Egyptian Potpourri

Enjoy this entry, which is an amalgam of interesting observations I’ve made over the past few days. (And a celebration of my last instructional day! Next week is exams.)

Arbitrary Cafeteria Prices

In our school cafeteria, prices are subject to change based on how many lunch coupons you have in your hands. We’ve learned to conceal the tickets when asking how much a pasta dish is. My spirit was broken one day when a sandwich, which I’d purchased for 8 LE the day before, was suddenly 12 LE. This man did not get his job as Cafeteria Chief solely because he can manage a small staff of Egyptian cooks; he is also eerily quick at calculating how much money you’ve got in your hands and quickly applying that amount to the price of the food. Be wary! Unless the other guy is working, who is kind and fair and bears an uncanny resemblance to the chef from The Little Mermaid.

spitting image

Eating Healthy

Remarkably, this is possible in Egypt! Fresh veggies and fruit should not go untouched. Simon has introduced me to his favorite vegetable man and also shown me how to cut up fruit. My lunches are far healthier than any I’ve had in the States, and I feel very healthy eating cucumbers and feta. Preparing it takes some effort, but cutting everything up is cathartic in some ways.

Scrambled Egg Nog

Purchasing a Christmas tree by the railroad tracks wasn’t an effective enough way to bring Christmas to Egypt. On Friday night after rugby, I went to my friend Ryan’s where we attempted to make egg nog and watch Elf, not at the same time. While heating the egg nog, the power went out, and we lost track of how long the mixture had been on the stove. Only after the mixture began to bubble and boil and splash me with scalding hot egg did we remove the pot from the stove and frown at what was inside. The next step was to drain the mixture through a sieve, getting rid of any clumps.

“If we do that, there won’t be anything left,” Ryan observed. So we had Egyptian egg nog, or scrambled egg nog, which we’d poured optimistically into mugs but ate with spoons.

yum

Christmas Caroling

Susannah and I have been practicing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” each day after school, so it shouldn’t have been surprising to discover that our neighbors overheard our concert and had some feedback. Susannah just called to inform me that she passed our neighbor on the steps downstairs and he smirked happily at our performance. Bah, humbug! Which leads me to…

A Christmas Carol

My seventh graders seem to love A Christmas Carol, which makes me happy. Greed and reform are universal themes, but apparently love for Tiny Tim is not. After we read about Tiny Tim’s potential death and Scrooge and Bob Cratchit’s utter dismay at this, one student raised his hand and asked, “Why do they care so much about Tiny Tim?”

“Because he’s their child,” I tried to explain. (When this explanation didn’t suffice, I tried to add that his optimism as a crippled and ailing child made him extra special.)

“But don’t they have other children?”

I tried to explain to the student that parents tend to love all of their children, but he lost interest almost immediately. He did understand the concept of greed and performing kind deeds, however, although some students did not…

Random Acts of Kindness

I remember the RAK program from my days in middle school, so I tried to implement it here to emphasize the theme of doing good deeds anonymously. Students had to write down a RAK they performed each day and turn the list in to me when we finished the play. (A reflection also followed.) I enjoyed reading many of the good deeds they’d performed, some of which had already been related to me by teachers who had witnessed them. One child did not seem to understand that the RAKs actually had to be real deeds, as his list contained the following:

Day 6 – Helped my mom carry groceries inside.

Day 7 – I saw a poor man begging outside the store and I gave him 5 pounds. He said, ‘God bless you.’

Day 8 – I helped with a brain surgery, even though I’ve never done one before.

I wasn’t sure what bothered me more, the fact that he may or may not have assisted with a surgery (or believed himself to have) or that he thought this would constitute a random act of kindness. I suppose if the surgery was taking place on the roadside with a rusty monkey wrench then maybe that would work.

Internet

Someone stole the internet cable from the road outside the school – again. I am now learning the real value of both internet and computer availability. You don’t appreciate having a computer and internet until you don’t have either.

Egyptian Metro

I have braved the Egyptian metro twice now. It is different from other metros only in that it has two cars to choose from: the mixed car or the women’s car. (You will also find special checkout lanes specially designated for women and handicapped people at Carrefour.) The first time I rode the metro, I was with Simon, so I rode the mixed car. The men on the car regarded me, as covered up as I was, as if they’d never seen a woman before. They were not discreet about this.

Last night, I rode the “Ladies Only” car with Anna, Annie, and Sarah to get downtown to our rugby coach’s house for some crepes and catching up in lieu of practice. It was much nicer in the ladies’ car, until men boarded the car trying to sell Spiderman stickers and scented candles. They drop the items in your lap, walk up and down the car, and then retrieve them if you do not appear interested in buying them. I told my friends that they do this in New York also, but then realized I haven’t ridden a New York subway in over a year. They do this in Buenos Aires, is what I meant to say.

The Egyptian metro is 1 LE either way. This is something like twenty cents. Cheapest metro I’ve ever been on, save for Athens, which was “free.”

The Khan

A few weeks ago, Laura, Susannah, Sofia and I headed out to the Khan El-khalili, a sprawling marketplace that spills out over dozens of streets way out past the City of the Dead. If you can haggle, you can make a killing at the Khan, and that’s exactly what Susannah did. An expert haggler, Susannah collected cards from each of the merchants, promising them a return visit in exchange for good prices. I’ve decided to pay her to return there in the future because she loves it so much. I made off with a few good deals, but mostly enjoyed the environment of the place. (Apparently, it’s very popular, as I’ve seen more tourists and foreigners here than I have at all anywhere else in Cairo, including the pyramids.)

General rule of thumb: If you’ve seen Aladdin and you remember the opening scene where the merchants try to force their products on you, you can pretty much understand what the Khan is like. The winding, narrow streets overflowing with scarves and alabaster and spices reminded me of Sagarnaga in Bolivia, minus the altitude sickness and llama fetuses.

Still, it’s worth checking out for the experience, the sherwarma, and the cool little antiquated tea shop tucked away down one of the many labyrinthine side streets. Bring someone with a good sense of direction and a spray bottle; stray cats are more abundant here than they are anywhere else in Egypt, which says a lot.

Arbitrary Cab Prices

Another warning for anyone traveling in Cairo: cabs tend to jack up their prices if they pick you up right outside a destination. Cabs line up and wait outside of “touristy” places like the Ace Club, City Stars, Carrefour, and the Khan, hoping for exhausted drinkers and shoppers to hop in. When you do, they’ll either a) charge you twice the amount you need to get home or b) run their meter in some weird way that basically ends up doubling your fare. Examples:

Fare to Ace Club: 4 LE  Cabs Outside: 10LE to get home

Fare to City Stars: 28 LE Cabs Outside: 50LE to get home

Fare to Carrefour: 20-25 LE Cabs Outside: 50 LE to get home

I know that the fare is cheap as it is and I sound stingy for complaining, but when you travel almost everywhere by cab, you need to budget your money and you can’t rally yourself to pay more than your ride is worth.

Karaoke Dish Party

For our last instructional day, all middle and high school students enjoyed a “dish party,” followed by a karaoke “contest.” The dish party, which took place in the “courtyard” (a place that brings to mind The Shawshank Redemption and has me filling my pant-cuffs with rocks like Andy Dufresne), required all students to bring a dish of their choice. While some students brought cakes and Egyptian desserts, 80% of the students brought Domino’s pizza, which I can only imagine they ordered the night before.

Once the kids consumed unhealthy amounts of sugar and surpassed their calorie intakes for the day, they were herded inside to the auditorium, where a karaoke machine was set up for students to compete. And if you think you know karaoke, you don’t know anything until you’ve seen Egyptian karaoke.

First, let me say that I was very impressed with the number of students who were confident enough to take the stage and sing, many requesting to sing A Capella.

The song choice varied widely. One student asked to sing “Strangers in the Night,” while others chose more modern hits, such as the unforgettable “Mambo #5” or any one of Maroon 5’s many hits. While they sang, grammatically incorrect song lyrics fluttered across the screen accompanied by completely random photographs that ranged from professional-looking photos of Paris glittering beneath the Eiffel Tower to shaky pictures of a family’s fishing trip that may have been taken by arthritic Aunt Mable.

The mismatching of the pictures and songs proved to be hilarious. There’s nothing like watching “Thriller” performed in front of a backdrop where a middle-aged couple cycles through Appalachia. But one girl’s near-uncensored rendition of Eminem’s “My Name Is” in front of a picture of one shaggy cow grazing alone in a sunlit field was truly my favorite, despite how uncomfortable I was hearing her say the word “nuts” while administration looked on, perplexed. Luckily, we spoke with someone who stopped the ordeal.

Many of the girls decided to ditch the idea of trying to sing on key and really let loose, screaming, dancing, and flailing about. They all had fun, and it was nice to see them enjoying themselves, but if Dante were here, I’m fairly certain he’d be editing his Inferno to add another circle of hell.

Personally, I wanted someone to sing Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” mainly because we’re in a Muslim country in Africa and the irony would be entertaining.

Categories: Egypt

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