Sunday, December 30, 2012

A greener Hong Kong

It had been several years since I had been in Hong Kong.  I had never been all that enamoured with Hong Kong.  To me, the city was nothing more than a temple to capitalism.  I found the constant consumerism to be suffocating and boring.  The repetition of a life dedicated to nothing more than purchasing to be mindless.

This trip was different.
I never expected this from Hong Kong.


The local building and construction society or association (I forget) had a large piece of land in the middle of Kowloon that had previously been used to train construction workers in the use of heavy equipment.  Over time, the land had become valuable as it had become surrounded by increasingly high end residential and commercial developments.
The response to such events that I would have expected would have been that the land would have been in some way developed for as much profit as possible.
Instead, this land was turned into their new headquarters that acted as a model of environmental design and green building.  It had been turned into a beautiful beacon of sustainable living that was intended to give the community and school children an example of what could be achieved with better planning.
It was a small step, but it was a step none the less.  Hong Kong had made a decision that had been motivated not by money or profit margins, but rather based on a concept aimed at promoting a better life for future generations.  This was something that I did NOT ever see happening!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Egypt?

Do I really like the place?

This was a question that I had been asking myself since my first week in the country.  What I knew was that I would be unlikely to ever return.  The country did not give me the joy and excitement that I had hoped for when I first arrived.
The whole country is in a state of almost permanent ruin.  It didn't matter where I went, there was always a prevailing feeling that better times were in the past, which is an astounding thought when you consider the troubles that have been experienced by this country.  Even the new buildings felt tired and slightly run down, as though neglect had managed to seep into their very foundations.  I had been particularly disturbed by my time in the Cairo Museum, where I was shocked to find priceless artefacts slowly falling apart in the display cases and cabinets that were meant to protect them.  Thousands of years in the tombs hadn't been enough to destroy them, but a few decades in these museums would likely see them gone forever.
This was just a part of what was a generally just a poor treatment of people on the whole by this country.  That is an understatement.  It was more than just poor treatment, it was a horrible treatment of people.  Tourists were merely walking sacks of money to be targeted.  Even the locals were subject to an aggressiveness rudeness by those working in the tourism industry.
I could understand the terrible infrastructure in the country either.

For a country so dependent on tourist dollars for survival, I would have assumed that it would have been protective of these dollars.  I would have assumed that it would have done everything necessary to ensure that the tourists were well catered for with adequate infrastructure to support their travels.

This was not the case.

Instead there was a distinct lack of simple transport options.  The accommodation on offer was usually overpriced and of poor quality.  The services being provided almost always second rate.
The entire pharonic link purported to exist between the people of Egypt and its past was also a lie.  This was an Arabic country and the continued insistence that they were the decendents of the Pharoahs was as frustrating as it was tiring.  Many of the ancient locations had been completely forgotten and covered in sand until they had been rediscovered by French and British archaeologists.  To claim that they were an integral part of the culture of the local people did not resonate with any truth.
What surprised and horrified me the most of all was the treatment that tourists were specifically subjected to.

As I have noted time and time again, Egypt is a country that is heavily dependent on tourism.  In fact, to say that it is "dependent" is completely inadequate in describing the complete reliance that the people and economy have on tourist dollars.  It was difficult to find any part of the country that wasn't in some way either directly or indirectly geared towards the servicing of tourist needs.
It was difficult to maintain much respect for a country where an old lady (a tourist) getting robbed elicited little surprise from the girl working at the hostel.  She seemed to be more annoyed that the lady hadn't heeded her advice to be careful than that the lady had been robbed at all.  When such events become common occurrences to the point of indifference, I hold grave concerns for its social structure.
Thankfully, there was one thing that I was able to consistently enjoy throughout my time in Egypt.  The elegantly simple pleasure of being able to sit down and quietly drink a cup of tea.

The less of Egypt I experienced and more of Arabia I found, the happier I seemed to be. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Food in Egypt

I expected more.  I expected much more.

My memories of the Middle East have always included particularly fond experiences of incredible meals with intense flavours and unique textures.  I had grown to love the food of this region and my tastes had become far more sophisticated as a result of my travels.  The old kebabs I used to savour in high school and which sustained me through my university days were no longer what I considered to be the height of Middle Eastern fare.

Egypt really offered only a shadow of these memories.  It was a dull image compared to the bright and vivid recollections in my mind.  It is definitely unique in its offerings, but it lacked character and quality in what I had come to love.

Almost everywhere I went, there seemed to be one food that just dominated the entire culinary landscape of Egypt.  That dish was kushori.  It was without a doubt the national dish of the country.  This was a dish of rice, macaroni, tomato sauce and fried onions that appears to be almost universally eaten throughout Egypt by every class of Egyptian.  There's nothing wrong with kushori.  I actually quite enjoyed the dish and found myself craving it for dinner most nights as the easiest available option.  However, it was distinctly utilitarian and tasted more Italian than Middle Eastern.  This was unsurprising considering the Italian influence that Egypt once had.
Much like many other experiences in Egypt, it was just not memorable.

Most of the other culinary experiences were the same, with no meals being able to recapture in me the joy I had once had.  I wondered whether it was because I had become so accustomed to foods of the region or whether it was the food itself.  Had I reached a point in my traveling where even one of the most basic and primal of physical experiences, that of taste, had become dulled?
It concerned me.

Instead, I found that it was often not the food or drink itself, but the events surrounding them that I found myself enjoying the most.  Sitting in an old Egyptian bar with other travelers drinking the insipid and tasteless Egyptian beer gave me no end of delight, but it was the noise and atmosphere of the place that I captivated me.  It was the feeling of being in a place and time that no longer fit in with the rest of the country.

Even my morning meals were not immune to this disease of apathy.  I no longer looked forward to the actual food itself, but instead found myself reveling in the wonderful drama of the routine itself.  It was like a perfect procession, with the careful and deliberate actions of the waiters, the settings on the table and the stark white or everything that made the entire event so memorable to me.
I began to find that I was actually seeking out the simple things, for the things that I found comfort in.  I was no longer reveling in my searching for the new and unknown.

My old favourites such as the Arabian pastries were soon providing me more joy than I could have imagined.  The baklava in Egypt was nothing compared to what was available in Turkey, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable.
I found myself returning time and time again to the same gelato store in the middle of Cairo with Emily.  The smooth and creamy dessert was uniquely Italian, yet it had a definite Egyptian twist in the flavours.  I was surprised that could be so happy with this lack of compulsion to explore.  I was content with the familiar.
It seemed to all go back to the kushori.

The dish that was eaten everywhere and by everyone for every meal.  Was my repetitive behaviour merely a reflection of the Egyptian experience that I was meant to have?  Was the lack of exploring a sign that I had actually embraced the nation more closely that I realised?
I cannot be overly critical of everything though.  It wasn't as though the food was bad.  The food was generally good, but it was just that it seemed overly simplistic and bland in comparison to what I wanted.  It was probably a failure of the realities to match my overly lofty expectations that had no doubt grown and expanded in the years since I had last been in the region.

For instance, there were still definite highlights (relatively speaking) to what I was able to eat, such as the poultry and the spinach soup, malokhia.
The soup was nourishing, full of the goodness of all things green.  I was also surprised by just how good a roasted bird the Egyptians can do.
I should probably stop complaining so much.  Expectations can be painful thing.  A burden that destroys the beauty of what is there through the comparison.

A revolutionary place

When I told people I was planning a trip to Egypt, I was usually confronted with looks of horror and disbelief.

I wasn't completely surprised by the reaction.  After all, Egypt had been a frequent topic on the nightly news, and not for the best reasons.

My usual response was to further their shock by telling them that not only was I going to Egypt, but I would also be going for a stroll to the very centre of the revolutionary violence in Tahir Square.

At this point, I was usually greeted with a roll of the eyes and a "whatever".

Most people didn't realise that I wasn't joking though.
Getting to Midan Tahir was far easier than I expected.  I was able to catch the Cairo metro which took me to directly to "Midan Tahir Station".  A very convenient thing to assist me with my all my rioting needs.
It was a relatively quiet day which disappointed me.  I had been hoping there would be a bit more in the way of disturbances.  There was plenty of evidence of the violence and upheaval that had occured, but on the whole it was relatively calm.
After walking through the middle of the square and waving to some of the locals in the tents, I decided that I had seen enough and that I needed a nice cup of tea.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Islamic Cairo

My time in Egypt has changed significantly since I arrived in Cairo.  It's been a positive change.

I correlate this with the move in focus away from Pharonic Egypt and towards Arabic Egypt.  The Egypt that is seen in all the tourist books is a manufactured product.  I could not mentally escape from the Egypt that is a staged creation and it dominated my entire perception of what this country was.  However, the Pharonic history may be a part of the land that is Egypt, but what I had been seeing was a faint echo of what was once there.  There was little evidence to me that Pharonic Egypt had anything to do with the modern political entity that is Egypt or the culture of the people other than as something to be appropriated and sold.  In fact, the more time I spent in Egypt, the more I realised that even the Egyptian people themselves had very little to do with the Pharonic history.  They had barely even known that many of the great monuments I had seen were there, having been covered by sand until they had been excavated by the English and French archaeologists.

The Arabic side of this country was different though.  This was true history of this country as it currently was.  It is the past of the people that is continuing to change and develop through to this day.  This side of Egypt represented the culture of the people and I quickly realised that this was what I had been seeking out in my travels.

Accompanied by my lovely American friend Emily, we started walking through the old part of Cairo, also known as "Islamic Cairo".

It didn't take us very long at all to find some towering heights from which to get some better views.  I tried to climb to the highest level of the tower, but my courage deserted my legs.  I was content with staying at the same level as Emily and taking a photo of her in her corresponding tower.
The buildings in this area were captivating.  They were all still working buildings, but that didn't mean that they weren't jewels from the past.
The intricate patterns and designs on almost every building was the highlight of the Islamic architecture I had seen on the trip.  Every details was a beautiful reminder to me of everything I loved about the Arabic world and the imagery it created.  There is a perfect symmetry to each piece of design.  They all sit together within something greater and yet everything is still so unique even when so crowded.
We continued walking through the streets of Islamic Cairo.  There was a dirtiness and grittiness to the place that added a realism to the surroundings.  Some may recoil at the filth, but once again I found it to be just another wonderful part of this place.
As Emily and continued walking, we encountered a particularly ornate building.  We were welcomed into the building by a friendly custodian who explained to us that we were actually looking at one of the major attractions of Islamic Cairo, the old Ottoman sabil.
The place was a clean water dispensary to the local people, providing a source of clean drinking water to the local community.  The building was decorated in lovely Ottoman designs and Turkish script.  This building made me think of what King Faisal said in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, that centuries ago the city of Cordoba had miles of public housing when London was only a village.  The sibal was like Cordoba for Faisal.  It was a beacon of just how progressive the Islamic world had been so many centuries ago in comparison to their Western counterparts.

Standing inside the cistern of the sibal itself I closed my eyes and listened to Emily singing.  Her voice echoed softly inside the amazing acoustics of the empty space.  There was a soft glow of light that bounced off the walls.  It was hard to believe that this had been here for so long.
We left the sabil and continued our walk.

The number of foreigners began to grow and it was clear that we were now in the truly touristy part of Islamic Cairo.  We had in fact reached the "famous" market known as Khan Al Khalili.
This place was awful.

The touts were in full force and the relatively low number of tourists meant that we were receiving the full attention of touts.  Poor blonde Emily from the American mid-west was receiving some particularly intense attention and I was particularly shocked when a child that looked about 12 ran up to her and started screaming truly filthy expletives at her.  Just lovely.
It seemed to be the nature of Egypt that even the beautiful things were more often than not ruined by the horrific.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Imposingly beautiful

The Cairo skyline is as dominated as it is shadowed by the Citadel.  From most parts of the city, it seems to be visible.  It locates you wherever you are and it is a constant reminder of the militaristic past of this country.

Together with a few people I met at the hostel, we made the journey to the top of the hill.  We flagged the first taxi we could find and told the driver we wanted to go to the Citadel.  The driver said they didn't know where that was.  I found this difficult to believe considering I could see it out the window of the taxi.  We pointed to the Citadel and the driver grunted and began driving in its general direction.

The closer we were to the Citadel, the more I was impressed by its enormity.  It wasn't just a single building, but rather a complex of buildings, centred by the imposing Mohammed Ali Mosque.
The Mohammed Ali Mosque was the first building we went into.  Its size and position drew us towards it (like a gravitational pull really).  It was one of the biggest mosques I had ever seen.
It wasn't particularly beautiful in terms of its decorations.  In fact, it felt relatively utilitarian compared to some of the mosques I had seen over the years.
Yet the sheer size of the place made it impressive.  It was the biggest mosque I had been to for several years.  I craned my neck to look at the detailing on the roof of the dome and for a moment I felt like I was back in the Blue Mosque in Turkey.
We left the mosque and went next door the less famous Al Nasir Muhammad Mosque.
At one point, this mosque had been used as a stable.

It had been constructed in the old Mamaluk style and I couldn't stop looking at the beautiful arches and pillars.
Standing in this mosque I found myself thinking of the old stables in Akko.

My love of this region clearly hadn't been eroded by my poor Egyptian experiences.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Very old

After visiting the pyramids at Giza, we decided to go and visit more pyramids.
It seemed like a reasonable thing to do.  It didn't seem possible, but we were seeking out some pyramids that were even older than what we had just seen.

The driver was in a foul mood in the car.  The inability of the tour company to squeeze any extra money out of me had clearly led to them being yelled at.  I had turned out to be a very poor investment for them.  I didn't care though.  If anything, I was happy to have thwarted their thieving ways, even if only briefly.

We reached the step pyramid at Saqqara after about an hour of driving.  Sitting in the car, the driver looked at my with contempt through the rear view mirror and asked me whether I had a guidebook.  I nodded with a smirk.

Once we got to our destination, we went inside into a good museum that was well presented and full of immaculately preserved items.  I was even surprised to find the "oldest" mummy that had ever been uncovered was in this museum.  For such a unique and precious artifact, the surroundings were simple and restrained.  This artifact was something that I would have expected would have received more acclaim and attention, it should have been surrounded by crowds and admirers.  Instead it lay in its glass coffin, undisturbed and unappreciated, much as it would have been before it had been excavated.

We left the museum and we found ourselves walking around the temple complex.  We walked through a series of halls that look old even by Egyptian standards and then found ourselves in front of the famous step pyramid.
This was the first pyramid.  All others started from this original design.  A simple enough idea of stacking several tombs on top of each other by the architect Imhotep led to his deification and the creation of a national symbol that would endure for nearly 5000 years.  

The thought of 5000 years was difficult to contemplate.  It is a number so large that makes my life seem but a faint whisper, a barely audible noise in comparison.  When I think about it more, it's because my life is but a faint whisper.

Yet when I think about this amount of time relative to the entire existence of our planet or even of humans, it no longer seems so impressive.  To think that 5000 years has left us with little more than a broken heap of rocks that require constant maintenance doesn't fill me with any confidence that anything I do will be remembered.  It doesn't leave me with much confidence that anything anyone around has done will be remembered.

We kept walking and found off to the side of the complex an old underground tomb.  The tomb was closed, but that didn't stop the guards from ushering us in to have a look inside anyway.  Inside I found some of the most beautifully painted tomb walls I had seen in my entire trip.  Nothing is free though and the guards proceeded to shake us down for some baksheesh.  In this instance, I was happy to oblige.

I was enjoying the open spaces.  At this point in my trip, I had  largely come out to visit to pyramids out of obligations.  I was sick of Pharonic Egypt.  However, this time out visiting the pyramids had been different.  I could actually see the beauty of my surroundings and I was once again in awe of the incredible monuments.
I kept walking a bit further away from the temple complex and found myself standing in the desert.
The clean and pure desert.  I love the desert.  I feel completely free when I stand in its emptiness and nothing disturbs me.

Another mixed experience

One of the main reasons anyone visits Cairo would have to be to go to the Pyramids of Giza.  I wasn't any different.

I had luckily chanced upon a meeting with another one of the guests of the Pension Roma who had managed to organise a cheap car for the day to visit the Pyramids.  He was happy to share the costs with me for the day and so our transport was sorted.

We arrived at the rear entrance to the Pyramids at Giza and we were unsurprisingly ushered immediately into the office of a tour company.  We were immediately subjected to a barrage of lies about how it was essential that we get a tour of the grounds, because if we didn't there would surely be disaster for us.  I was well acquainted with all their tricks.  I had decided before even getting into the car that I would be conducting my own tour of the Pyramids without the assistance of any guides.  I ignored the "friendly" advice to take sign up to one of their tours.  Sadly, my traveling companion was not so experienced and he immediately agreed to the tour, without even giving the company the opportunity to start discounting themselves.  I wanted to get up out of my seat and take him by the hand like a child and lead him away, but this was between him and the company.  They were truly shameless, and the quick acceptance of the offer by my friend  didn't stop the company from continuing to offer me with discounts in an attempt to sway me.  I was in no mood to change my mind, but I could see the look of horror on my friend's face as he realised how badly duped he had been.

Eventually after the painful dance reached its conclusion, the tour company gave up on me.  I walked outside and entered the Pyramid compound by myself.
I was not immediately accosted nor was I robbed.

In fact it was very quiet.  The poor performance of the tourism industry had reached a point where many of the old tour operators and touts had given up.
This wasn't a problem for me.  I had enjoyed the ability to visit the sights through Egypt in peace and away from the bustling crowds.

Standing in front of the enormous structures in silence or by myself felt more appropriate.  It added to the majesty and spectacle of these beautiful structures.
I walked to the front where the ticketing offices were.  I had read that the tickets for entry into the pyramids were tough to come by, with only 300 on offer per day for Cheops, but an unlimited number for the other pyramid open on the day.

I got to the office and found no queue.

Arriving at the counter, I expected there to be no tickets available.  I was wrong.  The girl behind the counter didn't blink as she gave me tickets to both the pyramids.  The tourism trade was clearly doing badly at a historical level.  It was mid morning and there had been less than 300 people who had wanted tickets.  How this could be sustained in the long term I did not know.

I enjoyed going inside the pyramids.  The feeling of mystery as well as the knowledge that there was a literal mountain of stone above me was thrilling.  The experience was clearly too much for some though, and as I walked through one of the tunnels a young and very posh English girl began crying, imploring that "Daddy" take her out back outside.

My happy time inside the pyramids convinced me to give one of the touts a try and so I hired a camel.  I was once again lucky and I found the driver Ahmed to be both friendly and intelligent.  He explained to me the state of the tourism industry and the profound impact that it had had on all aspects of their lives.  For the first time in my entire journey, I happily tipped him at the end.  
This happy turn with Ahmed didn't last though.

No sooner had he left than I was being harassed by a young guy trying to force me to purchase some ridiculous Egyptian headpiece.  My polite declines were ignored and it wasn't until I became more assertive that he began to understand.  But even then, rather than merely walking away he then resorted to insults and abuse as though that would somehow goad me into making the purchase.
I was surprised that he thought that this behaivour would work, but I was even more surprised at myself for still be shocked when these things occurred.

After I finished my walk, I went back to the tourist company office.  I found my friend sitting there already waiting.  I asked him what he thought of the incredible experience of walking inside the pyramids.  He replied that he hadn't gone inside as his guides had told him that it "wasn't worth it".  I could see his face drop as he saw my reaction.  I was livid.  These guides had already overcharged him by at least 5 times the true cost of entry and they had still decide to rob him further by denying him the experience of the pyramids.  With treatment of tourists like this, I had little pity for them and the state of their industry.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pensione Roma

I am not one who normally singles out my accommodation by name for praise.  Instead it's normally criticism that I have for the places I stay in.

This is an exception.

Having been kicked out of my hostel in Cairo for no reason other than it was overbooked and I was an easy target for ejection having been a booking off the street, I was forced to wander into the darkness of Cairo with my meager possessions strapped to my back.  This was not a position that I had wanted to be in.  Walking through a politically unstable city that is renowned for robbing tourists in the middle of the night with large amounts of cash strapped to me was not my idea of a wise move.

The girls working at the hostel suggested I go to their "friends" next door.  What I found was an expensive and depressing hotel.  The dirty decor and isolated rooms made me feel like I was about to become murder victim number one in a low budget horror movie.  I decided that I would chance the dangers of the night and keep searching.

I walked a couple of blocks and saw the sign to the "Pensione Roma".  I had read about this place in the guidebooks.  It was the most highly recommended place to stay in all the guides.  I didn't like my chances, but I made my way towards the elevator anyway.

The elevator was an antique.  An old French style wrought iron elevator.  I stepped in and closed the gate behind.  The elevator rose slowly and mechanically.  When I reached my floor, I stepped out and into the hallway leading into the Pensione Roma.
Everything was immaculate.

It was clean and incredibly maintained.  I could not close my eyes as I was trying to see everything I could in this old pension.

Being in this pension was like walking back into time.  It was like I had stepped back into the world of a British Egypt.

I walked up to the wooden counter, which had no hint of any computers or other modern appliances.  In fact, the only item on the counter that had been invented in the 20th century was the pen sitting on the booking notebook.
My luck had finally changed.

There was a room for me in this pension.  Amazingly, the cost was even lower than the hostel!

The man at the desk apologised to me and explained that it was a very simple room that didn't have any air conditioning.  Considering the temperatures outside, that didn't concern me greatly.
I walked into my simple room.  My simple yet perfect room, where every feature and every piece of furniture was a conduit into the past.  Standing in my room with the door closed, I felt as though I was in a secluded time capsule.  It didn't matter what was outside as it could have any time ranging from the days of the British through to the modern age.

The entire of this pension was a monument to the past.  It was a shining beacon of what was once universal in this country.

The next day, I walked out into the foyer with the elevator.

The sun was now out and elevator shaft was filled with a bright and white light.
It was incredible.