Egypt – As seen from the road

With Egypt dead centred on the tourist trail this was always a place I thought I’d never say much about, but there was one thing about this country that really was a new one for me:

Road culture.

On the road in Egypt

There is some irony that myself, ever the disliker of motor vehicle based transport, found an such understanding in this great country from none other than its motorways.

You don’t have to be on Egypt’s roads for long to make the observation that it’s a pretty different to any thing else a westerner would normally encounter. It’s not like south & east Asia, rammed with scooters and a plethora of other vehicles one or more wheels short of four, they’ve got all the same stuff on their roads as we have, it’s the culture that’s so different.

There’s a lot of pretty interesting behaviours to be seen on Egypt’s roads – to name a few:

  • Lanes: Nope. Yes there’s lanes painted on the road. Driving in them is optional. Maybe there’s a time of day where a four lane road is a four lane road, but every time I was on the move, four lanes was six.
  • Centre line. Generally this denotes a division between the different directions of travel, but hey, if there’s no one using the other side, fair game.
  • Indicators: Are frequently used, but have no relation to intended direction of travel
  • Horn: Is also frequently used, but for none of the purposes clearly outlined in, say, the UK road code
  • Traffic lights: Generally obeyed, unless no one’s looking

Given what’s often said about Egypt, none of that may be much of a surprise. It almost sounds like an every-man-for-himself society which on the surface it very much appears to be, but there was one other observation I made which completely undoes all of that preconception which is – Just what do they use those indicators for?

When Egyptians find themselves stuck in front of a large and/or slow vehicle, they briefly blink their left indicator, which is observed by the leading vehicle. If it is safe to pass, the front vehicle will also briefly blink their left indicator to acknowledge that it’s clear, and safe to pass. If the front vehicle blinks their right indicator, that means the the vehicle wanting to pass will likely collide with an oncoming vehicle, likely resulting in death, and it is therefore not safe to pass.

Holy heck! So on one hand the road behaviour is selfish and inconsiderate, but on the other, Egyptians trust strangers with their lives? What on earth does all of this amount to?

Well funnily enough I find myself looking at the laws of physics to try and frame this in some kind of analogy. A droplet of water, when all external limiting factors are removed, i.e. gravity, physical constrainment, forms a perfect sphere, the most geometrically efficient shape.

In Egypt, there’s little in the way of influencing factors on the road (i.e. law enforcement) and subsequently, their usage of it, is very efficient, compared to the west. Maybe round isn’t so bad after all.

Anyway, one of the things I found particularly amusing is branding of vehicles. Apparently there’s only two brands of vehicle on the road in Egypt: Chevrolet and Mercedes, well, OK, there might be more, but by crikey, if someone dare own anything else, you’d better believe all of its badges have been removed and replaced with Mercedes logos.

Chevrolet (?) Truck with turbo insignia hand panted on. Looks ever so much like a Daihatsu to me…

So what’s that all about? I’m pretty sure I know a 1995 Fiat Punto when I see one. To me the pièce-de-résistance of Egypt’s roads was a truck I saw with an absolutely enormous mass-produced plastic badge reading “MERODES BFNZ” (No typos there) plastered across its rear – Respect for the respect of registered trademarks by the way! Often so comical is this falsified branding that I wonder if it really has the assumed status-propelling objective that I first suspected.

A functional old town

As my plane descended into Marrakesh, I wondered if this would be a place I’d be able to write anything about. At the time I suspected, probably not. This was likely because all my limited imagination had managed to conjure up was an Arabic Bruges, a city which despite being a famous tourist attraction and a great place to visit, to date I have not managed to come up with a single paragraph on which wouldn’t put the most chronic insomniac to sleep.

After a relatively sleepless Christmas eve, I woke up the next morning and nervously made my way towards the Medina (Old city). I really had no idea what to expect. Being Christmas day, a shred of instinct expected little more than tumbleweed. Fortunately for this sightseer, there is no Christmas in Morocco. As I strolled down a quiet street, approaching the Medina’s outer wall, my ears were gradually filled with the sound of a busy city. As I walked through a gate in the wall I was greeted with the most incredible sight: Absolute bedlam. Donkeys, Horses, Camels, Scooters, Push bikes, Motorbikes, Carts, Wheelbarrows… Everything that could possibly be moved was being moved at speed, with little regard for pedestrians. My visions of a quaint beautiful desert city were smashed to pieces.

Satellite dish on the move

Within minutes I had found the souqs, but I’d seen this kind of thing before and predictably, they were of no interest to me. I continued to push my way into the Medina, continuously dodging a medley of moving people, animals and vehicles. Within about an hour I’d established that there was something very very different about this place. Having travelled to 31 countries to date, I wasn’t expecting too many surprises, but this place blew my mind.

So just what was it that had me so excited? was it the Moroccan rugs? The Snake charmers? The Orange juice?

Most European cities have an “old town”, but these areas play little-to-no part in the lives of the locals, they are merely containers for bars, cafes, and souvenir shops mostly frequented by tourists, and occasionally, locals treating themselves. This template is repeated literally hundreds of times throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, I was expecting the same of Marrakesh.

A new window being hacked out of the masonry

Just a few minutes walk from the souqs, I encounter a ramshackle electronics repair shop, inside is a guy repairing CRT televisions. Holy Hell, Hans; What on earth is going on here? Firstly, It’s been several years since I’ve seen a CRT television, let alone someone repairing one. As it turned out, it was only a taste of what was to come.

A general repair shop

As I wandered on, I encountered the workshops of more and more industries: Blacksmiths, Textiles, Food, Clothing. I could go on. In a nutshell, Almost every activity required to support human life was happening, and happening inside a handful of square miles. Sure, there’s places with a lot of industry, but what was so incredible, was quantity and diversity of industry in such a tiny space; furthermore, none of this was for show.

Push-bike structural repair

The most obvious hint that all this wasn’t a tourist puller was the difficulty of taking photos without being yelled at, or having everyone in a 12ft radius demanding 20 Dirham. Tourists were not welcome in these parts of town. For me, it had become very difficult to imagine an “Old town” with any economic activity other than selling booze and fridge magnets, but here I was standing in the middle of a what seemed like a microcosm of 1800’s industrialised Britain.

Blacksmiths at work

I wandered around for hours and hours, fascinated by the madness of this place; all the while, one question was on my mind: Will us westerners ever live like this again? We used to, a few hundred years ago, but sadly, other than shops selling  mobile phones, handbags and shoes, very little can be found in our towns these days.

A white post, obscuring a Television repair shop

As romantic as it’d seem returning to our version of this way of life, unfortunately the catalyst for such a shift would hardly be described as positive by any competent economist. In a society living in the stranglehold of global markets, wishing upon the aforementioned would be, in most circles, lunacy. I think this way of living makes a lot of sense and normally I’d be quick to chime in on such a discussion, but having so much invested in this western world, it’s tough to know where to stand.

As countries become richer, more and more of this “old way of life” is bulldozed, concreted over, and replaced with the western project we call “Progress”. I do wonder what should we be wishing for here: For Morocco to stay poor, so we can continue to witness these incredible places, or for them to transform into a wealthy country. Having money is good, right? If there is one thing I’m fairly sure of, it’s that if Morocco did become rich, the Marrakesh Medina would be transformed from a functioning living and working city into a super tourist-machine ‘Venice of Africa’. Sadly, it’s already heading in that direction, and it’s us tourists which are driving that transformation.

Europe’s hidden middle men

Lately I’ve been taking a closer look at a curious citizen (or often not) of the European landscape: The street hawker. My first encounter with them was some years ago in Paris. Many many hawkers could be found around the Eiffel tower, selling small plastic LED-lit models of the tower. But here’s the interesting thing: They’re all selling the exact same stuff. Exactly the same. This is rather contrary to standard business practice, where, ideally, you’d rather not be selling the same stuff as the guy next door. It’s not as if no-one has ever noticed this, more likely, is not asking why. By the looks of it, this is not a free market.

Handbags for sale

Recently, on a trip to Venice, I encounter these hawkers again for the ‘I-don’t-kn0w-how-many-ith’ time, but this time there’s something different. Amongst the Sub-Saharan African hawkers selling knock off handbags, are some South Asian hawkers; selling different stuff: Splat balls! Then, more South Asian hawkers selling the exact same splat balls, furthermore, each one had the exact same approx 40x30CM melamine board for product demonstration.

A splat ball being splatted

I think I know what’s going on here, I just need to confirm it.

I tried to have a chat with one of the handbag sellers, but when it was established I wasn’t going to be buying one, he quickly got aggressive, so that was the end of that. Without the confidence for journalistic style fact finding, I’d instead have to speculate.

It’s not exactly a secret that there are millions of illegal economic migrants on the European continent, all who have made punishing journeys from their home countries, across many borders, looking for a better life. I’ve got a pretty strong feeling that these hawkers are those people.

Here’s the problem: You’ve just escaped your impoverished, oppressive home country, made an epic many-thousand mile journey (which many don’t survive) to Europe, only to find: They don’t really want you here. Worse still, you’ve got to make some kind of living to survive, but you can’t work, because you’re illegal. Maybe you could start selling stuff on the street? Works for quite a few. To do so, you need to get your hands on some cheap goods, really cheap, not least because you’re flat broke from paying a string of traffickers to get you this far.  Retail stores aren’t an option, because stuff is too expensive to re-sell on the street, and what kind of retailer is going to be selling fake Louis Vuitton bags?

What you really need is some mass produced tourist gimmicks from the far east (think China), not only that,  but the supply chain has to be very short, because people aren’t going to pay top prices for goods sold off the pavement. Problem is, without a credit card, internet connection, or even an address to have them delivered to, getting this stuff is going to be pretty tough. You need a middle man.

The middle man

This guy is the focus of this post. I’ve never seen this person, nor do I know where to find him/her, or have even confirmed their existence, but the evidence for their existence is strong. This person is likely a citizen of the country the hawkers operate in, or has a legal immigration status; Perhaps even a small business and most importantly, a hotline to Alibaba, or similar outfit. This guy has the best market you could ask for, He buys stuff from the far east, and flogs it off to the hawkers. He doesn’t even need to advertise, as the hawkers, and prospective hawkers, find out about him through word of mouth. He’s also the reason why all the hawkers sell the same stuff: When it comes to cheap mass produced goods purchasable by illegal migrants, his product catalogue is the only one in town.

Based purely on observation, It’s fairly likely that each ethnic group has their own middle man, which the hawkers come to know through friends or family connections once they arrive in their destination city. I don’t have any feelings of contempt for the hawkers, but what about those middle men? (Assuming they exist). Well, they’re taking advantage thousands of peoples desperate struggle for survival, and probably turning a fairly healthy profit in the process, but then, without them, they’d have no chance. It’s difficult to know where to stand on this one.

My first 5-star experience, Beauty contest complementary

A good number of people I know have stayed 5-star at some point in their lives, Even if only in a very poor country, where 5-star can be had for 2-star prices. I hadn’t even done that. Every now and then I stay in a reasonable hotel, especially when I know the place I’m going to is going be what I’d term a “less than a day” city. Warsaw, where I am as I type this, is one of those cities. To its credit, they’ve done an extraordinary job of rebuilding the old town, but it doesn’t help when the weather is awful.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I only gave myself a day here, and when I saw a 5-star hotel pop up in the search for £60 a night, I thought, what the hey.

The room was massive, almost like a suite. Separate bedroom, huge bed, kitchen, massive bathroom, massive shower, spa bath, not to mention all kinds of silly things I hadn’t seen before, like a TV screen in the bathroom, a pull out clothes line, the obligatory dressing gown, digitally controlled shower temperature. I could go on. It was all a bit much for this 28-year old to take in. I had a sickening feeling that I’d overdone it a bit, and that maybe I’d missed a digit on the price when I booked.

On top of all that, there was a German beauty contest in town, and every single contestant was staying at this Hotel, so every step into the lift required awkwardly squeezing amongst a hoard of scantily clad “Miss Eastern Europe” hopefuls. I found a picture of them here. Breakfast time was extraordinarily uncomfortable, as you’d expect being the only Male in the room, with “up” as the only “safe” direction to look.

Anyway I’ve gone off topic again! The highlight of this experience was my return to the airport on Sunday. I asked the concierge which bus would be best to catch to the airport. Why not take our complimentary airport transfer service, Sir? He responded. Err, I replied. When does that leave? I asked. Whenever you’d like it to, Sir, he said. That’s about the silliest I’ve felt in a while, but all this feeling silly was only just getting started.

I was loaded into a brand new unmarked black Mercedes with leather and tortoiseshell interior, with a driver wearing a suit, and speaking exceptional English. As we set off he asked: “Is the temperature OK” Yeap, I awkwardly responded. “Is the music OK?” At that point I hadn’t actually noticed the pleasant piano solo playing over the brand new Merc’s exceptional sound system. As we approached the airport, he asked “May I ask which Airline you are flying today”. Oh dear, this is the bit where I have to admit that I’m not a high flying businessman, and that I’m actually flying Wizz Air. “Wizz Air” I mumbled. “Oh”. The driver uncomfortably uttered whilst quickly bringing the car to a stop. “We must go to the old terminal”. We turned around and headed towards a run-down looking section of Warsaw Chopin airport. As he handed me my shabby jacket and falling-to-pieces backpack I asked if he dropped many passengers off at the Wizz Air terminal. “You are the first” he responded.

Helsinki

My recent trip to Helsinki completed my set of passing visits to the Scandinavian foursome. I hadn’t heard a lot of good things about Helsinki before I left, yet, there I was. I’m never put off by people telling me a place isn’t worth visiting, because I always manage to find something interesting which justifies the trip.

It’s true that Helsinki is “Light” on tourist attractions, but does that have to matter? If traditional tourist attractions is all you’re looking for, they do have the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress which on a good day, is an amazing place to visit. I can’t think of too many other cities in Europe which have such a large concentrated “entire-day killing” attraction. Between the Suomenlinna and Seurasaari Islands you already have a solid enjoyable two days without having to go anywhere near a Museum. What more does one need?

My main complaint is that the city appears to be closed on Sundays. As the vast majority of my trips are for 2-3 days, always including a weekend, this is a bit of a bummer. On Sunday, instead of visiting the stuff I had planned, I found myself wandering around a post apocalyptic urban landscape. Perhaps I should actually read the brochures next time.

A typical Helsinki street on Sunday

Is this place worth visiting? Definitely. Just make sure you plan properly for Sundays.

A trully Spanish hole in the ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time outside of Spain’s main cities (Which I haven’t) you might have observed something I saw when descending on my first flight in: Holes in the ground. Not natural holes, but holes of the man-made kind. Most of these holes were accompanied by work sites and construction machinery, not looking particularly attended. On my next trip, a long train ride from Madrid to Valencia, my late friend Amal and I stared wide-eyed out the window at a continuous scarred “war-zone” of a landscape, which did indeed have a lot of holes in it. More interesting still, many of the holes were accompanied by abandoned looking worksites complete with rusting earth moving machinery, then a mere kilometre later, we see a fully active worksite centered on another large hole.

Conceptually, I can understand the need to dig a few holes from time to time, but what I cannot understand is a good reason to dig new holes, when there are other half-dug holes a short distance away. Indeed, digging holes is a very Spanish occupation; this observation was further bolstered on another trip in to Barcelona where I saw (once again, out the plane window) what could have been the mother of all holes, likely visible from space, a few dozen machines were carving up the topsoil at a frenzied pace, assumedly for some kind of large-hole-needing development.

The thing that’s puzzled me about all of this is: Why Spain? I’ve not really seen all of this hole digging, and abandonment of thereof anywhere else, at least not on this scale. A better informed person would quickly point me to the matter of Spain’s failed construction boom, and ailing economy, which, even though true, doesn’t really satisfy me.

At one point, I was standing in Valencia’s main train station, staring at a large billboard of a Spanish construction company. It depicted a beautiful green landscape (like none I have ever seen in Spain) but with an army of machines digging holes in it. In the bottom right hand corner a single word read: “Progreso” (Spanish for “Progress”). Without even realising it at the time, I had just been given my answer.

Zurich

One of the things I’ve repeatedly heard about Zurich is how clean and tidy it is. Nothing else really, just cleanliness and tidiness.

Well I guess, for a city, that’s a pretty good place to start. So having visited now, What’s my honest take on this?

It’s pretty tidy. I mean, I can’t really sit here and say that it’s a messy or dirty place, because I’d be a filthy liar. Far too filthy to have visited a super clean place like Zurich. But is it so clean and tidy that I feel like ranting endlessly about it?

I’m not so sure about that. I found a piece of rubbish on the ground.

Prague: The perfect antidote to modern urbanism

Now, if you think I’m about to write a lengthy blog post about the beauty of Prague, think again. Doing so would be akin to writing about the roundness of the wheel, the greenness of grass, or perhaps even the wetness of water. I know you’ve already been to Prague, and I know you’ve also witnessed it’s beauty first hand.

As always, I don’t just write about places because they’re beautiful. I write about them because there was something thought provoking. The thing that’s stood out in Prague is the tourist demographic. Specifically, the American tourists. I mean sure, there’s a fair few American tourists in the big hang-outs such as Paris and London but their numbers are eclipsed by those of the Eastern Europeans and others, thus to say they are in the minority.

So what’s up with all these Americans? Well unfortunately I don’t know too many Prague-loving yankee folk, so as usual I’m just going to have to speculate on this one, which is much more fun anyway. To get to the bottom of this we need to go back to the key objective of tourism: To see something you don’t normally see in your home town/country. Let’s suppose you were born and raised in the so-called “Greatest country on earth” and you’re about to load your arse onto a plane and go some-wher’, by golly, it had better be somewhere good. Strictly speaking, by Amercan standards: Prague is good.

So what do I mean by that? I’ll come right out and say it: The urban fabric in most of North America is, well, different. My predominant memories from my 2010 visit were Strip malls, Parking lots, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Wall-marts, K-Marts, Home depots, McDonalds, Taco-bells, Blank concrete walls, Blank grass berms, Asphalt, Vast highways… I could go on and on. Needless to say these aren’t the building blocks of a beautiful city. It hardly needs to be said that Prague (as arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe) is extreme opposite of all of that.

You could say I’ve been a little hard on the little ol’ USA there but actually, as someone from New Zealand I’m fairly well qualified to comment on this as we are also a suburb loving, “built post world war 2” car-culture country . We’ve never heard of public transport and we too have (albiet smaller) strip malls to go with our vast state highway network, not to mention many millions of auto-mobiles. Our country was also almost entirely constructed in the golden age of liquid fossil fuels and it really shows. Indeed it is very difficult to find urban beauty in New Zealand. Most of it seems to be either painted over or buried amongst modern developments. In an age where it’s not acceptable for a building to take longer than 2 years to construct, we’re only going to see less and less of this beauty. It also doesn’t help when a fistful of them are levelled by a large earthquake.

Now, is all of this urban trash isolated to New Zealand and the USA? Nope. It’s a global phenomenon and an unstoppable one at that. You only have to venture a short distance outside of Prague to find the same flimsy GIB Board®, MDF and Fibrelite™ constructions seen throughout my own country. The fact of the matter is that although Prague’s urban landscape is almost utopian, building this kind of thing comes at considerable cost.

So it appears that for now, at least, humanity continues its new found endless cycle of constructing buildings which always look fantastic in the Artists concepts, but turn out to be a just a little less than fantastic when completed, finally to end up as “tacky” in 30 years time, when the wrecking ball finally moves in and the new Artists concept is drawn. All the while these hand-built timeless stone and marble buildings will be preserved and continue to be enjoyed throughout the generations.

Anyway. Enough of all of this heavy-hitting, depressing ramble. The other thing I’d really like to mention about Prague is the refrigerators found in small shops. I walked into a shop to buy a bottle of water, I head over to the fridge and start tugging on the door, but it wont open?! stranger still, the handle is half broken off. Seconds later the store keeper is yelling at me. “You have to ask!” he shouts. He then pushes a button under the counter which “buzzes” the fridge door open, much like you would buzz a guest through the front door of your apartment block.

I’m sorry, but what is with this? So I have to go down the the front of the shop and ask the owner to buzz the freakin’ fridge door open? What on earth is the point of this? I thought this might be an isolated case but alas, no. I came across it several times and even found a shop with this same style of electronic lock on the ice-cream freezer. There were no shortage of amusing occasions where other tourists were seen to be tugging and heaving on the doors of these frozen Fort-Knox’s. No wonder the handles were often broken off. I can actually see a sane use-case for this kind of thing in the home, where young children are constantly stealing from the fridge, certainly, one would not have gone a miss to keep my child self out. But in a shop? I was so peeved at being told off for attempting to buy a drink that I almost stormed straight out!

Salzburg

I wedged a day’s visit to Salzburg within my Munich trip. There’s not really a whole heap I can say about this place. It’s a small, beautiful city whose main attraction is its’ self. You don’t need more than a day to see this place, unless there’s something specific you’re there for.

That said, it well worth the visit.

Munich

After my trip to Turkey I had 4 days in Munich. Munich its self isn’t hugely interesting but there sure is a lot of interesting stuff to see in Munich. It doesn’t need to be said: I’m an engineer first and foremost so of course my most enjoyable experience was the Deutsches Museum. This Museum isn’t just a “Science and engineering museum” It’s a freakin’ shrine to Science and Engineering. The scale of this place is extraordinary. I’ve been to the Smithsonian, London Science museum to name a few and this place beats them all. It beats them because of the depth of the content. For example: If the London museum has a small exhibit pertaining to a particular industry, Deutsches museum will haul almost every piece of paraphernalia associated with that industry into the museum, make cut-aways, models, interactive displays and text blurbs with almost endless detail.

The most extraordinary exhibit I saw was a pair of 110KV high voltage cable joins presented as cut-away displays. They weren’t extraordinary themselves, but the fact that the German government thought that this would be interesting to the general public, because, let me tell you: This is some highly expensive, highly esoteric stuff. That display about sums Germany up nicely: Germany collectively cares about Engineering. A lot. Their economic success rides almost entirely on the back of engineering. The United Kingdom government also cares about engineering, they care because they see the prosperity Germany enjoys from its huge engineering sector and they’d like a little of that too. It’s a damn shame the U.K. public no longer shares this interest as they did more than 100 years ago. With the current culture in the U.K. it’s difficult to see the country ever returning to its highly industrial past which brings me to the next question: How are they going to pay off that deficit whilst maintaining current standards of living? Err.

Germany introduced me to a new concept: Reuse. “I know what that means” I hear you say. Do you really? I ask. When you buy a soft drink in Germany it comes in a heavy duty, standard size and shape bottle which is literally, reused. The label is stripped off and that very same bottle is re-filled and re-sold as a different (or similar) product. It must require some extraordinary government initiated ass kicking upon local industry to establish a system like this. Sadly this practice is rarely if not ever seen in any English speaking countries.

All and all, Germany seems like a country I’d like to live in. Everything seems well organised and smooth running. To coin a phrase: The country seems as a well oiled machine. Of course no country is perfect, but this one, is my kind of country.