Archives for posts with tag: Egypt

In 1990, my husband and I went to Egypt for two weeks as part of our honeymoon. It was an amazing trip and some day, I hope to be able to return. There’s a certain amount of stress that comes from traveling in an unknown place, with a different language, and customs. Everywhere we went in Egypt we were greeted on the street, “Welcome to Egypt!”

“How nice,” you might think. And from certain people, regular folks who were just passing by and being friendly, it was nice, to a point. However, imagine that you are greeted this way several times an hour, every hour, for the entire day. And imagine that some of the people are trying to sell you things and they might even follow you down the street for awhile in an attempt to engage you. You get a 45 minute long break on Mondays through Fridays during the television broadcast of edited repeats of the U.S. evening soap opera, Falcon Crest. During that 45 minutes, Cairo commerce shut down.

You might now think this could get pretty exhausting. It was very exhausting. There was no privacy. We already knew that we stuck out as foreigners from a wealthy country. With every, “Welcome to Egypt” we needed to consider whether someone was just being nice or whether someone was trying to engage us in a business transaction. If you’ve ever experienced a culture that takes bargaining an negotiation seriously, you’ll know what I mean. When we learned to ignore shop merchants, it shortened the interaction, but since pretending to ignore a merchant is actually an initial bargaining strategy, there was still an interaction. It was still not clear that we were not biting.

You’re walking down the street, not as an invitation to constant interpersonal engagement, but as a means of transportation. You are walking to get from one place to another. And each time you do this, you are constantly spoken to, sometimes with sincere friendliness and sometimes because someone wants something from you.

Sound familiar?

Last month, a New York based anti-harassment group made a video, using a hidden camera, of a young woman, dressed plainly and speaking to no one, walking on the sidewalks of New York for 10 hours. Men initiated conversation with her constantly. Some of them used polite words, some did not. Some use polite words, impolitely, ‘I told you that you are beautiful. You should say, “thank you.”‘ One man followed the woman for several minutes.

The video was very popular and had millions of views. It inspired the writing of a number of articles in well regarded news outlets. There were responses and comments made by normal citizens such as you and me.

Some of the comments were along the lines of “What’s the big deal? She should take the attention as a compliment.”

On the other end of the spectrum were opinions that men just should not greet unknown women on the street.

I understand both of those positions, really I do. But I find them to be a sad reflection on our culture.

Although I live in Seattle, a major U.S. city, it is one of the smaller ones.  Seattle has a reputation for being polite but not friendly. Some people call this, “the Seattle Freeze”. My neighborhood, in some respects, has the feel of a small city. I’ve never felt “the Seattle Freeze” even though to many people, it is very surprising that I am  native to this area. Many assume that I am from the northeastern part of the U.S. despite my characteristic Northwest regional accent. (We say we don’t have accents here because what we speak is pretty close to standard American English, which is an accent in and of itself, by the way.)

In my neighborhood, I walk around and people smile or say, “hello”. I am often, but not always, the person who initiates the greeting. Most of the people I see are people I don’t know. People are friendly in the grocery store. If they see me choose an item they like, I may hear, “Oh, those are so good!” One day, a woman was so excited that we carried the same brand of practical but cute organizer handbag, Baggalini, that she spoke to me about it’s virtues for about 10 minutes. That was, perhaps, a bit much.

Yesterday, I visited a different neighborhood, Capital Hill. It is a beautiful neighborhood with lively hipster culture. I walked through the business district, a residential area, and in a city park. Two people were friendly when I greeted them, an older woman who was walking home from the grocery store and a middle-aged man who I passed on the stairs on the way down from the top of a historic water tower in the park, which has good views of the area. Everyone else I passed either ignored me, returned my greeting anxiously, or purposely averted their gaze.

I experienced the Seattle Freeze! I was a harmless looking middle aged woman wearing work out clothes and carrying a Baggalini, for goodness sakes! Now it is true that Capital Hill has higher population density than my neighborhood and further, that businesses are mixed in with homes, to a greater degree. There is a lot more car traffic. I don’t know if the crime rate is higher there but it feels like it is, perhaps just due to the more hurried pace there.

I would like to live in a world where exchanging a greeting is just that, an acknowledgement that there are others in the world besides me and that those people might appreciate a “hello” and a smile. We are acknowledging that the other person matters and that we belong. There are places where it is so crowded that this is not possible or desired, at least on the street. It is overwhelming and too much.

Maybe “hello”, “nice weather”, “cute dog” and other comments are trivial. But as we know from research on women’s relationships, the function of having regular discussion of less deep matters (in addition to the majorly deep and important topics we discuss), is important. For women, these discussions help maintain connections and friendships. Few will argue that when it comes to maintaining friendships, women tend to be better at this than are men, as a group.

Most of us have daily opportunities for those pleasant connections. And these connections help maintain ties in a community.

Welcome to the world.

 

My husband and I spent two weeks in Egypt in the summer of 1990. We were on our honeymoon. My husband grew up in a family that did a fair bit of foreign travel. Prior to that summer, I had never been to a non-English speaking country and the only other country I’d visited outside of the U.S. was Canada. (Yes, Canada is bilingual but we only visited the English speaking provinces.) In fact, prior to this trip, I think I’d only traveled by airplane on two prior occasions, at age 18 for a high school trip to New York and at age 22 to accompany John to his father’s funeral in California.

So this was a big adventure. I love art, culture, and travel. I hate, however, not knowing where I am or how to communicate. So going to an Arabic country was a bit of a formidable challenge for me. Also, this was before the Internet so hotel reservations could only be made ahead of time for the expensive hotels, which we could not afford.

We muddled our way through and had a terrific time. Going to Egypt was a risk to me in that it was outside of my comfort zone. We made additional risks in the country. Crossing the street, for example, was a risky adventure. One street was designed for four lanes but was used as if it had eight lanes. And the cars did not put on their headlights at night. And we encountered a number of cab drivers who obviously needed glasses and did not have any. So crossing eight lanes of traffic at night was more than scary.

In that case, the risk turned out okay though it was not a situation we would have planned to have gotten ourselves into. We also found ourselves in situations without transportation a couple of times since we were traveling during the off season when taxis and buses were not as available. We got a ride on the back of a pick up truck in Abu Sur, on the road to Saqqara, the site of the oldest pyramid in the world, designed by the earliest known architect, Imhotep. From Saqqara, we planned to travel to Memphis. However, when we arrived at Saqqara, there were no mini-buses and only one taxi, which was already hired for the day. But the cab driver was nice and asked around to see if someone could give us a ride.

A group of three young Saudi Arabians agreed to take us to Memphis even though it was out of their way. There was a man and two women. I have no idea whether they were related to one another or not. But what John and I immediately gathered is that these young people were treating their vacation to Egypt like American college students who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Woo! Young people gone wild!!!!!!

Now they weren’t drinking or anything but the women were kind of hanging their uncovered heads and torsos out of the windows of a speeding video. They were also singing along to some pop music that was playing in the card. The woman sitting in the front passenger seat turned around to us, pointed at the driver and said, “That is his voice.” I didn’t believe her but tried not to let on but my facial expression must have given me away. So she handed me the cassette tape case and low and behold, the driver’s photo was on the front. At the end of the ride, he gave us the tape and autographed it. The next day, we walked by a music store and a copy of his tape was displayed at the front of the window. We had hitched a ride with a Saudi Arabian pop star!!

Some of our other risks did not turn out so well, however. We met this man, Magad (pronounced “maggot”) who was probably in his late 20’s. He offered to take us around Cairo. John is typically open to these kinds of things and we had already had a good experience on the other part of our honeymoon in Italy, when we met Lorenzo Lampignano, a Canadian who had been born in Italy. Traveling around with Lorenzo was fun and he knew his way around the country. Magad seemed nice and it was WAY harder to get around in Egypt than Italy. (I could speak Italian competently at that time.) So we agreed to have him take us to some mosques the next day.

The mosques were really spectacular. We had a fun day. And he took us to some places we wouldn’t have visited otherwise like the October 1973 War Museum (this war is known elsewhere as the Yom Kippur War). Not only was the name of the war different but the outcome was presented as a victory for Egypt, which is not the prevailing interpretation. It’s kind of a surreal place. There’s a film, “The Road to Victory”. There’s also this huge diorama where the war is re-enacted with plastic planes on fishing line. The final war experience is provided in a 360 degree panoramic painting accompanied by music and rotating seats. It is very similar to the Cyclorama in Atlanta.

Magad told us that he was going to take us to an “Egyptian circus” later that night. And for some reason, the thing didn’t start until some ungodly hour. But hey, an Egyptian circus sounded cool. We didn’t know what to expect but we were sure that it would be delightful experience to remember.

Well it certainly was a night to remember! Due to some translation issues, the circus turned out to be an amusement park with rides one might find at the county fair. Number one, I have a long history of being very uncomfortable with amusement park rides. The fact that these rides were in Cairo made me terror stricken. I can’t speak for now but in 1990 Cairo, let’s just say that it was very clear that safety standards were much different. For example, we were staying at a hotel that had those European style elevator doors that pull out like the door to a house. There were two elevators. One day, we opened one of the doors and were greeted with the sight of an empty elevator shaft. There was no sign on the door or any attempt to secure it so that no one would open it and fall in.

So now do you get my terror? On top of this, the galleon ride (the ride that where the ship swings back and forth in an increasingly wide arc) had been renamed in keeping with the region. And it was labeled in English. I believe it was supposed to be called, “The Flying Carpet,” but it was labeled, “The Flaying Carpet.”

We were in a very awkward situation. Magad had been so excited to bring us there and had even insisted on paying our way. It was also clear given the fact that there were a few couples there still in their wedding clothes that going to this place was a really special treat. And it was the middle of the night. And Magad was our ride. So we went on the Flaying Carpet and prayed. And we went on the octopus. My husband dealt with his own anxiety by making very helpful jokes about how he hoped the hardware on the ride was secure and that the screws were tight.

Okay, there’s another thread of this story that I have neglected to tell you. Magad had been creeping me out some. While we were at the mosques, he’d put his arm around me, for example. This was very confusing to me as (1) men and women did not make physical contact in public and (2) I was a married woman with her husband. I thought maybe we were just having a cultural misunderstanding because I was young and dumb. And John was too busy taking photos to notice that this man was standing right next to me ALL OF THE TIME.

Prior to the “circus” we had visited Magad’s house. He lived with his mother who served us a bunch of stuff that we weren’t supposed to eat. (Another bad risk as we both got sick a few days later.) Magad had also changed into these thin lounge pants and told me that he wanted to read my palm. He asked me to sit on the floor. Then instead of sitting in front of me, he sat behind me, straddling me with his legs. I don’t know how to be delicate about this but it only took me a second to realize that he was going commando and I jumped up like a shot into a standing position saying, “It’s time to go to the circus!” As I’m writing this, I can’t believe we didn’t leave right then and there. We were living in that surreal world of bad decision making. And again, we were young and dumb.

Back to the amusement park. While Magad was paying for the tickets, I took John aside and said, “Hey, I don’t care why this guy is touching me but I don’t want him doing it. Please stay right at my side and between he and I at all times.” In addition to our terror on the rides, there was Magad’s mounting and very visible annoyance at not being able to get his hands on me. John finally insisted that Magad bring us back to our hotel, which he did. And we never saw him again. We learned a valuable lesson, which is that there are creepy people in every culture. We were acting much more trusting there than in our own country due to their incredibly low violent crime rate and the extreme helpfulness and friendliness of the vast majority of Eygptians who we encountered.

So what got me thinking about this trip with its risks some that paid off and others that didn’t? Yesterday, I went to a theme park as part of my daughter’s birthday celebration. It is a water park combined with an amusement park. My daughter loves swimming and is a total thrill seeker. She loves this place. We have taken her there probably five or six times in her life.

I dislike amusement parks. I’ve disliked them even before the Egyptian circus fiasco. They are noisy, chaotic, and the rides are scary. Even parks like Disney Land are somewhat of a trial for me. Although I loved it the first time I was there at age 19 (the craftsmanship of the old rides is awe worthy), the subsequent trips have been decreasingly fun. But as you know, being in a family means doing things that other people like to do, from time to time.

About a week ago, I decided that this trip would be different. I decided to face a couple of fears. I’m just going to write about one of them today and that is my fear of going on roller coasters that are not surrounded by Disney animatronic figures singing cute songs. I’m talking about traditional roller coasters, the ones that are open on both sides. I had never been on one of those, ever.

I don’t need to go on roller coasters to live. And that’s what I have been telling myself all of these years. But it is an irrational fear. In contrast to the amusement park in Cairo, I don’t really worry about the safety of roller coasters. That’s not why I had never been on one. The reason that I’d avoided them for over 40 years is that I hate the idea of feeling scared and out of control on purpose.

I’m not one of those people who won’t go anywhere or experience anything. Naturally, I think I am fairly adventurous. And our family does a lot together. But there has been a slowly but surely growing list of things that I have come to refuse to do because they are out of my comfort zone. I had a chance to swim with manatees. I skipped it. (I was so disappointed with myself that when the park ranger was bringing a snake around for people to touch, I made myself do it even though I am afraid of snakes.) I tried skiing once and quit right away because I was afraid of falling. (Also, seeing the little kid whiz by me who was so young that he had a pacifier in his mouth, was downright demoralizing.) I stopped snorkeling after I had a vertigo sensation while swimming off of the coast of Miami in 1998.

People, this is missing out on fun and I am tired of living like this! I told John my plan to ride the rides and to go on the water park rides. We started off with the easy rides and worked our way up. I told John that I wanted to go on the wooden roller coaster. He said, “Really, it’s pretty scary?” I told him nicely to try to be more supportive so he was. I did it, I went on the roller coaster. And it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, some parts were enjoyable.

Every since I first learned of the existence of the loop de loop roller coaster, I have been adamant that I would NEVER EVER GO ON ONE. And I was pretty satisfied with this decision. But after my traditional roller coaster success, I found myself eying the loop de loop coaster, which at this park is called, “Wild Thing.”

I told John my thoughts. He was incredulous partly because he has avoided ever going on that particular ride. But he was trying really hard to be supportive and had told me how very proud of me he was because he knew how hard it was for me to go on that open roller coaster. I said, “Let’s go on that galleon ride to see if I can handle the arc and if I can do that, I want to go on the roller coaster again to see if I can do it with my eyes open this time.”

We went on the galleon ride, which I thought was pretty easy. But easy for me was queasy for my hubby. The first thing I noticed was that the part of my arm that had rested against his was totally wet with his sweat. He told me that he felt sick. I decided to go on the roller coaster myself and see how he felt afterwards. By this time, I had my plan and I was going through the steps. (In psychology land, this strategy is called “systematic desensitization”, by the way, as I have noted in past posts.)

I was able to go on the roller coaster with my eyes open, no sweat. And it was fun. John felt better so we walked over to “Wild Thing”. It did not make my heart sing or make everything groovy. It put my heart in my throat. No singing was going to occur unless screaming is someone’s idea of singing. But I was determined as was my husband who later told me that he overcame his own fear for me. (Actually, what he said was that he would never be able to live it down if I went on that ride and he didn’t but I prefer the more heroic version of the story because John was so very sweet to me yesterday.)

I did it! I did it! I went on that loop de loop roller coaster, all six loops! And yes, I screamed pretty much non stop. And yes, my eyes were closed most of the time. But I did it! I conquered that fear and it felt awesome!

One of the hardest things about being a naturally anxious person is worrying about the right things. I worried too much about being able to get around in a foreign country and about offending an Egyptian man that I dismissed my own gut feelings about real potential dangers. On the other hand, I have worried too much about getting scared in situations that I knew were actually safe.

I didn’t previously see the value in getting over my fears just to know that I could. I will probably never be a big fan of amusement parks but I had fun yesterday and that means something. But I suspect that this experience and the other ways in which I have been challenging myself, will help me do some of the things that I really have wanted to learn how to do but have been too careful to try.

Maybe you will see me on the slopes this winter with the people I love and in the mountains that fill me with peace and wonder.

Cairo. This boy was so friendly. He wanted his photo taken thinking that we had a polaroid camera and could give him a copy.

Cairo. This boy was so friendly. He wanted his photo taken thinking that we had a polaroid camera and could give him a copy.

Bazaar District, Cairo

Bazaar District, Cairo

Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo

Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo

Karnak

Karnak

Cairo

Cairo

View of the Nile. I think this was taken from our hotel room in Luxor, which was the setting for Agatha Cristie's, Death on the Nile. Alternatively, it could be the view from our hotel in Aswan.

View of the Nile. I think this was taken from our hotel room in Luxor, which was the setting for Agatha Cristie’s, Death on the Nile. Alternatively, it could be the view from our hotel in Aswan.

Abu Simbel. This is part of the Temple of Ramses II that was moved by UNESCO as it would have been submerged under water by the Aswan Dam. Abu Simbel is located near the Sudanese border. We were there in AUGUST. It was beyond incredibly hot but so beautiful.

Abu Simbel. This is part of the Temple of Ramses II that was moved by UNESCO as it would have been submerged under water by the Aswan Dam. Abu Simbel is located near the Sudanese border. We were there in AUGUST. It was beyond incredibly hot but so beautiful.

Road to Saqqara in Abu Sur.

Road to Saqqara in Abu Sur.

West Thebes. I think this is a detail from the Temple of Hatshepsut.

West Thebes. I think this is a detail from the Temple of Hatshepsut.

The Wild Thing. I rode it on 9/1/13 and my heart's still beating.

The Wild Thing. I rode it on 9/1/13 and my heart’s still beating.

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