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…

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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.

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!!

Our Journey to Jordan

Peter and I decided to take a long weekend trip to Jordan since it’s only one hour away from Cairo by plane. If you want to travel to an outer suburb of Cairo from downtown, it might take you more than 1 hour given the terrible traffic, but by 10:00 AM that day we  were in another country on the road to Wadi Rum!

Quite frankly, the thought of renting a car was scary at first since I had never driven outside of the US, but it was absolutely worth it to have a car instead of trying to navigate public transportation, and it enabled us to see more of the country. On the last day we had some extra time before needing to be at the airport, so we decided to take a 30 min trip to see the Ajloun castle, which we wouldn’t have been able to do on short notice without the car.

I’ve been to Jordan three times now, once for 6 months, and the others for shorter trips, but every time the country takes my breath away. Follow our stops along the way!

Wadi Rum

This spectacular desert was the highlight of our trip, and if you’re planning a trip to Jordan is a sight that cannot be missed! We made the 3.5 hour drive straight from the airport to   the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center, and for the full experience, we stayed a night in a Bedouin camp. We were met by our guide in his well-worn Toyota pickup, and we climbed into the bed which was modified with “benches” for an off-roading experience. We spent the afternoon climbing rock formations, the burnt orange sand dunes, and exploring the caves until sundown, when we were driven to the campgrounds.

We ate a traditional dinner of meat and roasted vegetables, cooked underground and finished the night around a campfire with sweet (very sweet) sage tea. We two tiny beings absolutely in awe of Mother Earth, surrounded by the profound silence of nature and the clear, starry sky. It was incredibly breathtaking.

The following morning we departed on a 2-hour camel trek back to the visitor’s center, and our desert experience came to an end. It’s not the most comfortable mode of transportation, but knowing that you are recreating the routes people have taken for centuries upon centuries is spectacular.

Petra

From Wadi Rum, we drove an hour to Petra, through on back roads and through tiny mountain towns (which I still am unsure as to whether it’s the actual route or the GPS took us the wrong way), but we managed to get there despite an intense fog covering the roads. It got to the point that I was driving by the yellow line of the side of the road since I couldn’t even see 2 feet in front of me!

The roads down to Petra were so steep, that at one intersection Peter told me to keep going straight, but the road looked like it was a complete drop. Like I was about to drive off a cliff. There was a bulldozer trying to come up the road I was coming down, there were people trying to pass through the intersection, and I was frozen thinking about trying to drive straight down this hill. The bulldozer flashed his lights at us, and I just started crying. Peter looked at me like “oh my God what is happening here” and immediately offered to take over, so we switched drivers. The bulldozer is still flashing his lights, people are trying to pass us on this hill, and now the Peter can’t move from park to drive. A Jordanian man comes over to the window and I’m half crying, half yelling “fi mushkila” (there is a problem), and the guy reaches into the car and starts it, Peter manages to move the gear to drive, and off we go down this hill. Turns out that Peter (who has only driven a manual car) didn’t realize he needed to keep his food on the break in order to switch gears.

Despite this harrowing experience, we made it to Petra. We stayed at the Movenpick, which is right outside the gates of Petra. And let me be honest, the bright white hotel sign was the the beacon of hope that kept us going those last 20-30 minutes of hiking back to the main gates.

And Petra really is a hike, especially if you climb the monastery. The walk down to the treasury is downhill, but boy, is that walk back to the entrance is daunting, uphill and seemingly never ending, especially considering that you’ve already walked the entire site from the Monastery to the Treasury, and there’s still 30 more minutes to go!

We entered the site at about 1:45, and we were warned that it would close by 5 or 5:30 latest. And by 3:25 we had seen the Treasury, hiked up to the tombs, explored the caves, and walked down to the beginning of the Monastery trail. We saw increasingly fewer people on our way, and we were told that the full hike up to the Monastery is about 1 hour. Since it was already quite late, Peter was hesitating as to whether or not we should start then or just leave it for tomorrow. But there was no question for me. We had made it this far, we were hiking the Monastery and not coming back the next day (that was my true motivation). And so we hiked.

The walk was tough, but worth the view, and we made it in exactly 30 minutes (although we did go quite fast and took 2 short breaks). We could have gone up by donkey, but honestly the stairs are steep and slippery so it’s almost easier to walk up yourself. The path was littered with tents selling jewelry, scarves, and other knickknacks, but the really tempting tents are the ones selling refreshments making for a nice little pitstop! But onwards we went, past the tents, past other couples resting, for fear that we would be locked in Petra until the following day! Peter had even already picked out our cave for the night.

But we went quickly, stoped to take in the breathtaking monastery and view from the top, and made it back to the front gates by 6:00 PM! No cave dwelling for us!

Dead Sea 

Peter and I have both been to the Dead Sea before, so we didn’t stop again. However, we did take the “scenic” (and also very scary, mountainous route) from Petra to Amman that goes through the Jordan Valley and along the Dead Sea. It was worth the view. From the mountainous terrain to the farmland of the Jordan Valley to the beautiful turquoise of the Dead Sea, the 4 hour drive was breathtaking at every turn.

*Also, I have to put this little tidbit in here just for Peter since it was legitimately one of the highlights of his trip. Whilst driving through the mountains we came across a couple of stray dogs, which for Jordan is not abnormal, but we were so confused by what they were doing in the mountains. Then we turned the corner and we saw hundreds of dogs and an old abandoned train car teetering off the side of the cliff. As we slowed the car in awe, the dogs surrounded us barking loudly, to the point that if we had gotten out, I think we would have been attacked. So that option was off the table.  As we drove off, they faded into the distance, and Peter’s only regret was not taking a photo.

Jerash

From Amman, we drove about an hour north to Jerash. What astounds me about Jerash is how an ancient Roman city is preserved right along side the modern Jordanian one, where the old city walls run alongside the main through street.   Jerash “boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years,”*  and the ruins are really well preserved. You can walk down the Cardo Maximus (the main road of the city) that is lined with in tact columns and still see where the chariots passed through thousands of years ago. The site also features Roman baths, two amphitheaters, many temples and churches, old markets, and rolling hills for miles. Ultimately the city faced fire and an earthquake that led to the destruction of some structures, but what is left in tact is worth a visit.

Amman 

As the capital, Amman cannot be missed, however you really only need one or two days to cover the city. Having lived in Amman for 6 months, there really is not much to do. Nobody walks around the city since it’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and it’s very, very hilly (the city was built on 7 hills), so you can’t really even go for a walk. But there are a couple sights worth exploring. Unfortunately for us, it was rainy, windy, and really cold, which made touring around miserable, but we still managed to see the main sights.

Our first stop was Rainbow Street right off of Circle One, which is a nice almost-pedestrian street lined with European-esque cafes, restaurants, and shops. To escape the pouring rain, we went had a burger and french fries at a particularly Westery-style restaurant, and then got ice cream as we walked to the lookout point before turning back to the hotel to escape the weather. We ventured back to Rainbow Street the next day for a little walk and brunch at Books@Cafe, which was one of my favorite spots when I was studying in Amman.

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From Rainbow Street, we went to explore the sights downtown. First stop, the Citadel, which sits at the highest hill of the city and has a breathtaking view (even in the rain!). It was occupied in since the Bronze Age, and like Jerash, it is amazing to stand in ruins from centuries prior and look out over the modern city of Amman. After the Citadel, we went to the nearby Roman Amphitheater, which is very well preserved as well. It was built in the 2nd century and sat 6,000 people!

To escape the rain again, we went to Hashem for their famous falafel, and we didn’t even have to order; we sat down, and they brought us the full spread of foul (a bean dip), hummus, falafel, and french fries to build our own sandwich – all for 4.50JD. When we finished,  we walked 250 meters down the road to Habiba to try their famous kenafa for desert! We had more than enough to eat in Amman, especially after having finished up the night at Jafra, a restaurant serving typical Jordanian food with a great atmosphere.

A bit outside downtown, we visited the King Abdullah II Mosque (or the Blue Mosque) is absolutely gorgeous. It’s quite modern inside, but beautiful with the blue and gold inscription, the stained glass windows, and the marble surroundings. We made it just before prayer time, which made it seemingly more serene, and was the perfect way to end our sightseeing tour in Amman.

Peter’s and my first vacation together was a success, so here’s to documenting many more adventures around the world!

*http://international.visitjordan.com/Wheretogo/Jerash.aspx

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.

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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.

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