Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What a waste and pictures, pictures, pictures!

Some people have asked me to post about my experiences this past Friday, so in true form I'm doing it several days late.

If you visit Cairo, one thing that's going to jump up at you is that clearly Egyptians have a different relationship with trash than people in the West do. They often don't put stuff in the trash, and when they do, it's everything. You won't see a single recycling bin anywhere in Cairo (Okay, okay, you will: in Al Azhar Park there are bins divided up for recycling. I have no idea how these are collected, since there is no other place in Cairo that does recycling. My guess is that since Al Azhar park was designed as a sort-of international effort. No doubt one of the line items was for the bins to be separated into separate items. I can't imagine that most Egyptians know what to do with them, and you'll probably find waste of each kind in all of the bins).

To add insult to injury, every time you buy something, no matter how small, it is placed in a bag. And these bags are then thrown in the trash!

I've always recycled glass and metal and for some reason it always bugged me the most when I put perfectly good glass jars or nice metal or aluminum cans into the trash.

So, on the surface, it seems like Cairenes waste a lot of supplies, especially when you see so many things put in bags. And to make matters worse, all of this, along with everything else, gets thrown in the trash.

However, this is really only the surface. For one thing, for every bag that might be used here, there are loads and loads of packaging being used in the States. Nearly everything in Egypt is sold by the pound, which means no packaging and no labels. Unofficial recycling is also rampant here. Thrift encourages poor Egyptians -- in other words, most Egyptians -- to use items until they absolutely fall apart (and even then, they will usually just tie whatever it is together, until that falls apart). Bottles routinely get used and reused. No one buys sport bottles--they all just use old water bottles. Items get used in new and inventive ways. Necessity is the mother of invention, and here necessity is great indeed.

And on the other side, recycling is most definitely happening, although it's largely invisible.

Let's say, for example, that you go to a store, buy a cup of yogurt, eat it, then chuck the container in the trash. This is where it ends up:
The pictures here aren't very clear; through lack of foresight I failed to bring my camera, and had to take all my photos using the really lousy quality of my cellphone
This is a bag filled with single serving brand name yogurt containers and only single serving brand name yogurt containers (and thus, the exact same kind of plastic). What has happened is that the trash has been collected by the Zabaleen (literally, um, the garbage people) who live and work in an area of Cairo known as Garbage City, and has been sorted by type and color to be recycled and reused.

The story I heard is this: a while back, a group of Coptic Christians moved to that part of the city. They raised pigs, so they gathered garbage and scraps and fed them to the pigs. Then, as the trash got more sophisticated, so did they, finding new and original ways to reuse the refuse. And thus their source of livelihood.

If you arrive in Garbage City the way I did -- down from the Coptic church carved into the mountain, this story seems to hold true, because the first thing you will see on your right, down in a courtyard, is a whole mess of pigs dining on -- well -- garbage. Oranges are in season now, so it looks like half of what they're eating is orange rinds. I imagine that's got to affect the taste of the meat. So I guess in Cairo the flavor of pork changes with the season. Not sure what pigs eat in the spring or summer.

I was visiting Garbage City with my friend Samir, and as we turned that's when I saw the plastic containers. In fact, there were hundreds of bags of plastics, separated out by type and color (including an entire container of purple plastics -- you'd never see that bin at your local recycling center). If I'd had a better camera I would have tried to capture them all but as it was I figured there'd be no point.

This is what a street in Garbage City looks like:

Samir, whose family owns a home goods store in Helwan, took advantage of the trip here to make a business deal on some plastic hangers, one of the items manufactured by the Zabaleen.

It starts with bags of scrap plastic. This shop was making black hangers (although I have seen similar hangers made in a variety of colors as well), so it was piled high with bags filled with what was presumably dark or black plastic:

This plastic was then pushed into the coat hanger-making machine through this hole:

The machine makes one coat hanger at a time. For each coat hanger, a wiry, energetic operator must shove in the plastic, and then does a mini-leap to "press" the coat hanger:

Pushing in the plastic

Slamming the press

The final result:

A giant stack of coat hangers. On the left, my friend Samir. On the right, in a galabeyya, one of the managers? of the plastic coat hanger "factory"

On the way to the shop I ran into your typical adorable Egyptian "What's your name" Kid:

Of course, I forgot his name
He was there with his younger brother. I took a picture of them sitting on the pile of bags:

Less blurry in person

Garbage city, as I mentioned, is mostly Coptic Christian. You can definitely see this in the decorations on the houses:

On the way out of Garbage City, I took a picture of my friend Samir. Note the huge piles of Garbage in the background:

Samir would like everyone to know that not all of Egypt looks like this.

From there, we continued to the Souq el Goma'a (literally, Friday market). This is supposedly the largest market in Cairo although I only saw a small portion of it. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures. At this market, you can find clothing, pet supplies, and a vast assortment of preserved fish, but mostly they sell junk. Basically, if something was ever a part of something, it was brought here. Everything, from old radio components to shower heads to hard drives, is arranged in piles or stacked in shelves for sale. It really does look like a giant junkyard, except that you have to pay (admittedly, dirt cheap prices) for whatever you take out. This is the second part of the Cairo recycling equation.

Inadvertently then, last Friday was sort of eco-Friday.

The past year in lousy pictures

Every time I've seen something really interesting, I've rarely had my camera. But usually, I have had my cellphone with me. So following are some pretty terrible (in terms of taking and photographic quality) photos of my time in Cairo.

Eid il-Adha, or "those of a sensitive disposition go to the next heading"

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Eid il-Adha commemorates the event in which Abraham agrees to G!d's demand to sacrifice Ishmael (yes, Ishmael).
At the last minute, G!d tells Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Can anyone guess what Muslims do to celebrate this? Here's a hint:
They slaughter animals, right on the sidewalk, leading to rivers of blood in the streets. It's kinda gross, and it's kinda smelly. Theoretically, it should have put me off meat indefinitely. However, I guess at this point I'm fairly jaded; I actually had a steak on Saturday!
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Fun and children, or appropriate for those of a sensitive disposition, unless you are upset by images of monkeys being exploited as entertainment devices

I mentioned when Toby visited that we went to see the Japanese Park in Helwan. What I didn't mention is that I took pictures! Here's a picture of a buddha, something you rarely see in Egypt:

Like any good park, it was stuffed to the gills with kids playing. Here are a few of the brats:

Oh my gosh! What are they doing to the poor monkeys?

Most awesome swings ever


Every so often when I saw a plant that took my fancy, I took a picture. I always meant to make a blog posting about Egyptian flora, but really I don't know anything about plants, so it wouldn't be very useful.

In Egypt, basil doesn't die. Instead, it becomes a monstrous bush like this behemoth here.

Okay, that's enough for now...I'll try to update this again soon.

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