Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Conclusion of Curfew and a Six Month Silence

It’s been an obscene amount of time since I last wrote. Since June 30th I have had a constant stream of relevant thoughts and messages I wanted to share and express as someone here in Egypt, witnessing everything with my own eyes; yet the required abstinence from politics that the organization I work for had laid out prohibits me from publicly discussing anything about the current situation. So while I completely agree with the reasons to remain publicly silent (private messaging is fine), I have since lost motivation to write; until now.

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to say that I absolutely and undoubtedly love Egypt. I do have a complicated relationship with Cairo. We go through times of bitter fighting to times of blissful passion. Cairo is (when not under state of emergency imposed curfew, and really even then as well) the city that never sleeps. It’s exciting, bustling, chaotic and dirty; and riding in a taxi at night down the Nile’s cornice with the mesmerizing Om Kalthoum or Fayrouz serenading you in the background and the colorful lights reflecting on the lazy water is perhaps one of my favorite things and fills me with that unique sensation of recognizing I’m alive. On the other hand, the constant assault on your senses drains you; and therefore the key to living in Cairo is living in Egypt. A day trip outside the city to the nearby red sea, a weekend on the North coast, a week in the indescribably beautiful Sinai or an overnighter in the desert, and you’re golden. A moment to breathe fresh air, listen to silence and see green and blue again will keep you from tiring of the chaos as easily. I’ve been in Egypt for over a year and I’ve still only scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer.

Moving on, I returned to Cairo after three months in Istanbul and began my current job about 5 months ago, and I think a certain amount of written reflection is due. The work is intense; a lot more so than I expected. It’s not the same intensity of casework, where the daily horror stories chip away at your tolerance for humanity, but rather the intensity of trying to balance several roles and remember to tie all the never-ending loose ends. Some days I’ve worked extra long hours, barely remembering to eat; and other days I’ve had seemingly endless time and have stared into space trying to figure out what is the most efficient task to tackle at that moment. Now, five months in, I have--as much as is possible-- settled into my role and am trying to fulfill all my roles as best as possible. It’s been a whirlwind thus far, and Egypt’s waves of instability have truly taught me a lesson in flexibility. Whether it be volunteers cancelling, programs rescheduling due to insecurity, or other cogs falling out of the wheel; the unexpected problems I’ve had to work my way through have given me some invaluable work experience that I don’t think I could have gotten elsewhere.  

That being said, I don’t think management is for me in the long-run. I see myself as more of a coordinator, advocate, or most likely a counselor. I have begun looking into social work or counseling grad school programs, but am definitely a year or more away from applying. Moreover I’ve recently began to notice a gaping hole in my life where drama and art once were, and I am currently exploring ways in which I can reincorporate that into my life (aside of course from my frequent renditions of “Defying Gravity” in the empty main hall at work as I lock up).
And there’s just something so exhilarating about knowing that in 6-7 months, when your contract is up, the world is yours. I can stay and continue to develop the livelihoods aspect of the adult education program I run; and as I am just beginning to work on a new training program that I hope to expand and add on to each semester, I’d say renewing my contract is a very likely option.

However, I love knowing that I have the freedom to do anything and go anywhere—a freedom that had at first filled me with anxiety from being lost in uncertainty; but a freedom that has more and more become my most valued possession. I have a burner phone and I hand my landlord I wad of cash at the end of the month. I use my debit card only to pull money from my ever-dwindling savings, but rarely. Aside from the internet, I live off the grid, and I have no physical or financial ties anywhere. If it weren’t for my commitment to my job, I could book a ticket, pack my bags and leave within a day. It’s a unique and wonderful feeling, but one that hasn’t come without cost.

This freedom comes at the cost of certain relationships, a lot of hard work and low pay. I make enough to live comfortably on, but not enough to save. I don’t have money set aside for “the future.” At this point even if I wanted to consider having kids in the next 5 or so years I couldn’t afford to. Credit Scores? Pfhah! Retirement? Not a thing. I’m not sure I could even explain to you what a 401-K is. I get to make choices like: go to the dentist or go on a night out with my friends (although let’s be real: that’s what toothbrushes are for anyway, right?). So while I love my lifestyle, there is a less glamorous side most people don’t see and it involves sacrifices that are often difficult to make. It’s also not always exciting. I’m not a reporter or photographer, so when crazy things happen here, I’m not out in the trenches with my life on the line. I sit at home with friends, watch the news, eat, drink and stress over cancelling and rescheduling for work: again, not glamorous. That being said, I wouldn’t trade this concoction of good, bad and ugly for all the stability, sweet dreams and savings the world has to offer.

You see, one of the ultimate perks is the people you meet and the friendships you develop here in the Middle East. I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a large and diverse group of friends here (including those that have left but put in a reciprocal amount of effort to stay in touch) that keep me on my toes, join me in the aforementioned escapes outside Cairo and support me through the difficult times. The community here in Cairo is unique and strong. Egyptian, American, European, African; we are all bonded by the same strange draw that brought us to and keeps us in the hub of the Middle East. However, we’re not all the same, and we bring a myriad of stories and personalities to a rather oddly shaped table of fellowship that King Arthur couldn’t have rivaled (perhaps for more reason than one but let’s stick to the fairy-tale version for the purposes of this metaphor).

And it’s only after living here that I’ve fully developed a healthy self-confidence in who I am. For the first era in my life, I am always me without caring or considering what other people will think. I can sing and dance in front of anyone, embarrass myself publicly and make goofy faces without hiding in the shadows or worrying that people will think I’m weird (mostly because I accept that I am). So when me and one of my friends had the chance to go on an Egyptian reality tv show episode for a free trip as part of the show’s contestants’ challenge, I said  “why not” and made an absolute fool of myself on national television. I don’t think I could have done that even three years ago, much less do so without reservation and without hiding my often ridiculous quirks. 

Breaking free from the shackles of image has been the most liberating experience of my life, and I sincerely hope that everyone I love has or will experience this feeling at some point in their lives. Not that you have to come to Cairo or the Middle East to do so—but I think everyone needs to find that place where they can break free.


Red Sea


Day of Ridiculousness

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cairo, Here I Come

I stood at my open window as the suddenly cold sea breeze whipped Istanbul with chilled air; and it hit me that this would be the last time I would feel fresh cold evening air for a very long time. I inhaled deeply as the air wafted the fresh scent of water followed by the crisp aroma of burning wood through my window. The fog snuggled against the skyscrapers and trapped the light from the streets in a hazy glow. I soaked in the city’s skyline, the air’s sweet perfume and the wind’s cool touch, silently pondering my impending departure from Istanbul and the enduring heat to come with my return to Cairo. And then as if to perfect the moment the voice of an imam echoed from a distant mosque, soon joined by several others, erupting the city in spiritual beckoning. I can’t explain why, but the call to prayer ignites something inside me, shifting the patterns of my breathing as I am overcome with a sense of prophetical fulfillment; as if the sound triggers recognition of destiny in my subconscious.

For those who don’t know, I recently accepted a job in Cairo, working with St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, where I previously interned; and I will be returning to Egypt within the next 10 days. More than anything else I’m excited; excited to end the uncertainty that has overshadowed my past five months, to return to a place that is very much a home to me, and to dive into new and challenging work through which I know I will experience further growth.

Just prior to getting the offer, my dear friend of an older brother nature, a writer wise-beyond-his-years, quoted Henry Miller quoting an old Buddhist saying, and I quote: “If we received what we wanted when we thought we needed it, then life would be devoid of any challenge, meaning or excitement.“ A few days later, I realized later just how applicable these words are to the recent turn of events.

The job I was just offered is one I had applied to at the end of last year. However, I had been on the fence about it at the time as I was excited about the work but was skeptical about staying in Cairo another year or more. At the time I was dying to try something new and find an adventure elsewhere. I was rather relieved when I didn’t get the position and I am incredibly grateful that I have had these three months in Istanbul, away from Cairo, to step out and look back. The separation made me realize how much I love Egypt and how willing I am to live there again.

My time in Istanbul has been so formative in other ways as well. I have had a very rich experience here; starting with no prospects whatsoever and networking into both paid and volunteer vocations. It hasn’t been perfect but I have been enriched by the challenges I have and haven’t overcome, the people I’ve met and the new culture I’ve been fortunate to experience. I have also gotten to spend nearly three months living with a person I consider family; and I now have difficulty picturing day to day life without Lindsey. I cannot yet fathom that in a few weeks she will board a plane that I won’t be boarding, and an ocean instead of five feet of hardwood floor will separate us. In fact, I refuse to think about it and am very much in denial that it will happen.

Every time I leave a place for the foreseeable future to travel or move somewhere new, I listen to the song “Send Me on My Way” by Rusted Roots. The song creates feelings of nostalgia for the adventure that has come to a close, and excitement for the one that is about to begin. Although I’m not going to a new country, I am confident this year or more in Egypt will be very much different than before as I’ll have a full time job, be enrolled in Arabic classes, and will share a downtown apartment closer to work with friends. I’m experiencing a modge podge of emotions, but more than anything am ready to be sent on my way. 

Day Time Views From My Apartment (which faces the burbs):

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cancelling Cancellations

You know that icebreaker game that team leaders make you play when you’re on a trip or getting to know new interns, etc: where everyone goes around and says an adjective that matches the beginning sound of their name, followed by their name? If I was forced to endure that tomorrow, I’d say “canceled Casey,” and it’d be a pretty accurate description of my current place in life. 

Not long after I last gushed about how perfect my situation was here in Istanbul, it changed rather rapidly. This isn’t to say that everything fell apart and I regret coming here; because I don’t. Unfortunately, however, the au-pairing work turned out to be a bunch of cancellations, and even after turning back to teaching I have received too many cancellation notices to count. Too bad I can't cancel cancellations...

However, on my days of unemployment, I have spent extra time with my Arabic partner and now very dear and close friend as well as some other amazing people I have met here. I have learned to appreciate stability, of which I have very little right now and I have simultaneously learned how to deal with complete instability, which in ways helps me understand to a better degree (albeit not fully) the way the refugees I love so dearly feel all the time.

The volunteering here has also been really great. It’s also relatively spontaneous in nature, but it’s been very humbling and has increased my flexibility. Ok now it sounds like I’m writing a cover letter, but you get my drift. The staff at Caritas is incredibly friendly, supportive and eager to give me as much experience as they can set up. They have even invited me to an emergency preparedness seminar training, for which I am really excited.

Between the spontaneity of volunteering and the ever-changing nature of paid work, my life plan usually doesn’t get cemented until halfway through the current day, although I may have a rough idea the night before. This lends itself to a stressed out, yet liberated Casey who feels a constant pull between freefalling through an incredible canyon of experience and waiting for the relief of touching ground again. Although, knowing myself, I’m likely to want to freefall again as soon as I have that stability I supposedly want.

This all has been a very humbling, stressful, wonderful experience, and although I had wanted to wait to write a new post till I had “good news,” I think I needed to, tail between my legs, disclose the less bouncy walk I’ve been walking since my last post and the many moments where I’ve melodramatically stared into space and wondered what I’m doing with my life.

I’ve started applying for some actual jobs, one of which is my dream job, and for which I meet all qualifications for, but I may have unfortunately heard of it too late. Regardless, I’m applying for work and will hopefully find something more consistent soon; or I will commit to spending 1-2 years in Istanbul and teach for a more reliable company (that requires commitment) and continue volunteering for and with some incredible people.

I am, in all this, so happy and grateful to be where I am. I’m in one of the most beautiful (yet crowded) cosmopolitan cities in the world with an incredible friend who can only be described as my sister and partner. I honestly don’t know what I would have done these past few months without her. Sure, I have AMAZING friends all over who would and even have helped me out immensely. But there is something extra in having a sister with you who understands you so deeply and loves you so strongly. There is not a detail of my life I wouldn't and haven’t shared with her and its that openness and dedication that has been my one ounce of stability—despite the fact that she is also facing the same types of instability as me. Thank you Lindsey Jordan Baker, for suggesting I come to Istanbul, for loving me like a sister, for dealing with my bad moods and bad temper not many see and for being as weird and crazy as I am. 

So no, no big exciting update; just me living in the moment, learning to be content, flexible and...patient...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Bounce in My Bounce

Although my last post was only two weeks ago, my situation has since changed significantly and I feel I should publish yet another update. I have since established and began paid employment, found and began several volunteer opportunities, moved into a new apartment, set up Arabic conversation partners and fallen in love.

Yes, I am in love. My heart flutters as I walk down the street, basking in the now warm sun. The already odd and frequently commented on bounce in my step now itself has bounce, as I…bounce…down the street. I shall lead you on no further; the object of my affection is (as per usual) a setting, complete with a unique culture and way of life. With Cairo I experienced love at first sight, but in Istanbul I have had the distinct pleasure of falling in love. While I was enamored with Istanbul itself upon arrival, it has taken just under a month for me to become fully enthralled in all its charms as well my specific role on such a large and at first intimidating stage. Yes, the colorful buildings, breathtaking mosques, hypnotic calls to prayer, delicious food, and constant flow of life—as well as my now near fully established part to play-- has enraptured me and I am once again filled with passion, purpose and motivation.

This is not to say the past month has been perfect bliss. I have experienced several moments of absolute panic, been frustrated and irritated beyond reason and been tempted to quit before potential failure. However, this is all behind me for the time being, and while I am still being challenged in many ways, I find these challenges to be the pleasurable ones where potential for growth is immediately apparent.

I am extremely blessed to have found employment as an English companion for now two young children. I play with the kids and tutor them in the English language. The timing could not be more perfect. I start in the early evenings most days, which leaves me all morning and afternoon for volunteer work. I should be able to survive off of working a few hours a day with at least one child; and for this I recognize I am extremely fortunate. Not only does my fortune lie in the nature and timing of the work, but also in the children themselves. As much as I love children in general, I have to say I am blessed to be working with two incredible young ones. They are both bright and fun and I share common interests with both; making playing with them second nature. The girl is nearly a replica of me as a child:  wild imagination and a lot of expression. We are ballerinas, queens of hearts, mothers running from the tent monster with our little baby dolls, etc. I love being able to act again, as minor as it may seem—and perhaps one day my ability to fake being eaten by a tent will come in handy. With regards to the little boy, I haven’t spent much time with him yet; but I recently made the exciting discovery that he loves Star Wars. His mother expressed concern that he would be shy for a little while, but following my comment on his Darth Vader figurine, I was led to his room where I encountered a Star Wars haven. We sat naming all the action figures and spacecrafts he owned, and I have never before been more thankful for my dorkiness.

Thanks to an exceptionally considerate and helpful fellow BU alum, I am now connected to several refugee organizations here in Istanbul. My week is nearly full of different social services activities with a couple different organizations. I have set aside two days a week for a legal aid organization that I am applying for an internship with. If that doesn’t end up working out, I will delve further into social services and communications work. My volunteer work requires a lot of direct interactions with Arab refugees, which means I need to improve my Arabic skills. I have therefore met several Arabic speakers who have agreed to do a speaking language exchange with me: Arabic for English practice. I think my vocabulary will actually improve more here than it did in Egypt; mostly because I used English in the workplace there whereas here I am using Arabic more in a work context and not just daily interactions which amounted to several memorized schpiels.

 Lindsey and I love our new house. Moving in with five other people was rather nerve-racking at first, but after meeting our flatmates we are more excited than anything else. We live with 4 international students: a German, Italian, Czech and Spaniard as well as a Turk. They’re all around our age and a lot of fun. We’re both really excited to get to know them more. Moreover we love our room, view and neighborhood. The location is very central in Istanbul, and our neighborhood is lively but not crowded in a negative way. We have a lot of local restaurants, grocery stores and a weekly farmers’ market.

I don’t think I could be living more in the moment than I am currently (as I have no definitive timeline) and I am confident that I am in the right place at this time in my life. I am so thankful Lindsey Jordan Baker suggested I come here. Despite my previous doubts, fears, panic attacks and foul moods, I know I made the right decision and I have her in great part to thank for it. She may not be “the reason” I came per-se, but she played a huge role in making it possible for me to come and I’m so happy to be living with her again! Love you Linds!! 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lost and Found in Google Translation

It’s hard to beat hearing Google Translate’s audio track deliver compliments or ask questions in a robotic while your Turkish friend and current flat mate silently mouths the words. Such has been the pattern of many of our conversations, as he speaks very basic English and I speak far less Turkish (which isn't saying much). Sometimes we sit side by side and type things into Google Translate, frequently trying to actually say the words we’re reading, something he is much better at than me. This is necessary when deciding what to make for dinner.
“What do you want?”
“All things for the good”
Blank stare
“Error?” (types again)  “Anything good”
Ah ok. “I will make something.”
“I will cook good food”
Ahhhh ok “Let’s go make the shopping”…

I have truly been enjoying this exchange. For two people with such a large language gap, we manage to communicate very well through words repeated for emphasis, short phrases and lots of body language.  It’s strange to become close friends and forge such a strong connection with someone where such seemingly daunting barrier exists.

Turkish hospitality has so far blown me away in the form of Mehmet and Gokhan. Mehmet is my Turkish friend I met two years ago while he was doing a summer exchange program and working in Maryland. I had met his Egyptian roommate Mohamed first, and subsequently met “the Turkish boys.”  Mehmet and his best friend Gokhan have been letting me stay with them until Lindsey and I could find a room to split somewhere more centrally located. The guys have been amazing, insisting on buying groceries until I get work, copying a key for me, and generally making me feel right at home. Mehmet picked me up from the airport via public transport and insisted on carrying both of my duffels through two forms of transportation and several kilometers of walking.  Gokhan lays out a breakfast buffet for us whenever he is home in the mornings, which has been very enjoyable—especially with the delicious fresh bread Turkey has to offer. I really cannot express how grateful I am to have these guys as friends, and how much I am enjoying their personalities and friendship.

Unfortunately, the boys live about an hour from the city center, which means a long and relatively expensive metrobus ride to get to Lindsey’s current flat, and basically all job possibilities, nightlife activities, etc. However, I haven’t minded much currently, as I spend a lot of time in the flat on my computer, applying for jobs; and when I’m not doing that, I can leisurely  ride down for interviews. And I have enjoyed fixing dinner whenever I’m home at dinner time using some of the most delicious produce I have ever tasted. I would live in Turkey forever just to eat the tomatoes every day. I have even cooked an original chicken dish—one of the first times I have ever cooked a meal involving meat. Those of you who know my cooking habits: pick your jaw off the floor; yes I handled raw meat, and yes I washed my hands a million times. The boys have been enjoying my culinary enthusiasm, as their version of dinner is perfect for everyone on that fancy new carbs and fried foods diet, but doesn’t include many nutrients.

I’ve been here in Istanbul for over a week now, and the shock is starting to wear off. I’ve never experienced culture shock like I have here. I expected it to be very different from Egypt, but the historic Istanbul I pictured in my head was no preparation for this vast expanse of city brimming wit skyscrapers and shopping malls. I wasn’t sure how to process all this. This is, in part, because Istanbul is much bigger and more fast-paced than any city I have ever lived in; and on top of this—I don’t speak the language—at all—which has been a near first in my travels. Adding to my “whelm” has been the extreme change in prices. I went from a country where 1 dollar equaled 6.7 pounds to a country where 1 dollar is only 1.7 Lira—and the prices aren’t much cheaper than the US either (with the exception of haircuts which are only 5 Lira!).
So re-cap. I moved to a country where I don’t know the language, have yet to find a job and where the exchange rate does not lend itself to relying on my dwindling savings account. Needless to say, I have had several panic moments.

I have, however, developed several leads in the paying job search (English teaching and au-pairing) as well as the refugee volunteer work arena (not bad for only being here just over a week). Step one and two. I have contacted a Palestinian  on CouchSurfing to practice Arabic with in exchange for English practice. Step three. Lindsey and I just committed (after some searching) to sharing a room in a duplex apartment. The room is HUGE and the only reason it’s cheap is that someone has to walk through our room to get to theirs. We basically have the upstairs living room, but the landlord will put two beds in (which is nice as we were prepared to have to share a double for several months), some dividers for privacy and an extra wardrobe. The room itself is huge and has two couches and a wall full of large windows overlooking a large portion of this beautiful city. We’ll be sharing the downstairs common area, kitchen, 2 toilets and shower with—I forget how many—male foreign exchange students and a couple.  It will be like living in a dorm again, most likely, which has the potential to be both fun and harrowing—but at least we’ll have our huge loft to retreat to: pictures to come. Step four.  To do: get paid and get residence permit before my account goes too low to be eligible.

Although I have had several moments where I completely questioned my reasoning for coming here and my sanity (not because of Turkey but because of the instability I have hurled myself into), I do feel, deep inside, that moving here was the right move; and my deep-seated need for adventure and challenge is being thoroughly satiated.

 I am also truly enjoying my exploration of Turkish culture. I love the music, the sound of then spoken language, the Turkish obsession with house slippers and the unique blend of regional influences and originality that permeates through Turkish life. I love how my house mates have people over to talk, play guitar and take turns singing. I love how Turkish tea—which is actually tastier than other black teas—is served in cute little cups at all times of day. I love the affectionate and caring nature of my Turkish friends, which makes me feel in some moments as though I had lived here my whole life.

In deciding to move here, I kept in mind that it was a complete risk and I could fall anywhere on the spectrum of success or failure. I decided to make the move and hoped that in doing so, I would re-learn how to trust God and that my spirituality would be stimulated once again and I would build anew my faith. I don’t know what form exactly it will take, and my end goal is not to become more or less religious, but rather to seek the truth, to question and doubt, and continue figuring out what I truly believe. I have to say, so far I do feel a helping hand and provider as some potentially big obstacles have been overcome, or near overcome. The terror I felt after re-assessing the financial aspects of this move has subsided and I feel relative peace about being here--which I cannot imagine is coming from me as I have a very hard time not being in control of my life.  I foresee many ups and downs in many different areas of my life; but really, I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Jumping Out The Window. Landing in Istanbul, Inshallah

I need to start by saying that today I leave Cairo, my home for the past 9 months; but more notably, today I leave my Cairo family—some of the most amazing people and friends I have ever and will ever meet. You all are amazing and sent me off with (several) bangs. I love you all dearly and know that saying “see ya later” to you all has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Never before have I struggled to leave as I have leaving Cairo and you all. This only cements my resolve to both return to the country that will always hold a special place in my heart, and reunite with you all—wherever you may be.

A week ago today I made the decision to move to Turkey. I don’t have a plan. I have a rough draft of what I think I might do, but nothing officially set up awaits me in Turkey. The idea is to find a part time job teaching or doing something that will provide income, and spend the other half of my time volunteering with Syrian refugees and perhaps even networking into a job, should the opportunity arise. Anything, however, could happen. I am both terrified and excited.

I decided to leave Egypt because I felt restless. My living situation, although nice, had become unhealthy in the sense that I lived free, but far from my co-workers and most my friends, and had no one to really talk to once I got home. Teaching business executives English as a means of extremely minor income had started to wear on my patience and the influx of new interns at Saint Andrew’s led to a smaller caseload anyway. I either needed a job or a new destination. No doors opened. So I decided to jump out the window.

Turkey as a destination was inspired by the fact that my old roommate in Palestine Lindsey, whom I consider to be a sister, moved to Istanbul two weeks ago, with similar aspirations to the ones I described above (except she has a substantial teaching job lined up). She offered to let me live with her, and she would cover the rent until I found a job. With only the bare minimum of thought and processing required to make such a life-altering decision, I booked the ticket, packed my life into two duffels, a backpacker’s backpack and several jackets stuff together; and wrapped up all logistical loose ends left in Cairo. Then I started my goodbyes, which thanks to lots of practice, I managed to emotionally disconnect from in the moment in order to not to feel the pain of parting I have learned follows every goodbye. I still feel the tinges, and will likely burst into one set of sobs, perhaps as the plane takes off, thinking about all I am leaving behind.

However, as soon as the plane descends and I hit Turkish land, I know excitement will bubble at the smell of fresh air and limitless possibilities. Never before have I bought a one way ticket somewhere without any set occupation or program.  Never before have I lived, much less visited, a country where I didn't speak at least the basics of its language. I am terrified of failure, of not landing on my feet; but I think this is perhaps a necessary step. My spiritual life has reached a standstill—and I think leaping from a ledge is perhaps the only way to force myself into figuring out what I truly believe. In all respects, this will be a great chance to learn, grow and challenge myself in ways different from those I have faced thus far.