© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved

 

Going Native

It was hot, forty-five degrees centigrade (113 Farenheit) in the shade. It was brutal in the sun. I thought that those who lived here probably knew something about dressing for the heat and decided to purchase a galabia (the long robe-like outwear of the Arabs). The concierge recommended an English speaking tailor who could make me one in a couple of hours. We found the tailor. He took my measurements, helped me choose an appropriate cotton material (light brown to hide the dust), and told me to return in about two hours. When I returned, the galabia was ready and fit well. The tailor was delighted. He said that I would look like an Arab if only I did not have a beard. “Why did I wear a beard?” he wanted to know, “Men in Egypt do not wear beards”. I asked if he believed that Christ was a prophet. “Of course” he said, “I am Muslim, and we believe that Christ was a great prophet”. “Well,” I said “Christ wore a beard, Mohammed wore a beard, and many of the mullahs, wear beards.” This was true, he conceded, but he pointed out that I was neither prophet nor mullah. I tried another tack. Noticing that he sported a rather bushy moustache, I asked why he wore a moustache? Puffing out his chest and flexing his muscles he said, “In Egypt men wear moustache.” I responded puffing out my chest and flexing my muscles, “In Canada men  wear beard.”

Return to Cairo

The concierge at our hotel did us one last favour. He booked us an air conditioned, second-class, private sleeping compartment for the return journey to Cairo. We rode in our horse drawn carriage to the train station. A porter carried our packs to our compartment and took our order for dinner. After dinner, a porter came in, made up the beds, and wished us a restful night. The clackety-clack of the steel wheels on steel rails, the gentle swaying of the railcar, and the cool air guaranteed a good nights sleep. I decided that I could easily get used to this style of travel.

Giza and the Great Pyramids

The Cairo buses totally unnerved us, so we took a taxi to visit the great pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. As our taxi arrived, men on camels, robes flowing in the wind, whips flailing, galloped alongside shouting “You ride my camel, only 50 piastres. You ride my camel, only 50 piastres.” As we tried to stroll among the pyramids, souvenir sellers, faux guides, young men whose fathers owned perfume shops, and camel ride touts pestered us mercilessly. We found temporary respite by climbing massive stone blocks of the great pyramid of Chops. The pyramids were truly impressive, sitting on one of those massive blocks partway up the pyramid I was struck with a sense of wonder at the four and a half millennia that had passed since its construction, and of awe at its cost in human labour and life. My sense of wonder was short lived as another tout, who had climbed after me, approached and tried to sell me a mummified hand. Before leaving Giza, we discovered something even more ill-tempered than a jilted tout. We succumbed to a tout and purchased a camel ride. Our camel handler was friendly, even fun, but his loud, foul smelling, grunting, bellowing, flatulent, and uncomfortable camels may have been the rudest animals on earth. The camel ride was a pleasant interlude, but the constant pestering and hassles were becoming intensely irritating and taking the pleasure out of Cairo.

A Final Lesson

Wearing my galabia, I learned a third valuable lesson. The simple act of wearing local clothing was viewed as a sign of respect and an attempt to conform. The response from people on the street was amazing. Men sitting at street-side cafes, drinking coffee and smoking fragrant tobacco in their hookahs (water-pipes) would laugh, leap to their feet to shake my hand, pat me on the back, and say welcome. Beard or not, I was clearly not Arabic, but I was a guest who was showing respect for the culture and treated as such. Not only did the hassling nearly disappear, but my ability to bargain increased dramatically, and we discovered that Egyptians, even in Cairo, were a friendlier and more hospitable people than we had imagined. Despite the great reception, my wardrobe was incomplete, it lacked the multi-pocketed vest worn under the galibia to carry valuables like watches and money. One fellow was adamant that I needed a vest. Where would I carry my money he demanded. I carried my passport and cash in a leather pouch hung from my waist by a leather thong and tucked into the front of my pants. He was sceptical until I told him that whereas his vest pocket could be picked by a pick-pocket, my pouch could not be picked without my knowledge. One observer to the exchange, laughed so hard that he fell from his stool.

The Black Market

We still had a problem. Our Egyptian currency was useless outside of Egypt and we had no other cash. We still had two airline tickets from Kenya to Rwanda but these could only be exchanged in London or Copenhagen. Changing currency on the black market was relatively easy if you want Egyptian pounds, but getting English pounds or American dollars was another story. We finally convinced an American tourist to exchange twenty dollars. This would be the only cash we had when we landed in London, and it would have to last until we could cash in our unused airline tickets. We still had Egyptian currency to spend before we left Cairo so we ate and slept well, and spent the rest on souvenirs we would not otherwise have purchased..

Final Adventure

Despite the uncertainty of landing in London with virtually no money and the impending end of an incredible journey, I was in a surprisingly good mood the day we left. The first half of our trip had seemed to last forever. We had seen so much, experienced more cultural diversity, seen more geography and architecture, and met more people than seemed possible in so short a time. Halfway  through the trip, time began to intrude on our consciousness. Towards the end of August we began to feel a sense of urgency about how much was left to see and do. Despite an initial bad impression, Egypt and Cairo had grown on me and I was sorry to leave. By the morning of our departure the sense of urgency had dissipated and we began the denouement of the journey. I was looking forward to the familiarity of home. We were dressed for London and so had to run one final gauntlet of touts and faux guides as we left the hotel for the airport. We arrived at the airport for our flight to London. All of our souvenirs and objects d’art had been carefully padded and packed. All that is except for our already beloved Makonde carvings. We retrieved them from left- luggage, this time without hassles, and proceeded to check-in. Despite having been allowed to carry them as in-cabin luggage on the flight in, Egypt Air refused to allow them as in-cabin luggage on the flight to London. They were adamant; our pleas that we could not possibly pack them adequately fell on deaf ears. After much discussion, the airline did agree to treat them as fragile and place them in special cargo hangers to ensure that they were not damaged. We had no access to packing materials except packing tape from the airline. They had no boxes, bags, or bins that we could use. In desperation, we retrieved our foam pads from our packs and tried to wrap the carvings in the foam. We had one of the airline employees write a sign in Arabic that said “Fragile, Handle With Care”. We added another in English, and hoping for the best, consigned them to the luggage handlers. As we walked across the tarmac to the boarding gantry, I noticed our foam pads laying on the runway below the cargo doors. I walked over and could see small pieces of ebony laying beside them. I should have known better, but I walked over to retrieve the pieces.  A luggage handler ran over to chase me away and I remember haranguing him about damaging our statues. I was pointing to the signs and asking if he could read. At this point I noticed a small crowd around me. Looking up I was confronted by several uniformed, machine gun armed men. They motioned, emphatically and unambiguously, for me to return to the gantry. I quickly retrieved the pieces of statue and as I walked to the gantry, I could see our statues were being placed gingerly into a luggage sling in the cargo hold. Unfortunately, it was too late.

London

As my adrenalin and respiration returned to normal levels, the plane taxied down the runway. Our attention now turned to the fact that we had only twenty dollars left and that we still had three days in London before our return flight to Vancouver. We decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of the bed and breakfast we had stayed at three and half months earlier. The money was enough to cover train fare from Gatwick to London and leave enough for about two small meals. We walked from the train station to our old accommodation. The manager was very understanding and waved the deposit fee. We could pay after we had exchanged our unused airline tickets to Rwanda. The next day was spent walking from office to office until we finally got our refund. Tired and relieved, we purchased packing boxes for what was left of our carvings, returned to the hotel, and prepared to depart for home the next day.

Retrospective

Most of the preceding was written from journal notes 20 years after that trip. Today, after nearly 45 years, I cannot remember an experience which so profoundly affected me as that journey into Africa. For years after I believed that everyone should experience what I had experienced. I believed that it would make them appreciate what they had, that it would make them more tolerant and understanding of other people and cultures, and that would let them see that all people and all cultures have something of value to teach us. I was naive. Now, when I think back on the Aussies who accompanied us on the bus from Nairobi to Arusha. I suspect that their journey did nothing more than convince them of their own cultural superiority and enhance their disdain for cultures and people other than their own. I think of the two Americans who trashed a car, hoping to find the valuables of an Indian family forced to leave Uganda and nearly all of their possessions behind, and I doubt that their travel experience made them better human beings. However, I know that my experiences made me more conscious and tolerant of other cultures and of my own incredible good fortune, and I would encourage others to travel, whatever they may take from the experience. I became aware of the contrasts in human nature, what black Africans did to Asian Africans in Uganda, the attempted tribal genocide of black African Tutsi by black African Hutu, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews and Slavs in Europe, Christian Slavs attempt to eliminate Muslim Slavs in the former Yugoslavia, and I know that no race holds a monopoly on intolerance and atrocity. I think of the hurt felt by a young African Asian woman when suffering discrimination in England and the disdain she exressed for her African staff without recognizing the irony. I remember spending a very uncomfortable night in the Arusha bus station as a large African man harangued us and then having our fellow bus passengers pass food down the aisle to us because we were not eating. I remember a man, crippled as a child so that he could beg, being grateful to his parents for having the courage to give him a future, and I remember a ridiculously dressed man on a lake steamer who’s dignity and compassion made me feel morally shabby. I learned a lot about travel,  I learned a lot about myself.  I learned that I could cope with adversity, hardship, and danger, and my self confidence grew accordingly. I experienced both hardship and luxury and discovered that luxury is wonderful but that my strongest and most nostalgic memories are associated with difficult conditions. I also learned that it is difficult to meet locals when travelling in a car and that shared hardship can dissolve cultural barriers. Most importantly, I learned not to judge other cultures by my own and that genuine respect for, and interest in, local culture engenders mutual respect and hospitality.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved

 

Going Native

It was hot, forty-five degrees centigrade (113 Farenheit) in the shade. It was brutal in the sun. I thought that those who lived here probably knew something about dressing for the heat and decided to purchase a galabia (the long robe-like outwear of the Arabs). The concierge recommended an English speaking tailor who could make me one in a couple of hours. We found the tailor. He took my measurements, helped me choose an appropriate cotton material (light brown to hide the dust), and told me to return in about two hours. When I returned, the galabia was ready and fit well. The tailor was delighted. He said that I would look like an Arab if only I did not have a beard. “Why did I wear a beard?” he wanted to know, “Men in Egypt do not wear beards”. I asked if he believed that Christ was a prophet. “Of course” he said, “I am Muslim, and we believe that Christ was a great prophet”. “Well,” I said “Christ wore a beard, Mohammed wore a beard, and many of the mullahs, wear beards.” This was true, he conceded, but he pointed out that I was neither prophet nor mullah. I tried another tack. Noticing that he sported a rather bushy moustache, I asked why he wore a moustache? Puffing out his chest and flexing his muscles he said, “In Egypt men  wear moustache.” I responded puffing out my chest and flexing my muscles, “In Canada men wear beard.”

Return to Cairo

The concierge at our hotel did us one last favour. He booked us an air conditioned, second-class, private sleeping compartment for the return journey to Cairo. We rode in our horse drawn carriage to the train station. A porter carried our packs to our compartment and took our order for dinner. After dinner, a porter came in, made up the beds, and wished us a restful night. The clackety-clack of the steel wheels on steel rails, the gentle swaying of the railcar, and the cool air guaranteed a good nights sleep. I decided that I could easily get used to this style of travel.

Giza and the Great Pyramids

The Cairo buses totally unnerved us, so we took a taxi to visit the great pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. As our taxi arrived, men on camels, robes flowing in the wind, whips flailing, galloped alongside shouting “You ride my camel, only 50 piastres. You ride my camel, only 50 piastres.” As we tried to stroll among the pyramids, souvenir sellers, faux guides, young men whose fathers owned perfume shops, and camel ride touts pestered us mercilessly. We found temporary respite by climbing massive stone blocks of the great pyramid of Chops. The pyramids were truly impressive, sitting on one of those massive blocks partway up the pyramid I was struck with a sense of wonder at the four and a half millennia that had passed since its construction, and of awe at its cost in human labour and life. My sense of wonder was short lived as another tout, who had climbed after me, approached and tried to sell me a mummified hand. Before leaving Giza, we discovered something even more ill-tempered than a jilted tout. We succumbed to a tout and purchased a camel ride. Our camel handler was friendly, even fun, but his loud, foul smelling, grunting, bellowing, flatulent, and uncomfortable camels may have been the rudest animals on earth. The camel ride was a pleasant interlude, but the constant pestering and hassles were becoming intensely irritating and taking the pleasure out of Cairo.

A Final Lesson

Wearing my galabia, I learned a third valuable lesson. The simple act of wearing local clothing was viewed as a sign of respect and an attempt to conform. The response from people on the street was amazing. Men sitting at street-side cafes, drinking coffee and smoking fragrant tobacco in their hookahs (water-pipes) would laugh, leap to their feet to shake my hand, pat me on the back, and say welcome. Beard or not, I was clearly not Arabic, but I was a guest who was showing respect for the culture and treated as such. Not only did the hassling nearly disappear, but my ability to bargain increased dramatically, and we discovered that Egyptians, even in Cairo, were a friendlier and more hospitable people than we had imagined. Despite the great reception, my wardrobe was incomplete, it lacked the multi-pocketed vest worn under the galibia to carry valuables like watches and money. One fellow was adamant that I needed a vest. Where would I carry my money he demanded. I carried my passport and cash in a leather pouch hung from my waist by a leather thong and tucked into the front of my pants. He was sceptical until I told him that whereas his vest pocket could be picked by a pick-pocket, my pouch could not be picked without my knowledge. One observer to the exchange, laughed so hard that he fell from his stool.

The Black Market

We still had a problem. Our Egyptian currency was useless outside of Egypt and we had no other cash. We still had two airline tickets from Kenya to Rwanda but these could only be exchanged in London or Copenhagen. Changing currency on the black market was relatively easy if you want Egyptian pounds, but getting English pounds or American dollars was another story. We finally convinced an American tourist to exchange twenty dollars. This would be the only cash we had when we landed in London, and it would have to last until we could cash in our unused airline tickets. We still had Egyptian currency to spend before we left Cairo so we ate and slept well, and spent the rest on souvenirs we would not otherwise have purchased..

Final Adventure

Despite the uncertainty of landing in London with virtually no money and the impending end of an incredible journey, I was in a surprisingly good mood the day we left. The first half of our trip had seemed to last forever. We had seen so much, experienced more cultural diversity, seen more geography and architecture, and met more people than seemed possible in so short a time. Halfway  through the trip, time began to intrude on our consciousness. Towards the end of August we began to feel a sense of urgency about how much was left to see and do. Despite an initial bad impression, Egypt and Cairo had grown on me and I was sorry to leave. By the morning of our departure the sense of urgency had dissipated and we began the denouement of the journey. I was looking forward to the familiarity of home. We were dressed for London and so had to run one final gauntlet of touts and faux guides as we left the hotel for the airport. We arrived at the airport for our flight to London. All of our souvenirs and objects d’art had been carefully padded and packed. All that is except for our already beloved Makonde carvings. We retrieved them from left-luggage, this time without hassles, and proceeded to check-in. Despite having been allowed to carry them as in-cabin luggage on the flight in, Egypt Air refused to allow them as in-cabin luggage on the flight to London. They were adamant; our pleas that we could not possibly pack them adequately fell on deaf ears. After much discussion, the airline did agree to treat them as fragile and place them in special cargo hangers to ensure that they were not damaged. We had no access to packing materials except packing tape from the airline. They had no boxes, bags, or bins that we could use. In desperation, we retrieved our foam pads from our packs and tried to wrap the carvings in the foam. We had one of the airline employees write a sign in Arabic that said “Fragile, Handle With Care”. We added another in English, and hoping for the best, consigned them to the luggage handlers. As we walked across the tarmac to the boarding gantry, I noticed our foam pads laying on the runway below the cargo doors. I walked over and could see small pieces of ebony laying beside them. I should have known better, but I walked over to retrieve the pieces.  A luggage handler ran over to chase me away and I remember haranguing him about damaging our statues. I was pointing to the signs and asking if he could read. At this point I noticed a small crowd around me. Looking up I was confronted by several uniformed, machine gun armed men. They motioned, emphatically and unambiguously, for me to return to the gantry. I quickly retrieved the pieces of statue and as I walked to the gantry, I could see our statues were being placed gingerly into a luggage sling in the cargo hold. Unfortunately, it was too late.

London

As my adrenalin and respiration returned to normal levels, the plane taxied down the runway. Our attention now turned to the fact that we had only twenty dollars left and that we still had three days in London before our return flight to Vancouver. We decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of the bed and breakfast we had stayed at three and half months earlier. The money was enough to cover train fare from Gatwick to London and leave enough for about two small meals. We walked from the train station to our old accommodation. The manager was very understanding and waved the deposit fee. We could pay after we had exchanged our unused airline tickets to Rwanda. The next day was spent walking from office to office until we finally got our refund. Tired and relieved, we purchased packing boxes for what was left of our carvings, returned to the hotel, and prepared to depart for home the next day.

Retrospective

Most of the preceding was written from journal notes 20 years after that trip. Today, after nearly 45 years, I cannot remember an experience which so profoundly affected me as that journey into Africa. For years after I believed that everyone should experience what I had experienced. I believed that it would make them appreciate what they had, that it would make them more tolerant and understanding of other people and cultures, and that would let them see that all people and all cultures have something of value to teach us. I was naive. Now, when I think back on the Aussies who accompanied us on the bus from Nairobi to Arusha. I suspect that their journey did nothing more than convince them of their own cultural superiority and enhance their disdain for cultures and people other than their own. I think of the two Americans who trashed a car, hoping to find the valuables of an Indian family forced to leave Uganda and nearly all of their possessions behind, and I doubt that their travel experience made them better human beings. However, I know that my experiences made me more conscious and tolerant of other cultures and of my own incredible good fortune, and I would encourage others to travel, whatever they may take from the experience. I became aware of the contrasts in human nature, what black Africans did to Asian Africans in Uganda, the attempted tribal genocide of black African Tutsi by black African Hutu, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews and Slavs in Europe, Christian Slavs attempt to eliminate Muslim Slavs in the former Yugoslavia, and I know that no race holds a monopoly on intolerance and atrocity. I think of the hurt felt by a young African Asian woman when suffering discrimination in England and the disdain she exressed for her African staff without recognizing the irony. I remember spending a very uncomfortable night in the Arusha bus station as a large African man harangued us and then having our fellow bus passengers pass food down the aisle to us because we were not eating. I remember a man, crippled as a child so that he could beg, being grateful to his parents for having the courage to give him a future, and I remember a ridiculously dressed man on a lake steamer who’s dignity and compassion made me feel morally shabby. I learned a lot about travel,  I learned a lot about myself.  I learned that I could cope with adversity, hardship, and danger, and my self confidence grew accordingly. I experienced both hardship and luxury and discovered that luxury is wonderful but that my strongest and most nostalgic memories are associated with difficult conditions. I also learned that it is difficult to meet locals when travelling in a car and that shared hardship can dissolve cultural barriers. Most importantly, I learned not to judge other cultures by my own and that genuine respect for, and interest in, local culture engenders mutual respect and hospitality.
The author gone native.