Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Language Barriers

Korba - Heliopolis in Cairo, Egypt
I never talked much to strangers before moving to Egypt. But I can't help talking to them now.

The longer I live in Egypt, the more I watch tourists. I have laughed before that I forget that I don't look like an Egyptian because I feel so much like one.

Until I feel some strange guy watching me.

But it's a kind of silly habit that I have picked up to watch tourists. I mean, I evaluate their outfits (particularly the women) to see how many cultural rules they have broken with those clothes. I look at their way of standing, walking, sitting,...

So basically I'm a gawker.

Of course, I'm not as blatant about it as the guys here can be. But still, behind my sunglasses I can basically glance just about anywhere and watch anything or anybody.

Just last week we were walking around in Korba, and I put my sneaky tourist-watching skills to good use.

Like any other big city, Cairo is broken up into different sections of town which, in turn, are broken up into smaller sections. Korba is a part of the grand old Heliopolis (the part of Cairo where we live) where there are many older buildings with high arched columns and balconies that loom over the sidewalks below. Even before I was married, I used to love to wander around Korba, checking the Metro Market grocery store for hard-to-find imported goods or stocking up on bubble wrap-lined big envelopes and spiral-bound notebooks from Everyman's, my favorite stationery shop in Cairo. The beautiful old architecture and feel of this particular street in Korba just draws me in.

So it's nice to bring my son here to go window shopping for a change when the weather is nice.

However, crossing the street in Korba is still one of those "taking your life in your own hands" kind of moments. So on this particular day, it took us a while to cross the street. There we were waiting for the exact moment where there'd be a large enough break in the traffic to let me safely wheel my son's stroller quickly across the one side of traffic, up and over the median, and then brave over the other side of traffic as well.

Let me just tell you that it takes some finesse...and just plain guts as well.

But given my carefully honed tourist-watching skills and sharp peripheral vision, I noticed an older foreigner couple over to my right leaning over and talking to a taxi driver. And it seemed me that they had been standing there a bit longer than usual.

I could tell that they were tourists. After living in Egypt for a while, you begin to develop a keen eye for what separates the tourists and expats in the streets of Cairo.

But for this couple, I would say the most telling sign that they were tourists was the way the woman was dressed.  She was probably in her late forties and dressed in a chic sleeveless dress that cut off at the knees - not something immodest from her home country - but not something you would lean way over in to talk to a taxi driver in Cairo. Doesn't leave much to the imagination for someone who's looking...and in Cairo, they are ALWAYS looking - even if everything is FULLY covered.

So even as I was in that split-second evaluating their clothes from the corner of my eye, I could tell that something was going on. And from my own experience, I knew that it was one of two situations:

Arguing over payment. This was one of those black-and-white Cairo taxis where you still have to haggle over the cost so it was quite likely that the driver was demanding more money than what the couple was willing to pay. This whole idea of haggling is a key part of the Cairo taxi experience (one I have happily left behind since I had my son by taking the newer, metered white taxis). But it can be very stressful for the newcomer and tourist in Cairo.

Asking for destination. Anywhere else, you would simply get in the taxi and then tell him where you want to go. Not so in Egypt. In Egypt, you have to kind of yell your destination out to them as they drive past. If they agree to take you, they then come to a screeching halt whereas everyone behind them also comes to a screeching halt...I'm sure you can guess what sometimes comes next. Again, very stressful situation for tourists.

Anyhow, the problem for tourists is that they usually don't speak Arabic. And while a few drivers will try to practice their broken English with tourists and expats alike, most of them aren't fluent by any means.

So after realizing that this couple wasn't getting anywhere with this taxi. I did the only thing my newfound nosiness (and tourist-watching skills) could help but doing. I asked them (the tourists) if they needed help.

I mean, it was the only compassionate thing to do. I have been in those same shoes where I couldn't communicate with drivers, and I have had to haggle my way out of paying triple the cost of a taxi ride a time or two (or fifty).

Once they finally heard me, the tourist couple turned to me in relief, and the lady opened her mouth...and spoke French to me.

At once all my good intentions went quickly down the drain!  I can't speak French. I mean, I could get by on the streets of Paris for the 6 months I was there 6 years ago, but certainly not enough to translate the French to Arabic!?! Or even enough to understand what they were saying.

But they were desperate. And I have lived overseas long enough to know that hand gestures and sparse words can go a long way in communicating. So somehow I got the general idea that they were trying to get to the Radisson Heliopolis hotel.

Now you must know that the Radisson hotel is very new.  I think it's less than 6 months old. And it just so happens to be in an unfamiliar area of our part of town that many taxi drivers don't know that well.

But I do.

So it was a lucky day for them because I knew exactly where they needed to go. And while I couldn't understand a lick of French I could most certainly explain where they wanted to go to the driver in Arabic without a problem.

So that was my good deed for the day.

Although it occurred to me later that maybe I should have told them how much to pay the taxi once they got there. Heaven only knows how much he told them to pay him! I've never seen a taxi driver sit there for 5 minutes trying to understand some tourists and where they want to go. They usually just put their hand up apologetically and drive off.

I bet he marked that price up 500% (not unusual in these types of situations).

I guess maybe it was his lucky day too.

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