I taught four levels of math at Schutz American School in Alexandria, Egypt from August 2001 to June 2003. All people’s names have been changed.
15 August 2001
My flights to Alexandria were relatively uneventful, but I didn’t have to leave Denver in order to be treated like a foreigner. As I stood in the check-in line at the airport, an airline worker was pass out emergency cards to people who were traveling on an American passport. She asked the women I front and in back of me if they needed one. I spoke up, “Excuse me, I’m traveling on an American passport.” If she was surprised, she didn’t show it as she handed me a card. Apparently, my European-styled glasses threw her off.
I was concerned about not having more than two pieces of excess luggage; so I didn’t bring a third piece, which was full of books. The guy, who checked me in, looked at my passport and tickets and told me that his mother was from Alexandria. When I told him that I was going to Alexandria to teach, magically he did not notice the excess luggage that I had with me and I was not charged for them.
I had a nine-hour direct flight from Denver to Frankfurt where I met up with three other new hires. I’d described myself to Krystal, the Language Arts/Social Studies teacher for my 7th and 8th graders (her husband, Don, is a HS English teacher), as a Black woman with dreads, a guitar, and a book. True to form, I was spotted with dreads, beside my guitar, reading a book. Krystal and Don had already met up Megan, our new elementary/MS principal.
Schutz American School goes from preschool to 12th grade. Elementary is ECE to 4th, middle school is 5th to 8th (although 5th and 6th grade are in the elementary building and have one teacher per grade, they follow the middle school schedule and are allowed to attend the school dances), and high school is 9th to 12th grade. Since I’ll teach 7th, 8th, and 9th grade math, I’m considered THE middle school math as well as a high school teacher. Kelsey is the math teacher for 10th to 12th grade. (By the way, our school traditionally goes by first names—even the students address teachers and administrators by their first names.) Only about 40% of the student body is Egyptian since we give first priority to foreign students. Egyptian citizens have far more choices for schooling their children. Also, for every student who is enrolled, there must be at least one parent at home who can speak fluent English.
Despite the fact that we’re in a Muslim country, we have no restrictions on girls. The female students are expected to participate in P.E.; therefore, they wear bathing suits for swimming and shorts to play sports and they are taught in the same classroom with boys. Any parents who do not truly embrace the American style of education do have other alternatives. There are schools that use American textbooks and teach in English, but adhere to Muslim restrictions.
All of our instruction takes place in English. The only places where foreign languages are spoken are in Arabic and French classes. As a matter of fact, when the returning staff arrives, we’ll have to discuss the parameters of our English only campus. If we want an English only campus, we need to discuss the consequences students will have if they speak languages other than English. We will also have to discuss our level of comfort with enforcing this rule.
Once we landed at the airport in Alexandria, we had to get a visa, which was merely a matter of paying $15 and getting two stamps to put in our passports. While we were waiting in the short, slow-moving immigration line, Roger, the art teacher who we met on the plane, went outside to take a picture of the terminal that we had entered. Unfortunately, I was still in the visa line when Roger decided to do that. I was the only one in the group who knew better. I explained to Roger when he returned that a lot of developing countries did NOT allow people to take pictures of airport terminals, bridges or any other sensitive areas that a terrorist would possibly like to bomb. Even though Roger claimed that he did not take a picture, a security guy approached Roger, asked him for his camera film, and exposed the whole roll.
All of my suitcases made it through fine, except that one had opened. The sheer strain on the zipper had been too much. Luckily, it opened at the airport. An attendant and I rezipped it with a bit of struggle—nothing was missing. I breezed through customs. I had to open all of my suitcases, but I was not hassled nor charged for anything. Customs were particularly looking for video cameras. Again, poor Roger had trouble. He brought a scanner and an expensive, high-quality laser printer—the perfect machinery for counterfeiting currency and documents. Thanks to Roger (who now owes all of us a beer), we were struck at the airport for an additional two hours while Fatima, our brilliant Egyptian liaison who handles all of the government stuff, negotiated for Roger’s things. Bruce, the head of school, jokingly said that he hoped customs didn’t find out about Roger’s past military service.
While waiting for Roger (who has quickly become the butt of most of our jokes), the rest of us, including Cathy the new librarian we met in customs, went to the duty free shop. In Egypt, you have a 24-hour window in order to go to the duty free. What could one possibly need within 24 hours of landing in Egypt? Alcohol! As we made the party train line into the alcohol section, our hopes of scoring our favorite drug was dashed. The selections seemed rather picked over and hadn’t been restocked. Bruce told us that he’d take us to another duty free the following day.
There were two school vans, one to take all of our luggage (minus Roger’s scanner and printer) and a second one of us. Although I could take a driver’s test to get m international driver’s license, I shan’t drive in this country—despite the fact that they drive on the “correct” side of the road. They drive ALL over the correct side of the road. So far, all of the roads that I’ve been on have been nicely paved and clearly marked. Apparently, those cute little dashed lines are contemporary art. A clearly marked two-lane road will have three lanes of traffic. Pedestrians do not have the right of way or a healthy fear of moving vehicles. Vehicles cut each other off on a regular basis with pedestrians sprinkled everywhere for additional excitement and confusion. The only thing scarier is trying to cross the street.
I felt sorry for the men who had to lug my heavy suitcase up three flights to my apartment, but in true spirit of “better you than me”, I thanked them as sincerely as I could. I thought it was wonderful that I wouldn’t have to share an apartment with a total stranger, but I was very excited to see my roomy apartment, which is slightly bigger than the one bedroom I had Denver. Plus, I have a patio, which makes up for the fact that I have one of the smallest apartments. Most of the new teachers have claimed that the apartments here are bigger than the ones they had at home (the States, Canada, and Ireland). Blessedly, the AC in my bedroom was on already. Alexandria is in her hot and humid season while Cairo is just blazing hot—so I’m told. When Bruce came by to see if I was fine, I asked him if I could leave the patio screen doors open all night. He advised me not to since rat, bats, and mongooses (according to spell check, it is “mongooses”) could enter.
One of the many excellent benefits I get is three square meals a day. If I don’t want any of the three meals, I’ll get the money instead. The food is far superior to any school cafeteria food and is on par with restaurant quality—minus the hot sauce. I’m definitely going to bring some hot sauce back with me next June. There is a bottle of hot sauce available that looks and tastes like Tabasco without the burn. I’m not sure how that was achieved. Once I get quite settled, I’m going to opt out of the weekend meals, but those weekday meals are so convenient. Who wouldn’t want free, delicious meals where all you have to do is walk to it?
I managed to score a bottle of tequila (Jose Cuervo Gold) and Cointreau at the second duty free shop. I only mention this because it took five men to complete the task. The first one wrote down my order. Although I originally had the bottles in my hands, he made me put them back. I had to go downstairs with my order where the second guy entered something on the computer (which typed in Arabic—way cool) and my passport. He gave me some paper and sent me to the third guy, the cashier. The cashier took my US dollars and sent me to the fourth man, the customs agent. The agent filled out a piece of paper in triplicate, singularly and had me to sing all three copies singularly. Finally, the fifth guy went upstairs to get the bottles, which I’d had from the start. Bruce explained to us later that in Egypt, it was cheaper to work around someone incompetent than to bribe them to leave and firing was a long process. Plus, anyone who worked up to the position where he or she had the role of entering something on a computer was not going to leave his/her desk to do anything else.
In this culture, just about everything is negotiable with possible exception of religion, but it’s too soon for me to make that call. In the classroom, I may have some Egyptian students who may be new to the school and will try to negotiate with me. I was cautioned not to see this as being argumentative, which will be a challenge. When the returning teachers arrive next week, I’ll be very interested in learning their strategies for dealing with “classroom negotiations”.
I’ve been keenly observing what Egyptian people wear. I was told before coming here that the only thing I should be concerned about is not showing my knees and above. I was rather ticked off to learn that bare shoulders are a gray area. I have a lot of sleeveless tops and dresses.
We went to a shopping mall, which is much smaller than our concept of a mall. I bought a white, short-sleeved top that can only be used as a jacket since it is tight around in the back if I try to fold my arms. A few days later, Fatima told us that it was okay for us to go sleeveless in the summer. The problem that may come up is that women receive more unwanted attention when they show shoulders. I asked if it was anything more than what I get for having dreads. She said no.
Certainly, there are degrees of how covered up Egyptian women are. Some are so covered that only their eyes are seen to women who are modernly dressed without showing their knees or shoulders. So far, I’ve only seen three Egyptian women who were wearing pants and a sleeveless top. In contrast, I was surprised that very few Egyptian men work shorts although they can do so without any shame. The overwhelming majority of men wear long pants and long sleeveless despite the heat and humidity.
We’ve ridden on the world famous Corniche, which runs parallel to the Mediterranean Sea coastline. The public beaches are very crowded with plastic chairs and huge umbrellas. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to see the sea for the umbrellas. Women, without exception wear regular clothes to the beach. A few renegades wear long shorts (to the knees) and a T-shirt. Prepubescent girls wear bathing suits. Plus, girls can wear shorts and tank tops and have their heads uncovered until puberty (if they are going to eventually cover their heads at all). Men and boys go in the water like men and boys in the States.
Speaking of water, Marcelo, our well-informed high school principal, says that they entire history of Egypt could be traced through water. I’m not going to do that here, but it’s interesting that about 93—95% of the land is desert with 5—7% of the land being used for the entire population. The president, Mubarak, is trying to irrigate the land with Nile waters to relocate people and alleviate the overcrowding, particularly in Cairo. Marcelo joked that it would be more feasible to set up a colony on the sun.
I’m quite sure that given my proximity to the sea (a harrowing 15 minutes’ walk) that my water comes from there. The first time I took a shower, I felt as if a residue was left on my skin. I’m going to find out about the desalination process although the residue may have something to do with the holding tanks. The water doesn’t taste salty. I boil but don’t filter the water, even though it’s “reasonable” safe for consumption. “Reasonably” means that several people brush their teeth with the water which is just as good as drinking the water as far as contamination is concerned. I tend to use boiled water to rinse my mouth although I rinse my toothbrush with tap water and let it dry completely before I use it again. I’m mostly concerned about water quality fluctuations; so, it’s best for me to be in the habit. Another good feature of the cafeteria is that they’ll fill up one empty water bottle per person and they wash all vegetables, fruits and salads in boiled, filtered water.
Currently, our Internet service is down. From the school, we’re all set up and ready to go, but outside the school, there’s some problem, I’ve heard that all systems were down after a lot of viruses came through. I was able to email Bruce and some teachers before I came; so it’s a matter of time before we’re up and running again. I’m emailing this off campus, using another account, which I’m sure I’ll be above to access from school later. It costs three Egyptian pounds (LE) an hour, which is less than a dollar an hour. As soon as the school system is working, I’ll give you that address.
19 August 2001
As the culmination of new teacher orientation, we took a trip to Cairo to see the Sphinx and the pyramids: Cheops (Khufu), Menkaure, and Chephren. Bruce hired out one of the drivers to take us down there on Friday, which is a wonderful day to do anything in the morning since most of the population is praying. As a matter of fact, the workweek that Egypt follows is Sunday through Thursday although not all Muslim countries follow that. Along the way, we picked up Eshe, one of the Arabic teachers who works at the school and often tutors new teachers. She practiced with us for about 40 minutes of the 3-hour bus ride. The mini-lesson went rather well, motivating a great number of us to later pursue Arabic lessons. Since she sat beside me for the trip going down and coming back, I was able to get a lot of my questions answered about Alexandria and Egypt in general.
The first point she corrected me on was where my water source came from. Since the desalination process is very expensive, all of the water comes from the Nile. I’d heard somewhere that Saudi Arabia had desalination facilities; so, in my ignorance, I assumed that it was somehow common and feasible for many countries in this area to do that. This was silly for two reasons. First of all, Saudi Arabia has that wonderful stuff called oil and can afford it. Secondly, if it was possible to set up a cheap desalination plant in developing countries like Egypt, what’s California’s problem (besides the obvious)?
If your geography is rusty, to get to Cairo is at the bottom of the delta. (The delta is roughly a triangle, pointing down. Cairo is just below the point.) Much farther down the Nile is Luxor (the valley of kings) and Aswan (Nile boat rides). I’m going to those places later on. Despite the fact the Cairo is physically in the north, it’s considered Lower Egypt while cities physically in the south is considered Upper Egypt since the Nile flows South to North. (It’s pretty ironic that I used to live twenty minutes away from the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria.)
Along the way, the geography changed from urban to suburban to salt marshes and then desert. I noticed several white cone-topped cylinders with a lot of holes around them. Eshe told me that it was where pigeons where raised. It seems very funny now that I asked her whether the pigeons were raised to carry messages. She looked at me a bit strangely and said, “No, we eat them.” When she asked me whether Americans ate pigeon, I explained that most Americans eat chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Then she asked if pigeons were sold to be eaten. I could have probably answered this more tactfully, but I told her that only very poor, homeless people, who have nothing else to eat would eat pigeons. Sometimes, I think it’s best to let some people, who may never have an opportunity to visit the States, know that we have poverty too, despite how spoiled we are. I don’t think she took it the wrong way since she told me about people who hunt and small sparrows for sport and eat them.
The pyramids and Sphinx are actually in Giza, which is on the outskirts of Cairo. Cairo has grown down to the pyramids. We parked about 50 yards away from the base of Cheops. I had prepared myself mentally to see a lot of vendors and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were far fewer than I’d expected. As a matter of fact, I easily ignored the vendors. We all stayed in the mini-bus while Bruce go out to negotiate with one of several men who offered camel, horse and walking tours. In the end, seven of us wanted to walk while the remaining six wanted to ride camels. I was in the camel group. I led the group in following the guy over to where the camels were going to be brought. I was the most anxious one to get on a camel. The camels were brought out in two groups of three. On the harnesses were ropes that kept the camels together. One of the guys who’d brought the camels over, motioned about three times for me to get on the first camel, but the guy in charge kept telling me no. Finally, he told the other guy to put a man on the first camel. I was on the second camel and Krystal, who had a fear of horses, but figured camels would be different, got on the last camel of our group of three.
Oh, camels are different than horses all right. The camel first has to kneel down in order for a rider to mount him. You put your foot in the stirrup and then hold on to a wooden “joystick” (pommel) that is on the front of the harness, which for my money isn’t enough to hold on to when your head is now about 12 feet or more off of the ground. Then the camel lifts his hind legs (upon which, the guy starts yelling, “Lean back!”) and then he lifts his front legs and you’re up. When you see someone getting up on a camel, you just don’t appreciate how precarious it feels—especially when all you have to hold on to is a joystick that is about 4 inches in diameter and about 6 inches high. The last thing you want to do is lean back since that makes it more difficult to hang on to the joystick.
Once the camel started walking, I was a little concerned about how to balance since camel riding is similar, but not the same as riding a horse. Then, the boy who was leading our group (who asked us to call him “Mickey Mouse”) started going faster to catch us up with the other group and Krystal’s and my camel started trotting. We screamed. The only phrase I even remembered from listening to several Arabic tapes before I came to Egypt came pouring out, “Shwayshway, min fudluk! (Slowly, please!”) Mickey Mouse thought that was funny. As a matter of fact, when he started to get a little bored, he’d speed up the camels to get a rise out of us. Wyatt, who led our camel group, didn’t complain since his camel didn’t trot as much. I think it was similar to that game where you hold hands and run and jerk people like a whip. The person on the end really gets it; so, poor Krystal was probably getting most of the camel action (plus the guy groped her while “helping” her to get on and off the camel.) After ten minutes, I really bonded with my camel to the point of giving him a nickname: You-son-of-a-bitch-stop-trotting.
Since we opted to go by camel, we did not get an opportunity to go inside a pyramid, but I thoroughly enjoyed being able to see the layout of Cairo in relation to the pyramids and the Sphinx—and I must admit that I enjoyed riding. At one point, we dismounted to take a panoramic picture of the three main pyramids and the six smaller ones. Mickey Mouse saw that I’d finished taking pictures and suggested that I get on his horse to take a picture. I figured that would make a nice picture with the pyramids in the background; so I put my foot in the stirrup, kicked my other leg over and split my pants. I managed to fake a smile for the camera, but I was so embarrassed and self-conscious about my new venting system. Fortunately, my top was long enough to cover it. We remounted our camels and then my head wrap started to unravel. At that point, I truly learned to ride a camel. I was determined to rewrap the head wrap. I took both hands off of the joystick and rewrapped. Krystal said I was brave, but I felt that it could go either way, depending on whether I stayed on the camel. I never fell off.
We stopped at another point to see the Sphinx. Although most of the face has been worn and shot away, it was still a breath-taking view. Later, Carrie, a world history teacher, told us that there was evidence of the builders of the Sphinx getting paid with a beer-like drink. I said, “Wow, the origin of Americans!”
We dismounted the camels at a souvenir shop, which none of us wanted to go in, but we did anyway since it’s sometimes easier to go along with an Egyptian than to “negotiate”. The shop had a very knowledgeable woman running it. She told us the brief history of papyrus and told us how to make it. I hadn’t bought enough money to buy anything. I soon slinked away only to walk right into another vending area that was in a different part of the shop. This particular vendor sold various oils. The first one the woman slathered on my arm was lotus water. Seeing that I was underwhelmed by it, she slathered on a second oil, secret of the desert. She said and gestured that women normally would anoint that oil on their nipples and between their legs in order to be irresistible to men. I soon left before she made me any more artificially irresistible.
We walked across the street and a field to see the inner chamber of the Sphinx. As we entered the “tourist police” gates, I looked to the left at the rows of chairs and speakers that were set up. Apparently, concerts are held there. A few of the teachers had seen Sting play there, to the left front of the Sphinx and in front of the pyramids. You know, I’m going to do that before I leave. Once I got as close as one could get to the Sphinx, I noticed that the paws looked suspiciously new. Indeed, they had been reconstructed. I hope that the restoration can be completed since it would be a shame to have the antiquity treasures slowly eroded away. As I was recrossing the filed to leave, a girl of perhaps 12 was rhythmically tapping a stick on a Coke bottle and singing. The only words I could understand were “Coca Cola”, but she sounded so sweet and beautiful that I think Coke should locate the young Coca Cola vendor in front of the Sphinx and give her a contract.
If you ever get an opportunity to see the pyramids, you MUST go to the Mena House to unwind. This 5-star hotel has perhaps the best outdoor, international buffet I’ve ever had. As I ate to my heart’s content, I’d occasionally look over my right shoulder to look at one of the 4500-year-old pyramids that was in view. What a surreal sight. And if you think it couldn’t get any better than that, the nearby circular pool (about 25 feet in diameter and about 10 feet deep) was refreshing, pleasantly warm and yes, you could still see the 4500-year-old pyramids while swimming.
If you’re disgustedly envious at this point, then you’ll like this next part. I woke up around 3 the next morning in sheer pain from my navel down to my knees. Yes, You-SOB-stop-trotting, had gotten the last laugh. Talk about a delayed reaction.
Later on that day, I went to Montazah Palace and Gardens. Montazah was the royal estate of Khedive Abba II’s estate, but now it’s the presidential summer resort. A lot of rich Cairenes (people from Cairo) come to Alexandria for the summer to escape Cairo’s heat and crowds. Although I’d visited Montazah earlier in the week to see the beautiful gardens and the outside of the presidential summerhouse, I returned in order to go to the beach. This is the only private beach in Alexandria where foreign women can wear bathing suits and play in the water like we’re used to. I’m so glad it has only taken me eight days to find the only loophole to the “wear a dress to play at the beach” rule. Besides, even foreign men find the public beaches too crowded and too polluted to take advantage of. Of course, the use of a private beach has a fee and rule attached. I had to pay LE 4 ($1) and had to know someone who had a beach house there. One of our teachers, Yvonne, married an Egyptian doctor who has a beach house. I’m loving the close-knit feeling of the staff here. We’ll see how long that lasts.
26 August 2001
Today was the first day of school and after much anticipation, I’m glad the day went over without a hitch. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even lock my keys in my room until after school was over. I’m teaching 5 classes and I have 4 preparations. The schedule is so convoluted that I won’t bother to explain it other than I teach on a block schedule; so I don’t see every class every day—and it’s not your typical teach classes twice or thrice a week. I do know that I teach one Class Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday with two out of three times at the same time of the day. Marcelo, is also the master of schedules and only he understands it all. In my on-going quest to organize, I’ve picked his brains recently about re-vamping the system altogether. Seems as if there are things that are simply put in place and left there without any follow-up evaluation of the effectiveness of it. Well, there’s a new sheriff in town.
The day before the first day of school, all foreign resident collected in Bruce’s office not for a pep rally, but to submit to an AIDS test. That’s right. In order to get a work visa in Egypt, one must pass an AIDS test. I asked several people what would happen if someone didn’t pass and the best answer I received was that a work visa probably wouldn’t be given. No one knows for sure since no one has ever failed it. I’m told that the Egyptian government wants to prove that the AIDS virus is being brought in and perpetuated by foreigners.
The main test I was anxious about was my student. They were all sizing me up at the assembly today. Two very excited 11th graders went up to the computer teacher, Charles, and asked him if I was Rastafarian. Before Charles could answer, they informed him that people who were Rastafarians were laid back, smoked pot, and cool. Charles told them that I was a nice person and that should ask me whether I was a Rastafarian. I never heard from them. In one of my afternoon classes, I let it be known that I was not a Rastafarian, Jamaican, or Tanzanian (I’d told them that I used to teach there). Since our school is very small (less than 250m K—12), I know that go around.
30 August 2001
It’s now the end of the first week of school—thank Allah. Pretty soon, I’ll be able to say that in Arabic since my free lessons start on Sunday. I’m quite sure that I’m going to get a private tutor beyond the 5 weeks of Arabic that the school owes me.
I believe that I’ve told all of my students about when and how I started my dreads. I’m always anxious to get that out of the way early in the year so I won’t be in the middle of a lesson and have a student ask me about it. Bruce had expressed a mild concern about how the students would react to my dreads, but I find that young people are far less uptight about appearance than adults. As a matter of fact, my students think my hair is cool despite the fact that I teach math.
It’s been a refreshing surprise that the students aren’t lower than I expected. I’ve been used to the average student not knowing the basics, but these students don’t seem to have the pronounced mental block against math as my students in the States did. I’ve had a tradition of not assigning homework the first week of school and never any homework on the weekends, but when a class assignment has gone over class time, the whole class asked if they should do it for homework (!). Not only that, but the students here are very concerned and conscientious about what supplies they need for class and take great pride in showing me that they have their supplies. They compete to answer my questions and stop any wrongdoing with my teacher look. The first couple of days, I thought to myself, “Now what parallel universe have I stumbled on?”
Schutz American School was started in 1924 as a missionary school. The man who the school and the street was named after was a wealthy German landowner. SAS has since been independent and offers a pre-university, American style education in English. (There are quite a few schools that teach in English and use American texts, but conform to Muslim mores.) When the school was built, the surrounding neighborhood was very well maintained. Since then, the buildings have declined. Now Schutz (which means “protection” in German) stands like an oasis in the middle of a ghetto. The streets have no logical compromise for garbage, pedestrians and traffic. (By the way, I’m not one of the people who have no healthy fear of vehicles and I no longer attempt to use “sidewalks” since the street at least continues.) Even when I lived in Tanzania, I didn’t have to walk past mounds of rotting garbage, laced with a sickly sweet smell that I assume to be the last remains of several fruits, which are plentiful and delicious. I’ve gone to other sections of Alexandria that look much nicer than this surrounding neighborhood. I’ve heard that there is a sanitation system, but some Egyptians resent having to pay a tax; so they get around it by throwing their garbage on the street. I’ve also heard that the Egyptian government subcontracted the garbage disposal out to a French company and many Egyptians resented that as well.
Tonight, we had a welcome back social and dance for the students. We started activities around 6:30 and started the dance around 8. The activities included the swimming, volleyball, floor hockey, and basketball. I supervised swimming, which was a cushy assignment, since the pool was empty, save the last 15 minutes that it was open. I had mentally prepared myself for a lot of attitude and lip service when I announced that the pool was closed, but they respectfully got out of the pool and moved on to the dance. No one even tried to sneak back in!
I never realized how hardened I’ve become until I came here. In geometry class, one student, Masud, was talking nonstop. I finally warned him that if he didn’t stop talking, he’d spend time with me after class (there are, get this, 25 minutes in between classes). When the bell rang, I noticed that Masud was still hanging around class. I was about to ask him if he’d lost something, when I realized that he thought that I had given him detention. Some non-teachers may not get significance of this, but quite a few of my former students would have tried to sneak out of the room with the rest of the class even if I’d given them detention. I briefly spoke to him about his behavior and let him go. I’ve since made Masud punchline to my jokes and he’s so busy (ADHD—Attention Deficient HyperActivity) the he misses what I’ve said about him. It’s great since most of the time, an ADHD student can really get the class going and take focus away from what the teacher is trying to do.
Not everything is roses. My schedule is so convoluted that I don’t know which class is coming in next or what I’m going to teach them. I have to constantly look at my teaching schedule, then my plan book (this is the first year I ever needed to use an official plan book) to keep track of what the hell I’m doing. That’s why I’m going to take it upon myself to rewrite the school schedule. This is a hug think-out-of-the-box endeavor. First of all, I’m a middle and high school math teacher. In a sane world, Schutz would not have elementary, MS and HS. Nearly every MS teacher also teaches HS, but those two schools are on completely different schedules; hence why I cannot keep up with whom I’m seeing next. But wait, there’s more. “Technically”, the 5th and 6th grade students are designated as MS students although they are housed in the elementary building and have only one teacher who teaches them the core subjects AS IF they were elementary school students. My first change would be to have just two schools, Lower School (K-6) and Upper school (7-12). That’s physically how the school is set up. Then, I’d make a schedule for the elementary and a schedule for the high school. It’s so logically beautiful that I may only be up against tradition and sentiment. Four years ago, the headmaster wanted this convoluted schedule because he wanted to embrace “The Middle School Concept”. Well his ass isn’t here now to reap the benefits of this SNAFU.
I’ve been building up to this point since I’ve been here. The first radical act I did was to prune four plants that were growing like something out of Tarzan’s garden across the only good wall on which I had to hang things up. So, one night, I went in with my trusty pair of shears and liberated the wall. Oops, I shouldn’t’ve done that. Apparently, what took me about 30 minutes to cut down had taken the school gardener 10 years to grow. Suma, who’s a very important woman on campus since she’s in charge of both classroom and apartment maintenance, told me that I should have told her that I’d wanted the vines down since “those plants were like children to her and they could have replanted them.” Well, they weren’t children. They were fucking plants and I didn’t kill them; I gave them a long overdue pruning. They will still be there long after I’m gone. Ironically, I do teach Suma’s son. Yep, confiscated a cell phone off of him the other day. She’s lucky I didn’t have my shears with me then.
My second radical act was to throw out every antiquated math book and other math paraphernalia that had been squirreled away in every available storage space in my classroom. I’d shipped four boxes of relevant things that I couldn’t dream of unpacking since I had no place to put any of it. I was so ticked off the first two days because I had to go to through everything. Apparently, the math teacher before last was a legacy since he’d been at the school for 33 years. (He was probably in cahoots with the school gardener.) I’d unearthed Heath math books that I had used when I was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade! There was one math book that had been published in 1957—all the numbers weren’t even invented back then!
The math teacher I’m replacing was a real character, according to the students. Darryl had left me short letter about my present 8th grade students. He warned me that they were a troublesome group who would gossip and insult one another to such a degree that he couldn’t do a lot of fun activities with them. Other teachers have confirmed this. I’m beginning to piece together that Darryl and his wife had been teaching overseas for a while and knew that they were going to retire after this. Plus, he was big into coaching and probably dedicated too much time to that. At any rate, I had a heart to heart talk with the 8th graders (which consists of 15 students all total, but they are divided up for mat for both discipline and academic tracking purpose). I’ve uncovered that Darryl would yell a lot and shove the desk into students when he was angry. (The desks and chairs are separate.)
So, Darryl was not at all concerned about getting rid of the antiquated materials, pruning the jungle, nor taking the time to discipline the students properly. Thanks to his tip though, I’ve had them scared of me from day one when I laid down the law. Plus, I’ve got the added bonus of separating the pre-algebra and algebra students. In 8th grade, the tracking in math begins. By the end of the next week, the anxiety over which math they’ll be studying will be over. Oh, the joys of teaching!
10 September 2001
This past Friday, I celebrated my 31st birthday (and since I’m working in Egypt, I automatically had the day off!). Y’know 31’s a prime number and I that’s how I feel—in my prime. The last two working days went beautifully well, el-hamd lellah (thank God); so I could truly celebrate without any worries. I spent Friday lounging around, reading. Although Friday mornings are wonderful to go visit a museum, I decided to stay in since though the last two teaching days had gone rather well, I didn’t get the best sleep because of two weddings, one on Wednesday night and the other on Thursday night.
Behind my apartment building (Which happens to be on the third floor of one of the school buildings; as a matter of fact, my classroom is on the second floor of the same school high wall that doesn’t go quite high enough. I knew something was up when the huge “Christmas” lights went up. (Muslim country, middle of September, remember?) I found out the 411 right after the last prayer call at dusk. The music came up and shook here for his second year with his wife Sirirat, looked at me with an I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this-on-a-Wednesday-night expression on his face. “It’s going to be a long night. They’re celebrating a wedding.” Now, I could have gone up on the roof of my building and spied on the whole affair, but I wanted to get as much rest as possible. I put in my earplugs, which drowned out my mack-truck-idling air conditioner, but allowed me to hear the music and “DJ” better. Of course it was all in Arabic, but I believe that the DJ was telling jokes or reading out entertaining things while the music blared in the background and the lights flashed. I could hear people milling about and it sounded more like a carnival going on than anything else. And lucky me, I got two nights of it in a row. The next time, I’m going on the roof and see how good of a picture my bought-on-sale camera can take at night and from a distance.
Yet noise pollution is inescapable. I’m not referring to the five- times-a-day prayer calls either. Actually, prayers calls are wonderful time of the day because men are on a PA system singing verses from the Koran in Arabic—far more pleasing to the ear than those vendors who have the granddaddy version of Mr. Microphone and are driving around, selling their crap. One afternoon, I foolishly thought I’d take a power nap. Just as I dozed off, an annoying vendor drove up, wrenching me from sleep. I went down to dinner and complained, “What the hell could anybody be selling at 3 pm?” Bryce, one of the science teachers and guitar-playing guru said, “It sure wasn’t sleep, sister!” If it’s not the vendors, it’s the car horns. Egyptians honk their horns like people in the States use turn signals. I’m told that after a year, I’ll no longer hear all the noise, but will my “deaf ear” be figurative or literal? I have a newfound respect for noise ordinances.
Yet Friday was my day. I lounged all morning long and most of the day. I then got dressed, put on my famous red lipstick that no one here had ever seen me wear and walked over to Bryce’s where my warm-up birthday party was held. Y’know we teachers, we like to have a warm up before we launch into the main activity. Bryce was mixing up his own drinks (vodka, mango juice, guava juice and a little sugar) and he’d made some appetizers. We warmed up for about an hour then headed out for the historic Cecil Hotel in four taxis. (Forgive all the parenthetical comments, but I must tell you about the taxis. Egyptian cab drivers are very polite until the ride is over. Since we are obviously foreigners, we are always harassed by the drivers about the fare. As a general rule, we never discuss how much a ride costs beforehand since that will lead to the “fare argument” up front. We roll up a LE 5 note and hand it to the driver once we’re out of the cab and walk away. No matter how much the driver is fussing—and he always is—we just keep walking. We always pay more than an Egyptian, but if they can get more, they will. I’ve only heard of one case where the driver got out of the cab to “negotiate” further, but things didn’t come to blows.)
I’ve heard that nearly every suite in the Cecil has a plaque on it, telling which famous person had slept there before Egypt’s independence. We got on an Otis elevator, which was easily older than I am. On the top floor was a Chinese restaurant that had been recently renovated. The view of the Corniche (the famous street that runs parallel to the Mediterranean shoreline) at night was spectacular. Although I took a few pictures, I know my camera couldn’t completely capture the feel of the place. Kelsey and Marcelo, who had arrived there early, reserved us a table for 15. Thank goodness most of us had eaten at Bryce’s because the slow service at the Chinese restaurant is as legendary as the Cecil, no matter how many are in the party. I keep saying “Chinese” because of the food and decorations, but I assure you that no one working there, including the chefs were Chinese. Egyptians have a different philosophy toward eating than Americans do. They take their time to actually enjoy people’s company. We like to eat and enjoy company in between bites. My tip is not to wait until you’re very hungry to eat at a fancy Egyptian restaurant.
I split a bottle of white wine with Carrie and once we finally got menus in our hands (nearly an hour after we’d arrived), Carrie, Krystal and I ordered three entrees to share along with an appetizer of wonton. Even though I was near starving, I couldn’t deny that the fresh ocean breeze and lights from a distance were wonderful. We could have been seaside in any country in the world. And along the Corniche, there’s a noise ordinance! I was past ready for the entrees once they finally arrived. The kung pao chicken was tasty, but not spicy hot as I like it. The butterfly shrimp were strangely crispier than fried chicken, but still good. Yet the number one hit was the lemon chicken. It’s not usually my favorite dish, but it was delightfully zesty. I had everyone saying “zesty”. OK, so they were teasing my word choice, but imitation’s the best form of flattery, right?
I was so full that I didn’t have room for dessert. I’ll just have to go back to the Cecil for my fried bananas dipped in honey over ice cream. Marcelo had brought a variety of smokes; so I took one of his cigarillos—at least I had room for that. Half of our dinner party walked to the Spitfire, a beer and shisha joint.
Even if you’re not a smoker, you should try shisha if you’re ever in Egypt. It’s difficult for me to describe the apparatus since I’ve never seen anything like it. In some fiction novels, shisha (or sheeshah?) is sometimes referred to as a “water pipe”, but it looks nothing like a pipe. The apparatus is about as high as one of those ashtray stands that you used to see in airports before they became smoke-free, but far prettier. At the base of the stand is a clear “basin”, filled with water. Midway up the stand is the hose that carries the smoke. At the end of the hose is the metal “pipe”, which looks more like the mouthpiece of a wind instrument (like a tiny French horn, if such a thing existed). On the top of the stand is a small metal “saucer” that holds the tobacco and fruit. The shisha that I got was a mixture of tobacco and apples. On top of that mixture was foil and finally small lit coals. I was given a small plastic straw, wrapped in cellophane, when I got my shisha. I looked at it and Paula took it out of the wrapper for me and put it onto the pipe. “For sanitary smoking,” she informed me. And smoke I did. I think there’s something about dreads that just screams “smoking”; so, I satisfied a lot of mental pictures smoking shisha and what a pleasant smoke it was! Something about how the water filtered the smoke and took the edge off—way off. All that’s left is an ethereal brandy taste. I just sat there puffing away while everyone else drank beer and socialized. Finally someone told me that I didn’t have to constantly puff the pipe, but I was like a child with a new toy. I wouldn’t say that it had anything chemically addicting. Shisha’s addicting in the same sense that a slinky is–if it’s there, you got to play with it.
Finally, some of the other new teachers worked up the courage to try it, especially after I said it reminded me of brandy. You truly don’t need any courage. The apparatus just LOOKS intimidating as if it’s the ultimate bong machine. Yet, it’s the gentlest smoke in the world. I’d be surprised if anyone gets high off it. Probably not since this is a Muslim country. I think they have rules against that.
I went to bed around 1 am and unfortunately, I had to get up earlier than I would have liked to. I wasn’t hungover; I just wanted to sleep in like I usually do, but I had a very important appointment—my first diving lesson. The first weekend in October is when Egyptians celebrate Armed Forces Day. It’s about like how the masses celebrate Labor Day. A lot of us are heading out to the Sinai Peninsula to Sharm el Sheikh to go scuba diving in the Red Sea. The first lesson was a lot of theory and some practice with the equipment. We didn’t even go in the water. As a matter of fact, the only time I got wet was when the faucet came off in my hand. The instructor came out to the school to give us more instruction, but this weekend, I’m definitely going in the water to practice when we return to Montazah for our subsequent lessons.
P.S. I was going to email this out after school today, but I was sidetracked when Marcelo informed me that the WTC no longer exists. I hope all of my family and friends and their family and friends are safe. Even in Egypt, we are all in shock, but in no immediate danger.
21 September 2001
I didn’t think I’d have anything newsworthy to share prior to my first diving trip at the Red Sea, but I stand corrected. This morning, a group of us teachers were invited to go fishing with Yvonne and her husband, Abaas. Yvonne, who is S. African, married Abaas, an Egyptian, earlier this year. Apparently, they met when one of Yvonne’s students invited her to an engagement party where she met Abaas and the rest is history. They’re adding interesting chapters to that history practically every day—such as this morning’s incident.
We met Yvonne and her family at the Yacht Club where Abaas is a member. We were a mixed group of nine Americans and Canadians in addition to Yvonne, Abaas and Abaas’s adorable two kids, Jada and Hadi. We were led to a small, very well worn yacht, which we all piled into. We were quite excited to have received an invitation to fish although none of us had planned on fishing. Poor Abaas had been dying to go his friends had backed out of going; so he was stuck with us. That was just the beginning of his headache.
Even though Abaas had reserved the yacht a week in advance, he had to get off the boat in order to talk to someone. As we waited docked in the bay, Bryce looked a little green as we sat there gently rocking. For some reason, he decided to come over and sit beside me to vomit off the side of the boat. Perhaps my side of the boat allowed more discretion since I was the only one who witnessed the event. Normally, I’m a sympathetic vomiter and must join the person, but his wasn’t the stomach-turning chunky kind. It looked like water. I found out later that he didn’t have motion sickness. He was hungover and had drunk a lot of water to rehydrate himself.
Meanwhile, Yvonne had started to wonder why Abaas was taking so long since it had never taken him this long to sign out a yacht. This was one of the rare times that a cell phone came in handy. She called him and discovered that the reason we hadn’t been cleared to leave yet was because there were Americans aboard. The powers that be at the yacht club “reasoned” that they did not want to take the risk of having Americans in their boat since the World Trade Center had been attacked. (Yes, we all know that the Pentagon had been attacked too, but it has been the WTC that has received far more press.) Now the fact they equated that attack with a possible attack on seven Americans aboard an insignificant yacht in an Alexandrian bay made all of us laugh. We were very concerned, nonetheless that we wouldn’t get our boat ride. Yvonne then asked us if we had our passports with us. Only Rachelle had hers by a fluke. The rest of us stated that since we weren’t leaving the country, we hadn’t thought of bringing a passport. Majority of us just happened to have our driving licenses with us. Yvonne hung up to allow Abaas to talk with the men.
A few people decided to check out the boat, giving us more room to spread out on the seats. I said, “I’m going to sit toward the back, so when this puppy blows, I can be tossed out and clear the second deck.” Everyone burst out laughing.
Yvonne tried calling Abaas again for another update after ten more minutes, but her phone service had been discontinued. She and Rachelle both commiserated that the cell phone company never issues a bill, they just cut off the service when it’s time to pay up. Luckily, Rachelle had her cell phone with her and her time wasn’t up. During the second call, Yvonne learned that Abaas was now waiting to talk to security. Mind you, the entire time Yvonne and Abaas were talking via cell phone, we could see him in the distance. The men did not want to discuss things directly in front of us as if we were going to follow along in an Arabic discussion.
After a few minutes, Abaas and the group of men walked back to the yacht, but remained on the dock. Brandon pointed out how they looked poised for a “Kodak Moment”, but I warned him not to “pull a Roger” and take an inappropriate picture. Bryce somewhat recovered his second wind and lifted up his camera sideways and took some pictures. I guess his argument would have been that since he didn’t have the camera to his face, he didn’t actually take a picture. Moments later, three guys dressed in jungle camouflage hopped out of a dark gray speed boat and joined Abaas and the crew. They were the security guys. I’m so glad that my fellow N. Americans made no sarcastic comments about how these men were going to hide in such attire around the Mediterranean. We did that after they escorted Abaas away to talk to him about us. After perhaps fifteen more minutes, Abaas came back with the security/authority entourage. One guy had a log book. He made Abaas sit on the docks and write all of our full names in Arabic.
They told us we could go, but everyone couldn’t go on the same boat because our party was too big. That was not true, but we complied anyway. Abaas, Yvonne and the kids went in a smaller boat, leaving the mixed group of N. Americans behind. Yvonne joked as she got off, “Good bye and good luck!” their boat was somewhat behind our yacht and the security speedboat escorted us part of the way.
The view of Alexandria from the human-made bay was spectacular. The water was quite choppy and we were rather entertained to watch two men in a rowboat, cigarette hanging out of one guy’s mouth, cruising along. I felt that at any moment, they’d be tossed over. No such luck. We circled around the bay and they set the anchor down near the concrete barrier in view of the famous Qaytbay fort where the last Egyptian king, Farouk I, abdicated and went into exile in 1952.
Yvonne and her family reboarded the yacht. Then in a rash of spunkiness, Yvonne offered to take some of us past the barrier in the small boat. Of course, I was among the thrill seekers. Now, that was the on-the-Mediterranean experience. The old guy steering the boat probably had as much fun watching us as we did cutting through the waves. Conversation curiously turned to the movies “Jaws” and “A Perfect Storm” although we never saw any sharks or 100-storey waves. A few people started to get genuinely worried about being in such a small boat in choppy water and we turned back—at least we got a taste of why it wasn’t a good fishing day.
As we were heading back to the yacht, we spotted the security speedboat coming to our vicinity. We made it back to the yacht like naughty little children and security just kept zooming past, looking in our direction. We remained good after that.
I got comfortable in my bathing suit and went to the second deck with a book to read. Fortunately, I missed the second vomit of the trip. This one would have set me off since Megan had eaten breakfast this morning and was actually seasick. She spent most of the remaining time lying down with a straw hat over her face.
Never have I had four hours of blessed peace and quiet since I’ve been here. I alternately napped and read Paul Theroux’s My Secret History, which I recommend. Another small yacht anchored close to us and started blasting 70’s and 80’s American music—not even the stuff on wanted to hear and be nostalgic about. The gig was up. We returned to shore about an hour later. By that time, Yvonne was feeling queasy, but she held herself together.
That’s been the only negative thing that I’ve experienced since the attack on the WTC and Pentagon. I will not be evacuating or relocating based on this incidence.
28 September 2001
Earlier this week, one of my students, Naima, handed me a formal-looking invitation to dinner at her house on Thursday night. I thanked her and smiled although inwardly, I thought that I didn’t want to spend even more time with one of my students. There’s such a limited amount of precious time that I get without being in the presence of students sine I live on campus. Even on the weekends, students are allowed on campus. The foreign students don’t have too many other options for swimming or playing basketball or just to hand out and not feel like a foreigner. No teacher needs to supervise the students who show up on the weekends since if the student messes up, he or she will lose the privilege of coming on campus after hours. That loss is enough to keep the vast majority of students respectful and in check.
I nonetheless accepted the offer sine I have yet to discover an Egyptian who doesn’t know how to cook and I was curious to see Naima’s house. All of the students who attend Schutz come from wealthy families. Although Naima never gave me the directions to her house, I had no problem getting there. Several teachers were invited, which was a bonus as far as transportation was concerned, but I also thought, “Great, now I get to hang out with the people I work with and live among.” It was actually a plus that the other teachers were going because I learned through the grapevine that I should dress nicely and take a small gift—two things I otherwise wouldn’t have done.
Since the “dinner” was scheduled for 22:00 (10 pm), I took a nap (as well as I could, given the noise pollution. I keep fantasizing about beating the gas vender who beats against the petroleum tank with his stick.) Afterwards, I made a quick dash out to the French Cultural Center to see Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil’s exhibit, “Retrospective”. I’d read in “Egypt Today” about how Nabil uses stars in controversial pieces. So, of course I had to see that.
I’d asked Layla, one of the Egyptian French teachers, to write out where I wanted the cab driver to take me in both Arabic and English phonetic since some drivers are illiterate. I had no problem with the driver reading the note and I was well on my way. I came dangerously close to being in my first car accident, but by some mere chance we didn’t sideswipe the other car. Actually, it was difficult to tell who would’ve been at fault. As we were zooming along, I recognized the area and as I was looking out the window, I saw a sign that read, “French Library”. I pointed to it and said, “hena” (here). The driver good-naturedly laughed and waved off the comment as if the foreigner in the backseat couldn’t possibly know where anything was. He dropped me off at a beautiful, formidable-looking building—the type of ancient architecture that foreigners would expect every building to look like in Egypt.
I walked through the stone arch and immediately noticed two old, traditionally dressed Muslim men sitting on the lawn to my right as I walked up one set of stairs to the porch. I walked along the porch while looking in the window. A room full of men was kneeling in prayer. Such an un-French scene that I continued walking along the length of the porch, down the other set of stairs and exited through the other stone arch, never once breaking my stride. That was the quickest mosque tour ever. I just laughed to myself, thinking whether that was the only time that a lone Black woman with dreads had ever stumbled in, looking for the French Cultural Center. The only thing that would have made the moment even better was if I had been menstruating at the time. (Most Muslim women don’t enter a mosque or read from the Koran while menstruating.) I walked down two blocks to the place where I thought it was—it was.
Before walking in, I read the bulletin boards, which advertised the happenings for the month of September. Most of the events took place in Cairo, but all of the Alexandrian events were during the week. Nothing was happening on the weekends. So, I resolved that I’d just have to miss a night or two of sleep and take a personal day to make a mini-vacation to Cairo. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to see much of the cultural/entertaining side of Egypt.
I walked into the main exhibit hall where the photographs were. Thank goodness I’d suffered through six years of French since all the captions were in that overrated language. A surprising number of Egyptians speak French. As I walked around the gallery, I was amazed that this little gem was buried in a Muslim country. One photograph showed a guy lying in bed, reading Playboy and his other hand is out of frame, but there was enough showing to indicate that he was masturbating. My favorite had to have been “La Pomme” (The Apple). It depicts Adam in the garden holding an apple. Another man painted green with horns was hanging out of a tree and smiling. The whole thing suggests that Eve had nothing to do with the damnation of the human race—my suspicion all along. I walked around the little library I’d seen from the street. Yep, it had hoards and hoards of French books, including Harry Potter.
I got a taxi to drop me off at the nearby Metro (a grocery store). My plan was to buy a big box of candy for Naima’s family. I got swept in by one of the women who worked there to buy several bags of candy that were on sale, which she explained to me in Arabic and English. Then she led me over to another stand that had big gift boxes, watches, and pencil cases. I kept saying that I didn’t want any of it, but she kept saying, “You don’t want cadeaux?” After the third time, I realized that she was saying the French word for “gift”. What a strange occurrence since I’d just come from the French cultural center. That woman and I had communicated in three languages for that simple transaction.
Rachelle, one of the elementary teachers, checked out one of the school cars and chauffeured us to the dinner party. She braved the roads like a pro, honking her horn and flashing the high beams at the appropriate times. At one point, Rachelle had really pissed off an Egyptian woman who couldn’t successfully move us out of our lane—my second failed attempt to be in a car accident that day.
We temporarily parked in an alley, blocking a garage. A man who seemed a bit dodgy took Rachelle’s keys and he escorted us to the back of the building instead of the lobby of the five floor apartment building (each FLOOR is a single, family apartment). He opened the huge metal gate and paradise awaited on the other side. At 10:30 pm, Naima, her sister and parents were greeting the arriving guests. I handed Naima the box of assorted candy as she gave me the traditional greeting of kissing both of my cheeks. (Women kiss other women’s cheeks, men kiss other men’s cheeks, men and women shake each other’s hands. Foreign men are cautioned not to shake an Egyptian woman’s hand if her husband doesn’t know him, but this rule is relaxed among these chic Egyptians at this “intimate” party of 100 people).
I did not imagine that I’d stumble onto an episode of “Egyptian Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. Where to begin? I had no idea that the dinner party was going to be that big, outside nor elegant. The trees had tiny white lights strung around them. There were two bars at either end of the large, rectangular lawn. Not surprising, all the teachers made their way over to be properly watered. Since Egypt is a Muslim country, liquor is pricey and hard to come by. There were two appetizer tables set up at either end of the lawn. Waiters went among the crowd, offering hors d’oeuvres. The El Dauds had a huge spread, which was merely a fraction of the expenses for their “dinner party”.
I’m glad someone had told me to dress up since every other woman there was beautifully dressed. As I’d traveled around Alexandria, I’d seen shops that displayed slinky, sequined dresses and wondered, when do Egyptian women wear those Jezebel clothes? At parties like these! Even my students walked around with hot pants and halter tops. Yet, they were every bit as gracious as their parents. That’s the huge cultural difference here. I don’t hang around rich people in the States, but I’d still wager that American rich people and their children aren’t as warm and gracious as Egyptians. I’d read in a travel book that Arabs, in general, take great pride in being generous hosts an I certainly found it to be true.
There was a professional DJ to rival anything in the States. He had a troupe of four of five other guys with him to play percussion instruments along with some of the songs and to entice people to dance. A lot of Latin music was playing and much to my dismay, hardly anyone was dancing. I hadn’t danced since I’d arrived and was more than ready to dance, but in the sea of married men and students, I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone to dance or just dancing by myself. I told Arminda, the kindergarten teacher, that she should salsa with me since she was the only Brazilian around and her husband wasn’t there. She protested until finally she convinced a third woman to come with us. As soon as we started dancing, all of the other Schutz teachers magically appeared and formed a circle. I was in heaven! I didn’t even exit the floor when Tom Jones’ “Sex Bombs” came on.
An Egyptian song came on and all the little dance circles became on big one. Our 7th and 8th grade girls were pushed in the middle and encouraged to bellydance. These weren’t the ostentatious moves you’d see at a restaurant, but still it was entertaining to see my students dance. I’d foolishly thought that I’d have to go searching for a place to take bellydancing lessons like I did in Denver. I learned that virtually every Egyptian woman knows how to do it, but once she’s a certain age, she’s not supposed to do it. There’s some peculiar stigma against openly bellydancing unless you’re an adolescent—as if respectable women don’t do it. A few of the moms gave their daughters some pointers, but did not fully join in. Of course, all of the N. American women were standing on the sidelines, trying to pick up as much as possible. We’re going to persuade on of the Egyptian Schutz teachers to teach us.
I got so caught up in dancing that I’d forgotten the whole purpose for being there was to eat. The lawn was actually L-shaped, but the small part of the L had been tented off. If there’s such a thing as an elegant tent, then that’s what it was. I think there were five separate buffet tables and three dessert tables set up although I only went to three food tables and skipped dessert. Hey, it was half past midnight at that point; I didn’t have much of an appetite. We hated to eat and run, but around one-thirty, Rachelle chauffeured us back to school. Back to reality.
12 October 2001
As I had anticipated, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Sharm El Sheikh, located at the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Actually, I stayed at a wonderful 3-star hotel in Neama (Naama) Bay, which is before one actually gets to Sharm. I felt as if I had entered another country altogether. The place was suspiciously clean, quiet, beautiful and cosmopolitan (signs were written in English, German, Italian and Greek and the local Egyptians spoke those languages.) As I walked along the main tow streets, which no cars were allowed on, I felt excited to be dressed as I would in the States. If that place was a tourist trap, then I wouldn’t mind being trapped there for a while.
There was a rainbow of shisha stands, creating a myriad of apple, apricot, mint, and strawberry smells in the air. All of them were outside and one could sit on small sofas, decorated with colorful, large pillows and thick blankets that reminded me of the pictures of Bedouins that I’ve seen. Yet, my favorite shisha place was the Panorama Hotel. Their bar, where beer was the only alcohol served, was a terraced “garden” of decorated sofas that overlooked Neama Bay and the Red Sea.
Of course, our main objective was to play in the Red Sea. The water was clear, pristine and various shades of shimmering bluegreen. The first day, I ate at a seafood restaurant near the beach. As we were finishing our lunch, I noticed that a glass-bottom boat was about to take off. I quickly walked down to catch it. Since I was among the last people to board, I didn’t initially have a seat around the viewing window. I accidentally stepped on a man’s foot who was nearest to the door. After the small ruckus he made, I was quite happy not to understand Arabic well. Soon, two women picked up their children, put them on their laps and gestured for me to sit down. They were with the man I’d ticked off.
Pretty soon, I realized that I was sitting among a huge extended family who was very curious about my hair. About 8 of them collectively had a “conversation” with me about how I did my hair. The pinnacle of the conversation was when I had to pose in a series of pictures with them. I couldn’t really object since we were all packed in together; so I had the guy taking the pictures to take one with my camera. I hope the little girl who seemed to be about 2 years old was looking at the camera. She definitely gets my vote for cutest 2 year old. Egyptian music was playing in the background and every time her mother would start clapping to it, the toddler would grab her mother’s hands to stop her from clapping. Reminded me of how much Mom enjoyed annoying me for entertainment when I was younger. Apparently, clapping to music is the “signal” to start bellydancing, but the toddler wasn’t in the mood—yet.
I was amazed that we saw a variety of fishes just as we began to pull away from the docks. I hadn’t expected anything interesting to be so near to shore, but that was reconfirmed by some of my friends who snorkeled. Can you imagine just going out into chest-deep water with a mask and snorkel and seeing a lot of beautiful fish? We went out to Ras Nasrani where the coral and fish were absolutely breath-taking. The view made me really excited for my upcoming dives. The most impressive sight was a hug coral formation that looked like a brain, just teeming with a variety of colorful aquatic life.
We docked a few feet away from the corals and a few people, mostly men, jumped off the boat to snorkel. I went to the second deck, where a lot of my adopted Egyptian family had gone. I was enjoying the view and taking pictures when a man who wasn’t part of my adopted Egyptian family asked me if I was Egyptian, how I did my hair, and of course, if I was married. I told him that I was from Colorado, not wanting to say, “I’m an American”, a bit paranoid given the September attack, but only the rich, savvy Egyptians vacationed here; so he’d heard of Colorado. I asked him how he could mistake me for an Egyptian with my hair. He told me that lots of Egyptians have my hairstyle. (I got that quite a few times while on vacation, but I’ve STILL not found a single dreadlocked Egyptian.) When he found out that I was not married, he told someone in Arabic that I should marry an Egyptian. I said, “La!” (No) He was surprised that I’d understood what he’d said, but I know the word for husband (goz); so it wasn’t too hard to figure out. The focus was nicely shifted when the clapping in time to the music started and my favorite Toffler finally started to bellydance.
I returned to the hotel to take a shower and a nap. As I was leaving to see the sights and eat dinner, I met up with Megan, our elementary/MS principal. She joined me. We figured that the place making the most noise was where the party was—The Panorama Hotel. Foolishly, neither one of us had brought along our camera and this turned out to be the most memorable experience—on land, that is.
The traveling troupe of musicians were playing traditional Egyptian music, which all sounds like bellydancing music to me, with hand held drums, tambourines, and an instrument that looked similar to a small trumpet, but made a sound similar to a flute. At the highest point on the terraced garden was a group of 10-12 men bellydancing and singing for a solid 15 minutes until the musicians left. Megan and I sat on a lower terrace to the left of the men. They were quite entertaining to watch. We both ordered beers (even though I don’t really care for beer, I felt like having a drink), but Megan wouldn’t order a shisha with me. I encouraged her to take a few puffs, especially after I told her that it was apple flavored and tasted like an ethereal brandy. It’s all in the advertising. She loved it. The first time I smoked shisha, I didn’t think it had any kick to it; so I assumed this time that the combination of the shisha with the beer made the difference.
When the traveling troupe of musicians returned to where the group of men was, one of the waiters asked me to dance. I stood up on the sofa to dance, but he led me over to where the group of men was. I was a little reluctant since I was barefoot, about to join a group of strange me, and the waiter had me dancing on the garden’s ledge. I tried not to look to my left where the steep hilly gardens were. I kept my feet planted and just moved my upper body. I enjoyed bellydancing even if it was from a rather precarious dance floor. Soon, one of the guys saw me dancing on the ledge with the waiter, screamed something excitedly in Arabic, ran over to where we were and started videotaping us. After 5 minutes, the two foreign women bellydancing among them. I crossed over to dance on the sofa and the other waiter escorted Megan beside me so she could dance on the sofa too. Of course, this was all captured on video. After the “song” was over, the guys shook our hands and thanked us for dancing with them and we returned to our neck of the garden. I don’t think any of the guys had been drinking since Muslims don’t usually drink; so they were not the wanton group of men I would’ve been wary of in the States.
We walked around, window-shopping. I’d wanted to buy one of the colorful dresses, but ended up buying a bathing suit cover up, which was covered with dancing Rastafarians—the closets I’ve come to a dreadlocked Egyptian. Since it was nearly ten at night, we had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant where Megan was very happy to learn that we could get mixed drinks and buy bottles of alcohol. I hadn’t realized before, but Megan can tie several drinks on. She bought a bottle of rum and gin—form when she hosted parties. We’ll just see about that.
I woke up relatively early the next morning, worried that I’d sleep through breakfast and more importantly, miss my diving appointment. The first day of diving was only a preliminary. We walked to the dive shop (EVERYTHING was in blessed walking distance) and picked out the equipment we needed. I was the proud new owner of diving fins, booties, mask and snorkel; so I didn’t need to be entirely outfitted. The whole process took much longer than at other dive shops around the world, according to the experienced divers among us. Then again, we were in Egypt. Everything happens on Egyptian time.
We loaded our gear into crates, which were then transported to our diving boat. Some German divers shared our boat. We were dropped in three separate groups. The Germans went first with their dive master, then the experienced divers among our group dove at another location a bit farther east with Marcelo, who is a dive master. And then the newly certified people were in the last group with our dive master, Emir, at a spot called Far Garden. I was a little nervous walking off the end of the boat, but found the experience far less worse than walking off the dock at Montazah, which was much higher.
I told my dive buddy, Janece that something felt funny with my tank. A guy who appeared out of nowhere told me that I was losing my tank. This shouldn’t have surprised me since I only had one strap and I was used to practicing with two straps, but we got that puppy strapped in and I had no further problems.
We descended slowly. I cannot tell you the wonderful feeling that overcame me when the water became bluer as we got nearer to the sea floor and I first saw the beautiful coral jungle. I saw such a variety of fishes that I couldn’t remember them all. Then the coral reef slanted and really threw off my orientation. I kept Emir in sight the whole time. We stayed under for about 30 minutes and then picked up the other divers.
The people who were going to make a second dive ate lunch while the rest of us chilled out. We were eventually brought back to shore. We left all of our equipment on the boat for our real dive the next day. I never realized how tiring diving was. I think my nervous excitement added to my exhaustion.
After taking a shower and a nap, I ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant and then lie on the beach to read. All of the beaches already had lounge chairs and umbrellas set up. I only needed to get a beach card from the hotel in order to get a towel from any beach attendant. Hotels were billed for the laundering of the towels their guests use. Sirirat, the 2nd grade teacher, and I had talked about getting a massage on the beach. She really wanted a massage from a woman, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to wait for my food to settle. She kept hesitating about getting a massage until the guy finally packed up to leave. We decided to check out another place, a block away from the beach. As I was packing up to leave, some of my badass students, who I don’t really enjoy seeing in class much class on my vacation, strolled up like a pack of mongrels, salivating at the opportunity to “talk to Teresa”. It was a short conversation.
After my full body massage at the parlor, I waltzed back to hotel to find Megan with a group of teachers, drinking and smoking beside the pool the teachers were drinking beer, but Megan had her bottle of gin and I heard that she’d made herself two stiff drinks in that setting. I briefly jumped in the Jacuzzi, then took my second nap of the day. Then, Megan and I led the group o teachers to the Panorama Hotel.
Of course we had our cameras this time, but lightning didn’t strike twice. Nonetheless, the scenery and the ever-rising moon were still as beautiful as the night before. The best photo opt was the smorgasbord of shisha stands in front of us. This time, I had apricot, Megan had ordered strawberry, and Brandon and Carrie ordered mint. The strawberry had weak flavor, but the apricot and mint were on the money. This time around, I only drank water and still got a buzz; so the conclusion from my scientific experiment was that the tobacco must be stronger in Neama.
We broke into little groups and went our separate ways after our shisha “meeting”. (Megan seriously discussed buying stands in Alex and forming a committee to meet at different teachers’ patios.) Megan and I walked around some more and entered The Royal Casino. I wanted to see if it was a “real” game room. Megan and I had to register at the front door and write down our passport numbers. Megan didn’t have hers, but they could tell that she was not Egyptian. Neither of us knew at the time that it was illegal for Egyptians to enter the real casinos. Megan played LE40 ($9) in a quarter slot machine, but I spent half as much on a shot of Bailey’s. I got the far better deal. I was initially quite excited when I saw both Bailey’s and Kahlua. I told the bartender how to make a mudslide. After he patiently listened to the recipe, he then informed me that the bottle of Stoli’s (my favorite vodka) was empty. It was just being used for decoration!
Next morning, everyone must have been terribly anxious to go diving since I was on time, but still the last person to arrive to the dive shop. I could’ve been even later than I was since some other people joined our party and had to be outfitted. We walked down to the docks, but a lot of boats were absent. Marcelo informed us that an explosion had occurred In Saudi Arabia, killing two English speaking Saudis who worked at the UN; so security had been increased.
Our dives were about 30 yards off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Straits of Tiran. We rode as fast as we could over the incredibly choppy water. The trip to the dive took us a little under 2 hours. There were four coral reef formations, all named after British generals: Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse, and Jackson. Gordon’s reef was the first one we reached, where a tanker had wrecked on the coral due to a storm back in had wrecked on the coral due to a storm back in nineteen eighty five (would you believe that my laptop is slowly dying? I can no longer type a hyphen, five, or six and this has all just happened.) Another wayward ship came along some years ago and crashed into that boat. The companies had to pay damages, but they left the ship and the corals have taken over.
Our first dive was at the farthest reef, Jackson’s. We docked at the government owned moorings. On the opposite side from where we dove, was another wrecked tanker, but not much of it was there since the salvageable parts had been removed. We were given specific instructions on how to dive since there was a very strong current that would take us out to sea if we went too far. I had my underwater camera with me, but it was completely useless after 4 meters. Paula, who’d bee diving for 4 years, was my dive buddy and I tried to maintain the same depth as here. She was so realized and looked like a diving ballerina compared to me. I was amazed at the variety of aquatic life along the reef wall. Sometimes, I didn’t even realize that I was going down a little too far down for Emir’s comfort. It’s amazing how far down the sunlight penetrates.
Paula had more air in her tank than I did, probably because she wasn’t as nervous/excited as I was. So, I returned to the boat, unstrapped my BCD (buoyancy control device) from my spent tank and attached it to a filled tank. Soon, everyone retuned to the boat to rest. We all ate lunch an hour and a half. Even though it was rather bland for Egyptian food, it still hit the spot. We relaxed some more as a couple of people snorkeled. I could hardly believe the slat deposits that formed in the pores of my skin. The Red Sea is one of the saltiest life sustaining bodies of water in the world.
Our second dive was at Woodhouse’s reef. There weren’t any moorings to anchor to; so we had to walk off the boat while it was still idling. This dive was by far my most favorite. I didn’t think the underwater world could be any more beautiful, but this one was. We had to stick close to the reef because of strong current. I felt like I was a fish and was very much at home with the otherwise awkward scuba gear. This was the dive that got me hooked on diving. I’m definitely going to get some more equipment in the future.
The highlight of this dive was the sea turtle. We followed it a bit, but we missed the hammerhead sharks by five minutes. All of us were disappointed by that.. most of us were so exhilarated by that dive that we wanted to go on a third dive. Previously, we thought that a third dive would be one too many. Carrie, however, was done with diving—perhaps forever. (I just figured out how to insert a dash! I just cut and pasted one there. I’m becoming so 3rd world ghetto). She had an air leak somewhere and ran out of air prematurely. Her husband, Brandon, was her dive partner and he didn’t quiet catch her signal for “I’m out of air”. (You run your hand across your neck—the same gesture to suggest that someone is dead). But, Brandon finally got the point and they buddy breathed, sharing Brandon’ air to the top. Guess who was still in trouble once they got in the boat?
We quickly tanked up again since we only had about 30 minutes until the next dive at Ras nasrani. Paula had had enough since her ears had started to ache. Brandon became my dive buddy. I figured that was okay since he certainly wasn’t on my insurance policy. The beginning of the dive was the best part since we went into what felt like a free fall to an underwater sandy beach. We entered in between a “cliff’ in a rock formation.. We went around the barrier and I got to see the brain coral up close. It was truly a fish feeding station. I suddenly heard a boat’s motor, but I knew that ours was docked. I didn’t have the inclination to look up. If I had, I would’ve seen that a glass bottom boat was passing over me. I can just imagine their reactions to the rastafish that they saw. I just wonder how many pictures and videos I was on during that sighting.
2 November 2001
I’ve just lived through two very stressful weeks, which were hopefully the worst two weeks of the school year. Around mid-October, I received some paperwork from Denver Public Schools (DPS) that would allow me to waive all of my health insurances. I filled it out and returned it via express courier since I had a month from the date on the letter to be eligible for the convenience of waiving the insurances. (I dislike having a due date when people in the States insist on sending me things regular mail, which can take anywhere from a week to three weeks to get here and forget about most packages.)
Rachid, the school purchaser, is in charge of buying those things that we teachers don’t know where to buy and mailing off all the express stuff since we’re not fluent in Arabic. Although there’s Fedex and DHL available here, I have always chosen to send my express mail via Amirex, which is an Egyptian company. They are the cheapest and the letters arrive at their destinations in about five days. Even though I’d sent several letters via Amirex, I’d never had to write a phone number of the destination. On this particular occasion, Rachid came to my classroom, saying that I needed to write a phone number down. I was in a hurry to do some last minute things in my classroom before the students came; so I knowingly wrote down a number that was vaguely what I remembered it to be instead of taking five minutes to go to my apartment and getting a real number. (Recall, my classroom is on the second floor of the same building as my apartment, which is on the third floor.)
Well, that moment of “being too busy to be bothered with trivial details” like the correct phone number to DPS HQ came back to bite me in the ass two weeks later. As I was walking to the cafeteria for dinner, Tyler, the nighttime phone operator/receptionist, when hungry; so, I just wondered what I’d done that the head of school had to talk to me before my nighttime feeding. I called Bruce who then began to unfold the small sensational drama that I’d caused DPS.
Bruce first asked me if I’d mailed something to DPS. I thought for a minute, then remembered the insurance waiver. He then informed me that a security guy by the name of Mickelson had called him, asking questions about me. The letter I’d sent DPS had been destroyed and it been traced back to Schutz. I was stunned. I yelled, “Why in the hell would they destroy my letter?” Bruce gave me a clue. “Well, apparently they thought you were a terrorist, Teresa!” He chuckled. He said that he had Mickelson’s phone and fax numbers. I asked him to put it in my mailbox later since I wasn’t going to deal with it that night. When I sat down at dinner, I asked my fellow teachers if they were okay with a suspected anthrax terrorist sitting among them.
The following morning during my planning period, I typed up a short letter addressed and faxed to Mickelson. Of course I was still pissed that a letter that had cost over $30 to send had been destroyed. And stupid me hadn’t even taken the time to photocopy the damn thing before sending it off. I had the original cover letter that was with the waiver; so I included that with my fax.
By dinner the same day, Mickelson called. I’d assumed that he’d received my fax, but he said that he had not since their fax was down. I teased him about appearing to be in Egypt, too. He asked me about the letter. When I explained to him what I’d sent, he said that he’d been on the “case” for about a week and had traced the letter back to me. When I asked why the letter had been destroyed in the first place, he told me that the letter was suspicious since the return address was from Egypt, it was not specifically addressed to anyone at DPS, “but the real red flag was the incorrect phone number listed on the listed on the letter.” (I felt like cursing, but I restrained myself.) He went on to say that with “all of that evidence”, they called HAZMAT to come out and destroy the letter. So much for waiving my health insurances.
Now, I could have prevented the phone number thing, but every express courier puts their own jacket on whatever letter is being mailed. Even if I had sent my letter by a familiar courier such as Fedex or DHL, the return address would have been Egypt and there would have not been parts written in Arabic, but worst of all, I would’ve paid more money.
Don’t be led astray. Mickelson’s the real hero of this story since he bothered to follow up on “the case” and passed along my wishes of waiving my health insurances. I gave him my email address, telling him that it would be both cheaper and more convenient for both parties. I asked if I could get an email from someone in benefits at DPS, explaining what had happened just in case none of the insurances believed my story. The next day, I received both and email from Mickelson and someone from benefits, apologizing about the incident.
After reading those two emails, I then read an urgent email from my sister, Renee, asking me if I’d sent Mom a package with two “Arabic” magazines in it. She wrote that mom had read that the return address was Alexandria, Egypt and opened it, assuming it was from me. When she saw that there was no letter included, she became very scared and had my father to take the package to the police. My sister went on to say that the police just threw it in trash!
I sat completely stunned, wondering when and how I’d joined the drama queens club. I think I tempted fate the two days previously when I kept talking badly about how paranoid people were in the States. I then got my own does of paranoia. I emailed both sisters, telling them that I hadn’t sent Mom or anyone else a package and that I never will. I then emailed everyone who I could think of who I’d recently sent a postcard. (I defined “recently” as those people who I had sent a postcard since the attack.) I cautiously worded it, not wanting to contribute to the paranoia, but assuring everyone that I’ve not sent anyone any packages and I will not be sending any in the future. No one could have possibly gotten my parents/ home address unless he/she had copied it off a postcard.
I called my mother around 7:30 pm my time, which was 9:30 am her time. She told me that the two religious magazines did not contain anything powdery. I asked her why the police had just thrown the evidence away. She answered that the police had said that there were far too many cases to test all of them and the best thing for everyone to do was just leave suspicious mail closed and throw it away. And people wonder why I don’t want to move back to NC. It was only after the fact that my parents learned of another place they could’ve taken the package since the Fayetteville police department was too overwhelmed and understaffed/unequipped to handle such a case. More than likely, the person who sent the magazines to my parents just wanted to share Islam with someone in the States to show that not all Muslims are terrorists…a fact that I can wholly attest to.
That two-week drama played out until the weekend of Fall Festival here at school. On Thursday night (remember, our school week is Sunday through Thursday), the seniors sponsored the Fall Festival dance, which I didn’t have the motivation to attend although it was here on campus. I heard it rocking and rolling, but I took a shower, put on my comfy clothes and chilled out in my apartment for the first time in weeks. Besides, I knew that I’d see pretty much the entire student body on Friday evening when we had the sixth grade trip to Giza to see the pyramids, the eighth grade trip to the Sinai Peninsula and the senior trip wherever they can afford to go (usually to Sharm El Sheikh, but this year they tentatively plan to go to Greece; it’s a huge controversy that I’ll get into another time.)
Blessedly, I’m not a homeroom teacher; so I didn’t have to sponsor a class which translated into the fact that I didn’t have to do anything. I volunteered to help Krystal with the 8th graders since they were running two booths, the fish toss and the wet sponge throw. Now, we weren’t actually tossing fish, but it looked as equally dangerous to the fish. We had 19 fish tanks, each containing one fish. For LE 4 ($1), the contestant received 3 ping pong balls to toss from one of the four distances away (kindergarten, 1st through 3rd, 4th through sixth, and 8th and above). If the contestant landed at least one ball in the fish tank, then he/she would win a fish. Now the fish were not harmed, but I wondered about the psychological damage caused by something being thrown into the poor fish’s tank even though it floated on top of the water.
The 8th graders painted a big piece of cardboard and made a hole in it for their head. Then they had two buckets of water to dip the sponges in to toss at the poor students who was used as bait. The first student was a sweet child with a nice temperament and few enemies. He made very little money for the cause. Then the most obnoxious 8th grader’s turn came up and a line instantly formed like something out of a cartoon. We all wanted a piece of Azam. I missed all 3 of my shots since those damn wet sponges threw funny. Plus, I was trying to throw from the 8th grade and above line. Megan, the Elem/MS principal had no qualms about throwing from the kindergarten line and she threw six sponges rather than the customary 3 sponges, but who’s going to stop the principal?
The 8th graders made eight hundred fifty pounds (two hundred fifteen dollars) in 3 ½ hours. Another class that did well was the senior class who sponsored the haunted house and the pie in the face contest. In a moment of sheer weakness, I agreed to allow some random student to throw a pie in my face. Earlier in the night, Fadia, one of my 7th graders, proudly told me that she’d bought 7 tickets for the chance to throw a pie in my face. I smiled and wished her good luck, very happy that some girls were buying tickets to cream my face since I’d been thoroughly pissing off several muscle bound 9th grade boys. About an hour after the fact, I recalled that I’d sent Fadia and two of her friends to Megan’s office.
I’d walked around to some of the other booths and got a ghost and the word “boo” painted on my face. The sixth grade class sponsored a hairdresser booth; so I strode up there and announced that I wanted them to do my hair. As I sat down, I tossed their combs aside, telling them that they wouldn’t need those things. All the sixth grade girls politely and quietly slinked away, leaving their teacher, Janece, there to do my hair. She gave me two dreadlock horns as if I didn’t look remarkable enough in this society.
At the end of the night, four other teachers, the head of school and I were led to a platform on the tennis court. We felt as if we were being sent to the gallows, complete with the viciously, cheering crowd. We each put on a huge trash bag that had a hole at the bottom for our head. We each got to draw the winning ticket from our own labeled jar. Again, Fate messed with me and I drew Fadia’s name. Revenge would finally be hers. Moments before Fadia let it rip, I reminded her not to throw it too hard and gave her a teacher’s look, then splat! Apparently, the hit looked much harder than it felt. I actually thought it felt refreshingly cool and it hadn’t hurt at all. The real pain was trying to wash that crap out of my hair and off my skin. They must’ve used the creamiest whipped cream that money could buy.
The Fall Festival ended at 8. About an hour and a half later, I put on my Halloween costume. I arrived at the teachers’ party in the other residence building as a cell phone. Predictably, everyone asked if they could push my buttons (as if working/living/socializing with them hadn’t sufficed enough in that department.) I had a wonderful time just dancing and hanging out. It’s great every now and again for staff to get together and blow off steam.
I believe I let off a little too much steam since the following morning. I got up at a very early 7 am to go on a day trip to visit four Coptic Christian monasteries. We had arranged to have a guide, Ikbal, who arranged transportation. Ikbal is a walking encyclopedia and it’s impossible for me to really even a tenth of the interesting facts that he told us. There are a few details that I can vividly recall.
First of all, in the first monastery we visited, which was built in the 4th century in Wadi El Nastrun), we sat down while Ikbal related to us how the Old Testament and Egyptian history matched. I never realized how many disciples had come to Egypt history matched. I never realized how many disciples had come to Egypt and had Egyptian wives.
Secondly, despite the fact that Egypt is known for being a Muslim country, Christianity was here first and there are about six to eight thousand Coptic Christians, along with some other Christians. Thirdly, the word “Coptic” originally referred to “Egyptians”. Lastly, Copts do not believe in the Holy Trinity. I’m a very secular Christian, but from what I understand, the Copts translate some ancient scripture as meaning that God only has one form and when Jesus walked the earth, He was a divine human, not the perfect man and the perfect god together.
Nevertheless, this day trip was a very worthwhile experience since I don’t think or read much about the early Christian history here in Egypt. For example, monasticism started in Egypt. I had the privilege of sitting at a stone table where monks centuries ago sat in silence in order to eat their meals. I’m also going to visit another Coptic monastery, St. Catherine’s, which is located on the Sinai Peninsula during Thanksgiving break. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to brush up a little more on the Old Testament and the history of St. Catherine’s before then.
13 November 2001
Well, my social status has been confirmed: I’m among the cream of the crop in Alexandrian society. If I figure out how to work the school’s scanner, I’ll attach a copy of the cover and page of the magazine that I’m in. Remember that Egyptian “rich and famous” party I attended in October? A whole page of carefully cutout pictures are laid out in “Cleo: Egypt’s Modern Lifestyle Magazine.” The caption reads that the party took place in Agami, which is a hip town on the outskirts of Alexandria. Unless I missed the whole place up and moving, the party was in a suburb of Alexandria, but that doesn’t read as well in a slick magazine like Cleo’s. Total fluff and I’ve not even bothered to read any of the “articles”. It’s been such a terrific laugh since several of us from school attended the event, but only four of us were hip enough to make the cut. Only I was hip enough to be in two pictures (it’s the hair, I tell you). I’m well on my way to climbing the social ladder now. And I thought I was a bas ass because I teach the late Anwar Sadat’s granddaughter.
Now that I’m on the subject of students, why don’t I just dedicate the rest of this letter to them? I’ve been resisting the urge since teachers can talk a long, long, long time about their students. Yet, I’ve been doing you a disservice saying next to nothing about them.
For starters, I originally thought that we only had about 40 percent Egyptian students. That percentage is much higher due to the fact that majority of our Egyptian students have dual citizenship or, get this, their father is not Egyptian and they cannot get an Egyptian passport. Whatever the case, we have far more Egyptian students and other Arabic speaking students than I originally thought. I’ve heard longtime teachers say (complain) that the population of students has shifted. The “problem” is that the typical American/English/Canadian parents raise their children to be far more independent than the typical Egyptian parents.
Most Western parents have a company who’s paying for the tuition, whereas Egyptian parents are footing their own bill. So the Western parents are middle class in their native country whereas the Egyptian parents are rich. This difference of class, I believe, makes the difference in raising one’s children. I cannot think of a single middle class American family who as both a driver to chauffeur the children around and a doting maid to do everything for the kids, but our Egyptian parents do. (All of our students have cell phones and when they need to be picked up or they need something, then they can call their drivers. Of course only HS students are allowed to have cell phones at school and can lonely use them during breaks.) Even though most of our Western parents could afford to hire a driver to pick up their students, most don’t since that’s not their culture.
When I discovered that one of my fourteen year old student’s parents had been out of town for nearly a month, I was shocked that he would even bother coming to school since he had no supervision. I now know that that’s far, far more common. (We’re going to have conferences this Thursday and I already know that a significant number of parents will not attend because they are both out of town. Two days ago, one of my favorite students broke her femur during soccer practice and neither one of her parents are in the country; the up side is that she has a huge extended family and lots of friends. Can you believe that she’s actually worried about missing her math test?) the driver and the maid(s) take care of the tedious details of getting the children together and making sure that they are where they need to be.
The maids are the bane of being a teacher here. A lot of my Egyptian students are so having a maid to attend to their every need that when they come to class unprepared, they are shocked that I do not have a ready supply of whatever they need. Now mind you, there’s a school store where everything can be purchased and these kids come laden with money, but to think of buying one’s supplies would require being USED to having to attend to one’s own needs.
I realize that there are rich, spoiled kids here compared with those. I think one difference is that in the States, I couldn’t have thought to frequent places that the rich people in the States play and in Egypt, I can afford to do so. There’s not such a disparity of means between the Egyptian parents and me, even though I’m sure they still have more money than I do.
Egyptian students are absolutely psychopathic about grades. This stems from the fact that in Egyptian public schools, grades, especially test scores, are heavily emphasized. The family will stand outside the school gate on day of a serious test and then swarm their student, asking him/her how he/she did on the test. The test school will determine his/her future study/career.
Well, tests aren’t as deterministic at SAS as in an Egyptian school, but our students come from that society. Coupled with the Arab culture of “negotiating”, our students don’t see some grades as final. I’ve only hit this wall when I assigned all of my math classes a five hundred point project. Apparently, I’m the only teacher who uses big numbers for assignments…a trick I learned from another teacher in order to get the students’ attention. They were working their butts off for those points. I had one student who made a 97 (A+) on his project and he was very upset that I’d deducted 3 percent off for neatness. Another student, who was normally a complete gentleman, took me by surprise with his accusation that his project was worth far more than a mere 94 (A). My students in the States would have been dancing in the streets to get either one of those grades on a project.
After school sports are huge here. About half of the students I teach are involved in sports some part of the year. When the States was attacked, the volleyball tournament that was supposed to take place in Syria was cancelled. That was fortunate for us since we hosted a smaller version of the tournament with two rival Egyptian teams. Not lonely was our girls’ varsity team wonderful, but about three of them could play an African drum very well; I started getting some ideas. Our boys and girls soccer team recently brought home first place trophies, which were in the shape of steles, in a tournament held in Cairo.
Since I normally don’t have any interaction with the students outside of class, it’s always good to see them doing something else and vice versa. Last week, the drama class, which only has high school students, performed a series of skits and monologues and ended the night with “theatre sports”. Yvonne, the drama teacher, invited some teachers to do improv in competition with the student improv team. Only five of us brave souls jumped to the occasion. We teachers had one rehearsal about two weeks before the show and I could not believe how “stiff” some of my fellow teachers were. I know I’ll never have my own sitcom or lead in a Broadway play, but I’m still in touch with my creativity. Some of the teachers during that rehearsal quietly dropped out.
Then Yvonne invited the teachers to join in the rehearsal a few days before the actual show. I was the last teacher to get to the rehearsal and all the students cheered. We only had 3 improvisational activities: freeze tag, commercials, human puppets (?). In freeze tag, two people start off as being characters that the audience suggests and they have to come up with something. At any given time, another member yells “freeze”, takes someone’s place and changes the scene. For the commercials, Yvonne would give us a prop and we had one minute to sell it to the audience. The only catch was that you couldn’t sell it for what it was actually used for. I really got a big laugh when I was trying to sell a plastic fireman’s hat because I said that it could be used as a Jell-O mold, a juicer, and I covered up on breast with it and said, “And if you buy two…” Of course, they filled in the gap.
The next day after the rehearsal, the word got around that I could act and there was somewhat of anticipation among my math students who did not think that their math teacher could possibly have a sense of humor. (Kelsey, the real math teacher who teaches Algebra II, Pre Cal, Stats and Calculus, was there for the second rehearsal and did the worst job of any teacher who’d attempted. Spontaneity is not found in an equation. She dropped out.) the human puppets was my least favorite since one person stood behind the other and was the arms while the person in front and talked with arms behind her back. At least I had a woman behind me.
With Yvonne’s permission, I wore my “Danger: Educated Black Woman” T-shirt. Since it was a black T-shirt, the other four teachers also wore black shirts. The students wore white T-shirts and we sat in chairs on either side of the stage. I was especially nervous because the students had done such a good job with their skits and monologues and had been practicing for 10 weeks, but the final teacher team was a pretty good one with only one teacher who had not attended either practice.
Although I participated in several of the freeze tag segments during the five minutes that was allotted to us, the one segment that I’m now famous with all the students for is the one where Rachelle yelled freeze as I was dancing in front of the audience with my arms spread out. She took the other person’s place and then said, “Keep your hands in the air where I can see them; you’re under arrest!” I reacted perfectly, “I’m under arrest?! Oh, yeah, right. Just because I’m Black!” The audience roared. My students loved it. I had students flashing me the “peace” sign (in absence of gang signs, that’s the best they can do.)
The next day, several teachers and a lot of students, even ones who I don’t teach, congratulated me on my performance and said that they loved my line about being arrested for being Black. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get another opportunity to act with the drama class since Yvonne is moving to England with her husband. There’s no one to fill her position either, which is a shame because she was a part-time electives teacher. Her other class was Psychology, which was her comfort zone. The drama class had a solution: I could teach the drama class. I informed their representative who spoke with me that I already taught five classes, but if the class could persuade Marcelo (HS principal) to hire a part-time math teacher to teach both of my Algebra classes, then I’d have enough time in my schedule to do it. Of course, I assured her that that would never happen, but there would be no harm in trying.
See, whether on stage or in real life, the drama continues. I’m thinking next, I’ll be asked to dance for the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
19 November 2001
Last week, I finally got the quintessential developing country condition: I came down with the shits. Not your garden variety loose bowels due to the change in diet or overly oily food, but the explosive, ain’t no stopping it, more foul smelling than usual, dysentery kind. (Boy, I feel like I’m in Peace Corps again!) And it’s hard to say what actually did it since the resident staff got together to cook for the kitchen staff; so the food was prepared by many people. Then, that same night, I went out with a friend and split a bottle of dodgy tasting wine. Yet, I was the only one who became sick. And who’s to say that I hadn’t acquired the foreign invaders weeks ago?
The next day was parent conferences and I was a little out of sorts, but nothing more than the loose bowel thing. I figured it was a self-limiting condition and did nothing about it…except make it to the bathroom on time.
By dinnertime, I knew I was in trouble. Since I normally sign out of Thursday dinners, I had the convenience of staying in, which was good since I was meeting myself running (in both senses of the word) to the bathroom. I finally made up my mind to get serious about this bowel movement thing and sat on the toilet, all the while still writing in my journal (I keep a teaching journal that I religiously write in after every school day.) After the mother lode, I figured I was done and I actually felt better until the sulfur burps came. It was all downhill from there.
Dysentery is a generic term for any painful diarrhea with blood and/or mucus. Now, back when I was in Peace Corps, I had a medical book with me and plenty of drugs to treat the common medical pitfalls. From what I remembered, the dysentery coupled with the sulfur burps was consistent with giardiasis, which is caused by a protozoan. If you’ve never had dysentery, then you’ve missed out on an amazing experience. You get to the point where the pathogen population is mighty enough to send anything you consume on a fast track out of your body. Your body attempts to flush out the foreign invader; so I drank water while sitting on the toilet. Only took the water about fifteen seconds to shoot out with an exclamation point. Of course, this all sounds bad, but I’ve lived through it before and knew exactly what I needed…Flagylsil, known as Flagyl here in Egypt.
By the time the bottom fell out, so to speak, it was nearly 2 a.m. I got dressed in pursuit of drugs. Now this is when the adventure truly started. As I approached the school gate, one of the guards on the outside called for Madu, who was sleeping inside. I hated to have him woken up, but he had to unlock the gate. I asked him where I might find an open pharmacy. He suggested in Rhoushidy, which was less than a 10 minute cab ride away. Madu then asked me what was wrong and I told him that I’d eaten bad food that had bacteria (I figured “bacteria” would be a more familiar word than either “protozoan” or “giardiasis”). He said that he may have something for that. I was so hopeful, but all he had was something for nausea and vomiting. Then, he suggested we check the school kitchen since he had the key. All I can say is that I hope no one in the kitchen ever gets hurt since their “medical cabinet” was quite bare.
I was growing desperate. The protozoans were having a great time. Madu returned to his station to call Saba, the school nurse. I felt so guilty calling this saintly woman who had escorted me to the eye doctor twice and the dentist once as if she were my mother. Thank goodness, she was not home or was in the midst of such a good sleep that she nor her husband heard the phone. Madu then led me to a clinic I never noticed before that was cattycorner to the school. He knocked loudly on the door. An elderly man answered. Madu explained my condition and I was very disheartened when the old man started shaking his head. Madu translated that the doctor wasn’t in, but this man who was a physician’s assistant, could give me a shot.
Now it was my turn to shake my head. I told Madu that the medication I needed was in pill form. I thought to myself, “I’ve only got the shits. I don’t want AIDS or hepatitis on top of that.” After more discussion, the old man escorted us to the paltry medicine cabinet and showed me what he wanted to inject me with. Thank goodness it was for nausea; so I wasn’t the least bit tempted.
Madu and I walked back to school and he gave me verbal instructions on how to get to the nearest hospital. He walked me one block, pointing down the street where I had to go. He had to return to the gate. I set off, feeling very sick and very self-conscious since it was past 2 am and the streets were full of boys and old men. The “boys” were aged from early adolescents to early twenties and they were playing ghetto soccer in the street. The old men were gathered around various cafes and closed shop fronts, drinking tea.
As I walked along, I heard “Terejah” a few times before I realized that Madu was calling me. I walked back to where he was. Another man, one of the twenty something boys, was standing beside him. Madu explained to me that the guy was a friend of his and he’d escort me to the hospital. I felt much better having an escort even though the man was a stranger to me.
We arrived at the hospital and I’m glad the guy was with me because despite its proximity to the school, it did not look obvious from the outside. The guy had very broken English, but it was still better than my Arabic. He asked me if he should go in the hospital with me and I said yes. The hospital guard opened the door for us and then had to wake up the doctor. The doctor came strolling in about five minutes later and like all very educated Egyptians, spoke English rather well.
After I told him my condition and named which drug I needed, he wrote me a prescription for a drug called Streptoquin. Having mastered how to read upside down as a preschool teacher, I asked him if Streptoquin was another name for Flagylsil. He told me that Flagyl was available, but if I actually had amebic dysentery and the amebas were encysted, then I’d need Streptoquin rather than Flagyl. I insisted; so he added Flagyl to the prescription. In Egypt, one doesn’t actually need a prescription, but I wanted the drugs, which was why I bothered with this “formality”. He didn’t have either drug there, but asked me to get on the examination table. I told him that we could skip the exam since I knew what was wrong with me. I actually have major problems trusting male doctors in sexually repressed countries. He wasn’t going to get his thrills examining this “Western whore”. Yes, when it’s 2 am and I’m sick, I become even more paranoid.
So my escort took me around several nearby pharmacies that people suggested, which were all closed. At one point, he asked me to walk faster and whether this was “important” enough to continue. If he would have understood English better, I would’ve sarcastically said, “Nah, this isn’t all that important. I just always wanted to walk around Alexandria late at night to see what all the noise is about.” We finally got advice from a guy who had a clue: we had to go to Rhoushidy…the very place where Madu had suggested in the beginning!
I convinced the guy to further escort me to the pharmacy in Rhousidy, convincing him that I couldn’t get to the pharmacy by myself. For some strange physiological reason, I felt even worse sitting in the back of the cab than when I was walking around. I’m sure the trip only took less than ten minutes, but it seemed much longer. Then, better than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, stood the pharmacy well lit and open for business. I hopped out of the cab and felt better.
The guy looked at the prescription and gave me both drugs, telling me how to take both of them. I thanked him for being open at this time of night and wondered how many late night/early morning stories he had to tell. We caught another cab back to the school. My escort was so happy to be rid of me. I’m sure that’s not how he wanted to spend his first day of Ramadan. I shook his hand to thank him, but I couldn’t catch his name.
Madu was still standing outside the gate, waiting for me to return. He saw the big smile on my face and assumed that I’d already taken the medication. I told him that I looked better only because I was very happy. I made haste to my apartment to take my drugs and then went to bed…3:10 am.
Later that morning, I got up at 7am. A group of us went to a bazaar in Cairo. Not only that, but I spent the night in Giza at the Mena House. You may recall that after I saw the pyramids on camelback, I went to the Mena House for lunch and a swim with a view of a pyramid in the background of the pool. Well, I had a much better view of the pyramid from my bedroom balcony. Heaven on earth. Believe it or not, but it was too cold to go in the pool, but I still enjoyed my stay. I’m the last one in the group of teachers to visit Cairo. The Mena House has a wonderful Indian restaurant where I had the best shrimp biryani that I’ve ever tasted.
The next morning, Cathy, the school librarian, and I went to a book sale at the American University of Cairo. Although it was a small venue, it had an intoxicating number of books and I wanted them all. I did meet my two main objectives and bought The Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt and a small English/Arabic dictionary. I’ve finally learned my lesson. The next time I move to a foreign country, I’m going to be sure to spend the pretty penny and buy a Lonely Planet Guide for the country. It just has the best history and current information compared to any other guide.
Although I’d come down on a school sponsored shuttle, I had to catch the train back since I’d spent the night in Cairo. Now the very night that my protozoans decided to kick my ass, was the start of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims where they fast from sunrise to sunset. I had bought several snacks just before boarding the train. Although Egyptians won’t arrest someone for eating or drinking in public during Ramadan, it’s still considered impolite. I’d had a wonderfully big breakfast at the Mena House, but I hadn’t eaten anything for lunch and I pretty much shat all of my reserves two nights ago; so I was really hungry. Then a train worker rolled down the aisle with snacks and drinks; no one bought anything of course. Yet the mere fact he gave it a try gave me the courage to eat my pretzels as quietly and discretely as possible.
Once our train pulled into Alexandria about two hours later, Cathy and I immediately got a cab back to school. We were very fortunate that the train was not delayed because around sunset, iftar (the dinner meal that breaks the fast) occurs and there are no taxis to be found and hardly anything open except for the places that only cater to tourists. As a matter of fact, the whole operation of society has changed. One of the cinemas that we normally go to has closed for the month and the other one has changed its hours. (All movies show at the same time 1, 4, and 7, but I don’t know what the new Ramadan hours are.) Although I was dog tired by the time I’d showered and unpacked, there was no need to attempt sleeping since iftar is a time of feasting and visiting and the city comes back to life. Thank goodness I bought plenty of good books to read.
27 November 2001
Here as SAS, we had our Thanksgiving meal two days early since a lot of us had made plans to be out of town on Thursday. I was part of the group who made the quickest getaway. School lets out at 3:15 and we were loaded up in a rented minivan, heading out of the school gate by 3:33. We had a projected 10 hour drive ahead of us to St. Catherine’s monastery, located in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula. People at school seem to think Cairo is where it’s at, but I’ve taken a liken to the peninsula, myself.
I rode shotgun while the other five people I was traveling with stretched out in the back. I’d been slowly making my way through Lawrence Durrell’s second novel in the Alexandrian quartet, Balthazar; so I figured this long weekend vacation would give me plenty of time to finish it and perhaps start on the third novel in the series. Our driver, Masud, spoke hardly a word of English, but knew how to do his job well: drive at breakneck speed, tailgate while flashing his highbeams and blowing his horn at the slow cars, and straddle the dashed line in anticipation of quickly maneuvering in either lane at a moment’s notice. I could hardly read or sleep, wanting to witness my last possible moments in this world.
Precisely ten hours later, we rolled up to the St. Catherine Monastery and bundled up like we were about to scale Mt. Everest. Our objective was to take a night hike up Mt. St. Catherine (Sinai) in time to watch the sunrise. Seems as if everyone hiking was part of a group, who all spoke different languages…very interesting immersion. We all posed to take our “before” pictures, then ventured up the trail. Megan and I led our small group and we’d only walked about ten minute’s worth before discovering that we’d taken the wrong fork in the path. We had no problem backtracking, but Megan was not pleased since she felt that she didn’t have any energy to waste.
Yet the trail was quite easy with only a few steep places. The sky seemed much bigger and closer since there weren’t any buildings breaking up the skyline. I could’ve sworn that there were far more stars than I’d remembered.
This was my first time being the fastest hiker in a group. It’s not as impressive as it sounds when you consider that Megan’s 59, Diane’s forty-something, and her husband and our unofficial translator, Mabrouk, is 60. Now Keith and Sirirat are close to my age, but Sirirat has some condition that puts a strain on her endurance. Keith could have made it to the top on time, but since his wife couldn’t make it there on time, he was a good husband and kept pace with Sirirat. I eventually told everyone that I’d see them at the top whenever they arrived. The ironic thing was that all along the trail were camel “vendors,” who followed Megan, Diane, and Sirirat for a very cheap price. Everyone who could’ve benefitted from the camel ride up was too proud to take one.
Hell, even though I made it to the top, I could’ve saved my legs by using a camel since there were 750 stairs (or thereabouts, depending on which source you read) to reach the pinnacle of Mt. St. Catherine. At a few places, I nearly fell backwards just out of sheer exhaustion. I was so foggy that I hadn’t realized that I’d made it to the top. I thought I’d reached one of the several canteen shacks that were along the trail. The curious thing about the 7 or so canteens was that none of them had a makeshift bathroom. Or at least none that I could see in the sheer dark. I’d carried a flashlight, which was good for seeing the ground and the next imposing step, but it didn’t cut through much of the darkness.
Even though a lot of people had “camped” out before me, I still got a good spot about two feet from the edge of the cliff. When you camp on Mt. St. Catherine, you’re not allowed to pitch a tent; so you just pick a spot against a rock wall and hop in your sleeping bag. While I was hiking, I regretted the fact that I was wearing a long sleeved shirt, two seat shirts and a heavy jacket, but once I reached the top and stopped moving, I wished I had more. I could’ve rented a blanket for about LE 2 or 3 ($0.50), but I didn’t figure that out until I had already sat down in my prime spot and I knew it wouldn’t still be there when I returned.
I only had to wait about ten minutes before the sky started lightening and the fog wafted up from the valley. In the distance, I witnessed the rolling fog and the morning star was still visible. Unfortunately, I didn’t have Keith’s good camera with me; so I’m hoping that my camera captured even half of the spectacular colors. I don’t think I’ve ever made a point of watching the sunrise before. I was impressed how bright the sky was lit prior to seeing the sun itself. By the time a slither of the sun peeked on the horizon and through the clouds, my fingers and toes were thoroughly cold. I wanted to stay and watch the sun rise to its full glory in the sky, but I had to move around a bit to get my circulation going. Some people were more than happy to fill the gap that I left. The only thing that would have made the experience more enjoyable (other than a blanket) would have been silence. What possesses people to hike to a spectacular view only to talk very loudly about trivial bullshit? I couldn’t understand the closest, loud talking asshole near me, but I wanted to tell him to shut up. As I was moving, he rushed to take my spot and I suppose he called himself helping me back up the rock when he gave me a boost on my ass.
At the top of Mt. St. Catherine was a small Greek Orthodox Church, which supposedly had a lot of icons and paintings, but tourists in the past have messed up and it stays locked most of the time. I did get some pictures of it from the outside.
Afterwards, I felt as if my bladder was about to burst since I hadn’t used the bathroom since I’d begun the hike; the cold wind only exacerbated the need to urinate. As I made my decent, I noticed a straw shack that was unmistakably a bathroom. I didn’t even worry about it possibly being gross it was since there was nowhere else to take a piss. It was all rocky cliffs and no vegetation to hide behind to cop a squat. Amazingly enough, there were only two other people in front of me, a woman and a young man.
The woman went quickly, but the guy didn’t live up to that myth of guys taking shorter in the bathroom than women. While waiting for him to finish up, a woman who apparently knew him walked up to the shack. I could tell by where she stood that she was planning to cut in front of me. I inched a little closer to the door and smiled at her, attempting to be friendly and make her less inclined to cut in front of me. That was all over once the guy slowly walked out of the shack. She grabbed his right arm while I grabbed his left, and we tackled him out of the bathroom, but I was faster and stronger and made it into the shack first.
I was very relieved and virtually skipped back down the steps. Along the way, I ran across Megan, Keith and Sirirat. Diane and Mabrouk had turned back around since Diane thought her legs wouldn’t make it up the steps and back. They had made it to the top, but could not find a space at the summit to watch the sunrise. I sat with them for a while and then we joined the long procession down the steps. Again, I led our group and soon found myself far ahead of them. I came to a plateau called Elijah’s Basin where God had spoken to the prophet Elijah when he’d sought refuge from Queen Jezebel. There were five composting toilets and a campsite; none of which could be seen while hiking in the dark. As a matter of fact, I felt as if I was making a completely different hike.
I’d read a sign which said, “Monastic steps” and figured that they were the continuation of the 750 steps that I’d walked up. Oh, what a drastically erroneous assumption that was. If I’d had my brand new Lonely Planet guide to Egypt with me, I would have read that the “Monastic steps” were also known as the “3000 Steps of Repentance,” so named for the sole monk who put them together as his repentance. Without even knowing their other name, I still repented, or shall I say regretted. In my effort to make it back to the easy trail, I thought the 750 steps seemed a “bit” longer than I’d remembered. At one point, I turned a corner and saw the St. Catherine Monastery below me. That was when I realized I’d taken another path and it was all steps downward. I figured that’s what I got for bolting ahead of the others. If I would have stayed with the others, they would have read about the trail in the guide book and stuck to the easier path. There were a few good things about taking the more challenging path down: most of the crowd supposedly a quicker route. I was a discombobulated fool bolting down the last 200 yards despite my sore knees. All I could think of at that point was getting my hands on about 800mg of ibuprofen.
Diane and Mabrouk were in the dirt parking lot and asked me about the others. I’d assumed in my delirious state that I was the last one off the mountain, but the others hadn’t made it yet. We napped in the van for an hour and then wandered to the monastery, which was a bit of a walk after our hike. Once we’d finished touring the accessible parts of the monastery, which still has about 22 monks (all Greek since only monks of Greek descent can live there), we reunited with the rest of the group. They were not happy; they’d taken the 3000 Steps of Repentance as well.
Now for a little Old Testament review. If you recall, Moses escaped from Egypt around age 40 and came upon Jethro’s seven daughters, watering their flock at the well. Moses married one of the daughters and while he was tending to his flock, God revealed Himself in the Miracle of the Burning Bush. The well and the bush still exist. I didn’t see the well personally, but I bought a postcard of it. We were all so mentally and physically exhausted that none of us made the connection that the huge hanging bush every tourist was posing with was THE burning bush. Now that’s sad. I remember taking some pictures of the architecture around the bush, but I didn’t make a point of taking some picture of the bush itself. (I’d joked to my fellow hikers when we were chilly while hiking that the bush might reignite to warm us up again.)
In 313 AD, Constantine the Great granted the freedom of worship and monasticism flourished. The Sinai monks appealed to Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena, for her patronage. She erected a small church dedicated to the Mother of god and a tower to protect the site of the burning bush. Even though Islam eventually spread to Egypt in 641 AD, this monastery 625 AD, which the monastery has a copy of. At the end of the sixth century, Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a fortified wall around the monastery and beautifully sculpted wooden doors, both of which are still intact.
St. Catherine was born Dorothea in Alexandria in 294 AD and was educated at a pagan school. She was converted to Christianity by a Syrian monk. She accused the emperor Maximinus of sacrificing to idols. He brought in 50 wise men to convert her. She quoted sayings of ancient Greek philosophers and persuaded them and members of the Emperor’s family to believe in Jesus Christ. The Emperor still tortured her to death on a spike wheel and beheaded her. (I’ve also read that the wheel broke loose and killed the pagan crowd.) According to the “legend,” angels carried her body to Mt. Sinai (which is also known as Mt. St. Catherine, I think). Three hundred years later, a monk dreamed about where her body was. They say that the sweet fragrance that her body gives off is a continuous miracle, but I couldn’t get close enough to her sarcophagus to confirm. I visited the small chapel of the Burning Bush, which is built above the roots of the burning bush. Understandably, one could not take pictures inside the monastery since camera flashes would damage some of the pigments, but I’ve never seen a more beautiful collection of icons or mosaics. St. Catherine’s has the largest Christian library and collection of icons second only to the Vatican.
Despite the mental and muscle fatigue, hiking up Mt. Sinai (Catherine) was definitely worth the experience. Our circadian rhythm was thrown off, but we nicely recovered by touring the Western part of the Sinai Peninsula en route to Alexandria. We had two days in which to make little stops along the way. Three of the most memorable stops were the Bedouin village along the road; the Pharaonic “baths” and the Suez Canal. We stopped to take pictures of the oasis we were driving through and out of nowhere came some Bedouin boys. When Mabrouk offered the two or three boys 50 piasters ($0.10) to pose for a picture, about 7 others ran to join the money making venture. They were adorable although I worried about exploiting those kids.
Megan had her guide book out and wanted to stop by the “Pharaonic baths,” which made it sound as if there was some modern bath like structure. It turned out to be a pure T cave. We walked up the human made steps to enter the cave which had not been adulterated by any modern construction. We all entered the cave. We all entered the cave and took some cool pictures, but in order to get to the baths, one had to crawl under the ceiling to get to a chamber that the others informed me was not like a sauna. I was dressed in my brand new, comfy, olive green jogging suit, which I was not about to dirty. (The washing machines here are like the ones in Korea; fade away the material and retain the stains.) The cave faced the Red Sea and along the beach bubbled very hot water surrounded by curative mud. None of us took a dip in the water or mud bath, but we all felt the hot water.
We spent the night at the Red Sea Hotel in Suez. The area near the canal itself was like being in England. The houses were quite enviable. We could hardly eat breakfast the next morning for watching the sips (ocean liners?) go by the panoramic window. We all flew to take pictures of the submarine. You just don’t see that every day. Before we left the Suez, we drove closer to the canal to take pictures of them. Some people sat along the canal wall with them. I wish every American could have such friendly, normal interactions with Muslims, y’know without all of the political hype. We wished them a safe journey and they returned the wish for us.
We rolled into Alexandria, which seemed noisier and dirtier than before, around 6:30, an hour and a half after iftar, the Muslim break fast meal. We were quite concerned about being late since Mabrouk was fasting. Since it was his birthday, we went to Chili’s, yes just like in the States minus the alcohol and with a lot of Ramadan lanterns to celebrate the Muslim holy month. Of course, as soon as we drove up, we saw a group of our nonEgyptian students. Most of our Egyptian students are Muslim and have their iftar at someone’s home or a traditional Egyptian restaurant. That was a bit of a bummer since I don’t like seeing students outside of school, but they respectfully kept to themselves once we were in the restaurant. There was a spread of traditional Egyptian food for the “hip” Muslims who wished to have iftar there, but we ordered off the menu. The dishes are pretty good, but it’s all Egyptian interpretation. It was still a wonderful capper to the long weekend.
10 January 2002
As I sit in my living room bundled up in my Maasai cloth, typing with my gloves on, I think it’s a wonderful time to reflect on my three week visit/homecoming to Tanzania. I just wish there was some way I could have carried that heat back with me.
Although I could have had a direct flight to Tanzania with Egypt Air, I saved money by flying with Emirates, a very comfortable airplane even in the economy section. The main hub is Dubai, which is located in the United Arab Emirates. This city is like the Disneyland of duty free shopping. I had a 7-hour layover. I checked out the duty-free “mall” a bit, but my main concern was getting some sleep in one of the permanently reclining chairs. I felt quite fortunate to find one that was free since everyone who had one seemed rather content to camp out there. I only had a thin cardigan and a small backpack purse with me. Neither served well as a pillow and blanket. After about fifteen minutes, I started the dance. The fidgeting in the chair that pretty much everyone goes through to make that permanently reclining chair more comfortable. Totally pointless. Nonetheless, I killed about five hours.
I’d forgotten to pact pack my toothbrush and toothpaste in my purse. No problem. I was in Dubai. I could’ve bought a bathroom to do my ablutions in if I wanted to. Afterwards, I walked down to Starbucks. In the States, I avoid that place just out of general principle, but I really needed a hot chocolate and turkey/cheddar sandwich. It was oh, so good. My vacation had truly begun. I think I go on vacation just to eat different foods.
My flight was delayed a bit, but fortunately, my friends, Ted and Elaine, were still waiting for me when I arrived. We were Peace Corps Volunteers together, serving in different parts of Tanzania. They returned to teach at an international school in Dar es Salaam. I hadn’t revisited Tanzania in seven years; so I was very happy that I had some friends who could pick me up and reorient me to the country.
The first thing I noticed was how incredibly good the roads were and people had learned how to drive. I’m not just saying that because Egyptians drive in such an “organized chaos” that the Swedish company who studied their driving couldn’t improve upon the efficiency (!), but they actually use the lanes, unlike before. Of course, there were far more cars on the road than before. Everywhere I looked, I saw billboards advertising cell phones, condom use, and alcohol. I was definitely no longer in Egypt.
To my eye, everyone had a cell phone and there were now internet cafes everywhere. Of course, the concept of credit was still pretty new and rare in Tanzania; so all of the phones were prepaid. Yet Ted explained to me that it was quite inexpensive to have a cell phone since one could receive calls and text messages for free.
Ted and Elaine lived in a lovely two storey house, which made my pace look like a glorified college apartment. The guest bedroom came with a full bathroom, but I must admit that I was most impressed with the remote controlled air conditioner that just hummed like one of the Temptations. Contrast that with my WWII air conditioner that sounded like an 18 wheeler for cold air and an out of tune trumpet for heat. (Now the damn thing doesn’t do anything since a fire hazard heater has been hot wired to the main switch. At least I’m toasty warm at night. Now, if it just doesn’t catch fire, I’ll be in business.)
I had to quickly take a shower and change. When Ted and Elaine had informed some people at the Peace Corps office that I was coming for a visit, I was given an invitation to the swearing in already in progress. As I looked in the audience, I was very happy to see some of the language teachers, nurses, and other support staff members. Most of them remembered me. I had to struggle to remember simple Swahili greetings.
After the ceremony, we went to a restaurant just off the ocean. We ate appetizers on the roof I couldn’t wait to drink. I’d wanted Bailey’s, but had a S. African liqueur called “Amarula” that was just about as good. (It’s not that I’ve become an alcoholic, which would be hard to do in a dry country, but the unavailability of alcohol makes it one of those things sought after when out of the country.) We went to a different restaurant to eat nyama choma (grilled meat). My absolute favorite combination is grilled goat with grilled bananas, not the sweet bananas, but the cooking bananas. (By the way, there are a numerous variety of cooking bananas besides plantains, which I’ve only had in the States.)
Over the course of a few days, Elaine and Ted gave me some updates about Tanzania. I’d originally wanted to go to Zanzibar after visiting with them but they warned me that a cholera outbreak had just hit the island. I then decided to catch a bus to Arusha, where my host family lived. (Peace Corps Trainees stay with a Tanzanian family during training.) Elaine told me of a wonderful bus company called Scandinavia that I should check out.
I barely got a seat on the bus to Arusha a few days later. Unlike the overcrowded buses where people and chickens fill the aisles, everyone had a seat and no one except the bus attendant was up and down the aisle. She brought everyone a bottle of water, cookies and candy. I had anticipated paying for everything in the end, but I was very surprised to discover that it was all included. Oh my god, customer service had come to Tanzania! The seats were actually quite comfortable; so I didn’t have to relive the ass biting seats I used to sit in. The roads were wonderfully smooth. My internal organs weren’t in a knot at the end of the trip.
I checked into a strategically located hotel, which was near the post office, the Air Tanzania office and the New Arusha Hotel. From this location, I could easily find my way to my host family’s compound, or so I thought. I also thought that the guy who’d brought me to the hotel was going to take me to my host family in Kijenge, which Tanzanians considered a village. It was a suburb of Arusha. I really got my introduction to how “wazungu” (foreigners) were perceived. This guy had wanted me to pay about three times as much as I should have just to go to Kijenge. I tried to negotiate with him, but we hadn’t settled on a firm price. I told him to wait for me downstairs as I got myself situated. I quickly freshened up and got my present together.
I was shocked when I went downstairs and discovered that the taxi was no longer there. What I should have done was not pay him for taking me to the hotel until I came back down and had him take me to Kijenge. Yet, I was still green. One thing for sure, I knew that I was a walking target: a lone foreign woman walking with a bag of small gifts and a purse. I began looking vigilantly as I walked in the direction of Kijenge. Ted had warned me that crime had gone up 300 percent since tourism was down. (tourists normally set up safaris in Arusha for Ngorogoro Crater, the Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro and other tours.) when I had lived in Tanzania, I thought Dar was most aggressive city, but it now seemed tame compared to Arusha. Guys hassled me about changing money, taking a safari and buying things. I did recall one handy phrase, “Niache kabisa.” (Leave me absolutely alone!)
I spotted two other foreign women walking around and befriended them in order to walk with them, figuring that there was a little more safety in numbers. It was an illusion, but at least my nerves were calmer. They turned off to go to a restaurant. I caught a daladala (a mininvan that’s used as a local bus) to Kijenge and just started walking. Kijenge was an interesting conglomeration of mud brick houses with corrugated metal roofs and houses one would find in the States. Very few of the roads were paved and there were plenty of banana tree lined mud roads. I was thoroughly lost since everything looked the same. I kept looking at Mt. Meru since I knew approximately where it was in relation to my host family. The sun set quickly and I still hadn’t found my host family who had no idea that I was even in the country. I’d lost contact with them and was going to surprise them.
I finally asked a guy if he knew where Mama Sally was. If I’d had my wits about me, I would have referred to my host mother as “Mama Drew” since Tanzanian women’s nickname (name of honor?) is the name of their first born child. He hadn’t heard of her. I thought, “How could you not know this woman who should be about seventy-five by now?” I had a cold thought that perhaps she was dead. I then asked for Mama Maggie (Joy) who was Mama Sally’s daughter-in-law. She’d helped me out a lot when I stayed with Mama Sally. The guy led me to a modern looking house.
The guard came out when I knocked at the gate. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was at the home of another host brother. (Mama Sally had had about 7 sons and 2 daughters.) When I asked for Mama Maggie, the guard pointed out another house across the “street”. I was very desperate when I knocked on this gate since the sun had set, I was lost and hadn’t had dinner. I asked for Mama Maggie and was very relieved when the guard replied, “Yupo.” (She’s here.) Joy came out, trailed by a couple of kids. She and I embraced like two long-lost sisters.
I walked in her house, which was beautifully decorated and very modern. I could hardly believe that they had a TV. I later discovered that like cell phones, TV stations now and a lot of programming from the States via satellite. Some of the stations were Tanzanian owned while others were S. African. As a matter of fact, I believe it was S. Africa that first started the cell phone craze in Tanzania. I had read an editorial where someone was very concerned about the amount of business S. Africans were doing in Tanzania.
One of the most valuable gifts that Tanzanians like is pictures. I’d brought along my small photo album, which held 100 pictures. Joy and her kids (Maggie, Cyndi, and Clayton, the pipsqueak) poured over the pictures, asking who all the people were. It wasn’t long before the inevitable questions came up: Was I married and did I have any children?
If I’d thought my visit to Tanzania was a homecoming, then my Tanzanian friends thought of it as an opportunity to school me in the fine virtues of being married with kids. Everyone told me that it was time to get married and one friend even told me about a lovemaking technique to get a man. One friend even made a bet with the people in her office, stating that she would buy everyone in the office a soda when I got married; so my incentive for getting married is so a group of Tanzanians in Mwanza will get a soda. Nearly all of my Tanzanian friends said that they wanted to see a picture of my future husband and kids. Or the next time I visit, they hope to meet my husband and at least two children. Yeah, they’re going to meet my husband alright. Next time I visit Tanzania, I’ll just bribe some guy to pose as my husband.
After Joy finished looking at my pictures, she returned to the kitchen and outside to give her “houseboys” and “girls” (actually adults, but that’s what they’re called) instructions. So, I sat in the living room with the kids to watch more TV than I had in the past four months. I’d never seen the soap opera “Passions,” but I’m just so concerned as to whether Charity will triumph over evil.
The programming was very interesting because a program in English would be followed by a program in Swahili then something from China, subtitled in English and in between, the same tree commercials.
Joy and I ate pilau and kachumbali (a salad made of thinly sliced tomatoes, cabbage, green peppers, and onions with lemon juice). Joy was concerned that I hadn’t taken enough meat and put a chunk of beef on my plate. Thank goodness I’d stopped my “no mammals” diet when I moved to Egypt.
Afterwards, the kids escorted me to Mama Sally’s house. Very little of the compound itself had changed, but like I discovered throughout my visit to Tanzania, everything had built up around the familiar landmarks. When I walked into the enclosed wooden shelter that served as the kitchen, Mama Sally was sitting down while her oldest daughter, Eva, was cooking dinner. The pot was over a fire, supported by three cinderblocks on their sides.
Initially, Mama Sally didn’t recognize me since the fire was the only light source. The kids told her that Teresa from America had returned. Mama Sally clapped her hands, shouting very excitedly that I had remembered her. Mama Sally had hosted four volunteers over the years and apparently, I was the only one who “remembered” them. My Swahili comprehension was fairly good, considering I hadn’t spoken it for seven years. She kept repeating that I’d been “lost” for so many years. As I showed her my pictures, she quickly figured out that I still was not married and kept repeating, “Hapendi kuolewa.” (She hates to get married) and clicking her tongue.
The next day, Mama Sally and Elisebeth came to my hotel to eat lunch with me. I had checked out of the hotel and was going to shift to Mama Sally’s place when Joy got off work to pick me up. We went to a nice outdoor restaurant for nyama choma with bananas. This time, I had grilled chicken.
I persuaded them to take me to a place where I could get a Maasai wrap after lunch. I couldn’t believe the variety of red and blue plaids. Although I was really impressed with the red ones, I chose one with a quite a bit of blue since Maasai women wear the predominantly blue wraps.
Then, I tasked Eli with helping me to buy some tanzanite, a precious gem found in Tanzania. I had wanted to buy a crystal for a friend who said that she’d buy it off me since I would probably get it much cheaper. In light of the attack on the States, the price of tanzanite had fallen. As a matter of fact, rumor had it that somehow that sale of tanzanite was connected to al Qaeda.
I’d anticipated going to a jewelry store, but Eli led me to the place where they actually cut the gems. I was shown a 3rd rate gem that was a medium blue. They wanted $100 for it. That was a little more than I had expected, but I thought it was pretty. Since I was basically buying it under the table, they wanted cash. I didn’t have enough shillings, but I did have a credit card and traveler’s cheques. No problem. They gave me the gem and had two men to escort me to a bank to cash a traveler’s cheque. Looking back, I’m so sorry that Mama Sally and Eli had to walk with me to the bank that was three country blocks away since I ended up not cashing it. They actually wanted me to pay $10 to cash a fifty dollar traveler’s cheque (oh hell’s no!). Then, the two men escorted me to a bureau de change, which offered the best rate I’d seen anywhere. Hell, I’d cash in all my traveler’s cheques at this wonderful place. Think again. As I took out my passport and a pen to sign a couple of my cheques, the teller said, “Wait a minute, don’t sign yet. Can I see your receipt?” I’d never in my life heard of having to have the fucking receipt for a traveler’s cheque in order to cash one. He explained to me as if I was the unreasonable one that that was their policy. I attempted to explain, without being condescending, that I’d cashed traveler’s cheques in many countries and never had to show the receipt. He repeated the policy. I left before I cussed the man out.
When I walked outside, I reached in my purse and handed one of the guys the gem. They tried to persuade me to return to the bank. They would reduce the price of the gem by $10. I told them that I’d heard of drug deals going down smoother than this “simple” transaction. There was also something in the back of my psyche which said that something was not meant to be if it took a lot of bullshit to get it done.
Mama Sally’s place was actually a compound where the four bedroom quarters were in an L-shaped construction. Across the yard was the shower/Western toilet/Tanzanian toilet (like a urinal in the ground) construction. Beside Mama Sally’s bedroom quarters was the wooden kitchen construction with its earthen floor. A small courtyard was loosely surrounded by these constructions where periodically during the day the goats would graze. Behind the bedroom quarters were stalls for the cows, goats and pigs. For the two days that I stayed there, I would sit under a tree, near the chicken coop, reading a book or talking to Mama Sally quite when she was up and about. She had to go to the hospital due to a chest aliment, which I assumed had to do with her heart; so she was taking quite a few naps. I was rather concerned since when I’d lived with her 9 years ago, Mama Sally would easily out drink me. She’d repeatedly tell me that I had to drink a lot and eat a lot in order to sleep well.
Speaking of sleeping well, I had an adventure in sleeping the two nights I stayed with Mama Sally. When I had stayed with during my training, I was issued a mosquito net and never really noticed that they didn’t use one. The first night, I put mosquito repellant on my arms and face. When I turned off the light, I heard the motor running; a mosquito was homing in. I turned on the light, got my Maasai cloth to wrap around my head, thinking that perhaps the mosquitoes would bite me on my scalp, between my dreads. I turned off the light and heard the mosquitoes buzzing around again. I tried to convince myself that the mosquito repellant would keep them from biting my face, but then I remembered that I hadn’t put any on my eyelids. I then put the sheet over my head, making sure that I tightly sealed myself in. I woke up perhaps an hour later, drenched in sweat and half asphyxiated. I tore through the sheets, unwrapped my head and took a few deep breaths before getting back under the sheet.
Thank goodness, I had nothing serious to do since I was quite rest broken. I was marginally smarter the next night. I left my head unwrapped and just got under the sheet where I slowly roasted throughout the night. At least I wasn’t bitten. I’d already had malaria as a PCV; I didn’t need to relive the experience.
The whole time I was in Arusha, I’d tried to contact my friend, Megan Kabili, who lived in Mwanza. She’d given me her email address and cell phone number, but she hadn’t answered any of my emails nor was I able to catch her by phone. I’d bought a plane ticket since I was not about to make the 18+ hour bus trip to Mwanza. My flight was about two hours late, but Megan who’d received my two emails and a text message was at the airport, waiting for me. She’d come with a truck and driver to whisk me away. We drove to her NGO office, Tanzanian Home Economics Association (TAHEA). The first thing Kabili did after introducing me to everyone was tell them that I was going to teach them something on the computer. That came as a shock to me since I wasn’t planning on teaching anyone anything. (These are the same people who are waiting to get a soda the moment I marry.)
The good roads of Dar and Arusha hadn’t reached Mwanza yet. Mwanza is located on the southern part of Lake Vincentia, which makes it an important port, but to get things there by land is challenging. Even getting a good road built is challenging since there isn’t a good road to transport the materials! There had been a lot of rain that day, which was both good and bad. The dust was down, but the craters (too big to be called “potholes”) were filled with water. About four kids could have had a really good time splashing about if they were inclined to do so. The road going from town to Nganza, my former school, was the worse. A little 2km stretch took nearly 20 minutes due to traffic and craters. The rest of the way was nicely paved and we raced through.
Kabili had a friend who owned a cute little motel about an hour’s walk from Nganza, the all girls’ high school where I used to teach biology. I made the trek to Kabili’s house every morning for breakfast, only once catching a daladala. I was quite fortunate for the walk since that was the only exercise I got the whole time I was there.
I’d eat breakfast, then sit down to read, nap and watch TV. Kadija, Kabili’s teenage daughter acted as if I couldn’t possibly be happy unless I was eating something. I couldn’t convince her that I hadn’t worked up an appetite merely sitting around breathing. Being lazy is quite tiring. I had no reason to nap other than lack of mental stimulation and my brain shutting off on its own. I did manage to read Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” which is something that those of us who live in Alexandria feel the urge to do since everyone else does. It’s pretty good although I had to reread the first book after completing the other three since I didn’t comprehend a single word the first time around.
For Kabili’s Christmas present, I invited her to go to Zanzibar with me. She acted as if she’d just won the lottery. We excitedly went to town to make our flight reservations. Afterwards, I visited my friend, Steve who owned a manufacturing plant and broadcasting company with his brothers. While he was talking on the phone, he told me I could check my email. About an hour later, a group of people came in. I was about to excuse myself so they could do business when Steve told me to stay and introduced me to the people. After they left, he told me that the young woman and man were nationally known singers, Sauda (Saida), and Cool James. They’d stopped by to see if he’d advertise their Christmas concert on his radio station. When I found out that the concert was in Mwanza, I knew I was going to it.
For Christmas, Kabili cooked a feast of all my favorite foods out in the “village” where she had built a house and was in the process of building a second one. She’d rented the first one. Kabili had always been quite ambitious and juggled many things in addition to teaching food and nutrition at Nganza. She and I collaborated to make a video about gender issues of women in development when I’d worked there.
After cooking all day long, Kabili cleaned up beautifully to go to the concert later that night. We went to Rock Beach Hotel, which was just off Lake Vincentia. It was a beautiful hotel. I couldn’t believe how much Mwanza had built up. I would have gone to town on the weekends more often if there had been anything that entertaining there. Toward the end of the concert, Kabili and I got up to dance. That must have been the signal since half the audience got up to join us. I took a picture of Sauda before I started dancing. Her hit song had to do with a woman who made love like “sorting peanuts,” talking about the motion of her hips. That just pretty much sums up how Tanzanians dance.
Steve took Kabili and me to the airport a few days later and arranged for a car to pick us up in Dar to talk us to the Zanzibar ferry from the airport. Finally, I have on friend in a high place. We made it to the ferry just in time to make the last one. The ferry workers were yelling at Kabili and me to hurry up. I could hardly believe I was still in Tanzania. Whatever happened to rubberband time? We were practically tossed onto the ferry, which took us to Zanzibar in 90 minutes.
Zanzibar was far more expensive than I’d imagined. As a PCV, I’d had a resident’s permit, which meant that I could pay in shillings and the price was dramatically lower. We checked into a decent room in Stone Town for only one night. I was determined to spend most of my time on the Northern part of the island called Nungwi. Elaine had told me that there was some decent snorkeling there.
We caught a daladala to Nungwi. As much money as Zanzibaris make off tourism, I was very surprised that the roads weren’t better. The last part of the trip nearly flipped my stomach. And for a road that had only about 20 cars on it, we had two near misses and creamed a chicken. (Hey, maybe THAT’S why the chicken crossed the road; to get reamed.)
I checked us into a $20 a night bungalow. For once in my life, I’d gone too cheap. The common bathroom was a mess. I just figured we had hit it before they’d cleaned up. We only spent time in our room to change and sleep. Most of the time, we lounged on the beach, under a shelter. I couldn’t convince Kabili to get in the water with me since she couldn’t swim. I broke out with my snorkeling equipment to check out the water.
Afterwards, I took a shower and recommend to Kabili that she should take a shower while there was still daylight since I was quite sure the shower would be a very scary place at night. The next morning, I walked into that common bathroom and instantly decided that even though I was cheap, I still valued cleanliness. Kabili and I switched to Baraka (prosperity) Bungalows. For $10 more, we had our own bathroom, two double size beds and a twin bed.
A German woman, Ingrid, and I went to the beach. She just wanted to lounge around under some shade and read, while I was going for round two of snorkeling. We found a good spot, then I headed out. I was quite far out, but the water was only about six or seven feet deep. I saw a lot of starfish and coral formations, but nothing as spectacular as snorkeling in the Red Sea. I’d gone out against the current. When I started feeling tired, I turned around to go with the current, which was incredibly strong. It’s no wonder I’d had taken so long to go the distance I had. I was catapulted in spurts back to my starting point. As I neared the beach, I noticed that I’d prevented a dhow from leaving. I made a mental note that I should buy a buoy for future snorkeling.
Just a few feet from shore, I started to take off my fins. A wave came crashing down on me, knocking me off balance. I nearly drowned in fucking knee deep water! And there were two assholes nearby just playing Frisbee who hadn’t noticed. I got their attention when I finally emerged, though. As a matter of fact, EVERYBODY was looking at me, snotty nosed, picking seaweed outta my hair, dreads full of sand and no two locks pointing in the same direction. Had I just snorkeled or come out on the losing end of a wrestling match with a leviathan? Ingrid was beside herself, wishing she had a camera.
I spent nearly an hour in the shower just washing sand out of my hair. That has got to be the vilest thing a dreadlock wearer could get in her hair since it doesn’t dissolve in water like dirt. It actually lodges itself in the hair and has to fall out with gravity. I was “shedding’ sand for a week. (that’s going to be the real test for a husband: if he’ll lovingly stand in the shower with me to rinse the sand individually out of each lock, then he’s a keeper.)
Kabili and I went out to dinner with Ingrid and two other women we’d befriended. Kabili got excited about food (even more than I did) and never wanted to order straight from the menu. That’s for common folks. She gave strict instructions on how to prepare her order.
For dining entertainment, Kabili told us about the African beat. (By the smile on her face, I knew she wasn’t talking about music. Kabili had a strange habit of talking about sex just as one was about to eat. I just always thought of that being after dinner conversation.) A certain tribe in Bukoba, the Hiya, was known for being good lovers. The man would become erect and instead of penetrating the woman, would “drum” rhythmically on the woman’s clitoris with his penis. The woman would just scream out in pleasure. I, of course, asked her what was the tune. She told me that individual men drummed differently. We all wanted her to document the African beat and publish it.
We returned to Dar on New Year’s eve. I’d anticipated spending the holiday with Kabili and her brother, Charles, but while we were waiting for the ferry, she told me that she’d gotten the message that her favorite niece had died. It was a bittersweet time since at least Kabili was already in Dar and could attend the funeral. I got a cab to Ted and Elaine’s place since I had a key. They had left for India and were due to return the day before I left; so, as miserable as it sounds, I spent New Year’s Eve like an ordinary night.
I caught a daladala to town the next morning, checked my email and walked around a bit, which was a little stressful since every stray guy wanted to sell me hashish, Malawi marijuana. (Supposedly, the best pot was from Malawi.) They couldn’t believe that someone with dreads could not be a Rastafarian. Thank goodness, I met Charles nearly every day. He had a car and would take me to different places to eat and they I’d hang out with him, his friends and daughters. For two days, he drove me around, trying to find a manual coffee maker or at least a glass container to replace the one I’d broken. I was reaching for a pitcher and I could have sworn that that coffee maker leapt to its own demise as I pulled out the pitcher. Yet another fine reason I’m glad I’m not a coffee drinker!
We even went to a dodgy part of Dar called Kariakoo to find a glass container that would suffice. Everything was the wrong size in at least one dimension. What I needed was a Target. We finally settled on a glass container that was the correct width, but was too tall.
Even though Ted and Elaine’s house was far more modern than mine, it was still subject to some old Tanzanian problems, mainly the electricity. Two nights in a row, the electricity went out and I was sitting in the dark with only a sad little book light to go by. The second night, I was more prepared. I’d located the kerosene lamp beforehand and a match. That’s right, one lone match. I was superstitious about have just one match. Inevitably, the electricity went off and when I struck the match, it broke in half. I struck the half match and it lit the lantern. I later asked the guard for a few more matches. Once I had a good supply of matches, the electricity never went off again.
Unlike here in Egypt where the electricity has been spiking since I’ve returned. The cold weather is exacerbated by the rain. My students did well during our three-day week back, but half of them were snotting and snarling, as Mom would say. All I can say is that I’m glad I brought back a bottle of Bailey’s and Jack Daniels for hot chocolate and hot toddies, respectively. My Maasai wrap doesn’t hurt either.
Love and sniffles,
31 January 2002
What a long month this has been and I feel as if I’ve been back for a couple of months since winter break. It’s phenomenal how time seems to fold upon itself, making the days longer. I was quite ready to hop back on the plane and head back to Tanzania with its warm weather rather than the endless, cold rainy days of Egypt. I’d finally complained to the right people and got a fire hazard heater brought to my apartment. The portable radiator that came with the apartment is only good if one is sitting within six inches of it. To top things off, it has a special plug that can only be used in one plug found in the living room.
An ugly wool blanket also came with the apartment. I refer to it as the “smallpox blanket,” in reference to the blankets that were infested with the deadly disease that the States had given some of the Native Americans. I’ve never slept under it, but it’s currently taped up to a second door to my bedroom that only serves to let cold air in during the winter and hot air in during the summer.
As I battled to make my tiny apartment more livable, I thought I could at least take comfort in the fact that I’d planned for the upcoming two weeks. Oh, what I hand I’d dealt myself! I somehow lost my mind in December and felt that I should give all my students a diagnostic test to see which areas they were weak in. Then, I made study packets, tailored to each student’s needs. Not only that, but I hand checked them, individually with most students up until the point when I nearly lost my mind. Those diagnostic tests were so difficult to mark quickly and I got behind in checking over students’ work. By the time finals came, I was so happy to get a break. The results of my hard work? The smart students did well and the dimwits failed.
During the mist of this Egyptian ice over and academia hell, I received word that my grandmother, affectionately known to all who loved her as “Mama Bea,” passed away. Even though Mama Bea was 91 and had been in declining health for years, the news still took me by surprise. Meanwhile, my family had already had already begun planning her funeral. I’d checked my email in the morning and still had to teach three blocks that day until I could call my Mom. It was so good to hear her voice. Had she needed me, I would have left this chaotic tornado to be with her. As things turned out, she’d made peace with her mother’s passing since we had all expected this for a while. We talked for a long time, ending the conversation with vacation plans for the summer. The full impact of Mama Bea’s passing didn’t hit me until later that night when I’d finished running the rat race. I often write in order to deal with things; so I wrote a poem in honor of Mama Bea. I’m so happy that one of my outgoing cousins read it during her funeral.
A few mornings afterwards, I was lying in bed, trying to steal a few more winks of sleep before having to get up when the bed started to tremble. I opened my eyes quickly to make sure that I was not dreaming. I wasn’t. I noticed the time, a minute before seven, when my alarm was due to go off. The trembling stopped just as soon as I reached over to turn off my alarm before it could sound. It’s funny to think about it now, but I honestly believed at that moment that Mama Bea had woken me up so I wouldn’t oversleep. I thought, “She couldn’t wait to get to Heaven so she could keep an eye on me.” This was the same grandmother who would whip me with a switch when I was little. It’s amazing she and Papa had any trees left around their house.
My superstitious explanation for the bed shaking was compounded as I went down to breakfast and bumped into my neighbor. He hadn’t experienced anything similar to an earthquake. No one at breakfast had experienced any trembling. By lunch, other earthquake “survivors” were taking about it. Apparently, some found mention of the quake, which had its epicenter somewhere in the Mediterranean, on the CNN website.
The past week, we had a freezing cold rain and many students reported seeing snow, which is virtually unheard of here. One student was so enthralled by the hail that she brought a bucket of it to school for show and tell. I’m still skeptical about the snow sightings although I’m sure it was some sort of precipitation. Quite a few of us at that point were trying to remember what the Biblical plagues that hit Egypt were. We could only think of frogs, locusts and the first born being killed. I decided to look it up. Hail was among the ten plagues! The Nile hasn’t turned to blood although there was a recent spill. People aren’t infected with lice or covered with boils and sores although one can easily see how that can happen in some of the cramped, dirty conditions the poor Egyptians live under. We haven’t had any swarms of flies although as persistently pesky as Egyptian flies are, I do believe that these are the descendants of those Biblical ones. And the only darkness that has covered us was our attitude after returning from break.
One couple decided the day after they returned from vacation that they weren’t going to stay for the second year. Another couple announced that they were four months pregnant; so they’d been working on their “excuse” to break contract for a while. (As a matter of fact, they keep going back and forth over whether to leave or raise their child here for the second year. Janece said that she thought their apartment was too drafty to raise a child in. Kelsey, the HS math teacher, promised Janece that if they stayed, they would definitely have a warm apartment for the baby. At that point, I said, “Hell, if that’s all one needs to do, I’m getting pregnant next! Of course that wouldn’t’ do me any good since it would be frozen in my Fallopian tube.”)
But it’s not all bleak. I’ve started taking two dance classes: salsa/merengue and bellydancing. I liked my bellydancing class in Denver much better, but this one’s fun because it’s taught mostly in French. (I have to brush up on the language.) In Denver, we used to politely fight to be in front of the mirror since it’s much easier to learn the move when you can see your body doing it. Well, a lot of the women in this class fight to stay in the back. I went down to Cairo this past weekend and among other things, I picked up an inexpensive bellydancing scarf with gold coins on it. The bellydancing costumes were dazzling. There were even some that had the tassels built into the top. I think I know what my NEXT profession’s going to be when teaching finally chews me up and spits me out.
9 January 2002
I made my coaching debut this past Wednesday. I’ve never been interested in playing sports since I was a child with the exception of swimming, which I consider an exercise. For such a small school, Schutz offers too many sports and other activities; so I knew that I’d have to supervise one of them. I chose tennis mainly because I knew the season would not start up until after first semester. I’m so glad I had the forethought not to start coaching prior to that since I’m just now entering a comfort zone with the amount of work I have to do in the classroom.
I was assured that I would do just fine not knowing a thing about the sport since all of our serious students have tennis tutors. Plus, the head coach, Raisa, was a high school tennis star, Thelma, a parent volunteer, is an avid tennis player, and Roger, the art teacher, also plays and will coach (he’s currently in Cypress with some of the high school students attending a fine arts festival.) I figured I could at least help supervise the students since I teach most of them.
A few days before the first practice, I went to the “Adidas” store, which was full of Nike stuff, to buy a track suit. I wasn’t trying to be fashionable or label-conscious; I just wanted proper exercise clothes that would fit me. I learned very early in the game that none of these cute little Egyptian clothes to fit my build—except perhaps a galabeya. In my typical shopping habit, I went straight to where I needed to go, picked out three different styles and locked myself into a fitting room. I discovered that cottony-feeling polyester knit shit does NOT look good on big butts, particularly in a medium which is my usual size. One out of three of outfits looked quite decent, mainly because the top covered my butt.
On Wednesday, I wore my new outfit, which caused a mild sensation since any new clothing attracts attention. We all pretty much wear that same thing week after week. I even got a brand new tennis racket from the PE teacher to complete the ensemble. Several students came up to me, complimented my new outfit and said that they also had the same outfit. OK, so now I’m hip and fashionable—at least for one outfit.
As I was teaching my 7th graders, one of them remarked that I was wearing Nike clothing. No big news there since the damn word was stitched across my top (the only thing I disliked about it). He then proceeded to tell me about how Nike was sued “big time” in several Asian countries because they used child labor in their factories. This conversation turned into a free-for-all. Students were excited to talk about anything other than math. I’m sure several “facts’ were made up in case of emergency. The conversation was quickly brought to an end when I pointed out that the most vocal students were ALSO wearing Nike clothing Of course, during the beak, I returned to my apartment and checked the label. Whew! Made in Turkey. I’ve not heard of any major child labor rings there.
After school, Raisa drove Thelma and me to the tennis club at Montazah. We only have one sad, dangerous tennis court at school. We need at least four since both the Varsity and JV tennis teams consist of ten students each. We decided to practice with just the girls since there was also a boys’ basketball practice at the same time at school. I did what I do best which was take attendance, hand out photocopied forms and told them our practice e expectations—isn’t that pathetic? Thelma led them in the world’s shortest warm up, which I also participated in to get a little exercise since I was going to miss tae-bo.
After that, it was all downhill for me. I was just a well-dressed stooge with an impressive racket, walking around the court. I assured the girls that no matter how bad their game was, I was exceptionally worse. It’s been a long time since I’ve been immersed into something of which I’m completely ignorant. Luckily, one of students, Melanie, explained the doubles rules to me. She was on crutches, but came out to give moral support. She essentially helped coach since I didn’t have a clue and neither did a lot of the girls who were trying out for the team.
Raisa dropped me off at school just in time for dinner. All in all, I had a wonderful time at practice. The girls were on their best behavior even though by American standards, they were still quite lazy. “Hustle” is a foreign concept. One student in particular, Badr, just knows that she doesn’t have to work hard because when she grows up, she’s going to get married and her husband will take care of her. Unfortunately, she’s right. Her family owns a national chain of supermarkets and what power-conscious young man wouldn’t want to marry into family? I can barely convince her to work hard in class; I couldn’t believe that she would bother to do something that would cause her to be hot, sweaty and tired. I just chalk it up to the fat that when she is married, she’ll have to keep herself busy doing something.
I was so tired afterwards since it had been a long day. Thank goodness, the next day was the end of the week. The PTA had sponsored “bingo night.” Of course I went. I figured I’d honor my father who loves the game. I really don’t care for it myself, but our PTA is very strong and active. They always manage to get very good donated prizes. I particularly wanted either the Nile cruise, the five star accommodations at Luxor (Valley of the Kings) or the discount airline tickets.
The head of school and two teachers were the bingo callers. They would’ve been shot in the South for the way they were calling the numbers. For the “X” game, the caller didn’t understand why the audience kept telling him to stop calling numbers down the “N” row. At one point he said, “Boy, you guys really don’t want to hear any of those N’s.” In another game, the same caller said, “I-8.” A few seconds after the audience complained that it was impossible to have an eight in the I-row, then the caller said, “I’m sorry. That’s B-1.” Even though we all got a terrific laugh out of that one, he looked genuinely embarrassed.
I came very close to winning the Nile cruised, but one of my 7th graders won it, essentially for his parent. I won a breakfast for two at a restaurant with one of the tow raffle tickets I’d bought. I knew that between the two numbers that I had, number 616 was a winner since it’s a palindrome. The only catch is that the restaurant isn’t open on Fridays and Saturdays—the only two days of the week I have off. I’ll just have to use it during spring break. Yet we were all winners since part of the money’s going to be used to build an inside climbing wall (oh, hell yeah!) and Thelma’s going to persuade the PTA to resurface our tennis court.
28 February 2002
This past weekend, we “celebrated” Eid El Adha. It’s a Muslim holiday; so we non-Muslims just had a four-day weekend. Eid is the holiday when Muslims commemorate the time when Allah (God) asked Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his only son, Ishmael (Isaac). Just as the faithful and obedient Ibrahim was about to slay his own son, the Angel of the Lord stopped him. A lamb was miraculously entangled in a nearby thorn bush; so Ibrahim sacrificed the lamb instead.
Well, Egyptian Muslims certainly don’t have to go to those extremes just to find a lamb to slaughter. For about a month, the lambs have been corralled in nearly every alley. Affluent Muslims don’t even bother to slay their won lambs. They just select the ones) they want. As a matter of fact, there were far more bovine carcasses hanging (literally) on the outside of the butchers’ hooks than normal. When I asked about why more cows were being slaughtered when the traditional meat for this holiday was lamb, I was told that richer Muslims always provided a variety of meats, especially the pricier meat—beef.
Marcelo told me that when he was a boy, the streets ran with blood. He and other little children anxiously awaited for the lamb to be slaughtered. One the blood started pouring, they would collect some of it and put their hands in t and touch the walls, business equipment, cars and other such items for good luck. I was also told that some mothers would smear blood around their baby’s mouth to symbolize Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his only child and perhaps for luck as well.
I thankfully missed all of the bloodletting, but I cheered on one lamb as he mounted another lamb in front of him. I thought, “Yea, get all you can now, buddy.”
Friday is the usual religious day of prayer, like Sunday is to Christians, but the praying started very early this past Friday. Luckily, I was already awake. I loaded into a van with seven other people to go to Siwa, an oasis in the Western Desert about 120 kilometers east of the Libyan border.
Although we could have shotgunned down to Siwa in about eight hours, we decided to take our time. In order to get to Siwa, on has to go west, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea for about 300 km, then south west for about another 300 km.
The first stop we made was in El Alamein where the Commonwealth War Cemetery and War Museum were. All of the nations that fought on the Allied Forces side in WWII were represented. It was amazingly beautiful, peaceful and unpolluted. Farther down the road were the German and Italian cemeteries—we didn’t visit those cemeteries, not out of patriotism, but there’s only so much one can take of cemeteries and war.
The museum was interestingly laid out so that every room was dedicated to a particular country. The best room, of course, was the Egyptian one. The mannequins in both the American and German rooms had goofy looks on their faces, but the entire museum was dusty and full of misprinted English. Once again, I really wanted to go through this museum and dust everything and correct all of the spelling. I guess the quality of this particular museum really looked low because compared to the pristine and beautifully done marble engravings at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, the War Museum just paled. I’m sure it’s just a matter of having the money for quality.
We went to the Alamein Hotel, which had a gorgeous view of the sea. We broke there for lunch, enjoying the sights and sounds—and the fleas. What torture! We ate our lunch as quickly as possible, but I delayed the group a bit when I ordered a plate of additional fires. I couldn’t help it; my chicken sandwich was barely palatable, but the French fries that came with it were absolutely delicious.
About 20 km outside of Marsa Matrouh, our driver slowed down and put the van in reverse. My first thought was that a piece of luggage had fallen off, but I was mistaken. Our driver had got caught in a speed trap. I wasn’t even aware that such a thing existed in Egypt. A guy, who had a speed gun and other equipment, was hiding in the bushes and somehow signaled to our driver. The driver got out to “talk” to the man.
The driver returned to the van to get a pack of cigarettes and Mabrouk, Diane’s Egyptian husband, gave him two coconut cookies. I don’t know if any money was also given, but I learned a new word that day, “rashwah” (bribe). (By the way, the driver had been going 100 km in a 90 km zone.) We safely drove away, passing the cops who were stationed 100 yards up the road. They would have pursued us had the man in the bushes radioed.
We briefly stopped in Marsa Matrouh. What a shit hole! I didn’t even leave THAT behind. The guidebook was definitely correct” away from the beach, there’s absolutely nothing to see in Marsa Matrouh. All of us women had to first roll up our pant legs then over without putting our hands on the disgusting walls. I thought that that was the worst bathroom I’d used in this country—until we came through on the way back and found one that was even more disgusting in between Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria.
I was so happy to reach the Safari paradise hotel in Siwa. As we were taking our luggage to the room, two Schutz students greeted me. (Damn) We all look at the school calendar and then the map and somehow go to the same in-country destinations. The only consolation was that I don’t teach them.
At least the dinner buffet was delicious and afterwards, the shower was properly hot. I was so happy to be in a beautiful and quiet oasis. Eagerly looking forward to a good night’s sleep, I snuggled under the covers and read a book while my roommate, Cathy, decided to go straight to sleep. About fifteen minutes later, I discovered that Cathy had an amazing talent: she had four distinct snores. (Double damn) Luckily, I’d brought some earplugs, but I also made a mental note that I could afford a single room the next time I traveled with a group. The next morning, Brandon, who was in charge of reserving the rooms, apologized to both Catherin and me. He just figured that for 8 people, only 4 double rooms were needed. Well, certainly the math was correct, but he conveniently forgot that only three out of four rooms were for MARRIED couples. SINGLE people need SINGLE rooms. Cathy and I still got our revenge traveling to and from Siwa since I rode shotgun, she had a whole seat to herself and the married folks had to share a seat with their spouse.
Siwa is known for its dates, olives and springs. As a matter of fact, one can easily buy Siwa water anywhere in Egypt. We had all the dates and olives that we could eat at the wonderful breakfast spread every morning. I found the dates delicious, but the olives were very, unpleasantly salty. Where there are olives, there’s olive oil. We all bought a bottle or two. I’m sure I’m the only one who bought the oil to use on hair. Only the best for my dreads!
The first day out, we were very anxious to hit the ruins. Just as sand dunes shift, it seemed that none of the buildings of antiquity were up to hanging around either. The first one we looked at was the Temple of the Oracle. It was perhaps the least crumbled structure and the most famous. Many travelers had come a long way just to consult with the oracle. The most famous visitor was Alexander the Great in 331 BC. He wanted confirmation that he was the son of Zeus-Amun. (During this time, the most powerful Geek god, Zeus, had merged with the most powerful Egyptian god, Amun.)
Down the road a little was an older temple dedicated to Amun, which means that it was even more crumbled and had less to show for it. I was truly in good company and a beautiful setting (the thousands of palm and olive trees all around); so I was not the least bit unimpressed. As a matter of fact, I took more pictures of these two temples than at any other site I’ve visited so far. It’s just not every day that one finds oneself immersed in an oasis. Whenever I climbed to any “highpoint”, which only hand to be about 2-3 storeys high, I could see beyond the jungle of palm trees to the surrounding desert—just like something out of the movies.
We made our way to Cleopatra’s bath, which was the biggest hot sulfur spring nearby. I’m now convinced that anything name after Cleopatra is skuzzy. That large circular pool had something that was a cross between algae and a true plant floating along the top. Despite the fact that several Europeans were swimming around the bath, we just took a few pictures and left. We headed for Fatnas springs, which were farther from town, but it was only a smaller version of Cleo’s. At least I dipped my feet in. I thought I could at least enjoy the view of the lake, but it was nearly dried up.
Our next stop was Gebel Dakrur. Most visitors go there in order to be submerged in the hot sands to cure rheumatism. They are submerged in the sand and then drink hot tea in a tent a couple of time a day for three days and then supposedly cured. We didn’t try that either. Gebel Dakrur is also known for the annual three-day celebration in October for the Siwan men. They use that time in order to celebrate togetherness and forgiveness. This celebration is less than two centuries old and was started in order to ensure that the Siwan community remained peaceful. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons the town was so quiet was because one would get flogged for playing loud music or singing in town. (How do we get this law passed in Alex?)
After lunch, a few of us walked to the town center in order to climb up Shali Fortress, which was built in the 13th century. I could see the salt in the mud brick walls. This was probably the most dangerous thing I visited (except for when I posed with the “Danger: Mines” sign, but I’m getting ahead of myself). The ruinous floor/ground were full of holes. At certain times, I was hoping that this wouldn’t be the time it caved under. I got a great shot of Mountain of the Dead in the distance and another great view of the oasis in general.
In the afternoon, we attempted to see Egypt’s first ecolodge, Adrere Amellal. We should have known that anything written up in a guide book as “soon to be one of the best places to stay in Egypt” would be way out of our league. There weren’t any signs, but we had an enjoyable scenic drive to get there. We even passed Bilad ar-Rum (City of the Romans), which was an impressive mountain of rock with hundreds of tombs cut out of it. As we continued, we finally got to a small gate in front of another mountain of rock. The high-tech security consisted of a battered metal trash can blocking the way. The guard was a grandfather who was also watching his grandson (who sadly enough had a lame foot).
Would you believe that we could not get in? The driver talked to the guard, then Mabrouk spoke with him. Later, a jeep came down from the mountain and the driver and Mabrouk spoke with him. Later, a jeep came down from the mountain and the driver and Mabrouk got out to talk to him. The conversation lasted about fifteen minutes, but we were not permitted. Apparently, there were some extremely rich people who’d reserved the entire lodge for privacy and no scrubs were allowed. We were told that we should have made an apt. and received permission to go out there. We all speculated about who could possibly have enough money to rent out an entire, expensive lodge: The president? Egyptian mafia? Drug dealers? Bin laden? We never found out and we couldn’t even see the lodge from the gate since it was safely tucked behind the mountain.
We slept in the next morning. After breakfast, we walked to the museum. Anyone wishing to see the museum has to really make a point to see it since it’s only open for two hours a day and closed on Friday. It costs a whopping LE 1.50 (forty cents) to get in. Although it was rather small, we finally saw some authentic and beautiful Siwan jewelry and such. Apparently, the traditions are quickly being lost. I bought a book written and signed by a Siwan anthropologist, who explained that the one man who made all of the jewelry, passed on his knowledge and tools to his son before they died. The son was killed in a car accident (Which causes me to think that he wasn’t killed in Siwa since there are hardly any cars. Instead of taxis, one has to hire a donkey cart.) Now no one makes the jewelry. It sounds unbelievable until one tries to buy something—anything, but it’s all dusty crap. At least the museum showed samples of what used to be there.
We went to the Mountain of the Dead next. During WWII, when the Italians were bombing, the Siwans hid in the tombs, which were cut into the mountain of rock. Quite a few soldiers took some of the tomb art before they left. Now, just empty tombs remain. Although there is supposedly some tomb art remaining, I didn’t see any. I climbed to the top and “discovered” a military camp on the other side of the mountain. On the top of the mountain wee four soldiers. I asked if I could take a picture with them, but only one agreed.
Later in the afternoon, we’d finally come to the moment we’d been waiting for: the sand dune drive. We hired a four-wheel drive from the hotel to take us out to the desert from 3 to 7 pm. Even though it sounded initially dull to me, I was quickly made a believer. Literally at the end of the road, the driver got out to deflate the tires for more traction. He then sped around the dunes like one sees on those car commercials and stopped breathtakingly on the edge of a sand dune. Remember that part in “Thelma Louise” when they decided to drive that the car into the Grand Canyon? Well, that scene past briefly through my mind. The driver who hardly spoke an English (or Arabic for that matter since Siwans are actually Berbers who hail from Libya, Morocco, and Algeria), but gestured if we wanted to go down. At that point, it was a moot question since we went too far over the point of putting the car in reverse. With very little momentum from the vehicle itself, we slid down at the same speed and angle of a roller coaster. About a minute later, another car did the same thing. Watching how vertically that vehicle plummeted, we could not believe that we’d just done the same thing. The more adventurous members of our group wanted to do it again.
The interesting thing about riding over dunes is that the horizon dips and rises; so one can never truly be certain how far the drop off is until you’re doing it. Although we never had a big drop like that first one, which was estimated at 20 meters (66 feet), the anticipation was nearly as much fun—especially with Cathy who was screaming, “O shit!” at nearly every turn.
At one point, the driver drove parallel to the edge of a high dune. The tricky thing about the exact edge of a dune is that it slips away once you put any pressure on it because it’s SAND. An avalanche of sand eroded away, causing the driver to jerk the wheel left and right in over to keep us close to the edge without falling over it sideways. Carrie, who was riding shotgun for this adventure, kept repeating, “This is why you have to trust the driver.” I’d much rather put my trust in higher things such as the laws of physics and not attempt to defy those laws.
Before anyone could throw up, we stopped to “get fossil souvenirs” as the driver stated in his limited English. We walked a few yards away from the car and were surrounded by seashells. I don’t know the last time the Mediterranean was that far south, but those oyster shells and sand dollars just didn’t swim in that desert without it. I was beside myself. Although I was quite tempted and allowed to take a fossil souvenir, I felt guilty about doing such a thing. I thought about how none of the Siwans knew how to make their traditional baskets and jewelry once tourists bought up the last few pieces. I settled for taking pictures since I knew that the fossils were not going to be replaced.
Tourism en masse is a relatively new thing to Siwa as evidenced by how sweet and friendly the children are. I predict that that secluded charm will no longer be there ten years from now. I also read from the same Siwan anthropologist’s book that people are learning about the outside world from TV; so young girls are seeing and hearing how “modern” women act and young boys are just seeing women.
We drove over some dunes again and stopped at a vantage point that permitted us to see a lake that was surrounded by wheat-looking plants to our right and a hot spring to our left. We went to the hot spring first. Too bad we didn’t go to that spring earlier in the day since it was the cleanest. Yet the wind had picked up and we didn’t feel like getting totally wet. This time, I soaked my legs up to my knees in the water. It was quite refreshing. I kept looking around and thinking, “I’m sitting in a desert off the edge of an oasis. Unbelievable.”
Most of our group chose to drink tea instead of sitting by the spring. I thought that was gross since there was only one source of water and I was soaking my feet in it. Even though boiling does wonders for killing microscopic organisms, it doesn’t take away the thought that one is drinking boiled water that people were just swimming/soaking in. I guess I don’t want to see the very recent history of the water I drink.
In order to get from the hot spring to the lake, we had to descend the second best dune drop. Exhilarating since our muscles were completely relaxed and we came upon it very quickly. We took a few pictures at the lake then perched on a very high sand dune in order to watch the sunrise. I wish I could report that it was a wonderful experience, but honestly, I could’ve skipped it. Even though watching the sky change colors was beautiful, a strong wind kicked up a lot of sand. I had it in my hair, the corners of my eyes, up my nose and in my mouth. As I spoke, I could feel my teeth crunching sand. (As I predicted, I had a nice sand pile on my pillow the following morning.)
Once we returned from the dune ride, Brandon, Carrie and I quickly showered and walked to the Shali Lodge, which we had visited earlier that day—very beautiful and comfortable lodge. We had dinner on the roof, which was heavenly. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was relaxing. The best thing about the hotel where I stayed and the Shali Lodge was that they’d build around the palm trees; so both restaurants had trees growing through tem and the rooms were somewhat irregularly spaced to allow for the trees. After dinner, Brandon ordered shisha, which he generously shared with his wife and me—a perfect ending to the day.
We all got up early the next day in order to hit the road. On the way to Mars Matrouh, just north of Siwa, there were a series of “Danger: Mine” sings on the right hand side of the road. We had the driver drive slowly by the sings since we wanted to take a picture beside one that had all of letter intact. We finally found one and half of us got out to take our pictures near or beside the sign. The people who remained in the van started talking about the “Darwin Awards,” which go to people who put themselves in the position to die in a stupid manner, thereby taking their DNA out of the gene pool. Well, none of us who posed with the “Danger: Mines” sign earned a Darwin. I just hope my pictures turn out well. (Besides, someone had to walk out from the road to put the sign there; so how dangerous could that little walk be?)
We made two more sops to take pictures of a herd of camels and some sheepherders with their flock. Strangely enough, the CAMELS did not seem to be bothered by the landmines.
Marsa Matrouh was a totally dead town, but we found an open hotel, the Beau Site, which lived up to its name. From our table, we had a view of the sea and all of its swirling hues of bluegreen. I ordered fried calamari and fries, which was a very indulgent meal. I’m glad I enjoyed it since it turned out to be the most expensive meal (for what I got) that I’ve had in this country. After the fact, I looked up the restaurant in my guidebook, which warned travelers to “beware of the prices.” I agree.
As the traffic became heavier, the noise level higher and the streets dirtier, I knew the vacation was over and we were reentering Alex. The two best things about our anticlimactic return were that we’d have a three-day school week and after sixteen school days, we’d be on a two-week spring break. Until then…
1 April 2002
I sort of felt like the April Fool today since nothing outside of the things I planned on teaching actually happened. After a wonderful two-week vacation, I knew that the first day back being on the “holiday” that teachers dread the most would be quite eventful. As far as the students were concerned, it was just an ordinary day. None of the craziness was of their doing. As a matter of fact, the students were the best part of the day. I love sharing that because it’s a rare experience to have all classes, particularly at this school, to be on task and pleasant to work with. None the students pulled a prank on me although I pulled a prank of my own.
I’ve been getting on the tennis players to return their medical forms, but a lot of them had been dragging their feet. Before spring break, I warned them that if they didn’t turn in their forms before the break, they would not play in the upcoming tournament. All but three turned in their forms. Since our first day back was on April Fool’s Day, I decided to have some fun and of course, teach those three students a lesson about being responsible.
I posted an official-looking tennis notice, as I’ve done every week since tennis season has begun, stating that the three students who had not turned in their medical form were off the team. I even name them. The ripples this notice created started very early. The first group of students, who were around when I posted the notice before school started, was very concerned players no longer on the team. With a straight face, I told them that we’d just use the alternate. By second break (when three-fourths of the school day was over), I wrote “Happy April Fool’s Day” on both of the notices. I still had one of the students who was listed on the notice check with me to see if he was on the team.
All-in-all, I took today in stride the best one could after returning from a vacation. I find that there’s always a bit of a letdown having to be back I’d just discovered another wonderful thing to do when in Egypt, besides diving in the Red Sea—lounging on a sundeck of a Nile cruise ship. Despite the food buffet for the meals and the cool temple visits in Luxor and Aswan and some sites in between, sipping white wine, read a book, writing in my journal, smoking an occasional cigarillo and watching the Nile scenery drift gracefully by was the best part. The best thing I can say (which is regrettably racist) was that the whole experience was so wonderful that it was like NOT being in Egypt.
Sitting in my rinky-dink apartment where several things are in different states of disrepair with pervasive noise pollution and muddied “war-torn” streets of the surrounding ghetto is my Egyptian reality. (The streets are being torn up to put in gas lines.) Certainly not the peacefulness, beauty and relaxing time I spent on the cruise ship.
I spend a few days in Giza before flying to Luxor to get on the boat. One of my favorite hotels is the Mena House, which is within walking distance from the pyramids. As a matter of fact, my room had a good view of Cheops looming on the horizon. The weather was so warm that I could gaze at Cheops while playing in the pool. I hadn’t been back to visit the pyramids since I’d ridden my beloved camel around. This time, I walked around to see them.
I first visited the tombs of some “aristocrats” who served Cheops, but then I was quite excited to go into Chephren since that was my first time inside. Despite how huge this pyramid was, the tunnels were quite narrow and I had to stoop over—and I’m only 5’5”! The first narrow passage went steeply down. Then, it leveled off and one was able to stand up and mentally prepare for the next narrow passage, which went steeply up. For part of the walk, one could stand up, then one had to “assume the Position” and stoop over. This was definitely not for the claustrophobic or faint-hearted since the temperature increased and the air was quite stale. Yet, after enduring journey to the final chamber I was “underwhelmed,” quite disappointed. If there had been much there, there wasn’t now. The tomb was extremely plain and the only memorable thing on the wall was a name (Italian, I think). I thought I’d redeem myself by going into Cheops since it is the biggest of the three pyramids, but of course, I can never get the schedule correct. Cheops was due to open for touring at 1 pm—two hours later. I was already quite hot and had seen everything else. Besides, the pool was calling me. Oh, well, I’ll just have to revisit and stay at the Mena House, a charming five-star hotel that has the best Indian restaurant in Egypt and all the rooms have a tub for a hot bath.
I’d brought my bath oils for this vacation and everywhere I stayed had a tub; so I indulged in a bath nearly every night since I don’t have one here. I was quite impressed at the size of the tub in my cruise ship cabin. I thought I’d feel funny taking a bath on a ship, but I had no idea that the ship was even moving until I looked out of the window or was on the sundeck.
One thing I hadn’t counted on was the morning wake up calls. The first one came at 6:30 for breakfast. Certainly, breakfast was worth getting up for, but I couldn’t believe that it was so early. Our mornings and evenings were totally planned for us. We usually toured a few temples/tombs in the morning before the temperature became too uncomfortable, then we returned to the boat to lounge until lunch. If we weren’t cruising during and after lunch, then we toured another site in the afternoon. One of my favorite cruising days, so other teachers from Schutz and I sat in the sundeck pool (which aw more of a dipping pond), sipping on cocktails when Bryce brought up his guitar. All of the kids ran to sit at his feet like he was the Pied Piper. The rest of us sat in the pool, singing along.
One of my favorite sites was Queen Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. She was the only woman who crowned herself pharaoh and was always depicted with the false beard of the pharaohs. Her reign lasted 20 years and she apparently was a very good diplomat because she increased trade in the region and never had to go to war. Despite her good work, her successor, who turned out to be her stepson, envied her and attempted to erase her from history by defacing all of her images. The only intact image at the temple was one that showed her pregnant.
I visited the Valley of the Kings and Queens, which is worth a revisit. I didn’t pay the additional LE 40 ($10) to see King Tut’s tomb since it’s totally stripped of its contents, which I’ve seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I also did not pay the additional LE100 (25) to see Queen Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens. Supposedly, the powers that be will only allow 150 people in a day since the natural colors in the tomb are so well preserved and can only stay that way if they closely regulate the number of sweaty tourists going in. In addition, no cameras are allowed, regardless of whether you turn off you flash. I originally thought that that was just yet another money-making scheme, but I later witnessed some annoying tourists who were taking pictures in temples where cameras-without-the-flash were allowed, but were flashing away since they were such fuckwits that they did not know how to turn the flash off. I gave one woman such a lethal “teacher look” that her eyes became very big and she quickly went to another chamber and asked someone to help her turn off her flash.
Now, Queen Nefertari was not same woman as Queen Nefertiti, who was the wife of my favorite pharaoh, Ankhenaton. Queen Nefertari was the favorite wife of Ramses II, who actually had five wives. Nefetari’s tomb is so lavish (so I’m told) that I wonder what the other queens got.
The final destination for the cruise ship was Aswan, a place I’m definitely going to return to. People have romantically referred to a beautiful Black person as a “Nubian king or queen,” but rally don’t understand how beautiful a Nubian is until met in person. Nubians have a richer hue to their complexion than the Lower Egyptian (who are in Alex and Cairo). Majority of the population in Aswan are Nubian.
We first visited the site of the unfinished obelisk (a tapered stone pillar), which would have been the biggest obelisk erected had a crack not developed in the granite. I think this was my least favorite site to visit and it truly seemed like a money-trap. That obelisk should be used to construct a better Egyptian museum in Cairo.
Next, we visited the Aswan High Dam, which was completed to replace the 1902 Dam. I thought this was going to be another dull visit, but the tour guide provided us with some interesting facts to supplement the trip. For example, the resulting lake, Lake Nasser is the largest artificial lake in the world and could provide Egypt with enough water for a 10-year drought. However, humans rarely can build anything to regulate nature that doesn’t disrupt other natural processes. The silt that used to flow and fertilize the land, especially the delta, no longer nourishes the land and artificial fertilizer has to be used. There are expensive plans in the works to remove all the silt that is collecting in Lake Nasser and put it into the Nile.
Another result of the dam is that it totally displaced the indigenous Nubian land. The Nubians allegedly agreed to the sacrifice for the greater good of the country. This explains why there are so many Nubians in Aswan. Heroic global efforts were made to preserve and document as much of the Nubian and Egyptian culture as possible.
The first impressive rescue was the Temple of Philae, which was dedicated to Isis and was the last functioning temple of the Isis cult in Egypt. This temple can only be reached by a ferry since it’s located on a small island. Other than the stunning beauty of the temple, it’s amazing that the structure used to be half way underwater. So, UNESCO organized to move the entire temple to its present location, which was no small feat.
I spent one night in Aswan after I finished my Nile cruise and stayed at the historic Old Cataract Hotel, which had the most luxurious decorated lobby I’d ever seen. A lot of deep reds and intricate, Turkish tessellated patterns. I felt underdressed and scrubby just walking into the lobby. The lobby, hallways, restaurants, and rooms all had high ceilings. The hallways were beautifully carpeted, long and arched. I had an eerie feeling of being on the set of one of my favorite movies, “The Shining.” As a matter of fat, Agatha Christie often stayed at the Old Cataract and part of the movie “Death on the Nile” was filmed there.
I felt so happy, walking around like a normal human being, in shorts on a hot day. The surprisingly modern Nubian Museum was in short walking distance from the Old Cataract. Since Aswan had several granite quarries (which has supplied material for the pyramids and temples), most of the museum was built using pink granite. The museum was the result of an international effort to preserve Nubian culture. I’ve never visited a museum where things were so well laid out. This was certainly the only museum I’ve visited in Egypt where things were adequately labeled. In some places, the lighting was too dim, but overall, I know I have to return since I had just 1 ½ to visit and didn’t even make it to the second floor.
After eating lunch on a barge in the Nile, I hired a felucca (sailboat) to go to Kitchener’s Island. Lord Kitchener was a consul-general and the commander of the Egyptian army in the 1890’s. He used a small island as his own botanical effort, importing plants from around the world. It’s now officially the Aswan Botanical Island, but no one really calls it that. I walked around the island three times, taking a slightly different path in order to see everything and the effort probably took a little over an hour to do.
The next morning, I left for Abu Simbel. Egyptians basically run a “flying bus” service to whisk people between Abu Simbel and Aswan in three-hour increments. I’ve never felt so “cattled” before. So, I guess it was a good thing that one of the temples that Ramses II had dedicated in Abu Simbel was to Hathor, the cow-headed goddess. (Interesting to note that whenever Hathor was depicted with a woman’s face and cow ears, her hair looked like dreads. I’ll have to email a good picture of that and see if you agree.)
I don’t know much about Ramses II except that he was a superb military leader who kicked everybody’s ass and erected a lot of temples dedicated the gods Horus, Isis, and Hathor and of course, himself. I visited several of his temples and the most impressive one in my opinion was the one in Abu Simbel, which is the southernmost city along the Nile in Egypt, before one enters Sudan.
My favorite depiction of Ramses II showed the pharaoh pulling the hair of his enemies, who were on their knees in anguish, while he beat the absolute shit outta them. I’ve got a postcard of one of these depictions and it states “Ramses II annihilating his enemies,” which is the more PG way of describing it. I just thought that if it worked for Ramses II, then we should incorporate corporal punishment in our school’s discipline policy.
I flew into Cairo and nearly froze my buns off. Upper Egypt had been so deliciously warm that I probably sensed that Cairo was much colder than it actually was. I had to wait a few hours in Cairo since my train didn’t leave until 8 that night. I ate at an “okay” Italian restaurant where the mixed drinks were the best thing it had going for it. I left the restaurant 30 minutes before the train was due to leave, which under normal circumstances, would have been plenty of time. Well, I ended up getting stuck in traffic and missed the train by five minutes. Luckily, I’d run to the tracks; so I was in time for a train of lesser quality, but at least I got on. I thought the conductor was going to give me a hassle since my ticket wasn’t for the train that I was on. I figured at worst, I’d have to pay even though I held a ticket for a more expensive train. Another Egyptian man who was fluent in both Arabic and English helped the conductor and me to communicate. I was very happy when the guy translated for the conductor, “You are my guest.” I was able to ride without paying more.
Just like my last long vacation, I returned to a cold and rainy Alex. At least this time I’d missed the rains, which chased away the sand storm. Unlike in the movies, a sand storm doesn’t have any dramatic welling up of sand; there’s just a polluted haze of sand in the air that lasts for about fifty days and coats everything.
After an idyllic vacation, I was forced back into the world of reality. As I put together my photo album before I had the chance to forget the names of the places where the pictures were taken, my attention was drawn to the “pep rally” outside. I went to the roof to get a better view. Janece was already on the roof with her camcorder. When I asked her what all the hoopla was about, she informed me that she wasn’t sure, but Sharon had just ordered troops around Arafat’s home (compound?). The protestors looked like middle school students from one of the surrounding schools. Other than chanting loudly and blocking traffic, they were harmless. The school children’s protests have occurred whenever one batch would get out of school. (Egyptian public schools have three shifts since there are far more students than schools.) Every day since then, the protests have lost their original zeal as kids lose interest when the novelty wears off.
The most active protests usually occur around the universities—none of which are near Schutz. Yet, President Mubarak is quite good at containing the college students’ protests within the university walls. Life seems pretty normal as I walk around the city just in case anything breaks out. The only thing we’ve been warned of is to keep a low profile, which has been my usual mode of operation. Although Egyptians are generally amused by my hair, I don’t walk around showing leg, shoulder or mid-drift.
Yes, I’m back in the REAL Egypt now.
10 May 2002
After spring break, all hell broke loose as far as “normal routine” was concerned (although ‘normalcy’ in Egypt is a belief one takes on faith with empirical evidence pending). We witnessed a week’s worth of middle school-aged students protesting around our streets, my favorite class became the number one class I no longer wanted to teach and the accreditation team made their visit. That was enough to motivate me to fondly look at the calendar to find out when I could escape again for vacation. I had to wait a whole month! I know how pathetic that sounds, but time here folds back on itself. What lasts for a week, seems like two. I feel as if I’ve been here going on two years rather than nine months.
My geometry students had generally been the on class I could count on to be mature and on top of things. Whereas every other class had returned from spring break relaxed and cooperative, my geometry class was buck wild. They would hardly settle down and whined about how much work I had assigned. After a week (which is three class meetings since we’re on block schedule) of that bullshit, I thought about how best to get them back in line. The following week, I addressed them as young adults, telling them the brutal honest truth. Their behavior and attitudes had been so terrible that I truly did not care to teach them anymore. But since I was contractually bound to teach them, I’d outlined the rest of the work that we had to cover until the end of the school year. I let them know when the next two tests were going to be, then told them that if they wanted any more time on an assignment or to delay a test, then they would have fewer days to student for the final. That cured the complaints about the workload. I also added that if anyone bothered to voice a complaint during class, they would be asked to leave—which is an effective punishment since no student likes being asked to leave class and my students have the added consequence of getting a zero for the day. Anyone who believes that everyone should have the right to free speech has never taught teenagers geometry.
Fortunately, those measures nipped a lot of bad behavior in the bud and I could breathe during class, but not for long since the accreditation team came for their visit the following week. Every ten years an accreditation team comes out to participate in a full assessment of the school. The school performs a five-year assessment to review the plan and to make plans on what to do with the second half of the decade. So lucky me started working here during the big assessment on top of the heaviest teaching load I’ve ever attempted.
Since we’re a small school, all of us teachers already wear a lot of hats. Then we had accreditation drooped in our laps and life became even more difficult. I was part of two committees, middle school education and student services. I could’ve really been part of three committees since I also teach high school.
The middle school report was subdivided into sections and I became responsible for the math section. Then I got “set up” to be the chair for the student services committee. There were only two non-Egyptians on that committee, Cathy the librarian, and me. Bruce, the head of school, met with us in his office for the sole purpose of choosing a chairperson. The unwritten rule was quite clear: either Cathy or I had to be the chair. Since Cathy had to do the entire media services report by herself, I was the default choice. Looking back, I was fortunate since I could put pressure on my Egyptian colleagues whereas it would have been politically bad for one of them to put pressure on one another.
So in addition to planning for four different classes, I had to gather information and write up a report for two different committees. (Is there any wonder why I’m always pining for a vacation?) In my bitterness, I’d written that my classroom either needed quieter air-conditioners or air-conditioners or a microphone since I had to talk at the top of my voice to teach over the AC when the weather was hot. A week before the accreditation team visit, I received my new air-conditioner. This was good for two reasons since I got a quieter AC in my classroom and bedroom. (The AC unit in my bedroom had developed an unbearable squeak. When I asked for a new one, I got the “noisy” one from my classroom to replace the even noisier one in my bedroom. So it’s comparatively quitter and cooler in my bedroom.)
I also had the chance to show one member of the accreditation team my apartment, which is one of the smallest. We resident staff had recently had our knickers in a twist when Bruce had his apartment renovated to look like a condo in the States, which really made the resident teachers’ apartments look very shabby in comparison, Moreover, simple repairs take weeks to get done; however, his apartment overhaul took a mere two months. Despite the fact that Bruce alienated himself from the resident teachers with his “condo,” the real reason the committee strongly recommended that all resident teachers’ apartments be renovated was due to the high staff turnover. (It’s ironic that when Bruce recruited my group, he was especially looking for couples. Well, two out of the three couples who came with me are breaking contract. One couple became pregnant and the other just figure they’d cut their losses and go. This time around, Bruce hired more single people and just one couple.)
Then the school board was curious to see resident teacher apartments after the accreditation team recommendation. Most members were appalled by our apartments, especially since they saw Bruce’s place first. I was very excited to show them my apartment—until I saw the high school student council rep. among them. As much as I wanted the board members to see my apartment, I certainly didn’t want any student to see it. I suddenly felt as if my privacy had been invaded.
To make matters worse, a friend had given me a “Chippendale” calendar for Christmas, which I’d hung in my closet of a bedroom since I’d already had two calendars in my living room. I’d completely forgotten about it. All I kept envisioning was the whole school buzzing about that damn calendar the next day. Apparently, the student didn’t go into my bedroom. That “incriminated” calendar now hangs in Ross’s apartment. She’d agreed to switch apartments with me if I gave her that calendar. I readily agreed. Although our apartments are the same size, the layout of the two is totally different.
And to add to the craziness, we had parent conferences out the wahzoo for the past two weeks. Since two different people arrange the MS and HS conference appointments, I was double booked one day and totally forgot about one of them.
So for this vacation, I went to Dahab, which is the only place that the guidebook said was unfairly called a “drug-infested hippie hangout.” I figured that would be the place where the laid-back people were. I was too late making my reservations in order to get a place in the center of the small strip; so I had to “settle” for the Hilton.
One would think that a posh place like the Hilton would have a shuttle from the airport in Sharm El Sheik to Dahab, which is around an hour and a half away. I had to negotiate with several drivers before I secured one, who was going to take me to the bus station originally. His first price was LE 140, but my starting price was LE 100 ($21.70). I tried hard to get him down to LE 110, even taking out the exact amount, but his final offer was LE 115 ($25). I figured that there was no need to argue over LE ($1.25), but I gave him a challenge, just for shit and giggles.
I told him that if he could get me to Dahab by 10:30, I’d give him the additional LE 5. What a death wish! He sped off and lessened our distance in no time. I could hardly believe how curvy that desert road was. I thought we were going to flip a couple of time. I arrived at the Hilton safely in an hour and ten minutes. The Hilton designed itself to resemble an oasis with a lot of artificial lagoons. I was very pleased with both the view and the room. Even so, I did not take a lot of pictures since the scenery didn’t change much, except for when I snorkeled, which I quickly got dressed to do as soon as I checked into my room.
There wasn’t much to see just off the Hilton beach, but I still enjoyed being back in the Red Sea. One thing I hadn’t expected to see was a bay full of windjammers. If I’d had a week to play at the beach, I would’ve taken a class to learn how to do it. After an hour of snorkeling, I did probably the second best thing: lounge on the beach. The only time I get long stretches of blessed silence is when I’m on vacation. I took full advantage of it.
The next day, I caught a “cab” (a guy in a small truck, waiting to take tourists where they needed to go) to The Mirage Village, a hotel north of the Hilton. “Eel Garden” was just off the coast, where some better snorkeling was. I walked farther north once I got there. Some people who were coming back from snorkeling, advised me to walk to the last restaurant and then snorkel. The restaurant had a Bedouin-style tent on the beach. I asked one of the guys who worked there if I could put my stuff down and then snorkel. He was not all pressed about it. As a matter of fact, no one seemed bothered about anything. I geared up and as soon as I put my face in the water for a mask check, I was shocked to see how close to the coral I already was in just knee-deep water.
I swam out against the current, thinking that the water would soon get deeper, but I still swam just a few feet above the coral. The wind caused the waves to be choppy; I was bouncing up and down over the coral. Although I never landed on any, I couldn’t relax since I expected to go down on some coral at any moment. Even though I saw more of a variety of marine life, especially huge black sea cucumbers, there was also a lot of damaged coral.
I returned to the Bedouin tenet, toweled off then lounged in the sun at a nearby table. I ordered a falafel sandwich, tahini (sesame paste) and a salad which consisted of chopped tomatoes, onions and green bell pepper. I was definitely in paradise.
The next day, I had another death wish when I rented a peddle boat in the early afternoon. The wind was kicking up hard and the bay was full of windjammers. Then there was me in the damn peddle boat, which started off steering well, but…I got in the middle of the bay with windjammers whizzing by and I could barely steer the boat since it was bouncing up and down in the choppy water. I managed to peddle back and I switched to an antiquated kayak. I figured that I’d balance off my leg workout with some upper body work. This time, I cruised close to the shoreline. I must be terribly out of shape since I didn’t last too long. I paddled ashore and wisely returned to my lounge chair on the beach.
Later that day, I went out on a small boat with French and British tourists to snorkel at a spot called Napoleon’s Reef. The reef was 15 minutes away and two other boats were already there. Fortunately, the other two groups had already swum to the other side and were nearly finished. I could hardly believe my eyes. The variety of corals and fish were just like diving. Ironically, now that I was snorkeling in the best spot I’d ever been, my damn goggles kept fogging up.
In order to snorkel the whole reef, one swims counterclockwise around it. During the last leg of the trip, one has to swim directly above it. Even though it looks as if you’d sink down to it, things just look closer than they actually are. One of the French women was very freaked out by that. A guy hung back with her, trying to assure her that it was OK to swim over the coral. Apparently she hadn’t snorkeled at Eel Gardens. At least we weren’t bouncing up and down.
As I was taking in the view, I felt a knock against my leg. I turned around to see a man flailing about, all limbs uncoordinated and doing their own thing. I moved aside to get out of his way and to see what could be after him. As he went past me, he was not being pursued. He attempted to straighten out and swim. My first impulse was to resume snorkeling, but then I decided to watch him a bit more. He was still swimming erratically, but not drowning. If he had been drowning, he could have easily stood up on the reef and had his head above water. Yet, I think he still had enough wits about him not to damage the coral, if at all possible.
Since I’m not trained to save a drowning or distressed person, I cautiously approached him from behind and caught onto his elbow, making sure that he could not reach around and grab me and possibly drown me. I kicked strongly so we could clear the reef. Once we were in open water, I slowed down and turned him on his back. I swam on my back with my arm around his shoulder. He lifted his mask and just started taking deep breaths and thanking me in French. He know less English than I knew French, but what I managed to piece together was that he’d had a panic attack and didn’t know what had triggered it.
His friends were on the boat, laughing at him. The Egyptian guy who’d brought us out there, asked me what had happened, but he didn’t seem to understand “panic attack.” At any rate, I save him one trip to rescue a distressed snorkeler, but he had to go out to help the woman who still had not been convinced to swim over the coral.
We were all accounted for by the time we left. I usually bring chocolate on a snorkeling/diving trip to refresh my mouth. I gave a piece to the French guy, who’d calmed down. I also gave him some tissue. He’d scraped his leg on something during his panic attack, which must have burned like hell in that salt water.
It was nice to end my vacation with a bit of drama, but the best things was taking a day off at the tail end of the Eastern Easter holiday; so while everyone else returned to school on Tuesday, I was still chilling in Dahab. Since Wednesday is the worst day of the week for me, I was quite happy to start the two-day teaching week on a Wednesday. My coworkers welcomed me back as if I’d been away for much longer—perhaps it felt longer.
19 August 2002
I truly thought that coming back would be much worse than it’s actually been. As a matter of fact, that the worst part so far was the trip itself—specifically at the RDU airport. I had three pieces of luggage to check in and two carry-ons; so I was not pleased after the airline worker informed me that I had to take all of my things to a security tale to have my checked-in luggage searched. I looked at her incredulously since I’d just gotten over the fact that international passengers couldn’t check their luggage curbside, causing me to queue in a snail’s pace line. I immediately questioned her on whether everyone traveling to Egypt had to be searched (I’d overheard the couple beside me say that they were going to Egypt and they were sent to the security table as well). She assured me that had nothing to do with it—the computer “randomly” selected passengers to be searched. (Tragically, this airline doesn’t know the generally accepted definition of “random.” If first class passengers are NEVER selected to be searched, then that blows the whole random thing. Furthermore, when I stood in the shorter and slower security line, I noticed that we were all minorities.) I made a big show of being so encumbered that the woman helped me roll my belongings over.
When my turn finally came, I rolled over one piece of luggage with a smaller bag on top. As I turned to roll over the second piece and its accompanying bag, the security guy asked me in a friendly way, “whatcha got in here?” I replied in friendly way, but under my breath, “explosives.” Admittedly that was a stupid thing to say, but I was pissed about being in what I believed to be a racially-profiled security check. Once I rolled over the second piece of luggage, the security guy said, “Are you serious?”
Noting the serious look on his face, I quickly broke out with my best Southern Belle smile and said, “No, I was just kidding.” That seemed to appease him (I did learn one thing from reading Gone with the Wind). He informed me that I could get into a lot of trouble kidding like that and advised me not to do it again. He was actually a pleasant conversationalist as he whipped through absolutely EVERYTHING in my bag. (Contrast that with the Egyptian customs check where the guy saw my o.b. tampons and questioned me about them. He was so horrified with embarrassment after I explained to him what they were, he quickly zipped up the bag and let me through without checking the rest of my things.) He saw my wetsuit and started telling me of all the places he’d dove around the world when he was in the Marines. I was very impressed when he repacked the suitcase better than I had.
Next, I went through the usual security check of x-raying my stuff and walking through the metal detector. I quickly ate and arrived at my gate with a few minutes to spare. When I finally thought I was going to board the plane, the airline worker informed me that I had to go to the security section. I was truly pissed then. I had not realized that the “zone 2” printed on all of my boarding passes meant that I was going to be stopped and searched again—this time, my carry on things and my person. There were three security people to check me out. One to search my backpack, one to inspect my laptop carrying case and another to check me out.
As the guy who was checking out my backpack unzipped the main compartment, I saw my purse that I’d put inside and remembered that the key needed to open the lock on my laptop case was in there. As any normal person would’ve done, I reached over to get the key out of the purse and the guy jumped back as if I were pulling out an AK-47 as if THAT wouldn’t’ve been picked up by the damn x-ray machine. When I pulled out the diminutive key that would’ve been quite challenging to use as a lethal weapon, the man stated that I should have told him why I was reaching into the bag. I felt like telling him that I wasn’t in the habit of asking other people’s permission to reach into my own bag, but I figured I might get into trouble. Then, I assumed the position so the woman could inspect me with a metal detector. I was fuming about how redundant it was to “randomly” check the same damn person twice before a flight, when her question jarred me back to the present: May I run my thumbs along the inside of your waistband? I did not react well. I argued with her a bit, but in the end, she ran her damn thumbs around my waistband since the metal button to fasten my jeans had set off her metal detector. I just wondered how much safer my fellow passengers felt after I had to lift my shirt a bit and have that total stranger run her thumbs around my waistband.
Fortunately, I had no problems in Dulles or Frankfurt. I love the Frankfurt airport. As soon as one gets off the airplane, one is hit with a cloud of cigarette smoke. Luckily, it’s not so thick and one can read the ubiquitous “Frankfurt is a smoke-free airport” posters. But the real reason I love the Frankfurt airport is for the duty-free shop. I didn’t know how important it was to have a stock of liquor in Egypt, but I learned my lesson last year. I was determined to start the school year off with at least ten liters of alcohol. I already had about three liters waiting for me at school. I figured that I could carry about four liters comfortably with me and then buy the remaining three once I got to Egypt. (Hey, who said math wasn’t useful? Unfortunately, I came up short of my liquor goal since neither of the two duty-free shops I went to had any liquor that I cared to buy. According to Egyptian customs, one can only buy at duty-free shops 24 hours of arriving in the country.) I was a bit disappointed about not finding a bottle of Kahlua and had to buy five little shot bottles of it instead.
Since I’d arrived in Frankfurt at nine in the morning and wasn’t leaving until nine at night, I was put up in a hotel. I had to ask five different people how to get to the hotel shuttle. I found that Germans are like Tanzanians when giving directions: they’ll tell you the correct instructions, but only enough to send you away from them and you have to ask someone for the next step. I wasn’t impressed when we pulled up to the hotel, but it was clean and comfortable. I’d left a message for Krystal and Don, who were also returning Schutz teachers and staying at the same hotel. I’d had a good nap before Krystal had called. They came over for a bit, then returned to their room to sleep and freshen up. We had dinner together some hours later, making sure that we ordered one of our favorite drinks since it would be hard to come by in just a few mind-boggling hours.
Arriving in Egypt at two in the morning and groggy has a way of making one think that it’s not really happening. I’m not REALLY in a pathologically-sexually repressed, alcohol scarce developing country, am I? Oh, boy was I! The reality settled in when Krystal, Don and I were standing outside of the airport, waiting for the school driver I’d scheduled to pick us up. Well, I must have been too overwhelmed with joy over my impending departure to the States when I requested the driver to pick us up. I’d inadvertently written down the 16th rather than the 17th. Oops! All I could think of was that I was going to leave the States on one day and arrive in Egypt the next day. Well, I did in fact leave Germany the night of the 16th, but we definitely had arrived on the 17th. Don Krystal outwardly handled it well as we secured a taxi for all of our luggage plus two cats for LE 50. Our luggage seemed to be precariously stacked and bungeed, but we had no problem as we whipped through the near empty Alexandrian streets. Normally, taxis aren’t allowed on campus, but the school guard who had to be awakened by the police guard, made an exception when he saw all of our stuff piled on top.
I’d planned to make a couple of trips to take my stuff up the three flights of stairs to my “new” apartment (I’d switched with another teacher), but when I stepped into the apartment with the first load of stuff, I could scarcely believe my eyes: the walls had been painted a cheery yellow, they’d re-carpeted, re-upholstered, and re-curtained. AND IT WAS ALL COLOR-COORDINATED. Sorry, I didn’t’ mean to yell, but this was a minor miracle. I’d jokingly told someone before I’d left that I’d wanted my apartment renovated like Bruce’s, the head of school who’d pissed off all the resident teachers by renovating his own apartment very comfortably while the rest of us lived in hovels. (Now do keep in mind that I’ve yet to have hot water in my shower since I’ve arrived and the door to “adult-sized” refrigerator came completely off its hinges when I first opened it, but it’s still an improvement.) I was dreaming about how to rearrange the furniture when Don knocked at the door with my heavy luggage. (I MUST get my own husband one of these days; they’re so useful whenever heavy or broken things are about.)
So at about 3:30 am, I was moving all of the furniture around to get the correct feeling in the room. The biggest room in the apartment is a bedroom/living room combination—like a glorified dorm room. The previous occupant had the bed jutting out in the middle of the room like some beached whale. I pushed it to the side of the room and arranged the living room furniture so it was the dominant focus. By the time I went down for breakfast at eight, I’d moved everything to where I wanted, unpacked most of my luggage, and had taken a quick shower, but I hadn’t slept.
Even though I normally don’t drink coffee, I had some that morning just so I could stay up, finish unpacking and hopefully get a jumpstart on changing my circadian rhythms. I met all of the new staff during breakfast. I was a bit delirious, but I could tell that even had I been well-rested, our new tech. coordinator was a little…different. First of all, I couldn’t initially tell whether or not he was looking at me when he was talking to me. He’s not cockeyed, but seems to look a few inches left or right of my eyes. I wondered if that was some sort of neurological thing and I may be onto something since his conversation isn’t exactly linear.
At breakfast, he was rolling in the glory of knowing a lot of passwords and telling us how we really didn’t have any privacy and if he wanted to, he could read our things and trace where we’d been on the internet. Well, that last part didn’t surprise me since I know it happens all the time, but I was a bit alarmed at how full he was of his own “power.” I just kept thinking, “Yeah buddy, you can piss in the pool all you want, but you’re still swimming in piss with the rest of us.” It doesn’t pay to make waves at work when you live with the very same people you work with and will grow to depend on.
Then, at lunch he seemed to have calmed down a bit, but when I asked him if he was still in charge of TV/VCR’s since I wanted to know if we could keep a unit in the gym to play exercise tapes, he launched into a speech about liability and keeping logs when someone broke something. I figured he must still be overwhelmed by the move. Things like liability, logic, logs and virtually any other professional L-word had naught to do with the way things are “traditionally” done at Schutz. As a matter of fact, “tradition” is the number one reason why the school clings tenaciously to assbackward procedures. I figured I’d wait and let the Schutz madness was over him a bit to smooth out the rough edges before I asked him for any computer favors.
I’m quite happy that my new neighbors, a friendly couple who have three laptops and a beautifully adorable dog named Strider, could help me out with setting up my new laptop and it only cost me a few shots of Cuervo 1800 tequila. Not only did they give me an Ethernet cable, but Mel tried several methods to transfer the music from my old laptop onto my new one. I’m still listening to the music from my old one since nothing has proven to be successful. I may just keep it to listen to the music. It sounds indulgent, but I must have my music.
I’ve got about a week to get my act together before school starts. The best thing is that I won’t have my first meeting until tomorrow. It’s been heaven to have a few days to get myself together. I’d meant to put all of my bulletin boards together, but I couldn’t get into my locked closet. I’d left the combination behind where I could find it, but over the summer, my classroom was “supercleaned.” In other words, I’ve been tidied! Now I have to wait until someone looks up the number on my lock and gives me the combination. Oh well, I’ll just have to start writing stupid lesson plans sooner than I expected.
8 September 2002
I survived the first full week of school with no problems. The only real campus-wide controversy was the issue of titles. “Traditionally” (a very dirty word around here used to stymie progress), Schutz students have referred to teachers by their first names. I was initially okay with that last year, but after a mere few weeks, I was completely over having the spoiled Egyptian princes calling me by my first name. We ended last school year undecided about the title issue. During one of many useless meetings that we had before the start of school, the head of school suggested that each teacher decide how s/he wanted to be addressed. I’m currently going by Ms. Roberson, which is taking most of my students a while to adjust to since they all knew me by “Teresa” last year. Some teachers argued that titles don’t bring respect, which I agree with, but I also agree that I don’t want to be on a first name basis with students who refer to their maids and drivers by their first name. Besides, this year I’m making chewing out spoiled Egyptian butts the staple of my diet.
Preparing for classes is much easier the second time around, plus I have a study hall this year. It’s like getting another 225 minutes of planning time. Although I only have four students in my study hall, I had to come down on one girl who thought she was going to socialize during class. I cracked the whip and I think I shocked all of them with my strict insistence on no idle talk.
I’m so prepared in fact, that I’m going to use some of my planning time to teach interested students how to drum some African rhythms. Doesn’t concern me in the least that I don’t know how to drum. I know what it’s supposed to sound like and we have some talented student musicians who should be able to pick it up. I need to get them started now since I want to teach both students musicians who should be able to pick it up. I need to get them started now since I want to teach both students and teachers (and anyone else who cares to show up) three African dances for Black History month in February. I’ve also selected several poems by Black American writers to be dramatically recited in between the dances.
The first production that I’m nervously putting together is billed as “What’s Shaking with Shakespeare?” At the end of last year, I got a bug up my ass to do something funky with Shakespeare and now I’m kicking that off. When I was back in the States, I picked up an extremely heavy book, called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for $3—what the Bard’s worth, in my opinion. I was very concerned that the students wouldn’t go for the idea of performing Shakespeare even though I was selecting certain parts, having them sing, rap or cheer the lines, and then adding some grooving tunes in between. My absolute favorite piece is the exchange that I selected from “The Taming of the Shrew,” which I’m going to end by playing Carlos Santana’s “Evil Ways.” I’m going to have the students salsa after that recitation of lines.
I put up audition fliers last week, letting the students know that they “only” had to sing for a minute and dance for a minute. Not a soul signed up. The following day, one brave student enlightened me that students were interested in performing, but were terrified of the one minute of dancing. Can you believe that? This school has 6 or 7 stupid dances a year and the students would probably be game for even more, but to dance on stage for a minute in front of two teachers was a no-go. I dropped the dance requirement and currently have 11 students signed up to audition. Out of the eleven, only three students are Egyptian despite the fact that they are the majority at school. Talk about apathetic.
On the first day of school, we had a morning spirit assembly. A group of us teachers participated in a play, which ended in what was supposed to be a cheering contest between us teachers on stage and the student audience of 7th—12th graders. We began the “We got spirit, yes we do. We got spirit. How ‘bout you?” cheer. Then we dramatically pointed to the audience and most of them looked around as if they couldn’t believe that we were actually talking to them. We repeated the cheer louder and only two non-Egyptian students started screaming the cheer back. I would’ve felt like an outright fool had it not been for the other 8 teachers with me. I guess our students were waiting for their maids and drivers to scream the cheer back for them.
The first week of school always seem much longer than five days. In a way, it was since we had a “Welcome Back to School” night for the students on Thursday. (Remember, my work week is from Sunday to Thursday.) For the first two hours, the students could swim, play volleyball, soccer, and/or hockey. Then an hour and a half DANCE followed. All I wanted to do was sign up for the first hour of doing any sport. Unfortunately, I got to the sign-u[ list too late and only hockey was open. The floor hockey space is tiled; so any bit of moisture makes it quite slippery and dangerous. Needless to say, I stayed on the sidelines well out of the way. Finally, two Canadian teachers, both in flip-flops, came over to play and I thought a real hockey game, complete with bloodshed, was about to break out. After a while when no incident occurred, I told one student that he’d get LE 20 if the body-checked one of the teachers, but apparently he thought I was joking.
After my hour was up, I made haste back to my apartment to pack. I was heading for Cairo early the next morning. I had a few anxieties since this was the first time I was catching the train by myself and I was being picked up by my cousin’s friends who I’d never met before.
The train arrived in Cairo about thirty minutes later than I’d anticipated. When I went to the designated meeting place, they weren’t there and I panicked that they’d become tired of waiting and had left. I went to the telephone room, which was so named because there were plenty of telephones in the room, but hardly any of them actually worked. I got change from the attendant, but I was never able to complete dialing the number for some unknown reason. At least I kept getting my money back. I walked back to meeting place after wasting nearly ten minutes screwing around with the pay phones. That’s when Angelica and I spotted one another. She was the only one wearing a hot pink top and I was the only one wearing dreads.
They’d hired a car to whisk us away to Zamalek, an island in the Nile that is Egypt’s approximation of Manhattan if you squinted and were a little tipsy off beer and shisha. I was in heaven. Zamalek’s such a cool little island with inviting places up and down the street. To say that I’m jealous of any foreigner who’s blessed enough to live in Zamalek is an understatement. It was just so civilized to walk out of their apartment building and have your choice of two very swanky bars where the cosmopolitan Egyptians and other foreigners hand out. But perhaps my two favorite spots were a very inviting bookstore (for Egypt) and the sushi restaurant that delivered our food to the apartment.
Although I’d come to Cairo to celebrate my 32nd birthday (Still not old enough to be ashamed of my age. As a matter of fact, I consider 32 to be my 16th birthday, the second time around.), it was just a welcomed relief NOT to be on Schutz campus, much less Alexandria. I got along famously with Angelica and her fiancé, Allen. They are a very interesting couple who met while working in the film industry, which they are still involved with. I was beside myself when Allen said he’d befriended the crown prince (now king) of Jordan while working on a film there. I joked about him giving me a letter of introduction since I’m visiting Jordan in October.
Since I was spending a mere 36 hours in Cairo, thanks to that Welcome back to School bullshit, we had to pack in eating good ice cream, smoking shisha, eating my favorite Egyptian foods (lentil soup and falafel), visiting my favorite bookstore, dropping by a cool candle shop and visiting their 5 star dry cleaning business all in the first 12 hours. We then returned to take a nap under the pretenses of going out later to celebrate my birthday on the town. Well, after ordering takeout sushi and pouring some drinks, who needed to go out? Even though the night is still young at one in the morning for the average Cairene, I was still on a teacher’s sleep cycle, nap or no nap. And as plush and comfortable as their guest bed was, hell THAT could’ve been my whole vacation. Oh, blessed are those who sleep on a good mattress and pillow every night!
We woke up around noon on Saturday. Our whole plan consisted of eating breakfast and catching a taxi to fetch us to the Cataract resort in Giza (where the pyramids are) so we could swim. Imagine: sushi and good swimming within 24 hours—can’t get that in Alexandria. We hung out at the pool, where we had lunch, until time to whisk me to the train station. We cut things a little close. Despite the fact that I had 15 until my train was due to leave, the driver felt with my bag, but I’d been warned that the latest scandal was to steal foreigners’ luggage by posing as a porter. He even showed me some metal pass to prove that he was with the train station—of course it was all Arabic.
Once I sat down in my seat, I looked at my watch as I panted to catch my breath. I still had ten minutes to spare. I sat there wondering if both the driver and the porter just had a good laugh at my expense or if they had been genuinely concerned that I was going to miss my train. We DID leave promptly at 7 pm, which was a minor miracle in a country where an Egyptian ten minutes could be anywhere from 15 minutes to next week. As the train slowly pulled away from the platform, I foolishly forgot where I was since I thought I could sleep most of the way back. Those damn cell phones started their cacophony. I had the most bizarre thought of Satan reorganizing hell by doing away with all that antiquated fire and brimstone crap and arming all of his demons with cell phones and incessantly ring different tunes. And where do demons-in-training learn their new cell phone torment? On Egyptian trains!
Today, as I went about my day, I had several resident teachers ask me where’d I been. They actually seemed to have missed me. Apparently, no one was talking about water bras and penile implants (another long story) while I was away. The strange thing is, they acted as if I’d been away much longer than 36 hours. I wonder if the Egyptian time warp has ever been scientifically studied and documented?
October 10th, 2002
In order to celebrate the Egyptian October 6th Armed Forces Day, I left the country. Never mind that I had to wake up earlier than usual to take a shuttle, a train, a private-hired car, an airplane and finally a private-hired minibus just to stretch out gloriously on a very plush bed at the Sheraton in Amman, Jordan. The point was: I had made it! So, I spent my first wonderful 45 minutes in Jordan, taking a power nap.
Jordan was definitely my type of Muslim country: good infrastructure, readily available alcohol and interesting “hubbly bubbly” (shisha, water pipe) flavors. Two things surprised me, however. When I went to the bathroom in the airport, I was very surprised to see a Muslim woman in a black galabeyah and headscarf with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth as she washed her hands. That cigarette just looked so out of place and sacrilegious. I immediately felt bad about making such a snap judgment on her. After all, I should have been far more annoyed wore headscarves in general. I mentioned these observations to an Egyptian woman when I restored to Egypt and she just laughed and said that headscarves and smoking were quite fashionable now.
On our first day of touring, we drove along the steep roads to a vantage point beside the museum. We were able to see the Roman styled outdoor theatre and a smaller construction that was used for meetings. If I was even impressed with the remains of the Temple of Hercules and Hercules’ hand outside of the museum, the topper was seeing one of the Dead Sea scrolls, which was found in a cave near the Dead Sea. That really brought it home to me that Jordan was a Biblical place. We went to smaller museum, which was dedicated to the Bedouin culture. The one interesting fact that I remembered from that trip was the tour guide telling us that camel milk was a Bedouin man’s Viagra.
We then went to Jerash to see the best-preserved remains of that Roman city. Our tour guide entertained us with so many facts. The best I could do was jot down a few notes to go along with the pictures that I took. At the Temple of Artemis, our tour guide told us that they had constructed the columns with interlocking male-female parts, which had magnetic metal at the core. To demonstrate this point, he stuck his key in between two of the stone pieces of the column. The key bounced up and down as if the column itself was bouncing. The guide then encouraged us to stick our fingers in the seam to feel the two columns moving. I was a bit hesitant since I had no desire to have my fingers crushed between such massive stones, but it was quite an eerie sensation.
We practically had to beg our guide to let us eat, which turned out to be daily “battle.” We actually had the impression that if we didn’t ask him about when and where we were going to eat, he wouldn’t have been pressed to eat either.
After lunch, we were finally heading towards the destination that I was originally most eager to get to: the Dead Sea. Along the way, we could see Jericho in the distance—at which time, Mileena and I couldn’t resist singing a verse of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” We also crossed over the river in which John the Baptist had baptized Jesus. Once we reached the Dead Sea, I was surprised at how under populated it was. Of course, I was nervous at being able to see Israel on the other side of the sea, yet we would have been more nervous if we would’ve gone east instead of west and ended up in Iraq. (Interesting thing about Iraq is that all of the Arab newspapers portray Bush as being a bully and a warmonger. They cannot figure out why the only superpower would want to wage war against such a poor and ill-equipped country, especially when Saddam Hussein has agreed to let the UN inspectors back in. What’s the propaganda over there?)
We changed into our bathing suits and walked down to the sea. Of course there was a camel tethered on the beach (since camel were everywhere in Jordan) near the bench where we decided to leave our things. Good thing I was floating (swimming’s impossible) and posing for the camera when I was because I witnessed that damn camel shitting inches away from my good sandals. I’m just beginning to dislike those animals despite how beautiful I find them. My impulse was to run out of the water, but that’s a whole new ball game in the Dead Sea. At 33% salinity, one can easily float standing straight up in a depth of water one would normally be able to touch bottom. So as I quickly got off of my back, I nearly fell face first into the water, which I DEFINITELY did not want to do. Not only would that water had stung my eyes blind, but there’s a very thick, oily feel to the water. As soon as I got out of the water to rescue my things from camel droppings, I began to itch a bit, but my skin felt silky smooth.
The next morning, we visited the church on top of Mt. Nebo, which had some beautiful mosaics. If ever I return to Jordan, I’ll definitely make a point to see more mosaics. Mt. Nebo’s where Moses led his people to show them the Promised Land.
We then continued on the King’s Highway (which is a deceptive name since it’s not a very majestic-looking road) to Kerak a castle built by the French Crusaders. According to our tour guide, the crusaders were there primarily to control the trade flow between the Arabian Peninsula and Mediterranean countries rather than for religious purposes, which goes along with my personal theory of why established religions are so powerful.
Although we stopped once more to view “the Grand Canyon of Jordan” (I’m not sure what the official name of the gorge was), we spent far too much time in the car. Since it was my turn to rid shotgun, I got to witness first-hand how our driver was barreling down the curvaceous, narrow roads at times in the on-coming lane or alternatively hugging the shoulder that was flanked by a severe drop off. At one point, Krystal asked for the minivan to stop so she could walk the rest of the way; instead, our driver slowed down.
For my mental health, we reached the Petra Movenpick about two hours too late. As expensive as that 5-star hotel was, it was a disappointment. For some reason, there are two Movenpick hotels about ten minutes apart. (I’d heard that about 3000 people a day used to visit Petra, but after 911, tourism dropped off to a trickle.) Even though there was a free shuttle between the two, they basically had divided facilities. I had wanted to swim, but the indoor pool was at the other Movenpick. As soon as I plunged into the chilly indoor pool, I just assumed that I’d swim a few laps and then I’d finish up well in the sauna. Well, the sauna was at the OTHER Movenpick. Unlike the Sheraton, which gave us two plush comforters and three luscious pillows, this overpriced Swiss hotel gave us one sparse pillow that I fought with all night long in a vain attempt to fluff it into something of substance. Perhaps the Swiss are less used to creature comforts than Americans.
I was quite ill rested to tour Petra the following morning. The only two good things about the Petra Movenpick were the waffles with chocolate sauce for breakfast and the proximity of Petra.
We walked about two minutes over to the Petra Visitor’s Center. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the “Indiana Jones” store. Apparently, about 15 minutes of Petra (which means “stone” in ancient Greek) is shown in “Indiana Jones and the last Crusade.” It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie, but our tour guide told us that many hotels ran the movie nightly. Legend has it that Moses struck a rock here and drew water, but our guide told us that a spring was named after Moses, but he was never physically in Petra. Yet, the Nabateans, who traveled from the Arabian Peninsula, certainly were! Their carvings along the walls of this magnificent gorge can still be seen.
Throughout most of the tour around Jordan up until then, I’d thought the scenery was quite uncolorful, but the natural color striations of the rocks of Petra made up for it. Now when I say “rocks,” I’m talking about rock walls like highrises as well as the tiny souvenir rocks. One first sees the Treasury (even though it was always used as a burial place) as if through a crack in a massive rock wall. The curving of the gorge creates this optical illusion. The Treasury is decorated with Nabatean gods of the dead, Medusa heads, Egyptian gods and winged victories. The chambers were carved straight out of the mountain of rock.
As we walked along, past the Treasury, we came upon the commoners’ burial tombs, which reminded me of the Mountain of the Dead in Siwa Oasis. Further down the path, we came upon the royal burial tombs which were much more ornately decorated, as one would expect. Instead of hiking up to see the royal tombs, we went to a small museum. Our guide suggested that we rest up a bit before hiking up to the monastery. He was not joking about the hike. The stairs along the hike were nothing compared to those torturous 3000 steps of repentance that I took down from Mt. Sinai, but the sun blazing down on me was energy-zapping. Even with my stylish straw hat, I didn’t pass up any opportunity to cool off in the few patches of shade available during that time of day. Yet, the hike was well worth it.
The Monastery, which is larger than the Treasury, had only Nabatean decorations on its façade, which meant that it was not as richly decorated, but I thought that its surroundings were more impressive.
At this point, I was starving; so I bought a bag of chips at the nearby rest area, which was a modern version of a Bedouin tent. Then I continued on the hiking “trail” (several different footpaths where several led to ‘nowhere’) in order to see the valley between Jordan and Israel. Now silly me had the expectations of seeing some distinct land difference between the two countries as if the political borders were going to be visible. I knew, at least, that the two lands were not going to be two different colors like on my map at home!
The final highlight to the end of this too short visit to Jordan was hitting the duty free shop in the airport. One always has to get a supply of alcohol—for medicinal purposes, of course. We arrived in Cairo at a quarter to eleven and took a “limo” (a minivan that goes long distance) to school. Since our driver didn’t know where our school was, we didn’t get to Schutz until 2:30 am. This 3-day week still managed to feel like 5. The best thing is that this weekend, 20 of us are catching a private bus to Cairo in order to see “Aida,” the opera that Guisuppe Verdi wrote especially for Egypt. Should be good.
19 October 2002
“Aida,” an opera written by G. Verdi as requested by Khedive Ismail, first ran in Egypt in 1871. Last year, when I’d first heard of this opera, I was gun-ho to go, not because I’m an opera fan, but because I was looking for any excuse to get away from campus. Well, after 911, the opera never ran.
This year, the Cairo Opera House boldly attempted to run “Aida” again and this time they were successful. I’d only seen one advertisement in my favorite magazine, Egypt Today, which also had a website for more information. I was simply planning to make my ticket and hotel reservations and go by myself, but after five days of bullshit. I thought I’d be nice and post the information. A surprise nineteen other people were also interested in going.
We had three summaries of “Aida” floating around, a video and even a special talk given by our unbelievably enthusiastic music teacher. It was as if we were cramming for a final. By the time we saw the opera, most of us had a good idea of what all the “screaming” was all about. Essentially, it was a tragic love triangle played/sang out by Aida, an Ethiopian slave/princess, Radames, the Egyptian general who’s in love with Aida, and Amneris, who’s the pharaoh’s daughter. Just to further complicate things, no one knows in the beginning that Aida’s actually a princess and then a war breaks out between Ethiopia and Egypt.
After a half-day of chilling out the at the Oasis hotel, we all piled into our charted bus and made the drive to the pyramids. If you think the pyramids are incredible during the day, you should see them at night, silhouetted by the city lights. We took the road through the pyramids to an outdoor stage area that I didn’t even know existed. Since our “tour guide” insisted that we leave the hotel two hours before the show, we avoided the lines and were able to enjoy looking around at all of the food/drink vendors. (I’d originally thought that all the fire fighters hanging around was an interesting touch since I’d never seen any Egyptian facilities particularly concerned in something resembling safety, but after seeing how much fire the cast handled in such strong wind, I was happy the rarely seen fire fighters were there.)
Another good thing about being at the opera pretty early was that we got to people-watch. It was like a cosmopolitan fashion review. Even though we were all dressed snazzy, we still looked like a group of teachers compared to the rich folks around us. Besides, we’d been cautioned to dress warmly. The desert becomes very cold at night despite the daytime temperature. (It was rather entertaining to see all the women in the hoochie-mama outfits turn colors throughout the show.)
Only two other teachers and I had sprung for the VIP seats. I couldn’t believe how good they actually turned out to be. I felt that I was dead center stage with two out of three pyramids majestically in the background, adding flavor to the whole scene.
About two minutes before the opera began, a serious entourage, obviously protecting a serious-looking woman, came bounding up the stairs. We all knew at once that she was the reason all of the not-so-secret-looking secret agents were crawling around the place. Someone informed us that she was Dick Cheney’s daughter. She happened to be an undersecretary of something or other and had spoken at the American University of Cairo. I also assumed that she was going to attend the long-awaited opening of the Alexandrian Library as well, which was just the following Wednesday.
The stage was deceptively simple-looking, but they maximized the use of it very well. The costumes were vibrant reds, golds, and greens. The increasingly strong desert winds made them billow and dance throughout the opera. Even if one couldn’t understand a lick of Italian, “Aida” was so visually stimulating that it didn’t matter. Besides, I read my “cheat sheet” prior to each act.
A mere five days after I attended “Aida,” the Alexandrian Library began its official three-day opening ceremonies. Foreign dignitaries and local VIP’s were invited to attend, which means none of us were invited. Yet, we’d received a “sneak peek” of the library (which has a well done, but small museum, two art galleries, a rare book room, and several artifacts from the Greco-Roman museum) and the planetarium (which also has a museum and art exhibition hall) about a month ago; so all I really missed was hobnobbing with the VIPs.
Our fearless leader waffled on making a decision about closing school on Wednesday and Thursday until the last minute despite the fact that nearly every other school had already announced a week prior that they would be closed. One “reason” he blurted out during an admin. Meeting was that “people would make plans for a long weekend”—now ain’t that some shit? Well, his plans were foiled because nearly everyone threw together some long weekend plans once our closing was finally announced. (The reason we had to close was due to the fact that a significant number of students would not have been able to make it to school. A lot of roads were asked to temporarily “evacuate” from their houses since they would not have been able to come and go during those three days!)
A couple of teachers threw together an excursion down to al-Fayoum Oasis, leaving on Tuesday after school. This was the same oasis mention in the incredibly inspiring book, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Al-Fayoum, which is the largest oasis in Egypt, is located 45 minutes South of Giza (where the pyramids are). Since al-Fayoum is a huge agricultural area, it attracts a lot of different birds and has traditionally been a favorite hunting area. We stayed at Auberge du Lac Hotel, which was probably something in its day when King Farouk himself used to stay there and hunt, but at least we were just off Lake Karoun, the largest salt lake in Egypt at 215 sq. km.
On our first day, we visited the ruins of a temple dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek. Then we made a long drive to Wadi Ryan, which had its own impressive lake and some mini-waterfalls—except from the brochure pictures, they managed to make the waterfalls look much bigger. Not only that, but when we arrived at Wadi Ryan, we were persuaded to take a boat to see the waterfalls rather than walk to them. Along the edges of the lake grew patches of tall bamboo plants. The guy who sold us on the boat idea led us to the right-had side of a plot of bamboo plants to wait for the boat, which arrived from the left. After we had loaded carefully on that glorified rowboat, the boatman rowed (with a pair of 2 x 4s) in the direction in which he’d originally come. After about three minutes, he stopped rowing. I was about to comment that we’d never reach the waterfalls if this guy’s already shot his load, when I happened to loo to my right and swat he diminutive waterfalls. We’d been hoodwinked! Had we’d walked just left of the plot of bamboo plants where we had been standing, we would’ve seen the falls in the distance and decided to walk there instead. At least that gave us the biggest laugh of the entire trip.
We asked the boatman to row us closer for some photo ops. I hope I didn’t block the falls in the pictures. We were then dropped off at the lakeshore nearest to the “cafeteria”—an optimistic word for any structure (not quite a building in a lot of cases) where one could get soft drinks, water, tea, coffee and prepacked snacks. A bright lad, who’d probably seen that we were the suckers from the boat, brought over an armload of baskets, which seemed to be the main tourist souvenir. (When we finally concluded our trip to al-Fayoum, baskets of various sizes outnumbered people on our mini-van.) I wasn’t interested in any duct-collecting baskets, but I’m now the proud owner of two little drums, which will come in handy since I drum with a small group of students every Sunday.
The next day, we toured three pyramids, which were all older and quite crumbled than the ones in Giza. The first one looked like a pile of dirt from a distance and the view didn’t improve too much when we were closer. We were so unimpressed that we just took a picture from where we’d parked without paying to see it close up. The second pyramid, dedicated to Amenemhat III, which was also known as the Hawara Pyramid, had an extensive labyrinth system back in its day. Behind the mostly dilapidated pyramid stood eight burial mounds that contained his wives. (I asked whether the wives were all killed when the pharaoh died, but I never got an answer.)
Off to the left-hand side of the pyramid was the cemetery used by the Greeks and Romans where the famous al-Fayoum portraits were found. They mummified their dead in Egyptian tradition, wrapped them in henna leaves and painted their portrait on what looked like papyrus. Very eerie-looking.
(I don’t want to alarm anyone, but during our entire stay in al-Fayoum, we were escorted by five police officers who drove in a station wagon behind us. At this particular site, which was out of our regular police escorts’ jurisdiction, we were escorted to the Hawara Pyramid by the small truck full of soldiers. As we causally unloaded out of our minivan, the soldiers peeled out of the truck, each taking a vantage point, facing outward, standing “at ready” with their rifles. Now, THAT was impressive. The thought did cross my mind as to whether all of them had bullets.)
The last pyramid, Miadoum was in the best condition. Originally, it was an eight-stepped pyramid, but only three steps remained. Most of us entered. Unlike in Chephren (the only Giza pyramid I’ve been in so far), I was able to walk upright as I descended 75m. It still was not a place to check out if you’re claustrophobic. We climbed a ladder 10m to see the chamber with the triangular-shaped ceiling. I was more impressed with the nearby mastaba (a mudbrick structure that was built above tombs, which eventually evolved into the pyramid structure), where a sarcophagus laid. Although the passageway was shorter, it was far more challenging to get through. I had to stoop doubled over. In order to enter the chamber where the sarcophagus laid, I had to lie on my stomach and scoot through a hole onto two planks after which, I could finally stand up. I was so hot and sweaty; I was ready to lie in the empty sarcophagus my damn self! I posed beside it instead.
We ended the trip on a very good note by stopping at the Mena House to eat some of the best Indian food to be found in Egypt and gaze at the REAL pyramids. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this week after two great three-day work weeks in a row. Who’s idea was it to make the work week five days long anyway?
29 October 2002
In my quest to go diving at least once a year, I arranged a dive in the Mediterranean Sea, near Fort Qait Bey, where the Pharos lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the world) used to be. Originally, we were supposed to go on the 18th, but had to delay the trip a day because the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrian (more commonly known as the Alexandrian Library, outside of Egypt). Well, about eleven of us hopped in a school van only to be told that the Egyptian navy had a ship near one of the sites where we were scheduled to dive. (Go to www.alexdra-dive.com, for some pictures).
Since there isn’t much happening as far as a social scene is concerned, nearly everyone was able to reschedule for the following Friday, which was definitely worth the wait. The sea looked much calmer than it had the week before, which meant that visibility would be good since particles wouldn’t be sloshing about, clouding up the view.
We docked outside the Eastern Harbor, near Fort Qait Bey. Our dive boat was swaying so vigorously that that I was sure that someone was going to vomit. Thank goodness, everyone kept his/her breakfast down, but it was still quite challenging to get suited up. Once I jumped into the sea, I was breathing quite fast, due to both the excitement and general nervousness. Even though I’m a relatively good swimmer, one has to trust in one’s equipment.
As we descended, I was initially alarmed that we’d reached the “bottom” so quickly. I’d known from the beginning that this would be a shallow dive at about 8 meters, but I still was not mentally prepared for how quickly we touched bottom—on top of a fallen column, nonetheless.
I cannot remember specific details since I had not taken any notes during the briefing, but a long, long time ago, there had been a serious earthquake, which is why there’s a lot of cool shit submerged just off the coast of Alexandria (how’s THAT for a history lesson?). Our dive master, Dr. Aazam, had a small hand tool in order to chip the sea growth off of the granite structures and invited us to feel how smooth the surfaces still remained. We saw parts of wine presses, partial sphinxes, amphora, and my personal favorite, pieces of the famed lighthouse. The Pharos lighthouse was famous because it was so big that its light could be seen from an ungodly distance. The drawings of the lighthouse show it to have had a quadrilateral base, an octagonal middle and a cylindrical top. I’m sure there was some mystical reason behind the number of sides increasing as one went up, culminating in the cylindrical (infinite) sides. (Circles and spheres are often correlated with “wholeness,” unity, completion and even heaven.)
We stayed down, looking at the ruins for about an hour. It’s amazing how spent I felt. I never really established neural buoyancy, which meant that I had to constantly kick in order not to sink to the bottom. We rested a little as the boat returned to the harbor for our second dive site, royal Quarter. Dr. Aazam kept referring to this area as “Lover’s Island” since this was where Cleopatra VII would meet Mark Antony for bit of fooling around.
There was nothing at all romantic about this dive. From the boat, we could see that the water was quite murky—from sewage, we feared. When I descended, I was worried since I could barely see a meter ahead of me. We had to follow a rope down into the water, which was attached to the frame of a sunken WWII plane (that was pretty cool to see since I was fascinated by watching the barnacles filter feed while I waited for the rest of the dive party to descend.)
I cannot remember what Dr. Aazam showed us after we’d left the plane, since I could barely see it. We resurfaced from our 5-meter dive and swam on our backs over to where the buoy marked Cleopatra’s table. From Dr. Aazam’s description, one would’ve thought that the remains of the table were something very spectacular. All we saw was a huge slab. Once he’d chipped away the sea growth, one could see that it was red marble, probably from Italy. As he continued to uncover more of the table, he invited us to touch the smooth-as-glass surface. When we finally resurfaced, he asked each of us what we thought might have possibly gone on on that table.
As if visiting an underwater museum wasn’t enough to do on a Friday in Alexandria. I also saw the musical “The Fantasticks” later that evening. It was billed as the longest-running musical in the States (I thought “Cats” was!). This was quite a feat on my part since not only had I been exhausted after a day of diving, but as I’d walked out onto the sidewalk to leave the dive center, I sprain my ankle. I couldn’t bear any weight on my right foot and needed someone’s shoulder to hold onto as I hopped on my left foot. After a few hours rest and 2000 mg of ibuprofen, I was able get about 80% use out of my foot with only a little discomfort.
I’m sure “The Fantasticks” was really something back in the ‘60s, but I found that it dragged in between the good parts. I especially didn’t like the female singer’s voice, which was quite unfortunate since she sang half of the production. One unexpected comic relief came when one of the ubiquitous Egyptian stray cats came ambling onto the stage. It never crossed over to where the actors were, but it would have been interesting to see how they would’ve reacted.
And just to further challenge my present hobbled condition, an Indian dance troupe performed at the Alexandrian Cultural Center two days later. I willed myself to go (along with 600 mg of ibuprofen—see, I’m making a rapid recover!). I’d expected to see something similar to bellydancing, but was completely blown away by how similar to West African dancing the moves and rhythm was. This troupe was billed as “Gujarati fork Dancers.” I don’t know which part of India that is, but I was very moved by their vibrantly colored costumes and African-like moves. I truly wanted to join them on stage, lame foot and all. After living in Egypt for over a year, I was so happy to men and women on stage together, dancing and having a good time. And if Blacks thought we’d invented the “soul clap,” think again; we don’t have anything on these people who not only rhythmically clapped their own hands, but did a catchy little step as they circulated around stage, clapping each other’s hands.
Unlike any African dancing I’ve ever done or seen, this group sometimes danced with wooden sticks that were about 18” long. They used those sticks both as percussion instruments, beating them together, on one another’s sticks and on the stage and they used them as batons. During my favorite dance, the men and women came out with huge swords and little shields and executed a fast paced sequence of dance steps. In the middle of the show, they brought out a “human pretzel.” That guy must have done yoga since birth since he could work himself into the most painful-looking contortions.
Speaking of painful contortions, I must tear myself away now and go baby my ankle.
December 3, 2002
I’ve been working like a madwoman, which is not a notable thing at this workaholic’s dream school, but a significant amount of my time had been spent working on a “musical” I put together called “What’s Shakin’ with Shakespeare?” I’d gotten a bug up my ass to do something funky with Shakespearean poetry and instead of taking medication (my favorite’s alcohol, which I’m sure the Bard would definitely approve of), I actually went with my passions.
Our brilliant music teacher, George, was in cahoots with me and was the musical director extraordinaire. As a matter of fact, his enthusiasm at the end of last year over doing a musical was my original impetus for thing about tackling a musical. Now first of all, I’d never directed a play before and so I’d really leapt in deep when I enthusiastically spearheaded a musical, making it up as I went.
I chose four passages from here Shakespearean plays and two sonnets. I slightly edited them to suit my needs. For example, I altered Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” monologue in order to make every second and third line rhyme, turning it into a rap. Then I shamelessly took “What a Piece of Work Is Man” from one of my favorite musicals, Hair. I selected romantic lines from Romeo and Juliet with a jazz exchange in mind. I chose a racy selection from Taming of the Shrew (was damn proud of myself when the students did the following exchange:
1: Who does not know where a wasp wears his sting? In his tail?
2: In his tongue.
1: Whose tongue?
2: Yours if you speak of tails and so farewell.
1: What? With my tongue in your tail?)
Then we followed the scene with Carlos Santana’s “Evil Ways” where the two students did some samba and chacha steps.
The two most problematic pieces were the sonnets. As if trying to direct a musical for the first time wasn’t hard enough, I decided to turn one of the sonnets (XCI) into a cheer. I figured that I’d just asked a few Western women around here for help. OH, MY GOD. I asked three Western women if they could help me make up a cheer to go along with Sonnet XCI and I swear they all reacted as if I’d asked them to demonstrate their favorite blowjob technique on stage in front of the students. When did women become so offended by cheerleading? (Am I missing some feminist thing? I need to take a survey.) At any rate, I miserably plotted my way through, putting in mostly African dance moves, which were more complicated than some of the girls could do and didn’t really convey that ‘cheerleading’ feel.
For the other sonnet (XXIV), George got extremely inspired and wrote a beautifully complicated quartet. The four girls had the talent to do it, but most of them were in sports and other clubs; so some of them would miss rehearsal on a regular basis.
Schutz has about 20 students who want to do everything; so usually, their time after school has to be divided. We hardly ever had the entire cast present or on time. I was so frustrated by the students strolling in late I’d threatened to cancel the show. That would’ve saved me a lot of headache, but I would’ve felt like a loser in the end. Plus, I would’ve lost credibility. We’d originally had ten players, but they started dropping out like flies, then I added one student to play the table (Egyptian drum) to go along with the “cheer.” To add to our challenge, Ramadan the holiest Muslim month where the devout fast, caused our hour-and-a-half practices to be cut down to about 45—60 minutes since everything shuts down around 5 pm. (None of our players were Muslim, but many had Muslim drivers who had to be home for “iftar” (breakfast)).
A week before the show, one of the player’s mothers, came forward to rescue the cheer and George started rehearsing with the quartet girls during lunch. I called a two-hour rehearsal the Saturday before we had to run the play. It turned into a four-hour rehearsal. Once I finally “escaped,” I had a strange fever around my third eye, not really a bona fide headache. Yet that Saturday rehearsal transformed us from “What the HELL Is Shakin’ with Shakespeare?” to a decent show, complete with blocking, and sound/light cures. We had two moms there who had theatre experience and were motivated to do some simple costumes, which our school seamstress hooked up at the last minute. (Of course, those costumes would have NEVER been finished on time had it not been for the fact that the headmaster’s wife ordered them to be done—her daughter was in the cast.)
I was still apprehensive about the final show, but was ready to go full speed ahead. At the very least, I could be done with the madness, promising myself that I wouldn’t attempt such a thing again until I was at a school that had theatre niche of students. My colleagues kept assuring me that students usually pulled it together at the end, but I could not resuscitate my optimism for the show. The best I could do was tell them that if they lowered their expectations enough, they should be entertained. George and I had definitely scaled back our original ambitions.
Although I was the emcee, I sat in the front row to watch the performance rather than stay back stage. I was amazed that the students actually pulled it off. The show ended with the racy Taming of the Shrew scene. The rest of the cast joined the other two players on stage in a conga line. I pulled George on stage to dance, then led the conga line out into the audience. I was quite happy that my colleagues and some of the Egyptian students joined in—after I pulled them out of their seats. One of the most impressive things (other than my students’ performance) was how many people came out for the show. We had quite a big turnout for only having eight students in the cast.
Tomorrow, about a week later and no further cast rehearsals, we’re performing an even more scaled back version of “What’s Shakin’ with Shakespeare?” for the elementary students. I don’t think lightning will strike again, but I’m very pleases that there’s been a he request for an encore run.
14 December 2002
They say that everyone who visits Turkey becomes a millionaire—a fact that is due to the exchange rate: $1 = 1,500,000 lira. Well, as an American visiting Turkey, I wished I had been a millionaire when I discovered how much they charged Americans for a VISA, $100. My jaw dropped as I stared at the sign in disbelief. One hundred damn dollars just for entering the country. My first impulse was to hop on a plane and return to Egypt. Instead, I rifled through my bag to get my precious $100 bill, which was 2/3 of the hard currency I had. I was in such a daze after paying that much that I inadvertently left the book that I had been reading on the counter; so I departed with a wad of my money and a good book.
Welcome to Istanbul!
Once checked into the hotel, I took a long nap then went downstairs to write and eat dinner. There wasn’t anything happening in that so-called four-star hotel. I returned to my room to leave my writing stuff and to bundle up since the temperature was much colder than in Egypt. I had no problem finding the center of town and the famous Istikial Street. A cosmopolitan crowd strolled along this enticing, cobblestone street, which was lined with bookstores, restaurants, cafes, live music, and my personal favorite: wine houses.
When I read the menu of one wine house, I nearly leapt for joy when I saw that they served “salmon sashimi.” I hopped in, ordered a glass of house white and the sashimi. As I looked around the tiny place, I noticed that EVERYONE was smoking. True to being the “European” part of Istanbul, majority of the people smoked. Even so, the restaurant was well ventilated and the air, in general, was much cleaner than in Alexandria.
There was a hush in the room and all eyes were on me when my sashimi came out. I’m not sure whether the drinking/smoking crowd was more fascinated by someone actually ordering food or if it was the sashimi itself. Nonetheless, I ignored them since those thick slabs of salmon covered with wasabi and dipped in soy sauce just hit the spot.
I strolled back to my hotel, taking the longest way imaginable. I’d gotten completely lost even though I’d stuck to the main streets. I must’ve gotten in touch with my masculine side since I didn’t bother to ask for directions until I’d been lost for at least an hour and was on block form the hotel by then. I noticed the next day that I’d circled around the back of the hotel in a wide arc, but everything happens for a reason: during my trek, I’d “discovered” a bona fide sushi restaurant that was very close to my hotel.
The first part of my official tour was to take a touring boat around Bosphorous, which was a canal of water connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Since I was the only native English-speaker in my group, I had a tour guide all to myself. I enjoyed looking at all the former sultan palaces that were mostly museums now. We got off the boat after an hour, where our driver was waiting to take us to Topkapi Palace, which was the political center of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries. Each time a new guy came to power, he added a new part; therefore, I wasn’t physically or mentally able to see everything in one visit. I paid extra to see the Treasury, which was filled with gifts and “reclaimed” (after WWI) gifts that the Ottomans had given to the grave of The Prophet Muhammad. Even though everything in the Treasury was covered with precious gems, the most spectacular gem by far was the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, which is the 5th largest diamond in the world at 86 carats. It’s so named because the guy who dug up the “rock” (recall that an uncut diamond looks unimpressively dull), sold it for three spoons. When it was discovered to be a diamond, an argument broke out over who was the rightful owner. The sultan eventually heard about it and settled the matter by claiming it for himself.
I was later quite surprised when I saw the arm of John the Baptist in armor with part of the metal removed, revealing his “mummified” had. In the same display case was part of his skull enclosed in a crystal and gold case. I felt so sorry that not only had John the Baptist been beheaded, but his remains were scattered.
In another part of the palace was a small, but ornate mosque where clippings of The Prophet Muhammad’s hair and beard were kept. A muezzin read from the Koran at all times, rather than the usual five times a day.
Our next stop was at the obelisk of Theodosius (390 AD). I just had to take a picture beside this Egyptian obelisk on top of a Roman “pedestal,” showing Theodosius surrounded by a crowd of people. Just behind the obelisk several yards away, was the Blue Mosque, named for all the beautiful, blue handmade ceramic tile on the interior. I’d never been in a mosque before, but I was concerned about the “women have to cover their heads and water long skirt” rule. All I had to do was take off my shoes before entering.
My tour guide, Omar, informed me that the mosque used to have spider webs, which were difficult to clean away until they put ostrich eggs in the mosque. I’m not sure if he meant that they rubbed the walls with ostrich eggs since I certainly did not see any hanging up.
Our last stop was supposed to have been the Grand Bazaar, but it was closed for the whole weekend for Eid el Fitr, the feast that concludes the holy month of Ramadan. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed since I’d had a full day and needed a shower and a nap.
Later that night, the van came to whisk me away to The Orient House. I was finally part of a group! A Cairene couple, Vincent and Vikki, who spoke English almost fluently, was already in the van. Another tour guide whose name sounded like “Garçon” went out with us.
The Orient House was warmly decorated with dimmed lighting and candles aglow on every table. We were sat at a small circular table, facing the side of the performance area. The waiter put an Egyptian flag on the table even though I’m American and the tour guide was Palestinian. The latter facts just set the ground for the “Why is Bush letting Israel dictate to the US?” and “Why is Bush going after such a poor country like Iraq?” conversations. I pretty much listened and nodded, then said, “Hey, I left the country when Bush became president.” That at least ended the conversation in a humorous way.
The true beauty of the restaurant was its entertainment. About three or four bands rotated, playing traditional and popular music, depending on which part of the show they were on. At times a group of men danced, then women and both together. Then came the first of three bellydancers. The crowd went wild. I had been so focused on watching the traditional dances that I hadn’t noticed the restaurant filling up.
After the bellydancer finished her set, complete with a cane, the multilingual emcee came out. He acknowledged all of the different nationalities present. There was a large table of Greeks, Germans and Israelis. When the emcee acknowledged the Israelis, I leaned over to Vincent and said, “You’d better behave; they outnumber us.” (Notice the “us”.) When the emcee called out for the Americans, I craned my neck to see who they were before realizing that I was it! I remained quiet. Yet when he called out for the Egyptians, both Garçon and I applauded along with Vincent and Vikki.
The troupe performed a traditional Turkish wedding dance followed by the second bellydancer who flirted a bit more with the audience, but was not quite as good as the first. Yet the third bellydancer topped them both. She came bursting out with a white bellydancing costume and my person favorite, finger cymbals. She gyrated, rolled her stomach, shimmed, undulated her whole body—sometimes combining all of those moves. By this time, the crowd was very liquored up and she made absolute monkeys out of the men who stuffed her top and skimpy skirt in order to dance with her.
For the next part of the show, the emcee managed to sing a song for nearly every nationality present. I could hardly believe how many languages he could sing in, but I figured out that he couldn’t speak beyond a smattering of each language.
I was rather disappointed that he chose a Sinatra song for the “Americans” since all of the other nationalities got lively songs, but no nationality could hold a candle to the Greeks. When the band played a slow Greek song, the matriarch of the Greek table got up, spread her arms and started to dance gracefully to the music. Eventually, the whole Greek party was on the floor and the band switched to a faster tune. Soon, it looked like a Greek wedding party was in progress as they placed their hands on one another’s shoulders and formed several circles. Pretty soon, everyone turned Greek and formed more circles. I certainly know where I have to visit in the near future. Not only do Greeks know how to have a good time, but entice everyone else into having a good time as well. We ended up leaving the restaurant around half past midnight when the show ended with a bellydancing contest among several women who volunteered from different nationality tables.
On the last day, yet another Cairene joined our little party. Janet had recently quit her job, decided to visit Turkey for a week and two days later, ended up in Istanbul. I love the way we were just thrown in together. Even though her English was not as good as V&V’s, I was the odd woman out for most of the conversation. Once again, I wished I’d known several languages. If I’d kept up with my French, I would’ve been able to communicate better with Janet. That’s part of the reason I’d like to go to Beirut since they speak both French and Arabic.
We caught a boat to the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara. In the summer, people go to the islands to escape the heat. Those same island winds chilled us once we got off at Buyukada, the largest of the nine Prince Islands, where Greek and Armenian bankers built beautiful holiday villas. Omar put the four of us in a horse drawn carriage once we were on the island, telling us that he’d meet us at a particular restaurant once we were finished with our tour of the island. Every time we turned a corner in that damn thing, I thought it would be the last.
We were partially frozen when we reached the designated restaurant where Omar was looking very warm and comfortable, sitting by a fire, sipping tea and reading a newspaper. I ordered a tea just to thaw out along with grilled fish.
The return boat ride to Istanbul seemed to take much longer. As soon as we reached the mainland, it had started to drizzle and by the time I reached my hotel, it was a downpour. I thawed out in the room for a few hours, hoping the rain would ease up. Yet, when I headed out to get a bite of sushi, the rain was still pissing down; fortunately, I had my umbrella.
The trendy sushi restaurant had prepared sushi going around a conveyor belt with two sushi chefs preparing dishes as dedicated. At the time I was there, the feeding frenzy was on. I had a wonderful, Epicurean time. I’d even brought the “never-ending” short story that I’ve been working on to edit.
After my food had settled, I walked back to the hotel, stopping off at a nearby souvenir shop. I’m sure I could’ve gotten things much cheaper at the grand Bazaar, but since it was closed, this was the next best thing. I’m sure I was a shopkeeper’s dream since I came in and got a small pile of stuff with no urging o their part. I was such a good customer that one of the guys invited me to have an apple tea, pinned an “evil eye” good luck charm to my jacket, then serenaded me with a Turkish stringed instrument that looked like a lute, but had the hole at the bottom end instead of the top. What a terrific ending to a good vacation.
28 March 2003
I could hardly wait to escape from Egypt for a brief spell in order to “thaw out” and regain some color so I could look like a Black person again. After researching the closest hot spots, I discovered that Zanzibar, the Spice Island, was the most feasible destination. I even convinced another teacher from school, Cordelia, to join me.
I’d told her about how beautiful and warm both the country and Tanzanians were, which made our first day ironic because we got scammed. Since we’d flown into Dar es Salaam, the coastal capital of Tanzania, our original plan was to take a taxi to the port and catch a hydrofoil over to Zanzibar. Yet, a man approached us as soon as we were cleared from customs. He asked us if we were headed for Zanzibar. Once we’d said yes, he then told us about a plane, leaving at 11:30, which was about an hour later. The lure of a twenty-minute flight that would cost about the same or cheaper than a cab and 90-minute hydrofoil ride won out. Although I was initially suspicious of the guy, I saw initially suspicious of the guy, I saw that he had a picture badge and certainly looked official.
He escorted us outside to his business office, Dar Aviation Services LTD (AVOID these people if you’re ever in Tanzania!). We paid $55 each and he gave us a voucher, loaded us into a minivan, and drove us to a smaller, nearby airport. He sat us down in a small restaurant in the airport and encouraged us to have some drinks and walked off. About fifteen minutes later, he returned and told us that the 11:30 flight had been cancelled; so we’d automatically be placed on the 1:30 plane. He should us a schedule and Cordelia and I both noticed that there wasn’t an 11:30 flight printed on it. I just assured Cordelia that he’d baited and switched flight times to sell us a voucher. Before he let again, he encouraged us to have some more drinks and lunch on him. We took him up on that. In Swahili, I ordered one of my favorite traditional Tanzanian/India foods: pilau (a spicy rice dish) and kachumbali (a salad made of thinly sliced tomatoes and onions garnished with lime juice).
Twenty minutes later, he returned with another man, telling us that we had to pay an airport tax. Again, he showed us the schedule where, in red print, it stated that an airport tax was not included in the price of the flight. We paid 5000/= (~$5) each. After an hour and a half had passed and a few other customers who’d come after us had been served, I asked the waitress when we were going to get our food. She said that the pilau was ready, but that they had to make the salad. I joked to Cordelia that they’d probably run out of tomatoes and had sent someone to the market. I also added that if on more “problem” arose with this flight deal, we’d demand our money back and catch a taxi to the port.
As if on cue, two men approached our table and began apologizing for the inconvenience. I was immediately on guard since I was hot, tired and still quite hungry. One man, who spoke decent English, explained to us that due to the rains (in some place which I cannot remember), the plane that we’d been waiting for had been delayed further. In the meantime, they were going to charter us a private plane just for the two of us for only $25 more a person. That was it: we demand our money back. They informed us that the guy who’d sold us the voucher was at the main airport and had the money, but he’d be right back. We quickly un-assed our seats, grabbed our luggage and made our way to the minivan. Faced with this dramatic exit, the Tanzanians, including the waitress yelled at us in both English and Swahili, “He’s coming! Wait here! The food’s ready!”
Before we boarded the minivan, I remembered to ask the airport tax guy to return our money since we weren’t flying. He looked at me as if I was taking away his Christmas and slowly reached in his pocket to retrieve the money. He looked at the money, looked at me, at the money again, then finally handed it over. We reached the main airport in five minutes. I’d feared that the goofballs at the window would call the guy and warn him to leave, but as we approached the window, the same woman who’d written out our voucher was still there. She told us that she couldn’t refund our money since “the guy” had it. I left Cordelia at the window and walked over to the information desk to call the police.
Meanwhile, “the guy” had returned, flashing Air Tanzania tickets in Cordelia’s face. I brought two airport police officers over and explained to them that we wanted a refund since there was no plane to take us to Zanzibar, as the guy had said. The man flashed the tickets in my face, saying that we DID have tickets to Zanzibar, leaving at 3 pm. The police initially sided with us and told the man to refund our money. Then the guy quickly explained to the police in Swahili that he couldn’t refund our money since he’d already spent it on the Air Tanzania tickets. I interrupted in English, “Just get a refund for the tickets. I’ve refunded Air Tanzania tickets before.”
The man seemed so rattled, babbling in both English and Swahili, trying to convince us to use the tickets. The police then asked us why didn’t we just use the tickets since we wanted to go to Zanzibar anyway. I decided to change tactics. I reached out my hand and said to the guy, “Okay, give me the tickets.” That prick bastard then had the balls to put the tickets behind his back. I yelled, “You can’t keep our money AND the tickets!” Even the police told him to give us the tickets. The guy looked over to the Air Tanzania window in the distance then back at me. Reluctantly, he gave me the tickets. Cordelia and I bolted to the Air Tanzania window to refund them.
No one was at the window when we arrived. Surprisingly enough, the guy fetched the Air Tanzania rep. for us and explained to him that we wanted a refund. When I looked at the tickets, I noticed that they were sold at the resident price, which was about $60. When I pointed out that we’d paid $110, the Air Tanzania rep. was quite flustered and said that he didn’t know what was going on, but he’d refunded us what the tickets were worth. Then he looked at the guy, who then knew that the gig was up since both the rep. and the police were looking at him. He handed us the remainder of the money, but Cordelia and I were so tired after traveling for 36 hours and still quite hungry that we miscounted the money a few times. I even borrowed a calculator to figure how much we should have had, given the exchange rate. Cordelia returned to the bureau de change where we’d exchanged some dollars previously to get the accurate balance on $110 in shillings.
At that point, both the police and the Air Tanzania rep. offered to count the money for me. I looked at them as if to say that I’d rather kill all of them before handing over any money. Somehow, the fog slowly lifted and I realized that we’d been counting the 5000/= notes as if they were 500/= notes. I then recounted the money and told Cordelia that we were only 4000/= (~$4) down. We both figured that that was a small amount to continue arguing about and walked away to catch a taxi.
In the taxi, I reasoned that $2 apiece was a small amount to be hustled out of; besides that just meant that we’d paid for our own drinks at that other airport. Our cab driver was good enough to drive us directly in front of the Azam Marine office (DEFINITELY do business with these people if you’re ever in TZ). As soon as we exited the taxi, the hawkers/thieves were on us. A nearby police officer came over with a baton and got them off of us. We carried our luggage to the window and purchased our tickets. As I counted out the money in shillings, the woman behind the window cautioned me to be careful for the thieves. (Two hawkers who’d previously tried to hustle us got into a spectacular fistfight—talk about dog-eat-dog.)
The police officer escorted us to the waiting area and made small talk with us before asking for a tip (which we gladly gave him since he’d kept the hawkers/potential thieves off of us) and leaving. I finally caught my breath and apologized to Cordelia for that whole dramatic episode. I assured her that THIS experience so far was not the Tanzania that I knew. I even speculated that since 911, tourism had plummeted and people were desperate. After a two and a half hour wait and a 90-minute hydrofoil ride, we’d finally reached Zanzibar.
In an attempt to find a silver lining, I told Cordelia that we’d lived through the worst part of our trip early in order to enjoy the rest of it. I was almost correct; I couldn’t have controlled the fact the Bush’s war broke out six days later.
Cordelia, who’d made all the hotel arrangements on Zanzibar, booked us at the Dhow Palace (DEFINITELY recommend) for the 15th—17th while we were in Stone Town. The only problem was that we arrived on the 14th! Turned out not to be a problem at all since they had plenty of room. Our double room was decorated in traditional Zanzibari style. The high double beds even had decorated mosquito nets, but my favorite was the richly tiled tub, which was shaped more like a fancy Jacuzzi done in arabesque style. Although we had to spray mosquito repellent on ourselves in order to go to dinner (food finally!), we indulged in shower to freshen up first. The first ten paces outside our room reversed the shower due to the latent 90+ heat and humidity.
The next morning, after our rooftop breakfast that consisted of fresh pineapple, mango, papyrus and toast, we went on a spice tour that we had arranged through the hotel. Before driving out to the spice farms, we stopped at the market to pick up food for our lunch.
Our guide explained everything to us in perfect English and we stopped and sampled everything: avocadoes, peppercorns (black, white, and red), Juicy coffee berries (the seeds are dried, roasted and ground for coffee), lemon grass, and ginger just to name a few. Ironically, even though Zanzibar is known as “The Spice Island,” none of the spices are indigenous. The British imported them from Asian countries and England. Cordelia was most impressed by the fact that cinnamon tree and nibble it down like a termite.
My favorite part of the tour was watching a guy climb a coconut tree. He tied a rag around his ankles and scooted up the trunk and cut down green coconuts for each of us. With impressively sharp knives, the men hacked drinking holes in the coconuts for us to drink the water (that’s got to be the most refreshing drink on a very hot day). After drinking the water, most of us handed our coconuts back so the men could hack more of the shell away and chop up the meat for us to eat. Those coconuts were so fresh and juicy that the milk just oozed out of the meat.
At one point, our guide tricked us by handing all of us a leaf and asked us to guess what “spice” was in it. I immediately detected the bitter taste of quinine, the main chemical used to fight malaria. Fortunately, we followed that with ginger.
Once we returned to the shelter where we were going to have lunch, Cordelia and I had to use the bathroom. The “facilities” weren’t as bad as I’d envisioned—at least it was clean and had no foul smells emanating from it. I went inside the little cement structure, assumed the position, kicked aside the piece of plywood that covered the hole and omigod! It was more of a challenge than I’d thought. The rectangular opening in the floor was about 3” X 6”—not much room for error or rushing through the job. Having been in Peace Corps, I hit the bull’s eye, but Cordelia was less accurate.
Once we returned to the shelter, we feasted on a wonderful spread of pilau (finally!), a yellow curried dish with coconut milk, a spicy tomato and potato dish, spinach seasoned with garlic, fish and the best chapatis (a type of flat bread) that I’ve ever tasted.
The next morning, we took a motorboat to Prison (Changu) Island. First we fed the tortoises spinach at the small tortoise “farm.” I approached the largest and oldest tortoise (150 years). Ol’ grandpappy kept disdainfully turning his head at my spinach. Behind me, server smaller, female tortoises were “running” about .5 mph toward me to be fed; so I left Cordelia feeding the hungry females. That male tortoise was a bit impatient with my feeding him. He’d chew on a few leaves before chomping on the stalk and yanking the entire bunch out of my hand. I had to leave him to rescue Cordelia from the four female feeding frenzy—they’d surrounded her, trying chomp at the same stalk of spinach. Once we were out of spinach, we began to pet the tortoises. Even Ol’ grandpappy enjoyed this affectionate display. He slowly rose on his feet and stretched his leathery neck out as far as possible to be pet. I wouldn’t have thought that tortoises enjoyed being petted that much.
Afterwards, we walked to the ruins of the small prison then continued walking around the half-mile circumferences of the island. We found a nice patch of beach, stripped down to our bathing suits and frolicked in the Indian Ocean. The water was crystal clear, pale green and gradually became bluer as one went deeper.
Since the restaurant on the island was closed except for drinks, we returned to Zanzibar to freshen up and eat a late lunch. We chose the perfect restaurant, Blues, which was located on part of the docks, facing the ocean. We sat in the back deck to enjoy the cool breezes, the view and my personal favorite touch, the music of Curtis Mayfield. I ordered a glass of white wine and thought, boy if only I could do THIS in Alexandria. I wasn’t impressed with my entrée, but the desserts were delicious and unusual. I’d ordered a ginger/coconut tart and Cordelia’d ordered a cheesecake that was quiet rich and tasted as if it contained sharp white cheddar in addition to the cream cheese.
We had a hell of a time getting reasonably priced transportation to our other hotel on the East side of Zanzibar called Karafuu. The tour guide and driver who picked us up, were eager to pick up a little extra cash on the side of offered to take us to the Jozani Forest to see the red colobus monkeys and the mangrove swamp for an additional $10 per person, which we managed to talk down to $10 for the both of us.
Red colobus monkeys are only found on Zanzibar. Ten steps into the forest, we saw our first monkey, chilling out on a low branch. He seems to be at home with humans. He entertained us a bit by jumping around. As we walked deeper into the forest, we had to watch our step because the ground was littered with cow pies. We came upon a family of monkeys and the show really began. Some adolescents were jumping around both in the branches and on the ground where they wrestled.
At one point, Cordelia started talking to one adolescent who sat on a branch by himself. She kept asking him to smile. Suddenly, he sprang toward her, landed on a nearby branch and commenced jumping up and down, hitting her on the head with the leaves. I laughed so hard that I nearly stepped in a cow pie.
Next, we drove down about a mile to the mangrove swamp. I’d never seen one before, but this place was peaceful and gorgeous. A tastefully built wooden plank walkway allowed us to tour the swamp with ease. We saw two types of crabs and several species of fish swimming in the swamp. The real stars were the mangrove trees themselves. The trees had impressively knotted roots, which grew several feet up on the trunk of the tree and extended into the salty swamp.
Although Karafuu was a beautiful five-star hotel, the price of food and souvenirs were sky-high since there weren’t any other hotels in walking distance to compete with it. And the lunch service and food was terrible. Dinner was comparatively much better, overlooking the full moonlit ocean and sky full of stars.
For our first morning, Cordelia and I went snorkeling. We took a 20-minute boat ride to the coral formations that we explored. The water was very still and visibility was excellent, which were two plusses since Cordelia had never snorkeled before. Although I thought the coral formations that we explored. The water was very still and visibility was excellent, which were two plusses since Cordelia had never snorkeled before. Although I thought the coral in the Red Sea was far more colorful, at least we saw a lot of colorful fish, sea anemones and giant clams.
One day, we thought we’d be “smart” and beach comb in the direction of a small, inexpensive restaurant that was perched on a large rock/coral formation on the beach. We found a lot of small to medium shells that were in excellent condition along the way. Once we reached the restaurant, we were rather surprised that no one was there. As a matter of fact, the restaurant had about four or five inches of sand that covered the floor, four bird-shit splattered wooden tables, each with three or four cushion-less wooden chairs.
Before turning around to leave, a man showed up and asked us to have a seat. I nearly fell over since the sand was lopsided, preventing me from sitting properly. He showed us a menu and was quite shocked when I asked if we could get ugali (a stiff maize mixture that one eats by hand with meat and vegetables.) I’m sure he’d hardly ever had a request for ugali. Yet, I wanted Cordelia to try all of the traditional Tanzanian foods. We also ordered grilled fish, fish masala, and coconut rice.
Seemingly two hours later, the guy returned with a large blue tablecloth that he first used to knock/dust all the bird shit off of another table, then spread it over the table and set it. He invited us over to the set table and brought out all of the food. What a feast! The amount of food could’ve easily fed four people. I thought that the coconut rice was far too sticky, but the ugali was perfect.
By the time we were ready to leave, the tide had slowly come in, separating us from the beach. We walked over to the steps and looked at the surrounding ocean. The guy looked at us and said, “You want a boat or what?” I just laughed and said that we weren’t dressed to swim. So, the guy told his two younger companions to get a boat. The boys walked down to the edge of the steps and dove in expertly. They swam over to a group of catamarans, hopped into one and guided it over to a group of catamarans, hopped into one and guided it over to the steps.
In retrospect, I should’ve just swum even though I was wearing a long sundress. A wave got me wet and the catamaran didn’t go all the way to the beach. I had to hike up my dress to scandalous heights just to prevent it from getting wet any further. That was the LONGEST walk back to the hotel. Seems as if every Zanzibari on the East coast had witnessed us going to the restaurant an hour before the tide had come in and knew to be standing there to solicit everything from seashells to tacky tourist crap.
Within ten yards of our hotel, a cute little Zanzabari girl started walking along with us. She started off making small talk, then asked us to give her something. I had no idea what she’d said; so I asked her to repeat herself. With a big smile on her face, she deliberately repeated, “Shamp-POO.” Can you imagine? As if all Western women walk the beach with shampoo in their pockets.
Good thing we’d stuffed ourselves at lunch that day since we had no idea where dinner was being served that night at the hotel. Apparently, the big group of touring Belgians all knew, but we sort of found out “by accident” that this particular night was African dinner night at the nearby “Masaai camp.” The spread was huge, including a much better done coconut rice and some cooked bananas, which was something else that I wanted Cordelia to try. Most Americans have only had plantains and no other species of cooking bananas. Some cooked bananas were just the regular, sweet bananas that were not allowed to sweeten—a starchy substitute for potatoes.
The best part about African night was the African troupe the hotel had hired to entertain us. I wished I’d brought a video camera to record their dance and music. I thought it was interesting that in the States when I took African dance classes, we always danced with over-the-top energy. These dancers were very good, but quite laid-back. Cordelia was impressed that both the men and women could roll their hips better than most of the bellydancers she’d seen in Egypt. I told her that that isolated hip roll was very typical of E. African dancing. What surprised me was the trumpet player among the drummers. I’d never heard a trumpet along with “traditional” African music before. Reminded me of Afro-Caribbean music.
The low part of the trip came as we were lounging beside the pool, reading a book. One of the Italian dive guys had taken a running dive into the swimming pool, surfaced, swam over to the edge of the pool and asked Cordelia and me if we knew that our president had started the war. Suddenly, I felt very conspicuous being an American. I’d been telling Zanzabaris that I was from Egypt, at which most people concluded that I was Egyptian. I made up my mind that since Swahili was my second language, I’d say that I’m Tanzanian if anyone in Egypt asked.
The last bright spot in our trop was seeing some teacher friends of ours the last few days in Dar es Salaam. I soaked up the last bit of hot, humid weather before returning to the torrential, col rains of Alexandria. At least I was able to buy some of my favorite liquors in duty-free to help keep me warm.
2 May 2003
In order to “celebrate” Eastern Easter and essentially escape the general, stressful bullshit of school, I spent four glorious days in Athens, Greece. Just an hour and a half flight landed me in utter civilization on the CORRECT side of the Mediterranean—the country was swinging with pornography and alcohol!
I know that most people consider those two things to be vices, but any country where the men can freely have sex with their own women and later have a drink is the best country for single Western women to live in or visit. And since wine and ouzo (a licorice liquor) is part of everyday life in Greece, you don’t see the unsophisticated, public drunkenness—unless there are some vacationing Americans around.
As everyone knows, Greece was the start of Western civilization and while I was there, I learned some “new math” from the graffiti equations I saw around Athens: Americans = Nazis = Fucking pigs = Big Brother = Mass Murderers. What probably appealed to me the most was the use of the “=” sing, denoting mathematical accuracy.
I traveled to Athens with Megan, my MS principal, and Cordelia. Why travel with one’s boss, you ask? Because Megan mentioned to one of the few Greek parents that we have at Schutz that we were going to Athens and that parent offered us the family getaway apartment in Athens, overlooking the Sea! The money we saved for accommodations, we spent shopping for shoes, clothes and jewelry. I must admit, aside from the shopping, I truly enjoyed walking around with calves and shoulders exposed, unharassed.
Among my frivolous purchases, I actually NEEDED a pair of open toe black strap sandals to replace the pair that I’d just bought in February in the States. (That’s what I get for thinking that I could buy good quality shoes for under $30.) To me, finding such shoes in a civilized country wouldn’t be a problem. However, Living in BFE (Buttfuck, Egypt)—now you see why I abbreviated), I missed the trend that blinded the shoe fashion world to common sense. Nearly every damn sandal that had a strap in the back, had a super-pointed enclosed toe. Now such a weapon would have been very useful to drive up one of my spoiled student’s ass (or their parent’s), but I had no desire to have an additional one to two inches onto my shoe for the sake of fashion. That torture-fashion just reminded me of the comment about how most designers are men who are seeking revenge on the women who hurt them or men who wished they were women.
We spent far more time shopping than we’d anticipated since we had no idea that Orthodox Greeks celebrate their Easter the same time Muslims do (which was the weekend after most Christians celebrated Easter). We’d actually visited the Acropolis before Easter weekend, but it was closed due to a workers’ strike! So, we had no choice but to walk into nearby downtown, The Plaka, and continue shopping and eating.
By the third day, we caught a huge catamaran to one of the nearby island—Aegina. Even though I’d made up my mind to return to Athens when sites would actually be open, I think an island stay is the way to go with a day trip to Athens. If I thought I didn’t want to leave Athens, I surely could have been content exploring those islands. We liked Aegina so much that we returned there the next day and rented a car. Cordelia chauffeured us around.
Surprisingly enough, we managed to visit one ancient temple and a very modern, beautiful Greek Orthodox Church (although St. Catherine’s at Mt. Sinai is more impressive. We covered the tiny island in no time and ended up at a very small, but tastefully done beach town. I could’ve stayed there at least a week before feeling the need to find a new spot to plant myself. Yet, I’m back in BFE, just counting down the days until my departure. 42—that’s what the number meant in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.