I am a rules follower, and if my government had deemed this country dangerous enough to temporarily close its embassies there, what in the world was I thinking?
My husband kept reassuring me that nothing would happen to me because I was a white American woman and the Egyptians wouldn't want the wrath of an American government over the death of an American woman. I know the logic sounds morbid but it calmed my nerves at the time. I chose not to tell other family members where I was going because I didn't want to worry them.
Departing from Houston, my trip took place the weekend that the U.S. State Department closed most U.S. embassies in the Middle East--about two weeks before the terrible violence that has left hundreds dead.
Arriving in Munich on a layover, I watched my flightmates--including lots of families with children--to see if they were as nervous as me about venturing on to Cairo. None of them seemed anxious or worried, so I relaxed.
By the time I arrived in Cairo, I had temporarily forgotten about the embassy closure. I had a real problem to solve. The hotel shuttle I had expected to pick me up was not running, and I was stuck at the airport without a phone because my iphone coverage didn't include Cairo.
Hustlers everywhere bombarded me when I walked out of the baggage area, offering me a ride. One kept following me around the airport, which unnerved me even more. When it was evident my hotel would not be sending a shuttle, I reluctantly hired him, telling him, "Don't you dare try to mess with me just because I'm an American woman!"
It was the longest 15-minute taxi ride of my life. Not only was I at the mercy of a stranger, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. People sleeping on sidewalks, decaying buildings, deserted train rails, the determination in the faces to survive. I had seen this once before--in India. Making the situation worse was the taxi's broken air conditioner--it merely blew hot air--in 105-degree weather. I've never felt so vulnerable.
The hotel was what I expected: a safe oasis from the poverty and danger outside its entrance, where armed guards stood sentry. Passing through a metal detector, I entered a peaceful, palatial lobby. The guests I observed were predominantly middle to upper class middle easterners. I noted immediately that some women covered themselves with head scarves,while others did not. (I was reminded of a conversation I had with one of my Muslim American friends, who shared that she gave her daughters the choice as to whether they would decide to wear a head scarf and observe daily prayers. She would not force them to do something that wasn't reflective of their spiritual lives, a position I greatly admired.)
At the front desk, I was greeted by two clerks, a male and female. .The male clerk subtly ushered me over to the female employee even though he didn't have a waiting customer. It was a subtle form of discrimination, but I took it in stride.
I had hoped to see some of the sites of Cario on this birthday trip. The hotel offered tours to the famous Egyptian pyramids and museums, but with shuttered U.S. embassies, who knew? How would I ask the concierge such a question? I decided simple and straightforward was the best tact.
My country's embassy had been closed and given the protests in Cairo, would their tours still be offered? The concierge's reply was equality simple and straightforward. No, they would not be taking guests to the museums because they are in the same square as the protests. The hotel had been taking guests to the pyramids because they were outside of Cairo but they were also suspending those tours for the next few days.
So here I was -- in a Cairo hotel with no place to go outside the walls of this place. Not to worry. I allowed my visit to truly be a vacation. I enjoyed the beautiful pool for hours on end and ate wonderful food at the hotel restaurants. I marveled at the nightly entertainment of an Egyptian band that began performing at midnight and continued until 2 a.m.
The morning of my departure, I asked my waitress if she believed Cairo was a safe place for her and her loved ones. How would I respond if someone asked me the same about Houston? The waitress thought for a moment, and then responded. It is safe, she said, except for the actions of Islamic extremists. But, she added quickly, the extremists do not reflect the views of those in Cairo.
My trip to Cairo was merely a glimpse into a complex world. I stayed at a hotel where armed guards protected the guests. However, I keenly observed the grittiness of abject poverty, the openness to cultural modernity of women, the preservation of traditional cultural values. I saw none of the political unrest that has since killed hundreds of people.
As a minister, I often rely on a hymn when we observe national holidays such as the Fourth of July. "This is My Song" aptly reflects the hopes and prayers for all nations to the God of all nations, and I often thought of its words on my trip to Egypt: