Sitting in the front seat of an old Toyota Landcruiser, the view of Egypt’s White Desert unfolded before me. It was if I’d been transposed to the surface of Mars, shot through space and time to arrive in this extra terrestrial landscape.
The white chalk rocks jutting out of the sand are monuments left behind by passing time. Millions of years before my time, this land was covered in an ocean. The world spun, the waters receded and the land emerged. As we walked through the desert, with the sun glowing on the horizon, we found sea shells embedded into the rock, locked in time.
After spending a night under the stars, immersed in the deafening silence of the desert, we packed our small camp and continued to explore. As we continue to move forward on our own timelines, you have the distinct feeling that this place exists without the constraints of time. It is simply existing until such a time when it will find it’s way back home, to the bottom of the sea.
The more time I spend in Cairo the more I become uncomfortable with the income inequality. Coming from Canada, I am used to a certain level of comfort, one which is matched if not more decadent here.
The one thing I am not used to, is the poverty that is the real core of the city. On the outskirts of the sprawling megapolis is where you tend to find the rich and affluent. Behind big walls sit cookie-cutter villas and perfectly manicured lawns. This is where I was given an apartment to live in. As I sit here reflecting on this inequality, I look out my bedroom window at palm trees blowing in the wind, blossoming flowers and green grass.
Last night, I went to a favourite restaurant. One situated on the upscale island of Zamalek. People had their BMWs and Mercedes parked by the valets. We were served delicious food, had our sheeshas constantly re-coaled, and enjoyed cold beer. This life seems familiar in some ways, the relaxed and easy atmosphere of being around people whose lives are not so different from my own.
Yet, only streets away are families that live each day on a shoestring. Forty percent of Egypt’s 90 million people live on 2 dollars or less a day. Forty percent of the country is illiterate. I have visited the poorest slums in Cairo and have seen people living in such excruciating poverty it seems unreal. Yet as a taxi driver friend told me, “We don’t think about being poor. This is a normal life.”, and for millions of Egyptians it is. The same friend told me that people have given up on the government saving them. They take responsibility for their own lives and do their best to get by.
As the aftermath of the revolution and transition to democracy trucks on, I can’t help but wonder where these people fit in and when the government will stop playing politics and get to work on helping those who truly need it.
Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, the heat was the first thing we noticed. Mixing mid thirties temperatures with humidity made it feel like being in a pressure cooker. So obviously, I went to the bathroom and switched into shorts and a singo. I soon realized this wouldn’t be enough.
When we arrived in Ella, I saw a lot of men walking around in sarongs or as we referred to them, a gentlemans skirt. So on a particularly hot and humid afternoon I walked up to a man (the one on the far left of the photo) and commented on his sarong. I told him I was interested in finding one of my own. Immediately he said “No problem! Follow me. Two minutes!”
We followed him up the hill for what felt like much more than two minutes but it may just have been the humidity talking. We found a beautiful house perched up in the woods surrounded by trees and all variety of plants. He took us into a back room and his wife brought us cinnamon tea.
He then proceeded to pull out an assortment of sarongs for sale. I immediately found one I liked. It was brown and had kangaroos along the trim, reminding me of my time in Australia. We settled on a price and after the transaction he graciously invited us to dinner the following evening. We accepted!
After a full day of swimming in waterfalls and exploring Buddhist statues, we made our way to his house for dinner. As we walked in we were greeted by Sri Lankan remixes of old Boney M songs, fantastic. Then, we were treated to a table full of assorted foods, of which many I had no idea of their origins. It all looked delicious but the portions looked a bit small. It was only after I put only a little on my plate did I realize that it would be only us who were eating. The family stood around and watched with anticipation to see our reactions to the various goodies. I am sure they were not disappointed. A rather spicy lemon sat on the edge of my plate which I eyed with uncertainty. After a debate in my head, I decided to give it a go and was rewarded with a literal explosion of flavour. It was so intense, all I could think of was the flavour, everything else was gone. Eventually, I swallowed it down and came back to my senses.
After enjoying many rounds of the delicious food, I’d had my fill and was offered another cup of cinnamon tea. We then proceeded to have a bit of a photo frenzy with the family and hung out. When all was said and done, we left the family with fond memories and an understanding of what Sri Lankan hospitality means.
We arrived in Hatton just before noon to catch a train to Ella. We got dropped off at the train station and a man walked over to us to ask where we were headed. We told him we were off to Ella and he told us to hurry as the train to Ella was sitting at the platform about to depart.
We grabbed the best tickets we could, second class for 125 rupees (1 dollar), and rushed to find a seat onboard. Wading through the rows of seats with our large backpacks, it was a relief to see the cleanliness and comfort we would be enjoying. The train was new and in great shape.
A group of young men stood around the doorway singing and laughing, as they saw me approach they cleared some of their things off a seat and offered it to me. I threw my bag in the overhead and accepted. The train began to roll down the tracks and into the Sri Lankan jungle.
As the group of young minstrels serenaded the passengers, other men walked up and down the hallways selling all sorts of delicious snacks. We bought a bag full to sample. At this point, I decided I was too excited to sit still and instead wanted to stand at the big open doors and take photos of the world whipping by. Walking through the train, I saw families sitting together laughing, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.
The colour of the train splashed across the lush green of the forests and made me feel like I’d somehow been thrown into a Wes Anderson movie. For the next three hours, I soaked it in as the outside world got soaked by the heavy monsoon rains.
Arriving at Delhouse in southern Sri Lanka, our plan was to hike to the top of Adam’s Peak. This is the site where Adam is meant to have been hurled from heaven and landed on earth. It is also believed to house a footprint of Buddha. It is an important pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka and attracts thousands of locals on the weekends.
We didn’t fully believe how many people were rumoured to tackle the track each weekend, so at 2 am we set off with high hopes of reaching the summit quickly. As we neared the beginning of the trail a steady flow of people were coming down from the peak. We started our 5000 steps to the top and within an hour and a half were within half a kilometer of our goal.
As we turned a corner, we were met face to face with a massive line packed with pilgrims. People waited patiently for their chance to make the summit. After waiting for over an hour in line, light was beginning to creep into the sky. We knew that if we didn’t move fast we wouldn’t make it to the top on time for sunrise. So, with many sorrys and avoiding eye contact, we hopped the railing and ran to the top. We were able to wade through the crowds and find a perch overlooking the valleys and mountains below.
The sun came up with an explosion of colour throughout. In every direction it played a different trick on the textures of the early morning sky. We listened to bells, horns and drums pound out prayers from Adam’s Peak and looked over the world.
Heading down from out hotel in Delhouse, Sri Lanka, we came across a family of monkeys. They came pouring out of the hills and down telephone wires with clear intent. Food! The monkeys came up to inspect us, with this young fellow being so brazen as to reach out and touch my lens. He was quite shocked to see it focus in and out.
Following his curiosity, a van pulled up full of locals. They rolled down the windows and dangled crackers out the window. A few of the braver monkeys rushed over to snatch a snack.
Inside a rock temple on top of a hill, a monk prepares to lead prayer. As we inspected the temple, women milled about lighting candles and sweeping the floors. When the monk arrived, the women exited to give him a moment alone and lit candles outside. When they had finished, they reentered the temple and were led in prayer.
Almost two years from the toppling of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people remain unsatisfied following the recent presidential elections. The polarizing transition towards democracy manifests itself in protests opposing President Mohamed Morsi’s vision for Egypt. Emerging onto a rooftop on Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the energy and cacophony of sound rising from below is palpable.
“Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!” chant the people as Egyptian flags fill the air. Once again, the people demand the fall of the regime. The opposition depicts President Morsi as a puppet of the new regime, one backed by the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Both factions have very distinct political and ideological aspirations. Nevertheless, common ground amid the turbulence is illustrated by their love of Egypt.
The protests are not categorized by one group of people. It ranges from families soaking in history, academics fighting for justice, and young people realizing their power to shape Egypt. Standing among protesters from the Ultra White Knights, a group of fanatic football fans, the energy and chants grow in intensity. The recognition that Egyptian voices are louder than ever impassion the people.
As the protests grow in Tahrir, an offshoot battle with police takes place not 500 meters away. Teenage boys and young men fill Simon Bolivar Square, where the anger with the presidency boils over. Tear gas fired by police fills the street and fearless protesters grab them one by one to throw back. Adrenaline drives the people in waves, reacting in unison.
With hundreds of thousands protesting, you can somehow forget the rumblings of a hungry stomach. However, savvy businessmen fill the Square with the smells of fresh popcorn, spicy foul and frying falafel. Families and friends huddle together eating and drinking. The conversation is one of hope. Hope that after so much chaos, the return to stability is not so far away.
Human expression is the manner in which we try to understand life. We sing about it, paint about it, write about it, discuss it and some of us photograph it. The realization that it’s us who attribute the feeling of wonder to the world, gave me the desire to capture moments that make up life.
Before my first camera, I remember looking through the frame of my hands and capturing mental images. I realized early on that it’s not about what you’re photographing but why. The why drives me on adventures around the world.
Looking through the viewfinder and seeing a sun break through the clouds or a person caught bare in their humanity inspire me to keep searching. The word amateur originates from French, meaning “lover of”. I think of this when I’m taking photos. It’s not my desire to sell or seek fame that pushes me, but rather to explore the nuances of the world, through my love of photography.
My most recent opportunity, being a teacher in Cairo, has led me to capture the growing pains of Egypt. It has thrown me into the mix with photographers from various backgrounds and varying levels of expertise. Learning, listening and sharing with others has provided me with a goal, to capture moments of wonder and awe. The satisfaction of adjusting settings, finding the right angle and snapping a souvenir in time drives me to improve. The world is immense and varied, and it’s my dream to bring together its stories and share them with its people.
I arrived in Cairo one week before the 1st year anniversary of Egypt’s 25th of January Revolution. I have been here for the Port Said tragedy where 74 people were killed in a riot in a football stadium. I have been here for the trial of former dictator Hosni Mubarak and for the election of current president, Mohamed Morsi. I have witnessed the excitement and celebration of Egyptians after casting their first vote and I have shared in their heartache as they see the freedom they worked for as one being stricken with polarizing agendas.
But it wasn’t until this past week that I had gone down to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square among the protesters. Over a week ago, President Morsi issued a declaration, which elevated his presidency above the judiciary. For many, this is a stark reminder of life under dictatorial rule. The country is deeply divided over whether President Morsi is giving himself this power temporarily to safeguard the transition to democracy or whether as his opponents say to push forward an Islamist political agenda.
On Tuesday night, I went down to Tahrir Square among the opposition protesters. On that night, people spoke of the likeness to the revolution that shook this country almost two years ago. There were over 200,000 protesters in the square. The deep rumble of the hundreds of thousands chanting to be rid of Morsi went straight through you. I went down amid the clashes with police where opposition protesters hurled rocks and tried to throw police tear gas canisters back or over walls. The sense down there among the people, where many of them came right up to me offering help and protection, was like that of a team. There were men lined along the sides of Simon Bolivar Square, where the clashes were taking place, aiming laser pointers at the canisters as they flew through the air, so those below would be able to see where they would land. After photographing the clashes for half an hour, I was invited into a small store and given tea. I was gifted a piece of papyrus with a painting of a Pharaoh on it and in true Egyptian fashion, was asked to pay for it my way out of the shop. I made my apologies that I had no money and stepped out the door back into the midst of a street battle. Business as usual.
On Friday, I was back down among the opposition protesters as they returned to Tahrir Square. An Egyptian photographer led me to the 9th floor of a building on Tahrir where I was told we could photograph the square. I walked out of the elevator and through a maze of hallways and into the apartment of an old man sitting at his table watching the news on a small TV in the corner. A negotiation took place on how much it would cost to get onto the roof. For a foreigner, the rate was 50 pounds or roughly 8 dollars. I agreed and then climbed up a ladder and out of a hole in the ceiling onto the roof. Once I got up there, I walked directly to the edge of the building to look down into the square. I could hear it before I could see it. As I neared the edge and peered over, tens of thousands of people appeared below me. It was an awe-inspiring moment. After a couple of hours of shooting, a man emerged to tell us to clear the roof. We packed up, climbed back down and settled our bill. I’m sure our daytime shift was up and now the nighttime photographers would be coming. Business as usual.
I left Australia for a wonderful albeit quick visit to Canada over the holidays. Now, I am in Cairo. I arrived mid-January to try out something new, teaching. I had agreed to come work at an International School. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would teach but social studies seemed to be on the table, which would be the perfect opportunity to discuss the politics of Egypt. What better way to really get to understand a place?
It is now almost three months later and it continues to be an effort in understanding. From the language (Arabic is hard!), to the culture (sheesha is understood easily enough) and their religion (much more difficult). I’ve never lived in a country where religion was such a visible part of society. It can be quite captivating and also quite frustrating. Coming from a quite liberal lifestyle, there are some stark contrasts. But this only adds depth to the relationship. Instead of trying to understand the statements, I try to understand the point of view, the position, the cultural destination. And when you get to a point where the culture makes sense, so do the people.
It’s allowed me to meet some truly wonderful people who must have written the manual on being thoughtful, caring and generous. It’s humbling in some instances to see these qualities imprinted on a whole people. Egyptian people will go out of their way to help you. Even today, we were driving into another part of town with our taxi driver Mohammad, not exactly sure where we were going. As we got to a point where we thought we were close, Mohammad rolled down the windows and began asking everyone along the road. Before long we had people yelling across the street to each other trying to figure out where we needed to be. It was a collective effort of people. They seemed united. United by a thousand years of history and brotherhood. They are Egyptian, and that means something. But I guess the fact Egyptians like to come together in unity isn’t really that surprising, recently it’s been defining them around the globe.
It’s funny sometimes to reflect on my position here. Being a foreigner I am afforded an incredibly comfortable lifestyle. I live in a compound on the outskirts of the city called El Rehab. As summer is beginning to roll in, with it hitting 38 degrees Celsius yesterday, the compound is coming alive. There are palm trees, flowers, bushes, and spectacularly green grass. All of this, in the middle of the bloody desert. The place is a miracle of engineering, while the rest of Cairo sweats it out in the grime and the smog. Tonight, we played tennis under the flood lights with a warm summers breeze in the air and palm trees surrounding us. Sometimes this feels very unreal. Especially in the contrast to the the rest of the city. It is a weird pocket of reality in an otherwise chaotic, unruly and sprawling city.
Don’t get me wrong, I love going into the city. This is something that separates us with the other Egyptian teachers who are also afforded a more comfortable lifestyle. They see a lot of Cairo as dirty and have no desire to ever go there. When we go into the heart of the city, it is full of colour and life and more cheap plastic toys than you could shake a stick at. It’s loud, hectic, the cars are honking and the fumes can be nauseating. And it’s so invigoratingly real. There are people biking down the street with a load of pitas on their head, there are people selling delicious baked sweet potatoes on the side of the road and there are people selling their wares. It’s fast paced and if you look down you might get hit by an eleven seater van crammed with eighteen.
To me it is all new and exciting. You can go from the Pyramids, to dirt path markets to an all-white (not people, well maybe) modern swanky restaurant/bar on an island in the Nile. It’s a world of extremes. It can be overwhelming at first but once it starts to make sense, everything just seems to fall into place. You need to get the pace, the heartbeat of the city. It’s still a work in progress but slowly I’m becoming in tune.
I am about to finish my first quarter of teaching and I couldn’t be happier. It has been an extremely interesting, eye-opening and quite often frustrating experience. However, it has been thoroughly enjoyable. So much so that after only two months I decided to sign on for another year of teaching. I have come to really enjoy the students and love to see the connection I have with them build. A few of them are so enraptured by the idea of freedom to explore the world at such a young age. They want to go off on their own adventures but are worried about the reactions of their families. It’s such a great feeling to think that I may be encouraging them to discover the world for themselves. On Sunday’s, Leyland, my good University friend and roommate/adventure buddy, and I coach an all girl’s basketball team. Empowering women in a conservative country is incredibly rewarding. On Wednesday’s we have a photography club where we talk about photography and the places we have travelled. We love telling them about the places we’ve been and we like to think that they are learning something about how to take nice photos along the way. So without even realizing it, we’ve become quite entangled in the school. So much so that last week we were invited to a semi-final basketball game that some of the girls on our team were playing in. Of course we went and we were able to cheer them on to a victory.
At the end of the week the exams will be over and the marks will be in. That means take off time for yours truly on a bit of an adventure. I am headed to Dahab on the Red Sea to do some diving. We are going to be there for 4-5 days of diving and then will make our way to Jordan to see Petra! It’s going to be quite an adventure and I can’t wait to get lots of new shots along the way. It will be hard for me not to whistle the Indiana Jones theme as I ride a horse down the long tunnel-like canyon to Petra, so I’ll probably just do it.
If I could have a theme song.