Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mark and Japan

After nine amazing days, I'm back from Japan!  The total trip length was 11 days but getting from Cairo to Japan and back is no easy feat.  But as a result, I've now been to Uzbekistan twice!

Ahma try to condense everything into a greatest hits post but first some of the basics:

I spent most of my week in Kagoshima which is located on the island of Kyushu.  It's the second largest city on the island after Fukuoka which is where I flew in.  Kagoshima is also the name of that prefecture (or region) in Japan.  The city is famous for many things like its sweet potato, black pork, radishes, and the giant active volcano a few feet away called Sakurajima.  One of the great things about Kagoshima is that any picture you take looks amazing because there's a giant active volcano in the background at all times.  In Japan, I was visitng one Anne Recinos, who has been known to speak five languages at the same time.  She is an English teacher there!

Highlights of my trip in mostly chronological order:

The Kagoshima Aquarium 

Home to lots of awesome looking fish and a fun dolphin show.

Cool looking sea horses

Tricky dolphins

Japanese Catholic Mass

While Christianity is not the hottest religion in Japan, it felt like it could have been given the temperature of the chapel (badump chhhh).  I was burning up but everyone else seemed ok.  Still, it was cool to hear the Catholic mass done entirely in Japanese.  Plus, since I didn't understand any of the sermon, I can't feel guilty about anything.

Drunken Horse Festival

Putting aside any concerns you might have about animal cruelty, this was an interesting (read: ridiculous) event we went to in Kumamoto last Monday.  Basically, lots of different groups dress up, do their hair in cool crazy ways, get a similarly dressed-up horse drunk on sake, and parade through the streets of the city while people bang on drums and two hypemen scream things like "Put your hands up!"  We got there around 9:30 am and the parade was well underway and continued to go on for hours.  Lots of drunk horses on the streets.  We had read on blogs that at the end of the day the horses were killed and disposed of since their drunken meat tasted bad but this probably isn't true.  Hopefully.

A wasted horse wearing some candy cane like thing.  

Partying in the street

This hypeman was intense.  And awesome.

Kumamoto also had a cool giant castle and nice botanical gardens and other things that were worth seeing once the billionth horse passed by.

The view from the top of the castle


To get to the volcano, you take a short, five-ish minute ferry ride over to the island its located on.

 The view from the ferry

You can't get too close to the volcano since it's still active and ashes all the time but you can enjoy other things that island has to offer such as:

Dinosaur Park

A small little park and playground that has replicas of dinosaurs, Dinosaur Park has no actual purpose aside from being awesome.  One of the best moments on my trip happened at the park when we saw a small boy start screaming at the top of lungs, take off his shirt and pants, and proceed to run around the park, naked and still screaming madly. His family was not as amused.

Anne and a stegosaurus trying to orient themselves in the park

Enjoying some hang gliding.


Also at Sakurajima, I experienced the relaxing hot springs on the island.  But in order to fully relax, I had to get over the fact that it was a public bath which meant that I got to shower and be naked and enjoy the brutally hot waters with lots of naked Japanese men, young and old.  It took a while to get over that--especially since as the only non-Japanese male at the onsen, I was getting lots of looks.  I was used to getting looks in Japan but getting looks when you're naked is ...different.  Still, the water felt great and bathing in the cold water afterwards felt even better.  No pictures were taken.

Ferris Wheel

Kagoshima has two gigantic shopping centers: AMU Plaza and Tenmonkan.  AMU Plaza is an actual mall which has a giant ferris wheel on the fourth floor that lights up at night and you can see from miles away.  Tenmonkan is a maze of streets filled with tons of shops and restaurants and slot machines.  It is impossible to navigate.  The only thing I can find there (usually) is the arcade where Anne and I played Taiko almost daily.
The ferris wheel gave us a wonderful view of the city but I realized that I'm not too fond of heights after riding it.  Or maybe I'm just not fond of someone trying to rock the ferris wheel cart when we're hundreds of feet above ground, Anne.

 To imagine this at night, think in neon.

Senganen Garden

We went to a beautiful garden on the outskirts of the city.


Entrance to a shrine

As soon as we got there, we realized that we only had enough money to enter the park and bus fare for one of us to return.  Luckily, Anne had her work card that let her ride the bus, but unfortunately, no money meant no food.  It wouldn't have been a problem if more places took credit cards or ATMs were prevalent but neither is the case.  (Fun Fact:  ATMs close in the evening.  Close as in you can't use them.  What is the point of an ATM if you can only access your money during regular bank hours, Japan?)  After going to every restaurant in the area and being rejected, we went to the gift shop which sold some packaged food gifts.  More importantly, they took credit.  Once we got the gift for ourselves, we had another dilemma--where to eat it.

I never knew this about Japan but apparently, it's semi-Ramadan all the time.  As in, you do not eat unless you are in a designated eating area.  That means no eating on the go.  Drinking is fine and you'll find vending machines absolutely everywhere.  But you'll never find any snacks in those machines since the temptation will be too great to eat it immediately, I guess.  In any case, we had food but we had no place to eat it.  I was all for playing the tourist card and just breaking the social rules but Anne was above that.  In the end, we found a semi-secluded bench and stuffed our faces until we saw people coming.  We then hid the food in our bags til they passed and continued to shovel food in our mouths til we were full.  I felt like I was committing a crime the whole time.

Sports Day

Sports Day is basically a long, glorified field day.  Every school has their own day where the students' parents come out and watch their kids run, do relays, traditional dances, etc...  They take time out of the school schedule to practice for the day.  It's a very big deal.  I went with Anne to both of her middle school's Sports Days.  After some marching and speeches (both in Japanese), everyone stretched to a great soundtrack that I'll hopefully be able to download from somewhere and the events began.  At one school, I got to participate on the teacher's team for an event where you throw as many bean bags as you can into a bucket on a pole.  We lost.  Not because of me.

In addition to relays, there was a feats of strength show.  Pryamid!

A performance that reaffirmed my view that everything here is real life Dragonball Z

And lots of other things.  There was so much that I saw and did.   Like eating excellent sushi!  And watching Kill Bill 1 and 2!  And going out for all you can eat and drink with Anne's co-workers!  And individually wrapped bananas?!

People here like everything to be individually wrapped. Example: I bought a box of chocolate chip cookies (Chips Ahoy style) and each cookie in the package was in its own wrapper.

I didn't karaoke but I'm already starting to make a list of things I want to do when I go back.  But for now, time to get back to life in Cairo.  On the bright side, I think I might have finally overcome Pharaoh's revenge.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pictures from Japan

I'll post a longer update soon but here are some of the sites I've seen in Japan:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ramadan Kareem

It's been an interesting few weeks in Egypt for many reasons and a big one is that it's Ramadan. Since the country is 80 to 90% Muslim, depending on your politics, Islam is a huge part of everyone's daily life in Egypt regardless of your own religious beliefs. During Ramadan, that's even more true. First off, Muslims are supposed to fast from sunrise til sunset, abstaining from all food and drink. So no one is seen even chewing gum on the streets (except for the few times where I forgot and felt very self-conscious). On the TV, many shows are specially produced for the month of Ramadan and every other commercial is a season's greetings message from the channel wishing you a Ramadan Kareem. Around 4 or 5 PM, you'll start to see lots of tables being set up on the streets. Once the fast can be broken, the poor and homeless are fed for free. And at 2 AM on the dot, the musaharati (or...the waker-upper) comes out. In my neighborhood, it's a father and daughter pair. The father is banging on a drum while the daughter is screaming wake up and different people's name. They're coming around to remind people to get a last meal in before the fast starts up again in the morning. I am reminded that it's two in the morning.

But at the end of the month, there is feasting! Starting today until Tuesday is the Eid. No work, all play. Lots of people take vacation at this time and go to the beach or other relaxing spots. I am gladly participating in this. I'm pleased to announce that Mark and Egypt is now coming to you live from Japan!

Getting to Kagoshima, Japan from Cairo is not the simplest task. I left Friday morning on KoreanAir with two stops--one in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and the other in Seoul, South Korea. Both flights together were about 11 hours. I spent in an hour and a half in Uzbekistan. Here's proof:

This is all I saw of Uzbekistan besides the duty-free shops and the bartender rocking out to Uzbeki music.

The plane ride itself was fine. The flight attendant gave me my meal as well as instructions on how to make my meal. For plane food, it was pretty good but that might be because I'm proud I mixed the ingredients together.

After eating, I watched Terminator Salvation and then promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, (dare I do it twice?) I woke up with... KoreanHair.

From Seoul, I flew on Asiana Airlines to Fukuoka, Japan. That flight was only an hour long. And in Fukuoka, I met my hostess--super-human Anne Recinos of the illustrious Brown Class of 2009. There, we took a 2 and a half hour train to Kagoshima, and I promptly passed out after a fully day of traveling.

That night, we took a walk to a local outdoor mall-ish area where I went to an arcade. And got to play Taiko-version of Dance Dance Revolution. And a DJ-version of Dance Dance Revolution. I looked for Dance Dance Revolution itself but it was no where to be found.

I am definitely going back to the Arcade later in the week. It was a lot of fun and I also need to win that giant stuffed animal pig.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Khan al-Khalili

Yesterday I made a silly decision and went to Khan al-Khalili, a gigantic, exorbitantly overpriced marketplace that seems (and potentially is) endless. Anything and everything kitschy is sold there--little model pyramids, big model pyramids, sphinx towels, stuffed animal camels, papyrus bookmarks, King Tut totes.

Every store has rows and rows of the same things.

I thought it would be entertaining to walk through the market. And it was for a while. I watched little boys and grown men running behind tourists, shoving bracelets and keychains in their faces screaming in the language that the tourists look like they might speak. They always started off with English but if the person didn't really respond, they started speaking Spanish, French, Italian, etc... Luckily, since I never opened my mouth, I passed as an Egyptian and navigated my way safely along the main street.

When I made a few turns in the side streets, the novelty wore off quickly. The market is like a maze and seemingly impossible to navigate. I somehow got stuck in a looooong, narrow corridor that only Egyptians were shopping in (the non-touristy part of the market) and there was no way to get out--side streets were non-existent. What made it worse was that in both directions, there were men riding bikes and carrying giant racks of bread on their head or lugging huge boxes stacked on carts. They could barely fit even if there weren't throngs of people walking alongside them. And if they were trying to get in front of you, they wouldn't say anything. They just started hissing. Long, high-pitched hisses. I would turn around to find a man on a mission, ready to run me over. The worst was when a guy on a motorcycle came through. I don't know how he managed to get into the alley but he didn't have to hiss.

I eventually figured out that certain stores connected to parallel streets and only people familiar with the area knew which stores could lead you out. After about 30 minutes, I made it back to the main touristy part and vowed never to go back to Khan al-Khalili til the week before I left for America so I can get you all miniature hookah keychains.

Light at the end of the tunnel. This is the main street which is much wider than the streets deeper in the market.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Updates and guavas

Friday was the Coptic New Year. Happy Coptic New Year! The year is now 1726, but honestly, it still feels like 1725. In Egypt, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, so I went to church in the morning at St Mary’s and Archangel Michael’s which is in Al Khalefawy, my district within Shoubra. When I got home, I ate. Traditionally, you’re supposed to eat dates and guava on New Year’s Day. The dates are red on the outside representing the blood of the Coptic martyrs and white on the inside representing their purity. I don’t know the significance of guavas. I only ate guava since I don't like dates (insert joke) though I pretended it was a mango because that is by far the most delicious thing I’ve had in Egypt.

A little later, I met up with two friends and we walked around their neighborhood. They took me to an interesting place—a long, dimly lit room filled with about twenty TVs. I’m not even sure if there were any sources of light in the room aside from the TVs. A Playstation 2 was hooked up to each TV. And in each PS2, was FIFA ‘09. You wouldn’t even notice this place if you didn’t know where it was. It has dark tinted windows, no signs, and when my friends slid the door open, I thought they were opening a window. Super sketchy but I won one of the games.

During Saturday, I took a walk around Tahrir which is a central location of Cairo that includes the American University of Cairo campus, the Egyptian Museum, and the Mogamma, a massive building that houses thousands of government employees.

Saturday night, I went to my first concert in Egypt. It was in Al-Azhar Park, which is a gigantic park that was built over a mountain of garbage, so I saw an excellent view of the city. Al-Azhar is a large, beautiful mosque that I’ve passed by in the car but haven’t visited yet so I’ll tell you more about that another time. Since it was night, I didn’t get to see much of the park itself. Within the garden is a theater called El Geneina which means The Garden. The Rangers play there when vacationing after losing the playoffs. But tonight, Luthomania was taking the stage. I read about them on Cairo Live Events Guide and decided to go.

The band was compromised of 3 lute players from around the world: Belgium, China, and Morocco. They each played a different type of lute. I don’t know if 3 lutes played together constitute mania but I enjoyed listening to them.


The benefits of working part-time means extended weekends. On Sunday, I woke up at 5:30 am. It was the start of what is sure to be many visits to Coptic monasteries. My aunt and I went on a trip organized by the local church to the Red Sea Monasteries which are also known as the Monasteries of St. Paul and St. Antony. From Cairo, the monasteries are about 3 to 4 hours depending on how many times your bus breaks down (more on that in a bit). The monasteries themselves are not far apart geographically but there’s a giant mountain in between them. To go between them, you have to drive around the mountain which takes about 45 minutes.

We went to St. Paul’s first which is further south. St. Paul (different from the letter-writer one) is regarded as the first hermit. The monastery there is quiet and serene. Unless you go with a tour bus. And there are other tour buses already there. And there are more tour buses coming. I enjoyed it but I think the pictures do a better job of explaining its beauty:

Icon of St. Paul the Hermit

A church slightly off from the main monastery. It's still under construction.

The main church is in that complex next to the buses.

Dome of the entrance to the church

One of the many icons painted on the walls. St. Paul is on the right.

On our way out

As we left for St. Antony’s, the bus broke down. I’m not exactly sure why but no one seemed to mind until a half hour had passed and it was still stalling. I heard the busdriver at the back of the bus banging something with a wrench for a while. Whatever he did, it worked and we headed toward the other monastery.

St. Antony is known as the Father of Monasticism. He and St. Paul were of the same time and they were close, aside from the mountain that separated them. St. Antony spent a great deal of his time in isolation in a cave in the mountain. People can go into the cave. You just have to get up there.

The monastery installed stairs that go up the mountain. 1158 stairs. I took pictures along the way:

Two 10 year old boys on the trip ran ahead, starting off the trek up. They weren't in the lead for long. Not that it was a competition.

The start.

Inspirational verses along the way though I did not have the patience to translate them.

[Quick technical note: I just realized how to resize pictures so they don't take so long to upload on 56k . Now larger (but smaller!) pictures for your viewing pleasure]

A small church about midway up the mountain so that you can pray you'll make it to the top.

These last three pictures are views from the entrance of the cave. The monastery looks oh so small from up here.

Once you finally make it to the top, you have to squeeze into the cave, entering with your side and ducking to avoid the rocks. Only a few people can fit inside and it’s definitely not for the claustrophobic. I heard stories of people making it all the way up without being able to go inside the cave because it’s too crowded. Luckily, I was the first one of my group to make it to the top and no one else was there from before.

The entrance to the cave where St. Antony stayed. That's one of the 10 year old boys. He didn't have to duck.

The path into the cave. The flash of the camera lights up the path but going in, it was very dark and we used light from our cell phones to kinda see ahead of us.

Inside there’s a small altar with a few icons. Behind the altar is a small stone which St. Antony would use as a pillow. The cave is very bare, but then again, it's a cave of a monk from the third century in the middle of the desert.

Inside the cave

The trip down was easier and very entertaining. I got see people walking up, exhausted. Each one would stop me, incredulous that I was already coming down and they hadn’t made it yet. They all asked how much farther. The answer was always a lot. Except for a group of three who asked how many stairs were left. I could see the first steps from where we were. They hadn’t even gone 100 steps yet. I told them a thousand. And then I laughed. They didn’t.

Zoom in on his face. A typical expression after my response of "a lot."

Below are pictures of parts of the monastery itself. Also very beautiful. I might come back to spend more time here later in the year.

A church in the mountain. There's a gate (not pictured) that was locked so I couldn't go inside.

Carving of St. Antony into the mountain

Outside the altar of the Church of the Apostles

Altar of the Church of St. Antony. His relics are buried underneath the altar.

Just some of the Coptic art painted on the walls of the church.

On the way back to Cairo, the busdriver started driving in the wrong direction past a divider. As he was backing up to get on the right side of the divider, we heard a crunching noise and people in the back of the bus started screaming stop. I’m still not clear on how this happened but somehow the back door of the bus fell off. The driver sighed, took his wrench, and went to work. After a few minutes of banging, the bus was on its way and we eventually made it back to Cairo around 10:30 pm. A very long but relatively peaceful day capping off a nice weekend.