A Trip to the Beach

Every summer, many Egyptians take leave of the hot and dusty interior cities and head to the beach. They swarm cities like Alexandria and populate the numerous resorts that have grown up along the Red Sea. To celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary (hooray!!) we decided to follow the crowd and spend a few days basking in the sun and swimming in turquoise waters.

We chose to go to Moon Beach, a spot more popular among foreigners. It was liberating to change into our swimsuits, finally being able to wear clothing that provides some reprieve from the heat, as compared with the pants and longer sleeves that are the cultural norm in Egypt. Although we felt self-conscious at first, seeing other beach goers calming walking around in bikinis helped to assuage our worries.

The beach was gorgeous. Thatched umbrellas spotted the beach and looked out over the brilliant blue waters, where you could just make out the mountains on the other side of the Red Sea. The other sunbathers must have come from all over, as we heard five or six different languages being spoken, and sometimes many among the same family! There were also a number of Egyptian families as well, some of whom happily soaked up the rays in bikinis while others swam while still wearing a headscarf and longs leaves.

We spent most of our time sitting in the sun and reading (Caity with her Kindle and me with an old fashioned non-ebook), as unfortunately much of the coral that normally draws snorkeling enthusiasts has died out in the last few decades. We were told that this is due to ships illegally dumping their bilge (sewage etc accumulated from their voyage) before the reach the Suez Canal in an attempt to save same money, as the ships are charged by weight. When roughly 18,000 ships pass through the canal each year, this is not an insignificant issue. I tried not to think about it as we splashed and swam about in the cool waters.

Caity Windsurfing

Although there was no snorkeling, there was definitely windsurfing. Moon beach is known for its constant wind and smooth waters, making it windsurfing central. There were always five or six people out on the water, mostly beginners slowly and ponderously cruising along but other more advanced surfers zipped across the water and even doing 360s, spinning the massive board and sail in a movement that looked like water acrobatics from the shore!

My 30 foot epic voyage!

Although this looked easy enough from the shore (not including the spins of course!) it turned out to be much more difficult in practice. Larger than a normal surfboard, a windsurfing board is big enough to allow to you crawl on top and stand up without sinking. That however, is the easy part. You have to then pull (maybe hoist is the proper sea term? :P) the huge sail up off the water while remaining balanced on the board. If you pull too hard, you fall over backward with the sail on top of you and too much to one side or the other and you loose balance and flop off the board. After about five minutes of graceless flopping, I finally managed to catch the wind and go a good thirty feet, giving me a newfound appreciation for the sport and the incredible amount of skill needed to turn the thing, much less spin it!

We spent the last night out under the stars, which, unlike Cairo, were brilliantly visible. It was even clear enough that we could easily make out the Milky Way spilled across the dark night sky. Living in a city of twenty million, it is easy to forget how tiny we are compared to the vastness of the universe and the wondrous mysteries of creation. We are rarely afforded true darkness or silence in Cairo and being alone with only the sounds of the wind and waves was a treat.

More importantly however, the trip was a wonderful way to mark our two years of marriage. We have had an incredible second year together, traveling across the Middle East, experiencing a revolution, living two months as evacuees in Kenya and Uganda and now spending the last months in Cairo. I certainly feel blessed, and I think we are both looking forward to diving into year three!

Sketchbooks and Rubber Duckies

I was not flying in for a traditional academic conference. I did not bring a paper to present or intend to leave a few days later with a new line on my resume. Instead, my suitcase was filled with a sketchpad, drawing pencils, a glue stick, an object from my childhood and ten close-up photos of natural objects. It was going to be an interesting week indeed.

My trip was a bit unconventional before I even got to the airport. Two days before my flight took off I had no idea where I was staying. A friend in Barcelona was helping me with accommodations but in addition to the difficulty of asking friends to host a total stranger for a week, things in Spain happen on their own schedule, one not so concerned with my imminent arrival. Luckily, I ended up staying with Montse, a sweet Catalunya native who worked as an educator helping people recover from drug addiction.

Once I arrived in Spain and met Montse the morning before my first session, I found out that we had opposite schedules. My workshop started in the morning and ended at 1:30pm, right at the time she left for work, only to get home after ten. The first morning we went together and made a copy of the house keys, but when I returned from the workshop ready to take a much-needed siesta, one of the keys didn’t work! As I had no cell phone and no idea where Montse worked, I decided to wander the city until she got back. Luckily, in Barcelona, that is a great plan B.

And this is a normal building...

The city is built along the coast and a cool breeze off the ocean makes the temperature just perfect for a stroll or spending the afternoon eating tapas at one of the many street-side cafes. Barcelona is also filled with public art and was the home of the famous artist Antoni Gaudi, whose incredible mosaics and flowing nature-inspired style can be seen on buildings and parks throughout the city. But even those buildings not designed by an artist seem to be works of art in themselves, coming from a time when buildings were dignified structure made to last. Every building has its own personality, with different windows, ancient doors and stylized metal railings on the small balconies. It was easy to see why this was chosen as the location for a workshop on creativity!

Our hosts/teachers for the workshop were Shelley Berc, an accomplished playwright and author and Alejandro Fogel, a talented visual artist. Both have spent a lifetime working in the arts and reflecting about creativity and its inspiration. Throughout the five days, they guided us through a host of different writing and drawing activities meant to free us from our minds and help us let go from any mental obstacles that would keep us from tapping into the creative side of our nature.

We recounted childhood stories, drew maps of our heart and mind, interviewed another participant and presented ourselves to the group as them, did visualizations and lots of automatic writing and drawing, letting our hand outpace our mind. One of my favorite activities was trying to make a story using ten random objects chosen by another of the participants. I ended up being given a rubber ducky and a bunch of small necklace pendants and fashioned an epic tale of friendship, loss and triumph!

In a sense, it was to help us be more like children, getting in touch with the fun, energetic side of ourselves, one that is not stifled by shame, self-consciousness or an overly-critical mind. When a child sees a performer on stage doing an amazing dance or song, they immediately want to join, and might even have to be stopped from climbing up on stage themselves! Most adults on the other hand, see the performance and say to themselves, “I could never do that. I would make such a fool out of myself if I even tried.”

One of my realizations throughout the workshop concerned the importance of creativity in our education. Before coming to Barcelona, I thought of creativity as something mainly useful for artists, whether visual or performing. It became clear however, that creativity is less a skill and more a way of thought, of opening ourselves to inspiration and learning not to listen to the more critical side of our nature.

This is important because creativity is a significant part of who we are as people and how we understand the world. In the US, we are told that the primary part of our identity is that of a consumer; that we take in what others create. If our purpose is to consume however, we do not create, losing that wonderful force that makes life so interesting and ultimately drives our society forward. This reflection made me think differently about the fact that when a school has budget problems, it is the art department that gets cut first. This is not just a loss to those students who are artistically inclined but to all students, who are being deprived of the chance to develop a new way of thinking about the world. Schools should not kill creativity but foster it.

It would be nice to say that having finished the workshop, I am now creative. Unfortunately it does not seem to work that way. :) Shelley and Alejandro gave us a number of different seeds, but it is now up to us to plant and nurture them and see what grows.

Another Man’s Gold

We were definitely lost. We had been driving around the Cairo neighborhood for about twenty minutes, barely sliding past other cars on crooked streets not meant to hold two lanes of traffic. At least we knew that we were in the right place. There was trash everywhere. Not strewn about the streets haphazardly, but stuffed in massive sacks and piled ten feet high on trucks or stacked in warehouses. Every doorway seemed to lead to a room filled with trash; either newly arrived or in the process of being sorted and separated.

This was “Garbage City”, one of the communities of zaballeen, or garbage people, and we had come for a tour by a local. After many concerned phone calls and confused directions, we eventually met our guide Hanna. He had grown up here and started by telling us how everything began.

The community started with a couple of poor farming families who saw that they could make a living by collecting a portion of Cairo’s garbage and recycling it. They went out at night with donkey carts, hauling the garbage back to their homes for processing. Soon they invited other family members, slowly bought trucks and after thirty years the fledgling communities around Cairo had grown to host over 60,000 people who have set up their own power and water lines and live in multistory concrete buildings.

Recently featured in an award winning documentary, Garbage Dreams, this vibrant community is now one of several that lives off recycling the 14,000 tons of garbage produced by Cairo every day. Hanna estimates that every ton of garbage supports about seven jobs: two to pick it up, three to sort it and two more to process the materials before they are resold.

What makes these communities stand out is that they are able to recycle about 80% of the garbage that they collect, more than triple the rate of most Western companies! Plastics, paper, aluminum cans, pipes, bags, just about everything is sorted and either reprocessed into another usable material or resold to factories around Cairo.

In the past, organic waste was fed to the community’s large pig population, which would then be sold for a profit. As Muslims are religiously forbidden from breeding or eating pigs, the zaballeen, who are 90% Coptic Christians, have been given a largely uncontested spot as the city’s garbage collectors. This was a major part of their livelihood. All this changed in April 2009 however, when the Egyptian Parliament ordered the culling of over 300,000 pigs amidst fears of the H1N1 virus. This decision was a huge financial blow to the zaballeen and largely criticized in the international community, as there was general agreement that pigs do not transmit H1N1.

Despite this setback, the zeballeen continue their work. We were first shown to a center that trains the women of the neighborhood how to make paper and rugs from recycled materials. I was under the apparently naive impression that you could only use old paper to make new paper, but it soon became clear that is not the case, as jeans and even onions were added into the mix to give the new paper a unique texture and color. The result is beautiful handmade cards, bags, books and lampshades, some pressed with flowers and decorated as well.

For the cloth, rugs are made out of discarded clothing on huge looms and women are also trained to sew beautiful quilts from other fabric, work they can do at home, allowing them to make an income while still watching their children. Similar schools exist for boys as well, both providing a recycling based-income and tangible skills for those living in the neighborhood.

Hanna then took us to the mountain churches, which are literally carved out of the rock, the largest of which can hold over 10,000 people. Along the walls of the cliff are various pictures and writings chiseled into the rock face by one dedicated Polish sculptor who has worked there for the past twenty-five years!

Most interesting of all however, were the projects Hanna himself was working on. Although he had grown up sorting and cleaning trash that was brought in, he had the opportunity to work with an inspired American PhD student who dreamt of bringing solar power and biogas to Garbage City. Working together Hanna and Thomas started to build small systems out of the recycled material that could provide nearly free hot water and natural cooking gas to the receiving family.

Although since Thomas moved to Germany for a teaching job, Hanna has remained inspired. He took us up to his roof where he had installed a solar water heater and a biogas drum that used organic waste from his house and produces enough methane in a day to fuel a standard stove for two hours! He pointed out the other installations across the neighborhood and told us his dream to make Garbage City “a model for green energy in Egypt.”

The example set by Garbage City is even more incredible when we look closer at what happens in our own borders. New York City produces about four pounds of waste per person per day, more than any other city in the world. This comes out to over 16,000 tons per day, more than Cairo, which is twice its size! And yet the US itself only recycles about 11% of its waste, preferring to send most of it to landfills instead. Although it might not be easy to admit, we could learn a lot from Cairo’s zaballeen.