Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Grand Apartment Saga (part 2)

Where did we leave off? Oh yes, I was in despair and binging on cake while flailing about trying to find room mates, right. Well while flailing about and sending facebook messages after emails and being thrown potential roomies (who were just simply everyone and anyone, regardless of if we had similar interests or could possibly get along) by Mina I was being propped up by a steady stream of encouragement by the boyfriend and a rather large amount of processed sugar.

Then it happened—some room mates finally came along! AUC students? Yeah. Female? Yeah. Studying International Relations?! Yes! However, they were thinking of living in or near Zamalek because they have a friend in the dorms…and I had to be honest with them about how long it took to Zamalek (10-15 min walking, 20 min metro ride, 5 min cab ride), and I did tell them what I liked about Maadi, but ended up recommending they should probably live in Mohandiseen or Dokki as both are closer to Zamalek than Maadi is and a bit cheaper.

However, they were undeterred and asked me to look in to if the apartment was still up for rent. I had Mina make the calls, and then we began to commence negotiations. If this sounds like the beginning of a major undertaking, it’s completely true! We headed back to Street 200, Mina over-dressed and me rather underdressed to start arguing with the landlady (over the phone) about the price of the apartment, if utilities were included, and all that wonderful stuff. We arrived at the flat, and Sallah, the awesome bawwab, took us up so we could sit in the air-conditioned palace that I was hoping could be my new Cairo home. Then, they argued. Mina spoke rapidly and loudly in Arabic on the phone for an extensive period of time, chopping the monthly price back from the $1500 requested to $1300. We were determined to get $1200 though and Sallah knew it, so he motioned for us to shut up, grabbed the phone and started walking out on to the balcony, saying something along the lines of, “look, lady, these assholes are going to walk so you better talk business here.” He returned triumphant, and I continued just smiling and looking charming on the sofa while we haggled over the remaining bits and pieces such as when I would move in (which would prove a major point of contention later, stay tuned), if utilities were included (big fat NO there), and so on. I sat and sat and bugged Mina to keep me updated in English about the status of the arguing and pontificating.

Finally we reached a conclusion, but she wanted a substantial amount of money in check or cash form and she wanted it today, which just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have the money in my bank account at the time. Sallah offered to lend me what money he had, which was so shocking, but is really indicative of what kind of society I’ve been living in here. Sometimes the generosity of people in Egypt makes me feel like I can never leave, but I digress!

This is the snapshot of the negotiations that went on for…oh I don’t know, say like two weeks? We’d get one thing nailed down and then something else would crop up. I was supposed to “come sign the contract tomorrow,” for easily fifteen days if not more. One of the major points of annoyance was that the landlady really wanted me to move in on August 1st, but I point-blank refused to let her make me pay for that full month, which would be especially unfair to my room mates arriving later. How did we avoid the problem? Well, we stalled until it was after the 1st of course!

One thing after another prevented me from going and signing the contract on my dream apartment, and I was worrying because I wanted to assure my potential future room mates that we had a place nailed down. First I left for Alexandria, then when I returned Mina’s sister had a baby so he wasn’t available, then I got sick yet again, and then the worst of worst happened…she wanted three months in advance. In cash.

That’s right, $3600 in cold, hard cash.

I immediately recalled what “The Cairo Practical Guide” had said about banks being able to bypass your daily limit and make withdrawals, so every day for about three days I woke up at a reasonable hour, put on my tourist sandals, and trudged from major international bank to major international bank in the mid-summer Cairo heat hoping that one of them could make the necessary transaction. HSBC? No, mish mumkin. CIB? Sorry, not here. On and on and if I happened to be too late the bank would be closed and I’d grumble and make a note to try that one again tomorrow and trudge on the to the next. Nothing, nada, ziltch. By this point I was withdrawing up to my daily limit every day at the ATMs, in between being on conference calls with my (again, extremely patient) boyfriend Ramy, and Mina trying to figure out something, but crunching along restricted by my daily limit just wasn’t gonna cut it, and I wanted the apartment bad.

Finally I called my parents. I whined and complained and had them call my bank, who gave them the international number for customer service. I called my bank, and after some “oh so you’re in Egypt right NOW?” conversations I got my daily limit raised to $1000, which was an improvement but I really wanted to go sign like, yesterday. I scurried from ATM to ATM that day, but then when I went to go the next day I realized that—oh crap—they’d only put the new limit on for one day. Cue me whipping out my cell in front of yet another ATM and calling the US, because that number was supposed to accept the charges for international calls, right? Not so much…as I found out when I was disconnected once and my balance popped up revealing that this phone call had cost me upwards of 30LE, which made me grind my teeth, call back, and speak asfastaspossible to make sure the new limit was permanent.

Finally, I had amassed a huge, ridiculous amount of cash in the lining of one of my suitcases. I glared at it and counted it repeatedly as Mina for the millionth over the phone said, “okay, so we will go sign tomorrow, wait for my call.”

Friday, August 21, 2009


The school year is starting to wind up...I'm starting to figure out my schedule, looking into getting books, and my room mates arrive in T-minus 3 days and counting. Maadi is quiet and pleasant and I've just been hanging out exploring the neighborhood and practicing dance and Arabic. So what's there to write about? Well everyone is curious what life is like in Cairo, and everyone could use some practical advice on living here, so I think I'm going to be doing a series of articles to cover some stuff like that. I also will be posting a revision of my banking post since I've now been here for over two months and noticed some changes that need to be noted.

First up, a lot of people have been asking me, "What do I do about my cell phone in Egypt?!" or the more calm version, "So what's the deal with mobiles there?"

Well, here's the deal:

-There are 3 main companies for phone service here: Mobinil, Vodaphone, and Etisalat. All seem to have decent coverage and service, but I'm on Etisalat myself (although my internet is through Vodaphone, but that's a whole different story) and have been pretty happy with my coverage. The only dead spot in Cairo that I've found? Certain areas of my bedroom...figures.

-Get an unlocked handset. While you are back home check to see if your phone has the service carrier lock disabled so you can use it abroad and that it is compatible with frequencies in Egypt. GSM 900 is the standard here, so make sure your phone supports it otherwise you'll have to shell out for another handset here! While you're dealing with the handset, copy your contacts from your sim to your phone and add the prefix 001 to any US numbers you may call from Egypt.

-Get a local sim card. The sim card is the chip that goes into the handset and communicates with the service provider about your minutes, phone number, etc. Getting one here from one of the above-mentioned providers is cheap and the norm for students traveling here. You can go to any cell phone shop, or any Vodaphone, Mobinil, or Etisalat branch. Just pop your sim in and voila, you will have your local number and can start making/receiving calls!

-Most people go prepaid while here. There are little stalls on almost every street corner that have drinks in refridgerated cases, snacks, cigarettes, and phone cards in various denominations (usually 10, 20, 40, and 100 LE). Find the one closest to where you live and check to see if they have cards from your provider, then just pop in when you need to buy more credit. On my sim card there's a way for me to just key in the code on the card, but there's a way to call and do it too--if you have any trouble practically anyone can show you how to do this, including the guy who just sold you your refill card and that ten-year-old kid next to you on the metro.

I actually find dealing with my cell in Egypt, despite the simplicity, more annoying than back home. At home I don't think about it, because I'm on a shared contract with about a million minutes I don't know what to do with, plus free nights and weekends, so I just call anyone whenever and never think about the money. Same deal with texting or internet usage as I have an unlimited plan. Not so in Egypt, but the system is at least much simpler than going through the process of getting a contract and figuring out a service plan. Plus if you're leery about yet another huge corporate entity having your personal information, there's no need to worry with the prepaid system.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Grand Apartment Saga (part 1)

Two entries within one week?! What? Well this is a special occasion as finally, finally I can report that the lease on the dream apartment I mentioned before is signed, sealed, and paid up! Cool room mates have been located, and have generously sent along the required deposits to seal the deal. I will get the keys tomorrow when they are done fixing up one of the air conditioners. I can now breathe a sigh of relief, pack my stuff, and recount to you the ridiculous saga that was getting to this point. It's horribly long, so I'll break it up with other posts to avoid annoying everyone and so you can skip the posts if it bothers you. Yes I do have to tell my story, darnit!

Part 1:

I once had a beautiful dream of living in Maadi. It is the quiet, tree-lined, foreigner-riddled, expensive part of Cairo that managed to squash my white, affluent guilt and my embarrassment over "not living in real Cairo, like a real hardcore traveler or student," with it's great charm and promise of giving me somewhere comfortable to return back to at the end of the day. With rents there being significantly less of what I would pay back home in Oakland, I decided to stow the guilt over the price tag and found that I was okay with getting somewhere nice and paying more than the Cairo standard. Not to mention living in that area would cut my commute to AUC in half, which is a feat worth moving for. So I made it known to my Cairo friends that I was looking for a new place in Maadi and kept an eye on the Cairo Scholars (CS) listserv to see if anyone was posting any ads.

As soon as I started to look on CS of course, all the postings I had seen with titles like, "room mate wanted in Maadi," or "2 Bedroom flat available in Maadi from Aug. 17" completely dried up. I poked around a little bit, not looking that hard because my rent wasn't up in Zamalek for a bit, when my good friend Mina said his friend had an apartment in Maadi for me to go look at. About the same time as this, I was getting in touch with a kind Italian guy from CS regarding a room he had for rent near El Maadi station that sounded appealing too.

Unfortunately this was the week of hell during which I was rather sick, but the day we went to go check out the place I was on an upswing and thought I was good to go. That morning I did a bunch of wrangling at the Mugamma to get my visa extended, which makes for an interesting adventure, but I was still game enough for what would become the first of many trips out to Sakanat El Maadi. As it turns out, Mina's friend was a Bawwab on street 200 and knew of a nice empty flat in the building, but he wasn't there that day, so after doing the 20 minute metro ride and 10 minute walk in the blazing sun we had nothing else to do but turn around and go home.

I'm having a hard time remembering everything, but I do believe this was also the day Mina refused to let me pay the expensive cab fare home from Maadi and insisted we take the Metro downtown. Normally this would not be a problem, but I was dehydrated, hungry, sick, and frankly probably on the verge of heatstroke. I persevered through the Metro ride, but then I started to tell the boys I needed to be somewhere where I had air conditioning and something to drink. I am not usually one to get too bitchy too quick, so most of my older friends know that when I start saying I "need" something I don't mean in 15 minutes or that I will walk ten more blocks, I mean NOW. Somehow I made it to Talat Harb Mall with Mina holding my hand the entire way because my vision was literally coming out in white spots like I was going to faint and I was completely lightheaded. Falafel, lukewarm air conditioning, and an orange Fanta could have definitely arrived more than a second sooner!

Oh, but round 2 came quickly enough, this time while I was deep into my 5-day course of medication that meant I couldn't eat anything except soup. Blood sugar low, faint with lack of proper nutrition (I have insisted my whole life that "Soup is NOT food"), and bitchy with the fact that I had scheduled my walk through of Mina's place and the Italian guy's place on the same day but 5 hours apart, I rolled into Maadi to meet up with Mina. Then came the apartment hunting part--you see, I had been duped into thinking they were just going to show me the one place.

Let me enlighten you into how apartment hunting actually works here and how you should do it: Deal with the bawwabs, and bring an Arabic and English speaking friend. Once you figure out an area or a street you're interested in start asking around with the bawwabs because they know which apartments are open, what the landlady/lord is like, how much the place will cost, and will help you negotiate because it means a better commission for them from you. This is more than a fair trade off as you will see, but in return be prepared to be run around to view every open flat in every building on the street until you say "Khalas!" It can be pretty fun, chatting with various bawwabs (including the guy who had adopted us named Hassan), while window shopping around for just the right place, but after awhile in the afternoon heat I started to falter. Plus, no where seemed quite as good as the very first place I viewed. It was a gorgeous three bedroom with nice furniture, lots of amenities you rarely see (a dryer, a microwave, gasp!), and I was more or less in love with it at first sight--it would be mine! We went back, I took pictures, and they promised to hold it for us as long as I got back to them by the end of the week.

I visited the Italian guy's place that night, and it was indeed very nice, but I just had to have that place on road 200. I started posting on CS. I had Mina post to facebook groups. I begged my friends to fly over from the US...I was excited but optimistic, and so were the myriad people who responded. Their quick replies to my posts made me think I would have no trouble finding two room mates, but then one by one everyone dropped off because of the price.

Now I can half understand of course, we are all living on a budget and everything, and I get the whole wanting to not break the bank as well as the next person. What I couldn't understand was why everyone around me was turning down a rent amount that would buy me approximately half a shoebox in California. It didn't seem so astronomical to me, just expensive by Cairo standards, so I wasn't expecting all my leads to drop one by one.

Which is about the time when I last posted saying that everything had pretty much fallen through. I had just received a call that my strongest possibility so far had canceled partially because of the large security deposit but also because of gendered living space issues. I think it was partially that, but I got the distinct vibe it was because of my age. One thing I can't help is my age, and trust I do try not to live up to those digits, but when it comes out how old I actually am people get a little weird and a little shifty. People don't want their lease being handled by some girl that age. I told Mina I had pretty much given up, but we soldiered on and I continued to field the requests that came my way, now throwing those dollar signs at them no longer apologetically, but aggressively like a dare.

To be continued...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shoes, Studying, Schedules, Stuff...

Today I went on the first major shopping trip I have had in Cairo. For over two months I have been shaking and been unable to sleep due to a distinct lack of abusing my debit cards, and now I feel strangely content and peaceful. Perhaps it's due to the lovely turquoise color I seem to be on a kick with lately?

Yes, today I bought two pairs of turquoise shoes and a bag to match! I never thought I'd see the day, but when in Cairo it's all about appreciating bright colors. For whatever reason, it seems like unusual color combinations and saturated shades of colors are more popular here than back home, which I am totally digging. I am a complete shoe addict by nature, and flew out of Seattle leaving boxes of shoes behind that probably totalled about 30 pairs of high heels in all sorts of weird colors and unique styles. That is AFTER cutting things down to the ones I absolutely had to keep! The thing is that I love my high heels, but they need to be a little quirky or interesting to catch my attention and make me plop down the $ to make them mine.

That's why I'm pleased to report that in Cairo, it is all too easy to find an excuse to plop down 75-100LE ($13.50-$18) at this store we went to called "Club Aldo" in Maadi for a decent pair of shoes. Before I knew it the floor around me and Kara was littered with many pairs of "maybe, yeah definitely, I want it in a size 37..." I was good, and only bought three pairs, plus the purse. Cairo is a shoe destroyer, between the dust, sand, pollution, extensive amounts of walking, quality of the sidewalks, so on and so forth, so I don't actually feel too bad about buying a bunch of shoes because most of mine from the US are now on the way out or have already ended up biting the dust (heh).

After paying, we both raised pleading eyes to the face of my semi-horror-struck boyfriend to take us to go clothes shopping "just for a little bit." So it was off to the Grand Mall in Maadi to buy a couple more things, including two skirts for me. Lately I've been seeing a lot of girls around town in these full-length denim skirts and I just thought it looked damn cool enough to acquire a couple of my own. Skirts are great in Cairo in the summer because they get less hot and less crotch-stickagey. Luckily the store also included free hemming! Hooray for being 5' nothing.

The mall was cool and had a little bit of everything without being tooo huge. Okay, maybe the several-story fountain was a bit much, but who am I to judge? I haven't been to a lot of malls around town, but I would recommend this one to any foreigners as it has a variety of shops and a lot of different things to offer, including a couple tempting-looking shoe stores of course. Here's a random smattering of some of the shoes I brought to Cairo: (from the top going left) new flats from Club Aldo, holographic zebra-print flip flops for the beach, tourist sandals (a must-have in Cairo, GET SOME NOW if you are coming), basic black pumps, new turquoise heels, new turquoise flats (gotta have all the bases covered), Guess heels. Not that anyone cares!

Okay, I admit I have been so, so lazy about so many things since I've arrived. Egypt makes it very easy to say, "weeell I'll be here for a year and it's just sooo hooot...and well I'll do that later when I get up at 2pm tomorrow." It's still not a great excuse, but yeah I've been slacking on my Arabic pretty bad. However, I met this cool American guy at the previously featured Goal Cafe a couple weeks back who basically has been giving me pep-talks/lectures on getting serious about my Arabic. It's what I need, and he was also kind enough to lend me this book, "Kallimni 'Arabi" which is the second in a series on colloqial Arabic. I got the entire thing photocopied and bound for 27LE, which is a deal considering how much it would be normally!

I like this series so far because of a couple different factors:
-It's all written in Arabic. Seriously. No English except for the short glossary at the back and the introduction, which makes it sometimes difficult, but it makes you try so much harder and your reading improves much quicker. However, this makes it next to impossible for someone to use who doesn't know the basics of reading and writing.
-There's a variety of lessons. Not only do you get vocabulary drills from the beginning, but also drills on pronunciation, writing, reading, and conjugation. It's a very smart system, but you have to really commit and take things a bite at a time.
-The audio CD is fabulous. It's clear, precise, and features lessons on stresses within words and normal conversation structures which is excellent. Something I find people neglect a lot is the pronunciation of certain letters, and the stress patterns that make you sound more "authentic."

In addition, I'm telling people that every time we hang out they need to teach me 1 or 2 words that I'll use a lot! None of these really transliterate at all well, or even translate well, but from yesterday I have "gazma" or shoe, "mahal" or store, and "ya salam" which can mean a lot of different things depending on your inflection and head movements. I was the laughingstock of probably half a cafe last night working on the different ways of saying that one!

After much emailing back and forth with AUC I finally have my class schedule! I will be taking:

(the one for people with 1 year of fusha but no 'ameyya like me)



That last one sounds waaay to sexy for a junkie for inter-Arab politics like me. It's a full load, as per usual, but I'm hoping the fact that I'm try to incorporate Arabic into my daily life anyway will help make that feel less like a class and just more of my normal routine that I'll be happy to grapple with.

Anyway, I will leave you all this random image from sitting in rush-hour Cairo traffic this evening on our way to shopping:

Coming soon: I move to Maadi! Actual BELLY DANCE news!!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Costumes and Alexandria

I ran away to the beach again this week, which I'm sure is hardly a big surprise by now. I don't think I've managed to stay in Cairo for more than about 2 weeks solid here, but this time was great! I spent the days on the beaches, the nights in cafes, and lots of time just hanging out with my friend who dragged me along. It was a lovely little vacation!

The beaches were a little crowded and it was definitely boiling out during the day, but the sea was perfect and at night it was great to just walk along the shore when things were more quiet. Apparently this time of year is popular with Egyptians looking to go on vacation somewhere nice. It IS nice too, the beaches have lovely white sand and the water is perfect if a bit choppy. If you like seafood, I also hear the best thing is to kick back on the beach with some Alexandrian fish...but for me I was sticking to chicken as I'm "just not a fish person," as I had to explain over and over to different people.

The train back was a good idea too, I definitely recommend it! Air conditioned, kinda quiet, and I was actually able to nap even. This is a major point to note as normally anything that moves over like 10 miles an hour renders me sleepless! When we were at the station it looked like there were trains going back to cairo every hour give or take, so even if you miss one you can hit up a cafe across the street for a little bit while you wait.

Of course when I got back to Cairo I was definitely getting antsy to get some stuff done!

Finally I have been not too sick and not too lazy to go visit one of my favorite designers: Mamdouh Salama!

I made friends with one of the designers that works with Mamdouh at Nile Group, which was forever ago, and had been kicking around the idea of trying to go find their workshop for awhile. I had the address (12 Ahmed El-Melehy St. in Dokki) and Hathem's phone # but had just somehow gotten too tied up with traveling and getting into a new relationship to get off my lazy butt and go visit them. Out of the blue Hathem texted me to see if I was still interested in coming by, which was enough to make me jump up the next day and head over to Dokki!

Just to forewarn everyone, the place is freaking hard for taxis to find. I jumped in a cab and got Hathem to give directions, but the poor cabbie still got lost along the way and then I got a bit lost trying to find the building. Definitely call ahead to get directions (Hathem speaks some English and is super helpful) before you go!

The shop is really nice, and definitely has more of a showroom feel than places like Eman Zaki's that feel like more like a factory. Hathem got us drinks and we hung out in the living room (most costumers take over an entire flat, so you end up with all the ammenities of a house) and chatted about their new collection and getting me a dance contract. Yes, I am starting to search now, but that's for a post all of itself I think! I viewed their current line that they were showing at Nile Group and AWS, but I had told Hathem before that I really don't like wearing costumes that other people own copies of. I have to be in love with a costume to buy it and I want it to feel unique and special. It's part of my very limited funds that I can't just throw around money buying costumes that don't feel completely right. So I showed him some of my own designs and he said I should just design something myeslf and they would make it happen! Since then I've been pawing through their collection online and the designs up on Belly Dance Store trying to figure out exactly what I want and get an idea of how I can get the most out of their style.

In an interesting coincidence, when I got home I saw that Ozma of Japan had posted on her blog saying she had traded a costume to Amber (a dancer I'm pretty sure I've met before in Seattle, but that's another story) in exchange for a Mamdouh. I don't think the post is public, but she is saying that while she likes some things about the Mamdouh she has now, the workmanship leaves something to be desired, and that Mamdouh produces the type of costumes that are fun to wear a few times but don't hold up over time. I can't say myself per say since I haven't owned a Mamdouh before, but it raised an interesting dialogue in my head about costuming in general.

I am so, so sick and tired of classically beautiful "princessy" costumes right now. Maybe it's just the phase I'm at in life and in dancing but I want something really kind of sassy and ghetto at the moment--maybe I'm missing oakland! I've always been a little more flash over function I guess, but Ozma's comment made me think about what I'm looking for in costumes lately. Which is great as I'm probably going to buy more costumes in my time in Egypt than I have since I started dancing, so I want to know what I want. Yes, I am a working dancer, but I don't find myself caring too much how long a costume is going to last as much as how larger-than-life I feel in it when I'm doing a performance. For crying out loud I made a costume out of stark WHITE lyra with gold and white FEATHERS sticking out of it...clearly it's not durability and longevity I'm looking for in my costumes! Why am I willing to sacrifice durability for looks? Because costumes are obviously an essential part of making ourselves into a dancer, but also because if you want to be a larger-than-life dancer you have to look the part and chances are you don't want people to see you in that same over-the-top costume more than a couple times anyway. Plus, sometimes durability and longevity ARE mutually exclusive if you really want something unique--not always, and it's great when they coincide, but still. Not only that, but I know that I personally use costumes to support myself in creating a performance...without a unique, crazy costume I don't quite feel the part. It's a crutch for me still in my dance life, because I'll admit that sometimes I still feel like someone pretending to be a pro dancer even though I've been doing this for several years now. Again, what's going on in my head about dance could probably take up an entire extra post, so I'll stop there.

In Egypt I have seen the most ghetto-fabulous-off-the-hook-out-there costumes ever! These girls are NOT wearing bellas, let me tell you! That's something I love about the dancers here, their costumes are unusual, just check out the ones I saw at Nile Goup. fresh, unique, and almost a little too crazy is just how I like my costumes! Get a load of the 3 foot fringe on that black costume of Asmahan's...I mean come on!