Friday, December 31, 2010

Cross Like An Egyptian

Whew!! Where to begin?? So much happened that it’s difficult to decide where to start telling you all about the most amazing vacation ever!! It feels just like yesterday that I was in Cairo, Egypt….well, maybe because it only ended a day and half ago!! Since there is so much information to share I will try to make this as succinct as possible!!

The first day I arrived in Cairo, I went to pick up my best friend from New Jersey who had made a very uncharacteristically spontaneous decision to come join the rest of the crew in Egypt and I was thrilled. After 14 months of separation, we picked up right where we left off!! At the apartment we all gathered around the suitcase she brought bulging with goodies from the states—lucky charms, cheez-its (that didn’t last more than two days!) and candy galore!! Christmas came early and it couldn’t have been more like home than if we had been at home gathered around the tree. As it was, we were circled around the giant television but more on that later.

The next day we drove about a half hour outside of the city to visit one of the world’s ancient wonders, the pyramids. As we sped along the highway, we could make out the famous shapes through the smog, appearing suddenly from behind the cityscape. I was taken aback at just how close these grand structures were to the city. In one direction you could see slabs of concrete melded with metal stacked on top of each other while the other way provided a view of expansive, open desert space. This second vista was unparallel in its sparse beauty-- 14 months in Rwanda has made me highly aware of the concept of space and its use.

That night we went to see the Sufis, a troupe of twirling, spinning, bright colored men set in constant motion- that is whirling dervishes. Just when you think he’s about to stop he slows down and holds his arms in a different position and KEEPS GOING. It was non-stop motion, brightly colored saucers swirling through the air, around and around, in front as they kneeled or overhead as they limboed backward, never stopping, imperceptibly slowing when they changed the angle of the vibrant flying disks. In one word: mesmerizing.

Back at the apartment,( our one colleague procured this sweet apartment right in the heart of downtown) we rested and ended the first night in Egypt with what became a ritual—watching some t.v before going to bed. The place had 3 bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen, bathroom (equipped with flush toilet, hot shower, and laundry machine!) and came fully furnished!! The first couple of days were unseasonably cold and at night it was an exercise just to extricate one’s self from under the comforter. It began to warm up ever so slightly over the next few days but the slight coolness was always present, making it such a nice change from the balmy air I have come to expect in Kigali. The cold was also slightly more pervasive inside the apartment than outside but that wasn’t enough to force us to leave our spot in front of the T.V…let me clarify: CABLE TV: enough said. I can’t recall a point at which the t.v was not on which may sound awful but for people who have not seen a real television in over a year, it was a godsend. Thank you, Santa! We gorged and gorged and gorged some more.

Food was nothing but superb, whether it was out on the town or cooked in the apartment, we had our fill of falafel and kosherie, potato chips and copious amounts of junk food we can’t find in Rwanda—we probably went through 10 cardboard boxes worth of Doritos and 20 bags of chocolate-covered peanuts! I quickly made friends with a squat, old man who worked at the local falafel place below our apartment. Every other evening, I would skip down the flight of stairs, turn right out onto the narrow street, lined with cars and food stands, where I would let my nose lead me the few remaining steps into the little shop. As I would make my way back I made sure not to swing my food too provocatively to avoid attracting the thousands of hounds and felines that prowled the streets. Coming from Rwanda where the spotting of a dog is enough to call the media, I was overwhelmed with the amount of stray animals wandering around!

During the day we split our time between the scholastic and the frivolous. Cairo is a place filled with history, culture and character but I don’t need to go into the assorted details of it all—I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Aside from museums, Islamic Cairo, and old Cairo there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, sheesha places, fast-food joints, book stores, clothing shops and movie theaters.

We took a break from sight-seeing one day and went to see the new Harry Potter movie which scared me silly when the snake attacked (sorry, spoiler alert) but the price was only 15 Egyptian pounds which equaled about $3!! That was unbelievable when compared to the prices back in the states! The next day we went to the Egyptian Museum where we saw mummies, yes, real dead mummies. And boy, were they gross but it’s amazing to see how well the embalming process has preserved them over thousands of years. We also enjoyed a ride on the Nile where we took a felucca boat out a couple of times, once at sunset and once mid-afternoon. It was every bit relaxing to lie back on the cushioned bench and peer out at the buildings, feeling the breeze sway the sails overhead.

In another part of this vibrating city, we wound our way through the busy markets. There are two large outdoor markets, one sells mainly tourist items while the other is a tent market where you can purchase grand tents made of canvas. While we scurried through the tourist market, being welcomed by the vendors (whereas Rwandans say, “good morning” every time they see you, Egyptians greet with “welcome”), we were presented with a variety of goods, from clay mugs, corn on the cob and bejeweled costumes made of translucent material. This last one fascinated me because everywhere we went women were generally covered from head to toe, whether they had on a niqab (only showing their eyes) or jeans and a headscarf. I never did discover just who was purchasing these rather skimpy outfits, although I was able to view a performance that required such apparel.

One night the girls and I ventured out to search for a guide book-recommended venue where we could observe one of Egypt’s oldest traditions: belly-dancing. Throughout its long history, belly-dancing has had its ups and downs but has a stable presence now. As we sat there waiting for the show to begin, the band struck up a heavy musical number, filled with tabla drums, tambourines, and oboes. At an almost deafening pitch, I barely realized that the place had started to fill up. While I was looking around at the male-infested audience, I nearly missed the main attraction as she shook her way out onto the stage. And I mean, shook her booty. There was not a whole lot of what I had imagined as traditional belly-dancing but a ton of booty jiggling. I looked over at my companions and we all agreed with the guidebook’s critique that this performance was “comical,” but it did not prepare us for the men who were invited up on stage. They were the best part of the whole show!! One guy jumped down and came over to grab Katy and me to join him in his hip swirling gig. Then, the actual belly-dancer grabbed my hands and we began spinning around and around, before she decided to shake her ta-ta’s which prompted me to follow suit.

The next day we hopped on the train heading northwest to the coastal town of Alexandria. After a 3 and half hour trip we walked a couple of blocks to where the water stretches out across the bay. Following along the curve of the bay we ended up at a fort that looks similar to a castle. Unfortunately, due to years of deterioration that wiped out most of its previous structures, the fort is one of the last remainders of historical significance in Alexandria. However, there are still things to see and places to go, such as the Library. With its tall pillars, lit-up rows and columns of books, sculpture pieces, and displays of various library memorabilia, this library could pass for a museum. It is an architectural masterpiece.

Following the tour around the library, we went for dinner at a fish restaurant (glorified Long John Silver’s with a hint of Macaroni Grill) which was absolutely fantastic food for anyone who loves to eat fish…which I do not. After dinner we took a 50 second taxi ride across the highway to the mall, avoiding the dreadful traffic. I know that I regaled all of you about my state of shock upon entering the mall down in Pretoria but I think I became utterly dumbfounded based purely on the fact that it was Friday and every family was out doing their weekend shopping; I have not encountered that sheer amount of children, full of hyperactivity and energy who were not focused on my skin color but the toys in front of them. Apart from the intense mass of them, I found it endearing to see young children having fun and enjoying their childhood. I decided to dilute the shock somewhat by digging into some good ‘ol fashioned Cinnabon, hmm mmm.

On December 25th, we returned from Alexandria and my friend, Katy and I went to see one of the Egyptian Premier League teams play soccer. I could not have asked for a better way to spend the holiday. A whole horde of students had shown up to watch and they were geared up to go! All dressed in red (their colors are red and white) and energized, they sang and jumped the entire game. It was like watching a sea of red fish swimming in synchronization. The game was good too, a bit slow with only a score of 1-0 by the time we left but it was still great to get a sense what sports fans are like in Egypt. Not too different from Americans!

With three days before we departed Egypt, Chris and I made a last minute trip over to the Sinai Peninsula. According to the adventures of “Ivory and Grace,” this was bound to be another of the same ilk. At 11 a.m on Monday we jumped on a bus and proceeded to drive for 8 hours down to St. Katherine’s Protectorate. This is an extremely historical place, housing both St. Katherine’s Monastery, site of where Katherine’s body was found after she was persecuted, and Mt. Sinai, where God spoke to Moses and the 10 Commandments were created. Major historical significance there. By 9 o’clock that night we pulled into Al Milga, a little town located right outside the base of the trail up to Mt. Sinai. Four hours later we began our trek up the mountain.

Bundled up in every piece of clothing I brought along, including socks on my hands (“smittens”) and sweatpants over my jeans, I actually started to sweat. As it turns out, this mountain is only a few meters higher in altitude than those at my site but I wouldn’t have known that at the time!! Whew, what a work out, AND, it was in the wee hours of the morning, after having not slept at all and barely drunk any water. Sure, I could see why it took Moses 40 days to get to his ultimate destination—I could barely make it up a designated path with a Bedouin guide and my flashlight!! At 3:30 a.m we reached the peak, or the nearest possible point at which to stop and wait until the sun rises. There, Chris and I tucked ourselves into our backpacks and napped for a sound hour or two before our guide woke us up.

Finally, at 6:30 in the morning, on Tuesday the 28th of December, I saw the sun come up over Mt. Sinai. What a magnificent show—much better than the belly-dancing!!

Back in Cairo, Chris and I slowly began to regain a semblance of strength (we rented a private car to drive us back which only took 6 hours) which we needed. As I mentioned before, Cairo is a wonderful city, full of sundry sights, sounds, and smells but those factors can also detract from the city. If you google Cairo or read any articles about the city, you may come across some information about the traffic. But I can give you a little run-down to save you the investigation: it is horrendous!!! Hence the title of this entry. As we came to discover, it is wise to follow an Egyptian across any major street and above all, WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!!! Several times I felt the breeze of a passing car, only centimeters from my legs and on a few choice occasions we witnessed a fender-bender (car crashes never sound like the ones in movies, I’ve noticed) and one really sad incident in which a boorish taxi driver ran straight into the thigh of an older woman as she was crossing during the allotted time to cross. He didn’t do anything but shrug his shoulders when she rubbed her leg and told him he needed to be more careful. This is why one man told my friends, “you must cross with bravery—the traffic is crazy!”

In addition to the terrible driving, there is so much pollution resulting from the near 2 million cars driving around the city. Today may have been the first day I can breathe soundly, for I am no longer in that exhaust-filled bubble. Along the street corners you can piles upon piles of trash which did not seem to phase me in the least until one member of our group coming directly from the states pointed it out. I guess I haven’t been to a really large city in awhile, that it does not make my radar. However, I could not help but notice the sounds—there does not seem to be any limit on how much honking one car can do because it is impossible to meander down a street without hearing the squawking, grating sound of continuous beeping. It is mind-boggling how much they honk and how little they seem to listen to it. When we came back to Kigali it was almost eerie to hear the absolute lack of horns, pure silence.

And so it goes. Back to old grindstone. I am going to head back to site tomorrow and use this next week to prepare for school which starts on the 10th of January. Woo hoo!! I should be working in the school library this year, teaching literature and reading comprehension. I am very excited for it to begin!!

I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences in Egypt—it was a thrilling and extremely enjoyable vacation. Happy Holidays to everyone and ring in the new year with tons of joy and happiness-have a sip of champagne for me!!


  1. Avery, I do love reading about your adventures. These are life altering experiences. I'm glad you had a holiday season surrounded by friends. We missed you here. Love, Aunt Van

  2. Nice viewpoint on your experiences. Glad you weren't too "phased" by it all!