Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Moving Day

Hey everybody,

Due to some technical difficulties, as well as some serious privacy concerns, I'm moving my blog to a different site. Feel free to email me or post here for the new blog address - unless you belong to some conspiracy cult who believes that the end of world is neigh and that Alexander the Great was the son of Satan. If you belong to the later category, please stop posting/emailing. I really don't care.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Last weekend I stood where Alexander the Great Declared himself a God. You?

Hello World.

Sorry for not writing sooner, but I’ve been a bit sick since returning from Siwa; nothing life threatening, just really annoying and distracting. Every time I think I’m over it, it comes back with a vengeance. Rest assured though, my stomach will triumph in the end.

So, as promised, let me fill y’all (I kinda miss saying that word) in on my adventures last weekend. After school, Adam, David, and I set of for Turkomen bus station. Our taxi driver was being a bit greedy, and after some aggressive negotiation by all parties involved, as well as some hot pretzels to break the tension, we arrived at Turkomen only slightly less poor. We got on a bus headed to Iskandria (Alexandria for you English speaking folks), which was quite expensive at a whopping 24LE. Once in Iskandria we immediately got of and got on another bus to Marsa Matruh (another costal city, except without everything that makes Iskandria worth visiting). The bus ride to Matruh was less comfortable, as the entire time we had a very loud and not so good tape of Qu’ranic recitations blaring right above us.

Once we arrived in Matruh, we had a taxi take us to a hotel that, according to Lonely Planet (a book which is quickly becoming my bible over here) was clean and comfortable. Once we arrived, the owner showed us to what would be our room. The beds were literally hard as boards (actually, they were boards, with thin piece of foam on top) and bathrooms were in serious need of a good scrubbing. He even refused to negotiate the price (15LE a person); probably because it was midnight and he knew we weren’t going anywhere. Alas, we reluctantly gave in, dropped our bags, and headed out to find some food. We eventually found this place that looked pretty good. Adam and I, having not quite rid ourselves of our America perspectives, ordered a ½ kilo of kafta and kebab. What arrived 10 minutes later was literally a mountain of meat. Needless to say, we went to bed on a full stomach.

In the morning, we caught the bus to Siwa. Except for Adam waking me up to catch the random camel in the desert, that ride consisted mostly of sleep for me. Once we arrived in Siwa, we hired some kids and their donkey cart to take us to their hotel. You might be asking yourself, donkey cart? Let me ‘splain. A road to Siwa didn’t exist until the late 1980s, so the town is still fairly culturally isolated. The locals still speak a Berber dialect at their first language, and the only cars in town are the 4x4s used to haul tourist into the desert. Local transportation comes in two forms: bicycles and donkey-carts, which are almost all operated by children under the age of 10. Once we dropped our stuff in our hotel, which was much cleaner, more comfortable, and cheaper than the night before. We crossed the street for lunch while the guy who ran the hotel took off to find us some bikes. Once we got the bikes, we peddled outside of town to check out the ruins of the temple dedicated to Amun-Zues, circa 350 B.C., and then the Temple of the Oracle, where Alexander the Great declared himself a god. Both were quite impressive, and since words won’t do them justice I will attempt to upload a picture album soon.

Later, we stopped by Cleopatra’s Well, a natural spring just outside of town where both Alexander and Herodotus were supposed to have swam, and took a dip. It was pretty nice. We peddled back into town and climbed the Shalli, the ancient city built of salt blocks and mud that was effectively destroyed in 1926 by three days of torrential rain (you can’t really blame them for not planning for that, the city’s in the middle of the desert). We caught the sunset from the Shalli, and then wondered around town and found something to eat. After dinner, we biked over the Mountain of the Dead, which is full of ancient tombs. For the fifteen minutes we were there it looked pretty cool, but then we were chased off by the night watchman. (In hindsight, we should have just bribed him)

The next morning we set of to find someone to take us on a Safari into the desert. After wondering around, we found this kid, younger than us and running a store, who said he would hook us up. Once our driver got there, we headed off into the desert, known as the Great Sand Sea. I must say, the views were pretty righteous. We drove about 25 km out into the desert, and then the driver stopped to let us sandboard (think snowboarding down sand dunes) and jump off the dunes. Some were over 60 meters tall. After the dunes, we drove to a cold spring, (more like a lake) that just popped out of no-where in the desert. We swam around for a bit and then head to a hot-spring about ½ km away. It wasn’t as nice as the cold-spring, especially since it was surrounded by a party of old Italians who all resembled my freshman geometry teacher Mrs. Allen. We stopped for a bit there, but then quickly left for a private camp.

The camp we stayed at over the night consisted of a reed-walled hut and a private spring, plus a personal cook. We just chilled and listed to the cook, Osman, complain about all the European girls wanting to have sex with him when they stayed there.* It was pretty funny. He whipped up a pretty tasty dinner, and then we crashed out in the desert around a fire. I must say, it was very Lawrence of Arabia.

*Siwans are very conservative, which is what I presume leads to a common misunderstanding that Osman was complaining about. Apparently, a lot of tourists think that it’s okay to whip out the bikini when they’re swimming at a private spring. To Siwans, this is interpreted as a sexual advance, and hence Osman’s complaints. Goes to show you the importance of cultural sensitivity. Check out Adam’s descriptions of the Siwan women to see how they dress, and then you might understand.

The next morning, we head back to Marsa Matruh by bus and then Cairo by Micro-bus, which was interesting. All in all, a worth-while weekend.

In other news, I’m going to try and make the blog a little less narcissistic. I’ll be posting links to English language Arab newspapers as well as links to Egyptian and Arab bloggers. Feel free to check them out, catch a different perspective and all that jazz. Some are quite interesting.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

I prefer Cleopatra's....

Nothing new to report, but I figure I should try to start establish a habit of blogging.

Last night, Benkato and I went and had some pretty decent (and more importantly - cheap) pasta over in Zamalek with Luke. We chatted it up with him for a bit, and then headed back to Mohandiseen. Dropped Benkato off in Sphinx Square (which oddly enough is an odd heart-shaped round-about) so he could walk to Trianon to chill with his uncles and their crowd. I decided to head back to the flat, because I was in some desperate need of sleep. Alas, when I got back, I realized that I didn't have my muftah, and thus was locked out. So I grabbed a taxi and headed up to Trianon. I enjoy spending time with Adam's uncles and their friends a lot, but I was pretty tired. We ended up leaving around two, so sleep is still on the to-do list.

This afternoon, Elliott and I met with an AUC sociology professor who will be helping us out with our research. Seems like a very nice lady, and I look forward to hearing all the advice she has.

So, Adam and I, along with another friend from ILI, are headed to Siwa this weekend. It's an oasis in the Western Desert pretty close to Libya that's so isolated that the locals don't even speak Arabic, they speak a very distinct dialect of Berber. It's supposed to be amazing, and the ruins of the Oracle of Amun are at the top of the to-see list. I'll let you know how it goes when we get back, and maybe I'll get around to posting some pictures.

One last thing. Looking at comments on mine and Benkato's blog, I feel I should clear up a misunderstanding. Despite the fact that almost everyone in this city smokes, and walking around is just about as bad as smoking, Benkato and I are both smoke free. It seems several people were confused by a comment on his blog. It was sarcasm people, you should be used to it (Parker, I'm looking at you right now). Anyway, he's way to vain to smoke, as the smell would hide his carefully applied Axe Body Spray.

Just thought I'd let you guys know.

Talk to you Monday.

P.S. - Yesterday Adam and I were mistaken for locals, and some guys drove up to ask for directions. No big deal for him, but I feel that not looking like a tourist for me is a big step.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Made in America

Before I get to all the events of this past week, I should get a fee house keeping items out of the way. First, let me apologize for not keeping you guys up to date; it's hard to find time to blog. I'll try to be more disciplined in the future, insha-allah. Secondly, several people have bitched about the color scheme of the blog. Despite the fact that a black background in the least harmful for one's eyes, I have conceded and changed the colors. Please bear (as my friend Ahmed spells it) with me while I tweak with the colors - my heightened sense of aesthetics won't allow me to have anything but the most fashionable blog.

Okay, now on to the events of the past week. There's so much to talk about, so I'll just hit up the cliff-notes. First, Adam and I met Luke's friend/flat-mate Ahmed, who's a really cool guy. They met last year by doing a language exchange. Ahmed introduced us to his younger brother, Hazim, and a co-worker, Muhammed (it's starting to get to get difficult keeping track of all the Ahmeds and Muhammeds - they're everywhere. Already in my phone I have 4 different Muhammeds and two Ahmeds) Anyway, we're meeting with them and do a language exchange every week night. Already Muhammed and I have met twice, two hours last night and two hours tonight. His English is very good, so we just work on things like the differences between they're, there, and their. My Arabic, on the other hand, is elementary. Tonight we worked on basic grocery store vocabulary. Hopefully soon we will go shopping and he and Hazim will cook for us. I'm looking forward to it.

On Friday, Adam and I were wandering around Mohandiseen looking for a school supply store, which we never found. In stead, we found a few guys playing dominoes. We decided to ask them what the word in Arabic is for dominoes (turns out it's dominoes). In typical Egyptian form, they quickly pulled up chairs, told us to sit, and handed us tea. Turns out they rent cars, so when ever they're not with a customer, they're outside playing dominoes. They found out we were American, so of course they had to comment about Bush. We laughed, and then I asked about Mubarak. Amir, the one with the best English (I think he owns the place), laughed and made the comment "Mubarak: made in America." I thought that was pretty accurate. Anyway, enough politics for now.
So we played a game of American dominoes, and then arranged to meet them the next day. The next day, we met and played Egyptian Dominoes, and got our butts kicked. So, we're gonna have to get a set and practice, cause we can't be losin at dominoes.

On Saturday night, we went with Adam's uncle's and their friends to the legendary Khan al-Khalili, the bazaar that has been serving Cairo for almost 700 years. After waiting for Adam's uncle Omar and friends to pray in al-Hussein mosque (pre-Ottoman, to give you an idea of it's age), we entered into a cafe. Or rather, what we thought was a cafe: it turned out to be the entrance into the to the Khan. Inside (which was really outside, except the alleys were so narrow and the building to tall to see the sky) we wandered around as we passed stores that soled everything. We even walked past a street the had vendors for miles. It was breath-taking. After we left the Khan, we went and visited al-Azhar mosque. It was really breath-taking. Almost no one was there, so wandering around the huge court yard and then inside was awesome. As Adam's uncle Omar said, you can taste the history.

Alright, more adventures to come. Adam and I thinking about going to the the Sewa Oasis in the Western desert this weekend, but we'll see.

Monday, May 28, 2007

First Day of School...

So I’m sitting here in the flat, listening to the Qur’an being chanted/sung over the television. Pretty freakin’ awesome, if I do say so myself…

So the first day of classes ended a few hours ago. It looks like it’s going to be really productive. I’m glad I didn’t take the instructor’s offer to go to MSA 2, because today in class we not only covered stuff that Al-Kitaab didn’t even touch, but we corrected stuff that Al-Kitaab/Adel got wrong/didn’t explain well. Both ECA and MSA were taught in about 85% Arabic today, and I have the feeling that English will be phased out completely over the next few days. It’ll be work, but it’ll be a lot of fun.

There are a lot of really cool/interesting people taking classes at the school. Literally, there are students from all over the world. It looks like Elliott and I are going to be taking the flat from a dude name Luke in the Fall. This is his second summer here, and he seems to be really good. We've pretty much been treating him as our guide. Really cool guy.

But the flat that we're taking from Luke in the We looked at it this afternoon, and it's awesome. It''s on the top floor of a high rise in the most chic neighborhood in Cairo, with a view that overlooks the Nile and Cairo as far as you can see. And it's really cheap - not much more than we're paying now. In case you can't tell, I'm excited.

So last night Adam and I were hanging out with his uncles and their friends at Trianon. We were talking about how the can recognize which country an Arab is from by looking at their face, and one of the friends, Idris (who is really cool), made the comment that even though I look like I come from Northern Europe, my soul seemed Mediterranean. He explained by saying that it seemed like I understood Arabs. It was a really interesting comment, and I indulged in it for the rest of the night. Anyways, they're good people as they say back home.

Alright, well homework calls...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

In the Beginning...

...there was a lot. So much stuff has happened in the last three days. I'll try to keep it short, but consider yourself warned.

On the way over here I sat next to Charlie, an American contractor who works in Iraq and Kuwait. Needless to say, we had some difference, but I tried not to make that too big of a deal. I just let him talk - which he pretty much did for the whole 10 hour plan ride. Once he started drinking.....let's just say things were no longer PG. He said he'd email pictures of "some crazy shit" from Iraq, so we'll see what, if anything, that produces.

The rest of the trip was pretty boring. Elliott and I had a bratwurst and a liter of beer for breakfast in Frankfurt, and then we went to sleep until our plan took off. And I pretty much slept the whole flight from Frankfurt, so things didn't get interesting until we got to Cairo....

When we got off the plane, passengers from three or four flights were feeding into the concourse towards customs. Everything was shoulder to shoulder, and even though lanes were painted on the floor, there was no discernible lines. In other words, it was a perfect microcosm of Cairo. We shoved our way through customs, stopping only so Elliott could hit on some Canadian girls whose high school graduation present was a 5 week romp through Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. Once we cleared customs, we found our driver outside. His name was Muhammed Kareem. His English wasn't that great, but it was fun talking to him. He's about our age, and studying math at Ayn Shams University, which is one of the big, public colleges in Cairo.

Driving with Muhammed was an adventures. There are lanes and speed limits, but both are completely ignored in Cairo. I honestly don't think they even notice them. So, if there's a big street, say 6 painted lanes wide, there will actually be 7-8 lanes of traffic and at least a couple of lanes of parked cars. It took some getting used to, but I really like it now. It's pretty efficient, and I have yet to see a wreck. Looking around at all the cars, I'm sure they happen, but I haven't seen one. I guess what i really like about it is the fact that there's no such thing as a timid driver in Cairo.

When we got to our hotel, there were about 10 guys sitting in the lobby. This seemed really strange to me at the time, but I understand why now. The World Bank estimates put unemployment rates in Egypt at around 25%, so every place has loads more employees than they really need. It's just how Egyptians help each other out. Anyway, one of the guys took our bags up to our room, which was pretty nice given the fact that we were paying 23 US a night. Elliott goes to tip the guy, and hands him a five dollar bill. The guy stared for a second, smiled, and then left the room. Once he left, I explained to Elliott while LE5 would have been a really generous tip, he had just given him the equivalent of about LE30. But, it payed off, because before we could even sit down, we got a call asking if we'd like to move to a better room. Elliott told the guy that we'd want to see the room first. At first, I couldn't figure out why they thought the new room was better; it actually looked a bit smaller and the TV was tiny. But then the attendant opened the curtains, and I saw why we were morning. Out the window was a perfect view of the Nile, with the full moon shinning of choppy water. Needless to say, Elliott and I just stood there for a second before going to getting our bags from the other room.

The next morning, Elliott and I went and wandered around our neighborhood. We found a place to eat breakfast, Cilantro, which we realized, as soon as we finished ordering and paying, was a rip off for tourists and ex-pats. Oh well. Then we took a taxi over to ILI, where they showed us around. Nice looking place, I can't wait to start class. Then, one of the employees walked us to a couple of different flats to check out. The first one was huge, 2 bedrooms, and LE4500. But it wasn't going to be available for 2 weeks. So we asked the lady if she had anything that would be available sooner. She said she did, and walked us to the building next door. We walked up to this flat, where she proceeded to bang on the door and ring the doorbell for about ten minutes, while fiddling around with different keys. After about 15 minutes, she gave up. So Elliott and I made plans to come back the next day with Adam to check it out. Then, we walked across the neighborhood, Sahafieen, to check out another place. This one was cheaper, but the land lady didn't seem as nice and we had to pay for our own electricity, which would have probably made it just as expensive. We told her we call her, to which she responded by making a big fuss about how she couldn't make any promises about it being available. Typical Cairen.

Once we got back to the school, we stuffed ourselves on a huge lunch of rice, tomatoes, and junks of beef, plus a huge glass of strawberry juice. Sorry for the details, but it was a really good lunch. And all for only 4 bucks. (Karl, you would surely have approved.)

Later, we went and woke up Benkato, who had just gotten in that afternoon, at his hotel. Then the three of us head back across the Nile to the area Elliot and I were staying, Zamalak. We found this little hole in the wall joint, where, with the help of passers-by, we managed to order dinner. Again, amazing. We had chicken, rice, chopped liver, and pita with baba ganoosh (it's a paste made out of egg plant, like humus). All for a wopping LE12. At an exchange rate of 5.7, that means we ate dinner for about 2 dollars. Have I mentioned how much I like this city yet?

After dinner, we wandered down the street and stopped in a hookah cafe. We shared a hookah and each had a glass of teach (Arabic whiskey according to one of the locals). After that, we wandered around a bit more, and then Benkato headed back to his hotel.

The next morning, Elliott and I went and picked up Benkato and we walked over to check out this last apartment. After looking around, we decided this was the place. Three bedrooms, fully furnished, and wifi access. All for LE 3450, which works out to slightly less than 200 US a person per month. We're very satisfied. I've been thinking how cool it is that the first apartment I ever rent is in Egypt. Somewhere in the negotiations and contract signing, the Land Lady asked me my name. Somehow from Hunter, she got Honda. How, I don't know, but it looks like it's kinda stuck as Elliott and Adam have taken to addressing me as Honda

After indulging in a 5 hour siesta, we went out and Adam got a SIM card for his phone. Only one problem, his phone wouldn't work with the SIM card. So I went and bought a phone (Mom - I'll get a number for it soon). Then Adam called his uncle and they went and met up while Elliott waited in line at the phone store. After Adam and his uncle hooked up, they came and met us at the phone store. His uncle took us out to dinner at a Lebanese place and then we went and had drinks at one of his favorite haunts, a Danish place called Trionon. I had some really tasty mint tea.

After drinks, he took us on a driving tour of parts of Cairo. We drove around for about an hour and half. The city was just as crowed at midnight as it was at noon. For those of you who think you've been to a night city, well, let me just say that New York (and I suspect LA) ain't got nothing on Cairo. Anyways, after driving around and checking out millenia old palaces and aqua ducts, as well as the original city wall, we headed back to Mohandeseen (our neighborhood). As we were driving back, Adam's uncle said we'd only seen about 10% of the city.

Once we got back, Adam's uncle showed us his place. Out of a city of 20+ million people, Adam's uncle's place is less than a block away from ours. Crazy. We showed him around our place for a bit, and then he left. We messed around a bit, I made a failed attempt to call my mom, and then we hit the sack. This morning, my sleep was temporarily disturbed at about 4:30 by the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. The chant is beautiful, and I can say in all honesty that I didn't mind the disturbance in the least bit.

When we finally got up, we cleaned for a bit and then headed to Tahir square. As soon as we got out of the cab, we were approached by a merchant. I won't say what he was selling, but suffice to say that Elliott and I got ripped off, although me less so than him. I'm gonna have to work on that, or I'll have no money left. After that, we checked out AUC and then wandered around while Adam and Elliott check out clothes. I've come to realize that they're worse than women.

Alright, for those of you who wasted your time reading this far, I'll spare you any more suffering. Suffice it to say that as crowed and dirty as this city is, I'm in love with it. I'll try to keep future post shorter, so check back soon.