Friday, December 31, 2004


It’s snowing. It’s New Years’ Eve. Our Polish friends celebrate. Welcome to Bialka!

Thursday, December 30, 2004

On the piste

At the top of the slope (and before the sprains and strains).

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Underneath the arches

A street scene in old Gdansk. The city, formerly called Danzig, was part of Germany prior to 1919, and this street has some typically Baroque architecture, with rows of high, thin, colourful houses.

Wonky house

What was in my drink?? A cool new building in the centre of Sopot.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Vroom vroom...crash

I've had a bit of a disaster. I don't think I posted earlier, but this morning I took my driving test. I've been learning for two months and hoped to pass before I go to Poland and the work becomes more intense, but I failed it. It hurts a lot, though to be honest I did feel underprepared. In the end, it was all because of a bad lack of judgement. I was really nervous and was driving very slowly and knew I had to speed things up. Then at a junction, though I saw a car coming I decided to pull out and thought I'd be far enough ahead for it not to be a problem. But the guy was coming faster that I anticipated, and he had to swerve dangerously around me. Oops. Will probably retake sometime next year. Luckily public transport near my home is very good, and even when (or if) I do pass, I probably won't use the car much. What were your test experiences like?

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bought my tickets

I'm off to Poland! These past few weeks I've been working pretty relentlessly and feel just about comfortable with the Developmental Neurobiology, the Neuromuscular System and Neuropsychiatry modules I've taken. So I thought I'd reward myself. It'd be great to catch up with Gracjan, Kamila, Saskia and their friends. And I'll try winter sports for the first time. Can't wait. Must revise hard till then though, and I'll bring my folders with me on the trip, and hopfully do an hour of revision each of the ten days.

What are your Christmas plans?


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Medsin activities

Tonight Imperial Medsin, part of the global network of medical students, has its launch party for World AIDS awareness week, and it promises to be a lot of fun. Later on there'll be a series of talks on the disease's impact across the world, as well as a candlelit vigil. People (me included), seem a lot more receptive to the planned events this year, perhaps because the incidents of STDs has risen sharply in the UK these past few years. I don't think I'll go to many of the events, but I support the cause nonetheless.


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Call of duty

I am a first aider, and help out with medical treatment in many theatre shows. It's really good fun and our services are barely ever required, so you get to see all these really cool plays for free. This year I've seen Fame, Saturday Night Fever and Mamma Mia. I love the seventies, and the cool (or crazy) dancing. Last week though, during the Phantom of the Opera, just as we were stomping our feet to the electric music and the chandelier was coming crashing down a final time, we had our first call - an elderly lady had collapsed of heat exhaustion and was lying cold on the floor. By the time we arrived she had started to regain consciousness and we didn't have too much to do other than take a quick history and examination and ensure she hadn't sustained any injuries or anything, but it was my first time being the senior care partner, and was quite nerve-wracking. Fortunately she made good recovery and was tapping her toes as we walked her to the station. Phew!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Focus, concentration, determination

This morning I did part of the Kaplan USMLE Step 1 Simulated Exam and I'm scared! I got an average of 56% but the pass mark alone is about 65%. I'm gunning for over 250 in the final exam (why not aim for the stars) so it's more time in the library for me this week. I like our university library though - it's where all the hard working and inspiring kids come to read.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Official USMLE information

I've just been browsing the USMLE official website. Here's some important information to take into account when revising. I hope it helps.


"Some questions test the examinee's fund of information per se, but the majority of questions require the examinee to interpret graphic and tabular material, to identify gross and microscopic pathologic and normal specimens, and to solve problems through application of basic science principles."

Saturday, November 13, 2004

USMLE study schedule

Yeesh, the BSc is getting intense. I'm working hard, but unfortunately that means that I've been neglecting my USMLE studies for a few weeks. The USMLEs are a series of exams that all doctors that have qualified abroad but wish to practice medicine in the USA need to take. I was in America in the summer of 2003 as part of an international exchange with the University of Delaware, and really loved it. It's my dream to spend some time practicing there. Though I found the attitudes of a small minority of people in the USA sometimes disconcerting, the majority of citizens are really nice and interesting, as well as being some of the most innovative and hard-working people in the world. So I really really need to study. What do you think of my schedule for the second-half of November?

14th: HY Neuroanatomy (the developing nervous system and congenital disorders), Webprep Biochem lecture 1
15th: HY Neuranatomy (The adult brain MRI images), Webprep Biochem lecture 2 and additional reading
16th: HY Neuroanatomy (Finish HY book), Webprep TCA cycle lectures
17th: Neuroanatomy (Qbook questions), Biochem catch-up reading
18th: HY Biostatistics (Introductory chapters), Webprep Biochem (Hexose monophosphate shunt lectures)
19th: Other commitments - College deadlines!
20th: HY Biostatistics chapters 4-7
21st: Webprep Biochem (Lipid synthesis and storage)
22nd: HY Biostatistics chapters 8-9
23rd: Webprep Biochem (Lipid synthesis and storage II)
24th: HY Biostatistics
25th: Visual Processing essay
26th: HY Biostatistics
27th: Webprep (Anatomy in early embryology)
28th: Webprep (Anatomy in early embryology II)
29th: Anatomy in early embryology revision - weak subject!
30th: Alzheimer's and Dementia (College lecture)

Thursday, October 21, 2004



Sorry I haven't written for a while. I guess my enthusiasm for blogging has been waning of late. Mainly because I don't receive any comments. :'( I haven't told anyone about my blog though and haven't promoted in online either, so I guess it's just due to my lethargy. Either that or nobody finds what I have to say interesting...yup, I know, that's probably it.

In that case, apologies once again.


Friday, October 15, 2004

Medical answer?

Here's my answer to the question I posed last week:
Q: Which of the follwing circuits repesents the lowest resistance pathway and why?
a) cerebral circulation
b) coronary circulation
c) renal circulation
d) hepatic circluation
e) pulmonary circulation

I think the answer is e) because the pulmonary system:
Has many many parallel pathways (branching)
Is relatively short
Has low muscular tone
But my circulatory system physiology is terrible, and when I was discussing it with Shobhit yesterday we considered coronary as well. Any other ideas?

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Medical quiz

A quick question for you, that's been bugging me for absolutely ages. I found it on a brilliant forum for students preparing for the USMLEs. I don't remember learning this in first-year physiology lectures. Help!

Q: Which of the follwing circuits repesents the lowest resistance pathway and why?
a) cerebral circulation
b) coronary circulation
c) renal circulation
d) hepatic circluation
e) pulmonary circulation

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Winter break?

I've just been offered the chance to go to Poland over the Christmas holidays. K and G, two of the people we met in Assiut, are so much fun and it would be a great holiday. Here's the itinerary:

I have to reserve place in the mountains (at this time it’s not easy to find free place for living, so it must be done earlier). I will write you exactly how we can spend this time in Poland:
- We can meet in Gdansk on 27 December and stay here two days for visiting.
- Then we are going to the mountain to the place called Bialka Tatrzanska.
- We spend there four nights (it one of the best polish resorts and not very crowded).
- Of course we spend this time for skiing, snowboarding or walking- as you wish!
- One day we can go and visit Zakopane - popular polish city, very original and beautiful.
- For the party we should go to the Mountain and say hello to the New Year!!!
- After this we can have fun until the morning in the hotel or bar.

- Costs depend on what you want to do!!!
- Boarding in Gdansk – free
- Traveling to Bialka Tatrzanska - about 20 euro (return journey)
Boarding there - about 8 euro per night
- Skiing - about 10 euro per day
- Other costs for eating and pleasures - depends on you!!!

If you have any questions let me know!!!


Reading it again it sounds even better, but I doubt I'll be able to go. With out BSc final exams in early February, I need to start full throttle revision very soon. At least I've made a start.


Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Sand art

Some stunning sculptures from another forwarded email. What are your creative talents?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Black in London

Hi all

I'm back in London now, after a three night stop in Frankfurt. My sister picked me up in our recently purchased second-hand Nissan Micra (she'd never sat behind a steering wheel when I'd left!), so I didn't have any problems carrying back all the textbooks I'd bought. The first thing she did when we got back home, though, was a bit strange. She'd got it into her head that spending two months in Egypt and swimming in the Nile (I stupidly went in once) would morph me into a different creature, and she spent five minutes inspecting me from head to foot for any changes before pronouncing me normal. That night I did the same, and there have been a few alterations. First of all, I'm expectedly much darker – I'd pass off as a Nubian no problem – but the distribution of the tan isn't uniform, and you can easily tell the style of sandals that I wore for much of the trip's duration. Secondly, I'm thinner! I put on a couple of kilos in Assiut, but I lost them and more subsequently, and I'm now only 90% Moc. Finally, during my stay I'd gradually developed these absurd stretch marks around my shoulder and groins, but after a week in Europe they're all gone. I think they were due to sleeping in a star shape in an effort to maximise my surface area and cool down during the stiflingly hot nights in Egypt, and thankfully I don't have to do that any more. Boy did I miss British weather!

Hope you're well,

Saturday, August 28, 2004


The sun rises over Mount Sinai. We ascended in the middle of the night, to be greeted with this sight. It made the grumblings of some of the group and the freezing cold at the summit all worthwhile.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Say Dahaab


A quick message from Dahab. It's the penultimate place on our tour (Mt Sinai's next, before we head back to Cairo), and we're all loving it. The waterside restaurants here are so much more inviting than those in Sharm El-Sheikh, where we were last, and are the perfect places to sit and soak up the atmosphere of the town. Sharm, the place many Egyptians aspire to holiday at, is very touristy, and in many respects feels just like an indistinct European resort, but Dahab is completely different. Famed primarily for its diving (though it also has drink, drugs and a stray dog problem), it's also a town where independent tourists can kick back and relax following an exhausting time sightseeing, and that's just what we've been doing. Our schedule for this trip has been pretty hectic (in one week we've done Cairo-Aswan-Abu Simbel-Aswan-Luxor-Sharm [an epic bus journey of fifteen hours, for the duration of which we had to sit in the foetal position]-Dahab), and now we're getting ready for tomorrow night's journey to Sinai. We'll get there in the early hours of the morning, and climb to the top, where Musa (Moses) is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God, in time for the sunrise. Until then, though, some more swimming and snorkelling awaits. I did some snorkelling in Hurghada and in Sharm, but now I've managed to find a way to keep my specs on underwater without water entering the mask. I tried it for the first time this morning, and I had a much better time compared to Hurghada, as now the coral reefs have come alive for me. I've also been practicing my swimming every day, and have ditched the life jacket I wore the first time (the Red Sea is so salty that drowning is a tiny risk for snorkellers), and so can follow fish by diving down with them, but the water pressure becomes too uncomfortable at a depth of around 4m.

The area where we've been swimming is known as the Blue Hole, famed as a snorkeller's paradise but a diver's graveyard. The reefs here are incredible and so close to the shore, but the ones that the divers explore are between these narrow fissures, and some inexperienced divers have suffered from the bends there after trying to ascend too quickly. In fact, just yesterday a Russian guy had blacked out at a depth of 65m and had drowned. As I write there is an expedition underway to reclaim the body.

Anyway, we’re going back in. See you later.


Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Pharaonic rerun

“Thebes is the greatest word in any language”

So said Jean Francois Champollion, the obsessive French mathematician who, with the help of the Rosetta Stone, managed to rediscover the meaning of hieroglyphics. And Thebes, now more commonly known as Luxor, is where I am now. Again. This time I'm in the middle of the post-training trip of my second summer school, and though we've been revisiting a few of the same monuments that I wrote about in the old email, I'm a lot more clued up on them now, and have been appreciating their less well-known charms.

We began the trip by taking the train from Cairo to Aswan, during which, by a lovely coincidence, I bumped into three of my classmates from medical school. I knew that they were in Alexandria on a different summer school and we'd tried to arrange to meet up in Cairo, but we were all in a rush and agreed to get back together in London, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find that they were also heading to Aswan and had a similar itinerary.

We had taken the overnight train and arrived the next morning, and after dropping off our bags we headed to the Temple of Philae. This is a beautiful complex that for hundreds of years was a centre of worship of the Pharaonic deity Isis, the goddess of magic. It was originally built on the island of Philae, but when the waters of the Nile rose with the completion of the Aswan Dam and then the undertaking of the High Dam, the temple was in danger of being flooded, and between 1972 and 1980 was moved piece by piece to nearby Agilkia Island. Organised by UNESCO, the relocation was completed so that the new positions of the structures corresponded as closely as possible to the original layout, and it was wonderful to walk through the site and see the elegant buildings and hieroglyphics. And the felucca ride required to get from the Temple from Aswan's east bank provided stunning views of the island setting.

Following lunch at one of the many waterside Nubian restaurants, we made a quick jaunt to the Aswan Dam and the huge (but, for the tourist, slightly disappointing) High Dam. Built over eleven years (1960-1971) and occasionally plagued with difficulties, this was Egypt's post-revolutionary message to the world that it was still capable of undertaking and completing projects of a massive scale. The Dam was proposed to counter the unpredictable flooding of the Nile (the old Aswan Dam was only big enough to regulate the flow of water) and to generate hydroelectric power, but the plans were initially ridiculed as being an impossible dream. However, over thirty years since its completion the 3600m long, 980m wide and 111m high Dam remains amongst the largest in the world, and the four hundred and fifty-one people that lost their during the construction have left an imposing legacy. Though the benefits have been huge, however, the results of its completion have not been all positive: many towns and villages have been submerged, artificial fertiliser use is on the increase as fields no longer receive the Nile's silt, and the number of schistosomal infections has rocketed as farmers now wade in continually full irrigation canals. It's a big factor in why so much of Egypt's health budget has to be set aside for bilharzial prevention and treatment strategies.

The next morning the group left for Abu Simbel, but I wanted to see a part of Aswan that I hadn't visited before, and instead went to Elephantine Island, home to a vibrant Nubian village, the Aswan Museum and the ruins of Yebu. It was nice just to walk around the island and get a flavour of life there, and the museum contained some really impressive mummies. The most memorable moment of my trip, however, came a little later, when I was exploring Yebu. I was contentedly strolling around the excavation site, looking up the history of the place in a guidebook, when this dog appeared from behind a stone wall and began barking violently at me. I'm petrified of dogs (a bad childhood experience), and as soon as I saw him my sympathetic system kicked into action, the adrenaline started pumping and I began to run and scream, waving my hands wildly in the air. Luckily the ruins I ran towards had been fashioned like steps, and I quickly clambered up them, out of the reaches of the dog and his growing group of friends. A guard arrived a minute later to see what all the commotion was about, and with a shout of "Ish!" managed to scatter the canines in seconds. I was still recovering, however, when I met yet another girl from my university, a second-year med student that I know from my volunteer work with the St.John Ambulance. I had no idea she was in the country, and, after swapping tales we've arranged to meet up in Cairo later to go to a famous coffeehouse and sample some traditional Egyptian dancing. Should be fun.

Our last night in Aswan wasn't very joyous, however, as I joined the two Taiwanese girls in our group, Mary and Yvonne, to check out the local souq. The market catered solely for tourists, and as we passed every stall the merchants would physically try and bundle us into their shops, "just to look, not buy", of course. I've left with the impression that the Aswanese(?) are definitely the rudest Egyptians I've met, very different to their fellow nationals, but I guess it was a memorable experience.

Anyway, we're out of there now, and sampling the delights of the New Kingdom Pharaonic era. The legacy that Amenhotep III and pals left is still incredible to me, and revisiting the Valley of the Kings (but to different tombs this time), was definitely worth it. On that note, I'll sign off, as we're going to the Sound and Light show and getting reacquainted with Karnak Temple tonight, and I need to get ready.


Friday, August 20, 2004

Foot surgery

This picture was taken in the white desert, where we spent two wonderful nights. During one of my walks with zany Fiff (on the left), I cut my foot and got some sand and grit into it. I decided to be a bit of a wuss, and demanded some attention. Andreea, the budding Romanian surgeon on the right of the picture, also tried to help. Thanks guys!

Oasis weekend

I've been a bit harried over the past week, with longer and more productive days at the hospital and lots of supplementary reading to be done. Anyway, I've had some free time these past couple of days, so I've written up my experiences of our last weekend, to the Bahariyya and Farafra Oases. It was probably the best short trip we've had so far.

Bahariyya and Farafra are two of five isolated desert oases in the Western (or Libyan) Desert, a massive area that starts on the western banks of the Nile and stretches well into Libya. They are havens of life in a region that for the most part is seemingly uninhabitable, with an abundance of flora, fauna and fresh fruit and vegetables. with the oases' towns wonderfully unique mud-brick architecture and their relaxed pace of life, it was a special way to spend the weekend, and those of us on the exchange and summer school groups finally got the chance to bond.

We left for the 330km journey to Bahariyya on Thursday afternoon, and after a short stop in the principal town, Bawiti, we drove to the middle of the desert to watch the sunset. It was really stunning, probably an even better panorama than the setting I watched in the Dakhla Oasis with the Assiut Summer School because this time there were dunes and dunes of golden sand in every direction. Then we had a classic Bedouin dinner out in the open, with grilled chicken, spiced yoghurt and mixed salad, before a night sleeping under the stars. It was unforgettable. The atmosphere there is so clear of light pollution that it was like lying under a canvas of charcoal speckled with thousands upon thousands of glittering diamonds. We even saw a few shooting starts before sunrise.

The next morning, after a traditional breakfast with some of the freshest fuul (mashed fava beans with salad eaten in unleavened bread) I've tasted in Egypt, we left for the Black Desert. This is an area where the desert literally turns black, having been formed over thousands of years as wind eroded small black, volcano shaped mountains found in the area. We climbed a few of these and I've got some stunning pics, but getting down was a real problem. The terrain was a bit treacherous and small stones kept on dislodging and tumbling down the mountainside with every step we took. There were five of us that got to the top and we ended up having to each try different descent routes before deciding on the safest option. We eventually made it down from the highest peak after an hour; the ascent only took twenty minutes.

Following the delay, we were taken to El-Moufid lake, an isolated spot in the middle of the desert and "a special place for swimming", our guide assured us. The drive there was rough and, being in the open roofed jeep, we were completely caked in dust and white chalk when we got there. In fact, I looked like a granddad when I got out, and was looking forward to a refreshing dip in the water. Only it looked more like a swamp. The lake was strangled with algae and there were these small grey creatures (we couldn't decide if they were fish, larvae, frogs or filth) floating in the water. We were all a bit apprehensive about swimming there, but we ended up taking the plunge. The feeling was that we'd spent the past month learning all about Egypt's different tropical diseases but now it was our practical - time to acquire a few of them! (Un?)fortunately it doesn't seem like any of us have.

After a quick lunch we drove to the White Desert, where we spent our second night. The White Desert, known to locals as Sahra al-Beida, is the most otherworldly region I've ever been to. It's an expanse of these eerie white rock formations that, shaped by wind erosion, take on all kinds of surreal forms - I saw giant mushrooms, camels, sliced spheres and poncho hats - in the middle of this seemingly never-ending expanse of sand. And then, as we climbed a nearby canyon to watch the sunset, the chalk gradually appeared more and more orange and then pink. It was only a pity that we weren't there on the night of a full moon, when the desert is said to take on an arctic appearance.

We finished dinner, and then we were treated to a night of Bedouin entertainment. Even since I was nine and my schoolteacher brought back a camelhair rug for our class after she'd been on a desert holiday in the Sahara I'd wondered what life was like for such nomadic and relatively isolated groups, and that night we were given a glimpse. Reenergised by the hashish that they smoked before the performance, out guide Talat and his friends played and danced to traditional drum and reed melodies half the night. We were sitting round they campfire they had built, and accompanied the performers with handclapping before we couldn't keep up with their stamina and spent another cold night sleeping under the stars.

Sunday was our final day of the trip, and there was still a lot to see. We were first driven to a place called Agabat, famous for its 'flower stones'. These are collections of deep black iron pyrite crystals that have somehow clumped together to form these wonderful floral patterns, and they are strewn all across the valley floor. Alas they are very dense so I couldn't collect many, but I have brought a few back to show you all.

After another quick mountain climb, it was time to head back to the Bahariyya Oasis for lunch, which was to be our final meal of the trip. Our driver, however, had other ideas. My namesake was a bit of a cowboy, and kept taking us on these long (and fun) off-the-road detours and up and down big sand dunes. Once, however, he made a bit of a miscalculation and didn't approach the peak of a dune fast enough. As a result we were stuck in the sand, and the fact that it was so soft meant that the more wheel spin the driver created, the deeper we were entrenched, and we ended up having to all clamber out and push. It was only a couple of minutes or so until we were on the move again, but it was enough for us to imagine all sorts of totally implausible outcomes. Before we saw the jeep glide forward again we had already decided that, being so far off the beaten track and having no radio, flares or a mobile phone with reception, we would have to spend the night in the vehicle. Our only call for help would be to flash our headlights and play a cassette of Amr Diab (an Egyptian pop sensation) really really loudly until someone came to investigate. Sadly just half an hour later we were back in Bawiti, amidst a population of thirty thousand. We had a nice meal in a secluded wooden spot before heading over to Talat's house to say goodbye to our desert team. It was like a study in contrasts, just as the peace and tranquility of the Western Desert was to the hustle, bustle and urgency of the capital city, which we got back to four hours later. Yep, it's anarchic here and the people are sometimes relentless in their pursuit of foreigners and their wallets, but I'm glad to be back. I still haven't seen lots of the sights here nor been to many of the recommended areas, and the next few afternoons will be really busy as we try to fit everything in before the start of our post-training tour. This, like the trip I wrote to you about following the Assiut training program, is organised by the summer school committee here to give us a taste of Egypt and its many faces. I'll be returning to Aswan and Luxor with them, before moving up to Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab and Mt Sinai. It should be spectacular, and I'll tell you about it soon.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Downtown's inferno

Hello folks

What's the latest? Thanks for all the emails, and sorry I haven't replied to them. I've been using the Internet much less this past week, hence the late update. I'll try and get round to writing again soon, though.

I think you might be interested in something I saw recently - a fire. A big one. Perhaps the biggest in Cairo that week. It wasn't just the fact that a major incident had happened in the heart of the city, just few minute's walk from our hostel, but also the fire service's and Cairenes' response to the spectacle. Some of the description may sound like a desperate tragicomedy but it all happened and it was such a unique series of events that I don't think I'll ever forget it.

Following the completion of our hospital training for the day, I was just getting back to my residence with two friends when we noticed a car being frantically pushed down the road by a policeman and ten other helpers. Then suddenly people started swarming to one of the streets branching off from the main roundabout, and for the first time since I came here Midan Talat'Harb was devoid of people. Medics are generally an inquisitive bunch, especially if morbid events are concerned, and after dropping off our bags, three of us ran to investigate and to offer any assistance we were capable of. By this time fire engines were on the way and there were around five hundred spectators already on the scene, looking up at the fourth floor of a bank. It was billowing acrid black smoke and dark orange flames were just starting to appear behind the windows. The fire must have started a while ago, however, as the building had already been evacuated and was sealed off by a wall of policemen. Then the blaze erupted, though, and the officers began to push the crowd away to make way for the emergency services. Only the people didn't want to go. Eventually, we were all shoved back to a large petrol station forecourt on the opposite side of the road, just as lots of ash from the charred remains of part of the building began to fall softly down. We could smell the smoke mingle with the petrol, and we had quite a scary next half an hour.

The fire was still spreading all along the roof, but it was still a while before all the fire trucks had their equipment ready. First of all they found that their water pressure wasn't high enough, and only the outside of the building was being doused. Then for some crazy crazy reason the fireman that was winched up to the fourth floor with a high-pressure hosepipe had only his regular clothes on (casual shirt and jeans), whilst his colleagues down below were dressed in full fireproof attire. Anyway, the man slowly started to get the first under control, but by then much of the building was already completely gutted and chunks of plasterwork were falling down, making the area unsafe. So the riot police were called, complete with shields and batons, and they stormed the forecourt and the surrounding area to get people to leave. With the flames seemingly under control most people were happy to do so, except some guys who had somehow managed to get onto the roof of the petrol station and were relaxing on deckchairs whilst watching things unfold. Unbelievable.

Anyway, the events were detailed on the news that night, and it's suspected that the cause of the inferno was an electrical short switch. The building is in a very unstable condition now and there is a danger that it might collapse. The whole complex and part of the side and main streets running beside it had been cordoned off, and this was still in place when I walked past the site again last night. Thankfully no people were hurt and all smoke inhalational injuries were minor.

Things are back to normal in the downtown district now, but the scenes towards the end were quite grave, and everyone in the area was a bit subdued for the next few days.

So please, take care of yourselves, and make sure you have a working smoke alarm!


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Natural beauty

The Sun goes down over Cairo (Thanks for the pic Saskia).

Sunday, August 08, 2004


Hi everybody

How are things? I hope you're doing well and enjoying the hols. Sorry about the belated write-up for the Alexandria trip but here it finally is! Hope your find it interesting.

First, with the help of the Lonely Planet, a bit of history. Alexandria, a large port city on the northern coast of Egypt used to be a major light of the Hellenic world. It was home to one of the wonders of the ancient world, and it's legendary library was flocked to by scholars the world over. Nowadays that legacy isn't very evident though (it's often said that Alex is the greatest historical town with the least to show), with heavy overcrowding and some badly preserved monuments. Nevertheless, we had a super couple of days here, and it was lovely just to get away from the pollution in Cairo and the intensity of Cairenes.

On our first night here we didn't do much. We'd finished a long week at the hospital, and just wanted to have a refreshing and pleasant stroll by the Mediterranean. The corniche here is really long (Alex is nearly 20km long from east to west but only 3km wide), and it was nice to soak up the relaxed atmosphere of the place, lined as it is by outdoor cafes, fresh fruit sellers and street entertainers. We ended the day on a different note though - at a 1980s disco where we were the only partygoers.

The next morning we visited Fort Qaitbey, a big castle on the western end of the corniche that was used by the Mamluks to protect the city. The area is, however, much more famous for being the home of the Pharos Lighthouse, a beacon considered to be one of the ancient wonders of the world. Alas, in the year 1303, after seventeen centuries the structure was toppled following a violent earthquake. It was fun to walk around the fort anyway, and we even saw some of the granite pillars that probably came from the lighthouse.

After the good time we had at Qaitbey, though, there was a revolution within the group! The Egyptian students had planned to spend the rest of the day by the beach, but seeing as we were to leave for the capital again the next evening, many of those in our posse wanted to continue exploring the city. There was a big discussion and folks started to get restless in the heat (gurning was practiced, empty water bottles were launched in the air, shoes were scuffed), but after half an hour we decided to split into two groups. I decided to join those who were going to carry on wandering for a few hours and would catch up with the others at the beach later in the day. We ended up visiting some really beautiful mosques and then walked though a lively souk, before seeing two of Alex's more famous attractions, Pompey's Pillar and the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa. A walk through the Montezah Palace Gardens, a royal retreat on a rocky area overlooking the sea, and a quick swim in the beautiful but incredibly salty waters of the Mediterranean were a great way to end the evening. You should come! The most bizarre moment of the trip, though, came at night when all of us were relaxing at an ahwa, an Egyptian coffeehouse. A man on a battered bicycle approached us and started to give us the funniest street performance we'd ever seen. First of all, we were captivated by his appearance - he looked exactly like a brown-skinned Paul Daniels, and was dressed in a shimmering gold tank top and silver trousers. After introducing himself Ahmed pulled this sword out from nowhere and, in one swift motion, managed to slice a baby melon in half. He then proceeded to wrap the blade in layer upon layer upon layer of aluminium foil so that it was completely blunted and not dangerous at all, before balancing it on the end of a stick which he held horizontally clamped between his teeth. Impressive? But the show wasn't finished. Ahmed then whipped out his trusty portable stove, and after a few minutes, poured some boiled water into a pot. To this he added a few other choice ingredients and, with a (roughly translated ;o)) cry of
'Hey, wait! Look at me again. I'm now going to conduct a grade six science experiment on top of my head!',
managed to balance the whole collection once again, before finishing in exhausted triumph.

We were together as a group for almost the whole of our last day in Alexandria, and after completing some personal tasks I joined everybody else at the Graeco-Roman Museum. It was a really interesting introduction to the founding of the city by Alexander the Great, its development and layout by Alexander's general, Ptolemy, and the city's subsequent rise and fall. The Roman Amphitheatre was also a cool site, with this pretty clever construction such that there was only the small spot from which a speaker addressed his audience, denoted by a marble circle, from which voices carried to the whole amphitheatre - all extraneous sound resonated far less.

Just before the train back to Cairo, we squeezed in a visit to the new Alexandria Library, or Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It was inspired by the original Great Library, once said to have been the greatest of all classical institutions, and is massive. In fact, it's eventually intended to hold eight million books. From the outside it looks like a discus laying on the ground at an angle, designed to represent a new ray of learning rising over the Mediterranean, and it's flanked by a cool outdoor pedestrian area. Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit the planetarium and exploratorium which complete the new complex, but we had a guided tour of the main museum, which was interesting. The feature which captivated us the most, however, was an exhibition of winning pictures from the World Press Photo 2003 photojournalism competitions. The aim was to vividly and poignantly present any aspect of the human experience and life in general. There were all sorts of quirky, funny and moving shots but there were three that especially haunted us.

It was a sobering way to end the trip, but the journey home was good. I was sitting next to this young Egyptian girl and after reading some med for an hour we got talking and I ended up listening to Cairene pop songs for the rest of the trip. I'm gonna buy some before I leave so you can hear it yourselves when I get back to London in eleven days.

Till then,

Friday, August 06, 2004

Seat of learning

Alexandria’s new and architecturally stunning library, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It was finally inaugurated 2003, close to the former site of the most renowned library in the ancient world, the great Library of Alexandria. Again, the photo is thanks to Sas.

Together again

The 2004 Kasr Al-Ainy international group congregates at Cairo’s main train terminal, Mahattat Ramses. There's a lot of quite significant structural repair work going on at the moment and we onec had to walk through a haze of falling plasterwork, but fortunately the station remains open business.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Cairo introduction

Hello friends, and greetings from Cairo!

How are you all? Have you had a good week? I've been having an unusual one, having finally got the chance to explore the capital. In many ways it's so different from the rest of the country.

I arrived here on Saturday night, after my final week in Assiut. The boys' dormitory was pretty quiet without all of my friends from the summer school (most of them left for their homelands a few days ago), but we did have one final adventure together. We had walked around most of the city during our time here, the area behind our hostel was full of residential side-streets that we hadn't traversed, and four of us (H, M, S and me) decided to see what was there. After choosing progressively narrower and narrower roads until we were walking down small alleyways, we suddenly stumbled across this wonderful street bazaar. It was typically Arabian, with all manner of wares sold in tiny stalls packed tightly together, the high-pitched cries of the merchants and the lovely smell of fresh coffee and spices. It seemed to be the first time the traders had seen foreigners in the bazaar, and everywhere we were greeted with warm smiles and hails of 'Welcome in Assiut' or 'China? Korea? Indonesia? Where are you from?'. It was such an unexpectedly great place and we were just thinking of what to buy as souvenirs of the trip when out of nowhere around fifty little street kids, all aged between five and ten years started following us and shouting to each other excitedly. My features are similar to those of many Egyptians so I was mostly ignored as a funny dressing native, but the children were transfixed by H, M and Sas (H is originally from Hong Kong, M is French-Canadian and S is Dutch). My Arabic is terrible but I think they were saying 'Hey, look at those strange looking people. Have you ever seen anything like it? I dare you to talk you them.' So they did, and asked us all our names. Once they found that out and none of them could think of any other questions they could ask in English, they decided to touch us, staying by our side as we tried to get past them. It was all very innocent, but then things started to get a bit hairy. H and I were standing just behind the girls and attempting to stop the kids from harassing them, but the noise they created attracted some older boys, and they ran at us from the sides, got in-between us and started pushing and prodding the girls. A few even tried to pinch their bottoms, and H and I had to literally ram our way to the front and run out of there with them. Not very nice. Not nice at all.

That said though, most of the people in Assiut, not least all the ASSA students who looked after and befriended us, are so nice I was sad to leave the city. On my final night there we went to one of the Egyptian student's sister's wedding, and after lots of singing and dancing attended one more morning of training at the hospital before packing my bags and heading for Cairo.

The train journey took five hours and was a really good chance to see daily life by the Nile (on the way to Assiut last month we took a night-train). I also got talking to my neighbour, and now I've more than doubled my Italian vocabulary. He was an Egyptian businessman who had spent some time in Italy and so could speak some of that language, but no English. Youssef proceeded to tell me all about his former life there in Italian, whilst I would look confused but try to string some kind of response in French. Cue much fun and some very bemused expressions on both sides.

Cairo itself is a great city. It's home to around eighteen million people and the area around the main railway station, Mahattat Ramses, is the major crossroads. I arrived in the middle of the rush-hour (which usually lasts from seven in the morning till ten at night), and it was like downtown New York on speed. Every which way you looked there were cars, bicycles, cats and the odd donkey, and accompanied by a Cairene it still took two minutes to cross the road. The second summer school I was to attend didn't begin until the following morning and the Students' Scientific Society (SSS) of Kasr Al-Ainy, the coordinators of the program, put us up for the night in a different hotel to the one we would be staying at for the rest of the training period. This was in the heart of downtown but a bit further from the hospital, and the next morning we decided to take the metro there. It was the first time I had walked in the city during the daytime, and it was intense. The thing that caught my eye most though was this old Egyptian guy with a typically traditional appearance (sun-drenched face, small moustache, rotten teeth) except that he was wearing a pristine white t-shirt with the words 'Support British Farming' emblazoned in big letters on the back. I still don't know what I'll leave behind if I end with more than twenty kilos.

Riding the metro from one of the major hubs of the city to another in the middle of the morning rush is weird. The trains are generally fast, clean and efficient, but they are even more packed than the most crushing London Underground carriages. As soon as a train stops at a station people pour in to the carriages, regardless of the commuters that have to get off. But this means that half of them have to return to the platform again as people shout that this is their stop, and because the driver only waits at each station for a few seconds, heedless of whether or not passengers are still getting on, lots of the metrogoers end up back where they started. So some streetwise users of the train use a different approach. They stand towards the back, around four metres from the carriages, and just before the signal is given for the doors to close they run at them at full speed, suitcases in hand, leaping off the edge of the platform like Olympic long jumpers. Their momentum carries them safely into the carriages regardless of how full they are, though some orthopaedic surgeons might be a bit busier than they should do.

The hospital itself is pretty different from Assiut University's. It's easy to see that the institution has far more money - there are no patients lining the stairs and the wards themselves are much wider and better equipped - and there is the buzz of working in a busy teaching hospital. We were met on the first day by the assistant head of the tropical medicine department, a really nice man who outlined our training schedule and gave us a quick tour of the faculty of internal medicine. Unfortunately the program is different to the one most of us envisaged as the incidence of tropical diseases in the capital is low, and we will spend more time in the gastroenterology and hepatology departments. It's a pity, but the doctors seem eager to teach, and what with grand rounds and journal club meetings to attend, we should learn lots. Oh yeah, and the wards here are much cooler. That's fantastic for us, but even better for the patients - they don't really believe in giving people intravenous drips here unless it's absolutely necessary, but half the patients end up being quite badly fluid depleted most of the time.

The evenings during the training period are set aside for the social program organised by the SSS committee, but it's a lot less packed than Assiut's. This being a much bigger and varied city they want us to explore it ourselves instead of having to be shown all the sights, which is fair enough. So all of us in the exchange and summer school programs have been roaming the area together, and have so far walked through the downtown, Islamic and Coptic regions. And as long as we don't get run over or go broke (Cairo is way more expensive than anywhere else I've visited in the country) we'll head over to the Khan El-Khalili bazaar the day after tomorrow to get all of our souvenir shopping done. So let me know what I can get you.

That's all for now.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Road trip II

Sorry it's taken a while to write again, but I've been working like crazy the last few days, and have been trying to make the most of my final week in Assiut. I'll try and reply individually as soon as I can, but it might take a while. Anyway, I've just read over this mail and it's quite sombre - I saw something very sad this morning and am still recovering. Details to follow.

First of all though, a bit more about the week long trip to Aswan, Abu Simbel, Luxor and Hurghada. It was organised by the Egyptian students from ASSA (Assiut Students' Scientific Association) who are looking after us during our time here, and was a quick tour of some of the spectacular sights and sounds of Upper Egypt. We began the trip just over two weeks ago, but due to some of the same security problems mentioned in the last email (a police escort to the outskirts of the city was compulsory), we departed one and a half hours late, in the early hours of the morning. Alas the booming voice of one of my friends woke up half of our floor in the hostel, and we left to a cry of 'Shut up, you donkeys!'.

We got to Aswan early the next morning and drove to our hotel first thing to set down our bags and freshen up. Only the hotel didn't want us! When they saw that we were not all Egyptian students they wanted to charge us 50% extra and, after a bit of arguing we decided not to stay there. The rooms still weren't that much by European standards but it was the principle of deciding to surcharge foreign guests that riled us, and after an hour of searching in downtown Aswan we ended up finding a hotel a cheap hotel in a small alleyway, sandwiched between a butchers' shop and an outrageously priced convenience store. It had a great view of the neighbouring area and there was air-conditioning, which we were so grateful for, as it was incredibly hot in the city. Even wearing tourist-style clothes and with litres and litres of cold water, walking around in temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius is really energy sapping. The sun here doesn't shine, it burns.

After a shower we quickly went exploring as we only had two days in the city. We started off by visiting the Botanical Gardens, a small peaceful plot on this really beautiful island on the Nile. Then we went to the temple of Philae a superb shrine to the goddess Isis begun by Nectanebo I and added to for over six hundred years. As well as the vivid hieroglyphics there were lots of nooks to get lost in and we had a good time. The hieroglyphs were also more intricate than some of the later ones we saw, with the pictures embossed rather than chiseled into the stone.

Many people in Aswan are of a much darker complexion compared to Egyptians in other parts of the country, having descended from native peoples south of the present day national border, and they have a distinct language and culture. They are known as Nubians, and to get a feel for their way of life and to make some much needed cash, many Nubian villagers open up their mud brick homes for tourists to have a look around. They are all brightly coloured and uniquely adorned (the one we visited had five baby crocodiles in a tank which the younger boys proudly showed us), and it was a really interesting if slightly intrusive feeling experience.

The next day we left early to catch the police escort to Abu Simbel, a small town in the deep south of the country that's home to my Pharaonic favourite sites in Egypt: the Great Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor, dedicated to his wife, Nefertari. They're massive structures (the former is 30m high and 35m wide) and when you get close you have to crane your neck to the sky to see the crowns of the statues. You really can't help being overwhelmed by the audacity, planning and commitment required to complete the thirty year project. Built around 3,000 years ago it must have been an incredible moment when it was rediscovered two-hundred years ago, a vast structure in the desert almost completely buried in the sand. I know it's no that vivid a description but I think it's one of those sights that have to be seen to be really appreciated. Go!

Later that afternoon we headed back to Aswan to visit the Aswan Dam, the magnificent High Dam and the Nubian Museum. We wanted to do something memorable on our final night here, so afterwards three of us (me, Shobhit and my Canadian friend Dan) went to explore the Old Cataract Hotel. It's said to be the finest hotel in Egypt, and parts of the movie 'Death on the Nile' were filmed here. After having juices and fruit tarts on the balcony, which offered a wonderful view of the Nile, we managed to sweet-talk the night-manager and got to see one of the best suites in the hotel, the Agatha Christie Suite. It had massive rooms with luxorious carpets and furniture, and every amenity you could think of. It's a shame we had to head straight back to our student rooms.

We left for Luxor the following morning, a large city north of Aswan containing the highest proportion of Pharaonic monuments in the world. We visited the Karnak and Luxor Temples the first day and all of the West Bank the next, but just when we were getting overwhelmed by the rows upon rows of intricate carvings ... disaster! Because it's so bright outside but very dark in many of the siderooms and inner chambers of temples, I was wearing my prescription sunglasses but had my regular specs hooked on a button on my shirt for easy access. Just as we were climbing up some rocks to enter an inner room the glasses fell from my shirt and one of the lenses cracked. Nooo! I'm really short-sighted and so for the next five days we forced to wear my sunglasses everywhere. It was a bit of an inconvenience and I got lots of amused glances when I wore the shades in darkened restaurants and the like (I must have looked like some kind of wannabe Indian badboy), but it wasn't really a problem until a few days later. I was showering when all of a sudden there was a power-cut and the hotel was plunged into darkness. I couldn't see a thing, and putting on the shades made things even darker. With a really dodgy budget-style bathroom to contend with my sore backside from the diving got a lot worse before I managed to get out.

Anyway, after two action-packed days in Luxor we moved on to the final leg of our trip and took our minibus to Hurghada. The city is a rapidly developing resort on the Red Sea coast, and one of the best sites in the country for snorkelling and diving. After spending the afternoon of the first day relaxing on the beach, we left early the next morning for a long boat ride to some of the Rad Sea's many coral reefs. None of us had a diving license so we couldn't do that, but the snorkelling trip was nevertheless an incredible experience. The fish in the Red Sea are so beautiful, varied and colourful that even without specs it was easy to see loads of spectacular one. After an hour or so we went to a beach to do some swimming, but there followed another disaster! A few of us were running along the sand when we stepped on some very sharp coral that cut up our feet, and we decided to wash our wounds in the water. I was happily doing so when I realised that my camera was still dangling from my shoulder and was immersed in the water. Despite many drying attempts it hasn't worked since.

Some of our group went from Hurghada directly to Cairo as their planes were leaving earlier than ours, so the Fellowship was much smaller by the time we got back to Assiut. It was a sad occasion, and since then the city has been as slow as usual, but we have managed to get a lot more training done. I've been going in to hospital in the evenings as well as the mornings as also got to visit the obstetrics/gynaecology and accident and emergency departments. A&E in Assiut is very different to London though. First of all, almost all the patients present with trauma wounds. The incidence of alcohol and drugs misuse is so low as to almost non-existent so there are no cases of overdose or injuries sustained following abuse, but the variety of trauma accidents here is worrying. Of the first ten patients I saw one had his hand sliced by a scythe, another had his hand crushed in a machine and a third had sustained head injuries following a motorcycle accident. That's not surprising considering that most people don't wear helmets when riding - the only form of protection I've seen are construction hard hats worn without strapping. The department was adequately staffed but the resources weren't very good and the team was always working under trying circumstances. The doctors did their best but sterile procedure was difficult to maintain and I'm worried that many of the patients will go on to develop septicaemia. That and a lack of monitoring meant that one patient on the ICU went into massive cardiogenic shock which was discovered when it was too late for intervention. A tough way to end the day.

OK, I'd better get some reading done.

All the best,

Monday, July 26, 2004

Welcome home

Kamila’s picture of the inside of that Nubian house on Elephantine Island. Most Nubians on the island are poor, and earn their living by entertaining tourists in their homes. This usually involves serving guests tea and traditional food, with perhaps dances or songs to follow. Traditional handicrafts are also sold. Homes are usually brightly coloured and, in spite of the fact that we were poking about in somebody else’s residence, actually felt quite homely.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Road trip

Howdy all

I'm in Luxor now (home of The Valley of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens and the Karnak Temples), and having a great time. There is so much to see here and the variety of street life is amazing. Many people here are smarmy though, only superficially as friendly as those from Assiut. And it's especially bad for the girls in our group (most of us from the Summer School are here, together with some of the Egyptian students). The Pharaonic structures here really are unbelievable though. We've been to Aswan and Abu Simbel so far, and the scale of the monuments is just so huge, and you can't help but be amazed at the vision, planning and determination of the rulers. If you ever get the chance, come and visit!

Yesterday we went to a typical Egyptian wedding and it was amazing. Here you don't have to be invited to attend a wedding party (you more or less invite yourself), but it felt very awkward at first, especially as we had just come from a day of sightseeing and were all in sweaty T-shirts and shorts. We were made to feel really welcome thought, and soon were having a great time. Most Egyptian cultures and traditions are strongly influenced by the state's conservative Islamic/Middle Eastern heritage, but the party was pure African. There was a thumping drum beat and, accompanied by ululations most of the guests were soon on their feet. Then a dancing horse joined in the fun, and a stick dance was performed. We all had a great time.

I had a very scary moment the other day - I nearly drowned. We were swimming in the Nile (I know I know, it's probably the dumbest thing you can do in Egypt with all the infectious diseases, but it was in a "safe spot"), when suddenly I and two friends got pulled away by a very strong current. I got terrible leg cramps and was getting further and further from the shore, when fortunately a boat happened to pass by and I got rescued. It was the most petrified I've been for a long time.

Off to the Luxor Temple now, for a sound and light show, so I'll end here.

Take care,

P.P.S. Oh yeah, the promised article on haggling and politics in Egypt. I Just found this on a website [edit: broken link] by Chris and Alice Hoddapp, and though it's a bit dated, I've changed a few things and it's still pretty accurate. Enjoy.

“Everywhere you go in the major cities there will be someone invading your treasured personal space, trying to sell you a three dollar t-shirt for $20 that you'll eventually buy three of for a dollar. The joy is in the haggle. They live for it. Ask the price, and no matter what it is, roll your eyes. Curse. Invoke God's wrath on them. Laugh like Snidely Whiplash. Look like he just peed on your shoe, spit on the ground, and walk away contemptuously harrumph-ing. As you walk, the price will plummet. Remember, he who talks first is dead (it's just like a used car lot). Don't ask about the size - it's your size! Finally, offer 1/10th of his last offer, wait for his curse, laugh, spit and harrumph, and then walk away. Finally it will get down to what you want to pay. All part of the game.

Occasionally you'll come across someone wanting to have a political discussion with you. I assure you, they know more about US politics than most Americans bother to find out, and you will be quickly set upon by a group of men wanting to shout their opinions all over your $3 tee shirt. In Luxor, two sleepy teenagers started to goad us into a "How did you feel about Sadat?" discussion, slyly smiling and pointing out that he was killed by men from Upper Egypt..."Men like us, heh, heh, heh..." Only you know how you can handle such situations. Everyone in the Middle East loves a good argument-it reminds them of haggling-and this is why things get out of hand and the shooting starts. If you want to flex your political science muscles, jump right in, have it out, then offer to buy your opponents tea or a smoke. It is a game with them, and they love talking to Americans. Just remember, you'll be put in the position of defending Dubya, Clinton, Coca-Cola and the CIA. But once you start, you've got to follow through because you'll attract a crowd, and they'll follow you all the way to your boat trying to win their point. They aren't as good natured about it as, say, the Turks, and the very religious Muslims would just as soon you go home, thank you. If you're squeamish about all of this, claim ignorance, grin like an idiot and move on.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Citius, altius, fortius

The first week that we were in Assiut, the university was hosting Pan-Middle Eastern Disabled Games. Here are some of the championships’ stars. They certainly put me to shame with their athletic prowess.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

First impressions of Egypt

Hi all
I tried to send this mail a couple of weeks ago, but I think lots of you didn't get it, so I'm resending it. It explains why we're all here. Enjoy, and reply sooon.

Hi folks

How are you? Sorry it's taken a long time to get in touch. I'm staying in quite a small town at the moment, and have really bad Net access. This is only the second time I've been online since arriving here a week ago, and the connection is pretty slow. Anyway, where am I? In Assiut (or Asyut), Egypt! I know I didn't get in touch with lots of you before I left, but the trip was a completely last minute thing. A couple of weeks ago I was surfing the Net and randomly came across a chance to complete a Tropical Medicine Summer School for three weeks, starting on July 1st. There was to be a week's travelling all over the Pharaonic sites afterwards, and it seemed like a great chance to have a holiday, learn some tropical medicine, meet great people from Egypt and the rest of the world, and to improve my Arabic. The details are here. Check it out. So I called up some of my buddies from med school, and two of them (Sho and H) were free during July. Just as we were organising all that, another friend told me about a summer school in Cairo beginning on August 1st, and seeing as I was in Egypt anyway, and that we have four months holiday this summer, I thought why not go to that as well. Unfortunately Sho and H won't be able to come for both programs, but the Cairo school should be great fun too.

Anyway, after some last-minute packing the three of us got here a week and a half ago, only to have a few problems at the airport. I already had a visa from London, but even then they confiscated my passport for 'security' for twenty minutes. Then it was my friends' turn. The problem is there is next to no signposting at Cairo International, and people here don't queue. After twenty minutes they were told to buy their visas from somewhere else and join the back of the line again. Almost two hours after landing we were out of the airport, and following a bit of bargaining we took a taxi to the main train station, as the training was beginning the next day so we needed to get to Assiut asap. Riding a taxi in Cairo is an exhilarating experience though, even more than taking a rickshaw in Mumbai! The drivers here all treat other vehicles as moving objects in a high-speed slalom course, to be claxoned and cursed whenever a close shave is avoided. Hypertension and great entertainment is guaranteed every time, but you know, we haven't seen a single accident so far.

Within the first hour we were already introduced to the unusual habit of tipping (HK was asked for 'baksheesh' for being handed a paper towel in the airport toilets), but buying anything here involves bargaining, a skill so frustrating but so much fun that I'll tell you about it at length later.

Once we got to the Ramses Station we were tired and wanted to get second class a/c seats. We were told they weren't available, and to try another office where 3rd class tickets were being sold. These were also unavailable, and we were now ushered to the first class booths. Alas they were all gone, and we were pointed to the queue for sleeper seats, at $50 per person. Catching on, we managed to grab hold of a tourist police officer, and finally got the seats we wanted (v cheap with an ISIC card – definitely bring one if you're visiting). Taking the 10pm train we reached Assiut at 3am, to be met by four of the summer school coordinators. They are all really nice, and are rooms are fine. As for the town itself, after a week and a half Assiut is still a bit of an enigma. It's on the banks of the Nile, geographically centrally placed and with good transport links to the rest of the country. The fact that it isn't a tourist city (Lonely Planet lists the orphanage(!) as one of the tourist attractions – insensitive, huh?) and that there isn't too much to do is more than made up for by the Egyptian students' company and the other medics on the course. There are twenty of us in total, (a Frenchman, three Ukrainians, five Slovakians, a Czech, two Canadians, an Indo-Bulgarian, a Dutch woman, a Colombian and two Poles and the three of us from London), and we're having a great time. We've formed a special bond and are often up talking until three in the morning. I'll tell you much more about them over the following three weeks.

Every day there's a social program organised by the ASSA team, usually involving sitting by the Nile and later a restaurant outing, which can feel a bit repetitive, but there is always a fun twist. I sometimes feel that the Egyptian students are doing too much for us and that we are taking up all over their evenings, but it being the summer holidays these guys just don't sleep at night, when it’s nice and cool.

Getting from place to place in Assiut, and quite a bit of Upper Egypt, however is a mission. In the 1980s Assiut, and the university in particular, were hotbeds of a religious uprising, and the guy that killed Sadat had strong links with the university. Though this is now long forgotten and all the Copts I've spoken to (there's a very large Coptic community here) say they suffer no prejudice at all, there remains a massive police presence in town, and they keep an eye on things from these five metre turrets scattered round the city. Wherever we go we are followed at a discrete distance but by a truckload of officers, three for each student. We know they are there for our safety but it gets tiring pretty quickly and we’re always discussing strategies to evade them.

The medical program itself is brilliant. On our first day we were a bit apprehensive, as the hospital is a typically underfunded place with overworked doctors and patients queuing on the stairs and corridors, but the teaching is amazing. The team here is genuinely honoured that students from all over the world have chosen Assiut to complete their training, and are always willing to teach. I think we've had more personal teaching here than in all our third year firms back home. They struggle with most of our names though, and it’s always interesting how they pronounce them. My friend H decided to use the name his godfather gave him, Joshua, to make things a bit easier, but it caused even more havoc. The first doctor, after struggling once, said “Oh, that is too difficult. We must make it easier. I will call you Shoo. Shoo, you are welcome to Egypt”. Classic

I went diving yesterday. I’d never done so before, but the sports facilities here are amazing, and I thought it would be fun to give it a try. The only problem is that the boards here are seriously high. Wee attempted jumping from the second highest board and the air-time was just incredible. Screaming when diving is expected here, so I did so when I jumped, only to find I was in the air for so long I was out of breath about two thirds of the way down, and had to breathe again, just as I hit the water, and swallowed half the pool. Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh…..breathe…bre…splash, splutter. It was great fun, but my ‘unique’ technique was agony for my bruised backside.
Oh, a word of advice - don't try a sheesha pipe prepared for an Egyptian. They're lethal! Relaxing with a water pipe is a big part of many Egyptians’ lives, and the Assiut students have taken us to ‘kahwas’ quite a few times. I decided to try it for the first time a couple of days ago (in fact, the first time I ever had taken any form of tobacco) and after one puff I spent the next morning recovering. Also, it's the single biggest route of transmission for TB in these parts, but I only found that out yesterday.

Anyway folks, I’d better be off, as I need to get some sleep. The university is hosting the fourth Pan Middle Eastern Games for disabled athletes, and these guys only get going at midnight, once their competitions for the day are finished. They all gather their wheelchairs in the courtyard outside our dorms and chat and laugh for a few hours. They’re all really welcoming and we’ve joined them a few times. And once the travelling circus/dance troupee join us next week things will be even more lively.

Take care y’all, and hope to hear from you very soon. We have quite a bit of time off this week and it’d be good to hear what you’re all up to. Oh, and remember to let me know what you’d like from here.


Sunday, June 27, 2004

Reading up, feeling down

I spent this morning looking up some information on Assiut, the town in Egypt where I’ll be attending a tropical medicine summer school beginning next month. It’s smack bang in the middle of the country, nearly 400km (and a five hour train journey) south of Cairo. I’ve only just begun doing my research but so far it doesn’t look to promising a tourist spot. An “ugly agglomeration of high-rises that resemble an Eastern European new town rather than an ancient Egyptian entrepot and trading post”, the city is apparently a hotbed of nationalism and most foreign visitors have a police escort throughout their time here. The ‘Rough Guide’ introduces the city with:
“Every country has one city/town that is despised by its inhabitants, Assiut is that city in Egypt.”
Yeesh! It’s not all bad though. I’m going with two good university friends, and the details of our trip have now been finalised. The Egyptian student we’ve been in contact with sounds really friendly, and for only 170 euro for a three week stay including all accommodation, food and teaching it should be a cheap summer. And Egypt is such a beautiful country I’m sure we’ll have our fair share of spectacular sights. I went there when I was seven years old and images of the pyramids at Giza, the Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel and narrow, winding walkways of Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili are still imprinted on my mind.

Well, better get going,

P.S. Have any of you been to Egypt? Any tips will be much, much appreciated. Thank you!

Friday, June 25, 2004


Hey folks

Just received my results, and I’ve passed all my third year exams, but without the honour of a merit or distinction. It’s a bummer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved to have passed, but I always try and do the best I can and though I berate myself for this, it hurts when others have put in more effort and have got better results than I have. What if I don’t do the best for a patient because I haven’t learnt an important concept or how to manage an important illness. In my med student guise, those are the type of things that keep me up at night. At least I can now enjoy my summer though.

Results day is always interesting though. There are students that run from the building and open their envelopes in privacy, those that openly cry, having performed far better worse than they anticipated, those that allow themselves a quick smirk or grimace and the stoical statues. I allowed myself a bit of a long grimace. Most people don’t show too much emotion though. I guess it’s because in med school we’re all too competitive. Agree?


Monday, June 21, 2004

Welcome and thank you

Hello and thanks for stopping by my page. My name’s Moc, and this is my first ever blog. Thank you for reading it! I hope my site will be a fairly frequent update on my daily activities, and act as an outlet to my thoughts, experiences, hopes, dreams and rants. I’ll try to keep it as true and as honest as possible. Please feel free to post any comments or suggestions (I’d love constructive criticism) and I’ll do the best I can to improve the blog. Enjoy.

First of all, a little about me. I’m 21 years old, and am a fourth year med student at Imperial College in London, UK, having just passed my end of year exams. We’ve just started our holidays, therefore, and in our three month vacation I plan to go to Egypt to a summer school on tropical medicine, to prepare to take the Step 1 USMLE exam (an American medical licensing exam) and to finally learn to drive. In the meantime, however, I’m going to have some fun. London is an amazing city, and even though I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve seen so little of it. I still consider South and East London the dark side of the capital. Hopefully I’ll catch some of the less well know treasures it has to offer. Any ideas?

Being a Londoner, and having to commute to hospitals all over the city as part of my training I have chosen to live back at home this year, with my parents and little sister. She’s seventeen years old, and currently slacking for her A-levels, with the ultimate dream of being a dentist. I’m not sure how interested you all are about home life, and I don’t intend to write about it too much, but human relationships are fascinating, so let me know if you’d like to know more.

Personality-wise, I’m not really sure how to describe myself. I love meeting new people, especially those with a different background to mine. I’m very interested in other cultures and traditions and the way other people live their lives. As a result, I also enjoy travelling, and over the past few years have been fortunate enough to travel to the USA, Canada, Tanzania, Madagascar and Germany. They’ve all been brilliant experiences and if I have time, I’ll try and type up all the notes I made to remember it all.

Even though I’m gregarious with new people, though, I’m quite introverted most of the time. I feel quite comfortable spending time alone, but sometimes I feel I isolate myself too much. I have lots of friends, but I want to be closer to some of them. In fact, one of my aims this year is to meet fewer people but to try and establish a closer bond with them.

I love reading, and sitting down with a good book is one of my favourite hobbies. I enjoy all forms of the written word, and have recently started to explore African literature, but from a very callow starting point. At the moment I’m enjoying Nigerian master Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. My favourite books include the hilarious ‘Vanity Fair’ by William Thackeray, Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, a tale of partition and love in 1940s India and ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins. Sweeping epics are my thing.

I have a passion for sport, though with my current body habitus I’m more of an armchair fan than an active participator. Cricket, cycling and football (or soccer) are my favourites, and I’m avidly following the European Championships in sunny Portugal.

Finally – medicine. It’s my degree subject and my future career, but I’ve lost the love I used to have for it. Where is the passion, where is the intensity, I ask?? Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how privileged I am to be a doctor in training, to be learning about the beauty of our bodies and acquiring the skills to help save lives, but this has recently dimmed. By reflecting upon what I have learned and conveying this in writing to you all I hope this passion will be rekindled; and for my readers, a medical student’s training is certainly never dull! I’ll keep you updated in the endeavours it takes to be the best doctor you can be, the latest medical advances and amazing bodily facts. One field I will probably discuss in depth is neuroscience. I love neuro. And this year I will have the opportunity to deepen my understanding of what we know about the intricacies and functional diversity of the brain, as I complete a Batchelor of Science in the subject. I hope I may even have the chance to personally contribute to our search for neuroscientific knowledge. It promises to be an exciting time of growth and discovery, and I’ll keep you all updated.

Once again, thank you for reading, and please feel free to leave comments.