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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Egypt - It Depends on Your Perspective

You can probably tell from reading a few of the posts below that we enjoy Egypt. Even more than Egypt, we enjoy Egyptians. They are certainly the friendliest people we have encountered in our travels. You will encounter a lot of "high pressure" salesmen in the tourist areas, but other than that, your encounters will be fun and likely lead to long-term friendship. Even the "high pressure" salesman encounters can be made into fun.

Afraid to try the local markets because you don't speak the language? Can't learn languages." Just a few words of Arabic will do the job!

Going to the bakery or stopping at a banana cart will be a pleasant experience. Say, "Hello," identifying yourself as an English speaker, point to what you want and say "nus kilo, min fudluk." (You just asked for a half-kilogram, or about a pound, please)

Nine times out of ten the response will be, "Oh, you speak Arabic? Where are you from?" Even the banana seller from Upper Egypt speaks a little English. The shop owner may scramble to find the best English speaker nearby if the conversation continues.

How you react to Egypt depends on your attitude, more than anything else. Things are different. Different doesn't mean "bad." Walk through an area and some Americans will say "Oh, the poverty!" Stay and get acquainted and you might say "Egyptian families are so close! And so generous and sharing!"

We recently stumbled on this internet posting that literally had us laughing out loud.
Muslims began praying right in front of me at one point as the minarets called the masses to prayer while I was waiting. In light of the situation between Muslims and Christians, I was worried that they might get enraged in their prayers and walk over and confront me . . . or worse. I can't say that I have experienced much fear in my life. I'm sheltered from much of that in America. However, I experienced genuine fear in the Cairo train station.
No wonder one of our Cairo neighbors asked Linda, "weren't you afraid of me because I cover?"

The author of that post goes on with this note:
Danger still abounds here in Egypt. On my way here to Egypt, a group of English-speaking Egyptian residents told me about the recent and highly publicized threat by terrorist Osama Bin Laddin.

Apparently, he has threatened to target and murder American tourists in Egypt. What a wonderful news item to hear as you are waiting in the Cairo airport with a 9 day "tour" of Egypt before you. Anyway, security here has been EXTREMELY TIGHT as they anticipate BinLaddin's next move.

The irony, of course, is that this quote was extracted from an e-mail that the person sent home to friends on 6/5/2001. We can only hope that he was not comfortably at home in New York on 9/11.

Incidentally, if you do follow the link referenced and read the whole posting, be sure to read two of my posts. Check out my Koshary for Dinner post and my What's for Lunch post.

And, yes, I will admit to sometimes stopping in an American fast-food outlet in Cairo.

But it is only because I find the McArabia sandwich to be so darn tasty. I'm lovin it!

It's available in either chicken or meat - but that's another whole post, and I'll leave it for another day.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Farewell to Cairo

We are at the Cairo airport, waiting patiently for our 4:15a.m. flight to Amsterdam and then on to Minneapolis.

We are at the "secret" restaurant row on the third floor departure lounge in terminal 1. All International flights depart from somewhere else except for KLM, as near as we can figure out. Actually there are several other airlines that depart from here too but getting accurate information from anyone at the airport is difficult, to put it mildly. Trying to find the departure area for KLM can lead you and a taxi driver on quite a tour of this giant airport complex. There are at least three departure buildings. There are no signs with airline names on them. Go figure.

We've done it enough times to know that you follow the signs to "arrivals" and then look nearby.

We had a personal escort to the airport this time via good friends Moody and Mona. Even with local help it is difficult to find the right spot since new roads appear and signs are cryptic.

We made it past the first security man who really would like to see "a ticket, please" - not one of those newfangled e-ticket itinerary sheets. (What if we hadn't brought it?) Checked our bags, passed passport control, hit another unsmiling security man (by now we had boarding passes) and headed for the third floor.

The "secret" third floor lounge has a Cinnabon, Starbucks, Beano's, Coffee Bean & Teal Leaf, and a McDonald's. Bring Egyptian pounds - nothing else is acceptable.

We are sitting in the Beano's. For 52 Egyptian Pounds (a bit short of ten bucks) we got two "iced mochas" One small, rapidly disappearing ice cube in each. A little unmixed chocolate on the bottom - you do the stirring. Linda's was delivered by spilling a few drops on her pants and hand. "No problem," said the server - easy for him to say! We really wanted the fresh lemon with mint but they didn't have it this morning. The danish was hard and hot from the microwave.

Next time, we'll try the Cinnabon. We were tempted by the Beano's lunge chairs. They are very comfortable. Fortunately, we also have two sandwiches apiece courtesy of Mona. Two eggplant for Linda and two cheese for Tom. And we have a stock of sugar cookies because Linda baked again this morning.

One other plus for this area - Free Internet Access! Connect to "CAC Wireless Powered by Avit"

Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's for Lunch?

We are 36 hours away from our trip to the airport for the return to Minnesota. This means we are in the midst of a "long goodbye" as we visit friends for the last time on this trip. Now the Minnesota long goodbye has been much studied and well reported. But in Egypt, saying goodbye takes about one full week.

Linda is doing a goodbye with the neighbor lady, so I'm on my own for lunch today. What to have? Well, I am in the mood for foul. Foul Medammes, that is. One of the national specialties here, foul consists of cooked fava beans and "some spices" and "some vegetables."

Let's start with the basic ingredient, the fava beans. Cruise the foul isle at the local store, supermarket or hypermarket and you will find them in cans. Medammes, crushed medammes, peeled medammes, Saudi style medammes, medammes with chillis. It's like a Minnesotan shopping for black-eyed peas in Atlanta - which ones do I buy?

I've settled on this secret recipe variety.

They are produced by California Garden, headquartered in Dubai and their president claims they are the #1 brand in the world for fava beans.

These beans have really good flavor right out of the can.

While I am heating the fava beans, I prepare the rest of my Foul. Onions, green peppers and fresh tomatoes are essential. A little cumin and just the right amount of ground red chilli pepper. And don't forget to squeeze in about a half of one of those baby Egyptian lemons.

Add the vegetables and seasonings to taste and lunch is ready!

And if that doesn't entice you to give this delicacy a try, just Google, "foul medammes", click on images, and head for this photo gallery.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Our Satellite Dish

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had a satellite dish installed in time to watch the Superbowl.

Our dish installer came by night. Everyone in Egypt seems to have two or three jobs, and I think dish installations are mostly done by hobbyists.

There are a lot of dish installations here.

Sometimes they occupy the roofs of apartment buildings and sometimes they are mounted on the side, closer to the individual apartments. You'll notice quite a variety of sizes and directions that they point.

When you want a dish, you have to decide which satellite(s) you want to receive. Pretty soon, you know a lot more about satellite technology than you thought you wanted to know.

Communications satellites have to be parked in an orbit above the equator and at an altitude of about 22,000 miles. This is the only place you can put one and have it appear "stationary" to the dishes on the ground. This creates quite a traffic jam in this one orbit. They can't be placed too close together since they pretty much all broadcast on the same frequency band. The providers aim their downward broadcasts to cover specific areas to provide some degree of separation. In practical terms, what this means is that there are a few satellites that provide a signal in Cairo - two popular ones. These are not the same satellites that provide signals in the U.S.

Some people here have aim-able dishes of considerable size. These can be oriented to pull in several different satellites and literally thousands of channels. At reasonable cost, you have a choice of two satellite slots;
  • HotBird, a group of three European satellites huddled together above the 13 degrees East longitude line. HotBird is aimed at Europe but puts out a strong enough signal to be picked up in Cairo with a 40 inch dish.

  • NileSat, a group of Egyptian satellites huddled together above the 7 degree West longitude line. NileSat is aimed at North Africa and the Middle East with a signal that can be picked up in Cairo with a 24 inch dish.
After some consultation with a friend, we chose HotBird which we were told should give us a greater number of "Western" channels.

All together, we invested about $90 for a dish, a satellite receiver and the installation. This gives us 540 free channels. NO MONTHLY FEE! Not bad when compared with a package from Dish or Direct-TV back home.

The installation is a bit less than ideal. The dish is fastened to our balcony railing. It flutters a bit in the wind. I plan to dismount the actual dish from its mount before we leave for home otherwise I think a serious Khamasin will put the whole thing onto the balcony or through the balcony door.

You might notice that our installer attended the Walt Kowalski school of tools and repair. Most people run the coax down the inside of the LNB mounting tube. But electrical tape works too.

The full channel lineup can be found here. Note that we could pay some monthly money and add a few things. Many of the 540 free channels fall into the following categories:
  • Religious - both Muslim and Christian. EWTN, broadcasting out of Birmingham, Alabama capably, if somewhat controversially represents the Catholic faith. The UK based ISLAM channel offers 24 hours a day of Islamic news, Q and A programs, Koran readings and prayers.

  • Direct Sales - lots of gems and gadgets, seems to be an Italian specialty.

  • News Channels - many languages and points of view.

  • Porn - lots of Arab specialty channels here.

  • General Entertainment - but mostly in Italian and Polish.

  • Sports. You can pretty much always find a soccer game. I've also found Rugby, tennis and a little golf. No language barrier here.

  • Fashion channels.

  • Persian language programming directed at Iran.

  • Odds and ends. Turkish, Kurdish, Iraqi, Syrian, Moroccan, Romanian, Jordanian, Korean, Thai, Greek, Russian, French, Polish, Italian.

We've sorted out twenty four channels that are primarily English language in the evening. Here are a few favorites:
  • CNN International
  • Pentagon (All U.S. Military channel)
  • French 24 hour news
  • Euronews (from Brussels)
  • Al Jazeera International
  • Lux TV (Kind of a "Fine Living" channel)
  • Russia Today (Russian news channel)
  • BBC News
  • KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - frequently has movies in English)
  • DOS TV (A Voice of American channel frequently carrying CSPAN)
Among the odder things we've seen are these:

I had to work to get this shot from one of the "Polski Porn" channels as I call them. Most of the shots would definitely be NSFW (Not Safe for Work, for my less computer-literate readers) What could we caption this? Operators standing by??

Note the arabic lettering.

And this Persian language infomercial touts a product I haven't seen before.

Yes! It's the Smaller Nose Kit! The story line shows scenes of the above lady opening the door to friends after two weeks regular nightly use and the friends are speechless. Well, what would you say!

For 24-hour bizarre, you just can't beat watching the Fashion Channel.

And in a rich note of irony, I was able to watch Rush Limbaugh's entire address to the CPAC live on Saturday courtesy of the Voice of America. You can tell president Obama's staff don't fully have their hands on the levers of power yet! Thanks, Barry!

Now of course, I know a bit more about the whole satellite TV world. The NileSat channel lineup is here. We'd pick up Fox Movie Channel for free, lose the Polski Porn and by paying I could even add Fox News Channel. So next year I may try to acquire the free channels from both.

But along the way, I discovered the marvelous resource of Lyngsat. Lyngsat lists all the channels on all the direct broadcast satellite in the world. Why, I don't know. And it lacks a Wikipedia entry. I didn't think there was a technical thing in the world without a Wikipedia entry.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It Rained in Egypt

The preceding post discusses the dust in Cairo. I've been waiting for a nice rainstorm to pass through town and wash all the dust off the palm trees, buildings and monuments. I'm going to grab the camera and head out for some great pictures.

Good luck! People tell me that it doesn't rain here. Well they are wrong. Just look at this picture taken last week.

Yes, that is as much rain as I've seen in my ten weeks in Cairo this winter. It has rained that hard two other times too. People talk about it when it happens.

I checked the BBC Weather page for Egypt and they reported:
In central and southern Egypt several years may pass without any significant rain.
Now, we are in the north, so maybe one day I'll have my freshly washed palm tree pictures. But not on this trip.

Dust and Dusty

One thing you notice after your first day in Cairo is the dust. It's obvious the first time you look at your shoes. Cairo is a dusty city.

The solutions to the problem vary. For shoes, don't worry.

Someone is waiting right around the corner to solve that problem. Of course, the shoe shine in or near your hotel will cost more than the one farther away. And the shoes may get dusty again before you return to the hotel.

And here's an important tip. While you are carefully negotiating a cheap 5 pound price for the shine (about 90 cents) make sure you cover all the details. Otherwise that Egyptian entrepreneur is going to tell you, "Yes 5 pounds for that shoe - and 5 more for the other shoe!"

A few people protect their cars with a dust cover.

The dust is actually the sand from the Sahara that has blown into town. In the pictures, the sand may look like beach sand but it is much finer - more like volcanic dust than like sand. The sand in the air is responsible for the beautiful sunsets.

But, as you can imagine, it doesn't take a lot of wind to cut the visibility pretty severely.

The wind was maybe 15-20 m.p.h. when we took these pictures near the Fayoum oasis.

And of course, any place where there is wind and sand, the resulting dust storm gets its own name. Here, it is called the Khamaseen. That means fifties, and it is claimed to occur in April. Some reports even specify it blowing from Coptic Easter to Coptic Pentecost.

Regardless of the actual dates, Khamaseen time can produce some dramatic weather. You will occasionally hear of the Cairo airport being closed because of it and NASA has some pretty spectacular photos showing the blowing sand near the Libya/Egypt border.

Local residents and personal experience shows that February is a pretty likely time to experience Khamaeen winds. Khamaseen or not, the dust accumulates on our western balcony pretty regularly. During February, I could sweep once a day and always find plenty of dust.

And on the February day after the strongest wind, I found this dust covering the front balcony. The pictures are taken after the first stroke with the broom.

And so, what else could we call this poor gray kitty that has moved onto our Welcome mat outside the front door. We named her, Dusty!