Monday, June 30, 2008

Adventures with Electricity: The Story

I am not an electrician or anything approximating an electrician, so bear with the technical generalities and please forgive any mistakes, but there is a story I just have to tell. There are technical details regarding electricity that have a bearing on the story, so the previous entry provides those details. This entry tells the story. I divided it like this to make it easier for people who aren’t interested in the technical stuff, or who already know it, to skip to the story.
When we first arrived here, there were four transformers in our apartment for use with any American electrical devices we brought with us. Because most people bring small kitchen appliances from the United States, and also electric toothbrushes or razors, there are 110V outlets available in the kitchen and bathrooms. Throughout the rest of the apartment, there are 220V outlets. That’s where the transformers are to be used. The problem is that the 220V outlets in our apartment are shaped differently from the outlets in the other apartments in the compound (our apartment was recently remodeled) and from the outlets used throughout Egypt. So although the transformers had a grounding mechanism that would work just fine for most outlets, that mechanism couldn’t access the ground in our outlets. So my story begins because we had to have maintenance come and change out our outlets, give us new transformers, or change the plugs on our transformers. We also had two other problems that needed to be fixed: One of our 110V outlets in the kitchen was not wired properly, according to the tester we brought with us, and the faceplate on a light switch in our bedroom had the habit of delivering a mild shock when you touched it (but you could only feel the shock if you were barefoot on the tile in the bathroom reaching around the corner to turn on the bedroom light, because the carpet in the bedroom provided insulation, keeping you from being grounded, which according to my husband basically means it keeps the electricity from trying to go through you).
When maintenance showed up, it was in the form of two Egyptian men, both of whom speak at least some English. Both were friendly and seemed eager to do what was needed. They immediately set about switching out the plugs on our transformers. It didn’t take long. When they finished, I tested all four of them with our little tester. All four now had good grounds: Three were perfectly functional, but one was wired improperly. I told them this. They seemed confused and said that they were all the same. So I showed them the lights on the tester and explained that the pattern that showed up for these three transformers meant “good” and any other pattern, like the one that showed up on this transformer, meant “not good.” They looked slightly awed and asked if I am an electrician. “No, but my husband is. All I know is what he told me—this means good, and anything else means not good.” I tried to explain that the key on the tester indicated that the particular “not good” pattern we saw meant that the hot and neutral were reversed, but this information meant about as much to them as it did to me—nothing. They wanted to argue a little, but then I told them that if I used that transformer, something may catch fire. I quickly realized that I had discovered the magic word. They heard “fire” and decided that that transformer was bad; they would swap it out for a different one. This was fine by me, so we moved on to the other problems.
The 110V outlet in the kitchen was “good” according to them, just like the others in the kitchen. I pulled out my tester, showed them the lights, and again used my new favorite word—“fire.” They thought for a couple of seconds and then asked if another 110V outlet was good. I tested it and said that it was. They promptly pulled both the good and the bad outlets from the wall and examined the wiring in both. One went into the room with the fuse box, presumably to turn off the power to that outlet, and then they reconfigured the wires in the bad outlet to match those in the good outlet. They turned the fuse back on, asked me for the tester, showed me the lights and waited for approval. I was surprised that these embassy-employed electricians had had to look at one of the other outlets to see how to wire it properly, but they fixed it, so that’s okay. I tried telling them that the bad transformer had exactly the same problem as the outlet, so they could fix the transformer in the same way as they had fixed the outlet, but they didn’t like that idea, so I let it go.
Then we went to the bedroom. When I explained the problem, their eyes lit up and they smiled and nodded. “Yes, we can fix this.” They took the faceplate off and poked around in there until they found a random wire, carrying electricity, not attached to anything at all. It was just hanging out in there electrocuting everything. They attached it to something, put the faceplate back on, took off their shoes, stood in the bathroom, reached around the corner, touched the faceplate, and said “Is good.” They looked to me for approval. So I slipped off my shoes, stood in the bathroom, reached around the corner, touched the faceplate, smiled, and said “It’s good.” (Notice that there were no fuses turned off for this process.) They left happily, promising to swap out the transformer the next day, which they did.
But the story goes on. That afternoon, I plugged our laptop into a 110V outlet in the kitchen to charge. I did not plug it into the same outlet they had fixed, but a different one, one that had been used successfully a couple of days before. The laptop did not charge. When Jeff got home, I told him about it. He pulled out some device that measures electrical voltage and pronounced that the outlet was dead—no power to speak of. So he submitted a work request the following day, and on the day after that, the same two guys show up at my door.
I explain the problem to them. I point out the outlet that isn’t working. I assume they will pull out something like the device that Jeff used to measure the voltage, but they don’t. They do something odd. They stick a screwdriver into the outlet. That’s right, a screwdriver—a metal rod—is inserted into the electrical outlet. They must believe me that it’s dead, right? But wait, there’s more: They then go to another outlet on the same wall, one that has not been tested but that is presumed to be working, and they stick the screwdriver into that one too! One of them then goes around the kitchen, sticking the screwdriver into most of my outlets. I have visions of Tom and Jerry, you know, the cartoon, the cat and the mouse—they were always sticking tails, fingers, or forks into outlets, and then they’d freeze spread eagle in the air and you’d see their whole skeleton as they fried.
Oh, and while the one guy is sticking the screwdriver into all my outlets, the other has noticed that the oven wobbles, and he’s fixing that for me, which I appreciate, but really, his partner is about to electrocute himself; why is he messing with the oven? Then he notices that the top of it can be lifted up (I’m not sure whether or not it’s designed that way), so he fiddles with that too. All while the other guy is sticking the screwdriver into electrical outlets.
The next thing I know, all of my outlets have been pulled off the wall—including both the 110V and 220V outlets. The faceplates are hanging by the electrical cords. The connections or something, I’m not sure what, are getting tapped routinely with the screwdriver while the men converse animatedly in Arabic. Then my dishwasher is pulled out from the wall and slid across the floor out of the way—I start mentally cataloging the dishes that are in there in case I hear any “unusual” sounds—and one of the men is under the counter doing who knows what. They continue an animated discussion in Arabic.
After about 20 minutes, I hesitantly interrupt: I have a meeting. I have to leave in 10 minutes. I hesitate to tell them so, because I’m kicking them out before the problem is fixed, and I want it fixed and I hate to kick them out and make them come back later, especially if that means they will again stick screwdrivers into my outlets, but at the same time, they were supposed to call and make an appointment with me, and they didn’t, so it isn’t unreasonable for me to have plans and have to leave. So I tell them that I have to go. They do something under the counter, replace my dishwasher, and re-attach all my outlets to the wall.
Before they leave, they promise to come back the next day. They don’t. The day after they were supposed to come back, they do drop by, apologize, and promise to come on Sunday. They don't. I think Jeff is going to submit another work order today.
In the meantime, we’ve discovered something else: About half the outlets in our kitchen no longer work. We discovered this when I tried to use the toaster on Friday. My husband is convinced that when they fixed the first 110V outlet, they broke the second one, and when they tried (unsuccessfully) to fix the second one, they broke all of the 110V and 220V outlets that currently don’t work. At least they left us a functional outlet for our coffee maker—it would count as an emergency if we didn’t have that.
Eventually all of the outlets in our kitchen will work . . . inshallah.
Updates as events warrant.

Adventures with Electricity: The Technical Details

I am not an electrician or anything approximating an electrician, so bear with the technical generalities and please forgive any mistakes, but there is a story I just have to tell. There are technical details regarding electricity that have a bearing on the story, so this entry provides those details. The next entry tells the story. I divided it like this to make it easier for people who aren’t interested in the technical stuff, or who already know it, to skip to the story.
 Back in the United States, we use 110V/60Hz electricity. In Egypt, they use 220V/50Hz. The relevant part is the 110V-220V distinction. This means that Egyptian electricity has twice the power of American electricity. If you plug an Egyptian hair dryer, toaster, or microwave oven into an American outlet, there will not be enough power for it to run. If you plug an American hair dryer, toaster, or microwave oven into an Egyptian outlet, it may catch fire, or at the very least, it will “release the magic smoke” (a euphemism used by my husband) and never work again. To use an American device in Egypt, you must use a transformer, a device that takes a 220V power supply and converts it to 110V electricity, minus some overhead losses to heat.
Another technical detail: In America, we generally use a ground with our 110V electricity—the third pin, the round one, on a plug, if it’s there, is the grounding pin. While for most low-power devices (i.e., hair dryer or toaster) this isn’t absolutely needed, it’s a good safety measure, so that if something in the device breaks and electricity is going places it shouldn’t—like into you if you’re touching it—it will be diverted down the grounding pin instead. High-power applications (i.e., ovens, computers, and transformers) need a good ground in order to function correctly, and in some cases won’t operate at all if the ground connection isn’t present or isn’t good. In Egypt, there is not always an understanding of the importance of a good ground, since many of their appliances don’t use it, and electrical safety in general tends to fall under the “Inshallah” principle (basically “if Allah wills it” or “whatever happens is Allah’s will”; in some cases, this means “if Allah wills it, I’ll survive”). [Okay, I admit it, Jeff just wrote most of that paragraph because all I know is this: The ground is important.]
In America, most of our plugs are designed so they only fit in the holes one way. Not so in Egypt. This matters when it comes to the transformer. If something is plugged in backwards, the 110V outlet’s wiring will be reversed. In Egypt, it doesn’t matter because the 220V outlets are designed to work either way. However, when plugging in transformers, it matters a great deal—friends here have destroyed expensive computer equipment because they plugged the transformer into the wall and the computer into the transformer without checking for correct wiring. Turns out they had plugged the transformer into the wall backward, the wiring was reversed, and the magic smoke was released. So we bought a little tester thing that will tell us if all the wires are connected properly; it also tells us if there’s a good ground. It tells us this by the pattern of lights that light up when it’s plugged in. There are three lights: one red and two yellow. The only correct pattern is the red not lit and both yellows lit. If any other pattern occurs, this is bad. Plugging in an American electrical device could release the magic smoke and may cause a fire.
I think that’s it for the technical details. See the next post for the story.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Your Church Home Away From Home

This morning, we found our “church home away from home.” It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Let me start from the beginning.
Last weekend, we meant to go to church; we really did. But we’re accustomed to church on Sunday, and we assumed that church here would be on Saturday, in the same time slot relative to the weekend as it is at home. So on Thursday night we went to the Maadi House for dinner with friends—on the way we passed a church where service obviously was in session, as it was meeting outside under a large tent and we heard familiar English praise choruses being sung—and on Friday we went shopping at the Khan with friends. Friday evening, we started going through all our magazines and orientation handouts looking for information about churches so we could decide where we were going to church on Saturday. We found information about a few English-language Catholic churches, some Episcopalian churches, and some churches with services in German or French. We also found out about Maadi Community Church (MCC), a non-denominational English-speaking international church. MCC was the only church whose description actually referenced God and the Bible. We immediately felt led to go there. They even had three service times, so we could pick the one that worked best for us. The problem was that they all were Thursday night or Friday morning. So we realized that we had inadvertently decided to wait until this week to go.
We went to the earliest service this morning. We had found out when we walked by last Thursday night that the service is held outdoors, so we wore the coolest semi-dressy clothes we had with us. (We quickly realized that there’s no real need to dress up, and there is a real need to bring bottled water with us, especially since it’s more practical to walk to church than to drive.) As we walked in, I checked out the physical structure and the people who were there. It was inside a walled courtyard, as so many things here seem to be. The church is actually St. John the Baptist Church, one of the Episcopal churches, but they allow MCC to use the facility as well. The pavilion where MCC meets is an area covered by a tarp extending from the side of the building itself. The support structure is metal, and it’s open on the sides, with the roof for protection from the sun. At the front is a stage; behind the stage is what looks like a wood wall, with black tarp extending a short way out on either side. I assume this is to prevent glare on the screen onto which lyrics and sermon notes are projected. Extending from the front of the stage were rows of plastic chairs, and of course there was a sound booth in the back. The physical environment was a little unusual just because it was outside, but it was set up much like any church you’d see in the States. The really unusual thing was the people.
MCC is a truly international church. There were many people who looked to be American—one of them I recognized from a newcomers’ meet-and-greet at the embassy. There were many people of Asian descent. There were many Africans, and at least a few who appeared to be Arab. They asked everyone who was there for the first time today to stand and say their country of origin. Including Jeff and myself, there were four Americans and one man from Sudan. The worship leader, judging from his accent, is from the UK. Three of the men playing instruments in the praise band appeared to be African; one of them didn’t sing much as he played the drums, but he frequently let out a joyful “ai-ai-ai-ai-ai” between stanzas. Almost everyone clapped; many people raised their hands. One Asian woman near me was singing, raising her hands, and jumping up and down. Others swayed. It sounds chaotic from my description, but it wasn’t. Everyone was worshipping God in the way that felt most natural to them. We were all singing the same words to the same tune at the same time, but the physical expression of worship was different for different people. This was the part that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I kept thinking of the Bible passages that talk about people of every tribe, every tongue, every nation praising God together in heaven. I think I got a partial glimpse this morning of what that will look and sound like.
Everyone sat and listened attentively during the sermon, which was delivered by a visiting pastor who used to be the youth minister at MCC. He’s currently the pastor of a church in Guatemala; he’s brought some of his congregants on a Middle East tour. The pastor of MCC is new; he’s only been there for a month, and he’s away right now to finish up the last details of the move—someone mentioned selling his house. Apparently his wife hasn’t been here yet because she’s a schoolteacher, and she was finishing out the year. I’m not sure when they will be back, but I’m looking forward to meeting them.
After the service, Jeff and I signed up for cell groups. MCC doesn’t have Sunday school; they have the three worship services where large groups of people get together for praise and preaching, they have something called “Africa Live” (don’t know yet what that is), and they have small cell groups that meet throughout the week for Bible study and fellowship. The man we talked to said that they have . . . I forget the exact numbers, but over forty English-speaking cell groups and around four hundred cell groups total. The total number of people involved with the cell groups is somewhere between 4000 and 5000. Jeff and I are going to join a couples’ group that meets during the evening; we don’t know details yet, but we should hear in a week or two. I also would like to join a women’s group that will meet sometime during the day when Jeff is at work, but that probably won’t happen immediately. Things seem to be a little crazy right now, with the pastor not here and new anyway. Apparently several other staff members have either been led to other countries recently or are away on vacation, so they’re short-staffed. And everything with the expat community in Cairo seems to slow down or stop altogether during the summer, when people go home for visits.
I can’t exactly explain it, but I knew when I read the description of MCC that we would find our church home in Egypt there. I felt it again as we walked in and throughout the service—I even felt it last Thursday night as we walked by the worship service that we should have been attending. Everything about MCC has said that it’s the church for us.
The motto of the church, printed right there on the bulletin this morning, said it all: “Maadi Community Church: Your Church Home Away From Home.”
(I haven’t had the chance to look at it yet because the network we’ve been using to connect to the internet has disappeared, but apparently MCC has a website: This is distinct from, which belongs to St. John the Baptist Church.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Hmm . . . how to begin a new blog? This is a new experience for me, so I guess I'll muddle through. Although this blog is intended primarily for friends and family, it's open to anyone, so I guess I'll start with a brief introduction.

My name is Deborah, and I am married to Jeff. We are late 20s/early 30s in age, and we have no children. I used to work as an investigator for the U. S. government, but I gave up that job earlier this year. Jeff is an employee of the U. S. Department of State. We just arrived a little over a week ago at our first international posting, which is Embassy Cairo. We're living in an American compound in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, which is why I'm starting this blog. Many of our friends and family suggested that we do a blog in order to keep in touch and let everyone hear of our experiences, and it sounded like a good idea. Since Jeff works all day and I don't, I was nominated.

We arrived in Cairo on 16 June 2008, after approximately 14 hours of travel from the DC area. I'm not sure what I was expecting the Cairo airport to be like, but whatever I was expecting, that's not what it was. We filed out through security and were greeted by a line of men holding signs with the names of the various people they were meeting. We located our names, along with a third name, and went over to the man who was holding it. He introduced himself to us (I forget his name), told us that he was the expeditor arranged by our sponsor, and asked for our passports. We had been told to expect the expeditor and to follow his instructions, so we gave them to him without question. He told us to follow him and then he was gone. The airport was crowded, so we were bobbing and weaving through all the people just trying to keep him in sight, but we finally caught up with him at . . . I think it was baggage claim, or maybe customs came first, but that doesn't make sense. It's all a blur. But at some point we got our four huge suitcases, and at some other point, the expeditor led us to the very front of the customs line, and no one in the line objected to us breaking in front of all of them. The expeditor answered all the questions of the customs official, told us to follow him, grabbed a suitcase, and he was off again. We again followed him through the crowds (even worse once we exited the airport), and he led us to the American who was picking us up.

We were driven on the Ring Road (I guess kind of like a beltway) to Maadi, where we were left at our apartment. There was a note from our neighbor and my husband's coworker, inviting us to dinner that night, so we unpacked a little and started getting our bearings while waiting for our neighbors to get off work. Then we went to their apartment, where we met up with them and with another of Jeff's coworkers and his wife and went to a very good Chinese restaurant. Then we came home and just went to bed.

The next morning, we went to a newcomers' briefing at the embassy. After that, I took the family shuttle back to Maadi and spent the afternoon unpacking and trying to get settled. Jeff started the check-in process at work, which has him going all over the embassy to various offices to fill out their paperwork and familiarize himself with their locations. Since then, I've gone out for a least a couple of hours most days with Julia, who is walking me around Maadi to help me get familiar with my new neighborhood. We went shopping downtown one day, and she showed me a great little store with wonderful air conditioning, beautiful products, and fixed prices. (I haven't learned the art of bargaining yet, although I will.)

Jeff has been working long days. We aren't sure yet if that's going to be the standard year-round, or if it's only during the summer while a lot of people are on R&R. I guess we'll find that out this fall. We're both adapting to life in Maadi. I think it's been easier for me because I don't have the stress of a job, and I can take naps if I need to, so the adjustment is a relaxed, gradual process for me. Jeff, on the other hand, has to get up early, can't take naps, is busy all day at work, and then comes home and stays busy trying to set up our internet connection (still not up, we're using someone else's connection right now) or do other things in or for the apartment I can't do for one reason or another. He hasn't had enough down time. But we have a weekend starting tonight (weekends here are Friday and Saturday), so I'll try to make sure he gets some rest. And next week, he'll be off Thursday through Saturday; since Independence Day falls on a Friday, Thursday becomes an embassy holiday.

In future posts, I'll tell you about the apartment (including pictures), our first trip to the Khan al Khalili (a huge, confusing, and delightful market area), traffic, and whatever else I think you'll find interesting. Feel free to email me or post comments with questions, and I'll answer as best I can. I'm not sure how often I'll update the blog. This blog hosting site has a function where I can have emails sent automatically to up to ten addresses to notify the recipient of when a new blog is posted. If you want to be one of the ten, let me know. First come, first served.