Before heading abroad, educate yourself on the country’s customs

Breaks are the salvation for every student. They provide time to unwind from gruelling exams and stacks of homework, while also giving some fortunate students the opportunity to spread their wings overseas. But with traveling abroad comes the responsibility of acting properly in the face of different cultures.

Normally, I would ignore any warnings people would give on how to act overseas. It always seemed simple to me. I had thought that avoiding trouble was as easy as being considerate of others. And it wasn’t until I visited Egypt with my family for a few days over winter break that I realized the warnings are necessary.

GW’s study abroad advisers typically remind students interested in study abroad on how to act in various countries before they leave, and that advice can be applied to when you’re traveling overseas on your own for vacation as well. The tips on how to behave vary per country, but across the board include directives like respecting the laws in the country, not committing any disorderly conduct in public and making sure to research the norms of that country. When I heard this originally, I interpreted it as acting as if you would in your home country, and disregarded most of their warnings. But that assumption was wrong. After personal experience, I now understand that students should research and keep in mind the customs of different countries before traveling abroad.

On my trip this winter, I visited Cairo. Although I know that my time abroad doesn’t necessarily reflect every person’s experience there, I did not leave with a positive impression. The different cultural norms in Egypt in comparison to the U.S. were definitely a shock – and worsened my overall impression of the country itself – primarily because I wasn’t prepared mentally.

A major difference between Egypt and America is their tipping culture. In the U.S., we usually tip for delivery, at nice restaurants or for taxi services. However, in Cairo, people tip for everything, ranging from bathroom attendants to museum guides. If you don’t give the amount the person wants, they will simply tell you to give more.

I encountered several situations where people asked for more on their tip – a custom you wouldn’t normally see in America. I could have avoided this culture shock had I researched about the etiquette in Egypt before visiting the country. The tipping culture was not the only difference for which I felt unprepared, though.

Additionally, when I was visiting the Pyramids of Giza on my first day in Egypt, people blocked the path through the gates to get to the pyramids. They were apparently trying to sell their service of camel and horse rides to tourists because cars aren’t allowed around the pyramids. My family and I interpreted this as them trying to scam us and promptly refused.

Normally, we would try to be polite, gently refuse and continue on our way. But they were persistent and kept trying to convince us to get out of the car, hand the keys over to them and get on their camels or horse carriages. In our minds this was an obvious scam, but according to our guide, it was their way of selling the services. Despite that though, we didn’t feel comfortable. Since gently shaking them off didn’t work, we just told them to go away, point blank, pulled up our window and drove off.

The people didn’t take that too kindly and proceeded to jump on the trunk of our car in an attempt to convince us to use their service. The tourism police stationed at the pyramids did nothing, and only sat outside their stations staring at the entire debacle. We tried signaling them for help, but they only shrugged their shoulders and said they couldn’t do anything.

Thinking back to how we handled the situation, we were generally unfriendly when the people approached us about the alternative traveling services in the pyramids. This was mostly because we can’t speak Arabic, and our only translator – our guide for the trip – was reluctant to tell us why the people were approaching our car in order to avoid scaring us. With strangers trying to surround our car and blocking us from leaving, we were rather shaken up and responded poorly as a result.

After returning to America, I actually looked up methods to deal with persistent sellers in Egypt and found a variety of deterrence practices, ranging from ignoring them entirely to claiming you have no money to spend. These methods would have definitely come in handy had I actually taken the time to research beforehand. If we had been more firm in our rejection after hearing them out or claimed we had no money for camel rides, then we likely would have avoided the aggressive follow-up.

It wasn’t until I was in this situation that I realized the information the study abroad advisers give on how to act in foreign countries is actually important. Researching the country’s customs and etiquette, as well as keeping an open mind, is key when traveling to a foreign country – whether it’s for study abroad or a vacation. If I had taken that into account before visiting Egypt, I probably would have avoided all of the uncomfortable situations I encountered.

Raisa Choudhury, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.