From Dahab With Love

After an overnight bus ride through the Sinai Peninsula, we made it to Dahab just in time for breakfast. In case you’ve never heard of Dahab, or are rusty on your Middle-Eastern geography skills, or are just as fond of maps as I am, I made a little illustration for you : )

Dahab is a tiny tourist town on the Red Sea, famous for being one of the best snorkeling/scuba diving sites in the world. The name means “gold,” and its definitely one of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited. Becca and I first visited Dahab in 2009, and since then I’ve always wanted to return. I’m so glad my trip to Egypt included a stop in Dahab!

Despite our exhaustion after a long night on the bus, we still managed to wake up enough for a traditional Egyptian breakfast of fuul and tamaya at a beachside cafe! 

Our first day in Dahab was spent relaxing on the beach, and not doing much of anything. It was a beautiful 75 degree day, which felt so unbelievably warm after the Ukrainian winter I just lived through. I felt like I was thawing out, laying there in my shorts, as the sun slowly worked its magic on my incredibly pale skin. Becca and I were both thoroughly engrossed in the books we’d brought, so between the weather, the companionship, and the stunning view of the sea in front of us, I don’t think I could dream up a more perfect day. At one point the wind kicked up, and a man from our hotel ran out and put up a beach umbrella to block it. I fell asleep in its shade, completely content with life : )

The next day, while walking the boardwalk, we ended up talking to a man offering desert excursions. After hearing the words “desert safari” and “Colored Canyons,” we were hooked. He explained the logistics of the trip, which would take a whole day and include lunch with our Bedouin guide, sand-boarding (what you do with a snowboard when you find yourself surrounded by sand dunes), and the opportunity to hike through the Colored Canyons!

Early the next morning the Jeep arrived, with a tour guide who introduced himself as Antonio. I’ve never met an Arab named Antonio, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. There were 5 other people on the excursion with us, and soon we left civilization behind as we drove out into the desert. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Little Bedouin kiddos trying to sell us jewelry as we began the hike.

Descending into the canyon… thank God I wore tennis shoes : )

What all the fuss was about… the beautiful colors of the Colored Canyon.

Becca, my dear friend and hiking buddy, and myself : )

Our guide Antonio trying to get a camel’s kiss by putting some pita bread in his mouth. Hilarity ensued.

Lunch in the desert, with us beginning to look like Bedouins ourselves.

Once-in-a-lifetime experience… sand-boarding in the desert!

Our day in the desert was fantastic, and we returned to Dahab exhausted and dirty but very pleased with ourselves. That night the fun continued when my friend Stephanie called and asked to meet us for dinner. Stephanie’s actually a friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, and she and two other PCVs from Ukraine had traveled to Dahab for Spring Break as well! I ran into her last month at a meeting in Ukraine, where we discovered we had the same Spring Break destination in mind, with overlapping dates no less! So we decided to meet at a quaint little restaurant called “The Kitchen,”  which had an impressive menu full of Chinese, Indian, and Thai dishes. Ethnic food isn’t very common in Ukraine, so I had to get my fill in Egypt!

The Kitchen… hands-down the cutest restaurant in Dahab, serving incredible food no less!

Yummy Thai food makes a happy Kate ; )

It was wonderful hanging out with other Peace Corps Volunteers and hearing about their adventures in Dahab. I also enjoyed hearing the random Ukrainian or Russian word thrown into conversation, because everyone at the table (except Becca) was finding it strange to be speaking so much English. Who would’ve thought we’d experience withdrawal from speaking Ukrainian/Russian after less than a week? We also talked about how strange it was that Egypt is portrayed as such a dangerous place on the news lately, while we all felt quite safe in our travels there. So if these pictures fill you with wanderlust and tempt you into thinking about a trip to Egypt, I would say go for it. Be a smart traveler, of course, but know that its still an amazing (and safe, in my experience) place to visit despite all the negative press coverage.

After dinner, we walked the boardwalk and shopped for souvenirs… such a lovely evening.

 We met up again the next night for dinner, this time at a restaurant on the beach called “The Shark.” The restaurant owner had tried to talk us into eating there every night he saw us, and I promised him we would before we left. It turned out to be some of the best food we had in Dahab, and our waiter Mohammed brought us a new sheesha (hooka) to smoke every 20 minutes. We spent the whole evening there, enjoying each other’s company and trying to think positive thoughts about our imminent return to Ukraine.

Celebrating our last night in Dahab with fantastic food and lots of sheesha… 4 Peace Corps Volunteers from Ukraine hanging out in Egypt–random but wonderful : )

The next morning, Becca and I packed our bags and checked out of our hotel. We were catching a bus back to Cairo after lunch, so I spent the morning trying to catch as much sun as possible. Dahab wasn’t very busy (Egypt isn’t exactly a hot tourist destination at the moment), so I had a whole cafe to myself. Here’s a picture, isn’t it idyllic?

The waiter asked if I spoke any Arabic, and after a week of answering incorrectly, most often responding in Ukrainian when the question was put to me in Arabic (saying things like “tak” for yes [which should be “aywa” in Arabic] or  “ni” for no [which should be “la’a” if I could make the Arabic part of my brain work]), I was finally able to answer a few questions in the correct language! He was overly impressed, but I’ve found in all my travels that if you make an attempt to speak the native language, even if you speak terribly your attempt will still be appreciated and applauded. So my ability to say “yes I speak a little Arabic” and “I’m American but I live in Ukraine now teaching English” was rewarded with a free breakfast, because my baby Arabic tickled the waiter pink. It was a lovely note to end my stay in Dahab on! It also made me want to refresh my Arabic… maybe that’ll be a project for life after Peace Corps : )

When it finally came time to leave, Becca and I gathered our bags and walked towards the road leading to the bus station. In Dahab, its really easy (especially if you’re a white foreigner) to flag down any car and ask for a ride somewhere. The taxis are expensive, but the locals are more than willing to take you where you need to go for a decent price. So Becca did the flagging down, and not one but two cars pulled over to offer us assistance. The men got out of their cars and started bickering about who should get to drive us, while Becca and I just stood there and waited for them to cut it out. Becca stepped in, and using her impressive Arabic skills, informed them that we needed a ride to the bus station and also wanted to stop at a koshary shop for lunch (I wanted some koshary to-go for the bus ride!). One of the guys took our bags and gestured to the back of his truck (I kid you not), so Becca and I rode in the pickup bed for the ride! We attracted lots of attention, but it was seriously one of the funniest travel moments I’ve ever had. When we pulled over at the koshary restaurant, our taxi driver hopped out and yelled that he needed an order of koshary to-go pronto, and the koshary guy even brought it out for curbside delivery so I didn’t have to get out of the pickup. It was priceless : )

This picture doesn’t really do it justice, but I promise you we were sitting in the back of a pickup truck, waiting for the koshary to be delivered!

The rest of the day was spent on the bus to Cairo. To hear about my last day in Egypt, read onto the next blog post!

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Helwa Ya Baladi

My trip to Egypt included a slight detour, seeing as there are no direct flights from Kiev to Cairo. So my first flight was to Moscow (my first time in Russia!), where I had an hour long layover before my next flight. Unfortunately, we got caught in a snowstorm, which made landing tricky.

By the time the plan landed, I had 18 minutes until my flight to Cairo was scheduled to depart. So after getting through customs and security, I had 3 minutes remaining. Needless to say, I didn’t see much of the airport as I sprinted through, but I can tell you its a huge place. I had to run through 2 terminals, and by the time I got to the gate, they were doing the last call.

As my plane left the gate, I worried about my luggage being transferred, doubting that anyone got it onto the Cairo flight in the whole 20 minutes I was in Moscow :/ But it turned out we weren’t going anywherethanks to the snowstorm, we were stuck on the runway until visibility improved, which turned out to be 2 hours later.

After we took off, it was a four hour flight until we landed in Egypt. As soon as I stepped off the plane I could feel the warmth, and I could hardly stand still at the customs check, knowing my friend Becca was waiting on the other side. But as predicted, my bag was never transferred in Moscow so I was bag-less in Cairo. I filled out a lost-baggage claim, where the man informed me that the next flight coming from Moscow would arrive Friday, and I could expect my bag then. It was Monday morning when he told me this, so needless to say, after all my careful packing it looked like it was all for naught. I was so bummed… but not for long, because Becca was waiting on the other side with her friend Ayman to drive us home! (FYI: Becca was a dear friend [and my roommate] when I lived and studied in Egypt in 2009 with the Middle East Studies Program! She’s back in Cairo for a 3 year position as an English teacher.) By the time I made it through the gate and were were finally reunited, it was the middle of the night and I was exhausted. I was happy just to be with her and on our way back to her apartment where I could sleep!

A beautiful mosque across the street from the City Stars Mall.

The next day our first stop was the mall—I kid you not. With my bag missing I had no clothing besides what I arrived in, so we went to the premier mall in Cairo: City Stars. And with us being white and dressed like foreigners, it seriously felt like we were stars. I forgot how much Egyptians stare… I blend in fairly well in Ukraine (except for being a little more voluptuous than most women), so being stared at was a little shocking at first. Also shocking was how western the mall felt… I bought jeans at American Eagle, sandals at Payless Shoe Store, and a latte at Starbucks, so if you forgot about all the veiled women in the mall, you could just as easily be in a mall in America. It was a strange feeling. But Becca was a real trooper for our day of shopping, and I found enough clothes to last the week, so I’d call our shopping adventure a success 🙂

That evening, we had dinner with one of my dearest friends in CairoEman! We used to hang out all the time when I lived in Agouza, the same neighborhood where she lives in Cairo. She’s actually Sudanese, but she’s been living in Cairo so long its her home now. It was lovely to see her and catch up, and she made me promise to give my mother kisses from her (Mom, if I forgot to tell you, now you know!). Here’s a picture of us from dinner.

Becca, me, and Eman!

Tuesday was our last day in Cairo before leaving for our beach trip, so we tried to cram in as much as possible. We started with a trip to Tahrir Square, which was the center of the revolution in Egypt last year. I used to work in Tahrir Square, so it was shocking to see how much it had altered. There were still some tents standing where die-hard protesters were staying, but for the most part the place was a ghost town. The most fascinating change in Tahrir was the street art… huge murals covered the length of the square, immortalizing martyrs to the cause and reminded Egyptians not to forget what they’re fighting for.

In this mural, the left half of the face is Mohammed Tantawi (the current commander-in-chief of the Army, and the defacto leader of the country while the military rules), while the right half of the face is the deposed president Hosni Mubarak. The two images are superimposed, equating the former president with the current leader and showing the people’s frustration with the current leadership, seeing it as no better than the former dictatorship they overthrew last year.

Much of the graffiti includes portraits of martyrs, and this one even has the English imperative to “never forget” the cost of the revolution.

Tahrir was a sad place to be, but I’m glad we stopped to see the changes taking place in the heart of Cairo. The presidential election is set to take place in May, and it seems like the whole city is holding its breath to see what happens… I kept telling Becca the whole week that she’s living in Egypt at such a pivotal moment in modern history! She has such a fascinating, first-hand view of the events unfolding, and I can’t help but feel a little jealous 🙂

That night, Becca actually had to work, so I called up an old friend and told him he had the pleasure of entertaining me for the evening : ) So my friend Omer came and picked me up, and we spent the evening catching up on the last three years. He went to the US to study in Idaho for a year, and I left for Peace Corps, so its been quite a while since the last time I saw him. We spent most of the evening at a roof-top cafe in Zamalek, which had incredible views of the Nile and the city center.

The Cairo Opera House, and if you look very closely, you can see the Pyramids looming in the background!

 The Nile….

 One of my favorite Egyptians, one of my favorite nights in Egypt : )

Omer dropped me off at Becca’s, where we packed as fast as we could before grabbing a taxi and heading to the bus station. We were on our way to the most highly-anticipated part of my tripthe BEACH in Dahab!

To hear about our desert safari and our new friends in Dahab, read onto the next post!

P.S: The title of this blog post, “Helwa Ya Baladi”, means “My Beautiful Homeland” and is a really popular song in Egypt… check it out here on Youtube.

Grant Update: Progress!

Friends and family! I have good news regarding my grant to create an English Technology and Resource Center at my school—so far $835 has been raised! So if you’re someone who has contributed, or has helped spread the word about this project, I’m sending a huge THANK YOU your way (especially to my Mom, Dawn, and Nancy!) I’m really thankful for the encouragement you ladies have provided, and for your efforts in helping find more donors. You guys are wonderful 🙂

That leaves $1832 remaining, and I’m hoping I can get this money raised in time. Which brings me to the not-so-good news… I found out at one of my meetings this month that the grant has to be completed by the end of the school year, which is roughly 8 weeks away. Closing a grant in Ukraine and turning in receipts and such can take a long time, so there’s a deadline for my fundraising efforts. And the bad news is that if I don’t raise the total amount, every dollar that has been donated is placed in the general account for Peace Corps grants and then re-distributed to a grant that’s closer to completion. So PLEASE, if you’ve been thinking about donating but have postponed it, please donate soon and help me get a little closer to the goal of $2667.

What is your donation going towards, you might ask? We’re trying to create an English Resource and Technology Center, which is just a fancy title for new textbooks (i.e, resources) and a technology lab, complete with a computer, projector, white board, speakers, and a printer. The new textbooks will be for my 10th and 11th graders, who have no textbooks at all right now and generally rely on copies made from the teacher’s book. And the technology lab will be for use solely by the English department, so teachers can use powerpoint and audio-visual supplements for their lessons.

So right now, having raised $835, we’re roughly 1/3 of the way there and have enough money to buy the computer and speakers. So we still need to finance a projector ($750), a white board ($175), a Xerox printer ($300), and 30 textbooks (at $20 per book, a grand sum of $600). And I’m talking about genuine, Oxford textbooks, so my students will be able to study proper English! The English textbooks published in Ukraine are a lot cheaper, but are riddled with mistakes and out-of-date vocabulary. So I know its a lot to ask, especially at a time when the economy is so bad and money is so tight, but could you please consider helping us? Just $20 would buy a textbook and change one of my student’s lives. I can guarantee it’ll be money well spent : )

I thought I’d include pictures of the classroom (and some of my favorite kiddos) where the English Technology and Resource Center will be created. Right now its just an English classroom, and our only source of “technology” is a chalkboard. Sometimes the school doesn’t even have enough money for chalk, and the kiddos have to go buy it themselves. So as you’re looking through this pics, imagine a computer, projector, white board, speakers, and a powerpoint presentation on the board and kiddos singing along in English. You can help us create it, donate today!

Andriy and the rest of the fifth graders hard at work.

I told them I was sending this pic to some Americans who wanted to help us raise money, and this is how big they smiled! 🙂

The English Classroom, where our English Resource & Technology Center will be housed!

To help us make it happen, or to find out how to donate, click this link or the Donate tab at the top right corner of the screen. As always, thanks for reading!

Over the mountain and through a snowstorm, to the COLLABORATIVE we go!

In Peace Corps Ukraine, we have these lovely little meetings every quarter called “Collaboratives” where we meet up with other volunteers in our area and, well, collaborate on our work and projects. Collaboratives are usually 9 parts hanging out with friends and one part meeting/collaborating, but it honestly varies, depending on the meeting and the attendees. Every oblast (or region) has its own collaborative, but my region is quite lazy and hasn’t had a collaborative in over a year. And most of my close friends live in the neighboring region, so I attend their collaboratives as a welcomed crasher.

Last weekend was one of these Collaboratives for the Ivano-Frankivska oblast (the neighboring region), and the meeting was set for a farmstead in the Carpathian Mountains where we rented a house big enough for the 20 people attending the meeting. I traveled to my friend Janira’s village Friday after school, where we caught up and came up with a plan for getting to the mountains the next morning. Before I tell you what happened next, you must know that I tried to prepare wisely—I checked the weather forecast before I left, which promised weather in the high 30s, low 40s, with a high chance of rain. So I packed accordingly (or so I thought): a leather jacket, a sweatshirt with a hood, and an umbrella just in case we had to wait outside in the rain.

Early Saturday morning we set out, and I knew in the first five minutes that I had definitely under-packed. The temperature was in the low 20s, and a bitter wind was blowing, chilling me to the bone. We waited outside for a bus, and when it finally came I thought the worst was over—but I was wrong. We had to change buses at a crossroads in the tiny village of Zabolotiv, but the bus we needed to catch to Kosiv didn’t come. We had been waiting 15 minutes when it started to snow; by 30 minutes we were shivering and our teeth were chattering as we tried to entertain ourselves and not think about how cold we were. At 45 minutes I was losing hope that a bus would ever come, and a taxi driver who had offered us a ride (for a huge sum) took pity on us and told us to come sit in his taxi and warm up while we waited for the bus. I hadn’t packed a hat or gloves, so my fingers were numb and my hair was soaked from the snow that had melted. I was so grateful for the warmth of the taxi that I almost agreed to his offer to drive us to the village we wanted. But luckily, after more than an hour of waiting, a bus finally pulled up going to Kosiv and, thanking the taxi profusely, we jumped out of his car and ran for the bus.

We made it to Kosiv, where 10 other volunteers met us at the bus station. We all bought tickets on the next bus to the mountains, and we quickly ate lunch in a cafe and warmed up a bit. Back at the station, we looked for our bus but didn’t see the right one. A bus driver looked at our tickets and pointed to a bus that was already packed full, with at least 20 people waiting outside to get onboard. I honestly thought we were screwed, and that there was no way we’d all fit inside. I was really angry that they’d kept selling tickets on an already-full bus, but if we didn’t get on this one we’d have to pay for new tickets on the next bus. So all 12 of us got in line, and pushed our way onto the bus. I don’t really have words to describe how full it was; we were definitely packed in like sardines. Here, see the pictures for yourself and you’ll understand better what I mean when I say the bus was stuffed. I bet at least 60 people were on a bus with maybe 18 seats. Not pleasant.

We drove through the mountains in this manner, and the only upside was that we were cramped in so tight that there was no chance of falling down when we hit a bump or went down a hill too quickly. You just slammed into your neighbors, who were wedged in so tight they had no where to move to. In this way, we remained upright for most of the journey.

We finally arrived at the village where a van was waiting to convey us to the house we rented. There was a solid layer of snow on the ground, and all of us dreaded another bus trip. This time we were less crammed in, but trying to drive through the mountains down narrow village roads in the midst of a snow storm made the trip difficult. There were a few times I thought we would die, either by slipping off the road and down the mountain, or by hitting an oncoming car (the road was only wide enough for one car to drive down). It was terrifying.

We finally made it to the house, where the owners received us and welcomed us into the warmth inside. We’d traveled most of the day to get there, and were exhausted and frozen. Dinner was included in the house’s rental, and the landlady told us to rest while dinner was prepared. We decided to have our official collaborative meeting before dinner, because afterwards people would want to hang out and have fun—not talk business!

The only room big enough to fit all of us for the meeting was the dining room, which unfortunately was not heated, (did I mention how badly I packed for this?) and in typical Ukrainian architecture, was located in a separate kitchen building. In Ukraine, especially in towns and villages, the kitchen is located in its own building separate from the house. So the beautiful, 2 story, 8 bedroom home had no kitchen inside! We had to get all bundled up and venture outside to the small kitchen building, where two huge picnic tables and benches could accommodate all of us at once. But like I said, there was no heat so we froze out there too. Basically, I froze the whole weekend.

Once the official collaborative meeting started, we tried to take care of business quickly. We shared announcements, discussed job difficulties and cultural miscommunications, and solicited help for upcoming events at our sites. We were all cold and hungry, so when the meeting adjourned and the food was served, there was much rejoicing. The food was hot and heavenly, and we devoured it. Our hosts also laid out pitchers with what I originally thought was water, but turned out to be “samahon,” home-made, Ukrainian moonshine. Stiff stuff, not for the weak of heart. I drank it for the toasts, but it was like drinking rubbing alcohol. Drinking samahon is definitely not my favorite Ukrainian tradition!

The rest of the evening was quite enjoyable, playing Bananagrams and Phase 10, listening to the boys make music with a banjo and a washboard, and just enjoying my friends’ company. Some of the boys bought more “samahon” from a man in the village and proceeded to drink it, which they regretted in the morning. We stayed up late into the night hanging out, but I fell asleep in the midst of it and was woken up to Janira telling me we had to walk back to the big house to sleep for the night. She and I were sharing a real bed, and the next morning when we woke up neither of us wanted to leave! After brunch, we got back on the bus and repeated the same adventure to get home, taking 3 buses just to make it back to Janira’s village. By that point it was so late I just slept over at her place and then woke up early to get back to my town Monday.

So all in all, the Collaborative was a success. Unfortunately, this time it was 7 parts travel time, 2 parts hanging out with friends, and 1 part meeting. I hope next time its less travel, more fun : )

Thanks for reading, as always : )