Nascar, Cairo Edition
Not even New Jersey driving prepared me for Cairo. This is some of the craziest driving I have ever seen. Lanes don’t exist, honking the horn indicates that you are 3 inches away from hitting another car as well as signals your presence at a 4 way intersection that in the Cairo fashion does not contain a single stop sign (thus there is literally nonstop horn-honking), drivers turn their lights off at night at arbitrary and unplanned intervals to save their car batteries, and hitting another car in a fender bender results in a simple shrug, a hand wave, and a “fuhgetaboutit”-esque expression. To prove that I am not exaggerating, if you look up YouTube videos of Cairo traffic you will find titles such as “World’s Craziest Highways Part 1,” “Hell Driving in Cairo,” “Man Plays Frogger in Traffic and Loses,” and “If you have a death wish, drive in Cairo.” On the second day, I was lightly rear ended by a car moving in reverse on a side street as the group and I walked to our classes. On the way back to our apartment from Ana El-Masry, the driver of our 15-seater van tried driving the opposite direction on a one-way that was flooded with nearly 100 cars bumper to bumper after missing a previous turn.
How to Negotiate 101
Prices in Egypt are fluid. Example: taxi rides, items in some grocery stores, and souvenirs constantly fluctuate in price, similar to Canal Street in New York City. When at the pyramids last Friday, I truly came to understand the advice of our program director, Dr. Mbaye Bashir Lo: “In Egypt, when someone does a service for you, even if they do not ask for money upfront, it is expected that you will pay them.” As Yohana, Kishan, Desmond and I were walking to another pyramid to join the rest of the group, an Egyptian man toting a camel approached Desmond and asked if he was Egyptian (this has happened on multiple occasions, so we weren’t suspicious of anything. Kishan Shah is asked if he’s Egyptian everywhere he goes also). The man took his scarf from around his neck, donned it around Desmond as if to signal a welcome to Egypt gesture and then asked if he wanted a picture. Giving up his camera and sporting his best model pose, Desmond got a few snapshots of himself in front of the Egyptian’s camel. When the man went to return the camel to Desmond, where he was standing in front of the camel, the 5 foot 4, 115 pound man swept Desmond off his feet in a bride and groom fashion and thrust him onto the camel’s hump, and then stepped back to snap more photos.
I kept saying, “Desmond, that guy is gonna make you pay him for taking pictures,” remembering what Professor Lo told us. The Egyptian man heard me and responded, “No, no you no pay. This free. I am not bad man.” Still a little skeptical, I went over to Desmond to leave, when the man asked if I wanted a picture with him also. I said ok, asked again if this was completely free, and waited for one picture to be taken. Thinking the man was returning the camera, I was dumbfounded when he instead lifted me off the ground and threw me onto the hump of the camel behind Desmond, who then dismounted. The man continued to snap pictures and then asked if I wanted to go for a ride. Knowing instantly that Desmond and I were neck deep in camel pictures and would absolutely be forced to pay an exorbitant price, I shouted, “No!” while trying to dismount. The man pushed me back on, while one of his other cronies came out from behind a pyramid, took out his whip, and smacked it into the camel’s side, causing it to lurch upwards as he led the camel (with me on top of it) away from the rest of my friends. Now, I actually started to scream and panic set in (What if the camel started running away at full speed and I couldn’t get away? What if this guy brought me out miles into the desert and Professor Lo and the others never found me again?), I contemplated hopping onto my feet on the camel’s back like a Circus elephant stuntman, plunging from the 8 foot height of the camel into the sand, and dashing away. After trotting what seemed like half a mile from the rest of our group, but in actuality was probably about 20 feet, I screamed, “Let me off!” for the 15th time and the man leading the camel complied, bringing it to its knees so I could hop off. Before the camel even touched the ground, the man’s open palm was 6 inches from my face and was repeatedly uttering, “Tip, tip.” I told him that he had told us just 5 minutes ago that this wouldn’t cost a penny. He responded, “This tip isn’t for me. It’s for the camel.” Hidden fees just took on a whole new meaning. Panic-stricken again and in the midst of an encounter where someone aggressively demanded money from me, I sacrificed the last 10 pounds (= $1.66) in my wallet.
“This is bad tip from an American. The last guy gave me 20 dollars (160 pounds),” he said and grabbed my hands while demanding more money as I tried rushing back to my group. What was happening? I thought to myself. I literally don’t have enough money to pay for a service that was told to me was free. Would I end up in Egyptian prison? Would the United States have to send a negotiation team to Cairo to secure my release? I ripped my wrists free of his grasp and sprinted for my life, traversing like a seasoned jungle wayfarer over enormous scraggly boulders and pits, scrambling to get back to the rest of the group. As I turned around to see if I was being followed, I saw Desmond and the Egyptian Ansel Adams in a heated, tense conversation. He escaped unharmed physically, but ended up paying 100 pounds for 6 pictures, so I felt pretty good about myself after hearing his troubles.
The Egyptian People
Despite this experience, my conviction is that Egyptians are genuinely gracious and giving people. After teaching English to the staff for only one two hour session at our second NGO, Al Kayan, our newly formed friends walked us to the metro and paid the fare for all 6 of us. They were thrilled to meet Americans and call us their friends, and they asked us tons of questions about Duke and our homes. Now, the fare for the metro for all of us amounted to a little over one American dollar, but our friend Ahmed earns only 1000 Egyptian pounds a month, which amounts to about $166. For him to offer to pay the fares for students on a fully-funded trip and from a country where even the smallest wealth will allow you to live like royalty in Egypt is representative of the warm-hearted, compassionate, and friendly nature of the Egyptian people. In addition, we were invited to the homes of two other people in our class, a tour of the city from yet another, and a plan to go to the movie theater. The two guys close to our ages from class, Ahmed and Ahmed, took us out to one of their favorite ice creams places and a café, where they again offered to foot the bill.
These seemingly random acts of kindness, given that we had met these people for a total of 4 hours and did not have 100% efficiency in communication, made me think of the disparity between Egyptian and American culture. Not only would we be discouraged from talking to strangers from a foreign country, but inviting them to our homes for dinner to meet our families? That would be absolutely insane. Women wearing hijabs in America get the attention that we as Americans get in Cairo. Except Egyptians graciously open their homes to Americans. Yet, I strongly suspect that the reverse would never happen. Egyptians are thrilled to be able to say they have American friends, but in American are we thrilled to show off our new Egyptian immigrant friends who speak little English? What does this mean of our American culture? It’s ironic that for a country built on immigrants and commonly referred to as the Melting Pot, we don’t open our arms as widely and graciously as a country that was recently on the U.S. State Department’s Do Not Travel List. Nonetheless, America has the industry and opportunities in place that allow for mobility and success for hardworking people despite socioeconomic status, while Egypt does not, so is it justifiable or reasonable to accept the lack of outward friendliness from its people if we make up for it by having outward friendliness from its businesses and establishments? Are established ideals and beliefs a substitute for personal graciousness?