Family Loss

By , February 11, 2016

This past weekend I delivered the eulogy at my Aunt Mary’s burial mass. Unsurprisingly, I spent much of the 48 hours prior thinking about what I would say. As I began composing what would become the eulogy I found myself lamenting not just the death of my beloved aunt, but the disappearance of an entire way of life that she represented.

The house in which I grew up was next door to that of my aunt and uncle, and most of my earliest childhood memories include them as often as they do my own parents. My two older brothers blur together with my three cousins next door. Numerous other relatives lived within either walking, or short driving, distance, and my entire childhood in Hawthorne is an unending melange of family members coming and going. Most notably, Sundays were full of family, as my grandparents had always come to Aunt Mary’s house every week after mass, which meant that all the other relatives usually came, too. The cast varied, but every Sunday, week after week for 25 or 30 years, members of the Gioia, Dragotto, Galatioto, Cicinelli, Leone, and Gallante families, to name but a few, came together to eat, drink, talk, play pinochle, share family stories, or watch television. I have but the dimmest recollection, if even any at all, of my Sicilian grandparents, but the Sunday tradition continued even after their deaths. My oldest brother has the clearest memories of these weekly gatherings, and he says it wasn’t unusual for him to be one of 15 or 20 children present, along with countless adult aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, spouses, and others in attendance every Sunday.

For me, being surrounded by family in some capacity was a constant, until one day, it wasn’t. Crime in Los Angeles, especially the area in which we lived, had grown so bad that we had no choice but to move. My father owned a shoe store, and after yet another robbery at gunpoint my parents decided to sell the house and the store and move six hours north to Sonoma County. While the move was undoubtedly for the best in terms of safety, and clean air, it meant we suddenly had no family anywhere nearby. We weren’t the only ones, either. Family by family, we all left Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, moving to cities that were safer and serener, but also sterile and solitary. Where once we saw family every day, and gathered en masse after mass every Sunday, we now see each other perhaps every 10 to 15 years, at either a wedding or a funeral. Case in point: this weekend I met adults who were infants the last time I saw them.

I know ours wasn’t the only large family of Italians that once gathered at least once a week, and I’m equally certain that most who did, no longer do. The breakup of our clan mirrors that of most immigrant families in America. Before the 1970s, it was unusual if first and second generation immigrant families did not live, if not on the same block as multiple family members, then within a mile or two of nearly all their relatives. A family bought a house, and everyone moved in. As the family grew, or could afford to buy another home, they bought the house next door, or across the street. This began with immigrants congregating in specific parts of town, as when my grandfather came to the U.S. and moved into a tenement on Elizabeth Street, in New York’s Little Italy, because that block was populated not just by Sicilians, but primarily by Sicilians specifically from his hometown of Castellammare del Golfo. The next block was also Sicilian, but Sicilians from a different city. It was no surprise that when he met his wife, who lived on the same block as him, she was another Castellammarese.

Even as the family moved West, first to Detroit, then later to Los Angeles, the tradition of families living in close proximity continued, as did the tradition of immigrants from the same region moving to the same part of a city, and we were but one of many large Italians families living in Hawthorne. Living amongst others from the same Old Country made sense when it came time to marry off the younger, American-born, generation. In fact, when the Depression hit, my grandparents sent their eldest son to Los Angeles to scout for opportunity. He met with another Sicilian family and sent word for the rest of the family to move. The Gioias trekked across the country and stayed for a few nights with that family, the Dragottos, until they found a home of their own. Later, that eldest Gioia son would marry a Dragotto daughter, and the youngest Gioia, my recently departed and dearly missed Aunt Mary, would marry a younger Dragotto son, my Uncle Jack. (It was something of a minor crisis in my family when my father didn’t marry the Sicilian girl who’d been hand-picked for him by his family, and instead married a Mexican girl, but she was quickly adopted into the family and in short time became as Italian as anyone else.)

The automobile, then the interstate highway system, then the airplane, and now the internet have all served to give people greater mobility, and have also served to break up the close familial unit. As a society, we’ve tried to replace family with friends, often united by some shared interest. Whether it’s fans of the same sports team gathering regularly to watch their team’s games, either at a stadium or someone’s home, science fiction buffs attending weekly role-playing game sessions, or friends who bonded over an appreciation for some sub-genre of music meeting regularly at live shows or discotheques to listen, and dance, to their favorite bands together, there is usually some unifying force around which these friends rally, but whatever that force, it never seems as strong as the bond that family provides.

Friends move, interests change, former best friends marry and begin to raise children, and disputes or breakups polarize friendships. Perhaps most notably, age separates friends. Few, if any, groups of friends run the age gamut from infant to septuagenarian, as common interests, not to mention societal mores, don’t typically promote such interactions. The bond of family offers something else, a sort of true connection and shared history, the weight of which can’t be matched within a circle of friends. Your grandchildren will never care how your friend’s friend met his wife, but they will relish the tale of how your grandparents met.

What does this all mean? Hell if I know. About the only thing that I do know is that my generation had something important, something that dated back 200,000 years to the emergence of man and lasted until about the mid-1970s, taken from it during our childhood, and that subsequent generations will never even have that something to begin with. I think not having a large family in close proximity at all times has created a massive and unfillable void in our collective lives, and try as we might to replace that need with the ephemeral substitute of friends, we’ll never find a true replacement for what a family offers.

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Welcome to the Latitude Society

By , October 30, 2015

Some years ago I wrote a blog about the Jejune Institute. I waited quite some time before posting that blog, because Jejune was something best discovered without assistance. I stumbled across strange stickers and unusual signs and gradually pieced together a path that led me to the Institute’s door, and I didn’t want to spoil the opportunity for another to feel that sense of wonder, with some fear mixed in for good measure, as he tried to decide whether or not he’d accidentally joined a cult. Only after the Jejune Institute began publicly advertising its own existence as a sort of “real world game experience” did I feel it was acceptable to share some information about it here.

Now, some years later, I’m here to share details of a related experience, this time as a member of the Latitude Society. Sadly, while my Jejune post came while Jejune was still operating, this post is only possible now that the Latitude has come to a close.

Latitude Invitation Handoff

As the Jejune Institute wound down, I befriended several of its creators, most notably Jeff Hull. While I never quite knew who did what with regards to that project, Jeff was head honcho at Nonchalance, the company that had produced the experience, and someone brimming with ideas concerning the repurposing of public spaces for secret games and clandestine art projects. When Jeff contacted me in June of last year to let me know he had “an object he’d like to pass onto me” I was pretty excited. It was with considerable disappointment that I had to inform him that I was getting married in less than two weeks’ time, and would not return to the Bay Area until mid-August. It’s a testament to my belief in the creations of Nonchalance that, as excited as I was for my pending nuptials and subsequent honeymoon on the continent, I felt no small amount of regret that I could not immediately partake in the new project. Had it been anything other than my wedding, I’d quite possibly have postponed the affair by a week or two for the opportunity to return to the magical land of Elsewhere, to which I was sure Jeff’s “object” would grant me entry.

Eventually I did meet with Jeff, at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes columbarium, a place of resonance to me as a Jejune member. There, Jeff explained that he was inviting me to join the Latitude Society, an ancient community that has existed in secret for centuries. By accepting his invitation I was bound to a code of absolute discretion, and was not to share any information about my invitation, or the society, with anyone else, ever. Or else. As such, I’m only sharing now because Jeff has closed the society and posted a long blog of his own describing its creation and spilling its secrets.

If you want to know the nuts and bolts of what was involved with joining and participating in the Latitude Society there are now plenty of “walkthrough” web sites and blogs, so I’ll spare you the minutiae. The short story is that the invitation Jeff handed me was a plain white credit card that unlocked a door to a non-descript building in San Francisco. Once inside, the house began to interact with me. Lights flashed, noises sounded, and I soon found myself sliding down a curved slide, in absolute darkness, then crawling through a narrow, carpeted tunnel, also completely dark, before emerging into a library of sorts. An open book read itself to me, complete with moving pictures, as if by magic, after which I made my way to a rathskeller where I poured myself a drink. Nowhere along the line did any other human interact with me; the house itself was alive. There was more, including a sort of scavenger hunt through the Mission District, before I ended up in a secret video game arcade where I played Asteroids using a bronze coin I’d acquired along the way. The game was interrupted by a digitized face on the screen (even the video games come to life when the Latitude is involved) who told me what to do next.

Besides being an amazing afternoon’s experience in its own right, a door had been opened to something that Jejune had only partially offered– a recondite family of likeminded individuals. That was the true magic of the Latitude Society, for once initiated (indoctrinated?) you were welcome to invite others of like heart and mind to join the community. The community was based upon the notion of “experiential tithing,” which is a fancy way of saying we were all encouraged to create and share experiences, talents, and ideas with one another, with the goal being to give more than you get. There are other aspects to the society, including myths, lore, and rituals, that I still won’t share, and I hope others won’t, either.

The Latitude Society introduced me to hundreds of amazing individuals, and I’ve developed friendships with many that will last long after the demise of the organization. It granted me access to the artistic endeavors and creations of so many talented and enthusiastic people, as well as the chance to simply sit and discuss myriad topics of mutual interest with people whose knowledge and opinions I value. Further, it gave me the opportunity to share my own creative visions and passions, and allowed those compeers (for that is what one society member calls another) with whom my notions resonated to partake in that which I was offering. Much of what I shared with compeers were my bartending skills at twice-monthly speakeasies in the rathskeller, though I had a number of other experiences to tithe had the society lived on. Sadly, it has come to an end. Hasn’t it?

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Meet the New Car, (Almost) Same as the Old Car

By , December 9, 2011

In a post from many years ago I introduced you to my then-automobile Tiffany. She served me well, Tiffany did. The massive back seat and trunk held my entire DJ rig, so getting to gigs was a cinch. Together we drove all over America, hitting 46 of the 48 continental states (sorry Florida and South Carolina, I’ll get to you eventually), and D.C. She was even my home for about two years. Unfortunately, in April of this year I had to sell her, in part because her transmission needed rebuilding (to the tune of three grand), but mostly because I was considering a move to New York where I knew I wouldn’t need a car. It made sense to sell her, then buy another car later when I returned to California.

Well, I’ve returned to California, so on Monday I bought… a car. I don’t really have a name for this one. Yet.

Tiffany was a Meadow Green 1957 Chrysler Windsor sedan. The new car is a Hunter Green 1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon. Isn’t that weird? I totally did not set out to find the same car. I was actually thinking of getting a ’60s Chevrolet, or even a ’70s Cadillac or Buick, but when I saw the wagon I instantly realized it was the car for me. Do you know how much stuff I can fit into the back of that thing? Gigs will be soooo easy now!

This car seems to have at least as much pep as Tiffany. Although the engine is a bit smaller (331 cubic inch v. 354), the four-barrel carburetor (Tiffany had but one barrel) seems to compensate, as does the dual exhaust system. As one can see from the prominently displayed “250” on the rear hatch, this car can produce 250 horsepower. Of the 2700 Windsor wagons built in ’56, only the few that had that carb/ exhaust combo were designated 250s. There are probably very few such cars left, and I’m happy to own one of them.

Besides the features under the hood, the car sports lots of intricate details that modern carmakers eschew in favor of uniformity. The rear window rolls down, there is some plaid paneling inside, and the air vent is super neat, just to name a few. None of those things show up in the pictures below, but if you ever take a ride with me I’ll be sure to show them all to you.

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

1956 Chrysler Windsor wagon

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My Best Worst Website Ideas

By , August 24, 2011

All the talk of late has been speculation as to whether another tech bubble is in the works. If so, there are no doubt dozens of venture capitalists running amok, eager to throw money at anyone with an idea for a website. Since I’m not the techie type, I’ll never get my hands on any of that money, but here are some ideas I’ve had of late for terrible web pages. I hereby donate them to anyone who wants them– go ahead and get rich with ‘em if you can. It’s on me.

1. Bad Dating Site– Are you and your significant other constantly fighting? Beating one another? Cheating? This is the site for you! Monitor just how bad it is using our advanced in-site metrics. Share your lack of progress towards happiness with your friends using graphs and counters on your profile page. Proudly display “THIS RELATIONSHIP HAS GONE XXX DAYS WITHOUT AN INFIDELITY” and watch as the number grows each day, or resets to zero when you finally lose the will to resist your secretary’s advances.

2. Fiendbook– Are you embarrassed by your profile pic on the local law enforcement agency’s web page? Imagine Megan’s Law, but with social networking functionality! Interact with other criminals to boost your sphere of influence, and garner new partners-in-crime at the same time. Maybe you’re planning a bank heist and need a getaway driver. A simple search on our page is all you need. Or are you looking for the scoop on potential victims? Which local child is most prone to fall for the “lost puppy” scam, and which will eagerly hop into a windowless van if candy is promised? What area widow is poised to part with her former husband’s vast fortune? Does the owner of that corner market keep a gun behind the register, or can you waltz in with impunity and rob the joint? At last, a site that has the answers you seek.

3. Geolocation for Drug Dealers– If you sell illegal drugs, or merely use them, you will be interested in what we are offering. No longer will you have to stand for hours on the corner peddling heroin to junkies craving crack. Likewise, the days of being forced to smoke angel dust because you couldn’t locate the LSD you sought are over. Dealers can check in using our app on any GPS-enabled mobile phone and list what they have to offer. Users then know exactly where to go for what they need. It’s a win-win. As a built-in security feature, you have to answer the question “are you a police officer?” with a “no” before being allowed to log in.

4. Rate-A-Hooker– We borrowed some functionality from the above drug dealer app to enable prostitutes to check in at the street corner of their choice, but the real winner here is the John. Thanks to crowdsourcing, you no longer have to wonder “how much?” or “is she any good?” That’s right, once you’ve used her, you the user can rate and review her. Was she a five-star experience, or did her service seem lacking? What are her normal working hours? Does she have any diseases? No more guesswork for you, and no more disappointing “dates.” Special log-in section for pimps allows them to offer daily deals, group rates, or whatever specials they’re running, as well as track their hoes and make sure they’re out there earning that money.

5. Puppies2you.com– Everyone loves a puppy! But what’s the one problem with a puppy? That’s right, it grows up to be a dog. No one wants a dog! Puppies are so cute and funny and tiny and fluffy and omg they are just the best. Dogs are just kind of there. Worse, there are so many kinds of dogs, who wants to be stuck with just one breed for a decade or more? Fear not, for puppies2you.com is here to make everything better. Once a user signs up for our service, an adorable puppy is delivered to his or her door. A month later, we return with a new puppy of a different breed, selected by the user, to replace the old puppy. The returned puppy is taken out to our custom-built van, euthanized, and chopped into the new puppy’s first meal. That’s right, we recycle the old, unwanted puppy. We’re a green business! Everyone wins with puppies2you.com!

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Spider-Man is Dead

By , June 22, 2011

Wednesday is my favorite day of the week, because that is the day new comic books hit the shelves. Back when I was a super busy person, whenever possible I made Wednesday my day off, and spent the afternoon drinking coffee and reading comics. Now, even with my life is in its holding pattern, and ample free time on my hands, I still treat Wednesday as a sort of respite from the rest of my life and hunker down with the new issues.

caveat: This blog contains spoilers regarding issues 159 and 160 of Ultimate Spider-Man.

Quick crash course in comics for non-fans: There are two Spider-Mans… Spider-Men? Anyway. The first debuted in 1962, the second, known as Ultimate Spider-Man, in 2000. They are part of separate comic “universes,” and their stories are in no way related. What happens to one in no way affects the other. Lucky for Spider-Man ’62, because today Ultimate Spider-Man died.

Before anyone chimes in that comic book characters seldom stay dead for long, let me point out that unlike in the main continuity, death in the Ultimate line of comic books is final. Many major characters have been killed, including Wolverine, Magneto, Cyclops, Professor X, Daredevil, and Wasp, and none have returned from the dead as characters often do in other comic books. So if Peter Parker is dead, he’s probably staying dead.
Death of Ultimate Spider-Man
Opinions differ, but in my mind Ultimate Spider-Man is not only vastly superior to the longer-running original series, it is hands down my favorite comic book series of all time. The characters seem far more believable than those of any other comic book, and the interactions and stories are as gripping those found in any “real” literature. The Ultimate characters talk and act the way I imagine such people would in real life, and very little seems gratuitous or contrived. And they make hilarious jokes.

As for the story arc and death, as with most of the rest of the series, it was epic and awesome and some other adjectives, too. Seeing Aunt May kill Electro was an unexpected moment of bad-assery, and the final moment, when Peter died knowing that though he failed to save Uncle Ben, he did save his Aunt, well– that was a clever and powerful moment, and the perfect book-ending to his tragic life.

I don’t have a deeper point to this blog. I’m pretty much just writing it because I’m sad. Even though Peter Parker is not a real person, his death affected me rather deeply. For 11 years I’ve read along as Brian Michael Bendis has unfolded his story, so it seems in some ways as if a real person has died. Apparently someone else will put on the costume and assume the identity of Spider-Man, and I hope the comic will continue to be great, but it won’t be the same without Peter Parker.

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Scoring My Life

By , December 31, 2010

In November, while I was packing my life away, I found an old journal in which I had begun to keep a sort of score for each year of my life. I had a running tally going, with each year earning either a 1 or a 0. If the year in question had been better than the previous year, it earned a point. If it had been worse, it did not.

What with today being the final day of 2010 and all, it seems like the perfect time to share my scores with you. The journal was from many years ago, so I have filled in scores for the subsequent years. I suppose without some sort of commentary, it will be a meaningless set of numbers, so I will try to annotate it in places.

1995 1
1996 0
1997 1
1998 1
1999 1
2000 1 (I fell in love for the first time)
2001 1
2002 1
2003 1 (2001-3 is a big, long blur of contentment)
2004 0 (Mom got sick)
2005 -1 (worst year ever)
2006 1 (how could it have been worse than ’05? also, pretty good in general– traveled for first time)
2007 0 (transitional crappy year of blah and bad judgement)
2008 1/-1 (started super happy but it all fell apart by the end)
2009 1 (moved from LA to Oakland, made new friends, had best summer of life)
2010 0 (everything fizzled out, ended up homeless in Africa)

My score in life thus far is 9 out of a possible 16. That would have been a failing grade in school, but I have a hunch life is graded on a curve, so I don’t feel so bad. Plus, I hope I have at least a few more years left in me to run up the score a bit.

As you can see, I had a long run of good years, followed by some uneven times, and while my recent life has been somewhat lacking in the happiness department, I have a sense that better things are to come. For the first time in six years I feel little sparks of my old self flickering inside of me.

My life has been peppered with so many dreadful events since 2004, and I feel as though I numbly staggered through them without being affected in any meaningful way. It’s as if I stopped caring that bad things were happening to me, and felt no desire to seek good things. I let life wash over me. I bet there is a clearer way to state this, but I find myself unable to do so at the moment. The best way to put it is to say that for nearly six years I have felt extremely detached from the world around me: I could see my life falling apart around me, but had no drive or desire to prevent it from happening.

Now I care again. Of course, my life is an absolute wreck, but at least I want to fix it. I don’t know if I can do so, and I may be doomed, but that is not as important to me right now as the fact that I don’t want to be doomed. Before, ironically, when I still had the means to prevent it, I didn’t care that my life was disintegrating, and even if I now fail at rebuilding it, knowing that I once again want a happy life makes all the difference.

Do I have a New Year’s Resolution? To take active steps to make sure in a year’s time my score for 2011 is +1.

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Cairo, Egypt – Overview

By , December 28, 2010

If you were to take New York City, eliminate all the health, traffic, and building codes, and let it develop for 200 years, you would probably end up with a place a lot like Cairo. I cannot begin to describe this city in any way that will not read like major exaggeration, but nothing I am about to say is even slightly overstated. This is all unbiased truth. I came to Cairo with no preconceived notion about the city at all. I just knew there were pyramids and I wanted to see some.

The first thing I noticed was the driving. My hostel arranged to have a driver pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hostel for the ridiculously affordable price of $12.00, so of course I jumped at the chance, especially when they mentioned he would be waiting for me at the airport with a sign with my name on it! All my life I have disembarked planes and seen all the sign-holding drivers and felt jealous. I always look for my name, just in case, even though I know full well there will be no driver there waiting for me. One of my less-than-exciting life-long dreams has been to come out into the terminal and read my name on a sign, and at last that dream has become a reality. That was a huge digression, but it was a big deal to me, so whatever. Where was I? The driving. Jesus. Every street and freeway in Cairo feels like the Indianapolis 500 being run at 5 miles per hour. No one stays in a lane, and no one yields to anyone. Every single driver is constantly veering and cutting off every other driver, and every time there is any sort of opening, a car instantly races into it. The end result is permanent gridlock, and unending start/ stop herky-jerky driving. Every driver is also honking his horn about 10 times per minute, so the city is a ceaseless cacophony of car horns. Every single car bears evidence of multiple collisions, and you see cars hitting each other quite regularly.

No provision whatsoever has been made for pedestrians. There are no signals and no crosswalks. Well, rarely are there, and when there are it is meaningless, for no one acknowledges them, in much the same way that the painted lanes in the roads are ignored. Pedestrians cross by walking directly into moving traffic at any point in the street they wish. That is really, honestly, truly, not-lying, the ONLY way to cross a street here. You must walk directly in front of a moving car and trust that the car will stop or veer around you. They always seem to do so, sometimes at the last possible moment, and always with a honk of the horn, but crossing a busy street feels like a real-life game of Frogger. Even on the freeways, pedestrians are constantly darting in and out of traffic. Also, on freeways, pedestrians hail cabs and buses, and the cabs and buses stop for them! It is madness, and a complete and utter failure of the system, for everything is congested when it needn’t be. If drivers in Cairo drove like drivers elsewhere, traffic would flow, as it does elsewhere. Sadly, that is not the case.

The second thing I noticed was the air. Because I COULD SEE IT. And I don’t mean like in Los Angeles where you can sometimes see a bit of haze on the horizon. I mean the air in Cairo right in front of your face is visible. And taste-able. There is a permanent cloud of soot and exhaust hanging in the air around you, and I am pretty sure a day breathing the air in Cairo is about the equivalent to smoking three packs of cigarettes.

Another common event here is being approached by someone trying to sell you something you don’t want, and doing so by trying to strike up a pointless conversation with you. About three times per block someone will ask, “what is your name,” or “where are you from,” or “what are you looking for?” If you do anything other than ignore them and walk away, they will try to steer you into a friend’s perfume shop, or shoe store, or whatever, by pretending to be your best friend. They won’t say they get a kickback from the shop owner, but rather will act as if they know you must want to shop there and they are doing you a huge favor by bringing you there. It is ridiculous and transparent, but they think they are being very clever, and when you don’t respond they sometimes get upset and curse at you.

Other things– cats roam the streets the way pigeons or squirrels do in other cities. You see hundreds of scrawny, feral cats darting about. In Alexandria, one of the cats scratched me, so I may die of rabies soon. I am hoping said cat had not licked his paw just prior to lashing out at me. Speaking of the local animals, about five minutes after I began exploring downtown Cairo I saw a dead dog lying on the curb, paws up, covered in flies. I have never seen that anywhere in my life, but there it was, right in what is said to be the Times Square of Cairo. In a city that treats the street like a trash bin, I suppose it is to be expected. Speaking of which, trash cans are such a rarity here that it is common to see people of all description cavalierly tossing their trash onto the sidewalk as they walk.

The final thing I’ll point out today is the lack of a queueing system here. No one lines up or waits for anything. Whether it is to buy a subway token, a sandwich, or a ticket to an exhibit, everyone elbows and cuts in front of everyone else (much the way they drive) and unless you also push your way to the front, you will never get anywhere.

I am never one to say any item or culture or person or ideology is good or bad, better or worse, or make value judgements of that nature. I firmly believe that every culture, no matter how different from mine or anyone else’s, is neither better nor worse than another, merely different, and my lack of familiarity or understanding of it does not make it wrong or bad. But by golly, I have to say that Cairo blows. There is some neat stuff here, sure, and the exchange rate makes it ridiculously cheap for an American to visit, but, and I hate to say this, at times it feels positively uncivilized here. I’m having a blast, don’t get me wrong– I can enjoy damn near anything– but I sure as hell would never live here. Mostly, I hope I don’t have rabies.

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Cairo, Egypt – Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza

By , December 25, 2010

The Sphinx is drowsy,
Her wings are furled:
Her ear is heavy,
She broods on the world.

                        -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I knew I would be on the road and alone for Christmas, and when I realized last week that I would be in Cairo today, I decided to spend my Christmas visiting Giza to see the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that is still standing. I have to say, based on the treatment it is receiving from Egypt, the real wonder is that it hasn’t collapsed like its peers.

After my visit to Cairo’s museum, the appalling lack of organization at Giza came as no surprise. That did not make it any less disappointing and depressing. I think the best way to convey Egypt’s presentation of her centerpiece is to describe my visit.

I decided the most affordable, and likely fastest, way to get to the pyramids was via the subway, so I boarded a Metro train (cost per ride, 17 cents!) headed in the direction of Giza. Here I encountered my first problem. There are two Giza stops, and no indication as to which station serves visitors to the pyramids. In any other country, it would be made obvious. The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty– whatever a given city’s chief attraction is, that city spares no expense in making sure every visitor knows how to get to it. Not Cairo. I disembarked the train at the first Giza stop, reasoning that if it were the wrong one it would be easier to hop back on and continue to the next station than if I overshot it and had to go back. Once off the train I found no sign referring in any way to the pyramids. No picture of a giant triangle or sphinx– nothing. I went out one exit, and saw nothing, so I went back in and exited via the other side. Then it became clear to me I was in the correct place. Not because of any signage, but rather because of the dozens of local touts and hucksters approaching me in an attempt to rip me off. “Buy your official government ticket from me!” “Only 100 pounds for a taxi to the pyramid!” I was clearly in the right place.

I walked past the throng of would-be scammers, out to the city street and hailed a white taxi. I negotiated with the driver, and agreed to a price of 20 EGP (still too much, but only $3.50– it wasn’t worth flagging down multiple taxis to save perhaps $1.75.) and hopped into the cab. As I expected, he constantly attempted to detour off the route, but each time I reminded him “no, I do not want tickets or a camel,” and he got back on the road. Taxi drivers, given the chance, will take you to a friend’s camel rental stand, where the friend will attempt to fleece you out of anywhere between 300 to 500 EGP. They will try to sell you tickets that you don’t need, or run any manner of other scams on you. I had read in advance about this, and I was able to get the driver to take me to the entrance without stopping.

As soon as I got out of the taxi, I was again beset upon by locals trying to sell me all manner of things. Still no signage indicating I was anywhere special, either– just a ticket booth (shack?) and a plain-clothed ticket agent. The fee was 60 EGP, which equates to about 11 U.S. dollars. I can’t help but think they are drastically underpricing their exhibit, and if they were to charge more, perhaps they could take care of a few of the problems I am about to enumerate. And really, I think I speak for nearly every tourist when I say that I’d be willing to pay more to see them. In fact, though part of me is glad the cost was so low, I probably would have paid any astronomical sum I’d been asked to pay. I mean, come on, these are the pyramids! And the Sphinx! I am sure there is some limit to what one will pay to gain admission, but that bar is certainly steeper than $11.00! I would not have batted an eye had I been asked for 60 U.S. dollars rather than 60 EGP, that’s for sure. Maybe to be fair to all travelers, the cost could be 60 whatever-you-spend-in-your-country. You present a passport and pay however many Egyptian pounds 60 of your bucks buys. That would drastically increase the site’s revenue, and I don’t think anyone would change their mind and go home. If you have come all the way to Cairo, you aren’t leaving without visiting the pyramids.

ANYWAY– once I got inside, it was the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities all over again. No signs directing you anywhere, no labels, no maps, no descriptions. Nothing whatsoever, save for a bunch of guards posted so as to prevent anyone from climbing onto a pyramid. Including no trash cans! Which means that the various tombs and pits and… and… well, whatever they are, I wouldn’t know because there was nothing to tell me, but there are a lot of excavations and holes and pits all slowly filling with water bottles and candy wrappers. I’m pretty sure the pharaohs weren’t eating all those potato chips, so they must have come from the tourists.

While I couldn’t find out whose tomb was where, or when a particular pyramid was constructed, I could have rented all the camels I wanted to rent, for every two minutes a man on a camel would approach me and attempt to sell me a camel ride. They won’t take no for an answer, either. They’ll follow you and attempt to rent you the camel for at least a minute, about which time another camel rides up. Coupled with the hundreds of children selling packets of kleenex or postcards, and you never have a moment’s peace to simply observe or contemplate the wonders around you.

That is just the way things are run in Egypt– poorly. I guarantee if any other nation had the pyramids, they would be clean, organized, and well-run, and there would be tour guides, brochures, maps, signs, and the overall experience would be a pleasant, informative one. Sadly, that is far from the case, and though I by no means regret going, and consider this day to be one of the highlights of my life in terms of having viewed something majestic and awe-inspiring, I know that the experience could have been far, far better.

At one point I ducked into a tomb of some sort. Inside, one of the guards pointed to a carved image of a cow being butchered and said “cow, butchered,” and then held out his hand and said “give me tip.” I am neither lying nor exaggerating. That was exactly what happened, and it serves as a very good metaphor for the entire experience of visiting Egypt. I had intended to visit Sakkara, and view more pyramids later in the trip, but have changed my mind. I have had my fill of pyramids.

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Cairo, Egypt – The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

By , December 23, 2010

I have visited museums all over the world. They tend to have at least two important things in common– first, and foremost, they are curated by knowledgeable individuals, and it is clear that every attempt has been made to present the collection in an intelligent, organized fashion, with an end goal of offering the visitors information and entertainment. Second, and with occasional exceptions, they are free to the public. At the majority of museums, visitors are given the chance to donate an amount of their choosing on the way into exhibits. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo is the exception to both rules.

For starters, visitors must pay 60 EGP (Egyptian pounds, 60 of which equates to about 11 U.S. dollars) to gain entry to the museum. That is not an exorbitant amount, and if the museum were on par with other museums, I wouldn’t even be writing about it. I would consider the fee more than justified. As the Cairo Museum, as the museum is better known, is hands-down the worst museum I have ever visited, I find the entry fee to be anything but justified. Upon entering the museum, I sought an information desk. There is none. Instead, there is a booth at which you can buy postcards. I asked the clerk where I could obtain a map of the museum. None exists. A list of the exhibits? Also non-existent. Are there audio tours? No. Docents? No. Museum staff of any kind? No, only security guards. In short, visitors are left to their own devices.

The collection itself is in appalling shape. It is crammed with no discernible order into corners and dusty cases. Some items appear not to have been unpacked yet– as a visitor, you will encounter several piles of crated objects, presumably relics, stacked in front of unpacked and unsorted pieces. The majority of the collection is unlabeled, and the pieces that are labeled only have photocopied, hand-cut scraps of paper affixed to them; some of those have been mounted upside-down. To me, the entire museum felt as if a pharaoh had just moved into a new apartment, and had not yet unpacked or put away any of his stuff. Moreover, the majority of the collection is not even on display, as the museum is far too small; one can walk the entirety of the two floors in less than an hour. Most of the collection is languishing in the basement, allegedly sinking slowly into the earthen floor, or stored off-site.

There are certainly many cool things to see at the museum, some mummified animals come to mind, and some of it is understandable, but with no organization and few descriptions available to me, I left with a feeling of extreme disappointment, as though I had been robbed of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about Egypt’s ancient history.

I have visited the British Museum twice now, as well as Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, and there were moments while I was perusing the collection in which I felt a twinge of regret that such priceless treasures had been removed from their native land to be displayed on foreign soil. After seeing how the Egyptians treat their priceless treasures, all I can say is thank goodness some of them made it out of Egypt! Were it up to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the Rosetta Stone would likely be facing a wall. The Bust of Nefertiti, if even displayed, may well be perched atop a mummy, or perhaps labeled as “Missus Tut.” I half wish some Indiana Jones type would organize a raid and liberate the rest of the collection so that it may actually be enjoyed.

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Casablanca, Morocco – Overview

By , December 22, 2010

I’ll begin my description of my stay in Casablanca by describing my lodgings, as I think they are somewhat indicative of the state of the city itself. The hotel in which I stayed, Hotel Foucould, was clearly a nice place once. The elevator, long out of commission, was a beautiful wooden contraption, ensconced in a wrought iron cage. In the hotel’s heyday it must have been a sight to behold. My room must have been nice once, too. It had a 20-foot high ceiling, and ornate touches, but today it is in awful shape. There was a puddle of water on the floor that remained there for my entire stay. The bathroom looked to have been created by crudely erecting a cement wall on one side of the room and installing plumbing. There was a shower-head, but no shower structure, so the water (only cold water was available) just sprayed into the room. There was a sink, but no toilet. The walls had massive holes punched into them, and there was graffiti on one of them, and the bed was falling apart, but there were lovely French doors that opened out onto a balcony that offered fresh air and a view of the city.

That contradiction exists all throughout Casablanca. I have a sense that 50 to 75 years ago Casablanca was quite posh. There is evidence everywhere to that fact, but it is buried beneath a seeming ton of rubble. The word that repeatedly comes to mind when observing this city is dilapidated, for that is what Casablanca is. I have the constant feeling of having walked into a city the day after a long war has ended. Everywhere you turn you see massive buildings that have collapsed in on themselves, and faded facades of what were once lovely, art deco masterpieces, standing proudly next to a two-story-high pile of brick, wood, glass, and other building material.

There is considerable garbage to navigate whilst walking the streets, as well as potholes deep enough to be used in trench warfare, so caution is necessary lest one take a nasty fall. The streets are full of mopeds– this was a never-ending source of amusement to me. Dozens would ride by at once– impromptu moped gangs made up of strangers, breaking up and recruiting new members at every street corner.

The people of Casablanca are for the most part friendly, and helpful to this American who speaks no Arabic and precious little French. One in particular, Abdallah, assisted me in finding a good cup of Coffee Moroccan style. The coffee, espresso actually, is really good here. It is subtly different from the European version, perhaps a bit more bitter and not quite as viscous, and thoroughly enjoyable to me. Abdallah told me about his days working at a restaurant on a now-defunct U.S. Air Force base between 1958 and 1962. That is why he spoke English, he explained, for most Casablancans possess a rudimentary grasp of English, at best.

Casablanca is not a town for a tourist, but for someone who travels as I do, plopping down in a neighborhood and haunting a few local cafes and eateries and chatting with the local folks, it is a pretty ideal place to be. Couple that with the amazing affordability and you have a place in which I could spend quite some time. My four days here was enough to get a sense of the place, but nowhere near enough to tire of it.

Speaking of costs, here are the prices you can expect to pay for a few things in Casablanca, translated from the local currency, dirhams, into U.S. dollars:

12 oz. glass bottle of Coke 47¢
cup of coffee (espresso) 59¢
taxi ride around downtown $1.31
1 night at Hotel Foucould $11.81
best fish ever at Snack Amine $13.08
fried bread thing at a stand 20¢

Pretty cheap, huh? You can see why I like it so much! Up next… Egypt!

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