Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ramadan and daggers!

Well, it's Sunday afternoon and I'm taking a break from studying the ubiquitious vocab to write this. As I look across the street to the Hotel Flamenco, I cannot help but covet those lovely, thick curtains that provide privacy and security. You see, the other night, while I was hiding in Cilantro, by owner removed the current curtains and rod, told me he would return around 11 or 12 to put up new ones, but didn't knock again until after 1. Of course, his drill had broken, and he was going to his house in the Suez for the weekend, so he could not bring new curtains until Sunday. Perhaps I should have protested, but I was exhausted, and there was little I could do to amend the situation. So I'm sitting in my room curtainless, with a wonderfully expansive view of the Nile. I just hope I haven't frightened the Flamenco guests too much ;-)
Ramadan starts tomorrow, and the entire city of Cairo seems to be cloaked in a blanket of anticipation for the Ramadan festivities. I went to Al Abd a few days ago for some ice cream, and I have never seen the store so crammed! Everyone was stocking up on sweets, dried fruits, and nuts with which to cook to iftaar meal. I even did a little of my own cooking, lol. Well, I bought peanuts, almonds, walnuts, white raisins, coconut flakes, and M&Ms at the Metro and mixed them all together into a delicious homemade trail mix. Another Ramadan staple, Qmer Adeen, is apricot juice prepared by stirring rolls of apricot paste in water for a while. Well, I've discovered that the apricot 'paste' tastes just like a fruit rollup and is so much cheaper.
It's so difficult to describe Ramadan to anyone unfamiliar with Islamic traditions (mind you, I'm not that familiar, but I'm getting a few crash courses in the subject). The closest thing Christians have is Christmas, but Ramadan is so much more than that. It is a month of fasting, feasting, praying, philantrophy, parties, and gathering with friends and family. From sunrise till sunset, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, sex, and any other indulgent activities. Right at sundown, the fast is broken, and the iftaar meal is taken. This is a giant feast of every food imaginable, well almost any food. No alcohol is allowed during Ramadan, at least for pious Muslims, but sex is allowed after sundown. Apparently, it was just too difficult for some members of society to wait a whole month ;-) Anyway, for most people, nights turn into a giant party, and the ideal schedule is to sleep most of the day and then wake up in the evening to gorge and party. Of course, most people work during the day, so sleep is one of those non-essential staples that gets ignored. All of Egypt turns upside down for Ramadan; work usually doesn't get done, mosques serve free food during iftaar, and the pace of things slows waaaaaay down. Traffic is going to be horrendous, I'm told. Everyone decorates with neon lights (not Christmas lights), usually shaped like a fenoos, or latern. These are the proverbial symbol of Ramadan, bright, garishly colored laterns strung from every storefront and many balconies, many with scenes of mosques of other Islamic art. We have three in our apartment, and I bought my roommmates two candy-filled cloth ones as presents.
Yesterday, Frances and I went horseback riding by the pyramids. These was a bit of difficulty directing the taxi driver to the right stables, and then he wanted 30 LE, but he eventually left with only the correct 20 LE in hand and we mounted our valiant steeds with Ali as our guide. I rode Abu Dahab again, and he was so much fun! We galloped through the desert again, leaving everyone else far behind. I think Ali finds me rather amusing, because he knows anytime he asks if I want to go fast, I get this ridiculous grin on my face, give Abu a nudge with my heels, and shout "Ya Allah!", and of we gallop. Much fun! Of course, we can't gallop all of the time, as Abu would become too enervated, so we also get to enjoy the breathtaking views of the pyramids, not too horrible of a compromise ;-) I think my thighs are getting stronger, as the soreness factor is steadily decreasing after every ride. All told, with the guide's tip, 1.75 hour ride, and cabs there and back, I spent 120 LE, about 25 dollars.
After we returned home and washed the cloying musk of horse off, we went to Medan Hussein, and, you guessed it, the Khan El Khalili. We gorged ourselves on a wonderful meal overlooking the square, watching and being watched by the multitudes that pass through here. As Frances said, Medan Hussein is the Times Square of Cairo, although more like a medieval square, as it is bordered by the Al-Hussein mosque, the national mosque of Cairo and the epicenter of Ramadan activites. It was bustling when we arrived, and the atmosphere was already far more electric than I'd ever witnessed. I can't even imagine what it would be like during a weekend over Ramadan. Anyway, Cairo has an issue with stray cats, and it is an extremely unnerving feeling to feel them dart under your table, step on your feet, and flee between your legs. Because our restaurant was outside, we received our fair share of cat encounters. We also encountered a group of guys from the AUC, who piled into a table next door to us and a beautiful young Muslim woman who took a few pictures of us with her cell phone (because Frances and I are sooo exotic ;-) and then exchanged mobile numbers with Frances. Then, we wandered into the bazaar again, which is always such a sensory overload. I found one of my favorite purchases of the trip last night at an antiques, brass, and other random items store. Daggers! No, really, they are very cool! The hilts are animal horn, I think cow, and the sheathes are slightly worn leather with a few engravings and patterns with a loop to attach them to your belt. The blades themselves are some sort of metal, probably iron, with a few crude Xs carved into them. One blade has a slightly suspicious red blotch on the end that is not rust. The hilt and blade are attached by a leather thong tightly wrapped around them both, and the fastening is as sturdy as steel. I don't know how old they are, or if they are authentic antiques, but they're so COOL! The blades aren't sharp (although, if I really tried, I could probably stab someone, in self-defense, of course(, and I considered getting them sharpened, but then remembered that I have to return to the US at some point, and sharp knives might look suspicious, especially with the large Egypt Student Visa stamped in my passport. So, I now own two entirely intimidating daggers,which aren't a horrible trade-off for not scuba diving.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

My non-scuba diving life

It's the weekend again, thank God, and I'm sitting in Cilantro right now because my owner is doing something to my curtains. I got to play little housewife to him and his worker, as I made them both tea. Well, he helped me, as I am hopeless in the kitchen ;-) My week was absolutely insane, and many days I was gone from 8 am to midnight without a break in between. And, as it turns out, all of that was for naught, but I'll write about that later. Anyway, scuba classes were really fun, although the watching PADI videos-part was rather mundane. I saw five modules of extremely corny instruction, and then we donned our scuba gear and took cabs to a pool. For all of you who think that Cairo is entirely backwards, antiquitated, and otherwise unsophisticated, there are PADI dive instructors in Cairo, and they do speak excellent English, and they do use modern equipment and follow the latest trends in diving. Anyway, they took us to a pool in Heliopolis, which was over an hour from Dokki! Traffic literally crawled the entire way there, as the ride should have only taken about 20 minutes. The pool was in a Nadi, or sporting club, and there were swimming lessons going in the entire time we were there. It was not crowded, persay, and we had plenty of room to learn the basic techniques, like removing masks and gear underwater (those BCDs are awkward!), sharing regulators with your buddy (which was rather awkward, as I cannot hold my breath for very long, but I soon mastered that technique), finding a stable position under water by just using your lungs to raise and lower yourself, and, entering the deep end and flipperiing around for awhile and attempting to avoid crashing into the bottom. I did not realize how difficult it really is to maintain a lateral position underwater, as, every time you breathe, your lung capacity either decreases or increases, and your buoyancy thus changes, and you either hit the bottom or go to the top. Eventually, I got the hang of it, and our instructor was very patient with us. He was very thorough with us, and if we did not understand his signals, he'd take one of us to the top and explain it to us. He also has a rather memorable name, Osama, and he joked that we'd never forget it ;-0 Anyway, I was all set to sail on the Red Sea this weekend and earn my PADI diver certification when I received an e-mail from my doctor telling me I shouldn't dive. Having visited the AUC doctor, and first receiving her ok to dive, and then having her call me back to tell me I couldn't dive (although her reasoning was based on a random website, so I do not hold much credence in that, especially since her initial reaction was to allow me, after we discussed what measures to take regarding my diabetes and she signed my form), I was, and still am, rather perturbed and disgruntled about the entire situation. If I never do get my certification, I will have wasted 300 dollars and a weeks' worth of toil on nothing, so if I feeling extremely recalcitrant one week, I may just go with them and get my certification. Anyway, the scuba lessons took up every free moment I had, and more, as some of my homework did not get done and my friends (sorry guys), did not see me for an entire week.
I had discovered an extremely scrumptious chocolate and sweets shop yesterday near the scuba shop in Dokki, Carnet Dore, and I had purchased a few items to assuage my hunger. Today, with my anger roiling inside of me, I took the refund for the weekend trip, and more, and bought Ramadan presents for myself and my roommates. Two laterns filled with chocolates for them, and a beautiful basket brimming with chocolate for myself. This is common practice, just so you don't think I am entirely insane, as Ramadan is bigger than Christmas in the Muslim world, and people spend weeks preparing for it. I felt a little better with my purchaes weighing me down, but getting back from Dokki to Zamalek was the most trying cab ride I've had. The one over was rather enlightening, as the cab driver had his cute little son in the car, and stopped to pick up his adorable daughter from French school on the way there. They were both rather shy, but it made the ride less awkward, as there was less of the "Where's your boyfriend, are you married, you are very beautiful..." He only told me I was beautiful once, which was rather refreshing, and I could actually understand most of what he said. As we were massing the Ministry of Agriculture, he told me the name in Arabic, and I understood. Living in Cairo is so valuable to my learning, and it's almost like a puzzle, attempting to piece together the words and phrases I learn in class into the framework of everyday life.
But, back to the cab ride home...The driver was younger, which is usually more of a difficulty, and he seemed incredibly inept. He did not know how to go from Dokki to Zamalek. Honestly, it's like traveling between Minneapolis and St. Paul, fairly simple, especially if you're a cab driver. Then, he started questioning me about my life, particularly my status as an available woman. He kept asking me if I was married, where my boyfriend was (my apocryphal he's in America response, that usually works with most cabbies, didn't seem to phase him, as he said that wasn't a problem), and that I was beautiful. He eventually professed his love to me, and I ignored him, so he quieted down for a bit, and then started asking me about my food preferences. I think he was going to invite me to a restaurant after my apartment, but I wasn't sure. Of course, traffic had to be incredibly backed up, so I had to be in the car longer, but we eventually crossed the Nile into Zamalek. Then, of course, he was hopelessly lost, and kept asking for directions. I would have walked, but I had two giant bags full of chocolate goodies, and they were bulky to lug very far. Then, to top the cab ride from hell off, his car broke down! I almost burst out laughing, so comical was the situation. By then, I knew where I was, so I paid him (I probably shouldn't have), got out, and walked the 7 or so blocks to my apartment. After I recuperated a bit from my adventure, I met some friends at the AUC and we went to the Khan El Khalili (again!). I'm actually learning my way around that labyrinth, which is quite a miracle, and I didn't spend very much money, especially considering that I am still miffed about scuba diving. I'm looking into a beach vacation next weekend, and am considering the Movenpick at Hurghada. We'll see, and I expect no complaints about the money I would spend (mom), because I would have gladly gone on the 300 LE scuba trip this weekend. Anyway, enough rancor for the night. I may still do something tonight, so I should go. By the way, if you are not on Facebook, and you would like a pictoral tour of my travels, I can e-mail you the link. E-mail me at