I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Monastery of Saint Macarius

On Saturday, Jeff and I participated in a CSA tour to the Monastery of Saint Macarius and to Anafora, a Christian retreat center in the desert. The tour was led by Ibrahim, who amazed us all with his knowledge of Egyptian history, the history of Christians within Egypt, and current events. The tour was phenomenal. I originally was going to tell you about both places in this one post, but I think the monastery is enough for this one. I'll tell you about Anafora in another post. For the 49 best pictures of Saint Macarius, click here.

Saint Macarius is located 92 km (around 57 miles) north of Cairo, on the Alexandria Road. The drive took around an hour and a half, maybe a little longer, so in order to have any time at all at our destinations, we had to leave early. The tour was scheduled to leave from CSA at 7am. We planned on walking to CSA, so we left our apartment at 6:30 to make certain we were there on time. We were running late, as usual, but we had arranged to meet Lauren and her family outside, since they weren't certain exactly how to get to CSA, so I left Jeff eating breakfast and went down to meet them, confident that he would catch up. When I got downstairs, Lauren realized that she had forgotten her receipt, so she went back to get it. The rest of us went on, after I called Jeff to let him know not to leave without Lauren. The walk was pleasant, as it wasn't too hot yet.

Shortly after 7, Ibrahim started going down the list of people who had registered for the tour. As he called our names, we showed him our receipt and boarded the nicely air-conditioned bus. Of course, Ibrahim had told us that there would be no restrooms for at least two hours, but CSA wasn't open yet, so most of us ended up getting back off the bus once it became known that CSA was opening and we could use their restrooms. But eventually, maybe around 7:30, we all were on the bus and ready to go. Ibrahim told us that although lunch was included in the tour, it wouldn't be until 2pm, so he offered to stop at Metro market so we could buy snacks. Everyone declined, as most of us had brought snacks with us. (Jeff and I had three large bottles of water and two boxes of Fiber One bars; we had learned our lesson the day before.)

As we drove, Ibrahim pointed out the sites that we were passing. We drove up the Corniche to the Ring Road, which we used to cross the Nile and head into Giza. When we got off the Ring Road, we turned north. We went through Giza, passing very close to the Great Pyramids, and turned onto the Alexandria Road, reminiscent of a four-lane interstate highway back home, although there were turn-offs and turn-arounds rather than exit ramps.

Once we got out into the desert, where there was little to see outside, Ibrahim began a lecture about the history of Christianity in Egypt. Egyptians first were introduced to Christianity by the apostle Mark sometime before 50A.D. The first convert was Anianus, a shoemaker to whom Mark presented the gospel while Anianus repaired his shoe. Anianus later became the Bishop of Alexandria. There have been Christians in Egypt ever since. At first, there was just one worldwide church. The church leaders met as necessary to discuss doctrine and formally label as heresy teachings that were inconsistent with the founding beliefs of Christianity. I think Ibrahim said that it was around 500 A.D. (if I'm wrong on that date, it's my memory, not Ibrahim's lecture) that the Catholic church and the Coptic church split over differences regarding Mary's sinlessness, Jesus's dual nature, whether priests should marry, and other topics. But in many ways Coptic Christianity is similar to Catholicism, at least when viewed through the eyes of a Protestant like myself. Anyway, Copts have a pope, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns. There was much more to the lecture, lots of interesting information, but I unfortunately didn't take notes and therefore don't remember most of it. But he talked us all the way through ancient Egypt to the coming of the Romans, to Christianity, to the coming of the Arabs and Islam, and even touched on recent history. One interesting point (to me, at least) was that the Coptic language is--or at least is derived directly from--the language spoken by the ancient Egyptians. It was transliterated under Greek rule, so that it now is written mostly in Greek characters (with a few letters added to represent sounds that aren't present in Greek). Anyway, I digress from my own story . . .

We had to make a U-turn to get onto the west side of the Alexandria Road, then turned off to the right. Shortly thereafter, we reached the outer gates of Saint Macarius. After Ibrahim spoke with the guards, we were allowed in. The bus drove down a long road with farmland and decorative trees and flowers on each side. Ibrahim told us that until the 1970s, the monastery was all desert. At that time, it entered a period of reclamation and restoration. Wells were dug, and the monastery's land was turned into a functioning agricultural center. At the same time, the remains of the ancient monastery--there's been one there since 360A.D.--were uncovered and restored, under the supervision of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. So what we saw was a wonderful combination of ancient and newer structures.

After we passed through the farmland, we came to a second gate, where we again were allowed to pass only after Ibrahim had talked with the guards. We drove up an asphalt driveway to a large parking lot just outside the walls of the main complex. We entered the complex through a low gate. It's deliberately low, because you're supposed to bow your head in reverence as you enter. Once through, I stopped in awe.

Just as soon as I stepped through the gate into the main complex at Saint Macarius, I felt at peace. It was as if a burden that I didn't even realize I was carrying had suddenly disappeared. The scene was utterly tranquil. There was a slight breeze, and it felt cool and comfortable. The sun was shining in a bright blue sky, the kind that we don't get to see in Cairo because of the pollution-induced haze. There was a monk, wearing a long black gallabeya, awaiting us. He introduced himself (I wish I remembered his name!) and welcomed us warmly. He was soft-spoken, but I had no difficulty hearing and understanding his every word. This feeling of tranquility and peace remained with me the whole time that I was at Saint Macarius.

The courtyard was beautiful, with grayish paving stones bordered by grass. There was a seating area with benches in front of planters, complete with something down at the bottom to keep the flies away. The seating area was shaded from the sun by a trellis. After you passed through the seating area, you descended some stone steps to pass underneath a beautiful archway. Our monk guide told us that the stone arch had been uncovered during the restoration work, and then a new concrete arch had been created underneath to support it.

We walked under the arch and into a beautiful courtyard that was shaded by the buildings around it. On one side was the arch, and there were churches on the other three sides, with room to walk between to go further into the complex. We first entered the church on the left (I forget the name), which is the largest church at Saint Macarius. We took our shoes off before entering, although the monk told the mother of a young child that there was no need to remove the child's shoes. We entered the church and proceeded to the front near the altar. There were long platforms on each side of the front with books similar to hymnals. Our guide told us that the monks meet in that church every morning at 4am to chant praises for two hours. He demonstrated some of the chanting for us; it was hauntingly beautiful, more singing than chanting. He allowed us to take pictures and even encouraged us to take pictures of the inner sanctum's ceiling, which was the original brick, although we could stand only in the door of the inner sanctum, not actually go in. He showed us a grave that was uncovered in the front corner of the church during the restoration. The entrance was covered with glass or a heavy plastic. They found graves of John the Baptist and of Elisha the Prophet; I don't remember which this was. Also inside the church was a niche in which there were three hard cylinders, each containing the bones (or relics) of one of the three Saint Macarius-es.

After we left that church, we crossed the courtyard to the Church of the Forty-Nine Monk Martyrs. This church was named after 49 monks who were killed during an attack of the Berbers. The monks are buried there in that church. Inside, we saw original stonework and woodwork. Our guide also told us about two of the symbols that appeared on many of the surfaces. Both are crosses. One has three points on each arm. The 12 points represent the apostles. Each arm represents the Trinity, as the three points converge into one arm. The other cross had two points on each arm. This cross represents the dual nature of Jesus: fully God and fully Man, yet one being.

Then we went back out into the courtyard and around to the side of the third church, to another courtyard. There we saw the entries into some of the ancient cells, which we also were allowed to enter. Each cell contained two small rooms. One was for sleeping and praying; the other was for living and studying. We didn't get pictures of them. The cells that are in use now (which we didn't see) have a sleeping room, a study, a bathroom, and a kitchen. Back in the courtyard, our monk pointed out the keep. The monastery didn't always have a wall, so when the Berbers attacked, the monks ran up some stairs and across a bridge into the keep. They pulled the bridge up behind them. There was a well and food inside the keep. They could stay in there for 2 or 3 weeks, until the Berbers went away. We were not able to go inside the keep.

Then we went into the third and final church (whose name I don't recall). In this church, we saw more original stonework and also some ancient paintings of the Madonna, the Black Madonna, the archangel Gabriel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If I recall correctly, the relics of either Saint John or Elisha were located here, again in hard cylinders.

After we finished in the church, we went back up to the entrance. We were led into a building on the left side, which seemed to be a cafeteria. We were served hot tea, which was very good. After a little while, our monk came back to get us and led us to the bookstore. Jeff bought a few books, and I bought a couple of papyrus paintings for our apartment. One depicts the Lord's Supper, and the other depicts the Holy Family in Egypt (a part of history of which the Copts are proud, that the Holy Family sought refuge in their homeland). Then it was time to get back on the bus for the drive to Anafora.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dahshur, Memphis, and Saqqara

We had a very busy weekend. On Friday, we joined our friend Lauren, along with her husband and parents, for a tour to Dahshur, Memphis, and Saqqara. On Saturday, we took a CSA tour to the Saint Makarious monastery and to Anaphora Retreat Center. Friday was physically exhausting; Saturday was long (it was a 12-hour tour) but incredibly relaxing. In this post, I’ll tell you about Friday; in the next one, I’ll write about Saturday. For now, be assured that this post is pretty long; if you're in a hurry, save it for another time. If you'd like to see 27 of the pictures from this trip, click here. A few are embedded in the post, but most are only available on Picasa.
Friday’s trip began at 9am, when Jeff and I went downstairs to meet Lauren; her husband, Zack; her parents, Mark and Leslie; and our guide, Radwa. The tour was supposed to last until 4pm, with lunch included. One of the first things Radwa told us was that some of the sites were closing early because of Ramadan, so lunch would need to wait until the end, and it’s available but not included. (I think there was a miscommunication due to language; to Americans, “included” means included in the price; apparently to the owner of this tour company, “included” means that it’s in the schedule.) Anyway, I quickly regretted the decision not to carry snacks and bottles of water, and Jeff and I both quickly appreciated that Lauren had brought extras of both.
As the trip progressed, I learned that our guide has definite opinions about the structures we were seeing. Her opinions do not necessarily match the opinions of most experts, so please forgive me if I get confused about the historical facts. Just take the historical information with a grain of salt.

We drove out of Maadi and up the Nile Corniche to the Ring Road (similar to the Beltway around Washington, DC). After crossing the Nile, we took an exit for the Saqqara Road. On the way, we passed through some of what I believe is Giza, a suburb of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. We passed by some farmland and through some small villages. Then we turned off of the Saqqara Road and found ourselves in the desert. We could look one direction and see lush vegetation, with the Nile and Cairo in the distance, or we could look in the other three directions and see sand. The contrast was amazing.

Our first stop was Dahshur, where we saw the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. Both pyramids were built under the reign of Snefru. According to Radwa, the Bent Pyramid is the oldest structure that was built with the intention of it being a true pyramid, but there was a mistake made in its construction. The lower part of the pyramid angles in at 55 degrees. However, after construction began, it was realized that this angle was going to cause problems; either parts of the rooms and tunnels inside began to fall, or it was realized that it would be too difficult to complete the top of it. So the angle was changed mid-construction to a more manageable 43 degrees. This change gives the Bent Pyramid the unusual shape that resulted in its name. Radwa insisted that Snefru was buried in the Bent Pyramid (although online information indicated that most experts believe Snefru was buried in the Red Pyramid) because of certain characteristics of the pyramid: it has two entrances (to confuse grave robbers), the remains of both a mortuary temple and a valley temple, and a subsidiary pyramid, all of which she said is characteristic of pharoahs’ burial places. The online information I saw didn’t indicate what arguments favored the idea that Snefru was buried inside the Red Pyramid instead. We couldn’t go inside the Bent Pyramid, which was closed for restoration, but we took lots of pictures from outside.

After we walked around the Bent Pyramid, snapping pictures all the while, we drove back up the road about a kilometer to the Red Pyramid, which Radwa said was the first true pyramid. (Online sources say that the first pyramid was the Step Pyramid, which we saw later, but it didn’t have the smooth triangular shape; hence, not a “true” pyramid to Radwa.) Radwa discouraged us from going inside the Red Pyramid, since it was physically demanding and it was empty inside, but there was no deterring us. We were going in with or without her. We had no problem with her waiting outside, since it was physically demanding and her Muslim religion dictated that she have no food or water all day since it’s still Ramadan. However, she finally decided to come with us.

So we climbed the not-as-easy-as-they-looked stairs up to the entrance, waved at Leslie (who had decided to wait in the van), and began our descent. You had to duck to get into the entrance, and you couldn’t stand up all the way down. I don’t have pictures, because photography wasn’t allowed inside, but I found a website here that has pictures. We climbed down a passageway that was around 206 feet long, angled at 27 degrees. The original floor was smooth, but beams had been installed every few feet to act like stairs, although they reminded me more of ladder rungs. Jeff went down sideways, bent over and side-stepping down. Zack went backward, like he was descending a sloped ladder. I went down sideways until my muscles protested too much, then turned forward, grasped both handrails, and walked down for a while, before turning to the other side. I don’t know how Lauren, Mark, or Radwa went down. None of us could stand upright; we were bent over the whole time. Once we were down, the rooms were tall and we could stand, but the short passageways between rooms required us to bend over again. Most of what we saw are visible on the pictures. What you can’t tell from the pictures is that there was a strong odor—it smelled like a hair salon when everyone is getting perms. Someone later said it was ammonia. Anyway, we looked around inside, then started the long climb back up. The ascent was easier than the descent; we all just faced forward and climbed the sloped ladder, although we had to stop and rest a few times. Once we were back out, all of us felt like our legs were made of jell-o. I couldn’t walk down the external stairs without stopping at each landing to rest; my legs wanted to collapse. While Lauren took a breather, Radwa expressed concern over how she was doing, and Mark said that she was doing really well for someone who was 7 months pregnant. The look on Radwa’s face was priceless—she hadn’t realized Lauren was pregnant, and pregnant women are not allowed into the pyramids. Lauren was watched very closely by a chagrined Radwa after that.

We all gratefully retreated to the air-conditioned van after the expedition into the Red Pyramid. It was time to move on to Memphis, and boy, were were ready to sit down! On the way, Radwa told us a little about the history of Memphis. Apparently Egypt used to be divided into two kingdoms: the Upper Kingdom (southern, nearer the source of the Nile) and the Lower Kingdom (northern, nearer the delta and the Mediterranean). When the two kingdoms finally were united, Memphis was their first capital. There used to be a temple to Hatur (also known as Hathor) and another to Ptah. There really isn’t a whole lot left there now. There were several small statues, three large ones, and one colossal statue of Ramses II. Unfortunately, we forgot our camera in the van for this one, and we haven’t yet gotten the pictures from Lauren’s camera, so you can go to this website to see some pictures.

After Memphis, we went to Saqqara. At Saqqara, we first visited the Step Pyramid and the structures immediately around it. According to the internet, the Step Pyramid is the oldest pyramid. According to Radwa, the Step Pyramid really shouldn’t be called a pyramid at all, although it was an early step toward the construction of true pyramids. Although its general shape is pyramidal, it actually is a series of mastabas (rectangular burial chambers), built for the Pharoah Djoser (also known as Horus). We arrived outside the Step Pyramid and took a few pictures, then entered the site through a limestone structure. This site is believed to be the first place that limestone was used to create buildings. After passing through this entry, we found ourselves in a huge open court. On one side was the pyramid itself. Two sides were walled, and the fourth side had the remains of an ancient temple. We walked around to the other side of the temple to the Hepset Court, from which the king used to walk up to the temple roof to present an offering and request the god’s blessing to reign for another thirty years. Then we went back out to the open court and up some stairs to the wall, where we could clearly see the Bent and Red Pyramids in the distance. There also were some structures just outside the wall, but we didn’t really have time to walk among them.

When we left the Step Pyramid site, we drove just a little ways within the same complex to the tomb of . . . I don’t remember the name; by that time I was too tired to keep taking notes. And I don’t have pictures, as they weren’t allowed in the tomb or in the pyramid near it. Cameras were to be left in the vehicle, so I don’t even have pictures of the outside, and since I don’t remember the name of this area, I haven’t been able to find pictures online. Anyway, we went into this tomb. There were at least four rooms that we saw. All of the surfaces were covered with pictures. Radwa explained some of the scenes to us. One showed a worker who had done his best but who had collapsed from the effort; he was being nursed. Another showed a worker being beaten because he had not done his best. We also saw a statue of the man who was buried there.
Then we went next door to the pyramid. I don’t remember whose pyramid it was. It was much smaller than the other pyramids we had seen, so the climb in wasn’t as long or as steep as it was at the Red Pyramid. The smell also was better. The inside of this pyramid was amazing. After we came out of the entry tunnel, we were in a small room with hieroglyphs all over the walls. Off of this room were two other rooms, one on each side. We went into the room to the right, ducking through a low door. The walls of this room also were covered with hieroglyphs. The ceiling was covered with carvings of stars, representing the night sky. There was a big stone sarcophagus in the room as well. I really wish I had been able to get pictures; this place was truly amazing. We didn’t go into the other room because the site was about to close. We were rushed back up the ladder/stairs pretty quickly. We were all huffing and puffing when we made it to the top, but it wasn’t anything like what we experienced climbing out of the Red Pyramid.

Then we went back to the van and headed home. It was around 3pm when we got home, and we hadn’t eaten lunch. Thanks to Lauren, we had been able to drink water, but there had been no time for lunch. Of course, it also was hot enough that even after I got home, I didn’t want any food for the first 15 or 20 minutes, until I had cooled off. My legs were wobbly for the rest of the night, due to the climb in and out of the Red Pyramid. Truth be told, they were sore all day yesterday, especially later in the day after the naproxen sodium wore off, and they’re still pretty sore. So for all of you who may visit Egypt, heed this advice: If you intend to go inside any of the large pyramids, also plan very restful activities for the two days following that particular expedition!

Oh, and just to show you the awesome contrast that is Egypt near the Nile: Here's a picture of the view toward Cairo from Saqqara.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Debt Free

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. -- Romans 13:8 (emphasis added)

In the New International Version, that verse reads "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law" (emphasis added).

Owe no one anything. Let no debt remain outstanding. That's not such an easy concept in today's credit-driven world. Life without a car payment, a student loan, or even a single credit card? Is that even possible? Jeff and I are here to tell you--yes, it absolutely is possible.

For the last two years, Jeff and I have been working diligently to follow a plan put forth by a certain Dave Ramsey. His plan helps people get their financial lives on track so that they can become and remain debt free. Dave's plan isn't rocket science, although it isn't easy, either. It relies on sacrifice and planning to get you through the seven baby steps. Jeff and I just finished baby step 2: the elimination of all debt except the house . . . and since we don't own a home, that means WE ARE TOTALLY DEBT-FREE!!! We paid off the last debt--my student loan--on Thursday.

Here's how we did it: We made a conscious choice to live on significantly less money than we earned, and we made a budget each month to ensure that we were spending our money deliberately in order to keep our expenses low. We stopped using credit cards for anything. In fact, we cut up all our credit cards when we first started the plan, and we closed each credit card as we paid it off. When we first started baby step 2, we listed all of our debts in order from smallest to largest. The smallest ones were the credit cards, then Jeff's student loan, then mine. We made our budget so that we accomplished these things, in order of priority: (1) we gave 10% to God's body on earth, the local church, in order to be obedient and to support God's work on earth; (2) we met our basic needs, including housing, food, utilities, transportation, and basic clothing--just what we needed, not what we wanted; (3) we stayed current on all of our debts, making minimum payments on time; and (4) we put every extra penny we had toward paying more than the minimum on our smallest debt. When we paid off a debt, we weren't finished and we didn't take a break; we started on the next-smallest debt. Then the next, and the next, and the next, until finally, on Thursday, there was no next-smallest debt because we had paid them all off.

Now it's time to move on to baby step 3: increasing our baby emergency fund (that was step 1) to a fully-funded emergency fund, so that even when we have a medical emergency, or the truck needs a new transmission, or the truck dies altogether and has to be replaced, we can pay for what we need with money we have rather than being tempted to go back into debt.

But for now, I just want to enjoy this feeling . . . I don't owe anyone anything, except for the continuing debt of Christian love. Do you know what this means? I'm free. The Bible says that the borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7). Think about it. When you owe money, you're not working for yourself--your earnings, at least a portion of them, belong to your creditor by right, just like a slave's earnings belong to his or her master. When you are debt-free, your earnings belong to you (except for taxes, which I don't want to get into right now, because America's current tax structure just makes me mad and I'd rather celebrate at the moment.) For the first time in eight years, Jeff and I are not slaves to any bank, credit union, or financial entity. We are free. I just want to savor the moment.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Maadi to the Core

On Wednesday, I participated in my second ever CSA tour. This one was a tour of Maadi designed for newcomers. I know, I've been here for around three months now, but I really haven't explored a whole lot, so I wanted to see what else is out there. It was a good tour.

Lauren and I walked down to CSA in time for the tour to start at 9am. We actually got on the bus around 9:20, which is a fairly typical delay. Our guide was Mrs. Magda, who helpfully gave us a map of Maadi and a handout with a list of shops and her cell phone number. She told us to call her anytime we can't find a shop or service for what we need. (In general, CSA guides are very good and very friendly, but I tend to think that giving out the cell number . . . or mobile --pronounced mo-BILE here--is above and beyond.)

So we all piled on the bus and took off. Our first stop was SEEgypt, a travel agency. We were given handouts of things to do in Cairo, and we heard about a cookbook, compiled by the SEEgypt lady and Mrs. Magda, that contains all authentic Egyptian recipes. I'm considering going by to buy one, but I think I'll wait until I can take CSA's Egyptian cooking class and see how I like that first.

Anyway, after SEEgypt, we went all over Maadi and stopped at various types of shops. We were given free samples at a yummy pastry shop called Lanandine, on El Nasr Street. We drove by an office with a variety of medical doctors who tend to use Western standards. We saw samples of what was available from a fishmonger. A couple of restaurants and bakers were pointed out and recommended, as were barbers and hairstylists. Of course, there also were shops for clothing, home decor, and gifts.

We stopped and looked around in The Bookshop on El-Lasilki. Of course, this was one of my favorite stops. The shop was large by local standards, and most of the books were in English. There was a good variety, too--fiction, history, travel, even some about American politics. And there was a coffee shop inside :-) It doesn't get much better than that for a bookstore. Jeff and I probably will explore this shop a little more thoroughly at some point.

We went up and down Road 9, with which I'm fairly familiar already. Then we went across the flyover (for some reason, that's what we call the bridges over the metro tracks), where I haven't done any exploring at all. We stopped at a home linens shop just off Road 153. Mrs. Magda pointed out that a lot of their products were for export, so they had colors and patterns that Westerners tend to like but that Egyptians don't usually want. I was very impressed with the quality, prices, and variety. Of course everything was Egyptian cotton. I bought a small pillow that I thought the kittens might like in their basket . . . turns out, it was too thick for the basket; there wasn't enough room for the cat to sit on the pillow in the basket. And because it's so thick and cushy, it's very rounded on top, so the kittens slide off it if they try to lie on it . . . but it's a very nice pillow; it'll end up on the guest bed or maybe even just on the loveseat.

Mrs. Magda also pointed out a tailor that I may want to try . . . I forget his name; she said that she calls him "Same-same." That's because people who have clothing made often want one just like one they have, but in different fabric. So they bring him the new fabric and the old garment, and he uses the new fabric to make another one that's same-same as the old one. I like this idea, because I have a couple of shirts that I really like, except that they're sleeveless, so I won't wear them here without a jacket, and it's still too hot for that. So I'm considering have some more made, same-same, except that I'd want sleeves that are same-same from another shirt. I assume he could mix and match like that.

Then we went up to Khalifa ... yum. It's an ice cream shop. Well worth taking Jeff to. Good ice cream for only . . . what was it? LE2? LE3? Anyway, less than one U. S. dollar. But the most unusual part of the tour for me was something that happened on the way up Road 105. I had heard about traffic having to stop for herds of goats here, but I hadn't seen it . . . now I have! I didn't have my camera with me, but Lauren pulled out her camera and got a short video of the goats streaming by the bus. She wasn't able to get it out soon enough to get the whole herd approaching the bus, but still . . . it was an event. You can see the video here.

So the tour was both enjoyable and useful. Some of my previous finds were reinforced as good ones, and some new good ones were added to the list.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Maadi Women's Guild

This week has felt like a pretty full, busy week to me . . . of course, it really hasn't been. On Sunday, I sat around reading all day because I wanted to finish the book . . . actually the series . . . The Dragon King series by Stephen Lawhead. He writes fantasy and some historical fiction. He's classified as a Christian writer, but the stuff I've read so far has Christian overtones without being as overt as some other Christian fiction, so it would be a great introduction to Christian fiction . . . anyway, I digress. On Monday I cleaned all day. On Tuesday morning I went to my first ever meeting of the Maadi Women's Guild, the actual subject of this post. Maybe more on the rest of the week some other time, or maybe not, if something more interesting comes up :-)

I've been looking forward to this meeting ever since we got here in mid-June. The Maadi Women's Guild (MWG) is a ministry of Maadi Community Church, and it includes monthly meetings, Bible studies, and benevolence opportunities. I heard about Maadi Women's Guild either just after or just before I arrived here, but it, like most other things, had shut down for the summer. So when I saw a new Maadi Messenger, the free magazine put out by the MWG, I eagerly scoured it for information about the first meeting of the year. And there it was, a full-page ad: "You're invited to a Par-tea." We'll get to that in a minute.

According to the ad, the shopping started at 9:30, and the meeting started at 10. Now what kind of woman would I be if I wasn't interested in the shopping? So my friend Lauren and I walked down to the church, where the meeting was held, and arrived shortly after 9:30. There were booths set up with various items for sale. I'm not sure, but I think that the booths all were run by charitable organizations. There was one that looked like it was from the recycling center that I visited on the Mokkatum tour (see here and here); it had the recycled cards, some rugs, a few blankets, and some cute kids' items: alphabet books (one even in Arabic!) and stuffed animals. Other booths were selling bags, jewelry, carved wood products . . . all sorts of things. I didn't see anything I couldn't live without, but Lauren purchased a small item or two.

Then it was time for the meeting to start. Everyone went around a large curtain that had been hung to divide the shopping and meeting areas. In the meeting area, several tables had been set up, each with place settings for eight to ten people. Each table also had a tea set and some sort of food -- cookies, pastries, or cake. There was a hostess assigned to each table whom I assume furnished the refreshments. So we enjoyed a tea party during the meeting; hence, "par-tea."

The meeting started out with all the newcomers standing up, introducing themselves, and saying how long they'd been in Maadi. There were a lot of newcomers, although not all of them were new to Egypt or even to Maadi. I think one woman had been in Cairo for 15 years but was attending her first meeting of the MWG. The newest arrival was Lauren, who had been here for about a week. All the newcomers received welcome kits--and they were great :-) Mine had a brochure about MWG, two post cards with a picture of an Egyptian shop, five greeting cards with a picture of camels, a couple of handouts about benevolence opportunities, the booklet "Helpful Hints & Health Notes for Cairo," and best of all, the 1999 edition of Cairo Khamsin Collection: Cookin' Up a Storm, a cookbook published by MWG. The recipes look like they'll be good to try out, but my favorite part is at the front. The cookbook lists Arabic translations relevant to cooking (Arabic names for cuts and kinds of meat, fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs), temperature conversion tables (since most of us use Fahrenheit, but the 220V appliances are labeled in Centigrade/Celsius), and lists of substitutions for items that aren't easily found here. Incredibly useful stuff!

After the introductions, we got a brief overview of MWG and what it's all about, plus some information provided by a gentleman associated with one of the charities MWG supports--this one helps children who have special needs. There also was a short devotion. We also had two ice breakers. For the first one, we separated ourselves into groups based on the month of our birthdays, got to know each other a little, and came up with a name for our group based on something we all had in common and something relevant to Egypt. There were only two of us November babies, so it was a bit easier for us. We became the Amazing American Cat Duo. Both of us had two cats that we had adopted since arriving in Egypt. For the second ice breaker, each table made a hat from a bag of supplies that was located under the table. Supplies included cardboard, ribbon, fake flower strands, colored tissue paper . . . some of the hats turned out to be really pretty, actually. (I don't remember in exactly what order all of these things happened, and I may have forgotten something, but you get the idea.)

There will be another meeting next month. I'm looking forward to it. In the meantime, I filled out a card indicating an interest in becoming more involved with MWG. There's a Bible study I'd like to participate in, and I want to get involved volunteering with a charity or two. I wouldn't mind writing an article or two for the Maadi Messenger, although that would require that I come up with an idea of what to write about. And I'd like to get involved with the annual Christmas Bazaar, which is a big-deal community-wide sale that benefits charities, although I've never been involved in something that big before, so it would be best for me to play a small support role this year so I can see what's involved and how I can best help in the future. In short, I can see the Maadi Women's Guild becoming a significant part of my life here in Maadi.

Sausage Biscuits and Monkey Bread

On Tuesday, after I got home from the Maadi Women's Guild meeting, I started prepping for Tuesday night. Jeff and I had volunteered to host this week's meeting of our cell ... uh, life ... group. These small groups, affiliated with Maadi Community Church (MCC), used to be called cell groups. Soon after I first mentioned them in a blog entry, a friend from home sent me an email joking that back there, "cell group" meant something entirely different from how it's used at MCC. Well, our pastor told us just a couple of weeks ago that the Egyptian government was a little concerned about our cell groups . . . so we changed their name to "life groups." Apparently that's all it took to satisfy the government. I guess the phrase "cell group" means the same thing to the Egyptian government as it does to most Americans :-)

Anyway, Jeff and I were hosting this week's life group meeting. That would be why I cleaned all day on Monday. So I spent Tuesday afternoon dusting the table tops again--funny, how dust reappears on the horizontal surfaces overnight in this part of the world--and moving the arm chairs from the den into the living room to provide some extra seating. Then I started cooking.

At our last meeting, I had discovered that the South African members of our group didn't quite understand what we Americans meant when we said the word "biscuit." They had some crazy notion that biscuits are sweet, cookie-like things. One even said how disgusted she had been when she heard Oprah talk about biscuits and gravy. So I decided that when we hosted cell ... life group this week, I would educate them about biscuits. The snacks for this week would include biscuits (complete with "filling" options of butter, apple butter, grape jelly, strawberry jam, and real Jimmy Dean pork sausage), apple pie, chips'n'dip, and peanuts. Then for good measure, I decided to add monkey bread. For those of you who aren't familiar with monkey bread, it's a cake consisting of chunks of biscuits coated in sugar and cinammon. The icing is a mix of powdered sugar and milk. I thought monkey bread would be great for cell group for two reasons: (1) it's another form of biscuit and (2) one of our life group members has started a running joke by convincing the small child of another member that "Monkey" is a more appropriate name than "Mommy." By introducing monkey bread, I could add a little fuel to that flame without actually getting involved. The trouble-maker in me just couldn't resist . . . and actually didn't try all that hard.

This was to be my first time making monkey bread without my mom actually being there. All went well while I prepared the monkey bread and put it in the oven. Jeff volunteered to pull it out after it was ready and put the icing on it while I went to get a shower and get ready for life group. The problems started 45 minutes later, when I came back to the kitchen to put the pie in the oven. The monkey bread was still in there, and it wasn't done yet. I had been thinking that it only took 15 minutes or so to cook, but it was nowhere near done. So we left it in for another 10 minutes or so . . . still not done. At this point, the pie had to go in the oven, and it had to cook at a hotter temperature than the monkey bread. So I turned the heat up to get the oven preheated for the pie, then did what any daughter does in a situation like that: I called Mom. It turns out that monkey bread usually takes 45 minutes to an hour to cook, and I had used more biscuits than Mom usually does, so it was going to take longer. Mom suggested that I take the monkey bread out of the oven, divide it into two pans, and put it back in for a few more minutes. But by then, I was fixated on getting the pie in, and Jeff, who hadn't eaten lunch or dinner, wanted to munch on the parts of the monkey bread that were done. I left the monkey bread in the oven a little while longer, then pulled it out, with predictable results. Part of it was burnt; part of it was raw; part of it was just right. Jeff ate the just right and part of the burnt. I put the pie in the oven and told Jeff I'd try to make him some more edible monkey bread some other time.

So eventually, the pie came out of the oven, the cats went in their own little room (they're not so good at staying off tables, especially when there's food around), and the food went on the table. People started showing up not long after that. The biscuits were a huge hit. Apparently American biscuits aren't readily available here, and I knew the pork sausage would be a rare treat. So the Americans in our group were delighted, and the South Africans seemed to understand and appreciate American biscuits too. Our discussion--about community, fellowship, and outreach--was peppered with references to sausage biscuits. It wasn't until after the Bible study was over that I mentioned that no one had touched the apple pie. "There's apple pie too?! I didn't notice that!" And three-fourths of the pie disappeared. I'd say the evening was a success, and the monkey bread wasn't missed . . . although it sure would have been fun to introduce.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Quick Kitten Update

I just wanted to do a quick update on the kittens. Isis recovered normally, no problems. Cleo appeared to recover normally at first, but then she regressed. On Thursday, she refused to eat, drink, move, or defend herself when Isis attacked her (real attacks, not just playing; the vet said it was because Cleo didn't smell like Cleo when she was sick). A friend was staying at our apartment to use our internet connection while Jeff and I both were at the embassy, and she reported when I got home that Cleo at one point couldn't even support her own head. She was wide awake, but her head suddenly flopped over onto its side. I called the vet. He said to bring both kittens in for more antibiotics. I called Jeff and asked him to come home. With Isis still attacking Cleo, I couldn't put them in the same carrier, so I needed an extra pair of hands. Plus, my kitten was sick, I was worried, and I wanted my husband. Also, Cleo most definitely has decided that she's Jeff's kitten, just like Isis has decided that she's mine. (The lap preferences are incredibly consistent.) It seemed entirely possible that Cleo was dying, and I wanted Jeff to be with her if that happened.

So Jeff came home. We borrowed an extra cat carrier from a neighbor, and we went off to the vet. Isis got her shot normally, loud protests and all. Cleo had her temperature taken--a very invasive procedure; think about it--and didn't protest at all. She just sat there for her shot. Of course this behavior didn't soothe our concerns. We arranged with the vet for his assistant to come by our apartment the next day to give Cleo another shot, since the vet is closed on Fridays.

By the time the assistant got here on Friday, it was clear that Cleo was recovering. She still was subdued, but she was eating and drinking normally--actually, more than normal, since she was making up for going without for a couple of days. Isis no longer was attacking her and instead was cuddling with her. But of course she got her shot anyway. She protested vehemently this time; as the one who was trying to hold her, I have the bright red dot on my finger to prove it. She improved throughout the weekend. Now she's acting normally, at least as normal as our crazy kittens ever act. She's even managed to pull out a stitch. The vet already had prescribed an antibiotic ointment for both kittens because they started trying to pull them out the day after they were put in. Originally, yesterday was the last day for the ointment treatment, but when the vet heard how much better Cleo was doing, he told us to continue with the ointment. He didn't say how long, but with these two, I think we'll keep using it until it runs out.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Rough Days

It has been a couple of rough days. We had the kittens spayed yesterday. So on Sunday night, we had to take away their food and water. Sunday night I didn't sleep well; I couldn't stop thinking about (1) how I was going to get the kittens safely and comfortably to and from the vet, since Jeff had to work, and (2) if things would go well, since I really have no idea about the standards here for cleanliness, etc., for animal surgeries. So I was exhausted--and therefore a bit more emotional than usual--all day.

It turned out to be easier than anticipated to get a taxi and make the driver understand what I wanted him to do. Even though the driver didn't speak English, I've learned enough Arabic that I was able to make him understand that I wanted him to take me to Maadi Degla, then wait for me for 5 or 10 minutes, then bring me back to where he'd picked me up. My grammar wasn't quite right, but he understood me, and he agreed. So I dropped the kittens off at the vet around 11AM and then came home.

I spent the day trying not to worry. For some reason, I think of Cleo as fragile (probably because she's skinnier and more loving than Isis), so I was particularly concerned about how she'd do with the surgery. I've always been a worrier, and I know that betrays a lack of trust in God and therefore is a sin, so I try really hard not to worry. So I tried to distract myself with a mountain of ironing. When our HHE arrived, I washed all the clothes that had been in boxes for 10 weeks, which meant that I had piles of ironing to do. (I still have piles of ironing, but smaller piles than before.) Then I boiled some chicken to tempt the kittens' appetite. The vet had told me that although they probably wouldn't eat anything, it would be okay to offer them food and water when they came home.

I was able to get a taxi to take me back to the vet to pick up the kittens. I think this driver spoke English, but he humored me and let me tell him what I needed in Arabic. He repeated some words in English to make sure he understood, but I really appreciated that he let me practice.

The kittens were moving in their case when I got to the vet. Cleo was standing, but she was very wobbly, and I'm thinking she shouldn't have been trying to stand at all. Isis was wobbling while lying down, if that's possible. But their eyes were open--although there was no indication that they knew who I was, where they were, or what was going on around them. The vet assured me that the surgeries had gone well and that their behaviors were normal for cats coming out from under the anesthesia. I asked about medicine for them, and he grimaced. He remembered all too well how we brought them to him to give him their worm medication because we couldn't get them to accept it, and that he himself could only get about half of it down them. He asked if I could bring them in for daily shots for a while instead. I agreed, thankful that I wouldn't have to try to force medicine down their throats.

On the way home, one of the kittens started crying. I assumed it was Isis, who always vocalizes during car rides. But when we got home, Isis was asleep. I opened the carrier, and Cleo stumbled out. She was trying to walk, but she couldn't even stand up all the way. She was doing this combination of crawling and dragging herself. She kept falling onto her side. She wanted to get away from Isis (as the vet had said they should, so their wobbling didn't disturb each other and so they didn't mess with each other's stitches), but she was looking for a dark, enclosed space. She kept bumping her head trying to crawl under the buffet. So I took the one remaining box from our HHE, dumped all the contents on the floor, put a towel in there, and let her hide there for a while. She still wasn't content, though. I think it wasn't dark enough. So I set up two separate areas in the hall storage room, one for each kitten. That's where they spent the night.

Isis pretty well slept until at least 8:30. Cleo, though . . . it was heartbreaking. She sat there and cried all evening. I'm not sure if it was because of pain, fear, confusion, or some combination of all three. I petted her when she'd let me, but I couldn't hold her because the vet had said not to, due to the stitches. She wouldn't eat or drink. She'd try to get out of her enclosure, then retreat to a back corner where I couldn't reach her, crying all the while. It was even more heartbreaking because Cleo never cries or vocalizes as a signal for fear or pain (unless it's acute, i.e., we step on her). I sat there and petted her with one hand while wiping my own tears with the other.

But all things pass, and they both were much better this morning. Cleo ate and drank some, although Isis didn't. The vet had said they could be let out this morning, so we set up their favorite basket in their favorite sun-drenched section of floor and created some steps up to the couch, since they can't jump that high right now. We both had to go into the embassy today, but we left them as comfortable as possible, with food and drink available. When I got home late this morning, Isis was asleep in the basket and Cleo was asleep on the couch. Both have eaten some chicken and drunk some water since I've been home. Now they're both asleep again in their favorite spots. I still won't pick them up for fear of hurting them, but whenever they want to crawl onto my lap, they're welcome. I'm hoping I'll be able to get them into their carrier for the trip to the vet this afternoon without having to pick them up. Sometimes they'll go in on their own.

So for those of you who've been asking about the kittens: They're not great right now, but they're getting better.