October 22, 2020

Cairo, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Nov. 16, 2008
In late August, Maria Nicholson packed her bags and boarded a plane at Pellston Regional Airport bound for Cairo, Egypt.
Cairo proved to be a shock to Nicholson’s system. Her first blog entry from Egypt reads, “God, what was I saying about needing challenges? Just slap me, will you!”
She gave up everything she knew: her house, her family, her friends and her comfortable life, all to teach high school biology in a school she had never visited.
Nicholson is a former Petoskey High School and North Central Michigan College science educator specializing in biology and human anatomy. She taught in Petoskey for almost 30 years before making her move to Egypt.
In February of this year, Nicholson interviewed for a teaching position in Dubai, but was encouraged to pursue Cairo instead. She accepted a position teaching biology and 10th grade science at the American International School of Egypt.
The last two months have been a whirlwind of adventure and misadventure, but for this Northern Michigan woman, that’s part of the contract.

Ramble On
What would make a teacher with a successful career behind her pack up and move to Egypt?
“I felt I was at a critical point where I needed something else to stimulate me,” she said. “I loved my job teaching anatomy and physiology at NCMC, but needed something more, financially. Since my first overseas experience had been so positive, I thought it might be worth trying again.”
Nicholson’s first experience teaching abroad came during a leave of absence from Petoskey High School in 1988-1990, to teach biology in Berlin, Germany. She believes that her time there made her a significantly better teacher.

Culture Shock
“I must admit, there have been several moments when my eyes brimmed with tears and those tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought about what I was leaving in Petoskey.” Nicholson wrote in her first blog entry after leaving home for Cairo.
“I don’t know why I feel compelled to do things like I’m currently doing. It is as though I must prove something to myself, not anyone else, just myself. I find I constantly struggle to challenge myself to do what is uncomfortable,” she said.
Nicholson’s first few days in Cairo were spent searching for a reasonably priced, yet comfortable apartment.
She was “… looking at what anyone in the U.S. would call a complete dive… plaster falling off, tiny kitchens, small bedrooms and bathrooms that came out of the 1930s. All this at a bargain price of 4,000 – 5,000 LE (about $700-800 per month). I was so discouraged at most of the apartments. I couldn’t bring myself to live in if they paid me $800 per month.”
In spite of some frustration in looking for an apartment, Nicholson found a decent one in Maadi, a part of Cairo full of expatriates. It is a relatively safe part of Cairo and within walking distance of a gym, many stores and also within a 30-minute stroll to the Nile.
“Cairo was supposed to have a low cost of living compared to wages, but I have found that it wasn’t true and that the cost of living has increased at least 26 percent in the past five months here, so my standard of living is significantly less than I expected,” she said.
Nicholson battles unruly traffic on a daily basis, as well as store owners who inflate prices if they think a foreigner is rich. Her Arabic is slowly improving and she is learning to navigate the unmarked streets, but still finds herself frustrated in her new city.

Settling In
Her first few days in Cairo were a whirlwind of settling in, becoming acquainted with the city, her school and fellow teachers and administrators.
Nicholson, who was known by students at Petoskey High School for having high standards for herself and her students, was disappointed when she was shown her classroom for the year.
“It leaves much to be desired,” she said. “I have found that modern technology is relative. Egyptian standards are not U.S. standards. The computers are very old (15+ years) and the classroom looks like it is out of the 1980s… the lab is non-existent, but it is what I have to work with, so I will have to be very creative and energetic to make the IB curriculum ‘happen’ for these seniors so they are prepared for the IB test.”
Though all Nicholson’s classes are taught in English, 98 percent of her students are Egyptian and only two percent are of other origin. She has been unimpressed with their study skills and has been putting in long hours to find a way to teach them effectively.
“I am working harder than I have since my first year of teaching! I think I have given them the correct impression that if they cross me, I’ll squash them like a bug; but if they cooperate, I’ll do my best to really teach them something this year and we’ll get along fine,” she wrote in her blog.

Time to Unwind
In spite of all the trying experiences that have faced Nicholson as she has tried to make Cairo “home,” she has had the chance to experience what she calls some incredible things.
Most weekends, she goes on an outing with her colleagues from school to experience the culture and escape the hustle and bustle of Cairo.
No one could accuse Nicholson of being afraid of adventure. On an excursion earlier this month to Dahab, a resort town on the shores of the Red Sea, Nicholson signed up to ride a camel to a bay to snorkel in what she describes as an exquisite coral reef.
“No matter what anyone tells you, camels are NOT comfortable! But they are superb transportation in the desert. These camels just know the path, exactly where to go, with or without riders. You often see a camel with no rider, packed up and headed in the direction of a dive site, but no one leading, coaxing, or steering.”
Also while in Dahab, Nicholson had the opportunity to climb Mt. Sinai, the mountain on which the biblical character Moses received the Ten Commandments. The climb included 5,000 steps over about eight kilometers. Nicholson made the climb in the dark so that she could watch the sun rise.
“I wished my camera could have captured the parade of lights moving up the mountain forming a winding path that snaked along for the full length of the trek,” she said. “Dim flashlights dotted the landscape and it was like a pilgrimage, ascending to the top…Quite the sight.”
Nicholson has also found plenty to keep her busy during the week in Cairo. Working out has always been at the top of Nicholson’s priority list, so in addition to her trips to the gym she’s signed up for a weekly belly dancing class.
“My hips haven’t shimmied that much since the ‘70s with Jane Fonda!” she wrote in her blog.

On Being a Minority
To be an American in an Arabic country with a Muslim majority has been an eye-opening experience for Nicholson. During her orientation sessions to her school and the country, she had a seminar covering the historical perspective of Egypt from the Arabic viewpoint.
“It seems that Iraq is not such a big deal to them as almost everybody, including Americans, thinks the war there was a mistake and it is obvious to the Arab world that the war no longer has the support from the American people.”
“However, the Israeli issue is a big one and Israel is still not recognized as a country by the Arab world… It certainly makes one think about how incredibly ridiculous people can be about religion as Jews and Arabs share most of their genes and are more genetically related than most Europeans.” she said.
Along with the rest of the Arabic world, the last month in Cairo has been a celebration of Ramadan, the most important holiday on the Muslim calendar. Nicholson has had to adapt to the deafening call to prayer at all hours of the day and night. During Ramadan her students get very little sleep and fast during the day, making for some attention problems in class.

Keeping in Touch
Nicholson’s friends have called her brave, adventurous, energetic and crazy for leaving her comfortable home and life in Northern Michigan.
Her response?
“I’m not,” she said. “This has been very difficult for me, to say the least. I have questioned my decision since I made it, but here I am. I have made many mistakes in my life; some I am still paying for, but I have no regrets for any of those decisions; they have made me who I am. I have been fond of telling students that we are the sum total of our experiences. Perhaps that is part of what drives me… I really want to know myself and experience as much of life as I can.”
Nicholson updates a blog detailing her time in Cairo to keep friends and family up to date on her new life in Cairo.
My blog is pretty personal in many places,” she said. “I open up and whine; although I’m not proud of that, it is who and what I am and experiencing… It is real impressions written as close to the time of the incidents or experiences as possible so that they are true impressions, not bullshit that one filters through rose colored glasses. I’ve tried to include the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly. Again, this is just one opinion and one viewpoint.”
Nicholson said that she occasionally reads back through her journal entries and what she has written to see how her time in Cairo has evolved in her thinking.
“Yes, my perspectives change over time…as they should! As we learn and grow, we always change to some extent. If we didn’t, we would be sorry souls! I am here partly for that reason—to learn new things about Egypt, but mostly about myself. I am doing that. And that is what really matters,” she said.
The blog can be found at http://cairoadventuresmn.blogstream.com.
Nicholson is planning on returning to Petoskey to spend Christmas with her son who will be home from college.
“I so look forward to a comfortable bed… to not being awakened at 4:30 a.m. by the ‘call to prayer,’ to enjoying a Glen’s Market instead of going to four shops just to buy basics and spending two to three hours to do so. Yes, I truly look forward to home,” she said.


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