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.


Tabla Classes

 “You don’t want to look like a machine when you play, sticking your arms out at odd angles. Yes, you want it to sound right, but you want it to look good too! No, you have to bend your wrist like this! Imagine that you are holding an orange in this hand, now hit the drum!”

Although I am able to pick up some new skills quickly, such as sports or card games, this is definitely not the case with music. In fact, I think that I would put myself in the category of “musically challenged”, some of the indicators of which include being unable to hold any beat for more than ten seconds and having little or no inability to distinguish when a note is out of tune. This comes in sharp contrast to my wife Caity, who not only has a beautiful voice and a great musical ear, but also rocks the jembe and can somehow make clapping sound like music and not just someone following the beat.

For the last two months however, we have been taking classes to play the tabla, one of the most common musical instruments in Egypt, with its beats accompanying most singers and featuring prominently in many orchestras. Egyptians grow up listening to the tabla and many can sit down and play at least one quick rhythm. This is sort of like Americans with the guitar, except our ability to play often only extends to the air guitar! :P

It certainly has lots of character

When we decided to take lessons, we went out and bought a used drum off an expat leaving the country. It turned out to be a very used drum and although covered with a beautiful mother-of-pearl design, some of the coating has started to flake off. This is especially comical when a small piece of your drum shoots off across the room when playing a particularly fast rhythm.

I have never seriously taken music lessons before and I quickly found out that even the simplest hits were a lot harder than expected. The tabla has three main ways to strike the drum and all, predictably, are named after the sound they make: the dum reverberates deeply through the drum, the tak is a flat sounding strike right in the center of the drum and the iss is the sharp high sound that comes from hitting the rim of the drum’s face. At first it seemed like it would be easy, but I ended up spending the whole first class endlessly repeating one of the three hits, striving to get the sound and the form just right.

After mastering the first beats, you find out that there are in fact many, many other types of hits, and even multiple ways of making the same sound. This gets confusing quite quickly as few of the new hits get different names and so you end up with three different taks and four different dums. When I try and write down the different rhythms I am then forced to make up my own words for each new hit so that even Caity has to ask me to translate! This must come from the learning style that is not based on sheet music, but instead watching the teacher and then repeating, recording each new rhythm in your head instead of a songbook.

Our teacher, Bassem, was born in a small town but luckily received a music scholarship that allowed him to visit the main town in the region and take lessons in tabla and other instruments. This eventually culminated in a spot in a musical group in Cairo where he was even given the opportunity to teach the tabla abroad in France as part of a music exchange. He is now struggling to make it as a musician in Cairo, a task that is certainly challenging.

With each new rhythm he teaches us, we seem to be moving geographically around Egypt. For example, one is called the felaHi, or peasant’s rhythm, which takes you out of the city and into the fields that run up the Nile valley.  Another, the sa’idi, is from the Said region in southern Egypt and brings to mind the more serious turbaned men of that region with their long galabiyya robes. Each rhythm also has its own special introductory beat that announces to all those listening, “get ready, here comes the new rhythm!”

The later classes are thankfully getting easier, as Caity and I slowly learn one simple rhythm after the next. It also becomes clear that there is a significant and humbling gap between my “musically challenged” ability and Caity’s effortless musical grace. After each lesson, I studiously practice every day until the next week’s lesson only to find that Caity, who just warms up a little bit before each new lesson, is miraculously at my newly acquired level!

This has provided a good opportunity for reflection. It seems that the older we get, the fewer completely new skills we attempt to acquire. Having stuck with activities that I am already competent at for the last couple years, I have forgotten how hard it is to learn something from scratch. I am not accustomed to making endless mistakes and working very hard for seemingly little gain. This process of starting anew is a great test for the ego, which certainly does not enjoy the struggle and feeling “bad” or “incompetent” at something.

The best way to deal with this test seems to be laughter, which means I end up laughing a lot in class. Slowly however, the flat hits and off beats sound less like judgment and more like progress. Besides, my Dad always told me that, “a man who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”

Who knows, maybe with enough practice I may eventually be able to hold a beat a beat for more than ten seconds and look like I am holding an orange at the same time.

Baptism by Fire

It is 100 degrees outside. I started sweating before I even got out of the subway and drank half a liter of water before our entire group had arrived. We clustered in groups under the shade of stunted trees planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Anything to get out of Cairo’s baking June sun.

But we had a good reason to leave the sanctuary of our air-conditioned apartments. Today is Cairo’s first batizado. For those of you who do not know Portuguese (I certainly don’t), batizado means baptism, which in capoeira means that today is the day that we earn our first belts. Our capoeira teacher in Cairo invited professors from France, Oman and Sharm al-Sheikh to fly in for our initiation ceremony followed by two days of workshops.

I had been eagerly and nervously looking forward to today since I got back to Cairo but I had not thought about the weather when I saw the date was set for mid-June. But despite the heat, about thirty of us gathered in the courtyard of a French school waiting for the professors to arrive. Luckily it is only 80 or 90 in the shade, by Egyptian standards, completely normal.

The music really began when the professors arrived. Two large drums pounded out a deep rhythm of bap boom bap, bap boom bap which was followed by ten tambourines, a bell and ten others clapping along. At the heart of the music was the unique twang of the barimbau and the rise and fall of the professor’s voice as he led us through a number of call and response songs in Portuguese. I am sure that the nuns who still lived at the school were wondering what the heck was going on in their courtyard.

We then split up into two groups, each making up one half of our large circle, with those earning the green (first level) belts on one side and those earning the green-yellow belts (second level) on the other. While the music continued, we would then pair off, one beginner playing with one advanced student in the middle of the circle, finishing to let the next pair begin. The kicks, cartwheels and handstands, timed to the rhythm of the music, warmed us up for the peak of the batizado. It was time to get our belts.

I have never seriously practiced any other martial art but I appreciated our professor’s perspective on the belts. “Do not get caught up with them,” one told us, “you cannot throw your belt into the ring and expect it to fight for you. They are markers of your ability but they should not be your limits. It is much better to have someone see you play and think, ‘wow, they only have that belt,’ instead of getting a belt and going no higher because you think you are so good.” Be humble and play well they told us, you are much more important than your belt.

But it was time. Those earning green belts (myself included) went first. Each person would play with a professor who would enter the roda (circle) with the student’s new belt tied around their arm, leg, chest or head as if saying, “here it is. Come and get it!”

The interaction between two people in the roda is called “playing” and I think that is the best way to describe it. Each person is not only moving along with the music, but also dancing with their partner, weaving in and out of their kicks or mirroring their cartwheels. Above all, everyone has fun. You can tell the professors pretty easily because they often have the biggest smiles on their faces. :)

When it was my turn, I faced the professor (who had my belt tied around his forehead) in front of the main group of instruments. We started by both cartwheeling into the center and then began the familiar swaying steps of the jenga. We traded spins and kicks, with the professor pressing me but also allowing me room to show off a little of what I had learned. At the end however, he deftly swept my feet out from under me in mid-kick, landing me on the ground and ending our match. Each round ended this way, with the professor finding some way to humble the newly graduated student. It is a ceremony that seemed to say at once, “congratulations on your belt, but you still have much to learn.”

The students earning the next level belt were much more interesting to watch with both students and professors kicking faster, ducking quicker and performing much more impressive acrobatics. As a surprise, our teacher in Cairo also obtained his next belt, but he had to earn it by playing with each one of the foreign professors in an incredible show of skill that at times caused me to stop and stare, missing the beat of the music.

The day ended with a final open roda where everyone freely played, all sporting their new belts. At the end of the day, the main professor spoke to us and said, “I am delighted to be here and I thank you all for coming and for inviting us. The students are the most important thing in capoeira, without them, we teachers are nothing.”

And with that, four hours and at least three liters of water later, the batizado ended. I spent so much of the time clapping to the music and I was actually sore from it the next day. I didn’t even know it was possible to be sore from clapping!

But we had earned our first belts. We were tired, sore and drenched in sweat, but it was worth it. If we are lucky, maybe the next batizado in Cairo will have air conditioning. :P

My Taxi Story, or Half a Kidney

A few years ago an Egyptian author named Khalid al-Khamissi wrote a book entitled “Taxi”, a fascinating collection of conversations with Egyptian taxi drivers about their lives and perspectives on social problems in Egypt. The book was a huge success, not only because it was well written and tackles many important issues in Egyptian society, but perhaps also because almost everyone who lives here also has a taxi story. If I were to contribute a story to al-Khamissi’s compilation, it would certainly be my taxi ride last Sunday.

It was about 11:45 pm and I had just left a farewell dinner for a friend going home for the summer. Since the subway in Cairo closes at midnight (a very weird concept to those from New York City) I decided to catch a cab home instead. I asked the first taxi that stopped to take me back along the corniche, but he said we could not go that way because of a protest. He offered instead to take me by a different route. I agreed and got in the car.

The driver (Ashraf, as he later introduced himself) seemed a little worked up, so I asked him about the protests he mentioned earlier. In a clearly frustrated tone, he pointed to a large crack running down the center of his windshield and said, “You see this? This is from the protesters! There were people jumping up and down on my roof!” I had never heard of people literally attacking cars before, especially so late, but I agreed that it was definitely best for us to take another road to my apartment.

As we started along our new route, it became clear that the new crack in his windshield was not the only thing distressing him that night. “I have not eaten or drank anything in two days,” he told me in a pained voice. Confused, I asked him what the problem was and his story spilled out of him in a fast and frustrated torrent of words.

“You understand Arabic right? Ok, I need to go to the hospital for a cleaning. I have to go three times a week and it costs 360 Gineh [about $60] per cleaning. How can I pay for that? This car is not even mine! I am renting it and now there’s this damned crack in the windshield! I have to pay 1000 Gineh a week and I have three children to send to school on top of rent and food! Its impossible!”

The more he spoke, the more emotional he became, gesturing wildly and driving dangerously close to cars as we flew past them. I said a quick prayer in the hopes that an accident would not end his problems, and our lives, prematurely.

He continued. “Two days ago I went to the hospital because I needed a cleaning but I only had 120 Gineh. It was not enough so they threw me out! This was a State hospital and they would not treat me! You know, one of my kidneys does not work and the other is only working at 50 percent so I have to go into the hospital three times a week to have my blood cleaned. If I don’t have it cleaned then I cannot eat or drink because it will make problems with my blood sugar. So I have not eaten or drank anything for two days and wont until I get the money for a cleaning.” He ended with the exasperated remark, “All a want to do is drink some water and have a little food.”

He was beyond frustrated. He was speaking like a man trying to carry a burden too great for him to bear and instead of finding help, has only met rejection wherever he turned for assistance. He finished his story by slamming his hand against his steering wheel shouting, “Egypt is trash! Trash!”

I was shocked by his final words. Since coming back after the revolution, I have only heard words of hope, people happy with what had been accomplished and looking towards the future with a—at times cautious—optimism. The driver’s story drove home the point that the Egyptian Revolution did not bring an end to the problems that plagued the country under Mubarak, it only brought the possibility for improvement. Millions are still living in poverty or unemployed and public infrastructure is deteriorating. To put it another way, Mubarak leaving did not make it any easier for Ashraf to get his weekly dialysis treatment.

Throughout the conversation, I was wrestling with how much I should help Ashraf through what was clearly a very trying predicament. Obviously this was not a problem solved by just a generous tip. I decided I would give him all the money in my wallet, around 150 Gineh or five times the trip fare.

As we came closer to my apartment, Ashraf turned around in his seat and sincerely asked if I would help him. I realize now that if I were being truly generous, he would not have had to ask. I should have told him as soon as I decided to help and saved him stressful and embarrassing act of asking a complete stranger for financial assistance.

When we arrived at my apartment I handed over all the money I had with me. He counted it quickly and then turned back to me, desperately asking if I had more, as this would not cover the treatment he urgently needed. I asked him to wait and went up to my apartment and got all the money I had, another 300 Gineh, and came back down to give it to him. He thanked me profusely, but it was clear that this was only a temporary solution.

I helped Ashraf get this treatment, but I worry about what he will do for the next week and the one after. He should not have to rely on the generosity of complete strangers and it is not his fault that he is forced to ask. This is the result of decades of a government putting itself before the people, where those in charge spent more time pursuing personal wealth than improving the lives of those they were “elected” to serve.

Ashraf was not asking for extravagance or anything more than he needed. He was looking for a government and a society that respected him as a person and did not reject him based on the money in his pocket. He was looking for a just society.

Often words like justice can loose their meaning as they are adopted as vague political slogans or continually repeated by pundits on television. Justice is more than an abstract concept. It is a profound belief that should underlay the foundations of our actions, our society and our government. If that were the case, stories like Ashraf’s would not exist. We would be beyond them.

 “There can be no doubt whatever that if the day star of justice, which the clouds of tyranny have obscured, were to shed its light upon men, the face of the earth would be completely transformed.”



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 :)

More than just fun and games…

After reading about my trips and excursions throughout Egypt and across the Middle East, perhaps some of you are wondering if I actually have to do anything here, or if I have just been given a license to freely wonder around the Middle East for a year. So I thought that it was about time to let you know that there actually is a purpose to my extended presence in Egypt—being a Fulbright grantee is not completely just fun and games, there is a little work involved. :)

Fulbright has been around for quite sometime now. In fact, it was established in the mid-1940s by J. William Fulbright to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” Over the years it has developed into a massive program that sends US citizens all over the world and then invites a greater number of our foreign counterparts to come to the US, usually as part of a college or graduate education.

Although there are different types of Fulbrighters (for doctoral research, teaching English, etc) I am here as a Fulbright student and spend the year first studying Arabic and then implementing a nine-month individual research project.

The Arabic portion of my grant was intense, with classes 4-5 hours a day, five days a week but the reward was well worth it. Studying in Egypt gave me my first significant chance to learn a local Arabic dialect. It was a liberating experience after having spent years in the shackles of the complex grammar and precise voweling of standard Arabic (for a better perspective on this, ready Caity’s blog post here). Now I can actually speak with people on the street, in shops and in taxis, hearing their thoughts about politics, religion and their families.

After three months, I finished my Arabic studies (for the time being anyway, Arabic is a language you study forever…) and started work on my project. After months of brainstorming and discussion the previous year, I had decided to focus on the publications of al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and perhaps the most respected voice on Islamic learning in the Sunni world. However, as Islam has no central religious hierarchy (no Pope equivalent), when Muslims are looking for religious guidance they have many learned sheikhs at many different institutions to choose from—with even greater variety now due to increased internet access growing popularity of Islamic televangelists. I was interested to research what role al-Azhar played in the lives of Egyptians in Cairo, given the rise of these other actors and the institution’s close and at times controversial relationship with the state.

I spent the first month doing background research, reading the history of the institution and looking into a number of issues that have a strong resonance in Egyptian’s religious lives so that I could speak with them about topics that were important to them, and not just to me. I had just scheduled my first interview when the revolution began and I remember getting a phone call from Maha after the police had disappeared throughout Egypt saying that it might be a good idea to postpone the interview for the time being. She was right and I was evacuated four days later.

While in Nairobi (our chosen evacuation point), I found out that I was admitted into an MA program in Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School, starting in the fall. With a clear idea of my future plans and greatly influenced by an incredible education program I visited in Uganda, I came back to Egypt two months later with a new project idea in mind. Fulbright, perhaps realizing that the Revolution and our two months off had most of us returning with a new direction, accepted my proposed change.

Not a student...

More in-line with my future plans, I am now studying Islamic Education in Egypt, specifically looking at moral education. I was inspired by the incredible way that the PSA program in Uganda approached the education of our whole being, not just providing the participants with information to be digested and regurgitated on a test. The program seamlessly wove in questions and discussion about human nature, prejudice and self-reflection into lessons on math, science, agriculture and history.  This is in contrast to my experience in the US education system, which, with few exceptions, has a fragmented approach to education where none of the subjects relate to each other and students are seen as empty vessels to be filled up with information that often does not relate to their lives, aspirations or the world around them.

The belief in the US that state and religion should be kept separate has also led to the removal of any classes relating to morals/ethics/values, at times replacing them instead with civics, which is more interested in teaching the functions of the government and our place in the system than developing our ability to understand how our actions, beliefs and decisions can positively or negatively affect our lives and our communities.

With these ideas in mind I chose to study Islamic education, which in theory, has a more developed sense of educating the entire person, helping them to develop character as well as knowledge, even with specific words in Arabic for each type of teaching. But as everything sounds good in theory, I want to see whether or not these ideas are being implemented in Egyptian schools today and I will spend the next few months reading text books and talking with students and teachers to find out. In the end, I hope to learn something that I can bring back to the States, something that will inform my future study and teaching so that I can help my students develop as people and not just good date-memorizers and test-takers.

And that is ultimately the purpose of Fulbright, the cultural exchange.  If I had any doubts of its importance, Mahmoud cleared them up. He is the son of a very sweet plumber I met a few months ago and I have since been adopted into his family. As Mahmoud is currently unemployed (like an unfortunately large portion of Egyptian youth) he asked me if I could teach him English to help him get a good job here. During one of our classes, we were talking about differences between Egypt and the US and he said to me, “I think that it is very good that people from America come here and Egyptians go there, we learn a lot from each other.”

Thank you Mahmoud, Mr. Fulbright would be proud. :)

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!