Saturday, 5 January 2013

Where Can my Wife Find a Pigeon?

Our plans for Christmas gifts were relatively simple this year.  Shannon and I decided that we would do our shopping in Cairo as opposed to Canada.  Given that my Arabic and negotiating skills aren't quite ready for the local markets, this meant a trip to Sherra Tissa (road 9).  Now, I haven't done much shopping there so the locations of stores are still somewhat nebulous.  Although road 9 is one of the main expat shopping areas in Cairo, it has a mysterious quality similar to the Grand Mall - stores seem to move around and vanish.  In both places, I can locate a store one day and then won't be able to find it during my next three trips.  Well, we wandered through the silversmiths, scarf shops and alabaster shops looking for those ideal presents.  I knew there was a great bed and bath store on road 9 ... and it took two or three trips up and down the road to finally locate it.  During her time here, Shannon also realized that she would have a lot of trouble parting with all the scarves that she had bought as gifts so we made a return visit ... and the scarf shop hid from us for at least 45 minutes.

Before I forget, there is a 'delicacy' found on road 9 that all students love.  My tastes lean towards the Turkish bakeries as there's something wonderful about the honey they use here.  I can actually eat a piece of baklava here and not feel weighted down by a 50 kg meal - nor does my pancreas waive a white flag of surrender.  But for my students, the ideal treat is a cupcake from Nola.  All but one of my students are willing to admit that it's the icing and not the cupcake that make these wonderful ... the lone exception sees them as highly overrated.  Each time I wander by Nola, I'm tempted but have yet to give in.  (quick aside ... it's prayer time and the dog is howling along with the chant so please excuse me while I giggle silently).

Given Shannon's growing enjoyment of the local fruit juices, we stopped at Kiwi to grab a drink and consider further purchases.  We were almost shopped out so it was time to head to the Nile for dinner.  As it was early in Shannon's visit, we'd been sticking to western restaurants, so TGI Friday's on the Corniche (street that runs along the Nile) seemed to be an ideal choice.  She had already braved street food with me, a wonderful bakery on the way to getting my internet fixed, so she had enjoyed some of the local flavours; but TGIF is the ideal place to see the sunset over the Nile from Maadi.  The picture to the right was taken about 1 minute before
this one was taken.  Sunset to the right of the tree and typical afternoon view to the left.  So we sat back, chatted and considered what else was on the agenda.  Shannon still had some more gift shopping to do so I figured City Stars Mall in Heliopolis was next on the agenda.

During dinner, Shannon decided to mortify the staff working at the restaurant.  Service is always excellent so they really didn't know how to deal with Shannon's love of cats.

Shannon coaxed this little fellow over by offering to share her hamburger with him.  Unfortunately, he got a little greedy and left the wall to see if other patrons would be equally accommodating.  The staff chased him out of the restaurant, but politely looked at me as if I was slightly nuts when I told them during his second visit on the wall that he was ok there.

The next day saw us off to City Stars mall.  It's a huge and very western mall, but I figured it would be a great place to see and possibly grab dinner and a movie.  I knew that she still had shopping to do so we started on the 5th floor (I think) where they have a number of small crafts vendors.  Along the way, Shannon's stomach finally realized that she wasn't in Ontario anymore.  Maps at City Stars aren't the easiest things to find and once we found it, we couldn't make heads or tales of the floor plan.  So, with my limited Arabic in hand, I popped by a couple of the local vendors to see if they could help us find the bathroom.  I may have mentioned previously that one of the most difficult parts of Arabic seems to be the variety of ways that they pronounce the letter A:

  • hamam with a short second A ... bathroom
  • hamam with a long second A ... pigeon
It took me a while to realize why the first two vendors shook their heads in misunderstanding ... yup, I used the long A version.  During our following attempts to find the bathroom ourselves, I ran into a shopkeeper that helped Shannon out and reminded me of my pronunciation error.

Well, we had a great chat with the storekeeper and bought a couple of papyri from him.  Unfortunately, he ended the transaction with a phrase that always scares me:  "this is your store."  When Mr. Amir at the local stationery store uses it, I interpret it as "thank you again for visiting, you come fairly often and we appreciate your business."  I also have a sneaking suspicion that when the phrase is used at the end of your first visit, it translates as "thank you again for visiting, you didn't negotiate prices very well and we really appreciate your visit."  I've only run into this situation twice during my first visit and each time it signified my last visit to that store.

Given Shannon was feeling a little tired, we elected to head home instead of enjoying dinner and a movie in City Stars.  Unfortunately, it was dinner time, which meant that Shannon got to finally experience her first real taste of rush hour traffic.  Since the "convenient" taxis that the stores direct you towards come with inconvenient prices (about 20 LE more), we wandered out to the street to grab a taxi at normal prices.  Although it's a bit more of a crap shoot, since it's much more likely to find a cab driver that either doesn't want to go to Maadi or doesn't know his way too well, I do prefer to negotiate a lower price.  This trip came with a few more adventures than usual.  I don't know the way back from City Stars too well, so I figured the driver was taking an alternate route when he suddenly turned.  After 15 minutes, he'd finished refilling the tank with benzene (at a whole $0.50) and we were back on our way.  Our next stop was the local tire place to refill his tire after we bottomed out over a speed bump.  Finally, he missed my turnoff so we took the next one and I got to play the "does anything look familiar at night" game.  After an extremely lucky "schemel" and "yamine" ... I recognized the route to Grand Mall that our bus regularly takes and we were almost home.  On the way, I introduced Shannon to one of her favourite meals here, the chicken shawarma and we booked our trip to Giza and Memphis.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A MISRable Sense of Humour

Around 4:30 on December 16th during the bus ride home, I finally understood.  Shannon and I chat regularly on Facebook, and some of her comments over the previous two days had confused me.  I figured that she was extremely excited to come so she was packing early and was saying her 'see you really soons' in case we weren't able to connect on the day before her departure.  I had it in my mind that I had a full day away from school before she arrived on the 17th.  Sometime just before stepping off the bus, my mind was awash in phrases such as "oopsie daisy" and "oh gosh, I haven't booked the driver for tomorrow yet" ... she was arriving tomorrow.  Luckily, I got the ride booked, and the Cairene dust hadn't yet started to hide my weekend mopping work.

Given the joys of arriving in an airport with no access to a telephone and difficulties speaking the local language, I'd promised her that I would be waiting on her arrival at the airport.  Traffic was good during the trip and her flight was scheduled to arrive at 8:00 so my 8:05 arrival at the airport seemed just right.  Until Mohamed, the driver, advised me that the flight board indicated that she'd touched down 30 minutes early. Given I didn't know the Cairo airport too well, as my first and only visit occurred after my own sleepless odyssey to Egypt, I wasn't able to arrange a meeting place.  Well, I spent the next 15 minutes pacing up and down the airport in frantic 3 minute bursts trying to see if she'd already cleared customs while ensuring that I wouldn't miss her if she was just clearing.  About 20 minutes after my arrival, she cleared customs, we successfully navigated the gauntlet of 200 LE airport taxi offers (should be 75-100) and we started the trip home.

Two of the three things that come to mind when I describe Cairo are traffic and feral cats.  Wouldn't you know it, our ride home was one of those rare "where are all the cars" trips.  Don't worry, our trip home from Heliopolis ensured that she got a proper taste of proper traffic.  Also, for the next two days, there were no cats to be seen on my street.  Given Shannon's love of cats, I was worried that she'd purchase all of the local store's tuna in an effort to ensure that the local kittens were properly fed for a while.  Shannon did get her fill of feline friends though ... but initially, Cairo showed its sense of humour (at least the pollution was still there).

Given how energized most people feel after a long flight, I didn't really plan too much for Shannon's time here.  I was tired and I knew she was tired, so we both had decided to play it by ear.  In the land of pyramids, temples and souks ... our first destination ended up being the Maadi Grand Mall.  Ok, it's not a typical tourist spot, but it is a great place to get a feel for being in a different city.  (also, I needed to pick up the printer cartridge I'd ordered).  I introduced Shannon to the joys of clothing shopping here along with my secret addiction.  No, I haven't developed a taste for Shisha and likely never will.  On the 4th floor of Grand Mall is the watch kiosk.  Shannon showed the same love of knock-off watches that I enjoy.  (Sandi - ignore the next sentence).  There is something special about a replica watch that costs less than most dinners out.

No trip to Cairo is complete without a trip to the Cairo museum.  As life is much more fun taking the train, (and the 1 LE / $0.16 fare doesn't hurt), we hopped on the train and headed down there.  Well, despite having taken the train a few times to the museum area, I can never remember which stop to get off at.  They're both named after famous Egyptian leaders (Nasser and Sadat) and I completely forgot to check which one was correct.  Yes, I now know that Sadat is one stop too far.  Instead of getting back on the train, we elected to walk to Tahrir Square from Sadat station.  I'm not sure that my "this will be a great way for you to see the less expat areas of the city" excuse held water.  Eventually, we made it to Tahrir Square and got ready for the Government Store representatives.

Cameras are always magnets in Tahrir Sq.  Sometimes, they're incredibly helpful as you get help crossing an extremely busy street.  The rules for crossing the street are extremely simple.  Close your eyes, say a quick prayer to Allah, take a deep breath and start walking ... and never stop.  Cameras also seem to attract "museum employees" that are on their breaks.  Strangely enough the museum is always closed at the time of your arrival.  Sometimes it's prayer time, sometimes it's reserved for Egyptian residents only, sometimes it's closed that morning ... but inevitably, there is a reason why it's not advised to go to the museum quite yet.  Thank goodness, they always have a ready invite to an "art gallery", a "perfume shop" or a "jewelry shop" ready for you.  Each of these come under the umbrella of the "government shop."  Well, we dodged our couple of invites to the government shop and headed into the museum despite being told it was prayer time (at 10:30 instead of the normal 12:00).

So yes, even in the courtyard, Shannon was able to find a cat to say hello to.  I was glad to be returning to the museum as I hadn't brought my point and shoot the first time I toured the museum.  Given the multitude of replica statues in the courtyard, there were plenty of opportunities to take pictures of both of us in various poses.

The museum is an exhausting visit.  I find that my personal limit is about 2 hours before everything becomes a blur.  During my first visit, 2 hours hit while I was still on the first floor so I never made it upstairs.  This time, Shannon and I made it upstairs to see the two funerary treasures exhibits.  I hadn't seen Tutankhamen's death mask for 36 years and it's still as awe inspiring as the first time I saw it.

I recognize that cats are special, but the little tabby on the right might have taken elegance to a new extreme.  There were many places around the museum to sleep, and this one's tastes must have leaned more towards sculpture than most.

So, we left the museum and started the trip back home (this time via Nasser station instead of Sadat).  If I haven't mentioned it before, Egyptians are incredibly friendly people.  So, as we approached the entrance to the subway, we met Sherif.  After a brief discussion on our visit and the political situation, he asked us if we'd like to grab a drink.  I couldn't possibly duplicate the route (and I doubt that without him we would be welcome there), but he lead us through a serpentine trail of alleys & sidewalks and we ended up at an alley cafe where the real museum employees take their breaks.  Shisha pipes dotted the landscape where the three of us sat down to enjoy tea and mango juice.  We discussed everything from the geography of the Bible (as a narrative of people journeying between Egypt and Jerusalem) to politics to his job at the museum.  I'll definitely be arranging a time to see him again as he had previously discovered a mummified cat and would be willing to take me on a tour of the hidden exhibits (along with his cat).  It really was a fascinating discussion and if Shannon and I hadn't needed to rush back to Maadi so quickly, we likely would've spent more time chatting with him.

In the end, Sherif showed us one of the government shops that catered more to the locals than the one by the museum.  As his daughter was getting married, he was buying some orchid essence as a gift for her. During our discussions, he had commented on Shannon's Psoriasis as Egyptian herbal remedies was one of his areas of study.  He helped negotiate the price for us and recommended a sandalwood blend that should help Shannon's skin.  She'll be doing a test run shortly ... even if it doesn't work it smells wonderful and lasts far longer than other "essences" (wait for the Luxor update).

So, we rushed home as we had decided that we would take the Luxor->Aswan cruise and needed to get the deposit to the travel agent.  Overall, it was a great first couple days and ... Shannon hadn't even seen the Nile yet.  (coming soon ... sunset on the Nile).

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

With apologies to Karen Carpenter

Unfortunately, when the working week starts on a Sunday and precipitation comes in 15 second "do you feel something?" batches, she was wrong on both counts.  That being said, it has been a long month and a bit since I posted here.  This blog became as dusty as my apartment once I was able to leave the windows open on a regular basis.  The lifespan of a mopped floor in Cairo is about 9 days - by day 10 the frequently walked paths in my apartment are easily discerned.

If there were a teaching equivalent to baseball's 'dog days of summer', that would be an ideal description for my November.  When I returned to university, there always came a time around week seven when I just wanted the class to be over.  It wasn't close enough to the end for me to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the novelty of the subject had long worn off.  Well I found myself feeling the same way as a teacher.  The daily routine of the class and the roles of each member were well-defined and lacked originality (including my own), and my sense of humour had evaporated.  Looking back now, I know exactly why the downturn occurred.  And during that stretch, at least I had been warned that you should never contemplate quitting during your first two years or I would have wandered down that path with foolish abandon.

In retrospect, I can give myself a gentle kick in the butt.  For those of you that don't know, I enjoy sleep apnea on a nightly basis, which means the joys of a CPAP machine.  Let's just say that someone forgot to check his machine's humidity level.  Along with that oversight, the dust in the apartment had helped clog the filter beyond belief.  Add a month's sleep deprivation to everything and yeah ... it was a long month.  At least it's over now.  I'm thrilled to say farewell to the depression-like symptoms and that overall feeling of bleech.

In the interim, my sweetie has come and gone and we had a fantastic couple of weeks together.  In many ways, she helped restore my enjoyment of living here I was once again able to remember my initial views of Cairo through her eyes.  Yes, there will be a few vignettes posted from our pre-vacation week along with one or two describing the cruise.  We only took about 500 pictures during the couple weeks (and I dread the thought of tagging and cropping them already).  I've increased my stock of Egyptian attraction ticket stubs fourfold and we enjoyed a ton of highs and lows during the cruise.  I'll throw in a few teasers now to whet your appetites:

"five star ... I wonder who was counting"
"you picked a fine time to leave me Lucille's"
"impressive handcrafted workmanship.  The Nefertiti statues even had the same flaws."
"how many camels did she cost you"
"Canada dry never die"

In closing, x-mas occurred while I was silent.  In the category of strangest associations, my step-mother always insisted on including her Boney M Christmas album in the mix.  So, despite it not being included in the compilation, the song below will always be associated with x-mas in my mind.  I hope that you all had fantastic holidays and (family members only), Shannon is returning with gifts in hand.

1970s baroque at its finest