22 June 2008

This is the end.

Dear loyal readers,

We leave the US again tomorrow to travel in Europe with our families for 6 weeks. It should be a really good time. This means, though, that this blog is unlikely to get updated anymore. A lot of stuff happened in Egypt that went unwritten -- a car accident, a broken arm (unrelated to the accident), and a lot of traveling -- but it looks like that will remain unwritten. All further inquires can be directed to nrhansen@gmail.com or millikhansen@gmail.com.

Our adventures will continue, but I think this blog is finished. We hope you have enjoyed reading it. We have certainly enjoyed living it.


11 June 2008

Why I love Alexandria

This view of the harbor was from our restaurant table. We sat very near the place where a wonder of the world (the Pharos Lighthouse) once stood. Alexandria is nowhere near the city it once was, but it's still beautiful.

09 June 2008


Arab/Berber grain storage house

The largest Roman colosseum in Africa

Roman ruins in Carthage

A quiet corner of Tunis' medina



There are at least a few dedicated readers of this blog out there to whom we wish to extend apologies for our reticence this past month (and some). This blog was created to keep interested parties abreast of our life abroad, so it's ironic that our busiest period should go so unannounced. That is to say: so much happened since I last posted, and we got so behind, that we gave up keeping up and just stopped.

We're home now in Dallas and have been for a couple weeks. It's great to be back. To see family, to eat great food, to just be. Don't get me wrong, we've been almost as busy during this period of "relaxing" too, but it's still nice to be back.

It's unlikely at this point that we will describe all of our final adventures in the land of Pharaohs and smog. I'll try to at least post some pictures (now that we again have a fast enough internet connection). If you crave the info that falls through the cracks, please email or call us. We'd love to talk with you.

01 May 2008

Secret service

We haven't posted anything in a while and will try to catch up...

A couple weeks ago, we went to Minia, a city in Upper Egypt, to visit some of CEOSS’ projects. Jeannette, a girl from Denmark who started working at CEOSS a couple months ago, also went with us. She had been trying to get down to Minia for weeks, and had been rebuffed or delayed four times. We think it’s partly because of a lack of organization, but partly because she’s Danish (see earlier posts). So our experience in Minia, we think, was because of her.

As soon as we got to the train station in Minia, and looked outside for our ride, police escorted us back inside “for our safety.” We waited there until the CEOSS van came. Two armed men joined us in the van, and a military truck followed behind us, carrying six gun-toting soldiers. If we encountered any traffic on the road, the truck behind us would turn on a siren and we would cruise onward as other cars pulled to the side. Faced with a checkpoint, our car merely cut in front of a dozen other cars. We owned the road.

This was basically how it went all three days. We didn’t always have the military escort, but we had at least one bodyguard the whole time. They didn’t wear uniforms but had strange bulges under their shirts; occasionally the tip of the gun showed itself rather conspicuously. They never bothered us, but they were always there. We slept on a houseboat in the Nile, and one of our bodyguards slept in a chair on shore next to it.

We visited some farmers who CEOSS is helping to export their crops. We visited a section of town where CEOSS has implemented a huge waste removal, housing improvement, and environmental health project. We visited a profit-generating furniture and plywood factory that CEOSS runs. Our bodyguards tagged along to each of these places. On the third day we had a different set of bodyguards, and at first I thought they were part of the CEOSS staff.

It was all a bit strange because Minia seemed like a very safe place to us. All of this security was a bit excessive.

19 April 2008

The Syrian embassy

We have good news for our mothers and anyone else who may worry about our safety:

We are not going to Syria.

The original plan was to go to Lebanon and Syria, but with Lebanon currently in political paralysis as the Christians and Shiites vie for power, we decided that maybe Beirut is not the safest place to be. Syria seemed safe enough to us – the Arab League summit in Damascus last month passed without incident.

We had read and heard that Syria required everyone to get visas from their home country, which is obviously impossible for us right now. However, when we talked to the American embassy here, they said that since we were living in Cairo, the Syrian embassy should give us a visa no problem. The Syrian embassy apparently doesn’t have a website. We did, though, find another website that listed a phone number. We called: wrong number. Luckily, our Lonely Planet had hours listed when visas could be obtained (9am-1pm) and we found the location by poring through our book of Cairo maps.

We struggled to wake up relatively early last weekend, then took two subways and wandered around until we found it just before 11am. Unfortunately, the guards would not let us in when we inquired about visas. The visa period was over, they said. Come again tomorrow at 9am.

The next morning we woke up even earlier. Milli wasn’t feeling well, so I went alone. I took a cab because I was running late; the cab took 45 minutes, just as long as the subway, but they let me into the embassy without a problem.

The embassy was incredibly derelict. Two ratty couches sat outside the main entrance that a college student would be embarrassed to own. The small reception room was dominated by a huge table covered by boxes and rolled-up posters; next to it lay some 2x4s and a framed picture of the Syrian president. Except for three old arm chairs, that was it. On a small table across the room I found an English-language Syrian newspaper and was excited to read it until I discovered it was two months old.

A few other people were also there for visas. They were filling out paperwork and seemed to be getting them successfully. When my turn came I approached the man who seemed to be in charge and made my request. When I revealed that our Egyptian visas are merely one-year tourist visas, not work visas, the discussion was over. My pleas fell on obstinate, uninterested ears. “Mish mumkin,” he said. Not possible.

So, no Syria. Maybe we’ll be able to come back someday and go there, but for now we had to change plans.

We’re going to Tunisia next week instead!

15 April 2008

Noise pollution

Our story of the Siwan desert will continue shortly...

All we can post today is a link to the New York Times, which just ran a story about the insane level of sheer NOISE in Cairo. It's called "A City Where You Can't Hear Yourself Scream."

Money quote:

"This is not like London or New York, or even Tehran, another car-clogged Middle Eastern capital. It is literally like living day in and day out with a lawn mower running next to your head, according to scientists with the National Research Center. They spent five years studying noise levels across the city and concluded in a report issued this year that the average noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train 15 feet away..."

13 April 2008

Into the Desert: Part I

The next morning we visited the mud-brick fortress of Shali, which looms above the town of Siwa like an apparition. Built in the 13th century, it stood up well against the scourges of time, up until the great rains of 1926 did heavy damage (more than any invader throughout history) and washed away like a third of it. It now looks a bit like Dresden in 1945. The houses at the base of the hill are still inhabitable and people live there, have shops and restaurants there.

The highlight of our time in Siwa started that afternoon: our excursion into the desert. At 3pm we hopped into a 10-year old 4WD outside our hotel and they drove us out of town and onto the dunes. As our 55-year old driver took us hurtling through the sand, I discovered that my window did not close, which was unfortunate given that it was a windy day. The first time we stopped I found that my door was bent and would not open unless the driver (directly in front of me) opened his door first. And there were no seat belts. Our driver appeared to be the leader or the most experienced in our small caravan of cars, but he ditched the others and we went off on our own. He would take us criss-crossing up to the top of a dune, pause at the top for a second, and turn around to say something to us in rapid Arabic. While still looking behind him, he would edge over the sand cliff and we’d go sliding down the bank – which often seemed to be near vertical. The Scandinavian girls in our car would scream sometimes.

This “dune bashing” was similar is some ways to our experience in Dubai, but also markedly different. In Dubai, we had youngish 30-somethings driving new SUVs, following each other in a buddy-system caravan. They made sure our seatbelts were tightened before taking off, which they could ask us in English. In Siwa, it was a middle-aged man in a dented, beat-up car, taking us on a “Live Free or Die” joy ride. The only English he seemed to know was “No baby? No problem!” which he repeated a couple times with obvious amusement.

There were no roads, of course, and few obvious landmarks out there surrounded by sand. But somehow our intrepid driver knew where to go. I really don’t know how. We stopped at a few places throughout the day and each of them suddenly loomed before us like a mirage. The mirage-like quality was only enhanced by the sheer unlikelihood of there being a small lake or a hot spring flanked by trees in the middle of sand dunes that extend to the horizon. Our first stop was at the hot spring. Milli and I changed into swim suits in a convenient little building with two changing rooms, and got in the water. It was indeed rather warm, much more so than Cleopatra’s. We talked to an Australian guy who, curiously enough, was in Egypt working for a gold mining company near the Red Sea. Also interestingly, he was traveling with a Muslim Egyptian woman; we doubt that happens too much as it seems like it would be rather scandalous. The drivers of the four cars that were congregated there made us some strong tea.

Our second stop was a cold lake, with reeds growing out of the dunes at the water’s edge. It was strikingly beautiful, especially given its incongruous location surrounded by arid desert. I wish we could post a picture…

After that they drove us “the fossils.” There, in the middle of empty expanses of sand, lay fossilized remains of fish and sea shells! I mean, it makes sense to find a sand dollar in the sand, but usually they’re found in sand within a few meters of the ocean – not hundreds of miles into the desert! Evidently, the desert used to be covered by the Mediterranean in the distant past. Incredible. Unfortunately, all of the easily snatchable shells had already been confiscated by years of visitation, so we have no souvenirs but photographs.

07 April 2008

A bike tour

Well, the internet is still too slow to upload any pictures, but we can put a few of our oasis adventures in writing.

After rising from our nap, we rented bikes and embarked on a tour of the oasis and its surroundings. First stop was a series of old tombs cut into a hill, about a mile outside the town. A few of the tombs had paintings on the walls, but we didn't want to pay the entrance fees so we contented ourselves with the tombs just downhill. They looked rather like craters on the moon. We read that during World War II the Italians had bombed Siwa (for some inexplicable reason), and people took shelter into the tombs! The bombings raids actually opened up many more tombs that they didn't know existed.

We took a short-cut back to town through a village on the outskirts. It was really fun to briefly see scenes of village life as we rode past. Donkeys sleeping and kids running and old men smoking and boys standing around.

Our next stop was the Temple of Amun, which once harbored one of the most influential oracles in the Greek world. Alexander the Great came here to legitimize his claim on Egypt. And kings sometimes sent armies to destory it (which always disappeared in the desert), so great was the oracle's professed power. The temple was in ruins, but still pretty cool.

A few minutes down the road was another temple. Was. Not even the ruins are left. An Ottoman ruler blew it up in the nineteenth century because he needed more stone for his house. Only part of one wall is left.

At one point my bike chain came off the gear. A couple little boys came out of nowhere and helped me get it back on.

Our last stop was at Cleopatra's Spring. It is rumored that the lady herself bathed here, but that is almost certainly made up. Good advertising though. The spring was about 20 feet in diameter, stoned-walled and rather green. And for a hot spring, it was disappointingly cold. Two Egyptian boys were the only ones swimming in it. We thought about getting a drink at the nice tourist cafe that recently sprung up next to the spring, but didn't.

Back at our hotel, we lounged around for a little bit, had some juice, played Uno. (Milli won all five times.) Then back on the bikes we set out for Fatnas Island, where supposedly one could watch the sunset. We left about 5:30 and tried to follow our hand-drawn, very-much-not-to-scale map of Siwa. Not at all convinced we were going to right way, we stopped to ask people like four times. Turns out we were. The island was just much, much farther than we thought. Meanwhile, the sun was sinking...

We got there just in time to watch the last five minutes. Watching the sun dip over the horizon, spreading an orange glow across the lake, I forgot this was the middle of the desert. It was beautiful. And over all to quickly.

Then we biked back again, racing again against the sun, whose embers of light were dying rapidly. We were about halfway back by the time it was dark. The moonlight shone enough for us to see the outline of the road, and luckly there were very few cars. One guy followed us on his bike for a few minutes, but then ditched off when we ignored him. It could have been much worse and we got back fine.

It was nice to get the exercise. The only exercise we get here in Cairo is walking, which doesn't really cut it.

06 April 2008

Sorry for the delay...

We have been trying to post pictures from our oasis trip for days now. The internet is just not cooperating. Hopefully it will be working better tomorrow -- though there's no reason why it necessary will be...