Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bedouin Birthday Party

Egypt = One of the most amazing experiences of my life. I got into Cairo on Tuesday the 17th, after regrettably saying goodbye to Megan’s wonderful company in Athens to resume traveling solo. I did everything short of hiding her passport [!?!] in order to get her to stay, but somehow she managed to slip away back to the States. After touching down in Cairo I apparently forgot I had the sign that says “tourist” still taped to my back and was swarmed by Egyptians offering taxi rides. I could write a whole novel, or at least an op-ed piece, on Egyptian Taxi Bargaining, but I’ll just say that I’m getting better at it for now. Egypt overpowers your senses. The sun seems somehow brighter and un-tempered by European politeness. Dust invades your nostrils and eyelids while frantic loud sounds come at you from every direction. The sound of “taxi….taxi.taxi….taxi……taxitaxi” is an ongoing phenomenon and it’s not at all uncommon to have three or four grown men standing around you arguing why what they are offering is a good price. All that being said, from first sight I instantly fell in love with Egypt. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia of too many times watching Peter O’Toole and Omar el-Shariff in Lawrence of Arabia, but there seems to be an inherent rough honesty in the sands swirling around the desert landscape that has always drawn me to it.

I decided to grab a plane straight to Sharm el Sheikh, in order to get within shorter distance to my ultimate destination in Egypt, the central/southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. I won’t waste more keystrokes saying anything about “Sharm” other than it is what would happen if Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach, SC had a baby together and raised it on tea and tourists. Don’t ever go there if you can help it, though I do have to say I met one very reliable source that advocates in favor of “The Sharm”. Alright… I’ll give it another shot.

In order not to overload the bandwidth of the entire internet with Egyptian Travel stories, I’m just going to list off story topics with the suggested drink I should be bought before/during telling said story so we can get on with the good stuff.

Taxi Ride From Sharm to St. Katherine [police corruption, haggling, no gas, language lesson] = Whiskey
Craft Center [Nashwa & crew, earth bags w/ barbed wire, pickup truck, Bedouin tent] = Guinness
“Bedouin” Birthday Party [chicken, Egyptian guitar, English cat caretaker, horoscopes] = Sierra Nevada
Mt. Sinai/Mt. Moses [Germans, fanny packs, steps] = Long Island Iced Tea
Nawamese Day [Bedouin head wrap, more police, hobbit doors] = Glass of red wine

The real reason I was in Egypt however was the Sinai Peninsula. It’s located east of Cairo and is separated from the main portion of Egypt by the Gulf of Suez. The interior particularly is unique in that it is at a higher altitude than most of the rest of Egypt and is subject to mildly hot days, but very cold nights, and cut by high mountains criss-crossing over each other to create protected valleys. One of Berkeley’s best and brightest, Momen El-Husseiny, put me in contact with his good friend Nashwa Ibrahim, who is heading up a team to teach [and learn] construction techniques with the local Bedouin tribe, the Jabaliya. The organization is called The Egyptian Earth Construction Association [EECA] and has as its noble mantra : “The act of building, if appropriate, has the potential of improving our built environment while preserving our non-renewable natural resources. It is our mission and the responsibility of all who are involved in the building process in Egypt, to apply appropriate building technologies that : use local building materials, utilize renewable sources of energy and implement energy saving techniques, and harmonize with the environment and play a part in the development of local communities.” Nashwa, as well as fellow officemates/friends AbdulRahman El-Taliawi, Moushira Elamrawy, and everyone else involved with the project were without a doubt the warmest people I have come in contact with on my travels [and most any other time for that matter], treating me as part of their family, feeding me, driving me around, answering all of my interested [albeit ignorant] questions, and finally inviting me to an amazing birthday dinner the very first night I was in town! The project they are working on has a little bit of everything in it. At some moments it is a material exploration of construction techniques, at others it seeks to provide design guidance and drawings, and also actual construction of several projects [including a craft center and eco-lodge]. They are working heavily with the local Bedouin tribe of Jabaliya to learn from and educate on how to upgrade existing building techniques that have been proven through centuries of harsh desert survival. Bedouin are a nomadic tribal people still very much present in contemporary Egypt. They are some of the few that know the unmarked/unmapped desert trails and how to survive in the unforgiving desert, as they have been doing so for thousands of years.

Two of the many building techniques that the EECA are beginning to explore in the most isolated part of Egypt are “earth bags” and “rammed earth” construction. Though rammed earth building has grown in prominence in much of southwest United States, it surprisingly hasn’t been used much at all in Egypt, even though sometimes one of the only present materials is earth. Rammed earth walls are made by setting up either wooden or metal formwork similar to concrete, then mixing 10 parts earth, 1 part cement, and 3 parts water together [their recipe]. Then the earthen mix is compressed layer by layer with a ramming tool. They first tried to use a heavy pneumatic tool that requires a loud, wheezy generator and compressor, but the Bedouins understandably didn’t like the fierce noise piercing the tranquil desert silence, plus the mobility of the heavy machinery was a big concern. In the end, manually ramming the mix down by two laborers produces close to the same result in the same amount of time without the added cost and weight of more “advanced” tools.

The other technique being explored started up the very day I arrived on site. The method is referred to as “Earthbag” construction and is composed of only four different materials: earth, plastic bags, barbed wire, and plaster. What happens for building an earthbag wall is the following: The white plastic bags are filled with loose sandy earth from the site, tied, and then lined up end to end to form the base course. Next, strips of barbed wire are laid in lieu of mortar in between every layer of bags, holding them together and providing some lateral structural stability. After the courses rise to the required height, the whole wall is then plastered in order to protect the plastic from UV deterioration as well as tie everything together structurally. One of the advantages of this type of construction is not only its minimal cost and resource use, but also its mobility. There is some debate on the subject, but the most a camel can realistically carry is somewhere between 350 and 500 kilograms, which means carrying large stones or other heavy building materials large distances can become a big concern. In many parts in central Sinai [particularly the “high mountain” region], the only way to access many locations is either by foot or camel. If the material carried could be lessened, construction would be able to take place at even more remote, previously inaccessible areas. In the case of earthbag construction, all that really has to be carried are plastic bags, coils of barbed wire, a few cutting tools, and plaster equipment. A heavy construction technique then becomes extremely light by comparison, still providing thick structural thermal mass at a minimum of environmental impact and resource waste.

warming ourselves by our "fire"

That same night after I had just met everyone for the first time, they were nice enough to invite me out to celebrate Nashwa’s birthday, with great food and music from an “oud[a traditional Egyptian instrument]. Moushira cooked an incredible chicken even though she is a vegetarian and retired vegan. She said it was her first time trying but that has to be a lie, it was too good. It was an amazing experience and I was sad to see them have to go back to the “big city” [they work for about 30 days in Sinai and then have 10 pseudo-vacation days back in their respective cities, Cairo and Alexandria], though luckily I got to see Nashwa and Abdul again in Cairo later.

Thoughts on Traveling #11 : The secret to Egyptian Taxi Bartering. First off, be Egyptian, that will make it much easier. However if you were cursed with fair skin and a limited knowledge of Arabic like myself, there are a few things you can do to ease the price down. One thing to know, taxis do not have meters in them, so unless you know the rough price where you’re going beforehand and act really confident, you’re going to get semi-ripped off. The “best” thing to do is not have a bookbag on and just get inside and tell the driver where you’re going, then give them the “right” amount of money when you get out. If that proves to be impossible, you’ll have to haggle them down. Here’s what I do: listen to the first offer someone gives you, then basically walk away and figure you can get about half of that price with someone else. Next person that approaches offer about 1/3 of what the first guy said in the hopes that you can get it down to around half of the original price. It’s a messed up system maybe, but I actually got to enjoy it. Or, if you’re really lucky, you can meet some nice people that will give you a really good price just to be good samaritans, but those are much harder to find.

For Uncle Stephen and Dad:
typical Bedouin breakfast [beans, feta cheese, honey/jam, bread, hardboiled egg]

1 comment:

Nick Sowers said...

gotta love bargaining culture...it wears on you though. great post man, can't wait to meet up and swap stories in a couple weeks