How Three Foreign Cities Began to Feel Like Home

Old Cairo
In the middle of the giant, sprawling city of Cairo is Old Cairo, an old, walled city from the Middle Ages. It is now filled with shops, restaurants, mosques, coffee shops, and markets. According to our guide, it is the place where Egyptians feel most at home. There, in its coffee shops, the famous Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote his books.

The architecture of Old Cairo is different than that of the West. There are minarets, intricate geometric patterns, domes, and other patterns that make it feel foreign, especially for those who have traveled little. This was definitely true for me and for my daughter. I had not traveled outside of the United States in 25 years. My daughter had never done so. It was night time, and the city was teeming with people. This is generally true in Old Cairo, but this was Ramadan. They had fasted all day, and now it was time to enjoy some conviviality with family and friends. Old Cairo was full to the brim. You may recall a scene in a movie where there is a car trying to escape or move in the midst of a crowd of people. That’s what it felt like.

After having traveled two days to get to Egypt, we were tired, and the experience of Old Cairo was a bit overwhelming. We got checked into our hotel, and we sat outside. Our guide said, “Do you want to go for a walk?” We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know how safe Egypt was. All we knew was what we had read in reviews of Egypt’s safety, including the ominous warnings from the State Department. So, we were cautious. We walked around and were greeted by many people. Our guide said to us, “No one is going to harm you in Egypt.” We arrived safely back at our hotel without incident.

That night, I went up on the roof where the restaurant was. They had no alcoholic beverages in Old Cairo. I did not yet know to order their delicious juices. So, I ordered a Sprite and went out on the small veranda that overlooked the city. I saw the people. I saw the whirling dervishes. I saw the festivity. From up on top of the hotel, it felt much more peaceful. I was there in Egypt! Continue reading “How Three Foreign Cities Began to Feel Like Home”

Is It Safe to Travel in Other Countries?

Should anyone even think about traveling to Egypt? Isn’t it the Middle East? Isn’t it dangerous? Those were usually the first questions I got when I decided to travel to Egypt.

I was talking to one woman about going to Egypt with us. She is experienced in international travel. Her daughter lives in Germany. But when she read what the State Department said about traveling to Egypt, she was a bit concerned. The State Department gave Egypt a level 3 warning: reconsider travel. Why? Because of Covid (at the time) and terrorism. Then, I looked at Germany. I realized that it was on the same level due to terrorism and Covid. I was rather shocked by that because almost everybody would consider Germany a safe place to visit. You can find all sorts of dire warnings about most countries.

So, is Egypt safe to visit? Continue reading “Is It Safe to Travel in Other Countries?”

Want to Be Less Frustrated with Traffic? Drive 10 Minutes in Cairo

Our guide met us at the airport, and we made our way to old Cairo. We entered into the traffic of Cairo, and we had never seen anything like it. Forget about lanes, distance between cars, and crosswalks. 30 million people live in and around Cairo, and it felt like they were all pushing and shoving to get into the road we were on.

In my town, we can get a little bit of traffic because of the tourists. This occurs primarily on one road in the middle of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In Cairo, traffic is like that one road everywhere, only worse. Here, people stay in their lanes and follow relative order. There, forget about lanes. Forget about crosswalks. Forget about following two cars behind. Even on the highway with no one around, they stay a couple of feet behind an accompanying car.

There was a woman who was part of some of our tours who had traveled all over the world. She had even been to India which is notorious for its bad traffic. She said she had never seen worse traffic than what she saw in Cairo.

Traffic in Other Countries
The good thing about experiencing such terrible traffic on my first international trip was that everywhere else seemed not so bad. Bogota is a city famous for its bad traffic. After a day there, I had learned a new word, trancón. It is a word rolos (people born in Bogota) use to describe the traffic. After being in Egypt, Bogota seemed relatively orderly. It was really not bad at all. I could feel comfortable driving there.

In Guadalajara, I felt like I could easily drive there. And Cartagena. And Spain. But probably not Santo Domingo.

In Santo Domingo, I learned another word that is similar to trancón. It is tapón. It is the word for a plug or a cork, where things move down to a smaller place and you can’t get through. These tapones can last for hours.

They not only drive like locos, but the streets are crowded with cars. This is not always because of the traffic. It was more that several cars are trying to drive on roads that seem to be made for horse carriages rather than cars, especially large ones.

One great thing about Santo Domingo is that, though the traffic is overwhelming, there is a way around it, or rather over it. You can take a cable car or teleférico over the city traffic. It also gives you an amazing view of the city. It’s like viewing the city in a helicopter. You see the homes of the rich and poor, the rivers, the downtown in the distance, and the mazes they call streets.

The thing that makes roads in the Dominican Republic especially dangerous is all the motorcycles. They daringly move in and out of even the tiniest seam in the traffic. It’s often better not to watch. We stayed at the home of a cousin of one of our friends. This cousin actually lives most of the time in NYC. When he is in the DR, he attempts to drive in Santo Domingo. He told me that he had actually got in a wreck with a motorcyclist in Santo Domingo. It was not his fault, but it was traumatic. The motorcyclist died because of the wreck.

Those were the types of dangers we faced in Santo Domingo. Nevertheless, our driver, whom their friends called “Maria Racing,” got us through the maze of roads that were the opposite of a grid and navigated us safely through this labyrinth without even a scratch. She’s used to it. She uses her 12 passenger van to transport students. I asked her how many students she transports. She said, “45.” That’s why she wanted a 15 passenger van. She thought it would be better to take 60 students.

One thing travel has taught me is that people have different tolerances for different things. This is not wrong. In fact, being aware of it can open up new possibilities. For example, I have a 12 passenger van. People often ask me, how many people can I fit in it? I say, “9 Americans or 20 Dominicans.” This may sound offensive, but it’s actually a true statement. I have found that Dominicans and others are simply more tolerant of squeezing together into smaller spaces. Americans are not. They like their space. It’s not bad. It’s just different. I have asked myself, how many preferences like that do I have that I haven’t even thought of?

Driving in other countries can make you appreciate what you have. One way I like getting around is through Uber. It’s a great way to have conversations with locals. One gentleman from Bogota told me about his trip to Peru. I told him about appreciating the clean water in Bogotá and that going to Egypt and Mexico had made me appreciate the clean water in America (more on that in another post). I asked him if he had experienced anything like that. He said, yes. The traffic in Lima (the capital of Peru) was terrible. He said that after returning to Bogotá, he realized it wasn’t really that bad in Bogota, even though he had thought so before.

And that’s what happened to me. Watching the traffic around D.C. from the plane as I re-entered America after my first trip to Egypt, I could not believe how orderly the cars were. I have been in awe of it ever since. I have been to New York City, downtown Gatlinburg, Atlanta, and Charlotte, and I still have seen no traffic that would be anywhere near as disorderly and chaotic as what I saw in Egypt. I’m not trying to be hard on Egypt, which is a country I love and would love to visit again. I’m more in awe of how easy it is to drive around in the United States. It’s a real blessing, and I want to be thankful for it.

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Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

The Problem with Traveling by Airplane

The problem with traveling by airplane is not that they crash but that they sometimes don’t work. This means you may get stuck.

That’s the reality of traveling, but it’s especially disappointing when traveling internationally. It can wreak havoc with your trip or end it.

This is one of the risks that you have to take when traveling internationally. If you can, it’s best to allow margins in your trips in case things go wrong. The worst case scenario is that you get there early and can do more things in the country you are visiting.

Plane trouble was magnified in the time of Covid, but I have had some crazy experiences with plane trouble that had nothing to do with it. In this post, I want to share a few examples to help you know what you are up against.

We flew from Knoxville to Houston. From Houston, we would fly to Germany and then on to Egypt. We got onto the plane in Houston, and it all looked good. Then, over the speaker, we heard the bad news, the flight would be delayed. There was a maintenance issue with the electronics, and it had to be checked out.

The problem with this delay is that we only had a one and a half hour layover in Germany. No problem, I thought. We can just get a later flight into Cairo. That’ll be fine. However, being the person that I am, I wanted to check what flights were available from Germany to Cairo. Ok. There was a problem. There were no other flights from Germany to Cairo that night. What that meant was that our Covid test for Egypt would no longer valid (see my explanation of Covid tests and international travel here). We also could not enter Germany because Americans weren’t allowed to enter at that time. We could be stuck perpetually in the German airport like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

I got up and went to speak with one of the flight attendants to explain the issue. He said, “This is going to take a while. We will have you talk to one of our representatives, and they will arrange new flights for you.”

A few moments after that, I went outside to talk to one of United’s representatives. I explained to him my situation. He clicked away at his keyboard for a few seconds and then said to me. “OK. Here’s what you can do. You can fly into Istanbul, Turkey. Your Covid test will still be good to enter Turkey. Then, you can get a ride to the hospital downtown and get a new Covid test. You can stay at a hotel in Istanbul and then get a flight to Cairo the next day.”

I looked at him with disbelief. “Uhhh . . . that is way, way outside my comfort zone.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Alright. We can put you up in a hotel for tonight and give you meal vouchers. Then, you can go to the Kingswood Emergency Hospital and get a test. You can expedite it, and they will get it back to you within an hour or so. It will cost you $500 a piece. Then, you can get the same flight tomorrow, and that test will be good for Germany and Egypt.”

At this point, there was no turning back. We were going to go to Egypt. So, if two $500 tests was what we needed to get there, then that’s what we were going to do. One more benefit. He moved us to first class for our trouble. My father looked it up on Priceline the next day. A first class ticket to Germany would have cost about $9,000 that day. So, in terms of assets, we were way ahead, even if we had less money in our bank account.

We went to Kingswood, and we had a wonderful experience. This was a really great hospital. If you are in Houston and need an emergency hospital, I highly recommend it. They also have great coffee, and it’s free!

We went back for our tests. In less than an hour, they gave us a folder with our results. I opened them. There was a paper copy, and at the bottom there was a stamp! And it was signed! This is what I had been wanting for months! And now, I had it! Exactly what the Egyptian government wanted.

Colombia and Spain
A surprising number of my plane trips went well after that. No problem going to Cancun or getting home. No problem going to Spain.

It’s not always the plane itself. Sometimes, it’s what you need to get on the plane. My daughter ended up moving to Bogota, Colombia to study. So, we bought her a plane ticket to get there. We did not buy a return ticket. Why? Because she did not know when her semester would end or if she would want to stay after the semester. Well, that turned out to be a problem. You can only stay six months in Colombia without getting permission. So, getting a one way ticket made it look like my daughter was trying to illegally immigrate to Colombia from the United States. So, they would not let us get on the plane. With the clock ticking, I looked online for a return ticket. Fortunately, she was able to purchase one but for a lot more than her ticket for going there. It was also changeable. All she needed was proof that she had a return ticket. So, we were able to board the plane.

When I went to Spain the second time, I had a long wait in Knoxville and a long layover in Atlanta. I was going on a mission trip, but I was going a week early to hang out in Madrid. The plane was delayed quite a bit, but I thought, “I have a lot of time, so I can just relax here and do my work.” I felt bad for the many people who were struggling. I experienced a delay of several hours in Atlanta, too, but it did not bother me. I had no schedule for my week in Madrid. It was all just fine, but people all around me were in a panic.

When the mission team left to go to Spain a week later and meet me in Madrid, it didn’t work out quite as well. They got on the plane, but the plane kept getting delayed. Eventually, the flight got cancelled all together because of maintenance issues. They had no backup planes available. They had to wait until the next day. Delta then gave everybody Uber trips to a Motel 6 in a sketchy neighborhood. They waited five hours with a large number of their fellow passengers into the wee hours of the morning to get their rooms. There was only one employee. The bathroom was closed. They waited on the floor. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., they got to their rooms. They got some good sleep and got on the flight the next day, which arrived in Madrid without any problems. We missed our day of touring Madrid, though, because of the plane trouble.

Sometimes the plane problem is not the plane but the lack of it. On our second trip to Colombia, we were going to go from Bogota to Ibague to Medellin to Cartagena and then home. I purchased 17 plane tickets for $500 total and was very proud of myself.

On Monday morning, we went to the Ibague airport. There was nobody there in that small airport. I brought the tickets to the counter. “These are from Bogota, not from Ibague.” Bogota is a minimum of four hours away. So, this was a problem. It was also a problem because we had to get to Cartagena to get home. Our flight to Cartagena was from Medellin.

I asked them, “How much is it to fly from Ibague to Cartagena tomorrow?”

I waited with a bit of anxiety to see how much it would cost for six tickets. “It will be about $100 a piece.” To purchase six tickets was more than I paid for the 17 tickets to fly around Colombia. But compared with buying a ticket the day before the flight in the U.S., it really wasn’t that bad. Plus, we would be able to take our return flight in Cartagena. So, I bought the tickets for the next day.

When you travel, you have to prepare for the unexpected. It is just part of the game. I experienced some difficulties, but others experienced worse. One family got to the airport to go to the Dominican Republic. The airline literally had no backup flights, so the entire trip got canceled. Another family, was taking a cruise around the British Isles, and their flight got canceled. They missed the cruise, and I am not sure if they ever even got a refund. Traveling is a bit of a risk. Recognizing that beforehand and accepting that God’s will is better than ours, as my Colombian friends said to me when I found out I had the wrong flight in Ibague, is a way to ensure that you will be mentally prepared for what might happen.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. This may be a bit of a downer, but knowing reality is always our friend in the end. Better to go into it with your eyes open, IMHO. I hope to see you here again. Each Tuesday, I’m exploring the ins and outs of international travel. Subscribe below or click on to read the article.

How to Pay for International Trips

Summary: Really make your goal to travel, and you will find the money. I offer some specific tips as well.

Two Principles for Paying for International Trips
After we got home from our first trip, my daughter said to me, “When I get more money, I want to travel.”

I told her, “No. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Decide to travel, and you will find the money.” You either tell money where to go, or it will tell you where to go, as the old saying goes. Continue reading “How to Pay for International Trips”