Monday, June 21, 2010

Going Places, Meeting People, Dressing like an American

The past 24 hours have been pretty epic. I went to the concluding night of a 3-day film festival on refugees. The room mates came too, and it was the first night we all went out together. The show was enjoyable and intense, about a child soldier in Sudan who had grown up into an international musician and peace activist. This was an outdoors cinema and the seats on the ground level were taken, so we all trooped into a nearby building and watched from the roof. There was a moment when the movie was drowned out by the simultaneous call to prayer from two or three separate mosques in the area.

Afterwards the film festival was concluded with an reggae-esque band. The saxophonist, a Frenchman, played very sexily.

I got my first whiff of how friendly Egyptians can be. As I was standing next to Ana (room mate # 2) a child ran up to me and grabbed my hand, saying "dance with me!" I was in a pretty good mood so I ran over to where a crowd of 10 or so were spinning and twirling and joined in the fray. Very good time. The kids and I enjoyed mimicking each others dance moves - now a new generation of hip Egyptians knows how to dance like a gangly white guy!

That was the best time I had in Cairo so far. It was a gathering of laid back, happy people... many of them spoke English and wanted to chat. A reminder that good people can be found all over the world.

Today I decided to wear shorts and a tee-shirt and see if my method of dodging the heat made me more visible as a foreigner. I learned a few lessons.

First I rode the subway back to Mogamma (receiving many more glances on the train than yesterday.) The halls in the building, which were teeming yesterday morning, were empty. I soon found out why - business hours were closed for the document I wanted, despite the fact that it had already been processed and there were people sitting next to the pile where it lay. Cairo. I had the chance to test out my french, though... one of the people behind the window spoke french and I surprised myself by carrying on a decent conversation with him for a minute or two. I should get back into that language - I dedicated 6 years of my life to it, it would be a waste not to become fluent. Perhaps the foreign service will put me in France or Beirut or Morocco for a term.

Being defeated on that end (but making the acquaintance of three Americans who were in a similar circumstance to myself) I left and tried to find a vodaphone office.

I'm not really proud of what happened next. I asked a man for directions and he took me to his local store, where he preceded to sell me a phone from behind the display. The phone itself wasn't terribly expensive - I expected to pay around 300 LE - but in order to pay for it I went through a number of unwanted hoops. I told him that I would need to go to a bank to get the money I needed. He offered to show me a bank, but on the way he made a quick detour into his perfume shop. I wanted to go to the bank, but to be polite (since he had shown me the way to the phone shop) and I went inside. A warning flag went up as he sat me down and started to go into a sales pitch about how cheap his perfume was. Too late, he sucked me into a swirling barrage of discount offers, praises for his perfumes (which "sell for thousands" in Europe) and sweet tea. Somehow I found myself holding an 80 LE ($9) bottle of lotus perfume in one hand and my cell phone in the other.

It wasn't the worst deal I could have had, and it certainly will make a nice gift, but I don't like being taken advantage of or targeted as a foreigner. This man was friendly, but he was friendly to make a sale, and I only discovered the difference once it was too late. It was a cautionary tale; I know now that if you don't want something, say so firmly and stick to it. That's a good rule both for Cairo and anywhere else in the world.

The rest of the day was better. I went to the nearby Egyptian Museum and explored that for an hour or so. Then I ran into an Egyptian who, recognizing me as American, started testing his English with me. I started exchanging his Arabic for my English, and as he whipped out a notebook covered in English phrases I realized that he came to the Museum expressly for a chance to practice with a foreigner. I convinced him to take me to a Falafel restaurant that Alison had recommended, and gave him my card. He said he wanted to meet up again to talk some more... but with classes starting on Thursday I doubt I will have the time. I will write to him, though. I promised that much.

So, lessons learned: 1) Egyptians are very kind and helpful people, and more than a little forward compared to others I have met. 2) Wearing shorts and a tee shirt singles you out and announces your status as an American. People treat you differently, if not necessarily badly, when you dress distinctly from the locals. I think I may end up sucking it up and wearing pants and a collared shirt from now on according to the local custom. Although I had a good experience today, I prefer not to be considered an oddity and an opportunity in this country.

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