Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spring Break - Bucharest

I arrived in Bucharest in the evening. The train station was sketchy to begin with, but I was further stressed out because Drew was unable to withdraw money from the ATMs and his American Express card was virtually useless abroad. Then I freaked out a little bit. When I was buying tickets for our next leg of the journey, a man stood right next to me instead of waiting a couple of feet behind me in line. I felt very uncomfortable, so I asked him for some space. He said okay and backed up, but he inched up beside me again. I motioned for some more room, and he didn't budge enough so I barked, "Drew," (and yes, bark is definitely the most accurate word). I can laugh about it now because Drew was only a few yards away at the ATM, but he was out of sight, and I was nervous about handling money, tickets, and luggage in the presence of that creepy guy. On the bright side, a couple of women at the train station were particularly nice and helpful.

I stayed at East Hostel. http://www.easthostel.com/ It was a very nice place, but I'm glad that I was only there for one night. Perhaps the cold, rainy weather affected my impression of Bucharest, but there wasn't a whole lot to see there. The following day, I walked along Calea Victoriei and the Dambovita and took a tour of the Parliament Palace. The Parliament Palace was huge! In fact, it's the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. I had wanted to see the Village Museum, but the weather put a wrench in those plans. By the end of day, I was damp and cold, so we took refuge at the McDonald's in the train station. No--I didn't buy anything, but I owe McDonald's for being a warm sanctuary in my time of need.

In comparison to Cairo, Bucharest was cleaner, prettier, and better-organized. People actually hosed down walls and sidewalks to get the dirt off. There were hundreds of stray dogs instead of cats, and there were plenty of trashcans too. There were also crosswalks and drivers stopped to let us cross the street. What a luxury! My favorite thing about Bucharest was the instant Nescafe machines. For just 1 Romanian lei, or $0.25, I bought a small cup of hot chocolate. Since it was a dreary day outside, I was really, really excited about them.

Spring Break - Day 1

On Friday morning I caught a cab to the airport with Drew, Phil, and Sheehan. Because it was so early and we took a metered cab, it only cost 35 pounds, which is a great deal! I was really happy that the cab ride went smoothly because I heard a story about a group of study abroad students who tried taking a taxi to the airport and missed their flight because the taxi driver didn't know how to get to the airport. Never trust a taxi driver in Egypt when he tells you that he knows how to get somewhere. The same goes for asking random people for directions--they'll completely make up directions rather than tell you that they don't know. It's a cultural difference.

Anyway, I had read that Egypt Air was mediocre at best, a nightmare at worst; however, I was pleasantly surprised. It was clearly a new plane, and the service was wonderful. We even got breakfast on the 2-hour flight from Cairo to Istanbul. Also, seeing the snow-capped mountains in Turkey through the window was amazing!

Getting from Ataturk Airport to Sirkeci Station was a breeze, and fortunately it had lockers so that we could store our luggage for the day. Like Cairo, there are juice bars, lots of stray cats, people delivering tea, and large legs of meat on rotisseries in Istanbul. However, the cats are well-fed, the tea comes in different kinds of glasses, and the meat is used to make doner instead of shawerma. I also noticed that there were fewer pharmacies in Istanbul and the waiters outside restaurants were much pushier than the ones in Cairo. From the afternoon until the evening, I walked through the Grand Bazaar twice, along the coast of the Sea of Marmara, and past the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Tokapi Palace.

That night I took a train, the Bosphorus Express, to Bucharest, Romania. I shared a 2nd class double sleeping compartment with Drew. It was in pretty poor condition. The bathrooms at the end of the car were disgusting, and the water was eventually cut off. I found a toenail in my bunk's sheets--enough said. As a side note, I vividly remember being unable to get out of the compartment, so I started banging on the door and shouting, "We can't open the door!" It turns out that we just had to turn the lock in the other direction. Anyway, the ride lasted almost 24 hours due to delays. On the bright side, the conductor was very kind and helpful, and he spoke English. The views of the Bulgarian countryside were breath-taking, and I felt somewhat guilty for not stopping there.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Introducing Baraka

Baraka, which means blessing in Arabic, my favorite place for fast food. It's a five minute walk from the dorm, and for 11 pounds, or $2, I can get a large shawerma. Shawerma is shaved meat cooked on a rotisserie served in laffa (taboon) bread or in a sub with tomatoes, pickles, parsley, tahini, and zhug, a spicy red sauce. I hate tomatoes with a passion, but I've learned to tolerate them if they're chopped finely.

There are two shawerma cooks: an old man and a young man. The old man makes small talk and he has stressed several times that he likes Obama. I like the young man better because he's friendly, but he doesn't try to chat with me. He knows that I like my shawerma spicy. The cooks always have bandages on their fingers. Every time that I eat at Baraka, I am acutely aware that a.) they don't wash their hands and b.) there aren't health codes regulating food preparation. Apparently it takes more than that to scare me away from food.

Telephone: 02 7368737

Baraka, 9 El Brazil Street, Zamalek

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


My trip to Alexandria went off without a hitch--almost. The night before we were due to leave we ate at Arabica, and in the morning, Drew discovered that he had left his bag there. His bag had a copy of his passport and his train ticket, and without a copy of his passport, he wouldn't have been able to stay at a hotel. I ended up taking the train in with just Mazin. Safa' met me at the train station and brought me back to her home. I felt nervous at first because the apartment buildings looked somewhat shabby from the outside, but the apartment was beautiful. I was so grateful that she offered me food right away because I was hungry. I met her husband and my professor's old friend, Paul (or Abdul Karim), and their young sons, Malek and Abed. Everyone was nice! It was sunny, high 70s, and breezy, so we went to Mamoura Beach. The boys rented and rode bikes while I walked with Safa' and Abdul Karim prayed. The gates to the beaches were closed because it's winter, so we hopped over a little gate and I dipped my toes in the Mediterranean! I collected some seashells too!

Afterwards we went back to their apartment and ate dinner. It was delicious! She made grape leaves stuffed with rice, artichokes stuffed with hamburger in a red sauce, khofta, pickled turnips, and rice. For dessert, I had strawberries with cinnamon. Later on that night I read parts of Matilda to Malek and went for a walk on the bridge. Abdul Karim said that when lower class Egyptians in the city married, they took photos there, and sure enough, we saw four newlywed couples.

In the morning I saw the Tombs of Mustafa Kamil. There are ruins from hundreds of years ago right around the corner from their apartment. The complex was built on top of an old Roman cemetary. Next Abdul Karim and I took a minibus to Issa, a bakery, and he bought me fateera for breakfast. It's a flexible, flaky crust with butter and sugar beaten into it. It was incredible! Then we went to a book fair and several really nice exhibits in the conference center across from the library. We took a tram to the train station, and then I came back to Cairo.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mission Accomplished

This weekend I returned to Alexandria because an old friend of Professor Pontbriand, one of my history professors at UMass Dartmouth, lives there with his family, and he kindly invited me to stay with them.

My adventure actually began on Wednesday afternoon. I took the four o'clock bus back to Zamalek, and Drew and I tried to take a taxi to Ramses Station in order to buy tickets for Friday. (Drew and his roommate, Mazin, also planned to go to Alexandria.) The taxi driver must have misheard Drew because he took us to the Ramses-Hilton Hotel instead of Mahata Ramses, or Ramses Station. The taxi driver told us that the station was wara, or behind us, so we started walking in that direction.

Since guys are terrible about asking for directions, I had to cajole Drew into asking a guard or two where the station was. When I saw the 6th of October Bridge, I realized that they had sent us in the exact opposite direction. At this point I was more or less drowning in my stress and I felt my blood boiling. I hated Egypt with every fiber of my being. Egypt was the bane of my existence. Getting train tickets should not have been this complicated. We didn't take another taxi because I was afraid that the next taxi would take us to the hotel too. We ended up walking back over the Nile to Zamalek, my temporary home.

That "adventure" wasted two hours. Stress was still eating me alive, and I knew that it wouldn't go away until I had my train ticket, so I asked the receptionist to write down my destination, and I tried again. Keep in mind that it's dark out, the city is one big traffic jam, I'm alone, there is no effective 911, and I can't communicate with the taxi driver. The driver tried to get there by weaving in and out of narrow, sketchy side streets, and I had no idea where I was. I think that he wanted me to get out of the taxi and walk the next street over to the station, but I wasn't getting out of the taxi until I saw the train station with my own eyes.

Honestly, I was so nervous that I felt my pulse in my throat. Just as I decided to call my Arabic professor for help, I saw the train station, and I was flooded with relief. I got out of the taxi, walked into the station, and asked the guards at tourist information for help. Sure, they pointed me in the right direction, but actually purchasing a ticket turned out to be extremely difficult.

Before I came to Egypt, I learned that Egyptians don't form lines. I hadn't experienced that until I tried to buy a ticket. I waited behind some women that were getting their tickets, and people kept cutting in front of me. It was frustrating, but I was still working up the courage to approach the counter. Fortunately, an Egyptian guy who must have been watching and laughing helped me out. I was wary when he offered to help, but five minutes later, I had three tickets to Alexandria. Then the same guy approached me again and asked if I would like to be his friend. I felt incredibly awkward. Thankfully, my "just say no" training kicked in, so I was able to get out an "I'm sorry--no."

I typed "I made it back to Zamalek without any incidents," but this isn't entirely true. As I exited the station, men were pestering me left and right to take their taxi. Of course they were all trying to rip me off. Finally one man said he would take me back for 15 pounds, which is 5-10 pounds (or $2-3) too much, but at that point I didn't care. He started to climb into a car, and my immediate reaction was "Da mish taxi," or "That's not a taxi." It was just some random car. I more or less power walked away from him, found a black and white taxi that had just dropped off some people, asked the driver if he would take me to Zamalek, and hopped in. The taxi ride home was uneventful, Alhamdulillah, praise be to God.

Thinking about my adventure on Wednesday makes me feel jittery, but the reality is that I did it. Mission accomplished. +10 Self Confidence.