Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Odds and Ends

Sometimes it's the small things in life that are most peculiar. For instance, yesterday I walked out the door of the dorms into a billowing cloud of white smoke that obscured the sun and rendered the church spire across the street as a ghostly silhouette. It was strange and surreal, made more so by the fact that no one seemed to notice or indeed care. Normally when there's smoke everywhere people are at the very least curious. Apparently not in Cairo, where the catastrophic is more or less the everyday. But the oddest bit was that there was no smell of smoke or fire, as one might expect.

After the shuttle left, we found the source of all the smoke - a battered old Toyota pick-up that was spewing it everywhere out of something in the bed of the truck. It was really disconcerting, as the thick white fog totally enveloped the bus and made it impossible to see. With the early-morning light filtering down through the trees and the crumbling balconies of Zamalek, it looked like the beginning of a war movie. At one moment, I was kicking myself for not having a camera - there was a soldier pacing by his post, head bent, underneath a spreading tree in front of a little mosque, with the sun-beams refracting through the air and only the silhouette of the soldier and his gun visible. It was a beautiful sight, in a strange way, and I wish I could have captured it.

The other oddity this week is that less than 10 days from our final, our Fusha Arabic teacher injured herself on some steps and can't come in for class. So we got a substitute today, to teach until the end of the semester. Now, our original teacher was a very nice, affable, likeable lady, but while she was very good at Arabic, she didn't make too much effort to keep the class talking in Arabic the whole time. I didn't really realize until this sub showed up today and said maybe 3 English words during the whole 3-hour class. He really kept on us, never gave instructions in English - if we had had him for the whole semester, I might have learned a great deal more Arabic. Still, I find that I can roughly follow Al-Jazeera broadcasts and regualr newspaper articles, so I can't regret it too much.

Only 1 week of school to go. It's too bizarre for words - I remember distinctly arriving in Cairo, when Joe and I were baffled by the 15-second shuttle ride that was required to take us from the airplane to the gate. It's kind of a theme in Egypt - lots of effort and trouble and hassle to save a tiny bit of work. Once we got to the gate we were released to the mercy of the arcane mysteries of Passport Control, a system that would give a Byzantine bureaucrat solid cause to just off himself. Fortunately, there was a sort of pool shark of the airport there, waiting for a different group of AUC students. He was dressed in a glossy pinstripe suit and shoes so pointy you could use them like a drill. But he whisked us through, running around, waving and nodding at airport personnel and generally marshalling us through the ineffable chaos.

The real Cairo shock set in once we got out of the airport proper and found ourselves at the mercy of a pack of ravenous porters and taxi-drivers. They all but pried our luggage from our hands, and after trying to forcibly load it - and us - into a variety of increasingly alarming transports, our AUC escort showed up with a car that can only be described as appalling. Taxis are not normally the most well-maintained of vehicles, but it's really pushing the issue to have a car that does not, in fact, possess a dash-board, but rather a crumpled plastic shell covered in open wiring, topped with a fuzzy purple leopard-print rug and a box of tissues blinged-out like the cover of a Chamillionaire album.

And of course the driving was terrifying - roads no wider than Memorial drive transformed into six-lane free-for-alls. I'm convinced that no one has actually explained the concept of lane-dividers to the's the only conceivable reason for the way they try to fit three or four or five vehicles into a space meant for two, passing on the right, the left, from behind. If there were a way to physically vault your car over the one in front of you like some half-ton game of hopscotch, the Egyptians would do it.

I'm going to miss this place.

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