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!

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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.”

-Baha’u’llah

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 :)

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!

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.

The Few, the Proud, the Tourists

We had a great trip planned. We would take an overnight train down to Aswan in Southern Egypt, spend a day touring the sites before getting on a cruise down the Nile and lazing about in the sun for a few days until we reached Luxor, where we would explore the ancient Egyptian ruins before heading back by train. We had even partially paid in advance.

There was only one problem. We were set to leave on February 10th. Instead of taking a train down to explore the ruins, the protests put us on a plane out of the country on February 3rd, bound for Kenya and unsure when we would return. The mummies would have to wait.

When we finally received the green light to come back to Egypt, it was the end of March. Knowing that Southern Egypt gets brutally hot in the summer (ranging between 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 130!), we decided to dust off our February travel plans and head down to Aswan before the heat made the trip much more uncomfortable.

Although we had lost half of our initial payment, we were still able to use the same itinerary and just two days after returning to Cairo, we were rattling south in an overnight train. Our guide met us at the station and took us to our hotel and then out to lunch before we set out to tour the area.

It was at the restaurant that we realized that something was certainly not right. This was Egypt’s high tourist season and yet we were the only people sitting in a silent restaurant that should have been bustling with hundreds of tourists. Sadly, this was the unfortunate trend wherever we went over the next five days. Spots that should have been crawling with hundreds, if not thousands, of camera-weilding, sunscreen-covered tourists, were occupied by a tenth that number of visitors. At some spots, we practically had the place to ourselves!

As our guide explained, although the revolution led to positive political changes, its economic consequences were being sorely felt by the tourist industry. Of the over 500 cruise ships that should have been chugging up and down the Nile at this time, only about fifteen were currently active. The rest were parked on the shore in stacks six deep and running for blocks.

Although it was hard to see the tourist economy in this state, the lack of people certainly did not diminish the beauty or impressive nature of the sites we visited.

Looking out over Lake Nasser

The first destination was the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1970 under Nasser, the High Damn was a monumental project that used eighteen times the amount of material of the great pyramid of Giza and created the world’s largest artificial lake, which runs all the way back to Sudan! The damn finally regulated the Nile flooding and significantly increased the available agricultural land as well as providing an incredible amount of hydropower.

Not all its effects were positive however. The creation of lake Nasser forced over 120,000 Nubians to resettle from their traditional land and also stopped the Nile’s annual process of renewal, when floods deposited silt on the riverbanks, readying the ground for next year’s planting (increasing the need for chemical fertilizers). The creation of Lake Nasser also endangered a number of archeological sites, some of which had to be moved to higher ground stone by stone by UNESCO in what must have been an incredibly painstaking project. We visited two of those spots, the Philae Temple and Abu Simbel, and I almost could not believe that the entirety of both of the sites had previously been located someplace else!

The rest of the trip took us through some of the most incredible temples and monuments that ancient Egypt has to offer. Even though I had grown out of the Egyptology phase that many children seem to go through, I was blown away by the size of the statues and columns, the beauty and complexity of the art and the symbolism that seemed to permeate every site we visited.

Some of the highlights:

-The massive statues of Ramses II (who not only built an incredible amount but claimed things built by others so you see his name everywhere!) in Abu Simbel, which tower sixty feet above you and are carved with great detail.

-The amazing color inscriptions in the Valley of the Kings, which provide fanciful imaginings of the Pharaoh’s daily activities in the afterlife and are still beautifully colored, 4000 years after their construction!

-The epic stories that come with the monuments, such as the life of Queen Hatshepsut (our guide said to remember her name by saying “hot chicken soup”) who ruled as Queen for twenty-two years in an era dominated by men. Based on the massive amount of temples and monuments she was able to finance, she did quite well too! She also had a Romeo-style lover, so enamored with her that he built an entire temple in her honor, and a son so jealous of her power that he demolished or defaced significant portions of what she left behind. Her life was a drama worthy of Shakespeare!

-A relaxing cruise down the Nile on a boat filled with old German tourists. Since most Egyptian’s first guess is that I am German anyway, we fit right into the group (not counting the forty-year age difference!). The trip down the Nile is incredibly scenic, with farms and ruins all along the way and it certainly didn’t hurt that there was an incredible buffet for every meal.

-Learning more about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. Although much of what we associate with the religion is the famous mummification process, through which the ruler was prepared for life in the next world, the fundamental beliefs are quite similar to many world religions today. Ancient Egyptians placed significant emphasis on the afterlife, especially in relation to how one’s actions in this world were weighed in the hereafter, determining the soul’s final destination. If one’s heart was heavy with bad deeds that it weighed more than a feather, you should not be expecting royal treatment! Anticipating the advent of monotheism, Egyptians also tended to raise one god above the others, often giving that place to Ra, who was associated with the sun. Even the imagery of Isis and her suckling son Horus, two of the most preeminent gods, is very reminiscent of Mary and Jesus. Certainly the religion’s longevity and great influence on Egyptian culture, as well as on the surrounding peoples, point to its divine origin.

With a history longer than most countries, Egypt has seen many civilizations and rulers rise and fall. Much has changed since the time of Queen Hatshepsut, with more change on the horizon. Back in Cairo, Mubarak, who many are calling Egypt’s modern pharaoh as his thirty-year reign lasted longer than many of his ancient predecessors, is being called to trial.