When I visit Egypt in 2007, it is the first time I have left the West. I expect to confront numerous cultural differences, and I am prepared with shawls to cover my hair and shoulders in a respectful manner, personal items they might not sell abroad, and gallons of sunscreen. The one thing I haven’t been anticipating, however, is the pollution.
I once spent a day in Chicago in sandals, and it turned my feet grey. Every time I ride the London Tube for an extended period of time, my nasal passages fill with black gunk. I felt like I needed a tetanus shot after a day in Athens. Point is, all large cities have their fair share of trash and dirt, and so I’m not too surprised to see Cairo’s grubby streets and skies.
What is surprising is the flagrant littering at Egypt’s most-famous historical site: the pyramids of Giza.
I watch in mute horror as visitors unwrap the plastic from cigarette packs and simply cast the plastic to the sand below. When the pack is empty, it too is tossed to the ground. Finished your water? Chuck it into the Sahara!
There are no furtive glances before the act, simply a careless roll of the wrist as items that won’t photodegrade for hundreds of years are cast aside. The littering is so common, so overwhelming, that the only people who seem to notice are speechless Western tourists. Certainly the guards do nothing, concentrating on those who would mar the pyramids themselves instead of the trash tumbleweeds gathering around the protected site.
I try my best to keep rubbish out of the camera’s view finder, but hints of trash remain in my photos. (Looking through my old pictures for this blog post has made my tree-hugger soul weep all over again.)
Is the littering just a cultural difference? (I’m reminded of the Mad Men episode where the Draper family flings their picnic trash to the ground, so maybe this was common in the US, too, until fairly recently.) Or maybe it’s indicative of a lack of basic infrastructure-it occurs to me in retrospect that I didn’t see any trash bins at the pyramids, so perhaps littering is just the easiest solution.
No matter the reason, littering was the most-shocking experience I had in Egypt, and it really did distort my view for the rest of the trip. There’s are a lot of things to love about the country, but environmental standards is not one.
What cultural difference has shocked you most in your travels?