Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Diving with Cleopatra

I was never that excited about going to visit Alexandria, Egypt, because I figured most of the sights there were underwater.

Then I stumbled over this. You can scuba dive there to look at what's in the sea.

That sounds really cool, except that I forgot my swimsuit, have no idea where my NAUI license is, and visibility is supposedly terrible.

The first two may be surmountable, but the third? Is it worth the effort and the money?

I am going to send an email now to inquire about introductory dives. Most places offer a single dive alongside a divemaster for an extra fee, and these dives are really shallow anyway. I'll ask about visibility too. If I go to the trouble to do this, I want to be able to see something.

I Bought A Bridge

Alfa Market has all the best gum! First Banana and now Brooklyn (made in Italy).

Though what the Brooklyn Bridge has to do with gum is beyond me.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Monkeys Rejoice

Check it out:

Banana gum! Eww, sounds gross, right? So gross that I bought it, which means the cashier had to go to a lot of trouble to get the right small change. (Everyone in Egypt seems to be lacking in change, but at least in the supermarket they don't shortchange you like in Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, though my pal D chooses to believe they just can't count.)

I thought it would be overpowering, too banana-y. But it had only a pleasant banana taste, much nicer than the overbearing yellow color of the gum stick. The ABC (already-been-chewed) look was still yellow, so I guess the dye stayed in the gum instead of going into my stomach. That's a plus. The consistency was a bit waxy.

I couldn't figure out where the gum was made. It had English, Arabic, and Cyrillic writing on the side of the package. My friend google tells me it's from Korea.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lesson Learned

Last night, I went to an upscale mall in the suburbs, had Asian cuisine in a food court, checked out the times of Hollywood's latest blockbusters at the cinema multiplex, browsed through the book section at Virgin Megastore, bought a pound of Starbucks Kenyan roast ground for a french press, and took a modern, climate-controlled taxi home.

Which all sounds perfectly normal (except that I would never buy bitter Starbucks coffee elsewhere but here I had extenuating circumstances*). Except I'm in Cairo, so it wasn't normal at all.

The mall had a sparkling pyramid on top. And getting to the mall in question involved taking the metro from work in Dokki to Heliopolis, then sitting in traffic for ages in an old Fiat taxi. Then to get into the mall, I had to go through a metal detector and put my bag through the x-ray machine. (I had to do this once before, in a mall in the Israeli city of Eilat.)

The menu at the Asian restaurant was all over the map. I ordered a "bento box" off a menu that featured sushi, Thai red curry, chicken tikka, Korean barbecue, and sweet and sour chicken. And then I got the idea to go to the nearby Starbucks (the only one in Cairo) to acquire coffee for my french press, not realizing that it would involve complex street-crossing acrobatics. It actually occurred to me that I might never get across the streeet, so full of cars was it, but finally a group of locals braved the lanes and I walked alongside them. In retrospect, it seems a bit stupid to risk my life for coffee that I don't even like, but I didn't realize traffic was so awful until I was in the middle of it.

I bored of the mall and shopping fun pretty quickly. I know it's there if I have something to buy. Then it was time to go home.

Uh, how do I do that? And where in the hell was I?

The map I'd swiped from my first hotel placed me on the border of Nasr City and Heliopolis. But I had no idea how far that was from Zamalek. It wasn't too close. That's all I knew. How much would I pay the taxi? Obviously, leaving it up to the driver was a doomed strategy.

Had I known what I was doing, I'd have comfortably gone to the cinema and figured out how to get home later. But I was worried.

How about a meter taxi? My colleagues from the Kuwait office won't even take a regular taxi here--only a new, safe metered taxi. I usually laugh at them, but of the three of us, I'm the only one who battles it out with taxi drivers on a near-daily basis. They pay more but travel in clean and safe conditions. (The irony is that I'm the American—supposedly the spoiled one—but I'm the most likely to embrace squalid value.)

I tentatively approached the taxi rank. At home, we'd call these radio cars. The kind you call on the telephone. The regular rickety taxis weren't allowed inside mall grounds and they all honked and clogged up traffic just beyond the parking lot boundary.

The driver of the fancy taxi turned the meter on, wound the windows up, didn't smoke, and PUT ON HIS SEAT BELT.

He couldn't get out of the parking lot due to the exit being blocked by all the cheap taxis. Rather than sit there and honk, he turned the car off, got out and asked them to move. They did!

There was still awful traffic all the way to Zamalek, and at one point we were in a wedding procession of cars all honking their horns in unison. The ride took forever, but it wasn't too bad since I was comfortable and I had no dread about the ride ending with an argument.

How long was it? I don't know. Probably just over half an hour as we zipped along the elevated highway above downtown Cairo. The grand total? 21 pounds. $3.68. And no hassle.

Maybe my colleagues from the Kuwait office are onto something.

*All I could find was espresso, Turkish coffee, or Nescafe, nothing for french press, except at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, where a pound was $16.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Minimalist Office

Here is my office, decorated in printouts of next month's comic book. It looks a little sparse. I'll have to ask the Kuwait office to send me some posters with the next Mac that flies over.

The best thing about my office is that to get internet, you have to pick up the reception phone and dial "9." And then you only get internet for half a minute. This is cool because it means I get to work from home tomorrow, since it won't be fixed until Tuesday.

Bargain Hunting

I love the two-pounds-fifty store.

It's like the dollar store at home. I went there to supply my tiny kitchen. The kitchen has a brand-new cooktop, microwave, and electric kettle. But nothing to cook in except one Teflon-coated brand new frying pan. Now this'll stuff'll kill ya, sure enough, so I wouldn't touch it without first buying a rubber or plastic spatula. (Forks and metal utensils scratch the Teflon, which you then ingest--a very bad thing.)

The two-pounds-fifty store didn't have pots for cooking rice or pasta, so I had to splurge at Alfa Mart. About $12 for two. (Ouch!)

But the rest awaited me right down the street, in the same building as my gym. Everything in this little store is--you guessed it--only two-and-a-half Egyptian pounds.

Here's what I bought there:
  • wooden spoon set
  • can opener
  • dishwashing liquid
  • cleaning sponges
  • plastic spatula
  • cutting board

The two-pounds-fifty store is not actually as good as the dollar store. The selection was smaller and a lot of it was just a neverending supply of nail polish. But it has one advantage over the dollar store.

Two-pounds-fifty is only forty-four cents.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Working Stiff

I just got back from working for the second nearly full day in the office.

I really hate working in an office. It's so depressing that I'm eating a brownie and coffee for dinner to make myself feel better. Which won't work, because it means I have to go to the gym class tomorrow where they make me roll around on a dirty ball while doing leg lifts and holding weights. And that makes me feel even worse that going to the office.

This is going to sound ridiculous to people who always have to work in an office, but I get nothing done in that environment. Too many distractions. "Is the internet broken?" "You want me to drop everything and print what?" "How do I get on the printer server?" I have work to do, so actually, I don't have time to go to work.

One nice treat today was that Nabeel from Kuwait came by with his wife. They got a cheap deal on Jazeera Airways to Luxor and had come up on the train to see the pyramids. The Omani designer and I went to lunch with them. I listened to Nabeel talk about what things were costing them here, and I thought "Wow, that's a lot" and then I realized I was thinking in Egyptian economic terms and he is thinking in Kuwaiti Dinars. Twenty Egyptian pounds sounds like a lot, until I realized it's only 1 KD.

I have to go back to work again tomorrow. Friday is our day off here. My schedule is that I work four days a week, but I thought I'd try to set a good example for our new employees by working every day for a while. Now I'm not so sure that's a good idea. I think it's going to last about one week, and then I'll have to settle for being a bad influence.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Why I Take the Metro


The buses here can get really crowded during rush hour.

I sometimes see people hanging out of the door, clinging to the frame with their fingertips. This sounds dangerous, but since traffic is usually going between 2-7 miles an hour, it's easy for a bus rider to just step to the ground at the frequent halts. Sometimes several men are lounging on the road shoulder, waiting for the bus to move so they can grab on again. This can cause consternation to the scooter and bicycle riders who use the shoulder as a mini-lane.

The scooter rider's honk at the bus passengers, who move aside slowly. Perhaps they are resentful of the scooter rider's freedom. When I see the scooters buzzing around quickly, it makes me wish I had a scooter.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


I was sitting downstairs in the cafe, eating a late dinner and communicating with New York, where it was still the business day.

And my landlord walked in with a male friend.

I quickly stared at my computer. Maybe he wouldn't see me. He walked by--he hadn't noticed. Or else he was doing the same thing, pretending, not sure what to say now that the hot water heater worked and we'd given up on installing ADSL.

He's about my age, has the air of a smooth player, and is apparently single. His hair is shaved close on the sides with more hair on top. Not long like a mullet, but nevertheless I dislike these haircuts. But he told me he disliked my sofa, when he saw it in a photo of my old apartment, so we're even.

And it occurred to me.

My rich Egyptian landlord is totally hot.

And then I was suddenly staring VERY intently at my laptop, and my face was probably a little bit red. And because I was acting like such an idiot, I started laughing out loud at myself. I put a stop to that quickly--one way to make your landlord think you're nuts is to turn red and laugh out loud at yourself when you're sitting all alone eating your dinner.

I chewed deliberately, slowly. I didn't want to end up with mustard on my face. Not now.

He sat in the corner, the only place in the restaurant where I couldn't see him, though I could see his arm, watch, and hand. An expensive watch. A late thirties-fortyish hand. Maybe he didn't want to talk to me? I kept an eye on the two men, and when I saw the hand and watch move, I casually turned my head to look, at exactly the moment that my landlord leaned forward and peeked around the corner, looking straight at me.

We both did goofy little waves. Too cool for anything else.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pig-Free Bran

What a relief! My Raisin Bran has no ham in it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I'm Official

I've been into the bowels of the Mugamma and lived to tell the tale.

The Mugamma is the infamous Egyptian government temple of bureaucracy, its gray hulking shape inspiring dread in those who gaze upon it, and fear in those who must enter its twin metal-detector-adorned entrances.

I'm totally exaggerating. It's chaos, of course, but if you google Mugamma, you'd get the idea you were in for a bit part in "The Trial," not for actually achieving something over the course of a single day.

My mission: To extend my 30-day tourist visa.

My plan: Travel by Metro to "Sadat." Observe visa-acquisition process.

Perhaps, I thought, I could get the visa today. Or maybe just do reconnaissance.

I had to go through two metal detectors, push my bag through two x-ray machines, and prove I wasn't carrying a camera. There were hordes of people at the photo booth in the lobby, so I was glad I'd stopped by a photo store in Zamalek for passport photos. Likewise, I had my photocopies—the woman at the internet cafe in Zamalek had given them to me free since I was such a good customer there while my laptop was in the shop.

Madness awaited me. People milling about in the narrow, long hallway alongside numbered windows. Men sold tea and water from trays. Benches were crowded. Some people looked exhausted. Others, annoyed. Most looked resigned, and a few appeared confused.

I walked past about 50 windows to one that said something like "Tourist Extension."

Only one person was in front of me. The bureaucrat was sweet and helpful. She gave me a form and told me to go to window #43 to pay 11 pounds. (About $2.)

I pushed through the crowds, paid 21 pounds and received back three stamps and a ten-pound note.

So far, so easy.

I found an empty seat, sat down and pulled out my black pen.

"Tsk, tsk." The man next to me shook his head and handed me a blue pen.

Uh, okay. I used it.

Then, back down the row to the nice bureaucrat. She stamped, stapled, and wrote a bunch of notes on the form. She took my passport.

She smiled.

"Go to Window #38 in two hours."

I went to Cilantro to snack, suppressing a foreboding feeling that something was bound to go wrong. Two hours later, I went through the metal detectors, pushed my bag through two x-ray machines, and paced down the row of windows to #38.

"Here." A woman shoved my passport at me. "Six-month tourist-resident."

Too easy. I've never been official before when I lived in another country. It feels great. I'm legal! I'm officially a resident of Egypt, and can stay for up to six months.

Not that I have any intention of doing so, but it's nice to be welcome for a change.

Mabrouk to me!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy President's Day

Today is President's Day in the US. When I was a kid, we had separate holidays for Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday. But that was too much, so they put them together and called the new holiday "President's Day."

Here it's just another work day, though I've been totally slacking off this morning, instead googling container ships for Babs to get out of Australia. Around the world without planes? Hey, good idea! Oh waitaminute...

The last (and current) presidents of Egypt are to me, metro stations. Major metro stations. Current and future interchanges between lines. They are Mubarak, Nasser, and Sadat.

But I get confused. Do I need to change at Sadat, or was that Mubarak? Or is it Nasser? Damn, which president is which stop?

Here's a little trick I've been using to remember which metro station is where.

Mubarak Station: Farthest north of the three Egyptian presidents. Because he's top dog.

Nasser Station: Middle. Some people like him, some don't.

Sadat Station: Controversial in the Middle East. Southernmost.

Regardless of which president I am near, I always board the women's cars, which become mixed in the evenings but are segregated during the day. And something funny happens when the train pulls in.

You know how on all metros, people run to catch the train? Cairo has this too. Hordes of people running down stairs and escalators as trains pull into the stations.

But it's complicated, because men and women are criss-crossing and bumping into each other as they desperately aim to be on their gender's part of the train. I've been on a few where men leap on the women's car out of desperation. They look horribly uncomfortable, which is probably how I look when I end up racing through the doors to the men's car just as they slide shut.

Anyway, every day is President's Day when you take the metro in Egypt. Happy President's Day!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

It's All In Your Perspective

Two days ago, I looked around the Nile Hilton and wrinkled my nose. It seemed so dowdy.

It hadn't changed much since I'd stumbled through its doors in 2001, after having battled it out with a groping taxi driver when I'd just gotten off the train from Aswan after my night on the Sudan Ferry with a certain Bavarian. But somehow, the Nile Hilton had seemed so opulent then, when I'd stopped in to ask for directions. Later, I'd had tea there with Monica, my partner-in-crime in the Ethiopian truck accident. We'd both been dazzled but the seeming luxury. Too many nights in tents in Ethiopia for her, too many nights spent vomiting in Khartoum budget hotel rooms for me.

Egypt then had seemed so glamorous. Wow, reliable electricity! Lots of people have cars! The golden arches--hadn't seen those since South Africa! Sidewalks and Pizza Huts! Long-distance coaches with schedules!

But it is all in your frame of reference. Coming from Manhattan, where we have sidewalks, (mostly) reliable electricity, double-parking with unwritten rules of conduct, and yes, even Egyptians, the once luxurious is now pedestrian. I did the touristy stuff before, in 1999, with Yancey and Mark. And I've lived in the Middle East before, and in Africa before. I've even done this particular job for over a decade, and for the same company for a year.

Had a change of scenery quit giving me the kick I need? Travel once supercharged me, and battling wits with taxi drivers made me think on my feet and kept my edges sharp. Now, I'm as tired here as I'd be sitting at home coloring comics.

Matt suggested it was culture shock. I pooh-poohed the notion.

"Culture shock? This is relatively posh compared to lots of places I've lived. I'm just tired and depressed from a series of tragic romances and from too much work mixed with too little success."

Then I thought What if he was right? It isn't traditional culture shock, because Egypt isn't shocking, but I didn't particularly want to come here.

Then an Omani pal from the Kuwait office flew in (for keeps). And made me laugh for about an hour. Then I went home, and the landlord, K, showed up to work on installing ADSL, and he made me laugh some too. And I realized later that I kind of flirted with both of them.

You know you're feeling better when you start flirting with 30-year-old designers and 40-year-old rich landlords.

Could this be the start of some kind of recovery? Or Marie-of-old coming back and not being jaded and exhausted?

I hope so. I was getting sick of me. I want to go see the pyramids and be amazed. I want to enjoy the chaos of ancient taxis honking incessantly at each other, to hear the wailing of competing mosques and think "Cool, I'm in Egypt," and feel alive again, like I haven't felt since I left Uganda under a non-evaporating cloud in November of 2005.

I want to walk into the Nile Hilton and be glad for it.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Freedom of Religion for All!

When I saw this headline on Yahoo!, for a minute I wondered what the hell Bush's problem was with either rodents or spies and their religious leanings.

Bush has 2 moles removed from temple

It's okay to laugh AT me, not with me on this one. I promise.

Saudi Arabia Open for Business

I got my Intrepid Travel newsletter a few days ago. At first, I was excited because they have just added a trip to Saudi Arabia to their catalog.

Then I read a little bit about Saudi Arabia. I wanted to go there because I couldn't, which might seem a little silly, but it's always been an issue that I can't go through Saudi Arabia. When I was in Kuwait, I had to take a plane to go anywhere, because Iraq was clearly off-limits for now, and I wasn't allowed to do something so simple as catch a scheduled luxury coach that went through Saudi Arabia. When I was coming up north from Africa, it would have been much easier to catch a ferry from the African Horn to Saudi Arabia and go north by bus from there to Europe rather than try to get a visa for Sudan. (Of course this would have been a major turning point in Marie-history and things would be quite different today, but anyway...)

So I was excited because suddenly something that had been impossible was possible.

Then I read the trip notes. I would not be allowed anywhere without an accompanying male, and I'd have to cover up in an Abaya from head to toe.

I thought about how hot I get in Egypt when I wear long sleeves in the middle of the day. How warm it was in Iran with that coat and headscarf on all the time. And socks. And I thought about cultural tolerance, and my personal views. And where I draw the line on what I think is right and wrong, and on whether it is even appropriate to apply my values to other cultures.

Then I read on in the itinerary that as non-Muslims, we can't even go to Mecca, which is surely the most interesting place in the entire country.

Would I fly to New York City and only visit Newark and Maplewood? Fly to London and spend the whole time in Slough? Of course not.

Forget Saudi Arabia. I'm not going to suppress my values, sweat like a pig, pay a lot of money, and kiss some visa officer's butt just to go see the equivalent of Staten Island.*

*Apologies to my former home of Staten Island, which is not a fair comparison since you can actually see the Statue of Liberty from there. Further apologies to Intrepid, who really are offering a wonderful opportunity to those more tolerant and enthusiastic than tired old me.

Friday, February 16, 2007

V.D. in Cairo

Who knew that Valentine's Day was such a big deal in Cairo? Not me. I never would've thunk it.

For weeks leading up to the big day, there were signs and gifts everywhere. Like in the States, before Halloween.

It reached a kind of frenzy on the 13th, with stuffed bears spilling out onto the sidewalks and giant hearts advertised on windows.

On the actual 14th of February, I saw something new--women with headscarves on the metro had red fringes on their scarves, or red sticking out from under their wraps. Were they going on dates?

I saw a half-dozen Egyptian couples wandering around Zamalek, some hand in hand, which is something I have not seen any other time. Maybe Valentine's Day is a kind of free pass to be lovey-dovey in public.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Back in Action

I am in Cairo listening to Christmas carols. This is great news because it means I am in Beano's, working on the wi-fi while eating my lunch.

(Yes, Beano's plays a Christmas CD over and over. And Dido's Al Dente—the cheap pasta restaurant near my apartment—only plays Elvis' Greatest Hits. But I have yet to hear Elvis' Christmas Album anywhere.)

Hooray for Appleline! That's the Apple-certified reseller here in Egypt and I wholeheartedly recommend them. Heck, fly here next time you need a repair. Pyramids and laptop packages available, or should be. They have one satisfied customer in me. They took the bezel, rear cover, and clutch cover off an old broken laptop that was lying around and installed it on my older broken laptop for about $90 including labor, taxes, and parts.

It was a disconcerting 48 hours on my own. I had backed everything up onto my Firewire hard drive but had no way to get to it. I had lots of things on my USB thumbdrive, but of course nothing that I needed. I have gone plenty of times without internet access but had no idea how much I'd come to depend on my laptop. I use it for work, for freelance, communications, reference... heck it's essential. On my trip around the world, I used pen and paper but now I just stared at the blank page and thought about how much easier and faster I can type than write.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Checking Her Out

"You must come to Garden City with your iBook, to El Qasr Al Aini Street. Take a taxi."

"I don't know where that is. Can I take the metro?"

"Yes, take the metro." The Apple tech guy laughed. What was so funny?

It isn't expensive to take a taxi. It's just that I had no idea where I was going, and one surefire way to end up in a battle of wits and bluster with a taxi driver is to let on that you're fresh off the farm. So if a driver asked me where on El Qasr Al Aini Street, and I said I didn't know, I'd be asking for trouble. I'd rather stumble down the street trying to figure out which number is which. (Today I learned 7, which is a V. Confusing because 8 is the same, but upside-down. So I now remember that 7 has a V in s-e-v-e-n, and 8 is the other one.)

I went to the metro, bought my ticket, slid it through the turnstile, and took the escalator to the platform. I walked up to the front of the train, identified by a sign that said "Front of Train."

Why is there a sign that says "Front of Train?"

Because the front two cars are women-only cars. And having encountered my share of gropers in past trips to Cairo, I'm keen to avoid any potential groping situation.

I had just missed a train, so I stood, staring blankly towards the tunnel the train would come out of. The platform filled up with women. Women in headscarves. Women in long skirts, jeans, calf-length full skirts with boots, and full-on black cloaks with hoods. A few women showed their hair as I did, but we all dressed the same--frumpy modest. Layers and long sleeves, pants to the ankles. I wish I could say I was thinking ahead, dressing this way specifically for Cairo, but it's more my de facto way of dressing these days than any nod to the culture.

All the other women, about 20 of them by now, were staring blankly down the platform too. It's what you do on subways.

Then... a stunningly beautiful women sauntered by. She wore a tight horizontal-striped sweater, a dangling gold belt around a tiny waist, and tight black pants the flared out to bell bottoms, over stiletto heels. Her long, curly hair was black with frosted blond stripes, and Jackie-O sunglasses covered her eyes.

She walked all the way down the runway platform, halting at the very front of the train.

And twenty pairs of eyes, twenty heads, turned as one.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Creeping Coffee Chains

At the moment, my iBook is at Appleline across town. I asked the tech guy how long and how much--he thinks it will be about 24 hours and $50.

"Can you do it faster? We haven't been parted in five years." I threw my arms over my laptop.

He laughed. I was joking, making a point to hurry it up, but actually, as I left, walking down three flights of the dilapidated dirty building (full of dusty "Think Different" posters) to the congested street, I realized I was barely exaggerating. The only time I have been separated (for more than a few hours) from that little white box of wires, metal, and plastic was when I went to Antarctica for ten days.

Right now, I'm working in the internet cafe. That's a first for this job. Usually, I'm chasing wi-fi with the iBook.

Last year in Kuwait, Sven and I used to joke that when the history of our start-up comic book company is written, it will tell that our company was created in coffee shops.

And that's not because of the coffee.

We'd just moved into our offices last year, and the internet wasn't working yet. Then to make matters worse, there was a fire in the communications building where our ISP was housed, which temporarily knocked out access in roughly half the city. Sven lived an epic in getting the DSL turned on once he got a Salmiya flat, and the access that was included with my serviced apartment was broken for a third of the time I was there. (They didn't believe me, and I knew I was on my own when the man helping me asked me where Windows was on my iBook.)

Sven as COO was dealing with licensors in Europe and America, as well as checking with vendors around the world—some in Hong Kong, some in India. Meanwhile, I was dealing with freelancers in California, England, and New Jersey. And then sometimes chasing files that were in Ireland or Italy. We were handicapped without internet access. We probably spent forty percent of our time hunting signals the first month-and-a-half that I was there. We got to know the details of Starbucks menu, and again, it sure wasn't the coffee. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf was better, but for me that involved a bus ride.

There's no shortage of wi-fi cafes in Zamalek, which is good as it offers me a change of scenery, and I can work while I eat (aside from now, when I am laptop-less, of course). There are the international chains, like Costa Coffee, Einstein Kaffee, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. But also some great Egyptian chains, such as Cilantro and Beano's. And the best part? The wi-fi is always free. I mean included, because the costs of eating or sipping cappuccino in these places is higher than other places. But plenty of them have power outlets by the tables, and none of the staff rushes you out.

So where is Starbucks on that list? Starbucks has spread over the world like they keep telling us bird flu is going to. But what's up with Egypt?

There is one. I haven't seen it, because it is nowhere near here, but it was recently opened by the Kuwaiti Starbucks franchise.

There's no reason for me to seek it out, since there is no shortage of wi-fi opportunities in Zamalek.

Free wi-fi, that is.

So what I wanna know is this:

Is Starbucks going to charge for wi-fi like they do everywhere else?

Monday, February 12, 2007

iBook Disaster

I just broke a hinge on my five-year-old iBook.

I am in Cairo.

This isn't good, is it?

Simple Economics

Given how much money I was forking over, you'd think my new flat would come with towels and a blanket.

But it didn't. The mattress and pillows were so new that they still were covered in plastic. There was a new bottom sheet (no top sheet) and a new bedspread. But no blanket.

And it's winter. Granted not much of a winter, but I feel the cold.

So I went in search of a towel ($3.10, Egyptian cotton) and a blanket. The blanket on display was 115 Egyptian pounds. $20. More than I meant to spend on something I was tossing at the end of two months. (Or maybe foisting off on the Omani designer flying in from Kuwait on Thursday to join me and Mr. T, the Kuwait office editor-in-chief who is here too.)

"Do you have a cheaper blanket?" I asked.

"Yes, this one. It is wool mixed with synthetic. Only 43 pounds." $7.50.

"What is the other blanket made of?"

"That one is all synthetic."

"The wool one costs less than the synthetic?"

The young woman in the headscarf laughed. "We have many sheep and camels in Egypt. Not so much synthetic."

I bought the wool mix and a top sheet, and still walked away five dollars richer. I like the idea that my blanket might be made of camel hair.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


"These rich people, they think they are better than everyone else."

Mr. M, the real estate agent, was not very happy. We were walking to my hotel, to get my passport to sign the contract for the apartment. He was humiliated, having been sharply reprimanded—and threatened—by the wealthy owners of the flat I was considering renting.

"If you do not want to rent this flat, and I have brought my old father all the way here for nothing, HE is going to be in trouble." K the owner had jabbed a finger at Mr. M, who unbeknownst to me had inflated my interest in the place in order to get the parties together in the same room.

I'd stalled for time, said I was taking it and then left the room to go and get my passport. And to think.

"My driver will take you," said K.

Mr. M had accompanied me. We couldn't find the driver so he'd suggested we walk.

"Shouldn't we hurry?" I asked.

"They will wait." Mr. M. was steamed. Making the rich men wait would assuage his wounded pride. "We are giving them MONEY. They will wait."

He calmed down as we'd walked. He told me a thing or two about rich people, then he reminded me a few times that everyone else was lazy and he was not, because he had worked in Kuwait for many years.

I calmed down too. It was every man for himself. The agent was making things up, saying anything to close the deal, like many agents do in all countries. The owner had not meant to surprise anyone, had just brought along his father because his signature was required.

"Mr. M., what would happen if we did not go back? If I did not take the flat?"

"NOTHING. What can they do to me? They are not better than me. No man is better than another because of his money." He waved his hand dismissively. He was almost daring me, spoiling for a fight.

Ah, one less thing to worry about. If I bolted, the real estate agent would not be mortally wounded.

So I had been cornered. Only my pride was hurt, and my wallet. But in the end, if I moved in, what was $400 over two months? An hour in a balloon over Masai Mara. Enough for two-and-a-half annoying wheeled suitcases. A plane ticket to San Diego. And quality of life was important. It was the best apartment I'd seen.

I was annoyed that I had not had a chance to negotiate, that I was paying a premium for the place. But in the end, I'd remember I lived in a decent place in Cairo, not that my cheapskate's pride had been offended.

When we returned, the real estate agent left the room for a while to get a photocopy made of the contract. K took the opportunity to tell me how unlike other Egyptians he himself was, that the others were all lazy.

Yeah, yeah. And all Americans are loud and tacky except me. I've heard this one before.

I had my laptop open to the currency exchange page, to back up the amount I'd decided was the Egyptian equivalent of $1200. Two emails rolled in, to my surprise. I glanced at the little Airport signal bars. I was on the downstairs cafe's signal, ever so faintly.

The neighbor, sporting an Indian appearance and a British accent walked in.

"This is the man who you will share the ADSL with," explained K. "He will collect 62 pounds from you in two days and the router will be installed."

I grinned. Now we were talking. Maybe rich guys weren't so bad after all. I looked around at my new flat, which was above a 24-hour restaurant, down the street from the gym, and in one of the nicest parts of town.

My pride would recover. I picked up the pen and signed.

Home With A View of the Chinese Embassy

I have a home, for better or worse. It happened in a way I am not comfortable with, and I realize it's outrageously expensive and I was pushed into it, but it is going to be all right. Or it might not be all right, but either way, it's done and that' s the end of it. I do actually regret getting involved in it in the first place... had I a time machine, I'd just stick with my hotel plan.

And then I would have a desk and a towel too. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd decided that staying in the Mayfair Hotel and then switching to the Flamenco for a splurge was the best course of action. The Mayfair was clean, cheap, safe, and they let me use their kitchen. My room--114--was next to the balcony so I got the free wi-fi in my room. Not luxury, mind you, but quite decent for the price, which was about $18 a night for a monthly rental or $26 a night by the week.

But I did like the $1500 flat that I'd seen. I dropped by the real estate agent's office--let's call him Mr. M--and said: "Offer them a thousand a month. If they don't want it, fine, I will stay in a hotel."

He called. The owner--K--said $1400.


I left. I'd go pay a deposit after lunch on my Flamenco room with the Nile view that I'd move into next month. The savings at Mayfair would allow this.

But then my phone rang. Or buzzed. It was Mr. M.


"No, that is too much."

"Look, let us meet with the owner at 8. Maybe in person, it will be easier to negotiate."

Though my internal BS-ometer was screaming to be noticed, I agreed. What harm could it do?

At 8, I showed up at the flat, meeting Mr. M downstairs. I didn't mention it, but I'd brought a month's rent and it was in my bag. If the flat was as nice as I remembered, maybe I'd just go ahead and do it just to have some stability. It was in a great location above a swank cafe and was the nicest place I'd seen.

K was friendly, about 40 and a stylish, wealthy lad. He explained to me that his family had once been one of the richest in Egypt, indeed one of the richest in the world, but all was gone overnight during the time of Nasser and Arab Socialism. His father had worked to regain what he could, and when K had moved to Cairo and rented a flat, he'd stayed exactly one day in it before he called his family to complain about the state of rentals here. The family had scraped together the cash to buy him an old flat, which they had renovated in a modern way. That was where we sat now. He now lived with the family in a suburb, in a huge villa, so obviously their fortunes had turned again.

I nodded. Are you supposed to be sympathetic to people about these sorts of injustices, taken in the name of reform? I really don't know enough about this case to say for sure. But I wanted to be polite.

Eventually we got down to business.

"The flat is very nice. The nicest I have seen. There is no problem with the flat," I said. "The problem is that the rents here are very expensive, and I do not know if I can afford this."

His eyes slanted. "What? I thought we were here to sign a contract for $1200 a month? HE told me this." He pointed at the real estate agent, who was suddenly looking very small on the tiny stool K had placed him on.

"Whoa, wait. I didn't say anything about signing a contract."

"This is a big problem. I would have had the bowab show the apartment instead of coming all the way from 6th of October City. If there is no contract, I will have a big problem with him. Because I have brought my father here since he is the owner and he must sign the papers. He is in his eighties and coming here is very difficult for him."

Mr. M seemed to shrink further. I understood now. He had inflated my interest, talked it up to K to get him into the room with me, expecting that K would see that I looked responsible and lower his price, and I would see the flat, and raise my offer, and all would be happy. Not an unusual tactic, and it probably works in most cases.

But no one counted on the old man, who had just tottered in with his walker and his contracts.

"Nice to meet you," said the old man, extending his hand that he had just lifted off the walker.

The BS-ometer that had gone off earlier cackled "I told you so." I felt a tightening in my stomach, the way you do when you are cornered and the only alternatives are fury or flight.

Tomorrow: Part II

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Accidental Home

I have a flat.

It was kind of an accident, and involved a near-total loss of control on my part. I am not sure if I am happy about this or not, though I realize it is best to unpack and have a base.

Here are some photos. Story to come.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Not Everyone's Dream Organized Tour, But It's Mine

I would love to go on this Intrepid trip. It goes from Cairo to Casablanca, which means through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. What a great itinerary.

Course I can't go because I'm American and can't get a Libya visa. I can't even get as far as pondering the high price or kidnappings in Algeria (surely not in this part or Intrepid wouldn't go) because I'm automatically excluded.

Maybe someone out there with a European or Australian passport can go and tell me about it, okay?

Meat Market

I don't know much about dead animals, even though as a kid I used to pet the dead deer my father would shoot and will them back to life. (It didn't work.) I couldn't figure out what these animals were.

But they still had furry tails.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

My Temporary Office

Yesterday, I caught the Metro over to Dokki, to go to my office.

I haven't been to the office much, because it doesn't have furniture, internet, phones, or that many walls yet. But I like to show up. I have this notion that it encourages the builders to work harder when someone is stopping by unexpectedly to get updates. I take photos and send them back to Kuwait and New York with progress reports. I say totally unreasonable things like "When will we be done? Can we bring in the new employees next week?" Of course not, but I learned last year from Mr. Fixit that if you move the employees in around the builders, the builders finish at the speed of light.

The Metro was cool but unfortunately, while it does go to the office, it will not be stopping in Zamalek for a few more years. They haven't built the station or the line yet. I walked to the other end of Gezira Island to take it. (It's less than a dollar to catch a taxi to Dokki, but I do love to examine public transport around the world.)

The Metro was clean, efficient, and prompt. The fare was 1 Egyptian pound. Eighteen cents. A bargain! I'd heard tales that it was packed, but I was traveling in the middle of the day. Most people were seated, with only a few standing. And I got on the women's car. Almost everyone else wore a headscarf, but no one looked at me funny. I'm sure plenty of foreigners take the Metro.

The furniture was arriving when I got to work. It was supposed to arrive on Saturday. My Egyptian colleague, before he'd left for Kuwait, had said "We'll plan on Monday then." So Tuesday wasn't bad.

Unfortunately, there are not too many freight elevators in Cairo, and the passenger elevators are tiny.

The furniture delivery men were carrying the desks—probably 20 desks—up 12 flights of stairs. One at a time. They even broke one while I was there, but took it right back out and replaced it.

I didn't hang around long. There wasn't much point. So I went back to my hotel, to work at my makeshift work station. Which looks kind of like this. It's really not so bad. The laptop looks the same no matter where I am sitting to stare at it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Little GSM Primer

The first thing I did when I got to Cairo (after checking into the hotel) was go buy a SIM card. This was simple, as in many countries. I walked into a tiny store, found a salesman who could understand me, then bought a new phone chip called a SIM. He stuck it in my GSM phone, made an activation call (during which he kindly specifed "English" when the computer-voice asked), and I walked out moments later with my brand-new Egyptian telephone number.

For those of you in my home country who believe I am speaking gibberish, it works like this. Almost the rest of the world outside the USA uses GSM mobile phones that work on different bands to ours. As most of you know, your phones won't work overseas unless you buy a fancy one with tri or quad band. But even then you get to pay roaming charges and your charger won't plug in.

If you want to save a lot of dough, instead get yourself an unlocked GSM dual-band phone off or in a phone store next time you're in a foreign country. The older, the cheaper. Mine was 12 UK pounds. Then every time you go into a new country, you can walk into a phone shop, and walk out with a local prepaid phone number. These are cheap--my SIM card in South Africa was about $2. Here it was less than $10.

If you want to go even farther, get a USB charger for your phone. This is usually lighter than a charger, but obviously only works if you are also carrying your laptop.

This is not rocket science. You will see ads touting world phones and companies that will get you a local phone number for a small fortune. No need. Just remember not to make a lot of calls or you'll have to buy more minutes. But hey, in the rest of the world, incoming calls are free. That's right. FREE.

My new phone company here in Egypt, MobiNil, kindly pre-programmed in “common” SMS text messages. Great! With one click, I can tell someone “I am thinking of you,” "mabrouk" (congratulations), or “Dinner or lunch.”

This seemed a bit of a waste of my phone’s memory, so as soon as I found a little cafĂ© where I got a mango juice and chicken salad, I hit “Delete.” I’ve never texted anyone “I am thinking of you,” at least not without an expletive on the end.

Brave or Just All Used Up?

The young man who used to try to short-change me daily at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf now brings me my coffee at my table. I optimistically theorize that he respects that I've learned the currency, not that he's spitting in my coffee after I snarled at him over ten pounds the second time he did it.

And in the coffee shop where I was uploading files, the young Egyptian waiter playfully mocked my pronounciation of croque monsieur.

"Croak Mons-your?" He laughed. "It's croque monsieur, Madam."

Bring me one, whatever it is. And a mango juice, while you're at it.

Then a bellhop in an elevator yesterday said "This is not your first time in Egypt, is it? Do you know how I can tell? You are not scared."

Maybe I'm adjusting. Or maybe they're just mistaking exhaustion for confidence. Not necessarily exhaustion at Egypt. Just your average everyday run-of-the-mill burn-out. But yesterday, I laughed that the laundry man ironed my jeans and returned them on a hanger wrapped in plastic. Maybe there's hope for enthusiasm after all.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Flat With A View, the Sequel... the End

After I'd been waiting by the pianos for half an hour, the real estate agent's assistant showed up. She motioned to me to follow her to the other office down the street. She was sweet. We couldn't communicate very well but between my limited Arabic and her limited English, she'd managed to ask me what number my hair color was, so that she could get it for her 15-year-old daughter. I'd tried to explain that it doesn't work that way, that it depends on the head of hair, but finally I gave up and wrote Wella Ash Blonde. Which it may or may not be, but I'd seen them use that a few places in Africa, and it more or less had done the job.

Finally, forty minutes late, the agent showed up. He had a conversation with the assistant and then turned to me.

"She has a flat with a Nile view and internet, only $900. Do you want to see it?"

"What? I thought we were meeting the doctor."

He turned back to the assistant, and had a lengthy discussion.

Finally, he said, "She is getting the keys tomorrow. I will believe it when I see it. We will see the doctor, but he called me at 3:20 and said that we were so late that he was going to sleep, and we should not wake him for one hour."

We were late?

His mobile phone rang. He answered and started talking. The office phone rang. He answered that one too. He had a phone in each ear when two young American Arabic students walked in and asked if he had something downtown for 2000 LE. He was talking to them too, and so was the assistant. I sat quietly and read the printout in the corner. It was a bill to someone for one thousand two hundred dollars, a fee for having found a house or condo for someone on the Egyptian soccer team.

Finally, he hung up both phones. The two Arabic students left. He sat quietly for a minute and then said, "Come on. Let's take a walk."

Uh, okay.

We walked to another flat. This one was small and lovely, and the floor had been varnished within the last week. The kitchen was tiny and new, with marble counters and a circular sink and a coffee maker still in the wrapper. The painters were inside finishing up. It was really nice, but too early to know if it would have internet. But it was right upstairs from a wi-fi cafe. No view.

"The problem is that he wants $1500 for this small place. I told him that is crazy, that you'd be better off at the Marriott. If you like it, we can try a thousand."

"It's very nice but we should stick with what we have already."

He nodded. A bird in hand and all that, y'know. We left.

"I would like to invite you to Dido's. It is the cheapest and best pasta in town. Let's go. We have to waste time."

I glanced at my watch. An hour since the doctor had said to wake him in an hour. Uh, okay. And I sure was getting a lesson in time-wasting. Days of time-wasting, chasing flats that did not fit the criteria I'd described, and now an entire afternoon spent on paying a man rent. What WAS the point?

He had pasta and I ate a few pieces of bruschetta. Struggling to make small talk, I asked him how I could tell a good employee from a bad employee when I was interviewing.

"You must ask them..."

He paused for dramatic effect.

"Do they want to work or do they want to sleep?"

Ah, helpful. I'll try that. Right after I use my friend Marc's line of "What is your third most important reason for wanting to work here, the first being pay and the second being benefits."

Finally, it was time to wake the doctor.

The housekeeper gave us the keys and went to wake him. The apartment-with-a-view was across the hall from the doctor.

We were sitting at the dining room table filling out the contract when the doctor walking in, in his bathrobe and slippers.

He sat down and started reading the contract. I had 6,010 Egyptian pounds on the table. I got to the blank about when the lease was effective.

"I am writing Tuesday."

He glared at me. "No, it starts now."

"No, a day for cleaning."

"This flat was cleaned two days ago."

"No, there is rubbish in the kitchen."

"Show me."

I showed him.

"Ah... that will be gone."

"And these doors."

I pulled open all the doors in the kitchen. They were falling off. Inside there was a jumble of crap.

"That is nothing. It is fine."

This deal was getting worse and worse. Note to self: Follow instincts. When they say they'll do something and you know they won't, trust your instincts.

Okay, fine, but I could clean a kitchen. Not to worry.

"And the ADSL. When will that be turned on?"

"A man will come by and do it for you. You sign a contract with him."


"There is no internet included? I am not taking this flat."

"Okay." He got up.

The agent tried a last ditch save.

"No, no, your son said it is included. It only needs one piece."

"Well, you can try it." As in "not my problem."

Out walked the doctor. The agent looked baffled. I felt sorry for him.

We got into the elevator.

"His son said it had ADSL." His voice quivered a little.

"I know. I was with you."

He couldn't quite wrap his head around what had just happened. A man in a bathrobe had refused to clean a thousand dollar flat and had reneged completely on the as-advertised bit.

"He said it. I am not lying. He said it had internet."

"Yes, I know. I WAS WITH YOU. It is OKAY." I didn't think the agent was lying. I really did hear it from the son too.

He was in shock all the way down the elevator. Then he couldn't get away fast enough. I think he was mortified.

"I am taking a break from flat-searching," I told him. "Tomorrow, no flats."

"Please be in touch. I am at your service."

He left, and I went to look at a room across the street at the Flamenco Hotel. It was lovely, with a desk and a Nile view balcony and included internet. I'd talk to their sales manager tomorrow.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Flat with a View

"Good afternoon. I called you yesterday but you didn't answer."

It was the real estate agent. I was tired of looking at flats. I just wanted to not spend a small fortune and have somewhere to spread my stuff out. But I'd run into him on the street.

"Come by later. I will have my staff show you more places."

They did, and the places were more of the same. I GET IT. Living in Zamalek means taking up residence in an ancient, huge diamond-in-the-rough apartment with an ornate sitting room and a crappy kitchen. Paying more means a Nile view and internet access. I get it. Stop hitting me over the head with it now. I'll take the crappy kitchen.

The next morning, I went by to see the real estate agent again. I had something to say.

"You know the $1200 one with the ADSL and the Nile view? Just call him and offer him 5000 pounds. He can take it or leave it, but I am tired of looking."

"Why don't we offer him $1000?"

Sigh. Fine. But I was going for pounds because my offer won't be accepted and he'll counter, and I'll end up paying more anyway. Not happy about any of this, but sick of looking.

The real estate agent put me on the phone with the owner, a doctor. I wasn't altogether comfortable with this arrangement. I thought there was an agent in order to avoid me negotiating directly. But the doctor countered with $1100. I countered with $1050.

"Oh come on," said the doctor. "Fifty dollars is nothing to you."

You're not supposed to blow your top in negotiations, but where the hell does he get off assuming that just because I am American, I am filthy rich?

"Obviously you've confused me with a rich American. Fifty dollars is NOT nothing. I have paid only $550 a month to live in a nicer place in Kuwait and also in Kampala. I only pay 900 euros a month when I live in Spain. Why should I pay more to live in Cairo? You are talking about New York rents. There are many things wrong with that flat and I don't need a three-bedroom and I'm only taking it because it has internet and I am going to have to scrub the kitchen as it stands."

"It will be clean."

"Okay, and the ADSL will be working?"

"Yes, yes."

"Okay. $1050, right?"


"No," said the doctor. "$1100. I can rent this for a lot more money to someone else."

"Then maybe you should."

"Yes, maybe I should."

I handed the phone back to the agent. I knew it could go either way. I almost blurted out, "tell him $1100" but I waited. The agent had words with the doctor and hung up.

He smiled.

"Okay, $1050. We will meet here at 3. You can get two months cash in advance?"

"What? No! I can't get that much. The ATM won't let me."

"Okay, get what you can. We will give him that today and the rest when you move in. When do you want to move in?"

"The day after tomorrow. Tomorrow they can clean and get the internet working."

"Good. Here is the address for Citibank. One more thing."


"Would you like a job? I really need an English-speaking agent."

I declined and went back to the Mayfair to check my bank balance. What? Negative $400? Guess those checks haven't come through yet, and the Kuwait payroll hasn't happened yet. So much for the rich American. Ah, well, that's what overdraft is for. The condo will cover me.

Then, what the hell is this? Foreign fees? Citibank is charging me a FEE to get my money out of the ATM? I've spent $46.68 in FEES for NOTHING? *%$#@!! And taking the rent out of the ATM is going to add even more to that?

I marched right over to Citibank.

"I am sorry but the Egypt Citibanks are not on the network with the US banks. You cannot withdraw from a teller from your account or avoid fees. You must withdraw from the ATM. It would be the same if I went to your country. I would pay a fee."

Swell. I feel great about it now.

I asked the Citibank rep if I could get a local account. "Yes, but you must have a residence visa."

I'm not getting one of those. We're not even officially a company yet and I'm only here for two months. But how to get around endless fees to get my own money? This hadn't happened before with Citibank, and I'd chosen it precisely because it was an international bank.

I could only get 1500 LE at a time out ($263) of the ATM, so I kept pushing buttons until I maxxed out my daily rate. I just made it to one month's rent.

At three, my passport, cash, and I were waiting at the real estate agent's office. An antiques shop had taken up residence on the open-air mezzanine nearby, and some men plonked out melodies on the pianos, while gray kittens scampered around the pedals.

And I waited.

And waited.

"The Skinless Calf Will Cost Extra, Sir"

It rained yesterday in Cairo. And not just rain, but HAIL! Pounding down on cars. So I took refuge in Costa Coffee. That's an international coffee chain, like Starbucks. Kind of like Starbucks, but with better coffee. And their wi-fi is free.

I was furiously typing out emails to Egyptian real estate agents. "I am looking for a place with internet, a Nile view, and a kitchen that is not digusting." Since marveling at the quality of the kitchens, I had read that the reason so many kitchens were tiny and gross was that only servants used to use the kitchens. There were invariably grand reception areas, Italian marble floors, and nasty kitchens. I'd sooner a peel-and-stick vinyl floor and a decent place to cook food, but maybe I'm just bringing my values along for the ride into a different culture.

The two girls next to me--two Californians studying Arabic at the American University of Cairo--started giggling. I looked up.

A man outside was hauling animal carcasses out of a taxi. Just carcasses. No plastic, no storage device. He threw them all into a shopping cart and wheeled them into the back of the supermarket.

I started giggling too. I could only imagine what it would be like to drive a taxi in Cairo.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Did I Take It?

The real estate agent called me at 10 a.m. the next morning. But I was in a taxi to my new office, so I hit "silence." Except I'm so used to my US mobile phone, not my Rest-of-World one, that I disconnected him instead.

Oh well.

The taxi driver was sweet. He was an older man, who totally bought into my confident pretend-local act until we got to Mohyi Eldin Abu El Ez Street.

He motioned left and right and looked at me quizzically. Which way, madam?

I shrugged and started laughing. Not a clue. First time I've seen this intersection in my life.

He looked stunned, so I helpfully said "Okay, left." I pointed left. He looked uncertain, but he went left anyway, also laughing.

We did stumble over my office, which turned out to be conveniently next to Citibank (my bank so I can avoid ATM fees). I paid him 5 Egyptian pounds, the going rate, plus a healthy 2-pound tip. He was nice and he didn't try to scam me.

The office is a story for another day, but after my colleague from Kuwait (a/k/a the Egyptian editor-in-chief) dropped me off back in Zamalek, I went to the see the real estate agent.

I asked if we could return to the $1200 place. The agent made me nervous. He seemed gleeful, almost like he was rubbing his hands together in anticipation of my commission. Surely I was going to take it.

I didn't. Closer inspection revealed that the doors were all falling off the kitchen cabinets (and covered in a film of kitchen grease), there was no kettle or coffee maker, the entire place was dusty, there were piles of rubbish under the sink, the few electrical outlets had wires falling out of them, the sheets were dirty, and there was no desk. And no electrical outlet near the kitchen table.

"What do you want? We will have the owner fix everything."

"I want a new kitchen. That one is disgusting. At least I want all the rubbish gone and the doors fixed and a kettle."

"Okay. What else?"

"It is not enough to say it has ADSL. I want to see what that cable goes into."

"And what else?"

"I don't want to pay $1200 a month."

Ah. We had the deal-breaker. I expected him to say "Okay, we will negotiate." But he instead sat me down and asked what else I wanted to make it worth $1200 a month.

And that is when I told him I did not want it at all and thanked him for his time. What are the odds that any of the conditions would be met? He was saying whatever it took to get my money. I may be new in town, but I know that what you see is what you get, and what I saw was not worth $1200.

I moved into the tiny room at the Mayfair Hotel for a week. I'm stalling. I sent out emails to rental agents, reasoning that agents that are on the internet will be more modern and perhaps innovative. I should be able to come up with something within a week.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Man with the Key is Sleeping

"I wanted to do this from the beginning—wake up the doorman," muttered the real estate agent, pointing at the young man beside the snoring doorman. "But he would not let me."

We were hunting for keys to an apartment. They were, predictably, in the doorman's pocket. But arriving at this seemingly obvious truth had taken some time.

First, we'd trekked up and down the elevators knocking on doors, hoping for cleaners to be in the flats. When this had produced no results, we'd gone back downstairs. The real estate agent argued with the young man for a while, and finally the young man told the agent to call the owner. The agent called the owner, who told him to wake the doorman and get the keys from the doorman's pocket.

"I lived in Kuwait for six years," said the real estate agent, an older Egyptian man, perhaps in his sixties. "I do things the Kuwait way. I wake the man who is sleeping on the job."

I had to agree with him that his approach seemed sensible. But was my agent honest? How would I know? When you walk into an real estate office off the street, you have no way of knowing if you are dealing with someone good or bad at their job. What I knew was that he SEEMED honest and seemed to have the same approach any agent would have. We walked around to all the major (dilapidated) tower blocks in Zamalek, and he would have extended conversations with doormen, who invariably produced a set of keys. We'd then board elevators (in varying states of disrepair), go high up in the sky, and look at apartments.

At first, I said I was looking for somewhere small and cheap, safe and clean.

This produced $700-$800 charmers that look like this:

We moved up in price rapidly once I declared that I didn't want to see any more ugly places. We then started looking at "really nice places." But apparently "really nice" to my agent meant faux tiger-skin rugs, huge glass chandeliers, blue-and-gold bulbous vases the size of three heads, gold-painted ornate picture frames, and velvet Elvises. Okay, not velvet Elvis, but you get the point. "Nice" meant seriously gaudy. Which would have been funny if the kitchens weren't completely revolting, or if the gaudy furniture had been relatively new. But it was all old and sad. (I did go home and look at to see if there was an Ikea here--maybe I could go unfurnished? No such luck.)

The problem, explained the agent, was that we were looking 1) in Zamalek, which is in high-demand and quite expensive and 2) for a short-term lease of only two months, which means paying more and having fewer places to choose from.

After the first few places, I started backpedaling. He got less chatty. "I am thinking," I explained, "that maybe I am wasting your time. Maybe I do NOT want to rent a flat. Maybe I can just stay in a hotel." A hotel would be clean. A hotel would have wi-fi. A hotel would have free breakfast, and people to talk to. And a desk clerk to ask questions of, such as "How much is a taxi to Dokki" or "Where do I buy an electric kettle so I can have coffee in my room?"

The last place we looked at was $1200 a month. Yow. I'd pay that in New York. This is Cairo. But then, this is Zamalek too.

It was much nicer than the others. Had a nice terrace, a washing machine, ADSL, three (no, I only need one) bedrooms, and a great view of the Nile. But I was tired. I looked around quickly and thought "$1200 is too much." We left. I took my leave of my agent and instead made a circuit of hotels in Zamalek, finding out prices in all of them.

The best one was clean and tiny, with wi-fi on the balcony but no desk in the room. It was the Mayfair, about $550 a month. The others were much pricier. But then, I kept going back to that Nile view.

I couldn't say "Nile view: Priceless." After all, the Nile had been in my backyard in Uganda. And that Nile had hippos. But damn, that Cairo Nile was a nice view. But was it $1300 plus $120 fee over two months worth of nicer? And why hadn't I thought to see how many electrical outlets there were, or if the water pressure was all right? I hadn't even checked to see if there were kitchen appliances, or forks. Did the washing machine work? Was the place clean?

Still, $1200 a month. That's a lot for almost anywhere.

But that view of the Nile. Priceless?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Zonked in Zamalek

I thought I wanted to live in Zamalek, a tree-lined expat and embassy neighborhood on an island in the Nile. That way I could walk to restaurants and supermarkets, and the gym I'd been looking at was located there.

So I booked a hotel for three nights, right smack-dab in the middle of Zamalek. It was run by an Egyptian woman who had spent decades in Frankfurt. Let's call her Frau Z (for Zamalek). I'd read all kinds of dazzling reviews of her establishment on TripAdvisor, but my first reaction was more amusement than amazement. The elevators to the top floors were the super-old kind, where you have to manually tug on the doors until they hit the right spot, so then the lift will move.

The hotel is on two upper floors of one of Zamalek's dingy, rotting tower blocks. This is not unusual. There appear to be only two types of buildings in the area. Rotting concrete blocks and lovely embassies. And the room was very clean and slightly dilapidated. But clean, safe, and with free wi-fi is enough. It's just that I don't usually feel compelled to pay $44 a night for such things (remember the economics of where I am). But I realized that to live in Zamalek, even in a hotel, I'd have to pay expat prices. And I'd been in a few hotels in Cairo before, so I knew that there were a lot of disgusting and expensive places. Frau Z's place was actually stunning by comparison, even though the free breakfast included... (gasp) Nescafe. (Am I too whiny and complaining? C'mon, you know I'll get with it after a few days. Let's call it Culture Shock.)

Dazed, I walked around Zamalek my first night, trying to get my bearings. I bought a SIM card for my phone, so I now have an Egyptian phone number (though I am struggling with the SMS text options). The gym was just down the block. Across the street and behind Hardee's was Einstein's Kaffee, complete with pasta salads and fresh squeezed mango juice. I enjoyed my dinner to the tune of the Bee Gees singing "Night Fever, Night Fever." (Obligatory Video-Night-in-Kathmandu-world-is-shrinking go-global theme, there, let's not mention it again.)

Zamalek is still Cairo, with broken pavement, deteriorating blocks of gray concrete, and honking taxis fighting for patches of tarmac. But it's got cafes and upscale supermarkets, and it's still in the city. I didn't want to move to the Cairo suburbs, where I would need a car. I saw a few signs that read "Flats for Rent." I'd call them (on my new SIM card) in the morning.