Sunday, May 17, 2015

a love letter of details (3 - ode to felucca)

I've been teasing J about it since my arrival: I must buy a felucca. I will own a felucca and then all my problems will be solved. I will stay in Cairo with my boat, charge for rides on the Nile and blast my favorite music. I will only dock on the island for koshary or a lemon mint with friends. I could sleep on the boat in the shade of the bridges(like I spied one fellow doing). A felucca's life is the life for me.

A felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat used on the Nile. You will find them docked up and down the river. A ride around the island costs 200 Egyptian pounds(approx. 28 dollars...and that was for 2 of us). Feluccas vary in ownership and decor--some boast neon lights around the edges that glow and flash at night, blasting music that echoes off the buildings along the riverside. Some feluccas are small and may hold 5--10 people, while others might hold a bit more. If you are new to Zamalek, it's a great way to introduce yourself to the island. Pro tip: try to pick a felucca with a "roof" that covers some(if not most of) the sitting area. Sometimes people like to spit from bridges.

J and I took a felucca ride on Friday. His first, my second. Now that I'm here, it's a rarity for me to show him something since he started living here first. We walk the island all the time, but everyone can benefit from a change in perspective.

There are so many beautiful sights you can only truly see from the water. There are many waterside cafes and gardens hidden from the street by various gates and partitions.

I'm not buying a felucca any time soon, unfortunately, but a gal can dream. A gal can dream.

a love letter of details (part 2 - visuals of a neighborhood)

J and I often take walks in Zamalek. The island is a beautiful mess of streets both busy and quiet. Sometimes I have to walk a street five or six times before I learn to recognize it--from one end to the other I will see something different for each time I walk it. A new friend for every stroll.

like this little guy

or this one

note the plate on the left of the sign is upside down

There are times when we are walking a street that can only be described as a clogged artery, or hot mess--a tangle of traffic and parked cars and trucks making deliveries. Right when the madness of car horns and voices and exhaust reaches mindcrushing crescendo, we will make a left and find ourselves on a peaceful, near empty block. No traffic, only bird song and the occasional delivery bike making a shortcut. A lone worker finding a moment of rest in building's shade.

the wind took this sign down months ago. I pass it on my way to the gym.

you might call this a local bulletin board. Renting a flat can be kind of tricky here--I don't even completely understand the process myself.

pledges of love. the full thing reads: "Dolphin loves Farah & he wants to marry her"

sometimes you find a parking space and never let it go...I see this type of thing often enough to be baffled by it. J and I agree that owning a car on the island would be incredibly difficult. Yesterday we were walking past a parked car just as a branch loosened itself from the tree above and bonked it on the hood. Some cars are parked so long that you will see where the road has been paved around their spot. And when it comes to traffic, you're much better of walking it(or, if necessary, grabbing a cab). I feel like I revert back to talking about transportation in this space often, but it's pretty fascinating...especially coming from the states, where roads are meticulously lined and people throw fits over a scratch on their bumper. One night, J and I were walking and we passed a pristine Maserati, and we both immediately started laughing. Good luck with that, buddy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

a love letter of details (part 1)

When I was a kid I held a belief that a place only existed when you were in it. I believed that once we left it, where we once were folded itself up and ceased to be there as well. I thought that maybe places like Paris were only imagined, or that vacation destinations were only real for the length of my stay. Kind of like object permanence, kind of like not. With time and travel and departure/arrival this idea of mine faded. All of the places exist, all the time. The ocean still crashes, no matter if I stand in front of it or not. The hometown still hums, Eiffel still stands.

I think about this now during my limited time in Egypt. The end of my living here will come, and call to prayer will go on, the dust will still gather and the roads that are now buckled will most likely remain that way, or erode to worse conditions. Ever since my first visit to Cairo, I've been determined to get down the details and find ways to rightly describe my existing here--I want to share it and share it well with my loved ones. There have been many days when I've parked myself in the coffee shop and scribble down everything that crossed my vision--a man in galabeya talking on his cell phone, a group of friends laughing and smoking out front. The candy apple Fiats and cats perched victorious on top of piles of trash. Is it the little or big that make a place? What have I still not noticed?

You never know how many shades of brown exist until you live in the desert. The way dust, sand, dirt lands on everything--how it finds a way even with all the windows and doors closed, especially during sandstorms. How every car carries an injury--missing side mirrors, dents, scrapes, an elaborately cracked windshield. They will be double and triple parked in the most unlikely of places. Here, most people have to leave their vehicles in neutral so that the parking guys can move them and refit them like tetris along the street. It's always a little surprising to see what fits where.

in Pittsburgh, everyone knows about "the parking chair." Here in Cairo, anything can be a parking space saver--grocery carts on their side, potted plants, or a broken vase, as pictured above

Miraculous vats of gelato at Gelato Mio, where two scoops on a cone costs 12 Egyptian pounds.

photo via identity-mags

Even littler the undeniable oh so sweet smell of shisha filling the air on a weekend afternoon. Spotting a street weasel while walking home at night as it scurries from one dark place to another. The funny cooing of doves outside the study window in the morning and the wet steam emanating from the iron guy's shop. The background noise of arabic and car horns--soccer balls for sale on the top floor of the grocery store. Little empty glasses of tea on the ground next to shop entrances. The two security guards who always play dominoes at their post. All the policemen changing from winter's black uniform to summer's whites. A volkswagen serving as permanent display case.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


this entry was written over a period of days(Monday to today, Wednesday), so excuse any error of past/present tense used...I'll try to use headings to make it easier

Monday evening
Good evening from Cairo. I have returned. I'm sitting on my balcony. Here is my current view:

Confession: I've only been awake for 3ish hours. I hate this confession. I hate it so much, because it means I've been asleep for a good part of my day due to jet lag. She is a mighty, mighty beast this jet lag thing. I am never prepared for the reality of it until I realize I've gone an entire night without sleeping(aka last night). I busted my way through 9 time zones so the 'lag is a surprise to no one. Well, maybe a little bit surprising to me(but that's because I am naive and assume that I can somehow outsmart the body clock and conquer it every time I travel--NOPE).

Aside from this grueling jet lag, my trip back to the middle east was relatively easy. As easy as 3 flights, 9 time zones can be. I am growing into quite a fan of Qatar Airways. Vegan meals! Oh so important on such a long haul.

obligatory "i'm in the sky!" shot because I never ever tire of being around some clouds

I miss my family a great deal already, but I am also happy to be back. I feel like I've done a bit of internal peacemaking this month, especially in regards to my relationship with Cairo, my current home. I suppose a part of me thought I would get here and jump in/swim with the current. No problem, no weight, no worry. I came to this place so hellbent on respecting it, and somewhere along the way my determination to be respectful turned me into a two-dimensional shadow of a person...aka just not being my damn self. I'm not sure why this happened. Maybe jumping into the mostly-unknown brings up a more reserved nature in me? That's a simple way to say it. I'm also starting to understand the true impact of the past year in my life--a lot of loss and change. So very much change.

Wednesday, early afternoon
Finally finally finally! I slept some proper hours last night. I woke up at 10am, very bleary-eyed, but awake. This was a welcomed change from staying awake all night and then sleeping 7 to 3pm. I had granola and coffee with J for the first time since I returned. We watched The Daily Show and enjoyed the moment. continue my ramblings from writing on Monday...I've returned to Cairo with a much better attitude than I departed with. A new determination to give myself a shot in this new place. To not just understand my environment, but to believe in who I am within it. That was my previous disconnect. I have felt so flung out in various directions--bits of me left in Pittsburgh, more of me left in my hometown(from first being there then returning) many rooms of my mind are piled with memories/emotions/moments from these places, and I am the type of thinker who must go through all of them, who is desperate to remember all of the gestures and measures and shifts in wind. It is this enormous amount of examining that has held me back and created a feeling of being half-here. Being present in the past does nothing for my now. There are answers in my living, not in what I left.

And is anything truly left behind if we lived it?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

trip to the states

Pictured above: the weather was beautiful in Cairo on the day I left for the states. Traffic was nonexistent--I left on Spring Day(also known as Sham al-Nessim), which is a national holiday marking the first day of Spring. Many families spend the day picnicking in shared green spaces. I didn't get a picture of it, but there were chairs arranged along bridges with gathered groups drinking tea or taking selfies(the sheer amount of people taking pictures of themselves at arm's length is kind of incredible). It was an ideal day to say farewell to the city for a while.

The Cairo airport is always a little chaotic, so I powered through the crowded entrance and metal detectors to get to the flight desk and then to my gate. The best part about the hour wait at the gate: when two women in hijabs started blasting DJ Snake/Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What." Not just once, but three times in a row(mostly the chorus, which is really all you need).

In contrast, the Doha airport was a bit like a quick trip in outer space.

I flew Qatar Airways this time, which meant flying farther east before heading west. This made the middle flight a bit longer than usual(usually the long flight is 7-8 hours; this time it was 13.5). Flying Qatar is so nice. I had a really great experience(including vegan dinner & breakfast thanks to my thoughtful husband). And, since the bulk of the flight was overnight, my jet lag wasn't bad at all. It's the little things.

And now a list of things. 

Things I've noticed as an ex-pat, about myself and the U.S.:

- drinking water from the tap has never, ever felt this wonderful and/or decadent. 

- same for driving/the act of traveling from point A to point B. After experiencing Cairo as both passenger and pedestrian, stop lights appear like little meditations. And boy do Americans like painting lines on their roads.

- I went to the grocery store and spent an absurd amount of time in the produce section(as predicted). I've been enjoying lots of fresh spinach and ripe avocados.

- my niece and nephew chose to grow like weeds in my are they so big after only a few months away?! I've been enjoying the heck outta my family on this trip.

- I pay a lot more attention to customer service interactions. I think this is because I have to really focus on them in Egypt(since Arabic isn't my first language). Or maybe it feels like a luxury to have extended exchanges in English with strangers. All of it is really motivating me to increase my studies and get better at using Arabic(inshallah).

- thunderstorms, the smell of grass being mowed, making my sister laugh. I knew I missed these things, but I didn't realize how much they lift my heart until I moved away from them.

- I was reunited with my bike. Oh how I've missed that beautiful beast.

- television news in the US is a joke. An incredibly nonsensical, fluff-filled, cringe-worthy joke. Does that sound harsh? Maybe. But my word. It's embarrassing.

- I miss hearing the call to prayer.

- wide open green spaces. Be still my heart.

- Target welcomed me back with open arms. I've gone three times in one week.

- I wasn't prepared for the amount of guilt I would feel for being here while J is back in Egypt working. Any first world thing I get to take delight in, I want to immediately share with him. It's extra tough being in our hometown without him. Once I moved to Cairo, the frustrations that went along with doing everything long distance melted away...and now on this trip they return, and I am reminded of how hard we've worked, how fortunate we are. 

More soon.

Monday, April 13, 2015

before departure

I'm leaving for the states this evening and my traveling anxiety is starting to rear its head. Going from Egypt to the US requires a solid day of walking/flying/waiting, as well as a little prayer to the jet lag gods to be easy on me once I get to my destination. It's a minefield situation for someone with migraines, so I stock up on snacks, water, something soft and familiar, and go through to get through while hoping for the best. Traveling such a distance is a process, and I'll get through it.

Last night before bed I realized I was going to miss Egypt during my time away. I'm kind of surprised by this. And then surprised about being surprised. Why wouldn't I miss Egypt? This is where I live, my current home. Sometimes I see myself resisting my environment and I do not recognize me in the action at all.

There can be no more resistance. I am here, and this is my home. It is not about what will be my home, or what once was.

The past year of my life has been full of change--the kind of full that ignores all brims and pours on the floor, floods the room, joins forces with other existing flowing bodies to form a brand new ocean. Yes, that kind of full. The brain and the heart are still catching up to my physical location. So resisting another new place makes sense, especially when the length of my stay is unclear. But I have spent an irrational amount of time trying to wrap my head around why this place frustrates me and not nearly enough moments enjoying the adventure of being here. The unfamiliar outweighs it all, and focusing on that has made me unfamiliar to myself. Life here feels like a truly living thing--nothing ever the same way twice with some of those most mundane things becoming the most complicated. It is noisy, complex, pulsating.

I am so excited to see my family, to send time with my niece and ride my bike(oh how I've missed that wonderful beast) eat all the mexican food and stare at large swatches of green grass and farmland. I will soak every minute of it in, believe me. But I am already excited to return to Cairo as well. To jump back in with both feet and really find my place. To venture repeatedly outside the bubble of my comfort. I'm looking forward to enrolling in language classes and exploring more parts of the city. To not be a stranger, but rather the resident that I am. To truly being here.