Monday, August 2, 2010

Wake up Mohammed

We nearly died getting here. Mohammed was supposed to come to Cairo, sleep all day, and then drive us to Dahab. But soon it became clear he hung out with his family all day. Awake. He came to our place in El Maadi in the middle of the night to pick us up. He was supposed to be well-rested but he wasn’t. We only know this because he kept falling asleep on the drive.

For hours we careened through the darkness, through a Mars-like landscape of piled red rocks that never felt like much of a road. We’d stop every few hours, halted by men with automatic weapons at checkpoints, gathering our passports and papers each time for examination. Eugenia says that it’s not as scary as it looks, that they probably don’t even have bullets for the guns. But does it matter, really, if they have bullets? The impact is the same: fear, a bit of worry, trepidation. They know exactly what those guns, with or without ammunition, will mean when people see them. We aren’t immune to their cold power.

I watch Mohammed, watch him but tried to act like I’m not staring. I’m southern, after all, we have manners. God forbid you embarrass the person who’s about to kill you by driving recklessly. Gentility above all. So I pretend to not watch him, but I do. Whenever I see that chicken-bob start, that motion that only means someone is sleeping, I shout his name:

Wake up Mohammed!

We worry that we won’t make it, but we do. With every nodding motion we yell, worried and frustrated that he will kill us all. Manners be damned. By now the sun is rising and we find it difficult to sleep, anyway.

When we step out of the SUV we feel like explorers, off a boat from another culture, another land, another world. Desperate for solid ground and comfort.

Our room is a rounded, circular thing. With stucco-ed interior walls and tiled floors. Our shower only sprays saltwater. When you hear that at check-in…

(I should mention, check in is just telling the guy who runs the place, Jimmy, that you want to stay. It’s not a formal process. Nothing is signed, no rates are posted. The cost is different for every single room. A quick calculation by the astute Jimmy, who takes in, in a millisecond, the clothes you are wearing, your country of origin, and your general demeanor. With these factors he can create a perfect price, what economists call one’s willingness to pay. He maximizes profit in a heartbeat, all the while giving you the impression that you’ve made a great deal. He’s quite good at his job, with a loyal following.)

So, when you hear “salt water shower” at check-in, you think: no big deal. Sounds refreshing, right. By day three, salt stuck in your hair, layering your skin, burning your eyes—you think differently. You’re desperate for sweet water.

Every afternoon we take our journals and our books to the ledge in front of the hotel. This place is no natural settlement. It exists only because we are here: asking for a hotel, an opportunity to dive, a meal, and some trinkets. The ledge is a tiled embankment hovering over the reef. Touching the reef. Built right to the edge. No protective policy in place. On the ledge an unending supply of food and drink can be brought to you. Lots of seafood. Who knows where it came from, who fished it, what their lives are like. We sit on the ledge, among large pillows and ottomans, lounging in what must seem a gluttonous life to the staff.

I sit for a while, writing. Two young girls, maybe 11, maybe 10, walk by selling bracelets. What I would call friendship bracelets. Embroidery thread knotted into patterns and curves. Eugenia says you have to haggle, but every time I try it makes me sick. I can’t argue with someone who has nothing about an amount that means little to me. A man making 12$ a month, and I’m supposed to try to make him come down in price by 10 cents before letting him sell me a scarf. I’d rather give him all of it. I’d rather throw up. Unless that’s more offensive.

The girls bring their bracelets over because I can never resist making eye contact with kids. I’ve always done it. I can get kids at a playground involved in an educational and constructive group activity in 10 minutes flat. Seven if we speak the same language. They bring their bracelets over and we invite them to sit with us. They are very shy, and can say almost nothing in English—only enough to say the price. An infinitesimal amount. Pennies. Literally. I ask to buy two, and they sell them to me, then sit to play checkers a while.

We ask to take their photograph, and they whip out head scarves in an instant, covering themselves before we snap the photo. I worry they will somehow get into trouble for allowing us this photo. I’m just not sure, and I don’t want them to be in a weird position. But they smile and laugh, finish the checkers game, and then walk on down the embankment—to sell their wares to other tourists.

I touch my stomach briefly, thinking about the little person inside. The person I know now is James, but didn’t know then. I wonder what the world, what life, will be like for that yet unknown person, and especially for those girls.

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