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