Losing It

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Monday, April 4, 2005

I wanted to get lost. I wanted to lose myself amidst chaos and see the real Cairo; real neighborhoods with butcher shops and schools and markets without Nefertiti tee-shirts and Tutankhamen caftans billowing from broom handles. I wanted away from the touts and the scam artists and the leeches. I wanted away from the tour buses and menus written in English. I wanted to lose the bitterness and the scowl.

I hailed a taxi on Talat Haarb and told the driver to take me to the tent makers' bazaar in Islamic Cairo. I named my price and reached for the handle but before I opened the door I asked him "How much?" He repeated back what I'd said, "Five". I grew apprehensive when he turned on the meter and asked him why he'd done that as we'd already settled on a price. "It is the law, madame" he told me. I shook my head in bewilderment my elbow on the open window: a Cairene who heeds the law. How do these guys come up with this crap? It's the law. Indeed. This guy's got to think I am a complete moron. "We can drive all over Cairo all day. Hell, you can drive my ass to Suez and back but I'm still not going to give you one piestra more than five pounds Egyptian. I'm just letting you know," I warned. He was smiling broadly "Don't worry, lady -- I'm honest man --I don't trick you --just relax". I rolled my eyes and exhaled as we whizzed through traffic and thought, Hmph! Honest, my Aunt Fanny! I'll be the judge of that, Mister!"

I daydreamed revenge scenarios. I had visions of him telling me the fare was double or the meter was broken and the price would be double or he'd drop me off at the wrong place on purpose and then I'd run out and not pay anything! That'll show this lying bastard! I'll just run like hell and it'll be worth it and I'll laugh like mad. Maybe I'll even kick the door in or maybe I'll smack the back of his head really hard and yell, Here's your tip you asshole! Maybe I'll pee in the cab. That'll show him to mess with me! You just hooked-up with the wrong girl, buddy!! I am a piece of work! Ha! I just urinated all over myself! You can thank your lucky stars I didn't eat any hot curry today or you'd really have a mess on your hands! I'd call the police but they'd just try to shove their tongues down my throat so that scenario was scratched toute de suite. I'll gouge his eyes out! Perfect! I'll jump on his back and dig my nails in his eyes and scratch them out and throw them in the trash!

"This is it. The tent maker's bazaar is on the right down there." He said. I looked at the meter, it read 2.80. I smugly tried to hand over three pounds but he corrected me reminding me that I'd already agreed to five. He was laughing. Shaking my head, I joined in and confessed, "You win, you're right and fair is fair." I gave him six.

No sooner had I stepped out of the taxi than I heard it, "Where are you from?" I marched onward determined not to let it get the best of me, not today I said to myself, not today. I sped up, shaking my head firmly and with a tight-lipped smile I kept walking. I did not see another one for the rest of my six hour exploration.

I got lost in the twists and turns of the medieval quarter beneath minarets and ragged tent-covered lanes. I went down alleyways slick with mud and mule droppings and children playing stickball. Struck by repeated deep thumping sounds I looked up to see a woman smacking the dust from hanging rugs on the clothesline. I stopped and ate a rolled up pancake covered in powdered sugar and watched the baker pull out a dozen rolls from a wood-burning oven and slide in another. I smiled and watched intently as he began to put on a little show for me, tossing the dough and slapping it with the pin and looking back for my approval. I kicked about slowly looking into shop windows and produce stalls. I petted rabbits in cages and was pecked by a goose. While bending down to photograph a goat a young girl came by offering me a piece of candy. At eye level I accepted and asked to take her picture for the sole purpose of showing it to her. When I turned to show her she laughed pointing to the goat behind me who was eating my scarf.

I stopped and took a cup of tea in a hookah shop down a narrow lane. Across from me men in grey caftans and twisted white turbans sprawled with arms propped on tiny tables, their lids half-closed they tilted their heads back and plumed their apple-scented smoke up to the darkening sky. A hefty woman passed smiling, she greeted me in Arabic and I responded in turn. She said something to me smiling and making a tea sipping gesture then patted me on the shoulder and said, "Welcome." I watched as a woman glided past with a gigantic cabbage balanced on her head and boys with wooden crates pilled high with puffed pita ran through the cobblestone street.

The centuries old minarets were aglow in emerald neon and down a bend I saw a street lit with garlands of large multi-colored lights. The amplified calls for prayer reverberated against the stone walls and rippled glass store fronts. So familiar with the Quranic melody had I become that I caught myself humming along through a relaxed smile.

I stopped into a small restaurant and devoured a huge plate of hummus, falafel and fresh pita bread and washed it down with glasses of anise tea while watching Egyptian soap operas. It was dark now and cooler and I tied the scarf tighter around my head and rubbed my arms for warmth. I found a charming corner teashop and huddled over a tiny cup of steaming Turkish coffee. The man next to me asked where I was from and I told him. His plump cheeks appled high and beaming a toothless smile he welcomed me. I let my guard down briefly and smiled and thanked him placing my hand high on my chest and lowering my chin. It was sincere. "Egypt, good, yes?" he asked me. I didn't lament the past several days and thought only of today and without the slightest hint of mendacity I said, "Yes, sir, very good." He nodded excitedly and gave a fat thumbs up, "Good! Good! You welcome, you welcome to Egypt!" I smiled wide and believed him, he really meant it. We sat in silence and watched the street and sidewalk traffic as the wafts of the gurgling hookahs filled the cool evening air. I motioned to the waiter for the check but he shook his head and pointed to man next to me. "No, no, no, you welcome to Egypt" he said patting his hand on his heart. I stood and shook the man's hand and thanked him profusely.

The bitter taste subsided replaced with one as sugared as a glass of hot mint tea. And in the labyrinthine alleyways of old Islamic Cairo I found a different city peopled with kindness and warmth. More shockingly I found I was beginning to love Cairo.

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