Monday, July 27, 2009

The Old City

As always, it was another amazing week in Egypt. I really have grown to love it here, and when I think about my impending return to the states it makes me cry inside. Not that I don’t have good friends like all of you waiting for me at “home” in the states, but I have found that I am happiest when I am out experiencing the world and the wonderful variety present in other cultures.

My favorite part of this week was my Thursday trip into Fatimid Cairo. The Fatimids were the Islamic Dynasty which ruled Egypt for several hundred years beginning around the 900s AD. Though Cairo had existed as a city before their rule, they renovated and embellished much of the existing medieval city, as well as constructing many new buildings, especially mosques.

The Main thoroughfare of the old city runs down Sharia Mu’zzli Din Allah, which also happens to be the street which houses Cairo’s main tourist market, Khan Al-Khaleilei. (“Sharia” means “street” in Arabic, by the way.) You may recall a much earlier post which mentioned a bombing in the same area. Anyway, this is the road which brings the walker past most of the city’s most famous mosques, as well as schools, bathhouses, and medieval mansions, some of which have been restored in recent years. It is fairly extensive, as there are several interesting districts which branch off from the main street. There was no way to see them all in one 4 hour visit, so I will be back again soon.

As with all “touristy” places, there is the usual assortment of shop owners, hustlers, and random children asking you for money. One tried to convince me it cost 100LE (about $20) to enter an adjacent mosque, but when I refused to pay, he said he was “joking” and that the entrance was free. Right… I’m sure he would have “jokingly” handed me my money back if I had paid… :-P I did go inside, but decided to forgo the trip up the minaret which cost an extra 10 LE. Perhaps another time. The insides of most of the mosques were fairly unmiraculous, marble courtyards surrounded by raised platforms porticoed with pillars. It seems to be common practice to sleep in the mosque, on the plethora of arrows pointing toward Mecca (After all, it IS one of the few clean places around...) The main attraction of the walk was the Cairo skyline. There are so many minarets that it's amazing. And, as an added bonus, there are lots of old medieval houses that have been restored, and if you jaunt off the main road, there are neighborhoods and juice shops. I met an 8 year old boy named Amr, and he showed me where a good place to get juice was. I had mango. The mango juice here is miraculous. I will really miss fresh juice. Especially of the tropical variety. Also, Amr was awesome, cause he didn't ever ask for money, or even accept a juice when I offered it to him. That really is rare. He was just a nice kid. And allowed me to practice my Arabic. And asked if I was Syrian. Perhaps my Arabic isn't so bad... It was fun following him around through the outlying areas, as there were some tunnels under the streets, overhanging buildings, and lots of colorful laundry hanging out to dry. Speaking of laundry, I should fold mine...the drying racks here are just too convenient! Anyway, after the juice, I kept on going toward the end of the street. About the time I caught sight of the city wall, I also noticed large groups of Muslim men clad in white heading into a nearby large Mosque. I decided to join them, and followed the nearest goup inside. The mosque was the largest I've been in here in Egypt, and the courtyard was probably about 65 yards sqare, all covered in shining marble. As soon as I stepped into the courtyard, I recognized the feeling of the Holy Ghost. I wasn't really expecting that. I guess when there are that many people worshiping together and doing their best to please God, the Spirit is bound to be present. I felt honored to be near them as they prayed. I walked along through the lofty portico in the falling twilight, the experience made all the more surreal by the cooing of hundreds of pigeons on the lintels between the columns. When I made it to the far side, I was able to see the people worshiping through gaps in the fabric stretched out for a bit of privacy. It was interesting to note that there was a section for women as well. It seems that, as in most cultures I guess, "Sunday best" for women is usually quite colorful, but men are relegated to black and white. The white-clad men and colorful women were separated by another cloth barrier into separate groups. Meanwhile, the children (dressed in the same manner) sat in groups or scampered around the courtyard waiting for their parents. After the sunset worship, everyone cam out and congregated near where I was standing, pointing to something in the sky which I couldn't see. I was completely lost until a friendly Egyptian informed me that it was the moon. The crescent moon, as I'm sure most of you know, is the symbol of Islam, and its placement near one of the mosque's minarets was quite fortuitous. Also read a bit of history about the mosque (Al-Hazim, it's called.) It was built by a megalomaniac, homicidal Caliph in the late 9th century. Once, a victorious general was beheaded for bursting in to proclaim his success to find the caliph covered in the blood of a recent victim. However, one of the ruler's devotees proclaimed him divine after he disappeared without a trace into the surrounding mountains, and started a cult branch of Islam to his name. Interesting history. Also had the opportunity to have dinner at the Knapps again this week. They are an awesome older couple that has really just taken all of the young single adults here under their wing. They make sure that we are always cared for and well connected with each other. (And also give us plenty of opportunities to sing...more about that in a minute...:-P) Anyway, this week Nicci was in charge of dinner, and cooked some amazing chicken stuff. We had a group of ten or so there, and after dinner we watched the Lion king. Kevin have made it a habit to sing along with any music in a film we watch, which was a great hit last week with Abba songs from Mama Mia. (In fact, such a hit with Bro. Knapp that he cracked it out again and we sang through the best ones until I almost lost my voice...haha) Later, at around 9 PM, we went star gazing. I didn't have any star charts, and it was pretty windy, so all that we were really able to see was Jupiter and its 4 Galilean moons, but laying on the ground and chatting while staring at the stars was worthwhile too. And afterwards, we were treated to ice cream at the JW Marriot hotel. Got home pretty late! Well, that's it for today. I think I'll post some scuba pics in the appropriate blog so you can see them. My instructor just put them up today!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Things I Never Thought I'd Do

So, let's start with #1 on the list of "things I never thought I'd do." I actually mentioned it in the last entry, so it should be no surprise that the answer is...SCUBA!
Yay, scuba. Me love scuba much mucho awesomeness of doom. Yes. Anyway, we all went to Dahab this weekend. The trip started out...rocky, at best. Due to the fact that 2 people canceled last minute, the private bus we'd chartered cost about $10 more per person than it should have. And the roads were bad, which was not helped by the fact that the driver was intent on getting us to our destination AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE (except for the hour and a half stop at some random place where we mostly just sat around waiting for him.) I chose to view it as getting a free full body massage. And the fact we got to travel across the Sinai at night was pretty cool too, especially with all the stars. Don't get to see the stars much in Cairo, due to all the light pollution.

Arrived in Dahab around 2 AM, and slept soundly until we had to get up and jet to the dive shop around 8:30. Got the gear together and headed over to the first dive site at Moray Garden. Most of the dives we did the first two times were filled with skills we'd practiced in the pool last week. The first dive went well, except for a few problems I had equalizing the pressure in my ears, which was pretty dang scary actually.
The second dive...would have been good. Except that at the very start, I took off my mask to practice clearing it, and got salt in my eyes, and up my nose. And my eyes burned for the next hour. And my nose started running, and my mask started filling with snot bubbles. Gross! (Looking back, it may have been in part because I didn't snort saltwater up my nose. Strange as it seems, it really helps with equalization...) Yah, so after that, I was wondering if diving was really all it was cracked up to be.

The next day, however, proved that it was. We dived at a site called lighthouse, and actually got to see the REAL reef, something I've always wanted to do since I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid. There were fish EVERYWHERE, whole schools of little darting silver diamonds that shied away from every new stream of bubbles flowing up past my mask. And there were groups of pink and orange fairy basslets, and angelfish, butterfly fish, puffer fish, and even a stone fish and scorpion fish (they have poisonous spines). Saw a lot of cleaner wrasses, too, which made me happy. :-) And, I remembered to snort saltwater before each dive. Not likely to become my new rave addiction any time soon...

The day after, upon which we arrived in Cairo around 4 AM, mind you, I took a trip to the Medievel city here, known as Islamic Cairo (for obvious reasons). Hooked up with a friend who arrived in Egypt the day before, and we wandered about for a few hours, during which time we saw a great old mosque and took lots of pictures. However, the fun ended a bit early when Shelley came down with a mild case of heat exhaustion and we decided it was time to head back. Did see some amazing vistas of the minaret-punctuated skyline, though. I will definitely be back to that area soon. Not to mention I haven't seen the grand bazaar yet... :-P
Then, that night, I went to a wedding reception. I had been invited to attend by Adel Abou Saif, the father of the bride, and an old friend of my mother's. It was held at a 5 star hotel, and so I was glad I happened to have a sport jacket with me. Really, it aws one of the most surreal experiences I've had in my life. As I stepped through the doors of the banquet hall, I felt like I'd stepped out of my life and into a James Bond film. Waiters in black and silver livery lined the walls and were interspersed throughout the tables, which were crowned by immense centerpieces and adorned with opulent arrangements of shrimp, cheeses, fruits, and other orderbs. Lounge music washed over the glass dance floor, lit from beneath by thousands of golden lights, and juxtaposed against the silver sheets of shimmering crystal beads hanging from the ceiling above it.

And then the guests began to arrive: tuxedoes, suits, and evening gowns galore paraded through the open double doors and took their places at the vacant tables. I finally asked a waiter where I should sit, and was informed, in Arabic, that "any place was fine expect the high tables," which I had no plans to sit at anyway. Haha. I sat next to an older, scholarly looking gentleman who turned out to be the cousin of Dr. Abou-Saif, and met my host a few minutes later. He was a plump, good-natured man in a tuxedo with large glasses and a small boutenir on his lapel. I was glad to finally make his illustrious acquaintance.
I helped myself to orderbs, and watched the festivities as the bride and groom arrived. They danced. And soon so did everyone else, including some of the most gorgeous girls I have ever seen. I made my way to the dance floor, but that was as far as I got. I was afraid to make a mistake in these double cultures I didn't understand--Coptic Egyptian, and High Society. Looking back, I probably could have asked just about anyone for a dance, as that seemed to be the norm, and have been kicking myself ever since.

After a while, I noticed people with other dishes than orderbs, and, through the good graces of Adel, found my way to the sumtuous buffet. There were...probably near 100 dishes of all sorts and descriptions, from Sushi, to roast beef, to eggplant, to breads of all varieties. Yes, a true feast. And after that, dessert. I was conservative on all counts, as the richness of the food was starting to make my stomach queasy. Haha. Stayed for a few hours longer, then bid Adel adieu and made my way home by way of a 25 LE taxi ride, which I figured was my entrance fee :-) My driver, Iman, was really nice, and we had a great conversation in Arabic.

So, other than studying, and submitting my essays for the foreign service, that has been my week! Pretty dang awesome, if you ask me. :-)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


So, I apologize for the roughness of this entry. I'm in an internet cafe, so all the settings and such on my computer are unavailable. I've moved, and don't have internet in my apartment. (at least not conveniently) and so you'll have to deal with just text for a while.

I don't know if I wrote about it, and I don't have time to check right now, but I took the Foreign Service Exam about three weeks ago, sort of on a whim. I figured, you know, it was free, and it's always good to have options. 90% of those who take it fail, so I was fully expecting to fall flat on my face, especially cause I applied for the track which requires the highest score to continue in the process. I figured, "If I pass, I'll worry about whether I want to do it or not." Well...

I passed. So, I have actually been thinking this kind of a career may make me happy. The only problem is there are so many details that I worry about. Like the ethics, and the tendency of the US to be economically imperialistic, and the fact that if I'm traveling the world on assignment there's a very slim chance I will have many girls to choose from. Yah. I kinda wanna get married in this life.

However, it has also given me a bit of purpose and direction, and I am currently working to complete the personal essays for the next stage of the acceptance process. There are five, about various qualities they look for, and each requires me to relate an experience where I showed the desired virtue. I forgot how much I hate writing essays about myself...

I've also been doing scuba, and I really like it. In spite of the fact that I regularly burn through 50 SPF sunscreen. Man I hate my the red hair though. This weekend we go to Dahab for the main event. I just hope I don't come back looking like a lobster.

So, in short, that's where I'm at! Hopefully I'll be able to get some pictures up soon!