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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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.

Love&Laughs ♥

I know I’m a little late for Valentine’s Day, but since Peter was in Dubai for the week we had to celebrate this weekend.

Since we both aren’t much for Valentine’s Day, we came up with a challenge. We had  to spend 100 Egyptian pounds or less (which is about $6) for the tackiest present we could find. And in Egypt, they really go big on Valentines day, and very kitschy displays found everywhere, so tacky is the name of the game.

Item: A heart shaped red pillow with our photo printed on it. It was the perfect tacky presenting, but it was also really embarrassing to explain what to the shopkeepers. The worst part was the only time I could pick it up was before a work dinner when the CEO was in town, so I attended the dinner with the pillow in tow. I was building my character as my dad would say.

Price: 80 Pounds 

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Peter’s present for Caitlin

Item: Glass bobblehead. He returned from Dubai with a glass bobblehead of a Gulfi man in his traditional white garb and head scarf and sunglasses. Although tacky, he did stray from the Valentine’s theme.

Price: 100 Pounds 

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Which do you vote as the tackiest Valentine’s present?

Wedding Crashing: Egyptian Style

I received a Facebook invite from a coworker…to his wedding only two weeks prior to the event! (So, PSA: We didn’t actually crash this wedding, but we were the only foreigners there so it almost felt like we did!) This was the second wedding invitation I had received via Facebook in Egypt, so this must be common practice. And if you think about it, it really saves time and money considering how much effort we put into save the dates and wedding invitations and pre-stamped RSVP cards!

Either way, I checked the “going” box to confirm my attendance. I asked Mohi, my coworker, if I could bring Peter as my plus one, a question to which he couldn’t stop laughing. I saw no humor in the situation, but he kept telling everybody after that that I had asked if I could bring my boyfriend, and they also started laughing! Still seeing no humor in the situation, I asked for an explanation, and he told me that it’s implied with the invitation that I could bring him. Apparently for Egyptian weddings, knowing the exact amount of guests for seating charts and food plans is not necessary. The invitation was open. When I told Peter about the wedding, he was thrilled. On his Egypt “bucket list”, going to a wedding was towards the top.  

Mohi warned us that his wedding was a-typical compared to other Egyptian weddings since his was in the “morning”. The Facebook invite said the event would last from 1-7 PM, but he said that was just the Egyptian time. He told me that since I’m American he’d give me the “real start time”, he knew I’d be there at the time he indicated.

We ended up getting there around 2:20, and in the car, Peter and I kept checking our phones nervous that we wouldn’t be there on time, and we’d miss the beginning! When we arrived to a beautiful, new in a clubhouse (in the middle of the desert), there was barely anybody there. Phew! The wedding didn’t actually start until

The wedding opened with a “zarfa”, which is where the bride arrives in her car, where the groom greets her and then they are surrounded by family and friends and a traditional band playing the drums, trumpets, and other instruments. They stood in the middle dancing with family members in a circle until the migrated towards a table and chairs. The bride and groom, Maisa and Mohi, sat at the table as we gathered around the chairs. Then began the signing of the contracts.

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In a Muslim wedding, the contract is the symbol of marriage that is binding. It outlines the rights of a groom and bride, and the signing must have 2 male witnesses. As we all watched, Maisa and Mohi stamped heir fingerprints on 7 copies of the contract in order to be officially married. Then, Mohi took the and of the Maisa’s father and promised him that he would take care of his daughter. A prayer was said, and the ceremony was compete! Maisa and Mohi were married.

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In terms of rings, in a Muslim marriage, the engagement ring is exchanged during the engagement and to be worn on the right ring finger of both parties. Then, during the wedding, the same ring will be transferred over to the left hand ring finger to be worn throughout their marriage. It’s quite a lovely symbol.

After the ceremony ended, everybody was shuffled inside to the tables, where the reception commenced. We ate, we drank (soda and tea), and we were merry. There was a really great live band with an apparently famous Egyptian singer named Hamaky that inspired a concert turned dance-party-on-stage, in which I did not participate of course (I rarely dance)!

Highlight of the wedding: Peter getting bitten by a little Egyptian boy when he tried to play with him and his nerf gun. The little boy latched on to his pants, and Peter tried to lightly shake him off, but he went in to take a good chunk out of his calf! Also, it’s even funnier to note that this is the second time Peter was bitten by an Egyptian child!

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I think what surprised me was that the bride and groom never actually kissed. Not a single time at the wedding. There were no glass-clinking-kiss-now-toasts, there was no “you may now kiss the bride”, there was no first-dance-kiss, nothing!

Overall, the wedding was a wonderful cultural experience that I am glad I could be a part of. Congrats to Mohi and Maisa!!