“We’re going to have to suspend our American-ness.”
That’s one of Professor Sullivan‘s first suggestions, announced through a tour-guide microphone from the helm of our coach bus after he greets us off the plane. The sky is overcast with smog, but the city is sweltering anyway. Outside the bus, Egyptian traffic makes no sense. Motorists swerve on the highway like metal-sheeted clusters of kamakaze pilots. There don’t seem to be any rules.
Maybe 30 minutes earlier, in the airport, I experienced a more jarring cultural difference, which stomped out my American notion of preserving personal space absolutely while abroad: A middle-aged woman was posted in the corner of an already-cramped and sweaty bathroom, rationing out toilet paper like an unofficial authority on personal hygiene. When I exited my stall, another woman rushed to tap the faucet so I could wash my hands. I thanked her, but she blocked the door as I reached to open it, and stuck out her hand. Culture shock #2. Number 3 was far less likely – when I tipped the woman $1 USD, Asha said it was way too much.
“You should only tip a couple of pounds,” she said. “But you probably made her day.”
Clearly Egypt runs by a set of social and cultural mores – and traffic rules* – for which I have no American references. That’s no surprise. But there’s a vast difference between considering those differences academically and experiencing them for real.
This is also where Professor Sullivan’s suggestion enters the picture, and appropriately, I think. This trip provides the rare opportunity to disconnect myself from the ways of life I’m used to, if only to contextualize them later and acquire some invaluable new perspective. At most, an open-minded approach may hold some other surprises, like inspiring me to reevaluate my Western priorities. Who knows.
With that said, I keep finding myself making comparisons to home. It seems like a stretch, but comfort – particularly after a day rife with physical discomfort and disorientation – is in the details. Public transportation trains run above ground here, for instance, like the T, and crossing the Nile into Zamalek, it struck me how analogous the view was to that of Boston – if only roughly – when crossing the Charles into Cambridge.
Plus, you know, there’s all those camels and pyramids back home.
*Tracy Jordan would probably appreciate Egyptians’ creative interpretation of traffic laws.