Monday, May 14, 2012

The Trial, Part 2: Office of Circumlocution


Though you would never know it to dodge the drivers in Cairo, apparently you must actually be licensed to operate a vehicle in Egypt.  Ever abiding the law, or more accurately, ever abiding with The Law, I dutifully made an appointment to get my Egyptian driver’s license Tuesday last.

That morning, T and I walked The Lads to school, hopped in our armored SUV and headed for the corniche, the harrowing highway that runs parallel to the Nile. Fortified with his Starbuck’s Breakfast Blend courtesy of Poppy and Nonni’s recent K-Cup care package, The Husband navigated morning rush hour impressively.  The distance from our flat in Maadi to the American Embassy is a scant 9 miles; it took us 90 minutes to get there.

As The Husband alternately idled bumper to bumper with most of Cairo’s other 9 million cars or weaved in and out of this, that, these, and a little of this, some of that and one of these like a gamer at the arcade playing this, I offered silent prayers of encouragement from where I sat calmly in the passenger seat, with the help of my own breakfast blend of Coke Zero and Xanax.

Finally, we neared the right turn (typically executed from the far left lane-ish in Cairo) for the street leading to the Embassy; the last street before traffic is forced to head from the East bank of the Nile to the West.  Granted our grasp of written Arabic is virtually non-existent, but T and I are both still quite sure that there were no signs warning of our road’s closure that morning.  In fact, since the Revolution, Cairo has been let’s say, experimenting, with different traffic patterns, resulting in a daily morning surprise for commuters as to which roads will be open and going in which direction. Flashing yellow arrows or traffic cops could help but … maa’lesh (oh well, what are you going to do).

In ancient times the city to the East of the Nile was reserved for The Living, while the  West – where the sun set – was for The Dead.   After we returned from The Dead, we found an alternate route to the Embassy and hurried to our rendezvous point with the expeditor who was to facilitate the procurement of our licenses. 

In the expeditor’s office, The Husband and I joined three other Expat/Egyptian driver’s license hopefuls.  We handed over copies of our medical forms certifying our blood types and excellent (with corrective lenses) vision, along with two pre-trimmed passport photos, as instructed.  We also gave the expeditor our Diplomatic Passports and our Diplomatic IDs and US driver’s licenses – two of the five ID cards I am meant to carry on my person at all times – along with a processing fee of 40 LE.

Then our group was off.  Somewhere in the bowels of the Embassy, I passed the nurse from the health unit who had earlier administered my eye exam.  “Bring a book and toilet paper,” she whispered conspiratorially. What I did bring was an extra Xanax.

After three hours at the Cairo version of the DMV, I still can’t say that I was able to discern a process or even a subtle pattern guiding the employees and patrons there.  There was no LED sign showing the number of the person being served, not even a paper deli counter ticket to indicate who might be helped next.  There was no rope and stanchion for people to queue beside in an orderly manner.  There were no queues at all, only a few small blue and white signs with cryptic English translations – “Corporations”, “Expire”, “Struggle with Violations”.  Some carrels had computers, some did not.  Smoking was unfettered.  The constant delivery of tea to the workers was the most efficiently flowing service offered.  The one standard operating procedure I did witness was the giving away of small red fire extinguishers to all customers like free toasters with a new checking account at the bank.  I’m really not sure which frightens me more – that I have to carry around my own fire extinguisher or my own toilet paper.

Then, without reason or warning, our group was summoned by the expeditor to a small room in the back corner.   Inside were half a dozen dead plants in clay pots (I suspect Second-hand Smoke ), five chairs and two desks configured in an L shape and topped with a circa 1998 PC and printer.  Connected to the computer was a digital camera nearly as old as the pyramids.  The first of our group took a seat in front of the camera while we all waited for the PC to be rebooted several times.  When that finally worked, the camera did not.  Much jiggling of the power cords and shaking of the camera ensued until something finally clicked and we could be photographed in turn.  We signed a paper which - don’t tell all the lawyers in my family - I could not read, and returned to the waiting area until further instruction.

A quarter of an hour later, our group was called back into the small room with the Cairo DMV’s one and only digital camera.  Apparently, our photos were not been saved the first time around.  Could they use the photos we all were asked to bring?  No, they could not.  Snap, snap, snap, snap – four of the five of us had our mugshots retaken. Our poor fifth waited and waited to finally say cheese.  

A few more tense moments followed as we wondered whether or not the printer would work today, and then again as we saw four little laminated cards being carried toward us instead of five.  Who would get the short straw and have to come back next week?   

Then, at long last, our expeditor bestowed upon all of us our new Egyptian driver’s licenses, valid – Alhamdulillah (thank God) for 10 years.

 /lkm in Cairo

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Trial of K

Some days living in Cairo feels like The Trial, with the simplest of tasks maddeningly complicated by bureaucracy, technology and geography.

Exhibit A: Game of TVs, or Mad Woman

As much as I would like you to think that we Sobos are using every moment of our time in Cairo to become fluent in Arabic, strengthen diplomatic relationships with neighboring countries, learn to play the violin, land a 360 on our skateboard and engage in other lofty pursuits, sometimes we just want to kick back with a handfull of Commissary Pringles and watch TV.

When we moved here, we fulfilled one of O's greatest desires: trading in the tube television T and I got as a wedding gift almost 19 years ago for a sweet 3D, 60-inch flat screen HDTV. High-def visions of college hoops, Monday Night Football and Orioles games kept O moderately motivated for our move. Kind brother-in-law, Matt, facilitated O's dream by offering to host a DVR and Slingbox for us in MD (not knowing he was also signing up to provide two years of 24/7 tech support) so that, through the magic of the Internet and Verizon Fios, we could have access to unlimited American programming on demand.  Surely, we could all survive two years abroad as long as we had our Top Chef, iCarly and Downtown Abbey.

But, in Egypt, it's not as easy as turning on the TV and instantly flipping through 100's of cable channels for hours on end like a happy zombie. Never in a million years did I think I would ever miss Comcast but, God help me, I do. Our new TV and the connection to all that glorious content was not exactly plug and play. I had go through a few steps first:

1. Need special transformer to adapt our 110 Volt US equipment to EGP's 220V standard. Requisition from the Embassy, wait a week.
2. Need a surge protector/power strip for said American gadgets. Order with Amazon Prime, wait two weeks to arrive through APO.
3. Need hub to connect Wii, DVD player, satellite box to TV. Spend one week locating Radio Shack, surviving drive to Radio Shack, playing charades with man at Radio Shack until he guesses what I want. Then surviving drive back to Radio Shack with our Fixer, Fifi, to exchange incorrectly purchased items for correct items.
4. Discover that Wii can't read GLEE Karaoke and Just Dance Three discs, send Wii out to be repaired - inshallah. Wait another two weeks.  Repair did not work - maa'lesh (oh well, what can you do). Screw the Wii - play GLEE songs on iPod in Bose dock and make pretend with the USB mics instead.
5. Order Apple dock and HDMI cables to connect iPad with Slingbox app to TV.
6. Of course, these items can't ship to an APO, so sign up for an account with a third party vendor to receive our shipment then forward it to us at the APO. Total elapsed time: one month.  Football and basketball seasons have now ended.
7. Meanwhile, establish VPN to access Netflix account blocked in Egypt. Gratefully watch past seasons of Wizards of Waverley Place on Mac when bandwidth allows.  Use ample “loading” and “buffering” time to build 1,000,000-piece Star Wars Death Star out of Legos.
8. Daisy chain of hardware and software in place just in time for baseball season and summer re-runs of Parks and Rec.

Victory is mine!  We are now able to watch our glorious content ....maybe 10% of the time.

Whenever the planets align and the Internet works and we have enough bandwidth to handle mass quantities of streaming video and the power in our flat is not out and the IR blasters on the Slingbox in MD have not been knocked out of alignment by cousins, dogs or other acts of nature - 3 AM MLB games and inadvertent Polish porn are on like Donkey Kong!

Next time- Exhibit B: The Office of Circumlocution, or Getting My Egyptian Driver's License

/lkm in Cairo

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bad, Bad Blogger

It is true that nature abhors a vacuum; despite not working, I'm kept surprisingly busy on my sabbatical in Cairo. Anyway, that's my lame excuse for falling short on my (best) intentions of being a regular emailer, blogger, etc. and I'm sticking to it.  

Let me elaborate...

Much of my time (as I hoped, planned) is spent doing mom stuff - volunteering at school, chaperoning field trips, helping with homework. Most days I'm happy with the choice, but I'll admit it comes much less naturally to me than working professionally.   Last week, I screamed at O and A to stop acting like children.  Rightly, they pointed out that they are children and laughed in my face.  This week, after one of Cairo's famously filthy khamsins (sandstorms) blew through town and took my voice with it, I couldn't scream at all.  The boys vastly prefer me mute, especially at their baseball games.

The rest of my time is filled with trying to build my social circle and just exist in a very different environment and culture.  Constantly working to meet new people and make friends is fun but exhausting.  Not unpleasant, but a little like always being on a first date, a job interview or rushing a sorority.  The expats here are all nice, very welcoming.  I think everyone who chooses to live overseas must have some gene in common.  Everyone has been in our shoes at some point, so they are generally a helpful, outgoing lot.  In addition to the Americans, I've gotten to meet some great people from all over - Egypt, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, Lebanon, Sudan - amazing.

When I'm not cracking my kids up or out making friends, trying to accomplish the most basic tasks like  driving to the gym, finding hipster ingredients for my recipes, getting the service people to fix my Internet connection is challenging, time-consuming and downright death-defying (in the case of driving).  

For example, in Cairo, transactions are entirely cash-based.  The water guy comes and delivers the water bottles for 20 Egyptian Pounds (LE) cash on Tuesdays.  The gardener, picture framer, the boabs - everyone gets cash.  When I wrote a check to our tour guide for our recent Nile Cruise, he looked at it for a few minutes then asked in all seriousness, "And what do I do with this?"   All this cash is a huge paradigm shift  for someone used to paying for a Venti black iced tea (unsweet) at Starbucks with her check card.  I know of two ATMs in Maadi.  Today, both of them were out of order.  Instead of shlepping all the way out to USAID - the one place I can cash a check - I stooped to stealing money from the kids to pay the dry cleaner. I'm not proud.

Oh, how I miss Whole Foods (I knew I would) and Comcast (I never thought I would).  And I still haven't found anyone to unlock my damn iPhone here.  I have this stupid little phone with circa 1990 technology that takes me 20 minutes to send a text on using the number pad.  I now shorten "OK" to just "K" because it saves several minutes, and I'm pretty sure I am the only person over 40 actually texting other grown ups keepers like "C U L8R." 

So far, though, I am holding firm to my commitment not to commit to anything.   It goes against every fiber of my being, but I have so far resisted urges to run for the school board and apply to be the event planner for the American club - and it is kind of awesome for a change.  Since I can't totally help myself, I did just help successfully pitch a partnership with the school, a youth leadership development group here and some pro-skateboarders from Canada to bring a 6- week skateboarding camp to Maadi, so all the 10 year old boys here love me here.

In some ways, living here is like living in a college town (albeit one with lots of rubble, roving packs of wild dogs and the occasional tanks and armored vehicles) because there are so many activities and resources for Americans. The boys love that it is April and they can swim outside at the American club near our flat. Last month we went to the lovely Cairo Opera House for an Egyptian hip-hop performance. For St. Patrick's Day we went to hear "one of Cairo's premier Irish bands" (there's more than one apparently) play outside while giant bats flew overhead.  Lots of kind of surreal experiences like this...   

So you see, my glamorous diplomat lifestyle leaves little time for feeding my social networks.  Even though, in Epic Fail #125, my camera recently died and then I promptly dropped its replacement, smashing my best lens, I am going to try to be a more faithful poster of pictures and a better blogger.  Stick with me.

In the meantime, check out my Flickr photostream for pictures from the first few stops (more coming) of our Spring Break cruise down the Nile, including Abu Simbel, Philae Temple and Aswan.

/lkm in Cairo

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Epic Fail #233 - Accidental Porn

We've all adjusted quickly and rather well to living in Cairo, despite the occasional tears and frustration over things that "aren't like home." 

For O, the sports fan, especially, it has been a constant struggle to watch college basketball and now Major League Baseball games on our satellite "Dream Box" that plays mostly soccer matches and Disney shows in Italian, Greek and Polish.

When the satellite is down - which is more often than not - a critical connection to the familiar and comforting is severed.  And Mommy's got to fix that fast.

Consequently, I had developed a nice little relationship with the two young Egyptian satellite technicians who came to my flat, weekly it seemed, to get the bird back online.  Owing to my meager command of Arabic, our Fixer, Fifi, generally facilitated our interactions, but one day I was feeling bold and confident and attempted unaided communication.  That was my first mistake.

All was going well.  I greeted the satellite guys with a friendly sabah al khair (good morning).   I pointed at the TV, stabbed at buttons on the remote to no avail, and made a frowny face to convey my deep sadness over the lack of satellite signal.  They got it and went right to work to fix the problem.

A while later, they called out "Madame" (I am a madame here) and I rejoined them in the living room to inspect their work.  As they punched in channels on the remote, crystal clear images of Phineas and Ferb and The Simpsons came on 60 inch screen.  Things were looking good.  Until they handed the remote back to me to test it out.

I took the remote and started pressing buttons.  We were all smiling and nodding, so of course I got cocky and started messing with the volume.  Homer Simpson said something in Italian really loud.  I went wild and started scrolling through this channel and that channel, my hubris driving me to accidentally switch from the "Kids" bouquet to the "Adult" bouquet.

Suddenly, my Muslim friends and I are staring at naked pieces and parts, glistening and thrusting vigorously in all their HD glory.  With the volume cranked way past 11.  I panicked and tried to change the channel.  Push push - Polish MILFs!  Oh no, Greek lesbians!   Push, push, push - very naughty pirates of ambiguous ethnicity ... on a speed boat?  

Whether it was the subtitled moaning of the office vixens or the blonds with big boobies that attracted her attention, I'll never know, but just as I threw the remote at the repairmen and ran screaming "la, la, la" (no, no, no) out of the room, poor sweet Fifi entered.

With silent agreement, Fifi and I have vowed never to speak of my satellite shame.  I am no longer allowed to greet vendors unsupervised and Fifi has had the repairmen put a lock on "the channel that no one should ever watch."

/lkm in Cairo

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Wishing you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day with Virtual Soda Bread & a Limerick

There was a colleen from Chevy Chase
Exiled to a dry, dusty space
About the desert she was a good sport
But on one count her new home came up short
How the shite can Herself get a pint in this place?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What's a Wadi?

"What's a wadi?" And, on finding out, "Why are you in one?"

The Husband, Lads and I wandered in the wadi this past weekend, prompting these questions from my mother. Fair enough, since everyone knows I am more of a drink-a-hot-toddy than walk-in-the-wadi kind of girl.

First, some geography: wadi is Arabic for “valley.” Wadis are cut by water through the desert but are largely dry year round. Wadi Degla is in Egypt's Eastern Desert and drains into the Nile Valley at Maadi, Cairo. In the late 90s it was protected as a nature preserve. Today, its network of trails attracts hikers and cyclists.

The wadi floor is mostly coarse sand and gravel, with scattered piles of rocks - not to be confused with the pervasive, man-made rubble throughout Cairo. There are also several very high plateaus.

The Lads’ pre-wadi hiking experiences were generally tame and more on the green, or urban side – being carried in baby back packs through the Blue Ridge Mountains or walking through Rock Creek Park- with the scarring (figuratively and literally) exception of one very traumatic trek through the Billy Goat Trail with Grandpa the last time (and the last time) he babysat for the weekend. Said A, with a shiver as we tried to convince him the wadi trails were kinder and gentler, “I still haven’t forgiven Grandpa for that one.” Neither have, I, A, neither have I.

In the end, O and A were excited that they climbed a mountain of sand. I, remaining securely on the wadi floor, was slightly less excited about the mountain of sand in my shoes.

In leaving behind my telephoto lens, I inadvertently pleased O with pictures that made him, his brother and father look like ants "1 or 2 miles” above me (in reality, more like a few hundred feet).

Then, just as I was thinking how standing in this very alien landscape was like being on the moon – the actual moon peaked out above the plateau behind which the boys had disappeared .

Still wondering, what’s a wadi? See for yourself at my Flickr set Wadi Degla.

/lkm in Cairo

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fish Lights

If it is true that the first step in understanding a country is to smell it, then I am making some progress here.

Cairo is filled with many wonderful and exotic (to my nose) scents. Musky incense burning in the tiny, almost cave-like shops that dot the streets. Rich spices like cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg simmering in a pots of koshari or baked into an infinite variety of plentiful phillo-based pastries. Fresh mint in mugs of sweet hot tea. Juicy oranges, ripe bananas and tiny local lemons at the corner market or peddled from a basket on a bicycle.

But mostly Cairo smells like dust. And, for our first week here, inexplicably of fish.

O, who must get his keen sense of smell from me, said it first while we made our inaugural tour through our new apartment. “Why does our hotel smell like fish?” (without our stuff and with Fifi making our beds, it does feel a bit like a hotel ...) Fair question, given that there was none now or recently in our apartment. Perhaps it wafted in from another flat or on the evening breeze that makes Cairo so pleasant during its brief winter? We turned off the lights and went to sleep and the fish smell blew away.

The next day, as I was reconfiguring furniture in our living room, the fish smell was suddenly there again. It hovered above the sofa so heavy that I actually removed the pillows and cushions expecting to find a fillet amongst the stray crumbs and loose change. Not finding a forgotten fish, I shut off the lights and moved on to something else.

And again, reading in the evening. Watching Disney shows with Greek subtitles from the satellite. The real and really stinky stench of fish making us ever queasier and more curious.

Several days later we met an American woman, the friend of a friend who had actually lived in our exact apartment two years earlier. We queried each other with the standard expat questions – where are you from, are you with an oil company or the embassy, how long have you been here, how long will you stay here, when did you get here, where do you live here? She immediately recognized our address as our mutual friend’s former apartment.

“Have you found the Fish Lights,” she asked? I apologized for not having much Arabic yet and asked her to explain these "fishlights" of which she spoke. “The sconces, in your living room, that smell like fish when you turn them on.” Apparently, she became acquainted with our ill-smelling illumination during a belly dancing class that my friend hosted weekly in our apartment’s large living room (or dance floor, as A now calls it). Mystery solved.

The Fish Lights are now permanently in the off position which, along with the enormous APO shipment of candles and reed diffusers I ordered before the case of the foul fish funk was closed, helps keep our place smelling fresh and clean.

With an ever-present back note of dust.

For more pictures, check out my Our Apartment set on Flickr.

/lkm in Cairo