Thursday, December 28, 2006

Almost 0-2

Alright, it's been over 2 weeks since I last blogged (finals, anyone?), so, as I await my family's arrival, I've decided to condense 2 weeks of my life into a succinct ;-) blog entry. To be honest, it's a far more favorable occupation than cleaning or doing laundry.
I left off the week before finals, I think, when our world-famous celebrity decided to grace us with a visit. That weekend I studied (truly! Deya and I sprawled out on my bed and drilled each other over media vocab, among other things), watched a few movies, and had a wonderful dinner at an Indian restaurant in Mohendessin, Kandahar, and visited Deal's in Zamalek for an enlightening discussion with the Ames' and a few others. And then, ahhhh!, the school week began, and with it, the burden of looming finals. I am accustomed to finals week being fairly indolent; in other words, I take at most two finals a day, usually just one, they are spread out over 5 days, and I only have a maximum of 4-5. Not so in ALI. Sunday and Monday continued as usual with the normal class schedule and beautiful 8 am grammar sessions. Then, on Tuesday, I took half of my media final (the listening part where we attempt to understand and dictate a recording from BBC Arabic radio), the listening part of my colloquial final, and my writing final, although, because the professor had been absent for the past several classes, I feel like I may have done poorly on this exam. Anyway, Tuesday also happened to be Deya's birthday (yay!) so we hung out for a few hours, munched on unhealthy sweets and watched the first part of Casino Royale before she had to return home. For the rest of the night, I frantically studied but felt a descendent cloud of defeat settle over me as I stared mindlessly at the hundreds of vocab words swimming before my eyes and deperately tried not to confuse booby-trapped with besieged and 'to be propitious towards' with to receive. Of course, since my onerous grammar final was not until Thursday, I was still forced to attend 8 am class on Wed., head to my spoken Fusha final with Ahmed (do not get me started on that class and the inappropriateness and audacity of the teacher, ugggh), go directly to the vocab and reading comprehension part of my media final, and then have my oral interview in colloquial Egyptian. Returning home utterly eneravated, I rested briefly but then gathered myself up to celebrate Deya's birthday with our close group of friends and bid Albert goodbye one last time. We dined at a wonderful Lebanese restaurant in Garden City, Taboulah's (see picture) and sat for hours talking and laughing and congratulating Deya on the fact that she's no longer jailbait ;-)
Eli was flying out that morning, so we returned home for the night to help him pack, although I deserted them for about an hour and a half to walk Deya home, review my grammar and gaze longingly at the clock. Not wanting the evening's festivities to end at 10:30, we galvanized a few die-hard troops for one last hurrah at the bar Deal's in Mohendessin. You do need to understand that I was not that desperate to avoid cramming, but I was also wanting to spend a few more hours with friends who I will not see again for another month and a half. Also, all of the advanced students had completed their finals, so they had no worries about being in a proper state of mind at 9 am the nex morning. I left the bar at 1:00 stolidly sober, went straight to bed, begrudingly rolled out of bed the next morning at 7:00, perused my material one last time, and sailed into class at 9 sharp for the satisfyingly challenging final.
Flooding out of the classroom at 10:30, I glanced around me and noticed the world for the first time in what seemed like ages. So a sky still existed (albeit a gray-tinged smoggy one), water still trickled from the fountain in the courtyard, the pooping tree still splattered, and time still eased onwards. Many of my classmates were only here for a semester, and Thursday was the last day I would ever see them again-so I loitered, first in the courtyards, giving hugs and promising to keep in touch, if only via Facebook, then in the Pottery Cafe over smoothies and salads, recounting the past semester with nostalgia and fondness, vowing that our class will never be bested. Finally, the final farewells were murmured, the last embraces adminstered, and we walked away from each other, each on a different path away from campus, each with our own memories that converged, however briefly, at AUC, not just to learn Arabic, but to live in Egypt, alone, and endure life in a world that does not have dryers and Targets and English and Abercrombie.
Alas, one cannot dwell on the past forever, or you live in a world of regrets without hope for a bright tomorrow, and, I had one more goodbye to say, this one being perhaps the most difficult. Annie, my dear Annie, was leaving on Saturday for the States, and I had planned on spending all of Friday with her, but as I could only find a plane ticket to Dahab Thursday night, so our time was limited to a few too brief hours Thursday afternoon in the Khan. A couple other friends also needed to purchase some last minute gifts for people back home, and- as I have become known as the Khan expert-wanted me to be their guide, so we met in Medan Hussein and trekked through labryinth of tawdry and fascinating goods for several hours. Annie and I, in particular, felt very successful, as I found gifts for my Dahab travel companions (more on that soon!), my brother, and, of course, a few things for myself, including a sword. I fear mom will see it tomorrow and freak ;-) Annie and I broke off a little early, visited the Khanoon across the way and hopped into a taxi to spend a few more minutes together before we reached Cairo Khan. At the end, there isn't much left to say, other than remark about our purchases, the decrepit buildings we always pass, and our first few days and laugh determinedly over our naivte. Under the glaring lights of downtown, the jostling crowds and honking cars, I gave her a hasty hug and watched her navigate the street and enter Cairo Khan, a place that only really held memories for me because of her and the other girls that populated it. Sigh.
I never seem to rest, however, and I took the cab ride home, ate a hasty Metro dinner of chicken and rice, walked to the pharmacy about 20 minutes away to pick up insulin, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, etc., and then packed with indescribable speed. And now, in case you've been perplexed about my title, I will elucidate. Three friends-Sarah, Leslie, and Steve-and I had decided to spend Christmas away from Cairo on the beach in Dahab on the northern Sinai coast. Rather than endure the 10+ hour public bus ride, we booked four plane tickets for Thursday night at 10:30. Now, Steve and I live in the same building, but the other two live elsewhere, and we had agreed to all meet in front of my building at 8:30 to catch a taxi to the airport. When the clock inched past 8:45, I began getting anxious and called to verify their location. On their way, on their way. Fine, it is impossible to expedite Zamalek traffic, so we waited, met them, and continued onto the airport crammed cozily in their cab at 9. Traffic was typically bottle-necked, but not heavily, except that our driver seemed unable to accelerate past 30 mph, even on the freeway. Fine. Eventually arriving at the airport at 9:45, we unload our luggage slowly, as the driver is wheezing and appears near death, approach the doors and ask where the flight to Sharm El-Sheikh (Dahab doesn't have a airport, thank God) is. Not here, not here, Hall 4.
What! But our ticket printout says Terminal 2! After mulling around in heightened awareness at the approaching hour, we stop a tour bus and ask the driver. After he confirms the information, we swiftly agree to catch the next cab to take us to this Terminal 4. Suddenly, there appears a dearth in taxis, but we await impatiently and flag the next one down. He wants 25 LE, and without much negotiation, we literally throw our luggage haphazardly onto the roof and into the trunk and squeeze ourselves into the cab.
Quickly, quickly, we tell the driver as the cab eases to a halt before a mass of honking vehicles desultorily merging into several lanes to pay a toll required to either exit the airport or go to hall 4. Of course, our driver nonchalantly eases his way into the pack, allowing several vehicles to go in front while I groan in the back seat, wondering if I am just not meant to fly independently, seeing as I missed my last flight as well. Passing through the toll gates, we are briefly stopped at a stop sigh (ahh!), go through it and turn onto a deserted stretch of highway. Faster, faster, we all inculcate in our broken and panicked Arabic. Oh, thank God, there is Hall 4! Pulling our luggage off the vehicle with unrestrained abandon, I toss the money at the driver and enter the Hall. As I'm about to put my luggage on the belt to enter security, the guard asks me what flight I'm on. I tell him Sharm El-Sheikh, and he says it is closed. As my companions surge up around me, I gape and, I think, develop a horribly nefarious expression as I strangle out, Min Fudlik (please!), in a commanding, brisk tone. An EgyptAir employee scurries up and waves us in. Breathing a sigh of relief, I throw my luggage onto the belt, pass through the metal detectors (both forms of security are a bit of a joke, as no one cared that I beeped and I was never asked for I.D.) As we board the plane with the other passengers, some still checking in, our only concern is if our luggage will make the flight. Either way, though, at least we made it!
The flight itself was beautifully brief, less than an hour, and we touched down around 11:30 (Egypt Air never leaves on time!). Having flown Egypt Air twice now, once to Aswan and now this time, I am at least neutral towards the airline, despite its inherent tardiness. All of the planes are quite modern with flip-up video monitors and a hilarious cartoon narrator that oozes sleaziness and creepy Arab man. Before each take-off, a soura from the Koran is recited, reminding, me, once again, that the church and the state are not exactly disparate entities in my new world. Disembarking, we wait for the luggage for awhile, and everyone finds his or her own but me, because mine is the last off (of course), we meet our driver from Dahab and prepare to leave Sharm and pass through a checkpoint. We are stopped, which is routine, but then our driver gets out and enters the rather small building/shack/hut that houses the military personel guarding the checkpoint. Through the open doorway, about 70% of the hut is visible, but our driver disappears into the 30% obscured from view. Meanwhile, the guards outside stare lewdly at us while twirling their rifles with careless abandon. It's after midnight and I'm rather tired and irritated and am ready to go out and 'talk' to the soldiers, but me friends convince me otherwise, so, after over a half hour in the hut, our driver emerges and we enter the surreal blackness of the Sinai mountains tinged with moonlight and deep shadow.
For the last obstacle of the day, we pull into the Penguin hostel/hotel, three of us having reserved rooms there and one next door, since the Penguin was full. Piling out of the van after an uneventful hour drive, we are greeted by the owner who looks over his reservation sheet intently and begins to assign us rooms. As all of us had booked our own rooms previously online, we were rather startled to be handed only two room keys. Where's the third, we ask with annoyance, as the owner is aggrevatingly placating and friendly.
Well, he smiles, since the driver said there were three of you, I assumed two would be sharing a room.
Is that what the reservation sheet says?
Well, no...
Exhausted of incident after incident, we finally tell him that Leslie and I will share a room for the first night if I can't find room next door. Simpering apologetically, he responds, I can wake up the person in your room and kick him out.
No, I respond with bare politeness, that's not necessary. I inspect Leslie's room, find it minimal and drab, and go next door to the Christina Beach Palace where Steve is staying. The owner greeted me and managed to find me a room for at least two nights and assigned me in room 20 and him in room 23. No, this is not just superfluous detail, I promise you. One of the porters follows me back to the Penguin to retrieve my luggage (good riddance!) and brings me to my room which, in contrast to the Penguin, is graced with deep oak wood furnishings, ample cheerful blue bedding, a beautiful navy blue tiled bathroom with a real shower (the the Penguin just had a showerhead and a drain in the floor), and a balcony door which I did not explore until morning. Granted, it did cost more than the Penguin, but it was entirely worth every guinea. I slept very well that night, my body desiring recuperation from the cold that had developed over finals week.
I arose the next morning beaming and rested, and, after showering, opened my balcony door to reveal a magificent oceanfront panorama of sun and sea and beach (see picture left), quite arguably one of the best rooms of the place. Now, this especially delighted me because, even though Steve had a reservation, I still got a much better view than he did ;-) Hee hee hee. My roommate, Akshaya, had decided to come up to Dahab for a few days before she left for America on the 25th, so all five of us, via the magical connectivity of wide-ranging cell phone coverage, met up in the Penguin restaurant for breakfast, everyone but me bundled up somewhat against the fiercely raging winds. I, of course, wore shorts and a tank top. Akshaya, staying in the Bishibishi a few doors down and across the street (owned by the same people as the Sphinx, where we stayed last time we were in Dahab), was just as delighted as the rest of us to admire the ocean, suck fresh oxygen into our lungs, and convalesce after life-sucking finals. That first day we mainly rested and wandered through the streets, browsing the stores along the waterfront and gazing in curiousity at the cliffs of Saudi rearing across the straits and concealing in its interior an entire movement of pilgrimers beginning the Hajj to Mecca.
After everyone else retired to their rooms to rest, Akshaya and I took a walk to the point of Dahab, dipped in the water, shrilled as it, combined with the wind, froze us, clambered out without much bravery, sunned briefly in some chairs, and eventually admitted defeat and headed back to town. On the way back we stopped at a beachfront 'salon' that we had questioned earlier about pedicures, and after Sarah met us and agreed to get one too, we bargained them down from 120 LE pp to 30 LE. I made the mistake of going first, and, because my feet are truly hideous, spent an hour having them scraped, smoothed and painted. By this time, it was almost sunset, so Akshaya went after me and Sarah declined. For dinner we met in one of the charming Bedouin cafes, the Penguin again, where we reclined against the pillows, absorbed the warmth of the fire, and, in my case, devoured one of the spectacular wonders of Dahab, the milkshake. After a splendidly uneventful evening, we went to bed with the next day's objective to relax!
I can't remember exactly which day I returned to the Funny Mummy, but I feel that it was this morning, the 23rd. Ahhh, the Funny Mummy, without question my favorite place in Dahab, where every staff member greets you with either your name or a flattering nickname in Arabic and spends all meal joking with you. The owner, Jimmy, is especially precious, a true character in every sense of that word, overwhelming in personality to some, but I find him hilarious. To be honest , returning to the Funny Mummy is like coming home, and it one of the main reasons Dahab is one of my favorite places on earth. Most people like it, but I absolutely, unequivicably adore it and know that I will be going back at least once during the spring semester, preferably when it's warmer, to snorkel, bake, and say good bye to my friends.
Anyway, I went for an afternoon walk, returned to the Funny Mummy to find Akshaya creating the menu boards for the Funny Mummy, supervised her for a while, flirted with the staff, and then took a sunset stroll to the point for golden mountains and gentle breezes feathering the water with rosy silver. Because of the hotel situation, part of our group was broken up for the evening. Sarah, Leslie, and Steve moved to the one true resort in Dahab, the Hilton, isolated in a sheltered bay a 5 minute cab ride or 40 minute walk from town. Akshaya was leaving the next morning, and I also didn't want to yet leave downtown, so I stayed another night in the Christina and than planned on moving to the Hilton on the 24th to join my friends. This provided Akshaya and I with a wonderful excuse, after our sunset excursion, to recline in the Funny Mummy around a roaring blaze, smoke sheesha, eat, drink milkshakes, talk, and entirely rewind in a laconic atmosphere. Jimmy's been renovating, shall we say, parts of the Sphinx, and he opened a brilliant new club that night with pool and foozball and a great sound system and bar. We checked it out, mingled a bit, and then I learned how to play backgammon under the tutelage of Jimmy, who also, while I made a quick phone call back home, managed to grab my phone and introduce himself to mom ;-) and then bid Akshaya good bye and tucked in for the night.
Waking up the next morning, rather late as always, I munched down breakfast, checked out of the Christina (managed to make a complete idiot of myself during the process by falling down some stairs and scraping my knees), went for a walk, ran into Steve on the way back, as he was returning from a dive, and headed over to the Hilton together. Honestly, despite the fact that it was Dec. 24th and most of the cafes and hotels displayed various levels of Christmas spirit, from a few lights to decorated trees and tinsel, I did not truly feel like Christmas was an imminent day away until I entered the Hilton. At the entranceway a fake Santa waved to guests while corny Christmas music barraged any tourist foolish enough to loiter in the central courtyard area. All over the grounds, fake Santas danced across the lawns, frozen in mid-leap or with mouths gaping, about to greet you with a resounding "Merry Christmas!" And then, visiting Sarah and Leslie's room, I saw their Christmas surprise, a mini tree decorated with glinting green and red balls, blinking lights and one staid Ramadan lantern and topped with a disco ball. After exploring the beach for a bit and oogling the comfy lounge chairs, I investigated the dinner options for Christmas Eve available at the hotel, and, with Leslie and Steve, decided to reserve three seats (Sarah didn't want to come) for a formal six course meal in the Italian restaurant for 30 extra dollars.
Perhaps I should explain a bit about the Hilton in Dahab, particularly serveral of the idiosyncracies we found in the service there. Overall, it was a very nice hotel, and, with the resident rate, reasonably affordable (350 LE per night including breakfast and dinner), and my room was light, fairly clean, and comfortable with a nice marble bathroom and balcony with hammock. Because the resort caters almost exclusively to Europeans, our group was a bit of an aberration in the general homogenity of the guests. In fact, walking out of the hotel one day I noted that, of the 15 or so flags flapping in the breeze, none displayed the stars and stripes. Instead, they represented France, Spain, Britain, etc., as well as a few Arab countries. Maybe they're less of a target for bombings, who knows, for the running joke is that if you see a group of Israelis, run in the other direction, fast. And, of course, despite the only 150 km separating Dahab from Israel, no Israeli flag was displayed. Besides the flag issue, the Hilton had a few other strange policies. The first morning we were there, my friends (I didn't because I put out the 'Shhh...I'm relaxing' sign) received a knock at 9:30 on their doors. As they were all in bed, none of them chose to answer it, so the employee, after waiting about 5 seconds, proceeded to unlock the door and let himself into the room to...check the mini bar. As you can imagine, this caused a bit of consternation among my friends, who appreciate their privacy, particularly the females. Also, into order to keep the resort relatively bug-free, the Hiton needs to fumigate the grounds about once a day, which is perfectly acceptable, except that their chosen time to perform this duty is at sunset when people are generally outside.
Anyway, back to Christmas Eve day. After a sunset horseback ride along the beach and a quick shopping spree in town (to buy mommy a present, although I also found myself a present ;-), I returned to the resort, hastily changed into something decent, and met up at 8 with Leslie and Steve to enjoy some sophistication. Indeed, it was quite pleasant to be seated at a table with a some British tablemates and discuss, in English, the world and our lives without having to stammer in Arabic or describe my marital situation. To add to the evening, we split a bottle of wine, although it was rather small for the price, and enjoyed haute cuisine amid guitar serenades and Christmas carols. Afterwards, we returned to Leslie's room and popped in her computer the movie Aladdin from Sarah's collection to amuse ourselves and give us a little taste of home. I don't think I've ever had a Christmas Eve quite like this one, where, in the span of 5 hours, I galloped on the beach, dined in a restaurant surrounded entirely by Europeans, curled up with three friends to sing "A Whole New World" with Aladdin and Jasmine, and then stepped outside to hear the mosques call the evening prayer. It's a bit callous to mention this, perhaps, but it's also rather amusing to think that I spent Christmas with a Jew, atheist, and Buddhist at an American resort chain surrounded by Europeans in a Muslim country. Talk about a cultural experience!
On Christmas Day I arose, yawned, and joined my companions for the yummy buffet breakfast, that served beef bacon and salad for breakfast, among the usual staples (no pork, though). As I was walking alone to the breakfast nook, there appeared before my wondering eyes a vision of jolly old St. Nick...on a camel. Stupified, I shoved aside the little British kids following him, snapped a few shots, and then continued on to the conquest of breakfast. Then, we retrieved the tree from Leslie and Sarah's room and transported it down to the beach where we resolutely staked out a beach front location and proceeded to snap away to capture the memories of our little tree on the Red Sea. A few other guests also requested a few moments with our tree, and we gladly complied, because it is a holiday of giving, no? and it was amusing to watch other people pose in their swimming suits and try to distinguish their nation of origin. For the rest of the day, we lazed around like beached seals in lounge chairs, swam a bit, trolled the beach and waded aross the bay to the point, and enjoyed a few sundowners of Finlandi non-water and fruit juice as the sun dipped below the rocky sentinels of the Sinai. Then, of course, a giant cloud of white DEET appeared in the distance, and we snatched up the towels, grabbed our belongings and the cute little tree, and literally sprinted for our rooms as a roiling cloud crept through the resort and engulfed anyone standing outside in noxious fumes. Hmmm..not exactly the way I pictured sunset on Christmas Day, but as I huddled in Leslie and Sarah's room, I couldn't help but giggle at the hilarity of it all. After a brief nap, we went to dinner and then Leslie, Steve, and I caught a pickup into town to hang out for a few hours at the Funny Mummy. Returning fairly late that night, we got into a cab, told the driver where to go, and were repeatedly asked if we wanted anything else. I'm a bit slow, I'll confess, but Leslie finally realized he was asking us if we wanted drugs (Dahab is known as, errmm, an easy supplier of a certain plant ). After vigoriously replying no, we fell into a brief silence until the vehicle was stopped by a bunch of men who surrounded the car and shouted at the driver, for, apparently, a key. It was relinquished, and we proceeded onwards as the driver began a lilting soliloquy of random words in Arabic that were in no way related. Oh, God, don't let him kill us...We arrived at the Hilton safely, said good bye to Steve, who was flying out the next morning, and bedded down for the night.
The next day was also exceedingly lazy, filled with much sunning and swimming and, for me, a walk into town where I met Sarah for a late lunch and chill time at the Funny Mummy. As a cat lover, even I find it difficult to approach any of the stray cats in Cairo, as they are all mangy-looking, diseased, rabid, and malicious. The kitties in Dahab, however, are actually quite clean and cuddly, so it was wonderful to stroke the felines of the Funny Mummy and name them and have them curl up at your feet against the warm bricks of the fire. After another round of backgammon with Jimmy (I lost, and had to buy him a chocolate bar), I wandered a bit with Sarah, and then, instead of catching a cab ride home, received a free ride from Jimmy in the Sphinx's jeep. I now know why Egyptians don't like lights, because they think it wears down on the battery, although I have not discovered why they all carry the crazy driving gene, and why some are more affected by it than others. After a bit of off-roading fun and an illegal manuver in front of a cop (Jimmy waved to him and he waved back) we returned safely to the Hilton.
My final full day at the Hilton dawned gray and chilly with biting winds that tore branches from trees and whipped the sand into mini vortexes that cycloned across the land. Secluding myself in my room for part of the day, I ventured out a few hours later to discover the sun was peeking out from the clouds and the gale had subsided into a calming breeze. Another friend from school, Jon, increased our number to four again and once again gave us a male figure to revere ;-) You see, I'm in the middle of Palace Walk, and it's set in Cairo in the 1920's amid a society of consummately subservient females who never, ever leave their homes.
I had run into a old friend of mine from last time, the horse guy, and he had given me a free ride the day before and I had agreed to a ride along the beach today. Well, agreed is too mild a word, as I leapt at the opportunity to go riding again in Dahab, especially when he offered me the same horse that I had ridden on Christmas Eve (you see, everyone in Dahab is connected). Jon, who's a much better rider than I am, was intrigued and so I implored him to come and then Sarah considered coming as well, so I ended up bringed along two extra riders. Two horses were swiftly found for them, while I mounted my trusty Brandy, and Sarah, who's never ridden before, was led the entire way on foot while the guy told Jon and I to gallop off as we pleased once we reached the sandy beach. I was full of a bit of trepidation, but it soon dissipated as I kicked Brandy into a rolling canter and sped off after Jon to the far point while Sarah plodded along behind us at a walk. It was so wonderful to be on a horse that was neither too feisty nor too lackadaisical, but responded fairly readily to my commands. Eventually, all three of us met back up to ride back into town, Sarah resembling nothing less than a princess astride her beautiful stallion led by a faithful retainer. After the ride, Leslie came to meet us and we enjoyed, at my urging, one last night in the Funny Mummy amid milkshakes, calamari, fire, and joking, with a bit of Jimmy thrown into the mix.
Although the night was gusty and a bit nippy, the four of us were leaving the next day and wanted to make one more shopping run, so we hunched over into the cold, found an ATM, and marched into the shopping district, passing a sheep inside a gutted building tethered to a rope. The anachronism of that image amused me far more than it should, and I snapped a picture, knowing the sheep would soon be served on Eid El-Kabeer, Dec. 30, to celebrate Abraham's sacrifice of the ram instead of his son Isaac. After shopping, and finding a beautiful scarf store inside of which we loitered for an hour and spent too much money, we spent our final night at the Hilton watching Star Wars.
Although it was sorrowful to leave Dahab the next day, my regret was tinged with anticipation that I would return with two weeks to my beloved town and show my family my favorite haunts and let them discover its charms and quirks (and milkshakes!). My three companions were not leaving for Cairo, but, after a week in Dahab, were ready for a change in scenery, so decided to share my minibus back to Sharm and spend the next few days there. We swung through town one last time for a final farewell to Jimmy and then cruised through the mountains and into Sharm, passing the checkpoints with no issues this time (I feel like this guy had better connections), dropping off the three of them in Naama Bay to find a residence before despositing me at the airport. After the usual chaos of Egypt Air, I checked in and made it to my gate with about 1/2 hour to spare (I've developped rather poor flight habits) but couldn't find my flight on the monitors. Questioning a few people, I discovered it was a bit delayed, so I stood around for awhile and then noticed a sudden surge of people through another gate, although no flights were listed on the sign and no announcement had been made. Typical, I thought, as I learned this was indeed my flight leaving through a different gate. I made it home safely, set up a tour for my family with a wonderful guide recommended to me, who met me outside my building and discussed plans over tea and shisha in a nearby cafe, and celebrated Steve's birthday with a bunch of friends at Abu El-Sid's.
All I have to say is, if you perservered through this, congratulations, and Aunt Mary, be careful what you wish for! ;-)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A week of happenings, horses, 007, and George Clooney

I'll confess, I did alot of partying over the weekend, although, partying to me is more or less hanging out with friends, occasionally to obscenely late hours, but with little alcohol involved. Thursday night found me engrossed in Princess Diaries II with Deya, after which Frances and I walked Deya home, I grabbed dinner with a friend, and then I went out 'clubbing' with Wust El-Belad and some others. Together, we made ten- myself, Steve, Aaron, Eli, Frances, Jeff, Cary, Maureen, Nate, and Isaac. If you will recall, I mentioned the club/bar/restaurant After 8 in a previous post, and I returned there on Thursday to hear the soulful tunes of Wust El-Belad, a local Cairo band and the eponymous gang that some of my fellow ALIers have created. Dancing the night away in a steamy, smoky, elbows-jostling-to-push-your-way-through-the-throngs was exhilerating for awhile, and our group had great chemistry, even though about half of them were engaged. At some point during the night, a few of us decided, because the drinks were so outrageously expensive (and not all that good either), that we were justified in purloining a few Stella beer glasses from the table, so all of us stuffed a few in our purses. And, I swear, I was not inebriated, as I only had two drinks during a period of 4 or so hours, although I cannot verify the soberness of all of my companions. In order to find a little room to show off my moves (which are, I must say, quite horrid), I did scramble up onto the table and swivel around for a bit, but eventually clambered down when the barely pellucid cloud of smoke began to choke my lungs.
I returned home late that night, slept in late the next morning as well, wandered over to the Coffee Bean at 1 for a late breakfast of chicken ceasar salad and chai tea, lazed around the house and read The Arabian Nights (a rather perversively erotic book, imo), took a nap, and entertained friends in the evening. And, by entertain, I mean I otlobed food from the La Pacha and piled snacks on the table to produce a heaping quantity of nibbles to consume throughout the evening. After lots of laughter and tortilla chips, I left with Steve to find another party in the building full of British ex-pats. I returned home extremely late that night, watched the sun rise, and got up around noon to go out with Frances again for some nibbles at McDonald's.
What did I do that afternoon? I feel like I studied some, surfed my new favorite website, (Andrew introduced me to it, blame him if you must, but it's hilarious ;-), had some friends over again for some studying/chatting, and entered the next to last week of classes ready to be done!
Every day this week was jammed with some sort of activity, and Sunday was the day of Islam, perhaps slight heretical, but inpentetrably fascinating as well. To give you a bit of background-a classmate of mine is doing some phd work on the hijab, or veil, and has been talking (since any sort of interview is illegal in Egypt, something to do with a hermetical dictatorship) with various members of the Islamic community, including the Muslim Brotherhood and others. Our media professor, Dahlia (I think she's one of the Brotherhood), set up a meeting with a group called Bridges that attempts to educate non-Muslims about Islam for my friend and encouraged the entire class to attend. Just another way education is different in Egypt than the U.S. Anyway, in the end only myself and two others ended up attending the presentation about Islam all of the way in Nasr City, a distant district of Cairo. On the way to the office, we did pass by the City Center and saw where the new Starbucks (the first in Cairo) will be opening soon, and eventually found our way up the building and into their facilities. Extremely modern and technological, the facilities were impressive and the director of the program presented a powerpoint on the basics of Islam, which literally translates from the gerund form of an Arabic verb to mean submission, purity, and peace. Much of the information I already knew, or had a vague sense of its veracity, but it was reinforced by the presentation. For instance, Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, and one of the most prominent, but obviously don't believe he was the Messiah. In fact, according to the director, Muslims believe in all of the holy texts, including the Bible, Torah, and, of course, Koran, however, only to the point that the other texts do not conflict with the Koran. If they do, than khalaas, they are invalidated, as the Koran is the untranslated word of God. Meaning, after a bit of interrogation, that the Gospel of the Bible, i.e. the tale of cruxcification, is nullified by contradictory statements in the Koran; in the director's words, the Garden of Gestheme (sp) was very dark and most likely the Roman soldiers took the wrong man. In fact, he said watching The Passion of the Christ only strengthened his conviction that Jesus was not crucified, as the gruesome torture scenes somehow verified that Jesus was become unrecognizable and therefore most likely not participating in the event. I'm not sure if that was Mel's original intent when he directed the movie, to aid the Muslim community's belief that Jesus was not crucified and his arduous ordeals were endured by someone else, but that was the result.
More engaging than the presentation was the question-and-answer session afterwards, where we bombarded the man with some intense questions about Islam. Until that evening, I had not realized how fundamental the concept of original sin is to the Western Christian world, that we are bore with the blemish of sin on our souls and only Jesus' death and resurrection can save us. Muslims believe that Adam and Eve both ate the fruit together, as partners, and that the soul is born pure and ready to welcome God, not besmirched by ignominy of man's original sin. Thus, there really would be no reason for Jesus' death if all we need to do is follow Allah and the path of Islam. It strikes me as ironic that, in a religion that proclaims the equality of men and women in all things, and that has no concept of woman's first deception, Muslim women are much more oppressed than Christian ones. Also, at points the man was very forward with us, quoting one of the more racy hadiths (sayings of the prophet) which states that, even during a man's ejaculation during sex with his wife, if it is done in a manner pleasing to God, than it is an act of prayer. Well, he was trying to explain that a Muslim should lead his/her life in constant prayer to God, and we were wondering how this was possible, until he told us that living a life pleasing to God is a sort of prayer. After pondering these ruminations in the hellacious cab ride home, I quakingly ascended into my tower, studied, and went to bed.
Monday: Classes, of course, from 8-2, except that ALI had a wonderful Christmas/End of the semester party for all of us to attend, which most of us did with great fervor. Many of the classes performed skits or songs for the group, mine included (I sang with the 5 other boys of my Amia class a revolutionary song from the 60's, in Arabic, or course), and, for a little while, I felt the tiny flicker of camraderie that always ignites when ALI gathers and we all act like one big, happy, entirely disfunctional family. Truly, though, I don't know everyone, but I know alot of people, and it is wonderful to be able to talk to about anyone in my core group of friends about almost anything and know they will empathize and understand. Nothing is a secret for very long, of course, but once you get past that, you're cool. After the presentations ended, Deya and I snuck out while everyone else was eating, returned home, did some homework/took naps, and met up at my place to watch Casino Royale. Yes, the new version, unedited (this is a big thing, you see, because if you watch it in theatres in Egypt, any sexy scene will be mysteriously cut out along with much of the plot), courtsey of a friend who will remain nameless due to copyright reasons but whom we all adore. Frances and a few of her classmates watched Borat, while Deya and I stole the speakers and enjoyed Daniel Craig and 007 for two and half delicious hours of giggling over the sultry scenes and groaning as Bond was tortured in a way that no man should endure. Eww. We've begun quoting the romantic scenes to each other in class when we're bored. It was very good, and I certainly don't mind a blond Bond, especially in his snazzy tux or tight little swimsuit.
Tuesday: More classes, and we even had a sub for writing, which was a bit awkward, but she taught us the in'sha'allah clause, so we enjoyed her. After school, I hit the gym and then returned home to meet Frances' younger sister, Mary, who's staying with us for about a week and a half until they both fly back to America and leave me in Egpyt all alone over Christmas ;-( Happily, some friends and I are going to Dahab over Christmas and for awhile afterward, so I shalln't be too deprived. I realize, writing this blog, that I talk about the events of my life, but very little about the actual emotions and little things that make each day a success. At nighttime, when I really should be in bed, and my roommates and I sit up and eat popcorn and gossip desultorily about various subjects; when I run into someone I know in the courtyard, glance at my watch and realize class is about to start, but then run into five other people I can't resist talking to and being slightly late for class; running to McDonald's after classes are finally done for the day and indulging in McFly's (McFlurries) and complaining about the workload and classes; rolling out of bed late as usual and scrambling to be ready on time and then wasting five precious minutes surfing Facebook before leaving; waking up from a nap to a phone call and hearing the familiar voice of a friend calling to just talk; ambling down to the Metro at midnight to stock up on American junk food and sleepily ignoring the flirtatious clerks; saying one word in Arabic and being complimented on my excellent language proficiency; and, quite simply, living in this amazing and frustrating city and discovering my limits and deficencies, learning that failure occurs, that triumph is better, and that freedom is beautiful, be it Catalonian, personal, Egyptian, or something else.
Sorry for the rudimentary philosophy. Back to my life-I hit the gym, finally, but, unfortunately, realized I had forgotten an essential part of my wardrobe, a bra, because I was wearing a cami beneath one of those tunic tops I wear 4-5 out of 7 days a week. Not usually a point of interest, except that I ended up treadmilling in my usual trademark short shorts and a tighter shirt with little support. Knowing I was garbed inappropriately, I still did not realize how scandalous my clothing was until I signed out my locker at the end, like usual, and the manager exclaims (remember, they still think Frances and I are lesbians), "Everyone enjoys watching you work out so much! If there was an election here at the gym, you would win!" Fleeing the scene with chargrin, I got back, chatted with Mary, and then walked to Deya's house to rouse her from bed and go to dinner at Abu El Sid's in celebration of Mary's arrival. Meeting several other friends at the restaurant, we introduced Mary to our little community of ALIers and some excellent Egyptian food, walking to a bakery nearby for ice cream. I walked Deya home, followed her up briefly to wallow in trashy E! television and Conan, went home myself and slumbered.
When, mother, you may be asking, did I do my homework on Tuesday? Well, happily, there was none that needed completing, as Wednesday dawned an hour later than usual for ALI due to the institute-wide exit exam issued to all students. Scheduled to last 3 hours, the exam served as our placement test for next semester and as an evaluation of our absorbion this semester, and to be honest, I feel like I understood more of it than I did only 4 months earlier, when I took a similar entrance test before school started. Also, because of the prodigious length of the exam (three hours is alot of Arabic!), morning classes were cancelled, so all I had to attend today was Amia. During this class, someone popped a rather unamusing joke about George Clooney's presence on campus, and I snorted with disbelief. However, as I was leaving class and attempting to descend the usual stairs into the courtyard, guards were stolidly blockading all entrances leading to the Oriental Hall. Hmmm. Still a bit confused, I took a different route and found a group of students huddled around a windowed door waiting for someone. George Clooney! Apparently, he is Cairo for a day and gave a talk at AUC on the Darful crisis. I feel like his event was invitation-only, as all students were equally barred from coming near his presence. Slightly desirous of meeting him, I was more lustful for a horseback ride with Mary while Frances attended a dinner with her class, so I abandoned the groupies, left the chaos of campus, detoured briefly to McDonald's, and then climbed into a yellow cab for Giza.
Although I had promised myself, after falling off twice before, that I would choose a different stable, I found myself returning to D & I stables out of habit, and I did not regret this decision. This time, the owner greeted me outside the stables and seemed tentatively concerned about my previous evening excursion into the dunes and, as Mary and I mounted up to ride, assured me that my life is important to him. Of course, he was throwing me on a full-blooded stallion that pranced enchantingly and snorted with prurient eyes at Mary's mare, but I was still touched. However, if Egypt has taught me nothing else, it has taught me to use caution when riding horses, and I was apprehensive when I first sat astride the beautiful, muscular, fiery stallion, but I did not feel comfortable controlling him in the desert. My guide assured me I could, but, after we had woven our way through the back alleys of Giza to reach the desert, I stopped and stated emphatically that I was not riding the stallion into the desert, so the guide obliged and switched horses. The ride was glorious, and I think Mary also enjoyed it and galloping around the Sahara and over dunes with the cast of the pyramids hovering in the background. No falling off this time, and returning back to the stables I felt elated and relieved, and the patina of doubt that had infused my skin since last time dissolved to leave only exhileration. Riding back just after sunset, I observed the people of Giza beginning to enjoy the desert, from the groups of young boys and men racing magnificent, pure-blood Arabians into the dusk to the obdurate mules escaping their owners to troll the streets to the butts of camels as the heads munched on hay to the families gathering to eat their evening meal. I was finally intelligent this time, and used a yellow meter cab to take us to Giza, avoiding the hassle and awkwardness of using the usual black and white taxis. Astonishingly, the cab was amazingly cheap. I had the driver wait for us while we were riding, and drive us back to Zamalek, and, all told, the entire cost of transportation was 50 LE for about 3-3.5 hours of service.
Delivering Mary safely into the hands of a slightly concerned sister, we then prepared to head to a small gathering at a friend's house, the one with the beautiful Embassy apartment. First, however, we stopped in the Dokki Sheraton to visit the duty-free shop and use Mary's visa to buy some quality liquor. To our horror, we learned that you must be 21 to obtain alcohol from this store (she's 19), but we derived the greatest pleasure from the Sheraton's decorations, from the life-sized manager to the Santa sleigh on the ceiling to the real (we tasted the walls) gingerbread house in which we found, among other things, chocolate santas (they were very cheap so I bought one), live baby chicks, family portraits, cookies, and logs. The party was great, but I left before too long to study and write another blog. Whew! Until next time...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It's been three and a half months!

So, I was coming up from the Metro grocery store today with a bag carrier and, as we were patiently waiting for the only elevator working in my building, he asked me how long I'd been in Egypt. It's been three and a half amazing months! I paused before giving him me answer, my mind reeling through the experiences of the past quarter. Have I really been enrolled in intensive Arabic courses for three months, and does my Arabic reflect that? I'm not sure, but if I were to rewind to the first few days here, when I roamed the streets fearfully, I feel that, indeed, I have absorbed an adequate amount of Arabic. I can understand, and speak (a bit) Amia, and I can somewhat understand news broadcasts, especially if I rewind them several times to re-listen. But still, my God, I've been here, in Cairo, alone, away from the U.S. for three and a half months! Christmas carols are being blasted from the MOA, snow is drifting through the starry night sky (I only mention stars because we have none here), and my home is Chaska is, hopefully, bedecked with lights and tinsel and trees and blow-up penguins. Yet, strangely, I don't feel a terrible yearning for home or the States, other than the occasional thought, "If I were in America, this would not be happening..." Of course I miss my family and friends, but I've crammed my life so repletely with activities and socialness that I hardly have time to pondering longing for my watenee (homeland). Perhaps as Christmas creeps closer, I'll feel more detached from Misr and more lonely for home, but right now I'm exhausted and just want to get through finals and relax! In a way, I'm also glad I'm not returning home over the break, like the vast majority of ALIers, for practical reasons, like chaotic travel and 30 hours in transit to the States, and more intangible reasons, like a dreading of reverse culture shock and the absence of Arabic. There are many things I miss about home, but I think there will just as many things I will miss about Egypt, like waking up to the call to prayer from across the Nile, the employment of the clothes line that always sways dangerously in the wind 100 feet above the ground, rising around noon on Saturdays and finding one roommate already up for hours and the other one sleepily emerging from her chamber, the community fo ALIers and ex-pats I've come to love (well, strongly like, anyway ;-), and, did I mention the weather? Balmy and warm most days, with a slight nip in the air that sends all Egyptians reaching for their downy sweaters, parkas, and scarves. I do love being a Minnesotan sometimes...
Enough nostalgia and crude philosophy...I think I left you Friday afternoon just before Mostafa's party, which was excellent, by the way, and found me walking home accompanied around 3:00 (a.m.). Normally, this would not be a very late hour, and I could have been up for more, but I was oppressed by the knowledge of my landlord's imminent visit the next morning at 9:00, which, unfortunately, the accursed man kept with Egyptian punctuality. His wife called at around 8:40, and I creaked out of bed blearily ( not drunk, mind you, despite my friends' best efforts to provide me with liquid courage), emptied the bathroom of my toilettries, washed up, and welcomed him and his shower-repair workmen (they completed the task satisfactorily, at least) at around 9:15. For the next three hours, my roommates and I discussed with him a number of issues, mainly, who should pay for the broken pipe (we ended up paying), whether we are allowed overnight visitors (he wants us to pay for these, there's a confrontation brewing still, I fear) and if we will pay him four months' rent in advance (which we adamantly refused). After lengthy arguments, insults (he called Akshaya and Frances sha'a, which, once we questioned our teachers, means naughty with deviant conotations, although I am tranquille, as I haven't had any prolonged male visitors), interruptions, appeasements, and abrupt perturbations, he left, to the relief of us all, and we treated ourselves to a lavish lunch at Sabai Sabai, the great Thai restaurant in Zamalek. Not only does he take advantage of us because we are three unmarried foreign women in a conservative Muslim society, but our landlord converses with us in French, English, and Arabic, and only I speak all three of these, but at varying levels, so the comprehension of his statements is noos wa noos (half and half). Because we do not understand the hot water heater situation in Egypt (or many of the Egyptian appliances, for that matter), we're not entirely sure how to avoid another meltdown, but after extensive experimentation, I feel as if we have diminished our chances of catastrophy.
As the semester is drawing to a close, I am realizing that alot of my study abroad friends will be evacuating the country for their home universities(and, alright Christmas at home, so I'm a little jealous), as most only stay a semester, including Annie, my original roommate with whom I first explored the infinite fascinations of Cairo and received the first harassments from the streets. Tear. At least ALI is fairly immutable, but even so, next semester will begin anew. Before any of us get to leave, however, ALI simply must have a Christmas party/farewell party for the students, and, what, my Amia class decided to volunteer us to sing a sing by Sheikh Iman, a revolutionary who came to prominence in the 60's and whose music was banned for decades from Egypt for its incendiary messages. I've been practicing that song occasionally, wrestling with my wagib (homework), introducing Frances to the wonders of Facebook, and, of course, enduring the rigors of life in Cairo.
For instance, it has rained the past few days, which is usually great news, but I had clothes hanging outside, and the rainwater that falls in Cairo is laden with, ummm, carcinogens and other pollutants, so they need to be rinsed again. Actually, I always been experiencing the thaqaafa of Cairo for the past two days, Catalonian style. One of my friends, Jemma, is from Barcelona, and identifies with Catalonia, NOT Spain (never make the mistake of calling her Spanish), and avidly follows the Barcelona football team, so last night several friends and I went to Deal's, a great bar in Mohendiseen, to watch the match and cheer them onto victory. Today, during those too short 15 minutes blocks between classes when I enter the fountain courtyard to escape the proverbial 2nd floor hallway of Main where all of my classrooms are located, or sneak into the cafeteria to imbibe on Diet Coke and chocolate, I ran into Frances, who invited me on a date to the Hyatt theatre at 4 to partake of the 30th annual Cairo film festival, which is projecting divergent and controversial films in theatres throughout the city for several weeks. After several delays, I met her at the Hilton at three, called Jemma to see if she wanted to join us, as we were seeing a Catalonian film "Rival Rival" and took a cab to the Hyatt. You know you've been in Egypt too long when you pile out of the cab at the extremely sumptuous Hyatt entrance and realize that you don't fit in with the foreigners staying there, that you've become too Egyptian. Anyway, we trekked through the complex, went up to the theatre, bought the tickets and waited for Jemma, who arrived shortly, and entered into the lobby where we immediately raided the concession stand for popcorn. Unfortunately, or fortunately, a famous Egyptian actor was being interviewed in the lobby, and he happened to be positioned in front of a poster depicting his upcoming film, which happened to be located in front of the entrance to the movie theatre. Observing him for a bit (he was kind of cute), and acknowledging that the cameras and spotlights seemed hermetically anchored (i.e. not moving anywhere in the next hour), we realized it was past four and so, despite the rather strange looks we were receiving, snuck past him and into the theatre. I even managed to lightly brush him with my arm, unintentionally, of course ;-) Frances and I weren't sure how much we would comprehend, as the film was originally directed with Spanish and Catalonian actors, and the subtitles might only be in Arabic, but, praise God, the Hyatt also utilized English subtitles.
Walking the bridge after the film ended to catch cabs going in our direction, I realized that I serve dual purposes for my friends. Not only is my company pleasant, but, as Frances pointed out, I am a sponge to attract all of the harrassment aimed at our group. At one point, she laughing turned to me after some guy had walked by, did a 180, enthusiastically welcomed me to Cairo, and noted that she and Jemma get virtually ignored by the usual suspects when I'm around. It's my hair, I haven't suddenly blossomed into a stunning beauty, but it's amusing, especially since all of the harrassment today was the highly enteraining, putative and exhausted phrases. Ahhh, life in Cairo...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thanksgiving on the Nile

Well, it's been almost a week since Thanksgiving, and probably will be past that by the time I post this, but, as your narrator, I feel compelled to bring you a saga and Thanksgiving in Egypt. Actually, I had two Thanksgivings this year, each one quite unique. As I mentioned previously, my roommates and I had been planning a grand feast at our house on Wednesday night, Thanksgiving eve. About a week before the event, we began realizing our preparing/presenting supplies were slightly inadequate, so we spent much of the week organizing, creating lists, shopping, and calling hotels to find a turkey. Yes, a turkey. Although our kitchen is equipped with a stove and oven, it still requires conflagration via a match, so you can imagine the trials that cooking a turkey in it might create and the explosions/swearing/billowing clouds of black smoke that might ensue. Eventually, we settled on the Marriott to cater a fully cooked turkey and some side dishes for 600 LE, which turned out to be an excellent decision, because the turkey that was supposed to feed only 12 actually amply fed 30. A Thanksgiving miracle, one might say.
Several days before the dinner, the three hostesses, myself and my roommates Akshaya and Frances, logged onto our evite to check the number of attendees, and suddenly realized that we had invited over 30 people into our apartment and many of them were RSVPing last minute. Oh, crap; well, we valiantly forged forward with the dinner; I made a solo trip to the Khan Tuesday evening and found some beautiful, very cheap glass bowls, a decorative platter, and a picture to aesthetisize (new word) the apartment a bit. Wednesday dawned, as always, slightly smoggy, temperate and sunny, and I spent most of the morning running around Zamalek to Alfa Market and The Coffee Bean purchasing last minute items. After a brief jaunt to class (it does occasionally get in the way sometimes ;-), one of which, Amia, was a two person affair plus the prof, I rushed home, dropped my stuff off, attempted to make Jello without any measuring cups, went down the street to buy a floral arrangement, stopped at the computer store to have my machine repaired, puttered around the kitchen with my roommates (they're the real chefs), made another run to Alfa Market, showed one of my friends an apartment in the building, frantically called Eli to find a wine bottle opener (thankfully, he had one) changed, arranged the house, and, finally, greeted the guests. All in all, the meal was a resounding success, and our dining room table was literally heaped with food, so much so that we had to expand to the buffet. With the dishes we made, and the food our friends brought, we had a genuine Thanksgiving complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and sundry other dishes, some American, and many international. I enjoyed introducing some of my Egyptian friends to our Thanksgiving traditions, especially Deya, who found the entire concept of cranberry sauce on mashed potatoes slightly perplexing. Our bellies overly replete with succulent dishes, we gathered in a circle and I forced everyone to recite what they were most thankful for, to the chargrin of many. What can I say, I'm ruthless ;-) Unfortunately, at about this time, someone knocked on the door, and thinking it was a late guest, we opened it to discover the maintenance man for the building, who was slightly concerned with the roaring cascade of water that was coming from our apartment and flooding the building. Although indiscernable from the apartment, the flood had been created by a broken hot water pipe in the kitchen/my bathroom, so, after extensive consultation, we were forbidden to use any water in these two rooms. Hmmm, although the guests were convivally ignorant of the situation, we, particuarly, I, wondered how to scour a kitchen and wash the dishes without water? The solution came in the form of the only working hot water source in the apartment, the second bathroom and bathtub, but we purposefully ignored the situation until after the guests left, around 11:30 or so, and enjoyed the laborious results of our toil.
Because we had been forced to alert the bowab about our party, in order for him to direct the guests, somehow the landlord had also been informed, and we feared he might inspect the apartment the next morning (which he did), so we cleaned vigorously for several hours until the place veritbly sparkled with Lysol surface spray. Frances and I were due to leave that morning at 2:45 for our whirlwind Nile cruise adventure, so we wearily packed our bags and trudged over to the dorms dragging with exhaustion. Unfortunately, rest was not imminent, as we boarded a bus and drove to the airport, piled off and met the rest of the group (we were about 60 strong), dispersed tickets in a generally Egyptian fashion of cacaphonic shouting and shoving, checked in and soon arrived at our gate. Security was slightly amusing, as i.d. was really not necessary at any of the metal detectors, although I suppose our tickets and affiliation with AUC expedited the process. Taking a bus to the tarmac (jetways only exist in the US, I'm learning), we entered the EgyptAir plane, collapsed into our seats, and waited for take off, attempting roseate chitchat but miserably failing. I may have dosed a bit, but the flight was too short, a little over an hour, and too soon the plane bumped down in Aswan to pre-dawn Stygian blackness. Warding off the night chill, I attempted alertness as our sizeable group boarded two tour buses and drove to the Aswan High Dam, a true archtectural marvel, but, too be honest, I was far more interested in rest. However, let me give you a brief history of the dam. Constructed in the 1950s during the Nasserite era in Egypt, the dam regulates the ebb of the Nile, entirely eliminating the yearly innundation that characterized the river for millenia. Instead, the dam provides a steady source of water for the millions of denizens dependent on its fecundity for their livelihood even during times of drought. Of course, with this drastic of an alteration, the dam also irrevocably effaced some of the world's most ancient wonders, mainly the lands of Nubia. Nubia is a name given to a region in southern, or Upper, Egypt, and is currently submerged beneath the silvery waters of Lake Nasser, the capacious lake created by the dam that stretches hundreds of miles in length from Egypt into Sudan. Not only were the citizens of Nubia displaced, but many of the pharonic temples, early Christian monestaries, Islamic mosques, and other architectural masterpieces subsumed beneath the waters. UNESCO rescued many of the more impressive temples from the encroaching waters, adroitly moving entire temples to higher ground, and all of the temples we visited in Aswan were relocated from their original positions.
Anyway, I saw the dam, yawned, and got back on the bus which then proceeded to the cruise boat that was to be our home for the next 4 days/3 nights. Although our cabins weren't ready, we still were allowed to infiltrate the dining room and scarf down the buffet breakfast spread our for the guests, after which many of us went up top to pass out on wonderfully comfortable deck chairs for two hours. No rest for the weary, they say, and so we were too soon herded onto buses for the 3-4 hour bus ride by convoy to Abu Simbel, a magnificent temple in the absolute middle of nowhere. Thankfully, our brilliantly informative but occasionally verbose guide shut up for the trip in order for us to get some shut-eye.
After some well-needed rest, we filed out into the bright sunshine in the midst of a thriving town situated picturesquely next to Lake Nasser, which was, amazingly enough, still following us all the way from Aswan. After stopping at the washrooms, which were surprisingly modern, clean, and flushing, we trekked through the 'bazaar' (I got so tired of these by the end of the trip; every tourist site trapped you in one), rounded a mountain, and emerged into the open plateau laid out before the temples of Abu Simbel. Built by Ramses II, Abu Simbel is one of the most enduring and beautiful monuments still in existence today. Compared to Abu Simbel, the pyramids are just a pile of crumbling stones. I can recall, back in fifth or sixth grade, studying ancient Egypt and knowing that the places portrayed in the pictures were destined to be visited only in my dreams, that people like me don't embark on journeys to Africa and the Middle East. Yet, there I was, gazing on the fair visages of Ramses and his wife, walking through the temples and trailing my fingers over the deftly etched hieroglyphs and images, walking among the gargantuan statues of Osiris standing in eternal vigilance over the main passageway to the altar.
Because vehicles have to travel to and from Abu Simbel in an armed convoy (although our bus had a few engine issues and the military vehicles at the year passed us) we only had about 1.5 hours to explore the site, which was adequate, but not generous. The smaller temple is known more for its beauty and fashion than the bigger one, probably because Nefertari had a hand in it. Indeed, she had her effigies all over it, and in each image, she was wearing a new gown or hairdo ;-) My kind of girl! Nicola and I snapped the requisite pictures, entered the main hall, and I even managed to get a few photos of the inside. Photos are memnuah inside (i.e. forbidden), and I got caught in the main temple, but the photo police guy didn't punish me, just made sure I put the camera away. To be honest, after awhile, all of the reliefs begin to look alike, because all temples utilize the same stylized, uniform precept, and, honestly, how many images can you really have of gods parading in a line or someone kneeling in obeisance to a god? Or, how many conquered slaves and battles can you honestly create before the effectiveness of the image is lost? Infinite, judging from the fact that every temple we visited displayed uniformity in regard to the wall decorations. Of course, there was some variation, but, generally, they have all blended into one giant slab of rocky temple wall with a ceaseless procession of gods, priests, boats, slaves, and pharaohs lilting across with delicately carved faces and, in the case of many of the women (sorry if this is a little crass) very perky, abnormally upright breasts. As I said, highly idealized ;-)
After a final, longing gaze at the temples, we headed back up the hill toward the bus, stopping for refreshments (they were expensive, I paid 10 LE for a can of pop!!!) and another forced march through the bazaar. I happened to be with Mostafa, who's Egyptian, and Frances, who, like me, was trailing behind him. As we passed one of the shopkeepers, he made an motion to accost us but instead made some comment about our apparent attachment to Mostafa and backed off. Thus, the harem was born, for those of you wondering about the picture, and we added Jema to it later, she being a a classmate of the other two. Much fun has been engendered from our fated grouping ;-)
Anyway, back to the bus we went, slept for a while longer, and arrived back in town with a few hours left before supper. After checking into our cabins, which were smaller than those on trans-oceanic liners, but comfortable enough and clean (no room for a couch) and inspecting the bathroom (again, pretty decent), Lesley and I decided to explore town a bit, knowing we were setting sail the next evening for Luxor. Like all cities on the Nile, Aswan has a lovely corniche lined with plenty of tourist shops, a few of which we visited, but our aim for the evening was actually the Nut Roastery we saw from the bus. Apparently, Aswan is famous for its peanuts, and we were determined to ascertain the verity of this claim. Finding the store, we were slightly disappointed with its dingy, grocery market appearance, but, upon entering, spied the heaps of nuts in the back and were sated our nutty desires most satisfactorily. On the way back, I bought a few scarves and stopped at a little grocery stand to stock up on snacks and pop. I actually had to barter for my food! I've never had to do that before, but when the guy wanted 5 LE for a bottle of pop, I balked, and only got him down to 4, but it was the principle of the transaction that mattered, right? This, was if you'll recall, Thanksgiving Day, and we weren't sure what to expect in the way of nourishment on the ship, but we were all thoroughly pleased to find carved turkey for dinner. Actually, every meal on the ship was exceptionally good, and there was always some sort of plain rice/potato dish and meat that I could eat, as well as scrumptious deserts like meringue, fruit and jello, and some sort of flan-like thing that I also enjoyed, as well as multitudinous others eateries for non-gluten-free peoples. After calling home to Minnesota, I went to the top deck and socialized, found the party winding down too early up there, so I descended to the lounge to hang out with my harem for awhile and then finally went to bed, but not before I experimented with the shower, which had an infamous (or so I found out later) propensity to suddenly vaciliate from temperate water to scalding hot.
The next morning we awoke to our 8 am wake up call, rolled out of bed, munched down some breakfast, and piled on the bus to visit the Nubian museum, which was constructed in 1997 and is one of the more beautiful musuems I've seen in terms of layout. Provided with a detailed account of Nubia, we admired the artifacts, statues, and other artifacts-actually, here I should probably mention again that due to the Aswan High Dam so many of the great antiquities and relics of Nubia were forever darkened with the silt-laden waters of Lake Nasser, and, although UNESCO moved many of the temples, including Abu Simbel, the daily aspects of life were lost. Thus, the museum is attempting to preserve not only Nubia's past, but also its present.
After rushing through the beautiful gardens out back, pondering the uniquely Aswan landscape of giant granite boulders scattered across a tumbled green land, I climbed back on the bus to head toward the temple of Philae, one of the first of several Greco-Roman temples that we were to visit.
Situated on an island in the Nile, the temple is accessible by cavalcade of puttering, black smog motorboats, and ours only broke down once ;-) Approaching the temple compound from the water, I was first struck by how astoundingly intact it was, with walls soaring many stories into the sky and colonnades and courtyards existing in much the same manor as they did 2000 years ago. Of course, in antiquity, the courtyards and walls were slathered with bright paint and teeming with priests, commoners, and pilgrims. Today, the temples are occupied by horridly dressed European tourists in tank tops (slutty ones), and short shorts; well, not everyone is inappropriately attired, but I've seen far more ruddily tanned Europeans in the last week than I have in my entire life. Anyway, you've all read my tirades on dress in Egypt, I'll abstain from further didactic rants ;-)
The temple was beautiful, with gray stone courtyards lined with intricately carved pillars (I remember some had faces on the capitals) , an impressively high pylon and pillar forest (that is the very non-architectural name I give for the second hall in the temple, usually covered by a roof and resembling the great redwood forests of California due to the abundance of pillars filling the innards; I could almost feel the soft leaves underfoot and smell the sweet incense of loamy earth and freshly crushed grass (I think that maybe I'm missing the forests of the north a bit too much ;-) . One of my few complaints about the trip is that our group was just too large to truly tour a temple; with over 60 students milling about in periapatetic fashion, it is difficult to hear what the guide is saying and easy to become distracted. At the end of each lecture, our guides wisely gave us about 15 minutes or so to snap our crazy photos and race through the narrow hallways and up passageways and into catacombs to delve into whatever mystery the temple still guarded.
At Philae, Lesley and I, well, mostly I, were fascinated by the Nile, so I positioned myself inside an archway with the Nile behind, but, unfortunately, a group of several men wandered into the picture, stopped, stared for several moments, didn't listen when I told them to go away (Imshee!), and engaged us in conversation for a few minutes until they realized I really didn't care. Sigh, the picture was eventually produced, and then I went wading in the Nile! Did I mention that the Nile is fairly clean around Aswan? There is actually a sparkle on the water that reflects not pollution and garbage but lucidity, as in the ability to penetrate beyond a few inches but almost to the bottom.
We left Philae via motorboat, drove to the cruise ship, ate lunch, lounged briefly on deck, and were awoken to the revels of a Nubian dance troop, who, unfortunately, accompanied us down the pier, into some motorboats, and on a tour of the islands in the Nile. With the paucity of pollution, the breatheablelness of the air, and the bronzing sun cradling us in her warmth, the cruise was delightful, especially since many of us climbed on the roof and amused ourselves by jumping between the two boats and trying to act cool.
Then came the Nubian village, my least favorite part of the trip. Perhaps it was an 'authentic' town full of real people, but the moment our boat grounded on the shore and lowered the gangplank onto a muddy shore, my expectations rapidly dissipated. Indeed, we were led through the village, past shopkeepers selling their wares, past little children begging, following, and tugging at your clothes, through narrow alleyways littered with garbage and animal manure, past stagnant irrigation canals harboring god-knows-what diseases, and eventually to a 'house' where we climbed the roof, stared at the unassuming rooftops, and entered the home to accept a welcome drink. After that, for the next hour we were held captive as they plied us with their wares and services, including henna painting (which I got done), jewelry, hats, bags, and other items that most of us desired not. Eventually, as twilight descended on the village and the shadows swallowed up the wistful patches of light, we marched back through town (I had made the mistake of bringing food with me (which I usually did on the tours, because I/my harem had to tendency to get hungry) and obliging one of the ladies, after she rudely asked, with some tootsie rolls for the children. As I was leaving, she again pointedly asked for more candy, and then all of the women and children began chanting bon-bons so that I had an aggrevating entourage of children for much of the walk to shore). A few of us did hasty shopping in the bazaar conveniently placed on the way back and then sailed back to the cruise boat.
Prepared to set sail at 8, we nevertheless had about two hours to wander into town and stock up on 'supplies'. You see, although the ship had an amply stocked bar, drink prices were rather outrageous, so most of us ended up hunting for alcohol during that time, and my harem eventually found some at a random hotel restaurant and cleared them out of their beer rations. With about an hour left, Jema and I visited the souk and bought some pretty silver necklaces (mine's an Ankh, more on that later, hers is the eye of Horus), trashy t-shirts, and made it back in time to set sail. After a fairly uneventful evening, and another battle with the shower, I tucked in fairly early, well, by midnight or 1 or so for the early morning.
Yes, we had a 6 am, 6 AM! wake up call because the first stop on our voyage up the Nile was the temple at Kom Ombo. It was worth the accursed hour when we sleepily stumbled off the gangplank and into the bright morning sun. What made this one so distinguishing? I think that it had the best preserved reliefs and color of any of the temples along the Nile; plus, it was partially devoted to the crocodile god, Sobek, and there were mummified crocodiles at which to gawk. The structure itself was very well preserved, and I still marvel at how 3-7 story walls and building have survived unscathed for centuries. Chahindra, our guide, pointed out some unique features that differentiate a Greco-Roman temple from that of a pharonic one. In Greco-Roman temples, the figures are carved with more of a, well, figure, and the women have little tummies and the men have more muscles; they are not quite the nubile, lithesome bodies that the Egyptians so adored, although there are no grostesque visages or obese figures. After all, they are still gods.
After touring the temple, a few of us girls were distracted by the scarves in the bazaar, once again, conveniently placed next to the pier of our boat. Even as the boat was airing its horn to hurry us up, I quickly bargained for some beautiful soft shawls, one white and the other blue/black. Considering the transaction was conducted in the space of 3-4 minutes, I probably didn't get a great deal, but I only spent 40 LE. We set sail soon after, chugging up the Nile in a long line of similarly destined cruise boats (there are around 300 or so that troll the waters between Aswan and Luxor) and chomping down breakfast. I discovered, in my own words, that I'm a bit of a white food supremist, particularly at breakfast, but we didn't dwell too long on that revelation, as the top deck was beckoning. For most of the morning, we dozed, listened to Ipods, chatted, admired the view, and read in the lounge chairs up top, meeting some of the ship's other residents but mostly sticking to ourselves. The banks of the Nile are lined mainly with agricultural endeavors, and it is truly fascinating to watch the felaahin plow their fields with oxen, cultivate and reap their fields by manual labor, fish in the river using nets and poles from rickety rowboats, and generally live in a mode of existence that has not transmuted for the past thousands of years. For sure, there are no cell phone tours dotting the landscape, and the occasional power plant, but the huts, irrigation canals, livestock, and rites appear unaltered even in this modern era.
After lunch, our ship pulled into the port at Edfu, home to yet another temple, and ALI had somehow decided that we would take horse and carriage rides from the dock to the temple. Walking through the other ships moored closer shore (often, because berth space is limited, ships dock up perpendicular to each other and connect using gangways so passengers sometimes end up entering one or two other vessels before shore) we emerged into consummate chaos. I found my other three friends, climbed into a carriage, was given breathless directions by and AUC staff member, and trotted off through the town. Because the weather in Upper Egypt tends to be rather sultry ;-) I had rolled up the sleeves of my otherwise demure shirt to my shoulders, and, as we passed thorough Wust El-Belad, I felt increasingly more like object fit for a brothel than a tourist, which slightly soured my opinion of Edfu. Eventually, we arrived, clambered out of the carriage and waited for the group to coalesce for the tour. Chaindra's group, as always, had aggrandized considerably by the time we made it through the ticket line, and she kicked us out! So, we were stuck with the other tour guide, who actually proved fairly knowledgeable and more succinct than Chaindra.
Edfu is undeniably an impressive temple, the most intact one structurally in all of Egypt because much if it was buried beneath mountains of sands until discovered in the 1800s. All of the roofs and walls still stand erect, and it's slightly unnerving to stare into the inner sanctum and know that this same spectacle was witnessed 2000 years ago, that once an ancient priest observed the esoteric rites of his order in the holy shrine and lived in the barracks outside, that the ground that thousands of common tourists now tread every day was once restricted only to the pharaoh and the highest priests of the time. We all trickled back to the open plaza slowly, enduring the bazaar with resolute equanmity, found our same carriages and made it back to the ship with no further incident.
For the rest of the day, we sunned on deck, took our tea at tea time (I'm beginning to like tea ;-), watched the sun drift languidly behind the far off hills, and shivered as the temperatures plummeted with the sunset. Around 6 or so, the ship stopped at a town along the Nile that didn't look like Luxor, but, what else could it be? Before we could proceed, we needed to wait in line for permission to pass thorugh a series of locks further up river. Cool, the breeze had abated and the top deck was far more pleasant, although the muzzeins from the mosques in town were so horribly tone deaf that their cacaphony was enough to drive anyone to the drink.
After about two hours of waiting, I became impatient and climbed down the ladder to visit the bridge and ask the captain when we were leaving, because, on Nile cruise boats (or at least on mine), anyone can visit the bridge. I found the instrument panel and wheel strangely bereft of control and found the captain and his colleagues contentedly sitting on the floor outside of the bridge enjoying dinner. After chatting for a few minutes, in Arabic of course, I asked timidly when we'd set sail. In'sha'allah in a half hour, they said, but the smirk on their faces and indolence of their postures made me rather pessimistic.
Actually, within about 45 minutes we were sailing, albeit slowly, so I joined my companions for dinner. Around 9 o'clock a gallabeya party commenced in the lounge, although most people wore their normal clothes. I decided I was too cool for that (although the obnoxiously, bone-jarringly, ship-shaking loud music and orgie-like dance floor may have influenced my decision) and some friends and I had our own party up top using the bar for a wind break. As Lesley had managed to secure some vodka in Aswan, and I braved the ship's lounge to purchase massive quantities of mango and guava juice (the staff was slightly suspicious, especially when I took it all and left, although they really don't mix well taste or volume-wise, most of the vodka goes right to the top for a very strong first few sips ;-), and we still had a few beers of our own, we had a good time on deck, staying up until Luxor, real Luxor, came into view, which to my horror when I finally checked my cell phone, was 1:30 in the morning!
Our 7 am wake up call came far too early, but I certainly wasn't going to miss the Valley of the Kings, so I rolled out of bed, munched on some peanuts, and cringed as our bus pulled out of the parking lot and down some very rutty roads. What can I say about the Valley of the Kings? For one, you need more than 2 hours to do it justice, at least a day. The contrasting arrid, dessicated lands of the cliffs juxtaposed sharply against the verdant farms that press up against the cliffs, creating a rather dramatic panorama. The main section of the Valley of the Kings is actually rather small, although, when you stop for a moment and permit your eyes to follow the trails wandering among the hills you realize that there are untold numbers of caves and mountains to explore. The tickets for the Valley only allow you to enter three tombs among the 11 or so that are open for visitors, but, unfortunately, King Tut's costs extra and ALI didn't cover that expense. Intrepid adventurers that we are, we dashed off to the first tomb that required the most climbing, entered the suffocating burial chamber, sweated it out for a few minutes, and ascended out quickly, drinking in the pure oxygen of the outside. That tomb, Tutmose III, I believe, had had to be decorated quickly because the pharaoh had died suddenly, and so the images were literally stick figures crawling across the walls and into the afterlife. The other two tombs were more impressive image-wise, although they were so crowded that the throngs somehow distracted from the funerial atmosphere and aura of mystery that should surround the tomb of an ancient, powerful ruler. On our way out, I saw a mountain/tall hill that needed climbing, so I left Mostafa and Frances and sprinted up the shale slope, slightly tearing my skirt along the way and arriving breathless to the top. To see the entirety of the Valley, and the gaping mouths of less visited tombs dotting the landscape above and around the main section was a sight not to be missed, and, of course, it was fun to gaze down on the minions and wave from on high ;-) I took a different, less steep route down, was briefly solicited by Egyptian, brushed him off (perhaps here I should mention the thriving sex trade in Luxor; apparently, a sizeable amount of foreign women come to Luxor looking for love, find it with a young Egyptian man, buy him plenty of gifts, and find their hearts torn asunder when the bank account runs dry. Similarly, Luxor also has a large homosexual male sex trade, leaving all of my straight male friends out of the loop ;-)
Visiting Hatshephut's temple next, we all nearly fainted as we climbed out of the bus. At some point, the temperature had risen severely and the merciless sun made this a very warm, somewhat sweaty tour that had us all seeking shade and hugging the cool stone walls. Poor Hatshephut, ruling in stead of a young male heir, she was eventually deposed, murdered, and had her name and face scratched off every stone her heir could find. Our guide for the Luxor portion of the trip (remember, Chaindra had disowned us) had a slightly wry, somewhat perverted sense of humor. For instance, when referring to Hatshephut's lover, he used the phrase lover boy liberally, which had me sniggering in the ranks, but he was very nice and we had a good chat about Luxor while waiting for the bus to leave. In 1997, a group of about 40-60 tourists had been mowed down by machine gun-wielding terrorists on a rise overlooking the temple, which truly fascinates him, and he confirmed it with a glimmer of bemusement in his eyes. Anyway, the temple was quite large and built at the base of a cliff with several levels lined with beautiful colonnades and statues. Khalaas, you've heard enough about temples, and we've still got two more today.
On the way back for lunch, we stopped at the Colossi of Memnon, two occultly deteriorated, seated figures now resting in the middle of a farm field. Interesting, but, come on, after Abu Simbel...
So, after repast and repose on top deck we headed to Karnak temple, the largest temple complex in the world with copious buildings, statues, obelisks, and, of course, a truly beautiful pillar forest that far superceded those of our previous temple visits. Already rather clogged with tourists, our group of 60 or so strolled down the main passageway past rows of seated sphinxes and rams, past the daunting main pylon and into the pillar forest, where I guide proceeded to detail many scintillating tidbits about Karnak and ancient Egypt in general. For instance, I learned that the Ankh draped about my neckis a symbol of a) a man's organ and woman's joined together (basically, I'm wearing a phallic symbol, but it's a meaningful phallic symbol ;-), and through this, the key of life depicted in every relief in every temple in Egypt b) the image of a preganant woman cradling her womb protectively (to demonstrate this, he told Jema she was pregnant and pretended to attack her and then told us that a pregnant woman will protect her baby first and then herself) and c) now is used as the symbol of the Coptic church. And then, as he was describing the intricate detail of female goddess statue across the way, he used vivid words to illustrate how sheer her dress really was. The man was hilarious, and he provided an excellent tour; for instance, I know that over 17 rulers had their hand in the construction of Karnak, that the vast walls and monuments in Egypt were built using ramps, and that Egypt had no slaves, among other things. After the tour, a few of us wandered up to the sound and light show grandstand (a bit of an anachronism, I know) and snapped our pictures of the temple and the sacred lake, waited until finally one of the rows in the pillar forest was empty of persons (and took those pictures) and admired the priceless works of art that litter the temple like detrius.
Finally, for the last temple of the trip, we visited Luxor temple, my personal favorite for its sheer beauty and pillars. As we arrived, the sun was setting and bathed everything in a muted glow. Much smaller than Karnak, it only took two pharaohs to chisel it from granite, although the results are at least as impressive, as giant seated statues greet you upon entering, pillared walkways guide you through the temple with galleries and statues inviting you to stray to the side, and eventually, the covered halls with glorious reliefs painstakingly etched into the stone. As the sky faded into a deep cerulaean and the lights magnificently outlined the temple in a golden halo my fingers found my capture button far too often but the lighting and ambiance of a temple at night was too irresistable. A little ways from the temple is the Sphinx road, no mostly destroyed, but once in lead all the way from Karnak to Luxor bordered by grave sentinels carved in the image of a sphinx. Having read about these in my trashy historical fiction novels, I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the sphinxes, but, happily, it was dark, and Frances is used to my outbursts.
All too soon, it was time to be back on bus, back to the ship, pack the bags, walk to the store on shore and haggle for groceries, spend a few more stolen moments on the top deck gazing at the Nile, then bordering the bus and heading to the airport for another round with EgyptAir. As I've noted in previous posts, I have a tutor for Arabic, and he happened to come along on the voyage, why, I'm not exactly sure. He may have expected me to spend more time with him, but I'm a brash American, and somewhat ignored him (sheepish grin) and/or only made small talk and fled to the sanctity of my harem. Still, as we were bordering the plane, he told me he'd see me in class on Wednesday, which was strange, because, tomorrow being Monday, we were supposed to have class. No class tomorrow, he said, you'll be too tired. Well, that encouraged my truancy, so I skipped class on Monday (in my defense, so did a large portion of my fellow travelers), made it through till Thursday, had a fun night of Cafe Spectra (they've got Mexican food), fellow ALIers, and Arrested Development last night, hit the gym this afternoon, and I've got a party in a hour. And then the land lord invades tomorrow and I vacate the premises. Salaam!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My desert safari

Finally! I know, it's been too long since my last post, and I apologize, but, truly the delay was purely technical. My computer decided that it doesn't like Egypt at all, and only occasionally charges when the device is completely turned off, which gave me maybe 40 minutes a day to use. Not exactly conducive to homework, communication, and general web surfing. I realize that the issue is probably battery related, and the situation may or may not be ameliorated by a new battery, but I suspect that Compaqs are just not built to handle 220 v, no matter how many transformers I use. So, I steeled myself, ignored my friends' comments about the shadiness of computer dealers, and visited the Acer store in my basement, as it was somewhat recommended to me. Now, the dealer was a bit sketchy and avaricious, and he spoke limited English, but his location was darn convenient and I had to start somewhere. So, I ordered a laptop on Wednesday for pickup on Thursday, but, wait, that model was actually not available, as I found out Thursday morning, so would another, slightly cheaper model be ok? I concurred and paid the deposit (to give you an idea of the cash society that Egypt is, I paid for a 900 dollar laptop in bills, not with a credit card), then talked to my parents and realized that 40 G is just too small, so took a quiz in Fusha class, stepped out, and called the computer guy, who tried to convince me that 40 G is fine. I believed him for awhile, but around 3 that afternoon, I went down and had a stern conversation with him in which I demanded more space; he was actually fairly accomodating and added 40 more Gigs onto the computer (of course, it cost more) and had it ready for me by 6 that night. My computer is so beautiful and lightweight! I love it and am currently in the process of transferring my ITunes library from the old to the new computer, somewhat hindered by the fact that a) I only have two blank CDs and B) my old computer shuts down after only two CDs worth of processing.
But enough about computers, they're not really that important, right ;-) Unfortunately, I was going slightly insane without one, but now ana mebsoota (I'm happy)! I'm going to have to brush over the details of a wonderfully epicurian week so I can expound on this past weekend in the White Desert. I think I left you all on a Friday evening; about an hour after I signed up, Nicola and I met up and went to this superb Thai restaurant, Sabai Sabai, in Zamalek, and lounged on the cozy couches for several hours munching on grilled calamari, roast duck, and jasmine rice, and sipping lemongrass juice. For Egyptian standards, it was expensive, but for the quality of food (that duck was, bar none, the most succulent red meat I've ever had) it was very cheap, less than 30 dollars per person. Another acheivement of the night was that I led Nicola to and from the restaurant, which is a bit of a trek from my building, without getting lost once! And I even took her to an ice cream place on Ismail Mohamed Street on the way back.
The next day, oh yes, the next day was an ALI walking tour of Islamic Cairo with Chahindra, our intrepid guide. Personally, I was not sure if our group would be entirely safe wandering through an extremely conservative district area of Cairo and staring at the buildings, but we found fortitude in our size, and I felt alot safer, especially if I stayed in the middle of the pack. Besides, I think the denizens were just as fascinated by us as we were by them.
Until we pulled up to them, I had not ever fathomed that Cairo had once been a walled fortress city contained behind stolid brick walls with moat, gates, and everything, but I guess it just shows I have alot to learn. Indeed, although they have fallen down in many places, Cairo was once ensconced by soaring walls complete withguard towers, arrow slits, areas for pouring oil upon the enemy, and latticed metal grills to admit te fellahin and nobles alike. Let off at the gate by our bus, we piled out and admired the gates and walked inside, awed by their thickness, although, these were relatively new gates, only dating back to the 13th or 15th century; the oldest ones are no longer standing. Although Cairo was never attacked, its rulers, particularly the Fatimids, or was the Mamluks?, I'm not sure, feared attack from the stronger kingdoms to the north so thus prempted the attack with the fortifications. After entering, we walked a little ways and visited the mosque of Sultan Hakim, a rather interesting figure in history. Apparently, the Druze religion is based on his teachings and his eventual return to this world due to his disappearance after a visit the the Muqadam hills outside of Cairo. Of course, the man had a far more ruthless side, slaying his political opponents and issuing a number of strange edicts, among them a ban on the manufacture of women's shoes to force them to remain inside the home. As I said, interesting. The mosque itself was beautiful and architecturally different than many we'd seen, with the most similarities to the Ibn Tulum mosque. With arches instead of pillars, it was more 'crowded' inside with less open space than many, but the whitenes of marble and the luscious curtains outlining the central courtyard made for a unique appearance.
After the mosque, we walked through the streets for a while, avoiding those that were entirely torn up due to the sewer work occuring in this quarter. Although I've been to parts of Islamic Cairo, it was fascinating to visit it with a guide and realize that it was once an airy, fragrant boulevard bordered by nobles' and rich merchants' houses and two palaces that have given it the epitet 'Palace Walk' made famous by the novels if Naguib Mafooz. We toured an amazing house tucked away down a side street built in, I think, the 14th or 15th century for a rich merchant. As I'm learning, most houses have courtyards on the inside and windows that face inwards towards the serenity of a garden rather then the crowded streets. It was a mansion by anyone's standards, with two courtyards graced with palm trees, grinding wheels, wells, and other implements, and the inside was commodious indeed, with numerous sitting rooms, bedrooms, reception halls with exquisite tile and woodwork, and even a sauna. Yes, a sauna, complete with colored skylights in geometric patterns, a massage bed, and an shower. The doorways of the house posed a bit of a challenge for those of us endowed with vertical reach, as I had to duck through just about every one.
After the house we stopped in an ancient trading house that merchants used to sell their goods and use the upper floors as a hotel of sorts to stay until their wares were dispersed. I ran around the upper floors and discovered one of the duplexes that had a least three floors to it and a lovely roof top area for the traders' families to reside while the man conducted his business. Walking through the streets, I was again struck by the disparate lives that men and women live in modern day Cairo. Egyptians would say hi to our group, and alot of the guys would reply back, but I've become so horrendously cold that I turn away from anyone who greets me, which is, I've learned, the only thing you can do, but still...
Chahindra pointed out many of the remarkable mosques, sebeels (fountains that provided free water to the poor and had schools above) and other buildings that lie scattered and crumbling against the encroachment of today's world, some in better condition than others and some in the process of restoration. The tour ended at the Khan El Khalili, and I learned that, indeed, it was originally constructed as a merchant's trading house like the one described above, but then a ruler named Khalili expanded the area into what it remains today-a confounding concoction of alleyways, deadends, staircases, and courtyards that comprise a souk.
I returned home and later visited with Akshaya another excellent restaurant in Zamalek, L'Aubergine, specializing in vegetarian dishes but with an excellent carnivorous menu as well. The week itself is rather fuzzy to me, as my computer became increasingly frustrating and I had several presentations to prepare for and quizzes to take. Frances' boyfriend, Chad, who unfortunately left us on Saturday for India (poor boy ;-), had a belated birthday celebration on Tuesday night at yet another tony restaurant, this one on a Nile boat named Le Pacha 1901. Famed for its fusion Asian food, the restaurant Asiatique it certainly deserved its repuatation for its service (attentive bordering on obsequious), and the desert menu was truly divine, with everything from cheesecake to mousse au chocolat to meringue to ice cream creations to date tarts to...well, you get the idea. I felt slightly awkward being the third person on the date, but Frances insisted I go, and who am I to refuse a food invitation? By the time I left, I was very happy I had not let my trepidations impede my decision. On Wednesday night I met up with Daia and discovered a delightful bakery/ice cream shop near our houses that is more expensive than Al Abd (the ridiculously cheap 2 LE ice cream), but not by much. Throughout the week my classmate, Alex, and I had been planning a desert safari out the White Desert for the weekend, and we really only formalized the plans on Tuesday and the guests late Thursday night. You see, the problem with the safaris is that one travels in jeeps, 4 people per vehicle, so you are charged by jeep; thus, it is necessary to recruit in multiples of 4 but difficult to acheive the selfsame results, as not everyone wants to go and you cannot un-invite someone. Eventually, via a flurry of text messages, we persuaded 10 of our friends to particpate in the 8 am departure on Friday morning.
I actually went out on Thursday night, first to the Opera (Romeo and Juliet, the ballet), then to a lovely restaurant on the Le Pacha 1901, and then to a party for a bit, so I actually didn't get home until around 2:30, but it was well worth the lack of sleep. Because the Opera is a very formal affair, I got to wear a black evening dress (and used this as an excuse to visit the salon ;-) and look semi-decent for once.
Anyway, I rolled out of bed at around 6:30 on Friday, showered, packed more swiftly than I have in a long time, raided the 24 hour Metro for pop, chips (I splurged and bought Tostitos with Lime, they're 45 LE!), chocolate, and other munchies, and walked to the dorms to pick up the mini bus our group had chartered to bring us to Baharayia oasis. As I rounded the corner, I was slightly baffled by the apparent dearth of our vehicle, but then I realized the bus was the slightly beaten up van parked in front of the dorms that seated 14. By the time everyone had arrived from their various residences, it was a bit after 8:30 (no names will be mentioned ;-) so we stowed our luggage on the roof or below our feet, piled in, and pulled away. I feel obligated to comment on the pollution that has permeated every square inch of Cairo for the last few days; I could literally not see the end of block in the morning, so opaque were the clouds of smog drifting through the city. Looking from our balcony across the Nile, I could only see a green smudge of light from the mosque Thursday night. Currently, there is a bit of relief from the pollution as the winds have dispersed the ignominous plague away from Cairo. Back to the trip, though.
As I mentioned, there were 12 of us, 4 guys-Colin, Alex, Steve, and Omar- and 8 girls-myself, Nicola, Lesley, Annie, Amira, Sarah, Nicole, and Eliza, al very relieved to be getting out of Cairo and onto adventure.
Four uneventful hours later, our van pulled into Baharayia oasis, a town very similar to Siwa in many ways, with mud brick buildings, donkeys, narrow streets, and a profusion of palm trees. We enjoyed a meal at the 'office' of the company we were using, Samy safaris, and threw our things into the jeeps-I got the red one ;-) In case any of you are wondering, this safari was indeed a camping trip out in the absolute middle of nowhere, and yes, Laura went without a bathroom for almost two whole days and lived to tell the tale (and lived happily, let me add). Any hamam outside of Cairo, I've learned, is just a hole in the floor, and most are not very pleasant, which is why most of us girls actually preferred the open desert and a sheltering rock, and why a pack of kleenexes is essential to any expedition.
Fed and watered, we piled four to a jeep and headed out on the desert road, passing deserted army posts and several checkpoints and watching our cell phone reception go from strong to weak to emergency calls only to no coverage. Ahh, vodafone, they need to start building towers in the Sahara...About an hour outside of 'town', our jeeps suddenly pulled off road and began buzzing up and down the sand dunes and over rocky ridges in the Black Desert, called thus for the basaltic black volcanic rock that lies strewen across the yellow sand like chocolate chips on a yellow angel food cake. Unitl you raced through the desert, sat shotgun and watched the driver shift gears, frown, shift back, toggle a few buttons, and then proceed, you will not harbor a true appreciation for Toyota LandCruisers. Despite the fact that each vehicle broke down briefly, at least once, these babies kept on revving over the sands and sliding down sheer sand hills at breath-snatching speed without once truly dying. Of course, some of the credit also goes to Samy and the drivers who calmy tore wires out of the engine ("guess those aren't needed any more, eh?") with precision. After pausing for a few photo ops, and mechanical consultation, we headed back onto the main asphault road and continued to the White Desert. Dozing lightly in the front seat, I cracked open my eyes wearily to see a magnificent panorama spread out before me-white sand dunes merging seamlessly with chalk rock outcropping and ridges carved and transmuted into fantastic shapes by wind, time, and elements. The White Desert, I soon learned, is white because of the strange proliferation of chalk deposits scattered throughout its domain, some protuding suddenly from sand as the the earth had suddenly, and noisomely, thrust an extra appendage into the heavens. Although there are no maps, and each rock looks the same after awhile, our guides drove adroitly to our campsite in time for us to catch the sunset. I've described enough scenery in this blog to sufficiently bore you; however, trust me when I say that our campsite was ideally positioned on a slight sand ridge over a stunning valley of occult chalk formations, sculpted sand dunes, and rocky mountains that required days to adequately explore. Given that we only had an hour of illumination, many of us were too busy climbing to appreciate the sunset, and we looked up to see the light fading quickly and the flicker of a campfire guiding us back home. Chalk is an interesting material to climb upon-not only do your feet leave vestiges of their form in it, but it also leaves traces of chalk on you, so that our hands, feet, and butts all were suspiciously white after awhile. Returning to camp, we plopped down around the campfire, held hands, and sang gospel songs. Well, not exactly...Sarah had brought marshmellows and a roasting stick, so we took turns enjoying her creations and chatting, eventually delving into the stash of alcohol several people had wisely brought along, and, let me tell you, mixing rum and cranberry juice by firelight is far more challenging than you think. But, happily, I had remembered to pack to single most valuable item of the trip, my flashlight from the Mt. Sinai climb, which was irrefuatably useful for digging things out of the jeeps, trekking into the vast desert, and generally causing a nuisance.
Our guides supplied all of the food, and eventually they brought out a grill to set over the coals and covered it with juicy haunches of chicken; at that point, everyone's tummy rumbled a bit when we remembered out last, long ago meal. But before the food was done, I laid down on my back, a wee tired, and became distracted by the absolute enormity of the heavenly splendor above me. Siwa didn't hold a candle to this. We were about as far from civilization as one could possibly go, one small spark of humanity engulfed by the consummate shroud of night, a tiny pinprick of light so miniscule in size compared to the stars above us. I could actually see, with amazing clarity, the breadth of the Milky Way and every constellation ever discovered by man and even those left undiscovered. Engrossed as I was with the stars, I did not realize that almost everyone else had already gone to eat (creeps! I was hungry ;-), leaving myself and two friends to contemplate the night. Scurrying over the the table, I nudged my way into a spot, grabbed a leg of chicken, and very un-lady-like chomped down, eventually adding rice to the meal. Almost sated, we broke out my chocolate for desert and settled down for a long fireside chat. Before too long, however, Nicola, decided it would be more fun to run away from everyone else into the night, so I grabbed my flashlight and readily conceded. I think we sat and at talked for three hours, all alone and far from camp. At some point, I think people realized we had been missing for awhile, and we heard our names being shouted, but we signaled back and they left us alone. We returned to camp around 11 to find most people bedding down for the night in the protected area formed by the perpendicular jeeps, but of course, Nicola and I were the youngest, so we had the brilliant plan to sleep away from everyone a bit outside of camp. After a bathroom trip, we dragged our sleeping bags and mats a little ways from the fire and curled up next to each other. I was, I'll admit, a bit cold, but I survived and woke up around 5:30 or so, turned to Nicola, who was also awake, and whispered bathroom, so we scurried away into the pre-dawn gray to use the hamam. At that point, there was no point in trying to sleep, so we found our stuff, hid behind a camel-shaped rock and cleaned up and changed clothing and watched the sunrise brush the meringue-like dollops of chalk hills with rose and marigold.
Trotting back to camp, and feeling much cleaner, we paused to look at the prone forms of our companions still slumbering soundly in a pack, decided to leave them be for a while, but, unfortunately, bumped one of the jeep horns (I swear it was an accident!) while stowing our gear. Frightened of an angry mob crying for our heads, we quickly went for a long walk, returned, again, to camp, found our comrades still laying down at 7:45, and talked loudly in their presence. A few of them stirred, fluttered a hand threateningly in our direction, cursed us to hell and beyond, or snuggled into the sleeping bags more tightly, so we decided it was time for another hike. Honestly, we weren't there to sleep! We had to head back to Cairo soon and wanted to absorb as much of the desert as possible. After observing, from our far off vantage point, a few souls stumble out of bed and congregate on a rock, we decided to chance a visit to camp. Such hostility and general wrath were we met with that I pulled Nicola away, again, and went to climb a mountain (which was, by the way, very cool), finally returning when it looked like breakfast we being served. Everyone was more sedate by this point (at 10), so we broke camp and headed off to explore the desert. Our guides showed us some fascinating shells and marine fossils, raced the jeeps through the desert, took us sand dune diving (i.e. rolling down an almost vertical dune with or without jeeps), and eventually brought us back to Baharayia. By this time, all of the bickerings of the morning had been forgiven and we morosely piled into the mini bus for the drive back to Cairo. This bus was much nicer than the previous one, and Nicola and I comandeered the choicest seats, so the ride back was actually quite pleasant, and we all finished my Tostitos, chocolate, and Tootsie Rolls with plenty of amiable banter.
And then, of course, back to the apartment and school, and a long shower, but today Frances and I bought a microwave. No more heating things up over the stove, no more store-bought popcorn, just genuine goodness!