People who know me personally have probably realised that Egypt has not been easy on me. From the moment of arrival until now, exactly four months and two days later, there have been bi-hourly moments of frustration. However, slowly – things seem to be getting better, with the occasional day of regression once in a while. Let’s hope that I will have finally settled in soon and be able to let go of the negative energy, Insha’Allah (God willing).
I still remember that early morning I got an email in my inbox from UNICEF Headquarters in NY. They wrote me to congratulate me – I was given the job of Youth & Adolescent Development Officer (a JPO position) at the Adolescence Unit with the UNICEF Egypt Country Office. Working for the UN had been a dream ever since I started law school in 2003, so my reaction upon receiving this email should have been jumping for joy! Well, at first, I couldn’t believe my eyes (it was about 6 am) so I read it again and my heart started pounding harder. Then, my first thought was “But, I don’t want to leave Cambodia/Friends International…” and I waved this thought away and started getting excited for the new chapter with one of my dream organisations – getting ready for basically my dream job!
I wonder if my initial gut feeling was what I had to go with – not leaving Cambodia. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Egypt. I had travelled to Morocco before and I loved it. I had been to other ‘Muslim countries’ like Mozambique and Indonesia. But I don’t think anything could have really prepared me for Egypt. Perhaps my travels to India – although that was travelling and while travelling, you’re in a different mind set than when you’re settling down. People kept sending me information about the situation after the Revolution and the rising incidence of sexual harassment. I tried to prepare as I could: change my wardrobe to more conservative wear, read about how to behave, and most of all – trying not to have any expectations. But being here in Egypt for four months now, I feel like I’ve hit many lows, I miss my previous chapters and I look forward to my next ones. I want to enjoy my time here and learn from it. But I wonder if I will or if I can. I have been quite unlucky ever since Pepper went missing. I believed in good Karma and that it was on my side for a long long time. But maybe last September, it ran out.
I started this post aiming to write about the story so far. However, it became such a lengthy piece that even I did not want to read it. So, I will try to make it shorter by listing themes that I have found challenging:
- Taxis: From the first taxi I took (which wasn’t officially a taxi and I’m glad it ended well), to the daily taxis to work, to the longer distance taxis that take you around and cheat you – it is never without hassle to get one and most of the time, they will argue about the price – despite the meter (say they don’t have change) or once the driver even turned the meter off right before we stopped at the destination. Conversations in taxis range from comfortable silence (my preferred choice), to asking me too many personal questions, to telling me “I love you” and refusing pay. The last one may not necessarily be a problem, but it is awkward and uncomfortable to say the least. It is a problem, however, when they decide to drop you off in the middle of protest areas, right in between marching groups of protestors and burning cars. And this is where and when I decided to buy a car.
- Men: From the bawebs (guards), to taxi drivers, to work acquaintances, to random men on the street – inappropriately personal questions and offers to help me with ‘anything I need’. I understand people are curious or want to be helpful. However, knowing that men here think foreign women are ‘easy’ and ‘meat’, I tend to not be (overly) friendly to male strangers or even work acquaintances (I do not mean my male colleagues). However, I notice networking and small talk is part of doing business and talking about your personal life is part of that. But I don’t want to talk personal life with people I don’t know on a personal basis – especially males. And what does “Are you married?” or “How old are you?” have to do with any of the projects we are implementing in Egypt? We just need to cooperate, thank you. My personal life is not your business.
I thought of making up stories like “Yes, I was married, but I killed my husband.” or “Yes, I have three husbands and two wives. We Dutch people are very open. But I had to kill one husband because he was sleeping with my best friend’s husband.” But this probably wouldn’t go down well…
- Accommodation: From the first hotel room to my current apartment – it is all pretty crappy. The first Cairo hotel I stayed in was rather expensive for the service they provided. There was construction noise each night: the first night until 10pm, the second night from midnight until 2am… Of course I moved. The other room in the same hotel had no curtains in front of the bathroom window. Everything was clearly visible, so I had to stick a towel up there. The hotel in Assiut was terribly dirty (and I’ve backpacked around very basic places) and there was barely any hot water, meaning I had to practice my speed-showering skills. Then the first apartment I stayed in had a terribly smelly main bedroom (fungus or moist in the walls) and the water pipe to the washing machine broke on the first night and there was water everywhere. The second and current apartment I stayed in (both places are in the 33A Canal Street building in Maadi – overpriced and bad quality) had problems from equipment failures (dishwasher broken, washing machine leaks electricity shocks), to fuse boxes blown due to a heating fan, to a smelly guest bedroom due to fungus or moist in the walls, to cracked walls, to ant problems, to a faulty electricity meter (and a landlord who knows about it but still tells you to pay until you make a big fuss out of it and force him to take responsibility for fixing it and paying for the faulty high bill), to faulty landlines that cannot have ADSL on them, to a garden that you cannot water well close to the apartment walls as the water would just flow right through the walls into the house, to neighbours throwing trash in the garden that you try to keep so nicely. And of course the landlord is not an easy or kind man to be dealing with. Avoid this place if you can!
- Telecom services: Since my landline cannot take ADSL, I had to use mobile internet or an internet USB in order to use internet on my laptop. First, I tried using my mobile’s internet package (Vodafone) and routing it to my computer using a ‘hotspot application’. This worked ok, but it was very slow. Because the internet packages don’t renew automatically, I called costumer service on the day of renewal to ask about how I can renew the package correctly. They told me to unsubscribe and subscribe again. Tedious, but fine – I did it. I noticed however that no money had been taken off my credit, so I called them again. They took it off manually, checked my internet package and said it worked. So I continued using it. By 11am the next morning, I was out of credit (and I had LE200 on it). I figured something had gone wrong with renewing the package and it started eating up my credit. I couldn’t reach Vodafone due to the Friday morning prayers and in the meantime, people were texting me and I could not call or reply. Quite some trouble, but they fixed it afterwards – fully compensated and they activated the right package.
To avoid cases like this every month, I moved to Mobinil. Bad decision. I paid LE200 for a 15GB internet package, but I got a LE100 7GB internet package instead and all, that plus the remaining credit, ‘finished’ in 5 days. (To compare, I used to buy 6GB internet packages in Cambodia and they lasted me about a month. I did not change my usage…) I told them they made a mistake topping up the wrong package. I also asked for proof of usage. They said it was the right package and they cannot provide proof of usage for pre-paid users. I complained (basically they can take any ‘usage’ without justification when they apply this ‘policy’), but topped up again since I needed the internet. This package lasted me 9 days. I complained again and went back to Vodafone. However, Vodafone’s signal is weak in my home, so I was ‘forced’ to go back to Mobinil. In order to save me the trouble of coming back every week, I decided on a larger package and got the right 15GB package. It lasted one day. I was furious. And then, when my Egyptian colleague called them, they said it was a technical error. So, this was probably the case with the earlier packages too. I am dependent on them due to my faulty landline, but I hope my new home will have a good internet connection independent from these phone companies. Mobinil called me after three months and compensated me with LE150. Considering I wasted LE500 on them in January alone, this was a pathetic compensation but it is better than nothing. I still do not recommend them though.
- Charity: Whether people give to charity or not is a personal choice, as is the choice who or what to give the money to. Having worked in development for a while now, I have decided that giving money to beggars and street children is not a sustainable solution. It is terrible to say ‘No’, but at least my action won’t keep them in the street as it is not reinforcing their behaviour. However, as was the case in Thailand, something like ‘making merit’ or ‘donating to charity’ is part of the culture. People who are wealthy or better off should share their money with the less fortunate. I completely understand and agree with this principle. The question is however, through what means? I prefer to work through programmes and donate to organisations rather than individuals on the street. At the same time, I heard Egyptians telling me that not giving them anything is not fair and they need the money now. It will always be a debated dilemma. And being given bad looks when I deny a street child a pound makes me feel like a bad person. I just wished people understood the reason behind my ‘No’ and would support the route of sustainability – even if this would mean individual and/or temporary suffering. As long as people still give money, the people will keep begging and there will not be a solution to the problem.
- Dogs: Dogs are not always loved in Egypt. Especially when it comes to strays. One day, I decided to walk home from work. After feeding a stray mother with 11 puppies, I continued walking home and I passed a garbage dump site. Three kids were standing around three puppies. The puppies had made themselves small and the kids were looking at me. I kept watching them while I walked past and as soon as I was further away, I saw one kid beating the puppies with a stick. I ran back towards them and told them to stop. They said no and just stared at me. I moved towards the puppies and stayed there and for as long as I was there, they did not hurt the puppies. However, at some point the kids started throwing rocks at me. I could not have possibly hurt them back, but I looked at them astonished, “Is this how you treat people?” or animals for that matter. Other kids gathered around and the group became divided – kids who wanted to hurt the puppies and other kids who saw what I was doing and trying to get the other kids to leave. After a while, there were less kids and I inspected the puppies. Their tails were missing and they were apparently cut off. Then, one puppy moved and I saw he had a broken leg. Heart-broken, I tried to pick him up to take him to the vet. However, without a car it is impossible to move him and after a minute or so, he started protesting and crying. Also, some kids were demanding money for taking the puppy. Since the puppy couldn’t be carried all the way, I put him down again and hoped for the best. I went back the next day with a box and a colleague to help me. We could only take the broken-legged puppy for now. The vet confirmed the tails had been cut off a few days earlier and the puppy had a broken leg. We could not take him back to the street and luckily, SPARE (the same shelter I visited before) offered to keep them for recovery, including the two sisters. Another friend and I went back the next morning for the two sisters and we drove them all to SPARE. And this is where the sad story turns positive: various people offered to sponsor them and thanks to that, they were able to stay at SPARE for longer than their recovery period. The broken-legged puppy did not make it – he died of Parvo as well… The two sisters were featured on a Dutch animal shelter’s website and they have found foster homes! They will be flown to the Netherlands this summer.
Luckily, my experiences have not all been bad. For example, I got offered to stay with a friend I used to study with back in 2005 while I was looking for my first apartment.
And some of the bad experiences turned good, like the case of the puppies that found foster homes in the Netherlands. This same cause brought me to one of the ladies who is fostering the puppies and she became a very nice and helpful friend. Or, like my housing problem that caused me a lot of trouble, but in my search for a new apartment, a female realtor turned out to be really lovely and we end up talking too much and too long after the business part. She found me a lovely new place and she is teaching me about the Islam from a female and European perspective. I am particularly glad to have met these two ladies!
And I have met other people through friends of friends and this has been a great way of meeting new people. Some of these new friends got me back into horse riding (despite my temporary break due to the housing madness at the moment – I will continue once I find my peace and calm again) and some invited me to ladies’ nights or day trips on the weekend. Last week, I went to a fundraising event of a school for refugee children (most are from Sudan). This was such a lovely experience – African beats that mentally brought me back to Kenya, lots of delicious food, clothing and arts. And this week, we will be visiting the Cairo Flea Market – a one of a kind flea market in the city.
It is still clear that the negative outweighs the positive for now, but I hope the positive will catch up again. I think sorting out my home and car situation will get me one step closer to enjoying this chapter a little more.