Thursday, March 24, 2005

Signs of Spring

RemoteControl.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I've been carrying my camera for months to catch this photo, but the weather has been too chilly until recently to encourage this quintessential countryside means of travel. Now that the afternoons are warmer, I see the farmers on their way home from the markets sleeping on their carts while their faithful donkeys take them home on remote control.

It seems a bit odd to speak of seasons in a country that has sunshine most of the year, especially as I correspond with friends in North America who have been truly socked with evil winter weather this year. But we do have seasons and spring is well and truly underway. Night are still chilly enough to warrant a sweater or jacket, but the days are warm enough to make you appreciate a very cold beer. The mulberry trees are covered with new leaves and the tiny flowers that herald May's mulberry crop. Already we are estimating when we will be able to go out for our incrementally slow but satisfying mulberry rides in the countryside, when we park our horses under each tree to pick the berries that are just out of our reach on foot. The horses like the leaves and have learned that if they are cooperative they are likely to get some of the berries as a reward.

Many visitors to Egypt get the idea that people here have no sense of urgency, punctuality or time. My donkey cart sleeper probably exemplifies this stereotype. His donkey plods him homeward as he sleeps oblivious to the passing traffic. Being on the upward swing after a nasty bout with an intestinal bug, I have a rather different view. Most of the poorer people in this country deal with the exhaustion caused by parasites and infections on a daily basis. They need to sleep whenever they can just to go on, and despite the weariness that aches in bones and muscles, they still get the fields hoed, weeded and harvested. My hat goes off to them. It isn't easy.

The other thing that influences this stereotype of the time-blind Egyptian is an interesting paradox that my yoga teacher (an American environmental lawyer who changed careers years ago) commented on during a class recently. She was working us through some stretches and noted that one of the most frustrating things about living in Egypt is the way that when you plan to do A,B, and C some morning, W, K, and Y occur spontaneously and demand immediate attention. This, of course, blows your carefully crafted North American schedule right out the window. You are behind in completion of A, B, and C even if you've managed to handle both W and Y. When I considered the fact that this being true for ex-pats signals the fact that it is even more true for locals, the domino effect of too many events in too small a time span is considerable. Chaos reigns supreme and adaptability is the order of the day.

Just last week a friend of mine in Portugal sent me an email with some of Einstein's best quotes. One of them was: "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." Think about how many times people mention the timelessness of the Egyptian countryside, the pyramids, Egypt itself. See? There's our problem. Egypt is timeless, so there is nothing at all to stop everything from happening at once and all too often it does.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Everything Old Will Be New Again

Trash Collection
Trash Collection, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Trash is a problem anywhere. In Egypt there have been various solutions to the problem, none of which have really worked that well. First, to understand, we have to talk about the parameters. There are over 70 million people living in a narrow strip of arable land along the Nile. The rest of the country is desert, other than the oases which harbour a small percentage of the population. So we could get rid of our trash in the desert, right?

That was the theory in the past, along with the habit of tossing it into the river to carry off to the sea. But 70 million inhabitants create a lot of garbage and the river can't handle it anymore, not if it is going to provide water for the Delta downstream from Cairo. The problem with taking it out into the desert is the fact that there are no roads out there, other than the roads that are leading to new settlements, and the people in the new settlements don't want garbage there either.

Cairo, with a population of about 20 million, has had a trash problem for millenia and even now we have a group of professional trash recyclers near the city who have made their lives around the collection of garbage and the resale or reuse of usable items. They are known as the Zebaleen, or the garbage people, and the life they lead is not a very pretty one, but the job that they do is essential and well done. They will be seen throughout Cairo and the surrounding areas with their donkey carts picking up the trash to be taken off to their settlements near old Cairo. Cloth will be recycled into rag kilims and paper into recycled paper. Glass finds its way back into the souq where hand-blown vases, glasses,and dishes of lovely shades of blue are sold to visitors.

There are NGO's working with the Zebaleen to help them to market their recycled products, to run schools and hospitals for them to improve the quality of their lives and so on. There are also foreign companies that are hired to collect trash in large trucks that carry the trash out into the desert where it is dumped in pits and left to rot...or to blow away in the first high wind. On the whole, I believe that the efforts of the Zebaleen are the more effective. We have the Giza dump just over a hill in front of my home. Years ago it was much further away, but over time it is creeping closer and there are days when the ripe odor of rotting garbage wafts over the desert where we love to ride. Not nice at all.

My neighbours have to pay to take trash to the dump and being farmers with very little disposable income, this is a problem. They try to burn most of their trash, but some of it ends up in the canals. The wealthier inhabitants of my neighbourhood pay for monthly trash collection in which our households subsidise collection for our less wealthy neighbours, but the Giza dump is not my idea of a solution to the problem. The farming areas where there are no shops to distribute plastic bags and packaging are noticeably cleaner than the areas closer to access to the "modern conveniences" like a styrofoam tray for your cheese. I drive the grocery store clerks nuts when I suggest that I don't really need one.

One of the newer trends that I've noticed is that some of the farm families have started their own recycling plants where they collect plastic materials for sale to other companies. Not very pretty or picturesque, but it's getting the job done as well. Sometimes the most effective solutions aren't so pleasing to the eye.