I always remember the running. Back and forth. Around and around. I’ve been jogging all over the world. It’s the time when John and I talk. It’s a time for me to catch up with Lydian. It’s when I think and meditate. It’s the time when I see the world around me as a place to play; to sweat and touch the ground, jump, hop, or just trek. Some countries offer more Play Places or better jogging trails than others. But no matter what, I always find somewhere to run or at least walk briskly. Even in unlikely urban locatinos.
But Egypt has been a challenge. Last week, we found the Shabeb Markaz or Youth Center, but it’s a 30-minute walk to get to it from our apartment in Mesaha. Taking a taxi takes even longer which makes it difficult to find the time to go what with John’s work schedule and Arabic classes. Taking two hours out of a day to go work-out doesn’t leave a lot of down-time for us to chill and at this stage in our journey, we definitely need some regular restful periods to process the cultural strangeness.
Today, the plan was to go to the Markaz and run 10 miles before returning to our apartment. But as we sat around the table eating lunch, we all looked at each other and decided it was too much.
“I’m so tired.” Lydian said, her eyes droopy. “ So tired that last night, I had a dream that I was napping.”
I laughed and leaned back in my chair thoughtfully, “Remember running in Costa Rica?”
“We went jogging in Costa Rica?” Lydian said. “I don’t remember that.”
“You don’t remember The Hill?” I said.
She stopped for a second and John gasped audibly, laying his fork down with a loud clink. “Oh my God…” He said. “That’s right.” He paused for emphasis. “The Hill.”
In Costa Rica, one of our vacation rentals in the small town of Atenas was perched on a near vertical incline that we ran or walked up and down daily. We almost had to climb the hill it was so steep.
“At least Egypt isn’t like that.” I said. “There has to be a place for us to jog that’s close by. We just have to find it.”
John pulled up a map of Cairo. I got out my trusty Lonely Planet book and Lydian and I leaned over a map of our neighborhood. On the maps, there were green spaces in several nearby locations on the outskirts of Dokki. One of them was a Botanical Garden. And of course, the Cairo University campus was close by too, but we’d never been to it. The building we went to each day (The Language Center for Arabic Studies) was located off-campus next door to the gargantuan Saudi Arabian embassy (which kept the walk interesting on class-days what with all the barbed wire, armed soldiers, and armored vehicles). We’d never officially been on campus.
Fifteen minutes later, we left the apartment heading west. The terrain around our apartment was not remotely jog-able. First of all, there was trash everywhere. Piles of it. And poop. Mostly dog or cat poop in random places, but there might be other types of poop too (I haven’t looked that closely). This might sound like too much to a lot of people, but trash and animal control are worldwide problems. We regard the ick as a fairly normal part of the street milieu abroad.
And then, there’s traffic. The street where our apartment is located is narrow to begin with and then cars park on both sides, which leaves barely enough room for vehicular traffic to squeeze through. But that’s not all. Since there are cars parked up on the sidewalks where there are sidewalks, that is, the people walk out in the street with cars passing by within millimeters of them (and us, for that matter).
But these are not the only perils. Where sidewalks exist, they’re inconsistent to say the least. It isn’t really possible to look up from walking without hazarding a major fall. A piece of cardboard could be used to cover a manhole, for example. Steps may crumble. Pipes may be sticking up in random places. Dead animals may be buried and rotting in a pile of sand (covered, if we’re lucky). There may be a baby mouse on a stretch ahead of us flitting blindly to and fro. Walking in countries with a lot of government corruption is like a warped rendition of Parkour. It’s not atmospheric, but it is exciting.
On the way west, we found something wonderful and unexpected: chocolate. Since we don’t eat milk or refined sugar, one of our most important goals in any country we visit is to find pure dark chocolate that we can use to make our own version of decadence using honey and rice flour or whatnot. And there it was. In a grocery store only minutes from our apartment. Who knew? As the Arabic people say, Al Humdulillah (praise be to God).
About fifty yards further, beyond the grocery store selling chocolate, were the Botanical Gardens, a fenced in green space that cost 1 Egyptian Pound (about 10 cents) per person to access. It didn’t have a padded track like the Markaz but it did have a lot of stray cats and shade, which was nice. The paths were wide and open.
Lovers from the University (which was located across a busy street) were cuddling on benches. As we readied to leave the garden and head to the University, a group of girls in hijabs were giggling in the distance ahead of us. One of them wore the niqab (a full face covering) and the poor thing tripped suddenly over some barbed wire and face-planted full-on into a pile of…whatever. She sat there for a moment in the heap, hurt and humiliated (which made me wonder how the niqab could ever been considered useful, given that an epic fall was still just as embarrassing to those who were wearing one) as her friends cooed over her. She got up and laughed, brushing herself off with tears in her eyes (the only part of her face that we could see) as we walked by. I couldn’t share a sympathetic glance with her because I couldn’t see her face. I just looked down instead.
And I felt angry for her, on her behalf. Just a twinge.
Like when I see an old Arabic women tottering along a cobblestone path in high-heeled flip-flops and a full-face covering… Like women really need to be made more vulnerable than they already are. What kind of disconnect makes women make these kinds of fashion choices? I’m old and I need hip implants. I’m going to go take the cobblestone path to the grocery store and wear these shoes.
But those are side thoughts.
We crossed the street, which is a story in-itself, worthy of it’s own blog post. On this street crossing, John got left behind on the first phase and Lydi and I stood on the opposite side coaching him across. On phase two of the street crossing, we waited for a man with a cane down-traffic from us to make our crossing less perilous.
At the University, we were heavily screened. Lydi and I have University identification cards, but John doesn’t so we were stopped at the gate where multiple guards and a security dog were checking people’s I.D.’s. A young and enthusiastic translator arrived.
“Is he your son?” The translator asked me, in regard to John…or Lydian. I couldn’t tell. Something had gotten lost in translation and I could tell that he was probably an intern and this was going to be one of his biggest moments on the job. I furrowed my eyebrows and said, “Zowzhee wa bintee” (my husband and my daughter) and smiled. He smiled back and put his hand on his chest, like the men here do when they’re apologetic about something.
Several security guards came over to get in on the action. They were incredibly friendly. They took us to a different gate to discuss the issue with yet another guard who wore a slightly more serious expression. John gave away his driver’s license. And then we were taken to another security screening area, where John was left behind (briefly) and Lydian and I went with the group of men back to where we started. I almost said, “Hey…ya know what? Nevermind.” I was trying to calculate how to say something like that in Arabic when it occurred to me that these guards were really excited about us and the whole charade of getting us into the university. It was something exciting to do. Their enthusiasm was endearing. I didn’t want to ruin the party.
Eventually, the “okay” was given for us to go inside and see the campus. As I walked past the security dog, it lunged at me—at my head, that is—and I jumped and yelled, “Jesus!”
The men hadn’t been expecting the dog to jump out like that either and they apologized, but then laughed about it (and my exclamation) amicably. Lydi and I decided that the Egyptian guard dogs perhaps aren’t trained as well as the ones in the United States. “Maybe they found that one in a back alley.” Lydi proposed.
John was waiting patiently with the women in security booth #2 and we rendezvoused with him and then continued on our merry way through the campus. The campus screening process was really quite rigorous, which was impressive. At least 10 different people looked at our cards and they had a veritable conference about us. I didn’t understand the need for such high security measures. Are there a lot of threats made against the university? I’m not sure. Since we were harmless, the whole process was entertaining overall. I love the positive vibe that young people have on college campuses.
The campus was typical of all colleges in throughout the world except the female students were
mostly covered with hijabs and there was an overpopulation of cats and kittens frolicking about in the grassy spaces. Clearly, they were cream-of-the-crop-cats at that. Elite and educated, these felines were well-fed and prolific. Batches of kittens crossed our paths as we made our way from one end of campus to the other. Students tossed little bits of food to them from the kiosks and the cats reached out and caught the bits with their paws in spectacular acrobatic displays.
On our way out of the campus, John got his driver’s license back and the security guards asked if they could have their photos taken with us. We agreed but I wanted photos of them too. This is what I love about Egypt. The people are friendly. They may be searching your purse or scrutinizing your security profile but they do it in a friendly way.
And so, as it often the case, our day out wandering was so much more productive than our destination-driven days. We found a place to go jogging. A place to buy chocolate. And a place filled with friendly people and kittens.