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a southern yankee abroad

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May 2017

Heart Like a Feather: 10 Hours in Cairo

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Spending the day exploring Cairo was the perfect beginning to my summer abroad in Uganda. When shopping for flights back in March, I was so excited to see the cheapest flight option from NYC would also give me a 10 hour layover in Cairo before I boarded a connection to Entebbe. Just enough time to explore the pyramids! I soon learned Cairo has so much more to offer…

I have to admit I was a bit nervous about exploring Cairo on my own, based on what I had seen and heard in the media about being a solo female in the city. Fortunately, my friend Richard from the UK whom I met last summer in Berlin, had the perfect solution for me. A few years back, he had explored Cairo with a fantastic guide named Hossam, and he connected me with Hossam over Facebook and WhatsApp. I arrived in Egypt with my (come to find out, unfounded) anxiety at bay and ready to explore! (TLDR summary): I felt very safe my entire time in Cairo, despite what you may see and hear in the media. I would encourage anyone I know to travel to Egypt!

Hossam and his driver met me at the airport once I arrived at 11am Cairo time. I had the whole row to myself on the 10.5 hour flight from NYC, so I was able to get some good sleep while catching up on some recent movies—Hidden Figures (I totally cried!) and Masterminds (I cried from laughing so much!) After purchasing my visa (25 USD) and making my way through security, I found Hossam just past the arrivals section, and we loaded up and began the 1.5 hour drive to Giza.

First impressions of Egypt? The traffic is insane! Even more insane than NYC x1000. Most main roads do not even have painted lanes, and it doesn’t make a difference on the ones that do as most drivers straddle the lines with their cars as they drive. Even though Cairo traffic was a true free-for-all, there were surprisingly no accidents, as all the drivers are super vigilant even as they drive crazily.

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The roads…No lanes or signs, and sometimes unpaved. Also, people walk directly into traffic without looking! Reminds me of NYC ❤

Pyramids on Pyramids

As we made our way toward Giza, Hossam drew diagrams for me as he explained the significance of the pyramids and ancient Egyptian history. Giza is located on the west bank of the Nile, while the main city of Cairo is on the east bank. This is for a reason—the ancient Egyptians believed that the side of the Nile where you lived represented your current life, while the opposite bank represented the afterlife. Therefore, the pharaohs constructed their burial sites on the west side to represent the “crossing over” that occurred after death.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Great Pyramid in person—it was breathtaking. According to Hossam, the pyramids change each time you view them, and are never the same twice. Do they have a mystical power? I’ll leave that for you, the reader, to decide.

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During the course of the visit, we walked around and took in the sites at various points. I paid 200 EGP (~11 USD) extra to climb to the burial room inside the Great Pyramid, and it was worth it. The climb is more like a 37 meter inclined crawl, and it was hot and cramped at times. It reminded me of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Once I reached the top, I found myself alone in the burial room where the body of the pharaoh Khufu was once sealed…super eerie!

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This is where Khufu was buried near the top of the Great Pyramid! The walls are made of rose granite. It was super creepy to be in here by myself!

After leaving Khufu’s Great Pyramid, we made our way toward the bank of the Nile, stopping along the way to visit the Queens’ pyramids and the burial temple of Khufu. Hossam was able to take me into a secret locked portion of the temple!

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We then drove around to take in the view of the complex from the other side of the pyramids away from the Nile bank. The Great Pyramid is accompanied by the pyramids of Khafre (Khufu’s son) and Menkaure. Out of respect, Khafre built his pyramid to be 3 meters shorter than his father’s pyramid. But poor Menkaure—his pyramid is so tiny compared to the other two! Hossam told me this was likely due to a poor economy during the time of its construction—when there was more abundance, the pyramids were bigger, and vice versa.

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Our last stop in the temple complex was a visit to the valley temple of Khufu and the Sphinx (my favorite!). Until 100 years ago, the Nile flowed just beneath the Sphinx and the valley temples. However, the river has since changed course. The purpose of the valley temples was to receive the bodies of the dead pharaohs from the “other side” in preparation for the afterlife. Each pyramid has a valley temple and a causeway leading to the burial temple, which is connected to the pyramid.

The Sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion, was built to guard the pyramid complex by the pharaoh Khafre along the banks of the Nile. Like seeing the Great Pyramid, seeing the Sphinx in person for the first time was truly breathtaking…it’s like he popped out of nowhere as I scanned my eyes across the horizon, and I was definitely caught off guard!

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Me and Hossam at the Sphinx!
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Guarding the pyramids. I love how big the “paws” are!

A Heart Like a Feather

After leaving the pyramids, Hossam took me to a papyrus art gallery. I knew papyrus was used as paper, but I had no idea the spiritual significance of the plant to ancient Egyptians. The papyrus and the lotus flowers are the two sacred plants—the lotus flower represents love, and the woman gives a lotus to the man she wants to marry (yes, the women proposed to men in ancient Egypt! Holla at that feminism!) If he accepted the lotus, they were engaged. If not, then she could move on! The papyrus was also sacred because of its form (its shape represents the sun god Ra, as the head of the stalk looks like the sun’s rays shooting out), and because of its function (used to make boats and as paper).

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As a law student, the mythology of the weighing of the heart struck me in particular, and is my favorite story I am taking away from my time here. After a person dies, he goes before Osiris, the judge of the afterlife. The heart of the deceased is placed on a pair of scales and weighed against a feather, held by Maat, the goddess of justice. If the feather outweighs the heart, he had a light heart, meaning he spent his life peacefully doing good for others. However, if the heart outweighs the feather, he had a heavy heart, meaning he had lived his life in anger and not doing right by other people. I love this story and all it represents—what a great reminder to keep a light heart every day!

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I purchased this papyrus painting of the weighing of the heart. Maat, the goddess of justice, is on the left (you can see the feather on her head!), and the heart is in the jar on the right.

Khan el-Khalili, the Old Islamic Market 

We finished out our busy day with a visit to the souk (marketplace) in the Islamic district of Cairo called Khan el-Khalili. The market was full of both modern and traditional vendors, and it seemed every other building was a mosque featuring the most beautiful architecture.

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I learned that all mosques have domed shapes because of the acoustic requirements before the age of electricity and loudspeakers—the domes would amplify the call to prayer five times daily. Today, the calls to prayer are simply played over loudspeakers, but the domed shape has remained a part of Islamic tradition and culture.

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Another interesting architectural find? These window screens, called mashrabiya. As women must be covered in public, and not viewed by anyone but her husband and family, these screens allow women to look from their windows and not be viewed from the street, thus maintaining their privacy and modesty.

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Besides the beautiful architecture, my favorite part of the souk was our stop at El Feshawy, the oldest coffee shop in Khan el-Khalili. Here, we enjoyed Turkish coffee and shisha while people stopped at our table and tried to sell me trinkets, henna, and souvenirs every 5 seconds (a firm “no thank you” usually did the trick). After relaxing for a bit, we wound our way back through the market and through the gate, where our driver was waiting to take me back to the airport… 😦

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A long time ago, these iron windows were “water stations” where anyone could stop by and be served clean and fresh water for free, no questions asked.

Sadly, the very next day after my visit, a shooting attack by ISIS on a bus carrying Coptic Christians killed 29 people just outside of Cairo. I received several messages asking if I was ok—I am ok, and we should keep the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers. This terrible tragedy is a reminder that nowhere in the world is safe, but I want to reemphasize that I never felt in danger during my time in Cairo. America is not the safest place either–it has been almost a year since a shooting attack in Florida killed 50 people. The truth is we all have to stay vigilant no matter where we are in the world.

At the end of the day, I was not ready to leave Cairo! It was such a beautiful city and I feel like I developed a deeper appreciation for Egyptian heritage and culture. I hope to go back and visit sometime in the future.

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Travel and the “P” Word

Jambo from Kampala! I can’t tell you how excited and amazed I am to be continuing a second summer of blogging. At this point last summer, I was in Southeast Asia and had no idea what the following year, much less the following summer, held for me. I feel very fortunate to be living in Uganda for the next 10 weeks after finishing my first year in law school, and to have the opportunity to pursue my academic interests while exploring another corner of the world.

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Getting my own wifi hotspot in Uganda for the summer…a beautiful moment! 
After a bit of self-reflection, I realize my blog posts from last summer were a bit on the fluffy and introspective side. Don’t get me wrong—that’s not a bad side to be on! I greatly enjoy being fluffy and introspective as a favorite pastime, and don’t worry—there will be plenty of those posts this summer. 🙂  However, after traveling for exactly one day in Egypt, I was confronted (actually, more like slapped in the face…) by a serious issue—the issue of travel privilege.

 

I actually hesitate to use the term “privilege”—I feel it carries such a heavy political connotation these days, and many people instantly tune out when they hear or read the word “privilege.” (I.e. asking someone to “check your privilege” will sometimes result in that person deciding he doesn’t have to listen to what you’re saying instead of continuing to engage…a hard reality for those who argue privilege is something that should be recognized and checked (myself included), but a reality nonetheless).

 

But I have to use the term privilege here, because it precisely describes my situation and the situation of millions of other Americans. Any American can spin a globe, put her finger down, say “I’m travelling here!” and make it happen. (This is apart and separate from financial ability to travel, which I’ve discussed in a previous post, and will revisit again in a later post this summer). It’s humbling to admit the “point, pick, and go” strategy is more or less what I did when I planned my around-the-world trip last summer. What I failed to fully realize then, and what I realize more now, is not every person enjoys the right of freedom of movement and travel like Americans do.

 

I met and spoke with several Egyptians during my 10 hours in Cairo who made me realize how much of a problem this is. My guide for the day in Cairo was by far one of the best, smartest, and most genuinely kind guides I’ve ever met when traveling. I casually asked him if he had ever been to the USA. “No, it’s almost impossible to get a visa there for leisure travel if you’re from the Middle East,” he replied. And this policy predates Donald Trump.

 

I can get a visa instantly to his country upon arrival, but he can’t do the same for my country. How do I get this very benefit that he is denied simply due to our differing national origins? I happened to be born in the USA, and he happened to be born in Egypt, and yet this luck of the draw dictates the destinations on this planet where he and I are each free to travel.  I am no more deserving than he is of the benefits that come from traveling for personal pleasure and learning, yet I face far fewer barriers in far fewer countries than others face. This is example #1 of the definition of travel privilege.

 

Another privilege? Strength of currency. As Americans, we enjoy a relatively strong US dollar. While we may complain how “expensive” it is for us to travel to Europe or the UK, the truth is we can afford to travel pretty much anywhere when it comes to currency exchange rates. However, Egypt has seen its currency fall from 7 EGP to 1 USD to 18 EGP to 1 USD over the last decade. Not only is this prohibitive to leisure travel, but it’s prohibitive to parents being able to put food on the table for their families. A currency decline of this magnitude, coupled with the decline of a major industry (in the case of Egypt, tourism) means it’s harder for many families to make ends meet, and more kids are going hungry. I’ve met others over the years from different countries (including South Africa, Hungary, and Thailand) who have told me how the strength of the US dollar make it nearly impossible for them to visit the US. Meanwhile, Americans who choose to travel at all do so and complain about currency exchange rates. Shame on us.

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Cairo, Egypt
What about immigration? Trump only opposes illegal immigrants, right? Well, think of the scenarios I just described above. Many families who want to leave everything they have ever known and try to make a better life for themselves and their children in America must enter a lottery. That’s right—the US federal government still sets a quota for each country (this is 2017, not 1887) , and then each country draws numbers for who gets to leave. I had always known this was the case generally, yet I had no idea the impact that this policy ritual of a scheduled “lottery” with a hard cut-off number has on people’s daily lives.  My waiter in the Cairo airport told me the U.S. lottery for Egypt is next month—he is already counting down the days. He has a friend who “won” the lottery a few years ago, and was able to move to America. I would wager that most Americans are not even aware such lotteries still exist–I have to admit I didn’t know there was still an actual lottery–yet people like my waiter in Egypt literally count down to the day when these lottery drawings happen.

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It isn’t like all Egyptians are looking to immigrate permanently—in fact, most Egyptians I met have an immense amount of national pride, and were very hospitable, welcoming, excited to share their country, and not looking to leave anytime soon. Yet the fact is that the economic downturn and political instability have hit the country hard in recent years. Permanent immigration concerns aside, the ability to travel freely in the world remains severely restricted for many citizens of Egypt and other countries. Many simply want to visit the USA for the same reason many Americans would want to visit Egypt– to experience a different culture, learn a rich history, and take in the sites and stories for themselves.  Immigration and border control is one thing. But restricting travel visas completely? That’s a different issue entirely.

 

What can we Americans who value the freedom of movement and the benefits of travel do about it? As I alluded to above, once you realize how you’ve benefited from travel privilege, it’s hard not to feel some degree of guilt for the undeserved advantages you’ve received from a characteristic beyond your control (i.e. national origin). Yet there isn’t really anything you can do about your national origin. I think the first thing to do is maintain self-awareness of the travel privilege you experience, and then translate this into empathy for those you meet along your journeys. At the end of the day, we all share this earth together, and we are all equally curious to learn and explore. Next, work to translate this empathy into more humane visa and immigration policies through legislation and executive action on the federal level.

 

Privilege is when you don’t have to worry about something because it doesn’t affect you directly. But whatever “it” is always affects someone directly.  So let’s act now by being conscious of what other travelers are facing, and by building empathy and pushing for governmental action to make the world a more equitable place for all.

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A person’s ability to travel the world shouldn’t hinge simply on what passport he or she holds. 

 

Top Ten Posts from A Summer Around the World

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Prague. We are all just walking each other home. You are what you love, not who loves you. 

Happy May! Even as I am buried in outlining for final exams, recovering from strep throat, and preparing for a summer abroad in Uganda (!), I find myself reminiscing hard about this week last year–when I left NYC for 3.5 months backpacking around the world!

As part of my frolic down memory lane (and exam procrastination…) I’ve put together my top ten list of A Southern Yankee Abroad posts from last summer. Enjoy! ❤

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#10 – Who knew three days without wifi or a shower with friends in Bolivia could be such an amazing and freeing experience! Girls Gone Wild: Three Days in the Bolivian Wilderness

#9 – Vietnam has unlimited hidden treasures. I’m Hueee Up (I Feel Blessed) + Halong Bay

#8 – Traveling isn’t always rainbows and butterflies… Kutna Hora and a Train Ride with Franz Kafka (Czech Republic)

#7 – Cambodia remains my favorite country I’ve ever visited — deep sadness and deep beauty. Siem Reap: Temples and Countryside

#6 –  I did some soul searching in the most beautiful city — Paris, the City of Light. Questions in Paris

#5 – An encounter with a Buddhist monk in Chiang Mai reminded me that kindness transcends nationality, language, and religion. Wat’s Up?! Monks, Cooking, and River Cruises in Chiang Mai

#4 – I truly felt at home during a week-long visit in Provence, thanks to the generosity of some amazing people I met along my journey. Provence: Lavender Fields and Lost Luggage

#3 – Craic abounds in Ireland, especially if you’re friends with Michael! Ireland Part 1: Brexit, Dublin Pride, and Irish Football

#2- Being lost on the back of a motorcycle in the rain surrounded by people who don’t speak English in Ho Chi Minh City is a memory I could never have planned, but will always treasure. Adventures in Saigon

#1 – I turned 27 years old on top of a rainbow in Peru…literally! This trek up Vinicunca Mountain with Sarah, Rachele, our guide Abel, and Rainbow the dog was the highlight of the entire summer. A Birthday Trek to Vinicunca Mountain 

 

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