27 July 2007

EG "Presearch": How's the weather?

With just a few days to go before I leave, I decided to check out the weather. The forecast for here in the Des Moines area for the coming week is: daytime highs in the mid- to upper-80s with nightime lows in the mid- to upper-60s...Fahrenheit, of course...with partly couldy to mostly sunny skies. Right now (early morning) the temperature is 73, the heat index is 73 and the wind chill is 73; the relative humidity is about 64%; and the UV index for today is 8 (very high).

In Cairo, by contrast, the high for today (it's mid-afternoon there now) is 106 with a heat index of 113 and a wind chill of 106. I'm sorry, but talking about a "wind chill" in the triple digits just seems so very wrong... The relative humidity is 37% and the UV index is 11 (extreme). Nothing but clear and sunny skies as far as the forecast can see.

This is all actuallly much better than it was a month or so ago. When Shaimaa and Sherif (two of the students who will be in my classes in Cairo) were here, Shaimaa said the temp in Cairo was around 50 (Celsius, obviously...about 122 Fahrenheit). She said it would be cooler by the time I got there. Looks like she was right!

Although, thinking of 106 degrees as a "cooling trend" will take some getting used to...

24 July 2007

EG “Presearch”: Random Word Bits

One thing has struck me as I’m looking into things Egyptian…

While English is in the habit of borrowing liberally (some would say excessively…) from other languages, there don’t seem to be a lot of words that we’ve borrowed from Arabic. Or, at least that are recognizable as Arabic words.

Part of the issue is that Arabic has borrowed from some of the same places that English has and sometimes other places borrowed Arabic words that we then borrowed. So when I Googled “English words borrowed from Arabic”, I was really surprised at the results.

A number of science/math words are credited as being Arabic in origin: chemistry, algebra, algorithm, amalgam. And, some surprising (to me) plant and animal words: albacore, albatross, apricot, candy, coffee, cotton, gazelle, giraffe, gerbil, jasmine, lemon, lime, lilac, loofah, sugar, saffron, safflower.

The only Arabic/English word that I could think of before I went looking for them was one that I never found listed: baksheesh. Maybe that’s because it isn’t commonly used as an English word…it’s a word used in its native sense to cover a concept that no English quite matches. Like “kismet” (also a word of Arabic extraction…) or “gesundheit” (from German).

In any case, baksheesh, when used in English is usually meant to imply bribery, extortion or graft…ranging from something just slightly seedy to something completely unscrupulous. In Arabic (and Egyptian practice), it seems to be more like institutionalized tipping.

From what I’ve read, there are 3 different types of baksheesh.

One is a type of charity…money, alms or support given to the poor. It’s a basic tenet of Islam, kind of like the Christian idea “Give alms of thy goods, and never turn thy face from any poor man; and then the face of the Lord shall not be turned away from thee.” Since Islam, Christianity and Judaism all share some of the same roots, this isn’t surprising. Although, in Islam it seems more of a commandment and in Christianity it’s merely strongly encouraged.

A second type is more or less like our concept of ‘tipping’ for services rendered. Here, if the person who cut your hair did a good job, you show appreciation by giving him a little something extra; if the waitress was friendly and efficient beyond simply getting your food in front of you, she gets a bigger tip. There, it sounds like if someone opens the door for you, picks up your bag, pushes the button for your elevator, hands you a square of toilet paper when you enter a public bathroom, etc…you’re expected to give them a little something. Very little…a pound here, a pound there, a pound over and over and over everywhere. I imagine it would begin to feel like thousands of mosquitoes all taking their tiny drop of blood. Enough of them could drain a body.

I read one blog entry that suggested taking cigarettes or cheapie ball point pens to give out as tips. It’s an interesting idea, if it’s actually true. If it’s worth more in baksheesh than I would have paid for it in the U.S., it might be a good trade.

One Egyptian pound, right now, is worth about 18 cents (US).

I saw a 10-pack of pens at the store yesterday (“back to school” sale time) for 50 cents. I have no idea what the least-expensive pack of cigarettes would cost, or how many is in a pack, but between the two, I’d think the pens (at 5 cents each) would have to be the cheaper for me to buy here. But maybe the cigarettes would be “worth more” there in baksheesh...

The third kind of baksheesh is probably where it gets its reputation in English…it’s money paid for ‘the granting of favors’. Want to know a really good spot to view the Sphinx from? Want the lights turned on in the museum you just paid to enter? Want a spoon to eat your soup with? Want the camel to take you BACK to where you got on it?

A bit of baksheesh can make it happen.

23 July 2007

EG "Presearch": An Elephant Story

With a little over a week to "D-Day" (Departure Day), I've been doing more pre-trip research into what to expect when I get to Egypt. One thing I've learned from doing various trips to far-away places is that no amount of research can replace the experience. It's kind of like in The Wizard of Oz when the movie changes from black and white to Technicolor...that's a hint of the difference between the research and the actual trip. But still, I do the research because I find myself feeling a little calmer if I know something about what to expect.

I'm finding a fair amount of information on Cairo and Cairenes (what people from Cairo are called). So far, most of it has been from other people's blogs or travel discussion boards. One of the issues I'm really seeing is that anyone's perspective on a trip is just that...their perspective, their apocryphal experience.

As I read various people's accounts, I'm reminded of the story about the blind men and the elephant. The blind man who has the trunk says, "My! An elephant is like a great snake." The one at a leg says, "No! An elephant is like a tree." The one at the side says, "No! You're both wrong. An elephant is like a wall." The one at the tail says, "Silly men! An elephant is like a rope with a frayed end."

The thing is...they're all right. They've all had an experience of an elephant and their experience has shown them truth...they're just missing the bigger picture. Everyone's experience of everything is like that. So, while it's interesting to hear what other people's experiences in Cairo have been like, that doesn't really tell me much about what MY experience will be like. Only going there myself will do that.

19 July 2007

EG “Presearch”: Geography

I’ve started my pre-trip research into Egypt and Cairo. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet with just a few easy searches, a few minutes and no money. ‘Course, there’s also the old saying that says you get what you pay for…I never know how much to believe of what I find on the internet. Still, it’s background and that’s a place to start.

Egypt has a land area of over 995,000 square kilometers…that’s larger than Texas (696,621 km2) but smaller than Alaska (1,717,855 km2). The city of Cairo has a land area of about 214 km2…the same size as Port Arthur, TX, our 105th largest city. Not familiar with Port Arthur?? Me, neither. It’s right in between Seattle, WA (104th largest city with 217 km2) and Baltimore, MD (#106 with 210).

The kicker here is population. The city of Cairo has about 16.5 million people. Contrast that with Seattle, a marginally larger city by land area, which has a little over half a million. Our largest city, New York City, has only half as many people. Cairo has 15% of Egypt’s population, yet only .02% of its land area.

I found one description of Cairo which said it was “an all-out assault on the senses. Chaotic, noisy, polluted, totally unpredictable and seething with people, the sheer intensity of the city will either seduce or appall.”

Put me in the "appall" category.

And I’m going to go there?!?!?


What is commonly referred to as “Cairo” is actually 2 cities on either side of the Nile River. Cairo is on the east bank and Giza on the west. Giza is where the pyramids and Sphinx are located, in the southwest part of the city.

Yes, I said “in the…city.” In all the photos I’ve seen of the pyramids, they look like they’re out in the middle of the desert…nothing but sand and sky as far as you can see. And, at one time, maybe they were. However, the city has grown out to meet them and to get those remote-looking photos now, you have to be standing in just the right spot.

The north-African country of Egypt is bordered on the west by Libya, to the south by Sudan, to the north by the Mediterranean Sea and to the east by the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula. The Nile River flows north to the Mediterranean through the length of Egypt, forming a green valley in the eastern quarter of the country. As it approaches the Mediterranean, the river broadens into a wide delta that, on the coastal edge, stretches from the Sinai Peninsula to Alexandria. Cairo sits at the beginning of that delta, at about 30ÂșN…the same as Houston, TX.

My contacts in the Egypt office have often referred to “North Egypt” and “Upper Egypt” as 2 separate regions. A lifetime of public education and map-reading has me equating “north” with “up” and so I was very confused until I remembered that the Nile flows north…meaning that if you go ‘up’ the river, you’re going south. And since the Nile is what brings life to Egypt, it makes sense that it also defines it. So “North Egypt” is what it says but “Upper Egypt” is the southern part of the country.

17 July 2007

Countdown: 2 Weeks to Egypt!

To paraphrase a well-known automobile notice: "Date objects in calendar are closer than they appear."

And that whoooooshing sound I hear is the noise they make as they rush up to meet me...

All in all, I'm in decent shape as August 1 approaches. I got my renewed passport, finally. That was a saga all on its own... Getting the business visa was a relative non-event. I sent my brand new, shiney passport off the Egyptian embassy on a Monday and had it back in my hands that Friday. The visa stamp is very colorful and gives my passport that "lived in" look...or at least, "slightly used." It still has that crisp, clean, uncreased "new" look for the time being. Ah well, a trip or two will take care of that!

I made a run to the Goodwill store a couple weeks ago to look for appropriate clothes for this trip. Being a predominantly Muslim country and also a very warm one, I wanted very lightweight, light-colored, long-sleeved, sort of shapeless tops. Not that I want to try to "pass" (as if!)...it's more a matter of not attracting undue attention. Or, rather, attracting the wrong sort of attention. Anyway, I shopped Goodwill figuring that they were clothes I wouldn't have much use for otherwise and I didn't want to pay a lot for them. I ended up with enough tops to get me through the classes with the skirts/pants I currently have.

I replenished my travel kit supplies over the weekend. I try to fly without checking any bags. Given the current restrictions on liquids in carryons, I need to make sure I have travel sized containers for anything that I take. Mostly, for this trip, that means I simply need to top up the bottles I already have. However, I also make sure that I have a travel roll of toilet paper. I've discovered that a lot of public restrooms in far-flung places don't come stocked with paper and, in some places, the paper they have, shall we say, leaves a lot to be desired. In the camping and/or travel supply sections they have these compact, solid rolls that are perfect. Pocket packs of tissues can work too but these travel rolls are more convenient.

I'll start my pre-packing and organization in another week or so. The challenge in traveling for work is always dealing with the laptop. It's a pain. In the U.S., it means removing the laptop from its case and running it through the scanner in its own tray separate from the case. So at every checkpoint it adds to the whole routine of emptying pockets, removing shoes, pulling out the liquids bag, taking off any jackets/purses/fanny packs, etc and then redoing it all afterwards. Outside the U.S., at least they don't make you take the laptop out of the bag...you run it through the scanner the same as any other bag.

The big thing on my "To Do" list at the moment is getting all my training materials ready to go. To a certain extent, I can canibalize previous training gig files. Most of the framework is the same; I only modify what is specific to that country. The problem is that I have to comb through a lot of material to find those points of difference. That takes some time.

I see extra hours in my future for the next couple weeks. And some of it will be spent researching Egyptian culture, language, tourism, climate, etc. I always like to have some idea of what I'm getting myself into!

16 July 2007


Hello and welcome to my travel blog. I've set this up as a sort of Grand Central Station for friends and family to keep up with where I am and what I'm doing on the road, in the air, or on water. I used to send emails, but thought I'd give this a whirl to see if it works better for people. So let me know what you think!

More news and postings, coming soon!