Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Jordis go on McVacation; or, Boogers Bring Peace

I am on vacation with my family in Egypt. We have, for the first time in our lives, gone on a tour-bus vacation. Not just any tour-bus vacation, either. This year, the Jordis are spending eight days with the Club Med.

To me, the Club Med calls to mind middle-class French families taking lambada lessons under a foreign sun while natives prepare the damp towelettes and lemon slices. Maman’s eager about aquaerobics at 12:10 in the Jade Lagoon, Papa’s on the putting green plotting his golf ball’s trajectory between miniature Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. Pierre’s fastening Croakies to his Oakleys before his first windsurfing lesson in the sparkly turquoise bay, and Suzanne’s tippling on daiquiris by the pool as charismatic “G.O.” (Grand Organisateur) Abdul skillfully rubs suntan lotion into her slowly roasting skin. Think Dirty Dancing set in what ten years ago was a quiet Moroccan/Mexican/Thai fishing village.

This is unfair, I know. I am a ghastly snob and horribly judgmental. Club Med gives people in developing countries jobs. It gets hard-working, stressed-out Europeans relaxed, tanned, out of the country, and if they’re lucky, laid. After all, it’s ridiculous to think that staying in concrete-box roach motels, suffering long lapses in hygiene, eating dubiously cooked food prepared with mystery ingredients, and initiating awkward conversations in pidgin English are the only “genuine” ways to travel through countries like the ones Club Med sets up shop in. Club Med certainly doesn’t own the monopoly on travel clichés—many backpackers (I am not exempt) share a set of criteria for the “consummate traveler’s experience” that aren’t any less trite.

But come on. Look at this picture:

club med ad, originally uploaded by azurenath.

“Here’s a fisherman who lives in a place that is warm, cheap, and far away. We have realized that if we build a diving board on his boat off of which you can jump and let your wife take pictures of you doing it, you will flock in great numbers. There will also be lots of drinking and eating involved. We take checks and credit cards. Welcome! Or should we say, Xin Chao?”

The thing that appeals about Club Med is that it’s so easy. There’s no spending the day wicking sweat away from under your shirt because the secret plastic pouch that contains your passport and money is plastered to your stomach—your bags are secure in Club Med hands, and you never carry them anywhere, either, just leave them outside your room when you leave a town and they’ll be outside your room in the next one, whisked across deserts and jungles by invisible cross-country bellhops. There’s no lugging linens and towels around—in fact, when you travel with Club Med, some (again, invisible) towel-folding specialist will expertly fold your towel into whimsical shapes, different every day, left on your bed for your surprise and enjoyment. There’s no scary, turista-giving food, although you may be in a country whose citizens don’t even trust the tap water. The lavish buffet’s chafing dishes offer impeccably presented but watered-down versions of ethnic food, plus standard scalloped potatoes and grilled chicken, and fries and hot dogs for the kids. And a flock of doves carved out of turnips, and the Sphinx carved in butter, and lilacs sculpted from of carrots. I am so not kidding.

Of course, I’m a complete hypocrite, a whited fucking sepulcher. I’m being critical here—but yeah, I took a beach towel for the lounge chair and another one to use as a pillow. I gorged myself on the buffets, and didn’t even really try the ‘ethnic’ food when it looked weird. I barely spoke words other than “Thank you” and “How much?” and “Please may I have another…” to the Egyptians I came in contact with. In fact, I learned exactly one word in Arabic: shokran, or thank you. I wrapped a towel-turban round my head and rimmed my eyes in kohl for the Egyptian-themed dinner. I got excited about the whimsical towel shapes. I joined the conga line on New Year’s—even did the goddamn Macarena under a twirling disco ball. And I must admit I had a great time. I met fun people and saw some incredible monuments and got a fabulous January tan.

Egypt is an unbelievable country from an ogler’s perspective. The monuments are the most exceptional I’ve ever seen. It boggles the mind to think of the level this civilization had reached while my ancestors were still living in huts chipping flint into arrowheads or whatever they were doing. The craftsmanship of the artifacts that remain is astounding, and the country’s cultural heritage has been remarkably well preserved. We saw temples that had spent centuries buried in sand or under water or both, and the carved inscriptions trickling down every flat surface were still perfectly legible. Even the busloads of tourists smoking cigarettes and making peace signs in front of cameras couldn’t ruin the timeless, regal atmosphere that surrounds these temples.

Our tour guide knew his shit fully—he was very impressive, and I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much from a guidebook. Our particular Club Med tour was hardcore, too—there were two 8 a.m., two 6 a.m., two terrible 4 a.m.., and a fucking awful 2 a.m. wakeup. And I mean, Club Med notwithstanding you’re still occasionally interpellated by real-deal Egypt; I got held back at a security check for having tampon in my pocket and had to explain away the potential weapon. The day was constantly interrupted by the muezzin’s call to prayer—and, inspired to stretch my legs at midnight on the boat’s top deck, I found myself staring at a guy twiddling his fingers atop a Kalashnikov. Sweet.

Examples like these were hooted and tooted over as oh-so-authentic. But they’re few and far between. Make no mistake: there’s nothing local about the Club Med. The risk of running into hairy situations is practically nil, because you’re always chaperoned and surrounded anyway by a mass thick enough to discourage any leering, ill-intentioned personage. Any vendor you meet will speak your language’s key words, and even though he’ll later tell his friends, guffawing, how much you paid for your scarf or hookah, you’ll feel like you got a bargain because you talked him halfway down his asking price.
My field of vision the entire time I was in Egypt was far more filled with other tourists than it was with Egyptians. More than marvel at the ruins I stared unabashed at the other tourists. It’s one of the things I like most about visiting places that attract all sorts of different people—seeing who shows up. People who wear shirts that say “Bad Girl” in a Muslim country. Hats that say “Teenage Millionaire” in a developing country. People with bad hair, fat in funky places, absurd mannerisms, or curious choices of footwear, like stilettos in a desert. Hello!?! Lady, the only sure bet in a desert is SAND! Did you think they’d pave it over for you?

But I ate crow when, bored with the market’s kitschy wares and my mind on the good book waiting for me on board, I went back to the boat early and missed a spontaneous mourning ceremony my family stumbled upon that was so affecting, they said, that nobody could bear to photograph it (photographs, the pink triplicate proof of an Experience Consumed). The only serendipitous glimpse of Genuine Egypt, and I was probably ordering a piña colada. I’m a jerk.


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