Travelling librarian 2: Egypt
Two days after returning from cold, damp, beautiful Wales, I set off for hot, dry, beautiful Egypt. This was my first time travelling outside Europe, and being driven from the airport through downtown Cairo as night fell was the biggest culture shock of my life to date. I won’t go into detail about the terrifying experience that is Cairo traffic, or the sheer scale of the place, or the extraordinary contrast between the cramped, historic, polluted centre and the airy, modern, soulless cities surrounding it. Mainly because I was there for such a short time and my impressions were inevitably fleeting and fragmented. Instead I’m thinking about lessons I might have learned from the experience of meeting overseas partners for the first time, on their territory, a long long way out of my comfort zone.
1. it’s exhausting – lots of time spent in planes and cars, getting lost and hot, and negotiating money and food etc in a new culture is not a relaxing context for productive work. Luckily we had plenty of time for recuperation at our mercifully bland hotel in between meetings.
2. it really helps if you have a local friend or contact, or at least a regular driver. Especially if they can accompany/shield you in the unrelenting tourist trap that is the Giza Plateau. Safely on the other side of the experience, I am quite thrilled to have ridden a camel. But at the time negotiating with/escaping from our self-appointed fixer and dozens of others like him so we could explore alone was hugely difficult and unpleasant.
3. it’s worth it – we’d had weeks and months of unanswered or partially answered emails, ignored requests, forgotten agreements, competing demands etc but after one three-hour meeting and a bit of database-wrangling at the hotel we had a whole new direction sorted and practical steps to make it happen. I wouldn’t say we need to meet ALL our international partners face to face, but in this case it worked. (There’s a stereotype about Arab business culture being highly dependent on personal relationships – maybe it’s true.)