Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Kicking down the cobblestones in Cairo, Egypt ~

. . .Just kicking down the cobble stones
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy. . .

-- 59th Street Bridge Song

We set out on foot – one of our favorite ways to explore any place -- but especially Cairo, Egypt where we spent three mid-December days.  Past the entryway Christmas tree that greeted guests at the Cairo Marriot Hotel -- cleverly built around the historic Gezira Palace –  we were off to revisit the Zamelik neighborhood in which the hotel is located.

Just past the guard house at the hotel’s entry gate  – with its armed officers and a leashed German Shepherd that check all arriving vehicles - we were greeted by a bevy of taxi cab drivers each offering ‘a good deal’ to the Pyramids and Sphinx or anywhere we might want to go.  They spoke English and didn’t badger once we explained we were going no further than our feet could take us.

Cairo Marriott Hotel entryway is part of the old palace

This is the second time we’ve used Cairo as a ‘gateway city’ from which to return to the United States after a stay at The Stone House on The Hill. So both times we’ve arrived here from our laid-back rural area of Greece and have been jarred by the sheer size of this city with a population hovering at 20 million. The sprawling megalopolis is often blanketed in morning smog, traffic is continuously horrendous, and yet it has such a charm that it keeps bringing us back.

Gezira, means island, and that's were we stayed in Cairo
Zamelik is one of two Cairo districts – the other Gezira -  on an island in the middle of The Nile River. It is one of the city’s more affluent areas and home to many ex pats. There’s an interesting mix of businesses on its bustling' 26 July Street'; some shops in brick and mortar buildings and others mere sidewalk displays. There seems to be a bookstore on every other corner, (our favorite, Diwa) and traditional coffee shops where men wearing long-white white gallibayas, (think long white shirt) and puffing on shishas, (the traditional water pipes) while away a few hours each day. It isn’t unusual to find a small eatery or two sporting a ‘Recommended by Trip Advisor’ certificate on the door.

Gezira island - Wikipedia photo
As for kicking back those cobblestones, a more accurate description is cautiously stepping around dips, rises, and uneven surfaces that make up the area’s rather challenging walkways. Those sidewalks and the never-ending traffic were the only ‘dangers’ encountered on our outing. Crossing a street, even with a green light beckoning us forth, felt more like  filming a “Survivor” television show segment than taking a stroll, especially when parked cars force long detours out into traffic before reaching the other sidewalk.

Can't always walk between parked cars in Cairo
We were delighted to find many of our favorite businesses still in operation.  They are typical neighborhood 'mom-and-pop' shops selling goods to locals, not dependent upon tourists like us.

The displays in this store are a work of art
One of the many fruit and vegetable markets that we pass on this route strikes me as a work of art. Its vendor always positioned just to the left of his displays, scanning the sidewalk for possible customers.  I think he was flattered, if not a bit perplexed, when I asked him if I could take a photo of his store.  I got a thumbs up and smile though when I showed him the photo above.

No doubt about what this store sells!
The businesses really do mean business here. And most, like the one above, left no one guessing as to what was for sale. 

Eateries tease with aromas and displays
The eateries are all miniscule in size but taunted the taste buds with many temptations.

A florist shop display extends into the street in Cairo's Zamelik district
Sidewalks are shared by pedestrians and vendors. Blankets and makeshift shelves displayed merchandise ranging from books and bread to produce and flowers. A carpet repair shop had several repair stations operating on the sidewalk. Florist displays cascade into the streets. Arabian bread is sold by the bag from street vendors found at regular intervals.

Roasted yam, anyone?

Bread and roasted yams brought a new meaning to ‘fast food’.

Bread for sale
Veering off the main drag we took a winding route back to the hotel, walking the residential area’s tree-lined streets.

A secret garden filled with flowers and statues
The district, one of the city’s most affluent is home to stately 19th century mansions and villas as well as high density apartment building complexes.

Mansions and villas lined some streets

Other streets had high density housing
A number of you have commented that while you’d like to visit Cairo you do have concerns about your safety there. While I am addressing that topic next week in a bit more detail, I did want to assure you that we do have certain ‘safety rules’ we follow when setting off on foot to explore any new foreign city:
*First, is to be educated about where we are. We read up on the place in advance of our arrival.  Novels set in the area provide a bit of history and contemporary color, guidebooks, travel blogs and on-line articles and traveler’s reviews are all part of the pre-travel research we do. We heed the advice of others. There are Cairo neighborhoods we wouldn’t explore on foot - just like there are places in Miami, Chicago and Seattle we’d avoid.
*We get a city map from the hotel concierge, discuss where the hotel is located on the map and where we are thinking of walking. We heed his/her recommendations and warnings.
*We dress conservatively and try not to call attention to ourselves. In Cairo that meant wearing long dark pants, not jeans, and shirts with sleeves.  I wear or carry a scarf just in case I need one to cover my head and shoulders to enter a mosque. As much as we love our sports teams back in the Northwest, we would never wear sports logo clothing when traveling abroad. Nothing targets you more as  “American”  than a bright colored tee-shirt with a sports logo emblazoned on it.
*We carry local currency in small denominations in case we do need to catch a taxi back to the hotel. If the map doesn’t have the hotel’s name and address on it written in the local language we carry a business card with it on it on the off chance we find ourselves needing to ask directions.
*As much as I want to snap photos, I limit the times I pull out the camera or phone.  That is another act, that screams out "tourist". And I ask permission if a person might be identified in the photo.  Besides being considerate of the individual, this saves embarrassing moments as I’ve encountered some who say yes to a photo but want to be paid for having their photo taken. . .I don’t pay for photos.
The Nile from the Marriott hotel
So far Cairo has never let us down. We’ve returned from our outings having met someone or learned something about the neighborhood, or the city, that we’d have missed had we opted to take a tour bus or taxi.

That’s it for this week. This is our last post of the year for 2016.  We thank you for joining us on our adventures this year and look forward to new destinations and experiences next year.  The time you spend with us is always appreciated! Our wishes for a happy and healthy New Year ~

Linking up this week with:

Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Trip to Cairo, Egypt ~ Silly or Safe

Seeing the bomb sniffing dog coming out of the Egypt Airlines plane we were about to board in Athens Sunday bound for Cairo, turned my knees to rubber. However, The Scout said he’d found the sight reassuring.

Guess the question of silly or safe is one that each traveler needs to answer on his/her own.

Tour boats have returned to the Nile in greater numbers than last year
The dog and its handler came out of the plane while we were being held in the bus that had  transported us to the plane from the terminal. (A normal way of getting to aircraft around here). Uniformed officials were setting up a security checkpoint at the top of the stairway at the plane’s door to check all our hand carry bags and everything inside them moments before entering the aircraft. (Not a normal way of boarding a flight.)

Street scene Cairo 

As I told you last week, our journey back to the United States from Greece is via Cairo – partly because of the great airfare from here to Seattle and partly because this city is simply a fabulous place to visit! Spending a few days here is an exotic – yet, easily managed -  treat unmatched by other gateway cities on this side of the Atlantic. We’ve been here twice and have flown Egypt Air twice as well. . .without problems!

P1020563 (1)
Street vendor bouquets - Cairo
But, back to Sunday. . .We didn’t realize at the time that we were flying on Mohammed’s birthday – a holiday and time of great celebration here.  It was also the day that a suicide bomber killed 23 and injured 40 more in a Christian church in Cairo. We learned Monday that the Pope of the Coptic church cut his trip to Greece short and returned to Cairo on Sunday –  which leads us to believe he was on our flight, as the airline only has one each day from Athens. All of which probably explains the increased and very heavy security measures. The kind that turn a 'white knuckler's' knees to rubber.

Home of the Ancient Egyptian Music School

Silly or Safe

I posted a report on Facebook about the prelude to our 1.5 hour flight – which was absolutely uneventful after we got airborne -- and was grateful for the many who wrote messages. What somewhat surprised us is though is how many seem to think we are in some horribly unsafe part of the world (unlike Brussels, Paris, Fort Lauderdale, Istanbul, San Bernadino. . .).

Street cat in Cairo (there was a food dish on the sidewalk not far from this one)
“They don’t like Americans’' wrote one friend.  Well, there probably are some who don’t like us, but in a city of more than 18 million, we’ve not encountered them. Those who we have met are some very warm and welcoming folks. 

We are staying in the Zamalek district - an island in the Nile
We used the same company this year as we did last year for the transportation between the airport and our hotel. The same young man who greeted us on our first arrival was back again holding a sign with our names on it Sunday night.  He was the first to extend warm greeting and he remembered us from our previous visit (an advantage of a dip in tourism, I guess).  Yesterday morning the same hotel staff member, Mona, who had wrapped me in a bear hug saying goodbye last year, wrapped me in her arms again to welcome me back. The Scout returned today to a barbershop he’d gone to last year – the barber, who had inquired last year about where we were from and told us he was Coptic Christian, wished us a heartfelt Marry Christmas and greeted us enthusiastically.

Traffic is the real danger in Cairo
We are staying in the city’s island district, Zamalek, a place so full of history that we wander its streets on our own with no particular destination in mind, shopping in stores housed in marvelous old buildings; simply soaking up everyday scenes.  I can assure you the only danger here is from the uneven sidewalks and crazy drivers.  We don’t feel threatened.

The Marriott hotel is built around a palace in Cairo
Our Marriott hotel incorporates the island’s historic Gezira Palace, to see more about it, click here. A standard room here is $106US before taxes - less than some Courtyard by Marriott’s we’ve stayed in in the states.  The Egyptian pound recently devalued and one US dollar is equal to 18LE. 

The Palace entry and one happy traveler
I’ve got more to tell you about Egypt but that will have to wait for another week.  There’s a lot more exploring to be done before we leave . . . and it really would be silly to not see as much as possible! 

Thanks for being with us – we appreciate your time, especially at this busy time of the year.  Enjoy your travels. Be safe.

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Kali Mina ~ It is December Again in Greece ~

  “Kali Mina!” is the greeting called out to friends at the start of each new month in Greece. It means basically, “Have a good month”. It is just one of the many things we do in this new-to-us culture that we didn’t do ‘back home’ in the United States.

Agios Nikolaos, village, December 2015
This month, even though we enthusiastically used the greeting, we ask ourselves, 'How could it be December already?'  Way back in September when we shifted from our suburban Seattle life to our rural setting tucked away in an olive grove, it seemed we would have such a long stretch of time to experience ex pat life in Greece.

“We’ll be here until December,” we announced with finality to friends both near and far.

December display at a grocery store in Kardamyli village, 2015
This is our third December at our Stone House on the Hill; a hill that overlooks the small villages that dot this small section of the Messinian Bay coastline that rests in the shadow of the Taygetos Mountains. This month marks our second full year of home ownership in Greece's Peloponnese and our 'part-time ex pats' life.

The Stone House on the Hill, far right
Those of you who’ve been with us since that first December recall that at the time we said we’d caught our daydream but we'd give it 'five years' to become reality. We’d give ourselves five years here and if it didn’t measure up to that daydream, we’d put it up for sale. We don't talk of selling or five years these days. Just as we’ve changed our little stone home, we’ve changed our attitude about time.

The Stone House on the Hill, December 2014
And much has changed at the rather bland little house we purchased and occupied during that rather bleak first December. Our time spent here has been dictated by doing the ‘Schengen Shuffle’, 90-days here and 90-days out dance step set forth in our tourist visa. The Schengen Treaty covers more than 20 countries on this side of the Atlantic and dictates the length of stay in them, either individually or as a whole.

The Stone House on the Hill, December 2016
With each stay, siga, siga, or slowly, slowly, the house has been changing, as have we. Living life in 90-day segments has given us a new appreciation for time and its passage. 

Our lemon tree frames Agios Dimitrios and Agios Nikolaos villages in the distance

We are just beginning to let go of that American approach of timelines and deadlines (something we both lived by in our professional lives and therefore struggle with giving it up). Things here get done when they get done.  Days may pass while we wait for that promised mason, electrician, plumber or delivery of materials. . ..then as if they were falling dominos, one thing trips another and within an hour or two, suddenly everything is done.

PicMonkey Collage
We've added color to The Stone House on The Hill
Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands, all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.
                       -- Hannah Arendt

Petro's and Irini's tavern in Trahilia - one of our favorite spots on earth
It is an unhurried lifestyle that slowly wraps you up in its embrace.  A dinner out at any of the small nearby tavernas could take hours. You begin by visiting awhile – often with others at nearby tables whom you may or may not know or the owners - you soak up the atmosphere, enjoy a sunset, some wine, and then the food begins arriving.  Even running over to the neighbors ‘for a minute’ could result in staying for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and a bit of visit time which could easily fill an hour.

Time isn't segmented with the hourly precision that dictates American life. We seldom make ‘plans’ in advance of a few hours here; a quick phone call or text suggesting an evening out together or alerting someone of a visit is the norm. No calendars or 'day-timers' needed.

PicMonkey Collage
October far left, November, and December
Back in the States it's the retail stores that contribute to the feeling of seasons rushing past us; giving the sense of urgency with their October Halloween merchandise displays going up in August and Christmas in October. Here it is Mother Nature who alerts us to the seasons. They are clearly and unhurriedly defined by the olive and citrus groves, the gardens, the produce sold in the public markets.

Olive harvest at The Stone House on the Hill marks season's end
“When abroad, boredom, routine and ‘normal’ cease to exist. And all that is left is the thrill and the challenge of uncertainty.”
                                                             -- Reannan Muth

The normal way to buy vegetables in the village is from the traveling produce seller
The one thing about time that we’ve learned is that 90-day segments of life are simply too rigid.  If the devastating September storm that hit this area had damaged our Stone House on the Hill and required us to return sooner than we had scheduled, we’d have thrown our ‘Schengen Shuffle’ out of sequence and wouldn’t be able to still be here right now. Ninety days within each 180 days is cumulative. Hit the mark and you are out until another 90 days pass. Miss it and you face hefty fines and you can be barred from entering the country for up to five years. If we stayed our full 90 days in Greece, they could deny us entry into another Schengen country even if our only purpose there is to transit the airport as part of our return to the U.S.

Doing the Schengen Shuffle at London Heathrow's airport
The only way to add flexibility is to obtain a 'residency permit' which would create a resident status, allowing us the flexibility of date-free travel in Schengen-governed Europe. We could come and go as we wanted. Obtaining such a permit isn’t simple nor inexpensive.  Yet, it can be done as other Americans here have proven.

So on this third December at The Stone House on the Hill, we’ve just started the journey through the permit bureaucracy. . .it is a journey that will take us to Olympia, our Washington State capitol, then to San Francisco to meet with ‘our’ West Coast Greek consulate. If he grants us an 'entry permit' we can pursue a resident visa the next time we are here. . .90 days from now!

As you’ve probably gathered by now, we are packing up and closing this chapter at The Stone House on the Hill. The Scout found us a great airfare back to Seattle from Cairo. So we are off to Egypt (not a Schengen Country) this coming weekend.  We appreciate the time you spend with us and so enjoy hearing from you!  Until our next get-together, safe travels to you and yours ~
The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.
                              -- Adam Gopnik

Linking up with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Travel Inspiration


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