Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Few Changes

Life since we got back from Cairo has been crazy.  Completely crazy.  I'm trying to wrap up the end of my semester, only 11 days left, but in that 11 days I've got one homework assignment, two group research papers due, two group presentations, one individual presentation, and three more finals before I'm done.  So please pardon the lack of Cairo stories here lately, I promise we'll tell you all about it, but photo editing and writing are somewhere down around sleeping and showering on the list of things to do. (Totally kidding about the shower)

But we've got one big change around the apartment we couldn't wait to show everyone:

We just adopted the most adorable, loving, and friendly kitty!  So internet, meet Algebra, which seems fitting since algebra has long dating roots to the Middle East.

I also got my hair cut.  It was getting way too long and I wasn't doing anything with it, so I decided to check out the salon on campus.  They were pretty good, and I practically walked in without an appointment, which was convenient. 

Algebra, or Algie for short has taken a liking to my computer's mouse.  She's already quite fond of sitting right on my computer or lecture notes just to get a little attention.

Watch for some Cairo updates here shortly!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cairo: Day 0

So you've all heard the tale of our adventure getting out of Saudi Arabia, and now it's time for the rest of our fantastic trip.  Rather than throw it all out there in one epic saga that honestly I don't have the time or inclination to produce in one big blog post, I'll go day by day for all of you.  We also have way more pictures than is reasonably feasible for the blog, so I'll probably post the excess on my facebook for you all to check out at your leisure.  Because I know prying into our lives is really high on your list of things to do today, and really who doesn't like a good time suck like facebook?

So Day 0 as I will call it pretty much represents our late night flight and arrival into Cairo at 2am.  We had a heck of a time finding flights to Cairo, and it turns out the first one we were actually able to find and purchase, resulted in a 12:30 am flight out of Jeddah.  After our interesting experience getting through the Jeddah airport, we left late, and finally got to Cairo. We bought our entry visas and romped our way through customs.  We also admired the kitties that were hanging around in the Cairo airport.  Little did we know that Cairo is swarming with stray kitties and cats so this was not our last encounter with the little creatures.

After making it though customs, which didn't really take too long, we proceeded to the exit to find our driver.  One of the benefits of the hostel we stayed at was that they would pick you up from the airport.  This was greatly appreciated given our late arrival and my lack of desire to try and navigate taxis at 3am.  Let me now sing the praises of traveling with no checked luggage.  Glorious.  It greatly reduces waiting around in the airport after you arrive, and normally it speeds up your check in process too.  We had a small rolling suitcase (part of an amazing set of luggage we got for the wedding), Steve's backpack, and my London tote.  We packed clothes for six days, and this was a pretty good amount for a nine day trip.

The staff at our hostel was pretty easy to work with; they even managed to fix our reservation after I forgot to book us a room for the first night of our trip (whoops).  We ended up getting to the hostel around 3:30 or 4 am, and we were quickly shown to our room. The building the hostel was in had an amazing old fashioned elevator:

We had a pretty interesting view from our room.  We were right next door to a mosque and  the minaret made for a lovely view.  The giant chicken mural/advertisement was also pretty amusing.

They let us know that breakfast was normally served until 11 am, but they'd serve us later since we weren't likely to be up that early the next day.  This was greatly appreciated!  Overall the hostel was decent, it got really good reviews and ratings online, but I would say it didn't quite live up to its online reputation.  We ended up buy some air freshener the next day because the room had a bit of funk, and the bathrooms were in a general state of patched up working throughout the trip.  They did have amazing hot water though, so it could have been worse.

With our arrival in Cairo a success, we hit the sack and eagerly awaited our first opportunity to explore the city.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Holy mother of chaos

I'm not sure that Steve's description of our departure from Saudi was really accurate.  It was probably the most hectic, busy, crazy, chaotic experience of my life, and it all began at the wrong airport terminal.  We had caught the shuttle bus from campus to the Mall of Arabia and after that had haggled for a trip to the airport.  Either the driver didn't understand which terminal we needed to go to or he didn't care because we ended up at the terminal for all of the foreign airlines when we were flying on Saudi's airline.  Terminals here at the JED are not like most in the US where you've either got a big walk ahead of you or a short little train ride.  The two terminals are several kilometers apart requiring another taxi ride.  After arriving at the correct terminal, we wandered around to figure out what line we needed to be in.  After snaking around each of the placed elastic ropes, it continued as Steve said at least another 100 yards around the airport basically ending near the entrance to the airport.  It was completely disheartening.  We'd gotten there about 3 1/2 hours before our flight and we knew that there was no hope of making it through that line in time.  The worst part was that this was just the line to check in and get boarding passes; we weren't even going to check any luggage.  Steve poked around some, found a much shorter line off to the side behind a very large pillar and then we started waiting again.  After another 10 or so minutes of waiting, Steve wandered off and found some self service kiosks, but unfortunately they didn't work for international flights.  It was bizarre to be standing around such chaos.  One person in line near us said that he had never seen the airport so busy before, and I'd imagine it was because of the beginning of the Eid holiday.  Every one had boxes and boxes of luggage (yes literally boxes, very few suitcases) pushed around on carts while all we had was one of the small rolling carry one bags, a bookbag, and my purse.  After an incredibly long day getting ready to leave, going to classes, project meetings, and the prospect of a very stressful return from break, this was exactly what I did not want or need to deal with.  Eventually one of the security guards managed to yell at the airline workers and got the booth we were in line for staffed, although it was very intermittently so.  They like to get up and walk over to the other booths at very random intervals.  We finally got our tickets and headed through security, which compared to the US is a relative breeze.

Getting on the plane managed to be equally hectic as well.  First, our flight was simultaneously listed as "cancelled" and "on-time" which was strange, but it did turn out to board on time.  Boarding planes in the US can get a bit crazy as people try to get ahead of their assigned boarding group and get on sooner, but here there aren't boarding groups; everyone makes a mad dash for the boarding gate as soon as it opens feeling no remorse physically pushing people along the way.  We then had our passports checked again and boarded buses that would take us out to our plane.  When the bus let us out at the plane there was more pushing and jostling as everyone boarded the stairs to the plane.

If ever there was a time when the intricate nature of human beings trying to fill a limited number of seats needs to be overcome, it is when filling a plane.  Two of the worst words for this situation would be "free seating" which is exactly what we were told when we got onto the plane.  For us, it worked out great, we grabbed seats at the beginning of a section, those ones with all the leg room because there's no one directly in front of you.  It ended up taking and extra 30 minutes or so to seat everyone because some of the parents of infants put their kids in seats, leaving others with no where to sit.

The flight went pretty smoothly, except for the old woman beside me scolding me for not cleaning my lemon before putting it in my tea.  Who knows where I was going to have the means to clean a lemon peel; at that point, pesticides were the least of my concerns!

Up next on our Cairo journey: Cairo Day 0

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Welcome to Egypt"

We arrived in Egypt at about two in the morning on the 11th after a very trying ordeal at the Jeddah Airport. I will never complain about airport hassles in the US again. There was a line for international check-in that snaked its way all the way through the airport, easily 100 yards long. If we had stayed in that line we probably would have missed our flight. After some scouting around I found a much shorter line, but it still took us an hour to check-in. The hostel sent someone to the airport to pick us up, and we were in our room and asleep very quickly.

Today we went out to one of the islands in the Nile and visited and aquarium/park. There weren't many live fish, but there was a guy very very eager to tell us all about the Tilapia. There were bunches of preserved fish in jars, and taxidermified animals, it was pretty creepy, Abby will put up some pictures later.

Then we went to the Cairo Tower, which was pretty overpriced, and had a really good meal at the cafe near the base of the tower. I had beef shewarma, and it was amazing.

The title of this post is the little bit of english that everybody seems to know, and it is what they say before hassling you to see their perfume shop, or take their tour, visit their shop, see their fish, or whatever. It is really aggravating, almost as much as the constant, and I do mean constant, car horns. We have decided to visit the Coptic tomorrow, and I will make sure Abby puts up some pictures.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Our Way

Steve and I are all packed and ready to go.  We're catching the bus to the Mall of Arabia at 6pm tonight so we can have a much cheaper trip to the airport.  The shuttle buses to Jeddah are free, but getting a taxi to the airport from campus would be approximately 200 SAR ($53) so we'll save a bunch by only taking a taxi from the Mall of Arabia to the airport.

Thankfully, the hostel we're staying at has airport pick up in Cairo, so we won't even have to worry about navigating the city in the middle of the night!  It was one of the main factors for choosing our place to stay, so hopefully it will live up to the comments and reviews on hostels.com!

We're going to do our best to add some pictures and updates while we're gone, but we're not sure how good the internet access will be.

Here's to hoping for a great nine days, because when we get back, it's going to be a rough haul to the end of the semester.  I've got two 10+ page reports, three presentations, four exams, and a trip to Europe to plan in the four weeks after Eid.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Still Looking for Work

I was hoping to write a post weeks ago telling about my new job here. I have made a little bit of progress, but I still have to call multiple times a day to talk to anybody.

In the meantime I have started doing stuff with the Boy Scout troop here on campus. This past Wednesday we went camping. We camped on a peninsula north of Rabigh, and went snorkeling Thursday morning. The snorkeling was amazing, probably the best I've done. We saw lots of live coral, and a bunch of rays and big lionfish. Some of the boys were quite afraid, but once they got a look at the beautiful reefs they seemed to forget their fears. I don't have any pictures now, but the other adult leaders took some and I will try to get them. I'm going to put on a merit badge class for the boys, probably environmental science or oceanography.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Around the Web

I don't spend a lot of time following the news here; it isn't something I did back home, and now the fact that most news isn't in English here makes it even less likely for me to know what's going on off campus.  But then I found this blog, and she does a great job highlighting issues and news primarily out of Jeddah.

Reading posts like this really makes me question being here.  But hearing about these two events makes me think sometimes that improvement is possible and somehow through small changes over a long period of time, it might get better here.

In other news, I found this post at Make It and Love It, which links to an offer for a free 8x10 canvas print.  I'm thinking about getting one of our wedding pictures printed.

Finally, go to Hyperbole and a Half and read about the God of Cake, I was dying of laughter all the way through, and so will you!

Boat trip during last Eid

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Currency Exchange

Riyals are the currency here in Saudi, and for all intents and purposes 1 dollar is about 3.75 SAR (Saudi Riyals) and the exchange rate has been fixed since the mid 1980s.  However money here works just a tiny bit differently than it does back home.  Do you know those seemingly crazy Americans that think we should get rid of the penny?  Well that's kind of how it is here, only instead of not having pennies, there are no coins used here.  Sure they exist, 100 halalas are in one riyal, but to say they aren't widely used is an understatement.  Now you might think that since coins aren't used here, they wouldn't price things at fractions of riyals, but of course they do.  So after checking out at the grocery store, it's pretty common to owe something like 18.30 or 20.80 etc.  If your lucky, it'll get rounded down and you saved yourself a tiny bit (yay) or it'll get rounded up, you'll pay more than you owe, and your compensation is a little bottle of water.  As if the bottle of water makes up for a lack of coins.  Only in the desert does water become a legitimate unit of currency.

The mentality we have when spending money here is really different, both Steve and I have noticed it.  Since one riyal is worth so little compared to US dollars, it takes more to buy something so if you just glance at prices at a store, everything seems much more expensive.  We'll look at something like milk, which is 7 SAR, and think, gee 7 is a lot, milk must be expensive.  But really it's about $1.80 for a 2 liter.  It's even worse with clothes.  I bought a sweatshirt in Jeddah a few weeks ago and nearly died when I saw the price, 99 SAR.  But really it's only about $26, which isn't terrible.  We've gotten accustomed to dividing by four to decide if we think something is overpriced.  If anything the larger numbers make us pause and reconsider purchases, so it isn't all bad.

I think this is really a more ideal situation.  If we were in Great Britain where a British Pound is about $1.60 USD, buying a 5 pound item would really be around $8.  So smaller purchases would be larger than they initially seemed.  When we go to Egypt next week, the exchange rate will be even more in our favor, about 1 USD is 5.7 Egyptian Pounds.

Another unique aspect of money here is that this is almost completely a cash based economy.  When they say it hurts more to spend cash rather than put it on a debit or credit card, they are right.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hungry ATM

Steve and I had to go deal with the bank again.  He tried to get money from the ATM on campus and it told him that his card had been reported as stolen and for his "convenience" it would keep the card.  This seemed pretty fishy since neither Steve nor I reported either of our cards as stolen, but whatevs a trip to the bank would be necessary to straighten it out.  But the bank here is only open until 3:30, which is pretty inconvenient if you ask me.

Apparently the problem wasn't that the card had been reported as stolen, but that Saudi law had changed a few weeks ago so that a single bank account could only have one debit card issued.  I'm really not going to go into why I think that law came to be, if you're interested in my opinions we can chat offline.  Somehow our joint account had been mistaken for a single account and since Steve is the joint owner, his card was invalidated by the law. Hence the hungry ATM.

Maybe it needed a cupcake?  With Winnie the Pooh?

From what they said at the bank, the branch on campus was trying to get an exemption to the law, but it didn't pan out so cards were getting invalidated.  To top this off, it'll take about five business days (so probably six or seven) to get a new card because it will have to be authorized in Riyadh.  Wewt bureaucracy.  Thankfully my card still works so we weren't up a creek just irritated.  The bank's online banking system is also rife with irritation; it really makes me appreciate excellent banks like ING.  Having one password to login online isn't enough here, after you "login" with your password, the bank sends you a text with another password that you need to fully login to their system.  While this does add a second interesting layer of security, it is just irritating, and the only way out is to pay extra money to "authorize" your computer.

One of the most interesting sites while we were at the bank was the incredibly long line for the ATM.  Today was pay day for the construction company that works on campus and all of the workers were withdrawing their paychecks.  This was around lunch time so I figured that was why it was so busy, but the bank guy said it had been like that since 7am.  This is kind of bewildering to see twenty plus people in line for an ATM machine.  It strongly reminded me of pictures when banks were failing and people would line up trying to withdraw money.  I don't know if it was a lack of trust in the bank, incredibly low pay rate, or some other reason that every worker was withdrawing money, but from what I've read, it's good to know that they are at least actually getting paid.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cairo and Eid al Adha

Starting next Thursday, Steve and I have another school break, this time for the second Eid celebration, Eid al Adha.  It's celebrated to "to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God" (according to Wikipedia).  For us, it means nine days of vacation, which most students use as a chance to travel.  We didn't get to travel for the last Eid because Steve didn't have his residence card, but this time we're going to Cairo!

At this point, we've got tickets booked; we're leaving early on the 11th and will be in Cairo until the 19th.  We're looking forward to some of the standard tourists stops such as the Giza pyramids, the Citadel, and the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art.  We're also interested in seeing sites such as the Cairo Zoo, Egyptian Textile Museum, Hanging Church, Philosophers' Circle, the Solar Barque Museum, and maybe even the super cheesy Sphinx sound and light show.

We're planning a day trip up to Alexandria to see the library, Qaitbay fortress, and perhaps the Montazah palace.

We also want to be able to take a guided tour of Dahshur, which is an area about 7 miles south of Cairo which is supposed to have a few great pyramids while being less crowded than Giza.

Perhaps one event I'm especially looking forward to is seeing Harry Potter in Cairo with my friend J who is also going to Egypt for Eid.  It's so fortunate that the break fell at this time, because I'm not sure that we'll get a screening of Harry Potter at our cinema.  We only show two movies at a time and only for one week.  Usually only one of the movies is an American movie, and with all of the movies being censored, I'm just not convinced it would make the cut.

Cairo seems to have a decent metro system, so that and taxis are going to be our primary modes of transportation (oh and our feet).  It'll be interesting to see how the metro compares to what I've read online; apparently it's supposed to be pretty clean and nice.

One place we most likely won't be going is the Birqash Camel Market.  Go here to see some interesting pictures and a pretty good description of the market.  It would be pretty cool to see, but honestly it looks pretty barbaric too.