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.