Monday, January 7, 2008

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.

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