Saturday, January 15, 2011

A day of non-tourism in Cairo

Two days ago I had a thought while walking around Cairo: This whole city could use a good power-washing! And it could - Dust and dirt clings to everything dingy-ing up every surface. The closer a surface is to the ground, the darker the dingy-ness gets - like everything is painted with a gradation to mud-brown. Well, today the city got the closest it will get to power-washing -- it rained! 

The rain had a couple of effects that were immediately apparent. First of all, everything moved off the street to the indoors. Normally the sidewalks are littered with small stands or blankets spread on the ground covered with whatever wares the sellers have that day. But as soon as the first few drops started, everyone packed up and moved....someplace that wasn't the sidewalk. When the drizzle began, Katherine, James, and I were at the main train station finally procuring overnight train tickets to Luxor which we had attempted to get yesterday, but couldn't, because we couldn't find the right ticket window amid the unbelievable construction happening in and around the station and the complete lack of English signage. Once we had our tickets, we dodged the raindrops to a bakery for some chocolate croissants and a fig-filled pastry and dropped down into the subway system. We only went a couple of stops up, but it must have poured while we were underground. The streets and sidewalks were drenched and there was standing water everywhere. Where the sidewalk merchants had gone was anyone's guess, but they weren't around. Everyone was in the business of cleaning up after the rain. Shopkeepers had out long-handled squeegees vigorously sweeping the muddy water away from their shop doors. That's the other thing that changed about the city post-rain: mud. 

When the city was dry, the dust was bad enough - once it rained, oh my -- all that dust turned into a slimy sludge caking everything on the ground. And I think the dust that had been clinging to all the vertical suffices washed down to the road (natural power-wash). We made our way out to the bazaar section of Cairo - the non-touristy bazaar that has been in existence forever where people who live in Cairo shop. Most of the roads were not paved, so the way was nothing but mud. We picked our way along through the stalls and stands and shops dodging scooters, motorbikes, and people carrying packages of all shapes and sizes. We attracted a lot of attention - I don't think too many Westerners frequent that market area. It was difficult to look at everything there since we had to pay such close attention to where we stepped. I stepped as deliberately as possible avoiding any large globs that could squish up my boots and pant legs. It was tricky going!

The bazaar area was entertaining and visually stimulating. I loved the colors and textures - pyramids of ripe oranges with some leaves still attached, stacks of stick-crates full of leafy heads of lettuce, more stacks of crates full of live chickens or rabbits, rows upon rows of fine-thread scarves in every pattern and color (my weakness), shiny leather hassocks stacked up in descending order, buckets of fresh, shiny eels in front of trays of fresh, shiny fish, burlap bags bull of powdery spices glowing in reds, oranges, and golds, piles and piles of fresh pita bread waiting to be filled with baba ghannouj or falafel (another weakness), and everywhere, people, people, and more people.

I had the opportunity to spend about an hour watching people today. After we had meandered through the bazaar, we passed a barber shop, and James decided it was time for a haircut. So Katherine and I sat in a couple of chairs beside the road to watch Cairo go by while we waited. We saw some crazy things pass by. Aside from the myriad cars, trucks, minibuses, buses, scooters, motorbikes, taxis (white - metered, black - unmetered, so you have to bargain for the fare), cats, merchants with goods for sale, shoppers, men out for a stroll, and mothers with children in tow, I made a list of the things that I found unique or interesting:
 - a car with a large, rolled-up carpet sticking out of the sunroof
 - a man walking along the road carrying a twenty-foot long ladder 
 - a man pushing a massive cart piled high with whole loofahs
 - a turbaned man walking along texting
 - a woman with a bag balanced on her head running to catch a bus
 - a man riding a bike while carrying a large (at least 6' by 4') tray piled with a mountain of pita loaves, smoking a cigarette (now that's talent!)
 - two guys on a motorbike: one driving, the other holding a rocking horse up on his shoulders so that the horse stood over his head 
 - KFC delivery motorbike
 - Pizza Hut delivery motorbike
 - mini flat-bed delivery trucks carrying various things: mountains of empty stick-crates from the bazaar, bananas, furniture (four layers high), garbage, boxes, crates of oranges, crates of rabbits, sheets of foam-rubber, and rolls of carpets with a few people on top. Each load was ratcheted-down as tightly as the ropes would go so that (hopefully) nothing would fall off the tower of goods.

The rain certainly changed the look and feel of the city today, and it was nice to be in the middle of it all, seeing how those who live here deal with it. I liked being in Cairo-proper, not touristy-Cairo -- seeing where and how everyone lives on a daily basis and goes about business. We were more of a spectacle for them today than they were for us!

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