Number of days left: 3
Number of pages to write: 5
Number of Family Transport trips to/from campus to go: 2
Number of giant orange suitcases to pack: 1
Amount of motivation to do all of the above: 0. Or maybe even -1.
By this time on Friday, I’ll be in London’s Heathrow Airport, most likely running with my overstuffed backpack and zillion-pound bag trailing behind me to catch my flight to NY. The layover is only 1.5 hours, so I hope Egypt’s air traffic controllers are kind and let us take off on time.
The past week has been filled with diversions from my ordinary life in Cairo, diversions which have left me with a (more) pleasant taste of Egypt than I’ve had for the last month or so. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder when anything here became ordinary, when seeing the Nile started to feel commonplace, when I started to complain about seeing the Pyramids. Part of me feels like I’ve taken some of this for granted, but I know that a good part of why I can’t focus on Cairo is my excitement for coming home and reconnecting with my life in America. I’m occasionally hit with moments where I think to myself, “I’ll miss this when it isn’t here.” This has happened several times over the past week, not for anything in particular but for mundane everyday events: watching the wind shift a row of palm trees, seeing a taxi back off of an on-ramp without a care in the world, receiving tiny spoons and entirely too much sugar for a pot of black tea.
Last Tuesday, my friend Sarah came to stay with me for a few days. She’s been in Morocco with an SIT program for the last four months, first in a homestay in Rabat and then in an apartment in Casablanca doing independent work, with a brief village stay tucked in there somewhere. After abandoning her for a day, leaving her to do the Citadel on her own with my friend Joey’s guest (two visitors loose in Cairo – good thing she speaks Arabic!), we met up with some friends for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant and some wine on a felucca. We also showed the visitors Cafe Hureya, the downtown bar and meetup place for expats, chess players, and all sorts of Cairean youth wanting to take advantage of the more liberal night-time culture in the city.
We spent the next few days doing some of the necessary tourist sights, seeing the Pyramids, the Egyptian museum, the markets downtown, Coptic Cairo, and such. Sarah and I were able to bargain for some tent fabric (highly decorative but casual cloth painted by Bedouins), some sterling silver jewelry, and a few other things which I can’t say – they might end up as gifts in the hands of those who read this! It was great to get to do some of the typical Cairo things again with a friend, and her visit came at a nice time – I was forced to review some of the places I like most in the city and to do so with the eyes of a newcomer. Rather than seeing everything with the weary, jaded shell I’ve acquired, I enjoyed watching what goes on, observing how someone unfamiliar took everything in, and playing tour guide with what I’ve learned. Having someone familiar with the monetary and sexual harassment was also a plus- we were able to swap experiences and bitterly commiserate, while laughing it off and discussing some of the more serious social implications.
One of the new sights that we found in Zamalek were a series of tucked-away art galleries, which we stumbled upon during a particularly hot and sticky afternoon walk around the island. Sarah had done her independent project on the use of Arabic calligraphy in modern Moroccan art, and what sociopolitical statement this influence might have made. It combined linguistics with art and religious studies with political theory, topics of great interest to both of us. When we saw a portrait with a face made from Arabic script, we had to go into the gallery. It was nice to see some of the local art scene, and the gallery owner was more than willing to point us in the direction of other places. While most visitors tend to think of Egypt’s art in terms of the ancient hieroglyphics and tomb paintings, there is also a vibrant modern art scene, often led by female painters, which goes unnoticed.
We ended Sarah’s visit with a “farewell dinner” out with a dozen of the girls I’ve become friendly with, at a restaurant that we’ve enjoyed several times during the past four months. It was nice to have everyone in one place, and as people trickled out, I did realize that I met some very fun and interesting people here, people who I hope to maintain ties with in the future. Sarah and I declined any more celebrations, since we’d spent the whole day sightseeing, and ended our night instead overlooking the Nile, sharing a slice of the first chocolate cake Sarah had seen in months.
Perhaps more than the sights themselves, I enjoyed catching up with her and comparing our experiences. Relating what I’ve been doing and feeling to someone else who is studying abroad in North Africa was helpful, and forced me to think objectively about what I’m doing here. Our programs differed greatly, with pros and cons to each. It was interesting to hear how different two seemingly similar societies could be, and how diverse each Moroccan city is. I was especially surprised by the role that language has played in our experiences: while I’ve been lamenting the extreme promotion of English in Cairo, Sarah has been fighting her way through a society that relies largely on French and the local dialect. I can’t help but be a little jealous of how independent she was forced to be, but I did manage to avoid some of the difficulties and isolation that students in that situation often felt.
Sarah headed back to the airport on Friday evening, and a few hours later Sam and I were in a cab of our own, headed to Turgoman Station. We met another friend, Tegan, and boarded the 9 hour bus to Dahab. Dahab is a relaxing beach town located on the Sinai peninsula, near the more famous resort town Sharm-el-Sheikh. We chose to head here because we wanted a few laid-back days in the sun, and the large gap of time in between our finals allowed us to take a few days out of the city. It is a popular spot for AUC students because it is cheaper and has a more youthful vibe than some of the other diving and beach spots along the coast. We were able to secure a double room at the Penguin Village Hostel for about $4 a night each – I am very spoiled now when it comes to inexpensive travel – going anywhere near Europe again is going to involve a lot of sticker shock.
We reached Dahab with no problems – a few checkpoints along the way, and a couple of half-hearted looks at our passports were the only diversions. Egyptian buses play movies, blasting the volume through public speakers as loud as the air conditioning was cold, but luckily I was tired enough from the week that I slept through most of the laughably bad James Bond knockoff film they showed. After checking in and declining an “activities presentation,” we sipped tea near the water before spending the rest of Saturday in the sun. It was strange to be wearing a bikini in public after covering most of my body for so long – I’m not sure my skin knew what to do with all the sun!
The strip of developed land in Dahab is essentially comprised of restaurants and lounge spots on the water, complete with low tables and pillows for relaxing. Some of them lead directly to little patches of rocky beach, adorned with rickety wooden-planked chaise lounges which served as perfect entry points into the water. Across the way, you can see a gigantic land mass – Saudi Arabia!- and once in the water, it appears almost close enough to swim to. The water itself was cooler than I expected, but was a gorgeous deep blue, translucent at the coast and darkening as I swam out. The sand quickly dropped off, leaving me unable to touch the bottom but completely free with few other swimmers in sight. The salinity of the water – even the showers and sinks ran full of salt – made us more buoyant, and though it was easy to float on the surface, diving deeper was much more difficult. We watched scuba divers suit up to explore the famous reefs and aquatic life around the Blue Hole, a world-renowned dive spot, but decided that our time was too short and money too tight to get certified ourselves. I guess that gives me an excuse to come back one day…
Even without doing any diving, Dahab provided for a picture-perfect few days away from the craziness of the city. The three of us spent most of the day laying in the sun, occasionally reading or talking, stopping only to grab a fresh juice or to have some lunch. Towards the evenings, we strolled the area around the other hostels and small shops, enjoying the breezes that came in as the sun was setting. At one point we remarked that the best part about it was that there weren’t many option of things to do – you were left with no choice but to fully relax, a very pleasant break at the end of a trying semester.
The first night, we headed inland, where the restaurants – simply based on location – were about half the price of those on the shore. We stopped to eat a late dinner at a pretty standard Egyptian place: roast chickens in a rotisserie, some kebabs, and simple dishes of rice, tahini, cucumber salad, and soup on metal tureens. We ate a small table outside, and our waiter stuffed our table to the brim with more food than we could possibly manage to finish ourselves. After eating probably one-third of what he gave us, we guiltily looked at the remains – only to be met with about eight of the town’s many cats – the perfect solution for leftovers. Taking a cue from our neighboring table, we began to feed the cats bits of chicken, mouthfuls of rice, and soon they all wanted in on the action. Satisfied, they left after a while, leaving us to spend the rest of the darkening night chatting at the table, the sounds of American hip-hop drifting over from a “music shop” next door.
We repeated our relaxing routine the next day, though we ran out of the sunscreen we’d packed from America and had to hit up the small supermarket in search of another bottle. Sam and I decided on something vaguely German, figuring an imported brand couldn’t be too horrid. It was marked SPF 30 – a gigantic step up from the 4’s and 8’s we’d seen back in the Cairo MetroMart. I think we may have chosen wrongly, however, and we both ended up quite red by dinner time. Having had enough of the sun, we improvised with my aloe-containing face lotion and went out for mojitos over sunset at Yalla!, a restaurant-cum-bar we’d eaten at earlier that day.
We later wandered over to a restaurant that Sam had eaten at before and that other friends had recommended, Meya-Meya, for fish. The hilarious waiter brought us a “bedouin fish” dish, consisting of two gigantic whole fish, complete with tail, eyes, and scales, encased in tinfoil with vegetables and a lightly seasoned lemony sauce. Again, it was far too much food and we were able to give the cats that surrounded our table quite the feast, leaving them to pick on the skeletons of the fish and throwing bits of pita for them to go find and devour. After dinner we relaxed on the cushions around our table, chatting briefly with the other travelers. There was a man sleeping on some of the pillows near us, and when we asked, we learned that apparently you can spend the night out there for a few pounds. I have to say, it’d probably be cozier than the raggedy-springed beds we were on!
We ended the night by playing with David, a blond haired Irish toddler who we’d seen romping on the beach earlier in the day. We thought it was a little strange that he was running around Dahab by himself, a little toy car and pint-sized tricycle in tow, but apparently he was the son of the sleeping man! A bit odd, but he seemed entirely at ease, playing with the waitstaff and throwing his float around the tented outdoor seating. After he gave up, two men, cousins who appeared British but grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, joined us for coffee. Over heavily spiced cardamom brew and Nescafes, we swapped travel stories, talked about teaching English, and learned why they were around: one of them had a sister getting married in Israel, so they were touring the area. I always find it fun to meet other people while exploring new places, and find out what brought them to the same location and what their lives have in store back home.
We left at 2:30 on Monday afternoon, bound for Cairo. The bus ride was a little trickier – same James Bond spinoff, louder Quranic chanting from the man behind me, and no sleep – but altogether, not terrible. We made the same stops at checkpoints, but this time around we were asked to go retrieve luggage from under the bus. Sam had her bags with her, so Tegan and I went and joined the Egyptians in scramble to grab backpacks. A few soldiers appeared and said something to the group in brisk, rough Arabic – we were just confused. Luckily, a Cairean engineer, a few years older than us, noticed our plight and instructed us through the process: bags on the line, step back, wait. We watched as german shepherds sniffed our luggage and the guards told us it was okay to put everything back in. A slightly strange experience, but nothing too unexpected.
I’m back in Cairo now, briefly. Today is Tuesday, which means I’ve got to get to work on some take-home finals for my Literature and Philosophy class. Tomorrow is the last venture to campus, first to hand in my work and then to take an evening Mythology exam. Thursday will be spent packing and gathering up the last of the gifts and things I’d like to bring home with me. Sam’s flight is very early Friday morning, so I think we’ll head to the airport together late Thursday night, where I’ll wait to depart at 8:30 am. Depending on time, I don’t know if I’ll post again – so next time I write, it may be from America! Ma’a’salemah, Cairo!