Archive for September, 2010

Papyrus painting negotiations and the power of non-desire

Papyrus Painting

Dale the Papyrus painting negotiator extraordinaire!

It was about one minute after Erica and I stepped out of the cab that Mohammed, the 260 pound  “non sketchy” Gold’s Gym member greeted us with a big “Hello! How are you?! Where are you from? I love Americans! You look like Jackie Chan.” Having expected that something like this would happen at Khan el Khalili, Cairo’s touristy market area, I responded with “Hey! I’m great! We’re from the US. I also love Americans. I think I look more like Jet Li.”

Within 5 minutes we were in Mohammed’s father’s Papyrus painting shop learning about the fine history of Papyrus paintings, how fake Chinese knock offs are polluting the Papyrus painting market, and how it is Egyptian tradition to stay for tea. Not ever having heard of Papyrus paintings, or for that matter, Papyrus (apparently a plant from which Papyrus paper is made), I found this all extremely….


I feel pretty bad that Mohammed happened to greet someone who wanted to desperately leave the Louvre after 20 minutes. Bad luck for him.

I made it clear to Mohammed that we weren’t planning on buying anything, that we had a rule that we never bought anything the first day we saw it. His Papyrus paintings shouldn’t be wasted on art amateurs like us. He engaged us in a “hypothetical” negotiation anyway.

“1500 pounds [about  $260]. A good Egyptian price!”

Now, remember that girl you had a crush on in high school that you were never able to work up the courage to ask out? Well, who you probably don’t remember is that girl who you barely said “Hi” to in the hall. She was doodling hearts around your name in her notebook. The irony of romance is that the power belongs to the one who cares less.

“Ok ok 1000 pounds, because you are like my family.”

There is something about not wanting stuff that lends itself to a sort of freedom. Of course this is a very old idea. Buddhist’s believe that desire, or rather unsatiated desire is the root of all suffering. Stoics believe that true freedom is internal, that only when we acknowledge that we can’t control what happens to us will we be happy. The great philosopher Dale believes that he really doesn’t want a stupid Papyrus painting.

“You are an excellent negotiator. I tell you what. 700 pounds, final offer take it or leave it.”

There is stuff that I want though. In fact, it’s a lot of stuff. I want a beachfront property, a successful business, cool Apple products…hell I just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love and now I want to eat pasta in Rome, Pray in an Ashram in India, and Love in Indonesia. I am very easily influenced. If only Mohammed brought me to an Apple Store…

“450 pounds! Ok? I don’t make money off it but you come back with some friends.”

I’m sorry Mohammed, but I did warn you that I would not buy anything today.

Though I think he felt a little dejected, I believe Mohammed will do just fine. The question is, when it counts, will I be able to view everything as a Papyrus painting? What things are ok to want and what things aren’t?

Until next time,


PS: I realize ending a blog post with a “deep” question is cheesy. Let me know how I could’ve ended it better.


My fish Amel (or how Lady Gaga is teaching my students to write an SAT Essay)

My students hard at work

Thinking intently about Lady Gaga

Have you ever felt like the week was never going to end? My fish Amel.

Ever been stuck in traffic that doesn’t move for a good hour? My fish Amel.

Ever have someone tell you “No, you may not drink coffee at work?” My fish Amel.

My fish Amel was the theme of this past week. As you may have guessed, I am not actually referring to a fish named Amel. In Arabic, it means “There is no hope” (and it’s pronounce ma feesh awmell).

The first day of school was last Saturday. Yes, I said Saturday. Because we had an extra week off the government decided that kids would start school on a Saturday, which made for a 6 day week. Of course, as I am a staunch advocate of a four hour work week, I was most definitely not pleased with this arrangement. My fish Amel.

Despite the absurdly long week, the teaching part is actually fun sometimes. I have no grandiose illusions of being as good a teacher as   James Escalante from Stand and Deliver. However, I fully intend to have my students tell me that I am the best teacher ever (extra credit if they do). After all, being flattered is the surest way to confidence and confidence is the surest way to success, right?

In all seriousness though, I am actively trying to figure out fun ways to teach my students about literature and writing. I’ve sat through many boring classes about theses and supporting evidence and metaphors. I hope to teach theses and supporting evidence and metaphors in an exciting way. And who else is more exciting than Lady Gaga?

For my writing classes, I made my students write an outline for an essay answering the question, “Is Lady Gaga the best singer ever?” Some of you more traditional types may scoff at the lack of intellectual rigor in this assignment. Don’t worry though, 99% of my students were intelligent enough to say no, she is not the best singer ever.  Here is what most of their outlines looked like:

Thesis: Lady Gags is not the best singer ever.


1.       She dresses weird.

2.       Her songs are catchy, but her voice is not great.

3.        C’mon, seriously?

If this were an SAT Essay outline, they’d actually be off to a good start. The only difference between this question and an SAT question is that the SAT question is usually something more profound and thought provoking. The assignment did give me a little insight into their writing process and the good news is My fish Amel is nowhere to be found. So, to Lady Gaga, if you’re reading this, thank you.

Week 2 will start tomorrow and I hope it is less exhausting. [By the way, everyone should call their old high school teachers and tell them “thank you” because this is seriously one of the hardest jobs out there.] I will report back in a few days to update you all more on my shenanigans.



Red Sea Bath

My Hut

Sunrise; Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are across the sea


Do you know what happens to soap in salt water?

It doesn’t get soapy. This is what I learned on my weekend vacation to the red sea on the Sinai peninsula. Since there were no showers at this beach campsite called Ras Shitan, I decided to go au naturel and bathe in the red sea every morning. Here’s what my morning schedule looked like on the first day:

6:00 AM: Wake up to the sunrise

6:20 AM: Go on a short beach run with Erica

7:00: Gather soap and shampoo for my red sea bath.

7:05: In the red sea feeling cold

7:10: Rubbing soap on my arms to no avail.

7:15: Still looking stupid

7:20: Discovered that if I spit on the soap, it will get sudsy.

7:25: Still looking stupid because I’m spitting on my bar of soap

7:30: Finish up my bath clean and refreshed

This was followed by a pretty awesome Egyptian breakfast, some coffee, and some light reading in the communal hut.

Despite the lack of modern conveniences like western toilets or internet, I didn’t feel as if I was missing anything. In fact, the most fun I had was playing a few games of Egyptian Ratscrew, Charades, and Banana Grams with our group of Egyptian, American, and British friends. No electricity required.

Though I’m usually a fan of cool technology (I did end up bringing my Ipad for the e-reading capability), I really believe it would’ve hindered my experience there. There have been countless times when I’ve had friends over and we all sat around staring into our respective laptops. When technology and modern convenience is taken away from you, strange things happen. You end up relying on people for your entertainment. I don’t want to exaggerate and say I have a super deep connection with Yassin or Tamar now, but I definitely know that Yassin will break your hand on Egyptian Ratscrew and that Tamar seems to have to taken Charades acting lessons.

I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten really close with anyone in particular on this trip, but I did get closer, and that was far more rewarding then browsing youtube videos for hours on end.

Until next time,


PS: Niche business idea – Ocean Soap.

Cairo Hash

Wadi al Digla - Where we ran (borrowed from google images)

Where can you meet an Estonian diplomat, a Korean travel agent, a gypsy, a Canadian teacher couple, and some BP accountants all in one place?

The Hash House Harriers, Cairo branch. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Hash, it is commonly described as “The drinking club with a running problem.” This eccentric and eclectic group is fond of following a trail of flour through the Waadi al Digla desert in order to enhance their appreciation of the drinking and singing session to follow.

Flash back to some of your social studies classes in high school or college. You might remember discussing some of the things that have unified people all throughout history. This could be nationalism, religion, class oppression, or common enemies to name a few. Unfortunately, I think we spend very little time thinking about the smaller things in life that bring people together.

It’s oddly counterintuitive to think that such small things as running through the desert and having a few beers in a ritualized fashion can bring such a diverse group of people together. Seriously, I never thought I would have more in common with an Estonian diplomat in Cairo then the girl that sat in front of me in English class.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so weird after all. Is it so hard to imagine the founding fathers of America discussing the injustice of British taxation at Buckman’s tavern after a round of polo (or whatever sport they played back then)? Maybe a group of French Bourgeoisie had too many glasses of wine and decided to do something about that tyrant Louis XVI.

Hmm, I have a sneaking suspicion that beer has been responsible for all the great movements in history.

On on!


First impressions of Cairo

So since I started this blog about a month after I arrived in Cairo, this will not be the most up to date post. I wrote it soon after I got here though so it’s like new. Enjoy and let me know what you think.

First Impressions

I went from this (San Diego)... this (Cairo, not San Diego).

After being laid off by the Navy, depression ensued for a short while. This can be attributed to two reasons: a) the military, the organization renowned for being a bastion of job security, fired me and b) I became your clichéd 20-something lost soul. Bummer.

As any good lost soul would do, I decided to flee the country. Ok, flee is not exactly the right word for it. I managed to get myself a job in said country , spend my last few months in the Navy in beautiful San Diego with my girlfriend and some great friends, and take a nice road trip up to Portland, Oregon (Route 1 is the way to go). All in all, I consider myself pretty lucky.

Ok so some advice if you ever make it out here:

1.       When in a car, do not stick your hand out the window. There are no such things as lanes here and you will be driving 50 miles an hour with another car literally 6 inches away from you.

2.       Moisture wicking clothing is a must. Five minutes outside will have you drenched in sweat.

3.       Enjoy the camraderie. When I was in a cab around sunset during Ramadan, groups of people from the mosque would stand in the street handing out bags of dates to the cab drivers so that they could break their fast while working. My cab driver kindly shared his dates with us (they were delicious by the way). I have to admit I was a little touched by that act of kindness. I guess it’s ok to take candy from strangers here.

4.       Redefine your understanding of bureaucratic inertia. Remember the DMV? Well, imagine that for anything involving any sort of paperwork here. Patience is not just a virtue, it’s a requirement.

5.       Eat street food. Mmmm….schwarma.

Welcome to Egypt.