Deprivation in Moderation — By Jennifer Shipp
Africa Egypt North Africa

Deprivation in Moderation — By Jennifer Shipp

Carrying water up 14 flights of stairs gets old in 30 days or less.

On our last day of classes for the week, Mona, our Arabic instructor asked us (in Arabic) what we planned to do with our weekend. Lydi and I stumbled (in Arabic) through a list of possible places to see in Cairo: Khan al Khalili, Saqqara, the Cairo Tower. But honestly neither of us have had time to think about sight-seeing at all. Our flight from Amman was delayed and upon returning to Cairo late on Sunday afternoon, John, Lydi, and I were all fixated on one thing: pillows. The pillows in our vacation rental were so flat and dead, they were like sleeping on folded up blue jeans (as John put it) and so, before we could officially be comfortable in our new “home”, we needed Real Pillows.

We’d planned to get back to our apartment early in the day on Sunday after our flight from Jordan, but alas, destiny had other plans for us. After enduring a two hour flight delay, our taxi driver in Cairo, Sameer, misunderstood our request to go to a Carrefour near the airport on the way back to our vacation rental and instead took us out all the way across the city and out past a farming community to the “Hyper1”. The trip took an extra hour and a half out of our afternoon. We hadn’t eaten lunch. We were tired. And the Hyper1 was a crazy-zoo-of-a-place filled with pedestrians who meandered around the store with the same disorganized bumbling as the cars on Cairo’s streets.

But we got our pillows. Two each. And after stuffing them into the taxi, Lydian and I were up to our noses in fluff.

The next morning, on Monday, we went to our first in-person Arabic class with Mona at the Language and Culture Center at Cairo University. In Jordan, John and Lydi had come down with the sniffles and while Lydi was recovering from hers, John had been struggling through a course of nightly coughing fits, which has affected all of us sleep-wise despite the new comfy pillows. And I’ve been having nightmares every single night, even several times a night, probably due to jet lag. Last night, I thought there was a nun in our bathroom. John has been sleep-walking. He got lost on the way to our bedroom a few nights ago and tried to curl up on a dining room chair. And getting food is hard (but it’s much cheaper than at home so I’m not really complaining). We carry it ten blocks to our building and then up 14 flights of stairs (part of our daily workout) to our apartment. We brought a portable reverse osmosis water-purification system with us from the U.S., but it’s running too slowly now. So in addition to carrying bags of food, we have to get 4 jugs of water up to our apartment too each day. Establishing a suitable routine has been challenging. Our big goal for this weekend has had nothing to do with sight-seeing and everything to do with establishing a normal, quiet little routine that mimics the routine that we have at home in the United States. All of us have decided that a regular routine would be “exciting” after having lived through several weeks without one. Screw the pyramids (we’ve already seen them anyway).

So, in the spirit of establishing some semblance of our normal U.S. routine, Lydi and I asked Mona if she knew of a place where could all go jogging. And after class, bless her heart, she took us to a place called Shabeb Markaz Gezira, a “park” near the Nile where the Cairo locals go to experience the relative cleanliness and green-ness that Americans see all around them every day in every single city in the U.S. The park features a 1.5 mile padded track that circles a set of riding areas and stables for horses, tennis courts, soccer fields, and a golf course. It’s not spectacular, but it is. The spectacular-ity of it is relative. In terms of the U.S., it’s nothing special. In terms of Cairo, it’s a stupendous surprise.

Today, for the first time since we left the U.S., we finally went for a jog, which for us, represents the culmination of a difficult journey back to normality since we first arrived in Egypt. I was proud of us for finding a gym and a jogging track in Cairo. The Shabeb Markas Gezira is more than just a sports complex, it’s also a gathering place for families, featuring a large playground, perhaps one of only two or three in the whole city. It cost something for us to get in, but it’s a reasonable fee of 20 Egyptian Pounds per person which works out to a little over $2 for each of us each time we go. From our apartment in Dokki near Cairo University, it took us about 30 minutes to walk there and there’s only one difficult street-crossing on the trek. We get to do some people watching while we run, which is entertaining: watching the locals in their natural habitat.

It’s easy to take my routine for granted at home. I disdainfully call it a “rut”, but still I can’t stop doing it in the same way each day. Making a change in my at-home routine is really challenging once I settle into it, so one of the things I really love about travel is that it forces me to think about the little things like brushing my hair. It forces me to appreciate the parts of my daily routine that I dread doing or that I take for granted. I get tired of jogging 7 miles a day, five days a week at home, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been wondering if I’d get to go outside again at all on this trip and just run. At home, I may think I need new clothes, but here in Egypt, I have only five shirts and three pairs of pants to wear for the next 8 weeks. Lydian and I swap outfits and we work with all the wardrobe combinations and permutations that we can come up with (we’re both grateful to at least be able to share clothes) but inevitably, when we get home, our closets will seem so full of treasures.

It takes about 30 days for all that gratitude to change back into dull, lifeless habits and then it’s time to start planning a new trip to our next destination. Deprivation has its virtues. Like boredom, I guess it’s something I enjoy in moderation.

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