Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The streets of Cairo

The other day it occurred to me how much I’ve grown into this culture in the sense that what used to be a picture-perfect moment has now become my every day routine. One morning last week I decided to purposefully pay attention to as much as I could on my walk to work so I could share the experience with you. I hope you find it interesting.

I leave Dawson Hall around 8:30am for work most mornings. The first thing I encounter is students…students galore. I may remind you that I live on the third floor of a building that houses the administrative offices of the Synod of the Nile, a school for mentally handicapped children, and a secretarial school for young women who want to become secretaries. Beyond that, the building is in a school complex for not one but two schools: Ramses College for Girls and New Ramses College.

So, actually, let me back up. The morning begins around 5:00am when I hear the 20+ buses start roaring to life and adding to the extreme exhaust pollution of Cairo. Then, starting around 7am, students come rolling into the compound and spend time hanging out with their friends for the next hour. Many of these kids decide to play on the mini playground, which is located below my window. They certainly love this, as I hear many laughs and shrieking. Then, around 7:45am the megaphone roars. This megaphone is also located just below my bathroom window, and every morning I hear the teachers call out “wahead, itneen, teleta, arba… wahead, itneed, teleta, arba” (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) as the students of the mentally handicapped school yell the numbers back. It’s obvious the keyboard is also hooked up to this system, because within no time the keyboard blares and the students sing their song. It’s the same song every day. I enjoy this routine J Besides, you never need an alarm clock—you know you’ve slept in when you hear the song!

Okay, so I leave my haven called Dawson Hall and descend the stairs, hoping this time there won’t be too many students around. These girls just STARE at me. At first I figured it was out of curiosity, but I think there is some issues of jealousy mixed in. Sometimes they make fun of my clothes or giggle at me or act in some obnoxious way. I am thankful, however, in this one instance, that I am not male. You should see how these girls treat the guys! Jason has actually starting going through the Synod of the Nile offices and out a back door just to avoid some of the girls who come running to him yelling, “Jason! Jason!” They LOVE the guys. Hehehe…

Since I am the only person leaving the complex, I have to work hard at forging my way through the mob of students entering the side gate. At this point I am on Ramses Street, making my way towards the metro station. This is one of my least favorite moments of the morning, as I am walking towards traffic and instantly feel a desire to stop breathing to avoid any more pollution reaching my sinuses or lungs. This 5 minute walk to the metro offers a good determination of the weather for the day, and I don’t mean rain, sleet, snow, warm, cold, windy, cloudy, or sunny. When we talk about the “weather” in Egypt, we’re talking about the amount of pollution in the air. Some days are better than others, and you thank God for those days!

On an especially bad day for pollution, I put my sunglasses on (protect the eyes from the grime) and hold a scarf over my nose and mouth. Yes, awkward, but it’s worth it. At one point, just before the metro, I must cross two busy streets. It’s game time! Truly, I feel like I’m in a video game when crossing the streets. Street signs basically do not exist in Egypt—it’s everyone for his own. So, I start walking out into the street, halt for a car to whiz by, take a few leaping steps, move back a couple feet to avoid the next car… okay, now to the left, no, to the right…okay, now walk normal 5 paces, halt again, okay…okay…NOW!--rush the rest of the way. Actually, it’s quite an art to cross the street, and I really think I’ve gotten a good handle on it and usually walk with ease and confidence despite the fact my life is constantly in danger. (It’s okay Mom and Dad, I’m careful!) I’ve discovered one of the best ways to know if someone has been in Cairo long is to watch them cross the street—do they hesitate? Do they look uncomfortable? Do they stand on the edge of the street and wait for long? Are they paying more attention to others than themselves? Truly, it’s a sure-fire way to figure out if someone is a tourist.

After crossing the second street I come to an opening in the gate “daht da cobri” (“under the bridge”). It’s a secret shortcut to the metro that is really not a secret so much as the only people who use it are local people. So, one reason I love going through it is because it makes me look more commonplace…I think. Certainly a normal foreigner wouldn’t know of it, or even if he did, probably wouldn’t use it. In this spot under the bridge you can smell urine and pass by a couple beggars in the morning, and in the afternoon it’s full of vendors selling sweets and roasted corn on the cob (yes, they roast it right there, and it’s delicious!).

I am now ready to climb the stairs on my way to the metro train. I pull out my 3-month ticket and send it through the machine, walk through the turn-dial, and grab my ticket on the other end. Nearly every day I see many people cheat this system by grabbing hold of the turn-dial before it clicks shut from the previous person and sneaking through. Really, though, it’s not sneaky, because everyone seems to do it and no one seems to care. In fact, there is a guard at every station whose job is to watch for these people, but they never (or rarely) do a thing about it.

Walking on the train platform I make my way to the left and walk past rows and rows of men until I reach the far end where the first two cars are for women only. I wait patiently for the metro to come by and hope it’s not completely crowded. If I’ve timed my morning right, I am able to squeeze on the first metro that comes by, making sure I keep at least one hand and arm on my purse at all times. If the timing is not right, I might have to wait for a train or two before there is enough room to get on. Regardless, it’s a mad dash to get on the metro as people are pushing their way off the train at the same time you’re pushing your way on.

I keep my sunglasses on at all times during this excursion to work, even on the metro. First of all, it keeps you from accidentally looking into a man’s eyes, or at least they can’t tell you did. Second, and probably more importantly, it helps in keeping pollution out of your eyes. I even keep them on during the metro ride.

Three stops later I’ve arrived down town Cairo and get off at the Nasser station, where I find St. Andrew’s Church on the corner of Ramses Street and the 26th of July Street, where life is hustling and bustling. This intersection (which also includes two other major by-passes) is considered one of the most, if not the most, polluted section of Cairo. So, here I am in the 2nd most polluted city in the world working in the most polluted spot in that city. I actually take some pride in that!

Today I decided to take a walk down 26th of July Street towards Zamalak Island, where I needed to meet Sister Enrica to get another student ID. Walking along the street I first see rows of men sitting against a gate along the edge of the sidewalk. In front of each of them sits a 1 ½ foot wooden cylinder with rows of metal “pointers” wrapped around it, sticking up towards the sky—very Buffy the Vampire style. These men are waiting for work—they are masonry workers and their pointers let passer-byers know they are open for business.

Continuing down the street I see venders on every corner with carts full of fresh oranges, imported apples, and guava. Some men are cooking cous cous or laying out carts full of fresh ish baladi—the Egyptian bread. You find men carrying ish baladi on a huge wooden platforms above their heads as they bike along the crazy, congested roads. I truly do not understand how they can do it. (I mean, how do you get that above your head in the first place, and then balance and bike, especially when you have to constantly stop or swerve to avoid people and cars? It’s a skill few have I believe!)

Children are walking hand in hand with their mothers or fathers down the street. They are wearing bright backpacks on their backs and many of the girls have ponytails full of accessories in their hair. Some kids walk to school with their siblings and you can tell they love the freedom of being able to run around the streets without a scolding.

The stores are starting to open, although most are still locked up and deserted. Even though by most standards one would say the city is already alive, things don’t really start moving until 10am. Some men are sitting outside store doors, reading the paper or reciting prayers from the Koran. Others are sitting in dirty plastic chair smoking the sheesha water pipe and watching people as they wander the streets. Still others are sweeping the dust and dirt away from the door to the stores, or washing down the sidewalk. Wherever there is a bit of space you find overweight women wearing long dark gowns sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk surrounded by the bright colors of green peppers, red tomatoes, green beans, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, zucchini, and eggplant, waiting to sell their goods for good prices. They shoo away the hundreds of fifthly cats who roam the streets and garbage looking for leftovers from the night before.

As I near the Nile I get a great sniff of bread and croissants being baked at a local bakery, and I debate whether or not to take a big whiff, even if it means black boogers later. I don’t have to think for long, because the sweet smell suddenly turns into the stench of urine. Ooo…someone just went there, and he is certainly dehydrated!

I approach the Nile and walk up the ramp to cross over the bridge. In the evening you’ll find many young kids spending every night on this bridge, trying to sell a flower or two to the lovebirds who spend time gazing in each other’s eyes as they stand over the romantic Nile. I look out over the river and see that indeed it’s a bad ‘weather’ day in Cairo—everything is a big haze—guess I need to cover my nose and mouth better so I don’t get a headache or feel sick later! Below I see small fishing boats, each with three men. Two men hold the net while the other guides the boat with his long oar. They mostly keep to the river’s edge, and I pray they stay away the stacks of trash piled up. (Well, I guess it doesn’t matter where in the Nile fish come from, I wouldn’t want to eat it!).

On my return from the Island I find the sidewalk much more crowded than before, and the streets are full of buses, cars, and taxis swerving left and right to avoid another vehicle or person. I wonder again how those men can dare bike in those roads with one hand balancing stacks of bread above their heads. How do you ever learn how to do that—in the middle of the night on some back-road alleyway? (Since that’s about the only time you won’t find the street full of people and cars.) Hmm…

I dodge a few women carrying heavy bags of food on their heads and try to avoid unwanted stares or comments from the men who now have their stores open for business. I try to find a walking pace that is fast enough for me to avoid too many distracting comments but slow enough that it doesn’t look like I’m in a rush. Egyptians DO NOT rush. Rushing is another sure-fire way to know spot a foreigner.

During prayer time most store owners pull out large green mats and place them in front of their stores on the sidewalk. Often there is a smaller mat for shoes. Any Muslim man is allowed to take off his shoes, wipe off the dirt from his hands, feet, and face, and pray towards Mecca on these mats. In some areas you’ll find row after row of men kneeling, postulating, standing…kneeling, postulating, standing. It’s quite a sight.

I make it back to St. Andrew’s and walk into the complex. Suddenly I’m not surrounded by the dark skin, dark haired Arab men and woman, but surrounded by the dark skin, dark haired and TALL African men and women. As much as St. Andrews is a haven for them it’s also a welcome haven for me, and I finally relax enough to smile at a few of the student’s mothers as I make may way to assembly that morning…

2 Comments:

  • At 1/14/2006, Blogger balila said…

    wow, i never thought of cairo like this, i mean from a standpoint of a foregner who actually lives here, nice post.. may god help you living in our dear beloved cairo :)

     
  • At 10/09/2007, Anonymous chocalicious said…

    Hi,

    I am so happy you're helping the Africans in Egypt. Could you pls email me and let me know if there is any way I can help?
    ashjoe@verizon.net

     

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