Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Public and Private Transportation

[Cairo --> Aswan]

“No change, no money” is the attitude of every street vendor, taxi driver and corner shop, and you’ve accumulated a bevy of coins clinking in your pockets to communicate more easily with Cairo’s hordes. One pound notes dominate the streets, worn thin by thick, hairy fingers exchanging them for metro cards, coffee, tea and sheesha.

You are almost relieved when a travel agent asks for your credit card to pay for a two-day, one-night cruise along the Nile, covering Southern Egypt’s historic tombs and temples. Your overnight train from Cairo to Aswan forces you to sit upright the 12-turned-15 hour ride on unyielding chairs, and you dance in your seat, trying to find a comfortable pose in which to sleep. Your efforts are in vain, so you pass the time chatting with the engineer from Alexandria sitting next to you, reading, and absorbing the Arabic pop and religious chants blaring out of a radio (which, you learn in your time in Egypt, never sleeps).

Your naps are too crisply disjointed to collectively pass for sleep, and when the morning sun casts his net of rays over the sky, you are invariably caught and drawn nearer to his brightness. You rest your gaze on the window where trees, fields and train stations creep past. Palm trees, you notice, are curiously expressive trees. At first, their height seems to prohibit public scrutiny – what can a mere passerby see of their plumage! – but the train’s momentum, your morning coffee and the stained windows encourage further peeking, cheeky as it may be in a culture where half the population are hidden behind layers of clothes and veils. Some branches droop in defeat while others start to stretch out and mark their own shadow-based territory, giving up halfway along the branch and succumbing to gravity. It is the top most branches which actively reach out to the sun; the celebrity branches commanding the most attention. You wonder if the three tiers of branches symbolize three generations of women at varying levels of sprightliness. The youngest at the top jut out, happily on display; the women at the very bottom droop with worries of family and the household.

Patchwork fields of green and brown meet at squat tenements and give rise to half-hearted walls that have crumbled with time and neglect. Clotheslines, a mosaic of laundry tiled across building walls, and young children enliven the dust-and-sand-inspired landscape. Telephone lines rise and dip across the length of the train car and the dirt patches on the window form floating musical notes on them. A jumble of palm tree trunks breaks the music into sophisticated bars. You convince yourself that the train’s rumblings and rhythms swell and subside with the manuscript you read on your window.

The train is moving so slowly, you start pacing how quickly you are reading your book, to make sure it does not end before your train ride. Finally, you are in the city of Aswan, with just enough time to hop into a taxi to your cruise boat, get changed, and catch the bus to one of the sites on your credit card-endorsed itinerary.

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