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.