Tuesday, August 31, 2010

i rode through the desert on a horse with no name

And I have absolutely no pictures to show for it. We were warned enthusiastically by our RAs to leave everything on the bus so we wouldn't lose our cameras or mobiles, and unfortunately, I listened. I think it probably would have been okay, but I wasn't willing to risk it.
Our bus left Zamalek at 9pm, and arrived in Giza around 10:20pm. Normally, the drive wouldn't take that long, but as usual, Ramadan changes everything.
When we got off the bus, I was forced to volunteer the information that I had ridden a horse before, a fact which automatically put me in the group that would be galloping. This was not exciting for me, mostly nerve-wracking.
I was helped onto my horse by a man who at first asked me "black or white, black or white?" presumably referring to the color of the horse I would ride. I didn't know what to say to him, and I ended up on a brown horse. All of the horses were brown.
It might be worth mentioning here that I have only ever ridden in carefully controlled Girl Scout or family reunion environments before, and always on big, well-fed, American horses. These horses were not American quarter-horses, not mustangs, and not ponies. These were Arabians. And we were supposed to gallop them across some sand dunes in the pitch black to get a glimpse of the pyramids from about a mile away.
The pyramids in the end were a bit disappointing because they were so far away, but the view across Cairo, lit up for Ramadan, with the yellow half moon hanging in the sky above the city almost made up for it.
A few of the adventures that we had on our ride include: one horse sitting down and refusing to get up, my guide trotting my horse and my knee into another guide and knocking him flat on his face in the sand, a horse that would only respond to commands given to the horse next to it, a horse that seemed determined to run over any and all small children it came across, and my horse guide yelling "quick, quick!" and dragging my unwilling horse and another behind him as he ran up a sand dune.
That pretty much sums up the entire adventure. In the end, I didn't gallop, just trotted painfully for a few minutes, and since my horse didn't sit on me or break its leg and have to be shot (this didn't happen to any horses while we were there, but it seemed like a possibility...), I consider the trip to be a success. Would I do it again? Yes.
But next time, I would gallop.

Monday, August 30, 2010

iftar cruise

Nothing exciting to note today, except for the end. AUC has been putting on some amazing trips for the new international students, including a trip to Old Cairo (which I missed), the felucca Nile ride I mentioned earlier, a horseback riding tour of the pyramids (tomorrow!!), and tonight, a Nile cruise with dinner.

After driving for an hour and a half from the campus to the boat dock (making about 8 u-turns that wouldn't have been necessary had our driver not missed the dock's parking lot by 3 feet), we were really glad to walk around for a bit, even if it was only to get onto a boat.

The decor was very tasteful, and not at all over the top. (photographic evidence!)

me and my tiny egyptian friend

We were herded onto the top deck where we all admired the setting sun, and then realized to our horror that we weren't going to be served any food until it had set completely. This was an iftar (breaking the fast) cruise, after all.

we have to wait till what sets?!?

almost dinnertime!
so close and yet so far

Eventually, we were seated in the dining room and served dinner, which turned out to be the best (and probably most nutritionally complete) meal I've had so far in Egypt...

the rice was cinnamon flavored. i didn't know that was even possible...
There was even some live entertainment, which the Egyptians mostly ignored, but which the other international students and I were fascinated by.
(sorry the video is sideways, I haven't figured out how to switch that yet...)

I didn't know that whirling dervishes performed, or that they did it to disco music with bass quite that loud...
At some point during dinner, I realized that the boat was moving, and had been for a while. However, when we reached the dock at the end of the cruise, I hadn't noticed up turning around or changing directions. I could only conclude that the Nile is a circle, or possibly a mobius strip.
Either way, it was beautiful.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

drive through the desert

Another day of boring bureaucracy and repetitious Arabic today. However, I did learn to hail a taxi, tell time, and count to 100, so I guess it can't have been that bad. Also, I only had to wait 45 minutes for my ID card, instead of the 3 hours I would have waited yesterday. Still no progress on the paying for survival Arabic front, though. They only take cash, and the ATMs on campus wouldn't let me withdraw what I needed to pay. I'll have to try again tomorrow to make up the full amount, then again after that to get enough to buy my bus pass.
Speaking of buses, the drive home today was agonizing, sitting next to the hot window in the cold bus for an hour and a half in traffic. At one point, someone noted that the bus was driving on the wrong side of the highway, but I didn't have the courage (or the energy) to look.
When we got back to Zamalek, everyone was starving, so four of us walked to dinner, this time to an Egyptian fine dining establishment overlooking the Nile. We ate Italian food brought to us on silver trays, and... Okay, who am I kidding? It was Pizza Hut.
not this pizza hut & obviously not my photo. maybe next week, though...

It really is a restaurant in Egypt, though. Two floors, comfy chairs, real menus, and waiters too! We had problems ordering, mostly because we were confused about what 'pepperoni' meant. Apparently, in the Middle East, if you order 'pepperoni', what you get is olives and mushrooms. Don't ask why, not even the manager could tell us. Eventually, he did fix our order for us, and the rest of dinner was delicious. The best part was, when it was time to pay, no one in our group skimped and tried to pay less than their share. It was a miracle, and I think it shows that Cairo really does bring out the best in people.
To finish up, these are some pictures I've taken on the drive to and from school. This is what I'll be seeing twice almost every day for the next nine months.

this is some kind of mausoleum thing, we think. it's really huge, and covered in crosses.
smog on the nile
a very famous mosque
permanently ongoing construction

the desert around new cairo
unfinished apartments

Saturday, August 28, 2010

good news and bad news

The good news is, I was able to save TONS of time this morning. The bad news is, I was forced to do it by what is seemingly the shut off of the entire water system for the dorm. The toilets won't flush, the showers won't run, and the sinks are only a dribble.
In other good news, it looks like I was the first one to discover this fact, which meant that I had time to duck my head under the sink for a quick rinse before the water disappeared completely. If the water's come back on by the time I have to leave for class, it will make me angry, but right now, it doesn't seem like that's gonna happen. Looks like today will be a day full of smelly angry girls, and possibly one of extra smelly guys who don't care one way or the other. Although if the boys have water and the girls don't, we're gonna have a problem.

desert bureacracy

Today I took the bus ride to AUC's new campus for the first time. It took about an hour to reach New Cairo, and on the way, we saw some amazing things. We crossed the Nile again, this time covered in smog that stretched across the entire city.
The tall buildings and crowded streets slowly faded into empty apartment blocks and housing tracts still under construction. The sand encroached on the sides, until all we could see on either side of the bus was desert. Finally, we reached New Cairo, and the AUC campus greeted us like an oasis. The greenery seemed like a deception though, because as soon as we set foot off the bus, we were greeted by the heat. At a guess, I would put the temperature at 9:00am in the low 100s fahrenheit. As we toured the campus, we felt like we were melting. Not even the cohesiveness and beauty of the architecture could distract us, and the instant the tour was over, my friend Emily and I hurried (sluggishly) to the Quick-24hr-Mart to buy some ice water and snacks to replenish ourselves.
Then we entered the wonderland that is AUC's amazing bureaucratic machine. We were handed a checklist of essential tasks, then told to make our way around the tables in a room that didn't allow us to complete any of them. For me, the most essential item of the day was to ensure my enrollment in the survival Arabic course, but for Emily, it was to rearrange her class schedule. We split up, and I was shuffled from building to building all the way across the campus and back, meeting people, filling out forms and finally arriving in my survival Arabic class 5 minutes late and 10 minutes before the teacher arrived.
Class was actually interesting, despite the fact that most of it was a review of what I'd learned in my colloquial Egyptian class last year. Best of all, I got to make some more new friends.
After class ended, 3 and a half hours after it started, we all trudged back to the bus, barely making it in time to get seats and ride back to Zamalek.
A few hours later, after cooling off in the AC for a while, Emily and I along with other some other Zamalek residents headed off to get dinner. We were in the mood for traditional Egyptian food, so of course we went to Hardee's. What could be better? We also completed our grocery shopping, and had an adventure waiting outside a phone store for it to open, an experience which lead us all to more fully understand the difference between Egyptian time ('the store will be open in 5 minutes') and real time ('dude, we've been here and hour and a half. when is the store going to open??'). Eventually, those who needed to succeeded in buying their phones, and we walked back home, swimming through the humid Cairo air that had been suffocating us for the past 4 hours, back home.

Friday, August 27, 2010

jet lag and feluccas

Today started out late. Really late. I don't know exactly what time I woke up, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't before noon Cairo time. I showered, which was its own little adventure, because I had to carry everything with me that I needed, and technically we're not allowed to walk around dressed indecently in a towel. The shower itself was fine, except for the hardware. The shower head decided that it was a good idea to spray water up and sideways as well as down, and managed to get everything, including the bathroom floor outside the shower completely wet. That was alright though, since it didn't get my clothes, just my makeup bag, which I managed to dry later on the A/C.
After my shower, I spent a few hours in my room, generally being lazy since I knew nothing interesting was scheduled. I started to get really hungry and feel sick, though, so I eventually went out into the Cairo heat and humidity to find some food. Originally, I was planning to brave the streets and find a supermarket, but I was feeling so sick by then that I settled for an orange juice from the cafeteria, which was delicious. I met a nice girl who had just arrived and we talked while we ate/drank.
I think my favorite part of being here so far in general is how many new people I get to meet. I may not remember their names, but being able to have 10 new conversations a day with 10 different people is very fun and exciting. Even meeting back up with people I've met before is fun, because then we get to guess each other's names, once we've both admitted we don't remember them.
After my breakfast/lunch of orange juice, I returned to my room and took a nap before my next step of the day, which was dinner, and hopefully real food. Well, technically I took two naps, because I meant to get up at 4:30pm, but reset my alarm for 5:30 as soon as it went off the first time since I could barely keep my eyes open.
Dinner was good, although it also came from the cafeteria. I met even more new people, some of whom I went on an adventure with later.
Two girls from my dinner table wanted to buy cell phones, and since I was pretty sure I remembered where the cell phone store was, I offered to go with them, just to get outside the dorm for the first time that day. Eventually two other girls joined us and we headed out. At first we were stuck in a large group of people, who, it turned out, were not heading to the cell phone store at all, but to dinner. Oh well. We made our way back to the dorm to try again, and unfortunately, I managed to get us lost. Not badly lost, but definitely lost enough to not know the exact way back home. We wandered for about half an hour before running into a couple of other AUC students who pointed us back to the dorm, which was just down the road in the one direction I had been sure it wasn't. So much for my sense of direction!
cairo traffic - don't try to cross the street!
The RAs had arranged a trip for us at night, a felucca ride on the Nile, which thankfully I had signed up for yesterday, because it was full by the afternoon today. The meeting time was 8:30, but we didn't leave the lobby to get on a bus until 9:15, and we didn't make it to the boats until about 10. Traffic was insane, even from a huge tour bus. Everyone was done breaking their Ramadan fast and we headed home. The bridges between Zamalek and the mainland were the worst, but it wasn't great anywhere.
The boat ride was amazing. The captains unfurled the giant red sails and pushed us off from the dock and into the Nile. We cruised for over an hour, talking and taking pictures, and enjoying the desserts that our RA, Ayesha had brought for us. I didn't catch the name of the dessert, but it was delicious, and we all ate plenty.
looking north down the nile
The Cairo skyline from the Nile was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Filled with river boats, tall hotels and skyscrapers, lit from below by headlights and above by searchlights, it was an amazing sight. Too soon, the tour was over, and our boat took us back to the dock and the waiting bus. Traffic back to the dorms was, if anything, worse than it had been on the way there. People crossed the streets every which way, some only glancing quickly at the oncoming traffic before they made their move.
Finally, we made it back, and my new friend Emily and I tried to glean whatever information we could about our student orientation on the new campus, scheduled for tomorrow. None of the RAs had anything to help us, though, so we headed off to bed, with plans to meet up and catch the earliest bus to AUC that we could get. 7:40 has never looked so early before, and if I have any plans to shower tomorrow, it's time for bed.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

the 32 hour day

It's finally over. All I have left to do is write this blog post and then I can crash.
My day started at 5:00am pacific time with some last minute packing and a drive to LAX. My family stuck around while I got checked in, but then mercilessly abandoned me to face security alone. Which turned out fine, actually. I even remembered to take my belt off.
Then I had a short wait for my flight to JFK, which seemed long at the time, but now is in the distant past. The couple I sat next to were disgustingly infatuated with each other, making my lonely plane ride just that much more fun.
Anyway, once I arrived at JFK, I had time between check-in and boarding to grab an iced coffee and a muffin. Both of which got onto my new shirt. So that was lovely, and then I boarded the plane, and spent the next 13 hours or so trapped in a metal cylinder with screaming children, no one to talk to, and only Mockingjay to entertain me.
It was a very entertaining read, and what parts of it confused me I'm sure were due to the fact that I haven't re-read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire (the first and second books in the trilogy) for a long time.
Shortly after I finished Mockingjay, we landed in Cairo. The city looked huge, spread out beneath the plane, and now that I've driven through it, I can confirm that it really is that huge.
The temperature was only 86 degrees outside, and after an hour of waiting in immigration and customs and baggage lines, I was very glad it wasn't any hotter! I met some people from AUC who were taking the same bus to the dorms as I was, and together we shared our first experience of Cairo driving.
I think it would be wrong to say that Egyptians in Cairo are bad drivers. After all, I only saw one accident the entire time we drove, and it seemed incidental. A rule of thumb for driving in Cairo seems to be that no matter how many lanes are painted on the pavement, there is always room for at least one more. Maybe two. Oh, you really need to get by? Three is fine. The air was constantly filled with honking horns, and not the crunch of metal and squeal of brakes that I was dreading. My conclusion is, all the best drivers in the world live in Cairo, just for the practice. After all, who needs to follow the road signs as long as nobody gets hurt?
The Zamalek dorms were just as nice as I'd heard they were, and I ended up on the 3rd floor, in a double room, currently without a second occupant. Hopefully one will arrive tomorrow, though, because I know I'd be lonely without anyone else to share this giant room with.
We were served a complementary lunch (at 4pm Cairo time) and were 'orientated' to our new living situation. Apparently, there's a demerit system. Caught immodestly dressed (no shoulders, ladies!) in a common area? 2 demerits. Caught with an alcohol bottle (empty or not)? 4 demerits! Shame on you. Just one more, and you'll have to find a new place to live! (Better keep those PDAs private... Oh, and yes, that includes mixed-gender hugs.)
After orientation, I unpacked, and discovered my woeful need for hangers. I don't know where to buy them, but the RAs are all very nice, and I'm sure they can help.
By 7:30pm Cairo time, I was nodding off, and only the promise of being taken to buy a cell phone by and RA could keep me awake. A tiring but fruitful hour later, I am now the owner of a tiny little cell phone, and 50 whole minutes to talk on it. Wow!
And now, friends, it's time to sleep. Time check: 12:52pm in California, 9:52pm in Cairo. T-minus some preferably large number of hours before I wake up and start my first full day in Egypt.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

here today, cairene tomorrow

I leave for Egypt early tomorrow morning. Very, very early. Early enough that I should be asleep right now, instead of blogging. But I'm packed, all three suitcases, and all I have to do tomorrow is sleep on a plane, so I think I'm doing okay.
The last few days have been stressful, trying to get everything together, but now I'm done, and (insha'alla) I will arrive in Cairo tomorrow, with all my luggage intact. Then I can move into the dorms, unpack, and start my adventure for real.
One thing I'm most thankful for about this trip is that I'm not afraid of it. Cairo and its people don't frighten me, and although I know I'll encounter obstacles with both, I'm not scared to face them. Whatever gets thrown at me, I'll do my best to handle it, and I'll let you know how it goes right here.
Also, since music is a big part of my life, and I'm planning to keep it that way, I've decided to bring it into this blog as much as I can. I'll leave you with two favorites, an old and a new.
First, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by Neutral Milk Hotel: a song that never gets old, and furthermore, seems appropriate, since I'll be crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time tomorrow.
Second, a new favorite, discovered only an hour ago by a google search for Cairo's indie rock scene: Kol El Nas, by Cairokee, a group apparently at the forefront of Egypt's rock music scene. And forgive me, but I honestly don't know what the lyrics mean. I can only hope that they're wildly inappropriate.
Wish me luck for my journey tomorrow, I'll write next time from Cairo, Egypt.