28 August, 2014

In Conclusion

Well then, 1095 days in Cairo and I'm mighty grateful for every one.  I returned home to Canada last month and it's admittedly pretty hard to be in mourning when I've touched down in paradise (aka Victoria, BC).   But saying 'Ma'a Salama' to our time in Egypt was reeeally hard all the same.

There were a lot of things that made the posting so special: I had a blast teaching dance to students from around the world; my husband and I had wonderful friends and a pretty awesome social life; we got to do a fair bit of travelling (I've been to 13 countries now!) and have in excess of 10,000 pictures to prove it...

Would any brave souls like to come on over and be put through the most epic slide show of your lives?  No?  Even if I told you that at least 1000 of the photos we took were images of the outsides of old churches?  Still no?  Fine then.  No popcorn for you.

Beyond my own luxurious experiences and beyond the times of turmoil, worry, sadness and hope for the country, there are some steadfast aspects of life in Egypt that are pretty cool and for which I strongly recommend taking an extended visit.  Thus in no particular order, please enjoy.

The Top 5 Things I Will Miss About Living in Cairo:

5.  Being interesting.  Living abroad automatically gave me something to talk about to friends and family in Canada.  Also, being a foreigner in my own neighbourhood and always getting asked where I'm from; having strangers ask if their kids can have a picture taken with me... it all made me feel like I was a unique and exotic individual.  Fun!

4.  Forever being "welcome".  Nearly every single day I would get at least one shout out from a passing car or from other pedestrians saying "Welcome to Egypt!  You are welcome!".  Also, the guy that sits on the corner, the fruit stand guy, the barber, the cleaner and the security guard that always stand up, pat their heart, wave and ask how you're doing.  I definitely do not get that sort of fanfare when I walk down the street now.  I will MISS that.  Where is the love Canada?

3. Adventure Awaits.  Never did I ever have a day where I went outside and nothing noteworthy happened.  Sometimes Cairo could feel like a circus.  Seeing trucks piled sky high with products or even people; A man cycling while balancing 50 pieces of bread on his head; watching workers install a billboard 30 feet up wearing flip-flops and no sign of safety gear;  walking with arms loaded down with groceries and being simultaneously asked to buy mint, lemons, tissue, strawberries and mandarines and flowers... where exactly would I put it people?!

2. A Connected Community.  There would be no need to teach the lesson of The Good Samaritan here.  If someone is in trouble, no one politely turns their gaze.  No, they all jump the heck in there.  People drive with their windows open so that they can give directions to others that may be lost; Arguments that escalate to fisticuffs never get far because people come out of the woodwork to help break it up.  But wait!  There's more!  Here are a few examples that I witnessed first hand.  True story!

Example 1: An elderly lady riding the metro could not climb in and out of the carts by herself.  When it came to her stop, she just walked to the edge and reached her arms out.  At least 5 ladies instantly reached out to grab her and help her down.

Example 2: I was riding in a taxi home from work and the driver hit a pedestrian.  Not too hard, don't worry!  We were going slow because we were in total gridlock.  Well, the jostled pedestrian caught right up to us, reached in and punched my driver square in the face.  Okay, that is not the nice part.  The nice part is that people came flooding over, pulled the victim/assailant off of my driver, tidied them both up, talked them both down and gave my driver some tissue to press against his slightly bloody face.  The driver dutifully finished his fare and drove me quietly home.  Phew!  That could have been a whole lot scarier.  Thank you kind strangers.

Example 3: I was walking in a quiet residential neighbourhood with a friend when a couple of bees came by and swarmed me.  I must have been particularly sweet that day because when they landed on me, they refused to be swatted away.  Being the calm, dignified lady that I am, I proceeded to scream, spin in circles and shake my arms very effectively.  Well!  Within seconds, police officers appeared out of nowhere to come to my aid.  They looked very perplexed about the source of my distress and were unsure how to proceed.  The remaining bee was now down the front of my shirt.  Eeep.  Thankfully it was my friend that helped extract the wayward bee rather than the kindly officers standing at the ready.  Peace was restored and the brave men returned to their posts.

1.  Incredible Sights.  Before moving to Egypt, I knew about the pyramids and about the golden mask of King Tut, but other than that, my sightseeing wish list was pretty minimal and definitely incomplete.  ATV-ing amongst the pyramids; camping in the desert; climbing up sand dunes (and sand boarding down!); floating in a felluca sailboat down the Nile; walking awestruck through the temples in Luxor; swimming in the red sea, snorkelling around coral reefs and seeing spectacular fish...

Sounds pretty incredible doesn't it?!  I'm telling you: Go!  Visit Egypt!  Stay awhile.  Oh, and when you come back, can someone please bring me a falafel sandwich?

25 September, 2013

One Step Behind

Seems like these blog posts are getting further and further apart!  Well, that is really the point here with IDEA #4: Being One Step Behind.

While everyone else is pushing to stay on top of the latest and greatest of everything - electronics, gear, fashion - I encourage you to recline, grab a second hand magazine, and wait.  Be patient.  Keep waiting.  While you are biding your time, those eager, up-to-the-minute consumers are most assuredly making their purchases.  That's great - that's the idea!  Each of their new purchases means a new castoff for us.

By staying a safe distance away from the cutting edge, you can 1) save major coin; 2) be green; 3) get really cool stuff; 4) get creative; 5) foster a sense of community.

Have a look at furnishing a room in your home for example:  You could take a four hour trip to Ikea, spend hundreds of dollars on furnishings which will last only a few years, and end up with the same stuff as thousands of other people.  Or, you could visit garage sales, antique stores, friend/family basements, or websites like kijiji, craigslist, marketplace.  There you can get used, unique items with their own history.  Just because something has been used by someone else doesn't mean there is no use/function/life left in the item.

But the benefits don't end there!  Using sites like kijiji can put you in touch with people you may otherwise have never met.  In my own family, picking up a used couch led to a two year relationship and a lifelong friendship.

But wait!  There's even more!  Say you get a used couch for a free.  It has good bones but hideous upholstery.  Now you have the opportunity to support a local craftsman and get something completely one-of-a-kind by taking it to get re-upholstered.  Or, you can impress and amaze your friends by learning a new skill and trying a DIY project.  All of that PLUS you are preventing something from being added to a landfill.

This premise goes way beyond furniture too.  What about fashion?  Maria Von Trapp was definitely living by the one-step-behind credo when she created stylish play clothes out of old curtains for example.  And we all know that fashion works in circles.  Who'd have thunk that the 1980s would have any lasting value?  And yet!  Neon is everywhere right now.  Why?! I guess that's someone else's blog topic.  But places like Value Village, Salvation Army, your fashionable aunt's closet, are all just treasure troves of items that no one else will be wearing right now but could be right on trend.  Last month I hosted a used clothing exchange which is something I've been meaning to try for years.  It ended up being very successful: 6 ladies with different styles and sizes all ended up finding wearable items within each other's castoff clothing.  We're talking free shopping!  I would highly recommend making used clothing exchanges an annual event.  Bonus points for including mimosas and macaroons.  Mmm.

There is another type of person that We, the Thrifty and Green can benefit from.  I'm talking about the Didn't-Quite-Think-it-Through-Crew.  They know who they are.  The ones who think they want to fully immerse themselves in a new hobby or sport, buy hundreds of dollars worth of gear, and then find out it's not really their cup of tea after all.  I myself fell victim to this when I asked for a fancy GPS/heart monitor/pacing watch for a gift only to discover that figuring out stuff like that is complicated/unfun/never going to happen.  Or when my husband wanted to get back into skiing and bought himself boots, skis, gloves, jacket, pants and goggles; got on the ski hill once; fell... hard; was assisted by the emergency ski patrol; and has never stepped foot on a ski hill again.  All that expensive gear has to go somewhere.  Why not to you?  The patient and frugal.  Buy or borrow the failed dreams of others at a fraction of the cost!

Let's not forget about cars.  You buy a brand new car, it devalues greatly the minute you drive it off the lot.  Plus you have to pay additional fees for things like undercoating, paint protection and freight.  Buy a used car and the initial extra costs and value losses have already been eaten by the previous owner.

This next item is perhaps the hardest idea to sell.  I know not everyone can handle it, but I personally am going to give it a try when we move back to Canada.  That is: staying one step behind on electronics.  When iPhone 6 comes out, I am banking on the diehard techies wanting to buy them faster than the stores can put them on the shelves.  As such, there will probably be a bunch of perfectly good iPhone 3s, 4s and 5s looking for a happy second home.  Gadgets that were cutting edge a few years ago can surely still be put to good use.  Plus, if you're always a few steps behind, the next step up, no matter how old it is, is still new-to-you.  Maybe not every app or plug-in will work on an older model, but the practice of reusing and money saving is something we can buy into and I'm pretty sure there is no app for that.


13 September, 2013

Always a Borrower or a Lender Be.

It's been a busy week for the Shan.  But now, at last, long awaited IDEA #3: Don't Own Stuff.

I have been fervently youtube-ing clips of people living in smaller homes lately. Apparently there is quite a large movement of people successfully living in spaces that are, in some cases, even less than 100 square feet. Woa!  That is pretty impressive. When it comes to saving money and resources, it seems to me like they just might be on to something.

But my big idea is not about living in a small space.  That is someone else's big idea and I am merely a big fan.  No, my idea would indeed make small space living more possible, but that is just a happy bi-product.  I'm talking about reducing the amount of things that we own.  The more that we own, the more space we need to store all of our little treasures.  And in a lot of cases (to be named in this fascinating installment of 'Ideas-by-Me') the more we own, the more we need  to own.

For example, if you own a car, you most likely also own: floor mats, air fresheners, a jerry can, jumper cables, an emergency kit, a spare tire, a pressure gage, a faux fur steering wheel cover, a witty/cheesy/ironic bumper sticker and countless other items for the repair, maintenance, and personalization of your car.  On the other hand, if you own a bus pass, you own a bus pass.

Additional vehicle-owning hassles include expenses like car payments, insurance, gas, oil changes, car repairs, parking fees and maybe even speeding tickets.  Again, if you own a bus pass, expenses include: buying a bus pass.

And what about other car owner worries like finding a parking spot, having to scrape your windows in the winter, car not starting in the cold, getting into accidents, getting a flat tire, having your car stolen or vandalized, arguing with your GPS, backseat drivers, etc.  Owning a car may mean freedom to come and go as you please, but it also means owning additional stresses.

But cars are just one illustration of the principle.  Ownership of anything is a responsibility.  When we make a purchase, we are making a commitment to store, use, maintain and eventually dispose of that item.  And I'm not just talking about vehicles.  I'm talking about camping gear, exercise equipment, musical instruments, power tools, and even books.

The beauty part is that there already exists a completely accessible and affordable solution for all of our ownership woes.  Here is an extensive, though highly incomplete, list of ways to get out of owning stuff:

1. Borrow books from the library (that include epubs and printed books) rather than buying a book you will likely only read once.

2. Rent you child's musical instrument from a music store rather than buying it.  They will likely change their mind 7 times as to what instrument they want to play anyway.  It is so much easier to rent those drums for a week and then trade them in for a bass guitar rather than have your basement become a musical graveyard of forgotten dreams.

3. Join a gym or exercise class/club rather than building a home gym.  If you have a home gym you need to repair, maintain, upgrade and find space for all that equipment.  If you visit a gym, they will always have the newest, functioning equipment and as a bonus, you can reduce your water bill by showering there.

4. Doing a home renovation?  You don't need to go out and buy every tool for the job that you may only use once or twice a year.  If you buy tools, then you'll need a tool shed... and then you'll have to buy the tools to build that too.  Renting tools has the added bonus of getting some advice/instruction from the rental staff.

5. Going on a once-a-year (or once in a lifetime) camping expedition?  Borrow gear from your adventure buddy, or visit Mountain Equipment Co-op and rent their gear.  Again, this rental comes with bonus advice and opinions of the service staff.

I do believe this is just the tip of the iceberg.  I invite you to borrow these ideas (free of charge) and see what other ways you can reduce the requirements of space, expense, and stress of ownership.  So lighten up, go hop on your bike-sharing wheels, head over to a public park, and rent a paddle boat.

03 September, 2013

Traffic Meditation... Serenity Now!!

I love living here.  There are heaps of wonderful reason to enjoy living in Cairo and specifically on our little island of Zamalek; but that is not the subject of this post.  No.  I would like to vent about an issue so deeply, smotheringly, intolerably irritating that there will be little room for positivity.  Maybe by the end of this cathartic entry I will have relocated my sunny disposition and have found some possible upswing... but I doubt it.  The infuriating issue I would like to publicly flog is: CAIRO TRAFFIC.

For starters, I'm pretty sure road-rage was invented here.  Or, is there a word stronger than rage?  Road fury?  Road wrath?  Whatever we want to call it - I am feeling it.

Last night, a 20 km taxi trip home took over two hours and cost about 2.25 years of my life;  or 75 Egyptian Pounds to be more literal. The same trip tonight took 1.25 hours and cost 50 EGP; or 0.75 years of life.  There has to be a better way!  Well, when I find one I'll let you know.  In the meantime, let me paint a picture of why these travels are such a hardship:

  • Issue 1: 75% of the taxi drivers chain smoke.
  • Issue 2: 95% of the cars drive with their windows down.  That means eating my own hair and breathing in the exhaust of all the other idling vehicles.  Might as well join the driver in a cigarette...
  • Issue 3: 97% of the cars don't use air conditioning.  You get to stew in your own little sweat pool on the vinyl seats and question just how liberally deodorant was applied that morning.
  • Issue 4: 100% of the vehicles on the road have been pimped out with the loudest horns you have ever heard in your life.  We are talking shockingly loud.  And they are not afraid to use them either.  Horns, not signal lights, are used as a means of communicating between the drivers.  BEEP YOU giant truck, BEEP YOU.

Add all of that onto my great dislike of lengthy sitting - one definitely can't stand in a car - (Who do I call with that invention?) and you get one ornery, complainy (obviously) Shan.

Okay, silver lining already.  By popular request (well, one friend suggested it): Here are the TOP 5 things to do when stuck in Cairo Traffic:

5. Group scooter sightings.  I once spotted a family of 6 riding on a single scooter!
4. Seeing how many seconds you can hold your breath.  Between the drivers' smoking and the pollution, breath holding competitions not only serve as your entertainment but may also prolong the life of your respiratory system.
3. Goat counting.  Like counting sheep, but less relaxing.  Seriously!  In this urban setting, the side of the major roadways are used as pasture land for the goats.  True story.
2. Take pictures of hilarious 'lost in translation' signage along your travels.  Here is the best one we've seen so far.
1. Donkey racing.  Choose the fittest looking donkey along your route, give it an endearing name to make it more interesting, then see which one of you (your taxi or his wagon) makes it to the next intersection first.  My money is on the donkey.  Always.

01 September, 2013

Take a Stand

Pull up a chair, have a seat, brace yourself for IDEA #2: Standing Up.  I mean like, all the time.  Hear me out, this one might be a little harder to implement than the early bed time thing, but that doesn't make it any less of a great idea.  Incidentally, curfew is now extended until 11:00 pm here in Cairo - but for those of us early sleepers, curfew-schmerfew anyway.

So, standing... I would like to propose adding a little standing to our days.  Nowadays, we are most certainly getting enough sitting time.  We are master sitters.  Most of us eat our breakfast sitting, ride to work sitting, sit at work, ride home sitting, eat supper sitting, sit in front of the TV or computer, and then finally stretch out only as we lay down to sleep.

Take a moment and look down at those lovely stems of yours, those attractive feet, those wiggly little toes.  These boots were made for walkin' were they not?  And what of the lost arts of hovering, leaning, crouching, perching and squatting?  We've got so many other options and it's high time we give 'em all a fair shot.

My standing experiments on this front have been years in the making and there is admittedly still a long way to go.  The truth is that standers tend to make people uncomfortable.  Just last week I went to a photocopy shop and was asked to have a seat three times while I was waiting for my order.  Every new staff member that walked by would take their turn smiling politely and gesturing at the row of chairs behind me.  Also, standing up beside a table in a restaurant?  Definitely gets some looks.  There are times when sitting is just expected and I have yet to figure out a way around that except to create other standing opportunities.

In Italy for example, breakfast of a cappuccino or espresso and a pastry is nearly always taken standing.  Many of the cafes we visited would actually charge you more if you wanted to take a seat.  Why can't we implement something like that?  Seat tax?

I've also tried standing on a tour bus, standing while watching a TV show, and standing at a visit to the dentist.  Okay, not that last one.  Just checking if you were still reading or if you had fallen asleep in your chair.  While we're on the subject, I've noticed that if I'm sitting down and there is something that I need to get to, I'm 50% less likely to get to it than if I'm standing.  If you're standing, you're already halfway there.  Getting up from a comfy chair is a major deterrent to taking action.  Word?

Well, until you are ready for the more advanced maneuvers like standing awkwardly beside a group of seated diners, pacing by the bus stop or pulling yoga poses in a board meeting, here are some practical standing opportunities that you can try right now:

1. Coffee walks versus coffee sits.  The next time you are meeting a friend for coffee, why not get your drinks to go?  You can enjoy a short walk together and a change of scenery while still catching up.  Best bit: if your coffee buddy gets a bit too chatty, you can always increase the pace until they get short of breath, or you can try and lose them at the next left turn.

2. Food truck lunches.  Standing up with your food in a sit-down restaurant?  Weird.  Standing up with a hot dog or burrito from a road side stand? No problemo!

3. Cocktail parties versus dinner parties.  If you stand up to eat at a dinner party, you may not get a repeat invitation.  Even if you brought the best side salad ever.  If you stand up while circulating the room at a cocktail hour, you just may find yourself being the life of the party!

4. Computer pose.  How about the 'leaning crane' or the 'downward dip'?  If you have a laptop, there is no reason that you need to sit in a chair with your computer on a table in front of you.  In fact, if you have to support yourself, it might actually cause you to move around more and maybe take a much needed computer break.

Speaking of which: step away from the computer.  Today's rant is done.  I would like to conclude with the thought provoking and elegant words of  Eminem: "Please stand up; please stand up!"

31 August, 2013

Party Like it's 1999 (if you were born in 1919)

Okay.  Much awaited IDEA #1: Party like a senior.  I am not talking about a 12th grade student.  Those young hooligans have way too much thirst for trouble and keep the most ridiculous hours... No, I am talking about the wise, experienced folks living in their golden years.  Specifically, I am talking about their sleeping schedule.  Assuming you buy into the stereotype that seniors fall asleep at 8 pm and awake to the first cock's crow.  For the purposes of this upcoming rant, let's say you do.

With the current curfew in Cairo (you must be in your home by 9:00 pm every day, except Friday when the curfew is 7:00 pm), this was a prime time to try out the "early to bed, early to rise" approach to scheduling.  Conclusion: awesome.

The premise is that absolutely nothing productive is accomplished after 9:00 pm.  Unless you are a supplier of snack foods, have advertising on facebook, or own a share in netflicks, you may come to agree that the witching hours of 9:00 pm to midnight are best used by the unconscious folks.  While the seniors and Shannon Lee are fast asleep, recharging their batteries for the full and productive coming day, the rest of the world is social media-izing, binge-watching a TV series, pouring themselves a drink or two, and grabbing a pudding cup.  Well, maybe that last one was just me... Side note: chocolate pudding cup; kept in the freezer; microwave 15 seconds; prepare to be addicted.

On the other side of the fence are the people who may have a social life and may spend some evenings out or in their homes entertaining.  That's fine!  That doesn't mean you can't try this experiment too!  Just come to Cairo while the curfew is still in place.  Can't make the trip out just yet?  Still fine!  Become a hermit.  Or, try and convince your buddies to get in on the experiment with you.

From recent experience, day time parties are great!  With your newly productive early mornings (more on that shortly), you can relax and enjoy a Saturday afternoon BBQ or even a daytime cocktail party.  Best bit: if you have a set curfew of 9:00 pm, even the stragglers hit the road in a timely manner.  That leaves you a few minutes to tidy up and STILL get to sleep before 10 pm.  You party animal you.

Don't have a curfew in your area?  No problem.  You can still get people out of your house early by sending your party invites out with a start AND end time, or tell them you are trying "this great new schedule thing", or have your mom Skype you at 8:50 pm with some fictional crisis that will quickly clear the room.

If you are attending someone else's function, you can arrive right at the start time rather than fashionably late, work the room, and then pull the pin at your self-prescribed curfew.  You'll eat and drink less, not waste any part of the following day in bed, and get to be entertained later on by the tales of those who stayed on "past their bedtimes".

Now about this "morning productivity" stuff.  It is a revelation!  I am telling you: as much as the 9:00 pm to midnight timeslot gets you nowhere, the 5:30 to 8:00 am shift gets you all kinds of good places.  Maybe you think you are not a morning person, but a week of going to bed at 9:00 pm may just convert you.

The secret for me to maximizing the morning is to just put one foot in front of the other.  I used to wake up by sitting on the couch and watching a show.  Why?  What am I resting up from?  I was just asleep all night!  No, I recommend standing.  This is foreshadowing to my next and equally riveting IDEA #2 blog post by the way.  Empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage, tidy up the living room, walk the dog.  The idea is to do something that doesn't involve thinking or talking but does get you moving.  Step 2: coffee.  A huge part of why I am excited to wake up every morning!  If you love something else, that's cool too.  But something that puts you in a good mood and makes you eager to start your day is just the ticket.

After coffee and a delicious breakfast, my brain starts ticking.  I am at my best to reply to work e-mails, make class plans, write down inane ideas that I will later blog-on about, you name it.  This is when things get DUN SON.  That leaves me feeling pretty darn good about myself and kind of fired up, which leads to the other key part of this experiment: exercise.  I have definitely read that getting in some exercise in the morning is the best thing.  According to such notable experts as ME, I would tend to agree.  With exercise done before heading out to face your day, there is less chance of something else coming up and derailing a workout and there is 100% chance of you strutting out the front door feeling like a million bucks.

Really, really try this people.  9:00 pm is the new midnight.  It is hip to be square and it is always okay to be awesome.  Now go get some sleep!

30 August, 2013

Breaking the Seal

Clearly the maintenance of this blog has been a much neglected pursuit.  The chick (Me) does continue to cross the road, and her life in Cairo goes on.  Despite the lack of written evidence, lots of stuff has happened.

The reason for breaking the crater-esk radio silence is not to talk about the coup/non-coup that we witnessed in Egypt, or even to blather about the ways the fallout has effected our privileged lives here.  Nor is it to document the awesome trips that my husband, Scott, and I have had in the last year... though once I get back into the flow of blogging, I do hope to include that stuff again too.

No.  I actually needed to "get my blog on"  because I have had more ideas lately than you can shake a stick at; or keep track of in the various scattered paper notebooks I jot in; or than I can possibly trap my poor fella into feigning an interest in.  One can only listen to so many sentences per day that start with "I have a theory that _" or "I think I just invented something where _" or "what people should try is _"... yeah, poor Scott.

So to you, my non-captive audience: be prepared to be dazzled, moderately amused, or perhaps just led to question what kind of air this girl is breathing anyway.

Stay tuned.