October 2008

Sometimes I prefer to walk.

There are certain aspects of city life in Cairo – the whir of traffic, the smell of great tureens of koshary and the cool night breeze off the Nile – that simply can’t be experienced in the back of a cab or on the Metro. So, when I feel like I need to feel the pulse of the city or when I just need to do some thinking, I walk home from the Nasser metro station to my apartment in Zamalek (**for previous misadventures about walking home, read my entry about getting lost in a slum in Calcutta trying to make my way home in July).

It’s about a half hour walk if I go quickly, and along the way I get to see the heart of the city. Emerging from the station I’m thrown out into several lanes of traffic. Minibuses dart out honking to patrons who run – and with one hand extended out – pull themselves into the buses as they speed away. Those trying to cross the street dodge and hustle their way through several lanes of traffic, under an overpass and onto the relative safety of the other side. No one stops for anyone; it’s the constant motion, the constant vibration of millions of individuals animated by the same force.

My usual strategy is to wait for an Egyptian to go and just follow. It’s like having a blocker. For me to go down, I know he’s got to go first…and for some reason that’s comforting.

I walk by children fighting, men smoking in coffee shops playing backgammon, shopkeepers reading the Qur’an, men wooing their hijabi girlfriends. I move in and out of traffic, avoiding the sidewalk which is always blocked off by some business or another.

I pass military checkpoint after military checkpoint, where both black clad officers inattentively mind their posts and white clad ones mumble into handsets.

Crossing the 26th of July Bridge the city comes into view. 5 star hotels crowd the waters edge of a placid Nile. It’s here that you can really feel the river’s breeze; the one thing that makes the Corniche bearable in the hot summer months. I pass a party boat where Western tourists, expats and a handful of Cairenes bump and grind to last year’s Rihanna hits.

Once I get to Zamalek, I know I’m close to home. Signs start to appear in English – and sometimes French – more than Arabic. Fast food joints like Hardee’s, Pizza Hut and Micky D’s line the road.

Luckily, though, the street youths are still chilling in the street chain-smoking. The shabaab are still being shabaab. I know I’m still in Egypt, even if they are wearing designer jeans.


Editor’s Note: This post was written by Claire Kane, but she was unable to post it. Why? Our site is definitely blocked in China. Here’s what she had to say in her brief email to me: “well i wish i could be a more active member of the blog! but anywhere here’s a bunch of pics and post.. there are lots of stories behind all these pics.”

When I first arrived in Xiamen the milk scandal had yet to break into the press. Every morning before my class of mandarin drills I would stroll down to the campus pit stop and grab a yogurt and some green tea for breakfast. On a diet of noodles, rice and dumplings I don’t get much dairy and sometimes have a craving for calcium. A popular aloe vera yogurt drink I discovered really hits the spot.

One morning last week I followed my routine: I was up at seven, pulled on some shorts and a tank top for the predictably hot Xiamen weather, reviewed new characters for the daily quiz and walked through campus to the local store. Still in a morning daze I headed to the dairy refrigerators and bread shelves at the back of the shop. I tried to open the yogurt fridge twice before noticing the masking tape that had been wrapped many times around the whole unit and the notice in Chinese across the glass door. Like many beginner Chinese students, I am still largely illiterate and couldn’t make out the meaning of the unfamiliar words posted on the glass. Still, I gathered my wits and noticed that all the milk fridges were taped closed and bore the same note.  Although I was a little annoyed that I would be heading to class with out my aloe vera yoghurt, I didn’t think too hard about the bigger implications of the taped-up milk aisle. Instead I opted for a red bean bun and hurried off to cram a few more characters.

The next day I was talking to my dad at home in Canada and he told me about the milk scandal that had just hit the news. I read up on the latest details on BBC news and was astonished that I hadn’t heard anything earlier. Although dairy traditionally isn’t a staple in the Chinese diet, milk teas, yogurt and other processed foods are increasingly popular – why didn’t we hear about this contamination earlier?

A few days later I returned to the local store and found that there had been some post-dairy contamination redecorating: now the milk fridges were not only taped up, but the bread shelves had been pushed in front of them. When the bread racks are full of fresh goods, the fridges are somewhat concealed. But as the day wears on and the shelves sit empty the commercial camouflage fades. I wonder if I were the shop owner, how would I have handled the milk news?

The owner of the larger local grocery store has more money to lose by plummeting dairy sales. Last night I meandered through the grocery store. On my way over to the MSG, Sugar and Salt aisle I was offered milk samples by two different uniformed saleswomen. Instead of stowing the dairy as the other shop owner had done, this supermarket was trying to remind customers of the sweet taste of m-i-l-k.

As the weeks go by will customers forget the milk powder scandal or continue to be wary of all things dairy? I’ll let you know.

It’s easy to make friends in China. All of the university students I meet are excited about having someone to practice English with, curious about the United States and incredibly hospitable. A few Chinese students who live in Fujian province invited me to their hometowns over the fall break. We went to Quanzhou which was one of the biggest cities in the world back in 1200 AD and then to Anching which is the capital of tea production for the province.

It is almost 2 am here in Paris. Moments ago I walked through the door of my host family’s apartment and I’m still ligheaded from what just happened.

Sometimes you get by just on luck and the kindness of strangers. Tonight was one of those nights.

Except for the part when I had a strawberry crêpe for dinner, everything was going much as planned in the early part of the evening. I saw Beckett’s Fin de Partie at the Théâtre l’atelier in Monmartre, then went to a bar in the 7th arrondisement with friends.

Paris’ metro closes at 1:15 am on weekdays, so I made sure to leave around 12:40 to make it home in time.

I didn’t.

I made it as far as the Gare d’Austerlitz, where I was supposed to transfer lines, when a voice announced over the intercom that line 5 was closed for the night. Just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood the announcement, I ran up to the platform where I was politely informed by a uniformed guard that I was too late.

I hurried back down the stairs, convincing myself I could easily catch a taxi the rest of the way home and everything would be fine. It took a mighty effort not to panic.

As I stepped through the nearest exit doors, a man on the other side started talking to me. “No, it’s closed.” I tried to tell him before I realized he was telling me that we could no longer leave the station this way. We had to trick the metro turnstiles to let us back in to find another exit from the building, which was getting quieter and more unsettling by the minute.

We had to wonder across a deserted platform, but we finally made it outside the building. “How are you getting home? The bus?” he asked me (in French). I answered that I had no idea how the bus system worked, so I planned to take the taxi. But there were no taxis around; in fact, the outside of the huge metro station was disturbingly quiet.

The man asked the only people around: two maintenance men in a street cleaner who seemed bored by our question. They suggested looking at the other side of the station, which, since the building itself was closed, was most directly accessible by a sort of highway bridge over the metro rail.

So we walked it. On the one hand, that “short cut” was about as dark and scary as they come, and I was convinced that we would be run over at any second, but not many people can say they’ve gotten to spy down upon a sleeping metro station.

A few minutes more and the man found me a cab on the other side of the station. I shook his hand and thanked him in my best French, though I didn’t know quite how to express “I would have been [screwed] without you,” so I just gave him my best smile.

But there was still the matter of the cab. I told the taxi driver where to go with the best accent I could conjure up under the circumstances, and all but collapsed in the seat.

Then I remembered that I didn’t have any money. I fished around in my change purse: I had 7 € left after our drinks at the bar.

Again feeling that sense of dread, I asked the cab driver to stop at the nearest ATM so I would be able to pay him. He asked how much I had and said not to worry about it, that that would be enough.

Looking outside, I realized I had no idea where we were. He stopped at an unfamiliar street: “Is it this one, right?” Turned out we had had a little misunderstanding about where I was headed.

I figured that he was probably regretting his offer to accept what little I could pay, and it made me uneasy. But instead of dumping me out on the curb he struck up a conversation. “You’re an American student? In government? You know, you must become a politician! And you MUST marry a Frenchman! Best way to practice the language.”

I am so relieved to have made it home in one piece I could just about pass out.

“That right there is death… a death-dealer. There’s no way I would put this boat right in front of this croc in a month’s time when the water warms up.”

     – Our Daintree River cruise guide, as our boat sat less than 10 metres in front of a 13 foot-long alpha male crocodile named Fat Albert last Tuesday morning… very reassuring words, no?