Rambo! The vendors lingering in doorways, trying to get us to stop to look at their products (all free, best price, come see, one minute) call out to Michael as we walk down the street. Rambo! Compared to most of the stick figure Nubians, he is quite bulky in the shoulders. People in the countryside south (Up River) of Cairo are thin – like they have not been sitting around after dinner watching TV, eating potato chips and sucking down sodas.
a. sodas are expensive
b. ditto on the chips
c. few TVs
d. maybe no dinner
It is a dusty struggle for day to day necessities here, the vendors are more urgent, the horses and donkeys skeletal, the clothing less colorful.
One night our cruise docked in a village called Esna, where at 9:30PM we are the only westerners on the dirty, rocky road. We were immediately approached by offers for carriage rides and requests to buy coca cola, scarf please, maybe later, on your way back.
A small, dark girl with large eyes comes up to me to try and sell me a scarf stretched across her arm. “La shakra,” I say, “No, thank you.” She continues to walk with us, barefoot on the rocky, littered road. When she puts the scarf back on her head I realize she has tried to sell us her own headscarf. She is talking a mile a minute. “Where you from? America? Welcome to Alaska!” Her English knows no fear.
“What is your name?” She asks and I tell her and ask hers.
“Hanna,” she says walking fast, tapping her chest. She asks me if I am married and checks out my hand for a ring. “Rambo.” She points to Michael. “He is papa familia?” Yes, I tell her, we are a family.
Earlier in the day a handsome young Egyptian, a waiter from the boat joined our tour of the tomb. He too asked me if I am married and how old I am. When I tell him my age, he switched gears. Do I have daughters? Are they married? Then, smiling he told me, he needed a girlfriend. An American girlfriend. He wants to come to America and he needs a girlfriend in order for him to get a job. I tell him, I can’t help him there. Maybe I have a friend? he smiles. I smile, too. But I don’t laugh at him. I have seen enough of the countryside to have seen the prospects for this tall, well spoken young man and beyond the cruise ship work, they are not good.
I slip Hanna a few Egyptian pounds, about equal to one dollar and ask her to show us to the Souk (marketplace). She leads the way and we turn left down a descending, rocky alley. No cars racing through this marketplace, just an occasional motorbike. Hanna has told me that she is 13 years old and she has no mama. She walks with quick sure strides in her bare feet, one of which has twisted toes. But that’s no impediment to her darting from shop to shop – trading shouts with shop keepers. She runs up to one open window selling cigarettes and small food items and I think she hides her money. Her hands are quick as a squirrel peeling acorns, so it’s hard to tell.
“Buy clothes for mama, here. Pharmacia. Clothes for Bebe. Telephono," she’s back at our elbows pointing out each shop with authority. The shopkeepers here are less outgoing, more suspicious of Rambo and his family, but they do smile back when we smile first. And when they see our guide is Hanna, they laugh and break into grins. Everyone seems to know her. She walks along shouting greetings and what appear to be joking insults at people. At one point an older man chastises her for not wearing shoes.
When a skirt on an outside rack catches my eye, we stop and ask the price. She runs to get a merchant from across the way to translate. Michael bargains and the price drops from 70 to 50 lbs. (from about $12 to $9) and everyone is happy. We walk away and she agrees, 50 lbs. “most. No more.” As we turn down another street we are in a different century. Except for electric lights, this is a crowded, dusty market from another time. The fruits and vegetables are not piled as high as in the city and people are all thin. In the USA, poor people tend to be overweight, here, no.
We see three trucks top heavy with young people – two trucks of boys and one of girls rocking around corners and heading out of town. They are happy and singing. Our guide tells us later this was most probably a wedding party. They wave and shout, “Hello,” in English.
A young man drops into our group to chat up Michael as we walk. He is rather well dressed in a windbreaker and jeans. Hanna whispers to me that he is a pick pocket. To watch Michael’s pocket. She is practically frantic. One time she saw this man take $400lb off of someone. I casually mention this to M and the young man drifts away, but not without giving Hanna the stink eye.
A well-groomed man in a caftan brushes by Hanna and makes a “phish” noise and I see her slip him the money we had given her and he banks into an alley. A little later I say to her, “That man took your money.” “Yes.” She is matter of fact. “I have no mama.” She holds both hands flat against her cheek, the universal sign of sleeping, “I sleep.”
After maybe 30 minutes of exploring this market NOT designed for tourists, it’s time to return to the ship. Most of the shops are closing at 9:30 on a Saturday night, but many people are still working. With raw tobacco piled high and treadle sewing machines in the clothing and shoe shops that smell of raw leather, donkey drawn carts driven by men and boys, we look around. Hanna guesses what we want, “go back to boat, this way.” And she points down a twisting alley. Frankly, it’s a little scary. But then, I’m game. After all, I’m traveling with Rambo, right? I jab Michael and he says, “I’m not so sure about this.” Neither one of us wants to be lead down a blind alley. But Hanna is reassuring, “this way to boat.”
We pass a collection of children on in a whitewashed doorway. Michael takes their picture while I make big smiles with a stern looking woman in an abaya across the path. She finally smiles. Cute kids. Who can resist? We both shrug. I wonder if it is an orphanage. All those toddlers together. Adoption is not considered proper in a Muslim country.
Another turn and we are on the river road, the boat a few football fields away. Time to bid good bye to Hanna and I press a 20lb ($4) note in her hand. To give a child like this too much money would be dangerous for her. 20 lbs may buy her a few nights sleep or meals for her and her friends, more than that and someone could break her like a twig to take it from her.
At first I had assumed the “no mama” line was a ruse, but now I’m thinking maybe it is true. What Muslim mama would let her precious daughter with the bright mind and gorgeous black eyes out in the marketplace to hang out alone with strangers from another country on Saturday night? Girls start to wear headscarves when they begin having their periods. At thirteen Hanna has a scarf, but whether it is her inexperience with the thing or the fact that it is the cheapest of polyester, it won’t stay put. With no mama to make sure her family apartment’s balcony is brightly painted to signify that a marriageable girl is living there, her dark skin and her twisted toes, Hanna’s marriage prospects may not be the best. What she has going for her is spunk and intelligence. I don’t understand the culture well enough to know if those are blessings or curses for a young woman of 13.
This picture of a painted balcony was taken from the boat. It is from a different, more properous village. The properity of the area is directly tied to how many tourist attracting ruins are around.
“This money is for you. You spend it on you. Do not give to that man.” I say as I press the bill into her palm. She nods. “For you.” I say. Our eyes lock. As I walk away, I can only hope that she is able to spend at least some of it before Fagan puts a clamp on her tip. Later our guide tells us that children like this are not allowed to work the streets alone, they all have to give 2/3 of what they collect to their bosses, a kind of local mafia.
But that night the reason I can’t sleep is not because of Hanna. Tonight at least, she has a place to sleep. The reason I can’t sleep is the face of the old man with skin the color and toughness of his dusty, fleshless horse. No teeth, his head in a sweat stained white turban who asked “please, please, one hour only,” for us to ride in his carriage and I said, no thank you. He was gaunt, his horse showing every bone. I can’t sleep wondering if he and the horse went to bed hungry and how much I really did not need that skirt.