Ahlan wa sahlan ya asHaab!
I am so excited to be writing this first post from my dorm room in Zamalek, an island neighborhood in downtown Cairo. My journey began this morning (well technically yesterday morning!) with a drive from DC to JFK to board a direct flight on Egyptair to Cairo Intl Airport. As I boarded the plane I realized I was only one of about 6 non-Egyptians on the packed flight. The interior signage was all in Arabic and the plane’s selection of TV, Movie, and Music were categorized as either “Western” or “Arab.” I decided to check out the “Arab” section and listened to the Arab Music Top Ten for the rest of the plane ride… hehe it was good motivation while I reviewed my Arabic flashcards and frantically tried to learn some colloquial Egyptian phrases.
What seemed like only a couple hours later, we were taxiing through the desert landscape to our gate. Everyone was eager to get off the plane and I was expecting to walk out into a noisy, crowded airport. But, the airport was silent and it took under a minute to pass through customs. The bags, however, took over 50 minutes to come out! I seriously wanted to run back out to the plane and grab my bags myself; it was so hard to wait at the baggage claim while bustling Cairo lay just outside! Definitely had my first lesson in Egyptian patience. An AUC shuttle rep met me and 2 other American students as we hurried through the many cries of “taxi, you want taxi?.” Although the ride was silent, it was wild. The driver drove with his hand over the horn at all times and frantically flashed his lights at like every slow car in our path. In a little van with skinny wheels, we were speeding at 120km and making our own lane when cars blocked our path. Every so often we would hit a huge bump and go flying, making us all smile. People, animals, and food stands lined the roads into Cairo and after about 4o minutes we were crossing over the Nile (which isn’t as wide as I thought it would be!) and into the Zamalek neighborhood.
Cairo is a dense packed city of street vendors and apartments. My dorm is at the end of tree lined Mohamed Thakeb street, a minutes walk from really anything you could need. Us new arrivals only had 5 minutes to drop our bags in our rooms and meet in the lobby for day 1 of getting acquainted with the city. A man at the front desk helped me bring my suitcases upstairs while our RA shouted “Man on the Floor” as we walked into the girls side of the dorm. Here, girls and boys live in separate sides of the buildings and can only meet in the monitored center lobby on the ground floor. The reception desk and security guards in the dorm are present 24-7. They will actually call take out food for you if you want it! Literally any restaurant here– no matter how fancy or how cheap– will deliver to you in a matter of minutes. Definitely beats late night at BC.
After throwing our bags down, we were led to the nearest phone stores by our RAs. I bought an Egyptian phone (which is almost as nice as my US phone heheh), sim card, and pay-as-you-go card from 2 places that many Americans would refer to as a “hole in the wall” place. These cramped little shacks are seemingly everywhere in the neighborhood and sell everything from plug converters to sodas and juice. We spent a while trying to communicate with the phone vendors and kept getting dripped on by mysterious water falling from the AC units above us. Walking around Cairo, you will quickly learn you need to keep your eyes on the sidewalk or run the risk of walking into a huge pole or falling down a randomly large step. Cute stray kittens roam the streets and drivers seem like they will hit you if you don’t move out of their way. This chaos, however, is intriguingly comforting.
After all the international students bought matching phones, we loaded a bus and drove to Coptic Cairo where we had a guided tour of the oldest Coptic Christian Church, the “Hanging Church.” It sits on an ancient Babylonian fort and houses many Christian relics. The tour was extremely quick and we walked a few blocks to the mosque down the road. The women were given green hooded robes to wear and entered through a separate door. As we took off our shoes and shrouded ourselves in the green garments, we walked into the breathtaking center courtyard of the mosque. The mosque’s center is open air and has white marble floors. Fans, arabesque art, rugs, and pillars fill the roofed space. We sat down for a few minutes while the Professor/tour guide spoke. He explained why Muslim women choose to cover themselves: non-virgins are like “unwrapped candy bars” on the street- no one wants them when a wrapped candy bar can be bought. All of us girls exchanged uncomfortable glances as the comparison was made.
Finally, we had the first (and last) meal of the day. We crowded into an Egyptian restaurant called “La Soiree” and feasted on delicious vegetable appetizers, spiced chicken and rice, and super sticky and sweet desserts. I don’t have anything to compare it to yet, but it was tasty food and quick service for a sit-down place. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s meals.
A small group of us decided to wander around Zamalek in search of hangers and dorm supplies after getting home from dinner. We found the Egyptian equivalent of a target– Alpha market–and loaded up on the essentials. One Egyptian Pound is worth 17 US cents, but will get you more here than a US dollar gets back home. It’s pretty amazing how cheap most things are. On the walk back, I went to stop in an electronic booth/shack thing and found the guy working inside to be praying the final salat of the day. I love the small, constant reminders that this is a predominantly Muslim nation!
Went home and tried to unpack. Definitely need to buy some longs skirts.. pants in the 90+ degree weather is not the greatest. First day of orientation is tomorrow. Pictures to come! xo Kate
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Song of the Day: “Banadeek Ta’ala” by Amr Diab– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKiyGb1aEr0
Food of the Day: Marinated eggplant and tomatoes in pita bread
Word of the Day: mayya shorb (drinking water)
Lesson of the Day: Look down at the sidewalk when you walk or take an embarrassing fall. Don’t try to ask for a laundry hamper in arabic by explaining it as a “bag dirty clothes go in.”