Thursday, 30 June 2011

Snapshots of a holiday - post revolution

Having never travelled in pre-revolution Egypt I can only conjecture the difference the revolution has brought to the country. As a tourist I only graze the surface of knowing what real life is like here. So the following impressions are only small pictures of a large and complicated story.

In the beginning doing the typical tourist thing in post revolutionary Egypt has its perks, less tourists to battle with always feels like a good thing. My visit to the pyramids was spectacular, and relatively devoid of other travelers. This was great for me as I got to go inside a pyramid without bumping elbows with a single tourist.  

My early morning trip to the museum was also relatively quiet, allowing for a very happy mornings exploration amongst the dimly lit mass of pharaohic treasures. Again amongst the tiny magical market stalls at Khan al Kahlili I was pleased to be amongst locals rather than tourists. There are tourists around, but at the moment they don’t overrun the place, much to the disappointment of  local camel drivers, souvenir sellers and drink vendors. In a place which was economically depressed before the revolution I can only imagine the impact the downturn in tourism is having on those who rely on tourism for their income.

Travelling downtown cars roll along the streets as thickly and chaotically as ever, but here and there you can see scars from the revolution, smoke blackened buildings and gaps in street signs where protesters have ripped down Hosni Mubarak’s name. Though the cache inside the museum remained untouched throughout the Revolution, the blackened building next door tells of how close the chaos came to the treasure trove. 

Months after the revolution I spent the night out on the town with a charming group of ex-pat ladies on the first Thursday night after the lifting of the curfew. Thursday being the Friday in the Egyptian working week and it being the first time many had seen each other since they were evacuated, meant there was much to be celebrated and much to be remembered. Everyone had a Revolution story: tanks outside the supermarket, gunmen on the streets, looters tied to trees, long waits at the airport, families separated, anxiety and uncertainty abounded.

 One young American woman was evacuated and had to leave her Egyptian fiancĂ© protesting in Tahrir Square while she prepared for their wedding in the US. She told us that the upheaval of the Revolution was a perfect remedy for pre-wedding nerves.  Her story ends with a wedding and a return to Cairo, but not all the young men who went to Tahire square had such happy endings. A young artist Ahmed Basiouny, who lost his life at Tahrir Square is having his life and work celebrated at the Venice Biennale this year.

We went out in Zamalek for the post curfew girls night out. It is a well to do suburb on an island in the Nile with leafy embassies and great shops. Its close proximity to downtown made Zamalek a scary place during the Revolution.The women who lived there through the Revolution were afraid to leave the house for fear of roving gunmen.  Reclaiming it post Revolution and post curfew was an important marker of a city carrying on. 

As I continue on my journey, out of the city and to the Sinai Peninsula I begin feel the burden of being a post revolutionary tourist. Dhahab is a coastal down with amazing mountains, abundant coral reefs and right now there are very few tourists.

Abandoned resorts with camels roaming through them are quaint for a little while- and then they just get depressing. The towns restaurants, tour operators and taxi drivers far out way travellers and half the time when I walk down the street it makes me want to cry. 

The hopeless extent of my own poverty is revealed to me when a young Russian woman living in town, whom I suspect was attempting to run a scam on me found out which low end backpackers I was staying at - and walked away. There are so many people dependant on tourist spending and my paltry dollars can never go far enough.  

 It would be easy to spiral downwards in this headspace-  luckily there are so many beautiful sights to see, many lovely locals who want to put a smile on your face, and a handful of great fellow travellers to share the experience with. With the help of a snorkelling trip, locally caught fish and chips, a midnight climb up Mt Sinai and lunch with the Bedouin I manage to pull myself out of my fug and enjoy my last week in Egypt. 

Of course locals need much more than tourists - they need stability in the future. While I am snorkelling Mabarak is in a hospital bed down the road in the ritzy resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, across the water on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba you can see Saudi Arabia; idyllic as it is you cannot quite forget the dangerous limbo the country is in. 

In Egypt people are waiting for the true heat of summer to descend, they are waiting for September and the new set of unknowns that the election will bring. They are waiting but they are also getting on with life.

In Dhahab renovations are taking place, shopfronts are being painted, signs are fixed and walls are being scrubbed. After work you go for a swim and at night at my backpackers all the local men gather to watch their football team win and their mothers try to get them to come home at a reasonable time. (In other words life goes on) Locals talk of the need for everyone to be patient, that things will not change overnight, they are friendly and open about their hopes for the future.

Sunrise on Mt Sinai

I think the picture I will take away from Egypt is of a friendly, splendid complex place, that I would encourage anyone to visit. 

Posted from Dhahab, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

One Mans Trash

At the moment I am a guest in an ex-pat neighbourhood in New Cairo. I am somewhere between a backpacker and an international local. But this is not Egypt.  The contrast from my time in Africa sometimes makes it hard to take the golf club, water aerobics, brunch, suntan, swimming pool, four toilets per household, maid and driver lifestyle seriously. If only it was not all so comfortable!  

In between lying by the pool and eating very well I have been doing the tourist thing. There was a day at the Pyramids and a morning at the museum, all spectacular, but only allowing the occasional glimpses of the real Egypt. Then yesterday my cousin and I went on a day trip to Garbage City.  

Driving around in 4WD air conditioned comfort I had already noticed that Cairo is a city with a lot of rubbish, in the streets, canals and desert around the pyramids there was trash everywhere. So although I knew we were going to see a recycling project I had not imagined that a day trip to Garbage City would be anything more than another reminder of the stark gap between the haves and the have nots. 

And at first when you look down on this mass of half built structures, covered in rubbish and or livestock it is a depressing sight. There spread out before you is a collection of poor, permanently downtrodden people drowning in Cairo’s garbage. 

Urban farm- five stories up.

But the reality is quite different.  The Mokattam district on the outskirts of Cairo, known locally as Garbage City, is not a city of garbage- it is a city of garbage collectors. The Zabaleen (the Arabic translation of garbage collector) have an incredibly layered history of struggle, persecution and ingenuity.  The story of a group of people who moved from farmers to squatters to urban garbage collectors is probably better told by those who have spent more than an afternoon learning about the area. I recommend A.P.E.

Any notion that the city below breeds nothing but hopelessness washes away as our guide points out the layers of industry taking place on a huge scale in front of us.  Plastic, paper and glass are sorted, processed and sent on their way.  

 Away from the glaring sun there are women making beautiful new products from recycled paper, and weaving rugs from factory offcuts with the support of an NGO. One of the figures I find impressive is that at one time the Zabaleen  processed 40% of Cairo’s waste and recycled 85% of this.

Educating the (at the moment) occasional tourist on the reality of life for the Zabaleen is not our guides main gig. Hannah Fathy Rostum works for Solar Cities, he is a locally educated young man who is proud of his heritage as a garbage collector and has visions of Garbage City becoming Egypts centre for renewable energy. 

Working towards this goal has seen him travel the world to teach and learn about renewable energy. Current projects are solar hot water heaters made from locally recycled materials and a biogas digestor turning food scraps into gas. His energy, enthusiasm and big ideas make him not just an asset for his local community but also the world at large.

For a fuller bio of Hanna go to Cairo 360, and click here for details and instruction on how to build your own solar hot water heater from recycled materials.

A Solar City solar panel at work in Garbage City.

At the end of many of my sightseeing days I have felt Egypt’s wow factor. But the wow at the end of the day spent in Garbage City was on a different level. As impressive as the sights of Egypt's past have been, seeing day to day life in Garbage City, with all its fragility and endeavor for the future was truly inspiring.  

And unlike the Hippo pool in the Serengeti there was not even a stink in Garbage City. 

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The long road to Cairo.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, 2011 has been the year of big things. One of the big things, which has continued to have reverberations around the world and continues to have an impact on my trip occurred at the start of the year in Egypt. In February this year Egypt had a revolution. Just before things got ugly I booked a ticket to fly from Tanzania to visit my cousin and her family living the ex-pat life in Cairo. 

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

At the height of the chaos there were no phones and no internet.  We obsessively watched scary pictures on the news as we waited to find of how loved ones and strangers were faring. Finally after a few contradictory scraps of news via facebook we got solid news. The following email (sent by my Aunt, whose daughter and family I am now staying with in Cairo) was a great relief:

“Thanks for your thoughts and messages – I can’t capture what it means to know people are thinking of our Cairo family’s safety as well as what’s happening to people in Egypt, so thanks will have to do,

Have just Skyped with Fraine in Dubai and they’ve just about caught up with their sleep deficit and got back to eating meals. And after a WB (World Bank) meeting last night, families’ attention is turning to kids’ education and where to from here.

family dinner on a felucca on the Nile

Some families are considering school in Dubai. Fraine is wondering about using Oz Distance Ed resources. Not an available option for most families whose countries don’t have requirements for distance ed infrastructure – yet another reason to be glad we’re Australians, despite the floods/fires/cyclones! They’re also feeling very fortunate to have a house and school to return to in Oz as an option: most of the other evacuated families don’t have this. Fraine’s also unconcerned about having to leave material things behind in Cairo for now or ?forever.

international school

Some people who left with them have only hand luggage as they had to walk some distance before they could be transported to the airport. Some of the WB Egyptian employees have stayed behind as they have to physically protect their houses. The WB has chartered two flights out and they will call people who have stayed behind today to see if they want to leave. They’ve moved the a.m. call back to 11 a.m. as an earlier call interrupts people’s sleep after they’ve stayed up all night to protect their houses from looters.

 We maybe should feel sorry for Cam: the WB has an office in Dubai so he’ll be back at work on Sunday I guess (and perhaps he was back at work yesterday/ Thursday). Fraine’s relieved they didn’t go to Istanbul (another WB office city) - it’s winter there and they wouldn’t have winter clothes. (Seems a silly worry really, but maybe ordinary worries are a comfort in crises?)

All the WB families are being accommodated in the same serviced apartment building in Dubai so the kids have playmates in similar situations to themselves. The WB has a protocol for managing evacuated employees/families, which changes according to the length of time of the evacuation.  It’s early days yet, but we need have no concerns for F, C, H and L at any step along the way.

Egyptian felucca skipper

It’s a different matter for the people in Egypt of course... [in this] truly troubling time. If I was a prayer myself, I’d ask that people be safe. But I’ll ask for it anyway – just in case, and ‘cos it’s all I can do, x B”

That was February. In March I caught up with my cousin in St Kilda, she had returned to Australia so that her children could continue with their school year while her husband stayed in Dubai to work. The talk was about the scary time they had lived through, but also the plan to return once things had settled down. Her invitation to me to visit was still open if I wanted it.

And last week I arrived to a still curfewed Cairo in the middle of the night.

sunset on the Nile

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Flamingo Roving

At sunset on our last day of safari we arrive at our campsite overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater, as I look out over the vast crater that was once a mountain larger than Kilimanjaro there is only one thing on my mind: is there a hint of pink in that salt lake far in the distance or is the first country on my Flamingo roving list going to be a disappointment. There is no guarantee, Flamingo habitats in Tanzania have been dwindling for years leaving the fragile birds with less and less to call home. 

True we saw Flamingos on our first day of safari- but they were so far away on the distant edge of Lake Manyara that despite my many times zoomed pictures, and squinting through the binoculars I still did not feel like I had seen them.

Not when you compare our sightings Elephants just a few feet away and a Lion using our vehicle as cover during a hunt. No- my tight schedule in Tanzania means that if there are no proper sighting in the crater the first leg of my trip will be a Flamingo failure and my only proper picture will be the model at the entrance to Lake Manyara. 

I try to be philosophical- surely no trip with so many highlights can be classified as a disappointment; but then again can I really going to be satisfied without my gangly pink birds?

The truth is that even if there is a Flamingo fail I will still most defiantly consider my time in Tanzania as 100% a success on the life experience front, and I will trek on to my next Flamingo destination with happy determination to hunt down my pink birds in the end. 

As the sun sets I gaze into the distance, hoping rather than believing that there is a touch of pink below.

 I manage to pass the night without too many nerves, what with an excellent dinner, Elephants ambling about the campsite and travelers from all over the world sharing our last Tanzanian camp fire it is not so hard.

Finally, with the sun just rising and the mist rolling spectacularly over the crater rim we set off.

We start the day spotting a male lion who is the full Aslan, and then as we are watching yet more Wildebeasts do their thing the remains of the salt lake come into view... and though the lake is still in the distance there are real life Flamingos there and today we are going to get a closer look. 

I am one extremely happy girl as our safari vehicle gets as close as it is allowed to the lake. There is still a distance between me and my pray- but it is much diminished. 

I try to listen as our guide tells us about the Greater and Lesser Flamingos in front of us (Greater are less pink) but I am too busy taking photos, looking happily through the binoculars and smiling at the world to take in much information. My fellow safari-ers very kindly linger while I drink in my first proper encounter. 

Eventually I agree to depart and as we move away the line of birds stretches out behind us doting the lakes edge with pink.

My first few photos are rubbish and the video I took to indicate the quantity of birds before us is a seasick making blur, but there are some decent shots as well. They were there, they were really right in front of me. And I still have a smile on my face. 


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Masai gazing

People of many different cultures and religions make up the population of Tanzania, and people of many different cultures and religions populated the adult classes being taught in Jambiani. Being ‘teacher’ for a week was a lovely way to see and meet a cross section of the population. In amongst the mixture of Muslim men and women, Christian men and women, earnest men, flirty men, young boys with the biggest smiles I’ve seen in a while and bleary eyed Rastas there were also a handful of Masai.  

English class in Jambiani, Zanzibar

The first Masai man I met in Tanzania was called Maurice. Maurice was friendly polite and worked hard at his English, but instead of wearing the short trousers of the other men of his age he came to class everyday in his traditional dress, with his machete belted to his waist and mobile phone tucked somewhere amongst the draperies.  

Masai on mainland Tanzania
In Jambiani and afterwards travelling around on the mainland it has been the Masai who have stood out the most to me. Perhaps it is the exotic thing, or perhaps it is because they wonderfully satisfy my ever hungry lust for colour.

How could you not want to rest your gaze on such a striking group of people, draped in brightly checked cloth and festooned with beads. The Masai wear inches of beads on their ankles, elaborate neck pieces, the styling of the women's crowns designate whether they are married or not, and each distended ear lobe carries a chandeliers worth of baubles. Some jewellery is reserved for ceremonial occasions, but much is worn everyday whilst tending the cattle, and caring for the children.

Towards the beginning of our Safari it was arranged for us to visited a Masai community. The small collection of huts is surrounded by a fence built of spiky bushes, and we made our way shyly inside. We were greeted by two dozen elaborately dressed men and women (some with babies strapped to their backs) who welcomed us with wild song and a jumping dance.  Touring Masai homes and glimpsing elements of their culture was great and I made my first souvenir purchase of my trip, a pair of earrings so I can carry the Masai look with me as I travel.   

beaded jewellery on Masai Tribeswoman 

Just when the official tour was winding up, there was an unscripted event. A child had spotted a very large snake headed into one of the houses- and we rushed to the site along with the rest of the tribe. With much laughing and much fear the men darted in and out of the house to ascertain the threat, and then began to smash the foundations of the house with their walking staffs and machetes in  an attempt to drive out the snake. In the Masai tribe it is the womens job to build the houses from sticks and mud, and while the men happily smashed holes in the house the very pregnant owner urged them to stop.   

Masai tribeswomen with mud house

Young Masai men are initiated by setting off in small groups to (illegally) hunt lions, but snakes it seems are much more frightening. Amid much hysteria and talk of burning down the house, and after a few more holes were smashed into the walls, the snake was gradually hunted down and after its head was thoroughly smashed in the Egyptian Cobra was put on display. Everyone was very pleased with the eradication of the pest- though the women were obviously less than impressed that their day would now include extensive repairs. 

Masai tribesmen with an Egyptian Cobra

It was fascinating to see the tribe off script. Everyone was very concerned to have the children kept out of the way, but overall the women appeared to be the rational ones, while the men were the ones darting back and forth with big sticks and no plan.

One of the many paintings of Masai sold to tourists.

At times it can be hard for a tourist to get a real taste of what a place and its people are like. But in the classroom and in the Masai village I felt like I got a small glimpse of some of the various forms of real life in Tanzania.

Things you may or may not have known about the Masai: 

They are nomadic and polygamous  

They wear sandals made from car tyres 

They often make good money selling jewellery to tourists

Houses are burnt down when the tribe moves on to its next destination

Friday, 10 June 2011

The end of innocently ignorant hippo loving days

I am away from Zanzibar and on mainland Tanzania  for Safari. The locals here are a bit more standoffish than they were on the Island. In Jambiani I was ‘teacher’, but peering from the window of our Safari vehicle I am just one more white face in a long line of tourists.  I am excited about seeing new places and faces, but very aware of the gap the money in my pocket makes between myself and the people whose villages, cities and parks I am visiting. 

On the first day out of town and on safari at the Lake Manyara National Park we see Hippos keeping themselves cool in fresh water pools. Only their stepping stone like backs and the tips of ears emerge from the water. 

The next day,  in the Serengeti we had the very great fortune of seeing a Hippo out of the water and going for a stroll. And while it was not quite as riveting as seeing a Leopard in an Acacia tree it was still pretty exciting. In my mind Hippos have always been these lovable gentle giants who mosey about doing Hippo things and occasionally pop out wearing a tutu in children’s stories. 

Only it turns out that I have never given that much thought to what ‘hippo things’ might actually entail.

It was not until day three of our safari that I discovered the dirty truth about the Hippopotamus.
At the end of our third day of Safari-ing about in Tanzanian national parks our little troupe was pretty happy. We had seen Zebras grazing, Giraffes craning their necks, Lions lazing, Warthogs running in circles, every type of antelope you can imagine and to top it all off we were witness to a successful Cheetah hunt. 

As we rested our eyes and our cameras on the drive to the Hippo Pool in the dwindling afternoon I don’t think anyone was prepared for what we would see. 

The first surprise was that we were able to climb out of our pop top truck. Apparently no Lions hang out near the Hippo pool. Mothers are very protective of their babies, and this closely knit group was certainly doing a good job of keeping any predators at bay: we were soon to discover how. 

The first thought that struck me as I gazed down on the happy hippos was that we had come to the real life bog of eternal stench. Only when you watch The Labyrinth you do not have to smell the bog- when you are in the Serengeti you get the full sensory experience. 

Before us were maybe one hundred hippos, all happily squashed in together yawning, burping, farting, flicking their tails and shitting into a fecund mess of truly revolting proportions.

It was disgusting, it stank and nobody could look away. 

Like many animals, Hippos like to mark their territory by urinating, hippos have a special trick of whipping their tail around whilst they urinate (and on occasion while they defecate) thus allowing for a full whirlwind spray. When this occurs underwater in an already putrid waterway the resulting stench burns the hairs out of your nasal cavity. 

Hippos need to stay wet in order to keep cool, and this particular family apparently found their own manure  especially cooling as they kept up a constant flow of their own mess on whatever small part of themselves was exposed. 

After almost an hour of watching the most disgusting show on earth we made our way back to camp. Why, how, blagh, eww were our many times repeated sentiments as our brains struggled to understand the sights, sounds and smells we had been witness to. 

As the sun set we were all praying that a beer would wash away the stench- and knowing that we would never forget the sight. My innocently ignorant hippo loving days were over.

On the last day of our safari we came across a small hippo family keeping themselves nice in a pretty fresh water lake inside the Nogorongoro Crater. The gulf between how different animals of the same species choose to live made things even more confusing. One of the sage women safari made the comparison of people- when there are a few of us in an area we can keep things pretty nice- but when there is a massive population things get pretty stinky pretty quickly. And perhaps the Hippopotamus is like people: with none of us able to choose which pool we get born into. 

The only difference is that people make the best of the situation they find themselves in- and the Hippopotamus seems quite content to wallow.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Changing (personal) Time Zones

I’m staying in Jambiani- a small beach side town on Zanzibar. I am here for a week getting a taste of life as a volunteer with African Impact- and also glimpsing life in an African town.

The rambling township is mostly built from coral, which the locals are careful to point out is cut not from the reefs but inland. People mostly get about on bicycles or on foot, and there are children everywhere you look shouting “Jumbo” at the muzungos. The houses are coral, the roads are coral and the gardens are grown in coral. The dusty grey of the town is contrasted with the most spectacular white sand and blue green water.   

My days volunteering in Jambiani equal dealing with so much that is new, rushing to catch up and figure things out so that I can contribute something, make friends, keep up online stuff, have a swim, ride a bike on a road made of coral, getting my skirt stuck in the wheel of my bike on a road made of coral, going for a run on the beach before sunrise, not speaking the language, learning a new language, teaching adults, teaching kids, playing with kids, dealing with heat, power outs, planting trees, watering trees, young men who are too interested, crying thirsty children, lots of hyper girls, having my period and struggling to relax while I  wait around for whatever is next on the list of things to do.

Swahili is spoken in Zanzibar, but English is the language in which high school exams are set.  The better your grounding in English the better your chances are of going to University or getting a decently paying job. In Jambiani most families rely on income from is seaweed collection. While I am told the wage is going up because of increased competitiveness in the market, the wage is between $12 and $60 USD a year. The key to a future of prosperity in Zanzibar is seen as tourism and if locals want to move beyond in menial jobs education is essential.

At first it is all on overload and I wonder if there is anything useful that can come out of the chaos. It is immediately clear that everyone is putting in loads of positive energy, but at times it seems a bit like the push-me-pull-you- a multi headed animal that cannot quite agree on where it is headed.  My desire to get things done in an efficient way, to be on time and most of all not to waste time conflicts strongly  with life in Africa.

Being an early person in a place where everything runs at its own pace can raise your blood pressure.
But then as my days rush past the question shifts: from what can I do to help? -to - can I shift my headspace to help me fit with this place?
From- how can I make every second of this day as efficient as possible?- to - can I spend this hour right now reading with this young man, and give him all my attention so that at the end of our time together he comes away having learnt something?

The question- can I help a class of five year old children learn the English words for “mother” “father” “son” “daughter” without worrying about fifty other things at the same time is answered quickly- and in the affirmative.

In a class of 36 five year olds who all speak another language, you do not have time to think about yourself. There is no quiet. Everything is at full volume and moments of concentration quickly dissolve into a mess of crying children, hitting each other, eating blu tack, demanding a sharper pencil, children falling asleep because they have had no food today, climbing on desks and running in circles, calling “teacher, teacher” and grabbing at any passing body. 

And yet amidst the chaos there will still be two or three children sitting quietly doing their work.  Scribbling out words in a foreign language as best as five year olds can.

And seeing them hard at it makes you feel like there is some point to your being there. 

I know that I am not here for long enough to have a big impact – on my students or my own brain- but occasionally there are moments that seem to slow down and connect.