The Environment: Take a Deep Breath (Ad Nauseum)

Londoners love their city; it’s one of the great capitals of the world and is fast becoming a strong competitor to New York as the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Personally I think it has already surpassed the Big Apple insofar as London being the melting pot. Having had said that there are some serious downfalls, for one we aren’t that environmentally conscious; although we may think longer and harder than a pompous few who consider themselves unbound by Geneva conventions.

Vastly populated with a strength-in-depth of willing workers, the rush hour prompts an immense amount of smoke and litter. Despite admirable attempts to curb high-volume traffic in the business hub of the capital, it transpires that the poor air quality has simply shifted abundantly around the outskirts of zone one, a bit like a doughnut. That doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of traffic and pollution, the local services just increase their efforts to clear litter in tourist traps and love piling havoc on drivers. Technically, here is where I should impress upon you guys with my abundant knowledge of transport policies, strategies and their consequences, but this is meant to be a light read. So feel free to remove that frown and begin to smile yet again, after all it takes fewer muscles to smile than frown.

Hold that frown while I get this out the way: A quick word about zone 1 just to ensure that you’re well-informed. London is made up of a few travel zones on the TfL Tube map, consider it something of a Monopoly board, the deeper you go into the centre the greater the significance, at least in terms of money, business and entertainment. Oxford Circus for example is a shopping haven for would be day trippers, Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street are Money central for the nouveau yuppies and with the ultra-cool chic Old Spitalfields market a stones throw away the hip-crowd can gallivant and drown their worries in a pint. There are other areas such as the tourist delights: Tower of London, Pall Mall and the Houses of Parliament all fall within prime location. Clubs, pubs, bars, theatres and grand cinemas with red carpets are stationed in Leicester Square. The list goes on.

High litter, escalating carbon emissions, anti-ozone gases and smoke all pollute the London sky and earth. The River Thames is a murky looking passage of water which is losing its greatness, it’s also filthy and putrid in parts. Sewage builds up around plants in the Docklands and the odour is especially repugnant near the old sugar factory. Let’s be frank, the air is horrid and you can see it in the sky in all its asphyxiating glory in the summer when it is mixed in with all the pollen. All in all, it’s a far cry from the Highlands, Cotswold or Lake District and the big surprise is that you manage to survive with every cycle of inhalation.

I recall looking out of my fifth floor classroom window some years ago when I was still at school, I was squinting hard searching for my house in the distance, five hundred yards north. That shouldn’t be difficult to find, but amongst all the cloud before it all I could see was no further than the end of the street, half the distance of my house. I scoured the skyline in hope to find the towering library (now a listed building I add proudly) on the High Road to no avail.

This was in the halcyon days of chisel and hammer, long before the internet. I felt devastated, as one would have felt equally proud when searching for their house on Google Earth and telling the person sitting beside you with an invisible, subconscious nudge, “that’s my house!” If that doesn’t work you’d sit there with a smug expression and exaggerate the craning of your neck towards the pleasantries before you. Now, you can rotate that neck but it will defeat the objective, the only purpose of this exercise is to achieve acknowledgement of the person sitting beside you. Finally, said person would realise what you’re doing and give you an accepting nod of approval, as only us men know how to do. I should add on this side point, another sub-point: This nod of the head is for anyone ranked from best friend to arch foe, full of manliness.

I digressed, my subsequent action after being so crestfallen was to begin a campaign against smog complete with total adolescent fervour. The campaign survived no longer than a day, in fact I don’t recall it ever going past a principle or a moral obligation in my head. The reason for this failed campaign of Al Gore type standards (I’m referring to his presidential campaign), was because I looked out the window again the following day and saw something new in the skyline, a church steeple decorating the view looking lovely and white. Being roughly a kilometre away it became the new benchmark. Still, I couldn’t see my house, thank goodness for Google Earth. (NB. There is a grey area as to how my campaign lasted for a fleeting moment and nothing longer, so for the sake of the record we’ll say I was obstructed by the establishment.)

Look, I understand that I have just told you about something that you are probably fully aware of, but that is not the issue here, this was merely a precursor to the rest of the story. In any case, this isn’t about the English capital because under the following circumstances, I would never have thought that London air was so damn fresh in my life!

You know that time when you feel that you’re becoming ill, the air seems thick and hardly penetrates your lungs. When your eyes are half shut as though hay fever is about to hit you full throttle? Well, every single day in Cairo is just like that. Step out into the street and take a full swig of air out here in the Egyptian capital and you feel an urge to run back home to fill up a canister of the London-stuff to breathe from. You’d be happy to lug the canister everywhere with a huge strain on your back, even though you may end up looking like a modern day Rocketman.

If somehow though, we can cope in London, they can definitely cope out here in Cairo. And it’s not because of the love of the city; most people prefer their villages that are a few hours travel from the Egyptian capital. They cope because the money is here; there is no specifically allocated business, tourist or entertainment area because the city wasn’t built to serve those specific purposes. What you will find instead are small pockets of industry all over Cairo in every district. Actually, that’s not altogether true; I lived in Madinat Nasr, a small residential city within new Cairo. You see, much like London, the original parameters of the city had to be extended to accommodate the incredible demand. There are many gated cities being built, usually for the modern class and upwards, Madinat Nasr was of that ilk nearly 30 years ago. Times have changed, whereas it used to be a small residential development in the sand in the 1980’s, it has now become a bustling town. Beyond that, the areas of interest for tourists usually attract workers and market traders. Of course all this excess travel and industry doesn’t help the immediate environment or the ozone layer but the more immediate survival is much more paramount than the impending doom.

Most Arab countries were predominantly desert, some have been transformed by irrigation. Cairo being a very populous place has expanded and the further it stretches the more noticeable the desert becomes. With the desert comes sand and with people comes other heathen things like sewage, disease, litter, etc. There aren’t too many cities in the world that can compete with this one in terms of residents so you can imagine the carnage. Public services just can’t cope with the huge numbers in terms of welfare and health both of which are significantly disproportionate. There is a lot of poverty in this city, groups of marauding children sniff glue to endure the other hardships they suffer and they resort to begging and theft to feed themselves.

The old cars maraud that the streets would embarrass the tarmac in most European countries except possibly Eastern Europe, because that’s where most of them are from. Amongst these overpriced antiquities, there are taxis which chug along like Alex Higgins at the peak of his less-sober days. Smoke visibly spews from the pipe in the rear if not any other exit it can find. If you were to sit inside a taxi, the petrol fumes and smoke would overpower you immediately with nausea, compounded only by the incessant smoking of the driver besides you. Opening the window is of little benefit because most of the other cars and vans are spitting smoke at you. Your only real remedy is to hold your breath and take a gulp of air every twenty seconds. It would help your cause a little more if there was something filtering the air, like a hanky. Alternatively you can settle to breathe through your shirt, the downside is that you’ll look like a total idiot. Keep in mind that this isn’t Far East Asia, masks are only used in surgery and not to filter polluted air in the street.

The cars themselves go through little mechanical repair and would quite easily fail European legistlatory checks, it’s a good thing they aren’t bound by them. Mechanics knock a spanner against the bonnet and that suffices a decent repair job. Petrol is ridiculously cheaper than several hundred miles North of Alexandria, but on a cost-of-living ratio it is still very high. Nevertheless, an un-economically run car can swig a few pints before needed a refill of this depleting fuel.

There are trolley bins tactically located around residential areas to encourage people to throw their unwanted items into it. They are nowhere near as effective or abundant as those in London but nevertheless they are there. However, the route to the bin itself it commonly populated with litter itself, why use the bin when you can help the littered path proliferate? In some other cases you may find littered points in random places along the street releasing unpleasant odours into your nose. Fortunately, the litter is cleaned almost every day or if not, un-fortunately it’s burned releasing smoke alongside noxious vapours into the air. The idea is that getting rid of the pungent odour is fine, even if you burn plastic, metal and whatever else lay in the vicinity.

Water is used excessively and then some people have the gall to say that there are serious water shortages in Cairo. Cars are cleaned almost every day, some aren’t even utilised yet sparklingly clean, even the Ladas and Yugos. Seriously, why would you clean a Yugo? It looks better dirty! It’s no wonder some people don’t mind body odour, because if you have a clean car you’ve already kept up with the Joneses, or Hussains or whatever. Of all the intoxicating things, an armpit in your face in a packed bus is the worst, especially when their vehicle has had more showers than the driver.

The skyline is pretty balanced, buildings don’t tend to go much higher than 10 storeys; I guess that’s the extent of the town planning. Cairo isn’t that much of an uneven place either, meaning that it isn’t very hilly. Looking across from a high vantage point on a sunny day will allow you to see only a limited distance, nowhere near as far as the local library from my old classroom window. Does that mean London is cleaner? Not necessarily, but I can really feel the difference and even see it when I blow my nose; the remnants of dusty Cairo on my tissue.

Overall, the green issue isn’t the most important because the majority of people suffer from poverty and cannot afford to address it. Those who can, I speculate, there is an aura of complacency amongst most of them and they are willing to follow bad habits. Another speculative suggestion is that people don’t really know the impact of waste or lack of environmental concern, what is required in that regard is education. Egyptians and resident foreigners alike contribute to poor air and low environmental standards and it doesn’t look likely to be fixed any time soon.

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