Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pretty Cool Day

First, let's start with a bit of a news flash:

All those in Egypt, please remember to turn your clocks ahead one hour

That's right, Daylight Savings [sic] Time has finally arrived in Egypt. To be fair, actually, I think the real deal is that it arrived one month earlier in the States starting this year (with unpredicted results [don't worry it was a joke]). In any case at 12:00 AM on Friday, April 27th clocks officially went ahead one hour. I didn't find this out until 3 pm today, when suddenly I found out it was, in fact, four.

And of course, in Egypt (and, I assume, the rest of the Muslim world) this happens on a Friday, for exactly the same reason that it happens on a Sunday in the west (interestingly, the word for Saturday in Arabic is Sabt, with---AIGH!!! frikken ant on my screen (seriously, an ant just crawled on my screen, unfortunately my apartment has lots of "holes" for bugs to get in it)
---the word coming from the Hebrew "Shabbat", apparently, even though Saturday is not the day of rest).

So I woke up late, around 12pm (actually 1pm) and spent, no joke, nearly an hour trying to find my keys (they had somehow fallen out of my pocket when I was sitting in bed and had wedged between the matress and the wall; before I finally found them I nearly went insane trying to figure out what the hell was going on...). Then I went down the street to finally get a haircut -- after 3 months or so my hair was getting ridiculously long and it's really hot in Cairo now. The people in the barber shop were really, really nice and one of the people there asked me if I would be willing to trade English lessons for Arabic lessons. We'll see how that goes.

After this I walked the long way (in fact, so long that it's not even *a* way) towards Imbaba, the nice neighborhood I wrote about earlier which is loaded with markets and people. On the way I had a rather unpleasant experience. Basically, I got accosted by a shoe shiner who stood in my way and insisted I let him polish my shoes. To be fair, they've been needing it for weeks but I didn't want to get my shoes shined then. If I do get my shoes shined I prefer to have it done by someone who I know will do a good job -- someone who's polishing a lot of other people's shoes! But I felt sorry for him (he pulled the whole I need money so I can eat shtick which is of course true but a mean blow to use as a sales tactic). He didn't mention the price at all, and I assumed it would be something reasonable.

At the end I asked him how much and he said 20LE. I was pretty much floored. 20LE is only around $4 (in real money) or so but to give you some perspective, he polished my shoes for maybe 3 minutes, absolutely maximum. The haircut I got earlier that day took 20-30 minutes, cost 20LE and included two shampoos and a nice cup of tea afterwards. For just 10LE I can get a 15-30 minute car ride from my apartment in Mohandesseen to downtown Cairo -- and even that's paying too much! Egyptians and locals pay 5LE for the same trip. Granted, gas is heaviliy subsidized in Egypt, but is shoe polish really that expensive? In this situation, I was suffering my constant problem of not knowing what the fair price was for something, but I had an idea that 5LE (the equivalent of $1) was probably about right, and I expected to be charged around 10LE. 20 really was ridiculous, so I gave him 15 and it took me a few minutes to convince him that, no, I was not going to pay him any more. I was already overpaying at 15 and I don't like overpaying for things I didn't even really want.

These situations make me really angry. It's painful because it's awkward. A dollar for me is not a big deal, but for poor Egyptians it means a lot. So I feel like a real jerk for trying to get a fair price, for refusing to pay more. It makes me feel petty. At the same time, while I feel like it's okay to pay a higher price for some things, I don't think that it's okay to pay a ridiculous price for things and in any case, if I want to donate to charity I'll donate to charity. If I want to conduct business with you then I'll conduct business with you, I won't pay for your service and then give you a handout. I'm more than willing to pay the "foreigner tax" of, say, 20-30%, but I won't pay a stupidity tax.

The rest of the day went really well, though. I continued on to Imbaba and had a lovely time, found out it was 4pm, drank some Hilba (fenugreek tea) with this crazy blacksmith guy, bought some juicy peaches and oranges, and headed back home. Then I headed right back out, because I realized that I'd forgotten all about the peachy-keen 100copies electronica concert that was taking place. I grabbed a taxi and headed down. When I arrived I realized I was in one of those awkward situations where you know zero people at a gathering so it's really weird to start a conversation and hang out with someone (at least, it's weird for me). Thankfully, one of the girls from my school was there so I went up to her and got her to introduce me to her friends. A bunch of them are really fantastic and hopefully I will see them again. After the concert we went to a party which coincidentally turned out to be for someone I already knew, which was sorta Dickensian and cool. I party heartied until 3am or so, then trudged home (it was pretty close to my apartment).

Well, I'm just now hearing the call for morning prayers, which of course means it's time to go to bed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Life in Mohandiseen

Mohandiseen, the area of Cairo where I live, is nice but it doesn't have much of a neighborhood feel to it. As a result I must confess I find myself sequestered in my apartment a little more than I probably should. It doesn't help that I have high speed broadband and satellite TV with over 500 channels.

Egypt is really very overwhelming. I never felt this culturally inundated when in London, and it might just be a bad memory but I don't think it was like this when I was living in Italy either. There's something just so totally foreign about living here. It's not just a language thing -- I feel like the way that people actually think here is different as well. I often find it very hard to figure out what people are thinking or feeling here...people's facial expressions seem a little more opaque. Time behaves differently here as well. The different weekend (which begins on Thursday evening) really throws you off; at this point I almost never know what day of the week it is unless I check my computer or my cell phone.

I've gone back to the cool neighborhood that I mentioned in an earlier post and had a somewhat surreal experience, running into some very nice Egyptians, sharing a few teas and playing a game of backgammon. In most conversations if there's someone who knows even a little bit of English they're going to know a lot more of my language than I will know theirs. Kind of frustrating but so long as I focus on conversations as an opportunity to connect and communicate rather than a chance to show off my 133t Arabic skills, then I can just swallow my pride and speak in English when necessary.

I'd better get to sleep. I've been staying up way too late these past few days and this can't be good for my participation in Arabic the next morning.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A tour of my apartment

This has been a pretty common request, so here goes:

The first thing you see on entering the apartment is this large cabinet, whose sole purpose seems to be the storage of fake plastic flowers.
Egyptians are crazy for their fake plastic flowers.
This is my bed.
It's small but comfortable. There are actually two beds in my room. I use the other one, basically, as storage. It's a convenient place to leave clothing, books, etc. If company comes over I'll tidy it up.

This is the view from my bed:
This is the view from my balcony:
My apartment is directly above a shisha bar:

The living area is basically a bunch of couches; there's a dining area in the far corner and a bunch of chairs arranged in a circle.
A closer look at the dining table. It's not used for much, except to store fruit:
Note the vase of fake plastic flowers.

Now, we turn into the kitchen. It's pretty tiny, but very photogenic.

Here's the sink:
I think this picture turned out pretty good.

Here's the stove:The stove is powered by this gas canister.Gas canisters are apparently fairly exciting in Egypt, but that's another story.

And no apartment would be complete without a bathroom.
Sorry about the blur.

I am going to try to put something down on not-paper on a daily basis from now on, just so you all know that I'm alive and well.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Yeah, I'm still alive. I started Arabic classes last week, but classes started late (on Tuesday) and then I got a bad cold (on Thursday) so I've only gone to two so far but I think I'm doing okay so far. May have to start up on


again sometime soon. I will have pictures of my school (special surprise for Toby) and some pictures of my apartment up tomorrow or Wednesday, as well as a nice description of what my neighborhood is like.

For right now, when it comes to my neighborhood it's enough to know that

You can't always get what you need, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you can get what you want

Basically, my neighborhood is less than ideal when it comes to buying essentials. Okay, so not essentials, essentials -- things like bread, water, and other groceries are easily obtainable, as are decent (if somewhat expensive) fruit and vegetables). The problem is my area is a relatively wealthy area, which means you're not going to find places to buy the things you need -- particularly when starting out in a new apartment. I've wandered through the neighborhood looking in vain for a hardware store or just someplace I can buy a workable kitchen knife, a set of kitchen towels, and some pots. You can, however, get an awful lot of jewelry or silver. You're screwed if all you want are some basic socks or underwear, but in luck if you're looking for high fashion, or the Egyptian knock-off fascimile thereof. I also haven't managed to find any kind of local markets. There are two vegetable/fruit shops just below me. One is overpriced and has sick looking produce (and no, not "sick" in a cool, hip way) and the other is moderately overpriced with slightly better produce. Neither one is anything to write home about, and neither one has decently priced eggs.

For the longest time I had resigned myself to the fact that I would just have to buy my stuff at the local supermarket, getting products that were not always as good and cost a lot more, or making the 15-25 minute (even longer during busy rush hour) taxi ride to Islamic Cairo where there are loads of markets and stores. Today, however, I finally discovered Agouza, this awesome neighborhood in Cairo around 15-20 minutes away on foot. Loaded with outdoor markets, cool food stalls, and about a gazillion ahwas (Egyptian coffeehouses), this is my kind of place. I will return there often.