Day 156: Egypt-Older than Time

I now know the significance of the phrase: “Balls like a Cairo taxi driver.

Driving in Cairo is more like living through a scene from ‘Mad Max‘ where everyone is escaping near death on a daily basis in a post apocalyptic dust cloud of dented cars and trash lined roadways. Lanes are completely optional. If two cars are driving down designated lanes and there is space between them, shooting the gap is fair game. Horns are used as religiously as the Koran. Most cars we rode in didn’t even have seatbelts.

Don’t try to cross the road here with heavy traffic.” Our friend Susanna said.”It’s not like Vietnam, where they’ll swerve around you. Here, they’ll run over you.

And run over people we did. Because pedestrian cross walks are non-existent, people are forced to find gaps in the traffic and play ‘frogger’. On our second Uber trip in the city, a pedestrian bounced off our hood and neither him or our driver didn’t even stop.

Shouldn’t you check to see if he’s OK?” I asked.

No, he’s probably fine.” The driver said dismissively with a wave of his hand.

The next day, we came to a screeching halt just inches in front of a man escorting an elderly woman across the street. Her guide shook his cane at our driver and our driver shouted back while casting obscene hand gestures. Luckily, Ubers were cheap. Some rides around the less touristy sites came in at less than a dollar, so after getting a ride to our friends Anton and Suzanna’s house, we knew we could rest easy for 3 days with old friends and catching up.

Giza Plateau

If you ask people: “What do you want to see before you die?“, many will answer the Pyramids at Giza.

Of all the historic sites we planned to see on our trip, the pyramids in Cairo and ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru were at the top of our list. Learning about these structures as young children filled both Lisa, Ava and I with such an awe, that the night before we actually felt nervous; like you do before delivering a speech or a job interview. It was almost if we were afraid of disappointing the pyramids themselves and had anthropomorphized them into judgmental monoliths whose journey through time brought them to life.

The size is the first thing that strikes you. You know they’re going to be big, but nothing prepares you for the size of seeing 2 million blocks built over 20 years with primitive tools that has lasted for 4000 years with only 58 millimeters of variance. Many of the blocks were as tall as me. We did a figure eight around Khufu and Khafre before we walked down the causeway to the great Sphinx.

Wow, the Sphinx is smaller than I imagined.” said Ava. “And it looks like Imseti. Don’t you think daddy?”

Who is that?

Imseti is the egyptian man that guards the liver in the canopic jars.

Since she had been reading the ‘Horrible Histories’ version of “The Ancient Egyptians” our daughter would come to teach us much about ancient Egypt and served as our family’s own personal guide.

Saqqara Complex

Our friends in Tanzania (The Fossgreens) whom we stayed with while there and who lived in Egypt for a time told us not to miss the Saqqara complex.

And the Red Pyramid too.” Bill told us. “You can go down into the antechambers and there is nobody there.

We chartered a driver for 800 Egyptian pounds to pick us up from our house and drive us south of Cairo to visit the Saqqara (or step pyramid), Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Bill was right. There was hardly anybody there.

What made the Saqqara complex so amazing is the tombs of the viziers. The royal viziers were the most trusted counsels of the kings in ancient Egypt and although they weren’t given pyramids, trusted viziers commanded respect in the form of large tombs, and carvings worthy of a Pharaoh. While in Saqqara, we visited the tombs of viziers Kagemni and Mereruka, counsel for King Teti in the sixth dynasty which was around 2,400 BC. King Teti’s tomb was also there and in typical fashion of tombs in the pyramids, you have to crouch and descend down a long chamber to the main corridors and interior chambers that were adorned with wealth.

The red pyramid was a harsh lesson in physical fitness. It had a 65 meter descending tunnel into three massive corbel vaulted chambers. By the time we got down, I was dripping in sweat and needed to stop twice on the way out. Our thighs were sore for 3 days afterwards.

Scams to Watch out For

By now, we had gotten pretty accustomed to scams in Egypt, which we read were too numerous to print. Around the temple areas, the scam plays out the same: some guy will be lurking near an off the beaten track part of the complex and tell you your ticket does not cover these rooms and if you want to see them, you have to pay extra money. Or, a guide will miraculously appear at your side and start talking, and after waxing on about the history of the area, ask for a little ‘baksheesh‘ by rubbing his fingers together. Another is a vendor who will give you a shirt for free, and then his thugs will appear a minute later asking for money now that you have soiled his shirt.

I heard from others that ‘Baksheesh‘ was a dreaded term in Egypt and many locals would not do their job unless some gratuity was promised or given for their meager efforts. Upon landing at the Cairo airport on day one, a bathroom attendant pulled a paper towel down from the dispenser so it was easier for me to grab and wanted baksheesh. I would ask guards and attendants for information on this or that and they wanted baksheesh. As tourism is just starting to rebound since the revolution of 2011 when tourism revenues fell by 95%, many locals are still hurting for money and jobs and appreciate every little bit.

Luxor: Time to Relax

Since we had been staying with friends in Oman, Dubai and Cairo, we decided to splurge for our 4 nights in Luxor by staying at the Hilton Luxor Spa and Resort and celebrate having gotten new teaching positions in Lima, Peru starting next summer. Although the rooms were $140 a night, we got 3 times our normal 14 times points as this was the low season and with our diamond status got free room upgrades with breakfast and complimentary cocktails in the evening and the point tally would push us over the amount needed for a free 4 night redemption in Brazil in March. Having 4 full days to lounge around the pool in the afternoon with room service, massages and spa access was the cats whiskers and just what we needed to unwind after the emotional rollercoaster of an international job search.

Before entering the temple of Karnak, Lisa and I bought checkered ‘Kieffer’ headscarfs to keep our pates out of the scorching heat. Kieffers are commonly worn by locals in the Arab world and they vary much on the fabric, size and design depending on whether your intent is style or function. Ours were made of cotton and were a slightly heavy weave to absorb the sweat and were just under a meter square to allow us enough material to wrap securely around our heads but allow enough material to drape over our neck and ears to keep the majority of our heads shaded. Many locals volunteered to show us different head wrapping styles that they themselves had favored over time.

Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple

We chartered a car that took us to the west bank of the Nile to see the Valley of the Kings one morning while in Luxor. The valley is pretty unseemly, and what surprised us was how many people were buried in the region. We had thought going into it that a dozen or so kings and queens lie buried in ancient tombs, but it turns out that there are thousands of people from upper and upper middle class Egypt that had been laid to rest over the centuries. Some modern villages were built on top of the tombs and after UNESCO declared the area a world heritage site, the local homes had to be demolished and moved to a new area that complied with conservation mandates. 24 hour video cameras keep an eye on the huge area to prevent further grave robberies.

Valley of the Kings was pretty spectacular. Admission gains you entrance to 3 tombs of your choice, but some of the more decorative ones like Seti and Aphrodite have additional, eye gouging fees. We visited the tombs of Ramses the III, IV and IX and the carvings were exquisite. We didn’t visit King Tutankhamun’s tomb as there was an extra fee and as he died young and rather unexpectedly, so there wasn’t time to make his tomb as large and elaborate as the other kings of old. His claim to fame was the tomb itself escaping burglary and being only discovered in 1922 with all his possessions still in the chambers. His golden mask at the Cairo museum might just be one of the most beautiful artifacts we’ve ever seen.

On the way out, we stopped at queen Hatshepsut’s temple which was anything by subtle. The mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahiri is a colonnaded symmetrical entrance with that is a grand gesture to her time as ruler and her achievements such as her fairly long reign and expansion of trade routes and building projects within the Egyptian civilization.

Our Middle East Trip Takes a Turn

While in Luxor, we decided to take the next portion of our middle east trip off our journey. Although Lebanon was a place we’ve wanted to visit for some time, travel there had recently become a headache since anti-government protests started mid-October and the country was starting to suspend basic services and roadblocks were making it difficult to get around. Our friend Damon who is a teacher there relayed that his school had been cancelled, banks were shutting down, and kidnappings were up around border areas near Syria and Israel so we decided to avoid it for the time being. Even the US state department raised their travel advisory one notch below the level: “Avoid all travel

So, while in Luxor, we cancelled all our Lebanese bookings and researched an island in the Mediterranean sea we knew nothing about which we would come to discover soon: Cyprus.

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Day 148: From the Nothing Springs Dubai

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Day 148: From the Nothing Springs Dubai

20 years ago, there was nothing here.” Saaid, our Uber driver told me.

Like, which buildings, do you mean?” I asked looking out over the vast expanse of development and construction projects.

All of them.

The rampant rise of turning a desert into a booming world economy that is hosting the World Expo next year is no small feat. Emiratis are some of the wealthiest citizens in the world and their rich oil reserves have created infrastructure that would make your head spin. The population of Dubai is made up largely of immigrants from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan all working across service and labor industries. Local Emiratis makeup only 10-15% of the actual population so it’s evident that everyone is coming here for their own slice of the pie. A non-existent crime rate, excellent health care and luxury villas give Dubai an appeal to the ultra wealthy and its location as a business hub means Europe, Asia and Africa are all within an arms reach.

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Standing tall in Dubai.

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I’ve heard that living in Dubai is like living in a mall. Everything is new, constantly being manicured and well put together. It turns out that a trip to Dubai means visiting the mall, and with dozens to choose from, it’s actually a nice way to spend a day. The air conditioning and almost theme park like attractions (The Emirates Mall had a downhill skiing hill!) make it a nice respite from the sun. Another thing that was nice about visiting the mall are the international restaurant franchises that offer us the comfort food that we longed for after having been in Africa for two months. TGI Fridays, Cheesecake factory, PF Changs, Din Tai Fung, Chili’s, and Cinnabon were just handful of the shops that promised massive portions, loosening of belt buckles and good old fashioned gluttony. Sights like ‘The Frame’, Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa are quintessential world landmarks.

Ava Takes a Field Trip

While we were at the GRC job fair, Ava joined our friends (the Greenes) to ‘Bounce’ and to the Mall of the Emirates for a spin in their bouncy room and lessons on Chemistry and Space. Ava had the opportunity to program a rover to retrieve a satellite from space and for physical science, used chemical reactions to fill balloons. Fun stuff.

The Job Search Comes to a Close

The week before the GRC fair in Dubai was crazy busy. Schools in attendance were updating their vacancies frequently and we had skype interviews with schools nearly every day the entire week before the fair even started. My first interview was back in August, so I had months of interviewing practice which made me a well oiled machine complete with a succinct elevator pitch, and how to make the right impression. Despite the hectic pace, it was nice to reconnect with friends from Korea and administrator friends all over the world when we had a moment between interviews.

At the GRC Fair in Dubai with Ava’s French Teacher in Korea: Mademoiselle Luu

We are happy to report that we signed with a fantastic school Saturday night, so our our job search is officially over and a huge weight has been lifted. Sometimes, international school teachers will have to take positions for which they are not ideally suited or in locations that are not pleasant but in our case, we’ll be moving to a new continent to work in a school that has a great reputation with administrators with whom we had instant rapport. With that, we can breath a sigh of relief and focus on more homeschooling and enjoying the sights around us.

Where are we going? You may ask, would be a story for another time.

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Day 144: The Middle East Starts in Oman

The middle east has always captivated us.

Growing up in America, you are practically conditioned to be afraid of the region. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I got a quick synopsis of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict in ‘Western Civilizations‘ class in high school, but 9/11 was the coffin nail to the last throes of tolerance for many, and after that, the vicinity became synonymous with terrorism and violence.

So, it only made sense that we visited the middle east to learn more about it first hand and take advantage of seeing it through the eyes of friends we have in Oman, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Iran and its fabled cities of Shiraz and Persepolis were on our list, but were too tough to get visas for. Saudi Arabia has introduced new tourism initiatives and is even hiring travel influencers who are trying to give the country’s image a makeover from their double standard of rights between men and women and the country’s grisly public beheadings. That too would be a visit for another time.

Because we landed at 2:00 am in Muscat, we got an airport pickup that took us to a hotel and we were in bed an hour later. The next morning, the Cabalunas (our friends from Korea) met us at the hotel swimming pool and we spent hours in the cool water under the roasting Omani sun with temperatures rising up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s just starting to cool down, thank God.” our friends told us. With some locations in Oman reported having hit over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, I imagine some people bursting into flames.

The next day, our friends took us boating in the Gulf of Oman. It was refreshing to be on the water and after driving to the marina, we learned that local workers on a tractor back your boat and trailer in the water for you and you signal to shore when you want them to pull you out. Thomas captained us to a secluded bay and we dropped anchor and waded our supplies to shore to set up camp.

The day was one of those ‘magic’ days. While sitting in the sun drinking beer we adults caught up, the kids explored the wadi and the family dog ‘Jude‘ found a tasty goat’s leg boat to chew on. As the heat became too much, we transitioned into the ocean and played ‘keep away’ with a water ball. Kids against the grown ups and vice versa until the sun went down.

Google Expeditions

We had started reading ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe‘ while in Oman, but the big news on the education front was preparing for Egypt. Ava had found a book called ‘Ancient Egyptians‘ of the ‘Horrible Histories‘ book series and had read it cover to cover dozens of times since we started our trip in June so she was looking forward to seeing the Giza plateau and the temples at Luxor. She was fascinated by the process of mummification and I thought mummifying a chicken would be a nice applied learning project to learn more about the process, when we learned that old friends had recently settled in Cairo and we would be staying with them instead of an Airbnb. Doing surgery on poultry in the privacy of a stranger’s house is one thing, asking your friends to use their teacups for canopic jars is another.

Image courtesy of Google Expeditions

Google expeditions came in handy as a nice supplement to learning more about this process. I found an expedition on ancient Egypt and we researched the societal structure way of life and construction of the pyramids which Ava added to her learning notebook. The virtual reality interface gives students choice and are an immersive experience that (contrary to popular belief) one does not need VR headsets to experience. Can’t believe that we’ll actually see these structures next week.

The pyramids have endured for 4,500 years and are one of the wonders of the ancient world. Think they’ll hold up 5 days longer?

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