Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Micro-Bus Passengers

The trains from Sohag to Cairo were full. Men were standing crushed together in the small, screeching space between the cars. Thursdays are like American Fridays, everyone skipping town for the weekend. This was exacerbated by the elections, everyone going home to vote in their district.

We decided to take a micro-bus, and there were ample opportunities, since the drivers had caught wind of the weekend rush. We hopped in one and waited until it filled up with other passengers, finally becoming desperate enough to pay for an extra seat so we wouldn’t have to wait for one more. A young cab driver named Mustafa bought us tea and pineapple soda. We hit the road with a friendly bunch of Copts on their way to Alexandria, each shouting into a cell phone to let loved ones know they had left with the loud, confused tone of grandparents throughout the world who don’t realize you can speak at a normal volume into a cell phone.

The driver was a laconic man in his 30’s wearing a galabiya, letting a cigarette dangle and ash out of his mouth under a thick mustache and a slightly less thick scruff of beard, as if he had once worried about his appearance but had recently stopped. After ten minutes on the road, he turned off into a village, careening between donkeys carting watermelons and children running between huge ditches filled with trash. The bus filled the alleys and crushed sugar cane stalks that had fallen in the street, probably due to the unpaved road, the rotting wooden wheels, and the uneven pace of the aforementioned donkeys.

After a few minutes, a woman in the back, clearly wealthier than the rest with a floral print headscarf, started to get annoyed at the detour. “This will take longer,” she shouted, either out of rage or in order to carry her voice over the sound of crushed sugarcane. “What is going on?”

“Just five minutes,” the driver shouted back, “and we’ll be back on the road.”

The others started to realize what was happening. We were way off course. Sohag is separated from Cairo by a desert highway, not small, green villages. “Where are we?” a man in a light blue galabiya said, raising his voice to a squeak.

“Five minutes. Really, just five minutes.”

“This won’t take five minutes,” the wealthier woman screamed. “I didn’t take the train because it was full, but I would have taken an airplane if I knew you’d take us out of the way!”

“Just five minutes. No problem. It really will only take five minutes.”

The repetition seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves, coaxing them into a frenzy. “How do we know we’re safe?” someone shrieked, “that you won’t take us into some ditch?”

Their country accents made it difficult for me to understand everything, but soon it became clear. The driver had promised someone in this village a ride to Cairo, and he had failed to tell anyone else. “What’s the problem?” my friend asked the man in blue. “The problem is we’re here.”

The noise was suddenly deafening. We had hit a village traffic jam, with three-wheeled tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and other cars honking, motors running with little muffling, donkeys clopping along the street, grainy music playing from the micro-bus’ speakers, and over all of this, the screaming. Everyone was screaming. “You have no manners, no manners at all to treat us this way!” “Just tell us frankly, how long will this take? An hour?” “This is horrible!” “Where are we? I don’t know where we are!”

The driver turned around, no longer quite as laconic, though a crumb still clung to his lower lip from a long-forgotten cracker. “Come on,” he said, “Is this really so bad? Are you going to die?”

That quieted most of them, except for the floral-print lady in the back. “Yes,” she shouted resolutely. “I am going to die.” The rest chuckled.

Just then, a woman approached the car from a nearby building. Her eyelids were heavy. Apparently she had been sleeping and wasn’t ready to leave. Then she had to say goodbye, each hug and handshake raising the temperature in the bus. Cairo was still six hours away. The floral-print lady jeered, “It’s bad enough we had to wait so long for you.”

The man in blue stopped her. “It’s not her fault,” he said. “It’s the driver’s fault for not telling us.”

The driver offered to buy everyone drinks in consolation. The floral-print lady wanted change, handing him a hundred pound bill ($17) to pay for a two-pound water (32 cents). Everyone stared at the cash.

The man in blue leaned in to my two friends. “Tell me,” he said. “Do you speak Arabic?”

We all nodded. The passengers, realizing we understood the whole episode, burst out laughing. Happy conversation followed, with the man in blue practicing his English: “I am Christmas. I am Christmas.”

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