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.