BY MILT THOMAS
EDITOR’S NOTE: InsideVero Contributing Editor, Milt Thomas, is traveling in the Middle East, and will be corresponding with our readers as he journeys to Egypt to the United Arib Emirates
Blame it on global warming or Judgement Day, but a major weather event hit Egypt yesterday – it rained. Normally, Egypt gets one to two inches of rain a year, but it seems like the entire annual rainfall came yesterday (even lightning and thunder today!). In a country more famous for dust than rain, nothing slows life down more than a combination of both. Dust becomes mud and while it cleans the air, it creates a mess on the ground. Of course yesterday is the day I went to Alexandria, a two and a half hour drive on good weather days. I accompanied ten other adults and five small kids in one mini-bus to attend an engagement party involving their relatives in the northern Mediterranean city. We left Kafr el Arbain around noon and arrived at the destination in Alexandria at five.
The highway to Alexandria, known as the agricultural road, is a decent, four lane and mostly divided roadway. Traffic in Egypt is always a challenge, but with pockets of mud and puddling, it is more like the 4X4 mud races they used to have at Mesa Park in Fellsmere.
It seems as though there are no lane markers on the road, just narrow spaces between cars that become ad hoc lanes – a four lane highway can become as many as eight lanes if enough space opens up. The trick is to drive as closely as possible next to that 18-wheeler and hope the driver sees you. The speed limit (the what?) is anywhere from 70-120 kilometers per hour but that means nothing. Again, if a space opens up between two vehicles, just gun it and hope the space doesn’t close again. There are no slow cars in the left lane like in Florida. Many Florida drivers would have to drive on the shoulder to avoid getting rear-ended or serenaded by airhorns, assuming there is a shoulder. Get the picture?
Now add the rain. Rain on a Florida highway tends to slow down traffic. Here in Egypt, it is a challenge to drive even faster. Male drivers have many opportunities in life to prove their manhood, but the most common method is on the highway. It is like a Disney E coupon ride without the guard rails. Or like LeMans with everyone racing to come in first at an imaginary finish line. If your vehicle is not totally covered with mud, then you are a wimp. That includes the windshield. Apparently wipers don’t work on any vehicle because the windshields (as well as the rear windows) are opaque. You can only see where you are going by sticking your head out the window. If you do however, you will have an instant mud bath with no therapeutic value.
There were many gaper’s blocks or rubber necking. Diabled vehicles are apparently meant as a test of your braking system. Since you cannot see the mud-covered red taillights of cars in front of you, it almost necessitates slamming on the brakes to avoid a rear-ender and hoping the guy behind you does the same. Then the traffic creeps along until getting past the disabled vehicle (there are many of these) or accident (surprisingly few of these). Then it’s gas pedal to the floor until the next tie-up.
One thing I noticed in my frequent trips to Egypt, is that accidents are rare, especially when you consider the volume of traffic and reckless driving. I assume that driving here totally occupies your attention. No sleeping at the wheel, texting or daydreaming, no sir.
Mid-way through our trip we stopped for a break from all the tension and cramped conditions in our traveling sardine can. It was a chance for the kids to run around in the mud and let off steam, for the adults to stand, take photos, or sit for a cup of tea and maybe a sheesha. All this right next to the highway with cars and trucks speeding by, honking horns, brakes screeching, mud flying. No, it was not relaxing, but any break from sitting in the cattle bus, stiff with tension, was a welcome change.
I should note that the young kids, ranging in age from four to 12, were very well behaved. Children respect their elders in Egypt and for the parents, with life around them in a constant state of chaos, creating a calm, civilized home life is very important.
Welcome to Alexandria
This engagement party was for a nephew of my friend Hamdy who had moved to Alexandria a year ago and apparently found the girl of his dreams. Tradition calls for the girl’s family to throw an engagement party and relatives always plan to attend, even if it is in a faraway town. Typically, these parties are held at a public place, like a hotel or park, but if the bride’s family is poor, it is held at their apartment. In this case, the apartment was on the top floor of a six floor walkup. Heart patients need not attend. Now imagine about 75 people crammed into this small three-room apartment and you get the picture.
No one in Hamdy’s family had ever met this girl or her family, but you would never know it. Everyone mingled instantly, kids with kids, women with women and men with men. The future bride would come later. Now it was time to eat. The food was plentiful, tasty and kept coming long after appetites left the building. Fried chicken, beef stew, kofta (finger shaped pieces of grilled ground lamb), bread, rice, soft drinks and salad. Twelve of us sat at a table in one small room. When we finished, another 12 took our seats.
After dinner, several of us went back downstairs to the coffee shop next door for tea and sheesha. This is a crowded section of the city, a forest of high rises with businesses on the first floor, a coffee shop next to a car repair shop with someone washing cars on the muddy street, vegetable vendors, kids playing and lots of traffic inching through the neighborhood’s narrow dirt roads.
As we sat for our short respite in the coffee shop, we suddenly heard a chorus of horns and screams of delight as the future bride arrived. She emerged from a car dressed in red and makeup near kibuki in proportions. Someday we will see what she really looks like, most likely after they are married. An entourage arrived with her in several cars and the procession then started upstairs to the party. My first thought was whether the sixth floor can hold up under the weight of all these people.
Once inside, it was like a party at Studio 54. You either danced or swayed to painfully loud music provided by a young man sitting at his computer, a “floppy disc” jockey if you will. Trays of pastries and cake were then brought in. the betrothed couple sat together at the front of the room as guests congratulated them and danced in front of them. Of course, men and women don’t dance together here. So first the women danced, then the men. I have attended these parties almost every time I visited Egypt and danced every time, but this room was so crowded I felt my dancing would probably knock half of them over.
After two hours we decided to head home. After getting lost in Alexandria traffic, we finally made it to the highway and then repeated the experience of driving up there, only this time in the dark. Darkness provides a new challenge – many people drive without their lights on, using them only to flash a warning instead of using the car horn. We walked in the door after 11pm, 11 hours on the trip, all but about two of them in the car dodging traffic.
Oh, I forgot one other detail. Two years ago, when the Arab Spring revolution began in Egypt, a number of protestors died in clashes with the police. With Mubarak gone and no experienced government to replace him, the police became targets of the citizens’ ire. A cop directing traffic would either be ignored, cursed upon or targeted by angered Egyptians. Traffic police are not armed in this country and they asked for guns to protect themselves from the public. The government refused with good reason. None of these traffic cops were trained with weapons and any accidental shootings could spark another revolution. So without arms, the police refused to direct traffic. Thus, wherever you drive in Egypt these days, you do not see a single policeman, not in Cairo, not in Alexandria and certainly not on the highway between Cairo and Alexandria.