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Unorganized observations of Cairo life

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

I have been jotting down interesting sights and experiences each day, none of which are fascinating enough to warrant a full blog entry, but fascinating enough to let you know about them.

* Friday in the city is a dream come true for those seeking quiet after a week of tolerating the incessant noise of honking horns and breathing in exhaust fumes. Few people are roaming the streets, instead staying home or praying at the mosque. The shops are closed and it is the one day where crossing the street is not an extreme sport.

* Pallets stacked with fresh pita bread are ubiquitous throughout our local market. Buyers stand and pick through each piece of bread, bagging up the half dozen or so which pass inspection. The bread is puffed up to perfection, and although I routinely eat from sketchy looking street vendor stalls, my germaphobia prevents me from buying bread from the pallet vendor. How many hands touched the bread before it made it to my table? Instead, I buy a bag of fresh pita from the local supermarket. I’m sure that the supermarket probably just got it delivered from the guy down the corner with the pallet full of bread, but please, don’t ruin my fantasy of clean, fresh bread for me.

* Heavy, black eyeliner on both upper and lower lids is the most prominent way women wear their eye make-up.

* Coffeeshop culture: Men sit outside in plastic chairs, smoking shisha and playing backgammon or dominoes till late in the evening. I’m soooo jealous…it looks quite idyllic to sit around, chatting with friends and playing games in the evening.

* The smallest monetary note I have ever received is 10 piastres (= 2cents) and the only place I have ever received this note is in the grocery store. Consequently, the only place I’ve been able to use it is also in the grocery store. Since apparently only the grocery stores use 10p notes, they are always crisp and clean, as if they just came from the mint. [Aside: As far as I know, the smallest denomination is 10 piastres, then 25p, 50p, 1 pound (=100p), 5 pounds, 10 pounds, etc.) I have never seen anything less than 10p and I don’t even know if 1p exists. At a store, if my change is supposed to be 83p, I can anticipate to instead receive 75p made up of a 50p and 25p notes. I have no idea how bookeepers deal with these minute differences, which over time may make a big difference.

* The water in our apartment goes out at least once a day so we have adapted by keeping a lidded container full of water for such emergencies. Last Sunday, our electricity also went out for about a half hour. Not too comforting to me since I use the elevator every day to get to and from our apartment. What happens when the electricity goes out while I’m in the elevator in 40C temperatures?

* One of the great surprises when walking down the street is the occasionally waft of fried onions in the air. In an instance, you know that a kushari shop is someplace nearby.

* I can’t get fresh hummus from the grocery store, only canned. Why is that? Do people have their own recipies which they make from scratch rather than buying a premade version?


Cost of living in Cairo

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

* 20-minute taxi ride from the western side of Cairo to central Cairo for a foreigner (with a generous tip included so the taxi driver doesn’t yell for more money) = $1.20
* Subway ticket after recent price hike = $0.17
* 12 1.5-liter bottles of water (lasts us about 4 days) = $3.00
* Can of Coke = $0.35
* Notebook from local stationary shop in Zamalek = $2.20
* Same notebook from Alpha Supermarket in Dokki = $0.43
* 50-hours of Arabic group lessons (max. 8 students per group) = $200
* New shower curtain = $20
* One year temporary resident visa for tourist purposes = $16
* Box of Chips Ahoy cookies = $7.00
* Cup of yogurt with fruit on the bottom = $0.17
* One kg of ground beef = $7.00
* Carton of six eggs = $1.20
* Bag of carrots = $0.43
* One kg of mangoes = $1.20
* Hot falafel straight out of the frying pan from the guy in the local market = $0.02 per piece
* Falafel sandwich with cucumbers and tomatoes = $0.13
* Big bowl of kushari, a hearty Egyptian meal of rice, pasta, and lentils topped with tomato sauce and dried fried onions = $0.70
* Big Mac Combo meal = $2.45
* International Herald Tribune newspaper = $2.00
* Egyptian Gazette, the local newspaper = $0.17
* Monthly rent to foreigners of one-bedroom furnished apartment in Dokki with satellite TV, telephone, and new washing machine = $383
* Monthly tip for apartment doorman (he’ll also run your errands, clean your car, and take out your trash) = $8.60
* Ticket for a play at the Townhouse Gallery fundraising event for Beirut = $0.87

Monthly salaries in Cairo, according to 2004 edition of Cairo Guide by Claire Francey,

* Cairo University tenured professor with twenty years experience = $157
* Egyptian housemaid, full time = $52
* Government schoolteacher; mid-level civil servants = $70
* Sales clerk, mid-range clothing shop = $35
* Laborer at Stella bottling plant = $35

First day of school jitters

Friday, August 25th, 2006

No matter how old you are, the first day of school always comes with some anxieties. For my first day of Arabic class though, I wasn’t at all plagued with the usual first day jitters: Will I like my teacher? Will I be able to keep up with the other students? What if the other students don’t like me? What if the teacher calls on me and I don’t know the answer? No, I was concerned that my trek to school might kill me.

From my living room, I call the elevator. I can hear it climb the six floors until it stops at my door, the light from the elevator shining an eerie green glow into my home. I open the elevator door, which is also my living room door, step in, and ride it down to the lobby. The lobby is dark, illuminated only by the light outside the building, and the bases of the walls are lined with random bits of trash and dust. A little girl with dark, matted hair sits on the stairs waiting for something to happen.

Continue reading this entry »

Apartment success!

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

After a long, painfully hot, and terrifying-tiny-elevator-filled apartment hunt (apartment is “shaqqa” in Arabic) through the depths of Cairo’s fanciest neighborhoods, we have settled on a nice little place between the neighborhoods of Doqqi and Agouza, on the left bank of the Nile. Living on the left bank, and calling it that, is all part of my strategy to make Cairo the bohemian Paris of the 21st century. Without the black turtlenecks, of course. We’ll stick with pith helmets and linen button-downs, thank you very much.

So, the shaqqa. (That was the first Arabic test – who passed?) I will post photos as soon as we move in proper, which will be tomorrow evening. But a little description is important to set the stage and wet your appetite for the pix.

To those of you who have spent time in Japan, you will understand when I say the living room reminds me of a love hotel. The floor is black tile and the kitchen is a little thing behind a bar – which has neon green Christmas lights strung under it. The white walls are tinted with years of grime, but there are new couches, which are of the type featured in rent-to-own commercials. Of course, the TV (with satellite!) is attached to the wall on a little swivelly deal. All in all, pure pimp.

But what really sold me on the place was the elevator. It opens directly into the living room. Sweeeeeeeeet.

-Thrashin Badger

Cairo pictures

Friday, August 18th, 2006

men cafe
Men in a downtown coffee house in the afternoon.

midan tahar
Tal’at Harb square. This is where you go to get invitations to perfume shops. Apparently most of them were frequented by Muhammad Ali, the boxer, at one time or another. From the picture you get the impression that Cairo looks an awful lot like Paris. It most definitely does not.

cairo bus
Wow!! It really looks like this bus is flying around the corner, ready to squash your intrepid photographer. Actually it is at a dead stop waiting for, you guessed it, more passengers.

lady cafe
Not only men get to enjoy a smooth cup of coffee in 105 degree weather.

s and fateer
When we were in Thailand we fell in love with the pancakes smothered in condensed milk and chocolate which we found at the night market stalls. When we came to a new town, our first mission was to hunt down the town’s night market and test out the deliciously messy and flakey treats. In Cairo, we have found the equivalent. Here we are about to dig into the saving grace of Egyptian baked goods: the fateer. Mine has honey and cream. The cream came right out of a little baggy from the fridge, so it is still in little clots. So, so, so, so, so, so good.

cairo and nile
The Nile river. The island of Gezira, host to our temporary neighborhood of Zamalek, is on the right, and downtown Cairo is to the left. A cab ride between the two will set you back about 5 pounds, if you are generous and don’t want to be yelled at.

Delightful travel treasures

Friday, August 18th, 2006

Traveling around the world, everyday you hope to see something like this. In Japan, the abuse of English was so rampant it spawned books and intentionally goofy t-shirts. It was so prevalent that it became mundane. But everywhere else the eyes are always looking for that one thing. The perfect souvenir. The thing that combines the familiar and the exotic, and makes you laugh. Some people travel the world without finding the post-modern hipster Holy Grail. We found just such an object in Cairo at the local grocery. Crust. It even whitens and comes with a free toothbrush.

And here are some other everyday objects that may be of interest:
This is the front and back of a 20 pound note. In Egyptian Arabic they are not called pounds, they are called ginees. Presumably from the British colonial influence. All of the money seems to have been in circultation since the early 1900s. It’s torn, oily, soft, and often is held together with tape.

S’s cell phone has Arabic letters on the keypad. How cool is that!

This is the customs slip that took us two hours to get in Nuweiba. It is scrawled on the back of an actual customs form, torn in half.

So many questions!

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

My six-year-old niece and nine-year-old nephew checked out some books on Egypt from the library recently and, after doing their diligent research, they have a few questions for us, as well as advice. So here are responses for you, B and E, to the best of our ability:

1. Have you been to the Papyrus Museum to see how it is made?

No, we haven’t – in fact, we didn’t even know there was a Papyrus museum. Cairo is so big and there are a lot of museums to visit, so I will check our guidebook and maps to see where it is located. Maybe we will go there next week. Thanks for the tip! I am a little concerned about the veracity of this museum, if it aims to do anything more than present the history of papyrus. Apparently the plant that papyrus is made from is almost extinct. Listen up kids, you’re never too young to appreciate of ironies of man’s interaction with the natural world!

2. Do you think that you will ever be invited to tea at the Gezirah Sporting Club, once the playground of British wealthy and now reserved for Egyptian wealth? It is on the island with Cairo Tower, another must see.

I sure hope I will be invited to tea at the Gezira Sporting Club because it looks pretty fancy from the outside walls. I think there might still be a few wealthy Brits inside, but I’m not sure… They sure would be old though!

We haven’t gone to the Cairo Tower (but you can’t miss seeing it because it’s very high), but we went to the Fish Garden which is located right outside of the Sporting Club on the northwest corner. It has lots of old, big trees with benches under them to sit in the shade and watch the stagnant lotus pond. There is also a big man-made cavern full of nooks and crannies to run around in, hide, and jump out and scare your friends. There are even real bats hanging from the ceiling. When we were there a guy was throwing stones at them to entertain his kids. The lessons never stop!!
(Mark – you remember the Long Beach Aquarium lorikeet cage? Terrifying. My behavior in the Fish Garden cave was a bit more reserved, but not by much).

3. East of the river is Egyptian Cairo and west of the river is European Cairo. Do you see the difference?

Hmmm, I do see a difference through the smog! Now, we haven’t been here very long and we haven’t seen a lot of the city yet, but right now D and I are on the west side of the Nile. Many of the buildings are turn-of-the-century mansions and there are cafes with wireless internet access on every corner. But overall the entire city is all dusty, noisy and smells slightly off.

4. Don’t book an apartment in the Cities of the Dead, but do go to visit it.

Check, and check.

5. People who live in Cairo are considered Cairenes. Are many women still covered head to toe?

Do you mean covered with dust and diesel exhaust? Then yes. Almost every woman wears a head covering, but not the full veil deal. They just have head scarves, in a variety of fashionable colors and fashioned onto their heads in a variety of stylish ways. Some younger women wear skin-tight tops covering their arms and long skirts, in addition to the headscarf, while most older women wear long, loose dresses that cover everything. This a good lesson in tradition and individual’s relations to their culture and religion. Kids, ask your parents to explain THAT!!

6. Does conversation stop when you enter a coffeehouse?

LOL. Well, that’s a good question. As far as I can tell, there are two types of coffeeshops; one for only men and another for rich people. I haven’t gone to the one for men yet – it’s a little intimidating. But so far, no one has stopped their conversations when I walked through the door of a coffeehouse (however, in an aside, I did almost cause a traffic accident in Maadi when a young man driving a BMW stared a little too long in my direction. Teehee).

7. Have you seen any girls playing hopscotch? It is apparently popular in the streets.

Hmmm, I haven’t seen girls playing hopscotch yet. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of girls…only boys playing soccer in the alleys or selling bread on the streets. I’ll keep an eye out for hopscotch games and maybe they will let me join.

8. Have you eaten steamed sweet potatoes from a street vendor? You can find them in front of schools at dismissal time.

I haven’t seen steamed sweet potatoes, but maybe because it is summer vacation right now. Maybe I’ll see it in September. I do see many street vendors who sell roasted corn at night. The vendors fan the sweet corn so you can smell it from around the corner. It looks pretty good to me, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

9. How does their Metro rush hour compare with Seoul?

Ha! It doesn’t compare at all! Rush hour in Seoul was incredibly packed – I remember when the train stopped at the station I couldn’t believe I could fit in the car, but then someone would push me from behind and squeeze me in. The doors closed and I would look around to find you and your Mom squeezed right next to me with no room to move. I don’t know how we fit, but we did. The metro in Cairo is much less crowded. I usually can’t find a seat, but I have room to move around. I’ve ridden it a few times and it is clean and effiecient, but hot and smelly. One time on the metro an old man with a cane got up and gave me his seat. I tried to refuse, but he was very insistent, so eventually I gave up, thanked him, and sat down (after he then kicked a little girl out of the seat he had just vacated for me).

– S (with a little bit of D’s humor added in)

Nuweiba to Cairo (the heart attack story)

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

The bus station in Nuweiba feels like a frontier town. A new, wide, black asphalt road was slowly being covered by the Sinai desert and camels wandered past old crumbling one-story buildings. The sun punished everything and occasionally a truck passed by with a honk or two for no one. The only thing missing was the tumbleweed.

Driving through the bus station gate, our ancient Peugot station wagon taxi dropped us off next to the ticket office. Old peeling green benches blocked the way to the window, but I leaned in and asked for two tickets for the 11 a.m. bus.

A young guy with a stubbly chin and smart eyes looked up from his greasy paperwork.
“There is no 11 o’clock bus. But wait, there will be another bus in half an hour from the port.”

I looked at my watch. It was 10:30.

“I’ll take two tickets for that bus then. Thank you.”
[read on]

Egyptian Metal (AP story)

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

I will find this place on the outskirts of Cairo. I will meet these tattooed, eye-liner folks. And I will thrash with them. -Thrashin Badger

Egypt’s heavy metal scene emerging
Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt – The music was loud and the tattooed fans were wild, dancing and swaying in flashing strobe lights to the crashing sounds of heavy metal songs. Suddenly, the music stopped. The band leader grasped the mike and announced: “It’s prayer time.”

No one left to pray. Everyone stood by the stage and waited, as the band paused its music while a nearby mosque began the call to prayer from a loudspeaker. Then the music resumed.

Welcome to Egypt’s heavy metal scene, making a tentative comeback in a conservative Muslim society nine years after a government crackdown amid allegations of satanic worship, drug use and group sex among the upper-crust youthful fans.

Read the rest of “Egypt’s heavy metal scene emerging” by Omar Sinan

New Jersey by way of the space program

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006


In addition to high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows with green shudders and a small balcony, our hotel room has satellite TV. Have you heard of this? It is truly a miracle. We get three English-language stations: a movie channel, BBC World and a third that carries a variety of American programming. Until last week we could watch a show with Alicia Silverstone in which she played a full-time divorce lawyer and a part-time matchmaker. Of course we watched it.

But as of two nights ago we discovered a show that makes me proud that the United States culturally dominates the world: “Point Pleasant.” Not only does the show take place somewhere along the always sunny coast of New Jersey, but everyone is ripped and, in a TV way, beautiful. Let me tell you, I know New Jersey, and Point Pleasant is no New Jersey. Although, the plot of the show, that a high school girl, fathered by Satan and a god-fearing human woman, is struggling between embracing the light and dark side (Star Wars is everything and everything is Star Wars), is pure fantasy, so I can’t complain too much about the setting.

So the arguments for US superiority in this posting are two-fold: the creation of “Point Pleasant” and the foresight to fill the night sky with satellites to broadcast it to the rest of the world.

-Thrashin Badger