So much has happened since my last entry that I’ll have to devote several new ones to make up the difference. But the most important news is that I’m no longer on the houseboat.
I’ll start at the end. A few hours ago I showed up at the Hotel Longchamps again, where I’d been staying until I moved out onto the boat. I was sweaty, exhausted, and completely filthy. Madame Hebba rushed up and embraced me, kissing me on both cheeks, then held me at arm’s legnth and asked, “what happened?”
I had in fact gone to see the boat before moving. I went there on Saturday to have a look around. The boat is neither the largest nor the smallest of all the houseboats moored on the Giza side of the Nile. Some of the boats are beautifully refurbished. Ours wasn’t one of those, but it wasn’t the most dilapidated one either. It was just…middling size, brown, and comfortable looking. As we passed it in the ferry, Bee told me that a couple of days before the ferry boat had actually run into our houseboat. She pointed out some damage to the railings on the bottom floor. We both laughed, seeing as the houseboat was obviously still floating.
We sat for a couple of hours on the little porch off the living room while I got to know Immy, the other boat tenant. Once inside, it was obvious how much the boat listed towards the shore, with Bee’s room (which would be mine) at the bottom of the tilt. She explained that there wasn’t yet a mattress for her bedroom; she’d been sleeping on a piece of foam taken from one of the living room couches. She told me where the mattress store was, though, and thought it would be easy to get them to deliver the same day.
At the time, I mostly noticed how dusty the boat was, and how small the refrigerator was–especially since nobody had defrosted the freezer in what looked like a year frome the crust of ice formed around the inside. Okay. Not the nicest place I’ve ever stayed. But liveable. And it’s a boat!!
I met Bee the next day to deal with the deposit and the week’s rent since she wouldn’t be there this week. Immy was also there and one of them mentioned the bathroom was starting to flood. Bee half-joked that she’d been bailing the floor out since she didn’t want the water to get up to the bedrooms. They said the doorman had taken a look and decided to call a plumber though neither of them really thought that was necessary. The plumber would come Monday, the day I moved in.
On Monday I arrived with my two suitcases. Immy and her friend Lu greeted me; Lu went to Exeter a while back as well and is visiting this week (small world!) The plumber hadn’t come yet. The bathroom was flooded to about two feet from the door (remember, it’s on a slant–otherwise the whole boat would’ve been flooded.) Bee had left the name of the mattress store and the street it was on for me–though not the exact address. I decided that’s what I wanted to deal with first (though there were some other issues–there will be a whole other entry on those.)
The girls and I took the ferry over to Zamalek. This was really fun because it’s about a twentieth the price of a taxi and only local people take the ferry. When I told Immy where Bee said the mattress store was, she disagreed and said she and Lu would walk me there. They took me to a shopping mall next to the Hotel Flamenco and Immy said, “Okay, you see where that sign for the Metro supermarket is? It’s just through there.”
I went inside. There wasn’t anything that resembled a mattress store. I stopped a passing shopper, who thought I was asking for the Metro. I managed to get my point across and (bless her) she took me to the mall’s doorman, explained my predicament and he led me over to the stairs for the basement and told me it was down there. There was NOTHING down there. Several empty storefronts with soap on the windows and one closed realty office. This was getting me nowhere.
I went across the street and asked at the Hotel Flamenco, explaining I was lost and could they direct me to the shop Bee mentioned? They listened politely and then told me there wasn’t any place in Zamalek to get a mattress, I’d have to go downtown. Plus everything would be shut for Ramadan anyway.
I decided to go home and look up the name of the mattress store and (hopefully) have a shower and do some laundry since I was filthy.
When I arrived the plumber hadn’t yet been and the water was lapping around the front of the toilet. It was also full of greyish gunk. That’s when I realized that the water heater was only for the shower; I wouldn’t be able to wash my hands in hot water. (Plus the girls had told me to be wary of the thing anyway, sometimes it got so hot it started smoking and the water wouldn’t come out.)
Okay. I thought I’d set up the internet and call my parents for a little reassurance. For about twenty minutes I thought I wouldn’t be able to get it set up, and the thought of being stuck with no way to call home made me start to panic. I started to feel like I was trapped on the boat and there was no way off. I worked it out in the end, though.
A very long while later, after meeting a friend from Exeter who happens to be visiting Cairo right now, I came home and decided to just go to sleep, having failed to accomplish anything I set out to do that day and discovering that some of the living room lightbulbs weren’t working. Plus, the mosquitoes were biting and suddenly the boat seemed to be full of ants. (The girls had mentioned they’d seen a few roaches in their time there, but they were very proud to report that they’d never seen a rat or a mouse.) I was ready for the day to end.
That’s when I locked myself in my bedroom.
I’d pushed the door firmly because the latch didn’t hold too well, then I wanted to go for a drink of water. And I couldn’t get the door open. I turned the handle. I turned it all the way around. I turned it the other way. Nothing.
This time, no panicking. I got my mini-leatherman tool thingy and tried to wedge the latch open with one of the tools. No luck. So I decided to unscrew the handle.
All the screws out, door handle in hand and I can’t get the square rod that makes the latch move to do anything. I tried fitting the keyhole around the square and turning the whole plate, but it didn’t work. I was well and truly stuck.
Finally I gave up and called Immy. “Oh, that always happens to people when they first get here,” she laughed. “Do you have a spoon handle or a knife? Try using that to wedge it open.” I explained about the door handle, that it was really stuck. “Huh,” she said. “Well, I’ll call ‘A and have him let you out.” (’A is our neighbor on the boat, whose real name is so short I can barely give him an abbreviated pseudonym.)
A few minutes later, I heard someone moving around in the hallway. The door popped open. This is how I met our neighbor, still holding the door handle in my hand. After that I taped the lock open and used a rubber wedge to keep the door shut. No way was I getting stuck in there again.
That night I lay on my foam rubber pad, feeling the motion of the boat and wondering if it was really moving or if I was just that tired. I’d had an odd sort of shower by perching on the ledge that theoretically divided the shower from the rest of the room. (I wasn’t actually going to step on the floor–the floating grey thingies were getting more abundant.)
I’d managed t close the heavy green shutters, blocking out most of the light. Because the window frames are warped I hadn’t quite gotten the shutters above my bed to close; a small irregular triangle of hazy midnight blue still crept in. A small point of light I mistook for a reflection turned out to be a crack in the corner of the bedroom. I came to appreciate my mosquito net.
I was reminded a little bit of summer camp: mosquito nets, everything not as squeaky clean as I’m used to but exciting and new and very different from my usual life. I thought about how few people get the opportunity to do this, and I thought maybe I could make it work.
From a nearby mosque came the sounds of the Koran being recited over the loudspeaker. (It was a lot longer than the call to prayer, so I assume it was a chaper of the Koran, but I can’t be sure.) I say recited; actually it is always sung. Somewhere between singing and chanting. If you get past the loudspeaker crackle it’s a beautiful and calming sound. Through my sliver of hazy blue I could see a single star. I drifted off.
This morning, I woke up and the bathroom waters had receded somewhat, leaving a dingy scunge wherever they’d touched. When I went to the kitchen to make toast I realized we had no toaster. Okay, I can live with that. But I also noticed that our stove is in fact powered by a large canister of gas sitting right next to the stove, under a cabinet. On the floor of our WOODEN BOAT. Okay.
Then I tried to eat my breakfast of cold bread, jam and a little cheese. My stomach wasn’t having any of it. I couldn’t get through half the wannabee toast, and suddenly I’m rocking myself back and forth and holding my stomach to dispel the nausea. Imogen asked if I wanted to go to the hospital; I decided I just needed to lie down. The girls made me some tea and sent me to bed. They tell me to call if I really get sick, and they’ll help me. They go out.
I was actually embarrassed to be upset about my illness in front of Lu, who has in fact had malaria during her work in rural Tanzinia (despite taking antimalarial drugs), where she spends time in conditions much worse than this silly boat.
I wasn’t really sick, but I realized how important a functional bathroom with a place to wash my hands in scalding hot water is to me. Staying on that boat with mild stomach problems could only result in staying somewhere else with reeeeeeally bad stomach problems.
A couple hours later and I was reinstalled in my hotel under the watchful care of Madame Hebba. She fussed over me, asking why the other people on the boat were content to live like that.
I can see the appeal. Even though it’s dusty and dingy and it leans to one side, even though I might have to call for help getting released from my room sometimes, even though it’s full of ants and a loud ferryboat goes by all day, boat living could be so charming. The view is incomparable, it feels less polluted than many parts of Cairo, there is a green space to call your very own, the ferry is cheap and convenient and the rocking motion is very peaceful.
I can’t live there, not when I know that the dishes are never really washed and my hands will never really be clean. Not when that scary sludge could come haunt the bathroom anytime, and even invade my bedroom. Not when the rain (when there is rain) could get in–and in fact the walls and ceilings were full of signs of water damage, especially in my room.
I have to say I’m chagrined about giving up the houseboat plan. Other people live there all the time and are obviously perfectly content with all the things I take issue with. I was so excited (and frankly smug) about the plan to live on a boat that part of me still feels like I didn’t give it enough of a shot. Plus I hate to lose all the cool points I’d accumulate by living on a boat in the Nile, and most of all I feel daunted by the prospect of looking for a new place. But I did get to live on a boat for a day.