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Friday, October 29, 2010

Living in Cairo: Transportation other than Taxis

When we were assigned Cairo, we had many decisions to make.  We had already made quite a few decisions when we packed out of Utah - freezer, sell or keep?  How about the Christmas tree stand, or outdoor shelving, or a painting degree's worth of work?  By the time we got to Arlington, most of our things had had their fate decided.

However, the last major possession we owned, our car, was still up for debate.  I had gotten our car, a 1996 Honda Civic, before my sophomore year of college and it had faithfully transported first me, and then Brandon and me, and then Kathleen, Brandon and me, and finally Sophia, Kathleen, Brandon and me wherever we needed to go.  I don't remember how many times it crossed the country before we took it out to Arlington with us.

Despite it's nobility, our car was old, and so we sold it to a family member for their son, who promptly crashed it.  So that was the end of Lester.

Like everyone with State, we had the ability to ship a car to Cairo with us.  Brandon and I had been to Cairo previously, however, and had spent seven months here without any transportation other than taxis and the metro.  We weren't up for buying a new car, and I wasn't too excited about driving in Cairo, so we decided to simply go without for the two years of our post.

Most days having no car presents no problems at all.  The Embassy has limited parking, and so runs a shuttle service for employees, most of whom ride the shuttle instead of battling traffic to and from work.  In addition to the shuttle, we live half a mile from a metro stop, which is in turn half a mile from the Embassy.  Most days Brandon takes the shuttle in, the metro home, and only smells like the locals for his troubles.

The children and I spend most days at home.  Now that the heat is abating, we may take a walk in the afternoon, and Kathleen's primary mode of transportation is her red tricycle, whom she recently named Cannonball (entirely on her own).  Sophia and I walk, and Edwin rides on my back.

To get to and from church on Fridays, Sophia and Edwin ride in our red double jogging stroller and Kathleen and I walk.  Once I had another American woman leaving the pool tell me that she had seen me and the children walking to church the previous day.  On another Friday, a LDS teacher with a tour group was in a taxi that couldn't find the church.  She saw us crossing the street, told the taxi to stop, and followed us to church.  We always make a scene.

On the days where our feet are not sufficient, I resort to cars.  Occasionally I will get a ride from a friend, but mostly I use Ayman.

He is driver who I use if I need to get somewhere not well known, or if the route is complicated.  I also use him to get to the commissary, which involves USG security.  If I need dependability, I call Ayman.  He is always on time, he never tries to talk to me, he never argues the fare, and with one exception, he or his drivers always know where they are going.  He is minor Cairene miracle.

Next time: taxis

Monday, October 25, 2010

At Last (hopefully to stay)

Today I did something that I haven't done in six months: I left my windows open all day long.  Rere always scolds me for doing this, but I do it anyway because the cool breeze wafting through the house is so delightful.

A few weeks ago, I thought that fall had finally come, but it was only a tease.  The temperature after a few days of cooler climbed back into the low hundreds and sat there for awhile.  It started drifting down again a few days ago, and right now the temperature is a blessed 79 degrees.

I feel like I used to when spring came in the US, like life had finally returned to the world and I could stop holding my breath.  As soon as the days grew warm enough, I would open all of the windows in the house, and let the warm breeze blow out the stale winter air that had spend the season in my house.

Now instead of a warm breeze, there is a cool one, but it still blows out the stale air, only this air has been air-conditioned instead of heated.  No matter that the breeze coats a very fine coating of grit over the entire house, I'm just glad it isn't from our mildewed vents.

I am looking forward to evening walks and a return to the park.  I can't wait to eat at all of the restaurants with outdoor seating that I couldn't go to in the summertime.  We can load up Kathleen's tricycle in the elevator for walks to the library again.

And I might even return those books.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A recent conversation

Me: (while trying to keep Edwin from smacking me in the face with both hands) Kathleen, why are Edwin's shorts wet?

Kathleen: Oh they're just wet from Sophia's little potty.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Life, as a Mother

A long time ago, before I lived in Egypt, before Brandon joined the Foreign Service, before I had children, and even before I was married, I went to college.

When I was in college at BYU, I had to choose a major.  Since I was a child, I had always drawn.  I was good at it, and I enjoyed being good at it.  In high school I always had art classes, and was known for being 'artistic.'

Everyone told me that I should major in art, and I told everyone that I had no desire to.  Nevertheless, during the second semester of my freshman year, I applied and was accepted to the art program.  My junior year I applied and was accepted to the BFA program.  My official college degree is in painting.

A week after graduating, I was married, and a week later, I was in Egypt.  Kathleen came about eight months after we left Egypt, Sophia followed less than two years on Kathleen's heels, and Edwin showed up a year and a half later.  I've been busy.

Every time I have a child, I tell myself that finally, now I can quit painting without feeling guilty.  I don't have to try and juggle the responsibility for three children while trying to create something completely unrelated to them.  The girls won't have to ask me when I'll be done painting so I can go play with them.  I won't have to try and find that perfect balance between the two and I can take the children to the pool every single day.

But still, I paint.  I have no grand visions of solo exhibitions in the Guggenheim, articles in ArtNews, or even a gallery or two carrying my work.  Instead I paint while the world almost falls apart around me.  But most days, I save it just in time.  Because that's what I do.  I'm a mother.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get me to the church on time

I have heard a lot about the traffic in Cairo, but never thought too much of it.  The traffic in my neighborhood is fine, and I am only in a car once every two weeks.  Occasionally there is some traffic, but it was just mildly annoying and I attributed it to an accident, or school letting out, or something else unusual.

Yesterday Brandon had a coworker's wedding to attend.  The one wedding I had the opportunity to attend, we missed because of a confusion about times.  So I offered to come with him so that I can say I've attended one (Coptic) wedding in Egypt.   And I thought that he would like the company.

The wedding started at seven in Heliopolis, so I arranged for a car to pick me up in Maadi, swing by the embassy and drive us up to the church.  The car was going to cost 120 pounds, and a regular taxi would have been cheaper, but I knew there was no way I would ever know where I was going.  And that means the taxi driver wouldn't either.

So at 5:30 I left the children with Rere, met the driver at the door, and we headed to downtown to pick up Brandon.  Brandon called at 6:10 while we were stuck in traffic, halfway up to the Embassy.  Thankfully the traffic cleared in time to pick him up at 6:30, giving us a good thirty minutes to make it to the church.

Traffic was stop-and-go, but by 6:50 we were in Heliopolis, near a church.  Which we passed.  We saw another church, and passed that one too.  And then the driver started asking for directions.

Sometimes he would stop and ask a passer-by, and sometimes he would simply shout out the window to a taxi driving nearby, and every single time the man (because everyone knows not to ask a woman for directions) would say something that completely contradicted the directions we had gotten from the previous man.

And that's how, at 7:20, we were still taking the scenic route through Heliopolis and asking everyone where St. Mark church on Cleopatra street was.  Somebody eventually got the directions right, however, as we passed the Embassy shuttle parked near the church and I knew that we would at least see half a wedding.

I'm not sure why I was excited to go, after listening to half an hour of loud chanting, cymbal crashing, and ululating cries of joy.  After that, we said congratulations and caught a ride with the Embassy shuttle back to the metro downtown.  Following a (relatively) short ride on the metro, we took the final of four modes of transportation for the day, a taxi.

I walked in the door at 9:45, four hours and fifteen minutes after leaving that evening.  Thirty minutes of which was spent at the wedding, thirty minutes waiting around, and three hours and fifteen minutes taking some form of transportation.

One day I'm going to live very, very far away from everyone and walk everywhere I go.

Monday, October 18, 2010


When Brandon joined the Foreign Service, I was excited about many things.  I looked forward to living somewhere with mangoes.  I planned to stay only in countries with easily available domestic help.  I was happy that Brandon didn't have to freeze Stouffer's products anymore for a living.  I knew there were many good things to look forward to.

One pleasure I didn't anticipate, however, was the pleasure of making new friends.  After marrying, I never felt a keen need for extra friends; Brandon is my best friend and who needs more than that?  I had friends in my wards, but everyone also had their own lives that I was a visitor in.  And that didn't bother me.

I have heard that two people only need two points of similarity to become friends.  When I joined the Foreign Service community, there was suddenly a wealth of people that I shared two points of similarity with: we were women, and we were living overseas.  And at church we immediately had three: we were women, we were living overseas, and we were LDS.

Suddenly I had a social life where one had never existed.  I went to play groups, I had play dates, I went out to lunch, I had a baby shower thrown, I was invited to henna parties, cocktail parties and grand going-away parties.

And this social life is not based on any personal worth of my own; it's just because I'm here.  Almost nobody lives overseas permanently, and so everyone is always just moving in or getting ready to leave.  There is no fixed 'in' group, and everyone is always happy to make another friend.  Because of this flux, friendships spring up quickly and grow firm in almost no time at all.  We all have some trauma associated with Egypt that we can share and everyone needs a listening ear to complain in.

The only downside to the caring group of women I have found myself in is the cause of such fast friendships: we all move.

We become strongly attached to another, and then somebody leaves and you honestly never know if you will ever see each other again.  I have the number of a friend who was only here for the summer in my phone, and every time I scroll past her name, I feel a stab of sorrow for another friend gone, and no more time left here for the friendship.

But that is one of the many pitfalls of the Foreign Service.

A childhood song comes to mind whenever I think of friends made and friends lost.
"Make new friends and keep the old,
One is silver and the other gold."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Living in Cairo: Daylight Saving Time

The end of Daylight Saving Time in the fall has always been at sad time of the year for me.  One of my favorite times is in the long summer evenings when the crickets sing in the bushes as the sun slowly sets before the cooling dews set in the grass.  All of the days after June 21 are sad days because they are growing shorter.  All of the days after December 21 are happy days because they are growing longer.

This enjoyment has been stymied as I have become a mother of children with early bedtimes.  Evening walks really aren't possible when all of the children are in bed before the sun sets, and now that I'm in Cairo there's not even a backyard to sit in and enjoy the twilight.

Still, however, my dislike of the end of daylight saving time has persisted.  Having my children wake up with the sun at 5:45 on Saturdays doesn't help my irritation.

So last year when the Egyptian government announced several days before Ramadan that DST would end early that year - the 16th of August - I was annoyed.  To lose even more time of precious summertime evening for a holiday I don't celebrate was obnoxious.  Not that I was going to stage a protest - that's what I get for being a Christian in a Muslim country.

This year Ramadan started ten days earlier because of the discrepancy in lunar and solar calendars.  And so DST ended ten days earlier also - the 6th of August.  Thankfully I was in the US for most of Ramadan and so didn't have to be awoken by my children with the sun at 4:30.  When we came back everyone was so jet-lagged that an hour either way didn't make a difference.

However, a week after we returned, Ramadan ended.  And since Ramadan was over, there was no need to have the sun set earlier (the fast is from sunrise to sunset), and everyone's clocks got set back to DST.

And then three weeks after that, DST ended.  Again.

My children's sleep schedules are still in protest and my Saturday mornings are not nearly so pleasant as they were before R&R-DST ending-DST starting-DST ending happened.  But I suppose that's what happens when one moves to a third-world Muslim country, right?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Recently, Brandon and I were talking about our children, which happens often.  In our year here in Cairo, we have yet to take them to the pyramids, the Egyptian museum, the Khan, the Citadel, or anything but Ibn Touloun.

One day when they are old enough to look at pictures and realize that we lived in Egypt, I imagine that at least one of them will be incredibly put out that we lived in Egypt and never took them anywhere.

Then I will patiently explain that they had no desire whatsoever to go somewhere like the pyramids and certainly not the Egyptian Museum.  They much preferred the Maadi House pool.

If they are really upset, they can use their own money as adults and go see all of those wonderful, historical things that we, as deadbeat parents, never bothered to take them to.

And that is why all of these pictures are in our house.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dear Mr. Columbus,

Thank you for sailing the ocean blue in 1492.  If you hadn't ventured intrepidly into the unknown, you would not have discovered the Americas (to contemporary Europeans anyway).  And if you hadn't discovered the Americas, Brandon wouldn't have had Sunday off from work.

I honor your achievement.  I also am grateful to have the time to go the beach with Brandon.  I feel that spending your holiday relaxing on the sandy shores of the Red Sea with my husband is a fitting celebration of your voyage upon the sea.

The children at home with Rere will also remember you as they are separated from their loving parents, in memory of your separation from family.

Most of all, I am happy for the opportunity to spend 24 hours feeding only myself, dressing nobody but me, reading a book without interruptions, and waking up at whatever hour I choose.

Once again, thank you.

Ashley Sherwood

Friday, October 8, 2010

At Last

It has finally happened.  I have been waiting for this day for the last four, maybe five months.  This morning, I went to the kitchen to cook breakfast.  As I filled my pot with water for our daily oatmeal, I noticed something different about my surroundings.  It wasn't as it had been for the last eternity.  Intrigued, I opened the window.

And through it came a cool breeze.

I have opened the window before, vainly hoping that the outside air at 6 am would be cooler than the 80+ degrees in my kitchen.  Every time I was disappointed to find humid, hot, thick air pouring into my kitchen to make it even more uncomfortable than it was before the window opened.  Some mornings the miasma would be accompanied by a delightful smell labeled by Brandon's coworker as 'burning battery acid.'

Summer in Cairo is similar to winter in other places - one spends as little time outside as possible (even to the point where I have library books as least three months overdue because the walk has been too hot) and we spend the days holed up in our air-conditioned apartment.  Our last holiday we had a 'picnic' in the living room because it was too hot to enjoy one outside.

But fall has finally come.  I know that I have lived in Cairo too long, however, when the forecast reads "91, 89, 89, 89, 89, 91" and "boy, I'm glad it's finally fall," goes through my head.  Now we begin the time of year where I look at the forecast in North Carolina and chuckle to myself when they have snow and I have seventy degrees.

I missed the most delightful time last year because of Edwin's birth and I intend to make best usage of it this year.  I'll try to keep the gloating to a minimum.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Living in Egypt: Roads

Cairo is not known for its good roads.  Like all third-world countries, orderliness and maintenance are not at the top of the government's priorities (which is, I suspect, one of the reason they stay in the third-world tier).

I remember one hair-raising trip home when my parents were visiting during our first stay in Cairo.  We had taken a taxi home from Al-Azhar park in the evening, and hadn't yet realized that taxi drivers don't know where they're going.  The trip home from Al-Azhar is fairly straightforward (enough so that I could drive it myself), but the driver had decided that evening to go through all of the strangest and out-of-the-way corners of Maadi to get us home.  

At one point he headed down a street that was literally flooded.  Rain falls here sufficiently strong enough to flood roads once every few years and that wasn't one of the years, so I'm not sure how the road was flooded, but it could only have been from dubious sources.  I remember creeping along the side of the road at maybe three miles an hour listening to the murky water sloshing up the doors and watching abandoned tires, concrete blocks and other large detritus pass us as we drove through.  After that, I always gave the driver directions.

The roads (excepting those in Maadi which were built by the British) make absolutely no sense and have no street signs (except in Maadi, and those were made for an Eagle project). One major road, the Autostrade, runs north-south through the valley.  The first time I hired a taxi to take me home from the Khan, I thought I was being taken for a ride when he started diving through the City of the Dead, a cemetery near downtown.  After some tense minutes, he popped right out onto the Autostrade and took me home. 

 I didn't realize then that the only south-bound access to the Autostrade in that area was to drive through the City of the Dead.  When the road was built, almost no thought was given to access.  I have seen drivers drive onto major highways and then pull U-turns in the middle to go the other direction because there aren't any on-ramps going their way.

I was surprised when we returned to find stripes painted on the roads, a feature that had been added while we were gone.  The stripes, however, are only for decoration.  Last time I went to the airport at 3 in the morning, I was amused to watch the driver languidly drift over the wide-open highway with no apparent reason.  Perhaps he was simply enjoying the room.

The roads in Maadi are laid out on the grid system, but just as shoddily maintained as in the rest of the city.  Potholes are filled with rocks, plastic bags, and broken-up tiles.  I dislike walking anywhere in the morning because all of the cars have been washed and dirty puddles lie in the road waiting to swallow the stroller whole.  When Kathleen rides her tricycle, she gets quite a workout from all of the ups and downs.

Until recently.  Somebody somewhere decided that 20+ years was long enough between pavings and has started paving all of the roads.  So three or four blocks will be paved and then a week or two will go by while the equipment sits on the side of the road and then another few blocks will be paved.  The roads look really nice for about two days before the garbage piles back up on them and the pools form again.  

One thing somebody neglected to do, however, was raise all of the manhole covers.  Perhaps they thought that nobody would need to access them.  While I was walking to the pool I saw one that had been excavated with a pile of rubble sitting a few feet away on the side of the road.  And it's still there.  And it will probably be for the next 20 years, until they pave again.  

Saturday, October 2, 2010

And the Winner is...

Bridget, with her guess of Azerbaijan.  Congratulations, you can now come visit us in two years as long as you pay for your own plane ticket.  We're looking forward to your visit.

We will be posted to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan in June of 2012.  In preparation for Brandon's Pol/Econ job, we'll be spending ten months back in DC so that Brandon can learn Azeri, a very useful language that we'll have the opportunity to utilize for many more posts to come.  

When we put together our bid list, it was rearranged several times due to positions closing and timing constraints and somehow Baku ended up as our third choice, preceded by Tashkent and Tallin.  Brandon and I were both excited about Tashkent and Tallin looked interesting (although cold), but neither of us invested much in Baku.  My main associations with Baku were the BTC pipeline, James Bond, and major industrial pollution.  

So when we were assigned to Baku, I was very surprised but somehow I suspected we would end up being sent to the one place neither of us cared that much about.  After some researching and blog-stalking, however, I've gotten if not excited, at least anticipatory about the change.  We have a fairly good chance to have a house, and Brandon is especially looking forward to snow and mountains.  

Regardless of our feelings, that's where we will be living for two years because that's what the Foreign Service requires.  And I suppose one reason is as good as another.

Friday, October 1, 2010

20 Questions, Round Two

Here are today's answers:

Will Brandon's language training be in a Turkic language?

Does the country's name end in -stan?

Is it a part of the former USSR?

Is it in western Asia?

Will your kids be able to purchase weapons-grade fissile material for a reasonable price? From the nanny?

Was it one of the top five places you and brandon had picked for your next assignment?

Does the country have new lakefront property?

Is there a US military base there?

The next rounds ends today at midnight, so keep asking questions.  You are free to ask specific place names this time, but only one specific place name per person per round.  And if you've already found out, no spoiling!