Poor You!

I’ve just come back from a trip to Dahab in Egypt (an hour north of Sharm El Sheikh in South Sinai) and one of the fun parts of the holiday was teaching my friend silly English words and phrases in exchange for Arabic ones.

I told him a story about a person I know who loves it when things go wrong in my life, so I’ve stopped saying anything negative about what’s happening to me on social media. If I post something really positive, with only an iota of negativity, she will pick up on the latter and exclaim, ‘poor you!’ This makes me feel angry.

The Egyptian, as he has become known, seemed to pick up on this phrase and repeated it back to me randomly the next day, pulling the pseudo-sympathetic face that goes with it, that I’d obviously used the day before. It made us laugh so much – everything that didn’t go to plan came with an explosive ‘poor you!’ and we’d collapse into giggles.

This happened on a day when the British were exercising their right to vote (well, 66% of them were) and I was struck by the ridiculousness of The Egyptian exclaiming ‘poor you!’ when I told him of the horrific result. Just the fact that we are allowed to choose our own government and vote in a democratic and free society is something of a privilege. Yes sirree, I checked my privilege.

The election happened to be in the same week that disgraced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was due to find out his fate: just three years’ imprisonment for embezzling millions of pounds of state funds. His earlier life sentence for the deaths of 800 protesters in the 2011 Revolution had been thrown out the previous November. The month before my trip, Egypt had seen its first democratically elected head of state in Egypt sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mohamed Morsi had used his status to grant himself unlimited power, resulting in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Egyptian said that the freedom everyone felt after the Revolution was so sweet, but so fleeting. There was no follow-up plan, so corruption and power-wrangling quickly set in.

The Egyptian had been working in one of the restaurants in Dahab where three anti-Mubarak nail bombs went off in 2006. He’d been lucky, but he stumbled outside to see bodies everywhere and people running into the sea. The emergency services were not quick enough to save all the casualties. Twenty-three people died, mostly Egyptians.

Now, the police crawl all over Sinai, ostensibly to protect the tourists from the threat of terrorism, but the reality is that they prefer terrorising innocent Egyptians. There are two checkpoints between Sharm and Dahab, but the police are only interested in who the drivers are, not who’s in the back of the cab. They make a huge deal out of making people wait, checking ID, being suspicious. If they think that tourists don’t notice what they are doing, then they are very wrong. It stinks.

The general consensus is that the police are bored, just making stuff up to give them something to do. Their directive is to leave the tourists alone – even if they’re the ones committing a crime in public, they will pick on the Egyptian with them and ignore the foreigner. It’s horrible but a fact of life and the locals’ response is a chilled ‘what can we do?’

I ended up going on a glorious day trip with a group of women of all nationalities: Egyptian, Swiss, Austrian, Anglo-Greek and me, Welsh. One of the main topics of conversation was the ‘woman problem’. Apparently the women of Egypt are rising up in a way that is making the male population uncomfortable. Of course, being a feminist, this was music to my ears. Some women are not happy with the deal – just staying in and looking after children and cooking for their men. (Some of them are, it has to be said, and some of these aren’t Egyptian. Russian women seem to enjoy it and many Egyptian men in Dahab marry them. It’s a good match.)

One night, I saw two Egyptian women having a ‘ladies night’ out – their kids were running around outside while they sat in a restaurant, chatting and drinking tea. One was breastfeeding. One was sitting alone with her child. It was so great to see that.

Initially it wasn’t as great to see little local girls running around the town all day selling homemade bracelets. I’d see them walking on isolated roads carrying their wares from town to town, and worry for their safety. No, the women told me, this is their moment of freedom and they are completely safe. As soon as they start their periods they are confined to the house, drinking tea with the other adult ladies of the family. It seems as though some mothers have started hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the men in the house, just to prolong their freedom, even to the point of trying to make the girls look younger. It seems to work.

As I sat there in my bikini, being served Bedouin food by a woman fully covered except for her eyes, I checked my privilege again. I could stride into Dahab and into this beautiful Bedouin isolated beach settlement (Ras Abu Galum, in case you’re interested) and literally let my hair down, wearing a bikini.

I may never say, ‘poor you!’ again, unless in jest with The Egyptian. Poor, poor us, and our democratically elected government who aren’t embezzling millions of our pounds to fund their palaces (I’m sure someone will point out that they are doing this), or killing 800 protesters who happen to disagree with their policies. Poor us, and our freedom as women to go about as we choose after we become adults, to have jobs, wear what we want and have sex outside marriage.

Yes, yes, I know everything is relative, but it is worth putting things in perspective every now and again.

Flying Solo

Well here I am, back to the central concept of my blog – literally flying solo from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, at the end of another glorious holiday on my own.

I’ve got the routine down pat. From that first holiday in Thailand (see my very first post – Consciously Uncoupling) where I spent days feeling sorry for myself in an exotic location, I’m now a veteran of the experience, knowing how to play it, how to pace my time and how to react when people question me about it.

Today I got questioned by one of the hotel’s numerous managers: he had thought that by reading my book alone on the beach that I didn’t like the hotel. Nothing could be further from the truth – feeling relaxed enough to do that on day one is pretty much my personal seal of approval. Why is reading alone seen as such an antisocial activity? This came on the heels of another hotel employee asking me why I was reading rather than relaxing – to him the two were very definitely exclusive – and later I was told that all the staff thought I was a doctor because I was wearing glasses and reading books. Wherever I go I am known as the ‘lady with book’ – people seem genuinely surprised that I read.

But like many solo travellers, the book is my travelling companion, my security blanket, my go-to item when I’m plunged into an unfamiliar setting. I can quickly immerse myself in a fictional (or non-fictional) world when I’m surrounded by couples and families on the beach, at dinner in a crowded restaurant, in a coffee shop filled with Egyptians or Turks. When a book is with me, I have a bubble to escape into, and I zone out all of the noise and activity around me. It’s so much more than ‘just a thing to do with your hands’ when you’re on your own.

I tend to punctuate my time on holiday by booking a few trips – this time to the White Canyon in Nuweiba (where you have to haul yourself out by a rope!) and a submarine trip to see fish on Napoleon Reef (I don’t swim). This is a great way of meeting new people, especially if you’re thrust into potentially life-threatening situations, as in the canyon.

What thrilled me on that trip was seeing an Egyptian couple bring along their one-year-old (beautiful Maryam) and entrust her safety completely to the guide. For most of the walk/climb through the canyon, he held her on his shoulders and she slept with her head on his. He even took her with him when he climbed out of the canyon using only the rope. The parents were mildly anxious, but not freaking out, as I would have been. It made me think about challenges and scary things, and how they’re not so scary when you get up close to them. That guide held out his strong dark hand every time I exclaimed, “I’m scared!”, and pulled me up over a boulder or tricky climb. I kept thinking, ‘well if he can do it with a baby on his head…’

The first time I came to Egypt I was scared. Of the people, my perception of the culture and religion, the language. Everything. It didn’t help that a Dahab shopkeeper spiked my tea when I went into his shop – I literally ran out and off to the hotel shuttle bus, vowing never to go back again. But I’ve gone back again and I’ve laughed at how normal it all seems because I’m not seeing it all through the veil of scariness. I walked past his shop, at night this time, and stopped to talk to other shopkeepers who’ve simply sold me something without hassling me (although the non-hassling ones are few and far between – I make a point of going into their shops. By the way, I don’t think that shopkeeper intended to drug me – the tea had a mildly fuzzing effect that was probably intended to relax me into more shopping. He looked genuinely surprised when I ran out.)

That first time in Dahab town, I swathed myself in a long dress and scarf around my head, so as not to ‘stand out’. No wonder I was hassled. This time I noticed Egyptian girls (I didn’t see many women over 30) running around in jeans and jackets, hair streaming free. However, the best moment was spotting a convoy of Muslim girls on quad bikes heading into the desert, in full headgear. You go, girls.

From the Bedouin guy next to the hotel selling me Turkish coffee and giving me some bread to help him feed the birds in his tent, to the guy selling me boat trips, it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking these people were just after me for something. Of course, they’re selling their wares, but both guys took time to chat to me, to tell me about their lives and make me feel comfortable. Add to that the Egyptian couple in the canyon, who left an open invitation to their place in Cairo and emailed pictures they took of me wobbling and panicking up the canyon wall.

In many ways, the canyon trip represents the challenge of holidaying alone for me – I knew it would be beautiful-but-frightening. That I might fear for my life as I made my way through and wish I wasn’t there at all, but then smile heartily over a Sakara beer that night and feel my soul enriched by the experience. I would want to do it again. And I do.

This brings me on to an experience I call The Rollercoaster. Each and every holiday alone does not go to plan. I never end up doing what I think I’m going to be doing on any given day and I’ve learned to ride the rollercoaster, wherever it may take me. Four years ago, a terrible New Year’s Eve in Thailand led to a wonderful New Year’s Day, where I rode around Koh Samui on a bike, in between two Thai women who wanted to show me around. We eventually we went clubbing and had the time of our lives. I resolved then that NY Day is the new NY Eve.

The trick with The Rollercoaster is not to give up when things feel a bit grim. On your own at dinner one night? There’ll be a party invite the next, or an unexpected meeting with an old friend in a bar in town … or new one. Don’t expect anything and everything will happen in its own good time. It always does, and it’s just done it again. I love it. It’s life.

The other trick is not to rely on anyone else for your plans. I once met two Australian sisters in Phuket and they promised hand on heart to come back after their trip to Phi Phi to spend the last day of my holiday with me. I looked forward to it so much and they never showed. But I did end up meeting an Indian air stewardess in a bar and we went clubbing together, so all was not lost.

The Rollercoaster.

Part of me just wants to get on the waltzers, or even just the children’s spinning teacups, and have a nice ride round with no thrills or spills. But then the lure of the unseen horizons over the top of the rollercoaster’s peaks and loops are too much for me and I have to send myself there.

It’s always, always worth it.

(From Sharm El Sheikh airport, which really does need to get wifi)

The Kaleidoscope Effect

I knew I’d be writing a post about this topic at some point and I’ve been waiting quite some time to write it. I’ve just got back from a business-and-pleasure trip to the Middle East, and I knew I had preconceptions of what it might be like, and I knew they’d be challenged.

Over recent years, I have found that I have often carried a hotchpotch of preconceptions, misconceptions and travel-guide images of a place in my head when I go abroad. It takes days or even weeks for the reality to emerge and I call this the Kaleidoscope Effect. Like those childhood toys that contained tiny colourful beads, which you’d shake and see a clear pattern emerge through the eyepiece, I realise that my first impressions of a place are always way off and I have to shake them hard to discover what is really there.

I first noticed this effect when I went on a trip to Poland to visit a friend who was teaching English in Warsaw. I remember thinking, ‘bread queues and headscarves’ as I packed my bag, but how wrong I was. In the early 1990s the country was just emerging from its communist years and whilst the first thing I saw in the city was a load of soldiers parading around in the huge Soviet-style plaza, some of them with Lech Walesa moustaches, the thing that most struck me over the course of the trip was the youth, beauty and vitality of the place. Incredibly handsome, be-cheekboned university students were striding around everywhere in greatcoats, heading to cafes on the Nowi Świat (New World Street) to presumably talk about politics and philosophy (or is that another preconception?). I’d thought that Poland would be cold and uninviting, even in summer, so then spent a happy day sweltering in a chunky jumper at Chopin’s house in the countryside, listening to a world-renowned pianist being accompanied by a pondful of singing frogs.

Then came Kenya – possibly the biggest Kaleidoscope moment of all. I stayed in a coastal town near Mombasa called Watamu. Each day I went back and forth along the road between the house I was staying in and the bustling town. Sometimes I was driving, sometimes running. At first I saw poverty, dirt and latent danger in the shambas along the road. I’d run every day in the early hours up to a certain point and turn back. There’d be a gaggle of men on motorbikes under some trees, just staring at me. I had The Fear and could never get past them. That is, until, a Kenyan guy in the house explained that this was the local taxi rank. I felt ashamed that I had assumed they meant me harm.

One day, I ran past a shamba with a dog and it chased me. A woman, who was looking after her kids started laughing her head off at me, as I flailed around, the dog merely playing with me. Other villagers, and the taxi drivers, joined in and soon we were all laughing. How odd I must have looked among this nation of professional runners, white-skinned, red-haired and sweaty, not to mention wide-eyed from my encounter with the dog.

It wasn’t until a tourist remarked to me that he thought the level of poverty and lack of hygiene was so dreadful, and how awful it must be to live there, that I found myself violently disagreeing with him (inside my head). I had started to see smiling faces, happy babies, cleanly swept shambas, well-fed goats and laid-back taxi drivers. I’d said ‘jambo’ (hello) every morning to the group of tall Maasai living in a shamba outside the house – they were working as security guards at the local hotels and sending home money to their families in the Mara. I’d got to know the Kenyans in the house where I was staying, who had never been to Tsavo (the park nearest to them which cost too much for them to enter) and crowded round to see the pictures of animals on my camera, the youngest woman cuddling up to me, smiling.

And oh, that trip to Tsavo. We’d been warned of the Somali terrorist threat, which was very real, and were forced to drive there in a tourist convoy for safety. Before long the safari guys had left us behind but what remained were streams of kids going to school and adults going to work, smiling and shouting ‘jambo!’ as we passed. By the time we arrived at the gates of Tsavo my face was stuck in a smiling rictus and the effect of all that happiness stayed with me for weeks afterwards. It was better than the equatorial sunshine (which incidentally burnt me to a crisp when I was in the shade by the pool not wearing any sun factor).

And so to the United Arab Emirates. As a self-identified feminist I knew I was going to have some opinions about it. I already holiday in countries with Muslim populations – Egypt and Turkey are favourites – but in a sense, these tourist destinations don’t count because the locals are used to foreigners turning up and ignoring their cultural ‘rules’. But I enjoy respecting local culture so have already built up a bank of appropriate clothing and knowledge about what is considered respectful behaviour. I’d had encounters I didn’t enjoy (a man spiking my tea in a shop in Dahab, for instance, or seeing man in shorts and t-shirt walking next to his fully covered wife in the blazing Turkish heat) but have largely been left alone – Bodrum in Turkey is particularly liberal because it has a large gay population.

But I knew that in the UAE I was going to encounter a different level of all of this. Not a tourist destination, a dry state (and not just in a desert way), Sharjah operates under Sharia law with particular restrictions on clothing. This was going to be interesting. I decided to push any preconceptions aside and just experience it. What emerged in the Kaleidoscope was a hugely respectful scene. I already knew that Muslim communities are famed for their incredible hospitality and friendliness, so to experience that was less of a surprise. But watching men and women quietly make their way into the mosque near the hotel, under the hypnotic call of the Muezzin, made me realise that these are just people living their lives, respectful of each other and the code they choose to live by. The men here were mostly as covered up as the women (men cannot wear shorts), and the only surprise encounter I had was to see a Western couple in short shorts striding through the town. To me, they were the odd ones out and appeared so disrespectful – I started to wonder why we feel the need to disrobe so much in the west. My mother had always said that she’d covered up more in Kenya, to keep cool, and I could see the sense in the flowing white and black robes of the locals as they swished round the corniche. I had brought my long, cool, flowing clothing and was happy to wear it out and about. Why are we so hell bent on getting our bodies out? For me it makes no sense, as I don’t tan. I’m happy to preserve my skin in the sun and I always sit in the shade on holiday. With Factor 50 on.

I suppose it comes down to having a choice and being free. If you were forced to shroud yourself in fabric by law, then there would be cause for revolution, as we’ve seen in Iran with the emergence of the My Stealthy Freedom women, determined to let their hair flow free with no enforced hijab: https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom?fref=ts. I saw many variations of clothing for women in Sharjah, from skinny jeans and a shela (head wrap), to a full flowing chiffon abaya, just covering designer jeans and heels, and framing a beautifully made-up face. And some women just wore what they want, with as much skin as possible covered up. (This is a useful guide to appropriate clothing for visitors: http://www.grapeshisha.com/about-uae/uae-clothing.html).

Before we pronounce on anyone else’s culture or way of life, I think it’s useful to take a Kaleidoscope moment. Our preconceptions are built on years of false information mixed with truth and we don’t know what the reality is until we’ve witnessed it first-hand at close quarters and let it slowly reveal itself. There will still be things we don’t agree with or don’t sit well with us, but that view is often reciprocated by the people we’re judging. Before we pronounce on the policing of people’s clothing we should take a moment to consider how much our own clothing is policed by our own gender, by fashion, by our social groups. Same, same, but different, my friends.

When I exchanged a smile with a woman in a full black abaya in Dubai airport who was late for her flight, and she made the international sign for ‘phew!’ at the check-in desk, I just thought, ‘we’re just two women, flying somewhere, each with our own lives and wardrobes. And we still recognise a kindred spirit.’

Because we should.