An American Wisenheimer in Cairo: What I Learned Working as an Intern Abroad
It is past midnight, and I’m sitting on an itchy blanket next to a roaring campfire with a roasted sweet potato and a paper plate full of chickpeas balanced precariously in my lap. Next to me sit a motley crew of reporters and media professionals, some conversing in Arabic and others in English. The local guide, donning his kefiya as the cool desert breeze sets in, sings a traditional “baladi” song to nobody in particular. We are surrounded on one side by the vast Sahara Desert and by the viridescent Nile Valley on the other, just a stone’s throw away from the Tuna el-Gebel necropolis and the ruins of the ancient city of Hermopolis. At this moment, all I can think about is how I managed to spin the roulette wheel of life and transpose myself from the cushy suburbs of Texas to another continent, another culture, another world so far removed from my own that my mere presence feels like a glitch in the matrix. Why am I here, and what did I get myself into?
4: You Will Never Fully Adjust, and That’s Fine
To give just a little bit of background, I came to Cairo in early October of 2018 to work as an intern for Past Preservers, a media consultancy firm run by English archaeologist Nigel J. Hetherington. I had only just graduated from the University of North Texas the month before and had no real experience as an intern in the “traditional” sense —all I had was my major in Radio-Television-Film and a summer semester abroad in London the year before to prepare me for living overseas. I had no idea what to expect and no idea how I’d cope; I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk but I was confident and excited nonetheless, even as I touched down in a country that I’d never been to before and whose local language I had pretty much no knowledge of. By the end of it, despite having a marginally improved grasp of Arabic and a greatly improved grasp of the Cairo transit system, I had to come to terms with the fact that no matter how “native” you think you go, you’re still no native — and if you have the right perspective on your surroundings, that’s just hunky dory for you! It doesn’t take long to get used to the fact that no matter where you go, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb and the locals will have their own way of dealing with you, for better or for worse. In the grand scheme of things, the “for worse” part matters very little; all the missteps I made, all the times I got lost or hoodwinked or made an ass of myself, they didn’t sour my experience at all — they made it real. I had the choice of going to Egypt on a package tour and being mollycoddled and hand-held all the way down the Nile, or walking down the back alleys of Attaba and not just seeing Egypt, but living it. In hindsight, I think I made the most satisfying choice.
3: Don’t Let Work Bog You Down
I try not to dwell on my regrets when I think back on experiences like this, but it’s hard not to think about all the places I could’ve been to, all the things I could’ve seen, everything I could’ve done had I not devoted almost all of my time either to work or decompressing after work. In most respects, my job was not a terribly difficult one; a typical workday consisted of me meeting Nigel at either his apartment in Heliopolis or some café downtown and spending around 4–8 hours working mostly on clerical and administrative duties — not including the many other “extra-curricular” endeavors I’d work on, which ranged from writing TV show pitches on my own time to the two of us going down the Nile to the New Hermopolis Cultural Village near Minya for their annual Thoth Festival (which, admittedly, was more akin to what some would call a “workcation”.) We had to get a great deal done in a relatively short amount of time, and this eventually took its toll; despite being nestled in the heart of one of the most fascinating cities on Earth, my daily routine soon boiled down to commuting, working, commuting again, and retreating into my own private Idaho — and I didn’t need to fly across the world to do that! Thankfully, all was not lost — I made it a point every weekend to go out and do at least one interesting thing, such as visiting the Pyramids or walking through Islamic Cairo, which helped balance out the drudgery of work with the childlike wonder of discovery and exploration. Don’t let your work sap your finite supply of energy; if you can, let your weekends be your life and let your life give you as much fascination as your surroundings can provide.
2: See As Much As You Can See
To expound on my previous point, there are a great deal of useful skills that an internship abroad will help you develop: coping skills, communication skills, navigation skills, et al. By the end of my time in Egypt, I came to realize that by far one of the most important skills I picked up on was time management, particularly when working a very proactive job in an extremely vivacious city for a relatively short amount of time. I was only there for three months, and I knew if I squandered those three months I’d be missing opportunities I’d probably never have again in my life. From a cultural and historical standpoint, Cairo is an absolute smorgasbord — you could live your whole life there and still not see everything there is to see and do everything there is to do, and that’s not even getting into all the amazing places outside of Cairo. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, there were many opportunities that slipped past me — I never got the chance to take the train down to Luxor, or the boat down to the Valley of Kings and Aswan, or even check out the Pharaonic Village! Egypt might not be the easiest place to get by in, but it’s definitely among the most rewarding; if you have nothing to do on a Friday and you feel like heading down to Alexandria for the day, what’s stopping you?
1: Value Your Mental Health
If there’s one word I could use to describe the entire country of Egypt — aside from “fascinating”, “beautiful”, “historic” and all that — it’s “stressful”. The entire country, and Cairo in particular, is like living in a simulation where people’s anxieties are pushed to their absolute limits as often as possible. Imagine the visual over-stimulation and overcrowding of New York City, the pollution of Los Angeles, the austere desert climate of Phoenix, the grit and grime of Philadelphia, and the corruption of Chicago, and multiply everything by 50 — that’ll give you a picture of the kind of environment you’ll be immersing yourself in. If you have white skin, hair longer than a buzz cut, or are a woman, you will find yourself being persistently hassled and harassed by certain opportunistic locals who, upon seeing an agnabi, will manifest pound signs for pupils and subject you to just about every old grift in the book: “Hey, come over to my friend’s shop” or “Hey, do you need a tour guide?” or “Excuse me, my aunt is sick and she needs surgery” and so on and so on. While I do wholly recommend going out and seeing the sights, it’s equally important that you acknowledge your need for peace, quiet, and relaxation — if you don’t, you’ll be driven mad. It’s perfectly OK to devote at least one day to just sitting back in your hotel or at a café and watching Netflix or catching an afternoon nap, although I’d strongly recommend a nice pair of earplugs; the ever-present chorus of city noise and car horns is pervasive no matter where you go, even your hotel room.