Monday, April 25, 2011

Adjusting to Life after Unexpected Repatriation

I have been happy living overseas all these years. So having to move back indefinitely to my home country unexpectedly (aka "repatriation") has been a bit of a shock, to say the least.

Someone told me that the emotional side affects of moving can be more difficult to deal with than the physical moving.

I think they might be right.

The feelings of loss that sneak up on you in the middle of the night can be a bit overwhelming. It's not just about the physical loss of the familiar space you call home. It's not knowing where things are in your kitchen anymore... all of my stuff is still in Egypt... my hot water kettle... my special mugs... all of my spices carefully arranged in my spice cabinet...

I know it sounds trivial. I mean, who cares that you know where your favorite mug is?

But here we are in Kentucky, my son and I - that is. My husband is still in Egypt. It's not like he can just pack up and leave his job.

So after being evacuated from Egypt to live sort of indefinitely away from my home, my stuff, and - most importantly - my husband, I still feel a little lost sometimes.

I read an article recently about the 10 ways repatriation is nothing like home leave.

#10 describes me exactly. "You're no longer a rock star." I've lost my identity. I don't live in Egypt anymore. I meet people, and I have to tell them that we live out towards the Anchorage area in Louisville, KY. I'm not interesting or special anymore... at least I'm not until I can't help myself and open my big mouth to spill the beans (about having lived in Egypt, that is).

It's not all bad. 

Actually a whole lot of it is good. 

My son has adjusted well to life in America. My parents live about 15 minutes from our apartment. He has toys to play with. We have things to do, fun things like storytime at the library, playtime at the local park's playground, or visits to the local super pet store to watch their doggie daycare dogs play.

Some of it we could have done in Egypt. But a lot of it we couldn't have.

It's great to have everything so easily available. I can go to the store here and buy just about anything I need or want. And if I can't get it in the store, I can always buy it online. 

And, oh, how I love buying things online.

Plus I get to drive here. And not just a rental, our own car. Definitely a plus.

Do we plan on moving back to Egypt? ABSOLUTELY! I miss Egypt desperately. And it will be nice to live on the same side of the Atlantic with my husband. And if there's anything you've picked up after reading any of this blog, I hope it's been how much I love Egypt.

But if you do find yourself in a similar situation (becoming a repatriate unexpectedly), I would definitely recommend the following:
1. If you can, stay somewhere familiar when you go home. While you might suffer from reverse culture shock with all the unexpected changes, it's a lot less stressful to move to a place you already know.
2. Have a home base. Even if you're not sure how long you'll be back, make sure to create some sort of normalcy in your life by having a place to call home.
3. Have a schedule. Give yourself something to look forward to every day. Find things to do for yourself and for your kids (if you have any).
4. Live a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthy and exercise regularly. Remember that moving and repatriation is stressful. Exercise helps relieve stress.
5. Keep in touch with people you knew abroad. While it may seem strange to hang onto relationships that you've left behind, I think keeping them may help you transition into life back home more than you realize. 
6. Take it one day at a time. Some days might be good. Some days might be bad. Just keep moving and you'll get through this.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Egypt Protests, Part 2: Community Building

While the world was busy watching the events going on in downtown Cairo, the truth is that most of us here were just sitting at home waiting. 

We were more worried about the basics. Did we have enough food? Were we safe? Were our families safe? Were our neighborhoods safe?

Because after the Egyptian police were pulled off the streets last Friday, homes and businesses were put in danger. Poor people from across Cairo as well as criminals taking advantage of the situation ransacked malls and businesses, carrying off anything and everything that wasn't nailed to the floor.

It's a pretty scary situation sitting at home knowing that you are helpless to control the situation.

I have never been scared in Egypt before. Never felt nervous about being in the streets. Never thought anything would or could happen to us or our home here.

Not that we were ever in any real danger. The part of Cairo where we live isn't exactly in the thick of things downtown. But the unknown can still be a scary thing.

Nobody knew what could happen. Nobody knew how much could happen. And nobody knew when it would end.

But when news hit our neighborhood of looters at the edge of our part of town and my husband went down with all the other men of the building to stand guard in the street with a shovel in his hand, I must say I was worried.

Just a little bit.

It was interesting to see how something like this could bring together a community. We've lived in our building for five years now and although we know our neighbors, this was the first time we'd really interacted with them.

And it wasn't just the people in our building.

It was the first time I'd spoken to our neighbors on their balcony in the building beside us. I'd seen them out on their balcony numerous times and was shy to speak to them. I respected their space, and they respected ours.

But this gave us something to talk about. Because who else were you going to talk to?

At this point even our mobile phones were still off. The only way we were getting our news was through the international news we were getting via satellite... and the rumors that drifted through the streets from building to building.

I think we'll see in weeks, months, and even years to come how these days of coming together to defend our streets and homes will create a long-lasting bond in our neighborhood. I'm sure this will be true across Cairo and perhaps across the country of Egypt.

Because just like in any other country around the world, when ordinary people step up to do their duty to protect their homes and families, you see a strength of character and spirit of camaraderie unlike any other.

It made me feel safer knowing that the men who lived in our neighborhood were stepping up to keep it safe. We came home from the airport only to get stopped by 10 separate neighborhood checkpoints.

It didn't matter if you were rich or poor, Christian or Muslim.

This was about something bigger. These are our homes. These are our families.

If the government chose to turn a blind eye to the damage and destruction being caused by looters across the city, the men in our communities were stepping up to to fill the void.

I have never been prouder of my adopted country.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Egypt Protests, Part 1: Communication Blackout

Note to governments worldwide: if you want to freak out every expat living within your borders, turn off all mobile phone networks and cut off all Internet access. Hey, it worked in Egypt and it could for you too.

I never knew how much I relied on these two relatively insignificant things to keep me *plugged in* to the rest of the world.

Friday morning we woke up to a very normal feeling day. Everyone knew that protests were being scheduled after Friday prayers (which ends around 1:00PM Cairo time). Usually we're up earlier and off to the international church around 9:30AM but I forgot to set my alarm so we got up a bit later and went out for breakfast.

Cairo is always a quiet city early on a Friday morning and this Friday was no different. The streets are mostly empty (as in fewer cars that don't have to stop because of traffic, we're still talking about a mega-city of approximately 20 million people here).

First thing on Friday I noticed that the service for my mobile phone was down. It surprised me, and I thought at first there was a problem with my phone.

So I called for my husband. His phone's service was down too.

Then we pulled out another mobile phone (I think we have them coming out of our ears in our house) with a line for another mobile company to see if it was working.

It was not.

I tend to think worst-case scenarios here. I don't know if it's the result of being married to an insurance guy for over 5 years or just my own life experience so far of how often Murphy's law comes into play when you live in a foreign country.

The questions started running around in my mind. What happened if I got separated from my husband? What happened if his mother (who lives across town) needed something? What about hospitals, what if there was an emergency and we needed to go to the hospital, how could we reach them?

Let me just interrupt to say that landlines stayed working through all of this.

But, seriously, who uses an actual phone these days?! Certainly not in Egypt. Even the poorest of the poor somehow manage to have mobile phones in Egypt.

In our house I don't even bother to plug in our landline phone anymore because (and I do not exaggerate here) we got more wrong number calls to the house than we did legitimate calls looking for us. I think the only people who know our landline number are the delivery guys from Papa John's, McDonald's and Peking.

So like I said we went out for breakfast but we were on our way home long before prayer time was over.

We all knew something was coming. We just didn't know how far and how long it would last. Protests (of any kind) plus the Egyptian police never equals a very safe environment for everyone. And with the Muslim Brotherhood announcing on Thursday that after officially sitting out of Tuesday's Jan. 25 scheduled protests that they would be joining in on Friday, we knew that was NOT a good thing.

So protests plus the Egyptian police PLUS the Muslim brotherhood had the potential to be a very volatile situation.

And after protests in downtown Cairo on Tuesday had gotten out of hand and had spread to other neighborhoods on Wednesday, we had no way of knowing how close the situation would get to us.

Even as far out as we live by the Cairo airport. It's not that we live that far from downtown Cairo. In fact, on a good traffic day you can reach downtown within 20 minutes or less. But there's still a whole lot of Cairo between downtown and us.

Somehow during the course of the morning we had realized that all internet service had been cut as well. Now block Facebook... block Twitter... I can live without them... at least for a little while. We can go retro here and go back to email (I'm kidding).

But cut off my access to the outside world... that's a WHOLE different situation.

As I write this from our hotel room in Cyprus tonight internet access in Egypt is still down. There have been various rumors that it's been up and running. And it seems that some places like embassies (or at least the U.S. embassy) and hotels have had intermittent over the past few days.

I won't comment on the privileged few.

I'm talking about the humble masses out there without internet access here.

People like me. People who have iPhones and Blackberries that are never beyond arm's reach. Bloggers. Facebook and Twitter junkies. People who live and breathe having access to the world at their fingertips. People who actually enjoy the information overload of the Internet.

I wear this badge proudly.

Because I could've cared less at this point what was going on downtown. All I was thinking is when this began to hit the news (which got turned on in our house the minute we stepped in the door after getting home from breakfast Friday morning and didn't get turned off for about 48 hours), what is my family going to think? How was I going to get word to them that we're okay? Would my mother have another mild heart attack wondering and worrying where we are and how we're doing?

So, yeah, thanks for that. I appreciate the fact that you were trying to stifle the protests by cutting off communication in Egypt.

Oh, and look where that got you anyways.

It certainly made MY life a little more enjoyable in Egypt.

Image courtesy of ITN

Stay tuned for more on an expat's perspective of the protests in Egypt.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt School of Driving: Traffic Lanes

Did you ever wonder who decided why lines should be put on the roads? Why are only 3 lanes put on the road when actually 4 lanes of traffic will fit on the road? I mean, seriously, if no one follows the lines why bother putting them on the road in the first place?

In Cairo, lines on the road are more of a suggestion than the rule. You might be surprised to find that even when the roads are clear that most Egyptian drivers still manage to completely ignore the *suggested* lanes.

For me, I have learned to appreciate the idea of staying within the lines ever since I was a child. Years I spent coloring inside the lines. Now I cringe to think of all those Egyptian coloring books scribbled all over by children with no regard for the lines!

Okay, so maybe I've taken it a little too far.

But there are distinct differences between we Americans use lanes on the road and how the majority of cars on Cairo streets use lanes. As usual, we'll use the 2006 Kentucky Driver's Manual as a reference.

How to use lanes.
"Smooth driving allows you to keep more distance between yourself and other drivers and also helps improve fuel economy.

If there are three or more lanes in one direction, the middle lane or lanes are for through traffic. The left lane is for drivers who want to pass or turn left. The right lane is used by drivers who want to go slower or who are entering or turning right. If a road has only two lanes in one direction, the right lane generally has the smoothest traffic flow, with the left lane being reserved for the passing of other vehicles. Remaining in the left lane on a limited access highway is illegal."

Smooth driving is not having to stop EVER. Everyone knows that the lines on the road are for decoration. Make sure to use the far left lane if a u-turn is coming up and you're wanting to go straight. Everyone turning left will appreciate having to wait for you to block traffic to go straight instead of turning left yourself. The same goes for turning right. If you need to make a right turn, be sure to wait until the last minute to cut straight across several lanes of moving traffic to turn right. Again, who wants to be bored while driving?

How to pass properly.
"In general, you should pass on the left. Passing on the right can be dangerous since other drivers do not expect it. Vehicles on the right side are also more difficult to see. The operator of a vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting such movements safely. Such movement shall not be made by driving off the roadway, unless the vehicle passed comes to a complete stop and such movement may be made safely."

It is true that passing is safer done from the left side. But the best way to pass is to move to either the left or right side of the car you want to pass, flash your lights or honk your horn to tell them to move aside. Just remember that there are no personal space laws so be sure to use every available inch to fit your car between other cars while passing. The tighter the space, the more points you get.

How to turn properly.
"When turning into another street, turn into the lane nearest to you. If you are turning left from a street with two or more lanes, turn from the lane nearest the center line. If you are turning right, turn from the lane nearest the curb.

If you need to change to another lane, do so only after you have finished your turn and when the traffic is clear.

If you have already started through an intersection when the light changes, keep going. If you have started to make a turn, follow through. Last-second changes can cause collisions.

If you miss your turn go on to the next intersection and work your way back to where you want to go."

Turning on the roads of Cairo is a national sport. Whether it's cutting across several lanes of traffic to catch that u-turn rather than continuing on down the road to the next one or making oncoming traffic come to an abrupt halt by veering right suddenly to make a quick right turn, you don't want to miss out on making your mark on the road.

And as for last-second changes, well, didn't someone say better late than never? If you start to get on the 6th of October bridge and realize it's blocked, don't worry about backing back down the ramp. The traffic coming up behind you is just waiting for a car to swerve to avoid so no worries. It may seem crazy to back down a busy street but in Egypt, that's just the way things are done!

Image courtesy walid.hassanein

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to See Luxor in 3 Days

If you come to Egypt to get a taste of history rather than just a place to relax by the sea in the sun, well, you don't want to miss going to Luxor. 

The good news is that it doesn't take much time to see the main sites of Luxor. You can very easily see them in 3 days.

Getting to Luxor is easy. Flights to Luxor run about $100 and trust me, you will appreciate spending the extra cash to fly rather than spending the night on an overnight train to Luxor.

The best places to stay in Luxor are on the East Bank. There are hotels on the West Bank as well but you will have to take a ferry across the Nile to get to most of the restaurants.

Here is a sample schedule for seeing Luxor in 3 days:
Afternoon - arrive in Luxor, check into hotel
Evening - visit the Luxor Museum (Open 9am-1pm, 4-9pm WINTER)
*Arrange for next morning's hot air balloon ride

Early, early morning (times vary) - Hot air balloon ride over Luxor
Morning - return to hotel, eat breakfast, rest
Afternoon - visit the Luxor Temple (East Bank)
*Buy tickets for Karnak Sound & Light Show in the afternoon
Evening - attend the Karnak Temple Sound & Light show

Morning - get up, eat breakfast
Late morning - take the National Ferry across to the West Bank
*Hire a taxi for the day
West Bank schedule: Temple of Hatshepsut (1 hr), Valley of the Kings (1 1/2 hrs), Valley of the Queens (1/2 hr), Ramesseum (1/2 hr), Medinat Habu (1/2 hr)
Evening - return to hotel, rest, go out for dinner, take a carriage ride along the Nile

Morning - catch flight back to Cairo

If you have small children I recommend taking an extra day in Luxor. 

It is easy to do East Bank Luxor one day and West Bank Luxor another and finish it all at one time. However, it is quite exhausting to do so.

We used a modified schedule from the above when we went to Luxor recently. Keep in mind that I have a one-year-old that needed to go back to the hotel every day for a nap (and I think the rest of us much appreciated this down time as well).
Early afternoon - arrive in Luxor, check into hotel, eat lunch
Afternoon - put son down for a nap
Evening - visit the Luxor Museum

Morning - get up & eat breakfast, take National Ferry over to West Bank Luxor
Late morning - visit the Valley of the Kings
Afternoon - return to hotel, rest & relax, eat lunch
*Buy tickets for Karnak Sound & Light show
Evening - attend Karnak Sound & Light show
*Arrange for hot air balloon ride

Early, early morning - Hot air balloon ride over Luxor
Morning - return to hotel, eat breakfast, rest
Late morning - take National Ferry over to West Bank Luxor
Afternoon - visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Ramesseum, and Medinat Habu
Late afternoon - return to hotel, rest & relax
Evening - go out for dinner, carriage ride along the Nile

Morning - get up & eat breakfast
Late morning - visit the Luxor Temple
Afternoon - late check out from hotel, catch flight back to Cairo

What advice do I have for someone visiting Luxor?
  • Buy books about Luxor before arriving in Luxor. I recommend the Illustrated Guide to Luxor and the Lonely Planet Egypt guide. Carry them with you to help guide you through the sights.
  • Stay close to the center of town. If you plan to spend a week in Luxor, by all means, stay out at a nice resort and enjoy the heated pool in the sunny Luxor afternoons. Otherwise you'll hate have to hop in a taxi every time you need to get anywhere. 
  • Don't buy souvenirs in Luxor. If you're going back to Cairo, wait to buy any souvenirs from the Khan El-Khalili. The stuff you'll find on the streets of Luxor is much cheaper at the Khan.
  • Don't forget that a taxi on the West Bank of Luxor can take you home to the East Bank (there's a bridge down the Nile). So if you're really exhausted after a long afternoon in the hot sun, ask the driver how much he'll charge to take you all the way back to your hotel. If it's reasonable, enjoy the air-conditioned ride back.
  • Check the Sound & Light website for times & days for the Karnak Temple shows. Shows are offered in different languages at different times. You'll want to plan your schedule around that.
  • Buy your tickets to the Sound & Light show early. You don't want to get stuck without a ticket when all those tour groups have snagged all the tickets for that day.
  • Don't forget that monuments and museums offer discounted tickets for students and also for spouses of Egyptian citizens. You MUST show your student ID to receive the student discount (so make sure you have it on hand). If you're married to an Egyptian, you MUST show your passport with the resident's visa stating that you're married to an Egyptian in order to receive the Egyptian ticket price. Trust me, it is WORTH the trouble (try 10 LE vs. 80 LE) 
  • Choose wisely which tombs you'll enter in the Valley of the Kings. Remember that you can only enter 3 tombs on one ticket. Tutankhamen and Rameses VI are separate tickets (but well worth the money). Watch out because a lot of tombs are closed at certain times when least expected. Recommended tombs to visit are: Thutmes III (Tutmosis), Amenhetep II (Amenotep), Merneptah, Tausert & Seknakht. Try to start at the top of the Valley and work down (read: most difficult ones first).
  • Carry a bottle of water with you. Places like the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings are hot and don't provide much relief from the sun & heat (those tombs aren't any cooler) so you will need to have a water bottle handy. 
  • Take the time to visit the Luxor Museum. I know it seems crazy to waste time in a museum when there are sights to see, but I've found that visiting the museum before seeing the sites kind of helps put a face to the pharaohs (after a while they all kind of run together).
What about you? Do you have any advice for visiting Luxor?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Confessions of an Expat Mom: Babysitter Woes

I love my son. And as much as I love my son, I keep thinking to myself... it sure would be nice to be able to do ONE thing without him every once in a while.

Is that too much to ask?

Finding a babysitter in Egypt is difficult. Ask any mom who lives here and you'll most likely hear a long, drawn-out story about how they either found the babysitter they have (grrrr) or their lack of babysitter and why.

I would be a member of the latter group.

It is interesting to see how carefully people guard their babysitters in Egypt. I mean, seriously, it's not like I'm trying to steal her away from you to offer her a full-time job here - I just want one hour or two to myself.

Egyptians themselves don't seem to suffer from a lack of babysitters. With apparently entire families of baby-lovin' women sitting at home willing and able to watch children at the drop of the hat, I have yet to hear of someone not being able to attend a certain event because they couldn't find a babysitter. In fact, I don't think the thought ever crossed their mind.

I know, I know, I could be WAY off but it's just the way I see things from where I sit.

My husband is sympathetic to my plight. At least he seems to be. And while he DID offer to stay with our son at home while he takes a nap on Fridays so that I can go to the ladies gym for an hour or so, I've yet to take him up on that offer.

But I still might.

All in all I really can do most things I want to do in Egypt. But it takes so much more time and energy from me to do the same things I did before I had my son.

Because you can't just pop out the door on a whim the way you used to anymore. It takes a good 15-20 minutes (or some SERIOUS pre-planning) to get out the door with you, your baby and all your stuff. Even if you're like me and keep using the same bag from day to day, there's still so much to take care of first.

Still don't understand what I mean?

Here's a list of all the stuff I have to bring with me every time we go out the door.
*Change of clothes
*Packs of tissues
*Pen AND paper
*Mobile phone

See why I dread going out sometimes? I'm already sitting here now and thinking about all the stuff I need to prepare for our trip out today and it makes me cringe.

So, yes, it would be nice to have a sitter available every once in a while.

Perhaps the solution to all of this would be to put my son into a daycare center. I know for many expats (like myself) putting your child into a daycare so that you can sit at home alone seems awfully selfish.

Because isn't the best person to take care of my son (and be there for every single moment) his mother?

Yes, it is. So sometimes even the THOUGHT of putting my son at his age seems somehow lazy and selfish. Sure I want the best for my son. And I certainly don't want to miss out on all those important moments (those first-time for doing... a moment that can never be replaced).

And I am happy to be a stay-at-home expat mom. It's a challenge and a blessing all at the same time.

I know I am not alone in my feelings. Mothers I've met in Egypt with children young and old all face these kinds of issues at one time or another. It might look or smell a bit different. But we are living in a culture very different from what we're used to back home.

I know for me that childcare in the States is viewed very different than they see it here in Egypt. I started babysitting when I was in my early teens. My sister still works part-time as a nanny (and she's a college-grad working on her MBA). It's actually pretty good money if you're willing to sacrifice the time (and the evenings).

In Egypt, Egyptian teenage girls do not babysit. Even college-aged girls don't babysit. I think there are several reasons for this: (1) young people do not usually work until they finish school and (2) young ladies don't know much about taking care of kids.

So it seems that only older Egyptian ladies babysit.

Of course many foreigners (and Egyptians) go the route of hiring a nanny. But I am not so desperate as to give up my one-on-one time with my son just so I can leave him with someone once or twice a week. Plus it's expensive.

Maybe one day I'll figure this whole babysitter thing out. If I do, I'll let you know.

What about you? Have you had any luck finding a babysitter in Egypt?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Egypt Essentials: The Bowab

A bowab is neither a thing or a place but rather a person. However, if you live in Egypt long enough, he might just become the most important person you'll meet.

The Arabic word "bowab" loosely translates into the English word "doorman," but he does so much more than just hold the door open to your building.

Years ago when I lived in Egypt the first time around, I lived in several apartment buildings. But I cannot tell you today whether any of them had a bowab present.

What a shame!

The first thing to know about dealing with a bowab is that you must be able to speak Arabic. Bowabs may be Muslim or Christian, but they are always from a lower class (and many times from upper Egypt) so they will not be able to speak any English.

There is one person in the building who usually serves as the building *manager.* This person usually owns a flat in the building and is responsible for all of the building maintenance and upkeep. They are also in charge of the bowab.

In our case (like many others) the bowab lives in a small room usually in the lower level of the building. We have a garage so his room is in the garage. Some bowabs have their families with them and some do not. 

The bowab is responsible for certain things as part of his regular job:
*Guard the building (although this does not meet to stand guard all night)
*Cleaning the inner shared parts of the building, including the stairwells, elevator(s), and entry or foyer to the building
*Cleaning of the front outside of the building, including the steps leading up to the building, the front sidewalk, and usually the part of the road or curb directly in front of the building
*Watering and caring for any plants inside or planted in front of the building
*Maintenance issues (elevator, lights in the stairwell, water pump, gas line, etc) that may need to be addressed by the building manager

However, the bowab is also able to perform services directly for the inhabitants of the building. This is where you'll find that he becomes invaluable. I never realized how many things a bowab could take care of until we moved into our building. Of course, some of these things require a certain amount of trust on your part.

Here are some things our bowab does for us:

Cleans our car daily. As far as I understand it, this is not part of our bowab's regular job but rather an understanding that he and my husband have decided on through the years.

Collects the mail. I have yet to see a mailman in our current building. Often when I lived in Egypt before I would receive a package while I was out of the house and all I'd get was a yellow slip that told me I'd have to go pay money down at the post office to collect it. However, with our bowab he pays the fee (usually) and holds the package for us until we come home.

Assists in carrying things. This might be when I'm getting out of a taxi with my young son on one arm and bags in that hand, struggling to wrench the stroller out of the car with the other... so you can see how this comes in handy. Other times he's there to help is when we come home from the grocery store or if we're off to the airport with all our luggage. In one way or another, his poor back has been saving ours for several years now.

Sends and receives the ironing. I'm not sure exactly when this started, because it used to be that the ironing guy would come up to the flat and deal with us directly. However, through the years - perhaps because we were often not in the house when the ironing guy would get around to coming by - we've taken to leaving the bag of clothes we're sending out for ironing with our bowab. Then when the ironing guy comes, he collects it from the bowab and when it's finished he brings it back to our bowab who then delivers it to our door.

Runs errands. This includes a wide variety of things. Our bowab buys fruits and vegetables for us. He goes to bring us foul (Egyptian beans eaten for breakfast) and freshly baked Egyptian balady bread. He runs to get milk or yogurt or whatever else I may have forgotten from the store or run out of suddenly. We might have surprise guests at the door and have nothing cold in the refrigerator to offer them to drink; when this happens I just call the bowab and he goes quickly to get some drinks for us.

There are a million other things that our bowab does for us, many of which are perhaps not part of his job but that he does anyways.

Honestly it can take years to build up a rapport with your bowab. And of course with many or most of these little extras it's customary to give a little tip out of thanks and respect for his hard work. Remember that those things aren't part of his everyday job.

Note: Although we personally have been blessed these past 5 years with an excellent bowab, it is important to know that you should be wary when dealing with your bowab. They should not be allowed in your house when you're not at home nor (particularly if you're a single lady or married lady alone without your husband or son) when you're at home. Unfortunately not every bowab is honest or trustworthy so be careful when you're new (you might get opinions from your neighbors in the building if you're concerned).

You may give your bowab a small gift at feast time (Muslim feasts if he's Muslim and Christmas & Easter if he's Christian). This is usually money. Sometimes we also give sweets like cookies or chocolates (not bought special but because we already had them in the house).

If you live in Egypt, I hope that you are able to fully appreciate your bowab. It is a very difficult job they have. However, at the same time if you can learn to both communicate and understand how to deal with your bowab, this will make your life in Egypt much easier in many ways.

What about you? Can you share any advice or experience you have on dealing with a bowab in Egypt?

Image courtesy walid.hassanein

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where to Take Guests to Eat in Cairo

It is the greatest joy to have people visit you when you live abroad. Of course, it can also be stressful and exhausting as well if you don't plan at least a little.

And let's face it - food requires planning.

There are many places that we like to take our guests when they come to visit. We usually don't have a lot of time so I try to be smart about where we go to eat.

I usually decide where to take our guests to eat based on the following 3 issues:

Atmosphere. Is it a warm and inviting place? Is it dim and crowded? Is it family friendly? Is it large and spacious? It depends on your group where you'd like to go. If you have young kids, you want the family friendly place. For large groups, you want the large and spacious place. For those wanting a more *authentic* dining experience in Cairo, they might want the dim and crowded place.

Location. A schedule will always revolve somehow around food. There are lots of great places to eat in Cairo, but not all of them are the best choice when you're all the way across town. Other things to consider are that you might want to give your guests a varied experience. For example, you might take them to Al-Azhar Park to dine at the Citadel View Restaurant on a Friday or Saturday just before sunset where they can overlook Islamic Cairo and enjoy the view while eating their fill at the oriental buffet.

Or you might take them to City Stars to eat at Abou El Sid restaurant to experience another side of Cairo while also having the opportunity to taste some authentic oriental food. I love to sit at the circular tables and to order a selection of dishes and just to whirl the middle around to share.

Or still another experience with eating at Andrea (I recommend either the Mokkatam or Mattareya locations) where you're out in the open air and you can smell the chicken roasting. The lady is usually sitting there baking fresh bread. You can feast on dips (salads) and starters to your little heart's content (and really should because it takes 30 minutes to get that chicken freshly roasted).

Quality of food. There is nothing more embarrassing than to take a guest to a place that doesn't have good food. I always feel like I have wasted my time and energy to come to a place where I don't get food that tastes good.

My advice is never to take your guests to a place that you have never tried before. No matter how high of a recommendation a place gets from someone you know, you'll feel more comfortable with your guests if you've been there before. That way you can recommend certain dishes to your guests and in general get a feel for the place. Plus if you tip well, they might remember you the next time you come and you may even get better service than you did the last time.

All-in-all eating in Cairo can (and should) be a delightful experience for your guests. They may never be able to experience the best Egyptian food which is, of course, homemade Egyptian food. However, they may be able to get a feel for the traditional culture and food here by tasting it in some of the fabulous restaurants available in Cairo.

I would recommend the following places to take guests in Cairo:
*Citadel View Restaurant (Studio Misr), Al-Azhar Park
*Andrea, Mokkatam or Marioteyya locations
*Felfela, Downtown
*Abou El Sid, Zamalek or City Stars locations (the only ones I can vouch for)

What about you? What is your favorite place to take guests to eat in Cairo?

Monday, January 10, 2011

8 Tips for Sightseeing in Egypt with Baby

We went last week to Luxor with my sister. For those of you who don't know what Luxor is, well, it's basically where all the *good* stuff is to see in Egypt.

You want well-preserved walls covered in brightly painted hieroglyphs. Well, you have to go to Luxor.

You want building-high obelisks and large-sized statues of pharoahs or ancient Egyptian gods in their original positions of glory. Well, you have to go to Luxor.

You want to walk through the corridors of Egyptian history at night - perhaps the Sound & Light show at Karnak. Well, the only place you can do that is Luxor.

I guess you've got the picture.

Now I have done a lot of sightseeing in Egypt over the years. But I hadn't done any with my son before now. So when it came to planning our trip to Luxor, I was a bit nervous because I wasn't quite sure how he was going to do.

I had a lot of questions about trying to go sightseeing with a young child in Egypt.
  • Would I be able to use our stroller or would I be limited to our carrier? Would my son take to the carrier (he hadn't been much of a fan of it when he was younger)?
  • What about meals? How were we going to find food for our son? Would any of the restaurants have highchairs?
  • What about the hotel? Could he sleep in a bed provided by the hotel or should we bring our own?
These are good questions to ask whenever you go just about anywhere in the world with a baby.

I find that no matter where I go with my son that I need to be as flexible as possible. While it's good to plan in advance, I always keep in mind that plans (particularly in Egypt and ESPECIALLY with a little one) are mostly suggestions than actual step-by-step guides.

For example, I brought the carrier with us to Luxor planning to use it solely as a backpack. Having been to Luxor myself once before, I knew that most of the sites were not stroller-friendly so we wouldn't be able to bring the stroller along.

And our son was pretty happy the first couple of days sitting in the carrier as a backpack. We went to the Valley of the Kings that second day in Luxor, and he even slept about halfway through our time there. We just pulled that sunshade up over his head and off we went down into all those tombs.

However, our second day in Luxor ended at the Temple of Karnak where we went for the Sound & Light show. It was dark and we had to walk in the midst of a crowd of people for a while and then stand waiting for the next part of the narration. My son was happy during most of the walking part in the carrier on my husband's back. However, into the 2nd part of the show he started fussing as we stood for maybe 10 minutes listening to the narration.

Nothing my husband could do was making him happy. He bounced him around in the carrier. He took him out of the carrier. He let him stand on the base of one of the big columns (although I promise his little hands didn't touch anything ancient).

Finally I took him and realized that my arms were not going to hold out till the end of the show. So in exasperation I decided to try switching the carrier to the front instead of the back.

Problem solved.

Here are a few things I would recommend regarding how to make sightseeing (and travel) in Egypt with baby easier:

1. Don't go it alone. Quite frankly if my husband hadn't been there to take my son at times, I couldn't have made it to that last day in Luxor. It would be extremely exhausting if you don't have someone to help carry baby or feed baby or play with baby while you're trying to see the sites.

2. Invest in a baby carrier (or borrow one). We bought this carrier before our son was born and had used it only once since he was born. But like I told my husband last week, that carrier more than paid for itself during our trip to Luxor. I would highly recommend one that is back-friendly such as the Beco or Ergo carriers. You will thank yourself after you're through climbing out of one of those tombs in Luxor (after having climbed down into it). Oh, and don't forget to use that sunshade included with the carrier - there may be no real break from the sun until you're done at that site.

3. Use a travel highchair. A friend lent us a Totseat for our trip to Luxor, and even though I was a bit skeptical at first about using it, it became a very useful item during our trip. I take our stroller everywhere in Cairo, and it often doubles as a highchair for us when highchairs are unavailable. However, in Luxor we were often out without the stroller (or it took up too much room to keep it out for our son to sit in). So as a last resort I packed the Totseat in my bag thinking we'd just hold him in our laps anyways. I was wrong, and I wish I'd had one of these portable cloth travel highchairs earlier.

4. Pace yourself. You can be out all day in the hot sun when you don't have kids with you. Sure you'll suffer a bit later and come back to the hotel exhausted, but you'll be okay. This is not a good idea when you have a little one.

I would definitely recommend that you take a break in the middle of the day with a young child. Sure they can sleep in the carrier, but it's a lot hotter in Egypt than you realize so they may just need the break from the sun that going back to the hotel affords.

Plus if your child is anything like mine, he or she will enjoy the freedom of playing on the floor of the hotel room with toys from home than being cooped up all day in a carrier.

5. Bring baby bowls and utensils with you. This seems like a no-brainer to me, but I thought I'd throw that in there. I was able to snag some fruit off the breakfast buffet for our son, cut it up, and feed it to him later while we were out. Cheerios and Kiri-sandwiches are great for snacks, but fresh fruit is even better.

By the way, those plastic bowls also make great bath-time toys (rinsed out, of course) on the fly when you suddenly realize that you've got nothing to keep your son distracted while you scrub all that ancient dust off of him.

6. Double-check that the hotel has baby beds available. We were so very close to having to let our son sleep in between us on our big bed that I was almost too scared to think of how I was ever going to manage that. Be very clear that you need a crib for a baby (or cot, as the British call it) so that you don't end up with a rollaway bed for an older child (what they tried to give us at our hotel).

7. Be flexible. Like I mentioned earlier, if there's one thing I learned again last week about taking my son along on a sightseeing trip, it's that I should go with the flow. So even though we started each day with the most difficult thing (farthest tomb up in the Valley of the Kings or the Temple of Hatshepsut, etc.), we didn't stick 100% to our plan. We moved things around a bit in the schedule. We ordered sandwiches in the room one day rather than going out for lunch when my son and my sister both fell asleep right after coming in from our morning sightseeing (this was AFTER our sunrise hot air balloon ride so we were all exhausted).

8. Bring a hat and sunscreen for baby. This was the first week of January! But even though I'd been to Luxor around this time of year before, I'd forgotten how hot the sun can get there. Even though it's not summertime, you still need to be prepared to protect your child (and yourself) from the sun year-round in Egypt. So don't be like me and forget your son's hat at home!

Would I have chosen to bring my son to Egypt to go sightseeing if we didn't already live here? Probably not. But I'm sure one day he'll grow up and look at the pictures and enjoy the fact that he was experiencing history even before he could walk (maybe).

Plus if there's anything I've learned about being a mom overseas so far is that you don't have the luxury here to be afraid of the unknown. It might be scary to get out of the house sometimes to try something in Egypt that you've never done before. But if I didn't try it - well, I might NEVER get out of the house (and that, my friend, would not be a pretty picture).

You just do what you need to do... and baby just goes along for the ride. Sightseeing in Egypt for me was no different.

What about you? Have you been sightseeing with a young child in Egypt (or another country)? If so, what other tips can you share?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Egypt Essentials: The Pharmacy

All of these items are available in Egypt
A pharmacy would be important in any country for obvious reasons. But in Egypt, the average pharmacy is bound to surprise with all kinds of secret items hidden away.

I know you think I'm exaggerating. But it's really true.

Sure you can buy medicine under the counter, over the counter, you name it counter and well, no prescription is required.

And just like I've mentioned already about fighting a cold in Egypt, you can simply walk up to the pharmacist, name your ailment and get the appropriate medicine (or at least something that might work).

But did you know that pharmacies here also carry the following items?
*Shower gel
*Hair gel
*Hair wax
*Hair spray
*Face wash
*Hand & body lotion
*Anti-aging creams
*Boxed hair coloring sets
*Mouth wash
*Band-aids (adhesive bandages)
*Elastic bandages
*Compression stockings
*Cotton balls
*Sterile gauze pads
*Nail clippers
*Nail files
*Nail polish remover
*Nail polish
*Make-up (lipstick, eye shadow, foundation, eye liner, etc)
*Pill cutters
*Shaving cream
*Hand soap
*Victoria's Secret lotions
*Perfumes of all kinds
*Colognes of all kinds
*Baby food
*Baby cereal
*Swimming diapers
*Diaper wipes
*Diaper rash creams
*Baby shampoo & body wash
*Dr. Sholl's shoes
*Hair appliances (straightener, curler, blow dryer)
*Eye glasses
*Feminine products (sanitary napkins, tampons, hair removal creams)

This is really just the beginning of the list of things you can find at pharmacies in Egypt. I'm telling you, these places are like mini goldmines just waiting to be explored.

Yes, I have known to be a bit of a pharmacy junkie in Egypt (I guess it stems from my addiction to Walmart and Target back home in the States).

Here are a few well-known pharmacies that tend to stock a lot of the above items:
El-Ezaby Pharmacy. Locations across Cairo.
Seif Pharmacy. Locations across Cairo. Watch their prices, though, because I've seen some things priced higher than other local pharmacies.
Abdel Maksoud Pharmacy. Heliopolis. My experience is that this is hands down the best pharmacy in Heliopolis. I used to frequent this place at least once a week.

Keep in mind that pharmacies in Egypt deliver. You do, however, have to know what exactly you need. If you don't speak enough Arabic to communicate what you need, just speak in English slowly and they'll most likely hand the phone over to the closest English-speaker on hand.

Delivery is great because if you're sick you just have to call the pharmacy instead of dragging yourself out the door to get what you need. Trust me, this will save you one of these days (if it hasn't already).

I hope that you will appreciate the pharmacy in Egypt as much as I do. I get really excited when I see another pharmacy near us opening up. This means I have more places to find what I need!

Note: Keep in mind that many of these items can also be found in larger supermarkets - sometimes even at cheaper prices - so keep your eyes open when you're out shopping for groceries as well.

What about you? Do you have any recommendations for a great pharmacy near you (if you live in Cairo)?
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