Friday, April 24, 2009

On money, or taking things for granted

In Cairo, taxicabs don’t have meters, and there are no set fares. After your driver has taken you to your destination, you’re supposed to get out of the car and hand him a wad of cash through the window. The passenger decides the amount of payment, but must do so within an appropriate range.
We’ve learned quickly that if a driver tries to negotiate a price with us when we get into the car, he’s attempting to overcharge us. We generally become furious that our status as Westerners invites this behavior. “Ana mish chawaga!” Jess often yells as we scramble to get out of the car. “I am not a stupid tourist!”
Because we use taxicabs almost daily, it’s from their backseats that we most frequently encounter the Cairene proclivity for swindling foreigners. However, almost all our monetary exchanges are tinged by the feeling that we’re being taken advantage of.
And it isn’t just paranoia. Caitlin, Jess and I have become friendly with an Indian family who lives on the same floor of our building. During an elevator ride recently, the father asked us how much we’re paying for our place. We told him, and his eyes widened in incredulity. They’re paying much less.
Between these everyday frustrations and our eviction from the apartment, I have become distrustful and often angry when spending any money in Cairo. It's exhausting.

But I had a reality check the other night.

I left Cilantro, a local café, around one o’clock, eager to get home. As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I saw a little boy of about five sitting on the curb. His chin resting in his palm, he looked up and quickly rose to approach me. I didn’t know if he was homeless and alone or if an adult had left him there to beg. Not wishing to be party to the latter possibility, I took him into the nearby Pizza Hut for a slice and a juice.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I cried a little as I walked home. I was suddenly ashamed for all my complaints and frustrations. Every day, millions of Cairenes have to fight extreme poverty, navigate a venal bureaucracy and fear imprisonment and even torture if they question an official or voice opposition to the government. Rampant corruption and nepotism at the top have created outrageous wealth disparity. An here I am, clutching my daddy’s credit card and whining about a few dollars lost here and there and a few inconveniences.

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