Walking, Talking and Riding like an Egyptian
Cairo Travel Blog› entry 75 of 113 › view all entries
October 20th, 2008 – by: afredrix
Every culture shock I was spared on the first part of my trip caught up with me when I stepped off the plane in Cairo. From my airport-to-hotel cab, I watched the horn-happy drivers weave in and out of traffic on a road lacking both lights and lanes. We drove past eager vendors, rows of decrepit buildings all in the same shade of dusty-desert brown, scarf-clad women and the occasional donkey-pulled cart of fruit.
It was my first real step out of the Western world and I decided immediately it wasn't a matter of comparing cultures, but observing their culture for what it is. I could have easily filled my days with thoughts of "This is NOT how we do it at home," but I preferred to spend the eight days I had in Egypt figuring out how they do it there.
I had company in my venture. My Seattle friends Megan, Josh and Sean joined me in Africa. It would have been a very different experience without them by my side. We made friends with a local student named Mohamed, who became our inseparable guide and information source. We filled his ear with questions of “what's that?”, “how much is it?” and “what did that man just say?”
With his help, we figured out how the crowded, unmarked microbuses worked, and ran to jump in the open side doors as they drove by yelling out their destinations.
We did all of it under the watchful and curious eye of those around us. In the sea of 20 million locals, we stuck out like the tourists we were. By the second day I was used to the endless inquisitive gazes and bashful smiles. Those with the courage and language skills to break the silence, generally began with the same remarks: “Where are you from?” “Welcome to Egypt.” “Obama or McCain?” My preconceived suspicion of the swindling local was eventually replaced with images of the reality: most of the people that approached us—on the bus, at the university, in a shop—just wanted to practice their English or say hello, and they did it with a smile.
Of course there are the drooling vendors, who see a Westerner as pounds in their pocket and helpful hotel workers who end their service with an outstretched palm, looking for baksheesh. Commonsense and good judgement are necessary tools to a foreigner's survival in Egypt. But the string-free acts of kindness I experienced since outweigh my skepticism. And the prevailing mantra "no problem, my friend," no longer makes me wary. The tips, the invitations for tea, and the bartering are just part of another day in Egypt—a place where we rode camels through a pyramid-studded desert, climbed in an ancient king's tomb and cruised down the Nile to the beat of Arabic pop.
I'm definitely not in Seattle anymore.
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