Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fear and not-quite loathing, in Cairo

We have all been told over and over again, since childhood, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear, (as anyone who suffers from chronic anxiety or bouts of worrying knows), is a rather unproductive emotion- Fear leads to feelings of powerlessness, elevated blood pressure, irrational panic and on occasion, tears. We live in a world that idolizes bravery, and shames fear. Nobody wants to be a wuss, and often we hide our feelings of fear, lest we be labeled a wimp and shrink into the corner.

Well, I have a confession to make, after several years writing this blog, and perhaps due to the variety of places I have traveled as a solo female, being often mislabeled by people as being "brave": I am afraid. I am afraid of pretty much everything. I am, in fact, the self-appointed queen of fear. How I ever managed to hop on an airplane alone in the first place is something of a mystery - I suppose for all that I am fearful and scared, I am also as equally adventurous and curious. If only I could exist in some sort of super-hero-like sealed bubble of protection, while wandering the globe -that would be wonderful.

As a child I was terrified of many things, including but not limited to: hospitals, doctors, dentists, needles, anything and everything medically related (including such innocuous objects as rubber gloves and aqua-blue greened hued nurses outfits), a veritable hypochondriacs list of ailments and diseases, the dark, spiders, large dogs, aliens, ghosts, falling down, climbing things too high, and the probability of an asteroid hitting the earth. As I've matured, some of those fears have wained slightly, (and I do credit watching the X-files as part of the healing process), but many have remained. I am still completely phobic of anything to do with blood and needles, and those fears of falling out of a tree have morphed into the fear of being hit by a car - currently, one of Egypt's manically driven, lawless minibuses careening through a round-about in downtown Cairo. (This fear is not without precedent mind you - being hit by a speeding motorcycle in Tehran and taken via ambulance to a Iranian hospital for probably illegally radioactive X-rays will definitely make one a bit paranoid of future collisions.)

Living in Cairo presents a unique opportunity to confront ones fears - I watch entire families of 4 riding on one motorbike in rush hour, wife sitting side saddle holding a newborn baby, weaving in and out of traffic like a suicidal video game, and my mind reels in the possibilites and probabilities of the situation. I shudder and wipe my sweaty brow, gazing from the taxi. I lay on the sofa and browse Facebook and learn of a bombing outside a Cairo Foreign Ministry office; I quickly close my laptop and retreat to a room in the house not near any windows. The water heater in the bathroom makes odd noises and I envision it exploding as I sit on the toilet, scalding me senseless. I imagine that the cold virus I have apparently caught is actually Legionaire's disease, transmitted via the aging Air conditioning system in our apartment. I create all manner of terrifying situations in my head, as though my mind is an out-take of a horror film, perpetuating endless loops of all that could go wrong.

And then I realize how silly it is. If a family of 4 can ride on one motorcycle, sans helmets, along one of Cairo's busiest freeways, then what on earth do I have to be worried about? If 20 million people here can go about their daily business, why am I such a baby? I am tired of feeling afraid, tired of the scenarios that play out in my mind. Another one of the teachers here (coming from a gloriously logical Engineering background), keeps reminding me of the optimism of statistics. Statistically speaking, in a city of this size, it is unlikely that I will ever be at the wrong place at the wrong time (fear of terrorism). Statistically speaking, it is unlikely that I would be hit twice in my life, by a speeding motorcycle. Statistically, Legionaire's disease is a fairly unusual affliction.

It is with such mantras that I cloak myself in the Emperor's-new-clothes hijab of invincibility; I put it on and twirl around the room in front of the Air-conditioner. I know I am not invincible, and the dangers are still out there, but for now I am choosing only to see with brave eyes, trying to balance the part of me that whispers "be careful" with the part who is dying, itching, screaming -to just be alive.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Falafel and the Blow Dryer

One week in Cairo, and I do believe Tressa and I have settled in fairly well. Our gigantic Maadi apartment has been cleaned and stocked - toilet paper (naturally, we have both been spending a fair amount of time on the porcelain throne), five 26 oz bottles of duty-free liquor to last us through the "winter", fridge full of groceries (including a pallet of 32 eggs, the dangerous possibly-infected-with-typhoid produce, instant coffee and a giant bucket of glorious Istanbul-style white cheese), case of bottled 1 litre water (though I have been told by several brave teachers that Cairo's water is safe to drink but just tastes bad- "All the chlorine in it kills the Nile's parasites!!"), and of course, a small box of friskies catfood for our resident Bastet look-a-like, the skinny tabby from the street, 4 stories below.

The AC blasts all day (we were lucky enough to get an apartment with air-con, thank heavens) - all day when there isn't a power cut, that is. Cairo recently has been stricken with regulated daily power outages where we are left sitting in the dark, internet-less and without AC for exactly an hour. Some days we will be lucky enough to not get one at all, other days it can happen up to 3 times. It always starts exactly on the hour, and lasts for one hour, and is done to reduce stress on the apparently overloaded power grid (When daily temperatures reach 37 degrees Celsius and there are some 20 million people in one city, I suppose the power plants are a bit breathless and overloaded). This reminder of the precarious nature of our energy resources hasnt stopped me from cranking the AC at all hours though, in fact its resulted in me thinking quite the opposite: If I'm being inconvienced anyways , I may as well enjoy those bourgeois comforts guilt-free and abundantly, right?

Funny note: Just as I was writing this, the clock struck 5 pm, the AC stopped, and yes, a powercut indeed began.

Even in public places, if there is a powercut, you can expect a certain measure of chaos. Last night at the Maadi City Centre Mall, whilst shopping the aisles of a larger shoe-and-clothing shop for new flipflops, the lights went out and no back-up generators kicked in. The result was a large multileveled store full of people fumbling for their phone flashlights, being escorted by Mall security to the store entrance, where indeed there were some backup generators providing light throughout the main mall thoroughfare.

Larger shops such as the omnipresent grocery giant Carrefour are above such inconvenience, providing their own power supply, and thus we headed there to purchase groceries and a few more needed household items while the rest of the city went dark.For those who don't know, the Carrefour is a very large megastore, somewhat akin to the American Wallmart. Rather than hunting down various shops that are near impossible to find in our neighbourhood (dollar store, shoes, bathroom products etc), it is much easier to just grab a taxi and head for the giant neon florescent lights. I say it with some shame - one week here and there's been 2 trips to the Carrefour, and we havent even seen the pyramids yet.

I also thought it might be a logical opportunity to quickly pick up a hair dryer - though why one would want to dry ones hair with a heated appliance in a stuffy desert environment is an illogical mystery that, like the Pyramids, might never be fully explained or solved. Regardless, what I thought might be a simple task - grabbing the item off the shelf and paying for it at the cash register- was an exercise and lesson itself unto the Egyptian Bureaucratic nightmare machine.

First to even locate the item required asking a Sales Associate and pantomiming the act of drying ones hair. Hairdryers: obviously located next to the MP3 players, powertools and blenders. Then, it is not simply possible to throw the hairdryer into ones cart, for a special form needs to be filled out, which takes approximately 15 minutes to do so, and then one must take this form and pay for the item elsewhere, and come back. Of course, as it turns out, one cannot pay for the electronic goods with ones groceries at the regular tills, but instead one must go to a special desk. If after figuring this out and managing not to pull out ones own hair (which would in fact render the now paid for hair dryer, rather useless), one will go back and be handed the coveted dryer only to be told to go to customer service for it to be "checked", testing the wires and settings, and of course, getting the security beeping device removed lest one be accused of shoplifting and thrown into one of General Sisi's illustrious prisons.

By the end of all this half hour long running around, my patience had run dangerously thin (think irate Italian man gesturing frantically with his hands, cursing), the perishable goods in our cart were nearing expiration, and my face had taken on a new level of sweat and rosy flustration. I remarked at the near saint-like levels of patience exuded by my fellow Egyptian shoppers- this sort of thing was par for the course for them - what was I getting so irritated about?? It got me to thinking how grossly spoiled we are in Canada, and of course, in moments the inevitable "Why am I here?"question cooed and cawed in my head like a kookabura bird on speed.

At the risk of becoming one of those reflective people who runs from one intercontinental Existential crisis to another, the simple fact that in the same mall visit I was able to eat a delicious falafel platter for a fraction of the cost of one in Canada, as well as sip a coffee in a mall cafe where the non smoking section and smoking were in fact, hilariously the same section, seems to be enough to justify it. I am here for lack of any better place or anything better to do - No fixed career or anything to tie me down means I am free to experience the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between, and of course, the extremities of the experience provide a plethora of things to be inspired to write about. Which is basically my one true passion, and hopefully will one day be my actual career.

So, why am I in Cairo ?? Well...why would I NOT be in Cairo?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The people you'll meet

There are thus far 8 new teachers who have been hired this year at Sakkara school, in Cairo.
We all arrived within a week or two of each other, and due to the fact we are all living within the same few blocks in Maadi (a fairly upscale suburb of Cairo - though upscale in Egypt means something slightly different than in North America), have become instant friends.

Yasmin - the first to arrive. Half Libyan, half British, with a very thick awesome proper British accent, Yasmin studied Arabic in Cairo for a year while at University, and has also spent a few summers here. She quite obviously loves Cairo, has a great sense of humour and also loves chain smoking while drinking Stellas.

Rebecca - Yasmin's flatmate, Rebecca is an experienced teacher who has spent the last 10 years in various locales from Japan to Chile. She is originally from Georgia, USA, and has a lovely Southern accent, as well as a very feminine, beautiful sense of style - sort of Southern belle meets boho traveler. Our first night out, she navigated downtown Cairo's maze of uneven and crumbling streets in a pair of wooden platform strappy wedge heels. I was very impressed. Rebecca is a vegetarian, a shameless smoker, and a fellow aspiring writer, who studied photography at University. She was originally planning on going to Afghanistan to teach, but much to her fathers relief, chose Cairo instead. I think me and her are going to get along fabulously.

Michelle - Originally hailing from sunny California, Michelle is a super funny and friendly hip girl, who happened to study Arabic for a semester in Cairo, and of course, fell in love with the city. She is self professed to be obsessed with Urban renewal/decay and megalopolis cities, and is intrigued by the contemporary fusion of cultures and lifestyles that cities like Cairo encompass. Michelle is very confident in stressful chaotic urban situations, and has been a sort of tour guide to us girls who aren't as familiar with the city. She is hilarious and always cracking jokes, I like her a lot.

Tresta - The last of the girls to arrive, Tresta happens to have a very unique name that also happens to be very similar to my friend (who also came to Cairo with me), Tressa. We are all slightly amused by this coincidence.  Tresta, from Florida, spent the past 2 years living in India, volunteering for an NGO, and teaching kids. She is very feminine and well spoken and calm- though she seems to have plenty of interesting stories too, including something about a broken engagement to a German man while in India. This is her first time in Cairo.

Hannah - Hannah originally hails from Montana, USA, so naturally we initially refered to her as Hannah Montana, though I don't think she appreciated it so much. She has her degree in Arabic, and spent a year or two living in Alexandria, Egypt, before coming to Cairo. Her and her flatmate Linea (from Alaska, USA), are long time University friends and have spent a fair bit of time to themselves, so I don't know them as well as the others, yet. They both seem very polite and quiet and reserved, though if they love Egypt this much, I predict they are fairly different people once you get to know them.

And then there's me and Tressa, the 2 Canadian girls. I am not sure what people might say about us - the 2 loudmouths who talk a lot, one of whom is obsessed with the region, the other who came along for the crazy ride, both of whom love hummus and make somewhat inappropriate jokes about the old, run-down vintage dive bars full of drunken old men, in Downtown Cairo, in front of the schools Director. Whoops.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

You will go to Cairo.

You will go to Cairo because of palm trees, smog and sand. You will go to Cairo for its sheesha cafes in narrow alleys downtown, plastic chairs and tiny little metal tables. You will go to Cairo to mimic the feeling of going back in time. You will go to Cairo to feel frightened in Elevators. You will go to Cairo because of mint tea, served in a glass cup, with an egg cup of sugar on the side, and a tiny metal spoon. You will go to Cairo to see pyramids, obelisks and minarets. You will go to Cairo to hear Oum Kulthum playing quietly in a taxi, as you circle endlessly through chaotic suburbs, trying to find your house. You will go to Cairo to pet its feisty street cats, before their skinny legs whisk them through a busy intersection to grab a stray garbage chicken bone. You will go to Cairo for tarnished brass, weathered wood and dusty glass.You will go to Cairo and eat endless triangles of laughing cow processed cheese. You will go to Cairo because of tiny dive bars playing old black and white movies on the television, with old men gathered around, smoking endlessly, wearing vintage blazers and thick glasses. You will go to Cairo to pretend you are in a Naquib Mahfouz novel. You will go to Cairo to get lost downtown and dodge taxis and motorcycles balancing giant jugs of water on their back seats. You will go to Cairo to be woken by the 5 am call to prayer, wailing outside your bedroom window. You will go to Cairo to sweat in your skinny jeans, and watch women in black chadors keep their cool. You will go to Cairo to take the metro and have teenage boys flex their muscles, trying to impress you. You will go to Cairo and wash your tomatoes and cucumbers very carefully. You will go to Cairo and count the line of ants in your living room, an intricate complex system of pests, almost invisible, obviously plotting the take over of your entire house. You will go to Cairo to smell jasmine bushes, hibiscus flowers, and dirt. You will go to Cairo to step over a baby crawling along the busy sidewalk. You will go to Cairo to smoke. You will go to Cairo to have giant plates of rice, fried onions and lentils delivered to your door at 2 in the morning. You will go to Cairo to laugh maniacally, to speak loudly, to walk fast. You will go to Cairo to meet other people as crazy as you.