Friday, July 31, 2009

Flashback Friday: Kink in my neck

This morning came far too early for Rachel. It came far too early for me and Andrew as well. Not to brag, but we were early for church.

I’m not bragging because it didn’t matter that we were early to church; Rachel was so grumpy that we could hardly do anything. She was actually pretty alright during sacrament meeting. That, or I just ignored her so effectively that I actually heard what the talks were about—that charity is the act of becoming Christlike.

The second half of the meeting she wouldn’t go to her class and would hardly let me put her down. She sat on my lap and cried, saying that her neck hurt…sooo bad!

She probably slept funny. We took her home after church, gave her some children’s ibuprofen, some lunch, and a nap. She woke up a much happier child and hasn’t complained about her neck since.

I used to get kinks in my neck all the time when I was little, but that’s mostly my fault, I think. I was not a very independent sleeper and would sneak into my parents’ room to sleep all the time, well into kindergarten. Sometimes my mom would let me climb into bed with her, but eventually stopped letting me join her until after my dad left for work. He always left early in the wee hours of the morning that seemed, to me at least, to be part of the night still.

My parents had a little couch in their room. Or maybe just an armchair. Anyway, when I would go in too early, my mom would tell me I didn’t have to go back to my room, but couldn’t get in bed with her. My only other choice was the couch, which must have been a rather small couch, maybe a loveseat…or just an armchair. Whatever it was, I couldn’t spread out on it all the way and my head would always be resting awkwardly on the arm.

Or, if I stayed in my bed, I would be sleeping on my stomach with my head turned at a dramatic angle to one side or the other, with my knees curled up underneath me, a sleeping position Rachel seems to enjoy, herself.

I would wake up with awful kinks in my neck.

I remember once borrowing a neck brace from my dad, perhaps on a Saturday—because he was home, and wearing it the whole day. I don’t know why we had that neck brace, but I’m sure it looked ridiculous wrapped around a 4-year-old’s neck.

I went to the playground and played with my friends, running around and having fun, so my neck couldn’t have hurt too badly. Still, I do remember what it felt like to have a kink in my neck at that age and it was like the worst pain I had ever experienced, so I had to pity my little baby.

Getting kinks in my neck now don’t seem all that bad to me. Maybe I’m just more accustomed to pain, or maybe I know that a good night’s rest in an ergonomic sleeping position will fix it up so it doesn’t seem like it’s going to hurt for forever…when I was little, though, they were awful! So as annoying as having a crying baby on my lap for the duration of primary was, I could do nothing but pity the poor thing.

And now for Alexandria

The Misr train station is rather centrally located, so we decided to do a bit of walking to get to our first tourist destinations. Since we are foreigners we were immediately swarmed by taxi drivers the minute we were in broad daylight. Blinded and blinking, we said no to all of them. They in turn acted gravely offended, except for one man who fell in love with our little nona, Rachel.

He tickled her and crooned over her and followed us around for a few minutes. When we got to the road there were even more taxi drivers waiting there. Andrew asked one man in a cab how to get to a certain street.

“It is very, very far away,” the man warned, “But I can take you there.”

Our random, friendly taxi driver ran over and yelled at the guy for giving us bad information and then stole that man’s business by pleasantly pointing us in the right direction.

Just a short walk across a few busy streets and we reached the amphitheater, which I believe is officially the only Roman ruins in all of Egypt. It was small, but it was worth seeing, if only for Andrew’s sake. He craves Rome and we have to satisfy that every now and then.

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Head shots of NancyAndrew climbed up and down the stairs of the amphitheater with Rachel on his back. I stayed down at the bottom of the amphitheater because I couldn’t imagine wanting to lug my pregnant self up the stairs moments after arriving on the “stage,” only to have to hike back down to hike back up the tourist stairs again. It sounded like too many stairs to me so I took pictures and admired the blue, unpolluted sky instead. I haven’t seen such blue skies in so long; I almost forgot what they looked like. Cairo skies never look like this!

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When Andrew and Rachel came back down, Andrew took a few pictures of me so that I could prove that I also went to Alex. Looking at these pictures has made me again notice that I’m not nearly as huge as I feel at this point but still doesn’t change the fact that I feel like a pot-bellied penguin.
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The excavated, tourable portion of the ruins is really quite small, but there are teams working at uncovering more. Andrew said that the ruins were discovered when digging the foundation for building some high rise apartments. The area was called Kom el-Dikka, or Pile of Rubble. No one knew what all those crazy rocks were for so they thought they’d build right over top of them. Little did they know, they were sitting on ancient Roman ruins.

After we’d had our fill of the amphitheater (it’s small, so it didn’t take long), we went to see some statues that were excavated from under the sea. Alexandria is slowly being swallowed by the sea and large quantities of her treasures are buried in the ocean, which really limits what the casual tourist can see. Now, if we were expert scuba divers, it would be another story.

Rachel’s favorite statue was what she so aptly described as the “lion-guy statue” (alternatively the “lion statue guy”). It was a sphinx, and that is the exact definition of a sphinx (animal + human head). She’s so smart, or simply observant.

Leaning in so Rachel can touch it

Andrew and I found the Greco-Roman-Egyptian statues interesting. At the amphitheater we saw a statue of a Greco-Roman woman wearing the crown of an Egyptian goddess. Later in the Alexandria National Museum we saw several other statues of people either wearing Egyptian garb and posed in the Greco-Roman style or wearing Greco-Roman clothes and posed in Egyptian style.

Apparently the thing on her head means she's deity

We walked from the amphitheater to the museum, which was quite trek. It didn’t look to far on the map and it didn’t even take too very long to get there, but it certainly wore us out! The museum was so worth it, though.

The museum was staffed with students, mostly Egyptian ones from what I saw, and the museum was labeled (*gasp!*), visually appealing, and had the more delicate artifacts (textiles and wood) in sealed glass cases with temperature and air controls built in. And the whole building was air conditioned. It was fabulous!

Part of a long mural across from the square with the LibraryAlexandria seems to be a very cultured and artsy city. It’s basically always been a “university town” of sorts and seems much more organized than Cairo. There were murals and statues and other artwork placed around the city; their intersections had beautiful fountains and centerpieces; and they even use traffic lights.

They actually use these here. It's a miracle!

We taxied from the museum to a restaurant called Taberna. They make pizza with hand-tossed crust, fired in a wood oven. It was so good. We also got a “shwerma pie,” which was also good. It was made with hand-tossed dough and filled with shwerma meat and vegetables. It was fun to watch the cook work; and he had fun watching up watch him work. He kept waving at Rachel.

We splurged and got fresh juice with our meal, both strawberry and lemonade. We couldn’t help ourselves; it was only 4.50 LE per glass. Juice is never that cheap in Cairo, at least not in a restaurant.

Fantastic strawberry-orange juice

From there, still too tired to walk, we taxied to the library. Taxis in Alex seem cheaper than Cairo and we never once argued with a driver about the fare. Maybe we were just overpaying? If so, we didn’t mind because we paid the same, if not less, for taxi rides than what we would have paid in Cairo.

The library is an amazing building and a wonderful tribute to modern architecture. I love when new buildings are interesting instead of blocky and boring. Unfortunately we were banned from going inside because we had Rachel with us. Children under the age of 6 are not permitted in the library. Sad day.

The tower has parts of every known alphabet

We had fun admiring the impressive exterior, though. Supposedly there are markings on the walls for every known alphabet, which I believe. In addition to what I’d consider “regular” alphabets, we saw brail, music notes, mathematical symbols and pictographs.

Minimum age for the museum is 6. Lame. Music is considered a language (although the notes are backwards) 

We walked around to the back of the museum, passing a little suq where I bought a cute and cheap dress (I’ve been wanting a dress since I’m sick trying to get my shirts to cover my belly when I wear skirts to church), and some nice street artwork.

 Part of a long mural across from the square with the LibraryPart of a long mural across from the square with the Library

We also saw some road work.

There, I fixed it.

The back of the library is supposed to look like a second sun rising out of the Mediterranean Sea. I’m not sure they accomplished their goal…but it does look interesting. It could just be me, but the statue reminds me of temple spires…

It's supposed to look like a 2nd sun rising from the Mediterranean
Probably part of the library complex

Rachel was happy to finally see the Mediterranean Sea. We told her about Alexandria the night before we left, mentioning that we’d get to see the Mediterranean Sea. When she woke up in the morning she asked if we were going to go to the “Meto-rano” yet.

Across from the Library Across from the Library Looks kind of rocky, but it's really beautiful20090731 - 037 

From there we went to visit Fort Qaitbey, which looked like it would have been a lot of fun to visit. However, it was closed early for some sort of a convention…Andrew was able  to convince the guards to let him take Rachel in to go to the bathroom, but that was the only thing they got to see inside the gates.

Awesome place. Too bad it was closed.

Instead of seeing that, we visited a ghetto fish museum just to the right of the fort. I think it was built like 70 years ago and has hardly been refurbished since it opened. Rachel enjoyed it, but we found it to be a little outdated and creepy. It was full of falling-apart dioramas duramas some with real, but long since dead, sea life and some with broken foam replicas.

20090731 - 040He's either dead or investigating something. I think he's dead.20090731 - 039 

They even had this big whale skeleton that Rachel found fascinating.

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After fleeing the fish museum, we relaxed by the sea with some mango ice cream. There were vendors set up all along the boardwalk, which kind of reminded me of my visit to Helsinki a few years ago, except here they were selling Egyptian hud instead of Finnish hud. We were tempted to buy a shell sculpture until the salesman told us it was unbreakable and demonstrated his point by dropping it on the ground. It bounced. So we didn’t buy anything.

20090731 - 044 She looks happy :)  20090731 - 047

Rachel, of course, got a lot of attention. One couple wanted pictures and a video with her, which they took using their phone. I swear, everyone here has cameras that do everything: take pictures, take videos, blare loud music… Anyway, the girl’s name was Rachel. She’s the first Arab Rachel that Rachel has met here. We always tell people her name is “Rasha” (pronounced like Russia) because that’s what people understand. Saying “Rachel” just confuses people.

I never thought that Rachel would have the nickname Russia. Or Dacher for that matter. I’m not sure how long either of them will stick…

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This particular Rasha was so excited that Rachel’s name was Rasha, too, which is why they needed the video, I guess. 

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We made it back to the train station in plenty of time to catch our train and probably could have wandered in several minutes late and still had time to spare thanks to the mess at the train station. The ride was much longer than expected, so I’m glad that I braved the squatter bathroom before we left.

As a general rule I avoid public restrooms, especially in the Middle East where the bathrooms are usually covered in gallons of mystery water. The floors are slippery and the bathrooms smell strongly of backed-up (or never flushed down) sewage. I don’t understand it, find it disgusting and unsanitary and therefore avoid public restrooms. Who wants to step into a mess like that? Not me.

But as strong as my dislike of public restrooms are, I would rather use a stationary one than add movement to the mix. Using the bathroom at the station was, in my opinion, much more likely to be a pleasant experience than using the bathroom on the train.

Cursing my flip flips, I waded into the bathroom and waited in line for the squatter. Once in there, I held the door shut with one hand, and kept my pant cuffs from getting too soggy with the other, while I squatted over a hole gurgling with putrid water and infested with who knows what. But at least I didn’t have to go on the train.

I basically bathed in hand sanitizer when I got out of there, lathering up my hands and squirting it between my toes. Yuck!

Rachel, on the other hand, had just gone at Fort Qaitbey so we didn’t take her before leaving on the train. It’s only a two hour ride…

Five minutes after pulling out of the station, she announced she had to go. Of course.

I told Andrew he could take her since I don’t enter moving restrooms. I would rather be peed on, I think.

He was awesome and took her, but she refused to go. She came back crying.

“I want clean bathroom! I want clean bathroom!”

I told her she could hold it for the next 2 hours until we got to Cairo or she could go back and use the messy bathroom. She told me she’d hold it. And she did.

Little did I know, our two hour ride would turn into a four hour ride. I asked her periodically if she still had to go and she’d say that she did but that she was holding it until we could find a clean bathroom. She held it all the way to Cairo and all the way home on the metro. I was amazed because I had to stop and use the washroom at the Ramses station, which she refused to enter, and which, despite having to pay to get in, rivals any other Middle Eastern public restroom in grotesqueness.

Rachel was one happy child when she saw her gleaming, yellow potty sitting on our clean and dry bathroom floor.

Hopefully the next time we go to Alex there won’t be so many delays. There are still so many things to see that we missed!

Alexandria Train Wreck (30 July 2009)

We’ve been meaning to get up to Alexandria for quite some time and yesterday we finally made it! We took the nine o’clock express train from Cairo to Alexandria and watched in amazement as we entered the foreignly green landscape of the Delta.

I always enjoy watching the farmers work. They have no tractors, or few tractors, so work their entire plot by hand, with the help of a few water buffalo, donkeys, cows, and children. It’s very rustic. I’m not sure whether to applaud them for working so effectively with so little modern equipment or to mourn the hard work they do for so little when they could potentially reap so much more with the help of modern farming techniques and monster equipment.

Modernity isn’t always superior, though, and the fields of corn, bananas, lettuce, and onions seem much more miraculous to me here than, say, canola fields in Alberta, which are tilled, planted, and harvested with big farm machinery and watered with pivots.

Not that “modern farming” is easy. I’ve been rock picking several times. I’ve hand-weeded more than one crop circle. I’ve driven tractors for hours on end. I’ve seen my uncle fret about his crops after a hailstorm. I’ve heard my share of and seen the aftermath of horrific farming accidents. Modern farming has its challenges, too, but I still just wonder in amazement when I see a hand-plowed, hand-sewn field of corn.

Part of that amazement might be because corn products are so hard to come by here…and I can’t figure why that’s the case when there are miles and miles of corn growing in the Delta.

The train ride was uneventful until the very end. We puffed out of the Sidi Gaber station thinking that we’d be to the Misr station in a matter of minutes. We were wrong.

It took us over an hour to get from one station to the next. Rachel was getting antsy; there were no farm animals or people for her to look at anymore. We were just stuck behind a wall on a train in the middle of a big city. For an hour.

Even seeing a man who she swore was Obama didn’t keep her occupied for long. “Ooooh! Obama!” she sang out when he walked by, “I like Barack Obama. I like President Barack Obama. He’s right there! Obama! Hi, Obama!”

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The man said hello back to her, but we were all chuckling about it. Somehow I just don’t think we’ll ever see the President of the United States on a second class train in Egypt.

(As a side note, Rachel also professes to really like President Mubarak. His picture is everywhere and she likes to point him out and talk about him, too. She’s very…patriotic…I guess.)

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Finally, we crept into the station and disembarked into complete chaos. The reason our train had been delayed was suddenly very obvious. A train on the neighbouring platform had somehow derailed and jumped onto the platform, crashing into the station.

Repair crews from Egyptian Railways lifting derailed train cars

Hordes of people surrounded the wreckage, snapping pictures and speculating about what happened. We joined them.

Repair crews from Egyptian Railways lifting derailed train cars

We were yelled at to stop taking pictures by a few people, some ladies put their hands up over our lens, but mostly people were fine with us gawking over the accident. It always surprises me how often Egyptians get upset with us for taking pictures, especially when there are hundreds of other people around, snapping pictures with their camera phones.

After asking several different people what happened we were able to sort out some semblance of a story. We have no idea how, exactly, it jumped off the track—it must have been going fast—but at around 8:00 AM yesterday morning the engine, generator, and one passenger car smashed into the Misr station. From what we hear, the train was empty, which I’m wont to believe since there were no medics or wailing mourners on scene.

Since our train pulled up at 12:30 and they were just starting to move the first of the three wrecked cars, it’s unlikely that there were hundreds of dead people (as was rumored). The passenger car looked empty and we saw no carnage whatsoever. And Egypt moves slowly, so if there were hundreds of dead, they would still be extricating the bodies at 12:30, not moving an already empty train car.

It was interesting to see a whole group of men in official green uniforms with hard hats standing by, watching casually and doing nothing, while two ununiformed men with no safety equipment struggled to secure the cables dangling from a sole crane around the passenger car. But that seems to be the way things work here. Hire five guys to sit around and watch one work… The only reason it was interesting was because the men were uniformed. I wonder what they were hired to do.

Repair crews from Egyptian Railways lifting derailed train carsRepair crews from Egyptian Railways lifting derailed train cars

We didn’t find that too ironic since that happens all the time. What we did find ironic was that when the train hopped off of its tracks, it hit and decommissioned what is probably the station’s sole fire engine! They had another one at the scene, but I suspect they borrowed it from the Sidi Gaber station since fire trucks are sparse in Egypt.

Repair crews from Egyptian Railways lifting derailed train cars

Part of us wanted to stay and watch the whole process, but after a while we decided we should just go and see Alexandria and went to the other side of the station, which was practically deserted and eerily quiet compared to the hubbub of the opposite side of the station, to buy our return tickets.

Yellow Egyptian TrainThere, I fixed it.

“Do you think they’ll be finished by the time we get back?” Andrew asked.

“Let’s see,” I calculated, “It’s 12:30 now. The train crashed at 8:00. They’re just starting to move the first car now…and it’s Egypt. I think there’s a good chance they’ll still be working when we come to catch our train home.”

After five and a half hours of wandering around the city we came back to the station to find that they were, indeed, still clearing the wrecked cars. They had moved the passenger car and the generator and were starting to work on the engine. The station was still in complete havoc. Trains were delayed by hours and no one knew which platform the trains were arriving on or when or where they’d be departing from or when.

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There was a lot of yelling and whistle blasts and even a few announcements while everyone tried to figure out what was going on. Rachel slept through it all.

She survived a looong day.

We waited for out train with Kira, who came to spend the night at our house again. When the 6:00 Alex-Cairo Express pulled up, we were told it was the 7:00 one and it was complete chaos before we finally decided just risk it all and get on it. Alexandria is about as far north as you can get in Egypt since the city borders the Mediterranean Sea. We figured that, at the very worst, we’d end up in Siwa or somewhere…

Luckily it was going to Cairo and it was the 6:00 Alex-Cairo Express and it should have had us back at the Ramses station in Cairo around 8:00. However, for some reason or another, our train kept having to stop on the tracks and we didn’t make it back to Cairo until around 10:00 PM!

I suppose it’s better to arrive late than never…and I am glad that we didn’t end up crumpled on a platform or fused with another train in a head-on collision. Still, double the travel time?! And we still had to take the metro from there to Maadi and walk home and get ready for bed. We finally stumbled through our front door at 11:00 PM and didn’t get Rachel into bed until 11:30 PM. It was a long day!

I think this is the engine

See also: http://www.andrewheiss.com/blog/2009/07/30/alexandria-train-crash/