These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
The last few days in Egypt were a flurry of good-bye activities.
Our group made numerous trips for a last bite of falafel, koshary, and delectable zalabya; for a last sight of the Nile flanked by glowing skyscrapers; for a last whiff of the thick, smog-filled air that drifts throughout the city.
Finally, the time came to make the long voyage home. As our trip to Israel had been cancelled, we were outfitted with an alternative flight plan that would bear us to our respective homes in roughly 30 hours of travel. And so I went from Cairo to Abu-Dhabi to Chicago, and finally, to Minneapolis and home.
It's funny how a return like this can be both familiar and strange. As my family car turned onto my home street, it felt as routine as returning from the cities, or running errands. However, other regular Minnesota things like snow, signs in English, and sane traffic, were more surprising at first. I marvel anew at how easy it is to adapt to one's environment. These days I'm busy decorating cookies, listening to Christmas music, and catching up with old friends when little more than a week ago I was still a student in Cairo. I feel extremely blessed to have been involved in both of these worlds.
It was an incredible four months, and after it all I am so thankful to return to a place that is welcoming to both me and my suitcase full of souvenirs and stories. It's certainly true: there's no place like home for the holidays.
Don't get me wrong, Cairo is an amazing city, but it has come to my attention that its streets are littered with many less than desirable characters, including but not limited to:
-piles of trash
-cats, dead or alive
-discarded scraps of cloth
-pages of discarded books, magazines and newspapers,
-and cigarette butts (with smoke to match).
Most noticeable, however, is the smell and sight of the heavy smog that blankets each and every alleyway, nook or cranny that I encounter on the streets. I'm sure that countless visitors and citizens of Cairo have felt this sense of exhaustion with the pollution of this bustling metro, but luckily for us there is an oasis within this desert city.
And so, several of us students set out to find Al-Alzhar, a public park located in downtown Cairo, which opened to the public in 2005 and is listed as one of the world's sixty greatest public spaces by the Project for Public Spaces. Upon entering the gates, and paying less than a dollar in admission, we were greeted by a large fountain and several pathways winding through the expansive area. After strolling down one of these avenues for a few minutes, I completely forgot that I was in downtown Cairo. The consistent bleating of car horns was softened by the surrounding hedges, and the natural beauty of a nearby pond and the green lawns was certainly a sight for city-sore eyes.
Of course, the visit wasn't entirely peaceful. Immediately upon entry, we were surrounded by a gaggle of young teenagers, who giggled constantly while trailing several steps behind us and asking repeatedly for photos. Eventually, one of our number acquiesced and posed for a young girl's camera, but it wasn't long before we were approached again, welcomed to Cairo and dragged into the frame of a digital photo. At almost every turn we were entreated to smile for the camera, and at one point found ourselves pulled into some sort of birthday parade. Very sneakily, we extricated ourselves and escaped to the nearby back roads in search of one of the many highlights of the park.
Eventually we happened upon one of the top lookout areas, and were rewarded with a beautiful pre-sunset view of Cairo just beyond the flora and fauna of Al-Azhar. It was an extremely peaceful and aesthetically pleasing way to view the city, seated on a stone wall surrounded by blooming flowers. It soon came time for us to return back to Zamalek for dinner, but I fully intend to return to this natural refuge from the chaos of Cairo.
The snapshots of Tahrir Square taken during the past week show large protests steadily increasing in intensity. The basic idea behind these demonstrations was initially to protest President Morsi's increase in power, and subsequently to contest certain aspects of the newly drafted constitution of Egypt. Strangely, though I'm currently living in Cairo, my exposure to these events were likely very similar to that of my friends and family at home.
My fellow travelers and I are safe and sound in our American University of Cairo dorm on the Nile island of Zamalek - the only change to our daily lifestyle being a moratorium on any visits to Tahrir Square. Nevertheless we have been able to explore parts of the downtown area, whether it's going to see the new Bond movie at a local theater, or braving the claustrophobic alleyways of the Khan el-Kahlili bazaar in the heart of old, medieval Cairo: a chaotic market geared toward tourist and Cairene alike.
While the island of Zamalek has plenty to offer (including delicious restaurants with cuisine ranging from Indian to Italian), our group has experienced an increasing sense of restlessness, an uncomfortable feeling that stems from our disconnect with the important current events taking place just across the Nile River.
Wanting to get a "closer" look at what was slated to be the largest protest in the square this week, a few of us embarked upon a nighttime journey to the Cairo Tower. The tower, located on Zamalek and standing at 614 feet, has been the tallest structure in Egypt and North Africa for 50 years so we figured it would prove to be a sufficient vantage point. After a short taxi ride with a driver who shared his own stylized (read: laced with profanity) dialect of English, we arrived at the tower and were soon squished into the elevator that bore us to the top floor balcony. We were greeted with a 360 degree view of the city, certain parts twinkling with electricity, other blocks in an apparent blackout signaling urban poverty. It wasn't long before we could spot the gathering in Tahrir Square.
Aided by the zoom functions of our digital cameras we could see dozens of tents surrounded by a thick throngs of people. A low rabble of voices reached us at the top of the tour, but nothing distinguishable or particularly violent could be seen or heard. It was a unique experience to see such a large protest, reminiscent of those that sparked the Egyptian revolution, at such a safe distance. In fact, just the opportunity to see the Square helped me to feel a deeper connection with the country in which I am studying.
While certain aspects of the volatile political situation in the Middle East can be frustrating, including the fact that our group's time in Israel was cancelled due to the recent conflict, simply being here is a very unique way for us to engage with these nations and their people. Fighting for the future rarely makes things convenient, but the opportunity to see history unfolding, if even from a distance, is worth the hassle.
In a few days our group will be embarking on a voyage to the distant past as we pay a visit to of the Library of Alexandria! Ok, it's not the actual library but the beautiful new library built to commemorate the even more magnificent ancient counterpart is as close as you can get this day and age. Excited as I am, I feel almost spoiled to be packing up and heading out again, having just returned from a trip to Luxor and Hurghada in the south of Egypt (also known as Upper Egypt, confusingly named after the direction of the Nile, which flows South to North).
Luxor is thought of by some as a giant museum of Egyptian history -- it houses some of the most expansive and well-known memorials in the country, including the Valley of the Kings (our tour guide claimed that 80% of all Egyptian artifacts were found there, I'm not sure about the accuracy of this comment but it gives you an idea of how important it is!)
After a crash course in ancient Egyptian history and religious beliefs we found ourselves traipsing around multiple temples and tombs, face to face with the images and figures we had so recently confronted in the classroom. Each morning our alarms woke us between the hours of 4 and 5 AM and we were soon stumbling onto the tour bus for a day filled with history. These early risings, while painful at first, allowed us the unique opportunity to view iconic sites without the usual bustling crowd of visitors.
A few hours into our first day we realized that we were avoiding more than tourists; we were also trying to escape the frying-pan-like heat of the desert sun. While I'm always a proponent of a good dose of Vitamin D, after feeling like bacon during the day I treasured our evening tours of historic monuments. The most memorable of these was the Karnak Temple Complex, a sprawling structure fit only for a pharaoh -- the temple is near the Egyptian city Thebes, and was constructed mostly in the New Kingdom period.
In the waning afternoon light we explored the various alleyways and grand passages that cut through the middle of the temple. I frequently found myself craning my neck to examine a hieroglyphic, or bending down to inspect the giant feet of a statues, always trying to get a closer look at each detail of these amazing sites. Luckily, this small excursion to Upper Egypt gave us the chance to see history both up close and personal and at a distance.
The last morning of our time in Luxor found us waking up even earlier than the normal 5:00AM (many in our group felt that this bordered on cruel and unusual punishment) and walking across a thin gangplank onto several ferries. These quaint vessels, complete with complimentary coffee to combat the early hour, carried us across the Nile towards the main event: hot air balloons!
Our group had decided to splurge on this activity, which featured a sunrise ride over the Valley of the Kings and other nearby monuments of Luxor. It was worth every cent. The sun was just peeking out over the horizon as we clambered into a basket large enough for 20 people. and when we began our gentle ascent the landscape below came alive. Sprawled out below us were the various monuments and temples we had visited earlier, looking more like models than the giant structures they are in reality. Meanwhile, our height emphasized the contrast of the topography surrounding Nile, which, as in most of Egypt, moves abruptly from fertile farmland on the banks of the Nile to harsh, inhospitable desert.
The hot air balloon ride was definitely a high point (pun intended) of my time in Luxor, and a perfect way to bid goodbye to a region rich in history before moving on to Hurghada, on the Red Sea, for a brief beach stint complete with a day of snorkeling. Thus far Egypt has proved to offer new wonders with each passing day.
“If I were to remain silent, I'd be guilty of complicity.” -Albert Einstein
Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, youth have been at the forefront of revolution and political change. Here in Morocco, thousands took to the streets in Spring 2010, raising their voices, calling for reforms and demanding to be heard. That demand was in full force at a recent symposium I attended in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.
Hamdulillah that in a few hours I will be sitting down to a delicious meal (though no turkey) with lovely friends.
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