So, we arrived for our stay in Egypt; two locations and three purposes. The locations were Giza and Anaphora. The first two purposes were R&R and R: Rest and Relaxation, in Giza, and Retreat in Anaphora—the third purpose was T. No, not a “drink with jam and bread” but Teach, also in Anaphora.
When you go to a place for the first time, it is both exciting and terrifying. The experience of visiting a new place, especially a new city is just that. Wilma and I have been many new places in the world. We have generally got lost within a day or so: exciting and terrifying!
Well, when we arrived in Cairo, we were immediately lost because we could not find out planned taxi. After half and hour of phoning and looking we found Mohammed outside. Apparently, taxi drivers are not allowed into the airport, which questions Francis Bacon’s assertion about mountains and prophets: the mountain will certainly have to move, because Mohammed can’t!
The journey from airport to hotel would take an hour and a half of excitement and terror. This is not that we haven’t travelled in wild traffic before—Buenos Aires, Cochabamba, Lima, Kuala Lumper, Taipai, Addis Ababa and Casablanca just to name a few—but it’s that you forget how exciting and terrifying it is!
As Wilma pointed out, the city council were wise in not wasting money on painting lines on the road; they were surplus to requirement! Where there would be 3 lanes in the UK, Cairo boasts “six-lane highways.” The mention of lanes, however, is misleading because the cars do not proceed in a straight line or lane, for that matter. Where drivers perceive a gap of approximately 5 cm in the lane in front of them to the left or right, they seem to feel the need or divine call to accelerate into it. This is accompanied by the braking, accelerating and swerving of several other vehicles avoiding collision. Added to this are numbers of pedestrians crossing between the cars, judging how to cross with frighteningly pin-point accuracy. And this is just the thing…it works! Wilma’s comment to Mohammed that he is a good driver didn’t seem to reach the required level of admiration.
Apart from the aforementioned, a couple of observations on the journey are worthy of mention. Firstly, the traditional and the modern in harmony. So many commentators (especially Right-Wing Western ones) assert that traditional Islamic ways are not compatible with modern life. Two incidents call this into question, Firstly, the ubiquitous nature of the smart phone. Everybody has one. And everybody is always looking at them. I observed, in rather an alarmed fashion, the driver of a “combi,” with at least 15 passengers, texting, honking, swerving and shouting at the same time: who says men can’t multi-task! Apart from the horn, a smartphone is an essential accompaniment for any self-respecting car, bus, lorry or motorcycle driver in Cairo.
A second example is one which, I wish, I could have photographed. I observed a woman, in a traditional, if rather tightly-wound headscarf, walking through Cairo Airport chatting way on her smartphone. Nothing unusual there, you say. True, but the smartphone was firmly wedged into her headscarf, which allowed her to carry two suitcases at the same time! Gadgets4Us could have not invented a better mechanism! The traditional and the modern were seen to be in perfect harmony; and without any mass-produced plastic thing.
Another observation is one that will not surprise anybody who has travelled in the majority world, or anywhere else, come to think of it. I mean the sickening and widening gap between the rich and the poor. On our journey we were often distracted from what was on the side of the road by the almost Waltz-like nature of the vehicle procession in front of us. After several minutes of hyperventilation, the impression of imminent death receded, and we started to observe the shops and businesses, mainly on our right. There were the typical array of plastic containers, shoes and food outlets. There were, however, also many posh boutiques. As we were speeding along, I noticed a Gucci handbag shop and a sharply-dressed woman, with her newly purchased bag, emerging from it—the shop not the bag. I am surprised she didn’t break her neck, falling down the steps as she was wearing, the most vertiginous heals I had ever seen and, to make it worse, sunglasses. And all at 11.30pm to boot!
At that moment we braked so hard the fear of imminent transferral to glory returned. The reason for the braking was not another motorcyclist cutting us up, but a speed bump in the middle of the highway! Incidentally, some of the motorcyclists appear to by escapees from Cirque du Soleil, given what they have balanced on their vehicles! This little braking incident, however, drew my attention to a few people on the left-hand side of our road, one in particular. She was almost bent-double, dressed in, what can only be described, as sepulchral rags. She must have been over seventy, but here she was, taking advantage of the traffic, slowing for the speed bumps, to beg a few Egyptian Pounds, or more likely shillings. What was a woman of such and age doing this at 11.30pm on a Thursday night? She should be at home surrounded and being fed by her children and grand-children, watching the Egyptian version of CBB or something, not on a busy highway begging.
The contrast between the two women could not have been more marked. One rich beyond the poor’s wildest dreams. The other poor beyond the rich’s darkest nightmares.
What came back to me as I write this is Señor Hontar, at the end of the film, The Mission. He said, that we must accept this reality because, “the world is thus.” Is he right or was Cardinal Altamirano nearer the mark when he replied, “No, Señor Hontar, thus have we made the world, thus have I made it.”
The airport to the hotel was a revealing journey, not only about Cairo, but reality.