Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Black and White

Black and white taxi in Ramses three years ago as an argument ensued over the cab's driving
Has anyone noticed the increase in black and white taxis recently? The white taxis, as seen from previous blog posts (!!Warning!! New White Taxis in Cairo and Update: White Taxi Deceit), were introduced to decrease carbon emissions making the infamous black and white nearly obsolete. That was, until, the revolution.

Now I’ve noticed that more black and whites are popping back on the scene. Why is this? Since the white cabs (as well as governmental subsidies to help drivers purchase the new models) were introduced, black and whites became illegal. Drivers with one of these cars would be stopped and fined by police. And since police are not entirely back in place, even the ones that are do not garner any respect to enforce the law.

My friend Bobby Alkady said, “I prefer taking the white cabs because you don’t have to talk. The black and whites feel they need to increase their tips by making conversation.”

Well, that’s one thing but for many of us that aren’t fluent in Arabic, that reasoning is unimportant. For starters, the white cabs are much cleaner with working air conditioners - and in Cairo heat, that’s muy importante. The meter creates less stress for those that aren’t able to negotiate in Arabic and you don’t inhale tons of gasoline fumes on the way to your destination.

However, I have to be honest – the heightened black and whites back on the street make me reminiscent of my Cairo just three years ago. While it doesn’t bode well for someone who is unfamiliar with Cairo or negotiating in Arabic, I have to admit that for the most part, I prefer black and whites. Many of you will think I’m crazy, but please allow me to explain.

I successfully negotiated a black and white to Zamalak last week while going to the Chinese embassy. I had no idea exactly where it was located, but since I was able to pre-negotiate, it didn’t matter if we got lost (or my driver deciding to just go in circles on purpose) as my fare was already decided. I didn’t have to constantly monitor the meter to ensure it wasn’t rigged, get upset at traffic, etc.

My driver drove like a bat out of hell, instead of the slower-than-a-90-year-old-with-a-broken-hip-for-fear-of-hurting-the-car’s-shocks. Was it scary? Of course. However, it reminded me of how terrifying my journeys used to be. Just close your eyes and pretend you’re on a roller coaster at the local fairgrounds (ie the ones that are put up in half a day).

And you know what else? You have to love the ash tray that’s on the side under the window. Sure I know that cigarette has probably been in there since the dawn of man, but I don’t have to bend over to ash or try out the window with ash blowing all over me.

The use of tools on the door panel are always a treat. The screwdriver in the window to hold it in place or the pliers on the window knob – excellent rigging indeed.

Oh and don’t forget the blue lights with the lovely additions of mirrors, stuffed animals, random hanging items, etc. Or the springs that shoot up your butt.

See, these are all fond memories for me. They make me laugh and remind me of the adventures Natalia and I used to have as we trekked all over Cairo.

Finally, even when whites were beginning to take over, most of the time I opted for a black and white if I had the choice. The reasoning: most of them know every crook and cranny that Cairo has to offer and are geniuses when it comes to getting you to your location the fastest route possible. Have you seen Cairo traffic?

So if you ask me, besides the obvious environmental impact that they have, I don’t mind them at all. In fact, they always leave you with a story and sometimes that story might be like the time I was going to the airport to pick up a friend and a part fell out of my cab while racing down the Autostrad. The cabby seemed unmoved and continued on until the car came to a stop. Guess that was an important part of the car after all buddy.

And thus he walked back, picked up the part, jimmied it in and we were once again off.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Simply Funny

Taken in Abu Dhabi where apparently MJ lives on
At a closer look, you realize it's Wang Jackson - MJ's long lost brother from another mother
So I go to the Chinese embassy to apply for a visa. I walk in and the Egyptians at the door tell me to have a seat. Sure there are people ahead of me, but if you think there’s a list or a pick-a-number, well, you simply have not lived in Egypt as they’re memory is so good – who needs numbers, waiting list, etc? In walks in a man of Asian descent that says, “I need a visa.” The two Egyptian men usher him through.

And thus I walk over to the “keepers” and ask why this man went in ahead of the rest of us? Egyptian 1 tells me, “This is his embassy.” I said, “No, it’s not.” Egyptian 2 said, “Yes, his embassy he goes first.” At which time I say, “Just because he’s of Asian descent does NOT mean he’s Chinese. He’s NOT Chinese. If he was Chinese he wouldn’t need a visa now would he? Do you go to the Mogamma (place to get Egyptian visa) to get a visa? No, why? Because you’re Egyptian and you don’t need a visa for your own country.”

The funny part in all of that is the guy actually had to stop to think if he in fact went to the Mogamma for a visa to stay in Egypt.

They pulled the guy out and made him wait. He was British.

Maybe that’s really only funny to me, but if you live here, I’m sure you can picture the confused look on the Egyptians’ faces as they thought about the Mogamma.

FYI on Daylight Savings Time

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Why should I be forced to ‘spring forward, fall back’?” While there are many countries that do not observe Daylight Savings Time (DST), welcome to one of the newest additions: Egypt.

Who cares about those other countries? We live in Egypt and apparently anything goes. Anything, that is, that will make the ruling party – whether it be remnants of Mubarak’s regime or a supposed military council – carry on with more ease.

Here’s a country that prior to the rest of the world “falling back,” it must hurriedly switch its clocks back an hour because God forbid anyone go without food for an extra hour (the month of fasting during sunlight hours for Muslims).

While Turkey is predominantly Muslim, they do not adjust the time accordingly to make Ramadan fasting easier. Isn’t the point of a fast to experience the hardships so that you appreciate what God has given you? Muslims in other areas like the US are forced to go until after 8 pm until Iftar (first meal breaking fast).  Christians around the world, particularly Egyptian Coptics can’t say that they’d like to shorten Lent because they get tired of eating beans and koshery (Coptics are unable to eat anything living during the 40 days of Lent including dairy products).

Imagine my surprise (sarcasm) to have received a notice that the Military Council has decided NOT to implement the usual DST. So for all of you living here, thinking of visiting during this time (are you crazy?), or just simply want to know – Egypt will not be switching back the clocks.

The good news about this is that now no one can use the excuse that they forgot about the time change and show up late for work, not like time is really of importance to anyone anyway.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Red Sea Travel Advice

Looking for the best way to travel to the Red Sea but you don’t have a car? Never fear, Go Bus is here and will remain stuck on the side of the road for hours. So if it departs without you, just walk five minutes and I’m sure you’ll find it.

I started my journey for Easter weekend to Hurghada, a resort town located on the Red Sea, to see some good friends of mine. I don’t have a car and nor was anyone that I knew (or rather, wanted to spend four hours locked in a car with) traveling at the time I had planned. Thus, I purchased a Go Bus ticket for LE 80 ($13.50) to depart from Cairo at 4 pm. There are different buses that range from LE 45 to LE 125 leaving at various times (going from economy to elite).

I arrive at Nady el Sekka in Nasr City around 3:30 pm on April 21, only for the time to pass 4 pm and still no bus anywhere in sight. I overheard some woman complaining about the delay with the Go Bus official explaining that the bus was just now in downtown (please note, it was 4:25 pm). Finally the bus arrives around 4:45 pm and we take off.

Five minutes later – literally – the bus breaks down. We were so close to the bus station that I could’ve walked back. I always speak about how education levels and common sense is far behind in Egypt, so allow me to give another example.

We stand on the side of the road and watch the 5 pm bus pass. Then we watch the 6 pm bus fly by. Wouldn’t it have been wise to have sent the 5 pm bus to those that had purchased the 4 pm ticket and so on and so forth until another bus was made available? Oh no, that would require a brain and clearly there is no priority here. Right before 7 pm, we are finally sent a new bus and we begin our journey…again.

Then around 7:30 pm, directly in front of us four cars including a truck carrying building stone carved out of a mountain collide. While other cars are able to pass, a huge rock is blocking my bus. This poses a problem for two reasons: a) an ambulance was behind us and unable to get to those wounded and b) I’m still in Cairo although I should’ve been almost nearing Hurghada at this point. So all the men on my bus get out to literally push this rock out of the way bringing me to another conclusion as the rock is only able to be moved centimeters at a time: there is no way Egyptians built the pyramids.

Finally everything seems normal until another car stalls in front of us once again blocking our passage. God forbid the traffic behind allow my bus to back up and move around the car, no – that would actually require them to be considerate. Thus more guys get off the bus to stop traffic in order for the bus to move around the stalled car. FML.

Throughout the excursion, my bus driver felt it pertinent to make sure the tv was constantly showing a movie. Therefore he needs to stop AGAIN to start some horrendous D-class Arabic film. When it skipped (please note we’re not working with advanced equipment here although it was a tad better than VHS), he also had to stop to make sure that we didn’t miss anything from the movie.

I arrive in Hurghada after midnight, two hours after the friend who took the 5 pm bus arrived.

So for all of you thinking of traveling to Hurghada via Go Bus, here are some helpful suggestions:

  • First of all, NEVER and I mean NEVER purchase any ticket under LE 100. The LE 100 ticket is for Royal Class and only has a five minute stop with a better bus. You will thank me immensely for this advice as the other buses are just too risky.
  • Take snacks with you as you are not going to like the snack box provided and bring water. Although water is provided as well as a juice box, just trust me.
  • Charge up your ipod and make sure you have good headphones so you can drown out the annoying people who feel the need to speak so loudly on their mobiles as well as (and this is of utmost importance) the crappy Arabic movie that will be blasted on high through busted speakers.
  • Get your ticket in advance. I just found out that there are only so many foreigners allowed on each bus, usually ranging around five (and I did count on my buses how many foreigners there were). This is because it is seen as high risk to have more (ie terrorism).

And finally, pray to sweet Baby Jesus that you do not incur half of the problems that I did. Although it’s always a mystery if you’re ever going to make it via any Egyptian transportation – which is sort of half the fun – you definitely appreciate the journey more once you’ve arrived safely.

For information about schedule and ticket purchase, contact Go Bus at 19567. The website on the company’s Facebook page says, but it isn’t valid (red flag maybe).

Remember, take Go Bus so you can get goin'... unless you're like me and then maybe pack a big dinner, a few books and a blanket so you can hunker down for the night on the side of the road.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Novelty Wears Off

I'm going crazy...
When someone apologizes repeatedly for everything, it makes their apology less significant because how are you supposed to know when they mean it? If someone says “I love you” to everyone, how do you feel special? If Egyptians protests all the time, when do you know it’s really important?

Curfew was finally extended from midnight to 2 am, but it’s only a matter of time before curfew ends up being 8 pm with all the protests that continue to defy army orders. I went to Alexandria on Friday to go biking along the Mediterranean only to encounter protestors on the Corniche while reportedly 13 people were wounded on April 9 in Tahrir Square after ignoring the imposed curfew.

Some people are calling for the resignation of MohamadHussein Tantawi, apparently Egypt’s interim ruler. Whew, glad we finally figured out who exactly was in charge although it’s still up for debate. Tantawi is a Field Marshal and head of the ruling military council. He was Minister of Defense under Regime Mubarak and is said to have been a very close ally of the ousted ruler. So now Egyptians have put all of this together and want him to leave office as well so there are no remnants of Mubarak’s ruling elite. Bravo.

However, most of the people flooding Tahrir are the same as found camping out toward the end of the revolution: opportunists. My Facebook newsfeed has a great deal of ill-founded rhetoric flying about the revolution and the events thereafter. Sure I could use the “hide” feature, but sometimes I need the chuckle that some of these people provide. For instance, there is one person who continues to post various links, videos, articles and never forgets to tout his own opinion. This person does not have a job nor is he on the prowl to remotely find one. You may at first think he is a byproduct of the revolution, ie less job opportunities. No darlings, he wasn’t looking for a job prior to the revolution and had no real sense of what he wanted to do…ever.

He probably makes me chuckle the most. He currently studies at a university here where he is attempting to help fight an anti-corruption campaign (so to speak) over tuition fees at the school. Mind you, this all started post Jan. 25 – shocking. A few things: “Videos from last night’s protests” (April 9) commenting: “ARMY WAS SHOOTING BULLETS LAST NIGHT!!! WTF” Ummm, I’ll tell you WTF – THERE IS A FREAKING CURFEW IN EFFECT, GO THE EFF HOME OR WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE PLACED BACK UNDER HOUSE ARREST AT 8 PM EVERY NIGHT! Then he followed up with another message: “i disagree with violating the curfew BUT I WILL NEVER support any act against humanity and if the army did this, we will stand till we die defending our right of SAYING WHAT WE WANT !!!!!!!!!!!”

And I ask this: what is it exactly that you want? Crickets chirping I’m sure.

Then he says, “What’s happening now is like pre Jan 25 but instead of Mubarak it’s Tantawy but this time will be a lot harder and bloodier.” There’s insight for you (please note my during revolution blogs where I questioned military rule while this person in particular was partying like a rock star). I love the fact that he brings up what it was like before Jan. 25 seeing as how he never posted anything, acted as though he knew it was coming and I do recall that while some of us went down to Tahrir to see what was going on, he watched from a window in nearby Garden City (ah hem, meaning he didn’t take part). And I really can’t be bothered to continue stalking his page for the sake of this blog entry, but you get the gist I’m sure.

He is only one example of continuing all this banter, but having no clear direction as to what he wants, what should come next and how to personally help make Egypt a better place. Perhaps if he, like many of his other fellow Egyptians, knew their own history, they could have anticipated this coming. However, the main concern is that while everyone is protesting for this and for that, no one seems to notice that any of the presidential candidates that they think are viable options have yet to come forward with a plan of action for the next four years. Now THAT’S worrisome.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Post-Revolution Life of Egyptian Police

View on my walk home from work
Now that Libya has taken the spotlight, very little is reported on Egypt and its post-revolution days (that is unless you live here and/or read local media out of Egypt).

While Rome wasn’t built in a day (can someone please explain that to the majority of Egyptians?), I suspect that it won’t be too long before that same majority is requesting a return of the Mubarak regime.

There is no order. Crime rate is up although figures will undoubtedly be skewed since crimes before the end of the Mubarak era were rarely reported. I’ve always heard that Egypt was relatively safe, but if you traveled to lower-income areas, ie where Sudanese refugees reside, you would hear plenty of stories about attacks, theft and other dubious actions.

I recently met a Cairo police officer and inquired as to what his job entailed pre and post-revolution. He told me that previously, he was on constant patrol catching thieves and other small-time criminals. He said that now, they do nothing as no one respects or listens to them. If he has the 9 pm to 9 am shift, he drives around on the Autostradt and that’s about it.

On April 2, the Cairo soccer team, Zamalak, had hundreds of its fans storm the field attacking Tunisia’s Club Africain players and an Algerian referee. In an article in Afrique en ligne, it was reported that nearly 150 arrests were made by Egyptian police who were “blamed by many critics for not doing their job at the stadium.” Naturally the blame would go elsewhere instead of attributing the lawlessness to the real perpetrators. I heard from others in the area that the police tried to stop the rampage, but were unable to do anything and had to wait until the army came to restore order.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now the ruling body, has launched an investigation into the acts at the Cairo stadium during the African Football Champions League.

Near my apartment around 7 am (daylight mind you and in a high traffic area), a female foreign teacher was held up at knife point with the culprit demanding her purse. She began screaming and he ran away. Another friend of mine had two men on a bike pass by her holding a knife and trying to unsuccessfully grab her bag. A cab driver tried to hold up a woman in New Maadi. And here’s another amazing story that happened on Talat Harb Street, near to Tahrir Square (Liberation Square for all of you overseas):

Without the police, the venders have begun setting up shop in the middle of the streets. My friend hit one of the vender’s setups with his car while the vender demanded payment for the destruction (debatable). He wanted LE 400 (around $68), and my friend trying to calm the situation said that he would help. The situation escalated and other men joined the fight attacking my friend’s pockets. It is important to note that none of them beat my friend, but they were carrying weapons and suspected of being on drugs at the time.

Long story shorter, so to speak, the thieves got an iPod and Nokia phone, but that isn’t all. Some of the men went inside the friend’s car and began taking anything that he thought was worth money. In order for the friend to get his belongings back, the vender demanded the rest of the LE 400 (the friend had only given LE 200 at the time and refused to give the rest until his items were returned). I simply can’t be bothered to get into the rest of the story, but the friend did file a report with the police and we all see that getting somewhere.

The point is, you rarely heard of these instances prior to January 25 and now it’s hard to find someone that hasn’t been assaulted. And for the Tahrir friend, he’s more concerned that if he keeps pressing, the culprits will do more harmful things. This attitude is when things begin to spiral out of control, enabling common criminals to get away with their actions as they feed off of fear.

As the officer told me, “There’s no country in the world that can survive without police.”

I asked him why he joined the police considering that they’ve never garnered much respect (although they did instill fear into the people which was enough). He said that while he could’ve joined the army, the problem would have been that he would be in the middle of nowhere and only able to communicate with other army personnel. He wanted to help people and be in the middle of the action, so he decided that joining law enforcement as a police officer was the best way to do this. He feels that things will eventually calm down, but for now...

Place of the Week:
Nefertari Body Care
There are various locations, but the one I frequent is the side street by the CIB/old Cinnabon building, next to a pharmacy on Road 9 in Maadi.

This venue has become one of my favorite things about Egypt. Nefertari was the favorite wife of Ramses II and means “the most beautiful of them all.” First of all, the products are 100% PROUDLY made in Egypt. The company, with a factory in Dokki, boasts of jobs that contribute to “community development through offering opportunities and generating income for several poor Egyptian families both inside Cairo and outside reaching the Western Desert of Egypt in the oasis of Farafra (with a large emphasis on women) to help them sustain an acceptable level of living and [education for] their children.”

The most amazing thing is how each product is packaged. If you purchased these items in the US, they would go for $45+. For instance, the milk bath which I use as a facial scrub comes in a clay jar and while I can’t remember the price, I know that it’s under $10.

The company’s vision, as stated on its site, is to offer a wide range of 100% natural Egyptian body care products with an Egyptian accent all 100% handmade by Egyptian hands and with Egyptian materials.

When my mother and sister came for a visit, I bought a gift set to have waiting on their beds for their arrival. My mother absolutely loved the lavender set and I also highly recommend it. If you were to walk in my bathroom, you would see various Nefertari products. Some of my favorite things:

Bath fizz balls – I prefer lavender but have recently gotten into the rose pedal ball as well. The aroma is to die for and it releases this oil that is perfect for when you shave your legs, enabling you to skip the lotion process afterwards. You can use one ball per bath, but sometimes I take shorter baths and instead use one ball for two baths.

Hair and skin oil – if you get your hair done here, you will notice that the chemicals used severely dries out your scalp and hair. This oil is perfect for just that occasion. You let it sit in hot water for a little to break up some of the contents and then place in your hair. I usually do it at night and then wash my hair again the following morning.

Face and body cream – it starts with an F like Frangelico or something. It’s yellow and I promise some of the best lotion you’ve ever had. Leaves your skin glowing and soft for hours.
The rose pedals released from the bath fizz ball - LOVE IT!!!!