Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A year in my balcony

So it's been a year, that I've been rambling on and on, about Places and People and how I connect to those. I started this as a new year resolution last January, now that two years have hit me in the same week, 1430 and 2009, I find the whole notion of new year resolutions kind of you know... cheesy.
So last year I decided to write (so guess what resolutions do work someitmes). I think the hardest thing was to decide what to write, how to write it, in what language, how anonymous it should be kept, how much fussing I'd do about how it comes out and whether readers like it. Today I can honestly say, it was one of the best decisions I took, so I'll keep rambling on as long as I have tales to tell.

Many kind neighbors have stopped for coffee, some who tell their own stories too, and some who prefer to listen, some I have met in real life and some I haven't. All the rambling that took place while leaning on the railing was worthile.

I take this occasion to wish a splendid year to the friends who have encouraged me to start this Blog, some said I ought to tell my stories, some said I ought to record my travels, and one said I needed to clear that crazy mess in my head. And though I had registered this blog in January, it could've suffered the same fate of many pages that I registered and left abandoned if it weren't for a Birthday gift I received in February; two dear friends gave
me a lovely book to record my travels in writing and photos.

I wish all those friends and all my neighbors in other balconies a lovely year; may your year be filled with journeys of discovery, self-discovery above all ...

Photo:
Me dropping a line for The Beatles at Abbey Road studios, London. It reads "There are places I'll remember...this is one of them"


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breakfast on the Morning Tram





It is the seventh time I listen to Breakfast on the Morning Tram this week.


May be it is time to pack my bags and go; just me and myself on a train staring out the window enjoying the journey and not caring whether the destination turns out to be worth it or not.

Countless are the train journeys which I have taken with the excuse of getting somewhere, while all I really cared about was spending some time with myself. Pensive in a window seat enjoying a hearty breakfast and a decent café au lait just contemplating life and the view.

For someone like me, restless, claustrophobic, curious, yet yearning for recollection, contemplation and reflection, the train is the perfect place to be

One of my fondest memories is a trip across Central Europe, 2.323 KMs onboard of different trains, bonding with perfect strangers, watching the green, blue and white twist into the props for a fairytale, toying with my InterRail ticket to decide what my next stop would be.

Upon coming back I found that my route was somehow influenced by a movie I watched. In Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset, two perfect strangers reflect on life, love and who they grew up to be, with Paris and Vienna as backdrops and the Journeys starting in Madrid and Eastern Europe. Here are a couple of lines from the movie:

Jesse: I've just been. I'm just traveling around, I've been riding the trains the past two, three weeks. [...] Yeah, I got one of those Eurail passes, is what I did.
Céline: That's great. So, has this trip, around Europe, been good for you?
Jesse: Yeah, sure, yeah, it's been, umm... it sucked. You know...
Céline: What?
Jesse: No, uh, it's had its, umm. Well, I'll tell ya, you know, sitting, you know, for weeks on end, looking out the window has actually been kind of great.
Céline: What do you mean?
Jesse: Well, you know, for instance, you have ideas that you ordinarily wouldn't have.

I also realized after that trip that I would've never made it without the encouragement, the backpack, lonely planet guide book and Buddhism book of a dear friend who said: yes you can do it, no you won't lose your sanity talking to yourself for 8 days, perhaps you might even find the way. In that particular trip I found peace to let go of a perfect year and welcome an unknown journey.

Photo, Renfe my favourite railways, it reads in Spanish: the train and you

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The place where I belong

I stop at the pharmacy for insect repellant, sunblock, wet wipes and hydrating salts, the shop attendant asks: where are you traveling exactly? It is the night of Eid and many have already stopped for provisions to go on a week long vacation. I loved Eid festivities this year, the colored lights which would look tacky in any other time and place give Cairo a special feel, and Ramadan was just perfect, roaming old Cairo, decorating the house, having friends over for Iftar & Sohour, running to a thousand places to catch up with long lost friends. I beam at the colored lights and at the Earth's Eid gift to us, a lovely breeze which makes me forget all the heat I had to endure since God knows when; the lights bring back the memories of the winter before last and the same goofy expression on my face upon seeing the Christmas tree in the University yard and later on jumping up and down at the sight of gigantic snowflake-lights in the city's main square. Don't you just love festivities :) ? (ok that was too corny but I won't take it back).

"I'm heading to the desert" I say, I smile at the shop attendant's astonishment just like I do at my family's jokes at how me and my cousin -who was also bitten by the Sinai bug- are a pair of wackos.

I choose to leave civilization as we know it, Cairo with its super markets and neon lights, its streets where honking and screaming are the only languages spoken, to go back to life as it should be away from all the manipulating political talk, advertisements and societal pressure. I usually come back from Sinai with a sense of persepective that keeps me sane until the next visit.

Once again it's me and Sinai. One of my favourite spots is a camp near Nuweiba' previously known as Escape Land (nope I'm not disclosing the current name don't try to bribe me) with a décor as kitsch as it's name and a soul of its own. My friend sits with her tarot cards, reading into the future as the sun sets on another day. Our hosts are gracious, we feel like long-lost family members as we talk of love, existential questions and tahini.

As usual, the camp is where my journeys end, where my heart heals, and where I recharge my batteries. This time it'll be where I rest from an off-roading trip where I cross Sinai with the greatest bunch of pure hearted desert addicts.

I want to go hiking in the mountains soon, to tie a scarf around my head bedouin style and just take off while listening to Fairouz...I need to remember what life is all about and who I really am...

Photo: my hut in wadi-mahash

Travelling like an Economist


The lens through which each of us perceives the world around him is different, we see beauty in a different way and notice different things. More often than not, when our traveling companion is jumping up and down pointing at some object in the distance it takes us time to see what they're pointing at.

The French have coined the term déformation professionelle to indicate how people's jobs reshape the way they perceive things. I guess we all are living proofs of that. I have lived with a journalist for over a year and lost her more than once as she slipped among a group to ask what they are demonstrating for. I would be biking with my friend in the country side and he'd point at some garbage burning in the distance, or would ask me when I tell him at the Red Sea if I have seen the oil rigs, needless to say he's an environmentalist. The list is endless.

Interested in development since God knows when, I have come to constantly over analyze things from an equity and sustainability perspective in my home cities and in my travels, this got me associated with Mafalda in the minds of my friends (an alternative title for this post was "the world through Mafalda's eyes").

So if you're ever considering me as a travel partner, beware. I will be overanalyzing advertising, street signs, services as an indicator of income distribution, popping into a McDonald's to analyze prices differences, checking newspapers for signs of democracy, comparing neighborhoods to find the middle class... you don't wanna know the rest of it, just thought I'd warn ;)

Photo: Mafalda, who else.

Friday, November 28, 2008

L'Auberge Espagnole



I think it was love at first sight, the minute I stepped out of the Callao metro to see calle preciados shaded by what looked like green and white kites, I felt it was my kind of town. Five years later I was getting out of that same metro station to stop for groceries on my way home.

Home was a lovely building in the old town with perfect balconies (you know how much those count for me) and a wood and wrought iron gate. In the house lived many crazy girls from all over the world, and in the kitchen you could see colored sheets of paper where in they have scribbled down the essential conversational lines in their native tongues -which by the time I put my Egyptian Dialect sheet had a couple of dozen sheets, and I would bet it doubled by now as more people come to live in. Those of you who have seen the movie will be instantly reminded of L'Auberge Espagnole (in French an Auberge Espagnole is a place where you should bring what you would need)

I quote Xavier, the main character of the movie, remembering how he arrived in Barcelona lost and unable to pronounce the name of the street where his house would be, that is exactly how I felt when tourists asked me for directions after Madrid started "belonging to me".

"Quand on arrive dans une ville, on voit des rues en perspective, des suites de bâtiments vides de sens. Tout est inconnu, vierge. Plus tard, on aura habité cette ville; on aura marché dans ses rues; on aurait été au bout des perspectives; on aura connu ses bâtiments; on aura vécu des histoires avec des gens. Quand on aura vécu dans cette ville, cette rue on l'aura prise dix, vingt, mille fois... Au bout d’un moment, tout ça vous appartient parce qu’on y a vécu. C’est ce qui allait m’arriver, et je le savais pas encore."

"When you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. everything's unknown, virgin... after you've lived here, walked these streets, you'll know them inside out. you'll know these people. once you've lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times... it'll belong to you because you've lived there. that was about to happen to me, but I didn't know it yet." (source of the translation: someone who lived in Vienna for a year had it on their blog)

I don't know if I can do the touristic description of a city I have lived in, but all I can say that the Spaniards are not exagerating when they say "de Madrid al cielo" (from Madrid to Heaven). The vibe of the city can be felt in my previous post Mare Nostrum. I'll just post here the list I gave to a friend who was stopping by last week.

And please check the blog of this girl who's equally obsessed by Madrid

Photo: the feet of 3 friends from 3 different continents who spent a unique summer in Madrid, location: Sol, or the Km0, Spain's navel.

The Madrid essentials:

Nightlife:
Flamenco show, Café Chinitas
Flamenco bar a flamenco discotheque strangely enough (on Wednesdays gypsies dance there sometimes but double check), Cardamomo
Jazz gigs: Berlin Jazz Café
Rock concerts /Irish pub: Fontana de Oro


Sightseeing:
Cycling tour, It covers all the essential sights –even the Egyptian temple!- and goes at a lovely pace not like bus and walking (avoid others that are more expensive)
The Palacio Real and Opera path walk are nice by night, you can take ice cream from the Haagen Daaz around the corner for the walk.
Preciados and Plaza Mayor have nice street artists and buskers.
La Latina is quite picturesque and you can do the Spanish "Ir de Tapas" getting small portions of Tapas/Mezzah with drinks in the different bars and bistros.

Coffee, coffee:
After you contemplate Plaza de España cross to calle Princesa on the right there are the oldest most beautiful stairs that lead you up to a very nice village like neighborhood, there you'll find right in front of you what looks like a blue house, Jardin Secreto, the most enchanted coffee house on the planet
Juan Valdez, the best Colombian coffee is now open in front of the Almudena Cathedral by the Palacio real
Anywhere in Plaza dos de Mayo, it's just the ambience

For drinks:
Check out the Café Madrid on a Wednesday night, especially if you're travelling on your own, you'll meet a lots of people speaking in a zillion tongues.

Museums:
La Caixa Forum always has good free exhibits from around the world
Reina Sofia has good modern art
Prado renaissance painters (I find kind of boring)

Parks:
Retiro but only interesting on a Sunday, but the metro station is worth a stop, has drawings by Spanish cartoonist Mingote

Shopping:
Preciados has most shops (except Promod which is in Calle Princesa)
Cooler brands are in Chueca and Fuencarral (Chueca metro station by the same name, you take the lime green line from Callao-2 steps away from the hotel – Fuencarral hopp off Gran Via metro station on the same line and look up the street on the left side of the road)
More upscale brands are in Serrano (posh neighborhood and metro by same name, too bland neighborhood in my opinion)

Dinning (non touristic):
Chueca is the most young hip neighborhood -also the gay neighborhood- it has good restaus and less touristy places than downtown: Bazaar (international cuisine) and Barriga Llena (Mexican). From the metro station and Chueca square ask for Calle Libertad (taking two lefts after a Fruteria and De Bop Cafe) they're both there.
Lavapies is the alternative/hippie/emigrant neighborhood, by day it's beautiful and has ethnic food and shops, Indian, Moroccan, Senegalese, you name it.
Downtown there's a Cuban with good live music called La Negra Tomasa
If in Sol check out Los 100 Montaditos and Creperie Mimi for a light snack
There's a super market open all the time called Open 25 Horas near Opera metro station, you can just grab a bite and walk down the old city

Books, music, movies:
Fnac, Avoid the rest, more expensive, too Spanish not int'l enough.

Cinemas:
Yelmo Cineplex has new international movies that are not subtitled (beware of the dubbed cinemas)
Classics can be found at the Filomteca
International artsy at the Golem behind Plaza de España

Always keep a Guia del Ocio close by, it tells you what's happening everywhere. Costs 1 euro and can be found at any kiosk. It probably has the addresses and entry fees for most of the places mentioned above.

Off to other cities:
Trains: www.renfe.es

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why some opt for a Big Mac and miss out on local cuisine


An article in my beloved Economist: "The Charm of the Chain" tells us how people find familiarity in standardized food while they are away from home. This makes me question, what's the fun? Isn't traveling all about experimenting?

PS:
I go into a Mc Donald's to get a feel of the city's prices using the Big Mac Index
which the Economist deveoped.

PS2: I have to confess that a recent trip made me seek the comfort of Mc Donald's and Nero's, bad food can really mess up your mood!


Sunday, November 9, 2008

On Beauty Appreciation

Is it something we're born with or something we develop? Why do I get weird stares when I point out an Islamic architecture gem in the distance while cycling down Abdeen? All that they can see is the taxi in the distance, a shop or just the usual trash. Why do I seem to be one of the few who can spot beauty in a city like Cairo? Check this out:

"Rana Nemr Began taking pictures of striking [Balconies] in the city of Cairo in 2003. She was interested in the colours & the decorations of balconies in the poorer areas of the city, where the brightly coloured balconies stand out, in the midst of grey blocks of concrete. The aim of this photographic series was to celebrate colours and what they can bring to poor neighbourhoods and to impoverished citizens: colour as symbol of individualism, self expression and possibilities."
CICC 2008.

A friend aware of my love for balconies got me a stack of postcards featuring those balconies :)



La Boca, working class neighborhood in Buenos Aires-Argentina, tin houses are coated with left-over paint from the nearby port.

Why I love Balconies

According to Wikipedia, Calustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces.

I have noticed upon coming back from the desert or the country side that a giant dementor* sucks the happiness and recharged batteries out of me as soon as I step into the city and face a road block at any of they city's numerous entry points. Sundays become impossible when I have to sit at my desk and stare at a computer screen.

What saves me from committing suicide is our office balcony overlooking the Nile and many landmarks of down-town Cairo.

I wish you this "in the concrete jungle of life, may you find the perfect balcony"


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mare Nostrum


Warning: this is by far the least politically correct post on this blog so far, so enter at your own risk. Mare Nostrum is Latin for "our sea", a term used when Roman domination extended from Spain to Egypt; an alternative title for this post was "Ramblings of an Angry Mediterranean Woman" just so you'd get an idea.


Relaxing on a green and beige bean bag inside a livingroom overlooking a tiny garden, I take in the view and admire the colorful items I have thrown here and there to make the place resemble me, there's noise coming from the street and I apply my tested Cairenne method: focus on the birdsong and filter out the honking. I realize as I sip my decaf café con leche (yep decaf I'm clean now) that I am again enjoying the "bel fare niente" (Italian for "the beauty of doing nothing" but I just like the sound of it).

Where did I get this? From the Mediterranean culture I suppose. Where did I get that? From the North of the Mediterranean, not from the South definitely. Being natives of a land that's in the corner between two continents overlooking a river and two seas, part of ethnic groups that spreads across two continents and more, Egyptians sometimes define themselves as Arab (I personally am very adamant about writing classical Arabic properly) African (I had Afro braids and share African values) Muslim (Ramadan will soon have Christmas' fate but anyways) Middle Eastern (that's where our roots are) and Mediterranean (even though we share a sea, I don't share this view).

It is true that people of the Mediterranean basin express themselves with loud voices and hand gestures and hang out in streets, markets, balconies and on sidewalks, but that's typical of any warm weathered developing nation - I do not mean this pejoratively for I was never nor will I ever be a fan of super organized cold efficiency.

However, this laid-back nonchalant elegant lingering on sidewalk cafés with a café latté in one hand and a newspaper in the other hand only exists in Southern Europe never in North Africa, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be born a woman in a men's land. No
lèche-vitrines for you and stopping at the local bookstore or market while holding your shopping bags or just sitting cross legged on a bench enjoying the sunshine warming your shoulders while you devour a pecan and caramel ice cream. You should just try to stay covered and safe in any gringo style mall in Cairo so you could suffer less from dusty sidewalks and get less harassment from those assholes (people would still stare at you though), you should park very close to your destination and learn not to linger on in the streets, oh and don't think you're safe in your car either, some hijo de puta will try to keep following you for a few kilometers just to spite you. One more word of caution, if you're unfortunate enough to look like you don't belong there and people start addressing you in English, prepare your most colloquial line instructing them to zip it.

I don't know what got me into this mood, probably because I was reading another travel diary describing how people live
con gusto in Italy and feeling that I can completely relate because I have been getting the occasional breath of fresh air by spending time in my adopted home. Grabbing a snack anywhere in calle Arenales or calle Mayor to eat in the moonlight near the Palacio Real...Going for a picnic with friends in any park or mountain and just laying on the grass with not a care in the world...Not minding that the guy who sells me a veggie piadini in Bologna calls me bella because he does it in a civilized way unlike many on the other side of the sea who can manage to throw a sabah elkheir at you with a quite distasteful way. Wandering aimlessly in la Latina, stopping for pastries in Le Marrais, browsing posters at kiosks in the heart of Rome to find the best Godfather poster to bring back to a loved one, all while breathing in the shabby elegance of the city without a care in world, commenting the current political situation at the local delicatessen, sitting at the barra for your espresso or coke while you share the bartender's outrage at foreign summer tourists who think they own the coast in Alicante.

You can enjoy the simple pleasures of life without feeling bad for others who work to serve you, you can go buy stuff where everybody buys them, you don't hear your own conscience calculating how what some spend in one evening can feed others less fortunate probably for an entire week.


Can you find all the simple pleasures in stratified classicist tribal societies? Can you help feeling self conscious in male chauvinist supposedly-religious countries? Would you be able to ignore the unkempt streets until you set foot inside the spotless shiny restaurant or shop? Can you deny that yes you can have great coffee, but not anywhere, you need to go to a semi-exclusive place that charges you the triple of what it should but what you're actually paying for is your well deserved peace of mind ? (which there's no guarantee of you getting)

And they wonder, why are women in this part of the world more prone to osteoporosis, simply because the street is not theirs! And why do young people grow up with consumerist quasi-gringo values? Because they have to buy the partial exclusiveness, all of them at each level of the society, they consume to identify with something.

People who have worked here always accuse us of not working enough or doing nothing, but I beg to differ, for wherever I go I see people overly consumed in something, not exactly pretending to do something of use, but probably convinced they are actually doing something, saving the world or something. I feel that soon a certain sector of the society will follow the Japanese model of beggars carrying a briefcase and walking the walk just so no one would accuse them of doing nothing -I'm talking here about "busy, tied-up, swamped" young executives just generating more profit and consumerism for the society and digging their heads into work ostrich style. Also on the other front government employees are actually doing nothing (those computers? oh...they're for Solitaire). In spite of all that you don't find many who just enjoy doing nothing and feeling good about it, not guilty, because they know they have worked and paid their dues and they couldn't care less how society weighs them.

You may or may not like this post, you may find it offensive, self-indulgent or downright negative. All that I can say is that this is post is anything but hypocrite and that my anger is directed at a clear target: those who deny others their right to the street and to unpretentious fun. Rest assured that I still love my city and am
quite aware of how privileged I am; in spite of all the above I am proud to reclaim the streets when I can -dude I cycle in Cairo I can't ask God for more!- and enjoy the simple pleasures of life with a few cherished friends who know how to enjoy life and make great moments out of nothing at all- I love you all (fancy sushi fans please stay away, downtown cafés' regulars ahlan-wasahlan).

I thank God for having sent me all the special people in my life, I am also thankful for finding comfort zones and ending inner struggles, for finding circles of light within my groups of friends, for having found the courage not to conform, simply I'm thankful for who I am today, 10 years later*

Notes:
* conversations with school and university friends revolved around whehter we were satisfied with what we have achieved in the past 10 years -calculated since we graduated or since we started.

Photo: door overlooing the Mediterranean - Morocco (taken by me, finally a decent photo!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

City glorious city victorious



"You love this town even if that doesn't ring true
You've been all over and it's been all over you"

U2- Beautiful Day

Finally, I'm writing about Cairo. What do I like about it you may ask? Many are complaining, they want to flee to places where life's easier even if that means it'd have a rather bland taste. I can't deny I was one of those at a point in time. A summer night in July made all the difference. Sitting at a side walk café in Shari' Al-Borsa (one of the scarce pedestrian areas preserved downtown) watching for the first time in Cairo a street busker swallowing fire -a woman may I add- my mind zooms back to a breezy summer evening, same exact weather, in another sidewalk cafe in Plaza 2 de Mayo in Madrid, watching another busker dancing with fire sticks moving in complete harmony with Yann Tiersen's La Dispute. The feeling connected me to a time when I truly in sync with the universe. Though I have for long stopped believing in signs, I still took the whole setting as my cue that I should head back to my adoptive city, on second thoughts, I took it as my cue to start enjoying my home city as much as before and even with a fresher perspective. I have gone back to Madrid and come back here, I love both cities and will live in a constant state of saudade knowing that wherever I am, not a year should pass before I'm reunited with both even if for a few days.

Where do I start, every time I'm driving down the streets of Cairo I'm inspired to shed light on one of its million faces. Like that night on my way back from the movies when I thought I should write ...

I find myself in Midan El Tahrir, the main square where all protests take place, whose buildings are crowned by ads of Coca Cola and Mc Donald's, a bit shabbier perhaps but not so different from any main square in a capital city in an era where the marginal utility of travel is seriously declining...I take a longer way home as I always do, for I would get stuck in this crazy traffic for hours on end just for a glimpse of the Nile -and the Lions- from Kasr El Nil Bridge. Everyday Cairo's faces take me by surprise, and everyday I look at each of them as overwhelmed as a child or a tourist. The beauty, the disgrace, the majesty, the mediocrity, a kind smile, an insolent harassing line, this is what makes my city unique the sharp contrasts. Nothing can replace the feeling that you are in several cities, liberal, conservative, posh, abandoned, simple, complex, oriental, westernized, this is how people will describe Cairo; as in the Hindu tale of the blind men and the elephant, each touches a different side a unique part and refuses to acknowledge the other parts that others see.

Like a chameleon I take the colors of Cairo's neighborhoods. On days I bask in the faded glory of Fatimid Cairo, taking my time admiring the carvings in a mosque, imagining I'm living in Beit El Suheimi, walking down Khayameya to the patchwork shop where I find my friend the calligrapher. On others I sit at a coffee house in Zamalek, try to focus on a document I'm working on before meeting friends in the nearby pizzeria Thomas, after buying books at the place where half my fortune goes; on breezy evenings I call a friend who calls the island his home to walk the streets which by night have very little traffic as the embassy employees pack and go. On weekend nights I'm tapping my foot to a great jazz gig at the Cairo Jazz Club refusing to leave my friends early enough to get enough sleep before the next morning, as in the next morning I meet my cycling pals on the other side of the road. Cycling on Fridays I inhale the air that has not been polluted yet by the noise and fumes of the sleepyheads, I try to store every little detail, the plants in the balconies, the boats near Zamalek, the smell of fresh bread, the sight of smiling citizens, I take snapshots to be able to keep on loving the city when on a working day I'm stuck in an agonizing traffic jam in the scorching heat.

Would I do Cairo justice, would I be able to give you a list of must sees like in cities which I have visited but where I have never lived? I guess not...

I guess Cairo has given me a beautiful gift, the ability to seek beauty in little corners, to mentally crop an image and dust off all undesired details, to block any unwanted noise out and install filters on your ears to only feel serenity. I have become quite the eclectic master.

This crazy collage has made me too accustomed to big cities, I fear shops closing, I don't feel secure when the night's too still, I frown upon homogeneous places. I maintain a love hate relationship with my city where I get extremely claustrophobic every 8th week and need to flee the buildings towering over me to the plains of Sinai; and that is a story I have yet to tell.

Photo: Cairo by night - photo by Karim

What's happening, what's in:

www.cairo360.com

and also for any addresses I missed or for descriptions

Sightseeing:

Al-Moe'z street near the market (Khan Al Khalili), go at sunset time and wait for the lights, here’s a list of the monuments there, you may want to stop for tea at Le Riad.

Beit El Suheimi
Kheyamya tent makers' district (ask for Ashraf Hashem and tell him you're my friend)
Fustat Market / Souq Al Fustat
Coptic Cairo
Zeinab Khatun house

Ibn Toulon mosque

Beit El Keretleya

(most guides and taxi drivers know how to get there)

Views of the city:
Cairo Tower
Azhar Park
Cairo by bike, Friday mornings with the Cairo Cycler's Club

Escaping the city:

Sakkara pyramid and nearby country club

Fagnoun

Andrea Maryouteya

(you need a car and driver to get there)

Coffee:

Cafe Greco (outside Sequoia restaurant), Address: 53 Abou El Feda St., Zamalek

Azhar Park

Tea & Juice:

Essam’s, near Beit Zeinab Khatoun & Beit El Harrawy (Oud music school)

Drinks:

Cairo Marriott Gardens

Fairmont Nile City

Rooftop, Nile Hotel Zamalek, Address: 21 El Maahad El Swiesri , Zamalek (the entrance to the hotel is dodgy, the rooftop view is worth it)

Music
Cairo Jazz Club, Address: 197 26th Of July St. , Mohandiseen

Art Galleries:
Cairo Atellier
Town House Gallery


Food
Koshari Abu Tarek, Address:16 Champollion Street , Downtown

Abu El Sid, Address: 157, 26th Of July St., Zamalek

Tabouleh, Address: 1 Latin America St. , Garden City

Café Riche (a taste of downtown Cairo in the good old days), Address: 17 Talaat Harb street, Downtown

Dinner with a view:

Oberoi's Mogul Room

Souvenirs:

Oum El Donia, 3 Talaat Harb, 1st Floor , Downtown

Gallery Zeinab Khatoun

More on Cairo:

Lonely Planet Introducing Cairo
A city where you can't hear yourself scream - New York Times
Travel
Blog



Sunday, August 10, 2008

Switching SIM cards



"Cambiar de chip" is a Spanish expression that has found its way into everyday language during the last few years, it literally means "changing the computer chip in your mind". It means changing your way of looking at things, of analyzing things, of doing things and of understanding things.

I feel this happens to me every time I go back and forth between the two balconies overlooking the Mediterranean, the moment I set foot in the destination airport and switch the chips of my mobile phone a parallel card in my mind connects, with a whole different program: language, welcome message, phone book, menus, agendas... I feel almost schizophrenic!

As I go back and forth, the card installation gets smoother every time, the line between both menus get blurred yet the contrast between the operators gets sharper... and each time the card feels more foreign in the phone than the time before yet more comfy in its compartment.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

On returning to places



"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Heraclitus


"En Macondo comprendí que Al lugar donde has sido feliz, no debieras tratar de volver" - "In Macondo I knew that one ought not return to places where he has found happiness".
Joaquín Sabina - Peces de Ciudad



"Hello Madrid, allow me to introduce myself, for you and I are going to make new memories now"
word of advice from my dearest friend (originally in Spanish, replying to yet another histerical email) who has lived in a few places around the globe himself and has sometimes gone back.


"I don't care how many times we've gone there together [...] I now intend to make fresh footsteps which will erase our old footsteps. I can finally walk again" a post by Rehab which did me lots of good going back to Cairo and starting over (took a bit of liberty translating that, for this is what the sentences look like in my quite subjective memory, so listen to the hadouta).

"Por eso aún estoy en el lugar de siempre, en la misma ciudad y con la misma gente, para que tú al volver no encuentres nada extraño, y sea como ayer y nunca más dejarnos."
"So here I am still in the same place, in the same city and with the same people, so when you come back you don't find anything different, so it could be like the old days and we'd never part"
Se me olvidó otra vez (I have forgotten again)

In my favourite terraza** in Plaza 2 de mayo, sharing my thoughts with a great friend, I finally felt at peace with our changes, both mine and the city's, and I felt that once more I could affirm that what they say is true "de Madrid al cielo"***

Paulo Coelho's words and the Latin American concept of "closing circles" come to mind again and again "It is always important to know when something has reached its end.Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over..."


------
* story in Egyptian dialect
** that's what we call street cafés and restaurants in Madrid
*** literally, from Madrid to heaven

Photo:
Tajo river in Toledo - photo by Andrea

Read my friend's post "on the significance of being away"

Friday, May 30, 2008

The road to Macondo


A friend of mine is off again shooting documentaries all over the world, and I am always glad to get the customary email updates which he sends out. This time he is telling tales of Colombia, amazed at the similarities between Latin America and Africa (my Latin American pals and I can totally relate). He raves about the Caribbean coast, the scenery and the villages; and in one line dismisses talking about Bogotá saying he found it "to possess very little soul and character". I owe it to Bogotá and to the pot of Colombian coffee living in my kitchen to set the records straight.

My visit to Colombia was a quite pleasant surprise. In Madrid I had made friends with many Latin Americans, before that I was an avid reader of Marquez and other masters of magic realism from the continent. Naturally, I was dying to get to know many countries in Latin America and my friends the Middle East, so we made plans of visits to each other's homelands in a couple of years. When I came back to Cairo looking for a job, I fell upon one which sent me to attend a conference Colombia in my first week on the job (the memory has served as an anesthetic during many working weeks). My travel buddy and I have photos of this business trip labeled "what we went to do" (2 photos) and "what we ended up doing" (close to 40 photos); she still vows that this is the best business trip she ever went on.

From the minute we landed and took a cab to our hotel everything screamed Welcome to Colombia, the colorful buses and the lively music, the courteous people, the military presence and the chaotic traffic.

The view from my hotel room in the 14th floor was different from anything I had seen before; even though I had been warned about what I was about to see, the minute I pushed the curtains back I was speechless. My Colombian pal had reminisced about the view from downtown Bogotá on many occasions, but I had reverted that extraordinary portrait to extreme nostalgia; I shouldn't have... for nothing I have seen in my entire life looked as surreal as the view of Bogotá, skyscrapers and adobe buildings against really green mountains! Our
conference was held in the Universidad de los Andes, therefore its logo was a graph depicting a curve on top of which symbols of a house and a cross were perched; that's the view you get from the university, the mountains, the Monserrat sanctuary and a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe with arms wide spread.

The surreal mood was complimented bit by bit ...
meals of fried bananas,
people living in an eternal spring and going for summer holidays on weekends
(a veranear they say),
colorful markets full of crafts which could be made by the Inca gods themselves,
a private tour of the Museo del oro where you enter a dark room and suddenly the floor lights up to reveal sunken golden treasures which have been rescued from the sea,
waiting for a bus to take you to the ceremony and finding a wooden chiva party bus instead (Egyptians can try to picture the bus equivalent of a felouka with all the electric lights and blasting music),
finding whistles on tables in a club,
asking the taxi driver to just go straight ahead and finding he's not surprised (seemed like a 40s movies saying: طوالي يا أسطى
drinking fresh berry-juice (that's surreal to me, I'm from the desert),
finding a Barrio Egipto in a city a zillion miles away,
seeing emeralds of all shapes sold in La Candelaria as if they were blue stone scarabs sold by the dozen in Khan El Khalili bazzars,
a Cali Carnival ensemble entering the room as red, yellow and blue balloons fall from the ceiling (how cool is it to have a flag with the three basic colors! you can get any other color by mixing those on a palette),
seeing a Lama and remembering how it spat on Captain Haddock in Tintin's adventures in South America (Prisoners of the Sun),
thinking you're in Bogota whenever you listen to El Negro Zumbon and dancing wherever you are.


It is in Montserrat where that I was tempted to take my only photo of the trip (the rest are stolen as you know), that of a whitewashed gate with a bell on top (see above) which in my mind's eye was the gate to Macondo. Macondo, a fragment of Gabo's imagination*, exemplifies for me any remote place which lives as if the world around it does not exist, it comes as no surprise that this town belongs in a land where people are cultured, happy, courteous and embracing life in the midst of meager safety, drug cartels and fierce inequality.

Colombia's people are as generous as its land, a land that bestows magical fruits, unique coffee, emeralds and narco. Colombia's music makes you forget how complicated life can be in other spots on planet earth (Salto del Ángel by Parque de la 93 is the ultimate Salsa club, highly recommended).Even the art in Bogotá goes in bolder brush strokes that do not fear to stand out (Botero fans can testify).

Weekends in Bogotá are also unique, whether you hit the student barrio of La Candelaria filled with cheap eats and music blasting from all cantinas from as early as 5pm on Friday evenings, or you rush of to the plains of the mountains to eat Ajiaco elaborately prepared from five different breeds of potato, or go visit uncle Andrés Carne de Res and dance the night away while noticing a new weird trinket hanging from the ceiling every 2 minutes, you are guaranteed to get a treat for your senses.

In all honesty, while in Bogota and even before going there safety was a major concern; it started before getting there, when my Colombian friend's idea of a joke was snatching my bag while I was getting cash from the ATM machine, and then grew with the sight of the military presence in the streets as we arrived to the hotel, for such a sight instead of reassuring me made me question the need for it. The feeling grew with everybody advising me to stay very alert after 9am and preferably not go anywhere on foot nor hail a cab from the street.

However, my curiosity and the contagious love of life that the city transmitted made me roam its different neighborhoods day and night, thinking I was safe as long as I can fake a Colombian accent (that much I thought was possible since the lady at the embassy back in Cairo insisted I was coming to issue a new passport not to get an entry visa).

I thank my friend who transmitted to me love for Colombia and familiarity with it before I got there. Before I got to Bogota, I had helped cook patacones, I had learned all the formules de politesse which exist only in Bogotano Spanish , I knew
how to ask for a tinto instead of a café, got my verbal conjugation messed up, I knew better than to be surprised or offended when people shouted marica, was giving one kiss on the cheek instead of two, and felt almost like a local when I recognized the guava candy wrapped in leaves and packed in wooden boxes at the supermarket.

Bring back some coffee for me if you go, will you?

Notes:
*Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic "A 100 years of solitude is set in the imaginary town of Macondo"
' recipe for patacones

Photos:
Menu at 80 sillas a Cevishes restaurant at Usaquen (trust Latin Americans to come up with unique names such as 80 chairs).
Gate and Bell tower at Monserrat, the sloppy photo is the one I took of course, and the neat one with blue skies in the background is from Travelog


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On destinations

فلا نزال في سفر أبداً من وقت نشأتنا ونشأة أصولنا إلى ما لا نهاية له، وإذا لاح لك منزل نقول فيه هذا هو الغاية انفتح عليك منه طرائق أخر تزودت منه وانصرفت فما من منزل تشرف عليه إلا ويمكن أن تقول هو غايتي ثم إنك إذا وصلت إليه لم تلبث أن تخرج عنه راحلاًً

ابن عربي - كتاب الإسفار عن نتائج الأسفار

And so we remain constantly travelling from the day we are born till the end of time... On the road we see a house and think it is our final destination, when we get there we find that there are still more roads ahead, so we take provisions from the house only to set off again. For rest assured that you will not stay for long in any place which you might perceive as your destination, for soon enough it will be time for another journey.

Ibn Arabi -Unveiling from the Effects of the Voyages


Note:

-A very good article on the different notions of voyaging as perceived by Ibn Arabi's and a good introduction to the book (and interesting podcasts on some of his works) can be found at the page of the Ibn Arabi society
-I took some liberty in translating the quote, a more faithful translation is available on the page specified above
-Email me to get a copy of the e-book (in Arabic)

------------------------------------------------

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu
------------------------------------------------
"and all the roads we have to walk along are winding, and all the lights that lead us there are blinding" Wonderwall by Oasis:
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A partner for the journey:
"You have no idea where I came from
We have no idea where we're going
Lodged in life
Like branches in a river
Flowing downstream
Caught in the current
I carry you
You'll carry me..."
Delusion Angel
by David Jewel (Before Sunrise the movie)
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Photo: door in Goa, India



Monday, May 12, 2008

Paris has two faces

"whether blue or gray be her skies, whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears [...] I love Paris" Ella Fitzgerald, I love Paris

"I walked down your streets, alone and cold like a lost child, and then you took me in your arms" Enrico Macias, Paris tu m'as pris dans tes bras
"I walk down your streets which step on my feet" Souad Massi & Marc Lavoine, Paris Paris


"Oh but the sky of Paris cannot remain too cruel, it quickly seeks forgiveness by offering the island a rainbow" Edith Piaf, Sous le ciel de Paris


They all sang for Paris, a city that serenades visiting love birds while crushing resident vagabonds.

On my first visit I could not bring myself to like Paris! I could only feel the harshness of life in this place, the rush in the metro where people would give you the cold shoulder. Paris to me was like a person with perfect features but no warmth, plastic surgery beauty. I was impressed, that I cannot deny, I had a great time and the greatest host, I felt like I finally saw Paris which everyone was raving about. I concluded that maybe I preferred more imperfect yet lively beauties, same as I liked attractive guys with imperfect features. And so I went, telling my friends and my mom who adores Paris: yes beautiful city...but I'd never live there; insisting all the while that I definitely preferred the more chaotic cities of Spain (at the time I was spending winter in Alicante for work), I quote a dear friend saying "si, Madrid es más cutre pero nos gusta más" cutre is slang for low quality.

The second time I went to Paris I had to board a plane there after a long journey on the road, I thought I'd spend a day there, encouraged by a friend who absolutely loved the city -and by the colorful Paris in
Ratatouille- to seek reconciliation with the city of lights.

Once again, I discover that our own mood and expectations as well as the weather set the scene for how we enjoy a place and how we remember it later on. In contrast to the cold wind scratching my skin in February, sunny mornings and breezy nights welcomed me in August (sorry Ella I tend to disagree,
I love Paris only in the summer). Having been on the verge of a breakup in my first visit (luckily things worked out after that) and then simply enjoying my single student life in the second visit also made a difference.

After a week of hopping on and off trains in Central Europe with my backpack as sole companion, traveling on a tight budget to cover the maximum ground, I arrive in Paris to enjoy French delicacies on sidewalk cafes with a good café au lait in the company of a unique character. My friend whom I met in Paris had a big gossip's tongue and an artist's eye, a combination guaranteed to make you laugh your heart out while appreciating the details of fashion and life in the beautiful city. A companion so filled with positive energy that you'd say yes to crepes in the morning before your flight and end up expectedly missing the flight (most expensive crepes I ate, 90 euros).

I had covered the Paris essentials in my previous trip (I owe that to my great host and his friend, who planned all the sightseeing to fit into my weekend away from work even better than the lonely planet folks). This trip I just strolled along the Seine warmed by the familiarity that one feels when he remembers a place. As I watch the movie
Paris je t'aime later on that summer, I feel this is a city I remember vividly, even if it's still one I wouldn't live in.

One place I'll always miss and would really want to go back to just sitting to read the papers, have a
quiche and then strawberry macarons, I'd sit there and smile back at passersby in the only cheerful district of town: Le Marais. The quartier is characterized by shops that look like wooden doll houses, extravagant fashion and the general air of creativity that gay neighborhoods sometimes have.

Another favorite is the Ile Saint Louis for whom Edith Piaf has sang, and which will always have in my mind the color of caramel and the flavor of crunchy pecan (the ice cream place there has a dark green facade you won't miss it, it's where the bridge ends, it'd be a sin not to make a stop there).

Another spot which I would love to go back to but only with a loved one is the Pont des Arts, a wooden bridge where young Parisiens and adoptive Parisiens picnic. It'd be a waste to go to such a romantic spot on my own again.

Watching the sun setting on Notre Dame from across the bridge is very picturesque, and even though I did not feel the church's warmth on my first visit (specially as I compared it with Sacré Coeur's peace and hushed lights), in my second visit I weaved endless tales around it. It occurs to me now that perhaps I particularly like Sacré Coeur perched up Montmartre, the highest point of the city, because I have come to feel more sanctity in places that isolate themselves from the vicious world below in order to reach out to the sky, maybe I like it for no other reason but my love for heights and the view they provide? Or, maybe as much as I deny it, it is somehow connected to the fact that I studied in one of the schools founded under the Sacred Heart Society. Who knows, all I know is that I would've liked to light a candle on my second visit and had no time to.

Even though I felt somehow morose when I first visited the Louvre and got lost in the vast ancient Egyptian pavilions (that day I discovered a sense of patriotism I didn't know I had), my second visit, which was merely a visit to the grounds of the Louvre was just magical. I felt like an 8 year old on the rented red bike, forming part of a giant snake of bicycles which twisted and turned around the lights on the ground, with the glass pyramid in the background and a still starry night enveloping us, I felt like part of a movie -perhaps E.T.- and expect the front wheel of my bike to point to the sky any minute.

I have admit, as cheesy as it sounds, that I do like it when the Tour Eiffel starts twinkling. Having bought fruits and cheese in a grocery store in the posh neighborhood behind the Tower, I sit on the grass contemplating it, and marvel at this heap of iron bars which managed to symbolize everything
chic in our consumerist societies. I notice that I do not have the obligatory Paris photo with Eiffel in the background and dismiss the thought, as I remember I have a cooler photo, with a dear friend and I standing at the very top of the tower pointing to the flag of Egypt, according to which Cairo stood 3217 km away in that direction. Back then those miles brought sadness and perhaps guilt, as I had left behind at home a partner and had to spend the winter working in Spain. I now silently thank God for not worrying about anyone as I rush off to the Southern Hemisphere twice in alternate months; detachment is too appealing...

I leave without paying a second visit to the Quartier Latin, I prefer to keep the memory of going there with one of my best friends intact -I still burst out laughing when I remember how the waiter at the pizzeria -who was clearly not Italian- spoke French with an Italian accent.

I go back to Madrid with black and white postcards in my backpack, a Tour de France T-shirt, an inexplicable craving for macarons, and reconciliation in my heart, humming Paroles et Paroles on the way back (I sang this at the Dalida tribute museum Karaoke, and was happy to know that my
R roulé was absolutely charming and not unrefined as commonly thought).

Photo: Gargoyle at Notre Dame watching the city change over the years - according to Disney his name is Hugo (Photo by Jason Vic)

Note:
Songs: Sous le ciel de Paris - Edith Piaf; Paris tu m'a pris dans tes bras - Enrico Macias; Paris Paris - Souad Massi and Marc Lavoine; I love Paris - Ella Fitzgerald
Movie: Paris je t'aime, a movie that starts with the Parisian snail map (basically the different sections or arrondissements), and then zooms in on each of them to give a short movie, touching stories weaved by great masters of European cinema

Read: the smell of the métro posted my friend on his blog

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

objects, people and places


I find that I am in a constant state nostalgia, not bad nor sad nostalgia, but just a longing which casts an idealistic hallow on the object of affection whatever it is, while realizing one can't possess it again. Today* I
look up Saudade in a dictionary, I had come across the term in listening to Portuguese Fado, Cape Verdean Coladeras and Brazilian Jazz, I find that it describes my state of mind perfectly "The famous Saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness"


As I read a friend's reflections on friends coming and going, I remembered a day distant in my memory, almost 7 months ago, when I had to pack one of the most colorful years of my existence into a couple of suitcases and a cardboard box...

A Mexican sombrero found in the street after a great reggae concert
Trinkets bought at the Sunday market
A fridge magnet holding a note reminding us to pay our share in grocery shopping
Movies we stayed in to watch
Books bought with gift coupons from my favorite bookshop
A collage that took forever to make, with pictures from different cities, done to match its pair a poster with a zillion shawls, and both harmoniously forming a rainbow volcano-earth-grass-trees-sun-sky-clouds rainbow
Study notes with in-class gossip scribbled in the margins
Rugs and cushions brought in to make my room more living-roomish
A tea-ball attached to a miniature midnight blue kettle sprinkled with golden stars and crescents
A scrabble board which had to keep us company until dawn
My lucky bike which remained tied to a tree for weeks on end in a city where anything can be stolen
An old jar of Nuttela that caused disappointment time after time to a chocoholic friend as he found it was just my sugar bowl

All witnesses to endless stories and smiles. Deciding what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to leave with friends in hope of returning someday, was sheer agony.

As much as packing all my belongings
at the end of the journey caused confusion, it wasn't as great as the confusion that packing before the journey stirred. What object would contain memories that would keep me company the most? What would remind me of places and people at home without causing too much nostalgia? I decide on a few cherished objects and farewell gifts from my friends

Verses of Salah Jahin poems scribbled on coasters
My favorite black and white movie, esha3et 7ob
A Bedouin mirror
A puppet wearing a t-shirt that says "always on my mind"
(my bookmarks collection I had to leave behind)
Throws with Arab designs in blue and white from Khayameya, a place I always miss
A Bedouin outfit complete with burqa
An earring (a kirdaan) in silver and tourmaline from my favorite designer, a gift from once soulmate

The thought of moving again confuses me, the objects I'd like to take would struggle to contain all the perfect moments I am blessed with now. For how can one capture (especially if one never takes photos) days with just the right energy, weather, lighting, company, conversation, laughs, surprises or just times of recollection in the comfort of one's home. It'd start at silly gifts we exchanged on new year's (maybe pegs) and would end at my beloved bean bag... I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Fear of moving on from a setting in which we found happiness, fear of going back to a place of which we have created an ideal memory or quite the contrary, fear of letting go of short-lived perfection, refusing to close circles and living in denial ... I recall my friend's insistence on closing circles, and Paulo Coelho's words come to mind (I am not a fan but these words made sense) "It is always important to know when something has reached its end.Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over..."

Though not irreplaceable, each person or spot we walk away from (because of distance or of our own will) takes a bit of us away and leaves in us clear traces... so we keep on changing like splashes of oil paint on a palette, mixing and metamorphosing, the blue turns green and the red orange and if they both cross again they may not give the shade of purple which they once gave...but they'll live

Still, on evenings like this, when reminders like this
post hit you, you are very prone to suffer pangs of nostalgia. You are filled with a longing which causes you to cast a hallow of perfection on your past, bit by bit you create a space you can run when your imperfect present starts baring its teeth.

I feel that the soundtrack to my life in the past couple of years is Chambao's album Caminando of which the general theme is wandering, leaving to search for the unknown, getting lost, getting to know one's self during the journey, realizing the futility of wandering without direction, going back more enlightened to find reconciliation and joy, and then share tales of the journey.

PS: forgive me if this post is a bit schizophrenic, it was updated on different days (and accordingly under different mood swings)
* this paragraph updated 2 weeks after the blog entry was made

More
Songs:
-Fairouz and a song about simple longing of which the object is unknown; a nostalgia so overwhelming that it makes her realize she has not forgotten people she thought long forgotten أنا عندي حنين
-Volver, a classic re-invented by Estrella Morente, going back to places and reencounters with the past
- Que reste-'t'il de nos amours, Dalida sings: what remains of our love? a photo, a memory, a wilting happiness perhaps?

Photos:
-A few of my favorite things (photos by Andrea, Pancho and Myself)
-Lions at Kasr El Nil Bridge, Cairo and Lions at estanco del Retiro, Madrid (I took those)


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cairo here I come (on my bike)


It's been 6 months since Madrid, 6 months without getting on a bike except for the odd trip outside Cairo, 6 months of missing my favorite exercise and means of exploring the world, 6 months of envying anyone who can ride a bike anywhere.



This weekend, I finally found great riding buddies, the members of the C.C.C. Cairo Cycler Club. Funny enough, in Madrid, my biking buddy and I were part of another (exclusive) cycling community which we referred to as C.C. For some reason, I felt the similar accronyms were a good omen.


Even though I have roamed the streets of most European countries I visited (check my previous post), I had never been on a bike in the streets of my own city. As a kid, my bike was my greatest companion
in summers spent outside the chaotic city; a liberating means of transport it was... Come September, school and Cairo it was goodbye to bikes, except for short drives in the limited space at the Gezira club. Older friends who have known in their childhoods a quieter cleaner city have explored the streets of their neighborhoods by bike though, especially the guys; I envy them.

So, back to my biking in Cairo account. I found out about the group on wednesday, thanks to Facebook, one more Web2.0 tool which helps birds of a feather to flock together. I can't imagine my life in Cairo without the communities and circles which have formed thanks to such tools. Anyways, back to the subject, I kept checking facebook every two minutes to make sure it isn't an illusion, and spent the whole working day with a goofy smile on my face (my office mate is by now used to all sorts of facial expressions, humming and talking aloud).

In all truth, my week at the office had been plain boring, now after the weekend rides, it feels light years away. Those bike rides transported me to a parallel universe...

On Thursday night I called up a couple of friends known to welcome new activities and we went to meet the group.
On Friday morning, I was so worried that I wouldn't find the bike rental open or any bikes left, yet I was somehow wishing for it. The thought of a bunch of girls and guys wandering in the monster of a city that earned the world's best drivers' award was kind of scary. Nevertheless, the minute I was on the blue milkman's bike storming out of Am Salah's shop heading towards the meeting point I was FLOATING (word's going around that I fancy Am Salah but that's just a rumor).

The ride from Agouza to Abbasseya was a bit surreal, with each of us going in a different direction and at a rather slow pace on prehistoric bikes. It was particularly eerie when we passed my old school, it felt like drifting through both time and space at once. It was also amusing to ride along with my friend sharing the latest gossip in Shari' Ramses without a care in the world, as if we were simply going down Gran Via (on the flanks of which we had both lived once), completely oblivious to the surroundings. We were women riding bikes in downtown Cairo, a rather conservative part of town where men outnumber women 4 to 1 (while the real population ration is 1 to 1)

To make it more movie-like, we met another group riding from Masr El Gedida to Abbasseya and gave passersby a scene of 20 young people cheering the achievement and taking photos with their bikes lined up against the walls of Ain Shams University. It was a good day, full of adrenaline (particularly on the 6th of October bridge which I don't recommend even to my worst ennemy). We went back home safe and sound (there's lots of Barakah in this country) and energized in spite of having inhaled significant amounts of polluted air.

The Saturday ride was quite pleasant and with great team spirit (the group kept switching bikes and taking turns walking a sick bike). Around the beautiful island of Zamalek, the ride was quieter, less polluted and we were less of a traveling circus (accustomed to foreigners living there, passersby must've assumed we're
khawagat and gave us more subtle comments and more discreet stares).

Throughought the weekend, one could almost touch the perfect yet worn out architectural jewels of downtown Cairo, feel the same wind moving the boats in the Nile wondering how ugly Cairo would be without its magical river, smell ta'meya (felafel) and freshly baked bread and simply thank God for weekends and for the fresh juice shops scattered around the mighty capital.

We got to rent bikes for 2 pounds an hour from kind people who live day by day (el yom b-yomoh as we say) thanking a gracious God even when they have just enough to get them through the week. We met on the bridge a mother of two who smiled at us earnestly for a whole minute and then said "just take care and don't get hurt". Such kindness is seldom found in big cities, but this is a city with a million faces (and that is a story I have yet to tell).

Feeling the authentic spirit of Cairo I curse the suburb where I work with its manicured lawns and giant malls which takes me away from all this magical chaos. It is true that mine is not the cleanest nor the quietest city (you get to realise this much more when you ditch the car) but I love it. It could sometimes be overwhelming and exhausting because of all honking and pollution, but it somehow grows on you. Even the human noise which used to drive me up the wall, I have come to appreciate the Urban noise ...'attaba 'attaba 'attaba, kolo b-etnein gneih, ya 'assal, mesh tefatah ya homar!*

Countless people have come to this city, struggling to adjust at first and homesick when back home. I'll tell you why soon. Now I have to go meet a friend before it's another working week.


I am thankful to my grandma who taught me how to ride a bike (though she'd probably regret it if she knew I'm riding in those crazy streets), my friend who got me biking again (ya sabes cuánto te echo de menos), and needless to say the gang who encouraged me to bike in my chaotic city (you guys rock!).

Photo:
Bread delivery bike, king of the road! (photo from the web)

A song I was humming in one of the rides:
الفرصة بنت جميلة راكبه عجلة ببدال
Mounir's El Forsa comparing the chances we miss or the opportunities we seize to a beautiful girl speeding away on her bike. Listen to it here

Notes
*a micro-bus komsari (the local equivalent of a train inspector) yelling the destination for people wanting to hop on (amazingly enough there are no formal maps nor line numbers in the informal transport system and it works better than the formal one) - a shop attendant in a market advertising that all items are for two pounds - another young man throwing a sticky compliment (telling the woman she's like honey)- one more driver rolling down the window throwing away a well deserved insult to this guy who suddenly decides to switch lanes (and who probably got his driver's license without taking the test thanks to our corrupt system).
*Inspired by El Warsha theater troupe's sketch أصوات القاهرة

Will you join us?



Enough about Cairo, back to business. The club is undertaking an initiative which may -with a bit of luck- change the face of Cairo. You'll find details of our regular Friday morning rides and our occasional themed rides at this
page and more on the facebook group that it links to.

An account of our early rides can also be found on this blog and coverage of our first event can be found in this article (both written by my riding pals).

Now, this is a crazy city you might as well stay safe. Safety tips fit for "normal cities" won't work for Cairo, so check this guide out (written by a co-member of club).

photo: number plate (!) of the first bike I rented before getting my bike (while we're at it let me share with you that my originally French bike is now very Egyptian, it has tied to its saddle a miniature green flipflop like those hanging from many trucks in my city to ward off the evil eye).