A Year In Egypt

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Week 1

Week 1 is over and I am slowly starting to transition to a very different world. Cairo is a massive city and as such has all the challenges and complexities of any place with more than 20 million people crammed into a space about twice the size Vancouver. My community of Maadi has about 5 million people and is about 45 min from downtown Cairo.

I have quickly learned that driving is somewhat of a combat sport but so far the rules (are there any??) have totally eluded me. A 5 lane highway means 8 lanes of traffic and the roads are shared between cars, buses, trucks, bikes, motorcycles, horses and donkeys. My strategy for crossing big streets is to use several Egyptians as human shields and cross with them. A few people have asked if I planned on getting a car. My answer is quick and definite…no bloody way! I know one thing for sure….I wont be driving here.  I will try to upload a video to give people an idea of what it is like.

Spent a day at the huge Egyptian museum in Cairo. It is rather amazing to be in the mummy room looking at Ramesse II….perfectly preserved or at the treasures of King Tut’s tomb. I am planning on heading out to Giza next weekend to visit the pyramids.

The school is big and challenging. Lots of new teachers and I am sure it will be like that every year. I am going to teach a grade 11 class which will be fun. I spent Friday at a multi-school basketball, soccer, swimming and track tournament. The school we were at had 6 3/4 size soccer fields, 6 outdoor basketball courts, tennis courts, a gym, and an indoor swimming pool. I am going to help coach basketball….some things never change!

Week 2

Pics now Blog to come

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The last week and a half zipped by quickly and its now the Jan 25 holiday to celebrate the 2011 Revolution. We were advised to stay away from big crowds just in case there was any protests and violence. I went to visit the Citadel and Mosque of Muhammad Ali on the weekend with a group of ex pats who all belong to a international group in Cairo. Many activities push the boundary of my comfort zone but I was determined to get out and about. I took an UBER there and taxied back. I was relieved that that in both cases they needed little direction from me apart from the occasional head nod and point. I realized that I need to be roughly a block a away from my apartment before i can help navigate you to where I live. Every road and building pretty much still looks the same…..and lets be honest at night it isn’t happening.

The Citadel was built by Saladin in the 1100s as protection against the Crusaders. New by Egyptian standards but being there certainly makes history incredibly real. There was more than one mosque on the site. One Mamluk built from the 1300s and the famous Alabaster Mosque built my Muhammad Ali Pasha in the early 1800s. The Citadel and the Mosque dominate the skyline of Cairo and provide sweeping vistas of the city that seems to spread as far as the eye can see. The night ended at Al Azkhar Park at the restaurant that looks back at the Mosque from a few km away. The group was quite interesting: a couple teachers, German diplomats, British embassy staff, and UN workers. It is a beautiful park and I increasingly appreciate “green” space in this brown and dusty land. I have come to learn that the word “park” can be a little of a disappointment. According to google maps there is a huge “park” just several hundred metres from my apartment. When I saw it on the map I thought, “a perfect place to walk and relax”. When I got there I was a wee bit disappointed to find that it was in fact an enormous (100acres?) track of dirt, dust, rubble dumper from other construction sites etc. Needless to say I wont be taking my picnic lunch there anytime soon. “Oh how you tease me Google Maps!”

On my increasingly long walks in the area I have now discovered “Old Maadi”. Old Maadi can best be described as part carnival, part slum, part urban renewal, part street festival. The streets are crowed with people, vendors, cars, horses, motorized rickshaws, etc. It was quite by accident that I wandered into the area on my explore to walk to the Nile. The walk also made me realize the 5 worst words you can encounter as a newcomer to Cairo:

“Google Maps Can Not Load”

There I am, proud that I navigated the maze of streets to get some lovely sunset pics on the Nile, a 45 min from home and google maps craps out. I suppose I could always have grabbed a taxi but alas after a few tense moments the map came back and I was able to weave back home.

Hope you are all well.

Week 3 Wadi Degla

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It is going on a month and that was my target for feeling comfortable in Cairo……I am close but my Arabic is still almost non-existent. I am working on trying to get out to explore/sight see every weekend. This week I decided to visit the hiking area close to my place. Considering that I am in a greater urban area containing 20 million people I wasn’t expecting to get away from confines of the city quite so quickly. I was pleasantly surprised what this place offered me after an easy 10 Uber drive from Maadi. I plan on doing a blog entry and pics solely on the entire driving experience but I will say that my Uber trip have felt safe and relaxed….I cant say the same for my taxi trips.

I headed off to the Wadi Degla Protected Area. A wadi in North Africa is a dry ravine cut into the desert. I didn’t know exactly what to expect but what I found was an enormous area that seemed to go on and on. I certainly wasn’t alone at Wadi Degla but it was large enough to get the feeling that I often experience at home when I am out hiking. There were numerous Egyptian families camping, people mountain biking on the trails that ran up the sides of the ravine, people heading in with ATVs, runners, walkers, etc. For the first time since arriving I felt a little more at home.

The Eastern desert in Egypt does not resemble the sweeping sands of Hollywood movies. It is a harsh, rocky, unforgiving landscape. I didn’t see a lot of green nor did I expect to but it still was a remarkably beautiful place. I wish I had had my bike so that I could have explored the ravine more. I am sure I will return a number of times as it seems like a great place to escape the crush of Cairo.

I wish I could say that this protected area was as pristine as the Valhallas but alas hitting the garbage can seems to be a skill that Egyptians have not acquired. Actually I watched a PE class play flag football….they haven’t mastered catching either. They are however, great soccer players.

Cheers

Week 4/5/6

Mid February and they haven’t sent me home yet so it can’t be going too badly. I thought this entry would be a little different. The theme is simply traffic or as I like to call it….things that make me scratch my head or want to punch you in the face!  Here is a list of my favorite traffic/driving moments:

18 Egyptians crammed into the back of a pickup truck…most of whom are sitting on the edge of the bed…passing us on the highway doing 120 km

The broken down bus on the side of the freeway jacked up on a pile of bricks….one guy under it trying to fix it.

The Egyptian army setting up a road block every day during the height of rush hour ….reducing 7 “Egyptian” lanes of traffic to two. It usually creates a traffic jam 3 km long. EVERY DAY!

3 guys on an ATV…no helmets…..oh wait that isn’t the best part. The driver is balancing an infant on the handle bars as he drives.

What do you call 200 Egyptians running across a 5 lane highway during rush hour? NORMAL

The only language more perplexing than Arabic is that of the Egyptian car horn. As soon as you get in a bus or taxi the driver starts beeping. My favorite is when you are hopeless stuck in gridlock and the chucklehead in the car behind you relentlessly honks…..’cause I am sure the fellow broken down 3 km further along the highway can hear.

This is a good one! There is the belief here that using your headlights will drain your battery. About 1 out of 8 cars don’t use their lights at night. It just adds that little bit of excitement when walking in the evening.

If you miss a exit or turn off on the freeway it is perfectly normal to see a vehicle backing up 1/2 a km into oncoming traffic.

I have not yet seen a speed limit sign.

Texting, smoking and parallel parking while not looking back.

Seat belts….not used….except by me…….booster and baby seats….haven’t seen a single one.

Cheers my friends

Week 7    “God, Garbage and Goats”

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I needed to get back into the routine of exploring this place so I organized a few ou us to visit “Garbage City” and the Coptic Churches that are build in the caves about the district. The area developed as a haven for Coptic Christians in a Muslim country. They changed from farming the recycling when then realized they could make more sifting through the garbage of Cairo and selling what they could find.

The area itself is a maze of narrow streets packed with people and every possible type of vehicle that could carry garbage or recycling. When I first arrived in Cairo I wasn’t surprised that recycling wasn’t really promoted but I was told that at one time the Coptic Christians recycling operation was something like 95% efficient. They sorted everything they could and fed their pigs on the organic waste. The Egyptian government ordered the killing of all pigs during the H1N1 outbreak back 7 or 8 years ago.

Today Garbage City is shared between collection of people, goats, ducks and a few swine! I love that as you are look down on the building you randomly see a herd of goats on the roof or a gaggle of geese through a 3rd story window. From above the community it looks like a collection of abandoned brink building but as you weave through the area it is full of tiny shops, shesha joints, cafes……and YES mountains of garbage. I can’t possibly do justice in my explanation and NO I won’t be popping in anywhere for a bite to eat….this is definitely a place for locals. It’s is sometimes easy to forget the levels of poverty in Egypt….the students at my school are all from a very privileged wealthy minority.

Garbage city is a sprawling labyrinth of streets that now has a population of more than 80,000.

Above Garbage City are the Ctic Cave Churches which were discovered and created over the last 6 decades. The largest of the churches is called the Summer Church and seats 15,000 people and is the largest church in the Middle East. There are a number of small churches including the completely enclosed Winter Church which seats between 2,000-3,000 people. On Palm Sunday we were told that could be in excess of 20,000 people there for the service.

Week 8 Dubai UAE

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I had the chance to fly to the UAE this week and go to a teacher recruiting fair in Dubai. 2500km south east of Cairo on the Persian Gulf. Dubai is everything that Cairo isn’t. It is new, clean, sparkly, and crazy expensive but it certainly is sort on…..for lack of a better expression…”culture”. Four days in Dubai was about 2.5 days too many. Highlights were visiting the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa. It is 160 stories high and literally dominates the Dubai skyline. I think you have to be a shopper to appreciate the world’s 3rd largest mall….but yes I went! 1200 stores, 200 restaurants, full size ice rink, aquarium, giant shark tank…etc etc etc. I also had to make it to the beach and splash around in the Persian Gulf. I did love my epic walk through the old sections of the city (UAE just isn’t very old and neither is the city) and down to the docks. Every imaginable commodity was being unloaded off these crazy rickety old wooden freighters. There was a steady stream of trucks pick up stuff but I have no idea how anyone knew what was going where.

The UAE is an interesting land. Ultra modern and western…..I mean I ate at a Tim Hortons at the mall…..but also a land locked in the conservative Islam that changes from country to country. Many women wearing the burqa or hijab. Streets are clean and traffic is SANE…..good grief there are street light, cross walks, crossing signals and best of all everyone actually follows the rules. They line up for the metro not the mass rush for the doors. It is also the place where a Brit was imprisoned for having poppy seeds on his jacket. Apparently they came from a muffin he had eaten. I have to admit I was a little anxious reading that knowing that I had a bottle of codein laced asprine in my bag.

There was this cute little sign in the changing room by the hot tub reminding people that actually being naked in a change room was not acceptable…hmmmm….when in Rome eh. There was a little “naked room” off to the side. I simply wore by bathing suit to the pool after that.

Nice little bit of racial profiling at the airport too. Every single person wanders out through the “Nothing to Declare” exit. They take one look at me and yell…..”You over there!”.  Apparently the 52 principal has got security risk written all over him. One more scan of the luggage.

Lots of pics to post. Hope everyone is well. And sorry…..I don’t really proofread this so I apologize for any errors. Cheers

PS. On a side note I like to think I have grown in cultural sensitivity. All the passport men at the Dubai airport were wearing the exact same thawb and Keffiyeh and I wanted to ask if it was just a uniform. I showed restraint and just smiled and said thank you. No point ending up in custody. I will ask my secretary tomorrow.

Week 9 maybe it’s 10!

I am sitting at the Cairo Regional Spelling Bee so I thought I would take a few minutes and write. This is more of  survival guide for my daughters and others when they come to visit than a real travel blog.

Rule 1 Animals

Under no circumstance are you to pet the dogs or cats that are running wild in my neighborhood. I am not talking about the 3 legged, mangy, flea bitten dog on the street with a softball size tumor on its back, I know you won’t pet them. I am talking about the cute little dog whose eyes plead, “pet me, I need love.” They WILL bite you, you will get rabies and you will die! I mean the little puppies that you want to snatch up and cuddle. The puppies that you want to smuggle onto  plane and bring home.  They will bit you, you will get rabies and you WILL die!

If Homer the talking dog approaches you and tell you that if you smuggle home back to Canada you will become rich and famous because …well he a bloody talking dog…..he will bite you. And yes you will get rabies and you WILL die. The only difference with Homer is that he will say sorry afterwards.

Rule 2 Sidewalks

When you are out walking and exploring always find  sidewalk. If you can’t find a sidewalk….look harder. If you still can’t find a sidewalk KEEP looking. If Homer the talking dog tells you it will be okay….he is lying to you.

Rule 3 Cars, Intersections, Crosswalks and Traffic Lights

Lets get this straight, if you see something that looks like a  crosswalk it’s only because someone accidentally spilled paint on a road. If you think drivers will stop for you then you will be run over. If a car slows down and while you are waiting to cross a street, they are not stopping out of the goodness of their heart. If you try to cross at this time….you will be run over….just a little slower than normal. If you make eye contact with a driver and he waves for you to cross…..he is NOT. He is swatting a fly or making an obscene hand gesture…..and once again you will be run over.

If Homer the dog tells you it is safe to cross…..what the heck, just don’t pet him!

Unless Homer the dog is driving a white taxi, do not get into these vehicles. It’s 50/50 that they will have floor boards and will most certainly not have seat belts. Let’s be honest, regardless of how bad the car is, you can’t miss out on being driven by a talking dog.

As far as traffic lights…lol……you all know I was kidding. Traffic lights in Cairo…yeah right.

Week…I don’t know… 14??

The great adventure continues. I finally experienced what everyone comes to Egypt for….pyramids, temples, 5000 years of history, the stories of the great Pharaohs etc. Visiting the pyramids is hard to explain…they look rough and battered from the outside but upon entering you are overwhelmed with the intricacy of the construction. Every massive stone laid with exact precision. I am glad I am not claustrophobic, otherwise descending into the heart of the great pyramids would have been absolutely terrifying. I witnessed several people would bailed as they tried to decent the 150 or so metres down a narrow shaft into the bottom. Even once you were inside the pyramids you often had to ease your way through metre high passages. The pyramids I visited were in Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur…all within 45 min of my place.

The Nile cruise…my first cruise of anytime was wonderfully relaxing and filled with amazing tours….Luxor…Carnac Temples…Valley of the Kings…King Tuts tomb…Esna, Edful…Philae Temple. It was absolutely spectacular.

Off to Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea for Easter. The snorkeling is suppose to be amazing and I am also looking forward to the drive from Cairo out across the Suez canal and then down the Sinai peninsula.

 

Week…..cant even remember!

Its been way too long since I have written but it isnt because I have forgotten Slocan or the Kootenays. The job, just like life takes over and you neglect to simply enjoy. Easter weekend in April was spent in Sharm el Sheik. Sharm is a jewel of a resort community/town at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. Sharm was apparently the beach / snorkeling / diving destination for much of Europe and a favorite of Russians. Unfortunately the 2011 revolution and a Russian airliner that was shot down have made Sharm a near ghost town. Threats of violence in the Sinai made us decide to fly instead of drive….a $95 40 min flight was a nice incentive too. I have snorkelled in the Caribbean and in Hawaii but the experience in the Red Sea was maybe the best. 20 feet from shore you were surrounded by an incredible variety of fish and spectacular coral. Stunning beaches and great weather was exactly what I needed in mid April.

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Week……Early May and  my birthday getaway!!

I loved being able to say that I am heading to Paris for my birthday! Savannah just graduated from university and she is headed on a European/Middle Eastern/African adventure and I got to start it with her. She flew to Frankfurt and then took the train to Paris and I flew in from Cairo. I soon realized that my 4 months in Cairo has made me a better and more confident traveller. Rolling into Charles de Galle airport and making my way via the metro into the city seemed simple. I have to say that the weekend was absolutely fabulous. It was Savannah’s first trip to Paris so we made sure we did all the normal things….

Eiffel Tower…by night and day

Champs Elysees

Arc de Triomph

The Louvre

Notre Dame Catherdral

Palace of Versailles

We had this great hotel 5 minutes from the Louvre and we must have easily walked 10 km a day. Versailles was an amazing day and I would like to spend time just exploring the town. The Palace in credible but the grounds were so much more than I expected. The only thing that made me feel better about getting lost again and again on the enormous grounds was the fact that every other person…most french….were staring at their map with the same sense of bewilderment. I have been to Paris before but I didnt make it to Versailles. For years I have taught students about the peasant farm that Marie Antionette built so she could play farm, but to see that she truly constructed a fully functioning farm….animals…water mill etc make you realize that she was just a little girl that never had a proper childhood. We were of course in Paris on the day that Macron was elected President of France but the strange thing was that if you didnt know they were having an election you would have never known it….no signs no posters…nothing.

Spending my birthday with one of my daughters made the whole weekend amazing.

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Week…..Fishing Trip to the Red Sea

I have to be honest…..I really dont like to fishing but how could I pass up a weekend on a boat with a dozen guys from work cruising on in the Gulf of Suez. the water was great….nice swimming….the fishing…whatever! No pictures however….left all technology at home and just decided to relax!

Week……RAMADAN!

Well it’s finally here…..Ramadan. I have truly been looking forward to experiencing Ramadan. The holy month in Islam is a facinating experience in the Middle East. One of the 5 pillars of Islam it is an interesting time to be an observer in a muslim country. For those of you who arent familar with Ramadan it is a month long holy time that is tied to the lunar cycle. As a result of the lunar cycle, it moves forward in the calendar 11 days each year. It is a time of fasting, family, celebration and sacrifice. The lights and laterns that decorate almost every building and store give a very festive feeling the the city and surrounding neighborhoods. Fasting starts at the first prayer of the day which right now happens at about 330 am. Yup that means Muslims stay up all night and eat at around 3 am and then try to get some sleep before the day starts! Fasting lasts until Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, which occurs at about 7 pm. These days in Cairo it has been between 37-43 degrees during the day. Thats right…..43 degrees and no water! Occasionally some people rise their mouths out but many believe that nothing can cross their lips.

Regardless of teaching about the Islamic faith to countless social studies classes, nothing really prepared me to be thrown into a world where people are functioning on 2 or 3 hours sleep night after night. Fasting usually starts when children are 12 or 13 but we have some parents getting their 7 year olds to fast! My class is full (kinda full!) of hungry, tired, hot, cranky kids! We adjusted our school hours and dismiss kids at 115 instead of 3…..I think it makes everyone happy.

Yesterday someone asked me to tell them something that surprised me about Egypt. I like to think that I came here with my eyes wide open; I was coming to Africa….the Middle East…..a city of 22 million….a muslim country. I am however still trying to fully comprehend how deeply connected the people here are connected to their faith. I dont mean that they all share the exact same set of values or practice their faith in the same way but at the core Islam is imbedded in who they are. It is hard to separate the person from the religion. Perhaps it is a result of spending my entire life in a secular world that has made this place seem so foreign. I hope that by the time i leave this place for good I will better understand the deep connection between these people and their faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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