The step Pyramid of Djoser
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Sakkara Pyramids

In the first of what I hope will be many pyramid trips, I recently joined a trip to the Sakkara (Saqqara) Pyramid complex. Although it’s not the most well-known group of pyramids, like the Great Pyramids of Giza, it has very impressive hieroglyphics inside the tombs. The trip was led by Community Services Organization, a nonprofit in Cairo designed to provide services for expats (like me!).

We first arrived at the Pyramid of Djoser. The pyramid has six limestone “steps” and is thought to be among the earliest known stone structures in the world—according to our guide Ahmed—built around 2667–2648 BC. The credit for the step design is given to Imhotep, the architect who was the right hand of the king.

It was a slow day for tourist camel rides at the Pyramid of Djoser.

It was a slow day for tourist camel rides at the Pyramid of Djoser.

The steps were thought to symbolize a stairway to heaven. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids not only to be tombs for kings and nobles, but also to house the spirits and facilitate a happy afterlife. This included physical offerings of food and worldly possessions as well as hieroglyphics (symbols for the alphabet) and pictures telling the story of the person’s life on the walls.

A line of Uraei (cobra) with the Pyramid of Djoser behind it.

A line of Uraei (cobra) with the Pyramid of Djoser behind it.

Next, we moved through the complex of crumbling pyramids and headed underground to the tomb of the Pharaoh Unas. Although we had to climb down a very narrow tunnel, the passageway was well-lit, which helped discourage claustrophobia.

Following Ahmed down the passageway through the Pyramid of Unas.

Following Ahmed down the passageway through the Pyramid of Unas.

At the end, when it was safe to stand up straight, there was a white limestone room completely filled with hieroglyphics. A few of us gasped!

The walls and ceiling of one of the chambers of the Pyramid of Unas.

The walls and ceiling of one of the chambers of the Pyramid of Unas.

Columns of hieroglyphics in Pharaoh Unas’s funerary chamber at the Pyramid of Unas.

Columns of hieroglyphics in Pharaoh Unas’s funerary chamber at the Pyramid of Unas.

The adjoining room was the chamber for Unas’s body, which included a black sarcophagus and stars on the roof to symbolize the heavens. It’s a good thing these spirits had all these signs to tell them if they were in the right place; these pyramids are a maze! The body/mummy itself is not in the sarcophagus, it was probably looted along with the other offerings and riches in the tombs.

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After we came above ground, we went to the tomb of one of Unas’s daughters, Idut. While Unas had numerous hieroglyphics/symbols in his pyramid, Idut’s tomb had the most impressive “Pyramid Texts,” realistic pictures and murals, some still with red and black color. Different chambers of her pyramid had pictures of the Nile, offerings of food and drink and pictures of scribes.

Pyramid Texts in the tomb of Idut describe a fishing scene on the Nile. Can you spot the hippopotamus, crocodile, fish and the cow being separated from her calf?

Pyramid Texts in the tomb of Idut describe a fishing scene on the Nile. Can you spot the hippopotamus, crocodile, fish and the cow being separated from her calf?

Workers used metals and minerals like copper to make paint. Did you know that slaves were not utilized to build the pyramids? Only paid workers. The National Museum has a papyrus record with names of all the workers who were employed and their payment.

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Last, we went to Ka-Gmni’s tomb, where we couldn’t take pictures, but it had massive murals similar to Idut’s tomb, and underground to Titi’s Pyramid. We also made a stop at the Imhotep (King Djoser’s architect) Museum, which housed a mummy. It was a little too realistic!

Our guide Ahmed at the entrance to Ka-Gmni’s tomb, which also had very well preserved and ornate drawings.

Our guide Ahmed at the entrance to Ka-Gmni’s tomb, which also had very well preserved and ornate drawings.

I learned today that Egypt has anywhere from 50 to more than 100 pyramids, depending on how one defines a pyramid, still standing or fallen. I’m sure I’ll be back to learn more!

An Egyptian flag with Tiran Island in the distance.
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Sharm el Sheikh: Relaxing by the Red Sea

After two weeks of school, I already had my first week off for a religious holiday. My school observes both Orthodox Christian and Islamic holidays so I’ll get to experience the full gamut this year.

This past week, it was the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, that was celebrated throughout practicing nations including Egypt. This holiday is also called the “Sacrifice Feast,” because it honors the sacrifice of his son that Abraham was willing to make for God. To celebrate the holiday, goats and sheep have been penned in the streets waiting to be given out as meat for the holiday. I did not witness the bloodletting.

Instead, a co-worker and I decided to take advantage of the time and head to the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh along the Red Sea on the Sinai Peninsula.

We spent five days, four nights vacationing along Egyptian families also away on holidays. There was also a smattering of Eastern European tourists. But for the most part, there were not many people in town. In fact, it was a bit of a ghost town. We enjoyed it because it was quiet and relaxing, but there were many hotels, empty, half-built, abandoned.

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In general, tourism is down in Egypt, but especially in Sharm after a flight to St. Petersburg crashed in October 2015. ISIL claimed responsibility. Since then, many countries stopped direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh. Now, tourists must fly to Cairo first then transfer to a domestic flight to Sharm el Sheikh.

It wasn’t a problem for us because we are living in Cairo. After several security checks, it was only an hour flight to the town on Egyptian Air. Somehow, we ended up in Business Class, which was a nice treat.

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The terrain on the Sinai Peninsula is like nothing I’ve seen before. The dusty red mountains rise up, rocky and defiant. The sea is a cobalt blue from a distance, clean and clear close up. The sand is pink and filled with white shells and coral. When we first arrived, I could see this as a setting for the Biblical tales I had heard of.

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We spent a whole day snorkeling the Red Sea at three different sites. I saw angel fish, a (venomous) lionfish, a stingray, neon parrotfish, clownfish, butterfly fish, and yes, even Nemo! I also loved the variety of colors and types of coral.

In my opinion, the coral reef and snorkeling was just as beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns, Australia. I kept thinking how we spent more than $100 Australian on a snorkeling trip. The price at Sharm el Sheikh? Thirty US Dollars.

We had a perfect trip. We felt safe. And we could wear whatever clothing or bathing suits we wanted. We saw everything from bikinis to burkinis.

Did you know that Egypt was a destination for diving and snorkeling in its Red Sea reef? Enjoy the pictures!

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Day in Life: First Week of School

I’m done with my first week of school! I’m teaching 8th, 9th and 10th grade. I can’t believe I have students who were born in the 2000s; where is the time going?

My schedule is keeping me on my toes. The workweek is Sunday through Thursday, which is hard to get used to. I keep saying “This is due on Friday… I mean Thursday,” and students laugh. Students are also correcting my pronunciation of names. Hana, Malak and Jana are popular girl’s names, and Mohamed, Omar and Youssef for the boys.

I thought I would do a very simple “Day in the Life” post. I will probably do a more detailed one once I get more into a routine.

6:00 a.m. Wake up, make breakfast and get ready for school.

6:30 a.m. The first week, I left home at this time to walk about 2 km to the bus stop. I love Cairo in the mornings. It’s cool, breezy and quiet. My new schedule, I will catch a bus at 6:50 a.m. in my neighborhood. The bus leaves around 7:00/7:10 a.m.

My classroom is very colorful! It will be more decorated soon. The first week I didn’t have a clock, which made me feel disorganized.

My classroom is very colorful! It will be more decorated soon. The first week I didn’t have a clock, which made me feel disorganized.

7:30ish a.m. Arrive at school. I go straight to my classroom, turn on the air conditioning and start the day.

7:55 a.m. School starts. We either have an assembly where students line up outside by homeroom or students come to homeroom right away. I have a 9th grade homeroom class.

I accidentally ordered five falafel sandwiches from the school cafeteria. All ordering is done in Arabic and hand gestures. I thought I was ordering five falafel pieces. Needless to say, it all got eaten.

I accidentally ordered five falafel sandwiches from the school cafeteria. All ordering is done in Arabic and hand gestures. I thought I was ordering five falafel pieces. Needless to say, it all got eaten.

8:15 a.m.–3:05 p.m. The school day. My schedule changes every day, but I usually teach three or four classes a day. Lunch is about 45 minutes long. I have lunch supervisory duty once a week. It is so hot midday that most students eat their lunch in the shade. Though the boys play soccer (“football”) and come to class drenched in sweat.

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3:15 p.m. Bus leaves for home. The bus ride home is an interesting time to peer out the window at the traffic and things going by.

A one-eyed cat to greet me at the door.

A one-eyed cat to greet me at the door.

3:45/4 p.m. I’m home! Thankful to have a relatively short commute there and back.

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4:00 p.m. to…? I make dinner and pass out on the couch. The first week I was in bed by 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. I haven’t had a lot of papers to grade at home yet. That will probably change once we get into the swing of things.

Looking over the main section of the Painted Hills from the viewpoint.
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Seven Wonders: Painted Hills

Painted Hills is the fourth in a series of posts on Cascadian Abroad focusing on the Seven Wonders of Oregon.

When most people picture Oregon, they see green fir trees, maybe snow-capped mountains or the Pacific Ocean. But 45 percent of the state is classified as desert and it is here where some of the most unique terrain in the state can be found.

More than 200 miles east of Portland, the Painted Hills may be the most unique of all. Millions of years ago, the desert was covered by an ancient river that left a geological fairy tale behind in the rock and soil. Vibrant black, gray, red and gold soil layer the hills, colored by the prehistoric vegetation sediment from a time when the area was a hot and humid rainforest.

Located in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the site is also important to archeologists. A bounty of fossils, the remains of early horses, camels and rhinoceroses, can still be found in the area.


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If You Go…

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
From Portland, take US-26 east Mitchell (approximately 225 miles).

House Hunters International: Sold!
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My Cairo Apartment Is…

Thank you for all the comments on Facebook and here on Cascadian Abroad about my house hunt!

And the winner is... House #3!

And the winner is… House #3!

Most of you liked House #3 the best and I guess you could sense my enthusiasm through my words. A few picked House #1 for its spacious kitchen. And no takers for House #2.

So yes, I chose House #3. It was easily my favorite place I saw during the house hunt. Interestingly enough, I was jet lagged and ready to stop for the day before I was convinced to see one more. I’m glad I powered through. Moving is hard. Starting a new job is hard. Doing both in a foreign country is exponentially harder.

I have been moved in now for a couple of days and I’m slowly learning its quirks and character. I really like the size, it’s not too big for one person and I can’t get lost.

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My first night, my landlady offered her driver to take me to the grocery store. I had already mapped out the walk to the store, but I gladly took her up on her offer. The driver helped me carry my bags and liters of water from the store to the car and from the car to my apartment. Thankfully, no stairs to climb!

My landlady is a cosmopolitan woman. She speaks many languages; her English is perfect. She grew up in a multicultural household. If I need anything, she has contacts throughout the city.

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On the weekend (Friday and Saturday here), we went driving through the neighborhoods of Maadi and she pointed out some shops and landmarks. There are many things to see and I’m slowly figuring out where I am. We went out to lunch, where we bumped into some of her family. I’ve heard Cairo is… “where everybody knows your name.”

After lunch, I went walking on the shopping street near my house. I got some school supplies at a stationery store and some bread at The Bakery Shop. There are many American storefronts I recognized: Cold Stone Creamery, The Body Shop, McDonald’s, Circle K, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Coffee Bean, Subway, Gold’s Gym, etc. In addition, there’s more coffee shops, grocery store, fruit stands, a wine/beer store, gelato, sushi, waffles, hamburgers, cupcakes, Egyptian food, etc.

What should I try on my next walkabout? Head to the comments section below to have your say!

House Hunters International: Cairo
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House Hunters International: Cairo

I like to watch House Hunters International, but I have a few problems with the show. I want less “house” and more “international.” Most of the show is spent on repeating the details of house 1, 2 and 3. And most of the buyers are demanding of Western standards and usually have unrealistic expectations of size, location and price. My favorite part is the last two minutes of the show where they reveal the house they “chose” and how they like living in that particular destination.

Despite my skepticism of reality TV, I decided to present three apartments (or “flats”) that I was shown in the search for my Cairo home. I think it’s interesting to see how people all over the world live and that’s probably what makes the show popular.

Most of the newcomers chose to live in the Cairo neighborhood called Maadi because it’s green; the tree-lined streets are a relief from city life. It has a walkable lifestyle, which was my favorite part of living in Japan. And there are many cafes and restaurants around—both Egyptian and foreign. The neighborhood is a haven for expats, but still has the local charms that I am looking for.

My wish list included:

  • 1 or 2 bedrooms
  • any floor
  • clean kitchen
  • budget between 4,000 to 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($450 to $675)

Note: All of the apartments we saw are furnished, spacious and have air conditioning units and secure entrances.

For the floor levels below, I am using the American standard. Our bottom floor is called the first floor. Whereas, in most other countries, the bottom floor is the ground floor and the next floor up is considered the first floor. Try explaining that to American middle schoolers studying Spanish…planta baja, primer piso, segundo piso, etc.)

On another note, our real estate agent, Sherif, is the most patient man I have ever met. He juggled so many different likes and dislikes and personalities of our group. He deserves any commission he made—and more. He took us out on multiple days and arranged rental contracts with landlords all over Maadi.

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House 1—Big on Kitchen & Style

  • 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($562)
  • 3rd floor
  • 2 bed, 1 bath

House 1 made the list because of its giant kitchen and plush living room, including a flat screen TV and two full size couches. It has a lot of decorative items like paintings, figurines and plants on the walls and surfaces. This is both a pro and a con. It made it feel like a place you want to live, but it also felt like you were living in someone else’s house. I prefer a simple style.

It has two bedrooms. The master has wooden floors and a comfortable bed with a large mirrored closet. The guest room has two twin beds for visitors. I would probably never use the second room.

The kitchen is very large with a full size dishwasher, six burner gas stove, microwave, refrigerator and a washing machine. I like the multiple wood cabinets and tile floors. It looks fully functional and ready to go on move-in day. House 1 is right in the middle of my budget.


House 2—Red Couch, Balcony & Vintage Tiles

  • 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($450)
  • 2nd floor
  • 2 bed, 1 bath

This apartment is a little more “shabby chic.” I liked some of its details like the red lantern lamp, red couch and chair. We had a red couch when we moved into our first house. I also like that it has a balcony on the shady side of the building. The two bedrooms were spacious and included a queen and a twin bed, but didn’t include any bedding or pillows. I may want to buy my own anyway!

The downsides were that it is a little dark; the kitchen is hiding in the back of the flat with no windows to let in the light. The living/dining room needs a few rugs to warm up the stark white tile floors. Although the kitchen is tiny, it has cool wall tiles that looked like vintage Arabic advertisements. This complex has a daycare in one of its units, but we were assured that the hours are when we are at school and it doesn’t operate on the weekends. House 2 is the cheapest flat.


House 3—Country Home

  • 5,800 Egyptian pounds ($650)
  • First floor
  • 1 bed, 1 bath

This place is unique because it is not located in an apartment complex. The downstairs of the owner’s house has been converted into an apartment. This place has the ultimate homey feel. You walk into a dining room with warm earth toned tiles and touches of red (my favorite color). It opens to the living room with a TV and floral couches. It has a private entrance as well as two doors that open to the outside patio.

The one bedroom is carpeted and has a king size bed and vanity. The kitchen is adorable (blue and white is another favorite color combination) and contains a refrigerator, microwave, toaster and a “kettle.” The bathroom has a washer and a shower with a door, but no bathtub like the previous two places. House 3 is the most expensive on the list.

I am pleasantly surprised by apartments in Cairo! I’ll report back in a few days with my pick, but in the meantime, do you think I should choose House 1, 2 or 3? Head to the comments section below to have your say!

Felucca Cruise on the Nile River
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Felucca Sail on the Nile River

During the first week of orientation, the school treated new staff to a sunset felucca (sailboat) ride on the Nile River.

From our hotel in Zamalek, we crossed the 6th of October Bridge and followed the east bank of the Nile River, the longest river in the world. We passed the historic Tahrir Square, the place where the 2011 revolution demonstrations were held. Near the square is the American Embassy.

We started the ride during the sunset, which provided gorgeous views. Our group divided between two boats and began a slow float.

The owner of the school pointed out some landmarks to us. On the other side, we could see the narrow Cairo Tower, which was just starting to light up for the evening. Next to it, was the Sofitel Hotel and the Cairo Opera House. Many boats were out because it was the weekend. It seems common to rent a party boat for a wedding or special occasion.

The land on both sides of the Nile is very green and lush, unlike the rest of Egypt. Take a look at Egypt on a satellite map; there’s a green ribbon snaking its way down the desert.

For that reason, farmers and landowners have always relied on the Nile as a source of water, especially during the season when it floods and leaves behind fertile land. In fact, ancient Egyptians thought that the god Hapy and the pharaoh could control the flooding. Additionally, the ancient people believed the river was a path from life to death and thereafter. It’s interesting how many civilizations connected their observations of nature to religion or spirituality.

Now, the river is still one of Egypt’s gems and symbols. Thank you to the school for a relaxing river float and introduction to life in Cairo.

What do you imagine when you think of the Nile? Head to the comments section below to take part in the conversation!