You have no idea how dismaying it is to breathe in nothing but body odor after deciding to ignore the searing pain in your chest incurred by breathing deeply. No oxygen or nitrogen present whatsoever. Just a pure, heart-stopping stench. Egypt is a wonderful place, but it has its eccentricities.
Eccentricity number one: If there is a place to wash your hands, Egyptians often use toilet paper instead of paper towels to dry their hands. In fact, they will sometimes have toilet paper in addition to a blow dryer, since many people prefer it. The blow dryers are usually crap; it is certainly more efficient to use toilet paper, but you must master the art so as not to leave thin white strings of cotton all over your fingers.
Eccentricity number two: I have always had a superhuman sense of smell. I hate it, for I often enjoy visiting places quite malodorous in nature. However, since I arrived in Egypt my olfactory sense has been so attacked on all fronts that it takes a monster stench to make me contort my face. It’s fabulous. The other day a fat girl was smoking right outside my room, and in my head I registered that I should smell something, but I got nothing. Major win. Really stinky people, however, especially in poorly ventilated areas, still make me gasp. I’ll get there someday!
By the way, here is where the fat girl was sitting. Yep, couldn’t smell any of that:
Eccentricity number three: You may have read elsewhere, or experienced for yourself, the absolute thuggery that is Egyptian driving. There is no reason whatsoever to have lines on the roads. I am not saying this in jest. You are just as likely to drive for several minutes straddling a line as in a “lane.” The drivers comport themselves like NASCAR racers on amphetamines competing for whatever their biggest trophy is (racecar driving isn’t my forte). They are ALWAYS weaving amongst one other, using their horns as replacements for boring old blinkers. Horn honking is a language, and, I once read, depending on the number and intensity of the honks “can mean anything from ‘Hello!’ to ‘Don’t hit me!’” Needless to say, I seldom have the courage to cross one of these strips of deadly concrete without an Egyptian directly to the side of oncoming traffic.
Here is an example of some of the chaos one faces when attempting to cross a Cairo street:
Shortcoming number one: The bus ride to school is, minimum, an hour each way.
Shortcoming number two: You’re always getting sick. I got sick right after Dahab, and within two days of feeling better have succumbed once again. Our baby American immune systems can’t compete with the ferocity of Egyptian germs.
Shortcoming number three: The health center is…interesting. The facility is incredible, since the entire campus is new, but the people seem to have no idea how to operate it. You sort of just wander in to whatever office looks like a doctor might be in it. The doctor doesn’t shut the door, but rather asks you to discuss your (often embarrassing) symptoms right there in the open, when there are chairs of people right outside and the door is perfectly closable. When I got sick, I didn’t have my temperature taken, just got two shots in an inappropriate area and received three separate prescriptions (one of which has been denied FDA approval thrice, I have since learned). Fabulous.
However, even though my body seems to harbor some never-ending grudge against Egypt, my heart and soul love the place. There’s just nowhere like it. When else in your life will you be crossing the Nile on your bus ride to school? Or have the liberty of saying “should we go to Israel or Jordan for our next mini-break?” Some other perks include…
Perk number one: You can have anything delivered for between 60 and 80 American cents. Dinner is most common.
Perk number two: You never have to clean your room. We are actually asked to call housekeeping twice a week to have it cleaned for us. They mop the floor, Windex the mirrors, change the sheets, and empty the trash cans in a flurry of activity that takes about 3 minutes flat.
Perk number three: Similarly, you need only bring your towels downstairs to have them swapped out for clean ones. The laundry bit is actually rather necessary, considering the washing machines have been broken roughly half the time we’ve been here (no one wants bed bugs).
Perk number four: Even though our bus ride is an hour each way, all of the busses have wi-fi. In addition to sleeping, most of us utilize these hours to check and respond to email, etc. There’s nothing as exciting as seeing a fresh batch when you’ve got an hour to spare : ) Thank you!
Perk number five: You are being taught by professors regularly featured on National Geographic and The History Channel. One such professor, Salima Ikram, dedicated one of her books to her close friend and my favorite author of all time, Elizabeth Peters. For those unaware of my tendency to read constantly, Elizabeth Peters and The Mummy Returns are two of the biggest motivating factors behind my decision to study in Egypt (don’t make fun). If that’s not life coming full circle, I don’t know what is.
Egypt, just like any other place in the world, comes with its own set of costs and benefits. However, only a pedant would squabble at the shortcomings of such an epic location. Give me shots and stinky individuals any day, as long as Egypt comes with it.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester.