Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Da Plane, Da Plane!

We are on Fantasy Island - seaplane and all. Ricardo Montalban hasn't yet appeared to grant us our wish, but I'm pretty sure I heard Tatoo heralding our arrival.

We've finally made it to our final destination...and what a destination it is! Holy Moses this place is incredible! I can't even begin to describe how amazingly magnificent the Maldives are but let's just say that our spa water villa, which sits on stilts with our own staircase into the water, has nightly visits from huge rays, sharks, large fish and giant fruit bats. We were upgraded into the water villa at the very end of the island which means we can't even see the other villas from our balcony; all we see is the open ocean which is only around five feet deep around us, perfect temperature and clearer than any swimming pool I have ever been in.

We'll fill you in on more details later but we just wanted to let you know we made it to paradise safely and are now going to enjoy it, so we're probably not going to post again until we leave Paradise.

Now signing off to snorkel, dine at the world's only glass, underwater restaurant, go deep-sea fishing on our own private charter, and explore a deserted island - just a few of the activities planned this week.

Smoking the Sheesha

It was clear from the outset that we'd make few friends on our cruise. (Actually, the word cruise seems a misnomer - I think our boat may have actually sailed 4 hours a day. The rest of the time we were moored in the midst of about a million other stationary boats obscuring our view of anything but the cabin on the ship next door.)

On the plane ride to Abu Simbel, our starting point on the Sunboat IV, I could identify only one couple - Mike and Loretta - with whom we might possibly relate. It would become painfully apparent later (as Sanjay, I admit, predicted from the beginning) that these two freaks would only serve to make our cruise more entertaining, perhaps, but certainly not more enjoyable. (Near the end of the cruise, Loretta lost her camera and blamed everyone on board except herself. She cried and skipped our tour of THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS!!!! while she pouted, bitched and, in all likelihood, drove her poor husband Mike and the entire crew to the brink of insanity. Loretta and Mike work as contractors in Iraq, so Mike has enough stress without having his own personal drama queen demand to file a police report in Egypt due to what was most likely her own misplacing of an utterly replacable Casio digital camera.)

Anywho . . . . On the day of our departure, we caught a flight from Cairo to Abu Simbel at 2:30am - yes, you read that right. We hadn't slept, but managed to catch about an hour on the plane. Upon our arrival, we were immediately rushed to visit the Abu Simbel temples of Ramses II and his queen, Nefertari. They were enormous and sat on the banks of the Nile (they were actually moved back a little bit from their former position by a team of engineers to avoid damage - I'm not certain, given their magnitude, how that's even physically possible). While they were incredibly beautiful, the crowds made the experience somewhat painful, especially in our sleep-deprived state. Actually, at every monument we visited, we experienced insane hoards of people which seems right, I suppose, now that our guide has informed us that 65% of Egypt's economy is based on tourism.

That afternoon, after we were swept to our boat for a quick white-girl-boring-ass-catered-food lunch (rich old white people seem to demand only plain fare that doesn't challenge their taste buds or their digestive systems), we (still with zero rest) boarded a traditional Egyptian sailboat called a felucca and took a brief sail on the Nile with about 10 of our co-tourists from the boat. It was actually quite beautiful but sleep deprivation, by this time, was really taking its toll. Our sailor was really a pro and, as he gracefully guided us narrowly through the passage between our own Scylla and Charybdis on the Nile, my brain randomly shuffled through and found the most appropriate song to be stuck in my head for the next several days - today's:
Song of the Day: Wrapped around your Finger by The Police

For those of you whose brains do not store such useless trivia as all of the lyrics to every Police song, this song includes both the Scylla and Charybdis reference, as well as a reference to alabaster, which was appropriate given the fact that Luxor, Egypt produces some of the finest alabaster in the world. Sanjay actually ended up purchasing the most gorgeous green alabaster vase as a souvenir and birthday gift to himself on Friday.

Of course, with cheesy simplicity, the other song stuck in my head all week was our other

Song of the Day: Walk Like an Egyptian by the Bangles

On the felucca ride, we met the three freak-o-teers with whom we'd be spending all of our meals after Loretta and Mike opted out of eating at our shared table to wallow in their own self-pity and misery at a two-top. We had the pleasure of sharing three meals a day - and every excursion - with Karen, a pastor with her Masters in Divinity from Princeton, John, who's retired from automobile manufacturing and their daughter Kristen, who Sanjay originally predicted was afflicted with Down's syndrome. We later tamed our diagnosis to some simple, severe form of social dysfunction. Actually, the trio was nice enough, just not quite who we might normally choose to have over for supper, let alone spend 12 hours a day with.

We also had the pleasure of meeting Hassan, our Egyptologist and guide for the duration of the cruise. Thank Allah for him. (Actually, one of the most endearing attributes of Hassan and every Egyptian was their constant use of the phrase enshallah, which means "God willing". We'll meet at 8:00, enshallah. We'll go out for sheesha, enshallah. We'll eat at Felfella, enshallah. Someday I'll visit America, enshallah. And it's not really just a throwaway phrase - they mean it. In their faith, everything is dependent on destiny or God's will. It's really interesting.) Anyway, Hassan is a chubby little man who says he has knees like a goat and therefore never shows his legs - even though it gets up to 130F! Hassan single-handedly saved the cruise for us by taking us to see the most incredible sites and monuments ever and, more importantly, aiding our nightly escape from the ship and its inhabitants to take us out to local coffee shops each night where we drank hibiscus tea, smoked the sheesha (hooka), and had fascinating conversations about local politics. More about those later.

Admittedly, that first night, we were too tired for sheesha or intelligent conversation, although we did manage to stay up for the performances of a whirling dervish and the worst man-girl belly-dancer ever. Actually, Sanjay and I, and all of the passengers who managed to keep their weary eyes open, actually did more belly dancing than she did, as she kept inviting each of us up to make complete asses of ourselves. That said, the dervish was fantastic and Sanjay's eyes throughout his entire performance were the size of saucers.

The next day was Valentine's Day - and today we visited Aswan. First, we stopped at a quarry to visit the unfinished obelisk. While it was enormous, it was laying on the ground, uncarved, so given all of the other sites we visited, this one was fairly unimpressive. I suppose the most fun thing about this site was the fact that Loretta and Mike spent 400 Egyptian pounds (the equivalent of about $70 USD) for 4 t-shirts that they should have probably gotten for about 80-100 pounds. I thought our guide was going to have a stroke. Negotiation is a critical art when purchasing anything as a tourist in Egypt. Generally, the initial asking price is at least double the normal purchase price and, if you look especially rich or infuriating, they'll charge you ten times the going rate. (I'll let you decide which category Ms. Loretta fell into.)

After we finished at the pile of rocks, we boarded a notably unseaworthy motorboat-like vessel and headed to the Temple of Philae. This site was an incredibly beautiful island with and Egyptian temple as well as a Roman one built by Trajan. On our boat ride over, I bought two bracelets made from sandalwood which smell so good. With our trusty guide Hassan as our lead negotiator, they each cost less than $1. He rocks.

After visiting these incredibly beautiful temples, we took a quick bus ride to the Aswan High Dam. While it's definitely impressive that this contraption has harnessed the energy of the mighty Nile (likely, though I've not researched it, much to the degradation of the local environment and wildlife), it's a dam. Not quite as cool as the Hoover Dam - and not nearly as cool as all of the temples and monuments we'd see on the Nile, so thankfully, it was time to move on. After our morning tour, we ate lunch and sailed to the location we'd vist that afternoon - Kom Ombo, the site of a unique Greco-Roman temple dedicated to two gods: Sobek, the crocodile god, and Haroeris, the sun god. The two are like yin and yang - sobek is evil and Haroeris is good. The temple was immense and beautiful. That evening after dinner, Sanjay did the sweetest thing ever. Knowing that every girl has a love-hate relationship with Valentine's Day, he sought to make mine special (especially since the divorce and all) and placed a small red velvet pouch on my dessert plate innocuously. In it was a necklace with a small, white gold and diamond ankh pendant with a silver necklace. I'd seen it in the window of a store in Cairo, and somehow it mysteriously appeared on our cruise. I'm not positive - maybe he's really just the nicest, most charming man in the world but, I think he likes me ;)

That night would unfold to be the best of our cruise, as we begged Hassan for some way to escape our boat and he escorted us to a local coffeeshop (where neither a single tourist, nor woman could be found) where we smoked sheesha & had an incredibly interesting conversation about Egyptian politics.

In particular, we learned that Hassan and many Egyptians in the last election had voted for a candidate from the Future party - I believe he was a professor who actually campaigned village to village and talked directly to the people. He was a normal guy who earned alot of respect during the election, and likely a number of votes. He's now in prison, along with Mubarak's other leading competitor. While I don't fully recall the charges, it was clear that they were trumped up. It seems that the Future party candidate is now ill and is likely to die in prison. Hassan said that with all of America's election problems, we had nothing on Egypt where no one is certain that Mubarak was actually elected by the people. I asked about protests by the people - explaining that these are how America has undergone its most significant transformations in the past - and he explained that Egyptians do have the right of free speech - for instance, a group called Kifaya or "Enough!", protests the government consistently - the voices of such organizations are loud but rarely inspire the government to make any change. Hassan predicted that Mubarak's death would lead to dramatic civil unrest in Egypt, as his son is being groomed to lead, the people don't want that, and it's not clear that any election would be run fairly.

He also mentioned that because the government is so little respected and does so little for the people, that religion and religious leaders hold the real power with the people of Egypt. Even though the laws in Egypt prohibit a religious party from forming, many people would prefer that.
Obviously we also talked about the war - who'd pass up that opportunity? He mentioned that the Islamic world watches a channel broadcast from the perspective of the Iraqi people, that shows the damage being done there and interviews the locals to find out how many have been killed. He says it's actually incredibly sad - and that he and his friends watch CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera and this channel - apparently a subnetwork of Al-Jazeera - to form the real truth of the matter for themselves. (As an aside, we actually watched Al-Jazeera and the coverage was definitely interesting, erudite and not any more one-sided than CNN or, certainly, Fox.) Hassan also mentioned that the Islamic world is furious about the fact that Saddam was executed on a religious feast day, and believes that America did this purposefully to "rub it in". (I know, I know, we thought the Iraqi government was in charge of this, but Hassan was firm that no Islamic government would execute anyone, certainly not by hanging - he believes it should have been a firing squad, on a religious holy day.)

Our final topic for the evening was Egypt's lack of involvement in resolving conflict or giving aid to Sudan. Comparatively, I'd bet that Egypt is one of the two richest countries in Africa (again, I don't have the stats, but suffice it to say that, compared to Sudan, their bajillionaires). He said he doesn't understand why Egypt is not intervening diplomatically or militarily because they're neighbors and brothers and have the resources, nor to assist refugees and the people affected by the conflict.I know, I know, too much detail - but it's so interesting. Anyway, I'm now writing hurriedly from the Maldives, so the rest of this post will be detail-free.

On Thursday, we visited temples at Edfu (The Temple of Horus) and Esna, both huge and beautiful although I think it was Esna that had the most aggressive salesmen ever at the local shops. The temple there is actually just sitting in the middle of a little village, where the locals hope no other discoveries are made for fear of losing their homes. Apparently, the Egyptian government seizes property all the time for such things, without appropriately compensating those affected.

We had lunch with one of the most arrogant, aggravating couples of all time - Robbie, a former Hollywood entertainment CEO turned sacred essence portrait artist (whatever that means), her husband what's-his-face, a paper baron, and their daughter, Allie, a nice girl whom they sent off to boarding school in England, likely so they could make googly eyes at one another and make out all the time, which they did at the lunch table. Mmm . . . . delicious.

That night, we ate Egyptian food and dressed in traditional Egyptian galabeyyas - Sanjay said mine was the prettiest of all. I think he was right.
Later, we again shared sheesha and hibiscus tea with Hassan at a locals-only coffeehouse, where we watched women pull bread in baskets from the deliveryboy by pulley to their second-floor apartments and listened to Hassan explain his love and respect for all of the various cultures with whom he interacts on the cruise. He is emphatic that politicians and the media breed fear and hate for power and ratings - and that once he actually meets and talks with people from anywhere - that there is understanding and mutual respect. He mentioned that one of his clients had shared with him a book The History of the World that apparently describes people from many cultures objectively - literature which is apparently not taught quite so fairly in local schools. You could tell he was incredibly grateful and he's passed the book to his son - whom he wants to teach to love and respect all the different people of the world - as all of us are creatures of Allah, God, the One - whatever the language, it's all the same.

Friday, for Sanjay's birthday, we visited the finest sites we've seen in all of Egypt at Luxor. While Sanjay was disappointed to not be staying with his friends in the Luxor at Las Vegas, I think he got over it as we visited:
  • The Valley of the Kings - where we entered three tombs, including Ramses IV, which had the most incredibly beautifully preserved hieroglyphics and artwork (Of course, Loretta was throwing a fit and missed it!)
  • The Valley of the Queens - where we entered the tomb of a prince
  • Temple of Hatshepsut - the temple of Egypt's only female pharaoh, who is dressed as a man in all her artwork and usurped power from her own son ( I think his name was Tutmosis III), who would later destroy most everything that bore her name and likeness. Luckily, he didn't destroy her temple, because it is carved into the side of a cliff and is architecturally the most beautiful site we saw in Egypt.

  • Temple of Luxor - This was interesting for its avenue of what seemed like hundreds of sphinxes and the Christian artwork that appears in the temple since it was later used for Christian worship by the Romans.

  • Temple of Karnak - my favorite site in Egypt, because of it's sheer size. It's incredible - there's a hypostyle hall there that has 134 columns that were each probably at least 10 feet in diameter), as well as a sacred pool where worshippers used to bathe before religious ceremonies. There's also a lucky scarab (beetle) that's said to bring you good luck if you walk around it three times. We did.

  • Luxor Museum - This museum held the most beautiful and well preserved sculpture we saw in all of Egypt - a statue of Tutmosis III made in a gray stone. The man was beautiful with soft eyes and incredible muscles. He really seemed to smile at you. Of course, none of the pieces in Egypt were ever signed, so who know who this incredible artist was. The museum also held the Luxor cachet - a group of statues that were buried under the temple to save the idols from destruction by the Christians. At least, I think that's what they said.

We also stopped to smoke sheesha (which Hassan called ahead to arrange, given our love of the sheesha) and buy Sanjay's birthday gift, a very rare green alabaster vase that is carved out of a single stone. That night after dinner, Sanjay discovered that the crew had baked him a birthday cake and hidden it in our room.

The next day, we arrived back in Cairo and toured both Coptic and Islamic temples in Cairo, as well as one synagogue (there are only about 40 Jews left in Cairo, so no services are held at any of the 8 remaining temples, which are now only tourist sites). My favorite the Hanging Church, which dates to the seventh century, which is Coptic - an orthodox Christian religion that most Egyptians were before Islam. Even the word Egypt (gypt is like copt) is derived from their formerly Coptic faith. While I was there, I left a donation and lit a candle for my family - and Sanjay, like any good Hindu, lit one for his as well. (Check out the photo - it was cold in Egypt!)

We also visited two fabulous mosques. The one in this photo is the alabaster mosque of Mohammed Ali at the Citadel in Cairo. While we were there, in my ignorance, I asked the meaning of the feast of Ramadan. I learned that it's a month meant to remind people of where they came from, to teach them humility and remind them of their poverty. That's why they eat so little (i.e., fast until sundown) during this time. (Actually, because everyone's so hungry from fasting all day, Egyptians actually consume 4 times more during the month of Ramadan than in any other month of the year - a lesson to all you dieters out there!) Additionally, if one can't fast for health or work reasons, the alternative is to prepare a meal just like the one you'll be eating (i.e., of very good quality) and serve it to a poor person at a charity table set up on the street. During Ramadan, you'll apparently find many people eating at these tables.

On our drive away from the mosque, our guide Abeer talked to us a little about how fundamentalism is really beginning to be on the rise in Egypt, and how Islamic fundamentalists are luring teenagers and college-age students away from their parents who have become more liberal and, in her words, modern (Abeer, for example, doesn't wear a scarf on her head) - they seem to recruit the young like a cult, and many are taken away to training centers and militant schools in other parts of the Arab world like Afghanistan and Iran. She said that she, like many modern Egyptians, fears the rise in the population and influence of these groups among the youth as they seem to be turning Egypt backward, and are turning the young against their parents, whose modernism they consider to be sinful and against God.

What struck me most about all of the churches we visited was how similar all of the symbolism, artwork and architecture was at all of them - and even at the ancient Egyptian temples. Halos on Christian saints were formerly suns above the head of the ancient Egyptian god Ra. The virgin mother holding the baby Jesus looks just like the ancient goddess Isis suckling her baby (Horus?). Many pictures of Jesus show him holding a scroll - just like every statue we saw of the pharoahs, and like the Torah scrolls in the holy of holies at the synagogue. No icons were visible in either the synagogue nor the mosques, but the symbol of the star was everywhere in Christian, Islamic and Jewish churches.

That afternoon, we shopped at my favorite place in all of Cairo - the Khan el-Kalili bazaar, and ate takeout tameyya and smoked sheesha at El Fashawi coffeehouse there. That night, we ate at a yummy Egyptian restaurant - though not as good as Felfella in terms of food and service - where the atmosphere was divine. Since we woke up at 4am to catch our flight, and didn't even stop at our hotel before our day-long tour of the churches, we went to bed directly afterward and missed the belly-dancing show we'd reserved.

The next day, we slept in, ate an amazing breakfast of honeycomb and fruit at the Four Seasons, and spent the day again at the bazaar eating local food and buying souvenirs. It was my favorite spot in Cairo - so incredibly full of life - no streets are that vibrant in the States. On our way to catch our car to the airport, we made our cab driver stop once more at Felfella to get one last taste of Egypt - we devoured 5 takeout taameya (Egyptian falafel) sandwiches in the taxi at a cost of 6.25 pounds (or about $1.25) for all of them.

Then our guide Ahmed and driver - whose Egyptian name literally means Mr. Satisfaction - drove us to the airport. It was sad to say goodbye, because they took such good care of us, but we knew we were on to even better things . .

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Queen of the Nile Returns

Just a quick check-in to let you know we're both alive and well. We want to savor our last day here in Cairo, so we'll be blogging during transit to the Maldives, as we should have plenty of time in an airport to catch up.

For now, suffice it to say that I have smoked more sheesha than is probably legal (especially for a girl in Cairo!) - and being trapped on a boat with a bunch of rich white people who cannot dance but choose to anyhow could well be a form of torture. That said, it was made more than bearable by our Egyptian guide, Hassan, and all of the amazing things we've seen -

We'll catch you up soon on our adventures, I promise . . . .

Monday, February 12, 2007

Moo Milkshakes and Camel Toes

Camels have huge feet. You see, we would know because today we rode on camels through the Egyptian desert near the pyramids and sphinx at Giza . So there. My camel was named Mickey Mouse and Sanjay rode on Michael Jackson. Our cute little guide was Kushi . . . he was 13 and no longer in school. Michael Jackson was evil and tried to bite Mickey.

Fortunately, Michael was neither as evil nor as lucky as the little Egyptian man who copped a feel when he forcibly grabbed me to take a photo with him and his camel while we were visiting the earlier pyramids at Memphis and Saqqara . I was manhandled but learned an important lesson about totally ignoring the harassment of strangers. My friend Diane would be proud.

The pyramids were incredible, immense and incredibly intact with beautifully, minutely detailed carvings on the interiors that you simply cannot imagine. I am not certain how they could have built such things. Their magnitude is unbelievable, as is their proximity to the city. These structures stand mere feet from the local KFC and Pizza Hut, somewhat disappointingly. Visitors have also taken the liberty to adorn these treasures with litter and graffiti.

As impressive as the pyramids have been so far, the food at the restaurant where we ate today was perhaps even more so. It was called FelFella, and they had the best baba ghanoush, Egyptian falafel (made with fava beans instead of chick peas), tahini and pita bread I have ever tasted. Sanjay also had this totally yummy juice from the hibiscus flower. I would tell you everywhere else we stopped, but it would give away some of your gifts, so I will refrain and keep that for a surprise. We did hit a local mall last night to get Sanjay some clothes, which was an interesting experience. Everyone thinks he is Egyptian and speaks to him in Arabic, which is both confusing and helpful when negotiating taxi fares and other prices.

The Four Seasons Hotel at Nile Plaza is insane. Our room is on the 24th floor overlooking a view of the entire city. I truly feel like royalty. Everyone (waiters, doormen, valets, etc.) knows our name, a dog sniffs our car for bombs every time we drive up, they cut the crusts off of all our breads and serve us peeled pomegranates for breakfast with fresh honeycomb. The flower arrangements in the lobby are the most beautiful I have ever seen. Coming from the CCS house to here has been extreme culture shock to say the least. More confusing, however, has been our transformation from village guests to pure tourists. I must say I miss being so close to the locals. Our Egyptologist, Ameer, is awesome and we had lunch with her today, but it is quite difficult to interact with other Egyptians given our tourist status and, in many cases, the language barrier.

Our amazing time thus far in Egypt did come at a steep price, as we had to say goodbye to all of our volunteer friends, especially my two favorite roommates and moos, Diane and Connie. They sent us off with a nice dinner party and an evening at the casino and, most importantly, as we pulled off in our car from the compound, they waved, cried, blew kisses and even shook their cute moo hineys in our direction. Connie even offered to lift her shirt for Sanjay again. (Did I fail to mention that he has previously seen the moo without her top on . . . I suppose that is a longer story, so I will let him explain later for himself =)

Anywho . . . Sorry this is so short, but our flight to Abu Simbel to catch our cruise boat departs at 2am, so I need to get packed. We will be offline while we float down the Nile , but we will check in when we return on Saturday. Hope all is well!

Friday, February 9, 2007

Naivete & Frozen Manties

I found out yesterday that one of the best students at Shepherds Junior, Leah, may be taken out of the school by her mother. Another volunteer, Andrea, who's there now, spoke with both Leah and her teacher Nancy. Nancy said that Leah's mother sometimes is unable to have any food in the house (not like in America, I mean zero), and that she must move Leah to a free school so that she can feed her children.

I believe I said in my last post something naive along the lines of "thank god they're all well taken care of, or I wouldn't be able to leave". I may have been deluding myself. I think I just can't comprehend the day-to-day struggles these people face. Leah looks happy, and is incredibly smart and mature. Of all the children, I probably thought she was the best taken care of.

Don't worry, I've obviously already offered to help figure out how to keep her at Shepherds, but you just never know.

I continued to receive gifts this week from the school. Teacher Angel (a teaching assistant who probably makes less than $1 per day) sent me home some material that's tied around one's waist as a traditional conga (skirt). I just don't even know how to show gratitude that matches their generosity.

Other than that, this week we painted the nurse's station at Nkoranga Hospital with our best buddy here, Diane. (Mom, you would love this woman. Her dog's her best friend, she's a Harley-driving nurse. We love her.) The conditions at the hospital are, as you might imagine, deplorable. They actually use glass IVs, the kind you see in like Civil War movies. We walked past the TB isolation ward, and the patient was sitting outside on the lawn rather than in his room. We also stopped by the torture chamber, I mean, maternity ward, where a red bucket labeled "Placenta" sat at the foot of the bed with god-knows-what muck inside. We walked past a baby lying in a bed with her eyes fixed and dilated facing the ceiling. God knows what's even wrong with most of them. Diagnostic tools are limited, and treatments even moreso. They don't feed the patients there - they're families bring them food, or they don't eat.

We've spent most of this week actually, to my great pleasure, with tons of free time just wandering the streets of Arusha and exploring. We've not had nearly enough time to roam freely to date, so this has been fascinating. We took Sanjay's photo in front of Happy Sausage, Ltd, and near the House of Lubricants, and got a few cool gifts. Actually, we thought about getting one more item we saw - the Saddam Hussein wall calendar that was being sold on the street and read "Execution has turned Saddam into a Martyr!" Sanjay insisted it was a bad idea, though. I said I'd carry it in my luggage . . .

Last night, since I've had absolutely enough of Chef Japhet's eggplant, boiled potato, bean, carrot and tomato surprise, we actually found Kraft singles at Shop-Rite (the local western supermarket where plums and grapes cost over $10 USD per pound) and white bread and made the BEST grilled cheese sandwich I've ever had. Honestly, I didn't know food could taste so good. We gave one to the watchman, Thompson, too, as well as Saidi's son (Saidi's the owner of the bar across the street from our compound) - I think they were duly impressed with my white-girl cooking skills.

After I went to sleep, Sanjay sought retribution against his 50-something Australian roomate, Pat. Pat had the audacity to move Sanjay's dainties and toiletries from the top shelf to the bottom in the bathroom in order, I think, to mark his alpha-male territory and, since he's a crotchety old man (not really), to avoid bending over every day.

In retaliation, Sanjay froze his socks and manties in a loaf pan, and presented them to him with an announcement to all of the volunteers over breakfast this morning. I think Pat was actually delighted for the attention.

We're super psyched to be leaving tomorrow for Cairo, and we'll be going out tonight with all of the volunteers to Pepe's for pizza, then to gamble and dance the night away. Hopefully, we'll be home in time for curfew . . . we'll catch up with you in Egypt!!!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


I've just posted some photos and read briefly through our last several posts, and I feel like I left something critical out - my headmistress, Lucy.

Just last night over dinner, Sanjay asked me what I thought I might be like if I had been born here. I hope I would be like her. I fear, however, that I don't possess her ability to succeed slowly and in small steps. She is able to relish (and appropriately so) the small miracles that she witnesses and inspires every day. While she focuses and builds upon those, I believe I might instead focus on everything that hadn't yet happened, thus obscuring the magnitude of what had been achieved. I hope to learn from her and grow - passionate progress before perfection.

Because our experience was so short, I went from frenzied newbie with zero context to not-terribly-seasoned retiree so quickly that I forgot to mention just how incredible this woman is. She founded Shepherds Junior in 2004, after her last child was fully grown, and has since used the money from her own small poultry business and boutique to supplement the tuition paid (i.e., 70,000 shillings for a three-month term, or about $18 per month) by the students who attend her small school. The school began with 10 students in one class, and has since grown to over 110 students at six grade levels.

She is an incredibly savvy business woman who runs her school with grace, charisma and humility. She's proud, but never arrogant.
She's also the single most grateful person I've ever met. She's never missed an opportunity to recognize one of my accomplishments, give me a gift or thank me profusely for any small contribution I've made.

I cannot personally believe all that she has built - single-handedly - simply to make the lives of these children better. Her vision is to grow the school to serve all grade levels through Class 7 and start and orphanage not far away to provide even more services to the local children. She is totally generous has utter faith that whatever resources she needs will be delivered, and never expresses a single doubt about the school's future. I'm actually certain, too, that while 95% of local organizations likely fail, her attitude and skill alone will ensure Shepherds Junior's continued expansion and success.

She is incredible. I just couldn't miss telling you. (Actually, it's interesting that her name, Lucy, is derived from the Latin word that means to light up or shine, which she does.)

She's also invited each of you to stay in her guest room and share whatever food she has. (We've shared bread and chai at her table many times, and trust me when I say that she's also fabulous company and a great conversationalist.)

I do hope you'll come - they could use every spare hand you have to offer.

Not much else to tell today. We're in town shopping for paint for the hospital and another school - painting Shepherds has inspired a few more volunteers to do the same, which is awesome.

We did upload some photos, so be sure to take a look at some of our previous posts . . .

Sunday, February 4, 2007

No Kiliminjaro

For those of you wondering about our Kiliminjaro climb, we're sorry to disappoint you.

Our health and the weather combined were a recipe for potential disaster, so we've decided to keep our lives intact, and be total wieners. (I hope at least my mom is pleased with this call, as I think it really was the most sensible choice.) The nurse in my room says we both likely have bronchitis, and the rains have been awful, which leads me to believe that the snows on Kiliminjaro would have been unbearable. Besides, just last month a rock slide on Kili killed 3 climbers and an unknown number of guides, and seriously injured 5 others. Were you really ready to say goodbye?

Don't worry, we'll be back, but we'll schedule the climb at the beginning of our trip, when we might actually be healthy enough to accomplish the journey.

That said, we'll both be staying another week here in Tanzania with CCS. I likely won't return to my placement (I'll explain why soon), but instead will be touring other organizations and helping out as I can. Hmmm . . . where to begin catching you up . . .

Well, I started my week in the most amazing way I can imagine. As you read, some friends and I painted the new building at my school last weekend. Monday morning began when I arrived at Shepherd's Junior and the children - 110 of them - rushed around me singing, beautifully and with so much gratitude for a truly small accomplishment that I was literally in tears, a song of thanks:

Teacher Stacey, Teacher Stacey, Teacher Stacey what a wonder you are
We love you so, so, so Teacher Stacey
Teacher Stacey what a wonder you are.

They continued to sing to me through morning assembly, where Teacher Nancy and the headmistress made announcements of gratitude, and I continued to cry. I was literally overwhelmed by their gratitude. The school really does look beautiful, though.

Monday night, we visited to a Black Panther who's now living in exile here in Tanzania, as he was convicted on some trumped up weapons charge and, if he returned to American soil, he would be immediately sent to prison. He was fascinating. He's been in Tanzania now for over 30 years, and has seen many of his family members from his home in Kansas City (even his own children) very little or, in some cases, not at all. Since he arrived, he's been focused on building his organization (I believe it's called the United African Community Center, or UACC). The center is an amazing place that teaches English, music, art, computers - essentially whatever courses they have volunteers to teach. The center also brings over young African Americans from the inner city to experience life here and, hopefully, learn a little something. It's run entirely by volunteers, with funds by donors, and its services are offered for free. In addition to the courses, the center has dug a well that provides clean water to many in the local community, and has implemented solar cells that provide electricity to 85 local homes and the center itself. Pete's super into new technologies - so Sanjay impressed him with his Blackberry. That's him over there!

It was actually remarkable to visit the place - they served Mexican food which was really unexpected and delicious and the solar power made the lights there so bright, it's incredible. I felt like I was seeing some of the people I was with for the first time. The power problems here make electricity definitely inconstant and, even when it's on, it's incredibly dim.

With regard to the water, you'd be amazed to see where people fetch their water. On multiple occasions, I've seen children fetch and/or drink water directly from what look to be sewer or storm drains. The water is completely opaque and brown. It's really incredible. I've never seen a child drink water at my school. I've seen those who can afford it have a soda or juice in the afternoon, but never water - the water from the tap cannot even be used to brush one's teeth, even by the locals. At the center's store, I bought Ashlee and Chooch super-cool prizes from the Center's shop, where all the goods are made by their students. I would describe them, but what fun would that be???

On Wednesday, I brought Shepherds' Junior Class 2 and Class 3 to my school to perform for the other volunteers who aren't lucky enough to get to work with them every day. They saw our water jug, and many of the children asked cautiously if they might have a glass of water. I've never seen anyone drink as fast as they did. It's clear that they don't have enough to drink.

During the performance, the children sang a few really moving songs about the AIDS epidemic here, followed by a quite formal debate as to whether girls are better than boys. They did a little play about government corruption, and Leah read a funny little mathematics prayer. They ended with a rousing and well-received rendition of my personal favorite song, "Be Happy Before You Die!" We offered everyone a glass of clean water when they were through, but I wish I'd had more.

The next day during recess, I had brought a few sheets of small star stickers and I began to place them on each child's head. The children were incredibly excited about their small gift. Even the older boys who rough house and roughly play the "real" football (i.e., soccer) during recess, ran to me wanting stars to adorn their foreheads. Their appreciation for small things is truly incredible. I can't imagine that boys of the same age on American playgrounds would even tolerate having a sticker on their face, let alone smile broadly, giggle, and ask for more before returning to their games.

That evening, we ate again at my favorite restaurant in Tanzania, Big Bite, where we feasted on Indian food with about 20 volunteers and Zungu, the artist who's continuing to paint a mural scene from "Goodnight Moon" on the front of the newly-painted school. Since Sanjay is the owner's new favorite customer, his wife had prepared a special dessert of really yummy gulab jamun for all of us. Yummy!!!

Friday, on my last day at my placement, I was greeted first by Teacher Nancy who rushed me to her classroom to present me with a gift. This incredible woman, who makes between 70,000 and 80,000 shillings per MONTH, or the equivalent of $55-$60 USD, to teach third graders with remarkable skill and grace, gave me a purse made of dried banana leaves and a card. She cried, as did I. My day would end on a similar note. After I spent my morning singing and teaching the baby class, I spent my break on the playground making and racing paper airplanes with the children. At the end of the break, Leah, an incredibly smart and beautiful girl from Class 3 (the one who earned the "Math Superstar" award I'd made from construction paper, came up to me and said, as she began to well up with tears, "I will never forget you." She couldn't have said anything more heart-wrenching if she'd tried. My tears continued.

After break, instead of returning to class, the children began to bring chairs and carpets out of their classrooms to prepare for a surprise bon voyage celebration and concert for me. After Class 3 sang to me two songs wishing me farewell, while the girls sobbed and the boys struggled to hold back their tears, I was presented with a traditional African dress that was quickly pulled over my head by Lucy, the school's headmistress, as well as a wall-hanging that says "To: Stacey's Family From: Shepherds Junior Academy" on the back. The students and teachers each presented me with separate, very sad, farewell cards. I sobbed throughout the entirety of their program, as did the children and teachers. Though I wished in vain that I'd brought more substantial gifts, I passed out chocolates to everyone.

Unfortunately, my van arrived during the program, and the 19-year-old rich Greek boy, Antonis, was late to catch his flight to Zanzibar, so I had to leave quickly. The children followed me to the gates, and grabbed at me not to go. Literally, these children were sobbing, boys and girls alike. I picked up Leah and hugged her, promising to email her soon. I was perhaps most moved by a little boy, from Grade 1, Caleb, whose normal handsome, mischievous grin was replaced by tears streaming from his face.

It was truly an incredible experience, one that supercedes my vocabulary. It wasn't until after we'd said farewell that Sanjay made the final decision that we wouldn't be climbing Kiliminjaro. So we'll be here for another week, but I don't think I can go back and put my babies, or myself, through another torturesome goodbye. It's a very good thing that I know that they'll all be well taken care of, because I'd otherwise be unable to leave.

That afternoon, I had the pleasure of witnessing again the generosity of the poor. Thompson, the night watchman at the CCS compound, invited us to visit his home. Once we arrived, his incredibly gracious wife, Janet, offered us sodas that she'd fetched for us. He showed us around his home, and then showed us a miracle. Thompson, from his own meager salary, has constructed a schoolhouse about the size of an American bedroom in his own front yard. When he first started to work at CCS, he was frustrated with his English and immediately hired a tutor from Kenya to teach his children English so they wouldn't suffer the same fate. Once his neighbors heard that he had a tutor at his home, they said he was selfish unless he invited all of the neighbor children to learn with them as well. He did. That was a few years ago and now, with all his own money, he has constructed a schoolhouse where a VOLUNTEER tutor teaches over 40 local children every day. The people here are unreal.

Yesterday, we awoke early to begin plans to cancel our climb and visit Tengeru market near our home base. Even though we've been warned on multiple occasions not to take photos (for fear that either our camera would be stolen or locals would violently demand a fee for their photos), we were determined to steal a few, because nothing other than a photo could describe for you what this place is like. We even managed to snap this shot of a bloodied butcher sitting on the chopping block with chunks of flesh at his feet. Essentially, our technique was that I'd pose as if Sanjay were taking a picture of me only, and he'd quickly snap something over my shoulder. I hope they turn out.

We then decided to move for the weekend to a hotel in town where we could take a real shower and, hopefully, begin to recover from out plague. (Actually, I'm pretty certain we're only here because Sanjay is REALLY excited to watch the Superbowl. Little did he know, though, that our hotel's TV's won't be showing the game. He's just gone upstairs to check us out, and is already researching alternatives that provide ESPN. Good luck. I wonder if that's actually why he agreed to cancel our climb?)

On our taxi ride over to the Kibo Palace, there were literally a million butterflies clouding the air. They looked like snow, their infestation apparently a direct consequence of the recent heavy rains.

Upon our arrival, after absorping a couple of American movies on the television (which we haven't seen in over a month now!), we ate a so-so dinner (Sanjay had some super-yummy enormous prawns while I had some alright peas and paneer in a sub-par sauce) at the hotel restaurant and watched some wedding festivities that was unfolding around the hotel pool. We did have a small, unsatisfying banana split for dessert, and then headed to a casino that's the size of an American bedroom with a blackjack table, a roulette table, a poker table and a few slot machines. It was actually pretty fun for an hour or so as we tipped the dealers heavily, and they were super appreciative. They kept saying "thanks from the girls!" After we handed over all our money, we returned for a fairly long, restful sleep and room service for breakfast.

We're sitting in our hotel lobby now. I've only coughed up a little green stuff this morning. I'm feeling a little better, but not nearly 100%. Although we're missing Kiliminjaro, I'm hoping this week will still be exciting - it kind of sucks to still be sick, though . . . I REALLY wish we could have gone :(

PS: Check out the American Lion in Masai Hell entry again - we're adding photos as we speak, and, if I do say so, they're fantastic!