Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas in Cairo

Jenn made the mistake of telling me that she was certain to win an online wager to see who could get the closest to Christmas without hearing the song, "Little Drummer Boy." She foolishly mentioned this while I was in the very act of trolling Youtube for oddities. Within moments, her dreams were crushed as a terrible modern rock version was pumping (rump a pumping?) out of our tiny, tinny computer speakers. I don't remember what she threw at me, but Christmas was definitely on.

One of the glorious things about living in a predominantly Muslim country is that it affords you the opportunity to allow Christmas into your life in small, digestible pieces without much of the wanton commercialism that has come to define the birth of Jesus in America. There are lights in some places and there are creepy Egyptian mannequins in shop windows wearing ill fitting Santa suits. But, by in large, it is a low key event.

The exception to this is at the American school where I teach. It is a school populated by international expats from all reaches of Christendom and a large group of demonstrative, filthy rich Egyptians (mostly Muslim, but with a love for gift giving). There is considerable competition to see which room parent can raise the most money to buy extravagant presents for classroom teachers. Tales of gifted iPhones and pearls replace discussions of curriculum in faculty meetings throughout advent. I am a special ed teacher. While my general education colleagues were raking in cards and bottles of single malt scotch, my kids seem to have forgotten their presents at home - possibly on the counter with their homework. I am not bitter. I don't like expensive presents and am grateful for the bottle of maple syrup and a partially consumed bar of dark chocolate that I did receive. It really was partially eaten. I do not make this stuff up.

In a gesture that probably seemed ironic the first time they did it twenty years ago, Santa arrived at our last school assembly on the back of a camel.  While not quite as common as cars in Cairo, camels are not particularly rare and all of our kids have seen or ridden on one at some point during their stay in Egypt. Still, they love the moment when the enormous beast invariably urinates all over the school lawn. The kids will be remarking about the amazing volume of pee expelled until the cycle repeats itself next year. What would Christmas be without traditions?

We bought a live tree that is small and bordering on being too obvious in its likeness to a certain, unnamed cartoon boy's tree. We didn't bring ornaments with us from Texas, so the girls made some while I played DJ, finding carrols online by the likes of Lou Reed and Dwight Yoakem. Luci worked on construction paper stars and Mina ripped the heads off of Luci's Barbies to attach by yarn to the small, almost pathetic branches. Some blinking lights and garland narrowly save the tree from appearing to be a yuletide homage to the French revolution.

And so I played more versions of "Little Drummer Boy." I like the tune, but have some sort of word/sound aversion to the phrase, "rump a pum pum." It just sounds wrong and makes my skin crawl. In the Johnny Cash version, the man in black won't even sing that bit. In his brilliant baritone, he practically grumbles the cool parts while a small choir of lessers follows him around, chiming in with the annoying "rump a pum" bit. The worst rendition we heard was by the Cranberries. Jenn disagrees, but I am convinced that her Irish accent is fake and that she is actually from Plano. I remember faking an English accent once. Many people do it. Some people don't know when to stop. The coolest of cool versions of the tune has to be the one by David Bowie and Bing Crosby. Their singing is great, but it is the funny banter between the two before the music starts that is priceless.

We will probably not have port or tamales this year. Nor will we have the opportunity to see many of our friends and family (though Jenn's folks are visiting for the holiday). There are traditions that will be missed or poorly recreated. But we are healthy, the weather is fantastic, and we have survived another year of transitions and apocalypses with more smiles than tears. And so it goes until the next time we find ourselves on this side of the sun.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Desert and the River (part 2)

"Run!" I implore them, "Go as fast and as far as you can. Do not look back. Just run. Do you see those rocks, way over there? Run to them, touch them, and then come back and tell me what you saw. Or don't come back until the sun is setting and the smell of dinner grilling reaches you on a breeze. Go and follow the curve of the Earth until all I can see are the tops of your heads racing across the sand. Go."

At first it is difficult for the girls to believe that they are free. They have been tethered to us on such short lines these last few months. "Don't touch that. Come closer. Hold my hand. Look out for cars. Watch your step." We are all conditioned to the city, always fighting and flying - looking both ways before crossing every one way street. We are jumpy, hyper alert and flinching at the sound of car horns. But this is the desert and we have left the daily rules and frustrations of society behind in the city.

And then a scarab emerges from a tiny hole in the desert and they are off, chasing the bug on all fours - clambering to grab it and feel the tickle of six little legs, teasingly putting it on each others' backs. We are all laughing as they kick up sand, scampering around with their new toy. They play like puppies, tumbling and rolling. They play like children should.

I try to help our bedoin guides put up the brightly printed canvas wind break. They smile and humor me, allowing me to uselessly hold up a corner post while they neatly hammer stakes into the sand, fasten ropes against the wind. They are a father and son team, quiet and calm - proud in the subdued manner of the vast western desert. A smile between them tells me that they have everything under control, that they have been doing this for a thousand years.

I sit back against a white chalk boulder and breathe, attempting to comprehend the vastness. This desert flows across the great sand sea, across Libya and the seemingly endless Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean. It is too huge for me wrap my head around. Eventually I relax into the realization that I don't need to understand it, to grasp it or own it. My thoughts retract to the enormous glowing monoliths that jut out of the desert floor haphazardly, and closer still to my breath that is finally calm and even for the first time in months.

Our guides have been cordial, if slightly remote. Mina cements the relationship when she explains to them in gestures that we don't want to sleep in the provided tents. She lays out our familiar pallet of blankets and sleeping bags on the sand as the sun sets and the first stars appear on the eastern horizon. She helps build the fire and insists on heating pumpkin seeds on rocks beside the grill. She is in heaven, useful and competent. She glows with the confidence of a person who has broken the language barrier, communicating fluently with her actions. She is furious with me when I share a sheesha with her bedoin friends. Luci quietly busies herself just being Luci.

Our guides never stop feeding us - bread, slow cooked fava beans (fuul), tomatoes, carefully grilled chicken, and tea. The making and drinking of tea is a ritual of highly practiced motions. Small shot glasses and a steel kettle are unwrapped from a soft cloth every few hours. Water is poured and poured again over gunpowder tea, sampled and distributed. The tea is brewed brutally strong and sweet with small mint leaves delicately floating in the potion.

Night falls and the foxes emerge from the desert. This is the moment the girls have been waiting for. We have been observing their tiny prints in the sand, seemingly trotting from nowhere to nowhere with obvious purpose. They come in close to the fire, searching for scraps. The bemused looks on the faces of our guides tells me that these are the racoons of the deserts - fearless scavengers who are waiting until our guard is down to steal our food, to tear into anything that has not been carefully stored - sand colored varmints with burning eyes and enormous ears.

Jenn and the kids fall asleep, exhausted and contented. I am tired but not ready for sleep. Mars glows orange on the eastern horizon. I lay awake for hours, back on the sand, eyes in the sky. For the first time in my life I can actually feel the Earth slowly rolling eastward. I am riding it, flat on my back watching the horizon drop farther and farther away from Mars. I drift into sleep and I dream that I am in an enormous desert on a glorious planet breathing fresh air as a fox slips in close to steal my breakfast.

Monday, October 29, 2012


"So do you understand what these numbers mean?"

"Clearly doctor," I replied. "Cairo is now officially killing me."

It is no longer simply a metaphor. I knew Cairo was frustrating, annoying, often agitating - but deadly?

I went to see the school nurse two weeks ago. My daughter had contracted a strange, but not particularly dangerous virus called hand, foot, and mouth disease (not the cow one). She had a sore throat, low fever, and a nasty rash on her hands and feet. The disease is quite contagious. So she was at home, supposedly resting while the virus ran its course. I went to work, but I wasn't feeling so hot myself - run down, depressed, exhausted. The nurse looked at me and told me to sit down. She wanted to take my blood pressure. It was high. She told me to come back and have it checked the next day.

The next day it was still high. And the next. Appointments were made. Blood work was ordered. Damn, I hate needles.

 She sent me to the doctor; the same doctor who nine months ago told me that I was surprisingly healthy and would be even healthier if I drank red wine, cooked with olive oil, exercised more, and dropped a few kilos. I have been remarkably compliant in matters of red wine and olive oil consumption.

Apparently that wasn't enough.

It seems that both my blood pressure and cholesterol have moved up the charts from, "Drink red wine and try to get a little more exercise," to, "Take these pills every day for the rest of your life and dramatically change your lifestyle." 

"So, have you been eating a large amount of beef?"

"No. Not really. I do eat entirely too much bread." Ironically, my pork consumption has also increased while living in Egypt. There is this great little Coptic store nearby that sells hand cut bacon. Also, I tend to binge on sausage and ham when we go for Friday morning brunches at the US embassy club house. It has been a delicious way to feel slightly subversive, a scrumptious and subtle protest against my life in Cairo. Now my bad cholesterol is up, good cholesterol down. I suppose Allah always gets the last laugh.

"What do you do to relax? Do you exercise much?"

"Mostly I brood and sweat as if I were exercising without actually doing any excercise. Do those count?"

It is hard for me to relax here, hard to exercise. My favorite things to do are to walk and swim. The streets are loud and chaotic, a little dangerous and uncomfortable for strolling. Swimming, the kind I like to do, is out of the question. Though I feel a sense of peace when I am near the Nile, I am rarely tempted to jump in for a swim.

In Texas I was stressed. My job was actually more insane and I was a regular at at least half a dozen local TexMex joints. I probably should have been in much worse shape than I am now. But in Texas I had outlets. I could walk for hours without hearing a single car horn, without quickly jumping out of the way of a careening taxi.

But things are looking up. Perhaps I needed a jolt to help me break some of my bad habits. I have replaced the daily lemon squishies and thick, melted mozerella sandwiches with raw veggies and cool, refreshing water. Breakfast now consists of only one (albeit large and strong) cup of coffee and a small bowl of muesli with honey. I am taking my pills. The doctor says that if I can get this under control quickly, I may not even need to take the dreaded pills forever. I have already lost some weight, my pants loosening after just two weeks.

But I know what really kept me relatively sane and healthy before I came to Cairo, and what will restore me upon my return home. It was the river that washed away the daily madness. I realize now that I am destined to be one of those crazy old people who wake up at the crack of dawn in any kind of weather, pull my swim trunks up too high, mount an old cruiser bike, and peddle down to the place where water magically pours from the ground. I will pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and serenly dive into the cold, inviting river that seems to make everything in this crazy life just a little better.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

When I Grow Up...

When I was eight years old I wanted to be the pope. There was a priest at our church, Father Lagezi, who delighted in weaving jokes into his weekly homily. Sometimes he was quite funny. Other times, not so much. But regardless of the quality of the humor, the congregation laughed at every punchline. I figured that if a simple parish priest could garner that kind of power, the pope could say almost anything even slightly amusing and sit back, self assuredly listening to the multitudes chuckle.

But time passed and I moved on to other ideas. It wasn't the incredible improbability of ever becoming the pope so much as the intensity of the vows that dissuaded me from my lofty goal. So, if not the pope, what would I be when I grew up? I toyed with possibilities without committing to anything. At times I wanted to be a journalist, a cartoonist, a bartender, an orator, a gentleman farmer, a feluca pilot, and an international man of leisure, among other things.

A month before I graduated from college with a vague and immediately useless degree in Communication and English, Jenn bought me a homebrewing kit. I made my first batch of beer. It was terrible and so I made another. The second time it was not so terrible. A few more batches and the stuff was becoming delicious. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Remember that this was in the early days of the micro brewing revolution. There were still more NBA players in this country than professional brewers. The very first brewpubs in Austin were just starting to open. So I bottled a couple of batches of beer, printed my resume onto labels, and started knocking on the doors of these new breweries. I did not get a job on the first round. There were already too many ambitious homebrewers and too few breweries to employ us all. Still, I told myself that somebody had to be a starting forward in the NBA. Why couldn't it be me? I went back again and again.

While I had struck out with the first generation of brewpubs, my persistence paid off. I picked up a job at Austin Homebrew, which morphed into a brewing job at what may well be the coolest bar in the known universe - Lovejoys. It was a fantastic job and I worked there for four years. My boss, Chip, was great. He told me to make whatever I wanted. And so I did. Some of it was pretty good. I loved the artistic freedom of brewing small batches of craft beer for an eager and open minded clientele. Eventually the desire to move on and my waning interest in the science of brewing overcame me and I didn't want to be a brewer when I grew up anymore. Or maybe I just wanted to grow up again.

I started teaching because I heard that I could find a job in Mexico as an English teacher. I had never wanted to be a teacher. I never even wanted to step inside another school after graduating. I often ask myself now if I would be back in school if I had paid more attention the first time around. If I didn't want to be a teacher, I really never wanted to be a behavior specialist. But I am good with kids and for whatever reason, I have an ability to talk people down when they are about to do something stupid or dangerous - a talent that is sadly in high demand in American public schools.

A minor nervous breakdown and a lucky(?) break landed me a teaching job at an unnamed international school in Cairo. The job is OK but I'm tired of the stress and sick of the city. My blood pressure has become a clinically significant problem and I am increasingly asking myself, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Last week I tendered my resignation and have until the end of this school year to reinvent myself and perhaps grow up a little.

I was discussing the prospect of growing up and moving forward with a colleague and told him that what I really want to do is this - write. I told him I want to be an essayist, or what the kids today are calling a blogger.
"People make a living writing essays." I naively told him.
"Sure, five people do." He replied
At first I was crestfallen. It is true that in a world where everyone is giving away milk, it is no easy feat to sell a cow. But then I thought about the five people who are doing it and about NBA players and how I was once a twenty-five year old hobbyist, pounding the street with a six pack of homebrew under my arm, knowing beyond any doubt that what was in my bottles was worth buying.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


It is not a long walk to the school where I work, just a few blocks. I leave early, while the traffic is still relatively calm and before the cruel sun has risen over the jungle of dusty six story buildings that spread east to the Moqattam hills. But it is hot already. By the time I arrive at work my forehead is pouring, my shirt soaked. As Ra begins his daily journey across the sky, I settle into another day of moist discomfort.

You have to know that I am not talking about a little bit of sweat - dark, damp circles on my shirt beneath the arms. That is typical. My case is more severe. My head sweats. The backs of my knees, my belly, chest, and even my buttocks are not immune to the daily drenching.

This summer, while back in Texas, I ran into a girl who had been in my kindergarten class four years ago. It is normally a joy to see former students. Although I was not a very good kinder teacher, I humor myself with the belief that I might have imparted something meaningful and long lasting upon the lives of the kids I taught - that they would have something special to carry with them that they learned in our class. I said hello to her and her mother. "How are you? Are you ready for fourth grade? Have you read any good books this Summer?" The usual stuff. She looked up at me with a quizzical expression, "So, do you still have that sweating problem?" She asked. That's what she remembered? I was stunned and embarrassed, unable to stop myself from quickly jabbing back, "I don't know. Do you still have that impurtenance problem?"

People tell me that I will acclimate. I respond that I have lived in hot climates for most of my adult life. They look at me with a strange mixture of perplexity and pity. "And you haven't acclimated yet?"

Yes, in fact I have acclimated. It's just not particularly pretty or comfortable. Dogs shed their thick coats in the spring. Flowers close petals around delicate blossoms as the sun rises and the heat of the day increases. I sweat. It is remarkably efficient. Despite constant misery, my body temperature rarely rises above 97.2 F.

I have acclimated but not adapted. It took many, many generations of people living and mating happily on cold, rainy islands in the north Atlantic for me to become who I am physically. In context, I am really quite practical, if not beautiful. The thick, furry pelt that covers nearly my entire body ensures that I rarely feel discomfort in the cold. Even my pasty, white skin would be useful for gathering sun light if I were blessed to live in a land that didn't have quite so much.

If I can't change, at least there is hope for my children who were born in Texas. If you believe that, then you fundamentally do not understand natural selection. The best chance for my children is that they might have inherited persperation characteristics from their considerably less sweaty mother. If my moisture traits are dominant, they will suffer as I have.

The only way for evolution to work progressively, would be for me to have been so repulsive to the Texas girls I pursued in college that I would have been denied the opportunity to mate and produce viable, sweaty offspring. I would have grown old and died childless, with nothing but undesirable traits to keep me company. But I was crafty. I met Jenn in the dead of winter and courted her on the banks of a cool, spring fed river. We would sit together by the San Marcos that first Summer. Whenever my body temperature rose, I slipped into the water like a Galapagos iguana. She was smitten before she ever realized just how physically repugnant I actually am.

And now I live in Egypt, surrounded by people with dark skin and small, dry pores. I begin each day with a cold shower and then stand, drying myself in front of a small window unit air conditioner. I smear antiperspirant under each arm and across most of my torso and put on a clean shirt, dry for the moment. I gather my things and open the door, stepping out into a new day. I have not even left the porch before the first small drops begin to bead up on my forehead.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Like Jesus

 There are plenty of good reasons to like Jesus. For many, it is his simple words of peace and forgiveness that still ring true after two thousand years. Others grasp hopefully to the promise of eternal life in paradise. Some folks just like the beard. While I am drawn to his charisma and message of tolerance, what I love most about Jesus is the virtually limitless material he provided for single panel comics.

It started in second grade at Davinese Boys' school in Beaconsfield. We had to take a class called Scriptures. The format of this class was simple. The teacher would read bible stories to a bunch of squirmy, smart alecky British school boys (and me). We were tasked with listening attentively and then responding with drawings that depicted the stories we had heard. We were like prepubescent monks, illustrating a new, new bible with map pencils and crayons. I was in heaven - not literally, of course.

The cool thing about all of the old bible figures, and Jesus in particular, is that they are easy to draw. They all had beards and wore robes. Notable exceptions are Adam and Eve (but it would be years before I mustered the artistic courage to draw them). Once you have figured out how to make little circles for toes and lines to represent the sandals, all you have left to tackle are the hands. Hands and arms are always tricky. In the bible, they are often raised - whether it be to smite the wicked, raise the dead, or just hoist a glass of freshly vinted wine at a wedding. So, you bend the elbows a little, gap the robes around the wrists, and pray you don't screw up the fingers. A cool trick I learned at Davinese, was that if you dab a little Crayola crimson red on each palm, you have instant stigmata. It is a powerful image that conveniently distracts critical eyes from ungainly fingers.

As a boy, I added some secular touches to my pictures - fish gasping for water in a freshly parted Red Sea or a pair of wookies trying to sneak onto Noah's arc. But this was a private school and we avoided the profane out of self preservation, if not devotion. I grew up, somewhat, but never quit drawing Jesus. For a while I was publishing religious comics in a magazine called The Atheist. More recently Jenn and I launched a line of greeting cards, including a number of birthday/Christmas cards. Though the quality of the drawing has remained pathetically stagnant since grade school days, I like to think that the comics are funny and occasionally insightful.

I particularly like Jesus because I can draw him. I can draw him as a god or a man without fear of reprisal. And I've drawn some pretty offensive cartoon depictions of Jesus. I do so because I believe that Jesus had a sense of humor and that our gods and heroes are only worthy of devotion if they can stand up to fearless questioning while retaining their supposed message of peace. And if we are to be followers of these peaceful gods, we will strive to do likewise.


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Desert and the River (part 1)

They say that if you fall into the water, you will emerge covered in unspeakable bacteria. They say that whole villages of people along the Nile have been blinded by parasites from bathing in this water. They say that the sides are the worst and if you must get in the river, do so in the deep and flowing middle section. We step carefully from boat to boat, not wanting to slip and fall between as we board. There are eight of us. There could be as many as twenty, seated comfortably on the cushioned seats of the feluca. We are going for a short outing - a couple hours around the sunset. But I could stay on this river forever, lose myself in the reeds and tiny islands, never returning to the city.

The picnic table is spread with the usual snacks: hummus, nuts, greasy little egg rolls, and cans of beer. Around the table, we recline and chat. If we are lucky, Jenn will actually pick up the guitar that she has been coaxed to bring along. She is timid to play. She doesn't want to be that person - the one who brings a guitar everywhere and monopolizes all attention, playing boring and endless songs. I can't quite convince her that the simple fact that she doesn't want to be 'that person', is proof that she isn't. 'That person' doesn't have a clue. Besides, her songs kick ass and her voice is amazing. She sings, quietly at first. She pauses to watch a pied kingfisher hover over the water for a few moments and then dive for a fish. With a clicking buzz, the bird is gone and Jenn resumes her song.

There is no motor on a feluca, only the soft creaking of timbers pushing gently against the wind and the water. The pilot smiles when I ask him if he has the best job in Cairo.  The feluca has no car horn. And so the pilot communicates with waves and friendly calls to other boats and farmers along the banks. He tacks expertly into the breeze. Mina wants to work the rudder. She pokes me, "Will you help me ask him?" He is grinning, clearly understanding her as she works up the courage to speak to him.

From the middle of this peaceful river, serenely passing islands of tall reeds and small rowboats full of fishermen, it is hard to believe that we are in the middle of Cairo. Just a few hundred yards away the city begins at the banks and sprawls off into the desert on either side. Out there in the city twenty million people are all talking and yelling at the same time. Twenty million people are stuck in traffic, uselessly honking their horns over and over again. Twenty million people throwing garbage on the ground in unison. The city is vibrant and annoying. It assaults and offends, overwhelms people like me - people who crave serenity as much as we need human interaction. But we have options. Though we are tied to the pulsing city through our jobs and apartments, we make these short forays out to find peace. Whenever possible we journey out to the desert or inward to the river. Like the pilot, with his head back and eyes half closed in the breeze, we breathe deeply and slowly, inviting the current to wash away the tension.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Cloud Gazing

At a long and boring faculty meeting, somebody mentioned that people who get into teaching for the summer vacations are doing it for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps I should delete that part from my resume. Although it isn't just the summers off that I enjoy about teaching. It is also the two weeks at Christmas and a week for spring break that inspire me to sign my dreaded contract year after year - to sign my life away to another year of public scrutiny and constant, unrelenting stress. It is a trap. My leg is clamped painfully in its steel jaws, but I am too weary to bother chewing it off to reclaim my freedom.

My brother was a public school teacher. He now works in the private sector. I asked him about how hard it was to give up his summers. He told me that he had worried over this very question constantly before the fuse was lit, while it was burning, up until the moment that his career ended dramatically in a glorious explosion of profanity and threats. He said that now that he is done teaching, he no longer needs summers off. As I look toward a future away from education I am reassured by his words.

Back home in the Texas public schools, people worked very hard - hell, we toiled. There was always too much to do and too little time to do it. We often worked very long days, but we didn't delight in it or boast about it. Sure some folks were driven and inspired. Many were brilliant. But there was an understanding that many of us were just trying to get through the day, the week - counting down days until the next break. There was no shame in that.

People here in the international, private schools are different. There is what strikes me as an oddly competitive attitude about how hard they work and particularly about how many hours it takes. If I tell someone that I came in at 9am on Saturday to get some work finished, she will likely counter with, "Well I came in at seven." If I left at two, she invariably stayed until at least five. It is as though we are in a bidding war over wasted time. When I ask a person what he plans to do on the weekend, he will always make some mention of working at least part of the time. The funny thing is that when I do actually drag my lazy self into school on a weekend to do something that I should have completed weeks ago, I rarely actually see anybody there at all. It seems to be enough just to say you are working - to continually work on the illusion that you are busier than everybody else. If I thought that people were trying to support and inspire one another, I might have some respect this ridiculous game of one upmanship. But it does not feel like that at all.

The same attitude extends to extra curricular activities. I love to take long walks. People here train for marathons. I mentioned to a coworker that I just went swimming. "How many laps did you do?" Probably not as many as you. I don't do laps. I am more manatee than porpoise. Why would I waste valuable water time swimming back and forth over and over again?

As such, I don't really like to tell people what I am doing. I don't want to relate everything to work or to compete about how much of my free time I have spent at school. Jenn suggested that I just say I am working on whatever I am doing... just use the word 'work' in every sentence. This evening I will start by working on eating too much really good Korean food. When I get home, we will work together on finishing off that case of foul tasting Sakkara beer. Then I will work on watching a TV show about teenage vampires. Tomorrow morning I will work with my kids on playing soccer and dig into a project based on Scooby Doo.

If I am inspired to work really hard this weekend,  I will slip away to a quiet place where I can lie on my back in the sand. I will gaze at the heavens and begin the arduous task of finding and identifying images in the clouds as they float past.

Hard at Work

Saturday, August 18, 2012

You Say You Want a Post Revolution

 "And so I dropped one of those, how do you call them? Yes, cinder blocks, through his windshield and pulled him out of the car by his shoulders, like this. I threw him on the front of the car and told him that he and his friends are not welcome to drive like that in front of my store anymore. He was scared, crying a little. They won't come back." I listened as Hamny, my buddy who owns a small souvenir shop in the midan near our apartment, regaled us with his tales of post revolution machismo and civic responsibility. The story sounded a little too intense to believe in its entirety. But who am I to judge a man by the accuracy of his words? I certainly hadn't seen the young punks around in a few days - the ones who were increasingly present near our house, doing donuts during rush hour, yelling, fighting, scaring common citizens in this new anarchic, post revolution Egypt. Besides the story was good, and Hamny tells it in a great voice with huge, overblown gestures.

Time in Egypt was once measured in dynasties. These lasted hundreds or thousands of years and were defined by giant monuments and the deaths of pharaohs. But that is all over now. All time now is divided into two periods - pre-revolution and post-revolution. Some wax nostalgic for the pre-revolution, which was characterized by tyranny and a relative (very relative) degree of order. Post revolution is uncertain, sometimes hopeful, a little bit frightening, and increasingly chaotic.

Street crime, which was virtually nonexistent in Cairo until the revolution, is on the rise. Purses are snatched, cars are stolen. It is still safer here than in most cities around the world. But it is not as safe as it was before. You can walk at night, but it is worth keeping an eye out for muggers. They say not to wear purses or bags across your shoulders. The mode for most theft is drive by style, three dudes on a motorcycle. They grab your bag. If you let it go it is gone. If it is around your shoulders they go anyway, dragging you on the ground until the strap breaks.

I am not a tough guy by nature. But when I walk the streets I pretend that I am. First I convince myself that if anyone wants what I have they had better be ready to kick my ass to get it. Who knows how scared I'd be if I were really mugged. I believe that I am big and strong. And I don't get messed with, with the rather glaring exception of when I was pick pocketed in the shadow of the great pyramid one week after my arrival. That was a crime of cunning and finesse, unsettling but not as intense as being mugged or dragged behind a shitty Honda motorcycle by a trio of post revolution wannabe thugs. I will swagger. I will put my cash in my front pants pocket. I will not go down without a fight.
OK, enough bravado.

Before the revolution, the police were a rather intense presence, sitting in pairs on street corners in black berets, Kalashnikovs locked and loaded. People avoided the police. They feared, respected, hated them a little, and did what they had to to avoid their attention. And then the revolution came. The brutality of the police was no match for the collective will of the Egyptian people. Hundreds died at the hands of the Egyptian police force before the regime toppled. The army took control, but faded into the background as the police came back out to the streets. You can find the police now, shadows of their former selves. They are generally unarmed and sheepish. They enforce nothing, seem to see nothing. They avoid eye contact and crime scenes. Post revolution Egypt is a  little rough around the edges.

I was walking across the midan on my way to work the other day when I saw a car accident - a very common occurrence in a town where forty people a day die in wrecks. One guy had rear ended another guy. I didn't see the lead up, but I'm sure they were both at fault. Nobody in this town can drive. They jumped out of their cars, ran up to each other, and started yelling and pushing. Yelling and pushing are never out of place in Cairo. People yell at each other when they are buying falafel. But these guys were about to go at it. I slipped away to a safe distance, curious but eager to avoid any involvement. Some fist flew, landing loudly on chests and faces. Suddenly I saw the door to Hamny's shop fly open. He emerged, broad shoulders back, chest puffed out. The dude looked eight feet tall. Hamny strode into the middle of the melee, picked up first one guy and then the other. He bodily placed them onto their respective car hoods, speaking calmly and authoritatively to each man. They shrunk. They cowered as he stood above them, explaining the new way - the way it would be in Hamny's post-revolution Cairo. Withing minutes he had made them shake hands, get in their cars, and drive away.

And then I noticed his t-shirt and realized that there are still pharaohs who walk among men. Things would be rough for a while. But there is hope for post-revolution Egypt.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Jet Lag

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place"
-TS Eliot "Ash Wednesday" (excerpt)

It is dark again, suggesting that perhaps I should sleep. Although I am not tired, I am fixated on the idea that tomorrow I will be. Or later today. I look at my trusty little analog alarm clock. It is battery powered and impervious to the black outs that have increased in frequency and duration during our absence. Even though I know it is correct, it is confounding. My head swims a little as I try to mentally roll the hands backwards (or is forward?) to determine the time in Texas where I was two (or is it three?) days ago - hoping to understand why I feel the way I do. If I were home, which is an increasingly abstract concept in itself, what would I be doing right now? Sleeping? Probably not. Am I hungry because my internal clock is calling out for dinner or breakfast? I am confused. Feelings of exhaustion and hyper alertness battle for control of my brain.

Piecing it together: at 3am the kids finally went to sleep. By 6am, two of the four bottles of wine from the duty free were empty and my eyes closed. At 9am Mina came into the room, seemingly refreshed and ready to start again. She doesn't like to miss out on anything.

It took three planes to carry us back to Cairo. The first was small and particularly miserable. With our heads craned and shoulders rubbing, we hurtled through the heavens from Texas to DC in a plane that looked and felt entirely too much like an Airstream trailer with wings to inspire confidence or provide comfort. I did not sleep on this plane.

The next plane was glorious, a Boeing 777 with a cathedral ceiling and large, comfy seats that have little TV's on the back. They have a menu of movies, including fairly new ones and many choices for kids. Luci watched Dumbo. I snuggled into a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, bass and turbulence dancing together as I slipped in and out of semi sleep. Though it wasn't restful, my dreams were vivid. I was crossing the desert on a camel, part of a caravan of spice merchants. But I was actually a black kid from Queens with a gift for rhyming and a kick ass record collection. I woke up floating in a lake in central Texas. I could hear Jenn, laughing - giggling even. I couldn't see her in the darkness, but I knew she was out there. A foot in the ribs and I was jolted awake, still in the plane. Luci's legs were sticking out in the aisle as flight attendant was passing with a drink cart. Yes, please.

After a night of flying we had a ten hour layover in Frankfurt. I've never been outside of the airports in Germany. Although exhausted, we could not waste this opportunity. We quickly learned how to buy train tickets, checked Jenn's guitar into storage, bought some Euros, and headed into town. I love European cities. The kids chased pigeons and heckled gold painted human statues while Jenn and I feasted on sausages and potatoes, giant hot pretzels and large mugs of beer. We strolled through town. I was dreading the last flight... the one that would take me back to Cairo. It was on a Lufthansa plane. The flight attendants were German. The passengers were mostly Egyptians - boisterous and hungry after a day of Ramadan fasting. I sat back, bleary eyed, and watched the cultures clash. After repeated warnings that broke down into threats, the crew was able to seat the passengers. Dates and water were passed around to break the fast and we took off for Cairo.

I don't know what time the guys from the local market came by to drop off water. It was nighttime, late even by Egyptian standards. I had just fallen into something that seemed like sleep when they banged on the door. I couldn't find my glasses or the light switch, fumbling for cash in the darkness. Jenn always over tips the water guys. And so they stood there in my door way, clearly not willing to budge until I fished out enough change from my wallet to match her kindness. In a daze, I sat on the couch and stared at the computer through insomniac's eyes.

There was a moment, dozing on the couch, when I realized it was now or never. I walked into the bedroom, stepping lightly so as not to wake myself. My bed in the apartment in Cairo is wonderful. It might be the only comfortable thing in the whole city. Finally, there was no doubt that I was ready to crash. The instant my body hit the bed my eyes flew open.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Divine Intervention

I was walking down Road 87 absentmindedly kicking bits of trash and grumbling under my breath about infrastructure when I saw him. He was about my height, maybe a little taller if you include his ears.

"¿Que onda guero?" He asked in a distinctly chilango accent.
"Pues, nada perro." I replied. I must admit that it felt good to be addressed in Spanish. Although my Spanish is not, and never was, very good - I enjoy Spanish and tend to feel better when people are speaking it. He had been leaning against a wall in a nonchalant manner. He shifted, stood taller, and walked beside me down the road.

I have been in a bit of a funk lately, spending too much time asking difficult (virtually rhetorical) questions and failing to notice, failing to engage in the marvels of daily life. Now, taking a stroll with a man who was wearing nothing but sandals and a linen mini-skirt, I had a feeling that things were taking a turn in an interesting direction. The curious thing is that despite the street being very crowded, as is typical in Cairo, if anybody noticed us - a chubby American in a guayabera and a nearly naked young man with the head of a jackal-  nobody said anything or even looked at us askance.

And so we walked. "¿Como ves?" He asked, his arm making a wide gesture as if referring to all of Egypt, perhaps the world.
"That's a big question, brother. You have time for a cup of tea?"
We were approaching Rd 9, main street if you will. There is a brilliant little outdoor tea house at the corner where the old men play endless rounds of dominoes and backgammon while drinking tea and smoking sheesha. It seemed like a good place to unload with my new friend. I don't really like smoking sheesha. It is smelly, numbs my tongue, and makes my head swim. But I figured, if I was going to spend the afternoon with the ancient Egyptian god of the dead, what harm would a little smoke do? It turned out that as well as being virtually unbeatable at backgammon, Anubis is a pretty good listener. He patiently followed along as I griped about Cairo, about traffic and garbage. After a while a thought crossed my mind. "So, this is a bit of an awkward question... um, am I dead?" I was after all, having tea with Anubis. He laughed and shook his head slightly. "Just checking."

At some point there was a lull in the conversation. That is to say that I quit yammering on self indulgently long enough for Anubis to get in a word. He cocked his head slightly in that curious way that dogs (and jackals, I suppose) do, paused a moment, and asked, "Que quieres, guero? ¿Porque viniste?"

 I don't know.

Reasons change. Plans change. Sometimes perhaps our motivations are hidden from us and reveal themselves later in our actions. Sometimes there are signs. Sometimes it is a jackal headed god or a pick pocket by a pyramid that guides us. Sometimes when I see a kingfisher hovering above the river, watching something just below the surface that I can't quite see, it makes sense for a moment. And I have seen these birds from the bank of the San Marcos River, as well as from feluccas in the Nile.

I don't know how long I sat there. When I did finally answer him, my reply sounded sort of vapid, silly really, "I came to see the pyramids." Again he chuckled in a curiously dog like way. I wanted to tell him that I meant more than that. That I wanted to experience the ancient world and feel thousands of years of history, that I was drawn by the Nile, by the mysterious carvings of mythical creatures on temple walls and the mountains of sand that shifted, concealing and revealing. I wanted to see a real jackal in the desert and to talk with a god with the head of a jackal too. It occurred to me that this impossible moment was exactly why I came, this meeting on the road, this cup of tea and crushing backgammon defeat. I suddenly felt like things were looking up.

Then he told me to go visit the Red Pyramid. He said that things would be better there, that I could reconnect with my dream. It felt funny having the god of the dead giving me tips on how to live. But maybe that is not so strange. It seems like everyone in Cairo has advice on where to go. Probably his cousin owns a gift shop there where he would give me 'very good, Egyptian price - not tourist.' But I knew that really it was more than that, that Anubis was alright, a good guy.

"Gracias. Thanks." I said. "I'll go. I'll bring the kids. I think we all need a good dose of ancient Egypt.

"¿Necesitas una guia?" He asked. You see. There's always the sales pitch in this town.

"Ya tengo una, gracias."

Friday, May 4, 2012


It is possible that I can be accused of being a little heavy handed lately with negative descriptions of my host country and the goings on in my daily life. Apparently it is a normal stage in the adjustment process to hate anything and everything around about the fourth month mark. And here I am at four months, frothing with contempt, eager to share all of the discomfort.

A couple of months ago, when I didn't like Egypt the first time, I remember my older sister saying something to the affect of, "I hope you get happy, because when Paul's not happy... nobody is happy in the house." I hope that is not exactly true, but it probably is, at least a little.

A funny thing I've noticed in my travels, and this might come as a surprise to some of you Texans out there - everybody doesn't love Texas as much as you do. Most folks just don't get it. In fact, many become annoyed when Texans speak in loving terms about their home state.
And so, in the interest of levity and education, it is time to elucidate the foreigners and skeptics by describing some little known facts about Texas......

In Texas there is a mobile taco stand about every quarter of a mile. All of the tortillas are homemade and the the tacos, beyond being delicious, are actually rather slimming.

In Texas all people are always friendly. There are never fights, conflict, or even harsh words exchanged. All interactions start with a nod and a smile, and end with a firm handshake.

In Texas gas is dirt cheap and there is no traffic. You can drive for hours through rolling green pastures, past pecan groves and over clear, cool rivers. When you happen upon other drivers, they are courteous and safe.

If you have the good fortune of swimming in a Texas spring fed river, you will instantly add several healthy years to your life. Worries abate and most common communicable diseases are instantly cured.

While it is often hot in Texas, sweat is oddly clean and free from off putting odors. Plus it dries instantly, never leaving you feeling uncomfortable or damp.

Dogs are happy in Texas. Their tails barely stop wagging. Those prone to grinning, do so with aplomb.

People with tails also wag them more often in Texas.

Though there are four types of venomous snakes and at least two potentially deadly species of spiders in Texas, they are all quite sweet and can be tamed quickly with harmonica music or barbeque sauce.

Tex Mex food is from Texas.

It is said that if you fall into the San Antonio River you will live forever.

In Austin, everybody with a guitar instantly becomes a rock star.

Though it is not actually true that everything is bigger in Texas, everything is in fact grander.

Despite attempts to approximate Texas accents in movies, people in Texas do not speak with a discernible accent. They speak English perfectly with the correct intonations and pace that it should have.

Many people come to Texas. Few leave. Those who do mostly cry themselves to sleep at night until their return.

Most people do not ride horses in Texas or wear cowboy hats.

Steaks cook themselves in Texas, perfectly.

Mexican and southwestern cultures blend smoothly in Texas with two languages melding together into beautiful music.

Not in Cairo
Watermelons have seeds in Texas. The seeds can be spit out, but give great physical and mental strength to those who consume them.

Everything makes sense in Texas. Confusion is virtually nonexistent and common sense prevails.

Perhaps I have been away too long. The constant noise and hazy air can be befuddling here. It is conceivable that my  memories have been altered through time. But these above stated facts do keep me grounded and remind me that in this crazy world there are places where it is possible to understand what on Earth is  going on around me.

Friday, April 27, 2012


What is it about pyramids? Why do some people love them, seek them? They travel the world, enduring jet lag, harrowing taxi rides, camel drivers, multilingual t-shirt peddlers, and assorted other annoyances just to stand in their shadows. Why do I shudder when I see them? Why do I hate them? And yet, on clear (a relative term) days, I can't help myself. I scan the skyline, looking for a peek of the monstrous tombs. This town is big. But the pyramids are bigger.

I remember my first trip to the Alamo as a kid. I had seen the John Wayne movie and had expectations of a large church and fortress in the middle of the desert, tumble weeds rolling past tour buses. Of course the Alamo is a relatively small church in the middle of a pretty big city. I love it, but not for its grandeur. If anything, it is that it is such a little thing that has become a huge Texas icon that makes the Alamo all the cooler.

The great pyramids of Giza are the opposite. They are enormous. If it were not for the nearly constant haze of air pollution that hangs over Cairo, you could see them over and around almost any other structure. They are impressive from every angle, even at a distance. When you get up close and can see the gigantic individual blocks that form them, it is breath taking.  If you like big monuments, you will not be disappointed.

What's in that smiling guy's hand?

I think the experience we had at the pyramids one week after our arrival has sadly defined my feelings towards pyramids, towards big, stupid piles of bricks and my general experience in this crazy town. We were hassled, prodded, annoyed, harassed, and robbed. And that was just during the taxi ride to get there. Once we actually got into the pyramid area it just got worse. People were relentless, shoving things in our hands, demanding money. It was loud and confusing. They just wouldn't let up for even a moment. I was even pick pocketed by a camel driver. This is pretty rare in Egypt, but it happened to me. Even the intensity of the souvenir hawkers in this country can be truly off putting to people who generally prefer to be left alone - people like me.

I think most tourists are able to compartmentalize the hassles. It is all just a part of the bigger experience, a minor annoyance that will some day make a terrific travel story, like getting malaria in Nicaragua or being beheaded in Saudi Arabia. They plug through, smiling and trying not to let it ruin their experience. 'Honey, do you have any idea how much these tickets cost? Smile and have some fun, for goodness sake!'

For me it is different. I am not a tourist. Well, that is a half truth. I live here, but I am not exactly buying property or even making huge efforts to learn the language. I am really something of a resident tourist on a long and exhausting working vacation. I want the perks of being foreign, but I get annoyed when I am charged gringo prices. In some ways I am worse than a tourist. Real tourists, at least, have the courtesy to leave after they have seen the sights and spent their money. I am still here, complaining, illiterate, and demanding.

So why take all that out on the last of the great wonders of the ancient world? I suppose the pyramids don't have much purpose other than being symbols. For some they symbolize the impossible, the ancient, the mysterious. For some they are feats of engineering, marvels of human achievement. For others they are proof of God or aliens or something extra and unseen in the universe. For many locals they speak to a history of greatness and an opportunity to make a couple bucks off of tourists.

I don't know what they are to me... huge, overwhelming, and ever present even when shrouded in smog - especially when shrouded in smog. If I had a car, I could drive away from them. Eventually I would find a sea or a forest or something green or wet. But I don't have a car and  there is nothing but desert outside this giant city. I could run all day, away from the pyramids - as fast and as far as my weak legs could carry me. Eventually I would fall over, coughing and exhausted on the sand. I would look back and if the sky was clear, they would still be there, poking above the rubble of half finished buildings, the wind blown garbage, and sand dunes. They would be smiling down, maybe laughing. And I would still be in Egypt.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Home part 2

I used to be somebody. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that I was a celebrity or anything. But I was somebody. I lived in a small city where I knew hundreds of people by name. I was a regular at at least six or seven Tex Mex restaurants. I couldn't walk down the street or go to a store without running into an acquaintance. Chatting time had to be factored into any outing. If nothing more, I could count on a familiar nod or a smile of recognition every time I left the house.

I attribute this to a number of things. For one thing I lived in San Marcos, on and off, for nearly twenty years. The jobs I did in San Marcos were quite social. I was a vet assistant, a pizza driver, and a teacher for a number of years. Teaching and working for the school district particularly made me feel like a part of the community. Also I am a pretty gregarious and friendly person. I enjoy visiting. And Texas is not a bad place for chatting. Folks tend to be friendly, particularly in smaller cities and towns.

I left every so often, but have always been lured (some say sucked)  back to live amongst my adopted people, the San Martians. Even now, as I toil in the Egyptian desert, I check nightly for sheep's blood over my door or some sign that exodus is at hand and I can escape to the promised land. As yet, I have witnessed plagues, but no relief.

Let me tell you about growing up. I was born in the Netherlands to American parents. At three we moved to England, where I lived and went to school until fifth grade. Then we went to a place my parents referred to as 'home' where I had no idea about anything, America. I was nine but had never seen a full episode of Sesame Street. I didn't even know that Greg and Marsha were brother and sister, sort of. After an awkward seven year stint in Houston, we moved to Egypt where I completed high school amongst other oddball kids. Just three months ago, I learned that there is a word for people who grew up like me - people who hold passports from countries that they know almost nothing about. They (we) are referred to as 'third culture kids'. Cool. I lived less than half of my childhood in the United States, but I am not a foreigner, at least not exactly.

This was problematic socially for a long time. I was always a fish out of water. Ten years ago, I left a good job as a brewer, escaping to Mexico in the hopes of finding myself outside of the US. It was terrific and might have actually worked if economics and family hadn't pulled me back. Being an American outside of America felt like home to me at that time.

Something funny happened when I started teaching in San Marcos and my first daughter was born seven years ago. I think it was a sudden thing, though I can't describe the moment. Maybe it was an event or maybe just a realization. I became an American, and more specifically a Texan, and to be even more specific than that... I became a San Martian.

But the mind is a roamy thing and mine always wanders, goes on trips looking for greener grass and springier springs. That impulse may always follow me. And so now, we find ourselves in Egypt. But this time is different. This time I am not ecstatic or relieved. Though the adventure is intense and we are never bored, there is a pull that I cannot deny. In truth, I am terribly homesick, as I never was in Mexico or any of the other temporary homes of my past. At the risk of falling prey to melancholia, I revel in this homesickness and how it reveals to me that I finally have something that I (and maybe other 'third culture kids') always longed for....  home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


At some point during any discussion about food in Egypt, somebody invariably mentions, in an apologetic tone that, "Well, the cucumbers are really good here." The cucumbers are, in fact, delicious in Egypt. They are smaller than cucumbers we used to buy in the States. They are firm, slightly sweet, and form a respectable anchor to a delightful cucumber salad - so long as the generally rancid tasting onions don't ruin it for you.

 I like felafel too. But I don't love felafel. Well perhaps I am falling out of love with felafel, if it ever really was love. In fact, if I never ate another felafel sandwich again for the rest of my life that would be alright. Shewerma can be tasty, but it is a sad substitute for its distant latin cousin, the taco al pastor. It is not even worthy to be served next to the gyro, or any of the other many skewered and grilled meat sandwiches that deliciously feed the rest of the world.

 It is really not fair to compare Egypt to Mexico, particularly in the area of food. Still, as that is the only other foreign country where I have lived during my adult life, it is impossible not to make such comparisons. Comparing Mexico to Egypt is like putting FC Barcelona up against the Miller Middle School boys soccer team. Actually, the San Marcos boys would probably play harder and they have at least seen good soccer on TV. I'm not certain that most Egyptians have ever had a really good meal. They certainly love to eat, which seems odd considering how terrible most of the food here is. Servings in Egyptian restaurants rival those in America in their excessive size, if not in their appealing flavor. At a restaurant one can expect to be served a giant bowl of pasta drowned in slightly soured cream sauce or a half dozen sad, fatty meatballs. It is as though the cooks are working from recipes that were written in ounces and pounds without making the conversions and reductions for their kilo scales. As a result, many Egyptians, particularly wealthier ones, are rather chubby. On the bright side, the service in most restaurants is even more wanting the food. As such, you likely will never be served half of what you order anyway.

 One way in which Mexico and Egypt are similar is that you will never find the best food in restaurants. Mexican restaurants, within Mexico, are generally pretty underwhelming. Though they have ambiance, the food is typically uninspired. If you want to sample the best of Mexico you have two options... get invited into someone's home or hit the streets. While street food here pales in comparison to the brilliance of Mexican street food, it is where you will find the most economical and palatable (if slightly dangerous) meals. I mentioned shewerma above. It is not awful. You should know that if suffers the brutality of my memory. When I was in Egypt as a teenager, I delighted in stepping up to the shewerma stands and requesting five or six of the little meaty sandwiches in somewhat passable Arabic. I was rewarded with little yeasty rolls, split and filled with grilled meat, sauteed onions and tomato, and a big dollop of tahini. Twenty five years later and armed with even less Arabic, they taste somewhat rancid and bitter, like nostalgia tends to when you are ankle deep in the garbage you never noticed as a child.

 The felafel is arguably good, really good. If you go to a stand that is busy, it will be hot and fresh. There is something of the chaotic and energetic vibe one feels at a taco stand when you are buying felafel from a truly hopping vendor. People are calling out orders, cooks sing replies, sandwiches are hastily wrapped in paper and delivered to eager hands. The sandwiches typically cost about forty cents apiece, sweetening the experience with thrift. The lack of meat and deeply fried food enhances one's chance of survival, which is also a nice perk considering the state of medical care in Egypt. Felafel is definitely the best choice for someone who wants the eat the most flavorful and cheapest that Egypt has to offer and live to tell about it. That said, I just don't love it. Under spiced and deeply fried chick peas just don't move me, although the bread is quite good.

One time I tried what is reputed to be a 'delicacy' here in Cairo - stuffed pigeon. Aside from being small and bony, it tasted remarkably like rat. I could tell you about koshari, but I'd rather let someone who actually enjoys this starchy mess of beans and too much macaroni do to the honors. Their is fuul, which is Arabic for, 'awful bean taco'. All this talk of Egyptian cuisine is making me feel overly negative. Did I mention that the cucumbers are really, really good here?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Animation Team

The sunscreen and snorkels were already packed, the kids were charged, and the van was chartered. I came home from work, ready for a week of relaxation at the beachfront town of Dahab. I was checking my email when a blurb online caught my eye - something about a missile being fired into Israel from the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai Peninsula is in Egypt, in case you don't know. And Dahab is in the Sinai Peninsula. Damn it! The Sinai has been a bit sketchy for a while. There have been road closures, even kidnappings. Some people had hinted that it might not be the best vacation destination. Of course it is questionable if Egypt is really the best residential destination in these strange times. And yet here we are.

I freaked out as I am increasingly prone to do. I ran around the corner to the travel agent raving about world war and the implications of infuriating the Israelis. The travel agents looked at me as though I were insane at first. But I think they understood. They have been suffering significantly since the revolution. I am not the first jumpy tourist to cancel a trip this year. They agreed to help me reroute the van and find another hotel in another town, closer. They would find us a place in Al Gouna, Hurgada, or someplace safe and close on mainland Egypt far from Bedoin malcontents and land disputes - far from Israel and the little piece of paradise that we had spent the last month reading about, far from Dahab.

You see Egypt, for all its desert, has no shortage of coast. Much of it is along the gorgeous Red Sea. The thing is that in Egypt there are two types of beaches. There are ones built up with huge, expensive, overbearing, manicured, all inclusive, artificial, package deal resorts. And then there is Dahab. Dahab is an old Bedoin village that has been a haven for divers, independent travelers, lost souls, hippies, and misfits for decades. If you know Mexico, think Maruata. Think Puerto Escondido. Dahab is the place that has avoided becoming a soulless resort despite all odds. It is a perfect strip of coast where small hotels line a rocky beach. You can see where the reef begins from any of the perfect sit on the floor lounges that line the boardwalk. It is a place where you can fill your days diving, kite boarding, taking excursions to oases in the desert, swimming, sipping tea in shoeless waterside lounges, or you can do nothing. And that is OK too. Sure there are T-shirt shops and pushy vendors. This is Egypt. The food is almost as terrible as it is everywhere else in Egypt, but not quite. The view is always stunning, rugged mountains collapsing into turquoise water. It is not easy to get there (seven hours in a van from Cairo). But when you arrive, you may never want to leave.

With the trip temporarily on hold, I went back to the apartment to talk with Jenn and hammer out a workable Plan B. We poured over our Lonely Planet guide, reading in dejected tones about all the other possibilities. About each place, the authors had written some variation of, "Well, this place is OK... if you absolutely can't go to Dahab." It was depressing. We didn't want a fancy resort. We had already booked a pleasant small hotel. I'm not talking about hammocks. This place has a restaurant with an omelet chef. The room we booked has a balcony over the pool with a clear view of the Red Sea. We weren't planning on roughing it. We just didn't want the resort.

So we decided to try to start with finding a good hotel and went to my favorite website, Tripadvisor. We looked up some of the towns that had been mentioned, Ain Suhkna, Hurgada, Al Gouna, and started reading reviews of resorts. They were expensive and our trip would have to be shorter. But maybe being pampered would be a nice break from Cairo. At this point, anything would be a nice break from Cairo. The reviews were curious. The resorts were all expensive, but nobody really seemed to enjoy their stay in them. While the humblest backpacker camps in Dahab had legions of fans posting rave reviews, these five star hotels received chilly comments.

But there was one thing that they all had in common. Everybody had something to say about the 'animation teams'. They either hated them or loved them. My first thought was, what the hell is an animation team. My next thought was, no really, what the hell is an animation team? Was this a group of cartoonists? I might enjoy that. Or maybe it is those creepy people who dress up in animal costumes and give you balloons. Jenn didn't know either. We speculated for a while and then did what everybody does in this post-speculation era, we looked up 'animation team' online. For the next hour we watched Youtube videos of animation teams in action.

You may have seen these folk before. You may have eaten felafel before. But if you haven't done either in Egypt, you haven't exactly seen what we are talking about. I have learned that animation teams are huge in modern Egypt in the way papyrus art and human sacrifice were in pharaonic times. Animation teams are essentially resort cheerleaders. They are the people that go around the hotel haranguing guests into having fun. They might make you do the Macarena in the pool or playfully chase your kids around the lobby with a fake crocodile. They do floor shows with dancing and magic in the evenings. They are mostly imported young people, sort of like outgoing ski lift operators with decent singing voices. They are perky and they don't take no for an answer. As much as I love all people, I hate these types of people most of all. I will have fun when I choose. Goading me will only bring out my inner hostility.

We grimaced through one video clip after another of singing buffoons and giggling Egyptian tourists. There were balloon animals and poolside talent shows, belly flop contests and endless line dances. After an hour or so it became abundantly clear that this was not going to be the answer to our situation. And so I meekly called up our guide and apologized for my rash behavior. We would venture across the Sinai, taking our chances with angry insurgents. We reasoned that most of the tourists who had been kidnapped of lately had ended up spending the afternoon drinking tea with Bedoins while their state departments negotiated their release. We were planning on a Bedoin tea trip anyway. We had thought to pay for it ourselves. Would it be that different?

So we went. And yes, Dahab was heavenly.