Published: 18.11.11

An eventful antenna installation in Cairo

Christian Monstein has been on a fresh “Calisto” mission. The electrical engineer from the Institute of Astronomy has got another radio measurement device up and running in Egypt for the purpose of measuring solar activity, thus bringing him one step closer to his goal of filling in the blank spots on his world map.

Christian Monstein
Dr Ayman Mahrous, Ahmed Salah and Christian Monstein in front of the fully assembled antenna. (Photos: C. Monstein / ETH Zurich)
Dr Ayman Mahrous, Ahmed Salah and Christian Monstein in front of the fully assembled antenna. (Photos: C. Monstein / ETH Zurich) (large view)

Monday, 3 October 2011

The plane to Egypt takes off at Zurich Airport on time at nine-forty-five in the morning and touches down in Cairo at around two o’clock in the afternoon. I buy a visa at the bank for fifteen US dollars before proceeding through passport and visa control. I’m in.

The hotel shuttle from the airport to the Hotel Pyramisa costs forty dollars. Communicating with the driver is tough: I ask where I can meet him tomorrow between 08:30 and 09:00; he answers “yes”.

I arrive at the hotel at three o’clock, check in and have to pay upfront. The hotel has the audacity to demand a whopping 1000 dollars before they’ve even done anything. I wander across the Nile to the metro. I can’t read anything except “non-smoking” and “exit”. However, there’s a counter where you can buy tickets. Back at the hotel, I talk to another taxi driver who isn’t anything to do with the hotel. He would have charged ten dollars for the trip from the airport.

At half nine that evening, I receive a call from Heba Salah, a Master’s student from the University of Helwan who will be helping me with the installation of the Callisto measurement device and the proper antenna. The antenna won’t be ready tomorrow, she says, and she can’t put any pressure on the manufacturer – her father. Bad news; there might be delays in constructing the measuring station in Egypt now.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

I take a taxi from the hotel to the University of Helwan. Outside Cairo’s government building, civil servants are demonstrating for higher wages.

At 10:30 we get started on configuring the PC and installing the programmes to control the radio spectrometer. The checklist should be more detailed and contain step-by-step explanations. Wish there were documents to detect solar radio bursts.

First of all, we configure the measurement devices we want to use to measure the solar radiation. Heba Salah’s father Ahmed turns up unexpectedly and we can start putting the antenna together on the hot roof of the institute, which takes until four in the afternoon. At four-fifteen, the entire team of helpers disappears to pray. I take the metro back to the hotel, where I enjoy a small beer for thirty-one Egyptian pounds (approximately six Swiss francs) in the hotel bar after the exhausting day.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

I can’t get into my room anymore and have to go back to reception to have the key reprogrammed. I’m sure it was a trick on the reception’s part to get me back down there: they want to know my wife’s exact name, flight number and arrival time again, even though I have already written it all down for them. Once again, I take a taxi to Helwan; the driver hardly knows any English – or the way. Luckily, I’m able to explain where he needs to go. Outside all the important buildings stands a soldier with an automatic weapon at the ready; in the smaller buildings, security guards with smart uniforms and wooden guns.

I reach the institute on time at 09:30. Only the boss and three students are there. The PC is still on; even though the antenna hasn’t fully been assembled yet, the test data coming in looks good: no frequency spikes. The network connection needs to be improved because it has a loose connection.

We need a soldering iron to attach a cable to the antenna. Then we work on the antenna again. Fortunately, I’ve brought my own tools at least. There’s nothing but a pair of scissors and a little screwdriver here.

At 11:55 everyone drops their tools and goes to pray again. I have a break. In the afternoon, the first measurements are made with the antenna, which is lying on the roof for the time being. There’s a lot of interference, at least fifty decibels (times 100,000) via the static. At least the cable and plug connections seem to be working. Ahmed Salah tries to mount the antenna on the balustrade but the drill hammer isn’t working; the chisel keeps falling out. Then the hammer packs up and the antenna almost ends up toppling off the roof. Any SUVA health and safety inspectors would have a field day.

We drill four holes for fischers (Egyptian term for dowels) to attach the bolts that are supposed to hold the antenna supports, for which there are already holes in the floor. After every assembly step, the spectrum received is checked. Despite the interference, the spectrum of forty-five MHz to 174 MHz is usable. The power distribution is unusable; there are constantly loose connections. At four o’clock, it’s prayer time again.

The main problem today: the lack of tools and sometimes not all that practically minded students. Without Ahmed Salah, nothing would have worked – a good reason to give him a Victorinox pocket knife as a present.

I present the bill for CHF 335 for the front-end to the head of the institute, Ayman Mahrous. He can’t pay it on the grounds that the money already went on the antenna. Looks like I’ll have to foot the bill myself then.

At four-thirty, we leave the university in Ahmed Salah’s car, a clapped-out banger with no lights, wobbly seats, no door handles and too many dents to count. Two students who come along bombard me with so many questions that I can barely speak anymore, the metro is so loud.

They leave me to my own devices at Sadat station; I can find my own way to the hotel by now. On the way, a man stops me and says: “You’re walking like an Egyptian…” Then he starts pumping me with all kinds of questions. Seeing as he speaks good English, I naively answer. Then he lures me into a gloomy side street, fetches his brother and the two of them try to sell me artworks and every service for tourist activities under the sun. Art prints (all handmade by their own family, of course), perfume, small pyramids and so on and so forth. I start to feel queasy. And I’ve had enough. I eventually manage to prise myself away from them, without buying piles of presents…

I don’t get back to the hotel until six, a bottle of water tucked under my arm. Nearby, the muezzins call out through loudspeakers, each one louder than the next.

Thursday 6 October

Today, we need to press on with the software (FTP client, TeamViewer, PERL and PERL-script with Windows scheduler etc.). Gradually, I start thinking about plans for the weekend. Are there any volunteers who could show my wife and me around and tell us something about the place?

I’m already in the lab by 09:10 because there’s hardly any traffic on the roads. No one is there because it’s a bank holiday today. At half nine, the boss appears and we can get on with the software installations. At half eleven, Ahmed Salah also shows up. Together, we install the antenna on the roof of the institute once and for all, including concreting the antenna supports in the floor of the roof deck. Finally, the cables are laid and fixed in place. My tourist itinerary is starting to take shape: Ahmed Salah asks 300 dollars a day for a car and driver. The programme includes the pyramids, Saqqara and a private visit to his house.

The Internet is down all day long. I can’t check our radio-telescope in Bleien (Canton of Aargau, Switzerland) or read or send any emails. I suspect that someone has simply switched off the router to save power because of the bank holiday.

At four o’clock, it’s time to go home. I have to head back into the centre alone on the metro. I ask for a ticket at the counter but get two. Despite the bank holiday, the metro is jam-packed. You have to put your ticket in a machine at the end of the journey to leave the station. Foolishly, I grab hold of the unused ticket and stick it in the machine. The barrier jams and an alarm goes off. An attendant heads over to give me a roasting. Spontaneously, I put the right ticket in another machine and leave the station unscathed. At the hotel, they ask me my wife’s name for the third time and when and how she’ll be arriving. They also request me to pay the shuttle service for her upfront. This time, it only costs twenty-four dollars; I paid forty for mine. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the pricing policy.

Friday, 7 October

My wife phones from the plane: there are problems with some passengers who haven’t shown up, even though they’ve checked in – just like on my plane four days ago. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the taxi boss comes into the hotel lobby and announces that the plane is an hour late. Brigitte eventually arrives at half three.

Saturday, 8 October

A visit to the pyramids of Giza, including crawling into the catacombs underneath the small pyramid. I’m allowed to touch Nefertiti’s skull and have my picture taken with it for a pound of bakshish. The skull is well-worn and slightly oily from all the sweaty tourist hands.

A walk in the searing heat to the Sphinx, a visit to the museum with the solar barge (an impressive vessel), the Saqqara temple complex and the old step pyramid. In Memphis, a visit to the stone carvers’ square with the bust of Ramesses II. I find this the most impressive of all: a piece of stone weighing several tons, hewn with absolute precision (using a laser, perhaps?).

In the afternoon, we pay Ahmed Salah and his family a private visit. There’s kosheri, an Egyptian national meal, and plenty of sweets. The sweet things all taste the same and the water smells of chlorine. In the evening, a taxi ride back to the hotel through smoky Cairo (there are fires burning all over the place from the demonstrations).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A visit to the Egyptian Museum for six long hours. We hire a German-speaking guide for three hours, who is supposed to show us the main objects and tell us something about them. He is tedious and drones on. I’m glad to be able to explore the museum under my own steam after a while. It’s extremely hot; my feet are on fire. We head to Hardee’s in Tahrir Square. This evening, twenty-three demonstrators are killed here, either run over by a tank or clubbed to death with iron bars, and there are also over 200 casualties. Fortunately, we miss it all and are already back at the hotel by six.

Monday, 10 October 2011

All night long, the air is filled with pungent smoke. Demonstrators have set houses and cars on fire. I can’t stop coughing. Ahmed Salah arrives at the hotel on time and we drive to the citadel. We visit several mosques, one of which contains the tombs of King Farouk and Shah Reza Pahlavi of Persia, and the Military Museum.

We then drive to the Khan el Khalili bazaar in Old Cairo, where we buy a few odds and ends (a lamp, some pepper and dates). After that, we drive to the Al Azhar Park (built on top of an old rubbish dump) to relax, and top it all off with a hairy taxi ride to the Engineers’ Club on the Nile. At a quarter past six, we bid farewell to Ahmed Salah and return to the hotel. The whole thing cost me an arm and a leg – much more expensive than with an official operator.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Packing, printing out the boarding cards (the Internet costs a “measly” ten dollars for half an hour). We zoom to the airport by taxi, get there far too early and end up hanging around in the check-in hall. The plane takes off at five minutes past three in the afternoon. It’s practically empty and everyone can lie across the seats. We arrive in Zurich on time.

About the author

Christian Monstein is an electrical engineer at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Astronomy. He is fifty-eight years old and has been working for ETH Zurich since 1997. His main research interest is measuring radio radiation from the sun. Monstein operates a global network of radio-spectrometers called “Callisto” with volunteers. The project is backed by the United Nations and NASA under the project ISWI (International Space Weather Initiative). To fill in a blank spot on his world map, he travelled to Kazakhstan in May and Egypt in October.

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