December 21, 2006
Well, all the grades are in. Class websites are updated. I’ve locked my office door (at least for the next week or so). What a great feeling.
I’ve experienced A LOT over these last 4 months.
- Moving is stressful – for anyone who has ever moved, you know, getting to a new place, settling in, making a home, is HARD. Add to that, a new country, culture and language, and it is an extremely challenging and draining situation. I’m very lucky to have had Jack to help diffuse some of the stress of the move.
- A new job is stressful – learning the ropes at a new job can drive even the most competent person to distraction! Each new place you work has “the way it is DONE” – and it is ALWAYS different than the last place. Even the smallest, most seemingly inane things become huge chores as you figure out the paperwork, heirarchy and anarchy that is the norm at the new place.
- Every academic semester (or quarter) is stressful – each new set of students provides a new set of challenges and rewards. No matter how frequently I teach a course, the trajectory of the semester is changed depending on the personalities of the students. There are some ubiquitous challenges, like staying on time, keeping integrity AND standards AND student confidence, maintaining a workable rapport, having a life outside of school. That is then overlain with the quirks of the particular semester/class/set of circumstances.
I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that I’ve managed ALL THREE of these, and come out on the other side only slightly worse for wear. I’ve learned A TON. I’ve already begun revising my plans for next semester. More importantly, I’ve begun to relax, so that I can enjoy the winter break.
December 14, 2006
Mud falls from the sky and is called rain
I kid you not. Cairo is a dry, dusty city whose average rainfall is only about 25mm per year (that’s just under 1 inch, in case you’re wondering). So when rain does fall, it is a big event. People run outside. People forget how to drive. It gets insane. And when it rained here, a few days ago, Jack and I were out for a walk. When we got back, and I removed my jacket, it was COVERED in muddy splotches!!! It looked like I’d been splashed by a bus in a really bad puddle. In the morning, the cars were DIRTIER than they had been before the rain. Too strange.
Eggs are room temperature
Yes, it is true. The eggs in the groceries are kept on the shelves. This wouldn’t seem like a big deal, except if one is trying to whip the whites. Room temp whites do not whip the way that nicely chilled whites whip. This is very important when making a raw egg nog for a holiday tree lighting party. We had to toss a bunch of egg white glop that wouldn’t cooperate to become nog. What a shame.
Cookies = Christmas
Each Christmas since I-don’t-know-when I’ve baked a huge number of cookies for the holiday season. They usually go for gifts to those indispensible people in Jack’s and my lives, like the lady in the mail room, the guys in the parking garage, the secretary without whom life would stop, the nice lady who cleans the house. The rest are saved for the Solstice party. In Cairo, this has been just about the ONLY thing to remind me that the holiday season is approaching. The cookies have been changed, as I can’t get all the same ingredients here. I’ve been improvising and playing. It is fun, and it’s beginning to feel (and, according to Jack, SMELL) like Christmas – even if it doesn’t look like it.
December 11, 2006
We awoke from an INCREDIBLY cold night’s sleep to see the sun rising over the dunes. It is true what “they” say about the desert – there is little in the atmosphere in the way of moisture to block one’s view of the stars, but that lack of moisture also allows the heat to escape VERY rapidly! Apparently all of us had thought we would freeze to death during the night – the light sleeping bags and a blanket were NOT enough. Yet once the sun came up, it warmed nicely, and we were all in shirtsleeves before breakfast.
We broke camp and headed out to drive thru the “Black Desert”. This area of the Sahara is mostly volcanic with a thin layer of sand over the top. The lava intrusions have begun to weather away, and the sand is littered with chunks of heavy black rock. It is very beautiful, but not what I expected in the “Sahara”.
We stopped at a number of the “usual tourist spots” – as judged by the number of other 4×4′s, all of whose drivers immediately knew each other – for photo ops and to see the “things that tourists want to see”. It was an extremely varied day. We climbed a “mountain”, we squealed with delight (except for Jack, who was in the front seat) as our driver spun and slid our 4×4 thru the sand, we ate lunch at a great little “family cafe” where a truckload of camels stopped for a brief visit, we walked in eerie silence thru a vast valley of sand, we scrambled around on Crystal Mountain (“Kiss the Mountain”) marveling at the geode and crystal structure.
In time for sunset, we arrived in the “White Desert”. This area of the Sahara is (I assume) an old seabed, where the weathering of the calcium carbonate by wind and sand abrasion has formed many interesting formations. These are LARGE and go on for as far as the eye can see!
We (and about a dozen other groups) set up camp around the chalk formations. We could occasionally hear other groups, but we could not see them, so it felt like we were alone on a warm yet snow and ice covered alien world. The whiteness of the chalk was so bright that it reminded me more of snow than of desert. The sunset was SPECTACULAR. The colors, the clouds, the views.
We had a great dinner, cooked over a campfire. We sat around the fire and our guides played music and sang to us. (Ryan also sang – “Yellow Submarine” – but mostly our guides sang in Arabic/Bedouin) I think we disappointed our guides by going to bed relatively early. They eventually went over to one of the other group camps to join in the festivities there! The second night was not as bone-chillingly cold as the first. I believe that this was partially due to the guides covering us with all available blankets as well as slightly less wind the second night.
In the morning we began our trek back to Bahriya. On the road, it was much faster than it had been while driving thru the desert. We stopped for a few photos, but got back to the hotel in time to shower (BEST SHOWER EVER) and relax before the minibus ride back to Cairo. In a funny twist, as we left Bahriya, we skirted the checkpoint where we had first been stopped. HMM, I wonder why?
I know, for me, the trip to the desert was a needed break. The expansiveness of it reminded me how small my problems and tribulations are, comparatively speaking. It also reminded me that *me time* is, not just important, but essential for survival. When I got back to Cairo, I felt refreshed. It was not from sleeping, as the ground is hard in the desert, and it was COLD. Instead it was a mental refresh. I had perspective again.
All of my photos are posted here.
December 9, 2006
For most of my life, Thanksgiving has been about family and food – preferrably LOTS of both. In Seattle, the family portion of it has been my “local” family. Either way, there has always been lots of food and lots of love. This year, all my versions of family are far away from me. Moving to Cairo has changed all kinds of “usual” events. Thanksgiving is just one of them.
We had a long weekend for western Thanksgiving, so we decided to get out of town. A friend had recommended the White Desert and a guide for the area, so we set up 3 days in the desert with Ahmed El Shemy. We opened it up to friends, and 2 friends joined us for the adventure, Ryan and Elissia (you’ll see them in the pictures).
We had a lovely traditional Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixin’s at Elissia’s on Wednesday. There were about 10 people, good conversation, lots of food and wine – what a treat!
We left for the desert the next morning at 7am (UGGH). A 4 hour mini-bus ride, with loads of flies in the bus with the four of us. Where the HELL do all these flies come from?? Although the ride was long, it allowed Cairo and the city stresses to slowly slip away. The air was clean and clear, the incredibly dense housing gave way to rocky, rolling dunes as far as one could see. The intense crush of the city was replaced by the intense openness of the western desert. Our rapid-fire conversation waned to silence as we went west. By the time we got to the Bahriya Oasis, the starting point for our trip, we were all (I believe) different people than had crawled into the mini-bus 4 hours earlier.
Event #1: We arrive at Bhariya and our driver tells the police at the checkpoint that he has 4 Americans in the car. We immediately get pulled over. CRAP. The driver goes into the police building, the 2nd guy (?driver’s helper? – getting a ride to Bahriya) gets on the mobile phone, there is much consternation. Eventually we are allowed to leave the checkpoint to head to El Shemy’s hotel.
The hotel is a really nice, quiet place just outside the local town. There is a main hall, about 15 western style rooms, a “Bedouin camp” area with small straw huts and an outdoor cafe with fire pit area. We fell in love with this place IMMEDIATELY. We met the owner, Ahmed El Shemy, who extended us incredible hospitality. We would be waiting at the hotel until some other guests arrived, then all of us would get the local tour of the oasis area.
The tour was amazing. We went to the outlet of a local hotspring and had a little dip in the mineral rich water. A man climbed a date palm and picked us fresh dates from the tree
(note: dates are very rich and fibrous, perhaps not the best idea when you are about to go off for a few days of Bedouin camping in the desert with no “facilities” – hindsight is 20/20)
We 4×4′d thru the local dunes to overlook the oasis and watch the sunset
We retired to the hotel for a delicious dinner, music and dancing around the fire. We stayed as long as we could, considering that it had been a REALLY long day, before requesting to be taken out into the dunes to camp for the night.
We took a 4×4 out into the dunes nearby the hotel. Two of the guides (Abdellah and Khal) went with us, to help set up camp etc. When we parked on the dune, and turned off the lights, the image was incredible. In Cairo, there are very few stars visible because of the pollution and lights, but on the dune we were enveloped in a brilliant blanket of stars extending from horizon to horizon with the feeling of un-plumbable depth. We slept by a campfire, on the sand, with nothing between us and the great swath of stars.
It was beautiful. It was a Thanksgiving unlike any other.
December 4, 2006
I will preface this with – I am an EXTREMELY LUCKY individual. I’ve had opportunities that many people dream about. That being said, I’m currently mourning a missed opportunity.
For a few years I’ve been restless. I have a great job at HCC with great people, and yet it was not fulfilling my career “dreams”. I really wanted to be in a school like the one I got my Bachelor’s degree from – a small, private, liberal arts, four-year school. I know, I sound like a snotty, educational erudite, elitist, but THAT was my dream.
In searching for the elusive brass ring, I stumbled upon an unbelievable, temporary position in Cairo, Egypt! How cool would THAT be??!! The job description was nearly tailor made! My luck (and a little hard work) brought me to an amazing adventure, which I am still in the middle of. So, you ask, how can I possibly be lamenting a lost opportunity?
The small, private university position has been posted. It is in my specialty, neuroscience. It incorporates many of my strengths – teaching, involving undergraduates, working with graduates. It allows me to return to my love – working with the nervous system. It is located less than 10 miles from my house in Seattle. What could be better than this?
Much to my dismay – I’d heard rumor of this job, but could not find any listings for it, until today. Today, one of my closest friends (and evil twin), who is applying for this position (and is probably WAY better qualified for it than I am) posted some of the details of the job. The deadline for applications is tomorrow. Even if I stayed up all night to get the paperwork done, I couldn’t get all the necessary documents together, let alone to Seattle, in time.
Seems like a small disappointment, considering that I’m living in Cairo, teaching at a prestigious international university, and yet I mourn my loss. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
So, in my Scientific Thinking classes, we had our first midterm just before the Eid in October. This was their first big exam with me. This class is part of the core curriculum and is required for graduation. Most students take it in their freshman year. The purpose of the course is to introduce the students to the “scientific method” of problem solving and critical thinking. The curriculum (which I have no direct control over) covers the coming of age of science – Ancient Greek astronomy, Galileo and Newton, Falsificationism, Big Bang, Darwin, DNA, Ethics in science. Mostly it shows the refining of scientific thought thru the major advances in astronomy since the time of Aristotle.
So…from my point of view, this is a fairly interesting “History of Science” course. We can play with different dominant paradigms and scientific revolutions. We can look at modern day news articles and websites and discuss things like evidence and fallacious rhetoric in everyday life. This has the potential to be an interactive and fun class.
Unfortunately it has not lived up to that. The educational system that most of the students have come from is a “memorize and regurgitate” style. Their lives are bounded by religious and cultural rules that they have never contemplated, let alone challenged or critically examined. SOUND FAMILIAR? Trying to get the students to interact, discuss or think is like pulling teeth. I have assigned some readings (Feynman, Sagan, Gould) that are written for the “lay scientist” and I give them reading questions to help them focus on key points. I tell them to answer the questions and we will use those to begin discussing the article in the next class. The “discussion” usually begins with the question, “What is the answer to question #whatever?”
Ok, so the stage is set. The first midterm went OK. Class average was about 77%. In preparation for the second midterm, we had an entire class period where we listed general topics we’d covered since the last midterm, vocabulary and key subtopics for each main topic. These were posted on the class website and students were told that they were “responsible” for that material. The second midterm comes. The NEXT DAY I have students in my office complaining about how hard the test was.
“It isn’t fair. You didn’t TELL us how to answer these questions.”
“The answers for the questions were not on your PowerPoint slides.”
“What are we supposed to do in a ‘Synthesis’ question? That covered a LOT of different topics at once. That wasn’t how we learned them in class.”
THE BEST WAS:
“You don’t understand, this is supposed to be an A class. We’re not supposed to WORK in this class.”
Well, the second midterm average was about 79%, class average is currently a 79%. Students have been POURING into my office because “you HAVE to scale the grades. These grades are too low. The (read this bit carefully) class average should be AT LEAST a B+!”
Apparently C is no longer average. Apparently the students don’t understand that a curve only HELPS if the class average is BELOW 75%. Apparently…
ALL OF MY STUDENTS ARE ABOVE AVERAGE.
December 2, 2006
The second day in Marrakech was sunny and warm(ish). It was what we’d *expected* for October in Morocco. The group had a “plan” for the day, which Jack and I promptly blew off! In reality, the tour organizers had stopped asking us if we were going to join in on the planned activities by this time in the trip, it made all our lives easier. We got a taxi down to one of the “Palaces” in the medina to do some touristy stuff. We went to the ruined Badi (?) palace – not really for any particular reason (and we found out later, that the “modern” palace was far more interesting to visit), but the ruins seemed like a good thing at the time.
The walls of the palace had GIANORMOUS stork nests all over!
The footprint of the palace was huge, and the central courtyard was open to the sky. It was very serene, especially since it was in the middle of the old city. The quiet of the place was frequently shattered by the clacking of bills that the storks use for guarding territory and for displaying to their mates. It was a sound I’ll never forget. It was loud and simultaneously unEarthly and organic. Very odd.
From the palace, we walked thru the old city back towards the Djemma el Fna. Most of the rest of our day was spent in the market. We didn’t buy much, but we experienced it. The day was beautiful. The people were “colorful”. There were no plans to be kept. Jack took LOADS of pictures, we ate, we watched, we met a very nice English couple. The feel of the trip was right.
We didn’t stay in the market much past dark. We watched the food vendors stream in as dusk approached. The stalls got set up, the cooking smoke began wafting thru the air. We had dinner at one of the stalls before heading back to the hotel to pack. It was during dinner, at an aluminum picnic table covered with plastic, that IT happened for me.
Many people who emigrate, even temporarily, talk about THE MOMENT. This is the point in time when you realize you are not a tourist. You fully comprehend that you LIVE here. Granted, we weren’t LIVING in Marrakech. However, I went thru an emotional and visceral reaction at that table, as it sank in that “this”, the Middle East (and, YES, I know that Morocco is not the Middle East), northern Africa, NOT the United States, was now my home. I literally shook and convulsed and laughed and was afraid when this thought fully took hold in my brain. The relief that accompanies this realization is incredible. Afterwards, I felt comfortable. THIS IS HOME. It is good to have a home.
Our flight the next day was at 9am from Casablanca, so we had a long drive to get there on time. Not suprisingly, the wake-up call never came. When Jack and I got to the lobby, no-one was there, the lights were all off, the bus was nowhere to be found. We feared the worst, but *somehow* managed to make it to the airport without problems. Jack had to do all the wake-up calls at the hotel, but we made it to Casablanca airport in time for our flight. Of course, our flight didn’t leave on time. Or even close to on time. The one benefit of this delay was that we got a chance to discuss the trip and smarmy tour-guy with some of the students. We found out that we were not the only people with this impression of the trip. Sometimes outside confirmation of suspicions is a welcome thing.
The trip back (Casablanca to Madrid to Cairo) had its share of ups and downs, but we eventually made it back to Cairo safely. Jack and I had arranged for our own clearance and transportation back to the hostel. Even though the tour would have delivered us back, we wanted to make sure that WE were taken care of. This also allowed us to stop at the duty-free to “restock” our supplies.
All in all, after a rough start, it was a good trip. We learned quite a bit, the most important thing being, these school run tours are fine if you go into it with the attitude that – all it is is transportation and lodging, we’ll do what we want to do once we are there. When we realized that, the trip was excellent.
December 1, 2006
THIS is what I “dreamed” Morocco would be like. Colorful, exotic, old, beautiful. The busride to Marrakech was rather awful – it seemed like THOUSANDS of flies in the bus! I was killing flies for the entire 4 hour ride! Smarmy tour-guy had us stop at a roadside cafeteria/craft market for some food on the way. He told the students that this would be “the ONLY place to get Moroccan pottery, they don’t have it in Marrakech!” Lots of people bought lots of stuff. I bought a fossil stone ashtray to use as a spoon rest in the kitchen, I even bargained for it, but I did not buy wads of pottery as many of the others did. As we were leaving the reststop, Jack noticed that smarmy tour-guy was “not allowed” to pay for his food and coffee. Ahhh backsheesh.
The weather during the trip varied from bright sun to torrential rain. By the time we arrived in Marrakech it was raining steadily. That put a slight damper (hahaha) on Jack’s and my plans to head down to the Djamma el Fna (the main market/square) for some people watching. Our excitement about Marakech plummeted like the rains around us. We went to the “Fixed Price Moroccan Craft Shop” near the hotel, to get an idea of what we would see in the market AND what was the MOST we should pay for any of these items. I found a lovely pair of babouches (slippers) that fulfilled my wishes for a hideously marvelous pair of house shoes. Thru all this, it continued to rain. Unsure of how to proceed, we decided to sit for a moment, have a coffee, contemplate our options.
As is so often the case, and as is written on the entry page of our blog, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered”. As we sat, watching the first rain we’d seen since….probably May, in Seattle, we were approached by one of the ubiquitous street vendors. Jack initially shooed him away, but then we realized – he’s selling UMBRELLAS!!! We bought an umbrella from him for a few bucks and revised our strategy. We would, indeed, head to the Djemma el Fna, DAMN the rain!
This was a turning point, not just for the day, but for the entire trip. We’d ventured off in Rabat, on our own, as we were used to traveling. But we were still on this TOUR! Going to the market, in the pouring rain, laughing, eating steamed snails from a vendor wagon, getting soaked to the bone, this was how Jack and Kaddee travelled! This was WHY we travelled – not to be stuck on a bus, being told what to do and what to take pictures of. The trip/adventure really BEGAN at this moment.
There was practically no-one in the square when we got there. The rain had abated slightly, but everything was wet and quiet. We looked in some shops, we ate from the food carts, we relaxed into Morocco. Although it was a slow night in the market, we did some shopping, Jack bargained for things he wasn’t even sure he wanted, we got some good deals. I even managed to do some bargaining – I didn’t get the prices Jack would have gotten, but I didn’t pay asking price. (This is a marked improvement for me) By the time we got back to the hotel, we were relaxed, happy, energized and completely soaking wet. Few of the others had ventured out. They thought we were crazy, but were also quite impressed that the two “old” people on the trip had been more adventurous than the college students.
Between our server getting updated, and the crunch time of 2nd midterms, and the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it has been a blur here. I just looked back at my last post, and it was a LONG time ago. I’ve got a bunch of stuff cooking, so now that I’ve gotten my head above water again – WATCH OUT more posts coming!
You’ve been warned. Hee Hee