Friday, April 27, 2012

Jordan Challenge 31: Making a Cairo Top Ten List (Part II)

So, I've posted numbers 10 -4 of my Top Ten List earlier, but the post was getting so long, I thought it made sense to break it into two.  Here is the rest of the list -- that is, the three best things about my recent trip to Cairo.

3.  Travel with Grace.  As an avid traveller, one thing I came to realize a long ago is that travel companions often make or break the experience.  I have almost always been blessed with awesome travel companions (though some, like my sister Katrinka and friends Jamila and Berit, might not feel the same about me and would be happy to tell you stories about how I almost killed us all with some ridiculously miserly moves that wound up being penny-wise and pound-foolish). As far as I'm concerned a good travel buddy is someone who has a great, sunny attitude; never sweats the small stuff (and considers my legendary (as in terrible) sense of direction an example of the "small stuff"); thinks it's just as fun to bounce onto a sweaty crowded form of public transportation or wander through a crazy chaotic market as it is to go somewhere in the guide book; and agrees with me that the only reason a traveller ever has a right to be cranky is when they are hungry, in which case the nearest scruffy-looking place that gets a lot of local traffic is probably a good bet.

Turns out Grace maxed out on all my criteria. Plus, she was constantly being complimented by everyone and their uncle for her excellent Arabic; had infinite energy and patience for the endless parade of vendors offering free goods and then reneging with demands for baksheesh; loves talking politics as much as I do (I highly recommend her blog, which can be viewed here); and generally charmed all of Cairo with her winning ways.  The moral of the story is that as travellers go, she is positively top-notch, and anyone reading this blog who ever has the chance to hit the road with her should jump on the opportunity immediately.  You will never regret it.
Still another of Grace's amazing travel skills is that she has perfected the art of the jumping picture in front of the world's major landmarks.  She can now add her pyramid jump shot to the ones she did in front of the Taj Mahal and the Siq of Petra in recent months.

Grace with her two new police buddies about one minute before learning the crucial lesson that police, too, feel that baksheesh and the pyramids go together in perfect harmony.

And here, showing off her happy temperament as we embarked on our felucca ride.

2.  Seeing a whirling Dervish performance. Thanks to our friend Kat, this one made it onto our travel itinerary.  The performance was free and held in an amazing building, the Al-Khouri Mausoleum.  The only drawback was that lots of other people also wanted to get in on the fabulous free performance, so although we arrived 45 minutes early, that wasn't early enough to avoid a nail-biting wait outside the giant doors in the hopes that we'd be admitted from among the throng outside.  But the wait was so completely worth it.  The whole performance was not like anything I'd ever seen.  It began with several musical numbers by white-clothed musicians, some of whom also did some spinning, and then they added the spinning dancers in fabulously bright costumes.  It was incredible how long they could maintain their spinning, and the whole thing is pretty mesmerizing.  I feel like I could watch it for hours.

In fact, it's a funny thing.  I've done a lot of religious tourism since coming to this part of the world.  I've visited Mount Nebo, where Moses is believed to have talked to God, Bethany beyond the Jordan where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, and a variety of other holy sites and mosques, churches and synagogues in Jerusalem and elsewhere.  But nothing has felt as spiritual to me as watching the dervishes spin, maybe because they seem so joyful. Although this performance was clearly created with the audience in mind, the practice of spinning was developed by the Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, as a form of moving meditation. If I have the chance to see more of it (hopefully in an upcoming trip to Turkey with my friend Elizabeth), I surely will.  And I would strongly recommend that anyone who can, should check it out as well.
The musicians were as important as the dancers (and at some points were one and same).

On top of everything else, the performance space, complete with a balcony on the stage, was quite amazing.

My favorite image from the whole trip.

1.  Visiting Tahrir Square. One of the greatest gifts of my time as a Fulbright has actually been it's timing.  The Arab Spring and its aftermath is continuing to unfold around me.  Since the first hopeful manifestations of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, optimism has been replaced with cynicism, fear and violence in many places (with the notable exception of Tunisia).  And many of the people I've talked to have cynical interpretations of events as well, wondering aloud, for instance, what role foreign elements (including the US government) have played. Yet, despite these developments and suspicions, I think nothing captures the imagination, the optimism and the idealism of the original revolutions so well as the phrase "Tahrir Square".

Having Grace around to translate the tons of graffiti on the government buildings behind me added a whole additional layer of meaning to the experience.
The Square is actually a very big traffic circle and is bounded by a number of notable buildings, including the Egyptian Museum, the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the party of which former President Mubarak was head, the headquarters of the Arab League, the old main building of the American University of Cairo, and the Mogamma government building, that housed many government bureaucracies and in some ways symbolized the bureaucratic labyrinth of the state. On the 25th of January, 2011, an estimated 50,000 people occupied the square to protest then-President Mubarak and by February 1 that number had swelled to at least 300,000. Decisively, the Army swung its support to the protesters when ordered by the government to attack them, and Mubarak resigned on February 11, (Obviously, there is a whole lot more that happened, but that's my two-sentence oversimplified summary.)

Although the ousting of Mubarak, which was led by a secular youth movement in alliance with many other groups that had been repressed by the state, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was seen as an inspiring victory to supporters of democracy in many places, today, the outcome of the revolution remains to be determined.  The Army is running the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), it says, on a temporary basis until elections have been completed.  Parliamentary elections have already happened, and the secular elements that were at the forefront of the revolution, including many female activists, are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative religiously-base Salafis won the largest numbers of seats, and are proposing legislation at odds with some of the secular movement's demands.  The Presidential election will happen around the third week of May.  In the meantime, Tahrir Square remains a focal point for demonstrations held just about every Friday, as various elements of the revolution continue to try to consolidate their gains into the actual structuring of a democracy that respects the rule of law.

There are a few tents still pitched in the Square which protesters continuously occupy.  This one is a solidarity tent for Syria. The boy in the picture is 13 year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who has come to be a potent symbol of Syrian state oppression when he was tortured, murdered and mutilated by government forces after being detained for participating in a May 2011 protest.

No translation needed on this one -- protesters say it is time for SCAF (the military "temporary" government) to transition out of power.

One of my favorites -- highlighting the equality of girls with boys.

Ironically, though these were my three favorite things of the whole trip, none of them cost me a dime (or in Egypt, that would be a pound).  Yet each was priceless.  In a sense they collectively represent the components of travel at its best-- the opportunity to share the experience with others who are as excited about it as you; the chance to be moved by something beyond your own experience, and the chance to appreciate the experiences and actions of others that had before seemed distant and disconnected.  However the Egyptian Revolution resolves itself, it is impossible to go to Tahrir Square and not be moved by the collective courage and imagination of the thousands of people who demanded (and are continuing to demand) democracy and human rights for everyone. Cairo has always been a major tourist destination for people the world over.  I hope that the inspirational actions of Egypt's citizens give the rest of the world one more reason to want to come and see Egypt's contributions to world civilization.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jordan Challenge 31: Making a Cairo Top Ten List (Part I)

So, it's been a couple of weeks since I got back from my trip to Cairo with my most amazing friend and fellow Fulbrighter Grace, but I've been at a loss about how to write about what we saw and did there.  But then last night, while talking to my equally amazing friend and fellow Fulbrighter Elizabeth, she pointed out the solution when she observed that I am a dedicated List Maker.  That has, after all, been a central theme of this blog from the start.  The challenge in this case was in keeping the list to a Top Ten, and even that was fairly hefty, necessitating a two-post write-up.

Here it is: my top ten Highlights of a Long Weekend in Cairo:

10.  The Pyramids of Giza (of course!). Fairly obvious, I know.  We could have done fine without the extremely aggressive purveyors of camel rides and plastic pyramids but it surely is an amazing thing to get up close and personal with probably the most famous geometric shapes in the world. I had visited once before but had never gone inside one.  This time we bought tickets and went inside the  Great Pyramid of Khufu (the biggest one).  I don't know why Middle Eastern tourist attractions are so fond of making you check your camera at the entrance (same thing at the Egyptian and Coptic Museums and at some cool places in Beirut), but as a result I have no photos from inside the Pyramid.  Nonetheless I can report that climbing up the inside is actually an unforgettable experience.  Rather than a staircase there is a gangway, and the passage is so low, you actually have to walk up bent over.  There are warnings not to go in if you are claustrophobic or have heart or back conditions.  We joked about it till we went inside and realized they were serious.  Climbing up makes you wonder how on earth they got the stones (which weigh several tons each) of the pyramids up at all.
Getting ready to give up my camera and head into the Great Pyramid of Khufu

A rare moment of not being surrounded by anyone who wants to sell anything.

9. Saqqara.  The Pyramids of Giza are not the only ones in the area, just the most famous.  Saqqara is a big complex south of Cairo that we also visited, which includes the Step Pyramid of Zoser and a very cool museum on the grounds.
Grace and I in front of the Step Pyramid of Zoser.  Grace's headgear and my bundle were both thrust upon us by our picture-taker, who was gearing up for the big moment when he would hit us up for baksheesh (a tip). Look out if these guys ever get together with the traders of Wall Street.

8. The Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar.  If you want to appreciate the architecture of Old Cairo, a good way to do it is to hit the Khan Al-Khalil Bazaar (and that way you can buy souvenirs, too).  Wandering around there reminded me of being in Stonetown, Zanzibar, which is an awfully high compliment as far as I am concerned for a place.  There are lots of twisty alleyways and beautiful doors and windows and the smell of spices and shops and stalls for everything from scarves to exotic lanterns to boring plastic kitchen utensils (which reminds that you the real citizens of Cairo and not just the tourists go there, too).
Everywhere you look in the Khan Al-Khalil is another beautiful building detail.

Grace, Lucy and Kat taking a breather from some serious bargaining (Kat wins the prize with the amazing lamps she bought).

7. Al-Azhar Mosque.  Grace and I both bought scarves at Khan Al-Khalil, which were pressed into service at our next place on our itinerary, the Al-Azhar Mosque.  Happily, this mosque is open to non-Muslim visitors (provided they cover themselves appropriately), and is interesting not only for the beauty of the mosque, but for its claim to fame as the world's oldest surviving university (established in 972 AD).  It is still considered the foremost Islamic institution for the study of Sunni theology and law.  Grace told me that the students and their teachers are paired off, and the students learn through an intensive one-on-one form of the tutelage; we saw the work going on for ourselves as we toured the courtyard and some of the areas inside the mosque, and the pairs of students and teachers in conversation with one another.
Grace dons her brand-new headscarf before we headed inside to see what old-school one-on-one Quaranic instruction looks like inside the mosque.

6. The Citadel and Al-Azhar Park. We made the trek up to the Citadel fairly late in the day, so didn't have to time to go in all the different mosques and museums enclosed within the walls of the structure, though we did venture in to the biggest mosque and had some great views of the rest of the city from the Citadel walls.  The Citadel was constructed by the Sultan Saladin in the 1100s to protect Cairo against the Crusaders. On the way up to the Citadel, Grace and I had passed the Al-Azhar Park, and had resolved to go visit it on the way back down. We were so glad we did.  There is an admission fee to the park, but it is well worth it. It's a beautiful green space full of little lakes and streams and promenades, with tons of Egyptian families having picnics and generally enjoying themselves.  We went to a lovely cafe overlooking the water, with great views of many of the sights we had spent the day visiting.
Waiting for some fabulous strawberry-mango smoothies at the cafe on the waterfront in Al-Azhar Park with views of the Citadel over Grace's shoulder.

5.  Egyptian Museum. The Egyptian Museum is definitely one of the coolest museums I have ever seen in my life.  It is basically Mummy Central.  Before visiting the Egyptian Museum I had been under the mistaken impression that only really big pharaohs and their queens got to be mummies.  How wrong I was.  I'm pretty sure that mummification was not for the poor, but there seemed to be quite a few upper-class-but-definitely-not-royalty mummies in the mix.  Only the really big VIPs got the amazing death masks (King Tut's solid gold mask is displayed in all its glory in a glass case and it is truly splendid); more ordinary folk had portraits placed over their mummified faces, and a lot of these portraits are themselves quite well-preserved.  For me, the most fascinating room was the one holding mummified animals.  Some were royal pets (most interesting in that regard were some baboons which were mummified in sitting positions); some were gods in their own rights (such as some bulls that were living gods while they were alive and then interred with all the ritual accorded a king); and some were, logically, mummified food for their mummified masters. The only good thing I can say about being forced to check my camera outside the entrance is that it ups the ante for anyone whose interest is raised by this description -- if you want to see the mummies, you can't look at your friend's pictures because there are none.  You have to see them for yourself.
One shot of the outside of the Egypt Museum before we gave up our cameras and headed inside to visit what I'm  quite confident is the largest collection of mummies in the world.

4.  Felucca Ride Down the Nile. This one was suggested by our friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Kat, who happened to also be in Cairo, with another friend, Lucy, while we were there.  Feluccas look an awful lot like what we called dhows on Zanzibar -- that is sailboats with a distinctive crescent-triangle shaped sail.  I'm pretty sure that the best time to take a felucca is exactly when we did -- at dusk.  You start out in the light and return in the dark, having sailed along the Nile, looking at the city of Cairo, watching the city life and lights emerge as darkness descends.  Definitely one of the best early-evening activities I can imagine.
Grace, Lucy and I settling in (Kat was taking the picture) for our felucca ride on the Nile.

From the Pyramids to the mummies of the Egyptian Museum to sailing down the Nile, there is so much to see and do in Cairo.  And that's not even including some of the stuff that got nudged off the list, like visiting the Coptic Museum or getting around on the always-adventurous Cairo subway.  But I thought my Top Three Things were so good that they deserve their own post, which I shall write shortly to round out my list.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jordan Challenge 30: Take an Archeology Field Trip with a Professional

Jordan is a small country but it is jam-packed with historical sites.  And these sites are not historical in the American few-hundred-years sense of the word, but in the thousands-of-years of classical civilizations sense of it.  The country is the site of numerous past, current and future archaeological digs, and as a consequence, the government, higher education institutions and non-governmental groups have all created organizations and programs to support the archaeological treasures and places in the country.

Luckily for me, I've had a front row seat in the exploration of archeology via my fabulous fellow Fulbright friend Elizabeth.  As she moves through the year exploring her project on the stolen antiquities trade, she has generously afforded me opportunities to go to talks, experience a day at a dig and most recently, take a day trip to tour different archaeological sites under the guidance of professional archaeologists.

During our day-long adventure we travelled on a bus to first Deir Alla and then Pella, and were led around by an archaeologist who worked for the Jordanian Department of Antiquities before his retirement.  Deir Alla was the first Bronze Age city excavated in Jordan, and the work of excavation was begun back in 1960.  The Big Discovery of Deir Alla is the Inscription of Ballam, a prophecy that was written by the Old Testament Prophet Ballam on a plastered wall sometime between 840 and 760 BC.  The plaster chipped off, but 119 pieces were recovered, allowing the inscription to be reconstructed.

One thing I've learned about this year is the practicalities of doing a dig.  Basically, the team needs a place to live while doing the work.  Here we are in the courtyard of the Dig House that was constructed for Deir Alla and is currently maintained by Yarmouk University.

Elizabeth, standing in front of a very large excavated building foundation at Deir Alla.
After touring the site, including the Dig House where excavators stay (there was a Dutch team there at the time) and the tiny museum displaying artifacts and representations of the Inscription of Ballam, we piled back onto the bus for Pella. Both Pella and Deir Alla are north of Amman, making them fairly close to the Syrian border (which is actually only fifty-some miles from Amman).  It's been a source of never ending puzzlement to me that the whole time I've been here I've been so close to a country in the midst of a revolution/civil war/insurrection (I guess pick your characterization), but only think of it with reference to the thousands of refugees who have come to Jordan, just as they have fled to Lebanon and Turkey.  The other day I read a Human Rights Watch Report about survivors of government torture in the last year, and was startled to discover that the report was written here in Amman with survivors living here as well.  So, it always gives me pause when I go to the north of the country, even though it was a beautiful spring day, and you'd never ever guess that deadly violence was happening so close.

It was a gorgeous spring day and Jordanian families were out in force at the Pella site with portable barbecues and picnics.  You'd never know we were less than an hour away from the Syrian border.
Pella is a larger site than Deir Alla, and has some very striking Roman ruins.  After touring them, our energetic guide deposited the majority of our group at the lovely Guest House at the top of the site and then issued a call for anyone foolish enough to want to join him in a hike up the summit overlooking the Pella ruins for a better view of the area.  While Elizabeth wisely stayed in the Guest House and sipped delicious mint lemonade I rather more foolishly disregarded the fact that I was wearing exactly the wrong thing (black jeans and black long sleeve top) for a hike in the blazing sun. 

Here I am leaving the lovely and cool guest house to go for a hike in the broiling sun.
As is often the case, our hiking trail was enclosed with a locked fence and the Man With the Key was nowhere to be found.  So we had the added bonus of hopping the fence, which further narrowed our ranks, leaving an intrepid and foolish few trying to keep up with a man in his sixties with the vigor of an eighteen year old, calling for the rest of us to "yella" as he charged up the hill at full speed.  He was right, though.  The view at the top was worth it.  And so was the whole day. I never expected to become an archeology fan during my Jordan Fulbright.  But then again, I hadn't known that I'd have so many archaeologically-rich places to explore, or more importantly, such a great guide to this fascinating corner of study in my phenomenal friend Elizabeth.  The moral of this and so many Fulbright stories is, I think, is that when you get an opportunity you just don't know what will come with it.  But you'd be crazy not to jump at the unexpectedly opportunities that come your way.

The view from the top, which made it all worth while.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jordan Challenge 29: The 100 Burpee Challenge

One of the many things I've come to appreciate about our Jordan Fulbright group is that it is fit -- as in active and in-shape.  Various Fulbrighters have taken on all kinds of fitness challenges during our time here in Jordan, and have gotten to know some wonderful Fellow Travellers -- including Tim, Ben, Gaelle, Doa'a and Ahmad -- in the course of our activities  In fact, attempting to compile a list is actually a fairly major undertaking.  Some highlights would have to include:
  • Angela and Kelsey recently completed the Dead Sea Marathon (and Hannah and Jen did the Dead Sea 10K just for the fun of it),

    Angela and Kelsey looking alert and enthusiastic the night BEFORE their Dead Sea Marathon
  • a group of Fulbrighters (Sarah M., Sarah I., Kelsey, Luke, Jayme, Zayn and 15 year old Fulbright son Kiric)-and-Friends made up a ten person relay team for the grueling 242 kilometer Dead to Red Run;

    The runners (and drivers) of Team Fulbright -- also known as the Superslow Superheroes
  •  Jackie did the same course as part of a five-person bike team; and
  • Jayme, Elizabeth K, Usama, Kat, Christina, Sarah and I have all gotten to know Climbat, Jordan's first rock climbing gym.
But when it comes to fitness, the Fulbright fitness center of gravity is maintained by our very own Sarah I., who is both a committed CrossFit athlete and a general model to the rest of us.  In this role, she has inspired fellow Fulbrighters Almas, Mike, Elizabeth K and I to try to follow in her footsteps, albeit to varying degrees.  Back in January she issued a Challenge to Mike, Almas and me (and later, to Elizabeth K). The Challenge was deceptively simple: work up to doing a 100 Burpees a day over the course of 100 days.  So, it starts easy.  Day one you do one Burpee.  Day two you do two, working up to day 100 when you do 100 Burpees.  On days 25, 50, 75 and 100 you time yourself to see how long it takes to complete them. If you miss a day, the next day you have to do that day's worth plus what you missed. Having already done the Burpee Challenge eons ago, Sarah launched her own similar but infinitely more difficult Double-Under Challenge (a double-under is when you do TWO rotations of a jump rope in a single jump -- requiring lots of speed and jumping height).

For those to whom a Burpee sounds strange and mysterious and vaguely undignified, a Burpee is an exercise favored by the military (because they're hard) and prisoners (because you can do them anywhere there's space to do a push-up, and they work out lots of muscle groups as well as giving your heart and lungs a serious aerobic challenge).  They're similar to what my old-school gym teacher used to call a Squat Thrust.  You start from a standing position, squat down, kick your legs back to a push-up position, do a push up, jump back to a squat, then jump up in the air with your arms extended overhead.  If you've never done one, stop reading right now and do five in a row and you'll see why most people don't love them.

My favorite Burpee locale of the whole challenge: doing Burpees at the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra -- my friend Paul agreed to take pictures, but not to join me in my Burpee craziness.

Doing Burpees at the summit of a hike overlooking the ancient ruins of Pella conducted during an archeological day trip with Elizabeth R.

The thing about the Burpee Challenge is that it lulls you into a false sense of complacency initially.  The first week or so seem pretty easy.  Just do a few Burpees in the morning and you're done with it. I think it was on Day Twenty-Five, the first time I had to time them and therefore did twenty-five without stopping, that I started to get seriously nervous about what was in store.  And as the numbers got higher, fitting them in during the day got a little tougher.  Sarah suggested getting creative, and I did.  Unless it is a timed day, you don't have to do them all at once, and can stretch them out all day if you want.  I learned that one of my favorite things was finding unusual places to do them.  I did Burpees in the outside courtyard of the Movenpick Hotel at the Dead Sea during my time on the dig with Elizabeth R.  I did Burpees at the peak of a hike during an archeological field trip, also with Elizabeth R., at Pella, and (my favorite) I did Burpees at the Place of High Sacrifice during my March trip to Petra with Paul.

The Burpee Gang on Day 100:Elizabeth K (who started the Challenge late), me, Mike and our Fearless Leader Sarah I.  Sadly, Almas suffered a foot injury and had to defer the Challenge to a later date.

My 100th day of the Burpee Challenge was April 5, and I did 100 Burpees in 12 minutes and 50 seconds.  That's a whole lot slower than my fellow Burpee Challenger, Mike, who did his in 8 minutes and change, with much better form.  But the scary thing is that I'm now sort of addicted to Burpees.  My current plan is  to do 500 a week, to keep the benefits I gained from the Challenge.  But the moral of the story is this: if you're looking for a unique way to ensure you get some exercise every single day, I say: Behold the Burpee Challenge!