Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now, from the beginning

I've been keeping track of my experiences thus far until I could figure out this complicated internet issue. Well, the internet has yet to be fully resolved, but I'm currently sitting in a cafe that will work. It's loud, due to the soccer game going on, but I'll survive. This will end up being a massive diatribe of the events so far, but after I post all of them I can start keeping this daily (or at least semi daily)

Now, to begin on the 12th, when I first arrived.

June 12, 2008

I began my acquaintance with Cairo by climbing into a taxi, unlabeled as such, with my program director, another volunteer and a driver named Akmed. We darted through the mess of cars that is Cairo traffic and Akmed blared “Material Girl” (of all things) with all the windows down. That particular song seemed so wrong for that moment, but I guess in a way it works. I think Egypt is trying to catch up to the attitude portrayed in that song because it sees the rest of the world enjoying such materialism. They deserve these comforts as well, don’t get me wrong, but this new idea is mixing with the old in a bizarre way. I guess that’s the way it goes in all developing nations—mosques surrounded by other old buildings on one corner and vendors selling embellished bras and panties from makeshift tables on the next.

Earlier, on the plane, I sat next to a small, middle-aged Egyptian man who told me about the 22 days he had just spent in the US studying American medicine. His name was Magid and he was a pediatrician who specialized in the repair of cleft palates. He was in love with Americans. I’d been briefed on the possible negativity I might encounter being an American, but this guy was the 100% anomaly to that concept. He told me about how he thought the Americans he had met were so considerate and kind I couldn’t help but feel a little bit patriotic. I’m glad that we all don’t seem like the tyrants that we’re made out to be.

He told me he wanted to marry an American woman, which I later realized was a hint of sorts after my program director explained how frequently Egyptians propose to Americans. He gave me his e-mail address and phone number about 2 minutes after sitting down and told me, “I take you to pyramids and big dinner.” He then helped me however he could for the rest of the 10 hour flight, offering me gum, opening my tray table for me, and throwing away my garbage. He wasn’t creepy, though, as surprising as it may be to say that; he was just being nice.

All of the Egyptians that I’ve met so far have been (for the most part) this friendly. One of the men in the hostel, Farek, has taught himself all of the English that he knows, which I find to be incredibly impressive. He drives a taxi, drawing his customers mainly from the pool of individuals staying in one of the 5 or so rooms. He told us that he would hear a word in English, write in down in Arabic characters, and then ask someone what it meant. For example, he cited the word “because,” explaining how he came to its meaning and then using it in a sentence; “He is shouting because I drive with him crazy.”

Speaking of crazy drivers…there are no rules on the streets of Cairo. My one taxi ride so far has proven this fact. Drivers beep if someone cuts them off, or lets them in, or almost runs over them, or, as my program director joked, if they want a lighter. There are so many different kinds of cars; it’s a little bit funny. Basically, any type of ridiculously tiny vehicle exists in droves here. No SUVs, which is refreshing. Gas is a problem here too, though; apparently gas stations run out of gas every day forcing people to sometimes drive to multiple stations before they can fill up. I’m not sure of the prices; I need to learn Arabic numbers.

Obviously these are the sights of a person who has spent a mere 9 hours here, but these first impressions line up with what I’ve been told to expect. I knew the streets would be dirty and the drivers insane. I knew that the people would be over-accommodating to a point of almost fault and I also knew that some, some, people would love Americans.

So overall my experience has been lovely. I’m exhausted but I’m not going to let myself nap, going off of the advice of the other volunteers who got here earlier than me. I want to be able to sleep through the night. If this entry ends up being drool on a page, blame my beginning at 5 am on June 11th, sleeping for 5 hours on a plane next to a talkative Egyptian, and continuing through now. (I arrived in Cairo at 3am EST).

June 13, 2008

Today was a day of intense bonding of the team. We began in Coptic Cairo, looking at churches and the one synagogue in the area as well as the Coptic Museum; these were all beautiful. We lunched in Tahir Square on falafel and more juice (I’m definitely partial to the mango). Then back to the hotel (The New President) for a bit and exploring the surrounding area. We met two other Americans, a couple, who were making their way around the world (literally). They were coming off a 13 European country stint and were only visiting Egypt for a few days.

We had dinner at some loud relatively lame restaurant where I got a mediocre tomato and mozzarella salad. Then we walked to the Nile where we paid 10 gnay for a river boat ride. What a show that turned out to be. We climbed into this already rickety sail boat and ended up waiting for the driver for a good ten minutes. When we finally pulled out the current took us immediately which at the time seemed like a very good thing. As we drifted closer to the bridge nearest to us we started to get a little nervous. All of a sudden the captain starts freaking out and we look up to where he’s directing most of his anger and see that the mast of the sailboat had caught itself on the ceiling of the bridge. The boat begins to rapidly sink to the right (where I’m sitting) while the left pops into the air. We were sure that the boat was just about ready to capsize so the two of us sitting on the sinking side jumped over with the other volunteers.

I was pretty much convinced that at least some of us were going to end up in the cruddy, polluted Nile to be eaten by some strange waterbourne illness. Anyway, when our watery graves begin to look imminent, we heard a huge crack. The mast had snapped from the pressure. Meanwhile, one of the larger but passengerless boats was making its way to our aid. We assumed that the boat was coming to get us but when it pulled up it’s workers tied our boat to theirs and started pulling it out. As they drug us, though, they somehow managed to catch the remaining corner of the mast on the edge of the pillar holding the bridge up. The boat kept pulling, snapping that section of the mast as well and again threatening us with the possibility of a swim. This boat pulled us further out and even though we were sure that we would just return to the shore, the driver wasn’t about to give us a refund. So, with our little broken boat and our embarrassed captain we sat, almost completely still, in the middle of the Nile until our promised half hour was through. We then started making our way back. The current, however, had other plans and began dragging us again toward the bridge. This time we rammed a parked boat and somehow used it to drag ourselves to the resting place. We ended up with a great story to tell but a traumatizing 45 minutes.

One final side note/funny story…one of the men in the hostel, Ahmed, is very much in love with himself and definitely suave with the ladies. When I asked him today if I was saying his name right he said, “I never knew my name was so beautiful until I heard you say it.” I was warned about this type of Egyptian boy, so it was hilarious when this warning came true.

June 14, 2008

Today was mostly consumed by orientation, which was very helpful. We learned useful Arabic phrases and got a general idea of what to expect from our classes. We discussed the sites and their differences and how to deal with problems in the classroom. It’s hard to believe that we all just met and in just a day (or a few hours for 2 of the volunteers) we have to separate into our different sites. We’re planning to visit each other already, though, so hopefully we’ll get to see each other just a little bit more.

Tonight we rode horses near the pyramids, which I believe I can honestly say was one of the best experiences of my life. After the 7 of us piled into 2 cabs, one with the familiar Farek and the other with a new driver, we drove the 30ish minutes to Giza. From the highway you could see the faint outlines of the pyramids. We sat there looking at them from the car, but in the typical Cairo way the moment was interrupted by an angry driver laying on their horn. Gotta love the psychotic traffic here.

The pyramids are located a short distance from a small cluster of old buildings built in the way you would usually envision Cairo--long alleyways, tan, squat buildings, lots of people congregating amongst the horses and camels they use to make a living. When we arrived at the stable, a very charismatic man greeted us with excessive attention and shuffled us inside for an “orientation” of sorts. This ended up being a bargaining process of deciding how many hours, how much, and so on. An hour was decided and we were shuffled back outside where the slightly emaciated but relatively well-kept horses and one camel stood waiting.

After situating ourselves, we began walking down the alleys toward the place we would begin trotting in the desert. When we were hardly out for 5 minutes one of the horses that was being taken back to the stable started rearing and bucking like crazy and I began to think that horses were not such a great idea. The Egyptian men obviously understood that scared Americans would want to get off their horses if they thought that they would act like that one, so they quickly got it under control.

Once out in the wider streets the horses began to trot and when we hit the sand the horses started to pick up speed. After this continued for a little, while we heard the guides shouting “Yall ah, yall ah!” which means “hurry up, hurry up now!” and the horses took off into gallops. When I steadied myself enough to forget the fear of falling off, I started to fall into the rhythm of the horse and began to realize the actuality of the situation I was experiencing—galloping through the Sahara on an Egyptian horse, surrounded by the pyramids. I couldn’t help but laugh and scream as we went along and a lot of the other volunteers had the same reaction. It was just overwhelming happiness—there’s no other way to describe it.

Eventually, we reached a highpoint where a shanty stood with places to leave the horses. To the right stood the massiveness of Cairo and to the left, the massiveness of the pyramids. As we stood there, the call to prayer began and I realized that I could experience little else that was so Egyptian. The old and the new collided there, even though the experience would be labeled as a touristy one. That view and the feeling of galloping on that horse were worth this whole trip.

It sounds trite, but I feel myself morphing into something, someone, different. Maybe not an entirely different person, because something more intense than a ride in the desert would need to happen for that, but even my few experiences here thus far have definitely made an impact. I feel like the work that I’ve potentially chosen for myself fits me and that I can do it after all. I can leave my family, I can begin to feel comfortable in a different culture, I can begin to learn a new language (slowly). I always knew that I loved these things and loved learning about them but I always doubted my ability to put them into practice. Perhaps I did choose the right major, after all, but that remains yet to be seen.

I know that my ability to be comfortable here can be mainly attributed to our program director, Aminah. She has completely taken the volunteers under her wing and made sure that we’re learning and will be able to function when she leaves. I wasn’t so sure about the student run aspect of LE, but I realize now that only another student could connect with us as well as she has. She really does know Cario, teaching skills, and Arabic because she’s worked in and with all of these entities. Now, she’s passing that along to people who NEVER (at least I never) would have been able to do something like this without their support.


Cindy said...

Very interesting but my faorite anecdote is still the one about the guy who loves the way you say his name!
You go, girl!
We're all proud of you.

Cindy Johnson said...


I love your blog and the picture of you near a Pyramid. I enjoy hearing about the cultural aspects. I hope you can take a short trip to Jerusalem, I enjoyed watching the Rick Steves tape that I copied for you to watch.
You ask for ideas, here is one, I don't know if it is feasible but if your students love everything about America you could discuss what teanagers their age do in the US after school and during summer break. You could talk about your band experience and how you play for football games, what is eaten at the games, hot dogs, chips Etc. It would be fun if you could have American snacks during your break and listen to some band music or just American hit tunes and talk about the best movies to watch and what is the favorite food of teenagers.

Cindy J