Isolated in Heliopolis

We moved to the hotels in Heliopolis two days ago. This was not, as far as I can tell, a good thing.

We live in an area of Heliopolis that is completely surrounded by military installations. The hotel is in a gated compound. Its actually a very pretty building with a sparkling pool surrounded by palm trees. I'm not allowed to take a picture of it though, because its military.

Its sweltering here. It would be so wonderful to just jump into the pool, regardless of whether or not I'm in a swimsuit or fully clothed. However, women are not allowed to swim in Egypt unless they're under twelve years old. None of us fit that description, and a lot of the American girls are pissed, mostly because they talked up the pools in the emailed descriptions of the hotel we got in August.

The online pictures looked small, but not bad. They were obviously taken from very creative angles, because the room is tiny. It has a small balcony, from which Kelly says she could hit the mosque next door with a softball if she tried.

This is a bad thing because the call to prayer is broadcast loudly on a speaker at 4 A.M. every morning.

I sent an email full of woe to my parents yesterday after spending two hours trying to connect to the internet, listing every single thing I hated about the hotels and AUC's lack of utter communication about everything important. Secondary among my concerns: my room has two electrical outlets. One that is being used for the fridge and one for the TV. Kelly is (once again) my randomly assigned roommate. We both have computers, cell phones, camera chargers...first on my list of things to buy once I find my way out of the military compound is a power strip.

The primary problem with the hotels so far is the lack of reliable internet connection. Its a little bit better today. I was actually able to load BBCNews and read an article about McCain's VP choice (which I didn't find out about until late Saturday night, thank you horrible internets). At this point I can read my email and thats about it. I'm not even sure what I'm writing right now is going to load, and by the way, the study lounge which is the only place where the internet is semi okay is not air conditioned. At this point I am so hot and sweaty and dusty from seeing the Pyramids today (!!!!) that more sweat at this point doesn't even matter.

The visit to the Pyramids is another story entirely, as is my first experience taking a black and white taxi. More on that when I can actually upload pictures again. I'm hoping they fix the routers very, very soon. Also that (in'shallah) the dorms are finished earlier than November 1, our scheduled move in date.


Ramadan Savings Time?

This morning I got up early to pack my bags because of the big move to the Heliopolis Hotels (which is unfolding in what I'm coming to understand is a completely typical, totally disorganized fashion). I managed successfully to put everything (kind of) back where it came from and the good news is all the suitcases still zipped.

I had my usual breakfast of toast and omelette and was sitting in the cafeteria absentmindedly reviewing my new vocabulary, watching the clock to get ready to go outside to board the shuttle to the old campus for my class while my friend ate his interesting sausage and vegetable mixture.

One of the boys stopped by the table and said, hey, you guys know what time it is, right?

We said of course, 12:10. He told us to look up at the clock, which actually read 11:10.

Apparently, in preparation for the start of Ramadan, all the clocks in Egypt moved up one hour last night and nobody bothered to tell us!

I thought he was kidding, but he checked with an RA. Five minutes after I found out I got a phone call from Mr. Youssef, my survival Arabic teacher, telling me the exact same thing.

I went back upstairs to wile away my extra hour (which I would have rather spent sleeping) and nearly gave Kelly a heart attack when I walked through the door, because she thought I was already on my way to Tahrir.

This whole experience just keeps getting more and more interesting.


First Impressions

International Student Orientation is on the Tahrir Campus in downtown Cairo--the "old" campus--since the new campus isn't officially opening to students until this weekend.

We take shuttle buses every morning to campus through heavy traffic. Here, traffic lanes are no more than mere suggestions and pedestrian crosswalks are almost completely disregarded. You can see the car on top of the lane marker in this photo:

This is actually on a bridge over the Nile, heading towards the Tahrir Campus and its surroundings, which include the Shura Council building that burnt last week. I walked past it the other day with Kelly and Tommy, and the fire damage is extremely visible. Its only a block or two from the Tahrir Campus. Also only a block or two from the Tahrir campus is this square, where we sat quietly during our introduction to downtown Cairo. For once Tommy's directional skills worked and we didn't get lost, wandering around between the sparse orientation sessions.

Yesterday our survival arabic classes started. We're learning basic am'iya, the colloquial dialect of Arabic that regular Egyptians speak. We're learning essential phrases like how to order taxis, tell time, and so on. I know how to order a taxi in modern standard, but it has absolutely no relation to how to order a taxi in am'iya.

Professor Youssef had no trouble with the other American names in my small class of five, but he stumbled over mine. His first attempt was "Katie-line" which is now my favorite mispronunciation. I shortened it to Kate, but he insisted instead on calling me "Kat! Like Meow-Meow!"

I saw the Pyramids for the second time (first time on the ground) through the windows of the tour bus that was taking us to the Bedouin Night dinner.

The actual dinner was short on Bedouins and heavy on Spanish techno-pop and "My Heart Will Go On." They also forced everyone into a whirlwind group dance that lasted for a very long time.

Earlier in the afternoon I'd signed up for both the dinner and horseback riding at the Pyramids, under the misguided impression that horseback riding would mean sedately walking horses in view of the pyramids.

We got off the bus in an alley that winds along the fence blocking general access to the Pyramids. Within ten seconds of saying beginner I was on horseback, gripping the reins for dear life. The guide tugged on the reins, saying right-left-stop and slapped my horse to make him go.

He went.

We walked our horses in a large group, through crowded alley ways, working our way around the fence to a sweep of open desert. At that point the horses stopped walking and started galloping.

There were no pommels on the saddle. Sand was swirling in the night air, we could still hear the traffic sounds from crowded Giza. I held on for a few minutes, just long enough to climb the sand to a point where I could see all three pyramids illuminated against the night sky.

I felt myself slipping, my foot flew out of the stirrup, and I managed to fall off of my galloping horse in full view of the Pyramids.

I hit a sand dune and rolled. Popped back up with sand in my hair and my teeth and a scraped elbow.

By virtue of falling off the guide personally led my horse for the rest of the excursion. Thank goodness.

My brief and inglorious horseback riding career is now over, thanks. There are no photographs of this particular episode because the RAs wisely recommended that we leave cameras on the bus along with all valuables. Mine would have been crushed so I appreciated the recommendation in retrospect.


Sleep-Deprived but Alive

Egyptair Flight 986 wasn't crowded. I had an assigned window seat behind the wing, so I had a great view and the seat next to me wasn't occupied for very long.

A devout Muslim man sat down next to me in New York and said his evening prayers. After he was done (and after I called my parents and might have cried just a little bit) I introduced myself. He stared at me, said "I no speak English" and before giving me a chance to respond in Arabic, fled.

I didn't see him again for the entire rest of the ten hour flight, but his disappearance gave me the ability to stretch out over the two seats to sleep. I had earplugs, headphones,and an eyemask (Egyptair gave out swag like the air industry was booming), and I still had a hard time going to sleep with the mechanical thrumming of the plane's engines, but I must have because I had no idea that one of the in-flight movies was the live-action version of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

At 4:00 A.M. EST/10:00 A.M. breakfast was served. At 5:30 we began our descent into Cairo.

Fittingly, I was listening to the birthday mix Kathryn made me and just as the green fields of the Nile Delta came into view behind the sandy coastline, the Lily Allen/Mark Ronson collaboration "Oh My God" clicked onto my ipod. oh/my/god/I can't believe it/Never been this far from home before.

I was sitting on the fortunate side of the airplane: as we continued our descent into Cairo the Pyramids came into view. Viewed from the air against the foreground of the crumbling sand colored towers of downtown Cairo they rose out of a small sweep of desert.

We landed, collected our baggage, lugged our (free!) trolleys past men in white uniforms cradling automatic rifles.

The AUC representatives were unprepared for the number of students that arrived on our flight. They piled twenty people plus three bags per person into one of the most overloaded small passenger vans I have ever seen and off we went. I was the last person in the van, seated on a small jumpseat right inside the door. There were no seatbelts. We careened through (around?) downtown Cairo, crossed the Nile, and entered the comparatively green oasis that is the island of Zamalek.

My randomly assigned room-mate for orientation at Zamalek?

Kelly! (for those unfamiliar: Kelly was my room-mate first semester sophomore year at AU).


Small Victory

I weighed my biggest and fullest suitcase today (we weighed my dad first, had him hold my suitcase and subtracted) and I am a whopping 20 pounds under Egyptair's 70 pound weight limit.

Delta has a reciprocal agreement with Egyptair, and since both flights are on the same ticket I get to take two bags instead of one on my Delta connecting flight (Dulles International to JFK) and I'm not bound by the 50 pound Delta weight limit either, also thanks to the reciprocal agreement.

My small luggage victory comes exactly two days after I realized that the large suitcase of my parents I was going to take does not stand up by itself anymore. Since I am going to have to be able to control what is essentially my bodyweight in luggage by myself, I can't afford to take a bag that topples over at the slightest provocation. My next biggest suitcase is only 24", and when I packed it it was clear that I needed a lot more space.

What commenced was a whirlwind tour of every store in central York County that carries luggage in an attempt to find the biggest and cheapest suitcase available.

Thanks to the Boscov's clerk who incorrectly rang a 20% discount through the register instead of only 5%, I got a 29 inch LMC upright spinner suitcase for $40.00. It only took five hours to find, too.


My worst nightmare

I've spent most of the summer stressing about how I could possibly manage to pack two suitcases and a carry-on with all of things I want to take with me to Egypt.

This is because it takes (every time) two trips to move me in and out of the dorms at AU. Now, we only have sedans and I take a mini-fridge and bulky television set, but still. I have ALOT of stuff.

Not to mention my shoe collection. My horrors at only being able to take one pair each of brown and black flats, one pair of black pumps, and one pair of sneakers are numerous. I nearly cried when I sorted through my shoes this morning and mournfully lined up all the lovely pairs that I won't see for nearly a year.

Luckily my sister's foot is half a size smaller than mine, but she did just gain access to a 3/4 full closet of spring and summer clothes and trunks full of sweaters, if she can bring herself to wear my "weird" things.

I started a test pack in the light-weight suitcase my Aunt Sandy and Uncle Jake let me borrow (thanks!). I folded initially and then took a ruler and measured how much room the folded clothes took up, and then I unpacked and started rolling. Rolling won by about an inch. I really don't have time to be that obsessive compulsive, but I'm on track to have maybe some extra space if my suitcases aren't overweight.

I've solved my shoe problem, but I've left the worst for last: jewelry.

I have to pare down my three jewelry boxes to one very small travel jewelry case.

Umm, help?

(Disclaimer: my mother decorated my room when I was two. I had nothing to do with the explosion of pink.)


Its better than a tent located behind the third dune to the left, that's for sure.

In the middle of July all of the people who signed up for AUC's student housing received an email notifying them that the dormitories were not going to be completed in time for the fall semester (AUC is relocating to a brand-new campus in New Cairo). In the email they offered three options:

1) Defer admission to the Study Abroad Program until the Spring. Um, completely not happening. I'd been planning on studying abroad in Cairo for the entire year. Also I had no housing in DC nor was I registered for classes there anymore.

2) Withdraw from University provided housing and find your own apartment. I'm sorry, but I speak no colloquial Egyptian Arabic and am only sort of capable of conducting a conversation about apartments in Modern Standard.

3) Live in the emergency housing being arranged by the University that could be up to an hour away from campus. An hour away from campus? Each way? Ugh.

Upon receipt of this email I might have made a few hysterical phone calls (Sorry Tommy, Mom). Of course I then immediately had to go to work, where I might have also ranted to my co-worker and a couple of homeless people (Also sorry) about the unbelievable contents of the ResLife email.

After my hysterics subsided I decided that the only logical thing was to go for the Emergency Housing. Two weeks after the first email they notified us that emergency housing would be provided by three hotels in Heliopolis. That's supposedly a twenty minute shuttle ride to campus. I immediately decided I'd take the emergency housing.

Today I received my housing assignment: I will be living in the Hotel of the Engineering Division (El Dar El Handasseyah). This hotel just happens to be operated by the Egyptian Armed Forces.

Okay. well. The description sounds pretty decent:

The hotels host military families and international civilians, visitors such as national athletes and official government visitors. The facilities are located in a quiet district, yet within walking distance from Cairo’s metropolitan areas. All the hotels are on the same qualitative standards and offer the same quality of service. Each room contains 2 beds, a closet, TV, mini bar, a desk, a balcony and a private bathroom. The hotels are self-contained facilities with recreation, gym, internet, and restaurants with moderate government subsidized prices.

Hey, its a place to live. I'll take it. At least now I don't have to worry about trying to fit a tent in my carry-on luggage.



Setting up this blog is one check off the list of things I made for myself to complete before I leave on August 21.




Everything else...not so much.