Saturday, October 15, 2011

Then Thursday happened...

It's still strange. Yes...even after two years.  I would lying if I said I haven't adopted some peculiar habits. But that doesn't mean I don't get shocked and confused on a daily basis.  YES, a daily basis. And then I have those days I find myself feeling "so western" if I am fresh off the plane, with no tolerance built up yet. Those are the days I find myself thinking...."how did I get here?" and "where did my patience go"... Thursday was one of those days.

"Hena kwais," I said to the taxi driver as he pulled up next to the train station.  This place has been under a huge transformation. Little by little the building's improvements are being revealed, and I am blown away at the beauty of the architecture and design that is replacing the shambled station that once stood in its place. But that does not dismiss the fact that the construction zone we must navigate through doesn't even attempt the element of safety. I do end up laughing, every week, at the new surprises that spring up.  It's pretty ridiculous how out of control the "daily dangers" have escalated. Laughter helps me accept these parts of Egypt...especially those moments I stand there staring at something and thinking, "How in the world is this a reality I am witnessing?!" Ha. Yes. I wish I could recall everything, but right now all I can offer you is Thursday. 

Please enjoy the honest and detailed description below... not a bit exaggerated. 

From the moment one enters the station,  survival adrenaline kicks in. Getting from point A to point B is one massive obstacle course, kind of like the gauntlet, but with luggage, and zero personal space.  I always forget to wear shoes that can easily handle sand...yes ...SAND. Why? Because everyone must stumble over and through piles of it laced with reehbar poking two feet in the air.  It's intense.  If you don't step on it, someone might shove you into the key is to stay alert...and of course balanced. It's a prickly challenge, but after several weeks, I have gotten the hang of it. Don't think that just cause you're off the sand dunes you are home free. There's also the responsibility of navigating through scattered tools,  pipes,  piles of rocks, and medal. It is easier said than done, I promise.  There are no giant orange cones blocking the wires and electrical stations. Nope, it's responsibility to be on the look out. 

Plus theres the four by fours that have been set up to walk across as "bridges" to hold those needing to cross some of the tracks. In one hand, you have your bag, while the other is positioned horizontally out to maintain some sense of balance. Of course, this is almost impossible to do without smacking the people cramming into each bit of open space next to you. For someone like me who takes a backpack, it's somewhat doable, but for the elderly, disabled, or those with rolling suitcases, the piles of sand and "bridges" are almost impossible to conquer. 

Of course, you are dealing with mobs of people going multiple directions at once, no sense of a line, or waiting your just go, and hope you don't have to turn around at any point. But keep your eyes above you as well, because all around, even twenty feet over head, there are men on flimsy, slim bits of scaffolding doing, construction. It frightens me for their safety because they are responsible to climb down on their own, with no fancy pieces of equipment to assist in their safe return to the ground. They are way up there! 

Now keep in mind, this is Egypt. Health is not an obsession like in the States. Actually, it's not even a main priority.  There are no smoking regulations,  and since the majority of all men here smoke,  we get to experience the dangers of cigarettes in close proximity to the sparks of the welding projects.  While avoiding the giant smoke ball and sparks, I also take notice of the parents grasping tightly to the hands of their little ones trying to not get squashed by the mobs of hurrying people. My main priority is to not drop my pepper spray that always sits comfortably in the palm of my right hand with my finger firmly planted on the trigger. I make sure it  is open and ready to be used...yes even in the train station. It was earlier this year that a man grabbed me between my legs as I entered the station. Needless to say that now I am in the business of keeping some sense of personal dignity and remain on intense guard until seated on the train. 

As I walked toward the train cars, I was disturbed by the image before me. One of the trains was so packed with people  that men were bursting out the doors. Some had managed to squeeze half their body on but still were dangling over the edge with one foot on the train, and one leg hanging off the side.  As I passed them, they hooted and hollered at me, the uncovered "easy" foreigner. I tried to ignore them, but the train was long and each car reacted to me the same way...with loud, rude remarks. My heart rate started to climb. "Shut up," I thought.  I struggled with not saying something snappy and condescending in return...but I remained calm as I tried to locate my train car...appearing to "ignore" them.  Their comments are acceptable in this culture, demeaning or not. I am a woman, so I am expected to take it.  But I hate it. Sometimes I do lash out, but they usually find my anger entertaining. It's pointless to address it.  Despite my annoyance at their childish behavior, I really hoped they would manage to hold their balance and not fall off the train. I don't understand why it is acceptable to pack people in like luggage. Why is it no big deal to play the risk card like this? Why did no one else seem concerned?

When I located my train, I noticed the numbers on the train cars went 8, 9, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...People were perplexed as to why the 8 and the 9 were switched. Confusion was growing and it was becoming chaotic as a mob was forming outside car "9". Finally, I asked the man who worked on the train where the correct car 9 was located. He  pointed to the car labeled 8. Frustrated, I quickly stated that the number cards needed to be switched. He agreed, as did everyone standing there. No one moved.  I decided to do it myself. I took the car label that read 9, and switched it with the car labeled 8. "Seriously?" I thought to myself.  Yet suddenly there was no more confusion as to which car was which. Wow. I honestly was just perplexed at Egypt with this one, not angry, just not understanding why things like this are, well, acceptable. 

While waiting for the train to leave, a poor woman entered, passing out candy to each seat. This is normal.  When she returns, you either return the candy back to her, or keep it and pay a pound. This happens all the time, and everyone knows the system. A man walked in, sat down in the front, picked up the candy, unwrapped it, and ate it. A couple of minutes later, she came back down the aisle.  I returned the unopened piece of candy to her, some kept their's and paid for it, others returned it as well. When she got to the man in the front, he said there had not been any candy and then proceeded to stand up pretending to look for it, as if maybe it had fallen on the floor.  Puzzled, she didn't challenge him, and walked out, heading to the next car. I couldn't stand it. I stood up and walked toward him "Lau Semat" I firmly stated to the man. "I saw what you need to go pay her." Realizing he had been caught, he jumped up, and ran to get her. She came back, and they exchanged a few words. But I could not understand what was being said. She then told him he did not have to pay, and left. He turned to me and said, "See, I took care of it, and smiled. " I didn't return the smile. I was really disappointed that he treated her that way, and got away with not paying her.

One of the sweet elements of this culture is the sharing of food. A serious looking man was seated next to me for the ride.  He purchased a sandwich from the food and beverage cart as it passed. Out of cultural expectation, he offered some to me. I of course declined, but thanked him. How sweet. I love the generosity that this gesture always depicts. Every time it happens, it makes me smile.

On the return trip, the woman seated next me noticed my shirt was wrinkled, and reached over pulling and tugging to straighten it out. Her hands were all over my back, but it did not bother me in the slightest. I was so thankful for her gentle spirit and helpful eye.

Thank you Lord for the two blessings seated beside me each way on this journey. I needed that.

Please Note: The next story, is a rare example, please receive it with's not everyone, but it does happen occasionally, but has never happened to me like this. 

While in Alexandria, I had the following conversation.  "I won't ride micro buses," stated one of the Egyptian women I work with. The others sitting around were surprised. They  had been trying to encourage her to take a micro bus to the far part of the city, rather than pay a taxi, which would cost more. Micro buses are vans that function like a city bus. Her face was serious, and suddenly, the mood changed as she told us her reason why. One time she was sitting on a micro bus, and the man sitting next to her started putting his hands all over her body. She couldn't move because of how many people were crammed in beside her.  When she called out to the others around her to get him to stop, they just pointed to the prayer mark on his  forehead, and said that clearly he was a very holy man, and it was her fault for tempting him by not being veiled. She was in the wrong, not him, the "holy man."

As I  arrived home late Thursday night, the events from the train station, my travels, and the conversation with my friend whirled in my mind. I needed to ask God for a special dose of grace. I was annoyed...ticked. Days like Thursday actually happen all the time...but some days I don't want to accept their behavior as normal. I lash out at Egypt in my mind and heart...angry at what they allow, as if my culture is superior or something.  It's not.  

My emotional, judgmental reaction is simply not acceptable. Nothing good comes from responding to the sensitivity of the flesh when irritated.  I pray for Egypt, for this grand city of Cairo. I love it, I can't stand it. I am ready to leave, I will deeply miss it. This place equally grabs at and plays on contrasting emotions...I can't honestly claim one or the other. All apply. I guess I would identify it as simply a hot/cold relationship that I have with this country. All relationships struggle: good days, bad days, tough times, amazing times, exciting moments, boring moments. Egypt and I we are no different...well except for the part about "boring"...nothing about this place is boring, not even close! That's probably one of the reasons why I love it.