“Maybe you’d like to go somewhere with me tonight. I’ll show you some special places,” our guide said as we sat on the reef after snorkeling in the Red Sea in Egypt. He had purposefully directed our snorkeling as far away as possible from Reggie. She had stopped snorkeling earlier and I was alone with the guide.
I was very uncomfortable. “No. We need to get an early start tomorrow,” I said as I took off my mask and fins. I was eager to get back to Reggie and started walking. He continued to talk quietly to me, trying to get me to go somewhere private with him.
We were on a private tour going to the Sinai Desert and he would be our guide/driver for the next several days. I politely brushed him off. He did not get the hint. I couldn’t tell him that Reggie was my wife. That I was a lesbian. In Egypt, same-sex sexual activity is punishable by up to 17 years in prison. We were going to be traveling alone with him in very deserted areas. We were worried.
Trip Of A Lifetime: Egypt And Jordan
Reggie and I had wanted to go to Egypt for years. This was early in our traveling days and I decided to plan a trip for her 40th birthday. Birthdays are not a big thing for her, but I wanted to make this one special. We splurged on a private tour starting in Cairo, taking a Nile cruise, going to Sharm El-Sheikh, the Sinai Desert, and then to Jordan and Petra.
It was everything that we hoped for. Experiencing the insanity of traffic in Cairo. Waking up at the base of the Pyramids of Giza. Wandering by the Sphinx. Gazing at the immensity of Abu Simbel, Karnak, and other temples. Seeing the more than 3,500-year-old hieroglyphics in the Valley of the Kings. Visiting Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. Hearing the call to prayer in the evenings while cruising up the Nile.
Expert Local Egyptian Tour Operator
We had expert guides for all of these experiences. Our tour operator, Wahid, called us every night to check in and see how we were doing. When we were in Cairo, he even had us to his home with his family for a surprise birthday dinner for Reggie.
After the Nile Cruise, we switched to a new local guide. That’s when things became uncomfortable.
Setting Out For The Sinai Desert
The morning after the snorkeling trip, we left for the drive to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert. At one point during the long drive, the road just stopped. There was a crew paving a segment of the road. We laughed and then just went off-road for a while until the road appeared again.
Visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, St. Catherine’s Monastery is located near Mt. Sinai (also called Jebel Musa). It was built in the mid-500s A.D. and has one of the oldest libraries in the world. It is still a working monastery. The monks believe that the Burning Bush (from Exodus in the Bible) grows in the courtyard. It signifies the place where God appointed Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. I’m Jewish (but not very religious) and Reggie is Christian. We love seeing ancient religious sites and we both enjoyed the monastery.
Climbing Mt. Sinai
Reggie and I stayed overnight in the Sinai Desert. The plan was to see the monastery in the afternoon and then be at the top of Mt. Sinai for the sunrise. I was excited about seeing the view from the top and being in the place where Moses was thought to have received the Ten Commandments.
To Climb Or Not To Climb
At this point, Reggie and I were very uncomfortable with our guide. He had continued to be inappropriate with me. Climbing Mt. Sinai meant leaving in the dark and climbing until sunrise. With two of us, it seemed fine. Then Reggie’s knees began to hurt. The climb to Mt. Sinai includes 750 steps on the way up and 3,700+ on the way down. We decided that she could not do it.
Then it was up to me. Should I do it by myself with the guide? After a long discussion with Reggie, I decided not to do the climb. I have regretted that decision ever since.
Lessons Learned In Egypt
The Egypt trip was early in our traveling adventures. Since then, we’ve been to about 50+ countries and we’ve learned a great deal about what it means to travel as women and as a couple. There are more than 76 countries where it is illegal or socially unacceptable to be LGBTQ+. For us, the issue is not about public displays of affection, going to bars, or being public. We value and conform to the social norms of the particular country we’re in. We are more focused on our own safety as women and as LGBTQ+. In other words, being safe where we are sleeping and walking down the street.
Traveling Safely As An LGBTQ+ Couple
We learned that it is sometimes safer to travel in a group and with an LGBTQ+ friendly tour company. We used an Egyptian tour company because we wanted to support the local community, but we did not tell them before the trip that we were a couple. When we went to Morocco the next year (where being LGBTQ+ is punishable by three-plus years in prison), we went with a group and told the tour guide beforehand.
Mt. Sinai Redoux
As much as I know that it was the right decision at the time, I regret not climbing Mt. Sinai. Two years later, I was in a similar position in Tanzania. There, had no hesitancy about doing the climb by myself with a Masai guide.
Navigating Sexual Harassment
Navigating sexual advances and harassment in other countries is challenging. And this was not the first (or last) time that we’ve been sexually harassed by a guide or on the street. Some people have said that we should wear rings and tell people that our husbands are back in the United States. We have never been willing to do that. Others have asked why we travel to countries that persecute LGBTQ+ people. We go because we want to experience the culture and history. Respecting social norms and being uncomfortable is sometimes part of that. We draw the line at safety -- we won’t go unless we can figure out a way to be safe.
Be Creative In Finding Solutions
In Egypt, we learned that if we really want to do something, we need to figure out a way to do it. We could have decided to pay extra for me to join a group to climb Mt. Sinai. We could have called Wahid and asked him to help us book another guide. There were many things we could have done that would have resulted in my being able to step on top of Mt. Sinai. We didn’t. We were caught up in what we would say to Wahid about the guide hitting on me. We made many mistakes and have learned from them.
So, I didn’t end up on top of Mt. Sinai, but the lessons we learned from Mt. Sinai have informed every trip since then. For more of my travel stories and tips, consider: