Saturday, February 03, 2007

Classes again

Well, it's the night before life begins again, my ALI life that is, and I'm curled up in my bed with the heater blasting and a stick of incense releasing its heady musk throughout my room. I will confess, since the safari, I have been fairly laconic, sleeping in, taking walks, catching up with friends, reading books, attempting to cook, hosting and attending parties, and both dreading and yearning for ALI. Life does need structure to make it fulfilling, so classes should be good. And, I did a very stupid, foolish, inane thing, I transferred myself into advanced Arabic, not the highest level, but one step higher than the one in which the administrators placed me. However, three of my classmates from last semester were in the advanced course, and no one I knew was in the other class, so I trotted upstairs to the ALI office and spoke with the director. At first, and Frances can attest, I attempted to move down a level, but that was not possible, so I urged her to move me up, which she only slightly begrudingly did.
So what exactly (Bazupt in amia) have I been up to? Mother left the day after her flight got in, but not before we managed one last trip to the Khan (love that place!) for those desperate last minute gifts purchased because you never know how long it will be before you return, including more cheesy pharonic souvenirs, alabaster, and jewelry. We packed her, allowed her to sleep at bit while I admired my pictures shivering on the living room couch, and took a cab to the airport at 5 a.m. I had summoned one of the beautiful yellow cabs to deliver us, which it did, and we said a hasty good-bye before I returned to Zamalek, owing only 60 LE for the entire trip. As I slumbered, little did I know I guarded her plane tickets in my room, which caused a few problems once she reached Paris (somehow the Egypt officials let her board without a ticket), but she eventually arrived home safely and I finally rested. Over the next few days, I caught up with some friends I had not seen in about a month, including my Dahab buddies, particularly Lesley's new flatmate, a beautiful white kitty that reminds me startlingly in her mannerisms and aloofness of the cheetah from Nairobi. Frances' parents were enjoying their final days in Egypt, so I tagged along on several of their tours, including a Khan trip (Frances, her mom, and I all bought matching shirts ;-) and a last dinner at Taboulah's. Wandering through the Khan, we turned down a somewhat familiar alley, and I noticed an all too-familiar store on the corner of the path, that cursed bellydancing store. I whispered, to fend off the evil spirits lurking in the leaden air, to Frances' dad that that store was where I had been robbed, and he took pictures of it for me so I can someday show my grandkids where grandma stupidly almost ruined her life. You see, I would have taken a picture, but my camera rarely follows me anywhere unless I know the destination is photogenic.
For the next several days, Frances and I, well, mostly Frances, actually cooked dinner for ourselves and a few friends. All being American, we devoured steak, potatoes, brocoli and South African wine, all of which can be purchased far cheaper here than in the U.S. I have discovered the fairly fabulous art of making popcorn in a pot on the stove and have been consuming that for several meals. We also managed to hit the gym a few times, particularly on Wednesday, when the maid came at 8 (as scheduled) and we vacated the premises, walked to the Hilton, worked out, and lazed about downtown. Later that day, we also managed to attend the Cairo International Book Fair, located on some fairgrounds (who knew Cairo had fairgrounds?) in Heliopolis. For 1 LE, we entered with the mobs of other Egyptians and browsed the numerous stores stocked with Arabic books ranging from political to historical to cooking to women's hygenine to romance to religion and every subject both inside and outside those perimeters. Aside from offering literature and intellectual advancement, the bookfair also provided social entertainment, as many families and couples appeared to be simply enjoying the sunshine and plazas, eating the ice cream and popcorn, and strolling around the paths.
Finally , Thursday rolled around, the day our class lists were to be posted, and we arrived at campus around noon to discover that they would not be ready for several hours, at 3. Of course, I should have assumed this, but I still occasionally find myself expecting American effieciency at the American University in Cairo. Either way, I ascertained that somehow either the University of Minnesota has failed to pay my tuition or AUC had not processed it, as no record of payment is shown in their system, an issue which I'm still unraveling. I whiled away the hours meeting up with some friends who were also loitering on campus, and we gathered in the Pottery Cafe for a racous lunch, acting as if six hours, not six weeks, had parted us. Then, a party that night, and a spring break planning session the next day, as I'm hoping to go to Thailand. Thailand! I know, how cool would that be...We'll see, insha'allah.
Today was by far one of the most unique and Egyptian excursions I've taken during my time in Cairo. Frances' former Amia professor, Abir, a truly warm and effusive personality with a dash of impropritious humor, invited us to a voyage to Fayoum, an oasis about 2 hours outside of Cairo. Of course, it being us, we agreed, not entirely sure of the details but eager nonetheless. You see, despite its proximity to Cairo, Fayoum is dastardly difficult to reach on your own, as few companies charter buses and taxis don't really drive out there. Happily, Abir's roots stem from Fayoum, and she has connections with EgyptAir, so she learned of a trip to the oasis on EgyptAir buses for 30 LE per person including two meals. Although today was is our last day of freedom, we readily relinquished it for an expedition with the always-entertaining Egyptian transportation system, blearily awaking at 5:30 am to be in Heliopolis at 7. After a few arguments with the cab driver, who could not find the meeting place and drove around asking for directions, we eventually, by default, found the correct square are met some other AUCers equally exhausted and sleeping on their feet. I had not really met Abir before, but she approached us roseately (too cheerily for 7 am on a Saturday, I might add) with a beaming smile and a Sabah Kheel and I also met her three children and husband, along with her 14 year old son's charming friends.
In typical EgyptAir fashion, the buses arrived tardily, but we climbed on, found some seats, and laughed as the interior resembled nothing more than a grade school bus. If I come away with nothing else from Cairo, it will be patience, as we waited for at least an hour as the Egyptians slowly arrived with families in tow and boarded languidly. Finally departing Cairo aboutb 1.5 hours behind schedule, we drove to Giza, picked up a few more guests, including some new AUC study abroaders (more about them later) and headed to Fayoum. I will confess, for the last day or so, Cairo has descended into blustery gusts and chilly temperatures, or at least cool for here, and Fayoum was particularly frigid. However, despite many of the AUCians (we took up about 1/3 of the bus) desire to sleep, dreamland was far away; instead, Abir's son, Abdul Rahmin and his numerous friends congregated in the back and commenced banging on the drum they brough and dancing. Yes, dancing. At 9 in the morning on Saturday, I was riding an EgyptAir bus (a paradox in itself) through the lonely deserts of Egypt serenaded by 14 year old boys rhytmically beating their drum, chanting, and dancing in a congested circle with hips gyrating and hands waving. What has my world come to? Fun! These boys were hilarious, and, unlike the peer-pressured, gangly youths of America, these boys were not ashamed of dancing with other boys, and, in fact, relished in their ecstasy, continually striking up a new beat and enticing several of the study abroaders to join them. At this point, I noticed the disconnect between the 6 or so ALIers and the study abroaders; we're far too jaded to actually participate in any of this (except for Dean, bless him, but he was only willing for a short while), while the newbies were intrinsically fascinated by everything and unabashed at joining the fray.
Soon we reached Fayoum, a village of 4 million in habitants spreading across the desert in an endless swath of green fields and narrow irrigation channels bordered by a great lake, Qaroun. We stopped for breakfast at 10:30 at a small resort-like encampment on the shores, huddling under the awning away from the lake's exasperated sighs rolling in severely off its swells. Everyone else had fatir, a sweet pastry (I munched on a bit of trail mix) and honey, slowly awakening to the world around them. Then, the real dancing began, when Abdul and his friends pulled several of the study abroaders on stage, and the rest followed soon thereafter. It's sad, but I was almost annoyed at some of the girls for shaking their hips too much or dancing too closely to one of the guys, especially in front of a predominantly Egyptian audience with men gawking and women casting looks of divine wrath. Truly, there was little that was licentious or salacious about the dancers, and they were soon joined by younger children and eventually enveloped by a crowd of onlookers, but I feel like I've been in Egypt too long. This stuff is not supposed to leave me feeling judgmental or irascible, and they certainly weren't Shakira, but this is what a closeted society does to me. I saw the spectacle from the perspective of an Egyptian, saw them watching the unveiled girls perform on a stage, wiggling their bodies and dancing with various men, and I was ashamed.
Well, that's too harsh of a judgment, but my sentiments did make me feel rather un-American, and unloyal toward my fellow AUCians, and I did briefly go on stage after Abdul pleaded with us, although I kind of stood there and watched, but eventually everyone gave up on dancing and headed back to the bus. Abir had kindly enjoined the driver to give us a brief tour of Fayoum, and we were about to leave when an Egyptian family from another bus protested, demanding that she, too, should be let onto the bus. Why should we get special treatment (the other buses were staying at the restaurant)? I'm not entirely sure why we should either, but we left without her, as our bus truly did not have a seat to spare, and drove along the shore and then headed to a wadi, wadi al-reyan. As I said, the trip was a lesson in patience, for we stopped at the entrance gate and read the admissions sign. Egyptians-2 LE. Foreigners-3 dollars. 1 night, foreigners and Egyptians-10 LE. Hmmm, first of all, why is the foreigners' fee in dollars, and why is the overnight fee less? Several of the men conversed with the park officials, and learned we couldn't pay in dollars but had to pay the fee in LE, and had to pay the 3 dollar equivalent. On a jammed bus, sorting through each individuals' payment is tedious, but we finally entered the park about .5-1 hour later, driving directly into a whipping sandstorm. Now, I've experienced my share of inclement weather, from hail to snowstorms to tornadoes to lightening to good ol' clean Minnesota rain, but a sandstorm was something new. It raged around around us, whipping the sand from its dunes to scuttle acorss the road and land, slamming into any object foolish enough to challenge its fury. We were foolish indeed, because our bus proceeded through the unabating storm, and soon I could smell it, the scent of air laden with grains of sand choking every lung in the bus. We became more foolish, as the bus stopped, we tentatively piled out, many with scarves wrapped around our faces (although they didn't do much good) and we pressed forward into the storm, heedless of the sand slashing across our bodies and settling into every orifice. My teeth ground the grains bitterly, my eyes watered as the sand flung itself into the poor orbs, my nostrils half-clogged with sandy mucus, and my tongue rejected the dry sand settling onto the wetness of my mouth. Why, I wondered, are we trekking into a sandstorm, leaving the security of the bus, and blindly following a few people into the trackless desert?
My questions were soon answered, however, when wall of cascading water soon emerged from the gloomy light, and a truly ironic scene presented itself. Several beautiful waterfalls, seemingly bubbling up from the very sands, plunged over a short cliff and pooled at the bottom, flowing into a swift moving stream bobbing with painted rowboats and merged into the waters of the lake. Wow! We giggled at the ridiculousness of it all, snapped some pictures (I didn't bring my camera out of its case, I relied on my friends) and the ALIers scurried back to the bus. Unfortunately, the bus was partially buried in the sand, although we had only been gone maybe 15 minutes, and the driver was frantically digging sand from beneath the wheels. After several attempts, he revved the bus over the ruts and sped into shallower regions and finally allowed us to board. The rest followed soon thereafter, and we returned to the main road, which was something akin to a beige snowstorm with similar visibility issues.
The wind seemed more savage than earlier, and none of us relished the though of lunch outside, but thankfully Abir found us a restaurant nearby the first one sheltered inside, and we fell upon our food like starved Bedouin, or at least I did. Traveling with Frances is always so wonderful because A) she teached me new phrases and B) I can listen to her talk in Amia, so I spent much of the meal listening as she and Abir chatted. After the greasy, but very good chicken, I offered Abir one of my precious wetwipes, which she seemed pleased about, and then we headed back to Cairo after only a .5 hour delay getting off.
We were dropped off in the middle of Giza, and trekked along the muddy road for about 10 minutes before any taxis presented themselves, Frances and I piling into the car with some study abroaders going to Zamalek. I must confess, I felt much older than 20 sitting in the car with them and sharing a bus with them. It's not that they were immature, it's just that they seemed more innocent and less aware of the world in which they had entered. I do feel that Cairo does something to you, makes you face situations that force you to either return to America or gain some confidence, and, maybe, a little wisdom about the world. This is probably true of most study abroad experiences, so I shouldn't think that Cairo and myself are unique in this world, but this place has certainly changed me! Anyway, I've got to get to sleep; advanced Arabic tomorrow morning, and I'd like to hit the gym before that. Next time I'll write, I will once again have some responsibility in life!