Saturday, March 28, 2009

The weather's great; wish you were here!

Dear Friends and Family,

I really wanted send you all a postcard from Egypt. Honestly, the pictures that Tracey and I took are much better than the ol' gift shop variety! So, take a deep breath and get ready for this very long photo-driven blog.
Sarah, Tracey and I arrived in Sharm el Sheikh around 6:00 am, Sunday morning. We had been traveling since 2:00 pm, Saturday afternoon. We took a four hour nap, swam laps, ate lunch and then.... hit the beach!
Tracey and I raced back to our room because we had left our snorkel gear there. The coral reef attached to our hotel was amazing! We saw coral more brightly hued than any I saw in Hawaii. I especially fell in love with the purple coral. The fish were abundant and large. My favorite was large and brown with turquoise patterning. (If you want to do some decorating, a coral reef is a great place to start for inspiration!) Tracey spotted an iridescent torpedo looking fish. That was a fascinating one too. All week long we were literally swimming through schools of fish. Very appropriate for three teachers!
I think that it is mandatory for hotels in Sharm el Sheikh to come stocked with very cute, young, single men. These two boys took us out Sunday night, and showed us around Nama Bay. I quickly clued in that they were really sweet talking harmless goons. They were good to get to know, though, because they kept our supply of ice cream coming!

The next day was pretty much like the first. We swam laps, ate, and enjoyed the beach to our hearts' content. The only exception was that we met up with Ahmed, our tour leader who met us at the airport, to plan a Wednesday excursion. We planned a desert safari (more about that later) and Ahmed invited us out to Nama Bay. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe and danced until the wee small hours. Two Swedes, who we had met at the beach, happened to be there too. They were two econ majors set to graduate this spring.

Tracey with our first Ahmed, the tour leader. (Everyone was either named Ahmed or Muhammad. And no need for Jeff Dunham jokes Matthew, Ryan and Stephen!)
Happiness is open water! Sarah and I were working on our synchronized swimming routine. Do you know how many people asked if the two of us are sisters? I don't know either. I lost track. The funniest incidents were at the airport. Every single official asked and we just showed them our passports with smiles on our faces. Chances are a Canadian and an American are NOT sisters.
Sarah rented her snorkel equipment from this guy. She had Tracey and I come back with her so we could see "hot snorkel guy." I still have know idea how I ended up taking a picture with him. Lucky me!

The sun sets over Sharm el Sheikh. Ahhhhhh. It's beautiful. Sarah took this picture perched in our hammocks.
Sarah's favorite restaurant in Tirana is the Lebanese 1,001 Nights. We had Lebanese at our hotel, though I think we all agreed that it wasn't as good as the Lebanese we get in Tirana. What made this experience fun was the goofy outfits we dressed up in. Don't we look adorable in the fez hats? We made this an earlier night since our desert excursion was set to begin at 6:30 in the morning.
My fabulously funny friends! (Don't you love a good alliteration?)

Wednesday was the best. Our excursion plans were to take a desert safari in a jeep, go on a camel ride, snorkel in the Blue Hole, and eat a Baudoin lunch. That is what we planned on doing... We met up with another jeep full of Italian tourists. The two jeeps caravaned to a passport control area that led to the desert. The guard looked at my passport and said, "You are American." I know that. I didn't need to be told. Fifteen minutes passed. The tour guide came back and told us that we couldn't go on because this excursion was listed as Italian. No special arrangements had been made for one American and two Canadians. The American and Canadian governments will not allow their citizens to go out into the Egyptian desert without extra security. Sooooo, we asked to be taken to Ras Muhammad, the underwater national park. It was the luckiest mistake imaginable!
Here we are with our tour guide, preparing to board the boat. He was one lucky stiff too. Instead of heading to the hot sandy desert, he spent the day catching rays with three girls. It's the Egyptian man's dream (or so they say).

The boat made three stops. The first stop was sort of exciting. We saw a giant angel fish and fire coral. The boat was in motion so we had to grab hold of a rope in order to make it back safely. The other stops were great too!
The Red Sea cliffs! It's amazing being in a location of one of the most spectacular Bible stories. I'm really jealous of the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea on dry land and probably got to see all sorts of beautiful fish!
Here we are suited up for our last stop! We should have gone out earlier. Sarah found a string ray that was camouflaged to look like the sand of the sea. There was a sunken box with treasure inside (or so I told myself!). One of the other guides came out with us. He was totally cool and knew a lot about fish.
After 3 stops, sun and a tasty lunch, we returned to port. Another noteworthy point: I met a family from Scotland living in Baku, one of the towns that QSI wanted to send me to. They had 3 lovely girls and they all seemed to have so much fun together. It was refreshing to be around a close family.

Thursday was our last day in Sharm el Sheikh. We spent the last morning in the pool doing our morning laps and on the beach. Ahmed dropped us off at the airport and then stayed with us for a coffee (I had fresh strawberry juice.... yummy!). Then, we were off to Cairo!
We met up with our Cairo tour guide, also called Ahmed, Friday morning. We told him we needed to extend the day because we weren't scheduled to be at the airport until 1:30 am. He happily obliged and the result was literally "Cairo in a Day." Our first stop was the pyramids. We were given so much ancient Egyptian history! I loved it. Tracey, Sarah and I sat around in the Istanbul airport taking notes on all we had learned in Cairo.
Tracey pointed out that this picture can certainly make you appreciate the magnitude of the limestone. The ancient Egyptians floated the limestone up from the Nile once a year when the Nile flooded. I had learned that at one time or another, but being there and touching the limestone is different from textbook learning.

The three of us went inside the smaller pyramid, the pyramid built for the son of the dynasty's founder. It was narrow, dark and suffocating. I don't know how people could have worked inside.
After our visit inside the pyramids, we went to ride camels! I was a little nervous, at first. It wasn't being around the camels, it was being around the men leading the camels. Luckily, Ahmed negotiated everything beautifully. I really liked our guides and felt so safe on the camel.
My camel and I bonded so when the guided asked who wanted to run with their camel, I quickly volunteered. Exhilarating! I loved the thrill of racing along. Next time I want to ride an Arabian horse.
I think I was riding Snoopy. Isn't he cute? He was the best camel of all. I even learned how to "drive" him. I made him stop, go right, left and forward.
Matthew said to hug a camel for him, so I did!
I thought that all camels were as friendly as Snoopy, so when I went to pet this one, I had a shock. This one lunged out and tried to bite my shoulder. That's why I moved far away from this angry animal.
The three pyramids... the three girls. We rode camels through a sand storm as you can sort of see. My hair was caked with layers of sand. Gross.
The Sphinx! The reason his nose was broken off was to prove that he wasn't a god and not worthy of worship.

After the pyramids and Sphinx, we went to a paprys shop and loaded up on art. I got two amazing pieces that I can't wait to frame for my apartment. We went and had lunch on the Nile and then set out for Muhammed Ali's mosque.
Becase the mosque wasn't on the original itinerary, we didn't come prepared with long pants. We learned all about this mosque. It has four different names: The Blue Mosque (because it was modeled after the Blue Mosque in Turkey), The Citadel Mosque, Muhammed Ali's Mosque (who was actually Albanian and was made king of Egypt during the early 1900s. He kissed up to the Sultan in Turkey. Apparently he is the father of modern Cairo and very well respected), and The Alabaster Mosque.
After the mosque, we went to the museum, which was cool. We really rushed through it, though. Next time, I want to properly take my time. Then, we headed off to the Nile for a short and cold boat ride.
Tracey and I freezing on board. Brrrrrr.
We went to the oldest bazarre in Egypt, which was the site of the resent Egyptian explosion. It probably was the safest place to be because of all the extra security! Ahmed's friend, Nana, met us there and we went off for a Boudian dinner under the stars.
Here we are, freezing again, but prepared to enjoy yummy food! The bar-b-que was great and the conversation was awesome. Nana was the first Egyptian girl that we had hung out with. She and Ahmed had gone to college together, so she didn't put up with any of his ego (which was rather large).
They gave us the fire pit which we warmed our hands over. Then, they made tea for us over the stones. By that time, we were ready to head to the hotel to wait for the airport pick up.

Thanks for reading along as I relived the Egyptian holiday. I really did spend a great amount of time thinking about family and friends and wishing that you were along for the ride!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring Day

Newsflash! Yesterday, for the first time ever in Albania, I did not fall on a hike! It was amazing. The curse, hopefully, has lifted and I'll be able to walk like any coordinated human being. Let's hope.

It was a gorgeous day for a hike. The ground was still wet and muddy, but the blossoms were starting to poke out from branches. It was "Spring Day," the Albanian celebration of spring. Government offices are closed tomorrow in honor of the day. I really can't think of a better way to celebrate than to hike and see spring in action. I love hiking because not only do you see the changing seasons, but you get to enjoy people.

Hetty, the computer teacher, was hiking with us for awhile. I asked her what she is doing for spring break. She said she's going to Holland. "How nice, I said, you'll be able to see your kids." Her "kids" are in college. Hetty replied, "Not only them, Holly. I'm going to visit my mother who is turning 85 during spring break. She doesn't get around so well." This got me thinking about my grandfather who turns 81 this year. I shared that Grandpa and Lilly are on a cruise through the Panama Canal. I want to be like him!

A handsome young Albanian man introduced himself to Tracey and me. Tracey asked, "What do you do?" He's what everyone is, who is under the age of 35... a lawyer. He's in business law. Anyhow, as soon as he found out that we're teachers and that we know things, he stopped and waited for other girls to catch up. I think men are intimidated by our intelligence!

Another fun hashing buddy was Hannah. Hannah is in the seventh grade and is one of Tracey's earth science students. She is also a swimmer. Hannah's mom was the long term sub for the 6 year old class, this past fall. If all middle school students were like Hannah, I'd quit elementary school teaching in a flash. (Hannah is a bookworm, so I can relate). I really think that raising children overseas, tends to mature them at a quicker rate than their American peers. The third culture kids I've worked with are so sure of their identity and have such an interesting perspective of "home." Home is family, not a place.

I love spring and the promise of summer. Happy belated Spring Day!
One of my favorite hiking buddies of all... Tracey!

P.S. Sorry to report that I didn't go to the Groom's Party like I had anticipated.... four hours with a drunk landlord did not sound like too much fun! Next year, there will be other weddings to blog about!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

March Madness

I know what you're thinking... two blog postings in one day! This is un-Holly like.

This past week was spirit week at Tirana International School. Monday was pajama day (yay!), Tuesday was movie star day (you should have seen the super heroes in my classroom. I had Batman, Spiderman, Superman and Indiana Jones. I kid you not. Hannah Montana, princesses, and High School Musical characters were also represented.). Wednesday was black day (which wasn't the best day to take my kids to our local pizzaria; they came back covered in flour). Thursday was crazy hair/ mismatched clothes day (this was my favorite! Tommy, who is my student who I have the most stories about, came bursting into the classroom. "Miss DeKorte, said Tommy, you are going to laugh so hard." Then he pointed to his pants. He was wearing his underwear on top of his pants. "My dad, explained Tommy whose dad is a teacher at TIS, is wearing his underwear like this so I wanted to too." I howled with laughter and had tears running down my eyes. I'm so kicking myself that I didn't get a picture.). These days were all leading up to Friday, which was school colors day. In the afternoon the female teachers were set to take on the girl's basketball team followed by the male teachers versus the boy's basketball team. The teachers are the only people that these teams can compete with!

I have to say, I was really nervous. There were 8 of us female teachers playing against 8 girls. We did 4 on 4 since the court is small. The girls knew the rules of the game. None of us teachers really did. It was trial by error. Stephen, who was the ref, kept calling fouls on the teachers. We made him stop and explain every call so we could at least learn what we were doing wrong. Something about waiting to play defense until the girls crossed the line... I fell because a little girl pushed me, but I got called on it and she had a penalty shot. How is that fair? Really, I'm still confused. (In the process I ripped a big hole in my pants, right on my bottom... embarrassing!) Arta sprained her finger, but that was the only real injury. Even though we really never had practice as a team, the teachers played very well as a team. We were great at passing! Our shots need some work, though I did make 3 baskets. It was so fun! The teachers won by 4 points and some of the younger ones (12 year olds) left in tears. Our director is now calling me Da Court. Ha! Helen (one of my swimmers who was guarding me) came up and challenged us to a rematch after spring break. Bring them on again!!!!

Sarah's killer dribbling skills!

Yes, I over-think everything, including the puzzling question, "Who should I throw it into???"
Nice shot by Amy!
Teachers in motion! I love this action shot. Entela was taking pictures with my camera. She was sick this week, so represented the teachers as chief photographer.
I still don't know if Hetty and I were playing basketball or if we were dancing. We'll call this picture "Dutch B-ball."
Go Mrs. Paco! She is the 6 year old teacher who kept the team laughing and light-hearted the entire game.
The second of Tracey's penalty shots that insured a teacher victory!!!
The heckling students...

The male teachers versus the boy's team was also a fun game. The male teachers didn't have many substitutes so they played the entire game. They cracked me up. Our director of curriculum called time at one point, and said, "Hey Flori, I need you to put my finger back in the socket." I could never be a nurse; (my hat is off to you Melinda!) it was so disgusting. Florian popped that finger right back in and Sarah and Tracey used the splinting techniques we had learned at a first aide training. He was out for the rest of the game... Nevertheless, the teachers won that game too! We rock. Our school has a fabulous community feel. Younger students and parents showed up to cheer on the teams. The older students crowded the balconies to boo the teachers (which distracted me horribly during 2 of my penalty shots!). I really do like teaching in this environment.
Jump shot! Our director is VERY tall. The student up against him is only in the 9th grade and matches his heigth.
Wayne sinking the shot! Way to go teachers!

By the way, for the 3rd day in a row I'm listening to blaring Albanian music. Our landlords are celebrating a wedding downstairs. Tracey got us invited to the Sunday night "Groom's dinner." I might have some other cultural event to share by next week!

A Concert

What happens when an opportunity that seems fun and is free arises? You go, of course. Tracey told me on Wednesday that Edit (Berti's girlfriend who has quickly become our friend) sent her a text inviting us to a free salsa concert on Thursday night. Although, I hate staying out late on a school night, it seemed like something I wouldn't want to miss. Thursday night, Tracey, Sarah and I walked over to meet Berti, Edit and Florian. We asked Edit for more concert details. She said that the tickets were distributed from Eagle Mobile, which is the second cell phone company here, and were in celebration of their first year anniversary. The music was supposed to be like "gypsy" music. We ALL were confused by this explanation (Edit heard the information from her cousin). Sarah had had a conversation with an older fellow last week about music. She asked, "Edit, is this going to be like turbo folk?" I looked at Sarah and said, "Turbo folk? What on earth is that?" Sarah said, "Ilir told me that it's taking everything that's bad about music and mixing it together." We laughed at Sarah's explanation and began our short walk to the concert.

Eagle Mobile was handing out yellow long stem roses. There were people there of all ages. I saw two parents of a student (who told me that their daughter cried herself to sleep while I was away last week... that was touching!). We found our seats, which were in the nose bleed section. The first singer to come on was an Albanian girl who was one of the European finalists for European Idol. That girl had a strong set of lungs and was some what enjoyable. Tracey pointed out that the performer had practically no stage presence. Maybe that will come with maturity.

The second act was a man, who I assumed was Turkish, who came up in a white suit. Need I say more. The music started (which was canned) and we had our first taste of turbo folk. It is really difficult to explain. It's like eastern European folk meets east Indian Bollywood (I know I didn't spell that correctly) meets techno/disco. Eeek. The man himself was scary. He said in English, "Give me all your energy, Tirana!" I really don't think Tirana is ready for turbo folk. The little kids in the audience seemed to like him. He really worked them. He literally pulled one little girl (2 or 3 years old) up on stage with him. I kept thinking, as he was saying to her in a creepy voice, "I like you," watch out Michael Jackson, here's someone who could give you a run for your money.

The final act (that we were there for) was a "band." They still had the techno beat in the background, but had a fiddler, a guitarist, and then some strange folk looking instrument that looked like a standing dulcimer. The leader had a tambourine. There were two women who were doing the vocals. This group came from Italy. Sarah and I simultaneously asked, "What is tambourine man on???" He was hopping all over the stage like a mad man, attempting to dance. I liked the fiddler the best, but "like" is a relative term. Finally, Berti looked over at us and said, "Let's go." Thank God! We all walked out and exploded into laughter. What a night. Beware of free.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Whirlwind Warsaw!

Woooosh! That's how I felt about these past 4 days (two of which were spent traveling). I had an amazing time in Warsaw with my swimmers. Wednesday, the day before we left, was suspenseful. Florian, who was supposed to go with us as the other coach, wasn't able to get a visa from the Polish embassy. We kept hoping and wondering.... Wednesday night brought the news that our director would go instead. Thursday morning brought the news that Florian was approved.... Our director, Mark, ended up going, because by then, it was too late. (This was a good thing too since he got to see his daughter swim and he was an excellent tour guide!). I was a little apprehensive because of the rough start to the trip. Luckily, God taught me again not to "worry about tomorrow."

Thursday, we arrived at the luxurious Hyatt Hotel! I must confess that this was the best hotel that I've ever stayed. The bed was the most comfortable that I've slept in since last summer! The breakfast was amazing... omelets, yummy baked goods, fresh fruit salad, roasted tomatoes. When can I move in???? I made use of the underground pool on Friday. To. Die. For. It was like floating in a very well lit cave . One of my new coaching buddies from Budapest was down using the sauna. Wish I could have squeezed the sauna in too!

Friday and Saturday were all day pool events. Think 8:30 am to 5:30 pm. I was so intimidated and nervous by the caliber of swimmers that Warsaw, Budapest and Moscow brought. I tried to hide that from my 10 and really talked to them about swimming for a personal best. We also discussed encouraging each other and cheering each other on. They really listened! (The exception was my 6th grade boy "R" who said to one of the other kids after the 100 IM, "You know D, you're the only one has who disqualified." This was right before D was to swim his 100 meters backstroke... "I said, "You know, R, that wasn't exactly encouraging." R's response, "But it's the truth Miss DeKorte!" Maybe R's comment was just the thing D needed to hear. Not only did he qualify for the finals, but he then went on to get a bronze metal!!!!!!!) Anyhow, back to the point. ALL of the kids swam a personal best in EVERY event that they entered. For anyone who knows swimming at all, this is a miracle. B and D (two of my boys) shaved TWO MINUTES off of their 400 free times! K (one of my girls) took 30 seconds off of her 400 time! We had FIVE kids qualify for finals!!! (Another would have, except he DQed on Saturday during the 100 breast. H, one of my girls, DQed during the 50 fly finals... She was so sad, but I was so proud. She couldn't swim fly when she started on the swim team.) Friday, we were in 4th place out of 7 teams, but moved to 5th place by Saturday. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough strategy. Prague beat us out because the coaches had their girls swim 2 relays... more points. Dumb Holly. You live and learn. Yes, this is my very competitive side that many of you never knew existed. I'm so glad that it was a positive first experience for us all. (One of the Warsaw coaches was shocked that not only was it my first time coaching, and most of the kids' first time on a team, but it was actually the first year that we've had a team at all).

"D" swimming his award winning backstroke!

"B" getting his bronze for 50 meters butterfly.

Socially? I had fun. Friday night, we all went to the director's house for a coaches dinner. The catered dinner was fabulous. The ribs literally fell off the bone. I got to meet a ton of coaches from around Eastern Europe. It was amazing to hear where these people have taught and their life stories (one lady was actually on the Romanian National Swim Team in the early 80s. She was moved from her family when she was only 8 years old.) One of the P.E. teachers from Warsaw was at the dinner. He's also the drama teacher and a Poland native. He kept talking about how two gyms weren't enough for the school. Mark and I started laughing madly. We don't have a gym... or a pool... or a theater. We have Mosher Building. That coach/ drama teacher was a little bit flirtatious. He kept making and holding eye contact with me, but was talking to a group of people. That's always fun. Now, I don't even remember his name....

Saturday, Mark, Linda (from Budapest... the sweetest person ever!), Jeff (Canadian teacher at the Kiev QSI school), Olga (another Kiev teacher) and I walked around the old city center. The architecture was amazing and had charm by night. Mark had been there before so he was able to point out castles and statues of people. He also led us to the best place for hot chocolate outside of San Francisco! Linda and I shared a delicious chocolate crepe stuffed with delicious fresh fruit.
I was trying to get a picture of the cool buildings behind. Night pictures are very tricky. Any suggestions?

Honestly, I don't know what this building is. I just liked the lions, out front, and all of the beautiful lights.
Will I coach again? You had better believe it! This was a draining winter, but so, so worth it. Plus, next year the meet might be in Budapest. Another place to explore!
I finally got a snow day...