Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 1, 2004 In a boat on the Nile.

Cairo has river buses that chug up and down the Nile carrying people upstream and downstream. For fifty piasters – about eight cents – you can go as far as the boat will go, from the radio and television building downtown past Gezira, past the Four Seasons, past Roda Island, down to somewhere near Coptic Cairo and the remains of the big walls that used to surround the city. I love riding on the river boat. There aren’t any foreigners on it, just lots of ordinary folks getting from one part of town to another by water instead of in hot crowded buses.

I meet people on the river bus. Last week I rode in tourist mode. I pulled out my camera when I got on the boat, as we sat moored at the dock waiting to launch. A teen-aged boy sitting in the doorway to catch the view and the breeze grinned at me and pointed at himself, so I took a few pictures of him and showed them to him on my camera. The seat behind me filled in with a foursome, two young women, a boy of seventeen or so, and an infant in the arms of one of the women.

They were a very jolly bunch. The boy leaned as far out the window as he could to trail things in the water - his shoes, his sister's scarf, anything that might reach. His sister laughed with a smile of joy that encompassed me as well as her brother. In my best sign language, I asked if I could take a photo of her. She grabbed the baby with a grin, to make sure he was in the picture too.

Today I rode the boat again, without my camera. As soon as I boarded I was surrounded by three boys of eleven or so, eager to try their English on a foreigner. Their English wasn’t much better than my Arabic, but it was good sport. They did succeed in explaining to me that they were on their way to the zoo – as were, I think, many of the people on the boat, though most of the children were with their parents. I told them that I was from America, and working with the Ministry of Planning – I managed to search out the name of the ministry from my limited Arabic. That took a while, though, as I’d forgotten how to say “work” and could only remember how to say "student, no, tourist, no."

The boys pointed at an egret soaring over the river and told me the word for bird in Arabic. I promptly forgot it, of course, but I did manage to say that the bird was nice. And that Egypt is nice, and Cairo is nice, and the Nile is very nice. I was stumped on how to say that the Nile was polluted, though, and what a pity it was that we couldn’t swim in it.

Then a pretty little girl of five or so, in a frilly white dress, caught my eye from the other side of the boat and counted to ten in English. Well, I couldn’t be shown up, so I began counting to ten in Arabic. Did that ever get the attention of everyone on the boat! By the time I’d reached five, I had the rapt attention of adults and children alike. Talk about a performance! It was a bit daunting, actually. I hesitated at eight and the boys quickly filled it in, but I wanted to do it myself.

The boys were nice. They would say things to me, and I’d shake my head and throw my hands in the air because I just didn’t understand. They’d look at me and I at them – language is so frustrating! One of their friends was rather stout, and they told me he was an elephant, and crazy – magnoun, in Arabic. He seemed like a perfectly nice boy to me, and his English no worse than the rest of them. Poor kid. They told me another of their friends was also crazy, an impish little boy with a huge grin. I asked him if the first two boys were also crazy, and he said no, and then yes, and then they all laughed.

When we all got off the boat, they asked me how to get to the zoo. I tried to explain, though my Arabic wasn’t really up to it. I could have just told them to follow everyone else who had gotten off the boat, but of course my Arabic wasn’t up to that either. We walked together for a block, then they crossed the street and I continued on my way. But we all waved good bye, again and again, the three boys, the little girl in the frilly dress, the parents, the stout boy. I hope they all had fun at the zoo.

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