Passages

grand central

Litttle boy lost

I had now made it to Grand Central, after a grueling trip that started at dawn in warm Hurghada on the Red Sea, passed through Cairo International and JFK, and ended up on the NYC Airporter Express shuttle bus, with the night cold and blustery.

I had been away from America for seven months, and now it was time to visit my Mum in Westchester.  I was going to spend a few days with her, then, on Tuesday, I would fly to Florida, and finally sleep in my home under my roof.

I stood in the Grand Concourse and looked at the Stars and Stripes and the Grand Central clock.

How many times have I commuted through here? How many times have I said to someone, meet me under the clock? How many times did I look up at Grand Central’s filthy ceiling before they cleaned it up? How many times when I struggled did I clutch a morning 16-ounce can of Bud wrapped in a brown paper bag before they got rid of the benches in the Waiting Hall that the bums and derelicts would call home? How many times did I rush to the Lexington Avenue subway on my way to Wall Street, starting way back when a huge Kodak sign blocked the eastern staircase and the slimy pig was making his first big move with the Hyatt? How much time went by as I remained a little boy in a man’s body, lost in a world that waits for no one?

grand central clock

Meet ya at the clock!

I was in what was once my home town, before it too, changed beyond recognition, thanks in part to Giuliani and then Bloomberg.

And now, I was back, still standing, having lost much of the weight that had disfigured me.

I would visit with Mum for a few days in Westchester, help her out with this and that, and then I would take a car service to the madness that is LGA.  I would search for the counter where I could check my ratty black suitcase (didn’t know I would have to pay and extra $25 for that!), and a short vaguely Indian woman in an official jacket would ask me if I had a Priority Pass and I would reply no, I am just an ordinary person, and an attractive young woman in a smart outfit who was standing nearby would overhear that and grin at me.

bagel

NY bagel with a schmear at Mum’s on Sunday morning. This is what I live for.

True I’ve left a lot on the table, over the years, which is nothing special, but there’s still enough time to make a last run for it.

I believe that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, and despite how I have always — like my doomed Palestinians soul brothers — managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

So there’s still an appetite in me for the new, despite the enormous challenges ahead. I’m nonplussed by articles that claim that Boomers are reaching the end of the line in terms of creativity or thirst to accomplish still more with their lives.

grand central

Metro North platform at GC

Of course there’s the challenge of being older, but to me it’s more a function of being away from places like New York most of the time, thus out of step, with the cultural scene, as well as more mundane things, such as, say, the state of current suburban commute technology. I happened to see a guy use an eTix, on the train to White Plains North that I took. These were introduced last year.

I had never seen this before, and I joked with the conductor, saying how do you punch a smartphone?

The fact is, nowadays, conductors walk around with scanners that they can point at the ticket QR code that can be displayed on a passenger’s smartphone. I thought about thinking about the social and privacy implications, as we passage into the future of train travel, but was too exhausted to go Deep Think, after being on the road and in the air for some 32 hours straight.

At any rate, I’m unlikely to ever return to Egypt.  That is not the future for me.

The seven-month stay in Gouna made that obvious.

allah's gifts

The etching reads: “And in Allah you will find prosperity and grace”

And now I was back in New York. I made it past TSA at LGA with a baggage snag (the exquisite Asfour crystal present my uncle had given me in Cairo was the culprit, as it went through the X-ray machine: apparently crystal shows up black and they can’t tell what the object is) and then found myself sitting in an empty row on shiny new seating of a gleaming, two-week old Airbus 321.  This is the same aircraft model that crashed in the Sinai in October 31st, 2015.

But there was to be no crash that day.

Three hours later I would land in a Florida that was a bright shimmering green, with my beautiful wife awaiting me.

I was back.

leaving america

 

Back in the USA

gouna

Cairo International Airport

I wrote this post on Sunday April 15th, in NY. It describes events that took place on Saturday April 14th, 2018.

Seven months in Gouna, Egypt; now I’m in transit, as I head back home. It’s the second leg of a long journey — a grueling 32 hour or so trip.

After going through redundant security checkpoints and pat downs and luggage tafteesh in the International Departures wing at Cairo airport, I sat in the large waiting lounge at Gate 5. My flight was the 12:30PM Egyptair flight MS985 back to JFK.

I sat somewhere in the back of a rectangular waiting room, strategically placing myself near the bathroom, and looked around me.

Quite the scene.

A number of Salafist-looking passengers: dark-skinned men in their mid thirties with huge black beards and flowing robes, their wives in niqab (ie, garbed from head to toe in black veils). Oddly, their kids spoke perfect English.

Also, a few young women of uncertain European provenance, attached to their older Egyptian beaux; various middle class “normal” Egyptian families, chatting happily in Arabic; a wiry, medieval-looking ancient Yemenite with a hooked nose, white beard, flowing white robe, skull-cap and cheap sandals also caught my attention; a small group of elderly and quite merry men and women, sitting around a table, playing a card game with loud whooping gusto.

I smiled when I heard their accents, as they razzed each other after each hand, speaking in authentic American Black English, instead of that stilted, hard-to-understand, clumsy, mechanical English one often hears when traveling overseas.

In Gouna I soon grew tired of that pseudo fluent Arabish. or Englabic, if you prefer, that Egyptians with pretensions tend to favor. Is there anything more pathetic than two native-speaking Egyptians talking what is effectively creole to one another?

Maybe it’s that some people nowadays feel they have to speak English as a lingua franca, simply to land in a linguistic middle ground.

But for some Egyptians, it’s thought to convey sophistication, particularly if they actually speak English well; it signifies belonging to an elite club. real or imagined, of those who want to ensure that their eldest son has a foreign passport via marriage to some handpicked US or German or English skank, such that as soon as the Islamic hammer eventually comes down, if it ever does, there’s a port to wait out the storm — until the dance of the corrupt, revolving martinets begins anew.

I had placed myself strategically by the bathroom, for I loathe using airplane toilets, and noticed that quite a few dudes get up and go to the back, somewhere around the corner and out of sight. I thought they were going for a smoke, so I took a peek, and discovered that in reality they were performing their noon prayers, for Allah was going to save them all from malediction — please forgive the awful pun — in America.

Soon it was time to board. This was a zoneless free for all, with a long line, that many people cut in, in the peerless Egyptian way, not caring about others or social reciprocity, but, instead, dedicated to pushing their own selfish interests, because, after all, the traffic lights don’t work, and everyone knows the game’s fixed.

The passenger boarding bridge we had to line up in was long and quite hot, as there were no fans or air conditioning. Eventually  I got to my seat, and found a space in the upper racks for my trusty Filson duffel bag, sat down, and waited.  And waited. And waited. Around 1PM the cabin door was closed, and the plane began to move: we were on our way to NY!

But not quite.

After taxing on the tarmac for while, the captain came on and announced we hard to return to gate to fix a water leak. There was a collective groan, and return we did:  for the left aisle in the back of the plane was flooded with water; a pipe in the fight attendants’ station had popped.

We waited as airport maintenance men came on to fix it. I wondered what would happen if they couldn’t. Would we have to disembark, hop on another plane, after our luggage is transferred, or come back the next day?  Already this plane was five hours late from its official departure time. I had no appetite for going to Cairo for the night, and coming back on Sunday, but luckily the problem was eventually fixed, and we were on our way by 2:30PM.

Anyone who has ever flown for 11+ hours in economy class knows what’s it like, especially around the 7th hour, when your body begins to rebel at being constrained in tight quarters for such a long period of time, and having to deal with the screaming children, the smell of feet as the shoes come off, the snoring, the smell of airplane food in a fuselage that is being pumped with recycled air, the gradually deteriorating state of the bathrooms, the kid behind you kicking the back of your seat.

Most of the conversations around me were in Arabic, as you would expect, and as I sat in my aisle seat, often being bumped by these behemoth moon-faced women in sombre abayas, their hair carefully dissimulated by some version of what they believed was an authentic interpretation of Islamic modesty from the time of the Prophet, as they waddled to the bathroom, but I gritted it out, and finally, by 8PM, we had arrived in New York.

I was home. It took half an hour to get off of the plane, and finally I was no longer its prisoner, or constrained in any way by anything having to do with fucking Egypt. It was shocking to see the amount of detritus strew about the cabin, even in Business Class — Egyptians like nothing more than leaving garbage everywhere they go, just like in the streets of Cairo or on the shores of the Red Sea.

No matter, I was glad that I was free of having to deal with Egyptians and their schtick, of which, quite frankly, I had grown massively tired: something about their unctuous passive-aggressive manners had become finger-in-the-throat grating.

I approached the customs and passport control area.

It used to be that there was one line for US citizens, and another for everyone else. No more.  Not only do you have to deal with these fancy machines that read your passport and take your pic then spit out a piece of paper with your face and travel details printed on it, but — yikes! — I wasn’t done with the baladi hordes yet, as you then actually have to stand in the same line with all the latter-day bashas and hijabis and the mutadayeneen with the beards and the skullcaps and the temporary visas and Egyptian passports and complicated stories and it takes forever as they get interrogated each one at length going through, and fingerprinted like they’re being booked at Tombs.

Finally, it was my turn.

The agent took my passport, held it up in the air, looked at me then said, rapid fire:  what countries did you visit and for how long?

Left seven months ago for the Red Sea, I replied, and now I’m back.

The border control guy smiled, handed me back my passport, and said welcome home, Sir.

I was back in the USA!

leaving america

Out of Egyptian minutes

cairo airport.jpg

I’m writing this on Saturday, April 14th, at Cairo International Airport. It’s 8am.  Three and half hours wait before I can board the flight back to NY.

I was able to access the Internet via the non-secure (ie they don’t support https) free WIFI here, but they only give you 30 minutes gratis. So I caught up on the attack on Syria; it looks like it’s over for now, judging by the news, and that my flight will leave as planned.

That’s a tremendous relief; but had the flight been cancelled or further delayed (it was originally supposed to leave at 9:30am, but now boarding is at 11 something, and the flight is supposed to take off 30 minutes past noon.

I inquired about upgrading to Business Class when I arrived from El Gouna. The ticket agent quoted $500, and apologized for it being so high, but explained to me that my ticket was class 0, which he characterized as “low-class.”

Fine, so I’ll remain in steerage with all the other low brows.

Leaving Gouna ended up being quite the adventure.

I stopped eating on Thursday, because I cannot tolerate going to the bathroom on airplanes.

By the time I arrive in NY, it will have been 3 days without food.

But Mum in NY where I am going first, before continuing on to Florida on Tuesday, is going to have some nice soup waiting for me, and some ham too.

It’s been 7 months since I have had ham (I don’t even know if you can buy it in Egypt), and one good thing about that — apart from going back to eating normal American food — is that it will be guaranteed to NOT produce stomach issues.

Then I arranged for the real estate agent to come by, so we could settle accounts. He said he would be there early in the morning on Friday.  The idea was that he would arrange for the laundry to be picked up, and would return the balance of the $200 I left him when I moved to cover utilities.

I waited and waited, trapped on my last day in Gouna waiting indoors for this guy, and then finally I was able after numerous emails to get in touch with him at 1PM and he acted like he didn’t remember that agreement.

So I said, look, I am leaving the house at 3:30am tonight, so if you want to inspect the villa for any damage and get the utilities bill for the month from Oroscom so we can straighten things out, then it better be soon. He said he would call back in 1 hour. I never heard from him again. Maybe he forgot again, or maybe he figured if he didn’t show up, that he could just pocket the difference.

I packed my bags, and threw out the garbage, and decided to try to nap at 7PM for a few hours, because I knew I wouldn’t sleep a wink on the long flight back. I set the Galax 5 on alarm for 2am, and started to doze in front the TV. Finally by 10 or so, I dozed off but woke up shortly thereafter from a stinging sensation on my hands and leg.  I looked at them, pissed; welts all over. A particularly vicious skeeter had managed to get in the house on my last night. So I sprayed myself with foul-smelling OFF!, and lit a citronella candle, and turned on all the light in the living room. I didn’t get bit after that, but I didn’t sleep either. I am really glad I am finally getting away from El Gouna pestering insects that ruin the quality of life there.

Around 2am, I shaved and showered, made sure I took care of any remaining business, and then kicked back to watch CNN on the crappy TV (non HD, and very poor reception through the standard Gouna fiber connection). As I waited for the taxi, my Mum emailed to tell me her followup visit with her doc went great, so that was terrific news.  I’m getting ready to leave and then suddenly on CNN they announce Trump is going to give a press conference about Syria. They hinted that the missile strike had already started. Shit. I mean not to be horribly insensitive, but would that mean my 12:30PM flight to JFK would be delayed even more, or worse, cancelled?

The taxi guy showed up on time, and then he basically careened at high speeds (the speedometer read 90km, or 55mph) over pitch dark desert roads with lots of speed bumps — which did wonders for my spine, and the cab’s shocks were kinda worn down — but we finally got there okay.  I left him a nice tip, because now I have to get rid of the extra Egyptian money I have left: a thick wad of bills that amounts to a little over 30 dollars.

So at this point, I am getting a little miffed.  I wanted a nice orderly exit from El Gouna, but instead of that, the real estate guy never shows, the skeeters take their vengeance one last time, Trump announced some sort of missile operation on an Arab country that’s not that far away, and I’m stuck in a car with a crazy driver in the middle of the desert and then I have to lug heavy luggage around with a sore back.

cairo

check out the spelling of “minutes”

At Terminal 2 in Hurghada, I go through the tedious two security lines (one to get in the door, the other to access the departure lounge:  it must be a make-work thingie), check my big valise all the way to NY, and wait for the plane. We board soon enough, and then they close the cabin door (there’s only one open, up front), and a stewardess (or should I say flight attendant) announces the start of the Emergency Instructions thing.

Screens drop down, and a video starts rolling.  But instead of instructions, it’s a religious person who starts reciting part of a sura from the Quran.  So here we are, idling on the tarmac, with missiles flying into Syria, and there’s that. I remind myself I have to watch the final episode of the Looming Tower on Hulu next week.

We arrived safely at Cairo airport, despite the briefly alarming Quran thing, and I went to the second floor causeway (where I hooked up with my wife in January), and ordered a large Cafe Latte. 50LE, which is highway robbery, but I have another three 50 LE bills to get rid, and lots of time to kill.  There’s three hours to go right now. I think I will at least 1 more, but only after browsing in the Duty Free shop to see if there is anything I can get for Mum or my wife that will eat up whatever Egyptian money I have remaining.

I tried to call my aging uncle in Cairo to say goodbye, but alas, could not get through: I was out of Egyptian cell phone minutes, which is kinda of shambolic.
leaving america