Saturday, September 30, 2006

Hurghada with a Russian prostitute

A warning to anyone reading this: it is extremely lengthy and loquacious. Read with caution. Well, before I explain my rather recusant title, let me tell you a little bit about Hurghada and my trip there. I have been dying to get out of Cairo for the last few weeks (think oppressive heat, blankets of smog on the Nile in the morning, horrendous traffic, etc.), so I went to the AUC travel office and booked a double for two nights at the Sofitel Hurghada. Now, I had planned on bringing someone, and I figured most anyone would be willing to accompany me, but it was rather difficult to find a travel partner. I thought I might be going alone for awhile, but I convinced my roommate, Frances, to skip her last class on Thursday and accompany me. When we pulled up to the Sofitel complex, I do not think she regretted the decision. So, most of you are wondering what the heck Hurghada is. It is a fairly new resort town on the Red Sea, famous mainly for its diving, but also well-endowed with beaches and beautiful resorts. The Red Sea is only about two hours from Cairo, so trips there are fairly common, especially among those of us who have spent our whole lives in the Midwest ;-) Frances and I took a cab to the Ramses bus station, navigating the usually chaotic amount of zehma, or traffic, and arriving with time to spare, although we weren't sure when our cab stopped moving for 10 minutes, stuck in Zamalek Ramadan rush hour. There are numerous companies that run shuttles to and from the resort towns on the Red Sea, and I booked the tickets through AUC with Super Jet. A rather strange name for a bus company, but it go us there and back safely. It took us over an hour to get out of Cairo, and another hour or so to reach the Red Sea, and another 3-4 hours to reach Hurghada. A few hours into our ride, I woke up from my doze, glanced out the window, and saw a pod of dolphins following our bus, gleaming golden in the setting sun. It was a provident portent for the vacation. I also now know why the Red Sea is labeled thusly: at sunset, the red rock mountains lining its coastline reflect onto the water, casting a muted red shine over the entire ocean. It was wonderful to watch the sun set over the hills and watch the water transmute from silvery blue to molten copper to shimmering vermilion, and then watch the stars come out, twinkling over the horizon as the moon slowly ascended, its crescent shape slowly burgeoning. Now, I mention the shape of the moon because, it being Ramadan, and our entire bus filled with Arabs, the setting sun signaled the end of fasting. Around 5:45, most peoples' phones started ringing, their friends letting them know the exact time of iftaar, and then everyone, literally, brought out food and drink and had a mini feast on the bus. It engendered a bit of camaraderie between myself and the rest of the bus (Frances and I weren't seated together), as we all shared food. We also pulled over briefly to let the men smoke, and continued on our way. The Egyptian highway system was quite impressive, paved all of the way with lighted signs signaling various things and pointing in various directions. Eventually, we pulled into Hurghada, piled out of the bus, and Frances and I grabbed a cab to the Sofitel.
Pulling up to the main gate, I was immediately entranced. We had to go through security and drive down a palm-tree lined avenue until we reached the main complex, designed like a Moroccan castle with a small tower and shining white stucco. We clambered out of the cab, dragging a ridiculous amount of luggage for only two days, and checked in. Walking into the reception area, I glanced around and saw lots of white people. Americans, I thought initially! Or at least Brits. Well, a few of them were Brits, but the vast majority of guests at the Sofitel, and in Hurghada, are Russians, which became apparent when a blonde reception lady appeared and started talking to someone in Russian. I have decided that I must have some Russian blood in me somewhere, as I fit right in next to the brilliantly blonde Russians, although I do not bear the flat head feature. The check-in people were mainly Arabs, so Frances and I got along fine, and everyone was so impressed with our Arabic ;-) We were taken to our room by a luggage boy, and marveled at the endless space and greenery of the place. Winding paths lined with verdant shrubbery and flowering trees opened onto tiled courtyards and white villas that housed the rooms. Our room was in the bull building on the top floor with a commanding view of the gardens, pool, and a bit of the Sea. The room itself was bright and clean and comfortable with a balcony, couch inset into the wall, and harem (at least that's what I call it) over one of the windows. We dumped our stuff down, lavishing in the luxury, changed, and grabbed dinner in the dining room. We were on a half-board meal plan, which meant that supper and breakfast were included in the meal price. After dinner, we lounged in the chairs by the pool, shared a sheesha, had a cocktail, and observed the singer and dance floor, in particular one woman. First she danced with one man, then she returned to a group of Russians and pulled another man onto the dance floor. Fine, we figured, she's the hostess or something like that. Then she started making out with the first man, and we weren't entirely sure what to think. In the end, we weren't positive, but we decided she was a prostitute, a real, genuine prostitute! Which was strange, because the resort was very classy, but we think she may have been brought from Russia. Who knows, but we were rather exhausted at that time, having endured classes in the morning. We tucked in early and fell asleep in the delightfully comfortable beds.
We were up early for breakfast and then ambled down the the Aqua Center. Since we couldn't scuba dive, the next best thing was snorkeling, so we booked a boat for 11 that day. The price came to about 55 dollars, and it seemed a little high for Egypt, but we paid it. During the hiatus, we paddled around in the sea in front of the hotel's expansive beach. The Red Sea has the most amazing clarity and it was entirely calm! I had never experienced such a warm body of water, either, it was like a very salty bathtub! Very high salinity, so I floated easily, especially with my blubber ;-) We swam around the peninsula, just savoring the sun and clean air, slowing purging Cairo from our system. Eventually, we returned to the dive hut, checked out snorkel gear (which actually ended up being included in the boat price), and got on our private boat. Yes, our private boat! We had two guides all to ourselves. I am really not sure why the Red Sea is not more renowned for its diving and coral, but the underwater environment was exquisite! We saw gorgeous stands of coral, multitudes of colorful, darting fish, a blue-spotted stingray, an eel, and all sorts of other fascinating aquatic life! We visited two sites, and the first consisted of coral islands set amid the sand teeming with fish and other creatures. We saw an absolutely giant parrot fish, probably 3-5 feet long, and the very cool stingray resting on the bottom. We hopped in the boat to the next area, which was very shallow, and, at some points, a sand bar, and saw absolutely amazing coral, great mounds of brain coral alongside branching elk horn coral. Our guide was very eager to find interesting stuff for us, and was only mildly annoying, but he did find one truly amazing specimen: a lion fish. The gravely poisonous, touch-it-and-you-die fish that is garishly adorned with spikes and brown stripes. When I first saw him, I stared dumbly for a few minutes and then paddled away. He was tucked into a crevasse, resting on the bottom, but he seemed so close! I came back, of course, to study him more closely, but I was so much in awe of him it was hard. I tried to take a picture, but it turned out all shadowy. After that, we returned soon after to the boat and headed home.
Our resort truly was all-encompassing, and it included a spacious beach, spa, fitness center, mini bazaar, archery area, tennis and squash courts, five restaurants, amphitheatre, disco, windsurfing and kitesurfing lessons, and horse stables. Of course, the latter of these intrigued me, so I hiked over there after snorkeling and arranged a sunset beach ride at 5. It was rather pricy, but entirely worth it. I rode a sweet mare named Mona Lisa, who was very patient (sometimes a little too much), and had an, as always, friendly guide named Hamtada?. Anyway, I think everyone was a little dubious about my riding ability when I told them I have had a fair amount of riding time, but they let me gallop along the beach. It was truly ethereal! The sun was setting over the hills, painting everything red, and my mare surged up the beach and splashed through the surf, racing my guide's horse. Finding me amusing, as most people do, the guide took about ten pictures for me of me at the beach, and then we had to return. He spoke some English, I spoke some Arabic, so we had an interesting political discussion beginning with one language and ending with another, and I was also called the noor Misr, the light of Egypt ;-) Anyway, I returned rather elated, showered and went off for my next adventure, food. After we nourished ourselves, we sat by the pool, again, and enjoyed the beautiful view. Our little Russian friend happened to be sitting right next to us, in a rather 'interesting' outfit, so we took amusement in that and her flirtatious, well, more like seductive, antics. She was a gorgeous woman, with a slender figure and dance moves that put everyone to shame, but, ahhh, her profession is…I don’t know. I’ve just never seen a prostitute at work before, I guess. Just in case you think all Russian women in Hurghada are prostitutes, think again. Most were with their spouses or families just enjoying a nice holiday at the beach. I had my first rum and coke, which was rather good, and then we saw a show going on in the amphitheatre and decided to see what was up. Very strange, that performance was. A mixture of belly dancing, Russian techno, and cheesy 80's music, all amalgamated into stage production appealing, apparently, to the Russian guests, who were soaking up every minute of it. It was still fairly early, by Egypt standards, so we wandered down to the beach to check out the beach party that had been advertised. Apparently, we had chosen the sketchy route to walk, because, on the way down, a man appears next the volleyball courts and asks us if we want to join a 'private' party. Well, no, we really didn't, especially not one organized by him, so we fled back to pool. A few hours later, we saw the party seemed to be hopping, so we took a more direct route to it, traversing the pathway lighted with torches (much less sketchy) and sat down on little Bedouin poofs and observed the dance floor. It was a rather incredible set up, with disco lights and a dance floor surrounded by tables and poofs and cushions right next to the sea. Also, strangely, there was a giant screen that seemed to be projecting, of all things, some CNN-like channel. Anyway, I got another drink, settled down to observe for awhile, and eventually was pulled onto the dance floor by Shakira (My Hips Don't Lie). Russian guys are kind of scary, so I only danced with Frances, but it was still pretty fun. You really can't beat dancing to American hip-hop at one in the morning on the beach at the Red Sea. Soon after that, we retired to our room, following the parade of sweethearts back to their rooms, got up the next morning, sunned (me), studied (Frances), and swam (both of us). I must say, this trip does prove my natural blondeness. I am definitely much blonder now than two days ago, and several shades darker as well. Our bus left at 2:30, so we checked out and had a delicious lunch by the pool before catching a cab back into town. The Sofitel was a wonderful hotel, and everyone was very friendly, some people genuinely so, like the shopkeeper who served us tea and chatted with us for an hour about stuff, and some people more annoyingly so, like some members who attempted to compete for our attention and drag on conversations unduly and with the ubiquitous “Where’s your boyfriend?” We didn't really talk with many Russians, as most of them were packaged tourists that stuck to their own groups, but I chatted with a few who had a grasp of English, and they were very nice and quite fascinating. I had never really seen the middle to upper middle-class of Russia before, and they seemed both foreign and entirely familiar. They wear the same brands that we wear, and enjoy some of the same music (although Russian techno is just not my thing), but their men do enjoy wearing speedos ;-) It was rather depressing to come back to Cairo, but I think I'll be alright ;-() There's always next month....

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ramadan and other notes

Well, we are several days into Ramadan, and life has both altered drastically and not changed much at all. Of course, classes are the same, at the same time, although regular AUC students (ALIers are special ;-) have altered class schedules. Morning classes are an hour earlier (finally, someone else gets to experience those 8 am Arabic classes) and evening classes are usually an hour later to accommodate Iftaar, the evening meal that breaks fast. The first day of Ramadan, Frances and I were walking home from the gym around 5:30, and we reached the main road, glanced around, and saw nothing. Almost no traffic, no pedestrians. The streets of Cairo were empty. Until you have spent significant amounts of time negotiating through the masses of people and risking your life every time you step into the road (I just stare the cars down and start running when the accelerate; boys think it's flirting to stop inches in front of you with their rattling old car; I think someone needs to teach these boys that near-death experiences are not conducive to romance. The few cars that were in the street at this time were speeding, and I mean really zooming, to be home in time for iftaar. I think many of them were pushing 60 mph down the narrow lanes and twisting corniches of Cairo. This phenomonon, the consummate paucity of vehicles and people, really helps to illustrate the importance of Ramadan and Islam in Egypt. The entire world stops for iftaar, regardless of one's career or social status. All of my neighbors, even the strange one across the alley, gather with their families for iftaar; wafting aromas from every Egyptian family's apartment always signal the approach of sundown, as do the incredible traffic jams around 2-4 in Cairo. Do not plan to travel anywhere and actually be on time. You won't be ;-) Not everyone fasts, of course, it is a major obligation, but everyone seems to observe iftaar.
I actually enjoy life around campus during Ramadan. As horrible as this sounds, I feel rather privileged to be able to enter the cafeteria on campus and grab a chocolate bar or can of pop. I do feel a bit guilty when my fasting friends cannot partake of my snacks, so I do confine my gourmandish appetite to the cafeteria or the fountain area outside. It is probably a bit rude to gulp down a bottle of water or munch on some candy when they are not allowed even a drop or crumb ;-) I have discovered one benefit to a woman's monthly curse ;-) During this period, women are not allowed to fast, so it's fun to enjoy surrepitious eating with them for a few days. I usually don't have time between classes to eat much of a meal anyways. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I have class from 8-2 without more than a 20 minute break in between, usually less. On Tuesdays, I have class from 9:30-3:30 straight through. After class, I break my forced fast at the very gourmet restaurant, McDonald's, usually rounding up a few non-fasting friends to join me. It is wonderful during Ramadan, you can actually find a table here, although McDonald's is certainly not the cheapest restaurant in town. A good meal costs about 25 LE, that's almost 5 dollars, tres chere! Despite the harassment, being blonde does have its benefits. Today, I was with three other people, and I got my food way before them. Actually, it is rather pathetic how well the McDonald's staff knows me. They've got my order memorized!
There is more to Ramadan than fasting, but this is the most salient observation one can make. Nights are pretty crazy, as restaurants stay open all night long. People usually eat around 5:45, spend the rest of the night visiting, watching TV, and rarely sleeping, and then wake up around 2 to eat before sunrise. Thus, in some neighborhoods, there are guys that walk around shouting to wake you up just in case you were asleep. For those of us who attempt to maintain a normal schedule, these guys can be rather annoying, but it seems I'm the only one who hears them, probably because I am usually just going to bed around 2 and my window is partly open, due to a mass of cords going nowhere. Banging some sort of drum-like instrument, the guy wanders up and down our street yelling...something...but he always goes away after about five minutes, and I can take some rest.
What else...People do seem genuinely nicer during Ramadan, not everyone, of course, but I think they are really trying to follow the tenets of Islam. I don't receive as many catcalls, and the ones I do receive seem to be directed in a politer manner. Well, that's probably not true, but I like to think it is. Oh, yeah, and sweets are a major part of iftaar, and Ramadan as a whole, which is always a good thing. The iftaar meal actually has a very set order of dishes: first comes soup, but I don't know the rest. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll get invited to someone's house for it.
Most things in Cairo are very cheap compared to the U.S., and flowers are no exception. My roommates and I have been purchasing beautiful bouquets of roses and other colorful buds for about four dollars. We get to pick out the exact flora and everything. I guess it's rather sad, buying yourself roses, but I don't mind. Most guys need lots of training to learn a girl's floral taste.
If you read my previous posts, you know that my scuba adventures have been halted, at least for now, but I am going to the beach for the weekend, for real this time. I'm going to Hurghada, a recently developed city 6 hours south of Cairo on the Red Sea. I'm going to spend two wonderful days lazing around the Sofitel resort and soaking up the sunshine. I convinced one of my roommates to tag along, which, one would think, would not be that difficult, considering that we will be staying at a capacious resort on the sea. Most college students, sadly, are not as spoiled as I am, and are perfectly satisfied with 10 dollar per night accommodations. Anyway, my request was refused my a surprising number of people who just had 'things to do', and I was despairing for a travel partner until Frances looked up the Sofitel on the internet and decided she wouldn't mind a trip to the beach. I'll let you know what Hurghada's like when I get back ;-)
Of course, because I will be spending hours in my swimsuit on the beach, I needed some serious primping. This is going to sound rather disgusting, especially if you're a guy, but I haven't shaved my legs since I arrived. I can't wear short skirts or shorts, so I just haven't had the motivation to de-hair them. I will candidly confess that my legs were rather, err, manly (although blonde, so not that bad), and I hadn't gone swimming at the Hilton because I was too ashamed of them. There comes a point when something has escalated so far that it just seems pointless to remedy the situation until absolutely necessary. The beach trip rendered my hair removal necessary, so I went to a salon today and got them waxed. OWWWWW! I think torture would be less painful! I am proud to say I didn't scream or even flinch, but, my God, I was screaming inside. I can't even imagine what waxing more sensitive areas must feel like. A quick note about the salon I went to-it is about 7 blocks from my apartment, about a ten minute walk, and far classier than the previous salon I had visited. There, they weren't terribly cautious about sterilizing instruments or giving you clean towels to rub your feet, and, having been warned by several people back home about certain fungi transferred by unclean equipment, I was slightly leery about returning there. It wasn't a dirty place, but it certainly wasn't sterile. Here, they had clean towels wrapped in plastic and took much better care of their attention to purification, etc. I was very impressed, and, mom, I think even you will approve of this place. I was a little worried about bringing you to the other salon. Of course, the prices here were slightly higher, but not by much. Waxing always costs more than sweeting, but even with that, I only spent 70 LE for the wax and, oh yeah, a delightful pedicure. I tipped them well, as I made them work almost to iftaar, and it is Ramadan. It was a husband and wife, I think, and they man gave me the pedicure, but there wasn't any strange sort of sexual attention usually assoicated with a random guy rubbing your feet. Maybe it was because his wife and children were in the room...Anyway, I'm definitely going back there, but I'm going to stop rambling because this entry is already far too long. I'll be back tanned, God willing!