Last week was great. I had a fantastic day at the beach, unexpectedly enjoyed water polo, listened to Oscar’s dance teacher rave about him, did some design work that I’m proud of and had a fun girls night on the town.
I’d had a string of good days so I guess I was due a bad one.
It started with a walk to the post office to mail a letter. I’d made this attempt before but when I reached the location indicated by google maps it looked like the building had been abandoned for centuries. Turns out the post office was closed (it closes at 2pm) and that’s just how it looks.
Today the post office was there. It looked like the entrance to one of those secret clubs you see in the movies, where it doesn’t look like anything from the outside but it has a lavish interior full of laughter and cocktails. In this case, the dimly lit interior looked like a post office from the gold rush era, but much rougher. Everything was a shade of brown and the post office workers ignored agitated customers from behind dull metal grates. A few neglected rusty chairs were scattered around. Arabic wording was scrawled on crooked signs that lined the walls.
Everyone in the building avoided eye contact with me. There was a line of ladies and a line of men so I joined the line of ladies. I was in no particular rush so I figured I’d just see what happened.
Unfortunately I’d forgotten that the concept of the “line up” or “queue” is literally a foreign concept in Egypt. “Those who shove the hardest shall be served the soonest,” seems to be the local proverb. It became apparent that it was each man for himself. A small-town Canadian girl like me stood no chance.
Several men and women had shoved in front of me and I began to doubt my chances of successfully mailing this letter. Also, I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to be at the front of the line with frantic post office goers leaning over me and shouting.
Staring at the multiple signs in flowing Arabic was no help to my plight. I hadn’t realized that most signs I’ve come across in Egypt have English on them. Not so at the post office. For all I know they read “Get your toes pierced here,” or “Poisonous spider adoption sign-up today.”
I held up my letter and asked for help from anyone unfortunate enough to make eye contact with me, however brief. My Arabic training has not yet delved into the murky world of post office dealings, so my pleas were in English, but fairly obvious nonetheless given my location and the addressed, unstamped letter in my hand.
After being ignored by the first few people, I got, what I call, the “Egyptian wave.” Based on my observations I believe it is a method for locals to get rid of you without actually helping you. It usually involves a loose hand flap in a vague direction and very little eye contact. I once spent fifteen minutes searching a section of the supermarket for garlic that did not exist due to this wave.
Regardless of the validity of the direction of said wave, I headed that way, only to be shoved aside by someone, I suppose, with an urgent need to mail a letter immediately. Maybe it was a scientist rushing to warn of an impending earthquake, or a reporter with a scoop on a breaking news story. It became clear that in the letter mailing category of Egyptian life, I was severely outmatched. My frustration with the situation and the anxiety that was building up in the hot, crowded, noisy room outweighed my desire to send the letter and I beat a hasty retreat.
Outside the building I gulped down some fresh(ish) air and the panic subsided. Not to be completely beaten, I decided to take some photos on the way back. I started taking a photo of a pretty tree with a white balcony behind it and got scolded in Arabic by a finger-waving Egyptian man. Why, I have no idea, but I heard of people thrown in jail for accidentally photographing a military installation so I briskly continued on my way.
And almost got hit by a taxi.
At this point I was feeling quite defeated and I just wanted to go home and lick my wounded pride. To be honest, I was fighting a strong wave of homesickness.
I was almost at my apartment when a gentleman I often wave to outside of a nursery school on my street waved me over. He asked if I would take some photos of children. Odd request, yes, but maybe this was my failure of a day about to turn around. As he led me to the supervisor I thought to myself that maybe I could take some nice photos, email them to the school and make some friends in the neighbourhood.
“What do you want,” demanded the supervisor. I felt a strong urge to leave. I tried explaining that I was asked here. She and the gentleman got into a heated debate as I eyed up the exit. I was handed off to the another lady.
“What do you want?” said the lady. Sweet lord in heaven. Once again, I attempted to explain, edging toward the doorway. “We don’t need any photographer,” she said adamantly. I got the feeling they thought I was giving them the hard sell and the other two jumped back in the fray. While the discussion continued amongst the three of them I made my escape.
Finally, I got home, shut the door, shut out Egypt, shut out the feeling of displacement, incomprehension and failure. These are small things, not mailing a letter and having a misunderstanding, but I feel like it adds up and some days its just a bit much. Some days everything seems so very hard.
I know there are more good days than bad. The gesture of the taxi driver who refused to let us pay is a blessed reminder of the good people out there. There are lots of them that I’ve met and interact with all the time.
In the end I searched my soul and I believe I’ve found the way forward.