31 August 2007
I sat and read for 10-15 minutes and then I saw the vehicle pull up…10 minutes early. Eduardo put my bags in back and I got in the back seat. Pulling out into the street, Eduardo tried to engage me in conversation. My wits weren’t sufficiently sharp to keep up with him and I had to say, “Como?” a lot. He told me about the heavy rain storm in the night and that he hadn’t been to bed yet. He was going to drop me at the airport then go home to sleep. He said something about the earthquakes in Peru but I didn’t get much of that. He asked me about my flight route…whether I was going through Mexico City to Dallas and what my final destination was. He also asked me if I had kids and told me he had 5 or 6, he wasn’t sure, but knew that there were 3 mothers between them all. I asked their ages and he said from 16 down to 9…2 of them are 13 but I’m gathering that they aren’t twins.
After that, I think the struggle of trying to communicate became too much and we rode the rest of the way in silence.
He dropped me at the airport and I got in line to get my tickets. No automated kiosks in Guadalajara… Then I got in line for security. By the time I got to the gate area, I didn’t have a whole lot of time before departure. I had some pesos I needed to get rid of and planned to buy a T-shirt or something at one of the shops. I sort of wandered through one or two on the way to the gate but didn’t like any of the shirts and the stuff I did like was either more pesos than I had or too bulky/fragile to mess with on the plane, given I already had my 2 carry-ons.
I found the gate and decided to at least get something for the plane ride…a pop and maybe some snacks. There was a vendor near the gate area and I got a bottle of the yogurt drink that seems to be popular here (they had it at morning break every day at the office), and a packet of cookies and bottle of pop for the plane.
The actual gate was down an escalator, and there were a lot of people there. The space wasn’t much more than a hallway about the length of the escalator and it was filled with people. I asked a few people what flight they were waiting for and there were about 3 or 4 all milling around.
The system seems to be that they use the people-mover things to collect a planeload of people and take them to the plane. So they can have flights “departing” every 10 minutes or so from the same gate. 2 different flights departed before they called mine. It was very confusing, with several different flight groups milling together and there are the inevitable confused people…just about anyone who hasn’t flown that way before.
As they made the boarding announcement for my flight, they also announced that no liquids would be allowed at all. I still had my unopened Coke and, in spite of the announcement, didn’t pitch it. I figured they could confiscate it if they wanted to.
There was a single doorway that everyone went through and everyone’s carry on bags were searched. Rather perfunctorily, but still searched. They confiscated my Coke but passed me on. I got on the people-mover and out to the plane.
This plane had more people on it than the one to Guadalajara…but not by a lot. After we got up in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, I moved up a couple rows to an aisle seat that didn’t have anyone sitting in front of it so that I could open up my laptop and work on the tray table without the seat in front reclined into me. It was a smooth, uneventful flight.
In Dallas, immigration was a breeze and there was no line at customs. The bottleneck was security getting back to the departure gates. There was an Asian soccer team…pre-teen and teen kids…that didn’t know the drill and, of course, the signage and agents don’t speak whichever language they spoke.
The kids were all split up across the security screening stations and didn’t know they had to take their shoes and jackets off, or that they needed to keep their boarding passes with them. So they’d get up to the scanner and stopped not knowing why. Finally, someone decided that the whole team should go through together where there was an adult who could interface between them and the English-speaking security people. That opened up most of the lines and people started moving through again.
Sometimes, I swear they make these airport procedures as convoluted and inefficient as they can. All in the name of “national security”, I know, but it’s such a joke. People lie and hide things and stuff gets through anyway and all it does is snarl things up.
Anyway, I got through and went to the posted gate. I bought a hugely overpriced sandwich and pop for lunch then sat down with my book to wait the couple hours until my flight.
I finished my book and used the restroom then looked at my watch and wondered at the boarding status of my gate. Given my flight’s departure time, there was no way it was going to happen at this gate. So I went to check the monitors. Sure enough, my flight had been moved to another gate so I got on the Skytrain and went to the station for that section of gates. I had time…not tons of time, but enough so that I was in no danger of missing the flight. Good thing my book hadn’t been 20 pages longer…
Shortly after I got there, they made an announcement that the plane taking us to Des Moines was late in arriving and now wasn’t expected to get there until after our scheduled departure time…our new departure time was about a half hour later.
That happened pretty much on time, we boarded and then we sat on the tarmac for a while. All the lights and air went off for a bit and it started to get stuffy in the plane and thought to myself, “Something’s up here…”
Sure enough, the pilot came on a little later to say that there was a problem in the collision avoidance computer and they had to “reboot the plane.” Then he came back on and said that after the boot, one system was still showing as non-functional and they had to get a maintenance team out to look at it. He went on at some length about our being able to fly anyway but they’d have to file some paperwork and get it in the log and satisfy the procedures.
All in all, we ended up rolling down the runway for takeoff at the time we were supposed to have been landing in Des Moines. Alan was picking me up and I knew it would play havoc with his schedule. He’d already had t rearrange things to get the kids picked up at school for my original arrival time. This was going to mess up his soccer practice time to both get the kids there and coach. But I know he’ll watch the flight progress via the internet and deal with it. Nothing I can do from mid-air.
We touched down in Des Moines around 5pm and Alan was there to meet me with his special, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies…what has become our pick-up-Sue-at-the-airport tradition.
This trip home hadn’t been as long or arduous as the trip home from Egypt, but I felt every bit as fried. I am so ready to be home for a while!
I joined them mid-meal and then we all trouped off to the office for our final day of training.
The training morning was pretty much like the others. The only unique event was that an alarm went off mid-morning and we all had to leave the building to gather at the “punto de reunion” in the parking lot.
We all stood around, chatting or making cell phone calls, until someone official made the announcement that it was a false alarm … someone had opened a restricted door… and we could all re-enter the building.
Mark explained later that there was only one alarm. Usually, when the alarm goes off, it’s because someone either inadvertently leaned against the wrong door or…so whether it was a fire or someone opening the wrong door or forgot to use a keycard or code first. But since the same alarm is used for fire, everyone has to leave the building until it’s confirmed.
We finished up the class agenda and broke for a late-ish lunch. I gathered everyone for a class picture in front of one of the biggest stained glass windows in the building. It made a nice backdrop.
After lunch (paella) we did a final wrap up and they gave me a bag of Pioneer logoed items along with their thanks. Then, about 3:30 we packed up and left for a plot tour.
We drove to the research station just outside of Guadalajara and Víctor and Cesar were our tour guides. They were getting it ready for demos they’d have in the next couple of weeks. Friday was going to be for employees and staff as a kind of preview. Then, in a week or so, they’ll have about 1500 dealers and sales reps in to tour the plots.
Being agronomists, all, they got into many discussions about how this product was doing, disease or insect damage, etc. The only thing I noticed was that the corn plants seemed to be a lot taller than I remember them in Iowa.
At one point, I was walking around the end of one plot…not on the tour path…and saw some small animal scurry from the corn to the weeds along the fence. I didn’t catch a really good look at it and waited a bit to see if it would run out of the weeds and cross the dirt track that bordered the field. It didn’t. So I gave up and went back where the trucks and people were.
In the van on the way back to the office, I turned toward the seat behind me and asked Víctor if he knew what a “mink” was. He said yes, in a puzzled sort of way…I’m sure the question came out of nowhere. Then I asked him if there were mink around here; he said, “No.” So I explained about the animal…something fast and long and low to the ground… I’d seen and asked him what it might have been.
He and Cesar (the driver) had a discussion about it…Cesar voted for ardillo, which didn’t mean anything to me until he said, “Como Alvin.” Ah! Chipmunk. I said I didn’t think it was a chipmunk…it was a foot long and solid dark gray, no stripes. He said there are chipmunks like that in Mexico. It moved like a ground squirrel, just larger than the ones at home so maybe it was something like that.
When we got back to the office, it was about 6:30 and there was a soccer game going behind the warehouse building. The back part of the facility is a recreational area with a basketball court, undersized soccer field, playground area and a covered space that has tables, chairs and some kitchen amenities.
We wandered that way to watch a little of the Research Station staff versus the Commercial Office staff. I couldn’t tell the teams apart…no one was wearing uniforms. Some of the guys looked like they’d just come in from the field with dusty jeans and tennies. There were a couple of guys who had actual soccer gear…the colorful synthetic shirt, shorts, shoes with cleats, and shin guards. But mostly, it was just guys getting together for a pick-up sort of game.
We watched a few minutes then went to the office building to collect our stuff and head out to supper. We were headed to a mariachi restaurant for typical Mexican food and one of the classic icons of the country.
I rode with Cesar, Juan rode with Lule and Víctor drove by himself. Mark had left from the plot with Géronimo and Emilio to take them to the airport and would join us later.
That time of day, traffic was bad and it took us almost an hour to get there. About that time it had started to rain, which then turned into a complete downpour. By the time we got to the restaurant, there was an amazing amount of water coming down.
Most places, at least the nicer ones, have valet parking. You don’t park your own car because then they can double- and triple-park vehicles in a small space and can always move whatever needs moving. Besides, they get tips for doing it so it’s another way for people to make money.
This place was no exception. We pulled up to the entrance and a guy came out with a huge umbrella, like you’d see over a patio table, and covered my door while I got out then walked me to the entrance under its shelter. Then, he went back for Cesar. Víctor was right behind us so as soon as we were under cover, the guy went back for him. Service!
We entered the restaurant and got a table near, but not next to, the stage area. Currently, there was only Mexican music playing over the loudspeakers and a soccer game on video. The real show, the mariachis and folklorico dancers starts at 11.
I had a margarita, the guys had beer or tequila with sangrita (a blend of tomato and other juices that’s served in a shot glass beside the straight tequila). We sat and sipped and chatted, all the while the rain was pounding down outside with occasional crashes of thunder. Eventually, Cesar ordered for us. We all got Aztec style tortilla soup to start and then the main course, served family style in the middle of the table.
The waiter put down a wooden platter with a stone, 3-legged bowl on it. The stone bowl was very hot and the contents bubbled and boiled for quite a while. Inside the bowl was a type of salsa…tomatoes, onions, etc…with strips of beef, a couple of soft-cooked cactus parts (paddles? leaves?), a radish and a piece of panela (local cheese) on top. It was very tasty and, contrary to my experiences with beef in Central America, the meat was tender and flavorful.
We finished eating and Mark still hadn’t arrived. Cesar had called him on his cell phone and said that he’d gotten stuck in traffic but was on the way. We’d eaten the 2 bowls we’d ordered so Víctor ordered another for him, Juan and Lule to have more and leave some for Mark.
Mark finally arrived. There are several tunnels on that main street that he had to travel and he said when it rains hard, they flood. We’d made it through before the rain really started but he got caught in it so the road was closed and all traffic was routed another way. Man, I hope it’s not raining tomorrow when I need to go to the airport…
I got back to the hotel a little before 10 and packed up my stuff for the journey home. The students had given me a shirt, a couple of caps, a self-storing raincoat and some other things…I had to find space for them.
By the time I was done with that, I set my alarm and fell into bed.
Mark dropped me at my hotel and I decided I’d had way too much eating and sitting (the Achilles heel of travel…) so I changed clothes, put on my tennies and hit the street to walk to a mall about 3 blocks from the hotel.
It took me all of about 7 minutes to walk there. The only part that made me nervous was crossing the streets. Ever since I was hit by a car while crossing a street as a kid, it’s not something I can do calmly. However, Central American streets really make my heart pound and palms sweat.
The traffic is heavy and fast and there is no such thing as “pedestrian right of way”…you take your life in your hands when you step off the curb. Luckily, on this particular walk, all the streets I had to cross myself were relatively small. They still made me very nervous, but I could get across them.
However, the street I was walking along is one of the major streets that crosses Guadalajara…8 lanes of speeding steel. And the mall is on the opposite side from the hotel, so I knew I’d have to cross it. I figured I’d cross that bridge (so to speak) when I got to it.
Fortune smiled on me! When I got to the mall, there was a pedestrian bridge across the street connecting bus stops on both sides. That was about the only way I could cross that street on foot without a panic attack!
I entered the mall and turned “mall walker”…walking fast and not stopping to look in any of the stores or windows. There wasn’t that much I would have been interested in anyway. There were a LOT of shoe stores, almost as many clothing stores and a smattering of jewelry or nutrition shops.
The one store I did stop in was Gigante…a sort of mini WalMart. They had some packaged food, some produce, some office supplies, some electronics, some clothing, etc. I stopped in because it occurred to me on the way into the mall that, much as I appreciated having some dried apricots and snacks for the flight on the way down, I was probably going to need the same on the way back. I thought this would be a good opportunity to pick up some things like that. Besides, I had some pesos to get rid of.
I wandered through all the food aisles…just checking out what kinds of things they had and what they cost. I picked up a few things for supper and some bran-fruit bars, nuts, etc for the trip home.
By the time I left the store, it had started to get dark. I’d intended to be on my way back to the hotel before then, but I miscalculated dusk. It wasn’t full dark and it wasn’t far to the hotel. No problem.
I spent the rest of the evening pretty much reading and went to bed at a reasonable hour.
28 August 2007
We got into vehicles and headed to the office. It was about a 25 minute drive from the hotel. I asked Mark (driving the vehicle I was in) why they don’t use a hotel closer to the office. Usually, when I’ve gone to other locations they pick a place that’s convenient for the office. Mark said that there were hotels near the office but…um…they charge by the hour…and he didn’t think that would be a good place for us to stay.
The part of town we drove through getting there was definitely not as upscale as the other parts I’d seen. Some of it looked kind of seedy. It was an eclectic mix, en route…we passed a Walmart and a little further down was a lot that had cows and goats on it.
The office may not be in the nicest neighborhood but it’s a really nice facility. Mark said it was built back when the MX operation was flush and doing very well. The outside has tiled sidewalks and an adobe façade with a fountain outside the entrance. Inside, it’s all stained glass windows and cerulean tile. Even the warehouse and cold storage facility is upscale.
Mark walked us around the building, pointing out the break room, bathrooms, reception and the conference room where we’ll have class. It was probably 8:30 or quarter to 9 by the time everyone got collected and set up.
It was a very challenging class. There were 10 students, 2 of them from Venezuela, the rest scattered across Mexico and Central America…3 of the students had never used the program before, 2 of them speak little or no English (one of those neither speaks nor reads a word of it), one of them is translator for the group.
Somehow, we got through the day, pretty much on schedule.
In the car on the way to the restaurant after class, I was trying to converse with Géronimo. He’s the one who speaks no English. I asked him how the class was going for him. He said he thought it was good but the language issue is a big problem. Not just for the class…none of the documentation I provided does him any good and since the program itself is all in English, he’s really working at a disadvantage.
Mark said he thought the class was going well, but he was really kicking himself for not getting some training from me while he was still in the U.S. He said, if he’d realized how complicated the program is, he definitely would have.
I didn’t get a chance to check with the other students. There’s still a couple days left, though…
We left the office about 6 and went straight to Los Arcos…a seafood restaurant in the Mexican style typical of the northwest coast. It was a colorful restaurant with a plethora of waiters all dressed in white with either white or blue vest/aprons.
Cesar and Mark had been here many times before and I was happy to turn the ordering over to them. Cesar did most of it. We didn’t really order a ‘meal’…what we got was lots of plates of appetizer sorts of things that the whole table shared. There was a shrimp salsa sort of thing…it sounds kind of weird but it was diced shrimp with lime juice, diced onion, and cilantro. Basically, like fresh salsa only with shrimp instead of tomato.
There were shrimp tacos and marlin tacos, grilled shrimp, grilled octopus and ‘cucarachas’…which Mark explained was not really cucarachas, it was a type of shrimp. I faked exaggerated disappointment at not being able to sample authentic cucarachas.
It was all the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life!
I also had a glass of wine from the Baja region of Mexico…a cabernet sauvignon that was very good. After the meal, a number of people sampled the region’s tequila but I’d had enough. Maybe tomorrow.
When he brought the bill, the waiter also delivered a red rose to me and little glasses of the house specialty drink…some sort of coffee liqueur with milk and chili powder sprinkled on top. It wasn’t bad.
Some of the others thought we were going out to eat way too early, and we did have the restaurant almost completely to ourselves. But I was personally glad to get back to the hotel at a reasonable hour and have some time to decompress before crashing.
Especially since I’d been up since 4am… don’t ask me why. All I know is I woke up then and couldn’t get back to sleep. At breakfast, Cesar asked me if I’d heard the huge storm in the night…it hit about the time I woke up. Maybe a big crack of thunder woke me up but didn’t register…all I know is I had no idea it had even rained.
27 August 2007
But first…I needed pesos.
I went to the desk to ask about an ATM and was told there is one about a half-block up on the other side of the street, near the Ibis Hotel. She said it was on the street, which made me a little nervous but I thought I’d check it out.
Outside, it was a very gray, dismal-looking sort of day. There were heavy clouds off to one direction. Luckily, I had a poncho with me, if it came to that.
I found the Ibis and the ATM. It was one of those ATMs in a glass room with a door. You use your card to open the door and then it locks behind you to keep anyone else from getting in while you’re using the machine.
I got some cash, left the room and continued on down the block to find the Hilton Hotel, where the tour bus pickup is. I found the hotel (only about 2 blocks from my hotel) and asked a bellboy where the tour bus pickup was. He said it was down below (on the sidewalk) but it doesn’t come until 10:00.
I didn’t understand that until later, though. I thought he said it would be 10 minutes. So I went into the hotel’s gift shop to get a bottle of water and some chapstick with sunscreen. I took my pill and then waited down below for a bit. While I was waiting, I perused the brochure I got at my hotel and in reading the fine print, realized that the tours don’t start until 10am…which is when I “got” what the bellboy tried to tell me.
As it wasn’t even 9 yet, I headed back to the hotel. I stopped at an Oxxo (convenience store sort of place) and got a bottle of pop and a granola bar. I still had my headache and figured the caffeine would help.
Back at the room, I took some acetaminophen with the Coke and read until a little after 9:30 when I headed back to the Hilton. While I’d been in my room, the day had brightened considerably. It was actually sunny and very pleasant.
I got on the double-decker tour bus when it arrived, along with a few other people. I took a seat on the open, top level. I was really glad I’d packed a hat this time and had gotten the lip balm with sunscreen.
When you get on the bus, they give you a pair of earbud headphones. You plug them into the jack in front of you and select your language. That’s how you get the audio for the tour.
The voice doing the narration in English sounded so familiar…I couldn’t quite place it but it was a man with a southern accent…I think it’s one of the guys I hear all the time on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me show on Saturday’s at home…not Tom Bodet, the other southern guy…but I can’t think of his name.
The tour solved one mystery for me. Every time I’d been outside, I’d smelled something that reminded me of the bean processing plant in Des Moines. This smell was similar but not exactly like that. Still, it made me think of processing grain. While on the tour, the smell kept getting stronger…until we passed the Corona beer factory. Mystery solved!
The state of Jalisco, where Guadalajara is, is also the home of José Cuervo tequila. There are a number of tours that will take you to Tequila (hence, the name of the liquor) and show you how tequila is made from the blue agave plant. Originally, it was fermented like wine but now it is distilled.
The world also has Guadalajara to thank for mariachi bands. They originated here and eventually became a cultural symbol for all Mexico.
While riding around town on the tour bus, I noticed some curious things…
I saw a lot of traffic lights that had 2 red lights. I never saw them working independently of each other and not all lights had the double-reds. I didn’t know why. The only thing I could think was that it would certainly make it easier for people who are red-green color blind…even coming up on the lights in the dark, you could easily and immediately tell the red from the green. But that can’t be why…there just aren’t that many color-blind people and not all the lights had them. (Later, Cesar told me it’s where there are two sets of lanes, there’s a stop light for each of them…it functions sort of like a left-turn light except that’s not exactly it.)
Here, the traffic signal color pattern is the same as in the States, too…unlike Switzerland where the yellow comes after the red instead of after the green.
We passed a number of gas stations along the way. None of them post the price of gas so you can see it from the street. However I asked Cesar later and he told me it’s 7 pesos per liter (or, about $2.50 per gallon).
They use the $ symbol for pesos. So I kind of have to do a double-take when I see things like a bottle of pop for $7.50. Or the 2-hour bus tour for $110. They’re actually more like 68 cents and $10 (US) respectively.
The tour bus dropped me back at the Hilton at about 11:40 so I was back in plenty of time to meet Cesar for lunch and the afternoon touring.
I met him at the hotel entrance and he introduced me to his wife, Hilda, and their son, Alonzo (2½). He told me we were waiting a few more minutes for one of the other guys who would be one of my students in the coming week. He (Víctor) arrived a couple minutes later and we loaded up in Cesar’s car.
He took us to a restaurant on the Minerva roundabout…El Abajeño. We got a table streetside and watched the fountain and traffic go by. I had enmolado con pollo (an enchilada sort of thing with mole sauce on it) and Cesar ordered (for the table) some quesadillas with ham, cheese, mushrooms and onion in it. Also chips, guacamole and a plate of a traditional, local cheese. It was all really good.
When the waiter brought the food, he put down a bowl of red sauce and told me it was very hot…be very careful. So I very gingerly tried it with a chip. I didn’t think it was so hot. In fact, I ended up using quite a bit of in on my lunch. It had a certain spiciness to it but not really much heat…and I’m not a huge fan of pepper-hot food.
After lunch, we went to the market at San Juan de Dios. It’s a huge market that covers 3 levels and has warrens of aisles with shops on all sides. The center is an open courtyard sort of space where people congregate and socialize.
I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular…I just like to see what the local handicrafts are like and the sorts of things people sell. There was a lot of pottery and leather work, some woven basket type things, some stone carving.
Most of the bottom level around the courtyard was food and produce. I wanted to take a stroll past the produce just to see how much of it I recognized.
Most of it was pretty familiar…apples, pears, cantaloupe, watermelon, bananas. Some was a little less typical but still not unidentifiable…papaya, mango, pomegranate, star fruit. There were many kinds of cactus fruits, which, had I not recently eaten some in Cairo, I wouldn’t have known what they were. However, in Cairo, I only saw the one kind of fruit…a deep yellow, barrel-shaped sort. Here, there are many different sizes, shapes and colors of cactus fruit (or tuna as it’s called here)
There was a fruit that I didn’t know and Cesar couldn’t say in English. They were green and looked kind of like smallish, lumpy grapefruit from the outside but there were some cut in half for display and the inside looked like apple with the same sort of star-shaped core in the center with seeds and a thin skin. Cesar said it was kind of like apple only not so sweet.
There was also a small orange-colored fruit that Cesar didn’t know the name in English. They looked like kumquats…but since I’ve never had a kumquat, I have no idea if that’s really what they were like.
Hilda bought some and shared. They’re almost all pit with a thin layer of fruit pulp just under the skin. You bite off a piece of skin and suck off the fruity part then spit the skin out. They taste vaguely citrusy, sort of papayay, very mildly astringent, and there isn’t much to them but they were sweet and fruity.
We walked through the various plazas and outdoor pedestrian malls. Cesar was right…they were loaded with families and people out walking. There were a lot of fountains and statues, kids running around or splashing in the fountains, performers doing their shticks for whatever coins they could get, wandering vendors hawking soap bubbles or balloon animals or little toys. There were also a fair number of people who were disabled singing or doing something…begging for alms without actually panhandling.
Most of them seemed to be blind people singing or playing an instrument along with a recording. But probably the most heart-wrenching one I saw was a woman sitting on the pavement up next to a building. She had only tiny stubs for arms and about the same for legs. She did, however, have one almost-normal foot at the end of one of the vestigial legs. With that foot, she was crocheting doilies; holding the crochet hook between her toes.
It was especially disturbing (to me) because people were just standing around looking at her like she was the main attraction at a circus freakshow. She obviously couldn't move, feed or dress herself, yet she was wearing a very clean, bright dress...sleeveless, to clearly show the arm stubs and with the skirt draped around her modestly yet tucked to reveal the foot. So she had to have a "handler" who posed her there. I scanned the crowd briefly to see if I could spot someone nearby but not part of the gawkers...I didn't. I don't know whether someone set her there then left or what.
After our walking, Cesar took Víctor and me back to our hotel. It was about 5pm and the day was still lovely so I decided to actually hit the pool this time.
The pool was deserted when I got there and the water was very warm…actually warmer than I’d like for swimming but I swam laps anyway. I have no idea how long I did that, but I was feeling like I’d actually done something physical.
There was a ledge all the way around the pool that was maybe a foot wide and a foot and a half deep. Along the middle of each side there was another shelf above that that was probably 6 feet wide and about 6 inches deep. I got out on that shelf and did some yoga.
It was kind of weird doing yoga in water but between that and the swimming, most of the travel-induced muscle tightness was gone.
I rounded out the day with supper at the restaurant…tortilla soup and a tuna salad stuffed avocado. The tortilla soup was “Aztec style”…it was tomato based with strips of crispy fried tortilla and chunks of avocado and some creme on top. The tuna was basic tuna salad, only not so heavy on the mayo as it is in the US (I’m not sure there actually was any…there wasn’t much “sauce” of any sort) with chunky tuna pieces, diced veggies, and corn in half a peeled avocado.
I did some prep for tomorrow’s class while dining. Cesar and I had talked about the class some during the day. It’s going to be a challenge. The class was originally set up to be an intermediate level class for people who’ve been using the program for a while.
The challenges (that I know about) are going to be: there are going to be 3 people in the class who have never used the program. It’s going to be a bit of a trick to make sure the newbies don’t feel completely lost and the experienced people don’t get bored or feel like they’ve wasted their time. Oh, and some of them don’t speak English all that well. And I’ve got 3 days with them…the normal beginner class is 4 days.
On the plus side: there will be one guy in the class to translate when language issues come up, I know the material extremely well and have a fair bit of experience in teaching to various levels. That’s about it. The rest of it is going to be a roller coaster ride, I think.
Check in was a piece of cake and there were no lines or delays anywhere.
The flights were uneventful and the connection in Dallas was unremarkable. The only slight hiccup was that when I checked the board in Dallas, there were 2 American flights to Guadalajara listed…both leaving at 12:40, my departure time…different gates. I didn’t have my ticket at hand (or I could have saved myself some extra running around) but they were both departing from the D terminal and I had to take the tram to get there so I figured I’d go to D and sort it out later.
The hiccup part was that one flight was at D6 and the other at D37 and they were two different tram stops. I couldn’t check the flight number without getting off the tram at one or the other so I just metaphorically threw a dart and got off at one. The wrong one, naturally.
I had time; it’s not like I was in danger of missing the flight or anything. It was just a slight detour.
At the gate, there was a display with the flight information…duration, aircraft, etc. From that I learned that while the business class travelers would be served lunch, the economy travelers had the option to purchase snacks. So I figured I’d better find something for lunch before I got on the plane.
The only food place in the vicinity was an Auntie Anne’s pretzel place so I got a pretzel dog. Woo-hoo.
On the plane, my seat was almost all the way to the back but there was hardly anyone else…every row had empty seats. It was a quiet, uneventful flight and I mostly just read. Oh, and those snacks for purchase…Snickers bar, bag of trail mix or something else about like that for $3 each. Luckily I had some soynuts and dried apricots I brought from home.
When we arrived at Guadalajara (the locals are referred to as Tapatíos…dunno why), we go off the plane onto a people-mover sort of thing. It was kind of like a self-powered, enclosed flatbed with seats. I did a rough-n-dirty estimate of how many people had been on the plane, now that everyone was collected in a smaller space, and I figured it at no more than 50.
Inside the airport we queued up at immigration….residents to the right, foreigners to the left. The residents’ line had 3 agents. The foreigner line had one, and it moved very slowly. There were a number of family groups with small children and it took a while to process them. 20 minutes later and about 4 people before I got to the front of the line, another agent opened up. She was just zipping through people and I’m sure it didn’t take much longer to clear everyone left to check.
Once through immigration, I headed to baggage claim and customs. ‘Course, I didn’t have any checked bags so all I had to do was find the customs line and leave. That took me a minute because I couldn’t find the line at first. That’s because there was no line. I don’t think I’ve EVER been through customs where there was no line at all. The agent took my paperwork, I pushed the button (got a green light) and I was out the door to find my contact.
I found him and we headed out to the parking lot. He didn’t speak English so we didn’t have involved conversations. He asked me if I came from Phoenix and I said, “No, Dallas.” He’d apparently had some worry because when he arrived to pick me up, according to the flight boards, there was no flight from Dallas. There was one from Phoenix and one from LA, but no Dallas. He said he’d called the office and a bunch of people to try to confirm that I was coming from Dallas and that he had the right day/time/etc.
I was sorry he’d worried but I have no clue why the flight wasn’t on the board…especially since there should have been 2 of them arriving from Dallas at about the same time.
The ride to the hotel was smooth. I spend most of it trying to read the billboards and signs, to try to refamiliarize myself with Spanish. Some things I could figure out…some were impenetrable.
The streets were amazingly clean, though. I was sort of mentally comparing them with San Salvador…the other large Central American city I’ve been in…and it was night and day. In San Salvador, there is trash and dirt everywhere and the air has a dark, thick quality to it from all the diesel engines. Here, the streets were clean and the air looked (and smelled) fresh.
I got checked into the hotel (3rd floor room) and unpacked, called and left a message for Alan to let him know I’d arrived, then rested/read for a bit. I decided to go check out the pool before going to the restaurant for supper so I put on my swimming suit and headed for the 5th floor, where the hotel guide said the pool was. Except that according to the elevator, there was no 5th floor. The pool and jogging track are on the roof. You have to get off the elevator on the 4th floor then take the stairs up to the roof. It’s a nice space…all tiled and appointed. However, it was just too cool for me to want to swim outdoors so I decided to exercise in my room, then go to supper.
I’d just walked into the room when the phone rang. It was Alan returning my call. We got caught up with each other and by the time we hung up, I’d decided to skip the workout and go straight to supper. A really poor decision when traveling…as there tends to be way too much eating and way too little physicality on the road. But there you have it.
I went down to the bellboy stand and got some information on tours and suchlike, then crossed the way to the restaurant. The restaurant was well lit but I didn’t see a soul there. I walked in and found someone in uniform and asked if they were open. He said, “Yes, sit anywhere.” So I picked a smaller table by a window.
I looked at the menu and decided on shrimp cocktail (Puerto Vallarta style) and fish filet (Aztec style) along with a margarita (after all, this is Jose Cuervo country). The shrimp was…a little different. The shrimp were cooked and peeled and floating in a malted-milk type glass of water and some sort of green leafy stuff at the bottom with a green orange slice parked on the rim. They were tepid, instead of chilled. They came with half a dozen packets of ketchup and a small bowl of diced onions, chilies, tomatoes and pieces of avocado and lime. I fished them out of the glass with the spoon that came with it and put them on a plate then squeezed lime on them and mixed the other components (except the ketchup….that just seemed sacrilege) into an almost-salad sort of thing. I would have preferred they be cold, but other than that, they were tasty.
The fish was a large, boneless filet of some sort of mild, white fish, fried crispy without any batter. It was topped with a pile of squash blossoms, onion, chilies and a little cheese in some sort of green sauce…I’m not sure if the sauce was made from chilies or a leafy something like was in the bottom of the shrimp cocktail glass. There was a side of rice and a mixed veggie relleno sort of thing to accompany the fish. It was tasty, too, but a lot of food.
After supper, I returned to the room and got a call from Cesar. We’re set to meet at 12:30 tomorrow for lunch and touring a nearby city.
24 August 2007
If you've never used Picasa before, you'll be prompted to download some software, but it's free and you don't have to create an account to access the pictures.
17 August 2007
Shima wrote my name in my notebook for me in Arabic.
Remember that Arabic is read from right to left. A fact that’s handy for dual-language publications. The back half of the document is in Arabic (which starts with what we’d call the back cover and works right to left, back to front) and the front half is in English (which reads left to right, front to back). Both types of readers would automatically pick up the publication and read it the way they naturally would, generally not noticing that it’s a dual-language publication until they got to the middle where the two meet.
The script is used architecturally, also. All the mosques have verses of the Q’uran carved or painted around the outside and inside. Here’s an example of a window from a mosque with a bit of writing that is a small piece of the band that ran across the entire front of the building.
Arabic numerals are very different from what we use also. I was seeing signs that had characters that didn’t look like the letters and when I asked what they were, I was told they were numbers (phone numbers, usually). The letters are always connected together into a flowing sort of line. The numbers are made discretely so that they’re set apart individually.
Here’s the drawing of how a shisha (hookah) works that Tarek drew for me (and signed).
There were airport-type security gates everywhere…at the entrance to the hotels, the museum, the mall, parking garages, etc. pretty much any public space. You walk through the metal detector and hand the guard any bags, packages, etc you have for inspection.
For the most part, I think it was just for show, though. Or maybe it’s just that I looked harmless… When I entered my hotel (which I did at least a couple times per day) or pretty much any of them, I would start to hand the guard my purse or laptop bag or whatever and they would just wave me through. There was one (count ‘em, 1!!) time at the hotel where the guy started to open my laptop bag and actually do a search but then another, older guard came interrupted him and they had words in Arabic. The younger guy zipped up the bag and handed it to me without having actually looked in it.
Traffic… I’ve previously mentioned that traffic is crazy in Cairo. Pretty much every one of my shepherds said at some point, “There are no rules.” And it certainly seemed that way. The painted lane markers are obviously ignored, as are any traffic lights that are actually working.
The one thing that was completely over the top, though, was the time El Banna was taking Keith and me somewhere for supper and we were on an entrance ramp to a major highway. Traffic was slowing to a standstill and we thought maybe there was an accident on the ramp or something.
Then we discovered that there was no accident…it was a car about mid-way up the ramp that was trying to back down the ramp. Apparently, he’d decided he didn’t want to go that way after all… All the cars behind him were backing up, inching their way until the cars behind them would back up too. El Banna kept going forward, squeezing between cars and around the side and eventually, we got past the original backer and it was clear sailing the rest of the way up the ramp and onto the highway.
Also, while riding with El Banna, I learned another Arabic word… “matemshi” which means “Move!”
There were some odd sights on the streets…little donkeys pulling carts piled high with melons or sugar canes or people mixed in with traffic. I saw a 4-wheeled motorcycle…3 wheels in back and one in front. Basically, it was a standard motorcycle but with an extra wheel on either side of the back wheel and a long axle connecting them. A lot of motorcycles also had a spare tire attached somewhere; sometimes horizontally between the back tire and the seat, sometimes vertically alongside the seat in back.
Taxis are generally black and white. The main part of the car is black and the bottom half of the 4 quarter-panels are white. There were a very few that were another color; the vast majority were black and white.
I finally saw a pattern to the u-ey turns everyone constantly makes. It’s because you can’t make left turns. I think I saw one or two places where you might actually make a left turn, but they were very rare and never on a street of any size. Instead of making a left, you have to go past the turn, pull a u-ey around the median and go back, then make a right turn to where you want to go.
Oh, yeah, and one other traffic-related Cairo-ism. They don’t generally turn the headlights on at night. Headlights (day or night) are apparently for signaling that person ahead of you should get out of your way, or that they’ve done something annoying/stupid. Otherwise, you leave them off.
Here’s another unique vehicle I saw on the back streets by the bazaar.
A term of service is required after an Egyptian finishes college. For men, it’s military service; for women, it’s public service. The general term of service is 9 months. The military is often a career choice for men and that’s a different track than the 9 month thing. It’s a major employer since all the security guards, traffic cops and tourist/antiquities police come up through this service track. That requires a lot of people.
Here’s a GoogleEarth map of Cairo with some of the places I went marked. The on place that’s missing is the office where I did the training. GoogleEarth didn’t know the address and I have NO idea where it was to find it myself.
12 August 2007
I'd planned to get up at 1am and catch the 2am airport shuttle. However, I was all ready to go just before 1 so I decided to head down to the lobby. I figured if the shuttle was running late, I might catch it, if not, I could wait in the lobby as easily as my room.
I'd missed the 1am shuttle but there was a limo taking someone else to the airport in a few minutes so I tagged along.
Every other night, whenever we'd been out around 11pm, the streets were crawling with people...more people than were out and about in the daytime. However, at 1:30am, there weren't many. Although, that may also be the difference between downtown and the outskirts where the hotel and airport are. In any case, there wasn't much traffic and hardly any people...it took all of 8 minutes to get to the airport.
At the airport was the first time I had really been in Cairo unsheparded. And I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do. I saw a Lufthansa office but it was closed. There was a security gate area with a sign that said "Passengers Only Beyond This Point"...but since I didn't actually have my tickets yet, I didn't think I could go there.
I wandered back and forth, assessing the situation and finally went to the information booth to ask when the Lufthansa place opened. He said 2:30. Since it was only a little after 1, I went to a bench outside the office and sat down to work puzzles until then.
By 2:30, there was still no sign of life. However, I'm familiar with time flowing a bit differently in other countries than it does in the U.S. so I decided to give it until 3. My flight didn't leave until 5:30 so I figured I had plenty of time.
By 3, there was still no sign of activity, so I went back to the information desk and he told me that I had to go through the security gate to get to the ticketing counters. Of course, by now the line to get through the gate is huge.
I had a couple of guys offer to help me bypass the line for 50 pounds baksheesh, but since I'd sold almost all my Egyptian money to Keith after checking out last night, I didn't have that much left. Besides, I figured I had plenty of time and the line was moving...it shouldn't take that long to get through it.
The gate was the model of inefficiency...there were 2 x-ray belts and one walk through scanner. Then, everyone gets wanded and patted down. The bags were going through the x-rayer a lot faster than the people were going through the scanner. Which meant there was a big pile of bags just kind of lumped inside and you had to pick through to find yours. It also left any individual bags "unguarded" for a lot longer than I was comfortable with. It made me nervous to know my laptop and other stuff was just sitting there.
But, at last I made it through the gate, picked up my bags and went to the Lufthansa counter to get my tickets. About the time she handed me my tickets and told me what gate to head to, I realized that I was missing my fanny pack...I'd missed picking it up in the crush at the security gate. I headed back there and found a man holding my fanny pack and looking for his other bags. I said, "Excuse, me, I think that's mine." He said he thought it was his wife's and she hadn't cleared the gate yet. Eventually, she got to where he could see her and asked if that was her's. She said, "No," so the guy handed it to me. Whew!
I went to the gate to wait for boarding. Actually, that's not quite true. When I checked in, the woman at the ticket counter gave me a pass to the lounge for first class passengers, so I actually waited there.
Cushy!!! I'd never been in one of the airline lounges before...comfy upholstered chairs and couches; free coffee, water and soda; free pastries; quiet surroundings. That's the way to travel!
I waited there about an hour then went to the actual gate for boarding.
The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful. The connection in Frankfurt was mostly uneventful. I'd flown through Frankfurt a number of times before and always remember it as a very nice, clean, easy to navigate airport. Not this time. The system at the gate for getting into the gate area and boarding was about as inefficient a system as I think I've ever seen. I wasn't really worried...I knew I'd get on the plane but it was a really screwy way to do it.
I got on the plane and found my seat then set about getting through the flight. It always used to be that I simply could not sleep sitting up. The first time I flew to Europe, I didn't even doze. The next time I flew to Europe, I decided that just had to stop so I took a sleeping pill as we left Chicago. That didn't help. I was so loopy-tired, I could hardly see straight but I still couldn't sleep. The time I flew to South Africa, I did sleep some on the plane between Amsterdam and Nairobi but by then I'd been awake for more than 24 hours and figure I just passed out. This trip, I have been able to sleep some on the flights...not enough to make them pass painlessly, but better than nothing. That's progress!
In Chicago, I cleared customs and immigration and went to catch my final plane of this trip, the one that would take me home. And I was certainly ready to be there! It had been a great trip and a wonderful experience to be in Cairo, but it takes a long time to get there and back.
We got kind of a late start. Not long after arriving at the office, El Banna took Keith and me to meet the director in his office. He said Ahmed wanted a 10-minute meeting with us to meet and talk about how the training is going and what will be coming in the near future.
We get to the office and it is truly an office befitting the country director. We sat around a conference table after introductions and talked of many things...including the training.
Ahmed and El Banna are cut from the same cloth...both tall and thin, both energetic and driven, both very gracious and hospitable. Both are also due to retire in the next 5 years or so. They're working on training up young talent (referred to as "the barracudas" because Ahmed is an avid deep-sea fisherman) to take over when they move on, but that's going to be a tall order.
An hour and a quarter later, we head back to the training room to round up the students and start class. Almost all the trials entered the day before made it to the web so we had good data to report on.
We worked up until noon then Sherif and El Banna took Keith and me to a nearby mall for lunch. The mall is said to be the largest mall in the Middle East and is about 2 years old. We parked in the garage and went inside. Sherif guided us to a place called Cilantro on the 3rd floor (or thereabouts). It was basically a coffeeshop with upholstered couches, books in shelves around the walls and Wi-Fi. There were a lot of people sitting alone with a laptop, tapping away while sipping a beverage of some sort. There were also some small groups of people ordering lunch or coffee.
We got a table in a corner and ordered lunch. Sherif talked about his sport of choice...fencing, particularly with the epee. Apparently he's a fairly highly ranked competitor in Egypt. I found out a LOT I didn't know about fencing. 'course, that wouldn't take much, since I knew almost nothing about fencing before then.
We finished lunch then headed back to the office. to resume the final push of training. At the end of the day, we gathered all the students together (some didn't attend all 4 days) for "Graduation."
It's nothing elaborate... I make a little speech thanking them for the opportunity to meet and work with them in person and for the gracious hospitality I experienced. Then I give them some small gift as a token of the training.
My guidelines for the gift are that it has to be something fairly small and easy to transport on a plane, it should be uniquely American and can't cost very much. It gets to be a tall order!
However, this time, I found some sandstone coasters that were made from Arizona sandstone and had Native American petroglyphs carved on them. I thought that was just about perfect...Egypt is famous for the ancient hieroglyphs (which I expected to take home some samples of) so I thought exchanging glyphs would be a kind of cool thing. I had a couple sets of coasters, each coaster with a different glyph on it. I spread them out and said everyone could take any one they wanted. I also had a "key" of what the symbols were supposed to mean. It was kind of cool that people selected images that really kind of fit them to the supposed meaning.
Shima picked the sun symbol...which according to my key meant 'livegiver' and 'happiness''. She certainly has a very sunny disposition!
Sherif picked Kokopeli...the 'seed protector', which pleased him greatly as an agronomist.
El Banna picked the shaman...wisdom and healing.
I don't remember what the others picked but they were all appropriate.
Then, they presented Keith and me with some gifts. They gave me a silver cartouche necklace with my name in hieroglyphs as well as a papyrus (REAL papyrus...not the fake touristy stuff) painting of Nefertiti and a smaller papyrus with a stylized map of Egypt. Keith got a cartouche keychain with his name on it, a painting of the gold mask of Tutankhamen, and a map. I was overwhelmed! It was so generous and thoughtful.
After the ceremonies were over, Keith and I packed up our stuff, I said goodbye to everyone (Keith was staying for another week or two) and El Banna took us to the hotel to drop off stuff and get ready to go out for the evening.
Other evenings, we'd been dropped off after work and then picked up again around 8 for supper. However, since I was leaving to catch my plane in the wee hours and had to check out before 9:30, we were going to leave earlier so that we could be back by 9:30.
We headed downtown to the Grand Hyatt hotel on the banks of the Nile. The downtown area of Cairo has many, many high-rise and high-end hotels with a "Nile view" and the Grand Hyatt is one of the bigger ones. We got a table at an outdoor restaurant along the river and had drinks (I had "Egyptian tea"...basically tea that has had fresh mint leaves added to it while steeping) while waiting for it to be 7pm so we could order supper. Shortly after 7, we moved to a table right along the water where we could see up and down stream, watch the boats motor and sail past, and see the sun starting to set across the river.
My digestive tract was a lot better than it had been but still not 100% so I didn't want to order a lot to eat. I ordered some grilled shrimp and no appetizers or sides. They were huge...about the length of my hand...complete with head and tail fins but the main shell had been peeled off before grilling.
I pulled the heads off (I did not, as Ibrahim had done, then suck out the head case) and started a pile of heads, miscellaneous legs and tail fins on one side of my plate. The shrimp were very tasty and had some sort of marinade or seasoning on them that had just a hint of heat to it.
When we'd finished eating, El Banna took us back to the hotel. There was a big soccer match going on at the main stadium and we'd timed it so that traffic should be minimal when we were trying to get past the stadium. They were probably halfway through the first period as we drove by the statium and, sure enough, there was hardly any traffic.
El Banna said it was a big match between the Cairo club team and the club team from another governorate (a geopolitical area that probably corresponds to something like our counties or municipalities). He said there would likely be 120,000 people at the game.
We got back to the hotel in record time. As he dropped us off, I thanked El Banna again for everything and said goodbye. I checked out, finished packing and decided I could get a few hours sleep before it was time to take the shuttle.
I'd just set my travel alarm (and, for good measure, requested a wake up call from the front desk) when the phone rang. It was Shima wanting to say goodbye. We chatted briefly then she put Tarek on to say goodbye also. I knew he was following the soccer match so I asked him if his team was winning. He said it was tied 0-0. I thanked him for the CD of Arabic music he made for me and told him I might listen to it on the plane trip home, but certainly when I got home. We said goodbye and then I got in bed to try to sleep.
I think I slept a little over an hour then woke up and it was obvious that I wasn't going to go back to sleep so I decided to get up and start the trip home.
09 August 2007
Training went well in the morning. The students entered more trials than any other training I’ve done. Woo-hoo! That means we should have a good amount of data for reporting tomorrow.
In the afternoon, we did some database reporting but kind of got bogged down in some statistical analysis discussions from one student. It kind of went on too long and if they come up again, we’ll need to table them for off-line discussion…it’s really outside the scope of this training.
But it was a successful day of training, all in all. We wrapped up around 5 and El Banna took Keith and me back to the hotel.
He picked us up again at 8:00 to go to supper. He took us to a place called Al-Azhar Park. It was absolutely gorgeous! The building was, as El Banna put it, a blend of Islamic and Andalusian styles. It’s set up on a small hill and has an impressive panoramic view of the city. The grounds are green with many winding, open paths with some lights scattered along the way. It costs 5 pounds to get in the gate and you have to drive there…it’s far to walk from about anywhere…so it’s out of reach for average Cairene.
It’s popular for weddings and there was a wedding party there while we were there. You can tell the wedding vehicles because of the specific way they drape white veil ribbons over the car and affix flowers to it.
There was a 3-piece traditional Egyptian group playing music. It’s similar to the music I was listening to with Shima and Tarek…but less ‘loud’, a bit slower and without the heavy beat. I like both.
El Banna said this music they were playing was from a very famous singer who died about 25 years ago. The traditional songs last an hour or two or more. There is a special radio station that plays the songs in thier entirety.
We had a table out on the terrace. Actually, all the seating was outside. In a place where it very rarely rains, you can get away with that. The night was absolutely perfect to be outside…the temperature was very comfortable with a light breeze, low humidity and no bugs. There were too many lights to see any stars but the city lights made up for that. From the terrace we could see the mosque of the Citadel lit up, the Cairo Tower, and other mosques and buildings I couldn’t identify. It’s a phenomenal view!
After supper, we walked in front of the restaurant building on the lit paths, taking the long way back to the car. It’s a very lovely, peaceful place with children playing…rolling like logs down the slope…couples walking hand-in-elbow, young people congregating on park benches, and people walking the paths.
By the time we got back to the hotel it was about midnight. I was dead but the streets were humming. There are people everywhere! It’s typical of cities the world over, I think…certainly the ones I’ve been to. Going out to eat at 8pm is early. Staying out until the wee hours is the norm. All I can say is, these people must not have to get up in the morning… And, given the unemployment rate, that's very likely.
08 August 2007
I had kind of a rough night. The ‘mummy tummy’ had me up quite a few times so I didn’t exactly have a restful night. When the alarm went off at 6:10, I decided to sleep until 6:45. At 6:45 I decided to sleep another 15 minutes. It wasn’t enough, but it had to do.
I showered, dressed and went down to meet El Banna.
Back at the office, I checked mail before class and we got rolling again. We got a little bogged down mid-morning with a discussion about how Yield is calculated and how they want it to be calculated. The morning was also complicated by network problems on the EG end…the communications provider here was having some sort of problem. The network was up and down so much that it was really hard to get anything done.
That took us up to lunch time when we just hoped everything would be better after lunch.
Yesterday, when El Banna was asking what I wanted for lunch, he said I put him in a difficult place because I said, “Anything is fine. Whatever is easy.” Today, with my ‘mummy tummy’ when he asked what I wanted for lunch, I said, “A small bowl of soup, a banana and a piece of bread.” They all laughed (I think they thought I was kidding) and El Banna asked me if I liked pizza. I told him my stomach was not happy and I really would rather stick with the soup and banana.
I must look pretty bad…several people have commented on how tired I look.
The pizzas arrived at lunch time…from Pizza Hut. A little later, the office boy arrived bearing a tray with my ramen, a piece of local bread and a bunch of very green bananas. I ate maybe a third of the bread (kind of like a pita only softer and about the size of a small dinner plate), half the soup and none of the bananas.
After lunch, most of the network issues had been resolved. I sent some messages to the office back home with questions and issues from the morning. I started getting replies about 3:30 or 4:00 our time and had answers to everything before we left for the day.
Tonight’s the night I was supposed to go to Shima’s house for supper. When she was in Iowa earlier in the summer, she told me she wanted to have me to her house for traditional Egyptian food. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since but by the end of the day it was clear I should just go back to the hotel and hunker down for the evening.
I felt so bad about not going to her house! She’d bought all the food and was very excited about me coming. Her mother was coming to meet me, too. But there’s no way I can eat anything and I really don’t feel all that hot.
El Banna took me back to my hotel and said he was picking up Keith at the airport at 7 and would bring him back to the hotel after that. He said he’d call me then to see if I needed anything. His wife’s a pharmacist and could help me if I needed any medications. I have the levaquin that I got from the international doc in Iowa before my trip to Bangkok last year this time. I didn’t use it then so I still had it. I took one when I got to my room.
I could hardly keep my eyes open so I lay down to take a nap. I set my alarm so that I wouldn’t sleep for more than half an hour or so but I woke up about an hour and a half later. Apparently, I was too tired to master the task of setting my alarm for PM instead of AM.
I got up and ate a slightly green banana from the fruit basket in my room and mixed up some electrolyte powder and bottled water to drink. Keith called later to see if I needed anything and let me know his room number. He said he had levaquin too if I needed it.
It’s going to be an early night for me. I hope I’m much improved by morning.
07 August 2007
The elevator is scary-looking thing…it can hold about 4 friendly people. You open a green, metal door (just a regular handle-and-hinge type door) and behind that is the elevator door that slides sideways. When the doors close, it’ll rattle and groan its way up or down the shaft to your floor.
El Banna told me that when they first moved into the building, there was nothing else there…just dirt lot desert. Now, the building is on a crowded, narrow alley. Parking is a real problem as there aren’t any lots and the streets are very narrow. They’re looking for another location where all the people can be together instead of split across floors.
At morning break, they brought in boxes of pastries with tea and soda. One box of sweet pastries and one salty. They were all little hors d’ouevre size pieces. I didn’t know, at first, that some were sweet and some weren’t so I was a little surprised when I bit into the first one and it had cheese and seasoned ground meat. The sweet ones were to die for! Like little bite-sized crème brulee or chocolate mousse. (Is it sounding like I’m eating my way across Cairo??)
El Banna had to leave mid-morning…he had a death in the family so he excused himself and told me he wouldn’t join the group for the dinner cruise on the Nile. Sad news, but you can’t control that sort of thing. It was his wife’s sister’s brother (is that a brother-in-law?).
Before lunch, we collected orders. I ordered a chicken tikka with rice and vegetables but had started on a case of “mummy tummy” by the time it arrived and couldn’t eat much of it.
Class went well…everyone seemed to “get it” and did well on the practice exercises. We wrapped up at 5. To make the logistics easier, instead of having someone take me back to the hotel, I went to Shaimaa’s place between training and the dinner cruise.
We met Sherif at the dock and got a table near the dance floor. There was a guy playing keyboard when we sat down. A little later another guy played sax and clarinet, then a man and woman sang some songs.
It took me a while to realize that the first song was in English… My Way. About half the songs were in English. The singers would wander through the audience trying to get people to come up on the stage and dance. One of them snagged me but I declined until Shima convinced Tarek to go up with me. He and I danced a bit while Shima and Sherif took lots of pictures.
I told both of them afterward that I did NOT want to see the pictures posted at the office… It was all part of the fun.
During this time, we partook of the buffet. I ate hardly anything…and it was more than I wanted. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have eaten at all but I felt I had to eat something.
Between the warm ups and the main event, we went out on deck to view Cairo by night from the Nile. Any city is prettier by night, I think and Cairo is no exception. There are a lot of high-rise hotels along the Nile…big names like Sheraton. Out on the river there were a number of sailboats cruising along. Shima told me the other day that they have sails up for effect, but the boats are actually moved by motor. Still, they’re pretty and add to the ambiance.
After a turn around the deck, we went back in for the main entertainment…the belly dancer. She was accompanied by musicians…several guys on drums, one on a violin sort of instrument and a guy playing the finger cymbals. After she finished her first set, she went to change clothes and a tanoor dancer came on. He had a long skirt-like thing on and spun around and around to make the skirt part stand out. And when I say he spun around and around, that’s exactly what he did…non-stop…for about 10 minutes. He did a number of things for a bit of variety but he was constantly turning the entire time. That, to me, was more amazing than the belly dancer.
The belly dancer came back after her costume change, this time accompanied by a guy playing an oboe-like metal instrument. With all the drums and suchlike, it was painfully loud.
After the show ended, we went back on deck to enjoy the night on the way back to the dock. At dock, since Shima was still having trouble with her swollen legs, she said Sherif would take me back to my hotel. It was about 11 by the time I got there and all I did was fall into bed.
06 August 2007
- I saw a McDonald’s delivery motorcycle (Big Macs by bike!) on the streets. Also a KFC delivery cycle. Helmets are required by law for motorcyclists but I’ve seen few people wearing them.
- I’ve picked up about 5 words/phrases in Arabic since I’ve been here:
Shakrun - thank you
La - no
Aywa - yes – it sounds like “Iowa” which is how I found out about it. One of the people I talked with asked which state I was from and when I told her, she told me that means “yes” in Arabic
Habibi - my love, darling, honey, etc. – when I was with Shaimaa and her husband we were listening to Arabic music and Saimaa told me that half the songs are about being in love (and contain the word ‘habibi’) while the other half are about breaking up.
Yala - let’s go
Shima said “it’s so cute” when I try to say things in Arabic. I’m guessing that means I don’t do it very well.
- The bathroom I have in my hotel is very European. It has a European style toilet…no bowl to speak of and the flush button is on the wall with capability for ‘full flush’ or ‘half flush’. It also has a bidet next to the toilet and a hand shower in the tub. Un-European-like, it also has a wall-mounted shower.
- In a restaurant, a group came in…several men, a boy and a woman in a burkha. It was the kind of burkha that just has a slit for the eyes. I wondered how she was going to be able to eat with that thing and I tried not to stare while finding out. She pinned the veil part of the covering up on her head but draped it so that she had her face exposed but only on the side away from the men. She was seated against the wall, facing the back of the restaurant. I was the only person who could see her. At one point, one of the men handed a camera to the waiter and wanted a picture of the group. The woman just kept eating. No one spoke to her. It was like she wasn’t there. She did talk to someone on a cell phone for a bit though.
- I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know what an “Egyptian looking” person is. When Shaimaa and I were at the Village having mango juice, she was telling me who was Lebanese, Saudi, etc. When we were sitting at the Grand Café, I was looking at all the people and trying to guess if they were Egyptian or not. I was pretty bad at it. What I think of as “Egyptian looking” is fairly dark-skinned and certain facial features. While there are some that meet that criteria, the actual skin tones range from almost as light as me to very dark brown. Most are dark-eyed but Ibrahim has blue eyes. Sherif and a number of others are very tall and lean but some are shorter than me. In short, there is no “Egyptian looking.”
The grounds in front of the building have some of the sculptures, obelisks and hieroglyphic carvings collected from various sites scattered throughout the grounds. Flanking either side of the walkway to the main entrance are two Sphinx (Sphinxes? Sphinxi? Sphini?) which, of course, every tourist wants their picture taken with. Who am I to defy local customs?? I had a picture taken of Ibrahim and me with one of the sphinx in front of the museum.
We entered the museum and, just like the hotel, the Pharaonic Village, the Giza Plateau, the Sphinx Sound & Light Show…we went through a security screening. Upon entering the museum, you’re greeted by monumental sculptures of the kings in the classic ‘throne’ pose. Unlike most museums, here the sculptures are out in the open where you can touch them. And, judging by the darker, polished look to the legs of the statues up to about 6 feet from the floor, people have been doing just that for a very long time.
The place is HUGE. And I’m obviously here with the right guy. Ibrahim says he’s been here at least 20 times. He knows the layout of the museum and where the most interesting exhibits are. We’d need days to actually cover the museum, and if I were there on my own I might not find the highlights, so he guides me to them.
We started briefly on the main floor where there are so many rooms and halls and displayed collections covering most of the dynasties of Lower (north), Middle, and Upper (south) Egypt. Ibrahim told me that the most interesting displays were upstairs, though, so we only spent 30-45 minutes downstairs.
Upstairs, there are display rooms with some of the objects found in Tutankhamen’s tomb…The Gold Mask (the one everyone has seen in pictures), the collarplates, the rings and amulets, etc. Outside the display rooms is the main hall that has the nested boxes that contained the sarcophagi and mummy…all separated so you can see them individually, rather than as they were found. The actual mummy is not in this museum, it’s in Luxor. There are also many items found in the tomb…jars and containers that held food, several beds, a number of chariots, attendant statues and carvings. It’s an impressive collection!
Another huge highlight of the museum was the royal mummy display. In a separate room at the far end of the top floor are the climate-controlled cases. You have to pay an additional entrance fee to get into the mummy display, but it’s worth it! Along the hallway leading to the room are a number of displays that talk about the mummification process and show some of the instruments used.
Once you pass through an air curtain and into the air-conditioned display room you see the actual mummies. There are about a dozen glass cases and each mummy is identified along with anything known about the person from the mummy (approximate age, what can be determined about health and/or cause of death, etc).
My other favorite thing in the museum was the papyrus room. There was one large room that had nothing but papyrus scrolls. Being something of a calligraphy nut, I was in heaven! I could have spent all morning, at least, just in that room, looking at the hieroglyphic strokes and illustrations as well as marveling at how well-preserved they are (or maybe it’s just that papyrus is extremely durable!)
Everywhere we went, Ibrahim had a running commentary on not just the items displayed but other historical and more modern contexts for them. The man is an absolute wealth of information on just about everything but especially history. He studied in the US for a while (mostly agriculture, but a parallel study in economics), lived in Nigeria for a number of years, and has traveled to many places. Everywhere he goes, he soaks up information and connects the pieces from here to there and forms his opinions. He’s interested in everything and an incredibly interesting person to be around.
After the museum, we went to a shishkabob restaurant that he really likes. He said there are 3 of them…2 in Cairo and one in Alexandria but this one is his favorite. We both had the pigeon soup to start. It was a broth type soup…there were no pieces of anything in it, but it wasn’t clear… with seasonings and spices into which we squeezed lime. The limes were cut in half and tiny…about the size of a large grape…and they had a cheesecloth type covering on them so that when you squeezed them, you didn’t get seeds or pulp. It was delicious!
We also had some of the same side dishes and condiments that I’d had yesterday or the day before…the yogurt sauce, sesame paste, salad…but also some different ones. There was a rice dish that was seasoned with spices and toasted almond slices and had pieces of kidney and liver on top. I wish I’d known that before I ate one of them… There was also a pickle plate that had small pickled eggplant halves stuffed with minced vegetables, pickled onions, and pickle spears. I liked the spears ok and I tried the eggplant but it was so salty and so astringent that I couldn’t finish it. I decided to cut my losses and not try the onions. There was also a basket of the same sort of bread I’d had before.
The main course was the shishkebab. There were several pieces of beef that had been grilled on a skewer and a couple of other things that looked sort of like 3 connected meatballs (kofta)…about 6 inches long and a little more than an inch thick at the thickest part but slightly narrower in 2 places…were seasoned ground meat that had been formed on a skewer and grilled. It was very tasty! It was also a lot of food…I couldn’t finish all of mine.
After eating, we went to the bazaar. We had to park a ways away and walk. As we approached the area, Ibrahim told me that when we got there, to let him know what I was interested in and he would deal with the vendors. I told him a few things I was looking for and we entered the warren of alleys, shops and aisles.
The first shop we entered had papyrus paintings. I’d told Ibrahim that I was looking for one with musicians on it. He and the guy sorted through a pile and found one that was very nice. They had a heated discussion about it and Ibrahim grabbed my elbow to walk us out.
A few places further on, they also had papyrus paintings. He found the same painting and they haggled over it. While they were haggling, I also found some scarab beetles carved from stone that I liked. Ibrahim paid for the painting and we walked out but the guy was still following us and they were “discussing” the beetles. At some point, they reached an agreement and Ibrahim handed him some more bills and me the scarabs.
I also wanted a pair of the small cymbals that belly dancers use…he found and negotiated for those while I was looking at something else.
He told me that he could do a lot better if I wasn’t with him. When the vendors see a foreigner, the price starts out at triple what it should be. He can negotiate them down but if he’d gone in on his own, the initial price would have been a lot lower and he’d have had a lot more room to negotiate.
Oh, well…he’s still getting me a much better price than I ever would have been able to get and the vendors are so aggressive that I would have probably given up rather than deal with it. They seem to enjoy the challenge.
When we came out at the end of the street, we walked along where there aren’t any shops for a bit and Ibrahim told me about the mosques that were there. From one point, we could see minarets of several different styles/eras. The whole area was in the process of being restored as an historic district.
We headed back to the car and wanted something cold to drink so we stopped at a couple of places selling pop. At all of them in the bazaar, Ibrahim walked away rather than pay what they were asking…again, the presence of a foreigner played a part, he said.
After we got back out on the main street to get back to the car, he stopped at a place that sold spices, seeds (for eating/cooking) and drinks. As we approached, I saw him head in, so I hung back to stay out of sight until he’d closed the deal. He did and we finally got a cold drink.
On the way back to the hotel, we drove through a street with produce vendors. We drove by a wagon with some strange fruits on it and he asked me if I’d ever had those. I said I didn’t even know what they were. He asked if I wanted to try them…by now he’s figured out that if it’s “local”, I’ll try it. So we pulled over and he went back and got one. It’s a cactus fruit. I took a bite and it’s a very soft fruit…kind of like very ripe papaya but has a lot of very hard little seeds in it. I asked him (around a mouthful of it) if you were supposed to eat the seeds or spit them out. He said to just swallow them…don’t try to chew them, they’re too hard. Luckily, the fruit is so soft that you don’t have to chew them much. It was very sweet and juicy. I liked it.
He took me back to my hotel and we made arrangements for him to pick me up at 8:30 for supper at a seafood restaurant. I took a shower, changed clothes and chilled until it was time to go.
I went back to see what was at the other stations. There was one that had a selection of sliced cheeses and meats, one with breads and pastries and one with fruit. I had some watermelon, kiwi fruit and a small pastry that had little pieces of various fruits on top of it.
Shima picked me up at 9:00 and we headed out. We stopped at a supermarket on the way to pick up water and snacks. The supermarket was a small one, she said, but it had an impressive selection and stock of items. Some items were familiar; like V05 shampoo which Shaimaa pointed out as being so much cheaper in the US. In the fruit and vegetable section, I recognized all the items, although some of them were not typical in a store at home...like fresh figs and dates. There were also a lot of cantaloupe and watermelon, which Shima said were very cheap as they were locally produced (I’d seen many donkey carts rolling through the city piled with them so I could easily believe that!), and one lonely pineapple that Shima said was very expensive.
We checked out and then sat in her car for a bit drinking the pineapple sodas that she recommended we get (since they’d get hot if we didn’t) and eating Snickers bars (since they’d melt if we didn’t).
While we were sitting there watching the typical Cairo day unfold for the small street where we were parked. There was a cluster of men across the street, under an overhang milling about. I asked Shima what they were doing and she said it was a “snack garage” and pretty much looked like someone was selling bottled water and other things out of their garage.
On a ledge directly across the street from me, I noticed a light-colored cat lounging on a ledge. It looked so Egyptian…like the statues you see of associated with the Pharaohs of the cat-god Bastet! It was very long and lithe with big ears and a very short coat. Yesterday, Sahid told me Egyptians consider cats to be lucky…especially black ones.
Around 10, we headed out to the Pharaonic Village. Shima said that the village is kind of like the Living History Farms in Des Moines that she saw when she was there. Except that a big piece of the Village is viewed by boat. I was sort of having trouble imagining how that would work but figured it would all become clear shortly.
We had about 15 minutes until the boat left so we wandered in the gift shop for a bit. In the display of papyrus art, there were a number of examples of Arabic calligraphy…verses from the Koran. I had Shima tell me what they said…not a translation, just a general idea. There was one I especially liked about when facing difficulties, be patient. Shima said that things here were very expensive and I could find any of these things much cheaper at the bazaar tomorrow.
When it was time for the boat, we went outside and they directed us to the English boat…it was a smaller one off to the side as there weren’t that many English-speaking people there right then. It ended up being Shima, me, a woman from California and two men with her…one from Ghana and one who was, I think, her Egyptian guide.
The boat crossed this branch of the Nile toward the Village island and the recorded tour started. As we motored around the island, there were various statues to illustrate the various people and events in Egyptian history that the recording described.
Around the back side of the island were people acting out various scenes of farming with a wooden plow, making reed boats, pigeon raising (which the ancient Egyptians raised for food), pottery- and glass-making, etc.
At the end of the boat ride, we got out for a walking tour of displays and were met by our island guide. He was a fairly young man named Ahmed and was very friendly and engaging.
He guided us through various displays of a temple, a rich man’s house, poor man’s house, etc. There were opportunities everywhere to buy a sort of pastry as made by the baker at that display, or to put on various Egyptian costumes and have your picture taken, or buy one of the magic pots that were displayed at the potter’s. The woman from California wanted to have pictures taken and Shima needed to sit down so we went outside and sat at a table in the snack bar/restaurant to have a cold drink while they were doing that.
Shima is 4 months pregnant. She found out about it while she was in the US in June/July. Then, she was really morning-sick. Now, she’s not having so much trouble with morning sickness but her feet and legs are swelling and it’s hard for her to walk a lot. That’s why she was taking me to the Village instead of, say, the Pyramids yesterday. She thought the boat ride would mean less walking. And it certainly has been less walking than yesterday but still, she needed to sit down. She’d been taking about every opportunity to sit during the walking part of the tour, but it wasn’t always possible.
After the break, we walked through a demonstration of glass blowing, leather working, copper work, and various other Egyptian hand crafts. I bought a few of the glass perfume bottles (3 at $4 each) and paid with one of my Egyptian bills. I wanted change in small bills, as I’d been feeling bad about not being able to tip the bathroom attendants in places (they always seem so drawn and hungry-looking…older women or small children), but the cashier didn’t want to give me change that way. Shima had a whole wad of small bills and made change for me. So now my pockets are stuffed with one and half-pound bills.
When we left the Village, it was about 2:00 and we went to Shima’s home to pick up her husband, Tarek. From there, we drove to a restaurant Tawek picked out where we could have traditional Egyptian food. Shima had told me earlier that it was a eat-with-your-hands type of place and asked if that was ok for me. I said, “Sure!” If it’s traditional Egyptian, I’m all in!
We found the place eventually. I’ve come to the conclusion that you cannot drive directly to anywhere in Cairo. The way the streets work (such as it is) requires that you double back a lot…you have to go down a street past where you want to go, then pull a U-ey around the median and go back.
And, while there are occasionally stop lights, for the most part they don’t function and, when they do, they are completely and utterly ignored. There are traffic police, but even they sometimes don’t function. We passed one intersection where the traffic cop was sitting asleep in his little shack as the traffic was whizzing by. There was another intersection…sort of a round-about…where the car ahead of ours slipped the traffic cop some baksheesh through the window and the cop changed the traffic flow to let our way go.
Anyway, the restaurant was a small place…maybe 10 tables. Tawek ordered for us and I went to wash my hands. Food here is served in common plates. On the other tables, I saw a platter piled with a yellow rice and on top of that were half-chickens or pieces of meat. The men (no other women were in the restaurant) were taking a handful of rice and squeezing it to make it stick together, then putting it in their mouths. The pieces of meat were picked apart by hand or gnawed directly. There were also some smaller bowls of a red sauce and a slightly larger bowl of a salad.
When our food came, we had individual plates of rice and meat with a couple of the sauce bowls and a common salad plate. I had chicken and Shima and Tarek had lamb, plus one extra lamb plate to share.
The rice was flavored with some seasoning…a type of curry, I think, plus bay leaf and some other thing that looked like an orange or lemon seed except that it was not hard. Those last two were picked out and set aside with the bones and fat. The chicken (called mandi chicken) was very tasty, as was the lamb. The red sauce was exactly like a fresh salsa except that it didn’t have any cilantro in it and it was more of a puree than chopped…just tomato, onion, and a bit of hot pepper. The salad was a dark lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and cucumber; all cut into small pieces.
It’s an exceedingly messy process to eat. No napkins are provided (Shima brought a package of tissues in with her, which seemed odd at the time, but now I get it!). As you eat the meat, the fat gets all over your hands. We put some of the tissues on the table to hold the inedible parts. And if you wipe your hands with the tissues, a lot of times the tissue falls apart and sticks to your hands.
They did give us spoons, which we used for the salsa and to eat our rice. It’s also accepted practice to eat the salad communally from the same bowl with our eating spoons. Very poor form in the U.S. but when in Egypt…
After the meal I was stuffed. We’d eaten all the meat and most of the salad but still had a plate of rice left. Since we weren’t going to be anywhere with a fridge anytime soon, we just left it.
As we left the restaurant, Shima announced that it was time for dessert. I really didn’t want any more to eat but they were being so gracious… There was a place right next door to the restaurant that served a traditional dessert made with rice, milk, sugar, nuts, etc. She got 3 for us and we went back to the car to eat in air conditioning.
I opened mine. It was in an oval plastic bowl. One half was sprinkled with chopped nuts, the other half with shredded coconut and there was a white stripe down the middle that looked like a piping of whipped cream but was more dense than that. It was cool, fairly light as desserts go, and very tasty.
We headed toward the Cairo Tower for a view of the city and surrounding area. However, when we got there, it was closed for restoration or repair. As we slowed down near the entrance to see what was up, a woman in a car behind us plowed into the back of our car. Tawek got out and a crowd of people gathered. I decided that I’d best stay in the car as there was absolutely nothing that could be gained by my getting out and involved. Shima stayed in the car for a bit too, but then she got out. While her door was open, I heard the other woman talking very loudly, rapidly and angrily. Eventually, Tarek and Shima got back in the car and I heard Shima muttering under her breath that the woman was crazy.
However, we all proceeded on our way afterward as if nothing had happened. It was a minor fender-bender in Cairo terms and not worth much notice.
With the high-up city view not possible, we went to a café along the Nile have cold drinks and hang out. They took me to the Grand Café, which did have a lovely view of the Nile and many comfortable places to sit.
We ordered sodas and sat, talking. We talked about anything and everything and watched the river roll by and the boats out on it. There were a lot of people there smoking tobacco in hookahs. They were probably 2 and a half or 3 feet tall…glass water containers at the bottom, metal ventilated tops to hold the tobacco and coals, and pastel tubes with mouthpieces that the smokers drew on.
There was a guy at a table near ours. He was just reading and smoking. The attendants would stop by periodically to take away the ash and provide fresh coals. I watched the thing work as he exhaled huge billows of smoke but I couldn’t quite get my head around the actual mechanics of it.
I asked Tarek about it (since he’s a mechanical engineer) and he tried to explain but his English wasn’t quite up to it. So I pulled out my little notebook and asked him to draw a picture. Then it was much clearer! I asked him to sign it so that after he was rich and famous it would be very valuable. We all laughed and he signed and dated it.
We sat there until the sun started to go down and it was time to leave to catch the Sound & Light show at the Sphinx. I wanted a picture of us in front of the Nile first so we paid then went down along the edge and I took some great pictures with some sailboats and the setting sun over the Nile in the background.
We headed toward the Sphinx by way of many detours. I think I’ve mentioned that driving around Cairo is not a straight-forward operation. And Tarek and Shima weren’t really sure how to get there from where we were. We could easily see the Pyramids and head in that direction but since you can’t just go that way with all the double-backs, that doesn’t help much. We stopped to ask pedestrians for directions many times and they were all very helpful…helpful to the point of providing directions, even if they didn’t have a clue.
We made and the show was already started but not by much. The outdoor theatre had rows and rows of chairs facing the Sphinx and the pyramids. The story of the ancient kings, the pyramids and history was told as seen by the Sphinx. It was all accompanied by very dramatic music, voice over, and laser light projections. It was quite the spectacle.
By the time it was over, it had been a very long day and it was after 11 by the time I got to the hotel. We said our goodbyes outside the hotel as they dropped me off and I went to my room to shower and crash.