culture

7 Shanghai reasons

Shanghai

As part of its academic curriculum, Hult offers its students to rotate (twice) between its campuses. The possibilities are New York, Boston, San Francisco, Dubai, London or Shanghai. From the start, I knew I would rotate to Shanghai and stay there until the end of the academic year in August. I only rotate once because  I find two months (one rotation) not enough to truly discover and enjoy a city. By the time you have set yourself up properly, you would need to move again. The limited time I would have in a city would make me feel as a tourist. I enjoy throwing my life around from time to time, but I also need stability in the tumult, and living for at least four months in Shanghai would give me enough time to set up my own rhythm and routine.

Those that know me would understand how ultra-excited I am for moving to Shanghai. But to make that excitement slightly more concrete (instead of omg omg omg, I’m moving to Shanghai woooh), I came up with a list of 7 reasons why I cannot wait to move to Shanghai:
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House of Spirituality / Web of Life

Spirituality is a house with many rooms, each of a different religion. Some rooms are larger than others, some have more books, some have more valuable objects. Some rooms exude tranquility, other rooms are dark and feel oppressive. Everyone walks in the house of spirituality, with many staying in one room for most of their lives. I prefer to walk around and see what the house has to offer. Is it not a good idea to explore this house and understand it better? I have explored Christianity, the Islam and even Scientology and have come to what I now consider an obvious conclusion: there is truth in every religion and, more often than not, many religions have a common foundation. Respect for each other and for yourself plays a very big role in many, if not all, of the major religions. Do not kill, do not steal, be good to your parents, pray for God and cultivate your growth personally and spiritually. Give love and embrace love. These are returning values in many religions. Religious institutions often argue/quibble over which God is the true God, or which Book truly embraces the true religion, but could it not be that God is both Jahweh, Jehovah, Allah, and Buddha? If one is a true disciple of faith, what does it matter what religious institutions say? And if every religion offers a different and interesting angle on life, is it not worth investing some time in all of them and form your own opinion on them? I believe exploring every religion makes one a better person, more in tune with and with a higher tolerance towards any religion. Frankly, it makes one a more spiritual person.
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Train mirror

What did I expect for seventy Egyptian pounds? Safety? Airco? Foreigners? No, I was all alone with all my luggage in a train not actually meant for foreigners. Foreigner train cost much more, so I had asked an Egyptian to buy me an “Egyptian ticket”. Accordingly, no one spoke English in the Egyptian train and the stares I received for breaking the unwritten apartheid rule made me feel like a criminal. The trip back from Luxor to Alexandria would take thirteen hours, which in hindsight, was much better than the 24-hour bus drive from Aswan to Alexandria my fellow interns had to endure. Yes, I had been sent back earlier by aiesec Alexandria for conflicting interests and would miss Aswan. I was angry, although I am grateful for the train trip experience.

So there I was, my luggage somewhat hidden a few seats away and me in my seat, which surprisingly had enough leg room. I was determined not to move for thirteen hours and sheepishly observed my surroundings, wiggling my eyebrows at the little children that were watching me a few seats further. They all had shoes that squeaked with every step and it did not take me too long to decide that whoever invented those shoes should be thrown in jail for violations against the human ear. Apart from that, the lack of airco and the fact that I was in Luxor at noon had me sweating from the very first minute. There were not many people in the wagon yet, although every stop until Cairo would bring more people. The train rattled itself into motion somewhat over twelve at noon and the nature of the Nile accompanied us as we went north. During the entire trip, through the rattling and the squeaking, I gave my mind a blank canvas to paint whatever it wanted. Whether through sleep or through staring out of the window, it painted a subconscious, yet vivid and colourful picture of what had been my trip so far. The yellow of the sun and the sand was used to paint the ancient architecture of the Giza Pyramids, of the Temple of Hatshepsut, of the Colossi of Memnon. Fine lines of green through the yellow illustrated the nature along the Nile and the Al-Azhar park in Cairo, where a single dot of the deepest red showed the first kiss, strangely familiar under the full moon. Blue depicted the Nile, the sea and the sky, the balloon trip over Luxor and snorkling in the Red Sea. In a corner, confused lines of all colours showed the word “Hurghada”. The painting was cluttered with dots of all sizes and colours, some only slightly visible, some big and thick, representing the people on the trip. It all made for an unusual image that certainly drew attention and was very satisfying to look at. But the painting was not finished yet, as even the train drive would add a few colours to it:

One of the windows shattered in a thousand pieces, showering empty seats and the walkway with sharp glass. Instead of gasps and cries, the Egyptians started cheering and clapping. Indeed, when I felt the refreshingly cool air filling the otherwise sweltering wagon, I could not help but smile myself as well. Apparently, the window had not been able to withstand the pressure from the sudden gust of wind the train coming from the opposite direction had brought forth. For the following hours, the soft crunch of shoe on glass would add to the wagon’s music.

“Do you have wife?” my neighbour asked in broken English. He was the first man sitting next to me that could somehow speak and understand a few words of English. I shook my head at his question.
“Girlfriend?”
“Not even a girlfriend, no.”
The man nodded in contentment. “I have very good daughter, twenty year, very good, give me your address.” He pointed at the pen and paper I was holding. I couldn’t believe my ears and laughed inwardly, although I shouldn’t have, as it is a sad thing when a father almost instantly offers you his daughter on the sole premise of you being a foreigner. I ripped off a piece of paper and wrote down a fake address in Ghent, as well as a false surname. In turn, the man wrote down his address and told me to write him when I returned to Belgium.  Soon after, he thanked me and stepped off. Yes, I felt guilty, but what should I have done? The risk of he and his family showing up in front of my door was very minimal, I admit, but European prudency kept me from actually giving my real address.

The thirteen hours of watching Egyptians living their true life, unchanged and true, was a mirror reflecting true Egypt. It showed me anger, violence, poverty and danger. It showed me a people with a passionate fire burning in their heart, a fire long forgotten in Europe. The fire gives them the willpower to fast in the scourching heat, it gives them the strength to fight and give their lives for a cause, it gives them the generosity to hand out a free olive to everyone in the train when the sun goes down. The train mirror might have shown a country full of potential, but too many cracks were scarring its reflection to be certain of that.

Only sand, except for Siwa

Siwa is a small community of some 25.000 people. It is a village built around an oasis in the Sahara desert, only 120 km away from the Libyan border and quite isolated from pretty much everything in Egypt. Our guide Yussef, a son of one of the eleven Sheikhs that rule Siwa and a pretty big deal in town, explained that Siwa’s isolation made it have its own culture, which is something one quickly notices when walking around. For one, the people in Siwa are Muslim but do not rigorously practice their religion. They drink, smoke, joke about Ramadan and pray much less than regular Egyptians. Women here are completely veiled, even their eyes, which is a strange thing to see, but that is more because of culture rather than religion. One would suspect a small village far away from civilization to be much more conservative, but that is not the case in Siwa, where they are surprisingly liberal, giving everyone the freedom to dress and act in their own personal way. Also, something that came a massive relief for yours truly: Siwan time means on time, which is very different from Egyptian time, where being two hours late is custom.

Day one:
Monday morning, 9AM at the bus station of Alexandria. A few interns and I had decided to finish our six-week stay in Egypt with a three-day trip to Siwa. We were on time for the 9AM bus and mucked around until the bus arrived at 9.45. We slept on the way to Matrouh, a city some 300 km west of Alexandria where we ate the absolute best foul and falafel for just one meagre pound per sandwich, changed buses and drove for another four hours to Siwa, where our guide Yussef picked us up. In two 4×4’s, he and his friend drove us to our hotel, “Dream Lodge”. As it was only 25 pounds per night (some €3), we expected it to be dirty, small and generally not an agreeable place to stay. This is how it looked like:

Dream lodge Dream Lodge 2 Dream Lodge 3

Being such an incredibly beautiful place, the hotel defied everyone’s expectations. The rooms were large and clean and there was a swimming pool and a stunning garden. We were all quite exstatic and took advantage of the garden and shower for a small hour before Yussef drove us to an idyllic paradise of palm trees and sand with a stunning view of the lake. We relaxed, drank fresh juice and watched the sun drown in the lake. Afterwards, we went to the town’s restaurant, which was owned by a friend of Yussef. It was quite cheap and the food was very good. To finish off the evening, Yussef and his friends drove us to a place in the desert where we sat around a bonfire, made music, smoked and drank, covered by a blanket of the brightest stars.

Bedouins singing

Day two:
Dead Mountain

We are standing on the highest point of Siwa. The green of life is followed by the yellowy white of sand. How life thrives with that blue drop, how quickly it dies without. It is midday and we are all standing on what is called the Dead Mountain, a mountain perforated by many ancient Egyptian tombs, some of which were very significant discoveries, with mummies and treasures. We take our time for some panoramic pictures, me with my Xperia Arc S smartphone, the others with professional cameras, sip some tea in front of the mountain, return to the hotel, where I went for a refreshing swim, and start the focal point of our Siwa trip: an SUV tour through the desert.

SUV tour

I hang out of the open window of our SUV, deflated tires. Sand is stinging my face as we race through the desert, 100 km/h. The sand dune in front of us grows at an alarming pace, I imagine it opening its mouth and swallowing us, like one of the sand worms in the Dune novels. But no, we swoop on top of the dune and suddenly stop before a seemingly impossible descent. Yussef grins, gives gas and we scoot down the hill. We race like this for over an hour before stopping on a big dune.

Pictures
Pictures
Pictures
“Thomas” written in sand, immortalized until the wind blows me away.

Lake desert

Above picture shows our next stop. A lake in the middle of nowhere, where we swam between little tadpoles. It seemed so unreal swimming while surrounded by rough sand, harsh desert. I swam to the other side, spoke Italian with another small group of people that was there and got scared of a little scarab beetle that I thought was chasing me. Before long, we left for our next adventure, which was something I quite enjoyed: sandboarding. The same concept as snowboarding, except you do it from a sand dune and cannot turn, or at least I couldn’t. Very enjoyable and a good workout running back up the hill with the sandboard. The hill offered a good view of yet another stunning sunset, after which we moved to a valley between sand dunes, where we would eat and spend the night. Yussef and his friends prepared grilled chicken with rice and potatoes, something that tasted like heaven after a day full of gritty sand. Peace and quiet, everyone satisfied. To finish the evening, we left our stuff at our sleeping place and drove to a hot spring that relaxed everyone’s tense muscles for an hour. We drove back and prepared ourselves to go to sleep. There were so many shooting stars that I ran out of wishes, although my primary wish was lying next to me.

Day three:
We woke up at around 8.30 and ate a quick breakfast before turning back to Siwa. On our way back, we had to drive through a protest, which was something unsual for Siwa, as Yussef told me Siwans did not generally care about Egypt’s situation. They were shouting “Get out, Sisi” as well, which struck me as particularly strange. I had never expected pro-Morsi protestants here. We quickly heard about the army cracking down the protest camps in Cairo, resulting in hundreds of deaths and chaos throughout the entire country. Public transport was nonexistent either, which was a problem for a few people on our trip, including me, that had to catch their flights. Luckily, Yussef could arrange a car for the people with urgent flights. It would drive us to El-Alamein, where someone else would drive us back to Alexandria. Four of us left, the others were stuck in paradise. On our way back, we got stopped multiple times by soldiers that searched our luggage and asked for our passports. Twice, we were being held under gunpoint by a stationary machine gun. We also saw a gigantic plume of smoke over Matrouh, blackening the air, blocking the sun.

Women

The man slapped her in the face with the back of his hand. She fell on the ground, her nose bleeding, shouting shouting. A younger woman was wildly gesturing and yelling at the man with one hand while holding a baby in the other. Cars were slowing down, people were getting out, a traffic jam was created on the Corniche, but most seemed to hesitate in separating the couple. It was only when the man took the woman by her hair and started dragging her along the street that some male Egyptians interfered. Even still, no one seemed to truly separate the couple, and the woman charged at the man a few times, trying to hit and scratch him. The situation escalated when the fight moved from the pavement to the Corniche itself, where cars had to zigzag around the couple. At one point, the woman turned around and tried to throw herself in front of a car. The car avoided the suicidal attempt with a violent swerve. After more shouting and fighting, both seemed to calm down and stepped into a microbus along with the younger woman and the baby. In the microbus, the man gave the woman a kiss on the forehead.

This drama had unfolded a few metres next to us. I had felt a strong urge to intervene, but knew that would only have added fuel to the fire. The Egyptians had allowed the incident to drag on for too long because this was a married couple, and it is an unwritten cultural rule not to come in between a marital fight. The woman had disrespected her man in one ridiculous way or another, which had given him an apparently legitimate reason to strike her. Cultural differences are hardly up for comparison, as they are almost never black or white rather than shades of grey, but this is an exception. If striking a women is somewhat embedded in a culture, it is a sign of a lesser civilization. Most of us were quite shocked by this incident, but more because it happened out on the streets and because of its intensity rather than because it happened in the first place. Sexual discrimination is still a very real thing, in Egypt and worldwide, and it is absolutely disgusting. Women are delicate, intelligent, beautiful, soft and always right. They often stand a few steps higher on the moral ladder, judge people by personality rather than looks and show patience where men would already fume with impatience. With an amazing amount of compassion and boundless love, they tend to the weak, poor and old, stick to their husbands and raise their children. No man that strikes his wife can be happy. A man that uses brute force to abuse a woman is an empty shell. Women are admirable and should be loved at all times, especially one’s mother. Show gratitude to your mother more often than you do, she deserves it. I love you mama.

Egyptian turmoil

Suddenly, Ahmed pressed the gas pedal. The car accelerated so quickly I could only catch a glimpse of what seemed to be a police officer fighting a man and several people running. Traffic had seemed completely stuck, but now everything was moving. Ahmed skilfully zigzagged the car through traffic and we were out of sight before I even fully realized what had happened. The true danger of such incidents is not the incident itself, but the panic it can cause. Even a simple brawl like this would erupt into a panic that made it seem as if something far worse had happened. Apart from this one incident, the protests that had caused massive traffic jams in Alexandria, had been largely peaceful. People were celebrating the 48 hour ultimatum the army had given Mr. Morsi. Within a few hours, Mr. Morsi would have to resign, or the army would take over the power, would stage a coup. That is what almost every Egyptian believed, but it was not true. The army would not force Mr. Morsi to resign, it even explicitly said it would not stage a coup. It would only intervene in the political process from which it had been largely absent since Mr. Morsi took office a year ago. And since the Egyptian army is sponsored by the US, pressure would certainly be coming from that side not to take over a democratically chosen government. In my opinion, the statement from the army to intervene in this turmoil has given the Egyptian people an incredibly dangerous false hope. The Egyptian people expect Mr. Morsi to resign. If he does not do so before the army’s ultimatum, this situation might escalate for the worse, so I thoroughly hope he does resign.

Yet what would happen after his resignation remains a mystery. During the transit year between Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Morsi, the army did a horrible job at governing the country, so they will probably refrain from such a disaster a second time. Now who would govern? Elections would take months to organize, after which Egypt would go through yet another transit period. The Egyptian people want Mr. Morsi to be gone, so the country would prosper again, but throwing him over does not necessarily mean sudden and massive improvement. Economic conditions will not improve, nor will the fuel shortage or the diminishing wheat supplies. In fact, revolutions such as this hold back the tourists Egypt quite desperately depends on. The Egyptians are absolutely right in protesting and showing their discontent, but they should respect their own democratically chosen president by giving him his chosen four years and instead telling the president the change they want, while also realizing changes take time. Why would the president not want the best for his country? Which president would want his country worse off than before his term? If he is incompetent, give a viable solution instead of throwing him over and sending the country into worse, yet perhaps less visible chaos. This is just what I think and I am willing to explain further to anyone that asks.

Right now, no AIESEC intern is allowed to leave the place where he or she is staying, so I am sitting alone in the hostel where I will be spending a second night tonight, since the host family where I was supposed to stay is not in Alexandria yet. I have a very basic room with three beds that each have a mattress and pillow so hard I seriously considered sleeping on the floor, but with an absolutely amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea that makes up for everything. As I lean over my balcony and watch the Corniche, the main highway of Alexandria, I see men, women and children of all ages out on the streets with Egyptians flags and the symbolic red cards. I hear shouting, firework, whistling and of course, car engines and car horns. Egyptians are really skilled drivers and they have to be, as everyone drives as a madman around here. They communicate with their horns extensively. I managed to decipher that one horn means “I’m coming on your left”, while two horns means “I’m coming on your right”. Two long horns and three short ones means “We want Morsi gone”. I have not yet deciphered the insults, but I am quite sure they exist. Some cars even have a device that makes a police sound so they can pass quicker through traffic, but Ismail told me true Egyptians know the difference between a fake and a real police sound.

As I watch the people below and listen to this cacophony of sound that forms a city’s voice, I cannot help but think that the festive atmosphere that was in the city last night seems to have subtly changed for one where anger and anxiety is bubbling underneath the surface. Maybe it’s just me.