Well, we’re still in Mut, and currently experiencing one of Egypt’s (and the Islamic World’s as well) idiosyncrocies, which is that apparently during Ramadan small town banks only take cash, and not the ATM cards and traveller’s checks that they would ordinarily. Which wouldn’t be that big a deal, except that we just exchanged our last $20 bill, so we are going to have to be extra careful with our finances for the next three days (as in “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow” as the bank employee explained it) until we can restore our personal finances to full health.
This situation, obviously, leads perfectly into our promised section on the differences (small & large) between Egypt and America:
1. Since Arabic cannot be precisely transliterated into English, numerous accepted spellings often exist (Mut vs. Mout, Bahariyya vs. Bahariya vs. Baharea).
2. In cities, most people who speak English at you just want to sell you something, most likely papyrus (often bananna leaves) or perfume (flower extract).
3. In rural areas, most people who speak English only know a few phrases, but will smile the whole time and won’t ask for anything (particularly the children, who will ask “what is your name,” “what is your age,” and sometimes “what is your favorite food,” or “what are your favorite hobbies”). They also usually know “hello,” “welcome,” and “goodbye” – and that right there is the entire conversation, which is repeated just about constantly with every herd of children we see!
4. Ramadan brings all of Egypt to a grinding, grumpy halt, as virtually everyone has to fast for a month straight, and all businesses either close or keep drastically shorter hours. For example, most banks, museums, and historical sites close at 3 p.m., as opposed to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. like usual.
5. The system of baksheesh (rampant in cities, virtually nonexistant in the desert oasis’), that is, of tipping a pound or two (20 to 40 cents) for almost any service is seriously broken. Ahmed passing a pound to Mohammad to get his mail, who gives it to Said for sweeping the walk (most likely unneccessarily), who then forks it over to Ali to see a tomb, who then returns it to Ahmed for something else, is not only painfully redundant, but taxing on a system which lacks any real infrastruction, and consequently doesn’t really benefit anyone, as the same money just moves around cyclically amongst the Egyptians. Obviously tourists are taken advantage of more (baksheesh to hotel owners, tombs, guards who want you to take their photo not the other way around, guides, etc. really adds up) but particularly in Cairo Egyptians are expected to baksheesh with shocking frequency as well.
6. Tourists, and it seems Americans in particular, are often treated as dollar bills on legs. Admissions to museums, archeological sites, and other such things are often inappropriately pricey, though thankfully our under-26 cards (which pass as student cards due to the language/written character barrier) give us 50% off of virtually all admissions.
7. Recreational activities are quite limited, particularly during Ramadan, but generally the men hang out at awhas (coffeeshops), smoking numerous sheeshas (flavored tobacco from a hookah) or cigarettes and drinking untold cups of extremely hot tea. Dominos is the game of choice (and actually very fun), but backgammon, chess, and checkers are also played. Barbershops and anywhere in the streets are also popular male hangout locations, but women by comparison are seldom seen except when shopping. We believe we have spotted one beauty shop in Mut City, but it is very small, cramped, and obscured, unlike all the other shops.
Aside from all of those differences, life here is exactly the same!
We are currently chilling at an internet cafe, packed with youthful gamers, listening to the likes of Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas, and Jay-Z. Strangely comforting, even though we listen to our mp3 player all the time.
There is more to be said here, but our extreme hunger can finally be dealt with, since Ramadan ends now!!! Let the feasting begin!!!