Ma3 El Saleema El Kahira :-(

Well,  my posts have dried up a bit in recent weeks. I have been concentrating pretty hard on a number of issues surrounding my departure from Egypt. Although I have had some wonderful times in Cairo, made some lovely friends and gained some very happy memories, I can most definitely say that it is not the country that I want to settle in.

On a lighter note, I had a fantastic leaving do. We had a feluka on the Nile one last time, and then went for a dinner at a restaurant called Spectra . Oh I wish we had discovered this place earlier! Spectra is a wonderful restaurant, which sports one of the healthiest, most varied and most reasonably priced menus that I have found so far in Cairo. There are a number of branches all over Cairo. Be warned though, the portions are really enormous! We are talking bigger than American Supersized Macdonalds! Honestly, I have never seen as much food in my life. My housemate ordered a salad for 27LE, and a mountain came out that was big enough to feed the whole table, with some to spare!  The most interesting dish was the starter of soup in a bread bowl for only 15LE: tasty and fun at the same time but, again, it was huge and certainly not a starter for most normal people. I would say that two friends, or a couple, could go for lunch there and just order one soup and it would suffice, if they ate the entire ‘bowl’ between them.

Honestly, the portions were almost too big. Take my advice if you don’t like wastage, and order frugally – I felt full up just looking at my plate, so couldn’t even finish a shared dish with Rami. (Of course, Rami was in his element!)

Another nice place we went to recently was Tamari. This night club and bar I situated on top of Nile City Towers, and is a place for the elite of Cairo to hang out and splash some cash. I am told that there’s a great view of the Nile, but unfortunately during the winter the blinds were down to shield punters from the wind, so our outlook was a little restricted. Rami and I went along to try it out for a friend’s birthday, but, with a minimum charge of 250LE, and expensive drinks to boot, we certainly couldn’t make it a regular haunt!

So, I fly back to grey, windy, wet England tomorrow. I have extremely mixed feelings. I am sad that my Cairo journey is effectively at an end, as I will probably not live here like this again for a while, if ever. It means that I am no longer part of that small, but privileged community of expats ‘struggling to survive’ in a country full of unrest and corruption. There are other things that I will certainly miss, like how relaxed some things are by comparison to England – for example, I am encouraged to use my common sense a lot more in this country, unlike the UK, which makes sure everything is regulated and everyone meets certain standards and obeys all the countless menial laws and restrictions which have accrued over time. It’s nice, but I don’t feel always necessary.

I have also grown a lot as a person here. I have become vastly more self-assured and confident than I ever was back home. I think, when faced with necessity, those strong enough will always fight for their rights. Although at times I feel like I just want to hide away, I have always managed to drag myself out into the wide world eventually, and push to get what I want. I still look back on this period of time with disbelief – I survived a whole year in Egypt!

Categories: British Community Cairo, surviving cairo | Tags: , | 1 Comment

One year on and I’m still here!

I have now been in Cairo for over a year.  I wanted to post this entry up on the anniversary of my arrival, which was the 26th October, as a sort of reflection on the past 12 months. However, I had writers block and have not had the brainpower to string my life into sentences for a while; being that I have put all my energies recently into writing about things like stainless steel and propane gas canisters, in my new, part time job as an online freelance copy writer (for a couple of euros a piece!). To be honest, that is not exactly where I saw my career going… I thought I would be a bit further advanced by now. However, I was not expecting to take a break out of my career to go and live in Cairo either, so it proves that life really is like a box of chocolates…

Life in Cairo, one year on: what have I learnt? This post could swing into the negative and the positive, as there have been many incidences of both. For the sake of my sanity, and the amusement of anyone who persists to read this stuff, I will keep it positive. I can’t say that I am a saint; it’s just that no one, least of all me, wants to read reams and reams of whiney articles, damning the world. If I wanted to do that, I would get a job as a Daily Mail journalist.

First and foremost, despite my skin now looking like that of a small pox victim, I am finally starting to build up immunity to, and learn how to handle, the dreaded Egypt mosquito! Absolutely coating yourself in OFF is one way, covering all exposed flesh with clothing, another. Down right splatting them against the wall is also a pretty good indication that they are gone for good; I fact I am a pretty good mozzie tracker now, like the Steve Urwin of the insect world (RIP Steve). When you are a victim of the little blighter’s nip, it is important to get cold water, or ice on it straight away, to slow the flow of venom. Then, stick on a really good, ammonia based after-bite. They have been the bane of my life the whole year, but I am finally starting to feel like I have got the situation under control a little!

Also, I now feel like I could sleep through World War 3. In fact, that will probably be quieter than some nights I’ve passed in Cairo! The only thing that never fails to wake me is the buzz of a tiny mosquito.

I have seen both the good and the bad sides of the city and, on being dumped right in amidst it all, I have been totally immersed in Egyptian life. I have met some fabulous people along the way, foreign and Egyptian, and I have discovered that a huge amount of Egytians are wonderful, intelligent people, with the best characters in the world. The awful crowd that a lot of tourists have to endure are, sadly, throwing a very bad light on the whole population. I have a great laugh in many of my lessons, as most of my students really appreciate a good sense of humour, and really want to learn. Unlike the discussion in many offices around the UK, which usually revolve around the contents of Hello! Magazine; in my classes, students talk about Nobel Prize winners, science and politics.

I also feel like I have really got to know far more about myself than I ever did before. I know what I want, I know what is good for me, and I have become extremely decisive about lots of things, rarely regretting decisions that I have taken, even if they end up being the wrong ones. Everything that happens in life happens for a reason. It’s either to put us in a place we need to be, or a situation that we must face; or it is to teach us something valuable. For example, Rami’s visa refusal last year was pretty painful at the time (for me at least, sadly he was semi-expecting it). New to the country, and the politics, I felt like we had failed an exam, and the punishment was imprisonment in Cairo for Rami, and me if I wanted to stick by him over Christmas, which I did.

One thing I have learnt on reflection, not just about myself, but about my situation, is that I am a very lucky person. I read somewhere that having a British passport is ‘like winning God’s lottery’. And, sadly, I see a lot of truth in this. For all the Brits out there who are annoyed that some foreigners are taking some jobs, you do not realise how lucky you are to be able to go anywhere uninhibited, work anywhere without question and actually be in very high demand the whole world-wide. Qualified school teachers in this country get around 10 times, or higher, the salary of an Egyptian teacher. Westerners will almost always be able to bag a higher wage in any job they go for aside from teaching. Although it’s not always great in terms of exchange rate, it will almost certainly be incredibly high by comparison to an Egyptian salary.

Also, despite the quite large social problems that England still has, I have now realised that it is still a pretty damn good place to live. We never need fear about lack of health care, we are protected against bad employers, bad retailers and bad landlords, we can enjoy green countryside in an environment-conscious society, and, we have freedom of speech (to a certain degree). Once the creases are ironed out, Britain will certainly be back in full form as one of the ‘Greatest’ nations on the planet.

Although I am now certain that Egypt is not my long term home, I can at least say that this country has given me the chance to fulfill two of the dreams that I have held dear for well over a decade. Firstly, I am living abroad and second, I am learning a new language. I have also had the privilege of being able to explore this colourful country in more depth than any package holidayer will ever be able to lay claim to. I have made some fantastic friends and met some incredible people. I have survived a country on the brink of civil revolt and actually had fun in the process!

Not bad all in just one year!

Categories: Egypt advice | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A trip to the Gamel Market

I think the camel market could be better described as ‘The Sea of Camels’! It was quite possibly one of the most bizarre experiences of my entire life and I will certainly never forget it!

 The camel market, on the outskirts of the city, has been active for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Day by day tonnes of camels are diligently walked all the way from the Sudan (I think) to be sold off here in Egypt for thousands of pounds a camel. It is big business and serious stuff for the men who trade these huge animals – termed ‘ships of the desert’ by those who utilise them.

To explain, basically you pay 25LE at the gate to get a ‘tourist tacket for the Gamel Market’ (great bad English there) and then enter into a walled yard, about 10 acres big, to be confronted by scores of camels and hundreds of bald old Egyptians haggling relentlessly and trying desperately to keep their animals together. One lost animal is between 5-10,000 LE loss in profit and for this reason they are all marked with various paints and colours to make them fully identifiable. There are camels as far as the eye can see, camels being driven into the place, camels being driven out of the p place, camels standing having a chat in small groups, camels sitting down waiting for something to happen, camels being loaded into lorries, camels being loaded out of lorries… you get the picture…

It is very hard not to feel sorry for these animals, as they are brought and sold like inanimate objects, however I was surprised to see that they weren’t treated as bad as I was expecting them to be. Given that there is so much profit to be had they are obviously kept very well fed and watered and are not abused too badly. However a lot of the camels have one leg tied up to stop them running around too much, and they were whipped a lot to keep them together. It wasn’t nice to see them lolloping around on three legs, but although it was sad to see, I did understand it, I mean, I was pretty intimidated by the animals and really felt at some points like I was about the be squashed like an ant or trampled to death by these fast moving, out of control giants. It would not be hard, given the environment, and I would NOT like to be caught in a stampede of angry camels . With this in mind it was actually rather a miracle that the sellers had any control over the animals. To question the whipping and the leg tying would actually mean questioning the very subject of trading the animals, something which is simply impossible to do in this culture.

If you want to see some quintessentially Egyptian culture and you have a soft spot for these crazy looking creatures then you must visit the camel market. It is like stepping back in time, with the exception that they all have trucks now to transport the camels around – that was probably my absolute favourite part of the trip; watching the camels go in and out of the market in a truck like they were on a tour bus- they just looked like they were having so much fun!

 As a female I would strongly suggest that females do not travel alone to this (I mean, this is my advice for the whole of Cairo but this is an exceptionally strong warning), and take a male friend with you, preferably Egyptian.

It is about 30kilometers out of town on the desert road. I would have no idea how to get to it as my housemate did all the research and her friend drove us there. But googlemaps helped us and also any good Egypt guide book will have the details written in it. Do wear sensible shoes and cover up a bit- it is a very masculine environment, and although most of the men are pretty intent on business, some of them still have time for a little ogle.

Well, that that is the most I have ever written about camels in my life and I have to say I am growing a little soft spot for these  gigantic beasts. And do you know what? I have lived in Egypt for a year and visited the hotspot for camel trade but I have never once seen a single camel spit!

some camels

some camels

 

Camel tourbus

Camel tourbus

Categories: animals in egypt | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Hurghada holiday

While I am waiting for Downton Abbey to finish downloading I thought I would finally put a few paragraphs together about my recent adventure to Hurghada as promised a few weeks back.

Hurghada is like a less commercial version of Sharm El Sheikh. It’s got the beach and the sun, and in some places the corals, but go a bit deeper into the town and you will find that it pretty much resembles many areas of Cairo. In fact, where we got the bus up from was so much like Cairo that I thought I had slept through the holiday and ended up back home without realising! So, as a tourist, it is definitely best to stay in the tourism area, which to me seemed to  be is the main strip where all of the shops are, and the Marina, which is one strip of bars and pubs and a nice walkway by the place where all the boats are kept. You can do everything here that Sharm el Sheikh offers; desert safaris, sand buggies, snorkling, diving, boats and the like. There are many tour companies to chose from and their shops are easy to spot along the main strip. To be honest I was there simply for the beach and the bars. I have never really been a fan of beach holidays, preferring culture to the sun and sand. However, when I am really exhausted and also, in this country, very very hot, the though of relaxing in the sun and then diving into a lovely cold ocean and then afterwards cooling off with a happy hour cocktail, is the most appealing holiday on the planet!

One thing to watch is the beaches that you choose. If you stay in a hotel and you want some sun and fun on the beach then do make sure that you choose a hotel with a private beach (and googlemap it or look on trip advisor to double check that they are not bending the truth about the location!). We stayed in a very nice apartment but this meant that out choice of beaches was limited to just the ones which allowed external visitors, or public beaches. Public beaches was a definite no and I would recommend that no Westerner ever goes to one of these places, especially during Egyptian public holidays (we went during Ramadan). They are not cheap for nothing; dirty or seaweed filled water, litter strewn everywhere and hundreds of people bobbing around in the shallows, making swimming in the sea a highly unpleasant experience (most Egyptians don’t swim). And that is just a start. These beaches are simply (and sadly) not maintained by anyone. The thought makes me cringe so I will move on.

We tried two beaches that had been recommended to us.

The first was I will talk about is Dream Beach. We had had this one recommended to us by a friend of a friend who is a tour guide around the area. We tried it one day when we could not get into the beach we liked as it was full. This beach was certainly not a dream for me. The music was too loud and the chairs were sandwiched together so you had no privacy. Everything was very expensive and service was not good. Then, there was the swimming area.

To be honest I have never known anything like it, and honestly can’t imagine why on earth someone thought it would be a good idea to do what this hotel had done. Basically, all of the sand had been paved over so the entrance to the swimming area was just a concrete ramp with absolutely no sand in sight apart from when you were already in the sea. Once in the water you really did not want to look back because on the left was a pier which had rubbish totally strewn underneath it, and on the right was a concrete wall. I am staggered that anyone thinks that this makes for a relaxing and enjoyable beach holiday and I am very sorry for anyone who booked to go there and was stuck with it. At least we only went for a day use; and even that set us back 70LE, which for what we got I was pretty disgusted. Anyway, despite my dissatisfaction with the place, we had paid to get in so we had to suck it up and deal. Thankfully both Rami and I are able to swim, unlike most Egyptians (did I mention that?) so we just dove into the water and swam until we were far enough away to enjoy bobbing around in the deep, uninterrupted, looking longingly at the other beach that we had wanted to get to- The Old Vic.

Despite a rather amusing name, the Old Vic turned out to be the best beach we found in our few short days away. We had also gone to a semi-public beach (there was a fee but it was not owned by a hotel). Again, we had done this because we could not find a single place anywhere else. The less I mention about this one the better – except that they rented out pedalos for a really cheap price (about 30LE an hour) which was kind of cool, except you had to dodge incoming yachts!

The Old Vic was pretty good value for money. At just 25LE to get in, I was impressed. There was a limit on numbers which meant that everyone got a chair, there was a lovely beach and lots of space to swim, a bar and a place to order food. There was also a little stand for you to book water sports like paragliding and water skiing. This was a little dodgy as you seemed to need no prior experience for any of it. We did just one thing, in the name of fun – we got attached to the back of a boat in a giant inflatable chair and pulled around for 20minutes at high speeds. Sometimes the things us humans think are fun baffle me! Of course, as with most tourist attractions across the country the toilets were hideous, but of course if you have a hotel room there then you will use those toilets instead.

The only thing that did grate at my conscious the entire time was the knowledge that to make all of these relaxing but incredibly fake beaches there was probably a mass slaughter of many corals and reef fish and therefore the merciless destruction of a large amount of the most beautiful natural environment on the planet. I will never understand how this was allowed to happen, and I can only hope that I am wrong and that they chose places devoid of reef to build on. But I am pretty sure I am not.

There was another way to swim that we did not try because of the price. There are dozens of water parks in the area, again many of which open the doors to the public for a fee. We could not, however, find any decent one for under 250LE, which was beyond out budget. This is all inclusive: food, drink and pool usage, but we still didn’t think it was worth it just for a day in the pool, so we left it.

To be perfectly honest, I would never say that Hurghada is the best place on Earth, but it was a nice place for us to have a few days away, and I can imagine that if you stay in a decent hotel with a really good beach then you will definitely find it a very agreeable place to holiday. I did leave thinking that it was somewhere I would love to live, however this is less because of some naïve enchantment with the place and more because it felt so good, after an entire summer of covering up, to finally be able to walk around in shorts! As well as that I did enjoy the fact that, unlike Sharm – just a strip of hotels and then a tourist place with restaurants and tourist shops in the middle, Hurghada had everything you needed to live a normal life but with a beach and some freedom thrown in for good measure. It even had a cinema (although the amount of English movies it showed was questionable!) I also had a romantic notion of being able to teach in Hurghada city and then at the weekends go off and do conservation work in the Red Sea. I was brought down to earth with a bump when we phone one of the only adult centres and were told that vacancies were rare and that they only pay around 30LE an hour. Unfortunately there are just more opportunities for us to work in the big smoke, so here we will stay for a while, never mind!

Old Vic Beach

Old Vic Beach

Categories: Holidays in Egypt, Uncategorized, Vacation in Red Sea | Tags: | Leave a comment

A very cultural week, in a nice shade of green!

I have had a number of particularly pleasant experience recently which have most definitely renewed my faith in the Cairo culture scene and also in the city’s recycling trend.

Darb 1718

Behind the Churches in Coptic Cairo (accessed by the Mar Girgis metro stop), and just a short walk past the back of the Greek Catholic graveyards, there is a place called Darb 1718, Contemporary Art and Culture Centre. It lies relatively unnoticed and peaceful on about 1 acre of ground.  This particular weekend it had opened its gates to the DEMENA Recycling fayre, which myself and my housemate went along to.

Attended by a mix of foreigners and Egyptians, the fayre was a collection of different stalls from around the city, all promoting various different green initiatives. One fabulous stall was ‘Be Green’ Eco Friendly jewellers; making fashion from recycled materials. They were selling wonderful pieces made out of anything and everything that the artists could get their hands on, from old zippers and buttons to the cogs inside clocks. My favourite piece was a ring made out of a circuit board! For anyone who wishes to see this jewellery, the Sufi Café in Zamalek has a small outlet of products, or you can check them out on their Facebook by clicking the link above.

Another stall which lifted my spirits immensely was held by a foreigner who runs an NGO recycling company! So if anyone thinks that recycling doesn’t exist here then they must think again. It is not only the Coptic garbage collectors who sort through the city’s rubbish, but now there is a company dedicated to collecting, sorting and reusing the waste of citizens. I was so happy to have found this company! Despite the best efforts of the Zableens there is still a lot of material sent to city landfill sites or just plain burnt in the street. It is pretty hard for any green minded foreigner to watch; so now there is a chance for foreigners all over Cairo to sort and send their rubbish off to recycling plants, just as we are so used to doing back home. The great thing is that you get notified by email when someone is coming so they can check if it is convenient for you (I think the collection is every second Friday although I haven’t had my first collect yet so I am yet to find out). I signed up to the scheme straight away of course. Anyone who wants more information should email: egyptcollects@gmail.com and leave your address and name. For more information call 16093 or 01270588869 (Egypt) or 01143282727 (abroad).

The other very lovely thing about the event was the live music that was playing throughout the day on the roof top of the terrace, under the crazy skull. I was a little worried about the stability of the structure but it seemed fairly firm. We caught a couple of sets of music whilst we were there. The first was a political singer songwriter from America called Ryan Harvey. On his debut tour of Egypt he had come to play music from his vast collection of subversive songs; primarily choosing to draw parallels between the revolution that happened in his hometown of Baltimore and the Arab Spring back in 2011. The music was rousing and thought-provoking and obviously enjoyed by the crowds who had experienced the scenes he was talking about first hand. The set was a taster to a small gig that he held in the Sufi Café later that same day, and one that myself and my housemate had already planned to attend before we realised he was at Darb as well. We went along to the Sufi Café to watch the full version and I am so glad I did- not just for the great music but also because I discovered another wonderful place to hang out of an evening!

The headliners of the event were AUC originated band El Zabaleen who play incredible music on any old junk they can find from petrol cans to upturned bins. The lead singer has an amazing voice and the music was great. Click on the link to hear their music- the quality speaks for itself!

 I can’t say how nice it was to sit in the sunshine surrounded by like-minded people, relaxing to live music. Most of the time I walk around Cairo totally on my guard as I never know what I am going to encouter, so it is good to be mentally ready at all times which is tiring! At Darb 1718 we blended in and just became part of the crowd with noone was hassling us, which was bliss! 

Sufi Bookstore

So that night we wended our way to Zamalek where we safe Ryan Harvey play again at the Sufi Bookshop (and cafe). Like I said, I was overjoyed to have been introduced to this place. It is a cosy flat that has been turned into a café selling books, or a bookshop selling drinks- whichever way around you prefer really. The place boasts a number of different rooms that have all been decorated to suit different moods, and a menu that is manageable in price. There are lots of wonderful things to purchase aside from books such as the Be Green jewellery, bags, wall pictures and small household items – all ethically sourced. It also regularly shows art house movies or foreign language movies and holds all sorts of events such as music evenings. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening there and would certainly go back for more.

This same week I also attended a sand art show at the El Saway Culture wheel. I was first introduced to sand art through the religious TV channel that is on sometimes in Rami’s house. The sand art I have seen shows Bible stories and iconic Christian figures depicted in sequences of sand drawings. It is one of the most beautiful artforms I have ever seen. The guy we saw was just starting out, and although it was nice to support him, I think he needs a bit more practise before he becomes like the pros. To get a better understanding of sand art I urge you to check it out on youtube. Simply type ‘sand art’ into the search bar and you will be mesmerized by what you see I assure you.

Makan

The last in my spree of cultural events for the week at least (hopefully not for good!) was a trip to yet another cultural hotspot that I new nothing about but was very excited to find. On a dark and fairly regular street in Cairo there is a small performance venue simply called Makan (in Arabic this means ‘place’). We went there to watch a Sudanese band. For this event I had absolutely no idea at all what to expect as I had never heard Sudanese music in my life. What I certainly didn’t expect was music that took us right into the heart of the Sudan desert and into territory where the sole aim in life is to sing, dance and be happy. The music raised the roof and the dancing that accompanied it brought the house down.

The place itself is a fantastic  quirky venue that reminded me of the Edinburgh festival venues I have visited. This British fesitval is a huge comedy and theatre event in the heart of Scotland where anything from function rooms in hotels to the wine cellars of pubs becomes an arts venue. The walls of Makan are not painted and the general décor is old and worn. But the feel of the place is cosy and atmospheric and I am pretty sure that the tired look is intentional.

Makan host a whole range of events in the hope of preserving the traditional music of this part of the world. The next show I am hopefully going to is the Mazahar healing ritual music. I am curious and hope that it will heal my soul and bring inner peace as the flyer suggests!

The place is situated in Saad Zaghlool, near the metro stop. The address is 1 Saad Zaghloul St. It is easy to get to but the area appears to be a little dodgy at night as it is dark and remote, so best to be on your guard or go with someone.

So that concluded the cultural visits that I have been making since my all-knowing housemate arrived back to town! I only wish I had known about all of these wonderful places before so that I could start keeping regular checks on them for interesting events. Still, better late than never, and I will certainly add myself to the mailing lists and Facebook pages of the centres so that I can stay in the loop from now on.

Acting as a tourist again the week after, I attended the camel market. This was an eye opening experience to say the least! I will pop a few words up about it in my next blog; and don’t worry- if you prefer sea and sun to camels and culture then I have not forgotten about the Hughada report either!

Darb 1718 and Ryan Harvey

 

The Sudanese Band at Makan

Categories: Culture Scene | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ramadan in Egypt

Due to various reasons it has been a while since I have posted a blog. Work has been getting pretty busy and I have just had a week away to Hurghada with Rami. Hurghada is a great place and will be the subject of my next blog, which hopefully will be posted up a little quicker than this one!

As some of you may know, the holy month of Ramadan has just been and gone. I wanted to post up a bit about it for everyone to read and by chance one of my students wrote their end of course presentation on the event. It is a very comprehensive piece of writing and interesting to read, so I thought I would share it with everyone to enlighten them a bit more about the celebration!

Ramadan is the annual Muslim festival of fasting, sacrifice and worship. Muslims use the month to focus on their actions over the past year and to cleanse themselves from sins and after that month they get ready for ‘eid al fitr.’ Eid basically means ‘celebration’ and there is a lot of celebrating to be done!

Long before announcement of Ramadan children start to decorate streets and houses with coloured lanterns called fanoos.

Usually during Ramdan there are shorter business days as Egyptians spend time with loved ones and take Iftar together. Iftar is the breaking of the fast, which happens as the sun goes down. The fast is traditionally broken with dates.

Visitors to the city enjoy the special taste of Ramadan in Egypt; they taste eastern desserts and try Egyptian food, also every hotel offers all you can eat Iftar feasts during Ramadan, serving traditional Egyptian food.

During Ramadan, dress codes get more conservative, and charity increase, in addition Egypt and especially Cairo turns into a different city in Ramadan, the whole country is awake 24 hours and some shops remain open 24 hours.

During Ramdan month TV becomes overloaded with various shows, programs and commercials.

There are some traditions which only exist in Egypt like cannon Ramadan, which lets people know when exactly they can start Iftar. This is a special cannon which is situated in Citadel of Salah El Din announces the beginning of Iftar by its shot.

One feature of Ramadan is charity tables which are prepared by all big and small restaurants during the whole month. These tables are laid with food especially for the homeless people at the time of Iftar.

So what were my observations of the feast? As the main Muslim event of the year Ramadan is obviously a rather a big deal in this country, somewhat like Christmas in England. Everyone’s schedules change around the fasting times, the shops are all open at strange hours and there are generally more people around on the streets at night, after the breakfast. This is nice sometimes and other times it is a nightmare. Many areas get very busy after the main meal, as Egyptians kill time between the breakfast and the sohouer – which is the last meal of the night, just before the sun rises. The metro and the streets are packed before and after the main evening meal as people clamour to get home and then clamour to go out again. Kids are given fireworks and bangers to play with (no comment!) so you spend the evening dodging them and generally it is a bit of a confusing time for anyone not taking part in the celebration. All of a sudden I found myself trying to manage things that were never a problem before; like eating without making my Egyptian friends or students feel hungry, and living my life around a new, temporary schedule, thrown together after Ramadan’s start date was announced. However it is certainly a very interesting event to have witnessed and I definitely admire the Muslim population who stick so diligently to the fasting. I especially admire the likes of my colleagues who manage to do a full day’s work with no food or drink to keep them going!

I would advise to anyone here in Egypt during Ramadan to stock up on essentials like water and phone credit whenever you see an open shop, because the times are fairly erratic, with a lot of shops shutting for the whole day and then a large part of the evening too whilst the people eat and celebrate at night. You may or may not find it a problem depending on where you live and what you have around you.

Also beware that people are a lot more conservative during this period. When out out and about it is wise to respect that a little, and perhaps maintain a conservative level of dress and behaviour in accordance with the country’s tone. (To be honest this is advice I would give any visitor on a general visit whether in Ramadan or not!) Whilst on the metro with some friends I saw a girl, clearly foreign, dressed in nothing more than hot pants and a strappy top! Well, even on a normal day in Cairo this would be deemed pretty outrageous but my friends were clearly very unimpressed by the level of inconsideration that this girl showed during a month they deem so sacred. I am sure the girl knew nothing about the offence she was causing, however if she had done her homework at the travel agency she may have been a bit more aware of how to dress in the public areas of Cairo!

Ramadan is not a fixed festival. It falls back by a few days every year, sometimes it happens in summer, sometimes winter, so if you book a holiday to Egypt or somewhere like it, it is worth finding out if there are any religious festivals or such like that you need to be aware of during your stay.

It’s also worth being aware that alcohol is not so readily available during this period. I think the hotels are still allowed to stock it, but they won’t sell to Egyptians, and I have heard that a lot of the ‘Drinkies’ (the main alcohol chain in Egypt) and other alcohol sellers just don’t bother opening during the 4 weeks of fasting and celebration. So if you want a tipple during these four weeks it is best to buy before.

Aside from that I think there is nothing more to say than enjoy the experience! Ramadan is a sociable time so try and find some Egyptian friends to break fast with and get involved with the celebrations. I confess I didn’t try fasting this year but I had all sorts of invites to meals, picnics, boat trips and more, some of which I was able to get along to and which were very enjoyable.

One thing I really admire is that Egyptians really are able to have a lot of fun without the need for alcohol! Something that I am sure many people will agree with me about is that a lot of English celebrations generally involve copious amounts of alcohol, and many Brits (not all of them of course) cannot have fun and let their guard down without being fuelled with ‘Dutch courage’. Drinking is just about one of the only past times in my home country which in my opinion largely due to an infrastructure which allows only two main activities after dark – drinking and eating; thus meaning we are a nation of obese alcoholics!!! This is not so in Islamic countries. Egyptians seem to be blessed with the ability to make their own fun and have enjoyable celebrations whilst remaining completely sober which I truly admire.

So enjoy the atmosphere with the level of respect required and you will enjoy ‘Ramadan Kareem’ (Peaceful Ramadan) with the rest of Cairo.

Fanoos

Fanoos

Categories: Holidays in Egypt | Leave a comment

Fagnoon, fun for everyone!

The other week Rami and I went to a great little place in Saqqara. The place was called Fagnoon; an arts centre situated in the countryside, about 20 minutes out of Cairo along the Saqqara road; right by the Saqqara pyramids.

Neither of us were really sure what to expect from the place, as a lot of the time Egyptian culture spots are less than impressive. Now, I am not going to say that the place blew me away, but it certainly exceeded my expectations, which of course are somewhat changed in this country to other countries that I have travelled to.

If you are used to travelling the world and you have been to many different places and seen many different sights, or even if you have travelled around in your own modernised Western country, then you may be a little disappointed by the level of maintenance at some of Egypt’s main tourist attractions. The country is not yet fully fledged as one that is capable of dealing with tourism, and although it is one of their main sources of income, they are still trying to get it right. I am sure I have discussed this at various other intervals in my blog, but some of the things that I imagine the worldly wise will find it hard to tolerate  are as follows:

-          There is very little of information at key attractions, such as the museum and the pyramids; meaning that unless you pay for a tour guide who may not speak English very well, you are unable to walk around and discover them alone.

-          The incessant harassment from every angle to buy stuff, or have a tour guide, or take a camel ride or… well, you get the point. I have on some occasions even be pestered by families to have my photo taken with their small Egyptian children – heaven knows why I all of a sudden became more interesting than the 4000 year old world famous monument behind me. Other expat friends have had the same reports of random photographs. I only humour them when I am in the mood!

-          The obvious lack of care taken of the sites; rubbish is strewn everywhere, facilities are non existent or not clean, and efforts to conserve the sites are almost non-existent. Signs displaying rules such as ‘don’t touch’ or ‘don’t take photos’  are apparently only there for decoration.

-          The fact that most (not all) Egyptians do not care as much about their heritage as they do about how much money it can bring them.

That being said, I am only going by experience, and hopefully other people can contradict my pessimistic observations. I am also not saying that there is nothing for the intrepid traveller to enjoy. Basically, whatever your own personal experiences of the country are, I will give a piece of advice to you which is this: to fully appreciate what Egypt has to offer you must first vanquish any former travel memories from your head, and lower your overall expectations by a moderate margin. In doing so you will learn to expect hassle and litter and bad facilities and you will prepare accordingly such as taking a packet of tissues for the toilets (or even better going before you leave!). Maybe you will also read up about the history of the monuments prior to the day so you can teach yourself. With such preparations your overall enjoyment if your trips will be increased.

So with Fagnoon I was expecting something perhaps a little shabby and run down but what there actually is, is a very quaint little yard which has been made to accommodate all sorts of arts and crafts, and animals, as well as providing breathing space for hyperactive children (and adults!) to get rid of their energy outdoors in the fresh air; something that is almost impossible in the city. There was even toilet paper in the toilets, hooray! The place seems to be run by a group of people who sit and do arts and crafts all day, and then when a visitor arrives, they drop what they are doing and teach them.

Entry for foreigner and Egyptian visitors is just 25LE. This includes a token to do one activity on arrival and then for any extra activities you pay just 20LE each one. The sorts of crafts available are pottery, glass painting, weaving, canvass painting, wood carving, metal work and more. The place also has animal rides (although see my note below about this), paint-balling and a mud pit! In the hot weather the things which sound pretty gross actually become extremely appealing so my advice would be to wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting messy! Actually, this would be a good idea whether or not you are planning to roll around in mud because even pottery or painting can get all over your clothes (especially if you are me!)

We did not do the messy activities last week because we were not prepared but I would definitely go back and try them! For our first visit we chose pottery and glass painting. The pottery was great but exhausting! The wheels are manual so you have to operate it with your foot whilst also trying to shape the clay. Rami got the hang of this and he made a lovely ash tray and a small pot. I did not get the hang of it and I made a complete mess! We also did some glass painting which I was a lot better at, and both pictures are now proudly displayed in my bedroom.

In between each activity was space to chill out and buy copious amounts of water and juice from the little shop. From this place you can also buy art supplies so you can do your favourite activity at home.

Even adults were allowed to utilise the climbing frames and crazy swings. However old and grey I felt after my birthday I must confess that the climbing frame the large spiders nests and the hammock swings were simply irresistible… although we discovered we were too big for the see saw!

As for food, there is apparently a lady who makes Egyptian style pizzas for around 35LE each, but there is also loads of space to picnic. Personally I would advise taking food because if it is quiet and there are less than four orders for food then the lady doesn’t make any. When we went it was just us and about three other groups, none of whom had the pizza.

The only thing that did hit a nerve was that the animals, which I thought would be treated nicely in accordance to the general attitude of the place, were still whipped when the children were having rides. It didn’t seem very hard and I don’t think the animals were too distressed, but I did not like it and did not seem at all necessary. When Rami mentioned something to the man doing the rides, instead of taking the advice on board, he actually decided it would be fun to whip the donkey more. I think unfortunately, the whole country needs to be made more aware of animals rights, before we can start to think about a dramatic change.  As it happens the animals still seemed to be treated better than most city worker animals are, so I guess I have to let it pass this once.

To get to the place you have to drive up towards the Giza pyramids and then continue on the country road towards Saqqara and out of Cairo. It is on your right about 20 minutes drive from the city and just after a small bridge across a very thin branch of the Nile. The markers are colourful posts, wrapped in material. If you see a brightly coloured but derelict building then you have overshot the entrance and will need to walk back about 20 paces.

You can find out more about the place and its activities here.

The place closes when the sun goes down and activities stop around 5pm. I think the biggest problem with the place is accessibility. Getting there is not so much of a problem, providing you can find a taxi willing to go so far out. But getting back is harder because hardly any taxis (or cars in general) go that way. So just a thought to bear in mind that it would be best to either go in a private car or, if you can afford it, hire a taxi to wait a couple of hours for you and pay him accordingly (for most tourists in a group the cost would still be more than worth it). Rami and I walked a few hundred yards and crossed a bridge to pick up the microbus transport home. However I would certainly not recommend this to any tourists travelling alone. I am not a fan of microbus transport at all but I take it for convenience and low cost; and I only take it when I am with Rami.

The play area in Fagnoon

The play area in Fagnoon

Fagnoon art

Fagnoon art

Categories: Egypt advice | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

My Birthday in Cairo!

Well I turned another year older and wiser last week and subsequently spent my first birthday in Egypt. Sadly the signs of my vast years are starting to show, as a few weeks ago I found my first three grey hairs! I am telling myself that they were just three hairs that happened to be extremely sun bleached, but perhaps the onslaught of city living is finally taking its toll. Who knows?  I ordered Rami to cut them out immediately and have not checked my head since to see if there are any more!

To celebrate the anniversary of my birth Rami took me for a day use in a hotel near his house called the Mercure. It’s a five star place that is right by the pyramids and is really rather smart.

Day use of a hotel allows you to use the facilities of the place such as the pool, the gym and the bar. The packages obviously vary according to the hotel – I think some include use of a room to change in – but I thought ours was a fantastic deal and I would definitely recommend it. We paid 120LE per person minimum charge, and had use of the pool from noon until sunset.

It is very common to have minimum charges in eateries in this country, for example in a café in Maadi you may pay 50LE per person whether or not you consume 50LE worth of food, drink or shisha; but up to the limit you can chose what you like from the menu.

Paying 120LE per head at the hotel basically meant that we had 120LE worth of food or drinks each and use of the pool was thrown in for free! The menu was nice too, with lots of choice, from salad to pizzas, and a selection of alcohols, juices and virgin cocktails gracing the beverage list. We were very well fed and watered for our 240LE, although we had to steer clear of products like wine or spirits because the price was still a little out of reach, as it went into touristic prices of 60 or 70LE, or more, per glass. It may not sound much to the average Brit, but it’s almost 2 hours pay for the humble English teacher! Still, by being careful and rationing our spend we made it last all day and had some money left at the end to buy two of the most delicious deserts I have ever tasted!  Very tasty and very filling.

All the while, the pyramids were reflected in the large windows overlooking the pool, and the pool provided a refreshing break from the strong sun. I love swimming and I miss it here. It is hard to find places to go where it is not weird for girls to be in a swimming costume. My gym has a little pool outside, but I would simply never use it. Not only would all of the Egyptian men using the gym go mad (yes, a lot of Egyptians do sadly fit their stereotype and it is not pleasant for women in this country), but all of the people in the flats overlooking the gym garden would be either ogling out of their windows, or damning me to hell for daring to expose myself in public. So I have to restrain, and it is a real shame in this glorious weather. Day usage in any hotel should allow women to freely swim and prance around half naked to their hearts content, as it is perfectly acceptable within the confines of hotels to do so. Plus, the audience is mainly foreign and so they don’t bat an eyelid.

The quibbles I had with the hotel were few. Firstly, the pool was a little annoying; it had a very shallow area, a huge slope and then a 3.5m deep area. There was nowhere in between to do any of that lovely bobbing around with just your head popping out of the water, which I love to do. Unless you are a child or you actually want to swim, you have to opt to  either sit in 1 foot of water at the edge, or cling on for dear life to the side of the deep end not to drown! Secondly, it was rather loud in the garden: being at the foot of the pyramids also means being in the heart of the traffic. If you are looking for a spot of solitude and quiet, and you are not as used to the traffic as perhaps I now am, then Mercure may not the right place and you should shop around for a different hotel in a quieter spot.

The Mercure Pool

The Mercure Pool

The evening brought us a trip to see Men in Black 3D which was great fun! There are tonnes of cinemas in Cairo and many of them show English movies. Family Land in Maadi, Galaxy near Dokki, City Stars, Nile Towers. Details of all of these and more can be found on www.yallabina.com; the site for Egyptian youth to find out about events in their area. Yallabeena means ‘let’s go together’ and you usually say it when leaving to make your friends get a move on, like English ‘come on’ or ‘shall we…’ Obviously with most of the films you have to wait a while before they hit the Box Office after the Western World… and some don’t even make it (I am still waiting for Shakespeare film Anonymous to arrive.) But Rami and I love our trips to the cinema and go frequently to all the blockbusters. One word to mention is that Egyptians have not yet got the concept of the cinema being a public space, and many will talk loudly on their mobiles or to each other without being told to put a sock in it. I know it happens occasionally in England but at least the staff do something most of the time; here you are left to fend for yourself. I usually turn around and give them a menacing ‘I’m foreign and I can’t read the subtitles’ glare. It tends to work!

So that was my birthday, and a very nice one it was. I extended my celebrations a little bit because a couple of weeks after the day, Rami announced he was taking me to a place called Fagnoon on our next day off; which was a very exciting announcement for him to make. We went on Monday just gone and had lots of fun. Fagnoon is a little hidden gem for families living in Cairo, and I will pen a few lines about that in my next blog.

Another warning to choose your eateries carefully!

As if the koshery incident wasn’t enough, I had a run – in with another of my favourite foods here in Cairo the other day. I buy products from the street bakeries as quick, relatively nutritional ‘on the go’ food. Well, the other day I was popping from work to the gym. On the way I stopped to get some sustenance. As I sat, in the garden of the gym, happily munching the two mini pizzas I had grabbed from the stall by work, I happened to glance down whilst mid-mouthful. Atop my bread-based snack I saw sitting, plain as day, a medium- sized, dead (possibly baked) caterpillar! Now I am  fairly adventurous with my food but I am pretty sure I didn’t order the ‘insect topping’! I honestly thought I was going to be physically sick again!

I have to say after this incident I can confirm that I find it almost impossible to buy reasonably priced, quick and more importantly; healthy and safe food here, for those times when you are dashing from place to place. I have come to the conclusion that it simply does not exist. Whilst out and about, if you don’t take food from home, you have to rely on expensive and very unhealthy take out brands such as Mcdonalds or Pizza Hut, expensive sit-down café food, or if you don’t want this, it’s got to be something from a street seller. As I have pretty much ruled out most of the street sellers now, and I certainly do not want to be one of those people who lives on Maccy D’s then, for me, the home food option is starting to really appeal!

If you are less paranoid then there is absolutely no problem eating from the various food sellers across Cairo – from fool and tarmaya (beans and falafel) carts to kebabs and shwerma. I know lots of expats that eat from everywhere, they just  accept that hygiene standards are much lower than many places in the world, people don’t really understand the concept of health and safety and flies are utterly unavoidable!

There are still a couple of places I trust, not least the koshks (kiosks) that are at regular intervals on every street and sell crisps, drinks and other snack foods. I trust a handful of select food chains which are proven to be pretty good. I also trust all the juice people as they always seem clean and well managed. The fresh juice stalls here are wonderful – as long as it is in season, you can get any fruit you like blended up for the tiny price of 2 or 3LE. My favourites are ‘assub’ which is liquid sugar cane and ‘doum’ which is the root of the gingerbread palm, and basically tastes like liquidised gingerbread men. I find it amazing added with milk but it is an acquired taste! Apparently during Ramadam Egyptians drink it a lot- I am looking forward to that moment! The fruit stalls are not hard to spot, just look for the shops with all sorts of fruit hanging outside!

So, surviving here with a delicate tummy is a little tricky but it is manageable, it just takes a lot of adaptation. I am sure my stomach is stronger now than it ever was in England, with everything I have thrown at it over the past few months! Getting over the fears and just going for it with food is probably the best advice I can give you and using the slogan “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” I am sure if I am here for much longer then I will start to gravitate back to the street shwerma stalls and the sandwich vans that I used to frequent. It’s hard not to when life is busy and you are hungry.

Basically, I think that you can’t expect to come to a country that is still developing, such as Egypt, and have everything done the Western way, with Western standards because it just isn’t going to happen. Think of it like this: 80million people are surviving in this country without any formalised standard of hygiene control that our Western government thinks is so paranoid about… so I guess they must be doing something right!

Categories: Egypt advice, Heart of Cairo, Holidays in Egypt, street trading, surviving cairo | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Standing up for my rights as a customer

The internet in my home seems to have disappeared (I guess that’s the price you pay for ‘borrowing’ someone else’s wireless!) so I am sat in the sunny garden of my gym instead, contemplating the idea of undertaking some exercise but not quite making it through the door! I have to say, when it is 38 degrees Celsius at 10am in the morning I think I can be forgiven for being a little hesitant!

So instead I will procrastinate by posting up another blog entry, this time about my trip to Maadi Island; as promised last time.

Before that, I feel I have just enough time for a little moan about something that happened to me the other day. I went to a lovely café a week or so ago with Rami and some friends (Cafe Riviera in Midan Lebnan); we ordered nice drinks and nice desert and had a nice time. However, I’m afraid to say unsurprisingly, when we finally asked for the bill it appeared that we had a battle on our hands to pay the right amount. I really can’t understand why so many places in Egypt find the idea of good customer service so hard to understand, especially when it comes to differences in the bill.

Basically, the desert we had ordered had been priced differently in the menu to the system- 10LE difference to be precise! When we got the bill at the end, instead of being 8LE a pop, each portion was actually charged at 18LE each – over double the price! Now, I am not one to quibble about a few pounds, but a 110% mark up from the menu price seemed a little cheeky to me!

I would not be writing in quite such length about this if the matter had been dealt with professionally and quickly. However, it was not. Nope – we had to hang around for around half an hour, and argue with 3 different people including the manager, just to persuade them to take away the bill and rectify their mistake! When they finally brought back the rectified bill, they had only take half the mistaken fee off! Unbelievable! So I took a stand and sent it back, and finally it came back considerably less than it was before. It wouldn’t be so bad except that they actually confessed that there were tonnes of mistakes in the menu and that they knew about them all but they had done nothing about it because most of the time people just pay them. Well we were not ‘people’ and this was not most of the time!

I think the best advice I can give, when going out to eat or drink anywhere is check the bill thoroughly when it comes.  There are regularly mistakes and problems and if you are a little bit hard up like me right now, these mistakes add up. If you have even a tiny bit of the language I would recommend defending your rights as far as you can without getting into a fight. We kept our discussion with this boss calm and fairly upbeat, but we made sure he understood that we would give his café a bad reputation if he continued to defend his mistake. Again, it is really sad that business owners only listen when you hit them where it hurts i.e. loss of business, but I have come to realise that this is just the way things work here. Many of the things I say and do in this country (through Rami most of the time) I would not have the confidence to say anywhere else, and I would not want to say them either, because generally I am too polite. However, in this place I have found it is survival of the fittest, and ‘if you can’t beat them you have to join them’ in order just to maintain a slither of your rights as a paying customer!

Maadi Island.

Well, considering the stress I go through just ordering something in a cafe, I am sure that you will be in agreement with me as to how imperative it is to find all the places that I can escape to for some rest and repose whilst living in Cairo! Admittedly there are far fewer areas here than in my home town, but there are enough if you hunt for them.

One place we discovered a few weeks ago was a small piece of land off of the bank of the Nile called Maadi Island; a place is perfect for the kids on a Friday afternoon. You can find the entrance along the Corniche almost on the way out of Maadi. You can spot it at night by the excessive illumination which makes it look like a fairground! As far as I can remember it is almost directly opposite a hospital (or a Moushtafa if you are speaking in Arabic!). You pay a small fee at the onshore entrance (10LE each for us but it may be more if you are not with an Egyptian) and then access the island by a bridge which has amusingly been made to blend in with the surrounds using astro turf! The island is, quite simply, trees, cafés and a kid’s play park with rides and slides. You can take boat rides for about 10LE or you can just while the time away sipping juice and watching life go by on the water. As the night drew in and we were just about to leave, a guitar player tuned up and started to entertain the punters. The atmosphere on this island was really lovely. It is hard to believe that just a bridge away the city raged relentlessly.

One pointer to remember is that dogs are not allowed, neither are picnics sadly – you are encouraged to eat at the restaurants but this is not too much of an unreasonable demand in my opinion, as the place is mainly a floating café! **Please note this moderation to my blog – I have since found out you will also be turned away from Maadi Island if you are wearing shorts and other innappropriate clothing! Apparently it is army owned and, like a lot of places here in Cairo, has to comply with the Islamic rules of modesty.**

My recommendation for an afternoon of complete refreshment is to take in the island’s ambiance whilst the sun is hot during the day, because by the Nile you get a cool breeze, and in the café you get shade. Then, when the sun is just about to go, leave the island and take a walk along the Nile until you find a felucca station. Depending on who you are with Feluccas cost upwards of 60 or 100LE for an hour (not including tip). Split this cost between two or more and it is a very reasonably priced and delightful way to watch the Egyptian sun setting over the city.

Cairo is a demanding city; especially, it would seem, in the summer when the sun beats down  on you from dawn till dusk and the micro climate is made even hotter by the millions of car engines churning hot, petrol-filled air into the atmosphere. There are lots of ways that one can relax and escape this stuffy environment and I would strongly recommend discovering these places for yourself at the weekend so that you can fully throw yourself into city living for the rest of what is probably a busy and draining working week.

Categories: British Community El Maadi, Holidays in Egypt, surviving cairo, Traffic in Cairo | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Holidaying from Home!

I have recently spent a horrendous week battling with food poisoning after a dodgy portion of kosheri from the streets. Simply put, kosheri is a delicious mix of rice, noodles, spaghetti and macaroni, chick peas, lentils, onions and tomatoes, the delights of which I never wish to taste again! Surprising that a dish that contains absolutely no meat whatsoever could have been the culprit for 3 days of solitary confinement where I got to know my ‘hammam’ pretty well (‘bathroom’ for the non-natives!) but according to the pharmacist and my students, it is most certainly possible. I hope that I have not just put every new visitor to Cairo off of trying it. At risk of sounding slightly hypocritical, kosheri really is one of the best examples of local Egyptian cuisine that you can taste on a trip to Egypt (until the beginning of this week from hell it was my favourite dish) and I would recommend it to anyone, although do make sure it is from a slightly more reputable eatery than the one I happened to visit!

This incident, and also the rather unexpected quitting of my job, has delayed the publishing of my blog for a number of weeks. However, the content is not out of date as I am writing a little journal of my three lovely trips out with Rami. We are both broke at the moment and have been very stressed due to bad treatment at work. We can’t escape the city for long because of a lack of cash, so we have been having ‘holidays at home’ where we make the effort to do nice things which remove us from the hustle and bustle of Cairo for enough time to feel like we have been away. Outings like these provide a much needed respite from the daily grind and are vital in my opinion.

Just as an aside, I have a word of warning that I wanted to share with people. If you are moving to Cairo and you are checking my blog for tips and advice then I want to tell you to beware of cowboy companies who will take every chance to exploit you as an employee. I feel so sorry for all my Egyptian friends and I can truly see why the revolution took place, after just a couple of experiences of working in this country. Unlike England, which has gone into overdrive with regards to legislation, in this country there are absolutely no employee rights whatsoever. Managers and company owners can do and say whatever the hell they like without any repercussions and unless it is a foreign owned place, or a place with some kind of moral compass, it would appear that they do. One day I may blog in more detail of the events that occurred where I just worked but I will leave it for now, lest my annoyed state should put me in a compromising position. All I will say is just beware. Check and double check the details of a job before you start or you could end up in trouble.

Onto more pleasant subjects now! The first trip we took was one Thursday afternoon, when we finally went together to the Zableens in Moquattam valley! I wrote about these incredible people in a previous blog and it has been a trip that I have wanted to take with Rami since I have been living here. Well now I finally got a chance to cross the threshold of their settlement and see things for myself.

The Zableens are a group of Copts who have the sole responsibility for collecting and recycling the trash for the entire city. The feature of their habitat which makes them really stand out is the beautiful church that they worship in, which has been built into a mountain. The mountain, coincidently, is a feature of the miracle where Simon the Tanner moves the mountain, subsequently preventing the massacre of many innocent Christians by proving that his faith in God was strong enough to make mountains bow to his command. It is probably worth remembering here that although nowadays the whole of the Middle East is predominantly Islamic, it is also the birth land, literally, of Christianity. It was in Egypt that most of the miracles and stories of the Bible took place, and Coptic Christianity is the oldest denomination of them all. Therefore the place is rife with site of miracles and famous landmarks from history.

Admittedly, we did not actually have time to see everything in the place as we turned up rather late. This leaves the entire recycling works open to be viewed another day. However, the church was breathtaking. I won’t spoil the surprise too much for potential visitors, but basically the initial cavernous church hall has been embellished by a Brazillian sculptor who scales the Moquattam mountain carving friezes from the Bible into the rock surrounds.

As I am sure you can imagine from the fairytale-esq description the place is fairly unique! People from any religion or none will certainly be able to appreciate the sights. We had a very pleasant couple of hours wandering round, taking in the atmosphere. We also stopped for a bite to eat as there is a small canteen there which, excitingly, sells pig meat! I had my first taste of pork ever in this country by way of a tasty luncheon meat. Pork is very hard to come by as obviously it is forbidden in Islam. To get some you have to ‘know someone who knows someone’ or pay a lot of money at a Christian or foreign butcher. Eating it at the Zableens made me remember just how much I miss the meat and it is great to know a place where I can go to stock up at a relatively low price!

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One of the many Biblical depictions carved out of the rock in the wall in the Moquattam church.

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The view from the pews in Moquattam Church

The second day of my holiday from home was a trip to Alexandria. This was another pleasant day out although it did not start smoothly. I was very keen to go to the Ancient lighthouse as I had a vague recollection that it was labelled one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Little did I know that I was a little late, as this particular marvel was actually destroyed by Sultan Qaitbay in 1480, and replaced with the still- standing Citadel. Now, only the remnants remain, far below the sea and visible only to divers. Before finding this out we went on a wild goose chase up and down the coastline, in public transport and private taxis, being pointed in many a wrong direction by all the locals and even being taken to a concrete lighthouse dating back to WW2 – definitely not a ‘Wonder’ in my opinion!  We finally met a foreign couple who showed us their guide book and explained that what we are looking for no longer exists! As well as being sad that the lighthouse has been lost for all eternity, I was also a little perturbed by the fact that not a single local Egyptian that we met seemed to know the history of their town, even though it once sported one of the sites deemed most incredible by the rest of the world. It was bad enough Rami not being clued up, but the people who are there every day should surely know better!? It made me wonder if most English people are as clued up about their own history. Probably not. Shame.

Just another little tip based on this experience which I must share: I have noticed that it is a common trait in many Egyptians to never admit that they don’t know something. The frustrating result of this is that if you ask for directions from someone or sometimes even when you get into a taxi, you can never be sure that you are going the right way! There is a high chance that instead of reaching your destination, you will be taken all over the city, wasting a lot of time and ringing up a nice big transport bill, only to be dropped in the wrong place at the end!  Or even worse, you may find the taxi driver turning around one hour into the journey, and admitting (indirectly of course) that he has no idea where he is going. Check the route before you travel anywhere so you know where to direct the driver and if you want to go to somewhere slightly further out, like Alexandria, maybe consider booking with a private tour company. This may dampen the fun of exploring the city alone like a lone traveller but it will sure as hell cut out all the frustration of wasted time and getting lost!

After this little mishap however, the rest of the day in Alexandria panned out just nicely. We ended up paying a visit to King Farouk’s palace- the home of the last Egyptian monarch. As far as I believe the palace is now uninhabited, but the grounds remain open to the public and for a small fee of 6LE (It would appear that the price is the same for everyone) you can enter and spend a blissful day escaping the crowds in what has now become an enclosed private resort. The place consists of around 3 private beaches, parkland, gardens, cafés, restaurants and hotels. We had a really lovely day and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has been in Egypt for a long time and is feeling suffocated in the stifling city. A couple of hours relaxing by the open sea is definitely enough to blow the cobwebs away! Of course the place is pretty conservative and I would not imagine that stripping down to a bikini and going for a swim in the sea would be looked on with any great kindness. Best to save ‘risqué behaviour’ like this for areas that are a little more open-minded like Sharm el Sheikh!

We then had a lovely dinner in a fresh fish restaurant on the sea front. Alexandria is famous for its fish and this restaurant’s meals were so fresh that they were still alive in buckets downstairs! The fish was nice but quite pricy in Egyptian terms although tourists should manage it without much hassle. Rami and I were full up on 140LE worth of fish, or £14!

You can get to Alexandria via the train; one way from Ramesis Station is just 35LE and trains run until around 10pm from early in the morning so you can get a full day there. We have not tried staying overnight because restrictions and costs for unmarried couples in hotels are too much hassle for us to bother with, but I have heard that there are places to stay and I am sure that any reputable booking website will have plenty of options, if you wish to have a long weekend there. To be honest I don’t think any more than a couple of nights will be needed in Alexandria.

One thing to warn visitors about is that the place is still very much a part of Egypt: The coastline is not looked after in the public areas and there is lots of rubbish strewn on the beaches and into the sea; people still try to hassle you to buy stuff and the attitude in some places (as previously mentioned) teeters on city levels of conservatism. But the bonus is that you are in the fresh air by the sea and you leave the city behind for a bit, and for a pretty cheap train ticket that is all that is really needed.

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King Farouk’s Palace Grounds

Our next little excursion, the week after this, and as a way of recovering from my food poisoning, was to a little piece of land a lot closer to home called Maadi Island. Yes, that’s right, an island in the Nile created especially for Cairo residents! I had a lovely afternoon there with Rami and I will share this in my next blog.

Categories: Coptic Church, Egypt advice, Holidays in Egypt | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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