Sunday, September 14, 2008

A BIG change of plans.....

Well, what can I say? You have to be ready for change when you travel.
I was out last night and came home late, around midnight. I noticed there was a text message on my mobile phone that I hadn't noticed. The text had come in around 9:15 pm.
I'll just quote it verbatim: "I am a KILLER!!! I kill people for money. But you are My FRIEND... I will kill you "FOR FREE."
Now imagine, being alone in a hotel in Alexandria, Egypt, not really knowing anyone well. Going to the police didn't seem wise, because of all you hear about the problems and corruption within the police departments here. The number wasn't one I recognized, nor had I given my cell number to very many people here. But I had met many of Mohammed's friends, and most of them knew where I was staying, at the Hotel Capry (sic), and they also knew my travel plans to head to the Sinai. Could they follow me? Probably not, but one never knows.
I sort of freaked out a bit. Looking back, perhaps I over-reacted, but I did feel a strong sense of danger, and I felt like I should follow my instincts and get the hell out of here. I didn't sleep that night a wink, but got up as soon as I thought the shops might start opening, around 9 am, and I went and bought an airline ticket back to the good ol' United States.
Surprised? Me too.
Yep, I"m coming home early, and not going to Jordan or Israel. Part of me feels like I've done enough already on this trip, while of course I have some second thoughts on whether I should've kept traveling. All I can say is that, at the time, it felt better to head home. Better safe than sorry, that sort of rationale.
Someone told me that Egyptians have a very weird sense of humor, and it could've been someone's idea of a joke. But, of course, it didn't seem funny to me at all. It just didn't feel like something you would chalk up to a "cultural misunderstanding." The text felt angry, like it was coming from someone I had irritated. Or perhaps they just didn't like Americans. Who knows?
I've thought and thought about who it could be, and I'm sure it had to be someone, somehow connected with Mohammed. I do like the guy, but I did at times question his judgement in friends. Trying to talk to him about this was an exercise in frustration, in any case.
On the other hand, I do feel a sort of relief. The next month was going to be difficult, mostly the Israeli portion because I would've hit Israel during the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. That's a major holiday period for Israeli's, naturally, and the country shuts down, hotels are booked and prices go up. Plus, I wasn't getting much response from friends there who I was trying to connect with.
In a certain way, I didn't do a very good job of planning this trip, in that I hit Ramadan throughout Tunisia and Egypt, and then the holidays in Israel as well. Me bad, but how can one know unless you've been here?
I have no regrets. I feel as though this will propel me to figure out the "what's next" for my life, whether it be in Denver, in Beijing or somewhere I haven't thought of yet. There's still a prospect of a getting on with FEMA, and I have a few ideas brewing on my own (as I blogged about last month). So we'll see. All's well that ends well.
SORRY that I won't be going to Petra for ya, but I suppose it will still be there the next time. So, a month ahead of time, perhaps the next time I see you will be in Denver?? I look forward to it.
Please feel free to let me know what you would've done in this situation. But please don't be too quick to judge, just as I am trying hard not to be too judgmental of all Egyptians.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sinai on Sunday

Can you say that three times fast: Sinai on Sunday?
With just a tinge of sadness, I’m taking the bus tomorrow to Dahab, which is on the east coast of the Sinai. It’s supposed to be more of a laid back, “hippie” resort, with excellent diving and beaches (not that I’m much of a sun person…) I might not spend much time there, however, because I'm running into yet-another potential religious conflict with Israel. The way it's timing, I could end up being in Israel during the high holy days of Roshashan and Yom Kippur, and I've been told that travel is more complicated then, hotel rates go up, etc. etc. In fact, the Lonely Planet book advises you to try and avoid going there all together -- and those holidays are Oct. 2 and 9. So I might speed things up a bit: go to Sinai and get the ferry to Jordan, and then go directly to Petra and Wadi Rum, which would then get me into Israel by next weekend. It's moving quickly, but I think it might be the better idea.
I’ve sort of gotten into the pace of Alexandria while I've been here, hanging out and drinking coffee (or small bottles of Sprite, for 40 cents each) at the cafes. Most of the time I’m with Mohammed, my buddy here, or any number of his friends. It just amazes me how much they know about American culture. It’s frightening actually. Everything from Tweety Bird to Limp Biskit (the band) – not much escapes them. All of them listen to American music, and sing along to all of the lyrics, many times not even knowing what they’re saying.
I love how the cafes all serve their drinks on a metal tray, and always with a glass of water on the side. Sometimes, the street kids who beg or try to sell little packets of Kleenex will come in and ask if they can drink you glass of water. They do, and then scamper out.
It’s also a sign of respect that when you see someone you know, and like, you’ll kiss them on each cheek once or twice (each side), and then put your right hand up to your heart. Everyone does it, but none more than café or restaurant hosts. They’re consummate hosts. And, of course, they’ll never kick you out. Sometimes I notice that people will just come into the café to sit for a few minutes, not order anything, never get bothered, and then get up and leave. Last night, I saw an older man walk over to a table near the window, take off his prosthetic leg (from the knee down), clean it, and then moved his chair so that it was facing east and he began to pray.
Can you imagine sitting for hours, and all it cost you was 40 cents?
If Mo and I plan to meet, he usually says something like “We meet ten-and-half,” meaning 10:30 pm. That’s a normal meeting time, especially at night and even more so during Ramadan. Everyone stays up as late as possible. There’s also been some articles in the paper, trying to get people to eat less food and healthier food during Ramadan. Evidently, people gorge themselves so much after fasting all day that it brings on a multitude of problems, from indigestion to heart attacks!
There’s always one guy who is the cashier at the café. He just sits there, doesn’t seem to really notice what’s going on around him, but he ALWAYS knows what’s being served, to whom, and who has paid and who hasn’t.
If you’re looking for a business to try in Egypt, you might want to manufacture or import fly swatters, or perhaps those fly strips with sticky paper that traps the flies. They’re beasts here, but no one seems to mind.
If anyone wants to get your attention, they do this sort of “tsssst” sort of sound. But they all do it at the same pitch, so somehow everyone knows that sound.
It's interesting to see the woman in their full hijab going swimming! Nope, they won't wear swimsuits, but they still get into the water, fully clothed, and take a dip. I didn't want to take a picture, however, seemed too intrusive.
I went to dinner last night at a place called Nassar, presumably after the ex-President? I like to try the Ramadan-plate specials, but I should’ve asked more questions this time. It was a huge beef shank, plus a rather green-looking stuffed pigeon (stuffed with rice), these wrapped vegetables and stuffed potatoes, along with rice with chicken livers and French fries. That was about $9, which is quite expensive, but when you add a beer, tax and the service charges, it was almost $15 – quite a grand feast for Egypt.
See you in Sinai!

Friday, September 12, 2008

What’s the happening in Alex?

I’ve settled into the slower pace of Alex(andria) quite nicely… Getting away from those horrible touts in Cairo has had enormous benefits. (In case you missed it: a tout is a person, 99.9% of the time a guy, who tries to get you to do something you don’t really want to do, like come into their store “just to look” or to take their hyper-expensive taxi cab, or come stay at their “very nice” hotel.)
I spent a few hours at the Naitonal Museum of Alexandria, which is a former consulate building that was turned into a museum about five years ago. While the exhibit descriptions were the best I’ve seen, all of it was lit in a very moody, dark manner, making things hard to see. But I’m sure the museum director thought it was compelling.
I continue to try and comprehend the scale of history here: the periods, the dynasties and all of the conquering. At one time or another, nearly everyone seems to have had their hands in the Egyptian pie, including the French and the Brits. During the time of Jesus, Alex was considered the intellectual and cultural capital of the world, yet they also say that the glory days here were really in the 12th to the 15th centuries!
It’s always hard being an editor tho, because I’m always wanting to correct those English grammatical errors. The guide pamphlet to Alex was so bad that I asked if I could take a whack at editing it, making sure I wasn’t offending anyone. They seemed thrilled that I would do that for me, and I spent a few hours trying to make a few “adjustments” for the next printing.
The other challenge in Egypt, anywhere, is crossing the street. Cars, buses and trucks always have the right of way, and pedestrians seem expendable. That said, I’ve never seen anyone get hit, but it has to happen! The technique I’ve devised is to sort of wait until someone else is heading out, and then use them as my “shield,” although I don’t think they see it the same way. It often happens that you get out into the street and a car speeds up, meaning you need to stand there and hope to hell you don’t get hit. So far, so good. I don’t detect that they’re “after” the foreigners, either.
In fact, feeling safe is something I’m starting to take for granted, at least in Alex. Maybe because it’s Ramadan, and people are holier and kinder at this time of year, but I’d like to think it’s that they just don’t look to harm others anytime. But I walk around at night and never feel any sense of danger or impending doom, which is quite a nice feeling.
I think I’ve said before that it’s common for men to walk around arm in arm. It’s not a sexual thing in the least, and they’re certainly not gay. Rather it’s just a mark of friendship between men, and sometimes women (although not as often it seems). I was walking the other night with Mohammed and he said “give me your arm” and we walked that way for awhile. It felt a little awkward, but then he said that only “best friends” walk arm-in-arm, and that was a nice feeling that he considered me such a friend.
Omar Sharif is in town, too! I can’t tell you the name of the show, but the poster shows him and another guy, with handcuffs on their wrists and looking forlorn. Of course, it’s all in Arabic, and I’ve tried to ask but no one seems to know what the show is about.
In fact, I’m not seeing that there’s a lot of support for the performing arts here. Last night, I went to see an Arabic choir perform. It was actually two choirs, one children and the other adults. The kids, all adorable, sang first, then there was an intermission and the adults took over. Much of the Arab music sounds redundant to western ears, and it seemed to my somewhat untrained ear that everything was in two parts, male and female (vs. four parts of soprano, alto, tenor and bass). The choirs would sing as a whole, and then one or three (never two) soloists would come out into the spotlight. I’ve never seen such emotion in singers! Luckily, I sat next to a guy who spoke some English and he would give me the briefest explanation of what the songs were about: “this is about the sun” or “they sing about their mothers.” That helped, of course, but mostly it was just a pleasure to see the amount of energy and rehearsals that went into it. All of the people talking throughout the show was a bit of a distraction… and the show ended with the conductor singing a short solo!
After the show, which last over two and a half hours, I strolled back to the hotel. Even though it was midnight, you would think that it was the afternoon: there were so many lights on, so many families and kids out shopping or walking. There was a street carnival, for lack of a better word, with rides like bumper cars, a small ferris wheel and spinning cups. Of course, all I could think was “these kids should be in bed!” Further down the street, all the men were of course happily sitting at their favorite café, drinking coffee, talking and smoking shisha (the water pipe). Another night in Alex.
Three more quick things: I love how a prayer to Allah starts playing every time that the elevator door closes at my hotel. It’s a seven-story ride in a somewhat rickety lift, but I somehow don’t think it was anyone’s idea of a joke…
And the names of the stores are always amusing: My favorites so far are Just… (that’s the name, just Just…), Marilyn Monroe and Tommy XXL.
And finally, for some reason, Egyptians love things LOUD. Especially their television shows. If it's in a store, or in the hotel lobby or, worst of the all, the hotel room next to you, they love it, or need it, at the highest volumn possible. Mh theory, of course, is that the whole country is so loud due to traffic and horns honking, that they're all going deaf!
I’m still planning on leaving this weekend for the Sinai… but we’ll chat about that later.
In the Muslim world, Friday is their Sunday, so take it easy today!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alexandria, anyone?


They call it Alex here, by the way, not Alexandria... the fabled city built by Alexander the Great. The largest port in Egypt, home of the famous light tower (now in the sea) and the Library of Alexandria, once the most famous in all the world.
Getting here was a snap. I took the Cairo metro to the train station, and paid 48 pounds (or about $9) for a first class ticket to Alex. I had a woman in front of me in full Muslim-wear, with even her hands covered and just her eyes showing... and all she did the whole ride was read the Koran and talk on her cellphone!
I tipped the porter 2 pounds, which is standard, and he looked down at the money like I had handed him a turd. He never spoke English to me until then, when he said/demanded "5 pounds!" I wasn't up for the argument, over 60 cents, so I gave him the five pound note. And then he was all smiles the rest of the way.
Another "trick" I've seen in Egypt is that you go into a cafe and, say, order a juice. But they'll also bring you something extra, like a bottle of water or a roll, to see if you'll eat or drink it and then have to pay for it. Happens all the time.
Or they'll also refuse to show you the menu, and just yell "Just order, what you want?!" But you have to always find out the prices, because I've learned that a can of diet coke can cost anywhere from 6 to 20 pounds....
If I were to maybe do anything over here, I'd open a "service industry training" company. I can't believe how poorly trained the staff are at so many places. OK, I'm sure they train them better at the five-star places, but I can't afford them. I'm not kidding when I tell you that I was standing at the reception desk at the hotel the other day, and four of them were all trying to do something, or look for something. After quite a ruckus, one guy finally got what he was after: a rubber band! All of that while three of us stood there waiting to check in.
During Ramadan, you feel bad just guzzling water in the heat, and I find that I will "sneak" sips of water, because the Muslims can't drink or eat anything until sunset.
The pace in Alex is nice, however, or much nicer than Cairo. Yes, it's still noisy, but not as dirty. You often see people washing the inside of their cafe, or the sidewalk, which I never saw in Cairo. I love when it then quiets down at sunset while people eat and pray, and watch TV. But then around 9 pm or so, the streets start to fill up again as people all go out strolling, or shopping. The fireworks start, and the cotton candy vendors appear as they honk their "goose horns" to let the kids know they're around. The men all make their way to the cafes where they get a coffee and stoke up a "shisha," the waterpipe. (I guess they're more popular in Alex than in Cairo because the humidity doesn't dry them out as fast.) There are small street carnivals, as well as everything else open late -- barbershops, upholstery shops, cleaners, etc. etc. (I was told that Ramadan is more of a religious holiday, but it seems like a festival in my book!)
You'll also see people praying anywhere: the lobby of a building, on the street, or at a gas station where they seemed to be waiting for their cars to be repaired or cleaned, and get in a few prayers as well. Guys will either have a small carpet to pray on, or many places (especially during Ramadan) will lay out vast carpets for people to use for prayers.
The locals often stare at my legs if I'm wearing shorts, I've noticed. Not that I have great legs, altho they are WHITE, but I've also observed that none of the men here wear shorts, not even below the ankle. I'm not sure what that's all about, but I do find that I "blend in" more if I wear long pants.
I'm also just beginning to understand the nuances of woman and scarves. Some wear none, which means they're probably Christian, or a very liberal Muslim. Others wear just head scarf, while the most religious (and militant) wear the full gear.
By the way, they do publish the five prayer times in the papers here, in case you missed hearing the calls to prayer booming out of each mosque.
My hotel in Alex, the lovely New Capry, gave me a room with a view of the Mediterranean with bath and breakfast for $15/night. No joke, 75 pounds. True, many of you probably wouldn't want to stay there, but it's fine for me, even with relatively soft pillows, and eight channels of cable TV, all in Arabic except for one channel that shows Hanna-Barbera cartoons 24-=hours a day (maybe for Ramadan?). They also did a whole pile of my clothes for $4. Gotta love it.
There are also cooking shows, all with women chefs, who seem to prepare variations of the same thing: onions sauteed, with ground beef and spices, mixed with couscous and topped with cheese and parsley. At least that's what I seem to get from it.
Out on my nightly walks, I spotted a street vendor mixing up some concoction, which turned out to be liver, kidney and god-knows-what (from sheep, I think). One guy just slices, while another sort of boils/sautees the meat in oil, then drains it and puts it on what amounts to a hot dog bun. It was dark, but I'll try and get back for a pic of it.
And then there's Mohammed... He's a kid (22 years old) who I met in a coffee shop. I thought he was Christian, because he was drinking coffee during the day, but it turns out he's more of a "bad boy" Muslim. His friends came to meet him, and their names are Dick and Jack (I kid you not, Jack for Jack Daniels). I think these are the "hip kids" of Alex, because they all have money, and they showed me family ID cards where the dads are in the government in some capacity.
One might, Mo said they wanted to take me to a special place... I said no, but they really wanted me to see this place. Of course, I was sure I was going to be killed and they would rob me for the $20 I had on me... But it turned out to be a place near where they make boats where the "hip kids of Alex" all go to smoke hash!
Now, before you freak out, of course I didn't smoke any (the thought of being stoned in Alexandria was too much to comtemplate), and I even left early. They understood, and even walked me out to the street and helped me catch a taxi back to the hotel. Never a dull moment, eh?
I spent a few hours at the new Biblioteca, or the new Alex Library. It's quite a building, massive in fact, and relatively new. It houses several museums, as well as a planetarium and many auditoriums for concerts and lectures. It can eventually house a million books, but they're also quite progressive with their new media and internt use. There's a huge exhibit of Shadi Abdel Salam, the Egyptian director who made one big movie in 1969 called "The Night of Counting the Years." Anyone seen it, you movie buffs? They had production stills from it, as well as costume renderings and a reproduction of his library.
Also, I take it that someone "took" this enormous column called "Cleopatra's Needle," and it now sits in Central Park, NYC??? Anyone know anything about that one??
I'm more and more convinced that the best time to live must've been the 1920s, between the wars but before the Great Depression. Just looking at the photo exhibit of life in Alex during those years, there was such a renaissance of architecture and building... it must've been incredible to be here during that time. Of course, it's been on a gradual decline ever since, as is the case in so many places.
I asked about getting a manicure here, and they just laughed at me... "Men don't get these things." Imagine if I'd asked for a mani AND a pedi!
Oh, and I saw my first flat screen TV here. I knew they had to be here!
And here's a pic of Mo, my buddy in Alex:

I think I'll stay here in Alex until Saturday the 13th, and then head to the Sinai. Unless you have a better idea?? Mo wants to go to Dahab, in the Sinai, with me, and he says he has the money to do it. He just wants to travel, and he has ten days off before he starts school. We'll see.
I found out that my hotel has no computers, but it has an ethernet connection with DSL! So I'll try and upload more pix, as time allows.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cairo Update

Where to start?
So basically, I’ve done the three things I most wanted to do in Egypt: I’ve been to the Egyptian Museum (all five hours of it, virtually without stopping); I’ve been to the pyramids, some of it on the back of a camel; and I’ve ridden in a felucca, the sail boats that ply the waters of the Nile.
Can I come home now? Just kidding.
Those parts have been wonderful.
Going out to Giza and seeing the pyramids was a surprise. I knew that they were not far outside of Cairo, but they’re literally about a half hour south. In fact, the city has grown around them on three sides (east, west and north), but the south side still just pours out onto the Sahara.
I spent the day with Hamem, the driver who picked me up at the airport. Again, he doesn’t speak much English so I wasn’t always sure where we were headed, except that I knew I could trust him – and he always kept an eye out for me. We would arrive and he dropped me off at the ticket booth, and then told me where he’d pick me up. It was good, for the most part, although I did have a few pangs of guilt when I thought about him having to just sit in the hot car while I waltzed around the pyramids… (BTW, for the day, I paid him 200 Egyptian pounds, which is about $40, and he seemed quite happy with that.)
We first went to the lookout point, along with 6,000 tourist buses, to get a sense of the scale of the Giza pyramids (OK, and to get my picture taken on a camel…). You pay one sort-of-low fee to get into the pyramid site, and then each of the exhibits costs extra (and some of them are quite high!). It costs 50 pounds (or $10) to just get in, and then the individual tombs can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 more, each. Yes, tourism costs do add up in Egypt. Several were closed, so that saved me the agony of having to choose…
What can I say? The pyramids have been here for over 3,000 years, and no one can still understand how or why… and yet they exist. (But did aliens help them!?!?! I couldn’t find anyone who would venture an answer to that, nor do I think they really understood the question.) Since I was on my own, I did what you do: listen in on the other guides. I could find some in English, but more in Spanish, so my bad Spanish helped a bit.
Then there’s the sphinx… It’s just smaller that I thought. I guess it’s that you’ve seen the photos forever, and shot from the front is does look imposing. But in actuality, its size was dwarfed by the nearby pyramids – but please don’t think that I was disappointed in any way. How could I? The cost to get into Giza included the sphinx!
Then we drove to Sahkarra, which is where the earlier pyramid was built, the one that looks like stepping stones. It was built something like 3,5000 years ago, sort of an early part of the learning curve before they figured out how to slope and angle the sides.
On the way back from there, we ran into a horrible traffic jam, which I later found out was because of the rock slide that happened in south Cairo and killed a number of people. We ended up backtracking and going around the bedlam, and made it home safe and sound.
Today (Sunday Sept 7) was spent at the main market in Cairo, called Khan al-Khalili. It took me awhile to find the place, even though it stretches on for many, many blocks. It’s a bit of a labyrinth, and I was warned about the aggressive sales guys. But generally they were pretty light-hearted about their game…. And believe it when I say that it’s obvious they know how to sell, since they’ve been doing it here for centuries! If they ask what you’re looking for and you say “nothing,” they say “come into my shop, I have nothing.” It’s that sort of game. Surprisingly, only a few were aggravatingly aggressive and would call out to you for half a block before they finally got it that you weren’t coming into their store.
They also love to ask “where you from,” so of course I would vary it up. If I said Canada, they invariably would say “Canada Dry,” as in the soft drink. If I said Holland, they’d say “you want some hashish?” knowing full well that no one is selling that in the market.
The market has pretty much anything you’d want, from gold to toilet paper, and about everything in between. Lots of it is similar, redundantly so. But every now and then you spot something different, like some amazing light fixtures that I’d buy if I had any way to get them home for less than a grand. I was a bit surprised to see the sexy lingerie, with feather ruffles even and in wild colors like red and pink. Also, there were many shops selling very fancy, expensive, Western-style wedding dresses. (The local paper here had a huge half page spread on some TV presenters wedding, with women in strapless gowns and all looking very sexy. It’s part of the dichotomy of the Arab world that still perplexes me, as many women on the street wear the robes where you can only see their eyes.)
I was standing at the door of a mosque, and a very nice man motioned for me to come in. I never know if it’s allowed, since some do and some don’t. But this was a very old mosque and evidently it’s allowed. The first thing you notice is how cool it is, from the fans as well as from the ceiling height being so tall, so consequently many guys are just lounging or napping. It was fully carpeted, and everyone has to take off their shoes and either carry them or check them with a gay at the entrance. I was shown the holy room, which somewhat looks like Mecca. Guys would come in, some would kiss each step as they arrived, and many would go around kissing every railing, doorknob and wall, always praying as they go.
After leaving, I tried asking a policeman how much a taxi would cost to get to my metro station. He said 20 pounds, and then asked if I wanted him to get me a taxi. (Clearly, he would’ve gotten a big commission for that…) I said no, because I knew that was way too much. Instead I heard a guy ask a taxi driver to the same metro station, so I asked if I could go with him and he said sure….. and it cost me 2 pounds instead of 20. What you go through to save $3.
Then I walked over to the Nile River, to where I thought there would be some feluccas (the sailboats). It seemed very slow, so I didn’t have to bargain very hard. I ended up paying 50 pounds (or $10) for an hour on the Nile, just me and Captain Helme! He didn’t speak a word of English, except somehow he knew the word “zigzag,” which is exactly the method he used to get us back into port. OK, it wasn’t two days on the Nile at Luxor, but I get the whole gist of what the felucca thing is all about. I major hotels (Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hilton) are all right on the Nile as well.
And now…. Just some random notes on Cairo and Egypt.
• I don’t think I’ve ever seen to many palm trees laden with dates… at least we know where they come from now, just like the olives from Tunisia.
• During Ramadan, the restaurants and cafes are either closed or empty, but by late afternoon, before sunset, you can see people starting to drift in, waiting until it’s official and they can finally eat. If you have family, you generally eat with them, but restaurants do open after dark. There are also places set up that seem to be feeding the homeless (or that’s how it appears, which would make sense since Ramadan is all about giving of yourself to God.)
• One of the primary employers has to be the police departments and the national guard. There are SO many policemen out on duty, sometimes 3-4 at a station, most with guns or rifles, and almost all looking extremely bored.
• I told you that the best and fastest, and free, wifi is at McDonald’s. It’s amazing, and they don’t care how long you stay online. I always buy a coke or an ice cream, although other seems to just come in and use it for free. There is that “McArabia” on the menu that I should try tho… evidently it has garlic sauce and onion.
• Egypt is the economic powerhouse for all of the Arab world, there’s just no way around it. They’re consumers, and export as well, and shopping seems to be a national pastime. But if you want to succeed in the Arab arts, politics, technology, fashion, etc. etc., you must “make it” here in Cairo first.
• Also during Ramadan, there are many special soap operas that show at night, specifically made and geared for that time after dinner when the family is sitting around and looking for something to do. Evidently, many of them either ratchet up the story line, or bring in big name stars during Ramadan, all to capture your interest.
• One thing about Cairo: no two of anything is alike. There’s no cookie cutter aspect, and every car, home, door, street, metro stop, bus and on and on is different from the next. I haven’t been out to the nouveau riche parts of Cairo, with names like West Lake and Le Grande, but I bet you they don’t all look the same. That said, I do wonder if any construction projects get done here, since the vast majority seem to be stalled or abandoned.
• There are women-only cars on the subways here, and they’ll tell the men to get off if you accidentally get on one. (I know!)
• There was an article in the Egypt Times, the English-language daily newspaper that comes with the International Herald Trib, about how one of the leading Muslim clerics has said that good Muslims should not celebrate birthdays. (Not all the clerics agree on this matter, however.) They do celebrate Muhammed’s birthday, but that’s it. The article said that birthdays are a “western innovation” and someone in the article said that birthdays only “remind me that I am closer to death.” But some parents still put on birthday parties for their kids, and that can include clowns, cake and pony rides at vast expense. However, some of the merchants report that it can be hard to get birthday items imported, like balloons and such, and that they can also be hassled by the “religious police.” Eh?? What’s that??
• A fanous is a lantern that is used only during Ramadan, sort of like a multi-colored Christmas lantern. They used to be homemade from tin and glass, but now the Chinese are making and importing them, which upsets some people here.
• Truth be told, I’m not in love with Cairo. It’s vast, sprawling, decaying, dirty (on the verge of filthy) and noisy, and this from a guy who likes big cities. Yes, it has its history — thousands of years of it. And then Omar Sharif… but what after that? I just don’t find the people very friendly, and sometimes even disdainful, sometimes nearly hostile.
(PS: I really did try and post more pix, but I keep getting some error code from Blogger, and I just don't have to figure out what's going wrong. Again, there will be lots of photos to see, someday!)

Enough for one blog! Up next: Alexandria.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thommy Tourist

OMG! I don't know if I've ever done such a touristy thing, but I had to: It's Egypt, how can you NOT ride a camel!?!?!
I'll write more soon, but I just wanted to get this pic up for your amusement.
(BTW, this doesn't come cheap! There's the entrance fees to the pyramids, then you have to pay all the guys: the guy with the head gear, the guy with the camel, the one guy who can talk English..... it never ends! But it was worth it, I have to say!) More soon, I promise!

Friday, September 5, 2008

First Impressions of Cairo

It’s barely been a day and my head is already spinning…….
But first, indulge me with just a few last (I swear) notes about Tunisia.
The women do love their sparkle there, but it shows up mostly in t-shirts and shoes, both of which take nicely to rhinestones and glitter.
If you’re handicapped in Tunisia, the best I can say is good luck. I saw a very few ramps anywhere, and even the ones I did had a steep incline to them. And you’d be faced with stairs anywhere you go, including (maybe most importantly) any of the public transportation places like bus and train stations.
I think I’ve come to understand a bit more as to why I can often feel so “invisible’ in countries like this: It’s not so much that they don’t want to look at you, but more over that they’re terrified you’re going to ask them a question that they either won’t understand or won’t know the answer. That’s my newest theory on the matter.
Evidently, the wife of the President (Bel Ali) is a major businesswoman throughout Tunisia. One person told me should bought the national airline! But she also does charitable things, so I’m sure there’s some balance. (But man, do they ever have a cult for the President going in Tunisia – his picture is everywhere!)
Tempers seem to be a little shorter during Ramadan, or maybe I’m finally just getting used to how they argue here. It’s often short, but very intense, and then everyone just walks away. Maybe that’s because there are SO many police around, almost all toting a rifle or a gun.
During Ramadan, I do try and not drink in front of others out of respect. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sneak off and have the odd Diet Coke or half liter of water, mind you!
And I don’t think I’ve ever seen more luggage with broken wheels… All of those rickety sidewalks no doubt. But hey: the trains sure do run on time!
I took this as a sign that it was time to move on from Tunisia: just as I was getting ready to leave the hotel room, I turned off the light switch – and the lightbulb burned out. Time to go I’d say.

OK, so now onto Egypt.
Phew, let me catch my breath.
I got up at 4:30 am on the 4th of Sept. to get out of the hotel and out onto the street by 5 am to catch a taxi to the airport. No problems with that, surprisingly, and I was one of the first in line to check in for the 7:30 am flight to Cairo (or Le Caire en francais). The café at the airport was open so I snagged a café au lait with a nice pain au chocolat, and then headed on into duty free, where I bought nothing because they only took euros!
I sat there ruminating, however… about how bad I felt that I didn’t do more. There was the artist I met who did some very nice but average watercolors, and he only wanted 10 dinar for them… I should’ve just given him the money and told him to keep up the good work. Or I always try and tip the bathroom attendant ladies as much as possible. What’s a dollar on our end, but it means so much more to them.
Through Servas, the traveler network I belong to, I contacted Dr. Taher in Cairo, seeing if we could meet at least. He not only asked me to come stay at his home, but he also sent his driver to pick me up at the airport! All of our plans worked fine, and the driver was there and ready, which made getting into Cairo SO much easier. He brought me directly to the doctor’s home, and handed me the key to the place and was on his way. That’s what I love about Servas: the trust factor that you can’t find anywhere else.
Cairo is one of those mega-cuties of umpteen millions (15? 20?), which sprawls in every direction. At first it reminded me a bit of Mexico, but perhaps with a little India thrown in as well. It’s intense, never stopping for anything and I can see why the locals wouldn’t live anywhere else.
It’s going to take me a bit to learn the money here. Basically, one dollar is worth five Egyptian pounds, so a 100 EP is worth $20, and each pound is broken down into 100 piastres. But the problem is that many of the smaller amounts, like 5, 10 and even 50 are all paper currency for both pounds and piastres. In other words, I wasn’t sure if I was giving someone 50 pounds ($10) or 50 piastres (about 10 cents). I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it. This is one of those places where you need to hang onto the small bills cuz no one ever has any change, especially taxi drivers and shop keepers (and restaurants and food vendors… but I won’t go into that).
I sat up and chatted with the good doctor last night, but I did find that getting up so early had taken its toll so I headed to bed so that I could get up early for my first big adventure in Cairo…. The Egyptian Museum. It’s a fabled place, and one that I’ve read about for years and always wanted to visit.
I got up and left before the doc was up, before 9 am. I had directions to the metro that got me there in no time – and a one way metro (subway) ride from Dokki, where I’m staying, to downtown was one pound, or about 20 cents. Take that, London $8-one-way Underground!
Finding the museum isn’t difficult, since it’s monstrous and takes up at least four city blocks, in all its pink stone glory. I only had three guides ask me if I wanted an English-speaking guide for the museum, which I waved off since I wanted to experience it in my own time and my own pace (because guides tend to push you along so they can move onto the next victim). Oh, and a plus is that you can horn in on any of the many guides giving talks, so who needs a private guide?
The highlights are, of course King Tut, which toured the States a decade or two ago, and the mummies….. oh the mummies. So many of them, and it’s hard to keep all of the dynasties and ages straight. I did get the old, middle and new ages, plus the years after the Roman invasion and conquering, which became the Coptic years.
BTW, no picture taking is allowed in the museum (so this photo was NOT shot there.... yeah right). You go through a screener plus a guard pats you down. I did have my camera in my pocket, but he didn’t say anything. My thinking is that they know you might sneak in a few shots, but there’s also a bit of a side business (off the record) where the guards will show you a special exhibit or room, or some will even let you slip in a photo as they watch – but you then need to slip them five pounds or so….. (a buck). Many of the guards were also either reading the Koran (because it’s Ramadan) or just looking plain bored.
I did love the exhibits marked: This case is of little or no interest to the visitor.” No joke, it said that. So why is it there? It’s been said that this is one of the worst curated museums in the world, and I might have to agree. Dusty, poorly lit, with descriptions typed up in the 1920s and now on faded cards, or hand-written cards in their place. But don’t get me wrong! I spend almost five hours there!!
I loved some of the titles they ancient Egyptians gave to their staff: Master of the Secrets of the Toilets, called Ra-Wer; Seneb, the chief dwarf of all wardrobes (evidently dwarves were held in high esteen); the Overseer of the Fishing Boats; Khnoumhotep, the overseer of linen; the famous scribe, Mitri, who was honored with an effigy made of wood and gold (very expensive); and of course, Taweret, the goddess of fertility.
What else do I remember: the sandals made from reeds, over 2000 years old but still looking wearable; the alabaster candelabras from 300-600 AD; the fact that Egypians wore kilts – at least that’s what they called them in the descriptions; and how so many kings had beds ready and waiting for the after life… so many beds. I remember seeing the Tut show before, but this has far more of the pieces: many necklaces that I don’t remember ever seeing, bracelets, rings, arm bands, so much gold, often with lapis, and all of it takes up at least five or six rooms.
Also, seeing so much statuary in one place, it’s amazing how virtually ALL the men had broad shoulders, tiny waists and amazing pectoral muscles. How did they do it?
We have digital imaging available now to communicate who we are and what we’re doing, but all they had was mostly stone and wood. What an amazing trove of history, all in one place. There’s supposedly over 100,000 exhibits within the museum, and they say if you spent one minute at each one, it would take you nine months to see it all. OK, so I made five hours, but I’m super glad I made it!
Tomorrow: The pyramids of Giza!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Final Thoughts from Tunis

I took a "louage," sort of a shared mini-van, from Mahdia to Tunis yesterday. As I was getting out of the van, a girl in the front seat slammed the door onto my finger. She asked if it was OK, and I said NO! But there wasn't much I could do. It isn't crushed or swollen, but it seems a little bent now... Oh well, the rigors of travel.
Then when I got to Tunis, I tried using my credit card and it was declined, so I called the bank... and they had canceled the card because it had been "compromised." Evidently, someone got the credit card numbers from some place I had used it, and all credit card numbers had to be cancelled. They're supposed to FedEx me a new card to Cairo... and I'll remain hopeful. Of course I have other cards to use, but this was the main one.
It's Ramadan now, for a MONTH, where the Muslims don't eat or drink while the sun is up. Tunis is quite different during this time. Most shops close by early evening, as everyone prepares to eat as soon as the sun goes down. During the day, all of the many sidewalk coffee shops are closed now for Ramadan, which means all those men who sit out there for hours seem to have nothing to do except look forlorn -- for a month?! Some of the restaurants serve a prix fixe meal at dinner after sunset, like a buffet, where all the food is ready to eat as soon as you get "the word" from the loudspeakers at the mosque. They all pile on the food and go for it, as they haven't eaten all day. They said that Ramadan is no problem for tourists, but it sort of is because all the restaurants are closed. I can get water and snacks at the little kiosks, but that's about it. One person finally asked me: "Why (you) here during Ramadan?" Hmmm...
I do try and remain sensitive to Ramadan. The other day, I bought a small candy bar (called a Monopole, sort of like KitKat), and I just opened it up and ate it at the bus station I was in. But then I realized that people were looking at me... because it's really not polite during Ramadan to eat in front of others if you're a tourist or a non-Muslim. It's not the end of the world, but I do try and be conscious of such things, like any good traveler.
But, in general, the Tunisians are very nice. As I was calling back to the States to speak with my bank, the phone center closed and they pulled down the gates even tho I was in there alone. But they said no problem, and when I got out they asked if I wanted to eat with them. It was a very kind gesture.
BTW, they pronouse mosque as "mos-kay," at least in English.
And I was thinking the other day: I have not seen one single dog the whole time I've been in Tunisia. Not sure what's up with that, but if I find out I will tell ya.
I've been able to see some of the RNC stuff on Al Jazeera television. It was interesting that Bush would only send his endorsement via video, not in person. However, no one here speculated as to why? Maybe because he wasn't wanted? And there's fighting in Thailand, and floods in India... and three more hurricanes after Gustav. SOunds like a job for.... FEMA!
I'm off to confirm my onward ticket, and exchange some money for Egyptian pounds. Wish me luck cuz I need to be gone by 5 a.m. tomorrow to get to the airport in time. No problem, the calls from the mos-kay will wake me up!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A few notes from Tunisia

Ramadan started yesterday, Sept 1. Evidently, the imam (holy man) looks at the moon and decides which day it will start exactly. In some countries, it might not start until today, depending on what they say. Kind of strange, but no one seems to think it odd.
You know it's Ramadan by the noise! In the morning, before sunrise, they go around beating drums to wake you up and tell you to eat something before the sun comes up. Then, at night at sunset, they set off one or two huge blasts, like M-80s or a cherry bomb sort of loud, telling you that it is OK to eat.
The guys tell me that you are not supposed to eat, drink, smoke or do anything during the days of Ramadan, and that even includes looking at picutres of women! (I was showing someone a photo of Angelina Jolie from a magazine but he wouldn't look at it...)
They take their religion very seriously here. We've had more talks, and I believe them when they tell me that they will not have any sex before marriage, and that includes masturbation! (Yes, I had to ask, but I was curious!)
In honor of Ramadan, I did fast yesterday. OK, I had a little water, but nothing else all day, no biggie. They all thought it was very cool that I fasted with them.
Then last night for dinner, I met up with a couple (she from Ireland, he from Holland), and we ended up drinking beers and having a "mixed grill" on the rooftop patio of a restaurant on the corniche (aka the boardwalk along the water front). It was the most English I had spoken without talking slow and distinct for awhile. Earlier in the day, I did take a swim in the Mediterreanean, but mostly just to say I had swam in the Med. The water was like bath water, and the beach was fairly dirty. I also had a chat, in Spanish, with a Tunisian guy who was putting varnish on these cool goat skin lamps. But he did admit to me that the actual lamps were made in Morocco and that he just put the final varnish on them. I've seen these lamps in NYC before, for over $20, and they're about $3 here. Tough to pack in my bag tho...
I'm also surprised when the Tunisians use the "n-word" here. They clearly don't think of it as a bad word, altho I always do tell them that it is a very bad work in English. But they use it to describe the men that come from Ghana, Kenya, etc. They tell me that they are afraid of them, because they are so dark and so big.
Today I heard a different sort of wail, and I was told that they were announcing that a man had died. Evidently, when a person dies they "announce" it so that everyone knows and the family can begin mourning.

I do love how my friend Ahmed uses the phrase "tak tak tak" here: sort of in the same way that we say "etc. etc." or "on and on." They often say: "I will work and make more money, tak tak tak," meaning that they will try to keep moving up.
I hope this isn't coming off as too disjointed... When I have my laptop I can write more lucidly, but when I'm using the internet cafes I tend to just start writing and try to get it done quickly, tak tak tak."
OK, so now I go to Tunis. I will get there tonight, and then tomorrow will be my final day in Tunisia before I head out to Cairo.