Monday, 9 May 2011

Ze Balance Scale

Hey, sorry I am late (again...)! Allow me to dump my favorite travel story on you guys. I actually wrote this for a class a while back but I've kept it in the archives because I like it. Enjoy!

The infamous lamp (I bought the base in the states)
It’s almost two a.m. in Cairo and an airport security guard is yelling at me in Arabic. It’s my backpack. It’s set off sensors. What the hell is in my backpack?

The guard grabs it. All twenty members of my group wait for me, too exhausted from the past three weeks of heavy traveling to fully grasp what is going on. I am completely flustered as the guard points to the x-ray of my bag on the monitor. I don’t understand a word of what he’s saying, but I can see that he is pointing to something small, round, and wirey in the bottom of my backpack.

I gasp. It’s that stupid, multicolored globe lamp I bought in the market place back in Dahab. I thought I was getting a bargain, but the vendor ended up selling it to me with two roughly cut wires on the end of the chord instead of a conventional plug-in. It was one of the many times I managed to get ripped-off in Egypt, but that’s beside the point. The crazy thing wouldn’t fit in my luggage with the rest of my souvenirs, so I had foolishly stashed it in my carry-on.

I really should have known better. The lamp totally looks like a bomb.

The airport security guard wasn’t going to let me get by easily. I stood frozen by his x-ray monitor, wondering how I was going to explain to my parents that shouldn’t come pick me up at the airport because I was stuck in Cairo with a crappy bomb-shaped lamp I paid too much for.

Niyar, our group’s wonderful tour guide (nicknamed “the nicest man in all of Egypt”), saw what was going on and was there to help me in an instant. “Lauren,” he says in broken English. “What is in your bag? Can you show the man what is in your bag?”

I dig the lamp out of the bottom of my bag and hand it to the guard. “Lauren, what is this?” asks Niyar, as puzzled as the guard. I explain to him that it’s a lamp. He turns to the guard and starts talking very fast in Arabic. The guard rips the lamp from its careful packaging and pokes it suspiciously. I stand there helplessly as Niyar and the guard exchange angry-sounding Arabic phrases. Finally Niyar turns to me and says “We will pack this in your luggage. I will help you.”

Without warning, he unzips my enormous luggage, unleashing three weeks worth of dirty laundry. Why was it a good idea to pack my underwear on top? I felt as though everyone in the entire airport was staring at me, the moronic white girl with flaming red hair, as I frantically shove loose bras back into my suitcase and covered them with a souvenir papyrus scroll. I transferred a couple of random, smelly clothing items to my backpack, dumped the lamp into my luggage, and proceeded to struggle with the zipper for what felt like an eternity.

When I finally joined the rest of the group, I was completely embarrassed. Members of my group asked me what had just happened and I told them I would fill them in later because it involved a word you can’t even say in an airport (“bomb”). I collapsed in a chair by our designated terminal and fished around in my bag for my last mango juice box. I slumped in defeat when I remembered that the guard had confiscated it shortly before the lamp incident.

And then I got on the plane.

I hate planes even more than I hate airports.

I love traveling, but planes make me nervous. Anxious, even. Sometimes, they go as far as to make me sick. Once I used five barf bags in a two-hour domestic flight, but that’s beside the point. The point being that I had narrowly escaped the Cairo airport with a suspicious lamp and I now had to endure 13 hours of flying.

I found my seat between a bubbly blonde girl and a middle-aged Egyptian man. The blonde girl was with my group and had a lifelong phobia of airplanes. As soon as the takeoff began, she began to hyperventilate. I offered her a stick of gum in attempts to calm her down. The Egyptian man politely asked if he could have one as well. I had just enough gum to get myself through the next couple of flights, but I like to act like I’m a nice person, so I gave him a piece anyway. This small gesture was enough to make him my new best friend.

After the plane was in the air, the blonde girl calmed herself down, put on headphones, and promptly fell asleep. Everyone else on the plane dozed off as well. It was past three in the morning. But my new BFF Abdul wanted to stay up and talk and I was too on edge to sleep anyway. So when the Dutch stewardess came by and offered us bad airplane coffee, we each took a cup.

Abdul was cleanly dressed in business attire. His English was wretched and he knew it. I managed to understand that he had been in Egypt for a month visiting his family and he was returning to his wife and daughter in Amsterdam. The conversation quickly went from normal and polite to bizarre and mildly reminiscent of the movie “Airplane.”

“Do you smoke?” he asks, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” I reply.
There’s a pause.
“Do you smoke?” I fire the strange question back at him.
“Yes. Yes, I enjoy Egyptian water pipe.”
“Oh. Cool,” I say, for lack of a better response.
There’s another pause.
“Do you have boyfriend?”
“Yes.” I did have a boyfriend, but I’m pretty sure I would have said “yes” regardless.
“Does he smoke?”
Yet another pause. I half-expect him to ask me if I’ve ever gone to a Turkish prison.
“You live with boyfriend?”
“No, I live with my parents…”
“Oh, your boyfriend live with you and your parents?”
“No, my boyfriend lives with his parents.”

Abdul was confused. He then embarked on a ten-minute monologue regarding how hard romantic relationships can be in Egypt because of the Muslim culture. “And that’s why Amsterdam is paradise!” he exclaims happily. “In Egypt, you want to do the sex with girlfriend, you no can. It is bad with the religion. But in Amsterdam, you can make love to girls you love!”

I start fumbling through my backpack for my headphones, but Abdul merely takes that as a cue to change topics. He randomly asks what month I was born and we discover we were both born in October. “Oh!” he says excitedly. “Are you ze…” he moves his hands up and down in attempts to nonverbally convey something he doesn’t know the English word for. I have no idea what he’s talking about. He continues to make ridiculous hand gestures. “You know…it like, weighs things…” he says, laughing.

The stewardess comes back to collect our coffee cups. Abdul rattles off a word in Dutch and asks if she can translate it to English. Stumped, she shouts the word to another stewardess across the plane. Sleeping passengers wake up momentarily to glare at us in confusion. “Balance scale!” the stewardess on the other side of the plane shouts in reply.

“Yes!” proclaims Abdul. “Balance scale!” The stewardess continues on her way down the aisle as Abdul continues to move his hands up and down. “I yaaaam ze balance scale!” he says proudly. “Are youuuu ze balance scale?”

I finally realize he’s attempting to talk about astrological signs. And he was going to sit there and ask me if I was the balance scale (otherwise known as “Libra”) repeatedly until he got a response.
I can’t hold my laughter in any longer. He also starts laughing, and the two of us proceed to have a strange laugh attack that wakes up half of the airplane. Meanwhile, he’s still making those silly balance scale-esque hand gestures. Once I’m able to breathe again, I tell him I’m Scorpio. He gives me a blank look and doesn’t understand what I mean until I turn my hands into scorpion claws and pinch the air.

We keep up this strange dialogue for most of the flight. Soon the Netherlands are below us. The blonde girl next to me wakes up in time to have a small panic attack during the landing. I was proud of myself for not even feeling queasy. Abdul gives the hyperventilating girl a look that seems to say “Wow, you stupid American” as he chews my last stick of gum. Lack of sleep is finally catching up to me. When the plane lands, I stumble down the ramp in a zombie-like state. I mumble an incoherent farewell to Abdul Ze Balance Scale. He smiles, happy to be back in the paradise of Amsterdam.

But I am still far from home. I spend the few Euros I have on overpriced coffee and crash on a bench, dreading the next romp through security sensors. I think about my gargantuan luggage and wonder if my bomb-lamp will make it all the way back to Oregon. Before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep on the bench, coffee in hand. A friend wakes me up in time to catch the next flight.

And so it begins again. I love travelling, but I hate flying.

Lauren of Arabia


  1. That has got to be one of the best travel stories I have ever heard. Remind me to take you along next time I go travelling :P

  2. I actually don't mind flying at all - just long flights get boring. But taking off and landing is kind of a rush for me. I also love looking out the window of planes.

    I'm lucky that I had no issues with security. I'm glad your bomb lamp made it home safe.