Better World NGO

6 May

Last night was my last night teaching at Better World and I’m rather sorry for that.  My favorite experience being in Egypt was teaching English and Spanish at the Better World NGO classes in Heliopolis every Tuesday.  My students were fun and energetic and always eager to learn.  Even my duties as a daily manager were interesting and diverse and I was never bored in the office helping out the other teachers and coordinators.  I’d been involved in Better World since my first month in Egypt and every single Tuesday since I had spent the greater part of the day in Heliopolis (2:30-11 PM).  Now that I just have the final exams to grade and final grades to determine, I’m not sure what I’ll do with all my extra time on Tuesdays.

A Lux(or) Weekend Away

1 May

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Luxor with a friend of mine.  It was a nice diversion from classes at AUC and very much welcomed.  We took the cheapest option for getting to Luxor, an 11 hour train ride in second class.  We left Cairo around 1 AM and arrived in Luxor around 11 AM the next morning and went right to our hostel to get cleaned up.  The hostel we had booked online was the Bob Marley Hostel and the hilarious wall decorations made up for the functional but rather beat up facilities. After an hour or so of resting we walked to the Corniche and took a 1 LE ferry ride across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings.  The taxi fare was a bit steep at 25 LE (including a return trip), but we didn’t know the way there yet so we accepted.  The Valley of the Kings was 40 LE to enter but it was absolutely amazing and well worth it.  The tickets allowed us to see three tombs (we spoke Arabic to one of the tomb guards and actually got to see a fourth one).  We weren’t permitted to take pictures (my friend almost got ejected from the tombs for taking one surreptitiously) but I wish that we had been.  The tombs were full of amazing colors and images that were on the most part well-preserved along with interesting sarcophagi and other fun things.  After a couple of hours of enjoying the valley we headed back to the other side of the river and ate dinner at an over-priced, not particularly tasty (despite being recommended by our travel book) restaurant along the main drag.  Finally, we headed back to our hostel for an early bedtime as we didn’t sleep too restfully on the train ride to Luxor.

Saturday morning we woke up early and breakfasted on the hostel’s complimentary breakfast – a better-than-average meal including tea, coffee, eggs, bread, yogurt, fruit and jam.  Afterward we once again decided to cross the river, but this time we headed to the Valley of the Queens.  Recalling the price and return trip of the taxi (the driver picked up 6 extra young male passengers without consulting us in the slightest and then demanded baksheesh and was incredibly rude overall) we decided to forgo the taxi and instead walk the few miles to the valley.  Along the way we passed the Colossi of Memnon and stopped to take some pictures as well as an archaeological dig and some small villages.  The Valley of the Queens was much cheaper than the Valley of the Kings only 20 LE, but the tombs weren’t as well-preserved and honestly at that point they were all beginning to blur together anyway.  Considering that we were ridiculously overheated (or at least I was) from the walk there in the hot noon sun and a lack of water, we decided to head back to the river at a slower pace.  Once we got back to our hostel we found a cheap (4 LE!) delicious shwarma place right across the street and enjoyed a relaxing lunch before getting ourselves cleaned up and rested.  Later that evening we headed back to the Corniche to take a felucca ride.  Our friendly (heavy sarcasm for reasons to be explained later) felucca driver recruited one of his friends to go along with him and the four of us headed off to Banana Island.  The boys were roughly our age and very friendly and solicitous on the journey, offering us food and drinks during the 2+ hour boat ride.  We stopped off for a short time on Banana Island and examined the banana plantation, before heading back down the river.  Once we got back we paid the boys 50 LE for the ride and then agreed to go to a cafe with them for a short time.  We all had a good time snacking and chatting so we agreed to meet them the next morning for a tour of their village. On the way back to our hostel we took some gorgeous night shots of the Luxor Temple to complement the ones we had already taken during the day time, because honestly the entrance fee was overpriced and the best photos to be taken of the compound are from the outside, not the inside where everything is too large to photograph properly.

The next morning we woke up a bit early and after breakfasting at the hostel again we headed down to the Corniche to find our fine felucca friends.  They took us across the river and we went by walking (my friend) or donkey (myself) to their house.  The slow trip allowed us to get a tour of the village in which they lived which, like most of Egypt, was in borderline poverty despite being so close to a great tourism revenue site.  We spent a few hours at their house chatting and drinking tea before heading back to the mainland where our guides surprised us by demanding payment for both the donkey ride and the riverboat trips across the river.  This would not have been such an unpleasant surprise if they hadn’t told us the day before that we would be doing these things for free as a sign of friendship.  My friend and I were rightfully annoyed and told them that we had not expected to have to pay them for these things and thus were not going to.  After a few more minutes of attempting to get payment out of us, they permitted us to leave the boat without further incident.  Feeling a bit out of sorts, my friend and I went to a perfumery we had seen the other day and spent the next two hours suffering through some thinly veiled sexual harassment before paying a small sum for our lovely perfume and perfume bottles.  We went back to the hostel and ate at the cheap shwarma restaurant and devoured some authentic gelato from a small shop run by two very handsome young men.  The rest of the day was spent walking (and getting ridiculously lost on the way) to the Karnak Temple.  The temple was quite delightful (except for several groups of young boys asking to take pictures of us) and I greatly enjoyed it.  That night we returned to the hostel early so we would be able to get enough sleep to wake up early for our train ride back to Cairo in the morning, a train ride which I am delighted to say was entirely uneventful.  Despite the teeming hordes of young (and old) men making passes at us as young un-hijabed women, Luxor was quite a delightful city and I would definitely recommend stopping there for a visit if you’re ever in Egypt.

Climbing Sinai

29 Apr majestic-camel

A few weeks ago my friends and I decided to climb Mt. Sinai supposedly where Moses received the commandments from God.  We left late from Cairo so we would be able to reach Mt. Sinai and climb before the sunrise which actually turned out to be perfectly planned.  The trip took around 7 or 8 totals with stops and what-not which was somewhat uncomfortable considering we had more people than the bus could actually legitimately hold.  The bus company had told us that the bus could hold 16 people but neglected to mention that this number included the driver and his navigator. So some people ended up sitting on the floor or on the luggage, but otherwise it was rather fun.  When we got to the Mount Saint Catherine Protectorate it was still cold and dark outside.  We payed a nominal fee (I think it was 10 LE or so) to enter the Protectorate and drove to a small encampment before the base of the mountains.  We gathered our belongings and set out for a long climb to the top.  The first part of the climb was a large path that slowly sloped in front of the mountain, twisting and turning back on itself.  The path was dificult to navigate in the dark and was extremely rocky. Unfortunately, one girl turned her ankle early on and had to ride a camel to the top of the mountain.  However, the second part was even more difficult. It was some half mile of stairs leaning at some points in a near 90 degree angle to the mountain.  We made the entire trek in just under 2 and a half hours, in time to see the sun rise over the top of the mountains.  It was quite  simply stunning and amazing.  The sunrise and feeling of excitement of being on top of the mountain and overlooking everything made the difficult climb worthwhile.  My advice for anyone wishing to climb Mt. Sinai is that if they aren’t very physically fit, they work out for a few weeks before attempting the climb as my legs were ridiculously sore for the next several days.

The Art of Bargaining, Misr Style

23 Apr

After living in and traveling around Egypt for a few months, I’ve come to realize that there is a certain art to bargaining here. For starters, Egyptian store clerks seem to think the fastest and most effective method of getting sales is hitting on any female that walks by. This certainly shocked me the first time I went to Khan al-Khalili, the famous souq (market) next to Al-Azhar Mosque, only a few days after my arrival in Egypt.

Of course, you never really know when you’re getting a good deal or the guy’s just fooling you. Today I was quite excited about two of my new purchases, rather gorgeous objects that I can’t really describe as the recipients might be reading this. And then, at the end of the sale, once my change had been handed back, the store owner threw in a small statue “as a gift”.  RED FLAG. WARNING. ALERT. ALERT.  YOU’VE JUST BEEN HAD.  Yes, sadly, this wonderful “gift” was actually a symbol that I’d been had by the nice shop clerk.  From what I’ve witnessed, one rule of bargaining in Egypt is that if the customer pays more than what you’d expect them to pay legitimately you give them a little baksheesh, a small favor or tip.  In this case, I got a small stone statue as a thank you gift for paying more than what I could have gotten away with.

Here’s another good know to about the art of bargaining: generally you can get them down to half the amount of the initial price they quote.  Now, this isn’t always true, and you might want to shop around a little at first to get a better idea of what the thing you want goes for pricewise.  But overall, if you ask how much and they say 40 LE you can get it for 20 LE if you bargain enough and sometimes you can even get it for less, especially if you learn at least some basic Egyptian Arabic like numbers and whatnot.  The prices are generally inflated outrageously, especially if you look like a tourist, and many clerks will offer you an “Egyptian” price to convince you to come look at their wares.  Strangely this “Egyptian” price is at least twice what any actual Egyptian would pay.

Despite some hassle, shopping for goods can be very fun and exciting in Egypt.  Just be sure to go in a good mood ready to endure hours of blatantly flirtatious comments (I’ve had many a marriage proposal while shopping!) and don’t be afraid to just walk away from a sale if you feel you’re being overcharged.

Spring Break in Israel

22 Apr

This year I spent the first of my two weeks of Spring Break in Israel. We traveled from Eilat to Jerusalem and then to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea before heading back to Cairo.  The trip from Cairo to Taba wasn’t bad at all, only six hours or so and I remembered to pack plenty of snacks. So many in fact that I had breakfast and snacks for the next day in Israel.  Once we entered into Eilat the fun part started though.  I was with four other girls but, most likely because I look like I could be Egyptian, I was lucky enough to get my stuff searched at the border crossing into Eilat!  The front page of my homework had the word “Islam” on it so of course I had to put up with some very silly questioning about why I would have that.  The fact that I was coming from Egypt where I study at the American University in Cairo seems like a reasonable enough explanation but apparently not.  After 10 minutes of questioning and them dumping out all of my luggage I was grudgingly allowed to leave.  Of course, I had to repack everything without any help…glad my underwear was clean at least.  After that we got our passports stamped and grabbed a taxi to the boardwalk where we ate at a rather popular restaurant named Aroma.  At this point I have to mention that our trip during Spring Break happened to coincide with Passover, Western Easter and Eastern Palm Sunday.  I had stayed overnight at a friend’s place in Cairo so I could catch the early morning bus and gotten the chance to participate in my first Seder.  Now, there was a certain poignancy to be celebrating the exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt while in Cairo waiting to go to Israel.  Though that could also have just been the wine after four months of being dry. Oh my, how expensive alcohol is here!  Anyway, the point of this side trip down random memory lane is that all the bread in Israel was unleavened throughout our stay.  Except for the delicious fig bread I managed to find each morning (but that’s a different story).  I’ll have to leave this update here as I’m about to lose my internet access again, but tomorrow’s post should continue the story.

Hurgada and the Red Sea

21 Mar

Last month we went to Hurgada, a pleasing resort-style town on the Red Sea.  The bus ride from Cairo took several hours and was somewhat uncomfortable, but not horribly so.  We spent a few hours looking for a decently priced hotel and found one for about 50 LE each for the night.  The rest of the day we spent hanging out at the beach and exploring the city; we went shopping for cute dresses to wear that night for the club and I ran into a goat and the afternoon prayer.  I felt a bit uncomfortable walking in front of all these men praying in my skimpy beach attire, but since they were lining all the streets it was impossible to walk around them.  We went back to our hotel for a little bit of a nap followed by happy hour before heading out on the town.  We were a bit too early to go to the club as of yet so we grabbed dinner and then smoked sheesha and drank tea at a ridiculously overpriced place downtown, clearly catering to the foreigner population.  Afterward my friend and I went to the local Hard Rock Cafe since she knew someone who could get us in and ladies drank free until 2 AM or so.  Everyone else went to see DJ Feedo at Buddha where we joined them a few hours later.  The Hard Rock was fun and, as well as supplying females with free drinks, they played mostly American songs that I recognized and could dance to. On the other hand, the crowd was mostly Americans and Europeans with very few, if any, Egyptians.  The crowd at Buddha was less enthusiastic, possibly because of the late hour, and sadly we missed the R&B stuff by DJ Feedo.  We eventually left the club in the early morning hours and wandered around looking for breakfast before going back to our hotel to sleep and get cleaned up before the bus back to Cairo.  Overall, Hurgada seemed like a nice place to spend a weekend on the beach, but I’ve heard that Dahab is even better.

Giza, the Pyramids

15 Feb the-great-pyramid

I had been living in Cairo for roughly two weeks and of course my first major excursion outside of the city was to Giza to visit the pyramids.

We took a yellow cab whose driver managed to lose his way more times than we would’ve wished and we finally made it to the pyramids around 11:30 AM despite calling for the taxi at 9.  Our driver included a nice little sidetrip to a sketchy camel ride salesman, who informed us that we “had to take a camel or horse to get to the pyramids” which, of course, we knew was a complete lie.  Still we were forced to converse with him and his workers for another 20 minutes as one of our friends debated the merits of taking him up on his extremely over-priced offer.  Just a note: you can get a camel or horse ride around the pyramids for between 5 and 20 pounds.

Once we dispensed with the salesman and his crew, we reached the pyramid area and I was simply ecstatic.  The pyramids and Sphinx were so much grander than I had imagined.  Larger and more stunning than what the pictures had shown.  We spent some time wandering around the ground looking at the pyramids, one of which I even climbed.  There were many people on the pyramids, climbing or eating and drinking, and every once in a while a uniformed guard would come by yelling at them all to get off though this rarely worked to remove them for longer than a minute.  Honestly, I was quite appalled by the trash surrounding the pyramids.  With everyone eating and drinking on them and the strong gusts blowing up sand and whatnot, it looked like someone had dumped a trash can onto the ground.  Whenever the winds picked up speed, the trash would dance around in small cyclones.

Another interesting aspect of our trip was my first confrontation with the culture of baksheesh (tipping).  There were many smaller enclosed buildings that we entered on the Pyramid grounds and often (nearly always) the attendant would grant us special treatment (taking pictures and going into areas we were not supposed to) on the understanding that he would receive some amount of pounds upon our exit. Of course, I was of two minds about this whole situation, on the one hand who would not want to examine the buildings in great detail and photograph the wonderful things we could see, but of course on the other hand, we were risking damage to these important monuments and giving the attendant incentive to continue to propagate this damage.

After a few hours of wandering around the pyramids, we purchased tickets to go inside of the Great Pyramid.  I found the King’s chamber to be somewhat anti-climatic.  The climb up on rickety “stairs” while hunched over was somewhat annoying, especially when I kept smacking my head on the ceiling, and the final destination was nothing more than a large square room with a stone sarcophagus. On the other hand, the realization that I was inside of the Great Pyramid standing in a room thousands of years old was more than enough to make up for the lack of splendor that I had unconsciously been expecting.

The Pyramid grounds closed around 4 or 5 PM so we went into the town and spent sometime sampling the local food and desserts before taking a taxi back to the New Campus.  The trip to Giza was a very pleasing experience and I plan to go back at least once more to see the Pyramids again.

New Campus, New Cairo

8 Feb

AUC (American University in Cairo) has recently moved to their new campus in New Cairo, an hour’s ride from downtown Cairo.  As a new student at the university, I did not have the experience of living on the downtown Cairo campus, but many of the students seem upset about the location change.  Having lived here at the dorms in New Cairo for only a few weeks I can understand their frustration.  The new campus is undoubtedly beautiful and spacious, but there is nothing to do within walking distance, in fact the nearest city (or even sign of life) is a 10-15 minute car ride away.  Being a study abroad student, my access to a car is clearly limited and the buses run on a very annoying schedule which thankfully the Res(idential)Life staff is working on improving.  Also, it seems that all of the places to eat food on campus are run by a single monopoly who charges outrageous amounts for mediocre food and won’t allow any competition on campus, going even so far as to forbid students from ordering food from elsewhere to be delivered to the campus.  I must say that I am at the moment extremely disillusioned with the new campus.  I was told, or at least it was suggested to me, that the new campus was completely up and running with no problems whatsoever.  I arrived to discover that most of the food places and stores weren’t yet open, the gym was unfinished and would continue to be so until near my time of departure, and the campus was much further away from downtown than I was told and there was little in the way of transport for me to even get there.  In all honesty, I find the campus gorgeous and I’m sure the move allowed them to build and expand more than they could possibly do in downtown Cairo, but they have removed most of the incentive for my coming here (I applied before the move to the New Campus) and with the numerous operational difficulties still affecting the campus (a result of continuing construction despite allowing students to live on campus) I would suggest that most students wait a few years for the campus and surrounding environs to really reach a decent state of growth though I wonder if this move will translate into declining rates of student enrollment.

Hikone and JCMU

15 Jan hikone-jo

Hikone, Japan was a rather boring place to study abroad, especially after living in a vibrant city like Sevilla, Spain. The city was large enough, but JCMU was located at the far edge of town and we had only our bikes for transport. This made any trip into town long and annoying in the often poor weather.  Even Lake Biwa, in which I had been excited to swim and windsurf, disappointed me since it turned out to be extremely filthy and unsanitary. To some people, the small and somewhat rural locale of JCMU may be a selling point, but to me it was a poor substitute to living in Kyoto or Tokyo, both of which I visited and found much more to my liking, especially Kyoto to where we often traveled on weekends.  On the other hand, the Japanese language program at JCMU was well above par. The classes were intensive and immersive and challenged students while enabling them in all four basic language skills.  I found the extra classes – taught in English – to be a rather annoying waste of my time.  I took two of these classes, one at JCMU and one at the local Shiga Prefecture University.  The class on Minorities in Japan would have undoubtedly been a fascinating class were it not for the professor (who seemed completely unprepared for and unknowledgeable about the material covered in the class) and the lack of any truly meaningful research being conducted or studied.  The lectures were mostly vague and superficial regurgitated textbook information with one or two interesting points thrown in to appease our growing frustration and disillusionment with the course.  Perhaps worse was my Buddhism in Society class at the local Japanese university.  The professor spent several hours each week telling extraordinarily circular stories about his personal life that he attempted to connect with Buddhism.  These stories while interesting anecdotes had almost nothing to do with Buddhism as far as I could understand.  The only bright spot in these weekly lectures were the few guest speakers we had who, probably because they taught only once and on a specific topic, actually managed to connect Buddhism with the Japanese culture and society in a much more conventional fashion.  Also, since we routinely ate lunch with in the ESS (English Speaking Society) classroom with Japanese students who were interested in improving their English skills, we were able to make other Japanese friends besides those in our Buddhism class.  Overall, I am glad that I had the chance to study in Japan and make many good friends, Japanese and others, but I am sorry that my semester had not been in a larger and more vibrant city like Kyoto or Tokyo.

Here are a few pictures that I took of Hikone-jo and Lake Biwa. The green buildings in the second photo are those of JCMU.

Vending Machines

13 Jan vending-machine

Japan is well-known as a mecca of technology.  By far, the most interesting result of these advances is the wide-spread use of vending machines, or jidouhanbaiki (roughly translated: self-moving, selling machine).  Everywhere you go in Japan there is a vending machine, or twelve.  They line the streets selling everything from hot and cold drinks, train tickets, ice cream, school supplies, alcohol, pornographic items, clothing, various types of instant food, etc.  It’s very shocking to return to the US and not have a convenient vending machine on every street corner.  Here are some photos of vending machines I found around Hikone.  A normal drink vending machine, a condom vending machine and one selling women’s panties that I found in an area of vending machines devoted to pornographic content.

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