Saturday, September 16, 2006

A few more of my favorite things!

Today I discovered that I have a need for speed ;-) But before I discerned that, I learned that the inside of pyramids really aren't all that spectacular. And before that, I saw a solar boat. And before that...Perhaps I should start at the beginning. ALI arranged a trip for students to the Giza plateau in one of those insanely comfortable tourist buses that you don't miss until you hop into a cab and feel mother nature's air conditioning. We piled into the bus at 9:00 am sharp, and arrived in Giza shortly thereafter. The pyramids are wonderful to drive up to, because suddenly, out of the smog and highrise building, a bastion of stone arises above it all, majestic in its grandeur and antiquity. Of course, the Giza pyramids are not the oldest pyramids in Egypt, just the most famous. The Saqqara pyramid is the oldest, I think,and is located a few miles from Giza. Before pyramids, rulers were interred in normal burial chambers, or mastabas, but somehow decided that, as gods, they should be remembered as such. Hence, Giza.
Anyway, a trip to the pyramids is almost worth it just for the people watching. There are people dressed in ridiculously short skirts and tight, midriff-baring tanktops alongside women entirely veiled with only their eyes showing. And there are the constant, hawking salesmen trying valiantly to persuade you to buy a Saudi headress, postcards, or some cheap reproduction of an ancient monument. Sunglasses are a wonderful deterrant to such errant entrepeneurs, as you can glance around and still remain stoically ambivalent. After walking around the main pyramid, Khufu's, we were told we couldn't go in. Tickets to enter this pyramid are limited to 150 people each morning and afternoon, and it is a first-come, first-serve basis. Thus, you must get there quite early for a chance to enter. The second pyramid, not one of ancient seven wonders of the world, as our guide pointed out, does allow as many to enter as possible, which is far too many in my opinion. Those who are clausterphobic, do not crouch well walking up and down steep slopes, or those who have a tendency to faint due to lack of oxgyen, should not enter a pyramid. Those of us with an intrepid and inane sense of adventure descended into the pyramid, immediately becoming enveloped in stifling darkness with a appalling lack of oxygen. This descent was all performed at a uncomfortable crouch, as the tunnel is only about three feet high. After reaching the bottom, we traversed a straight passageway for awhile, the height of the space tall enough to stand up in, and then began to climb upwards as tunnel became a narrow, dank aperture into the unknown. Eventually, we emerged into the burial chamber, a rather unspectacular peaked chamber completely devoid of runes, writings, or inscriptions of any kind. The only thing of note was the sarcophgus anchored into the floor, empty, of course, of any body. By this time, everyone is somewhat gasping for air, as the place is unventilated, and pouring sweat like a sno-cone machine in July. Needleless to say, we did not linger to ponder the eternal mysteries that shroud the pyramids in so much speculation, but instead began the ardous journey back outside. The Sahara sun has never felt so good, nor has the Cairo air ever tasted purer! I've decided going inside a pyramid is something you do just to say you've done it (and I have!) After this, we piled back into the bus and stopped briefly at a scenic overlook. I could not resist the perfect photo opportunity and paid a man ten pounds to sit on his camel, have it stand up, and pose in front of all three of the pyramids lined up stately in the background. It was quite a tourist trap, but a fun stop nonetheless, and the pictures turned out really well! The final stop of the university-funded trip (all admissions were paid for), was the Spinx area, which also included the only remaining Valley Temple of Egypt, the place where mummifications took place. Each pyramid had one, but they have long since crumbled. It was fascinating to learn about the mummification process (they really did extract the brain through the nose!) and even more fun to pose in crazy positions in front of the Spinx. I forgot, we also visited the Solar Boat Museum, in which is interred a boat that survived from Khufu's reign. The boat was originally exhumed in a pit near the pyramid in thousands of pieces in 1954, but was painstakingly put back together by assidious archaeologists.
After the university trip ended, by adventures had only begun. My friend Nicola and I decided to go riding in the desert, and I was much more pleased with this experience (not that last time wasn't fun!) Instead of just having horses brought to us, we went to the actual stables, named D & I, examined the horses, and saw that they were well cared for. These animals were neither starving nor leisioned, but appeared content and well-fed, with no apparent saddle sores or limping legs. They even had a foal. Then, we discussed prices with the owner while they tacked up the horses, and his prices were much more reasonable. He suggested 50 LE per hour and we settled on 40 LE. These were different stables than the ones I'd rode at before, and I really enjoyed this ride. All of the stables use English saddles, which suits me just fine, as I grew up posting, but poor Nicola was more used to a Western saddle, although she adjust swiftly. Soon the city fell away, and the desert was before us. Our excellent guide asked us if we would rather tour the pyramids area or ride into the desert, and we chose the desert, which was definitely the best decision made that way. Soon, sand dunes separated us from the pyramids, and there was not a soul in sight except the carrion birds eating the dead horse corpses dumped into the desert by stables unwiling to get rid of the bodies. Soon, we left these behind as well, and my horse has been acting very frisky since we left the stable, pulling at the reins in an eagerness to gallop. This was yet another sign that the animals were of better quality and better cared for than before. Responsive to my touch, the horse had boundless energy and was neither fatigued nor distempered. Quite soon, I shouted "Ya Allah" (Let's go!), and we charged at a ground-swallowing gallop into the heart of the desert. The wind created convenient alleyways between the dunes that served as perfect galloping lanes, and it was so exilerating to top a hill at full gallop and pull up to a view of the pyramids framed in the background. Magical! I could have gone all day charging around the desert, racing Nicola's and the guide's horses, but reality set in and we had to return too soon back to town. I am definitely considering returning!
After I got back to my apartment, fed and watered from Cafe Tobasco, weary, sore, sweaty, dusty, and all together disgusting, my roommates told me they were going to the Khan El-Khalili at night, something I couldn't pass up, so we piled into a cab and braved downtown traffic to the market. I ended up buying something I've been searching for ever since I first arrived: a cartouche with my name in hieroglypics. It's a little touristy, but I think it's beautiful!
My landlord, wherever his faults may lie (and I have a pretty good idea of exactly where they lie), is excellent at his job of servicing our apartment. The shower in the other bathroom was accidently broken, and in less than a day he had repaired it. Our relationship is slightly strange; we've told him he can come in whenever he wants , as he obviously has a key, but it's still slightly disconcerting to have in the apartment when you arrive back home. He also now speaks to me almost entirely in French, which is fine with me, but my French seems to be improving as rapidly as my Arabic!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Yacoubian Building, and other news

Weekends are always exciting in Cairo, and this one has started with no exception. I went to a movie theatre tonight at the Grand Hyatt, on the left, (very classy! And they had popcorn, although the container was too small for my voracious appetite ;-), and saw the Yacoubian Building in Arabic with English subtitles. It was a scintillating movie, costing twice as much as any previous Arab film, and introducing uncomfortable topics like Islamic militantism, homosexuality, sex, torture, you name it, it was there. Of course, risqué to Americans and risqué to Arabs are two entirely different notions. We are used to rather graphic sex, lots of skin, and plenty of making out. This movie didn’t go quite to those extremes, but there were two males crawling into bed together; the torture and implication of male rape; sexual harassment in the form of, well, one small step away from sexual intercourse, with one partner more enthusiastic than the other; a radical Islamic training center for terrorists, in fact, a quite plausible path for a young man from depression to radicalism; and, of course, the token terrorist scene with excessive gore and guts. The only point of discomfort, for me, was that I was watching the movie impugn Islam and show how many of the sheikhs and religious leaders manipulate young men to commit terrorist attacks. I was sitting in a dark theatre, surrounded by mainly Egyptians, on the top floor of the Hyatt, with gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows revealing spectacular panoramas of the Nile just outside the theatre door (in other words, a fairly exclusive theatre for the average Egyptian), watching the film unfailing critique the current situation in Egypt, and, most importantly, the wealthy few who rule it. Anyway, it was a wonderful experience, and I never tire of gazing at the Nile in wonder, especially at night, when the muddy color is transformed into a shining ribbon sable reflecting the lights of numerous hotels and businesses.
Alright, so that’s what I did tonight, but my day was interesting, as well. I paddled around in the Nile pool for awhile, and learned that I will have a private tutor for spoken Fusha Arabic. Very exciting! The U requires me to maintain a 15 credit minimum to maintain my scholarships, and 21 class hours at ALI only converts to 13 credits. Thus, I needed two more. It was a bit sketch, though, the way the tutor introduced himself. I was sitting in class, attempting to learn some grammar, when a man walked in and asked for Laura. I nodded, he handed my a piece of paper and said “Call me.” The looks I got from my classmates were priceless! Of course, the paper explained who he was, but it was rather flustering. For 4 hours of the rest of the day, I sat in a lovely new coffee shop, The Coffee Bean, that opened a block from my place, and downloaded all of my pictures into an online Kodak album and Facebook. If you need to the link, e-mail me at
Oh, yeah, I joined the scuba team! I start classes Sunday evening, have them everyday until Thursday, when we go to the Red Sea for four dives over the weekend. It costs about 300 dollars, for certification, equipment, and all that, and the trip will cost minimally more. I can’t wait to finally leave the snorkeling surface and delve into the nooks and crannies of the reef. And I’ve finally obtained a power cable for my computer (I love Radio Shack!), and internet should be coming soon, so soon I’ll have unlimited access to all of you!
I’ve been slowly acclimating myself to my neighborhood and neighbors. A British guy lives across the hall from me, there’s a lawyers’ office next door (I was putting the garbage out, wearing one of my camis that go under shirts, thinking that I wouldn’t encounter anyone, because I’ve never before, but of course, one of the neighbors happened to be standing outside, so we chatted for a bit before I scampered inside), another British guy lives downstairs, and numerous AUC and ALI students live in the building. And then there’s the guy in the apartment across the alley, so basically his building is five feet from mine. He always seems to be wandering around without his shirt on ( there was the one night, at 2 in the morning, when I was just about to hop in the shower when I remembered I’d forgotten something in the kitchen. I was fully clothed minus a top but plus a bra, thinking, again, who’s up on a Monday night. But there was the guy across the alley. I don’t think he saw me, because I saw him and fled back into the seclusion of my room)! It’s so weird, or maybe not, but I’ve never lived this close to so many people before. We all see each other’s laundry (and the American girls always air their VS underwear and bras on the clothesline on the balcony, because dryers don’t exist in Egypt), hear every noise, and listen to the Friday afternoon sermons that come in so clearly from the mosque across the river. I live in a soap opera! I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow (perhaps a bit of wagib, homework), but Saturday I go to the pyramids with a real guide. I’ll report back soon. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

First ALI tour of Cairo

Well, my life has settled down a bit now that classes have begun in earnest. On Saturday morning, I took a bus tour of Cairo, which really served to iterate the fact that Cairo is huge! Parts of it are so overpopulated, and yet there are numerous building that were just never finished, especially in the Giza area. No one exactly explained why this is, but it was rather eerie to drive past neighborhood after neighborhood of crumbling building. It looked more like a war zone then a residential area. Many of these areas in Giza were built atop fertile land, so they only aggrevate the lack of arable land in Cairo, although now there is a rule in place that protects fertile land, a little too late, in my opinion. Of course, there are also palatial mansions and luxury high rises interspersed in various suburbs throughout Cairo; Mubarek, the 'venerable' leader of Egypt, has a very chic estate, from what I could see at the fringe. The above picture is the memorial to Sadat. Some of the older cemetaries, stretching for acres with family tombs and grand monuments, have been recycled into homes for the living, which must be a very moribund existence, sleeping among the graves of hundreds of deceased people. I'm not going to lecture too much about the history of Cairo, but it is fascinating to see all of its facets. Anyway, my weekend ends on Sunday, which still takes a little getting used to. Currently, I am taking Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic (basically alot of grammar and vocab); Arabic News and Media, where we read articles, listen to the radio, and watch television programs ; Ameea, which is colloquial Egyptian Arabic, not a separate language, but a distant cousin (for instance the hard Q sound in MSA becomes a short A sound, and many of the words are entirely transmuted); Arabic writing, in which I learn the nuances of more grammar and better writing styles; and finally, probably spoken Fusha, to complete my 15 credits of classes. Actually, with the last class, I will be physically in class 24 hours a week, plus those fun hours of homework every night. For instance, today, Tuesday, I have class from 9:30 to 3:30 without any breaks in between, and, although most days aren't this bad, I can say I definitely look forward to the weekend. Anyway, I am now considering joining the scuba team at the AUC, especially since I now beginners are welcome and there are frequent trips to the Red Sea!