Saturday, September 26, 2009

Luxor/Anafora/General Life in Cairo

Another week of classes down. Awesome lecture from Dr. Heather’s husband about how to live cross culturally. Fantastic engagement party for Jeem’s sister (our belly dancing teacher): I learned that white girls just really can’t dance, and that Egyptian guys can shake their hips better than I can, which is a little disturbing. :) Intense grilling of the poor guy who came to talk to us from the American embassy – I think he’d been in the bureaucracy too long because he seemed unable to answer a direct question. We took the night train to Luxor and I took an excessive number of pictures of incredibly old statues/temples/etc. They no longer allow pictures in the Valley of the Kings, unfortunately, so I don’t have any pictures of Ramses’ sarcophagus to share with you. Our hotel had a pool on the roof, which was fantastic. The only down side to Luxor was that the harassment was worse there than it is in Cairo – or maybe we just realized it more because they spoke more English so we understood more of what they were saying. We took the night train back to Cairo, and a wonderful free day to sleep/do homework. Service project day – I usually get to hang out with adorable Sudanese preschoolers for 5 hours. When Kelsey and I got there though, the school was closed because of Eid (the end-of-Ramadaan holiday). More classes. Crazy lecture from a pastor who seemed to be arguing that one could be a Christian without accepting your need for salvation. Belly Dancing – Jeem yells at us a lot, and we never really understand what she’s saying. Cooking class – my favorite part is trying to identify ingredients since the teacher doesn’t speak enough English to say what it is. Pretty sure I’m not going to be able to find everything for these recipes in Anchorage. Seattle maybe, Anchorage no.

Yesterday we went to Anafora, which is a Coptic retreat center and hung out with a bunch of Coptic Christians all day. Bishop Thomas talked with us in the morning about Coptic identity and the challenges the church faces, so we all got a little insight into why Dr. Heather always says “Bishop Thomas for president”! He had some pretty amazing stories about his encounters with Muslim extremist groups – most of which are not supposed to be “published”. We spent the afternoon talking with the other students about our different faith backgrounds and trying to explain Protestantism to them – which was difficult since none of us had the same definition. In the evening we went to their prayer service, which none of us understood a word of, but the singing was amazing! We also spent some time just worshiping God together – we sang a few songs in both Arabic and English, but then we just took turns singing one of our songs, and then one of theirs. It was really beautiful, and Anafora is an amazing place. It’s far enough outside of Cairo that the air is actually clear, and it’s pretty green too – they have orchards and stuff. We get to go back to there for a 3-day retreat right before we come back to the states…so good.

Tomorrow we start our weeklong homestays which is really exciting and a little terrifying. All of the girls will be with Muslim families – it’s harder to get Muslim families to take the guys since the women in the family would never be able to unveil – and most of us will be in poorer neighborhoods really far away from Agouza, and there’s a good chance our families will speak no English. So yeah, I’m sure I’ll have some pretty amazing stories after this week.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Classes

So we’ve been studying. This is a good thing, I think. What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger, right? The majority of our classes will be taught by Dr. Heather, who is the program director this semester. She is filling in for Dr. Holt who just got married and is spending this semester in the states with his wife’s family. She is wonderful, but we’ve decided she would be really scary if she ever got angry at you. The interns – or program assistants if you want to be official about it – are Jon and Dena, and they are pretty fantastic. Seriously, I want to be Dena when I grow up. She takes care of so many details and is so capable at pretty much everything, but she never makes us feel ridiculous when we’re so obviously incapable at so many things here in Cairo. Also, she’s really sweet and hilarious. Jon’s pretty cool too - he’s really good at making people feel comfortable and keeping everyone included in the group and all that. We like to call him Papa Jon. The other staff member is Dr. Diaa who takes care of everything for us from train tickets to dispensing medicine. So that’s the staff. Like I said, Dr. Heather teaches, but we’re going to have a lot of guest lecturers too. We had an Egyptian sociology professor come talk to us last week about poverty and gender issues in Egypt, and today the founder of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights talked to us about human rights in Egypt. We also have Dr. Chahinda for our Islamic Thought and Practice class. We’ve only met for that class once – and that was in a mosque. We did a tour of some of the oldest/coolest mosques in Cairo with Dr. Chahinda and even got to go up the minaret on one. The view was fantastic! Anyway, these classes will obviously pretty ridiculous – we’re going to dig through some really hard stuff and I’m a little scared. Already I’ve come up against a deep rooted hatred for the US, which I knew existed and to a certain extent can understand but is hard to deal with anyway. Seriously the stuff we’re reading is blowing my mind a little. But that’s ok, I’m sure it’ll be good for me eventually. Our other class is, of course, Arabic. My Arabic teacher is ridiculous and likes to tell random stories. She’s also teaching us songs in Arabic – and the Lord’s Prayer. It’s good stuff. J So, yeah, just thought I’d let you know what I’m doing with my brain this semester.

Weekend in Dahab

We just got back from Dahab yesterday, in various states of sunburn. I managed to only get a little lobster-ish on my back. We left Cairo Wednesday night and drove to Gabal Mussa (Moses’s Mountain – Mt. Sinai). That bus ride was the first time I’ve been cold since I’ve been here. Apparently the AC had only one setting – full blast – which made sleeping a little difficult. We got there around 2am and headed up the camel trail. The Bedouins had a bunch of little shacks set-up as rest stops along the way - at which they sold water and such for lots of money. They also followed us most of the way up the mountain trying to get us to ride camels because “is very long way”. The last bit of the hike consisted of 700something steps. At the top we ate breakfast while waiting for the sunrise. The view was incredible! It kind of felt like going on a pilgrimage since we were at a place of such Biblical significance, and because there were so many other people there with us. There was probably about 150 people up there all waiting for the sunrise – we cheered when the sun finally poked out from behind the mountain. We headed back pretty quickly after the sun was up to try to beat the heat, but failed at that. It was ridiculously hot by the time we made it back down. It was around 8am by then, so we waited around – I slept – for about an hour, until the St. Catherine’s Monastery opened. They have a pretty impressive collection of really old Bibles and icons. I was going to buy some souvenirs there until I realized the prices were in Euros, not Egyptian pounds. The monastery also houses the “burning bush” – contrary to Jon’s (one of the MESP interns) claim, it is not still burning. J

After the monastery we piled back onto the bus and drove a few more hours to Dahab. Despite having basically pulled an all-nighter and hiking a mountain that night we went out for lunch (at a restaurant called the Funny Mummy – so good!) and then went swimming. After a shower – which was in salt water, so not very effective – we went to dinner. The restaurants in Dahab are mostly open air places right on the water with a nice view of Saudi Arabia. Dena (the other intern) and Jon (our interns are awesome, btw) told us we couldn’t try swimming to the kingdom unless we happened to have a burkini. The next morning we went to the Blue Hole and went snorkeling. It’s apparently the 2nd best snorkeling location in the world, and for the kid from Alaska it was pretty impressive. The colors of the coral and the fish just blew me away. I also swallowed a ton of salt water. I went to the Funny Mummy again for dinner with a small group of the girls and we wound up staying for 4 hours. We were about ready to leave when a bunch of the other MESPers showed up, so we stayed and ordered dessert instead. We then went back to the hotel and played cards and talked till 2am. I was going to get up early the next morning for one more swim but was too lazy to get up when the alarm went off. After one more amazing meal at Funny Mummy we piled back onto the bus and drove 9 hours back to Cairo. We got Jon to tell us his epic engagement story on the way back which took over 2 hours to tell, and definitely shortened the trip back. It’s such an amazing story – it could seriously be a movie and make lots of money. We got back to Cairo and most of us went for dinner at this great fast food place in Agouza where you can get fool for 1.25LE (around 25 cents). I’m going to have a really hard time buying stuff when I go home because everything is so ridiculously cheap here.

Pretty much, it was the best weekend ever.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Classes started on Wednesday, which was a pretty harsh reminder that this isn’t vacation. I’m actually going to have to study. Arabic is going to be harder than I thought. So far my Fusha training is just confusing me since so much of the aamya (Egyptian dialect) is different. I keep pronouncing everything wrong and using the wrong words. I can at least read the street signs though – but most of those are in English as well as Arabic so that doesn’t really make a difference. Our other classes are going to be pretty intense as well. We’ll be writing lots of papers, and I’m guessing Dr. Heather won’t grade very easily.

The other night we randomly got invited to an Egyptian family’s house for tea – which actually turned out to be juice. We met this woman on the street and were trying to practice using our Arabic. She was trying to practice her English. So then she took us up to her apartment and we met her sister and brother-in-law and their kids, and her kids, and her mom. It was hilarious because we couldn’t really communicate, but we had a good time anyway. They were so sweet and welcoming. Egyptian hospitality really is amazing.

The weekend here is Friday-Saturday instead of Sat-Sun because of Friday prayers. I’m starting to feel like I kind of know my way around Cairo – or at least around Agouza. We went to the Citadel (11th Century fortress) today which was pretty impressive. Salah Al-Din apparently knew what he was doing when he built it because it’s definitely impenetrable. I discovered that first hand as I had to walk all the way around it since our taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong spot. He then tried to ask us for more money…jerk. Anyway, we did eventually get there, and saw some amazing views of the city, with the pyramids in the distance. The mosque there is amazing as well. I tried to get pictures but I was kind of burning my feet on the stones in the court-yard (no shoes in the mosque), so I’m not sure if the outside ones really turned out. The inside pictures are fine though – I now have a crick in my neck from staring straight up at these fantastic painted carvings and lights inside the domes. It was very impressive.

Next weekend we’re going to Sinai and Dahab. So I’ll be hiking Mount Sinai, and then snorkeling in the Red Sea. Yeah, I know you’re jealous – I’m sorry. Tomorrow we’re going to the pyramids and possibly the Egyptian museum.

I miss you all! Sorry this turned into another long post.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

MESP orientation has been crazy, so this entry has a lot to cover. It’s going to be pretty ridiculously long – sorry. J I can’t believe I’ve been here almost a week! The flights here were long, of course, and I didn’t sleep much, so I was pretty exhausted when we finally made it to Cairo. Once we cleared customs we met the MESP staff and loaded onto a bus for the ride home. The airport is pretty far out from Agouza (our neighborhood), so we got to see a lot of the city driving through. If we hadn’t been so tired we would have been super excited when we drove over the Nile – it’s beautiful! They dropped us off on the corner and we got to drag our suitcases down a couple blocks to our flats – amid many stares from locals. Unfortunately for us the elevator in the girls’ building broke after the first trip up so most of us got to drag everything up 5 or 6 flights of stairs. Fun times! The flat is fantastic though. Everything in it is kind of falling apart, but that just adds to the character. All the d├ęcor is overly ornate and completely mismatched. Except for the quilts which are exactly the same in all three rooms. Our washing machine is possessed, and I’m still convinced that the oven is going to explode one of these days. Also, the day after we got here my roommate Tiara got stuck in the bathroom because the latch jammed. I couldn’t get her out even after taking off the handle. So we called the villa and Asharof came over and pretty much pounded out the door around the lock. And this was only day 2… Like I said, our flat is fantastic.

Since getting here we’ve gone on a bus tour of the city, a felucca ride on the Nile, visited a mosque, smoked shisha at the Khan, gotten our visa extensions, explored Garbage City and a Coptic monastery, and figured out how to get around Cairo which seems to involve a lot of arguing with taxi drivers and dashing across six lanes of chaotic traffic. When we visited the mosque all of us women had to veil, and I’m pretty sure 16 veiled white women wandering the streets of Cairo is incredibly entertaining. One night they let us be tourists, so we got to go out on the Nile which was amazing. We went at sunset, so the weather was cooling off and there was a nice breeze – we also had some pretty awesome views of the city. Afterwards we went to the Khan, which is basically the tourist bazaar. They made an exception to the no smoking rule to let us try shisha. In my typical klutzy fashion I kind of choked on it. It wasn’t very good. J We then wandered around the market which was huge. There were so many people, and so much stuff! It was a bit overwhelming. The guys trying to sell their wares were entertaining too – no flattery was beyond them. I had one tell me I could get ¼ price if I smiled for him, and another say I should buy something from him because he liked my eyes. Except for the fact that they were ridiculously persistent it was pretty entertaining. At Garbage City I had the chance to interact with some Egyptian kids. Mardeena is 6 years old and her mom works at the orphanage we visited. She tried to teach me Arabic, but kept on throwing random French words in too. Neveen is 9 and has quite the attitude. She attached herself to KK and I at the monastery. She was adorable, but I could only understand about 1 in 100 words. I think she wanted me to give her my camera. She pouted when I refused.

Anyway, sorry to subject you to such a massive entry. I just wanted to give you some of the highlights of what I’ve been doing. There’s many more stories that I can (and probably will, eventually) bore you with, but I think that’s good for now. Ahalan wa sahalan.