Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"My Barbie came to life!"

When Shruti first suggested going to Goa, I was hesitant. When I thought of Goa I thought of debauchery and Russians.  If I wanted to go to a dirty, shitty beach I would just go to Hurghada or Sharm. 

Despite my initial misgivings, I went along with the Goa idea and am glad I did. Yes, it's a beach paradise. But there's a lot of history, a lot of local culture. I would never have seen this part of India otherwise. 

Goa is incredibly lush and green. Also humid- I stepped off the plane and my glasses fogged up. The population here is heavily Christian, leftover from the years as a Portuguese colony.  In fact, the Portuguese were kicked out at least ten years after partition by the Indian army.  Left behind is the religion, the food, the architecture, and the port wine.  

We stayed at a bit of a nicer resort for the wedding, which I'm happy about after spending a few hours in Baga Beach, an area of Goa that lives up to the Russian stereotypes.  Also whenever we left I got hollered at. Again, it's what I'm used to from Cairo. Although unfortunately Cairo conditioned me to tense up in expectation of physical harm to come. 

Shruti was surprised about the attention we/I got. We were walking around a fort and these guys kept on following us and talking. She said she never understood harassment until she walked around with me. You're welcome, I guess.  I told her its okay, that I'm pretty used to such attention and treatment because of Egypt. Except in Egypt the boys would have pushed us down the stairs or thrown garbage at us. At least Indian guys-knock on wood- haven't caused me physical harm. Yet. 

She also said she didn't realize she lived in a country full of creepers until she traveled with me. There were stares--I was really one of the only white people I saw in Goa. It was offseason so those visiting were all Indian. There were a few families who asked to take a photo with me. Again, I don't really care. There were some people who ran up to me a took a photo and ran away.  Perhaps a bit strange.

This morning a little girl walked up to our table at breakfast. We turned to her and tried talking to her, asking her name and everything. She just sat there, speechless, looking like she was about to say something but not quite able to spit it out. Her dad eventually came by and pulled her away.

"She was like, 'Ohmigod!'," said Shruti. "' My Barbie doll came to life!'"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"They don't exist"

When I told people I was going on holiday to India, many asked me why? Why would I holiday from a country with horrendous traffic, pollution, and sexual harassment to another country with horrendous traffic, pollution, and sexual harassment? Why not something fun and easy, like Spain or Greece?

I love India. It's my home away from home away from home (the other two being the US and Egypt). I love the craziness, the colors, the sounds, and yes, even the smells (maybe not so much the BO but more the spices, the incense, the flowers).

So here I am, in India. I'm visiting a friend in Bangalore and we will go tomorrow to Goa and later to and around Mysore. We are spending a lot of time with her mother, who I love. She is one of the nicest, kindest people I know.

Earlier this afternoon we started talking about the men on the street. I told her how Cairo has obviously scarred me. I see groups of young men and I instinctively tense up. It's a bit difficult to breathe and I brace myself for some kind of altercation. This is not normal, but after being groped and dragged from a moving car in Cairo (why? I'm assuming because I had the audacity to walk on the street) one does tend to make these assumptions.

Both countries' media portray sexual harassment and assault in a light way. I've seen numerous Egyptian movies where a guy will be slapping, hitting, punching, shoving a woman and the scene is obviously meant to be humorous. Despite all of our flaws, I can hardly imagine sexual assault being portrayed in such a way in the States. Our movie stars may be hoochie mamas, but our sexual assaulters are always the bad guys. According to my friend's mom, many Bollywood movies are the same too.

Like Egypt, the society here is quickly becoming increasingly conservative. Where five years ago women could wear basically whatever they want, now many choose to dress more conservatively so as to not attract attention or be harassed on the street. This is most definitely the case in Egypt. During my parents' and grandparents' time, apparently women walked around Cairo in short skirts and tank tops. Now I change out of my work clothes--which by definition are not sexy and cover the mandatory knees and shoulders--to walk home many times. Instead of wearing pants, I'll wear a long skirt, for example.

My friend's mom said her maid likes it when her husband beats her--it means he cares. This is apparently a not uncommon belief among sectors of the lower class here. Men too believe women like being beaten. I have not hear this belief exactly in Egypt, but I would not be surprised were it common.

Like Egypt, there are plenty of motor scooters (although unlike Egypt, women ride on them and even drive the vehicles themselves). I noticed when a man and a woman would be on the scooter the man would always have a helmet and the woman would have no protection. I commented on this, saying I was surprised and would have thought the men would give up his helmet for the lady on the back, most  likely his sister, friend, or wife--someone dear.

"They don't exist," answered my friend Shruti, referring to the women.

On a lighter note, as I was writing this the power cut--just like in Egypt. Ahh. It's like I'm home. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

No camels, no green card

Walking through the streets of Cairo, especially in the more touristy areas, foreign girls are often propositioned--jokingly--for marriage in exchange for camels.  "How many camels?" the shopkeeper in Khan el-Khalili, the largest touristy souq in Cairo, will often call out with a laugh. It's funny, I laugh, shake my head and keep walking. They're not serious, they just want to get your attention and business.

I'm worth 8 of these animals. Apparently 15 if I was obedient.
This isn't a phenomena limited to Egypt. I've had the same thing happen in Morocco, in Jordan, in Lebanon, probably every Arab country to which I have traveled. They know foreigners have certain stereotypes of Arabs and are happy to play on it for a joke.

My landlord came by my flat the other day because a mohandis was to come over to fix my AC--which has been broken for over a week. Unfortunately, the mohandis' phone was closed so I had to sit in my hot living room with the landlord for an hour, entertaining him and making small talk.

The conversation took a bit of an interesting turn when he proposed, in all seriousness, that I marry is brother. Or son. I'm really unclear which. The man he would like for me to marry is apparently 35, living in Lebanon, and working as an accountant for the Saudi king. For me that's all kind of gross. Saudis. This man does not want to marry an Egyptian woman. They're apparently lazy and don't like to clean.

If I married this man, he wouldn't just give me a room, but an entire flat. I'd be set in Cairo, khalas. But wait, I thought. Didn't my husband-to-be live in Lebanon? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of marriage, living in different countries?

Could he have a photo of me to show is brother/son? He would give me a photo of the dude in return. He couldn't wait to call whoever this guy is and tell him he found a perfect woman for him in Cairo.

My landlord was incredibly sneaky about the whole thing. There was this entire lead-up to the arranged marriage and I didn't even realize what he was doing until it was too late. I was stuck. I had no idea how to nicely extricate myself from the situation, especially since he was a guest in my house and I couldn't think of a way to kick him out nicely.

One of my friends later asked why I didn't take my landlord up on the offer. There were no camels offered, I responded. My mom would never agree to such an arrangement without proper payment.

"No camels, no green card!"

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Siwa: We made it there and back.

Barely recovered from my trip back to DC, my roommates and I used a long weekend to visit Siwa, a desert oasis near the border with Libya. It's the site of an ancient fort, or shali, and surrounded by date palms and fresh springs.

Amy and I with the shali in the background.
We took what we thought would be a ten-hour overnight bus ride (it was more like 12, as the bus left on Egyptian time and it took two hours to get out of Cairo) to Siwa and spent the first day climbing the fort, lounging by the springs and drinking fresh juice, and eating way too much delicious food.
Our view by a salt lake in the middle of the desert. 
The next morning we were picked up by our guide, Hamada, who was thankful to learn Amy knew how to drive stick. He was able to relax in the back seat while Amy drove us around in the desert for a bit. We drove for hours in a convoy, stopping occasionally when one of the cars would get stuck in the dunes.  Later in the afternoon, Hamada dropped us off by a big dune to go sandboarding--and drove away. He had gone back to the camp to prepare for dinner. It would have been a disaster had he not returned.

We spent the night in a desert camp and the next day went to the desert to the West, so close to Libya I was able to check in on Facebook to Sirte, Libya, the birthplace of the deceased Dear Brother Leader Mu'amar Ghadaffi.
Leslie, Amy, me, and our guides Ali and Hamada.
We arrived back in town around 6:50pm for our 8:00pm bus back to Cairo. That's when the real adventure began.

Earlier in the day one of our guides had told us our driver would stay with us until we got on the bus. After we arrived in town, he dropped us off at a restaurant to grab a quick dinner before the ride. Around 7:40, we had paid and went outside to look for him and get our things from the car.

We walked outside and he was gone. Semi-panicked, we turned to the restaurant guys and asked them to call Mohamed Bali, the driver. His phone was off, so they tried calling our guides and all of the friends of our guides (Siwa is a small place. Everyone knows everyone). All their phones were off--they were all in the desert. Around 8:15--after the only bus back to Cairo had left--we finally got a hold of Hamada. Our driver didn't know he was supposed to stay with us and went back to the desert.

Bags in hand, we went to the bus station to try to book a ticket to Marsa Matruh, a coastal city around 3 hours away. The guys at the restaurant were able to get us a ticket from there to Cairo. Unfortunately, there were no tickets on the bust to Marsa Matruh, and we would have had to spend another day in Siwa were we not able to get to Marsa Matruh.

We ended up in a car with one of the guys who works at the restaurant and a driver. After we got in, we realized this may not be the smartest thing we've ever done. Especially when they turned off the highway down a dark, deserted road. I turned to my roommates and suggested we ask them where we were going--they said if the two men were taking us to our doom, they were taking us to our doom. Khalas, there is nothing we can do.

While they were not taking us to our doom, but instead went to pick up some bottles to get through the checkpoints. It's easy for khawagas/infidels to get such contraband through. Again we realized this may not be a good idea--no one wants to get arrested for smuggling. Movies end poorly for stupid white folks like us.

After a very fast drive to Marsa, we got a bus ticket back to Cairo that left at 2am and finally made it to Tahrir around 715, exhausted and looking like we spent two days in the desert. Needless to say, when I got off the bus I heard no shabaab trying to holler.