Monday, May 30, 2005

Reflections on China

A group of us had a dinner of Beijing (Peking) duck in a Hutong last night. Hutongs are the traditional Chinese neighborhoods that have managed to survive, so far, in ultra-modern Beijing and other cities. Strolling the narrow streets of the Hutong after, only a few minutes earlier, walking the wide boulevards of Beijing, paints the contrasts and contradictions that are China today.

China is not communist. Let's just get that out of the way. The only resemblance to communism that this country bears is that it is a one-party state. The "Communist" party still rules, but they are in on the economic boom that is making millionaires and industrial workers out of farmers. In a country where saving face is paramount, form over substance dictates that the leaders use the title "communist" to describe their party, although Mao ZeDong would roll in his grave (actually in his glass case in Tienanmen Square) if he saw how China is leading the capitalist world (the Chinese economy grows appx 3x faster than the American economy).

I can't imagine what it must be like to have lived through the Cultural Revolution and to see what's going on now. What a mind fuck. Only 30 years earlier, the rich were paraded down streets for public hecklings, their books were burned, peasants were given priority in top positions and the government despised everything foreign. In the last 5-10 years, the government has transformed the landscape of major cities to make them look like London, Paris and New York. You can't spit (and all the Chinese spit) without hitting a Coca-Cola sign and the Taiwanese are some of the richest businessmen, dumping endless amounts of capital into Shanghai, the commercial center of China.

During Communist times, the peasants were not permitted to leave their farms. Now, it is estimated that between 90 million and 300 million farmers have left the countryside to find opportunity in the cities (even on the low end, that is the size of the American workforce) and there are millions more on the way. Next time you see a tag that says "Made In China", you know who made the product. Entire villages have changed from farming to specialty products. Some are known for making buttons, zippers, belts, etc.

Exhausted farmers making everything conceivable results in the "almost" factor, which is hard to miss here in China. Everything is almost, but not quite. Buy a Chinese product and it will work, but not perfectly. The clothes will have a wily thread and the hotel, although appearing immaculate, will have a loose tile. The funniest example of the "almost" factor was the negative review of a movie that someone most certainly cut and paste from the internet onto the case of the DVD for that movie with no idea what it said. It's funny, but very scary when you realize that the Chinese are now making parts that Boeing incorporates into its airplanes. Saving face requires saying that something works even if it doesn't so as not to bring shame to yourself or your superiors. Remember the next time you step into Satan's Temple, i.e. Wal-Mart, that you get what you pay for. The conflict between being a consumer and being a shareholder will soon bite all of us in the ass.

The 2008 Olympics is only accelerating the pace of China's modernization and, undoubtedly, this place will not be or look the same in another 5-10 years.

Sunday, May 29, 2005


I feel like so much has happened since I last posted, I am not sure where to begin.

Hong Kong greeted us on Friday night with pretty bad thunder storms. Instead of partying for our last night of the tour, we found a quiet restaurant nearby and enjoyed good conversation and great food. Eric had us all pick names out of a hat and come up with awards to give that person for our farewell memory of the group. I knew I would get picked on for my fussy eating and was not disappointed. :-) Krista gave me the award, a pack of Oreos and a CD of Chinese music (meow mix), for the Most Difficult To Feed In China. Anyone who knows me knows how deserving I am of such an honor! I loved it and I already ate the Oreos.

We stayed on the Kowloon side of HK and only had Saturday to go to Hong Kong Island (which is much nicer than Kowloon). Kowloon is NY/Las Vegas while HK Island is more like San Francisco. Rather than run around like bandits trying to see everything, we picked one thing. We did the tourist pilgrimage up the tram to Victoria Peak to get the aerial view of the city. It was cool, but the haze following the rains did not make for great photos. Mental note - this is not a good time of year for China. I suspect fall/winter would be much better. In any event, I don't feel like I missed much. At a certain point, tall buildings and Buddhas lose their novelty.

Trey and I parted ways Sunday morning in HK. He went home and I returned to Beijing to start the next tour -- the train journey to Russia. The haze in Beijing is worse than when we were here 3 weeks ago. I wish I could call it a marine layer, akin to those that blanket Los Angeles, but, since Beijing is inland, I have to acknowledge that I am breathing in a boatload of pollution. My new tour group went to the Great Wall today, but I excused myself from the activities to get some errands done. Do I sound like a snob when I say "been there done that" about the Great Wall of China? :-)

The new tour group is quite a contrast with the last group. My estimate is that the oldest person in the last group may have been 40 and I think the youngest was 18. On this group, I am the youngest, there is an English guy who is also traveling alone who is 6 months older than I and everyone else is at least 55, if not in their 60's. We had a good spread of nationalities on the last trip, but I am the only American on this one, there are 3 Brits, 2 Kiwis (New Zealanders) and the remainder of the 12 are Australian. Our guide appears to be my age. Another Canadian who speaks Chinese. I am more and more impressed with the Canadians by the day. :-)

We catch the train to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia on Wednesday morning. It's going to be a 28-hour journey. I bought more books in HK though, so I am excited at having so much down time to get back to reading.

Friday, May 27, 2005

One Country, Two Systems

This is the Chinese motto regarding Hong Kong and it is fitting. HK has its own currency, postal system, immigration, etc. Although it is part of China, for immigration purposes we have left China and entered HK. Mainland Chinese people do not have the right to freely travel to HK - they have to get passports and special permission. Like the Cubans on the rafts, there are numerous stories of Chinese mainlanders who swim across the shark-infested bay in search of a new life here.

Hong Kong is NY and Las Vegas put together. Bright lights, "massage" parlors with sleazy looking women wearing next to nothing and insanely crowded streets. It is what mainland China would look like if the decadent side of consumerism dominated the cultural landscape. That said, politically, HK is shaping what mainland China will ultimately become and, it seems to me that, if Taiwan wants to get in on the economic party, obtaining legal status similar to that of HK would be a win-win for both sides.

This is the first time I have been able to read my blog since I left Egypt. Wow - the little things we take for granted.

On the Chinese-side of the barbed-wire border between HK and China is a town called ShenZhen. It is a special trade zone that the Chinese government created to emulate HK on the mainland. As with HK, mainlanders need special permission to enter. It is where you find a lot of the factories and offices of multinational corporations. Perched atop the buildings are Ford, GM and Land Rover signs -- symbolizing the new world order, the new economy. Apparently, economic expansion in ShenZhen is happening so fast that they can't find enough people interested in leaving their families for a rewarding career of making snow globes, zippers and odometers. Companies are being forced to increase the wages to attract more mainlanders to a life of monotonous 6-day-per-week factory work. Current wages are around 1,000Y per month ($1 = 8.25Y).

The next time some yahoo dumbfuck American complains that Mexicans are taking jobs from Americans, he should be put on a plane to ShenZhen to see where the jobs really have gone.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Cultural Revolution

When Mao took over and introduced communism to China, he instituted a program whereby city folk were sent to live in the countryside villages to learn how to live off the land, etc.

Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we had the chance to experience village life, although in a much more luxurious form, in two villages of the LongJi Rice Terraces. On Tuesday, we were supposed to get a bus to the foot of the Dazai village but, because of the landslides caused by all the rains, the bus driver stopped half way up the mountain and would go no further. So, we did a 3-hour hike up the mountain, part way in the dark. We literally had to use flashlights to make our way up the steep mountainside to our guest house. The guest house is like a giant tree house on the side of a mountain. Made from wood, no nails, just pegs. It smelled like wood and was surprisingly comfortable. And, the shower was hot!

The next morning we awoke to a breathtaking view of the rice terraces. 700 years ago, someone had a bright idea to terrace the mountainside so it could be used for agriculture. It took the following 300 years to create and the descendants of those who broke their backs to make the mountainsides available for agriculture now maintain the terraces and feed themselves with an abundance of everything. Dazai is a Yao village. Yao is one of the 56 ethnic minorities that make up seven percent of China's poulation (the other 93% are ethnically Han). Side fact: the ethnic minorities get two kids, as opposed to the one-child restriction imposed upon the Han (they would otherwise dwindle away and, since most of the minorities are farmers, they need extra hands).

Wednesday afternoon was spent on a 6-hour trek from the Dazai village to the Ping An village all along the rice terraces - literally. One false move and any one of us could of found ourselves wading through rice paddies. We transversed the same stone walkways the farmers use to ascend and descend their source of revenue and sustenance. The guest house at Ping An was pretty fancy by village standards and the chef there cooked up the best food any of us has had in China. The Ping An village is ethnically Zhuong, although they look much like the Yao. This morning, we watched two women take down their hair and re-wrap it. I will email photos of the rice terraces as soon as I have my hands on my USB cord again so you can get an idea of what it was like to wake up in the clouds.

Back in Guilin, it is around 6:45 p.m. and we are goofing off while we await our 10:00 train to Xianggang (Hong Kong in English).

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Itsy Bitsy Spider

Man, the itsy bitsy spider isn't going up any water spouts in this town. It hasn't stopped raining here in Yangshuo since our arrival and each day brings more rain than the last. And, when it's not raining, it's 80 degrees with 100% humidity. Pick your poison. It is such a shame too since this really is a beautiful small town along the Li River. The limestone karsts that surround the town are magical. West Street, which is the pedestrian street that forms the center of town, has really good restaurants and bars and is a great place to go shopping. We've definitely eaten well.

We were supposed to go stay in a country guest house with the group yesterday, but I have been fighting a cold and was in no mood to rough it. When we arrived at the guest house, which was up a dirt road that was largely used by the farmers to move the water buffalo around town, we found rooms with no screens on the windows and mosquito netting for the beds. I asked for a cab and promptly returned to town. We are staying at the fancy shmancy place in town and have done nothing but sleep and eat for the last 24 hours. At least I now feel healthy enough to rough it for the next 2 days, which we will be doing in the Longji Rice Terraces. Then off to Hong Kong.

So, a little about our group. There are 12 of us plus a tour leader. Eric, the leader, is a Canadian who speaks pretty decent Chinese. There are 2 Swedes, 2 Norwegians, 1 Brit, 3 Aussies, 1 Canadian and 3 Americans. So many different personalities and it all works. One of the Aussies is from the backwoods and has the thickest accent -- I can't understand most of what he says and have to concentrate really hard to make out what little I can pick up. Eric absolutely kicks ass. He's so enthusiastic about China and encourages us to learn bits of Chinese so we can get into the culture. I have learned how to say pardon me, no worries, rain and umbrella. :-) And, I am getting pretty handy with the chopsticks. I am going to be bummed to part with this group. Everyone has really clicked.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Fishing With Dynamite

The television screens projected images of NBA Basketball playoffs, the showdown between Seattle and San Antonio, throughout the club. Through the fog of cigarette smoke, you could see a crowd around the pool table and a mass of people on the dance floor moving to the sounds of Snoop Dogg and Black Eyed Peas.

We arrived at Windows night club still stuffed with yummies from the Brazilian BBQ. On the way to the club, we roamed through a swank shopping area where people were lingering and a few people on our tour busted out the hackey sack. Beginning with our tour compatriots and later joined by some locals, the hackey sack is a great cultural bridge.

And so is NBA basketball and hip-hop. You would never think you were in China inside Windows (which, by the way, has no windows). It was a mix of locals and ex-patriots trying to find their way in China. The ex-pats, who all seem to be 6' tall 20/30 something white men from the States and the UK, are stars here. They are taller than everyone else and are usually oozing with money, financed with expense accounts from the corporate employers that convinced them to move to this strange land. We stepped out to get some air as two ex-pats, still in their button-down dress shirts and loosened ties, jumped on stage and hammed it up for the crowd to Eminem. "Two trailer park girls go round the outside, round the outside...."

On to the next destination, Mao Ming Street, where you can find techno, blues and jazz, hip hop or a quiet lounge. And a boatload of hookers. Anything that a bored ex-pat with more money than he can spend could possibly need.

We settled on the Blue Frog, a quiet bar with no hookers. There were three ex-pat Brits drinking away, sounding like they were having the time of their lives. Next to them was a Chinese girl who was with them, but didn't appear part of their party. I watched them, completely fascinated at what it must be like to live in Shanghai and truly have so much undeserved adoration. Trey called it fishing with dynamite -- having so much power by virtue of your skin color and loads of cash -- everything is too easy. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apparently, there are Chinese women who make it a point to latch on to ex-pats and become their live-ins. They get to milk the corporate expense accounts and they follow their "boyfriends" around on their nights out.

The music in the Blue Frog was mixed, pop to Chinese to hip hop. Fifty Cent came on and the three Brits, in unison, bobbed their heads and put their hands in the air, yelling "I don't know what you heard about me, but I'm a mother fuckin' P-I-M-P."

Maintaining her blank smile, the Chinese girl remained utterly clueless as to the meaning of that song and why that line represents the power wielded by three geeks who wouldn't stand a chance of pullin' so much tail at home.

Today is Trey's 29th birthday and we celebrated with massages. We're going to party it up on the train tonight. Off to the liquor store and supermarket to stock up for our 26-hour journey to GuiLin and YangShuo.

Chicken's Knees

Our first tourist stop in Shanghai was the Cloud Nine bar at the top of the JinMao tower. 87 floors up with a breathtaking view of Gotham City. It is a lounge/bar reminiscent of the W Hotel and The Standard. The Hyatt Hotel, where foreign executives, bankers and lawyers negotiate the privatization of Communist China, is a few floors below. Next to the men in suits and their fake-tanned fake-boobed wives sat our group of vagabond backpackers ordering 100 Yuan drinks ($1 = 8.25Y - just to contrast, we usually pay 5-10 Yuan for a 20 ounce beer). If we were in LA or NY, we never would have been allowed into such a swanky place in flip flops and capris. Especially when our greatest delight was discovering the cleanest bathrooms in China and taking turns paying homage to the porcelain god.

We then walked along The Bund, a promenade along the Huang Pu River, lined by old buildings that you would expect to see in Paris or London. Seagulls Restaurant provided us a river-side spot to grab a few beers and get a late dinner. Perusing the menu, the entry "roasted chicken without bone" sounded safe and fairly straightforward. That would be our choice.

When it arrived, however, it was not as we had imagined. It was little breaded chunks of crunchy stuff. We decided to send it back and had the most hilarious time attempting to explain to the waiter, in Chinese, that we thought we got a plate of chicken's knees. After futile attempts to remember the word for knees, our tour guide pulled out a paper and pen and drew a picture of a chicken and pointed to the knees and pointed to our dinner. Not sure if the waiter understood, but we got a good laugh out of it.

Today began in the antiques market, where we watched a dog having convulsions in the middle of one of the streets, gasping what were probably its last few breaths of air. We then went to the XiangYang market to pick up some new clothing since everything that has been worn to date is filthy. We then strolled along HuiHai Street, where all the foreign stores are. From Swarovski to Adidas to Coffee Bean, you could be in anywhere USA. Can you believe that Finesse shampoo was the most expensive of Herbal Essences, Vidal Sassoon and Pantene? That crap sells for $2-$3 at home.

Trey got his hair buzzed at a cool little salon -- for 30 Yuan he got a haircut, which comes with a head and neck massage. Pretty good deal. I stumbled upon the book street, wandering through various bookstores in search of English-language books. The Chinese equivalent of Barnes & Noble is 8 floors high and was packed. The target of my search, the foreign language bookstore, was not too far away and had some pretty good deals. All the classics of American literature were 10-30 Yuan, although Charles Dickens has never appealed to me. I brought 6 books with me for this trip and I am on the 5th one already. I restocked with 3 more books for tomorrow's 26-hour train ride to GuiLin.

Today I crossed the China tolerance threshhold. Imagine being in NY, but with 5x as many people, and you will then only begin to imagine Chinese cities. It has been quite an adjustment to the crowds, the noise, people pushing to get to the front of lines and the traffic that goes in all directions at once and somehow works. It was truly wearing me out. "Boo-ya" means I am not interested and speaking a few Chinese phrases keeps the peddlers from hounding you to death. The coffee/tea houses are peaceful hideaways and are some of the few places you can find black tea. We're off to a Brazilian BBQ steakhouse for dinner tonight. This is our last night in city life until we get to Hong Kong in another 8-9 days. I am looking forward to the peace and tranquility of the countryside.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Meow Mix

We are now in Shanghai, a city that is so much like NY (except that it is full of Chinese people). The skyscrapers, the promenades, the upscale stores, Shanghai has it all. Once a British, French, American and Japanese possession, the city is both modern and classical.

After only a week, the ethnicities in China are starting to distinguish themselves. Especially here in Shanghai. The people here do not have the fair-skinned look like the Chinese of Beijing but, rather, have more Japanese eyes and darker skin. I have been told that the women are much sluttier too, which I suppose is not surprising in a thriving port town frequented by so many foreigners.

If you watched television in either the 80's or 90's, you probably remember a commerical for Meow Mix cat food. In it, the cats bounce their heads singing "Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow" to a catchy rhythm. It was catchy enough to still be memorable now. Well, if you ever have the occasion to hear some of these Chinese chicks belt out their native tunes, they sound just like the meow mix commercial, except worse. On the train this morning, we awoke not to the rhythmic meowing similar to the commercial, but to a strained, lenghtened, meeeeooowwwwwwwwww..... We all burst out laughing from our three-high bunks on the train, a humorous reminder that we are in China. The Chinese Britney Spears eventually took over the airwaves, which was a bit more palatable.

This country is overwhelming. The teeming masses, the endless peddlers of everything imaginable, the modernity. I have been told that to slow the population growth, the government encourages people to marry later and to go to college. It is a good thing, because with over 1 billion people, China will have to be on the forefront of research and development in alternative fuel sources. One need only spend a week here to understand how massive China's needs must be to continue expanding at 9% per year. And, the Chinese do not consume at the obscene levels at which Americans overindulge. At least not yet.

By the way, in case you have posted comments to the blog, I cannot read them. The government censors EVERYTHING that comes in through the internet. I can post, but I cannot read my blog or any of the comments.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Pizza and Islam

After a week of Kung Pao chicken, rice and mystery foods, I broke down and ate at Pizza Hut today. Not only did we eat at Pizza Hut, but we waited in the 30-minute line to get in. And, I have to admit, pizza never tasted so good. I feel like I have committed a grievous traveller sin, but I swear I would have eaten at McDeath if I thought someone there would speak enough English to know not to put mustard on the burger. Although I poo poo about American fast food, I couldn't take another meal of noodles, chicken and rice.

We arrived in Xian (pronounced Shee-An)this morning after a 14-hour overnight train ride. Before leaving Beijing, we visited Tienanmen Square, which really isn't very interesting. It's just a square where some chickenshit journalist hiding in an office or hotel room 5 floors up took an interesting photo. Next to it, however, is the Forbidden City, which until the early 1900's, was off-limits to everyone except the emperors, their workers, concubines and eunuchs. They were definitely living large. Now there's a Starbucks in one of the smaller quarters of the city.

Thursday was spent hiking a section of the Great Wall. And, I mean hiking. It was 5-6 hours of wonder and exhaustion, which was well worth it. We stayed at a guest house below the Great Wall Thursday night that still has us wondering if we have fleas. :-)

So here we are in Xian in a gamer internet club. There must be 200 computers in here serving the teenagers playing video games, with Kelly Clarkson playing in the background. Xian is a walled city with a big Muslim population. They are probably the only people in China that don't eat everything that moves and I am looking forward to a great kabob dinner and it won't be mystery meat. Monday we are off to check out the Terracotta Warriors.

I've learned how to say hello, thank you and count from 1-10 in Chinese. Most people don't speak English, so we rely on hand gestures, Trey and our tour guide to make our way through the day. So far so good. The train ride last night was comical. The dining car was a bunch of drunk Chinese locals and French tourists trying to communicate and toasting to each other. Trey and Eric, our tour guide, jumped right in with their limited French and Chinese and tore it up until the train staff kicked them out and made them go to bed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Shit On A Stick

The drive from the airport into the city is like a drive through upstate New York. It is lush, green and relaxing. Once you get into the city, the foliage transitions into modernity, cleanliness and bright lights. Beijing is a wonder.

Bustling during the day and quiet by night, the dragon gets a good night's sleep. Our first day here was spent at the Temple of Heaven, a giant park in the middle of the city that truly earns its name. The Zen-like atmosphere was only interrupted by the occasional outbursts of local vendors peddling their wares. Temples and trees create a sense of calm that cannot be matched. During our visit, art school students asked if we wanted to visit their gallery within the park. Although our first instinct was hesitation of being sucked into another tourist trap, as is common here, it turned out to be a fortuitous adventure. As we entered the gallery, the overwhelming treasures undiscovered by so many other tourists made us feel fortunate to be there. The vibrant colors of Chinese culture lit up the gallery and ensured that we would not leave empty-handed. Four oil paintings later, we already feel like the trip has been a success. Not only did we see the paintings, but we met the actual artist who shared his soul and vision with us. My only regret is that our house is not big enough to house all the paintings that we saw.

We spent the evening at a traditional Kung-Fu show, which was nothing short of amazing. Words cannot describe the skill and art that the Chinese have mastered for the past 5,000 years. I couldn't help but think during the show that the Buddhists are really the ones who have it right. The spirituality and God-like sense that comes from their mastery of the human form illustrates the emptiness of the three western religions.

Feeling adventurous, we went to the night market for a late-night snack and in search of an active night life. We found some insane foods, that I was too queasy to even photograph, to which we affectionately refer as shit on a stick. I am beginning to think people here will eat anything that moves. So, my advice to you, if you venture to this wonderfully strange land, don't move in any odd ways, lest you be fried and have a skewer shoved up your ass like the poor scorpions and non-descript insects that were displayed so prominently.

Wound down the evening at a local hostel, sipping on a Corona and Beijing Beer.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Arab Spring

You know all that nonsense the talking head pundits in the corporate media have been saying about the Arab spring and Bush's success in spreading "democracy"? In case you didn't know, it's bullshit.

Although I have suspected for some time, when Bush talks about democracy, he doesn't mean a representative democracy with an open media, like we are taught to believe we have in the U.S. Rather, he means consumerism and opening markets to multinational corporations. And the two are very different.

Egypt is the perfect example. There is no sign the country is on the brink of democratic revolution, but it is in the midst of a consumer revolution. Yesterday, we went to one of the sporting clubs where wealthier Egyptians hang out to have a peaceful afternoon. We couldn't find Egyptian food but, sure enough, there was an A&W root beer burger joint. We then went to the new mall in Nasser City, which is insanely nice and huge. It has the Virgin Megastore, Nike, Cinnabon, Chili's, Puma, Fila, etc. There may not be the right to truly participate in the political process, but you are guaranteed to have choices in shoes and shitty fast food.

Then, there's the other dimension of all of this. People are getting more religious or at least they appear that way. Went to a family gathering last night, which was really well attended. All women, except one of my cousins, now cover their hair, but it was the exact opposite when I was a kid. Karla asked the lone holdout why she doesn't cover, which spawned a lengthy discussion about religion and the motivations to wear the higab.

To picture the Arab spring, one need only picture a bunch of covered chicks wearing Nikes and watching Britney Spears videos at the mall.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

I Love Traffic

Imagine having to drive from Glendale to Torrance and getting your timing off such that you end up making the drive during rush hour. Then imagine there is no freeway and you have to take the streets the whole way. That is the route from my grandmother's house to the pyramids.

Then, after sitting in traffic for two hours in the heat with no air conditioning and having inhaled enough diesel emissions to give you lung cancer 10 times over, you get to your destination and it's closed! That was our day yesterday. Note to self - they stop letting people near the pyramids at 4:00.

We salvaged the day and went and hung out at the Mena House Hotel, which is the best hotel in Cairo. It is a 5-star resort right next to the pyramids so you can golf under the watchful eye of the gods. Sipped lemonade and ate ice cream while we waited for traffic to dissipate.

Since we didn't make it to the pyramids, we headed to Khan El Khalili so that Karla could see something in Cairo. We found the guy I always shop with and we are going back Friday to do some serious damage to the credit card. It will be an exercise in self-restraint.

I was hoping to post the picture I got of the sphinx, but it wil take way too long for me to figure it out and my uncle is coming to pick us up soon. Gotta hit the showers.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Windows To The Soul

Today was a relaxing day.

Sabah, a family friend, works at a school for mentally retarded children, so we paid a visit to drop off some food and clothing for the kids. One of the kids had a parent who was a hairdresser and immediately walked behind me, took my hair out of the pony tail and started combing my hair. The women who run the place freaked out because it violates the Islamic man-woman touching thing, but it was sweet.

Spent the afternoon lounging with my uncle and gramma. Parkinson's Disease has hit my gramma pretty tough and she has trouble holding things. It is really interesting to see your grandparents go through such things because you know what they once could do and, equally as important, it is a sneak preview into the movie of your own life. She's a trooper though and it is quite impressive that she still has lots of energy.

The evening was spent in a very enlightening discussion about the meaning of faith and religion with one of my religious cousins. Although I didn't necessarily agree with every point, I have to admit that the concept of faith has never made more sense to me until Nihal and my uncle offered their explanations. I am sure I will have a lengthy discussion about it with some you upon my return. My brain will be processing it in the meantime.

Karla arrives in two hours. I am excited to see Cairo through the eyes of a non-Egyptian and to show her the Cairo that no tourist ever sees. With all the chaos, there is a great deal of charm. As long as she doesn't keep her eyes open in traffic, she will be fine.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

My First Full Day

Jet lag is kicking my butt. After taking a very relaxing morning walk around Heliopolis (the suburb of Cairo in which gramma lives), I fell back asleep. When I finally woke up, my uncle and I decided to head to Khan El Khalili, the old bazaar of Cairo where some nutjob blew himself up a month or so ago. It really is my favorite place in Cairo. It's nuts. It's crowded, it's right next door to the Azhar University, the oldest Islamic university in the world, where rich and poor gather to go pray and shop. No signs of damage from the bomb, but there definitely weren't the hordes of tourists I am accustomed to seeing in those parts of town.

Although cars are a sign of wealth in snooty Egyptian society, my uncle Assem refuses to get one because he doesn't want the hassle (driving here is an extreme sport, not for the faint of heart). Instead, he takes taxis and, on days like this, when we are running around, knows a cab driver who will dedicate himself to us for the day. Yehya (Arabic for John), our driver, is super cool and will be spending the rest of the trip taking us around town. Since he doesn't speak English, I am mastering all the corniest phrases in Arabic and amusing the hell out of my family.

Yehya picked us up and then we picked up Noura, my drop dead gorgeous cousin (she's actually the daughter of my mother's cousin - not sure what that makes us), who it turns out is a tour guide. I got the guided tour of Cairo and a hookup on silver. She's going to put together the December trip for the crew and show us around. We walked around Khan El Khalili, batting off all the men who couldn't help but drool over her. Didn't do much shopping though.

Then off to hang with more friends and people. Interesting people. Another one of my mom's cousin's daughters (my mom has about 1,000,000 cousins), is a covered chick. I am always fascinated by them and invariably feel the need to ask why they chose to wear the head scarf. Nihal, who is a champion fencer, covers because of religion. Someone died years back and it got her thinking about the afterlife and matters of God and she decided from there. I met another girl tonight who covers - she showed me an ad she did for Loreal in Spain when she was partying it up. She's stunningly beautiful and has gorgeous hair. I had to tell her I thought it was disappointing that she was hiding her beauty from the world, but she was cool with it. She's very comfortable with her decision. It is quite the contrast to the Western notion that such women are oppressed. Perhaps some are, but it is socioeconomic status. Poor people are oppressed and rich people have greater freedom. Muslim women are no different and many freely choose to cover their hair.

Bought some baklava from the absolute best bakery in Cairo and proceeded to indulge myself. Then loaded some up for Fatima and her family so they could join the indulgence party. Let them eat baklava! :-)

No idea what's in store for tomorrow. I am just hoping for a good night's sleep. If the cats calm their hormones for the evening, I should be pretty well adjusted to the 10-hour time difference.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Confessions Of A Privileged Daughter

So, after 20 hours of travel, I finally arrived on the day of Sham An-Naseem, the Egyptian spring festival that looks a lot like the commercialized American version of Easter (with colored eggs and all but without the Jesus stuff).

On the plane, I read two books, one of which was Tim Wise's "White Like Me - Confessions of a Privileged Son." It is a book by a white man who discusses the advantages bestowed upon him in America simply by virtue of being white. Before you poo poo about the book, that's not what this post is about. Well, kinda.

As distinguished from most African Americans who don't have a specific country of origin to which they can point and occasionally visit relatives, I am a person of color who does. And, here in Egypt, in contrast with America, I am a privileged daughter -- not because of skin color, but because of my family's class status. This is not meant to brag, It actually upsets me.

I did not stand in the insanely long and chaotic line at the airport to clear customs -- my family knows a guy super high up who took care of everything in 5 minutes. Wham bam thank you mam! I didn't even have to fetch my luggage - there is a poor guy who earns the equivalent of a $1 (if that) who is excited about the prospect of making some cash. When I treated him with common human decency, he seemed genuinely surprised and complimented my uncles on my good upbringing. We should be complimenting him on his good upbringing.

From the airport, we went to gramma's house. At the basement level of most buildings in Cairo lives a poor family that earns a living by doing shit for richies upstairs. And, they earn that living until the day they die. Fatima, who lives downstairs from gramma, is probably my mom's age and has been carrying my bags up the stairs since I was a kid. She has kids who are more or less my age, have little education, and will do the same if and when I have kids and they come for a visit. It's not that Fatima and her offspring are stupid -- perhaps they are. More likely, however, they had the misfortune of being born into a bad lot. Which makes me wonder how the soul/family lottery got me into the family that doesn't buy chickens live to fatten them up to one day eat for dinner. Seems quite arbitrary to me. Sure my family is smart, blah, blah, blah, but starting with smart parents with basic means and the skin color or status society values doesn't hurt a damn bit either.

Here in Egypt I feel like a white person in America would feel if he or she had a conscience. It is hard to take pleasure in overindulgence when people around you are literally starving. And here, the rich overindulge. My cousin, a spoiled 19-year-old who will be the first in the family not to go to college, sits at home listening to hip-hop, demanding the latest MP3 player, which I unwhittingly brought for him upon request from my uncle. If my cousin was poor, he wouldn't have a computer, he couldn't refuse to put effort into anything because laziness among the poor means death by starvation and my uncle wouldn't be forking out lots of dough in hopes that a tech school where computer skills are taught will do the trick.

I then went to visit some friends who, at midnight, threw together a meal that would take me a couple weeks to prepare. And proceeded to deride me until I tried everything at the table (I still don't like baba ghanoog). I was sent home with enough sweets to keep me sugarfied for at least a couple weeks.

It is a little past 5am. Jet lag, several neighborhood cats in heat and the 4:35am call to prayer from the half a dozen mosques that surround gramma's all conspired to ensure that I would, at best, get a short nap. At least the weather is nice. The remainder of the day will be spent listening to family members decide which elitist club to take me to to impress me. They will then try to guilt me into eating like a gluttonous Louis XIV while the people at the bottom of the building scrounge dinner.