Ever had a story so scary you thought you might not be around at the end of it? That happened to me on my way from Dahab, Egypt to Nuweiba to catch the ferry to Aqaba, Jordan. There, after my 100+ km Egyptian road trip, I would reunite with Halef. Because he only had an Indonesian passport at the time, he couldn’t get a visa to Egypt. It’s a story that is mostly about unconscious bias.
I laugh at the story now. At the time though, it was not funny.
And before you continue, know that Egypt is safe and my story is an over-reaction to events. But I am not too proud to tell you an embarrassing story. If you want to know how safe Egypt is, even for a solo female traveler, please see, “Yes, I’m a female travelling around Egypt alone, and no you should not be worried”[Related: Egyptian Pyramids: All By Myself and also Alan and Faith’s experience at the Foot of the Pyramids]
My Egyptian Road Trip experience
Keep in mind, this was my first visit to the Middle East. The culture was newer to me than anything I’ve ever experienced. So this story is a lesson in fear brought about by massively over-thinking a situation.
It’s one that I’m ashamed to say relied on stereotypes about people I thought were vanquished from the farthest reaches of my brain.
Although I’ve shared this story of my Egyptian road trip with a few friends, I’ve never shared it where it might be read broadly. That’s mostly because I’m a little embarrassed about my reaction.
But its kind of a funny story, so here you go!
My Egyptian road trip begins in Dahab
On my last morning in Dahab, a stop I made to do one dive, I was picked up by a driver hired by the hotel owner. This driver was to take me on an hour-or-so long drive from Dahab to Nuweiba.
I assumed I would be getting an at least semi-professional who spoke at least a little English. I got neither. What I got amounted to the hotel owner’s weird neighbor in his 15 year old black pickup truck.
He didn’t speak enough English – except to say “S’no problem” whenever something came up.
The first thing that happened…
I threw my backpack in the bed of the pickup, said goodbye to the hostel owner and my Egyptian road trip began! Every now and again, the driver would look at me, smile, and nod. It was as if he was saying, “Everything is good. You like my truck?”
We drove for about 5 minutes when the truck slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. I had no idea why this was happening. The driver looked at me with a smile and exited the truck.
At the same time, a dilapidated car – it looked sort of like a Yugo with a mismatched paint job – pulled up behind us. A young man got out and started talking to my driver. Whatever they were saying to each other quickly escalated, as they started yelling at each other in Arabic.
I didn’t understand anything and I was completely confused.
They exchanged money for me
What I did understand was that I was to get out of the truck and into the crappy-assed Yugo looking vehicle with the other driver. I did, along with my bags. I also understood that it seemed very wrong that the two men were exchanging money.
This is roughly the moment in this story where my mind started to go places. I thought, “Why would two men on the Sinai peninsula – a place with security checkpoints all over the place because of terrorist activity in the area – want to fight and exchange money for a pasty white guy from Canada?”
I started to get nervous
Fortunately, I had my phone. I sent a text to the dive shop and explained the situation to the owner. She wrote me back and said that, although it was a little strange, she wouldn’t worry. Strange things happen all the time in that area that are often misunderstood by Westerners like myself.
Since she was from the UK and had been there for some time, I decided to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and relax. About 10 kilometers later, just outside the city, the Yugo driver pulled over.
Behind us, I heard a horn blowing. Turning around, I see the same pickup I started with, pulling over behind us.
Another money exchange
Lather, rinse, repeat: talking escalates to yelling, money is exchanged, I am told to get back in the pickup. “S’no problem!” I am assured by the original driver, a wide, toothy grin across his face.
I get in the pickup and again text the owner of the dive shop, explaining what just happened. “Ok, that just sounds not normal. Keep me updated,” she texts back. I start to sweat a little and my Egyptian road trip is absolutely no longer normal to me.
I’ve been paid for twice by two Arab men who were clearly very unhappy with each other. People like me are usually the ones who fight back against the stereotyping of other people. But damn, I’ve watched the TV shows and what if they were right all along? Guys, I hate to admit it, but I was getting scared.
Turn up the radio
I start noticing the distance markers.
90 km to Nuweiba.
A few minutes later, 85 km.
We were now well away from the city and there was nothing between us and Nuweiba but distance. The driver decides now would be a good time for some entertainment.
He turns on his radio and it starts blaring:
“ALLAHU AKBAR! ALLAHU AKBAR!”
In retrospect, this was obviously a religious radio station that my driver tuned to when it was time for prayer. Given the nature of his work, he probably couldn’t stop at the exact times of the day he was called to prayer.
But for me, it was everything stereotypical that I’ve heard and seen on television. And I knew it was everything that I should NOT be afraid of. But my basest instincts took over and it was at this precise point that I “knew” I was going to be in a video – and not the good kind either.
No, it would be the kind of video that plays on repeat for 24 hours on CNN. The kind that goes viral on the gore-fetish web sites. Think of the worst video you’ve ever seen – I was going to be in it.
I kept watching the distance markers – 50 km, 45 km, 25 km…
I made up my mind to jump out of that f***ing pickup if it even so much as made a move to pull off the road.
20 km, 15 km, 10 km.
And then we arrived
Of course, if you’re reading this, you know I didn’t make it into the video I frightened myself into believing was a foregone conclusion. My Egyptian road trip ended and the driver got me safely to Nuweiba where he unloaded my gear and, as if he’d said it a thousand times before, asked me for a tip.
My guess is this is the only English he knew. I had a little cash on me and gave him all I had. To be honest, I felt a pang of guilt over all I had been thinking and didn’t need that money anyway.
Unconscious bias 101: What actually happened
Later, I learned that the reason for the car changes was that my original driver did not have a taxi license and simply had to hire a taxi to take me through a police checkpoint in Dahab.
There might have been arguing over the price for the taxi to do it, but that’s all.
Perfectly innocent. Perfect example of unconscious bias and irrational fear.
I boarded that ferry to Aqaba with hundreds of others – men, women, and children – all on their way to Mecca for the Hajj. Those hours on the ferry were incredible and filled with conversations with kind people who were nothing like the stereotype I allowed my mind to create just a few hours before.
Dealing with unconscious bias while traveling
My initial question asked if you had a story so scary you thought you might not be around at the end of it?
Here are a couple of better question:
- Have you ever been fearful because of something you knew to be so completely irrational and wrong?
- Have you ever let yourself over-think a situation it to the point where you became irrationally fearful?
I often think about this day and I hope that the driver of the van didn’t know what was going on in my head. It’s easy to laugh at this story now, but I can only imagine the insult the driver would have felt had he known what I was thinking on the inside.
I hope he couldn’t see it.
For me, this was a clear case of my own unconscious bias. I’m not proud of it, but I definitely learned from it. You just have to understand that YOU are the person in the different world when you travel. People aren’t acting weird or dangerous. You are interpreting it that way.
You don’t have to get rid of your unconscious bias. I’m not sure you can. But you have to recognize it and that everyone has it in come way or another.
In the years since, I’m happy to say that I have been to the Middle East a few times – including to Iran.
It’s not scary.
Have you ever had your unconscious bias burst to the surface during your travels? If you’re comfortable doing do, please let us know.
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