Harnessing the Wind

Harnessing the Wind

“It’s working! I’M DOING IT! Wait, what’s happening now? Oh no! The kite is dropping! What do I do? He didn’t tell me what to do when this happens! AHHHH!” [face full of sea water]

This is what learning how to kite surf sounded like for me. Cycles of momentary success, followed by unexpected changes and often ending in spectacular crashes! It was difficult, and at times painful, but this was one of the things I was looking forward to about our time in Zanzibar. Learning how to kite surf was right near the top of the things-we-must-do-before-we-leave list. I didn’t know much about it, but surfing the ocean harnessed to a kite and being able to launch yourself into the air sounded incredible.

A bit of Kite History:

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A different kind of “horseless carriage”.

Because I’m a history nerd, I had to look this up. As it turns out, using a kite to harness the power of the wind for transportation is not as novel an idea as I thought. In the early 1800s a British school teacher named George Pocock had started experimenting with kites. He first used students in experiments, then family members (at one point using a 30ft kite to lift his daughter over 250ft in the air!) and eventually applied his ideas to transportation. His invention of the “Charvolant” buggy was a carriage propelled by kite, which was not only the fastest carriage at the time, but conveniently avoided the hated “horse tax”! Unfortunately, his idea did not catch on and it took another 80 years for kite transportation resurface.

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A war kite! Be afraid!!!

It came in the early 1900s, when famed Wild West showman Samuel Cody began experimenting with kites that were large enough to carry people. Debuted in Britain, these kites attracted the attention of the British military, which purchased four “war-kites” from Cody. They later hired him as the Chief Instructor of Kiting at the Army Balloon Factory, which ultimately evolved into the No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Air Force! Although his “war kites” were ultimately eclipsed by motor powered airplanes, Cody did become the first man to fly an aeroplane in Britain in 1908, just a few years after the Wright Brothers.

It took until the late 1990s for kites surfing to become a popular sport, after the work of a number of creative individuals led to the combined use of a large kite with inflatable ribs, a harness on a trapeze belt and a board with foot straps. And so kite surfing was born. It is now a sport with roughly 1.5 million participants and a number of crazy records such as achieving a top speed of 64 mph and jumping almost 94 feet off the ground! (Don’t worry Mum, I wont be doing either of those in the foreseeable future!)

Learning how to Kite Surf:

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Inflating the surfing kite.

The process for learning how to kite surf is thankfully much easier than I expected. Working with a Zanzibari instructor named Yahaya, I started with a small “baby kite” where I learned the basic kite control skills that would eventually have me gliding across the water.

After this Yahiya took me out into the ocean, where I practiced using the kite to drag myself through the water, practicing for the times when I inevitably crashed, lost my board and had to fetch it or just bring myself back to shore. This stage produced some of the most epic crashes as I accidentally caught too much power in the kite, launching myself out of the water only to belly flop back down into it!

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Not me, but totally what I did many times.

The second day introduced the board, which you use one hand to stick your feet into while the other holds the kite steady. My first attempts involved a good number more crashes, this time involving more speed and the board flying off my feet!

But it is all worth the feeling of gliding across the surface of the ocean pulled by a 12-meter kite that you control! Although these moments do not come frequently in the early stages of the learning process, when they do, it brings back into brilliant focus the freedom, joy and exhilaration that are the reason why I was attracted to kite surf in the first place.

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When I finally got up on the board!

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My instructor Yahaya and I. We got along so well that he was calling me his “brother from another mother.”

Being a Student:

The process of learning how to kite surf also let me to experience what its like being a student again. As a teacher about to enter a new school year, it was a good reminder about both helping my students develop the qualities needed to learn, while also being conscious to let them practice with the “baby kite” before asking them to jump into the water. That way, when the wind blows, they are ready to catch it and glide away. And, hopefully after a few more lessons, I will be doing the same!

Monkeys, Mangroves and Minnows

Monkeys, Mangroves and Minnows

It seems fitting that my first post about life in Zanzibar be about the natural beauty that we have experienced in our first two weeks on the island. As a coral island, Zanzibar is renown for its beaches, but there is more to do here than just lie in the sun and catch up on our reading!

Monkeys!

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One of the “Blue Monkeys” we saw.

We began our exploration of Zanzibar with a trip to the Jozani Forest Reserve, one of the many protected ecological sites on the island. Our guide started by leading us on an improvised trail running through people’s yards and fields and then past a roadside stand selling roasted corn. Our first monkey sighting was a small “Blue Monkey” (our guide also said the scientific and Swahili name of everything we saw but I promptly forgot them) who was sitting in a tree next to the “path”.

We then continued on until we stepped into someone’s backyard and saw the main object of our quest, the Red Colobus Monkey, sitting in a tree on what looked like a specially designed monkey perch eating leaves. We felt an instant bond as Red Colobus Monkeys are also vegetarians! They mainly eat the soft and juicy new leaves of a different plants and have even been seen to eat charcoal to aid in the digestion of more toxic leaves! Talk about smart! Each monkey is about 1.5 feet tall (not counting the tail), has two bright red patches on their back, a light colored nose and bright white tufts of hair poking out wildly above their eyes.

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I was way more scared of the monkey than he was of me!

We continued walking through a field and we are suddenly in a monkey-crossing zone with a few of the furry creatures walking right by us as they foraged their way to a living fence where the rest of their troop was hanging out (quite literally in the case of a few!). It seems that these monkeys live in small groups of 20-30 with one dominant alpha and about two female monkeys to every male. There are two interesting facts about these groups. The first is that their membership is fluid. This is particularly true with females, who will hop from group to group, a practice that is probably particularly trying for the ego of the alpha! The second interesting dynamic is with young males. In part due to the strong hierarchy, young males are not always accepted in the group where they are born and regularly leave to take their chances joining another group. However, this does not always go smoothly and researchers have found that some young males will bide their time with another group of a different species of monkeys, spying for the opportune moment to try and enter the new group again. One monkey was even found to spy on his desired group for over two years! I hope he got in after that!

Mangroves!

jozani-forest-tour-zanzibar-mangrove-boarwalkAfter spending some time with our primate friends, our guide took us on a forest tour that ended in one of Zanzibar’s mangrove forests. We followed an elevated walkway through an area that is partially submerged in salty sea water during high tide and fed from underground freshwater during low tides.

In order to survive in this unique environment, mangrove trees have adapted in fascinating ways, especially in dealing with the high salt content of the ocean water they are regularly bathed in. Because they are partially submerged in salt water for part of each day, different species have found ways of living in this low-oxygen environment. For example, red mangroves grow a series of stilt-like roots which prop up the main tree higher and allow it to absorb oxygen through its bark, while black mangroves grow roots that stick straight up out of the ground (some over a meter in height!) and can act like straws for breathing!

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The sacrificial leaf

Another adaptation is the use of a sacrificial leaf, where the tree directs excess salt into older leaves on the tree, which turn yellow and fall off, allowing the rest of the tree to continue growing! Finally, there are even some mangroves which can “sweat salt”, pushing it out from their leaves! Crazy!

As if that is not enough, mangrove seeds even have special adaptations. For one, the seeds start their germination process before they even fall off the tree and this ready-to-go seed will then drop from the tree and float until it finds a suitable environment. When it does, the seed will change its own density to float vertically and more easily root. If this doesn’t work out, the seed can change its density again and float away! Wow!

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Don’t even think about lying on this beach!

Minnows!

Our next ecological adventure took us to the North Eastern coast of Zanzibar, where we went snorkeling on Mnemba Island. Actually, I don’t mean on the island itself, since the entire island is privately owned and it is considered trespassing to set foot upon its powder white beaches. Unless of course you are able to pay the $1,200-1,600 a night to rent one of the dozen private villas on the island. If you can however, not only are you guaranteed a very exclusive get away but also a chance to rub elbows with Bill Gates, as this is reputedly one of his favorite get aways! :)

We contented ourselves with the much cheaper route of renting a small boat and swimming around the coral reefs that ring the island. The fish came in all shapes, sizes and colors, darting in and out of the coral formations or dodging swimmers who dove down below the surface for a closer look.

The coral was unfortunately less spectacular due to the significant bleaching that has occurred over the past few years. Bleaching is when the colorful algae living in a symbiotic relationship with the coral it covers are killed off, largely due to increased water temperatures. This can happen dramatically, like the time in 1997-1998 where a global bleaching event caused by El Nino killed 80% of Tanzania’s coral (!), or this can occur over a longer period of time as the temperature of the ocean’s water incrementally rises. Dying coral reefs can no longer support a diverse ecosystem, which in turn puts stress on the millions of people who rely on fish from the reefs as a principle source of food and income. After teaching a unit on climate change this past year, seeing the whitened coral certainly gave me an up-close perspective on one of the many serious challenges that I had spoken with my students about.

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Unfortunately not our picture, but this is almost exactly what we saw!

Thankfully the trip ended on a high note: a dolphin chase! Once one boat spotted a small pod of dolphins swimming a short distance away, then news rippled across the other boats and the race was on! Guides hurriedly gathered their swimmers, revved their engines and launched after the dolphins. As a boat approached the prize they would pull up next to these elegant creatures and every tourist threw themselves into the water in an attempt to get a close-up view. But within seconds, the dolphins were out of sight and the next boat would repeat the procedure in a crazy game of leap frog. Thankfully we had our turn and I got about 10 feet from a pair of dolphins as they surfaced for air and dove back down under the water, effortlessly swimming out of my sight. It was only a few seconds, but it made the whole trip worth it.

 

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.

Alexandria

Now Egypt’s second largest city, it is a hard to believe that Alexandria was once only a tiny fishing village. Then came Alexander the Great. Fresh from his recent conquest of Jerusalem and Gaza, he swept into Egypt, greeted as a liberator. Before setting off for further victories to the East (you have to conquer more than just a couple countries to be known as “the Great”) Alexander founded Alexandria, envisioning it as the link between Greece and the fertile Nile valley. One of the perks to being so Great it seems is the ability to decree “build!” and then leave while others turn your words into reality.

And a great city it became. In less than a century it had transformed into one of the largest cities in the world, for centuries second only to Rome. It was an international trade hub for its easy access to the Red Sea as well as a port for the very lucrative trade of Egyptian cotton. As the centuries passed however, Alexandria’s prominence waned, as battles and natural disasters reduced the city to a fraction of its previous size. It was only in the mid 1800s, when Muhammad Ali rebuilt the city, that it regained a remnant of its former glory.

Now it is just a short two-and-a-half hour train ride from Cairo, which would have been quite comfortable if the air conditioning had not failed. Although I arrived uncomfortably overheated from the trip, the cool Mediterranean breeze was refreshing and the seventy degree weather made me quickly start to wonder why I chose to live in Cairo and not here.

After celebrating a wonderful triple birthday the previous night with some of the other Egypt Fulbrighters, a few of us set off to explore the city. We began with the recently rebuilt Library of Alexandria.

Alexander’s successors in Egypt established the ancient library shortly after his departure and it became the first known library to collect books from beyond its country’s borders. It pursued its mission of “collecting all the world’s knowledge” by well-funded visits to famous book fairs as well as a “knowledge tax” where they copied the books off of every ship that came to port in Alexandria, quickly amassing over 700,000 manuscripts!

Unfortunately, this temple of knowledge was destroyed in one of the later battles over the city, with one possible incident occurring when Julius Ceasar set fire to his own ships in a desperate battle and the fire spread, ravaging other parts of the city. The ruins of the library are now underwater, but not forgotten, as the new library clearly seeks to revive Alexandria’s reputation as a center for learning and knowledge.

Clearly channeling the spirit of its predecessor, the new $355 million dollar construction is a sight to behold. The library itself is contained in a massive tilted disk, whose outer stone walls are covered in the writings of over 100 languages. Its interior was just as impressive, with multiple floors holding shelves upon shelves of books in individually lit cases, giving off the distinct impression that the books themselves are giving off the light.

The library’s also houses a museum, which has a number of fascinating permanent collections. The collection of rare manuscripts was incredible. Not only did they have a number of religious texts that were over a thousand years old, but also great works including Euclid and a number of Islamic scholars who revolutionized the study of optics and medicine. They even had the only surviving manuscript from the ancient library, a document pieced together from twenty separate fragments whose Greek writing was almost illegible. Sadly, we were informed that this was only a copy, with the real manuscript in Vienna, bringing to mind the vast number of Egyptian treasures that reside outside the countries borders.

The museum also held a collection on Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s third president. Although it was interesting to see the gifts presented to Sadat (including, oddly enough, a key to the city of Pittsburg…) as well as his old pipes and pajamas, the highlight of the collection was the last uniform he ever wore. It was still stained with his blood and you could see where the bullets tore the fabric in his 1981 assassination!

We left the library to explore the city’s famous catacombs, once again diving back into ancient history. Discovered when a donkey just fell through the ground in 1900, the tombs were one of the last major works dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt. They extend twenty meters into the ground and after over 300 years of construction, contained a number of passages and alcoves, and even a banqueting hall! Although the art was an interesting combination of Greek and Egyptian styles, walking across the old wooden planks in the basement makes one feel much more like Indiana Jones than an ancient Greek nobleman.

Although we did not have time to wander the rest of the city, we did get to see almost all of the corniche along the ocean, but only because our taxi driver misinterpreted our directions and took us to the wrong part of the city :P

I boarded a train the next day, taking the short but scenic ride back to Cairo. Although I was not looking forward to returning to the heat of the capital, at least the air conditioning on the train worked this time :)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Actually, I am a bit embarrassed to tell this story. It has, however, been at the center of my life for the past few weeks (and in fact prevented me from doing other interesting things I might have written about instead), so I thought that I would share the somewhat unfortunate, but hopefully entertaining, saga of my wounded foot.

It started shortly after we returned from Kenya. I quickly rejoined the capoeira group I so abruptly left two months previously and although seriously out of shape, I was excited to return to the kicks, spins and cartwheels that make capoeira such an incredible martial art. In the end, it was the cartwheels that did me in.

I had just returned from my second session and I was excited to show Caity some of the different moves that we were doing in class. After demonstrating different kicks and dodges, I got to the last move, a type of cartwheel (called an “Aú”) where you pause halfway up in a handstand before finishing. It looks pretty cool if you do it right. Unfortunately, I did not do it right.

After pausing in a wobbly handstand, I started to come down, but instead of gracefully bringing my feet to the floor, they crashed into the dresser, landing me hard on my butt. Caity rushed over and made sure I didn’t try to get up, examining the scrape on my left shin and what looked to be a nasty cut on my toe. I would like to say that I was not just showing off, but if that was the case, I certainly received what my dad calls “insta-karma”. :P

What it should have looked like...

It was about 11:30 pm and we were hesitant to go to the hospital (never having been before in Egypt and unsure of the care I would receive) and so we did what any prudent person would do in this situation: we called Mom. Luckily, in addition to being calm and compassionate, she is also a nurse. We described the situation and she told us to clean up the wound and then check it again in the morning.

When we woke up, it looked better, but still not very good. In consultation with my mom, we decided to try and take care of it ourselves. My mom became our on call nurse, who we provided with frequent updates (to the point where we started signing emails “Bolton Nursing Station: Cairo”) and Caity was my wonderful in-home nurse, a role she was unfortunately quite used to after my bout with Lyme disease two summers ago.

I quickly realized that having an injured foot significantly changes your daily activities, cutting everything out of your schedule that requires walking more than fifty feet. My day centered on the bed, where I slept, ate and exercised. My expeditions out to help Caity consisted of hobbling to the kitchen and awkwardly propping my foot up on a chair to do dishes or cut veggies, while she selflessly handled everything else. There are many reasons that I am happy to be married, but having a sweet, helpful (not to mention cute <3) nurse on hand 24 hours a day has definitely been added to the list.

After a week I started feeling better and after two weeks I was walking without pain. With my improved state, we made the (in hindsight) unfortunate choice to take a three-day trip out to the Western Desert. I kept my foot covered in a sock and shoe to prevent it from getting dirty, but it started hurting again after a day or two. I did the “manly” (i.e. stupid) thing of trying to shrug off the pain, not mentioning it to Caity until our last day out. When we returned from the desert, it turned out that the pain I had felt was my wound getting infected. In consultation with our Colorado colleague, we decided this was out of our hands not and finally went to the doctor.

Don't forget the socks...

After waiting a few minutes, we were shown in to his office where he had me take off my sock. He looked at my foot for no more than two seconds, asking if I had any allergies (I said no) and then prescribed antibiotics and a foot powder, insisting that I also wear white cotton socks. Being used to doctors in the States who sit down, ask you a series of questions and then fully explain the affliction, I found his style very brusque, especially since he didn’t even tell me the problem until I asked when leaving his office at the end of the visit!

I took my prescription to the pharmacy downstairs, where they gave me everything for (in comparison to the US) absurdly low prices. Pharmacies here provide just about any drug you want over the counter and I got the feeling that my prescription sheet was more of a list to them than an authorization from a medical professional. To top it off, they even deliver.

I followed the doctor’s orders, taking the pills and liberally applying the powder to my foot. Unfortunately, after a few days we found out that I am actually allergic to something—the powder that we have been dousing my foot with! My next visit to the doctor found my foot looking worse than before (meriting a ten second evaluation this time) before I was sent home again with a saline wash.

Luckily, it seems that this saga is only a trilogy and my foot is finally healing. I am ready to walk around outside, do exercise somewhere other than the bed and maybe even start going to capoeira again. I have thankfully kept my toe and certainly learned my lesson. I will be much more careful when practicing at home and that is the last time I pick a fight with a dresser!

A Trip to the Moon

The "traditional" desert from my time in Morocco

Before I studied abroad in the Middle East, I could only picture one type of desert – an endless sea of dunes extending out into the horizon. Traveling around the region however, it became clear that this is only one of the many types of deserts, some of which even have specific names in Arabic. Our most recent expedition to Egypt’s famed Western Desert has shown me yet another beautiful variation of this arid landscape.

After a four-hour trip from Cairo, we met our guide, Wagdy, with his 4×4 in Bahariya, the main town in the area (in fact the only town in the area), and after a quick lunch, we set out for the desert.

After a short while, Wagdy engaged the four-wheel drive, pulled off the road and quickly had us bouncing up and down in our seats as we raced across the alternating patches of rock and sand. We first passed through what is known as the Black Desert, which is blanketed with small black rocks and whose flatness stretches out in all directions, with only a few hills to break up the monotony.

When we crossed over into the white desert however, things started to become more interesting. Soon the landscape was broken up by hills and small rock formations rising up out of the sand. These quickly turned into cliffs made from an incredibly white almost chalk-like stone. Wagdy said that we were making our way toward the ‘Agabat or miracle mountains. Not quite sure what we were looking for, our question was answered when we crested a dune and saw a field of huge stone mountains, all seemingly growing up individually out of the sand. I cannot imagine how these were formed but it certainly took an incredibly long time.

As if these were not scenic enough, Wagdy drove us out to the “New White Desert” (labeled such because it only really became accessible with the introduction of the 4×4). In a few short minutes, we went from Egypt to the moon. We were driving through a forest of oddly shaped rock pillars shooting up out of the ground. Some had large bulbous tops balancing on thin bases, which our guide referred to as mushrooms, and there was even one that looked like a chicken! We set up our first camp amongst the incredible formations and the twilight gave the landscape a pronounced otherworldly feel.

The morning found us romping across the dunes of the Western Desert, Wagdy’s favorite location, and we could see why. The Western Desert seems to be the brilliant combination of all the places we passed through before, with rock-strewn ground giving way to large dunes that butted up against beautiful cliffs studded with veins of quartz. We even found some small shells and other fossils, prompting you to think about the crazy notion that this place, currently so lacking in moisture, was once the sandy floor of a vast sea.

Although it seems that it would be easy to get lost in the vast expanse, our guide confidently told us that he could wander out in the desert for days without a map or GPS. And he has apparently done so; often walking at the head of multiday camel trips out into the desert. If you have ever ridden a camel for more than an hour however, you will know why we chose the decidedly comfier 4×4!

We emerged from the Western Desert in the early afternoon and made our way back to Bahariya for lunch. Spending the last 24 hours in a desert gives you a tiny taste of what many ancient travelers must have felt when they caught sight of the seemingly miraculous oasis after spending days, if not weeks, crossing a very hostile landscape. We passed fields of date palms, pomegranate trees, watermelons and olive trees, all watered by a number of natural springs in the area and in great contrast to the rocky hills just a few miles away.

Leaving Bahariya once more, we made our way out to a series of dunes on the outskirts of the city. Sitting in our camp under the fast-appearing stars, we were struck by the tranquility of our current surroundings in comparison to our lives in Cairo. Silence had replaced the ever-present motorized cacophony outside our apartment window, the air smelled refreshingly clean and the clear nigh sky was a wonderful replacement for the pollution of the city. Coming from a Cairo, where everything is constantly in motion, driving toward some unknown future, it was comforting to stare at the cliffs and dunes, which possessed a clear sense of timelessness and permanence.

The view from our camp...not bad eh?

That deep calm is a feeling you don’t realize you miss until you experience it again and it certainly made it harder to come back to Cairo the next day. We made it back with our pockets and pant legs full of sand, tired but satisfied. We then took advantage of the one thing our beautiful desert excursion did not provide: a nice warm shower.