Why I Brought My Baby to Egypt
Shortly after 3 a.m., I was asleep on an overnight train from Cairo — until I wasn’t. Until my 10-month-old son started thrashing in my arms and convulsing. Until my husband stumbled down from the top bunk to help, until he flipped on the light in the tiny compartment, until he crashed against the bottom bunk, his head narrowly missing the metal ladder.
Our baby’s eyes were swollen shut with creamy yellow pus. It looked like the foam people use to prevent rats from getting into their house and smelled like something rats would probably gobble right up. His screams ricocheted off the windows, blocking out the sounds of the train blasting along on its way to Luxor. The noise did not, however, mask the whomp my husband’s body made as he thudded to the floor. I didn’t hear Garrett’s eyes roll up into his head, but roll up they did.
I had a sick baby, an unconscious husband and one thundering question: Had everyone been right?
When Garrett and I told people about our plans to take our baby son to Egypt, reactions ranged from the gently judgmental (“Hmmm . . . that’s different”) to the downright hostile (“Are you crazy? What about the terrorists?”). My mom said she’d join us — and pack a gun. My dad didn’t speak to me for two weeks.
We could thank the media’s typical portrayal of Egypt as one tweet away from crumbling into anarchy for these attitudes. As is the case with most of the Middle East and North Africa, it’s rare to see positive coverage, let alone coverage that makes you want to hop on a plane with your kid.
Unfortunately, much of the media’s coverage reflects a violent reality. In recent months, militants had begun targeting various areas, including tourist sites, as part of an increasingly coordinated campaign against the government. On balance, the country is more dangerous than, say, Canada or Bermuda. So why go? And why bring a baby?
Garrett and I will travel just about anywhere because we believe just about everywhere is worth visiting. We got married in West Africa, had The Talk about getting pregnant after a long hiking trip in Nicaragua and tried to conceive on a train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar. (It was February in Siberia and there wasn’t much else to do.) I felt the baby kick for the first time, one perfect bubble rising up from my middle, during a concert in Prague. Traveling is part of who are as a couple and who we plan to be as a family.
Baby was 12 weeks old when we took him to get his passport. In the photo he looks like a sad sack of potatoes no one wants to buy at the grocery store, his head lolling to one side, his features a conglomeration of puffiness. In short, he looks like most everyone does in passport photos, only smaller.
We picked Egypt the way we’d picked so many destinations over the years: we got a good deal on flights. The guidebooks said that Egyptians like kids, but what guidebook in the history of the world doesn’t say the same?
Besides, Egypt is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world, and you don’t last that long without knowing a thing or two about taking care of offspring. We wanted to see our little baby crawl in the shadow of the Pyramids which were old even when Cleopatra went to visit them. A wee, new life juxtaposed against evidence of an almost unfathomably ancient one felt worth the price of airfare.
At Baby’s age, going from the living room to the kitchen constitutes a life-changing trip. Obviously we knew that he’d remember nothing about Egypt. Indeed, given the choice as well as the ability to make the choice, he might prefer to stay at home. We went anyway, because we didn’t want to wait until some mythical point in the future when he’s “old enough” to start seeing the world.
No one in Egypt questioned the wisdom or sanity of bringing our baby to a place still reeling from revolution. No one wondered why we’d take him to a country where tanks stand in the capital’s main square and suicide bombers have roamed the roads, necessitating that visitors travel in armed caravans in some areas. Instead, people wanted to know what kinds of diapers we used and whether we were satisfied with his crib. They wanted to know if I was breastfeeding him and how we brushed his teeth. We were asked more than once whether his Cheerios were iron-fortified.
Nevertheless, shaking the concerns of our loved ones proved hard. When a young woman in a hijab slung her arm around me in the shadow of the Sphinx, I assumed I was about to be pickpocketed. As she fumbled about my waist, I calculated how many Egyptian pounds I had and tried to remember where we’d stashed our passports. All she wanted, though, was a picture of herself posing with the baby and me, but she couldn’t figure out where to put her hand amongst the straps and snaps of his carrier.
The three of us had some adjusting to do, for sure. The first time a person hissed at my fair-haired, blue-eyed baby, I jumped about a foot. Ditto when someone snapped their fingers in his little face. My hand rose to shield him, while a lie — “We’re not American! We’re Canadian! Caah-nay-di-aaaaaaan!” — rose to my lips. I jerked less the second, third, fourth, twenty-eighth time. As it turns out, hissing and snapping at babies in Egypt are akin to coochie-coochie-coo-ing and stroking babies under the chin in the United States: It’s what you do to show affection and maybe induce the giggles.
Everywhere my husband and I went, our son was kissed, blessed, fawned over, caressed, hissed at, snapped at and cuddled. Teenage girls swarmed us to get a closer look. Old women stroked his cheek and pinched his feet. Hardened dock workers dropped their cigarettes to press coins into our palms for luck. We were often complimented on the masculinity of his name, Wolf.
People drew out the “l” so that it became “Wollllllllllllllllllllllllf.” The baby accepted the attention with ease, and never once cried or fidgeted when strangers approached. The only thing Wollllllllllllllllllllllllf didn’t like during the entire 10-day trip was falafel.
That night on the train, I balanced the baby against my body with one hand and soothed my husband awake with the other. I managed to maneuver Garrett back into his bunk before scraping the crud off every single one of Wolf’s eyelashes, using tissues, bottled water and an entire bottle of Purell.
He opened his eyes long enough to seek out mine for a single second, then blinked back to sleep. The next day we went to a pharmacy, where a nice man named Ans translated English to Arabic and helped us get eye drops to combat the dust and dirt that were causing the infection. At home in New York a few weeks later, our pediatrician said she would have recommended the very same medicine.
I am not easy in the world, but I want my son to be. I want him to be imaginative and inquisitive, comfortable in cities and in the country and enthusiastic about all kinds of adventures and interactions. Going places — from hiking in nearby New Jersey to visiting friends in Los Angeles to traipsing around Egypt — will help him develop those characteristics, and traveling will teach him the sometimes subtle difference between being cautious and being afraid.
At a late lunch a day or so before leaving Egypt, Garrett and I tried to trade off childcare as we slurped soup and dipped pita into hummus. The manager of the restaurant rushed over, arms outstretched, offering to watch Wolf since the restaurant didn’t have a highchair.
He picked the baby up and wandered off. As the minutes went by, Garrett and I looked at each other, wondering which of us should go find our son. No matter what kind of parents (and travelers) we’re striving to be, someone we didn’t know had, after all, taken our kid somewhere we couldn’t see. Just as Garrett stood up, the manager came back, followed by a cook, a waiter, another cook, and two dishwashers — pretty much the entire kitchen staff. Every single one of them wanted to get a picture holding the baby “to put on Facebook.”
We put our photos (of the baby taking a cruise down the Nile, of him trying to pet a stone cat, of the three of us beaming in front of incredible temple after incredible temple) on Facebook too. We got some likes and a fair amount of glad-you’re-back-safe-and-sounds. A few people asked where we’re headed next. Amsterdam, we typed back. Copenhagen. Then to Florida to see family. After that, who knows?
My favorite comment came from my mother-in-law. “I can’t believe my little grandson has a passport and I don’t,” she said.
So she got one. Now, at age 67, she’s planning her first trip to Europe.
Jessica Allen has written about street art for Mental Floss, Harlem for The Boston Globe, books for The Washington Post, baby personalities for McSweeney’s, and what to eat on the Trans-Siberian Railway for Serious Eats. She lives in New York with her family.