Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Messing About In Boats

After a long day of dashing about Cairo, sitting in meetings, and having to make it back to Abu Sir in time to feed the menagerie, the last thing that I wanted to do was go for a felucca ride tonight. But my friends from Alexandria, Francoise and Catherine, were in town to commune with the Cultural Attache of the French embassy for a few days and after their day of meetings, a felucca ride was felt to be the best thing. I was the transport, so I met them at a sidewalk coffeeshop in Maadi where we commiserated over latte's and capuccino's and then went off to rent a boat for an hour.

Francoise and Catherine are both French, teachers of French in Egyptian schools, and employees of the embassy who train teachers and try to introduce innovative teaching techniques to teachers of the Egyptian French schools. It may seem odd, but children in Egypt can attend school in almost any language and culture in Cairo. There are French, American, Japanese, Pakistani, Canadian, British, German, and Irish schools here, to name a few. French schools are often receiving technical support from the French government, and Francoise is the chief instrument of this support. Her daughters went to primary school with my children, as did Catherine's son, and we've been friends since I first moved to Egypt.

By the time we were tired of caffeine, it was dark but that is no deterrent to felucca sailors. In fact, night time is one of the best times to enjoy the Nile. The feluccas are wooden lateen-rigged sailboats that can carry as many as 20 or so people around a central table that is perfect for picnics. Since it costs about 35 LE (divide by 6 roughly to get a USD rate) for an hour on the river, this comes down to peanuts for a large group. The rate is per boat per hour, not per person. We climbed down the stone steps to the Nile from the busy Corniche and walked onto a boat.

Our captain poled us away from the dock and raised the sail as we headed into the current. As you may have learned in a geography class, the Nile flows north, one of the few rivers not on the Arctic circle to do so. On the other hand, our prevailing winds are from the north to the south, which means that for eons people have used sails to travel south against the current while being able to just drift back downstream to the north. Tonight the river was filled with boats as students returning to school were gathering to catch up with each other's summer and enjoy an evening without homework before school starts. There were some out there filled with ex-pats from Maadi as well, as we could tell from the American accents floating across the water out of the dark.

If you are into complete compliance with all safety regulations, feluccas are not for you. They have no running lights, and if you choose not to use the light over the table, no lights at all. Life jackets?: What are they? But there aren't very many accidents involving feluccas. Power boats don't like to hit them because the heavy wood construction does horrible things to fibreglass. The captains are extremely skilled sailors who generally have grown up on the water and they handle the boats beautifully. I've helped to dock sailboats but doing it with no motor and just using the drift of the river and the wind is quite a trick. So what's the attraction?

There we were, three rather stressed middle aged women sailing with the wind upstream on the Nile and experiencing the sensation of the stress sliding downstream away from us. The breeze, fresh and strong on shore, seemed to envelope us, coming from all directions and cooling us gently. As we moved away from the shore the roar of the heavy traffic on the Corniche was absorbed by the water, fading to a gentle rumble. We could hear laughter and chat from other feluccas near us on the river and at one point we passed a motor launch usually used as a water taxi but now filled with teenagers singing and clapping their hands in unison. It was too far away to make out the words, but the craft glowed with youthful happiness. Another felucca came by and some of the college age passengers were dancing baladi style in the light of a bare bulb to the music played on a portable stereo. What foreigners call belly dancing is called baladi dancing here and it isn't only the province only of scantily clad women in fancy trousers. Everyone learns that style of dancing, hence the term baladi or country-style, and these kids were good.

We were far enough out on the river that we could just make out the lights of the restaurants, clubs and parks along the shore, still filled with families who would soon be spending their evenings with lessons and homework inside. The skyline of riverside apartments on the Maadi side of the river contrasted with the high reeds and palms of the Giza shore where it was still farmland with the occasional outrageously ridiculously large villa. It's hard to convey the magic of the Nile at night, but the peace that our hour imparted was miraculous.

When we had finished the ride and climbed the stairs back into the noise and pollution of the city, the traffic on the Corniche had somehow increased dramatically. Cars were passing at high speed and pretty much bumper to bumper. We knew that sooner or later there would be a break and we grabbed the first one to make it to the median. As we waited there for the next one, a young man came up to us, gestured for us to follow him and stepped off the strip into the traffic. We just looked at each other, trying to decide if he was a total nutcase or he knew something that we didn't. We opted for the nutcase at first, but then he held up his hand commanding the traffic to stop and it did! We scrambled across the road before the drivers could change their minds, and we got into the car. The young man opened the car door for me, as they often do when they are hoping for a tip for "helping" you park your car (when in fact they've mostly just gotten in your way). But in this case, we figured that our traffic stopper really deserved a tip, so we gave one. At that point, we realised that he was deaf and dumb. Maybe not hearing the traffic makes it easier to risk your life in the streets. I wouldn't know. But we all decided that after a grim day, someone like that made it all worthwhile.


Eyes said...

Very interesting.

I just hate the term "Deaf and Dumb", don't you? It's cruel.

Obviously the guy was quite smart and resourceful. I'm glad you gave him a tip. I'm not street people who beg when they are completely capable -- but this guy deserved it as you said : )

R said...