The Echoes of Egypt

I’ve been away from blogging for far too long. I have felt distracted and fuzzy-minded. Yearning in a city of 20 million people and a great deal of concrete to be surrounded by beauty, quiet, and to feel a connection with nature. Envisioning myself walking through a forest and breathing fresh air is a favorite meditation these days. Sometimes people assume that in the Foreign Service you lead a glamorous life, that it must always feel like being on vacation. There are those moments when it feels too good to be true, but honestly, most days, we are living our daily lives as we would in our “home countries,” trying to create a home and life that feels stable, healthy, and joyful.

My blog is my space for musings, art, and writing that is an extension of me. But I have felt overly-extended these last few months, so I cocooned inside and wished for inspiration to show up. It took a while.

What have I been up to all of this time? With Ramsay (now age 5) not enrolled in school for the first few months upon arrival to Egypt, we stayed busy learning, exploring, unpacking, and searching for new friends and kid-friendly places. Our household shipments arrived just in time to put up a Christmas tree, and Santa arrived on a camel, which was exciting, but it simply didn’t feel like home here. So, we focused on nesting, getting to know our new city, and traveling the country. Days began to run together.

When Ramsay started school in January, the homesickness kicked in for me. Things I missed most: my mother. My really good friends. Living in a house. Having a garden. Sidewalks for Ramsay to safely walk and ride his bike. Trees and rainy days. Wearing spaghetti-strapped tops and shorts and skirts in the heat without glares, without feeling naked.

I spent a lot of time making our home a safe, cozy refuge from the world outside and tried to find a space in the house that felt like my own. I kept pushing furniture around from room to room and eventually brought a big desk downstairs and put it right in front of the living room window.

To Brad’s credit, he never once groused about this.  As I unpacked boxes from Swaziland that we hadn’t seen in over a year, I pored over favorite art books and reread underlined quotes of novels. I enjoyed rereading journals and letters, seeking inspiration. Missing human connection, I jumped into yoga and school activities, attended coffees and embassy functions, seeking my tribe. I met some great women and started a book club. I filled my days in lots of ways, and although creativity was slowly stirring, I did not write. I simply digested what I was experiencing.

When faced with “How do you like Egypt?” I automatically respond with positive (and true) remarks, such as how I love the vibrant markets, the Islamic Art, and that Egyptians are extremely kind. To illustrate my point, I tell the story about going by boat to the Nubian Village in Aswan for lunch with Ramsay, but all of the restaurants were closed. Before we knew it, we were invited to eat with a family on their houseboat, where they cooked us chicken on a hot plate and made a yogurt cucumber salad on the side. That really happened.

Egypt is full of wonders and delights: rich history, mythology, temples and pyramids, camel rides, shows with whirling dervishes and soul-stirring drums, Red Sea snorkeling, and cruising on the Nile, to name just a few. But, in reality, it has been a long adjustment period for me. I do like it here, but it hasn’t been without struggle.

Adjusting to life here has also included sandpaper scratchiness in my throat upon wakening, related to weather forecasts that just read: DUST. Heat that sits on you like a heavy blanket and creates a sort of stupor. Morning pollution that clouds the ground white and causes illnesses from poor air quality. Being gripped by fear, grief, and disturbing emotions surrounding tragic, senseless terrorist bombings. And learning what it means to live under a dictatorship and in a country that has declared a State of Emergency  (heightened security measures, martial law, internet restriction and censorship). Additionally, being American in a predominantly Muslim country, under an administration that makes it sound like Americans don’t like them, has contributed to a big dip in morale that ripples through our community.  Long commutes in traffic and the gravity of Brad’s work here have also been hard.

I’ve been told in a joking manner by expats that instead of NEA standing for “Near Eastern Affairs” job assignments that NEA really stands for Never. Ever. Again. I laughed, but I don’t dislike it here. It just takes a lot of positives to counteract the tallies in the “cons” column some days. For a while, I was waking up, putting on invisible armor to steel myself for the crunch of chaotic traffic, noise, and pollution just to walk Ramsay to school. My personal mantra became “more wonder, less warrior.” 

My friend Vig made this for me. She’s over on WonderWorks Living at www.wonderworks.ie

I try to remember that I’m a temporary Cairene, and concentrate on embracing what Egypt has to offer while we are here. There are many magical days. Cairo is like a city of secret doors. Streets in our neighborhood don’t have long rows of shops, but rather hidden little nooks that are nestled inside of apartment buildings. Post-revolution, facades are a bit run down with hanging wires, cracks on walls and sidewalks, but you can see that Cairo was once a stunning beauty in a bygone era. Her shy charm emerges in flourishes of architectural details on lamp posts, balcony railings, and wrought iron gates that cast pretty shadows across the terracotta tiles of foyers. Heaps of popping magenta, orange, and yellow bougainvillea cascade over walls, and shady palm trees line the roads.   

Waking at sunrise to the muezzin reciting their soulful call to prayer. Feeling the spaciousness of standing inside of Ibn Tulum Mosque. Climbing a tower and seeing sweeping views of Cairo, its roof line full of pretty spires and minarets.

And there are those perfect evenings, sailing on a felucca with a gentle breeze at twilight, when the moon looks like a circle of frosted glass hanging in the woolen-lavender sky. The honey-rose sun sinks behind the horizon and twinkling city lights begin to shimmer. And we feel deeply grateful to have this experience.


Until next time, be safe, be well, and much abundance,

Tracy

 

From the Capital to Cairo

“Have Suitcase, Will Travel.” Ultimately, the rewards of Foreign Service life outweigh the hardships of living abroad, and my husband, son, and I appreciate the opportunity to explore new countries. I always attempt to embrace transition by running toward it with arms open wide, but then start losing enthusiasm for the actual moving process, the difficult farewells, and the well-meaning conversations that end in “I could never live there. Good luck!”

“Handling these overseas moves should be getting easier,” I think to myself, preparing household shipments for a home I’ve never seen, tying up loose ends at work, and poring over exhausting checklists. Tears spring to my eyes, thinking of the long distance we’ll be from loved ones, while explaining to our precious, small boy why we are moving to yet a third country within 10 months, with the promise that he will see his disappearing toys soon, and meet new friends (again). I take some deep breaths, focus on being thankful, and read a quote often, sent by a dear friend and artist that says “Be at peace as you enter the waters of deep change and initiation.”

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I know by now that there is a normal emotional pendulum for these big upheavals that swings from being filled with apprehension and feeling like falling apart, to being mentally positive and excited. We will find our footing in our new home, as we always do, as we discover wonderful people, places, and experiences that expand our life perspectives.


Flying into Cairo, the lavender light of dusk turns into a milky haze that blurs the ground from the sky.  Disoriented with jet lag, we step off the plane onto the tarmac, inhaling heat and tasting dust.

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The drive from the airport to our apartment is a bum-clenching experience. Vehicles of all kinds are inches from our car door, swerving and flowing in unison like a peloton of cyclists, all of them wildly honking, with complete disregard for lanes and traffic laws (such as not using headlights in the dark, as it’s believed turning them off saves battery). We pass a string of black billboards with strange pictures of horses made out of bright orange flames. Trucks piled high with sacks, leaning and lopsided, threaten to topple. Five people are stacked onto one moped like a circus trick. The driver comments that traffic here will “make you out of order and you must use eight eyes.” Three-wheeled tuk-tuks squeeze their way through the maze of congestion, alongside donkeys pulling drivers on crate-filled carts, adding to the  frenzy that is a new bizarre beginning of a life in Egypt.


Life in Egypt. A few weeks in, we have adjusted to our time zone, figured out which stores have which ingredients in order to cook meals at home, met lovely people, joined the expat club, found a playground and a yoga class, have all fallen ill and recovered, and have navigated numerous new processes and ways to do things, such as understanding the role of our building doorman/”boab”, how to order take out delivery from an “otlob” mobile app and give them directions to where we live, and trying to use taxis using scant arabic (if Brad isn’t with me) and lots of hand signs..

Keeping your sense of humor is key while digesting these initial days in a brand new culture. Here are a few mishaps and observations:

  • I can wake up and Windex the glass table on the balcony and 5 hours later, can literally write in the dust, which is fine like flour.  Sweeping it is as futile as using a broom on a beach. And if you pet a cat, the puffs of dust actually rise up like a little cloud in a cartoon
  • Good coffee and a delicious bakery in our neighborhood have been excellent for my morale. And the servers give Ramsay a free straw, which he puts in water and calls his “fancy drink.”
  • At Carrefour grocery store, in the bathroom, I pushed the wrong button to the delight of my 4 year old, who was in stitches laughing as I soaked my shirt with the bidet. I wrung it out and continued to shop, sopping wet.
  • “What happened! Are you ok? You look like you got run over by a motorbike!” – Comments from my husband after I exited a cab after using a very old, dusty seat belt that left a charcoal-black thick stripe across my white tunic, like a miss-America pageant ribbon.( “Wow! I bet no one has used that seat belt in decades” was the follow up comment).
  • During yoga, there was a horrible, distressful sound. Inquiring afterward, the yoga studio owner explained the landlord next door was eschewing evil spirits by sacrificing a goat on the property. (And I thought we left black magic practices behind in Swaziland…)
  • The idiosyncrasies of a new home- sometimes our shower pressure is fine, and other times, it’s like showering on a small boat, barely dripping. And if I even breathe on the dishwasher, it mysteriously turns on, locks, and won’t turn off until the cycle is complete. Then we had to call in the plumber when water started seeping out from under the cabinets and over my feet while washing the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink.
  • Paid $40 for 2 bottles of Nivea sunscreen at the local pharmacy, then subsequently found the very same bottles for $3 each when I went to the commissary. 
  • Ramsay and I bought yummy deep-rose colored hibiscus ice cream, where Ramsay loudly inquired, “how in the world, Mama, does he eat with just one teeth?”  We walked away quickly and I prayed the ice cream vendor didn’t understand English very well.
  • We called a recommended Felucca (sailboat) ride guide named Haani, who reserved us a boat. We got directions to his dock, stepped out of the cab, met Haani, and got on the boat. Then got a call on my cell phone from Haani, wondering if we were stuck in traffic. Confused, I explained that we were on his boat. Except, we weren’t. We were on some other guy’s boat who just wanted the money, and had to turn around half an hour into our tour, to find the “real” Haani pacing like a wolf on the dock and yelling at our captain. Then the real Hanni started a real fist fight with the fake Haani, and we got the hell out of there fast. (But we loved the 30 minute sail on the NIle). Ramsay, Brad, and I ran down the sidewalk and hid inside a restaurant, then decided just to sit down and have dinner there.

And things we love already: the trees in our neighborhood, the gorgeous tangerine sunsets, the festive atmosphere, shops with Aladdin-looking lamps, the souks and markets, Egyptian food, the juxtaposition of complete dilapidation and stunning beauty on the same block, seeing artifacts from the 5th century A.D!  Our little balcony, the wonderful crafts, the pretty weather, and everyone sleeping through the night again.

Until we meet again. Ma‘a as-salaama,

Tracy

 

Days of Delineation

img_0406.jpgThere are those unexpected days in life when something momentous happens: you wake up and go about your day, then suddenly life hands you a gift that alters your journey.  This gift might come quietly, or it might enter like a dramatic storm of lightning, thunder, and hail.  As Paul Coelho says in his book, Brida, “sometimes …blessings arrive by shattering all the windows.”  Perhaps someone introduces you to a book, film, or music that makes a great impact, or you meet an amazing new friend, get that job offer, or find out you won the prize. Or, in our case, you find out you are moving to a new country.

A year from today we will be leaving Swaziland to live in Cairo, Egypt. I’ve never been there, but I envision camels, pyramids, souks, sailing on the Nile, and diving in the Red Sea. Exploring amazing history and visiting museums and ancient cities. Learning some Arabic, meeting new friends, and tasting exotic new foods. It’s exciting and daunting. We’ll be moving from a small town on the African continent to one inhabited by almost 20 million people! The possibilities of adventures and experiences are endless.

Wishing for you something unexpected in 2015 that brightens your journey.

Carpe Diem,

Tracy

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