Mountains and Deserts

I fail, once again, at posting. Apologies! So you get a two-in-one deal here: my trip to Mt. Sinai AND my trip to the Black and White Desert! And in a separate post, my mom’s visit to Egypt for the first two weeks of April.

A few weekends ago (okay so almost two months ago) I decided I wanted to spend 21 hours in a bus, breaking it up with climbing Mt. Sinai, supposedly the mountain where Moses got the Ten Commandments.

I did it through a tour group, which was all Egyptians and me. They all thought I was the crazy foreign girl, which is fine, I am. The drive to Sinai (which is a peninsular region in Eastern Egypt. Big deal, wars fought over it, borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, right next to Jordan and Saudi Arabic, Suez Canal is there, anyway) IS SO LONG. 10 hours on the way there. We left from Heliopolis an hour later than expected, and somehow or another, that meant instead of getting to Mt. Sinai at 1 in the morning, we got there at 4 in the morning. Part of it is to do with that fact that every three hours or so we had to stop the bus and soldiers at checkpoints would come and check everyone’s ID/passport.

Since we were climbing Mt. Sinai in order to watch the sunrise from the top, and we got there at 4 and it’s a 3 and a half hour hike and sunrise is around 5:30….yeah. Did not make the sunrise. Saw it from about halfway up the mountain. It was still incredibly beautiful, and hey, we only had to do half the hike in the dark. The hike was a bit strenuous, but it was really just a lot of walking uphill, not anything too serious. The kicker though is that the last part of the hike is 750 steps, the final part of 3,000+ steps called the Steps of Repentance (or something like that), the other way to get up the mountain. We made it to the top, and took in the gorgeous view, which included Mt. St. Catherine’s, the tallest mountain in Egypt.

I’m too lazy to upload photos (also internet is being spotty), so I’ve made my Facebook album of photos public – go browse through those, starting with this one.

We eventually mustered ourselves to go back down the mountain – which I practically flew down, I was tired and hungry. We had lunch at a hotel restaurant, then got back on the road around 2pm. It took us 11 hours to get back. ELEVEN. I cringe just remembering it. And at a certain point in the middle of the night, a checkpoint made all of us get off the bus with our bags to check to see if we had narcotics on us. Except they didn’t check my bag, just looked at me and motioned me back on the bus. Life in Egypt.

We get back to Heliopolis around 11:30 and hooray, one of the guys on the trip gives me a ride back to my flat on the other side of town.

The end.

On to the White Desert!

A few weeks ago, a group of friends and I, plus a group of other people we rounded up, so 15 total, took a one-night trek into the White Desert. Once again, too lazy to upload photos here, but album is public on Facebook and you should check it out.

The White Desert is so named because of chalk-limestone formations created back when the whole area was a shallow sea (think 500,000+ years ago). It’s quite an alien landscape, and indescribably beautiful.

A small caravan of two mini-buses picked up our group in Zamalek on an early Friday morning, driving us out to the desert. It took about 5 hours, through bleak landscape (most of the desert in Egypt is flat, rocky, and boring). We arrived in Bawiti, the oasis town on the edge of the Black Desert, and stopped at the International Hot Springs Hotel, through which we had arranged our desert safari. It is owned by a German and Japanese couple, who are awesome and the husband (Peter) is hilarious and very attentive. We had a lunch at the hotel, then loaded up into 4 SUVs with our guides, and our cooler full of alcohol in the back of one. We drove off into the desert, ready for adventures. Our first stop was Crystal Mountain, which is not much of a mountain and is not really made of crystal, but of calcite. However, it was quite interesting and fun to clamber about (once again check out the album on Facebook). We then drove off further into the White Desert, stopping at interesting chalk formations on our way to our campsite. As the sun began to set, we reached our site, and while our guides set up the Bedouin-style camp, we scampered about, exploring the landscape. Eventually, dinner was served, and it was DELICIOUS. Soup, vegetables, chicken, rice…so good. We ate with all the heavens laid out above us and only a few lamps and a fire to light our meals. Once we finished dinner, my friends and I grabbed beers and wandered off into the dark to sit, listen to music, chat, and occasionally just fall into silence when the overwhelming sense of humility from being in such a place quieted our minds and tongues. We had opted to not have a full tent for us built, but only walls supported by the SUVs, so that our final blanket was a ceiling of stars. To roll over and wake up in the night with that above you is comforting and terrifying. I could definitely get used to it.

I woke up early in the morning, and found Megan and Mugant had gotten up with the sunrise (I was a bit late for that, but I see it 5 times a week anyway thanks to my job). We decided the best way (by we I mean solely Mugant, he’s very inconsiderate) to wake everyone else up was to play music very loudly. Eventually, a lovely breakfast was served, we scampered a bit more as the guides packed up, and we headed on to the Black Desert. The Black Desert is primarily igneous (formed from lava or magma) mountains that formed a few million years ago in a large crevice in the earth. We reached one mountain, and while some climbed up to the very top, I stayed only halfway up and danced. After our mountain, we once more piled back in the SUVs and drove back to the hotel. We cleaned up a bit, thanked our guides and Peter, piled back into the mini-buses and headed back to Cairo.

It was a quick weekend trip, with quite a bit of travel, but the destination was worth it.



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Half a Year

Apologies for being quiet for almost a month! Life has been busy, to say the least. Busy in good ways and busy in bad.

But, I have now been in Cairo for 6 months! Half a year spent in this fascinating, frustrating place.

A few weekends ago I went Ain Sokhna (which means ‘Hot Eye’ in Arabic and refers to the hot springs in the mountains nearby) on the Red Sea with my friends Kate and Christine. As per usual with them, it was an experience.

We took the public bus to there. We assumed it would stop in the town of Ain Sokhna, we’d get off, get a cab and head to our hotel (the Romance, oooooh). Wrong on two counts: there is no ‘town’ of Ain Sokhna, just miles of resorts and you get off when you see your hotel pass. Which is why when we saw our hotel pass and realized we would need to get off, we told the bus driver. As he continues to drive and argue with us about how it is further up the road and we tell him no and he says yes, but he finally stops. About 2km after we’ve passed our hotel. At 10:30 at night. On a deserted desert road. With very few lights.

This is madness! No, this is Egypt.

This is madness! No, this is Egypt.

FINALLY, we're off to have some Romance!

FINALLY, we’re off to have some Romance!

We trek to our hotel and appear out of the desert like sandy brujas. The security guards were probably a bit freaked out. But we get checked in, and waiting for us in our room are some cold plates for dinner.

Yay, food.

Yay, food.

The next day, we head out to the beach. And because it is the off season, there are very few people at the resort (mostly pudding people). So we practically have the beach to ourselves. It was lovely, if a bit chilly. The water was nice, once you got used to it, and you could see sea urchins and fish in the water (Red Sea is a big diving area). We just relaxed, took naps, read, listened to music, and talked. On the beach. A good weekend.

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Getting back to Cairo? Well, we realized taking the bus was out (how the hell would we catch it). So we asked the concierge to get us a private car back to Cairo. This amounted to him calling one of his buddies, saying, “Hey want to make a quick 500LE?” And then his buddy coming to pick us up. The look on his face when he saw he was driving 3 American girls back to Cairo…well. We all piled into the back of the car very quickly. I got bitch seat, unfortunately, but that meant the entire time I was awake and going, “THIS IS THE WAY HOME YES IT IS AH.”

So the getting there and getting back was a bit stressful, but the being there? Very nice indeed.

The weekend after Kate, Christine and I threw an AMURRIKAH themed party at my flat. …Let’s just say it got weird. Fun, but weird.

Tomorrow’s post: My trip to Mt. Sinai and why my students are still awful.

Thursday’s post: My trip to the Black and White Deserts!

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Lessons from Teaching 3

As of 8 days ago, I’ve been in Cairo for 5 months.

And as of 16 days ago, I finally (or publicly) made the decision to leave Cairo this summer.

Originally, about a week ago, I had this long, detailed post going into my reasons behind why I am choosing to leave and the various responses I’ve gotten to my decision. But I deleted it.

I am happy with my decision. I know that the future is uncertain for me – I don’t have a job lined up, or even a country lined up (I’ve applied to jobs in some other countries already) – but I don’t feel afraid. I am happy with my choice, and that is enough.

Tomorrow I head off to the beach, to Ain Sokhna with friends. I’m excited to get out of Cairo for a few days.

The new quarter at my school has started, and while it is certainly no walk in the park (more like a walk in a pitch-black forest and I keep bumping into trees and shrubs, saying mild obscenities and then veering off in another direction), it is getting easier. Namely, my students are not as incredibly awful as they were the first few weeks I was their teacher. I think they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that the old teacher is not coming back and they’re stuck with me, so it is better to try and appease me than try and fight me (mostly). They are still rambunctious, disrespectful and lazy, but it isn’t like we’re pulling each others’ teeth anymore.

What I’ve learned in the past two weeks:

1. Be confident in who you are. Even if you are bumping around in that forest, say, “Meant to do that.”
2. Think like a student. What kept you engaged when you were in school? Children haven’t changed that much, what applied then applies now.
3. Tomorrow is always a new day. Don’t let the craziness of one day drag you down for the rest of the week. It isn’t worth it.
4. Be your quirky self. Don’t compromise your position as a teacher, but be yourself (relates to number one). Even if your students think you’re kooky, you’ll feel better being who you are.
5. Be organized. Makes life so much easier.

These past few weeks have been good to me, in many ways. I have gone out with friends frequently, made new friends, started a new tutoring job, and had time to think about my life. There have been some dark moments as well, ones that make me think on life all the more.

All in all, I am content with where life is at. Could it be better? Sure. But I am living with no regrets. And it is a glorious way to live.

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First, a bit of silliness:

Some friends and I watched the Superbowl last night. In and of itself not crazy. But when you factor in a) we’re in Cairo and b) the time difference means the game started at 1:30am. I have never hated a power outage so much in my life. Regardless, the game was really good, even if my Niners lost (WHAT THE EFF HAPPENED NINERS). Although we didn’t get any of the commercials, just lots of golf commercials. But this all means I didn’t get home until 7am this morning. Thank goodness I have the week off.

Now on to the real news:

In June (or maybe early July), I’m leaving Cairo. When my contract for this teaching job ends, I’ll be heading back to the US.

This decision was not easily reached. And, to be honest, it feels like I have been lit on fire and burned to a crisp. It is painful to say that my time here will end sooner than I believed. But it also feels like I’m breaking off this old layer of skin, and despite it being raw, it is a good feeling. It is a relief to actually have made the decision.

For so long, what amounts to a quarter of my life really, I have always been driven by the goal of pursuing a career in the Middle East, or involving the Middle East. The Middle East would be central in whatever life I created for myself.

Over the past few months, and it may be that it started before I even came to Cairo, my priorities have changed. The Middle East is still a deep part of who I am and I will always be interested, intrigued, and an advocate for the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

But now? Now I feel that it is not 1. Middle East 2. International Development (and the various fields within that), but 1. International Development (2. Middle East). That means that if my life does not lead me back to the Middle East anytime soon, in terms of career, or whatever, I am okay with that. I do not exactly know where I want to go in the ‘international development’ field, but I know what I am interested in. And I keep seeing jobs that I’m qualified for and I want to apply for. And most of them don’t have anything to do with the Middle East.

Why did I come to this conclusion? Why the change? I’m not sure. What seems to make sense to me right now is that I kept looking at my future from a ‘Middle East’ perspective. Everything in my brain focused around the idea of, “How will this help me achieve a career I want in the Middle East?” And now that has become such a narrow focus for me. I am interested and intrigued and passionate about so many things (international development, sustainable development, social media, cultural diplomacy, citizen diplomacy, international education…), the fact that I was restricting myself by thinking only in terms of whether it would help my Middle East dreams or not seems…not foolish, because I think it is a valid dream, even if it isn’t one I want anymore, but perhaps unsuited to who I want to become.

I do not regret coming to Cairo. And I am excited for the 5 months I have left here. And I plan to use it to the best of my abilities. I plan to see what I can of Egypt, push myself with Arabic, and have experiences that I will remember forever. But, more than anything, I am so excited for the opportunities open to me on returning to the US. Who knows where I’ll live, who knows what job I’ll get, but I feel like that path is where my happiness lies.

As I have discussed with some of my friends, my choosing to go back (and I don’t think I do it or myself justice by saying ‘going back’…I’m moving forward) feels a bit like a failure on my part. A failure in the eyes of others. I had planned to stay in Cairo (or the Middle East) for at least a few years, perhaps longer. Become fluent in Arabic. Get a job in development related to the Middle East. I won’t be doing any of those things. At least not right now. And I need to convince myself, and only myself (because hey, if you think I failed or wimped out or whatever, I have some choice Arabic phrases for you to hear), that it is okay that I am not accomplishing those goals. It truly is. Because life is a constantly changing thing. And I am not a failure. Holy smoke, I picked up and moved to Cairo, Egypt on my own (at the age of 22) during a time when the country doesn’t know which way is up. The game has changed and the old objectives don’t apply anymore. It would be foolhardy to stay here when I have more opportunities somewhere else. It would be stupid to play the game the same way when it isn’t the same board. My strategy has changed. And Cairo was a big part of making me realize it.

So I am thankful to Cairo. I am thankful for the wonderful moments and the awful moments that have happened and have yet to come here. It is all a part of my new dreams. And even though Cairo doesn’t factor as the primary location for my future, it is definitely leaving an unforgettable mark in the here and now.

I am so excited for what a few months from now hold for me. Even if I have no idea what that may be. Or where it may be.

(P.S. People. I will be moving back to the US. Start sniffing out jobs for me. I am willing to move to anywhere in the US, really. New adventures in new towns.)

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Cat in Cairo on Camera Jan 28 2013

Well look at that, a VIDEO update. May try again, may not, but we’ll consider this a test run.

Nevertheless, I am safe and sound here in Cairo. Fear not! My parents raised me right: don’t get arrested, don’t get pregnant, don’t max out your credit cards. So far, so good.

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January 28, 2013 · 10:30 pm

Birthdays and Such

A few exciting things from the past week (outside of teaching):

January 12 marked four months of living in Cairo! Still can’t believe I’m here.

January 16, I turned 23! Two and a third decades on this planet, whoa. It was a pretty tame birthday, in many respects. My students sang me Happy Birthday and we had a potluck at lunch at work, although mostly everyone forgot about it and so only a few people brought dishes, but it was still nice. I do like the people I work with, by and large. They can be a bit standoffish at times (namely the ones close to my age and that live near me. What’s up with that?), but most of the women are lovely.

That evening a friend was hosting a homemade Punjabi dinner, so one of the Matts and I went to that. It was good meeting new people, chatting with friends, and of course eating delicious food. They also sang Happy Birthday to me.

My flatmates also, in a case of self-motivated kindness, bought a toaster oven for the apartment (which I’d been saying I’d get). So, hooray, for soon I will be making baked potatoes and grilled cheeses and other things including but not limited to toast in that sucker.

Thursday evening was a party at a friend’s place who is leaving Cairo, so it was goodbye party for her, another fellow, as well as Matt’s birthday party (his birthday was Friday). It was an excellent party, although when it was about 2:45 and someone mentioned to me, “In a few more hours the sun will be up!” I realized I see the sun rise 5 days a week. Did not need to greet it again, so left tout suite.

Friday evening, Kate, Christine, Ryan and Melissa and I went to dinner and drinks at L’Aubergine. It was delicious on both counts. However, I was lame, and knew I had a ton of lesson planning to do for Saturday, so had to cut the night short. Being an adult sucks.

Saturday I Skyped with Sarah, my old roommate hi Sarah I know you’re reading this let’s Skype again soon please. and my parents, which is always nice. I also went to a demo class for Bollywood dancing! I’ve signed up for 5 sessions on Saturdays now, so in a month, I will have some sweet Bollywood dance moves to break out as needed.

So while the previous post was not exactly joyful, hey, at least my weekend was excellent.

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Lessons from Teaching 2

I’m now into my third week of teaching. Simple sentence, loaded meaning.

Today (apart from a bird crapping on me – people say it’s good luck but it’s happened to me twice here. First time a woman punched me in the head the same day and today…well, read on) was a hard day for me.

After lunch break, I’m sitting in class wondering, “Where the hell are my students?” Normally they have Arabic at this point, but we’ve switched up the schedule (which happens every weeks, sometimes two or three times a week, much to my confusion) so that I have all my regular sessions plus half the Arabic sessions in preparation for the students’ quarter exams next week. In any case, Ms. May (Grade 4 teacher and elementary department head) asks where my class is, I respond I don’t know, we find them downstairs telling us Dr. Laura (the principal) asked to meet with all of them. I’m thinking, “What the what did my class do?” Then Dr. Laura says I’m a part of the meeting as well. Oh shit. 

Apparently, my students have been complaining about me. All of them. That they can’t understand what I’m teaching, they don’t know what is going on, etc etc. Dr. Laura (bless her) told them that I am not Ms. Asmaa (their previous teacher), I will not teach like Ms. Asmaa, and that they need to get used to it. Dr. Laura then asked them to voice their concerns over specific things they are not understanding in class. Which they told me, and part of it is I very much need to grade my language, the same issue I had during the CELTA. Dr. Laura then told me, with the class still in the room, that they can’t understand things very quickly so I have to repeat things constantly and I shouldn’t try to be creative in my teaching (read: give individual work or group work too often…super creative?) because Egyptian students simply can’t cope with that. Part of me thought, “Well thank you for the advice, it will help me as I move forward.” The other part thought, You just called the kids stupid to a certain degree to their faces. Damn.

Anyway, so we go back to class. I tell the students we can review anything they want and feel they don’t understand. We start to go over English. They start talking and not paying attention. Which is the point where I sit down, say “You say you don’t understand. No wonder, because you don’t listen. Why should I waste my breath when you aren’t even interested in learning? Enjoy failing your quarter exams.” Then I just stopped talking. Everyone got upset with me (well then stop being disrespectful and listen). I started teaching again. Then they started talking again. So I just sat down for the rest of class. Didn’t teach. Told them I am giving them the opportunity to understand. They aren’t taking it. At this point, not my fault. The ones who were listening kept asking, “Why are you punishing us for others’ behavior?” I told them I’m here to teach a class, not tutor individuals.

In other words, a difficult day.

So in round two of lessons from teaching, here is what I have learned:
1. Slow down. Grade your language. Take responsibility for your students’ understanding.
2. But only until a certain point. Hold them responsible too.
3. Don’t reach for the stars, at least not in Egypt.

But I am going to try and remain positive. I have to, because self-pity gets me nowhere and is just incredibly draining.

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