Friday, June 29, 2007

About Apartments

Okay, so people travelling to Cairo have apparently stumbled on my blog and are asking questions about the housing situation here and where I'm living specifically.

Well, I'm living in Agouza, which is sort of but not really part of the larger Mohandessin, a pretty Westernized (but still, very Egyptian) section of Cairo on the west bank. Technically, I live in Giza, not Cairo. I'm just east of Mohandessin proper (which starts after Gamaat al Dawal al'Arabia) and just north of Doqqi.

As far as the housing situation: what I would say is that it varies. A lot.

First of all, females should have an easier time finding housing; I'd say around 2/3rds of the ads I see for rooms specify "female only" (which is a concern in Egypt, where the locals can get very suspicious of co-ed housing).

Secondly, there is no one price that you should expect to pay. If you want a really nice place, you can pay all the way up to Western prices, easy. I've seen plenty of apartments advertised in Cairo for $500. I myself would steer away from apartments listed in dollars (or, heaven forbid, pounds sterling). You want apartments listed in Egyptian pounds, because $500 "looks" reasonable until you translate it into Egyptian Pounds (Abbreviated £E, "Pounds Egyptian", or, more commonly LE) and it becomes 2850LE. A reasonable range for accommodation--what you're likely to see for a shared room in a flat--is between 1000 and 1500LE. In general, it depends a lot on the number of roommates; 3 and 4 bedrooms are generally cheaper per person than 2 bedroom apartments. I'm currently staying in a 2 bedroom, 25000LE flat and paying a little over half because I get the larger room with the AC. :-) Also, my flatmate's Egyptian and has a family to support, so I don't mind paying a little extra. The summer is the most expensive time to find a flat. If you get a flat before the summer, be careful because the allure of kicking you out and renting your flat out to one of the "Arabs" from the Gulf for several thousands LE may prove to great to resist (the apartments in my neighborhood jumped up to as much as 8000-12000LE per month!). This is what happened to me, and why I was kicked out of my apartment (although I did know it in advance). If you can get a long term lease, though, these prices are generally locked in so don't do what I did and get a lease in the summer -- wait until fall when the market cools down. It's also a waiting game. I keep shaking my head at the announcements I'm seeing now, with some rooms available for under 1000LE. If only I had waited! But I'm glad I found this apt, actually. It's really quite lovely and the views are fantastic (I'll take pictures tomorrow, I swear).

In general, though, most rooms that I have seen for cheap prices reflect that price. I have no issue with slumming a bit, but I'm pretty adamant that my bed look like something I would actually want to lie on, and for my job the lack of a phone line (for DSL) is pretty much a deal breaker, so I was willing to pay a bit more for an apartment that had what I needed (please, those of you in Cairo reading this blog, do not post comments about the lovely room you're living in in Zamelek that is costing you only 750LE. I don't want to hear it).

Also, you'll want a laundry machine in your apartment. I know, this sounds like an unnecessary luxury. I myself would glad to go without it, were it not for this: there are no laundromats in Cairo. None. There are plenty of "cleaners", but unless you relish the thought of paying 1LE for every single sock and piece of underwear you want clean, go for the washing machine option. Besides, operating a washing machine in a developing country is fun and exciting (some people have gotten electrocuted, apparently. So far I have experienced one or two mild shocks but clearly I'm not dead. From now on, I'm turning the machine off during loading and unloading).

Finally, apparently you want to have as much in writing as possible. I've met quite a few people who've had a hard time getting their deposit back from the landlords when they finally leave. The landlords here (three elderly brothers, who look so alike they could almost be twins) seem really nice, and one of them is fluent in Italian so if necessary I suppose I could always chew him out with some choice Italian phrases. :-)

Hope this helps prospective travelers to Egypt.

BTW: If you're thinking of going to Alexandria, apparently the rent there is even cheaper, but NOT in the summer, when every inch of real estate is snapped up by people looking for anywhere even remotely cooler than Cairo. Alexandria is really beautiful but don't be fooled by its African location. It can be quite chilly in winter -- in fact, I was warmer in Naples than I was in Alexandria at the same time of year. I almost didn't bring my coat (I only took it because I was traveling via London) but I'm glad I did.

Back from Paris (or, hope you've got bandwidth)

Okay, so I have been pretty lousy about updates. I'll see what I can do, but for now a brief summary of my trip in France with Marylyle, mostly in pictures.

As I mentioned in my last ancient post, I went to a really cool North African market. This is what it looked like:
That afternoon I snapped a pretty cool picture of the Sacre Coeur with a violinist in the foreground:

Being Paris, the Eiffel Tower was unavoidable:
For those of you who have never met her, that's Marylyle on the right. Cutie, huh?
That evening we went to to the Paris mosque, which was fun. Around the corner is an overpriced tea room where I took a picture of this:
(The green blob in the foreground is Turkish Delight)
The next two days were museums; I took loads of pictures but most of them are of things you could probably google or something.
We left for Parc Astrix, pretty much the only thing we had actually planned for the whole trip.
Parc Asterix is a standard amusement park with loads of rollercoasters all based around the theme of this famous French cartoon character:
He's bestest buddies with Oberlix, here seen in the background:
That's Asterix in the front. He's pointing to his ears because he "can't hear" the little children screaming "Astérix! Astérix" at the top of their lungs.

Oberlix is very large. As proof, here are pictures of Marylyle and I trying out his "shoes":

We stayed at a hotel inside the park, which was very cool (and surrounded by trees), but unfortunately because the park was closed the next day we were forced to get a taxi to the nearest train station. The taxi driver suggest we skip the west coast (which we had been planning on) because of the weather. He suggested Perpignon instead. All the trains were sold out, which meant instead we went to Pau.
No great loss, though. Here is what the landscape around Pau looks like (you reach this viewpoint by taking a free funicular up from the station):
And this is what one of the town squares looks like:
Pau was my probably one of my favorite places during the trip to France. It was also the source of our best food on the whole trip: Brasserie Berry's. I'm sorry I never took pictures of the food there, it was really really good. We went there twice: the first time Marylyle had a green salad and white beans, and was going to order another vegetable until I encouraged/forced her to try a half-portion of the steak tartare, which turned out to be enormous (larger than most restaurants' full portion size) but unbelievable tasty. I think I might have eaten most of it accidentally. I ordered an appetizer of artichoke hearts followed by Tuna Basque-style (which apparently means cooked with loads of tomatoes and onions). There were so many items on the menu I was tempted to go there for every meal but we only managed a second visit, where to make up for loss time I ordered 3 half portions, which was something of a mistake since like the tartare they were huge: herrings (delicious and about the size of a "full" serving anywhere else); brains (you know me -- I have to try weird things) which tasted vaguely like butter and were overwhelmingly rich, this time in a portion easily twice what you'd get in a normal portion anywhere else (maybe the "half" meant "half of a brain"?), and a perfectly good (I think, I was too full to fully enjoy it) chateaubriand steak. Marylyle was the sensible one and ordered magret de canard, which was a specialty of the region and absolutely unbelievably delicious.
One of the days in Pau we took a day trip to a large cave (which included a pretty dorky underground boat ride and an absolutely wickedly awesome underground train ride) followed by a visit to Lourdes, which is unbelievably touristy. Still it's a nice looking town:
Here's a view from the main church, looking down at all the tourists below:
The water of Lourdes is thought to have magic healing properties, but I wouldn't drink it.
The next day we headed to Perpignan finally, spending a day there. There's some pretty cool architecture in Perpignan and the city has a nice feel to it, although it's a bit touristy and also overrun by vagabonds (a trend I also noticed in Montpellier).
From Perpignan, we headed to the charming beach town of Collioure. Here are two lovely panoramas to show how pretty it was:
We wanted to go back up to the Loire afterwards, but due to the way that the TGV system works, it would have taken all day and costed a fortune, so instead we went east to Montpellier. Montpellier is overwhelmingly a student town, I can only imagine how it could have looked if we were there during school season. As it was, it was pretty crowded and the hotels were all nearly booked up for the Fete de la Musique the next day. We spent most of the time in Montpellier just wandering around, which is apparently what you do in Montpellier. The evening of the festival we went out looking for music, which initially was a bit difficult (in a moment of brilliance I neglected to bring with my either a map or the schedule of performances). It turned out eventually that this was not a problem: the music would find you. Bands were playing right out on the street:
This was the weirdest perfomance, a couple of guys playing ear-shattering electronic "music" on a combination of modded kid's keyboards and a Speak & Spell:

...back to Paris. Last three days before we had to head home. We spent the first day wandering around the Isles and the Marais. The next day was my birthday (!) so we spent the day just having fun and wandering around the fun bits of Paris. We'd planned on getting falafel for lunch, forgetting that it was Saturday and of course all the good shops along Rue de Rosiers (all Jewish) would be closed. We ended up eating a place that serves the same kind of food (with less scruples, I guess) and absolutely stuffed our faces. We went down to the Latin Quarter and stumbled onto a whole slew of comic books stores and spent a long time browsing through them. That evening we went to a fairly swanky restaurant where I had grilled tuna with sugar snap peas. Marylyle had magret de canard tartare -- that is, raw ground up duck breast. I'd always heard that you should never eat raw chicken, but I guess duck is okay because both of us are alive and in good health. It was a kinda strange tasting, though--slightly bitter and fatty.

Guess who we ran into in Paris?
Of course Marylyle got into a rant about the fact that James Monroe was a diplomat in France longer than Jefferson was. Whatever. Who's on the nickel? Who?

There aren't that many interesting pictures from the second time in Paris. One evening we decided to take loads of funny pictures of each other.

I was able to get a lot of cool pictures of Marylyle, here's my favorite (although it's really blurry):
I'm not quite as good at looking cool in front of the camera:

That's the trip! Stay tuned to see if I ever post here again. :-)

Monday, June 11, 2007

I'm in Paris or something.

Oh, and I did move into my apartment last Sunday, too. It's a lovely apartment and I'm going to be happy there, I'm sure.

Paris is nice but very cold and I haven't yet had a wonderful French meal yet, although I have had some very, very passable baguette aux fromageseses. The wonderful meal I did have was at a North African joint, and it was really, really wonderful. It's called Nedjmet el Bahri and it serves up tasty, tasty Halal meals (Ah! Halal meat, how I missed you for, like, 2 days). Marylyle had Tagine aux Olives, a quarter chicken stewed with small green pitted olives and the wayward carrot. I had something I can't remember the name of -- it's some kind of stew like thing that included several garlicky/oniony meatballs, a small hunk of lamb meat, and a small organ of some kind. It was served with frites right there in the bowl soaking up the broth. All washed down with limonade (kinda like 7up) from, I think, Algeria.

Of course the city itself is beautiful. Montmartre is probably my favorite part of Paris so far, but I've yet to see much of it. I like that, on the day I visited at least, it was not nearly so touristy.

I've been taking photos and I'll try to have some up tomorrow. I'll be able to get online a lot easier now that I found out that McDos (That's McDonalds*, Micky Dees en Français) offers WiFi for free...

*It is my understanding that McDonalds at some point made an offer that if someone mentioned them in their blog, they would give that person $5. Ronald, if you're reading this, and if the offer is still valid, I want my money!

Sunday, June 3, 2007


Not much of an excuse for this long of a lag, I suppose. I mean, I have been busy, but not that busy.

In any case, I got my old laptop fixed, a new laptop arrived at about the same time, and I've been in relatively good health since then once I started drinking plenty of water and eating lots, which is harder than it sounds when it's hot--and it has been hot. So far the hottest temperature I've had to deal with is 41°C, which is around 105°F I think. However, Cairo can get as hot as 45°C (115°F). That should be interesting.

The main event has been that, for the past 3 days, I have been homeless. My flatmate and I had been looking for an apartment for around 2 weeks, but the apartments we found eventually fell through. So when the lease ended, we were both out of our apartments, temporarily without a place to stay.

So, I've been living in cheap hotels/hostels for the past 3 days. And even then, I've been shuttled from one place to another, so these past few days have very much been a case of constant transitioning. The old idea that you are trapped by your material possessions has never seemed truer, as I have been burdened with hauling my belongings back and forth as I've been moved from one place to another (fortunately a friend kindly allowed me to store a bulk of my belongings in their flat).

There have been a few occasions when, for whatever reason, I've been forced to spend a night or two in a hostel or hotel in the middle of long-term living in a location. Whenever I do this, it feels like I've hit the reset button. So when I woke up on Friday morning and stepped out of my hotel (I had woken up unnaturally early, around 6:30am, desperately craving water and having none) I felt like a tourist again, a stranger in Egypt. There was a moment or two when I even wondered if all the Arabic that I had learned had evaporated, as all the street signs in Arabic swam meaninglessly by in my groggy state. It was not until after I had gotten back from the cafe with my bottle of water and had a drink that I realized I had navigated the whole process (which included asking a man for directions and making the purchase of water) in Arabic. I found that somewhat reassuring.

In the stillness of an early morning Friday in Egypt (always the quietest time in the Muslim world), I was suddenly overcome with a tiny urge to pray. By the time I made it back to my hotel room, however, exhaustion took over and I fell back asleep.

So, much of Friday went by in a distracted, frustrated blur. The prospect of having no place to live is for me very draining of my energy, and when I finally came across an apartment that seemed to be a good match, I was elated but still very tired (if all goes well, I move in this afternoon). It was a bit more expensive than I'd hoped, but still pretty inexpensive.

Friday evening I was in a new hostel and stayed up late chatting poorly in Arabic with the workers in the hostel, and even sharing in their simple meal of tuna fish, bread, and tomatoes (I hope I partially returned the favor when I brought them some fresh apricots the next day). The next morning I woke up. Again, I was going to have to move, but fortunately they let me keep my bags there.

I met a nice man from Oregon named Shane who had just arrived in Cairo the day before and was about to set out on a package tour of Egypt that evening. I offered to show him around Islamic Cairo, and we had a great time -- going from Attaba east towards Al Azhar mosque, then cutting south towards Bab Zweila, going through the Tentmaker's Market and a weaving slowly through a vegetable, meat, and anything-else-you-can-imagine market down to a Koshari restaurant where we both had a bowl of the stuff, then curving down a bunch of old side streets until we came upon Midan Saida Zainab and saw the large and beautiful Saida Zainab mosque. All in all, a very nice day.

The whole time I was sharing my limited knowledge of the area and telling him about different things that we saw along the way. He suggested that I become a tour guide. I told him that I would probably enjoy the job, except that I wouldn't want to have to read all about the history of all the different buildings. I joked, "Some guy would ask me -- what's that mosque? And I'd reply 'I don't know, but I can tell you about what that guy over there is eating.'" Shane was great, but he and I are pretty different people. He'd cut up his Lonely Planet so he'd only bring along the relevant sections (a common technique for travelers to save space; I've never had the guts to do it) and failed to bring any material on the food in Egypt. If I had to take only one section from a guide, that is probably the part I would keep.

Arriving back at the hostel, I was taken to my new hotel, which was not quite as nice -- no wifi and very noisy (I heard every car passing through Midan Tahrir, probably the busiest square in Cairo), although the beds were comfortable and the bathroom was clean. I went to see a friend over in Zamelek and got back late, around 2am. Again, I woke up unnaturally early due to thirst, but this time I was so tired that I simply went to the bathroom and drank from the tap rather than going to buy a bottle. I was so thirsty that the water--which pretty much any Cairene will tell you is completely undrinkable due to its chlorinated taste (although it is perfectly safe to drink)--actually tasted sweet. I went back to sleep and slept till about noon.

Which brings us, more or less, to the present moment. I hope to move into my apartment tonight. When I do: full load of laundry, shower, television, nap; in that order.