Friday, January 30, 2009


This is exactly how I wanted to spend my 21st birthday.

Out in the desert you can see an incomprehensible number of stars. Nestled between two giant rock outcropping the Bedouin flute and drum echo around and up into the bowl of the sky. The bonfire lights up the line of color in the rocks, the stars stay bright.


On the 24th we had a lovely celebration here at the house. Gabor got a cake and brought it out after dinner with hoops and hollers. Then my lovely roommates and friends surprised me with snacks amounting to a small feast, cheesy plastic decorations all over our room, and too many people and too few cups to drink Egyptian whiskey from. Dancing followed. Enough said. True colors came out and Aaron asked "is this crunking?" while trying his best.

Then, last night we went out with Sami "the desart fox [sic]" for our Bedouin bonfire. True to custom they were forty minutes late picking us up from the house in two vans of questionable functionality. We got a little lost winding out of town and up a hill on the edge of the cultivated part of Mut. Moment of silence passing through the cemetery of small mud brick Sheik's tombs. To be honest everyone was a little apprehensive from this shaky start, but when we got to our destination and the bonfire and music began, it became clear the outing was totally legit. Sami had even written my name with rocks high up on one of the surrounding hills. We sat around the big stone fire ring on rugs and cushions and low wooden tables while listening to an old weathered man in a big scarf play the double flute, and a group of 4 others (including Sami) played drums, big tambourines, and sang. Took some warming up, but soon everyone was dancing in a circle around the fire, Sami leading the clapping -- and we hadn't even begun drinking ... just the setting and the music put everyone in a natural altered state. The fire was bright enough to cast a large circle of like outside the stone, but still had an otherworldly quality.

Dinner was a vegetable soup that was more vegetables and less soup and spiced to perfection. Cabbage wraps with rice inside and super-tender hunks of lamb (we think). Top it off with an Egyptian Stella and/or Bedouin tea, which is the sweetest drink you'll ever have. Everything (minus Stella) was heated in big metal pots over the fire. After we out they brought out hookah and used the coals from the fire to light them. The music continued and so, of course did the dancing. All our hosts immediately took a liking to Nate, who I introduces as Hassian (his Arabic name), which never fails to break the ice. All night "ya Hassian" rang out over the music.

Megan and I took a little break and walked over and up one of the big rises surrounding us. You could see the lights of the oasis stretching out for miles around, and we laid down in the sand to take in the sky. Stars, planets, the milky way. It's no wonder the night sky was so important to ancient religions, without artificial light it stretches for ever and has infinite depth. Counted shooting stars and made plenty of wishes.

We walked back down following the sound of the drums and singing. After dancing for a while and learning some "traditional" (who really knows) dances with scarves and a stick, Sami threw his scarf over my head and said "just for a minute"... a minute later I was unblindfolded to a beautiful two tiered birthday cake with matches for candles. I was so surprised and the whole thing was so beautiful I couldn't keep a huge grin off my face. Too impatient to wait for plates, the first piece made its way into my open hands.

We danced for maybe another hour or two and then decided to break camp and head home. After a little problem getting the cars started we headed back down into a completely different kind of civilization. When we got back to the dig-house James came over to invite us to the latter end of an Australia Day party. They really know how to do it up over there. By this time it was around midnight and they'd already been going for 5 hours... we apparently brought the second wind to the party. It seems, for the time being, the bad blood between the Americans and Australians might be cleansed (thanks in part to Megan's gracious attentions to head-hancho Colin Hope). Dancing with the Aussies too, though of a different sort. Not everyone came over, but Ellen made up for it with plenty of unexpected dance moves.

he night finally ended on its way to morning. Sitting outside our window with Aaron and Megan for a recap of the night and then sleep of the extremely deep variety. Woke up this morning just in time for lunch (it being our day off -- finally) and spent the day lazing around. I feel like we've been here long enough that the urge to constantly be out having an "experience" is starting to fade, and I'm mostly content to let them come to me. Thursday we might have dinner with Yousef, one of our new friends from town, at his house and get to meet his wife and kids. That experience found us totally on its own. I can only imagine how many more might be looking for me in the next 21 years. Rather exciting...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"El Muzawaka is a large cemetary associated with the settlement of Amheida"

Roman Period Temple Dier el-Hagar and El Muzawaka cemetery in Dakhla

Thursday, January 15, 2009


prepare for banalities

was a good day (and I suppose those are the best kind of day to write about).

I woke up for 8 am breakfast and to all our delight instead of the usual bread and cheese Gabor our lovely cook had made Tammaya (falafel) and fuul (beans). A slightly productive morning working on my presentation of the temple and Roman fortress at Douch in Kargah turned into a really interesting class on early Christianity in Egypt. Cue my favorite lunch of grilled eggplant, fresh veggies, gibna betta (cheese), and pita. There was no water in the showers so I convinced Megan to go to the hot “spring” with me. We brought Andrew, Matt, Kyra and Iris along for protection … eventually we needed it.

The hot “spring” is really a key-shaped concrete trough with hot spring water pumped up from deep in the ground. The water is perfect bath temperature and runs from a big pipe, through the trough, and out into the irrigation ditches. To get there you walk down the hill from the dig-house, a cross and down the road a bit, and towards a small pump house and stand of palm trees. There wasn’t anyone there when we got there, and we jumped in. Besides the slightly iron-y smell it was really nice -- deep and clear. Our first visitor was a man, his young son, and donkey who were apparently there to fill up plastic jugs of water. The little boy came and sat with Kyra and put his feet in the water. We exhausted out Arabic talking to him. Basically we found out his name was Mahammod, he was from Mut, and he liked the water. We couldn’t remember how to ask him how old he was. Then who should show up but Ashraf (our all around friend and guide) and some of the house staff -- apparently to wash the dishes! Cue some awkward gender dynamics. Megan and I were the only ones in the spring (granted with shirts on in an attempt at modesty) and Ashraf jumped in no problem. It was pretty clear the rest (including man with son and donkey) were just around for the novelty of the girls in the pool. Nothing explicit but obvious nonetheless. Somehow different than outright heckling. Didn’t really bother me as I’d been a prepared, but it was clear that the other girls hadn’t gotten in for fear of just a thing. Regardless I found it to be pretty relaxing, dish-washing or no.

A nice walk back to the house in time for Arabic. Good dinner of kofta (grilled, ground lamb), Egyptian pizza, and roasted potatoes. Half-way through this post the Australians showed up with Uno and funny accents. Somehow it got to be 11:30 which is late when you have to make a 7:30am breakfast … a tout a l’heure!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

ultra hot, hot-spring water showers that burn
cow-sized mosquitos
sulfer smell after dinner

hot showers (!)
governer's tombs
"fi stella?"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Yellow Rose of Cairo

Time for Egypt!

I flew to New York December 29th and could hardly believe I was actually headed into the Sahara. The trip is so routine by now. Even showing up to Cathedral Gardens at 110th and Manhattan Avenue to meet Ellen and running to Central Market for some peanut butter before hopping in a car to JFK felt pretty run of the mill (minus the heartfelt send-off from Sev and Jules, that was just heartbreaking). We met everyone at the airport and after having to go back and put said peanut butter (and Ellen's alcohol... "for gifts" she says) got on Egyptair flight 39 to Cairo. I sat next to Megan (my roommate and all over buddy from Barnard) and we both tried some drug-assisted sleep to marginal sucsess. At one point she woke up, asked me to open her water, and when it sprayed a little due to the pressure change said, "It was happy to see you!" in a high pitched voice. She laughed for about a minute afterward before fading off again. Ambian works in mysterious ways I guess.

When we landed in Cairo the next morning, we were all bit groggy but the city woke us immediately! What impressed me on the way down was the way bits of the city are interspersed with true desert... dunes and all. It is a loud and busy place that proved itself to be so right from the beginning. The baggage claim was a crowed mass and the bus ride to the Happy City Hotel gave us a decent taste of Cairo traffic (we would soon have to navigate on foot!). We took a desperately needed nap at the hotel and then made our way to a traditional restaurant for dinner, then went back to the hotel roof top for drinks and shisha until midnight. Sana saaida! Happy New Year!

Happy City Hotel nightstand console

On the first day of 2009 we went to "The Mugaba", a government building that we had all been warned was beaurocratic hell on earth, to get our visa extensions but it proved to be almost empty and very naviagable on new years day, el hamdu lellaeh. ("thanks be to god" and "god willing" are phrases we have learned to add to the end of almost every sentence, and to use whenever one doesn't know what to say. They are, of course, also extremely pertinant in a place where things like the police showing up in the middle of your arabic lesson and needing to see everyone's passport for allah knows what reason!) We spent the rest of the day exploring and doing errands before heading out to the oasis. Megan and I very proudly changed money and bought bread and vitamins all by ourselves. The bread shops, which can be found in every block, smell incredible and the bread litterally spills out onto the sidewalks. There are fruit vendors just as often and nuts spilling out from the bodgea like convience stores and juice places. Men with giant boards of pita on their heads ride around on bikes, motercycles, and any other imaginiable kind of moving vehicle. It's impossible to imagine not being hungry at all times in this city!

The a bread shop from our window at the Happy City Hotel

The rest of our day in Cairo was spent dodging traffic, crossing the Nile (surprisingly like any other river in a big city), and going to the Cairo Musueum. If I had died and gone to heaven, I would have gone to that place. It's an imposing building but inside is a nearly dingy, poorly lit, treasure trove of all things Ancient Egyptian. Amulets, statues and all number of other old thing are stuffed into glass and wood cases strangely remincient of those in Schermerhorn hall at Columbia. We spent some time in the king Tut and adjanct rooms and barely scratched the surface of all there is to see. Hopefully when we're back in Cairo in March we'll get to spend more time there. By dinner time I was so exhausted it was almost all I could do to grab soup in the Hotel restaurant, pack up my bags, and get to bed. We did manage, however, to find a place that sells (and delivers to your door!) whiseky for my 21st birthday... we figured that a little American tradition should be upheld. Haha.

Sphinx outside Cairo Museum (cameras weren't allowed inside)

The next day we rose bright and early, gobbled gibna bitta (a great cheese somewhere between feta and cream cheese) on crossiants, and piled into the little bus that would take us to Daklah Oaisis... 12 hours (though it proved to be 13) into the Sahara. I sat in the back, but thanks to dramamine the tales of upchuck Annie will have to stop somewhere around 2008! From the highway on the way out of Cairo we saw the Giza pyramids. Another died and gone to heaven moment. Many people had told me they were disappointed, but from a crowed bus of archaeology nerds, they seemed pretty much up to snuff.

Pyramids at Giza! Swoon ...

Ashraf, our lovely egyptian guide for the entirety of the tripe, and our liason that manages said problems like the police showing up at the dig house and getting us safely through checkpoints along the road to the oasis, kept us updated on what we were seeing as we headed out into the desert. That is to say, he pointed out the pyramids as we left Cairo, and the fact that we were in Daklah when we arrived! I kid, a bit, but most of the LONG LONG ride was desert -- flat, tan desert. We stopped a few times to use the bathrooms (only one squat!) and streach and take photographs.
The group taking a stretch by some iron mines

Regardless we were more than ready to leave that bus far far in the past when we arrived at the dig house after dark. I was not prepared for how beautiful the house is. It's rustic, to be sure, but arriving at night to the mudbrick courtyards illuminated by hanging lanterns was too picturesque for words. (pictures that do it justice soon!)Delicious hibiscus drink and friendly house-staff greeted us and we ate a much needed dinner, unpacked, and hit the sack with huge grins on our faces.

his morning we woke early and cold. Breakfast was yummy cheese, honey, pita and hard boiled eggs. After we set-up the library and computer lab we had some time to explore around the house. The fields and palm groves surrounding us are exactly what you think an oasis should be. Muddy and green and lovely. Climbing palm trees and catching grasshoppers ensued. We sat for awhile just in awe of the commanding view of the desert scarp and town. But, turn around and there is the distance is the Sahara. A strange substitute for the pacific ocean, but just as expansive feeling. The night grows old now so I'll save more dig-house antics until another time. Suffice it to say I know realize an oasis paradise really exists.

[Photos of dig house, etc delayed due to really SLOW connection]