Friday, June 14, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part III

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger! The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt. This week's post is Part III. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
Ancient Egypt
“Get to the bus on time!  It leaves early and we don’t want to wait for anyone!”  We were all on the bus…and waited for Maria.  And waited some more…
We headed out to the Saqqara pyramids with a stop at the Imhotep museum first.  I hated history in high school but I love visiting museums.  It’s a pastime my husband and I share together, taking our time to read each word and really soak in the history of this world.
The museum had several very interesting artifacts, including a mummy (which they said was real and was VERY cool and creepy).  I could have spent a solid hour in the museum.  We were given 20 minutes.  My short-temper may have flared up at this point, especially given that this museum was one of our “optional” activities we had to pay extra for or be left on the bus while everyone else enjoys (it was also an add-on to the original program that I had not budgeted for but very badly wanted to see).  I got an extra 10 minutes.

We then headed to the Pyramids.  These are amazing.  Old, giant, beautiful, mystical.  Knowing they’ve stood for thousands of years and are Egypt’s oldest pyramids, I was in awe.  We headed in, going down, down, down into the depths.  Inside it is very cold and the walls are covered in hieroglyphs, some still containing color.  We were told by the pyramid ‘officials’ that no photography was allowed.  Then of course they said we could take photos for a small fee.  I should have known this would happen.  We asked Maria if tipping 1 Egyptian Pound (EP) would be enough and she informed us it was the equivalent of giving the man a penny.  Since she is our guide we figured she would know the custom, so we gave more.  However, on our way out we met a large group of tourists with a well-experienced Egyptian tour guide.  She told us that tipping more than 1EP per person was WAY too much.  We’d given our guy 25EP each.  I’m beginning to doubt coming on this retreat.
We had lunch at the Bedouin Cafe.  As soon as we parked we were met by two drummers playing wonderful music.  We danced a little then settled in and had a delicious lunch.

Beledi Night
We returned from our trip and I was so exhausted that I slept instead of going to class.  I heard everyone danced with a piece of string.

We went to dinner and were all very excited about the Beledi Band Maria had hired for us.  Originally this was to be a girls’ night with the local village women, where everyone gets dolled up and has a good time.  Of course with the death in the family, we were told the village women would not be able to join us.  That was one of the most disappointing things of the entire trip.  I had looked forward to making new female friends and seeing how the village women danced, what they wore, how they styled their hair and make-up, etc.

As soon as we got back to the guest house, she told us the band was waiting for us and we didn’t have time to change into nice clothes, put on make-up, etc.  Who wants to go to a party in dust-covered clothes and hair all a mess?  We took 10 minutes to freshen up.
We entered the Dome where we saw three musicians waiting for us, cushions laid out in the middle of the Dome for us to sit on and have tea, and…men! Lots of men.  Lots of men we do not know, sitting at the back of the Dome, waiting to watch us dance.  We were not introduced to any of them nor told who they were.  The idea of strange men being invited to our party, without our permission or knowledge, to watch us dance, felt wrong, especially when the local women were not allowed to come.  At least we could sit, sip tea, and listen to the band.

We sat down and enjoyed the music while Maria and one other woman danced.  Eventually she must have learned that the other 14 women were not dancing due to our surprise company.  She asked them to leave and though it was a bit uncomfortable, eventually we had the party to ourselves.  After that, nearly every dancer got up and enjoyed the music.  Leilani got to dance to a live band for the first time, I got to enjoy seeing belly dance from around the world, and we all let loose and have fun.
The band only played for two hours, which was disappointing.  Maria told us that was all we had paid for with our original program fee and the added tip.  Hmm…

We were told to get some sleep and be at the bus at 9am SHARP because it would be a long journey to Fayoum the next day.

That night, my two traveling buddies Leilani and Amaya*, and I have a long discussion about the retreat.  We all feel as though this retreat is not what it had been promoted as.  We also feel very strange regarding Maria and her practices around money (did I mention she was constantly asking either Amar or the retreat attendees for money for lunch, etc.?).

We find out the other two Americans on the retreat, Marissa* and Victor*, feel the same way and are planning to leave after the Fayoum trip.  For Victor, activities were to be planned for him to enjoy while the rest of us were in class.  Instead, he’d been stuck in the house every time we dance (10 hours thus far).  Nothing had been planned for him.  As an American business-owner I feel that customers should receive what they’ve paid for and this simply was not happening.

I did not sleep that night.  I called my husband in America and had a long, long talk with him.  Lots of tears.  I was homesick, out of sorts, feeling taken advantage of, and not knowing what to do.  He tells me to stick with Marissa and Victor. 
Marissa and I share a contact in the US who is an amazing drummer and our hero of the trip.  Egyptian-born, he calls out to his family in Cairo.  His cousin is available to get us the day after our Fayoum trip, take us to a hotel, then show us around Cairo for the remaining time of our stay.  A solution we are all excited and relieved for!

After talking with my husband, I stayed on the roof of the Dome to look at the stars and the moon.  In the distance I could hear men yelling and dogs barking.  As the sun came up, the call-to-prayer began and, like a chorus, the local animals awoke and chimed in with their own songs.  Despite the stress and angst I was feeling, the beauty of the moment really took my breath away.

Donkeys and Beledi
9am: everyone is on the bus.  9:45am Maria gets on the bus and we leave.

The bus ride is bumpy and uncomfortable.  I try to catch some ZZZs with little luck.  I eat a ton of ginger to help my tummy.  Ginger drops are essential to travel.

We make one stop at a convenience store for snacks and restrooms.  As we get back on the road, we are confronted by a vehicle full of police.  This happened in Zanzibar to my husband and I; we simply paid the officer some money and he left us alone.  This situation was a bit different.  The police decided they needed to stay with us during the entire trip to Fayyoum.  It made me a bit nervous and the atmosphere on the bus became apprehensive.  I think they just wanted money, but it’s also quite possible they traveled along for our safety or to make sure we didn’t get into trouble.  Eventually we all relaxed and at the end of the trip we were all required to hand over cash for their ‘escort.’ 

As we go along the road, we come upon major congestion.  It turns out that local villagers have blockaded to road with two large tree logs in an effort to get the government’s attention.  Four days prior, their local water plant had broken a pipe and the village was flooded.  They lost their crops, the grazing fields for cattle, and four children were killed.  Four days had passed and their village was still being flooded.  Even writing this my heart is breaking.  The village was devastated.

We detoured and eventually made our way to our destination.  Fayoum is beautiful.  Sunny, clean, flowers everywhere and a fresh feeling in the air.  For once, we are allowed to wander around by ourselves.  We explore the grounds, checking out the local flora, abandoned buildings and just enjoying the sunshine.  Eventually we come upon a field with several water buffalo tethered up and two donkeys at the end.  Of course I must see the donkeys.

Victor and I decide we can reach the donkeys together.  Despite there being a path just on the other side of a small creek, he is determined we can traverse the muddy farm terrain.  I’m in fancy sparkly sandals. 

We start across the field, saying hello to each water buffalo.  As we near the center of the field, one buffalo begins to make an awful noise directed at us.  As we get closer, she clearly gets uneasy.  She goes from sitting to standing in a mere moment and begins to growl at us.  Needless to say, we ran the rest of the way.  I’m now in brown sandals.

While this scene unfolds, there is a local farmer across the creek laughing his butt off.  We reach the donkeys and he comes over to say hello.  We don’t speak Arabic and he doesn’t speak English, yet somehow we connect.  We say hi to the beautiful, sweet donkeys, one of which has hennaed hair that I immediately fell in love with.  In our conversations with the farmer, I mention the words ‘raqs beledi’ and he gets very excited!  He mentions ‘tabla beledi’ and we both know we understand each other. I invite him to come to the café and get some music going.  He does and several waiters come out to play drums.  We all dance and have an amazing time.  THIS is what I had traveled so far to experience.  This was Egypt.

After an amazing lunch of fish and vegetables, we get on the bus and head over to the Qaroun Palace, a Ptolemaic temple.  It is huge and very square with an interesting layout.  We explore, head to the top and take lots of photos.  We get on the bus to head home but of course I need to use the restroom.  So we stop at the guard station on our way out and learn that every woman on the bus also has the same need.

As we wait, the bus driver puts on saidi music.  I ask him to turn it up and Amar and I start dancing on the bus.  The palace guards then start dancing around and eventually find sticks and begin to dance with them.  Then, of course, everyone starts dancing in the middle of the desert on a spontaneous whim.  That is the beauty of good music.
It’s been an amazing day.  Freedom, sunshine, beledi. 

That night, Leilani, Amaya and I tell Maria we are leaving the next day.  It was a difficult and sad conversation.  We expressed all we were unhappy with but she did not hear us.  We asked for a partial refund and she said she would think about it.   After the trip, she refunded each of us $40.

When Maria left our room, Amar took Amaya and I into the desert to talk about the events and make peace.  We wanted to ensure he knew we were very happy with his family and their hospitality.  They were amazing and so kind to us. We joined him that night at his ‘boys club,’ a gathering of some local guys for after-work tea and hash.  It was really fun to see how different yet very similar Egyptian men are to American men.  We enjoyed the tea with them then headed to bed.
The next morning we were not allowed to say goodbye to the rest of the dancers, nor did Maria say a word to us.  Thankfully the host family saw us off.  It was very sad to say goodbye to them.  Every American at the retreat left.

The aforementioned cousin, Ali*, picked us up and took us to the Novotel, a 5-star hotel.  There was rotten food in the fridge and roaches on the wall.  Ah Cairo!
We toured around Cairo and were all giggles and laughs.  I had taken a sleeping pill offered by Victor the night before to help me rest.  I was high the entire day.  Note to self, don’t take strange pills from handsome, homegrown American men that give off a hippy-conspiracy-theorist vibe.  Like I said, lots of giggles.

That evening, Ali told us to stay in the hotel due to protests on the streets and we are quickly reminded that Egypt is in a revolution.  We opened a bottle of wine in our hotel room and we all toasted to living in America and to good times ahead. 
Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington. Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates. Malia is married with two children.

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