This is Part One in a four-part series on belly dance travel and tourism. Even with the social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, many dancers are eager to travel to research, study and immerse themselves in Oriental Dance. If you're armed with some knowledge about the places you'll be visiting and know what to expect before and during your trip, you'll have a much better time.
In this series, I'll cover everything from keeping healthy and staying safe abroad to buying costumes; from cultural and social differences to breezing through security at airports; from communicating socially to haggling for a bargain.
I learned all this stuff the hard way… but you won’t have to!
After you’ve been studying our beautiful dance form for a while, there may come a time when you want to travel to the places where belly dance originated. Whether you’re going to learn and do research or purely for fun, there are so many ways to visit The Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia that there is a trip for everyone. Your journey can be as luxurious- or as rustic–as you wish.
Egypt and Turkey have numerous well-established belly dance festivals, and more are cropping up all the time, in places like Greece, Israel and Lebanon.
Many American and European dance instructors offer belly dance tours, which are usually-but not always- based around a specific festival. You can also sail on a luxury cruise with a set itinerary, or hike through the Atlas Mountains or Sahara Desert with no plan other than to explore. And many ex-patriot dancers living and working abroad open up their flats as mini-hostels for visiting dancers. The possibilities are endless!
When I look back on my very first trip Egypt in the early Nineties, I can’t believe I picked up and left the way that I did!
I was a baby dancer with hardly any experience; absolutely obsessed with going to Cairo- nothing was gong to stop me! Because I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay, I quit my job and told my family I’d be back in four to eight weeks. At that time, there was no internet or cell phones; in order to get an overseas phone line from Egypt to anywhere else in the world, even at Five Star hotels, you had to make a request at the front desk and wait around- sometimes for hours- until a line opened up and your call could be connected!
As my flight landed in Cairo, I hoped that the reservation I’d made- through the mail- had actually arrived at the hotel that I’d randomly picked out of a travel book! I hadn’t anticipated that the signs would only be in Arabic, I had $300.00 in the pocket of my worn Levi’s, and though I had no contacts whatsoever in Egypt, but I knew I needed to see the Sphinx and The Pyramids. I had nothing but blind faith that I’d be able to find belly dancing…and I did!
These days, visiting the countries where belly dancing is indigenous is sooo much easier. But there are still many things you need to know that will make your trip run much more smoothly.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Passport & Visa
In order to go on your dream trip, you’ll obviously need a passport. To gain entrance into most countries, your passport needs to be good for at least six months after your date of entry. In America, you can pick up an application at most U.S. Post Offices. Send it in well in advance of your trip; it can take many weeks to process.
While you travel, keep your passport is in a convenient and safe place, somewhere you can get to easily. Depending on where you are, you may want to either carry your passport in a neck wallet concealed under your clothing (these are available on line or at stores that specialize in travel accoutrements) or keep your passport at the front desk of your hotel.
A good idea is to photocopy your passport, keeping the copy separate from the passport itself when you travel. I keep a few photocopies tucked into pockets in my luggage. You can also scan your passport and e-mail it to yourself. That way you’ll always have the electronic copy. Either of these options will not get you in and out of different countries, but will be of great help in the event your passport gets lost or stolen.
If this happens, no matter where you are, report it immediately to the embassy for your country of origin, and a temporary passport will be issued to you.
In some countries, your passport alone will get you in but in others, you’ll need a tourist visa. This is not usually a big deal; for example, in Egypt, you can purchase your visa as soon as you arrive in the airport, at the same kiosks where you can change money.
Before traveling to any exotic locale, find out if any immunizations are required, and make sure that all your vaccines (for example, tetanus or influenza shots) are up to date. Check on the Internet for travel advisories regarding epidemics or outbreaks.
If you do need to get immunized, consult your doctor… And make sure to get any vaccines done at least two weeks before you travel in case you have a reaction, which can happen, though not often.
Buying travel insurance is always a good idea in case of last minute cancellations due to some emergency or “Act Of God”. Depending on your coverage, it can also take care of foreign doctor and dentist visits, or covering a last minute flight back home. Travel insurance will also reimburse you for smaller things, such as the cost of a hotel room due to a flight cancellation, flight re-booking fees, or in case your luggage gets lost.
Nowadays, with social unrest and political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, travel insurance is vital!
You can purchase travel insurance on the Internet or through your travel agent.
What To Pack
Almost every major airline now charges for checked bags, and each bag usually has a fifty-pound limit as well. Pack as lightly as possible. I usually bring a bare minimum amount of clothing, and check a nearly empty suitcase, which comes in handy for bringing back souvenirs…. and of course, costumes!
On your return flight, pack your costumes (as many as will fit) into your carry-on bag. If anything gets lost when your bags are checked, it will be your easily replaceable street clothes. In the past on trips to Egypt, I have even brought “disposable” items along- sneakers or walking shoes on their last legs, cheap rubber flip-flops, tourist-type T shirts, that sort of thing. You can give these items away before returning home, or as you go along. It will not only lighten your load, but many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are very poor, and people appreciate donations, which can always be put to good use. I once tipped a cab driver with a used blow dryer and some nail polish for his wife!
As for what to bring on your tip to the Middle East or North Africa, remember that you will be traveling in predominantly Muslim countries and it’s imperative that you make sure to be respectful of the people you meet, their religion and culture.
That being said, unless you are entering a mosque (or visiting Saudi Arabia) you will probably not encounter a situation where you will absolutely need to cover your hair… but it never hurts to keep a scarf handy!
Egypt’s leading industry is tourism, they’re used to tourists visiting from all over the world. Places like Morocco and Tunisia have large cities that are very modern, though in rural areas and smaller villages, people dress in traditional clothes, the way they have for centuries. Israel, Lebanon, Dubai and Turkey are extremely European, so many citizens not only “dress Western” but are also fashion forward!
No matter where you are going, bring hand washable clothing that can be layered, and comfy walking shoes for sightseeing.
I suggest packing a lightweight jacket or sweater for cool mornings and evenings, sitting or sleeping in air conditioning on the plane, tour buses and in hotels. I bring a light pashmina scarf, which can be used in many ways, including covering up your head, arms and shoulders for modesty on the street, or for shielding you from the desert sun.
Cargo pants or long shorts, jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and sandals will all serve you well. Flowing ankle-length Indian skirts and long sleeved light cotton tops will come in handy and pack nicely. Of course you will want to check out the belly dancers performing at nightclubs or major hotels, so bring a lightweight, knee-length jersey dress that can be dressed up with jewelry. If you will be at the seaside, on a cruise (whether down the Nile or through the Mediterranean) definitely bring a bathing suit, sunglasses, a hat, insect repellent and sun block!
Remember the 3-1-1 rules for carry on toiletries, and only bring whatever will fit in a quart-sized, clear plastic, zip-top bag. You only get one bag per passenger, and it needs to be placed in the screening bin at the airport.
Another good item to carry with you are disposable wet wipes. Take small travel size packets of Kleenex and definitely bring bottle of hand sanitizer. I always have these on hand when sightseeing, because it’s hard to tell what kind of restroom facilities you’ll run into…some are extremely primitive, we’re talkin’ holes in the ground!
Health, Nutrition, Supplements And Medication
Pack portable snack foods to take with you on your trip like trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, power bars, soups or noodles that can be made by adding boiling water. These are really convenient – and often necessary when traveling! You’ll need something to sustain you in case your flight gets delayed, or for day- long tours, lengthy bus or train rides, not to mention keeping your energy up at dance classes while you are jet-lagged! You may also want to bring along packets of a powdered energy/vitamin drink mix to add to bottled water for a quick burst of energy.
It’s always a good idea to carry small First Aid kit, including band-aids, anti-bacterial ointments, aspirin/pain relievers, antacids, and anti-diarrhea medications. Imodium is a fantastic over the counter remedy for stopping “Pharaoh’s Revenge” so makes sure take some along with you. Acidophilus tablets or capsules are also good for the prevention of traveler’s diarrhea, and can lessen the severity of digestive problems. Taking it before you leave and throughout your trip will aid in maintaining the normal balance of flora and fauna in the intestines.
Pack any prescription medications you are taking in the original containers, along with a copy of the prescription, and possibly a note from your doctor; keep them in your carry on luggage.
Bring along extra feminine protection if you are used to wearing tampons; they are hard to find in many Muslim countries, ditto for birth control pills and condoms! And though most pharmacies are great, if you do take prescription birth control, definitely bring more than you think you will need, just in case.
If you wear contact lenses, bring extras or use disposables, and you’ll totally want to keep a travel-sized bottle of re-wetting solution AND extra lenses in your purse while you are out and about. North Africa and The Middle East are very dry and sandy, and the desert climate can really irritate your contacts. You will NOT want to be stuck without spares! Bring a pair of prescription glasses with you as well.
In all likelihood, the most common problems you’ll run into are sunburn, insect bites, blisters, exhaustion, and maybe a cold from the recycled air on the plane. If you have prepared for these minor hazards in advance, you should be fine.
You also need to know that sour stomach or "Pharoah's Revenge" is very common... so make double-sure you bring along some Immodium to combat diarrhea.Though food poisoning does happen, it's more likely that you're feeling sick from the combination of unfamiliar foods and the inevitable jet lag. Though this isn't at all fun, your symptoms will usually pass in a day or two, and taking Immodium will halt any cramping and watery stools. But when diarrhea is accompanied by chills and fever, you need to see a doctor, stat!
Most foreign pharmacies are excellent, with knowledgeable English speaking pharmacists and clerks, and they will often take care of you better than a physician can. Many hotels have a doctor on call at all times. If yours doesn’t, ask the concierge (or your friend, or host if you are staying at a private home) to call a general practitioner in the unlikely event you will need one.
*Part Two, "What To Expect When You Arrive" will be coming up soon!