Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 20, 2004. Cairo, Egypt.

Whee, Iím going to Egypt!

Or in a different mood I might say ďdamn, Iím going to Egypt!Ē

After only a modest amount of hemming and hawing, it seems that Iíll be doing six or perhaps eight weeks of consulting in Cairo this summer, from mid-June to mid-August.

Photo ©Ayman Lotfy.

Cairo is NOT where I would choose to spend my summer Ė I was really looking forward to Canada. Preferably in a cold wave.

And as I said to someone in an email last week, ďtwo months in Egypt is really going to put a crimp in my travel plans.Ē I was so much looking forward to finally getting away from the east coast, the mid-Atlantic, people I know, going in circles from Virginia to North Carolina to Virginia to Pennsylvania to Virginia to Maryland and how Pennsylvania, and getting away from continually landing up back in my own house in Arlington. And finally being on my own for real.

But thatís all easy to say now, with the security of six or eight weeks of paid work. And perhaps more importantly with the reinforcement that comes from reaffirming my professional identity.

In two months of travel Iíve met a lot of people with incredible practical skills that I donít have. Mechanical skills, mostly Ė building houses, engineering, computers, and of course most of all people with spectacular understanding of the inner workings of the vanagon. In that company my only demonstrable skill is writing, and though Iíd love to support myself with my writing, it certainly isnít going to happen in the short run. In my passes through Washington I dutifully schmoozed at a number of consulting firms, but nothing was going to come out of that any time soon. I was starting to wonder whether my skills are too specialized, or too hard to explain, or Iím too difficult to work with. Perhaps Iím too dismissive of the opportunities, or perhaps I seem too needy of the opportunities. Any which way, I started to fear that maybe my professional run was over, the consulting was too good to keep going, and Iíd have to find some other kind of job to make ends meet. A job that wouldnít be compatible with living in Matilda and being on the road. Iíd have to go back to a normal existence, staying in one place, having to be part of a community and make the best of it. Instead of being able to light out on the road whenever I want to be someplace new.

So being contacted out of the blue about an environmental accounting project in Cairo was a great relief, more than anything. Then being contacted even more out of the blue about another environmental accounting project is Cairo was even more of a relief. The first one is pretty sure, for six weeks; the second one, for another two weeks, is still up in the air. So if they both work out Iíll be there all summer, helping various Egyptian agencies figure out what they want to do in the way of environmental accounting. Someday I might even begin to think that I do know something on the subject, though that might be too much to hope for, notwithstanding that my book on the subject really is coming out in the fall.

Two months in Cairo, working six days a week. Knowing almost no one there, in a city too hot and chaotic and polluted to enjoy exploring. Itís kind of a strange life, overseas consulting. I donít think in terms of tourism. Iíve seen the pyramids and the sphinx. Iíve explored the wonderful bookstore that sells prints from the photos of Cairo that Lerner and Landrock took in the 1920s. Iíve seen the King Tut exhibit at the Egyptian Museum and hung out on their huge balcony, looked at hundreds of stone sarcophagi elegantly etched with hieroglyphics and pored over pages and pages of papyrus scrawled with Coptic script. Iíve strolled through the downtown shopping area looking in windows. Iíve had homemade mango ice cream at the crowded bakery with the long lines where no one speaks English. Iíve explored the old city and bought trinkets to bring home to my friends at the tourist shops and henna for my hair at the spice shops.

Instead, I think in terms of the projects I can finish off in my air conditioned hotel room. The quilt I started last fall when my friendís baby was still a newborn instead of a smiling eight-month-old. Cleaning up this website so it looks good no matter the hardware or software platform. Making myself a proper professional website. Swimming endless laps in the hotel pool. Reading novels while working out on the machines at the hotel gym. Itís a quiet life, really. Not nearly as exciting and exotic as it should be.

It makes me realize how conservative I am, how much I am constricted by myself and my tastes. I donít speak Arabic, so itís hard to meet up with people outside of work, at least not Egyptians. I donít like to hang out in bars or nightclubs Ė not my scene, and I canít stand the ubiquitous cigarettes anyway. Iím kind of timid, donít want to throw myself into strange social situations that I donít understand. Iím kind of cheap, too, donít want to spend a lot of money to do things like scuba dive in the Red Sea or trek out to the western oases. Though perhaps this time, with eight weeks there, I should take a trip to Luxor or go see the Aswan High Dam, head up to the Mediterranean to visit Alexandria or visit St. Catherineís monastery in Sinai. Maybe. It's too bad I can't bring Matilda with me, perhaps she would enjoy some more exotic scenery.

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