With all the mayhem thats been happening in Egypt of suicide bombings and hundreds of people being sentenced to death, I thought it was the right time to reflect on what I love so much about this country.
- The sunshine. Of course the first point had to be about the weather. No longer do you need to check the weather report continuously, as every single day is guaranteed sunshine. The number of days that it rains here you can count on one hand. I feel like I am on a permanent vacation, and thats got to be a good thing.
- The people. You tend to hear bad experiences about how the slimy taxi driver ripped them off with his dodgy meter, queue jumping rife with people thinking its their right to push in and the mountain of rubbish left on every street corner. Sure all of that happens, but let me tell you what I love about the Egyptians. I love the fact that theres a community spirit amongst the locals where you can walk down the street and say hello to the bawab (doorman) or the Imam from the mosque down the road. I love how the guy in my local grocery shop always gives my daughter a banana and before I can fully peel it, she grabs it with her fat hands and gulps it down in a matter of seconds. How the Imam at the mosque likes to rock my daughter in a chair and recite Quran to her whilst she sits mesmerised. Also how there is no shortage of people willing to help you with directions, even if they happen to be directing you the wrong way!
- The fact that the country is family friendly. Where else in the world can you go out at 1am and see families with young children sitting in a cafe or restaurant? You might be thinking isn’t it past their bedtime? or what are they even doing out at such a late hour, normally reserved for pimps, drunks and night owls? The answer is that in Egypt family comes first, and with people marrying younger and having a football team of kids, don’t expect it to change anytime soon.
I also love how people adore children. In the UK you feel scared and intimidated by others if your child so dares as cry on any form of public transport or even in a restaurant. The fact that crying to a baby is as natural as breathing, is irrelevant to most. Expect evil stares and tutting. But in Egypt I find that people want to hold your child, play with them and genuinely look like they care.
- Lack of rules. Sure, the fact that there seems to be no order in Egypt can really hack you off, but coming from a country that is so anal about following rules and always being politically correct you loose a sense of freedom. I do like some order to a society, but please, the day when a school can get sued because a child tripped up in the playground and scratched themselves, theres obviously something wrong there.
- Water fountains dotted along the streets. With the weather being so hot (it was 39 degrees celsius today), It is the best thing when you see one of these and drench your face in the ice cold water. Heaven
To be honest, I could go on and on…
Thursday nights are the best in Egypt because it signals the start of the weekend and some much needed rest. Cairenes sure know how to party and then at the end of it, how to chill out. Friday mornings are the chill out session, with the usual manic streets now deserted and eerily quiet. The only other time the streets are this quiet is during Iftar when people are at home, too busy stuffing their faces with 15 hours worth of food. Making up for lost time you see.
Friday mornings are the best time to explore Cairo, as the experience is entirely different, and you get to see another side to the smog filled city. Fridays are like a breath of fresh air, and its all yours for the taking.
Jumping into a beat up taxi, we rolled down the windows and enjoyed the fresh morning breeze as the driver whizzed his vehicle along the deserted roads. His dirty finger nails, blackened by the cheap cigarettes he smokes constantly, tapped against the stirring wheel as he turns the dial of the radio. Traditional music blares out from the speakers as we pass the Citadel mosque and the amazing view over the city and its abundance of minarets. I’m surprised no ones thought to build a viewing platform at this point, as the view is breathtaking.
We pass The City of The Dead with its flat roofed plain housing and the numerous minarets dotted in between, and the densely green terrain of Azhar park. Soon enough we are outside khan al Khalili and thats where the adventure begins. It was 10am by now, and already the market was filling up with sellers setting up their stalls. Mini tambourines, cheap looking caps with the Egyptian flag sewn on, tacky belly dancing costumes, fragrant spices from all over the world, and the ubiquitous cheap tourist tat. Helpers set up straw prayer mats outside Hussain Mosque, where in a few hours time, worshippers will be pouring in ready for friday prayers.
Whilst waiting for a friend, I sought respite under a tree, with the sun already out in full force. It just turned May for gods sake! Spotting her, we made our way to Fishawy’s cafe for a morning drink.
Those of you who have not heard of this cafe (do you live in a cave?!) it is one of the most famous cafes in the area, mainly due to the fact that it never closes and is open 24 hours. The place is alive and kicking especially at night and especially during ramadan. The joyful sounds of the oud serenades customers whilst people congregate and dance, and street hawkers dodge in and out of the small alleyway selling all kinds of things ranging from the useful to plain weird (we were once approached by a man selling stuffed dead animals, and an irate seller who couldn’t understand why we didn’t want to buy a doll). I thought this youtube video summed up the atmosphere.
We managed to easily navigate a pram through the crooked alleyways, grateful for the quiet time we chose.
Because it was friday before midday prayers, only a few shops were open. We explored the depths of the market taking in the streets and architecture.
I even spotted this Sisi outfit for children in the market, amongst police uniforms. Forget superman, now your little dear ones can dress up like the new superhero on the block, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Insert sarcastic face).
No this isn’t an automated message, but the real deal.
Excuse me for my leave of absence. It was a combination of laziness and bad habit that caused me to stay away. I’m breaking that habit right now.
Coming up from me will be more design inspired posts and the craziness that is mother Cairo. Fasten your seat-belts my fellow readers, this could get bumpy (oh wait i forgot, taxis here don’t actually have seat-belts..)
Summer is now upon us. It comes when you least expect it, managing to catch me out before I can prepare, even though I’ve been living here for the past three years.
The whole rituale begins; Make sure you have stock piled your water supply, have a wardrobe full of adequate cotton clothing, a mountain of suncream, spray bottles filled with water dotted around the house, copious amounts of fresh watermelon juice and a full tray of ice cubes ready to hand. All these things help make your summer in Cairo bearable, especially as temperatures can reach 40 degrees.
When I’m out and about though, I like to prepare by visiting one of the numerous kiosks dotted along each street corner. They’re usually a small make shift shack of metal pieced together with a rickety roof on top. I’m amazed at how they manage to stay up, but they do, and in summer they’re a god send.
Imagine that its noon and you’re walking the dusty streets, the sun high above, causes you to squint regardless of your sunglasses. You’ve been walking for the past hour and by now your pace has dramatically slowed and your shirt clings to you, wet with stale sweat. You seek shelter under the nearest tree along a busy road, its orange flowers out in full bloom. Its cooler in the shade, and soon enough the sweat cools you down. You run your finger along dry cracked lips which you quickly try to moisten with a parched tongue. This only makes it worse.
You must have lost a litre in water but all you feel like is a sugary drink that in the long run will cause tooth decay and diabetes. But you don’t care, you’re not thinking long term, but living for the here and now. You walk up to the fridge housing the drinks, amazed at the ingenuity of a single wire attached from the lampost, and used to power the kiosk fridge. Legal? You dont care. All you want right now is to wrap your lips around a cold beverage.
Open the fridge and touch each bottle carefully selecting the one that is chilled to perfection. crack the bottle open with the cap opener attached to the side of the fridge and savour the moment as the cold liquor runs down your throat and cools you down.
It’s been getting hotter as the days countdown towards the peak of summer. As soon as the sun rises the temperature slowly starts to become unbearable, and you find yourself confined to the dark and cool rooms of your house.
Now that we are parents, gone are the days of blissful lie-ins and leisurely meals. Instead I find myself being woken up by a small cry, and opening my eyes I am confronted by a smiling face, mouth wide open exposing the first signs of two white baby teeth on the lower gum. Meal times are no longer eaten in a relaxed manner. To get through each meal requires you to gulp down each mouthful in haste without even thinking about the food. Why would you need to think? Leave that for when you finally get to shut your eyes at night (only to be woken up yet again..).
It was another early wake up call today that was the deciding factor in going to Wadi Degla. Within an hour of jumping out of bed, we were dressed, fed and in a taxi speeding our way along the rough roads at 8am.
Wadi Degla is a protected area (founded in 1999) located in Maadi, and is a rocky valley, ideal for hiking, jogging, cycling or just spending time with your family and friends having a BBQ. The scenery is nothing spectacular, and far from beautiful, but its the closest thing you’ll get in Cairo to a ‘park’.
The taxi had to snake its way through waste land and uneven roads pockmarked with craters and random decaying sofas. The area is full of the offices and factories of different businesses, with the constant banging of heavy machinery. I spotted drilling equipment behind a gate and lining the road that leads to the entrance of the Wadi (valley).
People who are lucky enough to have a car are able to bring it into the Wadi itself and drive around until they find a suitable spot to picnic or start their hike. There is a flat pathway, surrounded by mountainous terrain on either side, that winds itself around the valley for roughly 14km.
Milestones (or kilometrestones) mark how far you have gone..
The area is full of stones, that resemble some kind of crumbly cheese
Trash drums are located all around the Wadi
but some people fail to get it in
It was quiet this early, with only the occasional dog walker or hard core jogger. Every now and then a cyclist would zoom past us leaving a trail of smoke in its path. The sun was getting higher in the sky and the temperature was rising quickly. There is little shade in the valley, but we did manage to find some along the ridge of the mountain and sat down on a large sandy rock. The temperature was mild out of the sun and once you drench every part of your clothes and body in water it was amazing. Soon enough a gentle breeze was blowing, cooling the sweat from our backs.
The sun was too bright so I experimented with my sunglasses, using it as a filter. Love the dirty dream like effect that I got
Christmas is the best time for me when it comes to shop displays. I would run on down to Oxford street in London and gaze at the contemporary yet traditional displays in Selfridges, John Lewis and any other shop along that mile stretch. It was a work of art. Every item of clothing, every snowflake was planned meticulously for months and then unveiled in time for the Christmas period.
In fact I wasn’t aware just how much planning went into it until I watched this video on the Selfridges website. amazing.
One of my favourite books is by art critic John Berger called Ways of seeing. In it he argues that what we see is influenced by ideologies. An oil painting of a confident man surrounded by wealth can be seen as enviable, and this is what modern day advertisements try to do.
“The Spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the products. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others…”
I would highly recommend reading this book and also watching the four part series over on youtube.
In Cairo it seem that they skip the planning and go straight into dressing the window display then and there. If I walked past these displays it wouldn’t make me want to get my wallet out and spend spend spend, or be the envy of others. What do you think?
I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit Japan for ten days. This place was out of this world. As soon as the wheels hits the tarmac and you file out of the plane, you feel the sense of organisation. Coming from Cairo I was shocked at how systematic and easy it was to do things. From filling out a landing card to navigating your way around the city, Japan was definitely another planet, and the people, another species.
We landed in Osaka, a modern Japanese city, home of excellent food. I crave food all the time. As soon as I finish breakfast im thinking about lunch, when I eat lunch I’m thinking about what to have for dinner and when I sleep I’m…well you get the picture.
Osaka is mainly famous for its pancakes and in the handy Lonely Planet guide that I used to navigate the city, it says that “the phase kuidaore (eat ’till you drop) was coined to describe Osakans’ love for good food.”
When you first arrive in Osaka, head down to Dotombori Arcade, but be prepared to be wowed on many levels. The place is a maddening crowd of shops, restaurants, Arcade pinball machines, tourist groups and advertisements screaming right in your face to buy this cream or eat in this restaurant because they have the best sushi. My head was spinning at all the information that is available. In an article in the Guardian in 2005 it says that in an entire day you’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages. In Japan it must be triple that. I became a shopping whore during my time there, so it must have worked.
Dotombori is like the Leicester Square of Japan. Its dirty, sleazy, full of annoying tourists that congregate in large groups and unrefined restaurants in abundance that are over-priced.
When it comes to food, the Japanese know how to do it. It’s not just about the way it tastes, but the presentation of the food is very important. It’s the little details that count. When I have a curry at home it looks like a splatter of spices placed in a plain dish with plain bread and served in mis-matched bowls. That’s the no frills approach to food. When the Japanese do food they like to go the whole hog. A bowl of noodles isn’t just wheat flour floating in a brown broth, but a masterpiece of yellow dough surrounded by an array of fish and vegetables cut into fancy shapes, all served in stylish bowls. The portions are small, not friendly to a western belly, so you might need to order a few dishes each.
I even tried some Sashimi, which is raw fish (Tuna and sea bream). Yes i can’t believe I had some, but I even surprised myself as it was tasty. You need to make sure that you order this from a good restaurant as fish that isn’t fresh will just make you ill. Each meal is usually served with endless cups of green tea. You nearly reach the end of your supply, and in an instant the waiter rushes over with their jug to fill replenish your cup. You don’t even have to ask them, they just know. Service is just as important as the food, and I found the Japanese to be very attentive and helpful.
My only problem with the food was eating it with chopsticks. I still didn’t get the hang of it, instead having to adjust them again and again. I think I should youtube a tutorial on using chopsticks for dummies.
A delicacy I loved was octopus tentacles served in a ball made from batter. The octopus is placed in a deep rounded mould and batter is then poured into the moulds. When one side is done, using the wooden handle, the metal plates moulds are flipped over so that the other side can cook. The gooey texture of the batter and chewy octopus was delicious.
In Koyoto we had a savoury dumpling of vegetables served with green tea. Notice the quaint and stylish presentation.
Even the breakfast at the design hostel we were staying at was stylishly served, resembling a Monocle magazine picture spread. Home made bread served with apple jam, plain yoghurt, fresh orange juice and English Breakfast tea.
McDonalds got in on the act and transformed a plain milkshake into a green tea flavour which tasted nothing like tea, more like bubble gum.
Even the fake food that was used as a visual menu looked good enough to eat
An ingenius bottle opener stuck on to the tree (in red) and a useful cap catcher, at my local koosk