To start at the end: I am currently in a small town in Pennsylvania, sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table. Not long ago the churchbells chimed out “Good King Wenceslas.” My aunt came and tucked me up on the couch with fluffy pillows and blankets. I am surrounded by family, and more will be arriving for my grandmother’s funeral tomorrow. I am grateful that I got home in time for the services and happy that I get to spend Thanksgiving surrounded by relatives.
My last few days in Cairo were a blur of goodbyes and frantic packing. It was also an especially bad time asthma-wise. Among many mixed feelings on the morning of my departure yesterday was relief at the thought that I would soon be away from all the fumes and in a place where the air is clear.
I wouldn’t want you to think that my departure was without sorrow, though: over breakfast I told my roommates one of the things I would miss is the blaring wedding music we could hear almost every night from the boat restaurant docked across the Nile from us.
The taxi took the ring road to the airport. Until that morning I’d known about the burning of garbage and the rice husks, but I hadn’t seen it for myself. On my final day in Cairo we drove past smoking piles of rubbish and piles of waste in the fields. People stood in clusters along the highway waiting for buses while farmers urged donkeys forward in pastures. Fishermen hauled nets from the Nile. Kiosks sold tea and packets of tissues by the side of the road. At last we popped out in the desert where the airport is. I felt like I’d seen a panorama of all the parts of Cairo on my goodbye trip.
When we got to the airport, I dragged myself and all my luggage through the first security check. After this the problems started.
When you fly into the US, the security checks and questions they ask before you board are different from those at home. The airline I was flying has decided to ask all those questions (”have you packed your own bag, has it been in your sight the whole time…”) of incoming international passengers. This was fine, but then the agent started asking me questions unrelated to things on my passport. He asked my home address. He asked for papers proving I’m a student in England. I should have known better when he asked the purpose of my visit and just said I was a tourist, but it hadn’t occured to me that saying I was a student would be a problem. Of course I didn’t have any papers proving I was a student — I was trying to get OUT of the country, not IN — so he looked at me suspiciously and went over every single page of my passport. Since there was nothing wrong, he finally let me go. I got through security checks number three, four and five, and then thought I was home free.
As soon as I was through the last passport check on my way to the gate, an airline employee came up, asked my name and told me to follow him. I asked where we were going. He said everything was okay, just to follow him. I said everything was not okay if he wouldn’t tell me where we were going; he refused to answer and just continued to ask me to follow him. We passed back through all the security checks. At one of the checkpoints they tried to take my passport away, without telling me why. “It’s okay, we’ll give it back!”
At this point, I did something I haven’t done in a very long time.
I threw a tantrum.
I began yelling at the people holding my passport until they handed it back to me, then I clutched it to my chest and began sobbing, asking why I was being taken away, where I was being taken, what the problem was. As we moved past the lines of people waiting to check in for their flights and my honor guard continued not to answer my questions my sobbing grew louder and more frantic.
My reasons for throwing a tantrum were threefold: first, I was now genuinely afraid I was about to be taken into a small room and asked a lot of questions about my papers, second, I was overwhelmed by everything that had happened in the past few days and all I wanted to do was get home to my family, and third, if they were going to haul me off somewhere without telling me where I was going I was bloody well going to embarrass the pants off them while they were doing it.
In the end it was fine; they’d just wanted to open one of my checked bags and in Egypt the passenger has to be present while they do it. I didn’t care about that at all, but I continued to make a fuss until they brought me a glass of water. One of the ladies continued to be very nice to me despite what a pain in the ass I was being, so eventually I calmed down and apologized to everyone. I got back through all the security checks without too much fuss.
Finally I was in the pre-departure area and I started heading for the gate number on my ticket. As I walked I noticed a few people dressed entirely in white sitting in the cafe. I realized they were pilgrims on their way to Mecca (or maybe on the way back; I’m not so clear on that part.) As I walked along towards Gate 11, the number of people dressed in white increased until I was entirely surrounded by pilgrims. They stared at me in a stately, calm fashion. I began to have my suspicions that I was in the wrong place. Eventually two kindly airport workers spotted me and sent me to the right gate, waving their arms towards the other end of the terminal like they were shooing a stray goose back to the right path.
You can imagine how relieved I was when we were finally in the air, winging our way back to the States.
Twelve hours later, we arrived in New York a few minutes early, to my great surprise. However, we weren’t able to get to the gate because the plane before us was still boarding. Then there was a problem: one of the passengers didn’t show up and they had to get all his bags off the plane. You could feel the collected misery of 137 people focusing on whoever the poor sap was that missed the plane. We got shunted off to some disused piece of runway where we sat for about forty minutes, muttering and jostling each other. Finally we got to the gate and…my bag got stuck in the overhead compartment. Luckily they didn’t have to cut it out or anything and I got off the plane.
There are two infallible rules of jet travel. One: no matter how often you use the bathroom before they turn the fasten-seatbelt sign on, you will always be bursting for a pee by the time you get off the plane. And two: customs and immigration halls are always in the basement and always smell of baggage conveyer belts. Not the most encouraging entry to the USA, but I was already feeling at home.
When I finally got myself through all the customs and baggage rigamarole and wheeled my ponderously heavy suitcases out into the waiting area, my parents were waiting with open arms.
Now we are here in the small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which always puts me in the holiday spirit no matter what time of year I visit. We are surrounded by good wishes and piles of food from kindly neighbors. I feel like I did when I was a small child and all the family would be together. While it’s sad that my grandmother is no longer on this earth, the joy and love she shared with us is definitely tangible as we gather together.