Reflections on the Nile: The Hustle

It’s been more than a year since my troupe moved back to the U.S., but the adventures of our last 5 years still all seem very close and tangible.  These adventures touched us deeply, and as we face new challenges, it’s good to reflect and remember the past.

We were lucky enough, as a family, to travel to places like Athens and Crete, Britain and France. And I spent a brief time in Egypt on a reporting trip–a trip that was filled with discoveries for me.  Much of my reporting was meant to give a snapshot of that time in Cairo, which was (is?) still figuring out where it was heading in its revolution.

But in this post I wanted to jot down some of the money-making observations I made while hoofing through Cairo. I hesitate to call them scams, because most of them were just ways people had inserted themselves into the tourist economy to make a few bucks. (Egyptian Pounds.) For most of these observations ‘scam’ is too strong. ‘Hustle’ might be closer to what I mean. And in a lucky break, my identifying the hustle helped me leave Egypt with a little more money in my pocket than I expected.

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Trekking East: Holiday Edition

Moon rising

I have fancied myself a fairly prolific traveler in the last years, stretching the bounds of my passport and camera across mostly European locales.  I was lucky enough to see sights in Norway, Germany, France, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, Egypt, Ireland, and Canada, since 2008.  Each journey has its own set of challenges; in Greece, I wasn’t sure if the protestors from television would overrun my family as we climbed the Acropolis (they didn’t); or in the Czech Republic, I had to try to work as a reporter and snag interviews while not knowing any Slavic languages and having no experience there.  The challenges are what make trips exciting and worthwhile, though…at least in theory.

My troupe’s latest journey set us onto America’s roadways, moving all of our things, by car, from Washington State to Ohio.  Cleveland will be our new home, one that we are eager to embrace and settle into after months of transition from Switzerland to the United States.  But this car journey is an epic feat for even regular drivers, and I hadn’t driven more than a few hours in the four years I lived abroad.  To move us to Ohio would take more than 30 hours of driving time, spread through five long days.

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‘Protecting’ the (Canadian) border

Contraband

I will admit that my family is perhaps a little more internationally-minded than the average American family, but we really were just looking for lunch when we headed into Canada one Friday.  When we were in Switzerland a regular outing would be to take the train to Germany or France for shopping and lunch.  The border was so close, just asking to be crossed.  The Schengen zone has made visa-free travel the rule in Europe, and crossing borders is as natural as a daily commute. (In fact, many border-crossers live and work in different countries)  For the USA, borders are considered a little more serious areas of security and protection.  U.S. citizens now need passports to get into Canada and back, and have long been profiled and searched while coming through land-crossings from Mexico.

Still, my troupe is fresh from Europe, with a slightly less sense of danger while around borders.  This is why we decided to take a day trip into British Columbia one day, just to find a restaurant and then head home.  In all my traveling, from Athens to Oslo to Cairo, I had never been to Canada.  So we set our plans, not knowing the interrogation to come.

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Keeping our eyes open

Urban life

One of the earlier things I noticed when I moved to Switzerland was a seemingly large number of black men stopped by police.

It seemed that any time I saw a man of color on the street, he was surrounded by three or more Zurich police officers checking his ID, and asking what he is doing.  Many of these men are asylum seekers, with the majority from Eritrea or Nigeria.

Switzerland is not the most racially diverse country, so maybe I was more sensitive to the issue of racial profiling than I otherwise would be.  But I kept noticing police turning their cars around and hopping out to question a black man on the street, or when I had lunch in the park, police only seemed to question “minorities.”

I followed up on this observation with Zurich police, the city ombudswoman, and human rights activists and heard police say there was not a systematic profiling of black men, though Nigerians controlled the drug trade. The park I ate lunch in used to be a hub of drug dealing so maybe the increased presence of police is attributed to that.

The ombudswoman did have a large number of complaints of profiling and unnecessarily long questioning of mainly African males from police.  Human rights campaigners complained of a lack of transparency in how Switzerland registered who was being stopped and questioned the most.

And anecdotally,  some asylum seekers told me they were subjected to questioning on the street all the time.  They claimed that if they complained, they were sometimes physically abused.

I couldn’t and can’t confirm their claims, and thus did not report them, but it does make me watch closer when police seem to single someone out…

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Vacations and floods

Dresden castle

There was a time when journalists played the part of an “ambulance chaser;” ink-stained scoop-hunters would rush to see which building burned; what criminal was nabbed; what neighborhood was afflicted.  With technology, newsrooms could selectively send reporters out depending on what seemed most newsworthy on the scanner.  I have never been on such a beat where I had to be so on the spot for news.  Much of public radio reporting’s strength is in its analysis, and ability to pull back from the news frenzy.  Rushing to report is often how mistakes are made, yet time is often of the essence.

Even if I am not often covering the breaking news, I still follow it, even when I am on vacation.  On a recent trip to Germany my troupe decided for a quick trip to Dresden, a lovely city in Germany’s East.  We happened to arrive in early June just as storms were ripping through Central Europe.  I turned on MDR, central German public television, in our hotel room before a planned walk to the River Elbe near the Altstadt (old town.)  The Elbe was flooding then, but not as bad as other rivers.  Dresden was affected, as were Leipzig and Passau, Prague, and many small villages between.  Dresden was affected but not terribly, according to the news.  We had just arrived, and a steady stream of emergency vehicles rushed outside our hotel window; a convoy of five German Red Cross vans sped back and forth.

There was only one thing for a vacationing reporter with family to do in such a situation: go for a walk and see what’s happening.

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Irreverence, Americans, and a Holocaust memorial

Barriers of the past

Despite living in Germany for a year, and visiting a number of times before that, I only recently visited a concentration camp; left standing so all people never forget what horror is possible by human hands.  These camps are technically no longer camps–their intended function and ability to terrorize was stripped by both physical force, and the force of conscience.  We now call these places memorials, to preserve the memory of a devastating chapter in the history of man, so not to repeat it or allow it to repeat.

This brief post is not about the Dachau memorial per se, but more about the American students seemingly unaware of where they were, what happened beneath their feet 70 years prior, or what lessons their ignorance is preventing them from learning. If this sounds harsh, it is with good reason, and comes after feeling embarrassed to be American.

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