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A Garden Gnome Rides A Roller Coaster

Posted on 2012.02.21 at 16:04
My group had been planning to go on safari to Murchison Falls National Park the first week of February, and as luck would have it, the Fab Five touched down in the Pearl of Africa (for some unknown reason, this is Uganda’s nickname) just in time to make it. We spent two days on top of Land Rovers, bumping and jumping across the plains. We got close enough to a family of elephants in a stand of trees that I could have spit on them if I was so inclined (something told me that wasn’t a good idea). A herd of giraffes ran across the road in front of our vehicles, and let me tell you, you haven’t really lived until you’ve seen a giraffe run.

We took a cruise up the Nile, which was filled with many a crocodile. We learned hippopotami swish their tails back and forth rapid-fire as they are defecating, resulting in a fine spray of waste fanning out from their backsides. We stood at the brink of the Falls, the force of which is terrifying and intoxicating all in one moment; the Nile forces 300 cubic meters (11,000 ft³/s) of water per second through a gap in the rocks only 7 meters (23 ft) wide, and tumbles 43 meters (141 ft) before continuing its flow westward into Lake Albert. The Falls are the most powerful natural water flow in the world. It was humbling to be so near to danger, to a force that could take your life in the blink of an eye. I thought of Egypt, of the Revolution still raging at the end of this great river. I thought of that boy in Cairo who had said so much when our eyes met, of how invested I now felt in the outcome of the uprising. My heart beat with relief and longing, fear and hope. I sat with my group, my patchwork family, grateful for the comfort of their presence as the sun dipped down and into the water, the spray tinted pink in the last rays of the sun.

I had been struggling with a variety of issues at my site since I had arrived there at the end of April 2010. Some of them, like the housing situation, were rather minor, not deal-breakers in and of themselves. I hated living 20 feet off the highway, with noisy trucks full of rocks from the mountains passing by my house throughout the night, but I could wear earplugs. I hated how religious my organization was, how closed their minds were to any other faith or point of view besides their own, how sometimes, meeting new people, the first question out of their mouths was “When did you get Saved?” instead of “What’s your name?” But I could remain vague about my beliefs in the name of cultural differences, and swallow my protests when another religion was slandered.

However, in the months leading up to the holidays, more serious issues developed, and I didn’t have the strength or the desire to keep fighting against them. The bottom line was my organization did not need me. What’s more, they were unwilling or unable to make use of me. Now, I don’t want to point fingers here. There were many good people at my past site, my past organization. Our worldviews may have been miles apart, but their hearts were in the right place. Like me, what they wanted was to make people’s lives better.

My organization was sponsored, funded, by one of those Christian “save a child” corporations that have commercials featuring kids dressed in rags, making you feel guilty in your first world beds. For such-and-such a price per day, you can change this child’s life! If you call that 1 800 number, you’ll be paired up with a kid somewhere, maybe even in Uganda. The money you send every month doesn’t go to that kid or their family though, not directly. That money goes to the corporation, which allocates money to each country branch, and in turn each district and village branch, based on how many kids they’re working with at each location. Your money funds a set program at each of these branches. The commercial promised you that your money would pay for this that and the other for your child, and in a roundabout way it does. Actually, the corporation funding my organization is apparently one of the better ones out there when it comes to transparency, meaning most of the money you send actually goes into programs benefiting the community.

The corporation my organization was funded through promises your kid will be assisted using a holistic approach to development, meaning they touch on their cognitive, physical, socio-emotional and spiritual development while enrolled in the program. At my organization, they certainly tried to achieve all of this. They paid all the children's school fees (cognitive) and medical bills (physical); during center days, they talked to the kids about friendship and supporting each other (socio-emotional) and children were expected to attend church and bible study and eventually “get saved” (spiritual).

All this boils down to the root of my main issue: my organization did not need me. Despite, in my opinion, certain flaws in the programming (like the fact that children must accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior by a certain point or else be kicked out of the program) they had a good, yes, a holistic program which touched on many important topics and assisted the children financially and materially, and I have no doubt that the children and their families benefited from it (what happens to the children once they graduate secondary school and all of the sudden are on their own, financially responsible for themselves for the first time in their lives, is a whole other topic I won’t even go into.) Because the organization actually does many of the things it sets out to do, because your child is getting many of the services you have been promised, the program is pretty fixed, and there isn’t much room for changes or additions. There’s already a whole program set by the corporation that the organization is trying to implement in a fixed amount of time. Every staff member has a list of things they are in charge of and need to get done. And considering that we’re in Uganda, it’s actually pretty impressive how much of that is actually accomplished. So, well done. Thank you for the work.

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer at this organization, you don’t have a list of things you’re in charge of and need to get done. That’s okay though, you’re used to having to come up with your own activities and projects. The problems arise when you do come up with new activities and projects, and either none of your co-workers are very enthusiastic about them (it’s pointless to do anything on your own; not sustainable) or perhaps even more disheartening, they are enthusiastic, but days and weeks and months go by, and you never get around to actually starting the project because your co-workers are too busy with the items on their lists that they have to get done for the corporation to implement any of your ideas. This leaves the Peace Corps Volunteer sitting dejectedly at her desk, unable to contribute much to the activities required by the corporation, tired of coming up with new activities of her own that never get off the ground, and vulnerable to things that normally wouldn’t cause her emotions to resemble a roller coaster.

I started to understand the feelings so many Volunteers in Togo and Uganda talked about-the wild emotional swings at the drop of a hat; how you could go from okay to definitely-not-okay in a matter of seconds. It made me appreciate Togo all the more-having started with the best possible situation (my family in my village in my Togo) I never could relate to my less fortunate friends who didn't have such ideal arrangements. In Togo, I listened and comforted, but I never really understood what they were feeling; what they were going through and how out of control and sucky it felt. Now, though, I was like them. I didn't like my site. I was sick of trying to make it work. This wasn't what I was expecting. This wasn't what I signed up for!

Since arriving at my first site in Uganda, I'd been conflicted and unhappy with the situation, but I’d tried to make it work for several months, ignoring as best I could the undesirable aspects and trying to focus on the small accomplishments and occasions (e.g. Ray’s birth, a co-worker asking about Moringa). Once I had settled in, though, I felt routinely slapped upside the head with defeat. I had filled the days of the first several months getting to know the community and the organization, but now I was ready to work, and try as I might, nothing ever panned out. I asked why the organization had requested a Volunteer and tried to assist them with those things to no avail. I started to suspect they had requested a Volunteer much as they would have ordered a lawn ornament or shutter kittens via express mail. They wanted something nice to look at, for others to comment on and envy. To them, I was a status symbol, a trophy, not a source of new ideas and a different perspective. But, damn it, I can only be a garden gnome for so long!

On my way home from Thanksgiving 2010 (perhaps the best Thanksgiving of my life), I stopped in at the Peace Corps office in Kampala and asked about a site change. I’d come to Uganda to explore health work, and ended up at a site that didn’t offer that. I’d been flexible, I’d spent seven months trying to make things work, and I was fed up. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave Uganda. I was having a good time despite the troubled home-life. I still wanted to explore health care before jumping back into school and I felt the Peace Corps should be able to provide that; it’s one of the main reasons I extended my service in the first place. I also couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my Peace Corps family. I arrived in country with 28 of the most beautiful, astounding, inspiring individuals you’ll ever meet and I was head over heels for them… how could I leave them? (I’ll leave the mushy emotional stuff for another post, but rest assured, its coming!)

After meeting with the Peace Corps, I returned to site, returned to my desk, and occupied myself with books in between visits from other PCVs interested in seeing the Bagisu circumcision ceremony, a 2-day extravaganza of dancing, drinking, drumming, running, shouting, cheering, spitting, fanning and celebration that culminates in the cutting off of the foreskin of a teenage male. The Bagisu are one of only two ethnic groups in Uganda that traditionally circumcise their male members, and they’re pretty darn serious about it. Take a look at my blog post of 7th September 2010 for a more detailed description.

One night in mid-December, while several of my friends and I slept nearby, someone broke into my neighbors’ house (two rooms right next to mine in the same building, but not connected) and took a bunch of their things. A pair of shoes and a blanket that I had left outside my house were also taken. It was raining, so my neighbors only woke to the noise as the thieves were escaping. The burglary itself was unsettling, but I was more alarmed, now, by something I had discovered a few weeks before.

It is common for a square hole to be left in the drop ceiling of at least one of the rooms in a building here in Uganda, to provide, I’m told, easy access when wiring, inevitably, needs to be repaired. I find the practice ridiculous, as it provides rats easier access to my living quarters. Early on, I had covered the hole in the ceiling of my kitchen/living room with a piece of cardboard to deter rats and dirt and other debris from falling onto my couch. I hadn’t thought much of it, assuming the walls put up in the space between the drop ceiling and the roof blocked my living quarters from the rest of the building. Not so. During the Rat Wars (check out the blog! 22 November 2010) the neighbor’s house boy had climbed up from the fifth and final room in my building, a storage area that was kept unlocked, into the crawl space above my neighbors’ rooms and all the way to the other end of the building and the crawl space above my rooms. As I was sitting reading on the couch, the boy lifted my carefully placed cardboard, waved to me, and told me he was setting a trap for the rats (which, incidentally, were not living in the drop ceiling as they had decided to move downstairs with me). Great: free access to my house, no matter how many locks I placed on the metal door. My house was not zombie-proof, after all. I didn’t think many people knew about the unlocked storage room, so I contacted the Peace Corps about the issue but didn’t worry too much.

Then my neighbor’s house was broken into, and all of the sudden that hole seemed a lot scarier. I still didn’t think many people knew about the unlocked room, but on the off chance someone got the idea to use it as an all access pass, I didn’t want to be around for the encounter. I was lucky to have several of my biggest, burliest brothers sleeping in my living room when the thieves broke in. I imagine they peered in and thought better of it; moved on to the next door. But if they hadn’t been there… I called the Peace Corps again and told them about the break-in and how I didn’t feel safe in my house without the drop-ceiling being fixed. They agreed and gave me license to wander the country until it was finished.

So that’s what I did! It was about a week before Christmas when I left my site. I bounced around the country, happy to have an excuse to be away from my unhappy home and a chance to see more of the Pearl of Africa. We spent Christmas at Ashley’s site and skinny dipped in Lake Bunyonyi in the extreme Southwest of the country at midnight on New Year’s 2011.

Renee had flown back to America for the holidays. Elizabeth and I missed her like crazy, and weren’t sure how she’d readjust to being back in Uganda, so we decided to sneak-attack her at the airport. At two in the morning, we were waiting impatiently outside the glass doors of the airport, straining our necks to catch a glimpse of her as she went through customs and retrieved her bags. Finally… I think that’s her! She has a blue fleece! Oh, but that bag… that’s not her bag… maybe she got a new back in ‘Merica… (we tend to know each other’s possessions very well). Yes, yes, I know that walk, its her for sure!

Elizabeth and I started jumping up and down, waving our arms back and forth as Renee walked through the first set of doors. She looked tired, resigned to her fate: back in the Pearl. She was looking forward at the throng of Ugandan drivers, sent by fancy hotels to pick up high-class clientele. She wasn’t looking through the glass at us, so we jumped higher and waved our arms more frantically. Finally, Renee glanced over and stopped dead in her tracks. Her mouth fell open and she looked like she was going to cry. “Wha…” her lips didn’t complete the question. The seconds ticked by. Renee was still standing there; Elizabeth and I were still jumping up and down. Finally, we stopped jumping and waved her over. She made her way through the people, out the door, and Elizabeth and I pounced on her in a group hug. “What are you guys doing here?!” “Picking you up, of course!”

It was great to have Renee back, and even though the ceiling of my house had by now been fixed, I was still reluctant to return to my site without knowing whether or not I was staying in Uganda (which, in my opinion, required moving sites) or leaving in a few months once I’d finished my one year extension (if I couldn’t move sites). She was kind enough to offer to share her home with me for a few days, so I called the Peace Corps and they gave me permission to keep wandering.

A few days at Renee’s turned into two weeks; I ended up staying there until we left on our Egypt vacation. It was a nice, relaxing time, full of delicious food (its much easier to go all out on a meal if you have someone to enjoy it with), hiking, talking, teaching, painting, gardening and vacation planning. Spending two weeks straight (more like a month, including time spent out of her site) with someone is a good test of friendship, especially when you’re sharing a bed. Luckily, Renee and I passed with flying colors!

Ohh, Shoot! Look What We Started...

Posted on 2011.12.12 at 20:13
We had no idea how narrowly we’d escaped the progression of the revolution until we were back in the UG. I'll leave it to you to decide if The Egyptian Liberation Front’s Fab Five had anything to do with events taking place.

24 January 2011: The Fab Five arrive at Cairo International around 2AM. We sleep for a few hours, then ride camels to the pyramids and tour around the city. The last day before the revolution.

25 January 2011: The Fab Five catch an 11AM bus out of Cairo, bound for the town of St. Catherine, on the Sinai Peninsula. We pass through Suez on our way to Sinai.

The “Day of Revolt.” Today is a national holiday to commemorate the police forces. Nationwide protests against the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak begin. Thousands march in downtown Cairo, heading towards the offices of the ruling National Democratic Party, as well as the foreign ministry and the state television. Similar protests are reported in other towns across the country. After a few hours of relative calm, police and demonstrators clash; police fire tear gas and use water cannons against demonstrators crying out "Down with Mubarak'' in Cairo's main Tahrir Square. Protests break out in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the Nile Delta cities of Mansura and Tanta and in the southern cities of Aswan and Assiut. There are bloody clashes in Suez.

26 January 2011: The Fab Five climb Mt. Sinai in time to watch the sun rise from the summit. In the afternoon, we travel to Dahab, on the Red Sea.

Protests across Egypt gain steam, At least three people are reported dead from violence. Anti-government demonstrators pelt security forces with rocks and firebombs for a second day. Police use tear gas, water cannons and batons to disperse protesters in Cairo. Witnesses say that live ammunition is also fired into the air. In Suez, the scene of bloody clashes the previous day, police and protesters clash again. It is reported that injuries resulting from police violence reach 120 in Suez alone. Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for IS President Barack Obama, tells reporters that the government should "demonstrate its responsiveness to the people of Egypt" by recognising their "universal rights". Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, says he believes "the Arab citizen is angry, is frustrated".

27 January 2011: The Fab Five spend the day snorkeling at The Blue Hole near Dahab, on the Red Sea. We see footage of the protests in Cairo, becoming aware of the unrest for the first time. I e-mail my parents and tell them everything is okay and not to worry.

Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog turned democracy advocate, arrives in Egypt to join the protests. El Baradei says he is ready to "lead the transition" in Egypt if asked. Meanwhile, protests continue across several cities. Hundreds have been arrested, but the protesters say they will not give up until their demand is met. Protesters clash with police in Cairo neighborhoods. Violence also erupts in the city of Suez again, while in the northern Sinai area of Sheikh Zuweid, several hundred Bedouins and police exchange live gunfire, killing a 17-year-old man. In Ismailia, hundreds of protesters clash with police. Lawyers stage protests in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Toukh, north of Cairo. At around 7:00 PM local time, Egyptian authorities blocked access to Facebook, although many Egyptians were still able to bypass the block through the use of proxies and third party applications. Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (I don’t know what these are, but if the latter is a way to send blackberries to Peace Corps Volunteers in far off lands like Uganda, I’m hurt that I haven’t received any yet.)

28 January 2011: Unsure of the situation in Cairo, the Fab Five decide to stay another night in Dahab, rather than return to Cairo as planned. We spend the day snorkeling and relaxing on the beach.

Today will be known as the "Friday of Rage." Authorities shut down the country's mobile phone carriers shortly after midnight in an attempt to disrupt the planned protests. The Associated Press news agency says an elite special counter-terrorism force has been deployed at strategic points around Cairo in the hours before the planned protests. Shortly after Friday prayers, hundreds of thousands gather in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Opposition leader Mohammed El Baradei has traveled to Cairo to participate. Some looting is reported. Police forces withdraw from the streets completely, and the Egyptian government orders the military to assist the police. Egypt remains on edge, as police and protesters clash throughout the country. Eleven civilians are killed in Suez and 170 injured. No deaths are reported in Cairo. At least 1,030 people are injured countrywide. Troops are ordered onto the streets in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, but do not interfere in the confrontations between police and protesters. The riots continue throughout the night, even as Mubarak announces that he dismisses his government.

29 January 2011: The Fab Five take Said’s advice and bus to Cairo via Sharm El Sheikh. We are stopped in Suez, and our baggage is unloaded and sniffed by dogs. For two hours, our bus tries to find a place to stop, but groups of vigilantes with all sorts of weapons (including a bull whip) are manning roadblocks throughout the city. We eventually stop at, and are locked in to, a bus station. We manage to find a taxi to take us to the airport in time to catch our flight, but it is canceled. We sleep on the freezing cold marble floor of Departure Hall 1.

In a speech delivered shortly after midnight, Mubarak announces that he has sacked the cabinet, but he himself refuses to step down. His whereabouts are unknown. Egyptian soldiers secure Cairo's famed antiquities museum, protecting thousands of priceless artifacts from looters, including the gold mask of King Tutankhamun. The greatest threat to the Egyptian Museum, which draws millions of tourists a year, appears to come from the fire engulfing the ruling party headquarters next door the night before, set ablaze by anti-government protesters.

Suez had had a completely chaotic night, but the streets are quiet as day breaks. Mubarak appoints a vice-president for the first time during his three decades in power. The man now second-in-command is Omar Suleiman, the country's former spy chief, who has been working closely with Mubarak during most of his reign. The military is deployed to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. In a statement released in Berlin, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany say they are "deeply worried about the events in Egypt". The Gulf Co-operation Council, a loose economic and political bloc of states in the Gulf, says it wants a "stable Egypt". The US embassy in Cairo advises all Americans currently in Egypt to consider leaving as soon as possible, given the unrest.

Thousands of anti-government protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square stand their ground, despite troops firing into the air in a bid to disperse them.The military presence in Cairo increases. A curfew is instituted, but protests continue throughout the night.

30 January 2011: the Fab Five spend the day at Cairo International, searching for food and water and a comfortable place to rest. All flights are canceled or full. It’s difficult to get through to anyone by phone. When we do, the Peace Corps tells us to get out of Egypt any way we can. The British Embassy workers tell us the same. The American Embassy is nowhere to be found, although we’ve been told they’re looking for American citizens and are planning an evacuation the next day, from Hall 4. There is no Hall 4. Food and drinking water have run out at the airport. New shipments fail to arrive due to the curfew. The situation deteriorates rapidly. I don’t sleep.

Thousands of protesters remain in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Egyptian Air Force F-16s overfly Tahrir Square in a show of force. The crowds are cheering when El Baradei addresses protesters in the square, saying "What we started can never be pushed back". Turkey announces that it is sending aircraft to evacuate its citizens.

31 January 2011: the Fab Five find Hajj Hall/Terminal 4. There are other Americans. Eventually, the Embassy shows up too. We are given phones to call our families. We are given food by RPCVs. We are allowed in the diplomat line since we’re Peace Corps Volunteers. We fly out on the fourth plane, to Athens Greece. The hotel is pimp. We sleep.

"The March of the Millions". A protest of over a million people was planned for this day. Estimates range between 250 thousand and 2 million. Mubarak still refuses to step down, amid growing calls for his resignation. Protesters continue to defy the military-imposed curfew. Internet access across Egypt is still down. Egypt's new vice-president promises dialogue with opposition parties in order to push through constitutional reforms. Protesters remain camped out in Tahrir Square from a variety of political and demographic groups. The White House says the Egyptian government must engage with its people to resolve current unrest. Obama's spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, says the crisis in Egypt "is not about appointments, it's about actions ... They have to address freedoms that the people of Egypt seek". The EU calls for free and fair elections in Egypt. Worldwide investors continue withdrawing significant capital from Egypt amid rising unrest. Mubarak names his new cabinet on state television, among them, Mahmoud Wagdi, sworn in as the new interior minister. Egypt releases the six Al Jazeera journalists who were arrested in Cairo. Egyptian film star Omar Sharif, known for his role in Lawrence of Arabia, has added his voice to those calling for Hosni Mubarak to step down, Reuters reports. Former US president Jimmy Carter calls the unrest in Egypt an "earth-shaking event", and says he guesses Hosni Mubarak "will have to leave." Israel urges the world to tone down Mubarak criticism amid Egypt unrest to preserve stability in the region, the Haaretz newspaper reports, citing senior Israeli officials. President Mubarak tells his new prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, to keep government subsidies and cut prices. Al Jazeera says its broadcast signal across the Arab region is facing interference on a scale it has not experienced before.

1 February 2011: The Fab Five sleep in. We stuff our faces at breakfast. We go into the city, see some historic things, drink wine, ouzo and beer, and stuff our faces with gelato, dolmathes and spanakopita. We swim in an infinity pool. We cocoon in the clouds.

Mubarak makes a televised address once again after unceasing protests, and offered several concessions, although he refuses to step down from office-the central demand of the protesters. He pledges he will not run for another term in elections planned for September, and pledges political reforms. He states he will stay in office to oversee a peaceful transition. Small but violent clashes begin at night between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak groups. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian opposition figure who returned to Cairo to take part in the protests, says Mubarak's pledge not to stand again for the presidency was an act of deception. Abdelhalim Kandil, leader of Egypt's Kifaya (Enough) opposition movement, says Mubarak's offer not to serve a sixth term as Head of State is not enough. US President Barack Obama praises the Egyptian military for their patriotism and for allowing peaceful demonstrations. He says only the Egyptian people can determine their leaders. Shortly after his speech, clashes break out between pro-Mubarak and anti-government protesters in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. The number of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square are revised to more than a million people. Thousands more take to the streets throughout Egypt, including in Alexandria and Suez.

2 February 2011: The Fab Five stuff their faces again, then fly to Istanbul, where they see the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. They return to the airport and fly to Uganda, "Oh, Uganda!"

"Battle of the Camel". Violence escalates as waves of Mubarak supporters meet anti-government protesters, and some Mubarak supporters ride on camels and horses into Tahrir Square, reportedly wielding swords and sticks. The clashes are believed to have been orchestrated by Habib El Adly, and there were hundreds of casualties. The military tries to limit the violence, repeatedly separating anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak groups. President Mubarak reiterates his refusal to step down in interviews with several news agencies. Incidents of violence toward journalists and reporters escalate amid speculation that the violence is being actively aggravated by Mubarak as a way to end the protests. Clashes between anti-government and pro-Mubarak protesters break out in Alexandria.Internet services are at least partially restored in Cairo after a five-day blackout.

3 February 2011: Sustained bursts of automatic weapons fire and powerful single shots begin at around 4am local time and continue for more than an hour in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, leaving at least five people dead and several more wounded..

4 February 2011: Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square for what they have termed the "Day of Departure". Chants urging Hosni Mubarak to leave reverberate across the square, as the country enters its eleventh day of unrest and mass demonstrations.

5 February 2011: Thousands who remain inside Tahrir Square fear an approaching attempt by the military to evacuate the square. The leadership of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party resigns, including Gamal Mubarak, the son of Hosni Mubarak. The new secretary-general of the party is Hossam Badrawi, seen as a member of the liberal wing of the party.

6 February 2011: Protests continue in Tahrir Square; there are reports of gunshots fired by the army into the air near the cordon set up inside the barricades, near the Egyptian museum. Egyptian Christians held Sunday Mass in Tahrir Square, protected by a ring of Muslims. Negotiations involving Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and representatives of the opposition commenced amid continuing protests throughout the nation. The Egyptian army assumed greater security responsibilities, maintaining order and guarding Egypt’s museums. Suleiman offered reforms, while others of Mubarak's regime accused foreign nations, including the US, of interfering in Egypt’s affairs. The Muslim Brotherhood says in a statement that it "has decided to participate in a dialogue round in order to understand how serious the officials are in dealing with the demands of the people". Banks officially re-open for 3.5 hours, and traffic police are back on the streets in Cairo, in attempts to get the capital to start returning to normal.

7 February 2011: Thousands are camping out in Tahrir Square, refusing to budge. While banks have reopened, schools and the stock exchange remain closed. A symbolic funeral procession is held for journalist Ahmed Mahmoud, shot as he filmed the clashes between protesters and riot police from his Cairo office. Protesters demand an investigation into the cause of his death. Egypt's government approve a 15 percent raise in salaries and pensions in a bid to appease the angry masses.

8 February 2011: Egyptians stage one of their biggest protests. Vice President Suleiman says Egypt has a timetable for the peaceful transfer of power. He promises no reprisals against the protesters. Suleiman also announces a slew of constitutional and legislative reforms, to be undertaken by yet to be formed committees. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, says genuine dialogue is needed to end the current crisis, adding that a peaceful transition is crucial.

9 February 2011: Labor unions join protesters in the street, with some of them calling for Mubarak to step down while others simply call for better pay. Massive strikes start rolling throughout the country.

10 February 2011: Amid rumors that he will be stepping down tonight, Mubarak gives a televised speech which he says is "from the heart". He repeats his promise to not run in the next presidential elections and to "continue to shoulder" his responsibilities in the "peaceful transition" that he says will take place in September. Mubarak stats he will delegate some of his powers to Vice President Suleiman, while continuing as Egypt's head of state. Reactions to Mubarak's statement are marked by anger, frustration and disappointment, and throughout various cities there is an escalation of the number and intensity of demonstrations. Protesters in Tahrir Square wave their shoes in the air, and demand the army join them in revolt.

11 February 2011: The "Friday of Departure" Tens of thousands of people take to the streets across Egypt in angry protests, descending on the state television building in Cairo and the presidential palace in Heliopolis, as well as in Tahrir Square.

Hosni Mubarak resigns as president. The announcement is made by Omar Suleiman, the vice-president, just after 6pm local time. The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces will assume leadership of the country. Revolution, check.

23 February 2011: Athens, Greece sees violent protests and strikes, involving up to 100,000 people.

24 March 2011: Istanbul, Turkey sees protests by the Kurdish minority.

Drinking From The Holy Grail

Posted on 2011.12.11 at 21:08
The American ambassador to Greece was waiting for us in the chilly night air, a light rain falling on the tarmac of the Athens airport. “Welcome Home!” he declared, and with that, we were in a completely different world. It seemed like the entire embassy had come out to assist us, now that we were safe in a country where we could take care of ourselves. We were never farther than ten feet from an embassy worker as they handed us down the line to our rooms. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

We were engulfed in warmth as we passed from black night into electrified, comfortable Europe. We were greeted enthusiastically by hordes of embassy staffers, who handed out paperwork and directed us toward tables of cheese sandwiches, cookies, and bottled water. “You guys, look!” shouted Elizabeth, who was pointing towards a bright metal contraption attached to the wall next to the bathrooms. Paperwork and food forgotten, we rushed over to marvel at this Holy Grail of the first world: a water fountain. Someone hesitantly pressed the button, and a steady stream of clear liquid sprouted from a hole. We looked at each other… not quite believing that we could drink this water straight.

The necessity of filtering and purifying and boiling all water that goes anywhere near your lips has been drilled into us by the Peace Corps, and while we don’t always heed that advice, it was hard to grasp the concept that all of that had been done for us already, and we could drink straight from the source without worry about Giardia or dysentery or anything more than quenching our thirst.

For the next 20 minutes (if you think that’s an exaggeration, you’re wrong) the five of us took turns drinking from the water fountain and posing for pictures and excitedly talking about the amazing invention. Who knows how much longer we would have been at it if one of the embassy workers hadn’t shaken us from our reverie by coming over to offer the use of her phone! We had made it quite evident that we were Peace Corps Volunteers with that display, and she took pity on us. While we took turns calling home (“Hello, from Athens, Greece…”) the rest of us stuffed ourselves with the free food and attempted to fill out the paperwork, which was intended for real diplomats.

The cell phone woman took pity on us again and arranged for us to be given three of the hotel rooms reserved for real diplomats; the paperwork was forgotten. She gave us small bottles of shampoo and conditioner (perhaps a not-so-subtle hint that we needed to bathe) and handed the five of us, still giddy from our encounter with the water fountain, off to another embassy worker waiting to escort us down the hall to the customs counter. He flashed a badge and the man behind the glass stamped our passports without even glancing at the photographs. There was another staffer waiting to take us the ten feet outside to a waiting shuttle, where yet another embassy worker was waiting to accompany us on the ride and into the lobby of the Athens airport Sofitel Hotel. At €360 a night per double room, it is the nicest hotel any of us will probably stay in. Ever.

Our rooms were exquisite. There were soft white bathrobes and white slippers laid out on the massive king sized bed. We put these things on over the clothes we had been wearing for the past three days and ran from room to room exclaiming at all the luxuries and taking pictures of each other with the furnishings. Eventually, we settled down enough to realize how exhausted and filthy we actually were. I took a long bath, letting the hot water loosen the sweat and dirt and stress from my pores. Then I took a long shower, letting the water cascade down on me from the dinner plate sized shower head. Cleaner than we’ve been in years, we sank into the expanse of white that was our bed, the feather pillows and down comforters, soft as clouds, filled us with more nectar than you’d believe!

Because the windows came equipped with wood panels that slide across to block all light from entering, we cocooned in the clouds near on to 10am, when we were obliged to partake of the (free) breakfast banquet. Fresh baked breads, cakes, muffins, scones, croissants. Thick Greek yogurt, individual pots of flavored yogurt. Cereal, muesli, granola. Sautéed vegetables, hash brown cakes, sausages, bacon, eggs, flaky filo cheese pie, bite size samosas. Kiwi, passion fruit, pineapple, mango, papaya, honeydew melon, two types of lychee, mandarin oranges, apples, grapes. Smoked salmon, crackers, cucumber slices, pickles. Individual serving glass pots of ketchup, chocolate sauce, jam: raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, honey: natural, carob, hazelnut. Real butter. Fresh orange and pineapple juice, mango or strawberry smoothies, coffee made to order.

Sufficiently rested and fed for the first time in days, we now turned our attention to Greece. We were in Athens! Whoa. How did that happen? We had used the embassy worker’s phone the evening before to contact the Peace Corps to let them know which country we’d ended up in, and left the hotel’s phone number and our room numbers for them to contact us, but we hadn't heard from them. We checked our email, and discovered that the Peace Corps had booked us a flight to Entebbe via İstanbul for 7 o’clock that morning. We’d obviously missed that flight! We called Uganda, and they booked us the same flight the next day. That taken care of, we located another Egypt evacuee interested in seeing the city, and the six of us caught taxis into Athens.

The weather was gorgeous, the air was clear, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining. It being February, and us being in Europe, it was a bit brisk, but we were too excited to mind. We didn’t really know where we were going, so we just wandered around the cobblestoned streets, eventually wandering into some ruins that turned out to be the Roman Agora. From there we followed a road winding upwards towards a massive structure that looked historic and important. Nearing the top, we stopped to climb some rocks, where the views of the city were fantastic. Athens spread out before us, a vast, crowded, white city that is reigned in only by the surrounding hills. I was immediately reminded of Kyoto, struck by how similar the views of the two cities were from up high… both are huge metropolises with pretty green hills surrounding them on all sides.

We followed the path further and ended up at the Acropolis (the massive structure that had looked historic and important). It was late in the afternoon by now, and everything was closed, but we walked right up to the gate blocking entrance into the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theater built in 161 AD. As we wandered down the other side of the hill, a woman drove up and got out of her car with a large bucket. She walked to a stone wall, a dozen cats strung along it like pearls. She scooped out cupfuls of dry cat food; they meowed their thanks as she got back into her car. I love how there are cats everywhere in this part of the world, and how everyone takes care of them, or at least doesn’t treat them poorly. There are healthy, beautiful cats running all over the place in Greece, Turkey and Egypt and its lovely!

We wandered down a cobblestone street, stopping to look at souvenirs and postcards, before coming out onto a main thoroughfare, across which were some ruins-white pillars and crumbled rock surrounded by a gate. The sun was setting, casting an orange and pink glow on everything it touched. Snap, snap, snap: its fun to be a tourist, sometimes! Any warmth the sun had provided quickly disappeared. Although we were in central Athens, the streets were quiet. We stopped in at a small grocery store, the front open to the chill, to buy olive oil and despite our already frozen digits, gelato. It was delicious and rich, worth the brain freeze.

A short ways down the street, we were drawn into a shop whose walls were lined floor to ceiling with a rainbow of bottles lit from behind, resulting in a warm glow. We had stumbled upon Brettos, the oldest distillery and winery in Athens, which produces dozens of liqueur flavors, as well as traditional ouzo, wines, and brandy. Not wanting to waste the opportunity provided us, we decided to sample a string of their finest red wines, and then to buy two bottles of the tastiest for later that night.

Venturing back outside, we set off to find somewhere to eat. The streets were almost deserted, and before long, the cold was actually starting to hurt. An old man standing outside of a warm-looking restaurant called out to us, smiling. “You eat here, I give free alcohol!” Good enough for us! We crowded around a booth in the clean but simple restaurant, the only guests. True to his word, the man brought glasses of a cold, milky, anise flavored liquid. “Ouzo!” Or rather, water and ouzo. When water or ice is added to ouzo, which is clear in color, it turns milky white; this is because anethole, the essential oil of anise, is soluble in alcohol but not in water. Diluting the spirit causes it to separate, creating an emulsion whose fine droplets scatter the light.

Thinking of my Mom’s cooking, I ordered dolmathes (grape leaves, served with tzadziki, a garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce) and spanakopita, both regulars in the dinner repertoire while I was growing up. And a Mythos beer, (not part of supper when I was a child). The old man brought these dishes out, as well as the beet salad, fried calamari, Greek salad, gyros, fried zucchini and lentil soup that my friends had ordered. He was quite friendly, and although the ouzo took some getting used to, I’m glad we ended up there for our one Greek supper. The food was tasty and the elderly man quite charming, as he explained how he had been running the restaurant with his sons for decades. It felt real; a place where the locals went, instead of someplace geared towards tourists.

Back at the Sofitel, we put on our bathing suits and uncorked the two bottles of Brettos Cabernet-Syrah before heading up to the top floor to swim in the infinity pool with views of the airport runway. We’d be taking off from that runway the next morning, less than 48 hours after we’d arrived. Our unexpected Greek vacation had been short, but sweet. We had another night of cocooning in the clouds to look forward to, and another breakfast banquet. I also look forward to returning to Greece, for real. There’s so much more to eat and see and experience, what a tease this lone day had been!

The flight was barely off the ground before landing in İstanbul, that beautiful water-side city I’ve come to know unexpectedly while here in Uganda. I was reminded how close all of these fantastic places are to each other, and how perfect a backpacking trip it would be. But back to İstanbul:we had 8 hours, beautiful weather, and a lot of excitement. We bought Turkish visas and Starbucks coffee and caught a daredevil taxi into town (we think the driver was on drugs) where I was happy to recognize the neighborhood of Sultanahmet and the pleasant bazaar I had walked through less than five months before.

We followed our map to the homonymous Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning its interior. Built between 1609 and 1616, the Blue Mosque is magnificent, with six minarets and nine domes and much attention to detail. We took off our shoes and entered, in awe. But the clock was ticking, so we had little time to reflect before we were compelled to leave. Vendors were scattered along the walkway between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. We stopped to buy lollipops made by hand in front of our eyes, the vendor dipping into different colors of sugary candy with one hand while deftly twirling a stick to catch the hot, viscous material with the other. Fresh baked pretzels and chestnuts roasting on an open fire enticed us with their aromas, but we had precious little funds left to our names. The line into the Hagia Sofia was long, so we took a quick snap before moving on, down a street at random. Let me say, I love wandering around in these Mediterranean countries, with their winding cobblestone streets and cats, enticing aromas, delicious (inexpensive) food and beautiful architecture. It’s an area of the world I did not appreciate until this past year, with my somewhat accidental introduction to Istanbul on the way to Japan. I’m not quite sure how to describe it yet, but there is something very provocative about this area of the world, and I’m excited to explore it further.

As for the Egyptian Liberation Front’s Fab Five, we moved quickly in the bright sunlight and chilly air, energized by the blue sky and the smell of the sea. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the Grand Bazaar, which I had missed on my first whirlwind trip. As before, the pottery seduced me, the colors enticed me, the smells enveloped me, the cloth begged to be touched, and the men flirted relentlessly. I bought a pair of turquoise and silver earrings that reminded me of Whirling Dervishes. We exited the closed portion of the bazaar and walked down a crowded street. I stopped in at an eatery and got some sort of wrap (the menu was in Turkish so I just pointed to the cheapest item) that was delicious, with finely sliced chicken, vegetables, humus and tzatziki in a fresh pita.

We ducked into the covered area once more, and stopped at a dried fruit shop. There were dried kiwis (darn, I thought my Dad and I invented those!) and the man behind the counter let us sample them, but they didn’t taste at all like kiwi, and were overly sugared. Wolves win after all! At least on taste, if not originality. Suddenly, I got the strangest sense of déjà vu-I’d been here before! Not just a bazaar in İstanbul, but this bazaar, these piles of spices. A few moments later, I came upon a sign, “this shop is recommended by Obama.” Aha! I HAD been here before! We were entering the Egyptian spice bazaar now, where I had come in September. I had had no idea the two were connected. It was a good things I got my bearings, because our time was running out, and we needed to get back to the airport. I led my friends confidently out past the New Mosque onto Kennedy Caddesi (a road that hugs the waterfront) where we caught a taxi back to the airport.

We boarded the flight to Entebbe as the sun set. With presidential elections barely two weeks away, the world was flying in its observers and aides, and for once, the flight was full. Walking down the gangway, the Egyptian Liberation Front’s Fab Five spontaneously broke into the Ugandan National Anthem, "Oh Uganda." Oh, Uganda, we're coming home, finally!

3.30AM found us safe in a Peace Corps Land Rover with Henry at the wheel. 4AM found us safe in bed at a hotel in central Kampala. Finally, I could text my parents, “Back in Uganda, safe and sound.” Finally, we could use all those shillings.

The next morning, Henry again picked us up in a Peace Corps vehicle. This time, he was bringing us to the office, where we received a hero’s welcome. We were celebrities. Staff members greeted us with smiles and hugs, telling us how worried they’d been. One of the associate directors even broke down in tears when she saw us. Ted, the Country Director, cleared his schedule and sat with us for two hours as we recounted our adventure, the good and the bad. He told us how scared they’d all been, when they couldn’t get though to us, and didn’t know where we were. How hard it was to talk with our families and not have answers. We hadn’t known, but he’d been keeping all 150 Volunteers in the loop as well, updating them on our status. Everyone knew us as the Egyptian Liberation Front's Fab Five (an endearing nickname given by one of the guys in our group). Everyone wanted to hear the story.

The Egyptian Liberation Front's Fab Five

Posted on 2011.11.20 at 17:48
Cairo looked like a ghost town. The roads were empty; the dusty buildings stood tall and silent, guarding the streets lit by the orange glow of electric lamps. The air was thick with the smell of smoke and unease. I was tired and relieved. We had seen so much in such a short time, and I was ready to leave. To check Egypt off my list, and file the memories away. To send my parents a text when we landed in Entebbe, “Back in Uganda, safe and sound.” To not feel the buzz of so much of your worry under my skin.

I looked with sleepy eyes at the great, silent city. Now there were scattered groups of people clustered around bonfires in the street. The bus slowed, then stopped. Through the windows, suddenly wide awake, I saw we had stopped at one of these bonfires. The road was blocked by a group of men, milling about, each with some sort of weapon in hand. Two of them boarded the bus, meticulously checking identification. We dutifully took out our passports, used to this from the long hours we had been traveling from Dahab. The men glanced briefly at us and moved on, our passports unexamined. Confused, we returned them to our bags.

Having checked everyone but us, the men stepped off the bus and waved it through the barricade. We drove on for no more than a minute before we again approached one of the roadblocks with a bonfire and dozens of men holding weapons. The most common were thick pieces of wood, some obviously branches broken off the city’s roadside landscaping. As our bus passed through more and more of these roadblocks, we saw every conceivable weapon imaginable. Kitchen knives, meat cleavers, pitchforks, pieces of rebar, swords, bricks, AK-47s, grenades, lengths of chain, and a bullwhip. In all seriousness.

We passed barricade after barricade, not knowing what was happening. Everyone was speaking quickly, angrily, and in Arabic. We were the only foreigners on the bus, and there was only one other woman, who looked terrified as she clutched her young children close. Our bus was directed up and down the streets by these groups of vigilantes. The bus was sometimes let through, and sometimes turned back around. The men around us, sensing our unease, spoke in broken English, telling us the men and boys outside with the weapons wouldn’t hurt us. “They’re protecting the streets.” Confused and uncomfortable, I pulled the headscarf tighter under my chin.

At one of the roadblocks, I made eye contact with a young boy; he couldn’t have been older than 15. As scared as I was, as much as I didn’t understand what was going on around me, I saw something in his eyes that made my throat catch. There was so much determination, so much solemn strength. I didn’t know why he was out there, with his father, his brothers, his uncles and neighbors and countrymen, why a knife was in his hand, resting against his hip. But I knew that what he was doing, what all these men were doing, was beautiful, and right. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, and I looked away. Glancing back, I saw he was still watching me. His face was hard, but it also held an innocence, a faith in the world and in Justice. The vigilantes waved our bus through the barricade and I lost sight of him, but the look in his eyes and the beauty of what he was doing has stayed with me.

Finally, after two tense hours, the driver was able to navigate to the bus park, where the gate was chained firmly behind us. As we stepped into the cool night air, one of the men we had befriended on the ride through Cairo directed us to a collection of chairs and tables outside a closed restaurant. He told us we would be safe, here, until morning. Apparently we were all stuck; a curfew had been instated all over Cairo. It was 10pm. Protesting, we told him we had to get to the airport. Our flight was in just over four hours! Soon we had a group of seven or eight Egyptian men of all ages surrounding us, concerned, telling us it was too dangerous, that we couldn’t leave the bus station for our own safety.

The street outside was empty in the orange glow, save for the occasional tank on patrol, its metal wheel crunching loudly against the pavement and its gun firmly pointing ahead. For an hour and a half, these men, who had, of their own volition, taken it upon themselves to take care of us and protect us, first pleaded with us to spend the night in the safety of the locked bus park, and then problem solved for us when they realized we couldn’t be persuaded. After several minutes of language barrier, with the help of a pad of paper and pen, where we wrote “We live in Uganda. We have to call Uganda.” in the hopes that the men’s written English was better than their understanding of our foreign accents, one of the men eagerly handed over his cell phone. We tried, unsuccessfully, to contact Peace Corps Uganda and the Cairo Embassy for advice.

Each of the men had a different idea of how to get us safely to the airport. Some men tried to contact the army to get them to escort us. Others tried, unsuccessfully, to flag down the few taxis passing. Hassan, a round, middle aged man with a brow furrowed with worry for us, somehow called a tour company to send a taxi. When it arrived, the other men were still reluctant for us to leave. We were safe in the bus park with them! They didn’t know the taxi driver. He could be anyone, he could be planning anything! We shared the sentiment: we trusted Hassan and the other men from the bus. They had adopted us and their concern was genuine and palpable. But we had to get to the airport, so we asked that one of them come with us. “We can’t,” they replied, “we’re Egyptians. We’d be killed if we went out there.” Comforting. The tour guide showed us his company ID, and Hassan took his phone number, calling it to make sure it was the real number. Hassan gave us his number and made us promise to call him when we got to the airport. If he hadn’t heard from us in 30 minutes, he threatened the taxi driver, he was going to call the police. The group of men shuffled us into the taxi, assuring us we would be okay out there, since we were Americans. My heart swelled for these men, who were so concerned for five white girls they didn’t know, even as their own country was coming apart at the seams. “Shukran, shukran!” Thank you, thank you!, we repeated as we piled into the taxi and waved goodbye to our guardian angels.

Not five minutes later, as we sped through the streets of Cairo, our taxi driver rattling off something in Arabic about “Americans” and “airport,” at each barricade, the driver’s phone rang and he passed it to us. It was Hassan, his voice full of worry. Had we been kidnapped? Were we safe? Could we get through the groups of vigilantes okay? As we passed roadblock after roadblock, now with our heads uncovered (in this instance, cultural sensitivity didn’t matter, and we passed through quicker if the men with knives saw our fair skin and hair), the mood lightened, and our taxi driver erupted into ever more ecstatic bouts of clapping and cheering after each successful crossing. “You see, I keep you safe!” he declared. As we pulled into sight of the airport, his cell phone rang again. Hassan, again, still worried. We told him we had made it safely, and shukran, shukran, for all his help!

I must say, Egyptian men are awesome. We didn’t have much interaction with Egyptian women; they weren’t around. For all the cultural norms that I probably take issue with, there is something to be said for Egyptian culture. I don’t know why, but throughout our trip, there were always honest, genuine, protective Egyptian men willing to risk themselves to care for complete strangers. For us. There are, of course, sketchy, dirty Egyptian men up to no good, but men like Said and Hassan far outweighed the predatory ones during our time there. So many of them are responsible for our safe passage through Egypt, and so many of them we will never get to properly thank.

We opened the doors of Departure Hall 1 onto hundreds of people sitting and standing and milling about in confusion. Hearing American accents, we approached a group of people, who informed us that their flight had been canceled. We scanned the TV monitors and, not finding our flight, determined we were at the wrong departure hall. Hurrying, because it was now midnight and only two hours before we were scheduled to take off, we found our way to Departure Hall 3, which was just as crowded. When we found our flight on the screen: CANCELED. The airline offices were located upstairs on either side of a long hallway. Ethiopian’s door was firmly shut.

We had been counting on the in-flight meal service for our dinner; I was beyond hungry, having only eaten two of Kareem’s falafel sandwiches all day. We were also short on cash, especially after the exorbitant amount we had paid for our late-night taxi ride through Cairo. Most of us had only a few Egyptian pounds left. I had eight $1 bills and several hundred thousand Ugandan shillings, the shillings being practically useless at the moment. Those with pounds left paid for dinner at a restaurant across the parking lot. Our bellies full, we lay back on the wide couch with plenty of throw pillows, huddling together for warmth. The cold winter wind was blowing through the semi-open restaurant, and the portable heaters the staff had brought could only do so much. I think they let us stay there for an hour or so; we dozed a bit with the big screen TV in front of us replaying the same scenes of the protesters and the newscasters incomprehensible in Arabic.

Eventually, the waiters came with the bill, and a new batch of customers that needed our seats. Tired, but with full bellies, we returned to Departure Hall 3 and staked our claim on a patch of the cold granite floor just across from Kenyan Airways against the railing blocking off the security gates. We dug through our bags for anything that could make the night more comfortable. I had taken a blanket and pillow from Ethiopian Airlines, and I don’t even feel bad about it anymore; that blanket saved my life not only on top of Mount Sinai, but at the airport, and even in America (blog to come soon!)

Somehow I actually slept. I spent the night in and out of consciousness, the sounds of the hundreds of people around us mixing into my dreams. I turned from side to side all night against the cold, unforgiving floor. In the morning, the news was no better. I sat with the bags as the others went in search of information and breakfast.

Ethiopian Airlines was sorry, but the next flight wasn’t until the next day. We didn’t know if we’d even get seats, or if they would take the customers who originally had seats on the flight. We couldn’t get through to Peace Corps. A single vegetable and cheese panini was breakfast, but the girls who had brought the sandwich, in their search for food, had found a Holy Grail: unclaimed couches in the Arrivals Hall. After our meager breakfast, we hightailed it out of Departure Hall 3 in time to claim a couch and a chair. It looked like we’d be spending the night again, but at least we’d be more comfortable! A few hours later, we inexplicably found ourselves with another chair and another couch when the previous residents vacated the premises. For lunch, we each got two packets of wafer cookies and a small bag of chocolate-filled mini croissants, courtesy of Renee. This shocked me into reality. Renee would never, ever buy something so sugary and nutritionally poor-this was BAD. But there wasn’t anything else to buy at the stores. Tens of thousands of people were stuck, just like us. The airport was running out of food and drinking water. New shipments couldn’t get through because Cairo was at a standstill with the protests.

Shocked into reality, and with suitable sleeping arrangements secured, my sole focus turned to sustenance, and as I roamed the buildings in search of something edible, I considered how quickly we seemed to have reverted to survival mode. The five of us were a family, and it was us against the world. We had become intensely protective of what was ours. No crumb was wasted, no sympathy was given to those who had no place to rest their weary heads. We had staked out our territory, and it was rather nice, thank you! After being turned away at four or five restaurants with grim shakes of the head, I returned to Kiro’s Air Café, where we had eaten dinner in the middle of the previous night. The line was long, but the waiter remembered me as one of the beautiful girls he had flirted with from the night before, and without shame, I flirted back as I ordered two pasta dishes (all we could afford), to go. I stood to the side and waited anxiously for my food. The man behind me stepped up to the register, only to be turned away with a furrowed brow. Food was finished. I returned to the rest of the group, pasta in hand, as proud as a mother bird with a worm for her hungry chicks. We would eat tonight!

The word wasn’t good from Departure Hall 3. Ethiopian Airlines had closed up shop. We had managed to beg use of someone’s cell phone and gotten through to Peace Corps Washington, and they had told us about an American Embassy evacuation flight planned for the next morning, out of Hall Four, but there was no Hall Four. They advised us to find one of the American Embassy workers patrolling the halls, trying to find American citizens. The problem was, American Embassy workers were nowhere to be found. British Embassy workers told us they had heard rumors of an American evacuation, but they hadn’t seen our embassy anywhere in the airport. They graciously let us use their cell phones to try and contact someone, but that’s all they could do. We simply weren’t their problem.

The mood was glum at the couches. When we weren’t searching for a flight out of Egypt, we spent our time reading and dozing and feeling sorry for ourselves. We were hungry, but saving the pasta for dinner. The curfew that day had been called for 4pm, so all restaurants were closing by mid-afternoon to allow their chefs time to get home in time. Not that the chefs would have had any ingredients to cook with, even if they had stayed. Ashley, Renee and I went for a walk, and sitting on a table, unprotected, was a slab of cheesecake with only a few bites missing. Renee is crazy, and doesn’t like cheese of any sort, but Ashley and I stopped in our tracks, glancing around to see if anyone was watching… I guess we hadn’t gone completely feral because we couldn’t bring ourselves to actually take it. I would have if I was certain it was abandoned, but in the circumstances, it had to belong to someone, right? Right??

Later, Elizabeth and went to see if anything was left at the convenience store, and I used my $8 US to buy a bag of hard fruit flavored candies which supposedly contained vitamins. We also picked up a bag of peanut M&Ms. We’d had almost nothing but sugar the entire day, and our stomachs were not happy, but we needed to get calories somehow. The hours stretched on and on. The attendants in the bathroom no longer handed out towels in exchange for coins; no one had anything left to give. Asian women crowded the sinks, bathing themselves as best they could.

At dusk, we gathered around the two styrofoam containers of pasta for dinner, politely eating slowly so as not to take more than our share. After eating, Charlene and I decided to see what was going on in the other airport buildings. We boarded the shuttle bus that circles the airport and rode it to the next stop, which turned out to be the departure hall we’d first arrived at the night before. It was still crowded with people. The Burger King was closed. The convenience store didn’t even have candy left on its shelves. There was nothing for us here.

We took the bus back to parking lot, and decided to check out the restaurants around there. A few minutes later, we noticed two men following us. We cut through the line of restaurants in an attempt to lose them, but they were still on us. Walking fast, we made it into the main arrivals building. Still following. We hurried down the escalator, and past the security guards towards the couches. We ran into Ashley, who told us she’d found an Ethiopian flight going out in an hour, but we needed to bring our passports and bags now-now. Elated at the news, we ran the last few yards to the couches, grabbed our things, and rushed next door to Departure Hall 3. Renee was sitting in the office when we arrived, out of breath. The look on her face made my stomach sink. The flight wasn’t going out, after all.

Elizabeth rushed back to reclaim our couches while the rest of us pow-wowed to decide on an action plan. The low-level unease that had been resting just below my solar plexus all day began to stir and grow. The possibility of our getting on another flight was rapidly deteriorating, and we realized the number of white faces in the masses had sharply declined since morning. Exactly where those people had gone, we didn’t know; what mattered was that we were still here. Charlene and I shared the story of the men following us. While the security guards still sat at their stations, the thousands of people coming and going made it impossible for them to adequately screen everyone, and now they had stopped screening people altogether. It was quite possible that groups of men up to no good had come to the airport to prey on vulnerable refugees just like us.

We begged use of a British embassy worker’s international phone and got through to the Peace Corps Duty Officer in Washington, D.C. There were 14 Peace Corps Volunteers in Egypt when the protests began. The five of us were the only ones left. The Duty Officer reiterated the necessity of our getting on the evacuation flight the next day, and took down our names and passport numbers to register us on the flight. “The flight is leaving from Departure Hall 4 at 11am. Get there by 9. Find one of the embassy workers in the airport. They’re looking for American citizens and will take care of you.” We’d heard this before. “The embassy ISN'T here. There IS no Hall 4,” we told him. But there wasn’t anything else he could do for us.

The embassy phone in Cairo remained unanswered, the promised embassy workers purported to be combing the halls of Cairo International remained elusive. As the four of us discussed what we should do next, a blood-curdling scream came from the crowd of people waiting to go through the security screening (that, at least, was still up and running) to the departure gates. Several more screams followed, and I braced for an explosion or the sound of gunfire, but it didn’t come. We glanced at each other before turning and walking back to the Arrivals Hall.

Elizabeth had managed to get half our territory back, but we’d lost one whole couch and chair in the Ethiopian flight fiasco. She’d made a desperate plea to the family that had taken over, and they’d grudgingly moved, taking one of the chairs with them. A lone man remained in one of the couches, feigning slumber. The mood was grim as we prepared ourselves for sleep. We put pillows down on the cold floor as a makeshift bed for Renee. Ashley took the chair. Elizabeth, Charlene and I curled together on the couch. I tossed and turned, and noticed two men sitting at the bar, staring at us. There wasn’t much they could do, with so many people all around, witnesses under the bright fluorescent lights, but it still made my stomach cold.

I didn’t sleep. I went over our options again and again. I thought about my family and friends. I analyzed how, exactly, we had found ourselves in this predicament. I watched the two men watching us and waited for dawn.

As the sky lightened on the 31st of January, I waited for one of my friends to stir. We had to find the embassy’s evacuation flight. There was no other option. Around 7, Elizabeth woke. I asked her to accompany me once more in search of the elusive Departure Hall 4, the supposed location of the American embassy’s evacuation of all foreign nationals, to depart in just under 4 hours. We had been searching in vain for any sign of the embassy or the evacuation flight for over 24 hours now. If 11am came and went without our locating Hall 4... I didn’t let myself think about what would happen to us. Elizabeth and I walked over to Departure Hall 3. The situation there didn’t seem to have changed much from the previous night; it was still crowded with people standing, sitting, and sleeping everywhere. We made our way through the throngs to the same information desk we’d been to several times the day before. We asked if they knew where we could find Departure Hall 4, from where the American Embassy was evacuating its citizens. The man shook his head no. Our search was off to a rough start.

Just as we were about to turn away and look for someone else to ask, the man spoke. “There’s another departure hall a few kilometers from here; it’s called Hajj Hall, because that’s where flights to Mecca take off. That may be what you’re looking for.” My heart skipped a beat… could it be? We followed his directions, turning right through a parking lot and continuing on for several minutes before coming to a police post. “Hajj Hall?” we asked, and they pointed us down the road. We practically skipped down the road with new-found energy. Even if Hajj Hall didn’t end up being what we were looking for, at least we had something to keep us busy!

Fifteen minutes later, a group of security guards and a roadblock came into view. As we approached, one of the guards walked forward to meet us. “Are you American?” he asked. Tears pricked my eyes. “YES!” we almost shouted. “Yes, we’re American!” All of the sudden, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. Much of the exhaustion, hunger, discomfort, frustration and fear of the last two days dissipated. Finally someone cared that we were citizens of the United States of America; that we needed help getting out of Egypt; that we were hungry and tired and needed a safe place to sleep.

They checked our passports and waved us through. Elizabeth and I walked for another ten minutes before coming to a large building: Hajj Hall, also known as Terminal 4. We walked through the doors and were greeted by several hundred foreigners. This was where all the white faces were hiding! “Are you American?” we asked a middle-aged couple. “Yeah, we’re waiting for the embassy evacuation. They’re coming at 9.” It was 8.30. Elizabeth and I practically ran back to the Arrivals Hall. “We found it! It’s ‘Terminal’ 4, not Hall 4! The embassy is coming in like 15 minutes. We have to hurry!”

Rejuvenated with the promise of salvation, the five of us grabbed our bags and hurried out of the Arrivals Hall without a backward glance. There were more people on the road now, white people. We called out to them, “American? The evacuation is happening just down the road.” Hajj Hall was even more crowded than when we had left. There was no sign of the embassy, but we had found our fellow Americans! We set our bags down near the door and struck up a conversation with a group in their early 30s. As it turned out, they were all RPCVs who had been working with USAID in Egypt. “Do you want to call anyone?” they asked. We used their international phones to call the Country Director in Uganda and our families. I was shaking with emotion as I called my parents to let them know I was okay. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for them, to see news coverage of a country unraveling and know that your daughter was in the thick of it, yet have no news.

About 11, the embassy workers finally pulled in. They announced that there were three planes: one bound for Istanbul, another flying to Athens, and a third headed to Cyprus. We didn’t have a choice in which plane we flew, but everyone would get on one, not to worry. We waited patiently in line as three of the embassy workers began to register us. As we were waiting, buses started pulling up to the curb; hundreds of Americans were arriving, busload after busload. This was going to take forever. We sent an ambassador up to one of the main embassy organizers to ask, pretty please, if we could get assistance as Peace Corps Volunteers. It worked! For today, we were considered diplomats, and as such, got to stand in a much shorter line on the other side of the doors.

We still waited in line most of the afternoon, but the polished diplomat ladies, upon seeing the five of us (obviously) Peace Corps Volunteers, took pity. “Are you hungry?” It started with an apple, passed from hand to hand in a circle. Seeing this grim display, another lady piped up, “I have some crackers… they’re stale, but,” we cut her off. Who cared if they were stale! They were actually quite delicious, whole wheat, and not stale at all. “Would you girls like some granola bars?” said an old woman. Hell, yeah, we would! Another lady piped up, “If anyone is hungry, I have some sandwiches here.” We thanked them profusely, but they waved us off, “You’re sacrificing so much through your service, it’s the least I could do.” “I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, too, once. I know what its like.”

We dozed on the sidewalk in the warm sunshine as thousands of Americans continued to arrive and join the back of the civilian line, which wasn’t moving at all. It took us hours, but finally we were at the head of the diplomat line. They took our passports, registered us, and handed back pieces of paper scrawled with a number 4. After a while, we were ushered into the building, where we spent another hour slowly snaking our way around the walls. Finally, we received exit stamps at the passport check, handed over our “boarding passes” (the slips of paper marked 4) and boarded a bus that took us to a waiting aircraft. The sun was setting a glowing orange as we boarded the plane, which would make countless trips back and forth over the next few days. The embassy had grossly underestimated the number of Americans in the country wishing to be evacuated. They had originally planned for a single flight to each of the three destinations.

But on that first day of evacuation, on the fourth flight out of Cairo International, The Egyptian Liberation Front’s Fab Five finally left Egypt, bound for Athens, Greece.

A Blue Hole In The Red Sea

Posted on 2011.11.20 at 12:42
The shades of brown that I was starting to think endless abut the blue of the Red Sea. The mountains leave scant room for a coast, coming shockingly close to shore. Hussein delivered us safely to Dahab in under two hours; well worth the cost, especially since he’d agreed to less than the “fair price” that Elizabeth had deduced from her inquiries. In a rush of compassion for this man who had come looking for us in St. Catherine more than once in less than 24 hours, giving us free rides in his van to keep us safe, I put an extra E£ 10 in the pot to push our fare up to the standard amount. The equivalent of $2, it was a small gesture to a genuinely nice old man who works hard to support his family. With a smile that showed all his remaining teeth and smoothed the lines on his cheeks, Hussein bid us farewell on the edge of a tourist’s dream town.

Dahab, at least the part we came to know well over the next three days, is definitely designed for vacation. The south end of town is devoted to shops. Some stocked their shelves solely with teas or spices while others crowded the space with postcards, trinkets and t-shirts. There were bakeries selling baklava and donuts, and supermarkets with more everyday items. We were directed up and over a bridge, following the wide palm-lined boulevard hugging the coast. Here, expensive-looking restaurants lined the water’s edge, with opulent resorts, dive shops, and souvenir stands on the far side.

Our hotel appeared out of our price range, with its pristine white buildings and balconies, but Renee and I had done some research, and they also had a dorm room option which was much cheaper while still occupying prime real-estate a few meters from the water. We approached the desk, our appearance suddenly lackluster compared to our surroundings. Said, the manager, was instantly likable. He greeted us with a smile and a joke, and quickly explained that the dorms were overbooked. Not to worry! Because it was the hotel’s fault (n.b. this would NEVER happen in Uganda), they would put two of us up in a suite and the other three would stay in the dorms as planned.

Renee and I ended up in the suite, as we had done the work to plan our itinerary. I had been staying with Renee in her village for a few weeks while Peace Corps looked for my new site (blog post to come soon). The week before we were set to leave, we realized we still had no idea where we were going, what we were seeing, or where we were staying. We skimmed Lonely Planet and decided on the coolest things to see and do in under a week, found the cheapest accommodation and sent email reservations, and with my Mom’s help, figured out the best means of transport (some buses are better than others).

The suite was well worth the trouble! We had a wide queen bed, our own balcony looking out across the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia, a private bathroom, mini fridge, and other luxuries. We set our dusty packs on the clean tile floor and ran back outside to take it all in. The sky was blue and the sun was shining. Waves crashed gently in the background and the air was warm and slightly salty.

Wandering inland, away from the expensive-looking restaurants lining the shore, we stumbled on a falafel house. The room was dark and small, a few tables and a refrigerator crowding out any empty space. Against the back wall was a counter laden with piles of pita bread and bowls of sauces to stuff them with. Taped against the glass protecting the food was a yellowed menu listing things I’d never heard of but wanted desperately. After a few moments of our open-mouthed staring, Kareem pushed a plate of bite-size falafel through the window. This shook us out of our reverie, and we ordered. I asked for two pita, filled with falafel, hummus, tzatziki, and roasted vegetables in a spicy red sauce. We took our food outside and ate at a table shaded by an umbrella, where we could watch Kareem mixing and scooping falafel out of a bowl into a hot fryer.

Our stomachs filled, we made our way back to the hotel to see if we could arrange a snorkeling trip to the Blue Hole, a famous snorkel and dive spot a few kilometers up the coast. Said introduced us to a British woman in her forties that had been living in Dahab for five years, running a snorkeling tour company. We arranged with her to be picked up the next morning and returned to the boardwalk to explore. After a few seconds, we were drawn in by a charming young Arab man promising a happy hour special on drinks. We took a table next to the water where we had a beautiful view up and down the coast, the sun falling towards the mountains and setting the clear water to sparkling. If we looked over the edge of the railing, we could see colorful fish, and Saudi Arabia lay hazy in the distance. We sampled Egyptian beers-Sakara Gold, Luxor Classic-and soaked in the beauty of our surrounds. As darkness descended, the shore was lined with lights: flickering yellow coming from torches and candles and reds and blues and greens from electric bulbs.

We returned to the boardwalk, and were met with more charming young Arab men with outrageously cheap prices for multiple-course meals. We used our bargaining skills from Uganda-going back and forth between the different restaurants, pointing out flaws to lower the price- and ended up with Mohammed (“Mo”) who promised me a delicious meal involving vegetables and cheese to be created special by the chef, and the other girls fresh seafood and lots of it. We sat on plush couches in flickering candlelight, Mo hovering within reach if we needed anything. We were served hot pita bread and fresh hummus with pickled vegetables, followed by a spicy lentil soup, for me, and something with a lot of seafood for the others. When their entrée came a short while later (we’re not in Africa anymore, Toto!), it was an elaborate construction using quite a lot of tinfoil and piled with fish and prawns and other underwater delicacies. My plate was no less magnificent despite the absence of tinfoil. The chef had prepared a delicious dish, with layers of eggplant, potato, carrot, green pepper, broccoli (!) and other vegetables, somehow stuffed with cheese and spiced just right. It was like scalloped potatoes, but with more variety, and instead of a casserole, the vegetables resembled a tower. Dessert was baklava, dripping in honey. We retired, sated, to our clean white beds.

Breakfast was included in the price of our rooms, and it was glorious: tea, coffee, juice, cereal, toast, yogurt, fresh fruit, omelets, bacon and sausage if you were so inclined, and the coup de grâce, crêpes to order (chocolate, please!) The British woman arrived, and led us to a waiting flatbed truck. Elizabeth and I jumped in the back for the twenty minute journey up the coast. The sun was bright in the sky as we snaked through the thin passageway between beach and mountain, blue and brown. Several times young children jumped onto the bumper for a ride, and we passed other vehicles toting similar passengers, so we weren’t too alarmed. One of them was a caramel-skinned Bedouin girl with flyaway hair, dressed in a turquoise velour pants and jacket set. We’d met her the night before when she’d come into Mo’s restaurant, looking for tourists wanting to buy bracelets she’d made from embroidery thread. These pre-pubescent girls selling friendship bracelets were everywhere in Dahab; this girl was hitching a ride back to her home village.

We came to a stop at a group of maybe twenty buildings sprawling along the coast. These were all restaurants/dive bases serving people coming far and wide to explore The Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole that was likely formed during the ice ages, when sea-level was one or two hundred meters below what it is currently. At this time, these formations were subjected to the same erosion from rain and chemical weathering common in all limestone-rich terrains; this ended once they were submerged at the end of the ice age, leaving a pretty nifty underwater world to be explored.

The British lady led us into one of the buildings, a mostly open-air, two story construction that was separated into sections for different groups. Each section had a low table surrounded by cushions. We set our things down and went to pick out our snorkeling equipment. Cairo had been chilly, St. Catherine had been downright cold, but Dahab was pleasantly warm, possibly even hot during the day. Still, I was worried about becoming cold in the water and having to get out before I was ready, so I opted to rent a wetsuit in addition to fins and snorkeling mask.

We walked a little ways up the beach, past signs memorializing the divers who have lost their lives over the years at this notoriously tricky site. We approached an opening in the reef where you can enter the
water without damaging the surrounding corals, but not before the British woman had chewed out more than a few people for entering the water by walking over the reef and damaging years of delicate coral growth. I was happy we were being led by someone so concerned with the conservation of the environment! Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like the local instructors were likewise inclined.

The water was cool but not cold. At first it was strange to breathe through the mask, when your eyes and nose and mouth are all under water, and my breathing was fast and irregular, but as I got used to it, my breathing slowed to normal and became an unconscious action again.

We followed the reef south. At first I stayed with my friends, but soon I was going at my own pace, exploring this new world and all the interesting things in it. I don’t have names for all the creatures I saw there, but I’ve heard that the Red Sea is one of the best places to snorkel and dive in the world, and it was certainly an amazing introduction! I know how cliché this sounds, but it’s true: I was introduced to a whole new world when I put my head down into the water. There was so much going on! Fish of every size and shape, and oh, the colors! Not to mention the more stationary creatures of the reef itself, the corals, anemones and sea urchins. There are over 1200 different species in the Red
Sea, many of them found nowhere else in the world!

I floated in the shallows near the shore, where the reef is close to the surface, careful to keep my fins up to prevent touching the fascinating creatures just below me. I swam out to where the reef dropped off, and the water was a darker shade of blue. From this vantage point you could see the reef descending down into the deep, and I was jealous of the scuba divers and their front row seats. We made our way slowly, over several hours. I had completely forgotten about the snorkel allowing me to breathe, and when a black and white spotted fish stopped just in front of me and-I swear-smiled, I burst out laughing, which, when snorkeling, is hazardous to breathing normally.

Eventually, we got to the Blue Hole itself, which was a circle of more reef with deep blue water in the middle. I slowly circumnavigated the reef, but before getting out, I decided to swim out to the middle and take a look. No one else was around, and when I put my head down, I heard the sand and pebbles shifting on the sea floor, the scuba divers’ bubbles rising to the surface (they tickle your skin when you’re in their path), and other soft sea sounds. All the chatter from the beach was muffled. My entire field of vision was shades of blue, shifting and flickering with the sun. The reef of the Blue Hole was a faint shadow surrounding me, and individual shafts of sunlight pierced the surface, coming together at a single point below me, creating a brilliant sphere of light, occasionally throwing tendrils out from the center as the water shifted. It reminded me of the electricity in a plasma globe, and I imagined the faint clicking and snapping sounds to be coming from the sphere.

We stayed as long as possible in the water, but eventually we got too cold and had to get out. We returned to our second floor sitting area and sat with our legs dangling off the edge and the sun bringing warmth back to our bodies. We had a great view of the Blue Hole from here, the reef a lighter shade of blue surrounding deep blue. There were hundreds of snorkelers and divers in the water and on the thin stretch of beach. Camels decked out in colorful headgear sat in the sand. The mountains provided a beautiful backdrop, close enough to touch, between the sparkling blue water the brilliant blue sky.

After drying off and warming up, we packed our things and bid farewell to the Blue Hole, driving back to Dahab. We had the British lady drop us in the less touristy section, where we saw a beautiful fruit and vegetable stand. They had a wide variety of produce, local and foreign, and we had to be careful not to spend all our money on longed-for treats like grapes and strawberries. I bought four kiwis that were the perfect ripeness, skinned them, and popped them one by one into my mouth, whole. When I closed my eyes I could almost imagine myself at home in Seattle in the early hours of a school day, sitting with my Dad and reading the comics. Uganda is actually developed enough to have begun importing exotic things like kiwis, available at one or two big grocery stores in Kampala, but I’ve never bought one; they’re hard as rocks.

We made our way through the quiet streets, which appeared lived-in and comfortable and a little dog-eared compared to the tourist strip. Dusty compounds lined dusty streets with concrete walls broken now and then with rusted iron doors. Children gazed out curious at the foreign faces passing by. Men walked by carrying stacks of fresh pita for sale. Shabby stalls were erected on the side of the road, the smell of roasting meat wafting on the breeze. It was nice to see the “real” Dahab, away from the whitewash and souvenir shops. I hope I never travel somewhere without exploring at least for a short while the way real people live day to day. It’s not possible to get to know everywhere to the extent I know Togo or Uganda... that takes years, and even though I know these places a thousand times better than a tourist, I know I’ve only scratched the surface. But to say you’ve visited a place when the only local people you’ve seen have been driving your car or performing a “traditional” song and dance for your enjoyment is a blatant lie. You’ve been there physically, sure, but do you really have any right to say you understand the place? To form an opinion or judge it at all?

I swung by Kareem’s shop on the way back. He smiled when he recognized me, and this time the pita was filled to the brim with tasty falafel and sauces. When I returned to the hotel, the TV was tuned to Al Jazeera. The screen was filled with masses of people, the reporters talking urgently in Arabic. Curious, I asked Said what was going on. “Protests,” he replied. I couldn’t read his expression. “Why are they protesting?” I pressed. Said turned away from the TV to look at me, “The government... my brother is in Cairo...” he struggled, “No comment.” It was the 27th of January, and this was the first we’d heard of the protests, but I was certain the rest of the world had heard about it long before. I checked my email, and sure enough, people were eager to know if I was safe. I sent a short email detailing our adventures thus far and assuring people that we were safe here in Dahab, far from Cairo and whatever was going on there. If it came to it, I said, we could fly out of Sharm el Sheik on the southern tip of the peninsula, straight to Cairo International and on to Entebbe.

Ever the model Peace Corps Volunteers, we checked in with the staff in Uganda using Said’s phone. They advised us to contact the embassy in Cairo for advice on what to do, since they didn’t have a good understanding of the situation on the ground. The embassy advised us to stay away from Cairo and keep informed through the internet and Al Jazeera television. We had been planning to return to Cairo by bus the next day, the 28th, to spend our last day in the city, going to the market and museums before our flight out the night of the 29th, but we decided to stay another day in Dahab and see how things developed.

That evening we played Bingo with the other hotel guests after dining at a restaurant we had seen earlier in the more authentic section of town. Meanwhile, the government shut down virtually all cell phone services and internet communications in the country.

We spent the 28th of January on the beach and in the water. We rented snorkeling masks and fins from a shop on the boulevard, but they were old and tended to let water in after a while. Still, with my new found love of this other world, I couldn’t let a snorkeling opportunity pass me by, so I explored the reefs around Dahab until my lips and tongue were pickled in the salt water and my eyes stung too much to see. Every hour or so someone went across the way to our hotel to check what was being broadcast on Al Jazeera. It was all fast Arabic narrating the same scenes of angry mobs, police beating back a surge of people, tear gas canisters flying, several men picking up a metal barrier and throwing it. I asked Said again if he could tell us what was going on. He was a little more collected today (he had heard from his brother) and explained that his English was very good in some areas and very poor in others. He didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what was going on. The best he could do was “They’re mad at the government.” When I tried to log onto the internet, the page wouldn’t load. I went back to the beach.

Around mid-day, a peddler came by with a cart filled with all the makings of koshary: a large vat of noodles, containers of lentils, chickpeas and rice, heaping piles of fried onions, and pitchers of spicy tomato sauce and lime juice. We watched as he heaped the ingredients in take-out boxes. I devoured my first serving and caught him just in time for a second helping; koshary is delicious. Several times an hour the bracelet girls would come around, showing off the thread bracelets that they themselves made, and beaded bracelets their mothers had made. Some of them were quite beautiful, and most of them featured the Evil Eye which is popular in Greece and Turkey as well. The eye is said to protect you from evil. We finally caved to a pair of the adorable Bedouin girls who giggled as they practiced their English on us. The two-piece velour outfit we’d seen on the girl hitching a ride on the truck the day before seemed almost a uniform for these bracelet girls, but I was happy to see that their parents were using some of the money they earned to at least clothe them well. In Uganda, the kids walking around selling roasted maize or bags of peanuts are just as threadbare and dirty as the ones playing in the rubbish piles at the side of the road.

We enjoyed the extra day in Dahab and the chance to relax in a way we hadn’t yet had in Egypt, but we were confused about what was happening in Cairo, and the uncertainty we felt clouded an otherwise perfect day in paradise. Said graciously let us use his cell phone throughout the day in attempts to contact Uganda or the embassy in Cairo, but with cell phone service down, we couldn’t get through. We were on our own. That evening, I returned once more to Kareem’s shop for supper. The other girls enjoyed another seafood feast at one of the beach-side restaurants, and shortly after I joined them, one of our favorite bracelet girls popped in. We commissioned five matching ankle bracelets as souvenirs of our trip and watched as she deftly twirled and spun the thread into patterns.

It was our last night in Dahab, and we would be sad to go. We were starting to know the people on the boulevard, and they recognized us and knew we weren’t your average tourists, not least because we knew how to bargain. We took a stroll down to the end of the boulevard, across the bridge, back to the area where Hussein had dropped us that first day. We bought a box of baklava for Said, a thanks for all he’d done for us over the last couple of days. The sky was bright and clear with the stars shining down on us. The air was cool but not uncomfortably so. I hadn’t expected it, but I had fallen in love with Egypt. It was such a varied and interesting place, and we had seen so much in only five days.

We hadn’t been able to contact the Peace Corps or the embassy in Cairo since the day before, and we couldn’t understand what was being said on Al Jazeera. We had met a group of Peace Corps Volunteers who had been evacuated from service in Niger and were in Dahab on vacation before returning home. They were planning to stay in town for another few days (we later heard they had evacuated to Jordan shortly after). The only real information we had was from Said, who had managed to contact his brother in Cairo, and he told us we would be fine as long as we went straight to the airport. We weren’t crazy about the idea of busing the whole way to Cairo, but as Said pointed out, it would be quite expensive to fly out of Sharm, and there was no guarantee that there would even be a flight out that day, since we had no way of contacting them. We couldn’t call or buy tickets online, so the only way to explore that option was to go to the airport itself, two hours from Dahab. We decided to trust Said’s brother’s judgment and go straight to the airport in Cairo. It was really the only option open to us. So the next morning, the 29th of January, we took a last stroll down the boulevard, where we met an ancient Bedouin grandmother and granddaughter peddling beautifully embroidered lengths of cloth. I chose a large piece with blue designs and bargained a fair price using a mixture of English, Arabic, and hand gestures. With that, I had enough Egyptian pounds left to pay for the bus and save a few bills and coins for memories. We rushed to Kareem’s shop one last time and said a quick goodbye to Said as he saw us out the door into a taxi bound for the bus station.

The journey was uneventful as we snaked down the coast to Sharm el Sheik and turned north, again following the coastal road up the peninsula. The portion of the Red Sea visible from the bus window (the Gulf of Suez) is traditionally believed to be the portion Moses parted to free the children of Israel. We watched the world turn golden as the sun sank towards the horizon. When we reached Suez, everyone was asked to get off the bus with their bags. We stood in a line, passports out, as police checked our documents and dogs sniffed our luggage. We got back on the bus. I gazed out the window as we passed through the desert, sleepy and happy to know that soon we would be safe on a plane back to Uganda.

Ten Commandments For Climbing Gabal Musa

Posted on 2011.09.26 at 18:42
1. Thou shalt have no other Mountains before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image of burning bushes.
3. Thou shalt not make The Call in vain.
4. Remember the coming meal, to keep it delicious.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
6. Thou shalt not freeze.
7. Thou shalt not cocoon with another man’s wife.
8. Thou shalt not steal unguarded cheesecake.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy reader.
10. Thou shalt not covet other people’s jackets.


We stopped in at a bakery to get snacks for the bus ride. There were cakes and cookies, pastries and chocolates, but I was drawn to the more unusual items: plate-shaped bars of nuts stuck together with honey, packages of dried fruit mixed with coconut, pistachios and honey (we referred to the latter as “Coconut Danger”-it was dangerously good!), a hard, round disk made of gram lentils and a sweet, banana flavored white candy. We went to a fast food falafel house around the corner for a delicious, dirt cheap breakfast- each sandwich cost one Egyptian pound, a little less than twenty cents.

We attempted to hire a single taxi to the bus station, there only being five of us (six, if you count the driver) but the taxi man adamantly refused to believe that we could all fit. “FOUR of you in the back seat? Is that humanly possible?” his face seemed to say, as we balked at his refusal. We weren’t even at standard capacity! There would only be one in the passenger’s seat, and we hadn’t even suggested he share the driver’s seat. But he wouldn’t be worn down, so eventually we hailed another taxi and bounced around the two taxis like tennis balls.

The trouble with traveling with an odd number of people is that it is more difficult to divide, although you’ll always have a majority in a vote. Someone is usually left over when you’re an odd number. Two double rooms and a single, two pairs of seats on the bus and one left over. This time, I was left over. I grew up being last, with a name like Wolfe, and although I was in Egypt with two V’s, close is no cigar. W is still last. The moment I sat down in my seat, I felt intensely uncomfortable. I was in a row behind my friends, seated next to an Egyptian man whose mother obviously hadn’t taught him not to stare. The men in the seats around us laughed and teased him in Arabic, and I must have been visibly uneasy because Elizabeth offered to switch with me. Grateful, I sat down next to Renee, realizing for the first time just how uncommon it was to see women in public in Egypt. Apart from the five of us, there was only one other woman on the bus, an Arab woman who was harassed and ogled the entire ride because she was traveling without a husband or other male relative. In the entire Greyhound-size bus, there were only six people with two X chromosomes.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth, I had felt uncomfortable next to the Egyptian man for a very good reason. For the first several hours of the bus ride the man’s hormones had him wiggling in his seat like a middle school boy with a crush on his teacher and a math book covering his lap. Finally we stopped in a dusty town about an hour past the tunnel where the road plunges beneath the Suez canal, where there was a convenience store and stands selling pretzels and skewers of meat in the parking lot, and a toilet stall where the man could relieve himself of the excitement built up by sitting next to a white woman.

The landscape we passed through was enthralling in its desolation. Once we got out of the greater Cairo area, the gray tarmac road cut a straight line through the sands and the world was simplicity: flat tan desert, pale blue sky with cotton clouds too lazy to bind themselves tightly together; they hung wispy over the dark hills in the distance. We turned south once we were on the peninsula, and the sand turned golden in the afternoon light. Infrequently, we passed small collections of dusty concrete buildings and huts, small outposts that someone calls home. We turned east again, leaving the sand behind as the sun drew near the horizon. This world was brown and we were small, making our way through high mountains of rock, speckled with holes and caves, nooks and crannies that would allow someone to disappear off the face of the earth.

We pulled into St. Catherine after dark, and immediately I began to shiver, unprotected in the cold mountain air. We found a restaurant a short ways away. We sat with warm tea, thankful to be sheltered from the wind, at least, and before long our table was laden with plates of warm pita, sliced vegetables, hummus drizzled with olive oil, fragrant rice, and steaming bowls of spiced lentil soup and one with chicken, which came accompanied by the neighborhood cat twining around our heels and meowing for her share. We may have been tired, we may have been cold, but everything was delicious, and there was a lot of it for not a lot of money.

As we were settling the bill, a tall, thin man in cream pants and knee length shirt with a checked red and white headwrap approached us, speaking a mix of English and Arabic. We recognized the name of our hotel, and after repeating it a few times, we figured out that he was offering us a ride, apparently for free. Hussein had deep lines in his face and kind eyes, and assured us we would be able to climb the mountain for the sunrise, no problems.

We arrived at the hotel to relieved looks from the owner, who had sent Hussein to look for us when we hadn’t shown up immediately after the bus passed through. He showed us to our room, which had three single beds and an attached bathroom with a flush toilet and ice cold running water. No one took a shower. We plugged in the space heater which sent a gradually enlarging circle of warmth out into the room. The hotel owner knocked on our door with a tray of shot glasses and a teapot of Turkish coffee, which we poured into metal water bottles and kept near the heater for “morning”. Shortly after eight o’clock we cocooned together under the rough wool blankets cuddling two to a bed, greedy for whatever warmth we could find.

The alarm shocked us into groggy wakefulness at 1.30 in the morning. We left the comfort of our cocoons and struggled into every item of clothing we had as we burned our tongues on the scalding coffee. The harsh winter air rushed in as we filed out the door into the night. St. Catherine was quiet as we walked down the highway, lit with the orange glow of streetlamps. We turned north, onto a stony track leading away from the lights of town. Before us in the dark we could see the mountains: darker patches in the night that blocked the stars from view.

After a few minutes we came to an open area lit with lamps and hundreds of people milling about. Used to Ugandan lines, we made our way to the building where we registered and paid for the mandatory guide that would lead us up the mountain. Ashraf suggested we start the climb immediately, to avoid the worst of the crowd and to ensure that we got spots at the top for the sunrise. There were thousands of people climbing Mount Sinai that night, and there wasn’t space for everyone at the summit.

Ashraf gave us two options, the Steps of Penitence, a steep path made up of 3750 steps carved out of the rock by monks, or the Camel Path. The Steps take less time but are more challenging. We chose the winding Camel Path which snakes its way up to the summit at a less challenging angle.

There were already long lines of pilgrims making their way carefully over the stony ground, and we passed dozens of camels and guides on the side of the road, offering an easier journey. We walked at a steady pace, fending off the cold with movement. Our feet were accustomed to finding their way in the dark from so many moonless nights in Africa. The path was rough as we made our way around slower travelers and camels burdened with the elderly, the overweight, and the lazy. The sky was scattered with diamonds, but literally. The cold air was clear and the night was vividly black and the stars shone bright, luminous, and I understood how you could think this place holy. The path steepened, and a near-full moon rose to light our way.

We didn’t speak much. We focused our energy on putting one foot in front of the other and balancing the hot and cold. My feet were tingling with cold, my legs cold but bearable. My torso was uncomfortably warm and a few drops of sweat made their way down my spine. My fingers weren’t too bad if I kept them in my pockets. The cold gave me a headache, so I wrapped my head in the Ethiopian Airlines blanket I had taken from the plane, but then I felt beads of sweat forming at my temples.

After a while, we stopped at one of the teahouses that populate the switchbacks on the path. The view was amazing. In the cold clear glow of the moon, I could see the long train of camels and pilgrims falling away from me down the side of the mountain. The stars pricked the sky like tears, and a warm yellow glow came from the teahouse, where Bedouin men served plastic cups of sweet tea for 5 E£ ($1) each, and off-brand Cup Noodles for 20 E£ ($4). We weren’t willing to pay that much yet, so we just sat for a few minutes out of the wind, enjoying the warmth and the soft rhythm of Arabic words.

Back on the path, some of the charm of the journey had worn off. The path was smaller and steeper, so camels that were waiting for someone to tire and hire a ride the rest of the way now blocked part of the path, and patches of camels already saddled with riders moved slowly, taking up the rest of the path. We wanted to move quickly to keep warm, but had to break through these pockets of camels every few minutes. My feet were really starting to hurt with the cold, and I tried to wiggle my toes as I climbed to keep the blood flowing.

We stopped at Elijah’s Hollow, also known as the Seven Elders of Israel, a natural amphitheater where the Camel Path ends and pilgrims have no choice but to climb the last 750 Steps of Penitence. It was still dark, without a hint of dawn on the horizon, so we crowded into another teahouse for a few minutes out of the wind, which was stronger this high up and bit at our skin through our clothing. Disney characters-Tweety Bird, the Tazmanian Devil, Daffy Duck and their many friends-populated the sheet that served as a ceiling in the teahouse. We shared a few cups of overpriced tea, and headed back into the night to repent.

The steps were uneven and slippery; our flashlights revealed frost and ice. Before long, I started to see patches of a powdery white substance on the rocks to the sides of the Steps. I stopped and reached my hand out. Although my fingers were already near-frozen, I registered a biting coldness. Reluctantly, I accepted that this was snow. We were in Egypt, and there was snow on the ground, and that was probably why I could no longer feel my toes. Surely this was a penance.

We reached the last resting place, our faces red and stinging in the cold. It was time to pay outrageously: 40 E£ for two dirty, rough wool blankets that had probably been used by a thousand different pilgrims and never been washed. As we waited for the first hint of grey pre-dawn light, I removed my shoes to massage some warmth back into my toes. My fingers hadn’t fared much better, so Charlene, who hates feet, made a supreme sacrifice and assessed the damage. Luckily, my feet didn't feel as cold to the touch as I’d expected. Take that, frostbite!

After half an hour of huddling together under the blankets, the first hint of dawn could be seen on the horizon, and we prepared ourselves to climb the last 100 Steps to the top of Gabal Musa. There were hundreds of pilgrims climbing slowly up the narrow Steps, and we lost track of each other in the crowd. I made it to the top and claimed a spot on a brown rise of rock next to the chapel. Gradually the grey receded to reveal red and orange tones on the horizon, and layers of mountain cast in shades of brown falling away at my feet. I watched in awe as the sky erupted in ever more beautiful layers of light and color, and revealed the landscape around me, which took my breath in its stark beauty. We were surrounded by layered, hard rock mountains in every direction, the brown tones lightly dusted with pure white snow. The sunrise played over the mountains, leaving some in shadow and others lit by the new day. I was humbled.

A small patch of clouds turned golden among the orange and red and pink and I felt the people around me holding their breath as the sun made its first appearance, rising slowly into the comfort of the golden cloud before breaking free and bathing the whole world in its brilliant light. The land around me turned from a cold brown to a red-orange lit from within as hymns rose into the heavens from the chapel. Each of us was experiencing something very different. I was quiet in my appreciation of the beauty found in this place. Many people prayed to Allah, or God, under their breath; some shouted scripture at this place where Moses, Musa, received the Ten Commandments from God. I took one last look around, the mountains already turned tan in the light of day, and climbed down the first 100 Steps of Penitence to find my friends.

We reconvened at the teahouse, where we gathered as much warmth as we could from the blankets before returning them and starting the climb down. It went much faster in the light and relative warmth, and the promise of something delicious to put in our stomachs urged us on. We lost track of Ashraf as we descended, weaving in and out, passing people from every corner of the world. There were Nigerians in full complet, making me ache for West Africa. There were Japanese tourists in skinny jeans, leather stiletto-heeled boots, and faux-fur lined coats, making me laugh at the absurdity. There were overweight Americans in matching tour-company jackets making the trek up as the masses climbed down, making me wonder why they were so late to the game.

Halfway down the Steps, Renee and I were alone, having lost the others. Suddenly, over the din of dozens of different languages being spoken simultaneously, we heard The Call. The Call originated on Banda Island during the 4th of July 2010 weekend. There was a latrine we dubbed the “Throne Room” as it was as large as an African hut, round, with windows on all sides, and completely empty except for a concrete toilet bowl emptying into a pit below. The irony of a large round building empty except for a toilet seat and a small wicker table holding German fashion magazines was exacerbated by the heavy, dark-wood, ornately carved (with fish!) door that if closed completely caused a slab of wood to fall into place outside, effectively locking the door from the outside leaving the occupant trapped. Over the weekend more than a few of us fell victim to the Throne Room (I’m happy to say I escaped this tragedy) but the girl who shat her pants on the boat was not so lucky. Trapped, she decided to call out to Renee and Elizabeth, who were playing volleyball on the beach and had seen her pass on her way to the Throne Room.

Renee and Elizabeth, meanwhile still playing volleyball on the beach, heard the strange call of a bird in the woods. They kept playing, and the bird kept calling. Elizabeth, laughing, commented how funny it would be if the girl who shat her pants on the boat had gotten herself locked in the Throne Room. After another few bird calls, they realized that it wasn’t a bird at all, but rather calls of “HELP! Renee! Elizabeth! I’m stuck in the Throne Room!”

Since then, we periodically break out The Call. Instantly recognizable and a great tool to find your friends, when I heard this on the slopes of Gabal Musa, I instinctively stopped walking, swung round, and returned with my own Call, scanning the crowd for our friends. Elizabeth, who made the call, was with Ashley, but Charlene was alone between the two groups. A couple directly in front of her also heard The Call and spotted Elizabeth and I communicating across the distance. The woman asked her husband, “why are they wailing?” His response: “maybe they like to wail!” If only they knew.

We descended through a stark terrain unlike any I’d ever seen before, harsh and desolate and beautiful. Brown hues contrasting against each other were set against a blue sky. The effect was the definition of brilliant.

It took us just over an hour to return to St. Catherine’s monastery, where we bid Ashraf farewell and wandered amid the camels and threadbare children hawking geodes and books in unlikely languages (Korean?!), waiting for the monastery to open. We took pictures outside under an olive tree, where Hussein appeared once again to give us a ride. He agreed to wait for us to tour the monastery, and tipped us off as to which door to wait in front of, resulting in us being first in line when they unlocked the wooden door.

We walked quickly through the rooms, taking it in quickly, as our stomachs were aching to be fed. We stopped for a moment at a crowd of people pressed against a fence, pointing their cameras straight into the sun. I snapped a picture of my own, not quite understanding what was so amazing about the stone wall with a bush growing at the top. My picture is mostly blinding white from the sun, but hey… any of you got a picture of the Burning Bush?

You heard correctly. Turns out the Burning Bush is no longer on fire. In fact, its not even in the same place. It was transplanted several yards away to a courtyard of the monastery, and its original spot was covered by a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation, with a silver star marking where the roots of the bush had come out of the ground. This is the location it was in when I snapped my photo, not the actual scene of the blaze.

Hussein was patiently waiting outside the monastery, and insisted on a detour to his favorite restaurant in St. Catherine’s when we mentioned we were famished. Restaurant Shahrazad was crawling with locals, so we knew it was going to be good. Hussein cleared us a table and in the time it took us to sit down, we had plates laden with fresh pita bread, bite-sized falafel and pieces of fried eggplant, hummus drizzled with olive oil, and pickled vegetables.

We returned to the hotel to pack our things and ask about transport to Dahab, our next stop. Hussein had suggested we utilize his services and hire him to take us directly, but we didn’t want to hire an entire van if we could catch public transport for an even cheaper fare. Elizabeth struck out on her own to find out about buses while the rest of us returned to our cocoons. She returned some time later with a travel buddy and the fact that it was almost impossible to get out of St. Catherine’s without hiring a car. We found Hussein (the first time these roles had been switched; he’d always found US) and agreed on a price.

The landscape between St. Catherine and Dahab was mesmerizing in its variation. Each new rise and fall in the landscape was more beautiful than the last. We moved from the craggy brown mountains of central Sinai to yellowed plains with burnt red hills rising from their midst. The plains made way for ochre sands; next came low, tan hills bleeding into ecru sands and an occasional splash of green brush. Grey fields of stone backed by dark hills, pockmarked with erosion holes. Now the sands were fine café au lait dunes, heavy on the cream.

I Kissed The Sphinx And She Liked It

Posted on 2011.04.22 at 05:35
There was a man with a hand-lettered sign waiting for us after we made it through customs and picked our bags. We exited the Arrivals Hall, not knowing we would be calling the place home in just over a week, and rapidly crossed the parking lot, falling over each other in excitement, to a spacious van, complete with seat belts and a steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle. Hah, they drive on the right side of the road here, that’s hilarious! Oh wait, they do that in America, too, right? I think so…? We weren't entirely sure.

Towards 3am, we arrived at the locked gate of the Australian Hostel on one of Cairo’s dusty streets lined with multi-story buildings, and were led inside to an ancient elevator that we rejected in favor of a well of litter-strewn, worn down stairs. It felt like we were in an apartment building, but instead of apartments, there were businesses and then, finally, the reception of our hostel. Eslam, greeting us, handed over a few bills to the taxi driver (the hostel covered our airport pick-up) and then showed us to our rooms. They were nice, with clean bedding and only moderately uncomfortable mattresses and pillows, and mirrors instead of glass in the doors, providing privacy AND visual proof of how exhausted we really were. It being January, and Egypt being 30̊ N, a good 6̊ past the Tropic of Cancer, we somehow found ourselves in Winter, and it was cold. I ripped the plastic off the Ethiopian Airlines blanket I had slipped in my backpack before landing, and curled up with it against the chill night air. Barely five hours later, we were up and planning our day. Eslam told us about the Cairo tour the Australian Hostel had to offer, and we took him up on it. $8 a piece for a private taxi and tour-guide for the entire day? Yes please! Down on the street, we popped in to a shop for water and flagged down a man carrying a huge pile of pita bread on his head: breakfast.

Our taxi wound through the streets, and soon we left the maze of dirty, tall buildings that seemed to bear down upon you and entered a less congested neighborhood. The sun shone bright, all the more because of the haze of Saharan dust in the air. I was reminded of Togo’s Harmattan, when dry season winds bring sand and dust down from the great desert to clog the troposphere and cast the world in an eerie near-silence, sound waves disrupted with all the particles in the air, the sun’s heat not quite reaching our bodies; all moisture is sucked from the world, leaving our lungs dry and our skin parched and cracking. We sped along one of the freeways I had seen from the air the night before, lit by streetlamps in straight lines across the city. Our driver stopped midway across a bridge so we could stare out at the Nile, barely visible below and before us with the haze. Cars and trucks sped past us at speeds rarely if ever encountered in Uganda. Before long, we turned off onto the congested streets of Giza and wound our way to a street more crowded with horses and camels than motor vehicles. We filed into a small room off the sidewalk where we were offered seats and several tour packages.
This was a no-nonsense trip. We had barely a week, and a lot to fit in. Six hours after landing, we were already bargaining for camels to take us to see the pyramids and Sphinx. The men were quite surprised and caught off guard at our arguing ability, so we managed to get the full tour on three camels and two horses for around $50 per person. (Travel tip: go through your hotel for everything, or you will pay too much. FYI: the pyramids are the most expensive thing you will do in Egypt (provided you are traveling like a PCV). Before getting to the airport, each of us spent around $200 for EVERYTHING: all food, lodging, travel and activities. Pyramids were by far the most expensive thing we did.) Elizabeth and I opted for camels the entire time; the rest of them took turns on the third camel.

We saddled up and started through the streets. For the first few minutes, I was uncomfortable on my camel; I had ridden them before, in West Africa, but always barefoot. I didn’t want to hurt my camel’s neck with my shoes, and the saddle was entirely different than the Tuareg ones I was used to. Tuareg camel saddles are remarkably uncomfortable and left bruises on my inner thighs from the wide, flat board coming up to mid-chest between my legs, and which I was instructed to cross my legs around, resting my bare feet on the camel’s neck. The gait of the camel throws you forwards and backwards in an awkward rhythm, knocking your thighs painfully against the boards. Egyptian camel saddles are much more comfortable; they are mostly piles of blankets, with wooden knobs in front and back for you to hold and which leave your thighs mercifully alone. When I observed the locals comfortably resting their shoe-clad feet on their camels’ necks, I did the same with no bark of complaint from the camel, and relaxed into the stride.

We passed children at play on rickety jungle gym equipment and concrete walls decorated with Arabic graffiti. A man with traditional head wraps rode up to Ashley and Renee, on the horses, and placed the white cloth and padded crown over their heads, smiling and giving the thumbs up. Travel tip: this is quite common in Egypt. Don’t accept anything you haven’t paid for. People will hand you Cokes, bracelets, head wraps et cetera that you haven’t asked for, as nice as can be (Egyptians are quite charming) and then, once you’ve taken a sip or tried the thing on, they will demand you pay for it. They usually offer things in ambiguous situations when you are easily confused. Maybe the Coke is a complimentary part of the tour? Maybe the head wrap is part of the camel ride? It isn’t. Not to be fooled, Ashley and Renee handed the head wraps back, refusing to pay for something they did not ask for.

After a few minutes, I casually glanced to my right, and there just happened to be a pyramid. We were still riding on a city street, with hotels and grocery stores and children at play; I wasn’t expecting it. I guess I had always imagined the pyramids in the middle of the desert, far from anything else, but in reality, they are just outside of town. Indeed, even when you are right up next to them, you can see Giza and Cairo behind you. But at least when you are facing them, you have a picturesque view with nothing but pyramids, sand and blue sky and you can pretend that you are far away from anything else.

We came to a security gate and had to dismount, which is no small feat on a camel. You have to lean back while the camel first folds its front legs under itself, followed several seconds later by its back legs. You are thrown first forwards and then backwards as if at sea during a storm, and all the while the camel is snorting and barking and sometimes farting. Once the camel sits down, it is still so tall that your (well, my) legs don’t reach the ground so you have to sort of slide off to one side, your other leg sticking up in the air on the saddle until you reach the ground with the first foot and can bring the other down. Not something you can do gracefully, and not something you want to do in a skirt.

We passed through metal detectors and pat-downs and mounted our trusty steeds once again, which is just as much of a roller-coaster ride, but in the opposite direction. First your camel gets its back legs under itself, throwing you forward, then backwards as it comes to a full stand with its front legs, all the while snorting and barking and sometimes farting. We rode on, now with sand underfoot and shallow dunes on either side of us. Slowly the streets of Giza were blocked from view as we circled around a set of dunes and came to the “best” view of the pyramids, where you can see all of them at once.

We dismounted and spent quite a while taking photographs against this amazing backdrop, which still felt like a backdrop. Each of us with the camels and the pyramids, with just the pyramids, with our index fingers at the tip of a pyramid, all five of us jumping over the pyramids, and making a pyramid at the pyramids. It was only when we rode towards them that it started to feel real, and I found my jaw dropping in awe at the moment. I was approaching this last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World on the back of a came and Wow! I suddenly understood why it was a wonder of the world. They were just so BIG, and so perfect, sloping gracefully upwards into the vast blue of the sky. How had the ancient Egyptians even conceived of something this grand? Not only had they envisioned these massive monoliths, but they had found a way to actually build them. They worked together day after day, year after year, decade after decade (it is thought that it took 20-30 years on average to build a single pyramid) cutting these large limestone bricks and painstakingly lifting and carefully placing the huge stones. Talk about delayed gratification. They ancient Egyptians wanted to be remembered for all time. Having seen them, I can assure you their work was worthwhile...

No one said much as we rode closer to them; I think we were all contemplating how awesome and amazing the pyramids were. We dismounted, and our guide quickly ushered us under the rope and told us to quickly take photographs before the police came, but be careful not to touch the actual pyramid, because anyone who does is destined to marry three times. We could climb the huge blocks of stone at the pyramid’s base (which didn’t *really* count) and pose for pictures, but not go any farther or touch anything above that. We opted not to pay to see what was inside, so after we were done at the largest pyramid, we mounted our camels to ride over to the Sphinx. We passed several groups of archeologists working in the sand, perhaps about to discover another pyramid buried below our feet. The Sphinx looked smaller than I expected, although it was still quite large and impressive, of course. We passed through into a building with high stone walls, no ceiling, and crawling with tourists. We made our way through to an open area with a perfect view of the stone cat missing a nose, and proceeded to plant kisses on its ancient lips.

Only one person at a time can pose, and it takes a few minutes to get the angle exactly right, so that it looks really convincing. Meanwhile, there were dozens of locals pestering us, telling us we were standing in the wrong spot, come this way, let me show you... A young man with curly brown, orange tinted hair, milk-tea skin and a generous smattering of freckles (Egyptians come in all flavors) offered to take my photograph while I was waiting for my friends to finish up. “No thanks!” I replied. Later, Ashley told me she had overheard him discussing with his friends and pointing at my camera (the nicest in the group). If I hadn’t known better than to trust him, I’m sure I would have lost my camera and all my photographs of the pyramids. Travel tip: don’t hand your camera to anyone you don’t know. You won’t get it back.

Having learned the Sphinx gives dynamite kisses, we mounted our trusty steeds one last time and returned find Ahmad, the taxi driver, waiting for us patiently. We stopped at a fruit stand to buy bananas that weren’t over-ripe, what we thought were pears but turned out to be huge green guavas, and large oranges that were actually orange-quite a novelty in Africa, where even the sweetest oranges are green on the outside. For the rest of the afternoon, our driver took us around to different shops. We opted out of some of them-perfume, carpet-and spent quite a while at others, like the papyrus shop. We sipped complementary hibiscus juice (which is almost, but not quite, Togo’s bissap) as a flirtatious Egyptian man showed us how papyrus paper is made, and how to spot fake papyrus, which is made from banana fiber and not as strong. We then wandered around, looking at all the different paintings available for purchase. Although they were beautiful, I didn’t buy one-I have so many African artifacts already. It took quite a while for the girls to decide which paintings they wanted and to argue prices with the handsome Egyptian men. When they were done, we headed south to Saqqara to see the Step Pyramids-Ancient Egyptians’ first attempts, the oldest pyramids in the world. Instead of sloping upwards, unbroken, they gain height as ever smaller squares stacked on top of each other.

Hungry after a light lunch of fruit, we asked Ahmad to find us Egyptian food, so he took us to his #1 favorite restaurant in Cairo. It only serves one dish, and is located on the 7th and final floor of a building which is exclusively restaurants that serve this one dish: koshary. Koshary is a mix of rice, lentils and macaroni, topped with a handful of fried onions and served with a tomato sauce. You can add spicy chili sauce and lemon juice to taste. I like to add a lot of both. Koshary proved to be both mouth-watering and filling and the food I miss most from Egypt because it is so tasty and to my knowledge not available anywhere else in the world. After stopping by the East Delta bus station to pick up tickets for the next morning, Ahmad dropped us back at the Australian Backpackers.

Following prominent signs, we walked the few blocks to McDonald’s, where we got real American-style french fries and my first (and most likely last) McFlurry. I’m not a fast food expert, but it felt like stepping into America. The tables, the big yellow M, the uniforms all looked the same, although women in burqas stood in African lines (which means everyone is pushing to the front in a big crowd) ordering McArabia burgers.

With sadness, I was reminded that the rest of the world seems to want to be just like America. They think they want hamburgers and soap operas, electricity and high heels… they can’t see that what they have is beautiful. Pâte with ngyato sauce and spring-loaded baby goats, smoky cooking fires and callused heels… but maybe that is only beautiful in my eyes anymore. I can’t tell the rest of the world what they really want, but it kills me when they choose my world over theirs.

We Start Revolutions

Posted on 2011.02.28 at 15:48
From humble beginnings, the Fab Five joined forces to start a revolution.

Arwen- It’s no surprise that Peace Corps poster girl “Kanga” calls Seattle, Washington home. Having been raised by Wolves, this little blue-eyed blond with a penchant for eating kiwis whole can always be counted on to “bring home the bacon.” Never fear! Kanga has no qualms about taking the last penne in the airport if it means a full belly.

Ashley- You’ll know “Freckles McSickie,” animal riding extraordinaire (horse, ostrich, camel and elephant, thank you kindly) by her French braids and tequila shootin’. This little cowgirl grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where they like two wines and two cakes on all their flights.

Charlene- Y’all are gonna love this cutie sportin’ the faux-hawk; growed up right on the ol’ Appalachian Trail down in Botetourt County, Virginia. Daleville, to be exact. Don’t mess with “Lover” or she’ll go country all over your ass, just like she did to that Turkish gentleman what kissed her hand and complimented her eyes.

Elizabeth- This red-headed wonder-woman known as “Ginger Snap” hails from Santee, California. 92071, fool. It’s almost Mexico, which explains why she’s frequently seen with a Samurai sword, and has been known to head-butt complete strangers on the dance floor.

Renee- Don’t mess with “Roo,” she grew up on the mean streets of Darien, Illinois and just shaved her head-it looks gorgeous! She’s a real card-shark when it comes to that Middle America game Euchre, which only people born in land-locked states know the rules of. Lately, rumors have surfaced that this pretty lady, a lifelong White Sox fan, was heard uttering the words “America SUCKS!” to a British Embassy staffer, 24 hours into the ordeal at Cairo International.

Big Bom’s in hand, we boarded the Ethiopian Airline’s flight to Addis Ababa and kissed Uganda goodbye. Renee and I, ever paired together, had seats on the opposite side of the plane from the others, but we could still hear them laughing and talking in excited voices. We had been planning this trip for almost six months, and finally we were off. Egypt, here we come! God, we must have been annoying, turning around in our seats to wave at them across the aisles, sucking on strawberry lollipops, exclaiming at the gourmet airline food we were served (much better than anything locally available in Uganda). Ashley, batting her eyes at the stewardess and giving her a winning smile, was handed not one but TWO bottles of wine, much to our chagrin. A narcoleptic man sitting across the aisle from her handed her his unwanted cake, and the deal was sealed: best flight of Ashley’s life!

Giddy with excitement, we entered the terminal at Bole International and I could only think of one thing: injera. Real injera, made with teff. My favorite food in the whole wide world, not available in Uganda. With only this thought on my mind, I forged ahead and approached the first restaurant I came to, ordering a spicy chicken and lentil wat and two extra injeras. That will do nicely! Only then, with my craving safely taken care of, was I prepared to explore the rest of the airport with the others. There are several nice duty free shops, with beautiful textiles, baskets, jewelry and other trinkets, but before long, we had seen all there was to see. We returned to the restaurant to retrieve my meal, and did what any self-respecting Peace Corps Volunteers waiting for a flight would do: we sat on the floor of the airport and ate with our hands.

Ethiopia having been conquered (or at least sternly told it would be returned to in the future, for a longer visit), we boarded the next plane. I spent most of that time looking out onto the dark expanse of Africa spread beneath us. Every so often, we would come upon civilization, a long expanse of flickering lights, obviously settlements around the Nile River. We would lose the river for a while, but always find it again, this long, electrified snake making its way across the land towards the Mediterranean. Finally, we found it again, and did not lose it. Instead, the lights expanded out from the river until the land below us was completely aglow, the Nile still visible as a dark swath winding through the patchwork of lights.

Cairo was twinkling. At first I thought it had to do with how sleepy I was. Then I thought something was obstructing my view, but it wasn’t. Individual lights would blink off and on, but their neighbors, a few hair-widths away, wouldn't be disturbed. Electric current must be unstable, I surmised, but over the next few days, I saw that on the ground, current was fine. That wasn’t it. Cairo simply… glitters.

We arrived in Kyoto a few short hours after leaving Tokyo (whose names are the same two characters switched around!), and found our hotel easily, following very specific directions with phrases such as “you will see a large paper lantern hanging approximately two meters above you. Turn left.” We were staying in a spacious, attractive dorm room in a quiet, cheery backpackers in a bustling neighborhood. The glass cover of the reception desk displayed coins from all over the world. Not seeing any from Uganda, I proudly donated a kikumi (pronounced “chi-ku-mi,” 100 shillings) piece.

The next morning, after picking breakfast from a convenie, we walked along the river towards the touristy section of town, overflowing with gardens, temples, shrines, and souvenir shops. We toured the first temple we came to, its tatami rooms lit by the bright sun shining through walls slid open to the well-kept gardens outside. We wandered, undisturbed, around the compound, admiring the Japanese maples, koi pond, and bamboo forest outside and the ornately carved and painted panels and shrines inside.

Moving on, we found ourselves on the grounds of a large temple, made up of dozens of buildings. The scent of incense and the sound of chanting led us up to the largest building. Taking off our shoes, Rebecca and I climbed the stairs to find hundreds of people kneeling in prayer, led by a monk in bright robes. We stood for a few minutes observing. Although we couldn’t understand the words, the chanting and ringing of gongs was calming. From there, we moved on to the temple gardens and then out into the winding streets, getting closer to the epicenter of tourist town all the time.

We meandered along the streets, which sloped gently upwards with turns every few dozen meters. Every once in a while we stopped to look at an interesting shop or building. Once, we spotted a vendor offering tofu flavored ice cream, of all things. I ate my cone under a weeping willow next to a pond, watching the pigeons and ducks at play. Tofu ice cream tastes pretty much how you’d expect. For lunch, we chose someplace at random which had bento-style meals. I had miso soup laced with a handful of chopped green onions, which you dipped noodles and seaweed strips into, a rice bowl: rice, fish, seaweed strips and a raw egg mixed together, various pickled vegetables, tofu with sliced okra, and green tea, of course.

The street became steep now, leading up to a large temple: a beautiful tourist trap. We walked slowly through the clogged corridors, not able to really enjoy it with the crowd. The temple itself was massive, and there were paths through the trees along the hillside and then turning down, below the temple, to a fountain with three spurts of water coming steadily down. A long line of people was waiting their turn to drink from the streams. Unfortunately, not until later did I remember that a friend had told me about the fountain at a temple in Kyoto: each stream of water represents something different, and you can only drink from one. You chose between success in school, material wealth, or love, I believe. For the record, I would have drunk from the fountain of love. Money and success are great, but to love is the meaning of life.

We were tired, by now, and made our way back to the hostel. We had covered a large area that day, on foot. For dinner, we went to two restaurants: one had meat on sticks and other tasty tidbits, and one had gyoza. Kyoto’s gyoza are small, about the size of a marshmallow, and almost as tasty as the ones we'd had in Sendai.

After a quiet night at the hostel, we set out for Arashiyama Monkey Park, recommended by Rebecca’s father. After a short hike we arrived at the top of the mountain, where there was a visitor’s center and a crowd of shrieking, giggling American teenage girls inside, feeding the monkeys through the wire mesh. You could purchase peanuts or apples to feed the monkeys. Thankfully, after a few minutes the annoying tourist group left and it was just us and the monkeys. It was a lot of fun to hold out your hand with a piece of fruit in your palm and have the monkeys reach through the mesh to take it from you. We mostly tried to feed the little, cute ones, but sometimes that backfired, when the larger ones caught wind of the operation and came swinging over with teeth and claws bared, the babies squealing and running for their lives.

Outside the visitor’s center, monkeys were lazing about in the yard. From up so high, we had perfect views of Kyoto, a vast, crowded city that is reigned in only by the surrounding hills. When we were in Athens (blog to come soon, hopefully!), I was actually struck by how similar the views of the two cities were from up high… both are huge metropolises with pretty green hills surrounding them on all sides. Before heading back to central Kyoto, we stopped at the post office to get money (travel tip: in Japan, you can always get money from foreign ATM cards at the post) and an elderly gentleman waiting outside recommended a restaurant for lunch, where I got Japanese fried chicken (not from KFC, although it is an option in Japan) with pickled vegetables, rice, salad with a spicy sesame dressing, miso, a sweet potato bean dessert and green tea, of course!

We spent the rest of the day in search of a textile factory that Sayre wanted to go to so he could buy a yukata, but when we finally got there, he changed his mind and didn’t buy a thing. The day wasn’t completely wasted, however, because on our way there, we stopped at a beautiful golden temple surrounded by water on all sides except for a thin neck of land connecting it to shore. The crowds here were large, too, but not as oppressive as the day before, and we could walk the grounds in relative peace, gazing at the golden temple, standing regal and proud, reflected in the still water of a lake. More beautiful Japanese gardens filled the rest of the compound, and several small shrines where you could toss coins into bowls centered in half moons of Buddha statues, the surrounding grass carpeted in thick layers of bronze and silver. After the bungled textile factory, we hiked across town in search of a tea ceremony, but somehow we got off track and ended up in an entirely different neighborhood.

Tired from another long day of pounding the pavement, we returned to our hostel, tea ceremony unseen, and to our two dinner selections of the night before-the gyoza shop and the meat on sticks restaurant, where I sampled one of the best beers I’ve had in my life: Yebisu. Yebisu is a “black” beer, thick and oh so tasty with a fat, smiling sumo wrestler on the label. Later, Sayre went back to the hostel and Rebecca and I went in search of an onsen. The one we found was different than the ones we’d been to before. It wasn’t as luxurious, it reminded me more of a gym, but it did have four separate pools of water, and a sauna. There was a cold bath, which was exhilarating in a sadistic kind of way, one warm pool, and two hot pools, one fragrant and green with herbs.

The next day, we journeyed several hours into the mountains to Kōyasan: Mount Koya. My Uncle Ralph had suggested we spend a night there with the monks at the monastery, and it was certainly a unique experience. I was expecting a lone monastery high up in the mountains by itself, and to be some of the only visitors, but there was a sizable town down the road, and several dozen other tourists, including a group of French painters, also staying with the monks.
We had a few hours to relax before evening meditation, which was compulsory. We explored the small garden and the halls of the monastery. When the gong sounded, we went down to the meditation room, where one of the monks explained that we would be sitting, for approximately 40 minutes, and should try to focus simply on our breath, going in and out of our bodies, and try to empty our minds of all other thoughts. I tried to focus, and tried to sit still, but I couldn’t help it, towards the end I had to shift my weight a bit. It must take a lot of training to be able to sit still for so long.

When we were done, dinner was ready. We sat on cushions in a tatami room in front of three beautifully arranged trays, staggered in height, perhaps to guide us in what to eat first. I didn’t have my camera to document the delicious array, so I cannot tell you everything we ate that night, but I do know there was no meat; the monks follow a strict vegan diet. There was rice and tempura vegetables, several types of tofu (some tastier than others), and green tea, of course.

After dinner, Rebecca and I found the monastery's female onsen and bathed. Although there were dozens of other white ladies staying at the monastery that evening, we were the only non-Japanese in the baths. We washed ourselves and stepped carefully into the single, large pool of steaming water. There were several elderly women already soaking themselves, and just from their tone of voice, we could tell they were exclaiming about the two of us. Their smiles made it evident that they were friendly exclamations, not “Oh Dear Buddha, look at how ignorant those two pale foreigners are, spoiling our onsen like that.”

The oldest one, fat and wrinkled, reached over and touched my cheek. Her eyes almost disappearing when she smiled, she rattled off several paragraphs in Japanese and then, taking a breath for courage, said, in English: beautiful! Even though I’m used to people of different cultures finding my white skin and blond hair beautiful, and not necessarily seeing beyond that to who I actually am, the compliment filled me with pride. This elegant, grey-haired Japanese grandmother, naked in an onsen high in the mountains in southern Japan, found me beautiful! We stumbled through a few minutes of conversation: America, Obama, Ahhhhhh! I didn’t even attempt to explain I was living in Uganda.

Our futon beds had been prepared for us during dinner. “When you feel cold,” advised a notice, “move Futon into KOTATSU, which is a table heater.” Our Kotatsu was a small coffee table with a skirt-like blanket attached, so you could sit with your legs under the table, the heat trapped in to warm them, or, as the notice suggested, you could crawl your whole body under the table and sleep toasty warm that way.

Early the next morning, we woke and returned to the meditation room for morning prayers. Half a dozen monks sat in front of us, arrayed on either side of the altar glinting with gold leaf and bright colors. Wisps of fragrant smoke wafted across the scene from sticks of incense sitting in front of each monk. Candle flames flickered throughout the room. The monks began to chant, their voices clear and deep and certain of the words from years of practice. For maybe an hour we watched and listened as they completed their morning devotions, familiar to me after so many years of exposure to Tibetan Buddhism, but also strange and foreign. It gave me chills, to be a part of this ritual: the chanting, almost a song; the gongs and bells chiming; the spans of silence between; the candle flames and deep concentration of the bald-headed men.

When morning prayers were done, one of the monks gave a brief explanation, and asked us to continue meditation, if we liked. He reminded us that there was no purpose, no goal, but that if we took time out of each day to just sit, observe our breath and empty our minds of thoughts, that we would start to notice a change in ourselves. We would be happier and health problems would disappear. There was no pressure, just an invitation.

Breakfast was simple. Rice, pickled vegetables, seaweed strips. Miso soup, more unique things done with tofu, and green tea, of course. The day was overcast and gray, with light rainfall. Instead of traveling hours out of our way to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, famous for its bowing deer, we decided to spend the morning in Koya town. The night before, we had been told that the largest cemetery in the world was located just a few stops away on the bus, so away we went to Okunoin Cemetery. We had been told that every day, followers of the Shingon sect of Buddhism came from all over the world to this cemetery, to leave hair and nail clippings to ensure their souls would return here to rest for all eternity. Those who could not afford the journey sent parts of themselves with friends. Just in case, as we entered, I made sure to cover my hair so that no strands would slip out and after death I’d find myself stuck high up in the mountains of Japan. Japan is fine, but its not where I want to spend the afterlife!

The cemetery was huge. We spent at least two hours walking around and I don’t think we even scratched the surface. Some tombstones were massive structures the size of cars, or even larger, but most were modest, crowded almost on top of each other. Many graves had large statues of Buddha and/or obelisks with characters engraved in the sides and gold plated, and one even had a metal rocket-ship installed at the head of the granite slab, ensuring the deceased traveled to the afterlife in style! Smaller graves tended to have statues of Buddha, more often than not dressed in knit hats and lace-trimmed bibs. Soon we found ourselves in an older section of the cemetery; the gravestones here were crumbling and covered with lichen and moss. Through the trees, which dripped rainwater lazily down on us, we heard chanting. Following the sound along the slippery path, passing thousands of graves, we came to a bridge and a sign in several languages informing us we were entering the inner sanctum of the cemetery and asking that we refrain from talking loudly and taking pictures. Across the bridge we found a temple, home to dozens of monks who were in the middle of prayers. Slightly out of place, in my opinion, we also found a kiosk selling snacks, souvenirs and lucky charms. Memorabilia of a cemetery?!

After stopping in at a shop to buy rice crackers the size of my Dad’s palm, we took the bus to the cable car (the only way in or out of Kōyasan) and arrived at the train minutes after it had departed, so we were forced to wait on our empty train for over an hour until it was time to depart. In Japan, you can be sure that transport will leave at the scheduled time, for better or for worse. Amazingly, this means you can schedule a trip, even one across the country, with only minutes to transfer from one train to the next, and not have to worry about your train arriving late and causing you to miss your connection. Your train won’t arrive late, and your connection won’t leave early. Wow.

We traveled back down through the misty mountains, losing elevation like it was our job. We stopped for lunch in Osaka, and Rebecca and I finally tried a dessert unique to that part of the country that was everywhere when we weren’t looking to try it and then suddenly nowhere to be found when we decided we wanted to. I wish it were easier to upload photographs to my blog; this dessert looks quite strange. It comes in a large glass ice cream dish: mostly a large mountain of bright green, with a glob of something brown on the side and a maraschino cherry on top. We discovered that the green was green tea (of course) flavored snow-cone, and the brown was bean paste. It was quite tasty, to tell the truth!

We bullet trained it back to Tokyo that night, getting off at the wrong stop and detouring through a couple crowded, electrified streets before making it back to Asakusa Smile. After taking the more expensive train to make sure we weren’t late to the airport, my flight was delayed. Oops! The Turkish Airlines agent who checked me in was overly confused by my peculiar status, and it took her half an hour to get me sorted out. She couldn’t grasp that I was an American, in Japan, going to Uganda via Turkey. I suppose I may have made history as the only person ever to be in that particular predicament.

To start, she was utterly perplexed as to what Uganda actually was. When I informed her it was a country in Africa, she switched Uganda to Africa, as in “do you have a visa to Africa?” Unsatisfied with my work permit to “Africa” she almost didn’t give me my tickets, worried that I wouldn’t be allowed in the country. I assured her that if my work permit was rejected, I could still purchase a visa upon arrival. With a worried look, she moved on to the next hurdle: Turkey. Convinced that I needed a visa for my 3 hour layover in Turkey (I think she thought I was leaving the airport-understandable as I arrived on one date and departed on the next). But as luck would have it, I did have a Turkish visa, purchased two weeks before. If I hadn’t had that visa, I’m pretty sure I would have been stuck in Japan forever. I could almost hear her saying “No visa for three hours spent in the airport in Istanbul, and a dubious work permit to a magical land called ‘Uganda’? I don’t think so! You can’t fool me, you silly American!” Never having sent anyone to “Africa” before, she had to print my boarding passes three times. The confusion over, or at least dealt with, she smiled and apologized for the flight delay, giving me a ¥10 voucher valid at most restaurants in the airport for the inconvenience of the delayed flight. Hah! That covered lunch for Sayre and I, which was great, because I was out of money and my bagel and cream cheese was delicious! We wandered the terminals for a while, touring the origami museum, and spotting a display of interestingly flavored Kit Kats: orange, strawberry, blueberry cheesecake, apple, cola, chili pepper, green tea (of course), wasabi, soy sauce.

Rebecca and Sayre stayed with me until my flight boarded, and as we hugged goodbye, I couldn’t help but wonder where in the world I would meet Rebecca next. Most likely Seattle, but who really knows! Anything is possible with friends like mine! Maybe… Petra?!

Shortly after takeoff, as we were climbing higher into the atmosphere, I spotted Fuji-San sloping regally up through the cloud cover, and I smiled. Although we hadn’t made it out to Fuji, although I hadn’t seen the great mountain from the ground, we had packed so much experience into such a short trip that it didn’t really matter anymore. I took one last look at the famous volcano and then our plane turned north, traveling up the length of Japan and into Russian airspace, where we chased the sunset for several hours, the brilliant light reflecting off the large rivers dissecting the land below, but finally the sun slipped over the curve of the earth, faster than us, and the orange sky finally faded into deep blues and then black.

I was exhausted by the time we arrived in Istanbul, and glad that we had been delayed a few hours, giving me enough time to transfer but not too long to wait but, rats!, my flight to Entebbe had also been delayed, so I curled up on a couple of metal chairs and let my dreams mix with the chatter of the people around me. Finally, we boarded, and I kept my eyes open long enough to see the lights of Istanbul fade into the black of the Marmara Sea and then I curled in my seat and actually slept, which I never do on planes. I woke to bright sun outside and the green of Northern Uganda out the window. We landed, and suddenly I was back in the Third World, with its dust and humidity and bargaining for a taxi, the drivers assuming I was just another gullible tourist that was above walking on foot out of the airport to get the correct price back to Kampala.

Ramen, Sake and Bullet Trains

Posted on 2011.02.28 at 13:22
We caught a ride with Abigail’s neighbor out of Tomioka, winding East through the mountains to Koriyama, where Abigail attended a work meeting and the rest of us wandered around the mall for several hours, eventually camping out at Starbucks and playing hana awase, a Japanese game with small cardboard squares for cards, each decorated with one of 12 flowers representing the months of the year. Each flower is a separate suit, and some cards have additional decoration: birds, animals, and the coveted full moon, sake cup, sakura banner, et cetera. When Abigail was done, we met at the train station and continued east to Kitakata, a small town off the tourist circuit that is known for sake and ramen.

We arrived in Kitakata late, and Abigail attempted to lead us to our ryokan. As much as I love Abigail, it is never a good idea to have her in charge of directions, and this night was no exception. We were wandering the quiet, well lit streets, taking wrong turns for some time when we saw a group of stumbling-drunk, singing Japanese men coming towards us. Abigail approached them, smiling, and asked directions. The group broke into slurred, insistent Japanese and struck off down an alleyway. Abigail and Sayre hurried after them. Rebecca and I clutched each other and followed warily. This could not be a good idea.

The men led us left and right, up and down side streets while loudly singing Japanese pop songs and laughing. Rebecca and I didn't know what was going on but followed the other two who had translated nothing for us. After about ten minutes, the ridiculousness of the situation got to be too much: four Americans, late at night, following a group of short, middle-aged, raucous, slap-happy drunk Japanese men who thought they knew where our hotel was, in a little town surrounded by mountains, known for its rice wine and its noodle soup. Certainly there was a better way to go about finding our lodging! Like calling the ryokan, maybe? I finally demanded an explanation from Abby and Sayre, who told me the jovial drunk men knew where our hotel was. Ridiculous! “They say its just up there.” Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Everything is “just there” in Uganda and it hardly ever is! But you know what? Not 30 seconds later, we were standing outside our hotel. Touché. The drunk men waved goodbye to us, calling out “Sayonara!” and disappeared down the street, sloppily holding each other upright and tripping over their shoes.

A small woman greeted us at the door and showed us to our tatami room, where four yukata, traditional bathrobes, were waiting for us. We were interested in trying some sake ourselves, but it seemed Kitakata wasn’t a late night kind of town. Everything was closed, she told us, but she could bring a bottle to the room. We donned our robes and went for a bath in the onsen, only to find the door locked. Stupid foreigners! We couldn’t find the proprietor to politely tell whoever was in there that onsen weren’t private, so we had to wait. When the door finally opened, behold, a 30-ish Japanese woman who should have known better. To be fair, the onsen was very small; the three of us just fit, with water spilling over the sides. Shrugging, we entered and bathed ourselves before soaking in the hot water. Nothing like “nude friendship time”!

Returning to our tatami room, we found not one, but two bottles of sake waiting for us, as well as a bowl of edamame, steamed soybeans. But first, photo shoot! Sayre was patient as the three of us posed in our yukata, attempting to be as proper and modest as Japanese ladies. Then we drank our first sake in Japan, played a little more hana awase, and rolled the futons out onto the floor, covering ourselves in garish, highlighter orange, flowered blankets, and slept.

The next morning, our mission was ramen. We had seen a variety of ramen shops on our roundabout tour the night before, but which one was the best? As we were dressing after our morning onsen, the small woman brought us a plate of sliced, chilled Japanese apple-pears that made me yearn for my parents’ garden. When we asked her to suggest a ramen shop, she proposed instead a tour of Kitakata, and insisted we allow ourselves to be chauffeured around in her small green car. She took us to a sake factory, where we learned about the history of sake, how it was made, and were able to sample a few varieties in a spacious storage room with curiously empty bottles lined up along the walls in wooden crates. Next stop, a sake shop, owned by one of her friends, where I purchased a bottle of sweet and a bottle of dry sake for the sushi party I plan to have with my PCV friends here in Uganda. I brought back several packages of nori (the seaweed wrappers used to make sushi rolls,) wasabi, pickled ginger, a small bamboo mat used to roll the sushi up in preparation for cutting into individual pieces, and a pair of chopsticks each for all 28 of the other people in my training group. Hopefully, when we’re all together for our Mid-Service conference in May, we’ll finally put everything to use!

Our friend dropped us around the corner from the ryokan at a ramen shop she recommended. We entered, took off our shoes, put on the ubiquitous slippers, and sat at a low table on cushions on the floor. There was only one thing on the menu: pork ramen. Our bowls came out steaming, the broth rich and brown, the noodles home-made at the restaurant, the green onions chopped and generously piled on top with the pork. We ate with chopsticks and what I think of as Chinese soup-spoons: the big lipped ceramic ones with short handles. I, of course, was the only one to finish because the rest of the three eaI eat a lot. We paid, and were taking a picture outside the ramen shop when our waitress came running, breathing hard, out the door, wanting to know which of us had finished our soup. Me, why? It seemed I had WON! See, just there, it says you’ve won! Apparently, some bowls at the noodle shop were like lottery tickets… if you got the right one, you won a take away box with two packages of raw, uncooked noodles and two packages of sauce that become broth when added to hot water.

When we got back to the ryokan, the woman introduced us to her English teacher, who offered to take us around Kitakata before we caught our train that afternoon. He took us to his workplace, a calligraphy shop run by an old man who offered to write our names in 5000 year old Katakana and could make stamps by engraving impossibly tiny pieces of stone. We visited a potter with beautiful, breakable work, and a shop that dyed indigo silk and other cloth and wove placemats and tablecloths in the attic. We returned to the ryokan to pick up our luggage and settle the bill. The small woman refused to charge us for the sake and other snacks she had provided, but did request a photograph with us in front of the ryokan, which we happily obliged, telling her we would certainly recommend Kitakata and her ryokan to any friends we knew of traveling in the area. Everyone had been so kind to us in Kitakata: the group of drunk men who had helped us find our ryokan, the woman running the ryokan, her English teacher… seriously, if you are ever in Japan, go to Kitakata. It is a charming little town, and the people are awesome. Rebecca can give you the contact information. Tell the small woman we made good on our promise and sent you!

We caught the train back to Koriyama, where we bid a sad farewell to Abigail, who had to return to Tomioka and her students. Rebecca, Sayre and myself were on our own now, headed to Kyoto on a bullet train! Now, I knew these things went fast, super fast, but I was not prepared. As we were waiting on the platform for our train to arrive, something tore through the station, a blur gone before I could really register what it was: a bullet train that wasn’t stopping in Koriyama. Shaking, a little incredulous, I asked Rebecca, “We’re going on one of THOSE? Seriously?” That can NOT be safe. I was scared, I’ll admit. Really scared, and there was no time to calm down, because trains leave on schedule in Japan and our bullet train had arrived, with its aerodynamic nose pointed like an airplane and its sleek sides trying to look innocent. Inside, things looked normal, and as we started to move and gain speed, things felt normal, even as the scenery outside started to blur. If I hadn’t seen the bullet train go full speed through the station minutes before our own departure, I wouldn’t have appreciated how fast we were actually going, because just like on an airplane, thankfully, you can’t feel the speed. In no time, just as Rebecca and I were finishing the last of a bottle of sake, we arrived in Tokyo and transferred to the bullet train that would spirit us away to beautiful Kyoto.

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