Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Return to the Pyramids

Of course, we had to take Bud and Ashley to see the pyramids, and we were eager to see them again too. This time we did the whole shebang, all six of us on camels plodding through the seemingly endless desert, sun beating down, up to the very base of the magnificent pyramids. Riding a camel reminds me a lot of riding a horse - the same soothing, rocking motion, but from a higher vantage point. The getting on and off, however, is considerably more dramatic. My stomach lurched as the camel, groaning grumpily with the effort of lowering or raising himself, folds and unfolds his gangly legs. Their funny gargling sounds made Misha laugh.

Last time we took the horse buggy, which was restricted to staying on the road that runs among the three large pyramids at Giza and past the Sphinx. This time, with our caravan of camels, we came up through a stretch of desert behind the pyramids, so that it really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, coming upon a great landmark ahead. We literally saw only rolling stretches of sand, with silhouettes of other camels in the distance, while the modern city of Giza was forgotten. It was wonderful.

It was very hot, but we had the advantage of a 9 a.m. start, the morning breeze, some sunscreen borrowed from another kind tourist, and white head covers provided by the camel company for a small fee.

Yes, I think we've got the look down.

Our caravan of camels, all linked one after the other, following our guide.

Ashley aboard her "ship of the desert."

Off into the desert!

Worn out!

Driving through a palm tree forest to the next stop: Dahshur Pyramids.

Josh and I at the Bent Pyramid.

Bud and Ashley climb the steps of the Red Pyramid

and descend its narrow, low-ceilinged tunnel

into the belly of the Red Pyramid.

Last but not least, we visited the step pyramid in Saqqara, one we had not seen before. This is Egypt's oldest pyramid, built under Pharaoh Djoser from 2667 to 2648 BCE. That's the 27th century BCE. Wow. Beneath the pyramid there are a maze of tunnels and burial chambers, but they are not open to the public.

Like a scene right out of an Indiana Jones movie, Josh and Bud pose in a doorway of the temple at Saqqara.

Around one side of the temple were three tombs, but unfortunately I am not sure whose they were. At this point, we were getting burnt out and a little frustrated with the constant demand for tips from guides, so we took only a brief look at one of them. This was our first glimpse of real hieroglyphics, which was great. They even retained some of their color. Images of boats, like the one above, usually represent the journey to the afterlife.

Resting in an ancient Egyptian tomb...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bud and Ashley come to Egypt

We were thrilled when, after weeks of daily Skype calls, we successfully convinced Josh's brother Bud to come visit us in Egypt. Even better, he brought along his fiance Ashley. Better still, they scheduled a huge layover in Paris with enough time to walk along the Seine, eat a nutella crepe, and see the Notre Dame. And best of all, we kept their arrival a secret from Misha until Bud and Ashley were actually in our Cairo hostel.

Resisting the urge to let Bud and Ashley fend for themselves in the chaotic airport, Josh took a taxi to the airport to meet them. On the drive back to our trusty hostel, Bud immediately noticed two things about Egyptian drivers: they don't use headlights except to flash at cars going too slowly, and they don't drive within the lines.

It was late when they arrived, and the kids were fast asleep. However, since Josh and Bud were up late talking, Misha eventually stirred and asked who was with us in our dark hotel room. To his surprise, it was Uncle Bud!

Since Ashley was already asleep, he had to wait until morning to greet her. He nestled right in to listen to the Magic Treehouse story Mummies in the Morning - one of the many, many great kids books Bud and Ashley stuffed into the suitcase for Misha. Now we have Stuart Little, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Calvin and Hobbes, to name a few!

Talking all night: Bud chuckles at how Josh takes it as his brotherly duty to lecture him on exchange rates, geography, world history, and a multitude of other things.

When Josh made Bud a list of things-to-bring-definitely-not-to-be-forgotten, he included things like passports, student IDs, cash, camera, and baby tylenol. But at the top of the list was Growl. Growl is no ordinary bear - he has superpowers including a "support button," retractable claws, flying, invisibility, a secret number, and the ability to speak every language in the world. He goes everywhere with Misha - in fact, you've seen him in many a picture. Unfortunately, the original Growl got lost at the pyramids our first day in Egypt. Misha was crushed. Luckily, Bud brought from America another Growl. (And Misha, being quite magical himself and co-king of the world with Growl, transferred the old Growl with all of his superpowers into the new Growl. Growl has since developed even more superpowers, such as lasers and a secret code called Superhero Language.) You should have seen Misha's face when Bud pulled Growl from his backpack.

After sleeping in the next morning, our first priority was finding something to eat. However, finding food in Cairo during Ramadan proved to be far more difficult than we expected. Most stores were closed, although you could find the occasional small shop with water, juice, and chocolate. As for restaurants, the only places that were open were American chains. And that is how we ended up taking Bud and Ashley to Hardees' for their first meal in Egypt. Ironic!

Misha and Sebastian hang out with Uncle Bud and Ashley in Hardees'.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ramadan Kareem

This photo captures Ramadan in Egypt. In this downtown square in Cairo, you can see the colorful streamers strung between buildings and the traditional "fanos" lanterns hanging overhead. The sun will soon set. The bread-bike man is making his rounds as Misha looks on. The time to break the fast is drawing near; restaurants are opening, delicious smells are wafting into the streets, moods are lifting. Some couples already sit patiently at their tables, touching neither their appetizers nor their drinks until they hear the Call to Prayer.

Our class ended the day before Ramadan, which worked out perfectly for us. The following day, we took the train once again from Alex to Cairo to meet Bud and Ashley (who got a good deal on their plane tickets for flying during the Muslim holy month).

Misha perches on the luggage while waiting for our train.

During the days leading up to Ramadan in our little suburb of Agami, I noticed a feeling of excitement in the air, not unlike the anticipation preceding Christmas. Ramadan and Christmas are, respectively, probably the most significant holidays for the Muslim world and the West. Colored strings of lights even graced buildings, making the connection more so. Below, you can see the decorations in our housing complex where we stayed while taking the class.

Misha helped a staff member wipe the dust off this lantern, which now shines brightly:

Two days before Ramadan, I walked to the little grocery store to get a few things. Under normal circumstances, this store has little room to spare, with its narrow aisles and any free space used for stacks of soap, bread, or batteries. On this day, the store was packed with shoulder-to-shoulder consumers barely maneuvering carts filled to the brim with rice, sugar, juice, and dates. Cheerful Ramadan music was playing and everyone had the air of making grand preparations. Luckily, I had only a few things to buy, and when I finally navigated my way to the counter to pay, a sweet lady with a full cart let me go in front of her. With a grateful smile, I obliged.

The night before Ramadan we went for a little walk and were surprised at how desolate the usually-lively streets were. The shops were closed. Everyone was, for once, at home this evening with family, getting ready for the month of fasting ahead.

Starting right away the next day, it was very clear that no one was eating, no one drinking, no one was smoking. The train station, normally filled with people smoking on the platforms, was refreshingly non-smoky. On the train, the snack vendors still walked by, but half-heartedly, without expecting anyone to buy anything.

Streets in Cairo were bursting with decorations as well. Narrow alleyways were filled with color, like in this picture below.

The "Bussy Cat" bar and cafe (Arabic doesn't distinguish the sounds /p/ and /b/, which explains the misspelled "pussy cat") on the right is most likely closed. Foreigners could seek out alcohol in touristy places such as certain hotels, though these establishments make it clear that they will not serve alcohol to Egyptians during Ramadan.

Throughout the month, the typical greeting is "Ramadan Kareem," meaning "generous Ramadan." You would hear it from your cashier as he handed you your change, see it on signs and store windows, and overhear it as two people greeted each other in the street. Ramadan nourishes a spirit of charity, and we saw many examples of community tables set up in the street where everyone would come and break the fast together.

Ruby Tuesday in Cairo's huge City Stars mall wishes everyone a "Ramadan Kareem."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sites in Alexandria

Our TEFL class location was within view of Stanley Bridge right on the coast, so we got to see this view every day. However, most of the time we were inside the classroom, so one weekend we decided to stay a night in Alexandria itself to see the sites.

Stanley Beach was always very crowded.

Here's Stanley Bridge at night.

This wall overlooking the sea was a popular site for singles and couples. Note the beautiful mosque across the way.

Though Alexandria is a very historical city, it has relatively little to show for it. It was founded by Alexander in 331 BC and served as Egypt's capital for a thousand years. As one of the most famous cities in the ancient world, Alexandria was well-known for three things: the Pharos Lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the Library of Alexandria, and the catacombs of Kom al Shoqafa.

The lighthouse, built in 280 BC, was destroyed by earthquakes through the centuries, and now all that is left to show for it is the Citadel of Qaitbay, built in 1480 on the exact location and using some of the same stone. Once this impressive fortress guarded the coast; now it serves as a less-than-thrilling museum filled with stuffed puffer fish.

Feelin' the breeze on the sea beside the Citadel.

As for the most significant library of the ancient world (which flourished from the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest and attempted to house every known manuscript from dozens of cultures), it's long gone as well. Exactly how and when it was destroyed isn't known, but there are lots of theories. However, in its honor, the Egyptian government opened the Biblioteca Alexandrina in 2002, which is quite impressive from what we hear. It has shelf space for 8 million books, a planetarium, research centers, archives, and exhibitions. Unfortunately, we were told we couldn't enter with children.

That leaves the catacombs - and I am happy to say that they were wonderful and not to be missed! The only bummer was that photography was not allowed. Misha loved descending the circling staircase that led to tunnels and rooms far below the ground. Though not huge, it was big enough to feel like you were exploring, and we made our way through various paths and admired all the "cubby holes" where bodies galore were neatly stored away. The tunnels were dug in the 2nd century CE and the catacombs were used for burials through the 4th century. The site is interesting in that it shows influences from the Romans, the Greeks, and Egyptians.

Though this is not my picture (I found it online), I would have taken one just like this had my camera not been confiscated.

At ground level were displayed several artifacts and statues from the catacombs. These we could photograph.

Misha with a sphinx, belting out "Barbara Ann." The guards would often talk to Misha and ask him what he was listening to. Sometimes Misha would share one of his ear buds, and soon the guard would be bopping his head mumbling "ba-ba-ba" along with the Beach Boys.

Another favorite site we visited in Alex was the Roman amphitheater. (I love amphitheaters - this one was, naturally, similar to the one in Lyon.) This site dates from the 2nd century CE, though it went through many modifications until the 6th century. Misha loved climbing up and down the stairs and experimenting with how his voice echoed.

If you look closely, you can see a tiny Misha at the base of the bleachers in the center of the amphitheater.

Misha again, running towards us.

Misha and the guard.

Sitting on the steps of the amphitheater, ready to watch some gladiators, or better yet, a play...

The guard "let us" (for a small tip) through the gate for a behind-the-scenes look at the passageways that curve around the back of the theater. These were the dressing rooms for the actors.

Very cool!

Family shot in the back chambers of the amphitheater.