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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fi Iskindereya

Part of our study abroad orientation here at AUC was a three-day trip to Alexandria, Iskindereya in Arabic. On the way we stopped off at the Desert Development Center where we got a glimpse of the Egyptian countryside, in which life has changed little for what has likely been millenia. A lot of the countryside was dry, dusty, and flat, but a fair amount was somewhat vegetated and populated with small agricultural villages.At the DDC they fed us a very traditional breakfast of aysh, mankoush, foul, "black honey" (molasses), and something that was explained to us only as "old cheese." The aysh (pita), mankoush (pastryesque flat bread), and foul (stewed fava beans) were very good, but the black honey was a little strong and the "old cheese" was positively overwhelming and... quite frankly, pretty atrocious. In fact, the serving shared in the middle of my table had a couple of maggots in it. From this we learned that maggots can jump a fair distance. Not too appetizing.

When we finally arrived in Alexandria we learned that the ISSO (International Student Services Office) was putting us up in the 5-star Hilton Borg el-Arab Mediterranean resort. It was a beautiful (albeit hideous shade of pink) hotel, and the rooms were spacious and much more comfortable than our dorm rooms. We realized pretty quickly why the ISSO was able to afford to house us there, as Alexandria was very, very cold with a bit of rain, and the Mediterranean (which was literally only a few hundred feet from our rooms) was downright freezing. It was beautiful anyway though, and the food was incredible.We also discovered an interesting cultural tidbit when we realized that each of our hotel rooms came equipped with a plaque pointing out the direction to Mecca so Muslim tourists would be able to orient themselves properly in time to pray. Another tidbit is that everything is alphabetized by first name here, so I've met and know fairly well all the other Katherine/Kathryn/Kate/Katie(s) here, as well as the one Catherine (who goes to Reed!), who happens to be the roommate of one of the other Kathryns.
The first two days of the trip we spent not doing very much because the hotel was actually very far from the city proper, and the sea was too cold to go swimming in. We had a couple of actual orientation meetings (useless, as they waited until we'd been in Egypt more than a week to tell us various tips about getting by on transportation systems, shopping areas, etc.) in which we learned that our advisor from the ISSO office is literally the scariest, haughtiest woman that most of us had ever met. The tips she gave us were also useless because she doesn't actually know how to get by in Cairo--she's wealthy enough that she's never had to do it herself.

On the third day we had a ridiculously whirlwind tour of the city of Alexandria. It was whirlwind to the point that we were given less than 10 minutes to visit one of our destinations, and only drove past another one. We saw the Catacombs of Kom el-ShoKhafa, a Roman amphitheater, another thing that I think was a Roman amphitheater but couldn't say for sure because we only drove past it, a massive Moorishly-styled Roman fort, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

In the library was an exhibit overviewing the life of famous MiSri (Egyptian) artist Shadi Abdel Salam, whose work I found very appealing, only to sadly discover that the library bookstore didn't sell posters or prints of his art.

Alexandria was a lot of fun, but I would have preferred to get more than a half-glimpse of it. At some point I will need to head back there for a weekend to take a better look, and replace the nifty mug I got from the library bookstore that lately got smashed, thanks to Al-Kitaab (my Arabic text book). Argh.

Edit: I meant to mention this, so I'll do it now--no matter where you stay in Egypt, whether it's a five-star resort in Alex or a $5-a-night hostel on Tal'at Harb, be wary with your valuables! Carry them with you at all times if you can, use the lock box provided by your hotel, or at the very least keep them out of sight and not easily accessible (i.e. at the bottom of your bag). Even at the five-star Hilton Borg Al-Arab, several students cumulatively had two cameras, an iPod, and several thousand LE stolen from their rooms, probably by the cleaning staff. Even more foreboding, the guy whose iPod was pilfered stopped by the local Alex Radio Shack at the mall in the city proper to see if he could buy a replacement. He was told by the employees there that they did not carry iPods at their store, but that he could buy them for pretty cheap at a little shop out by the Hilton. The hotel only begrudgingly offered compensation, but it was not equal by any means to the value of the items lost, and they did not reprimand any of their employees--and this was with a native Egyptian doing the negotiations on the students' behalf.

Cairo Travel Tip #1: Taxis!

For tourists (and despite my extended stay here, I think I will always be considered a "tourist," even by myself) there is one primary way of getting around Cairo--taxis. Speaking from personal experience I'd say that Cairo traffic is initially one of the most horrifying things about the city. Despite whatever markings, signs, or crosswalks exist on the street, nobody believes in traffic lanes, everyone uses their horns constantly, and headlights exist solely for the purpose of asserting one's presence. I'll go into all this in more detail in Travel Tip #2 when I explain how to cross a street in Cairo.

The taxis themselves are pretty horrifying, even after you've become more accustomed to life in Cairo. There is a very particular political situation in which the Egyptian government has refused to give out new taxi licenses for a very long time. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe they are waiting until some particular technology (think basic, not high-tech) becomes widely available enough for them to reform the whole taxi system and bring them all up to par.

At the moment, however, taxis belch noxious gasoline fumes, the passenger doors sometimes swing open when the taxi takes a leisurely turn to the left, and few if any taxi meters function.

Nonetheless there are ways to mitigate the unpleasantness of taxi riding in Cairo, and this basically comes down to research, research, research. If you can't be or think like a native, the least you can do is know some of the basics they already know. A lot of tourist guides recommend that you negotiate the taxi fare before you get in the cab. This is all well and good for the complete novice, but you have to know how to do it properly, and a lot of guidebooks don't let you know all the gory details.

Many novices make the mistake of telling the taxi driver their destination, then asking "bikaam?" (how much?). This single phrase will give you away as an easy dupe, and be duped you will. The taxi driver will generally quote you twice the actual going fare for the destination you want. If you're not here for very long and/or you've got money to burn, this may be acceptable, but if you are a student or just don't want to be ripped off, you have to go about it a little differently.

Do let the taxi driver know your intended destination before anything else. Do your research and find out exactly where you want to go. Not a specific address per se, as these are often hard to come across, but figure out which midan (plaza) is nearest your destination, or which major landmark or intersection you can direct your driver to. Expect to have to walk a few blocks to get where you actually want to go. Also find out what the "common knowledge" fare to your destination is. Cairenes have unspoken understanding of how much fares are or ought to be, so if you have to, ask a policeman or student. Watch out for people that you can't clearly place in either of these categories because they may be rogue shopkeepers or beggars.

When you actually flag down your taxi, make sure you're on the side of the street on which traffic is heading towards your intended direction. You will be charged extra otherwise, because there's aren't always many places for the cab to reverse direction. When a cab pulls over, state your destination, then state the price you expect to have to pay. It's best if you use Arabic for this entire exchange because the cabbie will be less likely to try to bargain your price up. If you have a full cab's worth of people (four), expect to have to pay a pound or two extra.

Once you get really good at this, you won't have to negotiate price at all. The expert's version: flag your cab, state your destination, climb in, arrive at your destination, hand your cabbie the expected fare, and leave.

Here's a practice dialogue:
Taxi Driver: *pulls over, looks at you*
You: low samaHt, midan al-Tahrir? (If you please, the plaza al-Tahrir)
Taxi Driver: *nods*
You: Khamsa? (five LE?)
Taxi Driver: *frowns and points at your three buddies*
You: sab3a? (seven LE?)
Taxi Driver: *nods*
You: *get in cab, off you go!*

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Al-Hamdo Lilah, Things Get Better.

Day 1 in Cairo, I tag along with a group out to get mobiles and other necessities of life. The group split up and I ended up with two guys--Christer (Chris) from Norway, and Bob, from Sacramento. We attempted to find downtown Cairo where, we were absoulutely certain, there had to be a store that sold cell phones. We hailed a cab and asked the cabbie to take us to a particular intersection in Bob's guidebook that looked promising.

We quickly learned one of the most important rules of travel in Cairo--half the time, especially if you're a foreigner, cab drivers don't know where they're going. After driving us through regions unknown for a good forty minutes, we attempted to recheck with our cabbie that we were headed to the correct destination. The man spoke confusedly to us in Arabic, trying to suggest various popular tourist destinations that we might mean when we said "Tal'at Harb Street." Eventually we just showed him the map, he got out to ask for directions from passersby, then got back in the cab to drive us mysteriously around some more before dropping us on a random street that was closer to the dorm than it was to down town. We gave up on cabs at this point, and walked.

The most important measure of an adept Cairene is their ability to cross traffic unscathed. Less than 24 hours in Egypt and we were attempting to cross a massive highway interchange. Long story short, we made it mostly alive. Not too much in Cairo is scary after that. We did find cell phones.

The next day I came down with the "Pharaoh's Revenge" from what I suspect was a bad bowl of kushari, and had to go to the hospital. I had some relatively unusual symptoms, including a bad fever, shaking, and mild delirium. I suppose one positive end of that is now I actually know what it's like to have fever dreams.

24 Hours later I was back in the saddle (quite literally) with Bob and Chris, and we were off to the pyramids with another recruit, Greg, to take the camel-and-horseback tour, for 180LE apiece, which was a bit steep but worth it in the end.

I forget the names of our horses, but our camels were named Mickey Mouse and Charlie Brown (the tour guides are incredibly adept at appealing to tourists with snippets of their home culture. Our guide kept saying "aloha!" when he took photos of us, and we met many random people on the street who spoke bits of Norwegian, Korean, and Japanese).
We let ourselves be led around the pyramid complex for awhile, before being led, finally, to a perfume shop ambiguously affiliated with our tour guide, which we admired uncomfortably before leaving without buying anything.

All in all, a good day, even if I didn't get to eat anything.L-->R Me, Chris, Greg, Bob.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Ahlan Wa-Sahlan

Exit London and enter... well, not the most comfortable city in the world. Cairo. al-Qaahira fi MaSr. The Egyptian one.

My first impressions of the city are of an immense, dusty, noisy morass of incomprehensible motion. When our plane arrived in Cairo airport (there were probably 15 or so of us on the same flight in from Heathrow) we were met by a round, jolly man with only half his teeth. He gathered us up and herded us out the door to the most haphazard minibus I've ever seen.

We piled in and, with our police escort's sirens wailing (the fact that we had such an escort startling and worrying in of itself), we headed off into the darkened, congested highways of Cairo. Apparently nobody here believes in headlights.

Apparently nobody here believes in organizing anything ahead of time, or conveying any pertinent information when other cultures might consider it necessary to do so. As a result we tumbled out of our bus onto the doorstep of our marble-and-glass dorm, all ready to fall immediately into bed after our varied but lengthy travelling ordeals, only to be hurried into the lobby in preparation for... sitting. And more sitting. The reception and security crew piled up our suitcases carefully in one corner of the room, then shuffled the heavy bags to another end of the room and carefully resurrected the mass. Eventually they gave up and simply piled everything in mounds on the floor.

After much clambering, confused zippering and unzippering of bags to facilitate the security staff riffling through our belongings (for booze, apparently... two students found themselves already receiving warnings for possession), we were handed envelopes filled with papers and our room keys. One reception staff member led a group of us (girls) to the women's wing of the dorm, to show us where our rooms were. We lugged our massive suitcases (me being one of the most lightly laden, I can attest to the unpleasantness of this task) up two flights of stairs to the "first" floor, where the elevator banks were located. After 10 minutes of frustrated pushing of buttons, the staff member concluded that the elevators were broken (again), and led us back to the stairwell and pointed up in the direction of the various floors we lived on. My floor was the 6th.

Round about the 3rd floor a few other girls and I discovered that the elevators actually functioned from the third floor, and decided to risk taking one up to our respective floors. We made it alive, and stumbled out in relief. The keys here are different than I was used to back home, so upon finding my room (nobody here believes in putting room numbers in any sort of logical order) I fumbled around with the lock for a few minutes, then in frustration attempted to rattle the doorknob. To my surprise I discovered it had been open the whole time, and even more surprising, I discovered that I had a roommate, and that I had just woken her up.

I had requested a single, and the student services office had neglected to tell me my living circumstances would be other than what I had asked for. Clearly life in Cairo is going to require almost superhuman amounts of patience.

That's it for first impressions. Hopefully I will be able to begin including useful travel tips and pointers on local Arabic for those intrepid travellers who are not dissuaded by to so-called "Cairo Moments" I experience.

I will leave you with one tantalizing image, however:
Posted by PicasaThe Nile, in all its Glory.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mind the Gap!

Hello Everyone. Sorry for the delay, but so much has been happening so quickly that it's been a little intimidating to tackle it all in the few moments I have had open for such non-survival-related activities. So here we go--my (mis)adventures to date, the short version.

The first leg of my trip was a lengthy (about 10 days) layover in London con mi chica Alycia. As I've learned in this short amount of time, there are two Rules of London:

1. London is the most comfortable city in the world.
2. London is out to get me. Yep, the whole city.

I have come to believe these two rules to be completely and utterly true, in spite of their apparent contradiction. To elaborate, I was subject to a massive series of mishaps which included 1. the loss of Alycia's mobile number; 2. lack of prior knowledge about the tube worker's strike, resulting in an inability to plan around it, resulting in 3. being dumped off in a tube stop of unknown location somewhere in downtown London in the middle of the night with a good 50 kilos of luggage and 4. being unable to locate said tube station on my map due to there being three additional tube (bus, actually, but i had no idea at the time that bus stops also use the standard tube stop sign) stops of the same name within a few blocks as well as 5. most of the streets (appearing to be) unlabeled.

I did eventually manage to find Alycia, but within 24 hours followed mishap number 6. in which I was taken to a local dive (ahem, club) which promptly flooded and forced everyone to leave. The next night we decided to not push our luck and stay in for the evening, but then I somehow managed to 7. blow out the fuses in Alycia's room by trying to plug in my electric adapter. Apparently unable to find any safe means of entertainment, we attempted to soak up some culture by attending Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Royal Opera, but the tube being unreliable and us being typical college students (which is to say, running late), we had to try to run there in typical women's "nice" footwear, which, needless to say, is not designed even for everyday walking. This resulted in me 8. ending up with such terrible blisters that I had to spend the rest of the night wandering downtown London (in January!) barefoot, except for the last bit when the sidewalks got so cold that I had to borrow Alycia's socks (they were black, they never get dirty, the longer you wear them... oh, nevermind), and was 9. unable to wear shoes at all for a couple of days afterward. There were a few more mishaps in there someplace, but since they were relatively minor I'll leave them out.

Despite the potential horror of my experience in London, I spent the vast majority of the time wandering the streets grinning like an idiot. Yes, even when I was sure my toes were about to freeze and fall off.

My theory is that in London everything looks so small and dinky (ee! smartcars!!) that you can't help feeling a little bit like you're in Disneyland, which, as everyone knows, is The Happiest Place on Earth (tm). Everyone there is also amazingly friendly and helpful, so I only had to attempt to climb two flights of stairs in the entirety of the tube system without some random guy offering to carry my massive suitcase for me. Also, it wasn't nearly as cold as everyone led me to believe.

Alycia and I also had an interesting pub experience courtesy of Uncle Jack. We picked a random tavern (they're all decorated so nicely, it's hard to choose) called The Rising Sun, fought valiantly for a table (we won!), and per his instructions ordered some "real food" (Yay non-Tesco!) and a couple of pints. Alycia ordered a heart-attack-inducing meat pie and some kind of beer I don't recall the name of, and I got the famous fish and chips and a pint of Stella. The fish and chips was excellent, the Stella was foul. Actually, whatever Alycia was drinking was pretty foul too. Guess I'll just never be a beer drinker.

That was about it. Yay London.