“Mmmuhm, mmmuhm,” the old woman said, blocking my exit through the bathroom door. Her withered hand reached out, cupped, begged.
It was 2007, and my friend and I had just arrived in Cairo. It had been an exhausting day of travel that had begun multiple hours earlier at Dulles International Airport and had already seen us spend time walking around London and suffering through a turbulent ride over the Mediterranean. We were tired, jet-lagged, and ready for bed.
Immediately after touching down in Cairo, we waited in a long line–full of people with different standards of personal space–to collect our visa stamps. Then another line of smushed bodies, for customs. And then the baggage carousel, where hordes of people milled about and we waited and waited for the metal ribbon to start turning.
We popped into the bathroom near baggage, not sure how long baggage would take nor how long the drive to the hotel would be. As we walked in, an old woman unrolled a tube of toilet paper and handed us each a few pieces.
The first stall was a squat toilet and the first such device I had ever seen in person. “Oh, nooo,” I thought, my dainty inner monologue firmly shaped by Western sensibilities.
When I saw that the next stall held a “regular” toilet, I was relieved.
But there was still something wrong with it. Buttons and levers were splashed across the cistern like paint on a modern-art canvas.
Which was the right one? I heard my friend’s toilet flush and thought, “Well, if she can figure it out, so can I.” And so I pulled a lever at random.
It was the shower.
As water began dripping from the ceiling, and I stared bleary eyed at the sea of knobs before me, I thought I might hate Egypt.
Finally I found the right button and joined my friend at the sinks. The old woman from before was now standing close to us. We tidied up and began to walk out the door.
She slid in front of it, hand out. “Mmmuhm.”
We pressed on, not understanding.
She would not budge. “Mmmuhm.”
We had not found an ATM yet and had virtually no money on us. My friend fished around for an American bill and handed it to her.
The strange woman accepted the money, then reached her hand out to me. “Mmmuhm.”
“That’s for both of us,” my friend tried to tell her.
“I don’t have anything,” I desperately added.
Not knowing what else to do, we shoved past her and back into the baggage area. Worry set in that we had broken a social custom, that airport security would soon appear to whisk us away.
As we collected our luggage and boarded our bus, I felt a cold ball of terror coalescing in my stomach. Two weeks we had to be in this unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar toilets and people and manners. I spent the whole ride to our hotel regretting my decision to come and fervently wishing I could just go home.
It can be downright frightening to realize you’ve left your safety zone. Especially when you’re cashless, exhausted, and soaked in mystery shower water.