Sunday, April 4, 2010

Egyptian Adventure

I just got back from a school trip to Cairo. I (and another chaperone) took 7 students to an MUN conference in Egypt. I've never been to the Middle East (I realize it's in Africa but trust me, it's much more M. E. than African) before so I wasn't sure what to expect. And honestly, I was so busy before I left that I didn't really have time to formulate any expectations. But anything I thought I might think I knew about Egypt was completely and totally not even close to what it really was. I don't even think that sentence made sense but hopefully it shows how utterly lost I was when we arrived. I'll come back to this.

We left Qingdao, flew to Seoul, stayed overnight in an airport hotel, then headed to Cairo via Uzbekistan (Tashkent Airport, apparently a major stopping point but not something you can tell from looking at the airport itself which was the size of my apartment. Literally.) We landed in Cairo about 24 hours after we left Qingdao. It was actually a really nice trip. There was a lot of extra room on the planes so we were all able to spread out. We arrived in Cairo late at night and were met by the hosting school at the airport. We had the pleasure of staying at an Intercontinental for the conference...if you've never done so, you are missing out! It's a beautiful 5 star hotel and take care of us they did. It's actually spoiled every hotel for me from here on out. I'll never be able to afford to stay there again on my own but I'll always wish I could. The conference went...okay. There were a few bumps and babbles, some our fault, some out of our control. Some of our students shined, some not so much but I think it was a good learning experience all around. The conference organizers also planned a few outings for us including a trip to the pyramids, a visit to the Egyptian musem, shopping at a famous bazaar, a couple of parties in the evenings and a visit to an United Nations organization in Cairo. Again, some were awesome (the pyramids and the museum), some were not partaken of (shopping- our kids were too tired, the jet lag about killed us), and some were flops (a dance party and the UN was super boring).

We did some serious waiting all week. Anytime we went anywhere as a group with the conference (about 500 people) we had to wait enormous amounts of time. Egypt has a Ministry of Tourism and a Tourism police. Because we were such a large group of foreigners, we had to have special permission to go anywhere and then we all had to leave together. Along with that, we had to have a policemen on several of the buses with us. It was basically all about their time schedule so it didn't matter if we were all ready. We had to wait on their approval. And then, we'd finally get on the road after waiting for 2 hours only to sit in traffic for another hour or so. Next time, I know to go with the expectation that we will be doing a lot of waiting and I don't think it'll bother me as much.

We stayed an additional two days after the conference so we could do some more sight-seeing. We went to the famous bazaar, the Khan el Khalili, sailed on a faluca down the Nile (the coolest thing we did on the trip), did a lot of shopping at a big mall (we don't really have malls here in China), saw a movie (Alice and Wonderland), toured a couple of mosques, went back to the pyramids for a night show and...did school work. Yes, that's right. Our students took about 5 hours and did homework. HOMEWORK!! Overachievers. Actually, a lot of it was for my AP World History class. I'm a slave driver. Anyway, we spent half a day at a learning center so they could have some quiet work time. Boring.

We left the next morning and headed back home the same way we came. It was an amazing trip. One I hope to make again in the future. With or without students.

Some thoughts on Cairo and the Egyptian people. It'll kind of be in list form so forgive the randomness.

The people there were totally unexpected. I don't really know if I have a stereo-type of Middle Eastern people. I've never really known any so I didn't know what to expect. The best way I can explain them is if you were to take the open gawking of the Chinese, the intensity and passion of an Italian and the abrasiveness of what t.v. shows a New Yorker as being, you would have an Egyptian. They are loud, proud, fun, sweet-talking, confrontational, and totally intimidating (at least the men are, I didn't have much interaction with the women. I'll get to that later).

The overwhelmingness (yes, it's a word) started the moment we stepped through the security gate at the airport. There were men everywhere. Many, many men. A few women, some covered, most covered but so many men. And they all stared at us. Now, living in China, I'm used to being stared at but this, this was a totally different kind of look. The Chinese stare at me out of curiousity, I suppose. But these Egyptian men...I don't even know if I can put it into words. They weren't happy looks or mad looks, just intense. Really, really intense. Like "eat you up" intense. It was one of the most intimidating moments I've ever experienced. Needless to say, this intensity followed us everywhere.

Egypt (at least Cairo, I suppose I can't speak for the whole country) has a "man-driven" society. Not surprising I suppose, given some of the Muslim expectations for women but I don't know that I've ever experienced anything like what I experienced there. Every store we went into, even women department stores, was run by mostly men. There were a few women working here and there but not many. In fact, there were so few, it was always noticeable when there was a women. This applied to fast food, restaurants, the mall, any tourist spot...again, totally overwhelming. I'm assuming that once a woman is married, they no longer work out of the home. I'm not sure if that is a personal choice or if it's social or religious. Most of the women were covered up but all to different degrees. Some wore just a head covering, some wore burkas, some had even their eyes covered. Even those that didn't cover themselves still dressed VERY modestly. Pants, long-sleeve shirts and high collars. They were still stylish, just very covered.

I'm not sure what to think of the women covering up. Christine (the other chaperone) and I discussed it quite a bit. At first, the women in burkas were a little intimidating but the more time we spent there, the easier it was to accept. I wonder if it is their choice or if they are being forced by a husband or father? I wonder if they mind or if because it's all they've ever known, it doesn't matter. Or maybe because it's so accepted in society, they don't care. I've always had this impression that women in Muslim countries were mistreated and oppressed. And I have no doubt that that is the case in many places. But seeing how the Egyptian men treated their women, even those in made it all...not as big of a deal. It seems, from an outsiders point of view, that they were loved and cared for. Even those completely covered would walk next to their husbands holding hands, talking, shopping together. I don't know. It just changed my impression of what I perceived to be the Muslim mind-set.

I was proposed to twice. The first time, I was offered 5,000,000 camels, a lotus flower farm and a visit to mother's. The second time, I was offered 10,000,000 camels (he was trying to one-up the other guy) and a seat on his lap. Both I turned down.

Cairo is a very dirty city. With the pollution (one of the most polluted cities in the world) and the sand, everything is covered in dirt. The buildings were filthy. There was trash everywhere. So many cars and not enough streets. We would ride with the windows down and when we got out of the car, you could feel the dirt in your hair. One of the things that stuck out to me the most was how nicely dressed the people were. Bright, clean clothes, freshly pressed. This applied to everyone from the glass maker to the bank teller. And the women with their colorful scarves and long robes, it was a beautiful contrast really.

It was a tip-based society. Everyone was working for a bigger tip. I've never really been to a place with that kind of attitude. Everything had to be bargained for. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't come from a place like China where I barter all the time. It was very overwhelming. We had to haggle everything from the taxis to help with directions. Pretty frustrating actually because just when you think someone is helping you out of the goodness of their heart, no, they're just waiting for payment. And if they feel you didn't pay them enough, they won't leave you alone until you do or until you have the courage to yell back and walk off (we actually had to do that with a taxi driver and made quite the scene).

For our last three nights in the city, we stayed at a different hotel. It was an Egyptian version of a Chinese hotel (my China friends should understand that). Everything is pretty worn and dingy but filled with character. You ignore the stains on the carpet and the mold in the bathroom because that is real life. You smile and look past the obtrusive questions of the bellhop because they are just doing their job. We had to report to the front desk where we were going to be and how long we were going to be there per the tourism police. I haven't quite decided if it was a good or bad thing that they knew. I suppose good if anything happened to us but bad if they were the ones to do it. I'm pretty sure we were followed or at least kept track of the entire time we were there. Again, not sure if it was a good or bad thing. Anyway, the people were friendly in a very flirty almost uncomfortable sort of way.

That's the thing with the men there. They were always friendly, on the verge of being too friendly-flirty so you never quite knew if you were safe or not. They were always crossing or coming close to crossing that imaginary boundary that we women like to put up to keep track of our surroundings. I never felt UNsafe neccessarily, I just never felt protected.

We had a couple of really frustrating things happen on the trip. One being that there isn't a bank or money converting place that will except Chinese RMB. China!, the second leading world power and their money is worth nothing in Cairo! Arg. Kind of puts a damper on things when all you have is RMB and a very limited school credit card. Needless to say, my American bank account is running VERY low right now. Thank goodness I had enough to get us through.

The second really irritating thing was the don't-even-try-to-make-plans-because-it-will-NEVER-work-out-so-there's-really-no-point-in-even-talking-about-it mindset. Every day, we would make a plan or at least talk about what we wanted to do and not one day did it happen like we wanted it to. Now, I can be a pretty flexible person and I've had to learn to be even more so living here in China. I can go with the flow and even enjoy the ride. I like the adventure of it. But sometimes, enough is enough. We would have to make a plan, remake a plan, remake it again, and still change it at least one more time. Sometimes, this would happen hourly. It wouldn't have been a big deal if I was there on my own but because I had a group I was responsible for, it got to be quite frustrating. The students were great though. They were very adaptable, which really made it easier for me to deal with.

I have no idea what kind of impression I'm giving you of the people or the culture there. Let me say, it was an adventure. A totally break-you-out-of-your-box kind of adventure. I encourage you to go if you want to experience something you've never experienced before. Just be prepared for...

  • using lots of cash and not getting any receipts (not good for a school trip)

  • lovely people who like to tease and laugh (I had a blast with the bartering. It helps if you can flirt. Just sayin')

  • loud music, car honking, yelling, and a lot of horse-play (even by grown men)

  • interesting smells (mostly good), delicious food, and bottled water

  • crazy driving (China doesn't even compare)

  • everyone trying to take advantage of you (if you go in with that mindset, it's a lot easier to avoid and accept)
  • beautiful crafts and artwork (some made right here in China so beware of the fake stuff)

  • a "chance" meeting with an "improptu" guide (they might be a lifesaver and make the day totally worth the large tip at the end)

I leave you with some pictures.

Mountain range in Uzbekistan

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Hotel room at the Intercontinental

Camel rides

Egyptian Museum

Giza Pyramids

The Sphinx

The city

Hotel room at the Cosmopolitian

My first marriage proposal

Spice market

Ibn Barquq Mosque- Beautiful!

The smaller building is the footwashing area

On top of the mosque. The Citadel
is in the background.

The city

My second marriage proposal.

Khan el Khalili Bazaar

Sailboat (faluca) on the Nile

A strange mix of old and new

I'm such a dork

Where Uzbekistan gets their spirit from...

If you'd like to see more pictures, I've posted
them on facebook.