I'm still on the road to recovering from a lack of sleep and one of the most jam packed (wow- JAM packed- that phrase bothers me) weeks of my life. On Wednesday I got to work- worked for 20 minutes on a really rough assignment researching on Google. Then I went on a tour of Lloyd's of London (a live insurance exchange floor- similar to NYSE) which was actually quite interesting. Although most of the British associates who came on the tour with us thought the place looked like their own version of hell- I thought it looked really fun (I guess because it was a somewhat chaotic, social atmosphere and a little bit of chaos always seems to make life more exciting then just sitting at your desk all day in a law firm where you feel like your computer is your best mate). All the underwriters sit around at tables negotiating the best deals and there is a bell that is rung everytime there is a shipwreck or other disaster (like 9/11).
Anyways- after a firm lunch at a resturant on the river I got my second taste of the luxurious corporate lawyer lifestyle on my trip to Egypt. As if it wasn't exciting enough for the firm to take me to Poland, finding out 2 days in advance that I got to go to EGYPT of all places was like my own version of winning the lottery (especially because I
won and Gabe lost- as he didn't get to go on the trip). I got even more excited after realizing that this trip might be quite a different business experience (culture wise) because of the fact that I am not exactly your typical muslim woman and something in the pit of my stomach told me that the Egyptian company executives were not going to
have a lot in common with me. My presumptions were confirmed when I got an email from the firm listing a bunch of shots I was suppose to get (yeah like I REALLY had time to get shots considering the internal doctor sent me this email just hours before my trip- thanks man....) AND some things to be aware of (like terrorism and being targeted as an American in Egypt AND cultural norms for doing business and getting round. Here are some of the highlights from my instructions:
This was an email from someone in the firm who is in charge of telling us what to do when traveling for business:
ABOUT HIRING A TAXI:
After you get in: . If you get in, it is appropriate for a single female to sit in the back, and a single male to sit in the front. Expect to be sharing the taxi (Hmmmm..... so maybe this explains the wierd sitch we encountered at the airport later when I got mistaken for my boss' wife (which may have not offended me had I not been with 2 men- one of them who is only 8 years older than me- and my boss who is MUCH older than me. Why did I have to be the wife of the older guy- is that just the way things work. Needless to say- I was sitting in the backseat!)
CULTURAL DOs and DON'TS:
Use someone’s title when addressing them, as Egyptians place greater stock on their position than Westerners. Also, bring a gift to any meeting – this gift should not be too expensive or gaudy, and should not be anything related to religion, dogs or women. Expect to receive a gift in return, and be sure to say thank you. (After reading this I wondered what they would get me... a camel or maybe a hot head wrap-- ha ha.... at least I knew this trip wouldn't be a repeat of Thailand where I tried to bring a dog back to the US!)
THIS IS WIERD:
Eye contact is good when dealing with Egyptian men, as it signifies honesty. Also, shaking hands is the preferred method of greeting, unless you know the person well, in which case you will shake their right hand with your right and kiss them upon the cheek. It is advisable to wait for the Egyptian man to start this, so as not to be over familiar. Eye contact with an Egyptian woman is considered too intimate, as is shaking hands – again, take your lead from her if in doubt.
(I have LOTS of good critism about this cultural norm- coming up in a minute)
Do not show the soles of your feet, or your shoes, to anybody – always try and sit with your feet flat on the ground. Also, the use of your left hand for greeting and interacting is considered rude, as this is the hand used for personal hygiene ("personal hygiene"- this section of the email kind of scared me for
some reason- I don't know why)
AND I WAS ON TOP OF THIS ALREADY (getting info from my boss on what kind of suit would be most appropriate for an Egyptian board meeting):
There have been some reports of women running into trouble with sexual harassment in some areas of Egypt, particularly if they are not adequately clothed (by Muslim standards). There are also problems with women being unaccompanied and getting unwanted attention from males, especially in remote areas. If travelling alone, which is not recommended, women should try and wear a veil or headscarf to try and blend in with the rest of the female population, and should also cover hair and wear loose clothes. This will deflect attention away from them, and also discourage Egyptian men from making unwanted advances ("some" trouble with sexual harasment turned out to be right on the money).
Okay- so traveling with a partner turned out to be a little nicer than I had expected- for starters instead of getting in a regular cab to get to the airport we had a driver with a Mercedes (thank god, cause that made me feel RIGHT at home). Then we got to the airport- hung out in the business class lounge for awhile- then got on the plane. We got to fly business class which was a HUGE PLUS!!! Now I already LOVE traveling and honestly don't mind how I get somewhere or where I stay as long as I'm there (as evidenced by my accomodation in Spain a few nights later- a park...) BUT if only I could travel like that everyday... I got onto the plane and instead of my usual economy
experience (cramped seating, sitting next to psychos like the couple I sat next to on one plane journey to London who wanted to know if I was coming to London for an arranged marriage (yeah I know I look like the type but jeez) I was suddenly turned into a special customer. I got into my BED (yeah that's right, BED)- with my own little curtain so it was almost like I had my own room and immediately took advantage of something entirely new to me- free champagne on the flight. I was so excited (but maybe it was just because I am in London and have learned to live with the drinking culture AND had just finished reading an article in my Elle magazine titled "WHAT KIND OF SUMMER DRINKER ARE YOU?"- now I doubt the US version of the mag had that same article....I ordered one champagne drink and didn't really like it- so I just asked to have a different one. I figured someone was paying $4,000 for my flight (the client) so I might as well use their money wisely. I was enjoying the plane ride so much that I tried not to fall asleep on the way over there. Knowing that I might not have this experience again for awhile I was trying to soak it all up!
Okay on to the interesting fun facts about the trip- when we got to the airport we had to look for a sign of our hotel without our names on it (for security purposes our driver could not list our names on the sign-which made me feel SUPER safe)! The airport in Cairo was hectic, even at 1am. When we finally found our driver (who thought I was my boss' wife because even though I was wearing a suit it's not like I had a real brain and would be doing real work in Egypt- (actually I didn't end up having to use my brain much there but anyways...) and got in the
car we were awaited by warm hand towels and cold bottled water (it's the simple things in life that really get me excited)! On our way to the hotel-the Four Seasons on the NILE!!! (hey...) we came across some
1)Donkey-drawn carts (is that the right thing to say?) literally ON the freeway in the slow lane, along with cars and people crossing the road)
2) one of my favorite observations- EGYPTIANS hangin tough in the islands (which sounds cool initially but actually means that there were people just hanging out in the islands in the middle of the roads-sitting, doing whatever, as if they were at a party of something-strange. I wanted to stop the car and ask them why don't they just go to the pub or at least a park or something- or is there something really romantic about hanging out in an island in the middle of the street- OR is it that Egyptians like to live on the edge (ok some of them do- like the bombers or the people that drive donkeys on freeways) and their religion doesn't allow for too much crazy partying so they just like to take risks by engaging in activities that increase their risk of being hit by a car.....
3) all of the hotels had dogs sniffing each and every item in every car entering the hotels for bombs (which also made me feel really safe).
When we finally got to our hotel at 2am- it was GORGEOUS (I immediatley knew it was a nice hotel because although I saw the Hilton and other good hotels scan their entereing guests for bombs using DOGS, our hotel
had a legitimate BOMB scanner machine which was way more of a luxury item in my opinion than a dog bomb detector)! Other than being stopped for a minute to scan all of my personal belongings for bombs- I felt great (especially knowing I was just a stone's throw away from the Nile (god I hate phrases like "stone's throw" but I had to add it in because that was what was in my mind at the time)!
The next morning I got my 8am wake-up call and my room service (I ordered an "Arabic breakfast" just because I had no idea what any of the included items were and I thought it would be fun to surprize myself that early in the morning). About 15 minutes later I got a knock on my door and peered out to find 2 men in hotel uniforms who asked me to open the door. Feeling safe after going through a car bomb inspection, plus walking through a metal detector to get into the hotel, I thought it would be safe to answer the door. When I did- 2 men asked me "are you awake?" Yeah you idiots what does it look like???? "Are you sure?" they asked. "Yeah, I'm freakin sure- what does
it look like?" As they walked away I thought that they were just checking to make sure I was awake because it was a really nice hotel but later I realized I was the only member of my group to get such VIP treatment. And why would 2 guys need to come anyways. DODGY (god I love that word, it sounds so much better than what everyone says in
California- "sketchy"- )!!!! Basically they came to check out the American woman staying alone without a head wrap- which was really unfair because it was too early to put my head wrap on- (I did bring
one but it was still in my suitcase)- I'm not joking either....
Okay, so that expereince prepared me for my next Egyptian highlight-the meeting. Due to confidentiality I can't really expand on the details but what I can tell you is that the meeting was very INTERESTING to say the least. I walked into a board room with Todd and Tom, to be greeted by the world's most welcoming set of Egyptian muslim men ever! Although everyone was wearing suits, the CEO was wearing a PINK shirt opened down to practially his stomach so that I got a good glimpse of around a square foot of hairy chest (which coincidentally was just what I was in the mood for at that hour after being the novelty item at my hotel). Maybe it's an Egyptian thing, but I didn't
really get it! Casual elegance.... He later apologized for not being appropriately dressed and went to get a tie (which he didn't put on, but just put in front of him)....
Some of my favorite things about the meeting:
1) although there were 40 muslim men and 2 women in the room- all the women (except myself) got to sit BEHIND the board room table (which only kind of made sense to me after reading the email about women having to sit in the back of taxis)- but luckily I got to sit at the table and feel like a first class citizen
2) during 4 hours of presentations the Egyptian men didn't seem to really follow the cultural norms about looking into women's eyes as I was warned about in my firm's email- here's a reminder: "Eye contact with an Egyptian woman is considered too intimate, as is shaking hands – again, take your lead from her if in doubt."
-Being perfectly fair, I don't look like an Egyptian woman, but at the same time I didnt' really expect for the meeting to be conducted so that every SINGLE person who spoke at the meeting (other than my boss and one other man) ONLY made eye contact with me and NOBODY else! Literally- like they were starring at me the entire time- which I thought was a bit odd considering that I didnt' even get to introduce myself (because my boss didn't want me to say I was a summer associate-obvisoulsy the company may not have been too happy about paying $6,000 for an intern to attend their meeting). But it was a VERY strange experience.
3) The CEO's presentation was my favorite part- he said their "business model" was "we want to run this company like a ballerina because a having a fat company is like having a fat lady- it's horrible. They can't move properly and it's just a mess." UMMMMM K! I don't think I would have heard that from an American CEO but I guess you really never know.
4) The CEO also assured us that one of the strengths of the company was that 1/3 of the Egyptian population was under the age of 14, which assured the company a GUARANTEED cheap labor force. Now I didn't think much of this comment until a few minutes later when after the meeting, we got a tour of the company- and although I can't go into details what I can say is that it made me sick to my stomach. Our "company" was running a bunch of sweat shops. Now I had always wanted to see a sweat shop- but I had always thought I would get to see one more along the lines of a human rights context- like going in as the good guys saving the poor workers- not the other way around. It was ESPECIALLY nteresting though because I think I got the real experience, instead of lying about the "good conditions" in there- we got to see everything (which made me lose my appetite) and got all the real info. I even got to take pictures!!! I don't know if my co-workers thought it was a good idea but the woman touring us around (who was also JUST starring and talking to me throuhgout the entire tour) said it was okay and I just couldn't resist....
Basically, we walked into a few rooms where these muslim women and young girls were slaving away to produce products that I can guarantee you (and I will have to tell you all when I can in a few months) that you use everyday (I know I have the same brands and so do my friends). They looked absolutely miserable- I tried to smile at a few of them and they were either too miserable to smile or they gathered around looking at me cautiously- giggling (maybe that I didnt' have a head wrap on or that they probably hadn't ever seen any American women). It was about 100 degrees in those rooms and I can't even imagine how hot it was with a full muslim outfit on- working who knows how many hours a day (don't worry the factory is open 24 hours a day). All I could think of was how crazy it was that they ended up there and I ended up where I am- it was really disturbing and an experience I will never forget.
The worst part about it was that I couldn't say anything= like, wow, look how disgusting this is- because we were workign for this company. It was just so odd thinking that this same company that paid literally $6,000 for me to be in Egypt for one day to attend a meeting (not to work, just to go to the meeting) would not even pay to air condition
the rooms their employees worked in (which was really bad because all the end products were put in air conditioned rooms but the workers were not).
When we walked back into the board room, the CEO who I initally found to be endearing- suddenly seemed evil. It was a really strange feeling and I don't know what to think of it. I guess part of me felt sick at the time but looking back- maybe life would be worse for those women if they didn't have any job at all- I don't really know and I still don't know what to think of it (although I'll admit that now that I'm working on this transaction I have been doing a little side research figuring out how much these people are getting paid per day- it's all in the financial info I'm working with- and the results are not very good...)
At the end of the day we got back into our luxury vehicle with more hand towels and cold water (the air conditioning had been running in our car ALL DAY for 5 hours so that it would be PERFECTLY cool when we got in the car- just the opposite of the factory workers).... What am I suppose to make of all this? I don't know....
After that we went to the pyramids of Giza- and saw the pyramids and the sphinx which was all really amazing- then went back to the hotel, had some of a chocolate buffet and then went to dinner at a resturant outside on the Nile which was really nice. The next day I got back on the plane, had some more mimosas and a really good nap and got back to London. As soon as I arrived in London I had to go to another airport to get to Spain (so friday I took a cab to the airport in Egypt, a plane to London, a cab to a train station, a train to another airport in London, a plane to Spain, a bus to another city in Spain, a cab to another bus station in Spain, and a bus to Pamplona---- so after
traveling for literally 19 hours I arrived in Pamplona at the Running of the Bulls- which now I'm too tired to write about- but basically it was really FUN!!! Your typical Spanish festival, with people dancing, cheering and drinking everywhere.... I also got a good spot in the front of the fence to watch the Running of the Bulls and I will have to send some pictures. It was really good fun the only thing was that it was a little rough to go from business class flights and staying at the Four Seasons to Ryan Air (which was fine other than the fact that you can't even push your seat back 3 inches- which really bothered me for some reason) and NO HOTEL (so we had to sleep in a park)....
Then Sunday I woke up in London after a few hours sleep and flew to Scotland- which was good but uneventful. A beautiful town with Georgian buildings and FRIED FOOD CENTRAL- a city where the life expectancy is a mere 55- the lowest in ALL of Europe- also the wettest city in Europe. In the summer it was not nice so I can't even imagine the weather in the winter- no wonder they eat FRIED MARS BARS (no joke- they take a Mars bar, dip it in batter, then fry it)- and they wonder why they are all dying young.....
Okay, that was enough for now..........