How does a traveler make friends in Egypt, or anywhere, for that matter? Award-winning veteran travel writer Bob Payne shares his thoughts on it in this excerpt from his recently published 142-country memoir Escape Clauses – Getting Away With a Travel Writing Life.
Making friends when traveling is usually relatively easy. You learn a word or two of the language – not enough to converse but just to provide reassurance that you are not some kind of alien being. You smile often, and if understanding has progressed to that level, you agree with any shortcomings they may have observed in whoever your national leader is at the time.
But keeping friends can be much trickier, as I was reminded while riding a local bus through the Sinai Desert, in Egypt.
My guess is that western visitors do not often ride Egyptian buses. The temperature was well over a hundred degrees the morning we set out on an all-day journey to St. Catherine’s Monastery, near Mount Sinai, on a bus with no air- conditioning. There were probably eighty passengers on the bus, which had seats for forty-four. Yet, for the first hour, the seat next to mine remained empty. Out of politeness, or, most likely, a suspicion of how long it had been since I’d washed my clothes, no one wanted to sit next to me. Finally, a young male, perhaps braver than the rest, sat down. When he seemed settled in, I pulled out my water bottle and offered it to him. The gesture seemed to startle him a little, but he took a drink.
A few minutes later, he unwrapped an oiled-paper parcel and offered me a piece of what looked like a
family-size Fig Newton. After taking a bite, I smiled, he smiled, and we were buddies. Soon, it seemed that all the other passengers had managed to circulate past our seats, sometimes more than once, to get a look at me. My seatmate spoke no English, and my Arabic did not go much beyond translations of “Hello” and “Thank You.” But as he spoke to each passerby, I could tell that he was saying something like, “This guy’s all right. We go way back.”
I smiled at everyone and for the most part, got a smile in return. Then, somewhere in the middle of the desert, the bus came to a stop and I looked out the window to see that we were at a military checkpoint. I turned to my seatmate to see if I could tell from his demeanor what the checkpoint might mean. Which is when I discovered that the seat next to mine was again empty.
A soldier climbed onto the bus and, seeing me, the only Westerner aboard, walked slowly down the aisle to my seat. “Passport,” he said, and I realized, as I reached down into the front of my pants to pull out the required document, that eighty pairs of eyes were focused on me. The soldier flipped through the passport, handed it back without comment, and on his way out signaled to the driver that we could go.
The checkpoint wasn’t out of sight behind us before my seatmate was back. He smiled, gave me a thumb’s up, and resumed filling in the other passengers on the many details of my life’s story.
And I felt I had friends in Egypt.
To learn more about Bob’s travels, which have taken him to extremes on all seven continents, click the Amazon link below.