Wednesday, November 12, 2008

thoughts on living alone

The Good: I was able to start brewing myself some saki earlier this week.

The Bad: I didn't mean to start brewing myself some saki earlier this week.

The Lesson Learned: If you decide to make rice, and if some of the rice sticks in the pot, and if you decide to fill the pot with water to unstick the rice, then for the love of God remember to clean the pot the next day; otherwise, some yeast in the air will magic its way in there and you'll wake up one morning to an angry bubbly concoction and a kitchen that reeks of alcohol.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

party like it's 1899

I went to a party last night. It was a British Imperial party. I wore a suit and a monocle and a bushy mustache and a revolver.

Earlier today I was thinking about how much I wanted to go to the beach. And then I met an Egyptian whose father owns a resort at Hurghada. He asked me if I wanted to visit after midterms. I assume the question was rhetorical.

I met an Egyptian hipster today. He was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and asked me what I thought about Vampire Weekend.

Sometimes I feel like Egypt is an abusive spouse. This weekend Egypt came to me on its knees with flowers in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other, saying baby i didn't mean to hurt you, won't you please forgive me.

P.S. I tried to upload my sinai & jordan pictures to my computer tonight. There were many more of them and they were much bigger than I realized, so now my harddrive is absolutely full and my computer is barely chugging along and there are still more pictures to go. I fail at blogging.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

yeah, it's still not here

I had lots of Arabic tonight, alright?

In other news, I rode in a non-taxi car for the first time since coming to Egypt today.  On my shuttle ride home, I met a Saudi guy who graduated from Ain Shams last year and just started working for the Engineering department here at AUC.  Very entertaining person.  I mentioned that some people back home were scared about me going to Egypt; and he told me that lots of Egyptians are scared of going to America--apparently American crime is bad enough that it's not safe to go out on the streets after dark.  Especially in Chicago.  Chicago is gangland.  Or at least it is in the average Egyptian's mind (why they singled out Chicago in particular, I'm not quite sure...)

Anyway, he offered to give me a ride home after we got off the shuttle.  Compared to riding in a black & white cab, it was the height of luxury.  Didn't make the Cairo traffic seem any more tame, though.  But after an endless day of classes, having a proper air-conditioned car to ride in was basically the greatest thing ever.  Did I mention yet how friendly Egyptians are?

Monday, October 13, 2008

i lied

I'm too tired. Sorry.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

blogging is hard

I haven't been keeping up with this very well, have I?  Well, I promise I'll write something about the great Jordanian adventure tomorrow.  There.  I'm typing it, so it must be true.

Also, I'm still shocked by the friendliness of Egyptians.  In the past two days, I've been randomly stopped three times on the street just to chat (it always turns to US politics, and about half the time I'm asked whether I'm voting for "the black guy or the old guy").  And these conversations always end with an exchange of cell numbers.  The Ahmeds and the Mohameds in my phone are now all identified by number, and I still can't keep them straight.  And they always call.  Frequently.  Usually for no particular reason.  Usually when I'm in the middle of class.  Oh, Egypt...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

this is alexandria

Here's Tony, sitting on authentic Egyptian cinderblocks.

This is the amphitheater (when it's not covered with Europeans).

Me, after successfully driving the invaders away.

This was taken by our baksheesh-hungry police officer.

A street on the way to the hotel.

They shoot peasants from here.

Hello, Mr. Mubarak.

No beach, but at least the view was pretty.

And this is the reason we came.

With the sun setting.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

i miss my landlady

She went to Alexandria more than a week ago, and she still hasn't returned.  She said I could eat iftar dinner with her family whenever I wanted, which I'm looking forward to immensely.  But mostly I miss her because the downstairs washer and I don't get along at all and I desperately need someone to mediate the dispute.  I tried everything (even kicking it!) but it still won't work for me.  I tried asking the doorman for help, but he doesn't speak English.  So my asking mostly consisted of pointing at the washer and then repeating the word for water at louder and louder volumes while swirling my hands around faster and faster.  He gave me a look that said I had just gone insane.

And so for the past couple of days I've been reduced to washing my clothes by hand in the sink.  This sink has no means of stopping the drain.  So I got to plunge one hand in the hot soapy water to try (and mostly fail) to stop the draining while swishing my clothes around with my other hand and flooding half my bathroom in the process.  Then I discovered that I could plug the drain with a shot glass.  Now the process is a little less annoying, but I still want my landlady back.

I tried to upload some pictures, but my internet is being disagreeable.  Maybe I'll take my laptop to campus tomorrow and give it a go there.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

no one does iftar like chili's

I went to Alexandria last weekend.  It was pretty.  I'll put up pictures soon.

We (Kelly, Sanam, Tony, and me) left Cairo early Thursday morning, second class train from Ramsis station, cost about $5 for the 2.5 hour trip.  I'd like to say that the scenery on the way over was beautiful, but I can't--I slept through the entire ride.  When we arrived we decided that it was too early to check into our hotel, so we walked to an old Roman amphitheater near the train station.  We sat down on the steps and gave each other awed expressions and made cliched comments about how we could just feel the history there; and then we realized that we were sitting on a bunch of cinder blocks set up by the Egyptian government, and the real amphitheater was a ways off to the side.  It was being invaded by an Eastern European tour group.  After the group leader waved his big flag and shouted something vaguely Slavic-sounding to herd his ducklings away, we had our chance to play.  In the center of the amphitheater was a stone marking a sort of half-magical microphone created by the architecture of the place--you could speak normally there and people in the very top row of the amphitheater could hear you clearly.  A police officer came up to us and gave us an unasked for tour.  I don't know whether anything he told us was true, but we gave him a little baksheesh anyway.

Then we started off in the direction of our hotel.  We stopped by a little restaurant by the coast that tried and failed to be fancy.  Everyone said the food was terrible; I was fasting, so I didn't try any.  The water was fine.  We walked a couple more blocks to the Hotel Crillon, our home for the next two nights.  It had the world's most charming elevator--a rickety sort of open cage that let you see through the bars every floor you passed as you went up and down.  If you stuck your arm through the bars, you would lose it.  Our rooms were nothing special, but the beds were comfortable enough.  They gave us a couple of big blue blankets that we commandeered for the beach.

We took a taxi to a private beach, since our guidebook had no great words of praise for the public places.  There was a big faux castle gate to keep the peasants out (subtlety is not Egypt's strong point).  There was a massive green park behind the gate, full of trees and flowers and picnic tables and the occasional tower.  We kept stumbling upon the coast and we kept not finding a beach there.  Nothing but rocks and angry security guards.  We walked by another castle that we later learned belonged to Mubarak.  After walking from one end of the park to the other we came upon a little strip of sand that looked like it just might promise greater things soon.  It narrowed behind a group of houses, and then there came a break in the houses and--finally!--an actual beach.  

We walked through the gap in the houses and ignored whatever a couple of security guards mumbled to us and walked out onto the sand.  The beach was nearly deserted.  Then we looked off to our right and saw a much more crowded beach and realized that that was the one we were looking for.  Somehow we had stumbled upon an ultra-private beach--one where we had absolutely no right to be.  Maybe we should have paid attention to those security guards.  We decided that we would just wade over to the proper beach and forget any of this ever happened.  But just as we were pulling our pantlegs up and stepping into the water, an Egyptian man came up to us and said we couldn't do that.  And just as we began to worry that we were losing our precious long-sought beach, he offered to let us stay for twenty pounds (about $4), which was the same entry fee as the normal beach.  As near as we could tell, he was just some guy with a house there looking to make a buck by renting his beach to a few foreigners.  So we got to keep our ultra-private beach for a pittance.  Not bad.

Kelly and Tony and I went for a swim in the Mediterranean.  It was blue and beautiful and felt absolutely amazing, except when you got a nose full of salt, which happened more than a few times.  We saw a big green island off on the horizon and decided to swim there.  We swam and we swam and just as we could hardly swim any more we hit a rope barrier barring us from the island.  But we could see a black bridge connecting the private-but-not-super-private beach to the island, so we swam to that beach.  And then we saw that there was a rock wall about eight feet high separating the beach from the bridge.  Tony and I climbed it, but Kelly wasn't tall enough.  Just as we were about to give up hope of her ever making it up, an Egyptian man waltzed up to the wall bearing a rickety brown wooden ladder and he propped it up against the stones.  He smiled and gestured at Kelly to climb it.  Thank you kindly, random old Egyptian man.

The island was nothing special, so we hopped back down the wall and swam back to our beach.  We watched the sun set.  Right after I snapped one shot, my camera died.  But at least I got the one.  I'd try to describe the sunset, but I couldn't do it justice--picture soon.  After dark we walked down the road a little ways to a Chili's.  Out front there was a glowing yellow sign proclaiming "No one does Iftar like Chili's."  I guess you can't argue with that.

I'm getting tired, but I'll finish this soon.  With pictures.  Really.  I promise.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

there are no diamonds in the mine

I decided to go on one last walk through Maadi tonight.  I'm planning to move to my new place tomorrow.  I promise to write up the rest of my apartment search soon.

I left my building and looked for my kittens.  None of them were there.  There's usually a black car parked outside whose tires they like to hide behind, but it was too dark for me to see underneath.  So I climbed the stairs and crossed the green cigarette-strewn footbridge over the tracks to Sakanet el Maadi.  This area of town tries very hard to be American, but it never quite succeeds.  From half a block away, I could hear Pizza Hut still throbbing with the bass of some third-rate techno song.  Right after I walked by, a moped with KFC painted in bright red on the rear sped past me and smashed into a slow-moving black-and-white taxi.  No one seemed hurt, but the driver got out of his cab to yell at the delivery man and the delivery man got off his moped to yell at the driver.  A man on a bike with a massive plate of bread balanced on his head rode through the altercation.  I was worried that he would fall; and the plate did tip precariously, with all of the bread sliding and piling up against one side; but somehow he made it through without dropping a single piece.

I turned down a side street and saw a group of boys playing soccer with a tan mud-caked ball.  They were very good.  Some of them seemed to be showing off, bouncing the ball off of their knees and head before going in to score.  A little boy in a red Spiderman shirt sat on the curb, watching them play.  As I got closer, I noticed a crutch propped against the wall beside him.  A few minutes after walking by, I thought (but I wasn't quite sure) that he may have been the boy I saw on the metro on my way home earlier.  This boy threaded his way through the crowds of people on the train car, somehow avoiding hitting anyone with his crutch.  He would stop and prop himself on his good leg and hold out tiny ziploc bags of black and blue and red bic pens, selling them for only one pound.  But I didn't see him get many takers.

Eventually I crossed under the bridge into el Maadi.  Here the McDonald's fade into nameless open-air koshari shops with flies buzzing around the food and groups of men smoking Cleopatra cigarettes out front.  It's far enough into the city that the sky is totally black, without even the few stars that I can see from my balcony back in Sakanet.  There are three men here that sell shoddy electrical appliances (mostly lamps) with shops side-by-side.  A few days ago I played them off one another to save a few pounds on a fan.  Tonight two of the shops were closed, with rusty iron bars lowered in front of the doors and windows.  The three men were in front of the third shop.  They were kneeling on a red rug with gold embroidery, praying.

The traffic was much louder here.  Cars kept honking their horns for no reason that I could know.  I had to turn my ipod up (Leonard Cohen - Songs of Love and Hate).  I get enough stares for being foreign, but using my ipod seems double them.  I try not to do it often, but tonight I made an exception.  I suppose that maybe some of these people have never seen an ipod before.

A group of women wearing full black jilbab were setting up lanterns in preparation for Ramadan.  One woman stood at the top of a tall wooden ladder while two stood below her.  The wind would gust and the two women would grasp the ladder to steady it, but it still seemed to sway more than was safe.  A few of the lanterns were already lit, casting a soft yellow glow on the scene.  It illuminated (very slightly) a nearby rubbish heap.  A group of brown dogs with fox ears stood on one side of the heap, snarling at a group of grey and black and spotted dogs on the other side.

I turned around and walked back by the lamp shops.  The men were done praying and the shops were open again.  All of the lamps outside were turned on, big faux-gold ones and tiny plastic ones with supposed hieroglyphs painted slipshod around the base and lots of Ramadan lanterns.  In the center of it all was a rainbow disco ball; it didn't spin so much as cast all of its colors onto a nearby tree before slowly rotating halfway around its axis and then immediately jolting its lights back to the tree.  Above it all, a pair of ovals joined together like eyeglasses were mounted to the upper wall.  They flashed green, which I thought was a little ironic.

When I returned to my building one of my kittens (the white one with little black and brown spots) was lying in the road.  She wasn't moving.  I panicked more than I probably should have.  I ran into a shop across the road, trying to puzzle out in my mind how to ask for a vet in Arabic.  But when I left the shop, she was gone.  I guess she was just sleeping.

Friday, August 29, 2008

i know pizza hut, and this is no pizza hut

I lived on Pizza Hut the first couple of days I was in town.  It wasn't quite as bad of an idea as it might sound--the pizza is a bit better than it is in America, and a small only costs about $2.  But eventually I eased into Egyptian food, and I never really looked back at old Pizza Hut.  Until I felt a craving a few days ago.  I walked in, ordered my food, and sat down to wait.  And then the music started.  Loud blaring eurotrash techno.  The bass was pounding my brain hard enough that I couldn't hear myself think, let alone talk to the guy next to me.  And then Barney the dinosaur came waltzing up the stairs.  That green dinosaur followed closely behind, and right behind it came the yellow one.  They started hopping (or maybe it was dancing?) around the restaurant, and a room full of children shrieked in either joy or terror (it was very hard to tell).  This continued the entire time I was there.  Having a poorly put-together green dinosaur gyrating right in front of your face to an electro remix of Hips Don't Lie doesn't really do much to stir the appetite.

I was ready to write this all off as a bad dream until I felt another Pizza Hut craving today.  I walked in to see a bright red something-or-other spinning around on a table while an Egyptian rip-off of Bust a Move made the entire room rattle.  When a pink pig with a rainbow vest and child molester eyes walked up the stairs, I wanted very badly to leave.

Monday, August 25, 2008

let's find a flat

I have a flat now.  Two of them, actually.  I've got another couple weeks in my current one, and last night I signed the contract for a new place.  I'll probably move in Friday.  Not that there's anything wrong with where I'm staying now.  I like it quite a lot, actually.  I'm sharing it with a British journalist, mid-20's.  He spends most evenings playing a cheap Egyptian guitar (the climate has destroyed its strings).  After dinners we share a little scotch for desert and he tells me stories about Cairo, sometimes.  Other times he goes off on spirited rants about his job in an impressively heavy accent.  He's a good guy.  The flat is good, too.  I'll put pictures up whenever my internet decides to be cooperative.  It's on a quiet street in Maadi with more cats than people.  A family of palm-sized white-and-brown kittens live just outside.  We feed them our leftovers.

There's only one flaw to the place: it's really far from everywhere I need to be.  So a few days ago I contacted a guy to find me a new place.  His name is Mohamed (everyone here is named Mohamed).  He came with the highest recommendations from cairoscholars.  A few days ago, we met very late in the evening near the big red KFC sign in Midan Tahrir.  We took a cab to Nasr City with a chain-smoking driver who liked to blare Arab pop through the speakers and sing along.  He couldn't sing very well.  Mohamed sang too.  He was much better.

Our destination was a tiny open-air office beside a gas station.  It was full of overstuffed green chairs crowded around a beaten brown coffee table sitting on a faded red Persian rug.  An off-yellow conch shell sat on the table, used as an ash tray.  The semsar told us that the landlord would be ready soon.  We waited, and everyone lit cigarettes, and we waited, and a boy brought us bottles of Pepsi, and we waited some more.  Mohamed took this opportunity to tell me his life story.

There's one thing you ought to know about Mohamed.  Mohamed is a pop star.  At least, Mohamed very much thinks that he ought to be a pop star.  He told me that he cut an album two years ago.  When we were riding in a cab earlier, he pointed at a billboard.  "That man!  You see that man!?"  "The one advertising shampoo?"  "Yes, that man!  You know who that man is?"  "No."  "That man is (some Arab name, probably Mohamed).  He is very famous."  "Oh, really?"  "Yes, very very famous.  When I made my album, he sang backup in my choir.  Now he is famous and I am not."  "Oh, that doesn't seem fair..."  "No, but I will be famous one day, insha'allah."  "I bet you will, Mohamed."

While we were still waiting, Mohamed introduced me to his partner Noor.  Noor was a pop composer.  One of his songs was featured on an Egyptian TV show.  He was very proud of it.  Noor confided in me, as if it were some great secret, that he dreamed of writing a song for Amr Diab one day.  Mohamed and Noor told me that one day they will throw a big party where their band will play; and if I am still in Egypt, they will invite me.  Based on how often they brought it up, I suspect that they may have been serious.

We waited some more.  Noor whispered that the owner was one of the long-beards, so he might be praying.  Whatever he was doing, he finally showed after close to an hour.  All of us, me and Mohamed and Noor and the owner and a couple of miscellaneous bored Egyptians, walked down the street to the building.  It was a nice street, lots of people and lots of little shops but not much traffic.  We climbed two flights of stairs to the flat.  It was massive: three bedrooms, an entry room, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a big balcony overlooking an open-air produce market.  The furniture was a little shabby and the beds (all five of them) weren't terribly comfortable, but all-in-all it was rather nice.  The owner was very proud of the view of the garden from the windows on the other side of the flat.  The garden was a charming patch of dirt featuring a few half-dug holes.  If it's ever completed, I suppose it might look very nice.  I decided to take a day or two to think about the flat.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

please let's not get arrested, ok?

I woke up and I went to talk to James and he asked me what I needed and I said a cell phone.  So he gave me the simplest directions possible to find a mobile phone shop (take a left, cross the footbridge, take a right, you're there).  And filled with confidence that I was going to get myself a brand new Egyptian cell phone, I left the flat and took a right.  And I found myself in some sort of desolate railroad wasteland.  A group of very angry-looking Egyptian men were staring very intently at a very slightly discolored patch of sand.  I wasn't sure if they were going to mug me or maybe eat my flesh, but I needed to ask someone for directions.

I asked.  They smiled and one of them began escort me out of the home for old trains, asking me what I needed.  I spoke broken Arabic and he spoke broken English and we both gestured madly, and eventually I pulled out my now-no-signal-receiving old phone and pointed at it.  My Egyptian friend (hereafter referred to as Mohamed), pulled out his phone, smiled, and said "you make call."  I tried to tell him that I wanted to buy a phone, but Mohamed just smiled and shoved his phone into my hand.  "No.  No worry.  You make call."  Repeat a few half-dozen times.

Eventually we came to an agreement that I did, in fact, want to buy a phone.  Mohamed took to his new task with enthusiasm.  He smiled and took off on a mad dash down the street while I struggled to follow him.  He ran into a run-down green metro station and waited for me to catch up.  Then he hopped a turnstile.  I stood there staring.  He gestured at me to come with him and, not having a clue what else to do, I figured I may as well.  So I hopped.  He took off on a sprint through a crowd of Egyptians waiting for the train, and again I followed.

We reached a dirty sun-stained ramp going up.  As we ascended a little yellow motorcycle sped past us.  I stopped.  Mohamed didn't; he just turned his head, smiled, and gestured at me to get going.  Then a big red motorcycle sped past us and I decided he had the right idea.

We ran through another crowd of Egyptians and reached another set of turnstiles.  These had a small crowd of policemen in crisp white uniforms and black berets standing just outside.  Right in front of them, Mohamed hopped the turnstile.  I gestured at the police.  Mohamed smiled and held down the turnstile a little so it would be easier to jump.  I couldn't go back without facing motorcycley death, so I waved at the cops and hopped Mohamed's turnstile.

Another mad dash down the street (no police reaction whatsoever) and Mohamed pointed out a crumbling stone building.  "Phone here."  I said thank you a quarter-thousand times.  He smiled and walked off, shouting goodbyes behind him as he went.  I think I like Egyptians.

i do not like long flights, no i don't

The title says it all, really.  It took 19 hours to get from DFW to Cairo.  The first leg was a three hour flight to DC.  I fell asleep before takeoff and didn't wake until we were landing.  I bummed around Dulles for a couple of hours until my next flight.  I probably got something to eat but I couldn't tell you for sure--I was still in a very dreamy sort of haze.

For the flight to Frankfurt, I sat between a German girl and a nice old man.  Nice, but more than a little senile.  He was endlessly fascinated by everything going on around him and endlessly unable to figure any of it out (no sir, that's a sucker she has in her mouth, not a cigarette.  no, that doesn't mean you can smoke.  really.  that boy over there?  he's watching a movie on his ipod.  ipod... i-p-o-d.  it's like a walkman.  no, it isn't a walkman, i said it plays music like a walkman.  yes sir, he's watching a movie on his walkman.  sigh).  The German girl was perfectly pleasant to me, but she kept getting in shouting matches with the family behind us for reasons that I could never quite pin down.  Eventually everyone fell asleep.

I woke when we arrived in Frankfurt.  I got a chance to practice my German and, more importantly, visit the airport bar.  The beer I had there may have been the most delicious drink I've ever tasted, although coming off a seven-
hour flight just might have had something to do with it.  That, or the Germans just really know their stuff.

I sat by a very talkative lady on my flight to Cairo.  She recommended some sort of expatriate club in Maadi to me.  It sounded like the type of place where ladies gossip over the sewing circle and bluehairs play bridge.  When I couldn't take anymore I fell asleep.

After a quick trip to the duty-free and an even quicker trip through customs, I took an overpriced and overlong cab ride to my flat.  My new flatmate James poured me a beer and he got very excited when I told him I brought scotch.  It was a bonding experience, I guess.  Then I fell asleep.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

i went downtown and it burned up

Testing 1 2 3

I meant to set this up a week ago, but I'd been too busy/tired.  I'll try to write up the past few days soon.

I went downtown for the first time today.  After emerging from the metro I was greeted by this.  See the smoke?  That's the Shura Council building, the high house of Egypt's parliament, on fire.  I hope this isn't an omen.