Carolyn's Adventures in Cairo!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Top Three

I've been asked by a lot of people, in the course of my four or five months here, what my favorite things about Egypt are. In response to the question Autumn and I decided to come up with an "Egypt: Top 5!" list. It became a pleasant game that we would play while walking to the bus, shopping for groceries, switching classes, etc., and proved to be much more challenging than we had expected. I mean, how do you summarize a country in a few short bullet points? Could we really think of five things that encompassed all the new and exciting experiences we had lived through during our stay in this exotic country?

Turns out we couldn't.

But we thought of three.

So here they are!

Carolyn and Autumn's Top 3

1) Street cats! They're everywhere, and are adorable. Autumn and I like making tsk'ing noises at them, because they think they're far too cool for school and we like to offend their feline pride by cooing over how adorable they are.

2) They deliver alcohol right to your door! And it's super cheap! I mean, you'll go blind if you drink too much of it...but beggar's can't be choosers, right?

Carolyn's #3) The sunsets are beautiful. Granted, it's because of the horrible haze of smog that constantly engulfs the city - but if it's going to be poisoning me, at least it can look like a creamsicle in the process.

Autumn's #3) Our balcony

Listing our top three favorite things made us curious: what did our friends and acquaintances think of this quirky little country? So we did a little surveying and this is what we came up with [NOTE: It's a work in progress - I'll be adding more lists to it as they come in]:

Guthrie's Top 3
(Guthrie is American, and a one-semester study abroad student like us)

"1) Produce stand vendors are awesome. i haven't met a non-awesome one yet.

2) People being uber-dramatic over everything. i can't say its a good thing but it makes me laugh a lot so I'm putting it on the list


Guthrie's roommate Andre's Top 3
(also American, also a one-semester study abroad student):

1) You can throw your trash everywhere, and no one cares

2) Stray cats!

3) You can pee in the street!

Mohammad's Top 3

(Mohammad is ethnically Sudanese but grew up in the UK. He works as a professor in Egypt)

1) Getting his paycheck (because the school waited two months to give it to him)

2) The moment he will fly out of Egypt

3) Sleeping, and dreaming about not being in Egypt

Mathias's Top 3
(Mathias is Autumn's friend from her Hands On trip to Haiti. He's French, but technically from Chile. He came to visit us in Cairo for a week back in September.)

1) Autumn - awwwww

2) Dalida, a really famous singer who grew up in Egypt but is Italian in origin. She has sung in ten different languages! Look her up, I don't actually know anything about her.

3) Deliverable alcohol - though this is a cop out, since he stole the idea from Autumn and I. Lame.

Tim's Top 3
(Tim is in his first semester as an AUC graduate student, studying Refugee Law. He's from Seattle and has red hair!)

1) Carolyn and Autumn - oh wait, not Autumn - she got demoted for having already been on here

2) The friendly people

3) The terrific food

[NOTE: Having listed the last two, Tim proceeded to laugh hysterically for five minutes, after which he lapsed into a dark silence]

More surveys to come insha allah!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice...

Egyptians love a good scam, and this is something that takes a lot of getting used to from a foreigner's perspective. If you let your guard down you'll lose the shirt off your back and yet somehow walk away thinking you've been done a great favor. It's only when you get home and take stock of the encounter that you suddenly slap your hand to your forehead and cry out in shame and consternation, "Well I'll be damned! Duped again!"

This is not an isolated Egyptian phenomenon, of course. Scammers exist in every country. But unlike other places, there are several characteristics that are unique to Egypt scamming.

1. Scamming is an omnipresent fact of life.

No matter where you go and no matter what you do, someone is going to try and rip you off. Taking a taxi? Expect them to ask for too much. Want to buy a pack of cigarettes? Chances are they'll try and tack on a few extra pounds. Ask someone for directions? It is quite likely that, if they offer to show you to where you're going, they will actually take you in an entirely different direction regardless of the urgency of your mission of the actual direction of your destination

[NOTE: I have experienced this personally. I was on my way to a doctor's appointment downtown to be treated for an eye infection, and a nice, friendly man offered to show me the way. I followed him blindly - literally, my eye infection was so bad I could barely see where he was going - only to find that he was leading me to his perfume shop! He managed to keep me there for about three minutes and force me to smell about five different perfumes before I finally stormed out in righteous indignation, yelling about the fact that I was going to see the damn doctor and that I was ashamed that he would try to take advantage of me when I was in pain! I am guessing he did not take my little moral admonishment to heart, but it made me feel better. END NOTE]

The above anecdote leads us to the second unique characteristic of Egyptian scamming, though:

2. The people doing the scamming mean absolutely no harm, and see nothing wrong with what they are doing.

If someone has lots of money, and another person has very little money, then why wouldn't the second person try to take some of it? It only makes sense, and it is certainly not personal. As it is, someone told the entire developing world that Americans are endless founts of wealth, which means, to this developing world, that they can take money from us without actually causing any harm. So if the person being duped does not stand to lose anything, and the person doing the duping stands to gain everything - well, isn't duping the sensible course of action?

This, then, leads to our third characteristic, and the topic that inspired this blog post:

3. Egyptian scamming is, more than anything, an inside joke of sorts - and if you see through that joke the "scammers" are usually more than willing to share the laugh with you.

I think that Egyptians like to see what they can get away with, sort of like when you play a practical joke on your friends and being caught can be half the fun. Underneath it all they're trying not to crack up, and if you catch them in the act, for the most part, they love it (obviously there are numerous exceptions, but we're going with the trend that most Egyptians are friendly and jolly, even if they are not always well-intentioned).

Case in point: tonight. I went to Khan al-Khalili, the big souk in al-Azhar, with two friends to find some Christmas presents for people back home. Khan is a scammer's paradise of course - foreigners with big juicy wallets, limited time, and little knowledge of local quality and prices looking for gifts for everyone they know. What could be better? You have to bargain hard to get things for what they're worth, and even then it can be tough, as vendors know that if you and your friends don't want Article A the little Japanese couple behind you might just snap it up for triple the price.

But avoiding being ripped off in a place like Khan al-Khalili is not such an unheard-of accomplishment, because you are expecting people to rip you off there. I mean, if you live next to a highway you're going to look for cars when you cross the road. It's the other places - the places you don't expect a scam - where you really have to watch out.

After spending several hours in the Khan my friend and I sat down for some dinner at a cafe/restaurant across the street. They had a huge cone of shwarma sizzling out front and we both had a hankering for a lamb sandwich. We walked up to the host's podium and asked for a menu - however, when we looked at the menu (which was written in English), something seemed wrong. The shwarma was 12 pounds! Though this is the equivalent of maybe $2.50, the fact of the matter is, it was way too much for a simple shwarma sandwich. That was when I noticed that the menus were separated into two piles, and the host had grabbed our menu from the pile on the right. I had my first twinge of suspicion. Since my friend was looking at the menu and it would be perfectly reasonable for me to want my own, I went to grab one from the pile on the left

"Oh no no!" cried the host. "Here." He grabbed a right-hand menu and gestured it toward me.


I checked the price, and there is was: shwarma sandwich, 12 EP. I raised my eyebrow at the host and said loudly to my friend (who was marveling at the cost), "I see what's going on here - this is the English price."

It is not uncommon for things in Egypt to have two separate prices: Egyptian prices and foreigner prices. It's actually codified in some places, like museums and national monuments, where locals sometimes pay half as much as tourists. It is supposed to make it easier for Egyptians to learn about their own history, but I think it's more a convenient and easily-justifiable way to make a couple extra pounds off rich foreigners.

And if you think about it, they've got every right to do this! I mean, why not, if you can get away with it? But this is my point, and the purpose of this story: now that I've lived here for four months, I think it's about darn time I qualified for Egyptian shwarma prices!

So I grabbed the other menu.

"No no!" said the waiter. "This in Arabic!"

"Ah ha!" I cried triumphantly. "I SPEAK Arabic!"

Flipping open the menu I ran my finger down to the shwarma, and with the self-satisfied voice of victory declared: "Shwarma laham - TISA GINEHAT!" (9 EP)

And with that, the host knew I was on to him.

And he cracked up! "You speak Arabic?" he asked, huge smile on his wide face. "Very good, very good! You speak Arabic!"

"Yes, I speak Arabic" I responded (in Arabic as well). "And I would like a shwarma sandwich, for nine pounds!"

So my friend and I ate our sandwiches and drank our tea (the tea now being two pounds, instead of the five we had originally been told), and the host smiled and laughed with us throughout the entire meal. All it took was a little knowledge of letters and numbers, and we went from being the butt of the joke to the co-conspirators! I know it might not seem like that big a deal - after all, we saved maybe 15 pounds total, which is only about three dollars between the two of us. But don't you see? in reality, it was so much more than that.

Because in the end, the taste of uncompromised dignity is the sweetest meal of all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dear Blogosphere,

After a month-long period of neglect I return to my poor little blog, in order to assure you all:

Why YES, I AM still alive!

I apologize to all those far and wide for my disappearance, but Cairo’s gotten tricky in the last few months. I was devoting so much energy to struggling through life that the idea of reliving that struggle in blog form was just too exhausting! But I’m ready to pick up the narrative again and pound out a few paragraphs on what’s been going on.

For now, I will interrupt the already-interrupted tale of First Eid Break, and give an update on more recent matters.

Cairo has cooled down in the past few weeks, which is lovely. I never realized how closely linked my mood is to the weather! I have noticed a direct negative correlation: Temperature goes up, Carolyn’s mood plummets. But (alhumdilallah!) temperature does DOWN…Carolyn’s mood flies up to the sky! So regardless of any other stress in my life, that, at least, is one inarguably positive thing.

Unfortunately, that is just about the only inarguably positive thing…oh, but no need to be a Debbie Downer! I’ll summarize the problems quickly and then move on to pleasanter matters.

First, AUC is not exactly living up to my standards as an international university. The students make me cringe: they come into class late, talk back to the professors (Mama and Papa, thank you for raising me to respect my elders. I could never imagine speaking to a teacher like that!), and complain ceaselessly about the work load – which ironically, leads to my next complaint.

Perhaps I’m just not used to the teaching method here, but the preferred tactic is to assign an overwhelming amount of reading and then regurgitate it in class, because all the professors have long given up hope that the students are actually going to read any of it. For Autumn and I, who do read it, this means that class is generally (not always, but generally) a waste of our time. It also means that the professors, who know by now that we are two of the few who actually do the work, expect us to share notes with those who do not! This is a request that we have learned to politely refuse. Luckily the professors seem to understand our protest.

Cairo itself becomes a little wearing on the nerves as well. I have never been a city girl. Luckily, our neighborhood is one of the more aesthetically pleasing parts of Egypt – we’ve got our fair share of trees, and the buildings and roads are all pretty well maintained. So I count my blessings there. I’ll be happy to get back to my house on White Clay Drive, though. To go from living on the fringe of a national park, to the center of one of the most crowded cities in the world – haha, talk about a shock to the nerves!

And the dust shows no signs of subsiding – meaning I am forced to wear my glasses almost every day. Glasses are great for some people, but for me, they are like a time-traveling-transporter back to my days as a chubby-faced sixth grader, with braces and tortoise-shell spectacles. And a propensity for wearing the most garish and awful shades of orange…WHY didn’t anyone tell me that was a bad idea?? So as you might imagine, I’m looking forward to wearing contacts again when I head home.

Well, I suppose there’s more, but I’m tired of complaining. Egypt is what it is, and I am so grateful that I was able to come here. I am learning so much about the world and even more about myself. Much of it is uncomfortable and unpleasant – who ever said Soul Growth is easy? – but I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it anywhere else. So alhumdilallah! Kul tamam (it’s all good.)

Plus it’s given me an (almost unhealthy) appreciation of America. At one particularly low point I even had the Youtube link to the song, “Proud to be an American” on my facebook “about me.” Have you heard that song? It is possibly the most obnoxious America-song in the entire history of America-songs. Which is probably why I loved it.

Oh a nice note, though, I am feeling more cheerful today than I have in weeks - because I do believe I finally figured out my spring schedule! I register tomorrow and I don’t want to jinx it, but if all goes well I’ll graduate in time, Honors Degree in hand.

I’m looking forward to graduation. I’m ready for the real world.

We are right on the cusp of another Eid Break, which again might be extended due to swinish reasons. It won’t affect the end of the semester though, and that’s all that matters to me! I’ve got a plane ticket leavin’ Thursday morn’ (of December 17th), and so long as I’m on that plane all will be well in my world. I am sure once I’m gone I will miss Egypt desperately, in my characteristic Carolyn fashion. My ability to cultivate nostalgia even for the most unpleasant of things is fearsome to behold!

As for Eid, I’m not so sure what I’ll be up to yet. I’ve got three 15 – 20 page papers to bang out, so I’ll take advantage of the downtime for that, but I don’t intend on doing anything quite so ambitious as the last break (which I still have to finish documenting. Again, so sorry). A trip down to Dahab might be in order, and there are some sights I’d still like to see around Cairo – Coptic Museum, Citadel (I’ve been there, but I want to see it again), Azhar Mosque, Islamic Cairo, Cairo Tower – haha, now that I’m listing it out there’s more to see than I had realized!

Thanks, Blog! Who’d have known you’d be so handy for vacation planning? Maybe I should write on you more often.

But for now, I’m going to sign off, with the promise that I will try my darndest to write more often (isn’t that always the promise? Ah well, never said I was a woman of my word…in fact, there is large evidence to the contrary.) I hope all you readers out there are well and happy, and appreciating our beautiful country as much as you should be! Unless you are in another country. In which case, I hope it’s nice too. Though don’t pretend it could ever come anywhere near America.

Unless it’s Norway. Damn, I love Norway.

Fondest regards,

Carolyn, the ever-negligent bloggist

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Part 4: PETRA (enough said)

Oh do I describe thee?

Well to start, we got up at 5 am, as planned, and Rami drove us to the bus station. Oh shoot. I just realized I've been spelling his name with an "i" instead of a "y" this whole time. But I've written his name so many times that I can't possibly be bothered to go back and change it now. Just let it be known that it should be spelled "Ramy," not "Rami."

There. All better.

So we hopped on a bus to Wadi Musa, a town right outside of Petra that, we had been warned by lonely planet, was full of grifters and thieves. Oh Lonely Planet! I think you did Wadi Musa a disservice. Granted, the hostel was a little more expensive than one not so close to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but they didn't try to rip us off, the room was neat and clean, the bathroom was washed down several times during our stay, and everyone was very friendly and helpful. More than adequate for a single night's stay. So we set our stuff down and took advantage of the free transportation to Petra.

We were dropped off at a strip of stores that, we were assured, was right outside the entrance, and told to be back at 6 pm to be picked up and returned to the hostel. This was fine with us. It was only noon, and we stopped to have some delicious food before we went in - hommas and taboula, some eggplant and tahini dish whose name I can't remember, foul and lentil soup - so good! - and then we were ready for the adventure.

And then we walked right past the entrance and got lost on the winding desert roads beyond. But only for a little while. And we got some good pictures out of it, such as the one located on your right (see? Pretty.)

Luckily a tour guide was on his way to meet up with his group, and offered to give us a ride to where we were actually supposed to be. We thanked him heartily, bought our tickets, and started walking in the proper direction.

I have so many pictures of Petra that it's best to look at my facebook; there's no way I'm going to put them all on here. But I'll include a couple good ones.

To begin with, you enter Petra by walking through a ravine, carved between impossibly tall cliffs in stripes of red and orange and mustard. They seem to narrow the further up you stare, so that the sky is just a tiny slit of blue high up above:

After thirty minutes or so of twisting and turning through these smooth walls, you finally see the exit ahead - and peeping through the narrow slit is the Treasury, the most famous and best preserved of all the carved buildings in Petra.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Once you enter the city it's a panorama of carved building faces, many of them so eroded that it looks like they're slowly melting off the cliffside - like they were carved from sugar or glass. I guess it makes you realize how old they are, that the rock would have time to be shaped and subsequently effaced like that.

We wandered around Petra for a few hours - befriended a small boy and played catch with rocks (kids, don't try this at home) - took a quick power nap on top of a high cliff - and, oh yeah, climbed a HUGE frickin mountain to see an ancient monastery at the top! It took probably 45 minutes, and I don't even remember if I took a picture, after all that work. But we were there, and probably never will be again, so how could we not?

And besides, my favorite thing happened there, on top of that mountain, by that monastery.

It started to rain.

It was the first rain I had seen in months.

And it was beautiful.

Part 3: Couch Surfing in Amman

Salty and satisfied, Autumn, Cory and I hopped on a microbus back to Amman. It was the last day of Ramadan, which meant we had to head back earlier than we would have liked - Iftar would be an especially big deal tonight, and if we didn't make the bus by 5 we would be stranded on the shores. Luckily we made it ok, and we each snuck a Snickers ice cream bar before we left, taking clandestine bites from the depths of a white plastic bag that we kept crumpled around them.

We had been so careful to avoid obvious eating and drinking in public all through that long, hot, weary month. We couldn't bear the thought of taunting them poor Muslim population so soon before the end!

But Snickers ice cream bars are soooo goooood.

We had left our things at the Sheraton in Amman, not wanting to drag our bags to the beach with us. So we returned, reclaimed them, and tried to use their public phone to call Rami, who would be hosting us tonight.

The way we found Rami was through a magical creation called Couch Surfing. Couch Surfing is an international website phenomenon meant to help out travelers around the world. If you're going somewhere but don't want to pay for a hostel or hotel, you can check out people registered on Couch Surfers and see if they're willing to host you. The website is very good about guarding against creepers, too - if you stay with someone and have a good experience, you write them a reference so that other travelers can know that they're good people. Which is nice, and makes your mother feel better about the whole thing.

[Note: I did not tell my mother about any of these things. I figured it would be nicer for her to hear them when I returned home, safe and sound and fully satisfied with all my adventures and experiences. Love you, Mom!]

We had contacted several people in Amman about the three of us crashing on their floors / couches, and ended up getting in touch with a great guy named Rami. He said we could absolutely stay, and told us to contact him when we were ready to come over.

However, we couldn't get a hold of him for a while, and after calling three times or so we decided to find something to do in the interim. So we bid farewell to the Sheraton lobby and headed back out, into the later Jordanian afternoon.

After looking through several tourist maps, and again consulting Google, we decided to check out Amman's Citadel (seems like everyone's got one!). It was reputed to have an amazing view of the city, as well as, obviously, interesting ruins and architecture. Lonely planet had told us that the Citadel was beautiful at sunset, and it was almost sunset, so we thought, why not!

Turns out the Citadel is closed at sunset.

Really, Lonely Planet?

We were just about to take our taxi all the way back down the various twisty and turny hills that we had taken to get there (Amman is somewhat redolent of San Francisco), when the men at the gate had pity on us and said we could go in after all. "Just ten minutes!" they made us promise, and we ran.

And it was beautiful at sunset! We forgave Lonely PLanet their mistake (besides, we figured, maybe it was an Iftar thing - it being sunset and all) and took pictures to our hearts' content. Like this one:

And this one, of the columns:

And this one, of the view of the city

By this point we got in touch with Rami and made plans to come to his apartment, drop off our stuff, and go out for a tour of the city from one of its native residents.

Rami was absolutely wonderful - bursting at the seams with energy, fun facts about Jordan, and turkey sandwiches to feed our hungry traveling selves. We hung around his apartment and refueled for an hour or so, then set off on a tour of the town.

Amman was not so different from other Middle Eastern cities I've seen - crowded, lots of little tables on the sidewalk and shops set into the buildings behind. However, I must say, it was much cleaner, and smelled much nicer, than Cairo. It was also a good deal greener, we had noticed. Being starved for trees we appreciated this fact.

Rami took us all over the downtown area.
We bought scarves from a little booth (the man taught Autumn how to tie them on her head like a traditional Jordanian: see right), had sheesha and drinks at the coolest cafe (it was all dark wood and smoke, with a man playing 'oud inside), and tried an...interesting...desert that Rami swears Jordan is famous for: fried cheese covered in, I think, caramelized honey. At this point we were stuffed from all the chickpeas and foul and pita we had eaten at the cafe - and also not so tempted by the desert offered - but Rami was adamant! So we tried it, and to be honest, it wasn't so bad! Not something I would want to eat every day (I respect my arteries), but all in all it was pretty good.

By this point we were more than ready for bed. So we headed back to Rami's place, decided to get up at 5 am the next day and head to Petra, and with that, crashed thankfully on to the floor.

Part 2: Watermelon Juice and a Salty, Salty Sea

I honestly think my favorite thing about the Amman Sheraton was the breakfast buffet. Omelets made to order, dozens of flaky pastries, yogurt, cereal, jam and honey and - fresh watermelon juice! Did you even know that existed? We had to taste to believe.

After a huge breakfast we packed our bags, did a last comb-over of the room, and suddenly remembered that we had made no plans whatsoever for when we actually arrived in Jordan.

Hmm, we thought, sitting back down on to our outrageously comfortable beds and letting our bags fall to the floor. Well that is a pickle.

But it wasn't! Because that is part of the JOY of traveling! Itineraries are overrated. We decided to take advantage of what few hours of free internet use remained (we would be cut off at noon) and pick the brains of the hotel staff for ideas.

After a few minutes of google-ing and a couple moments of deliberation, we decided that our best bet was to try and visit the Dead Sea. We were to stay in Amman that night with a friend we had found through Couch Surfers, but he wasn't expecting us til later and we didn't want to show up on his doorstep at 11 am. So the Dead Sea it was! Now the question was, how to get there.

In Jordan, as in Egypt, there are two ways to get anywhere: the clearly-marked, air-conditioned tourist way; and the local way. As poor college students in good health, we tend to prefer the local way, and generally, if you ask and if you know a little but of Arabic, people are more than willing to help you find out how to use it. However, we forgot that we were staying in a 5-star hotel.

We learned all about how Sheraton would love to take us to the Dead Sea on a fancy pants shuttle that would cost us about $15 each. It would leave in two hours and we were more than welcome to sign up for it and wait patiently til then.

What?? Did they know us? We were world travelers - certainly not willing to sit idly in a hotel lobby, wasting precious swine flu vacation time. And $15 was far above our budget.

We politely thanked the Avis desk, walked over to the receptionist, and whispered that we wanted the real way to get to the Dead Sea; there had to be a microbus of some kind.

A microbus? he asked. Are you sure?

Yes! We're from Cairo and Syria! We know our microbuses!

After finally convincing him that we were fully capable of taking a microbus, he was more than willing to help us locate an appropriate one. "Just one moment," he assured us, so we stood and smiled as he made several phone calls to several people about where the illusive microbus station would be located this particular week (they change all the time, because the "station" can be any unmarked stretche of road that the microbuses feel like grouping around). I swear, he was wonderful! At one point he mentioned that a question we had would better be addressed to the Concierge, whose desk was about twenty feet behind us. We expected that he would just have us walk over there, but instead, he picked up the phone. Confused, we stopped and waited; looked across the room - looked back - and suddenly heard "ring ring! ring ring!" right behind us.

"We can just walk over there..." Autumn assured him. "I's right there..."

But the man just smiled at us and said, "Oh no, really; I do not want to inconvenience."

Finally, after all the hard work of what seemed like all the downstairs employees (they like to get lots of people involved in everything), we were given an address, an expected price of less than a dinar, and were sent cheerfully out the door.

And we were on our way! We took a taxi to the proper spot, immediately saw a tiny bus with the words "Dead Sea" scrawled on the side, and hopped on board. In just a few minutes we were jostling along to one of the most famous sites in the world.

The Dead Sea! to be honest, is rather unimpressive to look at. The sand is more like compressed clay; the sun is piercing; the wind is high. Here's a picture:

See? Kinda bleak.

But you don't go to the Dead Sea for the view! You go for the outrageously salty water!

And let me tell you, it was outrageously salty. You can't even swim on your stomach; the water is so dense it lifts your legs (which are lighter than your torso) up so high that your head pitches forward and you find yourself paddling wildly to try and keep your body level. The best bet is to swim calmly on your back, no funny business. Most of us heeded this advice. Cory, on the other hand, tried to dive under - failed - and got a face full of burning water as punishment.

Turns out the sign says "No Diving" for a reason.

After a few minutes of swimming my poor tender skin had had enough, and I got off and ran frantically to one of the many outdoor showers. Autumn and Cory, with their nice healthy thick skins, stayed in, and by the time I got back they had big handfuls of Dead Sea clay and were painting themselves like mud monsters.

Like this:

So scary.

So that was the Dead Sea! Also worth mentioning is, most of the people there were foreigners come for a tourist visit (although there weren't that many people in general). However, isn't it just my luck: I left to jump under the shower, with Autumn and Cory still in the water - and when I came back to sit by our stuff, who happened to have sat down directly next to it but a sweet little, fully-covered, very traditional Islamic family.

"Hello," says the bikini-clad girl, to the mother in her naqab, the father in his galabaya, and their wide-eyed child who will never look at the world with such innocence again. "Sorry to corrupt you with my sinful Western ways.

"Would it help if I covered myself in mud?"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Part 1: Even Swine Flu has a Silver Lining: Carolyn's Jordanian Adventure Begins

There are many idiosyncratic little quirks that I have noticed about this country since I arrived, but by far my favorite little Egyptian eccentricity is their overwhelming terror of the Swine Flu. It permeates every level of society, sends shivers down the back of the lowliest beggar and the loftiest AUC'er, makes people slam their shutters, kill every pig in the country, and - - AND - - makes the government cancel University for two and a half weeks.

We went into class last Wednesday, and by the end of the day had learned that we would not be coming back tomorrow; we would not, in fact, be coming back til October 3rd!

But why? we asked. How could this possibly be prudent? Our schedules have already been all wacky because of Ramadan, and we've only had a week and a half of class so far! Why would you do this, AUC?

Swine Flu, they answered solemnly. Government orders. Go home, stay put, and for God's sake wash your hands.

So go home we did. But stay put we did not. When faced with such a wonderful opportunity for adventure, how can one NOT act upon it? And so, here it is: our Grand Jordanian Adventure.

God bless you, Swine Flu!

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Our adventure started at 4 am on Thursday. 4 am is an ungodly time to get up. But you know what: I always feel like Grand Adventures need to start disgustingly early. There's something about getting out in the pre-dawn gloom that really reinforces the fact that you're GOING somewhere. I mean, why else would you EVER agree to get up so early? There must be something really good waiting on the other side.

Autumn and I would be traveling by bus to Nuweiba, a port town toward the south of the Sinai peninsula. It would take about 6 - 8 hours, if all went well and it did not break down (buses here have a habit of breaking down), meaning, if we left at 6 am as planned, we should arrive around 1 or 2 pm. From Nuweiba we would take a 3:30 ferry to Aqaba, and provided we got our visas within an hour or two we should be headed toward Amman, the Jordanian capital, by 7 or 8 we figured. We had no idea how long it took to get from Aqaba to Amman. We hadn't really thought about it but we assumed no more than an hour or so. Once in Amman, we would meet up with our friend Cory, who would be waiting for us in the Amman Sheraton - Cory used to work at the Sheraton in Wilmington and thus gets sweet discounts, and we figured that, after four hours of travel (from Syria to Amman) on his part and 15+ hours of travel on our part, a little luxury would be well worth the extra cost.

The best part about this plan is, we put it together about six hours before we left. This is why I love traveling with Autumn. We had known for a while that we wanted to go to Jordan, because we were supposed to have a 5-day break anyway, to celebrate Eid, the holiday that comes at the end of Ramadan (which reminds me - RAMADAN IS FINALLY OVER!!! Thanks be to heaven! I do believe the entire Muslim world breathed a sigh of relief at that. You can't imagine how wonderful it was that first day, to see people drinking tea and eating snacks in the broad daylight. Magic.) But true to our laid-back go-with-the-flow attitudes, we assumed it would all come together and thus saw no reason to rush it. So the night before we left we finally looked up bus schedules, ferrry schedules, prices and locations, skype'd Cory, and voila! Six hours prior to leaving we had a perfectly functional escape plan, from dusty Cairo to beautiful, green, mountainous Jordan. Granted, we had no idea what we wanted to do once we got there, but we figured we would figure that out once we arrived. Again, no need to rush.

I won't bore you with the details of the trip, but suffice it to say we set out expecting at least something to go wrong - and were shocked when the journey went as smooth as one could possibly imagine! We got on the bus, got off the bus, got on the ferry, got off the ferry, with a minimal amount of fuss or inconvenience. We even stopped and had a soda on the way. And then we were in Jordan - happy day! - at around 6 pm, and all we had to do was get to Amman.

So we found a nearby taxi driver, only to discover: Amman was 4 hours away.

No no, this was not part of the plan! By now it was getting on to 6:30, and what's more, the driver wanted 60 dinar (about $70) for the trip! But after trying unsuccessfully to find a public bus to take us there, and wasting another half hour to an hour, and worrying about poor Cory, who had arrived at the Sheraton around 6 and would undoubtedly start to worry soon, we finally agreed. We managed to talk to driver down to 50 dinar total, and we were on our way.

Thus ensued one of the most uncomfortable rides imaginable. We had been traveling for 14 hours already, were dead tired, were in a rush, were not feeling particularly sociable - and the driver was being ridiculous! He spent half an hour driving around Aqaba trying to convince one of this friends to keep him company on the ride; we finally told him, firmly, that we were in a bit of a rush and he needed to start driving now, at which point he tried to convince one of us to sit up front with him to keep him company! Autumn and I have heard a few too many horror stories to agree to that, especially considering he had told me I was beautiful not fifteen minutes before, so we - again, firmly - declined the invitation, and - again, firmly - asked him to start the damn trip. Then we promptly feigned sleep to avoid having to speak to him for the next four hours. He kept trying to wake us up - by stopping and buying us sodas, by flicking on the inside cab light - but we were determined! And, as I said, dead tired.

But finally we arrived! And it was beautiful! And that bed was the most heavenly bed I have ever slept on. And we awoke in the morning and had a huge, delicious breakfast, and were ready to start our adventure.