Friday, June 16, 2006

Cairo, at last

Everyone slept in this morning. I woke up at 7 AM, wrote a bit, and then went back to sleep. Nobody else stirred before 10:30. We knew it would be expensive, but we decided to eat at the hotel anyway since it was the only place nearby. I was pleasantly surprised, looking at the menu, to see that nothing was much more than 4 Euros. It was a bit trickier to order, though; they told us (at this 24 hour a day restaurant) that they wouldn’t be ready for us for another half hour. So we took Isaac outside to play on their playground. The pool looked mighty inviting, but we were treating today as our Sabbath, so we stuck to the playground. It had really fast slides. One of them seemed to always deposit Isaac, giggling, on his bottom. There was a nice chair sitting under a banana tree, so the kids and I took turns sitting there. When we went back to the restaurant, we all had omelets in honor of Dad’s first breakfast in Sudan—six hard-boiled eggs.

Our new hotel sent a driver over with a tiny little Fiat. When he saw all of us and all of our luggage—six suitcases, a portable crib, an electric bass, a cello, two violins, two backpacks, a briefcase, and a baby backpack—he started shaking his head. He shook his head the whole time he was loading it in a teetering pile on his roof, stuffing it into his tiny trunk, and piling it up on our laps in the car. But he managed to get all of us and all of it in!

I haven’t known how much to tip people here. The taxi driver was especially problematic because the hotel provided him so I didn’t know how much the fare was. Sam and I debated under our breaths, all through the unloading of the luggage, how much to tip him. We eventually settled on 50 Egyptian pounds, or about 9 US dollars, figuring it was less than a dollar per bag. Later, the proprietor told me I could hire this same driver to drive us for 6 hours for 200 Egyptian pounds, so I think I way, way over-tipped him. Oh, well. As Sam reminded me, he probably needs it more than we do.

It felt very exotic to drive through Cairo to our new hotel. Some things we saw: many mosques, a huge mural of Hosni Mubarak beaming at us, women carrying plastic garbage bags stuffed with stuff (soda cans, lengths of folded fabric) atop their heads without holding onto them, a bride in a Western style white wedding dress, an open market crowded with people, concrete houses. It was hot and noisy (car horns).

Our hotel is in the downtown. We’re across the street from a shopping mall (which we walked through; it has five eating establishments in the basement—KFC was the only chain), }””}}}’[]\’’[]}”+{“> }””}}} (Ellie’s contribution to my post), one women’s clothing store, and seven stories of men’s clothing stores! The street in front of us is busy, busy and noisy, noisy. People cross it a lane at a time, especially difficult because the lane markings here appear to be merely suggestions. When we crossed it, we couldn’t even start across until a kind motorist pitied us and waved us across.

Our hotel is on the fifth floor. There is an elevator, though you have to go up half a flight of stairs to reach the elevator. Hmmm. We’re in a room with five single beds (Eleanor sleeps with me and Isaac’s in the portable crib—or he’s supposed to be, he’s sleeping with Ruth tonight) and a private bath. It has cavernously high ceilings, 15 or 20 feet high, and a balcony overlooking the aforementioned street (to Isaac’s delight—all the cars to watch!).

The room has an air conditioner, but for the first hour we were here, we couldn’t get it to work. I was starting to worry that we were going to have to pack our bags and go somewhere else; Eleanor and Isaac were turning red and by the end of the hour they were both screaming pretty much non-stop. Then the desk clerk (the third guy to come look at it) came and pushed buttons and poked at it and prodded it, and it has been working ever since. Air-conditioned, the room is very pleasant. I am spoiled by modern conveniences!

The hotel has a “Bedouin corner” in the lobby, an arrangement of cushions and low stools around a metal tray table like they made in Sarajevo (also a couple of hookah pipes, though for obvious reasons we ignored those). Sitting on those stools that are just his size, Isaac feels like he has died and gone to heaven.

We got the air conditioning fixed, planned church services for later, did our email, and decided to venture into the outdoors. The only maps I have are the two Lonely Planet guidebook maps, sketchy at best, especially given my challenges with navigation. Luckily, I have children who are very good at knowing where they are and how to go somewhere else. Sam led us to a restaurant just a couple of blocks away, recommended in our guidebook as a great place to get kushari. We didn’t know what kushari was and the place was intimidating—people (obviously not tourists) bustling in and out—but we had to eat dinner somewhere, so we went in.

It was confusing at first, since we can say about ten words in Arabic and nobody who worked there could say more than about fifty in English, but we eventually understood that we were to go upstairs and sit down. The tables and chairs were utilitarian and full of people, women in veils, men dressed as if they were coming from a long day’s work, families with little children. People would sit down and after a few minutes be served a bowl of food which they would inhale, and then they would leave—Egyptian fast food. The restaurant makes only one thing—kushari—so all you have to order is small, medium, or large. Eventually, thanks to the great patience of the restaurant staff, we ordered small bowls, as well as Fanta so we’d be sure to have something we’d like. No need to have worried. The kushari was wonderful. It’s a very odd dish—rice and broken spaghetti and macaroni noodles and lentils and garbanzo beans, topped with a couple of tablespoons of a tomatoey sauce and a few French-fried onions. It’s not soupy at all but it must be cooked in broth or something because it was wonderfully flavourful. We all liked it and I adored it. Each of the Fantas cost about 45 US cents, and each of the bowls of kushari cost about 30 US cents. So I guess the hotel restaurant was really, really expensive.

Hanging out with Isaac here is kind of like tagging along after a movie star. The waiters at the restaurant came over to pat his head and stroke his hair and rub his cheeks. There are lots of street vendors in front of our hotel (ties, socks, T-shirts, food items), and they all love our babies. A young twenty-something street vendor rushed away from his cart, put one hand on each of Isaac’s cheeks, and kissed him. Another man held out his hand for Isaac to shake and asked him in broken English if he wouldn’t please be his little boy. The kids waited outside while I was in a bakery, and Isaac was apparently kissed repeatedly, almost always by men (men’s admiration of our babies is something we had noticed in Europe as well; maybe it’s only American men who tend not to go gaga over babies). Eleanor gets her share of attention, too. As we walked down the street, we were at first discomfited by the number of people making hissing noises at us. Then we realized that they were making hissing noises at Eleanor, trying to get her to look at them so they could smile or coo at her. The hotel desk clerk here asked my permission to take her photograph (and she even smiled for him!).

Ruth did wardrobe research and analysis while we were walking around. Almost all the women wear veils—probably 80-90 percent. Of those who are not wearing veils, though, there is a wide variety of clothing. Never any skirts shorter than the knee, some sleeveless dresses. Ruth and Lucy and I feel comfortable in our longish skirts and blouses. Ruth noticed that teenage and twenty-something women (unmarried women perhaps?) wear a slightly different veil—tight around the face and then tight against a knot of hair at the nape of the neck—kind of a turban look but whereas the silhouette of a turban would have the fullness at the top of the head, here the fullness is where the hair must be bunched up at the back of the neck. These veils reveal just the lobe of the ear, so you can see earrings (an item of great interest to us as the three of us have decided that we are on the hunt for earrings). Older women wear veils that completely cover their ears. Women in veils wear either tennis shoes or strappy sandals.

When we got back to the hotel after our satisfyingly successful venture into the neighbourhood, we held a family church service in our room. Lucy had us sing “Lead Kindly Light” and talked about doing what we need to do to accomplish God’s will in a new country. Sam and Ed prepared and gave us the sacrament (we decided we’re not in our branch because we’ve started our Sudan adventure so it was appropriate to do the sacrament as approved by the area president). Ruth and Sam taught a great nursery lesson to us on the theme, “Heavenly Father loves us so He gives us loving parents.” They used baby Jesus as the exemplar, and we acted out Mary and Joseph taking him to Egypt (!) to keep him safe. At the end of the lesson, Ruth asked Isaac, “Do you have parents who love and take care of you?”
He nodded solemnly. “Yes. Luz and Ed and Ruth…”
Ed did nursery music, and then we had snack (cookies from the bakery we had stopped at).
While the big kids and I had a Sunday School lesson about King David, Isaac and Nora played around. Isaac has discovered scissors. He loves to cut papers up until they are “lacy.” He made one of Ed’s scratch pages lacy and then dropped the scissors. None of us noticed that Eleanor had picked them up until I saw her, the scraps of Isaac’s lacy paper in her lap, trying hard to cut the paper and managing to do not only that but to also cut two holes in her sweet little eyelet lace dress. Those scissors are going way up high.about a fifteen minute walk, apparently.

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