It has been a couple of weeks since I returned home from Cairo. I am settled in back at home, bored with the reality of my life here in comparison with the adventures I was having in Egypt.
I feel like I should make this last post to both encourage more AIESEC interns to go to Egypt and to let them know what to expect.
First off, Egypt was not what I expected.
My intention in going to Cairo was to concentrate on working at Awladi. I thought that I'd be working full time near my home. Also, I thought I'd be living with one or two other girls, maybe cooking with them and hanging out in the evenings. I figured I'd see the Giza Pyramids at some point, and maybe travel around Cairo.
I realized from the moment that I arrived that things were not nearly so organized. For the first day and a half of my stay in Cairo, I was absolutely miserable. I was jet-lagged, the airconditioning wouldn't work, I had no phone, no internet stick, and no way to leave the apartment. I ended up in a crappy apartment, an hour and a half away from my internship. We had no way to prepare food, because the kitchen was unusable. I found that some people were going weeks without starting their internships, and I started to seriously regret my decision to go to Egypt.
However, within the week, I knew that I never wanted to leave. I ended up moving to a much, much nicer apartment five minutes from work, getting a phone, internet, and learning how to work the airconditioner. The people in AIESEC, especially the other interns, are some of the most interesting you will ever meet. I have friends from every corner of the world, and I know that I will remember the conversations forever. Egypt itself is such an interesting place to be, culturally and politically, right now. I learned so much more about politics, religion, and society by living there than I could ever get out of a textbook. I witnessed the election of Egypt's first democratically elected leader in decades, and I was in Tahrir Square for the insane celebrations that followed.
This is specifically for those people who are thinking about an internship:
There is only a small period of time in your life where you have enough free time to pick up and move wherever you want. Go abroad through AIESEC. Go to Egypt.
Not only do Egyptians have fascinating ancient history, they are also in the midst of a major political transition that will impact the region for decades to come.
Now that I'm back, I won't sugar-coat things. Traveling abroad is not for the faint of heart, and people should be prepared to be responsible for themselves. My experiences in Egypt made me such a stronger person. Egypt brushed off some of my (very American) naivety, making me slightly more cynical and much more world-wise. Before going to Egypt, I had ridden in a taxi twice and taken a metro line exactly three times. I am from an extremely small town in the middle of America, surrounded by cornfields and not much else. By the end of my trip, I felt confident in my ability to survive and thrive in a totally foreign place.
I slept under the stars in the desert, rode a camel next to the Great Pyramids, went snorkeling in the Red Sea, and experienced the serenity of sitting atop a minaret and looking around at the intense, eclectic, amazing city of Cairo at sunset. In short, I cannot more highly recommend going to Egypt.
If you are curious about my trip, you can look through this blog. On the right, you'll find the blog archives. My trip started on May the 14th, but go back to April if you want to read about my planning from the beginning. I know that when I was prepping for my trip, reading blogs made me feel a little more secure about what was ahead. However, in a place like Cairo, you never can know what to expect ;)
This blog was originally designed to keep me sane as I began learning Arabic. It morphed into a blog of musings about Arabic, the Middle East, and the Islamic World, as well as book reviews about those topics. Then, the blog became a place to keep my family and friends updated on my adventures while I was living abroad. During May and June of 2012, I had a 6-week long internship in Cairo, Egypt through a international student organization called AIESEC. I taught English at the Awladi Orphanage in Cairo, home to several hundred children. I lived in an apartment in Nasr City before moving to Maadi (each is a distinct area of Cairo). I experienced President Mursi's election, camped in the western desert, rode camels by the pyramids, and had countless other experiences. I have since moved past this blog, on towards new endeavors, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment! Enjoy!
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
I was informed today that Cairo's graffiti has been painted over. The graffiti of the revolution reflected the feelings of the people, and should have been preserved as a reminder of the fight that the Egyptians experienced.
A better blogger than I has already written about this: http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/
However, I feel I should add my photos to those available already.
Monday, October 22, 2012
This explains SO much about our apartments in Cairo!
Thankfully, the bewabs didn't speak english, so we didn't get questioned much.
However, if a man were to come into our apartment, the bewab would let the landlord know immediately.
Thankfully, the bewabs didn't speak english, so we didn't get questioned much.
However, if a man were to come into our apartment, the bewab would let the landlord know immediately.
Saturday, June 30, 2012
After 28 hours in transit, I got home yesterday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. It feels very weird to be here, like I’m in an alternate reality or something. Or, maybe I feel like Egypt was an alternate reality? The way I live here is miles away from how I was living there.
Here’s what I was up to before I left:
On Monday night, we went over to Aarane’s apartment for another goodbye party. This time it was for Shubham and the other four Indians that were leaving. The Indian girls had cooked a feast of Indian food, and it was so amazing. We all went back for seconds and thirds. I couldn’t believe they’d managed to cook so much in their little apartment or that they could find all of the necessary materials in Egypt! Aarane, Bridget, Faria, Sherin, and I spent a half hour lying down in the bedroom, trying to digest the feast. It was like having Thanksgiving! After that, we went out to Bamboo for the night.
Tuesday and Wednesday, we went to work to see the kiddos. On Wednesday, our last day, we showed up and they were not there! The teacher was, but she said that the kids had a surprise field trip. They had left Cairo for the first time in their lives and were going to the sea for the day! It was sad that we didn’t get to say a final goodbye, but the kids are only 6, so I’m sure they don’t mind that much. Mrs. Wedad had made us some traditional Egyptian food, so we sat with her and talked awhile. The food reminded me of the stuffed peppers my mom makes, and it was very good!
Tuesday afternoon, Sherin and I went to Khan elKhalili for the last time to buy souvenirs. I only had 50 pounds budgeted to spend for everything (I was running low on money by the end of the trip). It took awhile to bargain things down, but we were done and heading home by about 9:30.
On our way home on the metro, two guys got into the women’s car. All of the women glared at them warningly, and they seemed to realize that they had gotten on the wrong place. One woman started arguing with them, asking “how did you not know??” because the cars are very clearly marked. At the next stop, neither guy got off. However, two other men got on and were trying to get them to leave. A huge argument broke out between on of the women and one of the guys. The guys wouldn’t get off the metro and the woman stood between the doors of the metro, refusing to move until they left. She was screaming and holding the doors open, regardless of the fact that they were pushing shut. Finally, the guys left. Then, a heated debate broke out between several of the women. The door-woman said, “if we let one in, then they all come.” Her point was that the only way to maintain the woman’s only status is to self-patrol it.
After work on Wednesday, Sherin and I decided to try a social experiment: we went out for a walk in hijab. We were curious to see what would happen: would men react in the same way as they do when we walk out with our hair down? Would people react to the fact that we don’t look Arab? It is rare to see a woman like us in hijab, but not unheard of. Usually, they are older women who have converted. We were very curious.
We set off up the street, planning to walk several blocks up and back down. It was the most peaceful walk of my living-in-Egypt life. No one honked, no one hissed, no one whistled, no one commented. We got a couple of odd looks, but no one said anything. When you wear hijab, it is like a cloak of modesty. Not wearing one instantly says to them, “I am not a modest women, and it is okay to treat me with disrespect.” Anyways, it was very interesting to see the difference.
We spent the rest of Wednesday packing. Packing, packing, packing.
Our last night was very bittersweet. We went out to eat with what was left of our group (most everyone else had already left), and then the girls went out dancing for the night.
In the morning, we got up to get one last shawarma for lunch. Omar picked us up around 2 and we were at the airport by 3. Our plane left at 5 to London. We watched movies on the plane. In London, we stayed at the Yotel in terminal four (this made our 10 hour layover nice! It was a tiny, tiny room, but we showered, used the wifi, and slept for a couple of hours). We were up at 5:45 to catch our 7:45 flights to Chicago. I caught my connection from Chicago to St. Louis, and Max picked me up from the airport yesterday afternoon.
Being home feels very surreal. My life is totally different here in every way imaginable. Everything is clean, I don’t have to worry whether or not someone has stolen my food from the fridge, and my bed is the softest thing I’ve laid on in over a month.
I’m going to miss the excitement of life in Egypt, but I can’t deny the comfort of being home.
Monday, June 25, 2012
Today has been very quiet. We went to work, came home to go grocery shopping, and I’m now at an internet café to post this message. It is entirely possible that I won’t have the ability to post another one of these before I get home (which will be on Friday). Today, I’m posting two messages, this one and the one about our Alexandria trip. Be sure to read about Alexandria! It was such a great trip.
Saturday, we slept most of the day and then went to Paul’s good-bye party at Al-Azhar Park. We had a picnic on the lawn and watched as the sun went down over Cairo. We were situated on a high point in the city, so you could see the city all around. The park is a lush, green, and full of walking paths. I had been there before (on the day we visited the Citadel), but not at night. They had lights sprinkled among the trees, and it looked as though the tree trunks were glowing.
After dinner, we talked for several hours, enjoying the company and the view. It was such a great way to relax and enjoy ourselves. We left when the park closed at 11 and went back to Paul’s apartment for final good-byes. He only had a two-hour flight the next morning home to Athens (I am so jealous of those who have quick trips home!).
Yesterday was very busy! Sherin and I woke early to go to the Giza pyramids. We took a taxi to the metro, took the metro to Sadat station, switched lines, took the metro to Giza station, got off, spent about twenty minutes haggling with various microbus drivers (we knew that it was only one pound each, but they wanted us to pay way more!), riding the microbus, and walking from the micobus stop to the entrance to Giza. In all, this took us about one and a half, maybe two, hours.
The pyramids were grand, but honestly not that much more impressive than the ones at Saqqara and Dahshura. The ones at Giza are merely larger.
The best part of the pyramids was trying to locate the place where Sherin took a photo the last time she was there (when she was a kid). We scrambled over many rocks on the backside of the pyramids, trying to set up the exact location. Finally, we realized that she was sitting beside the third pyramid, with the other two in the distance. We found the exact rocks that she was sitting on, and held up the photo over the scene so that the pyramids and city view looked complete. We then took a photo of the photo and the view. It was so cool! Then, I had her recreate the shot, sitting in the same position. It turned out really well. Next time she comes, she can do it again!
I was impressed with how few vendors there were at the entrance, but I was less than happy with how many people were trying to get us to ride a horse/camel. It was very irritating to deal with, and so Sherin and I stopped walking on the main road.
By the time we had walked around all of the pyramids, we were far away from the entrance and we could not find the sphinx (we found out later that this was because we’d come in the back entrance, bypassing the sphinx completely). We were approached by another camel tour guide, and we told him we’d only ride for ten pounds each (which was, by the way, completely unreasonable of us. Usually, they offer rides for 150 pounds/hour. Our friends went for 50 pounds/hour, and this was after some extreme bargaining). Insanely enough, he told us he’d let us ride for however much we wanted. This is what we get for having “blonde” hair (here, even my hair is called blonde, because they don’t know the difference). We thought that we’d be riding the camel together, but he went and got his friend with another camel.
Sherin and I each got on our camels and were ready to go. Then, we realized that the tour guides were riding with us. Thus, we each ended up sitting behind the guides and riding camels to a lookout point for photos and then to the sphinx. The guide told me that he had been working at the pyramids for forty years, and how he loved getting to meet all of the tourists. He had worked at a hotel for a short time when he was young, but his father and grandfather had been guides at the pyramids, and he decided that it was more enjoyable to do that. He had seven children, one with a kid and another on the way, one getting married, one in the army, and the rest still in school. I told him I was 21, married, and that I had no children yet (I always say that I am married, because it removes any chance of inappropriate comments. However, the children question caught me off guard for some reason, so I answered honestly. It is always better to say you have children though, because most women here begin having children once they marry). He said I should come back to the pyramids sometime with my husband and children, and I said I would someday. The rest of the time, he told me a lot about the pyramids and the area around them. I got some historical information, but also I learned about how life was around there more recently. He said that when he was a boy, they used to come camping in the desert next to the pyramids, but this was before they erected the wall around everything.
I enjoyed the camel ride much more than the horse rides. For some reason, the camels seemed more reliable. I was glad that we didn’t have to walk back down through the sand, and we got a good deal on the price!
The sphinx was much smaller than I expected. In photos, it always looks so grand. We didn’t stick around for long, because I wanted to know the election results, and the tourists were being obnoxious. At the sphinx, we saw, by far, the trashiest tourists we’ve seen since we got here. It was a tour group of Russian and Polish people (Sherin was eavesdropping one of the Polish families, and they were being just so obnoxious that it was funny). Some of the women were wearing such skimpy outfits; they would have looked scandalous in a nightclub. I couldn’t believe it. I have only seen women dressed like that a couple of times since we got here, and each time, I have to wonder if they know anything about the country they are visiting. It’s no wonder that the Egyptian men have such low opinions of foreign women! I get that it’s hot, but there’s no need to take off all your clothes when it’s hot. I’ve learned that a long, loose skirt (or cargo pants) and a light long-sleeve t-shirt is by far the best thing to wear here. The heat is dry enough that you do not feel yourself sweat; it evaporates instantly. The full coverage also helps keep me from burning in the sun and from being uncomfortable walking around on the street.
Anyways, we left through the front entrance to go find the microbuses. I called Victor to find out about the presidential announcement, and he said that although it was supposed to have been made at 3 p.m., things had been delayed. At that time, it was nearing 5 p.m.
As we walked down the street, we saw a group of men standing outside one man’s shop and watching a small television. Sherin and I bought Fantas and sat down to watch the presidential announcement with them. It took awhile for the announcer to read off all of the votes. He went through each of the 17 regions of Egypt, giving numbers for the elections. The men were very intent on watching and full of emotion. First, the shop owner thought that Mursi would win. He was a Shafiq supporter, but he thought the numbers were in Mursi’s favor. Then, things seemed to change. He was so happy! He said, “a minute ago, I thought I’d have to tear these posters down,” pointing to the Shafiq posters on his shop, “but now, I have hope!” It was so fantastic for me to see how passionate they were. When we first walked up, he asked, “whom do you support?” When we didn’t give him an answer, he said, “This is a democracy, everyone may have his own opinion!”
His reasoning for supporting Shafiq was interesting. Being connected with the tourism industry, he was afraid that as a strong Muslim, Mursi would pass measures making it less appealing for tourists to visit (banning alcohol in hotels, etc). He thinks that Shafiq would be better for tourism. Also, he said that with Shafiq, “if you want to pray, pray. If you want to play, play. If you want to go, go,” basically meaning that Shafiq would be okay with people going about their business in the way they want. In defense of the fact that Shafiq was “from the old regime,” he said, “half of Egypt worked for Mubarak. He was in power for fifty years of Egypt, so everyone worked with him at some time.”
In the end, Mursi won. The men were clearly disappointed. We thanked them for sharing the moment with us and for their hospitality (they’d offered us tea and their chairs while we were there), and then Sherin and I headed down the block.
As we went down the street, people were going crazy. During the time that the announcement was happening, there wasn’t a sound in the city. People were at home or in cafes, watching for the news. From the time that Mursi’s name was said, Cairo was loud and proud in celebration.
Children were waving flags from the roofs of their houses, grown men were standing on trucks and yelling “MURSI, MURSI, MURSI,” all of the trucks/microbuses/cars/anything with a horn were blaring their horns as loudly as possible.
It’s so rare to see that many people so ecstatic. I can only compare it to what I’ve seen on T.V. of what goes on when a country wins the World Cup. It was absolutely fabulous.
Traffic was insane by the time we got back to the metro, and the streets were full of people. I got a text message from Victor, asking if we wanted to go watch Mursi’s acceptance speech at 6. It was 5:15 then, so we agreed to meet him and Shubhum at 5:45 in Sadat Station (the central station in Cairo, directly under Tahrir).
The metro rides we had for the rest of the night went the same way: people were cramming onto the metro cars and everyone was chanting. As each new train arrived in Sadat Station, hundreds of people pouring out, running up the steps, carrying flags and Mursi posters, and shouting.
As we made our way from the station out into Tahrir, I pulled my camera out. At this point, I realized that in Tahrir, a nice camera means photojournalist. Everyone thought I was with some news agency or another, so people wanted me to take photos of them, undoubtedly hoping they’d end up on the front page of something or another.
Last night, Tahrir Square was like a mixture of a carnival and rock concert. Mursi was the candidate of the revolutionaries, and his supporters know how to do it big. Had Shafiq won, I sort of have to wonder if his supporters would have made such a racket. However, regardless of the winner, I think that most people were just happy to have had successful elections.
Words cannot do Tahrir justice, so I’ll just have to show you my photos. Black, white, and red, the colors of the Egyptian flag, covered everything. There were people selling buttons, people face painting Egyptian flags, people singing, people still camped out in tents, old people, babies, Muslim Brotherhood members, and lots of young student-aged men.
The young men ended up being the reason that Sherin and I concluded our visit to Tahrir. As the sky darkened, we found that we had made our way too far into the crowd to easily get out. Victor and Shubhum hadn’t met us on time, so we were supposed to meet up with them back at the station.
We started making our way in one direction, thinking that there was an entry to the Metro (opposite the one we had exited from). We ran into a wall of people, all crowded around a large stage. This was clearly not our way out. We turned back in the other direction, realizing how far it was back the way we came. As we stood there, discussing which way we should take, a guy came up (one of many who did, but this one was well mannered and not trying to take photos of us, for once). He said, “You really should get out of here. Which way do you need to be?” He said that it was getting late and that there were many “sexually unstable” men around. I didn’t trust him, purely out of instinct, so I asked why we should trust him more than any of the other men. This made him laugh, and he said he had a sister our age (something that men here seem to say a lot. They tell us they either have a sister or a daughter our age). Also, pointing at our cameras, he said that his friend was also a photojournalist. Once his friend came up, wielding an impressive camera, Sherin and I trusted him enough to let him guide us back to the metro. I knew which way we needed to go, but we could move so much faster with their guidance. The camera guy walked in front, me holding onto his backpack handle, Sherin behind me, holding onto my shoulder, and then one guy on either side of the three of us. We moved through the crowd like a little boat.
As we walked, I realized that we had made it all the way into the center of the square after we left the metro. I would have liked to have like to have stopped back on the edge of the square and met up with Victor and Shubhum, but the Egyptian guys we were with we adamant that it would be much safer for us to get to the next metro station and head home.
The square wasn’t dangerous, but I relented, figuring we’d seen our share of celebrations for the day. They walked us all of the way across the bridge to Opera metro station. I talked to the camera guy; he told me that he was a freelance photojournalist in his free time and that he worked as a wedding photographer because it pays really well, but that his degree was actually in architecture.
Once we reached the station, I was slightly amazed, but very happy, that the guys did not ask for our numbers or even our names. They had walked us purely out of concern for our wellbeing, and we really appreciated that.
Sherin asked the one guy if he was happy with the elections, and he said yes. She asked if he liked Mursi, and he said no. This may seem contradictory, but, as an explanation, he said, “If in four years, we don’t like him, we get someone else.” I felt like that was a great way to explain all of the happiness around us. Not everyone loves Mursi, but everyone is happy to be given to option to vote and to know that someday, they can choose someone else if they want.
Looking back towards Tahrir, there was a solid stream of people pouring over the bridge into the square. The streets were absolutely filled.
I am so glad, so very glad, that I went yesterday and experienced that. I’ve never seen so many people in one place, so much pride, so much euphoria. Even if I don’t necessarily love Mursi, I couldn’t help but smile the entire time I was there.
Just imagine: the first free elections. Nearly fifty percent of the Egyptian population is under the age of 30. Can you imagine, for the first time in their lives, they are being asked who they want running their government, how they want things done. Mursi’s election has shown them that the revolution was worth something. They don’t know what they’ll get out of him, exactly, (who really knows with politicians?) but they know it’ll be a change from the old.
I hope that democracy treats Egypt well. There’s really no way of knowing this until the next round of elections in four or five years, whenever it will be. Democracy relies on the people, which is why it can take so long to get it right. Think about this: how long was it from the time the constitution of the United States was signed until every slave was freed? How long until every woman could vote? Our democracy is still a work in progress, so theirs surely will be for a long time to come. I just hope that they do not become disillusioned with the messy process.
On our way home to Maadi, Sherin and I saw the other side of the elections. We both had face paint on, Sherin’s actually was on her face and arms, but mine was only on my arms. While we were in the city center, we got many approving smiles and nods for our paint, but I knew that as we neared Maadi, we should keep a low profile. It isn’t a place where we would be hassled, but people would definitely judge us for having been to Tahrir. Maadi is upper class; many people didn’t support the revolution, much less the election of a former Muslim Brotherhood member. Most of the metro cars were pretty empty and quiet, because people had gone home much earlier. I rolled down my sleeves and gave Sherin my scarf to cover hers.In Maadi, we ordered food, waiting for Victor, Shubhum, Aarane, and Faria to come back from the square (they left once evening prayer started). The man at the counter looked at Sherin’s face paint and had a pained expression. She said later that he probably spit in our food. I laughed and told her that it’s like if someone walked into my shop with “Palin 2012” painted on his or her face, and Palin had just won the election. I would probably spit in their food too. Though we were joking, it was obvious that Mursi was not popular among people in this part of town. However, we did see several cars with men hanging out the windows, wearing all kinds of red, black, and white gear and shouting “MURSI, MURSI, MURSI!” Like it or not, Mursi won the election.
ALEXANDRIA TRIP (Thursday and Friday)
Alexandria was so nice! The plan was to travel light (we each had only a backpack with us that held all of our possessions) and see as much as we could in a day and a half.
Thursday, we arrived around 2:30 p.m. and went to meet Faria at the Citadel. The Citadel is picture perfect with the blue sky and ocean behind it. It’s a relatively modern structure, and it sort of reminded me of some of the Civil War era forts that are built on the coast of the U.S.
After this, we went to find our hotel. Before arriving, I had made a list of low-budget hotels based on a list from WikiTravel. We checked out the Acropole, a place that friends of ours had stayed previously, first. It was situated behind the famous Cecil Hotel and fashioned out of old rooms from Alexandria’s heyday in the 19th century. As you should always do in this country, we asked to see the rooms before we booked. The double room for Sherin and I was relatively all right, but the guys rooms looked pretty sketchy (bugs, dirt, grimy windows). It could have worked out okay for the night, but I suggested we check out a hotel across the alley before we made a decision.
We rode the old (and I mean OLD) elevator up to the other hotel (each of these “hotels” is just a couple of rooms on a floor in buildings that were once grand hotels).
We walked into the first room at the Normandy Hotel, and we were sold. It had two balconies, beautiful sea views, right on the Corniche. We could have the room for 100 pounds a night (as opposed to the 200 pounds for rooms at the Acropole). This came out to 25 pounds apiece! This is less than what I paid for dinner! The room was obviously once very grand, but the ornate fixtures and furniture had seen better days. The bathroom was clean and located a few steps down the hall, shared between the 9 bedrooms that made up the hotel. The room had a sink, vanity, wardrobe, double bed, and two twin beds.
We spent a few minutes lounging around the room and enjoying the balcony before going out to get dinner for the night. We sat along the Corniche for dinner, picking a restaurant with outdoor seating so we could watch the waves. The rest of the night was spent walking along the water and talking. At one point, we went into the famous Cecil hotel and rode the elevator up to the restaurant on the top to see the view.
We woke early the next morning, partially because we wanted an early start, and partially because I was put in charge of getting everyone up. I was up early; the huge dip in the mattress wouldn’t allow me to sleep comfortably, and we left the balcony doors open, allowing me to wake with the sunrise. I sat in the chair outside for a bit, enjoying the quiet morning (at night, cities in Egypt are SO loud). Then, I woke everyone up for the day. Sherin is always the most fun, because she opens her eyes only a little bit and uses a tiny little girl voice to agree with whatever I say to her, just wanting me to go away and let her sleep longer. She only got up once she saw that Victor was getting up, because he loves to pester her while she’s sleepy.
To check out of the hotel, we had to wake the manager up. He was sleeping in the first bedroom, and it took him a minute to orientate himself and find the keys. Staying in little hotels like that is a bit like staying in someone’s house. He let us in and out of the “front door” (the entrance to the hotel in front of the elevator on the fourth floor). To return, we had to ring to doorbell and hope that he heard us so that he could let us into the hotel.
We went out to get breakfast, and we quickly realized that no one is up at 8 a.m. in Egypt. Also, they don’t serve/eat breakfast. We ended up buying Moltos (big Nutella-filled croissants) and yoghurt drinks from the snack stand down the street and sitting at a café while the guys ordered coffee.
Our first order of business for the day was to visit the Kom al-Dikka ruins next to the Greco-Roman museum. The ruins were nice; they included a Roman theater, baths, a villa, etc. I must admit that after seeing a model of a Roman house in Germany with Max, seeing the ruins of one isn’t quite as cool. However, it was interesting to see how the new buildings were right up next to the archeological finds.
Before we left, we asked a couple of women how much it would cost to take a taxi to the next stop. We also asked them the best way to get to several of the other places we wanted to go, and this saved us much stress and many pounds later. The locals know the distances and best routes.
From there, we had our coolest stop of the day: the Catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa. It’s an elaborate Roman burial complex under Alexandria. The tombs were very, very interesting. The entire place smelled like an old cellar. There was a mix of Roman and Pharonic depictions on them, showing that (much like we saw in Coptic Cairo), there’s never a clear line when it comes to tradition and religious practices. We wandered around underground for a while; thinking about how creepy it must have been when there were still bodies in all of the tombs. Victor said it felt like something out of Indiana Jones.
After this, we crossed town to go to the Biblioteca Alexandrina (the world famous library in Alexandria). The building is beautiful, brand new and carved with letters, hieroglyphs, pictograms, and symbols from every known alphabet. We were so excited, and the library was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. Then, we arrived and found that it was closed on Fridays. Yes, closed. Apparently, since the revolution, they’ve closed it for maintenance and security. We were so upset/pissed/depressed. We begged the guards at each entrance, just for a peek inside. We didn’t have to see the ancient manuscripts; to learn about the Alexandrian scholars who first measured the earth’s circumference and discovered the central nervous system. We just wanted a peek inside at the vast building (go look up pictures of it!). Alas, the guards each called their managers, and they all said no. It seemed as though security had been heightened extremely for this building, much more so than any other I’ve seen in Egypt. We even walked into an “employees only” entrance, and tried to talk the guy into taking us in. He, like the other guards, obviously would have taken us in had he could.
We moped around the outside and then decided to go to Cilantro for lunch. We sat on the rooftop of Cilantro for several hours, talking and ordering food to drown our sorrows. We had sea views as well as a view of the Biblioteca, so it was nice. The best part of Alex was honestly the weather. Sitting there on the roof, we were not hot at all. It was so, so much cooler than the rest of Egypt, thanks to the Mediterranean Sea.
After this, we went out to the seaside road and got on a microbus. Let me explain the concept of a microbus: they are like taxis in that they are privately owned and will stop whenever you want. However, they can hold many more people, they run along a set route, and it costs less than 2 pounds to ride along this route. Thus, by taking this bus, we went from spending 30 pounds on a taxi across Alex to paying 1.5 pounds/each for a trip on the bus. Victor and I sat up with the driver, getting an excellent view of the coast as we rode. It was a long ride in traffic, but nice to be riding without thinking about how much the fare would be (this piece of mind was actually true for any taxi in Alex as well, because they each required that you agree on a set price beforehand. Unlike Cairo, they do not use meters in Alex. This works in your favor, but only if you know how much the ride should cost. We overpaid several times; overestimating the distance we would be travelling. However, by pre-setting a price, you don’t have to worry about traffic delays or if he is taking the right route there. It is in his best interest to get you there as quickly as possible).
We rode out to the Montazah Palace Gardens. The Montazah Palace served as Mubarak’s summer home (before he was kicked out of office, obviously), but it also once served as a Red Cross hospital by the British during WWI, and, originally, as a royal palace. The grounds are the real draw, though. Everything is so nicely kept and very green! There were many families having picnics, flying kites, playing soccer (it struck Sherin and I as funny to see women in niqab doing all of these things). We walked around for a bit and then decided we wanted to find the beach. There is a private cove on the far side that we figured we’d go see.
Little did we know, private cove does not mean “private to the visitors of the gardens,” but it means “private to the rich people who own villas in the gardens.” Victor, Sherin, and I decided to walk out on the beach anyways, Shubhum trailing behind. We took pictures and went down to touch the water, acting the part of the dumb tourists who don’t realize they are in the wrong place. A couple of young workers came up and were trying to get us to leave, but we acted as though we could not understand. At one point, I turned to Victor and asked, “What is the problem? I do not understand what they want.” Except, I said it in Spanish.
This turned out to be the best idea possible. At this point, not only were we tourists, but we were dumb tourists and we didn’t speak English. The workers gave up, allowing us to walk further down the beach. Shubhum and Sherin wandered off. Another worker came up to Victor and I and said, “this is a private beach, you will have to leave.” But, I replied in the same way as before, this time with Victor joining in. The guy tried again, saying “you may take some photos, but leave after that.” At this, I exclaimed “Fotografia!” Victor took off his shoes and socks, running out to the waves. I clicked away at my camera. The guy found us entertaining (like the other guys, he was young and obviously didn’t really care if we were there or not). Sherin and Shubhum came over and got in the water too. I was still taking photos, so I handed my camera over to the guy who wanted us to leave, slid off my sandals, and ran into the waves to with everyone. We posed for a picture, all of us laughing at the absurdity of the situation. All this time, Victor and I (still in Spanish) are making random exclamations about how beautiful the sea is, how nice the day, etc, etc.
Our expedition to the waves turned out fabulously, and we walked back up the hill to lie in the grass for an hour or so until we needed to catch our train. Some of my favorite memories of Alex will be times just relaxing by the sea.
We went to the train station to make sure that we knew our platform number. On the way to the station, which was in a poorer area of town, I noticed many men out with long beards and galabeyas on (the long shirts; I’m not sure how to spell the word in English). After we had checked out tickets, we went out of the station to get food to eat on the ride home. We visited a bakery to pick up sweets for desert (yummy croissants and sweet rolls). On our way out, we saw more and more people coming out to the street. I saw several Egyptian flags, and I turned to Victor and said, “the elections?” We began asking people on the street what was going on, and realized that Mursi had been elected president. This was the reason for all of the men I had seen earlier. At the end of the street, people were gathering, waving flags, speaking through bullhorns. We could not tell if they were Mursi supporters or protestors. On closer inspection, they were definitely supporters. I wanted a closer look, but I knew that as a foreigner, I should not get too close. We made our way up to the edge of the crowd, trying to look like we didn’t really know what was happening (which was partially true). We had people explain to us what was going on, acting wide-eyed. I had put my big camera away halfway up the street, because the last thing I wanted was to look like a journalist (earlier, I had taken a photo of a guy waving a flag, and his friend came to get me to make sure that I would not be posting the photos on the internet, because it could get him in trouble later. I assured him that I was in Egypt for vacation only, and that the photos would not be published). It was very cool to get to experience this sort of a gathering first-hand.
As the crowd grew and the hour grew later, we decided we needed to head back to the station. As we walked back down the road, a huge crowd of people was marching towards the direction we were coming from. We moved to the side as they passed, seeing the men with long beards chanting and carrying flags first and then seeing an equal sized group of women in hijabs and conservative dress coming behind them (obviously, men and women couldn’t be marching together). These were clearly Mursi supporters.
We got back down the road, picked up some shawarma and drinks for dinner, and ran to catch our train.
We had a fascinating conversation on the ride home about what this election would mean for Egypt. The thing is about this election is how unpredictable it really was. Both men promise many of the same things: stability, uncorrupt practices, democracy, etc. Polling estimates pre-election in Egypt are not as reliable as they are in the states or Europe.
Victor and I agreed that the thing with electing Mursi as that while they don’t know what they’re going to get from him, they know they don’t want the old regime (which is what they equate with Shafiq). So, they would rather risk the unknown than have the revolution be for naught.
The interesting thing is that predictions of who would win were so hard to make. Victor’s co-workers are from the same social class and hold similar jobs, but each predicted a different candidate for different reasons. When I was riding horses at the pyramids, my guide asked me what I thought of the elections in Egypt and whom I thought would win. I gave a very noncommittal response, saying it’s really based on who can play the political scene into his favor. He was adamant that Shafiq would win, saying that the people would not accept Mursi.
This I am not so sure of. Over the past decade, Egypt has become more conservative. Being out during the election announcement really highlighted this point. Men and women were very covered up. Victor commented that Egypt was starting to look more like Saudi Arabia than it does Morocco (Morocco tends to more on the liberal side of the spectrum).
In the train station home, we saw many men out to go to rallies (for or against Mursi, it was hard to tell). Especially as we moved through Sadat station, the large transit hub in Cairo, there were many people on the move. We saw people carrying signs to get off at Tahrir. Men in long robes, beards, and caps (the look of the Muslim Brotherhood) were marching through the corridors of the station, shouting chants. As we walked through the tunnel out, I turned to Sherin and asked, “Is it bad that I’m having a strong urge to cover my hair?” It was intimidating, and I could not have been happier that Victor and Shubhum were with us.
We went home, showered, and met our friends for a felucca ride on the Nile. Tomorrow is Paul’s last day, so we’ve been celebrating.
I found out that the announcement of Mursi’s win was not the official announcement. That is supposed to come sometime today.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Today, again, was pretty uneventful. I took the large bubble wand to work today and blew bubbles for all of the kids. They absolutely loved them!
Sherin spent some time talking to Mrs. Wedad, the teacher we like, again today. She asked about where the kids live/how long they live in the orphanage. All the kids we teach live together in one of the dorm buildings. There is a second Awladi building a few blocks away in Maadi where the boys over the age of 12 live. They can stay there until they finish school/get jobs (around age 18-20). The girls stay on the main Awladi campus until they get married. Mrs. Wedad said that most of them (the kids in our class) would end up married to each other eventually. This makes sense when you look at the way orphans are treated in Egyptian society. However, it is a bit weird for them, because, before puberty, they are raised together like siblings, and they continue having school together until they are of marrying age. (If you haven’t done so, you can go read the article I have listed under the “About Awladi” tab for more information about how the orphanage system works in Egypt).
After the bubbles, we were back in the classroom and Mrs. Wedad was playing a game with the kids. She had them all lay down, and she would say “shams!” (sun!), raising her arms, and the kids would all sit up. Then, she’d say “amar!” (moon!), lowering her arms, and they would lay back down. It was really funny, because they were getting so into it. Mrs. Wedad always teases with the kids; it’s really cute, and we can tell that she really likes them. It’s nice to see that they have such a good teacher.
She’s a really intelligent woman, and she likes to ask Sherin and I to define words in English or to tell her how to say things. We’ve taught her “eyebrow,” “election,” and “beyond,” among other things.
After we went to Dahab, she wanted to know how it was and how we liked it. We ended up talking about how different the clothing standards are on the beaches in Egypt. She told us that last time she was there, she saw women sunbathing nude and that it made her blush. We told her we hadn’t seen anyone without suits (except the babies), but that everyone could walk around in bikinis just fine. It seems as though the beaches were more liberal back in the 70s when she used to go. The really interesting thing about that conversation was the fact that Mrs. Wedad, a woman who wears hijab and swims in long-sleeves and pants, was so open to talk to us about modesty and standards of dress.
Women here definitely judge each other for wearing/not wearing a hijab. Even technically unreligious women will wear them, because it’s a cultural standard. It’s considered immodest to go without covering your hair, which is why men here consider loose hair to be such a sexually attractive thing. If I lived here for a long period of time, I would definitely consider covering my hair, at least loosely, on a regular basis. For now, I stay respectful by pulling my hair back into a ponytail or a braid. You would be amazed at how much of a difference this makes in how both men and women act.
Anyways, sorry for the rambling.
I’ve been planning our trip to Alexandria. Victor just went and bought the tickets, and we’ll leave tomorrow morning. It is only a three hour ride to Alexandria, so we’ll get there with enough time still to see a couple of things before they close (all tourist attractions close at 4 p.m. in Egypt). Then, we’ll stay in a cheap hotel for the night. On Friday morning, we’ll wake up and go out to see the rest of the things we miss. We plan to get the train back after 4 on Friday, so we’ll be back by the evening. There are only four of us going: Shubhum, Victor, Sherin, and I. Faria is still there for work, so she’ll meet up with us tomorrow for a few hours. With so few people, we’ll be able to get around really easily and see things quickly. I’m excited to go! There isn’t all that much to see, but Alexandria is supposed to be so nice.