Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cairo is big! And other jet-lag induced, non-original observations...

In an incredible stroke of luck, the cheapest roundtrip ticket from JFK to Entebbe was on AirEgypt, and included a 10 hour layover. While most travelers would roll their eyes and find another option, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a new country, especially one that had LONG been at the top of my list of places to go. And trust me, that list is ridiculously long, so being at the top is quite the achievement. Go Egypt!

Anyway, ever the intrepid (read: unprepared and slightly naive) traveler, I got it into my mind that I was going to go see the pyramids. Even though several people told me they were very far and Cairo traffic was horrendous and the hawkers were bothersome and I would be much better doing something else, I tuned out everything except the “it’s possible” part of their advice and planned to purchase a visa at the airport, find a taxi, negotiate a fair price without the benefit of Arabic skills, and make my way to the pyramids with nothing but moxy and two ridiculously heavy carry-on bags.

Luckily, in my jet-lagged haze, I made a wrong turn, missed the exit, and ended up at the Air Egypt transit desk (who knew that existed?) where they informed me that those passengers who have 6+ hour layovers get free hotel rooms and meals (score!) AND Air Egypt just happened to have a reasonably priced in-house travel agency that offered city tours, Nile cruises, and—double score!!!—reasonably priced all-inclusive trips to the pyramids. I decided that this was CLEARLY a better option than figuring it out myself, and signed up immediately.

I was then personally escorted through Egyptian customs (where I was not required to buy a visa, which in retrospect seems a little sketchy, but it worked out, so oh well…) and taken to a comfortable car driven by Khalid, my trusty Egyptian tour-guide. I immediately took a shine to Khalid as he puffed on his cigarette, revved the car much more than was necessary, and laughed at my halting and surely mis-pronounced attempt to greet him with “Marhaba. Kayf Halak?” (“Hello. How are you?” in Arabic according to my Air Egypt in-flight magazine.) While my Arabic is obviously non-existent and I therefore have no real right to complain, Khalid’s grasp of English left a little to be desired. However, his enthusiasm more than made up for it as he pointed out landmarks and used his person and his car to stop traffic so that I could take really horribly backlit pictures of the citadel, the mosques of Old Cairo, the Nile, and other landmarks. And while I probably only understood 10% of what he said, I was able to grasp “Egyptian Museum. Obama came here. Picture!” And really, what more do I need?

After allowing me to put down my incredibly heavy backpack, splash some water on my face, and grab some free rubbery chicken lunch from my hotel, Khalid and I took off for Giza. As we drove through the streets of Cairo, the first thing I noticed was the sheer size of the city. Somehow through non-verbal communication, Khalid informed me that there were over 20 million people in Greater Cairo (though some sources suggest it’s as much as 40% larger than that). The number was almost too large to grasp. That’s like Kampala times 20, almost the size of Uganda itself in terms of population. And for those of you non Africaphiles, that’s like New York City times two with Houston thrown on top just for kicks. And maybe even larger. So in other words, Cairo is big. REAL big.

The next thing I noticed about Cairo was its incredibly beautiful skyline. Admittedly I have a thing for Islamic architecture, but Cairo went above and beyond anywhere I’ve traveled in terms of fantastic architectural eye candy. Everywhere I looked, there were the most gorgeous minarets, domes, and geometric designs for both religious and secular buildings. The landscape is also incredibly flat, so as soon as you ascend one of the town’s approximately three hills (and I use the term “hill” quite liberally), you can see for miles. The sights were only slightly tempered by Cairo’s infamous smog, but I’m pretty convinced that most of that comes not from cars or other traditional sources, but rather from Egyptians and their smoking habits. Seriously, I have never seen so many cigarettes! In the taxis; the hotels; the restaurants; the airport; while burning (literally) up the road in donkey carts, cars, or camels; even the loo at the Pyramids, Egyptians were contentedly puffing away every chance they got. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in America, the land of increasing smoking bans and societal pressure to not smoke, but I was blown away by the sheer amount of cigarettes I observed being consumed in less than 10 hours.

I also observed approximately 10,567 street vendors offering Egyptian flags for sale, which I initially believed indicated a strong nationalist tendency and started to construct sweeping generalizations about Egyptians and their sociopolitical nature, but through sign language with Khalid came to realize were actually being sold due to the Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifying match taking place the following day in Khartoum. Regional rivals, the two countries were battling it out—diplomatically, on the field, and unfortunately through violence in the streets—to participate in South Africa this summer, and tensions and excitement levels were high, leading to extraordinary demand for Egyptian flags.

Following another stop—this time on a busy bridge spanning the Nile—Khalid once again put his life and limbs at risk to provide me with a marginally exciting photo opportunity (I couldn’t bear to break his heart by telling him that after living in Uganda the Nile had lost some of its mystique), we turned a corner and suddenly the pyramids were in view! I squealed a little bit and confused Khalid, but he ignored me and continued weaving in and out of traffic like a complete maniac so as to provide me more time to wander the pyramid grounds. Dear man, that Khalid. Finally we reached the gates of the pyramids, where Husain, my tour guide and part-time archeologist (yeah right), jumped in the car and immediately started talking incredibly fast and through a thick Egyptian accent about Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure, and other unintelligible things. But at that point I didn’t care. I remembered enough from the Ramses the Great exhibit in Dallas during my childhood that I wasn’t too concerned about the details (except where I might be able to replace a favorite childhood t-shirt from aforementioned exhibit which had a puffy paint mummy with a conversation bubble stating “My Mummy Bought Me This T-Shirt”… classic). So I gave a half-hearted effort to listen to his spiel and ask intelligent questions, but I mostly succeeded in saying “oh, interesting” a lot while actually concentrating on capturing photos of the pyramids with camels in front of them without attracting the attention of the camel’s rider, who would surely accost me for money if he noticed my illicit photo-taking. Luckily my guide’s illustrious archeology career provided him not with actual facts, but instead with firsthand knowledge of the best photo spots, so in spite of poor afternoon light and hordes of tourists (many inappropriately clad in belly shirts and Daisy Dukes traipsing around a conservative Muslim country—I’m so proud to be an American at times like these), I captured a few photos of the amazing structures and the Sphinx, avoided the plastic pyramids and various Arabic headdresses for sale, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit in spite of the overwhelming kitsch of the area.

On the way back we stopped briefly at a perfumery where I lusted over lotus flower essence, a perfume-ish oil made from Egyptian lotus flowers and considered purchasing some until I was quoted a price of about $85 and realized I was once again in tourist hell. Though Khalid kindly offered to take me to a papyrus-making facility, I figured it was likely another tourist trap and assured him that I wouldn’t purchase anything so it was probably best to return me to the hotel. On the long, traffic filled ride home, I dozed and ever so often was interrupted by Khalid’s proclamations of “Al-Azhar Park! Very lovely! Obama went there! Picture?” or swerving to avoid small children or donkeys. But other than that, a fairly uneventful trip back to the hotel. Upon arrival at the hotel, I showered, picked at more free rubbery chicken, and prepared for my return to the airport where I was once again personally escorted through security by Air Egypt officials. I considered stopping to ask if I could at least get an Egypt stamp for my passport but the surly-looking customs officers looked in no mood to satisfy a silly American, so I passed. But while I searched in vain for lotus flower essence for less than $85 in Duty Free and waited for my plane, I started to plan my next (longer than 10 hour) trip to Egypt. Certainly it will involve Khalid (how could it not?), an actual passport stamp, perhaps slightly more attention to what those giant pyramid structures actually represent, and hopefully less exhaustion. I can’t wait!

Uganda Part Deux

So I realize that I'm a woefully unreliable blogger. But that's all going to change! Likely for about three weeks, at which point I'll once again return to the dismal once-a-millennium blog average I've currently got going. But nonetheless you can expect approximately five posts. Or something...

So for those of you who haven't given up on me, I'm still here! And here, at the moment, is Kampala! Back in July, I finished out my contract with the Hah-vahd folks and took a few weeks off to enjoy Kenya. My friend/coworker Anjali flew in from India and my friend Danielle from San Francisco (by way of Sri Lanka, TOTALLY on the way...) We had a lovely 10 days in beach-ing Lamu, safari-ing in Maasai Mara, and transit-ing in Nairobi. Following that I returned to Kampala for about 10 days that were chock filled with goodbye parties, birthdays, and most notably running around trying to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops that were involved with my cat’s immigration to the US. If you ever want to hear me scream, cry, and pull my hair out simultaneously, ask me to recount that story. But all worked out, and at the end of August Nyabo and I hopped a plane back to the US of A.

Following my return, I spent three months job searching, visiting friends and family all over the country, enjoying fall, noshing on sushi and Mexican food, and generally relaxing. Both fortunately and unfortunately, I got hired in October as the Regional Grants Manager for Water For People, a US-based NGO focusing on water and sanitation in 10 countries across the globe. My job is based in Kampala, but will likely include management of various high-profile grants in Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, and India. While I was very excited to get back to work (and paychecks!), I was also sad to leave my friends, family, and adorably obnoxious Ugandan kitty (I just couldn’t bring myself to make her fly back and forth AGAIN, especially given my soon-to-be busy travel schedule for work). But luckily my parents love her; or at least they are patient with her when she occasionally takes a chunk of skin out of their ankles or hands—and really, that’s all I ask.

So here I am, back in Kampala and loving it all over again. And this time I already have wonderful friends and favorite restaurants and trusty taxi drivers, so really it’s like a homecoming. Additionally, my three (and change) month jaunt to the land of plenty has given me lots of fodder for the blogosphere, so watch out! I look forward to getting back to semi-regular blogging, so hopefully my absence hasn't turned off too many of my faithful readers. And if I fall off the face of the earth again, please feel free to guilt-trip me as public humiliation seems to be a most effective motivational tool!