Monthly Archives: September 2010


I decide to take the elevator down from the flat. Inside the elevator, alone and abandoned in the corner, rests a large white trashbag, which I equate to an abandoned waif in an unfamiliar world.

I exit the building and take to the streets, only to witness a woman hurling a folded newspaper to a second story balcony. At first I think she is trying to get someone’s attention, but then I realize she is carrying several other newspapers, explaining her extraordinary precision.

I take a right.

Nestled dangerously close between two cars is a truck plastered with the phrase “We Can’t Spell it Right WithoutU.”

I continue to walk down the streets, taking care to watch my step with due caution to oncoming traffic, taxis and mule carts included.

Two minutes of nonstop action.



In Pursuit of Chocolate

Last night I attempted to make brownies from a box. The instructions said to simply add ¼ a kilo of butter and four eggs.1/4 a kilo is the equivalent of two cups . . . four sticks of butter in the US. I, for the life of me, cannot comprehend how one recipe’s worth of box brownies require ¼ a kilo of butter. Isaiah attempted to make the same kind of brownies a couple weeks ago. He cautioned me that it was swimming in butter and wasn’t very sweet tasting anyway.

I decided to approach the task with caution. The mission: make the batter tolerable. If the batter is tolerable, how bad can the final product be?

I decided to toss in 2 eggs, a random amount of oil, and some water. The batter was a good consistency, but didn’t taste like brownie at all! So I did what anyone would do. I added sugar. I am not sure how much I added in the end. Probably not more than a cup, although it’s certainly possible. I was still concerned, however, about the overall chocolately-ness. All I found in the kitchen was some Nesquick, so I threw in a liberal amount of that as well. With fear and trembling, I began to think this might actually result in something edible.

Cooking the stuff was to be a trial of fire. I turned on the gas to the stove and Katie volunteered kindly to place her head in the stove with a match to get a fire going in the back. She declared a tendency towards pyromania. When I admitted the same, she stated that she was sorry to deprive me of the privilege. But mafeesh mushkila, no problem, I place the brownie pan on a rack and turn the knob controlling heat to a random place, since it had no approximate temperatures.

The result, dear friends, was something that resembled brownie cake. It was indeed fit for human consumption.

I share this little story that I might convey to you a deep truth.

Mankind was meant to consume chocolate.
Shortcuts will get you nowhere unless they involve chocolate (or duct tape).
Chocolate is rarely irredeemable.


I am drifting slowly into madness. I have been sitting on this train for some eight hours and have resolved in this fragile mental state, to attempt yet another blog.

The train is rocking back and forth. Behind me, a toddler babbles to himself, sometimes peeking at me from above or staring at me while taking cover with the side of my seat. Next to me an older woman reclines and gazes into the distance as if she was born chilling on trains.

Just a few more hours.

So far I have read about the life of Muhammad, the schools of Islamic law, the economic state of Egypt, and Arabic pronouns. I also considered mapping out an essay on Gelvin’s “Modern Middle East,” then thought better of it. Everyone around me reading it is demonstrating indications of narcolepsy.

Ben and Emily just came from their car to do some visiting. I asked Emily what she’s been doing. “Reading,” she says, “Basically, I’m sleeping with a book in my hand.” I can relate on a cosmic level.

Are you sufficiently bored, readers, as I am? Are you not weeping and shrieking as the black-garbed women I saw at the train dept?

Well, it’s Sunday, and once again the weekend has been epic and tourist-laden as I experienced some of what is historical Luxor. We hit all the famous sites—Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, The Vally of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the cliché papyri and alabaster stores that sell the REAL thing and aren’t above giving you tea and a necklace that looks like brown and blue rocks a la the average fish tank as you contemplate your purchases.

Of course, random fun was also key. I took a carriage ride through an Egyptian sook (market), ate koshary and mousaka at places where food came out of walls (er—dumbwaiters and windows), paid a ridiculous 5 LE for Coke, read about Coptic Christianity on a lawn chair next to the hotel pool at sunset, and ate my first “McArabia” (tastes like Chicken).

These leisurely activities, however, did not prevent me from brushes with Death. I stepped barefoot on a cockroach, narrowly escaped bed bug infestation, and witnessed a coffin being paraded through the streets. I beheld intricately carved sarcophaguses below the star-painted ceilings of tombs, and nearly slipped and died as I exited.

Speaking of slipping and dying, I nearly did the same in a market with some wet tiles underfoot (one, by the way, should always question the presence of water in a land that never sees rain, save when it’s apricot season and pig’s fly). Finally, I did actually slip on the smooth steps to the hotel lobby. As I sat there, debating whether or not to make a quick save, the thought struck me that my newfound propensity to taunt the Fates could have a direct correlation to the flip-flops on my feet. In Arabic, flip-flop equals “ship-ship”; if you ask me (you didn’t), the ship-ship is sinking. Heels tomorrow, enshallah.


These lines are haunting to me:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

-Sir Francis Drake

The Coffee-Flavored Frapp

It’s the end of Eid Il-Fitr, and I am sitting in a Cairo Starbucks. Mind you, I do not frequent Starbucks, here or in the States. But, you know, it’s the final day of Ramadan-type festivities and it feels like a good afternoon to sit somewhere quiet and study Arabic vocabulary. I don’t actually drink coffee; every year or so I attempt to choke down a few sips, and I already met my quota for this ritual last month.

The great thing about foreign Starbucks locations is that they typically have more non-coffee options (at least from the Starbucks local to me). In Asia this past summer, for instance, I discovered Blackberry Current smoothies. Since I drink tea here in Egypt frequently, today I thought I’d buy my second chocolate chip frappuccino ever (without coffee). I take a sip.

And BAM! Coffee.

I taste coffee. I don’t like coffee.

It’s only a little bit. But it’s coffee.

I thought about going to the counter and saying, “Excuse me, I believe my drink has been tainted with coffee.” Then I considered that I was in a Starbucks, and such behavior would be absurd. Besides, it it’s only a little bit of coffee.


Perhaps my delight in cold frou-frou drinks can be traced back to this past weekend, which I spent near the Red Sea in Dohab. Froufrou drinks galore!

Hydration is important, folks. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

The Red Sea contains a high concentration of salt. Consider the following details while reading them in an ironic tone inside your head:

1. I go snorkeling in the Red Sea.
2. I get sea water in my mouth.
3. The water makes me thirsty.
4. I look at fishies in the sea.
5. I leave the sea and order cold hibiscus.
6. I eat some fish for supper (And also mousaka, which has no relevance to this sequence, but which I’ve decided I like very, very much).

This weekend in Dohab was rather wonderful, actually. On the one hand, it’s everything I’m inclined and trained to dislike. Western tourists in search of tans and expensive thrills, over-zealous shop owners, aviator sunglasses and bathing suits-that-ought-not-be-worn-in-public, the like. Haha, Don’t laugh at me too hard for writing this in a posh Starbucks while propagating my western-ness. There are two sides to every card, and a time for everything.

What I discover in Dohab is something I get little of. Nothingness.

Nowhere to be, nobody to keep track of, no need to access anything outside of that constructed little world. I spent hours over meals talking with friends in sunshine or by candlelight, afternoons sitting on cushions under woven roofs as the Red Sea lapped hungrily at the shore a few feet away. Cats wandering around or lazing one cushions nearby, just to demonstrate the unconcerned life. Traversing desert areas in jeeps with no gauges but a speedometer to get closer to the reef at “Blue Hole” while bypassing packs of plodding camels. In short, I came to appreciate the beauty beyond the droves of would-be divers in the solace of the sea, and the comfort of conversation.

And the evening and the morning were the second full day.  And at the ending of the third day (around midnight), I make a mad dash with Zachariah and Kyle to help them find balloon or “harem” pants at a local store whose owner had cut me a decent deal earlier on a fabulous army-green pair. I am quite convinced that they will be an important part of my wardrobe forever.

I then did sit on a bus to make my way to Mt. Sinai.

At 2am, I trudge off the bus and made my way to a small shop next to the parking lot and made an impressive transaction in Arabic. “Maya?” I inquire, knowing I don’t have enough water with me for the trek ahead. He replies in English—“big or small?” “Kabir.” I get my 1.5 liters, pay the heinous fee of five Egyptian pounds, say shukran, and depart.

I am awed by the sheer number and vibrancy of the stars in the sky. It is like a planetarium! For the first time, I think I have an idea of how the Greeks were so stricken with them.

The climb up Mount Sinai is no trifle, particularly in the dark. It takes about two and half hours. Picture Mordor and Mt. Doom without the ring of power. It really felt and looked like that, at times. The final portion of the “path” are the Stairs of Penance, which mostly make me feel as though my calves will be paying penance for a couple days [Editor’s note: they did].

At the summit I watch the sunrise and curled up on a rock for some ten minutes. At this point I realize I still have one of those paper umbrellas made for froufrou drinks in my hair, which makes me happy.

I really enjoy going back down the mountain, for some sick reason. I am tired and my tennis shoes have questionable traction, so in many cases I am sliding and skidding about. The path is extremely rocky, so in some ways it is a fun game to avoid rocks and weave around camels. For about a minute, I consider becoming a professional in par-cor, then think better of it. I am the first one to the base near St. Catherine’s monastery, which is great, ‘cause then I get to sit on a rock for a few minutes and people watch.

After seeing the burning bush within the monastery. . . with a fire extinguisher next to it . . . I declare in my mind that this is to be one of the better weekends of my life.

I begin to notice color in my skin after the sun has greeting me so often and so warmly. Maybe it’ll finally melt some of the ice.

Dear Neighbor Downstairs

Dear Neighbor Downstairs,

I didn’t mean to ring your doorbell.

I was just going up a dark staircase, you know? I, in frailty of mind, assumed that the backlit orange button would trigger the landing lights.  I would have tread in the darkness, but I didn’t want to be a creeper. So I pushed your doorbell, okay? How was I supposed to know that you have a quality, standard doorbell, full and loud and official, ringing throughout the whole stairwell?

I did what anyone would do: I booked it up the stairs.

Maybe you heard me, neighbor. I was wearing flip-flops, a dead American giveaway. I thought about being still for a second, but became preoccupied with distancing myself from this impious deed and thus away from discovery.

I can imagine myself in your position. You get all excited. Someone’s at the door! You probably had to stand up, stretch your muscles a second, then peep anxiously through the peephole, which was invented for this express purpose. I even turned on the real light for you so I could make a clean get away. This probably increased your disappointment.

Now, I know what’s going through your mind. It may not be pleasant. You, sir, have been pranked upon! What manner of wickedness is this? Have you missed part of your favorite soap opera? Have you wasted a minute of your life for a spectre with flip-flops?

I thought I heard you saying something, but I dare say we do not share Native Tongues. Alack.

A Day in the Life

I am taking a break from studying Arabic because I’m too tickled by the fact that “Gineeh” sounds too much like when Forrest Gump yells, “Jenny.”

This morning I ate a piece of bread as I walked down six flights of stairs. I have never done this before, it was quite the experience.

Then I went to the pyramids. I figured it was just time. For my enormous crowd of followers, I should probably elaborate that I have been to the Giza pyramids once before about three years ago. Nevertheless, I had the whim and the fiscal irresponsibility to recklessly  venture out in search of that New Facebook Profile Picture, the pursuit of which the world knows no bounds (a phenomenon I think would make an excellent documentary, along with “Inside the Elevator,” “The Art of People Watching:  Mennonites to Amalekites,” and “Heels and Why I Love Them”).   I took my pictures, then speculated with my friends about how the Sphinx’s feet are disproportionately larger than the head, and how this failure of architectural engineering clearly indicates that at least they  tried but their true genius lies in the creation of Basic Shapes.

After this rousing discussion and the obligatory camera shots,  Adam’s backpack magically produced a Frisbee. A sporadic game of Frisbee ensued near Khoufra’s pyramid. My favorite part was when a man on a camel decided to join in on the fun. He only asked us if we wanted a picture on the camel one time, so he was first-rate. Not as bad as some of the others.

It’s inevitable, you see, that nothing is free and hawkers will try to convince you of the contrary. And what better place to do it then at one of the world’s premiere tourist traps? Thus it happened  that one of my friends was asked for 120 LE—a king’s ransom–after sitting on a camel for pictures. Unsure of what to do, I suggested she pay maybe five to ten and walk away. I said this was good, da kwayis, this was fair. Then my favorite! The  man snarled at me, “You! Hey, you! Go talk to yourself.” Haha! I said, “Excuse me?” but mostly I wanted to say, “Oh, no he didnnn’t.” And just minutes before I was “Sister, hey sister, you join for picture?” I may post video of this altercation that I may or may not have been filming.

When I got back I realized I was a bit sunburnt.

What devilry that was! I can’t remember the last time my skin looked so ruddy—it kind of freaks me out. I was glad I decided against my tie-dye  t-shirt, shorts, sandals with socks, camera strap, sunglasses, and tacky hat that screams “I-just-got-here-and-bought-this-so-I-could-pretend-I-belong-just-like-I-always-wanted-so-long-as-it’s-kind-of- floppy-and-in-a-tacky-and-obnoxious-pattern.” That would make for some peculiar tan lines. What’s more, I also forsook my “I-bought-this-all-for-way-too-much-money-at-a hip-outdoorsy-store, -note-the- profusion-of-beige-and-white-which-makes-me-feel-a-little-more-secure-about- my-aspirations-to-be- Indiana-Jones outfit complete with fanny pack and gleaming white tennis shoes. I was sorely tempted to don these items, of course. I believe the comedic value of my pictures would have been much improved by their inclusion.

Upon my return from my exhilaratingly quixotic foray into the  fringe of the desert,  I did some reading, then decided to check my email by balancing my computer on exactly the right part of the sofa and refreshing the available networks about five times. Naturally, I was successful.

The Sheep & the House

The sheep and the house of a (slightly) ancient tapestry in my flat catch my eye as the celebratory hubbub of Ramadan in the shadowy streets six stories below me dies. I rest my feet, blackened with the mysteries of the streets. The revelry matches my own after a successful day of playing house in Cairo.

This morning I began with grocery shopping. I struck out on foot into my neighborhood and sought places to find some basics: vegetables, eggs, and bread. The streets were not very crowded. One vendor’s colorful array of produce drew my eye, so I chose tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and eggplant. Bikam da? I inquired. The man placed my satchel of finds on an ancient scale, deftly placing weights on the left side to obtain the balance he sought. The scale, I believe, is shaping to be one of the most definitive symbols of my travels in the East. I may elaborate on this later if the inclination strikes me.

Today I also attempted a variety of professions: Handyman, laundress, teacher.

Shortly after I awoke this morning, my flat mate informed me that water was streaming from our shower—and the handle to turn it off was in her hand. I shall now pledge my undying allegiance to the Swiss Army Knife. The Knife was the perfect instrument to move a switch that could not be moved; it is, in fact, the clever cousin of Duct Tape, which earlier this week kept still a shower head that could not keep from straying away from usefulness.

I attempted laundry with a machine that has not yet been informed of its function: to protect and to serve. If the machine forces me to fill it with water from a hose (twice), spin-wring clothes, and then hang clothes to dry, is not the machine’s very name a farce? And has not the machine failed to protect me from error? And does this machine not know its master? (Nevertheless, I find the box [particularly when plugged in vastly preferable to the sink).

This evening I trekked out with a few others to a far end of the city via taxi, metro, and walking to reach St. Paul’s, a local organization with whom I will be teaching English in the coming weeks as a service project. The details remain to be worked out, but the way is now known to me. I think.

The days are blurring into each other; I hardly remember when I began to write this. Judge me not too strongly. I was going to make a grand metaphor concerning the sheep of the tapestry and the house therein, but I have been cautioned against over-thinking this blog thing, and I dare say that would qualify. I only brought up the tapestry because I was being random.

Good lord, I dare say this is the worst blog entry I’ve ever written. So, eat your hearts out, world. I’m in Egypt, and life is good.