Friday, April 27, 2012

The Best Things Are Unexpected

Today I had an unexpected chat with a dear friend who had been diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkin's Lymphoma) in December.
Today she told me that she only has one more treatment left!
Today she looked beautiful and cheerful, with all of her cute baby ducky hair growing back, and was FULL of laughter.

After my 30-minute date with her, I shifted my attention back to my papers for school but then I started thinking...

I feel like I've taken many things for granted while I've been in Cairo these past months, and even though there have been things that drive me completely crazy--there are also things, that I never expected, that made me fall so deeply in love with the city. Today I actually thought how hard it would be to leave. *It was like one of those moments I had right before I left Uganda--where I felt that no one at home could relate to the things I'd witnessed or seen. I actually didn't want to leave Gulu, at all!* 

I really love that living in Cairo is like a roller coaster ride--it keeps you on your feet at times, makes you more independent and street smart, all the while throwing plenty of bumps in your path.  Maybe that's what I've needed to stay focused, who said life was supposed to be easy?

When it rains here, it's magical and unexpected. I absolutely love the rain, at any time. When it rains here it makes me think of home--a special place. I enjoy the little things in life and because here those things are often hidden by other objects, sometimes of mass destruction it seems, I lose sight of what's most important to me.

My amazing loved ones here, and the ones who have visited me, has helped me with so many things (finding a flat to live in--three times, teaching me how to blow shisha rings, inviting me over for Christmas movies and dessert baking with their family, letting me stay at their place so I could have a quiet place to study, having rebellious nights with me in a secret garden, letting me lean on their shoulder after eating old calamari and tasting really gross camel steak, loaning me money the time(s) my credit card was stolen or lost, yelling at Egyptian boys for grabbing me, eating massive amounts of food and then telling everyone we only had salad *multiple times*, listening to me complain about some of the mean Egyptian men, laughing at the times I've tried to go on a "cleanse", allowing me to use their shower when I didn't have running water, teaching me how to say Arabic-cuss words, not leaving me in a Nile Boat the time I had too many drinks and gave my phone to a homeless person, allowing me to snuggle endlessly with the cutest Princey-dog ever).


So thank you, Olivia, for being so courageous and wonderful--and for reminding me of these things. I bet you never expected to touch so many lives.
I'm so blessed to have you in mine.
Right before the most hilarious Phi Delt formal. ;) I miss you!

*And for those of you who want to read Liv's hilarious and touching blog, here you go. Enjoy.*
http://hashtagcancersucks.blogspot.com

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Show Some *Southern* Hospitality!


1 month and I will be in Bamberg, Germany
3 weeks after that and I will be back in Knoxville, Tennessee

Never in my life have I really been “home sick” but after having two amazing visitors—one from Nashville, and one who studied in Knoxville—I’ve come to realize that I always find myself missing SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY.

I’ve found that I’ve in fact told several of my friends that southern hospitality exists only in the south of the United States. For heavens sake, I miss the SOUTH. You know, where people say sweet things like “yes sir,” “sorry little darlin’,” and “God bless your heart.” Where people will hold the door open for you, even if their arms are already full of things. Where your mom will wake up before the crack of dawn to cook biscuits and gravy every Sunday before church so it’ll “stick to your ribs.” Where someone will give you their extra umbrella free of charge because it’s pouring outside and yours flew away, and got ran over by a beaten-up pick up truck filled with hunting dogs, as you were trying to hold down your skirt, walk in 5-inch heels and massive hair that Dolly Parton would be proud of.

I’ve never considered myself a southern belle or really “southern” for that matter. Sometimes I say “ya’ll” and wear cow-girl boots with a sassy summer dress, but that’s about as southern as it gets! However, I’ve found myself comparing this mindset and these simple, little actions with the inappropriate behaviors and thoughts of some people I’ve encountered over the past ten months. *Although this is not always the case! I’ve encountered so many sweet people in Egypt. When Darren was here there was a nice boy who walked us across the streets of Tahrir Square TWICE just because he was worried about us crossing the road. Another instance is when this feisty Egyptian woman, married to an American from Texas, took about 15 minutes out of her busy evening to help direct Darren and I around the darker streets of Zamalek because she didn’t want us to get lost since, “…people have become crazy after Revolution and it’s not safe to just go anywhere you please. Do you understand me?”* So, there are two recent experiences, one in Egypt and one in Israel, that has stuck in my mind for the past month and it only makes me question even more some (political and social) issues regarding hospitality that I have been toying with lately.

Incident #1: Alexandria, Egypt—The Citadel by the Mediterranean Sea
Sebastian and I went here during the early morning and I found myself basically getting my bottom grabbed by a school group of sixteen year old boys (there was maybe five or seven of them), multiple times, until one of them grabbed absolutely EVERYTHING—and it actually hurt. I turned quickly to latch onto him, but was too slow. The next thing I knew Seb started to break away from me, at this point I grabbed onto his arm, but he ran after the boys for several feet. I was so embarrassed (I had also just semi-fallen down the stairs just moments before but Seb somehow kept me from collapsing on the rocky ground), actually in pain, and beyond annoyed! This was my favorite place in Egypt and I wanted Seb to love it as much as I did. I never would have expected such an incident there and became quickly infuriated. The woman and man in charge of the group came over to us and started scolding Sebastian. I stepped in and started to explain what happened but they started laughing! They said the boys are young and didn’t mean anything. I exclaimed, “They should not touch me like that! How would you like to be grabbed like that? We will never return to Alexandria because of this. Those bad actions are why people do not come to Egypt! They should be ashamed!” At this point they both apologized and I showed them the group of boys that harassed me, as it was easy to spot them since they were laughing and pointing in our general direction, and told them that something should be done to the boys for their bad behavior. I looked at the woman for confirmation but she said nothing…

Beautiful Alexandria. I still love this city. 

Incident #2: Bethlehem, Israel—The Church of the Nativity, where Jesus Christ was born
This one is a little fresher in my mind.  So much in fact that I still get hot when rolling it around my memory, trying to analyze each angle without a grain of intolerance or prejudice. Darren and I finally made it to Bethlehem, and all I really wanted to see was the Church and the Western Wall or Gaza Strip—which worked out perfectly for our plans of heading to Ein Gedi for a dip in the Dead Sea, then onward for a night in Eilat so we could secure our visas at the Egyptian Consulate the next morning. We thankfully arrived fairly early in the morning, after a bit of a struggle getting to the bus without coffee and a proper breakfast, and found ourselves in the middle of a square directly across from the Nativity Church. Darren and I are monsters when it comes to eating, and we realized that we were both absolutely famished. We looked around and decided to have a quick brunch before going into the church, so we quickly consumed extremely tasty chicken sandwiches and vast amounts of coffee before we made our way to the church. Once inside I didn’t really know what to expect. I was still waiting for that pang inside of my stomach or maybe tears to come to my eyes, but nothing…I was too distracted by the line of loud tourists waiting, packed like animals, to get inside of the cave where Jesus was born.

As soon as we got into line, mind you we also had all of our luggage so we looked rather hilarious and suspicious, *I mean honestly, who brings a suitcase and massive backpack into the Church of the Nativity? Security must have been off work that day.* there was a man who came up to us saying he could get us inside much quicker, if we just paid him a small amount of money—which actually wasn’t that small at all! We decided to wait it out, like every one else, and stood in line for over two hours waiting to see the birthplace of Christ. Suddenly I was being smashed and the temperature was boiling. I heard the familiar sound of Egyptian Arabic ringing in my ears and turned my head slightly to have a look. A herd of 50+ Egyptian tourists, all wearing neon green neck-key chains, swarmed around us and tried to cut in front of other people who had been waiting in the line for hours. People were getting angry, but I kept silent and pushed back against the crowd so I could simply breathe.


Finally, we made it through the small doorway and found ourselves beside the alter and the smell of incense, along with so many other languages, was overwhelming. There were some marble steps just to the right of me and about four Egyptian women, all older than fourty, started to step onto them and began to push me out of the way. “Yalla, yalla!” I held my ground, there was nowhere to move! Somehow two of the women stepped down in front of me, stepping all on my feet and causing me to fall backward against another person behind me, but I still said nothing. Then one of the women began to grab onto this tiny Russian girl, who was about my age. She was squeezing her shoulder so hard and the girl kept writhing about, clearly annoyed and a bit scared. The woman continued to grab her, started shoving the distraught girl with her elbow, and yelled in her ear in Arabic. The other Russian women, I think there were two, tried to pull the girl away but the oblivious Egyptian woman wouldn’t let go! I absolutely lost it, grabbed the woman’s hand and moved it to her side, and started yelling at the woman in Arabic, “Khalas menfudluk, khalas! Fayhem?! Eib aleik!” “Stop please, stop! Do you understand?! Shame on you!” The two Egyptian looked at me, bewildered, and asked if I spoke Arabic—completely forgetting to apologize or even acknowledge that the Russian girl was standing there. I told them just a little, and that I live in Cairo. They proceeded to tell me that the line needed to move faster, that they were tired of waiting. I just pointed to everyone around me, who was staring at the scene that was just made, and said I was sorry but there was nowhere to go. This did not satisfy the women so they continued to yell and talk loudly with one another. At this point I noticed a very handsome older gentleman standing next to us, with what seemed to be his father. Darren and I couldn’t figure out exactly what language he was speaking, it sounded to be either Portuguese or Italian, so I asked. As it turns out, this man was there with his father from Italy (who had been wanting all of his life to see the Church of the Nativity), and he also worked for the United Nations. Darren and I were both smitten, obviously, and listened to him as he exclaimed his frustrations with the Egyptians around us. He said, “Their culture allows this. It’s very sad to see this in this church today.”

After being slightly massacred as I inched my way down the steps of the cave, and laughing like a blithering idiot because of the ridiculous situation (and the fact that Darren was using his suitcase as a mode to stand properly), I found myself surrounded by red and gold tapestries with hanging lanterns and ancient photographs. More people poured over top of me and I quickly moved to a wall so I could take everything in. There was an alter-like area on one side of the room and I saw people bending down to kiss the place where Jesus was born. Others were in another small portion of the room, trying to pray in the deafening droning around us. Suddenly a saw one of the Egyptian men stand up from the birthplace and he began to scream in Arabic, and started pushing and shoving people out of his way. Others shoved back and there was chaos for a few moments.

It was so interesting to actually see the church that I had heard about for so many years. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. 
It is said that this is the very spot where Jesus Christ was born.

Silence.

You could hear a pin drop. As soon as the group of Egyptians left the small cave, there was peace and order. It was remarkable, and the man from Italy made some closing remarks about social dialogue in Egypt, along with Arab Spring countries. I left the church exhausted and physically unscathed.

It’s because of experiences like this that make me so thankful and blessed to have come from Tennessee—where boys would be beaten with a switch for ever grabbing a girl, or knocked upside the head for making a scene in public. I know that every place has it’s flaws and I’m also glad that society is different, every where you go (otherwise it would be a boring world to live in). My mother taught me to search for the good in people, even if they are sometimes not.

One of my best friends said this to me, “In my recent experiences, people tend to ruin anything good, especially anything having to do with faith. It's like this over here, all the right wing crazy conservatives are making me lose faith in humanity. But not faith in God.

At the end of the day, regardless of where I am, this is all that matters.

Beautiful poppies in Israel--a little gift, when I least expected it. 



Monday, April 16, 2012

Don't Ask Don't Tel-Aviv *and other Israel adventures*

5 days *especially during the week of Passover and Easter* is truly not enough to experience Israel. My recent trip to the country was mostly unplanned, except for the fact that I had emailed a few Couchsurfers only days before leaving Cairo. It was probably for this reason that so many unexpected, insane, and unimaginable things happened on this adventure! I wouldn't have had it any other way. 

My friend, Darren, flew from Poland to meet me and my other friend, Angela, in Jerusalem. From then on we were able to witness and experience so many things I never imagined I would be able to see. Going to Israel during this time proved to be interesting. During the first nights of Passover the streets were quiet, as I has expected, and the city of Jerusalem was almost like a ghost town. When we returned from a crazy day and a half in Tel Aviv, we found the streets were filled with a jovial and peaceful ambiance--a nice change. 

I'll try to blog again later in the week about a specific frustrating experience, that goes along with the video I have posted at the bottom, regarding a recent interaction that Darren and I had at the Mosque in the Cairo Citadel. I'm still trying to piece together this puzzle and will need a few days before gathering my thoughts completely. Until then, here are some images as well as my garbled collection of happenings in Israel.  


After the most miserable bus ride from Cairo *our bus didn't have a bathroom and no one told the only foreigners on the bus* we finally found ourselves gallantly crossing the border--from Taba to Eilat. There were such beautiful things waiting for us on the other side!

Our first "sweet" experience in Israel. I loved the Hebrew writing! 

The first evening in Jerusalem. The wailing wall at sunset was more empty than I had seen in other photos,  however the women still had less space than men! 

My prayer that I wrote. Technically we weren't supposed to put notes and prayers into the wall on this day since it was Passover, but I couldn't help myself! 

The Dome of the Rock overlooking the Western Wall. The rays of sun reflecting on the dome were just beautiful.  I really wish that I could have gone inside! 

Meandering through the streets of Jerusalem in the scorching heat! I got to wear a tank dress on this day, but had to cover up every other moment with Angela's scarf! At this point we were making our way to the cemeteries and to take a look at Temple Mount.  

The Absalom Pillar, accompanied by rows and rows of graves. They are all separated of course--Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. This bit has always fascinated me and it was so interesting to see in person!

In the garden where Jesus prayed. These olive trees are thousands of years old!  I didn't see any olives hiding in the branches...

I wish I knew how old these tombstones were! There's such history and controversy behind this site.

You can't deny that this is quite the view! After literally marching up the side of a mountain we found ourselves staring down over Jerusalem and the gorgeous Israeli countryside. Make sure to take a peep at the Old City gate which has been blocked off! 

On the Ramparts Walk: I love when you see unexpected colors in unexpected places. These red poppies were a cheerful blessing during the hottest part of the day! 

Venturing over the Muslim Quarter. I found it a bit ironic and more so exhausting that there was such a gorgeous view of the Dome of the Rock, but debris and carelessness laid directly underneath it. 

The first evening in Tel Aviv *this is after we were dropped off in the "City Center" where we found ourselves surrounded by brothels, prostitutes, and drug shops. Darren also had quite the bathroom experience where he was offered money for, well...something.* The city was such great fun and a nice break from all of the intense sightseeing! I, of course, found myself at home right in the middle of the sea. 

We like to call this: The night of "Mike & Ikes." I'm not sure the name of this bar and am not sure what time we left. I am however sure that it was indeed a great and hilarious night, where we will not be forgotten any time soon! 
My favorite lunch in Israel! This Denis fish was delicious and so were the 20 other side dishes that were served with it! A perfect departure gift from Tel Aviv. 

I couldn't believe that I was at THE Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter. However, it was an almost disheartening experience since the church closed extremely early! Darren and I didn't even make it to see the tomb! The behavior of the guards and some of the priests shocked and unnerved me. The church itself was beautiful and so were the majority of the people visiting it. My heart was ripped apart to see people outside crying because they had made the pilgrimage all the way to the church and couldn't even get inside of the doors! At this point we wondered what that night was like in Italy at the Vatican...

Apparently the notes on the floor are prayers for luck. This small window is an exhibit for where the blood of Jesus Christ came trickling out of the mountain. 

Inside of the church right before it closed. There was such an eerie silence here and the smell of incense was nicely overwhelming. 

There were crosses deeply carved all along the walls in a few parts of the church. Again, I'm not sure how old they were or who did it...

Photo courtesy of Darren. :)
This is before I lit a candle and said my Easter prayer. 

One of the most frustrating and maddening things I have ever witnessed. Darren and I waited inside of the Church of the Nativity for two hours, and a bit more, before we made it to see the sacred cave where tradition states that Jesus was born.  At this point we are still waiting to get into the alter area before we move down into the cave. We find ourselves surrounded by a group of 50+ Egyptians that end up causing quite the scene. People begin to actually leave the line because thy are so uncomfortable with the situation *meaning the loud yells of Arabic, rude behavior, and completely unnecessary pushy behavior.*
video

It's almost sickeningly humorous, this man looks like he is about to be sacrificed or crucified. We are being pushed, shoved, and prodded from every corner while we are trying to walk down the steps--inch by inch--to the holy cave. 

It is said that this is the very spot where Jesus of Nazareth was born.

One of our last days in Israel, Darren and I finally made it to see the West Bank and the infamous 8 meter high wall. It was strange for me that no one could really talk about the situation or give us directions on how to get to the bus station for a bus to Eilat, although I can understand why! It was considered very illegal to do so by the Palestinian control. I really wanted to talk to locals about the controversial issue but clearly that was not an option. It was very touching to see all of the artwork on the wall. Here are some of my favorites. *Jayanni Webster, this one reminds me of you.*

The graffiti continued for as far as we could see. We didn't want to bring attention to ourselves since there didn't seem to be any other tourists by the area that day. I especially liked this commentary though.

Finally--we made it to the Dead Sea! We waited for the bus, which never really came so we had to hitch hike to the sea!  Darren and I actually thought we were hitchiking but then the driver informed us that we owed him money because he was a "private taxi driver and chauffeur". I ended up getting into a massive argument which involved me asking for the names of his six supposed children and him cursing our presence, along with the police! We hilariously found ourselves dragging Darren's suitcase down to the bottom of Ein Gedi where we were able to dip into the sea for 30 minutes before flying back to the bus stop! It was worth every single moment. :)

Dear Darren and I exfoliating in the Dead Sea! It was such a carefree feeling to just float along in the water. After this we made it back to Eilat for the night and stayed with this fantastic couchsurfing host where there was a delicious dinner and comfy bed waiting for us after such a long journey. I must say that even through the wild moments, Israel stole a little bit of my heart. 

Camel Steaks and Jellyfish-Fight Dates

After standing in front of my wardrobe for about 20 minutes or so I have realized that I somehow I have accumulated enough clothes, shoes, accessories, and other things to stock a small boutique. This terrifies me and instead of attempting to sort through what items should be shipped where (and instead of reading or writing massive papers for class) I've decided to take some official down time and bask in the glory that has been this past month.

Sebastian came to visit a few weeks ago and his trip here definitely didn't seem long enough! We were able to go to Alexandria and Hurghada for a few days, as well as tons of sight seeing in Cairo. It was quite the hilarious and fantastic experience, but I'm really looking forward to some less-hectic European travels with him. :)

Here are a few of my favorite shots from this adventure...


Visiting the Citadel in Alexandria. The weather was quite chilly and the view was astounding! We had a small incident here when a group of awful Egyptian boys hassled me mercilessly, but thankfully Seb took care of it. ;)

A day in Al-Azhar Park! Angela, Sebastian, and I trekked up the side of a mountain *squashing plants, sliding in mud, and hoping our champagne bottle wouldn't break* so we could attempt to enter the park. We had a nice picnic and  mystery birthday cake (I wasn't sure if I had made a cake or brownie) in honor of our friend, Kate. 

Seb and I climbed down into the Red Pyramid on our "Pyramid Day" with Liana and Thomas! It took forever to get down into the pyramid and it smelled so badly of 3,000 year lime stone that Seb and I could barely make it out of there fast enough! I couldn't walk properly for two days, it was such a work out!

At the Giza Pyramids with some of my favorite Germans. :) Liana's horse became a little lazy half way through the journey and decided to lay down in the sand. I won't post any of these pictures though. :P

Basti and I posing at the panorama view of the Giza Pyramids! Our tour guide was a little crazy with the picture taking but I am rather fond of this one. Notice how my leg isn't lifted very high up? This is due to the treacherous stairs of the Red Pyramid!

One of my favorite restaurants in Cairo! Dear Thomas introduced me to this Yemeni place and we had to take our visitors to dinner here after a long day of desert goings. I'm not sure what happened to my poor, flattened chicken in the lower left quadrant of the picture. It was super tasty though!

Seb and I visited the Citadel in Cairo! The military propaganda was absolutely hilarious. We especially liked this sign that was marked, "A Germany's Gun." 

We also had a nice falluka ride and sandwich lunch on the Nile River! Our boats name was "The Joker." The weather was perfect that day and we got to walk through Zamalek to explore more of Cairo.

In Hurghada Sebastian was finally able to try a camel steak *and even received a certificate for ordering it*. It was such a nice restaurant and apparently it's one of the best steaks he has ever had. I took a bite of it and couldn't even crunch into it a second time, it was just so strange and extremely gross tasting since I don't eat red meat! I enjoyed my calamari much more...even though it gave us food poisoning later. Eeeek!

These cute little guy kept us company at our beach resort in Hurghada.  I enjoyed watching him build his nest in the umbrella just over our heads.
There were jelly fish all over the beach! These one's didn't sting though, so naturally Sebastian and I had a little jelly fish fight. He was rather good at using the small ones as skipping stones in the sea. They were immensely fun to play with!

Starfish are my favorite animals--so strong and unique. I'm glad Seb was able to hold one for the first time while he was in Hurghada! 

Enjoying the cool sunset on the beach...

Sunsets by the sea are some of the best! Obviously this trip was just not long enough. :)