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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tom and Linda - Well Known Names

I don't think I have ever mentioned that both of our first names are well known in Egypt.  Linda always brings to mind the familiar old song, "Linda, Linda, Ya Linda."

"Tom" is the Arabic word for garlic.  This local fast-food chain features the word prominently in its title.  ("Basal" means onion.)

These are great conversation starters.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Price of Bricks is Headed Up

You don't have to drive very far on The Ring Road circling the Cairo metropolitan area to realize that bricks are the key building material here.

In fact, if you watch one of these building going up over a period of time,

you will quickly see that brick, cement and re-bar are the raw ingredients.
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 So let's talk about the price of bricks.  It displays the economic and political issues facing the Egyptian government in stark terms.  Like the other basic commodities involved in construction, brick manufacturing and transportation is energy-intensive.  Fuel costs have long been subsidized in Egypt.  As the government has poured subsidies into gasoline and diesel fuel to keep them around a dollar a gallon, cars have proliferated and demand skyrocketed.  The subsidies are killing the government.  

For several months, the Egyptian government has been trying to negotiate a loan agreement with the International Monetary Funds (IMF).  The IMF has a couple of conditions in mind that are holding up progress.  One is balancing the Egyptian budget.  (Good thing the U.S. doesn't want to borrow from the IMF!)  A big part of that is to be accomplished by ending fuel subsidies. 

The government just announced a fifty percent price increase for fuel oil supplied to brick and cement factories.  The brick factories promptly went on strike.  Now I have also heard that the price of bricks has escalated from 160 EGP per thousand to 600 EGP per thousand.  If true, that certainly reflects something other than a fifty percent increase in fuel prices.  But logic is uncommon here.  Whatever the cause, there are five million people here employed in construction - roughly the same number as in tourism.  Things may get a lot worse before they get better.

A Visit to Dandy Mall

We were offered a ride to Dandy Mall last night and naturally said yes.  It is out in 6th October not too far from the Mall of Arabia.  It's anchored by both the Carrefour hypermarket and the British department store, Marks and Spencer.  The mall is bigger than City Centre in Maadi where we usually shop but the Carrefour is smaller.

People often ask why we don't shop there instead of Maadi but the traffic to and from 6th October is usually brutal.  Last night around 9-10 it wasn't too bad.  The mall has a good directory right at the main entrance.

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There aren't nearly as many recognizable American store names as at the MOA.  But we did spot this Paris Hilton shop.  This style of handbag is very popular here even on the dusty streets in our "low rent" part of town.

The mall still had plenty of Valentine's day decorations hanging in the center court.

On the way back into Cairo, traffic was tied up for a bit as we neared the pyramids.  There was quite a collection of police and their vehicles.  A two star officer seemed to be in charge.  A couple of patrolmen stood with AK-47s keeping a watchful eye on things.  Our friend and host thought it was just a "blind" stop to check IDs but I suspect it might have had something to do with this story.  How that group got to "south of Cairo" while going from Marsa Matrouh to the Sinai is something only an Egyptian could understand, by the way.

The Coffee Maker Quit

You may recall that I bought a new coffee maker about a month ago.  Two days ago it quit working.  I suspected the plug adapter that I had purchased to fit the "British" plug into the Egyptian socket and took a close look.
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Hey somethings been cooking besides the coffee!  I opened it up and saw that it relied on pressure between screws and contacts.  Yes, one of the internal screws was loose, and the plastic a bit deformed.  Looks like Mr. Sparky's been there too.  he definitely took the shine off the head of one screw.
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When I bought a replacement last night, I noticed that they also came in 2-packs and 3-packs.  Maybe I should always keep a spare around.

Made in China, sold in Egypt.  Americans have no idea what comfort they live in thanks to Underwriters Labs, Consumer Reports and the like.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Traveling in Egypt Can Be Dangerous

That reality was brought home to us today when we saw the link on The Drudge Report that read, "18 tourists killed when hot-air balloon plummets 1,000 feet into Valley of the Kings ..."

The link took us to the UK Daily Mail on-line with lots of details, pictures and of course, in this era, even video.

The hot-air balloons are beautiful to watch in the early morning light in Luxor as they drift above the temples.

And if you are on an early morning tour, you might be lucky enough to see one drift almost directly overhead as you walk through the Temple of Hatchepsut.
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But we have seen the work of too many Egyptian craftsmen as I've documented on this blog.  The high-wire acts performed by construction workers and daring-do exhibited by drivers throughout the country suggest to us that these balloons are best enjoyed from the ground.

In the UK Mail article, one victim of a previous crash says:
'I cannot believe this has happened again. They promised to tighten safety procedures after my crash. Flights were stopped for a time.

'These balloons are just too unstable. There is not enough training of staff. There were about 22 or 23 in my balloon when it crashed and maybe there was too many then and too many in today's accident.'

Mrs Lea's injuries included a fractured spine, a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a broken shin.

Her balloon hit a mobile phone transmission tower after a strong gust of wind, sending the balloon crashing to the ground.

Mrs Lea was dragged along the ground and then left in a field for an hour.
That's a good thing to keep in mind and balance with their photo caption," For many tourists, an early morning flight over The Valley Of The Kings is the highlight of their holiday."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Night on Faisal Street

In spite of anything you may have read, Cairo is still a nighttime shopper's paradise.  Yes, the area around Tahrir square is blocked off as the government and protesters negotiate for possession.  The locals stay far away.

But walk any neighborhood after dark and the tea and shisha cafes are buzzing.  The fruit vendors are hawking bananas and oranges.  And parents have their young boys in the barbershops at 10:30.  A couple of nights ago we spent a couple of hours on Faisal Street while looking for that Om Ali.

Faisal is one of the two heavily traveled streets that traverse the eight or so miles beween downtown Cairo and the pyramids area.  It is the one marked in yellow on this map.

Faisal street has to be experienced.  Words just aren't adequate.  It's key features are lights, traffic and people.  Traffic is unbelievable during the day and then gets a lot worse after dark.  The area near the El Tawheed & El Nour department store is a good place to exit your taxi and proceed on foot.

Amora Lingere is located right next door.

If that doesn't make your head spin while walking among the scarved and veiled ladies of Cairo, I don't know what will.  I guess there must be a time and a place for everything.

Displays on the sidewalks offer everything from shoes to furniture.
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Side streets offer a shopping experience similar to a state fair, complete with cotton candy.


Egyptian TV Hokum

By the time I got our satellite dish properly aimed and the receiver re-programmed this year, I found that we now receive a total of 540 free channels.  There are about a hundred that are "test" or otherwise vacant, so the real count is probably around 450 or so.

I blogged about the setup back on this post in 2009 where I originally had the dish aimed at the European Hot Bird satellite instead of Nilesat.  Now, you may be wondering just how an enterprising broadcaster is going to make money in this world of free television.  Hot Bird has "polskiporn" to generate some solid revenue but what about Nilesat?  Sure there are a few shopping channels but what else?

We had a friend over for the evening a few days ago and I posed this question to him about the Maestro channel, located right about in the middle of our 540 channels.

"What is this?  What's going on?"

It turns out that it is a "game show" of sorts.  The host on the right is offering $15,000 to the first caller who can identify the difference between the two pictures being displayed.  We watched for a few minutes as calls rolled in.

"The eyes?"  "NO!"

"The hair?"  "NO!"

And so it went for ten minutes or so.  I looked closely.
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One hand has three fingers on the phone, the other only two.

"Shall we call?" I said.

"Sure, give me your phone," said my friend.

Yes, those listed numbers, each for a different middle-eastern country such as Kuwait and Iraq are the equivalent of our "900" numbers.

The next night there was a different picture.

But check the hands again - one lacks a thumb.
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And no one besides us ever seems to figure out the answer.

I Learned a New Word

Last night we headed out to visit a friend who had invited us for dinner.  We hailed a taxi and found a "new taxi" but with an old driver who wanted to negotiate a rate.  We did the usual song and dance including my "walk away" and settled on twenty pounds for the twelve pound trip.  I'm a generous tipper since I can't imagine a worse job than driving a hack in Cairo.

The driver was unusually courteous, moving the front passenger seat up so that Linda had room for her feet which also left no room for his empty water bottle.  He tossed that out the window onto the street in front of our apartment.

"Where from?  German?" he said.

"America," I replied.

"Obama," he exclaimed.

Well, I can do that too.  "Morsi!" I said.

"Morsi, ****!" he replied, using the Arabic word you would expect to hear when someone just discovered that they locked their keys inside the car. 

I always try to learn a few new words on each trip and a good vulgarism certainly may come in handy.

Our driver loved President Kennedy and, like most people of his age, very fondly remembered the Sadat era.

At the end of the trip I gave him the twenty-five pounds that we had argued over so hard at the start.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Looking for Om Ali

We set out last night on a quest to find Cairo's best Om Ali.  Om Ali is a delicious dessert made from milk, cream, sugar, butter and filo dough.  It's frequently topped with nuts and raisins.  What's not to like in that combination?  A little more on its history (and a recipe) can be found here.

We had heard that Saber, a well-known dessert restaurant, had a branch on Faisal Street although we hadn't seen it in three or four trips along the street during this stay.  With typically vague Egyptian directions and the advice to "just ask anyone!" we began the search.

No one along the street seemed to recognize the name Saber (Just say "saab" and swallow most of the rest of it except a bit of the "r").  But we got several recommendations to try El Malky.  We kept looking.  Following the directions from a couple of youngsters selling all brands of cigarettes, I ended up at this "deli."

They had Om Ali and I figured it looked good enough for us to quit searching.  The price was good.  Four pounds, Egyptian, and if we bought four, the fifth was free!  I bought it.  More suggestions from the street were obtained.  No Saber, but everyone wants us to hit El Malky.  So we did.
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El Malky is a busy spot.  Notice that the sign indicates your credit card is good here.  It should be.  The price was fourteen pounds for a piece.  And, no "five for four" deal either.  But it came in a fancy carryout box and you do get pre-packaged nuts and golden raisins.

Here are the two versions after we got them home.  El Malky's is on the right.
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The final verdict?  Although both are delicious, we'll go with the cheap one and add our own raisins and nuts in the future.

And Saber?  It turns out that they closed the Faisal Street branch some time ago.  We'll have to wait until our next trip downtown to check it out.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Pyramids of Egypt

It occurred to me that I haven't ever put together a comprehensive portrait of the pyramids on this blog.  To help out the Chamber of Commerce, I'll do so.  (Click any picture to get to a larger version.)

Many visitors to Cairo are surprised to discover how close to town the Great Pyramids of Giza are.

They are named, moving from left to right in that picture:  Menkaure, Khafre, Khufu.  Sometimes the right two are also called by their Greek version of those names, Cephron and Cheops.  Wikipedia has a good map of the area with all of its features here. Khafre and Khufu make great photographic subjects.  As the daylight changes, their appearance changes too.  Night time adds another dimension.
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And that cap, which can look smooth from the distance, is really quite rough.
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You can only appreciate the size of the stones when you approach the base.  Otherwise, there is nothing to give you a sense of proportion.
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The pyramid of Khufu offers similar contrasts between day and night.  Since it is the tallest, it was frequently climbed in the not too distant past.  Climbers went up along the corner with help from experienced guides.
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Leaving these behind and moving fourteen miles to the Memphis / Sakkara area brings you to the earlier step pyramid and the bent pyramids.
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In the same area, the Red Pyramid is particularly attractive because it is less frequented by large numbers of tourists.
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And really off the beaten path, you will find the Hawara pyramid at Fayoum. 

I have more details on other posts on this blog.

Giza pyramids.
Sakkara area pyramids.
Hawara pyramid.