Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Best Dollar I Ever Spent

I just love the buzz of Cairo. Everyone seems to roam the steets -- men, women, and children. After a fairly long day, I was pretty tired, but could not resist joining the crowds. The Nile is lined with all sorts of boats. The lowest caste of boat is decorated with artless colored lights and blaring Egyptian music. They always seem to be filled to the brim with happy Egyptian families enjoying the beauty of the river. The price of a ride was just five Egyptian pounds, which actually less than a dollar -- about 87 cents.

As usual, my boat was full of Egyptian families, and everyone was obviously looking forward to the ride. The women varied in their dress reflecting how strictly they interpreted the Islamic faith. At one extreme, there was a woman with only a scarf to distinguish her from a woman typically dressed in the western world. Another wore a light scarf and was flirting with an admirer. Another had hidden every part of her body except for her eyes, and she was trying to keep two naughty little boys under control. The gentleman seated next to me was taking pictures of his children with the camera on his digital phone.

Then he took a picture of me. I smiled and thanked him. Then I took one of him. Encouraged by our bond of digital photography, he said, "My name is Omar. Welcome to Egypt!" I told him my name. Then he said "Omar" again. "Hello, Omar," I said. "You know -- like Omar Sharif," said Omar, "You know Omar Sharif!" "Yes," I cried, "Dr. Zhivago!" "Dr. Zhivago," roared Omar. And for a few moments, we sat nodding at each other, smiling and ocasionally muttering "Dr. Zhivago," the second bond that had connected me to my new Egyptian friend.

Early in our relationship Omar felt compelled to educate me regarding the permissible limits of photgraphy. Omar took my camera and pointed at the children. The gesture obviously meant, "Feel free to photograph the children." And I did. Then Omar took my camera again and pointed it some of the women and waved his finger across his throat. The meaning was quite unambiguous in its message, "Photograph the kids all you like, but, if you decide to photograph the women as well, then someone will have to slit your throat. The women giggled. Perhaps they thought Omar was a goofball, but I liked that in Omar -- tough but fair.

Plus I thought the deal was fine, and I opted not to photograph the women in exchange for the opportunity to sleep in my hotel room that night with my throat in its original pristine condition.

As the boat was nearing the end of the trip, I wondered idly whether this boat was like an airplane with everyone paying different fare, and I, the foreigner, had paid more than everyone else. But by that time I was too happy to care. Besides, what would I have done with the change?

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