Like finding a diamond in the middle of a landfill

I had a crazy awesome day today and saw probably the most surprising and coolest thing I have witnessed thus far in Egypt. But I organize things on this blog chronologically, so I have to talk about some slightly less intense stuff first.

This past weekend was actually pretty uneventful; because of the reactions against the military in certain parts of the city, we were kept on a pretty tight leash and I didn’t really leave the apartment much on Friday or Saturday, preferring to sleep and pretend to study. We had a dialog session on Sunday with the Egyptian students about family, friends, and dating, which was pretty interesting, although not too surprising if you are at all familiar with the cultural differences and how they affect social norms. I think the biggest difference we found was that while American families tend to stress independence and the ability of a child to go out on their own, as I know I do, while Egyptians tend to be more family oriented and the majority of youth don’t move out until they are married. Dating practices are obviously very different because there is much less intermixing of the sexes in Egypt, so people don’t date in the way that way that I would define it. Engagement tends to be the start of a serious relationship, and people can break off engagements fairly easily if they get to know someone and decide not to get married. Probably the most surprising thing that I learned was that  there still exists a portion of more conservative youth who would prefer an arranged marriage. It isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see why some people would feel that it is more stable at the very least.

Last night the members of my winning Amazing Race team went out for our prize dinner with the program director, and we decided to go to get some fancy Egyptian food. While I am planning on doing a post that is entirely on food, I can’t help but mention what we had at this place, cause it was pretty sweet. We started with the complimentary house drink, which is a kind of tea made from hibiscus and then mixes with some Sprite. From there we moved onto a smorgasbord of appetizers, including chicken liver, hummus, tzatziki sauce, beef sausage, eggplant, avocados, and some beef stuffed pastries, all waiting to be devoured with the assistance of the warm pita bread that accompanied them. I got a strawberry juice that was chock full of chunks of real strawberries to go with our main dishes: Fattah, which is a mixture of rice and crunchy pieces of pita bread with lamb meat and tomato sauce and another dish whose name i don’t remember, which was a kind of stew of cooked spinach, chick peas, and meat that was also served on rice. We also ate what is considered the most Egyptian food, a green soupy mix that is, you guessed it, served over rice, called Mulukhiyah. All of the food was delicious and we pretty much had more than we could fit on the table.

Unfortunately I was unable to hold off eating long enough to get a picture before we all dug in.

Ok, onto my most recent emotional high: a field trip with one of my teachers to the glorious Garbage City!!!! My professor was originally looking at this area as the site for my internship placement, but that plan fell through, so she asked if I wanted to take a trip to the city to see the place where they were making solar water heaters out of recycled garbage. The area is technically called Moqattam Village and is home to the Zabbaleen, a community of Christians who serve as garbage collectors for Cairo’s ridiculous number of inhabitants. According to my professor, the people go out every morning around 4 am or so to collect the garbage from the houses that pay a monthly fee, usually 5 to 10 pounds and bring them back to the city, where they are picked through to find recyclables, which are sold to some kind of manufacturers. So although I initially felt awful about the fact that I wasn’t able to recycle here, it is good to know that it is being done, although I recognize that it is being performed by some of the poorest of the poor, which is honestly tragic. One positive side to the situation is that NGOs have begun to work with the area and garbage trucks are starting to replace the traditional donkey-drawn carts, which means that the system is starting to operate more like a modern day business. The entire area is composed of what is known as informal housing, meaning that while the residents might own the land, they do not have permits to build the multi-story brick buildings in which they live and work.

As we approached the entrance to the city, the taxi driver couldn’t seem to believe that an older American woman and a student would want to enter what is essentially the slums, and asked several times if we were sure we were going to the right place. We navigated the tiny streets which were lined with huge sacks of garbage, both mixed and sorted through, until we emerged into a clearing near the cliffs that border the city, where I was greeted with a surprise so amazing that I could hardly believe my eyes:

This is the Monastery of Saint Samaan, a church and amphitheater carved into the cliffs that surround Garbage City. From what I gather, a priest decided to construct the church and some schools as a sort of tourist attraction and a way to bring some life into the community. The amphitheater behind the church is apparently massive; unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to go see it, but I will make sure to take the time to tour it on the next trip that our group takes to Moqattam Village.

I think this is the most impressive carving on the cliff; it is massive and visible from really far away. While I have to admit that I have some qualms with organized religion and the role it tends to take in society, seeing this amazing sight in the middle of what is basically a huge pile of trash really reminded me of the positive role that strong religious beliefs can have in a community that is in dire need of assistance. Not to get too preachy, but I think it was the biggest and best surprise that I have found in Egypt so far.

After we tore ourselves away from the sight of the monastery we started wandering through the city looking for the building where the solar heaters were produced. I know that I have said that people in Egypt are really friendly, but the ones I encountered today took it to a whole new level. Pretty much everyone waved and smiled at us and groups of children ran up to say hi and shake our hands or introduce themselves. They were pretty shocked when they saw my piercings; I think they thought that  they looked painful because the first girl started pinching her eyebrow and wincing when she saw it. She then went and got more children, who all said hello between giggling and pointing at my ear or eyebrow. Although I haven’t seen anyone else with any metal in their face here, this was actually the first real attention I have gotten for my piercings and I’m glad that it wasn’t negative; it seemed more like they had never seen anything like it before.

We pretty quickly found a guy who knew the person we were looking for and walked us all the way to the house we wanted, where we were promptly invited inside to sit down and have tea and some food as we introduced ourselves and talked about the project. Unfortunately the man in charge was actually out of the country, but we were able to climb all the way to the roof of the building to get a look at the heaters that they had installed.

Here’s the solar water heaters; the one on the right was actually bought from China I think, and the left one is made from materials salvaged from the garbage. The water is pumped from the tanks on the top through the pipes, where it is heated and then moved into a hot water storage tank. The model is almost exactly the same as some that I had encountered back as part of the venturing crew, and I have to say it is the perfect idea for an area where it is sunny 98 percent of the year or so. I think it would be amazing to see these on all of the buildings in this community; where they seem to be pretty good at adapting to the tough conditions. This rooftop also has a compost tank that produces natural gas that they pipe down and use to power stoves and the tall structure in the back is a pigeon coop, which they build so that birds come, and then go grab one of the birds when they want to add some meat to their diet.

The view of part of the city from the rooftop. As you might have guessed from the name, garbage really is everywhere, though what you see here seems to have already been sorted and organized. Besides using the rooftops as garbage storage, many people seem to make stables on top of their houses, as you can see from the chickens here. One of the neighboring houses had to have at least three goats and five chickens living in a makeshift coop five stories up.

In other news that will further highlight the social injustices in Cairo, I now have a single bedroom in the apartment! My roommates and I decided that we would like to convert the study room into a fourth bedroom so that we all could have a room to ourselves. This is pretty cool, but I don’t think the eleven girls in one apartment like hearing about it…

We are going to Alexandria this weekend!! I should have some pretty cool stuff to show off from the trip in a few days, so stay tuned.

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