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 !