Saturday, September 10, 2016
Our new life in Cairo. Where to begin?
After a rapid jolt of settling-in and work training, we have completed our first week of school and things have shut down for Eid. Really shut down! Yesterday, on the eve of this 10-day holiday (and break from school!), I went to get us signed up for home internet service, and was told that because of Eid, it would take about 2 weeks - around Sept. 21st. Ouch.
Well, we can get internet at the school, which is just a 3-minute walk across the street. So any Skype or FaceTime would have to be pre-arranged. But there are other ways to get in touch. We both now have cellphones here, so we can do video chats using Facebook messaging, WhatsApp, or the new Google Duo vid-chat, for anyone who might have signed themselves up to those things. Skype is no longer permitted on cell phones here.
Meanwhile, we LOVE our apartment. I'll copy here some of the photos just posted by Jen Alice on FB. Our main entrance is on the 3rd floor, where the living room, kitchen, and terrace are, as well as a 2-bedroom wing that we really have no use for until guests appear; there’s also an entrance on the 2nd floor, which is where our bedrooms are. The place has an elevator, and 2 other faculty families live here, two more next door, and another two around the corner.
Sometimes we use air conditioning; and often it is wonderful to open the big french windows and let the air flow through. Tonight is very still, but most nights a strong breeze picks up on these upper floors, cooling us off. I personally am crazy for the weather here. Nary a cloud except at nightfall, and while the sun can be oppressive, it’s often just lovely. Sunrises and sunsets are radiantly golden orange, as is the sun itself when setting, easily stared directly at (through, admittedly, a shroud of pollution).
The city has by no means conquered the desert, which blows a fine dust everywhere. You can’t keep it out of the house. We walk barefoot around the house and the bottoms of our feet are always a greyish-brown color. Luckily, we have four bathrooms, so plenty of places to wash them.
From the terrace, we look across to the school and its lushly watered playing field surrounded by a running track - beyond is an olympic-sized pool that we can swim in any time. Further off to the left is the very fancy Festival City mall, where most of our shopping occurs. Immediately to the right is the sprawling national Police Academy, with an imposing concrete edifice that looks like a water tower but is actually a giant gun
Our neighbourhood - Ketamaya, the 5th Settlement - is a really weird place. It’s an endless sprawl — block after block — of big, new, very ornately decorated 4-story multi-apartment dwellings. But at least half of them are empty or unfinished. It seems there’s nothing available for the wealthy to invest in here except for real estate. We go for a walk and the roads are sparsely sprinkled with people and cars. Packs of dogs run free - friendly, well shaped hounds. Not sure if some or any of them have owners.
“Boabs,” who are building caretakers hired by the landlords, are assigned one to a building, so their families are often the only ones occupying the buildings that are lacking in tenants. Our building is one that is well occupied and our boab, Wahid, lives with his wife and two children in the ground floor apartment. He is extremely friendly and speaks as much English as we speak Arabic, so we all play a rollicking game of Charades every time one of us needs to convey something to the other. The other day he saw us smelling the basil plants growing outside the gate and we think he told us that he will get us a plant or two to pot on the terrace, however, we’re not sure. Time will tell…
At the mall and elsewhere, people mostly take no special notice of us as being unusual here. This is a very cosmopolitan city - although some things seem really backward, in other respects it’s entirely up to date, and people are very worldly, so we’re no big deal, which is nice, because we’d rather not be especially notable figures out and about. One can see a woman in full hijab talking with a woman in a mini skirt, and tank top and no one seems to think that’s strange. We’re seeing about 50% head scarves, 40% bare heads, and 5% hijab. The remaining 5% is up to the imagination.
Cairo is unimaginably vast. We’re told there’s something like 24 million people in the greater Cairo area, and there’s a million people a year moving in. Everywhere you look, there’s a construction site. If it’s not private dwellings, it’s the 15-storey office buildings and corporate headquarters that line the avenues of New Cairo, featuring all sorts of weird and interesting shapes in concrete and glass. Apparently, they often remain in a half-finished state for years.
We have had some adventures on the roads! The cars go either direction on virtually any street or intersection, and there are no traffic lights or lane markings. Highways/Freeways are often populated by crossing pedestrians and cars parked on the side for loading and unloading, socializing, or conducting business. (But have you heard of the Dutch traffic experiment where they removed all traffic lights and there were fewer accidents? There are a fair number of scraped-up cars here, and a lot of derring-do, but there is something to the idea of drivers having greater awareness and responsibility for themselves.)
We are relying on taxis to get everywhere, often using Uber. It’s cheap and most of the time very convenient, though at times you find yourself waiting while your phone shows a car apparently arriving, then not really. The driver will call you and you’ll say, “You speak English?” and try your luck.
Sometimes it’s one of the white cabs with a black stripe. The other day we were traveling to the mall in one of these cabs when the engine gave out on the highway. The driver parked in the exit split. Cars raced by as we considered our predicament. Soon another taxi appeared in front of us, and we were urged out of the one car and into the other. It sounds hairy, and we’d all rather not have done it, but around here’s such transfers are just ordinary.
A very nice thing about Uber is that in ordering the car, you’ve sent the driver a precise map of the pickup and drop-off locations. With regular taxis, they rarely understand where you’re saying you want to go - addresses here can be very vague - so you show them a map on your phone, and they begin to zero in. Frequently they pull over and ask somebody else for directions. And we try to always carry our taxi terms in Arabic provided by the school.
When our realtor drove us to meet the landlady in Heliopolis, a lengthy tour of the city via the ring road, at one point he stopped the car at side of the busy highway, and presently another fellow appeared out of the bushes to hand him an envelope - our lease contracts. And the other day, somebody in another car hailed our driver over to discuss something while they both continued to putter down the road. It’s all a bit weird here, but we’ve found that if you relax and keep your humour, and don’t worry about the time, it all works out nicely, as intended.
In this part of the city, there’s no such thing as a corner store. That’s not true in other parts, but it sure is here. So the food shopping is a big production. And WATER. Here in the dry desert air, one must drink a great deal of water each day, and the ubiquitous disposable water bottles (all controlled by Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Pepsi) come in 1.5 liter sizes. They don’t last long! Our first couple of weeks, when we hadn’t gotten the hang of delivery of the large water-cooler bottles, were dominated by the need to keep finding and bringing home enough water to get through a day or two, like hunter-gatherers carrying these bottles on our backs.
Fortunately, they have a highly developed online delivery system here. From one website, you can order your complete supermarket delivery. The fruit and veg come in little paper bags! From another, you can order dinner from any restaurant in your area. And from drinkies.com, you can order beer, wine, and liquor (all Egyptian-made), yup, delivered to your door. And there’s laundry service.
In all of these cases, you hope that the delivery person speaks a bit of English, since they often have difficulty locating the ordering person’s apartment. The other day we received a call from the person delivering our dinner and he did not speak English (understandably). We understood that he couldn’t find us, but we couldn’t direct him. Fortunately, he hung up and called someone at the restaurant who served as our translator. Never before have we been at such a complete loss with the local language. One of our goals for this Eid break is to learn some key terms. At this point, each of us can count to ten, say hello, good-bye, please and thank you. That’s about it. Xenia is required to take Arabic at school, but she is in the class with Arabic speakers. The government has cancelled the EFL class for 1st graders. It’s all apparently in negotiations still, but for now… she’s just grateful there is one other native English speaker in the class. Don’t worry - the kids do all speak English, and are required to do so the rest of the day.
The school is a great place to be. It certainly serves the Egyptian elite - many very rich kids who will inherit their parents’ businesses. It seems that it is in fact the premier K-12 school in Egypt, with the children of billionaires and high government officials. As well as kids from more normal circumstances, whose parents are putting everything into the education of one or two family members with the hope that they will take care of the rest of the family once they have their first “real” job. The kids can be rambunctious, but they are also very friendly and goofy. Nate is learning how to deal with a couple of large classes of students that need to learn basic computer stuff. The subject can get boring, and the students get very talkative and unfocused quickly, so it’s a bit of a challenge for someone new on the job. Fortunately, the administration here is really helpful and has good ideas, and we’ll work together on it. While moments like that can take considerable energy, really it’s nothing like the stress that I’ve experienced with some other jobs.
Periodically we hear the call to prayer ringing out from minaret speakers in our area, a couple of them competing for attention. It’s always a reminder that we’re in somebody else’s world and to respect what is. More on that next time… for now, we’d just like to add that in the states we all have been herded into painting the Middle East with one big brush, dominated by the colours of the Syrian war and Isis. We hear that Egypt has its own troubles, which it surely does. But it’s hard to grasp that the one is a totally different world than the other, and that here, you look at the news of war in the region with almost the same sense of distance. THAT is not what’s happening HERE. So please be assured. All that stuff has no tangible bearing on the people we see here every day.