Friday, February 11, 2011

Proud to Be Egyptian

I suddenly found the urge to start blogging again with the turn of events in Egypt. I have started a new blog at this link

Saturday, April 18, 2009

People Watching Late night in the Rambla

I walked all the way up the Rambla to its very beginning next to the Plaça de Catalunya. I had noticed the people selling beer in the street. I was curious to the sight, especially that the majority of the crowds were over age and that stores selling beer were available. So why are they there, I still don’t have a clue. A few things that caught my eye, that it was apparently illegal, since they were watchful of the police and that the scent of weed was in many places, do they have any relation I will never be sure. The majority of these sellers were of Indian original, as their complexion and accent revealed. For some reason they also didn’t offer me beer to buy.

I have always been so curious of this experience, even in foreign countries, that such people avoid me. I have no clue is it because I look serious, or do I walk with a purpose rather than strolling along. I never really know, in addition I always get this thing about people asking me for directions or information while I am not a native of the city I am visiting. In some cases I do have a clue about what is happening, but not always. In all cases, I was experiencing this here and was moving along.

I was in the Plaça de Catalunya, and I noticed African guys selling stuff on the sidewalk. This was non-genuine stuff, and they seem to capture the interest of many people walking. One other thing I noticed is how they lay down their products. The put them on a cloth laid down on the sidewalk, but have all four sides tied with a rope that is collected in a knot in the seller’s hand. They use them to quickly pick up their stuff, as a sack and dash when the police come. And boy do they dash. I had walked past the Plaza and into the “chique” area of shopping. The major names of designer cloth had stores here. As I was walking a few of these street African sellers ran past me, and man do these guys go.

The action was starting to slow down and I was now aware I was out of the activity area. I headed back and watched a band play soft music at the edge of the Rambla. I bough myself a Sunday and took a seat at a bench in the street, doing an activity I like people watching. Amongst the most interesting people were those beer sellers. Some of them had some tricks up their sleeves. A guy got a few six pack and hide them under a manhole cover nearby. This way he has stock close and doesn’t need to go get some when he is out. Another interesting tactic was that of this guy who used to water the cans to probably sell them as being really cold, moist cold, to customers, pretty sneaky guy.
The street was also a place for African women working the streets, again like the beer guys and those distributing flyers and ads about nightspots they didn’t approach me. I was delighted for the fact, it is annoying in itself let alone having something being said in Spanish and I have no clue what it is. In all cases, I spend a good hour there watching people of all kinds walk up and down the street, all looking for a good time. Some had theirs and some were still on their way there. As I was planning to call it a night as the time was 2:30am, the street was still busy with people, but most people had either gone into night spots or gone home. I was going to the hotel to sleep.

The city only goes alive late at night

I stayed a little while in the hotel, and got ready to go down. I started off at around 11 and walked my way through the Rambla. This time I was without my map and guide, I think I already got a hold of this place and how the streets, narrow as they might be on the side, are organized. There was a lot of hustle and bustle and several people were still making their way into restaurants and Tapa bars. It was interesting to read about the habits of Spanish people, including they being night people. Things don’t pick up in restaurants till 10:30 and night spots actually hardly even open before midnight. I was seeing this on the street, it was amazing. This is really different from any other place. As a native of Cairo, we proudly talk about the continuous activity of the city all day and night, but things pick up early and people roaming the streets start to dwindle early on. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon cities start early and sleep early. This was different, and people took care of how the look more than I have seen in other places I have visited for a while (that last part is added to exclude Paris which I have listed as visited although it was for a few stop over hours very early in the morning on a weekend). I walked the streets, and eventually help myself to a donor Kebab to eat (I was having trouble identifying where I could have a meal, and the bar setup (which I learned later were actually places also serving food) didn’t invite me in. I had the donor, and thank god I didn’t ask for it to be spicy, the guy was Indian and I told him to hold on the spices a little (I mentioned that I never trust an Indian’s judgment on spices) and it was spicy nonetheless. The other good thing about it was that he spoke enough English to hold a conversation.
I took my sandwich and eat it while strolling along the Rambla, several acts were on display, music performance or painting and I made it all the way to the port. There I walked around, the weather was refreshing and the walk was pleasant. I walked along the palm stretch I encountered earlier; it looked different this time around and finally made my way back to the Rambla.

Friday, April 17, 2009


And no, it was not the one I took earlier to freshen up. I was walking along the port and there in the middle of a stretch of palm trees that line along the pavement overlooking the activity area in the port the rain started to pour. I had been walking in a light drizzle for a while, and had no worries that this would change to something major. Now, when I was in the middle of this stretch with no potential shelter it started to hammer down. I was not really equipped to this and for some reason I even didn’t pack a raincoat with me coming from Egypt (I am really getting rusty in my travel skills). So suddenly, the area notorious for being alive all day and all night was now empty other than me. No one was willing to venture into this, but I was already wet so what difference does it make. My only major problem was my glasses, which would start to be covered with water hindering visibility. The wind also picked up adding to my situation another element of excitement. Nonetheless I kept on going, and it was actually pleasant to walk. I was recalling Frank Sinatra and the rain in Cairo, which someone mentioned he was surprised we have brown rain. Another image came to mind, Adel Imam acting in one of the famous plays where he was describing having dinner and spilling the soup all over him. He mentioned having his “socks” wet, and here I am feeling the same. I have been there before, probably even worse, back in Canada, on my bike and in the middle of nowhere it started to pour and I was on a high speed stretch. There water came from everywhere, the skies, the bike, and the cars. This time around it was only the water pouring from above that was worrying.

This was nice, cool, refreshing and you could almost feel you own the world just walking there. At the end of this stretch, I came on to the plaza where the old port, a narrow strip right into the sea is accessed. I stopped to look back and the water was still pouring and all reasonable people were taking cover from the rain, guess I was not that reasonable. I walked up to the Gothic Town and weaved through roads. The rain started to calm down a little and more people started to stand the light drizzle and walk the streets. I was wet, but still got to walk in the midst of the old town and see some of the old heritage sites, the part of the fortress wall, the cathedral and other things here and there. I also found a Carrefour and made it in to buy some water, and chips (ended up buying freshly baked bread). I walked back to the hotel, soaked inside out after this walk for a change of cloth.

Fresh Fruit on the Rambla

I woke up at 3, still needing more sleep but excited to go explore the city I have heard a lot about. I was at the heart of the city and was all set to walk. I picked up a shirt and headed out. There was cloud cover but the weather was pretty nice. I stepped into the Rambla and there saw a sea of people walking along. Amazing that again it was still a week day and that so many people were in the streets. In any case it was a delight to walk the street with all these people. Along the way, I found the market, I ventured in. This was an interesting place, fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese meat, fish were all sold here, even nuts and candy. In the narrow lanes people packed to buy the items they needed or to take photos of the whole event. My mind immediately set foot in Elatabbah Market, in downtown Cairo, and mind you was it a huge step, backwards. This was different, pretty organized and definitely the level of cleanliness was high. Some of the fruit stand prepared freshly cut fruits and freshly squeezed juice to the peple. I bought myself a helping of fruit and took a side to consume it. It was interesting to watch the people flock in and out, tourist were easy to spot and so were locals. There was a great vibe to the place. The fruit was nice and so I decided that I would pick up another portion and that I would return here tomorrow.

I made it out of the market and back on the Rambla, as I strolled closer to the port the type of shops in the middle of the street changed. Actually the Rambla is a wide street with sidewalks on both sides, a little narrow though, and one lane either way for cars. The center of the street is a large pedestrian area that has people walking, performers use it as their stage and shops set up to sell different items. The first few blocks are most filled with newspaper stands that also sell souvenirs. As you progress, these stand change to be selling flowers and pets, a more colorful variant to the earlier. Farther down the road painters have taken the street, selling their art and drawing sketches of people at their will. As you come closer to the port, the newsstands start to show up again until the final stretch of the road which is empty (I later understood why). In the mist of all this restaurants setup tables along the way, and performers set their stage to do their act. The seas of people complete the story of the Rambla that is filled with activity.

I finally made the walk to the Colon, or the column celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus, who sailed into Barcelona when he came back after finding the Americas.

Sense of Direction is a bit rusty I might say

Well my nap in the train took me almost all the way to Barcelona, after all I didn’t get much sleep since the morning before (I really consider the nap on the plane as adding to the problem and not relieving it). I slept soundly and I really needed it. Memories of my last train ride popped to mind. It was an overnight trip from Cairo to Edfu in Upper Egypt, and the 12+ hour train was another story. Just the sense on contrast made me enjoy this trip even more (The sense of contrast seems to come to me in many other places). I got of the train in Barcelona and had to get to the central square, Plaça de Catalunya. I knew I had to get the local train or the subway and made my way up to the station. I found machines that dispense tickets, got mine and tried to sort my way to which platform to go. It didn’t make sense to me and the people around were not talking English. So I did my best guess and finally hooped on one route and actually made it there.

I got out of the station and into the square. It was impressive, big and full of people. I imagined at this time the day it would be empty, after all it a business day and I was out there closer to 10 in the morning. I have to figure out where my hotel was, and decided to do it on my own. I had been known to have a good sense of direction, but this one proved tricky. I had to weave in many streets and actually went by the street I was heading for twice, because it was saw small and the map I saw gave me the impression it was significantly larger. In addition the Spanish spelling was slightly different, and I thought I got a different street altogether. I guess I also haven’t traveled for a long time and been acclimatized to my native Cairo which doesn’t need me to think about direction in most places. Finally after venturing into that small street, Place de Anna, I finally arrived at the Hotel Cortes.

Hotel Cortes was a small 3 star hotel, right in the Gothic quarters in downtown of Barcelona and next to the Rambla, the famous of all of Barcelona’s streets. I was early and was hoping that showing up I could get the room as an early check-in, after being denied at first I asked to leave my luggage and popped online for a little while and I got the room.

I guess the travels I have experienced in recent years were pretty diverse, either in very big hotels or really rugged. This was different. The room was pretty small, even the door was small and I thought I wouldn’t fit into it walking straight (Of course that is a bit of exaggeration I haven’t grown to that size yet, but it was 60cm wide, and yes I was so curious that I actually measured it). The room was also pretty small, and I had contrasted what I was seeing and the lobby (if you can call it that) to the photos I recall seeing online. “Man photography is definitely an art”. However, it looked clean and right next to the action, with breakfast and free internet, and for a good price considering I only booked it three days ahead of time, what else would I need.

I really didn’t unpack, after all I am moving on in 2 days and there is no need to unpack. I showered and seemed to, unintentionally I might add, find my way to the bed.

Travel Travel again

How packed could they make airplane seats? This question always comes to mind when I fly, and I discover more limits every time I travel. This time around it was really challenging to move in the space allowed, not sure if I got rusty from not flying for a while, or the leg room is diminishing to make more space for more seats. Other than that fact I guess the flight was great. I took almost no time to check in my luggage, get on the plane, and out the airport in Madrid where I am heading to attend a conference.

Madrid airport again, well I have been in this terminal before, on this very same flight that touches down at 3:45AM. Last time I was on transit heading out to Costa Rica (Eat your heart out, yes I have been to a place you probably haven’t). This time I had to wait to pick up my luggage, so it took a little longer to get out into the main hall of the airport. I was impressed with the time scheduling of the luggage belt which indicated the exact time and duration the belt would be working. Guess this is why it is a major airport serving 70Million passengers every year.

Last time around I learnt that the airport is pretty slow at this hour, I had to wait till 7am for the office that was offering me a room during my transit, which meant I had lost 4 hours of potential sleep. This time around I had a different plan, and less time to kill. I was heading out to Barcelona for the weekend and had already bought train tickets on the high speed train (AVE). I was going to get to the subway which I was made aware starts at 6. So I jollied down to the metro station at the airport to pick up a ticket and here is where I started to realize how crippling it might be to be in Spain and not know Spanish. Actually, I had a hunch trying to book the train ticket online and finding it very hard to find instructions in English (Thank you Google Translate), but finally managed. Also thought I might have some luck with people speaking English here, but apparently it isn’t easy. In the end I picked up a ticket that I thought was to the train station and lingered around to a quiet spot (That very same spot I waited at almost a year ago at the very same airport) and started to read a book I had tagged along. The pleasures of Philosophy is not the kinda’ book you read when you want to sleep. They go and “philosophize” things and use vocabulary that is not very easy to digest (reminds me of a colleague of mine at work who is keen on using words he believes are common, he doesn’t get that they aren’t as common as he thinks). The book was starting to get to me, but lucky the time to hope on the metro was due. I hopped onto the metro line 8 and sat to read the book. Now it really started to get to me and I was almost on the verge of falling asleep. However, I survived till the Ministarious station, where I was supposed to change the line. I really couldn’t figure out where to go and found the Renfe log leading to a gate. Luckily a young lady who knew some English helped me out and I got a ticket to get me from this station to Atocha station where the bullet train leaves.

I arrived at Atocha station and signs appeared to be missing, but I could guess my way and I was going in the right direction. I finally arrived at the train station and only had a reference number for my ticket that I was supposed to go to a machine that would pop the tickets for me. I couldn’t find it and had to ask. I finally got a hold of someone who knew some English and it turns out that this machine is actually in the station, which need the ticket to get into from the first place Duh?, but he got me in with his pass. He didn’t know the location for the machine and then suddenly remembered. He was kind enough to ask me to stay and he dashed to get me the tickets. It was already 6:50Am and the train was scheduled to leave at 7. He got me the tickets and showed me the way. After this it really sank in that I will not be able to move along with on English in this country. I need to learn Spanish in 2 hours (The length of my train ride, which I will probably spend some of it sleeping). I will see what I can do about that.

The train was pretty impressive, I have to say. I do have a thing for traveling with trains but this is probably the best I have been in ever. I would even think of comparing it to the trains in Egypt, but VIA rail would have to do a lot to match this. Te ride was very smooth, and the passengers were also well dressed and business like, and I looked a little shabby around this crowd, not that it really mattered to me. As the train rolled out of station, they distributed headphones (I had been annoyed with the fact that I took my MP3 player and forgot to take my headphones, so now this helps) for in-train entertainment. Darn, they are all in Spanish and even the movie they have on is in Spanish. Lucky they made announcements in Spanish and English, but I really need to learn Spanish now.

As the train started to leave the station, the sun started to rise. I had preselected the train seat under the assumption that I was on the side facing west. I was mistaken and the train rolled with the sun inching up on my end. Nonetheless it was a pleasant view, and I could see the mist rising from the vast stretches of green to either side of the train giving you this Medieval feeling, like being in one of those movies like the 13th Warrior, or the Lord of the ring (I really didn’t like that movie and only saw parts of it, but despite that still sort of popped to mind).

The sun was starting to edge out and the weather had this nice chill to it, 12oC was shown on the bulletin board as I was getting on the train. Great weather really, and as the sun rose, the mist disappeared and you can see the fields on wither sides stretching for miles. The little hills immediately around the train started to get bigger, and you can see the larger mountains and hills in the distance. As the train moved through this terrain it crossed bridges and valleys that added color to the train ride, and made me feel I would enjoy this place, the only thing I need to do is learn some Spanish. Hola’……

The train has internet access, surprise really. I was expecting it might but gave up on the fact when I looked for networks in the station.

Now I have to go to sleep, it’s been a long day thus far.