A Year of Weather in a Week

When do I get hail or “wintry mix”?

tastes like grit
Sandstorms are yellow
smells wet
Rainstorms are blue
Before I arrived in Egypt, I checked out the weather in Cairo online. It looked like it would be a nice, warm set of summer days. Highs in the 80’s, nights in the 60’s, everyone happy.

When I arrived, the first day was indeed perfect. The next few days it was cloudy and I could smell rain. No one else could though. As a waiter told me, it rained so rarely, like only 3 times a year, he didn’t know what rain smelled like. Even though I could smell the rain, it didn’t rain in Cairo, yet.

It did sandstorm though. A wonderfully dusty experience where I had this painful observation:

While the sand was collecting in every nook and cranny of my existence, I was reminded of another desert I tried to hold back: the Gobi. I didn’t succeed there either.

I did succeed in finally seeing it rain in Cairo. In the middle of dinner one night, I looked out the window and realized it was pouring down rain outside. I startled my companions by dashing to the window, looking for Cairenes dancing in the streets, shocked by water from the sky. No such luck. While it’s rare, no one ran out into the street in shock about the rain.

I was in shock that I saw a sandstorm and a rainstorm in the same week. Next up: snow! Yes, believe me, that has to be the next Egyptian weather phenomenon that I’ll experience here!


Cairo Taxi Traffic Turnarounds

Hang on to your hat and your heart rate!

my kind of ride
Another kind of taxi
an Egyptian bank
Cairo’s Galae Square
Did you think the Skopje taxi ride tame? That driving in the developing world was easy, and you are skilled enough to master the lack of lanes, stoplights, and road rules of any obvious nature?

Then let me introduce you to the joys of a Cairo taxi ride! This would be a moment of excitement in a thrilling cross-town jaunt I had this morning on my way to gaze at pyramids on the Giza Plateau:

Note how pedestrians randomly cross the road as they see fit, regardless of cars or common sense. You should watch them jump off a moving bus, into traffic, and then dodge speeding taxis to the other side of the road. Not even my obsessive/compulsive jaywalking across DC can compare.

You can compare your traffic nightmares to this short vignette from Cairo’s Galae Square, a traffic circle in the Giza neighborhood near my hotel:

How did you like that bus whipping through the intersection? Was it close enough to the other cars to give you pause? It didn’t pause the driver, but surprisingly, I captured the only 19 seconds of Egyptian traffic that didn’t involve at least two cars honking repetitively.

Drivers here use car horns as a way to warn others, announce their presence, salute life, acknowledge daylight, and most likely, keep themselves awake.


Gazing at Pyramids on Giza Plateau

Mycerinus is always hiding behind Pizza Hut

I'm in egypt!
I am in Egypt!
sphinx at giza
The Sphinx, eternally framed
oh, the pyramids?  where?
Great urban backdrop!
wanna ride a cammel?
Yesterday, today, tomorrow
The Great Pyramids are human scale. That’s the first thing I noticed as the taxi drove along the Giza Plateau. The three Great Pyramids of Giza, Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, while majestic and impressive, are still man-sized when you are up close and personal with them.

Now that doesn’t mean they are small, or the size of a man. Hell no! They are magnificent in their ancient grandeur and grand proportions. But when you are close, each stone block, all 2.5 tones, still look like they can be moved with enough time, will, and people.

If you’ve seen the Great Wall of China, or visited Machu Picchu you’ll know what I mean. While big blocks of stone may impress us today, when we cannot imagine moving them without machinery, back in the day, they moved mountains, literally, one rock at a time.

Yes, it took time, a lifetime for the pyramids, but before TV or Internet, when stone plow farming was the lifestyle, people had time, plenty of time, to roll blocks of stone up a hill, onto a plateau, and build a monument for their god. In doubt? Then visit a cathedral.

And today I did the same, I wandered up a hill to see monuments to gods. I walked among the Great Pyramids of Egypt, humble on the sand below their great spires. In awe of the effort, the genius of man’s construction. Both the pyramids before me and the city of Cairo behind me.

That city is also quite near the pyramids too. You don’t see it from the tourist photos, but Cairo comes right to the base of the monuments, homes, businesses, modern city life. In fact the Sphinx spies not tranquil desert but modern urban chaos.

The Sphinx is also rather small. Carved from stone, like the churches of Lalibela, it rises from the base of a limestone causeway leading to the Pyramid of Chephren and frames all three pyramids if you stand back far enough.

If you stand back farther still, then the pyramids become urban background, invisible to Cairenes, just like the Capitol Building or White House is invisible to Washingtonians. I stood on a far street corner, pyramids plain to anyone who looked, and yet no one did. Which is why you can understand the state they are in.

Each pyramid is stripped of its once-gleaming limestone sheath, lost to the greed of those who wanted cheap limestone for their palaces or building blocks for their homes and saw no problem with taking a few stones from the monuments. Seen by a needy builder, they are an endless quarry of pre-carved blocks, perfect for a cornerstone or courtyard centerpiece.

Strewn around the base of each pyramid are large blocks that fell off over the years, exposing soft limestone underneath that is now, ever so slowly, melting from the thrice-annual rains. Rains acid from Cairo pollution.

But do not fret, the pyramids will be here for you to see, for your children to see, and for your children’s children. Even if they are on a human scale, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, no matter how many humans, touts, tourists, and camel jockeys swirl at their base.


Thank You, Rafik Hariri

In life and in death, you inspire rebirth and brotherhood

Rafiq Al-Hariri's shrine
Rafiq Al-Hariri’s shrine
hot, eh?
Me and my Hariri pin
Rafik Baha ad-Din Hariri was a self-made billionaire and business tycoon, and twice the Prime Minister of Lebanon. As Prime Minister, he not only rebuilt the city, even using his own funds, he rebuilt the pride of the Middle East by showing that a Sunni Muslim could be Western, wealthy, and inclusive of all religions in political leadership.

Sadly, in 2005 he was assassinated in a massive car bomb attack in downtown Beirut. The public outcry after his death at the assumed guilt of Syria, lead to the Cedar Revolution withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 30 years of occupation.

Because of this, Hariri is a hero to the people of Lebanon, revered almost as a founding father of the country, and his image is everywhere. During on Beirut part night, I was given a Hariri pin to wear on my coat lapel, and I’ve worn it since with great pride.

In the USA, rarely is he recognized, and then mainly by political historians or Middle East immigrants. Packing for my trip to Egypt, I wondered if he might be seen in a different light in this different country. Oh how right I was!

In every conversation I’ve had today, my first day in Cairo, Egyptians have not only recognized Rafik Hariri’s image instantly, they’ve all been very impressed, both by the man himself and that I would be wearing a pin honoring him.

I have yet to understand why they revere him so, past his obvious and amazing accomplishments in Lebanon. Could it be political, or just the feelings for a brother killed while following his calling? I wonder if a Gibran Tueni pin would have the same effect?

Regardless, I’d like to thank Rafik Hariri for being such an idol for Egyptians. He is a leader we can all aspire to be. And thanks to the shop owner who gave me the pin, I am now “in” with Egyptians.


Banking Home a Half-Million Dollar Mortgage

Help me, it’s Home Buying Time!

is cute worth $500K?
Ain’t that cute?!
old school & next to a school
A solid DC block
There is an interesting alternate reality to your every day financial life. In this separate dimension, strange voices on telephones promise to send you a blank check. Blank but for the amount, there it says $500,000.

Five hundred thousand dollars.

Have you ever seen that much money? Have you ever held a check for it? I have not, not yet anyway, of those voices on the telephone wait for me to find something to spend it on before they will send me the check.

And not just anything, but a house, a home, a domicile to call my very own. And those voices, whispering in my ears from many sides tell me I should do it. I should take that blank check and buy a home.

Maybe buy a dream home in the Petworth neighbourhood of Washington DC. And a dream it is, perfect for a settled life of domestic bliss. What $500,000 buys in my housing market.

So should I buy no matter that the housing market is gyrating, that employment is tenuous, that money does not grow on trees? Those voices repeat my mantra, “life is short” and say “jump in, the water is fine!”

But I wonder, is the swim right for me? Is it what I want right now? To give up my sunny, spacious, rent-controlled apartment for quadruple the monthly payment, hopefully spit with a clock-stopping hottie? It’s a risk, and I don’t like risk.

Or I don’t like financial risk. My travel career shows I can take risks. My work career shows I love risks. Yet in finances, I do not risk. And yet, this would be a massive one. Actually a half-million dollar risk.

To mitigate that risk, I ask you, my friends, family, readership, for advice. If you buy homes, if you sell houses, if you are in the real estate business, drop a line, let me know, lets talk. I want to make sure that when I jump in, I know how to swim. The water is deep, moves fast, and sharks are about.