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.)

1200px-Modan_Tahrir_(2005-05-343)

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.

IMG_9260

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…

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.

IMG_7663

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.

IMG_7670

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.

IMG_7763

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!
Unknown
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.

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.

img_7024

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.

img_7025

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!

img_6938

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!!

The Road Less Traveled

With this blog, I want to take all of you on my crazy, destionation-less journey, so here goes the first post…

For all of you that know me, I don’t walk. I don’t stroll, I don’t amble, I don’t meander, I don’t wander. And when I do, it’s with a purpose. So when my boyfriend, Peter, mentioned that he was really keen on picking a random local neighborhood in Cairo that we would never find ourselves in other than by happenstance and just “walk”. I was less than thrilled by the idea to be honest.

But we walked.

We chose a very “shaaby” (local) neighborhood, Sayeda Zeinab, in Cairo, full of winding streets littered with garbage, full of roaming stray cats and dogs, and children playing with tires and makeshift soccer balls. We stumbled upon cages of live chickens unknowing of their fate, camel meat hanging outside butchers’ shops, and rows of ladders stacked against the walls for sale. We saw every kind of speciality shop, from carpenters, to car repairmen, egg sellers, and seamsters.

img_6412

We drank tea at a cafe with tables of old men smoking shisha, playing backgammon, and reading the newspaper. We stumbled upon the oldest mosque in Cairo, Ibn Tulun, majestic in its simplicity, serene even in its central location.  We heard “Welcome to Egypt” countless times from local passersby, to which we responded “shukran” (thank you in Arabic).

But most importantly, we saw the true Cairo; a side that we rarely have the opportunity to see. We saw Cairo in each child running in the street, each “welcome to Egypt”, each cup of tea, each throw of the dice, each toothless smile, and each call to prayer.

Despite my original hesitance, I realized that inherent in this aimless walk there was a purpose, and it was just that: to walk aimlessly. It ultimately allowed us to take in everything we saw without, a map, preset route, or destination. And by losing ourselves in Sayeda Zeinab, we found the innocent and beautiful essence of the city in which we live.

Throughout this walk, I realized more and more that this is what I want my 2017 to be: full of discovery, exploration, “yeses” (even if my first instinct might be no!), and full of this amazing man who pushes my boundaries, expands my comfort zone, but unfailingly holds my hand along the way.

C.

IMG_6405.jpg