Years ago I found myself on a dinner cruise on the Bosphorous River, which separates European and Asian Istanbul. Immediately I wondered if this was a good decision. Rarely do I feel awkward drinking and eating alone in public, but this occasion was different. An American flag sat in front of my dinner plate, denoting to the rest of the cruise ship attendees that I was American…the only American. Sadly I could not determine the majority of the other flags in the room, but all the other patrons were at least in a party of two.
Nobody sat directly around me. The seats were pre-arranged, and although I was near the performance center stage, I was not really close to anybody else. Some Palestinians sat at my table further down, but it did not appear anyone wanted to acknowledge my presence. Maybe I should have said I was from Canada. The host for the evening was an elderly Turkish man, who greeted each table and their flag as if we were representatives from the United Nations. After he introduced each country into the microphone, applause was expected. We saw representatives from Turkey, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Spain, Austria, and Lebanon. When it came to my table, the host called me “the big boss.”
I was aware of the negative comment he was making towards me, which was covered in the disguise of a compliment. I simply smiled in response. When he was done introducing America, minimal applause occurred. These people hated me and what I represented. Could I blame them? Outwardly I didn’t look American. I am of Filipino, Spanish, Polish, and Czechoslovakian descent. But my American status brought an apparent distaste towards their mouths.
But things shifted as a bellydance competition emerged, the host encouraged most of the women to join in. The singer, showed two basic steps, that we each had to momentarily practice as a group in front of the crowd. After the practice began, our dance solo was expected. It was not a 30 second dance solo, as I was anticipating, but two full minutes!
I clapped along, was the last to perform, and hoped the music would be quick when my turn came. Each person had their family members cheer for them as they swayed their hips, I was worried if the applause would be silence when my turn arrived. I could dance with minimal movement, as the others appeared to be doing, or give it my all. When my turn came, I turned out the embarrassment and perceived hatred, and turned up the percussion of the song. My body remembered the shoulder shimmeys, the figure 8s, and snake arms. I allowed my body to sway and flow, not caring how this was perceived. But a surprising thing happened, the crowd began to applaud.
As it came time for the winner to be announced, the singer placed his hand over each contestant, and the crowd would vote for the winner. Families and tables applauded for their family members or friends, but when it came to me the applause was the loudest. The singer then prolonged the announcement of the winner, by asking each contestant who the winner was, the majority of votes going once again to the American. A cruise ship worker appeared offering medals to all of us, as we each took a bow. “We were all winners.”
The older Turkish host came back on stage, and although not one winner was specified, he stated “The American was the winner for that hands down. You are welcome to come work on this ship.” His earlier comment of me being “The Boss” now shifted to an authentic backup bellydancer. I’ll take it.
The dinner cruise began to dock, a Turkish 20 something girl pulled me up to dance with her and her family, her Turkish mother and little 7 year old sister. As we danced, I tried to speak to them, but I realized they didn’t speak English. We were communicating through dance, and they approved of me. Further into the song, two teenage girls from Dubai pulled me aside and asked “Where did you learn to dance like that?” and “Can you teach us?” I continued to display some of my bellydancing moves with them.
As I reflect back onto this night, I can’t help but smile. It’s not because I won the bellydancing competition, but I momentarily won the hearts of these people. Numerous countries represented who initially appeared to despise Americans, welcomed me as I was able to display my respect and knowledge of their authentic traditional dance. There is such power available to each of us in these small moments when we travel. Although it seems we can’t do much to change the world, but it’s possible through a small act of dance you can begin to break barriers between nations…and momentarily share a smile.
Traveling has become such a vital part of my life that it prompted me to write a book about the state of mind we enter when we leave home. The Fragrance of Wanderlust: How to Capture the Essence of Travel in Our Everyday Lives teaches us that the doppleganger us that appears when we explore distant lands is available at home. The book focuses on how to take these travel essential tips we embody and practice them at home. It’s a 40 day staycation project. If you don’t have the funds this summer to explore distant lands, allow your mind to take a break to the present moment.