These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
I've now been living in Cairo for exactly one week, and our group's current lodgings feel exceedingly luxurious after living on the road in Morocco. In the past, St. Olaf groups have stayed at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, located just off of Tahrir Square.
in light of recent events, however, we have been moved to the dorms of the American University in Cairo in Zamalek, an island neighborhood in the Nile. Island living has been treating us well, but one of my favorite days thus far was spent on the mainland, visiting one of the most iconic historical sites in the world. Yep, you guessed it; the Giza Pyramids.
We caught our first glimpse of the triangular outlines through the haze of Cairo pollution and the skeletons of abandoned and unfinished urban housing. Soon we were off the bus, trailing behind our guide and into the belly of the Great Pyramid. Amazingly, we entered without waiting in a long queue; yet another tangible result of the recent Arab Spring. Inside the pyramid we encountered a dark, cramped passage, slanting upwards into the center of the structure. After crawling along the stone cavities, and climbing up various ladders we found ourselves in the main burial chamber. Everything has been removed from the tomb and is now on display in museums throughout the world, but it was still mind-boggling to be within such a historic space. Although I would say that it seems like a pretty stuffy way to spend eternity.
We exited the tomb, posed for a few group shots with the immense structure, and moved on to see the second pyramid, the boat pits surrounding the graves, the museum housing a reconstruction of one of these vessels, and the ever-iconic Sphinx.
Reflecting on the whole experience, I was struck by two aspects of our tour in particular. First of all, the sheer size of the pyramids is overwhelming -- each stone matched or exceeded my own height. It was impossible to see the entirety of the Great Pyramid in one glance without stepping back into the urban sprawl of Cairo that has crept further out into the desert.
Secondly, despite the presence of the pyramid looming over the hordes of tourists, we found ourselves the main attraction several times throughout the day. Children would turn their back on the relics of their Egyptian ancestors to snap a picture of us squinting through the sunlight at our tour guide. A gaggle of schoolgirls gawked at our light hair and travel worn clothes and rushed towards us asking for our names, our nationalities. A group of young women in head scarves grabbed my arm and wrenched me into a picture. I began to feel like an animal in a zoo, and couldn't believe the fuss that was being made over us, and the apparent disinterest in the pyramids clearly meant to hold center stage.
While the incident was certainly hilarious and slightly confusing, it was not totally incomprehensible. I myself felt extremely overwhelmed at the significance of being at THE Pyramids. How many times have I seen these images in movies, read about them in books, learned about this civilization in history classes, held a dollar bill and gazed upon the cropped triangular shape? Their presence was enormous, both literally and figuratively, and it was difficult to access an appropriate reaction (remember my experience at Troy?). In fact, perhaps it was easier for these young Egyptians to focus on the strange and relatively insignificant foreigners than to process the timelessness and magnitude of the Giza Pyramids. Maybe next time I'll start snapping photos back at them.
Our group's excursion in Turkey is well on its way, and I think everyone can agree that the last few days have felt more like a utopian vacation than a week of college life. After three weeks of concentrated study at the Bogazici University in Istanbul, I for one was certainly ready to get on the road and explore the Asian side of the country (after all it makes up approximately 97% of the nation).
So far, excursion has been a whirlwind of tours, bus rides and hotel buffets. Yet, interspersed along the way are moments that make you pause. Think. Ruminate. Wonder. We go from napping on the bus to stepping out among the ruins of ancient civilizations -- suddenly, we are treading on history (remember that dichotomy I talked about last time? Here it is again!).
Interactions with history have always been difficult for me; how do I appropriately react to finding myself smack dab in the middle of ancient history - Troy for instance? Troy! This site has been glorified in legends, films, epic poems, basically any form of story telling media you can think of.
We had been warned by several guides and fellow travelers that, while Troy is important, there is not much to see there. Maybe they had overemphasized this for when I dismounted off of the 'Sultan Maxi' coach bus, I was surprised by the degree to which the historic city was still intact. I could see the skeletons of walls, floors, pillars, houses, sacrificial grounds, even a theater. The stones I walked upon were worn from the steps of thousands of feet --both citizens of Troy and its many tourists. It's believed that there were 9 different eras to the city. I found it hard to believe that these eras could be identified by the striated layers of rocks shoved deep into the dirt.
As our tour guide began to enumerate the legends of Troy, recounting battles and daily life, I found myself shocked by the fact that these stories, while entertaining, did not cause a feeling of awe to swell up within me as I viewed the ruins. I was simply impressed that experts were even able to differentiate the piles of rubble from one another. I had wanted the visit to Troy to impress upon me some feeling of connection with the past, a sense of reverence for the lives of those who had lived before me. Now, I methodically went through my senses, trying to categorize the essence of Troy in case this was the best way to identify with it.
I took a deep breath through my nose. It kind of just smelled like the country. I scanned the landscape. Impressive, yes, earth shattering, no. I bent down and traced a design in the dust on one of the slabs sitting solidly beneath my feet. No luck, except that my finger was now a little grittier than before. I decided to forego tasting Troy - understandably.
As our group journeys to different ancient cities and sites of civilizations, I realize that it is silly to expect a grand reaction from myself. The places themselves are certainly grand, but it is hard to force a connection with the past. Instead, I have decided to adopt a process of interacting with the present state of the places I visit. So, after a long walk through Troy, I need not apologize for the fact that my favorite part of the experience was looking past the ruins, aged and beautiful, towards the soft farmland nestled just beyond them. As a native Minnesotan, it was nice to see a whisper of my home across the sea, and in the ruins of Troy no less.
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