Thursday, January 31, 2008

Edfu and Esna

The temple at Edfu is the most completely preserved temple in Egypt. It was also the temple that most resembled early entrance at Disneyland! When you get to a temple, the your guide goes to purchase the tickets and you wait near the door. That morning, it seemed like there were thousands of people all arriving at the same time! The ticket sellers did not arrive until after the crowd. The guides rushe the ticket sellers who handled all the transactions in the middle of the crowd. The crowd, meanwhile, was filled with people who were positive they would miss something if they weren't the very first ones in--as if something was going to disappear or change in those few minutes after a couple thousand years!

The temple was dedicated to Horus, who was often depicted as a falcon, and was started in 237 BC, making it one of the newer temples. The pylons at the entrance are 100 feet tall! We also saw a reproduction of the wooden barque (funerary boat) that was used to carry Horus's statue on ceremonial days. Often the gods were depicted as animals that embodied the characteristics that the Egyptians admired--falcons, cats, jackals, crocodiles, hippos, etc.

We took a horse and carriage to get there from our boat (as did the rest of the masses) and, once safely away from the watchful eyes of the tourist police, the drivers were more than willing to let the kids have a go at driving! Horses are used all over for driving tourist carriages as well as pulling carts. The sight of horses clearly underfed and overworked spawned several discussions related to "Black Beauty" and the treatment of animals and people's responsibility to care for them--as well as the realities of people trying to make a living in a very poor country. Ava strongly felt that people should feed their horses and take care of them--although she was not willing to extend that stand to boycotting any carriage ride and taking a cab! Seeing the lineup of carriages and drivers waiting for us was hilarious!

Shisha (shee-sha) is a very big part of the Egyptian culture. In every coffee house and restaurant there are shisha pipes for rent. You pay a small fee and choose the flavor of tobacco that you want--apple, peach, tutti-frutti, cola, chocolate, etc. Don't worry, they all come with prepackaged plastic mouthpieces! I asked the guide if people used them at home. She said that some do, but it's more of a social thing that people do when they are out together. The size of the shisha makes it difficult for, say, teenage smokers to carry around--unlike a pack of cigarettes. Which is probably good, because tobacco flavored like apple or peach does not taste like tobacco at all. It's a little like candy tobacco! Everyone had a try--even the kids were allowed a small puff. I was pleased to see Cameron do a bit of coughing and choking. Unlike his siblings, who kept trying to come around and sneak more! They look cool, so I ended up buying one for the house, as well as some of the clear glass bases (like the ones in the picture) that make great vases or water bottles!

Kom Ombo

Kom Ombo is an amazing site. Perched on the edge of the Nile, it gives a sense of what it must have looked like thousands of years ago as people approached the temple. Most of the decorations were completed by Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra's father.

What could be more "authentic" than a snake charmer? Everyone steered clear of the cobra--everyone, that is, except our kids, who immediately understood that something so potentially dangerous couldn't possibly have fangs (and it didn't). Cameron drew more attention by holding the snake than the snake charmer did, I think! Honestly, does anyone really think a live biting poisonous cobra was loose amidst thousands of tourists?! Well, if you did, sorry to burst your bubble on that one.

Like many other temples, Romans and early Christians came in and added their own elements of worship into the temples. Christian altars were built, but they often incorporated the symbols that were popular or traditional for that temple (like the cobra and sun engraved on this altar).

One of the more interesting sights was the Nilometer. It was large well-type hole that reached to the water below the temple. Narrow steps led to the bottom and the priests could measure the level of the Nile. If the water level was high, then crops would be good and taxes could be set high. If the water level was low, crops would not be good and the taxes could be lowered accordingly. Apparently, it still works in that we could see water at the bottom!

Despite all the amazing history, it's nice to know that the kids haven't lost their grip on pop culture (check out Noah's Pokemon book that he toted along on this jaunt!) and both Cameron and Noah instantly recognized this mysterious looking building as something straight out of a Star Wars set!

Mark's a Star

If you go to the Peace House Foundation website you can see the opening day video from back in September. The link is on the left hand side of the page called "Opening of PHS". Many of you may have seen the video at the C0lors of Hope gala in November, but if you haven't, it's a great look at what went into getting ready for that first day.

The other video links profile students who are part of the first class at PHS. Thanks to CJ and Andrea who spent 6 weeks with us gathering all the footage and to everyone at Media Loft who contributes their time and talent to putting PHS's best foot forward. THANK YOU!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Travel Plans?

As spring break begins to loom closer, here's a few places you may want to think twice about...courtesy of Reuters

1. Somalia
This Horn of Africa country has been in the grip of warlords for the last decade, fighting for control of drug and weapon trafficking rights. Risks include military clashes, kidnapping, landmines and pirates.

2. Iraq
Military action, collateral damage, insurgency and suicide bombings are daily occurrences in the country. Security experts say unstable areas include Baghdad and stretch from Tikrit in the north to Hillah in the south and from Mandali in the east to Ramadi in the west.

3. Afghanistan
Even though the ruling Taliban regime was officially ousted in Afghanistan in 2001, attacks from those still loyal to it and to al Qaeda continue. Military personnel and civilians are killed by improvised explosive devices daily.

4. Haiti
Sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with top vacation destination Dominican Republic, Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest country, is plagued by civil unrest, police corruption and readily available firearms.
(You can read about Paul Farmer's work in Haiti with TB and AIDs in "Mountains Beyond Mountains." I think it's a must-read.)

5. Pakistan
The country, which borders Afghanistan, suffers from ongoing geopolitical turmoil. Bomb attacks and rioting between Shia and Sunni Muslim communities are a threat. In December 2007, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated during a suicide bombing after months of strife over delayed elections. (Newsweek recently proclaimed Pakistan the most dangerous place on earth. Read about Greg Mortenson building schools there in "3 Cups of Tea." Another must-read.)
6. Sudan
Despite a peace agreement in 2005, areas of extreme danger due to battles between government troops and militias and local insurgent groups dot the country. Areas to avoid completely include the western region of Darfur, Ethiopian and Eritrean border regions and all of southern Sudan.

7. Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
A civil war that formally ended in 2003 still affects the country. As Rwandan and Ugandan troops pulled out of DRC towards the end of the war, rival militias have been fighting each other to fill the power vacuum this created. Crime is rampant in major cities and security conditions can fluctuate drastically even within minor distances.

8. Lebanon
Culminating in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Lebanon is split by pro- and anti-Syrian forces vying for control of the government. Other risks include military battles in the south with neighboring Israel and civil unrest.

9. Zimbabwe
Anti-western sentiment prominently expressed by officials, out-of-control inflation and oppression employed by the government to silence dissenting voices are common in Zimbabwe.

10. Palestinian Territories
The region is caught in a brutal tug-of-war between pro-Fatah and pro-Hamas factions. Political and military battles with Israel, especially in the Gaza Strip, have made the security situation in this territory very unstable. Poverty and chronic violence add to the instability.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Scenes Along the Nile

The Nile River truly is a source of life. The vast majority of all of Egypt's citizens live within a few miles of the river. There is a narrow strip of land not more than 3-5 miles on each side (and sometimes about 3-500 yards) where everything is lush and green. Then a sharp line between that and the harsh dry desert--real desert--no plants or bushes anywhere! Often we saw the villages and houses on the desert so as to save the irrigated land for maximum planting. Many of the temples and monuments were located on the Nile (just above the floodline) so it's an amazing site to see them from the boat.

What do they wear under their...?

One day Cameron tried to make a (very weak) connection between the Maasai and the Scottish. Mostly because the traditional Maasai shukas are plaid, as are traditional Scottish kilts. Other than that (and the age old question listed above) he didn't get very far.

Wamerudi Wote!

The students arrived back to school last week to officially begin Form 1. When we sent them home, we were confident they would return, but in this country, you just can't predict anything with certainty, so I'll admit to holding my breath last week as they started to arrive. ALL 120 arrived to school ON TIME. In fact, the next morning the students had gotten up, eaten breakfast, and were sitting in their classrooms 40 minutes early--before the teachers had even arrived to school! I would say that they are more than a little ready to work hard, learn well, and have fun. (although judging from the pile of ugali the one student has on his plate, it's possible that food is another reason for the enthusiasm!)

We have asked families to pay a nominal fee (based on a sliding fee scale) for the students. The fees are meant to maintain a sense of connection and responsibility to the families, avoid the idea of a completely free handout, and are used to offset small expenses a student may have. They are "required" in the sense that we ask and will follow up, but they are not something that will cause a family undue hardship or prevent a student from attending. Last week we had 85% of the families pay. That's an amazing turnout for these families who are so poor and struggle so much!

I think we may be on the right track here with what we're doing...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Made in America

This is the perfect book for someone like me. First of all, I've become a good Bryson fan; he's funny, a bit irreverent, and has a great take on life. Made in America illustrates the growth of American English over the years since the Pilgrims landed. Along the way, he covers an enormous amount of American history, business, politics, and pop culture. I love language and I've always been interested in how languages evolve, especially our American version of English, now that I realize how very different it is from the English spoken by Brits, Australians, New Zealanders, and other native English speakers. Plus, all the history trivia will come in handy some day, I just know it.

I found the chapter on the Age of Invention very interesting. It was a time when the rich indulged themselves heavily and obviously, while those people who sustained their wealth toiled in misery (in one town in Massachusetts at the turn of the century 36% of factory workers didn't live past the age of 25). Words like slum, sweatshop, and tenement came into play. In fact, tenement used to describe any apartment-type building, but by the 1840s in America, where only the poor lived in shared housing, it became a pejorative name for building inhabited by the poor and immigrants. Almost 70 years ago, people who lived in shared housing were considered lower-class! It's hard to reconcile that with our recent trip to Egypt where, after a week I was unable to get a picture that accurately captured how indescribably dense the housing was there. It speaks to the luxury of space that we've enjoyed for so long.

America has had a long history of tinkering. Often things were invented by people in their spare time, by an obsessive idea (Charles Goodyear and vulcanized rubber) or to help a friend out (Eli Whitney and the cotton gin). The word pragmatic appeared in 1863 to describe the kinds of inventions America excelled at turning out. Many great technological inventions--the car, the radio, radar, computers, and jet engines--were created in Europe. America certainly kept up its own end of that deal (telephones and light bulbs) but tended to focus more on conveniences that involved less complex systems.

Through most of this chapter I kept wondering "why?" Why are we a nation of tinkerers and inventors? Why were we/are we obsessed with making something better? Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all tinkerers. What has made us stand apart in this respect? And for so long? And furthermore, why NOT other countries, like, say, Tanzania? Obviously, we have greatly benefitted from tremendous resources, a stable government, and an economic system that rewards efforts, but given some of those things, shouldn't others do the same? If someone is shown a way to do something in a way that is more efficient or more beneficial and has the resources and the knowledge to do it, wouldn't they?
Which, of course, is a central issue of development work. Mark's parents have been visiting and have commented many times on things that are inefficient or unproductive and have offered up very simple ways to change. Some issues are problematic at a very large level. A person can't change because the systems that person depends on aren't changed. But other times, a solution appears to be relatively easy to solve, yet things continue on. Even when given materials, training, and an eye to cultural differences. Why?
I've come to see less of the "failings" or problems of Tanzania as much as an increased awareness of my own privelege--of education, of my government, my history--things that I have very little control over or have done, but have shaped an attitude and an outlook on the world that I can't assume others share. Working with someone or a group that will acknowledge a problem, understand ways to address it, but not do it when faced with a practical situation is very challenging. Why is it easy for me to address that situation, but not this other person? Tanzanians very much want to join the rest of the world. They want to be more modern, more developed. Some of the things have gotten us as Americans to where we are are in significant conflict with the values of Tanzania. Others aren't. Nothing is easy when you approach things from two such vastly different perspectives. I certainly don't want Tanzania to be a little America, or even more like America necessarily. I think it would be best for the country to forge its own identity, creating itself the way we've been doing for the past 200 years. I don't know that will be done. I just know that it won't be done by simply showing people something new or different. Clearly, as Bryson illustrates, there is something very unique about us as Americans, something that we can be proud of. But when we look at the rest of the world, we should at acknowledge the benefits and opportunities that we have derived simply by being American, benefits and opportunities we enjoy without having to earn. We continue to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Temple of Philae

Wow. That's just about anyone could say when they see the Temple of Philae. Wow.
You can get a sense of how big the temple was by looking at tiny Cameron on the right below the carvings of Isis and Osiris (which are also on the right of the picture on the left). It's even more amazing to consider the entire temple was dismantled and rebuilt in in the 1970s because it was constantly flooded from the Nile. Each block was mapped and recorded and reassembled to within less than 1/4 inch accuracy.

The temple was built to honor the goddess Isis, the greatest of the Egyptian gods, who was worshipped even throughout the Roman empire. Early Christians who arrived built an altar in the temple, added crosses next to the doors and scratched out the faces on many of the carvings, as the later-arriving Muslims.
Osiris, the king of Egypt, and Isis, his queen, was beloved by all his people. But his brother Seth was jealous and plotted against him to take over the throne. One day Osiris held a big banquet for his court. Seth was also invited. This was the moment he had long waited for. He began to describe a wonderful coffin that he had been given. It was indeed beautiful, made of the finest wood and gilded and painted. He promised to give it as a gift to whomever fitted exactly into it. And as he already had acquired Osiris´measures, the king was the only one that fitted into the coffin, and when he was persuaded into taking place in it, Seth´s accomplices quickly nailed the lid to it and while the rest of the court was held back, it was taken away and thrown into the Nile where the current carried it away. Later, Seth and his men were out hunting nearby. When he happened upon the casket, he recognized it, realized his treachery might be found out and feared that Isis would punish him. He broke into it and tore Osiris´ body into several pieces which he spread out all over the land. Only then did he feel safe that Isis would not be able to find them.

For many long, sorrowful years Isis searched the lands. Wherever she found a piece of Osiris´ body, she erected an altar, giving thanks to the gods. When at last all the parts had been assembled, Isis made Osiris into the first mummy. She then proceeded to use her powerful magic and breathed new life into Osiris and so she was able to conceive the child Horus. After this Osiris became in time the King of the Land of the Dead, while Horus fought against his uncle Set and won his father´s throne and became the Living King of Egypt and the first of the pharoahs, all of whom claim to be descended from the gods.

Of course, it looks pretty fantastic at night, too.

The sound and light show was cheezy to be sure but well worth it to see the temple at night. We giggled at the girls leaving behind us who were very insulted at the show--"It was just lights and a recorded soundtrack," they said. "I thought there would be actors. I thought it would be a play." So not everyone is familiar with the concept.

The temple glowed like it was lit from within. We enjoyed watching a couple cats (worshipped in ancient times and still very common today) sitting quietly on wall watching the proceedings.

Ava enjoyed working on her modeling career. Noah tried to wedge himself into a stone chair. If his skinny little bottom couldn't fit in easily, we wondered just who that chair was for!

One of the things that amazed us at every turn was the detailing of the carvings, especially the hieroglyphics. Everywhere you look, stories, inventories, and records are kept using hieroglyphics. Given how time-consuming it would be to write using that alphabet, it's hard to imagine the number of people and hours it would have taken to do the work. The images are carved in bas relief (where the image is raised from the surface) and low relief (where the image is carved into the surface). So much time has passed, so many millions of people have visited (10 million people per year visit Egypt) and yet the images still appear so new in so many instances.