Sunday, March 1, 2015

the challenging

I had a bad day last week. Bad days here, in a third world country, are a bit trickier than a bad day back in the states. I hesitated to write about it here--there are so many wonderful and interesting things that I'd rather write about. But bad days have their place, and carry just as much weight/value as the good stuff.

The tone of my bad day was set by not sleeping well the night before. I woke up wide awake at 3am and didn't get back to sleep until 7:30am. I managed to scrounge together another three hours before cutting my losses and getting on with my day. In the afternoon J arrived home from work and we decided to grab a cab and take a long walk downtown. We've been taking lots of walks on the island and needed a change of scenery.

arriving at Tahrir Square, photo by JG

Traffic was terrible once we crossed the bridge, so we paid our driver and hopped out to walk the rest of the way. We took our time to find coffee, never once walking a straight line--walking here is a game of zig and zag, move or get run into. We ducked into a side street and had some turkish coffee, tiny powerful things with an inch of pure sludge at the bottom. A coffee you can feel in your teeth. Two turkish coffees plus a large bottle of water came to a total of 11 egyptian pounds, just over a dollar in american currency.

Here are a few more photos from our stroll:

we stopped at the Windsor for a lemonade. This is part of the interior--dimly lit and so cozy with thin curtains yellowed by smoke and wood floors that creak beneath feet. There are shelves thick with books and plenty of photographs to look at--it feels very much like you're visiting someone in their private study.

this is the interior of the Cairo Metro station. The beauty is unreal.

A slow dark thing was moving within me by the time we made it to the metro station. Part of it was simply fatigue, I'm sure. Internally I felt like a level, a brim, was being reached--each little thing around me increasing the chances of spilling over. Many times crossing streets in Egypt feels like a frightening game of Frogger. If you wait for a perfect pause to cross then you'll be standing there forever. I am much more accustomed to this now than ever before, but on that particular day downtown, every street I crossed made my heart race a little more. The chaos of crossing streets, horns blaring, people shouting. I found myself very, very overwhelmed.

Rush hour struck again and we could not get a cab to take us back to Zamalek(J stopped three different ones to ask and none of them would). We decided to walk it. By this point I wasn't really talking to J anymore, and because I was in a mood he was in a mood. Communicating felt impossible, other than wanting to communicate how overwhelmed I felt by it all--how badly I wanted to stop walking, curl up in a ball and magically be somewhere easy and quiet and not Cairo. We kept going. We walked through the sun set, through call to prayer. Just outside the market in Zamalek, I took J's hand.

Since then, I have tried to pinpoint what it was that made me shut down in such a severe way. I don't really have an answer, other than what a friend here said to me when I reached out to her: this place isn't easy. It's a very tough place, and there will be tough days. If I am honest, I know that I have been extra hard on myself in regards to getting used to things. I expect it to happen soon, damn near immediately. Because of the absurdly high expectations, the reality of things hit a bit harder.

When I have a bad day here, it feels much more consuming than a bad day in the states. A bad day in Cairo makes me feel like I've failed somehow--failed at adapting, at being tolerant, etc. I know it is foolish to assume that any/all situations will flow like water. There are so many challenges here and I want to rise to meet not only rise but to excel. This is a beautiful, complicated place. Above everything else I want to be respectful. The hardest lesson for me has been understanding that a bad day here is not being disrespectful. That it isn't malicious of me to desire a red light/walk signal now and again. That it's alright to feel overwhelmed by the simple navigation of a new place or another language. Some days will be smooth and others will be full of running into walls. There will be days ahead that are much more tough. My bad day could've easily been much, much worse. Never once was I unsafe or harassed. I was simply overstimulated and incredibly overwhelmed. Such is life when living in another country.

I struggle with uncertainty here, but being brave has certainly helped. Little by little, one foot in front of the other. Where once it seemed impossible to walk down the street and get coffee, now it is a familiar and welcoming task. When I first arrived, I barely felt comfortable leaving my block. Nowadays the island is much less of a mystery to me. I don't just exist, but I live here. This week, one of J's coworkers was in town visiting from another country--I caught myself talking to him about life here in Cairo so naturally and the ease of it surprised me. And immediately I am surprised by being surprised(ha)--of course there is an ease to it because Cairo is my home.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

beliefs (1)

In the first house, this was the easy way to tell if it was raining:

stand in front of window, reasonable distance
focus both eyes on the barn falling apart across the street
rain drops pressed against background of darkness popped immediately and
I knew their speed, slant, worth.

You grow up. Then you start doing the same, pressing yourself to things
from the other side of the street/wall/scene. A reasonable-sudden-unreasonable
distance. Ghosts ain't weather. The wrong starts.

Friday, February 20, 2015

mena house, part 3

The Mena House food experience continued into the next morning before our return to the city with the always adored breakfast buffet. You'd have to pry my cold, rigor'd hands off any/all buffet set-ups--I am so down with strange combinations of foods in whatever order I can imagine them. I like a seemingly limitless amount of boiled eggs and potatoes. Mena had a wonderful breakfast, complete with my favorite honey receptacle ever: a giant slice of fresh honeycomb in a glass rectangle, suspended so the honey can drip down a tiny slide into a receiving bowl. Here is a visual for what I'm talking about:

Other wonders at the buffet: the always classic omelette station, a cereal station, fava bean and vermicelli pots(with a platter of lime, sugar, chili powder, curry powder and peppers in between them), freshly squeezed juices including hibiscus, an impressive array of breads/grains, and strawberry coolis so cute that I almost couldn't stand to eat it(almost). They were so delicious that I ended up eating three of them.

We did a little bit more roaming around before check-out...

this is outside the fanciest restroom I have ever experienced

pie slice chairs

lounge area

Until next time, pyramids!

Pretty soon we were back in the thick of traffic, city bound and then home as if we never left it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

on the inward hammer/chisel

It is today but I've got my mind on tomorrow. I have my second therapy appointment and I'm already feeling unnecessary nerves about it. Here is where I pause and debate my use of "unnecessary." Is it useless to be anxious about spending a concentrated hour on working on myself, or is this anxious feeling completely justified? Is it completely normal to feel nervous about it? Am I thinking too much on this? Probably.

I am grateful to find the assistance I need while living in another country. I am grateful for the time and space to unpack some shit and get some things right. Last week I left my first session completely exhausted, and I know this exhaustion--I know it is a good kind of tired. It means I'm working. I'd like to think I work on myself on a daily basis--but the heavy duty stuff is extra tiring. Plus in session I feel this brand new pressure to explain myself and what I am struggling with.

The part of me that is anxious about tomorrow is also the part of me that whispers ignorance is bliss, this dark dark bit of me that would rather stay unwell and out of touch with myself because that is what I am used to and, therefore, "comfortable" with. Quotes are necessary here because it is not real comfort. There is no comfort in the depth of depression--there is familiarity, and that is what is comfortable. The negative builds a groove, too. It takes effort and desire and skill to bump yourself out of that rut and forge a new path--one that is positive, and healthy. It takes repetition and time and it requires accepting that it will involve discomfort.

I'm not sure why I'm making a post about this, other than needing to, and this overwhelming desire to be honest about what I want from myself. Exploring and being in this new place/country is very exciting and inspiring, and I want to share that. But I know my internal work(the work on myself) must continue, and a change of scenery doesn't nullify that at all. If anything, it shoves the internal into a spotlight. Who I really am becomes much more apparent in an entirely different country. I am more surrounded by the unfamiliar than the familiar, and this inspires me to try new things mentally/emotionally too. It also provokes more retreating into the mind, more desire for what is familiar and safe, and if that place(my mind) doesn't feel safe, then...what does? I knew that coming to Egypt would mean facing myself in a brand new way.

Wherever you go there you are. It's so true right now it's frightening.

I'll wrap this up here. I'm going to focus on today for as long as it lasts, and decide to worry about tomorrow when it comes. And when it is tomorrow, I'd like to twist that worry into excitement, because I am worth the time and the effort. I am not a scary place.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mena House, part 2

I loved exploring Mena House. I felt like a kid again--climbing steps not knowing where they went, peeking around corners to find more hallways to navigate. Elaborate yet delicate decor, perfect colors and floral arrangements(including lots of stunning birds of paradise)--our never-ending oohs and ahhs coupled with a flurry of alternating "come-look-at-this-habibi."

This is the hotel lobby:

photo from: tripadvisor

a bowl of fresh rose blooms in water

There is so much in the picture above...I feel that it captures a bit of what I'm saying about the Mena House atmosphere. That jellyfish chandelier! That alone is enough to marvel at. But take note of the walls. Even the ceilings at Mena are incredible(and worth the neck cramps).

After our indoor exploring we hurried back outside to catch the sun set...

We went back to our room, getting all gussied up while listening to Nas. And then dinner. Many people have referred to The Moghul Room as THE best indian in all of Egypt. This restaurant is in the hotel and we were eager to find out if all the reviews and rumors were true. I was a little nervous--I've abstained from indian cuisine since my last trip, when I ended up getting quite sick from an indian restaurant here in Zamalek. The amazing mezza from earlier felt like a good sign though, so I was all in for some grub at Mogul.

And boy oh boy oh boy oh boy was it incredibly, outstandingly(probably not a word, don't care) delicious.

I tried pickled lemons for the first time and fell head over feet for them. I couldn't suss out if it was okay to eat the rind, since the entire thing was pickled(I reconciled by eating most of the rind, figuring what the hell). The chana masala was the best I've ever had. The basmati rice with vegetables was fragrant and colorful and downright perfection. The fact that I typed the phrase "downright perfection" and completely mean it says something here. I don't like to talk like that, but there is no other phrase for it. If lovin' you is wrong I don't want to be right.

J had the lamb vindaloo(pictured above in the pot on the upper right). He told me it was incredibly spicy but in just the right way--the color alone was incredible, a deep deep red. I've had some wonderful indian food in my life, but nothing touches food at the Moghul Room. I now understand that exceptional food brings forth two feelings for me: first I get mad at all meals I've had before it, and then I feel moved to tears. I barely had room in my belly for the entire dish but I forced myself to make room, which meant leaving with a bit of a waddle and a belly that hurt. Ah well. Worth it. The hostess handed out a single rose to every woman leaving the dining room for valentine's day.

We ended the night back in our room with extended bellies and the television on. The hotel's directory channel had a small sequence on the history of the Mena House--hilarious to listen to because the narrator was a computer generated lady voice. We flipped through a bollywood movie and music videos(I love how the videos here always end with movie-style credits). You cannot beat a middle eastern music video.

I'll wrap up the Mena House in my next entry, part three--our day of departure/heading back to Zamalek.

mena house, part 1

Our weekend adventure = a night at The Mena House.

the view from our room's balcony. whaaaaaaaaaat.

Ah, Mena House. A few things:

The Mena House was built in 1869 and was first used as a hunting lodge. Ownership switched hands in 1886 and the grounds were used as a hotel(apparently a few years later they built Egypt's first swimming pool). The hotel was converted into a hospital near the end of World War I.

photo source: Irene Victoria Read papers, pictorial material and relics, 1839-1951, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Over the years, the Mena House went through various renovations and hosted an impressive list of visitors(Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill to name a few).

J and I drove out there on Saturday afternoon. It's been a year since we've been out to Giza/the pyramids. On clear days/from certain areas in Cairo you can see the pyramids in the distance, but it is nothing like being in Giza, right next to them. Our route included busy roads lined by newer buildings(J noted even 10 years ago none of the buildings were there, just farmland). From most windows you could see laundry hanging out to dry. Colorful garments weighing down the lines, each long sleeved shirt with arms raised upside down. Traffic was a little heavy once we entered town, but I didn't mind--thick traffic means plenty of time to look around and people watch a bit.

We couldn't wait to get in our room and check out the view from our balcony(as pictured above). The room was absurdly nice--an open plan, new fixtures and a darker finish on the wood.

sitting area just inside our balcony doors

We had a late day snack in the bar area--there were tables outdoors next to the reflecting pool, which reflected the pyramids beautifully. The air was chilly and that coupled with my general excitement made me shiver a bit. I couldn't help it. The moment felt so extraordinary and surreal and this is my life are you serious? We watched other guests of the hotel filter in around us. So far we appeared to be the only americans.

And when I tell you that I had the BEST mezza I have ever, ever experienced in all my 33 years of life, I am not kidding. We ordered the mezza to share and at first I quietly wondered why it was taking a while to get to our table(forgive me, I was hungry). Ah, but once it arrived I understood the delay. Every single bit of the dish was fresh fresh fresh.

Here is where I pause to stare at that photo and let my heart skip a couple beats.



That tabbouleh? UNREAL. Just plucked and chopped, fresher than fresh. I don't eat cheese but I took J's word for it when he said the cheese was incredible. The grape leaves were perfectly marinated and wrapped immaculate. I couldn't stop eating the hummus. There were bits of falafel stuffed with walnut and warm pita bread. This meal made us mad at all other food we've had in the past.

view from our table:

After going to heaven via mezza, we decided to walk around and explore the grounds a bit.

path to the main building were we checked in, also where private/more expensive suites are located

Mena House adventure to be continued in next entry(part deux)...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

a walkabout

Yesterday, Friday, was Egypt's Saturday. The work week here runs Sunday to Thursday instead of Monday to Friday. I'm still adjusting to this. J and I took full advantage of his day off and went to his gym to sign me up for a membership. Last time I was in town, I worked out in the unisex area--yesterday I tried the women's room(most gyms have a women only area) and was delighted to be the only one in there for an entire hour. I decided to do a leg day--I rode the bike and did reps on all of the leg machines. Tomorrow I'll sweat it up in the spin class.

After lunch and a shower J and I decided to take an epic Zamalek walk, from one end of the island to the other. It was a beautiful day to navigate the phenomenal streets of my new neighborhood.

We took a little break at the Rooftop Bar to devour some cupcakes...

A bit about where I live, Zamalek:

Zamalek is located on Gezira Island in the Nile. Three bridges connect the island with the mainland, so it's a fairly easy cab ride away from downtown Cairo. There are a lot of international embassies here, as well as residential blocks. The streets are mostly tree lined(it's nice to have access to so much greenery here in the desert). Plus you can always find a great view of the water. I never get tired of exploring my neighborhood--you can cut one block in from your usual route and find a brand new labyrinth of narrow street and small shops. There are plenty of markets, pharmacies, and restaurants--from italian to thai to lebanese. It's a comfortable place to live and play. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to venture out into Cairo, Maadi, beyond, but it's fairly easy to stay in the bubble of Zamalek(residents of Maadi often mention staying in the same sort of "bubble" in their area).

recycling pick-up...note the still-dusted car from the sandstorm

And now I'll wrap this entry up...the car will be here shortly to pick us up for another adventure. More soon.