Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Field Trip

On April 18th St. Andrews had it's annual field trip. For most kids, field trip day is one of the best days of the school year, and this is no exception. The staff has been talking about the field trip for months, and the day finally came! Thanks much to Matt, who was the planner and organizer, the day went so smoothly and it was a blast!

When I first arrived to school that morning I knew something was different. First of all, every student was there early and ready to go (on time!), including the teens who don't normally come to school until 12:30pm. But, more than sheer numbers showed a change. The students were all dressed up! Girls came in their best outfits, many wearing cute skirts and high heels. They had different hair styles, and some of the Muslim girls decided to take off their hijab for the day, so it was the first time I'd seen their hair. One little boy, maybe 11 years old, was wearing a full suit with a bow tie! It was adorable! He looked like he was going to be a ring bearer for a wedding. Culturally, Africans dress up when they are "going out" like this, because it is such a big deal. (Funny, in America we wear our worst clothes on field trip day because we are bound to get dirty!) There was so much joy and excitement in the air. Everyone perked up so much and I've never seen them so excited and happy. Those kids need that more than anyone.

We loaded the kids onto buses and headed off to International Park, which was a better park than I expected. It was full of grassy areas and different landscaping, a tram going around the park, lots of snacks and ice cream, and plenty of activities (bumper cars, paddle boats, zoo area, garden area, etc.) We brought hulla hoops, soccer balls, jump ropes, one football and one basketball with us to keep the kids active. Actually, only one class was able to see the "zoo" area because of the birds. In other words, yes, they were afraid of the Bird Flu so we had to get out. So, the 'zoo'. It mostly had peacocks, other birds, and monkeys. Those poor animals looked so sick. The monkey's natural red bottoms were not their natural state--one poor monkey had layers of bubbling out infections all over its behind. It was so sad to see.

Onto the good day story...okay, so, like I said the kids had a wonderful day. As soon as we got to the park they were running all over playing games and laughing. I spent a lot of time in the morning talking with the Fira girls, so of course I was loving that. Mariam said her mom was nervous about all 5 of her children going on this field trip so she gave the youngest boy 5 pounds so long as he agreed to stay home. Apparently he jumped at that because he loves the Internet cafe so much. Cute.

After returning to St. Andrews we had a McDonalds hafla (party), which was a huge hit. Really, EVERYONE loved it. McDs had three of the characters come to school (Birdie Hamburgler, and Grimace) and they were dancing for a couple hours with the kids. The music? American rap and pop mixed with some Egyptian hits. The teens went nuts, and wow can they dance. They even danced the chicken dance! Of course, McDs is still 'ol McDonalds because in the end they handed out flags with the arch on one side and a character on the other, along with a bunch of stickers. A lot of advertisement. Fiona mentioned something that really struck me. Here we were dancing around and eating McDonalds, holding onto McDs flags and putting stickers on people, and next week we are going to be handing out packages of food given to us by the UNHCR for each student. Really, it was strange that a week ago we were receiving tons of staple food items from the UNHCR to give away and on field trip day the kids were munching on Mcburgers.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Where's the hole?

When I leave RCG in the morning and head to work, I take a large short-cut by crossing traffic and walking through a hole in a green metal fence that brings me to "under the stairs" by the tram and metro. Jay discovered this path last November and what a blessing it has been to be able to avoid the crowds, stairs, and other issues I'd deal with going the other way.

Last weekend, though, my stroll home from work was confused by the realization that the gate had been barred up! I was walking along like I always do, sneaking through the sides of the stairs to get underneath and walk out the gate. There was no hole. "But there has to be a hole!" I thought. I wasn't the only one thinking this. Loads of people were looking for the hole in utter confusion. Jay later told me when he first discovered the barred up hole he decided to stay around and watch people for awhile as it was a hoot to see people get all confused and convinced that there MUST be a hole somewhere if you just look long and hard enough. They would walk back and forth, back and forth determined to find that hole!

But, there was no hole, sadly. For about one and 3/4 days we had to walk the old way, the very undesirable way. During this time Teri, Jason, Jay, and I wondered (nearly took a bet) on how long the gate would stay up. We weren't certain when we would be able to have our old route back, but we knew it would come! This is Egypt after all.

And it came. First, someone took out a metal pole and people started pushing their way through that. The next day it was blocked off with four new diagonal poles. Shoot. Next day, new hole next to the last attempt. Following day, blocked off again. Shoot. Fourth day a new hole, this time bigger. Along with the new hole came two police guards. The police attempted to keep people away for a day or so, but on the fifth day you found the police stationed 50 meters away from the hole; that way they would still be at their 'post' but really not have to do anything.

This progression was quite a joy to witness. Most of the time I get frustrated by the lack of 'working systems' in Egypt, but for this case I was glad to see Egyptians come through the way I expected them to. They weren't going to settle for less than the best route to the metro. Besides, people make a living under those stairs. There are bread sellers, cookie sellers (not the cookies you're thinking of) and nick-nack sellers. It's good to see them back in business. :-)

John and his new email account

John Omot, a Sudanese man who is our office assistant, decided he was at that point in life where he was ready and willing to open an email account.

I love when people are at that point, because it's something we take for granted in America. Everyone is "on line" at home. Not so here, and certainly not with a refugee community.

So, today was John's day. I had him sit next to me by the computer and after he agreed to a hotmail account I started the process of signing him in.

I didn't think it would be hard to sign him in, but it wasn't so simple either. I had to choose the country he lives in, so naturally I chose "Egypt". Later it asked for the postal code, but we don't have one or know of one hotmail would accept. So, we tried a few other round-about ways of getting an email account. Didn't work. Finally I resorted to saying John is from the US living in Minnesota with a Northfield MN zip code. Hopefully this will never come back to haunt him. ;-)

Once he choose an email address and password and finished the formality of it all (including our acceptance of the terms and conditions, as well as typing in the corrected coded script) we were set! I first showed John how to get into his email account, and then I sent him an email and asked him to try.

It's easy to forget how easy some things can be for me while so hard for someone else. John wasn't sure how to make the @ symbol, or how to tab from typing his email to typing his password. And of course when I said, "Click out, we will try again" he was completely lost. Duh, Sarah. So, I explained to him what the white X in the little red box in the right hand corner of the screen is all about. He knew that, and now he knows what "click out" means. (It is humorous how many times these common yet very Western/American/English phrases are brought up and misunderstood or not understood.)

We made it through the process, and I am pleased to say John Omot is a happily networked with the world now! It's really so exciting!

It's Summer Time!

Oh, Egypt is fun...and funny.

Being that I'm from Minnesota, I'm used to all kinds of weather. In the summer it is hot and humid, in the fall it's cooler and crisp, in the winter it can get to -40 degrees, and in the spring we have lots of rain. The seasons are so well-marked; we see leaves changing colors in the fall, snow and ice in the winter, budding leaves and color the spring, and consistent heat in the summer. Of course, this is not the case in Egypt. For the most part the weather is hot, hot, and more hot. Well... that's not completely true. In the winter time it does get pretty cool here, but only because there are no heating systems so you feel so cold in the brick homes. In Egypt people go outside in the winter time to warm up (to get in the sun)! So, that's the thing; Egypt is all about the sun. It is almost always sunny (with a pollution haze), it rarely rains, and there are some windstorms; and that's the way it is.

Still, Egyptians say they have a summer and a winter. Well, okay, maybe... if winter means "cooler" and summer means "warmer." Still, it's strange to think in those terms because there is no transition of sorts.

But oh, that is not true! There IS a transition! Is it bird migration? No. Is it the freshness of sweeping sandstorms? Not really. Is it the sudden increase in rainfall? Of course not. It's not a bird, it's not a plane, it's POLICE OFFICERS!

That's right. When the police officers change their clothes from black to white it means "Summer time!" No joke. All "winter" the police wear full suits of black. Poor guys, roasting away in that winter sun. But, one day everythings changes. Flip the switch we now have light--and I mean spankin' white brand-new looking police uniforms. I'm sure they will get dirty soon, but right now they just blind you with that reflection. This new color makes me aware of just how many police are on the streets of Cairo. They are EVERYWHERE.

Maybe they are everywhere because even though they have little authoritative power, they have a lot of power when it comes to Egyptian dress. Last week, before "summer" began, people were still wearing their winter sweaters and jackets--layering up while I, meanwhile, would be drenched in sweat wearing a thin, loose long-sleeve shirt. Now, dress has changed. People put away their winter clothes and took out their summer clothes. None of this"Well, the weather is such and such today so I will wear such and such." I was told by my Egyptian friends, students, and teachers that they literally wait for the day the men wear white and in a single act change their entire wardrobe. It's the nationally accepted transition into the season. Even the stores seemed to change overnight!

Just think of the power that one person has who tells the police what to wear. Amazing.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Habitat for Humanity, Egypt

We YAGMs and YAVs decided to spend our March retreat in a village outside Minya working on a Habitat for Humanity project. I had been excited for this weekend since last October when I first found out about the opportunity to build homes during this year in Egypt. Finally the weekend arrived and we were on our way!

In Egypt, time is...well, not at all the way we think of time in America. Sticking to the clock is not necessary here, and I've grown accustomed to the laid-back nature of meeting times and days here. For the Habitat trip, however, we were back on America Time. Our weekend was mapped out starting 7:00am Friday morning (do not arrive at the train station even one minute late or else you might not be accepted into our weekend's program!). It was both frustrating and humorous for us to feel like a machine again--working on a set schedule and the expectations that come from that.

Also, from Friday morning 7a.m., we didn't take two steps away from the group without being followed by the Egyptian military escorts who traveled with us for the weekend. FYI--military men and Egyptian tourists police station themselves everywhere in Egypt, and although they carry huge guns, it's easy to forget they are there. Generally they just stand there, looking bored and tired, and sometimes sleeping. For the most part I am able to avoid them, but when a group of Americans travels together to a village town in Upper Egypt, it's mandatory to be escorted by these men. Frankly, it's a bit ridiculous. There are more escorts than Americans, and they cause more attention to us by surrounding us from all sides everywhere we go. But, i suppose it provides jobs, so that's okay.

When we arrived in Minya we hopped on a private bus and went to the small village, where we were let into a large room full of other military escorts and the major of Minya. We spent some time drinking tea, introducing ourselves, and asking the Major any questions we wanted to ask; discovering the main issue facing Minya is water sanitation and health problems related to this issue. Although these are concerns we face at home, the extent to which these issues matter to our daily lives is quite different. At home we might complain of too many minerals in the water; here people don't have running water, and if they do it's often too dirty to drink without becoming ill, but they drink it anyway.

After a late lunch, we split into smaller groups, each with a Habitat leader (an Egyptian man who spoke little English) and we worked on the homes. Jennifer, Stancil and I 'signed up' for roofing and became a team—YES! I can't tell you how excited I was to get out some nails and a hammer and do some manual labor. I just love this type of work. We grabbed our gear and we were off strolling the dirt-path maze of mud-brick homes.

Walking through a village is always a humbling experience, and it's easy to feel like you are in a fishbowl. Many of these people have never seen a Westerner in their life, and they are incredibly intrigued. As we walked through the village with our Habitat gear of carpenter's apron, hammer, saws, etc. young children and women came to the doors to peak out at us and giggle or stare. It was as if we were the parade and they are the spectators. I found out the next day there had been a rumor going on that we were from the World Health Organization and came to inspect the town for bird and the bird flu. Apparently everyone hid their birds that first day; I don't doubt it because on Day 2 I noticed people a bit more at ease about their chickens wandering around. (Don't worry, I didn't get the flu!)

"Roofing" on a village home in rural Egypt is either not at all what you'd expect or exactly what you'd expect. In other words, don't think slanted roof with shingles, oh no. Roofing meant nailing a layer of somewhat flimsy, sometimes uneven boards into the foundation pillars and then plopping home-made rocky cement on a layer of plastic over the boards and smoothing the mixture as best as we could. The concept of “leveling” isn’t so important, either. At times when the board didn’t fit so well, men would take out the brick beneath the board and use a hammer to shave off the edges and make it smaller to fit underneath the wood. The mud-bricks easily crumble with a single blow of the hammer—they are “mud” bricks afterall. I fear what would happen to these homes if a heavy rain ever came.

In the hot sun we pounded those nails for hours as family members watched and laughed. The women made tea and brought us these piping hot glasses of 'syrup' (more sugar than water) to drink in the hot sun. J Towards the end of the second day I was getting pretty tired and my hands were blistering, so the father of the house took my hammer to show me how to do it right. I swear I heard him say, "Just Jam it!" a number of times, which made me laugh, as it was the only words of English I'd heard from any of them all weekend. Of course, he wasn't speaking English, but something else in Arabic. They were pleased with our work, however, saying, "Maya Maya!" or 100-100! to us throughout the day. The family children loved watching us work. They also loved getting their picture taken, and then rushing over to see the photo--digital technology is beyond fascinating to them.

I was so impressed by Habibat for Humanity, Egypt. I've always had a lot of respect for the organization, and the more I get to know the more I like it. Habitat works with families on an individual basis to find out exactly what they need for a home and offers the family a no-interest loan to buy the materials and build their home. They work out a deal for how long it should take for the family to pay back for the materials; and the family is also expected to put in "sweat time" meaning they must work on building their neighbor's home. It an incredible way to introduce more empowerment and service, as communities gather together to learn how to build and help each other.

Oh, more tourist police fun: At night we wanted to take a walk along the Nile Corniche and enjoy the fresh air; we had to wait awhile at the hotel until a big enough selection of tourist police could gather to join us. As we strolled along the road, a truck full of police slowly drove right next to us. When we stopped, they stopped. When we turned, they turned—or called out to us to come back and not turn. That's not suspicious or anything. ;-)
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