Sunday, May 31, 2009

HoT Show and VDP Costume Workshop

Wow, what a fun past couple of days!

Friday night was my last show in the US for quite some time featuring Najla and me with House of Tarab, who are not only a fabulous band but some of my favorite people that I try to spend time with whenever I'm in town. As I tell everyone, I feel like they're family to me, and am so glad to be part of their circle of friends!

My family (adopted and biological) all came out--in fact we made up pretty much the entire audience as lots of people seemed to be busy that night. My parents were also there, which was a real treat since they rarely get to see my dance these days as we live two states apart.

HoT didn't care about the limited audience though, they still delivered a fun and engaging show of classic cabaret music that everyone raved about! My family has heard their music before, we all agreed that HoT has made great strides this past year as a group. I have always been moved by their music and they are sounding better than ever now, especially with the inclusion of new member Andy Zadrozny on bass. In addition, my parents were particularly impressed with drummer Erik Brown's skills on the doumbek, remarking that he's sounding, "much sharper and cleaner than ever before."

Sallah Ali
performed a wonderfully elegant and soulful violin taqsim, which I'm pretty sure I did not do full justice to, but definitely enjoyed. Stephen Elaimy and David McGrath also played wonderful solo sections, and fed into the great chemistry this group has. I haven't worked with a band as cohesive and with such good group dynamics as HoT. To me, their teamwork and friendship lays the foundation for not only great music, but an engaging attitude that keeps the audience clapping and cheering all night. Everyone there had a blast!

As for my dancing, I ended up somewhat underwhelming myself, but I'm feeling good over all about the show. I've been dancing with the wonderful Georges Lammam Ensemble for the past two years, and it's true that one can get easily attuned to a certain band's style. This can be an advantage, but not always in this case, as I didn't get as tarab-ed out as I was hoping for. Still, I was just happy to see them again and enjoy the company of friends and family! Both my awesome teachers Dahlia and Delilah were there and I was beyond glad for their support! They've both given me a lot over the last few years I've been dancing and are such inspirational dancers--definitely catch any shows of theirs you can!

Here's a short youtube vid of me dancing to HoT's version of Ana Fi Enta Zarek--by the way the costume is one of my original creations, and you can read more about my costuming here

Today, I dropped by Delilah's costume workshop for participants in her group for the Fremont Solstice Parade. The parade is special to me because seeing Delilah's group of over 100 dancers there inspired me to take belly dance lessons myself! I've participated each year since, but as I won't be able to attend the actual event for 2009 I've been popping in to practices and workshops to help out and stay connected. This year the theme for her group is water, and they're coming up with some gorgeous dances so far, including Dahlia's Khaleeji group who will be doing dances from the gulf region.

I was dropping by the workshop to say hi, put in a few words on costuming, and show a few original costumes as well as my portfolio! Here's a sneak look at my portfolio, which will be published online at some point in the future:

Friday, May 29, 2009

Final US Show

As advertised on for the last couple months, my LAST show in the United States for quite some time is tonight in Seattle! I will also be wearing one of my own designs, a unique one-of-a-kind costume! Stay tuned for a review, pics, and maybe video--who knows?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Banking in Cairo

I recently contacted my friend Leyla Lanty, who is a wonderful dancer, experienced world traveler, teacher at Ahlan Wa Sahlan, and general goddess of wisdom about traveling to Cairo specifically. I asked her some questions on banking, because AUC is downright silent on the subject which I described to Leyla as "beyond frustrating." Plus, financial issues are pretty sticky so I didn't want to get stuck being clueless just believing my travel guidebooks that had plainly never traveled beyond their supply chain route from the factory.

Luckily Leyla--being a fountain of knowledge and great insight and all--had some useful information on what to do about banking in Cairo, which I think could be great advice for anyone looking to travel or study there, and I wanted to somewhat edit and share with her permission some quotes of the advice she gave me:

Carrying US Dollars:
"If you've already paid for large expenses (like rent), then you probably should take a few hundred dollars in cash - mostly $20 bills and about $150-200 in smaller bills. If you need dollars for any reason in the first month or so, you'll have them. You can change them any time you need Egyptian pounds and can't get to a bank. Often the vendors in Khan el Khalili will take dollars for payment at the current rate of exchange, which is now 5.5 LE per dollar. They may round it up to 6 LE per dollar because it'll cost them to change the dollars to LE."

At the airport:
"At the arrivals area before you get to the passport control, there will be a bank/exchange open at which you can change some dollars to pounds. I usually change around $100 in order to have Egyptian pounds in my pocket. Tips for luggage carrying, if you use it, are about 5 LE each bag."

Using Traveler's Checks:
"They are more trouble than they're worth. If you need to carry a VERY large sum, like tuition fees, they're safer than carrying that much cash."

The Cairo "Practical Guide" also says that, "many exchanges--and banks--will not take [traveler's checks], or will charge a lot for doing so."

Using US Bank Accounts:
The Cairo Guide describes Egypt as a, "cash economy as soon as you descend from five-star altitude," and "the best places to change foreign currency is at the various exchanges throughout the city," which are better than the banks."

Leyla also says, "You will have access to your home bank's accounts if you have a check card with either a Visa or Mastercard logo. However , you MUST call them or visit a branch BEFORE YOU LEAVE to tell them that you will be [abroad] and give them the dates that you'll be there. Best to call the next day to double check that they have actually recorded the information on your accounts."

"You can use a check card with a Visa or Mastercard logo to withdraw money from your checking account from an ATM up to your daily limit. If you want more money than your daily limit, you must do it at a bank. They'll put it through as a credit card transaction which bypasses your daily withdrawal limit" Note: This last bit is a blatant lie from the guidebook, you can only withdraw up to your daily limit, end of story. I found this out the hard way. (Edit: 12/25/09)

"There are ATMs in many locations both on the street and at 5-star hotels at which you can use either your check card or any Visa or Mastercard credit can with a p.i.n. to withdrawl money. If your credit card doesn't have a password on it, then you have to go to a bank to use it to withdraw money."

"Of course, there are small fees for all of this service - both an access fee and a money changing fee. Your bank may also charge up to $4 for each transaction to a foreign bank or ATM."

Shukran, Leyla! I'm sure we can all benefit from the advice! By the way, Leyla's CD is amazing--I higly reccomend it for performance, class, or just listening and enjoying!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Study Abroad Advice

Ah, the logistical nightmare that is studying abroad! This post is for all those ladies coming into my college that want to study abroad for a semester or a year, and all those people who said in a tone of disbelief, "Can you get our college to back this?" and then a year later, "How did you get our college to approve all this?"

There's two parts to study abroad: The practical part, and the college part

  • Passport: As always when traveling out of the country, having your passport renewed to cover your time abroad is a must. Give yourself a decent amount of time for your renewal to get turned around--mine was pretty quick and it took a couple weeks. Carrying 2+ copies of your passport is also something I would highly recommend in case your own passport is stolen and you need to identify yourself and get your passport replaced. It is much easier for a US consulate to confirm who you are if you have a passport photocopy! Couples traveling in Egypt and intending to rent a hotel room together should definitely carry a copy of their marriage license as well, as there are legal issues around renting rooms to unmarried couples.
  • Visa: You will need a visa to enter Egypt, but the good news is you can either get it at the aiport in Cairo or you can send your passport, an extra photo, and the fee to an Egyptian embassy in the United States and they will send it back with your visa stamped. This is a tourist visa, so the initial period is 30 days, but it can be extended up to 90 once you are in the country. Either way, the initial fee for a tourist visa is 15 USD. I'm organizing my residency visa through AUC, but since I am not finished registering for classes, or paying tuition and fees they cannot prove I'm a full time student yet, so I don't have a year-long visa yet.
  • Local Embassy: It's a good idea to register with your local US embassy abroad and with this US government travel registration service. This way if anything happens to you or your family back home, your location will be known and the embassy can take action to contact you or them. The US Embassy in Cairo is located at: 8 Kamal El Din Salah St., Garden City, Cairo, Egypt and their phone number is [20] [2] 2797-3300.
  • Money Exchange: The currency in Egypt is the Egyptian pound, with a varying exchange rate (as a write this it's 1 USD to 5.6 Egyptian pounds). The dollar is still strong in Egypt, but what people forget is that a dollar also will go much farther in Egypt than here in the US, which I'm sure I'll be commenting on in the future as I experience what the cost of living is like. You can get money exchanged through services in the US before leaving, or at the airport on arrival.
  • Cell Phone: If you're studying abroad you probably want to have a local cell number, which means getting a local SIM card and a GSM unlocked phone. A SIM card is a chip that goes into your cell phone, and interacts with your service provider to determine your number, minutes, etc. It is also important to figure out if your phone is compatible with local cell networks, and make sure the phone you are using is unlocked and thus allowed to utilize them. I'm also going prepaid while in Egypt as it's simpler than dealing with a contract, and easy to reload with minutes as I go, as well as being possible to set up before I get there by ordering a local prepaid SIM. Read more about cell phones and SIM cards on one of these providers of phones and global SIM cards: Celluar Abroad, Telestial.
  • Packing: I definitely plan on packing light for Cairo, because of the steep baggage fees on airlines these days (hellooo broke college lifestyle!), and I want to buy clothes there to wear that won't scream "I'm from California in the US-of-A!" I hear dressing modestly is the norm for women traveling to Cairo and is necessary in order to be culturally respectful. No mini skirts, or short-shorts of course, and make sure your cups aren't runneth-ing over is what I've been told, but I'll report on the juicy details upon my arrival I'm sure! I also haven't decided if I will wear a headscarf or not, so I'm sure I'll have a something to say in the future on that topic.

The nuts and bolts of leaving your home institution for a foreign university are pretty extensive, but it definitely helps as a framework to have the support of your home college. Mine is a wonderful place to study, but the bureaucracy isn't exactly set up to accommodate new study abroad programs that haven't been pre-approved.

Be forewarned, if your college does NOT have an existing affiliation in the country you want to travel to or a program to go there, you are in for serious bureaucratic acrobatics. We're talking about some arm-twisting, and it's a long time frame because bureaucracies and colleges do not move quickly. For example, doing all the activities to get my home college to send me to AUC with my scholarship took over a year and a half, over 4 faculty members that were incredibly supportive working on my case, the written approval of countless people, offices, and committees, not to mention an obscene amount of my own bodily fluids (that blood, sweat, and tears thing that you always hear about is not untrue).

That being said, if you're going the hard route and starting a new affiliation for your college it's a wonderful gift you will give all the students that get to travel later where you are trailblazing. It's definitely worth it. My best advice is to get some faculty on your side from various departments to help you know who in the bureaucracy and administration you need to talk to and what areas you will need to apply some pressure to. Once you have that kind of help the key is to be really, really persistent. Keep sending emails, keep getting others to send emails, keeping bugging all kinds of people, because if you falter the system is more than happy to let your case slide past without being addressed. Be annoying--in a diplomatic fashion!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Introduction: Who is Nicole?

Welcome to Nicole In Cairo!

Since this is my first post in a brand-new blog I wanted to talk a little about myself, and why this blog exists. I'm going to write here in FAQ format, since I've gotten many questions about my travels and who I am that I want to answer!

So who are you, Nicole?
I'm a professional belly dancer and costumer (read my full dance bio at first and foremost, but I have a lot going on in my life right now. I am originally from Seattle, Washington, but now I'm a college student in Oakland, California; where I have been generously sponsored by my school to go to Cairo, Egypt and study there for a year. I'm an International Relations major, Women's Studies and Business Economics minors, plus I intend to continue on to business school for an MBA in Entrepreneurship and International Finance somewhere in the Bay Area once I finish my undergrad years. The short story is that I'm going to be in college for awhile!

Why Egypt?
I usually just say, "why not?!" but belly dance is initially what led me to Egypt. Through belly dance I became interested in Arabic music, then Arabic language, Arabic culture, Arab politics--I was hopelessly hooked! Cairo is the Mecca of belly dancers, and a major site for anyone interested in politics of the Middle East or doing business there. Once I started belly dancing in the Bay Area everything became much more concrete because of the great dancers there that make the trek to Egypt all the time, and shared with me their amazing stories and experiences. I can say honestly I've been planning my study abroad in Cairo for years, although the motives have subtly shifted. I've studied Arabic, I've learned about regional politics, wrestled with registering and bureaucracy, but now the final messy planning stages are about to be out of the way!

What will you be studying in Egypt, and what do you hope to learn?
In school I will be working on electives for my International Relations degree that focus on regional politics, including some work on Political Economy, and ground work for my senior thesis. The exact subject of my thesis is not decided yet, but I will know by the spring of this school year so stay tuned! I will also be working on preliminary research for my Fulbright Scholarship application and project. Through school I'm hoping to gain an on-the-ground perspective of Arab politics that I can bring back to inform my studies in the US, since this is the area I'm most interested in doing research and I feel is most misunderstood or ignored politically.

For dance, I will be studying with a variety of teachers to gain a broad perspective of Middle Eastern dance the way I want to perform it: real, authentic Egyptian style. I'm sure I will expand more about my feelings on the different styles of belly dance in the future in this blog, but what I am looking for is a true Egyptian feel to my dancing. It's got to come from the source, so where else to go but Cairo?

Isn't Cairo a dangerous place though?
Part of why I am going is to find out what the political and social climate is like in Cairo, so you'll have to ask me once I've gone, but what I hear is that it is quite a safe place in terms of everyday living. People are said to be friendly and helpful as long as you have a sense of humor and patience. Apparently homicide and violent crime is unusual in Cairo, but I have been warned about petty crimes, and sexual harassment. I'll definitely report more on this topic as I go through my first weeks in Cairo, but as it stands right now I am not too concerned with my personal safety.

When do you leave?
I left the Bay Area a few days ago for Seattle (where I am now) and am flying out of the country on June 10th! It seems like a very long time from today, but there's plenty to write about before I go, and the time is going to go fast with all the logistical preparations I'm finishing!

Please comment with other questions about me or the whys/hows of my Cairo trip that you want answered!

Next time:
How does someone go about studying in Cairo anyway? + How I got into Bellydance