Friday, November 02, 2007

On the road again: week one in Cairo

DC Weather delayed my flight to Newark, so I missed the connection to Frankfurt, which meant a missed connection to Prague and to Cairo.

No Room at the Inn
I spend the night in Newark, New Jersey. I am bussed to a “HoJo” or Howard Johnson Hotel. They still exist! The manager reports they are full. Some of the Indian travelers suspect that they refuse to take our $55 vouchers from Continental, hoping for regular customers who will pay $100 or more for a room. One man is racing to Mumbai, India to see his 89 year-old mom, who is on her death bed. He was not there when his father passed. He has now lived in Ohio for 40 years. We are then bussed to the Radisson, a much bigger hotel. When we arrive, they also have no room. Finally, we are bussed to a Sheraton, where we find refuge.

Frankfurt layover
Since I miss my Czech Airlines flight, I have to spend the night in Frankfurt.

From a Lonely Planet Europe guidebook at the airport bookstore, I find a youth hostel in downtown for about 20 Euros. The fellow at the next phone booth overhears my conversation with the receptionist at the youth hostel, so asks me to book one more bed for him, too. His name is Patrick and he sounds like he’s from Ireland or Scotland, but he’s actually Belgian and speaks Dutch. At 48, Patrick has a slight build, is going bald and is very thin. He is delayed on his way to Taiwan for vacation. He joins me as we take the train to downtown. To my delight, the hostel comes with a free breakfast and a free spaghetti dinner on Saturday nights.

Patrick has to leave on a morning flight, so asks for a 5:30 AM wake up call. Sure enough, the next day, he receives the wake up call—in person. The receptionist first knocks on the door, then comes in and asks, “So, someone wanted a wake up call?” I point to Patrick, whose bed is by the door.

Free to look!
As I walk around the youth hostel to explore the neighborhood in the few hours before my flight to Cairo, I discover that we are right next to an entire street of sex shops. This called for some exploring on my part. It felt like the Time Square of pre-Giuliani days. As I walk past one corner, a middle-aged lady yells to me, “Hi! Come in. Free to look!” I kept walking. Soon, she grabs my arm and abducts me. She sits me down in her empty shop and hands me a drink menu.
“I don’t drink” I tell her.
She responds, “Then buy me a drink!”
“Isn’t it early to drink?” I look at my watch. It’s not yet noon.
“It’s not the time, it’s the quality.”
“I’m a very bad customer for you,” I tell her.
“I get paid for the number of drinks I sell,” she explains.
She takes my right hand, almost to warm it up. It is fairly cold at about 50 degrees. She leads me to a private room with a TV with a video playing of a woman sitting on a man.

I get up to leave.

“It’s ok. I explain to you what you get!” Another woman, also in her 50s, but with a haggard look, proceeds to close the curtains.
I leave and thank them for their hospitality.

Arrival in Cairo
After three days of travel and delays, I arrive safely in Cairo early Monday morning, Alhamdulillah! (Thanks be to God). This is one of the most common and useful phrases in the Arabic language. When you greet someone, he will respond with Good, Alhamdulillah! When you say, “It’s a beautiful day.” Yes, Alhamdulillah!

Some cab drivers approach me. They all want 70 ($14) LE for the 30 minute ride to Zamalek. I ask for 50 LE ($10), knowing that’s the basic price. One agrees to 60 LE and I’m about to accept when a police officer approaches him to reprimand him for something. Perhaps, he’s not supposed to pick up passengers here? I’m out of luck. So, I continue to look. I wait about 15 minutes. I push my cart down to the departures section. No taxis. I push it back up to the arrivals. I finally agree to a taxi for 65 LE. It is now about 3 AM and I’m too tired to bargain over one dollar. We speed through the empty highways and streets of Cairo toward the Flamenco Hotel.

At the apartment lobby, Mamdooah, a security guard helps me with my bags. I tip him 10LE, which will buy 10 falafel breakfasts. He is perhaps in his 30s and very amiable.

I am settled into my new apartment on Zamalek, on the Nile and it is very nice! It comes with a Buxom, Blonde Swede who is also very nice. Alex is a reporter covering the human rights beat and has been living here for more than a year. In her mid 20s, she speaks with an American accent. A graduate of USC, she’s a fan of the Trojans.

There’s a puddle of soy sauce on the kitchen floor. Alex dropped it the day before, so tells me to be careful around the accident scene as the cleaning lady will take care of it later in the week. We have a cleaning lady? And a doorman? This will take some getting used to.

I wake to honking. Incessant honking. And birds chirping. They take turns. It is an urban orchestra. Otherwise, it is sunny and warm, but not hot. Alhamdulillah! While I don’t exactly have a view of the Nile like I did during my first visit with Chris, I have a panoramic view of the neighboring landscape, with scores of satellite dishes on the roofs. It is mostly brown. Many decaying buildings. And a curtain of smog.

The first morning, I heard the morning call to prayer. I don’t hear it anymore. Could I have gotten used to it so quickly?

A neighborhood walk
I decide to go for a walk around the neighborhood to get a better feel for the area. On my way back, I decide to take the opposite street. Surprisingly, I bump into Johan, a DC friend of a friend. He is in his 5th week of a two month assignment here consulting for the Egyptian Government on IT issues. Johan is actually from Sweden, but studied at SAIS, Johns Hopkins. We agree to meet up for drinks next week. Small world, isn’t it? The Spanish say, “El mundo es un panuelo” or the world is a napkin. I wonder what the Arabs say. I suppose, I will find out soon enough, insha’allah!

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