Friday, January 08, 2010

Ibn Tulun and Gayer-Anderson (Jan. 2)

We spent New Year’s morning at church, after which we broke our fast with a delicious meal of potato pancakes. Then we wasted away the late afternoon by napping (me and Miriam) and playing Risk (Andrew, Jacob, Grandpa, and our friend Joseph from the branch) and colouring (Rachel and Grandma). 

It was nice to have a low-key day again so that we could gear up for another full day of touring the next day.

Andrew estimated that Saturday’s activities should take no longer than three hours. I scoffed at him and suggested we’d be gone for at least six. We were, in fact, gone for seven.

We took the metro to Mar Girgis and walked from there to the Nilometer on Roda, first passing over the metro and through a crumbling neighbourhood full goats, children and a few spontaneous garbage dumps…

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…then over the Corniche road via the seldom-used pedestrian bridge, complete with empty guard station and more piles of trash…

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…then we crossed over part of the Nile to the island of Roda using another footbridge, this time with a stunning archway and no trash…

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…and that’s how we got to the Nilometer!

(Far, far too much Dora in our house).

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Getting there was easy. Getting in? That was the hard part. The Nilometer isn’t ever swamped with visitors like, say, the pyramids or the Egyptian Museum, so although there is an intensive security room with metal detector and x-ray machine and turnstile, no one was in the room and none of the equipment was actually turned on.

The ticket lady was sitting on a chair in the shade from some overhanging bougainvillea bush and she beckoned us to walk over to her. We purchased our tickets and haggled over whose responsibility it was to come up with the correct amount of change and then ambled through the garden to the Nilometer, which was locked. Of course.

Andrew tried some hand gestures to communicate to a group of men sitting several yards away that we wanted to get into the Nilometer. They either didn’t understand why he was pointing to the door or didn’t care to respond so they all stayed in their seats, calmly sipping their tea. So Andrew approached them and told them the door was locked but that we had purchased tickets and wanted to get in.

“Should be open,” they harrumphed, “Try it again.”

No one budged, so Andrew walked back to us and pushed on the door, which was shut and locked tight. He turned back to the group of men and raised his arms up in frustration to indicate that the door was, indeed, rather locked.

Finally one of the men slowly got up from his chair and dawdled his way over to us.

“O, gatekeeper!” he yelled.

Then he slowly made his way back to his seat while the gatekeeper appeared out of no where and unlocked the door for us.

Clearly they aim to serve at this tourist stop. Or not. Anyway…

20100107 - 010The part of the Nilometer that seems to amaze everyone the most is the domed roof, which was rebuilt in the 1800s after an explosion ruined the original one. It is still the original style, copied from a drawing by Fredrik Ludvig Norden from his travels through Egypt in the 1700s . It’s pretty easy to see why the ceiling is so impressive if you’re brave enough to get close to the wooden latticework railing that separates you from a pit several tens of feet deep.

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Jacob and Andrew went down to the bottom and explored one of the inlets that hadn’t been cemented over. The rest of us were too wary of the uneven stone staircase that doesn’t even have a railing to cling to if you get scared halfway down (or up).

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As we were leaving, Miriam decided to wake up screaming to the world about the neglect she faces because her mother never ever feeds her. Clearly that’s not true because she is a chunky monkey, but I decided that we should probably take a little break to feed her, anyway, because I’m a nice mom like that.

There were some benches overlooking the Nile, so we picked a nice comfortable-looking one (that had all the slats and everything) and I sat down to feed Miriam while Andrew produced snacks from the backpack for me and Rachel (who seem to eat every time Miriam does). While we were heading to the benches, the gatekeeper, who had been following us, made some noises and a whole clowder of cats came rushing onto the scene. Big cats, little cats, fat cats, baby cats—so many cats—and all of them seemingly healthy and friendly.

For the first time since moving here, Rachel approached a cat. She was still afraid but at least she could tell that these cats were different from the feral cats that hang around our apartment building. It’s amazing what a little tender loving care can do for changing the temperament of a cat (or anything, for that matter).

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After Miriam was satisfied we packed up all the baby hud and headed back to the metro station for our next stop: the mosque of Ibn Tulun and, next door, the Gayer-Anderson Museum.

We took the metro to Sayyeda Zeinab and then grabbed a taxi from there—the ride was just over 3 LE according to the metered taxi that Karen, Jacob, Reid, and Rachel rode in. They paid 5 LE, as did Andrew and I to our unmetered cab, even though he dropped us at the bottom of the street instead of in front of Ibn Tulun.

The entrance to Bait Gayer-Anderson is just off to the left of the entrance to Ibn Tulun—the house is juxtaposed to the outer wall of the mosque and is quite an interesting place to visit. Gayer-Anderson was a collector extraordinaire and his labyrinth of a house is riddled with treasures. The house itself is a piece of work, with carved and painted ceilings, extensive latticework, and other traditional 17th century architecture. It reminds me how I imagined the Lennox home in India at the beginning of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, fantastically oriental with undertones of Victorianism.

It was Rachel and Miriam’s first time going. They were both very happy to be there. Rachel wanted to sit on everything that wasn’t roped off—sometimes we allowed her, sometimes we discouraged her, and sometimes we flat-out forbade it depending on what it was she wanted to sit on. She was pretty confused about our parenting techniques by the time we left…

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Miriam was just happy to be along for the ride.

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We handed Jacob the camera and let him go to town. He had a great time composing shots and playing with the zoom—he made a great photographer. Jacob has always been been artistically-minded; he did some beautiful oil paintings for Michael’s nursery and clearly taking pictures makes him happy. (If you’re reading this, Jacob…Go to school, hippy! Take an art class).

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Because Andrew was feeling a little naked without the camera to play with, Reid handed over his Blackberry. Andrew used it to make reservations at Taboula, the best Lebanese restaurant in town. It took him forever. He was still on the blasted thing by the time we had walked all the way around the mosque and up the stairs to the roof.

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After Andrew had finished whatever else it was he was doing with the Blackberry, he accompanied Reid and Jacob up the minaret, where Jacob went a little trigger-happy with the camera. I believe his exact words were something along the lines of, “I was trying to capture the real essence and personality of the city that Cairo is from the eyes of a naive tourist in a transcendental form of…” before he awkwardly trailed off into bemused silence.

(Seriously, an art class would help you complete that sentence, dude).

Jacob took some awesome pictures, both from the roof and the minaret. I sat on the roof and nursed Miriam while having a “picnic” of fruit snacks with Rachel. Karen enjoyed the shade of the stairwell.

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The poverty and standard of living that Cairo’s population faces overwhelms me, with 18% of the population living on under $2 per day. It amazes me that what I see here as filth and minimalism is an abundance compared to the indigence others in the world face.

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We are so lucky/spoiled/blessed/insert-adjective-here to be in the circumstances we’re in (even though we’re poor students without any income and will be that way for quite a while longer, it seems).

Our taxi ride back to the Sayyeda Zeinab metro station was an interesting one. We hailed one cab driver and a few of us piled in while Andrew started to flag down a second one—five adults, two children, and a taxi driver are a little difficult to squish into a compact car—but our driver, Mohammed, insisted that we could all squish in, so with Andrew, me, Karen, Miriam, and Rachel in the backseat, and Reid, Jacob, and Mohammed in the front seat, we started lurching off to the metro station.

Mohammed was altogether too friendly. Suspiciously friendly.

Friendly taxi drivers are notorious for being bad news at the end of the ride. Mohammed (#1!) was no different.

He gave Rachel a Kleenex after she sneezed. He tried to hand her a tomato (!) to play with (?!). He told us many, many times that he, Mohammed, was “number one!” He laughed about Jacob and Reid cringing in the front seat as he nearly killed us by driving into other cars and/or buildings and/or trees multiple times. He was happy and jovial to such an extent that it was, in a word, creepy.

When we got to the metro station and he finally stopped the car to let us out…

“Here is good.”

“Okay, goodbye.” No sign of slowing down.

“We can walk from here.”

“Yes, yes, yes…goodbye.” Still no sign of slowing down and we were entering the pedestrian market by the bus station where no cars go.

“Seriously, stop the car.”

“Okay, okay, okay.”

…he instantly turned sour at our offer of 5 LE for the cab ride, which was agreed upon before we even pulled away from Ibn Tulun.

5 LE is overpaying for a cab ride that far, but since we had crammed so many people in his taxi we were honestly planning on giving him 10 LE…until he grabbed Andrew and started yelling in his face, that is.

Usually if there is a battle over taxi fare it slowly escalates. The driver will yell something and then we’ll yell something and then the driver will yell something else even louder and we’ll yell back and hand him some money, which he’ll reject and then we’ll perhaps give him a little more and tell him to take it or leave it, at which point someone in the party will bend and…then it’s over.

This guy jumped right out of his taxi at the very start, ran over and grabbed Andrew, and yelled,

“May God destroy your house and your mother’s house!”

Now, to say, “May God destroy your house,” is a relatively common and mild term used in arguments. Apparently it is even taught in Arabic 101 at BYU. To say, “May God destroy your mother’s house,” though, is an entirely different thing altogether. Here you leave your mother out of it. Period. Dragging her into the argument is pretty serious stuff. So Andrew yelled back,

“No! May God destroy your mother’s house!”

Then he said to Karen, who was holding the money and had a 10 LE note all ready, “Hand him five and walk away. Hand him five and walk away.”

So she shoved the money at him and we all booked it through the crowd toward the metro, leaving the taxi driver yelling by his cab.

Andrew was a bit shaken up already and was a little taken aback when a woman jumped in front of him and said the Arabic equivalent of,

“What’s this here baby?”

You know you’re in a poor neighbourhood when…

Everyone wanted to know about Miriam and kept repeating “What’s his name? What’s his name? What’s his name?”

Flustered by the swarm of people approaching me, I stammered,

“Uhhhh… Miriam!”

A woman in the crowd turned around and announced to everyone,

“His name is Uhmiriam!”

Some people cheered, upon finding out “his” name. I didn’t correct them on either the gender or the name; I just let it slide. They were so excited to meet our “son, Uhmiriam.”

We got on the metro and headed further downtown to dine at Taboula, which was wonderful, and then hopped on the metro to finally head home.

“What time is it?” asked Reid.

“It’s 5:00,” said Karen.

“We left at 11:00,” he said, looking at Andrew, “So…we’ve been gone for about six hours now. Who guessed that we’d be gone for six hours?”

That would be me. And after our metro ride into Maadi and the walk to our house it was up to about seven hours. Long day.

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