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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cross-cultural travel, day 1

Traveling makes me realize how much I miss Uganda, which has become rather normal.  So when we land in Egypt, we're not just struck with how not-America this place is, but also how not-Uganda.  Yes, it is technically Africa.  But among the thousands of tourists milling about airports and pyramids and buses and shops and museums, I saw precisely 8 dark-skinned sub-Saharan-appearing people. Which is rather unsettling.  Indians, Koreans, Chinese, French, Germans, Australians, Americans, British, Greeks, Brazilian, and who-knows-what else . . .but not the people we're used to. And not the wildness, the lush greenness, the bustle and no-personal-space community of the Africa we know.

So some random thoughts and impressions, saving the serious for later.

A proposed index to replace the awkward "developed" vs. "developing" world labels.  Is toilet paper a luxury?  If TP is a given in your life, you know you are not in the places we usually frequent.  BYOTP is the rule for travel.

MAF flights (the small missionary-planes that take us from our grass airstrip) and Egypt Air have this in common: they start their flights with prayer.  BEFORE the safety briefing, the videos showed pictures of a mosque and a lovely flowing prayer complete with subtitles in Arabic.  Appreciate the acknowledgement of the spiritual.  Followed by an advertisement showing a happy Egyptian family munching away on Kentucky Fried Chicken, the familiar colonel's red logo on the white cardboard bucket of chicken the only recognizable element in the entire pre-flight brief.  Who knew that Egyptians favored KFC?

Security was tight I suppose, metal detectors abound.  But as I glanced around the gate I thought that EVERYONE sitting there would probably fit some sort of profile for increased surveillance in an American airport.  Which is in reality probably the safest way to fly.

Upon landing in Cairo the tour operator whom the Massos hired (great planning by Karen) dropped our family and Acacia at a bus stop to find our way to Sinai, which was not included in the pre-packaged deals. So our first encounter with the country outside of the ultra-modern spiffily-clean air-conditioned airport was a litter-strewn curb-side noon-heat bus stop, blazing sun, blowing horns, vendors, veiled ladies sitting discreetly on the missing-slats wooden bench, young men hawking packs of toilet paper (BYOTP) and cigarrettes, unintelligible anything.  But our first encounter with a real Egyptian was wonderful.  An old man took a liking to Jack (they always do, he's the kind of solid all-boy kid that old people like) and tried to strike up a conversation with us, in which we learned that he had been to New York.  That's about as far as we got.  As he and his buddy and everyone else in the country chain-smoked, we watched buses come and go, and smiled a lot, and tried to strike the right balance between not dying of dehydration and not having to go to the bathroom for 8 hours on the upcoming trip.

The bus had seen better days, maybe a couple of decades back.  Grimy windows that cracked open to provide the advertised "air conditioning".  We pulled out of Cairo, and into the dessert.  And more dessert.  Brown.  Brown.  And more brown.  The road runs east to the Suez Canal, which is traversed by a tunnel, and then south along the coast of the Gulf of Suez, a branch of the Red Sea.  Which is sparking turquoise, exquisite, in contrast to the harsh sand-blown rock and dust.  We tried to watch other travelers to figure out bus culture.  There was a rest stop after some hours, but even then we were afraid to get off for a while, lest we be stranded in the dessert.

Most of Egypt looks like it is in a state of construction or destruction, and it is hard to tell which.  Apartments rise from the brown bleak earth, looking just as brown and bleak (84 million people have to live in a narrow strip along the NIle and the major roads).  Almost every building has steel girders sticking out of the roof, as if another story is about to be added, or a bomb ripped a story off.  We read that an unfinished building is not subject to taxation, so almost ALL buildings are left unfinished.  No precious water is wasted on landscaping, flowers, bushes, or grass.  I wonder if the homes are like the women--presenting a face of dull uniformity to the world, veiled, colorless,  .. . . but underneath or inside a treasure of beauty.

Wind.  Trash.  Trash blowing in the wind.

Police.  Everywhere.  They stop the bus and examine tickets, ID's , our passports.  It's not they type of bus where Americans are very frequent I suspect.  There are cement road blocks at regular intervals.  The further we get into the Sinai peninsula, the more likely these are to have a machine gun poking out of a concrete bunker, watching the road.  Our bus is mostly full of young men, who sleep a lot.  Until at the last major town the last matronly robed veiled women get off.  Then they perk up, make jokes with each other, pass up and down the aisles, are loud and raucous as young men anywhere.  Some are in green fatigues, and others go to the back of the bus to change into theirs.  They stare at Julia and Acacia, who are oblivious.  I guess that besides touring Mt. Sinai or the coast, the only reason to be going where we're headed is if you are a soldier.

Just before sunset we reach a ravine with some palm trees, camels, donkeys, low houses made of stacked stone.  The soldiers disembark at a military camp.  Then a few kilometers later we see signs.  St. Catherine's Monastery, our destination.  After a day of heat and dust and no food and little to drink, the monastery guest house looks heavenly, with simple clean rooms and spectacular showers.  And the toilet paper is included!


Tricia said...

"I wonder if the homes are like the women--presenting a face of dull uniformity to the world, veiled, colorless, .. . . but underneath or inside a treasure of beauty." Such a beautiful way of looking at people. Praying for you on your trip.

Anonymous said...

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