Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Swine Flu Vacation

Just as I was getting settled into a regular schedule of classes, private lessons with Hallah Moustafa, and homework the Egyptian government decided to clamp down on the foreign colleges that were open. Apparently all the colleges were supposed to be delayed several weeks in opening because of swine flu, but AUC ignored them at first and now we have had a two-week vacation. This has resulted in general insanity, traveling, and chaos meaning that I haven't exactly felt like sitting down and blogging much.

I suppose it's a good idea in theory to keep people from congregating in a university to reduce the chances of swine flu...but seriously? Every. Single. AUC Student. Is. Going. To. Travel. Did the government and AUC not consider this at all? Not only does that mean they will not be reducing their risks of bringing back the flu to AUC, but that if they have it and don't know yet (or don't care) they'll be spreading it around the country or the world depending how far afield they go. Add that fact to two weeks without Arabic lessons and the disruption of my gear-change back to college mode from lazy-ass-sitting-around-Cairo-all-summer mode and I was PISSED.

Therefore the day they told us, I decided to host an iftar at my house.

Dinner Party
Remember in my last entry the not-so-hot state of my cooking skills? Well, for some reason that I think may be related to being incredibly angry over the vacation, I decided to invite some people over for Iftar or breakfast despite not really having cooked for other people in my life. During Ramadan you have Iftar right at sunset when you break your fast for the day, and things had worked out that I had attended only one here during Ramadan so I figured I would have my own.

Another AUC study abroad student invited me to her place and I was unable to attend, so I invited her and her room mates over, so that was three people. Tim was of course invited, along with Autumn and Carolyn's friend Andrew. I ran into a friend from Economics class at AUC that day who was just as distressed about the vacation as me, and wasn't sure what to do with himself so I invited him and his friend over too. I texted Ramy on the way home, who inquired in disbelief if I was cooking or ordering food before he said he would come straight from work to help me cook. Add me and my roomies and suddenly I was hosting an 11-person dinner. Whoops! Oh well!

I did a massive grocery shopping trip on the way home, which is a major feat here as we live a couple blocks from the grocery store and thus insist on just carrying everything home instead of having it delivered. It can get to be very heavy, sweaty work in 90 degree heat. I forgot a few items, including dates and milk for the traditional style of breaking the fast, so I was leaving to go out again when I ran into Ramy on the steps of my building carrying a bag. What was in the bag? Oh, dates and milk of course! That boy seriously does read my mind on occasion.

All things considered it went great, but I couldn't have done it without Autumn, Carolyn, and Ramy traipsing in and out of the kitchen to lend many helping hands. Dinner was served slightly late, the ma7shy wasn't quite great, but everything else seemed like it was tasty and we rounded off the evening eating chocolate chip cookies while everyone figured out where they were going for break.

Having just ordered a $900 costume from Hallah Moustafa I resolved to remain in Cairo and save my cash, so I politely listened to these vacation plans until it got too frustrating and went to clean up the plates and the kitchen. The rest day I woke up to a deserted apartment as my roomies had headed out to Jordan.

Sharm El Sheikh
Well, okay I meant not to go on vacation and spend money...buuut...after being bored in Cairo for a week I was worn down enough to be convinced to go along with my roomies to Sharm for the weekend and stay in the five-star comfort of the Sheraton resort there for Carolyn's birthday. Hats off to my mother for this one for helping me out financially a bit so that I was persuaded to go! I am so, so glad I did go because it was beautiful, relaxing, and considerably better than tromping around the apartment for a few days and bitching at my boyfriend on the phone about how I was bored!

The place had like 8 swimming pools, several of which have their own swim-up bars. I never knew I particularly liked swim-up bars until this trip, but then I went nuts on them! There's something about sipping a mojito not just beside the pool but IN the pool that tickles my fancy I guess!

Staying in Sharm was well...like being at a resort. We swam in the ocean, then laid on the beach in chaise lounges, then migrated to the main pool, then the lower main pool, then the pool bar, then the poolside restaurant, then one of the other pools with a cave and a waterfall (and a bar!) then one of the five-star restaurants...rise, repeat pretty much. The Sheraton was gorgeous, and really an unusual design for a hotel. The thing is sort of situated on a shallow cliff above the sea, so the hotel lobby sits on the cliff, and is wrapped around a man-made grotto in the center rimmed with a network of wooden walkways and pavillions--it really is totally cool! What confused us is that because the lobby sits on the cliff (along with the resort areas and villas which make the complex soooo huge), you go downstairs to go to your rooms, which line the facing of the cliff down to the beach level. It's a neat and unusual design that I found very refreshing, because in Cairo the hotels simply go UP, because they have nowhere else to go!

I was shocked at how much everything looked like Hawaii there, and am pretty sure everyone got sick of my remarks to that point. It seriously weirded me out though, because even the plants looked straight out of Hawaii, not to mention the beautiful tropical fish we observed in the sea! Here we are, on the Red Sea on the other side of the world from Hawaii and I was so surprised to see fish that looked exactly like the rainbow, iridescent, fuscia-faced fish I had seen as a child in Honolulu! There were a few different varieties hanging out in the shallows at the beach, forming a swirling treasure trove of color that got close but not quite close enough for Ramy to grab one like he wanted.

Ramy and I grudgingly returned to Cairo from our lovely weekend outing a couple days ago so that he and I could go back to work, and yesterday my roomies arrived back after visiting Mt. Sinai which apparently was great.

I probably have more to say and update since my last post, but I have to write a couple things for Gilded Serpent so it's over and out for now--stay tuned!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

3 Months In

My, my school has been keeping me busy! I know I can be a slacker about updating, but this takes the cake, doesn't it? My camera is on the fritz, so stay tuned for photos in the next couple days.

AUC Stuff
This last week was the first week of classes, but also the week when I got to do lots of fun activities like running around trying to get my email activated, my ID card to scan properly, my pin # for the online portal reset, a class dropped, and so on. Let me just say that AUC has a lot to learn about organization. Here are two examples:

Exhibit A: I ended up not thinking my Literature and Gender class was right for me, so I wanted to drop it and replace it with a seminar on Palestinian/Israeli issues. Easy, right? Wrong! I first had to find the office to make an appointment to do so. Luckily I ran into another international student who had to do something similar, and HER friend luckily knew where we needed to go to make an appointment to go to another location to make the actual schedule change. So we trooped off to the office, made our appointments for a few days later, and I showed up at the appointed time at the computer lab to see my adviser and get my schedule switched.

The room was chaos. Literally 20 students running around the lab, looking at schedules on computers, sitting and waiting in a clearly backed up and disorganized non-line for their appointment, or just sitting reading something. I finally got to my adviser, who told me that the class I wanted to switch into was full and there was no waiting list, so I should look at the course catalog and come back tomorrow to make the schedule change as they were closing in 15 minutes. I said okay, and came back the next day.

I came in and the guy manning the door asked me if I had an appointment..."uh, well I had one for yesterday, and she said to come back today as it's the last day to add/drop." I was told to wait in the hall with a few other people, so sure, whatever. I waited an hour before I finally got to my adviser again, to tell her that I couldn't find a replacement course and I just wanted to do the drop and take 12 credits instead. What did she say? "Oh, sure no problem, I already dropped you."

Exhibit B: I couldn't log onto the student portal, which you are supposed to do using your ID # and your birthday. Mine should have therefore been 1213** but it wouldn't work at all, so I headed to the registrar's office to get it reset. The first time I went a harassed-looking lady said, "Okay you need to go see your adviser, in the CORE building." Umm...what? I sort of nodded and wandered off, figuring I would try again the next day when there was someone else working.

Sure enough there was, and she said, "Come on back, you want [so-and-so]'s office just over there." Great! I then noticed there were about ten people hanging out in the waiting area outside so-and-so's office...and one person waiting inside the office where the lady we wanted wasn't even present. Not good, but I had time before my next class to wait, so I just took a seat.

After one hour again of waiting I was informed that, "Yeah it's just your birthday, which is 1212**, right?"

More on AUC classes and student culture to come! By the by, looks like I'm joining the Dabke team and/or the Egyptian Folkloric group!

If you start dating an Egyptian boy and tell him you don't really cook, he may begin to cry--or at least look like he's about to. Therefore out of love, curiosity, hunger, and embarrassment over my lack of ability to feed myself, I attended a cooking class a few days ago that ended up being a blast! I found about it through Cairo Scholars, where a girl was advertising the class for special Egyptian food, taught by an Egyptian lady, and we'd have Iftar after at her home. For 150LE that sounded great!

We learned to cook a few different dishes, including: Shorbet Lisan ‘Asfour (Orzo soup in homemade chicken broth), Khoshaf bel Laban (Milk with dried fruit & nuts), Ma7shi Felfel we Kosa (Stuffed Peppers & Zucchini), Reyash Dani (Egyptian style lamb chops), Makarona Bechamel bel La7ma el Mafrooma (Oven-baked pasta with Bechamel and Ground Beef), 2amar el Din (Apricot drink), Karkaday (Hibisucus drink).

Everything was delicious, but what I found really fascinating was the style of Egyptian cooking and how people acquire their ingredients here/prepare them for cooking. This is still a country where you CAN get things fresh from the animals or fresh from the farm so to speak, and so it seems like many cooks that live here prefer not to shop the grocery stores like we foreign girls have been doing, but hit up the suuq for your veggies and milk and the butcher directly for the freshest stuff. Tipping the guy who sells you bags of fresh milk or the one who cuts your beef for you ensures that you get the best products too, especially once you develop a regular-customer sort of relationship.

Also of note is that there can be extra steps that us Westerners aren't used to dealing with when you prepare ingredients. For example, when you buy milk here (not at the grocery store) it literally is from the cow, so you have to boil it and remove the heavy cream yourself. This means that you get high quality milk, but in addition once you scrape off the cream and refrigerate it you get the most delicious heavy cream ever to use in your Makarona Bechamel! By the way, that is a baked pasta dish to die for--actually literally because we all stared in awe at how much cream and fats went into it. It was out of this world tasty though!

As a result of this class I theoretically could make these dishes, but at the moment I'm content with just keeping a bottle of 3mr El Din in the fridge because it's delicious and easy! During Ramadan you'll see in stores these packages with pictures of apricots on them wrapped in orange plastic wrap. When you open them up there's something like a big apricot fruit leather inside that you rip into little pieces and soak in water overnight before blending (if you have a blender--we don't have a working one!) and adding sugar to taste. Egyptians and Westerners do tend to disagree on how much sugar to add though, so you can also just have people add their own!

In Maadi the road the metro runs parallel to, and has stops on, is called "Road 9." Long story--basically the streets in Maadi DO have numbers...but they make no logical sense. Recently the girls have decided that Shari3 Tissa is pretty much the place to go hang out and shop around, and I have to agree. It's got all these cute little Khan Al Khalili-esque stores hiding beneath upscale cafes, that probably are a little more expensive than the Khan itself, but without the crazy hawking, crowds, and general insanity! I picked up some gorgeous scarves (15LE each) and a swath of the kind of tent fabric that I am craaazy about!

I also picked up a tray of awesome Egyptian desserts from a store next to an equally awesome silver store, with windows packed with boards of trinkets and pendants. So, we basically have been eating little mini-backlava style things of different varieties for the last day. Some come with pistachios, some in squares, or rolls and all are ridiculously decadent!

Ok, since people have been asking it IS indeed Ramadan! I would love to write loads about it, but I am doing an article for The Gilded Serpent on Ramadan in Cairo and don't want to repeat myself, so stay tuned! I'm getting some nice photos, and trust me it is a very festive, fun time of year unless you're hungry or need something between 5:30 and 8pm!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


It's 4am again in Cairo, and I am awake again because this is just before my Cairo bed time. Things have a way of getting a little weird so that all of us find ourselves insomnia-ed out and sleeping at completely random times. I maintain that my tendencies to stay up (more than) half the night serve a couple purposes: I sleep through the hottest parts of the day, and when it's super late here it's a good time to chat or skype with my friends back on the West Coast.


The last week has been a little nuts, especially after a solid week of quiet, exploring Maadi, and living alone time. My room mate Autumn arrived, but then got invited to France so the next day we went to the airport en masse to stick her on a plane to Paris and grab Carolyn, my other room mate which turned into a complete fiasco because the airport is totally unorganized. She's keeping a blog by the way (more detailed than mine, because my memory is somewhat awful), named in the style of this one, so be sure to check out "Carolyn in Cairo." Carolyn and I mucked around for a few days and I subjected her to various learning experiences about Cairo and the neighborhood, which she took in her usual good humored, enthusiastic way. She's enthusiastic about everything! I have to say it's the right attitude to have when traveling, and goes a long way towards making sure you have a good trip.

Not long after a couple days of eating Koshary and wandering around downtown with Carolyn, my buddy Tim of Tokyo City Blues arrived to crash on our couch for a couple days while he looked for a place. By this point, my bawwabs were getting more and more confused, but I assured them that Ibn 3mii (son of my uncle) was not staying permanently in my hilariously broken Arabic. Carolyn and I enthusiastically dragged Tim out to a cafe immediately and I lectured her on some 3ameyya differences she'll have to deal with from studying fusha. The good thing was that it made me realize how much colloquial Arabic I've picked up this summer, and I felt sort of proud and motivated to continue. The bad thing is that Tim claims to not remember anything about this night, which I'm not entirely surprised by considering he spent half of it staring into space over his mango juice.

Soon enough Carolyn's boyfriend Cory arrived and the house really got crowded! It's been fun having him around though, as now Ramy and I have another couple to drag out on double dates and be generally adorable with. The first double date was to Harrawi, one of Ramy and my favorite cafes near Al Azhar mosque--what could be better than smoking shisha next to hundreds-of-years-old buildings? Pics of Harrawi forthcoming as I keep forgetting my camera when I go places. I did remember the next night when Ramy surprised by taking us out to the Citadel--which is amazing during Ramadan, by the way--for a Wust El Balad concert! I had been wanting to catch one of their shows since they're a favorite of Ramy's, but I was so surprised and thrilled that we got to see them for free at The Citadel! It was an awesome show, preceded by a short folkloric one that I also enjoyed a lot. The venue was awesome, and I'm glad we missed the bus and ended up walking up to the Citadel itself because you turn these corners and get the most breath-taking views as you go. What shocked me was the wind-chill factor. I was actually feeling cold for the first time in months, which I think totally confused my body. We all had a great time though, and I really, really want Wust El Balad's CD now...plus we're going again next month insha'allah!


Now Autumn has returned from her foray in France, we've all spent one day at AUC running around to get everything done, and Tim has moved out. We miss him lots, but he drops by lots to hang out and use our internet so it's all good! The day at AUC was pretty rough as I suffered MAJOR insomnia the night before, spending a solid hour crying and writing and listening to music on the balcony until So7or (about 3:30am) when Ramy called and tried to calm me down. It sort of worked, but then Carolyn and Cory woke up and we decided to make sandwiches and chat on the balcony. I got half an hour of sleep before the epic jaunt to AUC. It's beautiful (see the pic @ left) but I couldn't appreciate it because of the heat and lack of sleep. Here's an excerpt from the writing that night:

"I’m finding myself going through a new layer of adjustment being in a new country, which I think I will name the “Home?! Oh right—crap!” phase. It crept up on me suddenly and I was swamped with a feeling of love for this place…followed by a sudden wonder of how in the hell I was ever going to be able to go home and act normal. No, I am not concerned about picking up Egyptian habits like walking in the street or smoking shisha all the time or whatever, I am concerned that I will have spent a year in Egypt and it will have (and already has) engraved that time on my heart without any outside indication.

It’s good and bad really, because when I return this year will become my own personal internal experience, but I also want people to know and catch some understanding of what an impact it made. I know that no one will ever be able to understand this stuff quite as clearly or exactly as I do—because it is my personal experience after all—but I want them to see something of what I’m seeing here. I want them to know how I felt listening to the call to prayer in the pre-dawn light when I first arrived versus now a couple months in, and I want people to get why I love Shaabi music, and things like this that no one will ever really get. I know this, and I know that probably when I wake up in two hours (to go to AUC for orientation—it’s currently 4am) I will have accepted it, but right now I’m so sad to think I will go home and have my Egypt visit be remembered like this.

I love Cairo, but man does it make me feel emotionally unstable! The levels and phases of adjusting to life in a new country can be pretty rough, and I’ve gone through a few already, but this one I think surprised me more than others. Of course I’ve had the “I wanna go home!” moments, but I wasn’t expecting to be hit by a fear of going home, or at least not this early in my trip."

Basically I've been playing Cairo mom lately to a lot of people, which is fun and nice, but my cynical non-smiley self is starting to come out. I'm not sure why, I think it may be the lack of sleep or the need to not feel responsible or something, but I'm fighting really hard to not let a bad attitude come out that could alienate my new roomies. They're sweet people, so I'm really determined to make sure things stay on good terms!

PS--It's Ramadan now in Cairo, and its an experience! Next post...