Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's the little things...

  It’s the little things that let you know you aren’t in Kansas anymore. Some of our favorites:

            Though Arabic reads from right to left, Egyptian numerals read from left to right. Go know.
Lada black taxi
White taxi in traffic
This is where Ladas come to die. Every third taxi seems to be a Lada, particularly the black taxis. Taxis are divided into white taxis with meters, and black taxis, with no meters. You negotiate the fare before stepping in; around Maadi, you can go pretty much anywhere for about LE5 (84 cents). There is not a car in Cairo without scratches and dents, either.

When you walk on the street, nearly every car going by honks. Sometimes it’s a car giving you a heads-up that they are coming, but mostly it’s a taxi driver, honking to suggest “why walk when you can ride?” The result is pretty much constant honking, since drivers also honk at other cars. A lot.

When I walk to the bus stop at 7AM, the streets are muddy because everyone washes their cars in the morning. Every day.

LE stands for “livres Egyptiennes,” a holdover from the brief French occupation of the country, 1798-1801. Napoleon also managed to loot a lot of obelisks then.

Classes at the gym like Zumba are pretty much a 50-50 mix of women wearing the hijab and fully covered in skin-tight clothing, and westerners wearing their usual gym garb. The girls in hijab out-dance the westerners, particularly in hip-hop and salsa. Humbling.
Not only do we take off our shoes when entering our flat (or anyone’s home) but we actually wash our shoes every day. They are filthy, and sometimes need to be scrubbed with an old toothbrush. 

A street in Giza
Garbage abounds on the streets, and weirdly, you get used to it.

I’m called Doctor Mary by most of my students and the staff; those staff I’ve asked to call me by my first name have trouble with it. In shops, I am Madame, and with people who work with and for us, I am Madame Mary. Harris is Mr. Harris (and Doctor Harris on campus). No exceptions. “Mel” only computes after a lot of contact.

Since the revolution, the police are less respected, and thus petty crime now exists. Ladies, wear your handbag on the sidewalk side and across your body, and use the sidewalks where you can. It’s second nature to me now. There are stories of folks whose bags have been snatched by passing cars or motorcycles.
Though we bathe and wash dishes with tap water, it’s heavily chlorinated Nile water, so we make filtered water for drinking, cooking, and brushing our teeth using a Katadyn camper’s pump. Works great and saves a bunch of money.

Mind the gap

Building wall between floors
The elevator in our building, like all but the fancy buildings, has a door you open yourself, is about big enough for 2 or 3, and as it ascends, you see the concrete of the building’s structure. You can see through the slit between its door and the landing as well and see the ground. And like most countries, the first story is the ground floor, the second the first floor, etc.. Therefore, we live on floor two, the third story.
You can buy wine, beer, and spirits if you are not Muslim and it is made in Egypt. There are some decent wines and excellent beers available, but we hear that the spirits are not only awful but dangerous. If you have imported spirits in your house, it signifies how widely you travel. Hint to visitors: you can buy 4 liters of imported spirits at the airport, and Harris loves scotch and Bacardi 8-year old rum!
Egyptians say “I’ll see you tomorrow, insha’allah,” never just “I’ll see you tomorrow.” In emails, it’s abbreviated ISA. If they say something will be ready “bukra” (tomorrow), it really means it will be ready when it’s ready and they will call you.
Our kitchen fruit bowl
Egyptian limes are tiny round balls, sometimes green fading to yellow, and bursting with flavor—sweeter than western limes and great with everything.

Since we have a washer but no dryer, we hang our clothes on lines strung up off the back balcony. You can only wear clothes once since they get dirty quickly, and we have to wash the clotheslines themselves every week to keep the Cairo grit off them. Yet we don't mind this. Laundry is oddly soothing.

This theory is that of the dean of Humanities at AUC: everyone in Egypt is assigned one fly to pester them.
Paper is not 8.5 by 11 inches. As John Travolta’s character in “Pulp Fiction” noted, the rest of the world is on the metric system. Paper here is slightly narrower and longer.
Everything can be delivered. Office supplies, restaurant food, drugstore stuff, grocery stores, wine and beer—and that’s just what we know about thus far. Tip the delivery guy LE5.
All American TV is available the day after it’s broadcast on You want 190 episodes of “NCIS”? HBO? 

Tomorrow we go to a resort called Stella de Mare in Ain Soukna, an hour east of Cairo at the tip of the Red Sea; my department has organized an overnight retreat, so we will mix business with pleasure. This brings all our best to you.


  1. Hi guys!,

    84 cents seems a lot given the average income of the country. I think you might be paying a non-Egyptian surcharge.


    Guess who ?

  2. Hi Mel,

    I have not been to your blog in awhile, and I am amazed at how quickly you have adjusted and how much you have already explored. Mel, you should consider an alternative career for Fodor's. Your blog is fascinating, and I love your prose style.

    ISA (is that right?),