Saturday, October 30, 2004

So Why Are You Foreigners Anyway?

An old friend of mine came by to go riding the other day. I've known her for at least ten years and we've gone through a lot together. Both of us are technically not Egyptian, but this is our home. We've raised our children here, survived many years of marriage here, and at one time we ran a magazine together here. She was away for much of the summer and then was called away again to nurse her mother for a few weeks in France, so we had a lot to catch up on as the horses ambled along the paths in the autumn sunlight.

Years ago my friend was injured in a serious riding accident when a horse fell on her in the desert. In recent years she hasn't done a lot of riding, so we were taking it easy on our way through the countryside to a place where we could loop back through the desert from the pyramids at Abu Sir. Moving along a trail behind my house, we met up with a young girl, probably about 12 years old or so, riding a small white donkey. I've met this girl many times before in the area and just as before she asked me hopefully, "Baksheesh?" Baksheesh is Arabic for "tips", or as it is usually used, a handout.

When I first started riding in the countryside where there are always lots of children and farmers, I was warned that I would be harassed for baksheesh. One of my neighbours went with me the first few times as I was walking a mare who needed rehabilitation on firm ground rather than the sand of the desert. Seeing kids asking for baksheesh every so often, he suggested that I take a bag of sweets or something with me, but I vetoed the idea. My theory was that if the kids learned from day one that I never gave anyone anything, after a while they would stop bothering me.

I chose to handle the situation with conversation and jokes. When the children would ask for baksheesh I would turn to them as if I'd never thought of it before and say "Yes, please. I really need five (or ten or fifty) pounds. I'm completely broke." They were usually so stunned at hearing this from a foreign woman that they would stand there with their mouths hanging open. Any listening adults generally fell about laughing. After over five years of practice, the children do know that there really isn't any point in asking, but some of them do anyway. One group in a particular village do it just to hear their mothers laugh at them when I ask them for money instead. Once in a while I will explain patiently that there is no point in my carrying money while riding since there are no stores on the trails and nothing to buy. Funny how this point has seemed to escape my questioners and when the idea sinks in, they are a bit embarassed.

So there we were facing this young girl on her donkey and for the millionth time (she's a bit slow on the uptake) I was explaining that I don't carry money when I ride horses. Puzzled, she looked at us and asked rather plaintively "Wa entu khawagat lay?" which is roughly "So why are you foreigners anyway?" We looked at each other and burst out laughing to the total bemusement of our young donkey rider. You know, after all these years, we really didn't have an answer for that one.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Ramadan Heroes

I was invited to a company iftar the other night that meant my driving into downtown Cairo. This is something that I really don't usually like to do these days, since my driver's license is expired and my car license went missing. Both are supposed to be back with me on Saturday, inshallah. But then, I've been hearing that for some months now. So I try to restrict my driving to my country lanes where most of my neighbours probably don't have licenses either.

Driving in Cairo, as I've noted before, is not for the faint of heart. The phrase "hell on wheels" was invented here. But if it is an extraordinary experience for the drivers, it is also stressful for the Cairo police. A bit of background will help here. Most young men in Egypt must serve their country for two years in the military or the police. The better educated boys are officers or find ways of fiddling themselves out of the obligation...same as any country, witness George W.'s military record. Boys who are only sons are also exempt from service so as not to leave a family without a male heir, a serious problem under Islamic law. We have all sorts of police here and it takes years to figure out which are who, so to speak. Black uniforms with black hats are the internal security forces, and you don't want to mess with those guys. Khaki uniforms with red hats are the military police.

The normal everyday police wear black wool uniforms in the winter and white uniforms in the summer. They can be seen all over Egypt, on any major corner in any major urban center. An interesting aspect of this is that often the lower ranking personnel are posted to cities other than those of their birth, making them utterly useless if you are lost. So are they, and it's highly likely that they will speak an interesting dialect of Arabic that leaves them totally unintelligible. I don't know how long their shifts are, or when they begin or end, but the job is unenviable. Standing in the sun, day in and day out, sandstorms, traffic jams, and during Ramadan fasting as well...let's just say that the waiting line for this position is pretty short.

We have traffic lights in Cairo, in fact, as far as I know they'd just been installed when I first visited in 1977, but the puzzle of them is that they do not function without human accompaniment. Egyptian drivers, on the whole, do not recognise that green means go and red means stop, so there is always some poor traffic cop standing there trying to translate red and green for the motorists. As I noticed while driving to my iftar VERY CAREFULLY so as not to attract undo attention to my licenseless state, the traffic from approximately 2 pm until the call to prayer at about 5:20 pm simply gets more frenetic and tangled as the time goes on. I left home at 4 pm putting me in the midst of the pre-iftar madness, partly having been held up by household chores and partly with the theory that at 4 pm no one in their right mind would set up a license checking roadblock.

Most of my route was on the Cairo Ring Road, a highway that circles the city. In a few years it will be an Inner Ring Road, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it. From my home to the Pyramids Road traffic wasn't too bad. I had to dodge the usual water buffalo being led down the main road attached to donkey carts, but that is easy. Once I hit the major arteries of Faisal Street and Pyramids Road, traffic slowed down to a crawl, giving me plenty of time to ponder the fate of the hungry, thirsty men who were trying to avoid total gridlock at the intersections while calming impatient drivers who either leaned on horns or attempted to drive down sidewalks. It's right up there with air traffic control at La Guardia, or O'Hare or Heathrow for tension and stress. I'm sure that plenty of them would have loved to take out a raygun and simply incinerated whole lines of traffic.

The government puts on extra police for the pre-iftar rush and these guys actually do a brilliant job of keeping the traffic moving. I made it from Abu Sir to inner Mohendessin in about 45 minutes in traffic that was flowing with the speed of a drain clogged by window putty, but at least it flowed. At dinner I found myself sitting next to a Swedish woman who was here for business with our airline, on her first trip to Egypt. One of my companions was talking about the traffic that they'd endured getting to the restaurant, and being a Brit, was complaining about the lack of discipline among the motorists. One of his comments was that the police don't really do anything here. To a very large extent, he's right. I'd love to see what would happen if you dumped about 100 thou of Toronto's finest here. Before they all had nervous breakdowns, they'd have a field day giving out summons for improper driving, bad vehicle maintenance, you name it.

There's a possibly true story about Cairo and urban planning. At one point, it is said, the Egyptian government asked the French and the Japanese to evaluate the city of Cairo and offer their best suggestions about how to improve it. The two groups went off to study for about 6 months and came back with their suggestions. The French reportedly told the Egyptians to empty the city, turn it into a museum and start over somewhere out in the desert. The Japanese told the government not to touch a thing. As far as they could see, the city was working although by all rights it should have been at a standstill, so anything that would be changed might destroy it. Probably both assessments were right.

So in the meantime, my hat is off to the poor fellows standing in the intersections trying to keep the buses from running right over the Fiat 127's, while explaining to the horsecart driver that he really shouldn't be there. It's a nasty job and someone has to do it. Thank heaven it isn't me.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Quiet Sunday Thoughts

Sunday is the first day of the work week in Egypt. For me it's now natural to think of the weekend as Friday and Saturday, and it causes me no end of problems when I go to the US. But I'm here in Abu Sir and Sunday is the day that all my office job friends go back to their cells and I get to stay home. I like that.

That's not to say that I have no work to do. I still have things that I'm doing for the airline and I'm working on a website for the trucking company. Website work on a 45 thou Kbps line is excruciating work. There is an optimist at one of the DLS providers who thinks that we can connect in the boonies, and the connected ones out here are cheering him on but not holding our breath. So this morning I did some web work for the airline since the so-called website designers who manage the website managed to make it virtually invisible when they got it up and running again. Some company in Australia managed to nab our old url, so they adapted it. That's no problem except that they changed all the company names in the website to the adapted name. As I pointed out to the power that is looking over these things, that makes the website invisible because everyone will look for the website by the original company name, not by the url. Brilliant work, guys. As I mentioned to our marketing people, website work isn't rocket science, but these guys are barely making bicycle repairs. Well, they will have a lovely time sorting that out. And better I get to work here looking out my big double door to my garden than I'm stuffed into an airconditioned cubicle.

The next task was to find the dosages per kg for fipronil, better known as Frontline drops, so that I could Frontline all the dogs. That's a lovely new verb. Naturally, it only took me about an hour to load the pages so that I could save Merial's dosages to my computer. I used to have it as a note, but when I moved information from my old Mac iBook to the new Powerbook some things went missing. That was one of them. I buy my Frontline in packages for enormous dogs like Danes and then divide the dosages with a 3 ml syringe to suit Rat Terriers. I can do 5 Rats for one Great Dane which makes Frontline an economic possibility with 13 adult Rat Terriers around. I don't recommend this as a practice unless you are sufficiently anal to be sure to underdose if anything. Fipronil does a great job on fleas and ticks, and I find that I only need to administer it about 4 times a year rather than the monthly that they recommend, however too much can make a dog very sick. But the Rat Pack are all snoozing on the chairs and sofas in peace so I got the dosages right.

I still have to go over to the paddocks to do the five dogs there, but I have a guy who comes over once a week to sort of garden for me and he should be arriving any minute. Eid (means "feast or celebration") won't stay if I'm not here. He's kind of nervous with all the dogs watching him. Can't imagine why. If he doesn't show up soon, I'll head over there. Meanwhile I can finish this post.

I'm expecting my equine vet as well this afternoon to finish a dental job on my 18 year old mare. Horses grow their teeth throughout their lives and the teeth get ground down as they chew the rough grasses that they feed on. Over time, the molars wear unevenly and there are sharp points left that can cause problems in the horse. This mare had lost weight recently, so we were suspecting tooth problems, which indeed she had. Dory is particularly precious to me as she was the first horse I ever owned after longing for one for my entire life. She's a smart, tough little mare and has given me two lovely sons over the years.

A few weeks back I was riding her at night and the trail we were cruising along suddenly disappeared into a corn field. Dory spotted the problem right away and made a quick 180 degree turn on the roughly 15 cm wide path that was running along the canal. Unfortunately, I'd decided to hop off on her left side (the side away from the water) but by the time I hit the ground, she'd turned and I hopped off into a chest-deep canal. Yuck. There were people leaving a house party about 40 meters or so back the trail, but no matter how loud I shouted, they didn't hear me, and there were no bushes or bunches of grass or anything on the bank that I could pull on to haul myself out. The dredging back hoe had undercut the bank so I couldn't just climb out either. Dory watched me for a couple of minutes, standing just far enough away that I couldn't grab her leg either, and then ambled back down the path to the cars. A fully-tacked horse did catch people's attention and they followed her back to where I was marinating in who knows what. A couple of men grabbed my wrists and hauled me out while women fussed over me. I was, thankfully, wearing a black tshirt and dark grey pants, even darker with the lovely canal mud, and they wanted me to shower, but what was the point? I still had to ride my horse home so I thanked them for their kindness and headed home. We checked Dory over for scratches and scrapes and then I dripped my way back to the house.
Dory could have just taken off for the stable while I was standing around in the canal. She knew the way home. She could have just settled in for a lovely evening snack in the cornfield. She went to the cars instead and I got home at a reasonable hour to have a long shower and a dose of anti-everything medicine to counteract the effects of the lovely canal water. Good mare, that one.

Well, Eid the gardener hasn't shown but Emad the vet just called so I'm off to the paddocks with my Frontline vial and syringe. Hope that your Sunday was good as well.