Mt. Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine

Weeks later, our trip to the South Sinai still feels like it was an amazing experience. It isn’t close to Alex at all, not much in Egypt really is, and it was a stretch, a bit risky in some ways. Our main goal was to see the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in the world. 

Last year, for some reason which I can’t remember, I became aware of this ancient monastery in Egypt, rather close to the borders of Jordan and Israel, nestled in the middle of the mountains of the South Sinai. In the current political climate, it seemed impossible to believe that it could still exist. A functioning monastery in the middle of the desert, Christian, miles from nowhere. How could it be?

Well it is still there and still running in the harshest of environments. The monastery looks like a fortress and it tells you something of its history to look at it. It is surrounded by huge walls and is like a village inside, in a way, as it is basically self-sufficient.

It was named after a nun named Catherine from Alexandria. She was Greek like many Alexandrians of the time. The location is of great religious significance as it is at the base of a mountain called, variously, Mt. Sinai, Mt.Horab (in the Bible) and Jabal Moussa. The summit is reputed to be the site of the Burning Bush and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The three great monotheistic religions all venerate it. Mohammad granted his protection to a delegation of monks who had gone to see him. A copy of the document is still in the monastery along with a remarkable collection of manuscripts and beautiful icons.

We wanted to climb the mountain. It looms over a desolate, striking landscape. Our hotel arranged for a driver to pick us up at one o’clock in the morning and drive to the base at the monastery. A number of other climbers were there too. We were assigned a Bedouin guide named Ibrahim and off we went. To reach the summit, you walk a winding seven kilometer trail through the blackest of nights. Judy was a little nervous about it but he was wonderful with her, even holding her hand during the last and most challenging section of the climb.

As we moved slowly up the mountain, in the dark with only our headlamps and Ibrahim to guide us, we suddenly came upon a camel standing by the side of the path. His handler would materialize and ask “camel?” “La, shokran.” No thank you. And we would trudge on. The night sky was magnificent. The Milky Way was right on top of us. We came to a ‘coffee shop” (see the photos) which was stocked with tea and chocolate. You could do worse! And some folks slept there briefly.
There is a small chapel at the summit which we saw as we waited for the sun to rise brilliantly. It did feel like holy ground every step of the way.

What a summer!

One year later, we are back. Our Canadian summer went so quickly. It was a whirlwind from the moment we stepped off the plane in Ottawa on June 25th until our departure August 18th. But so much good came out of it. We met our new grandson Miles in Guelph a few days later. Miles was a little over one week old. He is a big happy baby and will be well looked after by his parents Jon and Ashley and especially his doting big sister Sawyer. We spent all sorts of time with Sarah and Tommy and their girls Lilly and Edith. And we helped Mary and Brad prepare for their July 30th wedding at their new farm outside of Lanark, forty minutes from Ottawa.

Mary and Brad’s farm is quite beautiful. I think that they are still pinching themselves at finding it. There was, however, a certain amount of labour involved in bringing it up to speed, in particular the barn, and the yards and the field and the house! This is where we came in handy. We had the time and both loved the chance to work outside during a beautiful Canadian summer at all of the chores Mary had enumerated on her daily lists.

It was a celebration that everyone contributed to in one way or another. Judy’s sister, Catherine Barley, an Anglican priest, conducted the ceremony on a hill overlooking their fields and animals. The food for the reception was pot luck and we had an amazing array of dishes. Lots of children were there too. They had their own shed set up as an activity center by Auntie Pam Howard and her daughters Emma, Katie, Annie, and Laura. There was a “quiet” camping area and a “not quiet” camping area and a fire pit to sit around. Mary and Brad were happy and radiant all day and all night. It was a great event.

The other major undertaking as it turned out was putting our house on Airbnb. Have you ever de-cluttered a family home after living in it for thirty years? Yikes! All of the closets and dresser drawers had to be culled and packed away. And basically anything that you don’t want broken or damaged has to be removed too. So what do you do with all of this stuff? I had imagined hauling it all off to some corner of Mary and Brad’s barn or renting a storage unit for an exorbitant fee. Instead we packed everything in six-dollar Giant Tiger bins and stacked and locked them in the basement storage room. They fit! Hallelujah!! So the house is up and running. Yet another change we could have never have imagined a short time ago.

As much as we were enormously stimulated by our year in Egypt, it was wonderful to be in Canada for the summer. A very, very quiet street in Manotick. Running with the Run Clubbers at 6 in the morning out by the locks, then back to Laurie McLean’s for coffee by the river. Outdoor yoga at Joy and Simon’s with their turkeys trying to peck at us. Randomly running into friends from the community and church and getting caught up. Seeing our children and their children and our own sisters and brothers. We have so much to be grateful for that it is almost overwhelming. Leaving for Egypt again was not so easy this time around. But here we are.

Luxor in May…heat, heat and more heat!

The school has never had a serious, multi-day field trip. It is the sort of thing that puts a school on the map so to speak. It involves a ton of planning and tremendous responsibility too. I have been teaching a unit that stretches from early humans to the Ancient Egypt and Kush (Nubia and present day Sudan roughly) and we live in this country with more remarkable ancient monuments and artifacts than probably anywhere in the world. And the little city of Luxor lies at the heart of it all. That is where we headed. By bus to Cairo. By plane to Luxor. 874 kilometers if you drive on the Desert Road.

As a leader and chaperone, you wonder about the human element – children being separated from their parents, especially their mothers in this case, in many cases for the first time. Planning the itinerary is straightforward, time consuming, but it’s just about making arrangements. No one is going to start crying if don’t see King Tut’s tomb. But lots of kids cry because they miss their mommy. However, they didn’t! They would sometimes say they missed their moms but they were cheerful about it. The parents were kept up to date via a What’s App parents group link so that they received information all day long, every day. The children were not allowed to bring cell phones, only cameras. In this world, would Canadian schools be able to have a field trip with no student cell phones allowed?

Luxor is so interesting. When you drive over to the West Bank and head toward the Valley of the Kings you pass through the old world in many ways. Girls marry between the ages of sixteen and twenty. As women many are covered in black from head to foot, although not necessarily wearing a full, face covering niqab. It is very fertile but with little modern machinery. It is dusty and feels kind of slow and underdeveloped. People including children often use donkeys and donkey carts as their main mode of transportation. It is National Geographic style Egypt. Such a contrast between the huge cities of Cairo and Alexandria which are so noisy and crowded and energetic.

Then there is the heat. That was intense. 45 degrees is as hot as I have ever experienced. We were not that far from the Tropic of Cancer as you can see on the map. Judy was our resident First Aid department and she gave the kids some real lessons on hydration, de-hydration and its symptoms. They internalized it and we kept after them to find shade, drink water frequently, keep their hats and sunglasses on and get to the pool as soon as we returned to the hotel. Even so, some were a bit woozy although not seriously so.

The Karnak Temple is the second largest ancient religious site in the world (after the Angkor Wat Temple of Cambodia). The monuments are imposing and massive to see in daylight. At night, at nine o’clock during the Sound and Light show, it was terrifying for the children. At first. Booming voices and spot lights being shone on random giant stone figures had them jumping out of their skin. One boy, taller than me but only eleven years old, would not let go of my hand. He kept saying: ‘We are in hell! We are in hell!”. Another girl said: “If I ever did anything bad to any of you, I am sorry! I am going to die! I am going to die!”. Meanwhile, I am thinking I have traumatized each of them for life. But when they wrote their reflections in their journals at the end of the trip, what was the best part of the trip? The Sound and Light show of course.

So it is over. The morning after we returned, one of the girls, who was very nervous before the trip, said to me:” Mister (they call me Mister) I want to go back to Luxor.” There was our reward… though we won’t return right away thanks!

From Alex to Athens and back; two different worlds

There were a couple of things that were really appealing about teaching in Egypt. One was that the assignment was in Alexandria not Cairo with its twenty three million inhabitants. Alexandria was on the Mediterranean and our apartment was to be a ten minute walk from the sea. What was not to like about that?

Which leads me to the other point. Alexandria is a stone’s throw from the European Mediterranean coast, in particular, Greece, historic and beautiful, especially the islands of the Aegean. Greece has been in the news like many countries in this part of the world for all of the wrong reasons…the Grexit problems with the European Union and its bankers; the refugees washing up in their shaky boats on some of their islands and a general image of despair. But look at the map I kept telling myself and Judy. A flight from here to Athens takes one hour and forty minutes. Like flying to Quebec City from Ottawa. But the difference between Greece and Egypt, even Alexandria which was founded by a Greek, is hard to describe.

So off we went, leaving Alex at about four in the afternoon and arriving at our little hotel in Oia on the island of Santorini by nine that evening. We had a transfer in Athens to catch our flight to Santorini that was hair raising to say the least but we turned on the after burners Laurie McLean style and just caught the flight on time. It was just what we needed. Santorini is a beautiful island, very rocky from the earthquakes and lava spills of the past but with breathtaking, stunning views. We travelled around the island on local buses which were very plush but cheap (1.8 Euros). Our accommodation at Maria’s Place was simple but clean and comfortable and we had five days to relax. The last five or six weeks at school have been intense, with extra time and work, so we felt like our vacation was earned. We also had two nights in Athens at the end of the week which we were a bit uncertain about, another big city with all that it entails. But we loved it. The metro is a wonder. It took us from the airport to our hotel and back easily and comfortably. They play classical music at the metro stops which felt very soothing. Maybe that is what we need in our classes full of rambunctious Egyptian kids! They would probably look at us like we had two heads.

Greece feels very European. Most people seem to speak good English. They are quite laid back although I did talk with a number of them about their eight years of austerity which have been and still are difficult. Everyone wants to get paid in cash and they are willing to make deals to see it happen, even hotel keepers. They are limited to four hundred and fifty Euros a week for interac withdrawals. Pensions have been halved. Life is not simple.

So we jump on our Egyptair flight to Alexandria and, before the plane is even taxiing down the runway, a huge brouhaha breaks out in the seat in front of us between a mother and some fellow sitting in front of her who I think made the mistake of saying something about her noisy children. Big problem! All sorts of passengers and personnel converge to comfort the mother. The unfortunate fellow is moved to the back of the plane somewhere and two minutes later, it is as if nothing has happened. Interestingly, we didn’t even blink. Home sweet home. Back to the noise and the chaotic, tumultuous energy of Alexandria. Our sweet, restful vacation finished with a bang.

Looking into the future

There are only seven weeks to go until we head to Cairo for our journey home on June 25th. It is difficult not to look ahead but there is so much going on between now and then that Departure Day will probably suddenly materialize out of the blue, like a shock.

There are major school activities almost every week including two out of town field trips that are my responsibility. One is to Luxor, the other to Athens.

The thought of taking twenty-eight Grade 6ers to Luxor and seeing many of the same sites we saw a little over a month ago is actually exciting. Four days and three nights.

The principal, Darren Arbour, and I put together an information letter for the parents which I read to the students on Sunday at 8:15 during our first class. I handed the first letter to the first student and before I dropped the second letter in front of the second student, the first one yelled “we’re going to Luxor!”. So much for my plan to slowly and tantalizingly read the letter to them. Of twenty nine Grade 6 students, twenty seven have signed up, a number I am thrilled with.

We did have an information meeting one night with the parents and that helped a lot because we could deal with concerns directly. All of the parents at the meeting signed up that night, a nice vote of confidence.

The Athens trip is not going to happen but I am hopeful for next year. The seeds have been planted and, now that Judy and I have spent some time in Greece (more on that later), I really want to do it. It would be a great learning experience for the students.

Meanwhile, the younger ones are all over me about the Luxor trip. Roomates are a big issue. They will not be allowed to bring cell phones. That was a big hurdle getting over that with both the students and their parents. Some of the kids have never spent even one night away from their parents so this is a courageous step for their whole families. The parents will have teacher cell numbers and will receive a nightly email with a report of the day’s activities.

Looming over everything is the thought of returning home, helping Mary with her wedding, seeing Ashley and Jon’s new little one and Sarah and Tommy and Lilly and the suddenly chatty Edith. And all of our friends at the Run Club, at Tuesday night yoga and the church and Judy’s former teaching colleagues and friends. Life does not slow down. Ever. That’s the fun of it.

Easter 2016

What is Easter? Never think about it at home the way I should (I can’t lump Judy into this) but I know how I feel during Easter. There is some sort of modest sacrifice if something is given up for Lent. I think that is a good exercise as it requires at least some discipline that sometimes can lead to permanent change. But it is not like sacrificing your life. It is symbolic. Good Friday is so solemn and I confess that much of the music is beautiful and compelling and, for us choir types, a chance to sing in some wonderful harmonies. And Easter Sunday is a happy day if it is celebrated the way it should be, as a door opening to spring, a breath of fresh air.

So far from home, as at Christmas, how could we find Easter here in Egypt? Especially in these times in which there seems to be no end of terrible news. I just snuck a peek at the Guardian website and learned that an AirEgypt plane headed from our home city of Alexandria to Cairo was high jacked and has landed in Cyprus. And Belgium. And Lahore. And on and on. But there are moments… and we were lucky enough to find some of them this past weekend. Sometimes a combination of technology and real live people works wonders.

Good Friday did not seem quite right. So I turned to YouTube and found some music; first some Good Friday gospel from the Gaithers. They are an institution in the southern US and, although some of our friends kind of roll their eyes when we say we like the Gaither Gospel Hour (are you reading this Joan Heard?), some of them are amazing and very powerful singers. There were a couple of nice renditions of Ave Verum Corpus on YouTube as well. Mozart is good for the soul.

There was some question about whether we would have anyone at the scheduled Easter Sunday service and it was cancelled, briefly, but then revived. It came back to life. Appropriately. Our friend from school Bethany Vance came with us and it was a full service with a congregation of twenty, a good number. Hymns, an interesting sermon from Dean Sammy, the Egyptian priest, and a chance to meet some new people at coffee after the service.

Later we went for a long slow lunch with David Thomas and his friends Rebecca and Tim at the Egyptian Seamen’s Club which I described at Christmas. It is like stepping back in time. Rebecca had a bottle of wine in her purse which she asked our elderly Egyptian waiter to open. Twenty minutes later he came trotting in from the street with the cork loosened. He hadn’t known how to open it so off he went to who knows where to solve the mystery.

But the day was capped really with FaceTiming with Mary and Brad and Skyping first with Jonathan, Ashley and Sawyer and later Tommy and Lilly in Toronto. Poor little Sawyer fell asleep within seconds because she was sick and started snoring to beat the band. After Abe the Dog started barking, we all finally surrendered and said our goodbyes. It was a good day for us.

The Valley of the Kings

Luxor is a tourist town. About a million people. That makes it a town in these parts. We are living on a boat at the moment and cruising south toward Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt is north of here…a geographic anomaly which is counter-intuitive. Hint…the great river flows north.

While in Luxor we saw some, but not close to all, of the great sites. There were two highlights… but the sheer enormity of the pharaonic structures took our breath away. Our first day in we toured the Karnak Temple in the morning and the Luxor Temple in the afternoon however, for Judy and me, the evening Sound and Light Show took the cake. Walking and listening and feeling the immense mystery of these giant tributes to the afterlife in the shadows under a blanket of stars made us understand, finally, in our inadequate twenty first century imaginations, something of what drove the pharoahs to devote their lives to planning their afterlife.

Then came the Valley of the Kings this morning…the tombs of sixty- two ancient kings, including King Tut, the little squirt. We loved the tomb of Ramsis Vl. It is beautifully preserved with a long corridor decorated in exquisite, colourful detail with hundreds of hieroglyphics…the scarab beetles, the tree of life and, horrifyingly, representations of prisoners of war, hands tied behind their backs, headless. Symbols of power, of fertility, of devotion to the afterlife, of protection, and of their families. The fertility devotions worked well for one of them. He had sixty-two daughters and one hundred and two sons. Imagine the succession issues. There is a lot else one can imagine too. I am pretty sure he had more than one wife. And did they all get along? We can only guess. Oh to have been a fly on the wall.

The El Baeirat Hotel, West Bank, Luxor

This little hotel is the perfect antidote to the noise and energy and sheer volume of life in Alexandria and Cairo.
We flew in with Cath and Geoff Barley from Cairo yesterday morning and ran the gauntlet through the taxi drivers, made a deal for a driver and off we went. The driver however was asking for directions within minutes of starting what would turn into a ninety-minute drive. We were in the country. Not like Canadian country…Egyptian country. Bumpy dirt roads, donkeys and scruffy little kids all over the place…and us, the foreigners, the fish out of water.

There are two very old photos of Egypt on our dining room wall in Manotick (are they still there Mary?) of Egypt…old Howard or Turnbull family heirlooms of uncertain origin. One is of a shepherd herding a flock of sheep along a dusty road in the heat. Alan Jowett has always liked it. Well I swear that we were following that same shepherd and his flock of sheep and goats down that same dusty road yesterday. It felt like nothing had changed in one hundred years for those few minutes.

This hotel is really about ten small villas in a middle Eastern/Mexican style, one story stucco units that are like little apartments. It is situated right on the banks of the Nile but opposite Luxor out in the country. Directly across the river is the city of Luxor. Right behind our room is a braying donkey and a couple of cows. Instead of listening to the din of traffic, at night there are the animals and a lovely breeze. The bliss.

There were two added bonuses. One was a beautiful outdoor restaurant next door where had a delicious meal not far from a ten-foot crocodile sitting as still as could be in his cage. The other was a little gift shop at the hotel operated by a German woman, a former member of the German parliament for the Green Party who sells goods that she buys from local artisans at fair prices. They were of high quality and we gave her some business, including the purchase of an exquisitely decorated piece of clay pottery that I will bring home to show Monica Chappell, our favourite potter and yogi.

Survival Arabic

The language issue loomed large from day one. The school gave us a little lesson during orientation but with nine new teachers to train, it wasn’t possible to do any more.

We assume and are told that English is “the” international language and therefore we tend to expect in our ignorance of the world that even the humblest shopkeeper or market stall vendor will have at least a smattering of English.

Well we were wrong. Imagine the Egyptians expecting to speak their own language in their own land! At one time Alexandria was the most cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean which, amazingly, is what Alexander the Great and the Ptolomies who followed him had in mind. Over two hundred thousand Europeans lived here at any given time. French was the language of the ruling classes and English was used a great deal.But the revolution and much other change has had an impact. The expat population is much smaller.

Arabic does not have a lot in common with English. In French, I always cheat and anglicize troublesome words. There is overlap. And there is a similarity of vocabulary that helps a lot in a pinch. Our Survival Arabic course put any hope of similar little cheating possibilities to rest in a hurry.

One of these days I am going to draw up a “you’re never to old to…” list. Such as, you’re never too old to try to learn a new language. Or at least stumble along in a new language. We have basic vocabulary for greetings (sabah el kheer!), the market (bikam? How much?) or Judy’s favourite…ghelee owee!…too expensive!

The language school owner, Frank Lewis, is an American who spent his first six months here nineteen years ago just sitting with a local shoemaker chatting, picking up the language and the idioms. His Arabic is flawless according to the locals. That won’t be us, not by a long shot, but Frank did make the point that the Egyptians were fundamentally kind and would appreciate our efforts to speak their language. He is right. Just having a smattering of it has really helped in the market, with the taxis and in the restaurants. It is humbling but fun too.

Looking Back Six Months In

Mary sent a photo the other day that was a new one for us. She took it at the Ottawa airport while we were waiting there for departure. It made me think back. First we were off to Frankfurt, then Cairo, then who knew what? We’ll post it because it is interesting, the pensive but excited look on Judy’s face as she waited and the kind look on Brad’s. Did we have any idea what we were doing and what we were getting ourselves into? It is that kind of look. And the picture doesn’t lie. All we had were really a whole lot of visions that were based on two skype conversations with Darren Arbour, our principal, and more stereotypes than I cared to think about.

We were both 64 years old and out of the full time work force, happy with our busy lives in Manotick and with our children and grandchildren. Looking back, we took a big risk, but a calculated one. And I have to say, so far, so good.

Getting back to the classroom was challenging and exhausting at first. The children were younger than either of us were used to as students. They were not disciplined but they weren’t evil either. We both liked them and loved their enthusiasm but just quiet down a little please!! I have worked without text books for my Individual and Society courses but that meant I could create my own units of study. Judy was in the same boat. But now we are into a rhythm.

This city is big. Eight million people is a lot of people. And it is unruly in many ways with poor garbage collection, no apparent traffic rules or even lanes, very few building numbers. English is not spoken on any consistent basis but enough to get by in critical times like in the bank or the grocery store. The solution…take a Survival Arabic course! We now have enough Arabic to manage transactions in the souq. Judy successfully had a fishmonger clean and grill a couple of fish for us the other day, a first. What we did not realize was that it wasn’t filleted so when I unwrapped the packages, two little grilled sea bass were staring at me through a thick coating of blackened spices. But the fish was delicious.

We left behind family and friends and our favourite activities…Run Club, Tuesday night yoga and pot luck, the choir and gang at Manotick United and our neighbours of so many years on Hillcrest Drive. It isn’t possible to replace all of that in a new country and culture very quickly. But we have found our way and that feels really good. There are excellent cultural activities at the Bibliotheca and they aren’t as expensive as the NAC in Ottawa. Two weeks ago, we attended a production of Carmina Burana there that was amazing. A huge chorus, including a children’s choir, a full orchestra and a packed house. All for 25LE each or about four Canadian dollars. I don’t know how they do it but I am sure not complaining.

One last thing. It has been winter here for a couple of months, Egyptian style. Now it has changed as the days lengthen and today it will be 26 degrees. And yesterday I received this great photo from running pal Byron Boucher complete with a weather printout. -29 with a wind-chill of -43. They were still out there getting in their run those crazy run clubbers! Oh Canada!!