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Exiting Egypt

November 22, 2010

The next day was off to Cairo, on the first time that I have had to work in a port since I boarded. It was a GET Challenge Programme, where I and three other teachers had to lead a bunch of Japanese passengers in an international exchange.

It started with a 5am, 3 hour bus ride to Cairo. The buses were a bit late to leave, as we had to wait for every tour heading to Cairo to have all members on board before leaving. The buses then all travelled to Cairo in a convoy, shepherded by armed police cars and with an armed guard in each bus in order to avoid any attacks.

Before the exchange, we got the touristy bits out of the way in the morning. We went to the Pyramids and the Sphinx, the absolute must-sees in Egypt. As is probably inevitable with tourist spots of this magnitude, my romanticism was crushed by the reality of the situation once we arrived. Far from being in the middle of an empty desert, the Pyramids and Sphinx are bang in the middle of Cairo. The tallest is easily visible from all around the city, and roads pass right through the complex itself, a minute or twos drive out from the cluster of shops and buildings built up around it.

Arriving at the place itself brings you into the hordes of tourists, and the locals selling their wares. I’ve come across pushy vendors in other parts of the world before, but I think I can pretty comfortably say that the vendors here were the most aggressive I have ever come across. One man actually tried to physically take money out of my hand, and followed me for a while yelling, “Give me the money!!”

Trying to control the tour group around this area was a bit ridiculous. Added to that was the fact that the times at each spot were so short before getting back on the bus, so it was a fairly full-on morning. After getting our superficial and commercialised piece of world history under our belt, we rushed off to lunch to meet our exchange partners.

The lunch itself was delicious, a buffet style completely unrepresentative of the meals I’m sure most of the people in the city around us were enjoying in their dusty brown collapsing buildings. The 10 Egyptian students (all male) who had come to join us were also probably having a pretty memorable eating experience, as on top of the delicious food they also had 25 Japanese people (mostly female students) to eat it with. The conversation at my table was incredibly stilted and quiet, as the Japanese people quickly became aware of the gaping difference between the Egyptians’ English ability and their own. Luckily the meal ended and we were off to the University for the actual “cultural exchange”.

The Egyptian students are students at a school to be tour guides. We were taken to their university, where ideally we would teach them a few things about Japanese culture, they would teach us something about Egyptian culture, and we would all make a lot of friends. This is the second time this exchange has taken place, and the feedback from the first time was ominous. Total chaos was more or less the impression that the previous organisers had.

We turned up at the school and made our way into the classroom which was to be used without too much trouble. The school itself was a fairly basic place, with quite bare brown rooms, a blackboard at the front, and rows of bench tables and seats for sitting. On the way into the classroom, we managed to pique the attention of a few unrelated Egyptian students, who decided to go ahead and join us. There was no authority figure on the Egyptian side, so we couldn’t really do anything about it, but it wasn’t that much of an issue. A couple of our people gave a couple of short speeches about Japanese culture and the Peace Boat, after which the Egyptians introduced nothing about their own country. Then it was time to exchange cultures.

We divided into roughly three groups, difficult to divide because of the Egyptians who continued to slowly trickle in whenever they felt like it. The three groups were supposed to teach calligraphy, origami, and the Japanese language respectively, and they gave it their best shot. Things got even trickier as more and more Egyptians continued to fill into the room, even climbing in the windows to come see what was happening, ignoring the older people and just trying to talk to and get photos of the younger Japanese girls. Our orders were more or less ignored, and our team leader stood on a seat yelling at everyone to absolutely no avail.

A second group came in, which was booked to share the same, now very crowded classroom, also with no teacher, and we ended up giving up and moving outside. We eventually managed to get our group outside into a garden where more random people joined us, and others looked on from windows. One of our students had the job here of teaching Yosakoi, a style of Japanese dance. Thankfully she’s made of fairly strong stuff and was able to pull it off incredibly well considering the circumstances. Getting everybody moving actually really saved the situation and let the thing end on a high(ish) note, although getting everybody back to the bus after that was a chore.

We rejoined our armed convoy and headed back to Port Said on a silent bus where everyone was passed out from sheer exhaustion. It was certainly a cultural exchange in a true sense, as we got a good look at the Egyptian mindset and way of doing things – disorganised, rowdy and pushy. The same characteristics had shone brightly in the hawkers around the pyramids, and fit perfectly the dusty, brown, rubbish-filled streets of Cairo. People saying they would like to come back to visit again were conspicuously absent, and it’s a shame, as with what it has, Cairo could have been quite a neat place.

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