Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zaga wut wut? Part 1

Zagazig, Egypt

'Haythem, we're coming to Zagazig. Ok?'
'Ok.' He seemed distracted. 'You come Zagazig?'
'You come Zagazig visit me?'
'Yes, is that ok?'
'Yes. Ok. Welcome welcome.'

After a day of riding, asking a broken down taxi driver to draw a map of Zagazig, and having our Arabic laughed at by a few local youngsters, I found a phone shop.
'Haythem, we're here.'
'Where are you?'
'Ah, you come Zagazig! You where?'
'We're at a tea shop on El Nil street. You come?'
'Ok ok. Welcome welcome.'
How Haythem found us, I don't know. There were tons of tea shops on El Nil street.

The local youngsters had taken us to a tea shop and offered us tea while we waited. That's what people do in Egypt--they drink tea, with family, friends, and strangers alike. We joked around, with Nate and I gesturing and reciting the 20 most-important-words-in-Arabic hoping to be understood--men ayna? (from where?), janube africa (south africa), beh agala (with bike), sabat jahor (7 months). Of course, we only became the subject of mockery when they couldn't help but find our Aarabi very funny: janube afrique?! be agala?! sabat jahor?! On the edge of their seats, their eyes nearly popped out in excitement, Really??!!

'Haythem!' I immediately recognized Haythem as he walked down the street. He had combed back hair and wore a clean, sleek button down shirt with jeans. He greeted us, then turned to exchange hugs and handshakes with the youngsters. 'You know them?,' I asked. 'No,' Haythem replied with a smile. That's the way what people do in Egypt--they greet each other, family, friends, and strangers alike.

We chatted away as he walked us to his home; his phone was ringing nonstop. 'You must be popular, Haythem,' I said. He looked up from entering a text on his phone, and broke the news: 'I'm getting married in two days.'

'TWO DAYS! You didn't tell us you were getting married!'

'Yes, two days.' His phone rang again. 'Phone phone phone phone,' he laughed, pretending to chuck the phone away.

He led us through a maze of narrow, dirt alleyways between rugged brick buildings. Arriving at his house, he left us with his family and went to oversee the construction of his new house. He needed to make sure it was finished by the big day, because in Egyptian tradition, that's when newlyweds move in.

On the roof with the family, Nate and I stood in an awkward silence. We exhausted our 20-most-important-words-in-Arabic , and now resorted to avoiding eye contact. Hmm...let's look at the tv flickering in the apartment across the alleyway...or how about that tied up cow entranced in its musings...

A stream of relatives and friends came by to visit the family. As they all hugged and kissed and chatted happily about the wedding, Nate and I look at each other hesitantly. Maybe we shouldn't stay. Everyone was obviously busy with the wedding, and it was unfair that as guests, we imposed ourselves on them.

Just then, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around to see Nourhan, Haythem's sister. 'Haythem...umm...umm...' she stammered, looking for the English words. Finally, she pointed to her ring finger, ''
'Yes, Haythem, marry two days.'
She nodded frantically. 'You come?'
'No, I don't think so.'
'Lee?! (Why?)'
'Thalatha yawm. Al-Quahirah (3 days. Cairo).' I made plane flying noises, 'Ee-ee--errrr...Amreeka.'
'No,no...You must come!' She turned around and blurted out to the whole crowd of family that we would be absent for the wedding. Suddenly, swiftly like the wind, every person stood up and looked at us with their puppy eyes. 'Lee?! Come!'
'Ok, ok, ' I replied reluctantly, and everyone was in bright smiles again. Going to their wedding meant we wouldn't have time to see the pyramids at Giza, but I couldn't bear to see sad faces on our wonderful hosts.

Hence began, three days of musings around the city of Zagazig, the beginning of the end.


In the morning, Haythem's father, dressed in a loose white ragi, led us through town. With one glossed lazy eye, Daddy Haythem was an easy going man who spent most of his days lounging around with friends, drinking shai and smoking, at his favorite tea house. And naturally, it was here that he brought us. We sat down and met Sadeeq Uncle, who was Daddy Haythem's best friend and apparently, a taxi driver extraordinaire. Through cup after cup of shai and fresh lemonade, Sadeeq Uncle and Daddy Haythem chatted away like old friends, while Nate and I basked in the luxury of sitting back and observing everyday life, without having to talk to anyone. Months of repeating ourselves endlessly to people along the road, and still not being understood, had clearly worn us down.
After some time, Daddy Haythem turned to me and said: 'Sadeeq Uncle best friend. Taxi. Good driver. Go Zagazig.'

'I know,' I said, thinking he was reiterating that Sadeeq Uncle was his best friend. Apparently I didn't know, because just then, Daddy Haythem and Sadeeq Uncle stood up. They went over the the kebab stand, bought 3 kebabs and lemonades, forced them down our throats, and told us Sadeeq Uncle was ready to take us on a tour of Zagazig. Sadeeq Uncle was indeed a good driver, and in just under an hour, was able to drive us past mazes of fruit stands and people through all corners of town, past the canals irrigating from the Nile, the Nile itself, and even an archaeological site they were building in the center of town. I'm sure there was not a road in Zagazig we didn't traveled that day.

We returned to Haythem's house to find music blasting through the windows into the narrow dirt alleyways of the neighborhood. Wedding music, I thought. Stepping inside gingerly, I found Mommy Haythem sitting in her room. And there she sat, with her bangs pulled back with a blue headband, smoking a hookah. Her mouth formed into a wide grin as she saw me, 'Hello... Eh?' Did I want some? I shook my head: No, it's ok. 'Shokran, shokran,' she chuckles, cordially mocking the only words I know how to say to her. In a mode of revelation, I walked out of the room: I didn't know women smoked hookahs!

In the evening, Daddy Haythem brought us back out into town. This time, the city was a whole new place. After sunset, Egypt came to life with the exuberance of Time's Square. Rambunctious honking from wedding parades filled the streets, brightly colored lights flashed everywhere, kids crowded the counters of irresistible Egyptian sweets, and endless rows of clothing shops bustled with people.

Weaving our way through the exhilarating alleyways, we end up next to a row of shops along a canal. Without warning, Daddy Haythem tugged my sleeve: 'My sister. Big...'
'You're big sister?'
'...Everyday, eat ice cream. You like ice cream?'
'Yes, we love ice cream!'
'...Everyday, sister Eat ice cream. Big. My sister.' He smiles and points to an exact spot on the canal wall. I imagined a short, plump woman sitting there alone, unmoved by anything around her, delightfully slurping her ice cream. I wondered whether in my old age, I would be able to enjoy life as much as she.

Finally arriving back at the house, we found Mommy Haythem sound asleep downstairs. Nate and I climbed upstairs, and, without other sets of clothes to change into or the need for blankets, we plopped ourselves onto the our respective couches.

'Allah Akbar...' To the 5 am call to prayer, we fell asleep.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Time I Almost Got Eaten By Lions

It was 2 am. Mtera Dam, Tanzania, on the dirt road 30 miles north of Iringa. Nate, Quinn, and I were going to join Quinn's family on a 2.30 am bus to Dodoma. The bus stop was in the next village three miles away, so Quinn's family took most of our belongings and hopped on a shuttle, while Nate, Quinn, and I biked there to meet them.

I rubbed my eyes half open, and dragged my zombie body onto my bike. The rough road shook up my sleep deprived brain, like one of those baby rattler toys, and left my state of mind as a box of scrambled jigsaw pieces. 'But only 3 miles!', I kept thinking, trying to conjure bubbly optimism and 100 happy faces to get myself to the bus stop.

It was pitch dark and Nate and Quinn rode in front, as was usual. Was I dreaming? I couldn't tell the difference. Pow! My bike staggered on a large loose rock, and I came tumbling down onto the gravel dirt. 'Aigh...', I grumbled.

'Come along now, MinWah, you're almost there!'

I picked myself up, but was not seeing 100 happy faces.

I arrived at the village gate under a bright orange streetlamp. 'This is it!' At least, I was pretty sure this was where Quinn's family said the bus stop was. Wasn't it? I looked around. Not a sign of life. I blinked. I squinted. 'Hello? Anyone home?' Nope. Just an empty village road with a few cool-colored streetlamps.

'Nate and Quinn would have stopped at the turnoff to wait for me', I thought, and continued biking along the road. A few more pedals. Hmm, something was wrong. I stopped. I looked around again, searching for any small clue. Once again, only a few fluorescent streetlamps and the gate glowing orange behind me. There's got to be lots of people somewhere, waiting for this bus. How come there's no bus around? And what about the people? Maybe there was another gate along the road, perhaps on the other side of the village.

Go ahead or turn around? The bus is leaving soon! I went ahead. Nate and Quinn had to be stopped somewhere waiting for me. So I started biking...I biked and biked, rushing to that obscure bus stop somewhere at the end of the village. My water bottle fell. My stick fell. I didn't stop to pick them up. My heart was racing. The road was pounding. Before I knew it, I was speeding down a steep hill, blinded by the rush of air, the absence of a moon, and the shocks of loose gravel and sudden potholes. The lights of the village were far behind me now.

It was 3.30. Where in the world was everyone? I stopped and looked again. No sign of anything. The bus must have left already. But why didn't I see it? There's only one road. Does this bus even exist? Who in the world takes a bus from a village on a dirt road at 2.30 in the morning?

Suddenly, a dark figure appeared 10 ft in front of me. I nearly tripped over my bike. It was a Maasai. He held his staff behind his neck across his shoulders, with arms draped over it. He walked deliberately across the road, and disappeared into the thorny trees. What was the Maasai doing out alone at 3 am, besides startling a young bike tourist? I wondered. Maybe he was looking for a lion; you know they say, Maasai are infamous lion hunters.

I put my bike down and sat beside the road. It was impossible to bike back up the big hill to town in the dark. There were only two things I could do now. I could sit and wait for the bus, hoping that the bus was still behind me. If that wasn't the case, I could spend the night out here, bike back to the village in the morning, figure out how to get to Dodoma and find my friends in the city. The thought of the task was overwhelming. I started to sob softly, the exhaustion of fighting rough road for the past 2 hours finally reaching me, and drifted into a partial doze.

A soft rumble stirred my senses. I opened my eyes and looked around. Nothing. But the rumble was growing louder and louder. Was it true? Was I really hearing something? Yes, there it was. The glimmer of hope. The faint glow of dilapidated headlights. I ran into the middle of the road flailing my arms. Oh no, not a good idea. They can't see me and I'll get killed. Should I keep to the side of the road? What if they don't see me? I flailed my arms on the side of the road. The faint glow came closer and closer, but had no signs of stopping. As it passed me, my heart sank. That was it.

But then it screeched to a stop. I heard voices screaming from within the bus, 'Oh my Gosh, MinWah!' Quinn's whole family stuck their heads out the window and waved. I wasn't alone afterall. One of the passengers helped lift my bike onto the roof and I climbed inside the musty overcrowded bus.

As the bus started again, a drunk Tanzanian police officer sat next to me after Quinn's mom introduced him to me. 'He was very kind and helped us find you,' Quinn's mom said. He must have lost the part that I was tired though, because he started talking incessantly, saying he was Maasai, and wanted to write to me in America and asked if he could hold my hand. I leaned my head against the window, folded my arms, and made blunt comments to drunk policeman. Even his heavy breath couldn't trump my overwhelming sense of relief knowing that I found my friends. In my sea of comfort, I wasn't far away from home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Full Pictures on Picasa

Greetings, again. I am pleased to announce: pictures are posted on Picasa!

Especially for those of you without Facebook, where some of these pictures were posted, I hope you forgive me for the long delay in posting pictures. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Update on the Knee

Thank you to those who responded to Minwah's recent updates. After leaving Africa I was able to make a few, but I could not really tell the story for those who had stayed behind, even for Orian, who was in contact with me more than anything else, and definitely not for Minwah, Nate, or Quinn. Although speaking from personal experience, it is almost impossible to make a blog post in Africa unless you are in a major city like Tanzania, and even then it is a feat, especially when you are on the move. So it is nice to see these updates after the fact. I have some more pictures from the trip, and maybe I will add to the posts I have already made. Some stories are easier to tell upon reflection, when you have a little distance, both in terms of geography and time.

I do have another update to wrap up part of a story: my knee. The update: as of today, I consider my knee pretty much healed. I've been able to run 25-minutes on the treadmill multiple days a week, and actually on Friday I ran 30 minutes, and today (Sunday) I ran 30 minutes, and did some elliptical work and stretching, and also walking to and from the T and the gym, and my knee is not acting up at all. YAY! It's been a long process, and is definitely the worst injury I've sustained in my life. It's only been since early October that I've been able to stand for a long time and walk for distances without my knee flaring up, and it's only been the past week or so since I've been able to run.

For those of you who read all along, or for those of you who have seen me since the trip, you know that my knee was the reason I left Africa, and it was not an over-use injury this time (on my bike trip across the U.S., I was constantly dealing with various over use issues). It was, like many accidents, the silliest of mishaps, one wrong step into darkness, a wrenched knee. Even at the time I considered myself I mentioned before, I really thought in that split second I realized that I hadn't placed my foot on something solid, I thought I was going to go down into the darkness of the water at the base of the dock, tangled with my bike, too hard to find. So when I found myself wedged between the dock and the boat, I counted my blessings.

At first my knee seemed to heal quickly, but as one month passed, and then two, and I still could not walk around the block without an awkward gait and pain, I started to worry. Of course, in the first month, I didn't exactly take it easy. I thought that if I kept exercising...gently, mind you...the knee would work itself out. So I took the dog for a walk everyday and did yoga in a room heated to 95F. Well, the knee didn't get better, and for awhile it got worse. So I tried not doing anything. This was very hard for me, and actually took some concentration, to convince myself, "not today, just a little longer," and especially with the grey and rainy spring/early summer, didn't do anything good for my spirits.

Eventually I started to see a physical therapist recommended to me by my father, who has gone to this guy for various things, most recently his back. I've always been a little skeptical of traditional doctors and their ability to treat musculoskeletal injuries, but since Dad used to call physical therapists "physical terrorists" I thought I would give this place a try. Everyone was super nice and gave me little exercises to do to keep my supporting muscles strong, or build them back up. They also tried some techniques like ultrasonic stimulation and some kind of voltage stimulation that was supposed to get gunk from the healing process up and moving. This was in late June and early July.

The physical therapy process was an interesting one since I haven't had any before. I don't have time today, but maybe in the future I'll write more about the experience and the things I tried. Anyway, if you are in CT, I definitely recommend the Eastern Rehabilitation Network branch in Blue Back Square, West Hartford. Since Orian and I didn't have insurance back in the States, my parents generously assisted me financially by paying for my sessions: at $90 a session, they weren't cheap, but they were worth it. I don't remember now how many sessions I had, but I think I had around seven.
If I need to get physical therapy, I'd still be a little skeptical if I didn't have a recommendation from someone. If you are thinking about P.T. for something, ask around and find someone through a friend. I guess it's like finding a doctor: some are better than others. But a bad physical therapist has the potential to do a lot of damage.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Here, the Long Journey Has Ended

Ah, There's No Place Like Home...
(I mean, There's No Place Like Sleeping in the Streets of Egypt)

Edfu, Egypt

Suez and Cairo, here we come!

North of Zafrana, Egypt

Mouth of the Nile

Ras el Bar, Egypt

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Road That's Passable

CONGRATULATIONS to our fellow Irish lads for Biking Across Africa!!!

We meet Maghnus, Brian, Burns, and Alan in Moyale, the border town of Kenya and Ethiopia. In the coincidence that we are stuck in Moyale due to money issues, we happen upon the four of them in the streets of Moyale, Ethiopia side. 'Hey bike tourists!' Nate and I run up to them and before we know it, questions start spewing out of our mouths...Where did you start? Where are you going? What's the road like? Where did you find water? Are there good camping spots? Where are you from?...

Meanwhile, a crowd of Ethiopians forms around us. Sooner or later, we are the biggest show on the street--passerbys jumping up and down, trying to get a glimpse of the faranjis; taxis and cars honking their horns, trying to get through; locals mocking our mannerisms, trying to make sense of what we say; 'front row' spectators with jaws hanging open and eyes stuck in a trance, mesmerized by the incessant exchanges gushing out of our mouths.

But our excitement is interrupted by a cool breeze--the sun is fading fast, and the boys have not yet found a place to stay. We agree to meet later at 'Fekadu Hotel' for drinks.


Nate and I arrive at 'Fekadu Hotel', eat our share of injera and stew, and blabber excitedly while we wait (about how we have new people to talk to besides each other). Waiting--8 o' clock--waiting--9 o' show. Nate says: 'They probably couldn't find a place to stay until dark, and by the time they got settled it was too late.'

But actually, the conversation went like this--
Maghnus: Where'd you say they'd meet us?
Brian: I don't remember. I wasn't listening that closely.
Maghnus: What do you mean you don't know? You said you knew! I thought you knew, that's why I didn't ask twice.
Brian: Sorry, man. It started with an F. Something like Fruc...fruc...fruc-ti!
Maghnus: Fructi?
Brian: Yes. I'm positive--
Maghnus: Fructi? Isn't that the name of a shampoo?
Brian: What?...No! It's Fructi--
Maghnus: No! That's not right! Fructi is a shampoo!
Brian: Just listen to me. Nate talked to me...not you!

...they walk up to a local...

Maghnus: 'Chyu know where 'Fructi Hotel' is?
A Local: Fructi, fructi, oh yes, yes!(...leads them blindly in circles...) Here, Fructi...! (points to most dilapidated building on street)
All-Other-Locals: Faranj! YOU! You look for hotel? Cheap! You you you! Birr? You! Shilling? Change money? You! Rich man!

...taking matters aside...

Brian: I don't think they're here.
Maghnus: Of course this isn't it! I told you!
Brian: This isn't my fault!


I find that's generally how conversations go when you're traveling with other people for a Long. Time. If you get past it though, it all becomes good fun.

They were headed in the opposite way: from Addis Ababa to South Africa. They were traveling much more high tech than us. They had laptops, ipods (man, haven't seen one of those in ages...), cameras, and video cameras. They had sleek-looking Thorn bikes, and color coded Ortlieb panniers. And Maghnus--crazy guy--brought 150 patches with him. Generously, he lent a few to me. (Thanks, Maghnus!)

On the other hand, Nate and I had what Orian coins 'wingnut bikes'. My panniers looked like lopsided tumors growing off my wheels, after I resewed them to double their capacity; my 15-20 liters of water bottles hung off the sides like Medusa's hair in an intricate strap system; and my bike frame screamed 'whackjob!' because a hippie painted it with leopard prints when he was stoned for three months.

But our new friends found value to our 'wingnut-ness.' Nate and I helped them tune brakes and shifting, patch up tires, and repair Maghnus' bent frame. In exchange, we played with their 'tech gadgets'--music streaming from the ipod like a heaven sent gift to feed the soul...

It's simple moments like these that inevitably keep you going. That there was nothing to be afraid of, even in the vast mystery that lay in front. That these Irish lads were physical proof that the road ahead was passable. That we--we were not alone.

(Thanks: Maghnus, Brian, Burns, & Alan. Keep in Touch.)

Sure Has Been a Long Way!