Al Igaza! (A brief and incomplete account of my spring break adventures)

So we just got back to Alexandria a few hours ago, and rather than dive into my homework I have decided to write up my spring break adventures while they are still fresh in my mind. Spring break could honestly not have been more wonderful. I managed to strike an excellent balance of relaxing and completely insane adventures, and it was wonderful. If I were to tell all of the stories, this post would be insanely long…but I will try to hit the highlights. First though, a basic overview:

We took a train to Cairo on Thursday night, and didn’t make the return trip until Monday night, though we spent Saturday on a safari type trip in El Fayoum, an oasis south of Cairo. We had a day to regroup before we left at 5 in the morning on Wednesday for Hurghada, where I spent the first two days swimming and enjoying the beach and the next day on another desert safari tour. Unfortunately far too many stories to relate in one post but between a few stories and a few pictures hopefully you can get an idea.

El Fayoum:

So our El Fayoum day was a tour organized by the hostel we stayed at in Cairo (Dina’s Hostel by the way, I highly recommend it). We grumblingly rolled out of bed to board our 7 am bus to drive us down to El Fayoum. After a brief moment when the partner hotel in El Fayoum didn’t seem to think we had reserved a tour, our driver arrived, and we headed off into the desert. Very, very far into the desert…at which point our tire decided it was done.

We had been driving deep into the desert for at least an hour by the time this tire simply exploded...

We had been driving deep into the desert for at least an hour by the time this tire simply exploded…

Luckily we were able to hitch a ride with our police escort!

Luckily we were able to hitch a ride with our police escort!

Now I know from already having discussed this story with some people back home, the police escort sounds a bit sketchy at first but it really is not. Egypt is heavily reliant on its tourism, which currently is still struggling to bounce back after the revolution, and so goes to great lengths to protect tourists while they are in Egypt. It is standard procedure to send a police escort with tour groups, particularly in rural areas. Mostly they were there so someone would be around if something happened to our vehicle in the middle of the desert (and look, it did!). As it turned out, our ride with the police ended up being one of the best parts of the day. The guys climbed in the back with the armed police (as you can see in the picture) and the four girls piled into the back seat of the interior. The two police up front with us were extremely animated and excited also that we could speak Arabic. They started asking us about our opinion on Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood (which we refrained from expressing given our current position inside an Egyptian police car), and various other topics. As we were rolling along they suddenly pointed to what appeared to be a vertical wall and told us we were about to drive up it. We all started laughing, but then as we noticed the car was still headed straight for it we realized he had not been joking. I grabbed my friend’s hand as we accelerated up the hill (and I hoped the boys would manage not to fall out the back, seeing as they had had no warning about our vertical path). We made it to the top and the car felt as if it were teetering on the edge of rolling back down the way we came or plummeting forward. Nonetheless, we climbed out to take some pictures of the amazing view this windy perch afforded us.

This is the best shot I managed to snap of the hill/wall our police friends chose to drive us up, though I must say it looked more intimidating in real life. Also note how unnecessary it is to choose this path as it is quite easy to drive around...only in Egypt...

This is the best shot I managed to snap of the hill/wall our police friends chose to drive us up, though I must say it looked more intimidating in real life. Also note how unnecessary it is to choose this path as it is quite easy to drive around…only in Egypt…

Our car perched precariously on said hill...

Our car perched precariously on said hill…

And the view from the top of said hill...okay pretty worth it I suppose (and I lived to tell the tale, so definitely worth it)

And the view from the top of said hill…okay pretty worth it I suppose (and I lived to tell the tale, so definitely worth it)

We then proceeded to our official destination, Wadi El Hitan, or Valley of the Whales, which is a UNESCO world heritage site that has several whale fossils that help to demonstrate the evolution of the whale. It is also just a lovely walk in the desert, so we enjoyed both things.

A whale spine in the desert!

A whale spine in the desert!

Such a cool landscape...the designs in the rocks by the way are completely natural even though some of them almost look like carvings.

Such a cool landscape…the designs in the rocks by the way are completely natural even though some of them almost look like carvings.

Oh my goodness an oasis!

Oh my goodness an oasis!

Fayoum is also famous for its pottery--this shop is in a village called Tunis

Fayoum is also famous for its pottery–this shop is in a village called Tunis

The day had one final adventure in store for us. As we were in the bus headed back to Cairo we had to stop for gas. I am not sure how widely this has been reported outside of Egypt, but Egypt currently is undergoing a pretty serious fuel shortage that was explained quite well in this article. Basically this means that if you pass a gas station in Egypt in the past few weeks, it is either completely empty (having run out of fuel) or has an impossibly long line of cars stretching blocks from it all waiting for their fuel ration. Though this problem exists in Alexandria, it is far more pronounced in Cairo, and even worse in rural regions like El Fayoum. The line for fuel at this gas station was at least a mile long, and two or three cars wide for that whole length, but as our driver pulled up to the front next to the ambulance, we realized why he hadn’t bothered to fuel up while we were in the desert. We watched, shocked, as our van was ushered in front of, not only the tragically long line of Egyptians waiting on fuel, but even in front of the ambulance, and all because or bus was full of foreigners. We caught a few death stares, notably from the ambulance driver, but we fueled up quickly and were back on our way to Cairo.

We had a bit more time to spend in Cairo, and we saw some quite lovely things. Here are a few photographic highlights!

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (as seen from halfway up its minaret)

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (as seen from halfway up its minaret)

The view of Cairo from the top of the minaret

The view of Cairo from the top of the minaret

A bead store in Islamic Cairo/Khan al Khalili

A bead store in Islamic Cairo/Khan al Khalili

The courtyard at Al Azhar Mosque

The courtyard at Al Azhar Mosque

Another shot of Al Azhar Mosque

Another shot of Al Azhar Mosque

Hurghada

After a day back in Alexandria to get ready and packed for Hurghada, we boarded our 5 am bus and settled in for an 11 hour ride. I am always a bit weird about cameras on the beach, so I am afraid I don’t have pictures to show you from the beach I lounged on for two days. We also went in a semi-submarine boat where we looked out at coral reefs and all sorts of fish and snorkeled off the side. It was really lovely. The Red Sea is a stunning turquoise and the water was the perfect temperature for swimming. But one can only handle so much relaxation, so the last day we were there a group of students and a few professors headed off for another desert safari where we rode sand buggies, camels and a car called spiders (and also rode on top, rather than inside of our safari vehicle for a bit). This area of desert was quite different than the deserts around El Fayoum and was characterized mostly by dark colored mountains. This safari was definitely very touristy (makes sense–Hurghada is a major tourist spot), but it was still a lot of fun, mostly because of the company. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love the people affiliated  with this program–the other students, the professors and the Egyptian language partners. By far the best part of the Hurghada trip was spending time with them.

Of course we also enjoyed our fair share of feeling-like-foreigners moments–don’t we always? Perhaps the best was when a bunch of us had gone out to a cafe and were all headed back in a microbus which our group pretty much filled. We pulled over for another man and as he opened the door, three different people in our group, with the intention of suggesting he take the front seat instead, said “Mumkin fo’?” which, rather than “Maybe up front?” translates to “Maybe on top?” and the Egyptians among us enjoyed mocking our suggestion that this poor stranger ride on top of the microbus. We also got lots of opportunity to laugh at ourselves as one of the Egyptian guys attempted to teach us shaabi dance moves (shaabi means “popular” and is a genre of music that I typically encounter as young guys zoom past on motorcycles blasting music at inconceivably high volumes). Basically, this dancing involved lot of moving of the arms “like you have a knife” he kept telling us, and as you progress to level two you do these arm movements while hopping like a frog. This looked a lot more like dancing when he did it than when we tried, but it was still a lot of fun laughing at our pitiful attempts and busting out our “moves” in the middle of the desert or really anytime the situation needed livening. Basically this break was a great chance to hang out and relax and see more of Egypt, and it was just the thing I needed.

Me being my cheesy self in the desert

Me being my cheesy self in the desert

Ready to be blasted in the face by sand on our sand buggy ride...also we just look cool...

Ready to be blasted in the face by sand on our sand buggy ride…also we just look cool…

A picture I snapped as we flew away from the Red Sea and back to classes...it really was a perfect break...

A picture I snapped as we flew away from the Red Sea and back to classes…it really was a perfect break…

Until next time!

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Fee Fikka? : An Unexpected Detail of My Life in Egypt

“Fee Fikka?” means “Is there change?” and is a shockingly important question if you plan on spending time in Egypt. Among all the potential hurdles I found to worry about before I left for Egypt, I must say that getting correct change didn’t make my list—but as it turns out this is a consistently difficult task. I am not sure exactly what the reason is for this, but it seems there is a nationwide shortage of small change—which when coupled with generally small prices, makes for quite a struggle to hoard your small change.

 

To give you an idea of the problem, when I go to an ATM it dutifully spits out a bunch of 200 guinea bills. Don’t get me started on this—I really cannot fathom why someone along the line made the decision to print so many 200 guinea bills when so little costs nearly that much. Most days, the things I buy include one or two guinea-a-piece sandwiches from my holes-in-the-wall of choice, perhaps a 2 guinea giant bottle of water, and if I am really on a spending spree a 10 guinea coffee from one of the cafes with internet that we frequent, or maybe I will eat the most expensive meal out I have been to yet—which cost 70 guinea. A few times after going to the ATM I have found myself in a dilemma when I only have 200 guinea bills, and all I want is a one guinea foul sandwich that I effectively cannot afford, because if I present the 200 guinea bill, in all likelihood my friend at the sandwich table Hosni will chuckle and inform me that he doesn’t have change for my giant bill. Other times, shopkeepers try to accommodate me, which leads to me waiting in their store for about 10 minutes as they go up and down the street to their neighbors trying to make change.

 

The weirdest part of this problem is how inversely a lot of shopkeepers seem to value their money. More than once, I have noticed that shopkeepers would literally prefer to charge me slightly less than to hand over their small change—usually this is for items that cost a certain number of guineas and 25 piastres (cents, basically) and giving me proper change would require handing over a precious 50 piastre piece and a 25 piastre piece, so instead they give me a whole guinea back. The odd psychology of this has spread among us as well. For example, I would much more willingly lend a friend 200 guinea if they hadn’t been to an ATM in a while than I would break a 20 into 5s even if I had them. We hoard our small change now, and still it seems hard to keep it properly stocked.

 

Why, you ask? Well for one, the second you get in a taxi (and are clearly not Egyptian) you really need to expect that whatever you hand over is what you are paying. Negotiating cab fares is a constant struggle here, and asking for change (at least for timid me) feels like adding insult to injury if the cab driver is attempting to overcharge me—and mind you I make a habit of handing over a few guinea extra as it is. Secondly, I tend to use small change whenever I ride the tram, which costs 25 piastres. It is often quite crowded and the payment system can be slightly chaotic, so while I probably could get change, it is much easier to cough up the right amount. Also, it really can just be a lot more convenient to pay in correct change anywhere around Alexandria, so whenever I get a good stash I have a bad habit of reveling in it (read: using it), and finding myself a few days later with a wallet full of 200s.

 

Anyway, after classes tomorrow I am on vacation for a week, and I could not be more ready for a bit of relaxation. I am headed to a few places this break: Cairo, El Fayoum, Hurghada, and possibly a bit more tourism type stuff around Alexandria. I will be sure to post some highlights here when I get back after a week of relaxing in oases, metropolises and Red Sea resorts! Till next time…

Anecdotes for your amusement

I have had quite a few Skype dates with friends and family back home recently, and it has been really nice to see my some familiar faces again, but these Skype dates have shown me how difficult it is to properly relate my stories from Egypt to people who haven’t been here. Though I didn’t struggle to adjust, so many things about life here in Egypt are so different than they are in America, that when I try to tell my stories to someone who doesn’t know Egypt they sometimes seem to make very little sense. Here is a series of amusing anecdotes for you, and I will try to relay enough background information that you can understand their context as well. Hopefully they can bring a smile to your face as you imagine these sorts of occurrences which are now a part of my daily life.

A Haircut Costs a Chicken

David, one of my classmates on the program, is living in a homestay with the kindest woman you could hope to meet, Mama Batta. She is famous among students on our program for sending David with a bag full of sandwiches, and if you start pondering lunch at just the right time, you can often score a Mama Batta sandwich for free (Thanks Mama Batta/David, y’all are the best). Anyway, early in the program she was assuring him that students who stayed with her were free to practice their religion in her house, there was no problem whatsoever. David has a somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, and made a joke that he would probably need to sacrifice a chicken, and Mama Batta immediately said that was fine, she would just need to put plastic down. We had all heard this anecdote, of course, as David’s birthday was approaching. I joked to Matthew that we should buy him a live chicken as a present. This idea was an inspiration to Matthew, who purchased a chicken at an outdoor market near his dorm and brought it to the Middlebury apartment on Sunday. When David finally arrived we presented him with the chicken and had a good laugh, and then we had to determine what was to be done with it. Matthew, who was in need of a haircut, decided that he was going to attempt to barter the chicken for a haircut. A few of us followed him to the barber next door who required very little convincing to accept the chicken in exchange for a haircut. Granted, the chicken had cost 30 guinea, and a haircut should be in the neighborhood of 5 guinea, so it was a good deal for the barber, but also it was a live chicken rather than the much simpler to deal with money. When Matthew passed the next day the barber informed him that he had eaten the chicken that night, and thanked him very much for the exchange. Only in Egypt…

People Pay You to Ride in this Car?

In addition to driving being literally completely insane, many taxis are in….interesting condition. One stands out as being definitely the worst. When we arrived in Cairo last month, our coordinator helped us get taxis to take us to the hotel. To begin, the man told us the meter was not working, so our coordinator was sure to tell us exactly how much to pay since she knew where our hotel was. Four of us piled into the taxi with our luggage, and we took off, looking forward to our weekend in Cairo. We immediately noticed an incessant beeping every few seconds, but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It became increasingly clear that our driver had no idea where our hotel was (despite having assured us he was familiar with it), and we drove around in circles asking several random passersby for directions. The beeping continued under all of this confusion. Suddenly, as our driver was attempting to execute a three point turn, the car sputtered a bit and stopped. He got out, and opened the hood to figure out what the problem was. My friend who was sitting in the front seat turned back to us and said “Literally every warning light on this dash is lit up! I’m not sure how this car was moving in the first place.” This explained the incessant beeping. After doing I am not precisely sure what under the hood, our driver got back in the car and drove us a few more blocks. We couldn’t see our hotel, but he pointed to the right and said “It is that way, it is down there just a bit.” We headed “that way” with our suitcases in tow and walked for almost ten minutes with no luck. Finally we stopped and asked a man if he knew our hotel, and he pointed in the precise opposite direction, of course. We finally arrived, though I believe we were about half an hour behind the group that had left the train station at the same time as us.

Look! Americans! Quickly, Change the Music!

This is actually one of the most amusing things about Egypt: if a group of us enters an establishment for the first time, oftentimes said establishment switches to their American playlist. Now some of these have been put together nicely, and include music of a certain genre that matches the general atmosphere. Other times this is less true. Some of these playlists are a virtual dumping ground for all things American, and will play Frank Sinatra, Usher and Grease Lightning back to back. There is a cafe that a few of us have become regulars at as it is both near the dorm and has Wi-Fi that most of the time works. The cafe itself is very nice, always clean, and looks out on the Corniche. It looks like an ideal place to do homework. The first few times we went there however, they blasted their American playlist at incredibly high volumes. Their American playlist included Candy Shop, Get Low, and other similar songs that are not necessarily my preferred study music. Now that we are regulars they tend to keep their usual music playing when we are there, though I was there on my own the other night and they played Jenny from the block three times in two hours, which given that the waiter knows me was possibly related to my presence. Oh well, anything for Wi-Fi and a good cappuccino.

Anyway, I hope these few anecdotes can entertain you for now. I am sure there are more to come!

What I’ve Been Eating…In Case You are Wondering

Aside

So, I have been asked to discuss food here, and I have been waiting for a few things. First of all, I had to go back to Mohamed Ahmed’s,  my favorite orientation restaurant, for “research” and of course to get a photo of a nice spread of Egyptian food (tough job, but someone had to do it…). Second of all, I figured I could hold off until after our cooking lesson that happened yesterday. As you might have picked up on from various other entries on this blog, consistency would not be the first word I would pick to describe my experiences in Egypt, and this is also true of the food. Though just about every place offers up the same dishes, they all taste slightly different, and I don’t just mean from restaurant to restaurant. Not infrequently, I have ordered the same dish at the same restaurant, sometimes from the same waiter, and received something that tasted completely different–perhaps the chef that day decided to change up the spice blend, or they felt like throwing in some new peppers–who knows. Anyway this makes eating out in Egypt exciting every time, even if we do enjoy returning to familiar restaurants. Most days, I eat the dinner at the Medina which is included in my room and board. They don’t have a huge variety of food, but it is always really good and filling. I do also make a point of eating out with friends when I get the chance, so most of my best food memories so far are from various Alexandrian and Cairene restaurants…Here are some of my personal highlights of Egyptian food.

A lovely spread of Egyptian food at Mohamed Ahmed's...and my friends who are very ready to dig in...

A lovely spread of Egyptian food at Mohamed Ahmed’s…and my friends who are very ready to dig in…

A typical Medina dinner...I have a bad habit of eating a lake of tahini like the one in the bottom left...

A typical Medina dinner…I have a bad habit of eating a lake of tahina like the one in the bottom left…

Our lovely and delicious creations....

Our lovely and delicious creations….

Think funnel cake except shaped differently and covered in cinnamon sugar...yes please

Think funnel cake except shaped differently and covered in cinnamon sugar…yes please

Me enjoying my badengen...excuse my horrible transliteration...I have not actually seen this word written so I am just going for how it sounds.

Me enjoying my badengan…excuse my horrible transliteration…I have not actually seen this word written so I am just going for how it sounds.

Stuffing cucumbers...

Stuffing zucchini…

1. Tahina (in the US we call this tahini, according to the Levantine pronounciation)

I could probably live off of tahina for the rest of my life. It is so good. It is made of ground sesame seeds, and served here either as a dip or a sauce/garnish to complement other dishes (ful with tahina anyone?).  It has a really nice sour sort of flavor to it, and makes just about everything it accompanies taste better. They have it out most nights at Medina dinner and I cannot get enough of it. It sounds (and is) really simple…but oh well, simple pleasures it is.

2. Shakshouka—the two large dishes of red stuff

Probably one of the best things you will ever eat. It is basically eggs cooked in a spiced tomato sauce. It comes from Tunisia and/or Morocco, where the eggs were poached in the sauce, but the Egyptian version (by which I mean the version at Mohamed Ahmed’s which is the only one I have tried) ends up with more of a scramble. Though accurate, that description really doesn’t sound like the way it ends up tasting…but trust me the stuff is delicious…

3. Ful

Ful just means beans, and beans are really critical to the Egyptian diet. They come in many forms, though Mohamed Ahmed’s makes them particularly well. The Medina tends to have a bowl of foul out at breakfast and dinner—theirs are somewhat similar in texture to refried beans but usually incorporate sliced peppers, cucumbers, or lemons. In the picture, you see Mohamed Ahmed’s ful with garlic sauce—which is the white part. They also offer foul with veggies and foul with fried eggs. In these ones the garlic flavor is very strong and oh-so-delicious. I also mentioned last time that I have been eating a lot of foul sandwiches from a particular table, and their ful is a bit spicier and has a lot of peppers and onions.

4. Falafel—not pictured, though fear not we had an order of that too

Falafel…has a very special place in my heart. It is fried balls or occasionally patties of either chick peas or fava beans with spices and herbs. The best falafel, like Mohamed Ahmed’s, is green inside from all of the herbs and is perfectly crispy on the outside. Just yesterday, my friend and I discovered one guinea falafel sandwiches near the TAFL Center!

5. Fish!

As I have frequently pointed out, Alexandria is a coastal city, and therefore has lots of really excellent seafood. Apparently the Medina is supposed to be serving us fish once a week, but so far that has not happened, so I am not eating fish very frequently. However, last week was my friend David’s birthday, and we all went out to a seafood restaurant. We went into the room where they had piles of fish that had been caught that day, and you paid by the kilo as you picked your fish. Wanting to experience as much of this delicious seafood as possible, we decided to share about 600 guinea’s worth of fish among the twelve of us. Once we had picked everything out, we went back upstairs to munch on all the mezze stuff (hummus, Tahini, bread, Baba ghanoush, etcetera…) and await our fish. They arrived cooked whole with various added veggies and spices and oh my goodness were they delicious. This was by far the most expensive meal I have had in Egypt (and deservedly so) but it still rang in at about $10, even with tip and the eleventh of David’s meal I paid for.

6. Badengan–Egyptians who read this feel free to correct my probably horrible spelling of this

This is an eggplant based dish cooked in tomato sauce with various other vegetables. It is often, though not always, served in sandwiches, and it can also be seen in our Mohamed Ahmed spread. We also made some at our cooking club, which I very much enjoyed, as evidenced in the photo above.

7. Aseer—Juice!

Oh, aseer…would that you were so omnipresent in America. Basically there are these 24 hour fruit juice stands all over the city—think Starbucks in New York kind of frequency. They are easy to spot because they tend to have lots of fresh fruit on display and hanging from the ceilings and such. You simply walk up to the counter and order any juice your heart desires—mango, strawberry, lemon, orange, banana, plum, and countless others, or if that selection isn’t enough you can combine any of the juices together for about 25 piasters more. The juices are fresh and fairly thick, often with chunks of fruit still in them. For some reason, the Egyptian way includes dumping a bucket of sugar into just about any drink, so I have found that combining various juices with lemon often tastes quite nice.

A refreshing midday lemon juice from 'Aam Ahmed

A refreshing midday lemon juice from ‘Aam Ahmed

8. Kofta

Kofta is spiced minced meat that is served everywhere here. It is difficult to find a sandwich shop without a cone of kofta ready to carve standing by the entrance. We made kofta kebabs in our cooking club–delicious. Ours was primarily flavored by cilantro, parsley and onions, though each shop has their own particular way of mixing it.

So that is my first introduction to Egyptian food. It is by no means all-encompassing, so maybe I will add to this list later on, but these are some of my favorites that I have been regularly enjoying this past month and a half, if you are curious what I have been eating. Hopefully I can come home with a few good recipes and try my hand at these when I get back home so you all can join in the fun. By the way, that weirdly pink salad of pickled jicama in the middle of the table at Mohamed Ahmed’s? That was our linguistic failure at attempting to order beetroot salad and just completely ordering the wrong item. You can’t win them all.

Until next time!