One year ago today, I never would have imagined I’d be here. It was always a far-off dream to ride through the Sahara Desert on a camel to view the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. But today, I did just that.
It was hotter, dustier and less romantic than the Hollywood version, but none of that detracted from the complete and utter awe of seeing the pyramids of Giza in person.
The Great Pyramid was built by Khufu, a pharaoh in the 4th dynasty (roughly 2700 BC). The middle pyramid with the different section of stone at the top was built by Khufu’s son, and the smaller pyramid was built by his grandson. Other pyramids in the area are for the queens of the pharoahs. Not much is known about any of these pharaohs because the pyramids were so thoroughly looted.
At one point, we could hear the echo of the call to prayer from multiple mosques in the city to the left. To the right, there was nothing but a wall of silence from the desert. It was surreal.
Unfortunately, Ben was sick, so he missed out. Tomorrow we will see the steppe pyramid at Saqqara, and we will return to Giza soon for Ben’s turn.
The other night, we took a felluca ride on the Nile River. We watched the sunset…
…ate some schawerma…
…celebrated a birthday…
…and enjoyed a beautiful breeze and some live music.
School starts on Sunday. This perpetual vacation will end soon.
Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo was the scene of the revolution. If you saw any of the news coverage, all the protesting – and subsequent violence – occurred there. I told all of my concerned family members that we would avoid Tahrir Square and we would be smart about every where that we went.
Well, we partially kept that promise. We saw the Square today (it’s only been 4 days and we’re already breaking promises. Oy vey.) but we were smart about it. We went to visit the Egyptian Museum, which faces Tahrir Square.
The Square is empty. There are a few scattered tents, but that’s about it. There is no one currently protesting.
The museum was built in 1897, and opened to the public in 1901. It houses over 220,000 items, some as old as 7000 years. We saw artifacts from all of the Ancient Egyptian time periods. One of my co-workers is a bonafide Egyptologist, and was obviously an awesome tour guide. We could not take any pictures inside of the museum, so I’ll just write about a couple of the highlights.
I assumed that the museum would be air conditioned, but it was not. I’ll be returning to the museum in January, when I can see everything without dripping sweat.
After the museum, we went to a restaurant to try more Egyptian fare. Our tour guides, two men that my new assistant principal knows from the gym (more about that later), helped us order a variety of Egyptian foods. We ate baba gonoush, tahini, falafel, foul, eggplant, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers, a green soup, and lamb, chicken and steak. It was all delicious.
We then took the metro home, just to experience Cairo in a new way. So far we’ve only walked places or taken the school van. The metro was busy and the signal to close the door was loud and obnoxious. We’ll do it again.
Besides being tourists, we’re also trying to settle into day-to-day living in Cairo. We’ve been to the school (it’s beautiful!) and we’ve started to get our bearings, at least in our neighborhood. We’ve used otlob, which is a take-out service. (You can have anything delivered – shawerma, McDonald’s, groceries, laundry…you can even get a massage therapist or hair stylist to come to your house!) We’ve also joined the local gym.
Many of the returning ex-pats use the gym, and most of the newbies we spend time with have signed up as well. Egyptian gyms are a little different than ones in the States. You pay for a year’s membership up front, and you start with a fitness assessment. Then you work with a personal trainer for no extra cost. You tell them how often you want to work out and for how long, and they plan work outs for you. It’s amazing.
When we signed up, we had to fill out a form asking typical questions – do you smoke, do you have any injuries, etc. One question asked if you are 10 kilos overweight. Ben and I looked at each other and shrugged. The guy who was helping us said to Ben, “For you, sir, I think yes.” The gym will be a part of his daily house husband duties. 😉
Just for fun, here are some pictures of my new school!
But until that time, here’s another new post.
Today we went to Manshiyat Naser, aka Garbage City, on the outskirts of Cairo. This city is inhabited mostly by Coptic Christians, and they make a living by collecting the garbage throughout the city and sorting through it. In Cairo, you do not sort for recycling at home. You throw everything into the same trash can, and then you put it outside of your door whenever a bag is full. Each apartment building has a bowab, the person who works for the landlord. They take care of the gardens, sweep the hallways, assist when something goes wrong in the apartment, and collect the trash. Rumor has it that they will go through the trash first and take anything they want; then they bring it to the streets.
The Coptic Christians who live in Garbage City come and collect the garbage. They sort through the garbage for sellable and unsellable items, and recycle anything they possibly can: paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum, etc. The buildings throughout Garbage City are organized into different recycling centers. A four-story tall building may be filled on all four stories with metal only, and families tend to specialize in one area, making enough money to support their families. Any garbage that cannot be recycled or taken care of in Garbage City gets left on the streets.
Coptic Christians are the swine herders in Egypt. They used to bring their swine through the streets of Cairo, and they would eat the food waste. After a threat of swine flu a couple of years back, that stopped, and most food waste is left on the side of the road.
We drove past donkey carts filled with plastic bottles, people sorting and selling all kinds of wares, and children playing in the streets to get to St. Sama’ans Church at the top of Garbage City. It is the largest church in the Middle East, with stadium seating for 15,000 people.
This church was carved out of a cave in 1974. The story goes back much farther in history, though. In the 10th century, the king of Egypt was a Muslim man who enjoyed bringing leaders of different religions and philosophies together to debate. A Jewish leader was debating with the Coptic Christian pope of Alexandria, and it appeared that the pope had won. The Jewish leader then mentioned the parable of the mustard seed in a literal way, and said that God should move a mountain for them. The pope explained that the parable is symbolic; nothing is impossible when you have faith.
Unfortunately, the Coptic Christians were told that they had three days to move a mountain with help from their God; otherwise they would be subject to persecution. The pope gathered his people for three days in the church to fast and pray. On the third day, one of the bishops received a message from Mary, mother of Jesus, to go to the market and look for a man with one eye. He would manifest the miracle.
(He had one eye because he plucked out his own eye, after reading the Bible passage, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out.”) Simon told them to gather the king and his soldiers, bring them to the base of the Mokattam Mountain and cry three times, “O Lord have mercy.” Each time they did, the ground shook and the mountain lifted slightly. After the third time, the king agreed that they had proven their God was God, and asked them to stop. In the space that was left after the mountain moved, they built the first church on Mokattam Mountain.
The original church has not been found on the mountain yet. The Coptic Church has created multiple churches on the base of Mokattam Mountain (which is above Garbage City), and they are gorgeous. We took a tour of two of them yesterday.
After touring the churches in the caves, we had lunch at the small restaurant. We ate foul (fool), which is made out of beans, with pita bed, falafel, and pickled carrots. It was delicious. The price was most likely the cheapest we will ever find in Cairo; 15 of us ate and drank for less than 100 LE, which is roughly $15. Unbelievable.
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In other news, we spent the evening unpacking and cleaning the apartment a bit. It feels good to be settled. Lots of people have asked for pictures. Here it is, our home away from home!
See, we have space for you! Come visit us!!!!
Back in April, the Egyptian Consulate mailed me my passport, complete with my work visa stamped into it. Ben opened it up, stuck his nose right in, took a deep breath, and said, “Ah! It smells like adventure.”
Indeed it does. So far, adventure smells mostly like diesel with undertones of garbage and rare and glorious winds of exotic spices. It’s lovely.
Here are our adventures, Day One:
1,200 years ago, two Roman-esque columns were erected in Cairo and in Aswan. Notches covered the body. Each spring, farmers would be taxed, depending on which notches the Nile River reached on the Nilometer. The higher the river, the higher the crop yield, the higher the taxes. When the Aswan dam was built, the river stopped flowing into the Nilometer in Cairo. You can now walk down and touch the column. So we did.
We attempted to eat lunch at a restaurant on the Nile, but everything was closed until at least 3 pm because of Ramadan. Instead, we ate at a Thai restaurant back near our neighborhood. I discovered that lemon juice is AMAZING.
I thought that shopping would be significantly different – no Targets, no Walmarts, no big box stores. WRONG! We could find almost everything at Alpha Market that we can find at Target, including American brands. We bought cleaning supplies, garbage cans, bowls, toilet paper, a cord for our computer…it goes on and on. We still needed to go to a few smaller stores to get bath towels, sheets and kitty litter, but we found nearly everything at Alpha.
We arrived at the perfect time. It is the end of Ramadan, and while the majority of the country is celebrating Eid, shops and banks will be closed until Monday. We got our essentials today, the last day things are open before the holiday, and now we get to watch the city celebrate.
The teachers have all been arriving at different times, and we were some of the last. When we were hired at the Iowa fair, 4 other teachers were also hired. We all went to dinner together that weekend, and since then we’ve been emailing back and forth. One other teacher also came with her non-teaching husband, and he and Ben are in the midst of a budding bromance. They live in an apartment above us, which will be awesome.
Anyway, they arrived two days before us and, from returning expat teachers, discovered the joys of the Ace Club. It’s basically an American bar within Cairo – you can get beer, wine and pork (bacon, even!!!), at excellent prices. A group of ten of us went to the Ace Club last night to talk, attempt to shed the perpetual sheen of sweat with a nice cold beverage, and taste some shisha.
It wasn’t an authentic Cairo experience, and we are not here to spend all of our time within the Ace Club walls, but it was nice to let our hair down and get to know the other teachers.
4. Adventures to come
We have quite the packed itinerary for the next week or so: the church on the hill, a visit to the school, the Cairo Museum, the Expat center, a walking tour of our neighborhood, dinner on a Nile felluca, survival Arabic lessons, dinner at a teacher’s house, and of course, visits to the pyramids at Giza and Sakarra. Hopefully we won’t experience terrible jet lag and/or intestinal issues and we can see it all!
We’ve arrived in Cairo! I have no idea how to get to anywhere from my apartment, or how to make most of the food that they left us in our apartment fridge, or how I can still be awake after getting about 2 hours of “dozing” over the last 30 hours, but those are small potatoes. We made it!!!
Traveling is a lot like labor: it’s long and intense and uncomfortable (okay, uncomfortable doesn’t quite cover labor…but excruciating is too much for flying…) and requires time to recover. Alright, when I say, “a lot,” I really mean in one major way: after you’ve survived it and see what it has to offer, you forget the pain and think, “I could do that again.” Too much of a stretch? Sorry.
We had some minor hiccups while flying. Our seats on the first plane had the boxes for in-flight entertainment under them, so Charlie and Leila could not fit underneath. However, we were in a row of 3 seats but had 4 seats in front of us, so we could sit at an angle with our feet where the 4th seat should have been. We kept the pets on our laps for most of the flight, and they did remarkably well. They mewed and whined during take off and descent only.
When we got to France, we decided to take the animals out to use the bathroom. Leila was so scared of the noises, she jumped right back in the kennel and refused to come out. Charlie walked and walked and sniffed and smelled, but didn’t use the bathroom.
After an hour, we decided to bring them back to airport and deal with accidents if they happened. We get in line for security, and they weigh our carry on baggage. Too heavy!
We’re directed to stand in line at the baggage counter, except it turns out that “line” is a loose definition. People barreled their way through to the counter and interrupted the agents working with other people. We needed to be very aggressive in order to solve our problem.
Which actually was part of the biggest bonus of the trip! Let’s back up for a minute: we had a ridiculous amount of luggage that was mostly overweight. (I’m a closet hoarder. My sister was freaking out about it. Sorry, Ellen!) You can save 20% off of the fees when you register the bags online. The form wasn’t working properly, so Ben called an agent who made a note on our account that we should still receive the online discount.
Apparently he worded it too vaguely, because the agent at the ticket counter at MSP read that we should receive NO excess baggage fees. We did not pay ONE CENT for all of our bags. Then the Air France agent in Paris did not charge us for checking our carry on luggage because we didn’t need to in the States. We will spend that extra surprise money on things like Leila’s litter box and more bottled water, which is apparently our plan for today. We’ll be going shopping for essentials before we meet with a few of the other teachers we’ve been emailing with. It’s 7:30 am here — we’ll update soon about our first full day in Cairo! With pictures of our apartment!
we’ve had about 37 things to do the last 3 or 4 days before we left for cairo (with no signs of stress from me except a monster pimple). such as:
spend our last weekend in minnesota listening to blues, reading in the sunshine and hanging with friends? check.
exchange american dollars for egyptian pounds? check.
pack curriculum and clothes? check.
organize the last of our things that are staying behind? mostly check. (sorry, mom and dad.)
get all of the paperwork completed so we can bring our pets with us? check.
figure out how to check out books from the library on my kindle? check.
unlock our cell phone so we can put an egyptian sim card in it? check.
let the bank know that transactions from egypt are legit? check.
register as absentee voters? double check.
hug my nephews a little more and a little longer? check.
recheck 17 websites on cairo’s weather so i can feel adequately prepared? check.
purchase a year’s worth of hard-to-find-in-cairo items? check.
give away my skirts and dresses that are not modest enough? check.
pack and repack and pack again, trying to keep our extra luggage payments at a minimum? check.
eat bacon for brinner and then ham & cheese egg bake for breakfast to get our fill of pork? check.
enjoy the minnesota rain the morning of departure? check.
say (terribly difficult) goodbyes to friends and family? check.
publish the final blog on american soil for a year? check!
As we have been packing up for Cairo (eek!), I have come across some ridiculous things.
1. $11.50 in an old school bag (money bags!!!!)
2. The lyrics to the greatest remix in the history of the world: “Baby Got Book”
3. Pictures of my nieces and nephews as adorable babies
4. Too many shoes and clothes that still have tags on them (…sorry, Ben…)
5. A poem on a post-it from one of my students: “Roses are red, violets are blue, Ms. Holmes ur a good teacher, that’s y everyone will miss you” (written by a graduating 8th grader before I told them I was leaving)
We’re almost done with the final packing, and I feel a little like this:
We’ve reached the 10 day mark already. I’m not sure how that’s even possible.
Every night until we leave, we have plans. Dinners, birthday parties, weddings, happy hours, packing, Fruit Ninja…every night is full. Then you add the Olympics into the equation, and there just isn’t enough time.
We’re using the days to soak up the moments with my sister and her boys before she moves to Hawaii. (Yes, my sister and I will literally be half way across the world from each other. I don’t want to talk about it.)
I’m still nannying until Thursday, so we’ve planned lots of play dates with my nephews and nanny kids. It’s perfect.
Here are some highlights from our last few days in Minnesota:
1. Kids entertaining each other
I love being a teacher, an auntie, a nanny for so many reasons. One of them is sitting back and watching the kids successfully navigate social relationships. It’s a beautiful thing.
We went to Kelly Farm last week, and the kids were drawn to the kitties like Ben is drawn to bacon. The nephews are loving our Leila too.
3. Precious moments
A couple of nights ago, when I was snuggling with the boys before bed, Riley said, “I like my Papa.” I said that he was a pretty cool guy, and Ry responded, “I want to be cool like Papa.”
4. Time with friends
I start to panic when I think of all the people I still want to see over the next 10 days, knowing it is impossible to squeeze everything in. This weekend, though, we sure tried: we had a girls’ night, went to brunch on Saturday and Sunday, attended a wedding and then a party, and celebrated the nephews birthdays. We’ll need the 13 hours in the air to recover from our last couple of weeks in town.
5. Sister, sister
There’s nothing quite as good as time with your sister.
The bizarre push-pull is still battling within me, but as we get closer to our date of departure, I have to admit that the push is gaining traction. I’m ready to move onward.