Monday, January 7, 2008

The Title to the post below should be "Day two--Reactions"

Day three--Reactions

So first things first, Mom and I needed to get our Egyptian visas, along with the rest of the People to People crowd from our flight. Meanwhile, I was finally in a foreign country, and I wanted to be a good visitor. As I’ve previously mentioned, the People to People handbook had guidelines for women, to help them avoid harassment while in Egypt. These included dressing extra-modestly and not looking men in the eye. I wore a t-shirt and pair of jeans for the flight, so I made sure and had my jacket on afterwards--piece ‘o cake. Not looking men in the eye was going to take practice though, so I decided to start working on that right away.

My plan was to stare at the ground or into the distance when in crowded areas, and to look at only a man’s shoulder if it seemed necessary. If this sounds ridiculous and impossible, you’re right it was--I couldn’t help but look where I was going, and the employees at the airport were all male and obviously not avoiding eye contact with you. Most of these employees gave you big smiles, and a lot even said, “Welcome to Egypt.” So I kept glancing into people’s eyes--thinking, whoops, dang it! . . . not again, dang it!

Also, I consider myself a polite person, so I told the people who welcomed me, thank you, which must have seemed insincere, what with my eyes darting between the ground, their shoulders, and their faces. And I started thinking, this really can’t be right. I especially thought this after I had to have my passport checked by the guys in the booth (right after getting the visa). The younger guy in the second part of the booth brushed my hand as if to get my attention when he gave me my visa back. Of course, he then said, “Welcome to Egypt” with a huge smile. What the crap? If anything, I expected Egyptian men to avoid touching despicable foreign women. I really didn’t know what was going on--yet--okay, so I was clueless about a lot of things for the majority of the trip--I learned a few things eventually . . . I think.

The airport was in Heliopolis and our hotel in Cairo, so next was the first of many Egyptologist-guided bus rides. I normally vacation by personal vehicle, but this was nice, having my hands free to take notes and pictures. Of course, I prefer to drive because I tend to get motion sick as a passenger, but whatever--I don’t actually ever throw-up. My stomach just feels like a rock, and I do my best to ignore it--which was easy. It was about 2 PM on Tuesday, the 27th of November, and I could see mosques, palaces, Arabic billboards, palm trees, statues . . . even the traffic was interesting, a lot of cars had carpet on the dashboards, and I saw three men sharing a small scooter. The Egyptologist kept a running dialogue about life, culture, and everything Egypt--so cool.

Our hotel, the InterContinental Semiramis in Cairo proved beautiful. A small reception awaited our arrival. We were given roses and a hibiscus drink, popular in Egypt, which tasted like how flowers smell (go figure). We explored the hotel, took pictures, and then went to a banquet later that night in the Cleopatra Ballroom. I hesitate even to mention it, but the banquet was a bit of a catastrophe for me. Excited to experience everything, I loaded my plate with a variety of foods and began sampling the native cuisine. Almost immediately I had some sort of reaction to the foods and broke out in hives. A member of the hotel medical staff checked me out. I was given Claritin and told not to eat foods I didn’t recognize anymore.

I was so embarrassed. The People to People staff, our delegation leaders, etc. were all wonderful to me that night and for the next couple of days, asking how I was and all--but truthfully, I’d rather have forgotten it ever happened. I went to bed early that night, and the hives were nonexistent the next morning, making me doubt my sanity. I mean, I’ve had random breakouts in hives, a couple of times before, but the rash usually got a lot worse--in the past I didn’t take antihistamine right away, maybe that was the difference. Still, I was so tired that night; I really didn’t handle it well, ugh . . . moving on. Obviously, I didn’t want to repeat that, so I took the advice about no adventurous eating to heart. I’m afraid I lost 10 pounds over the next two weeks, on a mostly pita bread and meat diet, and my Mom was pretty annoyed with me. Sorry Mom, I know I can be stubborn. Don’t worry; I’m sure I gained the weight back in the first week of Christmas break. Thanks to homemade cookies, my pants all fit very well again (and I’m going to start jogging again).

My next day in Egypt I finally would start visiting the sights, and this would be tons of fun (easily making up for any dietary inconveniences). One last note--I’ll cover day three in another post, but I think I should mention this here--at a meeting the next morning, a woman asked the speaker about the ‘not looking into men’s eyes’ thing. He told us there was nothing wrong with looking into others' eyes in Egypt. He further said, Egyptians love tourists, and, even if a tourist did something culturally offensive, like using one finger to call a waiter, Egyptians would be tolerant of the misunderstanding. As you can imagine, this was a great relief to me (as well as to other confused guests, I’m sure), and I looked into many a smiling face from that moment on.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Egypt Day One and a Half--Still Traveling

I thought flying to Egypt would be unbearable. It’s a lengthy flight, and I hadn’t had much sleep. Truthfully, the flight wasn’t bad at all. I watched part of Mr. Bean’s Holiday--without sound because my ear phone jack wasn’t working--which was fine. I’m not sure sound makes much of a difference with that kind of movie. I cat-napped and missed some action movies, but I’d seen them before, so no worries. I listened to my iPod until it died; its battery’s getting old, so that didn’t kill much time. I got up and wandered the cabin a little because I’d been told it’s a good idea to do such on long flights. Most other people on the flight didn’t bother; I can see why. It’s a little awkward. There’s only so much room in the aisles--forget personal space. And most everyone on the flight was relatively bored, so there were rows and rows of people who can’t help but look at you while you’re up walking--forget keeping a low profile.

Oh well, I got to stretch my legs and chat with a few complete strangers. Some of the conversationalists were fellow ‘People to People’, mostly excited about the trip. However, one lady I talked to was with a different group. They were traveling to Egypt and a few other places on a ‘spiritual journey’. I’m pretty sure I saw her group a couple times, about a week later, in Egyptian temples. The first time, in the innermost sanctum at Luxor, they were standing with their foreheads and fingertips planted against the walls. And the second time, they were sitting on a balcony at Philae with their eyes closed. Well, I hope the lady and her friends found, or someday will find, what they’re looking for.

The only other interesting thing about the flight was my usual game of observing people and trying to figure them out--it’s a writer thing. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered I’m a horrible guesser. Most people on the flight were obviously with ‘People to People’, a small amount of others seemed to be coming back from or going to visit families, and a few were business travelers. One guy seemed different, obviously an American college student--right?--tall, blonde, early twenties, comfortable traveling clothes, his own music, traveling alone. I think I pegged him for being on some kind of personal-adventure trip. I later learned he was with my mom’s math delegation--I never would have guessed. (See 'Camel ride with mathematician/life guard', pic to the left.) I lost at my own stupid game. (It’s okay. I’m pretty sure some Saturday-morning cartoon once said, we can all be winners, if we learn from our mistakes.

So, eventually the plane did land in Egypt, just in case you were wondering. Mom and I got to exit onto the tarmac via stairs, and, unlike New York, the air was soft and warm--the fairytale had only just begun.