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Thursday, January 27, 2011

More Thoughts on Yesterday's Visit to Downtown

Linda is a wonderful proof-reader and editor. She not only catches my spelling errors but cheerfully identifies my mistakes and omissions. Yesterday when we returned to the Mogamma to pick up our passports with the extended visas, we were, indeed, directed to Window 38. When we arrived, there were about forty people of various nationalities crowded around the window pushing to get close enough to get in on the passport distribution. The general rule for lines here is, "Get in and push." If you are at all standoff-ish, say, at the copy window downstairs, you will never be served.

The lady behind the window was going through the applications, holding them up and hoping someone would recognize their picture. Suddenly, she pulled one out and said loudly, "Mr. America!" People pointed at me and poked me. Sure enough, that was my picture. The application was passed back to me with a request for signature. I picked a blank spot on the form and signed. I passed the form back and soon my passport was passed along to me. Success!

But, what about "Mrs. America," you ask? I stood off to the side allowing Linda to get a look. "Finlandia" was shouted, "Faransa, Chile, Malaysia." This went on for several minutes. Soon, a gentleman joined the woman behind the counter. Let's let Linda finish the story:
Lucky for me the man behind me was from New Zealand so he was not pressing against me. He was so disgusted with the process that he said, "Never again!" He called the process humiliating and disorderly. Yeah, that's Egypt. He and I had plenty of time to chat. Finally a man stood over the woman and he saw me waiting. These govt workers are behind a thick glass window so when they shout those of us waiting can barely hear. This man caught my eye and asked me where I was from--I read his lips. I mouthed, "Amreeka" and he looked through the pile until he found my passport and made the lady do mine next. It's not beneath me to use the "blonde card" here. It works wonders.
With that accomplished, we headed outside and noticed that the police presence had increased. The subway tunnel that we had used to arrive was now closed. We crossed the street easily since traffic was not moving at all. Descending into a different subway tunnel, I was noticing the increased police presence in the tunnels. A group of about eight young men rounded a corner and one took a flash photo of the three or four police standing at that point watching the crowd. Bad idea. The police captain shouted in Arabic, "No photo!" We didn't stop to see how things went but thinking back, I was glad I hadn't tried that.

On Monday, I had taken this picture of the exit sign at the stairs leading up to the Mogamma.

No flash, no attention. Probably wouldn't have been a good idea to take it yesterday, even without the flash.

The best news source I have found locally for what is going on is this English-language edition of the newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm. Yesterday, they published an article titled "Tips for Staying Safe in a Demonstration." The tips include this helpful advice:
Prepare yourself with comfortable clothes, especially shoes which allow you to run fast toward a safe spot when needed. Do not wear bright colors so you don’t stand out in the protest or grab extra attention from the police forces. When picking your outfit, steer clear of hoodies, as anyone can easily grab you by the hood and drag you around while you helplessly try to run away. Scarves are also not a good idea, for the same reason, and long hair should be tied up in a small bun or hidden underneath your t-shirt, not to allow anyone to pull you by it.
Most of this should be familiar to my older readers who remember the '60s. You could find similar advice in "alternative newspapers" from that era, or even the Minnesota Daily. It brings back memories of this photo that I took at the dedication of the LBJ Presidential Library in 1971.

Well, bookmark that link to Al Masry Al Youm, so you can stay in touch with the news. We hear reports locally, from Europe and the U.S. that big demonstrations are planned for tomorrow afternoon following the noon prayers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Renewing our Visas

At the Cairo airport, you can pick up an Egyptian entry visa for $15. This is a very handy thing to do since it saves you the hassle of mailing a larger fee along with your passport to the embassy in the United States. We always enter this way. The downside is that the visa is only good for 30 days and you must make a trip downtown to the Mogamma, the gray government center building, to then extend the visa.

We had decided to renew our visas on Tuesday. Bad choice of days. It turned out that Tuesday was a national police holiday. This meant that nobody would be working. Worse yet, there were rumors of possible anti-government demonstrations.

So we made the trip down on Monday. Here's a picture of the Mogamma from last year's expedition.

The building lies on the large Tahrir Square. The Egyptian Museum is on one side of the square and the Mogamma is on the opposite end. The Arab League and former Nile Hilton flank another side of the square.

We entered the building through the metal detectors. Linda has to put her purse through the scanner. I walk through the metal detector with my cellphone, camera and keys and set off a large buzzer. No one minds. Westerners don't get much attention at security checks here. Just keep moving.

We have the routine down now. Stop and push your way into the copier line. You need two copies of your main page and visa page from your passport. Up to the second floor. Grab one of the bed-sheet forms on the granite counter and fill out name, residence etc. Oh yes, don't forget to designate your religion. "Christian" will do nicely. Now head to the window marked "Fees and Stamps." This will be 11 pounds for one visa, 23 for two. (No, I am not making that up!) This gets you a handful of stamps. Head to window fourteen. After suitable inspection of all the paperwork, your photo will be stapled to the bed-sheet, stamps moistened and applied and then a signature made. We eagerly awaited the approval and the normal, "come back in two hours."

Not today. We were either too late or business was too brisk. Our passports were marked with a number and handed back. "Come back in two days, please."

Yesterday was Tuesday. The police had their holiday, but they all had to work overtime battling the demonstrators. Downtown was pretty much sealed off.

Today we headed down to finish the visa process. Cairo has a lot of police. Many were found throughout the downtown area with clusters in riot gear. about a dozen lined up on each side of the Mogamma entrance. I wanted to take a picture, of course, and started to line up an innocent looking shot of the Arab League Building. A nearby civilian immediately said, "no photos!" Even the "civilians" were police! Plainclothes types.

We went up to the second floor and presented our passports again at window 14 where we were told to go to window 38. The clerk at window 38 found our applications with the matching numbers and now gave us the pleasant "come back in two hours!"

We meandered around for a while and stopped at a sandwich shop that we had seen many times before. It's only a block or two from the museum.

It has both English and Arabic menus posted outside. Two officer-level police also came in at about the same time with serious looking insignia on their shoulders. One was a "three star" guy and the other an "eagle." I understand that an eagle is the next grade above three stars - maybe a captain and a major? If the sandwiches were good enough for them, they would do nicely for us. And besides, the meat should be fresh, the restaurant is right across the street from a butcher shop. The sandwiches were excellent.
Mogamma-07 Mogamma-08

On the way back to the Mogamma, I finally got a picture of a little of the police presence. Look on the right side of this photo at the dark vehicles.

Those trailers are filled with police. Here, let's zoom in so you can see the protective cover over the windows.

There were similar quantities of police on most side streets around the square. Most sidewalks had a line of four or six police taking form as 3:00 approached.

I would like to have stayed around to take more photos but I don't move nearly as fast as I used to. Photojournalism of demonstrators and riots are best left to the younger crowd. Here is a picture I took of the construction equipment in front of what used to be the Nile Hilton which now becoming the Nile Ritz Carlton. On the right is one from yesterday's confrontation by a BBC photographer. It is a great shot. You can tell from the perspective that the photographer used a relatively wide angle lens and was right in on top of the action.

By the way, you may have read that the demonstrations (riots?) continue and that cellphone service and the internet has been cut off here. Not true! I did post this successfully at about 11:00 p.m.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Koshary at Abou Tarek

Yesterday we made our annual trip downtown to the Mogamma to extend our visas for the rest of our stay. This is normally an all day event so we decided to have lunch at Abou Tarek. This is a very famous Koshary restaurant not too far from the center of downtown, but somehow, I have never been there.

Follow this tree-lined street away from the main downtown square and you will soon arrive at the corner where Abou Tarek is located. I soon realized why I had never seen it before. I have always referred to this street as "ball-bearing street." I've been too fascinated by the auto machine shops and ball-bearing stores to ever notice a restaurant.
AbuTarek-5 AbuTarek-4

We were accompanied by a friend who took us up to the second floor where we ordered. Here Linda has topped the pasta and lentil mixture with tomato sauce from the cup and is adding just the right amount of hot sauce from that pitcher to her "small" sized serving. A sprinkling of fried onions will then go on top. Another container holds a mixture of vinegar and garlic to add flavor too. Our friend reminded me to shake that one thoroughly first to stir up the garlic chunks.

Abou Tarek is found in all the guidebooks. Their website lists quite a few references. Here is a CNN reporter filing an on-the-scene report on her lunch.

They are even willing to share the details of their recipe:
Koshary Details

AbouTarek Team wishes happiness for all of you … because there are many ways to make Koshary dish …Here Aboutarek Team will introduce the best way to make it and the ingredients of the most delicious one…

Egyptian Koshary Pasta

We wish you are ready and have the following:


2 cups cooked rice
2 cups cooked penne pasta
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon Ground Cumin , divided
1/2 teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 cup cooked lentils
1 can (15 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper
3 medium yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
2 medium onions, thinly sliced (about 2 cups), optional*

Now AbouTarek Team wish you do the next steps :


1. Combine rice and pasta; spoon in bottom of shallow serving platter. Keep warm

2. Whisk together vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, and garlic powder in a medium bowl. Add cooked lentils and stir to combine. Spoon over rice and pasta.

3. Combine tomatoes, water, sugar, cinnamon, salt, remaining 1/2 teaspoon cumin and red pepper in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat about 5 minutes or until heated through, stirring occasionally. Stir in squash. Spoon tomato mixure over lentil layer. Partially stir tomato mixture into other layers, but do not completely combine all layers. If desired, prepare crisp-brown onions as directed below and add as a topping.

*Cook onions in large skillet with 1 tablespoon oil over high heat, stirring frequently, until brown and slightly crispy, about 10 minutes.

Aboutarek team is keening to make all information are available for you to enjoy good health so …you have to know Nutritional Information:

Nutritional Information
Calories: 169, Fat: 1 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Sodium: 281 mg, Carbohydrates: 34 g, Protein: 7 g

Well, there you have it. Two cups of rice, two cups of pasta and one cup of lentils, but only 169 calories. Wish we could do that at home! It really is delicious.

I noticed that this sharing of the details can cause problems. As we left, I saw that there are a number of signs on the outside of the restaurant. Don't be taken in by cheap imitations! There is only one Abou Tarek.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Satellite TV, Piracy and the Dreambox in Egypt

In the last post, I mentioned that we only have access to free-to-air television channels here at the Cairo condo. I could stop off at one of the OSN (Orbit Showtime Network) offices and buy an access card to slip into our satellite receiver but I've never figured it was worth it. As I understand it, the access cards are about the same price as at home for a monthly package. Why bother when you already get several hundred channels for free including three or four with U.S. movies?

One or two friends have suggested a cheaper alternative. "Get a Dreambox." You pay for the Dreambox, make an internet connection and receive many, many channels for a nominal monthly fee of about $2.

It is actually an interesting form of organized piracy of satellite signals. This article from 2008 in the Daily News says:
Seventy-five percent of pay-TV viewers use illegal connections to get the service at a low cost, resulting in more than 43.2 percent of Egyptian households having access to pay-TV, revealed Egypt Media Survey 2008, which was carried out by Arab Advisors Group.
And that was before the DreamBox got to be popular! Well, I was giving it serious consideration but now I see that OSN, the legitimate supplier, distributed new boxes to all of their paying subscribers and changed their protection system on December 19th. OSN's website now displays this message:

I'm sure that the Dreambox people are hard at work on cracking the new scheme.

But this explains what happened the other night. One of my friends was showing me "the new way we get the pay channels" but nothing was coming through when he clicked on them. I guess he hadn't got the word yet on last month's change.

Packers versus the Bears

Well, the game starts in about 45 minutes and we won't be watching. It's available here on Fox Sports, but that's a pay channel and we only have free TV on our satellite dish.

I've blogged a bit about satellite TV in Egypt in the past. Here, here and here.

I just found a very helpful website for locating sports programming. It is Liveonsat.com

It concentrates on what the rest of the world calls "football" but if you visit the site, you will find this menu along the top.

Click on that item marked "Other Sports" and you will get a series of menus that lead you to U.S. sports such as NFL football.

Here is the entry for tonight's game:

Along the right hand side, you will find a list of satellite broadcast services that are carrying the game. Note Fox Sports. That's the good news. The bad news is that it is in blue - meaning a scrambled pay-channel.

Here is the Super Bowl entry for a couple of weeks from now.

Note the red entries. FREE TV!

Hover your mouse pointer over one of those entries and you will even see which satellites, transponders and the like carry the service. I'll have to re-aim the dish to pick up Hotbird but I'll be able to watch. I am saying "I" instead of "we" because Linda isn't into 2:00 a.m. games.

For tonight, I am just going to have to find someone who will be live-blogging the game. That should be easy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Odds and Ends

Our favorite cat is back.

This is Dusty. She has spent the winter months on our doorstep the past couple of years.

She seems to be spending most of her time with other people who must be feeding her now, though. She keeps an eye on our place and runs down to check when she hears the door. She has a couple of descendants that hang around our door mat pretty regularly. One, we have named Sheba as she sits like a queen upstairs.

I suspect that most of these cats trace their ancestry back to this guy that we have dubbed, "Big Tom." He's usually outside but sometimes comes up to our floor too.


The "Cheena Car" that I blogged about last year doesn't seem to have gone over very well. Friends tell us that people who bought them found it hard to find replacement parts. The nearby dealer who was always on hand when we returned home in the evenings now appears to be closed.
OddsEnds-1-2 OddsEnds-3


We always watch carefully where we step when we are walking the streets here. This open hole shows why. Notice how the cover has fallen into the man-hole. A few days ago we were walking along a major street when a car tire ran over a similar cover spinning it 360 degrees! This one is on our regular daily walk. Yesterday, someone had marked it a bit better, with a bush. You won't find any orange cones here.
OddsEnds-1 OddsEnds-2

Here's another hazard.

I bought a tube of glue to re-hang a 3m hook that came off our tile wall. 3m adhesives may not be up to the climate stress here. Notice the instructions on the back for clean up. Just use a little petrol (gasoline!) to help get the excess off. How many times have you seen the advice "DON'T USE GASOLINE AS A SOLVENT" back home!
OddsEnds-4 OddsEnds-6


I walked over to the State-run gas station today to check on the price of 85 octane petrol, by the way. This is the stuff that powers the Tuk-Tuks, Ladas and Fiats here. It is running 1.42 Egyptian pounds per liter. That works out to 93 cents per gallon. Think about that the next time you fill up.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Mental Visit Back Home

We finished our daily walk around 11:00 a.m. We take a 45 minute jaunt around the neighborhood, sometimes stopping to buy fresh oranges or bananas. The temperature today was 62, perfect for walking. That means it was about 72 out on the back balcony where I usually have my breakfast. The Southern exposure and ceramic tiles give it about a ten degree advantage over the shady side of the building.
snow-1 snow-1-1

I picked up the Amazon Kindle to read the newspapers and became acutely aware of the difference in climate here in Egypt. One article conveyed the good news that it will be fifteen below zero on Thursday night. This will form "good ice" for the U.S Pond Hockey Championships that begin Friday in Minneapolis at Lake Nokomis.

The other article that caught my eye was a report on snowblower thefts in the Twin Cities. Bold, brazen! What else could you call these low-lifes that would take another Minnesotan's defense against the ravages of winter! The story included the sad tale of a two-time loser whose replacement blower was also stolen.

A separate short article provides advice for protecting your own snowblower. It offers five steps that include painting some identification on the blower to make recovery easier. But the final step betrays the writer's lack of actual experience with a snow blower: "block in the snow blower with a vehicle." O, yes by all means, do that!

I picture myself rising in the morning to eighteen inches of new-fallen snow, opening the garage door and thinking, "now, how do I get my snow blower out to the snow!"

I'd be left using my old shovel to dig the vehicle out so that I could move the snow blower.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I'd Like to Visit Egypt, But I Don't Speak the Language

Well, don't worry, Egyptians will speak yours! Most Egyptian children learn English in the early years of grade school, so there will usually be someone nearby that can communicate with you. And any shop owner will have no trouble transacting business in German, French or Spanish. Chinese is the hot new language to learn. I'm told it is quite difficult, but the merchants are adapting.

I only know what I call "taxicab Arabic." Yah-meen, scha-mel and ala-tool. Those mean "right, left, and straight ahead." That seems to be enough to handle getting around in case the driver doesn't speak any English.

OK, but how does that work out in practice? We headed over to Carrefour in Maadi the other night to do some shopping. After picking up a pound of coffee beans at Starbucks, we stopped in at the restaurant on the left for dinner.

The menu is identical to the one you would find at a Chili's back home. I ordered the Chicken-fried Chicken and Linda had the Margarita Chicken. Spicy Southwest Soup and Iced Tea? No problem.

But what if you might want to visit that Carvel Ice Cream shop next door? How would you choose a flavor?
IceCream-1 IceCream-2

I had the Mississippi Mud and Linda had the Coffee Mocha.

It can be a little harder if you are in our part of town and walk into the local Gad. Gad is an Egyptian fast-food operation with delicious sandwiches as well as full lunches. We walked in a few days ago and looked a little lost as we handled the all-Arabic menus. Soon a helpful hostess appeared and handed us another menu in English - and with pictures! About the only problem is knowing to say "take-away" rather than "to go." These pictures are from another Gad that we visited last year:

And if you want to stay and eat upstairs, the hostess will see that your choices are delivered to your table.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh, No! Not Another Electric Light Post.

Yes, it's time to talk about our lighting problems again. I posted a few times on this subject last year. (One of my readers kindly referred to this sort of thing as "very detailed.")

We have a pair of wall sconces in our main living area.

We found one with light and one without shortly after arriving this year. I checked out the bulb, it was fine. A little more peering into the socket revealed a pretty ugly case of corrosion on the socket contacts.

When we were out walking a few days ago, I passed a light bulb shop and stopped to see if they also sold replacement sockets. Sure enough, for four pounds Egyptian, about 69 cents, I could pick up a nice solid plastic and ceramic socket set. I could have had another flimsy brass edition for half that, but this one is what my previous electricians were using. The one on the left is original, on the right, my replacement.
LampFix-03 LampFix-09

I pulled the old unit out and took a good look. I can't tell if this was just corrosion, heat damage from the 100 watt bulb or internal arcing from poor contact. But, I'd say it was past due for replacement.

Maybe this kind of thing is why many visitors to the U.S. wonder why we build our houses out of wood. Concrete, brick and ceramic tile doesn't burn so readily.

After removing the threaded insert from the old socket cap, I began trying to insert it into the new one. No go. It turns out that there is a tiny set screw in the nut on top. I'm way past the age where I need bifocals. I'm at the point where I can't see the little stuff through the bifocals! Fortunately, I have a baby screwdriver and could deal with unsetting and resetting the little screw. Here are both top and bottom views of the socket cap.
LampFix-06 LampFix-05

Things went back together nicely and now we have light again. By the way, there is no UL rating on the socket. I suspect the whole fixture is a bit of a mix of crafts and cultures. If I continue to have heat problems, I suppose I will have to go with one of those "curly-fry" bulbs.

Monday, January 17, 2011

It's Not the Bluebird of Happiness

On our regular walk, I always see a few of these pretty blue birds sitting in the palm trees, ready to swoop down and feast on any garbage lying about.


They look a bit like a crow but with the blue coloring, are obviously something else. It turns out that they are House Crows. Suspected of stowing away from India on ships headed through the Suez Canal, they are pretty common here now. More pictures by other folks, here.

There's Been a Change in the Weather

If you were looking at my earlier post on our visit to the Friday car maket, you might have noticed an ominous appearance in the distant sky:

It look a bit more like Kansas than Cairo! We had heard a couple of cracks of thunder earlier. After ducking under a coffee shop roof for about ten minutes to escape a shower, we headed back toward our car when the dark sky started to rumble again and bigger rain drops started to pelt us. Then hail. Then dime-sized hail. Then quarters!

We joined a few people standing under a roof near the water tower and waited it out. The hail didn't accumulate as it did last year, but there was plenty of rain.

And rain is not something that the streets of Cairo deal with very effectively.

Do you know any other occasional visitor who has experienced two hailstorms in Cairo?