Monthly Archives: December 2006

twice legal.

As of 1:22 AM Pacific today, I’m legally able to drink twice over.  Unfortunately, I’m still so jet-lagged that one drink is enough to send me into a coma.
Finished Christmas shopping on my bike today.  Despite the cruddy weather, it was a fun way to go.  It also limits the size and number of gifts.  That doesn’t necessarily translate into monetary savings, but it helps.  Coming back I went up a hill that probably gains about 300′ in a third of a mile.  Almost made it … clearly not working out for several weeks and eating like a tourist have taken their toll.  Gonna have to take care of that.

seattle – brrrrr!

Arrived home yesterday afternoon, following 20 hours of travel.  Fantastic to be here!
Flights were pretty uneventful.  I was very happy indeed that I hadn’t been able to rebook via London, as Heathrow has been socked in and largely closed for two days.  I don’t know when I would have gotten home.  Instead I passed a very quiet three hours in downtown Amsterdam.  There’s not a lot going on at 8 in the morning there – none of the museums are open, nor the "shop windows".  And frankly, there’s not much for me to do in one of the coffeeshops, so I just kind of walked around.
Slept a few hours on the flights too.  The Cairo flight took off at 4:20 AM, so I’d been up all the night before.  Went direct from Amsterdam to Seattle, over the far northern reaches of Greenland and Canada.  Looked cold out there.  Business class is definitely the way to travel this far.  I ate pretty well, watched a couple of movies, and reclined far enough to sleep.  It’ll be hard to travel steerage class again after this.
Kris and the girls picked me up at the airport.  So good to see them again.  We went directly to Kayla’s Tae Kwan Do class, and then ate dinner at one of my current-favorite Chinese places nearby.  Being about 3 am for me, I was barely able to keep my eyes open – don’t remember when I’ve been so tired.  But when we finally got home, I curled up on the couch and watched the girls run around in their new Egyptian dresses and scarves, in front of the beautifully trimmed Christmas tree.  I think I was out by 7, and managed to sleep until about 4:45.  Not bad for quick readjustment. 
Next few days will be very busy.  We’re getting ready for a Christmas party on Saturday evening, so gotta clean the house up.  I’ve not done my shopping, and there’s always a bunch of stuff going on around Christmas too.
One minor gripe – it’s bloody cold here!  I’d acclimated to the mild Egyptian winter (50s at night, near 70 during the day).  But that’s a tradeoff I’ll definitely make.

ma’as salaama!

I’m camped out in the departure lounge, with one hour to go before boarding.  I have a five hour layover in Hamsterdam – depending on what the passport control lines look like, I may venture out again.  It’ll be early morning though, so I’m not sure what will be open.
I went back to Abu el-Sid for one last meal – babaganoug, ta’amiyya, and kosheri.  So I leave full of food and rich with experiences.

fishwari’s and khan al-khalili

Just spent my last last bit of cairene daylight.  I got out there sort of late (nearly 14:30), but passed a very pleasant few hours wandering the alleys of Khan al-Khalili.  It’s taken a bit, but I’m finally relaxing and enjoying the charm of the city and the people more.  My difficulty with it initially is that as a tourist, you spend so much time fending off the hustling that it’s too easy to just keep quiet and not chat back. 
The thing is, it’s quite safe here.  You’re unlikely to get mugged, or to fall victim to crime so long as you take the usual precautions.  But since everyone’s always asking for your money or attention, and because the notion of personal space is very different here, it’s very easy to presume the worst.
Took a cab over to Khan al-Khalili today, and the driver was a pleasant fellow and surprisingly mellow motorist.  He suggested the Sufi dance demonstration tonight over near the Citadel — instead I’m resting up a bit before heading out for one final meal at Abu el-Sid in Zamalek.  I’d planned to take the Lonely Planet-suggested walking tour of Islamic Cairo, but found it nearly impossible to navigate by their map – not necessarily their fault, I think trying to map the serpentine alleys is nearly impossible. 
After wandering for about 30 minutes I found Naguib Mahfouz’s old ahwa haunt Fishwari’s.  I passed a very nice hour or so there, talking with a couple from France & Canada, and then with two gentlemen from Cairo.  One of them had been married to an american woman, and had spent some time living in the states (the flatlands of Missouri!), so he had a pretty good frame of reference.  His friend enjoyed his sheesha, while I consumed some mint shai, and then some ahwa.  We talked about how men and women relate differently to one another in each of the cultures, and how people are much more prone to touch one another (platonically) than in America.  Men will walk together arms locked, and kiss each other upon greeting.
After draining my drink, I wandered around Khan al-Khalili for another couple of hours, before stopping into the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe for tamiyya, taboula, and some delicious fresh mango juice.  I’m pretty sure I’ve gained more than five pounds while here – between not working out and eating/drinking all of this good stuff.  I’ll need to get back into form when I get home …
As I was walking this afternoon, I realized how much I’ll miss the vibrant market and rich smells you find there.  I hope I can remember them – it’s something that’s definitely unique to this part of world (at least in my experience).
Riding back to the hotel was another lunatic fringe experience … the driver accelerated into the narrowest spaces yet … traffic in front would stop, and he’d speed up to make sure he ended up with the advantage.  It approached the high-speed truck slalom for thrills.

forgot about this one – egypt’s brain drain

Don’t know how I forgot to write about this, but last week, while interviewing at the Cairo Microsoft Innovation Center, we were honored by a visit from Dr. Tarek Kamel, Egypt’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology.  It speaks volumes about the significance of a major corporate presence in Egypt – that a cabinet minister would take the time to mark the occasion of its opening.
We were introduced to him, and the center’s director Tarek Elabbady explained to Dr. Kamel that we were there to recruit students to come to work in the US.  Always ready with an unhelpful comment, I volunteered that the candidates were so strong, we might well exceed our hiring expectations.  Naturally I intended this as a complement to Egypt’s educational system and people.  It’s clear that exporting talent to the US generates mixed feelings for many Egyptians.  Years of economic troubles have fed the brain drain.  The hope is that they will ultimately be able to grow enough opportunity to retain their talent here, and also perhaps to convince some of their ex-pats to move back home, bringing with them years of valuable experience.
I’ve seen sentiments to that effect from a number of folks from outside the US who have worked for me.  People from India and eastern Europe in particular still consider those places home, but see no worthwhile economic opportunity there.  People in the US fear jobs moving overseas to places like this, but if they could understand just how badly these opportunities are needed, they might feel differently.  Speaking from years of interviewing experience, I’d like to see US candidates step things up a bit too – there’s lots of international talent out there who can capably do quite a few of our jobs.  The competition could be very healthy for us.
Of course, I’d probably feel very differently if my job were directly threatened.
One thing Kris and I explored a bit last year was doing a 3 month stint at one of the development centers in China.  They have lots of raw talent, but lack depth of experience in front-line leaadership.  The idea would be that I’d go over and train someone to a job similar to mine.
Going back to the original topic of the post, I also have some mixed feelings about that.  But working internationally would be the experience of a lifetime, wouldn’t it?

december 20 : whack whack whack is your wake-up call

My plan for today was to sleep as late as possible, eat a big breakfast, then head over to Islamic Cairo.  Two down, one to go.
Problem is, nine was as late as I could sleep before the htoel guys started their hammering to repair/renovate/annoy.  I tried packing my stuff into the suitcase last night – quite a challenge.  I have a duffle that I can use too, but don’t want to carry it unless I need to.  The Eagle Creek cubes I bought at REI are great – just wish I’d gotten another one or two.
While in Luxor yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Naguib Mahfouz novel The Harafish.  It’s excellent … a very human story the rise and fall of a family over generations.  It focuses on a particular alley – no location or time is given, but I’m to surmise that it could have taken place pretty much anytime into the early part of this century.  The writing is excellent – very crisp but elegant.  Egypt’s only Nobel laureate, Mahfouz is a controversial figure.  Apparently some of the Islamists consider his writing blasphemous.  Apparently his writings are considered thinly-disguised allegory on religious leaders, including the prophet Mohammed.  What I like about the chapters I’ve read so far is that it is an innately human tale – people are complex, flawed creatures.  Even when we set out to "do the right  thing", it is often more complicated in practice than theory.  Above all, the characters are alive with feeling : love, longing, anger, jealousy.
Mahfouz loved his neighborhood, often holding court in an ahwa (coffeeshop) called Fishawi’s, near Khan al-Khalili.  Conveniently, there’s a recommended walking tour of the area … time to clean up and head out.  Only question is whether or not to tote my camera along.

december 19th : adventures on the roads of cairo


You’ve seen a spate of posts today … I’ve been offline since leaving Cairo on Saturday and have been writing all of these for posting when I could.  Haven’t figured out how to backdate yet, so they’ll all show up as being from today.  I’m back in Cairo now, sitting and looking out over the Nile and enjoying the view (and the noise).  I’ll try to stay awake into the early morning hours tonight, so I can start to turn my clock around.  Contrasting this with Luxor, the air is thick enough to eat.  It’s like breathing ash.  When I was working here last week, I thought I was suffering the effects of a lingering cold.  I’m pretty sure now that I was having a mild asthmatic episode – it’s happening again too.  Good thing I’m heading home soon.

Had originally planned to spend another day in Luxor, and head up in the evening.  At the last minute I changed to a morning flight, figuring that I didn’t really want to head back over to the West bank again – all that was left on my list to see was the Valley of the Queens and the Tombs of the Nobles.  Instead I spent the morning waiting for my delayed flight to take off, and then wedging into a teeny tiny seat on an A320 for the flight.

The cab ride from the airport was interminable.  I figured that by landing in the early afternoon, I’d avoid the rush hour, but that didn’t appear to be the case.  Two hours to travel about 25K.  On the positive side, it’s a lot safer that hurtling between trucks on the road to the fourth ring of hell so …

I’d tried booking into the Marriott, but ended up at the Nile Hilton.  After charting out the day, I felt disappointed about that.  While the Hilton is convenient to the Egyptian Museum (first stop!), the Marriott is closer to everything else I’m interested in (other than Islamic Cairo).

Plan A for today was to zip over to the museum, and then head over to Zamalek for shopping and dinner.  The museum was really something to see.  It’d be more fun if they provided maps, but I imagine that’d eat into the market for tour guides – you can have your pick of them outside the museum.  I braved it by myself and managed to see much of the Old Kingdom displays, along with the Tutankhamen galleries, ancient jewelry, Royal Mummies, and even the animal mummies (crocodiles!  Baboons! Dogs! – all mummified).  The strangest was seeing that they would mummify food, for the royals to consume in the hereafter.  The highlight was seeing the Tutankamen galleries.  People call him a minor king, but he did quite a bit in a short reign – including working to undo much of what his despot father did.  He restored traditional Gods and vastly improved Egypt’s fortunes in just nine years.  His tomb is small – especially as compared to the longer-reigning kings.  With that in mind, seeing all of the riches that went into the tomb of this minor king, means that the big guys must have had some mind-blowing stuff in their  tombs.  You’ve heard about the gold funereal mask, and possibly about the three coffins (inner – solid gold, middle – glass and precious gems, outer guilded wood).  But then there are the gold-plated sarcophagi, the gold beds and thrones, the jewelry, the beautiful statues, and the clothing.  The gallery takes up a lot of space – I don’t know how they fit all of that stuff into the small tomb.

As it was, I got my fill at the museum in about two hours, then headed over to the Fair Trade Crafts Center, and got a smashing dinner at Abu el-Sid (this was the place in Zamalek that Sherif took us to last week).  Five hours after landing in Cairo – I’m ready to get home now.  Unfortunately, flights are full tonight.  The only way I’d get back earlier would be to pay another $2K to take British Airways via London.  Oh well.

On the positive side, I got to see some new things this evening.  The first was a guy solving the traffic problem by riding his motorcycle on the sidewalk of the 26 July bridge.  It took a minute to register that my life was in danger, but I stepped aside for him at the last second.  The other thing was a guy (also on the 26th July bridge) selling grilled corn – walking his stand in a lane of traffic.  That wouldn’t have been a problem this afternoon when no one was moving, but cars were going about 35 around him.  And people got really upset when someone tried to stop to buy something from him.  It was hilarious.

You see all sorts of things on the road here.  People pulled over to the right lane, trying to repair their cars while traffic whizzes all around.  I mean – they’re under their car working on it in the middle of traffic!  In the morning, women stand on the freeway selling fresh bread.  People cross the freeway, as if it were a surface street.  I saw someone drive on to the freeway using the offramp.  Apparently all of this is normal enough that people know to expect it.  Apparently there are not many accidents until someone new gets on the road and screws everything up. 

december 18th : “why are you hurrying?”


Nice morning!  I went for my first run since Thanksgiving Day – from the hotel up to the temple at Karnak.  If not injured, I would have liked to have done more of this : run to a place once, then return with my camera.  It gives me a good sense of a place, and helps me enjoy the time more.  And it felt great to get my legs moving again.  I still have a bit of pain around the top of my left tibia, so this is probably it for a while again.  It wasn’t fast, but I wasn’t sucking wind the whole way either.

I guess they don’t see many runners here.  People stared and some smiling.  There were a couple of boys I ran past on the way back who asked "why are you hurrying?".  A good question indeed.

Anyway the whole thing reminded me why I like running to sightsee.  You can’t carry anything much, you don’t want to buy anything, and people leave you alone when you’re really sweaty and gross.

I spent about an hour or so at the temple, then ran back to the hotel.  I felt great other than the aforementioned small pain in my leg.  Good thing it was all level.

I showered, then took a walk through the Souq (marketplace).  I probably snapped about a hundred pictures – all candid street shots.  I love doing this, but wish I were better at it.  It’s a lot more fun than taking pictures of statues, walls, and etchings.

After walking the length of the Souq, I walked up to the Oasis Café, eager for one of their Turkish coffees.  I also sampled one of their fresh scones … outstanding!  Their dinner menu was underwhelming, but it was very pleasant slurping the turkish, munching the scone, and reading the New Yorker.

Afterwards, I headed back up to the temple at Karnak, getting a lift from a taxi driver who appeared to be about 13 years old!

I spent a long time walking around the temple, snapping many pictures.  I did cause a ruckus when I started to snap a picture of some schoolkids.  The teacher got a bit mad – ostensibly at the kids, but if it were me, I would have been mad at me too.

I hoofed it back to the Luxor Temple afterwards – the only location I revisited here.  It’s just a block from my room and is really something to see.  I snapped more pictures, but my heart wasn’t in it much … I was already looking forward to dinner.

After dropped stuff off at the room, I walked back up to the Souq to do some shopping and eat dinner.  I hadn’t shopped for presents yet, and thought it’d be nice to get the girls some Egyptian shirts, most likely made with sweatshop labor.  Again – the whole rigamarole around finding the right thing (with all of the merchants shouting out to you as you walk by), then haggling over price, just bums me out.  On the one hand, you don’t want to overpay.  On the other hand, you’re arguing about $2.  Owing to the completely random nature of the shops, you get to tell them what you like and don’t like over and over again.  In the end, I bought two dresses for about $17.50 – probably half again as much as I should have paid if I’d been a pro.

Dinner was at the Lotus Restaurant above the Souq, another recommendation from LP.  It was pretty marginal.  I had a couple of gin and tonics at the hotel bar on the way back in.  I amused two young women from London by missing a step as I descended the bar stool, somewhat resembling a piano falling out of a window.

december 17th : vodka martinis for the american guys please


After relaxing for while, I went down to meet Viresh for drinks and dinner.  We had some great vodka martinis at the Sheraton, and then ate a delicious Lebanese dinner at the Meridian.  There were Egyptian folk dancers performing during dinner, which was alternatingly loud and fun.  Viresh is headed out to the coast tomorrow – first to Hurgada via convoy, then a ferry to Sharm el Sheikh .  He’s planning on heading to St Katherine’s Monastery to climb Mt Sinai as well – I’m a bit jealous.

One thing I’ve enjoyed about traveling with Viresh is that he likes to get out away from the tourist bubble.  I’ve taken a couple of walks through the city of Luxor with him now, places which probably see fewer than a dozen tourists a week – which is saying a lot for this town.  It’s something being the only white European face around – gives you something to think about.  That said, people have been very nice – and when I’m not being hassling to buy something, I’ve been pretty comfortable around town.

Wow – lots of walking today, some of it up steep hills (really enjoyed that mountain trail walk over the Valley of the Kings.

december 17th : the valley of the kings


This morning was the first time I was awakened when it was time for morning prayer.  My tired eyes jarred open when they began around 6am.  The whole experience around a more-or-less state sanctioned religion is pretty interesting when you’re not used to it, particularly when you know as little about that religion as I do.  Included on my list of regrets for this trip is that I did not study more on Islam, so I’d at least be able to hold a conversation on the subject.  Ignorance makes me feel like a lazy american.

Plan for today was to cross over the river and see the sights on the west bank, including the Valley of the Kings .  Viresh is heading out to the coast tomorrow, so this is really all the time he has here in Luxor.  I’ve been tempted to try to rebook my flight back to the states a day earlier – really feeling homesick for Kris and the girls.  Part of it is that I’m also tiring of the constant hustling involved in going to see things.  It’s a bit more complicated as I’d also want to fly back to Cairo one day earlier, in order to get some time at the Egyptian Museum and Khan al-Khalili.  And rebooking the flight means going to the airport, ready to leave.  I’ve already paid for my room here for another two nights as well.  I don’t really need to decide anything quite yet.  We’ll see how tonight and tomorrow go, and then decide.

We ate a good breakfast, and went down to the waterfront to catch the ferry, which pulled out just as we got there.  No problem – we hired a motorboat across, and our enterprising cruise director also offered to be our driver for the day on the west bank.  We probably blew it by not haggling on price (LE 250).  On the other hand, paying less than $50 to have someone take us to all the places I’d listed from the guidebook wasn’t a bad deal for us, so off we went.

We climbed into the cab on the west bank, and started off towards the Colossi of Memnon.  Have to say that I’m still not digging the local belief that seatbelts are for sissies.  It’s part conditioning, and part fear on my part, but at least the prospects of grisly death at high speed are diminished when the cab keeps stalling out and we’re unable to travel more than 35 mph.  That was never the case when we traveled between Cairo and the fourth ring of hell (the suburbs).  The longer drive gave them time to gather some speed, and play chicken between the trucks.

Anyway – back on the west bank … first on the list today was the -er – colossal Colossi.  Viresh liked the pigeons roosting below one of the statues’ chins.  All that remains on the site are the two enormous statues – apparently because the huge temple originally located there was built in a floodplain.  After spending a few minutes there, we made for the Valley of the Kings. 

As we drove, I became convinced that we did the right thing hiring a driver for the day rather than trying to walk it all ourselves.  It’s walkable, but would have been time consuming.  I think it’s about 4 miles from the Nile out to the Valley, so that would have been an hour spent walking rather than seeing the tombs.

Our driver dropped us off at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.  The ticket includes entrance to three of the tombs – something obviously noted on the ticket which still somehow escaped us.  So naturally we went into the first tomb in – Ramses VII.  No disrespect intended for the late Ramses VII, but compared to some of his neighbors, his tomb was underwhelming.  This is excusable, as he apparently died suddenly, throwing his tomb building plans into chaos, and forcing his architect to expand one of the corridors to improvise a burial chamber.  Although more muted than other tombs (particularly Ramses I), it’s still worthwhile.  We took it the tombs for Ramses I, Tutankhamen, and Merneptah, on the apt recommendation of the Lonely Planet Guide. 

I got busted taking some pictures in the last tomb (no flash) … tense moment as the guard tried to take my camera away.  I held on tight and then clumsily tried to slip him some money.  Even after almost two weeks here, I still don’t have the hang of baksheesh.  He shushed me, and sent me away.  Weird.  You can bet that I didn’t dare snap another picture though.

After visiting the tombs, we walked up the mountain trail that you can take all the way over the hill to Deir al-Bahri.  The view was definitely worthwhile and it felt good to slog uphill a bit too.  Naturally we acquired a ‘guide’ partway up the hill too.  There’s really nothing wrong with that, but a) I didn’t mind getting a bit lost, and b) I didn’t want someone to keep telling me where to look.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.

Our driver kept us waiting about 15 minutes when we got back down.  We were on time, but he was apparently "putting petrol into his taxi".  Also he was doubling up, and fitting in another fare.  No problem with that, but it’s bad form to keep us waiting.

We spent about 40 minutes seeing Deir al-Bahri – definitely worthwhile.  There are all sorts of nooks and crannies to this temple, and the location is stunning.  Next we headed for the Temple of Merneptah – much to the chagrin of our esteemed driver.  Itchy to drop us and get another set of paying customers before too much of the day was gone, he protested that he’d agreed to take us to three places only (and we were definitely heading for Medinat Habu after this).  I’d been pretty quiet in the car to this point, letting Viresh do most of the talking.  But when he hit us for more money, I asserted that we’d agreed to six hours (which we weren’t going to use), and that he’d had the temerity to keep us waiting – so park the car please.  Thanks.

As it turned out, the driver was probably correct in his estimation that Merneptah wasn’t worth it.  On the plus side, we got to enjoy a gritty turkish coffee together after a nice turn about the grounds of Medinat Habu.  All of this walking, and appreciating great works of architecture at the expense of slave labor had really wiped us out!

Arriving back at the hotel, I took some time to confirm that the online hotel literature indeed lied when they said they had wireless internet available.  I copied the several hundred pictures from the past two days, jotted some notes down, and then made arrangements for two nights in Cairo prior to my departure back to the states.  I tried calling the Marriott, as the location was great and I thought I could get a peek for the international recruiting folks who plan to book here for the next offsite.  After paying several dollars to sit on hold for some minutes, I gave up and booked a Nile view room at the Nile Hilton (just next door to the Egyptian Museum!).  Random observation made while waiting on hold – it’s very very odd listening to Christmas carols, knowing that you’re in a country which is only about 5% Christian.  Sherif tells me that many families mark the occasion, even if they do not hold with the religious aspects of the holiday.