Disarmed in Egypt
During the last twenty years, we have traveled fairly extensively, both with our students and on our own, but always limited to the times of school vacations--the times that are most crowded, most expensive, and most limited because of obligations of work. So we were eagerly looking forward to retirement in order to take longer and more relaxed trips to some of our favorite places with a time schedule dictated by our whims and not by our jobs. I was particularly interested in revisiting some of my favorite spots taking days rather than hours to wander through favorite museums and down little streets and across long abandoned battlefields. But "She Who Must Be Obeyed" informed me that prior to any "revisits" there were three places that we had to see for a first time: Spain (which had somehow always been scratched from earlier planned itineraries for one reason or another); Ireland (the home of her ancestors); and Egypt (to fulfill her greatest travel dream of all, seeing the Pyramids).
We knew that the first two would be similar to earlier trips we had taken, a little rushed and designed as an overview to give us ideas for later, more leisurely trips; and they went off as planned with even a few bonuses thrown in. On the Ireland trip, we met warm and open people who seemed to have been our friends for years, discovered that there are more shades of green than we can ever count, and even had a little time left for a quick trip through northern Wales. In Spain we saw royal palaces, fascist monuments, and the sheer delicate beauty of Moorish architecture. (We also discovered where all the cigarettes moved to after they were outlawed in American restaurants and public buildings!). While in Spain, we added an overnight trip to Morocco to give us a little hint of what we might find in our planned trip to Egypt.
From the beginning we knew that the Egypt trip would be different from most of our earlier travels. For example, we knew that it would be much more difficult to be as independent as we like to be when we travel. Also, we knew that many of the conveniences that we find easily in the United States and in Europe would require a little extra effort. And, we knew that we couldn't completely ignore the political situation as it was unfolding at the end of 2002. At the same time, we knew we didn't want to be a part of a tour group locked into a five-star hotel and a Mercedes bus, flying halfway around the world to meet only people from Connecticut, Texas, and Oregon. We were going to Egypt to see Egypt, eat Egyptian food, and talk to Egyptian people. Therefore, planning became one of the most important elements of the trip.
Very early in the planning, we realized that as long as we were going that far, it made a lot of sense to include one of our other great dreams in this trip, so we made the decision to add an extension to Jordan to see the ancient city of Petra. We began by contacting the Egyptian ministry of tourism through their web site (www.touregypt.net). From them we received a list of reputable tour companies that offer trips to Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. After weighing all the options we finally decided to use Orbit Tours (www.orbitegy.com) because they would let us design our own itinerary, provide us with a private driver and guide, and include experiences we were unlikely to get with most of the other companies at a cost lower than many of their competitors. Our original plans included three days in Cairo at the Pyramids, the Cairo Museum, Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, the Pharonic Village, and all the other extras that seem to be standard with trips to Egypt; a flight to Abu Simbel in the south of Egypt; a three day Nile cruise with visits to all the major sites between Aswan and Luxor; and finally an overnight visit to an oasis and a campout under the stars in the Western Desert. The Jordan add-on covered private tours in Jerash, Amman, and Petra. We decided to go in early January, a date that would allow us to be there after the end of Ramadan and leave prior to January 27th, the date that had been established as the first reporting date for the U.N. inspectors in Iraq. We had decided that it would be highly unlikely for any military action to begin prior to that first report. In planning the trip we also discovered that we could get much more favorable airfare rates by arranging all the air travel to and from the Middle East through an agent in London, so we decided to add a few days at the beginning and end of the trip in London for seeing a play or two and revisiting good friends and favorite sites.
The trip began as we had planned. We had a busy time in London picking up our tickets and making arrangements for small changes in our flight from Cairo to Jordan, but we still had enough time to see "Mamma Mia," visit the New Globe and the Tate Modern Art Gallery (neither of which we had seen on earlier visits), and eat in a couple of our favorite restaurants on Charlotte Street. The flight on to Cairo via Milan was largely uneventful, and we arrived at the Cairo airport a little after midnight. Agents from the tour company met us even before we picked up our luggage and we were soon heading across the city toward the Giza side of the Nile and our hotel. Six hours later we were up for breakfast and ready to begin our long awaited trip.
We met our driver and guide, stepped through the front door of the hotel, and came face to face for the first time with the unbelievable streets of Cairo in daylight. The midnight drive from the airport had not prepared us for the sights and the sounds that assaulted our senses. Someone told me that Cairo has about 12 million people, and I estimated the number of cars at about 10 million. I estimated the number of traffic lights at zero. Every driver in Cairo apparently has three arms: one to hold the steering wheel, one to honk the horn constantly, and one to wave at all the people he knows (and I think everyone knows at least three quarters of all the people on the streets). For a pedestrian, crossing the street is literally a life and death gamble. There are amazingly few auto accidents involving two cars, but about half the people we met had been hit while walking at least once in their lifetime by a car or motorcycle.
The masses travel by a hodgepodge of public transportation ranging from large diesel belching buses following set routes down to tiny taxis (only slightly larger than a breadbox) that will take you as near or as far as you wish to go. In between is a form of public transportation unique to Cairo: it is made up of a fleet of old VW vans from which the seats have been removed and replaced by small stools. One man drives while another hangs from the open sliding door yelling the proposed route which may change from day to day. The unending lines of traffic are punctuated every thousand yards or so by a donkey pulling a cart full of cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, etc. (The donkeys all appear to be making better time than any of the cars.) The strangest sight of all in the traffic was a single Cadillac SUV driven by a blonde woman wearing sunglasses and talking on a cellphone; it was as if the Starship Enterprise had beamed her up from the Santa Monica freeway and accidentally dropped her into the middle of Cairo and she hadn't even noticed yet.
Day One of our trip was even better than the brochures had made it sound. There was so much to see and do and hear that now when we look back at the photos we're amazed that it all took place in less than eight or nine hours. We visited the ancient capital at Memphis and then saw the older pyramids including the Step Pyramid at Sakkara. After lunch it was on to the Giza Pyramids and to the Sphinx. Sadly for the Egyptians in the tourist industry, the political situation in the Middle East has weakened their economy considerably. But it made for a very easy trip for us; there were no waiting lines at any of the sites. In many of the tombs at Sakkara, no one else was present. Our guide could take the time to show us details that we ordinarily would not have been able to see. At lunch and at dinner, we saw a few tour groups that we assumed were other Americans, but they turned out to be Germans and Russians. During our entire stay in Egypt, we met only one other American couple, and I had the impression that they might be lost. Even at the Great Pyramid, the crowd was small. We were able to hire our camel for the requisite photo opportunity with the three pyramids in the background without having to wait at all. At the Sphinx where tourists have crowded for more than 2000 years, we were able to walk about without any trouble and pose for pictures without worrying about others blocking the shots.
Cairo is an amazing mixture of ancient and modern, religious and secular, rich and poor. Within just a few blocks of the most modern banks and office buildings in the world can be found the most abject poverty imaginable. On one block we could see businessmen in $3000 silk suits and around the next corner find garbage piled three stories high. On the way to the pyramids, we saw not one, but TWO dead horses in the canal. Our emotions were pulled in all directions-- excitement at all we were seeing and pity for the poor. Near the end of our first day, Brenda asked Mahmoud, our driver, if he had done anything wrong because she had noticed the same police car following us at the last few stops. "No," he assured us, "they are for you!" That's when we were told that all American, British, Austrailian, and Israeli tourists had special police guards to help protect the tourism industry. Our guide assured us that we would see them often "unless you really need them." At the end of the day, we were tired but looking forward to Day Two and our planned trip to the famous Cairo Museum.
Sometimes I think we picture our lives as a series of big events connected by ordinary moments that are of little importance. On Day Two of the trip, I discovered how wrong that perception can be. Each moment is important, and the slightest change can alter all events to follow. Within a period of three seconds we were transformed from a couple looking forward to the most exciting vacation of our lives to a couple trying to find the best way to survive and get home in (almost) one piece. At breakfast we were looking through our books trying to make sure we didn't miss the most important exhibits at the museum when I decided I could use a few more bites. While circling the buffet table, I took one small misstep and suddenly realized that I was about to tumble down 15 or 20 marble steps into the kitchen. The next thing I remember is someone from the hotel trying to help me up. Blood was everywhere, but at that point I didn't know if I were hurt seriously or not. I reached out to brace myself and stand up; the muscles in my shoulder moved as they always have but when I looked, I realized that the rest of the arm was dangling helplessly. I had learned a few words of Arabic before I left home, but none of them were "Help! I've broken my arm!" Later I learned that I also had bruises on my leg and a concussion (the source of all the blood apparently). Before going on, I would like to make two points: (1) Your life does not flash before your eyes in these situations; nothing flashed before my eyes, and I think I find that sort of comforting. (2) A humerus is not humorous.
None of the hotel staff could understand the seriousness of my broken arm; they were more worried about the amount of blood. So the first thing they did was to take me back to my room (on the eighth floor!) and put me into bed. By that time, I had made it clear to Brenda that I was certain that my arm or shoulder was seriously hurt, and she was able to communicate that to the hotel manager. They called one of the tiny taxis to take me to a hospital. Someone led me to the elevator and out to the street and the back seat of the taxi. The next few minutes seem to be from a surreal dream. Only I and an eighty-year-old taxi driver with a long white beard were in the car. Hundreds of people were in the street waiting to go to work, and all of them wanted to have a close look at the strange bloody screaming man. Eventually, Brenda and two bellmen from the hotel came out. (Was the delay caused by her finishing her breakfast?) How we all fit into that taxi, I'll never know. The ancient driver shifted it into gear, got down on his horn, and put it into ambulance mode. Within just a few minutes we were at the gate to the emergency room of the Pyramids Hospital, a government teaching hospital that was the closest one to our hotel. Unbelievably the emergency room entrance was blocked by a pole and a rope with a large rock used as the counterweight. No guard was to be found; eventually, one of the bellmen got out and untied the rope. As soon as we started driving in, the guard suddenly appeared yelling for his baksheesh. Five Egyptian pounds seemed to be enough, and we moved on. By the way, the guide was right. We had needed the police that morning, and they were nowhere to be found.
More than five months have now passed since our experience in the Egyptian hospital, and we're able to laugh about many of the things that happened. However, nothing that we say about the hospital or the incidents that happened should in any way be interpreted as diminishing the respect we have for all the doctors, nurses, and staff there who face tremendous medical challenges every day working long hours with limited resources and meager finances. The hospital building itself does not compare with any of the hospitals we're familiar with in the United States; but at the same time, it's much more advanced than the hospitals we often see on television in places like the Congo or Rwanda. During the coverage of the war in Iraq, newsmen sometimes showed the hospitals in that country. Our hospital in Egypt was similar to the ones I saw in that coverage. I have told friends that the inside of the building reminded me of old elementary schools during a rainy week. The janitor would do everything possible to keep it clean but could never quite keep up with everything tracked in by the kids.
Once we got past the pole at the gate, we received attention relatively fast. While they whisked me off to the emergency "room" (a cubicle with a curtain), Brenda had been taken away to complete what she thought were administrative tasks. In fact, her biggest responsibility was turning over the passports and writing a statement describing the accident, assuring them that no overzealous reporter could turn my clumsiness into an act of terrorism by a bellman. The doctors and nurses who first attended to my problems were still more concerned with the bleeding than with my arm; finally, an English speaking doctor was brought in and as soon as I was able to tell him the problem, appropriate measures were taken. Although there were some flies circling my head by then (and later in the X-ray room), I was never afraid and had complete confidence that the doctor knew what he was doing. Within a few minutes, a nurse came in with a hypodermic and I asked her what it was. Her answer, "Morphia," sounded close enough to me and I readily presented her a target. Within the next 30 minutes, there was a brace cast on the arm and I was being wheeled to X-ray. By this time a representative for the tour company had found us and told us there were some people who wanted to meet me. I turned around and was greeted by the head hospital administrator, the director of teaching, the chief surgeon, and several department heads. After they left Brenda leaned down and said "Who do you suppose they think you are?"
In Egypt and in many Middle Eastern cultures, men are stoic and face pain and suffering without displaying their emotions, so I'm certain that no one in the hospital nor in the streets nearby could quite understand what was going on in the X-ray room to cause such crying and screaming. Several years ago I had kidney stones and thought that I had suffered terrible pains, but they were nothing compared to those caused by this young, lovely, 95-pound x-ray technician in the Pyramids Hospital. Even while tears were flowing down my face, she twisted and shoved me in every position possible to x-ray. If my arm weren't already broken, I was certain that it was by the end of that ordeal. Within twenty minutes, the chief surgeon came to us and confirmed our suspicions. The x-rays clearly showed a complete break of the humerus about two inches below the shoulder; the two pointed pieces looked exactly like the two knives I had been feeling in my arm for the last few hours. He told us that surgery would be necessary to insert the flexible rods that would be used to rejoin the bone.
At this point in the trip we faced one of the most difficult decisions of all. We could (a) use the emergency evacuation clause in our travel insurance and fly back to the United States for treatment; (b) follow the advice of our tour company and transfer to a more modern, Westernized hospital in Cairo; or (c) stay right where we were and have surgery at the Pyramids Hospital, even with the imperfections we had already noted. Of course, I immediately selected Option C; Brenda later told me that she knew that my judgment obviously had been influenced by the heavy amounts of morphine in my system, but that her parents had taught her early in life never to argue with a madman or a hopped-up doper. Actually, I had used reasonable logic in making the choice. First of all, I would have had to sell Brenda into captivity with Bedouins on a camel caravan in order to raise enough cash to make the evacuation flight home, have the surgery, and then haggle with the insurance company for months that neither "humerus" nor "Egypt" were in the fine print of the exclusion clauses before being reimbursed and buying her back into freedom. Second, I was frightened out of my wits that if I transferred to the other hospital in Cairo they might insist on new x-rays, and the idea of facing another x-ray technician (who might actually weigh more than 100 pounds!) almost sent me into convulsions. And finally, I really did have confidence in the doctors I had met, and my vast experience with broken bones (watching second and third graders do somersaults wearing their autographed casts) convinced me that they could insert the rods, slap on a cast, and send me on to rejoin my Nile Cruise a day or two later. [It was only after I returned home that I discovered the fatal flaw in my judgement when I read: "With a broken humerus, the prognosis for a speedy recovery of six to eight weeks is excellent for those under 35." Since I qualified on neither age nor waist size, I was out of luck!]
This might be a good time to comment about travel insurance in general. For many years, we traveled without taking out any additional insurance; but as we have gotten older, we have become more prudent, and this incident made us glad that we had made the decision to take out a policy for this trip with Travel Guard International (www.travelguard.com). Although Brenda had difficulty initially contacting the company because of problems with the hospital phone systems, once the representatives of Travel Guard found us, they gave approval for the operation and remained in touch with us on an almost daily basis until we were at home and in our own bed. Soon after I fell, we had decided not to contact any of our family or friends back in the United States and cause them undue worry over something they could do nothing about, so Travel Guard became a kind of surrogate family for us, offering encouragement and hope at a time when we needed it most.
Of course there was good news and bad news about having surgery in the Pyramids Hospital. The Bad News first: No surgery could be performed until we paid in full, in cash!! Travel Guard had faxed their credit card information, and we had our own credit cards, but cash was the rule. Our Orbit tour representatives met with the hospital administrators in order to guarantee that we get "Egyptian rates" rather than "American rates." Then Brenda and our Orbit Tour manager headed out into Cairo to find the money. There are ATM machines everywhere, but they were either broken or had a limit. Finally, they went to a branch of Citibank in the Sheraton and Brenda was able to use one of our credit cards for a cash advance. Ahmed, the tour manager, told her to withdraw 6000 Egyptian pounds for the hopital costs, 600 pounds for upper-level bribes, follow-up visits, and "other incidental costs." Finally, she needed to get fifty or sixty 5-pound-notes to hand out as needed for other services in the hospital. Now for the Good News: After currency conversion, the cost for the emergency room, surgery, x-rays, all associated tests, four or five nights in a private room for both of us (with a balcony from which we could see the pyramids), all meals for two, and two follow-up visits, and including all bribes, baksheesh, credit card interest for a cash advance, and "incidental costs" totaled less than $1500 (and we've already been reimbursed most of that cost by our primary health insurance and the secondary travel insurance)! We have made up our minds that if this arm eventually turns out okay, all our future surgery might be performed in Cairo!
I have often told our family and friends that the costs, the inconvenience, and the pain and suffering have almost been worth it for the great stories this experience provided me for the future. Almost! Nevertheless, here are just a few of our favorite incidents:
Egyptian government hospitals don't provide all the accessories that we are used to receiving in American hospitals, so Brenda and Ahmed (our tour manager) had to go shopping for some of the extras: towels, extra pillows, water, tissues, slippers, and toilet paper! It was on this shopping expedition that they realized that they could make better time on foot than in the car, so they abandoned his car in a parking lot and became pedestrians. Each time they had to cross the street, Ahmed--a large man--would tell her, "Use my body as a shield from the traffic," and she readily obeyed.
Once all the arrangements had been made for the cash, my surgery was scheduled for 9:00 p.m. on our second day at the hospital. By this time, we had been moved to a larger room that included a roll-away bed for Brenda, an air-conditioner that worked some of the time, and a much better view of the Pyramids. We had also achieved a sort of celebrity status by that time at the hospital. The tour company owner and his wife had brought flowers and visited; two of our drivers and guides had been by to check on us; of course Ahmed was also there. Several doctors and surgeons had been in and out, and many ordinary Egyptians who were there to visit their own family members came in to practice their English and wish us well. There was an older lady in the room next door who had the exact same injuries I had (a broken humerus, a concussion, and lacerations on the leg); she had been hit by a motorcycle! She and her daughter and granddaughter had spent a lot of time visiting with us. Later, when he was looking at our photos, my nephew observed, "You had a lot more visitors in Egypt than you ever had when you were in the hospital here!"
About four hours before my scheduled operation time, I had my biggest scare of all. Brenda was still away with Ahmed completing the shopping, when a big man who spoke no English came in with a wheelchair and signaled for me to get in. We went down the elevator several floors and he deposited me in a hallway behind several other people in wheelchairs. I had no idea where I had been taken. The signs on all the doors were in Arabic with an English translation written below; I glanced up at the sign above me and the English on it was "Shortened and Deformed Bones." At that point, I almost backed out, wondering what I had not been told. As it turned out, that was not my destination; it was only a place to park until I could be taken into the room with one of the heart doctors to be checked prior to the surgery. (She told me that I have a "great heart.") But the worst was yet to come. A different man came to get my wheelchair and take me back to the room. Instead of turning left toward what I knew was the hallway that eventually led to the elevator, he turned right and pushed me into the parking lot. About 50 yards farther, he came to a sudden stop as a huge black Mercedes backed out and came to a halt directly in front of my chair. Before I could even scream, headlines flashed before my eyes, "American Kidnapped in Cairo!" and I began to wonder how much I'd be worth. But, it turned out that this was just another well-to-do hospital administrator heading home after work, and as he continued on his way two seconds later, we continued on our way toward what was really just a shortcut back to the room. Afterwards, I thought that it's probably for the best that I never have to find out what I'm worth.
By the time I reached the room, Brenda had returned, and as the time for the operation neared, she began to worry more and more. But earlier in the day, the surgeon who was to perform the operation had visited me and explained everything about the procedure, and he seemed so familiar to me--someone who had actually been in my house but I couldn't quite place his name--that I was actually calmer and more confident as the time for the operation grew closer. Finally, my appointed time came and they wheeled me into the operating area. The anesthesiologist inserted his needle and told me that I would begin feeling drowsy, and just as he did I spotted my surgeon coming toward me down the hall; as he was straightening his surgeon's operating cap in a familiar motion I had seen dozens of time, I realized who he is: It was Dr. Mark Greene, the Anthony Edwards character who had been on "E.R." for many years. He hadn't died after all; he'd just been transferred from Chicago to Cairo. So, as the anesthetic dulled my brain even further, I smiled without fear knowing that anyone who could have performed the operating room miracles he had while winning a Golden Globe and an Emmy could certainly handle something as simple as my arm!
Two or three hours later I was greeted by a "Welcome Back" from one of the group of guys in scrubs in the recovery room. Not until later did I learn that a few minutes earlier, one of the older ladies in the hospital had knocked on our door and signaled to Brenda to help her move my bed out into the hall and down to the elevator. It was then that we learned another part of the reason that our hospital stay was not as expensive: the return from recovery room to hospital room was self-service! Brenda wheeled my bed into the recovery room, the guys in scrubs tossed me from the gurney to the bed, and one of them assisted her in pushing me back into the hallway, up the elevator, and down to my room! At that point she gave both the man and the woman the "required" five-pound note that was expected for service, and for the first and only time we were in the Middle East, the young man signaled that he needed more! Finally, she realized that he was not asking for additional money for himself but for the four other helpers in the recovery room who had not been there for the payoff.
We had read about baksheesh before the trip, and we never completely mastered its complexities. It is rarely asked for but always expected and might be described as something that is part gratuity, part "Thank You," and part bribe, but it also encompasses some of the Islamic obligation of almsgiving. At first it bothered us a little, and it was always difficult to have enough small denomination bills handy at a time they were needed; but the longer we were there, the more we accepted the system for what it is. Most of these people are simply trying to make a living and feed their families in a crowded country with a poor economy and too few jobs. On one of our follow-up visits to the hospital, I had to have the cast replaced because it was too tight, and Brenda asked the young doctor if it were proper for us to offer a tip to the orderly who was helping to put on the new cast. "Ah," he answered, "I see you have learned how the system works in Egypt." He went on to explain to us that it is customary to offer gratuities to the non-professional staff but that we are not to tip the doctors and the nurses. Later, on our last day in Egypt while waiting at the airport, Brenda had to go to the restroom, and the lady who worked at keeping it clean was sitting on the floor there eating her meager dinner. Having no coins or smaller bills, Brenda gave her a five pound note (at that time, worth slightly more than one dollar). She looked up, started crying, and kissed the money before putting it away. It was then that we really knew that someday we would have to return, and on our next trip, we wouldn't question the practice at all.
After the operation, the next few days in the hospital are mostly a blur: more tests and a few more x-rays (now less painful with the pins and the cast). The Egyptian cast was the old-fashioned plaster slab, weighing (I think) about sixty pounds. I decided to think of it as a millstone that had been placed around my neck as punishment for committing the deadly sin of clumsiness. Breakfast and dinner were ordinary and much the same every day, but lunch was always a treat-- baked chicken, rice, soup, hot bread, and dessert. After three days I was finally allowed to have my first tiny cup of coffee, about the size of a thimble but as thick as mud and as dark as midnight and so full of caffeine that for a couple of minutes I actually forgot about the slab.
Once we had opted to have the operation in Cairo, we also had decided to use our original airline tickets, remaining in Egypt for the full ten days and going on to Jordan and then back to London before returning home. After a few days of recuperation, the doctor agreed that I could rest and recover in a hotel room just as easily as I could in a hospital bed as long as I could return for my follow-up visits. The first thing I did when I was released was to go to the hotel stairs that had been the cause of the whole problem; I was certain that there had to be some design flaw that had caused me to fall in the first place. But when I got there I realized that the only real flaw had probably been my gluttony, and reaching for another sausage had been my downfall. Mohammed, our driver and a devout Muslim, whispered to me, "I understand you were going for the pork. That should tell you something."
Orbit Tours moved us from our hotel near the Pyramids to one of the Sheratons on the Nile so that I could at least sit on the terrace and watch the boats go by. At the Pyramids hospital, we had been exposed to some of Cairo's worst poverty; but at our new hotel, full of Saudi sheiks, Kuwaiti oil ministers, and even a Chinese punk rock band, I think that we were probably regarded as a part of that poverty and had taken a wrong turn and landed in their lobby. During the next few days, we rested from the ordeal and were actually able to complete a few hours of the sightseeing we had missed. When the time came to leave for Jordan, we were both sad to be leaving the many new friends we had made in Egypt and sorry to have missed so much of our tour, but we were eager to see Petra and hopeful that we'd be able to complete at least a part of our planned trip.
Prior to leaving on this vacation we had convinced both our mothers that we wouldn't be anywhere near the possible trouble brewing in the Middle East, so we both had to laugh a little when the first sign we saw leaving the airport in Amman was a large arrow and a sign reading "Iraqi Border." Fortunately, we didn't have to take that highway, and all our experiences in Jordan were positive. Jordan appeared to be a little more westernized (and a little more expensive) than Egypt. We visited Jerash, one of the finest Roman/Byzantine ruins we have ever seen, before driving south to visit the ancient city of Petra. Ever since we had seen our first pictures of Petra more than twenty years ago, one of our greatest travel dreams was to make the visit. Anyone who has visited this World Heritage site can tell you that no words nor pictures can adequately describe it. Suffice it to say that I was willing to walk a total of four or five miles lugging my millstone to see it, and after it was over, I wished that I could do it again!
We are often amazed at how technology has changed the world. While we were driving through the desert toward Petra, we were connected by cellphone to our Jordanian tour agent who let us know about a change in our Alitalia flight from Milan to London two days hence; we were then able to give him instructions for a fax to send to Scala House, our London accommodations, to tell the owner that I had broken my arm and needed a driver to help us with the luggage when we arrived at the newly scheduled time at Heathrow. By the time we arrived at our Petra hotel an hour or two later, we had a copy of the e-mail from Scala House expressing their regrets about my accident and confirming that someone would be waiting for us in the arrival hall at the airport. How can all this be possible in a world where we still see women washing their clothes on rocks in a canal fifty yards from a dead horse?
In the years that we have traveled, we have usually tried to avoid talking about world politics at all, and most of the time the subject never comes up. But on this trip, largely because of the almost certain military intervention in Iraq, we found that more people were curious about what we thought, asked our opinions, and more freely expressed their own. We considered our wisest course of action to be as neutral and non-controversial as possible. Almost everyone we met strongly disagreed with American policy in the region, but we did not meet anyone who did not like America and Americans. For them, a country's policy and its people are clearly distinct entities For some of the people we met their greatest dream is the same dream that our ancestors had--to come to the United States or Canada to make a better life for themselves and their families; but most of them also realize that as a result of the acts of a few terrible people those dreams will probably never come true as it becomes more and more difficult for them to have their applications for immigration approved.
After we arrived home, we often heard newscasts describing the "Arab street," and if we were to rely only on many of those reports, we would believe that the Middle East is made up almost entirely of rabid anti-American terrorists. Although our experiences are limited, from what we saw of Arab streets, they are crowded mostly with ordinary people whose thoughts are not filled with geopolitics but rather with the concerns of their families, their jobs, and their day-to-day lives--- people who are in fact very similar to the neighbors and friends who fill our own streets. Although there are clearly evil people within our world, our own experiences continue to teach us that the good clearly outnumber the bad. Like Blanche DuBois, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" and that was never more true than during the two-weeks following my fall down the stairs in Cairo.
During and after this trip, I have learned many lessons (e.g., "When in Rome, do as the Romans do; when in Cairo, avoid the pork.") but the most valuable one of all took several weeks to fully sink in. At one of my lowest points, when I was just out of surgery and I was depressed about all the trouble that I was facing, Ahmed told me, "In our faith, we believe that when someone has had good fortune such as you have had, you should go out and do something kind for someone less fortunate." At the time, I simply smiled at him through the pain and thought, "What good fortune is he talking about?" But as the weeks have worn on, I've begun to realize exactly what a relative thing "good fortune" is, and the more I have thought about it, the more I understand what he was trying to tell me. We have returned to the United States after trips abroad thirty-five times in the last twenty years, and on each of those occasions, we always have been glad to be home. But this return was a really special one, and during the five months that I have lain around recovering, I have realized just how fortunate I am compared to so many others around me and throughout the world. I have a wife who continues to love me and take care of me no matter how much a curmudgeon I become; I have family and friends who overlook all my flaws and still offer understanding when I really need it; and most of all, I have the good fortune to live in a wonderful country where all this is possible. So this year, I invite all of you to join me: assess your own good fortune, and then go out and do something kind for someone less fortunate than you. And, by the way, for all of those who have asked, Brenda and I can hardly wait until we are able to return to Egypt to complete our unfinished itinerary!
Copyright 2003 by W. A. Robison
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