Exploits in the Fish Garden

For all its dust and dirt clods, Cairo does have a lot of green bits. Just doing a cursory count of the named public gardens, parks and sporting clubs in Cairo brings up at least 35. Now, some of the clubs you have to join to gain access, and even some of the parks require a fee, but there are some free parks and the entrance fees for the others tend to be nominal (2LE = $0.38).

One of these nominal-entrance-fee parks is called the Fish Garden, a.k.a. Aquarium Grotto Garden, and it’s located just a few blocks behind our apartment in Zamalek. I had heard a few mumbling recommendations for the park, and with a bit of hesitation, I decided to check it out last week. My hesitation arose from my observance of conditions for animals in Cairo. Let’s be honest, humane conditions for animals here are essentially nonexistent – we’ve heard countless tales of zookeepers at the Giza Zoo allowing visitors to handle the baby tigers for a small fee, or slaughtering the Moroccan camels to take home to eat, and just today an expat told me on her one and only visit to the zoo (most who actually go there, say they’ll never go again) that they actually had domestic cats and dogs in cages on display (running low on stock, I guess). With all the issues Cairo has to deal with, I would think they could find thousands of ways to better use what minimal funds are going to barely maintain the zoos (but, yet again, no one’s asked my opinion, so I remain silent).

The Fish/Grotto Garden is a completely fenced-in area that was once part of the palatial grounds of Gezira Palace, which now makes up part of the Marriott Hotel. The Fish/Grotto Garden was initially built around 1870 by Khedive Ismail for his collection of fish and animals. It was modified in 1900 to add aquariums inside the grottos (caves) and was the first park in Cairo open to the public. In the year 2000, it was completely revamped with the intention of revitalizing it to the 1900 style.

My first visit to the park was actually quite pleasant. After entering you are seemingly transported to a compact Central Park, with wide paved walkways, trees, flowering bushes, benches lined with families, areas with various bouncing and spinning playground equipment for the kids, shade everywhere for the adults, and courting couples stashed all over (the latter are truly in every nook and cranny, at each turn you come upon a young Egyptian couple, sitting next to each other, arms and legs touching, heads bent talking quietly – it’s like someone sprinkled them liberally all over the garden).

I wandered and found a beautiful wooden bridge reaching over a large empty pool (I read somewhere that geese, ducks and swans are here, but maybe they’re seasonal – or tasty). I opted not to explore the caves by myself at this time and instead just clambered over and around them, getting a fantastic view from the top, and managing to interrupt several couples during my scrambles. I was also quite delighted and relieved to not come across any animals in deplorable conditions. So I left the Fish Garden, sans fish, and came home pleased with my discovery. Overall it was a really nice, pleasant, calming atmosphere (on my first visit…).

Upon conducting some additional research at home, I learned that there are actually aquariums inside the caves. Bummer. So I decided that I needed to return and see whether this is true or not. (Part of my interest is that I’ve been writing pieces for the embassy’s weekly newsletter, and I thought that this would make a good kid-friendly piece but I wanted to be thorough.)

Now, from a previous post I mentioned an incident I had with a cab driver last week, where I felt I had been scammed. I do realize I was knowingly and willfully scammed, but I also felt there was coercion involved. So, having come on the heels of that, and having come from an unsuccessful attempt to find either (any!) museum near the train station earlier that day, I will admit that I might have been a tad edgy. But after a bite of lunch, I gathered my things and walked back to the Fish Garden to see if there were indeed, any fish.

Before even entering I asked the nice man at the ticket counter, in Arabic, if there were any fish, in here, right now, today. (I would not have been at all surprised had the Fish Garden not actually have any fish.) He said yes, and the guard there assured me as well that there were fish in the aquariums in the tunnels and caves. So I paid again, and entered.

The difference this time was that I suddenly had a very eager and attentive (read: velcro-like) personal guide attached to me. The front entrance guard apparently decided he could leave his post and show me around. I knew the scam here, give a tour, expect bakshish. I was not interested in the tour but wanted to remain nice and pleasant (first mistake). I also did not outright say, “I’m not paying any bakshish” (second mistake). In other situations I’ve done this with no problem, but for some reason I didn’t this time. I did try unsuccessfully to get away from him on at least three different occasions, once resulting in him running after me yelling, “Madam, madam!” So for whatever reason, weariness, resignation, masochism, I allowed him to show me around and got the full tour.

And I got to see it all. All of the small dank grimy aquariums set into the walls of the tunnels. About a third of them were empty (still grimy), another third had dead fish floating, and the remaining third had fish just waiting to die, desperately. There were very few signs anywhere and when there was one, and I pointed out “Guppy,” the guard said, “Wrong sign, moved fish.” Of course.

With every fish, be they alive or dead, I would get to hear how long they were and how much they weighed, and sometimes the familial relations between the tank’s inhabitants, mommy fish, daddy fish, baby fish. And his final kernel of information was always, without fail, “Beee-uuutiful eating.” Boy, this was getting better and better.

Some additional disturbing things were the aquariums filled with shelves of glass jars stuffed with decaying specimens of dead things, mostly fish, some sharks and eels (all “beee-uuutiful eating” though!). There were also a few “mummied” displays, which were either really bad taxidermy jobs or papier-mâché models from the 1900 exhibition, of alligators, seals and an underwater seascape. Overall it was sad, depressing, uneducational and poorly displayed. The worst part were the few tanks containing turtles. These poor guys live forever, even in the worst conditions. I told Ron there may be a turtle liberation in the mix.

As my dear little relentless and overly cheery tour guide led me through all the tunnels and caves, he would roust the lovely little quiet couples everywhere. I felt like a damn queen and he was clearing my path of peasants. I wanted to apologize to them as they shuffled off to find another quiet spot.

There were two highlights to this whole painful episode. One, is that if you ignore the aquariums, which isn’t hard considering many are empty, the tunnels themselves are really interesting and fun. They twist and turn and there are lots of places to explore. Secondly, as we came out of one tunnel into a large cave (all of these are man-made, obviously) I suddenly heard little squeaking noises. I started looking all around, but the top of the cave was a good two stories above me so I couldn’t see it too well. I asked my personal guide if there were bats and he said yes. Now that’s really cool. They weren’t captive and could come and go as they please, and they obviously had found a great habitat. I hope to come back near dusk and see if we can watch the nightly exodus as they head out for dinner.

At the end of the tour, as we were standing at the highest point of the grottos, after rousting the three couples who had been there first, I thanked him profusely and said I really had to go. As I walked down he followed and asked if I liked the tour. I said yes, it was fine. He then said, “I want bakshish.” I laughed and said “Bakshish? No.” He remained extremely persistent, all the while also nice and pleasant, if that’s possible while coercing someone and I can tell you from MULTIPLE experiences that it is. He said, “You can give me whatever you want, fifty dollars, a hundred dollars.” Finally, I stopped, took out 2LE and handed them to him. He stood there with them in his hand and said incredulously, “What? Two pounds? No!” I said, “Yes, that’s the same as the entrance fee,” and walked out.

I realized as I was walking home that I was shaking and completely fuming. I had become that scathing jaded expat who was waiting to be scammed at every turn. And I felt justified in feeling that way! Egyptians can be so nice and friendly and generous and helpful, but those few who are nice and friendly and generous and helpful, and then expect to be PAID for it, just enrage me. Be honest, be upfront. Ask if I want a tour for a small fee. Don’t be sneaky and pretend to be nice, just to demand, truly demand, payment for being nice. I was completely worn down and decided to nix the rest of my plans for the day, return home, and detox from all the human interaction I’d had this week. It’s really sad how just one or two people can truly color your perception. But I won’t let it happen, I’ll fight it. And next time, because without being jaded, I can guarantee you that there will be a next time, I will save myself the aggravation and angst and will speak loudly and clearly up front. And if that doesn’t work, I do what Ron suggests and just sit down and refuse to move until they go away (when in doubt, apply passive-aggression I always say).