Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Before and After: Sara Plays Soccer in an Egyptian Drama?

There are two more things you can now say you did in Egypt: played Egyptian-style soccer, and participated as an extra in an Egyptian television drama.

A man that works in the hotel where you live loves to watch and play soccer. It is just about all he can talk about. Whenever a new male guest arrives, he invites them for a game of soccer, or here called football, every Saturday. This time he invited you to join, too, but only as a spectator. You carry on a little bit about how you are perfectly capable of participating just as much as anyone else is, but in the end you are told it is impossible to play mixed genders in Egypt. Displeased, you accept this and agree to come and watch.

The day arrives and you meet about 15 other foreigners, as well as Muhammad the football fanatic, at the metro station and proceed to walk to your playing/spectating destination. The football field is a large, flat, dirt lot surrounded by three white, crumbling cement walls, which are lined with white-chalk lines and outlined with trash. The viewing area is a three-level cement stadium, with a small covering for shade. As you enter, there is a man watering the dirt to make it less dry and dusty while the teams play. You pick a relatively clean area to sit down, in the shade, and watch the game.

The teams are divided between two hotels- Sultan Hotel, which is where you are staying, and Safari Hotel, a few floors upstairs. In the first half, Safari Hotel is getting creamed by Sultan Hotel and the first game finishes 9 – 3. Everyone takes a break, and you express your desire to get on the field and join the game. Safari players have no problem with this. What have they got to lose? They urge you to join their team, so you go for it. You run onto the field, and before anyone can object, you join the play and impress everyone with your mediocre skills. Through the remainder of the game, no one objects to your female presence on the field. You believe that it is due to complete shock of the sight of a woman playing football. Everyone watches and cheers you on, giving you a “thumbs up” at the conclusion of the game.

You feel accomplished. Even though you have never been a good football player, you have always loved playing the game. You express your feelings of satisfaction to the organizer of this game, and he invites you to come play again the next time they have a game. The impossible became the possible.


You also never thought it would be possible to participate in any kind of professional film project, but when the opportunity presented itself, you decided to go for it. You were packing your bags to check out and wait in the hotel lobby for a few hours until your train to Upper Egypt leaves. You are asked if you want to participate as an extra in an Egyptian drama, for pay. The location of the project is in the café immediately below your hotel, so there is no concern about being late for the train.

You are seated at a table inside the café- a fruit drink in front of you as a prop. You wait. Everyone is running around like crazy yelling out things you don’t understand. Eventually it is “action” time. The cameras roll and your job is to pretend to talk. You enjoy the experience, but it only lasts for about 20 minutes. Then you are told to wait more. You end up sitting, and waiting, and not doing anything else for the remainder of the afternoon. You are now sitting and waiting only to be paid. Eventually you walk away with over 100 Egyptian pounds in your pocket. You are extremely happy with this, as it is money that you took for doing practically nothing.

Two unique and exciting experiences to conclude this time of yours in Cairo. On to the next adventure...

Sunday, April 20, 2008


You do not how long you will stay in Dahab, but while you are on the Sinai Peninsula, climbing Mt. Sinai is a must. You have been told by others that it is an unforgettable experience, and before long you find out they are right.

Mt. Sinai has some biblical significance to some. It is said to be the place from which Moses descended with his Ten Commandments. The mountain stands at 2,285 meters, towering over the Monastery of Saint Katherine. It has two trails leading to and from it. One, the camel trail, is easier to climb. The other is a series of 3,750 steps, called the Steps of Repentance, laid by a monk as a form of penance.

The Monastery of Saint Katherine was built in the 4th century, starting as a small chapel next to the burning bush where it is believed that a god spoke to Moses. Monastic order was created by the Roman empress Helena, and it was dedicated to Saint Katherine, a legendary martyr of Alexandria, who was tortured and beheaded for her Christianity. Throughout history, pilgrims endured dangerous conditions to trek to this isolated location, but nowadays it is littered with tour buses, camels, and cafés.

Your journey begins at 11pm with a micro-bus-ful of foreigners collected from hotels near you. After two hours in the cramped bus, you arrive at the base of the mountain, near the Monastery. The air is crisp and cool. You are lined up single-file to walk through a doorway that is made to look like a metal detector. Not one beep, but bags are searched. You are organized into groups by bus, and each bus is assigned a “tour guide”. The “tour guide” informs you of your meeting place and time at the end of the journey and the trek begins.

You have been walking for about half an hour and it is 2:15am. You hold a flashlight in front of you, and only able to focus on your steps and the feet of those in front of you. The stars, which have now become much more abundant in the sky, and your flashlight, are your only sources of light. The air is dusty from feet-shufflers and smelly from sporadic piles of camel shit.

“Oh, look! Camels!”
“Now that’s a good idea! How much?”


You speed up your pace of walking to try to avoid the seemingly endless amount of stupid foreign people and now also the hopeful camel driver who has discovered his bait.

Soon, you arrive at the first of a series of rest stops. About a hundred people are all flocked together drinking and talking. You continue walking and decide you can rest somewhere else. Shortly, you are no longer surrounded by English speaking people. Assuming your group surpassed you, you continue with the new group. Another rest stop. Your new group is herded inside for over-priced tea. You keep walking.

After about 10 steps, you are alone. Suddenly, everything is quiet. There are no more shufflers, no more voices. No more nothing except your pounding heart and rhythmic breath. You keep walking. It is a little bit scary being all alone, in the dark, halfway up a mountain, but you decide it is better than the herd. You stop for a rest and look at your surroundings. All around you are mountains, and the lights below seem far away. The stars and the moon shine brightly. You can almost see their milky threads, and you feel peace. After a few minutes, you force yourself to carry on walking because you do not know how much further you have to walk, but you are convinced you have fallen behind and must reach the top before sunrise. As you continue walking, you periodically stop to look up at your surroundings. You are passed by groups of camels, who have taken foreign quitters aboard. You rest anywhere but at rest-stops, except for the last one. By then, the trail has turned into steps and you think that must mean you are almost at the top.

A light! I have reached the end! No, it is only another rest stop.
“You are almost there, only three more minutes from here.”

Little do you know, the last “three minutes” are the steepest. You take frequent rests and regularly check the time. It is 3:40am. While you want to reach the top as soon as possible, you can afford to take another rest.

I am sitting on a mountain, in the middle of the night, in Egypt. How cool is this?

Finally, you reach the top. You are expecting the top to be flat and littered with people spread out on blankets, but you are wrong. The top has several different levels; so fortunately, there is a good view for everyone and there is almost no one there. So far, there is only a group of three people, huddled under a blanket. You stake out a spot, perched in between two rocks away from the others.

“Would you like a blanket?”
“You feel warm now, but after 10 minutes you will feel very cold. Only $2.”

He was right. It is very cold. You brought everything you had to use to stay warm, but it is still cold. The worst part is the wind. After about 20 minutes of continuous shivering, and exhaling your warmth into your sleeves, you discover that you can use your sheet as a shelter from the wind. Your shelter helps. It is still cold, but tolerable. You sit and wait, patiently shivering, for the sun to rise.

Soon, you hear voices. More people are arriving and taking pictures. Cameras snap off like popcorn- first very few, then more frequent. You wonder what all the fuss is about and poke your head out from under your sheet.

There is light.

The sun has not risen, but there is a very dim strip of light poking out from the horizon. It is amazing. You forget that you are cold, climb to top of your perch, and pull out your camera. Soon, the sun peeks out from under the Earth. You feel fortunate to be witnessing this moving experience. A new sun is being born for a new day. It is the source of all life on this planet, and soon it will be the thing that will make you feel warm again.

After the sun’s full emergence, religious groups begin to sing songs of worship, and at the sight of a singing teenage girl, with outstretched arms and tears streaming down her cheeks, you note it is time to go. People are taking pictures of each other and you wonder how you can get a picture of yourself to prove you were here.

“Excuse me, will you take a picture of me?”
“Sure, if you will take one of me after that.”

Her name was Noreen. She was an American visiting Egypt with her mother, to see her sister at the American University. They had come to climb the mountain, but Noreen left her exhausted mother and sister at the last rest stop. She asked you if you wanted to climb down together.

At the first/last rest stop Noreen rejoined her mother and sister and you resume your trip down. The trip down is just as exciting as the trip up. The trip down you can see where you are going and what surrounds you. It is breathtaking. You keep pulling your camera out to capture the beauty of this landscape, but nothing can capture the experience. Even as you write this, you struggle to capture it.

You pass rows of seated camels, and peel off extra layers of clothes. The sun now beats down with a powerful strength and you are so glad you decided to bring sun-block. You walk with a smile.

A few hours later, you reach the bottom, and your smile slowly fades. Your face now droops with fatigue and your body aches from walking. At the beginning of your trip you were told you must meet back at the bus at 9:30am, and the Monastery doesn’t open until 9. You already know that you will not have much time to see inside the Monastery, so when you reach it, you have only one goal in mind: toilet.

The line for the women’s restroom is about 10 meters long, and a man at the entrance is collecting one pound from every urinator. The man somehow overlooks you, so you do not pay. You pee in a cement hole, splash some sink water on your face to wake up, and leave.

The outside area of the Monastery is packed with people. Even if you cared about seeing it, you wouldn’t enjoy it with so many people. You decide to head back to the microbus before anyone else, and try to catch a few winks in the back. Others had the same idea, but the microbus had not returned yet. Finally, the group of foreigners, you have not seen since this trek started, pile into the bus and ride home. Everyone begins to nod off and people are falling all over each other with exhaustion. You decide it will be impossible to sleep, so you listen to some music to try and stay awake, and enjoy the scenery along the road.

You finally return back to your hotel around 1:00pm and conclude if you sleep now, you will not be able to sleep later, so you change your clothes and go for a refreshing dip in the Red Sea.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


You have just discovered that the driving force which brought you back to Egypt is a severe disappointment. You spend some time to yourself in your room, trying to figure out what is next for you in your life. Your friends and family back home expressed their concerns for your situation and hope you return. The idea of returning home sounds appealing, but at the same time, it feels like taking a step backwards. Why did you travel all this distance just to return home? You didn’t accomplish anything except spend money and get on a plane. So the school didn’t work out. There is another reason for you to be here, you just have to figure out what it is.

A few days after finding out your purpose here is unknown, a new traveler checks into the same room where you currently sleep. Her name is Tanya and she is from Russia. She is the first female traveler, who speaks fluent English, you have encountered on your trip. You spend an evening speaking about experiences in Egypt, travel, and life. You realize quickly that Tanya is a person who acts spontaneously when she decides, in the spark of a neuron, she doesn’t want to stay in Cairo until her visa will be ready to be picked up, in ten days, but she wants to travel to Dahab- tonight- and invites you to join her. For one minute, you seriously consider it. The idea sounds thrilling, but then your conscience steps in and tells you to wait a minute. You have just met this person, and have no idea who they are. You think if she were leaving in a few days, you would have more time to get to know her, but she is ready to leave tonight, and you aren’t.

You spend another week in Cairo contemplating your situation. A friendly man who works in the hotel offers his opinions and ideas about what you should do in your situation, even though you never ask him. He takes the initiative to ask a network of people he knows about available teaching jobs in Cairo. He practically demands you to comply with his requests, and you resist. Your hopes of finding a suitable employer in Egypt have practically diminished, but he doesn’t accept this.

“You have a hard mind, but I will break you,” Ahmed says.
“Okay, fine,” you say.

You realize that submitting information to other companies in order to find another job can’t hurt. So, why not?

Meanwhile, you have convinced yourself that you are incapable of carrying out your “plan B”- travel. You start having extreme doubt about your situation, yourself, everything.

“You must prove to yourself that you can do it.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“You have to. Do it. Do it for yourself.”

A few days later, you pick up the phone and call Tanya.

“Sara? Nice to hear from you! When are you coming?”

You decide to take a chance, go somewhere you haven’t been yet, pack up your shit, and take a bus to the Sinai Peninsula.

The bus arrives at the Dahab Bus Station at about 9:30am. You haven’t been able to sleep much and feel disoriented. You step off the bus and are immediately approached by a taxi driver. You are his last chance for some money from this busload, so he has nothing to lose and no reason to leave without you. You tell him to go away. You scream and shout, showing your angriest face, but he only stands there smiling, watching you. Suddenly, you recognize a Japanese man from your hotel in Cairo. After talking with him for a minute, he spots a man who works in the hotel he had just stayed in, in Dahab. He recommends to stay at this hotel, but all you want is a ride in that direction so you can meet Tanya. The taxi arrives and the driver asks for money. He demands 10 pounds and you have been warned not to pay more than 5. Tempers flare, harsh words exchanged, and you are wondering if the whole trip will be like this.

Finally you see Tanya, and she takes you to meet some of her Russian friends and eat breakfast. You plan to spend only a few days there, but end up staying for 2 and a half weeks. This is the curse of Dahab.

There are not enough pictures or words to capture the atmosphere of Dahab. One must see for oneself. However, you decide you can’t leave until you attempt to capture it in writing, the best you can:

Mud-squishing toes,
Rocks sculpting feet,
Wind dances playfully.
Turquoise water,
Lucid dreams,
There can be no such place, it seems.
Time doesn’t exist,
Only night and day,
A week’s vacation turns a year-long stay.
Together in this vortex, called

Bracelet, cheeky-bugger, girls,
Follow salt-crust faces.
Swimming in the Red Sea.
Have you seen?
This is Dahab.
Cats and dogs your best friends,
Take your lentil soup,
In a bag to-go,
Drink it through a straw by the sea.
Come with me,
The beach-front in Dahab.

A black sheep drinks Nescafe,
Refuses to swim in her lingerie,
Wondering what the future will be,
After moving from this lazy town.
The mountains and the sun,
Scuba diving fun.
Generous faces,
Abandoned places,
You can find yourself
In Dahab.

[The day after you arrive in Dahab, you immediately make reservations to climb to the top of Mt. Sinai and visit the monastery of Saint Katherine. The most desired trek starts at the bottom around 1am and you reach the top to watch the sunrise. This experience requires and entry of its own, so stay tuned.]

The remainder of your two weeks is spent lounging by the sea, meeting people from all over the world, swimming, snorkeling, and exploring. You feel welcomed by all who stay there and are even offered opportunities to live and work there. The idea of staying sounds tempting, but you have other things to take care of first. Toward the end, you are presented with an opportunity which you cannot refuse- to go scuba diving absolutely free. A generous dive master offered to take you out for a semi-shallow dive, no strings attached. You are skeptical it will happen after you wait two hours at the meeting place, but eventually you go, and it is like a dream come true. Never did you think you would get an opportunity to go scuba diving in the Red Sea, and now you have.

The expiration date of your visa is slowly approaching, and after days of trying to decide what to do and listening to advice from others, you decide the best option is to go back to Cairo. It is time to leave Dahab for the time being.

“Sometime next week, if you would like, I will take you diving in the Canyon.”
“Oh, I am leaving tomorrow, but I’ll be back for sure, I mean, insha’allah.”