Monday, December 15, 2008

Returning home...

Ya Misr…Oh Egypt…When I stared out the window of an airplane, a year and a half ago, watching the sands of Egypt blur into brown monotony, I wondered when I would return. Or, perhaps, I wondered how I would return. In the clichéd manner of study abroad handbooks, I ‘found’ myself in Egypt, or perhaps lost my own insularity. I loved it for this reason, and for the wanton impetuosity I exercised, both behavior-wise and monetary-wise (think, NSEP scholarship). I’m a bit older, and marginally wiser, so I wondered. I wondered as I packed my single duffel bag full of tank tops, skirts, and jeans; wondered as myself and three friends hired a taxi to Aqaba, the port city bordering Israel; wondered as I switched from passport # 1 (non-Israeli stamps) to passport # 2; wondered as I trudged across the barren dirt to Israel; wondered (and smiled in blonde innocence) as I handed my suspiciously blank passport to the bristling IDF; wondered as I discarded layers of clothing in the balmy sunshine while my friends endured interrogative treatment (which I somehow eschewed); wondered as we piled into a taxi and drove through the resort town of Eliat and saw tank tops, bikinis, and bars; wondered as I departed Israel (and paid a weighty 88.5 shekels) and stepped into Egypt…

From cleanliness and order to dirt and chaos. From the air-conditioned luxury of Israel’s border terminal to the motionless morass of Egypt. I grinned. I was home. Having failed to procure an Egypt entry visa before I had arrived, unlike my companions, I patiently explained to the guard, in an amusing mixture of Egyptian/Jordanian, that I needed to go to Cairo. “No. Not here. Only for Sinai. In Eliat, it is possible.” Sigh. “I am not returning to Israel. Is it possible to buy one here, in Egypt?” “No.” Well, of course it was. And, with a bit of bribery, I persuaded a tourist company to ‘sponsor’ me and issue me a visa. Soon, I emerged triumphant, to the relief of my friends, who were becoming quite bored staring at the same withered palm tree for half an hour. We chartered a vehicle to deliver us to Dahab, sinking into the air-conditioned van with relief. While Amman had demanded jackets and scarves, the Sinai asked, with a flirtatious wink, for tank tops and shorts. We remained clad in jeans and tee shirts, much to the disappointment of the Egyptian men leering at us in Taba, and sped through the Sinai.

The Red Sea coast in the northern Sinai is seductively beautiful-soaring cliffs and plunging heights, turquoise waters and secluded bays, Crusader castles and fringed palms…It was a delight merely to drink in the view and laugh as the memories flooded back. Before two hours we arrived in Dahab, pulling up at the Penguin Hotel, greeted by the warm staff. Another reason I love Dahab; they were unperturbed by the fact that friends, of the same sex, share rooms! With separate beds of course, but still...The desk manager, Emad, didn’t bat an eye, but escorted us to the rooms, handed us the keys, and invited us for tea in the restaurant. For just a few days, it was lovely to escape the constant need to be munasib (appropriate), the sense that one’s every movement is a reflection of character and morality. It was not quite as lovely, however, to shower in salty water for four days. The hostels of Dahab are refreshingly inexpensive, but they also lack the infrastructure to completely desalinate the water. Though I showered everyday, the lack of soapy suds compelled me to effectively flood our bathroom each shower. Happily, given the warm clime, it dried quickly!

We climbed to the roof of the restaurant, sprawled on the cushions, and enjoyed the final rays of sun spreading across the Red Sea, illuminating the cliffs of Saudi with a luminous light. With a milkshake in hand, good company all around, the warm night breeze sifting through the palm branches, I closed my eyes. It was going to be a good week…

It was on my urging that I had an entourage at all, so I was quite pleased that they seemed to genuinely enjoy the atmosphere of Dahab; Jess and Andrew could kiss and no one cared J, Nathan could smoke sheesha all day, and I could lose in backgammon to Jimmy. Yes, Jimmy. The next morning, one of Kathy’s friends from Cairo, stumbled into the restaurant, weary from the all-night bus ride. The five of us piled into the back of a Jeep, sandwiched between four other equally uncomfortable foreigners, for a snorkel trip to the Blue Hole, a sunken volcanic crater of fathomless depths ringed with superb coral and aquatic life. While Nathan, who, I swear, bears not an ounce of fat on his frame, refused to enter, I plunged right in and happily flippered around, chasing glinting schools of fish through the clear sea and diving to examine a particularly fascinating specimen of elkhorn coral. I even managed to execute a mask switch with Andrew in the open water before returned to land, flopping down on a pile of rocks like a beached seal, and sunning for awhile.

That night we dined in the Nemo Restaurant, avoiding the Finding Nemo special, but enjoying the gentle battering of the waves along the rocky shore and constant parade of interesting characters along the cornice. Dahab attracts a most curious type of traveler. In the morn of a new day we tanned; reclined in the lounges atop the Penguin restaurant, we baked our sun-starved, pallid complexions and cooled off in the sparkling calmness of the Red Sea. At sunset, Nathan and I galloped along the beach, framed against the craggy peaks of mountains and the vermillion glow of the sinking sun. Walking with Jess along the cornice that night, I chanced upon the Funny Mummy, saw a familiar figure standing under an arch, and approached with a grin on my face. His jaw rather dropped. “Ya bunia!” A hug later, I found myself thoroughly reacquainted with the cowboy hat-wearing, recalcitrant owner of the Funny Mummy, Jimmy, mentioned in quite a few past blogs, if you care to sift backwards. After a promise to visit later, Jess and I returned to our friends. “I looked over, heard someone shout, and then saw you in the arms of another man, and I didn’t know what to do!” Jess joked.

As our growing horde walked down the cornice, I glanced over to find Nathan in the arms of another woman! “Kathy!” I cried, and the third roommate laughed. Together, we all settled into VIP treatment at the Funny Mummy, while Jess and Andrew somehow persuaded the entire clan to join them on a trek up Mt. Sinai. I politely declined the invite (after all, I didn’t go to Dahab to climb a mountain. All those milkshakes would be wasted!), studied some Arabic, and slept quite peacefully.

Late the next morning, I returned from a leisurely walk along the cornice. Engrossed in my ipod, I blinked several times at the smeared streak of crimson suddenly blooming on the walkway. Eid! Eid al-Adha, holiday of the sacrifice, is thus celebrated by slaughtering a sheep or goat in honor of Abraham’s sacrifice. Sure enough, my eyes followed the trail of blood to the edge of the sidewalk, where a man was slitting the throat of a black-haired goat, much to the discomfort of several sunburned Westerners seated in the nearby restaurants. I watched the blood seep from the goat for a few moments, bid the man a roseate, “Kool sena wa enta tayib!” and strolled away, soon to find several bleary-eyed friends sinking into the cushions of the Funny Mummy. “Good morning!” I shouted cheerfully, folding in beside them. Teeth might have gnashed. I tactfully entered a period of silent bemusement as they scarfed down breakfast, and allowed them to resume conversation. A day of hebetude and sun revived even the most unwilling, and a night of Egyptian beer (well, milkshake for me) and backgammon in the Funny Mummy, freshly arrived Danish friends from Jordan, a cute Brit by the name of Mark, and warm firelight cheered us all. Good thing, too, because Jess, Andrew, and I said our good-byes and boarded a mini bus for the long road to Cairo. Tess had left the previous night, and everyone else was remaining in the sun-splashed paradox of Dahab for varying lengths.

I slept. Awoke once or twice, and slept through several passport checkpoints. When I later mentioned, to Jess, that they never asked to see i.d., she laughed. “They did. Someone was sound asleep. And I suppose they figured the blondie wasn’t too suspicious.” I awoke to the grey clarity of early morning and the jumbled humanity of Cairo. Cement apartment buildings and traffic circles flashed by while I gazed, incredulously, at old haunts. “That was where I left for Fayoum, and there’s the Starbucks in Heliopolis, and there’s Talat Harb….” I said to myself. The mini van deposited us in the epicenter of my previous Cairo life, Medan Tahrir, home to the Egyptian Museum, and, far more importantly, the old campus of AUC.

We flagged down a Cairo cab, cautiously opened the door, and piled into the shabbily ‘quaint’ interior. “Zamalek. Mohamed Marashi.” Tess was kindly allowing Jess and Andrew to stay in her apartment, which happens to be located in the Metro building of Zamalek. That’s where I used to live, people! I lived on the 3rd floor of tower one, she lives on the 15th. We arrived, a bit fatigued, and entered the lobby of tower one. The bowab, or doorman, gestured at all three elevators. “Maien faash.” Oh, Metro Building…Instead, we took the elevator in the opposite tower, climbed to the roof, walked over a somewhat frightening metal link between the buildings, and knocked on Tess’ door. After an early morning run to the 24 hour Metro grocery store, Jess and I strolled around Zamalek; I babbled like an idiot and she listened politely.

Around noon, the four of us took a taxi back to Medan Tahrir, hopped on the subway in the direction of Helwan, and departed-they to visit Coptic Cairo, and I to stay with Sarah, who lives in a suburb called Maadi. Having purchased an Egyptian SIM card for my mobile, I called Sarah, who soon arrived at the Metro stop in Maadi, properly greeting me with a big hug. “I still can’t believe you only travel with one bag,” she remarked, admiring my light packing abilities. Yet another testament to how I have changed, I suppose. She, of course, being accustomed to my earlier packing predilections of large suitcases and large duffel bags for less than a week of vacation.

We visited her local Metro branch, where we selected chocolate chip cookie ingredients. As we rode in a cab through the leafy avenues, somewhat clean streets, and modern buildings, I felt just a twinge of envy for Sarah. Which only partway vanished when I reached her building, trudged up the four flights of stairs to her floor (no elevator) and entered her brand new, halfway furnished apartment. Unlike many Egyptian apartments, hers is subtly styled in pale stone walls and tiled floors, smooth granite countertops and muted colors, Delightfully absent was the gilded ostentation of many Arab abodes, but also, less delightfully, was the absence of much furniture. Sarah and her roommate have been slowly furnishing the apartment, and I was graciously provided with a comfortable futon on which sleep, but they still lack proper wardrobes for their bedrooms, and several other rather necessary pieces of furniture. However, everything works, and it was comforting to know that, when I flicked on a light switch, I would not short circuit the room.

Perhaps the best feature of the apartment-the next door neighbor, Shereena. Sarah, Shereena, and I were travel buddies in Greece, and it was wonderful to see her again. However, Sarah and I diligently settled into the task before us-cookie baking, to bring to dinner later that night. If the fun we had baking could have translated into perfect cookies, ours would have been spectacular. Alas, the first batch rather burned, and the second congobulated into an unseemly, although good-tasting, lump. After my deliciously long, un-salty shower, Sarah and I took a cab to Abeer’s house. Abeer is a professor of Amia at AUC, and knew her relatively well, given her effulgent personality. She is both warm and gracious, beautiful and motherly, welcoming and consummately kind…We arrived to find her in the kitchen, although she forbade us to help. Instead, we played with her young daughter, Selwa, and chatted in a mixture of English and Arabic. Though her English is flawless, she speaks Egyptian with us in a vain attempt to illuminate our minds. Soon, more guests arrived in the form of Shereena and several other girls in her same program. With the addition of their chocolate-dipped strawberry tuxedoes, dinner was almost ready, a bountiful affair of freshly slaughtered goat, rice dishes, salads, fresh lemon juice, laughter at my garbled Jordanian accent, and, finally, desert and digestion.

While the rest of the girls left early, Sarah and I stayed until almost 11, talking with Abeer. Her oldest son, Abdu, is, quite frankly, an utter ass, spoiled, rude, ungrateful, and spiteful. Having failed his secondary school English exam, he was unable to get into AUC and the free tuition he would receive because of his mother’s position. Instead, she is paying excessive amounts of money for him to attend a private school, though he will likely fail that, too. A year ago, at 16, he snuck out of the house, borrowed his mother’s car, and rolled it several times on the autostrade, severely injuring his arm and totaling the car. At the very least, he could act grateful for her unwavering support; instead, he instigated an argument, in front of Sarah and me, in the most belligerent tone. Sarah intervened on the side of Abeer, her husband sat passively in the corner, and eventually Abdu stormed out in a childish tantrum, wondering why his mother won’t treat him like an adult.

Anyway, after a long discussion on parenting, Sarah and I returned home, I collapsed into the futon, half awoke at 3 am to the arrival of Christal, the other roommate returning from Siwa oasis, but was asleep within seconds, blissfully slumbering through her unpacking. Shereena and I took a walk through the neighborhood and breakfast together. Later in the afternoon, I visited the Khan with Shereena and a few other girls, as they needed Christmas presents for their visit back home. The Khan is, of course, the market of Cairo, a serpentine maze of narrow alleyways, kitschy shops, ornate Islamic architecture, the echo of muzzeins, and the hassle of shopkeepers. Here I reunited with Jess and Andrew, showing them my favorite coffee shop, Fushawi’s, treating myself to some henna, touring the Al Azhar mosque, and dragging them through the back alleys of Islamic Cairo to the tentmaker’s market. Along the way, past the stalls selling risqué lingerie, bedsheets, and cooking pots, we passed encountered a stream of vermillion running freshly across the road, and a fetid stench roiling past. Piled along the side of the alleyway lay numerous animal skins, the results of the recent feast, awaiting disposal and garnering a most unpleasant. Oh Cairo…

After purchasing my only souvenir of the trip, a small wall hanging for my room in Amman, I took a shortcut through a local neighborhood, happening upon an Eid celebration complete with camel rides, carnival games, and fried food. Smiling, I piled into a cab, raced to Maadi, and met up with Sarah and co. to see a movie at the local theatire, Al-Wa3d, The Promise, a quite racy affair about the Egyptian mob, lovers, prostitutes, revenge, and forgiveness. As there were no subtitles, I appreciated the presence of Abeer immensely, both for her personality and translating skills.

Whew. Cairo was a whirlwind of activity. The next morning, the undisputed chef of the building, Shereena, cooked her friends a masterful meal of chicken curry, rice, chai, and other culinary feats. As I was sitting down to partake of the repast, my mobile rang to an unknown number. I answered it cautiously. “Wawa!!” shouted a voice at the other end. “Wait, Deya?!” So, after lunch, and many thanks to Shereena, I visited the bus station to purchase my return ticket for 12:15 that night to Dahab, and then cabbed it over to Zamalek. Deya, I hope you recall, was my best friend in Egypt and a current student at Cambridge, home in Cairo for a school holiday. Her cousin, Heba, also a friend of mine, also appeared in the doorway of Deya’s Zamalek flat. I whiled away the afternoon and most of the evening watching the sun set from the balcony, greeting her parents with warm hellos, and sprawling across her bed like times of old, gossiping over chocolate and pistachios.

I delayed my departure from Deya’s cozy abode until almost 10. From there, I raced to buy a few snacks in Seoudi, an favorite grocery store, hopped into a taxi, impatiently endured the Zamalek traffic, scrambled out of the taxi into the Metro, raced to Sarah’s flat in Maadi, and waited 10 precious minutes while I pressed various buttons, attempting to get buzzed in. Finally, I figured it out, sprinted up the stairs, grabbed my bags, bid her a fond farewell, and wobbled down the street to catch a taxi. The first one attempted to charge me 30 LE. “La!” I cried, hopping out and conveniently forgetting that the only bus to Dahab was leaving within the hour. I checked my mobile. 11:30. “Zift,” I cursed to myself, throwing myself into the next cab and reaching a 25 LE fare agreement. Traffic wasn’t too snarled along the cornice, and we reached Ramses square with ample time. I breathed a sigh of relief, but tensed when the driver stopped in front of a shadowy, fairly deserted, and quite incorrect place he called Turgoman. “No, this is not it!” I stated emphatically, in Arabic, of course, and he eventually asked someone and drove off, muttering. 15 minutes later, frustration etched his brows, sweat coated mine, and the clock read 12:15. “Il mahata-il gadeed!” I shouted! Recognition crept into his dull features, and he jerked the car into another direction. There, the station! I saw it, and then watched it disappear into the rearview mirror and he puttered past it, clearly unaware. “War’inaa!” He slowly turned the car around, seemingly diffident to the hour, and finally reached our destination. I threw the fare at him, tugged my duffel bag into the station, fairly sprinted through the long hallway, paused to ask a helpful, if slightly lecherous, guard for directions, emerged in the downstairs hall, found it appallingly deserted, and despaired. There, at the far end! A bus still waited, and I sprint-waddled past the empty chairs and befuddled candy sellers as I waved frantically at the guards. They appeared to see me (I was quite a spectacle), and held the bus. Sigh. I collapsed into my seat, closed my eyes, and hoped Dahab would be worth it…

And, of course, it was. Again, I slept much of the ride, arriving to early morning sunshine and milkshakes. I stole two days of indolence in Dahab (photo of the Funny Mummy), meeting new friends, becoming a fan of British football, and wearing my new wool skirt for the first time. I checked into the Penguin, and Emad, as usual was at the desk. "You don't have a reservaton?" I shook my head no. "Don't worry, we'll take care of you." And, of course, he did, giving me a room for only 60 LE a night (about 12 dollars). By no means luxurious, it was more than adequate, with a small bathroom, two beds, and several windows to catch the breeze. In a completely non-sarcastic way, I found the peely plaster on the wall strangely artistic...And one does not go to Dahab to be inside...Not when bronzing weather and good company can be found in the Funny Mummy!

Alas, life called, and so I took a bus to Taba, crossed the border into Israel, experienced my first full body search courtesy of the IDF, taxied to Jordan, and argued my way into a service to Amman. I think, I fear, travel is done for a little while. Work and school beckon, and the Christmas holidays are right around the corner.

Until we meet again, dear readers, Kool sena wa entum tayibeen! Happy holidays!