This is Part TWO 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!
Jet lag is inevitable when you are traveling through multiple time zones, but it doesn’t need to stop you from enjoying your trip! Get adequate sleep every night for at least a week before you depart, and of course, try to sleep on the plane. This isn’t always easy, due to the confines of airline seats, plus your own anticipation at the beginning of your journey. Bringing a travel pillow, earplugs and a sleep mask may help you to rest…flights to the Middle East and North Africa are long and tedious, so try to get at least a little sleep! Stays well hydrated on the plane, drinking at least a full glass of water every couple of hours if not more. Walk around and stretch every so often, too.
When you arrive at your destination, try to acclimate yourself to the local time. If you arrive mid-day, expose yourself to sunlight and try to get on a regular sleeping and meal schedule as soon as possible. It’s better not to take a nap, even if you are very tired. Stay awake until the evening, and then get a good night’s sleep. Since you will undoubtedly be running around seeing the sights and attending dance classes, make an effort to get at least seven hours of sleep every night, which is not always easy with jet-lag…or the later hours kept in exciting places like Cairo or Istanbul! To help yourself fall asleep, try Melatonin, herbal tea, or an over-the-counter or prescription sleep aid.
Cash And Plastic
Almost everywhere in the world you go, you’ll be able to use your ATM card or credit cards at banks and major hotels. This way, you won’t have to worry about carrying a lot of cash. Check on the fees; some are exorbitant.
Be careful of ATM machines in small villages, remote or rural areas. Many of these machines run out of money on a frequent basis, or are privately owned and tack on hefty fees. Some may not have the keypad letters and numerals and/or directions printed in a language you can understand, and others will literally eat your cards. Even in far-flung areas, there will be hotels or money changing bureaus that have currency.
Though most hotels and hostels take credit cards, many smaller shops and restaurants do not. The larger Five Star hotels generally take travelers checks, or will change them for cash, but you may have to go a bank or special office. The cashless commerce concept is now worldwide, and increasingly, traveler’s checks are becoming out-dated. Personally, I don’t even bother with them anymore.
If you don’t have a safe in your hotel room, you may be able to use the safe at the front desk, though I really wouldn’t advise this in anything less that a Four Star hotel. Do not leave any money (or valuables in general) lying around your room. And no matter what you have in it, always lock your suitcase when you leave your hotel room.
Food And Drink
One of the great joys of traveling is enjoying the local cuisine, but many travelers also have stomach or intestinal problems that stem from sampling unfamiliar meals. This can be due to a number of reasons, including consuming food that is undercooked or on the verge of spoiling from being improperly stored. No matter what, it’s seriously not fun. This is where your Imodium and probiotic supplements come in!
Whether you’re staying at a private home or Five Star hotel, I would advise against drinking water straight from the tap. Not to sound like a colonialist, but the water in many countries is not the water you are used to at home. It can run be infested with bacteria and parasites or way over chlorinated- either of which could make you seriously ill, or just wind up upsetting your stomach. You can’t be too careful.
I recommend that you even brush your teeth with bottled water!
The “beware of water” rule also applies to the ice in a soda or cocktail. You may think you are safe drinking a Coke or a Gin and Tonic since it’s not tap water, but the ice may be! Better to go without ice unless you are absolutely sure the water from which the ice was made is clean and filtered.
And as far as booze goes, if you are a drinker and are traveling to a Muslim country, take advantage of the Duty Free wine or spirits at the airport, because any sort of alcohol will be awfully tough to find! Though it is available at major hotels and some restaurants, drinks are pricey and there’s pretty much no such thing as liquor stores.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant, and Western-style salads have also become popular and are available in most places. Be wary of eating un-cooked vegetables outside of major hotels or tourist spots. Again, there is risk of bacterial infection, parasites, or the produce may have the residue of strong pesticides, which also could make you seriously ill. If you have any doubts about your fruits and veggies, good rule of thumb is to only eat cooked vegetables, and to only eat fruit with a tough skin that needs to be removed like citrus fruits, bananas or melons. If you are concerned about not getting enough greens or fiber, bring supplements with you.
In larger cities, many restaurants now cater to a Western tourist clientele and offer vegetarian dishes; if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll also find many traditional foods to eat at your destination.
Some typical foods that are veggie-friendly- though not always vegan-friendly are:
Falafel: Also called tamiyya in Egypt, these are deep-fried, seasoned garbanzo bean patties, served on their own as well as in pita bread.
Tabbouleh: A salad made of fresh parsley, wheat bulgur, tomatoes and onions, with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice
Baba Ghanouj /Muttabal: Roasted mashed eggplant salad or dip
Hummus: A chickpea and sesame paste served as a salad or dip
Dolma, Dolmades, Yapraak Dolmasi, Wara Enab: Rice-stuffed, cooked grape leaves *Sometimes the leaves are stuffed with meat and rice, so if you are a strict veggie, check on this before digging in
Lebni, Laban Zabadi: Thick, rich Arabic yoghurt- a fantastic source of probiotics
Fool Muhmaddas: An Egyptian favorite, this is a savory bean stew, often eaten for breakfast with various toppings, including fried eggs.
Koshary: Practically the national dish of Egypt, Koshary is a hot dish made of pasta in a spicy tomato sauce with lentils and fried onions- it’s delicious!
Bread comes in many varieties throughout North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, and is usually freshly baked and delicious. Butter and cheese of all types are also common.
If you have any serious food allergies, copy this phrase down:
“I am allergic to ______ and will become very sick, and possibly die if I eat it. Does this food contain _____?”
Include your food allergies and type the phrase into Google Translator http://translate.google.com/# which will translate it into Arabic, Turkish, Greek, or basically whatever language you need.
Keep the paper with this phrase in your wallet and show it to waiters any time you have any doubts about what the food contains… If you are not sure what is in the food, it’s best to skip it entirely.
In many foreign countries, a service charge or gratuity is already added to your bill when you dine at a restaurant or order from room service in a hotel. However, there are plenty of other times when you will need to tip. Always tip luggage handlers at airports, bellhops, and cab drivers. If you are on a guided tour, you should tip your guide, and tip the driver as well. Some dance tours include these gratuities in their pricing, but others do not. When a doorman hails a cab or arranges for a car, is customary to tip him. I also leave money for the maid or room cleaner in hotels as well. Going on a camel ride, sailing in a felucca down the Nile or having a jaunt in a hantour carriage? You guessed it, leave a tip!
Often, on the street, especially in a larger city, if you are lost someone will assist you and possibly even walk you to the address you are looking for. In this case, it’s polite to offer a tip- often it won’t be accepted, but you certainly won’t offend anybody by doing this.
Pretty much, if you want any sort of special service, however trivial, you ought to provide a tip. Always carry change and small bills with you for baksheesh, or tips.
Price haggling is normal in most Middle Eastern or North African countries, but it’s not proper to bargain everywhere. The shop owners in the bazaars and souks are fine to bargain with, as are street vendors selling souvenirs, it’s expected. Don’t expect bargaining at department stores, grocery stores, large shops or the souvenir shops in the hotels.
When haggling in the bazaars, go 50% - 70% lower than the price quoted to you, and work up from there. Most of the vendors have fixed prices in mind, but will always go in for some bargaining, it’s a tradition! If an item seems too pricey and the merchant won’t budge, simply thank him and walk away- usually, as if by magic, the price will come down!
When you are shopping, bear in mind that even inquiring about the price of an item may signal to the merchant that you are interested enough to buy it…there’s not really any such thing as “comparison shopping” at a souk! If you are about to purchase something, be prepared for a lengthy bargaining process. The way this usually goes is that the merchant will bring you into the store, sit you down and order out for complimentary tea, coffee, soda or water. You’ll be shown many versions of whatever you were bargaining for before you decide upon a mutually agreeable price. Sometimes this is a welcome break from the relentless heat of sightseeing, other times it seems like an awful lot of work just to buy something! Don’t be persuaded to purchase anything you do not want.
If you are not seriously interested in an item, say so immediately so you don’t waste your time or the merchant’s.
Mobile Phones, Computers And Internet Access
If you are bringing electronic items with you (battery chargers for cameras, your cell phone, iPad, etc.) you’ll need an electronic plug adapter or converter. Make sure you know what sort of outlets are used in the country or countries you will be visiting. Ask for assistance with this at any store where you can buy electronics or travel items.
For email, instead of bringing your laptop or iPad, consider using the hotel’s business office or an Internet cafe and buying time on a card. Trust me, there will NOT be time for the endless social networking you may be used to back home…plus, in arid desert climates computers can be damaged by sand kernels or during travel…and they’re also easy to steal from hotel rooms!
If you own a smart phone, these usually work just fine all over the world, though again, rural and remote areas may have spotty coverage. Check your phone plan ahead of time to make sure that you can even make calls from overseas, and that you understand the charges involved. Overseas telephone calls from your room can be extremely expensive. If you think you’ll be making a lot of calls, you ought to be able to purchase an inexpensive mobile phone at your destination for about USD $30.00-$50.00 and buy pay-as-you-go cards. This may be much less expensive than using your own USA cell phone or hand-held…. but be advised: on the phones, error messages as well as the keypad may be in Arabic!
As far as memory cards, film for non-digital cameras, batteries, and chargers- make sure you bring some extra along. These items are available universally, but, like any tourist destination, they will be expensive. Make sure to remember them; the ones available in the place you are visiting may not match your electronic equipment.
Put an automatic vacation message on your email or notify your friends and family about dates when you will be gone, let them know that you will check in, but may not be able to do so every day.
As far as modern conveniences in many foreign hotel rooms or in the cabins on Nile cruises go, don’t expect the type of amenities you are used to in the USA or Europe. Many hotels now have in-room televisions, blow dryers or steam irons- but some do not. If you think you absolutely can’t live without your blow dryer, then by all means bring it along. However, if you are touring the Mediterranean on a large commercial cruise line, you will probably be sailing in the lap of luxury.
Depending on the country you are in, magazines and books printed in English or European languages can be tough to find, even at upscale hotels. If you are a big reader, plan ahead by bringing a couple of magazines or paperbacks with you… but trust me…you probably will not have time for much reading when you are traveling- I can’t tell you how many books I have taken along and never even looked at!