Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Day 2 Of 7 - Adventure In The Two Cairos

The next morning started early. Like five AM early. Remember that mosque right outside the flat? Well, mosques do this thing called 'call to prayer,' and it's basically either a live guy or a recording of a live guy telling Muslims that it's time to pray. Roughly translated and in musical half-steps, it goes like this:

"Iiiiiiit's time to pray to GOOOOOOOooooOOOooOOOOOOOOD! Yeah, right now's the TIIIIiiiIIIIME to pray to GOOooooOOOOOOoooooOOOOOD! GOOOoooOOOOD PRAAAaaaaaying time like right nooooOOOOOOOOOW!"

Lebowski tells me that some of the bigger mosques have famous Muslim-world singers do their calls to prayer. In perspective, that's a little like Celine Dion howling at you five times a day from Our Lady Of Perpetual Mercy down the street. But the important part here is that this particular mosque is the smallest mosque in Cairo, and as such, it seemed to have mosque envy, meaning its call to prayer was the loudest of any mosque in Egypt. Waking me up. At five AM.
We'll go on. Just before we headed out for breakfast, the garbage guy showed up. I call him the garbage guy because he had an actual name, but I forgot it. There is no organized system of garbage collection in the part of town Lebowski lives in (don't know if that's Cairo-wide), so people looking for work just pick a building and collect trash in it for money. Like independent contracting at the lowest level. Again, my American self spent a few minutes trying to figure out a better way to do things until my new and emerging world self realized that that's just how they do here.
On the way to breakfast, we saw this guy bringing pita bread to the restaurant he where he works.

Yes, that's a damn door on his head. Yes, that's one million pita breads on the door. And yes he's on a bike. I followed this guy for six blocks just staring. Egypt seems to be all about doing what you can with what you have hanging around. And there were a lot of these guys doing things like this. In Egypt, a talent like this gets you gofer work. Anywhere else, it gets you into Cirque du Soleil.
Lebowski's favorite breakfast spot is a koshary restaurant. They make one thing, and that's koshary. It's either a small bowl or a big bowl of spicy macaroni with various Arabic objects mixed into it. Seeds, nuts, flowers, things like that. Really good stuff. Had more Bebsi with it. Lebowski tells me a story about a place he saw in Luxor, a pub they did up to look Irish. They still use Ps in English signs even though they don't have P in Arabic, I suppose because it makes the sign look authentic. But they're not quite sure how to use them, and sometimes they use B interchangeably, and so the sign out front of this place read 'IRISH BUP.' I could have published a book on just the funny signs I saw in Cairo. One I wish I'd gotten a picture of was a hubcap place that had a sign out front that read FAG. I hope it was an acronym.
And while we're obliquely alluding to homosexuality, let's clear this up. A lot of people here have heard that folk in Arab countries walk hand in hand down the street, male/male and female/female. It's true. But it's not what it looks like. There was a subtle difference between the male couples I'd seen in N.O. walking hand in hand and these Egyptian guys trucking along arm in arm. After much thought, I think I've figured it out, and I'm gonna try to articulate it without offending anyone here. Egyptian culture seems to be a very young culture... not in age but in attitude. Here in the states we've all grown up, and are mostly cynical about everything. It's hard to just walk up and talk to someone in a bar because what if they're too grown up to talk to me? Our thirst to get out of our teens so fast has aged us into isolation. But over there, the cultural rules seem to have kept everyone young. Covered women means more schoolboy mystery for longer. Less money means less look-what-I-got-and-you-don't. The whole place seems to have a fifth-grade playground ethic, and in a good way. So when I saw guys trying hard to dress like George Michael strolling around linked at the elbows, it was simply the male version of a couple of Ya Ya sisters giggling at life.
And hey, if you are gay, it's the perfect cover, so everybody wins. There, I think I did that right. Anyone offended?
After breakfast, we just hoofed it around for a while at street level. Not arm in arm or anything. Just couldn't do it. But I did see the Nile for the first time. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it looked like a river, a lot like any other. Little wider than the Mississippi. But it was knowing what that river had been there for that made it amazing. Same river that pharoahs had dipped into, you know? I didn't touch it. It had amoebas in it. But I looked at it pretty hard.
Also learned to cross the street. The drivers aren't any less supersonic in the city, and there are no crosswalks. You absolutely cannot cross the whole street at one time, because there are so many drivers. So there's a technique to it. Lebowski learned to cross using the human shield trick, wherein you just latch onto an Egyptian who's already crossing the way you wanna go, and stay behind them so that if anyone gets hit, it's them and not you. The way you do it alone is you wait till one lane is clear, and then dash to the first broken line, and stay there, cars whizzing past you on either side, until the next lane is clear. Frogger players from the 80s will have a clear advantage here. And so it goes until you're across, or flat. Actually, the drivers can spot you if you're not Egyptian, and so they'll flash you and slow down if it looks like you don't know what you're doing. Still a hair-raising experience though. I ate crow on that one because I had previously bragged to Lebowski that since I could cross the street in New Orleans, I could cross one anywhere.
Found a bank in which to change my American dollars to Egyptian pounds, or livre Ć©gyptienne, abbreviated everywhere as L.E. The French name is a throwback to the French colony days; a bartender later explained to us that the Egyptian people are subtly burned that their forerunners practically invented civilization, and then lost control of it to almost every other culture that walked by. There are (currently) five pounds to one dollar, and that's the only reason I could afford a trip like this on flight attendant pay, ha ha.
You might have caught the word Coptic in the previous entry, and I didn't know what it meant either. Means Christian, and though it is illegal in Egypt to promote Christianity, it is perfectly permissible to build churches and worship. There is a section of town called Coptic Cairo (or Old Cairo), and that's where we took a train to next.

This is the women's traincar. You can ride on whichever train you want if you're a woman, but you're likely to get harassed if you do, and so only women can ride the women's train. That's the downside of that young culture I was talking about... you know how boys who don't know how to talk to a girl they dig will pound on them on the playground because it's the only way they know to relate? Well, it can be like that when a girl walks down the street here. The men make this noise that I can only describe as 'hey baby' as spoken by a cobra... it's a stuttering hiss that probably hasn't ever impressed a woman ever. I wouldn't say it's a juvenile approach. Unsophisticated, simple, direct... those are things I'd say.
Coptic Cairo is laden with very old Christian churches, as you might imagine. The one we stopped into was St. Virgin Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, because it's balanced on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman fortress. The church itself is pretty old, going back to the fourth century.

Pretty amazing place. Again, it's not what the place is, but rather how long it's been there and what's happened in and around it.

They also seem to have a real thing for St. George in this church, one of the only saints I could pick out of a lineup. Here, St. George feeds a stick to a lizard.

Outside of the church is, surprise, a cemetery. Another thing that seems to be the same in other countries is people's need to build places to go to when they wish people weren't dead.

Stopped off for coffee right outside the church. They call a coffeeshop a kahua in Modern Standard Arabic (from the word for coffee), but an ahua in Egyptian dialect. So not only do you have to learn Arabic, you have to learn Egyptian Arabic. Which is scary only until you realize that someone from the Midwest would be confounded if a Southerner asked them to put awl in their car.

We were not the first to our table.

After that, we hit the local market. More shishas, more carvings. Found this mosque. Note the somewhat anachronistic neon sign and loudspeakers.

Also met this goat.

In one of the shops, we met Tariq, who asked us to call him Ta Ta, which neither of us could bring ourselves to do. He mentioned that he was closing early today because his first daughter had been born last night. Congratulations, we said. In his happiness, he had lowered prices... would we like to buy something? Lebowski bought a shisha (which, by the way, is a hookah [or water pipe], if I hadn't mentioned that yet), and I bought a carving of the god Seth, because he's the bad guy. And for the record, I'm not going to say that Ta Ta smoked Lebowski up right there in the damn shop, but I'm certainly not going to not say that.
We got roped into a perfume tent a few meters down the street. Got some Arabic lessons from the shopkeeper, and some culture. "We all like... like five fingers," he said, holding up a fat hand. "We all different, but we all the same." We mentioned that we had met Tariq.
"Tariq, he tell you he have daughter?" he says.
"Yes," we say.
"Tariq, he not even married," he laughs. Welcome to Egypt. Later we stopped by Tariq's place to pick up the stuff we'd left there, and Lebowski couldn't help relating the 'five fingers' anecdote, much to Tariq's face-falling.
You know how, in horror movies, you get into the bad situation you're in by having said previously, "Oh, let's just keep going. It's just a few more blocks." Well, that's how we got from the market to the hood. We just kept exploring until we realized we were completely lost and surounded by locals. Right as our sense of adventure congealed into absolute terror, a group of old and grizzled Egyptians beckoned us over to their ramshackle coffee table. Coffee appeared, and shisha, and the game was on. Somehow we got through an hour of conversation with a few older gentlemen with a full set of teeth between them, a few younger guys who assured us they were not Ali Baba, and several flocks of young kids in soccer jerseys who wanted nothing more to bop us lightly on the head and say, "You Amriki, ha!" One man kept pointing to me, making the international nose itching sign for cocaine, and saying, "You California, ha!" If you'd asked me what surreal meant one week before then, I would have provided the wrong answer.
At one point, one of the men quietly asked Lebowski if he wanted to buy a certain commodity. Lebowski did, and so he went away with him for the longest twenty minutes of my life. My Arabic was put to the test. But I survived, and so did he, and we left our new friends with thanks and well wishing and a small amount of certain commodity.
On the way back to civilization, we saw this:

Yes, that reads Subrman. Also, one of the tourist police, seeing that we were coming from a shady part of town, came to ask us if we were all right. Egypt has police, who wear black, and then a separate faction of police called tourist police, who wear white, and whose sole function is to protect feeble-minded tourists from getting welcomed to Egypt. We'll talk more about them later. We struck up the obligatory "You Amriki?" conversation, and talked for a few minutes. And when we left, he gave me the double face kiss. You know what that is... the European kiss on both cheeks thing. I definitely feel fortunate that I already knew what that was, because I'm not sure what would have happened had I freaked out while a rifle-carrying guy was trying to kiss me. But I threw him a quick double-peck back, and now all I have to do now is look at myself in the mirror every day for the rest of my life.
We headed back home, and the sun went down. Lebowski knew a girl who knew this other girl, and one or the other one of them was having a party that night in downtown Cairo. After an hour of trying to find out whether she had said 13 or 30 on the phone, we found the place, a swanky tenth-floor apartment. All nationalities were represented. Dutch guys, Swedish girls, Egyptians, an Alabaman, and various others; I personally struck up a conversation with an Irish Australian girl who spoke flawless Arabic. If you'd asked me what surreal meant three hours before then, I would have provided the wrong answer. I spent a while drinking a Stella (not Artois, just Stella... it's Arabic for 'crappy but local') and staring off the balcony into Cairo. Boats flashed neon from the Nile, horns honked from below, and signs I could not read offered me products I did not know. I was finally Elsewhere.
During a lull in the party, Kareem, one of Lebowski's Egyptian pals, grabbed us and led us to a rooftop bar where, over the late 90s strains of Backstreet Boys and Tracy Chapman, more shisha commenced. It's a thing you can get at any table at any restaurant in Cairo, from five star to wicker chairs. You just order it like a drink, the shisha, and what particular flavor tobacco you want. There's regular, apple, mango, and a few others. The popular one is apple, or tufah as they say. What you have to know about me is that I'm not a smoker. Never have been. I just prefer air is all, and with the high-speed acrobatics I sometimes perform, I usually need more of it than most humans. I have never smoked a cigarrette. Nary a breath of smoke has greeted these lungs. But there, on a rooftop bar in Cairo, I couldn't not try it. So I did. It was a little like a flaming shot of apple-flavored NyQuil. My esophagus buzzed for about two hours after. I don't think I'd ever do it again, but it wasn't all that bad. I much preferred making the aquaintance of Sakara, which is the other and more better local beer, named for one of the pyramid sites. It was during all this that Kareem let us in on the Egyptian secret of architecture. Most of the buildings you see downtown are in a state of low upkeep...

... and the reason for this, Kareem explained, is that there's a tax on buildings that are completed. So, they just construct a building about 80% or so, and then leave it. It does makes sense, but it's Egyptian sense.
When I left the bar, I was a little smarter, a little dumber, and very amused.
Finally it was time for bed. Or... couch. But first, I had to get through the shower ritual.

Cairo is not any hotter than Arizona, nor any more humid than Baton Rouge. It's just that you can take a shower pretty much anytime you want in the aforementioned places. If you're a foreigner in Egypt, taking a shower is pretty much a decontamination procedure in a hostile environment; the water has bad amoebas, and they will give you that thing you get when you go to other countries if you eat them. So you have to make damn sure your mouth is closed in the shower. Try remembering to do that next time you take a shower.
Luckily for me, Lebowski's bathroom was afflicted with what I termed 'nights and weekends water.' The showerhead provided a very unenthusiastic dribble of amoeba-laden water that became only slightly more enthusiastic around seven at night. That means that since very little water was coming out of the showerhead, very little water was going into that mouth of mine that was supposed to be closed. It was cold water, sure, but after a day in Africa, you kind of want that.
Drifted off that night to the sounds of Cairo again, slightly more at home than I was the night before.

15 Comments:

Anonymous sandtalker said...

I think you nailed it, you managed to make someone WANT to be offended, but did not give a reason for it. Do they use a paint tray out there for a W/C like in the Mid-East?

6:51 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I know a Bup, but he's not Irish!

10:53 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

Great post. I enjoy reading about a place I've visited and seeing it again through someone else's eyes. I also appreciate that you are scrupulous about keeping an open mind and sensitive to cultural differences. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures. Thank you.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Clarence Wethern said...

Irish Bup!

I'm jealous of your travels. You're an adventurer!

12:06 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Sand: Nope, toilets. But you put the toilet paper in the trash can and not in the toilet. Bizarre.
Sue: Well, sometimes it's just too much fun to realize what a close-minded neophyte I've been.
Nick: I know that Bup too. Ask him if he has any Irish in him. He loves that joke. He's never heard it before.
Clarence: I looked for Sallah. All I saw was a poisoned monkey in a vest on top of a wicker basket.

5:26 PM  
Blogger AkuTyger said...

Amoebas are everywhere. Cairo is starting to sound more and more like Brasil.

9:06 PM  
Blogger catc said...

you're in the wrong line of work, my friend. you should be writing travel books that read JUST LIKE THIS! you'd be rich and too good to write travel books just like this.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous zb said...

Thanks for the fun read. I just had guests from the US last weekend and while walking through the streets, they saw an Italian bike of the FAGGIN brand. It got somewhat funny when we thought about how some Hummer driving dudes might consider non-motorized vehicles to be an insult to their manly brains and say something like "Quit faggin' around in my street so slowly, dude."

1:13 PM  
Blogger Aviatrix said...

This is fabulous. Do they have ducks there, too?

1:20 PM  
Blogger Head in the Clouds said...

I'm waiting with baited breath for the next installment! Forget writing travel books... there are probably some rich people who would pay you to come along on their trips and write a commentary!

2:03 PM  
Blogger j-ster said...

Man, you should so totally be writing a book...

7:19 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Nice to hear so many positive comments, guys! Usually people just throw trash at me. Just so you all know, I'm planning a trip to Australia in October, and I'm already looking forward to how to phrase things. Expect more goofball. You heard it here first.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous sandtalker said...

Are you flicking the bird at us in front of St George????

8:27 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Sand: Yes I am, because I am under the protection of a saint who kills dragons. Actually, it's my pointing finger. I just need to start rotating my hand when I point from now on, so it looks like it's my actual first finger doing the pointing.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He doesn't know how to point with just one finger anymore. All that FA training... L.M.

7:42 AM  

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