11 March, 2010

Now I feel like I'm in Egypt

Finally saw the pyramids today! Well, saw them from the back seat of a taxi, stuck in evening traffic on the Corniche along the Nile and they were way off in the distance, but I SAW them. And at sunset, so very cinematic.

Also rode with my first crazed Cairo cabby tonight. Went up to Nasser City to visit with a professor of social work who runs a family services center. The driver on the ride back was absolutely mental. The first time I actually had to force myself to look away from what lay ahead. I ended up slung around like a dog's chew toy. Add to that the fact that the taxi rattled so bad you would have thought we were pulling Gs and about to shatter. Prior to this guy, I didn't get what all the fuss was about.

Yes, the conference is over. My head's a bit sore from trying to translate things on my own. Did better than I'd hoped. Connected with a few professors with similar interests and we're trying to meet up next week. Sadly, had to say goodbye to my flock of students, but I'll write more about that later. It's 1am and I'm wide awake, which is completely off for me. Of course, the rest of town is up, too. Spending quality time at mathaf al-maSry - the Egyptian Museum - in the morning and supposed to attend a play tomorrow night. Have about three days to cram in some sightseeing before my meetings start next week.

10 March, 2010

Living Like a Rockstar

The conference has proved interesting already. First, I miraculously made it to Helwan, far on the south side of the city, after the driver had to change a tire and then stop repeatedly to reattach said tire before speeding off down the Nile road again. I was left wondering exactly what happens to a speeding car if a rear tire comes off while trying to enjoy the less warm morning air.

At the main gate I asked one of the security officers to point me towards the conference hall. Instead, he commandeered the vehicle of a lovely woman dropping her daughter off at school and demanded that they take me across campus. Mom was very sweet and insisted it was not a problem. Unfortunately, she didn't know where we were going either and finally asked if I wouldn't mind if we just dropped her daughter off first so she wouldn't be late for class. She then had the grace and class to smile, ask my name and welcome me to Egypt profusely when we finally found the place.

I can't say I've been to another conference where I had to walk a red carpet, flanked by young people with ceremonial sashes and swarmed by papparazzos of sorts. Once again, I find myself the sole ajnabia (foreigner). Actually, that's not totally true. Turns out there are a few professors from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia attending, but I'm the only non-Arab and thus the only one whose Arabic is limited. Translation has been provided in the past and it was assumed by others that it would be provided this year. Well, it's just not cost-effective for me and after asking about headphones I was passed person to person and sort of eventually ignored.
Being a big fan of self-advocacy, I just starting asking people with conference badges if they could help me out. Oh, and nobody had me on the list, I guess, because no badge for me. The ladies at the table smiled, handed me a vinyl laptop bag and ushered me on. Finally somebody grabbed a fourth year undergrad student who spoke English and, bless her, when she determined there would be no translation, simply drafted herself into my service as an assistant and translator. Luckily, she also has a very good sense of humor and provided good color commentary during the speechifying by the VIPs at the opening ceremonies.

In fact, the day was more or less salvaged by students who seemed to sense what I needed before I did. And these were mostly undergrads. They would alternately swarm and subside, asking me questions about me, the U.S., social work. One girl grabbed my cup to force her way to the hot water for tea during the break, another guy wrestled a snack plate from other attendees for me, and a few kept trying to figure out how to get me a badge even after I'd given up. A few students and faculty asked for my help in studying in the U.S.

I must add here that somehow, simply by arriving in Egypt, I have acquired an honorary PhD because a fair number of people introduce me as doctora. Yes, I do try to correct them, but the title seems to have stuck.

In the end, a crowd of students sort of adopted me and treated me like a cross between a professor-pet-big sister-rock star. These guys were lining up to have their picture taken with me. Trust me, this has never happened in my nearly 36 years on this planet. We ended up sharing lunch in the school cafeteria, always an interesting perspective on a school. Two of the women live near where I'm staying and brought me home via the Metro, which is not so bad above ground but an endurance test at rush hour on the subterranean leg for even the heartiest soul.

So, did I learn much? Sure, just not what I expected. Tomorrow, the last day, will feature panels on the papers and there are several I am very interested in. I just hope I can follow along. I plan to hunt down the paper authors, if need be.

Next week I have a few meetings with Egyptian and international NGOs about their development work here. And somewhere in the next week I am squeezing in some sites. I really need a map. I just cannot put the parts of this place together yet.

09 March, 2010

A View From the Bridge

Looking south, up the Nile, in downtown Cairo today.
I know of none (so correct me if I'm wrong), but this place should be a hotbed of great sci-fi writing for it's physical setting alone. The city sits under feet of dust like a lost city too quickly reclaimed. Very surreal in places. A dry, dystopian vision of the hot, dry, crowded future facing much of the world.

08 March, 2010

Initial observations on the journey

Bit of an ad-hoc post, but I've been in Cairo for about 24 hours and have learned a few things along the way:

I love Turkey more than maybe I thought. I literally got giddy on our descent over the Marmara, even though I had I was only stopping for a brief layover on this leg of the trip. A professor from one of the Istanbul universities I made friends with on the flight said perhaps I'll get to "come home for good" someday. My Turkish came back faster than I thought. And, as usual, everybody thinks I'm Turkish, even the Egyptians.

As for Cairo...
Egyptians may be to Arabic as Cubans are to Spanish.
If you had to describe the city in a single word: brown.
I am beginning to think Egyptians invented the energy drink because they never seem to quit. Even on our little back alley, the action kept going until 2am. And I know this because that's when I was having "dinner".
Cairo has the best pedestrian crossing signs ever - a little green LED man running for his life.
Attending an all-day workshop in a language other than your own is not a great choice when jet lagged, but being the only ajnabia at the table is always fun.
Spending half a day with a local patient trying to navigate services in a public hospital in the developing world is fascinating (as long as the patient is not you). Excellent lesson in the need for self-advocacy.
Walk with purpose when crossing the street and do not flinch. Drivers can smell fear. Make eye contact and they almost always let you pass.
I cannot tell you where I am staying in Cairo other than that it's in or near Mohandessine. Maybe. We rode long enough in the taxi from the airport that I was beginning to think she lived in Alex. I know I'm west of the Nile because I remember crossing that...
Anyway, if I don't sleep I may drop.
More when I have it. Conference starts day after tomorrow.