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Wednesday 30th July
Thursday, will be the one week mark for me at Thermia Palace and I’ll have 12 days left before my experience here comes to an end. I do feel that I have grown stronger this past week and that the pinched nerve in my back is becoming less and less of a problem with each Elector session, heat treatment and massages. My Achilles tendon is not as easily agitated by my movements and walking around. (Knock On Wood!)
Today is the last day for the remaining 4 Egyptian ladies, I have had the pleasure of meeting. There company is always enlightening as well as full of amusing conversation. When they leave, I will be the remaining Egyptian here. It will be my duty to represent not only Egypt well but the other counties that I am patriotic to, too.
Going from session to session reminds me of high school. Schedule in hand along with the necessary items I’ll need for the treatments and I have to make my way from one place to the other and be on time, break for lunch and then go to the next session. Attendance isn’t taken but the instructors or those providing the treatments, sign your schedule to indicate you attended. I’m just grateful I don’t have reading or written assignments that I have to turn in at the end of the 20 days.
I checked my list of treatments for the day and found I had two new treatments, that I’ve never had before. Dry Carbon Bath and Mud Pool. How does one have a dry carbon bath, I thought to myself? The other sessions were familiar and I knew what to expect, or so I thought!
I found my way to the floor and corridor where this new kind of bath is given. It was in a place I had never been to before and I wasn’t quite sure what I should do. One of the employees came out of one of the rows of identical doors, looked at my schedule and said to wait one moment, while she called her colleague to come. Moments later a short red-haired, stout woman came bounding down the hall way towards me, with quite a bit of make up and lead me to the last door in the corridor where a big CO2 sign was. I went in and there was no bath tub!?!?! I was confused? How do you have a bath without a tub? Instead of a tub there was a medical table/bed and a sheet on it. The woman went to a small cupboard and pulled out a long white plastic bag and placed it on the bed. She then turns to me and says; “Madame, Please take off clothes and get in bag”, then leave the room to let me prepare. (PREPARE FOR WHAT?!? IS WHAT I WANT TO KNOW!!)
I can’t begin to tell you all of the thoughts and phrases that were whizzing around in my head! Some of them are just too vulgar, that I won’t dare write it out, because my mother reads my blog! One thought was ‘I wish I’d written my will and final testament, if Id’ known I was going to voluntarily get in a body bag!”
I do as I’m told (I’m so obedient), I get undressed, climb into the bag and wait for further instructions. The woman returns shortly after, I’ve got myself in the bag. She comes over and helps me get further in the bag and tells me, my arms have to be inside too, (OH! #$%^ me!, I think to myself). A towel is wrapped around my neck and the bag is pulled up towards my neck and then an elasticated clip is put in place, so, I look as thought I have a Victorian collar. I am then made to lie down and a pipe is then stuck into the bag through the neck piece and the gas is turned on. The bag slowly fills up with carbon gas and when I look like a human sized helium balloon or a super giant-sized bag of Kernels Pop corn. I am left to lie in ‘dry carbon gas’ for 20 minutes. (Well, now I know what it is, I thought to myself. How does this benefit me in any way?) I lay there, thinking and listening to the light relaxing music and at some point in time I drifted off to sleep. I woke up with a jolt when I felt myself teetering off the edge of the bed, (PHEW!!! that was close!). The woman came in and sat me up, not long after I saved myself from a carbon tumble and released the gas from the back of the bag. I was then told the session was over and that I could dress and leave. (I later found that it benefits the skin, and gives it more elasticity)
I make my way across the next building for my healthy back session. I was sincerely hoping that it was going to be like Pilates or yoga, but it was more like a Jane Fonda workout and again it was with the Trunchbull! Seeing this woman at the head of the class each time puts fear in me but also reassurance. I fear I may never walk again and reassurance that my ass will get whipped into shape in her class! Some of the routines I used to do when I was much younger with the greatest of ease, especially having been double jointed in the hips. After letting myself go, I find some of them strenuous, but I don’t let it deter me. I keep pushing myself… I will not give up and I will not be defeated I repeat to myself! By the end of the class, I have worked up a sweat and without a moment of rest, I make my way back to the main spa to experience the mud pool.
Before going into the Mud pool, I have to spend 10 minutes in the mirror pool, once the time’s up. I make my way downstairs to where the pool is. I thought the mirror pool was warm… HA! the mud beats it when it comes to heat. The pool itself is of an interesting design and shape. The water is dark and not very inviting. I made my way into the pool slowly so as not to slip and because my very active imagination made me believe that there was a possibility a swamp monster my inhabit it. The temperature of the water was ok, but once my feet touched the bud, it was I would imagine walking on hot coals would feel like. It was very warm that I couldn’t stand in one place for a long period of time. I had to keep lifting my feet up and moving around. I also had to keep my upper body out of the water to keep cool. “10 minutes in this?” I thought to myself. “I might melt in this before the time is up!” While I was in the pool one of the attendees came to me and asked if I’d mind bringing my next exercise session forward, because I was the only one taking it. I didn’t mind at all, it meant I wouldn’t have a two-hour gap between this and my slim class.
After a very long and slow passing 10 minutes, i showered myself off and went to one of the resting cubicles. I was wrapped up like caterpillar in a cocoon and I was sweating like crazy. Eventually the warmth got to be and I dozed off for a while. I woke up about 30 minutes later. I threw off the sheets and covers, put on my robe and went to the changing room to get dressed in to my exercise attire.
At the exercise class I expected it to be similar to the last two sessions, either on a ball or in a standing position. No, this time, I was going to do pretty much the same workout I did earlier in the healthy back session on an elevated massage table. Not only did I get my butt kicked but I was terrified that with one false move I would end up on the floor! In all honesty, the thought of moving afterwards made my muscles ache. I was done for the day!
For the rest of the day, I went into town and did a bit of shopping, blogged and then went down for dinner. At dinner time, I was messaging a friend of mine back in Cairo, keeping him informed of how may day and sessions are going, while in the garden enjoying the rare nice weather. On my way back, I saw the Egyptian ladies dining in the restaurant and went over to talk with them and to wish them safe travels before I turned in for the night. That didn’t happen, they insisted I sit and stay with them and join them in the bar afterwards. They are so charming that I couldn’t refuse. I joined them in the hotel lounge, I listened to them tell stories of their youth as the pianist played old hits in the background, which then led into a mini sing along when it was a song that they remembered the lyrics to.
They may be a few decades older than me, I thought, but their spirit is still young and their minds are sharp. I hope I’ll still have that spark and sense of joie de vivre at their age.
Thursday, July 31st
I wasn’t fortunate enough to see all the ladies again before they left. I did bump in to Mona after my second session one of the morning. We said our final farewells and hoped to meet up in Cairo once we were all back and settled in to our daily lives.
My routine today wasn’t too packed and wasn’t too strenuous. I attended all my sessions and once I was done, I dashed back to my room to change, have a quick lunch before I went on a short excursion to the capital city, Bratislava with a tour guide. I was the first to be picked up, so the guide was kind enough to give me a summary of the history of Piestany and a brief rundown of the the sights we would stop and see. I was the only English speaker on the bus, so I had to rely on my language decoding skills to pick up tid bits of information in German, because there was no way I could do it in Russian. As we drove, I dozed off a few times. I have trained myself to do that on long car journeys, to prevent myself from getting car sick, especially when the A/C isn’t strong and I couldn’t open a window. After what seemed to be ages, we reached the Bratislava, it wasn’t as bustling as I had expected it to be for a work day. It was quite calm and quiet, which was a pleasant surprise. We drove by the Presidential Residence, it looked like a miniature one story version of the White House in DC. From there we drove to the top of a hill to where a reconstructed castle stood. If the original hadn’t been destroyed in a fire a century or so ago, I think I would have been really impressed with the architecture and air about it, but because it looked ‘new’, I wasn’t that interested. I was mainly focused on the gateway, which had four armored white soldier busts at the top of them and the panoramic view of the city.
Our next stop was the old city of Bratislava. The bus dropped us off and we made the rest of the way on foot because it was a pedestrian zone. We walked down cobbled alley ways and I was in heaven, snapping away capturing unique architecture, statues, a clock tower and few other scenes with my camera as we walked a long. The area reminded me of two places O’Connell street in Dublin and downtown Beirut. It felt familiar and I enjoyed listening to the different languages being spoken. It was more cosmopolitan than Piestany. After we had been shown the highlights, we were given some free time to wonder and were told to meet at a certain place at 5:50, to head back to our hotels. Well, without hesitation I was off, there was an Irish pub I had spotted along our walk and I wasn’t going to leave without getting a Guinness fix. The last time I had one was in March and as everyone knows it’s rich in iron and has fewer calories than beer! I went straight up to the bar and ordered a half pint, so I wouldn’t be too full for the ride back and to make sure I had time to get some souvenir shopping done too.
Once I had happily consumed my favorite black drink, I went and found a souvenir shop close to the meeting point. Inside I picked up three magnets, a post card and some Slovakian mead. I’ve recently started a collection of magnets of places I have visited to put on my fridge. They are easy to carry and don’t take much room in the case or in the house, I also by two other magnets to put on my sisters fridge and my parents, because they can never have too many magnets! While I was at the cashier, I was stood next to a young lady whom was speaking to the cashier and my ear picked up on not only her accent, but the slang phrases she used. So, I turned to her and asked if she was Irish. She said she was and I then told her that I was half Irish. The young lady then asked where about my family was from and when I told her they were from County Tyrone in the North, she had an astonished look on her face, ‘That’s where I’m from’, she replied. Jokingly, I looked at her inquisitively and asked her if she was from the McSorley family. She giggled and said no, but her sister was married to one!! WHAT WERE THE CHANCES!?!? Of all the souvenir shops in the old city, I happened to be in that one standing next to an Irish lass from my grandfather’s county!! The world and the powers that be never cease to amaze me!
When I got back to the hotel the first thing I did was message my mother and she was just and amused by the encounter as I was.
Friday 1st August (2 weeks left)
I have officially completed by first wee. I am feeling the benefits of the treatments and I have to say the thing that I am enjoying the most are the simple freedoms people take for granted, like being able to wear what they want without being taunted by harassers, going on long walks or riding a bicycle while breathing in clean air and being surrounded by nature. There are days when I just want to crawl back into bed and sleep, but I force myself out, because, I know if I don’t, I will come to regret it once I’m back in Cairo and taking a stroll is enough to raise your blood pressure.
First thing this morning, Elena, who is the lovely women who has been giving me electro treatment everyday since my arrival said that she would be going on vacation and that today is her last day and that she wished me well and all the best and gave me a hug. I was very touched by her genuine well wishes and couldn’t help but like her more than I already did. I couldn’t help but wondered who her replacement would be and if she/they would be as efficient.
Today was one of those days where, I had to keep dressing and undressing. I can’t tell you how many times I had to go from being fully clothed, to half-dressed, to stark naked. I felt like I was becoming talented enough to have my very own, Las Vegas, Quick Change show! It will be very strange once I leave to be wearing the same thing all day long, without having to change into gym clothes, swim suite, rob or something suitable for dinner.
During the Healthy Back exercise class with the Trunchbull, there was some Saudi entertainment for the class participants,
(I say this with tongue in cheek and a lot of sarcasm)
An older Saudi Woman came into the class with her Sri Lankan maid. It is hard to estimate how old the Saudi woman was, because some women look far older than they are and her weight added years to her face too. She enters the class and is somewhat confused and caught off guard. The instructor tells her to come in and grab a mat but she doesn’t understand. I translated for her so that the class won’t be held up any longer. “But I’m not in sports clothes” she frets and says almost objection-ally. “It’s up to you” I inform her on behalf of the instructor. The Saudi woman then orders her lady in waiting to place an exercise mat on the floor for her, and tells her to remember next time she’ll need a blouse and pants for this. She then hands her, her black head scarf and Abaya (the long black cloak they wear) to the Sri Lankan woman, who then leaves to wait outside till the end of the session. The lady gets down on to the exercise mat make making a lot of grunting sound effects and ‘OW’ing and ‘AAH’ing noises, while the rest of the class watched her in complete bewildered puzzlement. I can’t begin to imagine the what thoughts were going through their heads. As the class goes on the grunting and complaints of pain grow less and less. At one point there’s no sound at all and I look up to see if the woman is still alive. Over the participants bodies and across the room, I see a pair of legs up in the air as she is lying on her back, following the instructor. Her galabeya (dress) is hitched to her knees, revealing what appears to be leg warms (that may be used to conceal her ankles from men) or medical socks with the bottoms cut off and her face is beetroot red. I have to prevent myself from laughing out.loud at the vision I saw.
When the class came to an end, she remained sat on the mat and watched everyone step around her so that the can put the mat away and make their way to their next appointment. She beckons for her maid to come, who is through the doors within seconds with a wheelchair and Abaya. I leave shaking my head in sadness and disbelief.
I make my way to my next session, which is the mud pack. I arrive a few minutes before my slot. When my time comes, I’m lead into my chamber for the session to undress and walk into the adjoining room, where I lay and get wrapped up in mud for twenty minutes. There are usually two people who are responsible for this, but only one of the ladies is on duty today. Once i’m settled and wrapped up tightly like a shawerma she moves on to the next client, whom happened to be another Saudi woman. From the conversation, it sounded as though she had never experienced this before because when she heard what she had to do, she put up a little protest ‘Laa, Laa, Laa, Aida, yimkin hathi ghalat’, which translates to ‘no, no, no Aida, maybe this is wrong/mistake’. The maid asked the attendee if it’s possible the doctor made and error. The Slovakian women in her broken English answered ‘Doctor, no make mistake, lie down, on back please.” The Saudi woman grumbles and mutters words that are inaudible for me to hear as she does as she’s told. The moment her flesh touches the heated mud the sounds of disgust fill the air and I chuckle quietly to myself. You are usually given a choice of 15-20 minutes, but the old woman wasn’t given a choice, the timer was set for 20 minutes, the lights were switched off to allow her to relax and the sound of the door shut behind her.
After these two incidents, I couldn’t help but wonder, if the girls from Asia whom are employed by families from the Arabian Gulf, ever get satisfaction from watching their employers in these situations. The thought then reminded me of two films that had been made ‘The Nanny’ with Scarlet Johansen and ‘The Help’ with Emma Stone. I wonder if these girls felt the same way as those characters did in the movie.
I finished my treatments at around one o’clock and went back to my room to change, answer messages, chat with my parents and tell them of the entertaining events that happened today. Which they found to be quite humorous that my mother laughed till she was red in the face. Once I had lunch, I went and rented a bicycle to ride around to burn off lunch. Well, that was my plan, but the weather had different plans altogether. I hadn’t been riding 10 minutes when Zeus threw his lightning bolt across the sky and a thunderstorm filled the sky. I rode as fast as I could peddle to my hotel, jumped off the bike and tried to lock it to a pole, but the damn lock wasn’t cooperating. The rain was beating down faster and harder and I was getting wetter by the second! I finally got it to lock and ran inside where I waited it out for the next 3 hours! Just when it sounded as though the storm was subsiding, I would think, maybe now I could go out and ride, it would start-up again. I went down for dinner, defeated. It looked as though I wouldn’t be riding the bike and would have to return the bicycle tomorrow, so I asked the receptionist to kindly inform the hotel I had rented it from that I would pay the extra amount. When I had finished dinner the sky was clear, the rain had stopped and I didn’t waste the opportunity, I got paper towels tried off the seat, unlocked the bike and rode! The sky was a palette of sunsets, the air was so clean and fresh my lungs couldn’t inhale enough of it. The hours I had to wait to ride, were worth it! If only it were like this in Cairo, I thought wishfully to myself!
I have come to one conclusion, Slovakian weather doesn’t like me riding a bicycle!
Part VI is coming up!
Later that day, I was catching up with my Mum, who is visiting my sister in the UK
Sunday 27th July
Sundays are days off at the retreat! I was very grateful to have a sleep in for a change. Since the end of the Academic year, I’ve been on the go, and a slower pace, even just for a day was nice.
What would I do with myself for a whole day in a place where I can’t speak the language? sleep? naaa! The sun is shining and the air is clean! I should fill my lungs up with as much of it as possible while I have the chance. But before I decide, first order of business is; breakfast!! I dressed hastily, made sure I had everything I needed in my hand bag and my camera, so that I wouldn’t have to come back to the room if I decided to head straight out.
By now, I knew what the nutritionist had planned for my breakfast off by heart; a glass of fresh juice, a slice of toast, cottage cheese, a slice of Emmantal cheese, 2 small 50 gm triangles of processed cheese, 2 boiled eggs, yogurt and a bowl of oats. Meh! is right! It is quite bland to the palette and doesn’t sound or look anywhere near as appetizing as the croissants, slices of tea cake, fresh pineapple, scrambled or boiled eggs, BUT I am here for the purpose to drop my weight and to clean my insides of a decade worth of poisonous crap that I had consumed, so I will suck it up! It’s amazing how a little dash of pepper and salt can change how food tastes!
Just before I was done Rana walked into the restaurant with her father. I went up to greet them both, she was very surprised to receive the little box of chocolates that I had left, “shoo hay, wahdi be wahdi’ , she said in her strong Lebanese accent, s “what’s this? one for one.” I told her it was a simple thank you gesture for giving me something I loved so much. “I want to see you in Beirut next time. I’ll send you my contacts so you can call me next time you come.” I promised the next time, I was there I would most certainly contact her. I wished her and her father both safe travels in case I didn’t see them before they both left.
After breakfast I went in search of the small travel agency (again), that organizes short trips to neighboring cities both in Slovakia and countries close to its borders. I followed my mother’s description to the letter and I couldn’t find it. I was slightly perplexed about it but I decided to continue on with my stroll and worry about it later. As I walked the island and saw the other hotels that shared the area, It was without a shadow of a doubt that I had booked into the jackpot! The other hotels were of modern architecture and from what I could see they didn’t give off as bright and relaxing ambiance com as Thermia Palace. I’m sure the service is good, there too, but I like the places I stay in to look cheerful both inside and out. I snapped a few pictures along my walk and kept a look out for where I might be able to rent a bike for the hour or for the day.
The thought of riding a bike was exciting as well as Terrifying! Since moving to Egypt in the early 1990’s I haven’t ridden one. I was genuinely worried that I had forgotten how to and that I would fall and that would be the end of my holiday and I’d spend the rest of it all bandaged up like a mummy! When I last rode a bike the world wasn’t as safety conscious either, I didn’t want to violate any rules or collide into another biker, pedestrian or car. So, I also took a mental note of where the bike lanes were, so if I ever did find a bike to rent, I had some idea of where I could ride.
I had no such luck, so I went back to the hotel after a lengthy walk and decided to check in with my family. As I was about to go up to my room, I bumped into Rana again. I stood chatting with her and her father, and was then introduced to 3 more Lebanese gents who live and own a travel agency here. Rana introduced me to Farag and said, ‘This is Nadia, she’s a lovely girl, please keep an eye on her. Nadia, Farag is a very old and good friend of mine, if you need anything please don’t hesitate to ask him.” It’s moments like these when you see the true spirit of the people from the Middle East, hospitable, helpful and generous. The media has plagued their image with false assumptions that we are all blood thirsty born killers, who have only thoughts of terrorism on our mind. It was very nice to see abroad as well as back in the region. Once they left and we said our final goodbyes, I went up to my room and sent my mom pictures of the area she had described and asked her to pin point exactly where the travel agent was supposed to be. After a lengthy discussion it turned out I had walked by the place quite a few times! So, once we had ended the conversation I headed back downstairs to check it out.
I headed down stairs and went directly to the place, my mother had described only, only to find a tiny note pad size piece of paper stuck to the window, that said they had relocated. I took a picture of the new address and asked the reception at the hotel. They informed me that it was on the bridge to the left of the hotel but would be closed on a Sunday. I asked if they knew of anywhere else I could rent a bicycle and I was told the hotel Balnea Esplenada rents them. They called the hotel for me and made sure that they had bikes available for me.
I walk to the hotel and went to the reception. I thought I had been transported back to Cairo and began to panic. The place reminded me a lot of the Intercontinental- Semiramis Hotel, near Tahrir Square. It was a modern architectural structure, with black tiled floors, tan colored leathers seats in the reception area and full of Gulfies.
(Yeah, I’m definitely staying at the classiest joint on the island! Phew!)
At the reception I gave my name, and the room key card holder with the details of how long I’m staying at Thermia Palace and room number. To rent the bike, it’s 5 Euros for 4 hours. Once all the details were taken and I paid cash, rather than have it charged to my room, I was taken a long, a long corridor to where the bikes are kept. I chose one, adjusted the seat, took the key for the bike lock and went on my merry way.
At first, I had forgotten, how one should actually start to peddle. So, I had one foot on a peddle and the other was pushing along the ground, like you would a scooter. Eventually, I got both feet up on to the peddles and I started to move forward, holding on to the handle bars for dear life, as I wobbled from side to side, like a drunk! I eventually found my equilibrium and was riding the bike! I rode along the bikers path along the river banks, the more I rode the more confident I became. By lunch time my thighs, abs and my butt cheeks were in agony. In addition to that I was famished. I headed back to the hotel, parked the bike outside, inhaled my lunch and was soon out again.
I rode for another hour, until the sky turned a gloomy dark color. I rode the bike back to Esplenada, took it to where I had been told to leave it when I was done and locked it, turned the key into the reception AND the heavens opened with a loud CRACK of thunder and a whip of lightening flashed across the sky!
Monday 28th July
I love walking! I find that I see more and learn more about a place and it’s people, when I’m on foot. On Saturdays, I join a small group of photography enthusiasts who, walk around areas of Cairo to take pictures. I enjoy it a great deal, not only because I take pictures, but I get to walk and see some of my ‘real’ countrymen/women going about their day to day lives.
First on the agenda for today is Nordic Walking.
All I knew is that it involved sticks and walking (obviously)! After a very quick breakfast, I went to the spa building Irma, as it stated on the paper to await the person who would be leading the group of people on the walk. I was greeted by a tall blond, blue eyed, fit young man called Jan (pronounced Yaan). In fairly good English he informed me that he would be leading the walk and it looked like I would be the only one participating. He adjusted the length of the sticks, showed me how to strap them on to my hands. I thought I looked like a marionette or some kind of shadow puppet. which then queued the ‘Pinocchio’ song ‘I’ve got no strings’!
The sticks took some getting used to. Jan told me to have the arm go with the opposite leg and to not focus on it, otherwise I would trip myself up. He was right the less I thought about them the better I was at walking with them. I asked him questions about what life is like living in Slovakia and how he got into fitness to distract my mind from the sticks. We walked a circuit for about 20-30 minutes at a fairly quick pace. It was great cardio and my lungs appreciated inhaling the fresh morning air.
Once done, I ran to my room to get ready for my other sessions… I had a fairly easy day, I only had 4 sessions. An hour after the walk I got into my robe, because second on the agenda was the mud pack. An experience that takes some getting used to at first. I don’t mind having the warm mud slathered on my bare skin and being wrapped up like a shawerma. It’s trying to get the mud off in the shower! No matter how thorough, I try to be, I always end up missing some! The Mud pack was closely followed by my Electro Magnetic treatment for my back , where I was greeted by the ever so lovely and very friendly and kind Elena. A middle aged Slovakian woman, with short hair and kind eyes and face.
My last treatment wasn’t till later in the afternoon, so I went for a long walk around the town, discovering new areas and just taking in the scenery and architecture, stopping every now and then to take pictures with my phone. I also went to the mall to get some long sleaved tops. I had only packed short sleeved t-shirts and if the forecast predicted rain for the week, I would need something warmer to wear. , (Another excuse to shop and spend money! Why not! I’m helping the economy, well at least that’s what I tell myself ;)
I was looking forward to my work out class GG Slim, last time we bounced around and exercised on balls! This time we had a different instructor, who looked a lot like Rhald Dhals character, the Trunchbull from his book ‘Matilda’. A medium height, square looking blond Russian woman, with knee length shorts, socks half way up her calf, white nurse like shoes and her hair tightly tied back. One look at her and I knew this would be one session where my muscles would be so soar by the end of them that if they could scream mercy, they would. Even the Saudi woman taking the class with me, looked as though she was scanning for an escape route. “Laa Laa Laa, mu hathi, Wahda thanya”, which in Gulf Arabic translates to “No, No, No, not this one, another one!”
We both took a deep breath and did as we were instructed. We got our mats, lay them on the floor and did what reminded me of the early 80’s Jane Fonda work out, minus the music! We did all sorts of stretching, lifting of arms and legs and stomach crunches. I could felt my muscles wince in pain, as I pushed myself to the exercises, while reminding myself, this is why I am here, to get fitter, thinner and healthier! Without any pain, there will be no gain!
By the time the session was over, I was exhausted and the Saudi woman was panting and gasping for air. I thanked the woman for the session, took my card and went to my room to change and go for another walk around the premises before dinner.
After dinner I went back up to my room and sat down and began writing part I to my experience at Thermia Palace.
I got so carried away with what I was writing that I lost track of time. I had been asked by one of the Egyptian women, Su, whom I had met on my first night in Piestany and had kept an eye open for me everyday to see how I was getting along asked me earlier on in the day, to make sure that I spent some time with her and her friends later on in the evening. Su and her husband were due to depart the next morning to head home back to Egypt after spending a month at Thermia Palace. I was very fortunate to find them all still sat around the round table that they had reserved for tonight. When I walked in I was greeted warmly by all those who were there. I was invited to sit and take part in the on going discussion. I was the youngest person at the table, sat among two doctors, an ambassador and 3 other highly intellectual individuals of 3 different faiths. It was while we sat and talked and exchanged contact information, I had a ‘moment’… ‘I am sat at a round table, with Christians, Muslims and Jews, there is no conflict or hate, just people.’ How poignant and more symbolic could that moment have been? If only the media, would stop fueling the hate and showing more moments like this.
Tuesday 29th July
It was another very early start to the day kicking it off with Nordic Walking. I fared much , better today and I was able to keep up more. The time seemed to just fly by. I felt cheated and would have gladly done the circuit once more. Since my arrival, I had been trying to figure out where the gym was. In the end I just asked Jan, where it was, since he was the fitness instructor. He showed me which door I had to go through and which corridor, I needed to walk along. The place is like Hogwarts (less like a gloomy castle thought), more like a maze! There are so many doors and corridors, that it’s easy to lose your way. (Now that I had an idea of where it was, I would definitely make an effort to use it (I hope!).
The rest of the day, was spent between Irma and the Napoleon III and 1B buildings. Bustling about across a courtyard between buildings with a gym bag and flip flops in a robe can be a workout in itself I tell you! It was a busy day, with Electro treatments, Parafango, Water gymnastics, Mirror pool and 20′ Massage.
The water gymnastics was lead by the Trunchbull! It wasn’t the usual red headed lady with a somewhat cheerful air about her. The members of the class looked worried. I related to their fear. There’s one thing to do those exercises on a mat on a floor, but in a pool? I hoped I wouldn’t drown!
The class went pretty well to tell the truth, the water created resistance and I felt like I had worked a lot of my muscles, especially my upper body. From there I showered off, changed into my robe to make my way across the court yard yet again to Irma, to take a much needed 20 minute dip in the warm sulfuric water of the Mirror Pool.
I usually shy away from getting naked. I don’t even like looking at myself with no clothes on. I’m fine when I’m looking at myself from the collarbone up, because when I look below that’s when I see all my faults and areas of imperfection that are so loudly pointed out and dictated to us by the media. So, I was genuinely quite surprised at how well I was adjusting to the numerous of times I had to bare-all and be in the presence of other women too. (I wondered what Freud, would have to say about that?)
In an odd way it was starting to feel more natural. When that thought crossed my mind, I even shocked myself! One of the many outspoken voices in my head, piped up; “More natural! Have you lost your mind girl? Next thing, you’ll be thinking about how cavemen or tribes people in the Rain forests of South America, are more civilized than we are, and we are over complicating life! The sulfur must have gone to your head!” I’m not saying, I’m by any means ready to give up my wardrobe or start vacationing at nude beaches or becoming a nudist. What I am trying to say, that perhaps we have been going about things the wrong way. There is a lot of shame that is brought on to those that don’t have a certain figure or that breaks the mold shall we say. A bodies shouldn’t be ‘a one size suites all’ mentality. If you look at the statues of women from the time of Ancient Greece or Rome or portraits from the Renaissance, women were not stick thin, they were busty, voluptuous and curvy. Why is it in the past few decades that perception of beauty has changed?
Three years ago, I wanted to have a body like Megan Fox. I won’t be hypocrite, I’m not going to lie about it. Having been here less than a week, my perception of beauty is changing. When I’m out walking and riding a bicycle, I see people who are healthy, active and they come in all shapes and sizes. So, my goal now is not to go back to Cairo looking like runway model, but to be a healthier person, who is comfortable in her own skin. I don’t want to get down to a size 4, I’ll be content if I can make it to a healthy 10/12. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Stay tuned for part III
I was on my way to a family event this past October (2013), when my brother-in-laws aunt was talking about how she didn’t like Bassem Youssef’s crude sense of humor and she thought he needed to tone it down, as well as rethink his choice of vocabulary. I was very amused by this, so I asked her if she was a fan of the king of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Priestly. ‘Yes’ she answered as I saw memories come flashing back, while her eyes flickered and twinkled as she remembered a time when she was young and he was popular and still in his prime. I then asked her what her parents thought of him and his music. She said that it wasn’t their taste and they didn’t particularly like the way he dressed or danced. My response to that was, Bassem is our Elvis of comedy, our generation find him to be humorous, while the older, more traditional generation find him to be vulgar. It’s a sign of a new fashion or trend, that is why his approach is met with such controversy and disdain. She sat quietly for a moment and thought about it, and answered ‘I never thought about it like that’.
For anyone who lives in the Middle East or speaks Arabic has probably heard of Bassem Youssef and his show ‘El Barnameg’. El Barnameg is very similar to, John Steward and Steve Colbert’s shows in the U.S. It is the first satire show of its kind in our region of the world. Before Bassem made his way into our living rooms every Friday night, he would record his own segments and post them on YouTube. His humor and wit soon earned him a large following.
When CBC, a television network station picked him up and aired him, he became one of the most recognized and powerful people in the Arabic speaking community. Here was a man who gave up his career as a heart surgeon to follow a passion in not only making people laugh for a living, but making them stop and think about what is being said in the media and how it can sometimes be manipulated and how some speakers are hypocrites. His program became so popular that people would schedule their Friday nights around it, so that they wouldn’t miss it. Facebook status updates would be almost instantaneous whenever he gave an ingenious punch line.
In his first season on air, he was untouchable and unrivaled. He was adored by the masses for making fun of the first elected president, Mohamed Morsi and many of the Muslim Brotherhood members. They didn’t take too kindly to it. It was no surprise when Bassem was accused of insulting the president, being anti-Islamic and in addition to that received death threats. Most people would have quaked in their boots, but Bassem didn’t retreat into the shadows and wait for everything to blow over, he just got a bigger soap box and continued to stand tall and speak out.
The night of the first episode of the second season, three or four months after President Morsi, was removed from office; his fans eagerly awaited his return to television. His show was met with mixed reviews and the country was once again split. His loyal followers thought his return was exceptional, while those who favored the hero General did not appreciate him making fun of their admiration for the man who had stepped in to save them from three more years of Morsi rule.
Alas his return to our living rooms was a very short one. His second episode never aired and the rumors and conspiracy theories began to whiz around the internet like a wild-fire. The second episode had been taped but never aired and this left a lot for people to speculate. Did the General not have a funny bone, couldn’t he take a joke? Was he the one who flexed his muscle from backstage and had the plug pulled? Or was it someone else? To date, no one really knows why the network canceled the show without notice.
This is not the end of the tale of Egypt’s satire revolutionary and trend setter. Although we have not had the company of Bassem Youssef in our sitting rooms for the past three or so months, he will be making a comeback. Another station has decided to pick him up and he will be back with us this Friday night, 7th of February. Some believe he might not be as popular as he had been before, others feel he will be more so now, that he has once again, beaten the odds.
Perhaps we could all learn something from Bassem. Never give up, no matter how hard people try and knock you down.
‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall’- Confusius
I do not know Ahmed, but I have his written consent to post his eye-witness account of what he saw first hand when he went to investigate what was happening at the El Fat7 mosque in downtown Cairo.
By Ahmed Amin
Before I begin, I would just like to say that there are numerous perspectives to the events that have been occurring over the past few days, and these perspectives are all altered by your vantage point – or the angle at which you are witnessing the events. This was my vantage point today:
As soon as I neared the Metro exit, I could hear loud crowds and gunshots. I exited the Metro and took a minute or so to look around and try to grasp and decipher the situation to decide which direction I should head in.
It is important to say that those that surrounded the Muslim Brotherhood inside the mosque were not thugs or hired mercenaries as a lot of news sources have been reporting, but rather vendors, shop owners, and residents of the area who had their belongings destroyed by the Brotherhood. They were there seeking revenge.
I walked up to the mosque’s main entrance and noticed that it was completely void of security, and was manned by civilians. I walked around the mosque to another corner, which I could recognize as the “dead zone” that TV cameras don’t show. At this corner, there were a lot of officers and CSF soldiers standing. I thought a group on the ground was a human shield of Brotherhood members denying them entrance to the mosque. Little did I know, those people – about 50 or so sitting on the ground – were all arrested. The officers refused to escort them outside until the situation was a little cleared and calmed. The residents were crazy for revenge and seeking blood.
One officer – very high in rank and was the guy in charge – was extremely harsh and exercised police brutality at its best. He was cursing and hitting the Brotherhood members. I asked a conscript why he was so harsh and he explained to me that his little brother – who also a police officer – was shot at and killed last night. I felt bad for him, but that still didn’t justify the insane police brutality.
Another officer approached him and told him that they were ready to escort the Brotherhood members outside to the police trucks. The divided them into two groups, and I went with the first group. As soon as the exited the mosque grounds, the residents began charging them trying to beat them, but the CSF conscripts cordoned off the area. This happened twice with both groups. Nobody was technically allowed back into the mosque grounds, but I somehow walked right past the officers and conscripts into the mosque grounds. As I was taking a picture of the mosque (as you can see on my timeline) I was pushed inside by a charging group. I turned around and noticed they were MOI special forces. An officer looked at me and asked what i was doing inside. I had no answer so I just said I was a friend of “3ameed [colonel] Ahmed”. I have no idea who that is, but I heard the name being thrown outside by the conscripts. He looked at me and asked me to follow his team, and that if I took pictures he would break my phone.
The special forces team was a team of about 12 soldiers that diverged into the different sections of the mosque seeking out armed perpetrators inside. In one side room about half a floor up, we found four Brotherhood members hiding behind a large wooden shelf. They were armed with homemade pistols and sticks. They surrendered immediately and we took them outside. As soon as I came outside, the special forces went back in to continue clearing the mosque. An officer started questioning who I was and thought I was a Brotherhood member, especially since I just came inside. i was about to be detained, but a conscript and other officer who I had given my water battle to earlier recognized me and let me go. For the next 30 minutes or so, the Special Forces team would constantly open the door and throw people outside the mosque. I thought it might be best to leave the police lines just so I don’t get caught in the mix up and wrongly arrested.
This entire time, I could hear the sound of gunshots. I didn’t know who was shooting or where, but i could recognize the sound of different caliber ammunition. As I walked away from the mosque and towards the Metro station, I came across a group of military personnel carriers. They all had the intimidating “Sa3ka” badges on their uniforms. I stood around talking to a few of the officers there and that’s when I noticed the mosque’s minaret was peppered with gunfire. I asked what had happened and they explained to me that there were Brotherhood snipers inside the minaret firing at them. Because of the size of the minaret and the numerous floors and windows, it was difficult for them to shoot at them from the outside (hence the peppering). They eventually called in an army helicopter to rappel soldiers down to the roof of the mosque to take care of them. And they did.
They also spoke to me about street battles that they felt helpless in because they had not been given orders to fire, until one of their men was shot through his bulletproof vest. That’s when their commander gave them orders to shoot to kill. He continued to tell me that the armed gunmen they were dealing with were not what they were expecting. They were not amateurs and were trained and armed pretty well compared to what they’re used to.
That’s basically all that I saw today.
The conclusion, however, is that things are a complete mess. There is no visible distinction to sides and nobody really knows what’s going on. In the midst of all this chaos, innocent people are losing their lives, and it truly is a shame.
If you haven’t been watching the news for the past two or so years then you are way behind on the times. I’ll try and give you a quick summarised run through of what has been going on in the time you’ve been watching ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’.
It will be three years in January when the Egyptian people took to the streets to demand the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak. (Why?) He had been in power for 30 years, he was not democratically elected by the people and his cronies were sucking the country dry of resources (billions of dollars), the poor were getting poorer, no jobs for graduates, inflation, no benefits (financial/medical) and we were under military rule. (Are just some of the many reasons why people were frustrated and fed up)
After 18 days of clashes, resistance and protesting, former President Mubarak steps down. GREAT! (or so most of the people thought) Once he left office lots of the people who were activists and fighting for the cause of the revolution dusted themselves off and went back to their everyday lives, which was a HUGE mistake. They didn’t have a plan to put in place once the president had stepped down. Which is when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties who had been oppressed/banned by our previous rulers (Mubarak, Sadat, Nasser), seized the opportunity they had been waiting decades for. They have had planned their ‘coming out party’ for years and they swept the elections and seats in parliament like a tsunami! They were prepared while liberal parties and activists were not. They were blind sided, had the rug pulled out from underneath them and the wool over pulled everyone’s eyes if truth be told. WE WERE NOT READY and we can’t blame them for being ready.
About a year after Mubarak stepped down we had an interesting look at presidential elections. EVERYONE wanted to be president. If you could get 30, 000 signatures and were 100% Egyptian on both sides (mother/father family) then you could run. Over 3,000 people ran for presidency!! It was eventually filtered down to a handful of twenty or so, which split the votes every which way. A second round of elections came about between Mohamed Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood) and Ahmed Sahfik (former minister of Aviation), which to choose? Vote for someone who represents extreme conservative Muslims, or someone part of the regime that had just been toppled and many people had lost their lives for? Who would your vote go to? Many people didn’t go and vote, they boycotted the election because they believed that there was foul play. Morsi won by a VERY small margin (51% to 49% I believe).
Congrats! Egypt has its first democratically elected president… who on June 30th 2012 takes office and is sworn in. Morsi vowed to represent ALL the people in Egypt.
For the first five months of his time in office he took no action or decision on any important issues in the country. (I guess he was learning the ropes or getting comfortable in the chair that everyone seems to want) He did however pardon some of those who had been imprisoned for petty crimes like having a hand in the assassination a former Egyptian president.
Then in November, he comes out and declares that he is above the law and that no judicial court or person can contest to his decisions from that point on wards. In other words he declared himself SUPREME PHAROAH & DICTATOR of Egypt.
(SAY WHAT NOW? The Egyptian people didn’t have a revolution and people didn’t die for him to become another dictator, back to the streets we go!)
A peaceful sit in takes place and Pro Morsi supporters armed and angry attack the sit in, killing some of the protestors. If the president or leader of your country did that, would you sit and take it and just break open another can of pop and bag of potato chips or would you voice your disapproval?
(WAIT ! There’s more…)
A few weeks later protestors take to the streets again this time to prevent the justices from meeting so to prevent any judicial review of the president’s decisions. Instead, President Morsi dissolves the (our equivalent to) the Supreme Court and labels all those who are members “traitors to Egypt”
(It Gets Better!)
A month later, he makes the ‘new’ constitution null and void and forms a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution in just FOUR days; those chosen to be on the committee were extreme Muslim conservatives and preachers. In a referendum not supervised by any judicial branch because judges all over the country boycotted it and the ‘new’ (biased, one sided) constitution narrowly won.
The Egyptian economy was plummeting, foreign investors pulled out and our main source of income, tourism was not revived because the tourists were warned to stay away, plus the president and the minister of tourism never did anything to beef up security to make tourists feel safe, so it died!
In the warmer months of his term in office, in a country as hot as Egypt electricity/power cuts were a daily occurrence. Some people were lucky to have it cut once a day, while others would be without power for hours on end.
Egypt a country rich in fuel witnessed never seen before lines at petrol/gas stations that went on for blocks and were 8 hours long in some cities. Eventually petrol/gas stations had NO gas to sell?!
Egypt that has direct access to the river Nile, suddenly was having sever water shortages! Schools, Businesses and homes would have water shortages some for a few hours others for days on end.
Unemployment has almost doubled, and the value of the Egyptian pound was almost worth nothing. The exchange rate on the black market for the dollar reached 8 Egyptian pounds!
(Still not convinced…need more proof?)
President Morsi outlines his plan to lease the Suez Canal for 50 years giving full administrative control!
Then we had the endless accounts of sexual harassment of women (veiled and non veiled) who would be targeted by groups and assaulted along with the attacks on Christians in and around the country. Not one member of government or the President ever came out and condemned or demanded it to stop. Due to these actions and many of the above decisions hundreds of people have sought Political Asylum in other countries across the globe, some desperate enough to cross the borders into Israel to build a better life for themselves there. If that isn’t fear or desperation I don’t know what is?!
The above is just some of the crap that the Egyptian people have had to endure over the past year under President Morsi’s governing. Months before the 30th of June, a group called El Tamarod (Rebellion) started collecting signatures to demand the resignation of the President, because they honestly did not feel that he represented them and did not have the countries best interests on his agenda. For them to be taken seriously they needed to collect 15 million legitimate signatures, they collected over 22 million. One June 30th, 2013 on the anniversary of the Presidents one year in office, over 30 million Egyptians took to the streets to demand his resignation. They stayed there for four days!
Hearing the cries of 30 million people, the army gave President Moris an ultimatum, (this came after months of trying to negotiate with him), he had 48 hours to come out with a clear all party inclusive road map for the country or they would remove him from office. Just before the deadline Morsi came out and said that he would agree to hold early Parliamentary elections.
(uh, too little, too late dude!)
As promised the military removed him from office and placed him under house arrest.
(Coup or not a Coup?!)
Weikipedia’s definition: “A coup d’état typically uses the extant government’s power to assume political control of the country. In Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, military historian Edward Luttwak states that “[a] coup consists of the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.” The armed forces, whether military or paramilitary, are not a defining factor of a coup d’état. Lately a view that all coups are a danger to democracy and stability has been challenged by the indication of the phenomenon of a “democratic coup d’état”, which “respond to a popular uprising against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime and topple that regime for the limited purpose of holding the free and fair elections of civilian leaders.””
We had no extant government takeover of the country; outside parties are temporarily in place until elections are held in 6 months time. The actions that were taken were to save democracy because the Egyptian people were NOT being represented.
Foreign Media and foreign governments all began clucking like chickens and called it a Military Coup; The Egyptians call it the People’s Coup! As you can imagine the Pro-Morsi supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood did not take to the news very well, so they took to the streets hurting and killing people who were Anti-Morsi supporter and Christians. General Sisi, in a speech came out and asked the Egyptian people to show their support by going out into the streets if they agreed to him protecting Egypt and her people from the terrorists who have been trying to divide Egypt and cause anarchy. The people answered and 30+ million people gave him their consent.
That brings us to the Pro-Morsi supporters and their 6 week sit-in in El Nahda and Rabaa Adaweya in Nasr City Cairo. The residents and business owners in the area were being obstructed from going about their daily lives, the area became inaccessible. Those who were part of the sit in and had torn up the tiles on the sidewalks to build walls/barricades across the streets preventing vehicles from entering the area. They had set up tents and make shift day-care centers too. Many attempts to negotiate with the protestors/squatters failed because they would not agree to anything, their one demand was that Morsi be reinstated.
(If UK’s Prime Minister or NY’s Mayor had a 6week sit in Trafalgar or Time Square, would they leave it or clear it? If you chose clear it, how would you go about it? (let me jog your memory, think back to occupy Wall Street))
After several attempts of negotiating, meetings of what to do, advice on how to clear the squares and warning of not to do it, the Interior Ministry (who are by no means saints themselves and are responsible for many deaths during the 2011 uprising), felt they had no choice but to go in and clear the squares. Early Wednesday morning, when the crowds would be sparse, they went in with police forces, bulldozers and tear gas. They were met with resistance.
What the foreign media is showing the world is tunnel vision reporting! They are failing to show the WHOLE picture. Many (NOT ALL) of the supports were (and still are), heavily armed with machine guns and rifles, who shot at the armed forces.
When word spread of the clearing of the sit-ins, this angered lots of the Pro-Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood supporters who took to the streets with anger in their eyes and fury in their hearts. Some of these protestors were peaceful in their protest, while others vandalized, burned public property and churches (and I mean OLD churches, like 4th and 5th century), they also stormed several police stations, killing and mutilating the bodies of police officers. (Peaceful and misunderstood protestors right?) This has not been reported on any of the International News Stations and when someone being interviewed would bring it up or mention it; they would make no comment or act as if they hadn’t heard it.
Now that you have a clearer idea of what is going on in Egypt, would you have let your President/Prime Minister drag your country into the ground, or would you have done what the Americans did, when Nixon was in office?
If Egypt and the US’s had facebook accounts, their relationship status would read “it’s complicated”, they are on the verge of a devastating break up. Which would make Russia and China really happy, because they would gladly swoop in and come to Egypt’s aid.
(That would be a WORLD game changer!)
If you require more evidence photos or videos get on twitter or youtube and you can see it yourself. You be the judge, don’t let your media censor the information, speak or think for you.
Here is a link to an article written in an American perspective;
Wednesday, August 14th 2013 at 7:45am my father barges into my room to inform me that security forces have taken action and are attempting to disperse the sit in at Rabaa Adaweya and El Nahda.
As the day began to unravel, the more I began wot wish, I had never woken up.
As the news spread about the security forces trying to force their way through the barricades to clear the 5-6 week long protest that had been obstructing the lives of residence and businesses of the area, Pro Morsi and MB (Muslim Brotherhood) supporters became enraged and took to the streets in several cities across the country.
Being an avid user of twitter, I read reports about the sea side (Corniche) road being blocked. I warned my father about going out, but he decided to try his luck, only to have to turn round and come back after being caught in a traffic jam caused by civilian made road blocks, they let him through and he made it home safely. Not long after his return our street in Alexandria became heavily populated with Pro-Morsi and MB supporters.
The head of the march was peaceful, the people walked down the road chanting their anti Gen Sisi slogans, calling him a murderer, calling all of the people who aren’t joining them traitors, praising the people in Rabaa Adaweya and El Nahda squares for standing their ground and chanting how Egypt is Islamic. There were no weapons (guns, swords, knives or home-made bombs), there were several people carrying sticks and one guy dragging a metal shield often found outside of embassies.
The other members of the march who followed were nowhere near as peaceful. They were fueled with anger and expressed it openly. They chanted the same slogans and called out ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great), which sent chills down my spine. Why the need to call out that?, This is not a Gehad! No one is trying to convert them or cause them to doubt their beliefs. These people carried big chunks of cement curb from near by and threw them in the middle of the road. Some tore down the metal fence of a construction site and threw it in the street along with the wooden guard boxes that are placed outside of consulates and banks and set fire to them. They also took the dumpsters and through them down and used the garbage to feed the fire. Tires, chairs, plants and many other things that they found were used to create their mini bonfires all the way down Fouad Street. There were NO security forces chasing or shooting at them. There was no one pursuing them, they did this of their own accord on a main street in a residential area, where business, foreign cultural centers, banks, restaurants and a consulate were also located.
(I have video and pictures of all this)
Residents looked out of their windows and off of their balconies in horror. They couldn’t believe that our quiet neighborhood had smoke billowing all the way down it and there was nothing that they could do about it.
This went on for an hour or so. As soon as the march had passed and had made their way further down the road, my neighbor’s sons went down in to the street to put out the fires and clear the road from obstruction.
Once that passed, my ears and eyes were glued to all forms of media, listening and watching to the reports on TV, facebook and twitter. The news from both camps was harrowing. Egyptian Muslim’s firing at each other, injuring and killing showing no mercy! Christians and churches continued to be targeted. Several churches across the country were attacked and set ablaze! Two reporters killed doing what they love and trying to shed light on the situation. It was enough to make your blood freeze.
I can not bring myself to call the events of today a massacre, for the plain and simple reason because the organizers of the sit in anticipate and knew that the chances of violence would be high. With this they armed themselves, (I am NOT saying that everyone had ammunition, but they definitely were prepared). Security forces were supposedly only supposed to only use teargas and blank or rubber bullets, (that didn’t happen). Which resulted in a two-way onslaught and loss of irreplaceable and precious life.
Scores and scores of casualties of civilians and officers with horrendous and gourish injuries from both sides. I don’t give a rat’s ass who pulled the trigger or cast the first stone! What I do care about is that Egypt lost sons and daughters at the hands of their own kin men. There is no excuse or rational reasoning for that!
I sincerely hope that we (Egyptians), find our way out of the dark tunnel that we are presently in and do detour away from the road towards civil war.
If you missed my last blog post I have just returned from my summer vacation. The first two weeks of my trip was spent in Central America, in the country of Belize, formerly known as British Honduras and shares its borders with Guatemala and Mexico.
A colleague of mine was an archeologist and used to work on a site there before a career change and joining the league of International Teachers. My colleague’s friend has been running an archeological like camp, (AFAR), for highly selected High School Students in Belize for several summers and extended the invitation to our staff and students. I have always been fascinated with the ancient civilizations and I thought this would be a great opportunity to travel to a new country, experience a new culture and learn about the Maya.
The morning of the 21st of June, I waited nervously at the airport for my colleague and the two students to arrive to begin the adventure. Once the gang was assembled and we had become acquainted with one another, the long journey across land, sea and ocean began. The afternoon of the 22nd of June exhausted and hungry, we landed safely in beautiful Belize and met up with and were introduced to the rest of the student body and staff whom we would be working alongside for the next two weeks.
The following day we were taken on a tour of Cahal Pech (Place of Ticks), with Mr. Saunders, Dr. Marc Zender and Mr.& Mrs. Pritchard, they talked to us about the site and the Maya way of life as we walked around and through Plaza’s A and B. Cahal Pech was the site where we were to help excavate. My first impression of the site was how quiet, secluded, nicely shaded and small it was. In my mind I had imagined a much larger complex and a huge temple like the one in Luxor, never the less it was still spectacular in its own right. As we walked around the site there were several excavation projects being carried out by BVAR (Belize Valley Archeological Reconnaissance Project), in my little mind I assumed that we would be helping them. When our tour of the site came to an end, a physically fit man who looked like he might be in his late fifties, with graying black curls, glasses and a big smile came striding across the floor of plaza B towards our group, this man turned out to be the renowned Dr. Jamie Awe an archeologist and expert in the Maya, (he would be the equivalent to the Zahi Hawas of Egypt). He greeted us warmly and explained what it was that his team was doing and what he would like us to do.
He pointed towards one of the large structures in plaza B, that had stairs and an a rectangular archway and said that, that structure had been excavated many decades ago and parts of it had been reconstructed and conserved, he also asked us to follow the wall to see where it abruptly ends or disappears beneath a huge mound of dirt that had numerous tall trees deeply rooted and growing out of it. He explained that when the Maya abandoned the city, the place was left to ruin and with time the hurricanes caused a lot of structural damage to fall and deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. Seeds that had been carried by the wind or deposited (pooped), by animals fell and took root, which caused more damage to the city. He then turned to this fairly big hill and said and pointed at it and said, that he would like for us to uncover the remains of the wall.
As I stood there taking in the length and height of the hill, I couldn’t help but wonder how, he or anyone else for that matter expected us to uncover a wall with just brushes? Surely that would take forever. He then added that it would take probably the first week for us to find structure… (Yeah, right! I thought to myself). For the remainder of the afternoon, students learned how to measure out units using measuring tape, thread, compass and a construction plumbob, (A plum what? (was my first reaction when I heard it too), the definition from Weikipedia; A plumb-bob or a plummet is a weight, usually with a pointed tip on the bottom that is suspended from a string and used as a vertical reference line). The boys got busy carving wooden stakes to put into the ground to tie string around to divide the units up. Others picked up rakes and started raking away small rocks and fallen leaves to clear the ground.
The following morning the students and staff were divided and assigned to the units that we would be working on for the next two weeks. I chose to be with unit one, “The Silverbacks”. There were a couple of logical reasons as to why I chose that particular unit; One of which was because they came highly recommended (most of them had a lot of experience excavating and had been coming for the past couple of summers), the unit was the closest to the already excavated wall and I was certain that we would find a lot of stuff.
In all honesty the mound that we were expected to get through intimidated me (GREATLY)! I seriously began to question why I was there and what had possessed me to want to do this in the first place when I could be doing something that would not require me to tap into my inner badger. After a little mental pep talk, I got myself ready for the challenge ahead. I am somewhat stubborn by nature, but I hoped that I had the resilience, stamina and persistence to keep up with five teenage boys and that I would be able to make a difference. I walked over to them and introduced myself to them one by one and that is when I was presented with a pick axe. I looked at the manly tool with puzzlement, (where were the brushes? I thought to myself). I jokingly asked if these were to break knee caps, (I hoped to hide my ignorance and break the ice. I’m not sure how I did). The team leader, a graduated high school senior very politely and patiently explained what we needed to do first and how the tools were used to excavate the area. First we needed to clear the surface of the rocks and make a pile because some of the rocks will be used to reconstruct some of the structures at the site. Once that was done we take our pick axes and start picking away at the layers of dirt. The dirt would then be scooped up into buckets which would then be taken by one of the team members to the big hanging sifts, to make sure that pieces of pottery (clay) or chert were not accidentally thrown away. If pieces of clay or chert were found, they would be placed in artifact bags. At the end of the day an artifact card would be filled out in black pen to explain what the contents were and how many bags of each had been collected. Sounded simple enough, but I tell you…it sounded a lot easier than it actually was. This job is not for lazy bones, wimps or girls worried about ruining their manicure. The students and staff took it seriously and expect those who come to take part to work hard. Some of the rocks were the size of my torso or just as heavy as the bucket full of dirt that had to be carried over to the sift. The shade of the canopy and the light breeze could cause you to forget that you were hot and in need of keeping hydrated. In the first half of the day, I found pieces of clay and beautiful pieces of quartz. These little finds gave me the incentive to keep on going. At lunch time (noon), I was hot, sweaty, hungry, thirst and exhausted! I couldn’t believe that we had been working for almost four straight hours and were expected to continue till four o’clock.
After a much-needed lunch break, soft drink and a bit of socializing, our hour was up and it was back to the grind. I found it very difficult to get back into the rhythm that I had been working to before. My heart was beating rapidly for some unexplainable reason and I was sweating more than I had been earlier, (I might have been having a mild panic attack, my mind and body might have been putting up a little protest to the manual labor, but being a stubborn person I wasn’t going to let it get the best of me). I tried talking to the team but being the newbie no one was really talking, so I chewed on a stick of gum, took out my iPod and listened to music as I worked away until the end of the work day. When quitting time came about, I was out of fuel and all I wanted was to stand under a shower and wash the dirt and sweat away, drink a gallon of icy cold water, EAT and recharge!
I woke up feeling not as sore as I had thought I would, which I took to be a good sign, (maybe I wasn’t as out of shape as I thought and perhaps I can do this with gusto? I didn’t want to jump for joy yet, it was ONLY the second day). The day played out very much like the first, except this time I felt like I knew what was expected of me and what I needed to do. After lunch time the guys started to open up and talk me, which helped pass the time and a bond between my team mates had begun to form.
As the week went on, the site of Plaza B changed drastically. It no longer looked like a well-kept garden, it looked like a bunch of gold diggers had set up camp and had torn up the lawn. There were piles of discarded rocks and dirt dotted around the plaza which I think took away from the beauty of the ruins. Tourists who came to visit the site would come and stop and watch us work and would often ask members of the group questions as to what we were doing and what we were looking for. (The little devil who lurks deep within my cranium, though we should have roped them into doing some of the labor, so that they could also witness archeology first hand and like us appreciate the time and man power that goes into excavating… mwaaahaahaahaa!)
By the end of the first week, my relationship with my 5 team mates had been sealed. I was one of the guys and a fully fledged ‘Silverback’. We had succeeded in finding the ancient floor of the plaza and were well on our way to finding structure. The mound that had looked so intimidating to me when we first began excavating looked unrecognizable, huge chunks of it had been dug out and when I stood back to look at our progress as a whole, I couldn’t help but marvel at all our combined efforts. It was then when I realized that the thing that really stands between us and doing the things that we want to do, is usually our own insecurities, self doubts and fears. The students on the project reminded me of the young teen I used to be and how I rarely ever let anything (except my parents), stand between me and the goals I wanted to achieve. Anything really is possible if you set your mind to it.
For our first weekend in Central America, we crossed the border into Guatemala and stayed on the eloquent and colorful island of Flores. Where we toured the ancient Maya city of Tikal and it was there when my tendonitis came back with a vengeance. Luckily I had anticipated the possibility of this happening and had brought the medication I would need to reduce the inflammation. Having experienced the strain and pain of this before, I knew that when we got back to Belize and the site, that I would not be able to work as hard as I had been the previous week. It was a big blow to me. I didn’t want to have to give up or sit on the side lines and not be able to help my unit complete the task that had been given to us. I was determined to find away to continue to work at some capacity, so that I could see the project through, not let the guys down and prove to myself that I can still do anything.
When we returned to the site on Monday morning, I had difficulty getting back into the routine and finding a way to work comfortably without putting too much strain on my heels. It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. I had to make a choice, to push through the pain and possibly ruin the remainder of my vacation touring the East Coast of the U.S or to take a sick day. I eventually gave in and took the sick day to elevate my legs, do some stretches and ice my heels. Although I was bored out of my mind and felt sorry for myself, I knew I had made the right choice. The following day, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away from my unit, I can’t tell you how happy I was to be holding a pick axe and being back in the pit. I wasn’t able to work as well as I had the week before, but I kept on going, stopping and taking necessary breaks when I needed to, so that I could make it to the end of the two weeks. Which I am proud to say I did!
By the time Thursday had come around, we had found more worms and ant hills than I care to remember. We had seen interesting looking spiders, fever worms, a small snake and beautiful butterflies flutter through our unit as we pushed forward. We had filled hundreds of buckets and wheel barrels full of dirt, as well as numerous artifact bags with clay and chert. Like a colony of worker ants, we had uncovered several layers of white plastered well-preserved Maya floor, the outer remains of a long-buried and forgotten wall, revealed a looters trench and parts of a damaged staircase in just two weeks. Many of the participants were disappointed with our finding, but I couldn’t have been prouder of what we had accomplished together as a whole group and as individual teams! Our discoveries might not have been as exciting or as grand as another excavation team at the site that uncovered a tomb, with skeleton and well-preserved antiquities, but I was impressed in what we had achieved together.
People working together is powerful as well as unstoppable… but most of all inspiring!
In all honesty, I have never had to work that hard in my life! The physical labor that goes into excavating must be right up there with training for the Olympics! I might have suffered from tennis elbow, tendonitis, sore muscles and many mosquito bites, but the experience was by far one of the best I had ever had and one of the most memorable and fun summers too. If there was a chance of me being able to go back next summer or sometime in the future, I would most probably do it all over again.
After a long absence I am back at the keyboards writing again. So much has happened over the past few months in Egypt and in my personal life that I am not sure where I should pick up from or what I should write about. I have just returned after a month-long journey to Central America and the East Coast of the U.S for my annual summer get away, perhaps I should begin there?
As you can imagine the daily stress of living in Cairo and very close to the new demonstrating stomping and chanting grounds of El Itahadeya (Presidential Palace Area), had taken a toll on my attitude and perspective on many things, I felt trapped with the road blocks and constant possibility of violence. I was very torn about going away on my pre-booked summer adventure. I wanted to be here for June 30th and to be with my parents to see history in the making first hand (again), while the other little voice inside my head said,” You have been here since the very start and as a result you have many strands of grey hair, you need to get away. While you are abroad be the diplomat that Egypt needs. Show them what Egyptians are really like and explain to them our current bind and most importantly ENJOY YOURSELF.”
On June 21st with butterflies in my stomach, my journey across the globe began. My destination for the first two weeks of the journey was Belize, a small tropical country, formally known as British Honduras that shares the borders with Guatemala and Mexico and home to many ancient Maya sites.
You might be asking yourself what possessed me to trek all the way over there, when I could just hop over to Europe. Well, I had received an e-mail from a colleague of mine, who is an archeologist and had previously worked there before making a career change on an excavation site and he asked if any staff members or students would be interested in going to take part in a project to excavate part of a Maya city/ruin that a friend of his has been working on, along with a large number of carefully selected High School Students from North Carolina and other parts of the United States. I had always wanted to go to Latin America and this looked like the closest I’d get to it, so I leaped at the opportunity. I signed up and paid for the trip long before June 30th had been announced.
Before leaving we (staff and two students from the Egyptian delegation) as well as those in the U.S had reading assignments that needed to be read to give us background knowledge on the Maya and what the site we were working at might hold clues to. As I read I became more interested in the ancient civilization and looked for similarities and differences between the Mayas and the Ancient Egyptians. They were both very advanced in the sense that they were able to do complicated mathematical calculations, develop a calendar, build fascinating architecture, and cultivate. They both had gods they believed in, but the Ancient Egyptians loved their gods and gave the impression of being less hostile than the Maya, who seemed to be more aggressive and fearful of their gods. (I read up on as much as I could and watched a few YouTube documentaries to get me up to speed, I felt like I was back in school cramming for a final)
After flying over 3 continents (Africa, Europe and North America), 3 cities (Cairo, London and Newark) exhausted, sleep deprived and hungry, we had finally made it to Belize. The heat is the first thing that hits you, the second is the beautiful lush green landscape that surrounds you, the third is the spirit of the people. The people reminded me of the Egyptians that I had grown to love after I had moved to Egypt, friendly, hospitable, helpful, with a witty sense of humor.
After a meal, brief introduction to the large party of staff and students that we would in the days ahead bond with and work closely with, a much-needed shower and good night’s sleep my Maya adventure began! Clear headed and more alert than the previous night I reintroduced myself the following morning to the staff that I would be working with and right off the bat, we hit it off and a mutual respect and interest in each other’s culture was ignited in addition to our passion for adventure.
Our first and second day was spent touring the site of Cahal Pech (place of ticks), is located in San Ignacio. This site is where we would be working on uncovering the extension of the already excavated wall. Looking at the mound of dirt that we had to work through made me realize that this is going to take a lot of physically labor and energy on my/our part. Reality sunk in when the units were being divided up and these people were serious about the task ahead of them. I just couldn’t fathom how they expected to uncover a wall, with fallen rocks, huge mounds of dirt and large tree roots in the way with a brush. Surely this would take forever! No wonder ancient cities remain hidden and undiscovered! (DUH!)
On the third day, once all the units and the teams of volunteer archeologists had been divided and I was handed a pick axe and trowel not a dainty little brush like I had anticipated. That is when the romantic notion of archeology evaporated from my mind, (cinema/TV really does rot the mind). This was not going to be easy and this isn’t a task for glamour girls, fashionistas, mama’s boys or wimps. This was going to take energy, sweet, determination and collaboration! To get myself psyched for two weeks of digging and getting down and dirty in the unit were two mottos; ‘Go Hard, or Go Home’ and “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday”.
The first day of digging I thought I was going to collapse from exhaustion and heat. In all sincerity, I NOW have nothing but admiration and respect for archeologists that work so hard to uncover ancient ruins to reunite us with our history and lost culture. I also have to show my admiration to the 60+ students who joined the project to volunteer to uncover ruins in a foreign land and to my team, ‘The Silverbacks’, the six strapping high school lads that I had the pleasure of working alongside were inspiring and incredible to watch, they seemed to have some synced rhythm that they worked to, in my eyes they had well and truly earned the staff’s name of ‘The Dream Team’. The first part of the day there would be little talking, we were on automatic pilot and just chipping, digging, shoveling, sifting through dirt to an unheard beat as well as hauling and sifting dirt and rocks out of the unit. After lunch time the boys turned into a bunch of comedians while we continued to work our way through the never-ending mound of dirt. They would be talking in different accents, poking fun at each other, asking one another questions, playing harmless pranks or singing along to Henry’s music selection. (Henry, Kieon and Marlin, were Belizean boys, who worked on the site with us. Some of the strongest, well-mannered and disciplined guys I have met in a while)
While digging the unit with these five guys for two weeks you can begin to understand how bonds are formed with troops in the trenches. They are with each other day in and day out and to pass the time and to keep each other motivated they talk to one another and exchange stories. Being the outsider and new to the posy, I had to step up to the plate and earn their respect. I had to prove that I was up to the challenge and able to keep up with them, as well as share stories and teach them a few Arabic phrases ;) As the days went on I have to be honest, I thought I was in some kind of boot camp or Olympic training program. I was using muscle and strength I didn’t even know I had!
When quitting time came, we were all dirty, sweaty, hot and tired. If I still had reserve energy I would grab a nice ice-cold drink from everyone’s favorite person at Cahal Pech, Oscar, the resident bar tender and check messages from my family, notification and reports on twitter and facebook, then head to my room to shower off the dirt. If I didn’t have the energy I would go straight for the shower and have a quick cat nap before venturing into the hang out area/lobby where everyone congregated for free social time. The students would go change quickly and cool off in the pool, get sodas and grab a snack to keep them going until dinner time.
During the working day, the down time after digging and meal times, is when I noticed that if you stand back and look at the scene of people you really don’t see any differences between them, they all look the same. It’s only when we choose to take a closer look with our social magnifying glass do we notice the differences. We all may come from different parts of the world, speak different languages, have different skin tones, have different religious affiliations or nationalities, but in all honesty we all more or less behave in the same manner and want the same things out of life. It just puzzles me why there are groups of people who are hell-bent on making us out to be more superior than the other when we all conceived the same way and started our lives off in diapers. It’s baffling if you really sit and think about it. I took an interest in watching how our students adapted to their new environment and how they interacted with everyone. For the most part, they both represented Egypt well.
The members of staff that I spoke to were well-traveled people and experts in various fields (geology, author, an expert in ancient hieroglyphs, forensic archeologist, artist, teachers, parents and business people). I wasn’t made to feel like some alien or outsider like I have been in the past when I have been to other places. We would hold intellectual conversations and ask each other questions about each other’s fields and experiences. This trip turned out not only to be for us learning about The Maya, but a cultural exchange. It turns out some of the students had been to Egypt on family vacations, while others had heard about it in the news and didn’t quite understand what had and was taking place in Egypt. So, the students and myself individually answered numerous questions related to politics, religion, culture and a great many other things in the two weeks we were there. By the end of the trip, I think those we spoke with had a better understanding of what was going on Egypt and expressed sincere hope that things would get better because from having read about our ancient civilization and having met us and other Egyptians they would really like the chance to come and visit someday, (I hope that things stabilize here so that they can come and see Egypt for themselves).
In the time that we were there my unit found what was presumed to be the base of a stela (statue) and part of a fallen stela as well as many pieces of pottery, quartz,chert and the white plastered well-preserved Maya floor. By the end of our two weeks the hill that we had been presented with no longer looked the same. The entire crew had moved, shoveled and sifted through countless buckets and wheel barrows full of dirt, (the animated movie Antz, kept coming to mind when I saw what we had accomplished). We had all found the various levels of floor, we found the base and remains of the wall as well as stairs. We were a bit disheartened that we didn’t find anything as significant as human remains, an undamaged artifact or piece of precious jade. The project leader and his staff assured us that our work was important and that we did assist in uncovering a missing piece to the Maya puzzle and that we should be proud of ourselves. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was darn proud of what we had done.
The First weekend we were there we ventured across the border to Guatemala and our group toured the island of Flores and the ancient Maya city of Tikal. The last weekend we went to the ATM caves and spent our last few days at an eco-lodge in Pook’s Hill (those will be in other blog entries).
When the two weeks were up, I still couldn’t believe how much I had learned, seen and done in such a short time. I was stunned at how I had overcome so many things that I thought I would not be able to do and the fact that I had crossed off a few things from my bucket list of things I want to do. My last night at Cahal Pech, I was also sad to have to leave and say goodbye to so many amazing people who I had met on this journey. I will carry most of the people I encountered in my memory for a very long time, but it was the students and the teachers that I think have made an everlasting impression. Their spirit and desire to learn and see the project through has been awe-inspiring. The fact that many of the students have been returning for the past two or more years is impressive. I sincerely would love to go back next summer and volunteer again along with more students from Egypt. If we could somehow convince them to come, they might have a new-found appreciation for their own heritage and the amount of work that goes into uncover and preserving our history as well as creating a new generation of Egyptologists, my deepest wish is to help bridge the gap between cultures to eradicate misconceptions as well as prejudice and have our students act as young diplomats representing the real Egypt that isn’t shown or seen on TV.
I will be posting more about my trip in greater detail in the days and weeks ahead. This might have been one of the most physically challenging things I have ever had to do in my life, but by George it was definitely one of the most memorable and exciting things I may have ever done yet! Stepping out of ones comfort zone to experience something and somewhere new can be very rewarding and enriching! I am grateful to have had the opportunity !