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.