Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Change of Identity in Egypt

          It feels like forever since I was in the Middle East, exploring ancient ruins. My return back to the United States was kind of tumultuous and instead of being able to continue processing what happened on my trip, I thrown into a new, very busy semester, the end of my first relationship, and trying to recover from jet lag and some bug I picked up while in Egypt. Then, after feeling like I was finally better from that first week back, I just got caught up in the busyness of life. But I realize that I need to reflect on what happened, partly because I have a paper due on Egypt that I have barely started, but also because it is an unfinished part of the journey. When I travel, I want to be able to come home changed from what I have seen and done. This change takes reflecting on the good and hard parts. As I wrote over a month ago, my time in Turkey was amazing. However, I struggled in Egypt. Below are some reflections on the change of identity I felt when I traveled to Egypt.

      One of the reasons I love to travel is that travel brings out new parts of my own identity that I have not been aware of before. Every trip is different and every time I am in a new place, I learn more about myself. Egypt was no exception to this. However, my reflections of my identity in Egypt are largely connected to my experiences in Turkey, where I had spent two weeks before arriving in Cairo. In Turkey, I lived into the identity of an independent, world traveler. This is an identity I have developed over the past five years as I have lived abroad and done a lot of traveling. Often this travel has been done with one or two close friends where we decide what we want to do and see and independently make a trip happen. I arrived in Istanbul with only a vague plan of what I wanted to see and do. I was met at the airport by my college friend Bekah and we spent our first three days staying with a friend I had met on another trip in her parent’s small flat and from these making a plan of other places in the country we wanted to visit. We spent the two weeks, making life up as we went and taking time to try to immerse within the Turkish culture. We would talk to locals as much as possible, participating in traditional meals, and drinking a lot of tea with the people we met. We also took the time to reflect on our time and our lives back home. Our theme song was “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin, with our favorite lyrics being, “No one to tell us no, or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming.” I felt myself open up in Turkey as I reveled in the freedom of unscheduled days spent exploring, chatting, and simply being. This would be a contrast to my time in Egypt.
            The other major way my time in Turkey influenced my time in Egypt was the occurrence of a suicide bombing in Istanbul on my last day in Turkey. Bekah and I were not in Istanbul at the time, but the bombing occurred at the main tourist square in Istanbul, where we had been only a week before. The suicide bomber intentionally targeted a group of tourists. This news came as a shock and we felt our sense of safety violated. Although we had been aware of political struggles in the country and the region, Bekah and I were in Turkey as tourists on vacation. I knew that some sort of attack could be possible, especially after the attacks in Paris in the fall, but I did not think that anything would actually happen when I was gone. All of a sudden the world did not feel like a safe place. As I traveled the next day to Cairo by myself, I found myself feeling scared and insecure in the world. I no longer felt like a confident, independent traveler. I arrived in Egypt not knowing what my identity was as I was confronted with a new environment and unmet expectations.
            My sense of an unsafe world was heightened with my arrival to Cairo. My group had been warned that there could be a lot of government tourist police with us as we traveled to make sure we stayed safe, but I had not expected the level of security we had. An armed security guard was on our tour bus at almost all times. Often times our bus would have a police escort as we moved through Cairo traffic. There was always people in the lobby of our hotel and they would not let us leave the hotel in big groups and would send security with us even if it was just a couple us. There was also military on the street and security guards with huge guns seemed to be everywhere. Although the security is meant to protect us as tourists and keep stability within the country, it scared me because it reminded me that the world is not a safe place and that there are people there who wanted to harm me. My identity as a white foreigner was brought to the forefront. This is an identity I have struggled with, as I do not like to be defined by American politicians and how the media portrays Americans. I strongly disagree with American foreign policy and the consumerist, individualistic culture that people associate with the United States.  However, at the same time I am a white, privileged American. This is a part of my identity that I cannot control or change.
            My identity as a white tourist in Egypt was also different than this experience in Turkey. In Turkey, I was able to stay with a local host the first couple of days and then the rest of the trip, Bekah and I stayed very cheaply at hostels. We were in tourist places and seen as tourists, but we were not extravagant in our travels and tried to go to local spots and even tried to learn Turkish in order to be immersed in the culture. In Egypt, we stayed at fancy hotels and stayed within our group most of the time. A lot of this had to do with logistics and costs. I understand this, but the transition from a seven-dollar hostel room that included Internet and breakfast to fancy hotel rooms changed the way I saw my identity. I really struggled with what I saw as extravagance and also the distance I felt from the Egyptian people. I was on buses and train, in restaurants and tourist sites with other tourists, mostly from North America. While in Turkey, I saw myself as someone engaging in the culture as a conscientious tourist, in Egypt I saw myself as a Western tourist paying to see a local culture, but remaining at a distance in order to stay comfortable. I regret that this was the case and that I did not have discussions early on in the trip to find ways to combat these feelings and find better ways to engage within the structure of the tour group. However, our schedule was busy and I did not take the necessary time to reflect on my identity and the ways I felt I was encountering and being encountered by Egypt. I was also frustrated by the lack of freedom that occurred because I was traveling with a planned tour group. I also tend to not like large groups and became shy and uncomfortable at many times during the trip. All these feelings and my inner struggle with my identity both as a tourist and as a member of a large tour group influenced the ways I experienced the identity of the Egyptians I encountered.

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