Sometimes in life things just work out.
This trip was one of those times for me. And I mean the entire trip. Sure, I got (as one of my Aussie co-travelers so eloquently phrased it) "the shits" from a cup of Jordanian yogurt and had a queasy stomach for four days after, but really, it wasn't major, and when you offset all of the things that worked out harmoniously, gorgeously, fantastically, bad yogurt (or Yog-hurt as my Brit friends say) amounts to nihil.
I knew the Middle East was going to be drastically different the minute I stepped into the cabin of my first EgyptAir flight. I mean, everyone always says that the Middle East is a different world, but it's one thing to talk about it and it's quite another to experience it. So when I stepped onto the blue and gold carpet of the aircraft and was greeted by smiling captain and flight attendant, who were both gorgeous in that dark, exotic, middle-eastern way, whilst overwhelmed by the loud sounds of a woman singing in Arabic to tribal beats, I found my world on pause for just a moment as I took it all in. Picture the same kind of moment you see in movies - the film completely freezes whilst the narrator explains some detail. My world froze as my eyeballs and eardrums took in the onslaught of foreign-ness offered on the aircraft. My eyes came to rest on a small book, ornate and leather-bound, hung on the wall of the craft opposite the doorway. As it's text was in Arabic, I had no way of telling what it was, so I asked the attendant, who said: "It is the holy qu-ran."
Don't you think?
Let's pause for a second and construct a situation. What would it be like to walk onto an aircraft, let's say in Texas, we'll call it "Tex-air." You walk in and the carpet is a pattern of cattle. The music is loud, twangy old country and the captain greets you with a drawling "How-dee!" whilst wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat (just how he fits into the cockpit wearing it is a mystery to all!) And on the wall hangs a gilded copy of the Bible and a Farmer's Almanac.
I mean, in modern-day America, could that even happen? I'm pretty sure someone would sue for something that just happened on that theoretical airline.
But, I'd like to fly that airline, I think. It would more resemble an amusement-park ride than a flight perhaps, and that's what I'm getting at with this EgyptAir flight. It was so foreign, so different, so unfathomable and unbelievable as a commercial flight that I simply had to sit down and watch it all happen. Which, I think is the point of visiting foreign places. Except I was still at the airport in Rome. (Which, you say is also foreign for this American, but European foreign is a different animal than Eastern foreign. Normal almost, especially considering that I'm fairly used to it at this point.)
I could tell this was going to be an interesting trip. Can't you?
Oddly enough, I sat smack in the center of a group of holiday-making Italians bound for the red-sea destination, Sharm-el-Sheikh. The Italians deserve their own blog entry. One in which I will explain why it was odd that I was sitting in the middle of the group of them. So that will be my next blog. Get excited. But for now, suffice it to say that they were hilarious, and every bit as baffled by the flight ambiance as I was. So I felt a bit better about feeling so alien.
As the plane crew began it's pre-flight preparations, I expected the normal "fasten your seatbelts" and "secure your mask before securing anyone else's" lecture. I was prepared to hear it first in Egyptian Arabic and then in English. Instead, we were served a full-blown movie production of what I still must assume was a prayer from the qu-ran complete with cinematic views of mosques, Arabic music, prayer recital and accompanying text overlaying the pictures. No attempt at translation to English (or Italian, as we were in Italy) was made and no explanation given.
Then came the safety instruction. In Egyptian Arabic and English. But not in Italian. Sorry Italians.
We were served a full middle eastern meal for lunch, complete with some kind of grain, hummus, bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, dolmas and a frosted brownie (not sure the brownie counts as middle eastern...?). Interesting, but I figured there was no time like the present to jump into the swing of things. So I ate the whole she-bang. Fairly tasty. The brownie was my favorite though. I have to say, I'm a BIG fan of middle-eastern airline brownies. Who knew?
The flight was uneventful. (Which is ALWAYS a great thing for flights!)
I was completely taken by surprise by the Cairo airport. In my mind's eye I somewhat expected a disorderly, dusty airport full of people wearing burquas and turbans and ushering goats, chickens and donkeys down the hallways.
More like this:
Don't ask me why that's what I expected, but I did. Instead, I found a beautiful, new air terminal to shame most American terminals. Directions were clearly marked to various destinations in Arabic and English (again, sorry Italians!) and I found myself striding easily down the corridors to connect to my next flight (which wouldn't be for another five hours or so... ugh!).
Eventually I reached what I must assume was some kind of main hub or check-in desk. This area was extremely confusing. People were lined up in all sorts of lines and directions and other people were shouting in Rapid Arabic. I was just about to haphazardly jump into a line that looked like it went through security to get to my next gate when I heard a man at the counter in front of me shout "Amman! Anyone else going to Amman?" and I raised my hand in a bit of confusion.
He looked at me and thrust his hand out expectantly. I hesitated momentarily and then placed my passport and ticket in his hand (I had them out and ready in case I was stopped by a machine-gun-wielding soldier-type). He took them and then began issuing what I must assume were orders at two fellows behind the desk. One of them reviewed information that was popping up on his computer screen and then took off practically running down the hall and the other typed busily and then handed the first man a new ticket and my passport.
He thrust them back at me and said "G-10. You go now."
So I got in the long line of people headed to the security checkpoint.
A minute later he looked up and saw me in line and came over and said "Go, your flight leaves in five minutes, you must run!" So I looked at the long line of burqua-clad people and started to say "Excuse me" as I tried to push past them and they gave me dirty looks and insulting glances until the attendant jumped in to finally help me out. He began, once again shouting in rapid Arabic and the crowd parted, this time, dirty-glance-free. When we got to the security check, a disgruntled soldier with a very large gun became the recipient of the shouted Arabic from my attendant and he glanced at me and nodded disinterestedly. I shoved my bag through the X-ray, walked through the beeping metal detector and just kept going. When I saw that armed special agents weren't in fact going to stop or tackle me for setting off the detector, I broke into a run and made for gate G-10.
When I got to the gate I was asked to wait.
So I waited for all of the passengers to finish boarding and then I asked if my bag had made it to the flight, which it had (I think thanks to the guy at the desk who took off running down the hall), at which point I was also allowed to board.
Except I was still confused as to why the heck I was on a plane to Amman five hours early. I mean, was this how things were done in the middle east? Show up to the airport and hope you get on a flight that is scheduled to leave at some point in the day? I did happen to see the flight board on my way through the Cairo terminal and noticed two things:
1. There weren't very many flights in and out of Cairo.
2. Half of them were cancelled.
Whatever the case was, I really didn't mind because I was now set to arrive in Amman at 7pm instead of 2am. Sweet!
Once the prayer and pre-flight announcements ended, I found out what had really happened. The early afternoon flight had been delayed by about four hours because of an aircraft malfunction. They'd had to switch planes. This worked out brilliantly in my favor. Except for my new seat assignment. Strike that, I mean my seat neighbor.
She was a heavy-set forty-something woman, dressed in a burqua and headscarf, and wearing a perma-scowl that was directed at ME, the blond non-headscarf white woman sitting in the seat she'd previously been using as an armrest. Sooooo. Eh-hem.
She also happened to be the smelliest woman on the PLANET. I'm not even kidding. Once the engines fired up, I turned my AC vent on full crank and pointed it at my face to push fresh air my way. It was surprisingly effective.
I was just happy it was going to be a short flight.
A few minutes into the flight I pulled out my journal and begin writing and something happened. The woman stopped scowling. She now instead stared at me and then my journal in utter fascination. I could tell she wanted to say something, but she knew no English and I no Arabic. So we said nothing and I continued to write until the meal was served. Another similar to the meal on the prior EgyptAir flight. I wasn't hungry so I just ate the brownie. And then my neighbor pushed her tray back and shook her head at me. Then she motioned at my writing hand, then to her tray, wrinkled up her nose, shook her head and motioned towards the cabin steward. She wanted me to write to the airline people and tell them the food sucked.
How awesome is that? After that we tried to chat a bit. I found out her name (can't remember it for the life of me!) and that she was from Syria. I told her my name and that I was from California. After that we settled into the hopeful and disappointed silence that exists between two people who wish to communicate but are simply unable to. It must be what a baby feels like while looking at it's parents... I couldn't help but wonder at the Woman's life and what it must have been like for her to be so fascinated by the act of a woman writing.
When I arrived in Jordan so gloriously early, I was a bit worried about finding a cab and negotiating a price. The middle east is notorious for haggling, and I HATE it. I knew I was going to be completely ripped off. Until I walked out to the customs area and who should I find but a man holding a sign for Intrepid travelers? I knew I'd hit the jackpot. So I said to him I was with Intrepid, I hadn't arranged a transfer but could I please ride with whoever he was waiting for? He was pleased as punch. The reason being that picking up an extra, unaccounted-for passenger gives the driver an opportunity to make some off-the-books cash. I offered to split the cost of the transfer and the man told me "No, No, it is paid for, you must only tip your driver." Deal.
So I arrived at my hotel, a shabby little dive of a place, unscathed and un-taken-advantage-of and with about 20 JOD more in my pocket than I'd expected. Not too shabby.
So far traveling in the Middle East was shaping up to be quite a lot easier than I'd expected.