Go with the Flow ….newbies guide to Cairo

You’ve done it, you have taken the plunge and moved to Cairo. Maybe you have been out on a reconnaissance mission or if you are very brave you have arrived blind, and what a time to be here. All of you will have been watching the Arab Spring unfold in your living rooms across the globe, and if like me you have googled Cairo to death you will have formed your own opinion. Well a word of warning….forget it, for any preconceptions you may have will be swept aside within a matter of weeks.

Cairo is a wonderful, crazy, miss match of contradictions, heart wrenching poverty, next door to designer retailers and each of you will need to find your own balance. How you choose to go about it will either enrich your life giving you life long friends and memories, or have you yearning for home. So, take a deep breath, head out with an open mind, and instruct your sense of humor to be on full alert, for the secret to surviving Cairo is to not take it personally.

The people who you meet on a daily basis are not out to wind you up, well not intentionally, not the taxi drivers, nor the microbus drivers nor any of the other drivers, they think how they drive is fine and who are we to say. Look for the positives, you can park anywhere the car fits for a tiny sum, yes 1le is acceptable, there are no traffic wardens, and if you miss your turn off a quick u turn or a bit of reversing usually sorts it. Petrol is sooooo cheap so go explore.

Ladies, cover up, you will save a fortune on sun cream during the day and mosquito repellant at night, you will even save on the botox too for those wrinkles come a calling pretty fast out here, it’s a no brainer. The weather is guaranteed, full on sunshine day in and day out, slip into your bikini at the weekend and oil yourself up, those vest tops when you are out for a walk just give you tan lines and that is never a good look.

If you are heading to the shops don’t bring a list, you are sure to be disappointed, you won’t manage to get all the items, and certainly not in one shop. Just head out with the remit to get something for the dinner for the next couple of nights, see what looks fresh and go for it.

Invest in a small camera and keep it about your person at all times. One with a sports option is ideal as this allows you catch snapshots from moving vehicles, and believe me you will not be able to explain to friends and family the magical sights you will see on a daily basis. I am not talking pyramids here, I’m talking about the five guys on a motorbike, the full house contents on the back of a pickup and the tradesman fitting the air-conditioning unit 11 stories up whilst hanging by a thread.

Everyone in Cairo stares, remember dont take it personally. They are not just staring at you they stare at each other too. If you are in the car and the bunch of guys in the adjacent pick up have decided you are the focus of their attention then smile, wave back. You will be rewarded with the biggest grins, take out your camera, although obviously not if you are driving, they will pose for you and probably get their phones out to capture you taking a photo of them.

Egyptians love kids, it’s their big soft spot. If you are lucky enough to be blessed with a couple of blond cuties you will be the centre of attention. First off explain to the said cuties that Egyptians think they are gorgeous. Tell them they think you look like David Beckham or Cinderella or some other age appropriate hero so they feel special and they will accept the stares and impromptu conversations more readily. You may have a diva in the making but this is beyond the realm of my advice.

If you didn’t manage to bring all the furniture you require then scour the Internet, print out a picture of what you want and jot down the measurements. Ask around, your driver, bowaab, the guy in the local shop or some other longer time served expat, you can have it made for a fraction of the price you would pay at home. Be very clear about what you want as they like to add twiddly bits if they think it looks too plain, if you are into twiddly bits this is great if not well you will grow to love it anyway.

If you are coming from colder climates all this heat and possibly a touch of the pharohs revenge will make you lose weight. Do not despair the tailors here are amazing you can have anything altered for a pittance, again ask around, they are excellent at copying too, not just clothes, witness all those designer handbags on display at very reasonable prices.

Learn the language at least some basics and definatley the numbers. Being able to communicate even in the most simplistic form can lead to some interesting encounters. Cairo is a frustrating, time consuming city where even the most ordinary task can take what feels like a lifetime, but, and this is the big one you will not change it. Don’t fight back against it, they have enough on their plate to be getting on with at the moment, chill out, go with the flow and it will all work out Inshalaah!

Bensons and Broomsticks

We have some beautiful photographs of the Nile, and even if I say so myself, they are very arty, with a soft focus lens depicting a shimmering mist gently lapping it’s banks, taken at what appears to be day break on a crisp winter morning, black and white stills, very atmospheric and hiding a multitude of sins.

This is Cairo and Well……… we don’t get crisp winter mornings and certainly not moisture saturated mist that wraps you in a blanket of cool……oh no what we have is smog so thick you can chew on it leaving your mouth with the aftertaste of Marlboro and diesel. It is just as well I smoke Marlboro for if it was Bensons and Hedges flavor I would not be a happy camper, and I’m not too keen on the diesel after burn.

Even buildings a few months old take on the veneer of grime usually associated with listed historical beauties in need of a little sandblasting. Cairo is filthy there is simply no other way to put it. From the piles of rubbish along the pavements, surrounded with street cats and dogs sorting through the pickings, to the dead animals along the roadside, builders rubble everywhere it’s not a very pretty place to be, and architecturally it’s a disaster, all in all it’s a fairly ugly city.

You have to give them full marks for trying but there are a couple of government initiatives that just take me to the fair.  Take the road sweepers for one. Now dont be picturing mechanized machines no……..we are talking people here. They are out every morning, big squads of them, they are easy to identify with their ” Euro 2000 ” high-vis vests that obviously came in a job lot after the tournament was over, or maybe they were ordered from Egypt and just weren’t  ready in time?……………a distinct possibility.

Anyway,  I watch them every day sweep the same stretch of road with their hand made broomsticks  that look like Quidditch  rejects from “Harry Potter”  collecting the sand into little piles along the roadside. But therein lies the problem, you see they are road sweepers when really they should enlarge their job title to sweepers. Maybe then they would tackle the pavements and lift the rubbish that they studiously ignore 6 inches away from their nose, as it doesn’t fall within their job description. If it’s not on the road then it’s not their department, and not a union in sight.

After the revolution there was a clean up Cairo campaign organized by the youth and various community associations. You could see the difference within days, but this campaign evolved into a painting initiative and now the cleaning has stopped we are left with very poorly painted kerb stones in various combinations of red white and black. Fortunately the grime should reclaim the streets soon and cover the wobbly lines and paint splattered roads that have resulted.

On the subject of painting you have to see them paint the lamp-posts. This involves a ladder of approximately the same quality as the broomsticks, homemade again,  and a man in silver overalls (i am unsure of the original colour but suffice to say the ” tin man” from the wizard of Oz springs to mind ) with a bucket attached to his waist with an odd bit of wire or something similar. The bucket is filled with silver paint, and the said man climbs to the top of the lamp-post via the ladder which is held in place by his mates as a concession to health and safety.

At the top of the ladder he dismounts onto the lamp post wrapping his legs around it in a monkey like fashion while his assistants remove the ladder. Both hands are then dipped in the bucket of paint and he slides down the lamppost in stages, alternatively dipping his hands in the bucket and wrapping them around the lamppost until with great skill and control he has slid to the bottom revealing the freshly painted lamppost.

It takes all of about 5 minutes for each one, they are obviously being paid by the number they paint otherwise it would take all day.  No cherry pickers, paintbrushes, harnesses or safety gear required, I could just picture this happening in the UK it would make front page news and probably prompt a public inquiry at an estimated cost of £300m to keep the lawyers and consultants in work.

Cairos citizens don’t take pride in their city, and I can’t really blame them as the government certainly did nothing to help, but where I do draw the line is with the roadside piddlers. I have never seen so many men having a pee in full daylight as can be witnessed here. It’s not like they have been on the beer and have a viable excuse, maybe it has something to do with the amount of tea they drink for they all have very small tanks,

It’s the audacity of them that gets me even on the main roads they just stop, nip out of the car and stand at the rear bumper. Why do they not at least go to the side and use the car as a screen, it’s almost like they view this as an opportunity to display their wares and seek out an audience. The other morning on the school run a youngish guy standing in the middle of a roundabout, yip right in the middle, well why not!  almost had a very nasty accident with his zipper as I rounded the corner. What a way to start the day….now where’s my Marlboro, hell even Bensons would do at this stage !!!

DAHAB, PANIC ATTACKS and RUGBY

We were a motley crew the twelve of us who headed to Dahab for the weekend. Irish, English, quite a few French, Egyptian and the odd Canadian. We were meant to go by the Taba road but due to the political climate sailing along the Israeli border was not recommended for some reason,  not by anyone really, certainly not by the French embassy, I don’t know about the other embassies as with our typical “ach sure we’ll be fine attitude” we didn’t bother to check, and off we set.

Mo (short for Mohamed for some reason) and the Egyptian delegation set off first, say what you like about Egyptian timekeeping but when there is a holiday ahead they get off the mark fairly sharpish. We were traveling in convoy with the French which explains why we were last to leave……..they are worse than Egyptians at timekeeping but….. lucky for us. We got a phone call about the Suez Canal tunnel from Mo to say don’t come the Taba road there are hijackings at the minute. They had picked up some poor guy completely stripped of his belongings including the car and shoes, yes they left him barefoot, but with typical egyptian hospitality they picked him up, chatted away, probably got his phone number and kindly deposited him at the next checkpoint.

So we changed our route and headed down the west coast of the Sinai peninsula and thought we would cut across the mountains on the St Catherine’s Monastery road……..bad call, very very bad call. The French were in a Hyundai something or other (crap cars even with the 70year warranty or whatever…..) BUT had we a TV crew on standby the footage could have been used for the next Hyundai commercial. It was pitch black although there were a few cats eyes kindly sunk into the asphalt, but being Egypt a significant number had been fitted back to front so not a lot of use. 

I won’t give names to protect the guilty but suffice to say 140 kph was the going rate and even at the end of the journey taking into account the stoppages at the checkpoints our average speed for the journey was 120 kph. For those of you unfamiliar with the road it rises to over 1300 meters above sea level and back down on the other side, with very tight corners all the way, pretty hair-raising. Never mind the panic attacks (or maybe that hot flush is down to my age…no couldn’t be I’m only a young thing) and the screaming from the rear passengers, we did it in no time, but we were in a Toyota 4×4 which is Definitely not designed for cornering at that speed, again I come back to “Top Gear in Egypt” the possibilities are endless, bring on the “STIG”

Speaking of the check points, our Irish passports were a blessing. The French in front of us got stopped every time, answering numerous questions and opening the boot, even when they switched their driver (or maybe because of it) to a very pretty young French lady it didn’t speed up the process. We sailed through with the very culturally aware border police shaking my hand saying “ahhhh the republican army” fortunately The hubby (who is not a big fan of the republican army, bar Martin Mc Guinness…that’s another story) wasn’t driving at the time, it could all have gone pear shaped pretty quickly.

We landed in Dahab about midnight, just in time for dinner if you are on the French time clock and whiled away a very pleasant hour or three before bed. Handy hint here… take note all expats get your Egyptian friends to book the hotel, even with your residency permits you won’t get the rates they do 150le per night ( just over 15 quid) per room…yes per room NOT per person,  including breakfast, excellent….you couldn’t beat it with a big stick, and right on the beach too.

Some of us went diving, and for my son who was doing it for the first time it was pretty amazing, his girlfriend had dived before in south Africa but they were both blown away with what they saw, I don’t know the names as I’m rubbish at that sort of stuff but there was lots of everything. Octopus, multicolored rainbow fish or parrot fish, I don’t know, big eels and those really ugly creepy looking ones too. I really should check out the correct names as I’m not doing it justice,  just go and see for yourself.

I think the highlight of the weekend was realizing I’m getting old, and feeling good about it. The hubby (Pete) and I were the oldest by about 15 years so we didn’t go clubbing, we very sensibly headed home and left the youngsters to it. We were fresh as a daisy the next morning for the Rugby world cup at 8am. The French contingent sweated it out as Japan gave them a run for their money much to our enjoyment, they weren’t fit for the slagging after their clubbing escapades,  and the English did their usual and scrapped through too, (they are the Man Utd of rugby) not very impressive but they always get there in the end. Fortunately we were home in time for the Irish game and they didn’t get the chance to get their own back.