Half The Fun Is In Getting There!

26 January, 2010

In addition to these things, there was also the matter of transportation. When we first started there, we were still living in El Agamy, which is a roughly 30 minute cab ride from the school. Since we had to be there at around 7:45 am, we would have to get up around 5:45, drag ourselves to the street, and find a taxi to take us to Alexandria.

Egyptian cabs don’t rely on meters for calculating a fare, due to the fact that few of them work, and those that do were last calibrated when the price of petrol was roughly 1/10 of what it is now. Thus, the best tactic is to tell the cab driver where you want to go and arrange a fare before you get in the cab. Foreigners pay somewhere between 50-100% more than what an average Egyptian would pay.

A typical conversation would go as follow.

“Sabah il-kheer! Lo samat, ayzeen nirooh Madrassa Quds, shahr khamsa w arbahain, Miami.” (Good morning! Please, we want to go to Quds School on 45th Street in Miami.)

Things would then go one of two ways: The driver would either speed off, or we would begin an intricate dance of fare negotiation.

“Maya guinea.” (100 pounds.)

“La’a, Arbahain guinea!” (No, 40 pounds- the price we were told was fair.)

“Sittin guinea.” (60 pounds.)

“De ghali! Arbahain.” (That’s expensive! 40.)

“Sabahin.” (70.)

And so it would go, until the driver would speed off, or he would come to our price.

Upon arrival, we would either pay without incident or suddenly find out that our price had gone up exponentially. One morning, we hailed a cab, and the driver immediately agreed to our 40 pound price. As we came close to our destination, he began to say “Mayya.” Initially, I thought he was saying “Maya, maya”, which is an Egyptian expression for “Perfect.” Then, he stopped the car in front of the school, and demanded “Maya guinea” or 100 pounds. We flew out of the cab, gave him 40 pounds, and he started yelling for the other 60. I tossed another 20 at him just to keep him in the cab, and we sprinted into the school as he was starting to unbuckle his seatbelt. Initially, the security guards at the school thought we had just decided not to pay him at all, so they told us to give him the rest of the money. Then, when they realized what had happened, they physically blocked him from coming after us. 20 minutes later, I looked out of the library window to see him still waiting.

At QLS, the grounds are maintained by a small army of women clad in yellow tunics. We dubbed them “bumblebees” based on their uniforms, and also, that they existed primarily to maintain the hive. Every day, we would arrive to see them sweeping the marble floors of the school free of dust. I would take a break in between classes to see them sweeping the same floor they’d finished sweeping 15 minutes earlier, now freshly covered in a thin layer of dust blown in from the open doors. Once, I saw them taking off their shoes and sweeping the hallways barefoot. It was clear what the bottom of the pecking order was.

When we first arrived at the school for our interviews, the bumblebees brought us coffee every day. When we saw them undertaking the Sisyphusian ordeal of keeping the school free of dust, we agreed: no more coffee at school. We couldn’t deliver them from the indignities of sweeping all day every day, but we wouldn’t compound their misery by having them deliver coffee to our rooms.

Leaving school each day proved to be just as much of an adventure as getting there. While school officially ended at 1:30, our hectic schedules often saw us finishing around 12 or so. We would head to the library and plan lessons, waiting for someone to get us for something. Eventually, we realized that no one was coming, so, we headed down to the front desk to sign out. The same receptionist who suspected Set of not actually being American would ask, “Do you have permission to leave from the principal? I cannot let you leave unless you have permission.”

We told her that our last class ended an hour ago, and that we’d been twiddling our thumbs in the library ever since.

“Do you have permission?”

This happened every day. Once, I walked just out of the visual range of the receptionist and had an imaginary conversation with the principal, who was, as usual, nowhere to be found. I exclaimed, “Yes, we have permission!” then left. Eventually, we took to bypassing signing out and would just duck out the side entrance. No one ever said a word about it.

The way home entailed walking a mile down the road between 45th Street and the school, and hailing a cab that was going to Agamy. Again, the speed-off/negotiation routine was in effect. On one particular day, we got a cab, and the driver proceeded to:

  1. Get lost on the way out of Alexandria.
  2. Get us stuck in traffic for a half hour.
  3. Get into a fender-bender with another cab, which he promptly reversed from and sped down a side street.
  4. Stop twice along the way, once to buy food, and again to leave the remnants by the side of the road.

When we entered Agamy, he kept asking us where we wanted to be dropped off. We would tell him that our destination was further down, but that didn’t stop him from pulling over several times despite out protestations of “Mish hina! Mish hina!” (Not here! Not here!) When we finally reached our corner, he demanded another 20 pounds. His reasoning? We had driven too far down this street.

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