Tuesday, February 28, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Seven

After dinner yesterday, my stomach was worse than ever. I went in to visit Gabriel, who took me straight to the pharmacy.  The pharmacist sold me something for my bowels, and it was better by the time I went to bed. 

I feel awkward, though, going all by myself to visit a man.  I feel the eyes of every single shopkeeper on me each time I walk into his shop.  I know they talk about Peter and me - we've heard them already.  But Peter is unperturbed by my circumspection about being seen with a man.  He's happy with his books, which are all the company he needs.  He's learning Arabic and about Alexandria, which we'll be visiting next week.  He trusts me, he's content.  But I feel funny visiting a man.  Why do I only get to meet men in this country?  No wonder the men are so friendly - their women are all locked in, out of society!

I've been talking to Gabriel about Mahmoud's practice of not telling you a price, but accepting what you give him.  He tells me this is not normal business practice.

He also finds it strange that a six-year-old girl would say "Jesus loves you" before anything else. I find it unusual, too.  Maybe her parents belong to a narrow Christian cult.

Lots of questions about this land.  I feel completely safe with Gabriel, but his comments make me increasingly apprehensive about people like Mahmoud.  Oh, well, our day is planned and it will probably be wonderful - if I can manage to feel better.

It's our last day in Aswan.  Tomorrow we fly to Cairo, where Mohammed will meet us at the airport.

We've made a date to go bird-watching with the "Bird man of Aswan", Mr. Arabi, whom we found listed in our guidebook.  It's reassuring to find someone whose name is in a book, who charges a set fee.  It is also comforting to know that Mahmoud has recommended him and arranged for our first phone call with him.  "He's a relative," Mahmoud told us.  So - if Mr. Arabi finds Mahmoud respectable, we probably have nothing to worry about.  I later find out that everyone in the Nubian village is related to everyone else, so I'm not sure just how reassuring that is.

My stomach is unsettled, but the medicine is doing its job, after an initial thorough internal cleansing of my entire bowels in the early morning.

getting up close to a great grey heron
Mohammed Arabi proves to be a true expert about every kind of bird. He not only knows all the birds, he knows all the trees and plants on Kitchener Island - his father was a gardener there.  Mr. Arabi knows the name of every single plant and tree on that island.   And all the trees and flowers all around us. We see at least thirty kinds of birds, learn about plants, and have a really nice boat ride.  We now know the name of the goose we saw on ancient Egyptian frescoes in the Egyptian Museum during our last visit.  It's the Egyptian goose - connected to the same bird that lived in Egypt 4,000 years ago!  It's amazing, the things that connect us to the earliest recorded past.  We learn that the pretty little white birds that look like ibises are in reality egrets.  These egrets are a different species from the cattle egrets we've seen hopping around the fields along the Nile.  The difference is in the color of their beaks.  And the green leafy things we've seen on the backs of donkeys or motor scooters?  That's clover - lucerne - feed for the farm animals.  He is a walking dictionary.  We see black ibises - traces of the ancient bird featured in the hieroglyphs.  And in reedy backwaters, kingfishers.  Gulls, terns, spoonbills, the great grey herons, which thrill us each time.  I get all excited when Mr. Arabi shows us "wattle" trees - the very species my sister in Australia introduced to me.  It is a form of acacia, and Australia's national tree.  Another connection.  I learn by connections to people.

We spend several hours with Mr. Arabi, who also drives us around in his car to show us hawks, other birds of prey, and other trees.  He is concerned about my diarrhia and asks me what I'm taking.  "I've got something much better," he says.  "My brother-in-law is a doctor, and he knows about something much better for you.  I'll get it for you at the pharmacy."  How solicitous these men are to me!  The last trip to Egypt it was nausea, when men were so helpful.  The men at the market might try and cheat you, but I've met others who are the kindest imaginable.    
Mohamed Arabi
Mr. Arabi is one of those rare people you meet that you could call great, and that's within one hour after meeting him.  He speaks at least six languages, and his English is excellent.  But it's more than that.  He carries a sense of authority as he speaks.  He knows.  He knows about life, and he knows what makes a person of good character.

We ask him how he, an Egyptologist who used to be a tour guide, became this big bird expert.

"It was the English tourists," he says.  "You know how the English are.  You get talking about a temple, and suddenly you've lost their attention.  It's all on that bird they see flying by.  I decided to focus on birds, that there could be a market here."

We ask him if he's having a hard time getting business in this time, with so few tourists coming to Egypt.

"I'm doing fine," he says.  "I'll tell you - anybody can make it if they think about it.  They should find something to do that they're good at, that no one else does, and then become experts at that.  They will find a market."  He tells us that his father, a lowly gardener, stressed the value of education, so every one of his children received a higher education, as have Mr. Arabi's children.   He and all his siblings grew up in this Nubian village, but have transcended it.  Now they are all village elders.  All have good careers, both inside and outside of Egypt.  One of his sisters is married to a Swiss doctor, and they live in Switzerland half the year.  "Another thing," he says.  "You have to be truthful with people.  Only then will people trust you."  We can underline that sentence.  These con men who try and sell us things seem to look at truth like a commodity they can bargain with.  In the west, they'd probably be stockbrokers or bankers - or street hawkers.

He shows us his villa.  It's large and attractive, on the outskirts of the village.  He tells me his family also has a farm outside the village, with all sorts of animals and plants.

Now he's in a hurry.  He wants to get to the mosque in time for Friday prayers.  I wonder why it's so important to be on time for prayers.  I've seen people wandering in and out of the mosques.  Maybe he's a particularly devout Muslim.  He still has time, though, to stop at the pharmacy and get me the medicine he says will cure everything.  "Take two of these," he says, "and you'll be able to eat anything Mahmoud offers you."
We are just in time to meet Mahmoud, and he is just in time to go to the mosque.  We can already hear the muezzin. 

Mahmoud and his crew, pretty much the same group as last time, greet us.  But the falouka they have for us is huge! The mast for the sail is 23 meters high. What's at least as noticeable is what's spread across the boat - a Mickey Mouse sort of pattern decorating a giant mattress spread high across the deck. We are to take off our shoes and sit or lie on it. There are also pillows for us to recline on.  I wonder if the Mickey Mouse figure is the one I've heard about that they're supposed to use to indoctrinate Palestinian children in Israel to hate Jews and call for their death. 

"How your trip with Mr. Arabi?" Mahmoud asks.  

"Wonderful," we answer.  

"He's a very great man," he tells us.  "He always giving money to people in need in my village.  He support over 200 people!"  

We're more impressed than ever.   

"How's your mother?" I ask.

"Not good.  She cry all night.  She very afraid.  But what can you do?  Life is so."

I don't like his fatalistic attitude.  This is not my way.  I wish he wouldn't give up so easily.  But, now I've got an excuse to not pursue the idea of prayer any more.  They all expect her to die anyway.  I guess it's all for the best this way. 

The day is perfect.  We ride with them for about five hours, watching the birds we have just learned about.  We eat delicious fried fish Mahmoud's sister has prepared for us.  It's Nile fish, perch, rubbed with cumin.  Another kind of fish is stuffed with garlic, something hot, and something green.  One of the crew has cooked rice with onions.  We eat a cucumber-tomato salad with coriander, tahina and pita bread.  There's plenty of bottled water, and also karkaday - that delicious hibiscus tea. We drink all the tea, and are offered more.  I am horrified when I see that the man simply dips into the Nile to get more water for tea.  Can my stomach take this?  But so far the medicine is working fine.  The sun shines brilliantly and warm. 

We sit and soak in the sun, while Mahmoud seems to be spending hours on his cell phone.  

We pass the same newly built mosque we passed on our falouka ride in October.  A voice is broadcast, loud, reaching across the waters.  We see a long line of cars parked along the road.  "What is the man talking about?  We keep hearing the name Mubarek," we ask Mahmoud, once he is off the phone.

"Tomorrow the anniversary of Mubarek not being in power any more."

"February 11 is the anniversary date?"

"Yes.  They expect violence.  All over Egypt, but especially in Cairo."  Mahmoud says people want to have Mubarek killed tomorrow, and that Mubarek's people are threatening to set fire to major buildings if Mubarek gets killed. He says a tower in Alexandria was set on fire last week.

Oh, no!  And we're going to Cairo, just in time to get killed by a crazy mob!

"He's telling the people to stay home and pray.  To pray for peace."

"Let's all pray," I say.  Peter and I pray silently, while Mahmoud and his crew get up and do their ritual prayers.   

After a couple of hours we put in on land.  "This Nubian land," Mahmoud says.  "It's OK for you to go and wander around."

Nile shepherd's campsite
By now I really need to pee.  I climb out of the boat and walk a few meters, and then come upon a very black and very wild, viscious looking man who speaks to me in Arabic - or Nubian, or something.  He has a saber in his hand. He does look menacing. He is apparently the shepherd for the animals on this bit of land. I have taken a picture of his resting area. Then he says in clear English, "Go away." I leave as quickly as possible, heading straight for the boat.

How am I ever going to go to the bathroom?  There are no facilities like that here, and we whites are not wanted on this land.

The men are idle, relaxing, eating the food they recently served us.  I'm back on the boat, wondering if I'm going to pee in my pants.  I go ashore again.  Blast!  Another man!  What if I get accosted, or raped or something here?  What if someone sees me!  Or tells me to leave, just when I've got my pants down?

Someone on the crew points to a place where I can go.  I walk over there, looking around to see if anyone can see me.  I try and release my bladder.  Nothing will come.  I pull my capris back up and head back to the boat.  But I really must.  I've got a lot of tea and water to get rid of.  I go back to the bush.  Finally, after agonizing minutes when nothing comes,  I relax enough to go.  This seems symbolic of our time here in Aswan, on our own.  Just as we still feel with Mahmoud, you never quite know what you're getting in for here, organizing things on your own.

We leave the shore, slowly heading back for Aswan.  The current is so strong, we don't even need a sail to take us back.  "Next time we go on falouka for several days," says Mahmoud.  "We can sleep here, eat here, and sail all the way to Edfu.  Much nicer than your hotel."

"Not on your life," whispers Peter to me.  "I'll take our hotel and pushy salespeople any day."

What to give Mahmoud?  Mr. Arabi wanted LE650 for our bird tour, so we decide to give Mahmoud and co. at least the same amount.  They seem surprised and delighted with their pay.  Then Mahmoud says to me, "Oh, my poor mother needs blood from us for her operation - she will be operated on this week, and we have to pay LE4,000 for the blood."

 I feel guilty about not having offered to go and pray for her. But I let it go.  Maybe he's just making the whole thing up.  Or maybe he's trying to get more money out of us than he should.  I remember what Gabriel said.  "Just pray.  No money!"

Saturday, February 25, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Six

Yesterday before going to sleep, I prayed to meet more Christians. I want to be able to find out about the situation of Christians in Egypt.

Gabriel has made a big impression on me. He simply lives for Jesus. He looks cheerful, calm, sane. In his shop I feel like I'm in an oasis, away from all the predators. I go to his shop again. "Sit down," he says, offering me a chair. "You prayed for me yesterday, didn't you?" he says. I nod. "I sold two books after you left the shop." He's delighted to have sold only two books!

Today we talk about Muslims. I can imagine that the Christians and the Muslims live in completely separate worlds, separate communities, although they're citizens of the same land. I tell him that in Germany, I don't have a single Turkish friend, although they make up about 4% of the population. He agrees that the situation is exactly the same in his life. I tell him about Mahmoud, about Mahmoud's mother who has cancer. Mahmoud is afraid for his mother. Gabriel's response is that we all will die someday, but that death is not the end. There is an afterlife called heaven, he says, and Gabriel is sure that his mother is there right now, and that he will meet her there after his death. "There's no reason to be worried," he says. "We have Jesus." He tells me about some Muslims who have become followers of Jesus Christ through a Coptic priest who is on television every day - Father Zacharias.

I am so moved by all this talk, I find myself praying all the time. I wonder what else will happen on here in Egypt.

Peter wants to write emails this morning, so we take the laptop into the lobby, where there is free wi-fi. A mother and a little girl about six or seven sit near us on a neighboring couch. The girl seems curious about what we're doing, and keeps walking over towards us. Peter asks her, "Can you speak any English?"

"Jesus loves you," the girl replies. Our eyes pop open wide. This, in Muslim Egypt?

I ask the mother, "You are a Christian?"

She nods, and says, "We love Jesus. We live for Jesus."
"We're Christians too," I say.

"Do you love Jesus?" is her reply. There lies the difference. Some are born into a family with a Christian heritage, but apparently have little or no active faith. This must be how Egyptians differentiate between nominal and committed Christians. Again, I am moved by the courage of this family to be so open about their faith.
Peter and I have hired Mahmoud to get a motorboat today to take us to the botanic island, commonly known as "Kitchener's Island", named after Lord Kitchener, an Englishman stationed in Sudan in the late 19th century. Lord Kitchener was granted this island by the English government in gratitude for his military service in Sudan. Mahmoud tells us that Kitchener subsequently evicted all the Nubian inhabitants of the island and then imported thousands of plants and trees, creating a garden paradise of his island. Now it is owned by the Egyptian government. There is a research station as well as the park on the island. 

Poinsettias growing on "Kitchener's Island"
The park is tranquil, exquisite, a piece of paradise. The trees are all marked in Arabic and English, and we see all sorts of species of palm, acacia, and even red poinsettias growing in their native habitat! I remember that poinsettias need exactly as much darkness as light in order to develop their deep red leaves. Obviously, they get that here. The park is spotless - not a speck of garbage anywhere.

faloukas and tombs - the Nobles are buried in those sandy hills, where they have been for over 3,000 years.

The day is perfect - warm and sunny, not too much wind.  Groups of young women in their hijabs, students, families.  We are bathed in tranquility.  We gaze at the banks of the Nile, where we merge with thousands of years of history.  There are the tombs of the Nobles, buried over 3,000 years ago.   There passes a falouka, constructed in more or less the same way, with the same materials that were used in the times of the Pharaohs.  I feel connected to the earth, to history.  We stroll, reading the names of the trees that Lord Kitchener, long deceased, planted.  The trees are alive and well.  We join Mahmoud.

I ask Mahmoud about his mother. His face is gloomy as he tells us that her prospects are not good - her cancer is advanced, and was only recently diagnosed. She has to go to Cairo for the operation, and the entire family has to donate blood for her. It will be very expensive, he says. Then he shrugs. "This is the way of life," he says. I wish I knew I could trust him! Is he just trying to get our money? Is he playing on my sympathy? Is he honest? I don't know. All I know is that I could pray for her, if he and she would allow me to do so. But what then? I begin to fantasize about Mahmoud kidnapping Peter and me, once we're in his house, or refusing to take us to the airport. (We've decided to give Mahmoud our business and to forget about Yassir's "bargains" for "special" guests.) But what does he really want from us? He never accepts our money for himself. We always have to give it to the person he has hired - to drive the car, or to man the falouka or motor boat.

Later that day I go back to Gabriel and tell him more about Mahmoud. "Noren sic", he says, "don't be pulled into this. I know all about the health system here. My mother died of cancer, remember? Every Egyptian is entitled to free health care. Every Egyptian. It should all be covered."

I tell Gabriel I want to pray for Mahmoud's mother. "Just pray," he says. "Don't give any money."

I take my laptop into the lobby, where there is free wifi, and check out this Father Zacharias, whom Gabriel told me about. I learn that Muslim radicals murdered Zacharias's brother, and so now Zacharias has no inhibitions about telling the Muslim world what is in their Koran and in other religious writings, the Hadith and Sira. He finds outrageous statements and tells his viewers all about them. Arabic Muslim journals call him "Islam's public enemy number 1." There's a 60 million dollar bounty on his head. This man provokes devout Muslims shamelessly.

I don't know what to make of the man. Gabriel admires him. But this man uses his courage to divide people. I decide not to make judgments about him, but to think about how far my courage goes. I want to offer to go to Mahmoud's house and pray for his mother, but I'm afraid. Peter is petrified about all the things that could happen if we go there, but he's willing to go with me anyway if Mahmoud allows it. I decide to offer Mahmoud a visit to his mother with the purpose of praying for her - in Jesus' name. If he allows it, it's the right thing to do.

It's becoming more and more clear to me that I'm not only in Egypt to do sightseeing. I know that I am here to pray for Egypt. That also means, to pray for all the Egyptians I meet, in some form or other - whether it be through a visit to their home, or a silent lifting up that person in my heart to God.

After the botanic island, Mahmoud and his motor boat driver drop us off at the mainland.  Peter wants to show me parts of the souk we missed the last time.  "Here there are no tourists," he says.  "People leave you in peace."  It is wonderful.  We watch people worshipping at a mosque.  The doors are open - anyone can see them.  Amazing, this land, where people can worship God so openly - at least, as long as they're Muslims.  But these Muslims are obviously devoted to God, and it feels good to witness such sincerity.  We see live animals for sale, brilliant vegetables, I buy some jojoba oil at a reasonable price.  

 There's a donkey, laden with crates twice as high as his body. 

We are delighted - off guard.  And my stomach is bothering me.  This, after thinking I'd avoided any problems.  We pass a little shop with strange gourds.  The shop keeper lets us touch the gourd.  "It's good for an upset stomach," he says.  I tell him I'm having problems.  "Then I have just what you need.  Come inside."  We come inside, and learn that he is a doctor from Khartoum.  He knows all about herbal medicine.  And he really seems to know his stuff.  He gives me a first-rate massage, except his hands get a little high on my crotch, and I tell him to stop.  He stops instantly.  He gives me tea for my stomach.  He asks about other ailments.  I open up and tell him about pains in my hand.  By the time we leave, we are rid of another €100, and are loaded down with creams, a huge bag of fenugreek, and herbs for every imaginable kind of ailment.  We've been hoodwinked again.  When will we ever learn?

That night before bed, Peter says, "I think I know how they get us.  It's when we mention any kind of physical problem.  We have to keep quiet, never mentioning any problems, any interest, and never go into a shop.  Then we should be OK."

Ah, well, maybe the herbs and creams will help me.  It could be worse.  I have loved the entire experience, except maybe the moment when the hands of my Sudanese "doctor" reached just a little too high on my legs.  I'm prepared for a new day, new adventures.  I pray for Mahmoud and Gabriel, that they find wives, that they get more customers.  And I pray for Mahmoud's mother.   

Friday, February 24, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day five

"In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, 'Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.'" Isaiah 19:24-25

This might sound crazy to those more versed in practical things, but I'm going to say it anyway. I'm a spiritual being, and I want more and more of me to be in touch with the spiritual - to be one with God. Of course, I have certain ideas about God, and I first heard about these things in the Bible. The Bible - in some ways a difficult subject because of some of the negative passages, but it's the wisest, most profound book I've ever found. And my Christian ideas have to do with why I'm in Egypt again. I just love this country, and I want to bless it. I don't mind too much if the people rip me off a little - they all need my money. I want so much for Muslims and Christians to be able to live in peace and to listen to each other from the heart. Ever since my last trip, I've been praying for Egypt. I hope and pray with all my heart that this country can become a democracy based on justice and equal rights for all.

Every day so far, even when I'm in an uncomfortable situation, I pray about it and ask for God's blessing and protection. So I walk into my third massage, expecting blessing, as I bless these people with my personality and my money.

I really like our hotel, and I really like the spa. By now, I'm starting to feel really relaxed, especially during and after the massages.

I lie down on the massage bed and listen - again - to the strains of Kenny G., paying attention to what he does musically. Could I do that on the piano? I smile when I hear the Christmas carol "Silent Night" for the third time running - in February. I mentally sing along with all three verses, paying attention to how Kenny G. varies each verse. I realize, lying on this massage bed, I am worshipping Jesus, and that these Muslim masseuses and cosmetologists are providing the atmosphere for me to do this. I try making up my own lyrics in my head to other pieces as the massage continues. I begin praying for people. Mahmoud has told me his mother has cancer. I pray for her, sad for their situation, also praying for a friend of mine who has cancer. I feel one with them. I pray for a wife for Mahmoud. I'm mellow, happy, blessed.

I've already decided that on this day I will try the steam bath. I ask the manager about it. I've already told her about the lovely saunas in Germany, where they pour water infused with essential oils over the coals, and how the aroma fills the sauna. She tells me that the only way Egyptians use these oils is in the steam bath. I ask to try it today. "Oh, that's only with a peeling. That comes extra." A few minutes after my massage, when I'm trying to get the hot water to work in the showers and it just won't get hot, she comes and tells me that I can use the steam bath. I think I'm going to just sit there naked in a steamy lavender-scented room, but then comes a surprise. In walks one of the cosmetologists with a big bowl of soapy water. She takes a black pumice stone and proceeds to scrub my feet and hands. She takes a loofa and scrubs in similar motions as the massage, really going at my skin - over and over again. She washes my hair in the same way. I am scrubbed raw! Everything but my face and my genitals is washed. I find I don't mind being washed by another woman. It's a strange sensation, but nice. I am reminded of Queen Esther, being prepared for the king, who was to become her husband. I ask if women do this frequently. Not so frequently, I hear. Brides do this before the wedding. And now and again women do this. Now the shower is ready with hot water, so I wash it all off. I have never been so clean. My peeling was a gift from the spa manager.

I dress and rush off to our room, where my money is, and bring tips back for all the women who have been treating my body. I thank them and bless them. It's easy to bless someone in Arabic. It's what they say anyway when they say good-bye - ma'a salama. Salam is the Arabic word for shalom in Hebrew - peace. I wish you peace. Yes, I am praying for the peace of Egypt.

I start wondering what I mean when I pray for peace. I've already received an email from a friend who tells me she doesn't believe there will ever be peace in Egypt. I don't think it's that kind of peace I mean when I pray for peace, but what is it? 
After lunch I walk into the bookstore. Peter has told me about the salesman, who is a Copt - a member of the earliest Christian church in existence. Peter has told him that I am praying for Egypt, and the salesman is thrilled. He wants to meet me. Gabriel offers me a seat and makes tea for us. I am amazed by the conversation. We talk for at least an hour about Jesus as well as other things. He is completely comfortable talking to a stranger about his faith in Jesus. And he tells me how very happy he is that I pray for Egypt. I ask him what I should pray for. He says that a great thing to pray for would be peace for Egypt.

I'm starting to see what this kind of peace means for me. It's really a process that I want to encourage to take place. It's enough if it starts with only one person. I want to see a peace that means Egyptians start wanting the best for each other, commit themselves to the well-being of each other, that they recognize that this is the kind of lifestyle they are meant to lead. I want to see them as committed to the well-being of other people as their own. I want more and more people to realize that all is well because they are loved and embraced by God. It's like the candles that shine in church in Germany on Good Friday. First one candle gets lit, then another, then another, and so on. Of course, I would love for everyone to understand Jesus as the one who died for all their weaknesses, who gave his entire life for each Egyptian. I want them all to be able to accept what he has done for themselves. That they can experience a cleansing of their souls like I have just received of my body. I want them to feel the river of peace flowing through them because they are committed to following the ways of God - that they commit to God's justice, God's kindness, God's compassion, God's truthfulness. That they trust God in all the needs of their lives. That they can love God and love each other from the heart. I may not find this mindset in everyone I meet, but I can wish this for each person I encounter.

I want the Egyptians I've met to prosper financially. Mohammed should get more tourists. I want Mahmoud and Gabriel to prosper financially. So I'm praying now for customers for Gabriel. That's part of praying for peace for Egypt. I also want both Mahmoud and Gabriel to find good wives and become fathers of lovely children.

Gabriel, a Copt, 38 years old, has essentially the same story as Mahmoud, a Muslim.  Gabriel's mother died several years ago, and now Gabriel has to support his father. He has nowhere near enough money to marry, he says. In Egypt, you have to have plenty of money before you can get married. It's taking him so long to save up, he says, that by now he's too old for most women. So this is a legitimate prayer request for both men. It's a shame that these men, both in their prime, can't get married - just for financial reasons!

Praying for peace means praying that Egyptians will be able to trust, maybe for the first time, cooperating for the good of their country. Praying that Egyptians will want good things for Israel and that they stop cursing their neighbor land. That tourists come back in droves to Egypt so that people can have enough to eat again, so that many can fall in love with Egypt. That people will stop oppressing one another, but seek truly the best for those who are beneath them socially. For a country of people who trusts God for their needs, rather than grabbing for themselves whatever they can get.

Today I feel my love for Egypt. What I love about this country is their tremendous hospitality and their gentle smiles. Their open laughter, their jokes. I love the openness of these people, their readiness to talk about personal things without the least bit of shame or embarrassment. I love the fire that smoulders just underneath their smiles. These people have a lot of fire - a lot of energy. There is passion in their muezzin - the call to worship, also in the Coptic cantor's singing. I hear passion in this country, and I feel their obsession with God. All those prayer times. Yesterday when the call started, and we were on the falouka, I announced, "Time for prayer. Time to pray." The men started to pray out loud. What a country, where people pray so openly, so often, where they get bruises or scabs on their foreheads from praying so much! Oh, that they understand the connection between their prayers and a love of justice, mercy, and truthfulness. That love becomes the basis for their prayers. And for mine.

Some of these longings are what Gabriel and I talk about. He tells me about how good it is to belong to Jesus, how important it is to have Jesus in our lives, to know that Jesus loves us, and to live for God. I tell him that he's different from the other shop keepers - he isn't greedy or pushy. He, like other men, has no problem talking to me, a woman, about real things. About longings. About how things are here in Egypt.

I realize that one of the ways I am blessed is that I seem to have a way to get these people to talk. It is a gift.  Gabriel urges me to come back every day and  visit him.  "You don't have to buy anything," he says.  "I just want to talk to you."  I promise to do so.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Four

We should be having the time of our lives, and we really are. We wanted to go on our own to Egypt this time, and that's what we're doing. But we have new challenges each day. We never know what situations we're going to get into, or how we're going to get out of them. Even the weather's an issue. Yesterday was overcast and the river was as still as glass. No sailboat ride possible, no picture-book sunset. Today it's overcast again, but not from clouds. This is a windstorm, and what looks like heavy clouds is merely dust. My lungs, having to inhale tiny particles, are challenged. I'm beginning to wonder if this is the best climate to heal from sinusitis. But the air is warm and comforting. Yes, we'll rise to the challenges of the day, even though it seems we're getting quite a lot of them.

Each day we encounter crass businessmen. We both feel some tension in wondering how we're going to fend them off or deal with them. I'm beginning to think that all this male attention I'm getting is a strategy. I bet they watch us coming, and in a split second suss out who is their most likely victim. People always ask us where we are from. If it's me who says "Germany", they sometimes say, "But you're not German." They tell me they can tell from my smile - it's American, they say. Always watching, looking for who's most likely to succomb to their perfected sales strategies.

But today it is Peter who wakes up angry. He's angry at Mahmoud, who wants to arrange all our time. He's also angry at Yassir, who has charged us a fortune for the trip to Daraw. And for the trip to the airport - €30.  It probably wouldn't cost near that much in Cologne. These are bargains for our travel group? Pul-le-e-a-se.

Peter has also come up with an analogy. It's true that everybody smiles at us. But crocodiles smile too, as they snatch their victims into their huge gaping snouts. Is this a country of crocodiles? Mahmoud tells us of the murderous government of Mubarek, who had thousands of people killed. If people didn't like something he did and dared protest, he killed them. Now the military is killing people. Is this country, where people smile all the time as they try and sell you more and more, a group of murderers?

Botros, our friendly Coptic driver, meets us promptly at 9 am. Even though Yassir probably overcharged us for this trip, we feel protected by Botros. For one thing, he doesn't speak enough English to be able to rip us off. And there's the fact that he is Coptic. A Christian. He seems so gentle and nice, even if he hardly speaks any English. And he wears western clothes instead of a gallabiya. It does make a difference as to our feeling of security, whether it's founded or not.

It's quite a long drive, and we get a good feeling for rural Egypt. Little farms with people bending over their crops. There are lots of share taxi stops, where we see people waiting to be picked up, or climbing out of packed vans. There's only one two-lane road between Cairo and Aswan, and we're on it. On our left is the Nile, on our right the railroad tracks - the Cairo-Aswan line. When Botros approaches one of the many huge potholes in the road, he just veers into the left lane for a while. Somehow he manages to avoid hitting anyone.

Finally we reach Darwa. Unbelievably primitive! There are chickens running around all over, the houses look like filthy hovels, the muddy paint blending with the mud, and the streets are unpaved. Botros turns onto one of these dirt roads, drives a while on this road, then turns off this one onto another, and then parks at the edge of the road.

"Camel market this way," he says and points us to a side street, where we see a chaotic procession of pick-up trucks, motor scooters, three-wheeled tuk-tuks and various biblical shepherd-looking characters ambling along the road, carrying what looks like staffs or poles. 

Botros walks between both of us, not favoring either of us. Occasionally he shouts, "Attencion! Gamoose!" He keeps switching between English, French and Arabic. We think gamoose means "cow", but we're not sure, because we're not sure what this animal is we keep seeing walking along the road, or sticking out of a pick-up truck.

We arrive at the market and see a mass of hundreds of men and boys, pick-ups and various animals running around - goats, sheep, cows or water buffaloes, and of course, camels. I am the only woman here, and Peter and I the only tourists. Thank goodness we have Botros with us! As usual, I feel the attraction the men have for me. I don't know what it is about me that attracts them, but I feel their eyes. I hear some men talking together about me - "beautiful" - "beautiful". I try to ignore them. I don't think I'm beautiful, anyway. I feel a tiny bit afraid. I feel like I'm almost alone in a sea of biblical Philistines, protected only by Peter, who's in reality as unprotected as me, and Botros. Then I see a boy of about ten, driving a scooter all by himself. Our eyes meet briefly. He looks so proud to be driving this all by himself. So would my Jon have felt in his position. I feel human fellowship with him. 

Once in a while we come upon a tender scene - a goat clambering onto the leg of a boy, boys carrying baby goats or sheep. But it's mostly machos we see. These things people carry that remind me of gentle Psalm 23 - "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Well, these rods are sticks, and everybody's beating their donkeys, or cows, or water buffalo, or camel. Gentler persuasion hasn't worked, so now it's time for brute force.

We watch a heart-wrenching scene. Someone who has just bought a camel is trying to coax it it into his pick-up truck, but the camel isn't even slightly interested in being roped onto a truck. The men begin to beat it on the back, while the new owner tries to pull it with a rope into the truck, but the camel won't budge. It has one leg tied up anyway - it won't run away. Then another comes and ties a rope around the camel's hind end and belly. He beats and beats and pulls and pulls. Bit by bit, it slides up slightly further into to the truck to avoid the beating. What a nasty trick! Finally it's in. They quickly snap the back opening shut. We see the same thing happen to a cow and a donkey. 


This is a tug of war, also of our hearts. We are appalled, but also transfixed. Here is something we could never have imagined experiencing. We see a huge piece of fabric strung overhead, supported on stilts, like a pavilion. Carpets cover the sand. People drink tea here and smoke sheesha.  

Young boys keep coming up to us, asking for money, getting in my way with their donkeys when I try to take a picture, so I get them in a picture and then have to give them baksheesh. I have no more coins. I spent them all on getting suitcases carried.

We see colorful wares like blankets, ropes, metal accessories, harnesses, saddles, being sold on blankets placed in the dirt. Just like in Africa. Well, technically we are in Africa. 

A nice scene - we see people feeding donkeys some green branches, others feeding themselves sugar cane. In one section of the market we see dead animals - huge chunks of meat being hacked up. In another section, cloth, but only in white or pale lavendar, which must be for turbans. Still, a man beckons to me to buy, but I don't need any turbans.

A very dusty, windy day and ride home. My lungs don't feel so great. But I watch the houses as we pass by. Really primitive, but I'm beginning to look differently. This time I pay attention to the ways people do something to try and make their homes look nicer. Many homes are graced with parallel a color combination or bricks in different colors. 

We ask Botros to let us off at a bank in Aswan. Even this is an adventure. We need to change euros into pounds, so we have to go upstairs and wait for our number to come on the screen. A woman in a black niqab sits next to us. There is a black string separating the slit for her eyes, so that she can see a little.  Everything is covered - even her hands are in gloves. But her shoes are pink.

Botros and we separate, since he has done his job of taking us to the market. It's midday, and there's a church service we want to have a peek at. The lady at the Coptic cathedral told us that there is a special service to end a three-day fast. The Copts fast before the feast of Jonah, who also had to fast for three days in the belly of the whale. Today they will go to church for a three-hour service, and then break the fast. We see women on one side with children, men on the other. Both women and men have their bodies entirely covered, the women wearing scarves. I'm inappropriately dressed in my capris and short sleeved shirt. But at least I have a scarf along, so I cover my head. A cantor sings rhythmic, catchy music. The church is packed, and the people are serious, paying attention. Many carry little loaves of bread. As with the Muslims during Ramadan, they are allowed to eat after 5 pm every day, so their fast hasn't been too bad. They do show a lot of commitment - you wouldn't find many in Germany or in the US willing to fast for three days.

Back to the hotel, then later in the afternoon for yet another adventure, on the falouka with Mahmoud. We have tried to call it off by calling his cell phone, but it doesn't work. We show up promptly at 3:30, but don't see Mahmoud.  Then he suddenly appears out of nowhere. I hear a hotel employee talking about us. "Alemani," he says.

Mahmoud greets us and brings us to a boat, where two men are waiting. He has brought two of his Nubian friends along. One of them operates the boat, which I learn doesn't belong to him. Being with Mahmoud is like being with my brother Rod. You never quite know what will happen. The wind is very strong, and the boat leans low in the water several times. Are we going to fall into the Nile? I wonder how expert a sailor this guy is, but he doesn't seem perturbed.

Mahmoud tells us that his friends have had no business for months, that he wanted to share this with them. We seem to be the big hit among the wheelers and dealers of Aswan tourism. We are finding out that everybody knows all about us. He tells us about everybody at the hotel, and he must tell everybody at the hotel about us - or they spy on us, telling each other about our daily business. Mahmoud now tells us that Yassir asked him this morning how much Mahmoud is charging for the trip Kalabcha. So now Yassir knows why we're so slow to pick up on his "special offers for his special guests". He realizes now that we're getting a better deal from Mahmoud.

We enjoy the ride, and the huge elephant-like rocks are still there, the charming egrets still wading in the water. But the mood isn't magical, like it was in October. Now we listen to horror stories from a man we're not sure we can trust, and his English is just good enough to make us wonder sometimes exactly what he's telling us. We pass an unfinished hotel next to the Mövenpick, on Elephantine Island. Mahmoud tells us that Mubarek's son owns this hotel, half of the Mövenpick and half of the Isis Island Hotel as well. And he lets us know that the entire hotel staff of our hotel is talking about us. How does he know so much? He gossips about lots of people - we pass a boat and he says, "They're from France, staying on a boat for three days." Or "That boat is owned by an Englishwoman. Her boyfriend put a flag of Bob Marley on there because he's into reggae." Mahmoud tells me about a rich Belgian woman he knows who lives somewhere nearby. "She want to marry me," he says. "But she's an old lady - she's 60. I don't want to marry an old lady." Does he know that he's talking to an old lady?

Just as I think we're finally going to finish our trip - LE30 an hour, remember? - we turn out again and head for the Nubian village on Elephantine Island. We find ourselves in a Nubian home up on the roof, drinking hibiscus tea, while the owner shows us Nubian artwork he has for sale. He has a live crocodile in a covered aquarium up there! Downstairs, we see people sitting on cushions on the ground, also a small Ipad or notebook on a low table. This house has electricity and running water, but the way these people live reminds me of camping - it all feels very primitive. We leave the house and walk along dark dirt alleys, passing kids playing. They stare at us. We catch a glimpse of a turquoise-walled store stocked with something or other. We see garbage burning like ghostly bonfires in the night.

We come upon three large houses at the edge of this sandy village. These houses belong to Europeans. This one belongs to a German who got healed at the same spa I'm going to. In gratitude, she built the house and and moved into the upper floor with her husband. The masseur lives downstairs. An Austrian built another, and a Spanish person built the third. How could any European live there among the sand and garbage, in the midst of squalor? This village is so rough, so unfamiliar!

We leave Mahmoud LE100 for our time, but he won't accept the money for himself. We have to give it to the falouka captain.  So now, we have no idea how much he is getting for our ride, and how much he is going to share with his friends.

Back in the security of our hotel room. We've survived another adventure on our own. As unfamiliar as everything feels, there's a thrill to the adventure. We've successfully completed another day on our own in a land that is still unknown, even though we've been in Aswan once before. It is becoming more familiar, though, - and precious - day by day.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Three

The day begins in the spa with a massage and sauna. My body is relaxing more each day. Here there are no worries about aggressive hawkers. A sweet young Nubian girl massages me, while the lyrical music of Kenny G pours through the spa into my head like liquid music. They were playing Kenny G at the airport too. Is that a coincidence?

I venture a swim in the pool - five times around. The water is icy at first, but I become quickly accustomed to it. Peter has a full-body massage too, with a soak in the jaccuzzi thrown in for a negotiated price. It's fun meeting my husband in the spa.

Then Peter and I go to lunch in one of the restaurants.  In order to get to the restaurants you have to pass an entire mall of shops. This proves to be the next challenge - avoiding the pushy shop vendors. One has already started pestering us, ever since Peter admired his sandals. It's true - he needs to buy sandals, but must it be from this guy?

We also have to pass Yassir, our travel service liaison, before finally finding refuge in the restaurant. He wants us to buy his package deal for Kalapcha, a Pharaonic temple on an island. We've already booked a trip to the camel market in Daraw. But he has so much planned for us. Peter pushes him off.

In the afternoon we meet Mahmoud for our falouka ride. But he has to disappoint us. Today there is no wind. He offers us a motor boat ride instead, but fumes and noisy motors aren't our idea of a peaceful afternoon. Tomorrow we'll try again, inshalla, God willing, he says. But he instantly has another plan to entertain us. "My cousin getting married tonight - you invited as guests at Nubian wedding." We hem and haw. We don't know this man. We could get trapped! He sees our hesitation. No problem. He has another idea.

"I take you to beautiful view of sunset, and when sunset over, I take you to the souk.

He drives us up to his village, just above the boat landing. We're in a Nubian village, just what I wanted to see! That was one of my goals, to visit a Nubian village. We drive along dirt roads and see little houses with jaunty symbols like falcons and crocodiles painted onto their houses with cheap paint. He takes us to some sort of large structure with a sand-filled courtyard with and mysterious rooms leading off from it, on to a restaurant with a dirt floor and reed ceiling, the walls painted in primitive Nubian designs. It is certainly exotic! There is a beautiful view over the Nile, where we will get a good view of the sunset - in about an hour and a half. How are we going to pass so much time with this strange man?

Inside the restaurant

We are assigned a table and order black tea with milk. Mahmoud disappears. After a while, he reappears and joins us. Peter seems to be completely out of his element in this spontaneous situation, so I initiate conversation with Mahmoud. I ask about the sailboat. It turns out he would have borrowed it. The car is borrowed too, we later find out. Here I assumed he must have a lot of money, having both a boat and a car at his disposition! But he's missing his front teeth, which makes me question just how rich he is. I ask him if he has a family, if he is married. He looks sad as he answers no, he is not married. He's the oldest of seven children in his family, and he has to look after all his siblings and his parents. There was someone he wanted to marry, but he didn't have enough money to pay her or for the wedding. Nubian weddings are very expensive. You have to hire musicians, lots of food, decorations, beautiful clothes. And pay the bride besides. She ended up marrying someone else and has two children now. That is truly sad, because he must be in his 40s. It's probably too late to find anyone else.

He shows us a house, right next to the Nile, with a swimming pool. It's Muhammed Mounir's house, the famous Nubian singer. Look, he's also building a hotel next to the house. He seems surprised that we know of Muhammed Mounir. That's thanks to Burkhard from our last trip. Here's the link again if you didn't listen to him last time.
What I hadn't realized is that Mounir is Nubian. Mahmoud seems proud of him. I'm sure that if Mounir gets his hotel built and the tourists ever start coming again, the entire village will prosper.

By the time the sun is about to set, the sky is overcast, so our sunset is not as spectacular as we had hoped, but perhaps it's really our lack of ease being with Mahmoud for so long.

We drive back to Aswan, but this time one of his friends is driving. No explanation as to why we suddenly have a different driver. Mahmoud's still with us, but he leaves us to ourselves when we tell him we'd like to look at the Coptic cathedral.

A woman greets, giving us a private tour of the church. She's a member of the church. Her head is uncovered. She seems so western, so much more like our culture! She explains everything in the church to us. The cathedral is still unfinished, but I can't imagine that it will look any better when the finishing touches are done, filled with sentimental pictures in bright colors and gaudy chandeliers. She calls out to someone called "Abdul". I ask if he is Muslim. Oh, no, then he wouldn't be able to work in this church. But his name is Muslim, I say. She admires my alertness, assuring me that Abdul is a Christian. I ask about converts to Christianity, checking something I have read in my "Open Doors" literature. Open Doors is a Christian organization dedicated to praying for persecuted Christians. She says there aren't many ex-Muslim Christians right now. I ask her why. Because as soon as someone converts, she says, the family of the former Muslim will kill the person! Yet, people do become Christians, primarily through Jesus appearing to them in visions and dreams. But they tend to remain secret Christians, because of the danger to their lives. This is exactly what I have read. She says that it is rare for a conversion in the other direction. If someone Christian becomes a Muslim, it is because of marriage, or because money is involved, never because of any conviction of the religion being right.

Mahmoud meets us outside the church, alone with "his" car again, and drives us to the souk, the bazaar. We have heard that this is one of the best markets in Egypt, perhaps the best. He wants to take us through the souk too, but we we want to be alone. He's almost like a friend by now, but we still don't know if we can trust him. We buy spices from a nice man. 

It's exciting, being on our own in an Egyptian city! Of course, Mahmoud later asks what we paid and says we were cheated. We should have gone with him, he says. That's the way it always seems to be. You think you've gotten a good deal, and someone tells you you were cheated.

The souk is fascinating - lots of clothes, cheap dishes and blankets, gaudy jewelry. It looks less tourist-oriented than Khan-el-Khalili in Cairo. Peter buys sandals for 200LE. When we get back to the hotel, we have to walk past all the shops to get to our room, so we can't avoid meeting the hotel shoe vendor. 

shoes at the souk
 "Why you not buy my shoes?" he demands. He is outraged when Peter says he bought a pair at the souk. He looks at them and says they're junk, and they cost far too much.

Mahmoud meets us on the street after we leave the souk. He offers to take us to Kalapcha for 100LE for both of us, and to Philae Temple as well. Yassir at the hotel would charge $45 a person. A hundred pounds is only about $20 - and that for two. I'd rather give Mahmoud my business, to a man who's too poor to get married. But we're not sure we really want to go to Kalapcha.

We walk along the Corniche, and Mahmoud tells us interesting stories about people at the hotel. Our liaison, Yassir, used to be a tailor at the hotel, but he had connections, so got the job as concierge. Now he makes even more with his side business of organizing trips. He tells us that Abdul, our perfume scalper, doesn't want us to tell anyone about his trip with us, because the hotel sells oils, and he wouldn't get a cut on these. He says Abdul told the staff he had a doctor's appointment. How does Mahmoud know so much? Is he part of a spy network?

Mahmoud seems nice and honorable, but how are we to know for sure? Everybody here is a hustler, and they don't let up for a second. Money is by far the uppermost thing on their minds. I can understand that, though, when tourism is at an all-time low and these people are rock-bottom poor. Still, there's no real peace when you're around them, no matter how religious they may be. Yassir has a bruise on his forehead from praying so much, but he seems to be as bad as Abdul at trying to lure money out of us. Nevertheless, we have promised Yassir our business for the next day. We'll go on his trip to the camel market in Daraw. Of course, he's also tried to organize a falouka ride for LE50, but we have ours with Mahmoud planned already.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Two

Our lecturer on essential oils
We arrive at our hotel after a taxi driver has met us at the airport, late at night. Our plane didn't take off at the expected time. The driver is a Copt who hardly speaks a word of English, but he's proud to show us the cross on his rear-view mirror. He drives us through Aswan.  We arrive at the hotel well after midnight, exhausted and hungry.

The next morning we speak to Abdul, who tells us he is responsible for guests who have booked through our travel service.

"Do you want half pension or full pension?" he asks. We tell him we had decided on half pension, but within one minute, he's talked us into the full pension ("With full pension you get free drinks snacks everywhere - a good deal, no?)

He asks if there are any other questions we have. I ask about the spa and how to get help for my sinuses, which are still bothering me, three months after our last trip to Egypt. Before I know it, he's talked us/me into going by car into Aswan for half an hour or so to get some powerful oils for my sinuses. "Nobody trust the doctor," he says, "everybody use the oils, and they work. We live sic in half hour", he says. He calls our room twenty minutes later to make sure we're coming.

"Don't tell anyone at the hotel that I take you there," he says. As we wait for our ride, a man asks if we want a falouka - a sailboat ride. "Good price - only 50 LE an hour," he said. "My name Mohammed. Welcome to Egypt."

The taxi arrives.  We climb in and we're off, to who knows where.

Now we don't know what to do about paying the taxi driver. Who's supposed to pay here? Abdul has organized this whole thing! We are thoroughly confused, and we're on our own in Egypt.

After several minutes in the taxi, we end up at a perfume house. "These oils much stronger, much better than those in the hotel spa", saya Abdul. Suddenly a young man appears before us, offering us a welcome drink - hibiscus tea or some other tea. Behind him is a backdrop of hundreds of bottles filled with different oils. The room is clustered with cushioned benches in vibrant shades of red. Before he begins his lecture about oils, Abdul whispers in his ear exactly what our needs are - sinusitis, bronchitis, and muscle aches. 
The young man gives us a piece of paper showing his products, and hands us each a pen to mark what we find interesting. Mint oil - inhale three drops and your lungs clear, your head clears. Eucalyptus oil - rub it into your forehead and your headache will disappear. Rub it in before bed, and you will feel great the next morning. He laughs a little, enjoying the show - we laugh too, enjoying his show too. The next oil - sandalwood - is to be rubbed into your skin. "It has collagen," he says, "good for the joints. Where do you have aches? We go over here and someone will massage you." We are ushered without our drinks into another area behind rattan screens. A woman greets me, and when I tell her my hand has a problem, she rubs some sandalwood and eucalyptus onto my hand. The pain disappears! Then she has me lie down on the bench, motioning for me to take off my blouse. But what about the men? She moves a cushion across the way, as if that could block all male viewers, and rubs my shoulders. It feels great!

My masseuse
The man reappears with our tea and note pads - and his sales pitch. I'm beginning to understand it now. They start off with one offer. When you start to accept it, they come up with another one that involves much more money, but which obviously, at least to them, is much better. Then when you reject that one, they come up with a third offer. If you take that, they'll throw this in, maybe that in too. In the end, we buy four bottles of perfume with a 25% discount, plus a burner we'll use as a gift, and a little sample bottle we'll fill with eucalyptus oil. We pay 2100 LE for it - over €200! We have enough oil for the rest of our lives, I think. And it weighs a ton. Now we'll have to pay for excess weight on our suitcases for sure.

Two hours later, our taxi driver is still waiting for us. Abdul leaves us with the driver, whom I end up paying 20LE as a tip.  As we climb out of the taxi, a man appears. "I son of taxi driver," he says. "My name Mahmoud. You want falouka ride tomorrow? My price much less than at hotels. They charge too much." How much would it be? 30 LE an hour. Yes. Almost half the price of the first offer. Before long, we have a date to meet him at 3:30 tomorrow afternoon. "Abdul take you to perfume store?" Yes. "You get much better price you go alone. He get good commission." So that's why Abdul was so eager to take us. I did figure he'd get something, but a big commission? "You do everything private - much cheaper."

Yes. We're here on our own, without Mohammed as our buffer. We don't really know what we're getting into, and what is a good deal and what is someone else's opportunity to make money.

The same thing happens later at the health spa when I want to inquire about treatments and prices. There is even a list, but suddenly I learn that a €35 massage includes the massage, plus jacuzzi, sauna, hamam, and a facial. Then, "How long you stay here?" When he hears we're staying a week, he says, "You take three medicinal massages and I give you all - for €75." .

I have a fabulous massage and facial, which causes me to be late for the next appointment - with the real liaison person. I have no idea what Abdul's relationship to our travel service is. But now I've got the right man, so I apologize for being late and tell him about the massage.

"He give you a good deal. He knows you with the travel service." I say that he didn't know, that I hadn't mentioned it. "You tell him your room number?" Yes. "Then he know. He know all which room numbers go with which travel services, and then he give better deal." This man, Yassir, also seems to have deals for us, specials just for our service. He must get a cut on these trips, too. That's obviously the system here. We've got it down. If only we knew the cheaper options! Then we could use what we know to our advantage instead of being taken advantage of.

Monday, February 20, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day One

Another week with Mohammed, but this time we have him all to ourselves. He meets us at the Cairo airport, and whisks us off to the hotel he has booked for us. We feel that some explanation was in order. After all, it's only been three months since we were last in Egypt. This is unusual behavior! "I'm not a bit surprised," says Mohammed. "They say that Egypt is a magnet. It pulls you back."

So here we are again. But the trip doesn't begin with Mohammed, who doesn't show up until the second week of the trip. There are several stars of week number one (the names of characters in this series who are not known to the public have been changed, in order to protect their identity) - Gabriel the Copt, Mr. Araby - the "Birdman of Aswan", and Mahmoud, a Nubian from Aswan, to name a few.  The story doesn't begin with them either, though, because I first have to talk about...

Stylish women posing in Aswan
Well, let me begin my story.

Day One

Waiting to go through security at Frankfurt airport, I notice a young woman ahead of me. Her hair is completely covered with a scarf, but I can tell that she is attractive. We both notice at about the same time that we're standing in the line for first-class passengers. "They'll take us anyway," she says, laughing. I like her. I wonder if she is possibly Moroccan. We all go through security without a hitch, no questions asked.
Later, as we wait in the departure lounge to board our plane, the same woman appears in line just as we get in line. "Oh, it's you again! We're on the same plane!" she exclaims.

"Are you Egyptian?" I ask.

"Yes. I am from Alexandria." I comment on her light skin.

"People from Alexandria are often lighter, with green eyes. It's the Greek heritage. I live in Cairo now, but my heart is in Alexandria."

Another young woman, also with her head covered, joins us, as we enter a bus that will take us to the plane. We have several minutes to talk about Egypt - with women! I didn't meet a single woman on my last trip to Egypt.

We talk about Tahrir Square. "Is it safe to go there?"

"Well, maybe you should avoid going there. It could be a bit tricky there. But I wouldn't miss it!"

Both the Alexandrian and the other woman have been taking part in many of the demonstrations.

"I was sad to have to leave Cairo to come to Germany on business," says the Alexandrian, who works for Siemens, and who attended a workshop in Germany. The other woman travels from European city to city, buying for her shop in Cairo.

Both women are educated, successful business women, both speak perfect English, and are lovely, lively women. They are passionately committed to seeing that true democracy come to Egypt.

"At first, when the demonstrations started, my husband wouldn't let me go," the Alexandrian says. "He said it was too dangerous. He said to me, 'If I don't come back, will you please take care of both sets of our parents?' The second time, I said he couldn't keep me home. We've both been going ever since."

We ask how they feel about the election outcome. I anticipate disappointment. "On the whole, we're pleased with the results," they both say.

Peter and I are perplexed. We think that educated women would choose not to cover their hair, and would vote for the liberal party. After all, this is the enlightened thing to do, isn't it? And these women are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, ardent freedom fighters.

Wrong again. Our assumptions pop in this country like pomegranate seeds when you bite into them. This trip, we will be spending our first week without a tour guide.  We've already discovered some wrong assumptions we had, and we haven't even left Germany yet!  We have much to learn.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Interview with Johannes Falk

While listening to Johannes Falk sing about being a pilgrim, an idea popped into my head.  There was so much I wanted to know about him and his journey, more than was said in his CD.  I thought, I'll see if I can interview him.  After the concert, I asked him, and he graciously assented.

About a week or so later, we made a date to talk on the telephone.

The conversation moved me very much.  There was much of his story that resonated with my own.  Someone said that those who grow up in strict religious homes have an especially difficult time finding their own relationship with a loving, personal God.  I know that is my experience, and I sensed that some of that was true for him as well.

Johannes Falk is one of only a few "Christian" singers whose music I can say I really like.  It's a relief to have finally find one, and to be able to recommend him to you.

But enough said.  Read the interview.  It's here, under the page "Traveling Companions".  There is also a link to one of the songs he refers to.  Even if you don't understand any German, you'll get a sense of who he is and what this song is about.