My second trip in this series was my trip to Minya (or Al-Minya) to spend a week with my Arabic tutor and her family.  Minya is a town of about one million people located on the Nile River about three hours south of Cairo.  It is around Minya that Lower Egypt ends and Upper Egypt (read: HEAT) begins.  It is not a tourist destination at all, but this was not supposed to be a "tourist" trip--this was a trip to help me with my Arabic.  It was pretty much a total "immersion" experience, since no one there really spoke English.  NOTE:  From here on down, all the conversations that I recount took place in Arabic unless otherwise noted.

This adventure began with my six-hour train ride to Minya, which was the first time I had ridden the train by myself, or ridden it longer than the two-hour ride to Cairo.  On the way down, I was blessed with a wonderful seatmate.  He was an older man, maybe my father's age or a bit older, who was also going to Minya.  I think this man must have realized that I didn't really know what I was doing, and noticed that I was a young woman traveling alone, and decided he would take care of me.  He helped me put my luggage up and told me the name of each train station as we passed it.  When we got to Cairo, he said we needed to watch our bags because people might try to take them at this time because there were so many people getting on and off.  Sure enough, some young punk tried to grab my suitcase.  Well, my seatmate would have none of it and told him so.  Very loudly.  The young guy argued a bit, but soon left with no further incident.  Also, I had a bite or a cut of some kind on my finger, and the older man gave me a tissue soaked in water to help it, and then he asked around and found me a band-aid.  Oh, AND he gave me one of his sandwiches for lunch!  I told him I had brought my own food and refused the requisite three times, but he insisted.  When we got nearer to Minya, he carried my bags to the train door for me.  There was a lady on the train who did not have a seat (you don't need to buy a ticket in advance if you're willing to stand!), so he told her she could take his seat since we were getting off at the next stop.  He told me he would motion for me when it was time for me to come to the front.  Anyway, this lady sat down next to me and asked if that man was my father.  I said no, but he was very nice.  Then she looked at me closely, and said, "You know, I almost thought you were a foreigner."  Well that was just too funny, so I laughed and said, "I AM a foreigner!"  She said it wasn't possible.  =)  Even my seatmate hadn't realized I wasn't Egyptian until about halfway to Minya!  Anyway, I went to the front when the older man motioned for me and I got off the train safely with all of my bags.  I was very thankful for this kind gentleman who had helped me so much.

When I stepped off the train, it was like stepping into a heat wave.  The heat was almost tangible.  Lena, my tutor, spotted me and came walking toward me very fast.  She greeted me with, "We have to get back to my house quickly--it's too hot to be out!"  So we made good time to the entrance of the train station and hopped in a taxi.  Her house was only five minutes from the train station, so that was good.  (I soon learned that everything in Minya is only five minutes away at the most.)  Lena's father is the pastor at a church there in town, and they live in an apartment right above the church.  We walked through the main gate of the church, and then through an outdoor sitting area to another gate.  At this gate, we rung a doorbell, and soon her father poked his head out of one of the windows above.  When he saw it was us, he pulled a string that was rigged up through that window and unlatched the gate.  Pretty cool setup!

Well, we finally got inside and it was cooler in the house.  I greeted the mother and father and grandmother, who was staying with them for a while before she returned to Canada, where she lives with her other children.  I put my bags down and then joined them in the family room.  The fan was going, but after a while, I realized it was only blowing around the warm air.  But still, warm air was better than no air, and it was certainly better than outside.  Since Minya is inland, on the Nile, there are no wonderful sea breezes to cool it down.  I found out later that the temperature that day was 109 degrees (fortunately, the rest of the week was a bit cooler--with highs only in the 90s).  Periodically Lena or her mother would pour water out on the tiles in front of the door to make sure the ground didn't get too hot.  Also, they had about 10 bottles of water in the fridge at all times.  When one was finished, they refilled it from the tap and moved it to the back of the line.  It was a good system for ensuring there was always cold water!  And the tap water there tasted much better than it does here in Alex.

Anyway, as we sat there in the family room waiting for lunch, Lena made sure to tell everyone that there was no English allowed.  Lena, her mother, and her father only speak a little English anyway.  The grandmother speaks more because she lives in Canada.  She was a feisty one and didn't seem to care much for Lena's "rule."  She did mostly speak Arabic, but sometimes she would bust out an English phrase.  Lena would reprimand her, but the grandmother would just look at her and repeat her phrase.  It was a toss-up whether the phrase she was saying had anything to do with the conversation at the time, but that was the fun!

Well, the Arabic immersion was an interesting experience.  I had to concentrate hard to try to catch everything they were saying, and of course there were many words I still didn't understand.  When it was something important, or something that involved me, I would ask them to clarify or explain the parts I didn't understand.  But otherwise, I pretty much just listened and tried to figure things out from context.  And sometimes, if I saw that the conversation didn't involve me and I was too tired, I'd just tune out.  It is hard not being able to speak your native language, hard not to understand people the first time they say something, and hard not to be understood the first time you say something.  I now have a much greater respect for people who move to a country where their native language is not widely spoken.

The daily routine went something like this:  Wake up about 11, turn on the TV, have breakfast, take a shower, watch TV, have lunch around 2 or 3, take a nap, wake up, get dressed, and go out about 7 or 8 when it was cool enough.  Return around 10 or 11, have dinner, do our Arabic lessons for that day, watch TV, turn off the TV, and go to bed around 2 a.m.  I asked Lena why they watch so much TV, and she said, "Because there's nothing else."  I soon found out that this was true.  Minya is basically a small town (even though it has a million people) with nothing much to do at all.  I think I did everything there was to "do" there within two days.

Lena's mother, father, and grandmother would go down to the church every night.  There was usually some kind of meeting going on there.  One night it was the older women, one night the older men, one night the children, one night the young adults, etc.  (I attended the young adult service and really enjoyed it, even though I only understood about 30% of it!)  If they weren't involved in the actual service, her parents and grandmother would sit in the covered veranda-type area outside the church doors and just talk with whoever showed up.  On several occasions Lena and I would join them after our walks.  Oh, and the one night there were no activities at the church we sat outside Lena's house (on the roof of the church) and talked there. 

When Lena and I went out, we walked everywhere since the town was so small.  We walked to the Nile many nights.  There is a nice green park there and a promenade along the Nile as well.  Across from the park at one point is a carnival-type situation.  It had a ferris wheel and a couple of other carnival rides, and then a small bazaar with many items for sale.  Lena and I also got ice cream most nights.  That was nice.  As we walked home one night, I kept looking for a trashcan to throw my ice-cream cup away, but there were none.  In Alex they're all over the place (not that anyone uses them).  Egyptians have no problem at all just throwing their trash wherever they please.  So when I was with Lena, I asked her where a trashcan was, and she said, "The ground."  I told her that wasn't very good--it made the town ugly, etc. etc.  She just laughed and said, "Well, there's no trashcan."  I jokingly said maybe I should just set it on one of the parked cars we were walking by.  And right after I said it, we passed one where someone had done just that!  It was a white car and someone had smeared the remnants of their chocolate ice cream cone all over the hood.  Nice.

One night we walked down from the house and could not find her mother in the church, so we walked to a room below the church.  There she was, with about 6 or 7 high-school kids.  They were working on crafts for a VBS-style conference coming up.  Lena asked if I wanted to help, and I was glad to do it because this did not require language!  I could just sit there and work and be helpful.  So I helped trace things and cut things and draw things and color things that night as well as the next two days.  (Lena and I took some stuff up to the house so we could work on it during the days.)  Funnily enough, the theme for their crafts and activities was The American West!  There were boots and cowboys and covered wagons galore!  I told them I thought it was funny that this was the theme, and told them a little about that period of American history.  They thought the stories were interesting.  I then pointed to a picture of a cowboy and said that in English, he was called a cowboy.  I asked the mother what he was called in Arabic.  She said, "Cowboy."  We got a laugh out of that.

So I was able to be a help with the crafts.  I also helped translate the grandmother's plane tickets to Canada.  They just wanted to confirm the times and dates and such.  Oh, and I helped download pictures from Lena's digital camera onto my laptop and then onto a CD, since they don't have a computer (but Lena has one in Alex).  But other than that, I don't think I was able to really help them with anything.  Of course, I wasn't going there to help them, but still I wanted to do SOMETHING for this family who was giving so much to me.  I didn't want to be a burden to them.  But of course they were so loving and would never have thought of me as a burden.  I really appreciated their kindness and their time.  It made me think of how many internationals are in America and how we hardly ever take time to invite them in and really befriend them.  So many Egyptians have done that for me and I am so thankful for them.

About the meals:  We would usually have fuul (beans), bread, cheese, and eggs for breakfast; and bread, cheese, and yogurt for dinner.  Lunch was the big meal--with meat, vegetables, rice or potatoes, and bread.  One thing that I have noticed about the Egyptian families I have eaten with is that they don't drink during the meal.  If there is anything to drink on the table, it's a bottle of water with one cup.  Everyone shares the cup.  (Also, in the communal water vein--on the streets of most towns are jugs of water placed at semi-regular intervals for people to drink out of if they get thirsty in the heat.)

Again, the TV was always on.  It was usually on a Christian channel of some kind, with different people preaching, talking, interviewing, or singing.  One time a lady came on, and the father asked me, "Do you know Joyce Myers?"  I said I had heard of her, and he said that they watched her on TV alot and that she was very popular in Egypt.  Another time I was sitting in my room and I heard the father and grandmother saying, "Bush blah blah blah Bush blah blah Bush..."  They were kind of mumbling so I wasn't really sure what they were saying.  But soon the father said, "Come on, Megan--Bush is on TV!"  So I came out and watched a bit, but they had dubbed over him with the voice of an Arabic translator, so I couldn't hear him (they did the same to Joyce Myers).  But it was nice to see him.  Lena DID let me watch a bit of an interview that Condoleeza Rice did when she was here to meet with President Mubarak.  It was in English, so that was a treat for a news junkie like me who doesn't have a TV of her own!

Oh, and I don't think I mentioned it, but about my second day there I started seeing tons of insect bites crop up on my arms and legs.  I figured some were from the mosquitoes along the Nile, but I couldn't tell where the others were coming from.  I had about 30 of them all over me, so I was itching all the time the whole rest of the trip.  The father was really concerned and was trying to get me a doctor's appointment there!  The doctor was not available, which was fine with me....I knew they'd heal soon.  Turns out they were from one of these little jumping spiders who must have gotten in the bed with me one night.  I got some cream for them when I returned to Alex, and they healed fairly quickly.

One quick note on the train ride home and then I'm done with the Minya narrative.  I arrived with only five minutes to spare, and I had no idea which track my train would be on.  The station is small, fortunately, so there were never more than 2 trains there.  I kept trying to get on every one, and every time a new train pulled up I would ask a random person if that was my train, but they kept saying it was the wrong one.  Finally, an hour behind schedule, my train arrived.  I was asking yet another random guy if this was the right train, and he said yes.  Then he looked at me a little closer and said, "I know you--I saw you in the church here.  I'm on this train too...let me help you with your bags."  Wow--I guess there's something to be said for a small town!  Well, he helped me find my seat and put my bags up.  He was only going two stops up, but before he left he asked if there was anything else I needed.  What a nice guy!  My seatmate on the last leg of the trip was another man who was going to the same station in Alex that I was.  So again, he helped me get my bags to the door and off the train.  I cannot thank God enough for these strangers who were so helpful to me!

Minya    Nothing says "small-town charm" like a giant six-armed inflatable person/snowman-type....thing!  Click on the picture to experience the magic of Minya.

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