Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Taking Taxis

Our plan was to catch a bus at a nearby midan (or plein, as Sam explained to Lucy who was having a hard time understanding our plans), but when we got there, we couldn’t figure out where to catch a bus. So we stopped a taxi and he said he’d take us for 10 pounds, which we figured would be about the same as the bus.

The taxi drove an amazing route, through little tiny, twisty streets. It looked nothing like the Cairo we are staying in. There were even stores with live chickens (and later in the day Ruth noticed another butcher shop selling cute little furry rabbits)! After a while, the taxi driver started leaning out of his window and asking people the way. “Why doesn’t he know the way?” Isaac asked. We weren’t sure. We drove around, pretty obviously lost for a while, but at last we ended up where we wanted to be. I paid him and he said I should pay him five more pounds! I gave him a couple more, but in retrospect, we should have just gotten out of the car and left.

We were at the Citadel, a fourteenth century castle fortress built by Saladin, the great warrior who drove the Crusaders out of Egypt. It’s up on a bluff overlooking the city, a great defensive position. Saladin modelled it after the Crusaders’ castle fortresses—crenellated walls and all, but inside there are big beautiful mosques. We visited a couple of them, one very old with most of the interior decorations worn off, but the second one was built in the nineteenth century and is still very much in use. Its huge interior floor, in fact, is covered with carpets. In both of them, we took off our shoes. Ruth and Lucy and I were happy to see that, while many Western women were given big green capes to put on over their immodest clothing (sleeveless shirts, shorts), everybody was fine with what we were wearing.

The mosque was really beautiful—stained glass windows with vivid colors, beautiful woodwork, and lovely inlaid mosaics. The courtyard, where you wash before you pray, was also beautiful, with lovely arched walkways. The fountain in it reminded us a lot of Bosnian mosques. There were a few people inside praying, especially close to the Eastern Mecca-wards wall, but mostly it was tourists, about half Western and half Egyptian, sitting quietly on the carpets looking around. Three women, two of them wearing veils and none of them speaking any English, came and sat near us with a very small baby girl, maybe two or three months old, and her sister, probably four or five years old (whom Ruth noticed was wearing make-up—eye shadow and everything!). They were enchanted by Eleanor and took lots of pictures of her and their baby as well as a very sweet one with Isaac and Eleanor together holding their baby. We took one of those pictures too. We couldn’t say anything to each other—well, they spoke to us in Arabic and we spoke to them in English--but it was a very sweet encounter.

We were all very glad we got to go into the mosque. It seemed to encapsulate so much of what is central to this culture, just as visiting cathedrals in Europe seemed to capture something about those cultures.

From one of the terraces inside the castle, there were sweeping views of Cairo. We could even make out, through the haze of air pollution, the three pyramids on the horizon. Ed pointed out that, while the people in the mosque were praying towards the East, all of the many, many satellite dishes we saw on the rooftops of Cairo were pointing to the West. In more ways than one. They were so consistently turned in the same direction that they looked like a field of huge, metallic sunflowers.

The real adventure of the day turned out to be getting back home. We didn’t know where to catch a bus back, so we decided to take a taxi, but the first two taxi drivers (who were at the tourist taxi stand) suggested what to us sounded like exorbitant prices, and they were unwilling to bargain. So we decided we’d take a bus, but as we walked down the hill, another taxi driver agreed to ten pounds, so we got in. We’d gone only a few meters, though, when he started asking drivers around him (while they drove!) the way! “Why doesn’t he know where to go?” Isaac asked. He stopped and looked at our map and seemed befuddled by it, and I decided I wasn’t up for that much of an adventure. So I gave him a token amount of money (he’d at least driven us down to the bottom of the bluff), and we got out.

We were right by what looked like a bus station without the building—minibuses (Volkswagen and Toyota Hiace vans) and big buses were zipping by. There were some produce stands nearby, so we went and bought bananas and oranges and mangos from a lady missing her front tooth. A tourist police officer told us the number of the bus we wanted. Several people tried to engage us in conversation (or sell us something?) but we couldn’t make out what they were saying and they couldn’t understand us, so we just sat down on the edge of a wall under a tree and ate some bananas while we watched for our bus number. It was great practice in reading Arabic numbers. The kids are much better at it than I am. We never did find it, so we finally decided to try a taxi again. This time a black Skoda with a Slavic language taxi meter stopped for us! The driver seemed unflapped when we told him where we wanted to go and offered to take us for fifteen pounds. We’d been hoping for ten, but at that point I wasn’t willing to argue and lose our ride, so we piled in.

“Does he know where he’s going?” was Isaac’s first question. And it appeared he did. We zoomed away on major city streets and pretty soon all of us recognized where we were from some of our previous jaunts around the city. When he got close to the end, he asked one taxi driver the way, but by then we could have even gotten out and walked. And he didn’t ask for extra money when we paid him at the end of the ride!

As he was driving us through downtown, we heard a siren. Six big huge blue vans with little tiny ventilation windows—paddy wagons—came barrelling through the traffic. We could see people’s faces pressed against the bars of the windows but, most remarkably, we could hear the people, prisoners?, inside chanting slogans. Everyone on the sidewalks stopped to stare. The six vans were followed by an open truck filled with army men with their guns at the ready. We felt very bad that we couldn’t speak enough Arabic to figure out what was going on. It was exciting.

We had the taxi driver drop us at a new midan because we wanted to try a new restaurant. Our hotel is in a good location for being a tourist, but I have often thought that if I were to live in Cairo, I would never ever want to live here in this neighbourhood. We were only about four long blocks from our hotel, but the feeling of this neighbourhood was completely different. There was a road blocked off to be a pedestrian walkway, so it was a little bit quieter, there were people eating and chatting at sidewalk tables, and there were produce and bread stands all around. It felt like a place people lived instead of a place people shopped. It was nice.

We found the restaurant recommended by our guidebook. It had a menu only in Arabic and none of the staff spoke any more English than we spoke Arabic, so we just told the waiter we wanted what the guidebook had recommended. He suggested some other things, we had no idea what, so I just agreed to them. We were a little worried because it was the same thing we had had for breakfast—fuul and ta’amiyah, but we discovered that the restaurant’s was much tastier than our hotel’s! And he brought a lot of wonderful accompaniments to go with it—cooked potatoes marinated in vinegar, and a potato/carrot/pea salad, and a baba ganoush that Sam and I absolutely adored. Ruth announced that she thinks ta’amiyah would be a good replacement for hamburgers, a similar food but a lot tastier. There were also French fries, almost all of which Isaac consumed by himself. They had brought us forks because we’re not Egyptians (the people at other tables just used their bread to pick things up), so Eleanor stood on a chair by herself (she does like being grown-up) and stuck the fork in the fuul and ate that. She also charmed both the waiter and the cook. At one point the waiter whisked her away to the hatchway between the dining room and the kitchen so they could take a picture of her (and he had won her over enough that she didn’t even cry!). He showed me the picture of her. It was very cute. Because we couldn’t understand the menu, we didn’t know how much it was going to cost. We were happily surprised that the entire charge was 33 pounds, or about 5 dollars.

After lunch, we went to the produce stand and bought some more bananas since we’d eaten most of them and Isaac and Ed had accidentally sat on the rest in the taxi. The apricots looked so luscious. We think maybe tomorrow we will buy some and try peeling them—laborious but maybe worth it. On the way home we passed a second branch of the wonderful bakery near our hotel, and Isaac suggested ice cream. Ed and I had mango and honeydew melon, Sam had vanilla and chocolate, Lucy had strawberry and chocolate, Ruth had mango, and Isaac had mango and chocolate. We got a spoon and gave Ellie tastes all around. We were surprised, when we walked home, how close this other neighbourhood is to our hotel. The kids are starting to worry that we have too many food places to take David in the one day that he will be here with us.

Isaac looks like a war refugee. He has several mosquito bites, and he is having a hard time avoiding scratching them, so I have put band-aids over the ones that he can get to most easily—the ones on his face. Then, this evening he and Ellie were playing and he slipped and fell and cut his head. We couldn’t figure out how to put a band-aid on the back of his head, so we tied a bandana around his head. Poor little guy.

We had a quiet late afternoon/evening here. We washed out some clothes in the bathroom sink, read, did Arabic studying, and played Sims (oh my; I think I will always associate Cairo with the Sims). For supper we ate oranges and bananas and mangos and leftover bread and almonds and raisins and ta’amiyah. Ruth and Ed and Lucy ventured out to the bakery and bought us more luscious chocolate cake for dessert. We managed to get Isaac and Nora in bed and asleep by 8:30 (of course, neither of them had napped). A good day.

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