Friday, September 08, 2006

Finally...The Pyramids!!!!!

I arrived over two weeks ago, and ever since that first moment when I beheld the pyramids from the airplane, I've been aching to go visit them, even to just see them for five minutes. Alas, no one else has coveted this dream, until today...and it was amazing! Every superlative in the English language cannot describe the ebullient feeling of galloping over the fine white Sahara sand, your valiant steed charging through the shadow of the most ancient of monuments, and then pulling up to gaze in wonder at the anicent limestone blocks that have remained thus for 10,000 years. Ahhh, but first, I should describe my yesterday. My Thurdays are thus far very khrfeef, or light, and I start class at 11 and end at 12:15. Class went better than the first day, as the teacher spoke a bit slower and actually used vocabulary I understood. Also, she asked us questions and wrote on the board, which was useful. I am starting to regret my former Arabic professsor's renunciation of grammar learning. I fell that in this area especially, I need to do some serious studying. Anyway, after class, I wandered over the Hilton with Frances, was welcomed by the friendly staff, and slipped into my rather risque bikini, at least by Egpytian standards. The gym is below ground, so I went upstairs and was met by Hasaan, the very cute pool boy, who gave my a chair in the sun. Iy has been too long since I have felt so serene, with nothing to do but soak up the sun and listen the chatters of various languages around me. I never felt uncomfortable or too revealing in my swimsuit, although I've heard that any public pool is just a cesspool of leering men. Anyway, after I downed my Hilton Paradise, I used the treadmill for a bit (I'm so out of shape), luxuriated in the locker rooms for a bit, and then took a cab ride with Frances home. Later that night, we tried, rather unsuccessfully, to find a nice club or bar to hang our for a few hours. First, the Cairo Jazz Club was 'closed', Sequoia had no room, and the bar Deals wasn't serving alcohol. After many wasted cab rides, we started walking home and came across Pub 28, which was, happily, serving alcohol, and so indulged on assorted cheeses and Omar Khayoom's wine.
This morning I woke up and attempted to do some homework, breaking fast on Nestle's all too addicting Vanilla Ice Cream. It's so rich and creamy, I think I could live on it alone (actually, I basically am ;-) My other roommate, Akshaya, and her boyfriend wanted to go to the pyramids. What, the pyramids, mon seule desir since grade school. Of course I tagged along, and they were gracious enough to invite me and put up with me. Our cab ride was 20 LE, not too high, considering Giza is a bit of a haul. Our driver dropped us off in front of several stables, and one of the names I recognized as recommended in a guidebook. We talked to the proprietor, essayed to negotiate the price, but he wouldn't budge lower than 130 LE pp for the 2 hour ride. I really wanted to get going, so I was perhaps more amenable than I should have been, but we were eventually mounted on two camels and a horse. I rode the horse out and a camel back, which was the best of both worlds for a first timer. Our guide trotted up to us on a horse, condescended to snap a few pictures of our gleeful excitement, and we rode off into the desert. We were a little apprehensive, having paid the entire price up front, because we had all heard stories about corrupt tour operators leading you into the desert and either leaving you there or extorting more money from you for the way back. Happily, this didn't happen, and we were safely guided back. It was strange, I usually feel very tall on horseback, but I felt positively miniscule compared to the camels, those big, smelly, green slimy-mouthed humps that are undeniably built for the desert. At least I was able to lead my horse as I wished, the camels were tethered together and led by a boy on foot. Every horse I saw, mine included, were underfed, some far worse than others. On some you could count every rib and trace the tail bone with your hand, it stuck so far out of the skin. I like to think that mine were attended to better, but I honestly doubt it. Anyway, we walked down a street, turned through a gate, ignored the ubiquitious salesmen thrusting their goods into your face, and suddenly stepped on the Sahara sand. The earth fell away from me into an undulating wave of sand, rock, and pyramid, and chaos of the street faded into the background. I couldn't help but wave at another Arab tourist girl (and she waved back just as enthusiastically), so giddy was I! The other group melted down another road, and just our small group of four steeds was plodding through the sand. I had stupidly worn sandals, and I felt woefully inadequate communicating with my horse. Of course, the fact that I had my camera draped touristically around my neck didn't help either. Our flirtatious guide came up behind me and said, "Ready to go?" and my horse burst into an awkward trot. I was flailing along, bumping horribly, until it slowed down mercifully into a steady walk. We crested a dune, and the entire plateau of Giza was spread like virgin garden before our eyes, just waiting to be explored. We paused for a few pictures and picked our down the sharp incline. As the plain leveled out, I handed my backpack off to the more sedate camels, gathered the reins in my hands, yet out a horrifyingly American yee-haw, and galloped off directly towards the main pyramid. My camera was bouncing horrendously around my neck, but I actually felt comfortable in the saddle, swaying to the rhythm of the horse. I think my guide was a little worried, because he chased off after me, but I reined Rambo in and turned him back toward our little caravan. I needed a little help, perhaps, actually getting back, but we puttered around the main pyramid, stopped for a photo opportunity, and then rode to the smallest of the three main pyramids.
There, we all dismounted to give the animals a rest. One of the camels was wheezing loudly, and I don't think it was an entirely normal occurance. Anyway, we walked up to the pyramid, was met by another 'guide' who took our pictures, and then started to climb the pyramid. Yes, we actually climbed the thing, and I know all of you archaeological preservationists out there are cringing, but we only climbed about a third of the way up. The guide half-heartedly told us to stop, but I am certain he would have let us go farther if we had bribed him. The reason I know this? Akshaya's boyfriend wanted to climb one of the smaller pyramids clustered around this one, and the guide told him to name his price. For 10 LE, he could have easily climbed it, no problem, but we decided it wasn't worth the time. I have not yet mentioned the 'police' patroling the pyramids, but they deserve explaining. From what I could see, their sole purpose is to extort bribes from the tourists and guides in the area and turn a blind eye to suspicious activities. At one point early in our ride when we had just entered to pyramid area, a fat policeman rode up on his camel, puffing from exertion and yelling vociferously in Arabic. I'm not sure of the words they exchanged, but in the end money discreetly changed hands. The policemen 'guarding' the smaller pyramids, we were told by our guide, required only a small bribe to look away from our climbing. Anyway, before we remounted, we looked around the base of the pyramids, entered the burial chamber, and admired some hyroglyphics. The ride back wasn't quite as fun as the ride in, as I rode the camel. Camels may look cool, but they're just lumbering giants with very little grace. I mounted it when it was kneeling on the ground, but preciptiously the mountain heaved forwards and backwards and I was ten feet of the ground, perched on a hump. I think we were a little behind schedule, because our guide whipped the poor beasts into a trot as I jostled on top. We paused near the Sphinx to admire and snap a photo, then it was off to the stables. The disembarkation process was a bit strange; I felt I should tip the guide, as is normally the case, but I offered the boy (who rode in front of me on the camel on the way back) three LE, and he wouldn't take it. I think he wanted more, but by that time we were being ushered away and I didn't think he deserved more. After the ride, we found a little hole-in-the-wall sheesha cafe, where I had a Coke Light and Phil smoked sheesha. I didn't mention the flies yet, but they, too, deserve a part in the narrative. They were quite aggrevating, especially when one is standing or at rest. When the animals were moving, they didn't seem too bad, but when we stopped they'd cloud around you and congregate on the animals' extremities. I saw one horse has a horrible saddle sore (I'm naively hoping they took him back and treated it), and the flies swarmed it. Needleless to say, I was happy to climb back into a taxi for the ride home, although some time I want to stay for the sound and light show at the pyramids. The pyramids are indubitably awe-inspiring, as is the Spinx, its erudite, weathered face still bearing the features of a long-dead prince, but the town Giza is such a tourist trap. Everywhere you look there is a Payrus Institute or Weaving Museum, as if the names will suddenly authenticate the product. It was a relief to return to quiet Zamalek, spend a wonderful two hours browsing the three floors of the Alpha Market(I now own a hair dryer, so no more wet-hair-just-had-sex connotations), had supper a Cafe Tobasco (the best strawberry juice I've ever had), and bought an absolutely adorable purse and billfold at Kipling. That is my pyramid day, entirely successful!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

First Day of Classes

I began classes today, and whew, they're not called intensive Arabic for nothing! But first, a brief discription of my amusing encounter at the Nile Hilton. I'd decided, given the dearth of quality air and exercise facilities, that I wanted to join a fitness club. I know I mentioned the Gezira Club in previous e-mails, but their lack of English and other policies made them a very undesirable property. The Nile Hilton, on the other hand, is quite close to campus, and has a very nice gym and, most importantly, a gorgeous pool to sun around. My roommate also wanted to join, and we saw in the brochure that a family membership is cheaper than two single memberships. Beside it, in parentheses, it said 'two adults', so we thought we could maybe join as a family, being as we are living together. So we go the the gym office, speak the manager of the place about memberships, and tell him we want a family membership. He tells us it's only for a Mrs. and Mr., or occasionally for a father and daughter. Then Frances pipes in, "But we're living together!" He remains composed, but I could tell he was rather flustered, and he says he understands, but repeats that it's usually only for a man and woman. "But we're together!" He was extremely polite and cordial, and tells us if we wait a week, he can speak with his boss and get approval for our 'situation.' Well, neither of us really wanted to wait a week, so we joined as two single memberships. It turns out they didn't charge us tax, so we didn't pay that much more. Anyways, as we're filling out our applications, Frances comments on my left-handedness. The manager exclaims "You didn't know that about her?" So I am, henceforth, the Nile Hilton lesbian, but not by choice! When we took a tour of the pool, we met the pool boy, Hassan, and I certainly was glad I'm not gay ;-) He was very steamy, if you know what I mean, just the sort of man you want fetching your towels and reserving you chairs. I'm going tanning after class tomorrow, and I'm very excited to lost my mid-length sleeve tan. Oh yeah, I also had orientation yesterday, but how can that compare to the Hilton ;-)
Today, I had my first IA classes, and they were arduous, no doubt. Of course, right after them, I walked home from the AUC to Zamalek, and then got a pedicure and manicure. The way I figure, it's a learning experience, as the stylists don't speak any English, and every time I go, I speak a little more Arabic. As the AUC handbook says, Meet Egyptians, and thus, I am! The girls were the same as last time, and they remembered us! I learned their names, their ages, and the fact that they like gum. I gave them each a piece of my Trident, and they were very enthused. The salon, Twins, charges a whole 25 LE for the process. Perhaps tonight I'll do a little homework, but I only have one class tomorrow, and then, the weekend! The above pictures: one is of the Nile about a block from my flat and the other is the view from my window at sunset, across the river.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Last day of freedom!

My vacation unofficially ended today, as tomorrow I have orientation, and on Wednesday intensive Arabic commences. There are about a billions thoughts coursing through my brain right now, and I'll try to make sense of a few of them. This morning I went to campus, turned in my student visa application, got my student ID card, and lolled around the grounds. The AUC is such a strange university. First, there are three campuses, all of them very small and within a few blocks of each other. And their communication skills between departments is somewhat lacking. Yesterday, when I walked on the roof to get to the student services office, the lady there asked if I had an extra copy of the visa application form. I happened to, so she went and copied a bunch for her office to hand out, as students had been asking for them (actually, she is the logical post for handing these out, as she is first in the rather complicated process of student visas). I wondered why no one else thought to give her some? Anyway, after a brief hiatus for lunch (ice cream from the carton, a slice of cheese, crackers, and a bit of mango juice)and repose, my roommates and I went to the Citadel, constructed by Saladin during the Crusades, I think. To be honest, I don't know much of its history, but it was an incredibly impressive fortress, built on a plateau with impenetrable walls and iron gates. We visited two mosques inside, one pleasant (top right) and the other gorgeous! The second, the Mohammed Ali mosque (top left, bottom right), was situated prominently on the high point of the castle, with arching domes, gilded and mosaiced ceilings, and cool marble throughout. I covered my head both times; the first, I was so pitifully struggling to tie the higab properly that one of the nice attendants helped me. The second time, I adopted the more utilitarian look of tying the scarf under my chin. I wore a floor length skirt and long-sleeved shirt, and had no problems getting in, but some tourists were forces to don those hideous green robes because of their scandalous clothing. I had one of those 'typical' study abroad moments, sitting on the carpet beneath the highest dome of the mosque, quiescently observing the commanding view of Cairo outside the door. Two weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane about to arrive in a foreign land with no friends. I've already come so far, socially, if not linguistically (there is still an appalling paucity of Arabic in my brain), that I cannot imagine who I'll be when I am forced to return to the States. Egypt has its frustrations, no doubt, as I discovered on the cab right back to the city, when the cab driver charged us double the normal rate, but it also an incredibly rich country that I'm just beginning to delve into. Anyway, speaking of frustrations, I found myself watching the news at home (I try to avoid television, but the cute BBC World guy with his adorable accent just seems to be beckoning ;-), and I saw several things of note-Steve Irwin died! The Crocidile Hunter, killed by a stingray. I remember watching his show on Animal Planet years ago, sitting up late and gorging myself on popcorn and wishing I could be as cool as him. And then I saw the attack in Amman, Jordan. Some man randomly opened fire on tourists in the old Roman ampitheatre, killing one of them. It suddenly became more than an incident in a far away land, but a hostile act much closer to home. I realize people dislike the West (alright, that's a bit of an understatement), but most Egpytians I've talked to are able to separate the man from the people. Bush bad, Americans good. I've even met a few genuine Bush supporters, Coptics who dislike radical Islam and its presence in politics.
Before leaving the Citadel, my roommate and I went back to the cloth market to look for a bedspread for her. Of course, she found one (how could you not?), and I also found a little something, as well, an Islamic horse. The bartering process is always so tricky, and I know I'm usually getting ripped off. Akshaya paid 750 LE for her item, and then I went into a different store that I liked. Of course, they claimed they would have sold her the exact same product for 500 LE, but then proposed a price of 600 LE for my much smaller horse cloth. I protested, bargained it down to 400, pointed out a few superficial spots, and honestly prepared to leave. After I walked out, they of course called me back and gave my it for 350. Now my room is completely Middle Eastern! I also bought 5 dollars' worth of cotton to stuff my poofs. The cloth market is so tucked away behind a maze of other markets, I'm amazed it's able to survive. Most deliveries are done by tiny flatbed Suzuki trucks, mopeds, bicycles, or hand carts, but I always see a few horse and donkey wagons trudging through the twisted alleyways. Anyway, after getting ripped off by the cab driver, I visited the electronics mall near campus. I felt more out of place there than most places in Egypt. First, I was lugging a 2 kilo bag of cotton with me, and second, I seemed to be the only female in Egpyt interested in computers. Eventually, I found someone who claimed he can repair my power cable. I'm deperate, so I gave it to him and I'll pick it up tomorrow, insha'allah. Then, I returned home, grabbed my very Egyptian meal of Chicken Ceasar salad (without the Caesar) and large fries, and settled in. Hopefully, we'll be getting internet into our apartment within the next week; it'll cost 150 LE for 512 speed, plus another 30 LE for the router. I can't wait until then!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Discovering Zamalek

Not too much to report. Most of the study abroad students are sunning away their weekend in El Gouna, a spendid resort town, for orientation, while ALI students (that's me) are priviledged to have their OR on campus. I've done alot of trekking around Zamalek the past few days, and I think I almost have a decent idea of the layout of the island. It's nice and small, so if you get lost, you either turn around or just keep going until you hit the river, which helps to orient you. I wandered to the Gezira sporting club, the Marriott, a converted palace and very posh (I never realized how strange it is to be a minority, and walking into the Marriott, surrounded by mainly white people, made me giggle at the ridiculousness of it all, how secluded most resorts are from the real world that surrounds them. Most of the people in the resort, dressed in shorts and tank tops, occasionally hop on a bus to the pyramids or the bazaar, follow a guide around the area, and drive back to their resort. I know I have alot to learn before I can ever consider myself more than a tourist, but at least I'm acclimating myself to the area, walking in the dirt and pollution and lovely Nile breezes. Anyway, off my soap box ;-) and to an Episcalpalan (sp) church, among other notable landmarks. The church was very interesting, as it offered serivices in at least 4 different languages-English, Arabic, Sudanese Arabic, and Swedish. A number of refuges from Darfur, in the Sudan, are members of the church, and it also offered support services to them. It also had a wonderful gift shop full of hand-crafted items, most made by refugees. I completed the decoration of my room by purchasing a camel table! It's very unique and was quite cheap. I ate dinner at a place called Cilantro, right around the corner from my apartment, where food is very cheap and quite good. I can't help but be amused by some facets of Egyptian culture, and one is the fact that everywhere delivers. Everywhere! McDonald's, KFC, Hardee's, pharmacies, grocery stores, and all the usual culprits as well.
Today, Frances and I attempted to go to church, but arrived too late (8:15!), so we ran some errands on campus, notably, a visit to the visa office on the roof. We walked through a portal, and suddenly found ourselves standing on the roof of the main building, overlooking Midan Tahrir and the Egyptian Museum. Apparently, AUC needed room to expand, so it constructed offices on the roof. After that, we visited the Gerzira sporting club in a attempt to find me riding lessons. We had to pay 20 LE to enter, but it was worth it! When maps show the club occupying half of Zamalek, they're not exaggerating! Wide, open green spaces and spacious avenues for walking greeted us, and then we found the stables. After a bit of failed communication with the stable hand, we walked back to the main offices, where we were handed a fee sheet for the year. I'm not entirely sure if riding is included in the fee (probably not), but I'm going to try to do a little more research. I may yet get my horse ;-) My landlord's attempting to replace the curtains in my window (they don't actually cover all of the glass), so he's been in and out. He's a very nice man, a hard negotiator, but acts more like a benvolent uncle than a landlord. I've rambled on about nothing long enough, hopefully I'll have pictures soon!