Thursday, January 21, 2010

Casablanca-not the movie

I believe my oldest brother’s all-time favorite film is Casablanca and Ana and I finally gotten around to seeing it for our first time just a little over a month ago. I reckon 40 years is better late than never. Morocco is a destination Ana and I talked about visiting one day, mainly based on the food and a couple of documentaries we had seen. We figured that the opportunity was right especially since we would be traveling with friends. 

You can buy these masks back in Egypt!

I have been keeping a running tab of stores and companies that I absolutely loathe and I have to say that Egypt Air is the newest addition. They are seldom punctual and not very forthcoming about information. Once we boarded our two-hour late flight was when the real adventure started. The first incident of the evening was between two males that involved a seat being in the reclined position.  There was some shoving but mostly yelling and while other passengers kept the two parties apart with some heave petting trying to calm down the two aggressors, the flight attendants offered little assistance in resolving the matter. I bet if this happened on a flight back in the states there would have been homeland security waiting on the ground ready to arrest people. Being on an Egyptian Air flight during landing is also quite an experience as it is never a good sign when you hear the un-clicking of the safety belts when the plane first hits the tarmac. This action is usually followed by people trying to stand up and race towards the front to be the first one off the plane to go wait 45 minutes for luggage that may or may not show-up. I know this is wrong, but I secretly laugh when those people stumble or their bags fall on them as they get them out from the overheads...I wish I was exaggerating. At the gate, several people from the back tried to cut their way to the front and I didn't appreciate this. Why I chose this battle is beyond me, I was just caught up in the moment. Apparently I stood between a woman and her habibi (male lover) and this caused quite a stir, enough to get other passengers involved. They were upset and I just kept telling them "you're not special; you need to wait your turn like everyone else." I became a joke and was taunted to an extent. Once we got towards the front of the plane habibi pushed me to the side then stopped right as we were exiting the plane to make me wait. I told him, I had all night and he gave me one last little shove that is when I took him and threw him into the first row of chairs. The flight attendants just looked at each other and gave me a little bit of extra space to get off the plane; maybe they thought they were next! I did have a few passengers come up to tell me that I did the right thing. We did see the lady again when we were in the line for customs, she was in the back and came up towards the front and I asked her if she was going to try and cut the line again. She just smiled and said "no" returning back to her lover.

Across from the Central Market

I think his parents dress him up to make money

After spending 4 nights in Cairo it was nice to be in a city with cleaner air. We stayed at the Oum Palace Hotel in the city's center, about a 5-minute walk to the Medina (old city). Lianne talked us into a walking tour suggested by her travel book. We started off at the Central Market and had a gander at the fresh produce, meats, and flowers; I even managed to buy some fake saffron! Welcome to Morocco. The Art Deco buildings and the Mauresque architecture (a blend of French-colonial and Moroccan style) are an amazing sight, as the city is filled with them.  We stopped by the Place Mohammed V; a giant square with a fountain surrounded by government buildings and a cool looking clock tower. We continued our stroll to the massive white Cathédrale du Sacré Coeur (Sacre-Coeur Cathedral). The structure had seen better days thought it looks like it still functions as an occasional cultural arts center and exhibition space. Our explorations made us hungry so Joseph, Lianne, Ana, and I decided to try the little hole in the wall eatery outside the Central Market. Their tajines (A traditional North African clay pot) looked appetizing and we ordered a variety of dishes. This would be one of the more memorable meals of the trip.

Cathédrale du Sacré Coeur (Sacre-Coeur Cathedral)

Tajines from where we ate!

Streets of Casablanca

Lianne thought the four of us should follow up the nice meal with Moroccan mint tea and dessert at Squala Café Maure on the edge of the Medina, good call. Afterwards we cut through the maze of streets in the Medina. Ana and I spent some time combing through the markets, being solicited by touts offering to help you find what you are looking for. Chasing people off can be such a pill.

The outer wall of the (old) Medina


Dinner was spent at the toros (bullfighting) themed La Bodega de Casablanca under the advice of Joseph and Lianne. The tapas were right on, except for the chuck of blue cheese that remained on the plate at the end of the evening, at one point it became a dare. The plan following dinner was to head down to Rick's Café (yes, the one "inspiried" by the movie Casablanca) to meet up with Dean and Michele for a nightcap. The place sort of lost its' charm once we found out how phony bologna it was, I consider it a blessing that it was at capacity and with no reservation propelled us to call it an evening.

The best thing about Rick's was Auto Service place next door

The night was young so I headed back down to the hotel lobby to write in my journal which at one point I thought it might exciting to venture out to one of the bars a couple of blocks over. I walked down the stairs to a lively all-old man crowd pouring down 8 oz bottles of Flag Speciale beer. Most patrons had tables covered with empty bottles while the twenty-something bar maiden with a dangling cigarette kept them coming to the sounds old-time Arabic music coming out of the jukebox.  I started a small collection of bottles and cranked out a couple of pages until I started to gag on the cigarette smoke. There is a stark contrast between the streets of downtown Casablanca during the day and at night. You can say I hurried back to the hotel not stopping to pet the stray dogs or chatting with strangers in darkened doorways. Tomorrow Marrakech bound.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Cairo Leg

One could possibly predict if there will be a Swine Flu outbreak on our campus simply by looking at the master calendar to see when the next visiting author is scheduled to appear. In Michele Serros case she did fare better than Tom Palmer in that she at least had a handful of students in the audience, as to say her presentation was intimate.

Our reward at 3 pm on our last day of school was the 20-minute secret Santa gift exchange followed by the six-hour Death March of Bataan bus ride to Cairo. Getting to Cairo is never as easy as it should be, I'm just some new kid on the block, naïve on the most basic level in thinking that there exists some formula, path, or whatever to get into that city in a timely manner. Even something foolproof like a train will just stop on a track and sit for God knows how long. The 18 of us on the bus all had our own destinations. The first batch was dropped off at Novotel, the hotel across from the airport famous for their high water pressure showers, rumor has it that our teachers like to take multiple showers during their overnight stay. The second group was New York City bound and they were released in front of their terminal. Dean, Michele, Ana, and I were scheduled for the next drop-off at a bargain hotel in downtown Cairo. It's just a room, right? All we are going to do is sleep in it and for $20 per/night it can't be that bad and it wasn't, but mosquitoes and polyurethane is a cocktail that shouldn't be mixed. We paid our monies and Michele, Ana, and I caught a cab over to Zamalek with the plan of hitting the handful of hotels we knew searching for a room. Our two initial options failed, we were eventually referred to the President and upon walking into the lobby we run into Linroy (our school's Tech guy) and his wife at the desk checking in. What luck. We scored a room then hightailed it back in a taxi to our first hotel only to find Dean high as a kite from the fumes with someone's used chewing gum attached to the hair of his forearms, I thought it was customary for classy hotels put a welcome chocolates on the pillow, but this is over the top. To add insult to injury, the elevator didn't work so we lug or bags down several flights of uneven and broken stairs passing dark floors with people sleeping in cardboard boxes to catch a cab. The fun ended slumber party style at 2 am with the four of us crammed into a 2-person room and every time hospitality knocked on our door to deliver extra towels, Dean's assignment was to hide behind the curtains. This would go down as one of the more memorable nights on our trip. 

Glob of used chewing gum

Our mission this trip was to play tourist. The Egyptian Museum was first on the list. We decided to walk from our hotel across the Nile to where we ran into the museum's "botanical director" on his lunch break who was kind enough to let us know that the facility wasn't open to the public yet, just to schools and tour groups and that we should go kill some time at the "government operated souvenir shop" across the way. He escorted us through traffic to what was probably his family's store. Welcome to Egypt.

The two-floor museum was cluttered and packed with history, tourists, and mummies. The artifacts were impressive. Michele was the only one brave enough to pay the admission to enter the Royal Mummy Room. Sadly the staff adheres to the strict no camera policy. We discovered the grounds provide excellent people watching opportunities. It's always fun to see westerners attempt to wear turbans and hijabs, it’s almost as cool as wearing a giant sombrero in Tijuana.

 Michele working trying out some dust jacket ideas 

Our next quest was to find the Whirling Dervishes, which meant heading over to Islamic Cairo to find the al-Ghouri Complex; a three-story cultural center with a courtyard theater where they perform bi-weekly. The nature of Whirling Dervishes dance ritual is a religious ceremony but fits nicely with the performing arts. The dancers are said to be members of the Mawlaiyya sect of Sufis, a mystic order of the Islamic faith. There was no actual line to get in, just a clump of people who resorted to pushing and shoving once the doors opened. This naturally led to some altercations and near fistfights. The show started with a line of musicians playing and jerking their bodies and heads to a hypnotic rhythm that set the tone for the evening. Twenty minutes into the show the dancers joined the musicians and dazzled the crowd for over an hour. One dancer spun his body continuously for nearly thirty minutes. He was obviously transcended the moment. The awe of this evening ranks right up there with seeing the Butthole Surfers back in 85' when they played with two naked fire-handling chicks dancing in front of graphic black and white highway accident prevention films. Both left an impression in their own way.


Taping wasn't allowed

Christmas eve would be devoted a day of shopping at the Khan al-Khalili which really didn't amount to much on the consumer side of things but we sure did browse quite a bit. People have remarked how crazy the Khan is and it is kind of like a junior version of the Great Bazaar in Istanbul but we would soon learn and graduate to a more intensive shopping experience a week later in Morocco. As an early Christmas gift Dean ate some bad falafel, poor guy. Welcome to Egypt, again. Ana, Michele and I headed over to the Cairo Opera House to score tickets to The Nutcracker. It was sold out but we bought tickets from people who had extras. I had to rent a tie and worse yet tuck in my shirt. Thankfully the camera was left at home. The ballet was nice and any venue that has an orchestra pit scores extra points in my book. A well spent $7.

Dean is one crazy foo

For Christmas we hired Mohamed (Linroy's driver) for our Giza experience. He explained to us the ins and outs to avoid being scammed by the touts at the Pyramids. I was reading a couple of stories the other day that the Pyramids were not built by slaves but by volunteers. Seriously…really, you think so? Personally I think it’s hard enough to find a friend who is willing to give up a Saturday morning to help you move. Ok, I've been hemming and hawing about going to see the damn things and it wasn't so bad. They were actually mind blowing. Then I remembered that aliens built them and I felt much better. How can we say we evolved as a species if we don't have the technology and precision to construct pyramids or the temples like in Baalbek. Its monuments like these that help you realize your insignificance. I realized that if there ever was an advantage to having light skin in Egypt, the Pyramids was the place to have it, it entitled you to free reign of climbing on them as you wished. The tourist police chased-off all the locals. Maybe it is built in through the cost of the ticket, Arabs pay 40 cents (2 pounds) and foreigners have to cough up $12 (60 pounds). Thank God the Sphinx and KFC were right down the hill.

Crazy dog making friends

Built by free labor

Mohamed drove us to the less-crowded Saqqara to experience the step pyramids. Outside the gate a tourist cop pulled our car over to bully us for lunch money. He asked Mohamed for all his credentials and all he really need was 5 Egyptian pounds so he paid him and off we went. He told us that’s how things operate in his line of work.

Step Pyramids

Little did we know that there was a secret watering hole beneath our hotel called the Cairo Cellar, the English style pub serves up a mean burger and draft beer set to a soundtrack of oldies. The lighting is dim, warm, and cozy…the perfect way to end a hectic day.

Our Cairo adventure came to an end when Mohamed drove us to the airport to meet Joseph and Lianne, the six of us Morocco bound.  

Waiting out the slight delay

Happy New Year

Happy belated New Year! Ana and I returned from Morocco last week only to catch a cold, it was most likely weather related, but for the record I'd like to say it was the famous Moroccan curse that one of the disgruntled passangers/witches on our flight put on us. Lucky us (Joseph, Lianne, Ana, and I) had the Casablanca to Cairo redeye that couldn't meet our scheduled 6:45 am landing thanks to a thick layer of fog so we got a little taste of the fine airport facilities in Luxor. As a bonus I discovered that people like to burn trash there just as much as they do in Alex and Cairo, at least poor air quality is fashionable country wide.

Mandatory Pyramid Photo

While on the ground, Egypt Air allowed us to stretch out in the terminal, which doubled as a playpen for unsupervised monsters to run amok. As inviting as the outlet on the wall looked to charge my Ipod, I should have gone with my gut instinct and declined. As fate would have it one of the unruly brats ran into the charger and pulled the cord out of the wall breaking the adapter and leaving live exposed metal in the outlet. The bruja (mother figure) didn't exactly reprimand her children but more or less told me to complain to the Egypt Air since it was their fault that this happened. I can appreciate her strategy on this incident, instead of taking responsibility her tactic was to say something absurd and make a quick getaway while I was struck in awe processing her asinine comment. So using her brand of logic I'm blaming her for my cold because she put a curse on me, and the airline is at fault too but I haven't concocted a suitable story yet.

Whirling Dervishes in Cairo

Our time in Luxor was cut short by the clearing fog. We were all herded back onto our plane for the one-hour flight to meet our tired driver who had been awake for as long as we have.  His task was to take us 3 plus hours north, Joseph was smart and bought him a large coffee. The voyage back to our beds was uncontested. 

Mystery structure at Saqqara  

More stories and pictures about our adventure to Cairo and Morocco to follow.