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Every year for Christmas I throw two parties, one on the 25th December, a posh, formal, sit down dinner, and another on 7th January, an informal, fun filled lunch for family and friends, including kids. For this second Christmas, I usually have presents for all and sundry. A token little gift that is beautifully wrapped, with the name of the guest on it. Gifts are piled up in a beautifully decorated wheelbarrow next to the lit Christmas tree. As Santa’s surrogate I call out the individual names of each and every one of my guests and hand them their gifts, in a fun filled atmosphere of anticipation and friendly teasing.
For this to happen I have to plan ahead to go foraging in the markets for gifts. For the past couple of years a dear friend has been helping me out by taking me to the old part of Cairo where the same products found in town are sold for a fraction of their price in town. The only drawback is that I hate crowds. I love people, but I have this great dislike of my space being invaded. In such an area there IS no space. You can barely take a step without brushing against another human being, or colliding into goods that are on display. The streets are unbelievably narrow, cobbled, crowded with people and goods, colors, noise everywhere, a total nightmare for me. But that is not what is expected of me, especially as I am being done a favor, being taken and shown all the shops where to get all I need. The least I could do is bare it and show my honest, heart-felt gratitude.
This year, an added incentive for this trip, was the party I shall be throwing beginning of December to celebrate my Mom’s 100th birthday. To make it special, I wanted special theme dress code for my guests, so was offered the services of two friends who know their way around that area, and who know how to haggle with the shopkeepers, which is something all parties expect and look forward to, except me. So my two friends, Di and Da, were both free to take me there today. We agreed on a time and I took the car, with the driver, for convenience, and went to pick them up. Traffic was the usual horrendous experience, but just one and a half hours after leaving my house out in the desert, I picked up my friend Di, then we continued to the house of my other friend Da. Then we were set to go.
One thing must be made clear, I go about town purely on instinct. Mostly no street signs, and if they are there they are very cunningly hidden by either trees or have posters plastered over them. You ask for directions and you are given detailed instructions that confuse you even more. You get a map and it is either so outdated that the street names have changed several times since the printing of the map, or if it is not that outdated, it is missing half the streets! So instinct and a happy-go-lucky sense of direction are usually what I go by. That, among others, being the reason why I like to have friends with me who know their way around. In this particular instance I had miscalculated rather badly. My friend Di had not been to that area in quite some time, and streets have changed quite a bit, what with tunnels and flyovers, the whole terrain looked different. My friend Da who was always going there, usually took the underground and then walked a great deal, so the perspective from the car was totally different.
Our first stumbling block came when we were met by a multiple choice : through the tunnel, up the flyover, or down the road? Of course both hesitated at the most crucial juncture, where all the cars are barreling down on you and there you are, at a complete stop. We edged towards the tunnel, but after going in a couple of meters it was decided that no, the flyover was the route to go. No problem, everybody does it … we BACKED OUT of the tunnel, against oncoming traffic, and switched lanes to get on to the flyover. By that time I was gritting my teeth and my toes were curled in my shoes. We got going, still in one piece, and the car undamaged.
Half way there, it occurred to my friends it might be a good idea to stop over and ask at one of the shops for what we were looking for. With difficulty we triple parked and they went down to the shop. I was in the car with the driver when the policeman approached us to move us on. A very nice smile and a short explanation gained us a few minutes. My friends came back to say that the shops we needed were across the road and way at the bottom from whence we had come!!
To cross the road we had to drive up something like five kilometers in the most awful traffic, just to get back to where we were, but on the other side of the road. By that time my nerves were somewhat frazzled, but I thought it best not to show it, after all, they are doing me a favor, wasting their time and energy in helping me out.
Finally, around an hour after we had left Da’s house, we got there. We left the driver to fare for himself, try to find a parking space, and off we went.
My first challenge was trying to keep up with my friends without being run over by any of those hand pushed carts that came at me from all directions, or of falling into one of the huge piles of garbage all over the street. I made it safely to the entrance of the extremely narrow road, crowded with shops whose wares were displayed on the outside, taking up what remained of that very narrow road. Here my friends bloomed, they were in their element, and here I really started to wilt. Not only did I not have my own space, there were actually little trucks running up and down this road, one of which nearly ran me over, but for one of the shop keepers pulling me out of its way at the last minute, and giving me a lecture on alertness!!
By the time we reached a shop half way down the road I would have happily bought horse turd for a mint just to get out of there. But better council prevailed and they both steered me right. We accomplished the first half of our mission without much damage. Then we went looking for the Christmas presents. Of course these had to be in the last shop. But I was so grateful that it was quiet and not that many people around, I actually raved about the stuff and bought quite a few pieces – probably far more than I would need – just to make sure I don’t have to come back again soon. Finally we were done. I gathered my tattered nerves and braved the trip back to the car, keeping a wary eye on those scooting little trucks, those hand pushed carts, and all those pedestrians. By the time we reached the car I found I had been holding my breath, so I let out a huge sigh as I got in.
It was too soon. I should have held it longer. The return trip had all the elements of a farce. I think it was Da who suggested we go straight to get to the main flyover that would smoothly take us back to our respective homes. Instinctively I thought we were going in the wrong direction, but who am I to argue with the experts. Half an hour and a few kilometers later we had to ask for directions. I think Egyptians love giving directions, its a national hobby. They love sending you on the most circuitous road which might still not get you to your destination. On that day we followed a minibus and a taxi half way then were left on our own. But we soldered on. We were told that we would had to turn round, go through a tunnel then take a right and up the flyover. True to their word, it was all there, after what seemed like ten kilometers, but am sure was not. Finally we were somewhere we recognized and were on our way back.
I dropped them both off, each at her house, with sincere thanks for all their help, then continued on the trip back home. Thank God I had the driver, because by then it was dark and I had developed such a blinding headache I could barely keep my eyes open. I had left the house seven hours before, had not drunk or eaten anything, was sick with nervousness and tension most of the day, so it was with great relief that I saw the lights of my home again. Also a great relief that I would not have to go through that again for another year.