Kelsey in Cairo

Kelsey is majoring in English, with a minor in political science, in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. In Spring 2009, she is participating in SMU-in-Cairo in Egypt, where she will be taking courses in political science and Arabic. She hopes the experience will prepare her for a career in international relations or journalism, and she plans to volunteer with a nonprofit while in Egypt.

Trip to Luxor and the Oasis Hotel

When I returned from Mt. Sinai, my roommate enthusiastically announced that we were going to Luxor the next weekend, since we had a convenient day off on Monday for the holiday celebrating the birth of Mohammed. Exhausted from my hike up the mountain and the eight-hour bus ride back, I immediately said, “No way.”

Luckily, by the end of the week I came to my senses and agreed to make the long trip (10 hours by train) to see what Luxor had to offer.

Compared to the buses and mini-buses I’d become so accustomed to traveling in, the train was absolutely luxurious! The seats reclined, there was no music blasting, and I was actually able to sleep.

When we arrived in Luxor, we were immediately hounded by scores of guides and hotel workers trying to get us to choose them. Thankfully, we’d planned ahead and made reservations at a cheap hostel called the Oasis Hotel, recommended by our Lonely Planet guide.

kelsey-7859040-sm.jpgThe hotel owner, Hassan, was there to meet us and escort us back to his hotel, where we watched the sun rise and drank hibiscus juice on the rooftop. The incomparable Hassan urged us to make the hotel our home and said that many travelers are so comfortable at the Oasis that they end up staying for days, or even weeks, longer than they had planned. He told us everything that we could and should do in Luxor, and we immediately booked a felucca ride to a place called Banana Island for the afternoon.

As we had some time to kill before the boat ride, we rented bikes and rode along the Nile to Karnak Temple.

kelsey-IMG_0359-sm.jpgFrom the outside facade, Karnak doesn’t seem so impressive. But as I walked in, I saw how expansive and impressive it truly is. There are so many statues, so many towering columns, and they’re all covered from top to bottom with hieroglyphs. I was amazed to see on some of the columns the original coloring still intact: red, blue, yellow, painstakingly applied to the hieroglyphs.

Karnak is so well preserved because it was once completely covered under sand. It’s difficult to imagine that such an enormous complex could be completely lost to the elements, and sad to realize that an even bigger temple (which is now only marked by large statues, the Colossus of Memnon) was completely lost to a flood.

After wandering through every room of Karnak, we rode to the Mummification Museum. Although it was just a rather small room, it was nevertheless worth the admission price to see the variety of mummified animals (cats, birds, a monkey, and a crocodile) and the one very cool-looking human mummy.

Our afternoon felucca ride was the perfect relaxing activity to end a physically draining day. The sailboat took us to Banana Island, where our guide gave us a tour of the fields of banana trees, and of the beautiful, bustling village. Away from the tourist sites and shops and the relentless traffic, the village offered us a picture of what life is like for so many Egyptians: Living in small houses, working in the fields, children running through the dirt streets.

Despite the fact that we’d been touring around since 6 am, we ended our day wandering through Luxor Temple.

The second day, after our delicious free breakfast at the Oasis, we took a guided tour, arranged by Hassan, to the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Colossus of Memnon.

The Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens are dozens of tombs of the leaders of ancient Egypt, dug into the sides of a mountain. I was shocked by the amount of color, so much more intact in these underground burial chambers than at Karnak Temple, and it was fun to learn that, for centuries, people (especially the once extremely oppressed Coptic Christians) had made the tombs their homes and refuge.

Kelsey-IMG_0358-sm.jpgThe Temple of Hatshepsut was perhaps my favorite. It isn’t necessarily more visually appealing than Luxor Temple or Karnak Temple, and isn’t quite as large, but I was fascinated by the story of this pharoah. Hatshepsut was one of the only female rulers of Egypt, and is considered one of the most, if not the most, successful pharaoh. She had herself depicted and dressed as a man, in order to be considered legitimate by the populous, accustomed to male pharoahs.

Though I planned on taking a nap upon returning to the Oasis, I ended up talking for hours to the other guests at the rooftop cafe. By this time, I was so comfortable at the hotel that it really did feel like home, and I didn’t even feel funny walking into the cafes kitchen to get extra forks or question the status of my falafel.

At nightfall, my new friends and my old friends alike went to see the sound and light show at Karnak Temple, to get a different perspective of the complex. The narration was all a bit cheesy, but it was lovely to wander through the temple all lit up.

We then wandered into a random restaurant, where we ran into a large group of fellow AUC students, whom we took back to the rooftop at the Oasis to show off our favorite hotel and favorite hotel owner.

On the way back, we picked up an ice cream cake from an irresistible patisserie, and shared it with all the guests and hotel employees. Hassan regaled us with stories of his life and of Luxor, and I managed to have a conversation about politics with the cook in my limited Arabic. He said he liked Barack Obama, but also liked Saddam Hussein. I spread my arms apart, and said, “Obama, hina,” waving a hand on one side. “Kwayis! (Good!)” And then I waved my hand on the other side and said, “Saddam Hussein hina. Mish kwayis! (Not Good!)”

The next morning, we had a bit of trouble procuring a train ticket back to Cairo. The seats were all filled. Anxious to get back in time to prepare our schoolwork for the week ahead, we begrudgingly purchased bus tickets instead. Dreading the 15-hour bus ride ahead, we decided to have an easy day. We found a hotel that allowed us to use their rooftop swimming pool for a small fee, and soaked up the sun and glorious views of the Nile and ancient Egyptian ruins below.

The moral of my Luxor story is: Stay at the Oasis Hotel even if you can afford something “nicer” and don’t take a bus ride from Luxor to Cairo!

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Sunrise on Mount Sinai

n6417911_37546304_7515586.jpgOnce again, I neglected to bring my passport – or even a copy of my passport – on my trip to Mount Sinai. This proved to be a bit of an issue as there are multiple checkpoints where police officers come onto the bus and check everyone’s IDs.

It’s vitally important to always carry at least a copy of your passport in Egypt, as all the hotels will want to look at it upon check-in, and you never know when or where there will be a checkpoint.

It’s tradition to climb Mount Sinai, famous as the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, in the middle of the night to make it to the top in time to watch the sun rise.

Despite having to wake up at 1 a.m., my merry band of travelers and I decided it would be best to try to sleep for a few hours after the long and tiring bus ride to the Sinai peninsula. Thus we ended up at Fox Camp, another fabulous institution run by Bedouins, where the rooms are cheap and the food and tea are delicious.

It took me a while to fall asleep as a certain one of my companions was speaking Arabic in his sleep, and it was especially difficult to leave the comfort of the camp when our guide came to wake us as it was freezing outside.

Once again, I ended up being ill prepared for this trip. As the moon was covered by clouds and no one had thought to bring a flashlight, the trek from the camp to the mountain was done in complete darkness.

Freezing, stumbling over rocks, and suffering from the strain of the high altitude, all the way to the mountain I thought I was going to wimp out and have to take a camel up the mountain. But a short break in the warmth of a hut, the sight of the lights of hundreds of pilgrims, and the well-worn trail on the mountain re-energized me enough to climb the mountain sans camel.

With just 750 more steps to the top, we had about 40 more minutes until sunrise and took shelter from the unbearable cold in a hut where we finally gave in and rented a blanket for about 20 pounds.

n6417911_37546279_4625474.jpgDespite the cold, the entire top of the mountain was covered with visitors. The sunrise, illuminating the stunning mountain scene below us, was well worth the hike and even the cold. Still, I’d recommend taking a coat, a hat, and a good pair of gloves!

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My guide to Egypt

kelsey-IMG_0274-sm.jpgIt’s been a while since my last blog!

The reason: I’ve been so busy traveling! Cairo is a modern and diverse city, but not exactly representative of Egypt as a whole. Excursions outside of the capital city provide an opportunity to get a different perspective of Egypt. And with bus tickets running anywhere between 30-90 Egyptian pounds ($5-16 US), and accommodation as low as 15 pounds a night (if you choose to stay in Bedouin camps), it’s incredibly easy to travel around.

As a study abroad student in London, I depended on the Let’s Go guidebooks, because they’re written by college students and aimed at the younger (and poorer) traveler. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to find a good guidebook for Egypt. There are few to choose from, and they all seem to be aimed at the older traveler who has a bit more money and a bit more time (Frommer’s is proving to be my favorite, for those who do need a guidebook recommendation).

AUC, nicely, has a travel office that basically provides free travel agency-like services for students but tends to recommend the most comfortable places to stay and the most pleasant ways of getting places (i.e. planes and first-class trains).

But my best experiences in Egypt so far have been when I was roughing it: camping in the black and white deserts; staying at a Bedouin camp by Mt. Sinai; lounging at a hostel in Luxor.

Since it can sometimes be difficult to tell where to stay and what to do from the tiny blurbs in travel guides, here’s my guide to some of the best excursions in Egypt:

The Black and White Deserts

After a five-hour bus ride through a flat and seemingly endless desert, my group and I finally arrived at the Bahariya Oasis, a small village marked by a spattering of palm trees. Our enthusiastic guide, Badry (who owns the Sahara Camp in Bahariya), met us at the bus stop, shuffled us into ancient-looking Land Rovers, and we were quickly whisked out of town.

Because none of us brought our passports, we were instructed to say we were German to avoid being assigned a police escort. This made me a bit nervous, but we were easily waved through all the checkpoints without any chance to say “Ich bin Deutsch.”

We drove for about an hour on a bumpy road when the driver suddenly made a sharp left and we were flying over sand dunes. Some of the dunes were so steep, the vehicles were turned practically sideways, and visions of the jeep flipping over and rolling down the hill filled my mind. Without seat-belts, we were bumping our heads on the ceilings of the jeep as if we were on some kind of crazy amusement park ride. It was simultaneously terrifying and wildly fun.

kelsey-IMG_0221-sm.jpgThe adrenaline-pumping drive proved to be well worth its dangers, as a dramatic valley suddenly appeared below us. We spent at least an hour, in awe of the stunning scenery, scrambling up crumbling hills to get the best view of the otherworldly dome-shaped rocks. Innumerable tire tracks and footprints made deep impressions in the golden sand, creating a unique drawing on the desert canvas. We were all reluctant to leave, but were herded back into the jeeps to make it to the white desert for sunset.

As our bedouin guides set up our camp and prepared tea and dinner, we watched the sunset color the white sand and mushroom-shaped white rocks. So far away from paved roads and towns, surrounded by such a landscape, sitting by the fire under the starriest sky I’ve ever seen, I felt completely content and so grateful. The desert is starkly beautiful, and it is humbling.

We ate a delicious meal of grilled chicken, stewed vegetables and rice, and spent hours sitting around the fire, listening to our guides playing instruments and singing, and watching the moon rise. We had no tents, only mats on the ground to protect us from the sand as it becomes quite cold at night.

While it was nice to sleep with the stars above, I probably would have been happier with a sleeping bag! I was completely unprepared for how cold Egypt can get, so I only had a few warm clothes on, and the two heavy blankets didn’t save me from feeling like I had frostbite on my toes when I woke in the morning.

kelsey-100_0384-sm.jpgLuckily, the sun warmed us quickly in the morning, and as soon as our 4-Runner (whom we affectionately named Leroy) defrosted, we set off to see rabbit-shaped rocks, the crystal mountain, and the black desert.

Back in Bahariyya, we dipped our legs in one of the area’s many hot springs, which locals say have healing powers. Although a bit tired, and desperate to wash my hands with soap, I was sad to have to leave the quiet desert and its fresh air.

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Today’s tragedy in Cairo

Editor’s note: The American University in Cairo has confirmed that no SMU or other students at the university were affected by the February 22 incident. SMU student Shelby also shared her thoughts on the event.

I was planning to submit a blog entry today about experiencing aspects of life in Cairo few tourists are exposed to, and a thrilling expedition to the beautiful white and black deserts. But it’s necessary for me now to discuss the bombing that occurred this evening at Khan al-Khalili, a bazaar popular with tourists near downtown Cairo.

Reports are still conflicting, but the general consensus so far is that 17 people have been injured and one person has been killed. My first response was sadness for those who have been affected by this event, and to hope that no AUC students, especially the people I’ve grown so close with in the past month, were at Khan al-Khalili tonight. Facebook status updates and mass text messages have eased this worry, thankfully.

My second reaction was to hope that I wouldn’t be required to suddenly return home, cutting off my semester in Cairo three months short. Although my roommate and I were at Khan al-Khalili only yesterday, unsuccessfully haggling with merchants and drinking tea at the 200 year-old-cafe called Fishawy, neither of us now feels unsafe in Cairo. We were discussing this evening how sad it is that the actions of a few can effect the reputation of an entire city, and moreover, an entire country.

The bomb exploded at an area that is always packed with tourists, but it was also right next to a large mosque, where people were praying at this time. Both Egyptians and foreigners were affected by this attack. The Egyptian police acted quickly enough to be able to diffuse a second bomb before it exploded.

Yes, Egypt is technically in the Middle East, a region associated with near-constant violence, but there hasn’t been an attack in Cairo since 2005. All parts of our world today are vulnerable to this kind of violence, from the US, to Europe, to Asia and everywhere in between. It would be a mistake to judge Egypt harshly in light of today’s bombing, and to suddenly deem it a country where Americans should not travel.

Please keep all those affected by tonight’s attack in your thoughts and prayers, and know that this one act of violence does not define Cairo or Egypt.

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Images of Cairo

I’ve seen and learned so much, made so many new friends, and become so at ease navigating this labyrinth of a city, it’s difficult to believe that I’ve only been in Cairo for two weeks.

Classes have finally started, and buses and shuttles are running more frequently from AUC’s new campus – where I’m living this semester – to other parts of the city, so I’m starting to feel like I’m actually living here, and not just wandering through a dream.

Saturday morning AUC was on lockdown since President Mubarek’s wife came to the inauguration of the new campus. While a few poor souls living in the New Campus dorms were stuck at school, without access to food from 6 am to 6 pm, I was lucky enough to have stayed at a friend’s apartment in Garden City on Friday night.

IMG_0134-sm.jpgSo Saturday morning I stuffed myself with street-side falafel, for 2 EP – the equivalent of 36 US cents – and lingered at a cafe drinking mint tea, people watching, and compiling a list of images of Cairo that are now permanently impressed in my mind:

• A family of four on a moped on the highway – a child of 5 or 6 sitting in front of the father, who was driving. The mother sitting on the back holding an infant in her arms.

• A legless man, rolling himself across eight lanes of heavy traffic on a piece of plywood with three wheels attached.

• Three women in burqas eating McDonald’s at the mega-mall called City Stars.

• The astounding sunset over Garbage City, a slum we pass on the way from New Cairo, where AUC’s new campus is located, into downtown.

• Laundry hanging everywhere, from every floor of every apartment building, coloring the buildings that have all faded to brown by the constant assault of the sand.

IMG_0165-sm.jpg• The Nile, flanked by hotels that are cities onto themselves, and mansion houseboats, and sparkling riverside restaurants. The Nile, dotted with feluccas and speedboats alike.

• Herds of sheep blocking traffic near downtown. Horse and buggy carts are commonly seen on the highway.

• A Burger King neighboring a mosque.

IMG_0152-sm.jpgI’ve studied abroad before, in London, and had an amazing time. But I wanted to go to Egypt, not only to learn Arabic and prepare for a future career in the Middle East, but to experience a lifestyle that wasn’t “western,” in a place where things like family and tradition were valued more than the acquisition of material wealth, where prayer calls sound rather than clock towers. The prayer calls are much nicer, I think, than the ding-dong of clocks, and restaurants seem scarce compared to back home, since most people prefer to make large meals at home with their families.

IMG_0171-sm.jpg But as the mega-malls and chain restaurants like KFC and TGI Friday’s prove, Egyptians embrace western-style consumerism. American movies are much more popular among young Egyptians than the local offerings, as is American pop music.

My lifestyle here certainly differs from my life back home: I don’t wear a seatbelt here since they usually don’t exist in the vehicles I ride in; my diet consists of a rotation of McDonald’s and koshery, pizza and falafel; I’m watched over vigilantly by my male friends, who’ll never let me take a cab by myself and instruct me to call once I’ve made it home safely. I was given my own private shuttle back to AUC from Tahrir one night when there were only men riding in the other one.

But mostly, my lifestyle here is more relaxed. People are so friendly that I never worry about asking for help, or being lost, because there’s always someone around to help me find my way. You have to be relaxed in Cairo and just go with the flow of things. You can’t be picky about 15 minutes turning into an hour, or being served something you didn’t intend to order at a restaurant. You can’t worry about anything, like being run over when you try to cross the street, because, insha-allah, everything will work out okay in the end.

And so far, everything in Cairo – from conversing with the locals in my broken Arabic and sampling dishes whose components I am completely unaware of, to my classes in Political Science and Arabic at AUC – everything in Egypt is working out splendidly for me.

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First impressions of Cairo

k-IMG_0105-sm.jpg I flew into Cairo during a minor sandstorm. All day long a fine golden haze colored everything, making it impossible to see more than fifty feet in any direction.

At the airport, I had my first adventure negotiating a cab ride to AUC’s new campus – none of the cab drivers in the city seem to know where it is. I was satisfied with the agreed upon 90 pound price (about $16 US dollars), but ended up giving the demanding driver an embarrassingly large tip, since cab drivers typically aren’t tipped at all in Egypt.

These are the kinds of things commonly heard about Egypt that dissuade people from visiting the country: Everyone is trying to take your money, trying to scam you, will harass you (especially if you’re a female). Yes, at the Pyramids there were vendors, and no, you probably shouldn’t buy anything there, but a simple “La, shukran,” (“No, thank you”) is all that’s required to make your visit to such touristy places pleasant.

Knowing just a little bit of the language of wherever you’re traveling is so important. I knew one word of Arabic when I arrived in Cairo, “shukran,” and really feel like it made a difference in the way I interacted with the people here. That’s why I’m so excited to already be studying Arabic, at AUC’s six-day survival Arabic course, before my classes have even started.

AUC is world-renowned for its Arabic language programs, and it seems like the vast majority of students studying here are passionate about learning the language. After a few days of classes, it’s easy for me to understand why. It’s beautiful with its “shs” and “tzs” and rolling “rrrs”; and it seems impossible – so many syllables and vowels next to other vowels, a cursive script with tiny dots below and above the text. So it’s amazing when it begins to make sense, and reveals so much about the culture. Inshaa allah (“God willing,” to be said before any mention of the future), I’ll become comfortable speaking with locals in my next four months of study here.

k-IMG_0103-sm.jpg My first few days in Cairo have been a surreal blur of activity and absorption.

k-IMG_0115-sm.jpg
The day after I arrived, the residence office organized a trip to the pyramids, where there were camel rides and the obligatory walking-like-an-Egyptian photos in front of the Sphinx.

We were then taken for a traditional Egyptian meal at an open-air restaurant where one of the hosts was inexplicably holding a large lion cub in his arms. I don’t really know why he was holding a lion cub at a restaurant, but after about three hours on a bumpy bus, climbing crouched over, down steep tunnels inside the pyramids, and being surrounded by camels, everyone was so dazed, it was like “Oh, fun, a lion cub. (pet). Can we eat now, PLEASE?”

It’s funny how after just a few hours in Cairo, you begin to expect the unexpected. It’s otherworldly, and entirely wonderful.

k-IMG_0118-sm.jpg The next day, after my first survival Arabic class, there was a trip to a Bedouin camp (or something at least designed to look like a Bedouin camp), where we sat on pillows and carpets in a brightly colored tent, drinking tea, some smoking shisha – a very common Egyptian activity – and watched belly dancers and dervishes. Outside the tent, we rode horses in the desert out to a hillside, where we could see the pyramids in the distance, lit up green and red and yellow. The dunes seemed purplish, the blowing sand like a fog, swirling so that time seemed to disappear.

Tonight there was a dinner cruise on the Nile River, and, it seems, the opportunities for amazing experiences are endless. It’s a constant adventure, and not all as romantic as I may have made it seem so far. Cairo is undeniably frustrating; 15 minutes usually means an hour, traffic is insane, mega-malls larger than any seen in the U.S. hover over – what appear to me to be – nearby slums, and it seems to be at least a five-hour adventure to just get groceries. And it isn’t all pleasant; trash litters the Nile, which smells like a zoo.

No, Cairo is certainly not perfect and it’s certainly a challenging place to live, but I’m enjoying the challenges and all the rewards.

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