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 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!