Category Archives: Travel Stories

Not the Egypt They Knew: Experiences of an American Expat During the Arab Spring

    

They encountered a group of men who were armed with large sticks, and not smiling...

They encountered a group of men who were armed with large sticks, and not smiling…

In the early spring of 2011, I was visiting Cairo. I I flew out on a Saturday, and I remember one of the oil men at the expat club saying that they had been warned not to go out on Tuesday, Police Day. I mentioned this to Ahmed, the guide whom my friend Leyla and I have employed for years, and he said, in his sing-song English, “Well that is ridiculous Leni” (he calls me by my nickname “Leni”).

     The following Tuesday the demonstrations of the Arab Spring began!

     My friend Bev was working at that time as a teacher in an expensive private school in Maadi, an upscale area of Cairo. Her husband worked at another school, one which was American-owned.

     Part of Maadi was filled with expats working in Cairo, and on the other side of the Metro line lived omfortably-off Egyptians. On weekday mornings a van from the school would pick up teachers and students who lived in Maadi. Then the demonstrations started, and internet and some phone lines stopped working.

     I was quite worried, and about that time I frantically e-mailed my friend Leyla, a belly dance instructor who had been to Egypt many times, “I haven’t heard from the friends I stayed with since the 26th. Their message at that time said that they were fine and were continuing to go to work at the private schools where they teach. Now I have heard that the US government is advising all Americans to leave. Apparently my friends are no longer able to send messages on internet so I have no idea what is happening with them. ‘Rocky’ (meaning Morocco, the famous belly dancer, who has so much experience in Egypt) thinks that many foreigners who have jobs there will stay inspite of the government’s advisory. I think of the heavy police presence in the neighborhood where my friends live (if they are still there?) an area of wealthy ‘expats’. But police discipline is said to have fallen apart.”

     On the 28th of that month, Bev finally was able to get on the internet!    Part of this article consists of notes I took from her e-mails, and part of it consists of excerpts from her e-mails, quoted verbatim.

     When I did get that first e-mail, I was so excited to hear from her as I had not known if she and her husband were all right. She wrote that she had been up since 3:00 AM that day, her anxiety level high. They had not seen or heard any rioting yet in their area, but everybody felt that it was just a matter of time. She didn’t know if she still had a job as the phone and internet access was still cut for much of the city. Their only news source was Al Jazeera’s English channel. She said that streets that were normally busy at 7:00 AM were empty at that time, as no one was going to work.

    She and her other expat friends felt very isolated. Friends would gather at the apartment that she and her husband rented. The electricity was still on, but there was no gas for heating water, or for cooking.

    The next day, Sunday the 29th, she wrote that ten or so expats met at their friend Ann’s flat on the previous evening. Everyone was frightened about the uncertainty. The friends exchanged land-line numbers which were still operating.

    Bev and her husband had always walked around Maadi at night with a feeling of safety. But this time, on the way home from Ann’s, they got to the intersection at the end of their street and encountered a group of men who were armed with large sticks, and not smiling.

    Bev was so scared, but it turned out those men were from the neighborhood!  The “bawab” or doormen, from all of the apartment buildings, who were taking turns protecting both ends of the block! Soon many of the men who lived in that block, including the expats, were taking turns doing guard dutyshifts throughout the night, and Bev’s husband volunteered to take his turn along with the rest.

    Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-reigning president, had always stationed a large number of police in Maadi, to protect the expats living there. Now those same police were needed at Tahrir Square to contain the demonstrations.

    (Later, my friend Leyla found out from our guide Ahmed that men from his block in Giza were also taking turns guarding their block at the intersections on each end of it. In Ahmed’s neighborhood, there had never been any police presence. So they did what they had to do. He also said that everyone in his neighborhood knows eachother so they know who is supposed to be there and who is not.)

     Bev reported in her e-mail that she could regularly hear gunfire and yelling. It must have been terrifying.

     She was incensed that the US government was charging $600 to evacuate US citizens, making evacuees sign a promissory note that they will pay the $600 when they can. “And then you still have to pay your ticket from whatever airport they evacuate you to…such as Cyprus”, she said.

     Hearing what a mess it is at the airport, they (Bev and her husband John) decided to try to wait it out. The school she worked had offered to pay for a bus to take whatever staff from their school that wanted to go. She didn’t know when exactly they were going to go, or if they will leave the country from there, or “just wait out the craziness there”.

    She said what was really bad is with the Metro shut down, so many Cairenes were unable to get to their jobs.

     Mid-afternoon it suddenly hit me that if McCain/Palin had been elected, who knows what action the U.S. might be taking. This thought sent chills down my spine.

   I was worried about Bev because I knew that she and John were depending on the money they were earning in Egypt to pay off the house they are buying in Montana. It was very difficult to get teaching jobs in the US at that time.

   Bev and John did spend the weekend at a Red Sea resort; the private school she works at bussed them there for the weekend. They sent happy photos of a group of expats very glad to get out of Cairo if only for a few days. As they left, the military was moving in to the neighborhood to take control of their neighborhood.

 

 

Breaking My Ankle at the Entrance to the Pyramids

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It started out as a joyful day.

I was attending the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Bellydance festival in Cairo: an exhilarating event attended by a thousand belly dance afficionados from all over the world. Some of the attendees were dancers, and some of them were students. It was all held at the gorgeous Mena House hotel, the nineteenth-century main building  the former hunting lodge of the Khediv Ismail, with gorgeously landscaped grounds and the great Pyramids rising behind.

For several days I’d tried to find some other attendees who would accompany me for an early morning walk to the pyramids. So happily I joined my new friends Shelby from Texas and Teresa from Belgium (originally Spain) on the road that leads to the Pyramids.

Many cab drivers called to us. The “middle man” (we’d noticed before that he arranged all the camel and buggy drivers around the Pyramids) was sitting on a cement ledge in the shade of a store, sandalled feet in the dirt, wearing the same dirty brown galabeya Zora and I had seen him in the previous evening.

“My friend, good to see you would you like buggy ride camel ride today?” he called out. If we’d accepted, it might have been a more normal day for me!

But we declined, and kept on walking.  We passed the little shops of curios, and past the rustic but utilitarian  little stables and shaded area where the horses and camels and mules are kept and all of their tenders and drivers were hanging about.

We bought tickets at the little building in the hot sun, and walked up to the little crowd who were giving their tickets to the antiquities police. In their pressed white uniforms, black epaulets and black berets, they manned a little shaded stand in the pounded dust.

Then came the part that is hard to write about. Many large tour buses were pulling up and stopping. Suddenly there was the beep beep of a bus coming through, signalling to our little group to move sideways.

As the whole group moved, I lost my balance and crumpled to the ground, and my ankle collapsed like broken glass, at right angles sideways!

“Are you all right?” said Shelby.

“No, I said,” still in shock. “I am not all right. An ambulance must be called.”

There was a great commotion and everyone started shouting, as always happens in the Middle East whenever there’s a problem:  the men who had been taking tickets, the bus driver, and even some of the bus occupants. With great difficulty two men lifted me up and helped me hop to an old, battered aluminum plastic chair under the nearby tiny shaded area.

They brought a statement for me to sign.

“Tell them I just fell,” I said to the tourist antiquities police.  I still could not believe it. I’d always considered my feet so strong, so capable.

Actually I thought that someone must have inadvertently stepped on my instep at the same time that I lost my balance, but in any case, it was an accident and I certainly did not want anyone to get into trouble.

Finally the fact that I had only fallen settled in, and the brouhaha stopped.

The antiquities police asked “You have pass-a-port?” and I was alarmed, as it was under my clothes, and there were many men gathered around.

Somehow I managed to communicate this to a woman employee whom I called over, and she sat close to me so I could unobtrusively retrieve the document from under my skirt.

“No one push you?” the policeman wanted to make sure.  They asked me to write “accident” on one line, and a statement saying what just happened and I wrote one and signed it.

I told Shelby and Teresa that an ambulance was coming, and they might as well go on and walk to the Pyramids. I gave Teresa the envelope with the money I owed Ahmed, our guide, and drew her a sketch of where to meet him, so she could still do the sight-seeing we had planned later in the day.

The ambulance, which I had to crawl into myself, had a small chair attached to the cab wall of the ambulance, and which had no seat belt.  I had to pull myself up on this chair, my hurt foot dangling like a dead fish.

As we pulled away, I heard Teresa’s insistent, strongly-accented voice demanding through the window to the driver, “I must know where you are taking her.” At the time, this didn’t register to me as important.

Off we went, me holding on to the sides of the chair with my hand. After a while, the attendant, a sturdy, uneducated-looking man, said in barely comprehensible English, that I needed to remove my shoe. Of course, I thought, they’ll have to examine the foot without my shoe.  Very carefully, I took off the shoe and sock.

The ambulance, which had been rumbling through the crowded streets of Giza, the small part of Cairo nearest the pyramids. We made a turn and went into an entrance that said “HOSPITAL” but looked more like a small free clinic, in a corner of a building of retail businesses. I was transferred to a wheelchair. The interior was not that clean, not even as clean as the restaurants which my friends and I had eaten in! The attendants, in blue smocks, were young girls who looked about twelve years old!

The doctor appeared, a very young, very intelligent guy who spoke fluent English. Everything about him put me more at ease, but I admit what was going through my mind was, “They just have to set it. As long as they don’t have to cut into me I won’t catch an infection from this place.”

I heard two guys walking by, talking, and I heart one of them say “Amricaniya” and the other one, with a disgusted voice, said “George W. Bush!

“Thanks, George W. Bush!” I said sarcastically to myself.

The doctor came to speak to me, and examined my right ankle. Both bones were broken, and the ankle would require an operation after all! I begain to feel alarmed, but I wasn’t coherent in my mind enough to think clearly.

Luckily, someone else had been thinking clearly!  Teresa, “my angel Teresa” hurried back to the hotel and would not rest until she found our tour leader, the famous dancer Morocco, and tell her what happened and where I had been taken.

So, while I was chatting with the young doctor, Morocco suddenly stormed in! She insisted vehemently that they must transfer me to “El Salaam International”, the best hospital in Cairo and the one that the foreign workers go to.  She said, in an aside to me, that she bluffed and said that the American Embassy had an agreement with the tourist agency that any of their people would go to El Salaam International.

Vulnerable as I was in my position, you can imagine how grateful I was. Not only that, her entire manner was motherly and caring…and she even seemed enthusiastic, as if dealing with my problem was as much fun to her as any other part of the trip.

As she told me later, part of this manner was an act in order to give her more of an air of authority with the staff of the little hospital.  It also was so helpful in assuaging my own growing sense of desperation. When a person is in that type of situation, one feels bad not just for oneself, but bad for the trouble one is causing others.  Morocco could have been someone in my own family (my angel Morocco!)

Michel, the tour director from Peace Egypt Tours, the travel agency Morocco worked with in Egypt, was also wonderful.  He made sure that what was needed to be done was done. A good man, you could see him going into strong sense of duty, and going into “getting things done mode” and all he evidenced to me was caring, with not a shred of a hint that he was feeling incommoded.

The same ambulance arrived again, only this time I was wheeled out to it on a stretcher. Three skinny Egyptian guys strained (holding the edges of a blanket) to lift me onto the ambulance.

I sure was pleased when Morocco climbed in the front seat of the ambulance!

“You’re coming with me?”

“Of course I’m coming with you!” She kept up a comforting conversation all the way to El Salaam International, which looked much more like the hospitals one is used to in the States.

The bright-eyed, head-scarfed nurse who checked me in spoke excellent English.  It turned out that she was from the Phillipines and when she married an Egyptian, had been advised by her Catholic father, to convert to Islam so that the children “would not be pulled one way and then the other”.

I tipped the ambulance attendant and he immediately took the part of my protector: saying things to the nurse which sounded like they might be “she’s getting a very good room, of course,” and other things like that.

I was wheeled up to my room on an upper floor.  A girl was in the other bed, behind a curtain and an older woman was with her.  People came and went, taking blood pressure, etc. I was to fast until the operation.

A nurse who was dressed in a white tunic and pants, with a white headscarf, seemed to be in charge of me.  However I don’t think she was really a nurse, because any time anyone came in to do something medical to me, it was someone else than she.

The room was painted mustard-yellow with striped curtains, and large blue tiles on the floor. The chairs for visitors had dingy covers.

Rocky and Michel stopped in after they checked me in.  We both decided that it would be better if she took my purse, as it would be in the room, unprotected, while I was in the operation theatre.  She got my mom’s phone number from me and promised to call her and tell her what had happened and that I was safely in the hospital.

At the last minute I decided to keep my little Arabic-English Rough Guide phrase book, which turned out later to be a very good decision!

If I’d known better, I would have kept a small pouch with money for tipping, but like many things about staying in a hospital in Egypt, I was pretty clueless.

I also didn’t know that the hospital also took my passport, and kept it while I was there.

After they left, I laid there for a while.

A nurse came and said, “clothes off”, and handed me a blue paper hospital gown, demonstrating how it went on. I was taken aback, though I really shouldn’t have been.  In a foreign culture, the clothes you decide to wear there, and things such as the hidden inner pocket for your valuables and secret papers  are part of your defense system, your “mask” against vulnerability. This was stripped away and one feels embarrassed and exposed.

I was taken in a wheelchair, which had a bent wheel, down to an ex-ray room, and brought back.

The surgeon came to talk to me.  Tall, tan and bald, he had a clean-shaven face slightly reminiscent of Yul Brynner, a very intelligent manner, and the kind of confidence which doesn’t feel it has to prove anything. He said that they would have to put two steel pins in the left bone, but that the right wan they were going tl be conservative and let it grow back together on its own, and not operate on that one due the the condition of the skin.  This did not alarm me because Morocco had seen the ex-rays before they had stopped in, and she had told me that they might not have to operate at all because it was such a clean break.

The “condition of the skin” refers to fever blisters. These were large circular patches on the ankle, which were called “fever blisters”. Because of these blisters, which are a common occurrence when a bone breaks, it is dangerous to wait too long before operating, leaving a short window of time between when the bone breaks and when the operation must be done.  Once the blisters break, there is huge possibility of infection.

Another doctor came to talk to me briefly; he wore a trim beard and white coat. I can’t remember exactly what he talked about because he said he was late because of two bad things that happened. One was that the father of his colleague had died.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

He then asked me what color cast I wanted, he said proudly that there was a choice of purple, blue, pink or off-white.  He seemed rather disappointed when I said “off-white” without hesitation. He left before I could ask him what the second thing was.

Somewhat later, sometime in the mid-day, I was transferred to a wheeled operating table, wheeled to an elevator down the hall and around the corner to the operating room.  It is a strange feeling being wheeled around a strange place seeing only the ceiling and occasional tops of people.

As they pushed me into place, a nurse in white, with white headscarf, bent low over me and said something in Arabic, and then translated into English, “Don’t fear”.

“Shukran ‘owee,” I murmured with intensity.( Thank you very much).

The surgeon had a little small talk to make me comfortable.

“You’re a tourist, what a thing to happen on your vacation,” he said. “What country are you from?”

“Amriika,” I said.

“American? I thought you were an Englishwoman,” he said.

“Well, I did not vote for George W. Bush,” I said.

It was weird being turned on my side while they injected several needles of anesthetic into the middle of my back.  They felt like big fat needles, but they weren’t that painful so perhaps a topical anasthetic was used first.  Soon the entire body from upper ribs on down felt like a huge mountain, and I could not wiggle my toes.

They put up a blue sheet so that I could not see what was happening. Though I was wide awake, I was pretty out of it and was not really aware of the passage of time.  When they wheeled me back up and had me slide back on the bed, there was a cast from my toes to just below the knee.

The other occupant of the room, behind a curtain, was watching the MBC Egyptian channel, and the Oprah show came on with subtitles.

“Oprah? Hena?” I called out. (In Arabic, “hena” means here).

Yes,” said the young woman’s voice in fluent English, “If you watch this channel you will eventually see every American program.” I never did see what she looked like.

And what was Oprah’s topic that day? Pole dancing. Yes, that kind of pole dancing.  I felt like merging into the bed.  The two women behind the curtain were commenting absent-mindedly about the program. (Except for PBS, I basically dislike most American TV, so to have to listen to it in that hospital room was like adding insult to injury!”)

An advertisement came on which was a message about the power of prayer. It showed a young man running through shadowy situations and worrying people, fearful and looking one way and another.  Then he kneels to pray, the back ground music became calm, the expression on his face becomes tranquil, and as he finishes his prayer with the look to the left and to the right, the young woman in the other bed said, “Gamil ‘owee” (very beautiful).

I fell asleep, and woke a little later to find Ahmed, the guide whom my friend Leyla has hired for so many years that he has become a close friend, standing over me. He was holding flowers, and Leyla standing close by.  It was wonderful to see them. Ahmed was quite emotional and kissed me on both cheeks. Teresa had found them at the arranged meeting place in the Khan El Khalili souk, but had decided not to go sightseeing, and only done a little shopping.

(Later she wrote me that she had become quite upset due to my injury, and had not even gone to her second technique class which she had been so looking forward to the day before, but rather had sat despondently on the little patio of her hotel room most of the afternoon.)

I was quite touched that she’d gone to the trouble to go across town and meet him, and give him the envelope of money which I’d set aside for him.

I started shaking uncontrollably, and Ahmed noticed that the little bottle of drip fluid was empty.  He ran to make sure that someone changed it, and during the time we visited it had emptied again, I must have been quite dehydrated.

It was great to talk to both of them; I felt incredibly touched and comforted. He went and found out that I could have water but no food yet, bought two tall, cold bottles of water, tipped the attendants, laid two 20-Egyptian-pound notes on the bedside table for me to use for tips, and left me improved both mentally and physically from what I’d been when they arrived.

I became aware that I needed to use the bathroom, but no crutches had been supplied! I looked up in my tiny, beat-up, rough Guide phrase book and found the word crutches translated into Arabic. When I pointed out the word to the attendant, he said, “Akhas!” and brought me a walker, so that with quite a bit of pain and effort I could make it to the bathroom.

It wasn’t long before the doctor came in and said that I was now off of fasting; however, no food came.  Finally, quite late in the evening, I pleaded for some food, and a nice young teenage boy in a vest and pants and white shirt of a waiter came and brought me what was the usual Egyptian breakfast, “fuul” (mashed fava beans) and pita bread. It looked like the best dinner in the world to me.

“Shukran,” I said effusively. And after he left, I said aloud, “Shukran owwee owwee.”

An attendant asked if there was anything else I wanted and I pointed to the TV and said, “muziqa?”

She changed to a channel that had Arabic music videos. I always enjoy watching these, and it helped to pass the time, both for the music and the cues they give to the culture, so it helped to pass the time. However, as the hospital grew darker and quieter, the music seemed louder and louder, but of course there was no way I could get over there and reach up to turn it lower, or turn it off, which was what I now wanted.

I was glad the other occupant of the room was gone, so I didn’t have to worry about keeping them awake.
Finally another nurse/attendant came in, and said rather sternly to me that it was too loud for the other patients, and thankfully turned it off. It was quite upsetting to be reprimanded for something which I had had no fault in. I was rather glad the other occupant of the room had gone home, and there was no one in the room that night.  I slept deeply.

Breakfast was brought the following morning, without  asking for it, which was a relief.

The next day Morocco and Michel were there again, and told me they thought I might get “sprung” that day. Michel was worried about the blood seeping through the cast at the place I’d been operated on, but they found out that there was nothing dangerous about this, and that I would be getting another cast put on before I left the hospital. Their visit reassured me. I was still so tired that it was a chore to sit up and eat.

Another patient moved into the other bed, an older woman. Two younger women accompanied her. Thankfully they did not have the TV on a channel which showed American shows, though they kept the volume so low that I could not hear it, and kept the curtain pulled so far out that I couldn’t see the TV.  I guess they thought that the TV was for that side of the room only.

The young women, tall with lovely faces, good bone structure and posture, were wearing the most hip-looking “hijab” I’d ever seen. These outfits had tops that were tunic-length but quite form-fitting, with matching head covers of knit material which fitted rather closely to the head and neck. One of the outfits was red with tan trim, the other was white with the tunic part of it made of denim, and matching pants. I could hear that they were having quite a thoughtful conversation, occasionally breaking into English phrases without seeming to realize that they were doing so. Various international locations were mentioned in the conversation.

Later a man came in and joined them; I assume that he was the girls’ father and the patient’s son. He was tall, wearing an elegant camel-colored suit, cafe-au-lait skin with slightly African features, his black hair straightened and styled. He joined in the conversation and they all talked as equals, in the same thoughtful voices as before.

In spite of my tired condition and the traumatic experience, the “anthropologist” in me was interested to observe this rather academic type of Egyptian.

The tall, Yul Brynner-looking surgeon came in and told me that I would need to walk on the foot.  I was absolutely surprised by this, and hardly believed him, but he made me get up and do it, using the walker, right then and there. He also gave me a card, and told me to tell the tour guide to call him.  The card was in Arabic, but I knew enough to read the name of the surgeon, and I did know my Arabic numbers.

Still, the request caused me to feel a little panicked and upset. After the surgeon left. I did find Michel’s telephone number on it, and tried to dial it on the telephone by the bed. It didn’t seem to work, and the nurse/attendant said that the hotel’s phone lines were down.

Feeling quite desperate, I hobbled over to the curtain, and said “Afandim?” toward the closed curtain. This word means, according to my little Rough Guide phrase book, “excuse me” (even though one often hears the phrase used as a kind of title, perhaps one always says “excuse me” when addressing any titled person).

One of the daughters immediately offered her help in fluent English, and the man whipped out his cell phone and handed it to me.  I called Michel, but he called back and said that the number didn’t work. I ended up giving both the numbers to the girl and they took the surgeon’s card and got on the phone with Michel.

The problem had been that I hadn’t known that although Arabic is read from right to left, Arabic numbers are read from left to right.

Sometime after that the younger, amusing doctor walked in.

“You know that I told you I had two bad news,” he said, “that my colleague’s father had died. Well the other is that my wife is pregnant!”

“That’s wonderful,” I said with real enthusiasm, “How many children do you have?”

“Its my first one,” he said.

“Congratulations!”

He held up a package, off-white gauze wrapped in plastic. “I got your color, though it took me two hours.”

He called into the phone but couldn’t get a nurse to help him. “Oh well, I guess I’ll have to do it myself.”

He started to saw the temporary cast off, my foot resting on a dingy upholstered chair. I was surprised that the blood dripped on the chair and it didn’t seem to concern him.  While he was putting on the cast, he mentioned that I needed to keep all weight off it completely.

“But the surgeon said to walk on it,” I said.

“No, you must keep weight off of it.”

“Yes, he made me get up and walk around this room with the walker, putting weight on it.”

“Well,” he said, rather annoyed, “Ask the American doctors what to do then!”

“They’ll probably tell me two different things also,” I said.

The afternoon wore on. I woke from a nap,  and  the older woman in the next bed and her family were gone. Daylight had faded to dark, and no dinner had arrived. Finally, with the use of the little guidebook, I said to one of the young attendants, “Ana ga-awana” (I am hungry). He disappeared, and somewhat later a waiter brought a covered plate with a roasted chicken quarter on it and some rice and vegetables.

It seemed that, for “one of the two best hospitals in Cairo”, a lot of miscommunication was going on. Thinking about this issue later, I decided that because patients’ family members always stay all day with them in the hospital, the family members will make sure they get what they need. So it’s not as important for the nurses and the attendants (who don’t seem to have any medical training at all) to be as careful about making sure of the non-medical needs of all patients have what they need. Their family members can run and make sure it’s done.

Because Egyptian women never would travel alone, they probably thought I was some sort of social pariah who had no friends and family! Egyptian women traveling together, if one had to go to the hospital, the others would be there with her. Whereas I, as an independent American, wouldn’t dream of asking friends to give up there sightseeing and dance classes, and come and stay all day in the hospital with me!

(It was later explained to me that the kitchen had been under the impression that I had only stayed one night, so they’d not sent up food on the second night.)

Alone in the room the second night also, I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about my snoring bothering anyone.  It felt kind of sad, though, to be in that room by myself. It was getting to feel like quite an ordeal, though my overwhelming sentiment was still of gratitude, that I was in a good hospital and that the break was taken care of.

Feeling that gratitude reminded me of my father during that hospital stay due to an operation, ten years before his death. He was undergoing so many physical difficulties in that hospital bed (wires, what seemed to me condescending nurses, constant little discomforts) his main sentiment was gratitude to all of those who were taking care of him. Tears came to my eyes, tears for how much I had loved my father. I slept deeply in that dark room, in fact I’d been sleeping quite a bit on and off throughout the day.

The next morning Rocky and Michel were there, Rocky saying cheerfully, we’ve come to get you sprung out of here, ducky.” They went to take care of the bill, which Rocky paid, showing me the amazing total: the operation, plus two hospital days, was under $2000 US. She had paid the bill, and I would reimburse her when the travel insurance reimbursed me.  She urged me to be careful not to lose any of the documents which the hospital gave me.

I had not realized before that most travel insurance policies will not pay up front. The patient must pay the medical bills, and then the company will reimburse when sent correct documentation. Rocky knew this, and, as a long-time tour leader, always brought enough funds with her to take care of these emergencies.  She told me that on one trip, one of the members of her group had a brain aneurysm on the trans-Atlantic flight!

While they were handling the bill, I had another need to use my skimpy Arabic. I had been left alone, sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the room. A very sick-looking woman arrived, wheeled by a friend or family member. The other bed had been taken out, and the two women were obviously upset that there was no bed for her. I would have wheeled myself out, but the attendants had left the huge cleaning cart right in front of the door!

I pointed to myself, made walking motions with two fingers. At first the woman looked blank, but the second time she understood and said “Imta?” (when) which was also one of the words I knew. I held up five fingers and said, “Khamsa da-ay-eq” (five minutes), and both women looked visibly relieved.

Boy, did it feel good to be wheeled down to the elevator, down to the first floor, and to the Peace Tours Van!  The buildings of Cairo passed by my window, the garbage-strewn canals luxuriant with lush green vegetation, some with tiny cornfields planted here and there by little shacks, right along a road between tall apartment buildings…it all had never looked so interesting, so poignant, and beautiful. When we got down to the Mena House, one of the bellboys had to wheel me down the hill to the other wing, sweat on his kindly middle-aged face.

It was great to get back to my hotel room and take the first bath….a sponge bath…that I’d had for two days. As I lay there, I thought of my two-day ordeal. In spite of all of the discomforts, it had been an opportunity, in a way…an opportunity to find out more about Egyptian life.
There are probably few Western tourists who knew that if you has an accident near the pyramids, the ambulance takes you to a tiny clinic with dirt smudges around the light switches. (My accident happened in 2004, so things may have changed by now.)

But the average tourist also wouldn’t know this: that when a female hotel guest returns to the lobby of the hotel with a cast on their leg and crutches, the usually reserved, designer-head-scarfed hotel tour agent who had always sat behind her elegant desk, super correct and barely polite, turns into a highly-emotional, worried mommy, making high wails, screaming “Hena, bil Arabii!” (here, in Arabic!) and running around her desk making little concerned sounds over said guest. I nodded and shrugged as if it were no big deal, but it was rather gratifying.

On returning home to Arizona, I made the recommended follow-up appointment with my own doctor, who said that he couldn’t understand why anyone would go to a country such as Egypt,and in turn referred me to a joint specialist. That specialist, who happened to have some personal friends who were Egyptian, told me that the Egyptian doctors had done a very good job, although they had left a milimeter more “play space” (between the bones?) than would have been done in the States.

He said that it was important to keep the muscles around that joint strong, to give it better support, and referred me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist  gave me a set of ankle strengthening exercises to do on my own after the series of physical therapy visits were done, exercises which I still try to do a couple times a week. (I also always try to put my shoes and socks on while standing up, because I can feel how much it uses those muscles in the ankle.)

The main lesson I had learned from my ordeal was that a health emergency in a third-world country is totally different from a health emergency in a developed country. At home, once the ambulance is called, you no longer have survival worries. But how different my experience would have been had I not had Teresa run to find Rocky, and not had Rocky, our group leader, to make sure I was transferred to a quality hospital and to front the bill for me!

Ever since then I have strongly felt that, no matter how much one enjoys traveling alone in Europe or other Western countries, it’s much wiser to have traveling companions with you, when traveling in an undeveloped country. And also I say, “Never go on any outing, even a short one, without your phrasebook!”

“One of the Best Moments”

 

In 2002, I traveled to Egypt. I joined a woman who had told me this would be a group of belly dancers. It turned out to just be her and me; due to the World Trade Center Towers terrorist take-down one year before, everyone else cancelled the trip. It was pretty strange traveling with “Nur”, the guides she had engaged were wonderful and part of the itinerary was to fly to Luxor and take a river cruise boat on the Nile from Luxor to the Aswan dam. We joined a group of ten, all personable, interesting people: three Americans, a Tunisian of French heritage, a Parisienne, a Norwegian couple, two young Brits and her crusty old Scottish father. I had enjoyed the incredible Pharoahnic temples, and was’d been utterly in the spell of the beautiful scenery along the banks of the Nile.

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The “memorable moment” which follows is excerpted from my journal of the trip:

Waking up, wonderfully relaxed, in the late afternoon, I could see the banks of the river through the window, so much closer than before. The Nile was narrowing as we chugged southward.

I climbed the stairs to the back deck and found an idyllic scene. Nora, the Algerienne, lounged on a deck chair, her neck resting against the back, her slender leg extended on the low wicker table. The French girl was sprawling in a similar manner, as they both gazed at the crowded palms and grasses on the banks of the Nile, so close to the boat, and so beautiful in the late-afternoon light. Arabic music (for a change) was playing softly on the speakers. I sat down at a nearby table.

“It’s so peaceful,” I said shyly. Nora Ourabah leaned back her curly auburn head with a lovely soft smile on her delicate features.

“It’s one of the best moments”, she said.

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We watched, as if under a spell, as the banks slowly changed from that beautiful golden light that happens so briefly at sundown; dark olive shadows and green, reflected in the slightly rippling waters, along with the pale gray-blue of the sky.

We continued to watch until the vegetation was so dark that one could not make out the shapes of the individual trees. The shore seemed ominous with mystery, so still and quiet as we chugged by. The waters mirrored the murky shadows, with hazy dark upside-down reflections of the tallest palms. Out from the shore, the river mirrored the pale gray sky, the entire surface dimly shimmering with darker indentations, giving it the luminous sheen of old silver.

As we left to go down to dinner, I commented to them on how nice it was to have the Arabic music for a change. She told me that they had gone to the upstairs bar and asked if they could have the music changed. She said that she told him they didn’t come all the way to Egypt to listen to European music!

 

How the Waiter Got Fired

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this first photo courtesy Google Images

It was the spring of the year 2001. I had started traveling late in life: my first overseas trip was at the age of 48, to Greece and Turkey (except for the year we lived in Sweden when I was 9 years old) In the millenium year, at the age of 53, I had been to Turkey and Greece, and then to Spain and Morocco. I  became gripped a fiery desire to travel to Egypt. I had become very interested in Middle Eastern dance and music, and my favorite singers were Egyptian. I found my travel partner, (whom I will call “M, for “Magnoona”, which means “crazy”) through an internet site called the “Middle East Dance List”, a forum in which all sorts of dancers and fans of the dance aired their ideas, their stories,  and their comments.

There were several dancers who were planning to take groups, and I was wondering which to choose. But in September, the terrible attack of 9/11 happened, and some of the perpetrators were found to be Egyption. My choice of dancers to go with narrowed down to only one person, “M”. All the others had decided not to go.

I should not have been surprised when, in following spring, when I put a query out on the Middle East Dance List, I found that many of the dancers who had been planning trips had decided not to go after all. So I e-mailed M. and expressed interest in going with her group.  She wrote back that there was still room for me in the tour she was leading, and I received an itinerary from her and a schedule of payment. At this point I was no longer so choosy about just what I wanted to see and do there, I just wanted to go. I sent in the initial deposit, and hummed Egyptian songs under my breath all day at work.

Members of my family were quite upset that I would go to Egypt at this time. My mom, at 80, was the only one who supported me.  She thought that if something else would happen, it would be as likely to happen on a US plane as on a foreign one.

All the negative comments made me so nervous that I wasn’t sure if I would actually follow through with the trip.  I started making payments on the trip, giving myself the option of deciding not to go at the last minute, and even if it meant forfeiting my money. One of the issues I was watching was whether Bush would decide to escalate his plan to attack Iraq, (which of course he did within the next few years).

To make things more nerve-wracking, the ticket was sent only a week before the trip. (This was still the era when you needed an actual physical ticket to get on an airplane.) It came with no itinerary, and it didn’t look like any ticket I’d ever seen. There were little drawings of the things you weren’t allowed to take on the airplane (including a cute little drawing of a submachine gun with an “x” drawn through it.)

I was so nervous that I actually drove to the airport a few days before departure, and found an information desk and asked the nice volunteer there to explain the ticket to me.  “DL” meant Delta Airlines; I had assumed because the entire ticket was half in Arabic that EgyptAir flew right out of Phoenix!

And then came a bombshell from M: the other women who had been planning to go had suddenly dropped out due to a death in the family! (They were apparently a mother and her two grown daughters.) And I would be flying back by myself because she had decided to stay on a few days longer in Egypt. Whoa!

I didn’t actually make the final decision to go until the day before my scheduled departure from Sky Harbor!

At the EgyptAir departure gate at JFK, I felt like I was in a foreign country already. A huge crowd of Egyptians, all dressed in neutral shades of brown and gray and beige, most of the women in long dresses and scarves.

Suddenly someone screamed my name and I looked down at M., shocked at her short flowered dress, jangly jewelry, and wild, long, dyed-black hair. After all I’d read about how to dress modestly in a Middle Eastern country, I couldn’t believe her, (and her sailor’s mouth either!) She pulled me down to the unoccupied chair on her left, ranting about how she feared I would miss the plane. (I had arrived early but mistakenly spent an hour waiting at the arrivals gate instead of the departures.

My assigned seat was not near M’s  on the long cross-Atlantic flight, allowing me to concentrate on all the interesting people all around me. The plane was almost 100% full of Egyptians, something which I have never experienced since then, and which I now think was caused by the fall in tourism due to 9/11. Many families were taking little children back to visit family at home, so the little children were all dressed up “band-box” cute, running around the plane, the other adults smiled and indugled them. The adults were dressed in their best also, the women were wearing their most lovely long-sleeved, long-skirted outfits, lovely fabric in muted colors and matching headscarves; the men in sharp suits.

The mud-brown expanse of city below with the Nile running through it, made me catch my breath! Soon we were in a travel-agency van on the way to the Sheraton Gardens Cairo. An excerpt from my journal shows how thrilled I was to be in Cairo:

What a city of contrasts! Many modern cars, and also wagons pulled by donkeys, loaded with produce, driven by men in long light blue caftans and white caps. Massive modern apartment buildings, and old buildings in a heart-breaking state of disrepair and shabbiness. The sun was blindingly bright, yet the narrow, deeply-shaded side streets were like dim canyons between the tall buildings. At one point a heard of camels was driven through the streets, golden in the late afternoon light! M. said that in all the times she’d been here, she’d never seen that.

We drove over the Sixth of October bridge and saw the Nile, its blue water rippling in the early evening, lush greenery and palm trees all along its banks, just as I had imagined it would be.

What a vital city! There were people everywhere in the streets, and pedestrians freely crossed in and out of the traffic, with apparent disregard for danger. The women were usually covered from head to toe; headscarves were common and often covered shoulders as well as the hair. (But some of the long-sleeved, long-skirted outfits were often relatively form-fitting, and the women seemed to be more independent and lively, than, say, the women of the conservative Turkish town of Bursa, which was the only other place I’d been where head-scarves were so common.) Perhaps I’m way off-base, but the head-scarf, rather than a constraint, seemed to be a protection, a way for these women to say, without speaking, “I’m a decent woman, a good Muslim wife, mother, or daughter, and I should be treated with respect.” This would make sense in this large city, where women were constantly thrown into close proximity with so many men whom they did not know.

They appeared to be a lively easy-going people, these Cairenes; the men always seemed to be gesticulating, grinning, boyishly joking with eachother, like little kids. Indeed they gave the impression of living up to their reputation as “the friendliest people in the world.”

At dinner at the hotel, we were joined by a young Egyptian guy, ruggedly handsome with long curling hair, whom M. had connected with in a chat room on the internet. We had fun chatting with him, but I was taken aback when she told me in an aside that she planned to stay out late with him that night, and informed me that she would be too tired to go out on the next day’s sight-seeing!

It felt wierd that I would be the only one going out with the guide, but I decided that I should see the bright side, wonderful to have one’s own guide. I soon found that the guides from that tour company were so professional and so pleasant, that I was in very good hands, and enjoyed myself very much.)

It took a couple of days for the reality to set in: that this behavior would be a pattern with M. She never actually went site-seeing, she’d seen it all before.  What she did while she was in Egypt was to enjoy being pursued by young Egyptian men!  The “dancer tours” which she organized were only a ruse, I came to believe, for her to get away from her sick, older husband, and have fun.

My opinion is that, in reality, I don’t believe that she ever did sleep with these young Egyptian men whom she went out with.  I sspect that what she enjoyed was the excitement, the excitement that she caused with her flirtacious animated ways and her way of dress, in a culture where such a way of dress, and such animated flirtation, signal a certain kind of woman. The average young man in the United States wouldn’t think she was especially interesting, and besides, at home everyone would know she was married, and know her husband.

I don’t believe that she ever admitted to herself that this difference in cultural mores was the reason the Egyptian guys got so excited around her, she just got a thrill out of it. She would fan their excitement to a fever pitch, and then suddenly find that something really irritated her about them, and she’d get really cross and say good night.

Yes, I know. Wierd, wierd, wierd. But at the time I wasn’t really analyzing anything.

She was with me, of course, two days later when we flew to Luxor. On the flight, a smaller plane mostly filled with European tourists, we sat together. She talked excitedly about the boat we would be on for the next few days, and I also was happy with anticipation. M. told me that tourists are usually flown from Cairo to Upper Egypt. The towns in the areas of middle Egypt are more conservative in their beliefs and some of the people are less tolerant of outsiders. (Also, I had read in my guidebook that there have been some conflicts between Coptic Christians and Muslims in middle Egyptian towns, such as Asyut and Minya.)

Another excerpt from my journal shows how I loved the view of the Nile at Luxor:

scan0004The Sheraton Luxor was  right on the Nile, and that great river was narrower here; a lovely sight framed by the shady overhanging branches of the trees. While we waited to meet the guide and the group we would join for the boat, I got a coffee and went to sit in a chair on the outside terrace. Across the blue water, the other bank was bright green with rushes, and date palms of many different heights and sizes, growing every which way, crowded together in a dense forest that grew close along the shore and was reflected in the slightly rippling water. Beyond this profusion of palms, dusty sand-colored cliffs baked in the hazy air. The beauty of the scene filled me with delight.

My enchanted reverie was interrupted by agitated voices. Suddenly M. was introducing me to the guide who would be with us on the next stage of our journey. Maggid was a trim little Copt, with a round face, glasses, and an ernest manner. He wore a baseball cap, polo shirt, black jeans, and new tennis shoes; his eyebrows were wide arches, shaped like new moons. He greeted me with enthusiastic friendliness, but it was soon obvious that both he and the tour company agent were growing more and more agitated, in spite of their outward politeness.

There had been a change in plan, and M. was not happy about it! The original itinerary had called for us to board our Nile cruise-boat here at Luxor, and settle ourselves in on the boat before taking our tour of the Luxor ruins. It now transpired that the boat was stuck at Esna due to a problem with the locks, and our group, (which included 8 or so other people) was to wait several hours in the hotel lobby before the bus arrived to take us to the ruins. The same bus would later transport us to our boat, which was docked further up the river.

M. had been up late the night before with Cairo friends, and she had planned to spend the afternoon napping on the boat and skip the tour of the ancient temple, which she had seen before anyhow. She argued on and on with Maggid and the El Joker agent, and after much protest, they agreed to find a bus to take her directly to the boat.

“I’m sorry if they think I’m a bitch, but that was what was promised,” she said in an aside to me. I nodded, pretending to understand.

I thought to myself, “You are being a bitch.”  I myself believe that these things sometimes happen when you travel, and it’s just part of the experience. The problem at the locks was not something that the travel agency had any control over. I was happy to be right on the Nile, one way or the other.

Her special-order bus arrived, and she rode off on it; a couple of young Frenchwomen who would be part of our group decided to do likewise, as they had joined our party late, and had  seen the near-by ruins with their previous tour-group. Magdi told the rest of us that the hotel would serve us lunch in the dining-room at noon, still a couple of hours away.

At noon I went into the dining-room and was shown to the table set aside for the group which we would join while we were on the boat. There would be other groups, each with its own guide, which would join and leave the boat at different times as it made its trip up the Nile.

I was pleasantly surprised by the likability of the others in our group. We numbered twelve altogether. A wiry cantankerous Scotsman and his amiable, slender son and daughter-in-law, three young women friends from Washington D.C. (one of whom was a native New Zealander) and a nice Norwegian couple in their 50’s, both tall, lean and blonde. (With M., myself, and the two French girls who had opted to go to the boat when she did, it made an even dozen). Although I was still feeling rather tired and yucky, I was happy to be seated with them. Everyone was friendly and we all exchanged introductions. Interesting people, and not a complainer in the bunch!

Another excerpt from my journal:

scan0003A short while later, we were on the bus to the ancient temple of Karnak. It was very, very hot; several of us took Magid’s suggestion and bought bottled water at a little stand near the entrance. We passed the armed guards in their Tourist Police uniforms, went through the metal detector and down onto a grand avenue of ancient flat stones. On either side, on raised platforms, were long rows of beautifully graceful large stone animals facing center. They had bodies of sinuous cats lying in a crouch, with their ram’s heads staring straight ahead as if “on guard.”

Ahead of us loomed gigantic walls, built of huge rough square-cut blocks; walls so massive that the groups of tourists entering through them looked no larger than mice. This wide avenue of smooth-cut blocks, as flat as a modern highway, led through an opening in these walls wide enough that several houses could have fit through it. The opening was faced on either side with a grand border of much smoother stone. All in a monotone the color of sand.

Once through the ancient gate, we were in a forest of immense solid stone pillars. They were as tall as a four-story building and at least six feet around, each one carved with hieroglyphics of people and animals cut into the stone. Here and there we would stop to view a slender obelisk or a stone statue of a pharaoh, and Magid would tell who built it, who it was, and why they were important.

scan0003In spite of the intense heat, the sheer size and antiquity of the temple was overpowering. I was  overcome with awe to see around me, with my own eyes, this architectual wonder that had been built by a civilization with no modern tools, no huge trucks or cranes for hauling and lifting.
palm tree which had found its way through a crack between stone blocks which had been laid three thousand years ago.

After the tour of Karnak, we clambered back into our bus, and were taken to Luxor Temple, a short distance away.  The heat was starting to get to me, and I was glad to get back to the boat and to my air-conditioned cabin and take a nap.

Wonderfully relaxed, I woke an hour later, in time for “tea” on the upper deck. This turned out to be coffee, tea, and various cookies laid out buffet style. Sitting in one of the padded wicker chairs under the canvas shade-cover of the deck, you could feel the breezes off the river and watch that view, which I could not get enough of. Even four days later when we left the boat, I hated to leave that view! The upper deck was a very pleasant place to write in my little journal.

A tape played romantic European instrumental music, (which seemed pleasant that first afternoon!). Then, faintly, from the town side of the boat, I began to hear the call to prayer. After that,from the same direction, a recording of a singer who sounded like Umm Kulthoum, though it was hard to tell in the distance.** The boat rocked ever so slightly on the rippling waters of the Nile. I slowly looked around me, letting the various sights and sounds and sensations take over my consiousness. So different from the daily life at home, so wonderful, so wonderful…

In the elegant dining room, I joined our group, only to find that there were not enough spaces for all to sit down! Seeing the confusion, the plump black maitre’d came bustling over.

“No, no, you sit with M!” he said, pointing me over to a small table where M. was sitting, facing away from the group. The way he said it, you’d have thought M. was a movie star. Slightly embarassed, I apologized for the confusion and went to join M.

She explained to me that she had been seated at lunch with the two women from France, (who as you may remember had opted to go to the boat at the same time she did). She felt that the Frenchwomen were unfriendly for her, and after lunch had demanded that the two of us be seated at our own table from then on.

Actually, I didn’t mind being seated separately. There are some people whom it is difficult to talk to while you are also trying to talk to others. She really had her own agenda, so to speak! And she had a bold familiarity with the waiters, due to having gotten to know them from previous trips. Without thinking, I just giggled and took part in the repartee, though I’d read that American-style flirting is not at all the thing to do in Egypt. “She’s been here so many times before,” I thought to myself, she must know what she’s doing.” And she was the person whom I depended on to shepherd me from the plane to the hotel, to the boat, and back to Cairo.

One waiter, Omar, was particularly attentive to her; I didn’t notice it then because he was also very chatty with all of the guests, in fact he was a general favorite.

I had planned on an early night, but enthusiastically agreed when M. said that she was going to belly-dance as part of the entertainment that evening, and asked me too videotape. There was still a huge group of young party-hardy Manchester couples on the boat that night; almost all the booths in the large upstairs lounge were filled. M. was upset that they didn’t seem to appreciate her performance. I think it was just that they weren’t a very friendly bunch. They didn’t return smiles or “hello”s when you passed them in the hallway.

“It’s good, it’s good!” said one of the waiters with a grin, of M.’s lively dance.

“I had a hard time keeping up with her with the videocamera!” I said.

Actually she was rather disappointing as a dancer, a lot of jerky movement but no real grace or style.

At dinner the night before, Magd had told our group to expect an early wake-up call and breakfast; it was pleasant discussing the events of the previous day over coffee with the other members of the group. I sat with the rest of the group, as M. was sleeping in. (I later found out that she had gone out, on shore, with some of the boat staff, something which was not allowed!) Soon after that, we were climbing the steps to the bus, and and the group, sans M., set out for the Valley of the Kings.

What a lovely bus ride along the changing banks of the Nile, its shimmering saphhire-colored water, seen through the out-of-focus palm trees that whizzed by the window. As we drove through the lush green vegetation, we often passed two-wheeled donkey carts overloaded with immense piles of greenery. Was it sugarcane, I wondered? Everything looked delightful in the bright clean morning sunshine.

Gaily decorated little pick-up trucks sped past us, their camper shells painted in stripes of green, black, yellow, white and red, with rows of metal diamond shapes nailed on for extra effect. The brand name of the truck (usually “Toyota” or “Mitsubishi”) was always picked out in red, yellow, or green to contrast with the body of the truck.

Most of the dwellings that we passed were little conglomerations of cube-shaped rooms made from mud bricks, the exact same ochre-color as the plowed fields. At first I thought that the houses were partially roofed with dry palm-fronds; then I realized that what I was seeing were walled courtyards adjoining the homes, roofed with branches for shade. It made me think of the Arabic song that goes, “Travel my love, but come back, the courtyard is sad without you…”  In this part of the world much of the family life goes on in the courtyard.

We came to a shady intersection and turned right, passing two women in head coverings who were tugging and pushing a recalcitrant donkey, its cart loaded with huge water-barrels, to a stone circular well. I thought how slowly things were changing, here in Egypt.

The road began to creep up into the desolate landscape of the Valley of the Kings. In this remote area of craggy sandstone mountains, there was not a sprig of vegetation. We could have been among the mountains of the moon. Here and there beside the twisting road were little white-painted adobe shops, their walls hand-painted with pictorial signs advertising that they were “alabaster factories”. I remembered the beautiful alabaster vases which my grandparents had brought back from Egypt in the 60’s, when my grandfather was director of the YMCA there.

But as I look back on the different ancient sites I saw while in Egypt, I would have to say that I loved the temples much more than the tombs. The temples were full of light and space, and they were built for worship and for the living. The tombs were deep in the earth, away from the light of day and from living humanity, and they were built for the dead. Also, I found the bas-reliefs and massive sculptures which we saw in the temples to be much more artistically moving than the intricate priestly drawings in the tombs. But that is just my own personal opinion.

On the way back from the Valley of the Kings, we visited a very interesting temple, the Temple of Queen Hatsheput. This beautiful building has such clean lines that at first it appears to be a modern structure. Hatsheput was the only female pharoah, and after her death her name was stricken from the historical records! Clearly a woman who “got outta line”!.the historical records. Clearly, this was a woman who “got outta line”!

Our waiter, the tall, slender, good-looking Omar, was being especially charming to Niran. He commented on my necklace (which I had strung myself of black and dark-red glass beads, plus some white seed beads and tan date-seed beads) and said that it was Nubian. “Is it?”, I said, politely pretending I was very interested to find this out.

“You’re Nubian?”, said Niran.

“Ana Nu,” he nodded. (“I am Nu.”)

I said that I had a CD of Nubian music I liked, Ali Hassan Kuban.

“Ali Kubanee, Ali Kubanee,” he said gesturing to his heart. I wondered at the difference in the name until I remembered that a long “e” sound at the end of the word is an ending which means “my”. He was saying “My Ali Kuban”.

“But Ali Kuban is finished,” Ali continued. “He is no more!”

“No more?” I said, puzzled.

With his next return trip Ali said, “Ali Kubanee died two years ago.” He must have asked someone how to say this correctly.

(This was one of several examples I noticed during my stay in Egypt, which point to the fact that many people you meet who seem to speak excellent English may actually have a quite limited vocabulary.)

“I am so sorry to hear it”, I said with genuine feeling. (I remember when I first purchased Ali Hassan Kuban’s “From Nubia to Cairo”, years ago, I played it for a solid week, and it still remains one of my favorites.*** What a great ability that talented artist had, to capture the ethnic feeling but also really rock out at the same time!)

That afternoon, after my siesta, I was sitting during “tea time” on the pleasant upper deck, at a table by the railing, with my coffee cup and my journal. I noticed the police rafts cruising up and down the Nile side of the moored cruise-boats, protecting those valuable nest-eggs of foreign tourism. The call to prayer could again be heard from the town side of the boat, which was still moored in the same place as when we had first boarded it. Again the sound of the muezzin’s call blended so beautifully with the view of the Nile.

That evening at dinner Omar kept making more and more excuses to come back to Niran and I, which led Niran to imperiously order him away. (We had started eating with the main group again, but we were among the last ones at the table due to her getting to dinner late.)

“Ana sa’am”, he said mischievously as he left.

“Oh, he says he’s mad!” she said. “The brat! He does this to me every time and I’m tired of it.”

The following morning I woke very early. I went up on the deck to find a beautiful world, and sat down in one of the wicker chairs to let my mind take in the scene. The boat chugged silently through a Nile as smooth as glass in the early morning light. The banks of the river passed lazily by, the endlessly changing patterns made by the bunched fronds of the palm trees as they crowded closely together on the bank, just behind the jumble of tangled grasses that hung over the water’s edge. Here and there the crowded palms formed their own little deeplly shaded grottos, leading to murky darkness. Occasionally a little sandy beach would come into view, with perhaps a few cattle drinking from the water; just beyond would be a small mud-colored dwelling and a little cleared field, planted bright green. These scenes repeated over and over, like a lovely refrain which calms the mind more and more with each repetition.

Our side trip that morning was to Edfu Temple, a temple dedicated to the worship of the god Horus, a monolithic structure was built by the Greek king Ptolemy when he ruled Egypt. He wanted to the Egyptians to feel that he honored their gods. I loved the graceful, clean lines of the solid stone, five-foot high statue of Horus, in the shape of a hawk, in front of the temple. The morning air was still cool as we walked within the massive stone walls.

“These are the most beautiful bas-reliefs carvings we have seen so far”, I thought to myself. One of them in particular affected me deeply. It looked like a man and woman, a king and queen perhaps, holding eachother by the arms and gazing into eachother’s eyes. I stood and looked it for a long time. It was as if a powerful love emanated from the two carved figures, and hung in the air around them, even after all these centuries. (Actually I found out later that the carving depicted a god giving his blessing to an earthly king!).

It was while we were in Edfu temple that Magd, a Coptic Christian, pointed out to us something that I’d noticed previously: on some of the bas-reliefs, the faces of the ancient gods had been defaced, with what looked like a million hits with a sharp object. He said that thidefacing was done by groups of Christians who had fled persecution, by leaving the cities and hiding in the ancient temples. He said that many Egyptians became Christians during the Ptolemy era, when Egypt was ruled by Greeks who became very Egyptianized themselves, and how four million of these Egyptian Christians were martyred during this time when they tried to practice their new faith. He said that at his Coptic church every Sunday, they tell again the story of these martyrs.

As we walked out I thought to myself that, while it’s important not to forget martyrs, continued repeating of the martyr’s tragedy makes it hard to let go of the hate, and all to easy to transfer that hate onto their decsendants of the perpetrators.

Walking with Mette, I pointed to the guard houses on the walls, where the antiquities police lounged in their white uniforms, berets, and machine guns. “Egypt protects its ancient monuments well,” I said.

“I think they are really protecting the tourists!”, said Mette.

At lunch, I arrived early, before any one else. Omar, the waiter who always joked with M, came over to see if I wanted a drink. He mentioned that tonight he would go to his home when the boat docked at Aswan. At first I thought that he meant that he would no longer be with us (staff seemed to change at some of the stops) and made appropriate expressions of regret.

“No,” he said in his charming accent and rather sweet, boyish manner, “I go to visit my mother, then I come back.”

“Oh!” I said, and we both nodded in joking comprehension.

When M. got to the table, painful sunburn lines showing in her low-necked blouse, he began his usual bantering with her. When I mentioned to her that he was going to see his mother that evening, he asked, pointing to her and to me, “You and she go with me tonight to visit my mother?”

At first I stared incomprendingly as he went on another errand. Without thinking things through (an unfortunate habit I’ve had all of my life) I thought, “Cool…..visit to private home….conversation with Nubian matron…..”

He returned with M’s drink.

“If you’re asking us to visit your mother….” I started to say, when M. interrupted suddenly.

“This drink is terrible, bring me another one!” Then, when he had left, she said, “Jeeze, I don’t like the guy that much!” The rest of the meal she was quite huffy with him, and he did not bring up the subject again.

Considering the incident later, I realized my naivete. Of course a visit between tourists and staff would be “outside the pale”. I thought of the sleek cruise ships and of the wait-staff with their spit-and-polish elegance, and of the shabby towns that we passed by.

Quite innocently I mentioned Omar’s invitation to Mette the following morning at breakfast. Being a person who has much compassion for the less fortunate people in the world, she was quite upset that the waiter could have made such a mistake in judgement. The whole group had become very fond of him due to his playful good humor. Mette that she was sure that socializing between staff and guests was not allowed, and that Omar had risked losing his job.

This upset me very much, to the extent that I lay awake at night thinking of it. M had not behaved any differently than many other female foreign tourists,” I thought, “How could he have been so stupid?” Then I thought, ‘Well, did other female tourists sneak off the boat in the evening with some of the crew?”

We were scheduled to dock for a tour of Kom Ombo temple around five, so I took an early nap and then went up on the deck at three or so, with my journal, of course. I stopped at the upstairs bar to get an Arabic coffee, and soon was ensconced in one of the padded wicker chairs on the rear deck, engrossed in my writing. It was pleasant under the canvas shade cover, as the shoreline vegetation we were passing baked in the sun.

Suddenly M. came running up, and said excitedly that my presence was requested by the captain, down in the bridge. The captain? At first I didn’t want to go. “They probably want to see me because they think I’m like her,” I thought. But I remembered that the Norwegian couple had mentioned that they had been invited down there and they had enjoyed it.

“They insist,” she urged. “It’s a real privilege and a great photo opp!” So I followed her around to the front deck.

scan0001There we climbed backward down a ladder into the bridge, which was a long narrow room which spanned the front end of the middle deck of the boat. It was all panelled in varnished wood. A huge picture window ran the length of the front wall, above a long counter. There were smaller windows on both ends of the room, adding up to a panoramic view of the Nile.

In a big old-fashioned wooden high-backed chair, which was padded in printed cotton, a crew-member sat steering the boat by means of a large wooden nautical steering-wheel. On the counter between this wheel and the window was a small square control-board which only had about ten levers and dials on it.

Four or five men sat on a padded built-in bench that ran the length of the back wall: rugged looking guys of a very different physical type than the elegant Nubian waiters upstairs. They all made cordial sounds of welcome.

The captain and the first mate wore form-fitting skull-caps of white cloth on their grizzled heads, and lounged comfortably barefoot in their long light-blue galabeyas.* They both carried an air of dignity and authority about them. The other crew-members were dressed in the standard work uniform of matching dark blue shirt and trousers, and they wore black rubber boots. One of these guys in blue was actually steering the boat. Occasionally the first mate, who watched the Nile the entire time, would mutter some command to him. The captain himself was watching TV, (a small set which was sitting on the counter) as were the other guys sitting there.

Before I came to Egypt, I wondered about the full sleeves of the galabeya, (the long, floor-length shirt worn by the men); I didn’t see how the sleeves would allow someone to work. Here the two men in command wore the galabeya, and sat barefoot. They did not have to do any physical work, so the sleeves did not get in the way. They also appeared to be at least a decade and a half older than the other crew members.

(Later, when I got home and was showing photos to my family, my brother Joe, who has had a lot of experience with boats, was struck by the simple control board which was visible in two of the photos. He said that the captain must be an incredibly experienced and intelligent individual to be able to command such a large boat with only such basic equipment. “That’s got to be a very high-status job, and he’s probably a very respected member of his community,” said Joe.)

Niran, in a filmy red swimsuit cover-up, was throwing herself all around the cabin with her usual exclamatory way of speech, which the crew seemed to find highly amusing.

“This is the captain’s mate and this is the captain”, she said, and then proceeded to reel off the names of the different crew members. I was invited to sit down, and was given a tulip-shaped glass of mint tea.

An old Egyptian movie was on the TV. On the black and white screen, a lovely girl was doing a folkloric dance and singing beautifully. I asked Niran to ask them who the singer was.

“Sabuuh”, said the captain in answer to the question, as he motioned toward the TV set and gave the “thumbs up” sign.

I smiled, motioned to the TV set myself, and also gave the “thumbs up” sign.

I truly enjoyed watching the movie and hearing the music that was part of it, but I felt a little uncom
fortable. The hawk-faced first mate was staring at me fixedly under his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows, and motioned toward me as he voiced a question to Niran, who answered vehemently in the negative, “Mafeesh!”

Which I think means, “No way!” (I never asked her what his question was, but I fear that he was asking her if I went out with the crew also!)

I tried to think of something to say. “El Nil gamiil!” (the Nile is beautiful)was all that I could bring to mind; the captain again gave the thumbs up gesture. I felt that he was a good person, a wise person.

A news flash from the TV produced exclamations of disgust from Niran. As President Bush’s image came on, the consensus among the crew was “wehesh” (bad), thumbs down from everybody. Then, Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, was shown. His image produced a round of thumbs up, including one from me.

“Sharon?” the first mate said, directing the question to me.

“Wehesh!” I said with feeling, which brought nods of approval.

There was a pause, while I wracked my brains to think of some way to converse some more. All that phrase-book studying and my mind was one big blank!

I turned to the captain, inclining my head politely, “Inta….min wayn inta?” (“Where are you from?”)

“Minya”, he said. He tried to explain where Minya was, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Then I remembered that I’d brought my Fodor’s guidebook up on deck with me, so that I could make sure to get the place-names spelled correctly in my journal. I turned to the map of Egypt, and they pointed out Minya, which is located south of Cairo near Asyuit. (Asyuit is one of the towns not recommended to tourists, due to the Copt/Muslim clashes and religious conservatism there.) It was interesting to me that the captain came from such a conservative community; it went along with his style of dress.

The crew seemed to be quite interested in the guidebook, which had a lot of nice color photos. They were pointing out to eachother some of the famous religious buildings in Cairo, and so on. “Forshaa Arabiiya”, said the captain, ponderously, and repeated, “Forshaa Arabiiya”.
(Meaning that the names of the buildings were in correct Arabic as well as English).

When they handed the book back to me, I motioned for them to keep it. The guy who was holding the book gestured to his heart in thanks, but gave it back to me.

The captain said, “Fil Minya… fil Minya…Madame.” He motioned to himself as he said “Madame”, and it was quite obvious that he was saying that his wife was in Minya.

“Ah!”, I smiled. There was a pause, when suddenly I had an idea.

“Fil Minya,” I said, “Madame,” then I made hand motions like stair steps, and raised my eyebrows in a questioning expression.

“Ah!” he said in comprehension. He held up five fingers. “Khamsa! Khamsa habibi!” (“Five! Five beloveds!”) He pointed to his thumb and said, “Madame”, and motioned to the others, “Khamsa habibi.”

“Oh, nice family!” I said. I tried to say in sign language and with Niran’s help that I had two sons and a daughter, all grown, but it probably didn’t get across.

M. said that it was time to go as the boat would soon be stopping for the tour of Kom Ombo. I was rather glad the visit was over, interesting as it had been. “Shokran”, I said, and, motioning to my heart as I started to climb the ladder, “El Nil albii”. (“The Nile, my heart”)

That afternoon, we toured the Kom Ombo temple in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. The following day we were scheduled to get even closer to the Nile; part of the program was a ride on a felucca, or native sailboat, to Elephant Island and to the temple of Isis!

The next morning I still felt unprintably awful, and went down to breakfast just long enough to tell Magdi that I would not be able to go on the outing that day. At his suggestion, I got some anti-diarrheal tablets from reception. I crept back to my room, and fell deeply asleep all morning.

scan0002By lunch-time I had recovered enough to try a couple of rolls, and walked slowly down to the dining room. Not feeling up to much conversation, I chose a seat at the end of the table, in the corner of the room. M. pranced in, sat down across the table from me and proceeded to down a full plate of food (which rather turned my stomach!). Again the picture of health, dressed in a red “sports bra” top, which showed off her newly tanned midriff, she was cheerfully flippant to Omar the waiter, and seemed not at all affected by my discomfort.

“Have Omar bring some mint tea to your room”, she said. “That’ll settle your stomach”.

Mette, the Norwegian lady, told me how much she enjoyed the Temple of Isis, where the group had been that morning. She admitted to especially liking Isis’ temple because Isis was a female goddess, and she went on to describe enthusiastically various aspects of the Temple, especially the way the Wings of Isis spread around the Temple to protect it.

“I’m so sorry you missed it,” she said kindly.

“Well, that’s one thing about being sick,” I said, “you just don’t care.”

The others agreed with M’s suggestion that I ask Omar to bring some peppermint tea, and I took it to my cabin with me.

I drank the tea, took the second dose of medicine, lay down, and turned on the little TV. The classic Egyptian film enchanted me. In the years since then I have purchased many DVD’s of films of that era, including the very one I was watching that afternoon.

After the Egyptian movie I fell deeply asleep again. At dinner I felt hungry enough for a regular meal. That evening there was to be a Nubian folkloric show, and we were all interested in going. It would be our last evening on the boat.

Before the Nubian show, I saw M. talking intently to a couple of strange men.  Then she went rushing past me, speaking to me, and as her words sunk in, my spirits did a downward tailspin.

“You’ll never believe what happened to me…I got attacked twice in two days…it’s never happened to me…I’ll have to tell you all about it later. I’ve been talking to the sheriff.”

I felt like I was drowning, thinking, ‘It better not be Omar, it better not be Omar.”

The Nubian show was great. Two doumbek players, a guy with a large frame drum, and a great singer with a microphone, provided spirited Nubian music for the dancers and an old guy who blew something which looked and sounded like a Turkish zurna.
I was tring to figure out a time to slip Magdi his tip, hoping to catch him alone after the show, as he was always surrounded by members of the group. I really liked Magdi and thought he did a great job as a guide, though, as I have said previously, he was a little too “PC” for my taste. For instance, he refused to admit that the village shrines, which my guidebook (and other books on Egypt) writes of, were indeed shrines.

When I found him, M. was sitting with him ranting and raving about her recent ordeals. It was soon apparent that Omar had been the guilty party, and I begain to be overcome with rage, at her, not at the waiter.

“Why would he want to hurt me, why would he want to hurt me?” she wailed.

“Why did you ever come here with your outrageous flirting, and ruin that boy’s life?’, I thought. For Omar had been sacked, probably most likely also black-balled from all the cruise ships. Hopefully he could still get a job in one of the hotels.

She then related the story, which was that she had asked him to bring some peppermint tea to her room (it is against regulations for male staff to come into a female tourist’s room, so he probably thought this was the invitation he was waiting for) and then he pinned her down to the bed and tried to kiss her. For this he lost his job.

I resolved to wake early, for the next morning would be our last morning on the boat. As I came down the stairs, I thought to myself, “The friend of the whore is coming down the stairs.”

I heard one of the guys behind the reception desk say to the other, “Feyn Omar?” (where’s Omar) The other man muttered something.

It was the last morning to look out on the Nile, from a boat in upper Egypt. There was a slight breeze, and the water was the most beautiful rippling blue color.  The green of the rushes and the white of the graceful little feluccas (sailboats) contrasted against the golden hills of sand beyond. I looked over at the shabby little town and thought of Omar, maybe sitting in his mother’s little house, disgraced and without a job.

The tourist company agent was not due until noon, so I visited the wonderful little Nubian museum with the Norwegians. I told Mettye about Omars actions and his being fired.

“That is very bad,” she said with vehemence. Like me, she blamed M.

That afternoon we flew back to Cairo, and I spent another couple of days with M. and the two guides.  We went climbed the Bab Zuwayla gate ramparts, where the rulers would watch the yearly pilgrimage start off for Mecca. We went to Muhammad Al Gaffar’s three story belly dance costume emporium, to a traditional restaurant, to the Muhammad Ali Mosque, and to a nightclub where we heard some wonderful singing until five in the morning (the show had started at 1AM). At my request, we went to visit the beautiful mosque of the Al Ghuriya complex. Our guides told us that Islamic sights are not usually included in the tourist program, with the exception of the Turkish-style Muhammad Ali Mosque.

I had a great time doing all of this, and during those wonderful days, I didn’t often think of Omar and how he got fired.  But I have thought of it many times since, and still think it is one of the most striking examples of what a misunderstanding between cultures can do.  Of course Omar was stupid; other employees must have warned them that one can never trust the way foreign women act. But I do believe that M’s way of acting with him did cause him to believe that she wanted a sexual episode with him. I still cringe when I think of the incident.

 

She Walked the Pilgrim Trail

Ann on the Pilgrim Trail

Ann on the Pilgrim Trail

    In the fall of 2010, the year she was fifty-five, my friend Ann took six weeks off from work, and went to walk the pilgrim trail, 500 miles, from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees and across the northern top of Spain to the town of Santiago de Campostela.

 At the time, she was working as a self-employed appraiser. Ann has worked many different jobs, including appraisals, making phone calls to settle accounts, working as a construction site manager.

She had lost her husband four years previously to a terminal illness. She and he had raised two children, who are now in their twenties.
 
    Later, I asked her why she decided to go to Spain and spend six weeks walking five hundred miles across the northern part of Spain. Was it for religious reasons? I knew that she had not been raised a Catholic, but that her late husband was Catholic and the children had been raised in that church, more or less.

    “No,” said Ann, “Not really religious, but definitely it was a spiritual experience.”

      For the last years of his life, her husband had suffered from his illness.

     For most of their married life, they had traveled every summer, with their two kids, even when the kids were babies. They always traveled independently, mostly in Europe, England, and in Ireland (where her late husband’s family lives.) The year after Ann’s husband died, she and her mother and son rode the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. 


     “What made you decide to walk the Camino?” I asked.

    “When I travel, one of my favorite questions of fellow travelers is, ‘What is your favorite or best trip?’ Well, some time ago, I met two women who said the camino and then I heard of it again from some backpackers in Yosemite.  After that I made plans to go.”

    It was in the fall, in September and October, and she carried everything on her back.

    “What did you pack?”

    “One small one-pound sleeping bag, a change of clothes, convertible zip pants which could be either short or long, a toothbrush, a comb, a small travel towel, and shampoo. My bag weighed about ten pounds.”

    Before she left, she had a feeling that something wonderful was going to happen—not something concrete (and nothing concrete did happen)—but she realized that she was terrifically excited.

     Ann was not disappointed. She grew a lot during those six weeks, and she told me that she knows that she was challenged physically, mentally, and spiritually…..all at the same time. She feels this with her whole heart, that she really blossomed a great deal, as a person.

    In 2010, when she went, there were few Americans on the pilgrim trail, as it had not yet become as known as it is today. Surprisingly, there were actually quite a few Koreans, as there had been some television program in Korea about the trail to Santiago de Campostela. There were a lot of Germans, as well as pilgrims from all over the world, but most of the pilgrims walking the trail were Spanish.

    There were a few days when she ended up walking alone all day, following the yellow arrow which is the sign that points pilgrims along the Camino. But usually she ended up walking with other people. It was not the same people all the time. She says that she ended up spending time with everyone whom she wanted to spend time with, and there was no time that she did not feel safe. And when she was alone, she did not feel lonely.

    “It was like a community. And any time anyone invited me to have coffee, a meal, beer or whatever, I made a point of accepting.”

    “No matter if people start out doing the trek for recreational reasons, it ends up being spiritual,” she said. Nobody tried to talk to her about religion. But she did go to a Mass almost every day that there was one, and she went into every open church that she passed. She had not been a church-going person, but found that she was going into the churches “because it was a peaceful place to be, and I feel closer to my husband”.

    “What were the places like where you stayed?”

    They were called “albergues”. Some had bunk beds, in some of them you slept on the floor. In the ones where you slept on the floor, there were mats on the floor. Some (of the albergues) were parochial, some were municipal. The parochial ones asked for a donations; the other ones were five euros, and one was ten euros.  They had showers every night.

     “What did you do for meals?”

     “A few places served a dinner,” she said, “Some by donation and sometimes with a specific cost.  And a few places had the typical continental breakfast but not many.  Some albergues had kitchens we could use and some did not.  Sometimes we cooked a meal together.  Most often I ate at nearby restaurant for dinner, and had what is commonly called a pilgrim’s menu which is basically a fixed price dinner with choices of a starter, entrée, desert and might include wine.  My breakfast was often a roll from the dinner bread basket and coffee.”

    “Sleeping in bunkbeds, or on the floor with so many other people around,” I asked, “Did you keep your money under  your clothes, even at night?”

    “Yes,” she answered, “I use a cloth wallet that I wear under my clothes, around my waist.  I slept with it on and I took it to the shower, and hung up within the shower stall.  It had my money, passport, debit & credit card.”

    Traveling so light, she usually washed clothes daily, hand washing and line drying. Sometimes they had the luxury of a washing machine.   

    The pilgrims  carry little folding books made of stiff gray paper called a “Pilgrim’s Passport”. Each albergue stamps the squares on the “passport” with their own stamp. The stamps are called “credenciales” (credentials). She filled up one and a half of the little books.

     I asked Ann about how many miles she covered each day.

    “I don’t know, take 500 and divide it by 42,” she said. “One thing I would tell people, is that when you feel like stopping, stop. Don’t go on when you are tired because when there is a problem it is hard to handle it.” One evening she was tired, but she thought she’d push on four more miles to the next town, but there turned out to be no albergue there.

`    “Did you get blisters on your feet?”

    “Not until four weeks into the trip, not sure what caused it.”

    She said that she wore tennis shoes, she got them at REI, and found them fine to walk in.

     “Last but not least,” I said, “I know you told me that some people were bothered by bedbugs, but you were not…can you elaborate on the bedbug issue.”

    “I did not see much evidence of bedbugs but it was talked about.  My second night, the woman in the next bed woke up with bites.  And then a few weeks in, I met another woman with bites so bad she had gone to the doctor.  The only place I saw what might have been evidence of a bed bug was the one night I slept in a hotel.  I did discuss the issue with hospitaleros, who were all doing what they could to prevent bedbugs.”

    Ann told me that the last days of the Camino, on the last stretch of the trail before the Cathedral (Sarria marks the 100k on the Camino Frances), the trail became much more crowded. Many pilgrims only walk the last 100 kilometers.  This is the minimum distance they need to walk to get the credencial.

    Though it has been a few years since Ann walked the Camino, she still keeps in touch with four or five of the other pilgrims who walked it at the same time she did.  And she is an active member of the group “American Pilgrims on the Camino” (website URL www.americanpilgrims.com ), which has chapters all over this country.

    After hearing all about Ann’s experience, I wanted to know more. She recommended the movie “The Way” to me, while it was still in the theaters, and I went to see it. An excellent, gripping, movie (see film review on this website) which stars father and son actors Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

Also, when Ann told our travel club that the independent documentary “The Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” would be shown here in Phoenix, we all went to see it. The two films give different perspectives on the pilgrims who walk the Camino. I recommend both films highly.

    Also, the actress Shirley MacClaine, who walked the Camino, has written a book on the Pilgrim Trail.


          Walking the pilgrim trail across the north of Spain was a life-changing experience for Ann, and I feel privileged to be able to hear about that famous pilgrim trail from someone who has actually been there and walked it.


Durchgehende Warme Küche (a hilarious example of communication error!)

"I don't need to see the cakes, because I know just what I want!"

“I don’t need to see the cakes, because I know just what I want!”

It was the evening of the first day of our Rick Steves tour, and I was traveling with my sister Nancy. We had just returned from a short boat cruise down the Rhine. The scenery was wonderful: beautiful rugged banks, surging water, the charming villages on the shoreline, and blue sky studded with white clouds.

 

After getting back to the hotel, we ventured out in the early evening to find something to eat.  My sister wanted to buy something to go and eat down by the river, and I wanted to find that cake specialty I’d wanted to try, because in front of so many shops there were signs advertising it.

So we compromised by first buying gyros (called by the Turkish name Döner Kebap) and taking them to eat down by the river, then  looking for a café to get some dessert. The “Durgehende Warme Küche” signs seemed to have disappeared, except for the same caf that we had eaten in the night before. . We walked in and I asked, “Durchgehende warme küche?”

The tall slender Romanian waitress paused a moment,  and then said, “…Yes”.  So we found  a table at the back of the deck which wound around the restaurant, where we could still see the Romantic Rhine, but away from the traffic noise.  The two tables between us and the river seemed to be occupied by snuggling honeymooning couples.

The waitress came and we ordered “ein Kännchen Kafeé” (a small pot of coffee). She asked us if we wanted to come see the cakes.

“No, I don’t need to see them,” I said emphatically, “Because I know just what I want, I’ve been waiting to try the ‘durchgehende warme küche’ and I don’t want anything else.”

“Well…you can’t have that,” she said with a straight face,”because it means ‘kitchen open all the time’ “.  We both just cracked up laughing, and we ordered apfel strudel.

When we were ready to go, I asked Nancy to go inside and pay, as I was afraid I would “lose it” again if I looked that waitress in the face.  Nancy went to pay, and came back and said that the waitress had said that she’d never forget us!

(I had ignored the “umlaut”, and had thus confused the word “kitchen” (küche) with the word for “cake” (kuche).  The signs I’d seen had started to disappear because it was a Sunday evening and the places were no longer serving hot food!)

Festival Ortiz Tirado: A Jewel of a Music Festival in a Gem of a Mexican Town

 Festival Ortiz Tirado: A Jewel of a Music Festival
in a Gem of a Mexican Town

 

When a friend asked me if I wanted to take the bus down to a music festival in Mexico, I jumped at the chance! I was a bit hesitant about taking the bus, but I found all-night TBC buses to be quite nice, with spacious comfy seats that adjust back so one can sleep, a toilet on the bus, and all the stations clean and newly painted. There were absolutely no opportunities to change money, and nothing on the way down but snack and drink machines. (On the return trip the bus hardly stopped at all, so I would recommend bringing some food, bottles of water, and a supply of pesos for the journey.)


It is recommended to  buy tickets in advance and to reserve seats 24 hours before departure if your group wants to sit together. (Not all of the employees speak English, which was no problem for our group of “gringos” because we all have some basic Spanish, and one of our party was fluent in the language.) None of the other passengers were Americans, all were pleasant to us, and the skillful drivers were professional and courteous.

We didn’t change buses until we were all the way down to Navajoa, a city near the southern tip of the state of Sonora.  Then we took a one-hour bus to Alamos.

Although the bus trip was far easier than I expected, it was still a 13 hour bus trip, and it was lovely to get to our artistically decorated room in an annex of the hotel “Hacienda de los Santos” The hotel is a former hacienda which is owned by Americans who have decorated it with lovely colors of paint, paintings and hand-woven rugs, and beautifully landscaped the grounds with lush plantings, statues, and fountains.  The annex, called “Posada Tacobayu” is more reasonably priced than the main part of the hotel, but we had access to the same breakfast room, internet, etc.


It’s true that our shower was somewhat low on water pressure and the water barely warm.  As in many older hotels throughout the world, we were only given one key for the room, although there were three of us.  These things were unimportant compared to the lovely setting and service.

Soon we were having a pleasant breakfast at “Koky’s” a little restaurant with a beautiful patio-garden. One of our party had visited Alamos several times, and other restaurants she recommends are  Las Palmeras, the Café del Sol, and Reyna’s.


In many restaurants in Alamos, the coffee one gets is instant coffee!  But I got a wonderful cappuchino at Café del Sol and there is also a cafe on the high portal with a great view of the church plaza, which sells espresso drinks, luscious slices of cake, and other goodies.

Alamos is a very old town which became rich through its mines, which yielded silver, copper, and gold. Many of the buildings date from the 16th century. When the rich ores were depleted, the “ricos” departed, and many of these buildings had fallen into ruin. American expats, many artists among them, began to move to Alamos and restore the historic buildings, and now these expats number around ten percent of the population and have become very involved with the goings on of the town.


Alamos is the sister city of Scottsdale, Arizona, and the mayor of Scottsdale and many of the Scottsdale members of the sister cities’ organization were there for the festival, and stayed at the same hotel. The group sponsors a student exchange program with Alamos, and other charitable projects, besides helping relations between our two cultures.

The town has two main centers… the main plaza, with its wrought iron bandstand set in a lovely square planted with flowers under towering, slender palm trees, adjoins the massive, stone 16th century church. Around the plaza are the famous “portales” the covered sidewalks lined with arches, cool to walk along even in the heat of the day. I recommend the Museo de Costumbristas, (excellent displays on the local history). You will also find the Palacio Municipal (the city hall, where the opening night gala performances are held) and many restaurants and cafes.

Go through a little alley called the “kissing alley” you find the other center of action in the town, a long double avenue with a tree lined park in between, called “the Alameda”. Here is found the day-to-day action of the town, the bus-station, our favorite taco stand, the Mercado building where everyone buys their groceries, and lots of shops.


Friday during the day we went to see some Yaqui dancers and musicians perform in front of the Artesania Mercado (folk crafts market) a little ways outside of the town center. There were some tables set up under a shade cover, and Yaqui women were stretching out huge tortillas by hand. Two huge aluminum pots on an open fire held red chile and green chile. So of course we had lunch as we watched the performance, and then did some shopping.


As the day went on, one could sense the excitement building, as more and more people began to arrive. Groups of police in brand new dark blue uniforms were manning every corner; a the governor of Sonora would be attending the opening night ceremony. Stages were being set up in the Callehon (a wide alley by the church) in the long park at the Alameda, and at a villa a ways out of town, for the rock band concert.

There was a huge line of dressed-up people for the opening night concert, so we were glad that we had asked the hotel to arrange for tickets for us. I had never heard live opera singers before, and I was just blown away by the skill and emotion displayed by the two Mexican singers who performed. It was fun to see all the VIP´s hob-nobbing during the intermission, in the colonial-era palacio which serves as city all when its not festival time.  It has two stories of loggias built around a plaza, and the concert was on the stage at the front of this.


Other performances included “zarzuela” musical light opera performed by a university troupe, a German country-western band, a Mexican country-western band, a classical clarinet quartet in the lovely church, a group which played Afro-Latin music, and others. Student troubadour groups called “estudiantinas” led the crowds through the streets when the opera performance let out, and street performers along the Alameda included roaming groups of “banda” music, lovely vaquero music, clowns, and even a world music drum and dance group.

On Saturday morning, there is a home tour which includes several of the most magnificent restored colonial homes. It meets in the street in front of the Museo de Costumbristas, is run by a group of ex-pats who donate the proceeds toward scholarships for the youth of Alamos. I so enjoyed seeing how beautifully these homes and gardens have been restored. One of the owners collects Mexican colonial art, and had decorated her entire home in that style.

I chatted with the American owner of the Hotel Hacienda de los Santos over breakfast one morning, and he told me that he and his wife looked all over Mexico before they decided to settle in Alamos. The reason for their decision is that the expat community in Alamos is more thoughtful and more involved in the local community than in many expat communities. Three of the American families have teenage children, and they go to local schools.

I am so pleased that I have had the opportunity to visit this gem of a city, and to attend the first weekend of its wonderful music festival. I can see why a Mexican movie and a “telenovela” have been filmed here. All of the rich sights and sounds and memories will stay with me for a long time.