Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In the thick of it

Every time I go downtown, I realize what a crazy place this is.

Yesterday I had a lunch downtown at Taboula (deeelicious lebanese food. My fave is their luscious kibbeh nayar) in Garden City. By the time lunch wrapped up, it was about 3.00 (what can I say, I seem to lunch the same way no matter where I live..."rush? who's in a rush, lets have a coffee and stay a while") and the start of afternoon traffic hell. I walked to Tahrir Square and considered getting into a yellow cab. Black cabs are open, smell of gas -- both human and petrol related - and you can chew the air from the open windows as you sail along while your driver chain smokes. Yellow cabs are hermetically sealed and have lovely, non-smoking, air conditioning -- unless you get the driver we had the other day: "It is winter now. No air conditioning". They are also hard to get, notoriously unreliable and cost more. But malesh, at least you can breathe.

But then I got distracted by the ever looming Mogamma. There is always something going on in front of that huge wall of a building.

Here's a little sample of what was happening yesterday: amid the usual smattering of lovers sitting closely together on benches, tea sellers minding their bubbling pots and little boys playing football or jumping on the hoses left out to water the lawns, a blond woman, handcuffed to a really young Egyptian man was unceremoniously escorted by two Policemen across the square to a shady tree just under the Mogamma.

Had I been in Canada or Europe, I would have thought: "Don't stare, it's rude." But this is Egypt where staring is considered a fundamental human right.

I unabashedly stood and watched the scene. Lots of smoking, fist waving (the handcuffed detainees) and calm down gestures (the policemen). I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on but the blond woman looked like she'd been drinking and the Egyptian kid looked like he wanted his Mom. I tried to get closer but the policemen gave me a look that told me it would be better if I just walked away. So I did. I'm Canadian, after all. It doesn't take much to get me to mind my own business.

Directly in front of the main entrance to the Mogamma, an informal market had sprouted on the cool marble promenade. So I went and checked it out. Sunglasses 7.50 LE, watches 10 LE, an entire table with everything for 2.5 LE. Scarves, tops, cellphones, kitchen utensils -- you name it, they had it and it was all under 10 LE (about $2.00) And before you ask: OF COURSE I bought something. It would have been fairly retarded not to.

After I had my fill of the market and emptied my pockets of all remaining small bills, I looked at the gridlock, thought better of getting a taxi and made my way to the Metro.

I love the Metro. Riding it makes me feel part of the city. It allows me to observe life and the people with whom I share the city. And it's probably the most efficient, reliable, enviro-friendly (if that matters to you) way to get around Cairo.

This time, I was asked directions and - eureka - was able to give them. In Arabic, thank you very much. (God only knows what train the poor woman is on now...but I meant well.) The machine ate my ticket. Immediately, a uniformed Metro guy appeared and opened the machine to give me a look at the inner workings of the turnstiles before returning my ticket and shooing me into the stream of commuters heading to the platform. I pushed my way on to the women's car (much less crowded and infinitely better smelling) where little boys and women sporting new born babies hawked everything from safety pins to dress socks to dates stuffed with almonds. After about 20 hot but breezy minutes, I was back in Maadi. No chain smoking, no lead inhalation, no traffic-related near death experiences.

Of course, I must admit there's a charm in that type of journey as well. But I'll leave that for another post.

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