February 2008


When I was much much younger, my brother and I were the proud owners of a sleek jet-black with brown casing Atari 2600.  In those archaic days when most boys were only playing marbles and exchanging stickers, that was a BIG deal.  For my ‘younger’ readers and the uninitiated, the Atari 2600 is a video console that (I think) can be credited with starting the home video gaming revolution that was to sweep us in the years to come.  This forerunner of the Wii, PS3 and XBox 360 is a very capable entertainment outlet for me then, with its ‘fantastic’ and ‘colourful’ rendition of a 2D-world comprising of space invaders, lightsabres, AT-AT and dots-gobbling moon maniac (i.e. PacMan).  I have then a few classic games – namely “Space Invaders”, “Asteroids”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Star Wars: Jedi Arena”, of which I still have the cartridges for the latter 3 games (no kidding you!) though the Atari set has since long gone.  Those were (then) darn good games.

One memorable Atari 2600 game that just came flashing back to my mind a few days back was the classic good ol’ “Frogger”.  In “Frogger”, one starts with three frogs and you are to guide the frog, at the bottom of the screen, to “home”, which is denoted by a hole of some sort on the top of the screen.  The entire screen is divided into 2 halves – the bottom part a busy road with cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles, speeding along.  The upper half of the screen consists of a river with logs, crocodiles, and turtles moving horizontally across the screen.  Every level is timed and you have to act quickly to reach “home” before the time expires.  There are sometimes bonus points in the form of houseflies in the “home”.  In fact, you may remember playing this at Thomson Yaohan amusement / arcade centre or on your Apple IIe computer then!  To relive this nostalgic classic, click here – http://www.game-remakes.com/play.php?id=265

image: Frogger – wikipedia

And what made me remember this classic game was everytime when I needed to cross the roads here in Cairo.  Remember my earlier comment on the roads here?  It is a non-stop flow of motor vehicles and if you are to wait for the vehicle flow to stop before you cross, good luck!  Like the green froggie, it was a game of survival as I have to dodge and evade an array of vehicles to reach the other side on a daily basis.  You can go one step forward and a step or two back as you try to ‘siam’ the alternating fast / slow vehicles! 

Over time, I have employed two good tactics: 1) stand beside a local and cross only when they do!  Yup, use them as ‘human shields’ but it is not morbid when you consider the fact that their survival rate at this is higher than mine!;  2) just do it – yup, be brave and dash / walk briskly, Egyptian drivers are used to slowing down to avoid killing pedestrians (although there are a few crazy ones) and would not delibarately speed up.  Like George Costanza in episode #168 of Seinfeld (“The Frogger”), this crossing the road bit here is like a parody of “Frogger”, minus the sound effects.  Well, pray I get my ‘flies and to home base’ everytime!  

p.s. – In Seinfeld episode #168, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza visit a soon-to-be-closed pizza joint they frequented as teenagers and discovered that the “Frogger” game machine was still there with Costanza’s high score still intact.  Costanza had this zany idea of buying the machine and getting it home so as to preserve his high score for posterity.  However, there was a problem – he had to ensure that this had to be done without the machine losing power or else his score will be erased.  After getting his kooky friend Kramer to help rig the machine up with batteries, he attempted to get it across a busy New York street.  The camera showed him navigating the street with sound effects from the game and this was all shown from a top-down view ala the “Frogger” game.  The episode ends with him dropping the machine and it getting smashed by a truck.  Hilarious!  

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Tammiyya

Ta’amiyya

Made of mashed broad beans and spices, the ta’amiyya is one of Egypt’s all-time favourite snacks.  The mixture of beans and spices is first carefully rolled into a pancake-like shape before it is deep-fried to a nice golden brown colour.  Spices and roasted sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of the crispy end-product before it is served.  It is delicious on its own but you will typically find it stuffed into a pocket of shammy (a dough-like bread as shown above) smeared with tahini (paste of ground sesame seeds) and topped with fresh greens, usually lettuce and tomatoes.  

Better known as felafel outside of Cairo, the ta’amiyya’s crunchy exterior goes well with the soft, piping-hot green mash inside.  The greens add a nice texture to each bite, while the tahini-filled shammy gives a nice overall kick to your tastebuds.  Delicious!

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Yummy? : **** (out of five stars)

The ta’amiyyas shown here were bought from a well-known takeaway snack shop in downtown Cairo.  This shop, and the other food that it offers, will be reviewed at a later post.

Just got back my script for the first quiz yesterday … I scored 17/30 … hmmm, I think I have a flair for arabic …

On another note, I have thus far been:

Whistled at by 1 x group of egyptian young ladies; engaged in a conversation by 2 x egyptian kids; and heckled at by 7 x young punks … I need more vocab to tell them what I think …

Aerial View of Cairo 

Aerial view of Cairo from the Citadel (slightly hazy and polluted on this day though) 

“Well, it’s a little on the dirty side, but if you can tahan the wee bit of filth, you will definitely enjoy Cairo …”, my colleague offered cheerfully when we met upon my touchdown at the airport a few weeks back.  After 3 weeks here, I confess that it really takes a little getting used to – the traffic fumes, the occasional overflowing sewage water onto the pavements, black mud, more smoke and the trash.  Case in point – I trawled the streets of Cairo on the first day and my new pair of asics sneakers quickly turned a dull brown after I crossed the first street.  My white jacket followed shortly.  Egypt (and Cairo), aka “Mother of the World”, is aptly described by many travel journals as an all out assualt on all your senses – it is chaotic, noisy, polluted and seething with people and vehicles.

And the traffic! According to an acquaintance, it is estimated that there are 5+ million cars in Cairo itself.  That is more than the people in Singapore (locals + PRs + foreign talent).  Petrol is of course dirt cheap (I think at US 10 cents/litre for gasoline octane 92) and naturally you can find World War II relics transversing side by side with the latest Beemers and Jap cars along the roads of the city .  This makes crossing the roads a skill in itself for pedestrians (like me).  After three weeks, my “cross the roads” skill is currently still at “beginner” level (the natives are naturally the experts here).  The traffic and related topics deserve another post in itself later.

And the people! There are about 18 million people in the capital Cairo itself.  Everyday, masses of people criss-crossed the city to work, to study, to lobo etc.  The peak hours can be very crazy and lasts hours.  The buses, taxis, metro and mini-vans/buses are always filled to the brim (usually men) during those times.  It really puts a severe strain on the city’s infrastructure.  Also, with such a huge population, Cairo literally never sleeps, with many shops open til 1am (during winter) and 3-4am (during summer).  Fave past times of Cairo-ians include smoking shisha (water pipes with flavoured tobacco – apple being the all-time favourite), playing blackgammon, having a cup of kulwah (coffee) or shy-ee (tea), or just hanging out.  There is so much to talk about on its people and again, this deserves more than one post later.

But all in all, I must confess that this city is endearing in its own way, a ‘hard to describe’ love-hate relationship with the city.  The noise, activity and energy of the city really wears you down but it also pulsates with a life of its own, a kind of “something exciting is happening” feeling about this place.  Best of all, there is a very nice comforting contrasting peace  when you are back in your apartment after a hard day’s work and you overlook the city from your balcony at the activities below.  You have to be in it to believe me. 

Anyway, its not all doom and gloom – check out this sunset view of the Nile. 

River Nile

Sunset View of the Nile (as seen from Gabalaia Street, Zamalek) 

copyrite crestock.com

                                                                                              

                                                                                            

                                                                                             

                                                                                            

                                                                                                                                               

image: copyrite crestock.com                   

                                                                                                                                                            

This blog was started with no other reason than to keep in touch.  Also, prior to leaving, when I tell people that I am going to the Middle East / Egypt to work, their well-meaning advice usually centred around the following three things – (a) kebabs (e.g. “they only eat lamb there eh?”), (b) terrorists (e.g. “don’t go there and convert hor”) and (c) veiled women (e.g. “you gonna come back with an Arab girlfriend?”).  While factually true (I meant the three things, not the examples cited), the Middle East and its people are unfortunately quite ‘misunderstood’. 

But of course I understand that part of this is because it is a faraway region and hey, there are more things to worry about back home, such as the ERP gantry at Toa Payoh Lorong 6, the (opt-out) annuity scheme, the dividends that we will be getting from the gahmen out of Budget 08 and what is the latest makan place featured at ieatishootiblog etc. 

So, in the course of sharing my going-ons, I hope that my records here will provide a small window for you into the fascinating Arab culture and worldview (and of course, about Egypt).  I have to add a disclaimer here though – each civilisation and country has evolved in its own manner over the course of its history.  So while there might be some unintentional comparison with the so-called (overrated) Singaporean efficiency, cleanliness, greenery etc, it is not my intention to ‘criticise’ but more to provide a humourous insight.  In my humble opinion (IMHO), diversity and differences, while double-edged, makes the world we live in so much more interesting. 

So I hope that you will enjoy reading the entries as much as I enjoy thinking through what I have observed and penning them down.  Comments and insults are most welcome! Of course, if what is written here can spur you to save money and visit Egypt (and the region), all the better!  =)     

berns

p.s. – the moniker “calamari rings” is not because I am a sotong lah.  There is a small ‘once-upon-a-time’ story in that itself but perhaps some other time.  Anyway, fried calamari rings are darn shiok with dips, notwithstanding the cholestoral count.  Do let me know your fave calamari place in S’pore or if you have a great place to recommend that serves the most “solid” calamari.