Tuesday, December 22, 2009

End of the Semester Evaluation

A three week break from work means I'm back in America for three weeks starting 8 hours ago! It feels very nice to be back and now I can begin to reflect more on my first four months in Egypt.

On the About Me part of this blog, I've listed my three goals in Egypt: to work, play, and become an American Egyptian. I think I've succeeded entirely regarding the first two, but have I become more Egyptian? Below are signs that I am accomplishing my third goal:
  • I'm so confident crossing the hectic streets of Cairo that I no longer do it for fun.
  • I can only drink tea from glass cups--mugs are simply inferior.
  • I think it's weird and eerie if I don't hear cars constantly honking, dogs barking, calls to prayer blasting, and general chaos going on around me.
  • I get shocked whenever I see even the ankle of a woman. Shorts are simply offensive--that goes for men and women.
  • When I'm getting off the Metro, I elbow most of the people getting on because they are too impatient to wait for people to get off and rush the door.
  • I bring tissues with me wherever I go because toilet paper is not available in any public restrooms.
  • I argue over the price of almost everything I buy.
Here are things that still make me stand out as a non-Egyptian. I'll work on some of them.
  • My Arabic is still broken so people continue to ask me where I'm from when I speak.
  • I don't stare down, whistle, cat-call, and harass every woman I see walking down the street.
  • I'm not comfortable holding hands or linking arms with my male friends or sitting on their laps.
  • I don't smoke 3 packs of cigarettes a day.
  • I can't ride a bike and balance a large rack of bread on my head.
  • I have seen the Pyramids of Giza.
  • I can have platonic relationships with women.
  • I don't hate Algerians.
  • I do things like camping in the desert and taking pictures of juice stands.
Luckily, I still have many months to become more Egyptian. I had a great few months and I can't wait to go back. I'll update sporadically between now and then so be on the look out. Til then: Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy New Year's! Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Juice and God Every Day

At the intersection near work are two juice shops. Right next to each other. Both serve the exact same thing: delicious, absolutely fresh juice. There are only two major differences between the shops. The one on the left is slightly cheaper. And it is Christian-owned.

Religion in Egypt is a particularly touchy subject. While the country is predominantly Muslim, there is a sizable Christian minority (known as Copts and are about 15 percent of the population) who have many complaints about the way they are treated by the government and by their fellow Egyptians. For background and some of the incidents that have occurred just this year, enjoy reading the US State Department's 2009 Report on Religion in Egypt. One fun fact from the report: There are approximately 125 Jews living in Egypt. To summarize, discrimination and persecution of Copts is rampant in Egypt. The most recent egregious widespread assault on Copts occurred this past spring when the government ordered all the pigs in Egypt to be killed to prevent swine flu from spreading. Muslims do not eat pork and Copts are the main pig farmers, and since swine flu isn't spread through pigs, Copts saw this as an attack on them.

People in Egypt literally wear religion on their sleeves. Most Copts have tattooed crosses on their right wrists. [One time in Coptic Cairo, I saw an old man with a rusty old ink machine and needle giving tattoos to people in a line. This is why Hepatitis C is so prevalent in the Coptic community.] Coptic women do not wear the hijab, or veil. There also potentially may be one biologically distinguishable characteristic but I only have anecdotal evidence. On my first day of college, I was talking to a guy before a class was starting. He told me he was from Greece and I said that I was Egyptian. He then paused for a bit before asking, "Are you Coptic?" Surprised, I said, "Yes. How did you know?" He, with a completely straight face, replied, "I looked into your eyes. Copts have lighter eyes."

Almost all Muslim women have at least their hair covered (say over 80%). This was drastically different during my parent's generation. A large number of Muslim men have callouses on their foreheads known as a zebiba, or raisin. Because Muslims are required to pray five times a day, which involves kneeling and putting your forehead to the ground, the bump can develop over time (if you want it to). Some Muslims believe that the more pious you are, the bigger your zebiba will be. I've seen some pretty gnarly ones.

You may also be able to tell a person's religion by their language. The most common greeting in the Middle East, Salam Alekum, and its response Wa Alekum Al Salam, is typically used by Muslims. Copts rarely use it as a greeting but go for other secular choices like Sabah el Khair or Masaa' el Khair. Also, it's common for people to say sentences and include the term Wallah or Walnaby or Waladra (And God, And the Prophet, And the Mother). The first one is used by all Egyptians; the second, only by Muslims; the third, only by Christians.

Finally, if you couldn't tell a person's religion from how they look or speak, you'll probably get it right away from his/her name. I have been in many cabs, talking with the drivers and midway through the ride, I'll get the test: "What's your name?" It means more than just, "Oh I'm just being friendly with you." It's a question of whose side I'm on. A Coptic driver will almost always say Al hamdu lilah, or praise be to God; a Muslim driver will usually say Oh... and then there'll be an awkward silence in the car at which point I always say something like, "But I don't hate Muslims and in America, they think we're all the same anyway and are generally scared of Arabs so we got to stick together man." A few cab drivers I've had will just come out and ask, "Thank Allah, you're Muslim, right?" which also gets awkward when I say No.

So, two juice guys right next to each other is more than just the (not so) free market at work. In Egypt, it's very easy to know which stores are Christian-owned and which are Muslim-owned because all the employees are usually from one religion. Also, Christian stores have pictures of saints in the window or on the wall while Muslim stores usually have Koranic verses hanging in the shop. I almost always go to the Coptic juice guys--partially because they're Coptic but also because they're cheaper.

Every day I get mango juice (plastic cup included) for 2 LE or 36 cents. Amazing. The other guys sell their juice for 2.25 LE and a plastic cup is an extra .25 LE. Absurd. Also, since I, along with the rest of the office, have been going to the Coptic juice guys every day, I've developed a rapport with them (Minaaaaa! Ya Monmon! Ezzayak?).

He goes by Jack but his real name is Girgis. He wants to marry any female American citizen, preferably a short one. Let me know if you're interested, ladies.

In short, the best thing about Egypt is the juice.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Black and White Deserts, or, How the West was Fun

To cap off my week of vacation, I went with my friend Eric southwest of Cairo to the Bahariyya Oasis. It's in the middle of the desert and after a five-hour bus ride there, I couldn't believe all the trees and vegetation that seemingly popped out of nowhere.

We didn't spend much time in Bahariyya because we were heading back into the desert to spend the night under the stars with our guide, Ghareeb, which literally means strange. Weird. Ghareeb picked us up from the bus stop in his 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser which was stocked with blankets, mats, and food. We had a quick lunch and then sped south into the Black and White Deserts.

The Black Desert gets its name from its mountains which are covered in black ash. Ghareeb said that they all used to be active volcanoes. The sights are beautiful and grand but the sites are not suitable for camping so we continued on.

Ghareeb and our trusy 4x4 waited for us while we take pictures. I only made it halfway up the mountain. I'm tired of climbing mountians.

As various points, Ghareeb would suddenly veer off the road and we'd start cruising into the desert. Driving in the desert is scary but exhilirating. Also, there are no signs in the desert so you need someone who knows where they're going. I had no idea where we were going.

Slowly, the scenery began changing and the black ash faded out and beige sand made a come back. We made stops along the way and enjoyed the views:

Crystal Mountain: This part of the desert had mountains covered in quartz crystals.

Agabat: Pictures don't do this place justice. These rounded rocks are enormous--we saw them from a high dune which we then proceeded to speed down. Fun.

Our final destination was the White Desert which is filled with chalky rock formations. The area has been designated a protectorate by the government. There are thousands of rocks and many of them resemble actual things--none of them shaped by man. All the rocks are covered in a white powderish material (no, not that) making the desert looks like its covered in snow.

The tree and the chicken.

The Sphinx.

The Rabbit.

Crazy rock formations all over the place. The desert is your blackboard.

A nice sunset.

We set up camp in the White Desert. And by we, I mean Ghareeb. I have never gone camping before. I enjoyed it. Starting a fire is hard but I was very thankful once it got going because desert was getting cold without the sun. Ghareeb grilled us chicken, made lentil and tomato soup, rice, and some veggies and it was all delicious. We saw stars and a few other camp fires and talked. It was very peaceful. I slept with three camel blankets on me (very heavy) and was warm whole night except for my feet which went numb from the coldness. They eventually came back to life in the morning. I got another great sunrise and after a quick breakfast, we were off to Bahariyya--once our car's engine heated up from the cold and once we helped another camp nearby push their 4x4 onto sturdier ground (it had sunk into the sand).

Our camp site.

Sunrise in the desert.

The adventure in Bahariyya ended nicely but the trip back to Cairo was grueling. Traffic is no fun. It took us over six hours to get back--should've taken four. I start working again tomorrow. All in all, an excellent week off.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Morning at the Camel Market

The Birqash Camel Market is the place to be on Friday mornings. Hundreds of camels arrive from Sudan and are bought and sold there every week. Looking for a good deal, Lillie and I decided to check out the offerings.

At 6:30(ish) AM, I woke up and sleepily made my way to the district of Imbaba in Cairo where microbuses left to go to the market. The market is most active between 7 and 11 AM so we had to get there early. A microbus had left just before we got to the stop, so we waited around in the next one til it filled up. The driver found out that Lillie and I were American and proceeded to tell us about the wonders of his microbus. He told us that the seats were taken from an airplane and as proof, we could recline them almost completely. The seats did recline almost all the way which made me pretty sure that they're not from an airplane. They also looked nothing like airplane seats. But I did not tell him that. He seemed so happy and proud. He also mentioned over and over that the microbus had air conditioning. He then repeatedly asked if we approved. We kept telling him that it was Gameela, beautiful, and he seemed satisfied after the 6th or 7th time.

The microbus slowly filled up and we were off to the market, arriving half an hour later. Parts of the trip were very unpleasant as there were massive ditches and mounds of garbage, some of it being burned.

At certain points, there were little bridges over the garbage to cross to the other side.

At 9:30, we finally made it to the market. I had read that the camel tendors badly abused the camels and so I was a little nervous about going--I'll be honest, I'm not a huge fan of animal abuse. All the tendors had sticks that they would use to whack the camels to make them move, sit, or stand or if they were doing something wrong (like running towards freedom). Some of the tendors would just whack their camels for no apparent reason and some would gang up on one camel and hit it repeatedly. One tendor hit a camel in the head creating a loud Thok which sounded awful. No good.

In the back of the market, we saw a pack of camels who looked very healthy and content. The owner saw us and talked to us for a bit and seemed very nice. He told us that he buys one to two hundred camels at a time. He also siad that the market was empty today because people were still on vacation from Eid and that in two weeks, there would be over a thousand camels in the market. Sounds overwhelming.

Each camel's left leg was tied so that they couldn't run away easily.

Looking for some buyers.

Baby camels eating.

There were about seven other tourists there. They were easy to spot given their tendency to clump together, their cameras, and their whiteness.

Sold camels being moved to their next destination.

An adult camel goes for 7,000 LE (~$1300) and a baby goes for 3,000 LE (~$550). Let me know how many you want.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Short Message Service

Tonight, my friend Lillie and I decided to check out the band SMS at The Culture Wheel, which is quickly becoming my second home. This time, I was not so impressed. Aside from being another dance-less concert, the music was so-so. The first half of SMS's set was basically Egyptian Lite FM. They had a soft rock feel, suitable for waiting rooms in dentist offices across the world.

The second half of the set picked up and was more musically interesting. But once the lead singer started rapping, I couldn't help but laughing. Not at her--I was happy since I rarely hear female Egyptian rappers--but at the percussionist in the background who looked like he wanted to be anywhere besides the concert. He just sat motionless during the song with his arms crossed:


The rest of the set was fairly uneventful until the last 10 minutes. At that point, the singer had the audacity to ask, "Ok, does anyone want us to repeat a particular song?" One silly audience member (of a total of maybe 15) yelled out the name of a song that they already played. And then the band played it again. Then they played another song from the set list again. And, then, when all their time was up and they were about to get kicked off stage, the singer pleaded to just play one more song--THAT THEY HAD ALREADY PLAYED. In total, they repeated 3 songs for our listening pleasure. I can't believable.

The percussionist definitely didn't want to play again. I see him leaving the band fairly soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel: Hot, Skip, and Jump Away

Saturday felt like it never ended. I hadn't really slept since Friday morning (See Climbing a Mountain in the Dark) and was trying to stay up til nighttime so I could get back into a regular sleep schedule. However, lying in the sun, swimming, and reading is not conducive to not sleeping. In the end, I made it but, boy, what a rough time I had relaxing.

Up and down the East (and probably West) coast of Sinai are camps and small hotels on the beach. Many are very laid-back and relatively inexpensive. All six of us made it to Moonlight Camp which is about 15 km north of Nuweiba. It's run by a Bedouin named Haney and a few other really nice people who cook food and help out.

At Moonlight, there are a bunch of straw huts right on the beach with a mat and a blanket (if you ask for it). That's it. 50 LE a night and it fits two people. So in dollars, that's about 5 dollars per person per night. The bathrooms are communal and a little further away from the beach. Depending on the time of day and your luck, there may or may not be hot water in the shower. The only place that has electricity is the food area and the outside of the bathroom which made it very difficult to use the bathroom at night. Also hard to find my pajamas in my hut. I've never been camping before so this is the closest I've been to roughing it. And I was roughing.

Brendan and I shared this hut.

The inside.

The view from the hut. If the tide was any higher...

Common space for eating/relaxing.

Since we're on the east coast of Sinai, the water we were swimming in was the Gulf of Aqaba. Right across the gulf, you can see the mountains of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. At night, you can see the lights of the coastal cities.

Oh hey, mountains of Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday night, we went up into one of the mountains for a Bedouin dinner. We did not know that part of a Bedouin dinner is being charged 150 LE for waiting five hours while the food cooks. I was starving by the time it came out but it was delicious (I think). The bedouins made a fire and cut up lots of vegetable and lamb and roasted it on coals from the fire. While we waited, we climbed some hills to get better views of the area. In one area, the bedouin that was showing us around demonstrated that there was an echo by yelling, "MICHAEL JACKSON." I asked him if he liked Michael Jackson and he laughed, "I have no idea who that is."

Dusk up in the mountains.

The other burning bush.

Monday night, we headed back towards Cairo in a microbus we rented. The bus went up Taba and then cut across the peninsula. We thought we'd save at least an hour or two since we weren't going around the tip. It turns out we would have if it wasn't for stopping at Taba for about an hour. Taba is the entry point into Israel from Egypt. Right across the border is Eilat. Why did we have to stop there even though we weren't crossing any borders and simply going back to Cairo? Because this is Egypt. We saw people walking in and out of Israel and were about 50 feet away from the country.

Stephanie is pointing at "Chick Point." We were north of that at the border crossing. I am still confused as to why we went all the way up there instead of making a left and going off to Cairoh right away.

After waiting an hour, a plain clothes police officer carrying a sub-maching gun joined our party of six. He told us that since we were Americans, the government requires us to have security. I'm still not clear on why, then, we made it from Cairo to Nuweiba without a sub-machine gun carrying man. Since we wanted to get back to Cairo not too late, we felt pressed for time and urged our driver to hurry up. He demanded that before we leave, he buy cigarettes. We kept saying no and to just go since we had already wasted an hour waiting for our security. He refused saying, "If I do not have cigarettes, I will not be able to see the road." We then said that if he stopped again to find cigarettes (since he had already stopped at one store which didn't have any) we would take 50 LE off from the agreed upon price. He freaked out saying that it would only take a minute and then he frantically sped into a parking lot, ran out of the car, bought cigarettes, and sped off at 160 km/h which is 99 mph. As Brendan noted, that is how you know you may have a smoking problem.

The road was bumpy and we still had to show our passports to officers at various checkpoints (despite the cop saying that since he was with him, we'd speed through everything) but we made it in just enough time for me to catch the Metro home. And we didn't take off the 50 LE.

By Moon, My Mountain

As part of my extended break from work, I went with a ragtag bunch of awesome individuals to the Sinai peninsula from Friday to Monday. Below is a map of our trip:

The trip: Cairo to Mount Sinai to Nuweiba to Cairo. A big loop. Sorry you were out of the circle, Sharm.

I'm not sure when climbing Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, in the middle of the night to see the sunrise became hugely popular but it is now a top tourist attraction. We decided to do it and left Cairo at 8 PM on Friday night, heading straight for St. Catherine's Monastery which is at the base of Mount Sinai. To get there, we rented a microbus and a driver for 650 LE. Throughout our trip there, we had to stop at checkpoints where Egyptians police, trying to be all intimidating with their big guns, would ask the driver things like, "Where are you going?" and "Who's in the car?" Our driver would say, "All I got are 6 Americans, that's it, just let me go." And after they would look into our car and at our passports, we would be on our way until the next checkpoint.

We made it to St. Catherine's Monastery (Greek Orthodox) at 2 AM and entrusted a store-owner to hold onto our bags while we climbed the mountain. There are two ways to go up the mountain. One is called the Camel Path. It's a more gentle incline, circling up the mountain and is wider. All along the way are little rest areas run by Bedouins selling tea and candy bars. There are also many camels sitting in the path waiting to take you up if you pay a Bedouin. The other path is not so nice but is more direct. It is called the Steps of Repentance. It consists 3,750 steps going up the side of the mountain. You'll get there quicker. If you can get there.

The one flashlight we had ran out of batteries on our way to the mountain and we were left lightless. In the car, we had decided to take the Steps but without a light, we could not find them. Somehow we made it onto the Camel Path. Imagine six of us stumbling around in the dark at 3 AM in the morning trying to climb up a mountain. For a while, we only said things like "Rock!" or "Step!" or "CAMEL" or "CAMEL POOP" to alert each other. At times we walked with other groups who did have flashlights and that helped a lot. Midway through, we decided to buy a flashlight off a Bedouin for 20 LE which was a light saver. The trek up took about three hours and I alternated from being freezing to hot and sweaty to freezing because my sweat had dried and the wind had picked up. To reach the summit of the mountian, you have to go up the last 750 steps as the Camel Path ends. My only consolation was that some other wannabes recently climbed a much larger mountain, and if they could do that, I could totally do this.

We made it just before sunrise and got a good seat on one of the cliffs to witness some beauty. Below is some beauty.

Come on, sun, you can do it.

People getting ready for the show.

BAM! Here comes the sun.



Not so pretty. Eric and Brendan were cold. Bedouins rented out blankets at the top.

Back to pretty.

On our way down, we took lots and lots of pictures (I will spare you). We also took the Steps of Repentance. I quickly realized that steps was a very loose term. It was more like slightly flattened rocks sometimes. At certain points, the only way getting down meant going on your hands and knees and gently lowering yourself. In other words, thank God we missed the entrance to the Steps. We probably would have died in the dark.

When we finally made it to the bottom, we got some warm drinks from the monastery and waited for the church to open. We took a quick tour (it was beautiful and filled with icons but no pictures allowed) and then saw a descendant of the Burning Bush. I'm sure what that means but I took its blessings as did other travellers.

The burning bush seen by Moses, (finish the rest)

A view of St. Catherine's as we descended Mt. Sinai.

After we toured the monastery and I looked at the exorbitantly priced gift shop (I only realized everything was in Euros when I was about to pay for the book I wanted. I didn't get the book.), we headed towards the Nuweiba (see the map above) for some much needed beach time. We were all very very sleeply from our all nighter and passed out until our next destination.

American Eid

Coincidentally, Thanksgiving and Eid Al-Adha overlapped this year meaning that I had no work on Thanksgiving. To celebrate, we had an office party at Sir Brendan's. Nota beane: some of the following pictures are not too appetizing.

It's harder to come by turkey here so we went for that is very abundant these days in Cairo: lamb. Eid Al-Adha is a Muslim festival which commemorates Abraham's obedience to God when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. It also marks the end of the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. The eid is several days long and on the morning of the first day (which was this past Friday) lambs are slaughtered all over the city for some feastin'.

And so, we had lamb on Thursday night, the eve of the Eid. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with laughter and happiness and I was very thankful for that. Sometimes I forget that it's currently the holiday season in America since it's still very hot here and there are no Christmas carols on repeat, 5 AM blockbuster door deals, and arguments over the use of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." Also, no apple cider. I bought some apple juice boiled it with cinammon and cloves (108 Governor Style) as my small contribution to our American Eid.

The lamb stuffed with onions and raisins ready to be roasted. Also known as Brendan's baby.

Our Thanksgiving meal.

Early morning, I woke up to thunder and lightning. It barely rains in Cairo so this was a big deal. Some of the streets in my area were muddy and a little flooded but there was a larger, more nasty issue that came with the rain.

Some people say that during Eid al-Adha, the streets of Cairo are filled with blood. This is not true. However, certain streets of Cairo are filled with blood, namely the ones in which the lambs are slaughtered. Because it rained, the blood mixed in with puddles of water making for some very unappealing sights.

A pool of blood and water. Gross.

Because of the eid, our office has an extended vacation (til next Monday!). Up next, adventures in Sinai!