Friday, January 28, 2011

Embarrassment of Riches

Oxford is a pretty ridiculous place. I knew cerebrally when I got here that it was a prestigious university, had a big library, and had educated a bunch of famous people over the years, but beyond those abstract ideas never really gave the sheer amount of phyiscal goods--from manuscripts to paintings to papyrus scrolls to cuneiform tablets--that the university carefully stores and protects much thought. Now that I've had a chance to experience the tiniest fraction of these riches firsthand, I can say with confidence that the storage of academic material going on at Oxford is something that simply boggles the mind.

(My library at Corpus Christi)

Let's start with the Bodleian Library, which, through the contract created by Thomas Bodley at the library's founding, is entitled to a copy of every single book printed in Britain, ever. Every. Single. One. This means that the Bodleian already has a collection ranging in the millions (most of which are kept either in underground stacks the size of football fields on the outskirts of Oxford or in an abandoned salt mine about 80 miles north of the university) and gets several thousand new titles each and every month. It's incredible to stand in one of the Bodleian's impressive reading rooms and realize that the swarms of books lining the shelves represent a fractional percent of what the library actually holds.

(Part of a whole stack on ancient Mesopotamia, with more waiting in storage - sooo amazing)

So that's pretty impressive, and it's pretty obvious that such a library could easily fulfill the needs of a university even as academic Oxford perfectly well on its own. But here's the thing: I've been at Oxford for nearly 4 weeks now, and have already read several dozen books on my subject, and yet I've not yet once even stepped foot within the Bodleian for academic purposes, and have not called a single book up from that vast salt mine reserve. Because, even more incredibly, the Bodleian is but one library of many on campus; each and every of the university's thirty-something colleges has a library of their own that would probably, in many cases, make your average American liberal arts college swoon, and there are dozens of speciality libraries from the Sackler (my library, specializing in ancient history) to the Social Science to the Law. The sheer numbers of volumes are staggering. And then throw in the fact that a great number of these books are incredibly old and rare, and it suddenly becomes clear that the Oxford library system is like nothing I could have even conceived of before getting here.

(The Sackler may not be the most beautiful on the inside, but its collections are pretty incredible)

(Three volume grammar of Akkadian... not something carried in your average library!)

(Entire shelves worth of middle eastern art books - marry me)

On Wednesday, for example, we went for a tour of St John's College for my Art in Oxford class. After touring the lovely chapel (which, I realized in a wave of nostalgia, was one of the very few places I'd visited with Lynda on my only other visit to Oxford in 2006) we went into the library to look at some manuscripts. Even coming into the experience knowing what I was about to see, I was still blown away. We were allowed to look in on 13th century vellum manuscripts laden with gold leaf and picturing the most fantastic renderings of lions and other beasts I'd ever seen. Then, our librarian pulled out a small leather volume for us to examine; as we were passing it around, he mentioned casually that the book dated from 1463, a mere 13 years after the invention of the printing press. I was holding in my hands one of the oldest printed books on this planet!! Unreal.

(Chillin with some old books - though in this case, 'only' mid-19th century)

From there, we got to see a first edition anatomy book from the 15th century, a first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost (which technically is the 4th edition, but sshhhh... apparently the real 1st edition is very small and boring looking), and a hand-colored printed almanac from the turn of the 17th century. And all the while looking at these few examples, we were standing in the old wing of the library surrounded by literally thousands more equally rare and precious volumes. It was absolutely incredible.

(My carol at Corpus with a morning's worth of books to digest)

In my own library at Corpus Christi, I get to study in early 17th Century study carols (still with their original oak desks) while being watched over by venerable volumes on law, history, and (my favorite so far) The Life and Times of Machiavelli. Excellent. It's very quiet and studious feeling in a way that no place in Stanford has ever felt for me (even the extremely uptight Bender Room, which I both love and hate for it's extreme devotion to noiselessness), and I can't help but feel like a Scholar with a capital 'S' when I'm sitting in one of those carols, looking down on Corpus Christi quad out of my mullioned window and listening to the muffled sounds of organ music coming from the chapel next door.

(The Life and Times of Machiavelli... such a good study companion!)

Now, with my next tutorial coming up on Monday, we'll see if I can write like a Scholar as well as I can feel like one...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Welcome to the NHS

Today I got a rather unexpected change up from my normal routine: a trip to the beautiful John Radcliffe Hospital Emergency Room! There I got to see the wonders of social medicine in action, from complete anonymity (they never once asked for any form of ID - I could have told them my name was Kate Middleton for all they cared) to excruciating waits (though really, that one's certainly not unique to NHS) to mystifyingly unhelpful ultimate care. What a thrill.

So basically, my eye hasn't been getting better, and in fact I've been having more issues like headaches, nausea, and peripheral vision problems recently than I did in the first few days after the incident. This was (and is) rather concerning, and more importantly has been getting in the way of my studying because I've been getting blinding headaches every time I've tried to read. Not promising. So I finally decided to get it checked out. Since the general practitioner couldn't see me until Thursday, I decided to brave the ER.

Now, in general I don't have much to complain about. The wait was actually pretty short for ER standards (in and out in 4.5 hours - crazy!! though 98% of that was waiting room time, whereas in an American ER you usually get a couple hours in each stage) and, honestly, how much can you wheedle about something that was FREE and involved absolutely zero paperwork? Right up until I actually saw my doctor, I was ready to walk out of the place singing the praises of social medicine to the rooftops.

But. The treatment I ultimately received was, in my opinion, ridiculous. I was let into a room where a doctor performed a basic vision test on me that I blatantly failed because I couldn't even see the fingers he was holding up in my peripheral vision, let alone how many. He then briefly ran his finger around my eye socket to confirm that "nothing was broken" (I actually agree that I don't think anything is broken, but how he could legitimately come to that conclusion given the extremely perfunctory nature of his examination I have no idea). When I told him about the incredible headaches and the nausea, he said, "it's just a headache; it's not a big deal," and then went on to explain to me what a bruise was in case I had gotten worried about the startling discoloration going on around my eye. Finally, after about two minutes and no actual diagnosis, he told me that my black eye should go away in about a week and I was free to go. Ummm... what.

Now granted, I knew going into this that there probably wasn't much they could do to help me, but I at least wanted confirmation that I probably have a concussion and the warm fuzzy reassurance that I'm not going to die in my sleep tonight. My symptoms are so obvious, even the triage nurse was like, "you clearly have a concussion," so why could the doctor not even make the smallest gesture towards that diagnosis? Or address the worryingly worsening symptoms? Oh well. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to die, and at least this folly didn't cost me a dime, unlike when I broke my neck and still had to pay the Concord ER for two separate misdiagnoses (thanks, guys).

Hopefully I'll be more up for reading tomorrow, because I've got a lot of work to do this week! Finger crossed =)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Holy Crap, Three Weeks Already

How did that happen?!

Things at Oxford have settled into a nice routine, though the work is only just now starting show a glimmer of the intensity that I've been expecting (and slightly fearing) from the start. I'm going to have my first real tutorial on Monday, after what has seemed like an astounding amount of lead up, and I couldn't be more excited. I am, of course, a tiny bit petrified that my paper is going to be deemed utter rubbish (as the Brits would say) and I'm going to be asked to leave the program... but I'm mostly keeping that at bay. I'm more excited at the prospect of strengthening my writing skills (even if it is at the sacrifice of this first paper) and my ability to argue with conviction, both in writing and orally.

Because, of course, the tutorial meeting is more than just a review of the paper. One of the main features of the tutorial system is the "defense" of one's paper in front of his or her tutor; I've heard that this is often more of a friendly discussion than a heavy-duty interview type situation, but the prospect is still a bit daunting as I've never found verbal arguments to be a strong point of mine. I remember my senior year of high school I was made a finalist for a big scholarship at UNC which required me to fly down to Chapel Hill and sit not only three one-on-one mega high-pressure interviews, but also a fourth even more vomit-inducing panel interview in front of six or seven people. The topics of the interviews were pulled from my written application, which of course in my highly disorganized state I had completely overlooked, and so had not only not written my application with that in mind but had also not even glanced at what I had said since I'd turned the application in months earlier. It turned out I had written a large number of my responses on fisheries. I knew nothing. NOTHING. about fisheries beyond a book I'd read for a project in my environmental science class the spring before. Needless to say, I was a delicate shade of green when I sat down for my first interview that day.

And, just like then, I'm feeling like my depth of knowledge in my current field of study at Oxford is very, very shallow; I honestly know not a drop beyond what I read for this previous paper, and so am not feeling super confident that, if pressed, I'll be able to dig down to a bedrock of knowledge to support my written conclusions. Perhaps if all else fails I'll just subtly shift the conversation to anecdotal stories about certain more dramatic elements of my high school experience; that was what I ended up doing at UNC, and it must have worked because I ended up winning the scholarship, and it certainly wasn't my extensive knowledge of fisheries that got it for me!! I have a distinct impression that that strategy might not fly at Oxford, but you never know...

This coming week is a quiet one in terms of planned extracurricular activities, though I'm super excited at the prospect of playing polo again on Tuesday. Hopefully it will be a good chance to rest up, read up, and let my face return to a more normal shape and color after I was hit in the face with a bottle on Thursday night and got a massive and disfiguring black eye as a result. Add that in with my unplanned evacuation of the entire dorm when I set the fire alarm off while cooking last night, and I'm definitely hoping for a little peace in the coming few days, even if my academic schedule looks more hectic than ever.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

First Paper Submitted! Really This Time

Well I've done it (again). I'm feeling much more apprehensive this time because I'm aware of what I fool I made myself look like last time. It took me about ten minutes after I'd attached the file on my email to him to have the moxie to actually press send. Now let's let the real learning begin =)

Of course, because I've been procrastinating just a *teensy* bit about revising and finishing this paper up over the past week (read into that whatever you like), I had to spend pretty much all day today locked up inside working even though it was by far the finest day we've had at Oxford so far with mild temperatures, bright sun (for England in January), and addictively bluebell skies. Naturally, the previous week when I've been procrastinating and spending copious amounts of time outside, it has been among the greyest and dreariest weather we've had so far. Touché. Apparently even the weather here conspires to punish bad study habits!!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Week Two Complete

Well, another week has flown by at Oxford. This week saw the heating up of classes both at the University and in the Stanford House, the beginning of new social and dining adventures at my affiliate college (Corpus Christi), and more adventures (and misadventures) with dining than I'd like to admit (as my last post enumerated!). I've been getting closer to people in the Stanford House-- something I find difficult naturally-- and have been getting to know some pretty amazing people. I've had my first department meeting, handed in my first tutorial paper (even though I wasn't technically supposed to!!), gone to Ahmed's, and tasted strawberry beer (an experience! Though not one I'd particularly like to try again). In general in other words, there were a lot of things to be really pleased about =)

But there were also some definite low points to the week as well. A fun weekend day trip I'd planned for myself to watch some National Hunt Racing turned tragic when a horse fell at the last fence right in front of the grandstands and ended up having to be put down right there on the field. I was deeply, deeply saddened by this tragedy, and so spent a lot more of the rest of the weekend missing my own horses and feeling very far away from them (a feeling I've been doing a pretty good job of keeping in check so far) than probably was productive. I was so happily surprised though at the compassion and friendship my housemates showed me, staying in with me on Saturday night even when a dance was on, offering me homemade brownies, and watching many hours of Friends reruns with me without complaint. I couldn't help but feel pretty darn lucky. I'm feeling much better now, though I know that I'll never forget that day, and will never not feel saddened by it.

In a serious upside, the past week has had one particularly outstanding characteristic: I've been running! Now, I used to do a fair bit of running in high school (I never made the top 7 in high school cross country but was consistently the first or second JV runner and could hold my own throughout New England in that division, running 5k in the mid-21s in my prime), but had a pretty abysmal senior year season--combining injury, anemia, and a psychotic misogynist coach-- that I was pretty sure would put me off running for life. From November 2006 to a week ago, I've gone on no more than 3 runs. Total. And I can really only remember 2, so the third one might be a dream. I certainly haven't been out of shape, but running simply has not been part of the equation.

Now enter Oxford, where suddenly I've been very far away from my most frequent form of exercise (riding). Feeling already the ominous expansion of my waistline as a result of too many delicious British sweets, not to mention a brain-frying amount of excess energy that I usually spend burning off slowly over the course of a few hours in the barn every day, I realized I had to do something. The Stanford House pretty much directly borders on a lovely (and dead flat) mile and a halfish loop through Christchurch meadow, and I had tennies and shorts, so I decided to give it a try.

And wow, I've actually been enjoying myself again! I've now gone for five runs, twice as many (if we're splitting somewhere between 2 and 3) in a week as in the previous four and change years combined - pretty amazing!! I'm pretty out of shape but not as bad as I'd feared- I can chug around the loop in fifteen minutes or so, and on some days when I'm feeling a little perkier I can push the 20-minute barrier. These sort of wussy time standards are a definite readjustment from high school (where any run under thirty minutes wasn't even considered a workout), but goodness am I having a good time. The running has cleared my head, pumped me full of endorphins on days I was feeling a little more low, and given me better energy already. Plus, I never feel more positive about my riding than I do when I'm running-- something I should definitely remember for the future!! I don't have any real goals but would love to keep working up until I can string together a few miles more comfortably. I've been going every other day but this week hope to upgrade to a 2-on, 1-day-off system. We'll see! And hopefully I can also start playing squash again soon - soooo excited =)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Adventures in Eating

This morning when my alarm went off at 8:30, despite having gotten nearly eight hours of sleep that night and twelve the night before, I reached out to turn it off with the approximate energy and enthusiasm of a recently exhumed corpse. Now, I'm normally a pretty good morning person, and a lie-in until 8:30 with a good bank of sleep behind me usually means (as corny as it sounds) that I'm leaping out of bed to greet the day, or at the very least sitting up alertly in bed for a nice round of internet surfing before heading out (ok, that's probably more accurate). So, when I still felt pretty near death even after three rounds of the snooze, I knew something was up. While I was foggily trying to think out what could be going on, I happened to try to dry-swallow my morning medication (something I do every day), only to discover that my mouth was completely dry. Not only that, I suddenly realized that the inside of my mouth, instead of tasting like nothing or like the fresh mintiness of toothpaste that I had gone to bed with, tasted like... salt. Suddenly, everything became clear.

I'd been salt bombed.

Let me explain further. In these few first weeks of term before Oxford term has really started (we just got our tour of our colleges yesterday - very exciting, but also goes to show how long we've been here before our official college affiliation began!), we've had to deal with our own food, meaning either eating out or cooking for ourselves. While I've gone out t eat a few times, and have actually enjoyed every meal out I've had so far (actually shocking, as my expectations of British food were way low), I've opted to cook the vast majority of my meals myself both because I enjoy cooking and because it's more economical.

(One of my surprisingly good outside dining experiences... nommm)

Now, I think in general that I'm a pretty good cook. I'm not like my brother's girlfriend, who went to culinary school, and I won't be appearing on the next season of Top Chef, but armed with a good recipe or the wish to make one of the very narrow range of pasta sauces that I've learned by heart, and I can usually whip up something pretty good. My one weakness has always been salt: I like salty food a lot, and so my tasting radar for oversalting is, at times, faulty.

Last night, this seriously came back to haunt me. Trying to make teriyaki fried rice, I used teriyaki marinade instead of teriyaki sauce, creating a situation that was not only liquidy and very much NOT sticky and crispy like I was envisioning, but also involved a quickly reducing and increasingly toxic-level salty sauce. I tried tried to eat it, but... wow. It was my biggest failure in years of cooking. Later that night I could literally feel the insides of my cheeks puckering as the salt leeched the moisture out of them. I've literally spent the past day in recovery, drinking as much water as possible and trying to avoid anything with salt in it whatsoever.

But really, other than that one semi-apocalyptic experience, food has actually been one of my favorite things about Oxford so far, which I can honestly say is something that I never in a million years imagined saying. I love having my own kitchen (and since currently I'm the only person in the house that uses my particular kitchen, it really does feel like my own) and actually having time to use it, and when I do eat out the food has been invariably good. I even went to a bangers and mash place that had multiple vegetarian sausage options in addition to their more carnivorous fare, and got to enjoy bright pink rose-infused mashed potatoes that were some of the best I've had in a long while (not to mention portion sizes that kept me full for a day and a half!!).

(For portion reference, when I took this picture, I was half way done. Also, check out the pinkness of those potatoes!!)

I've also had some very nice (if very mild by "authentic" standards) thai food, and more yummy sweets than I can count. If the British can really do one thing well, it's sweet things. If I ate every candy that I thought looked good (and this is from someone who doesn't have a huge natural sweet tooth), I'd have to up my workout regimen just to make sure I could still fit through the door at the end of the quarter!!

(Unrelated awesome photo: seriously badass street entertainer on Cornmarket)

I'm going out to dinner now at a pub for a new angle of classic British fare: pub food. We shall see. . .

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hilarious Essay Update

I got an email from my tutor this morning informing me that I had submitted my paper a week early - whoops! I can say with a good deal of certainty that that is the first time that has ever happened to me. Ever. While it does make me look a bit of a fool, now I get an extra week to actually make it better (and maybe read some more books!!) - super score!

Though still, there was definitely some blushing this morning when I read my tutor's (very polite) email informing me of my error. I hope he can find it amusing as well...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

First Essay: Done!!

Can you believe it?? I sort of can't. 12 hours ago I still had 5 books to get through and not the faintest idea of how to answer my rather open-ended question ("Who Were the Sumerians?"). I've spent all but 2 of those 12 hours either reading, outlining, or writing, and even though I don't really want to leave it this much to the last minute again (the fact that I only got my library card yesterday didn't help), I'm pretty proud to have pulled it all together. Now, that's not to say at all that it's a great paper; in fact, I fully expect for it to get torn apart. But I'm really excited to learn from that tearing apart and become a better scholar in the long run.

What really surprised me the most was how into my research I got. I chose this subject because it genuinely interests me, but admit fully that big dense history texts have a nasty history of putting me straight to sleep no matter how much I cerebrally enjoy what I'm reading about (most old-fashioned art history texts are a prime example). It was with a distinct sense of trepidation, then, that I checked out my first big tome-like books (mostly written in the 1930s or earlier) on Sumerian history today and began to read. So, imagine my delight as I found myself sitting on the actual edge of my seat, eagerly turning the pages of a deeply scholarly discussion about the origin of certain toponyms in early Sumerian language! Maybe I've finally found the subject for me... or maybe, in a more cynical take, the adrenaline of trying to finish this assignment on time was keeping me energized no matter what was thrown in front of me. I guess only the next assignment (which I will complete hopefully a bit more at my leisure) will tell =)

The way my tutorial works, I've now submitted my paper which my tutor will read before our meeting on Friday. This gives me two days to enjoy myself and do my Stanford work without the burden of my essay hanging over my head, which is nice, but also by definition makes the actual essay process a bit more stressful as I will only have from Friday afternoon to Tuesday night each week to complete my assignment. This is a rather different approach from most other tutorials as far as I can gather, and we'll see whether I end up enjoying it or not (not that I have a huge choice!).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

First Week Down

I've made it through my first week in the UK! I've managed to not get hit by cars looking the wrong way when crossing the street (though lordy did I come close a few times early on!!), to sort of learn my way around the heart of Oxford, to figure out the general layout of the Stanford House (wayyy harder than it sounds), and to get my first glimpse of the ever-fascinating and oh so complicated little idiosyncratic bubble that is Oxford University. I won't even begin to claim that I've begun to understand any part of that last item on the list, but I've certainly seen enough to get incredibly excited about the weeks ahead.

(Big Ben!)

I've also met a whole slew of new people. I'll admit, as a fairly reclusive and socially awkward person naturally, this was probably the part of the trip that I've been dreading the most. I came into this program not knowing a single soul, which meant that there would be 45+ first impressions to make (or break) in this crucial first week of term. In general, I think I did ok, though the leftovers of some Egyptian food poisoning over the first few days definitely did not leave me at my sunniest during the first rounds of introductions. Everyone I've met so far is super nice and, as is usually the case with a Stanford student, is not only brilliant but also as thrilled as I am about the possibility of studying here at one of the planet's finest universities. I'm so impressed by my housemate's tutorial subjects, which range from jurisprudence to metaphysics to math, and can't wait to hear more about them as the term progresses.

(Ridiculously quintessential UK photo: red telephone box, Underground sign, two double decker buses, and Parliament with the Union Jack flying high above - awesome!)

Speaking of tutorials, I've had my first meeting with my tutor! We had our preliminary meeting on Friday. My first reaction: overwhelmed. Not the sort of stressed out "dear god I can't do this" overwhelmed that sometimes occurs, but more a sense of being completely blown away by the scope and scale of this place. I was given a tour of the department, from the papyrology lab (where they study ancient papyrus scrolls, of which Oxford has a world-leading collection -- soo randomly amazing) to the multi-story ancient history library where I'll be studying, and was pretty speechless-- after all, Stanford, which I consider (of course) to also be one of the finest universities on this planet, doesn't offer more than a scattering of classes on the ancient Middle East spread over a variety of departments (and none at all in ancient Middle Eastern art). This department represented a concentration of relatively obschure academic knowledge like nothing I'd ever been faced with before.

(Horse sighting!)

Amongst all this wonder and excitement, I did also get my first paper topic. As I'd been warned, it's frighteningly open-ended: "Who Were the Sumerians?" Gulp. I have a whole page of bibliographic sources to consult and digest by Tuesday night (gulp again!) to help me answer this question which I suppose should be comforting, but as my tutor even admitted that, as a first time scholar of ancient history most of my sources would probably be "very difficult," somehow I'm not feeling super confident. But it certainly will be an adventure! I've got to try to unwind my perfectionism a hair, and remember that this is my first paper in a brand new subject in a brand new format for a brand new professor; it's probably not going to be flawless the first time around. But if I dive into it whole-heartedly, I'll certainly have something to improve on going forward!

(Trafalgar Square)

In addition to these academic excitements, I also got to visit London with the group on Saturday (if it weren't obvious from the photos so far!), touring around Westminster Abbey and the Trafalgar Square region. I must admit that it still seems deliciously novel to get to go up to London for a day, growing up with the constant thought that London was a whole ocean and five (or, in California, eight) time zones away. Imagine my delight, then, when a trip to London requires no time changes or overnight flights at all, but simply an hour and change bus ride through immoderately agreeable countryside. How simply marvelous!

London itself was quite good though very cold and grey to start out with; I was pretty miserable until the sun came out in mid-afternoon, but then spent the remainder of my time in the city simply enchanted (for lack of a less corny word) by how lovely the place was when the sun actually chose to shine on it. Since we're so far north the sun can't get all the way down to sidewalk level at this time of year, making the streets glow and flicker with a beautifully transitory play between golden light and purple shadow. After spending the last five days in pretty much unrequited grey weather, it was almost sinfully delightful to feel the odd burst of sunlight on my cheek. What a strange place this is.

(Rare flashes of sunlight)

(The weirdly glowing twilit streets of winter London)

It was another glorious day today and I tried to make the most of it by spending four solid hours either jogging in Christchurch Meadow or walking around with my camera in University Park. Both were exceptionally lovely (though my legs and feet are currently disagreeing with me a bit on the distance I made them cover) and I had a good time testing out my new lens on the flocks of birds at the pond in University Park. Even if it's going to rain for the entire remainder of the quarter (and let's face it, chances are good), at least I'll have some photographic evidence of sun =)

(I got swarmed by a flock of geese when I was a small child and ever since have been somewhat afraid - this is my worst nightmare)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Photos From Egypt

(Gallagher on our first morning on the Nile, with Phila Temple behind)

(Egyptian scale = unbelievable)

(Nile sunsets were unreal, the hazy and pollution-filled skies briefly turning bright orange just before nightfall)

(At Luxor there is a temple right on top of an ancient temple... a very interesting blend of cultures)

(Luxor Temple at night)

(Pa in front of yet another example of "Go Big or Go Home"- mentality Egyptian statuary)

(And again! This time at Karnak Temple in Luxor)

(Cruisin' on the Nile at sunset)

(Ahh yes, the beautiful life)

(Ma and I at Sakkara)

(At the Great Pyramids!!)

(Getting really excited about ancient feats of engineering at the Solar Boat Museum!)

(David in Cairo)

(The family with our man Horus)

(At Hatshepsut's Temple!!)

(Feeling very small at Karnak Temple)

(Holy crap!)

Thoughts on Egypt

Well it's a day later and Mom and I have taken full advantage of our B&B's facilities to get as caught up with sleep and non-Egyptian or cruise food as possible. Now, before we head out to check out Oxford more fully and dive into the adventure at hand, I've had a chance to reflect a little bit more on the trip just behind.

Egypt evoked an immensely complicated group of feelings for me that I'm still struggling to fully understand. On one hand, it was just incredible: sights, sounds, and experiences that simply boggled the mind and overwhelmed me with wonder. I couldn't get over the windswept emptiness of the desert contrasted with the green lushness of the shoreline and the hazy beauty of the Nile. Many of the sites we visited were places that I've studied and spent years pining to see; to actually get to stand before them, understanding on a whole new level the true vastness of scale and expansiveness of the vision that the Egyptians operated under, could not be described as anything less than a dream come true.

Nothing of what we came to see disappointed (with the possible, very reserved exception of Hatshepsut's funerary temple, but that was only because my expectations were so unbelievably high), and even some of the weirder places we visited (like the Egyptian Museum of Cairo--containing all of King Tut's treasure, Narmer's Palette, and over 200,000 other priceless relics--which has the overall appearance of a drafty, unlit cow barn or vast forgotten basement storage facility) were unexpectedly delightful. The paintings and carvings were a feast for the eyes, and the complete temples were a celebration of scale and triumph.

And yet, so many other parts of the experience were so problematic. For all that I knew of it cerebrally, I had never truly understood the poverty of Egypt, or the devastating effects that poverty had on the landscape and on the people. It was heartbreaking to see the Nile canals simply overflowing with garbage and then watch children come down to those very same canals--their only water source-- to gather big jugs of water to bring back to their families.

I thought I had seen poor and struggling farmers in the United States, but they were nothing compared to the vast swaths of people I now saw who couldn't even afford motorized vehicles and relied on donkeys and horses to transport themselves and their goods. As a horse lover this was especially sad, as I couldn't even begin to count the number of emaciated, lame, and miserable creatures I saw, and yet I could hardly blame their owners because it was obvious that there just weren't enough resources to go around. I realized how utterly naive I was to the non-Western world, and to the problems of crushing poverty. It was a realization just as eye-opening as the glory of the pyramids, but not nearly as enjoyably so.

Egypt was also my first taste of patriarchal society, and I cannot say that I enjoyed it very much at all. I don't enjoy chivalry (having doors opened for me, chairs pulled out for me, etc) in the first place, and so you can imagine how I felt with these principles projected onto every facet of life. We had guides who wouldn't even make eye contact with my mother (even though it was she who organized the trip) and would insist on speaking to my father even when he directly told them to defer to her. When my brother's girlfriend got randomly upgraded to business class on one of our hopper flights, the man helping us couldn't stop laughing because a woman would be flying business class-- I swear there were almost tears in his eyes he found the concept so absurdly hilarious. I wouldn't even call myself a feminist exactly, but I found this treatment galling to my very core. Of course, we also met a great number of utterly delightful people as well, so I wouldn't want to paint the entire country in a bad color. There just did seem to be a higher chauvinist ratio than would be found at home.

Despite whatever ambivalence I may have towards certain aspects of what I experienced, I'm still so unbelievably thankful for the opportunity to take this trip at all. The pyramids are some of the oldest tourist attractions in the world, and I definitely felt myself as a part of that tradition while I was there: it was one of those moments where, through this work of art, I felt connected to a vast understanding of the depth of the past, and a clear recognition of the infinity of the future, in ways that very few other experiences can achieve.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I'm in the UK! As could be guessed from my conspicuous dearth of posting of late, we did eventually make it to Egypt, though not until enduring one of the most grueling travel experiences of my life. Egypt was incredible and I'm still trying to digest the experience as a whole. I'm currently zipping through some conspicuously beautiful English countryside in patchy winter sunlight, heading to my new home in Oxford. More soon!