Sofitel Staycation

I really wanted to surprise Peter with a weekend staycation where we could relax by the pool, have juice in the hotel gardens, and have a nice breakfast buffet that we didn’t have to cook the next morning! I chose the hotel based on the pool (obviously!) and the Marriott in Zamalek was at the top of the list. I mean just look at this pool!

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The hotel was built in 1869 as a Palace for Ismail Pasha, but was later converted into a hotel. It still preserves its royal atmosphere, and the grounds are absolutely gorgeous.

I told Peter to keep his Friday afternoon free, but other than that he had no idea what we were doing. Much to his surprise, instead of flagging down a taxi on the main street in Zamalek, we continued on foot…to the hotel just 10 mins away. Peter was thrilled about the surprise and I was thrilled that I pulled it off!

We checked in and walked to our room through the gardens. But there was no pool. How could there be no pool!? I looked around in disbelief since the pool is literally the center of the gardens, and it was completely drained and was under construction. A bellboy passing by confirmed that the pool was closed due to construction, and I was absolutely distraught. There’s no way that we are spending the entire day in a hotel room just 10 minutes from Peter’s actual apartment in Cairo. The whole point of this weekend was the pool! So I called down to the front desk, asked for a refund, and we checked out within 5 minutes.

In an attempt to salvage the weekend, Peter suggested we check into another hotel. So we flagged down a cab and drove to the Sofitel in Zamalek. As it turns out, the pool was even more gorgeous than the Marriott’s (even not under construction) as it overlooks the Nile. We checked in only 20 minutes after checking out of the Marriott and even got an upgraded room that had an incredible view of the Nile.

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We basically spent the next day and a half relaxing by the pool overlooking the Nile…with absolutely no regrets of how the weekend turned out.

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Visa Struggles & the Magamma Maze

The visa system in Egypt is, well, let’s just say a little less rigorous than other countries in Europe or the US. So every 30 days if I haven’t left the country, I have to go to a famous building called Magamma in Tahrir Square to obtain a visa renewal. It’s only a 15 minute walk or 5 minute cab ride from my house, so getting to and from the building is easy…but that’s the only easy part about this process.

I have heard horror stories about Magamma. The inefficiencies, the crowds, the lack of information, the pure chaos. But I had no choice, I was at risk of overstaying my visa, so renewal was my only choice. My friends had told me about what to expect, but nothing could prepare me for the reality of what was to come.

The building stands in its enormity in Tahrir Square and is the main administrative building in Cairo, especially for passports/visas for foreigners and citizens alike. (Sidenote: I’ve actually heard from taxi drivers that there is a plan to turn Magamma into a 310 room hotel when the capital moves from downtown. That has yet to be confirmed.)

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After going through security, you must walk up a set of stairs until you find the floor you’re looking for. At least I was only going to the first floor, but when I arrived there, I realized the building is set up in a circle! It really was a maze. My friend told me to go all the way to the end of the hallway after security, but where is the end of the hallway if it’s a circle!? So I walked. And walked. And walked. I passed every window at least twice trying to find the one I needed. I asked a couple people who sent me in opposite directions, and finally asked a security guard who told me to go to the desk before window 36. So off I went again.

When I got to the desk, there was already a group of people gathering to ask the guy a question. I didn’t even have a question to ask, so I just said “visa renewal” and he gave me an application for touristic residence and said window 6. So off I went again, to window 6. After standing around the window for 10 mins with no progress, I asked the people around me if they were also there for visa renewal. Nope, they told me window 12. So off I went again, to window 12.

Window 12 was at least labeled touristic residence, so I was more confident. I filled out my application while I waited, and when more people started crowding, I got my elbows ready to stand my ground. There was no way after finally getting to the right window that I would lose my spot. When I reached the window, I turned over my application, passport, and passport photos, and the woman wrote some numbers on my passport and told me that I must go to the bank on the same floor down the hall and around the corner and then to get a copy of the application from downstairs, and then come back to window 12 so she can process the completed application.

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So off I went again, to the bank down the hall around the corner and to the copy shop downstairs, and finally back to window 12 only to stand there waiting again to see the woman with my application. When it was my turn again, she took it, stamped it, and put my application on top of a thick stack of papers and told me to come back tomorrow morning at 9 am to turn in my passport at window 38. Step one was complete.

The next morning I went back at 9 am to turn off my passport at window 38. At least this time I knew exactly where I was going, but I was a little nervous to turn over my passport and leave it with them. The process is completely paper-based. There is not a single computer on this floor. I’m actually shocked by the efficiency of the system because it flowed relatively smoothly despite no digitalization of the process. Anyway, I didn’t have a choice. I nervously handed in my passport, and the woman rifled through a big pile of papers and pulled out my application from yesterday! She paired the two documents together and told me to come back to the same window at 1 pm. So off I went.

I returned around 12:45 since I was told the pick-up process was the worst part since it was the most crowded. You could drop them off at any time between 9 am and 1 pm but you could only pick them up at 1 pm, so the crowd gathers. By the time I got there, there was already a crowd, so I pushed my way as close to the window as I could. From another window, we could hear them calling nationalities. SUDAN! All the Sudanese people waiting would raise their hands and the passport would be passed back until it reached the right hands. JORDAN! LEBANON! etc… This concerned me even more because what if somebody walked off with my passport!?

Then, from my window, window 38, the woman pointed at me through the glass and motioned for me to come. When I got to the window, she presented me with my passport, stamped with a 3 month touristic residence visa! I was actually shocked that it worked.

Only 2 more months until I have to go back and do it all over again…

Tourists (in Cairo) for the Weekend!

Expats can be tourists too, right?! Even though we live only 30 minutes from the Pyramids, we only go when people come to visit. But they are such an incredible sight. No matter how many times I’ve seen then, I am always awestruck by their beauty and the impossibility of how they could have been built thousands of years ago!

 

Many people think the Giza Pyramids are the only pyramids in Egypt, but that’s not true. There are many others that even preceded the Giza Pyramids, such as the ones in Sakkara and Dashour. The archeologists say that every day a new pyramid is discovered. While the Giza Pyramids are by far the most popular and grand, the other sites are not to be missed since they have very well preserved temples covered in amazing hieroglyphics!

We finished off the weekend with horseback riding into the desert sunset overlooking the pyramids. All of these tourist activities can be exhausting, but it’s well worth the experience.

Weekend Getaway to Alexandria

Cairo in the summer can be suffocating with the dry heat and the dust. So Peter and I spontaneously decided one Thursday night to travel to Alexandria for the weekend. It’s only a 2.5 – 3 hour train ride, and the ticket costs 30 EGP, or $1.50 one way.

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Since we had already done the necessary sight-seeing in Alexandria, we opted for a relaxing weekend by the Mediterranean Sea. Our hotel was right on the Cornish, and the room was very refreshing with a balcony facing the sea. We had a late lunch on the rooftop to enjoying the weather, the sea breeze, and the refreshing fresh juice.

Later we took an evening stroll along the Cornish down to Fort Qaitbay that was built in the 14th Century at the very tip of the Peninsula protecting downtown Alexandria. It’s built on the foundation of Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that fell due an earthquake.

Along the way, we stumbled upon a very strange souvenir that even locals were buying for their wives or children! So Peter bought me one, too. We watched the sunset by the Fort and walked back for dinner in town.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the rooftop restaurant and watched life pass us below as we ate. The fisherman came in with the daily catch, and unloaded the net of fish right on the Cornish to people coming to buy a fresh stock for their restaurants or hotels! People crowded around until the net was empty, and the fishermen went out for round two.

Before catching our train, we did our usual weekend walk through downtown Alexandria to see the weekend markets. Although we didn’t buy anything, Peter did manage to get 2 free bananas! Otherwise, we walked through food markets with live fish, crab, chickens, bunnies, and ducks! Along side the live animals were Ramadan stands with colorful Qur’ans and lanterns, and other shops peddling a range of random gifts.

Our quick, relaxing weekend getaway abruptly ended the second we got off the train at Ramsis Station in Cairo. We were back with the masses downtown, the sights, sounds, and smells of Cairo surrounded us as we made our way back to Zamalek, and back to real life.

A Walk through Garbage City

Garbage City, or Manshiyat Nasr in Arabic, is a neighborhood in Cairo housing 200,000 Egyptians, most of whom are Coptic Christians. It’s also a garbage dump. The streets are littered with piles and piles of garbage, trucks are packed to the absolute rim transporting garbage into and out of the neighborhood, and the people in this neighborhood make their living off sorting through the rubbish.

This neighborhood is a essentially result of the poor planning of a garbage system in Cairo. The Zabaleen, or the people that live in this neighborhood, are the city’s garbage collectors. These Zabaleen are descendants of farmers who migrated from Upper Egypt to Cairo in the 1940s, looking for work.

Men transport the garbage back to Garbage City via donkey-carts or tucks, and women and children sort it. Though it may seem rather inefficient for a Cairo, a city of 24 million people, but in fact it’s the opposite. The Zabaleen recycle almost 90% of the garbage, which is four times that of the recycled material in the West! However, recently, the Egyptian government have hired private companies to collect the garbage around Cairo, which the Zabaleen must compete with.

Living conditions are quite poor, some houses do not even have running water or electricity. But walking through the neighborhood, you could tell that people made do. Children were playing barefoot in the streets. Teenagers hung out at street corners. Mothers bought groceries with their babies. Everybody was out and about and very eager to welcome us to their neighborhood.

Also, since it’s a Christian neighborhood, churches could be found at almost every turn. In fact, Garbage City is the home to the largest church in the Middle East: the Monastery of Saint Simon, or the Cave Church. It’s literally built into the mountain of Mokkattam and can seat 20,000 people.

Walking through this neighborhood was quite profound. I’ve never witnessed such poverty, and the fact that this neighborhood is located only 30 minutes from my own in Cairo is really grounding. Right when we entered the neighbored, we experienced the reality of what slum life looked like. The smell of garbage engulfed us as we walked past garbage littered across the streets or bags and bags of garbage piled on the sides of the roads. Animals were living first floor structures, possibly apartments, or and dead animals were found at some crossroads as well.

But under all the garbage, the dirt, and the grime, are real, friendly people, who warmly welcomed us to their neighborhood.

Information sources: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2019390/Whod-dustman-Cairo-Revolting-pictures-piled-rubbish-Egyptian-capital-label-Garbage-City.html, http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/garbage-city, http://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/09/the-cave-church-of-zabbaleen-in-cairo.html

Snorkeling in Scuba Gear

The Red Sea is apparently a very popular destination for divers from all over the world and home to many international dive schools. Peter had done his PADI (a divers certification) a year prior, and I’d always been curious what it was like to scuba dive. Since I was a swimmer, I am very comfortable in the water, so I was quite confident. How hard could it be, right? Well, the answer is VERY hard, I learned.

We were dropped off at the dive school to meet our instructor and to gear up. The instructor gave us a brief introduction tutorial as to how to breathe and equalize the pressure in our ears, etc. Then we were given equipment, a full wetsuit, oxygen tank, water shoes, flippers, a mask, and a weighted belt to keep us underwater.

Since it was my first dive, the instructor had to always be near to me to control my oxygen tank, but Peter was free to do a dive alone. So we ventured into the 3 foot deep water so that I could practice breathing before going into deeper waters. But I knew after about 5 minutes of trying and failing to breathe properly that I would not be going into deeper waters.

I tried, I really did, but I just could not coordinate my breathing. My mask would quickly fill up with water, my eyes were irritated by the salt, and I would have to empty my mask and coordinate breathing, and it was just a mess. But in order of the show to go on, I went with Peter and the instructor to the deeper waters, but I stayed on the surface, and therefore so did the instructor.

Literally my oxygen tank was not submerged at any point. I was essentially snorkeling in scuba gear, and I wasn’t even using the oxygen tank to breathe. I would pick my head up out of the water, empty my mask, take a breathe, and put my head back underwater. No underwater wild life was worth this kind of suffering!! So I turned back so that Peter and the instructor could at least enjoy their dive. Plus, I was much happier waiting for their return at the dive school than underwater struggling to breathe.

So I’m checking diving off the bucket list, but this truly was a once in a lifetime experience…by choice!

Stuck in the Desert

Outside of Fayyoum is desert full of “balls”, or giant fossilized fish eggs, which apparently is not a sight to be missed. So we hired Mostafa to take us, and Peter and I kind of looked at each other when we saw him pull up in a Toyota Prius, but we climbed in and away we went. Maybe it should have been a red flag that we passed at least 3 Land Rovers double the size of the Prius driving into the desert…

It turned out to be very windy that day, but despite the chilly weather, we were ready to explore. Apparently, the desert had a different agenda. The wind had blown sand over the one lane road through the desert, making the drive precarious. Mostafa kept going though, continuing to speed up when he felt the car losing grip in the sand.

And then it happened. We were stuck. This little Prius was like the Little Engine that Could trying to drive out of this desert, and it just wasn’t happening. We were stuck. No matter how hard Mostafa pressed on the gas, our wheels were spinning. We weren’t going anywhere.

All three of us got out of the car, stood there in disbelief. From horizon to horizon, there was nothing but sand. Peter and I turned to each other and just laughed, there was nothing else we could do! Meanwhile, Mostafa started to dig.

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Peter’s really taking initiative and helping Mostafa come up with a solution.

Not sure why his bright idea was to literally dig the car out of the sand, but the more he dug, the more obvious it became that this was not the solution. So then he started letting air out of the tire that was stuck. Peter and Mostafa pushed the car while I pressed on the gas, but it didn’t move. So he released more air. We tried again, no luck. More air…no luck. It was getting dangerously close to the point that not only would we be suck in the sand, but we’d also have a flat tire!

And then, out of nowhere, four men emerge from behind a sand dune on their motorbikes with their headscarves and galabayas blowing in the wind. It had to have been a desert mirage, or at least a movie, because this could not be real life.

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The four men stopped to help us push the car out of the sand, and with the extra force, we were free and back on the desert road in under half an hour. We continued on to the desert balls, which were very impressive. They were massive, and it was so impressive to think that the the land we were walking on was once buried under water.

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We finished the trip on the banks of Qarun Lake, where we made a fire and drank tea before heading back to Tunis Village. As we walked back to the car, Mostafa threw the keys at me, telling me it was my turn to drive. I was a little hesitant given our prior mishap, but I had always wanted to drive in Egypt so this was my opportunity! I got behind the wheel and drove us 40 minutes through the desert back to the village, safe and sound.

Takeaway of the day: A Prius is NOT a suitable desert car.

Tunis Village: An escape from the big city 

Thursday afternoon Peter sent me this picture: a map with the route from Cairo to Fayoum, a small city two hours southwest of Cairo. He told me to go home and pack a bag because he planned a surprise weekend getaway for us!
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We stayed at a little villa in Tunis Village, a small village outside of Fayoum. It was owned by a woman who immigrated from Switzerland when she was 24 years old.. She eventually made Egypt her home and opened a pottery school, which has become a favorite place for locals, tourists, and expats to visit. In fact, Tunis Village is well known for it’s pottery and many Europeans come for 6-months at a time for training in the craft of pottery making
Upon our arrival in Tunis Village, we were taken to the cozy little cottage that we would be staying in. It had a beautiful terrace overlooking the lake and desert mountains. Like the Florida girl I am, I immediately changed into my bathing suit and was ready for the pool. The weather in Cairo has been in the low 70s, and finally this weekend it hit mid 80s, making for the perfect pool day.
In the evening, as is our tradition when we are on holiday, Peter and I walked through neighborhoods exploring the village. Tunis Village is actually smaller than the size of a typical neighborhood in Cairo! All of the roads are unpaved, most of the houses unfinished. Cows, donkeys, and goats roam the streets. Women sit on the front steps watching their children, most of whom are barefoot, play soccer outside. Life is simple. Very simple. We stopped along the way to look at the pottery which was beautifully handcrafted by the village potters. Of course we had to support the local economy by purchasing our fair share! On the way back to the cottage we stopped for a cup of tea at a local cafe, and after fighting off the mosquitos we headed back to our cottage to make dinner.
The next morning, we had our own pottery lesson from Karim, a 30 year old Tunis Village native, who has been working in pottery his entire life. He told us he had grown up very poor, but when he had his first pottery lesson he had molded something that he was proud of and that became the source of his happiness. He saw the schoolchildren before him graduate and become successful pottery artists, and he knew one day he would do the same. And now, here he is, teaching in Evelyn’s Pottery School, selling his own art, and traveling throughout Europe on pottery exchange trips and gallery exhibitions.
He explained the process of pottery making from start to finish- telling us how a pile of clay would become a glazed plate, bowl, or cup. And then it was our turn to test it out!  He handed both of us an apron (so we would at least look the part) and a hunk of clay that we would have to mold into the design of our choice!
Karim led us over to this contraption that was the pottery wheel. This isn’t the electric kind. Nope. We had to kick the wheel at the bottom to keep it spinning. He explained that the artist has more control that way, but it definitely takes much more coordination! Peter went first, wanting to make a plate. Karim guided him through the process, helping with one hand, and voila, Peter’s plate!
When it was my turn, I was a little nervous at first since pottery was never my forte (as I well know from my senior year ceramics class in high school), but it turns out that Karim helped me discover my hidden talent! If my MBA plans fall through, I have a future in Tunis Village as a pottery maker! It’s always good to have a Plan B! I don’t know how it happened, but Karim took his hand off of my pot and all of a sudden I turned it into a plate! I was quite proud, if you can’t tell.