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!).

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

*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).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

On the other side of the fence

Ever wondered why the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?

A new shiny bag in a window shop
-or any object for that matter- can always make our day (and for some make them complete if it's an expensive designer bag).

A job which pays well and makes people feel busy and thus important will have them running after the carrot dangling from the stick till the end of their working days, even if corporate life sucks the soul and happiness out of them like fierce dementors*.

In midst of our distress -and sometimes sheer boredom- we picture a gallant who will come to snatch us from our existing reality to the land where troubles melt like lemon drops**.

From a very early age, we see happiness contained in ideal situations. From fairy tales with lovely castles and classist societies where people can be happy only if they get to the throne, to history books portraying the rise to power and the fall from grace, and ultimately to movies that portray people like getting "dream" objects.

As we grow older, we cling more and more to ideal situations, we wait, we hold our breath, we remain anxious, we work like crazy to get there. We cling to a thread in midst of our madness, we wait for the soothing light at the end of the tunnel -which by the way may simply be a fright train coming our way**. We see salvation in the form of a place, a person, a job, an object, an achievement and hold our breathes for the longest time ever expecting to be on cloud 9 when we get it.

In midst of our rush and waiting we forget to enjoy the true pleasures, the small things, the perfect moments, the good cup of coffee and chocolate bar, the kiss, the dew drop, sunrise, humming along a favorite tune, we don't stop to notice all this in our frenzy in search for perfection.

Life goes on, and we walk on, still under the illusion that we know better than ever before, oblivious to the fact that we remain the children who grow tired of the new toy after a few playing sessions, the same toy we have screamed and stomped our feet to get.

Life will remain a bitch of a swing, bringing us up to the seventh heaven and then crashing back to earth*** , we ought to know better by now and simply relax and enjoy the journey without waiting to be up nor fearing to go down.

"What you don't have you don't need it now"
Beautiful day - U2

Tangier, Morocco view from a local tea house in Cape Spartel where people smoke up to cross to the other side

* dementors are ghosts in Harry Potter who do just that, suck the happiness and soul out of you
** lines from the song "over the rainbow" from the Wizard of Oz
** Metallica's "no leaf clover"
***for a lovely description of the swing of life, read Rehab Bassam's blog post El-morgi7a

Today's book: Buddhism for Busy People: finding happiness in an uncertain world
Today's movie: definitely Disney's Toy Story
An inspirational note that says it The Awakening by Sonny Carroll

Saturday, April 5, 2008

On my bike

All the illuminating thoughts solving my existential crises would fill my mind while I'm pedaling away against the wind...

There's no feeling that compares to beating one's own record of perseverance or finding the perfect pal for your route.

I long for my bike, for leading a healthier lifestyle, commuting without contaminating the environment nor contributing to the crazy traffic and noise.

I envy the inhabitants of cities with bike lanes and alert drivers, and women who can wander around on a bike without getting the attention of passersby, and anyone who can be in a street without the risk of damaging their lungs.

On a brighter note, I have a few traveling tips. Exploring a city by bike with a group or on your own, with a guide or without one, is enchanting. I have tried a few tours and guarantee they would be very enjoyable, especially if traveling on your own.

Paris somehow seems more magical on a bike, especially when you speed on bridges, just take the night tour (I apologize if the guide seems to be giving a biking for dummies course "when this guy turns green we cross, ok?"). In Berlin you get to cover more territory and see the contrast between East and West better. In Amsterdam you'll feel more like a local if you're riding, and your fear of the road will disappear in 5 minutes as you see people hositing shopping bags and toddlers on their bikes, riding with one hand on the handlebar and the other clasping the phone (drivers are quite respectful too). Madrid has a good tour on weekends, and also you can rent from my friends at by-bike
. Barcelona's metro is synchronized with a great bike rental scheme, just make sure you get the card in advance -cause I didn't- and bike tours are also available . In pricey Geneva, you can rent a bike for free. The Vienna tour is great, the guides tell you a lot about the city, and in addition to gates and buildings you pass through beautiful parks. I didn't dare to wander in the streets of countries driving on the "wrong" side of the road (quite an open minded statement that is), but I remember London had guided tours and Brisbane bike rentals providing maps of the three main cycling routes. Bogota does its best by giving bicycles and skates car-free streets on Sundays in some areas downtown, in addition to a 120 km of bicycle paths, you may want to give it a try in the land of eternal spring.

I'll update this post if I remember more tours or embark on new ones.

New York times compiles vacations on wheels

NEWS! some brave gang is hitting the streets of my crazy city, Cairooo here I come

An old bike in Fatima - Portugal, photo taken with my favorite biking pal.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Now we're cooking

I brought back from Panaji a beautiful hand carved wooden box decorated with flowers and smelling of spices. Inside the box lay perfect bay leaves, cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks and a couple more Indian spices of which I cannot recall the name. Examining the ingredients I decide: perfect for chicken Curry and saffron rice.

As I dissolve saffron in boiling water (hot tap water won't do, attention to detail makes all the difference when you cook) I remember my friend in Alicante who gave me this jar so I could cook Fideuà, a Valencian specialty which imitated Paella only to beat it. I also remember how we got the recipe from a notebook decorated with the most beautiful retro cut outs and filled with recipes in swirly handwriting. "Recetas de la mama mía" was my friend's wedding gift from her mom. That day we didn't cook Fideuà, we cooked vegetarian pasta with herbs, to celebrate my favorite couple's moving to the country side and growing cilantro in their own garden.

As I savor the curry marinade after adding a bit of garam masala (literally hot spice) I can't help but feel sorry for those with low tolerance for spicy food. It is amazing how different cultures mix similar spices to create completely different feelings, I find myself remembering Mexican spices, for no good reason at all. I just wish I could stock up on Salsa Valentina, the local brand of hot sauce and then add it to pizza like we used to do at my Mexican friends' kitchens.

Once you've tasted a nation's food you immediately feel a sort of kinship (that's if you get to like it), and when you go there you're less of a
khawaga or guiri* (it also helps get a bit of a conversation going round the dinner table). Having cooked Patacones in Madrid with a dear friend from Colombia, mashing the plantains and then frying and refrying them, I find myself feeling a sort of familiarity with Bogotá while still on the plane (mind you, none of Patacones I ate in Bogotá would compare to the ones we used to cook. Tasting Okra a l'Indienne and asking a dinner companion for the recipe I find myself familiar with the spices she lists, having seen them in action in the kitchen I shared with a friend from Trinidad and Tobago of Indian origins (only the best ingredients shipped from the homeland for us, none of the supermarket stuff). I also know that I don't need to set foot in a restaurant when I go to Mexico, as I have helped cook tamales and dined in a zillion Mexican restaurants with my favorite pal in Madrid (the one in Chueca has a green volkswagen zooming in from the ceiling replicating a taxi in the streets of Mexico city). I also recall two colleagues bonding over lobsters in India, oh Goan seafood prepared Portuguese style is just undescribable1

As recipes are passed from generation to generation, people preserve a sense of belonging to a distant land of origin where they have never set foot. Till this day, my grandmas cook Harira and Sharkaseya, reminiscent of Moroccan and Turkish roots and my friend's grandmother has Matzah always ready for Passover.

It is a fact that food unites. Friends would tell tales of meeting fellow expats mainly to share festivities, I can relate. The first Ramadan I spent away from home, I had just landed in town and had no kitchen of my own, luckily I was adopted by a bunch of Egyptian friends and fed Mulukhiya (if only airport authorities knew the amount of the serious smuggling that takes place everywhere around the globe). Smuggling indeed makes you take a bit of home with you, that's what my Tunisian friend did when he brought a good stock of harisa for the weeks we spent studying in Toledo.

I tend to think of cooking as a hobby**, creative cooking is not something I can do often, and cooking for hungry individuals on a daily basis even less. Cooking is supposed to be fun that's what I always say.

Cooking with friends entails laughing over fiascoes and sharing the sweet content of a well prepared meal, then dodging the task of preparing coffee or tea (depending on where you are) after the meal.

One of my clearest memories is going to the premiere of
Ratatouille with my roomies and bringing back a poster of the Little Chef -which is still on the kitchen door till this day (the kitchen that is no longer mine in a house I still call my own). The next weekend we invited friends over for an elaborate dinner. There was some dude to impress and he was impressed - I hope I don't get killed over disclosing this one my friend!

I guess I'll never forget the endless international cooking days with my dearest friends in Madrid; ill equipped kitchens would not stop us, it just took challenging one of the guys to whisk the batter to give an electric mixer effect with only a manual whip (throwing in a couple of lines on not exercising enough helped too).

I also smile when I remember Wednesday evenings in Cairo at my friend's place and her baby daughter; while we chopped veggies she played drums with a wooden spoon and a cooking pot.

I add to my cooking memories, all the times my friend and I sang Luis Miguel in a kitchen; first in our dorm's kitchen in Toledo, then at her place when I went to visit in Morocco, the Cairo edition is due this summer inshaa'Allah (Luis Miguel would better be proud of us).

When I travel I always take a look beyond the buildings, the contemporary culture and the socio-economics of the country are usually more interesting for me. The way dishes are served and the table is cleared tells you a lot about the culture.

Mediterraneans tend to share
mezzah or tappas and would also share salads, while others don't share dishes at all. At one end of the continuum, some cultures serve individual plates in the kitchen and send them out to the dinning room (sort of too bland for my taste) , and others eat from the same serving dish or fuente (memories of Morocco and the delicious Tagines come to mind), in the middle would be serving the main dish on the dinning table and having seconds and asking people to try this and that and that.

You can also find an indicator if you observe who clears the table and does the dishes. In some culture it's the host or just the women, in others it's the ones who didn't cook, in some plastic plates and cutlery are just thrown away (we love mother earth), and in many the dishwasher deprives those who would have washed the dishes from the greatest post-meal gossip.

Needless to say, in most societies suffering of large income gaps, affordable catering and delivery services (I'll never forget the expression at my friend's face when she saw the Mc Donald's motorcycles in Cairo, I totally related when I saw all the "a domicilio" signs in Latin America) and and other people relieve you of it all: cooking, setting the table and clearing the table.

Keep cooking and smile while you do, for it makes all the difference.

*Egyptian and Spanish slang for "foreigner"
** Apologies to those who think cooking is a chore

Paella in a balcony overlooking Barcelona, made especially for me :)

The official Cinnamon Cake("when in doubt add cinnamon" one of my fav cooking pals)
Basmati Rice recipe (add saffron instead of cumin)
Chicken curry recipe (add more yogurt, substituting yogurt for the coco milk, leave chicken in marinade for a while in the fridge before cooking; be patient and leave it on the stove till the sauce thickens. Needless to say add more curry)
I don't have a written recipe for Paella or Fideua but I can tell you how to cook them

Like Water for Chocolate and Serving Crazy with Curry, two books on how cooking can be a more effective means of expressing oneself than any other (Mexican and Indian recipes included)

Ratatouille, a long awaited Disney story after a too many story-less animations