Sunday, August 24, 2008

Can you get me a visa?

I realize I just published a post, but I thought I'd add a second one more geared toward people I've encountered. As an "ambassador of goodwill" as my Rotary mandate calls me to be, I often think about my comportment in the street and how I might be coming off to Egyptians. Even though I've only been here a few days, how I perceive the people here has shifted enormously. I'll admit that despite considering myself an open-minded, worldly type of guy, I had and continue to have my fair share of stubbornly ingrained prejudices. Tense, nervous, and worried about getting ripped off is an approach that I foresee melting away (though slowly) as I begin to reinterpret quirks and nuances of the Egyptian people that I haven't grasped right off. I've begun replying, smiling to children and teens who find great novelty in saying hello in English to a tow-headed, blue-eyed foreigner and, to my great relief, more often than not, they're not asking for money. Whether they're laughing at me or just nervously (or both) I don't know and don't really care.
Very often taxi drivers are pushy (many will slow down, but not stop, honk ceaselessly at you, and gesture wildly for you to get into their dilapidated, most likely only partially functional vehicle in hopes you'll desire their services). In light of this, I have taken to ignoring them (often the best course of action,) but today when asked if I wanted a taxi by drivers outside of their cars, I said "no, thank you" as politely as possible in my limited Arabic and found, to my amazement, that some took no for an answer. So they do have ears! This isn't an apologetic for all cabbies in Egypt, indeed many are rudely persistent, but it goes to show that one mustn't generalize. When you actually do hop in a taxi, it becomes about not getting taken advantage of. When leaving Al-Azhar, I told Ross we should try to get a cab for 5-6 LE (Egyptian Pounds; from the French Livres égyptiens) if possible. The first cabdriver we came across asked for 10 or 12 pounds and, when we declined, he drove off in disgust. The second asked for ten and I said "la" (no in Arabic) and began to walk off. We had told him we'd pay six and he said that ten was a good price. In a moment, the woman who'd just gotten out of the vehicle told us to come back, that the cab drive had agreed to our price. As we got in, he quoted us a new price of eight. Defeated, I rolled my eyes and hopped in the backseat anyway. "Good brice, good brice," laughed the driver, "Americans are rich!"
"LA, LA, LA," I retorted, "we're students." As the drive went on though, Ross, who's much more proficient in Arabic than I am, exchanged some words with what turned out to be a good-natured and kind-seeming man. He pointed out various landmarks to us, taught us some words in Arabic, and--the kicker--knew where the heck he was going (sometimes hard to find in a taxi-driver here). We were suckered, of course, by his charm and, without him even asking, we gave him 10 LE. That's about $1.86 for a five and a half mile cab we weren't too much worse for the wear.

Going back in time to our visit to Al-Azhar: Ross and I stopped a couple of times to buy maya (water in Arabic) from guys at Nestlé (nest-luh, as it's pronounced here according to my venerable roommate) carts selling ice cream, soda, and water. The second guy was jovial and chatty and tried to get me to give him a US dollar "for to remember" and, after I refused, he then surprised us by producing an American dollar from a wad of money and tried to sell it to me! We joked and laugh and then he inquired, "Can I ask you a question? Is it true visa on internet or is it liar?" Ross and I assured him that there were countless e-scams out there pretending to be able to procure legal passage to the States for non-Americans. He asked "Then how can I visit America? Can you help me visit America?" We laughed and told him he'd have to visit the embassy. It occurred to me though that he'll probably never get to experience my country as I am his. The restrictions on his entry into the States, for one, are prohibitive. Secondly, the financial gap between the average American and the average Egyptian is such that even middle class Americans can romp all around the globe if they wish (though it may take some planning and wise financial decisions) whereas only the wealthiest Egyptians could ever hope to get to the US. It saddened me to think that my newfound chum, Hassan, would be "stuck" in Egypt, while I was allowed to come and go as I pleased.

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