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.