Sunday, January 31, 2010

Letters from Egypt: My Sinai Adventure

It has taken me awhile to post this, but since it is such a great story (at least telling it in person always generates some laughter) I decided to locate the email I wrote for friends and family. This happened back in November, and all I can say is when you’re traveling to the Sinai – make sure you have extra sets of spare tires because you will not find a tire shop for hundreds of kilometers!

Written November 12, 2009
As some of you might know and others have no clue, I have been in the Sinai for work the past week. I went to Sharm el-Sheikh which is a huge resort town on the Red Sea. However, the real story is as follows and don’t worry, I’ll tell some of you in person when I see you.
 Picture I took while walking around Dahab
I want to start by saying I have some pretty great stories under my belt, but I might argue that this one tops the cake. Nancy and I decide to leave Sharm and pass through a more chill area on the Red Sea called Dahab. We have dinner Bedouin style and then decide – hey, let’s go to Israel for a couple of hours, have a beer and come back to Cairo. I mean, it’s an adventure, right? Little did we know what kind of adventure it would turn out to be.

We get to passport control, but they won’t let us cross saying that Nancy can’t leave via her Egyptian passport as she’s a threat to national security. However, they were so kind to hold us at the border (the Egyptians, we never met Israelis) for two hours. Finally, we head out. We decided we would go eat in Taba Heights, only to realize we were on the road back to Cairo. No problem, we’ll just go home, right? WRONG!

Nancy pulls over to let me drive and as I’m driving she says, “Why do you keep jerking the car?” I knew something was about to happen. Next thing you know, in the middle of a nowhere mountain pass around midnight in Bedouin country, the tire goes out. I pull over and we begin to try to flag down cars. A bus finally stops and while we WERE okay, he begins to tell us he wouldn’t have stopped if it hadn’t been two females and it was too dangerous for us to be out alone.

We drive to the next “town” (really a village). We stop to get the tire fixed, but the guy saw an opportunity to try to take advantage of two stranded females and we declined his generousity *cough cough*. Then we take a wrong turn and go to another check point (the Sinai is high security) where the guard tells us we’re going the wrong way. We turn around only to get another flat. I decide to walk back to the check point while Nancy stays in the car with the doors locked (someone had to stay with the car at all times). It was freezing and by now, I’m worried Bedouins will come out of nowhere. I walk for about 35 minutes until I finally see the check point. It’s now about 3 am. Next thing you know, I began hearing dogs.

Then as I’m saying “omg omg omg,” that turns into “OMG OMG OMG OMG” and I’m surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. I began screaming for help and just as three started coming at me, the guards from the check point finally came to my rescue. I walk in with a mascara stained face as the wind and cold air made my eyes water (probably also the near-death experience of being eaten by a pack of wild dogs), where they offered me regular tap water – which if I thought my stomach was already screwed by something the Ritz Carlton fed me, my world would’ve been over if I drank that. Two men, one army in camouflage and one Bedouin-type walk me back. We’d phoned emergency and after an hour and a half, they finally sent two policemen… ON FOOT! WHY WHY WHY didn’t they bring the car?

The same guy that wanted to screw us over before was apparently the only guy in town with a tow truck. He wanted to charge us 100LE for each km he towed us – which the US equivalent would be about $20, but when you live in Egypt, you should consider each LE equaling $1. So that’s like $100 per mile – so we decided to drive on the flat 2 km to the next city – where we remained until 7 am for the tire to get fixed.

So we head out again, only going 50 km an hour (about 25 miles). 30 kilometers later, another flat. We pull over and then some not so nice policemen finally come after about an hour and tell us to move. Where, Mr. Officer, would you like for us to move? They just tell us to drive and laugh at us. other truckers stop to help us. They air up the other flat that had gone kaput just enough to help us get to the pull off point. We wait.

At this point, we’re so tired that we have to sleep. We’ve phoned someone in Cairo to bring us two new tires, but we’re a) 200 km from Cairo, b) nothing in Cairo opens before 10 am and c) are now stuck in Bedouin country with nothing for miles. We sleep, but I wake up every few minutes to make sure no one is near our car. We’re so dizzy and dazed from lack of food, water and sleep.

Finally our friend arrives from Cairo at about 2 pm. He takes our screwed tires and the new tires back to the previous town to get the centers put in and comes back. Needless to say, we finally made it back to Cairo at around 8 pm last night looking and smelling like Bedouins. We went straight to our favorite restaurant and ate like starving Ethiopians. It took me forever to scrub all the dirt, grease and oil off of me and I immediately passed out after that.

The story is better in person, but I will just say that if you’re thinking of driving the Sinai, you will want to be prepared. The one thing I can say is that I always had phone reception, which is something that in the US, you don’t always have (ie my adventures traveling between Arizona and Mississippi). I’ve never been so thankful to be back in Cairo before in my life. I almost cried when we finally arrived. I was even happy about the traffic because that meant that if something else happened, we’d have help in less than a minute – unlike over 15 hrs of grueling Sinai.

Here’s a YouTube Video of exactly where we ended up for the majority of our “layover.” Click here for the video of "4 Flats, 2 Females and the Sinai"

Letters from Egypt:Football is a Way of Life

In case you weren’t aware, soccer is a HUGE thing over here. And there’s no bigger game than Egypt vs Algeria. You can view other news sources (BBC’s Egypt's President Mubarak enters Algeria football Row) as to what happened in November when the two countries duked it out to qualify for the World Cup (which Algeria won). 

Since I can't post the videos anymore because Blogger is a being finicky, you can click on the links that will take you directly to the YouTube videos.

Next time you’re in Abu Dhabi…

You simply MUST try this place. It is one of the tastiest shwarma places I've ever had the pleasure of having my lips meet. I'm unsure of what it is called (by the picture, I'd guess Al Rutba), but it is near the Howard Johnson in downtown Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, the shwarma isn't available until after 6pm, but that just means you should be waiting at 5:55pm to get your fill. You'll thank more for it later - I promise! It's cheap and clearly a favorite among the locals. 


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Work is Overrated

I make no quams about my disdain for the typical Egyptian work mentality. I know you’re probably wondering exactly what that entails and I have to say, it is very little. And I mean working VERY LITTLE. Some people might say Cairo is one of the cities “that never sleeps.” FALSE! Cairo sleeps, just not until after 4 am and then many sleep throughout the daylight hours.

If you wake up to go to work before 9 am, you’re one of the few (and mostly only foreigners are doing this with a few Egyptian exceptions). Employees stroll into the office after 10 am, but expect to leave at 5 pm (and sometimes even earlier). No call, no shows run rampant. Giving a two-week’s notice is so preposterous that I have to wonder if it has ever been heard of. And even more so, the excuses you will hear constantly as to why the smallest work task wasn’t completed will definitely beat Saved by the Bell’s Zach Morris’ lines any day.

And why shouldn’t the people act in such a manner? It isn’t as though the Egyptian government provides a better example. In fact, the government is also a fan of as little work as possible proclaiming a new national holiday just days before the actual “holiday” (which makes me wonder if the Mubarak administration pre-empts a hangover because a big party is going to occur, and decides to make up a day so officials can recuperate).

Monday (January 25) was announced National Police Day only two weeks prior to the event. That leads me to another lingering question – what exactly are we celebrating – the police falling asleep on the job? It isn’t for traffic control, safety or even to disburse potential riots (you might want to go to the military personnel for those). However, the country allotted yet ANOTHER day off from work. Yet, the country wonders why it lags behind economically, politically and socially. (Picture source: Andy Simonsen)

Egypt has an abundance of natural resources, a strong tourism industry, and many other amenities that should propel it to be the leader of the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. And while you could tap into many reasons as to why it is still considered a Third World, I’m only going to touch base on one major issue: getting out of bed during regular business hours.

Giving the country a new day off only hinders progression in every sector. Sure, you can talk about the education and poverty levels. How can a decent education be provided when schools are shut for long periods of time over the H1N1 scare (although it has been contained, yet here in Egypt, apparently more time should be taken) and a new holiday being issued adds on leaving very few days to learn. In addition, many upper class Egyptian families pull their kids from school early in order to travel abroad for the summer term.

Just to give you an idea, here’s a school schedule of the days that a friend teaching at a local international school has off (June 17 will also be the last day):

Teachers started work on 17 Aug
Students started 27 Sep (delayed until after Eid as per ministry)
6 Oct holiday
Thanksgiving 26 Nov until 6 Dec. (ministry added a week on for H1N1 scare coming from Saudi Arabia)
Christmas 18 Dec until 3 Jan
Coptic Christmas 7 Jan
25 Jan National Police Day

Deducting all the holidays, the five day school week totals 71 days thus far this particular school has conducted. For a more realistic figure, you would need to also factor in a child’s number of absenses (which if the adult world is of any indicator, I’m sure it’s relatively high). The Mackinac Center for Public Policy cited that “some countries, such as Korea and Japan, average more than 200 days of school per year.” According to "Market Education: The Unknown History," by Andrew Coulson, in 1909-1910, the average American student spent 113 days in school. By 1969-1970 that average had climbed to 161 school days; today that number is approaching 180 days.

How can businesses make any money when they’re forced to give employees off for such ridiculous things as National Police Day (once again, created maybe two weeks prior)? This is in addition to the standard vacation time and let’s not forget the average work day during Ramadan...

The book called Don’t They Know It’s Friday is about doing business in the Middle East. I wonder if the author has included what it’s like in Egypt…with business almost nonexistent.


Eat of the Week:

El Chico

Located in City Stars mall in Nasr City (same floor as the cinema)

A popular chain throughout the US, El Chico is your chance to satisfy that craving for TexMex. I went before watching the release of Sherlock Holmes and was pleasantly surprised. Have I had better Mexican food? Of course, I lived in Tucson, Ariz. for a year. However, for Egypt, not bad…not bad at all. My neighbor is from Texas and swears by this place. I enjoyed the chicken and spinach enchiladas with my neighbor recommending the nachos.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Dead and Gone

That part of me left yesterday, the heart of me is strong today. No regrets I’m blessed to say, the old me dead and gone away.

For those of you that don’t know me, I’m known for using song lyrics as quotes and while “Dead and Gone” isn’t a song I’d consider a classic or proud to quote, that phrase does describe my feelings toward 2009. I’m not sad to see it go; I’m very excited to get 2010 underway.

I kicked off the new year by adopting a dog, Brees (named after my favorite American football team’s quarterback Drew Brees). Someone left him at the Ace Club in poor condition and while I’m nervous about adopting him – as in it feels like I’m becoming more settled in Cairo – I’m excited to have an animal once again.

My New Year’s Eve consisted of going to Ace Club for the member’s draw and then to Stilletto’s at the Sheraton on the Nile. There wasn’t even a countdown, the lights were just turned off – what is that about? My friends and I were confused as I’m sure the rest of the crowd was as well. I suppose it didn’t matter anyway, I mean, it wasn’t as though I had a New Year’s kiss. But just by the off-chance I did, it would’ve been nice to have known in advance…just sayin.

Everyone begins a new year much of the same – they want to start anew. Maybe that means going to the gym (as I found a lot of newcomers working out this morning), eating healthy, being a better person, etc. That usually lasts for about two weeks to a month or so. I thought my goal for 2010 would be to move on past Egypt, and yet, I’m hesitant.

I just don’t know if Egypt is done with me yet or if I’m done with it. I was brought here to learn something and I feel that when it’s time to move on, I’ll know. I think the key was finally taking a much needed vacation. I will admit that I was so angry about being here before I left to go to the US. Remember in previous blogs how I discussed that I felt most expats I’d met were so disgruntled about this place and I couldn’t understand how one can remain in such a place that clearly brings them misery. Well, I became that disgruntled expat.

It tries your patience and I had so much anger that I just didn’t know how to deal. I had so much anger toward Egyptians, Muslims, Islam in general, etc. and it was hard for me as that just wasn’t the way I was brought up. I definitely struggled and still continue to struggle at times. At least I admit it and while some of you may criticize me for it, I guarantee that more of you feel the same way and are just scared to confess it because of the social stigma that comes with the admission.

And with that, I realized that it wasn’t Islam that I was angry with – it was the people hiding behind Islam that continue doing horrible things. I would be angry with any Christian using the Bible for personal gain and let’s be honest, there are those in every religion. Well, I’m unsure if I’ve ever met a hateful Buddhist, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I felt like a horrible person for feeling the way I felt. As I said, I continue to struggle with it, but I’m much better today than yesterday and I can only hope that it lasts for longer than two weeks to a month.