Friday, January 21, 2011

New School

I read back over my posts about school, and realized that I have sanitized them pretty heavily. They all sound so upbeat! It's not that teaching here is horrible- not at all. It's just that I'm living in a place where freedom of expression is not protected, and I have been very circumspect about posting any negative remarks in a public forum. So, the news that I changed schools doesn't really have the context it should. And here, at least, it won't. I will miss the boys in my old class, but I will just have to accept that this is not my country, and things are not done here the way I might think is right. I am very grateful that my request for a different assignment was honored.

My new school is a kindergarten with both boys and girls in the classes. It has a lovely physical setting, with a central assembly room/gym and classrooms radiating off around it. There are glassed-in courtyards, a kitchen for cooking projects, and two trampolines in the gym. It's located in a small suburb of Abu Dhabi, a place that has a community feel. Like my district in Texas, it is populated mostly by people who have moved to the area, rather than by a long-settled group. I think that makes it much more open, since everyone has had to create their own new social networks.

The model here for kindergarten is for there to be both an English-speaking teacher and an Arabic-speaking teacher assigned to each class. I am currently replacing a teacher who has gone back to the west for surgery. She may return, and if so, I will stay at the school, but work with pre-k instead of kinder. My co-teacher is Fatema, a young Emirati woman who attended a teacher college and is certified. (Many teachers here are not certified.) Our schedule begins with Fatema's circle time, including Arabic literacy and Islamic Studies. Then I do a short English literacy activity and some centers and small groups. The students go to sports, music, art, or the library for rotation classes. They have snack and playtime (recess). We have a numeracy lesson, then  a longer center time, then closing circle. The day ends by 12:15 for the students, and teachers have professional development meetings or planning time until 1:45. That's the whole day! All of it, except for Fatema's Arabic and Islamic lesson, is supposed to be bilingual. It seems like a great model for introducing the kindergarteners to English in a very gentle way. They will be well-prepared for English literacy when they reach first grade.

I am greatly enjoying working with an Emirati teacher. I think my Arabic will improve a great deal just from being exposed to the language all day. My co-teacher is excited about teaching and has great ideas. It's not much different than working with a western colleague. In the second grade, at my old school, I had the students by myself, with no local teacher. That's the ADEC model, to have English-only instruction for English, math, and science in all the grades above kinder. I think in the future, when the kinder students have reached first and second grade after having been exposed to English and foreign teachers, it will be okay to have the foreign teacher take the class by herself. These first years of the program, however, it's very difficult for the teachers teaching students who have not had much English at all, without the support of an Arabic speaker. It's even worse when it's a female teacher in an all-boys school that has issues with lack of consequences for serious behaviors.

This coming week, we will be focusing on the letter K. Our theme is community helpers, and we have a field trip on Sunday to the local police station. In math, we'll be ordering numbers to ten and telling what numbers come before or after a given number. Sounds like any kindergarten anywhere in the world!

Friday, January 7, 2011

On to Jordan

The first two days of our trip in Egypt were a whirlwind of sights and sounds. The next two days we spent traveling to Jordan, and the activity never let up. We had to make it that way, though. My dad joined us only for the first part of our trip because he needed to be back in Texas and at my sister's house in time for Christmas. We wanted to be sure he saw as much as possible for the few days he was with us!

The excursion to Jordan was the only part of the trip that I had booked in advance, other than the hotels in Cairo and Dahab. I went with Memphis Tours because they specialize in short trips and handle all the necessary arrangments for visas. The representative from Memphis Tours arrived at the Isis right on time at 11:00 PM to pick us up. We left the greater part of our luggage in a storeroom at the Isis and headed out with one small suitcase and our backpacks. Downstairs, we found a nice van with two drivers who spoke almost no English. We settled in (each having our own bench seat), inflated our neck pillows, and prepared to sleep across the Sinai Peninsula.

When you think about it, that's an enormous amount of trust in your fellow man. The Sinai is still mostly desert wilderness, and the English-speaking rep didn't accompany us out of Cairo. So we were alone with people with whom we couldn't communicate well in the pitch-black darkness all night. It turned out fine, but there were a few frightening moments. At one point I awoke because the van slowed down considerably, and saw that we were driving through a sandstorm. The road had completely disappeared, and I could see only about ten feet in front of us. I don't know how the driver kept going. It lasted about fifteen minutes, but it felt much longer. Even when there wasn't a sandstorm blowing, the road would occasionally be gone, I guess because of sand drifts. On awaking from another short doze, I listened to the two drivers speaking in Arabic. I speak and understand some classical Arabic, but don't have any experience with dialects, so I couldn't understand much. I could tell, though, that they were talking about money, and doing your job because that's what is right to do. I had horrible visions of  murder in the desert, but thankfully that's more an American movie stereotype than reality. We finally reached the seaside resort town of Taba without incident at about 6:00 AM.

We were met there by another rep from Memphis Tours who took us through immigration and got us on the ferry to Aqaba. It was amazing that the tour company had such a great set-up, with a dedicated person in each place to meet us and smooth our way. The ferry was a huge catamaran, very nice and modern. The ride across the Red Sea took less than an hour, with waves splashing over the windows to the top of the boat most of the way. Those of you who know how seasick I usually get will be surprised to hear that I made it across feeling great, if a bit tired.

In Aqaba, we were met by another driver, named Rushdi. He answered our many questions about Jordan and the places we passed on our way to the mountain city of Petra. We saw Eilat, an Israeli city, across the bay less than two miles away. We took the Kings' Highway into the mountains, an ancient track that linked several civilizations, including the Nabateans who built Petra. The history of World War I is ever-present in this area, because this was the main site of the Arab Revolt, which T.E. Lawrence made famous. I enjoyed imagining how different Aqaba must have looked when the Arabs liberated it from the Turks as compared to the busy port city it has become. I also enjoyed the realization that so much of the open countryside looks exactly the same now as it did then, or even in the times of the Roman Empire. The road stretches across the mountains with no trees to hide it. There are terraced hillsides for farming, and flocks of goats and sheep with more rugged, seemingly impassable mountains in the distance. Jordan is gorgeous, and I fell in love with it.

The Sheraton Guesthouse
It took about two hours to reach Petra, which turned out to be a charming town perched on hilly mountaintops overlooking the craggy, snaking entrance to the ancient Nabatean stronghold. Our hotel was the Sheraton Guesthouse, a cozy, stucco-white inn built over the Cave Bar, an actual bar inside a Nabatean-carved cave. We were delighted by the setting and the location, right up next to the entrance of ancient Petra. After quickly depositing our bags, we met our Petra guide, Ahmed, at the gate.

You can see the snaky valley entrance to Petra on the right.
We opted to walk the gravel path into the winding valley instead of riding horses, much to Abby's dismay. Mark, my dad, and I just didn't want the tour to go too fast. The carvings in the soft sandstone were everywhere. I was especially enchanted by a life-size relief carving of two camels and a merchant on the valley wall. It was a long walk down the path, sometimes over original paving stones, to the famous treasury building. It was incredibly majestic, with graceful details in the rosy stone. Our guide told us about the Nabateans and their wealth from taxing goods on the trade route. We saw the remains of a staircase that climbed the valley wall for maybe 200 feet to lookout points. We also walked down a street that was once lined with columns, temples, market stalls, and fountains. The city was occupied from the time of ancient Greece until the Christian era, when an earthquake destroyed many of the dwellings in the 600s AD. The people of the town mostly lived in brick buildings, saving the elaborately carved sandstone caves for burial places. They ingeniously carved a waterway along the entrance to the city that had ceramic pipes inset.

Nowadays, there are many bedouins who live in the area around Petra. They sell crafts from booths in the valley and offer rides through the ruins on camels, horses, and donkeys. Abby and I stopped to talk to two bedouin boys on donkeys. They spoke excellent English, and I asked if they went to school. They said no, the tourists are their school. We conversed in a mixture of Arabic and English, and they convinced us to ride the donkeys back to the Treasury building. It was great fun! The donkeys were much more comfortable to ride than horses, and could really move if they wanted to. I had visions of life in a bedouin camp, under the stars in the environs of ancient cities, with no school to worry about and a life of freedom. Of course it was a romantic fantasy, and I'm sure the reality would bring many hardships that I didn't imagine.

It was dark by the time we returned to the hotel. My dad fell asleep on his bed fully clothed after a nice shower. We had intended to have dinner, but everyone was too tired. Abby was next to crash, laying down to read Harry Potter and getting through less than a page. I found Mark gone after I finished my shower, and promptly conked out without even worrying about where he might be. It turned out he had to explore the Cave Bar, where he met some tourists from Hong Kong. He didn't stay there long, though. We had effectively been up since 8:00 AM the previous day, and we all enjoyed sleeping in and having an excellent buffet breakfast late the next morning.

Rushdi picked us up at noon for our trip to Wadi Rum, a desert valley of softly sculpted dunes and weathered sandstone arches. It was every bit as beautiful as Petra, only completely natural. Rushdi dropped us with a driver, Yahya, in a Land Rover, for the tour. It was awesome to take off over the dunes and lose all sight of civilization. Yahya stopped and had us take off our shoes to climb a dune. I loved the feel of the soft sand, and clambered to the top like a kid. (Just as fast as Abby, I might add.) Abby and I examined all the tracks in the sand, and found fox, bird, and beetle paths. We next stopped to pet some camels, and Abby rode one with a bedouin guide to the nearby stone arch. She dismounted giggling, telling us about a hobbled camel that hadn't wanted to be left behind, but hopped along behind her camel with its front two legs tied. We climbed the arch and got some great pictures, then drove to see an ancient dam (when could water have flowed here?) and some petroglyphs, which we surmised were advertisements for rest stops on the trade route. We then traveled on to what is known as "Lawrence's House". It's a great block of sandstone sitting on the desert floor that has been carved out on the inside, with just a small doorway on the side facing a sheer wall of stone. What a great hiding place! I imagined Lawrence and his bedouin fighters sitting silently inside while Turkish soldiers rushed past looking for them after they had carried out an attack on the railroad which still runs a few miles away over the desert. Now, however, it's used as a nursery for baby goats by the descendants of those same bedouins.

Our driver, Rushdi, was called away to pick up some Israeli tourists because he is fluent in Hebrew. He handed us off to Mohammed, who took us back to Aqaba. After a lovely shawarma dinner in downtown Aqaba, we were dropped off at the ferry. We ended up having to wait for the last ferry, because giant tour groups were booked on the first two that left. In all we only waited about 45 minutes. Our ferry ride was uneventful, and we were soon back in Egypt and getting back in the van with our same drivers to cross the Sinai again. This time I slept well.

We arrived back at the Isis Hotel at 3:00 AM and slept for two hours. My dad's flight to London and then Houston was leaving at 8, so he had to get to the airport. It was awful saying goodbye, but I was so grateful for the time we got to spend together seeing such marvellous sights. We all came away from Jordan wishing we had more time to spend there. It has less of a tourism-driven economy, which was a pleasant change from Egypt. The people we met were proud, independent, and friendly, and the scenery is spectacular. My dad was itching to ride off into the mountains on a motorcycle, something he never thought he'd contemplate in a Middle Eastern country. I think Jordan defied our preconceived notions, and I hope to go there again someday.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Visiting Cairo

(Alternate Heading: The Reason We Moved to Abu Dhabi)
Yes! This was the intent behind the big move- the opportunity to travel. We made our first big trip over the Christmas holidays, and chose to spend the 14 days in Egypt and Jordan. Abby had lots to do with our choice of destination- she said she wanted to see the pyramids the day I told her about moving here.  Well, now she has done that and many more amazing things as well. In fact, we did so much that I’m having a hard time contemplating writing about them all. I think my plan will be to write about some highlights of each place we went and then give my general impressions. I will probably have to make this several posts to be able to include any details at all.

We started our trip in Cairo, arriving after dark on the first day. A driver from the hotel picked us up: Abby, Mark, my dad, myself, and all of our luggage. He was a bit dismayed at the amount of luggage, which included a huge suitcase of Mark’s diving gear in addition to our clothes, and we had a very tight squeeze. Then we set off and had our first taste of traffic in Cairo. Let’s just say we felt incredibly lucky to make it to the hotel alive and without having mashed any pedestrians. (More about Egyptian driving later.) The hotel was actually a hostel that had great reviews on TripAdvisor and, the Isis Hotel. It lived up to, and exceeded expectations. Our room was huge, with four beds and a private bath. We had a view of the Nile and were served tea whenever we asked for it and breakfast each morning. The best part of the Isis, however, was the proprietor, Mehdad. He arranged all of our sightseeing for Cairo and Luxor, including a flight and a train ride.  And he did it all with such a beautiful attitude and smile! That said, the hostel was quite basic. There was no heat, and the draft that came through the windows each night was very cold. The entrance to the building, in which the Isis is located on the top two floors, is unmarked and has only one tiny working elevator. The elevator only went to the fourteenth floor, so we had to get out there and walk up another flight of stairs, dragging all of our bags. And the view of the Nile was over the top of a serious slum, with trash and half-finished buildings that had piles of rubble at their bases. Still, we paid only $180 for the four of us for four nights. It was a great deal, especially once we ventured out and enjoyed the local neighborhood. We found the best pizza ever (Pizza Al Quds) right around the corner, and could walk to the Talat Harb area, which was always crowded at night with shoppers. It was relaxing to walk there because it’s not a tourist area, so no one asked us for money or tried to get us to buy things we didn’t want.

The view from our hotel.

In the Cairo area, we saw the pyramids at Sakkara, the Memphis museum, the pyramids at Giza, a perfumery, a papyrus factory, a carpet school, the old Cairo Coptic area, the Citadel, and the Egyptian Museum. The pyramids at Sakkara are step pyramids, some of the oldest structures in Egypt. They were mostly crumbling. We saw inside some of the tombs there, with amazing reliefs that were minutely detailed. We made the mistake of inadvertently acquiring a guide for the tombs, who then insisted we pay him separately from the entrance fee we had already paid. We vowed not to make that mistake again, but then, there were no interpretive signs on anything.  The Memphis museum was rather sparse, consisting mainly of a few statues. The highlight there was a sphinx in very good condition.

Our next three stops were sales pitches: carpet, perfume, and papyrus. We were awed at the intricate patterns of the silk and wool carpets, which are mainly made by children. It made me sad to see the kids working at tying knots. The perfumes were all natural essences, but very expensive. At the papyrus factory, we had a demonstration of papyrus-making, then were invited to peruse the shop’s stock of painted papyrus.

Finally, we headed to Giza, where we negotiated to pay $32 each for horses and a guide. Abdul Karim and his sidekick, Abdullah, took us on a roundabout route to the pyramids. We had seen them in the distance from the highway on our way to Giza, so it was surprising to find they had disappeared in the city. We rounded a bend, crested a dune, and looked out across that familiar sight- the three huge pyramids and the much smaller sphinx. Abdul Karim didn’t talk too much about the pyramids, but just led us to great vantage points for pictures and let us explore. We walked right up to the base of the Great Pyramid , feeling magnificently dwarfed.  The sun was on its way down, so we hurried to the sphinx and the temple. The sphinx seems so small when you’re up close to it. We were separated by about twenty feet, and had a great view of the whole thing from a platform just outside the megalithic temple. There were hundreds of chairs set up just outside the area near the sphinx for the sound and light show each evening, which we declined to attend.

Instead, we went that night to a dinner cruise on the Nile in a boat called Memphis. It was a buffet with belly dancing and Egyptian folk dancing (sort of a whirling dervish with a colorful skirt) for entertainment. There was a huge crowd of people from  Japan who rushed the buffet and almost left us with none! Thanks to Mark’s elbows, we all got some dessert. The belly dancer seemed miffed when an Arab family joined her on the dance floor and basically took it over. We thought it was funny, but by then, we were falling asleep at our table.

The next day, we headed out early to Old Cairo. It was just like you’d imagine, with twisty, narrow streets, hidden gems of churches, nunneries, tombs, and a synagogue. We met a shopkeeper whose son had been born that morning, and who invited us for a celebratory cup of tea. We bought some beautiful scarves from him, then met our driver to go to the Citadel. It was a fortress named for Saladin perched on a mountain top overlooking the whole city. We enjoyed meeting the groups of schoolchildren on field trips. They invariably wanted to practice their English on us, and were delighted when I spoke some Arabic back.

We spent the whole afternoon and early evening at the Egyptian Museum. It was a gargantuan hodge-podge of artifacts, few of which had any explanatory signage.  Apparently you are supposed to engage a local guide if you want to know about any of the millions of items inside the cavernous space. We raced through thousands of years’ worth of treasures, and only really slowed down for the King Tut exhibit. Many of the Tut artifacts had been shown in Dallas, and Abby and I had already seen them with my sister, Sandy. We were glad that Mark and my dad got the chance to goggle at the sheer weight of gold used to cover so many of the grave goods. No cameras were allowed inside, so we have no pictures, only memories. Afterwards, we returned to the hostel to relax for a few hours before being picked up at 11:00 PM for our ride across the Sinai Peninsula to the Jordan ferry. That will have o be another post.

Cairo was crowded, dirty, unfinished, and hectic. There is always traffic, except for early on Friday mornings. No one bothers with lanes while driving. I’m not sure why there are marked lanes on the roads. Perhaps as suggestions? Everyone honks as they begin to pass another vehicle, as a warning, which is crucial since you can never count on your lane staying clear. There were piles of trash and stray animals picking through it. The well-built buildings were the older ones. The newer construction is one brick-thickness and a covering of plaster on a concrete frame.  Every person who helped us in any way expected a tip, and would tell us if the offered amount was not enough. There were security police on almost every corner. But Cairo was also wonderful, cheap food, friendly people, and awesome sights. The people in the shopping districts looked well-dressed and happy. History is also on every street corner, and there is an energy that pervades the place, like in New York City. We’re so glad we had the chance to feel it for ourselves.