Shirts & Swashbuckling - Raven Smith on his journey to Cairo
As a kid in achingly-liberal 80s Brighton, with the security of a regular bedtime and several mum-cooked lentil dishes from a vegetarian cookbook, I longed for real adventure. Something beyond waking up on time and going to school. Escape, of sorts, came via fantasy—books sailed me across the open seas to palmed desert islands with the promise of treasure buried deep under the damp sand. Swigs of rum and tooth-rotting sugarcane and a tamed monkey at the shoulder. Sword-fighting and swashbuckling and seducing fair maidens.
It’s always nice to get away from the parties-when-you-have-to-show-your-face and the passive aggressive Whatsapp groups, but we refuse to spin the bottle on google maps or follow the herds down to Greece. Nowadays, escape has different parameters. Going to a huge resort feels limiting. Sight-seeing only the continental breakfast buffet each morning doesn’t make for a good postcard. Outside of the dreaded package holibob, we all want adventure without the danger. Less swashbuckling, more street-fooding. A chlorined pool without having to walk the plank. X marks the spot of all the best taco places on google maps. These days we’re committed to seeing the world without giving up our right to a hot shower and the Sunday papers. I don’t actually want to sleep rough, I want a hammock for a long afternoon while I nurse a mai tai and an airport paperback.
I binged the audiobook of Around the World in 80 Days and took the piece very much to heart, deciding I’m the Phileas Fogg of south London and need to visit every destination on the book’s itinerary. This year took me to Cairo, a city of ancient civilisation adjacent to the stubby pyramids of Giza. Before arrival, I had an overly-romanticised idea of the city, bowls of sweet dates and iced tea and Death on the Nile in a linen suit, but it’s a filthy, rambunctious place, desperate to be adored but daring you not to like it like a teenage girl. And Cairo doesn’t slowly seduce you, so much as grab you by the throat and throttle you. Like any archaeological find, the city reveals itself in jagged fragments, as you piece together the hidden treasure. It begins with slaps of dry heat to the face like a matriarchal showdown in a soap opera. There is pounding, hot city noise and an insatiable stream of traffic that snakes through the city like lava. The people are the kind of gruff that makes you nervous and jittery like it’s spin the bottle and you’ve never been kissed. Anticipation is abundant. All the tombs were raided years ago by our ancestors back in England, but their mystery thrives alongside Cairo’s unapologetic modernity. Canopic jars waiting to be discovered. Enjoyment waiting to be excavated. Everything in Cairo is dusty. Ornate but yellowed by time. Everything tastes like sand and beer in a good way. But Cairo is a tenacious city—it’s impossible not to be enchanted eventually.
To traverse the wonders of Egypt, a travel uniform is a necessity. You need a physical fortification from the charmed assault of Cairo. A flat shoe, sure, but a shirt that’s ever-ready for what the city has in store and grips your ribs as the winds whip up from the Sahara. Rolling dunes. A camel. Full disclaimer: I never actually went on a camel but camel-riding garments needn’t be literal. Literal isn’t romantic. But not another button-down Oxford with the spread of perspiration at the armpit. Never a button-down. Travelling is all about blending in while you stand out. A shirt that aids that knowing poise. Enough pockets for a compass and a map—even though you’ll never need either—and room for a passport and a toothbrush. The shirt should be a deep mahogany colour, like sun-baked mud bricks and the roadside-smoked tobacco of the locals. An air vent of an open collar, and sleeves that roll up with the temperature. Matched with beekeeper shorts if you want, on slacks that you’ve owned forever. A short that's ready for anything. A shirt than promises adventure. A shirt for swashbuckling.
Clothes, like travel, are a drug. Addictive and moreish. That first taste ignites a fire and we can’t get enough. We want more than that first hit of heat. The Calico shirt allows speedy boarding, easing you effortlessly out to departures.
Raven Smith is a writer based in London.
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