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

 

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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. In this context, Arabish is the primary affection of the ones protected by Sisi the Magnificent — he of the forcibly becalmed waters, whom they dearly love. AUC Arabish: the patois of the culturally colonized — 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, again, 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

Goodbye, Egypt

gouna

The ghosts of Abu Tig marina

Tomorrow is my last full day in the dusty resort town of El Gouna, Egypt, which is on the Red Sea.

By the time I leave on Saturday, I will have spent a total of 6 months and 28 days here. Long time, but soon I will be a ghost, and the few people whom I did meet and befriend will forget about me quick enough. In no time at all, it will be as if I was never here.

I leave knowing that I met some really nice people, and also hooked up for probably one last time with old acquaintances and family.

One old friend in particular was incredibly generous in paying for a service to guide my wife around at Cairo airport when she came to visit in January. I do not forget things like that.

I came here to escape an America that had elected an abomination as President of the United States. With all the insults he and members of his party were hurling at Americans of my ethnicity, I no longer felt safe to live there.

And so I went to Nice, France, for a few weeks, then came here. I ended up staying in an apartment in Abu Tig marina, then 2 different and quite lovely villas. When I arrived, it was really hot, then it got really cold, now the weather is perfect. Along the way, I was adopted by a cat whom my wife named Sandy.

My main objective coming here was to determine if Gouna would be a suitable place to retire on a modest income.  A secondary one was to lose weight:  I had contracted an illness a few years ago, and the medicine I was given to treat it caused my weight to balloon.

I have come to the conclusion that, for a variety of reasons, Gouna is indeed a lovely place to visit, but… unsuitable for any extended period of time.

There are things here that do get under your skin, so to speak:  the mosquitoes, the flies, the noise in certain parts of Gouna, the annoying tuc tucs, the ubiquitous cigarette smoking, the endless construction, unstable internet connectivity, the workmen who regularly intrude on your rental property while chattering on their phones, the various cliques, especially the entitled ones, and the blistering heat.

It can be quite isolating here to be by yourself for a long period of time.

There is very little to do, unless you’re rich, and have a boat that you can take out for spins to the nearby islands; the beaches on the mainland are quite drab.

Of course there are events, such as squash (which I used to play in my teens) tournaments, music (I was actually once in a rock band) festivals, and kite surfing championships.

There is also tennis and diving and snorkeling in what remains of the reef, the inevitable “desert safaris” that you can take in a rented ATV, horse riding, playing golf, and there are also the bar nightclubs where people go to party — but none of these things hold any interest to me whatsoever, as I am not in my 20s or 30s: I have reached an age where I no longer have as much time left to waste on what I consider largely superficial endeavors.

At a certain point I advertised in a local paper the idea of a book club that would take place at the Gouna library.  There was no interest whatsoever. Gouna is not a place where people are particularly interested in culture (except for the film festival); this is not why they are here:  they come here for the reasons that most people go to high-end resort getaways, which do not include joining book clubs.

I am happy to report that I was able to lose quite a bit weight.  When I return to Florida next week, after spending a few days in NYC, I shall continue with my weight loss program, but will begin to focus on strengthening my muscles and doing cardio workouts on my bicycle to increase my stamina.

I have tried to not lose the weight too quickly, as I did not want my skin to start sagging.

gouna

so long, fat clothes

But I have managed to go from size 44″ waistline to a size 36 in 7 months. Not bad. As a result, I am donating to charity some of the clothes I brought with me. I’m also leaving the electric heater I purchased in Gouna, as well as the famous self-supporting mosinet, a pair of sneakers, a belt, and a few other items– none of which I shall ever need again. I like travelling light, especially after I injured my back when I arrived here, from carrying an overstuffed suitcase, and couldn’t sleep right for a month.

When I return to Florida, I hope that the humidity will restore the elasticity of my skin which has completely dried out in this desert climate, causing lines to appear on my face which were not there before.

That aside, I have a very long trip ahead of me on Saturday.  The plane to Cairo leaves at 5:30am so I have to leave this villa at 3:30am to get to the airport by taxi.  My smartphone just died again, so I cannot use it as an alarm, but I was able to add an alarm clock extension to my Chromebook browser, and it works great.

I was supposed to take the 10am flight from Cairo to JFK, but that has now been delayed to 1PM. This means I will getting back to NY in the evening instead of mid afternoon as I had planned. I will also have a six-hour wait at Cairo airport, prior to taking a very long trip across the Atlantic in economy class.

By the way, on Monday, I plan to catch Jon Hamm in Beirut at the Loew’s theatre on 68th and Broadway. It will be a distinct pleasure to be passing through my old neighborhood, in the city I will always love — but it’s too bad the M104 bus doesn’t stop by Grand Central anymore.

One last thing, I have written quite frequently in this blog since my arrival, but this is the final post I shall be writing while in Egypt.

I have tried to scrupulously record my daily experiences. I ended up writing quite an astonishing amount of material (for me), which I hope to be able to transform into a work of fiction that deals more directly with some of the things I have observed or imagined but not written about in this blog.

All in all, coming to Gouna for an extended period was a worthwhile experience. Inevitably there were a few disappointments along the way, but I am glad to be returning to my home country — despite the absolute chaos in America right now — after such a long sojourn, and once again be with wife and family.

Goodbye, Egypt:  I wish you all the best.

leaving america