CRAIG PAUL and TERRY PAUL: Living in Egypt – Part 1

The following story is a series of emails and journaling from Craig and Terry Paul. They emailed a couple of weeks ago from Egypt expressing an interest in following Wayzata Football. Craig has just retired from WHS as the principal and expressed a desire to stay connected. I indicated that the Wayzata Community would like to stay connected to them as well.

As a result of that conversation, Craig and Terry forwarded the following email / journal entries from abroad as they have began a new challenge at the American International School of Egypt in Cairo. will publish these in a new segment called: CRAIG PAUL and TERRY PAUL: Living in Egypt!

August 2008- 1st two weeks in Cairo

August 6-12

Transitioning from the snowcapped mountains and beautiful flowers of Breckenridge, CO on August 12 to the endless desert of Egypt on August 14….Craig and Terry looked down while descending over Cairo and saw beige everywhere- millions of beige Legos stacked up as apartments and businesses, split by a snakelike Nile slithering through the beige landscape. A great contrast occurs when the beautiful patchwork fertile farm fields and city edges abruptly halt at the desert’s edge. Amidst all of this we could see the textbook pyramids become a reality as well. An amazing sight from the air as the 2:15pm flight from Frankfurt concluded!

August 15

The airport was adventure #1 as our expediter, the person hired to greet you and walk you through visa steps, baggage and customs, wasn’t there. After waiting for about ½ an hour, Craig and I were the last ones left from our plane load of 350 people not through the visa step. So do we take the deep dive and go through customs with our 4 suitcases and 4 boxes ourselves or keep waiting? We take the dive, buy our visas, go through the passport area, get all our bags and start heading for the customs area. (Terry forgot to mention her mini meltdown as she uttered “Craig you have to take charge here!” as if I had an ounce of control and the first time in our marriage those words had ever been uttered)! Just as we get to customs, the expediter finds us, and just in time it is! We have to open one box to show that it has clothing and household goods, just as we said. The expediter is talking quickly as the customs people are pulling all 50 lbs. of “stuff” including homemade pickle relish and sewing supplies out of the box, but not one stitch of clothing!

Then off to the school owned Mercedes mini bus (they have a fleet of 100 of these to pick up kids throughout Cairo) and on to Korba, a section of a suburb called Heliopolis northeast of downtown Cairo. The neighborhood is located 3 blocks from President Mubarak’s Palace and is a tree-lined mix of shops and apartments. We are located on the 4th floor of a medical clinic. Because of the clinic, we have 2 elevators and an around the clock security desk, although their version of security and ours is quite different. There are only 2 residential flats in the whole building.

We arrive at our 3 bedroom apartment and it is definitely big enough for visitors. Has been closed up for a couple of months and needed to be aired out, cleaned “Terry” style, and then made homey. But it definitely has potential! The elementary principal offers to drive us around that evening and Saturday to get settled. We need to buy things to live, so a trip to Spinney’s, Cairo’s version of K-Mart, was the afternoon’s challenge.

Spinneys, Oh my gosh. It is K-mart blue light special and a store closing sale both put together, only this is just typical shopping for people before Ramadan starts. You could not get through the aisles without fighting your way through them. Then the checkout experience was definitely a unique one- people just cut in front of you. Lines are non-existent here. So Craig and I are standing in our own line, but everyone is walking around us and getting checked out. Eventually we catch on!

We eat supper at TGI Fridays sitting next to a table of smokers- our first introduction to the world of smoking in Egypt. By the way, Spinney’s is in a beautiful shopping mall rivalling Mall of America with upscale shopping, 4-levels, enclosed, air conditioned, underground parking and food court with almost any American brand you know- Mc, Burger King, TGIF, Sabarro, Pizza Hut etc.

Saturday we unpacked, went to the quaint Royal House grocery store, a much quieter grocery store. This would be considered a HyVee or Lund’s in the states except 70% in Arabic print. We took a nice tour of Heliopolis by car to find out what our suburb is like. Because it is Saturday, many shops are closed for part of the day, but will be open late in the evening.

That evening we took a lovely Felucca ride on the Nile. These are wooden sail boats that are 100-200 years old and steered by a man wearing a long gown called a galabea and barefoot. We watched our first sunset on the Nile with snacks and wine. The evenings are wonderful in Cairo because it cools down to a pleasant temperature from the stifling daytime temperatures, so everyone comes out in the evenings. There is a nice breeze as well, so to be on the Nile in the evening is a wonderful treat. The parking, 2 hour boat ride and tip came to 75 pounds (75/5 or $15) for three of us. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

The work week is from Sunday through Thursday. This is because Friday is the Muslim version of Sunday for Christians. Only Coptic Christians who own stores are closed on Sunday. By the way, the same is true on Friday. Many stores are closed on Friday if they are owned by Muslims, or they don’t open until after lunch. They also close for late afternoon prayer and re-open after that. Banks are not open on Friday or Saturday any week of the year.

Ramadan is in September this year and is an amazing fast/feast cycle. It dictates everything in Egypt. For example, they moved Daylight Savings Time to August 29 so we are sleeping in this morning for Ramadan participants to get an extra hour of sleep and alter the day during Ramadan. Students will have a shorter school day and fast all day, then eat at sundown, visit and party with relatives until 1-2 in the morning, sleep a little and eat before sunup and repeat. Teachers say this is grueling on the kids and them but a necessary part of the culture.

Craig went to work on Sunday and I began cleaning the apartment. The dirt was depressing to me. Everything was black- floorboards, window wells, shelves, etc. The curtains were filthy. I was told it doesn’t take long for anything to get this way because of the dust that is everywhere. I can see dust on the floor after one day. I feel it on the counters at the end of the day. I see it in my ears when I shower. I wash my face at the end of the day and my washcloth shows the grit. The trees are even dusty! (Craig’s comment- As in America, I do not see the dirt Terry does ).

We had a potluck one evening with all the new staff at the home of a teacher who had been here for six years.

Another evening, the new staff went to the Giza pyramids for the sound and light show and that was spectacular to see the magnitude of the pyramids. We drove through the old city of Cairo, which is an experience in itself, by Garbage City, by the Citadel, through the City of the Dead where people are now living in old tombs and finally saw the 3 Giza pyramids, which have been there for 4,000 years. The largest pyramid is made of 2.3 million limestone blocks, each one weighing about 2.5 tons. Can you imagine this feat being built? We were probably a mile away from them when we first saw them, but they were still so big that you could see them. We can understand why they are considered one of the wonders of the world!

Another evening we went to the Al-Azhar Park, which was originally the site of centuries of garbage. The park is beautiful and a haven for 100s of people to picnic and relax. There are flowers everywhere and beautiful trees. The site looks up at the Citadel and down at the original wall that surrounded Cairo. So we have had some wonderful siteseeing opportunities in the first two weeks we have been here!

While Craig worked from Sunday through Thursday, I walked around the 4-5 block radius of Korba and explored our surroundings. I shopped for household goods at many very small specialty stores among the modern larger stores. Sometimes I was with my driver, who did the interpreting for me, but sometimes I was on my own and then I played charades. The local’s shops are probably 6’x10’ and are from floor to ceiling with merchandise. The lighting is often not very good; the merchandise has to be reached with long poles. If the owner doesn’t have the merchandise in his store, he will send someone to get it from a store down the street, or he will tell me where I can get it. Most of these little stores don’t have computerized cash registers. They have pads of paper and add everything up and tell you what you owe them, and then put the money in a drawer. In the afternoon when it gets so hot, you will often see cloths put over the store fronts to shut out the heat. The stores are usually run by men and have errand people just sitting around waiting for something to do.

Almost every store has a runner though. It is very common to have everything delivered. I have my groceries, laundry, baked goods delivered. The laundry gets delivered and picked up for 3 pounds, or 55 cents. The groceries get delivered for 75 cents. You can have a piece of pie delivered or a Starbucks coffee or McDonalds if you want. Whatever you want, and whatever time of day you want!

Egyptians like to sleep late and stay up late, so stores don’t generally open until about 10:30-11:00 and they usually don’t close until about 10:30-11:00. It seems that life really starts coming alive after 6 PM when it cools down, and then the shopping and eating area just becomes crazy! We are just 2 blocks from the downtown area and it is amazing how busy the shopping area is at night. We can go walking at midnight, and entire families are out walking, eating, picnicking in the parks.

There was one case where I didn’t have the correct change to give to the pastry shop owner, so he gestured for me to go outside with the small boy standing beside me and the pastry I had just selected. We left the store with the merchandise and me still owing him money. We went to the little boy’s father, asked him to make change for the money, and then the little boy finished walking me home and then took the money back to the store. It would never happen in America!

Another instance of trust occurred when Craig and I were in the store last night and we were paying and I wasn’t picking out the pounds quickly enough. The man behind me understood English and he just reached in my wallet and pulled out what I needed. He laughed and said- “It’s OK, this is what you need.” If someone tried to do that in the US, they would probably get shot! Here, there is so much trust in people, they no one thinks that someone would do something dishonest.

Craig writing now: While Terry was shopping and setting us up, I was working since day 3 after arrival at the American International School of Egypt. It is located 25 minutes east of us just outside the ring road developed around Cairo. It was the first building in a new development called Festival City (mirroring the Festival City expansion in Dubai) which now houses new villas- huge homes in anyone’s world and business are coming into the area including ACE Hardware, Toys Are Us, Honda etc. Several of the suburbs are popping up around the ring road just as the Twin Cities process. Many of these homes are investments for wealthy Egyptians and Saudis.

I am told that the Saudis are flocking to Cairo because 9/11 shut down the easy visa process in the states and it became harder to do business there. Thus the cheap labor here provides a new investment opportunity. There is a cultural tension between the Saudis and the Egyptians that is historical. The villas are 2 years in arrears in the building process and some of our photos will reflect that issue as shells stand ready for completion. This is an entrepreneur’s paradise but, just as cabins in northern Minnesota, prices are rising.

I played my first round of golf 8/29 (after a month of no golf )on the premier course of the five in Cairo called Katameya located five minutes from the school. It is a new golfing community with homes rivaling any I have seen worldwide. (Shot 43/44 so was tickled even though it was not from the tips). Marriot just put in a course 5 minutes the other way.

The school is three years old and built for 1200. We are at 1250 now k12 and breaking ground on a new school on the west side of Cairo in December. We are one of the top IB schools in Cairo. We have 85% of our kids with Egyptian heritage. They spend $8,700 dollars to attend which seems to be a rate worldwide. Our staff is all English speakers prepping kids for the universities of N America, England or Germany. It is really a large ESL type school wide effort as many kids need language assistance. They start in elementary and get proficient by high school. Then they can graduate in IB or regular tract if not IB capable.

My job is called director. We are defining it on the fly but I hire teaching staff for the building, monitor day to day operation and problem solve. I report to the owners frequently. Such private schools are exploding here and some are American International Schools, some are British Curriculum prep schools, some are German prep schools and others prep for Middle Eastern Universities. Some are legit and others are very weak. I am convinced our owner has quality education first and profit second. He has built 10 schools in six Middle East countries and is a special story in himself. Competition is increasing.

Staff turnover is high with the nature of 2 year contracts and people moving back or to new adventures. The staff is very lovely and full of unique lively people interested in culture, kids and life. There is no union at any level. Everyone is so positive and helpful hoping you will stay longer. This school is 12 years old and the longest tenured people are 9-10 years but sixty percent are 3 or fewer years. It is a life style choice and many spend years at various locations throughout the world. It is good income and way to save yet see the world.

Some things are different and here are a few. My secretary is on pregnancy leave until November. She stopped in and I asked when the sub started. She said there would probably not be one as we do not get busy until November. I asked about dictation and buying a dictation machine to fit my style. I got a quizzical look and she responded “why would you want a machine when we did less than 50 letters last year?” I would do that many in a week easy in the USA.

Other differences include the new gym where the floor was sanded by hand and then varnish hand brushed by two workers, the soccer field grass and flowers are all watered by hand, the furniture is moved by hand, the halls scrubbed daily by hand. Unfortunately it is a catch 22- labor is cheap but these people needs jobs with such high unemployment. When you hire a foreigner, companies are to hire ten Egyptians. Although we have a governmental exception as an English speaking school, we try to hire many locals.

I am driving to and from school solo now. After a week with school driver Faiz, who spoke only Arabic, showing me the landmarks, as most signs are in Arabic, and how to drive aggressively, I can make it. I have described it to some as bumper cars and go-cart racing combined. Terry thinks I like it and I do! As Emily said, “there is a flow, just find it” as I glide across 4 lanes in a half block to u-turn and do it again the opposite direction to get my right turn home. The goal is to move quickly and be first to the spot. Always look forward and peripheral but not behind and go. Do not turn sideways to check! My first solo day encountered 3 manhole covers missing that were there the day before, one family of 4 on a small motorcycle, taxis or mini buses stopping in the middle of the street to drop off or pickup at will, two spots where locals removed the government barriers to prevent cross traffic on this major road, two donkey carts with loads, motorcycles and mopeds weaving to any open spot, two vehicles coming the wrong way, and two jerks trying to be first too. But I am alive tonight.

“Danger Will Scarlet, Danger” was the pre-reading warning about the health care system here which I got to experience the week of teacher orientation. A new teacher had scraped her knee the first day and four days later it was infected, oozing and major redness encircling the knee. I grabbed a thousand pounds from the business office, got my driver and we headed for Cleopatra hospital in Heliopolis. Emergency room clearly marked to enter. We went in and a doctor greeted us and directed us to a waiting area with intake tables surrounded by 6 curtained patient areas like our ERs. He viewed the knee and began writing out a prescription for 3 meds and a topical cream while talking to me and placed her in bed and closed the curtain. He explained to me in limited English that he wanted a surgeon to see her and be sure the wound was external only. He arrived and said we needed an x-ray to be sure.

Red flag, “Danger Will” watch for price gouging and unneeded services foreigner! “How much is this x-ray?” this astute guy asked. The surgeon replied in flawless English he did not know but would ask. He returned and said 55 pounds or $11. Idiot here sheepishly said we should definitely go ahead. We were whisked to the floor below for the x-ray and returned to the ER. In 5 minutes the surgeon returned, showed me (the male) the x-ray and handed it to the patient (the female)- looked clear. A pharmacy was outside and two doors down clearly marked in Arabic. Found our way through to the counter, ordered, paid the cashier at a separate window, back with the receipt to collect the prescription and out the door in less than 10 minutes.

The process, payment, efficiency, customer service and care were first class. As you may have gathered, they spoke to me the male and not the 23 year old female graduate. That frustrated her and is cultural but the care was amazingly smooth and she is responding well. Lesson learned was critical to living here. The people of Egypt are eager to serve, competent and friendly. We males, smiled, shook hands and took care of the situation but it worked. The total bill was 215pds with 80 for the prescription, 80 more for the ER and 55 for the x-ray or $43. Top that health care bargain.

Do not negotiate! In the new staff introduction we were coached on how to work with kids. Egyptians are skilled negotiators as everything is negotiable in their lives from shopping to home life. You haggle period, for the best deal. Also many of our kids are raised by nannies and manipulate them incessantly and win. Staff must set rules and not deviate because the pressure to change increases once they find your weakness. Experienced staff laugh because everyone gets to experience this and you lose as they are that good.

We are also explained a key cultural difference in that you cannot get Egyptian kids to accept responsibility nor be blamed into contrition. I have seen it in the adults in only two weeks. They are always moving forward and not reflecting back. They do not acknowledge wrong. It is a glass half full mentality that success is just ahead. I will watch for examples to share but one relayed to us was from a teacher. He had gone on a week trip and returned to find 2/3 of the flowers dead. Furious, he asked what happened and the caretaker replied “what about these that are living they look very good”. No problem and no responsibility just the positive response to move on with.

Another major difference is garbage. Egyptians young and old litter everywhere. The streets and parks are full of wrappers and discards. I watched a very young boy eat a candy and just drop the wrapper as they have for years. There is a caste of people called zebaleen that pick up trash as well as some public workers. 80% is recycled by the zebaleen to Garbage City which is a story for another day. It is hard for us to appreciate this pattern. On the way home a BMW window lowered about 3 handfuls of trash flew. It is pervasive and cultural.

On a positive note but related to differences, while Terry was in Sweden for Ulf and Kajsa’s wedding, I ended the teacher orientation week going to a British Club. The BC is a gutted apartment building with four floors of different activities (bar, patio, pool table, darts, and disco) for different ages. In theory you can buy liquor only at the duty free shops within 24 hours of arrival. Lo and behold, alternatives exist. The BC cannot sell you liquor so they sell you a card marked with punches. As you buy a drink they punch your card. This is a throwback to speakeasies and set-up bars. You pay cash for food but play the card for drinks after a $2 entry fee. The Egyptian beer Stella and fish and chips were fantastic. You can find a mixed drink at major hotels as well.

We are so impressed with the safety, history and kindness of Egyptian people and school staff. We are where we were meant to be and glad we took the risk. Stay tuned as we experience Ramadan, opening school and beginning to travel on our own.

With optimism,

Craig and Terry
August 2008

Stay tuned for another exciting episode of CRAIG PAUL and TERRY PAUL: Living in Egypt!


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