We all know about bowing in Japan and handing business cards reverently with two hands. This is basic cultural travel etiquette. But not understanding local culture can be much deeper.
When I was a sassy 20-something I was working on a geo-archaeological survey in Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis. Our field camp was based in Bashendi, a small green island in a sea of sand.
Built on the remains of an Old Kingdom Pharonic village, Bashendi’s narrow streets are lined with hand-made pink hued wattle-and-daub buildings with barrel-vault roofs and domes which defy right angles.
One evening after work, the expeditions’ artist took me to a home of a local family. The house was constructed as a series of interconnecting rooms, each with its own door, facing a central courtyard. The largest of the rooms consisted of one large chamber on the main floor, with walls plastered in smooth pink-colored mud clay and painted in white. The floor was sprinkled with sand and covered in hand-woven wool mats. The family had one aluminum pot for cooking, carrying water and washing. A beautiful round bone inlaid wood table and a fireplace fuelled by donkey dung shared the focus of the main room.
A mud-brick staircase led upstairs to a balcony with a mud-brick oven and a dove-cote. Pigeons were cooked for special occasions and served on a bed of greens, on a huge hand-pounded and intricately etched metal tray that covered the entire table. Such a spread awaited us when came in. My companion told me not to eat much as the leftovers would feed the entire family when we left.
After dinner, about a dozen boys from about two to sixteen years old came in, asking me to teach them English. Before I started I insisted that the girls, shyly peeking their heads through the door, join in. After much coaxing from the boys, the girls timidly entered the room. I decided to teach them the names of body parts and clothes. I began, in my most excited voice, by naming one of my body parts, then, naming the same part on the youngest child in the group. I then asked each child in turn, first a girl then a boy, the name of the part, going faster and faster. Then I taught them that all-time classic song, “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes – and Bellybuttons”.
By the end of the evening I had the kids singing and stomping in the poorly lit mud-brick room. The faces of these children, alive, intelligent, happy, and so excited to learn, formed a memory I will cherish forever.
Just before leaving I saw a lovely young girl shyly staring at me. To make conversation I told her that the bead pin that she was wearing was very pretty. With a great big smile she took the pin off her dress and gave it to me.
The next day on my way home from the field, the same young girl was waiting for me. She politely greeted me then pointed to my watch and indicated that she liked it. I could see that she was expecting me to give it to her; but I could not part with it, and patted her shoulder affectionately and went into the field house.
My colleague later told me that I had made two major social faux pas. First I should never have told the young girl that I liked her pin, because in her culture that meant she had to give it to me; and second, when she indicated that she liked my watch I should have immediately given it to her. My failure to do so would have been deeply offensive.
I never did see the girl again.
I learned one of the most important lessons in my life that day. That it was very important to know the basics of local culture, particularly social etiquette, prior to embarking on a foreign adventure.