In an effort to provide a bit of a glimpse into our lives here in the Sandbox so far, I decided to jot down my thoughts as I was going through a “typical” day here (not that any day is typical yet, it seems.)
The sun is just thinking about rising. As I look out the iron-decorated window above our kitchen sink I can see scattered tamarind trees, palm fronds, and minarets poking up out of the oranging horizon. I can hear the low, almost melancholy song of the call to prayer, and I, too, am reminded to pray. Our “pet” gecko chirps from the ceiling corner, and if I stand in just the right place I can just barely see him in his hiding spot. The kids will be up as soon as the sun makes its actual appearance, and I remember that yes, I did turn on the water heater, so I’ll be able to shower in a half-hour or so. I make a mental note to turn it off afterwards. Once the day begins, I’ll probably be cooking cream of wheat for breakfast, maybe this time with bananas or mangoes or molasses… if I had my preference I would put in honey but it’s dreadfully expensive.
Uh oh. I hear the squeak of chairs moving across the tile floor (not unlike the sound of fingernails on a blackboard) and then the Engineer’s cry – I’m not sure if he fell out of bed or just tried to crawl out at the wrong spot. He can’t very well untuck his mosquito net by himself.
The Enginner is going to help me stir the cream of wheat into the boiled water. I notice that I’ll need to make more milk, too – we put one cup powder plus four cups water into our big Nalgene bottle and shake it up. It took a little to get used to, and it’s full fat instead of the 1% that I’m used to, but it’s ok. Once we’re in a house in a neighborhood, though, I’d like to get milk from one of the donkey carts that meander through the side streets selling milk. It’ll have to be strained and boiled, and I might skim off the fat and make butter, too, since real butter’s hard to come by.
I have a language lesson today, so I step out the door to head downstairs. It’s a pleasant upper 70s °F right now. I’m more comfortable with my headscarf now so I do an easier, looser wrap – I start with it draped over my head with the two ends hanging down on either side in front of me, cross the ends, and throw them over my shoulders. Later I cross the ends again and pull them back in front, for extra security. It’s a theme with plenty of variations. I would probably leave it looser, like some of them do, but my hair is a lot more slippery than theirs, so I have to try a bit harder to keep it from falling off. Actually, I’ve seen a lot of young women leave it just with the two ends hanging in front and not crossed at all, but that’s not as common.
Mr. Rikshaw will take the Engineer with him to the market this morning, but I’m taking the Dreamer with me to my lesson. I unlock the gate that blocks off the courtyard/parking space from the busy street, and lock it again behind us. We wait for a bit of space in the traffic to cross to the other side, and then wait for a bus to take us west across the Nile and nearly to the Shuhuda market. I put my hand straight out in front of me, pointed down, to show the passing buses that I want to ride. Any bus going that direction will take us there, but several are full and pass us without stopping.
Finally a bus stops and picks us up, and I squeeze into the jump seat in the aisle that the other passengers unfold for me. When the bus attendant gets done looking for another passenger on the street to fill the one remaining seat, he snaps his fingers at me, meaning he’s ready for me to pay him. I hand him a coin worth 50 piasters (about 25 cents) but he doesn’t give me the 10 piasters change. Not surprising – they only give exact change if they happen to have it, and they often don’t have it. If I was concerned, I could ask him to make sure he doesn’t have it, or I could have given him exact change in the first place, if I’d had it. I’ve seen both happen. Since the Dreamer sits on my lap, I don’t have to pay for her, but if the Engineer was with me I would want her to have her own seat so I’d have to pay for her too. We’ve had good experiences on buses so far. There is always a seat for every passenger, and generally everyone is extremely courteous, always ready to help whenever appropriate. Plus, as long as we know the bus route, it requires very little language skills on our part.
If I didn’t want to take a bus, or a bus wasn’t going where I wanted to go, I could take a rickshaw, which generally costs 2 pounds (about $1) for a short distance, or maybe up to 5 pounds for a bit longer. But rickshaws don’t go very far (and if I’m by myself with both kids plus stuff I bought from the market, I get a bit afraid that something or someone might fall out, since there are no doors on the side, so I might have to take an amjat instead.) There are a few taxis (classic yellow sedans) but many more amjats (a very small minivan that can probably seat at least 10, depending on how many are kids) – but that will cost you a minimum of 5 pounds ($2.50) to go a very short distance, or 20 or 30 pounds to go farther. With rickshaws, the price is not usually negotiated ahead of time – if you do, they’ll know you’re new, and they’ll charge you more. You just have to know how much to pay for how far you went. But with taxis and amjats, you have to make sure to settle on the price first. Either way, though, you have to be able to speak enough Arabic to tell the driver where to go, which is currently beyond me.
When we get to the round-about on the other side of the river, I snap my fingers to let the attendant know that I want to get off. I try to time it just right so I can get off after he makes the turn, so I don’t have to cross as many roads. Then we walk a couple blocks to the market, where “rikshaw kebir” (big rickshaws) are waiting in line to fill up with passengers and make their route back to the round-about and north from there. The big rickshaws have two bench seats instead of just one, each wide enough for three adults comfortably. I watch for the landmarks to know when to get off: past numerous unpaved side streets, past the intersection with the paved street, more side streets, the small sign saying “Nile Gas” in blue painted letters, the building with red balconies, and the sign with a cartoon cow. Again I snap my fingers, and this time I walk around to the driver after I get off and pay him 30 piasters. The Dreamer and I walk down the narrow, sandy street to the yellow and white gate, which opens up to the courtyard of a mosque. Around the mosque, through another narrow passage, and finally to the door of my language tutor’s home. I’m proud of myself for making it here all by myself.
My tutor, who graduated from college not too long ago but hasn’t been able to find a regular job yet, lives with her parents. Their home is very traditional – the front door opens into a small courtyard surrounded by the various rooms of the house. When she opens the door, she greets us with great enthusiasm, showering us with hugs and smiles and traditional greetings, and I reply with my meager Arabic as well as I can.
After we’re seated on one of the beds in the first room (beds traditionally double as couches in Sandbox homes), and she has served us cold drinks, I ask her to teach the Dreamer an Arabic children’s song. It is a rhyme about numbers, and like a lot of English rhymes, it doesn’t make complete sense if you think about it too hard. Then I ask her to do a little game with the Dreamer, similar to Simon Says, with some of the plastic toy food that I brought. The Dreamer thinks it’s hysterical to learn that “ice cream” in Arabic is “ice cream” (not an uncommon type of occurrence as various products make their way to different countries).
A lot of people say “oh, you’re kids will learn the language in no time!” but according to the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected from listening to people who have actually had kids overseas, that isn’t necessarily true. For some kids, in fact, it’s a real struggle. When you’re the kid who’s completely different from everyone else, and you don’t understand a word they say, making friends can be quite intimidating. I would like to find some girls the Dreamer’s age who she could play with regularly, but for now, I think she can use all the confidence-boosting help she can get. If we continue to homeschool, I’d like to continue to have language lessons for both kids, so they can learn higher-level oral and written skills. These days I have been very thankful for my background in English language learning – so many of those skills transfer to any language. I never thought I’d be using my training as an ESL teacher to help direct my own kids’ language learning!
As Mr. Rikshaw steams the green beans over the gas stove, he laughs when I tell him that I used the excuse “I have to go home to cook lunch for my husband” to leave this morning. Wives have it easy when it comes to making excuses – they can always blame their husbands in one way or another. Mr. Rikshaw says I should have said “I have to go home so my husband can cook for me” instead, but I argue that besides that sounding ridiculous to someone from around here, and I could easily have been cooking lunch right now, I’m doing plenty at the moment. (I won’t go into examples!) For lunch we also have bread with cheese, melted in the toaster oven, and mangoes.
So far we’ve mostly stuck to our American meal-times. Traditional Sandbox people only have tea or something when they wake up, then breakfast at about 11:00, and the big meal of the day at around 2:00 or 3:00. Many people have a rest time after that, and by the time they are up and around again, it has begun to cool off a bit. A light dinner is served late in the evening, and it’s common to be up until fairly late.
My thermometer reads 93°F inside. If it gets much warmer, we’ll probably turn on the air coolers. When I take it outside to the shaded outdoor “hallway” in front of our door, the thermometer rises to 103°F. I note that it’s 40°C – I’m trying to get used to metric measurements. I tell myself that it isn’t very hot yet. It’s predicted to be 113°F in a couple of days.
I’ve given the kids a couple big buckets of water and various plastic things to play with out here. Water sure is great, isn’t it? While they’re amusing and soaking themselves, I take out my little language notebook and try to review some of the words I learned this morning (between frequent interruptions). Mr. Rikshaw is out right now for his language lesson.
The kids are in bed, the dishes are washed, and we’re exhausted. It’s dark outside and the air is getting cooler, although the smell of burning trash makes me reluctant to open our windows as much as I otherwise would. We spend a little while in front of our computers doing email, and then we both collapse on the couch and try to catch up with one another. It feels like so much happens in a single day. Anytime we go outside our front door it is a very stimulating experience – everything looks different and sounds different and works different, and it takes a long time to really know how to function in such a different environment. We have a long way to go, and it is a very humbling process, in a way. But of course the stretching is good for us, too, and it certainly strengthens our awareness of our dependence on God. Sometimes the images in my mind of everything and everyone we left “back home” is so strong, it seems like it can’t be so far away… and I miss it. But I know that in time, God will help us see this place as home, too. We are thankful for God’s active involvement in our lives, leading us to this place, and we are thankful to be here.
– Mama Nomuula