Friday, April 27, 2012


What is it about pyramids? Why do some people love them, seek them? They travel the world, enduring jet lag, harrowing taxi rides, camel drivers, multilingual t-shirt peddlers, and assorted other annoyances just to stand in their shadows. Why do I shudder when I see them? Why do I hate them? And yet, on clear (a relative term) days, I can't help myself. I scan the skyline, looking for a peek of the monstrous tombs. This town is big. But the pyramids are bigger.

I remember my first trip to the Alamo as a kid. I had seen the John Wayne movie and had expectations of a large church and fortress in the middle of the desert, tumble weeds rolling past tour buses. Of course the Alamo is a relatively small church in the middle of a pretty big city. I love it, but not for its grandeur. If anything, it is that it is such a little thing that has become a huge Texas icon that makes the Alamo all the cooler.

The great pyramids of Giza are the opposite. They are enormous. If it were not for the nearly constant haze of air pollution that hangs over Cairo, you could see them over and around almost any other structure. They are impressive from every angle, even at a distance. When you get up close and can see the gigantic individual blocks that form them, it is breath taking.  If you like big monuments, you will not be disappointed.

What's in that smiling guy's hand?

I think the experience we had at the pyramids one week after our arrival has sadly defined my feelings towards pyramids, towards big, stupid piles of bricks and my general experience in this crazy town. We were hassled, prodded, annoyed, harassed, and robbed. And that was just during the taxi ride to get there. Once we actually got into the pyramid area it just got worse. People were relentless, shoving things in our hands, demanding money. It was loud and confusing. They just wouldn't let up for even a moment. I was even pick pocketed by a camel driver. This is pretty rare in Egypt, but it happened to me. Even the intensity of the souvenir hawkers in this country can be truly off putting to people who generally prefer to be left alone - people like me.

I think most tourists are able to compartmentalize the hassles. It is all just a part of the bigger experience, a minor annoyance that will some day make a terrific travel story, like getting malaria in Nicaragua or being beheaded in Saudi Arabia. They plug through, smiling and trying not to let it ruin their experience. 'Honey, do you have any idea how much these tickets cost? Smile and have some fun, for goodness sake!'

For me it is different. I am not a tourist. Well, that is a half truth. I live here, but I am not exactly buying property or even making huge efforts to learn the language. I am really something of a resident tourist on a long and exhausting working vacation. I want the perks of being foreign, but I get annoyed when I am charged gringo prices. In some ways I am worse than a tourist. Real tourists, at least, have the courtesy to leave after they have seen the sights and spent their money. I am still here, complaining, illiterate, and demanding.

So why take all that out on the last of the great wonders of the ancient world? I suppose the pyramids don't have much purpose other than being symbols. For some they symbolize the impossible, the ancient, the mysterious. For some they are feats of engineering, marvels of human achievement. For others they are proof of God or aliens or something extra and unseen in the universe. For many locals they speak to a history of greatness and an opportunity to make a couple bucks off of tourists.

I don't know what they are to me... huge, overwhelming, and ever present even when shrouded in smog - especially when shrouded in smog. If I had a car, I could drive away from them. Eventually I would find a sea or a forest or something green or wet. But I don't have a car and  there is nothing but desert outside this giant city. I could run all day, away from the pyramids - as fast and as far as my weak legs could carry me. Eventually I would fall over, coughing and exhausted on the sand. I would look back and if the sky was clear, they would still be there, poking above the rubble of half finished buildings, the wind blown garbage, and sand dunes. They would be smiling down, maybe laughing. And I would still be in Egypt.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Home part 2

I used to be somebody. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that I was a celebrity or anything. But I was somebody. I lived in a small city where I knew hundreds of people by name. I was a regular at at least six or seven Tex Mex restaurants. I couldn't walk down the street or go to a store without running into an acquaintance. Chatting time had to be factored into any outing. If nothing more, I could count on a familiar nod or a smile of recognition every time I left the house.

I attribute this to a number of things. For one thing I lived in San Marcos, on and off, for nearly twenty years. The jobs I did in San Marcos were quite social. I was a vet assistant, a pizza driver, and a teacher for a number of years. Teaching and working for the school district particularly made me feel like a part of the community. Also I am a pretty gregarious and friendly person. I enjoy visiting. And Texas is not a bad place for chatting. Folks tend to be friendly, particularly in smaller cities and towns.

I left every so often, but have always been lured (some say sucked)  back to live amongst my adopted people, the San Martians. Even now, as I toil in the Egyptian desert, I check nightly for sheep's blood over my door or some sign that exodus is at hand and I can escape to the promised land. As yet, I have witnessed plagues, but no relief.

Let me tell you about growing up. I was born in the Netherlands to American parents. At three we moved to England, where I lived and went to school until fifth grade. Then we went to a place my parents referred to as 'home' where I had no idea about anything, America. I was nine but had never seen a full episode of Sesame Street. I didn't even know that Greg and Marsha were brother and sister, sort of. After an awkward seven year stint in Houston, we moved to Egypt where I completed high school amongst other oddball kids. Just three months ago, I learned that there is a word for people who grew up like me - people who hold passports from countries that they know almost nothing about. They (we) are referred to as 'third culture kids'. Cool. I lived less than half of my childhood in the United States, but I am not a foreigner, at least not exactly.

This was problematic socially for a long time. I was always a fish out of water. Ten years ago, I left a good job as a brewer, escaping to Mexico in the hopes of finding myself outside of the US. It was terrific and might have actually worked if economics and family hadn't pulled me back. Being an American outside of America felt like home to me at that time.

Something funny happened when I started teaching in San Marcos and my first daughter was born seven years ago. I think it was a sudden thing, though I can't describe the moment. Maybe it was an event or maybe just a realization. I became an American, and more specifically a Texan, and to be even more specific than that... I became a San Martian.

But the mind is a roamy thing and mine always wanders, goes on trips looking for greener grass and springier springs. That impulse may always follow me. And so now, we find ourselves in Egypt. But this time is different. This time I am not ecstatic or relieved. Though the adventure is intense and we are never bored, there is a pull that I cannot deny. In truth, I am terribly homesick, as I never was in Mexico or any of the other temporary homes of my past. At the risk of falling prey to melancholia, I revel in this homesickness and how it reveals to me that I finally have something that I (and maybe other 'third culture kids') always longed for....  home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


At some point during any discussion about food in Egypt, somebody invariably mentions, in an apologetic tone that, "Well, the cucumbers are really good here." The cucumbers are, in fact, delicious in Egypt. They are smaller than cucumbers we used to buy in the States. They are firm, slightly sweet, and form a respectable anchor to a delightful cucumber salad - so long as the generally rancid tasting onions don't ruin it for you.

 I like felafel too. But I don't love felafel. Well perhaps I am falling out of love with felafel, if it ever really was love. In fact, if I never ate another felafel sandwich again for the rest of my life that would be alright. Shewerma can be tasty, but it is a sad substitute for its distant latin cousin, the taco al pastor. It is not even worthy to be served next to the gyro, or any of the other many skewered and grilled meat sandwiches that deliciously feed the rest of the world.

 It is really not fair to compare Egypt to Mexico, particularly in the area of food. Still, as that is the only other foreign country where I have lived during my adult life, it is impossible not to make such comparisons. Comparing Mexico to Egypt is like putting FC Barcelona up against the Miller Middle School boys soccer team. Actually, the San Marcos boys would probably play harder and they have at least seen good soccer on TV. I'm not certain that most Egyptians have ever had a really good meal. They certainly love to eat, which seems odd considering how terrible most of the food here is. Servings in Egyptian restaurants rival those in America in their excessive size, if not in their appealing flavor. At a restaurant one can expect to be served a giant bowl of pasta drowned in slightly soured cream sauce or a half dozen sad, fatty meatballs. It is as though the cooks are working from recipes that were written in ounces and pounds without making the conversions and reductions for their kilo scales. As a result, many Egyptians, particularly wealthier ones, are rather chubby. On the bright side, the service in most restaurants is even more wanting the food. As such, you likely will never be served half of what you order anyway.

 One way in which Mexico and Egypt are similar is that you will never find the best food in restaurants. Mexican restaurants, within Mexico, are generally pretty underwhelming. Though they have ambiance, the food is typically uninspired. If you want to sample the best of Mexico you have two options... get invited into someone's home or hit the streets. While street food here pales in comparison to the brilliance of Mexican street food, it is where you will find the most economical and palatable (if slightly dangerous) meals. I mentioned shewerma above. It is not awful. You should know that if suffers the brutality of my memory. When I was in Egypt as a teenager, I delighted in stepping up to the shewerma stands and requesting five or six of the little meaty sandwiches in somewhat passable Arabic. I was rewarded with little yeasty rolls, split and filled with grilled meat, sauteed onions and tomato, and a big dollop of tahini. Twenty five years later and armed with even less Arabic, they taste somewhat rancid and bitter, like nostalgia tends to when you are ankle deep in the garbage you never noticed as a child.

 The felafel is arguably good, really good. If you go to a stand that is busy, it will be hot and fresh. There is something of the chaotic and energetic vibe one feels at a taco stand when you are buying felafel from a truly hopping vendor. People are calling out orders, cooks sing replies, sandwiches are hastily wrapped in paper and delivered to eager hands. The sandwiches typically cost about forty cents apiece, sweetening the experience with thrift. The lack of meat and deeply fried food enhances one's chance of survival, which is also a nice perk considering the state of medical care in Egypt. Felafel is definitely the best choice for someone who wants the eat the most flavorful and cheapest that Egypt has to offer and live to tell about it. That said, I just don't love it. Under spiced and deeply fried chick peas just don't move me, although the bread is quite good.

One time I tried what is reputed to be a 'delicacy' here in Cairo - stuffed pigeon. Aside from being small and bony, it tasted remarkably like rat. I could tell you about koshari, but I'd rather let someone who actually enjoys this starchy mess of beans and too much macaroni do to the honors. Their is fuul, which is Arabic for, 'awful bean taco'. All this talk of Egyptian cuisine is making me feel overly negative. Did I mention that the cucumbers are really, really good here?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Animation Team

The sunscreen and snorkels were already packed, the kids were charged, and the van was chartered. I came home from work, ready for a week of relaxation at the beachfront town of Dahab. I was checking my email when a blurb online caught my eye - something about a missile being fired into Israel from the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai Peninsula is in Egypt, in case you don't know. And Dahab is in the Sinai Peninsula. Damn it! The Sinai has been a bit sketchy for a while. There have been road closures, even kidnappings. Some people had hinted that it might not be the best vacation destination. Of course it is questionable if Egypt is really the best residential destination in these strange times. And yet here we are.

I freaked out as I am increasingly prone to do. I ran around the corner to the travel agent raving about world war and the implications of infuriating the Israelis. The travel agents looked at me as though I were insane at first. But I think they understood. They have been suffering significantly since the revolution. I am not the first jumpy tourist to cancel a trip this year. They agreed to help me reroute the van and find another hotel in another town, closer. They would find us a place in Al Gouna, Hurgada, or someplace safe and close on mainland Egypt far from Bedoin malcontents and land disputes - far from Israel and the little piece of paradise that we had spent the last month reading about, far from Dahab.

You see Egypt, for all its desert, has no shortage of coast. Much of it is along the gorgeous Red Sea. The thing is that in Egypt there are two types of beaches. There are ones built up with huge, expensive, overbearing, manicured, all inclusive, artificial, package deal resorts. And then there is Dahab. Dahab is an old Bedoin village that has been a haven for divers, independent travelers, lost souls, hippies, and misfits for decades. If you know Mexico, think Maruata. Think Puerto Escondido. Dahab is the place that has avoided becoming a soulless resort despite all odds. It is a perfect strip of coast where small hotels line a rocky beach. You can see where the reef begins from any of the perfect sit on the floor lounges that line the boardwalk. It is a place where you can fill your days diving, kite boarding, taking excursions to oases in the desert, swimming, sipping tea in shoeless waterside lounges, or you can do nothing. And that is OK too. Sure there are T-shirt shops and pushy vendors. This is Egypt. The food is almost as terrible as it is everywhere else in Egypt, but not quite. The view is always stunning, rugged mountains collapsing into turquoise water. It is not easy to get there (seven hours in a van from Cairo). But when you arrive, you may never want to leave.

With the trip temporarily on hold, I went back to the apartment to talk with Jenn and hammer out a workable Plan B. We poured over our Lonely Planet guide, reading in dejected tones about all the other possibilities. About each place, the authors had written some variation of, "Well, this place is OK... if you absolutely can't go to Dahab." It was depressing. We didn't want a fancy resort. We had already booked a pleasant small hotel. I'm not talking about hammocks. This place has a restaurant with an omelet chef. The room we booked has a balcony over the pool with a clear view of the Red Sea. We weren't planning on roughing it. We just didn't want the resort.

So we decided to try to start with finding a good hotel and went to my favorite website, Tripadvisor. We looked up some of the towns that had been mentioned, Ain Suhkna, Hurgada, Al Gouna, and started reading reviews of resorts. They were expensive and our trip would have to be shorter. But maybe being pampered would be a nice break from Cairo. At this point, anything would be a nice break from Cairo. The reviews were curious. The resorts were all expensive, but nobody really seemed to enjoy their stay in them. While the humblest backpacker camps in Dahab had legions of fans posting rave reviews, these five star hotels received chilly comments.

But there was one thing that they all had in common. Everybody had something to say about the 'animation teams'. They either hated them or loved them. My first thought was, what the hell is an animation team. My next thought was, no really, what the hell is an animation team? Was this a group of cartoonists? I might enjoy that. Or maybe it is those creepy people who dress up in animal costumes and give you balloons. Jenn didn't know either. We speculated for a while and then did what everybody does in this post-speculation era, we looked up 'animation team' online. For the next hour we watched Youtube videos of animation teams in action.

You may have seen these folk before. You may have eaten felafel before. But if you haven't done either in Egypt, you haven't exactly seen what we are talking about. I have learned that animation teams are huge in modern Egypt in the way papyrus art and human sacrifice were in pharaonic times. Animation teams are essentially resort cheerleaders. They are the people that go around the hotel haranguing guests into having fun. They might make you do the Macarena in the pool or playfully chase your kids around the lobby with a fake crocodile. They do floor shows with dancing and magic in the evenings. They are mostly imported young people, sort of like outgoing ski lift operators with decent singing voices. They are perky and they don't take no for an answer. As much as I love all people, I hate these types of people most of all. I will have fun when I choose. Goading me will only bring out my inner hostility.

We grimaced through one video clip after another of singing buffoons and giggling Egyptian tourists. There were balloon animals and poolside talent shows, belly flop contests and endless line dances. After an hour or so it became abundantly clear that this was not going to be the answer to our situation. And so I meekly called up our guide and apologized for my rash behavior. We would venture across the Sinai, taking our chances with angry insurgents. We reasoned that most of the tourists who had been kidnapped of lately had ended up spending the afternoon drinking tea with Bedoins while their state departments negotiated their release. We were planning on a Bedoin tea trip anyway. We had thought to pay for it ourselves. Would it be that different?

So we went. And yes, Dahab was heavenly.