Tuesday, August 29, 2006

About the third or fourth day we got here, an American neighbor laughed at us when we said we had to be careful walking on the teetering, debris-filled sidewalks. “You don’t walk on the sidewalks,” she scolded. “Walk in the streets.”

Weaving in and out between the dented black and white taxis, the minibuses, the posh SUVs and Volkswagens, are the people. The people amble in the streets as if there were not cars zooming and honking about them. They seem unconcerned by barreling vehicles; they calmly step aside at the last possible millisecond. While we were at the university yesterday, we watched one man casually shoulder a door-sized pane of glass as several cars, all going the same direction and forming arbitrary lanes, passed either side of him on Muhammed Mahmoud St. I believe he was smoking, too, and enjoying it immensely.

The relationship between pedestrians and vehicles is evident on 26 July St., an area where much of the Zamalek shopping is located and which culminates in a bridge from Zamalek to the rest of Cairo. I walked down this street last night. There are bookshops and magazine stands, green grocers (selling several varieties of mangos, which are in season through September), appliance stores, electronics (in a store selling flat screen TVs, a music video, featuring a pigtailed woman holding a suggestive shepherd’s hook, played – and again, the conventional phrase around here – that Egypt is a land of contrasts – arose as I stepped outside and saw a woman wearing a burka at a juice bar), clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, clothing stores, and a bloody butcher shop next to a window protecting enormous fish laid on ice.

The busy bridge runs above the shopping blocks, shadowing them and giving it all the appearance of a much more confusing downtown Chicago, with incessant honking replacing the racket of the El and small stands with seeds and baladi bread replacing the porters in suits. There is the bridge, and then there is the street below, just as busy with vehicles, it seems. On 26 July St. there are indeed broad, foot-friendly sidewalks, but these seem essential.

At one point, three little boys with bags of limes ran up, wanting me to buy some. When they figured out I wasn’t game, they were gone. As I stood on the corner waiting for a break in traffic (remember the video game Frogger?), one of the little boys approached a car at a stoplight. (Stoplights are few and far between where we live. And the pedestrian light was the first one I have seen, though it goes unheeded.) The driver stared straight ahead with the window up as the little boy, an inch from his face, used his forefinger to tap-tap-tap persistently against the glass. The boy quickly got bored and leaned against the car, still tapping.

In America (or maybe I should say the parts of America which are not destitute), we literally have leashes for our children. We have plastic slides an inch from the ground. There is a depressingly small chance of getting a splinter on a suburban playground. My mother used to heat up sharp needles and dig out my splinters as if they were simply twigs impaling a soft cake. Now my rambunctious two year old nephew has to figure out how to get out of the locks and gates and fences concocted, by law, for his safety before he can meddle with anything.

Maybe this is my point: Last night I was on another corner waiting for traffic to create a small gap when a man crossed. A boy, about two or three years old, walked a few feet behind. The man didn’t hold his hand, nor did he turn around to make sure the boy was still there once they had crossed. The boy, wearing a toddler shirt with pictures of fire engines, looked quite at ease. (On a side note, parents obviously care deeply about their children here as they do most everywhere, and I have witnessed many parents carrying or guiding their children through traffic. This is an isolated example.)

My final stop before making my way home was at a green grocer to get mangoes (mangas). Granny, if you’re reading this, I’m talking about the sweet fruit, not green peppers! The two grocers spoke English and welcomed me profusely, throwing in dates and a guava with my purchase. They told me something I have heard more than once in my brief time here: “The Americans are a great people. It is their government that is terrible. Do you like the Bush?” They held their thumbs up questioningly. (If you know me at all, you can imagine my response.) But I love the way they asked, “the Bush,” for isn’t it true that no matter what we think of our “leaders,” they seem mostly inhuman and immune to our lives and thoughts? Granted, English article usage was a factor here, but humor me. The man who weighed the fruit tugged at his beard and said “this beard” was nothing to be afraid of. Make no mistake that several Egyptians are unhappy with their government, but this is not something I have heard in public conversation.

Anyway, I arrived home quite proud of myself for having read the Zamalek map and acquiring a bag of fruit in the process (Yes, I’m lame!). I also discovered that the bawaab (doorman; literally, gatekeeper) will make sure I get to my flat if I come home in the evening by myself, something he does not do with James. He is very keen on teaching us Arabic words and insists on talking to us in Arabic as if we understand him. One day I hope we can actually converse. In fairness to my ego, James and I went down a few minutes later to a corner store to get a Sprite (the sugar helps with dehydration), and, when the man opened the bottle, handed it to me, and said nothing, I mentioned an Arabic number (itneen, which is two), and the man agreed that this was the cost. James told me he has been paying fifty piasters to a pound more to this man when he gets a soda. So, did I bargain? Let’s say yes. More likely is that I got “ripped off” less than James. The fact, though, is that if a taxi driver “rips me off” by charging me LE 8 instead of the LE 5 it should be from Midan Tahrir to Zamalek, I am paying about 50 cents more. 50 cents. What does that 50 cents mean to me? What does it mean to the taxi driver? During our time here, I’m sure these will be enduring, complicated questions.



Mom said...

Hey Mandy - It appears you made out just fine on your adventure. Did you eat the fruit? Have you had any bad reactions to the food yet? If not, maybe you won't.

The Decker's said...

This is great! I look forward to what new adventure you two have each day.

mandy said...

I wash the outside of fruits and veggies with soap and peel most of them. Haven't had a problem yet, but my plumbing is questionable to begin with! We haven't drank the tap water except we cook with it and use it for NesCafe, the only coffee we have had since we don't yet have a coffeemaker and couldn't yet bring ourselves to pay $20 for a canister of Folgers. And so far Turkish coffee is a bit murky for this young lady.

kigene said...

It looks like your annoying people watching skills have served you well.

Mandy said...

Indeed! I find it difficult to stop the gape. :)

karen said...

A tough customer! As a terrible haggler myself, I'mimpressed.