Thursday, November 17, 2011

How much is there to tell while going to the office?

So today I pick up the gauntlet, can I create a sensible blogpost while my driver takes me to the office on Thursday morning. You should know that Thursday, traffic is not that bad, relatively speaking.

Yesterday a former colleague of mine passed away, for privacy reasons I call him Alex. Alex was an older man, but as I learned yesterday, not that old yet. In his fifties. Alex was suffering from many things, he was diabetic and had had a kidney transplant. When you would be in a meeting with him he would have a box with several pills in them. Sometimes he would be walking around with bandages on his feet, bleeding. Without being disrespectful, many of House's patients have the same symptoms.
But Alex was above all a very nice man who invited me on my first day in the office here in Cairo for lunch. On that first day Alex asked me if I wanted to come for lunch on Thursday, I accepted. And Thursday noon sharp I was ready. Waiting for him I sat at my desk but he didn't show up. I continued working because maybe we would have lunch at 12:30, but no Alex until 2 o'clock. He hadn't forgotten about our lunch appointment, but he hadonly a work related question and wandered off again. So I walked over to him and asked him about lunch. Of course we would have lunch, no he
hadn't forgotten about it. He would stop by my desk when we would go for lunch.
As the day went on, 2 PM became 3 PM, which became 4 PM and at 4:30 Alex stopped by and told me to wrap up things as we were going for lunch.
Ahhh, his English wasn't that good, so he said 'lunch' but meant 'diner'. No problem, early diner was perfect as I hadn't had lunch. We drove through Cairo and went to this very nice restaurant and no, I
don't recall the name of the restaurant. After enjoying the appetizers and some basic conversation his daughter showed up and joined us. Contrary to her dad, her English was excellent with a familiar
American accent. I explained the whole 'lunch vs diner' mixup and she started to laugh. Turned out that Egyptians have lunch around supper time and diner late at night. Don't you just love cultural

One other story I want to share with you about Alex is about the fact that he had his own unique way of telling something. Or rather he had a very unique way of articulation.
One day we were in a meeting about optimizing our End of Day processing, which is a problem in any bank. Alex had thought of a solution and was explaining. Concentrated I was listening to him.
Although he thought he was speaking English, it was mainly Arabic with some English words interspersed. Once he was finished he looked up at me and my other colleagues started laughing. Alex wanted to know what I thought about his ideas and even they hadn't understood what he'd
said. But the thing was that Alex knew what he was talking about, so his story was comprehensive and very coherent. His sketching was very much to the point albeit not a Rembrant, more like Picasso. The whole thing with talking with Alex' was to listen to what he had to tell and
not what he was saying, which is a huge difference. So when I summarized to him what he had been explaining, the colleagues were stunned that I spoke Alexian. But what I want you to take fromm this is that Alex was always trying to improve his systems and was willing to share his thoughts on this.

All the strength to his family and those he loved and those that still love him.

No, I wasn't able to finish this post while in transit. When I started this post I didn't know what it was going to be about. Once I started typing, I realized that finishing the post when it was finished was
more important then let traffic decide when I was done.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What really sucks in Cairo...

...isn't traffic.


You've guessed it already, I found some time to blog again. Lucky me and you dear reader.
Today I realized that the good thing about Cairo actually is something that it really sucks at.


"The weather?", you say. Yes, the weather. Let me explain. Although the sun pretty much always shines, it actually almost never shines the right way. From November untill April it doesn't shine bright enough and it's getting cold in Cairo. And from June untill September it's too hot. During this period the AC is turned on all the time, which is rather unhealthy and many people are sickish. And the humming of the AC is very dulling. On top of that, most Egyptians I've met turn the AC to 'freeze' and whole buildings feel like big giant refridgerators.

Interestingly enough, those AC are the only means of heating in many cases. There is no concept of central heating. Btw, there's no insulation of buildings nor double glass windows for that matter. So
as soon as it gets cold outside, its getting even colder inside. As if the buidlings in Cairo are designed to amplify the temperature. In summer the walls heat up and inside it's even warmer than outside, in winter the walls act like giant cooling elements and keep the apt cold even during the sunny day.
And using the AC to heat up the place is even worse than to use it to cool it down. And it's very uncomfortable. My Egyptian friends an colleagues agree and they just wear more layers of clothing.
The weather sucks in Cairo. Only in May and October it is actually nice. Temperatures throughout the day are comfortable, without AC. No rain, and seemingly less dust as well.

This is when the thing that Cairo really sucks at isn't the weather but traffic instead.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I don't like rain in Cairo because of the monsters


Traffic is bad again, worse than usual, so I have a chance to post a new blog entry.

Two days ago we had some rain. I didn't see it raining, but the streets were all wet, potholes filled with muddy water and the terrible condition some of the roads are in is now even worse. Oh, and people have told me it rained, a lot. So I guess it's safe to say it has rained. My driver told me that it might actually have been hail as well. Could be, I'm not sure about that.

When it rains in Cairo, the streets are flooded because the sewer system and the water drains can't cope with it. All year they fill up with dust, clogged entries as a result. And with the bad shape the roads are in, people drive very 'carefully'. Careful in the sense of avoiding puddles, not slowing down of course. I think that this is because of corrosion to their cars. The cars are not treated with special coating against water and moist. Because it hardly rains in Cairo.

When it rains in Cairo, the rain is heavy with dust. So the rain is actually mud falling from the sky. No kidding. And this is where the frustration of my driver starts. He has to constantly clean the car,
because there's mud on it all the time because of the rain. He cleans it, it rains, he cleans it, it rains, he cleans it, he drives through a puddle, he cleans it.

I don't like the rain because traffic gets worse so my trips to and from the office take longer than the usual 60 minutes or so. And I don't like it because it very hard to navigate to anywhere because I don't have rubber boots nor a canoe and the puddles are really deep. Monsters might live in them.


Monday, November 14, 2011

It will be a very disappointing month...

... for some people.


Regular followers of my adventures in Egypt have suffered considerably lately as I haven't blogged for quite a while.

I have my reasons, but that's for another post some time soon, I think.

November, as it seems, will be election month. I believe it's for the parliament here in Egypt. More importantly it is for many the first time ever that the outcome is really not predictable. Obviously
because the current government is just a peacekeepr for the army generals that have been ruling for the last decades. So unless somebody has rigged the elections, there's no telling what
the outcome will be.
What I think that will happen is that the turn-up will be high. Mainly because of the fact that everybody has for the first time since a very long time the idea that now it matters. "These elections your vote will actually count" is what some of my Egyptian friends have said to me. Before they wouldn't vote because that only made sense when you were pro Mubarak.

Both with this I think it important to mention that although your vote counts, a single vote in an 80,000,000 population is, by itself, not very significant. (Still you should always exercise your democratic rights.) But what I'm trying to say is that one as an individual might vote on party X, but that doesn't automatically mean that party X will win the elections or even gets a seat in the parliament.
So my feeling is that many of the 80mln here in Egypt will be facing that democracy has no real impact on their lifes because the majority of the population doesn't share the same feelings and beliefs.
In fact, the majority of the population had completely different motivations for a revolution than those that started it all. Money vs Democracy.

"The revolution might result possibly in democracy, but also, at the same time, to less freedom" is another concern one friend of mine expressed. He referred to the fact that a new democratically elected government might very well be very conservative and very much against a secular system. The revolutionairies will be very disappointed, seeing all their good effort go to waste.

In a democracy, the elected government may very well not be the one you would like to see. But more importantly, in a democracy, the elected government must be the government for all and therefore it should respect all equally and provide equal opportunity to all. Which means compromises are required, otherwise the democratically elected government will be killing the democracy once ruling.
There is no room for extremist beliefs in a democracy. So it is imperative that the new government will not keep all of its promises. And the naïve voters, which there will be many, will be disappointed
as it will seem to them that the new politicians are just as crooked as the old regime was.

A main concern here in Egypt with many is what will happen after the elections. Sofar there seems to be no tension at all. We're about 2 weeks away from election day, and it's quiet in the streets, relatively quiet that is. But the worry is about what will happen after the election. Will the army allow a new government? Will they respect the democracy even when it means they'll loose a lot of their current power? Will the people accept the outcome of the elections?

Am I worried about all this? Not really to be honest. The Egyptian people are a very mellow and very peaceful people. Yes there've been incidents since the revolution, but these have been incidents with
relatively small groups.
I am preparing though. Have sufficient water and soda (Coke, Mountain Dew and 7UP Diet) in my fridge. Bread and some frozen food that my driver made for me in the freezer, a new jar of jam and plenty of unplayed Xbox games and unread books on my Kindle. But I would've had this in any case.

I just hope that it will be the media that will be disappointed, because there will be no riots in the streets, no killings, no uproar... No 'news' for them to report.


Friday, June 24, 2011

My biggest screw-up in Egyptian Corporate Life

This is about my biggest screw-up as an employee of an Egyptian Corporation in Cairo, I invite you to comment.

Disclaimer: everything you read in this blogpost is based on what I was told and explained by one of my Egyptian colleagues with whom I have had many discussion with mutual respect about Egyptian culture, traditions. Islam and religious influences on everyday life. I value his views and thoughts and though not always agreeing with them, I respect them. I have learned a lot from him about Egypt, Egyptians and Islam, I have no reason to doubt what he is saying and explaining. And I know that to him it is of great importance that I trust him in what he tells me on his word.

This week I'll be living and working in Cairo, Egypt for 18 months, quite a milestone to be reached, considering that I see my wife and two sons only once every 2 weeks for a weekend. And of course the occasional vacation.

As you might know I'm working at a bank here in Egypt within the IT organization. I'm Dutch and all but one (as far as I know) of my colleagues are not. They're from all over the world, but the vast majority (99%?) is Egyptian. Safe to say that the corporate culture is very much like Egyptian culture.
I pride myself for being able to fit in various cultures, work with people with different beliefs, traditions and values while maintaining my own beliefs, values and traditions. And pretty much everywhere I've worked (Netherlands, Pakistan, Denmark, USA, UK, Germany, France, Canada, Singapore and now Egypt) and in different industries within different corporate cultures I never felt that my views on things related to work and my role in the corporate are conflicting with the local views. They're not always completely aligned, obviously, but never conflicting. Until a week ago. This is when I screwed up BIG TIME because of how I feel how people should work together and how the local (corporate) culture sees (maybe dictates?) it. Worst of all, it took all of last week to get me to realize this. Only last night, after a heart-to-heart with one of my colleagues that I work with on a daily basis explained this to me.

Is the suspense building? Are you curious as to what I did that qualifies as a major screw up? Well I'm getting there.

My job
Let me first give you a short (hopefully for you, but it's okay to skip this paragraph to get to the juicy details) explanation of what it is that I do for a living. I'm the Chief Architect within an IT department of a bank, I'm stationed at head quarters. You still don't have a clue as to what I do for a living, now do you? To be honest, I have no clue as to what this title means in terms of a job description. I wrote the job description for this role based on what I do, not on what I think I should be doing.
Anyhow. Basically it is my responsibility to safeguard all of the banks IT systems in terms of consistency, integretity and continuity, which still means nothing. Let me get more concrete; The bank's enterprise strategy consists of a business strategy and a set of other strategies that are (should be) alligned with the business strategy.
The strategy actually defines how to realize the bank's vision of how it will do its business in let's say 5 years. The other strategies are supporting the business strategy in realizing this vision and all are by themselves also realizing a vision (which of course is aligned with the business vision). I am responsible for the IT vision and IT strategy. I therefore need to understand the business vision and strategy, define an IT vision and strategy that supports the business and I am supposed to define a roadmap to realize the vision according to the strategy (btw, you should read the Sun Tsu on strategy, it applies!). This roadmap consists of strategic projects that are either initiated by the IT department or specific business initiated projects that are identified by me as strategic from an IT perspective. The projects, this roadmap are there to safeguard the consistency, integrity and continuity of our IT landscape.
But that's not all. I am also chairing a team of senior IT directors that advices the CIO on priorities etc of projects and assures that IT activities are considered from all angles, this to be able to run projects more smoothly, on time, within budget with high quality. The IT Council is also an escalation level within the IT department. The council has no mandate but solely an advisory role, but due to the seniority of the members it has authority.
Ah yes, before I forget, within my role and responsibilities, I am also explicitly involved in audit missions (both internal and external) and have to ensure that audit remarks and advisories are an integral part of our projects and activities.
So what is it that I do? No clue, but when I realize the day has started it is already over without noticing it. Sometimes I am being asked to tie a knot, sometimes I am being used as an escalation level, as a tool to get things done. I like to think that this is because my colleagues as well as our business and the vendors value my opinion, like my approach to challenges and consider me knowledgeable. Still I am by no means an authority in any area. I surely don't know enough about security, networks, infrastructures, data management etc. But that is not required for my role, I need to know how these architectures fit together and how they support the business. This I believe I am pretty good at.
Anyhow, I can go on and on about my job, but I stop here, contact me if you want to know more.

Setting the scene...
We've been working within the IT department for the last year or so on a major project that is highly strategic, I can't disclose more. The project was initiated by one of the IT directors and carried forward by the same director. The concept behind the project is one of the pillars of our IT strategy and the project itself is one of those on our strategic roadmap.
Typically, strategic projects are massive and require a lot of analysis and design before the first useful results are achieved.
Sometime a more iterative or agile approach is doable, but not so for this project. Consequently, after the initial press this project received a year ago, it had been long until the first results could be presented. My role in the project is primarily being informed about the status, the concepts and how it would fit into the grand scheme of our project portfolio. In all fairness I had no active role in the project until a few weeks ago, but my role now is irrelevant to my screw-up I like to think. I won't elaborate in this post.
About a month or two ago we reached our first major milestone, which went by almost unnoticed until questions were raised. Btw, this is something I notice a lot, achievements are hardly made public. An almost Calvinistic approach to ones work. Whereas mishaps find their way to the press easily. Good press is pulled, bad press is pushed. You want to shine in the spotlights? Screw up. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
A week ago, just a day before my 15 minutes of corporate fame (although it seemed more as being infamous), we hit another major milestone in the project, one that many had been waiting for. Since we did not publicize our first milestone I informed the team of which I was a more active member since the previous 2 weeks, that we needed as a project make this achievement known, especially since pretty much everything exposed by the project was negative in nature. People not delivering on time, plans not adhered to, pre-requisites not timely mentioned etc.
My view on things; you work on something big, you keep people, especially those that do not belong to the incrowd, informed. You focus on the good, the benefits, the steps forward. By doing so, you keep momentum, eagerness to become part of the big picture but most of all understanding and leniency when things are not working out as planned. People accept steps backwards when there are also (more) steps forward and when you're realistic about them without accusing anybody. You only point fingers to those that did good. "Successes are because of the team, failures because of the team leader." A statement a manager of mine once made and I like to live buy.
So I'd told the team that we had to make the date at all costs, because that date was communicated and realistic. I wanted us to reach the milestone badly because I wanted to make this a "Hurray" moment for the project, for all the good reasons and intents. Everybody agreed on the value of this and the team worked hard. In all fairness, I had nothing to do with reaching the milestone, maybe other than keeping everybody focussed on making the date. Which was actually an easy job, because everybody was aware of the significance of it all. I've got to say that I am working with very skilled colleagues that take their profession very serious and don't shy away for going that extra mile.

Still with me? Thanks for your effort and patience. Know that typing this up takes longer than reading it.

We made it, and after getting all confirmations and a detailed and unambiguous description of what was achieved and what this meant to projects, management and the team itself, I wrote a short email on that Thursday night. Addressed to the whole team, all of our peers in the IT department, the project managers as they would benefit of it the most, our CIO and 2 relevant managers.
I chose not to share the meaning of reaching this milestone for our IT strategy with our vendor and send a 2nd email with a one-pager on this to the same recipients but the vendor.

In short succession of my emails I received first an email with a reply-all from the IT director who initiated the project and now is the proclaimed project sponsor, This email one, I know I did, might consider a comical take on my email and right after receiving a congratz-to-all-email I received also as a "reply-all" another "reply-all" from the project sponsor in which he pretty much accused me of taking all the credit for this achievement, although I'd been only actively involved for 2 weeks. (This email I read significantly later than the 1st email).
To me it came as a shock since I nowhere in either mail or my one-pager claimed to have had anything to do with reaching this achievement. I make it a point not to mention any names in any email, blogpost, Favebook status update or Tweet, instead those that are concerned know who I'm referring to, to the rest they remain anonymous. I respect people's privacy as I care about mine and more about theirs. So neither email contained any reference to a particular member of the team.
I dismissed the whole issue and chose to consider it to be water under the bridge. Not that I savored the idea that somebody consciously discredited me with my peers and managers, but its not like your wife is accusing you to commit adultry with her best friend. Then again, I assumed that my peers had learned to know me as a colleague that actually never takes any credit for anything and that I am somebody who values transparency and sharing thoughts, views and ideas. So I didn't see it coming that I actually screwed up in the perception of my peers.

The screw-up
Okay, so what was the screw-up? Couldn't be the fact that I'd told all who I deemed relevant that the project had done a great job and achieved a very important milestone that would be of great benefit to the bank. Now could it? I at least thought so, and I decided to let the discrediting emails for what they were, everybody would see right through it. Wouldn't they? Oh brother was I WRONG!!!

Because of another topic I decided this week to get back to my previous decision and not to let it be. Still the discrediting didn't bother me, it was the perceived animosity almost hostility I experienced at work. I felt that I had to tread very carefully as booby-traps might be lurking around every corner.
Yesterday I finally got the chance to have a heart-to-heart with my disgruntled colleague and address the other for this post irrelevant topic. And the discussion moved on to the emails he'd send. Apparantly he'd understood previously that I wouldn't send the "milestone achieved" and would instead remind him to do so. But that was besides the point of the screw up, although I can see that my email caught him by surprise when he read it. He didn't tell me this though.

According to him, the whole point was that I was and will never be in the position to send any of those emails regarding this project as I am not the project sponsor nor his manager nor the project manager. As he explained to me, in Egyptian (corporate) culture it is not done that anybody but the person achieving something or his manager makes this known to (part of) the world. And because it was me that had send out the email, I explicitly claimed the credits for the achievement, claimed the victory.

I was stunned! It is pretty hard, I've been told, to shut me up, but dare I say, he achieved this for a second or two. Just for your reference; I wasd raised Christian with (albeit moderate) Calvinistic values. Meaning that I was raised with the adago "act normal, that's crazy enough" and that flaunting is considered a mortal sin one would think.
So now I was told that 1) I am according to Egyptian (corporate) culture not allowed to formally highlight the achievements of my peers or managers as this is just not done. 2) By still doing so, I am explicitly claiming the credits to the achievement I am praising my peer for.
While thinking this over, I was also told that my colleague was called and emailed by several of our colleagues who received my mail asking him what was going on and what had come over me to pretend as if I was the grand Puba (paraphrasing) of the project.

According to what I was told last night, pretty much all Egyptians on the recipient list of the mail I'd send now consider me to be somebody likely to take credit for their accomplishments. Hard to fathom.

Sweet revenge
Although I was stunned for a moment, I took revenge a little later.
As I could tell, because I was told, my colleague was completely of his mark when I told him that I consider it the greatest compliment in the world when anyone of my peers formally or informally tells others by any means possible that he (or she for that matter) thinks I've done good something worth mentioning.

I explained that in the morning I go to work a happy camper because I love my job. At the end of the day I go home still a happy camper because I know for myself that I've made a difference, however small. Believe in chaos-theory and there is no such things as an insignificant action. I really don't (try to) achieve things for my boss or his bosses. In the end I don't work for them, I work for the company and my role is to do my job so any of my coworkers (bosses, peers and everybody else) can do their job, preferably better than before I did my job. This should be mine and everybody elses job description. I don't expect any praise for doing my job, but I sure like it when somebody thinks I've done a good job that helps him do is job better. It seemed to me that to my colleague it was a huge revelation that somebody could think that way.

The real screw-up
So the real screw-up here is not that I send out that email that I was not supposed to send or even allowed to send. No, the big screw-up as I see it, is that I didn't realize that the formal and hierarchycal personality of Egyptian (corporate) culture goes as far as defining with strict but unwritten rules about who can express their praise about who to who.
Although I am aware of the hierarchycal way of relations and interactions within the corporate, I pretty much completely failed to accurately estimate the extend of this.

Lesson learned
Well this is simple, don't say within a group, formal or informal, unless you're the group's manager that you think something good was achieved by anybody but yourself unless you have the explicit consent of the person(s) you're going to give credit.
This will take a lot of effort for me, because I am of the believe that people are motivated because they feel that they (can) make a difference. Not because when they don't do, they'll be punished. It is my experience that motivation by praise leads to excellence where motivation by punishment leads to mediocrity.
Well next time I think somebody did a good job, I'll let them know to publicize and take the credit or I'll ask him permission to tell others that he did a good job. Although I still believe that giving credit is worth far more, but that would mean a cultutal shift on an vast scale and one should have to ask permission to do so.

There is still one thing that utterly baffles me; why, when I've done something wrong in the perception of my peers of this gravity, nobody took the time or effort to tell me so, so I would know not to do it again?
There is no reason as to why one wouldn't do so. Maybe everybody is of the opinion that I am perfectly capable of being the villain I've proven to be? Maybe everybody is intimidated by me and doesn't dare to tell me I've done something wrong? Maybe culture doesn't allow this and my manager should do this? Maybe everybody thought that one of our colleagues already did this and they don't want to rub it in? I really have no clue. I do know that just as much as I like to be told that I am right also like to know that I am wrong so I can correct it.

So this is the story about my biggest screw-up in Egyptian Corporate Life so far.

Let me know your thought on this and be so kind to mention where you're from so I can see how things work around the globe.


Monday, May 16, 2011

What about having a big vault with US$ 80,000,000,000?


Just the other day I was contemplating on what I would do if I had US$ 80,000,000,000 and I have to admit I wasn't able to even spend half of it. I'm just not that much up to date on what people that have that kind of cash spend it on.
Now former president of Egypt Mubarak supposedly has or should I say had that kind of money. And since Egypt is very much a cash economy, I envision him having this massive vault somewhere safe in the dessert just like Scrooge McDuck (Dagobert Duck in Dutch). And when he feels sad he goes there swimming in all that money.

I wonder whether you really care about money when you have that much. Would he really have bargained his way across the local market shopping for groceries? I guess so, because it's part of the Egyptian culture and after all Mubarak was the self proclaimed father of the people.
But when you have so much money that it would take you a lifetime to count it, do you really care whether something costs 1 Egyptian Pound or 1 Piaster? I think everything feels to be for free. You would probably act the way. Or not.
I remember coming here about a year and a half ago and still thinking in €'s and constantly doing the math to translate all prices to €'s and time after time be amazed about the local prices. People telling me that I'm shopping for my groceries at the expensive supermarket and I am wondering how things could be even cheaper.
But you adjust and everything turns out to be relative. That can of Coke (the drink) that is only LE 2.53, which is about 30 €ct's used to be only LE 2,16 before the revolution I remember. Which is also about 30 €ct. I guess Mubarak was facing the same after getting used to be able to buy everything edible available in the Egyptian markets.

So what is your biggest worry then, when it isn't what you can and cannot buy? I guess it is loosing all that wealth. I mean that even when you take all the stories with a big bag of salt, Mubarak went out of his way to protect that vault in the dessert. He had a whole army of policemen roaming the streets 24x7, constantly on the look out to spot possible threats to public and private safety.
And then there was the army of... Well just the army that supported Mubarak and I would think that that was the reason why he could stay in office for that long (roughly 30 years). Of course being re-elected all the time also helps but that only counts when you have proper opposition and the people
voting actually have a selection of presidential candidates to chose from.
Now think with me, you're supporting a person that has 80bln is cash stashed somewhere in a vault in the dessert. And this person can only acquire that kind of money and keep it hidden because of you.  What does this mean to you? Exactly, you're probably the nicest supporter, the biggest fan or an
extremist altruistic devotee. Or, and I realize I might seem a bit paranoid or conspirational here, you're securing that same amount of money as the guy he takes the fall when everything falls to shambles. But that is unlikely, that's like thinking former president Bush knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but he just wanted to invade that part of the world to show his dad (former president Bush) that he could out-war him in the gulf.
I think that everybody here is a victim of misconception, misunderstanding and demonization by the media. I mean, everybody is innocent until proven guilty, but more importantly, everybody has the universal right (mandated by the UN no less) to pursue his or her happiness. And when somebody gets
of the right track and forgets about the fact that his fellow man has the same basic human rights, it just proves that he's merely human.

And so I am digressing once again and by realizing this, I realize that I should put an end to this post. Please feel free to comment and when I offended you in anyway, it was not my intention at all.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Getting in and out...

Well, this is kind of odd since "getting in and out" implies quickness. Okay rewinding my thoughts a bit. This post is supposed to be about flying between Amsterdam and Cairo. My flights are always booked Amsterdam - Cairo - Amsterdam, it's something that has to do with the first ticket I bought.
But I stay relatively long in Cairo compared to my stays in Holland. I stay 11 days in Cairo to every 3 days in Holland, although ever since the Revolution in Egypt it's 10 to 4 (of which I spend 2 in transit).

Basically in terms of airliners there are 2 options: Egypt Air and KLM/Air France (or is it Air France/KLM?). Although KLM and Air France are really 2 separate airliners. They really have nothing in common. So I have 3 options then.

Egypt Air is, just like KLM, offering direct flights, Air France offers a flight with a transfer in Paris.

At the time I started my job in Cairo I chose KLM over the others because they had red eyes (night flights) which would leave on Sunday night 21:00 from Amsterdam, which would allow me to spend the whole day with the family. And I would arrive at 08:00 in the morning in Amsterdam again so I
could spend the whole Friday with the family as well. 3 days with wife and sons.

But ever since the revolution in Egypt on January 25th, there is a curfew which to me means that the red-eyes are no longer an option. Understandably when you're not allowed to be outside, KLM doesn't fly at those times. So the flights moved from 9 PM on Sunday to 8 AM the next morning and from 4 AM Friday to 3 PM Friday. This therefore means that the Friday I could spend with my family is now spend in transit and I either have to sacrifice another vacation day to be the whole of Sunday with the family and fly on Monday or I sacrifice a day with the family and fly back on Sunday morning.

Alternatives are Air France, which has a better flight on Friday, they leave in the morning meaning that I get to my home in Holland Friday late afternoon, but they also fly on Monday morning, so I still loose that vacation day. Until now that Monday hasn't really been a big problem due to the many public and bank holidays in Egypt in the first half of the year and those are pretty much always around the weekend. At least this year, but from now on, that is no longer the case.
Egypt air has the better flights as they fly Friday during the day and I would arrive at my home around 4 PM and fly back to Cairo on the Sunday around 4 PM. Not as perfect as KLM's flights used to be, but not too bad either. Down side, the Egypt Air flights don't add to my KLM status since Egypt Air is Star Alliance and not Sky Team which is the alliance KLM belongs to.

Anyhow, apart from the flights I still prefer KLM over both Egypt Air and Air France as well. In general I think that the cabin crew of KLM is very friendly and not that formal. Always greeted by a smile and a friendly face, something that doesn't come natural with the Air France flight attendants. The Egypt Air crew is very Egyptian. Which is not a bad thing at all. They're very helpful, as pretty much every Egyptian I've met so far. But they're also very business, or let me put it this way. They won't stop for a second to do a little chitchat. I've flown a couple of times with Egypt Air and I've never seen them display a friendly interest in the people they're serving during the flight. Same goes for Air France by the way, all business.
But more importantly for a 4-5 hour flight is the inflight entertainment system, which lacks on the flight to Amsterdam in Egypt Air flights. At least in economy. And recently the same goes for the KLM flights as well. So I thank Steve and Jeff for the iPod and the Kindle to get me through these hours.
There's a good thing about the Air France flights, although you're longer in transit, you're also flying double the flights that add to your status. KLM is a direct flight, so you're adding two flights to your total, Air France is thourgh Paris, with a real transfer, thus you're adding 4 flights. And better status means better chance to get upgraded to business when relevant.

I've become quite a routine traveler, at least on the flights between Amsterdam and Cairo. I'm lucky to have KLM's gold status so I get to hang out in the KLM Crown Lounge and the Air France business lounge when flying either one of them. And I get priority boarding and priority this and that.
But on top of that, I applied for Privium, a service at Amsterdam Schiphol airport (and supposedly also at New York airports), which gets me through immigration by iris-scan. No long lines with people from all over the world, some with questionable visa, some with other challenges. This is a real time saver. Especially coming back to Holland because I get to the train pretty fast and therefore I'm home as soon as possible. Same goes for the chip-card with the Dutch public transportation system. No more tickets to be bought, with long lines in front of the ticket machines.

Well I now realize that this might be a boring post, but thanks for reading until here any way. Highly appreciated. Next time I'll try to make it more interesting.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why you want to suffer from food poisoning in Egypt

Okay, first of all, you shouldn't want to have food poisoning at all, not even in Egypt, but if you are ever going to suffer from food poisoning, it's best to suffer from it in Egypt. And I'm talking from experience... I think.

Last week I got hit by "Nuerburg's disease", I got the racing shitters. When there's something I really don't like in sickness it's the unconventional way your food tends to leave your body. I hate having to puke all the time, but having the shitters I think is even worse (of course, both at the same time is even more horrible). I can handle pain, well Ibuprofen can.

But let me get back on track.

So I got a serious case of diarrhea last week and I think it was due to food poisoning. My guess I had a salad or something that wasn't cleaned with clean water or not clean at all. Something like that. It started on Tuesday and it took me until yesterday to consider myself cured. Imodium was what saved me in the end.

So what does this have to do with Egypt? Simple, I have never, seriously, experienced such soft toilet paper. And I am not kidding here. Especially the toilet paper from Fine is extremely soft. It's as if you're wiping yourself with a fresh cloth of the most exquisite cotton. I kid you not.
You have to look for it though because even Fine has some less soft toilet paper in the shops. And anybody who's had the dubious pleasure of suffering from "Nuerburg's disease" can attest that one of the worst parts is the soreness resulting from all the wiping. Even baby sudocreme doesn't handle that.

Once I was on a scuba trip with a couple of guys and one of them actually was working for Fine, Aly. He explained about the whole deal behind toilet paper and the research and all. And I was kind of not taking it too serious. Who would? But now I am very thankful of Aly's work or I believe it was his colleagues work at Fine for their great job.

I've had the shitters in other countries (Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, USA, UK, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Brasil, Mexico) and always the toilet paper was what made me hate most about the whole thing. The soreness after wiping. But this honestly was not the case last couple of days.

Now I'm all done with the diarrhea and apart from a funny feeling in my bowels it's all over now. All but the toilet paper. I still have some and relish it. I'm not keeping it for the next food poisoning, I'm just going to make sure I buy the right paper next time I'm running out of it.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When you can't take healthcare for granted

It's been a while since I posted a blog, but that doesn't mean there was nothing to tell, I was just to swamped with a lot of other things.

As you might know I'm from the Netherlands, a tiny and overcrowded country in Europe. Our system is one of "the strongest shoulders should carry the most weight" which in itself is a nice system but it has its drawbacks. I think that our healthcare system is pretty good, albeit not perfect, but to be honest I wouldn't know where its real flaws are and what to do about it. President Obama has used our system as a reference for how he wanted to reform their system, which at the least means that somebody else but me likes it.
Anyway, in Holland you call a doctor when you think you need one. When you're seriously sick you call an ambulance which has professional and skilled personel on board which will take you to a good hospital that will take good care of you. You're released from the hospital when the doctor thinks you're cured and until then you're in good care enjoying 3 healthy meals a day and your major concern is whether or not you should subscribe for the duration of your sray to the TV service. Because you're insurrance doesn't cover it. Everything else is covered, no worries about illnesses or whatsoever. You spend more than half your life in hospitals? Don't worry, you're insurred. No insurrance company can refuse to take you as a client.
When you have children, they're covered free of any charge until they're 18 years old.

There's a small catch but I won't get into that, as it doesn't matter for this post.

Now we go south about 3,000 km and think about the same. Mind that in the Netherlands everybody is covered and this is handled by having the more wealthy people paying more taxes than the less fortunate and the unemployed etc get a healthcare tax refund.

It's not that 'it goes without saying' here in Egypt. Healthcare is not a commodity to everybody. Medical insurance is part of your package when you join a company. Ambulances are always stuck in traffic, but I have been told that the ambulance is merely a micro-bus in different colors and its less crowded. When you follow my tweets ( you know that occasionally I get worked up on all these drivers in Cairo that don't move out of an ambilance's way to let it pass. I sometimes feel that worst case scenario in a Cairo traffic accident is that you survive it and need to be hospitalized.

So how am I getting at this point, well the other day somebody, John Doe, told me that his sister was very ill and he had to drive her all over town (and believe me, Cairo is a big town) to various hospitals and doctors to have her examined. This was after a pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage. The pregnancy already was very hard and complicated and she had already spend quite a bit of time in hospitals. After the miscarriage it became worse and a few time John Doe had told me that his sister had been in the hospital for a couple of days. It was really bad and no doctor was able to diagnose and treat her. After about a week they finally found a doctor that recognized her illness and she was to be operated on a very short term because her life was in the balance.
And this is where you're shocked that there was hesitation, but there was. And it was all about not being able to pay for the treatment. No there is no insurance appearantly for this lady to rely on and get the proper treatment. Her husband already spend all their savings to get her examined and diagnosed, and now she had to rely on her brothers to get the money for an operation. Pieces of properties needed to be sold, loans had to be taken and salaries in advance had to be asked for.
Recently I learned that her current condition is far from good. She's got an infection now and needs medical attention again. A distant uncle has sold one of their lifestock and they're now bargaining with the hospital to get a better deal on the operation because they can't afford it at the current price.
And the real issue here is that this lady is not a rare exception as she would be in the Netherlands, but for millions of Egyptians this is their life. And I would say that if not for anything else, the changes that are now taking place in Egypt although as a foreigner I don't see that much except for a lack of police in the streets, should be to address this. I think that Egyptian government, which ever it is and however it gotten into that position, should use the many resources of this country to help the less fortunate in improving their life, up to a level where you can take healthcare for granted.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Democracy is just a word... Why Egypt should have a pharaoh again

[Update: corrected the misspelling of pharao into pharaoh]

(disclaimer: read this post at your own leisure and don't forget to go to Wikipedia or buy a book or go to school to gain the proper details of what I'm about to convey)

I guess the title of this post is not the most politically correct, but than again what is these days?

Anyhow, to start of; Democracy really is just a word. It more or less means that a country is ruled by the people. Fortunately, those that invented 'democracy' where smart enough to realize that most people are not smart enough to rule a country. Therefore, democracies are ruled by a representation of the people that are being ruled. In the end, the majority (about 100%) of the people are ruled by a minority. Looks familiar? Well it should because this is pretty much everywhere. Every community that has some governance this is the case. In a democracy, the minority that is ruling is considered by the majority to be a proper representation and the remaining people accept this and agree to follow suite with the majority.

Kinda boring, I know. The issue is that there are many models for democracies and all have their benefits and drawbacks. I tend to think that the United States of America is a democracy (although one might also consider it a special kind of dictatorship). I also tend to think that the Netherlands are a democracy. Belgium is definitely a democracy, although it also shows that a democracy has its flaws. The USA is a republic (they have a president) and the Netherlands are a monarchy (they have a queen). Where the president of the USA has real power, absolute power one might think (hence the 'special kind of dictatorship) because the president can veto pretty much every new law that the people by means of the Senate and the Congress come up with. But when the president does this too often, there won't be a re-election. In effect, the president of the USA is sort of an elected dictator. The Dutch queen has no real power, no direct influence on governing the country. The queen merely ensures that the government is handling matters according to the law as it is written. She in fact is not allowed to even hint about her political interests. Everything she says and does in public is reviewed by the Dutch prime minister because the prime minister is responsible for what she says and does in public. One could say that she's the only person in the Netherlands that will be bleeped on TV when she uses bad language (she's allowed to talk about sex using the raunchiest terminology, but she's not allowed to say what she thinks about the right to vote for women).

So where is all this coming from? Well, the Egyptians are longing for a democracy. They want Egypt to be a democracy. The same tune is now played in pretty much the whole of the Arab world. A lot of blood is spilled because of this longing and a lot of people are teaming up to realize this wish. It's like asking for a drink in a cafe. Here's the analogy: Like I said, democracy is just a word, it comes in many flavors, many models. All of them have their goods and their wrongs. It also largely depends on the culture of the people in the democracy to determine what kind of democracy is best suitable. In the USA the culture is more or less (yeah, flame me American for getting it all wrong) to choose your strong leader and then follow that leader. But the leader can only be a guide because Americans still want to be able to make their own decisions.
The Dutch culture is one of consensus. Every decision is one that is considered by all to be the right decision. Some like it more than others, but everybody agrees it's the right decision. Rules for everything for everybody agreed on by all.
I think that the Egyptians need to figure out what kind of democracy they want. Being aware that I know far too little about the Egyptian state and government, I would actually think that they had a democracy that was poorly implemented and really sucky executed. Although, in the end the majority did get it their way. Some 'strong' language was required though.

Hmmm, where is all this leading. That pharaoh is still in the title. Ah yes, here it comes; All of you, raise your hand when you know where on earth the Netherlands are. And no, it is not the capital of Denmark, nor a German province although in more than one occasion the Netherlands were part of a German reich. The Netherlands are actually a rather small country, one of the most dense populated countries in the world actually. And although the people are among the tallest in the world, if not the tallest and one of our politicians has a hair-do that can compete with Don King. I would say, Don King's hair-do was better groomed. I'm balding so I know nothing about hair-do's.
The Netherlands are considered a small and more importantly a cute country. The Dutch queen is a major reason why the rest of the world considers the Netherlands to be a cute country. Truth is that without the queen, it wouldn't even be half as cute. Being cute gives the Netherlands a massive advantage in international dealings. It's always underestimated and therefore always has the element of surprise at its side (read the Sun Tzu - Art of War on the importance of the element of surprise in any encounter between two parties). When Holland would not have a queen, it would be one of those small republics. Now it is that cute little country with a queen.
Egypt should have a pharaoh for the same reasons. I think it would be awesome for all Egyptians to have a pharaoh again. A head of state that is only there to ensure that the government is playing by the book, but he or she would be a pharaoh. Egypt would be that country with a king or queen, but not just any king or queen but a pharaoh. One that starts building pyramids in times where there is a lot of unemployment and it would mean people get a decent job. One that reminds all Egyptians and the rest of the world on a daily basis of the grand era of yesteryear and the fact that these times are back.
Egypt would be a country with a continuing history instead of a history that ended centuries ago. It would not be that country with a desert without too much oil and too many tourist corrupting the nations values and morals. It would be that country that has a pharaoh. Maybe one that has a drink with the Dutch queen on pharaoh day. I recommend April 30th as this is a huge success in the Netherlands.

Oh, there is another reason why the queen is such a smart move of the Dutch, she's in office since a long time (1980) and because she has no real power, she can't screw up. At least not big time, but she has seen a lot of the world, she has met many, many, many people. Different people from different countries, cultures, religions, etc. She's seen it all, and therefore she's extremely well equipped to support the Netherlands in forming a government every election again.
In a democracy, in the end, it is the bureaucracy that rules. It's the people in the administration, the clerks that are behind their desk government after government that have the real power. They know the processes and procedures. They know when to stall and how to stall and they know when to expedite and how to expedite. They also know because of their longtime experience what makes sense and what not, what works and what not. The queen is the same in the Netherlands when it comes to forming a new government after the majority of the people has decided what minority can rule them.

My apologies for the length of this post, and although I might have taken the topic here and there a bit light or loose on the details, it never has been my objective to offend anybody. And I really, really hope that the people in Egypt as well as those in the other countries that are now subject to protest marches and stand-offs with the current government understand that democracy is just a word. Like going into that cafe and ask for a drink, you might not get what you like. And even though you spend 30 years in the dessert without a drink, you still shouldn't drink water from the Red Sea.


Friday, February 18, 2011

One week after Mubarak's resignation


Since last Tuesday I'm back in Cairo after being gone for about 17 days. A lot has happened ever since, and I'm not talking about Mubarak leaving and all.
No, with the resignation of Mubarak and therefore the collective feeling of the Egyptians at least here in Cairo that a new era has started, the buzz in Cairo has gone. In case you follow me on Twitter (ThreeAxis) you know what I am talking about.

Like I said, I came back last Tuesday and while driving back to my apartment in Cairo (a 30 minute drive) I realized the following: There was no honking, or almost no honking. The traffic wasn't total chaos, people stayed in their lanes and gave way to each other. There was no swerving left and right to get around garbage on the streets. It almost felt as Ramadan (see my earlier post on Ramadan where I explained about the changes in traffic during Ramadan). Granted, Tuesday was a public holiday, the birth of the Prophet is celebrated on February 15th. And as things are, public holidays mean civilized traffic.

So what else had changed in these 17 odd days? Well, for one, most people are relieved. They're happy, but it feels more that they're relieved. Not so much that Mubarak is gone, or that a new era has started, but they seem to be relieved that the chaos of the stand-off between pro- and anti-Mubarakians is over. Curfew has been set to 00:00 - 06:00. The looting and related violence has more or less ended. There is structure again, and some sort of sense of security has returned. Military is to credit for this.
Now, do I sense the same? I guess so. The military is not that intimidating and definitely not that ubiquitous as one would think, but they are well respected and wherever you see them, they're there with tanks and big guns. And I have to say, whereas the policemen in the street quite often make you think that they've just left high school and barely had training, the military seems to be well prepared and well trained. Then again, Egypt has one of the largest armies in the world. The 5th largest army I've been told. So I guess that this is not to surprising.

Since Tuesday I'm back in town and currently my feeling about Cairo is that it is not the same as before. The jury is still out whether I like the new Cairo better than the old Cairo. Or more importantly whether I like the new chaos better than the old chaos. The old chaos was chaos in everyday life. Chaos as part of a culture, a tradition, something that the Caironians seemed to be proud of ("What do you think of traffic? You think you can drive in Cairo?"). The new chaos is chaos in terms of reinventing Egypt. A new country is born and it doesn't know yet how this should work. Chaos caused by a lack of future perspective.

For now, nobody knows what Egypt will be. Not in 5 years, not in 5 months, not in 5 weeks or days. But I have to give the Egyptians credit. Credit for still being those nice persons they were one month ago. Credit for being proud of Egypt and being Egyptian because to them it means that people like me (foreigners) enjoy their stay in their beloved country. Credit for the fact that there is hardly any FUD (Fear for the Unknown Danger) and instead focus on opportunities.

I don't want to make my posts too long, so I stick with this for now. But there're more ideas, thoughts, feelings and experiences related to Egypt, Cairo and the recent events that I want to put on the web (who puts anything on paper these days?). So expect more to come... soon(er than you're recently used to from me).


Monday, January 31, 2011

What to do in Cairo when the city is not even a shadow of itself

Before anything else, but I really got upset after I heard that some lunatics had wrecked havoc in the National Museum in Cairo. I don't want to be judgmental or anything. But anybody that destroys ancient artifacts of literally thousands of years old, of another era, is not to be considered to have a working brain.


I'm still in Holland, (un)fortunately. Well actually I am quite happy considering what is going on in Cairo, but knowing that my friends and colleagues are still in Cairo where the whole situation has gotten worse ever since I left. An trust me, there's nothing in me that actually thinks that me not being there has got anything to do with the worsening of the situation over there.

As I explained in my previous post on the topic (What to do in Cairo when the city is in lock-down) last week it wasn't that bad. Of course when you would go to the squares where the protests were going on, you could be or would be in a lot of trouble. To say the least, but in the rest of the city things were actually very quiet. Life went on as usual and people were talking about the protests and the various footbal (soccer) matches.
I flew back to Holland last Friday as I do every other weekend and things were fairly stable at the time. Planes were on time and the roads to the airport were as always, truck infested. All driving way too fast, for way too long. There're actually two things in Cairo I fear; Trucks and Micro buses.
Actually I was planing on flying back yesterday, Sunday, night and my worry was actually how to contact my driver to pick me up and how that would work with the curfew and all (nobody was allowed to be outside after 4 PM (16:00) until 8 AM (08:00). Which is a challenge when your flight arrives at 2:30 AM (02:30). I was really thinking about flying back and get back into the office, as usual, on Monday. A voicemail from KLM solved this problem, due to the curfew all flights were rescheduled to arrive during the day.
Saturday I got a call from a friend of mine in Cairo. He's also Dutch. Both he and my boss had been trying to catch me all day to tell me that I should stay in Holland for the time being. The office would be closed for the next few days and our senior management was going to decide whether it would be better to evacuate the expats or if things would calm down and we would start moving again.

Meanwhile the images on TV turned out to be more and more troublesome. The violence increased and with that the amounts of blood on the square floors. Good for me, and all of those that read my previous post, I knew better. Ironically, the army had taken over from the police to much relief of the protesters, if you could trust the reporters on their words. The pictures on TV show friendly soldiers sharing their cup-a-soup (Egypt style) with the rest of the people and all seems honky-dory and a-okay. 'Seems' being the key here, but more on that in a next post.

I called my buddy in Cairo to find out when he was planning on coming back (coming Wednesday as it turned out) and how things were progressing or digressing, depending on your vantage point. He told me that the situation had turned rather grim. Gunshots had replaced the typical Cairo'nian car-horns, although in the distance, and looters were all over the place. Security guards from all the apartment buildings had united and formed small private armies to keep the looters away.
Things turned out to be not so 'localized to some odd 5 squares' anymore. The effect of the protests and marches had found Maadi, the area I live in, and had turned the area into a desolate ghost town... at least by night.
So I guess I'm rather happy to be back in Holland and told to stay here for now. Meanwhile, my thoughts are with the friends and colleagues I have in Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria. Those that are not yet evacuated or those that are in their motherland. The internet is still shutdown and mobile communications are still a pain. It's improving, but without internet, there's a lot of silence in the world.


Friday, January 28, 2011

What to do in Cairo when the city is in lock down...

All, just wanted to let you know that Cairo is at least for me still relatively safe. I actually literally need to watch TV in order to know that it's a mess in some locations.Cairo is a rather big city and the uproar is pretty much concentrated at locations that I hardly ever visit and now actually won't go.

Please know that on TV they only show the bad stuff, the molestations and all, it's not really fun to watch on TV that roads are wide open and finally I can go from my home to the office in under 30 minutes. That the beggars are not in the streets because the cars can now drive by with speed so nobody will open the window and give some money.

Please understand that I'm not trying to say that nothing is happening, but it's very much concentrated at certain locations. Meanwhile communications in Cairo suck. Twitter, Facebook, SMS and mobile calls are pretty much blocked all together.

Btw, at the moment I'm in the Netherlands and consider it a challenge to get back to Cairo and go to work on Monday. If nothing else, I want to experience going to the office in under 30 minutes again.

I'll post more on the topic later, I understand the title of the post requires this.