jordan: upgrade (plus bidets)

Hearing the alarm ring at 4:30 in the morning and exchanging groggy farewells with the staff of our hostel, we began last week a long and treacherous journey to our salvation, only comparable to our ancestors setting out for Ellis Island. The seven or eight hour bus ride from Cairo to Nuweiba was long and uneventful, as expected. We passed the time by sleeping and staring blankly out at the far-stretching desert. It seemed we would finally escape the trials faced in Egypt.

Arriving in the port of Nuweiba, however, reminded us that we were not yet into international waters. The ticket office for the ferry would have been damn near impossible to find, had we not met some helpful Jordanian students studying in Cairo. Then, we had to wait for hours in the beating sun on hot black concrete. Finally obtaining the tickets, we were waived through a gate and security checkpoint by scary, shouting men with guns. Our Jordanian counterparts, however, were kept behind. For once in our lives, we were glad to have U.S. passports.

The ferry was less long, equally uneventful, and mainly full of Arab emigrates and a crazy old woman who offered us bread and pantomimed instructions to us. Liz and I then proceeded to sneak into Jordan without visas (on accident, mind you) and make our way to Amman.

Ahhhhhh. Jordan. It's so much calmer in contrast, in fact, that—to tell the truth—we've been a bit bored since we've arrived. But, finally finishing up the worst of our two-week long orientation and moving into our respective apartments (in my case) and homestays (in Liz's case), life is, as the LG products that seem to dominate the electronics market in Jordan would say, good. Liz's host mom is a hair stylist and her host dad a make-up artist. It doesn't get much better than that. And they've given my roommate and I an apartment swanky enough for any drug lord. I'll upload pictures of Liz's homestay family as soon as I get them, but for now, check out where the rich people (and me!) live in Amman.

our sitting room. we're not really sure what to do with this.

our oven exploded when the landlady turned it on. i don't think we'll be baking many apple pies.

my king-size bed in my master bedroom.


the view from our balcony. yes, we have a balcony.


didn't your mother ever tell you it's not polite to stare?

This picture was taken in the Biblioteca Alexandria. I don't know why, but we felt it was appropriate for this post.

The role of women in the Middle East has progressed since the time of 1001 Arabian Nights from being sexual objects to being...well, sexual objects. Though women's rights have progressed since arabian days of yore, with women gaining the right to attend universities and work, in reality, the way Arab men view women's role in society is much the same as it always has been.

After just four days in Egypt, one can conclude that both Arab and foreign women receive little respect from the men that seem to run the country. Egypt, however, is very much a country of contrasts. Due to extreme wealth disparities and extremist views, some Egyptian men act with the noblest of intentions, whereas the majority of others care nothing but to deceive, harass, and take advantage of the women around them, especially if those women are seemingly available foreigners. In a place as exasperating as Egypt can be, all one learns is to trust very little, and be extremely grateful when anyone or anything proves trustworthy.

The problem is not just that we, as white females in Egypt, didn't blend into the streets full of covered women. It is how naked we felt when assaulted with a slew of stares, catcalls, hisses, honks, and whistles. To be ignored in the streets of a big city is a luxury taken for granted in Western countries. Even just making our way down the road to a popular local park, for example, we were met by honks from nearly every passing car. Admittedly, many of the looks we accumulated once in the safety of the park were friendly or merely curious, but most elsewhere were offensive and derogatory. It is this more than anything that made us feel so powerless and ashamed of our gender and nationality.

Unwelcome stares and exclamations were, however, the least of our problems as white girls in Egypt. Much more alarming were the men who would approach us and refuse to leave us alone or go so far as to physically molest us. In Alexandria, for example, we asked a seemingly nice young man for directions to the Biblioteca Alexandria. Offering to lead us the short distance there, we thought we had met one of the few nice Egyptian men. When we later ran into him on the street and he proceeded to follow us around for nearly an hour, we realized how wrong that conception had been. Lying about our plans and saying we were married proved our only out from the situation. Furthermore, in the Ramses train station in Cairo, we were approached by an Arab man claiming to be a metal musician. While he seemed only to want to help us in our travels, all we wanted was to be left alone, unobligated to yield to his desires.

Worst of all, however, is the physical harassment that, in the U.S., would be worthy of screams for help, at the very least, and most likely, lawsuits. On our first day in the city, a gaggle of young Arab boys followed us through the streets, grabbing at our breasts and other inappropriate places. To be molested by a fully grown man is one thing. To be molested by children without anyone stopping them is much more degrading. This is not to say we escaped violation by the men. On the bus from Cairo to Nuweiba, a police officer at a security checkpoint began slyly caressing our thighs as he calmly asked for our passports. In the street, one might be able to call out for help. But when confronted by a man with a brigade of armed men behind him, there is little that can be done. It is the combination of such physical and verbal abuse that made us feel as helpless and vulnerable as children throughout much of our stay in Egypt.

It would be unfair, however, to write off all Middle Eastern men or to hold them accountable for beliefs that have accumulated for centuries. As a Norwegian man in the Alexandria train station pointed out, after all, Arab women are not available even for harmless flirting and conversation. As white women, we are perceived as the only available females around. Furthermore, Egypt is full of a number of considerate, trustworthy men, if one only looks closely enough. A man in an Alexandrian bank was more than happy to politely converse with us in our broken Arabic and point us in the right direction. In addition, the staff at our hostel, though mildly flirtatious, were nothing but helpful and respectful, even purchasing train and bus tickets at no extra cost, and offering us as much advice as possible. In the end, all these people desired in return was our friendship and, yes, our email addresses.

As we depart from Egypt and the men that run the country, we are met with mixed emotions. Today, we leave behind a country that we both love and hate.


he nice, the jesus

Today we took a look into the competing religions behind the Egypt area. First we braved the flirtatious men on the metro to stop in Coptic Cairo. This was quite different from the rest of Cairo that we've seen and the first place we actually received friendly greetings from Egyptian woman!

Then, it was haggling over a cab fair to Islamic Cairo, where we saw the famous Citadel atop Muqattam hill. Haggling over cab fair: 13 L.E. Entrance to Citadel: 20 L.E. Almost getting killed in Cairo traffic: priceless.

The outer courtyard of the Mohammed Ali mosque. The limestone structure and cool breeze of this place was almost enough to consider converting. Though there doesn't seem to be much of a system, some women are made to put on a large green robe. Apparently, we were dressed modestly enough.

The inside of the Mohammed Ali mosque

Mosque of Al-Nasir Mohammed

Done hanging out in churches and mosques, we walked along the freeway to Al-Azhar park, somewhat of a sanctuary in the desert. We enjoyed sticking our dirty feet in the fountains and watching all of the locals out picnicking on their day off. Thursday's the new Friday!

one thousand camels and thirty liters of bananas

The pyramids are a fickle mistress. We were pleased as punch, of course, to visit some of the most ancient structures in the world. We were somewhat less satisfied, however, with the numerous tourist traps, scams, and lush marriage proposals that seem to go hand in hand with these triangles of yore. Ah, Egypt: the land of civilization.

The pyramids at Giza. We left here feeling probably as hot and frustrated as our camels due to the constant tourist traps. Please note the ridiculous headscarves. They were placed forcefully on our heads.

The step pyramid at Saqqara. Please note again the ridiculous headscarf. Again, placed forcefully on our heads. This picture was taken by baqsheesh-seeking local who pretended to be in awe of our Arabic skills.

One of the pyramids at Dahshur. This pyramid requires a lengthy climb and descent to get inside, where it smells strongly of ammonia. If we had realized at the time that it was because of the large number of bats inhabiting the pyramid, we probably would have enjoyed the view from the outside.

After a long day of hot sand and too much baqsheesh, all we wanted to do was take a dip in the Nile. The locals tell us, however, that this is not very wise. So we settled for a bizarre cruise full of vacationing Arabs instead. The singing, belly dancing, and sufi dancing was all just fine, but when they broke out in an English version of "Hotel California," we were somewhat taken aback. But hey, at least the boat had free dessert and air conditioning. And in this so-called "land of civilization," that's really all we're looking for.


the roof-the roof-the roof is on fire

After profuse goodbyes and a long, mildly disastrous journey, we finally made it to Cairo, the city that never sleeps. Or should I say the city that never leaves American girls alone?

As soon as we made it through customs, we promptly got ripped off by cab drivers and accosted by two Muslim women on our way up the elevator to our hostel. It was slightly made up for, however, by an accommodating host and traditional welcome tea. Ironically enough, it is somewhat of a seventh floor haven--and with free wi-fi and bottled water, I don't see any real reason to leave.

Room with a view

Nice curtains, huh?

Refreshed, we decided to venture into the streets below, only to discover that we come by more attention here than even the most narcissistic could desire. Unfazed (or so we tried to pretend) by the whistling, stares, and sometimes-polite waves, we saw billowing smoke over the tops of some buildings and decided to investigate. And, indeed, the roof was on fire.

We were hesitant to pull out our expensive, touristy cameras, but seeing all the onlookers taking pictures with their cell phones, we decided to be a bit gauche and snap a few pics. It was at this point that a gaggle of Arab boys started harassing us. Jumping into our pictures and asking our names was marginally adorable, but the bizarre hissing, following, and grabbing-in-inappropriate-places was somewhat less so. A considerate older boy tried to stop them from jumping us and even apologized for them, but it did little good when they followed us nearly all the way to our hostel, flustering us so much that we got lost and had to buy perfume in order to get directions back.

The culprits.

All in all, a rather off-putting experience, but at least we'll smell good the next time we are so presumptuous as to brazenly walk the streets of Cairo.


Missing You

We may complain about the US while we're here (and threaten to move to Canada) but in reality we're kind of attached to this country and a few of its accoutrements. Wouldn't you miss all of these things too?

Tim Gunn: Our favorite American. It'll be difficult to live without Project Runway and Tim Gunn's impeccable style advice for four months. Keep us posted. Make it work.

Pickles. We really doubt that they have pickles in the Middle East, and that's really a shame.

Our entire wardrobes. Hardly anything we own is Middle East-appropriate (note above dress).

The BFs. Maybe it sounds girly, but they really are what we'll miss the most. <3 LOL


Making Ready

How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation?
-Jane Austen

Here is how we prepare for a four month Middle Eastern sojourn. Call it a to-do list, if you will.

1. Buy oversized suitcases that will be impossible to lug through the streets of Cairo.

2. Pretend that we know where we are going and how to read maps. Well...let's just say one of us doesn't have a very good sense of direction. Ahem. Jessica.

3. Get evicted. Somebody forgot to put the rent check in the mail. Ahem. Jessica.

4. Eat as many American snack foods as possible. We will be living off hummus and pitas for the next four months, after all.