Archive | July, 2011

Ain Sukhna

30 Jul

Shaun and I had a three day weekend last weekend because Sunday was Egypt’s National day. So, we spent the long weekend in Ain Sukhna, in a villa on the beach of the Red Sea. (sounds so fancy, right?) The villa is owned by the Aussie embassy, and each of the diplomats there take turns using it on weekends. Our lovely friend, Erny, invited us and several others to stay there with her.

But, before we could get to the bliss of the sea, we needed to stock up on groceries. So, we stopped at Carrefour on the way. Carrefour is a giant grocery store kind of like the grocery part of Super Wal-Mart. I will forever more refer to it fondly as Hell on Earth. Since folks are gearing up for Ramadan around here, the place was so crowded, it was like trying to do grocery shopping on in a Toys-R-Us on Black Friday. But less organized. When we first arrived, there was a huge stampede to get to the freshly stocked dates in the produce section. I have no idea why the dates were so precious considering they are hanging off every palm tree you see. At one point, I got stuck in a massive maze of shopping carts and people as I was trying to bring some yogurt over to the cart. I literally had to push my way through all the people like I was trying to get to the bar in a crowded club. After that nightmare, I gave up and just stood next to the cart while the rest of the people I was with went and grabbed stuff and brought it back to me. I was standing in between a mountain of Ramen Noodles and a coffee sample stand. The Ramen Mountain must have been in the way during the date-rush because there were ripped open bags and crunched up noodles all over the floor mixing in with the spilled coffee samples. I am telling you – the place was awful. But, it was worth the headache because we ended up with lots of groceries with which to make delicious meals all weekend.

Once we arrived at the villa, the weekend of relaxation, food, and drinking began. And it was awesome! The beach there is very beautiful with the mountains of the Sinai as the backdrop. If the oil refinery and tankers weren’t there, it would have been postcard perfect. But, that is Egypt for you.

View from the villa the first morning

Beach + Mountains (+ oil refinery)

ultimate frisby on the beach

My favorite highlights from the week:

  • drinking bloody marys for breakfast every morning
  • eating gourmet meals on the patio with a white bed sheet doubling as a table cloth
  • playing flip cup and going through about 600LE worth of beer in less than an hour
  • dance party on the lawn
  • drinking beers and conversing in the Red sea in the late afternoon sun

It was a great weekend with a great group of people. Sadly, many of them are leaving Cairo in the coming weeks. 😦 That is one part of life abroad that is difficult. People are always coming and going at different times.

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The Virginian

21 Jul

This post is a little belated, but better late than never.

Last weekend, Shaun and I met up with some of his (and soon to be my) coworkers at a restaurant/bar called The Virginian. It’s the hidden gems like this that are making me really start to love Cairo.

Getting to The Virginian is somewhat of a challenge depending on if your Saweh (taxi driver – thank you Arabic class) knows how to get to Mokattam. It’s a town on top of a mountain past the Citadel (which is still on the list of to dos) outside of Cairo. Cabbing there from Zamalek, we got to drive through lots of areas that I would like to see a bit more of. For example, we drove through the City of the Dead, which is a maze of catacombs. We also drove past Garbage city – a place where garbage is recycled without the organization of a government. By the way – if you are visiting Cairo – nileguide.com is my favorite site when researching things to see and do.

Anyhoo, back to the Virginian. Once we arrived, we weren’t quite sure if this was the right place. Walking in from the front, it seemed deserted. The building is old, with lots of dust covered tables and chairs. The paint is chipping off in lots of places, and the colors are all faded from a combination of sun and dust. But, once you get through the main entrance, you are rewarded with a giant patio overlooking all of Cairo. We got there just before the sun started setting. Beautiful.

The restaurant definitely doesn’t have any delusions of grandeur. Like I said – the place is old. I am pretty sure the only source of music was from a record player (you know, old school vinyl records) because the sound quality sounded like some one took a cell phone and turned it up as loud as it would go to the point where the words were all muffled and the bass was more like rattling dishes. Also, there are stray cats all over hanging out waiting for a nibble of some leftovers. And, we heard it “used” to be a brothel…

And, still, while these things may make the place sound sketchy, it really made for a great atmosphere. Like the Egyptian version of a great dive bar – a dive bar that has a magnificent view from a giant patio.

The menu is only in Arabic, so we just ordered the Chicken skewers and some Baba Ganoush seeing as how those are staples in pretty much any Egyptian restaurant. And some Stella – no, not the French Stella – Egyptian Stella that gives me some nasty hangovers. The food was good. And, the cats enjoyed our scraps.

There were two wedding couples who showed up at the Virginian while we were there. So, they were up dancing to the record player and making it a party atmosphere. Somehow, they learned Shaun’s name and kept trying to get him to join, which he eventually did. So much fun. I haven’t yet figured out why the bride and groom are seen out in public at supper time – shouldn’t they be at their reception? I have seen wedding couples at Al Ahzar park (another overdue post) around the same time. I’m intrigued.

Anyhoo, it was a great night. I will definitely be returning to the Virginian. We found out this week that Lexia is going to come to Cairo to shoot our engagement pictures! So – maybe this place will provide a backdrop?! So looking forward to that!

In other news, I start work on Monday! YESSSSS (does slow cha ching motion with both hands). And, Shaun and I leave tonight for Ayn Suhkna where we will be staying in a villa on the beach with about 10 friends! Lots of exciting things this week!

On being a trailing spouse

19 Jul

Trailing spouse (via wikipedia): The term trailing spouse is used to describe a person who follows his or her life partner to another city because of a work assignment. The term is often associated with people involved in an expatriate assignment.

I know my situation isn’t anything unique. After just a little over a month in Egypt, I have met many guys and gals who are in the same boat. And, I know a couple of my very close friends have also uprooted themselves (or are thinking about doing so) in order to be with their partner. As more and more companies go global, I am sure it will become even more common.

So, here is what I have learned so far.

It’s not an easy job. I give HUGE props to military wives who follow their husbands from base to base to base around the world for years. Wow.

So, what makes it so difficult? Well, I would say the biggest reason, for me, is that I am struggling to have a strong sense of self.

Shaun had been here for about 5 months before I arrived. This made the transition much easier for me because he had an apartment, a circle of friends, and he even lined up a job for me at the company where he works!  While I am so grateful for all that he has done to help me out, this also makes it difficult to blaze my own path – something I’ve grown very accustomed to doing.

Before this move, I would have used adjectives like “hard worker” and “independent” to describe myself. And, although I still think those words accurately describe me, I am just not really living up to them at the moment. Does that make sense? That is why I would say I am struggling with my sense of self.

Although I consider myself a hard worker, I am currently spending most of my days sleeping in ’til about 9:30 and hanging around in my pajamas most of the day. And, although I consider myself independent, it feels as though I am known by so many as “Shaun’s fiance” instead of just “April” right now. That’s not independent at all. In fact, it is very codependent. Bleh.

It is surprising to me that this is my biggest issue with the move so far. Out of all the things I was worried about or that other people asked me about, this never really came up. Yes, I was somewhat concerned that I would get bored without having a job for a while. But, I don’t think the issue is boredom, although maybe part of it stems from that. I was also worried about how safe I would feel, how I would pay my car and student loan payments, and whether Shaun and I would start fighting a lot. But, none of those worries have come to fruition.

I am sure once I start work and make some friends of my own, I will start to feel more and more like myself. And, even though I am struggling a bit right now, I am glad I made the decision to move here. It’s great to be with Shaun again, and I always love a good challenge. 🙂

Are you in a similar situation? Have you been? Any advice?

It’s the principle of the matter (wedding budget)

13 Jul

Let me paint a picture for you. I am not yet engaged nor really thinking about getting married any time soon. I am watching a guilty pleasure wedding “reality” show on TLC, and I am thinking to myself, “They spent THAT much money?! Just to throw a PARTY?! That’s INSANE!” I make a “Pshhh” sound out loud and roll my eyes. “I would never…” I think.

Fast Forward.

I am engaged. Yay! I get to spend the rest of my life traveling the world, having a family and generally just hanging out with my best friend. THIS ROCKS!

And, oh! Icing on the cake, I get to plan a wedding! I get to pick out pretty dresses and flowers and table runners – yeee! And let’s not forget the thrill of walking through a store with a bar code gun adding items to the gift registry. I want, I want.

Ok, I think. Let’s not get carried away. Remember the TLC show? Remember your promise to yourself to be reasonable? You can still plan a wedding and have lots of pretty things. But, you can do it for $10,000. That seems like a good amount. I mean, that is ALOT of money. And, it’s all going to a party that will only last one day for Christ’s sake.

So, now it’s time to get out the excel spreadsheet. Let’s see exactly what my budget will be on individual items if I spend 10K total. First, I google “sample wedding budget” to get a list of all the things I need to budget for. Each item gets a line on the spreadsheet, and I start filling in an estimated cost. It takes about 15 minutes of scouring the internet for invitations, wedding dresses and venue/catering charges, and I realize it. Weddings are expensive. $10,000 is not going to cut it. After filling in what I think are reasonable goals for individual items for everything from catering to gifts for the wedding party, I came up with a little over $16,000 in total. So, that is the budget.

I am still very early in planning and not many checks have been written yet. But, already, I have some lessons learned:

  • It’s ok to splurge on something if it is really important to us/me (e.g. I am ok with spending alot on my dress and overall look because I love getting dressed up, and when else am I going to get to wear a beautiful white ball gown?)
  • It’s ok to completely cut items that are not important to us (e.g. We’re alright with home-baked pies and cake a la friends and family. No need for an expensive wedding cake.)
  • DIY is not always the cheapest way to go, but sometimes it’s just fun to be crafty.
  • Generally, wedding things cost more than I think they should. (A belt I tried on while wedding dress shopping had a $1000 price tag. In.Sane.) Luckily, my mom is an expert bargain hunter. I will put her to work to find the item of my dreams at a reasonable price. (Ahem, half priced designer wedding gown)

I am sure things will come up that will expand our budget. Hopefully we can find other places to cut if/when that happens. But, for right now – 16-17K is the goal. Luckily, Shaun and I have parents that want to help cover the costs. (Thanks, guys!) With their help, Shaun and I will not be spending much of our hard-earned savings on this shindig. Could we afford to if we wanted to? Probably. But, it’s the principle of the matter.

A Letter to the Pyramids

9 Jul

Dear Pyramids,

I wanted so badly to enjoy my time visiting you. I wanted to stand in amazement at your size and grandeur. I wanted to stare and wonder how on Earth you ever were built. I wanted to feel small and humbled by your wonder.

But, I couldn’t.

You see, even though I live here, I am a tourist. And, because of that, many of the people working around you see me as their meal ticket. And, they are hungry. You see, Pyramids, I had to be on the defense during my entire visit to see you.

Rather than staring at you with time to let my mind wander, I was coerced into riding a camel around you. This sounded like fun, I thought.

But it wasn’t.

Unbeknownst to us, we arrived too late to get into the Pyramids on a camel. But, the man who was taking us on the tour did not tell us this. Instead, we went through the gates quickly while the guard was away. Later, we were told to lie to anyone looking official so we would not get in trouble. Pyramids, if the man had told me before taking us through the gates that we were not supposed to be going in, I would have stopped right there. I hate lying. Especially to police officials in a foreign country. So, it is five minutes into our camel ride, and now all I want to do is be done with it. I want to get out of there before we get caught and need to lie.

I’m on edge.

I’m on edge, and now I have to ride straddled behind this stranger who is breaking the rules and I am pretty sure is trying to rip us off. I am not happy.

But, I smile for the camera.

Finally, we are leaving. We only spent about 30 minutes around you, Pyramids, and we never got up close. But that’s ok because I just want to get out before we get in trouble.

We pay the agreed upon fee for the shortened and less than enjoyable tour. Great, I think. We are done with this fiasco. But the man wants a tip. A tip?! No way. He makes us feel guilty. “The fee goes to the owners of the camel, not to me,” he says. We leave without tipping. I feel bad and frustrated. And angry. And still on edge.

Still, I thought the day could be saved. As you know, Pyramids, you are lit up each night with a sound and light show. But, we had an hour or so to kill before this started. We wanted to get a bite to eat while we waited. While we were walking and searching for a good restaurant, we were constantly mobbed with people asking if we need a cab or a horse drawn carriage or any other number of things that we will be over-charged for.

It was very hot. I was hungry. Pyramids, I started to get really angry.

I started to say “No” loudly, shake my head vigorously and walk away quickly from these people. Well, that made one particular man very mad. He started following me and looking at me as though he wanted to hurt me in some way, and he wouldn’t stop. Now, I was scared. I started to cry. It was all too much. The whole day was not going as I wanted.

I had to leave.

Pyramids, I want to give you another chance. I want to have a positive experience with you in the future. I hope better planning and proper expectations can help this happen soon.

Until then,

April

Khan El Khalili and Tahrir Square

6 Jul

This past weekend, Shaun and I stuck around Cairo since I hadn’t seen much of the city prior to that. On Friday afternoon, Shaun and I went to the Khan El Khalili, which is a Bazaar in Islamic Cairo that has been there for 700 years. That’s older than EVERYTHING in the US. Anyhoo, it was very enjoyable to walk around and look at all the Egyptian goods and haggle with the vendors to get the best price. Since the uprising, there has been a drop in tourism in Cairo, so the Khan was relatively empty. Because of this, the vendors saw Shaun and I coming from a mile away and were kind of up in our grill pushing random things towards us saying “Egyptian price” and “I’ve got what you need.” This was somewhat annoying, but not enough so to ruin my mood. I love shopping.We bought this beautiful tapestry:

After almost all our money was spent, we took a break towards the front of the Khan for some juice and Shisha. As I’ve mentioned before, Egypt has fantastic juice. This was my first Egyptian Shisha, and the first time I’ve smoked any sort of tobacco in a few years, so I was feeling VERY relaxed and quite light headed after that. So, we got a cab and  called it a day. It was the most enjoyable day in Cairo so far.

On Saturday evening, Shaun and I went to a restaurant downtown with our friend John called Felfela. Apparently, it is a chain, but the food is still very good. We got lots of Egyptian food. The food here is very good, for the most part. It’s a good thing I love Hummus and carbs. After Felfela, we went to a bar called El Hareyya. Both the restaurant and the bar are just a few blocks from Tahrir Square. The atmosphere at the bar was very interesting. I wouldn’t even really call it a bar, because there was not an actual bar in it. It was more like a giant room with florescent lights and many tables. You sit down at a table, and a guy comes around with beers, and just sets them in front of you without saying anything. When he sees your beer getting empty, he comes around with more. My kind of place. I am not sure what happens if you don’t like beer. Then you just don’t go there, I guess.

Being downtown was a mix of emotions. I felt kind of uncomfortable walking around between the restaurant and bar (lots of stares and such), but since I had both Shaun and John with me, I knew I was safe. Then, being in the bar so close to Tahrir, it was hard not to get swept up in talks of the uprising and what it all means. There are lots of different opinions, and I am not sure what mine is. But, I will say that I felt like I was really in the midst of historical events that will be studied for years to come. That is extremely exciting and humbling at the same time.