Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cairo Birthday

I had a nice birthday. The kids made a fuss over me and worried about me. They’re sweethearts.

We took a taxi to Zamelek, a leafy island in the center of the Nile. Our taxi driver was completely taken by Eleanor. I was actually worried about how little he was watching the road, he was so busy leaning over to her and cooing at her. At one point he even used his horn as an instrument to honk out the rhythm of a little song he was singing her.

Even so, we made it safely to the Aquarium, a place a couple of our guidebooks had recommended for children. On the banks of the Nile, in a garden (a true rarity in Cairo, I am coming to appreciate), they have created caves and grottoes out of concrete and put fish tanks inside them. After we paid, a man started leading us around. I thought at first he was an official of the Aquarium but after a while, I realized that none of the Egyptian couples there (as Ruth pointed out, it appeared to be a date place; we saw only one other family with children) had guides. He was a little annoying, insisting we go certain places and not explore other places, tapping all the tanks to try to get the animals to move, and posing us for photos. When we finally managed to lose him, he wanted us to give him a tip of 50 pounds—significantly more than the cost of the entrance. I did give him 20 pounds, and Sam was great, expressing his indignation to the guy and reassuring me that I could just walk away.

It was a funny place. The tanks were very humble. There were maybe ten of them—they had mostly Nile fish like catfish and tilapia. We really liked the turtles, and they had some piranhas too. They also had a tank of goldfish and a tank of guppies. There were some tanks with dusty (!) models of fish and several tanks with formaldehyde-filled tubes storing dead fish—fin to head. The manmade caves and grottoes were fun, cool and mysterious. Isaac liked playing hide and seek in them. And the biggest cave had a colony of bats living in it—very cool to see. In the park area, there was a lovely lily-filled pond and benches under trees.

The aquarium didn’t take as long as we had thought it would, so we walked to the Museum of Modern Art at the end of the island. We should have taken a taxi, but I didn’t have small enough change, and it would have required a walk the other direction to break large bills (taxi drivers do not give change here). It was a little bit too far and by the time we got there, Ed’s nose had started to bleed. Anytime he is in he heat for too long, this seems to happen. I had similar problems at his age and his Bay cousins his age have the same problem, so I think it’s genetic. The guards at the museum were very solicitous of him. The first guard to help us seemed to consider himself Ed’s special protector and kept careful watch over him as he lay stretched out on one of the padded benches in the museum. The other guards would periodically come by and ask Ed’s guard how he was doing.

Ruth loved the museum. I found it vaguely disquieting. I didn’t find the art displayed offensive (though some of it was a bit strange) but I finally realized that the exhibits seemed to me to have nothing to do with the Cairo we have been exploring for the past 2 ½ weeks. I realized that I had seen no art depicting women wearing the hijab, for example. I mentioned this to Sam and after exploring more of the museum, he told me that he disagreed with me, that he thought it did offer interesting perspectives on the Cairo we had seen. I had been chasing babies and not seen all of the museum, so I went and looked at some of the pieces he suggested, and they did seem somehow more true to the Egypt we’ve seen, but I left wondering how the museum really fits into Egyptian culture and society.

By the time we’d gotten Ed better and seen the museum, we were ravenous. We took the train downtown and hunted out a Swiss restaurant we had found in our guidebook. I had just about given up, but the boys tried out their Arabic and got someone to give us directions. We had a wonderful time there. Two o’clock was a good time of day to go—we were about the only customers there, so our whiny and wild babies didn’t disturb anyone else. Because it was my birthday, we splurged and got both fancy fruit drinks and also chocolate fondue for dessert. Our meals were very good, and they came with steamed vegetables which tasted incredibly wonderful. We have been trying to be careful not to eat unpeeled and uncooked vegetables, with the outcome that we were all very hungry for them.

Isaac and Nora collapsed into naps late in the day, and the four big kids went to McDonald’s to watch the World Cup and surf the web (they have free wireless connections here), so I had a quiet evening with sleeping babies and a book. When they came home, the big guys bought me an ice cream cake. Very sweet of them.

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