Monday, June 28, 2010

Average Day

Since Sherri (hi Aunt Sherri!) expressed curiosity about it, I thought I'd post on what an average day is like for me here.

6:45 am: My alarm goes off. I promptly ignore it.

7:40 am: Finally get out of bed. Shower and get dressed. Check email, etc.

8:20 am: Eat breakfast downstairs. Breakfast options usually consist of any combination of the following: beans, cheese, pita bread, Egyptian-style baguettes, jam, honey, eggs (scrambled or hardboiled), falafel, corn flakes, milk, mango juice, or apple juice.

8:45 am: Depart for school.

9:00 am: School starts. Most days during the morning we work on Modern Standard Arabic.

9:50 am: Break. During breaks I sometimes go upstairs to find Ahmed, who will sell you pastries, snacks, and various beverages, all at low Egyptian prices.

10:00 am: More Modern Standard Arabic.

10:50 am: Breaktime once again.

11:10 am: More class. Depending on the day, either Modern Standard Arabic or Egyptian Colloquial.

12:00 pm: Break!

12:10 pm: Classtime once more.

1:00 pm: Class gets out. At this point I usually head to lunch. Depending on how I'm feeling, I either go to get lunch at the dorms or go with some of the guys in my class to a local place that sells Egyptian street food. Dorm lunch usually involves rice or koshari (which is mostly rice) and chicken or kofta. If I go with the guys, I usually get a falafel sandwich and a beef shawarma, which is beef and vegetables on a hoagie-ish bun that's been grilled. This usually runs me around four and a half Egyptian pounds, which works out to around 75 cents American. Egypt is a land of cheap, plentiful, delicious food.

2:00 pm: At this juncture, anything can happen. Depending on the day and how much homework we all have, this time can be used for homework and studying, or for an outing of some sort. This may include museums and other historical monuments, like mosques or Coptic churches.

6:00 pm: Dinner. Dorm dinner usually involves bountiful carbohydrates, along with chicken, fish, or kofta. Sometimes we go out to dinner, either by ourselves or with one of our professors.

7:00 pm: Same rules apply as the 2:00 schedule.

11:00 pm: Start pondering sleep.

11:05 pm: Put on pajamas, etc.

11:15 pm: Get into bed.

11:21 pm: Remember something I need to google. Proceed to also check my email, etc.

11:45 pm: Drift off to sleep.

Weekends are fairly similar, with no classes and more sleeping. (It should perhaps be noted that the weekend here is Friday and Saturday, so I have classes from Sunday to Thursday.)


Monday, June 21, 2010


On Saturday, most of the people in our study abroad program took a day trip to Cairo and Giza. We left at around 6:00 am from Alexandria, as it takes a good two and a half or three hours to get to Cairo. We went together with all of us with one van. We had a tour guide and an armed guard, which was really strange at first, but it is apparently standard issue for large groups of tourists.

Our first stop was Giza. I spent a good twenty minutes when I first started writing this entry trying to describe the pyramids, and didn’t get anywhere, so I will leave it at this: the pyramids are amazing. That is pretty much it. You know how awesome the pyramids are in your brain? Multiply that by 20 and you might come close to how incredible it is to be standing right next to them. I pretty much just skipped around like a giddy schoolgirl. The best part was that we were able to purchase tickets to go inside the second pyramid. You have to crouch over to hobble into a three-foot-tall tunnel and there's not really much inside (just a stone chamber, not that that isn't totally great on its own, but I think a lot of people expect there to be art or something), but it's still perfect. During the entire time I was in there, my internal monologue went something like this: "I'M IN A PYRAMID. I'M IN A PYRAMID. I. AM. IN. A. PYRAMID." We also saw the Sphinx, which, again, defies description. It's really strange, when you are looking right at the pyramids and the Sphinx it looks like the desert goes on forever, but if you turn around you can immediately see a Pizza Hut and a KFC. Egypt is a strange place.

Next, we visited the Saladin Citadel, which was built in the 12th century AD to protect the city from the Crusaders. Inside the walls of the citadel is the mosque of Mohamed Ali, built in the early 19th century. This mosque was easily one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever been in. The pictures I took of it simply do not do it justice. The mosque is rather interesting architecturally; Mohamed Ali was an Albanian who came to Egypt with the Turkish army, so the mosque is much more Ottoman in style than most Egyptian mosques.

We then visited the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which I could easily devote the next five years of my life to walking around in. There's just so many things in there, and so many of . There's nothing quite like seeing a statue you've written a paper on or read about extensively right in front of your eyes. For me, the best parts where the manuscript room, and the two sphinxes and one statue head of Hatshepsut that I had the privilege of seeing. I also got to see Tutankhamen's burial mask, sarcophagi, and various burial effects, which was undeniably awesome. It was also really exciting to see a lot of the artifacts from the Amarna period.

Our final stop for the evening was the Khan El-Khalili market, which is an adventure in and of itself. It's extremely crowded and tiny, and you can't take a step without someone trying to usher you into their shop or make you an offer. I only ended up buying one thing. (Hint: Dad, it's for one of your collections, and I really really hope it will actually fit you!) I like the market here in Alexandria much better, it's not as frantic and you don't have to put as much energy into haggling with the vendors.

All in all, I had a great time in Cairo, but I think one day was enough for me. Cairo has lots of really interesting things to do and see, but it is also ridiculously hot and crowded. An aside to Grandpa: I'm sorry, but I didn't get to see the opera house. If I do another trip there I will be sure to stop by it.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pompey's Pillar/Kom el Shoqafa Catacombs

On Saturday, a group of people from my program (accompanied by one of our professors, Mohammed, who is an incredibly nice person who, for no good reason, decided to take a bunch of lousy 'Merican students to some historical sites on what should have been his day off) went to go see Pompey's Pillar and the Kom el Shoqafa catacombs. We met up outside our school, and took the tram, which is an adventure in and of itself. Tickets are 25 piastres (roughly a nickel, in US dollars), stops aren't announced, and seating is a free for all. In short: good times.

Pompey's Pillar was erected in 297 AD, and was actually erected in honor of the emperor Diocletian, so I have no idea why we're pretending that it belongs to Pompey. It's on the site of Alexandria's acropolis, and in the same area you can visit some temple ruins, including a nilometer and a temple sanctuary, as well as corridors that may have served as extra storage space for the city's ancient library. I was a bit disgustingly cheerful about being there, and may have scared my fellow students and several Egyptians with my enthusiasm.

Next we went to the catacombs. The catacombs were built in the 2nd century AD, and were used as burial space from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD. The art and architecture are really interesting because they are a blend of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles. You actually walk down into the larger catacombs and are able to walk around, albeit on wooden planks that aren't nailed down or anchored in any fashioned, which is a bit sketchy. Again, my joy was so effusive as to be frightening.

In other news, I am still having an excellent time. I love my classes and the city in general. If you came to Shatby (the neighborhood I live in and that Alexandria University is in) and asked them where to find the pale girl who sweats an alarming amount, any university official, student, or dorm resident would probably be able to help you find me. I am going to Cairo this Saturday, so will hopefully post about that afterward.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Quick bits: or, stuff that does not quite warrant its own post that I still feel like writing about briefly

  • My professor will give you a candy bar if you give a really good answer to a question in class. I got a Tofi Luk the other day. It is kind of like a Twix. Kind of.
  • It's in the mid 70s/80s temperature-wise, with the humidity at around 70-80%. It gets cooler at night, but it's still rather muggy.
  • Convenience shop owners will give you a candy bar or some gum as change if they can't hunt down a 50 piastre piece.
  • Everything is cheaper here than I ever thought it could possibly be. The other day, I got a 1.5 liter bottle of water, a Black Currant Fanta, and two candy bar-ish things from one of the corner stores for 5 pounds, which is the equivalent of less than one US dollar.
  • Black Currant Fanta is pretty dang tasty.
  • Men in Egypt (the ones who smoke, anyway) smoke constantly. Constantly. Even in a cab with the windows rolled up.
  • A lot of the women in our dorms stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning doing things, and a lot of stores are open that late as well. However, if you go to look for something at 7 or 8 in the morning, a lot of stores won't be open.
  • My dorm is run by a fierce old lady named Hoda, who often refers to herself as Mama Hoda and interrogates anyone coming into the building who she doesn't recognize and frequently asks us if we are getting enough food. The other day, she forced another portion of rice on me.
  • We have a curfew, boys aren't allowed in the dorms, and if you go out at night you have to check back in upon your return so that they don't start wondering if you are dead. There are women sitting downstairs all the time to enforce these rules. It is like having 15 very worried moms.
  • Since Dylan asked me the other day about what we have for breakfast at the dorms, I thought it might interest people: eggs (hardboiled or scrambled), falafel, and either beans or cheese spread with pita bread (which is served with pretty much every meal).
  • Remember in Elf where Will Ferrell is in the bathroom and says to the guy next to him "Have you seen the toilets here? They're ginormous!"? The toilets in Egypt, or at least the ones I have had the privilege of using so far, are pretty much the opposite of this. They are small. Very small.
  • I am going to get an Alexandria University student ID this week, and I am kind of happily, aimlessly excited about this.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cairo, aka my hotel room/getting to Alexandria

[image description: the view from my dorm room in Alexandria. There are several old-looking high-rise buildings and palm trees, as well as a small sports court where we often see kids playing during the day.]

[image description: a sticker on a wooden desk that says "Qiblah Sign", with words written in Arabic that I am too lazy to type out/translate right now, and an arrow pointing forward. It is on the desk in the hotel I stayed in, and tells you which way Mecca is for prayers.]

I landed in Cairo at roughly 2:30 am local time. At this point, I had not slept in nearly two days, so my recollections of things may be a bit foggy. When you first arrive in Cairo, you go to the bank when you first get in to buy a visa (it's $15, and I'm not totally sure they even really looked at my passport), and then through passport control. Again, I'm not convinced that they actually looked at my passport. They just stamped it and sent me on through.

I found the guy from my hotel, who took me to the shuttle. I was too tired to pay much attention, but I remember sitting in the shuttle with the driver going all over the place blaring a cassette of Fairuz and thinking "Oh yeah. I'm in Egypt!" I finally got to the hotel around 3:30 am, and after some difficulties with my reservation ended up in the right room with my friend Kassi.

Before we'd arrived in Egypt, Kassi and I had discussed our arrivals and decided that we would get up early that day and go to Giza or perhaps go into Cairo and visit some museums, which made it a big surprise when we both woke up at 5 pm. Curse you, jetlag, my archnemesis. We thought about going into Cairo for dinner but were both really tired, so we ended up eating falafel and hummus at the hotel, after which we went back to bed and prepared to head up to Alexandria the next day.

We got up and took a cab to the train station at Alexandria, and after we got our tickets we had a bit of time on our hands so we went to the train station's cafe. I ordered a Coke and Kassi ordered a bottle of water, but somehow we also ended up with some pastries. We then went to catch our train, and settled down. We took an express train, so the ride was roughly two and a half hours. We almost didn't get off at the right stop, we had to ask one of the other passengers to make sure, and then someone on the platform to doublecheck. Alex: being paranoid since 1990.

We then took a taxi to the dorms (an aside on the topic of driving in Egypt: it is terrifying, and the lines that divide the lanes are just suggestions), but when we got out we couldn't find them, so we were these two sweaty American tourists with tons of luggage wandering around Alexandria. We eventually got directions and made it to our dorms. The women in charge of the dorms don't speak very much English, and mine and Kassi's Arabic is pretty limited as well, so there was some confusion but we eventually got checked in. I feel that I should note that everyone was very amused that my name was Alexandria. We were able to get ahold of our program director eventually, we went down the street to a mobile phone shop where you can use their phone and then pay them for the amount of time you've used. There are payphones here, but you have to have some kind of phone card to use them (they don't take cash) and a lot of them don't work.

The dorms here are pretty great. I share a room, and there are shared showers and bathroom. We get 3 meals a day here in the cafeteria, and the food is actually really good. It's not like cafeteria food in the US at all, because a) it is actually tasty, b) it's Egyptian food, and c) it is cooked with love by people who know what they are doing. This morning, I went with a few people to Carre Four, which is essentially the Egyptian equivalent of Walmart, because I needed a towel and some toilet paper. It was really not that different from a grocery store in the States.

I will post again later in the week with more about Alexandria!


Tuesday, June 1, 2010


So. My first stopover was in Amsterdam, for 13 hours. I arrived at about 7:30 am, and got through Dutch customs (which is really, really, really easy to get through, at least if you have an American passport) a bit before 8:00 am, at which point I took a train to Amsterdam Central Station.

Let it be known: Amsterdam Central Station is misnamed. It is not really central to anything. It is central to my getting lost, perhaps. I asked a train worker how to get to Museum Square, and between my practically nonexistent Dutch and his not-so-great English, he sent me in a direction that I later figured out was pretty much the opposite of Museum Square. So I wandered around for approximately three hours. Amsterdam is difficult to get one's bearings in, as the streets are all crookedish (that's a word now) and it is impossible to get going in one direction. During this time, three different people asked me for directions in Dutch, which they were then dismayed to find that I do not speak very well at all. At this point you may be wondering "Alex, why did you not just ask someone for directions? Lots of Dutch people speak really awesome English." The answer to this is "I am shy and somewhat stubborn, now shush."

Eventually, I found a public transit map and figured out that I could take a tram to museum square, so I got on the tram and attempted to ask for a ticket in Dutch (I feel bad for the lady who sells tickets on the tram, she must get so tired of tourists coming in and asking for een kaart and throwing Euros at her). It worked, and I eventually made it to Museum Square. At this point I was extremely hungry, so I bought a sandwich and an exotic Dutch diet coke (in Dutch! I have Mad Dutch Skills) and consumed them rapidly. And then I had a waffle. With ice cream. It was magically delicious.

I was originally planning on going to the Rijksmuseum, but it was being remodeled and thus was half-closed down, so I went to the Van Gogh museum instead. I could write about how cool it was all day, but that would get a bit boring, so take my word when I say that the Van Gogh museum was awesome, and totally worth going to. At this point, I decided that I had had enough adventure for one day and went back to the airport. Amsterdam seems really lovely, and I would love to go back sometime when I have another person with me and speak more Dutch. Everyone rides bicycles (without helmets! Safety first, kids!) and looks hipster-y and seems rather pleasant. I was going to try to put some pictures in this post, but that doesn't seem to be working right now. Perhaps later.

My flight from Amsterdam to Cairo was on KLM/Royal Dutch, which is the best airline in the entire history of the world. (Note: your mileage may vary in how much you love KLM). I had so much leg room. The last time I said this about an airline was when I was 5 years old. They also fed me pasta and some kind of cream puff dessert, and their flight attendants are cheerful and tolerated my horrible Dutch-speaking.

Post tomorrow will be on Cairo, aka my hotel room.