I arrived at JFK on a day New York taxi drivers were out on strike. “This is going to cost me,” I muttered to myself as I queued up with others heading Big Apple-ward. I wondered what the taxi driver’s little book would say the fare is to get me to Jersey City, where I’m temporarily staying, thanks to the kindness and generosity of my friend Marie. The final tally — about $100 — basically the money the fellowship saved on airfare by sending me to JFK instead of Newark.
As I left Cairo at around 1 am on Tuesday night — after saying goodbye to J&K (that’s them in the photo, with Jack giving me a final wet willie before I left) who had been so kind to put me up (and put up with me) for a couple of weeks — I made note of each landmark I passed, realizing that all the places I had driven by in various trips in rattly Cairo cabs, I would not see again for some time. I soaked in my last view of the Nile. Looked out at grand mosques and churches that seem to line the elevated highway on the way to the airport. And heard for the last time a taxi driver tell me where Mubarak lives, off the main airport road in Heliopolis.
It was the tail end of rush hour when the taxi driver pulled away from JFK and headed across Queens toward Manhattan. With conservative talk radio on the AM dial blaring on the stereo (a little like hearing imams shouting and chanting on radios in Cairo cabs), my traffic-averse driver swept onto every highway on-ramp whenever he saw traffic ahead. This made for a circuitous tour of New York City, taking in all the geography of a traffic report on 1010WINS morning radio. He swung north to cruise by LaGuardia airport, then onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (the BQE) toward my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Seeing traffic ahead on the BQE, he darted right and took the Queens Midtown tunnel into Manhattan. As he crossed the island (a little bigger than Zamalek in Cairo), I made calls on the cell phone that had been dormant for a year, ticking off one by one the list of friends in the contacts of the phone’s memory. The cab turned left on the West Side highway, and I got my first glimpse of the Hudson in more than a year; the sun setting, and people enjoying the waterfront at all the renewed parks and attractions on its banks. This is a very different river from the Nile, though not as much as I thought a year ago.
In my two days of adjusting so far to life here, I’m doing pretty well, I think, with a little help from my friends. I’ve already had two nights of welcome back dinners and drinks with good pals. I’m getting used to the money being all the same color (more or less) and size.
When I cleaned out the pockets of the pants I wore on the flight home, I laughed to myself as I pulled an Egyptian 5 pound note from the left pocket. Five Egyptian pounds was the cost of a taxi ride from my pad to the AUC office (about 88 cents). But change — fakka in Egyptian Arabic — is not easy to come by, and taxi drivers are notorious for not having any as a strategy for a hefty roundup of the fare (mafish fakka, they say, “I have no change.” Then mish mushkela, “no problem” making gestures that the extra is worth more to him than it is to me). So I would almost jump with glee whenever I got five pound notes as change, and I’d stuff them in my left pocket, separate from the other denominations in my right pocket, so I would always have one handy for the commute.
It’s a habit I won’t need to continue here in New York (a fistful of Lincolns doesn’t hold the same cachet), but it does feel strange to have coins in my pocket instead of a wad of piasters, the flimsy and well-worn bills that serve as pennies and nickels in Egypt.
Staying in Marie‘s, I was immediately comfortable. A quick look around showed it was clearly the home of a comic book editor and traveler. But it was also immediately clear why we are good friends. The knick knack shelf has lots of familiar souvenirs from places I’ve also traveled, and others I hope to visit (particularly Antarctica). A quick scan of the bookshelves showed countless Boolean connections: guidebooks for nearly every region of the globe, and lots of authors in common (Shakespeare, Alaa Al-Aswany, Joseph Campbell, Geoff Ryman, and my friend Dan Piraro).
And among them is Marie’s most recent book Stalking the Wild Dik Dik, which I have been looking forward to reading.
In between chapters, I’ll work on my backlog of stories from my final days overseas. And I’ll share some photos.
If you read Marie’s blog today, you’ll know that I’ve spent the entire day tied to the apartment, waiting for the Verizon folks to come and get the DSL working again. It gave me time to write this post. But it’s after 4, and I have yet to hear from anyone.
I began this blog more than a year ago as a means to keep friends and family back home up to date on my life and adventures in the Middle East.
Now that I’m back, you probably won’t care so much what I’m up to, with familiar ho-hum activities of American life. But I’ll likely continue the blog to keep the friends and colleagues I’ve gotten to know this past year in touch with my life and exploits on this side of the Atlantic.