August 20, 2010
Adapting to any environment requires self-reflection as one reconciles his or her distinct identity with the new culture. Upon returning to college life at Reed, I find myself adapting to a familiar environment but with a refined identity. As this is my last year at Reed College, I am reconsidering, in light of the Trek, why have I been placed here and what priorities I have in living well in this place.
The debrief portion of the Trek offered helpful time for such consideration, but the process continues as I make choices about how I want to live at Reed, how that might be different than before, and the ways in which that might conflict with the larger culture.
Standing for Jesus and living with servant-minded love seems contradictory to the larger cultures of most places I have been, but as I seek those things, I recall fresh memories of living with the Sudanese: the host who gave up a bed so that I would have a place to sleep; the neighbors who welcomed me as family and treated me with a rich generosity; the community’s hope that God will take care of them individually as they live in a hostile land and will restore their nation even as the threat of violence looms large.
Being surrounded by Sudanese who believed and acted in such ways inspired me. As I consider how I am to live at Reed, the people continue to stand out in my mind as bright beacons of how the Jesus-life can bring beauty to any circumstance.
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you” (John 15:4). I remain needy for God. In Cairo, that need involved healing from digestive problems, physical safety as I went about the city and energy to engage with the wonderful people despite the 110 degree heat. In my homeland, that need involves a divine strength to maintain a right attitude, faith-inspired thought patterns, and generous action – especially since these things are few and far between in my college environment.
I am happy to be back at Reed and believe that God is using the experiences of this summer to inspire me to better living with my people.
July 14, 2010
In the apartments where we live, the bakeries we frequent, and the schools where we teach, we are beginning to be known and welcomed as regulars. The simple joys of living in community for an extended period are showing themselves as we enter our fourth week in Cairo.
The home group I live with (Isaiah and Chris) has had opportunities to attend a Sudanese ordination, wedding, funeral, and various church services. As these church-related events typically draw many Sudanese Christians from around the city, we have been able to talk, dance and celebrate with those we continue to see at these events. The numerous interactions of the last several weeks have deepened our ties to the people and our love for the city.
The classroom experience is full of daily surprises as we ride the highs and lows with the children we teach. They are often quick and eager to learn English; however, the 100+ degree heat and tightly-packed classroom test everyone’s ability to concentrate.
Isaiah, Chris, and I also started teaching impromptu lessons on common American phrases and culture at our home stay. We live with the youth leader of a local church, which means there are often many teenagers hanging around the house, a number of whom are hopeful about moving to the United States some day. We explain different situations they may encounter on the street, when applying for a job, or when attending an American university. They are curious about life in America as they spend a great deal of time and energy preparing to emigrate there.
Our month in Cairo is only a drop in the bucket in terms of the educational and personal development of the displaced Sudanese. However, blessings flow both ways as we all share what understanding and means we have.
The Sudanese have been incredibly hospitable, often giving up their own beds so we have places to stay. Telling them about the ins and outs of getting a job or going to school in America, and engaging them in conversational English are simple things we can do, but are quite helpful for the many who look forward to better days living in the States. It’s good to be here! Thanks to Jesus for making a way!
July 14, 2010
We are officially halfway through the Trek.
In between the teaching, getting to know host families, and trying to catch as many power naps as possible, there hasn’t been much time for properly processing everything. Instead, we’ve had plenty of room for stress build-up.
A nine-hour bus ride to a resort in Dahab for the mid-project retreat was the perfect way for me to realize how high my stress level had actually gotten. I'd been looking forward to seeing the rest of the team again, catching up on culture-shock stories and stomach situations, but the exhaustion caught up to me instead. I wound up stewing and snoozing in my seat for most of the drive.
Frustrated at my fatigue and anti-social feelings, I stepped off the bus and into Happy Life Village – a resort catering to European Tourists – and was subsequently hit with a brief dose of reverse culture shock. It was the weirdest thing to walk through a maze of spotlessly white suites and see Europeans wander around in Speedos and short skirts.
The western-style buffet dinner left a lot of us speechless with happiness. While it was a bit jarring to be thrust back into comfort so different from our lifestyles in Cairo (we actually had air conditioning in our bedrooms), it was a huge blessing to be in a peaceful, oddly familiar place. Plus, the resort was just yards away from the Red Sea. Being near the water felt like a special gift from God, a reminder of his endless grace and love that have been quietly but steadily sustaining the team each day.
A combination of familiar comforts and closeness to the calming sea made the retreat the perfect weekend to regroup and rejuvenate. In between worship sessions and prayer time, cannon-balling into the deep blue of the Red Sea and connecting with Trek-mates, the stress got washed away. This left room for us to re-realize the reasons we're on this trek and what we think God is trying to teach us while we're here.
I felt like a completely different person on the ride back to Cairo. The drive was still almost nine hours long, but instead of being weighed down by fatigue and irritability, it was colored with good conversations, spontaneous improvisation games, and a couple of unfortunate cases of car sickness.
The challenges are still here, but when we arrived back in Cairo, I definitely felt that we had a new, better attitude towards approaching these challenges. The retreat provided us with a deep breath of smogless air, temporarily relieved us of the intensity of Cairo, and gave us the space to re-examine ourselves and our relationships.
God met each of us differently at the Red Sea; and he gave us the tools and love we need to give Cairo and the Sudanese everything we've got in our last weeks here.
July 5, 2010
The air pollution brought out vibrant colors in the twilight sky, as I began to run with my teenage Sudanese neighbors tonight.
We jogged the seemingly unending perimeter of an Egyptian palace with palm trees, manicured grass and massive white and gold buildings. For the last mile, I struggled to keep pace with the oldest boy. He and I were the only ones who hadn’t resorted to walking and I had made up my mind to push through to the end.
In spite of my body, I chose to embrace the novelty of seeing a beautiful sunset in Cairo with my new friends from Sudan.
For many on our team, this week has been about pushing through difficulty by focusing on our bigger purpose for being here. We transitioned into our first week teaching in the Sudanese schools, and people moved around as living situations with host families were sorted out. Some of our team got lost in new parts of town or sick as our bodies acclimated.
Some of us found trials in the awkwardness of teaching for the first time and in the demand for patience during many hours spent with little ones. We have each persisted through in our own ways, encouraging each other to embrace the potential of the children we teach and the simple beauties of life with the Sudanese.
Today’s gem in my classroom came fifteen minutes before we were to let out for the day. It was at least 90 degrees inside as the fans slowly whirled back and forth the kids were antsy. I had taught everything I had prepared; we were all hot and ready for the day to wrap up.
Right then, a five-year-old girl with colorful rubber bands in her hair walked up to me and tried to tell me something. I didn’t understand her at first, but then her friend excitedly explained, "She wants to sing!"
Softly at first, the little girl sang "If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…" The other kids began to huddle around and within a matter of seconds we were all singing aloud. The first song ended, and another little boy led the class in one of his favorites.
We all laughed. I gave the kids high-fives. We left the classroom happy, sweaty people.
Jesus continues to give us special moments like that one even as the difficulties of cross-cultural transition continue. This is a realization we have all been coming to this week. It’s a blessing to be here. Praise God!
July 5, 2010
The Trek ball really got rolling this week. We found ourselves split into smaller groups, each group teaching at a different school in a different part of the city.
Thankfully, there was little time to dwell much on the absence of our Trek-mates. A few of us got tossed right into a Sudanese summer school with its heart set on daily four-hour English classes.
Chris and I found ourselves working with a handful of Sudanese teenagers, ages 12 to 18, with their English proficiency levels almost as wide as the six-year age gap. We spent the first day scoping out the classroom dynamics, discovering that certain pockets of their English were amazing, while other areas were less developed. Some of the students had attended English schools during the regular school year, while others had come from Arabic schools.
The latter sometimes took a little longer to understand our English instructions and explanations. But by Thursday we had developed a kind of rhythm and flow to the lessons, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, what was too hard and what was too easy.
In between the lessons there were short ten-minute breaks (which sometimes mysteriously stretched into 20 minutes), during which we were able to talk with the students, hear stories about where they wanted to travel, watch them laugh and joke and tease each other in Arabic.
Perhaps one of the best parts of the day, though, is when all the students have gone home and it’s just us five Americans sitting around a table, chatting with the two college-aged Sudanese volunteers, learning new card games and chowing down on two-pound Kosharee or Macaron. And when the card games have been exhausted or we’re feeling a little restless, we explore the marketplace, overflowing with fruits, veggies, and all kinds of livestock; or we can head back to headquarters and exchange stories and sarcasm with the directors.
Time passes differently here. Maybe it’s the crazy combinations of the so-called ‘Egyptian time,’ ‘Sudanese time,’ and ‘American time’ that we’re always juggling. For whatever reason, the hours seem to fly by, the days pass slowly, yet this past week has felt like just one long day. One very good, long day stuffed with Sudanese card games, Arabic jokes, and cups of extra-extra sweet, hot Lipton tea.
July 1, 2010
I am learning how to move with Cairo now that we have been here several days.
Step aside for motorbikes, cars or horse-drawn carts as they plow through the packed streets; keep pushing with the many others who clam onto the metro in a matter of seconds; say a prayer as you walk briskly through the zipping traffic to cross the street.
As I move about the city, eat its food, and learn the way of life, I can’t help but embrace the awing fact that I'm finally here – thousands of miles from any place I've been before, with a month's worth of experiences in the city and with living among the Sudanese before me. I have got to give God the glory that this dream is finally becoming a reality day by day, and commit myself to living fully in the opportunities this chapter holds.
Since we arrived from Trek orientation in Mexico City, our team of 20 has been taking daily Arabic classes. We learn from a Sudanese man who teaches in one of the schools where we'll be volunteering this summer. We have been taking notes when he engages us in discussing techniques for the next four or five weeks that we'll be leading the classroom.
We have also been practicing living in culturally appropriate ways. The cross-gender interactions have taken the most getting used to for our group – men and women must be careful of making eye contact or touching in public.
However, there have also been pieces of acculturation that have been quite enjoyable. For instance, the communalism of the Sudanese is displayed by greeting everyone in the room with a hand shake or hand over the heart. The Egyptian culture allows persons of the same gender to be more intimate; men will walk arm-in-arm down the street. It has been fun for our group to take on such practices as we learn to live like the people here.
We all start teaching in two days and are excited to meet the students with whom we'll be working while we are in Cairo. We will be divided into pairs, living with different families and teaching at different Sudanese schools. After this past week’s preparation, we are starting to feel like we are ready for the challenge.
June 26, 2010
We've only been in Egypt for three days. But combine jetlag with a healthy dose of culture shock and I would have believed we’d been there a whole week.
Still, most of us were fairly functional as we weaved through downtown on the evening of day three, headed for the Nile River. Kristin was playing the "I'm not saying anything" card that the staff used whenever any of us tried to weasel plans and schedules out of them.
But the suspense was completely worth it. It turned out – to the entire team's excitement – we were going on a boat ride down the Nile.
It sounds like a cheesy tourist trap, but for only £100, all nineteen of us were allowed to enjoy the public-made-private space of a large, decorated wooden boat, manned by two stoic-looking Egyptian men.
In the center of the dusty, bustling city of Cairo we were able to dance and laugh observe the romance shared between the local, young couples lining the riverbank. It was the best possible breather.
We were still able to soak in the sounds, sights, and smells of Egypt, but the huge ‘foreignness’ of it all was held slightly at bay, as if our little boat had become a sanctuary of familiarity. I was once again overwhelmed with gratitude for the amazing speed of our team's bonding, and I was reminded that this was our last night together for a while as a full group.
Tomorrow a few of us would go off to meet our Sudanese host families, and we would finally begin to focus on the purpose of our trip – the reason we were dancing on a boat in the middle of the Nile.
When our boat returned to the riverbank, and Joshua prompted us into an acapella rendition of "A River of Life," it felt good to remember who had brought us here. As our travel group followed Kristin back to the Metro, I held my tongue and didn’t ask what we would be doing next. Life was going to slide into Sudanese-time pretty soon, and besides, I figure it'll be more fun to just let God surprise us.
June 26, 2010
I am learning how to move with Cairo now that we have been here several days. Step aside for motorbikes, cars, or horse-drawn carts as they plow through the packed streets; keep pushing with the many others who clam onto the metro in a matter of seconds; say a prayer as you walk briskly through the zipping traffic to cross the street.
As I move about the city, eat its food, and learn the way of life, I cant help but embrace the awing fact that I'm finally here. Thousands of miles from any place I've been before, with a month's worth of experiences in the city and living with the Sudanese before me. I have got to give God the glory that this dream is finally becoming a reality day by day, and commit myself to living fully in the opportunities that this chapter holds.
Since we arrived from the Trek Orientation in Mexico City, our team of 20 has been learning Arabic from daily classes with a local man. He is a Sudanese man who teaches in one of the schools that we'll be volunteering at this summer. We have been taking note of how he engages us in discussing techniques for the next four or five weeks that we'll be leading the classroom.
Since our arrival, we have also been practicing living in culturally appropriate ways. The cross gender interactions have taken the most getting used to for our group as men and women must be careful of making eye contact or touching in public.
However, there have also been pieces of acculturation that have been quite enjoyable. For instance, the communalism of the Sudanese is displayed by greeting everyone in the room with a hand shake or hand over the heart. The Egyptian culture allows persons of the same gender to be more intimate as men will walk arm-in-arm down the street.
It has been fun for our group to take on such practices as we learn to live like the people here.
We all start teaching in two days and are excited to meet the students we'll be working with, while we are in Cairo. We will be divided into pairs, living with different families and teaching different Sudanese schools. With the preparation of this past week, we are starting to feel like we are ready for the challenge.