Thursday, January 21, 2010


A few years ago I heard from Kelly Lashly (director of the YLP discipleship program in Sioux Falls, SD in which I participated for a month during the summer before my senior year of high school) that she once took a “blue book” essay exam in seminary which consisted of a single question. Sounds like a student’s dream come true, right? Not quite. It’s a fairly intimidating task to write a final exam essay to answer the question: “Who is God?” (All the same, it’s a question worth pondering.)

On several occasions throughout the past few weeks, people asked me “What do you think of Egypt?” While I’m hesitant to claim that this question is as daunting as the former, at the time it seemed equally difficult to answer.

“What do I think of Egypt?”

Well, I liked it.

There’s a lot of fascinating history. The workmanship in the temples, tombs, statues, and monuments is astounding, and the artifacts are as beautiful as they are ancient. The waves of the Mediterranean and the current of the Nile were cleaner than I expected, and the scenery along both was breathtaking. The traffic was just as congested and crazy as I had been told it would be, although crossing six “lanes” of traffic was much more fun than others warned me it would be. The food was delectable, especially the stuffed pigeon, foul (it’s pronounced “fool”, and tastes a bit like refried beans, but better) and falafel (deep fried chickpeas with parsley), and koushary (lentils, rice, pasta, and some tomato sauce).

The experience of navigating a city of 20 million people (mostly) by myself filled me with an unexpectedly refreshing wave of confidence at my independence. True, it would have been nice to share my experiences with someone whom I know well, but there are a lot of advantages to traveling alone. One of the things that I liked most about it was meeting so many fascinating (that’s my new favorite word) people. Perhaps they were as accommodating as they were because they took pity on me. But I’m unwilling to grant that that was the only reason.

So, instead of telling you about the places I went and the things that I saw, I’m going to tell you a bit about the people I met. You can visit:

the Giza pyramids;

the Cheops Boat Museum;

Alexandria Community Church;

the Mediterranean sea;

the Alexandrian Roman Theatre;

Amud El-Sawari (aka Pompeii´s Pillar);

the Kom El-Shuqafa Monuments (aka Catacombs);

the Citadel of Fort Qaitbay;

the Alexandrian Library;

a Nile cruise;

the temple complexes at Karnak, Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae;

the Papyrus, Alabaster, and Essences “Museums” (aka tourist trap gift shops);

the Valley of the Kings; Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple (aka Hatshepsut´s Temple);

the High Dam in Aswan;

the 13-hour Egypt Rail overnight passenger train trip from Alexandria to Luxor and back from Aswan to Cairo;

the Anglican Diocese´s Guest House;

the Cairo Opera House (to see Aida);

the Egyptian Museum;

the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids from the rooftop of Pizza Hut across the street;

After Eight (an Cairene night club to which I went to hear an Egyptian band);

Khan-al Khalili (a huge maze of open air shops down narrow cobblestone streets in Cairo);

Felfela (a Cairene restaurant which I highly recommend);

and the Cairo, London, Madrid, and Sevilla airports for yourself.

But I doubt that the people who I met there will be there when you go. So soon I´ll tell you a bit about them.

Failed Egyptian Pick-Up Lines

One of the disadvantages of traveling alone. . .

(Although it gave me an excuse to perfect the art of ignoring people as I walked down the street.)

"So cute. Welcome to Egypt."

"Have a nice trip."

"How are you?"

"Hello. I love you, I love you."

"Welcome to Egypt."

[something indiscernible in German]

"Why no smile?"


"Where are you from?"

"So beautiful. . ."

"From Russia? От Russia?"


"Welcome to Egypt."

"Señora. . ."


"Why no smile?"

"Welcome to Egypt."

"Hello." (I started to wonder if they´d ever considered how unoriginal this one was.)

"Hello? Where smile?"

[As I walked back past a shop at which I had stopped previously to look at knives.] "You want knife to kill your husband?"

"Welcome to Egypt. Welcome to Aswan."

"Hello. What is your name?"

"Why so serious?"

"Cabello. . ."

"Hello. Hello? Hello. . . [And when I didn´t respond.] What language?"

"Welcome to Egypt."

"I am here. I am alone. And I am still alive."

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Of Comics and Blenders

The taxi turned on the road through the median, headed in the opposite direction from which it had been going when it stopped to pick up Mr. Rohland and me on the curb, and back out into the flow of five or so “lanes” of traffic. I looked out the window from the row of concrete apartment buildings, across the Corniche to the exclusive trade-specific clubs which dotted the shoreline of the Mediterranean. And then I sat in the back and thought about reality.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now. The blog post that I wrote last night was a bit of a prelude to this one. I think I’ll begin tonight’s edition with another quote from the same book I quoted there, Do Justice. I read two more excellent, thought-provoking essays in it this afternoon, one about short-term missions and another about disillusionment and social justice. Even though I read them after my pondering session in the taxi, they seem to be the best place to start. This quote comes from the second essay, entitled “Dreamers vs. Dreamingers: Don’t Get Cynical, Get Even” by Adam Smit.

“Disillusionment is the shock, the heartbreak that comes from being ambushed by the awfulness of the world. It takes the idealistic wind out of your sails; it shoots you out of the sky.

What gets me frustrated is when I see some people racing off toward that brick wall with a big D painted on it. They hit it and fall hard. They sink like Peter trying to walk on water—except in this story they go all the way to the bottom. That’s when you’ve become cynical. When the disillusionment has truly felled you. When you’re no longer looking out for the good. Others do what really drives me nuts: They treat disillusionment like an ugly pink eviction notice and they slip it into the bookshelf hoping it will blend in with the other printed material. They learn to ignore it. They buy the groceries, read the funny pages, raise the kids. They forget about that awfulness they caught of a glimpse of once upon a time. It’s there, but if you talk about the kind of blender you want to buy and the rising price of cable TV for long enough and with enough people who think likewise, it can start to feel like maybe these are really the things that matter. Still others live in a fantasy world, constructed by their egos or religion or just plain naiveté." (Italics mine.) (64-65).

“It’s there, but if you talk about the kind of blender you want to buy and the rising price of cable TV for long enough and with enough people who think likewise, it can start to feel like maybe these are really the things that matter.”

What is the “it” that’s there? (Yes, the awfulness. But there’s more than that. How else would we know when to call something “awful”?)

And what are those things that really matter? (I think we recognize that there is something that matters, or else we wouldn’t be asking the question in the first place. Atheistic existentialism simply isn’t very attractive.)

I think the answer to both of those questions is reality. I don’t mean “reality” in the sense of “Those questions are really significant.” Rather, I mean that “reality” is the “it” that is out there and is also what really matters. So naturally the next question is “What is reality?” But since that’s far too daunting of a metaphysical question for me to conquer in a blog post, I’ll stick to the via negativa. I’m much better at critiquing than I am at producing a fully satisfying answer. Besides, doing so gives me an opportunity to talk about comics and blenders.

What is there to say about comics and blenders? Plenty, I’m sure. Each of these items has arguably had a sufficiently significant effect on modern society to merit at least one photographic coffee table book. And while I suspect that I—or if not me, definitely my younger brother—could spend a very pleasant weekend poring over detailed accounts of the historical forces which spawned, shaped, and defined cartoon strips and liquidizers, I’m also quite convinced that doing so is ultimately little more than a good way to pass the time.

Isn’t that why retirees collect coffee table books? All things considered, they’re a fairly good diversion. There’s nothing wrong with comics and blenders, but there’s nothing ultimately significant about them either. The problem occurs when people live as if there is. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, that’s what I was thinking about this morning in the backseat of the taxi.

I know that there’s more to life than the way that I’ve been living it for the past few days.

It’s not unusual for me to be aware of that fact. Sometimes I think that the influence of the gospel on the way I live is manifested most in this abiding sense that there’s always more. More to be seen, tasted, pondered, reveled in—because there’s always more to God. But my awareness of this “more-ness” has been heightened during the past week that I’ve spent in Egypt.

I grew up thinking about the “more” that was out there, and now I’m in a place where I’d expect to find it. For the past few years (or at least since I visited Malawi) I have tended to assume that life has a greater tinge of reality for those who live in the throes of poverty, particularly in the developing world. I thought that those for whom the avoidance of hunger was a more common topic of conversation than the features of various blenders were at least one step closer to the big questions of life, and hence to reality itself. It’s a much smaller step to “What’s the purpose of life?” from “How can I feed my family?” than it is from “How many speeds do I want on my blender for the kitchenette in our guest room?”.

That’s why I identify so strongly with Adam Smit’s disillusionment with people who seem to be wholly content with their present “realities”: I assume they’re hiding from something, because it’s so apparent to me that there’s more out there. And I can’t understand why someone who realizes that could be content before she has done a little exploring. But I’m equally befuddled by those who realize it, have done a little exploration, but then decide that they would rather to stay inside rather than go outside to play.

Being in Egypt has reminded me that one’s location has very little to do with the depth of one’s experience of reality. I thought I knew that when Dr. Ringenberg had us memorize quotes in Honors’ Foundations of Christian Thought my first semester at Taylor, and I selected this gem from Susanne Langer:

“The limits of thought are not so much set from outside, by the fullness or poverty of experiences that meet the mind, as from within, by the power of conception, the wealth of the formulative notions with which the mind meets experiences.”

Evidently I didn’t know it. I’ve been in Alexandria for over a week now, but I still know very little of the life of the five million people who surround me. I don’t speak their language—my Arabic phrases could be counted on one hand. I don’t really understand their culture. I haven’t had any conversations to speak of with Egyptians. In short, I stick out like the long-haired blonde foreigner that I am. And that’s just what I should have expected.

But I didn’t expect that. I hoped that I would absorb by simple osmosis that extra tinge of reality that I believed to be the exclusive possession of the developing world. And of course it’s simply not that simple.

Yet reality is still here. So perhaps I still will experience it. But even if I do, it’ll be with the knowledge that reality is not ameliorated by eccentric adventures in exotic lands. If it’s deeper than comics and blenders, it must be deeper than camels and pyramids.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Latin American Christmas Creed

I realize that Christmas is a fairly distant memory for most of you, but it's been on my mind since I went to a Christmas Eve service on Wednesday night at a local Coptic church. (Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7.) I only stayed for the first three hours of a five-hour long service, because my hosts thought that it would be wise of me to come back by 11 pm.

The experience sparked some wondering along the vein of: "What does it mean to be a Christian?" That could be taken two ways, either "What are the criteria for being a Christian?" or "What is the significance of being a Christian?" The "Latin American Christmas Creed" which I'm including below focuses more on the latter, but the former is a good question too.

I read this in Do Justice: A Social Justice Road Map, edited by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma, a book that I got from Calvin College's Faith and International Development Conference in February 2008. Ponder and enjoy.

"I believe in Jesus Christ and in the power of the gospel, begun in Bethlehem.

I believe in the one whose spirit glorified a small village, of whose coming shepherds saw the sign, and for whom there was no room at the inn.

I believe in the one whose life changed the course of history, over whom the rulers of the earth had no power, and who was not understood by the proud.

I believe in the one to whom the oppressed, the discouraged, the afflicted, the sick, the blind, the injured gave welcome, and accepted as Lord and Savior.

I believe in the one who--with love--changed the heart of the proud and with his life showed that it is better to serve than to be served, and that the greatest joy is giving your life for others.

I believe in peace, which is not the absence of war, but justice among all people and nations and love among all.

I believe in reconciliation, forgiveness, and the transforming power of the gospel.

I believe that Christmas is strength and power, and that this world can change if with humility and faith we kneel before the manger.

I believe that I must be the first one to do so."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Touring the Pyramids on New Years' Eve

On the last day of the year I was woken up at 6:30 am by Lizzy’s mom Gail, so that we could leave for the pyramids by 8:00 am. I couldn’t believe how solidly I had slept. So much for jet lag! But then, sleep deprivation can help significantly with the transition between time zones. I climbed out bed and scooped up the pile of clothes that I set out the night before and walked a short distance out the door across the cool marble floor to the bathroom for my first Egyptian shower.

We were staying on the seventh floor of a hotel operated by their friend Mary, a Chinese Christian woman who has lived in Cairo for years. The hotel is in Maadi, one of the two districts in Cairo in which most foreigners live (the other is Heliopolis). At either end of the hallway from the elevator there were doors which led to apartments or “flats” as I believe they’re called. Inside ours there was a kitchen, dining area, and sitting room with a big red rug on the floor with large pillows on top of it. I sat on one of those the night before to send a brief email home to tell my family I had arrived.

In the opposite direction there were three rooms and a bathroom. Lizzy and I shared one, her mom and dad had another, and a very quiet Korean girl was allegedly rooming in the third, but I never saw her. In our room there were two single beds, a night stand, an armoire of sorts, a small table at the end of my bed (from which I had scooped up my clothes), and a shuttered window which I opened (of course) so I could look out at the other cement apartment buildings and the small junk-filled spaces between them far below. When I took a picture out the window the flash caught the dust in the air, so I took one without flash.

The shower was much better than it could have been; I actually got hot water, courtesy of the gas water heater on the wall at the other end of the bathroom, which I could hear turn on every time I used the hot water faucet. I finished some final repacking and pulled my tennis shoes out of my backpacking backpack. I figured they would be a better idea than the dress shoes I had traveled in. (And yes, Mom, I put my hair up in a bun in preparation for the day of touring. So far I’ve had no trouble with it attracting a lot of attention, but at times it’s a good idea to hide it.)

Breakfast was Kellogg’s corn flakes which are sweetened with honey and some nuts, which makes them much better than the American version. I also had some “Yellow Label Tea” which is the standard here. (There’s really no telling how many labels I’ll have from it by the time I leave here if I continue to collect them.) It’s black, but we added some vanilla milk, so it was sweeter than I expected. A pigeon roosted on the railing outside the window long enough for me to snap a picture of him and the buildings in the background. I think I’d really like it if he were in better focus.

Shortly before 8 am we loaded our luggage into the elevator, which is big enough for no more than three people, and brought it down to the entrance. The owner and driver of the touring van which was there to meet us loaded it into the back of the ten-passenger vehicle. Since there were only four of us, we had plenty of space, even with the luggage.

The boab, the name for the doorkeeper who lives in a small apartment at the entrance of just about every building, may have helped, but I don’t remember him doing so. Boabs are responsible for keeping an eye on the building’s maintenance, cleaning, and security. As you walk down the street it’s not uncommon to see vehicles (parked on the sidewalk of course, so that there’s room for people to walk in the street) with their windshield wipers extended up into the air as a signal from the boabs that they have done their job by washing their building’s inhabitant’s cars.

The driver managed to make his way down the street which was narrowed by the vehicles parked on both sides with at least a few inches to spare. Driving in Cairo is a little different from driving in Brandon, to say the least. In the first place, Cairo has a population of nearly 20 million. (It’s actually the largest city in Africa. Lagos Nigeria is second place with about 11 million, and Alexandria is in third place with around 5 million. Or at least, so I’ve been told.)

I took my driver’s test on a lazy Tuesday afternoon in September in Ripon, Wisconsin which has a population of about 7,000. Now don’t get me wrong: I like to consider myself a good driver and even enjoy driving through Chicago. But not all drivers’ licenses are created equal. I used note this by comparing my experience to that of people who earned theirs in cities like New York, but now I think I shall have to reference Cairo instead. In New York there are stop lights and people at least recognize the existence of lanes and turn signals. I have yet to see a stop light in Egypt.
Instead, the busiest intersections have police officers who direct traffic by stepping out into the road when they think that one direction of traffic has gone long enough. Usually a few more vehicles will push their way through, but the flow of traffic in that direction is soon stopped since those who have been waiting their turn on the cross street are more than eager to move on through.

Lanes are entirely optional. Mr. Rohland told me that once he asked his driver if he knew what the lines on the road were for. “Sure,” the driver said, “They’re to line my hood ornament up with, so I make sure I’m going straight.” But most drivers don’t even bother with hood ornament alignment. So a road which was designed for four lanes of traffic will have about five or six, with vehicles passing every which way throughout. Most of the main roads have a median of sorts, so that the traffic on each side goes only one way. But the smaller streets are usually only wide enough for one vehicle to pass through, even though they’ll have cars parked on both sides of the street (facing both directions). But as long as you make it through with an inch or two to spare on either side, you’re good. It’s not uncommon to see pedestrians weaving between vehicles, since it’s next to impossible to make it all the way across three or more “lane” roads in one motion. So needless to say, it’s not quite the same as the driver’s ed. movies which my mom remembers in which every time a child showed up on the sidewalk you had to stop your vehicle because it was certain that he would run out into the middle of the road chasing his stray ball.

Since turn signals wouldn’t do much good in this crowd, the best way to avoid vehicles and pedestrians is with one’s horn. So it’s one short tap every time you come up behind a vehicle you want to pass (to make sure it doesn’t decide to change lanes at the same time you do), a tap when a car is backing up and you want to make sure it knows you’re there, a tap to warn pedestrians that they’re getting a little too close, and a long, loud blare if the vehicle in front of you isn’t moving fast enough. Somehow they think the horn will encourage them. If I didn’t know better I’d think they were upset, but I have yet to see any road rage.

The pyramids at Giza are just outside Cairo, on the southwest side of the city. Many people lined the road as we drove out to them. Apparently most of them were waiting for taxis or vans, although I’m not sure how they got there. The entrance road was slightly uphill, and led to a nice parking lot in which we climbed out of the van. I stowed my hand-size spiral notebook (from El Museo Nacional del Prado, which Profesora Feurch gave me in 2006) and mechanical pencil in my pocket and my camera in my hand so that I could leave my backpack in the van. The only reason I regret doing so is because I forgot my sunglasses, but otherwise it was nice to be without it.

We stepped into the bathroom (known as a W.C. courtesy of the British influence) and handed some change to the woman who was barking at those who tried to get in without paying her. (That is, if Arabic can sound like barking. I’m not sure that it can. It’s generally much smoother sounding than that.) It’s culturally not acceptable for her to require payment, since it’s supposed to be more of a courtesy. But I’m not sure what those who didn’t pay intended to do, since she only dispensed toilet paper to those who paid her.

The weather was warm enough for 9 am that some of the foreign tourists were wearing short sleeves and/or shorts. I can’t imagine coming in the summer; it would be intolerably hot. There were lots of people there, but it didn’t get very busy until we went down by the Sphinx later in the day. Many (if not most) of the people came in coach tour busses, so that by the time Lizzy’s dad Ray bought our tickets the one hundred tickets to get inside the largest pyramid (Khufu), were all sold out. My ISIC (International Student Identity Card) reduced the price from 30 LE to 15 LE for the entrance into the Khufu pyramid, a slightly smaller one. I should probably keep track of how long it takes that card to earn back the $22 that it cost me. The entrance to the pyramid area cost 30 LE (Egyptian pounds, each worth about $0.20 right now) and the Cheops Solar Boat museum entrance was 25 LE.

Somehow there was a miscommunication with our driver, so instead of taking the tour through the pyramids area in the vehicle, we walked around to everything for four hours. That was ok with me, but not with everyone else. It was a different sort of touring experience for me, since we didn’t have a tour guide and I didn’t do my “homework” to study up on the pyramids before I left. There were no signs, not even to name the pyramids. Reportedly that’s because they want everyone to hire a guide.

But we didn’t, because the Rohlands have been there many times over the past twenty-one years; for about five years Ray ran the tours for those who came to visit them. So the pyramids are nothing new to them. It’s kind of the same scenario that I saw with the Greeks in Thessaloniki who only noticed the ruins of the Roman aqueduct that was on the sidewalk right next to the road when it served them as a shelter from the rain. Otherwise they walked right past it.

So I really wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I knew it was significant, but I didn’t have someone to tell me how it was significant or what was significant about it beyond the general knowledge that I already knew. If I could do it over I’d change that, but it probably won’t have a long-term impact on my experience. In all honesty, I don’t remember most of what our tour guide said last year when I was in Greece. I guess that’s why notes and the internet are as important to me as they are.

We walked up to the first pyramid, Khufu, which is also the world’s largest. I’ve learned since that it was built in 2550 BC and is 481 feet tall. I climbed up some uneven steps carved along the side, making my way past Egyptians, Americans, Japanese, British, and more Italians and Indians (speaking British English) than I expected to see. All were posing for pictures. I did so when I got a little further up, and then walked to the entrance and handed the security guard my entrance ticket. He waved me away, explaining that my ticket was for the second pyramid. So I climbed down and we headed back in that direction, stopping along the way to take more pictures.

I was surprised by how uneven the sides of the pyramids were. I expected them to be smooth because that’s the way they appear in most of the pictures. They do look like that from a distance, but up close they look like you could almost climb them. Don’t worry, I didn’t try it. There were far too many security guards around for that. Later in the day I saw some guys who had climbed up about 15 feet on Khafre, but within a little while a guard discovered them, yelling all the while it took him to get there. Reportedly they haven’t always been as closely guarded, though. Lizzy told me that she knew of a few guys who snuck in at night several years ago, climbed up to the top of one of them, spent the night in their sleeping bags, took lots of photos, and came down the next morning to greet some very surprised security guards. I wonder how you’d explain that one. . .

The second pyramid was Khafre, which is 471 feet tall and was built in 2520 BC. As we walked up to its entrance, which was at ground level, we received many offers to purchase post cards and miniature glass and plaster pyramids. One of the kids offered them to us in Spanish, with the price in Euros. The answer was always “La Shukran” (No thank you). They left us alone much more quickly when the Rohlands responded in Arabic. I wish I could do that. (Perhaps someday. I got the Arabic CD and book today, so I hope to start learning more soon.)

I left my camera with the Rohlands (who didn’t go in since they’d been there so many times), since photography is permitted inside the pyramid. At first the walkway was high enough to stand up in, but shortly it was only about 2 ½ feet high and 3 feet wide, so we had to walk bent over at the waist. The ground was covered with some sort of metal sheeting, I think, to which they had attached wooden crossbeams for steps. At times there were also people walking out, so we passed with two “lanes.” I can understand how some people would get claustrophobic, but there were enough lights and some places to stop along the way that it was fine for me.

We went through the lower descending passage (which you can see if you hold your cursor over the pyramid on this National Geographic website), which goes down, then horizontally, then up briefly, and then down a long passageway which was tall enough to stand up in. At the end we reached the burial chamber, which was about twenty one (of my) paces long and probably four paces wide. The ceiling was probably plaster, and twenty feet high at the highest point (it sloped in like a peaked roof). At one end there was an empty red granite sarcophagus, which looked about nine feet long, four feet wide, and two and a half feet deep. The cover, which was propped up against it, was about ten inches thick.

It was kind of difficult to imagine what the burial chamber looked like more than four thousand years ago, since it was nearly empty now. But even though there wasn’t that much to see I was surprised that people came and went so quickly. I pulled out my pocket notebook and wrote down those dimensions that I recorded above and some other notes about what I saw. The most interesting thing was the painted letters about ten feet up on the wall: “Scoperia da G Belzonia 2 Mar 1818.” It seems likely that they were written by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who discovered the passageway to the burial chamber in 1818. But then again, that would also have been a very good “historical addition” for someone to make later. Eventually I persuaded myself to leave, and followed some New Yorkers (judging by their sports apparel) out the passageway.

In comparison to the interior of the pyramid, the fresh desert air outside felt cool. Mr. Rohland had arranged a 40 LE camel ride around Khafre for Lizzy and me while they waited. Our would-be guide waited eagerly at a distance while we finalized our decision. Once we agreed he walked up and welcomed us to our ride by wrapping his brown and white-checkered scarf around Lizzy’s head, “Bedouin style.” She wasn’t exactly thrilled, but he would not be dissuaded, so she obliged. Then our guide went off to get his camel, which he had left standing several yards away near a wall. The camel wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea of giving rides either, and spun around in circles with his lead rope just out of reach until another man rode his camel over to sort of corral the thing so that the man could grab its lead rope.

He brought the beast over near us and somehow communicated to it that it was to get down on its knees. I didn’t understand how he told it to do so, but that’s probably ok because the message wasn’t for me. The camel balked loudly and first leaned forward onto his knees, and then bent his back legs so that they tucked underneath him. And then we were to get on. Since she had done this before, Lizzy knew that she wanted me to ride in the front, so she wouldn’t have to worry about falling off when the camel got up. Since I had not done this before, I obliged. The saddle had a horn at the front which I gripped as I climbed up from the single metal stirrup. Lizzy climbed up behind me, Bedouin scarf and all, and we waited.

The man directed us to lean back as the camel lurched forward by standing up on its hind legs, which I’m glad we did. I’m fairly certain the experience would have ended with somersaults off the front of a camel if we hadn’t. Then we leaned back a bit as he brought his front legs up to match his rear ones. Then our guide thought it would be entertaining to get Mrs. Rohland in on the experience, so he gave her a Bedouin headscarf to match Lizzy’s and brought her over next to his friend’s camel. He tried very diligently to get her to climb up on it, but she insisted that it was just fine for her to stand next to it to have her picture taken. Later she said that if she had gotten on it, even for a picture, they would have had the camel stand up to take her for a ride. Then they would have had another reason to charge us more. So instead she avoided that scenario altogether.

With that we were off on our twenty-minute camel ride. If I understood our guide correctly, the camel’s name was “Snoopy.” He (the guide, and I guess “Snoopy too) was fairly pleasant throughout, only interrupting our conversation a few times. “Where are you from?” he asked. Lizzy told me she usually says, “Canada,” but I went with “the United States.” (Somehow that had better connotations for me than “America.”) Then he wanted to know if the ride was “very good,” and I told him that it was—each of the four times that he asked.

From the other side of Khafre we could see down into Cairo, which comes up right to the edge of the fence around the pyramid area. The rooftops of brown and white cement apartment buildings were dotted with satellites. No wonder they say that radio is the best way to reach people. On the third side of the pyramid we met a family of about six white Americans atop a caravan of camels. They narrated their camels’ antics to each other as they rode along, while their Egyptian guides led the animals by guide ropes. When we reached the end we repeated the camel lurching in the reverse order and dismounted.

Then it was time for payment, but (surprise?) the guide had apparently “misunderstood” that the ride was to be for two people rather than one, so he needed 80 LE rather than the 40 they had agreed on. It was funny how predictable the whole scenario was: the Kauffelds, who were there in 2005, were exactly right when they told me to expect the camel drivers to increase the price which they had previously agreed to. I’ve heard numerous stories about guides who take people out on longer rides into the desert and then stop to demand more money if the tourist wants to get back. And considering that most people don’t want to be left in the desert, many end up paying it. But fortunately Ray launched into Arabic and wouldn’t back down, so the man eventually left him alone. He wasn’t too eager to have the tourist police called out on him.

From Khafre we walked over to the smallest pyramid, Menkaure, which is a “mere” 213 feet tall and is from 2490 BC. The entrance was blocked off by a gate, so we paused only long enough to take some photos and watch the men rebuilding the foundation of some ancient building. While we stood there we observed another guide who was selling rides on his donkey. The tourist just wanted to take a picture of his friend standing next to the animal, but that wasn’t enough for the guide. The man protested, but the guide wouldn’t take no for an answer. As we watched he grabbed the tourist around the waist and hoisted him onto the donkey himself. How embarrassing. . .

From Menkaure we walked up the road at least a quarter mile to the overlook from which we could see the pyramids, sphinx, and Cairo. Along the way we saw people riding camels and donkeys out in the desert. The top was crowded with people, most of whom had arrived on tour busses. There were plenty of security guards with guns (which looked more imposing before Lizzy told me that they aren’t always even loaded) lounging around next to their vehicles and small phone booth-like structures, but they weren’t very watchful. Ray got after them when a man trying to sell something (probably a camel ride) came up and touched Lizzy’s shoulder (which is a cultural taboo) and they did nothing. I didn’t understand the conversation, but reportedly it included some accusations, questions about whether he would have sat idly by if such a man was touching his daughter, and a request for his name so that Ray could “report” him (which he actually had no intentions of doing). “It’s all a game,” he said.

We walked past the stands in which they were selling touristy things with the promise that we’d find things which were marked for Egyptians rather than foreigners, and headed back down the long road to the Cheops Solar boat museum. Lizzy and I went into the museum alone and her parents waited outside. We walked through a metal detector and then got coarse slip-on cloth covers for our shoes, which were intended to keep the sand of pyramids out of the museum. The boat was suspended above the original hole in which they found it.

It was discovered in 1954 in thirteen layers of pieces in a thirty-meter long pit in beneath forty-one stones weighing eighteen tons (total). There are 1224 wooden pieces, some of which are made from Lebanese cedar. The boat was used for the funeral procession which brought the Pharaoh down the Nile to his pyramid. It was then taken apart and buried so that it could be used to transport him to the afterlife. I heard about it from my dentist a week and a half before I saw it. He said that there are actually four such compartments, but they’ve only opened one because they’re waiting for advances in technology which might enable them to take better care of it before they open it. But I didn’t see any evidence of that when we were there.

We wandered through a few small rooms with displays before Lizzy realized that we were being followed by a group of young teenage Egyptian boys. (I must admit that I was oblivious of it until she said something, since I was reading the displays and taking pictures.) So we turned our museum tour into a game of “lose the Egyptian boys,” which we won by taking several interesting routes and pausing at opportune times. We were so proud of our success that Gail said she could tell by the smiles on our faces that something was up as soon as we walked out of the museum.

From the museum we wandered through the ruins of the building that was used for the final burial preparations and headed down the road to the sphinx. There were several Egyptian school groups along this route, and which made the larger crowds even larger. It made me wonder what it would be like to visit the pyramids for your fourth grade class trip.

The sphinx wasn’t as impressive as I expected, probably because I don’t understand its significance. It’s a big cat with a human head, located next to the ruins of what must have been an impressive building complex. In one large room which still had most of its columns we walked past a Spanish tour, and I eavesdropped for a few moments before we walked on. There were a few bratty children trying to sell postcards in the viewing area who were quite distracting, but it was still an excellent view of the sphinx (including the restorations recently completed on it) with the pyramids in the background

From there we walked out through the crowds to the gate, where I paused to take a brief video. Somehow in retrospect a video, even if it is only twenty seconds, makes it so much more real than a photograph. We crossed the street to the Pizza Hut (which was also a KFC), climbed to the third floor, and chose a table next to the window through which we could see the sphinx and all three pyramids. While we waited for our pepperoni and mushroom pizza to arrive the Muslim call to prayer sounded through the loudspeaker of a local mosque and two of the Pizza Hut workers stood in the corner of the room and prayed while everyone else continued with business as usual. An intriguing collision of cultures, I think.

After lunch Ray called our van driver, who met us just around the corner. It was a relief to pile into the vehicle and sit down after an extended morning of walking. I sat and watched the city for a while until I convinced myself that I should be journaling. I did that for most of the three and a half hour drive along the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria, but after a while I gave into my tired eyelids and slept. After about twenty minutes the blaring car horns from “lane” changes and rush hour traffic as we neared Alexandria were loud enough to wake me, so I gave up on sleeping and watched the road and journaled instead.

We were traveling through Alexandria with about six “lanes” of traffic when we rounded a corner and saw the Mediterranean. Lizzy said it finally felt like home. The Rohlands’ new apartment (as of February 2008) is about a block and a half from the sea, but the view is blocked by several apartment buildings which probably have higher rent as a result. Somehow the driver made it up their narrow street—the most impressive bit of maneuvering I’ve seen yet—and we unloaded the luggage at the entrance. Their boab wasn’t there to help with the luggage, but they weren’t surprised, since he’s consistently unreliable. So instead we took turns hauling it up two flights of dirty stone steps to the apartment.

Their apartment is a significantly smaller than the one that Lizzy grew up in (which they lived in for seventeen years), but is a good size for a couple. It has a kitchen which connects to a dining area which extends to a sitting area, a bedroom, a bathroom, and an office (which has been converted into a bedroom for the month that we’re visiting). We poked around a bit before Gail persuaded us that we needed to unpack before Lizzy’s friend and her parents came over for New Years’. So I opened up my cavernous backpacking backpack and pulled out my wardrobe, each piece neatly rolled into tubes of various sizes. The small things ended up in a plastic shelving unit and the rest was hung up before we slipped the backpack under the bed and came out for supper.

For dinner we had chili (sans noodles, of course) on top of rice cooked Egyptian-style, just the way Lizzy likes it. It was excellent, something that I’d like to learn how to make myself. After we had cleaned up from dinner their friends arrived and we all gathered in the living room to talk and eat the white-chocolate coated salty-stuff which Gail had prepared. (Now that is definitely something that I will remember to make on my own.)

From my perspective as an outsider, the conversation was fascinating although I imagine that it was fairly routine for everyone else. They passed on recommendations for taxi and van drivers, compared experiences flying to Egypt, talked about their holidays, caught up on news among their friends here, and talked about their recent trip to Siwa, the desert oasis six or seven hours to the west of here, near the Libyan border. The conversations continued over a game of Mexican Train dominoes which lasted until nearly midnight. By acquiring 105 points in her last turn Gail just managed to bump me out of last place, which I had held consistently through the rest of the game.

Around 11:30 pm the firecrackers became more frequent and were interspersed with fireworks which were launched from the rooftops of the neighboring buildings. Reportedly the Alexandrians celebrate with the Greek tradition of throwing something made of glass out of the window into the street to welcome the New Year. Once the Rohlands saw some men throw a chandelier from their apartment balcony. For some reason one guy let go before the other, so it landed on the Lexus parked beneath them rather than out in the street. They took one look down below and retreated quickly into their apartment, closing the shutters behind them. It seems that the Greek tradition has been replaced by fireworks, since we didn’t see anyone throwing things out the window. (But part of that could be because none of this apartment’s windows face the street.)

By midnight it was like the 4th of July: the fireworks show was quite impressive. I welcomed 2010 with a countdown from ten to one while by standing at the window overlooking a fireworks show launched from atop ten story apartment buildings in at least two directions, with the occasional firecracker thrown in from elsewhere. And then I went to call my family and wish them a Happy New Year which they were still eight hours away from entering.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Conversation Companions

“Now boarding rows twenty-five through thirty.”

I put on my sweater, pulled on my coat, slipped my “purse” on backwards so it was across my chess, and hoisted my slightly-over-the-legal-size-for-carry-ons backpack onto my back. I breathed slightly easier after my boarding pass had been scanned and I was on the plane. It would have been really inconvenient to have to leave something behind because I had packed my backpack so tightly. I made it down the aisle without clobbering anyone with it, found my seat, and shoved the stowaway into the overhead compartment.

The window seat was already occupied by an Indian man in his mid-60s who greeted me by saying, “Well, I’m glad you’re not 300 lbs.”

It took me a brief moment to regain my composure and see his comment as an invitation to converse. So I told him about the question of whether it was ethical to charge obese people more for their plane tickets (since they take up more than their allotted seat space), which was one of the cases that I discussed last semester in Ethics Bowl. He then told me about his 110 lb. daughter, who invariably gets seated next to a 300 lb. man who takes up half of her seat in addition to his own. Once he tried to get her to move to another open seat, but she refused to go because she didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings. He thought that was very admirable of her, and I had to agree. I’m not sure I would have done the same in her situation.

In the next few minutes I found out that he was an electrical engineer who lives in a suburb of Chicago and tests equipment for Case (sometimes in -10 ˚F) and was traveling to visit family in Bangalore for two weeks. When he learned that I was headed for Egypt he told me that he thought it was a very good idea for me to go now, since given the increase of fundamentalism it’s uncertain how much longer Egypt will be open to Westerners. That launched him into a lengthy conversation (which was essentially a monologue, but a very interesting one at that) about the political scene in the Middle East.

To hear him tell it, within the past thirty years or so Saudi Arabia has used some of the billions of dollars that it receives by selling its oil to the West (primarily the U.S.A.) as donations to fund madrasas (aka “schools”) in poor areas of (mainly) Afghanistan and Pakistan. But rather than a standard curriculum, these schools teach the Saudi brand of Islamic fundamentalism, which includes a strong hatred of the West. These donations are also given to mosques, along with a list of stipulations regarding which clerics are to speak and what is to be taught by the mosque.

Our conversation was periodically interrupted by announcements from the pilot to explain the reason for the delay of our departure. About fifteen to twenty passengers were being detained for additional security screenings. The pilot didn’t tell us this, but the additional security was put in place because of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Northwest/Delta Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day (just four days earlier).

I wasn’t bothered, though. We returned to our conversation and the time passed quickly. Shradir, the electrical engineer, was convinced that if the U.S. had anticipated that the Saudis would do this, it could have invested a fraction of the money that it has spent on its military actions in the Middle East on developing schools which taught standard curriculum, and avoided much of the current political turmoil. But since we cannot go back in time, the next best thing is to reduce the amount of money that the U.S. sends to the Middle East by developing alternative energy sources so we are less dependent on oil.

About 40 minutes later the delayed passengers were allowed to board the plane. One was the African American woman who sat right behind me because she was “so relieved” to be on the plane that she didn’t care if she didn’t get the window seat that was rightfully hers. The window seat had been filled by the college student who was traveling to Accra, Ghana to study Ghanaian literature for her Honors Thesis. The Indian man who was to be my seat companion had to put his carry on in the overhead luggage compartments in business class, probably because my backpack had taken up more than its fair share of space above our heads. The plane took off shortly after that. Shradir hypothesized that our seat companion had been detained because he had a Muslim last name. Some may call it discrimination, but Shradir called it common sense to scrutinize more closely those who are statistically a greater threat.

I found out later that my seat companion, Nashinth, was a second-year master’s student studying electrical engineering at UNC Charlotte and was two months away from finishing his thesis on a better way to stabilize semi tractor trailers (which he said are the most unstable vehicles on the road today). He was on his way to spend a month with his family in central India, about 2 hours east of Mumbai. When he found out that I was doing my undergraduate degree in Spanish and Philosophy, he asked me a question that he said has always intrigued him about those who study the humanities: “What do you plan to do with your degree?” It was funny for me to consider what he might have thought of me for spending at least four years of my life studying something when it was unlikely to prepare me for a job. He has a point: I admitted that studying Philosophy didn’t train me for any specific career in the way that his education did. I told him that if eventually I wanted to get a job directly related to Philosophy, I would likely get my Ph.D. and teach it. He seemed to gravitate toward that idea because it was concrete. Actually, right now I think I’ll most likely teach English somewhere in the world (probably not the U.S.) for at least a year or two after I complete my bachelor’s and before I consider graduate school and more long-term plans.

Nashinth did see value in studying the humanities, because he said that he would have studied history if given the chance. He was very interested in the history of the development of languages, and saw the Australian accent as a perfect test case, since it developed within the last two hundred years. When he learned that I was going on to study in Spain for the spring semester he started to tell me about the relationships between European languages. I listened to him talk about how “Aladdin” was translated into six different European languages for a few minutes before I realized that he was talking about how the Romance languages were all descendents of “Latin.”

When dinner arrived to the economy section of the flight, they only had beef meals left. Shradir set aside his cultural Hinduism and ate it, but Nashinth was unwilling to do so. There was something wrong with the vegetarian meal that they brought him, so he ended up with some seafood from first class, which he liked very much. By the smell of it I think I would have too.

My conversation with Shradir about reducing the amount of U.S. oil money that is used to fund extremism led to a lengthy discussion about the environment and global warming. After he found out that I attend a Christian university he was particularly interested in the Church’s stance on the environment. I told him that there are those who try to justify not protecting the environment by appealing to God’s special favor for humanity and his sovereignty. But I identify more with a quotation that I saw on Dr. Guebert’s door in the Randall Environmental Science center at Taylor, “If we really believed that it was His world, shouldn’t we be taking better care of it?” Shradir liked that, because as a “man of science,” he seemed to think that religion was useful primarily as a means of influencing people toward doing things here on earth. He retained some of his background as a cultural Hindu, but said he liked to keep an open mind and intentionally never shoved his beliefs down someone else’s throat.

He was a skeptic of all religious claims, he said, because they cannot be proven in the same way as scientific propositions. He admitted that science is not infallible, but still sees it as the best way to know things, since its theories are continually revised. It’s simply not possible to know for certain what, if anything, is ultimately “out there.” Since we simply cannot know what Moses smoked before he went up the mountain and “heard from God,” the Ten Commandments are best understood as a window into a historical culture rather than divinely authoritative laws. (He did apologize for that after he found out that I was a Christian, by the way. But I told him that I wasn’t offended, but was rather curious to hear his opinion.)

I’ve heard enough chapel speakers tell stories about their experiences sharing the gospel with their seat companions that that was probably on my mind, but I was more interested in talking to an interesting person and passing the time. So I dug into my mental Metaphysics and Principles of Ethics course files and pulled out some comments about the significance of realism and the question of whether there is objective truth to his argument for religious relativism. “If there is objective truth and religions make contradictory claims, then it’s simply not possible for both of them to be correct,” I wagered. “That doesn’t mean that one religion has it all correct, but it does mean that it’s not enough to say that because we can’t know for sure which is closest to the truth, all religions are equally valid.” He seemed to agree, but didn’t say much in response.

He mentioned how we tend to look condescendingly on the religious beliefs of the Greeks and the Romans, because we think we now “know better.” But how do we know that our religious beliefs are “superior” (he used the quotation marks) to theirs? How do we know that monotheism is “superior” to polytheism? I thought that was a rhetorical question, but he sat there waiting for an answer. So I prefaced my answer with a disclaimer that I hadn’t formulated it very well, and said something about how a plurality of deities seems to me to be a less satisfactory answer of ultimate origins, especially if they are thought to proliferate. I also said something about how the imperfect gods of polytheism seem to be a less suitable explanation for the origin of morality. He nodded, but seemed more pleased with my uncertainty than with my answer. Perhaps rightly so.

From there the conversation shifted to cosmology and the question of ultimate origins. We talked about the idea that it all began from a gravitational singularity which exploded with the Big Bang, the development of the planets from the condensation of gasses rotating around the sun, and geological evidence for the age of the earth. I snuck in some Taylor lingo about the “Integration of Faith and Learning” and Dr. Kesler’s “All Truth is God’s Truth” by emphasizing the importance of seeking truth in all spheres. It doesn’t make sense if one’s religion requires one to view the world through blinders which limit one from seeking to understand all aspects of the world. If there is truth, truth is truth, regardless of how it is discovered. He seemed to agree with that too. Or at least he didn’t disagree.

Then we talked about the Multiverse, which explains the incredibly improbable fine tuning of the universe by supposing that our universe is one among many other parallel universes in which the physical laws are different from our own. (The idea is that if there are many universes, it’s not as improbable that ours could have come to exist by chance.) His interest in it had been piqued by the most recent edition of Scientific American, whose cover article purportedly presents some scientific evidence for these alternative universes. That was news to me, since I’ve only discussed the Multiverse as a philosophical idea. But even if there is evidence for the Multiverse (which I can’t fairly comment on, since I haven’t read the article), the proof of its existence is far from conclusive. So where does that leave us?

Well, for Shradir, it left him right about where he started: as a scientific man, a skeptic. And for me? That’s more difficult for me to say. I still think that God is the best answer for the ultimate origin of everything, whether that be one universe or many. But that’s not the sort of thing that I think you can prove philosophically. In reflecting on the conversation I’ve realized several things that I could have said. I wish I had talked more about Jesus and that which occurred in history. I wish I had talked about the witness of personal experience, and perhaps even shared some of my testimony. But I’m not convinced that I “should” have done those things. The conversation went well, I learned a lot, and I think he did to.

I hardly slept at all on the plane. I think I might have slept once for about five minutes, because I startled myself awake from a dream about touching a stovetop by suddenly retracting my right hand from the hand rest. By the time I gave up on sleeping it was midnight CST and nearly breakfast time. Our plane landed in London about an hour later, at 7:15 am local time. But then we had to wait for a staircase so we could disembark, because the first one that we were to use was broken. While we waited the one year-old two rows in front of us was holding emptied her stomach-full of milk onto her dad and the family tried to wipe down his jacket with baby wipes.
Nashinth playfully turned up his nose at the smell and Shradir turned to me and said “You know, you have the gift of disagreeing without being disagreeable. I wish more people could do that.” I thanked him, and we talked a bit about the influence of talk radio stations on people’s ability to discuss civilly.

When it was time to get off the plane at about eight o’clock I shouldered my oversized carry-on, bid farewell to Shradir, and stepped out into a rainy London morning. But when we got off the bus at Terminal 5, I met both Shradir and Nashinth again. As we rode up the escalator together Shradir talked about the beauty of Heathrow’s new (as of 2007) Terminal 5. He was probably right that I should have been running ahead in order to catch my flight for Cairo (which left from Terminal 1 at 9:15 am, but I wasn’t interested in running or in leaving my companions any earlier than necessary. But soon we arrived at my escalator, so I turned and waved good-bye. As I rode down to wait for the bus to Terminal 1 I couldn’t help thanking God that I had switched my seat to 29G the night before on Grandma’s computer.