Egypt Study Abroad

Is 14 kilometers really that far to swim?

It was the weekend of our big trip to Tangier and I was feeling ready for anything, unlike my roommate, who looked ready to die as we got ready to head to our first stop, Asilah, where I had spent the previous weekend. The trip was fairly uneventful all around and we only stayed in Asilah for a few hours, just long enough to see more of the cool wall murals and to sit on the beach for a little while.





The next stop on the trip was Tangier, where we spent two nights in a fancy hotel where I literally basked in the glory of a shower that had both a mounted showerhead and hot water, along with a weekend of freedom from being forced to eat, and occasionally woken up and then forced to eat… (It’s lately been a bit of a roller coaster of emotions regarding my host family.) Anyways, Tangier is a pretty cool city; it’s much more modern looking than some of the other places we have visited and there were a decent amount of things to see, including the only historic landmark of the United States outside of the US, a building that used to operate like a consulate and is now a museum. Side note that Moroccans are really proud of: Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of America from the British. After leaving the museum we broke into groups after an exasperating game of walking ten feet and being stopped, then told to walk again just to be stopped again, we finally got situated in groups and with the help of one of the teachers kicked the tour guide’s butt into gear to show us some of the other sites in the city, including a historic church and the tomb of Ibn Batouta, a famous explorer born in Tangier who is the focus of one of the chapters in our Arabic textbook and therefore kinda a big deal. We also stopped at a viewpoint where it was possible to see Spain in the distance across the Strait of Gibraltar; we returned to a café near that spot later that night where we sat on the roof and were able to see the lights of the nearby country. But before that we headed out in the afternoon to an area about 45 minutes down the coast to visit the site of an old fort and the real highlight of the trip: a beach with a view of the Iberian Peninsula, which I had some difficulty resisting attempting to swim to. We didn’t experience too much of the night life in Tangier, but we did find an amazing ice cream place that we visited both nights that we were in the city, which I am really missing in the Meknes heat.


You guys, it’s Ibn Batouta!


I can literally touch Spain; it can’t be that hard to swim there.

On Sunday we drove to the city of Chefchawon, which is nicknamed the Blue City, I think… At some point the people of the city decided that blue was the official color of the city, and so they painted everything blue, including the roads in some places. It’s a city built up along the mountain so there are plenty of great views, especially after we climbed up to the top of the wall that surrounded the city on the mountain. We also managed to get accosted by some guys trying to sell us hash and insisting that a 3km walk to their house wasn’t far at all, so that was pretty annoying. Regardless, the city was really cool and the trip overall was a great break from the breakneck pace that we have been doing and the crazy final work that awaits us in the next 2 weeks. I think we still have three chapters or so to go, plus a final presentation and paper, a final exam, and an Oral Proficiency Interview, all right up until the day we leave.



I wasn’t kidding about the blue


At the tippy top of the city

In other news, I went to the barbershop to get a shave today, which was especially interesting because not only did the barber not speak English, he actually didn’t speak at all because he was deaf… So we got to play charades to let him know that I wanted a shave, which he did quite well with a straight razor. It’s a little bit of a terrifying experience, but I do have to say that it is a really close shave.

Come on people, start the countdown, on Wednesday it will be exactly 2 weeks till my return!

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I used to be able to pick one language and stick to it

Ok kids; Independent trip #2: Beach weekend in Asilah!

This place is a coastal city near Tangier, lesser known, but still home to plenty of European tourists, especially Spaniards, which was fun for me to get back to using some Spanish. Unfortunately most of the time when I tried to speak Spanish, it comes out in this bastardized stepchild of Spanish and Arabic, and then I just look silly… But that’s ok, we survived just fine, mostly due to the fact that most people in the town speak some mixture of Arabic, Moroccan, Spanish, and French.

After another (much less awkward) bath house experience as part of a program cultural activity, my group hopped on the train to Asilah, where we arrived at a train station that was unexpectedly kinda in the middle of nowhere and pretty much empty. After being offered a ride from a random guy with a big white van we happened upon some taxis that were able to take us to our hotel, which was much nicer than the one in Casa Blanca, and then we headed out into the beach town to explore. The first thing that we explored was a restaurant close to the beach, where we were able to get some French-style food, along with some more Moroccan wine. In this touristy city let’s just say that it was much more acceptable for us to have about 3 bottles of wine for the table. After dinner we headed out for a walk along the beach and the nearby area, including a small part of the old city with walls that overlooked the water.

The next day, after waking up and realizing that we had a nice ocean view from our room, we lounged at the hotel for a bit after enjoying the complimentary breakfast (which you don’t realize that you miss until you visit a city where all of the restaurants are closed during Ramadan). Some of the members of our group had heard about a really nice beach nearby called Paradise Beach, but it soon became apparent that this beach was a little tricky to get to. We realized that it was necessary to take a grand taxi to the beach, actually 2 because we were 9 in number, so we got to play the grand taxi game, which is always an adventure. In Morocco the big taxis hang out at stops in a big group, where there seems to be some kind of organizer in charge of where they go. So basically you walk up to this group of men and just say where you want to go. If you are lucky, they will know where and then start discussing things amongst themselves, I assume whose turn it is to drive. If they don’t know, they will still start discussing things amongst themselves, trying to figure out where it is we want to go. After that has been decided, you generally have to haggle over a price, which usually involves some yelling between the drivers and the boss guy; it seems like he agrees on a price without their input and then they have to deal with it, I’m not really sure what goes down. We found taxis that would take us to the beach and after some negotiating and walking away, then returning and asking more people until I am sure that the entire town knew where we were going, we finally settled upon a price for a taxi to drop us off at the beach and come back to pick us up and loaded up to head out. It quickly became apparent that it was a good thing we arranged for him to come back, because we soon turned off onto a dirt road that looked around some hills and semi-mountainside roads where we were driving with mountain on our left and a drop to the ocean on our right. After this trip we finally arrived at what literally looked like a secret beach nestled amongst some cliffs: along the mountain side of the beach there were a bunch of little restaurants with lounge chairs and umbrellas set up in front of them. The beach was pretty sparsely populated considering how crazy beautiful it was; I guess most people don’t feel like taking the taxi ride or maybe even the trip on a donkey cart (when a guy offered us that in the city I thought he was joking, but we passed like three of them with passengers on the way to the beach). There’s not a whole lot to say about the beach other than that the pictures probably don’t do it justice, but it was literally probably one of the nicest beaches that I have been to in my life: nice sand, clear water, big waves, and not a cloud in sight.



Waves, sand, and mountains


We arrived on a road along the side of the mountain to the right

After a few hours on the beach people started to get hungry. Actually it was mostly just one person; we were operating on what I like to call a Zac’s Stomach Schedule, and most of the group decided to go get some food while two of us stayed back to watch the stuff and relax. Fast forward about an hour and a half and someone comes back to tell us that they ordered a seafood platter but so far have seen no sign of the food and we should just pack up everything and join them, which we did quite happily, only to wait another 45 minutes or so before getting some watermelon slices and a promise that the food would be out soon. Probably the funniest part of this wait was when the waiter comes out and asks us “Kol shii imzian?” (Everything alright?) when we clearly had no food and nothing to comment on after 2 and a half hours of waiting. This isn’t meant to be complaining; it seems like combining Arab time and beach time makes for some seriously laid back service. But when that food did arrive, damn did they deliver. The waiter showed up with a huge plate of grilled fish of all different sizes, still completely intact, shrimp, octopus rings, and other goodies. We dove in and I was able to put my skills to use in deboning the fish, which is a skill that I have developed from the small fish that we are often served in my house. This meal was definitely worth the wait and we totally demolished all of the food, leaving only fish heads, spines, and tails in our wake.



I assume that we had to wait so long because they needed to catch the fish.

We took one last dip in the ocean before our cabbie picked us up and we headed back to the hotel to shower and relax before a fairly uneventful evening of dinner and some exploring the old city.


I think this picture is wonderfully awkward.



Did I mention that there were camels just chilling on the beach?

I’ve only got one story out of that night; it was around 1:30 am and a group of four of us was finishing up looking at the stores and getting ready to head back to the hotel when a random guy started up a conversation with one of the guys in my group. I had been scammed one too many times in Egypt so I generally avoid things like this, so when the guy offered to take us to a local artist’s house I was fairly skeptical, but the other guy really wanted to go so we decided to cautiously see where he wanted to lead. We ended up getting a decent tour of the old city, much deeper than we had gone on our own, and we got to see the guy who runs around the city beating a drum at about 2 am during Ramadan to tell everyone to eat their last meal before fasting for the day. After we walked for much longer than the guy originally promised, we finally got back to the entrance to the old city, where exactly what I predicted happened: he expected money from each of us; this tactic of acting like you just want to show off your city and then demanding/ pleading for cash afterward is pretty standard and the reason I wanted to ignore the guy in the first place. (Insert “I told you so” here)  After some heated emotions from my companions and what could loosely be termed haggling we  left him with a little bit of money and went back to the hotel, rationalizing that we did get to see much more of the city than we expected to.

Sunday morning was time to head back to the Meknes and work on homework and the like; at least we are getting pretty good at negotiating the train and even the trip back from the station to the suburb, which is always somewhat of a struggle.

We’re officially past the halfway point now and are on the downhill of the program. But standing between me and a return is still a buttload of classes and studying, and maybe some time for fun in between. Stay tuned next week for reports of a trip to Tangier!

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Can we talk about how much I like camels?

Two weeks of class down, five to go. Things in class are settling down into a regular schedule and I’m getting more used to the routine here, so that’s all good. The currents coup events in Egypt have kept me pretty interested and I have tried to spend time watching the news here and discussing the political situation in Egypt with my host parents. I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends in Egypt and how lucky I was to go during a brief period of stability; the Amideast summer students had to be evacuated after one of their interns was killed during a clash in Alexandria. I’m really hoping that this second round of revolutions will come up with a happy solution, but based on the number of Morsi supporters still taking to the streets, I don’t know how likely that will be.

This past Wednesday was the 4th of July, ad this was my first time celebrating the holiday outside the States, but I think I did pretty well by the founding fathers. A few of the students from my program, and a bunch of students from the other programs in the city did the most American thing that we could think of during the day: ate at McDonalds. To be fair there were also a whole bunch of Moroccans there as well that place is pretty much always packed. That night the AALIM center held a party for us where we spent the night dancing to a mix of Arabic and American music and socializing with the Flagship students that we have pretty much only seen in passing up to this point.

Work continued as usual after that until Friday, when it became necessary to prepare for our weekend trip: an excursion to the Sahara desert from a town called Merzouga. To stock up on some supplies, three other students and I decided to go to the closest grocery store, which required a taxi ride, which is always an interesting experience. There are two types of taxis in Meknes: grand taxis and petit taxis, the difference being, as you may have guessed, the size. Petit taxis hold three passengers, run on a meter, and will take you wherever you need to go, provided the driver feels like taking you. Grand taxis are big old clunkers that hold six passengers: four in the backseat and two in the front, plus the driver. These taxis are a little cheaper and run more like a bus, meaning that if there are only two people in the taxi it will stop to pick up more riders if they are going the same way, meaning that you may get crammed in the backseat with complete strangers in the 100+ degree heat. The four of us were able to find a grand taxi that was going where we needed to go, and squeezed in together (let it be noted that they are not all as small as me, which would have made the journey much more enjoyable). We got the grocery store, which operates the same exact way a store in the US does, and after buying extra water, granola bars, and something cold to drink at that moment (a cold drink has become somewhat of a commodity in my world as of late) we piled back into the back of another grand taxi, bags and all, to head back to the language center to do homework and wait for the bus to take us home to the suburb.

The next morning started early: 4:45 to eat and head to the bus stop which took us to meet the rest of the students and load onto a bigger bus that took us on the 9ish hour ride into the desert. Unlike the last trip we did, this bus had rockin’ air conditioning, so the ride itself was actually pretty pleasant. Driving through Morocco was very different than my experiences traveling through Egypt; you actually get to see more than sand and barrenness. Morocco has cool foresty areas, mountains, and then desert in the southern part of the country, so you get a whole variety. You also get to experience the terror of driving in a giant bus along narrow roads that are cut into the sides of a mountain with pretty much sheer drops 5 feet away from the edge of the pavement. There was a really cool part where we drove through part of the mountain that I guess had been blasted through to make a tunnel. After the long journey we finally ended up at Merzouga, where we rented three rooms: one for the guys and two for the girls, to change in and take a dip in the pool before we left all our extra stuff there and headed out for the desert portion of the trip, which meant we got to ride camels!


We stopped the bus in this park area because we saw this monkey, and then like 50 people followed this monkey around to take pics of him.


This is a nice panorama of the kind of mounts that we were driving through; not the desert that I expected. If you click on it you can get a bigger version.


There was even an oasis!

Fun fact: camels are actually fairly uncomfortable; they are really wide, so you like strain your groin riding them, and they aren’t very soft, so if you have a bony ass like me, you bruise. But I still get excited every time I get to ride one, probably because it means that I am going someplace cool. I had previously been worried about cooking alive under the sun during the excursion but we didn’t end up leaving until about 7, so the sun was already on its way down and the temperature was pretty moderate, so we got to all look really cool in our new desert scarves without actually having to deal with the deadliness of the Sahara sun. We rode for about 45 minutes to a camp that probably could have been reached in about 15 if you didn’t take a winding path, but where is the fun in that? The camp was pretty much just a ring of tents at the base of a big sand dune, which we obviously set to climbing immediately, much to our bodies’ displeasure. The view of the desert was really awesome and we watched as the sun went down and all you could see was the light of the cities in the distance and a crazy amount of stars. The night was spent eating some traditional Moroccan food and listening to some musical entertainment, including a jam session from some of the students in our program who are studying ethnomusicology. I decided to crash around 12:30 and went to my tent and slept, not realizing that most of the other students had dragged their mattresses outside to sleep under the stars. Oops…


Getting ready for desert scale wind and sun.


The problem with riding camels is that you can’t actually get a picture of yourself that shows the camel, so I’m hoping that some other people in the group have some pics of me that properly show my awesome technique.


Straight up adorbs

We got up early the next morning to climb the dune again and watch the sunrise; it’s so crazy to be able to look out at the desert and think about how there is literally nothing for miles and miles except for sand and hot. I actually forgot my camera for this part (oops again) but I stole these pictures from some people who did have theirs (and have better cameras as well). After we got out fill of the sun we hopped back on the camels again to head back to the hotel for breakfast and another brief pool break before getting back on the bus for what seemed like a never-ending, thanks to the numerous stops and different sites like mosques, traditional craftplaces, and music performances. Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate being exposed to all the culture, but when we left the hotel at 11 am and didn’t arrive back in Meknes until 11:30 pm, that’s kinda a long trip. I’m sure I will appreciate it in the future, but in the moment there was many a grumble going on in the CLS bus during the journey home. There was also some grumbling when I got to class today and the teacher informed us that he had sent us an email changing the homework assignment and said that we should make sure to check out email over the weekend, apparently not understanding that 1: we were in the desert (or on a bus) literally the entire weekend, and 2: 90% of us don’t have internet at our houses, so we only get emails when we get to school, a little too late for it to be any good. Not really a big deal, but slightly frustrating. The good part about the late return to Meknes was that classes on Monday were changed from 9 to 1 to 11 to 3, meaning we got to sleep in, plus we gained an extra hour from a time change during Ramadan. Let’s just say that I took full advantage of this extra sleep time, unlike my roommate who got up early to do homework and was like dying as we were heading to the bus to go to school.


Sunrise from the dunes.


This one is actually mine, taken as we rode the camels back to the hotel.

That’s right, I said it, Ramadan is upon us here in Meknes. As a country that is like 99.5% Muslim, the holy month is kinda a big deal here, and fasting during the day is definitely the norm. Not only do people not eat or drink, but most restaurant and food stores are completely closed all day, making it kinda difficult for foreigners like me who aren’t fasting to procure victuals. Ramadan officially starts Wednesday, so most of the students have been stocking up on granola bars and other things to help pass the time when we won’t be able to run down to the corner shop and buy something, but I personally have no idea what this next month is going to be like and how it is going to affect me; I’m both anxious about and looking forward to finding out.

I think that’s all I’ve got for now; ma salama ya shebab!

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When Will My Reflection Show Who I Am Inside?

HAHA I swear I’m not having an existential crisis, or even just a Mulan fantasy; this week is just called Reflection Week and this song was the first thing that came to mind. So Sunday through Tuesday we have had our Arabic final exams (3 for me) as well as meetings for reflections in our elective classes. I’m now on the other side of all the actual tests and think I came out pretty well; but they definitely were more challenging than the tests I have dealt with back home. Hanshoof insha allah…

So the reflection class for my Egyptology class was actually more of a field trip to go see how modern Egypt still uses Pharaonic styles and ideas in its architecture and art and so forth. We visited the newly remodeled train station and a tomb for a early 20th century nationalist, but my favorite stop was the American University of Cairo wall that borders the Mohamed Mahmud street, which leads from Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry. This wall is home to some of the most iconic graffiti from the revolution, including some professionally done works. I hadn’t had a chance to see these yet, but they are really cool.

To start with, this is the (in)famous Tahrir Square; center of the city and home to the majority of protests and gatherings. Nothing was really going on at this moment, besides maybe some people hanging around to support certain presidential (ex-) candidates. The kinda ugly pinkish building to the right is the Egyptian Museum, home to Tut’s treasures, the Narmer Palette, a bunch of mummies, and more artifacts than they know what to do with. The tall building to its left is the old headquarters of the National Democratic Party, also known as Mubarak’s party. It is actually more of a burned out shell these days; guess when that happened?

The face on the right is Mubarak; the left is the head of the military council, suggesting that they are basically two sides of the same coin. This is the main grievance that Egyptians hold with the progress of the revolution and hopefully it will all get sorted out in the coming election.

The pictures and names of the martyrs that were killed during the revolution. A little ways across the city there is a metro station that used to be called Mubarak station, but was renamed shohada, which means “the martyrs”. All of the signs on the trains and in the stations have the old name scratched out and the new one written beside it.

The soldier in this scares the crap out of me. You can also see the pictures that show that women participated in the revolution, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas; not quite submissive women in veils…

This is one of the main chants of the protestors. It basically means ” Down with the military government”

This is one of the examples of the ancient Egyptian motifs being modified; this shows the weighing of the heart scene, with Mubarak’s heart being way heavy because of his evil deeds. The blue woman is suckling her son, a common way of picturing the gods Isis and Horus, but it here refers to the Susanne Mubarak preparing her son Gamal to take the presidency after his father.

And here are the faces of Susanne and Hosni Mubarak as a two headed snake that stretches 50+ meters down this entire wall.

One more reflection class and a few more program activities, then I will be on a plane heading back to the US!

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*Insert lyrics to Beyonce’s countdown song that I don’t know*

Today is the last Friday that I will be in Cairo.

However, I refuse to get all introspective yet; I’ll do that later.

Plus we are still doing fun activities, especially now that classes are over. To celebrate finishing my last (and actually only) paper this semester, I decided that it was time to bust out the sangria that I got in Spain and combine it with some fresh Cairo fruit.

Sometimes you need to just sit on the balcony and sip sangria as you look at the crazy city where you live.

To celebrate the end of classes we got to take a self named “party yacht” out on the Nile with some of our Egyptian friends fro pizza and ridiculous dancing. While much of this semester has been geared towards understanding different cultural norms and abiding by them, this day was a good chance to have some fun and maybe even show some of the Egyptians a little bit of how we have fun, chock-full of questionable American club music.

Let’s just say that we may have turned some heads as we passed some other boats. Unfortunately our plans to start a Nile piracy squad might have to be put on hold because we aren’t very good at sneaking up on other boats… Damn club music

This trip was a great way to have a last program hangout with some of our Egyptian friends, as well as meet some of the people that others in my program had gotten to know over the course of the semester.

On our cruise we happened to pass by the boat on which we took our first Nile cruise during orientation at the beginning of the semester; talk about things coming full circle. Oddly enough, I feel like I have been on more boats this semester than in like the past 5 years combined, and here I am in the middle of a country that is mostly desert. I guess it just goes to show you how important the Nile is to the people of Egypt.

For my last Friday here, we decided to go visit an area that we hadn’t yet seen: the Friday market. This is, as you may suspect, a kind of flea market that goes at full capacity on Friday mornings, and is really cool because you can get pretty much anything there, from a parakeet to a sink faucet. This market is mostly for Egyptians, unlike the touristy Khan al-Khalili, so the vendors aren’t nearly as aggressive about getting your attention and the prices are much better if you find something you like. It does get pretty crazy trying to work your way through streets crowded with stalls and cars and people carrying around armfuls of kittens, but it is definitely an experience I would recommend to a visitor, after they had initially gotten  adjusted to the crowds. We started off in the animal part of the market, so there were people everywhere carrying around cages of pigeons, ducks, or chickens, as well as turtles, bunnies, cats, fish, and other song birds. The funniest part was probably when we passed through what seemed to be the puppy corner, and there was a man standing holding a very out of place tiny kitten, which he held up like he could convince us to get it as an impulse buy.

As I count down this last week, I know that Egypt has managed to make it back into international news because of the current protests and clashes, so I feel compelled to mention that they are in a fairly distant part of the city and that I am obviously not heading over there to check them out. I am leaving just a few days before the first free election that Egypt had had in the entire history of the nation, all the way back to the pharaohs, and I am hoping that they go well and the results don’t plunge the country into Revolution pt 2 right after I head out, en-sha-allah.

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Finally Conquered the Citadel! (kinda)


It’s crazy, we are rapidly approaching the end of the semester, and just like back home, that means lots of final projects and papers, so I have been keeping fairly busy. One sign to me that things are really winding down is that we finally went on our trip to see the Citadel, which I have pretty much been considering to be the end of the semester. As I have mentioned, we have been seeing this building from all over the city, and I was so excited to finally see it up close.

The view on the way to the Citadel; it is completely different from the other mosques in Egypt because of the sheer amount of domes, which is more the Turkish style. This design was brought into the country by Muhammad Ali (the king, not the boxer) when he came from Turkey, and my friends who have been to Istanbul say that over there the design style is basically just “throw like 5 or 6 domes on it”. Apparently the style didn’t really catch on in Cairo, because more modern mosques are usually built with the traditional Egyptian style, sans domes.

Here’s a closer view of the mosque, with a cool bush with  Allah i don’t know, pruned(?) into it. The main structure with all the domes is the mosque, but the Citadel itself refers to the fortifications around this, as well as the palace that we visited after the mosque.

This is the inside of the mosque; notice the how ornate and decorated it is compared to other ones that I have taken pictures of. I actually really liked the rings of lights thing they had going on, but it was a little weird being somewhere so showy.

It just made me think…

After the mosque we headed to the old palace, which has been converted to the Egyptian Military Museum, where we got to wander around and look at military stuff dating back to the pharaohs. There was an open air part that had tanks and planes and stuff; I like how sad and impotent they managed to make the Israeli tank on the left look…

I’ve been to a lot of museums at this point, so things are starting to get a little weird after I spend a while looking at exhibits…

Possibly the most amusing thing about the museum was the huge number of bad translations on signs and labels. This was probably our favorite; it seems like somewhere along the line someone heard the phrase cold steel and decided to try to use it in the signs, but didn’t quite get it right. I would love to have a job traveling around and fixing museum signs, as long as I don’t catch the Sudanese cold, I hear it steals arms.

So anyways, finals week is coming up, and I have to start making a bucket list of things to make sure I do before leaving, so the end of my semester will probably get pretty hectic. I’m looking forward to getting through it all and hopefully uncovering so hidden gems in Cairo that I haven’t seen yet!

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For a desert, there has been lots of swimming…

This post has a little bit of a bittersweet feel to it; I’m feeling a little bit conflicted as I think about the latest excursion on which Amideast took us. As usual, it was an awesome trip, my sadness comes from it being the last one that I have to look forward to, while my excitement stems from the knowledge that in less than a month I will be home with my favorite people in the world and ready to annoy the crap out of them by starting countless stories with , “Well when I was in Egypt…” I know that some of the people in my program are really dreading the day that they have to leave Cairo, and I know that it will be hard, but at this point I am really looking forward to stepping off my plane and being on the same continent as my best friends.

But that is getting a little ahead of myself; the most pressing issue at hand is the trip that we took to Siwa Oasis. As its name subtly suggests, this is an oasis in the middle of the desert to the West of Egypt; at its closest point about 40km from the Libyan border, where there are apparently still lots of unexploded land mines left over from World War II. But that’s not really important.

As you can see here, Cairo is separated from the oasis by a fair amount of sand, so our bus ride took about 8 hours, heading north east to Marsa Matrouh and then south to Siwa. Little bit of back story; Siwa has a long tribal history that remains to this day distinct from the rest of Egypt; they speak their own language in addition to Arabic and have little involvement with the national government, instead relying on a tribal system. The entire area is Islamic and more conservative than Cairo, due to the combination of tribal norms and Islamic interpretation. On the drive to our hotel we stopped to check out a small military museum that had some of the creepiest/ funniest military mannequins in addition to the largest tickets that I have ever seen, as well as the Commonwealth cemetery for servicemen that died in the battles for North Africa. I have visited some military cemeteries back home, but this was the first I have seen that was the final resting place for soldiers who were fighting on the other side of the world. It was honestly a very sobering experience. After we arrived at the hotel we took a quick dip in the pool and explored town a little bit, then headed to bed to get ready for the two days of touring that we had awaiting us.

The first stop on the tour was the Shali fortress, which was built at the high point in the town to keep a lookout for the roving bands of Bedouins that sometimes attacked. It is now mostly in ruins, but you can still climb up and see a lot of the remains, as well as get a good view of the surrounding greenery, a rare sight these past few months.

The next stop was a place called the Mountain of the Dead, a bit creepy sounding, but just the site of a number of Egyptian style tombs that we were able to visit before heading up the mountain to check out the view. Unfortunately it was starting to get kinda dusty at this point, so we didn’t have the clearest horizon, but  you could see how the trees just end suddenly and then there is nothing but sand. After here we headed to a small museum of Siwa culture and the single wall that remained of an ancient temple.

And then this, the temple of the Oracle. Unlike the sexy little thing that told fortunes in the movie 300, the oracle here was probably something along the lines of a statue of the god Amun, and the prophesies were either told by priests hiding in a secret chamber or interpreted by the wobble of a statue being held by four men, kinda like an Ouji board. Legend has it that Alexander the Great visited this oracle to question if those who killed his father had been sufficiently punished. In the afternoon we headed to a natural spring called Cleopatra’s well to chill out, during which we got hit by a bit of a sandstorm, and then some of us decided to go visit a nearby salt lake.

After crossing a tiny little land bridge to a small island, we found a spot to wade and were eventually overcome with a need for a spontaneous swim, so most of us decided to dive on in mostly clothed. Oddly enough the water was only about waist deep, even a hundred or so meters out, but it was extremely salty. Kinda like the Dead Sea, we were able to float with ease, though the high amount of salt did burn some small cuts on my hand. This impromptu dip was one of the high points of my trip, one of the benefits of such a small and flexible program, even if it did leave me with pants that dried stiff with caked on salt. That night was pretty chill; I got to do some shopping at a number of the small shops and enjoyed the vast night sky that you don’t get to see in Cairo.

The next day was our desert adventure, so we loaded into off road truck to go powering up and down dunes, at what seemed to be 90 degree angles, but were probably more like 60. Similar to the previous desert trip we took, we quickly lost sight of anything that wasn’t sand or rock, but this trip differed because it was mostly straight up sand dunes, no fun rock formations or other landmarks besides sand and more sand. Did I mention there was sand?

Despite this, out drivers seemed to know exactly where they were going, and somehow managed to take us to see some tiny little sights, like these starfish fossils or the petrified coral that now stands in the middle of the dunes. Apparently the entire area used to be underwater and evidence still remains, along with several Roman footprints that we found embedded into the stones at the top of a rock formation.

Possibly the thing I was most excited about during this trip, and definitely one of my favorite parts, was the chance to go sandboarding on the dunes of the Great Sand Sea. With the wind whipping and sand blowing, this was a little intimidating, but I managed to rely on natural balance and years of experience in semi-pro snowboarding in my backyard, and managed to be the only one in our group able to stay up on the board the entire way down, accomplishing that feat several times! (insert applause and compliments here) A video can be found of me shredding it up right here. I highly advise that you watch it.

As this post’s title suggests, we actually had a lot of opportunities to go swimming on this trip; it seems like most of our desert wanderings had the goal of taking us to swimming holes. In the course of one day I managed to visit a cold salt lake, a natural hot spring, and a cold freshwater lake, all of which were extremely refreshing in their own way. This pic is from the last lake, which was seriously in the middle of nothing but dunes, but was clean and deeper than I could reach. These water sources were definitely a great break from the heat of the desert and a good way to wash off all the sand that manages to stick everywhere, including inside your ears, though the combination of the water and the wind managed to send my hair into another picture-ruining mess.

In the evening we headed to a high dune to find a good place to watch the sun set and apparently to take lots of glamor photos, cause that’s what we pretty much all did. Prepare yourself for vanity

I told you my hair was interesting.

I could basically be a desert person; I know how to wear a kuffiyah and am able to stare of into the distance and ponder things. Anyways, after the sunset we headed to a camp to eat an awesome dinner by candle light while we sat outside and looked at the stars, then headed back to the hotel for the night. The next day was pretty uneventful, we just took the long drive back home and are now settling in for the last few weeks of the program. I might not have as many fun pictures to show off, but I will do my best to keep everyone updated on my o-so-important feelings as the semester wraps up. At the very least, its a good way to procrastinate from studying.

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

Parks and Recreation

The one month countdown is rapidly approaching, and it seems that the second of my semester is not only passing faster, but is also more packed with activities and excursions. In addition, the weather is really starting to heat up; I’m realizing that I am just going to have to accept that at the end of the day I will probably be a bit of a sticky mess. I haven’t done anything in the past week that quite compared to the relaxation and beauty of the Nile cruise, but the trips this past week have taken us to some places that were each kinda like a little oasis in the middle of the ever-crowded city.

By happy chance I am posting this entry on Easter, even though that doesn’t mean a whole lot for me here; we still have classes like normal. Last week we headed to Coptic Cairo, one of the older parts of the city that has a several Coptic churches and a Coptic Art Museum. For those of you who aren’t familiar with religious minorities in the Middle East (don’t worry, I won’t tell) the Copts are the largest non-Islamic religious group in the country, about 10 percent of the total population. Most people don’t really think about the fact that there have been Christians in the Middle East for as long as there have been Christians, but the in some respects, the Copts are the descendents of the original Egyptians and we have pieced together some aspects of the language of the pharaohs by comparing it with modern day Coptic. Egypt also has a special significance to Christianity because Jesus’s family hung out for a while avoiding King Herod, a fact that I don’t think is as emphasized in Western churches. I like this mosaic because it has the pyramids in the background as the holy family does their wandering.

One of the churches that we visited was the Hanging Church, one of the oldest churches in Egypt (3rd CE), named because of the way it is constructed on top of an ancient Babylonian fortress, leaving some parts suspended over passages. To be honest, the design and construction of this church seems to have more in common with the mosques in this country than the churches and cathedrals that I have visited in the western world. The pulpit, pictured at the center is cool because it is supported by thirteen pillars, the one at the front center representing Jesus, and the other 12 his disciples. Even more interesting, one of the pillars is black, representing Judas and his betrayal, and one is grey, representing Thomas’s doubt. It’s a little hard to see in this picture, but they are the in the second row from the left. In addition to this, the church is home to a number of shrines that contain the remains of saints, where people submit requests or simply approach to touch or kiss.

On Friday we decided to take advantage of the sunny weather and take the metro to the outskirts of town to visit a Japanese style garden built with funding from… you guessed it, the Japanese. Getting there took about 40 minutes on the train, which included dealing with the interesting sales tactics that people use on a captive audience. One thing that is very common is people walking the length of the car with small packets of things like gum or safety pins, and throwing a bag into everyone’s hands or lap, whether you want it or not. It then becomes your job to either hold out money to pay when he comes back around or give the item back to him, operating pretty much completely on the honor system. Some people in my program say that they have seen people get off the train to chase after a vendor who forgot to take back his merchandise. Anyways, the garden was really neat, with Buddha statues and pagoda style pavilions. It seemed to be a popular place, with families all over the place and some gatherings that we guessed were birthday parties, different from previous parks I have gone to that were populated almost exclusively by couples.

As bad as this sounds, one downside to the park was the children… Or at least the ones that decided to swarm us and follow us all over the park trying to talk to us or maybe even get us to go in the questionable water with them. As an area far removed from the city center, it seemed that the kids in the park didn’t see foreigners as often as those in my neighborhood of Dokki do. While it was kinda neat to feel like a celebrity and have people want to take their picture with me, it was a little bit of a drag when I just wanted to sit and relax. I was also curious as to the fact that these children’s parents didn’t seem to have any problem with their kids walking all over the park following some strange young adults. This trip was also when I really started to notice the Egypt heat, and appreciate the difference that a little bit of shade can make.

On Saturday we took an optional program trip to go have a sunset dinner at Al-Azhar park, which to me seems like the classiest park in the city. We chose to sit outside to eat, so we had this awesome view of the gardens, the sunset, and the Citadel on the hill. Dinner was delicious and I even decided to treat myself a bit with an ice cream sundae, complete with bananas, chocolate syrup, and oddly enough, apple slices.

After dinner we headed into the market area to go see a show of Sufi dancing, apparently one of the big tourist attractions, cause there were tons of foreigners there, especially ones who were not appropriately dressed. Religious lesson number 2 for the day: Sufism is the more mystical way to follow Islam; Sufis are sometimes known to get intoxicated in the high-on-life kinda way in an effort to achieve unity with God. Probably the most famous aspect of Sufism is the dancing, which people sometimes know by the name whirling dervish, in which the dancers spin for an extended period of time as a way to lose themselves in the beating drums, singing, and horns. No monastic chants here, the people are actually dancing and their outfits are wildly colorful.

Each act, if you want to call it that, probably lasted about 20 minutes to half an hour, with the main dancer rotating the entire time, and most impressively, stopping without a single wobble at the end. One of the most interesting aspects of the dance is that the dancers wear several skirts, for lack of a better word, which the take off while spinning and then twirl above their heads, adding an extra show of color and another level of complexity.

Well we are back into the week and are also starting to get to that annoying point in the semester where you actually have to start thinking about final projects and papers. This weekend we are heading to Siwa Oasis for another desert adventure, so some work just might have to wait until after that.

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

Temples, boats, and one very orange galabiya

Even though my official spring break was only about 2 weeks ago, this past weekend was time for another program excursion, a 4 day cruise on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, with stops at temples and sites along the way. To maximize our time on the trip, our flight left Cairo at 6 am Wednesday morning, so we were in Luxor and heading to tour our first site at about 8 in the morning.

The first stop on our trip was Karnak temple, the largest temple complex in the world. Over the centuries, pharaohs kept adding onto this temple, so it grew to enormous size and has different structures from different kings right next to each other. Occasionally the adding on entailed dismantling smaller structures that had been built previously and using the stone to fill a pylon, but recently archeologists have retrieved these pieces and are working on reconstructing small chapels in an open air museum right beside the main temple area.

Like I said, the temple is huge and has a bunch of different parts, but one of the main areas is the hypostyle hall, which is sull of massive columns that are covered in hieroglyphs. In ancient times, the entire area was all roofed over, with small windows along the sides, so the entire room would be fairly dim, adding to the supernatural ambiance of the temple.

Because many parts of the temple were covered, originally by ceilings and later by sand or other construction, a lot of the original colors on the walls remains. I really liked the colors of this vulture, which, unlike currently, was considered a symbol of protection.

Besides all of the cool architecture and decorations, Karnak even had some fun rituals for us to take perform! Legend has it that if you run clockwise 7 times around this scarab statue, you will be blessed with good luck and fertility. I could probably use one of those more than the other, but I guess I will take what I can get. Like I said, Karnak is huge and I have a bunch of different pictures of different parts of the temple, which can be found on my album here.

After Karnak, we headed to Luxor Temple, which is located about 2 km away. This is the typical style of temple, with two large pylons with the entrance to the temple in between them. Temples were constructed on a single axis, with the chambers getting smaller and darker as one approached the rear and the main shrine to the gods. The majority of the people were not allowed to actually enter the temples, so the outsides were decorated with impressive statues and obelisks to show off the power of the king.

The next morning we headed to check out some of the royal tombs at the Valley of the Kings, where they have discovered about 64 burial sites, including King Tut. Unfortunately the area is very heavily traveled, so cameras are completely restricted and you can’t even take pictures outside of the tombs. The area is also swarming with people attempting to sell souvenirs to all the tourists, who are not few in number. The funny thing that I see about the tourists is that they are mostly older couples who I don’t think should be out in the sun too long… After the main valley we went to the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which was built into the cliffs of the valley. Though the original temple was destroyed about a hundred years ago by an earthquake, it has recently been reconstructed and is one of the more impressive and unique temples, in my opinion.

Queen Hatshepsut is famous because she was actually a king, one of the first women who ruled an entire nation. The pharaoh to whom she was married died with only a stepson as a male heir, and he was very young, so she ruled as a regent and pretty much kept him in the shadows until her death. She went so far as to depict herself as a man, with the false beard, to legitimize her rule and make a connection with the traditional style of representation. The statue here is of the king herself.

Our last stop for the day was the Colossi of Memnon, giant statues of Amenhotep III that used to be situated in front of a temple. Legend has it that cracks formed in these statues over time and that the wind used to blow through and make an eerie whistling sound, but they were repaired by the Romans and no longer do that.

This trip was especially awesome because of the huge amount of free time that we had. After the group tours in the morning, we were pretty much free to do anything we wanted during the afternoon and evenings. As I mentioned, we were on a cruise ship  heading south down the Nile, so we got to see some awesome views of the land on both shores of the Nile. It is really interesting how you can totally see that there is a very definite line between the green right on the banks of the river and the desert that starts very suddenly.

We were on a cruise ship with a nice little sundeck and pool, so I spent most of my time on the deck trying to get some sort of tan. In addition to the daily teatime and dip in the pool, I finally managed to get some reading done and definitely had a chance to just lay back and relax. The hour long full body massage that I only payed about 35 dollars for definitely helped some too…

Shot from the temple of Kom Ombo, which we were able to dock directly beside and pretty much just walk straight into the temple. This site was cool because it had a Nilometer, which was an ancient well-like device that was used to measure the height of the annual flood. Tax rates were set according to how high the river was, because the king reasoned that the farmers could afford to pay more on a good year. Interesting premise that takes the working people into account when thinking about taxation…

Our last full night on the ship was Galabiya night, which seemed to be aimed specifically at making tourists look silly. A galabiya is the robe like garment that is traditionally worn by Egyptians; you see them directly alongside people wearing business suits in Cairo. The normal galabiyas are fairly dull colored, but as anyone who is familiar with how I dress knows, I am not a fan of drab colors. The tourist galabiyas are more ornamented, and everyone in my program bought one to participate in the celebration. I felt so dressed up that it was like prom, so I had to take a nice photo to remember the night.

As I mentioned before, the majority of tourists that we saw were old Europeans, and our companions on the ship were no exception. I think everyone else on the boat was British, and only a few were under the age of 60. After a particularly fierce competition in some silly games, I was named the Pharaoh of the Potato, and ten women were selected to dance for my affection. Unfortunately only three of them came from my program, so the other 7 were members of the British tour group. Luckily I was saved from having to choose a favorite and was allowed to say that they were all winners, and we got a quick group picture.

The next morning we headed out to see some more sights, including the Aswan High Dam and the temple of Philae, which required us to take a small boat out to an island in the middle of the Nile. The temple was cool because it was basically the only thing on the island, although it was nt originally there; it had to be moved after the construction of the high dam because of flooding. The temple also had several crosses carved and an altar built inside of it after Christianity arrived to the area.

In the afternoon we had some free time to explore in small groups, and Ahmed and I decided that we were going to climb to the peak of this dune/mountain on the bank opposite where we were docked. After a short felucca ride, which is a sailboat with a triangular sail that is typically found on the Nile, we were dropped off and set off to explore some tombs, which were completely devoid of tourists, which meant that we got to take some pictures!

This is from the inside of one of the non-royal tombs that we visited. It is a typical offering scene and I was really impressed with the crazy amount of colors that remained. After we checked out these tombs, we headed to the side of the mountain and set off scrambling up the sandy slop from rock to rock, which I though was just the best thing ever. I will admit that it was pretty had work in the blazing sun, but the view from the top was totally worth it.

Panorama from the peak; you can really see how there really isn’t a whole lot once you get away from the banks of the river. On the smal island to the right side is the botanical gardens and a small Nubian village that some of the other people in my program visited.

We hung out on the boat till fairly late, because our flight wasn’t till late, so we were able to watch one last pretty sunset over the west bank of the Nile, known as the Land of the Dead during the Pharaonic times. I was pleased to see that they had lights all over what I had decided was my mountain, and I sat and red while overlooking a more naturalistic side of Egypt than I get to see in Cairo. The sweet break ended on a bit of a low note as our plane home got delayed until about 12:30, meaning that we didn’t get back to Cairo until after 2, meaning that I had been up for around 20 hours that day, and climbed a mountain. Either way, I think that is a pretty fair price to pay for the kind of relaxing vacation that we got on this trip and I totally would love to go on a Nile cruise like this again in the future.

Once again it is time to settle in to class mode, though I can still look forward to the upcoming trip to Siwa Oasis, which I believe will be another fantastic opportunity to get some rays and catch some Z’s.

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

Ya es primavera!

Spring break came none too soon, and after some fun transportation navigation, I found myself in the Barcelona Airport meeting up with a super awesome face from back home! After finding Alex in baggage claim, we worked our way out of the airport and to our hotel thanks to the experience and advice of my friend Autumn, who had studied there the year before. She provided us with a list of things to do in the city, and we spent the next week riding the metro all over the place to see cool stuff and eat awesome food. I have a crap ton of pictures from this trip, and rather than running through what we did day by day, I have sat patiently for 20 plus pictures to slowly load for this post; I will provide a little bit of context, but I promise not to write too much.

During our first day in the city we wandered into the Gothic Quarter of the city, where we got too see some classy architecture and nice narrow cobblestone streets without having to dodge cars.

The Cathedral of Barcelona. This wasn’t actually on our list of places to go, but we stumbled upon it and I really liked the towers.

Some of the Roman ruins underneath the city. We got to see these by stopping in the Museum pf the History of the City, which just happened to be free during the time of day that we went!

Panorama from the viewpoint of Parc Güell; you can see the Mediterranean Sea, the construction of the Sagrada Familia, and some other Barcelona landmarks.

Sitting on the benches around the plaza in the park; it was actually pretty difficult to secure a seat, so I made sure that we had proof of us enjoying the Gaudi-ness.

Underneath the main plaza area of the park; the mosaic type design is all over the place in Barcelona, I will explain it more in a bit.

The famous dragon at the main entrance of Parc Güell; I managed to snap this in between the constant flow of tourists posing for a shot with it. Ok history lesson: the park was designed byAntoni Gaudí, during a time of economic recession for the rest of Spain in the mid to late 1800s. Because of its location near the Mediterranean and its industries, Barcelona remained fairly prosperous and displayed the Modernist style, which is characterized by lots of color and designs inspired by nature, meaning few straight lines and elements that can be traced directly back to trees or flowers. Gaudí’s name is actually the origin of the English word gaudy; fun trivia fact!

This is the Casa Batlló, a building designed by Gaudí, and one of the cool places that we just happened upon when we exited a metro stop. Some say that this building is based upon the story of St George, who killed a dragon, and that the building represents the dragon. the balcony the skulls of the people that it had killed, and the spire with cross tip the lance of the saint. I couldn’t get a good picture of the top, but it is multicolored and sinuous, much like a dragon’s back.

On our beach day, we had to do the most Spanish things possible: eat paella with fresh fish and drink sangria at an outdoor cafe in view of the sea! I’m not usually a fan of seafood, but I love paella and I love shoveling down the little fishy bits with delicious rice.

On the beach in the middle of March! Alex was not pleased that there was this much sunlight, but it was nice and warm and the beach was a nice place to chill for a while. Except that people kept coming up and trying to sell us beers and other less legal things from these plastic bags that they were carrying around…

Wading in the Mediterranean Sea! It was actually pretty cold, but we did see some people swimming in it. I can now say that I have seen two almost opposite ends of the sea during this semester.

IceBarcelona!! This was a bar that was made entirely of ice, including the seats and the cups. The admission fee included one drink and the rental of these big jackets and gloves, which we totally needed. It is apparently the world’s only ice bar that is located at the beach and when we left there was a guy with a camera filming us as we exited, so maybe we will be on Spanish TV!!

The Sagrada Familia Cathedral, designed once again by Gaudí. I have visited a lot of cathedrals in my travels, but this is definitely my favorite. The foundations were constructed before he took control of the design and he died about halfway through its construction, but they are still working on it according to his plans.  I think it is a completely unique construction that looks awesome from both the inside and outside.

The front of the interior of the cathedral. We got to go in at student prices, despite the fact that Alex is 25 and his ID is from a high school… The columns are all forked at the top like tree branches and the organic designs continue everywhere. There are lots of stained glass windows that really flood the white interior with color.

The backside of the cathedral. The central scene of the decoration is the nativity scene, and all of the figures seem to be telling stories of the life of Jesus. I went a little picture happy with this cathedral, so there are plenty more detail shots here. We got to go up in the towers on this side, about where the tree with the cross and the doves are, and then walk down the little spiral staircases that I think are pretty famous.

In Parc Monjuic, we went to go see the Olympic Stadium complex from the 1992 Olympic Games. I don’t really know anything more about them, but the entryway leading up to the stadium was pretty impressive and we got to peek inside and look at the field and track where some of the events were held.

New favorite drink: Cava. It’s Spanish champagne and it is awesome. After getting a taste at a small tapas place, Alex and I decided to go find a nice bar and become nice and acquainted with the drink…

Remember how I once said that I don;t know why people decided to let me start calling myself an adult? It’s because of things like this, when the most important part of the giant Boqueria food market was the candy stand. This is only a small section of the sugary goodness, and we were at least able to contain ourselves to just this. In this one tented market they had stalls selling fresh meats, seafood, fruits, pastries, and all kinds of edible goodness.

And some of the food fought back! We decided to take our candy spoils to a pier and enjoy it while watching the sun set over the marina.

And there ends the excessive photo tour of my visit to Barcelona; I am now back in Cairo and settling in for the second half of my semester in Egypt. Just to run through some things that didn’t get photographed:

  • I love Spanish food, especially their fondness for bakeries with delicious treats and sandwiches. Tapas places are the best when you aren’t quite sure what you want and are thinking of sampling a variety of things.
  • I felt so much more confident in my language ability on this trip than I did last time I went to Spain; it probably has something to do with the fact that I have managed to survive in a country where I know much less of the language.
  • I really like European culture; it was a nice break from the conservatism that I see every day in Egypt and I am pretty much 100 percent positive that I will be visiting Spain again in the future.
  • EgyptAir is a pretty suite airline; they have good food and they played movies on my flight both to and from Spain. The most exciting was when they played Harry Potter 7 pt 2 on the way back, but it also meant that I kept sniffling on a plane full of mostly Egyptians, o well…
  • I have to go back to classes now 😦 But I am sure that I will have more fun Egyptian adventures coming up soon, so stay tuned

Hasta Luego


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