Posts Tagged With: Cruising

Cairo – Chaos, Cars and Commotion

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The landing at Cairo airport will be the smoothest ride that I will experience in Egypt over the next ten days. The roads are choked with traffic day and night and the condition of the roads is precarious. Peak hour starts at 5.00am and continues until 2.00am the following morning. That leaves a window of three hours where the roads are virtually un-clogged by cars, vans, trucks, donkey carts, motor bikes, horse-drawn wagons, pedestrians, bikes, scooters, buses and anything else on wheels or foot. This clammour and chaos, I am assured by my guide Ahmet, is normal, except for Friday which is a holiday and Cairo’s streets are amazingly quieter, even serene.

We leave the airport and pull onto the ring road that skirts this vast city of almost 20 million people. No one in their right mind would actually try to cross Cairo in a straight line. One could be hopelessly lost amidst the endless traffic jams, accidents and the maze of streets, alleys and no-go zones.

I soon learn that traffic rules are largely non-existent and drivers are notoriously unpredictable. Driving here is not for the faint hearted. I feel sorry for any new car salesmen as there are no new cars on these roads and new car sales are certainly not an economic benchmark of the Egyptian economy. All the cars are covered in dings and dents, rusted and in various stages of dilapidation and disrepair. When an Egyptian car fails to proceed it is often left where it stopped. I saw a police car that had 2 flat tyres, a missing back window and it generally looking rather dead – it had obviously been abandoned when it last failed to proceed.

Public transport is virtually non-existent. There is a bus fleet which is totally inadequate to service the enormous population of non car-owners . Official public transport is supplemented by a vigorous and entertaining fleet of private vans that ferry people around the city for a fixed price on a fixed route. These buses are mainly white VW Kombie vans of an indeterminate age (Moses was a boy when they rolled off the assembly line). They have a myriad of amusing and colorful decorations inside and out. The seats have been rearranged to make sure there is a maximum payload of at least 12 people in the back. This number can be stretched by including a few more customers in the front with the driver and children being accommodated on knees. This ancient fleet putters around the streets with their engine panels propped open – I suppose to aid the cooling of the engine in the searing heat of Cairo.

The vans’ decorations are a reflection of the owners’ personalities and can range from bumper stickers that are placed anywhere, to aerials (the more aerials, the better the radio reception possibly?), a variety of colorful bobbing, bouncing and eye-catching dash ornaments plus an abundance of geegaws that hang from the mirror. The driver is usually hunched over the wheel with one arm hanging out the window with a cigarette hanging from his fingers, the other hand grasping the wheel and constantly honking the horn. This “horn language” can vary from a friendly toot (Hi!), to a series of peeps (I see you – can you see me?!) or a strident series of long blasts (Get-out-of-my-way-you-mug!).

Traffic blockages are a way of life. There are very few traffic lights or traffic policemen. The traffic flow does not move at a steady pace, but in bursts of speed and then inexplicably it comes to a complete grinding halt for a protracted period. Intersections are locations for vigorous horn blowing, hand gesturing, and if irked sufficiently, verbal abuse. There does not appear to be any traffic code other than “he who is bold – wins”! Everyone pushes their way onto the intersection, and then slowly, inches forward by either giving threatening looks to other drivers, or encroaching so close to another vehicle that a scrape of metal is inevitable, unless the other driver backs down. A traffic policeman can sometimes be found in the midst of this melee waving his arms around in vain.

Added to this mechanical stew are the pedestrians. They cross the street anywhere, any time and in any number. The old, sick, the infirm, mothers and babies, men with loads on their shoulders, school children – all throw the dice of luck and venture off the curb and into the unknown. Their lack of fear is a marvelous thing to behold. I am amazed that the gutters are not running with blood and that there are not piles of bodies and wrecked cars on every street corner.

Cairo’s skyline is a wreckage of a different kind. Many buildings are in various states of construction or demolition. It is hard to tell the difference between the two. New buildings are mushrooming up everywhere but remain unfinished with no windows, like rows of missing teeth. There are gaping holes in walls, reinforcing bars sticking out of the roofs as if they are the quills of an irate porcupine. The concept of a finished building with running water, completed bathrooms, windows, doors and walls is entirely unecessary when seeking to fill it with inhabitants. Numerous apartment buildings are let in a variety of unfinished states and the residents no doubt, pay exorbitant rents to live in such squalor.

The pressure on Cairo’s resources to constantly support the veritable tidal wave of immigrants from the country areas is a major problem. Some 95% of Egypt’s population lives in Cairo or the delta region. These families are forced into living in incredibly cramped, overcrowded and desperately poor conditions. As more people arrive, the levels of poverty increase and the standard of living is just appalling for the masses. The evidence of this is everywhere: pollution and garbage in the streets, the river and the irrigation channels choked with domestic garbage and industrial waste, filthy streets with a few street sweepers making futile attempts to clean the garbage from the roadways, buildings once beautiful and functional, now in a state of serious decay and decline.

The limited fertile agricultural land that surrounds Cairo, and other cities and towns is being overtaken by dodgy and often illegal housing development. Hope remains high that the revolution of the Arab Spring, and the downfall of the oppressive regime of the Mubarak dictatorship after thirty years , will see a change for the better. However, change cannot come soon enough for millions who are desperately poor and oppressed.

Vestiges of a once grand and mighty Egyptian empire are to be found in the ancient sites and museums. Already, I have been swept away by the amazing scale, magnificence, artistry, engineering prowess, splendor and incredible genius of these ancient people going back over five thousand years to around 3,500BC.

Stay tuned for the next blog – Wonders of Ancient Egypt. It will take your breath away….

Categories: Egypt, Language, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stockholm – Venice of the North

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The flight from Rome to Stockholm via Munich was uneventful but I was fascinated to watch the Italian landscape change from the chaotic patchwork of farms to the cool green meadows of the alpine region of the Alps. The stone houses and barns of the Italian countryside are surrounded by brown fields, newly ploughed or a tapestry of ripe wheat and corn waiting to be harvested. Dense oak forests hug craggy hillsides where small hill top towns adorn the summits and spill over the edges like icing dripping over a cake.

As I fly across the Alps, the landscape changes to a vivid green in the deep valleys that vast glaciers cut between the mountains long ago. Nestling in the bottom of these glacial valleys, are quaint villages of white houses with red roofs which cluster along the river banks that meander through these picture book valleys. On either side of the valleys, the mountains rise up vertically from the valley floor. The verdant meadows give way to rocky grey summits where in some sheltered pockets there is perpetual snow.

The view from the aeroplane window could be described as panoramic unlike the sight of my lunch tray which drew gaps of horror not delight from my lips. Lufthansa as you know is the national carrier for Germany so this nationalistic fervour may account for a dinner of meatballs (closely resembling male anatomical parts) floating in a soggy soup of sauerkraut. This may not be the wisest meal to feed to 100 or so people who are trapped in a tin can 30,000 feet above the earth for 4 hours -the atmosphere in the plane may get a bit ripe after consuming this dinner!

My wish for cooler weather after the unrelenting heat of Italy was granted. On arrival in Stockholm, I was greeted with driving rain and a cold blustery wind whipping the fallen leaves out of the gutters. The drive from the airport was through dense pine forests and after about 45 minutes we are in the centre of Stockholm. What a beautiful city this is. There is water everywhere. The buildings are low rise and this makes for an intimate city on a human scale. No soaring canyons that block out the light and create great wind tunnels.

Founded around 1250 Stockholm is a conglomerate of 14 islands on the coast in the south-east of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren and it has a population of around 1.5 million. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North” Stockholm is known for its beauty, its buildings and the many styles of architecture. The first part of the name (stock) means log in Swedish, although it may also be connected to an old German word (Stock) meaning fortification. The second part of the name (holm) means islet. We explored the city by foot, bus and canal boat gaining an insight into the life of the City and its different sectors.

One of the islands is Stockholm’s core – the present Old Town – Gamla Stan which was built on the central island in the 13th century. This small island is a warren of cobbled streets, interesting buildings dating from the Middle Ages and later, cute little squares and tiny green spaces. There is a central square which is surrounded by beautiful buildings and is a congregation point for many tourists who flock there to people watch or take a breather to rest their feet after navigating the treacherous cobble stones.

Gamla Stan is also the site of the royal palace, an imposing square building that overlooks many parts of the city and other islands. Today this is the administrative centre for the Royal household and a place where important ceremonial duties and functions are carried out. It is an impressive sight when it is time for changing of the guard at the palace as a large cavalry troop parades through the streets, all gleaming, pressed and handsome on their chestnut horses.

The city originally rose to prominence as a result of the Baltic trade between many of the neighbouring countries: Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Germany and Poland. This ideal geographic position also brought many wars and disputes to its shores, the aggressors hoping to steal more land, power and wealth. These battles see-sawed over the centuries particularly between Denmark and Sweden and to this day there seems to be some underlying tensions often disguised as humour.

The next leg of the holiday is a 2-week cruise around the Baltic. We made our way to the harbour where we could see giant ferries that traverse the Baltic from Stockholm to St Petersburg, Helsinki, Estonia and other ports to the east and to the west Copenhagen, Oslo and other ports along the way. These giant ferries take hundreds of passengers and trucks, bikes and cars traversing the shipping lanes of the Baltic.

Our ship was easily identified by its gracious nautical profile and the 5 masts that will carry the sails when we are out to sea. It is the largest sailing ship in the world and carries about 300 passengers and 150 staff. All your creature comforts are catered for, a beauty salon for massages and facials, gym (I am not inclined to venture in there), a coffee shop where you can get a coffee and sandwich, 3 restaurants, a pool deck with a small pool and 2 hot tubs, 2 bars and lounges, quiet nooks to lounge both in and out of the sun.

We set sail around 6 pm and head out to sea through the myriad of pretty islands that make up Stockholm’s harbour. We turn east and head for St Petersburg – a 2-day sail away. I sink into life on board – relaxing by the pool in warm sun (no scorching Mediterranean heat here), reading, gazing out over the deep blue sea, contemplating the world from the other side of my eye lids, lulled by the quiet as the only sound is the swishing of the wind and the waves.

Some people say that the only clock needed on board is the one in your tummy. The day starts with breakfast where there is an ample buffet of fruit, yoghurt, smoothies, juices, hot savoury dishes – prepared and on order, smoked salmon and the trimmings, freshly baked bread, rolls and pastries. Lunch is a buffet – a range of salads and cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, deserts, ice creams and a daily bread and butter pudding, to supplement this there is a made to order pasta dish. Afternoon tea is served on deck – mini rolls and cakes and cookies. At dinnertime savouries are served with cocktails in the lounge and then dinner comprises a selection of appetisers, salad and soups, main course and finishing with cheese and dessert. After all that if you wake up at 2.00 am and have the munchies there is 24-hour room service.

If you enjoyed this blog please leave a comment below and forward this onto your friends. Thank you.

Next port of call – St Petersburg – stay tuned for more fun on the high sea.

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Language, Photography, Stockholm, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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