Sunday, September 30, 2007

Solo Travel

"I looked for you last night," said the flat owner. "I was going to a party."

"Oh," I spoke quickly, with a nervous laugh. "I was at Sagrada Familia taking photos."

"Would you have gone?"

"Well… no."

He said he was going to another party tonight. I made excuses and fled, unable to properly explain that I didn't want to go to any parties, talk to anyone, and that I wanted to be alone.

And so I walked aimlessly, with no destination in mind, solely with the purpose of avoiding the flat. I walked and walked, up out of Raval, out of the old city past the hordes of tourists, past three Starbucks, past Plaza Catalunya and the Saturday shoppers. I walked until, exhausted, I stumbled into of one of those assembly-line all-you-can-eat places that serves pizza, pasta, rice, and potato dishes. All the carbs you can eat.

"Why the hell did I pay ten euros for this crap?" I wondered as I stared at the hardening spaghetti, rice, and watery "gazpacho" on offer.

I knew why, even as I asked myself the question.


I seek out anonymity everywhere I go. I'm only partially connected to anywhere, a semi-stranger even in that place called home. I'm comfortable being anonymous and disconnected.

I don't want to go to Spanish parties. Nor do I want to go to parties in New York. I barely want to go to parties in Egypt. "Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik" was one long essay about overcoming fear of commitment, of not being afraid to connect with others, but over the last two years, I've completely backslid.

Bouncing around the world has benefits. I'm semi-comfortable anywhere. I assimilate quickly. I can figure out how things get done in a society in about a week. But then there are drawbacks too.

When world travelers crow that they've become citizens of the world, what they don't mention is that it is at the expense of home. Deep roots erode over time, until home has changed to the point where it's no longer home. And even if it looks the same, the friends you left behind have evolved in their lives. You gain the world but you lose home. You belong everywhere but also nowhere.

And then there's this. An even-scarier concept.

Maybe it's not world travelers. Maybe it's just me.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Public Privacy

I did it! I invested 17 euros in a Tin-Tin caganer. I'm still not altogether sure I need this, but Edward Readicker-Henderson suggested I could tend caganers as a new hobby in order to keep my mind off of unpleasant thoughts when I have newly discovered down time. (There was no down time when I was editing comics in the US, proofreading for Kuwait, and managing an office in Cairo.)

Tin-Tin can take up residence pooing next to Fidel Castro on my souvenir shelf, just like he did in the store.

Speaking of poo, there's a delicate topic here in Barcelona that I find somewhat odd. It's the placement of toilets.

Toilets have to go somewhere, of course, and in urban living there are all kinds of interesting sounds that echo throughout apartment complexes. But it still seems odd to me that the bathrooms usually open onto airshafts, and so do many kitchens.

Airshafts here are on the compact side. This amounts to the private-apartment version of public toilet stalls. Add this to the echo-effect produced by the airshaft and the number of families congregating in the kitchens, and you have a somewhat embarrassing situation.

This has been the case in three of the four apartments I've rented in this fine city.

I've learned to "avert my ears" as I prepare my lunch or my morning coffee. That is, pretend I can't hear what I can hear. Maybe I'm squeamish. Anyway, everyone else has been "averting their ears" their entire lives. So it's no big deal. I guess it's me with the hang-up, not the Spanish.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Holy Family

I am a little bored here, all alone in Barcelona. So tonight I took a field trip up to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's eternally under-construction masterpiece.

Sometimes, when I look at his buildings, I think that Gaudi must have been quite a strange man.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Amazing Glamour of International Life

Today in Spain, I:

1) Did my laundry.

2) Picked up a CD for Nabeel in Kuwait.

3) Picked up some absinthe for a friend in the States.

4) Sat in the Pans & Co near El Corte Ingles and used the free wifi from the square to talk to the office, while buskers played below. I had to buy a coffee to sit in Pans.

5) Bought two new shirts that were on sale. (The low dollar is killing me!)

6) Oogled two new caganers, one of Tin-Tin and one of the Michelin Man.

7) Went to the post office. But I forgot to take a photo.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cairo to Milan to Raval

Spanky and Captain M saw me off to my three a.m. flight.

"You never know what will happen," said Captain M. "Maybe they will send you back in a week. Maybe you will not even make it home from Spain."

Well, that seems unlikely. We said goodbye, and I felt like a harlot hugging the boys in public on the Cairo street. I forgot to ask if it was against the rules during Ramadan, but then, to hell with people thinking I'm a harlot. By their standards, I am. I yam what I yam. Marie the Infidel Tramp. Whatever.

At the airport, a thug in a uniform threw my Ramadan lantern onto the x-ray machine belt along with heavy bags.

"No, you'll crush it!" I protested in horror.

He then asked me for money.

I checked in, then sat miserably picking at the thin metal strips of my Ramadan lantern. The one Spanky-Mohamed bought for me. I didn't exactly resurrect it, but I didn't have the heart to throw it away either. Anyway, there were no trash cans at Cairo airport. Possibly a security thing.

The Ramadan lantern is currently in a luggage locker at Barcelona airport, along with the wheeled duffel I bought in this very city in January.

At Milan Malprensa (a overcrowded airport, one of my least favorites with its only redeeming feature being the availability of pizza for breakfast), I sipped a cappuccino while standing. There were no trashcans here either, so everyone put their napkins and emptied sugar packets into dirty coffee cups. I watched as an older Italian man strolled over and threw his rubbish into a full cup of coffee that a Japanese businessman had been drinking. The Japanese guy was a good sport about it.

In Barcelona, my apartment wasn't ready, so I ended up in the owner's personal apartment. I dropped off my luggage and wanted nothing more than a shower, a chance to do my laundry, and a nap. But the cleaner was still working on the flat. Grimy from sleeping on the plane and still in my sweaty clothes that I'd carried bags in, I wandered off down the street.

I was dirty, stinking a bit, behind on my work, delirious from lack of sleep, and wistful for what I'd left behind.

But the sun was out, a breeze was blowing, and I was in Barcelona. I love Barcelona.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Fork in the Road

I couldn't sleep after the mosque called Cairo to its early morning fast, then finally fell into a restless dreamy state, where I ran into my ex, HM of Dik-Dik infamy. Strangely, he was living (with a woman) under an assumed name, while working at a college radio station as an intern. At a shopping center. In Israel. And he wouldn't speak to me when I called him by his real name, so I had to address him as Raghul. Which all seemed plausible in my dream. And then I woke up and realized the assumed name was a bastardization of the villain's name in the comic book I edit.

That was nearly as disturbing as the nightmares I used to have in Namibia after "Raghul's" sudden disappearance, so I went ahead and got out of bed, though it was just after five a.m.

Anxiety dream? But why? Nothing too worrying is happening.

Ah, but I leave Cairo tonight and suddenly I am full of doubt. I am uncertain as to which path to proceed on, blinking as I stumble along at a fork in the road.

I enjoy living in Cairo. It would be no-big-thing to get transferred here for keeps. Should I go home? Should I come back? Could I really make a life here, join the gym, buy a colonial-era flat and renovate it? Have I really resolved to be a single, independent woman forever, to live life on my terms without being too fussed that I neglected my basic human duties of family in a society where the family unit is utterly important? To do all this in Cairo? Is that crazy talk?

I'm a good expat. It suits me. My theory is that I'm alienated anyway, and when I'm out of my own country, at least I have a justification for being alienated.

But as soon as I bought my ticket to Barcelona, I mentally checked out of Cairo. Two weeks ago, I was loving my life here. Yesterday, I couldn't wait to leave. And now, I'm having anxiety dreams.

I will go to Barcelona, buy some new clothes, and get work done for both the Cairo and New York offices, so that when I go in to work in New York in one week, I'm starting new and not as far behind as I usually am. I've stored things under my desk in the Cairo office, on the assumption that I'll return. Captain M pretends I'm returning. Yasir has offered to find an apartment for me. In my gut, I believe it's time to go home. In my brain, I'm not sure why my gut believes that, and wonder if maybe my gut is just acting as a homing beacon and telling me to follow the traditions I've made for myself. I go to New York because it's what I do.

Is Cairo a distraction from my other life, or is this my life? I don't know if I'm supposed to move on or get comfortable.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Souvenir Hunting

If you've been reading this blog a while, you know that I like the pillowcases made by the Egyptian tentmakers.

Last time I was in Cairo, I stocked up on pillowcases late one Saturday night. But now in JC, I have a coffee table that needs refinishing. Why refinish when you can buy a lovely applique cloth cover instead?

I went to the tentmaker's bazaar. Tentmaking isn't much in demand these days (outside of Ramadan times) so tentmakers sew all kinds of other cloth products.

The bazaar is across the road from Bab Zuweila and is located in a lovely covered alleyway. As far as shopping in Cairo goes, it's relaxed. Not much hard sell like at Khan El Kalili, and not crowded like the shopping malls.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Inside View

Here's the inside of a Cairo black taxi.

These taxis would be illegal in the States. They'd never pass any safety inspection and certainly would not meet smog standards as they careen around town spewing leaded fumes.

I took a black taxi to Bab Zuweila yesterday. I wish there were some magic key to telling if a driver were competent and honest, but unfortunately, you never know until the ride is over. Are you safely at your destination and did he accept a fair price? Or are you clear across town and is he screaming for more money?

Yesterday's driver took me about three blocks then pulled over to give water to another driver, whose taxi's radiator had burst. He got back in and started fussing with me about what fare I was going to pay him. I told him to pull over--my policy is to get out whenever they start trying to negotiate. Fares are set, by a nebulous zone system. There's no room for negotiation. Unless you're a tourist who doesn't know better.

I thought we'd reached a compromise--a too expensive one--and off we went. He took me to some city walls that were halfway to Nasr City and declared "Bab Zuweila." I laughed at him and said "That's not Bab Zuweila."

I caught another taxi to my destination. Made it safely, plus I got to see something I'd never seen before. Pity I have no idea what it was called.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Morning Excursion

How did it get to be the end already? I never even used my guidebooks to neighboring countries!

I didn't get out to see much in Cairo this time. So once again, I am cramming all my sightseeing into the end.

Yesterday, I took the metro down to Coptic Cairo. That's the historic part of town that has ancient Christian churches and Egypt's oldest synagogue. There's a cave where it is said that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph took shelter, and there is a spring where—perhaps—the pharaoh's daughter found Moses. (Does she have a name? Or is it just "pharaoh's daughter?")

The metro goes straight to Coptic Cairo at Mar Girgis stop. I can't say that I was enthralled enough to return one day, but it was an easy journey and the sights took only a few hours to navigate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

From Uncle Ben to Tahrir Square

Years ago, I used to send off for American University in Cairo course catalogs.

What year was this? I'm not sure. It must have been 1983 or so, the year before I went to college. Or maybe it was after college, as I sought an escape from the drudgery of the first "normal" day job. Though there was nothing normal about working at Marvel Comics, even then, before the cycle of bankruptcy-retrench-repeat began.

I liked the idea of a huge, chaotic city in an opaque culture, of being surrounded by Egyptian students. It sounded... so different.

I never went to AUC. To learn, that is. But last week I went to teach.

Yasir invited me in to discuss comic books with his first-year Mass Communications class. It went well, and I showed Before and After images of how we alter Betty and Veronia—and especially Sue Storm—for more conservative markets. I explained our original comic and the students asked insightful questions.

But best was when Yasir opened the class, asking "Who knows the primary lesson of Spider-Man?"

They all perked up. Some raised their hands. They all nodded as one spoke—with great seriousness—for the group.

"With great power comes great responsibility."

Going Local

"Giza Giza Giza," hollered the conductor from the ramshackle city bus as it sputtered down Pyramids Road.

I'd just gotten out of a private car after visiting the pyramids. Jackie, who left Cairo last night for New York, was getting in some last minute sightseeing with her job-provided car-and-driver.

"Ten pounds," cautioned Jackie's driver. I understood and nodded. They dropped me off at the Saqqara turnoff. I was to spend no more than ten pounds on a taxi from there to the Giza metro station. The metro would whisk me back to Gezira Island, home to Zamalek.

I hate taking taxis in Giza. Tourists are fleeced regularly in the area surrounding the pyramids. I carried a plastic grocery bag as camouflage—though only an empty water bottle was inside. A plastic grocery bag gave me legitimacy, might make me an expat instead of a tourist.

I scanned Pyramids Road for a taxi. Then, the bus slowed down in front of me.

"Giza Giza Giza!"


The conductor nodded. Relieved, I jumped aboard as the bus was still moving.

The fare? Half a pound.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tourist Tip

The best time to tour Egypt is during Ramadan.

A contrarian view? Perhaps. But consider this: Hotels are empty, weather is beautiful, crowds at tourist attractions are a fraction of what they usually are, and when you go to restaurants during the day, you have them all to yourself.

On the down side, nothing is open for a few hours in late afternoon. And don't get me started on the call to prayer. Did I say that? Oh dear. I used to love it when the whole town buzzed at once. But it's lost its romantic appeal. Time to go home.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ladies Only

I finally worked up the nerve to surreptitiously snap a few metro photos. The car itself didn't seem to mind, but I think the women who purposefully boarded the "Ladies Only" car might have thought me strange had I started obviously shooting photos of them.

The Cairo metro is pretty nice and efficient. There are only a few problems: It is still under construction so it doesn't go enough places yet. It is overcrowded during rush hour. And they haven't worked out that "Let them off first" bit so each rush hour stop is like a combination back-to-school sale/wrestling match.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


I've purchased a ticket to Barcelona, and another ticket from Barcelona to New York. So I'm definitely leaving Cairo in just under two weeks.

I thought I'd better go look at those pyramid thingies. Sure, I've seen 'em before. But it's kind of lame to keep scooting by them and not go in and take a closer look. Last time I did that was 1999.

Funny. They haven't changed.

Friday, September 14, 2007

River Living

Who lives in the blue houseboat on the Nile?

I wonder sometimes. It's directly in my line of sight when I look out of the sliding doors on my hotel balcony. I'd insisted on a room with a Nile balcony, but in truth I've never sat outside. It was too hot in July and August, and now I've been too lazy to wipe the summer's dust off the patio furniture.

But I gaze every day over the Nile, once in the morning and once at night. It's not just the Nile, it's my Nile, the river that has winded its way though my life, the backdrop for significant occurrences. Events two years past, during the early months of this blog.

About a dozen houseboats in various states of repair sit right across the river. I've love to live in one, to live not just beside my Nile, but on it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

First Night

The streets of Zamalek were eerily silent. Had I just entered a zombie movie? Were monsters going to emerge from a tower block to chase me down Ismail Mohammed Street? There would be no one to stop them. No bawabs, no shopkeepers, no other pedestrians. I seemed alone in Cairo.

It was six in the evening. A week ago, this time would have been seven, but time had abruptly changed, bringing the Ramadan evening meal an hour closer than it would have otherwise. Clever, these Egyptians.

Shops were dark. Those that were open were abandoned, their products seemingly unattended.

I'd expected things to be a little different during Ramadan, but the quiet in this normally teeming, chaotic city was unnerving.

Then I caught on--there were no taxis. Cab drivers honk like crazy. What goes through their heads? "Ah, a person standing on a corner! Perhaps they are attempting to cross the street, but it's far more likely that they will raise their hand any minute and hail me. Maybe I better honk to let them know I see them. Then I'll slow and stop, so that if they are attempting to cross the street, all the traffic behind me will join the honking and swerve around me, ensuring that the pedestrian cannot cross. Maybe they'll be more inclined to hop in my taxi."

I've heard of single taxis going down the 26th of July Street at four in the morning, when no one is in sight. Yet still they emit cheery beeps every twenty feet. Best to tell the world you're around!

And where were all the taxi drivers? Same place the help at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf had disappeared to. Same place the shopkeepers were. Doing the same thing as the three guards on the corner of Ismail Mohammed and Gezira Wosta. They were all in break rooms or hidden corners in their places of employment, tucking into rushed meals with their colleagues. They'd been waiting all day, working their shifts, unable to sleep off the the hunger as so many do. The guards, like workers all over Cairo, just sat down on the spot at a makeshift table.

Tonight the streets would be throbbing with people.

But at ten minutes after six, more than fifteen million people sat down to supper.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Home Sweet Cairo

Cairo: a necessary evil to tourists, a city of bureaucrats, ancient sights and slightly less old taxis, appalling traffic, and toxic air. Home to more than 15 million people, most Muslim but plenty Christian. Horns honk, the call to prayer wails, and engines roar throughout the night. If Upper Egypt is south, Cairo must be Egypt's bottom. The butt of Africa. Spewing forth a filthy, stinking concentrate, equal parts madness and desperation.

But oh how it grows on you.

I have my routine. I wander the colonial-era streets of Zamalek, among the crumbling mansions, and I go to work in Dokki, newer city of the masses, a tan city. An overwhelmingly tan city. The first day I was in Cairo in 1999, I was terrified of the traffic. The next time, in 2001, a taxi driver grabbed my leg. Last time, I was propositioned repeatedly and flashed once.

But somehow, I love Cairo.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Happy Ramadan

I am the proud new owner of a Ramadan lantern. One of the Mohammeds (I call him Spanky and he tolerates this well) from the office went and purchased one for me. It is small enough to take onboard a plane as carry-on luggage.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Barbie's Distant Cousin

She's fulahlicious!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Winding Down

"I spent a solid hour with the Verizon rep on the phone doing a series of acrobatic exercises in an attempt to get the DSL to work. They are coming to see Mister Javins tomorrow between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m."

I giggled. Craig is temporarily in my apartment in Jersey City, having left Cairo a few days ago after nearly a year here. He had to pretend to be my husband to get the phone company to deal with him and my apparently broken DSL.

The idea of being home is appealing in some ways, but home sure makes for some dull blogging. I'm heading home in a few weeks myself. Trading in Herding-Mohammeds for chasing the phone company doesn't sound so exciting. But it will be nice to go back to the gym and have my kitchen back, as living in a hotel makes for a questionable diet. I'm not sure yet how Craig feels about being home (it hasn't shown up on his blog yet). He probably has mixed feelings, like most people after a year abroad.

Before he left, Craig took me by the juice store on 26th of July Street. A store full of fruit, where a man behind the corner squished fruits into juice, then funneled the juice into plastic water bottles. I took the last swig of water from a small water bottle, handed it over, and got it back full of freshly squeezed mango juice.

Here are Craig's photos of the juice store.

Now I really want a mango juice.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Art Corrections

The young woman translator approached me timidly with a printout of a piece of art from a Marvel UK Spider-Man magazine. It was Sue Storm, appearing in a puzzle about the Fantastic Four. We were reprinting it. And it was anatomically impossible.

"I know we can't print this, but I can't face the designers. I don't know how to say it to the guys. Can you help?"

"With pleasure."

I barged into the design department.

"BREAST POLICE!" I bellowed. "Who let THESE through? Do you want to get us banned in Saudi?"

Four adult Egyptian men (two of which were named Mohamed) reddened and then started giggling.

Some days I love my job.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Just Call Him Mo

An all too common scene in this part of the world:

A graphic designer from our Kuwait office dropped by our Cairo office for a visit. He's an Egyptian living in Kuwait and his name is Mohamed. He was here on a family holiday. He wanted to see Captain M and check out his new "manager" digs.

Captain M took Mohamed around the office to introduce him to the sales staff, the designers, and the translation staff.

We have four translators, also called editors. Three are men, while one is a woman named Heba.

Captain M introduced Mohamed to the translators. My office is about five feet away, so I overheard this, causing no end to my giggles.

"Mohamed," said Captain M. "Meet Mohamed, Mohamed, Mohamed, and Heba."

Monday, September 03, 2007

We're Only Here for the Fish

While young Egyptians use the Fish Grotto for the purpose of illicit boy-girl gazing and forbidden hand-holding, Craig and I are both adults from the loose-moralled US of A. Were we intent on a snog-fest, I'm sure we'd think of far better places for this activity than the Zamalek aquarium.

No, we went to the Fish Grotto solely for its intended purpose. We wanted to see some fish.

And see fish we did! There were at least fourteen fish in the aquariums. Maybe more. Also a few turtles, some fake fish, and one display of a dry bucket. There was also a batcave, though the bats were sleeping.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Best Date Spot in Cairo

Got a date in Cairo but no money, no car, and no place of your own?

Take her (or him) to the Fish Garden in Zamalek! Great place to spend time alone (except for the tourists and other couples). Lots of nooks and crannies for insightful discussions, timid handholding, or even a daring snog.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mission Accomplished

I realize that if there were a fire in the middle of the night in my office and the new smoke detectors went off, the neighbors would probably just ignore the alarm. And these detectors will work only for the life of the first battery, as once they start doing the "I-wanna-new-battery" beep, someone will just tear out the battery and not replace it.

But at least now, if the employees are sleeping on the job, I have an annoying way to wake them up.