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Hosting Visitors in Cairo

5 Feb

About a month ago, Shaun and I got a chance to be the hosts for some VIP guests, our friends Dustin and Lexia. It was great to be able to be the host and show them around Cairo. It forced us to get out and see some sights and it gave us the chance to take a step back and see the city through the eyes of a vacationer. And on top of it, we got to hang out with good friends, drink turkish coffee, smoke shisha, and eat good Egyptian food all weekend! Plus, Lexia did our engagement photos, and they turned out amazing, obviously. She is so talented.

The first day, we decided to tour Islamic Cairo. We left late in the morning and headed to the Citadel, a fortress with mosques and museums located up on a hill on the edge of Cairo. Shaun and I had never been to the Citadel before, and it was great to finally see. The Mohammed Ali Mosque was very impressive with all the hanging lanterns and the bright red carpets.

Since Lexia didn’t have her shoulders covered, and we forgot to bring pashminas, she had to rent this fashionable galabeya from the door ladies for 5 pounds. Look how pretty!

Then, we ventured over to the area where the prisoners were kept. The prison was locked but there was a peep-hole to look through to see the barracks.

We then stopped by the Army museum before heading out. I have to say, much of the Citadel was in ruins. Even in the M ohamed Ali mosque, many of the lanterns were not functioning, or dirty or broken. But, the Army museum was impeccable. It is obvious where the priorities for funding lie. (note: I have no idea where all the funding comes from but presumably there is government/tax funding of some sort.) While the Army proudly displayed giant tanks, planes and missiles in a neatly trimmed garden, the much more historical mosques were falling apart. The outright display of military power and funding was unnerving, especially knowing that the US pumps a lot of aid into the Egyptian military. Overall, I was not over joyed with the Military museum and we decided not to go in. (note: this is the most political I’ll ever get on this blog. Promise.)

After our quick tour of the citadel, we walked about 30 minutes to Ibn Tulum Mosque. This was quite an interesting walk. We picked up two followers along the way. One kind young Egyptian student who from what we could gather just wanted to practice his English on us – 4 very obvious westerners. The other was less benign. With his broken English we were able to gather that he wanted to get Lexia or my phone numbers. There is a small possibility he was also trying to sell us drugs. We had our perspective male partners with us, so we felt safe. Thus, the second straggler was more of an annoyance than anything. After we toured the mosque and they were still following us, I turned to them and said “Khalas! Chokrun!” (We’re finished, thanks!) in the most smiley way possible. They both got the point and left.

Shaun trying to get help from one of our fans.

We took a cab from the mosque to Al Azhar park. I have been there once before with Shaun. This park is a beautiful area of green in the city which can feel quite brown most days. It was built on top of an old trash dump, and it offers magnificent views of Cairo from the hill where it sits. We decided to grab dinner there at the Citadel view restaurant as the sun was going down. And, true to the name, we enjoyed a great view of the Citadel from afar as it lit up in the night sky. The food at the Citadel View was delicious and the service was also very good. It is one of my favorite restaurants in Cairo, hence why we decided to bring our guests there.

Delicious Food!

After we were stuffed from dinner, we took a cab over to the Khan El Khalili for some shopping. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the Khan. I decided it is my favorite place in Cairo. For some reason, the hassle of the shop keepers does not bother me at all there. Maybe it is because they have more comical sales pitches? – “Welcome to Egypt. How can I take your money today?” “I have what you are looking for!” – or maybe it is because they are less pushy? Or maybe it is because there are so many beautiful handicrafts to distract me from them? It is likely a combination of all that. Anyway, I love the Khan, and I was happy to show our friends my favorite place in the city. After a bit of shopping, we sat down at El Fishawy, the oldest (700 years old!) cafe in the Khan. At first, we were bombarded with people trying to sell us things and other beggars, and we were getting pretty frustrated. But, we figured out that if we just continued with our conversation as normal, they walked away pretty quickly. Now, this was hard to do, especially to the young girls or moms with babies, but it was our strategy and we stuck to it. It worked for us.

We ordered an apple flavored shisha and some turkish coffee. We sat and talked there for probably 2 or so hours! It was the most fun I had the entire weekend of their visit. Sitting there, in my favorite place, drinking and smoking and getting to know Dustin and Lexia so much better than I had before. 🙂 Also, we got to practice blowing smoke rings and that is always fun.

We finished 2 shishas, 6 turkish coffees and 2 mint teas. But, before we could continue shopping, I had to relieve myself of all that liquid! I found a restroom just around the corner, and upon walking in I saw a few men facing urinals. Thinking I had gone into the wrong room, I immediately turned around and left. I could hold it, I thought. But, a few minutes later I went back unable to hold it. An elderly man met me at the door this time and ushered me past the men. He gave me a door handle and some tissues. The door handle was the lock for the stall. You needed it to open the door from either side. Very clever. I did my thing and gave the man a few pounds as he ushered me again past the men. In a country that is so conservative with PDA and clothing, I really never expected to see a unisex bathroom, especially in the center of Islamic Cairo. Obviously, I was wrong.

We did some more shopping, and the boys gave Lexia and I a hard time for not being better at haggling. I am awful at it. The problem is, I usually really want whatever I am trying to buy and so I have a hard time sticking to a low price. Also, a lot of times the prices seem completely reasonable. For example, Lexia and I found these adorable sequined slippers and we had the shopkeepers running all over the Khan trying to get them in the right size and color. After about 20 minutes of trying on all the different options, the men bagged up the two pairs of shoes we finally chose and gave them to us. Crap. We forgot to ask how much they cost. Yet, somehow they were all packaged up and in our hands! We had no negotiating power.  They cost 50 pounds. That’s less than 10 bucks. For shoes! I still haven’t heard the end of that. Apparently, I should have offered 25 and stuck to that. Whatever. The guy got 50 pounds and I got shoes. Win. Win.

*All photos by Lexia Frank. Please ask before taking!

I’ll post more about our trip to the pyramids later. It was much more enjoyable this time!

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Siwa: An Egyptian Oasis Part II

6 Dec

After the desert safari, we went to a camp site closer to our hotel for supper. The food was VERY good. Siwans do a lot of underground cooking, and we got to see our chicken being buried for cooking. A man had dug a hole in the sand about 3 feet deep and there were hot coals at the bottom of the hole. Over the coals, a grill was laid. He then took whole chickens (which had been marinating in a mixture of broth and vegetables) and laid them on to the grill. Then, he put a lid over all the chickens and packed the hole full with sand. About an hour later we had moist, tasty chicken to eat! They employ this same method for cooking Aish (flat bread) and it makes the bread taste amazing. Much better than any of the Aish I’ve had in Cairo.

Once we were sufficiently full from supper, Youssif brought us home to our hotel where I promptly fell asleep….at 9:30. Don’t judge. I was on vacation!

The next day, we decided to relax at the hotel until about 3 in the afternoon. Us ladies attempted to do some yoga, thinking the very peaceful surroundings of the desert would be completely zen and amazing, but we underestimated the power of the flies! I am not sure why our hotel had so many little pesky flies, but they were annoying! With about 20 flies crawling all over my skin, I had zero ability to “get my zen on”.

After our ill-attempted yoga, we ventured out to see some more of Siwa town. We took a tuk tuk to the Oracle of Amun, a temple that is about 3000 years old. Think about that. Three THOUSAND years! Just one of many old things for Egyptians, but absolutely amazing to me as an American. There weren’t many signs about explaining the history of the oracle site, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking at. But, it was still pretty amazing and offered some great views of the Oasis.

From the Oracle, we walked through a forest of palm trees to get to Cleopatra’s Bath – a hot spring allegedly visited by famous Cleopatra. The hot spring was….well, just another spring. BUT, the walk through the palm tree forest was amazing! I have never seen so many palm trees! And, we took some time to stop and eat some fresh dates off the trees. They were delicious. 🙂

We had dinner that night at a hotel restaurant named Kenooz that we were told was “the best restaurant in Egypt”…. The food was ok, but nothing compared to the lunch from our first day. And, the waiter was rude and  forgot to order a few people’s food. After we waited for an hour or more for all the food to finally arrive, the waiter informed us we could not order desert because “the kitchen closes at 10”. It was 9:30…. You can’t win them all, I suppose.

On our last day, we rented bikes again, and we went to Gebel Al Mawt, a stone mound with many ancient tombs built into the mound. Unfortunately, the poor souls buried here have all been dug up and removed from their tombs. So, aside from some holes in the sides of the mound, there wasn’t a ton to see. But again, this mound offered yet more 360 degree views of the Oasis. After visiting the tombs, we went back to Albabenshal, the site of our first days’ lunch for another late lunch. Again, the food was delicious!

After our late lunch, we biked out to Fatnas island, an island on one of the lakes in Siwa that has fantastic views of the sunset. When we arrived to the island, we were the only group of people on the entire island. Between the palm trees, the olive trees, and the wild flamingos, I felt like we were on a deserted island a la Gilligan’s Island. The small cafe on the edge of the island was *SO* ideal. We ordered some fresh lemon-mint juice (yum!), whipped out the cards for a game of Euchre and soaked in the views.

The sky was amazing that night. It made it difficult to leave. Luckily, our bus trip home was much less eventful than the first one and we were back home in Cairo by 6AM the next day.

Overall, Siwa was the coolest thing I have done so far in Egypt. The people there were so friendly and accomodating, the air was fresh, the food amazing and the views spectacular. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it! One thing I didn’t get to do that I really wanted to do was have tea with some of the local Siwan women. Siwan women have a very interesting way of life, and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for just a few hours! But, since I did not get a chance to have tea with them, I bought a book about Siwan women (Siwan Women Unveiled – unfortunately I can’t find a place to link to it) instead. I read it all on the drive home. Very interesting. I recommend it! It’s a quick read.

In other news, Shaun and I are heading the Mt. Sinai this weekend to do some camping with the Bedoins and take in the sunrise from the summit of the mountain where Moses received the ten commandments from God. We’ll also make a little visit to the burning bush. Sometimes, I really can’t believe this is my life….

Siwa: An Egyptian Oasis

11 Nov

Last weekend, Egyptians celebrated Eid Al Adha; A Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son for God. Of course, God intervened and supplied a sheep for sacrificing instead at the last minute. Thus, on these two days, Muslims around the world slaughter a sheep (or a goat or a cow) and give to a portion of the meat to the less fortunate, a portion to their families and feast on the rest.

With all that feasting and celebrating it is easy to forget the real meaning of this holiday, which of course is two days off work making a nice long 4 day weekend with which to travel. 🙂

Shaun and I packed up our sweatshirts and swimsuits and headed to Siwa with a group of about 10 other people; mostly other expats. Siwa, as it happens, is a very difficult destination to get to. There is no airport there, and they only built a paved road to the town within the last 30 years. The only way to get there from Cairo is by making the 10 hour desert drive via bus or car.

We decided to take public transport because A: a one-way ticket cost about $12 and B: the bus was scheduled to go over night, giving us maximum use of our time off.

So, we arrived at the bus station at 7:15 pm, with guarded optimism. We knew the quality of the public buses in Egypt were, um, sub par and that the desert roads are a bit…in need of repair, but what was the worst that could happen?

$12, 15 hours, and several panic attacks later, we arrived in Siwa….

To make a long story short: Our first bus filled with smoke, veered of the road and eventually broke down on the side of the road about 3 hours outside of Cairo. An hour later, a new bus showed up, but with very limited capacity, meaning we were forced to ride standing up in the aisle. 10 minutes after that, at a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, I realized I had left my purse (passport, camera, and cash) on the broken down bus 10 miles back! (You know that feeling of losing your purse? It’s like immediate, intense, all-consuming panic? Yeah).  Thanks to the fluent Arabic speakers in our group, Shaun was able to hop in a random pick up truck to make the journey back to the first bus while the rest of us worked to stall the second bus from leaving. After some heated words between one of the passengers and the bus driver, Shaun finally arrived, my purse in hand, and we continued for another hour and a half in the over-filled second bus. At 4:30 AM, we arrived at the bus station halfway between Siwa and Cairo. We were told to get off the bus and wait for a new one to take us the rest of the way. Everyone we asked assured us the bus was coming in 30 minutes, even when we asked 30 minutes later. Just as we started to lose all hope and began negotiating a rate for a driver, the “new” bus arrived! New to us but definitely not new to the world. This bus looked questionable at best. (wish I would have taken a picture) But, regardless, it got us the rest of the way to Siwa without issue and we arrived at our final destination no worse for the wear.

Once in Siwa, we got right to soaking up every minute of hard-earned rest and relaxation. We spent the morning of the first day recuperating (swimming in the hotel pool and/or reading). Then, we rented some bicycles and rode into town for a late lunch in the center of the town of Siwa. This lunch was amazing. The restaurant is built in the ruins of the city center, and had great views and even better food.

Historically, Siwans built their homes and businesses from a combination of sand, salt and water. It’s beautiful and completely eco-friendly but doesn’t hold up well on the off chance that the town gets a torrential down-pour, which is what turned the city center into ruins years ago.

Our late lunch extended into the sunset, and we soaked in the amazing views of the Oasis while eating chocolate cake with date syrup filling (the Siwan take on chocolate molten cake) and drinking Turkish coffee.

After lunch, we did some shopping in the craft market while our friend Amr wheeled and dealed with about three different companies, getting us the best price for a desert safari the next day! We met our soon to be tour guide, Youssif, had some Siwan tea, and then headed back to our hotel for dinner and a camp fire.

The second day was spent on a desert safari. This was, by far, the coolest thing we did on the trip and definitely my favorite thing I have done so far in Egypt. Two old Land Cruisers came to our hotel to bring us on a day-long adventure through The Great Sand Sea. Our itinerary included stops at a saltwater lake, a fresh water lake and a hot spring with plenty of time in between to enjoy the sand dunes in the car, on foot and on sand boards!

Shaun fishing at the fresh water lake in the middle of the desert

Learning a Siwan dance from Youssif at the Salt water lake

A few people running down a sand dune in The Great Sand Sea. My new favorite pass time!

Attempting to sand board, but mostly just sinking into the sand

This desert is what you picture when you think of a desert. Endless beautiful white-sand dunes. There is nothing like it, and the pictures just don’t do it justice.


Our driver, Ibrihim, has been driving through the desert for over 25 years, and his driving skills are impressive! We were ripping up, down and sideways through the dunes with ease. He would often slow down on the top of a sand dune holding the car in an inverse position as we all squealed with fear. Then, he would let go of the breaks and send us sliding down the dune as he cackled a sinister laugh obviously taking great joy in our fear. It was like being on a 60 kilometer roller coaster with no lines and no creepy carnies. Just. Amazing.

Ibrihim and Youssif made great tour guides. They were joking around with us all day. It was obvious they love what they do.

Youssif

Ibrihim

At one point, Ibrihim pulled Shaun aside to tell him that he should eat 7 dates every morning to….uh….make him “very good”. At which point he winked, and said “Trust me. I have eight kids. I know.”

I could go on and on talking about how great this day was, but I have already made this post too long. More on Siwa later!

 

Cairo Traffic

20 Aug

Cairo’s traffic, along with the associated air pollution, was one of the first things that hit me as soon as I arrived; it let me know I was definitely in a different world. Now, more than 2 months later, I have grown somewhat used to the craziness that is traffic here. So, here is what you can expect to experience on the roads if you come to visit (or you know, are just curious).

  • There are sometimes lines on the road, but they generally don’t mean anything. If the road is painted with 3 lanes of traffic, there will be around 6 lanes during high traffic hours, but with everyone weaving all over the place, it’s hard to count.
  • Due to the aforementioned lack of lanes, there are not any shoulders to pull over onto when a car breaks down. Thus, a single fender bender or break down, or you know a car stopped to chat to someone on the side of the road can cause lots of extra traffic slow downs.
  • Headlights are only used to flash at someone when you want them to move or want to let them know you are there.
  • If you get the nose of your car in front of someone else, then you have the right of way. (Maybe that’s why this EgyptAir plane tried to nudge out on the runway at JFK? I kid. I kid.)
  • There are not really any crosswalks/stop lights. Crossing the street is like a real life game of Frogger.
  • Egyptians honk their horn when they want other cars to move or when they want them to stay where they are. They also honk to express anger or to get a pedestrian into a cab. Often times, they honk for no apparent reason at all. The streets are very noisy.
  • There are no parking meters or parking tickets. Thus, people often double park on the side of the road.
  • It is not uncommon to see a young family riding on a motor bike (none of them wearing helmets, of course) with the dad in front, mom side-saddling on the back and the baby in her lap.
  • Friday, being the holy day of the week, is the best day to travel long distances as there are much fewer cars on the road.
  • I’ve seen one car so far (that I noticed) that did not have a single dent or scratch on it. It was a Z4 BMW. So, I am guessing the owner of that car just spends the money to get the scratches and dents removed. Pretty much every car on the road has some “character”.

So, there you go, all you need to know about Cairo’s traffic. Luckily, Shaun and I take cabs everywhere, so we don’t have to drive in it.

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.

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?