Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Culture Shock

All I can say is that the last few days have been some of the craziest in my life. Cairo is indescribable. The experience began as soon as I landed at the airport and drove to the hotel. Driving through the city is really the best way to get oriented to life here—fast, hectic, and disorganized by Western standards. It’s true that the greatest risk to safety and security in Cairo is traffic because on the road, there are no rules.

My new home, the Marwa Palce Hotel, is in Dokki, a nicer district on the west bank of the Nile. The housing process was very unorganized, nothing was prepared, roommates were decided on a whim. The hotel is kind of dumpy, and a lot of the amenities promised don't really exist. The one working elevator is very slow and only fits six people, and we live on the 12th floor, AUC is supposed to put in new weight/exercise equipment and add the wireless internet tomorrow, but that’s not likely to happen. With the disorganization and run-down facilities, we were all disappointed with the living conditions. It’s not that Marwa is that bad, it’s just that the description of the hotel provided to us by AUC was incorrect. The best part about Marwa is that there is a 24 hour supermarket across the street that sells just about everything we need.After settling in, my roommate Jake and I went out to get some food. I hadn't had any food or water since arriving in the airport. I took out some money from an ATM and bought some much-needed water at the supermarket. To get to our meal, we had to cross a busy street, and since there are no stop lights, we basically played human Frogger—just wait for the cars to pass and capitalize on any opportunity. The locals are experts at this game, so we tried to follow their lead. We walked up and down one of the main drags to find a restaurant, and finally decided on a local sit-down place that offered chicken and rice. The meal was quite good, and each person only paid about US$1.60 for a quarter chicken with rice pilaf with raisins. Hopefully we won't get sick, but we decided that we might as well just jump in and no waste time worrying about the inevitable. The whole experience was crazy since we don't speak any colloquial yet. We couldn't communicate, and we weren't sure about protocol with the bill, although one guy knew that 10% tip is the norm. It all worked out in the end, and I think this was one of the best Arabic lessons I’ve ever had.Walking the streets in Cairo is a mind-blowind experience in itself. Between the heavy traffic, constant honking, small whole-in-the-wall shops, fruit and spice stands, beggars, women dressed in hijabs or full veils, calls to prayer, dilapidated cars, run-down infrastructure, thick dust, and an unhealthy level of pollution, it's hard to take it all in at one time. I’m simply just blown away (in a good way!). I've never felt this way while traveling before—I’m truly facing culture shock for the first time. Life here is just 180 degrees from the U.S.

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