediately. A young chef looks at me with surprise, I say shukran (thank you) and move on.

Then I arrive in the main kitchen. There are several chefs at work, preparing tomorrow’s breakfasts. And it dawns on me. It’s not sea salts and lavender my body wants. I need garlic. Now. I greet the head chef like a long-lost cousin. He listens to me and starts chopping a bulb. I also need parsley, olive oil…

A night manager appears and tells me it’s strictly staff quarters. But I’m locked in with the chef. I’m certain I need the garlic to boost my immune system, to get the blood flowing and counteract the levels of lead I’m not dealing with.

The heat of a flame draws me in further and the next thing I know I’m behind the stove cooking my sauce, the chef obligingly sprinkling in ingredients. The night manager keeps going but it’s as though he’s tuned into another channel. I’m cooking with gas and all that matters now is my garlic sauce. The blaze is soothingly warm, I look up and catch the eye of the pastry chef who’s glancing over from his task of transforming butter into croissants. He’s smiling. It feels good to be backstage, behind the scenes.

I’m not sure how to tell the night manager to get lost, so I yell in French it’s an emergency and I won’t be long. The chef coolly finishes my sauce with me.

I sit alone in the restaurant and eat my garlic creation with bread, then play myself a lullaby on the grand piano under the chandelier. The elixir kicks in and I feel slumber approaching. I return to my room as the sun begins to rise, draw the curtains over awakening Cairo and finally fall asleep. Thanks to the chef, and to the garlic.

Words Ruby Boukabou

December 2017 from issue 54

Tags: cairo, confessions, egypt, food, hotel

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