Monday, 18 February 2008

To Laugh In The Face Of Death

Life in Egypt is nothing short of an adventure,

Cairo is a city that breathes,
It's always in motion, always busy and always full of noise,
You can't escape the madness that is this Middle Eastern city.

Therefore, there is always something to new, exciting or terrifying about this place,
Ask anyone who lives here and they will have more than a few stories to tell of a typical day in the life of;
And of those stories, my favorites seem to be those that involve taxis,

Now you must understand,
In Cairo no two taxis are the same,
And after traveling across Cairo everyday,
I've become somewhat of an expert in the field of taxis,

The key is to look for a cab which;
1) Is Comfortable (but not too comfortable, everything comes at a cost)
2) Is Spacious (An hour and a half in a cab, crouched down/hunched over, makes your shoulders scream for mercy)
3) Has an older driver (young drivers will try an gouge you where and when they can)

With the amount of taxis in Cairo, these three stipulations, should be easy enough to come by,

That said, when you do have to settle, you'll almost always get a good story out of the deal (even if you do have to pay for it),

As I said,
I have been in a fair share of taxis in my day,
Having a girlfriend across Cairo, makes for a daily commute which last anywhere between an hour to two hours...on a good day.
But given the choice between mass transit, ( a hot and sweaty underground box car, chalked to the brim or a micro bus, also chalked to the brim), I'll take the comfort of a taxi when I can afford it.

In every form of transit here in Cairo, there are lessons to be learned,
Every day you learn to be a little more at peace with the fact that this taxi ride could be your last,
You learn what a steady prayer life really is,
You learn to laugh in the face of death,
You learn that the other driver is always matter how many lanes you just veered across,
You learn that a bus does NOT have the right of matter how fast it appears to be coming at you,
And most importantly of all,
You learn that every "rule" you think you might know, can be broken or adapted at any moment, for any reason, no matter how close the police are.

Now that you have been briefed, you must know that we all find ourselves in unavoidable situations,
That once sound taxi that you hopped into, can suddenly turn out to be a steel cage of death,
And that "fun driver", can quickly turn into a maniac once the doors are closed,

I have developed a wealth of stories, however,there are three that take the limelight...

Hasheesh Anyone?

It was a late night in Mohandiseen, and for what seemed like the first time, the street ran dry with cars,
During an hour when most should sound asleep, I walked down the street, desperate for a ride home,
When all seemed lost, lights flashed, a horn sounded, and my rescuer appeared on the horizon,
As he slowed to crawl, he yelled out his open window in muddled English, "Where you go?!"
"El Maadi?" I yelled back, a hint of desperation in my voice.
"Meshi, Yalla!" he said ("Okay, let's go") as he stopped,
I pulled the door open and sank back into the chair, 'finally, homeward bound.'
We banterd back and forth for awhile.
Between my broken Arabic and his cracked English, we discussed the depths of our lives...
And as I listened, I gazed out the windshield,
Suddenly, a left turn...
A new way, every taxi seems to have a new route, but by now I thought I'd seen them all,
A quick right puts me in a spot I know...nowhere near home,
"Enta Aize?" ("You want?") He asks, jamming a pack of cigarettes in my face,
"La, shokran," I say with a smile, ("No thank you") dismissing the cigarettes,
It's not uncommon to be offered cigarettes by a driver, however what came next was quite a surprise,
"Ah, I know, I know what you want," he chuckled at me, the English bouncing, rather than rolling off of his tounge,
"I have what you want."
Puzzled, quite worried but yet a little intrigued, I watch as he pulls out another container,
A row a marijuana cigarettes, and the smell that goes along with them, were now being thrust into my face.
I chuckle, "La, shokran, ana mis aize, ana mis sherupt" ("No thank you, I don't want it, I don't smoke")
He looks at me appalled, turns, and lites one for himself,
Thick smoke fills the cab, as the hasheesh cigarettes lites up in a flash,
In minutes it is gone, and another is at his lips,
He's chain smoking hasheesh!
I can't do anything but chuckle nervously as we veer around the corner,
The car stalls,
I opt to stay in the car, getting another cab would be quite hard at this time of night, and I'm farther from home than when I started,
We start rolling again,
A sharp corner, lands us in the back of another car,
I can't believe this!
Stalled again, resting in the dent of another car,
The other driver hops out yelling,
Our car starts again and with a flash, we are past the angry motorist and on our way again,
This is Cairo!...
Alittle while longer, a few more turns, and two more hasheesh cigarettes and I'm lost again,
My directions are normally quite good, but this is ridiculous,
'Where the heck am I?' I think to myself,
The citadel on the horizon tell me the answer,
Another sharp corner and we stall again,
My gut tells me to get out of the car, I could get out here, he's still trying to start it up again,
One look around the area suggests otherwise,
This is dead city, a city of graves, inhabited by the poorest in Cairo,
'What can I do really but stick with it,'
God is good...
Nearing Maadi now, barreling along the highway,
'10 more minutes and I'll be home,'
We stop...'why?! what now?!'
My driver is looking a little ill,
"Mish kayla eh?" I ask, ("What is the problem?")
"Ma feesh mish kayla," ("There is no problem") he responds reaching for his drink in the console,
Taking a swig, he cringes a little, then offers me a sip,
One smell tells me there is more then just tea, some sort of ridiculously strong alcohol is in it...
"La shokran," I say again, reassuring myself that it's just 10 more minutes,
My arabic isn't good enough to tell him this isn't a good idea, and I don't have many options if he kicks me out here.
We're on the way again soon,
And as we round the corner to my home, I prepare the fare,
25LE is normal (less than $5) but he is asking for more,
Happy to be alive, I stand firmly on 25LE, call him crazy ("Enta megnoon") and retire to my house, with another Cairo story.

Two Doors Are Better Than Four

The metro is the cheapest option to get anywhere in Cairo,
For 1 LE (20 cents) you can jam yourself in a smelly little train car,
Shoulder to shoulder with about 100 Arab men, some of which snicker at the foolish white man, other which taunt, some still which try and come on to you, and more that just stare,
It's normally an awkward situation, especially after work, when the metro is at it's busiest time,
You never know who is touching you and whether or not it is intentional or not,

The metro line however, does not run all the way to Mohandiseen,
(I'm not sure if this a blessing or a curse),
So once downtown Cairo, I must take a taxi the rest of the way,
A rusted out old taxi is a luxury compared to the metro cars,

On this particular day, I hopped in the first "black and white" I saw,
The driver was friendly, and we chatted as much as we could given the language barrier,
But once conversation dissolved, I resorted to resting against the door and gazing out the window,

There are many bumps in the road in Cairo,
both literally and metaphorically...
And it was this particular day that I learned the consequences of a well placed bump,

Veering off the bridge, we hit such a bump, and to my shock, my door flung open,

Now you must know, that seat belts are not worn in this country,
Seldom does a car actually have them, and if it does, even less seldom are they worn,

I now found myself dangling outside the door, gripping the seat with my legs, scrambling to pull the door closed,
It was as I was doing this death defying act of clownery, I gazed at my driver,
Who, while gripping the steering wheel with one hand, was performing the mirror act.

After pulling both doors closed,
We shared a chuckle, shared a prayer of thanks giving,

"First time," he said, wiping his brow,
"Last time," I laughed, "En sha Allah" ("If God Wills It")

It is with this last story that I leave you,
Hopefully chuckling,
Come to Cairo and we'll share a cab,


After a long night of shopping with Joy,
We both decided that the majority of our energy was spent on braving the cabs,
And so we hailed a cab,

It's funny how what should have been a 5 minute taxi ride spawns the almost unbelievable,

Traffic was heavy, as it almost always is in Cairo,
And it was during this stand still that Joy turned to me,
"Something smells as if it's burning," she said.
I sniffed the air like any man would,
Something was burning,
The smell of burning plastic and glue was not unfamiliar,
This is Cairo after all, strange smells are a part of life here,
And dismissed the comment, "It must be outside."

Not a minute after I had said that, did a whisp of smoke past between us,
I turned quickly, and noticed the smoke coming from the speaker between us,
Foolishly, I passed it off as another "taxi gadget",
It wouldn't be totally unimaginable to think this guy had a mini smoke machine in the back seat,

Joy is smarter than me,
(I'm really not giving her enough credit, as it's really not that hard to be smarter than that thought of mine),
And as the whisp turned into a cloud,
Both her and the driver yelled to get out of the cab,

He pulled the car to the side of the road not a moment too soon,
As we piled out of the back seat, it lit up in flames,

Men came out of the wood work with fire extinguishers,

The driver pulled at the back seat, and as he wrestled it to the ground,
The flames shot through the back of the car,

A police officer fought the trunk open as both Joy and I stood in disbelieve,

I caught a glimpse of our stunned driver, as he stomped on his back seat,

Joy and I discussed what to do next,
Do we pay the man?...we hadn't gone but around the block.
How much should we pay him?

Flames burst out of the now open trunk as several men tired dousing them with their hand held extinguishers.

And here we though we had seen it all,

The spectacle was drawing a crowd,
Police and on lookers were everywhere,
It was time for us to go,

I handed the driver double the fare,
And he took it dumbfounded, as he looked first at me, and then to his smoldering car.

'What do you do with that?'
'What do you do when your taxi lights on fire?'
'How much do you pay?'

Questions that still plague me....

Grace, Peace and Blessings,

Sunday, 3 February 2008


I stare through the crack windshield of the taxi cab,
Removed now, what once was a terrifying ride has become an everyday routine,
In the corner of my eye I catch glimpse of the dust covered air freshener,
The stale dust covered pine tree sways with the rickety old engine that struggles along the roadway,
Cars swerve around hollow shell that is my taxi,

I chuckle to myself thinking of my family's first ride in one of these steel coffins,
White knuckled (no pun intended), gripping the seats as if to let go would be to let life slip through their fingers,
Faces frozen with fear as each near miss with pedestrians and other cars,

In the 5 months I have been here I have learned at least one important lesson,
The right taxi driver makes a world of difference,

Alright so I have learned a lot more then just that,

I think back to my familys visit here,
How quick it came and went,

The excitement and culture shock,
Frustration and a sense of adventure,
The double edge sword that is Egypt drew them in,
And I was glad for the visit,

The embrace of home and family while thousand of miles away brings a lot of comfort,
And while they have left now, I feel a recharged,

I am now ready to take on my next challenge here in Egypt,
And it comes in the form of a Young Mens Bible study group,

A group brought together under the dim lights of one of Cairo's few refugee schools,
Within the walls of pain and despair, there are a group of young men that are searching for something better,

The idea was spawned after much thought and prayer,
A calling for the time I have left here in Egypt,
A charge to help answer some of the more difficult questions then young men of this world face,

The questions they face, but face alone because no one dares to bring up the topics,
Things such as Sex, Sexuality, Relationship, and Money are things which most young men of this culture struggle with on their own.

Some of the life's most daunting topics, and they are left to fend for themselves.

So what is my role in the matter?
Why me?

In no way do I feel equipped enough to answer some of the harder questions I expect to be raised,
In no way do I feel I have all the right answers nor the experience to tackle some of the tough issues,

To bring these men of the future together,
To talk it out, to think, to hear others opinions and to bring knowledgeable leaders into help stir their minds.

The darkness seems overwhelming,
They don't have to be alone in this struggle,
To bring the light of God into the matter, the darkness shall flee.

The taxi veers to avoid what could have been a fatal collision, and I'm snapped back into the present.
The dusty, old pinetree still swings, in the corner as my eyes and other senses focus once again on my surroundings.
Engine grinds, and my driver mutters something under his breath, as if to coax the failing, steel beast along.
The smell of gas stings the the nose as it seeps through the rusted engine compartment and the cool Nile breeze whips through the open window and against my face,

Egypt is home for now, and I intend to enjoy it,

Grace, Peace and Blessings