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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Epithets and Epaulettes - at the Telephone Company

We were back at work today on our project to obtain a landline telephone here in Cairo so as to obtain a reliable, high-speed and high capacity DSL data connection.

You may recall that last year, I was excited to see Telecom Egypt laying new wire in our neighborhood.  Lack of lines was our barrier to getting onto the network then.

Last year's trip to the local central office ("Centraaaal" is the descriptive term  in phonetic Arabic) yielded only the possibility that we could get a line after April.  This is the central office where we returned today.

A few differences from last year are in evidence.  You can no longer park directly in front of the building and a "sniffer dog" checks out all cars parking across the street.  What used to pass for a parking lot is now mostly occupied by a snack and beverage vendor to keep vehicles at a distance.   What a sad commentary on life in the twenty-first century!

We parked across the street next to a Betty Crocker delivery truck which brought considerable attention from the sniffer dog and his handler.  Linda pronounced the dog to be a good portion pit-bull.  He seemed quite friendly but not an animal you would want to challenge.
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Inside the office, there was new system in place to provide improved customer service.  Depending on what business you might be attending to, you take a number that puts you in one of three different queues.  Since we were looking for a new contract, we were placed in the z-queue.  Here the clerk at window 6 is serving ticket number 71 in the z-queue.  The female clerks wear uniform red headscarves and the guys wear red sweaters.

With two passports, our purchase contract for the flat and a very patient and helpful friend, we only needed about fifteen minutes to fill out all of the paperwork.  Warning: do not attempt this without the patient and helpful friend!

With our contract and new landline number in hand, we were ready for the next step.  That would take place at the Telecom Egypt Data central office about a mile away.  As we approached the building there, I noticed a mailbox and post office at a side entrance.  Of course!  The Egyptian phone system is built on the old French bureaucratic model of the PTT (Postes, Télécommunication et Télédiffusion.)
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The number of people waiting for service in the large first floor waiting area was certainly well over one hundred.  The number of chairs was substantially less.  Picture the DMV office at the Hennepin County Government Center at lunchtime.  Once again, having a wise and patient friend in charge is a must.  He got us a ticket for the correct queue and knew there was a nearly empty waiting room with chairs available on the second floor.

This time we were in the H-queue.  A computerized voice would periodically call out a queue letter and number and the window number for service.  I will now always remember the Arabic word for window, sheback.

After about twenty minutes of waiting, we heard loud shouting coming from the first floor.  Shouting (as we would call it) is nothing unusual here.  It just demonstrates intensity of feeling and is commonplace in conversation.  Consider it a cultural characteristic.  But this sounded more like epithets and accusations, so, after a while I decided to go downstairs and check it out.

An older gentlemen (meaning like, maybe, my age) was quite upset that people who had arrived after he had were being served.  He was accusing them of having paid to improve their position.  Two of the building security staff, with blue epaulettes on their shoulder and one policeman with black epaulettes on his shoulder were calming him down and explaining the multiple queue system.  The shouting and pointing finally subsided.  I am going to have to upgrade to a smartphone so that I can get pictures of such goings-on without being too obvious.

We eventually signed a contract (on about five different pages) for DSL service.  Now we just have to wait for installation.  --  Stay tuned!  Total time today from start to finish was around five hours.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Call Me Ishmael!

Yesterday we had been out to visit a friend who lives just a few hundred yards away, behind our building.  We were returning as the sun was setting, passing along a narrow street lined with high-rise buildings, most with a fairly small footprint.  We have been down the street several times before in previous years.  There are only a few small shops - a barber shop and a laundry are usually busy.

We had just passed the laundry when I heard a loud voice boom out, "Hello!"  "Where you from?"  We were in no hurry, so paused to visit.

Two men were sitting inside a tiny shop smoking shisha.  We walked toward them and I replied, "America!"


"Welcome!  Which state?" replied the one in the red sweatshirt.  "Come have some tea."

"My name is Ishmael. Call me Ishmael."He said with laughter.  He was a driver for the U.S. Air Force, Andrews Air Force base.  (One never knows how much to believe here.)

"I have a Belgian wife,"  he continued.  Just in case I doubted this, he dialed her up on his phone.

"Hello, my darling wife," he said, and introduced us, handing the phone to Linda.

"She spends one week a month here in Egypt," he explained to me as Linda and Grace chatted.

Grace will be coming to Cairo on the 20th of February.  We are invited for barbecued chicken on the roof of the building with Ishmael and Grace on the 22nd.

Ishmael used to be in the travel business when the times were very good.  (There are a lot of folks with that background.)  "After all the 'noise' on the 25th, nobody came."  (He's referring to the 2011 revolution that began on January 25.)

Demonstrating the flexibility that most Egyptians seem to have, Ishmael weathered the travel depression by moving into real estate development.  He owns two buildings, the one he is sitting in and the one next door.  Being a curious individual, I asked, "Are your buildings fully occupied?"

"I have a place for sale in this building!  Would you like to see it?"  (You knew he was going to try to sell us something, didn't you?)  "And, it has a surprising price."

Soon we were on the elevator on our way to the eleventh floor.  Two bedrooms, one bath, about 1100 square feet.  There is only one flat on each floor.  Nice privacy and there are three balconies, each with a pyramids view.

I was ready to move for the quiet, the shorter trip to the supermarket and other shops and, especially,  the view.  However, Linda has pronounced the floor-plan unlivable.  "And the tiny mudbuck! (Kitchen)."

We returned to Ishmael's office on the street.

"How much is the surprising price?" I inquired.

"225,000 Egyptian Pounds, ($28,125)" he noted, as he handed me some sugar for my tea.

Terms include a discount to 220,000 EGP for cash or 125,000 ($15,625) down and two annual payments of 50,000 EGP.

If you are looking for a quiet retirement spot with a view at a good price, get on this now - this place will be going fast.

We expect to give you more news about my new best friend, Ishmael, and Grace after the barbecue on the 22nd.

Here is a view of the building from down the block:


I should give you a weather update since that is a popular question from our friends back in Minnesota.  When we arrived on January 9th, daytime highs were in the mid 60s and lows mid 50s.  We have recently experienced a cold wave with the temperature falling to 45 one recent night and the high reaching only 58 degrees on a couple of days.

Along with the cold (expected to pass in a couple of days) we had rain a couple of days ago.  Rain, in our section of the city, means muddy streets.

We were headed over to a friend's home a just after that rain had passed.  Here Linda is preparing to enter the courtyard surrounding that home and you can see the mud.


We were about to visit the suburbs so I thought a description of homestyles might be in order.  This friend lives in a "detached" villa.  There are not many of these within the city, as most have been cleared away in favor of high-rise structures.  These high-rise buildings containing flats such as ours are interspersed with an occasional villa remaining from many years ago.


On this day, we were headed for the suburb of New Giza about fifteen or twenty miles outside of central Cairo.  This is one of the "satellite cities" much despised by the world's urban planners and much loved by the young, upwardly mobile families. 

You could probably mistake New Giza for a suburb of Phoneix.

I have always had a hidden desire to stop and visit each home to find out the occupations of the owners.  There are no city directories here.  But on the way, we passed the local offices of KPMG and Microsoft.  I imagine that the usual assortment of banking, insurance and manufacturing executives account for a large part of the ownership.


The major difference from a typical American "villa" is the fence.  You might notice the fence surrounding both the city home on the muddy street and the suburban home.  Over the years, when we have hosted international guests, one of their frequent observations has been that our homes seldom have fences separating the properties.

We prefer the city lifestyle here which offers shops of all sorts in the immediate neighborhood and easy access to the many city taxis.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Light Burned Out

It's hard to believe that it has been five years since my last light bulb socket post.  It seems like only yesterday.

Linda had to eat her breakfast under natural light yesterday morning.  She flipped the switch to turn on the light ("open the light" is the phrase used here) and poof!  She saw a flash of light in the fixture followed by darkness as the circuit breaker blew.  The bulb had been flickering occasionally since we arrived this year.  Tightening the bulb in the socket relieved the problem temporarily.  I am never one to rush into a repair that can be put off until later.

This is a companion fixture to the one referenced in the post linked above.  The fixtures were never designed for electricity and probably do not have adequate ventilation for the 100 watt bulbs that we use in them.

I dismantled the fixture and looked over the socket.  I guess the poor contact was generating the flickering and some heat.

I notice that the socket has the dreaded "Made in China" label.  It is generally believed here that the Chinese make a different grade of goods when the order is destined for Egypt than when destined for Europe or the U.S.

Fortunately I had a spare socket in the electrical shoe box and even had brought some tiny wire-nuts along on this trip just for such emergencies. 

We are now back in business.

It's Time to Visit Egypt

Good news!  Dr. Khaled El-Enany, General director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, has pronounced the experiment of allowing photography in the museum to be a success.  Photography will now be allowed on an ongoing basis.
"There will be photography ticket for 50 Egyptian pounds for both Egyptians and non-Egyptians. The tickets are being printed at the moment and will be available in the next few days."

We expect that this should encourage some of the readers of this blog to begin arranging for flights to Cairo!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Linda Describes the Wedding

Weddings can be extremely elaborate affairs in Egypt in expensive hotels with orchestras, amazing buffets and over the top decorations but because this was a celebration in a village it was held in the street in front of the bride's house. We arrived about an hour before the festivities so were were ushered into the bride's house and offered tea. We were left alone in the huge sitting room with its typical village decor.
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The bride's bedroom, where she was prepping, is just off the sitting room. Numerous females came and went after visiting the bride in her room. The curtain over the door has nothing to do with the wedding. It's just more of that village decor.

The street was blocked off by the large high tent strung inside with colored lights that they call " christmas". The kind with little bulbs encased in a plastic tube. The tent sections were ringed with rented chairs.  The tent was divided into two sections, one for men and one for women but men and women could freely go between them. It was like most of my family gatherings--women together and men together. The DJ was elevated on the men's side. The music was canned  with a live drummer (typical western drum set) and it was LOUD.

The music was Egyptian. It seemed like popular music because I saw many women singing along as they danced. Sometimes a young male (cousin, brother, groom, friend maybe) would come into women's side and dance with a sister, a cousin, etc. but most of the dancing was segregated. The dancing was sometimes circle dancing and sometimes not. Sometimes circling around the bride who danced inside circle, sometimes she was included in circle.

Wow, can those women dance! I don't get it. Just because they live here, can they dance like that? I certainly can't move like that. Their style of dancing is kind of like belly dancing and in quite a sexy manner. They can really shake their booties and other body parts. And some have quite large bodies to shake. 

There was an 11 yr old cutie who was a fantastic dancer. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
I only saw one other adult lady with uncovered hair and two with faces veiled, one of whom is our friend. Covering is not required and not expected of me, foreigner that I am.

When one face covered lady danced she did so in full cover. Later I saw her lift the face section to look at some photos and then put it back down. Others danced in whatever covering they wore to the wedding. I was not out of place wearing pants. Some young women wore jeans and no one showed any legs, even young girls. If they wore skirts they had tights on. Remember that it was outside and it was in the upper 50's so it could have been weather related. Some females wore long glittery dresses and heels.

We didn't know if food would be served so we went without dinner. We were invited for 6:00 pm. They served Pepsi, chocolates and juice boxes. We've discovered it's better to go to a function with an empty stomach so if food is offered we don't become miserable.  I wasn't particularly hungry when we got home at 10:30 but Tom was so we ate rice, breakfast sausages and a banana. After nearly 4 hours I had seen enough. We got a ride home with our friend and his son and they returned to the festivities.

A similar party was scheduled for the following night put on by groom and his family in another location. We did not have an invitation to that celebration.  After that party the "husband will take the bride to their house (apartment)" even though they are legally married this night.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

At the Wedding

We arrived at the bride's home around 6:30.  As is typical in this part of the city, the narrow street in front of the house was blocked off with tenting to form a reception room.  It is not at all unusual to find a street in the village blocked off for either a funeral or wedding.

The tenting created one large room for the ladies and a smaller open-ended room for the band and DJ.  The men were consigned to chairs in the street beyond the tented area.

Fortunately, there is a small mosque on the street next to the bride's home.  Here the bride's father  would give his permission to the groom to "take" his daughter and the papers would be signed by the men.  That process was to begin inside once the final evening prayer time was over.  We were escorted to the family's large reception room to wait with tea while prayer time passed.  We joined the crowd in the ladies tent as the family men began to gather in the tiny mosque.

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Once the men of the families had completed the marriage in the mosque, it was only necessary for the bride to sign her papers.  The Imam brought the necessary paperwork out to her.  That is her mom in black and gold looking on approvingly.

The bride signed and applied her thumbprint in the appropriate spot as her friends captured the moment on their phone and tablet cameras. 
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With all the paperwork done, the music began and the happy couple danced on the ladies' side of the tent.  A few male brothers and cousins also danced briefly.  After that it was almost exclusively women dancing on the ladies' side and men on the gents' side of the great divide.

I retreated to the gents' side to enjoy the very, very loud techno-sound from Mr. Habashy, the DJ for the evening.  I have to say that the accompanying drummer was exceedingly talented.  This is the broad view of the gents' side.  Lit almost exclusively by a single high-powered fluorescent curlicue bulb, it is quite a challenge to photograph.


From time to time, family members passed through the crowd distributing Pepsi and mango juice cartons.

I spent most of the evening sitting with a young man named Ahmed and his friends.  Between Ahmed's English, my Arabic and the loud music we really only established Americans are "good people," Ahmed is a great dancer and the music was quite good.

I will leave it to Linda to describe the wedding from the ladies tent point of view in a later post.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Jewelry Store or the Sewer Project?

We had been invited to attend the wedding of a good friend's niece today.  We needed to arrive at our friend's brother's home - or at least close by.  Fortunately, another friend had stopped by today and would take us up to "the village" of Nazlet el Sammen near the pyramids.  We knew that we probably wouldn't be able to locate the actual house on our own.

We asked our friend drop to just drop us off, planning to call the other friend for final directions.

He offered to drop us in front of a well-known jewelry store - or take us up to "the sewer project."  Both of these landmarks would help our other friend locate us.  The suggestion was made that the jewelry store should be very safe since there was a man with a machine gun standing out front.  He's the one in the middle!
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Soon our other friend arrived to pick us up with a young driver in a Tuk-tuk.  We all squeezed in and were off for the final few blocks of the trip.

More on the wedding tomorrow.

The Hot Item in Electronics Stores

Walking along "Electronics Row," as described in the post below, I was struck by the large number of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) security cameras on display this year.  Every shop had a shelf full of them, sometimes almost the entire window was filled.

It turns out that there is now a mandatory requirement for all retail stores to have surveillance video capability and to save the recorded video for a week.

Checking the Electronics

After buying a fishing pole, we continued down the street.  This is a long block filled with electronics stores.  At the end of the street I paused to take a picture.  There are probably two or three dozen similar shops around the corner to the left.

Don't expect to go inside and browse the aisles of something like a Radio Shack.  What you see in the window is pretty much what is for sale inside.  So let's take a look in the window of one.
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The big items for sale this year are HD Satellite receivers and security systems.  The price of a widescreen TV is continuing to decline.  When we were over at Carrefour a few days ago and as part of their 13th anniversary sale, 40-inch TVs have been marked down 600 pounds to a rock-bottomed 3499 EGP (about $440)  Just about every third cart had a 40 or 49 inch television in it.

It is interesting to see that television sets are sold by the inch around the world. 

With the new TVs, folks are upgrading to an HD satellite receiver.  Some may be adding a second LNB to their dish to pick up a second satellite.  This can involve some risky work out on the balcony.  I hired a man to install our second LNB.  All I had to do was hold his arm while he crawled over the railing and adjusted the aim.

We get about 500 free channels from Nilesat and another 150 from the European Hotbird.  You say you don't have a satellite dish at home?  You would be very out of place here.
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Sunday, January 17, 2016

At the Tackle Shop in Cairo

I needed a fishing rod.  I know, it's a bit unusual, what with us being in the desert here.  But there are fish in the Nile and in the lake down by Fayoum and up on the Mediterranean at Alexandria.  Actually, it's a gift, not for my own use.  But where would I find one?

I asked our favorite guide, Roshdy, and he quickly came up with a local fishing tackle shop.  It's downtown between Tahrir Square and Talat Harb.  We have probably walked past it a dozen times without noticing it.

It's not Cabela's, or Joe's Sporting Goods in St. Paul.  No, it's not even that little bait shop just off the Interstate at Harris, MN.    This place doesn't even have a sign over the window.  This is truly a "mom and pop" operation.  They were both there as was their son.

They have rods and reels - and note the Magnum Rapala.

Dawn at the Pyramids

Since that group of bicyclers mentioned in the post below was going to be "riding across Cairo" on Friday morning, I thought that we could go over by the pyramids and watch them depart.  It turns out that they aren't actually riding across Cairo.  This is probably a good thing - from a safety point of view.  They began at one of the pyramids inside the controlled access area and rode down the hill.  They were loaded onto a bus and their bikes onto a truck for the ride across the city where presumably, they unloaded and began their ride in relative safety from the insane Cairo drivers.

We did, however, gather a few pictures of the pyramids in the warm orange light of dawn, but with a bit of haze obscuring the scenery.

Just as we arrived at the western entrance, a few tourists were also arriving to take "selfies" with the pyramids in the background.  A camel was also passing by.
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I walked up to the gate and took a couple of pictures.  This was a rare chance to to have a picture without people as it was two hours before the gate opened.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Something Interesting at the Vodafone Store

While we were at the Vodafone store buying data connections a couple of days ago, we should have checked on our voice phones.  Our phone are not exactly "smart."  They are pretty much what the typical Egyptian shepherd carries with him.  Cheap, rugged and reliable, however.

Yesterday, both our phones suddenly quit making calls - we could receive calls, but not call out.  The phone displayed this helpful message:

We headed back to the Vodafone store.  While I was in the queue to deal with the technical problem - I was stuck behind a Canadian who was buying a data-line (see post below!), Linda struck up a conversation with a woman from Germany.

It turns out that we had run into five people staying at a nearby hotel who were preparing to bicycle from Cairo to Capetown.  If that sounds a bit like a good book title, it is - and a darned good read.  But this group is going on a better organized and assisted version of the trip.

TDA Global Cycling offers this grand bicycle tour departing from the Pyramids Friday morning and arriving in Capetown on May 14th.  Only fifteen of this years participants plan to make the entire journey but about thirty will do part of it.  Check out the TDA website for many more details.
 Our original trans-continental journey and flagship expedition crossing Africa from north to south, covering almost 12,000 km in four months. This will be the 14th edition of the Tour d’Afrique – a test of mind, body, and bicycle. Traveling through 10 countries in all, you will cycle along the Nile past ancient temples, through the Sudanese desert, and up and down the biblical landscapes of Ethiopia’s rugged Simian Mountains. After crossing the Equator in Kenya, you will pedal past legendary Mount Kilimanjaro, to Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls, and along the edges of the magnificent Kalahari and Namib deserts, en route to the finish of your epic journey in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa.
Maybe after Linda gets her second knee replacement in place ...