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It was already evening when my group of 89 tourists arrived at the base of Mount Sinai, and we were given the option of making the trek up the mountain on foot, or on camel. I wanted to walk it, probably just for the sake of saying I did so, but I was talked out of this. My brother made his case for saving energy, and since I certainly did not want to get separated and come down this mountain with my dimming wits and my dimming flashlight by myself in a few hours, of my own free will I chose to ride the camel. I don't know the name of the camel I was given, but for the purpose of relaying this story his name will be Muhammad, as that name is rather popular in the Middle East. Go figure.
I do not recommend camel rides. Why did I think it would be like riding a horse? They should come with a, "I am not a horse" sign, with a surgeon general warning about how wildly uncomfortable it will be to remain on its weird little back. I believe camels grew their lumps specifically to avoid having to give rides to people, but that never stops a group of tourists in "I heart Egypt" hats. Nope, we are gluttons for punishment. One of the main issues, despite how deliberately uncomfortable he was, that Muhammad and I were having, was our serious breach in communication. I insisted on speaking English to my camel, and no matter how many mannerly, "let's go camel" or, "no, not that way, camel!" suggestions I gave the camel, it simply wasn't working. It wasn't until the shephards shouted at him in Arabic that he listened completely. I would swear he turned and looked at me at one point with a "why didn't you just say that," look. My Arabic is rusty. We did however make the clumsy trek all the way to the base of the 720 stairs that one must climb to get to the top of Mount Sinai.
My experience with Muhammad, and our uncomfortable 90 minutes together, made me reflect on some of the other communication issues that we'd had on our trip. I don't speak Arabic, as I mentioned, nor Hebrew, and this trip, I didn't bring any books, dictionaries, or any other resources to help me out of tight spots in the Middle East. I actually thought I'd survive using the evil baby approach, assuming that I'd pick up a few key words from just listening like a toddler. I figured if they can do it, why can't I? The evil baby approach was a failure. I spoke English or charades to get what I needed.
Our tour group was all English speaking, but as some of our English speakers were from England, Australia, and New Zealand, they had a difficult time with the corrupted English spoken by the Americans. As my dear, and tactless brother put it, "I don't speak the King's English, I speak the President's English." The Americans were lost when the British stated that we'd take a break to use the loo (bathroom), or when they insisted on calling a flashlight a torch. We tried to tell them that a torch has flames in our world, and that a light did not have to actually flash to be a flashlight. They were committed to the use of "boot" for the trunk of a car, and were sure trunks only belonged to elephants. A great debate arose over the use of chips for what we know in America as fries, and crisps for what we call chips. When I was offered what I consider to be a cookie, by a girl named Amy from England, she told me that it was an oat biscuit. When I mentioned that it had everything about it that made it a cookie in the US, and why was it a biscuit in England? She said in her lovely accent, "well, cookies to us are soft, and doughy, when it's flat and hard like this it's a proper biscuit." I told her the only way I grasped that concept was to relate it to a dog biscuit, so in England they must have human biscuits and mark them as such. She seemed puzzled, but laughed anyway. I've been to England, I knew this biscuit issue, but my evil streak liked frustrating this girl. An Australian woman of about 60 years old in our group was seated near my parents on the bus, and casually refered to an actor as a "pussy" in front of a bunch of older, and conservative people. She thought nothing of it, except my parents were laughing their heads off, and she replied, "oh, yes, that's unmannerly to say in America." She meant the description in the same way it would be used in the US.
The language barrier issues are summed up best by what happened during my final dinner in Nazareth. I had a plate of food I was cautiously eating, and was sitting across from an elderly woman with a slight case of the giggles.
"Do you know what that is, hon?" she asked, pointing to what I had decided was beef.
"My best guess is beef, ma'am." I said to her, which made her laugh harder. She waved me closer to her.
"No, I asked the man in the hat. His English wasn't very good, but he said that those are bull's penis ," her eyes were big with concern.
I am not phased by this revelation. "Yeah, I'm pretty much going to give these a shot. It seems rather expensive and crazy to castrate a bunch of bulls, make them kosher, and serve them with rice. I guess it could be done, but are you sure about this, sister?"
She was shaking her head yes, when my brother, who was sitting next to me asked, "are you sure he didn't mean meat balls ?"
Her face reverted to an instant "aha!" expression, as if a light bulb of reasonableness had just come on.
"Oh...yes, that's probably what he meant," she said, and happily began eating her meal.