As I sit right now in one of Dahab’s dozens of restaurants on the Red Sea, I am a little lonely. Why? There are no cats sitting on my lap. In Dahab, Egypt, you see, stray cats are more plentiful than the stars in the desert sky. They roam freely not just on the roads but into the shops, restaurants and even on into my apartment. I love it.
In the U.S. animals in restaurants are almost completely prohibited, for health and cleanliness reasons, which is understandable, as no one wants dog fur in their food, and the thought of eating out of a bowl that a cat previously licked is unacceptable to us. Animals may have fur and bugs, but are you really going to get sick from letting them around your food? Probably not. I think there is a gross-out factor involved for many people, whose cultures just don’t allow them to be at peace with the different standards of cleanliness found in some other countries. Many, many countries we travel to have many and varied different attitudes and standards than our home countries, and embracing them – or at least tolerating them – is one of the ways in which travel can make us grow, I think.
The only places in the U.S. where I’ve seen animals in restaurants is on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, my favorite vacation spot in my country. These islands seem to have a bit more of a European mindset than the rest of the country, which may explain the friendlier attitude toward pets in restaurants. Even in the restaurants of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, though, I’ve only infrequently seen pampered pets sitting silently in their owners’ laps, never wandering about.
I first noticed that Europe has a different animal attitude when I traveled to the continent on my first solo trip many years ago. Here I saw for the first time in my life diners enjoying not only their food but the company of their beloved animals. Still, as I would later find on the islands in the U.S., these animals likewise lay calmly in their owners’ laps or at their feet under the tables, not daring to make a peep or eat a morsel.
Egypt is the only country I’ve spent any amount of time in where animals are allowed carte blanche access to wherever their wandering instincts lead them. Recently I visited Luxor, where I found an extremely animal-friendly restaurant with not only the cats and dogs of the owners hanging out, but a camel and ostrich as well. Restaurants are one of the most popular hang-outs for the stray cats and dogs running wild in Dahab, and most people who live and travel here tolerate this attitude well. I don’t just tolerate it, I enjoy it.
Dogs don’t often wander into the restaurants of Dahab, most of the time poising themselves around the entrance, waiting for opportunities. Cats are far bolder. They love to position themselves close to you, staring at you and your meal in the hopes you will cave in. Sometimes, they even will hop into your lap or onto the table. This makes me happy, but many people can’t stand it and swat them off.
Very happily, since I began writing this post, a beautiful white, orange and black cat has wandered to my table. It has since roamed to the next table, but I don’t take it personally and attribute it to my lack of food. With its presence nearby, though, I’m honestly I’m enjoying my view of the Red Sea with the mountains of Saudi Arabia across the water all the more.