Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blog posting update

I'm having internet problems right now (as in, it doesn't quite exist yet here in Kenya)

I'm going to have to buy a modem for my laptop and some airtime minutes to continue posting to this blog.

To those of you reading this:  Thank you!  And please be patient as I figure the internet situation out!

By the way:
1. I made it to Kenya
2. The country is BEAUTIFUL
3. The house I'm staying in is so rural it hurts (I mean that in the best way possible)
4. I have soooo many stories to tell that it hurts me to end this posting

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Last Days of Cairo

We began yesterday by taking an epic journey...


From Africa


From Africa

From Africa


From Africa

Just when we thought that Cairo couldn't get any cooler, we stumble upon (that's a joke) the pyramids and the sphinx.  I didn't know quite what to expect, but I knew that this trip would be meaningful for me.  What I found/saw far exceeded my expectations.  The weather was hot and dry, and we happened to visit the pyramids following a dust storm (so visibility was low).  But once we got there, none of that mattered! 

From Africa

The pyramids were so tall and beautiful.  I found myself annoying my classmates by asking them all sorts of hypothetical questions, theorizing how they were built.  The angles on each structure were perfect.  Each side was evenly symmetrical.  And despite being thousands of years old, they were in great condition.  I was in awe of the architects and I wanted to know more about the math they used to incorporate this style of building.  I wondered how their math and science skills impacted the rest of the world.  Seeing their burial techniques and how well-preserved the bodies of mummies were...and then seeing these massive monuments, enduring the test of time gave me a new appreciation for the Egyptian culture.

I also realized how much the American media and entertainment industry (movies) had mis-educated me about the Egyptian culture!  I can recall watching the 10 Commandments movie and seeing groups of Egyptian slaves dragging massive rocks up an incline to build the pyramids.  However, after visiting the pyramids and looking at the elaborate ramps that they could make, it's much more likely that builders used teams of horses to do this sort of work.  Slaves were more likely to be masons and carry building materials.  But this is something I would have NEVER learned had I not visited this place.  To clear up some other misconceptions, while I'm on the subject:

1. There are very few people who ride camels in Egypt (they're called tour guides and they work around the pyramids)
2. People don't live in pyramids
3. Egyptians are VERY stylish (men wear nice jeans, dress shoes, and button up shirts or polos/younger women dress like American women)
4. Egyptians aren't anti-American, in fact they LOVE Americans and watch a lot of our movies and tv shows
5. The city of Cairo is very modern (similar to New Orleans in look and culture

From Africa

The Sphinx was majestic.  It's obvious that the water, sand, and wind erosion has done some damage to it's figure, but THE BEAST LIVES ON!  I loved the hidden features that you can only see from standing 50 feet away from it, like:

1. It's tail (which wraps around it's backside)
2. It's claws (which are worn away somewhat, but are similar to those of a waiting lion ready to pounce)
3. It's eyes (which actually have depressions around the cornea area...I could imagine a beautiful human face was there once)
4. It's skin (which is covered in patterns from the people who carved's like a hidden design with some mysterious meaning)


From Africa

Today, our friend Mohamed took us to a sports club (think community center) in Cairo.  While there we played basketball and soccer.  While I held my own in basketball, I was thoroughly whipped by some 10 year olds in soccer.  While they didn't make fun of me because they respected my skills as a goalie, they asked me if I was an "amateur" when I played with them on the field.  The most hilarious thing to happen while playing was that one of the kids (maybe 12 years old) walked over to me, grabbed my arm, and told me that my at my classmate, David Watterson, needed some glasses.  I laughed until it hurt!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Journey through Cairo

Ryan, David, and I began the day with a trip to the Cairo Museum in Egypt.  It was hot, the cab ride was long, with no AC, and fighting through the crowd of tourists was not easy.  But getting to the museum totally made up for it.  We were surprised by the shear number of people at the place, all socializing and walking around right outside of the entrance.  The museum building was huge and only had one narrow entrance, but that didn't discourage us from the cool things we knew we would see inside.  After paying for our entrance tickets and walking inside, we soon discovered that we weren't allowed to use video cameras.  We all thought that this policy was ridiculous, and so after a brief conversation we all decided to try to sneak our cameras into the building.  However, after a few noisy metal detectors and several guardsmen asking us to check our bags we realized that this wasn't happening.  So we went back outside of the museum to drop our camera's off at a check-in location located across from the museum.  To say that I had my doubts about the camera check-in center would be an understatement.  It was literally a small wooden hut, with an elderly man inside.  He took our cameras, gave us a registration number (a 3-digit number written in marker on a small piece of wood), and placed our cameras on a shelf with several others that looked just like them.  His organization method consisted of placing an identical small piece of wood with a matching number in front of our pile of cameras.  I thought to myself "This can't be good," but justified our decision by saying the following prayer: "Lord, please allow me to return from the museum to retrieve a camera that is intact, identifiable as my own, and not 'missing'...Amen,"  and off we went to go see some mummies and sarcophagi.

The Museum
Walking into the museum was like stepping into another world!  I could see how huge it was from the outside, but stepping into it put my mind into a totally different state of being.  I equate that first look inside to walking into a funeral, or stepping in a couple minutes late as an important speaker begins talking.  Looking inside it was dark, very dry, and dimly lit...quite the contrast from the sunny, humid day outside...and so I did what every other entering visitor did; I quieted myself and began to slowly shuffle towards my first destination.  The first image I encountered was breathtaking.  I saw two giant statues, approximately 15 feet tall, off in the distance.  They depicted King Amenhotep I and his wife sitting on their thrones.  The statues were made out of some sort of yellow stone, and each figure had a perfectly symmetrical face, was adorned with large hooded crowns, and held two scepters (known as a crook and flail).  I wanted to run over to them to examine them more closely, but my path was blocked by various crates and tablets covered in hieroglyphic writing.  As I walked up to one of the tablets I was in awe of the intricate detail that went into making each hieroglyphic image.  There were symbols for cranes and snakes, water and sun, and various lines and shapes in perfect geometrical order.  All I could think about at that moment was trying to read these important messages that someone had left behind.  What did the symbols mean?  When were they written?  I didn't see any signs or postings to help me understand! Oddly enough, I found myself reaching out and running my hands over the symbols trying to find a deeper meaning when I was interrupted by a security guard who said to me "No Touch."  I couldn't believe it!  I had broken one of the most commonly accepted rules in most museums..."Don't touch the displays!"  I didn't know what came over me, or why the security guard chose to be so nice about it, but it was then that I realized that none of the exhibits in this room were encased in any materials.  In fact, I would find out as I walked through the rest of the museum that about 90% of all the displays weren't encased in anything.  I thought that the museum put an amazing amount of trust in its visitors until I realized that there was only one visible entrance into the place.  So if something were to be stolen, the security guards could apprehend the culprit.

I could have spent all day at the museum.  It's very difficult to explain, but I felt some sort of deeper connection to the exhibits in that place.  It's a fact that displaced individuals often associate with people, places, and things that feel familiar and/or comfortable to them.  I believe that this was the case today.  When I looked at those statues I saw people who had similar features to my own.  When I saw the images of events on paintings and pottery, I felt like I could be a part of that environment.  When I saw a mysterious tool or device I began to rack my brain trying to figure out what it was used for.  I was immersed in the culture, and it made the journey there all the more enriching. 

However, as I continued to look at the displays and exhibits, I got frustrated.  I don't know how long the museum has been at that site, but for some reason only a handful of the displays had writings to explain where more about them.  This bothered me because I felt like I should have known more before taking the tour.  I contemplated starting from the beginning and finding a local resident to be a make-shift guide, but that just wasn't feasible with our allotted amount of time.  As I walked through the museum it became clear that I would have to make my own inferences along the way.  However, I've never found comfort in being ignorant about something, and so I made a promise to myself that when I get back to the US I'm going to do more research on Egyptian civilizations.

Top 5 Displays at the Museum
1. King Tutenkamen's (Tut's) sarcophagus
2. Papyrus rolls (8 feet long with stories and records in hieroglyphics)
3. Black Onxy statues of King Amenhotep II (15 feet tall)
4. Traveler's chest (engraved with pictures of the 4 sons of Horus...with heads of a human, dog, falcon, and baboon)
5. Ancient musical instruments (including a harp, guitar, tambourine, and flutes)

The Bazaar

One of our more interesting excursions today was to the Khan el-Khali market in the shopping district of Cairo.  Imagine a thrift store, a garage sale, and yard sale all mated and produce a freakishly ginormous baby.  The place was huge and everyone there was a master salesman.  I had someone try to sell me an "authentic" Egyptian statue for 100 pounds. 
-->I said, "I'm sorry, I don't want to buy it." 
-->He told me, "You'll never find a finer piece of work!" 
-->I said, "Dude, I just passed someone else's stand selling the same item
-->He said, "...okay 80 pounds!"
I laughed and walked away.  But some of the items here were really beautiful!  The market had everything from hookah bongs and belly dancer outfits to unique jewelry to refrigerator magnets.  I have to admit that I was very tempted to buy several items, but I knew that i couldn't fit them into my travel bags. 

Because my mom and sister were so worried about what I would be eating in Africa, I thought I would post a picture of what we ate for lunch today.

Lamb with falafel, salad, and a rice/pasta combo dish...Enjoy!


In my fraternity we would always end each meeting with a "highnote," which usually consisted of some interesting or funny tidbit of news or information.  My highnote to end this posting is a Youtube video about the crazy traffic in Cairo.  In my last post I talked about playing a "dangerous game of Frogger" to get across the street.  Now you'll understand what I mean!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Detour through Cairo!

Today we landed in Cairo, Egypt after a VERY long flight from the JFK airport in New York.  I must say that I didn't mind the trip though.  The food on the flight was great, and I got to catch up on some movies I hadn't seen before including Michael Jackson's "This is It" and a new Hugh Grant film.  The real experience today came from our journey from the Cairo airport to our hotel.  The cultural differences were apparent right away, and this served as a huge wake up call for me!

Exiting the Airport
I flew into the country with my classmate David Watterson, a young, white, eccentric male.  After waiting for about half an hour, we exited the airport where we were greeted immediately by about 40 cab drivers who all wanted our business.  However, while I had to approach cab drivers and ask for travel information, David was bombarded by one driver after another.  I took a moment to let him negotiate with the drivers since they seemed so eager to do business with him, and during this time glanced back at the airport exit.  It was then that I saw the same trend repeating over and over again.  The cab drivers seemed to flock towards whites because they assumed that they were not from Egypt.  I didn't take any offense to this, but I wondered "What is the ratio of races in Cairo?"  Furthermore, "Are these race classifications similar to American distinctions of race?"...Perhaps I'll get clarification before I leave.

Alternative Transportation
The lowest cab fare we could find was around 75 Egyptian pounds (roughly $13.50 USD), but we thought that was too expensive so we opted to take a cheaper route...the public transportation system.  We went back inside the airport where a tour information specialist (i.e. some guy behind a desk) told us to take an airport shuttle to the bus station.  From there, we were supposed to take the #327, or #400, or #27 bus downtown, get off on the Tahrir stop, and catch a much cheaper cab to our location.  Seems simple enough, right?  We proceeded to get on the airport shuttle which dropped us off at the bus station, and this is where the fun began.  At the bus station NOBODY SPOKE ENGLISH!  We found about three people who spoke broken (bits of peices of) english, and working together they seemed to come up with an appropriate solution...go back to the airport and catch a cab.  But we were determined to have this cultural experience, and so we kept searching until we found our bus (which happened to be mislabeled).  We loaded it, and smiled at the thought of being that much closer to the hotel. 

An Interesting Bus Ride
Once we were on the bus we noticed a few cultural differences versus the system in the US.  First, we didn't pay our fair at a pay booth at the front of the bus.  Instead an older gentleman with light brown skin and a head full of gray hair approached David and asked him for the correct fare.  To our surprise, we had to buy tickets for ourselves and for our bags.  But it was still much cheaper than a taxi at the airport, and so we paid and found our seats.  Secondly, buses in Egypt don't necessarily stop at every bus stop sign.  Instead people stand in large groups around the bus stop and as the bus approaches (still moving, but slowing down a bit) people just "jump on!"  It was strange to me see older people sprinting to latch on to a moving bus and then walk on board as if this wasn't stressful or tiring.  Lastly, people who ride the buses in Egypt have a very different interpretation of "personal space."  The bus easily held 60 people (standing) and so it didn't seem odd at all to the gentlemen who leaned against me as if I was a wall.  But their kind demeanor made up for it all, and several people on the bus helped me perform a tough balancing act with the two bags I was carrying.  They would brace the bags for me as the bus swayed to and fro, and shoot an earnest head nod my way to let me know that my stuff was okay.  All in all, I appreciated the close-knit community that I built on that bus, and the hour ride seemed to go by swiftly.

A Game of Frogger
While riding the bus to our final stop, I noticed that all of the cars driving around us were scratched and dented.  As I kept observing them I notices that, in fact, there wasn't a single car on the congested road that wasn't scratched or dented.  Then, as I watched the never-ending traffic I realized that there was no rhyme or reason to how people drove in Egypt.  Yes, there were stop lights...and yes, there was on a divide separating the directions of traffic, but THERE WERE NO LINES TO DIVIDE CAR LANES!  This meant that at any moment I could see four cars stretched side-by-side on a two-lane street.  Cars were busy cutting each other off, and there were tons of people on motorcycles who would weave through all the traffic with great maneuvering abilities.  This made me a little nervous because I could see several potential accidents that seemed to be avoided at the last second, but I felt safe in knowing that I was riding a bus.  If anyone hit us, they would more than likely be hurt.  However, as we reached the Tahrir stop downtown I came to the scary realization that to finish our trip to the hotel...we had to cross the street!  As a city-kid growing up in the heart of St. Louis, cars never scared me.  They would zoom down the street with noisy engines and loud pipes and it wouldn't phase me at all.  I like to think of my younger self as a street-crossing pro.  However, today was a different story.  We literally were going to have to play a game of FROGGER to get across this treacherous road, and I was already exhausted from the bus ride.  To make matters worse, I was hauling 70 pounds of luggage in my red roller, blue duffelbag, and bookbag, and I was questioning whether this combined with my body weight could move efficiently across this lane.  I took a deep breath, looked both ways, gave off a manly war cry, and proceeded to play the most dangerous game of start-and-stop running in my life.  Luckily, a minute later, I crossed the road and boarded a cab to make it here.  The hotel is nice, and the neighborhood seems good, but the crazy thing about the whole journey is that in the end it cost about $1.50 less than if we had just taken the cab.  But I wouldn't have changed the journey for anything. I MADE IT TO AFRICA!