Spring Breaking

Disclaimer: I am about to bombard you with dozens of photos and stories, so prepare yourself.

Spring break.
Oh man, I haven't had time to update you about my last two weeks before break, but I'll sum it up in one phrase: it's been rough.
Everyone has got a case of senioritus, students and teachers alike, and being only one month away from graduation is putting the pressure on students with failing grades.
Basically, there has been a lot of bad attitudes and discipline issues with students lately.
I think I came home and cried 4/7 days of the week as a result of horrible experiences with students. I had a constant internal countdown of the days left till spring break.
And guess what.
We made it. Humdilalla!
So we have nearly two weeks off for this homeleave, and quite the adventure planned for every day. School ended last Thursday, and that night Sara, Jordan, Phil, Jeff, Austin and I took a night train to a small village called Dhasa in upper Egypt. We have about ten students that live in this village, and so we planned on going house to house meeting their families and getting a taste of their home life.
Now, let me begin. The night train.
I had never taken a train before I came to Egypt, but have since taken them frequently here and also in Italy and France. So, I'm kind of professional (kidding).
The night train here is a rather unappealing for a few reasons. Namely, the length of the ride (nearly twelve hours), they keep the florescent lights on all night, the air conditioner is kept (unnecessarily) on full blast leaving you literally shivering and with no feeling in your extremities, and it is super loud as a result of a combination of shouting, loud music, and phones. It is also incredibly crowded because after the seats fill up, they still sell tickets for people to stand in the aisles.
So, my two ten hour night train rides were spent playing my ipod nearly full volume till six in the morning, layering all the shirts I had to maintain some semblance of warmth, and wrapping my face and head in a (thin) scarf to try and keep my poor nose warm. All while ignoring the dozens of loud people, including the ones who paid to stand right next to my seat and stare at me all night.
I think it is safe to say that the night train is one of my all-time least favorite experiences here, although necessary to enjoy our other adventures.

Upper Egypt is completely different from the chaos of Cairo. It is all rural, with a lot of farmland and small homes set against a desert backdrop. All of the villages are pretty small and consist of many brick apartment buildings stacked next to each other. The roof of the apartment is often times where they keep small animals like chickens and goats, and the brick ovens used for baking bread. I have not yet been to Upper Egypt, but was told to expect an incredibly conservative environment where women are completely covered and not allowed to leave their houses, and where I would be force-fed food by every family I visited. I was a little concerned about what the trip would hold for me, but excited to meet all my students' families and see them in their home environments.

Guess what.
Dhasa was perfect.
Apparently Dhasa is one of the most (if not the most) liberal of upper Egyptian villages, meaning that women were free to wear t-shirts if they wanted, wander the streets, and the families were not so forceful with food and other "hospitalities." One of our senior girls, Sara, planned the entire trip including transportation for us. She guided us around and did a wonderful job giving us enough time at each house without letting the conversations lull or making us consume an absurd amount of food or soda and tea. The six of us Americans stayed in this nice apartment above the church for the two nights we were there, rather than imposing on the homes of students.
Mario is one of my ESL boys who lives in Dhasa. He drove his motorcycle alongside Sarah's car to the train station to pick us up, and Austin hopped a ride back home. 

Sarah has a beautiful family! Her three sisters Sylvia, Sandy, and Fedah are on the right, and her cousin Marina is on the left. They were so sweet and followed us around for the duration of our stay. 

A pretty bicycle in the street. 

A cool painted door we walked past.

One of our student's father's practices at-home taxidermy and displays his work hanging from the front of their house. It was a little disconcerting for us to see the horror movie-esq hanging animals, but he was very proud of his work. 

This is a pretty normal sight to see - some village children riding their donkey down the street. 

Sara looking beautiful! She and I were the only two girls together for almost the entirety of the Spring vacation, and we had so much fun together. 

Wasseem is another one of my ESL students, and I am absolutely smitten with him. Some of you may have seen the "Silent Night" video I made of two ESL boys singing, and he was one of them. This is him with his family; grandmother, mother, and sister. His grandmother was precious. She was so funny and talkative, and we all got along so well even though Wasseem was the only one who speaks (limited) English. 

Wasseem with his sister and brother. He and his family look so much alike, and his sister (about my age) is stunning!

The students took us to eat sugarcane in a nearby field and a dozen or so village boys followed us for the adventure. The group of us six Americans stick out like a sore thumb in most of these places, so we were constantly being followed by children in the streets. 

We visited one of the tenth grade students, Remon, and his family. His father brought out photos of when he was younger, and Remon told us about him and his mother when they were our age. It was wonderful to get to look at all the old photos and get to know this great family a bit more. 

This is the view of Dhasa from the roof of our apartment. This is pretty typical for an upper Egyptian village; rows upon rows of brick buildings, a few mosques, and palm trees in the distance. 
You can see in the distance some grass and things on the roof used for housing animals. One reason a lot of the interiors of homes here are filled with gaudy colors and embellishments is as a way to escape the dreary monotony of brown upon brown outside. 
These are the family of my students and I at church. They were all so cute!

Our student Remon (mentioned above) has a sister named Sarah who is naturally red-headed with freckles, even though she is Egyptian! We got a photo of her and Jeff together, the local gingers. 
Maged is one of my ninth grade students, and he is so wonderful. He has gotten student of the month in my class (determined by grades and behavior) every month since I started, and he is well-respected by the other students. Here, we skyped with his older brother Magdy who graduated last year and moved to go to a college in the Philippines.
Maged (right) and his family. I was amazed by how similar they all look! He and his sister (left) look like twins, and the  likeness between him and his father is crazy. Their family was so sweet and generous in praise.

This is pretty typical of what you would be served at every house that didn't prepare a meal for you. Juice, soda, or tea in addition to some sort of sweet thing. You are expected to drink a full glass (leaving a finger's worth at the bottom) and eat as much of the food as you are able. Good thing we had Phil there; our group vacuum cleaner. 

Ranya (center) is one of my ninth grade students and she is so outgoing and funny. Here are her mother and younger sister.

Ranya's father owns many animals and took great pride in showing them all to us. This is him with  one of his several turkeys. He also had sever sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, chicks, and an adorable puppy. 

These big cows with the sideways upside down ears are the cutest! 

This sweet little boy was hanging out in the street and smiling; I couldn't help but take a photo. I have no clue who he is, but he was precious.

Mario (the one who drove the motorcycle to the train station) and his family. They were very welcoming into their home. 

Jacqueline (left) and Mina (right) are two of the tenth grade students. Their other sister Irini and their mother are pictured with them here. We ate dinner at their home the second night, and they were a lot of fun to spend time with. 

After our two days with students, we took another train a few hours further south and spent the day in Luxor. Phil and Jordan hadn't yet been, so we visited the main sites including the Luxor Temple, Karnak, and took a felucca down the Nile. It was nice, but a little less exciting as I had been within the past month and we were all carrying our backpacks and bags of things for the duration of the day. We took a night train that evening and returned to Cairo on Monday morning (the 29th) and spent the day doing laundry and preparing for the next leg of our adventure.

On Tuesday morning, a van came and picked us up for the most exciting part of our trip: The White Desert. Now, I had never heard of the White Desert before coming to Egypt, and even here only a few locals recognize the name.
After having been, I have no clue why.
Part of me doesn't want to make it famous and shout of its wonder from the rooftops, in order to maintain its pristine isolation, but then... I can't stop talking about it. It was absolutely stunning.
The White Desert is actually the name of one section of a very large desert made up of several different smaller deserts. It is famous for having dozens of strange rock formations and odd-looking structures. For this part of the trip, we paid for a tour company to take us out for three days and two nights. It included our tour guide driving his jeep, all camping gear, food, and transportation from Cairo to the desert and back.
AHH. I seriously can't stop raving - it was so perfect.
Besides the fact that the location was absolutely amazing, being completely taken care of and not having to prepare anything was wonderful. For nearly every trip I have gone on this year, I have been responsible for planning and gathering necessary items for the trips. For this one, I didn't have to do anything except pay him (an incredibly low price, thanks to bargaining) at the end.

After being picked up at the school and driven six-ish hours out to the desert, we stopped for lunch at this cute little Bedouin restaurant on the outskirts of the desert. Here, we had some really good Egyptian food and were given a run-down of our trip by our tour guide Waheed. 

Waheed was by far the most knowledgeable person about the desert and camping I have ever met. His English was very limited, but he still taught us many things and it was easy to tell he was incredibly experienced. Here, he taught Jordan, and later the other guys, how to tie your headscarf in the traditional way to block out sun and sand. 
Chris enjoying the sand dunes we started near.
Sara and Jordan tried jumping off the sand dunes, but only Jordan was successful, haha. 
Phil in the black desert, our first stop. 
The black desert is actually dunes and dunes of perfect gold sand, covered on the surface with thousands of little black rocks. This "mountain" seemed to be made completely of the black rocks at the center and near the top. Waheed dropped us off near the left side where we hiked around it and were picked up on the other side. 

The desert was pretty hot hovering near 100 degrees during the day, but because it was so dry it wasn't too bothersome. Walking between these big black sand dunes offered some shade from the sun too.

Chris, Sara, and Jordan making the hike up the black rock mountain.

We drove to a lookout point that offered a view of the black desert and it was stunning! You could see for miles and miles, and there was nothing but sand dunes and rock. 

For the White Desert trip, only the five of us went. From left, Jordan, Chris, Phil, Sara, and myself at the lookout point.

After the black desert, we went to "Crystal Mountain" which is this large rock formation  made entirely of big crystals. I don't remember what kind of crystal they are (all I know is that they aren't granite), but they broke off in these large chunks and are scattered in heaps around the sand. They were beautiful, but because people come and take them away, the "mountain" has been slowly shrinking. 

The five of us standing on Crystal Mountain; the sun was hitting us at the perfect angle to get this great shadow shot.

Thanks to my new camera (new being since Christmas.. haha) I was able to get this cool macro shot of the sand. It was so cool to look at up close, made of all the broken crystals and some of the black rocks from the black desert. 

The place we made camp on the first night was in a pretty level sandy area with only a few features. That didn't detract from the beauty of the sunset. My camera battery dying did though... I still managed to get this cool shot of my sunglasses and the setting sun. 

On Wednesday morning, we made our first stop to this place in the desert that looked essentially the same as all the others. Only a trained eye would know that something was different. Instead of the normal jagged black rocks, this small section was coated in "flower stones," strange flower and star shaped polished black rocks. I don't know what they are made of or how they are formed, but they are so cool. Waheed said we were allowed to take some, so I got to collect a few as souvenirs. 

After a few hours of racing over sand dunes at 60mph and having a grand ol' time, we spotted this tiny island of palm trees in the middle of nowhere. Although logic would dictate otherwise, I just assumed it was just a few trees and that was it. Well, I was wrong, because snuggled between the trunks of these trees was a natural spring-fed pool. We stopped there and while Waheed cooked us lunch in the shade, we swam in the pool. 

This is the oasis we got to swim in. Although the spring is natural, the pools were formed with concrete in this cascading style to allow for swimming. They were the perfect temperature, and it was incredible to be sitting in a real oasis in the middle of nowhere with no more natural water for miles in any direction.

After several hours of swimming and good food in the oasis, we went to the White Desert. This section of the desert is aptly named for the piles of snow-esq rock coating the ground.  
The white parts pictured are not sand but rather wind-smoothed rock with pools of sand nestled between peaks. Driving through this area was surreal; it looked fake, like it snowed outside and was still smoldering hot.

Waheed told us that the desert used to be the seafloor at some point in time. To my amazement, he showed us fossilized seashells that dust the rocks. This is one of them that I found. 

These seashells were everywhere! They blend in with the rocks and were sometimes difficult to spot though. Many were still half-embedded in the stone.

Sara and I had a great time together on this trip. It was so much fun to joke around and go adventuring with.

Being silly :)

This is what our camp looked like both nights that we stayed. Waheed expertly set it up; you can't see but there is a small room attached for use as a kitchen behind the far wall, and a fire pit off to the right. This was definitely the best camping experience I've had. The benefit of sleeping with no roof was that you could see trillions of stars at night. Being in the middle of nowhere meant there was absolutely no light pollution and no sounds except the wind and crackling fire to distract you. Magical. 

The sunset was beautiful here! I used sunglasses to create a filter, which provided some cool colors .

The sunset was stunning. I did not alter or enhance any colors in this photo; that peach was the true color of the sky that night. We climbed one of the big rocks and sat to watch the sun go down. 

On Thursday, our last day, we spent the morning driving around the White Desert some more. The  rock pictured above is arguably the most famous in the desert. The scale is difficult to see in the photo, but this big mushroom rock is probably around thirty feet tall; pretty incredible given it's unbalanced proportions.

 Around noon on Thursday, we drove back to the school and arrived around 0700 that night. It was a long drive, and afterwards Phil and I turned around and left for another adventure. His cousins (who we went to the ball with in November) work for the US Embassy have an apartment in Alexandria that they invited us to go stay at. They were incredibly hospitable and housed us for two days while we toured around historical sites in Alexandria.
Their apartment in Alexandria is on the 25th floor, and gave an absolutely stunning panoramic view of the city. We went to Alexandria back in January and I talked about the sheer mass of the city then, but seeing it from a much higher perspective enhanced the size of the city. It is the largest city on the Mediterranean, to give a little scale. Arguably, Alexandria is my favorite city in Egypt and I highly recommend you visit if able. 
Phil's little cousins Josephine (above) and John were wonderful tour guides as we went from site to site. Our first day there, we visited the Citadel, Roman amphitheater  and Catacombs inside the city limits. I had been to the first of the three, but the Roman sites I hadn't heard of. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photographs, but it was amazing to see Roman and some Greek architecture combined with the typical Egyptian style. The second day, we drove out to Abu Mina, which is an ancient religious site a few hours away from Alexandria. St. Mina was said to have found a spring that could heal, and people would go on pilgrimages to visit him in the city. After that we went to Al Alamein, which was a WWII battle site between the British and Germans on the coast of Egypt. We visited the historical museum they had, as well as a cemetery commemorating the deaths of those who fought (pictured above). His family was such a great host, and it was so nice to travel around with them and see these sites I otherwise wouldn't have had the ability to. 

On Friday afternoon, Phil and I rejoined the rest of the group at one of our student's homes in Agiba, just past Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean. Now, I am definitely a beach person. I always have been, and probably always will be. So going to the beach for two days and soaking up the sun is something I have been looking forward to for months; it didn't disappoint. 

Walking to the beach on our first day there, we encountered this crazy little praying mantis! It was pretty big, and kind of bounced around. I love finding little things like that. 

This beach... just. Wow. I didn't enhance or alter the colors of this photo at all; they are true to life. I have never seen water that blue, it looked like someone took a massive paintbrush of the brightest hue they could find and swept it across the horizon. 

Poor Austin got super sun burnt his first day, and spent the rest of the time covered up on the beach. 

Mary joined us for the first time over the spring break trip; the rest of the time she had been in Luxor and Aswan with Pri, an SM from another school in Cairo. 

I asked them to make me into a mermaid. Instead, they made me into a "molemaid." See attached mole on my tail as well as a club fin, haha. 

I made a giant sand shark eating Phil! 

Because it is still a Muslim beach, we had to wear full clothing even while swimming.  That sucked, but at least kept my  fair skin from burning to a crisp.

That afternoon we walked down the beach to a bunch of cliffs overhanging the sea. We climbed them and jumped off a point about fifteen feet above the water; I was terrified!

It took me about five minutes to finally build up the courage to jump - I'm terrified of heights. I did it though! Screaming all the way down. Aka, I swallowed a lot of salty water when I landed.

Phil and Jeff had no fear of the jump and each did it a few times,  posing for the camera and everything. 
On Sunday morning we made the drive back to the school, and arrived 0700 in the evening. It was so nice to finally come home to my own bed, shower, and put on clean clothes. We were all thoroughly coated in sand from the desert and the beach, and a cold shower was so refreshing.
Today, I get to lesson-plan and finish up grading and cleaning before school starts again tomorrow. Then, we are in the home stretch! Less than a month left of classes and only a few weeks after than till I am back home. I officially land in Seattle on June 16th, and look forward to seeing all my friends and family! Until then, the adventuring will be kept to a minimum I think. My dad is coming to visit on June 7th, and then we will fly out together. I'm ready for that.
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