Daily life in Hurghada

Take each day as it comes and try to stick to the new diet. This morning I climbed the stairs in the building 3 times, therefore 300 steps equivalent to 7 minutes on a step machine. My legs trembled for 10 minutes afterwards.

I went to collect the laundry, 4p for two pairs of trousers and a shirt, beautifully washed and ironed. The street cats and tiny kitties followed me almost all the way miaowing pitifully, although they had been fed twice with morsels of chicken fillet and dry nuts which my fussy cats had left.

Then I bought some fruit and veg, misshapen and loose, a good selection for 1.25 , to roast in the oven for THE DIET.  Otherwise prices continue to rise but not for local produce since the government fixes the cost of bread and basics. The Egyptian pound, sometimes referred to as the guinea, was floated on the open currency market in November to encourage investment.  It has halved in value and banks are offering up to 20% interest. Another reason was to get the green light for a 400 million dollar loan from the IMF.  One unsustainable feature of the economy its exploding population, growing by one million every six months. There are trap, neuter and release (TNR) projects for dogs and cats, but sadly not humans. (just kidding)

My 2-bed flat looks out over the desert being the last line, for the moment anyway since there are building sites on both sides.  The sign reading,”Minefield.  Keep out!” dates back to the Second World War.  A pack of stray dogs roam over the desert, intimidating anyone who wants to go for a quiet walk.

flat-1

flat-5-view-from-my-bedroom

Apart from the landlord and his Russian wife, we are the only ones in the building of 10 flats. The watchman Rageb, lives in a tiny house attached to the main building. He takes the rubbish down, delivers fresh bread every morning, and sometimes does the shopping. His mates come round for Friday lunch, prayer day, since they are also here without their families. He frequently goes home to Qena on the Nile to visit them and the landlord allows him the run of the other empty flat downstairs.

ginger-on-the-balcony

The landlord’s weeping fig tree provides shade in the summer and the cats can enjoy the quasi-garden of Rohan (basil) on the balcony.  Soon the bougainvillea may be trained along the top. As the sun sets over the mountains, the stray dogs begin to bark and howl and another day draws to a close.

Late Salary or BOA (broke on arrival)

Late salary or BOA (broke on arrival)

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Journey out and first days

If your total savings amount to your last JSA payment, unless you can get an advance then you’ll need to think of survival tactics. Take up the challenge!  You will not get paid for at least a month, or worse the salary may be late.  

On the flight out, be mindful that cash haemorrhages at airports.  Keep a tight grip.  Avoid the duty-free and enjoy strictly window shopping only. With night stopovers, crash at the airport. If you have a long wait, buy a packet of cheap biscuits, some fruit from WH Smith’s or similar. Better still bring  nuts, raisins, energy bars.  Do not head for Starbucks or Costas.  Get a paper cup from one of the cafes and fill up at the water fountain.  Help yourself to any freebies. On the flight, store dry food to eat later.  Ask if there are any extra meals and eat your fill.  You can go on a long haul including stops without spending a cent.  Hungry or proud, it’s your choice.

When you arrive unless there is someone to meet you, take the shuttle bus. Pay with money you have changed at home but keep most of it to change when you arrive.  Money-changers give a better rate than banks. Do not overburden yourself with tons of luggage.  If you have to do a runner and can’t afford a taxi, you need to be able to carry it on public transport. You should  have an address of the school, telephone number, some kind of contact. Search the net or Lonely Planet to find a place to stay.  A youth hostel with lockers is a good bet. Or free couch surfing if you have a profile. There are always cheap dives with bedbugs and rooms rented by the hour. Remember it is only temporary.  If you have a tent, try the campsites but stay safe.

Get a sim card for your mobile phone and give the number to the school, family , friends.

The more likely scenario is that you will be met and either taken to your allocated accommodation and left or entertained. Again ask for a loan to buy food and water. I was robbed on the Paris to Bologna train and got caught up in a one-day train strike. There was just enough in travellers cheques to pay for a pensione and a shower at the public  ‘diurnale’.  

Often it is cheaper to rent a room or live in a guesthouse. If you can’t bear the idea of sharing, the hotel idea is more private. Ask your colleagues or check out ads in other language schools, the British Council, University etc. I lived in 40 different guesthouses in Sri Lanka. If you find yourself in a flat of party animals, not your scene, grin and bear it. Arm yourself with an MP3 player and go out all day looking for an alternative.   

Post ads in the university or British Council if they exist, or local shops offering private lessons.  Charge below the going rate or make offers like a discounted first lesson.

Food

Avoid expensive restaurants and eat street food, even cheaper if served off a cart. If it is hot you are unlikely to get poisoned. Don’t eat meat, fish, or chicken. Each country has its own ‘peasant’ food. Pasta in Italy, Indian dhal and chapatis, samosas, Arab beans, foules, bread, Thai noodles, Asian chicken rice and so on. Crowded workers caffs are the best and cheapest.  Have one decent meal a day and buy bread and cheese, salami, tomatoes whatever for snacks. If you are the  only women in the cafe, get a takeaway.  Hungry or self-conscious, it’s your choice.

Go to the market at the end of the day to get bargain fruit and veg. 

If you are in a room with no cooking facilities, a camping gas is sufficient for making tea, coffee or boiling eggs. You can heat a can of beans.  

No point in buying expensive olive oil,or cooking essentials and utensils.  A milk pan, mug, bowl, penknife and spoon is adequate.

Accept any invitations to eat out on the school tab. Take a discreet doggy bag or make a joke of it like there are starving  cats in your street.

This may be a good time to give up smoking and  drinking.

Drink plenty of water, bottled if necessary.  It’s important not to get ill.

Furnishings

You may be given an unfurnished place or with minimal filthy furniture.  It’s unrealistic to transform it into a spotless Ikea pad.  Buy a mop, brush and bleach. It’s a good idea to bring a sleeping bag to put on a dubious mattress and use clothes as a pillow.  The mattress can double as a sofa. If there is none, lie on cardboard, or buy a foam one. 

Location

Choose between a shoe-box in the centre, a bigger place further out of town or in a downmarket area. Factor in transport costs and security.  Imagine walking there in the dark after evening classes.

Clothes for work

It’s a good idea to bring in your minimal luggage, one decent work outfit and a pair of shoes/black trainers. What goes in the UK might not acceptable elsewhere.  Depending on the climate, bring a decent warm coat or scarves to act as cover-ups. Most cities have second-hand shops.  You can wash clothes in the handbasin.  Tweak them when drying so you don’t need to iron.  You can also hang them in a steamy bathroom to get rid of creases.

Entertainment

Explore your new city/town/village on foot and enjoy the sights and smells. Talk to as many people as possible to get a feel for the culture.

Bring your laptop and don’t let it out of your sight.

You only have to live like this until you get paid. For many people, their permanent lifestyle is more frugal and difficult.

‘Terrorist’ attack in Hurghada

On Friday 8th January 2016, with evening in full swing, the holiday atmosphere in the resort town of Hurghada suddenly changed. The usually quiet lane from my flat leading to the main tourist drag filled with tooting cars. From the balcony which doubles as a theatre box, I saw  a man waving and shouting to clear the way for a police van.  It looked ominous. Police were running down the road. The laundry below could not say what had happened. Nobody could and anyway it was safer to stay indoors.  After a while the traffic returned to normal.

In the morning, the internet and international news was full of a terrorist incident at the Bella Vista Hotel, 200 yards from my flat.  Eighteen news teams arrived during the day to ask questions such as,”Do you feel safe in Hurghada?”  ” Are you going home early?” and even, “Do you think you could be killed in a terrorist attack in Hurghada?”

Tourism went into freefall emptying the streets and beaches as quickly as holidaymakers could escape.

The previous October, a bomb exploded on a Metrojet Russian flight  from Sharm-El Sheikh, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board.beach3

deserted beach in Hurghada

What was remarkable was that the news teams chose to ignore the facts.  BBC World only interviewed shopkeepers or passers-by. If they had spoken to the hotel manager, he could have given them the correct version of events.  Perhaps he was unavailable.    The Foreign and Commonwealth office (FCO) travel advice was to stay away. They said the town had gone into lockdown (untrue). Airlines, including Russian and British, cancelled flights indefinitely.

In reality, two disgruntled ex-employees of the hotel, had entered the garden restaurant, unfurled the ISIS flag and started yelling at the guests.  One was wearing a fake explosive vest, and had a plastic gun, hardly the trademarks of a terrorist organisation.  The waiters tried to control the incident by throwing ashtrays and chairs at them while the attackers knifed three tourists.

Within four minutes, the police had fatally shot one and injured another who died shortly afterwards. Three guests were admitted to hospital and one stayed overnight.  A Swedish couple in their seventies and  young Austrian man who had been attacked with knives were  thankfully not seriously injured.

It must have been terrifying for the restaurant guests. Social media showed the body of the first attacker on Facebook but was asked to remove it.

However, although it was not a terror attack it was reported as such with dire consequences  for a town which is a resort.  Did the same news agencies report the Swedish guests arriving back from hospital to a band and crowd of supporters headed by the town mayor? Without diminishing the horror of the attack, the reaction of the hotel was exemplary.  Security was tightened in the form of extra checkpoints and a more visible tourist police presence.

Some Egyptians claim that the collapse of the tourist industry is a symptom of a cold war. Although it may seem far-fetched, at times like this it sounds almost plausible.

Settling in with Egyptian Maus

nefro's faceMonkey in front of her house tamra on the walltamara face close-up

When I arrived in Dahab mid-June 2013 in a state of anxiety from the North,  the driver took me straight to a little villa in a Bedouin area near the sea. The location could not have been better, secure and in the midst of locals.  It was basic – no TV, aircon only in one bedroom, a windowless bedroom, broken shower.  But it was a haven after my noisy flat in Alexandria amidst tower blocks. I could see the sky, brilliant blue and there was a garden of sorts, a tiny walled square with bougainvillea in one corner.

My two cats came down with me, both rescued from pet shops. The big one, Caspar is a Shirazi breed, similar to a Persian without the squashed face.  The coffee cream one, Tola, is a French Persian.  They are placid, fluffy and impossibly spoilt.

The pocket handkerchief garden had some inhabitants, skinny strays which attacked my own cats. Initially I chased them off. Then I felt guilty since they were hungry. I began to feed them outside and they gradually tolerated my cats.

I noticed that the tabbies were beautifully marked with striped legs, and spotted stomachs. I googled them and discovered the Egyptian Mau is the most ancient breed. It was the first domesticated cat and the fastest. The Pharaohs who worshipped cats depicted them on the walls of the temples, in sculptures and drawings. The cat goddess represented love, music beauty and dancing. When a cat died the owners went into mourning and shaved their eyebrows as a mark of respect. Cats were mummified in pharaonic tombs. Their long legs and slender bodies have not changed over the years. With an extra flap of skin from their stomachs to their back legs they are built like cheetahs for a top speed of 35mph. Why had I never heard of them before?

The Maus are a rare breed and there are only 450 breeders registered in the Cat Fanciers Association in America. They are the only naturally spotted cat, coloured silver, bronze or pure black. Having milky jade eyes and black eyeliner, they are medium-sized, shorthaired and have few health issues. The ones in my garden are direct descendants of these ancient African cats, agile and in tough.

Why do so many not love these beautiful, intelligent, affectionate cats?   City dwellers often prefer to adopt exotic breeds like Persians.  The Maus have little cachet or status rather like native Baladi dogs.

Egypt is favoured by many animal charities and many street animals do not escape horrendous abuse.  In their native Sinai, they are tortured and mistreated by Bedouin children, considered vermin.  According to some authorities, pure-bred Maus are now facing extinction.  It is possible to export them to forever homes overseas but the procedure is complicated and costly.

Dahab Bluebird reporting on a summer of unrest in Egypt

Dahab waterfront with Sinai mountains in the background               Sidi Gaber demo crowd  dahab free diving

I have always dreamt of heading south in winter to join the bluebirds in the sun.   My wish has been granted by an Egyptian genie.  South Sinai’s Red Sea resort of Dahab is affordable and 250 miles away from Cairo.  It is a navel-gazing Shangri-La.

The company I work for has deemed it unsafe to deploy teachers to Alexandria. I found myself in July without a job.  Travel advice on the Foreign and Commonwealth website mark most of Egypt ‘for essential travel only’. North Sinai is off-limits. If you stay you must avoid large crowds, demonstrations and keep a low profile near or in your house.

After President Morsi was deposed by the people, 33 million on the street, the army stepped in to restore order. First they cleared two huge sit-ins  of Morsi supporters with hideous violence and bloodshed. It was both applauded and condemned. Western media who were under attack themselves spoke of innocent protestors being massacred with live ammunition. Egypt’s press told of residents being intimidated, tortured and even killed by those same ‘innocents’. They had occupied El Rabaat and Giza for 6 weeks in temperatures averaging the high 40’s. Little was reported about the logistics of food, water and hygiene for thousands camped out there.

The army imposed a curfew to rein in the demonstrators from 5pm to 6am.  The police were given the green light to use live ammunition. A Frenchman was arrested for voilating the curfew and beaten to death in a police cell by other prisoners.

I viewed this from the peace and quiet of Dahab, S. Sinai, a former hippie haven. What were the effects of the chaos in this backwater, listed as one of the world’s top ten ‘chill-out’ spots? Tourists fled back home. Norway, Sweden evacuated their nationals. The US advised against travel to all of Egypt. Travel along the road and airport to Sharm el Sheikh, the Lanzarote of Egypt, was deemed unsafe at night. The road to Cairo was full of soldiers and not advised for tourists.  There were police checkpoints and tanks stationed at entry points to the town. Apart from the lack of tourists and sight of empty restaurants night after night along the waterfront, everything was calm.  Small groups of Japanese and Russian divers still came. It was possible to snorkel over coral before a heavily discounted breakfast at a waterside cafe.

Egypt appears to have come full circle since the first revolution in January 2011. The army is in charge again. In the short term the country has avoided civil war but people are still wondering if the generals moderate their policies? In the midst of speculation, could South Sinai slough off the government which has abandoned the local Bedouins and be granted partial autonomy? A federal government would solve many problems.

Escape from Alexandria

cecil hotel demos 28 JuneJune 30 2013 Egypt

I didn’t hang around for the historic demonstrations on June 30. Egypt’s second revolution. According to the BBC, 33 million turned out, a new entry for the Guiness Book of Records.  The numbers surpassed the Russian Bolsheviks. How do they count them?

Fortunately there were ‘few’ incidents of violence given such a large number. In Alexandria a young American AMIDEAST student/teacher was fatally stabbed while taking pics of a demo on his phone. The protests are not a spectator sport.  Violence and mob mentality are best avoided.  Despite protection groups the rapes in Tahrir Square continue.

I escaped to  Dahab on the South Sinai coast for the summer.  According to the Lonely Planet, it is in the top ten places to ‘chill’ worldwide. It used to be a hippie haven in the 70’s when it was under Israeli rule.

It was a ten-hour drive with the two cats in a private limosine.  The driver popped pills all the way down.  After the Suez tunnel, checkpoints were heavily manned and armed.  The big cat miaowed and panted for the first 9 hours as I let him out, sit in the bags at the back, crawl under the pasenger seat, sit on my knee, be cuddled and stroked.  Miaow, miaow, pant, pant…

Back to Morsi – he has to leave whether he wants to or not.  The army has given him a 48-hour ultimatum, just enough time to clear his desk and ship out.  Many of those who voted for him last year are on the streets again.  His supporters were bought off with free chicken and cooking oil.

What an embarassing legacy. He banned ballet, ‘naked and shameful’, took action against top comedians and chat show hosts, turned a blind eye/ear to Shia insults which allegedly led to horrific lynchings in the Delta.  The country ran out of fuel.  Daily electricity and water cuts are getting longer and longer.  His biggest mistake was to try to Islamicise the country. The people just won’t stand for it.

The rest of the world can support Egypt at this difficult transition and hope that the initial demands of the revolution are met.

Fire at my window

Caspar and tail

Someone wrote somewhere that the ‘desirability’ of an area can be decided by the amount of washing in public view of the street. Obviously downmarket for me then.

Opposite my flat, the clothes are three deep. Ropes of electric cables and washing lines hang across the lane.

It is difficult to tell the difference unless one is on fire and the smell of burning rubber is too strong to ignore. I go to the window and notice one of the electrical points smoking then bursting into flames. What should I do? For the 15 months I have been in Alexandria I have never seen a fire engine. I don’t know the number anyway and my Arabic doesn’t go beyond shopping and saying hello.

I grab my two cats and head for the door. The little one doesn’t like being carried and is already scratching and struggling. My neighbour opens her door and asks me in. Her shutters are closed as a precaution. She also has a cat and offers to look after mine while I race back to the flat. The flames outside the window are a foot high. I can feel adrelanin flooding my body. Help!!!

tanees street from the window

Tanees Street from my flat

A teenager from the shoppie down the street races in with a bag of sand and begins to throw it onto the flames. Someone from above is also throwing down sand. Then the building contractor arrives with a fire extinguisher which he empties onto the flames. I think it’s from his Mercedez. He looks the type who would be stopped at Heathrow.  The whole street is out on their balconies watching the show. The lad is hanging out of the window,  his knees held by the contractor, sprinkling sand on the smoke just to make sure.

They leave soon after and I go to collect my cat from the neighbour who gives me tea.  We discuss her family and I endlessly repeat shukran, thanks.

Bravo and respect to the street community.  The lane is a daily pageant of fights, domestic arguments and hawkers.   My turn today…