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:

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

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.

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)

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

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.

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:

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?

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"