Friday, April 30, 2010

When you're living apart but really apart


This is another installment of my blog on living in Cairo. That's Cairo in Egypt, not somewhere else in the world. I believe there're a couple of Cairo's in the US and probably elsewhere as well. No this is Cairo in Egypt and I live here since just under 4 months, together with around 11 million other people. Some of which arrive in Cairo with me on January 3rd, 2010. Some of them arrived later and most were here before me.
Cairo is a huge city, a dirty city but most of all an interesting city. But that's not what I'll be blogging about this time around. This post is all about living here and leaving there. And by 'there' I mean Almere. As you may or may not know, I'm from Holland, and living there with my family in Almere. I'm married and have two sons, 3 and almost 5 years old. I visit them every other weekend. Fortunately I realized before signing my contract in Egypt that the Egyptian weekend is covering Friday and Saturday, instead of Saturday and Sunday like in Holland. So I arranged that I can spend every other weekend a Dutch weekend with the family. Meaning that I fly on Friday to Holland and fly back to Cairo on Sunday. And because the flights are all red-eyes, I get to spend the whole of Friday, Saturday and Sunday with my wife and the kids. Meaning that of every 2 weeks, I'm 3 days in Almere.

This also means that I am leaving them behind once every two weeks. Initially our oldest son was the one who missed me the most. Asking me if I could stay longer, telling me that he was going to miss me and although not really the most hugging boy in the world, actually not really a hugging boy at all, made darn sure that he left an imprint on my cheek every time they dropped me off at Schiphol, Amsterdam Airport. He would ask me every time, if I could ask my bosses if I could stay a bit longer next time, until Wednesday. Because on Wednesday he's having his swimming lessons, so I could see him swimming. My heart's been ripped out of my chest more than once by this little boy.
But lately he seems to have accepted it and he still misses me and wants me to stay, but he also knows that I've got to go and that's that. Although last time I was with the family he asked me if there is more work in Cairo than in Holland. And maybe I should consider a career change and switch to a job that is more common in Holland. Because than I could work in Holland again and consequently live with them again.
Our youngest on the other hand, has always been very much okay with me leaving but was extremely happy when I got home again. He is the hugging kind of kid, very emotional and expressive. He was always very happy to see me, but after an hour or so, all was back to normal and all that joy was gone and he was back to normal, as if I'd gotten home after a day of work. But lately he's been asking a lot for me. My wife calls me a lot so he can hear my voice and all. And last time I was home, he was asking me all the time if he could come with me to Cairo. Everytime we're on the phone he asks me if I come home tomorrow. Last time, he was hugging me all weekend long, wanted to sit next to me and all these little, very big things.

It's all as if our oldest has realized that it is the way it is and that's it, while our youngest has just started to realize the fact that I'm home for a few days and than gone again. Fortunately there's Skype and Skype's online number. This is cutting phone bills to fractions of what they would be if it hadn't been for Skype. I've got a local number for Almere now, so my wife can call me for free, as we've got a flat-rate phone-plan in Holland for landlines. And I can call any land line in Holland for a flat-rate of just under €5 a month. Or we Skype over the internet with video. This makes it a lot better and at least we can get in touch when we want to.

Still, living thousands of kilometers apart is quite something. Even with plenty of flights going back and forth and internet to help stay in touch.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Be prepared to pay for luxury, where luxury is almost for free


This is another post about me living in Cairo, one of the biggest cities, population-wise, in the world.

I've been living in Cairo for about three and a half months now of which the first two were spend in a hotel, the Grand Hyatt Cairo. The last six weeks I've been living in my apartment in Maadi, the area where many expats and diplomats live.
Although my apartment is fully furnished, this basically means that the bare minimum was there. The apartment sported two couches, a dining table for six, beds in all the bedrooms and furniture for the terrace. There's a washing combination (washer/dryer) and a dishwasher as well. And of course a stove. Oh plenty of closets.
This is the bare minimum. I had to buy my own microwave and alarm clock. I also bought a new TV as the one in the apartment was an old CRT, and I definitely wanted a flat screen TV. I went for an LG, although I am not too happy about the LG plasma I have in Holland. This is where today's post comes in

When you want the better brands as you know them from Europe or the US, you're paying dearly. I remember from my time in the US that my colleagues would tell me that if you couldn't really afford a car you would buy an American brand. Otherwise it would be one of the Japanese, like Honda or Toyota. If you'd really made it, it would be European, with BMW and Mercedes at the top. This was in 2000.
Here it's the same, although the low-end is Chinese, the mid-end is Korean and the high end is Japanese/European. This when it comes to electronics. There are a lot of different Chinese brands and most of them don't even make an effort to pretend that they're providing quality products. It's all cheap, even the design. It is not my nature to go for the cheap, I go for the top range, have done so all my life. But the difference in prices between LG or Samsung (which is mid-range) and Sony or Philips is considerable

I needed for my terrace some furniture. Although the apartment comes with its own furniture, it's not really relaxing. I'd seen this really awesome lounge bed in the form of a shell from Benoa Living, Dutch design. Really nice and expensive. But you can get a replica here in Cairo, for the same amount but in Egyptian Pounds, so only a fraction of the price, also nice, but bad quality. Since I needed something relaxing on my terrace I kept on looking for something affordable and finally turned to Fatboy, also Dutch. They have a beanbag rugadized for outdoor use and they have a distributor in Cairo. The problem with genuine products here in Cairo, is that you have to consider huge duties raised by customs. Which is also the case for the Fatboy, shipping, handling and customs are raising the price with 80%.

I've come to the conclusion that you should really stick with the local products and there are now also designer products appearing. But keep a close eye on quality, as it is sometimes really mediocre. Keep especially an eye out for moving parts, the constructs are in many cases of MacGyver quality.

And then there's the other kind of luxury here in Cairo. There's hardly anything you can do that you can not have anybody else do as well, for really little money. For example, laundry and ironing of a shirt is 9 Egyptian Pounds, at least that's what I pay. Which is less than 2 US$ and around €1.10.
Basically everything that can be done through manual labor, you can have it done for cheap according to western standards. And in most cases the quality of work delivered is acceptable to very good. It more or less depends on your relation with the person doing the work. They like you, they take very much proud in their work and they'll make sure you'll be happy with their efforts. Otherwise it's just money for them and they'll rush it.
There are several forums on the web that have price-comparison charts and overviews with pricing guidelines for these kind of little jobs. Actually my apartment came with an information book with all kinds of info regarding living in Cairo and includes a section about help in and around the house. Very handy indeed.

Until next post about my life among pharaos.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Scuba diving in Egypt, Marsa Alam.


This time I won't blog about a particularly different experience I had here in Egypt. Instead I just want to re-iterate how cool the Red Sea is when it comes to scuba diving (and snorkling for that matter). It is by far the clearest sea I've been diving in. Clearer than the Maldives, which were clear. And in addition the coral is very nice, especially around Marsa Alam, where tourism seems to be limited to divers unlike Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheik. The area is great for shore dives with it's many bays with excellent reefs, which make them also great for snorkling.

But Marsa Alam is also great for boat trips.

Okay, you come here for the coral and the colors and almost guaranteed 25C temperature of the water. That is what the Red Sea is all aboutn plus some real treats in the form of ship wrecks and canyons. But 30+ meter visibility and beautiful corals are the key.
There're no guaranteed sharks, whales or manta's. That's the Maledives, South Africa or the Caribean. No fear induced adrenaline kick, but a call for tranquillity.

I've been here no the second time at the Oasis in Marsa Alam. A dive resort run by Werner Lau and Sinai Divers. Actually I believe the hotel and dive school are independend. Both hotel and dive school are top notch. Rooms are clean, spacey an geared towards divers. There's no night club, so no booming bases to keep you awake while you realize that it'll be hard to wake up at 6 AM for the 'Turtle dive.
The dive center is also very well equiped with good diving materials and very friendly staff. Staff speaks English and German. Again this time, most guests are German speaking (Germans, Swiss and Austrians). It has been a challenge and an exercise for me to pick up my German again. And oh boy, do I have an accent.

These 2 days, 5 dives, have been about nitrox. For the first time I've been using nitrox for all dives and I love it. Especially at the little ays and coves around the Oasis there's hardly a chance you'll go deeper than 30 meters, so you're save. And I have to say, I did really feel a lot fitter after the dives. Even after 3 dives of 60+ minutes on one day. Absolutely something to consider when you're thinking of coming to Marsa Alam and do mainly shore dives. But even on the Maldives, at a shark dive, it would've been beneficial as it would allow me to stay longer at 20 meters. Yup, the EAN specialty is a good one to have.

I don't know where I'll be diving next, but the Egyptian shore of the Mediteranean is definitely something I'll do this year. Now that I am in Egypt, I want to see the historical sites, above and below sea level.


PS: I've uploaded some vids of the dive resort, The Oasis, on youtube.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pyramids + X-Files: Trust no one

Hello from the land of the pyramids and pharao's.

Nothing mystical or mysterious in this post, no X-File'esque story, although this post is about crime.
This week I was scammed. Somebody posed as my downstairs neighbor that just moved is a while ago, and that wanted to meet the other tennants. I'd seen this guy before in the building so I thought his story was genuine.

He knew about the other neighbor from downstairs and that my neighbor from across the hall is a Brit.
We chatted a bit and when I got him a soda, he got my Nokia N85. I didn't notice until he was gone.
This guy was as friendly as every other Egyptian I've met sofar.
I should've been more cautious in hindsight as the security guys had told me somebody would drop by that evening, and why would they mention this when it concerns a tennant. And this guy rand the intercom to check whether or not I was in.

So I guess this time the experience in Cairo is not that positive and not really typical Egyptian, but I think that it should be a real warning, as these scammers prey on gullible expats who think all Egyptian are nice and
friendly. But Egypt is an orchard, most apples are sweet and tasty, healthy in vitamines, some apples are rotten. But trust me, these are forming a minority. Everybody around me felt genuinely bad for me and wanted to help to get past this.

So, trust no one? Just be cautious.