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Packing two suitcases to last a whole year — shoes, skirts, or sunscreen? — and getting a mini-taste of Egypt

Preparing to leave the country for a year isn't easy. Doing it while you are finishing the final semester of your senior year of college, setting everything in place to apply to grad school from abroad, and selling off everything you own, is positively overwhelming.

One of the most maddening aspects of moving abroad is figuring out what to bring and how to fit it all into the two suitcases I am allowed on my flight over. I have never traveled to the Middle East before, and I don't know whether I will be able to acquire the little things that I find essential there or not. Should I bring lots of shoes? I've heard that Egyptian shoes are very easy to come by and very good, and alternately, that they are difficult to find and poorly made. Will I need a flashlight? Should I bring a pair of scissors, a sewing kit? The one thing that everyone agrees on: sunscreen is prohibitively expensive and difficult to come by. I guess this is one item that only the tourists use.

With less than a week left until take-off, I have purchased most of the things that seem important: rechargeable batteries, power adapters and converters, two good pairs of sandals, and a new digital camera. Because of the cultural modesty standards, I also bought a few long linen skirts and modest tops, but I figure I will do most of my clothes shopping there. That way I have more room in my luggage for shoes, textbooks, and sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.

Today marked my last "official" hurdle in preparation for my fellowship. I have already submitted my application, passed a written exam, underwent a physical, withstood a phone interview, and got a negative on the HIV test that is required for a stay of longer than 60 days in the country, but I got my first taste of Egypt today by going to the Egyptian consulate in San Francisco to apply for a travel visa. After a 20-minute BART ride and a 30-minute bus ride up the hills into Pacific Heights, I stepped out of a quintessentially San Franciscan scene into one that was essentially Egyptian.

I had imagined the consulate to be a large administrative office, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, but this was essentially a house, where an Egyptian flag hanging above the front door and a plaque outside were the only identifying signs that this was an official building. After being buzzed in through a heavily barred and locked front door, I was ushered into a reception room full of Egyptians waiting in low, deep couches, where a man sat behind a desk with a portrait of President Hosni Mubarak behind him.

My visa stamp for my passport. (Pamila Pengra photo)
I placed my papers on his desk and was invited to sit on a couch until they were ready for me. I sat down and eagerly listened as the people around me spoke in Arabic, torn between wanting to understand what they were saying and not wanting to look like an eavesdropper. As I waited I looked around. It was not as official as you might expect: the paint on the walls was peeling a little, the computer on the one desk may have been top of the line 10 years ago, and there was Arabic pop music playing from a small stereo. My couch neighbors consisted of a couple with a newborn baby, and two young men who seemed to just be hanging out, chatting with the man behind the desk and glancing over the Arabic language newspapers on the well-used coffee table.

When the man gave me my change (a tourist visa to Egypt for an American citizen costs $15, and can either be purchased in advance at the consulate or bought when you arrive at the airport), I thanked him in hesitant Arabic with the word "shukran." Immediately the conversation in the room stopped. Delighted, the man began asking me if I spoke Arabic, when I had learned, and if I would be learning more on my trip to Egypt.

I instantly felt welcomed, as everyone complimented my Arabic and began giving me advice on learning the Egyptian dialect once I arrive. If the Egyptians in Egypt are as friendly as the ones in San Francisco, I have nothing to worry about.


Pamila Pengra graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2005 with a B.A. in linguistics. She is studying Arabic in Cairo on a CASA fellowship.