March 2008


Either the infrastructure here is generally in a bad state or I am totally clueless in choosing the right housing.  Thus far, I have had:

3 blackouts (of about half an hour to an hour) in the entire block;

my kitchen periodically flooded for about 4 days (before the plumber fixed the blockage downstream permanently);

the lift on my floor in a state of permanent disrepair for 2 whole months (and right after I moved in); and

my rubbish not cleared daily a couple of times already.

So if you are thinking of making a trip down to visit me, please do so after I move elsewhere come September 2008 onwards!

p.s. I often trade housing stories among the people I meet here … apparently, the above problems are common occurences and there are far more gross stories and problems than mine above.  Fantastic.

I have always held a fascination with the Mediterranean Sea since my visit to Tripoli, Libya last year.  Situated literally just next to the Mediterranean, Tripoli has quite a mind-boggling long and spacious beachfront and a great view of the clear blue sea.  While there, I have had the chance to be driven along the main highway beside its wide coastline, and for hours it seemed as if the beach just went on forever (think of our East Coast Park – minus the cyclists, joggers, bladers and other commercial activities – multiplied a thousand times).  Libyans would have their picnics or just hang around or swim in the sea, and the beautiful thing was that you could pick any spot and it would not be crowded.  This was also because Tripoli is not overran by tourists – yet (it has only started to come back into the international fold since 2002 when its eccentric leader Ghaddafi declared that Libya was dropping its “weapons of mass destruction” idea once and for all).   

Separating Europe from the African continent, the Mediterranean Sea has been key to the establishment of many port cities in the Maghreb countries centuries ago.  The proximity to the sea brought trade and commerce between both continents to these coastal cities.  However, this was both a boon and a curse as these cities flourished but were equally sought after and conquered by invading armies at different times in history.  This fate befell too on one of the then greatest city of the Ancient World – Alexandria, founded around 331 BC by the infamous Greek conqueror of that era, Alexandria the Great.  Designated as the ancient capital of Alexander, this city had once stood out along Egypt’s north coast as a major port presiding over the trade routes between Asia and Europe.  Two particular buildings in ancient Alexandria may interest you – the famed Alexandria library, and the grand tower Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.  The former was said to have contained up to 700,000 volumes of text on various subject matter collected across the Greek world, while the latter was a huge lighthouse built on an island just offshore.  Both were huge achievements in those bygone days.  Of course, both structures were subsequently destroyed by conquering armies and earthquakes, and no longer exist.  (Note: a little trivial here – of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pyramid of Giza in Cairo is the only remaining Wonder).   

With its rich history and the Mediterranean Sea in mind, I took the opportunity to make a getaway trip there about a month ago from the hustle and bustle of Cairo.  Organised by my university, I figured that it would be good to revisit my beloved Mediterranean Sea.  Besides, it was good to have someone do all the organising while I just enjoy and checked out the city.  Also, fresh air is a premium in Cairo and it was a chance for my lungs to get some good air for once. 

A good 4-hour plus coach ride away from Cairo, modern Alexandria was actually built on top of Ancient Alexandria.  There is only little traces of its glorious past and it has lost much of its economic importance over the years.  Attempts has been made by the Egyptian government to restore its cultural and historical riches, and thus attract visitors.  These have seen the city undergo some sprucing up, with the opening of the very modern library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (as a symbol of the ancient Alexandria library) a good example of this transformation.  I managed to squeeze in time to visit the various prominent archaeological sites in Alexandria – a catacomb, a Roman theatre and some ancient architecture, as well as the relatively more ‘modern’ Fort Qaitbey and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of course.  Other than that, I must say that Alexandria was quite staid and a ‘work-in-progess’ of sorts, its beachfront disappointingly cluttered (though the Mediterranean Sea was at is deep-blue best), and the city itself expanding dangerously like Cairo.  Also, there are many archaeological excavations still ongoing as many of the city’s treasures are still buried beneath its streets.

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Still, I have been impressed by Fort Qaitbey for the spectacular views it afforded of Alexandria, as well as being remarkably well-maintained.  Built by the Mamluk sultan Qaitbey in AD 1480, I was told that this fort actually sits on the remains of the legendary Pharos lighthouse.  

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The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was also an interesting visit.  The IT resources, its museum and other exhibits are what you would expect to find in a top-notch institution.  The huge cavernous space was also a sight to behold.  It was said that the library had insufficient inventory (books) at the moment (despite opening since 2002) and as a result, no books could be borrowed out in the interim!  Its design was also interesting – for example, the external walls had carvings of every known alphabet in the ancient and modern world.   

All in all, while I did not cover all the ground for Alexandria for this trip, I reckon that it is still worth only just a day trip if one should head there (or at most a day and a night trip just to enjoy a nice dinner at its famous Fish Market).  Nevertheless, given some more time and at the current level of attention given to the city by its governor, the city may still experience a second renaissance and provide visitors more reasons to visit.

p.s. as I am unable to put all my photos taken in my travels into the blog due to capacity constraints, kindly visit my Facebook account to see all the pics if interested.  Drop me a note for my account details if necessary. 

There is something about parties that really gets the ang moh students all excited and go ga ga over.  No, these are not your run-of-the-mill birthday parties, or going to the discos, or your typical ‘come to my house and eat’ type of parties.  These are “house parties” (as coined by the university students) where basically you visit someone’s place (that is why it is called “house party”) to gorge on food, drink lots of alcohol (usually), talk a lot and have silly fun.  The exact programme varies from host to host though.  But usually you end up having to talk to people you see in school on a regular basis but do not really know or want to talk to.  The invites are random – it did not even matter if you met the host just 5 minute ago.  Kind of a student networking if you ask me.     

Anyway, I had my first house party back in Sweden about nine years ago at my student hostel.  Except that it was called a “corridor party” as it was held just outside the main corridor (duh!) and all the way to the kitchen of the hostel.  This was serious business, with a small committee formed to put in place the decorations, the food, the budget, the invitation list etc.  Out of courtesy and to foster neighbourliness, I attended my corridor’s party (I cannot confirm this as it was almost a decade ago … hmm), as well as my friend’s corridor party on another occasion (I am sure on this one).  My friend’s party had a dress code of dressing up as some character.  I went as Wolverine (!).  The embarrassing pics of me as Wolverine that night is still around somewhere with my friend.  But I do recall the great Swedish food, how we all huddled together side by side on benches at the small kitchen, and had to sing some weird Swedish songs together in unison (with song sheets provided) at one point!  Awesome!     

Well, just last week, I was invited to my first house party in Cairo.  Now, that is no small feat considering my age and my absolute lack of interest to sniff for an invitation (yes, the rules haven’t changed all these years – you have to be “popular” and know the right people to be invited).  It was for a Japanese schoolmate (whom I met on my Alexandria trip) who was leaving Cairo soon.  Accepting it warily (erm … ‘partying’ with young people at my age is no joke!), I was pleasantly surprised that it was a great evening of sushi, homemade yakitori (host’s Japanese classmate’s wife prepared the food – she and the son were both very kawaii!), some good Egyptian veal chops, a song performance by a guitar-wielding American girl, jokes aplenty and a night of cultural exchange.  Ah, but of course – how wild can a Japanese party really go?  But then again I may be stereotyping here. 

Anyway, it was a very different experience, yet a thoroughly satisfying “party”, and as enjoyable as the one I had in Sweden years ago.  And just tonight, I have been invited to another house party – its a “dessert only’ party to be held at an American’s home.  As she is working in the same field as me, it sure won’t get too wild and a vastly different experience I am sure. 

p.s.  – I am off to Sinai over this weekend for a get-away-from-Cairo jaunt (it is a long weekend here, starting from tomorrow to Sunday, due to Prophet Mhd’s birthday and Good Friday).  It is organised by the school and the rates are pretty reasonable.  Highlights include passing by the legendary Suez Canal, climbing Mt. Sinai (yes, the same Mt. Sinai that Moses ascend to face God and to receive the 10 Commandments) to catch the sunrise at its peak, visiting the supposedly same spot as where Moses encountered the burning bush and stopping at the excellent beach resort Dahab.  So this place will be quiet for at least the next four days, but do keep your comments and insults coming.  Meanwhile, have yourself a Blessed Easter and a restful holiday!

The calculations used to be very simple – housing and cars are the only two expensive considerations about living in Singapore and as long as you manage both big ticket items, it is still manageable.  With a looming worldwide recession and soaring costs in almost every single commodity, it seems that life back home will never be the same again.  Have you noticed how domestic prices remained relatively price inelastic downwards despite the significant decline in global economics recently?  Signs of stagflation? I am not well-versed in the economic field but if the current situation persists, it sure isn’t good news.   

While even Egypt has not been spared from rocketing prices in commodities such as food, gasoline/petrol and housing etc, it is still far more bearable vis-a-vis living standards back home.  In fact, there are government subsidies on basic necessities such as petrol, bread (local type), public transport etc here (which I get to enjoy too!).  

For some interesting comparison of the standards of living here, I list here a sample basket of commodities:

(a) Big Mac Extra-Value MealS$6.10 (Singapore); S$4.20 (Egypt)                          

(b) Metro – S$1.75 (Jurong East to Tampines station); S$0.26 (any number of stations within the network in Cairo); 

(c) Cappuchino (air-con local-run cafe with wireless internet) – approx. S$5 (not Starbucks, Coffee Bean but just the usual cafes etc); S$2.63 (normal-sized cup here);

(d) Petrol – S$2.04/litre (octane-95); approx. S$0.50 (not sure about the octane here though);

(e) Snickers – S$1.30 (at NTUC); S$0.79 (at the supermarket here);

(f) Taxi – S$2.80 (starting fare); S$1.32 (distance from Ang Mo Kio to Toa Payoh);

(g) Restaurant Meal (at a middle-class establishment) – approx. S$20 per person; approx. S$12 (local or Western cuisine);

(h) Chevrolet Aveo (sedan) – about S$55,000 (with COE); about S$28,000;

(i) Cleaning Lady (to tidy up a 2-3 bedroom apartment) – S$50-S$60 (per trip); S$13.20 (for my own apartment; also per trip) 

However, imported stuff are much much more expensive here.  So will I get ‘rich’ here after three years?  Let’s just say that what is saved here will just cover the inflation back home in three years time!    

If one were to ask a Singaporean what would be a typical Singapore “street food”, he or she would be hardpressed for an answer given the array of gastronomic delights in our food centres and kopitiams.  It is also hard to pinpoint exactly a specific blue-collar or “peasant” dish that is quintessentially Singaporean.  You know, a basic and inexpensive dish that will provide much-needed energy for those that need to utilise a lot of physical strength in their daily work. 

One dish I could think off-hand that would come close as being Singapore’s “peasant” dish would be our chap chye peng (i.e. mixed vegetables rice).  I often see many factory workers, blue-collar FTs (i.e. foreign talents) etc at chap chye peng stalls buying a mountain of rice, topped always with lots of meat and some greens during lunch hour.  That plate of food is a sure way to fall asleep right after lunch!  But I suppose they will have no time to feel sleepy despite consuming so much carbo during lunch given the nature of their job and being on the go most of the time.  Let me know if you can think of another local dish that fits my description of a “peasant” dish.      

On the other hand, I cannot think of a more blue-collar meal in Egypt than a bowl of kushari.  Essentially a meal on-the-go for Egyptians, this popular and very cheap dish (about S$0.50) is actually macaroni and spaghetti mixed with a chockful of black lentils, rice and chickpeas, and topped with a liberal dose of fried shallots.  The entire portion is then doused in a steaming, creamy tomato-based sauce.  You can even request for a spicy variation of this sauce.  Now, this is one bowl of pure carbo!   

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While the ingredients are deceptively simple, the taste is surprisingly out-of-this-world.  You start by mixing the sauce well with all the stuff in the bowl.  If you eat-in, there are bottles of chilli-pepper sauce and some unknown viscous brown liquid.  This is optional and not really recommended if you wish to savour the ‘original’ flavors of this dish (though admittedly I have yet to eat my kushari with these sauces).  The pasta blends very well with the sweet taste of the black lentils and the chickpeas.  The fried shallots add a nice crunch to each bite, while the sour-spicy tomato sauce ensures that the dish retains its moist and flavoursome texture.    

Given the carbo overdose, you should always order it small if it is your first time trying it.  I have received surprised looks when I told some visiting Singaporeans that I can finish the biggest bowl of kushari available at one go!  The verdict from them on this dish?  It is a “love-hate-at-first-bite” relationship.  Apparently, the carbo is a trifle too jeerlat for some.  As for me, I love it!

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Yummy? : ***1/2 (out of five stars)

A yummilicious dish but as a meat-lover, I am biased and just have to score it slightly lower as it is not something that I could eat and feel 100% satisfied! 

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image: http://www.elgezirafilm.com 

This was some Friday night I just had.  My Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA) teacher, Ms Abeer, took the whole class out (5 students) to the local cinema to watch an Arabic action film!  This came about because my teacher thought that it would be a worthwhile experience for us to sit through an Arabic film, plus to meet her family and speak a little Arabic during supper after the show.  No English subtitles, no translation, just colloquial Arabic rattled off by the actors and actresses as fast as the guns in the movie.  Power sia.

Entitled “El Gezira” (or “The Island” in English, but not to be mistaken for the Hollywood version starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson), the film is about some Upper Egypt tribe living in El Gezira which were involved in some illicit activities.  The story revolves around the son of the elderly ruler – how he (predictably) took over the reins of ruling the tribe and the conflicts he had with his enemies, as well as his run-ins with the law.  I only understood the story because I came right home and googled it! 

At S$3.90 a ticket, this was quite a cheap night out and reminded me of the time when I could get a stall ticket for about that price or a circle seat for S$4.50 when I was in primary and secondary school in the 1980s/early 90s.  And the cinema ain’t shabby too.  It was a multiplex, with about 4 screening halls, and the entire decor strangely reminded me of the Golden Village cinemas back home!   

But once inside, you are immediately brought back to reality – that you are in a cinema in Cairo.  In-between trying to catch the Arabic words that I knew, I also had to block out the heckles and ‘interesting’ comments by the audience, the cries of a wailing baby and several screaming toddlers.  After 2 mind-numbing hours (the film ended at 1215am), we moved for supper at a joint nearby and the ‘class outing’ ended at 130am! 

All in all, an interesting night.  Ms Abeer is a very solid teacher.  Kudos to her for making Arabic interesting for us and letting us take another peek at Egyptian culture, in Cairo at least.                    

My residence as seen by the good people from Google …

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image: Google Earth

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