Sunday, September 30, 2012

Red Sea Sick (the best kind of sick)

Scroll down for pictures. And a link. To more pictures.

It always starts with a sore throat.

That scratchy feeling catches me mid-breath, first thing in the morning and I think, “I’m sure it’s just allergies.”

And later in the day, when a coworker asks how I am feeling after she hears me sneeze in perpetual motion and gasp for air. “I think it’s just allergies,” I reply.

On the bus when my body starts to shutdown and my head begins to spin. I lean back and close my eyes. “I’m probably allergic to something,” I reassure myself.

About 7:00 p.m., when all I can think about is bedtime and a cup of herbal tea, I have a private thought, “I hope I’m not getting sick.” I don’t say it aloud because then it might be true.

Thankfully, in six years of teaching and four of residential dormitories, I have learnt the ins and outs of sickness. I know each telltale sign and can predict the moment when certain symptoms will hit me. Luckily, sickness in Egypt is not that different from sickness in the U.S.A. It is lonely, difficult and totally sucks.

There is always a day, though, stuck in between the sore throat instigation and the severe cold take-over, when I feel well enough to return to my earlier hopes of allergic reaction. Fortunately, that was the day I spent at the beach in Ain Soukhna.

Thursday’s arrival and Saturday’s departure were shaky at best. I willed myself away from tears (at this point, I am likely the biggest baby on the staff) and pushed through, remembering an old wives’ tale about salty sea air curing all sickness. I am pretty sure I just made that up.

Friday morning I took some Tylenol for the declining sore throat and headed to the beach by 9:00 a.m. We were there until almost 7:00 p.m., coming in only for a short lunch. I swam in the Red Sea, played beach volleyball (note to self, get better at regular volleyball first) and lounged on the sand. I fooled around with my camera in its underwater case and got to know more of my amazing coworkers. The rest and relaxation I experienced at the beach was as good as, if not better than, lying in bed, wallowing in the prospect of my incoming cold.

As I sit here in my room, waiting for the NyQuil to kick-in, I am so grateful that I was able to spend the weekend by and in the Red Sea. I could complain that my vacation was ruined by illness, but in reality, I am so fortunate to have been somewhere so amazing, regardless of my health. Many people can say, “I was sick. I rested. I got well.” But I can say, “I was sick. I rested on a beautiful beach on the Red Sea in Egypt. I’m getting well.” Not a bad deal at all.

Throwing back snacks on the bus.
Before the show at the beach on our first night. 
The Whirling Dervish show. Not great quality, but an experience nonetheless.
Flying a kite on the beach.
In the sea!
On the beach, our first night.
I LOVE the water!
Toe pictures are so in.
The moon's reflection on the sea was breathtaking.
The view from our resort.
So as not to overload you with pictures, here is a public link to more beach pictures: More Beach Pictures

Monday, September 24, 2012

Challenges, Protests and Games (oh my!)

A difficult post tempered with hilarious pictures…

On my time away from Sunflower Abroad:

Listening intently during game night.
So much has happened since I have last written. Actually, looking at the bigger picture, very little has happened. I have no real journeys or adventures to share. There were no pyramids or camels in my all-Egypt-all-the-time experience. I did not venture into a new part of the city or have a breathtaking cultural excursion. In fact, I realized the not-so-beneficial aspect of having 24/7 access to my classroom. And I enjoyed my walk to and from a little bit less.

A week and a half ago the secondary music teacher decided to leave AIS-West to return to the states. Two weeks into the school year, this sudden departure put us in quite a pickle. Music classes are not the easiest for a substitute because they are so specialized, and these particular music classes were even more specific to the music computer lab. Other discipline, scheduling and space challenges made it a particularly exigent four periods a day. I found myself in my classroom that Friday (the first day of our weekend) planning for each secondary music class, hurried, stressed and flustered, barely given the time to digest that my teaching partner was gone. I tried to make plans for a non-music secondary sub while also coming to the realization that my strength is truly in the elementary classroom. I spent 15 hours over the weekend planning for both the substitute and myself. I think I finally took a breath when KG1 (4-year-old kindergartners) walked into my classroom on Sunday. “This is what I know,” I thought, relieved. And I was happy, even when it was difficult, as long as I was teaching my own students.
Angela holds the current Taboo record with six words.

But my plan time was swept-up with computer issues in the music lab and checking in with the substitute. I am so thankful for her. She handled the unusual placement with extraordinary poise and talent. For this week, she went above and beyond, creating her own plans and working hard to run the classes without my help. Because of that, I am able to help the director with recruitment of a new secondary teacher, participating in interviews and conversations, trying desperately to find the best match.

The general feeling of the entire night.
My respite during these two weeks was literally fun and games. I joined the staff volleyball team and started swimming a kilometer-in-the-water for exercise. Though the activity improved my mood and decreased my anxiety, I still found myself lying awake at night, worried about things I could not control and wallowing in the things I could or should do the next day. I felt as if I lived in a dichotomy, where living in Egypt was doing such great things for me physically, improving my overall health; but another part of me felt as if I was swimming across the pool and with each stroke, I was getting less of a breath than the last. Never did I consider going home, though, nor did I question my decision to come here. I was still sure that I was definitely in the right place.

So I pushed through, and with the help of my extremely supportive principal, the shoulders of a few friends and one amazing substitute teacher, my workload was more manageable this past weekend and I only went into work for one day. Though that feeling is not gone, and the overwhelming aspects of work seem to increase by the week, I have confidence that I can make this work. I am happy when I am teaching, and that is so important.

If I could only get one word correct...

On the protests at the American Embassy:

“I’m fine, Mom.” I said, sighing like a teenager over the phone to my mother. “If I didn’t watch or read the news, I wouldn’t even know the protests are happening.”

"That was the worst round yet." After I got only one word. :-(
The protests are centralized, dying down and in Cairo, and fairly non-violent. The school is very protective and I have every certainty that I will be kept safe. When the embassy sends out an alert to stay away from a certain part of the city, I do. I am in a suburb, very far away from any of the “action” and since I’ve been spending all my time at school, I’m even further removed.

Gene Siskel, the late film critic, once said, “There are no movies that shouldn’t be made, just some that shouldn’t be seen.” The movie that some Egyptians are protesting challenges this quote while also proving its point.

I am staying out of Egyptian politics but I am very much aware of how my Americanness is perceived in this region. And I will say this: most of my fear and frustration is attributed to an idiotic American who made a terrible film. Though I do not condone the violent response of very few people, I do believe that Muslims have a right to be angry and offended. Was their offense directed at the responsible party? No, not especially. The American Government is not responsible for the film, but that is very hard for some Egyptians to understand. However, Cairo is a friendly, safe, welcoming place where I have never once felt in danger and I will not allow the American media to make it sound like Egypt is a country full of extremists. Furthermore, Islam is an admirable religion full of dedication, sacrifice and humility. In my opinion, many “Christians” could learn a lot from the people here, as I already have.

On the game night:

Throughout the blog, you’ve seen pictures from a game night Susan and I hosted this past weekend. We played “Taboo” and “Boutros Boutros-Ghali” (sometimes called, “Celebrity”) and I laughed harder than I have in a long time. Afterwards, we took taxis into Mohandessin, a funky neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo, to celebrate a friend’s birthday at a somewhat exclusive, techno-crazy club with imported liquor. A good time was had by all.

Yum, yum. Beth's arm.
The people with whom I work are funny, amazing and inspiring teachers that make the difficult times worth it. So between them and my kindergartners, I’m pretty sure I’ll be just fine.

The gorgeous ladies of AIS-West (at least some of them).
Thursday, I leave for the beach. Wait and see how this Kansas girl reacts when she gets around “big water”!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Balanced Week: Students, Maadi, Egyptian Star Wars Bar, & Horseback by the Pyramids

This was a balanced week.

The students came back on Monday and I was slowly weaned into the teaching climate, having Kindergarten-5th graders in music. Each class sees me for one 45-minute block per week. Starting next week, I will add two preschool classes and five pre-K classes to my schedule. Though it will be an intense, full schedule, I still have a bit more plan time than I did at my last job (but also more classes for which to plan). It balances out.

With the students returning came an influx of frustrations with technology, resources (or lack thereof), procedures and diminished sleep. My days were rough, in between classes, and sometimes, the only saving grace was the surprisingly bright, in-tune voices of my students and their expert ability to echo rhythms on the drums. In the back of my mind I’m giving myself the same advice I give all of my students: It’s about song choice. If I choose the right material, they will surely excel. So, my daily stresses balanced well with my joyous and talented children.

In addition to those amazing kids, I have come to realize that I am working with some truly amazing, fun people. Monday, I spent the night in Maadi, an island in the Nile, further into Cairo, full of expats and city-dwellers. Justine, Chris and Beth showed me around, including a trip to the music store to buy a violin and the teacher store to get some much-needed decorative supplies. We ate dinner and toasted to our first day and I slept on a real bed that night (box springs and all).

My 12-year-old self is loving this swing at Ace Club.
Wednesday, I joined several new girlfriends for a girl’s night in that ended in going out for ice cream at Dairy Queen. Making connections and building relationships with strong women is so important to me, as I find that is where I learn and grow the most. It is also nice to relax, be silly (and sometimes inappropriate) with non-judgmental, hilarious people.

Thursday is our “Friday” so we met at Arkan for dinner and then I escaped into my Kindle for a few hours. Later that evening we went to Ace Club, a popular expat, members-only bar in Maadi. It took over an hour, four-to-a-cab, in horrible traffic to get there, but it was so worth it. We entered the Star Wars bar of Egypt, complete with people from all over the world, different languages, outfits (think: kilt) and attitudes. It was fun to hear familiar music, drink imported vodka and dance the night away. I also was able to spend time with a couple of returning staff members who are just as awesome as you might expect.
The dancing team. And some guy in a white shirt.
Me and my new friend, Peggy.
Beckie and Mariko at Ace Club.
Friday I convinced myself to stay in and relax, avoiding the temptation to go into work for the day. I knew this would leave several hours of work for Saturday, but I felt like I needed some alone time. I retreated into my Kindle and spent the day reading and thinking. That night, Krista came over and we ordered delivery. It was a pleasantly lazy day.

Saturday, as foreseen, was the opposite. I was up fairly early to do my weekly grocery shopping (where I spent a whopping $16 on groceries for the entire week) and then I spent the rest of the day on lesson plans. I first compared Virginia Standards with the familiar and more detailed standards of Shawnee Mission. Then, I chose songs, pieces, games and activities for the chosen standard of the week. I listened to the recordings carefully, typed up lyrics for second through fifth grade, and did some online research for game ideas, actions and other suggestions. Tomorrow, I will spend the morning organizing the songs into my plans and listening to them over and over to commit them to memory. It is a long process that might be shorter with sheet music and/or a textbook, but it also helps me feel completely prepared. I am a bit nervous about having the 3 and 4-year-olds this week, but I’m confident that my preschool music experience will come in very handy.

My horse let me sit and look at the pyramids.
I hate to bury the lead, but finally, this brings us to Saturday evening, when I did probably the coolest thing I have ever done. Fifteen of us met in a town in Giza and rode horseback through the desert by the pyramids. The entire experience felt so authentic and surreal at the same time. The town was full of horses and camels, both veering in and out of traffic with taxis and trucks. It took about 15-20 minutes to ride out of town into the desert and another 45 minutes to ride across and up a hill to a look-out point where we able to take pictures. Unlike many touristy horseback-riding adventures, this one had little to no rules. We were able to trot, cantor and gallop, as sand flew up around us and the cool Egypt evening breeze settled in our hair. My horse decided it was not going to race to the top, so it spent a good five minutes standing still. At first it was somewhat frustrating that the rest of the group got so far ahead of me, but then I realized he had stopped at the perfect view of the pyramids. I think he was letting me enjoy that for a while.

Somehow, Mariko got the job of stable girl.
We watched the sun set on the pyramid and as dusk fell, we rode back to the stables. On the way back, my horse was the opposite of the trip to the lookout. He ended up in front, galloping, trotting and willing himself home. We grabbed a quick dinner at a local restaurant where I got a falafel sandwich and a soda for 83 cents. We have already decided to take a longer horseback riding trip next weekend, which I’m sure will prompt another blog post.

As it is becoming clear to me that I really, truly am in Egypt, some of it still seems like an extended dream sequence. The reality is almost too amazing, too overwhelming to accept. So when I feel frustrated at work, I just think about the amazing things I’m doing. I feel great, I love it here, and that is enough to outweigh the stress of any lost internet connection.
One of our guides was obsessed with these pictures.
Joe and the Pyramid Girls.
My new friends Krista (Art) and Beth (Kindergarten).
Zainab and Denis are returning staff and have been a huge help to us.
Mariko woos the camel.
OMG it's the pyramids!
Perfect view.
The Horseback Group, all AIS West teachers.
Me and my slow/fast horse, Maradonna.

Stay tuned for Video Blog #3: Horseback by the Pyramids (with special guest, Brandon Bliss).

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bulletin Boards & Churching

If I had known about bulletin boards…
Churchopedia #10 (Church #32): Anglicans Abroad

This particular entry has writings and pictures, so be sure to scroll down to the end!

If had known, back when I was in elementary school, how much time my teachers spent on bulletin boards, I would have treated them differently. I would have praised every perfectly cut letter, noted their expert stapling and admired their creative use of construction paper. If I had known…

I spent this week in meetings, and in my spare time, getting my classroom ready. I actually did not mind the meetings as much as I normally do, as the newness of it all helped me get better acquainted with the staff and school. Even when things did not apply to me (and rarely do they apply to art/PE/music/library/computers), I searched for connections and enjoyed figuring out my coworkers by the questions they asked and the comments they made. I came away with the realization that I am working with a committed, talented, and hard-working group of people. Nothing new, of course, I’m used to a staff like that. But it was very impressive to see a community pull together and push through policies, expectations and decisions in a very short amount of time.

This staff is going through a kind of rebirth. In the three years the school has been open, the elementary, middle and high schools all functioned as one giant school. They had a director, principal and assistant principal. As the school expanded this year, the staff has almost doubled and we now have an elementary principal, specific to Pre-K through 5th grades. She is inspiring to work for and with, but she also understands the stresses of a new job in a new country because she is going through all of the same experiences right now.

Since my last entry, I have been continuing my roller-coaster ride between excitement and some of the most horrible stress I have ever experienced. Things in the apartment were fixed, and more things broke (tonight, the bathroom flooded). Work is overwhelming, but becoming more manageable. I have been walking into work around 6:00 a.m. and exiting about 12 hours later. I spent several hours both days of the weekend working in my classroom.

But I think it paid off, because I have such a pure sense of ownership for what is in my room and what I am teaching. With the help and support of my coworkers, including my direct supervisor (the head of performing arts) and my principal, I have put aside the concern for potential failure and focused on what is possible. Though I foresee many mistakes, I also have a greater appreciation for the lessons learned and the successes celebrated.

Check out THAT world drumming kit!
My desk and Smart Board.
I love the windows and right below, my world music instruments.
Story corner. Welcome to your new home, Baby Beluga!
We will add a pin whenever we sing a song from around the world.
The back wall.
The front wall.
My "Three Rs" Matrix. Niemanites, you might recognize this format. :-/
Door to the hallway and electric keyboard.

I did take a couple breaks this weekend. On Thursday night after school, I swam laps with my friend, Linda, and we had dinner on her balcony. Linda is my scuba instructor (I’m going to scuba dive!) and quite possibly one of the most amazing women I have ever met. She has lived all over the world, overcome huge obstacles and still has the spiritedness of a teenager and the wisdom of someone who has lived a long and full life.

Friday morning, I went with three friends to church in Zamalek. All Saints Cathedral is located on an island in the Nile (Zamalek), which is a bustling place full of shops, restaurants and lots of traffic. I took a taxi in with Krista, the elementary art teacher who also lives in my compound. We met up with two more friends and attended the Anglican service that had a mix of the traditional Episcopalian worship, with which I am familiar, and a more contemporary/mainline protestant approach.

The Cathedral is interesting because the one building serves three congregations: English-speaking, Sudanese and Arabic. If people do not fit into the latter two, they attend the English-speaking service, resulting in a congregation of attendants from all over the world. The Priest is from Scotland and we met people from Ghana, Madagascar, Australia, England and Burma. Though the church is small, there is a generous amount of young people and we all went to lunch afterwards. The service was more conservative and less thought provoking than what I like, but the community is very worthwhile and I can see myself returning.

Tomorrow is the first day for students and I am less anxious now that my room is complete. After school, I hope to ride the bus to Maadi where I will buy a cheap violin and stay the night with some teachers that live there. Hopefully, that will prompt another blog entry.

With that, I close out my third set of 10 churches, “Churchopedia.” “Churches International” will be my next round, if I continue the religious aspect of this journey (and how could I not?).

All Saints Cathedral.
The Chapel, where Friday services are held.
The organ and the awesome mural.
I love this chandelier. 
The ceiling (you'll understand this picture when you see the outside).
As one of my coworkers said, "Funky looking church."