Monday, June 07, 2010

Alexandria-Cairo train crisis

This post will be a lot less confusing if I explain that we're actually going to be living in Cairo, not Alexandria, this summer. Surprise in the Ball applies to Egypt, too, I guess. There are definite advantages to being in Cairo, not the least of which is that there is a church congregation here that we can worship with. Miriam is in love with the children's class there already.

But I am sad to see the precious Summer of Alexandria slip from my grasp. Look, Egypt is not my favorite place, and when we were making plans for this summer, I consoled myself many a time with the fact that "at least we wouldn't be in Cairo" (which was another one of our options). Famous last words, right? Goodbye, temperate climate and Mediterranean Sea. Hello, dust so thick you can't see through it and sheer, 11-million strong HUMANITY.

My point is, we went to visit Alexandria on Saturday and had a fabulous trip there, but it was only a temporary stay. (I saw about a dozen unveiled women there, total, the whole day. Conservative much?) Thus it is that on Saturday evening, as twilight fell, we were at the train station catching a train back to Cairo, back to home.

Do you ever have those moments when you realize that you are living a scene from some far-away, terrible world, that you watched on CNN when you were a kid? This was one of those moments.

The train was late, so all of us waiting passengers stretched along the platform were getting antsy. When it pulled up, there was a mad rush to board. Amid this mad rush, Jeremy and I realized that we were at the opposite end of the train from our assigned seats. We had to get to Wagon 8, the last one, at the far end of the long platform.

We pushed ourselves and our two kids through mounds of luggage and hordes of elderly, bickering muhajjibas and managed to reach Wagon 7. Then the platform ended. The wagon we needed was beyond the platform, accessible only by the bare train tracks, and it was being mobbed by frantic passengers trying to board. As well as, I should add, people waiting for other trains who seemed to have gathered there just to watch the fun.

Jeremy and I were honestly concerned that the train would leave without us if we didn't get on board. We considered boarding Wagon 7 and walking through the compartment to Wagon 8, but a lot of other people had that idea and it made the going there very slow.

So we jumped down in front of the door to Wagon 8 and assessed the situation. People were climbing up to get on the train via a rough utility ladder that was not really meant to accommodate passengers. While the atmosphere in front of the other train wagons was hostile and competitive, the group dynamics here were collaborative and helpful. Everyone was trying to help everyone else get on that train before it left.

That's when I had my CNN flashback moment, to all those times when they show some stock footage of some battered foreign train overloaded with people and baggage and chaos and shouting and heat. Maybe they were fleeing strife, or maybe there was a transportation worker strike, or maybe an earlier train had crashed and the next one was overloaded. That was us, now. Except we were just trying to get home to Cairo.

When it was our turn to climb onto the train, Jeremy lifted precious Miriam onto the ladder and boosted her up to the train. For a brief moment, I knew at least Miriam would make it back to Cairo whether the rest of us did or not. The crowd behind us cheered her on. Then I got handed up, helped along by two muhajjibas I had never met until that moment. Jeremy lifted Magdalena up to me, I reached down to grab her, and our family was almost complete. At last, Jeremy hoisted himself up to the train and we pushed our way into the passenger compartment to make room for others to board.

I only wish I had a picture of Miriam standing alone on the edge of the train wagon door, amid a sea of flustered Egyptians, with her parents and little sister reaching up to her, trying to join her. But of course the best stories happen too fast for there to be time to take pictures. The train left just a few moments after we got on.

We made it back to Cairo and would you believe the taxi ride home from the station took almost a third of the time it takes to get all the way to Alexandria? That's what I mean about the humanity here. This place is HUGE. And its population this summer is 11 million plus four.


Liz Johnson said...

Oh wow. You know what would have made this even more fun?! If Christiane Amanpour had been standing there reporting the whole thing.

Could you imagine if the train had pulled away with just Miriam on it?! While I'm sure she would have been fine, the thought just breaks my heart. Ugh.

I'm glad you made it back, although I'm sad that you won't be in Alexandria. That place looks amazing.

Spencer said...

Cairo! Can't wait to hear what you think of the place (you guys already know my feelings--right now mostly feel jealous).

I hope things work out for you there. Cairo is a great city. Do you have an apartment yet?

Susanne said...

Yikes! Great story though. I'm eager to read more in the coming days. Hope you are settling in nicely. Too bad about Alexandria not working out.

Katie said...

This story made me very tense. And very aware of the fact that I never watch the news. I feel a little sheepish that perhaps the most CNN I've watched has been fake CNN on West Wing. Pathetic? Yes.

Glad you made it on!

Jake and Becky Veigel Family said...

All I can say is that you are so very brave--what an adventure all this is for your little family! But how great. B

The Harker's said...

Bridget, I just have to say, you have improved my outlook for the day. I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, when I just read your last few posts of everything you are going through living in a foreign country, and realized I am a wimp.:) I feel like people stare at me here in WA because I have three kids with me (and not staring in a good way), and here you probably feel that way whenever you step out the door (expect I am sure they stare at you because you and your kid are just so cute). You seem to handle everything so wonderfully too. I think I would be in tears daily. I have much to learn from you.:)

Kristen said...

I felt scared for you just reading this! Thanks for painting the picture so vividly--it was almost as good as having captured that shot of your hands reaching up to little Miriam.


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