Thursday, January 31, 2008


So, yeah. No internet in Egypt today. What impeccable timing.

Oh, right. The flight was fine but looong. Getting back to the US has been okay and I'm not experiencing any overwhelming culture shock just yet.

Stay tuned, though.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Last day in Egypt. Finally got hit by a car

Before everyone freaks out and starts calling hospitals, I'm fine. Long term damage: maybe a teensy bruise on the first knuckle of my left pinkie finger.

Still, it's one of those weird things. By now, I should know that cars behave differently here. They don't really stop for pedestrians. My best excuse is I'm a bit distracted. See, it's my last day in Egypt and I'm freaking out because of how little I'm freaking out.

After a year here in Egypt I thought I would be having a more emotional response to leaving the country. But I suppose I should be used to this by now -- I kind of close up a little during these transition points.

Of course there's nothing like a nice cold to make you want to go back home, and as you know I've been sick for a week now. What? You don't know? When did I last update my blog.

Woah. A month ago?!?

So, um. Yeah. A thousand pardons to my beloved aunt, who told me she checked my blog every day to see what was new in my life. I promise, things really did happen to me and I will have loads of stories to tell you once we talk in person.

What happened in January? Well, very little to be honest. Egypt gets autumnally cold in mid-December and winterly frigid in January. I've been holed up in my apartment for a good part of the month, exiting only to go to school or visit my friend Samir down in Helwan (who will be missed greatly, along with all of my friends).

New Years came and went and it was great, because what I did was pretty new and pretty awesome, which was I invited this guy Will I know over to drink. It was our tiny mini protest to the whole partying hegemony. I introduced him to my good friend Jim Beam (good friend, who am I kidding. More like passing acquaintance, like the guy you met that one time and then say hi to twice a month). Will hates Scotch but liked the bourbon enough to swipe it from me before I left.

January 7th was the Coptic Christmas, which I decided not to haul out to Helwan for. Coptic ceremonies are great; the music is jumping, and this is the problem. You are not allowed to dance in a Coptic church, although the music is dancerific. So I try to stay away from Coptic churches during particularly festive occasions.

Since then it has mostly just been classes. I didn't make it out to any sights my last month. I did manage to grab a few nice things to bring home to the States, and managed to sample some more new foods. For example, in Egypt they have tuna, but the fish are small, around the size of a medium trout. I had two grilled for me (at the staggering price of 6LE, or just over a dollar) and actually they tasted closest in flavor to canned mackerel honestly.

Not much to say for January, honestly. I am trying to remember if anything happened, but I think nothing did. Most of it was just sort of freaking out over leaving, which might just be why I'm a bit blase about it now.

Well, have to run. I have to wake up in 5 hours to get ready for my delightful 7am taxi to the airport.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Rotten fish

So, for the longest time I've been wanting to try feseekh (فسيخ) [also transliterated as fasikh or faseekh], which is a kind of preserved fish that's traditionally eaten on Sham El Nessim (View a video of Egyptians eating feseekh for Sham el Nessim). A few weeks ago I was surprised to find out that feseekh had a "cousin" called malouha (ملوحة comes from the root ملح mlH which means salt) I was determined that I would try them both, and kept bugging my friend Samir to help me buy some (I was told by him that buying it myself from some random street vendor was not a good idea). So yesterday finally I was able to get him to take me to a local feseekh shop, where a large variety of preserved fish are sold.

We bought small sardines, large sardines, feseekh, and malouha. All told, a kilo of salted and preserved fish. The seller scaled and gutted the fish in front of us, and tried to encourage us to buy a ringa (fish that has been preserved by smoking, pretty much identical in flavor to any other smoked fish) by giving me a taste of the batarekh from the ringa. Betarekh is essentially like caviar, and is identical to the Italian bottarga (in Italy it is generally dried and then grated on pasta; I ate a plate of pasta alla bottarga when I visited Palermo with Toby in 2006). I first encountered it in Italy, so I considered batarekh as a form of bottargo. According to Wikipedia, however, the word actually comes from the Arabic, بطارخ). We declined his offer and waved aside his "have it for free!" (which I'm told by Samir is a custom which can only be responded to by a firm instance that you will in fact pay) and lugged the 1kg of preserved fish back to his shop, where we sampled some of it with bread and fresh lemon juice.

Of all of them, the sardines were the most familiar. They tasted similar to kippered sardines. The sardines are preserved in salt and are the saltiest of the preserved fish, and were less "cooked" since they were never canned. Considering they were the most "familiar" of the flavors, I actually liked them the least, which is weird because normally I like sardines.

The feseekh is very strange. It's soft, the consistency of cheese spread perhaps. It's incredibly salty, with a strong blue cheese and yeasty flavor with strong fishy undertones. The effect on your tongue is very powerful, similar to the reaction your mouth might have on first tasting marmite, although of course the flavor is completely different. The feseekh's flesh looks nothing like fish at all and is a sort of yellow color.

malouha is a completely different story. Less salty than the feseekh, it also is much firmer, closer to the texture of ordinary raw fish. Much of the flesh of the fish is a deep purple-red, similar in color to the shade of red or purple onions. It's flavor is nearly impossible to describe. The best I can come up with is that "other" flavor you taste in jello, or the chemically taste that sometimes shows up in mango, particularly near the skin. But neither of these two come really close. It's the sort of thing you just have to taste for yourself. Although the flavor of the melouh is still very strong, it is a bit easier on the tongue.

In any other circumstance, feseekh would overpower the smell of anything else in the room. But malouha has a surisingly strong aroma. With melouh and feseekh in the same bag, all I can smell is the malouha.

Today Samir called me, to make sure my stomach was still okay. As it turns out, I'm fine. So far it looks like this was indeed a safe batch of feseekh (there have been concerns in the past). I still have maybe a quarter kilo of feseekh and malouha stinking up my fridge and I'll try to finish them before my flatmate Hesham gets here.

He says he's going to have me try ringa.

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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Where was I....?

As my mom helpfully pointed out, I should have written that I would "do my best" to post the rest on Sunday, rather than "promise" I would.

So,right, where was I. Oh yeah, right. The Aswan airport. But before we all pile into the plane for the short 1 hour flight, a few more memories of Luxor and Aswan. Like the time just before the light show, when Toby, Mom, Dad, and I all sat in an qahwa munching on Gibna Roumi for dinner and drinking tea while watching professional wrestling on the TV along with the locals, who cranked the volume all the way up even though it was doubtful that they understood a word of what the wrestlers were shouting through clenched teeth. And, by the fire, being taught an Egyptian card game that turned out to be almost exactly like Casino; the cards were so worn that they felt like pieces of waxpaper. In the Nubian-styled mosque, picking up a Koran with the intention, for the first time, of actually trying to read it (and mostly failing). The pillows in the hotel, hard and heavy.

We arrived back in Cairo and my folks, Sonia and Michael headed back to the hotel. Toby and I went back to my apartment. Toby was set to leave early the next morning. The next day he woke up, we gave each other heartfelt goodbyes, and then I futzed around on the Internet while I waited for the rest of my family to wake up and head to my apartment. We headed over to Kalimat so they could meet my classmates and the ever charming receptionist/teacher Heba. The plan then was to make our way to the Giza metro, and then perhaps go to the Egyptian museum and perhaps an interesting site like the city of the dead in the afternoon.

This is not what happened.

Instead, around noon my phone rang. On the other line, mostly static. I could barely make out who it was who was speaking. But as soon as I recognized the voice, my heart sank. It was Toby. Despite our hopes that a fine or fee would allow him to travel, the absence of a Visa on his passport was indeed taken seriously by passport control. They wouldn't let him leave. He missed his flight, and was waiting for us near the hotel. The whole family squeezed into one taxi and sped towards Tahrir. We all got off at Mugamma, the government building, and I went inside with mom while Sonia, Michael and Dad went off to meet with Toby and then go for lunch. Inside the Mugamma building, it was chaos. In case I don't get a chance to go into further details, basically you need to go to the Lost Passports window (as of writing #42), fill out a form and provide them with a photo. Then you need to go upstairs with the form and take it to some head guy, who will write some kind of note confirming you should get the visa. Then you go back down to the Lost Passport window where your passport will be stamped; this acts as the visa. Not all that complicated if you know where to go, but I didn't and we ended up travelling across three or four different windows before finally finding the right one. Fortunately, it was a Thursday which meant, I think, that it was less crowded.

Most of the day, until around 6, revolved around the problems stemming from the visa issue. We also had to get Toby's flight rescheduled. He was pretty upset about the travel being delayed; rather than going straight home he'd been planning to go to New York and basically all of his plans there were completely disrupted.

So for most of the day poor Michael and Sonia ended up just hanging out at the hotel which was probably not the most fun thing to do all day in Cairo, even if the Osiris is a very nice hotel.

To make up for it I took them over to Al Azhar Park again. We arrived just in time to hear the final call to prayer. Al Azhar Park is beautiful and definitely worth visiting anyway (and cheap at, I think, just 5LE for tourists and 3LE for residents, although I may have the prices all messed up). But if you can make it up there for the call to prayer, you will be able to hear the hazzan coming from what seems like every mosque in Cairo. We stayed there for a little while longer, and then walked back down towards the Khan el Khalili market.

We bought a galabeyya for a friend of Toby's, and then we did very brief loop through the Khan and then headed out to Attaba where we were going to try to find some shirts for Michael. We found some, and as we later found out paid way too much, but still prices that were perfectly reasonable from our standpoint, and a lot more reasonable than the prices we'd paid down in Luxor and Aswan, where I'd been a fish out of water. Back in my own turf, I felt confident enough to at least steer my family a little closer to a reasonable price. We headed back to the hotel in Wust el Balad (downtown Cairo) where we discovered, to my chagrin, that better shirts were available with retail prices lower than what we'd paid in Attaba. For one thing, I learned I probably shouldn't pay anything more than 25LE for a shirt in Attaba, especially since I can get them for around 25LE from a store in downtown.

That night we pretty much stuffed our faces at Gad, which is really good for a fast food Egyptian joint.

Another small travel related frustration: in order to purchase the new tickets, Toby and I went to the Air France ticket office in the airport since the Air France ticket office closed at 4:30 PM. Since the flight was at 2 AM, the office didn't open until midnight. So we traveled up to the airport with Michael and Sonia, and said goodbye while we waited to figure out what Toby needed to do with all of his canceled flights (his flight home was very complicated, with all flights being through Air France but 2 of the 3 legs operated by 2 other carriers -- Alitalia and EgyptAir). After waiting until nearly 2am, we were told that Toby would have to come back the next morning anyway, which meant he had to be up even earlier.

Friday was a slow day with Mom and Dad. In the morning we went to this excellent Fair Trade Shop in Zamalek that deals in handmade items only. There were so many amazing things in there and the prices for a lot of them were very reasonable -- certainly comparable to what you might pay in a touristic market, although these items were very clearly better quality. I couldn't resist a handwoven all-sheep's-wool blanket; it's now being used to keep me warm at night (my apartment has no heating whatsoever and it gets pretty cold in the evenings). From Zamalek we walked down 26th of July St towards the Nasser metro station, where we caught a train down to Helwan to meet Samir and his family. My parents naturally thought he was wonderful and they insisted on lots of pictures, pictures with Samir, Samir with his brothers, and pictures of Samir's mom who was a bit shy about smiling on camera. They got to eat home-cooked Egyptian food for the first time and it was really good -- the pasta with tomato sauce was pretty good but Samir's mother's bassara is really amazing. The homemade olives, which are both mouth-puckeringly sour and spicy hot, were a bit too much for them, though.

I think that ended up being our dinner as well as our lunch. If we did grab any food elsewhere, I don't recall it.

The next day we were to meet up at the Egyptian Museum. As it was, there was a weird messup with my keys so I ended up being very, very late. I arrived at the museum both fuming and frazzled, and as always Mom was there to offer gentle grounding and some helpful advice on how to deal with my feelings of anger, although I was probably less receptive to it in the moment. Lunch in the museum's cafeteria helped calm me down a bit. The prices for the food were completely outrageous, but at least the food itself was decently prepared and the juices were very good. Mom had her first good mango juice (I hadn't had the heart to tell her how lousy the one in Felfela was, and was glad that she got to finally find out what it was supposed to taste like). After the museum we wandered through the downtown area a bit; my parents were still looking for gifts to buy for friends back home. Determined to get a couple of the inlaid boxes, we hopped in a taxi to the Al Azhar area where my dad had seen some boxes he'd liked. They weren't the best quality and they were probably overpriced for what they were, but he liked the look of them and the price wasn't unreasonable by tourist standards. From there we headed back to my apartment, where they picked up some laundry they'd done at my house and packed up. That evening they headed out. I was sad to see them go, but at the same time hoping that my life here in Cairo would come back to normal.

And it has. I went back to school the very next morning, and have managed to pick up mostly with the rest of the class, although as always I suffer real problems with my vocabulary. I've been down to see Samir once or twice, and made it to the baby shower for his new niece (in Egypt the baby shower comes after the child is born). I managed to mostly catch up on work (although this simply means I am now at my normal state of being slightly behind). And, true to my nature, last Saturday was the first time in ages that I'd been able to loll around doing absolutely nothing. It was pretty great.

If anyone who joined me on the trip remembers anything else about the trip, please leave it in the comments.

Oh, and today Mom pointed out that I will be coming home in 7 weeks and that it was time for me to start planning what I want to do in that remaining time. She's right; I'm freaking out about it a bit; I don't know that I totally feel ready to leave Cairo -- I certainly don't feel like my Arabic is up to par yet -- but at the same time I am looking forward to coming home. Thanks to my wonderful family and of course my lovely lady Marylyle.

The date for my return, by the way, is January 29th. I'll be flying out in the morning and arriving in the DC airport in the same evening/afternoon. If anyone wants to meet me there, send me a message and I'll give you the exact details.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Came and Went

Ok, clearly I'm not cut out to maintain a blog. Maybe I will be timely at some point, but not yet.

Right, so my family is all gone: Sonia and Michael left a week ago last Friday and my brother a few hours after that (which is another story) and my parents left last Saturday night (really Sunday) at 2 am. I've already pretty much adjusted to them being gone. I have to admit, it was wonderful having my family around but also very stressful. So much of them time I felt like I was responsible for everything -- good or bad -- that happened to them. When traveling it's hard to control everything, and this is even more true in Egypt I'm guessing, so by the end of their visit I was pretty worn out. Not the best of situations to be in, since I also had around 2 weeks of work to catch up on. I still don't want to think about that.

Toby and me, some quality twin time in Helwan

Toby arrived first and I basically took him around Attaba for a while to see the markets. On Friday we slept in and then headed down towards Helwan, stopping in Ain Helwan to check out the humorously decrepit Wax Museum and walk around the remains of the natural springs which once used to be the focal point of a spa probably located around there -- you can still see remnants of buildings around the spring, as well as an old wooden pagoda that probably dates back to the same time as the museum, maybe the 1920s or so.

Then it was off to Helwan to meet up with my friend Samir, who is really a great guy. Since it was getting late he let us crash at his house. Toby got to eat real Egyptian food: eggplants, fuul, and ta'amiyya; all homemade and pretty good. Samir's mom isn't a bad cook. We slept alright and the next day went to walk around in the Japanese Garden, this monstrously huge park set up by the Japanese government, in Helwan of all places. There are little buddhas and pagodas all over the place, as well as some large ponds which at one time might have held fish but now hold empty plastic koshari containers. From there we jumped on the metro and met up with David at Sa'ad Zaghoul where we went to what is possibly the best fuul joint in town. I have no idea where it is, though. At some point during these meals is probably when Toby got sick (more on that later).

Mom and Dad have joined the party

So then it was time to get Mom and Dad. I'd picked out Hotel Osiris for them to stay at. It wasn't my first choice (I'd hoped to get them into a hotel closer to my apartment), but it had nice reviews and as it turned out is really an excellent hotel. They got us a taxi and we picked up Mom and Dad and brought them back to the hotel. For dinner we went to Felfela which is touristy and a bit kitschy and general overpriced, but good and a nice introduction to Egyptian food.

The next day we woke up early to jump in a microbus for the desert. It was a long trip and we got to the Golden Valley Hotel, the same people I'd had the first time out in the desert. After a small lunch we spent the afternoon in a jeep zooming through the desert. I'm not sure if this is the norm for these tours, or whether it makes sense to choose a different set of guides in the future, but it seems a lot of the time is spent in the jeep when you go on these things, being dragged from one place to another. We went to a natural hot spring, very hot in was difficult to keep your foot in the water for much longer than a few seconds before you could feel it being cooked. For the sunset we went up to something called the English mountain...apparently this is where the English army had put up a fort during one of the wars I should probably know something about...the views from there were very beautiful. We ended with some Bedouin tea. They took us to camp where we had a nice meal of grilled chicken and vegetables. Dad took a sleeping pill and slept like a baby. Mom did not fare as well, getting not much sleep at all. Toby, on the other hand, was very sick at this point. The next morning we went back to the hotel, where Toby booked a room and, we found out later, slept the entire day. While Toby slept we headed deeper into the desert, spending the afternoon at the house of one of our guides, the same olive/lemon/date grove from my last trip. This time I got to meet some of his family members and hold, if I remember correctly, his brother's baby, who was unfortunately very damp.

In the afternoon we went to a few more sights and stopped to harvest some peanuts before camping out in the middle of the white desert. This time dinner was a vegetable stew and large hunks of beef, served with rice. Later that evening we roasted the peanuts in the coals and at them, peeling off the charred shells and eating the roasted, slightly chewy peanuts in side.

The next day we went back to the Hotel, stopping by Crystal Mountain on the way. We got back to Cairo in the late afternoon. That evening me and Toby went off to pick up Sonia and Michael.

The next day we went to Coptic Cairo in the morning and my famed Islamic tour in the afternoon. This was a bit too much walking for most of them and everyone was very tired by the time the late afternoon came around, so unfortunately we did not get to check out the Sufi dancers as I'd hoped.

The next day was the trip to the pyramids. We got an early start and went to Giza first. It was fun to see the pyramids, and my mom and dad seemed particularly transfixed by the Sphinx. But Darshour was something else. Of the three pyramid sites near Cairo, it's the furthest, I think maybe 30-40km south of Cairo? Not exactly sure. It's not as well known as Saqqara and practically tourist-free. We had a late lunch there, sitting against the side of the Red Pyramid. Aside from two buses that paid brief visits, no one else came. The pyramid itself looks a lot like the Cheops pyramid -- it's only a few meters shorter -- and is in about the same condition, although sand and similar debris is pushed up the sides of it. Unlike the Giza pyramids, the site is totally isolated, so basically you have a pyramid in the middle of a sweep of sand. The effect is a lot more impressive, and the interaction with it seems more personal somehow.

We went on to the Bent Pyramid, so called because the architect was forced to change the angle of the pyramid halfway through, giving it a curved or bent appearance. It's the only pyramid that still has most of its facing, the smooth limestone blocks that made the pyramids flat and shiny. It's pretty impressive to look like but is unfortunately pretty unstable--whole sections of it have fallen off and it looks like it's ready to crumble any minute.

We headed back, hoping to go to Saqqara. Unfortunately, it closed at 4pm so instead we headed back to Cairo, stopping briefly at the Wissa Wassef Centre famous for its weavings and tapestries (although the Nubian-inspired architecture there is worth a look itself).

That night we dined at the really fantastic Lebanese restaurant Taboula in Garden City, just across from the British Embassy. Really fantastic food, and not that expensive either.

Trouble Strikes

The next morning we all woke up early to get ready for our flight to Sharm el Sheikh. At that point, we ran into a problem: Toby had lost his passport. We searched everywhere for it, but it was nowhere to be found. This was a pretty big problem, for two reasons. First, you need your passport in Sinai, if you want to be able to get back to the Egypt mainland. Second, this was the only time Toby would be in Cairo. If we'd been able to continue on our trip, he wouldn't have had the time to get a new passport when we got back.

So, the trip to Sharm had to be canceled. Instead, we decided to go up to Alexandria. Sonia and Michael had been hoping to go anyway, and this way we would be able to get some beach time in. Friday evening we went to the really fantastic restaurant Aros el Bahr (literally Bride of the Sea, i.e. Mermaid) in the center of Alex. Really fantastic point to what want from a giant platter of whole fish arranged on crushed ice. It all gets served with a delicious array of salads. During the dinner Maryam, a friend of mine from TEFL, joined up with us. We all stuffed ourselves and then headed out. We ran into a couple of wedding parties going on and danced with them. They got a kick out of seeing Agnabi (foreigners) shaking their bodies to el Einab, and of course Maryam, who is not at all shy about shaking her hips to music, was the center of attention.

The next day we split up, Mom, Dad, Sonia and Michael heading for the beach at Montazah while Toby and I walked towards central Cairo. It was a long walk, and took us a few hours. We had to hurry up to make it to the hotel in time on the way back. We took the 7:30 train back to Cairo. This was the same train as my flatmate Hesham, so we were able to chat on the train. When we got back to the flat my parents gave Hesham some gifts they'd brought him from the States.

Okay, so on Sunday the plan was that Mom, Dad, Sonia and Michael would get the earlier flight out to Luxor while me and Toby stayed behind to get the passport. That's another story really, but suffice it to say we finally got it and then headed out to grab another few sites before jumping on the plane to Luxor. The most interesting place we stopped by was Sednaui, a department store that had definitely seen better days. I will say this for it, though: never have I seen a greater selection of colors for slacks: ochre yellows, turquoise greens, rusty oranges -- nearly every color on the rainbow was represented in muted yet saturated glory. Toby bought a couple of shirts, we headed home, packed, and then jumped on the plane. We made it to Luxor around midnight.


The area around Luxor is really beautiful, lush and green. We spent the morning at the tombs, Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. In the afternoon we rode a felucca down the Nile for a bit. In the late evening we gathered round a fire and chatted with the owner of the hotel we were staying at.

The next day we went on a donkey ride, which was really fun. I got pretty familiar with riding the donkey and by the end of the ride felt pretty comfortable with it, although I think it'd be years before I could figure out how to get it to go where I wanted. During the ride dad got lost, which had all of us freaked out for a while. He was finally found and we headed back for a meal. Then we went on to a Nubian village that was just opening up and saw how some of the scarves were woven and pottery made. We bought a couple of things. Toby and I got dropped off at the site of a village designed by an Egyptian architect to use old-style Nubian building techniques. It was pretty interesting to look around at the structures, which were very beautiful and impressive considering they were all made mostly of mud brick. After that we chilled at an old qahwa chatting first with some kids and later with other grownups who slowly filed into the place. That night we went to the Karnak temple light and sound show, which was pretty hokey.

The next day we headed on the early morning convoy to Aswan. Our guide was really great, very knowledgeable on the sites and willing to answer our questions, no matter how inane. Apparently, everyone on the convoy stops at the same locations, which are a few temples along the way. We got into Aswan and took a boat to a temple on an island (I think called Philae, although don't take my word for it -- I'm not that into Pharonic history honestly). We had just a little time at the Aswan market before we were whisked to the airport for the flight back to Cairo.

Wow, is it after 5pm already? Got to run. Rest of story to be continued tomorrow, I promise.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A real update!!!

Okay, so here's what's been going on in my life, really.

Going way back in the time machine: unfortunately, a classmate of mine who I was becoming good friends with had to leave Egypt in a hurry, basically because he couldn't stand being in Egypt because his landlady (who he also lived with) was driving him insane. It was a real shame -- she was a great cook (I broke the Ramadan fast at his house a couple of times, and she cooked all the meals for him) but totally مجنونه (magnoona, crazy). She had a very negative viewpoint of things, and this flavored his perception of Egypt. Added to that, he was a devout Muslim and although Egypt is a de facto Muslim country, it's also very secular. As a result, you get a lot of people who are Muslims but aren't very serious about Islam. It's expected really -- a study suggests that spirituality is a genetic, rather than cultural, trait. According hile identical twins tended to have the same spiritual practices as they got older, non-identical twins would diverge in their spiritual practices.

So, in a country of 80 million people, of whom around 90% are Muslims, it would make sense that a lot of Muslims just aren't as into Islam as more observant types. My friend got pretty disheartened at the things her perceived as happening -- dishonesty, greed, theft (his mobile phone was stolen in a mosque of all places).

I still hold that the Egyptian people on a whole are very honest, generous, and rarely if ever will steal from you (yes, my wallet was eventually swiped [although I may also have simply lost it], but after 8 months in a very poor developing country that's pretty good I think -- and there's been many times that I've left money lying around and it's been untouched. Oh, and good luck ever accidentally leaving a slip of paper or a banknote on the ground -- someone will always pick it up and hand it to you, a true blessing to an absentminded person like myself).

After 6 weeks he finally left the apartment but basically at that point Egypt was ruined for him. He was worried about his visa, which scary crazy landlady had procured for him, and also worried that somehow the landlady would do something to him, despite our constant assurances that as an اجنبي (agnabi, foreigner) he was effectively untouchable. He went back to Scotland, where hopefully he is doing well.

Moving forward: okay, so since then there has been around a month or so of Arabic. At this point, I can actually do things like read somewhat complicated sentences. My main problems in Arabic right now are vocabulary, listening comprehension, writing Arabic (especially my lousy handwriting) and reading out loud. So, practically everything. I've definitely improved here in Egypt but I wonder if I was actually enrolled in a University program -- as some of my fellow classmates are -- whether I would be pushing myself a bit harder. Although, I suppose if I was in university I wouldn't also be spending upwards of 15 hours a week doing computer programming work!

The most fun thing about Arabic is that it's a wonderfully logical language (it has a few inconsistencies, but nowhere near as many as in French or Italian). Once you know the جذر (jizr, root) of a word, you can get the meaning from the form it has. For instance, سكر (sukar) means sugar. It's a noun. Well, you can verbify some nouns by putting them in what's called Type II form, which is basically first letter - vowel - second letter, doubled - vowel - third letter. So, to sweeten is سكّر (sakkara). Every verb is conjugated in a specific type, numbered (by "Orientalists") 1-10. If you know one verb, you can learn another based on what changes happen between two types. For example, when you go from type 1 to type 3, you perform that verb with someone else. So رقص (raqasa), to dance, becomes راقص (raaqasa), to dance with. Cool, huh?

Anyway, enough of that.

I promised I'd blog about the desert trip. I'm afraid it was a couple of weeks ago, so I'll try to remember it as best as I can (we'll see how it compares with my return visit this Sunday with my folks). I went with a large groups of fellow students from my school to Baharia. Our guide was Ahmed Ali Ishamy of Craween Tours. It's a pretty fair price, around $100/person for two nights/3 days in the desert, food, transportation in the desert, plus transportation from and to Cairo. Both nights we slept outside on the desert sands. It was very cool, but also very cold. The first night I could barely sleep; the next night I wisely donned socks and all the warm clothing I had on hand. Extra blankets are also probably a good idea. I'm a foodie at heart, so probably my favorite moments from the trip were when I ate ripe plump dates plucked directly from a palm tree in the middle of an oasis that also featured a lime tree and an olive grove (the limes were also tasty. I tried an olive, just to say I had. Uncured olives, even when ripe, are incredibly bitter; the flesh is soft and when squeezed oozes juice that is the color and consistency of milk), and when I hung out with the bedeouins late into the night, munching on fresh فول سداني (ful sudani, literally "Sudanese beans", the Egyptian term for peanuts!) and sweet potates, both roasted by the coals of the campfire.

More recently, I went on yet another iteration of my "famous" Islamic Cairo tour. It actually works pretty well, assuming you don't get lost. Basically, you start at Saida Zeinab, make your way east (optionally towards Mida al Qala, where you can get a great looking-up view of the Citadel and several other large, impressive mosques) and then north towards Sharia Qala (also known as Sharia Mohammed Ali) before turning right into a narrow street market lined with vegetable stalls, a menagerie of animals waiting (sadly) to be eaten, a couple of fresh juice shops, a couple of barbershops [
I went into one for a hair cut in July, and received a cup of tea along with an invitation to his marriage in August. He refused payment for the haircut, and I showed up for his wedding in August with a simple wedding present of a thermos with two integrated mugs. No one else brought a present, but I found out later that in Egyptian culture it's customary to visit the bride and groom in their new home later on, and to give them the presents at that point. I was away from Islamic Cairo for a long time, when I stopped by on this most recent visit, I stopped by to say hello. He recognized me and asked if I wanted to stay to talk, but unfortunately since I was leading a few other people through Cairo I had to say no. I will have to stop by to see him properly next chance I get
, a video arcade, and stores for pretty much everything under the sun (from plastic kitchen goods to gold jewelry). At the end of the market, you transition straight into the Tentmakers Market, where you can buy hand-quilted pillow covers and wall hangings (some intricate, some simple, all fairly colorful) as well as scarves, all for prices around half what you'd pay in the Khan. Continuing northwards, you go through Bab Zwela and through a giant clothing [and cotton! bags and bags of cotton, all stuffed to the brim, looking for all the world like giant cottonballs] market that wraps itself around and nearly obscures a number of beautiful mosques. Finally you emerge on Sharia Al Azhar, just steps away from the fmaous Khan al Khallili market, and several big-name mosques (including Al Azhar Mosque). This time I had more people than usual, which made it a bit difficult. It was also complicated by the fact that we visited the Ibn Tuluun Mosque, which I had never been before, started out relatively late (so it was getting dark), and this time I sort-of had to compete with another "guide"--my friend Samir from Helwan, who occasionally took it upon himself to lead the group around, for better or worse. Still it was really fun and the girls (it was three female friends from my school) all ended up buying a number of scarves at the Tentmaker's Market.

Tuesday I went for another visit to Samir in Helwan, and I met up with him again last night; he invited me to a special celebration of the 36th anniversary of the papacy of Pope Shenouda II, the Coptic Pope. There was a massive crowd, the giant cathedral was packed with people. There were also a couple of small markets (similar to craft fairs, I guess, although mostly manufactured goods were being sold, although a few monasteries were selling cooked goods). It was the first clothing I'd bought in Egypt apart from underwear: three nice Egyptian cotton shirts, together costing me 90£E (around $17). In the service, a crowd of young people started chanting بلطول بلعرض، البابا زاي الورد (biTool, bil'ard, il Baba zey el ward) which literally translates to "far, wide, Baba (the pope) is like a flower!" but my friend Samir informed me that this really meant that no matter what happened to the Pope, he remained in good health (and he is pretty healthy for an Egyptian in his mid 80s).

So that takes us up to the present. My brother is coming in a couple of hours, and the rest of my family in a few days. I can't wait. I imagine I'll be too busy to write anything, but really, what's new?

PS: This is why I can't write blog updates. I don't make blog entries, I make blog explosions!