I’ll have a Viagra sandwich with Doom, please.

26 November, 2009

Warning: this is a lengthy entry. Grab a cup of coffee before you start this one. Maybe two. I wrote this part on the bus back to Alex, and the rest of it upon our return.

I’m writing this on a tour bus with Set and Britte. We’re embarking on an overnight trek back to Alex after a stopover in Cairo, then what promises to be a delerious, sleep-deprived cab ride back to El Agamy.

We’ve spent Wednesday to Saturday evening here in the city of Hurghada, along with Britte’s roommate Amanda, our friend Andrea, and our two Egyptian friends Mohammed and Wael (who I affectionately dubbed the Vodamen after their workplace, Vodafone.)

Our departure was eventful from the start. After hearing warnings of stone-faced Egyptian cops storming Andrea’s bus and unceremoniously evicting several without the proper paperwork, Britte was horrified to discover she had packed everything BUT her passport. As I wasn’t teaching that night, I was rushed back to Agamy, searched the room for her passport, then had a hurried cab ride back to Alex (during which the cab driver and I shared a laugh over someone who strapped big screen TV to the roof of a cab) so we could make our other cab ride to the bus station.

All urgency was gone after we discovered we were nearly two hours early for our midnight departure, so we sat there shivering in a dewy mist that coated our bags as we ate carrots and apple slices. Two small boys chased each other around with bb guns- the same ones we’ve been using for target practice in our nightly “blowing off steam” sessions.)

If you’re looking for a description of the untrammeled beauty of the area between Cairo and Hurghada, you should probably just hit up Google Earth. I was asleep 20 minutes after departure, and didn’t awake until we pulled into Hurghada at 10am the next morning.

Thanks to our dear friend Rose, we had arranged to stay Wednesday to Saturday at a villa she’d stayed at before- at the low cost of 10 euros a night. We were greeted with fresh, clean sheets, marble floors, a big old smelly dog named Hans who seemed like the mirror image of my dearly beloved Bacchus (except Hans was a black and brown hound mutt) and the #1 selling point: NATURAL LIGHT. Our apartments in El Agamy enjoy a bunker-like construction that Dick Cheney would feel right at home in, but unfortunately wreak havoc on our sleep schedule. In my apartment, it’s extremely difficult to tell whether it’s 3pm or 3am, so imagine our delight when we actually had to draw the curtains before taking a nap.

We awoke four hours later, and were introduced to the other guests. Darren, the owner’s son, lived in one room and generally kept things running smoothly while running dive trips during the day. The other guest, Shawn, hailed from Madison, Wisconsin (a shout out to any Larkins who may be reading this) and has the proud distinction of being the one person in all of Wisconsin to run his house on geothermal energy. He was only in Hurghada for some R&R before heading out on some business in a few days. The owner, Nadia, was an extremely friendly Egyptian woman who had spent the past 30 years living in London working for Emirates Air before deciding to return with her husband and son to open the villa.

We decided to explore Hurghada a bit before meeting up with our other friends later in the evening. We took a mashrouga (one of the innumerable small vans, usually ancient Daihatsus that exist as a semi-official public transportation system) to the downtown area.

As we drove, we noticed the skeletal frames of large resorts and apartments springing up like saplings. Unlike most other countries, Egypt’s housing market is booming. In Hurghada, this is especially driven by the large numbers of Russian and Eastern European tourists who descend upon the town in swarms during holidays. I saw many signs written in both Arabic and Cyrillic, and would discover over the weekend that many of the locals are bilingual in both Arabic and Russian.

Eventually, we found ourselves eating at Mina’s, a seafood restaurant. I saw a “Viagra Sandwich” offered as a special, and was too terrified by the idea to inquire if it was an error in translation or something more… exotic. Either way, we ended up ordering a delicious meal of grilled fish, calimari and salad for quote cheap. We tried to order “doom” (an Egyptian juice made from dates) on part because of its cool name, and also due to its reputed deliciousness, but it was out of season. We had to make do with lemon juice and mint- it kind of tasted like a virgin mojito.

We took a cab to the Marina area to meet up with our friends. We’ve experienced our fair degree of culture shock episodes here- a few weeks ago, we found ourselves hanging out with a large Chinese family in a small apartment as they chain-smoked and played mah-Jong. But there was little that could prepare me for the Marina. Fancy shops and familiar European brands bordered an immaculately kept waterfront with no hint of anything we’ve grown accustomed to: no piles of rubble, no throngs of cats, nothing. It felt as though as we’d traveled to the Las Vegas Strip or the nightclubs underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Britte really wanted to go to Ministry of Sound ( a worldwide chain of dance clubs), and the culture shock became more apparent: there were no Egyptians on the dance floor and the only ones we could see were the ones bartending or guarding the bathrooms. Even the security seemed imported: Russian guards with bulging muscles and shaved heads stood stone-faced as European tourists (many of whom who committed the mortal sin of wearing sunglasses at night) danced to pulsing drum beats.

This was a microcosm of what bothers me about tourist towns. The locals seem to be relegated to mostly behind the scenes role, serving as the backdrop in front of which people play-act at adventure or immersion. I saw tourists haggle away over cheap goods and come away thinking they’d bested the natives at some sort of great game, when in reality they’d re-enacted a drama that has existed since the first guy who stepped off a boat with more money in his wallet than the average local makes in a month and decides he wants something exotic. It’s a double edged sword, though: this system allow for a higher degree of prosperity for the locals than a menial job in Cairo would, but at the same time, I can’t imagine how it must feel to be playing a supporting role in your own country. By the very nature of our presence in Hurghada, we were guilty of the same thing, I freely admit. It’s just not something I feel entirely comfortable with.

The next day began early. We arrived at a desert resort for a day of ATV, dune-buggy and camel riding. To say the least, it was a blast. We ripped across the desert at Mach V, feeling the skin in our arms vibrate off as we tore through bumpy desert and wadis. The dune-buggies were awesome: flying across the plains with a keffiyeh wrapped around my face felt like something out of Mad Max. Set is also an excellent driver, her skills honed from learning to drive in New Jersey. Andrea, despite her best efforts, failed to kill us, but made us hoot and laugh in the process.

Afterward, we boarded some jeeps for a 10km, extremely bumpy ride out to a rural village. Due to the jolting of the jeep, the ride turned into a fun game of “whose lap am I sitting in, and whose lap will I be sitting in next?” as we jostled over ruts and rocks. We eventually arrived at a small zoo with authentic animals supposedly captured from the desert. Set fell in love with a small hedgehog, while I spent most of my time trying to convince a horned viper to look threatening for my camera. (It wasn’t hard.)

After leaving the zoo, we arrived at a small village at the foot of a large set of mountains. This village consisted of a single camel tied by hoof to a post, some buildings, a rustic mosque, and a pen in which livestock were kept. I have no idea of telling whether or not we were at an authentic Bedouin village or if we were simply at a recreation erected for our benefit, but as I stood at the foot of these gigantic mountains, scarf wrapped around my face to keep the dust out of my mouth, I felt as though I was someone like Lawrence of Arabia in Iraq or some British colonial officer standing amidst the villages of the Hindu Kush, waiting to meet some tribal leader and wondering what the hell came next.

After our barfy and bumpy ride back to camp, we were entreated to lunch, which consisted of salad, pasta, kofta (minced beef), and bread. It was delicious, and we engorged ourselves on it. By now, the sun was starting to set, so we opted for another dune buggy run. Mohammed and Wael rode ATVs as Set, Andrea, Amanda and myself took out the buggies. It may sound cliche, but there are few things cooler than whipping across the flat earth, the sky red and orange from a dipping sun, watching as your dust dissipates across the desert.

After this, we went on two extremely brief rides of an ungulate variety: camels and horses. The camel ride consisted of us walking about 200m, then back. Not eager to repeat the mistake I made in Cairo, I leaned WAAAAAAAY back and thus saved my, ahem, nether regions from an aching sensation for the rest of the day. Amanda was nearly thrown from her camel after her recalcitrant beast hesitated, then decided that perhaps it should lay down after all. Camel riding: serious business.  Our horseback ride was all of 45 seconds long, and was entirely uneventful.

After this, there was a show. The first act consisted of a bellydancer who tragically demonstrated why most pros retire sometime before their third kid, and I’ll just leave it at that. The next act consisted of a whirling dervish-  part of a pan-Islamic sect known as the Sufis, the semazen (those who actually perform the dance- dervish is the term used to describe anyone who adheres to Sufism) twirled about for about 20 minutes, tossing elaborating colored cloaks into the air, all the while maintaining perfect balance and composure. My family and friends know that I can barely manage walking up the stairs without tripping, so I found this feat to be nothing short of amazing.

After the semazen, we were treated to a portly gentleman who a. lied on a bed of nails b. had a Russian woman (complete with sunglasses at night) stand on top of him whilst he lay on a bed of nails c. rolled his face in broken glass d. invited close to 15 people (Set and Andrea amongst them) to sit on top of him, all while suffering no ill effects or even a cut. Either this guy was truly able to put mind over matter, or he had confidence in a universal health care plan that America could only dream of. Either way, it was extremely impressive.

Next came a snake charmer. He drew one cobra from a box, and proceeded to get in its face. (Literally.) He moved from side to side, dodging its strikes (although I’m pretty sure he got bit a few times, judging from the winces and sudden jolts.) Obviously, the one snake and the two others he drew from the box were de-venomized, but the entire show was impressive and interesting to watch.

The day ended with a sleepy van ride back to our villa,  and passing out with a stiff wind blowing our curtains in.

The next day started with my alarm going off at 7am and Set and I bellowing “I HATE WAKING UP” in a unique, sleepy tone of voice.  The day before, we had arranged a snorkeling trip with Amanda, Andrea, Mohammed and Wael, and had to promptly report to their hotel at 8am.  A frantic cab ride ensued, and before we really had time to wake up, we found ourselves on a large yacht filled with Russians. One woman wore a particularly interesting shirt that appeared to be filled with American pop culture references circa 1999- with “WHO FARTED?” and “JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY” featured most prominently. The bizarre juxtaposition led to a lot of snickering and giggling. Britte, ever the unwilling diplomat, found herself surrounded by Russian women singing folk songs at her. She responded with her own songs: apparently Russians aren’t fluent in Lady Gaga, but they’re quite conversant in the Beatles.

We had three tour guides: two Arab men, and one Estonian woman. I initially thought that the two locals were tasked with crewing the boat and maintaining safety, but I ended up being deeply wrong. The Estonian woman could speak English fluently, and you can imagine my surprise when I heard the Arab guides give instructions in Arabic, then switch over to catechism perfect Russian. One lesson that I’ve learned over here applies equally well to tour guides as it does job interviews, personal security and shopping- never make assumptions, and if you do, prepare to have them shattered.

Our first dive site was walk-in snorkeling off a beach, and was admittedly rather unimpressive. Perhaps I’m jaded from snorkeling off Southern California and getting SCUBA certified in the British West Indies, but I saw more varieties of discarded garbage adrift near bleached coral than I did actual fish. We crawled back aboard our boat, shivering, and ended up at another dive site. Mohammed and Wael jumped overboard first.

“See anything cool?” I yelled.

“Nah, not much.” Mohammed shouted back. I threw on my mask and fins, lept overboard, and landed straight in an episode of Blue Planet.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of colorful fish swarmed underneath us. I saw clownfish, some groupers, and other assorted tropical creatures. Underneath all of them, two gigantic eels swam about, investigating the divers from afar. All I needed was David Attenborough whispering awesome facts into my ears, and I would have been in sea-nerd Heaven. Set, not exactly accustomed to snorkeling (aside from when my good friend Mike and I dragged her into the frigid waters of Crystal Cove in the middle of December), found herself enthralled by all the beauty and diversity present at the reef. It truly was magical- there’s something about watching the refracting rays of the sunlight play off coral heads as fish nestle in the rocks that make one realize that there’s a wholly different world than the one we find ourselves entrapped in, far from the commuting, the anxiety over finding a job you lost or one you have yet to find, and the ever-looming question of “what now?” When all you can hear is the churning of a boat propeller far off and your lungs expelling your breath from your snorkel at an even, rhythmic pace, things seem to take on a different kind of context.

We visited one more dive site that day, and were greeted with much of the same. We saw another eel, and watched as swarms of fish swam to meet the grains of rice thrown overboard by other tourists after lunch. We crawled back aboard, lay out in the sun, and began our hour-long trek into port.

Despite our awesome adventures this weekend, Set and I did possess a single, critical mission. In early October, Rose put us in touch with a property development/management group in Hurghada that was apparently looking for English instructors, and having a hard time of it. We sent in resumes, attempted a Skype conference (that ended when our internet crashed), tried a phone call, and received repeated e-mails rife with misspellings of words like “office” as “ofis” and the like. Still, we held out hope- we already knew Hurghada to be a beautiful town from our friend’s descriptions, and figured that the real estate boom would lead to higher wages, and at the very least, an employer who respected our intellect and skills.

Thus, you can imagine the dismay we felt at around 6:00pm on Saturday night. We had just spent a half-hour in the office of the property management company, participating in what was 90% shareholder’s meeting/sales pitch and about 10% job interview. Throughout the previous six weeks, we had received conflicting information: We’re setting up a language center, we need teachers. We’re launching the center on 10 December. Come in for an interview and we’ll discuss where you fit in.

We ended up seated across from a Latvian woman who barely spoke English, who waxed philosophical about her grand designs for an English program that I’d honestly give about .02% of actually happening.

“We are planning a business English program! How would you go about setting one up?” She asked.

I explained how I’d go about it.

“We are also going to do something based on the Egyptian model of education! What can you do about that?”

She then dropped this line of conversation, and instead asked us to design a six-week curriculum for business English and elementary English teaching so she could shop it out her partners to see what they think, and “sell” it to local schools. She then promptly told us that she couldn’t bring us on at full time, or even part time. So, basically, she had asked us to create an entire curriculum, something that real teachers with years of experience and Ph.D’s get paid thousands of dollars to do, for free, and as a pretext for maybe perhaps some future employment somewhere down the line.

We kept it cordial as we departed.  On our walk to meet up with Britte, all we could do was laugh. We figured this was most likely a failed endeavor in early November, but it’s not in Set or I’s nature to give up until we’ve exhausted every avenue. We gave it our best shot, and we’ll take our pride in that.

After we paid our final goodbyes to our beloved Rose and the wonderful dog Hans, we left for the bus station. Nadia drove us there, and told us about Dubai’s financial collapse over the weekend. (Note: for those of you who haven’t read Johan Hari’s brilliant “The Dark Side of Dubai” now would be a excellent time to do so.) On our way over, she mentioned how much Hurghada resembled Dubai 20 years ago.

“No skyscrapers, just two roads running through a small town.” She said as we drove through the empty developments spreading like wildfire. “I wonder what it’ll be like in another ten.”  In a way, I’m glad we got to see Hurghada now, before the international investors and the battalions of expats move on in in full force and render the area unrecognizable- during my time here, I’ve developed a strange kind of affection for the craziness, humor, and exuberance that Egyptian life tends to project. It’s exhausting, maddening and somewhat infuriating at times, but I do indeed possess a deep respect and affection for the culture and people of this place.  I often remark that all of Egypt seems to be participating in one big inside joke whose punchline is apparent, it’s just that we haven’t figured out the set-up.

Our trip home was uneventful, save for some creep who demanded to search Britte’s bag when she asked to take it on the bus with her (we slept with our wallets zipped up in our pockets and our bags sandwiched between our legs). He immediately ceased-and-desisted when Set whipped out her phone to call Nadia. Lesson #2 of travel: threatening to make a single phone call often does more than all the cajoling, pleading, and implied physical threats in the world combined. I’m pretty sure someone also got dragged off the bus at some point between Cairo and Hurghada, but I was too sleepy to really recognize what was going on.

We arrived back in Alexandria around 10:30 am, fought off a hoard of taxi drivers, and eventually found ourselves in El Agamy around 11:30 or so. We fell into a deep sleep for several hours, and the day culminated in watching the penultimate episode of “Sons of Anarchy” (are you watching this show yet?) and catching up on work.

This was a lengthy entry, but I’ve been feeling the need to write lately. We have one more interview tomorrow. This one will be with AMIDEAST, the US government sponsored organization that does the bulk of professional English teaching throughout the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve done our research, our resumes are freshly printed, and we’re basically prepared to go in there with our guns blazing until we come out with contracts signed.

Wish us luck- also, if you’d like an exclusive postcard from Egypt, email us your address at either knisbet at gmail dot com or setsuko.oya at gmail dot com.

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