When preparing for a trip to a foreign country, something to be aware of is that you may experience some communication and language barriers. What you may encounter varies depending on the destination that you’re traveling to, and fortunately for myself (who only speaks one language) many people abroad speak at least some English. However, despite the large number of English-speaking people around the world, language barriers are still going to exist. Typically, your best bet is to at least try to learn a few standard sentences in the native tongue of the country you are visiting (usually at least one involving the bathroom)… If you fail to do so, you very well may end up being the butt of your friend’s jokes for the next five years. (And, to be perfectly honest, I’m sure it’s not even close to being over)!
Which brings me to my own personal demise… While traveling around Egypt, my girlfriends and I found ourselves running from city to city and landmark to landmark. The pyramids were exceptional, the Valley of the King and Queens were fantastic and cab rides gave you the kind of adrenaline rush usually reserved for jumping out of an airplane. (Seriously, the drivers in Cairo are just that nuts). It was all fascinating and wonderful, but even paradise comes with sore feet after enough laps around heaven.
After one particularly long day, we contacted our hotel to see what spa services were offered. Upon seeing massage options, my friends and I immediately booked our appointments for that very evening. There was only one male masseuse, so we had to go individually, and of course due to the last minute nature of it all, we were the last four appointments of the night. We were delighted to finally squeeze some R&R into our jam-packed schedule, but we were somewhat curious as to how these massages would go down. Egypt was our first trip to a conservative, primarily Islamic country. Prior to our arrival, we carefully researched what to wear while walking around town versus what to wear when visiting mosques. It goes without saying that the standard of dress in Egypt was far more conservative than we were used to, but we carefully planned our outfits based on our itinerary in an effort to blend-in (which we found to be impossible since I was traveling with three other young, blond, American girls – we stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere we went)!
What our guidebooks didn’t cover was etiquette for massages in Egypt- especially massages from a male Egyptian masseuse… While waiting for our massages to start, my friends and I chattered about what the protocol might be and questioned whether it was appropriate to fully undress for the massages. I, believing that chivalry is not dead, volunteered to be the last one of my friends to get my massage. (Take that, Rhett Butler!) By the time it was my turn, I had completely forgotten about our earlier chit-chat and concerns.
When my name was called, I sailed confidently into the spa and ignored my chagrin of being the only person in the entire place, aside from the masseuse. For some reason I felt compelled to show my confidence – not only in spa services, but traveling in general. (Massage in Egypt? This is my third one today)!
Immediately, it became evident that there was a substantial language barrier… The provider recognized this predicament around the same time as I did and decided that hand gestures would be a more efficient way to communicate. He pointed at me in an animated way and then at a hook on the back of the door that was currently providing a home for a pair of jazzy denim overalls and a worn-looking cotton tee. I transformed my face into what I hoped to be a polite question mark and copied his gestures by pointing to myself and then the rack – twice. He nodded in such a way that you would have thought I had poked his nose with my hand and created a bobble-head figurine. He then quickly exited the room and I relied on my old “When in Rome (cough) Egypt…” mentality of going with the flow. Not wanting to seem like an ignorant American, I abruptly dropped trou and climbed into the clothing that was hanging on the rack, overalls and alI, while thinking to myself that our question as to whether you get a massage naked in Egypt had been answered.
Apparently, you do not.
Overalls seemed like a strange choice in spa clothing to me, but what did I know!? This was my first time to Egypt.
I neatly hung my outfit up and settled onto the massage table. The clothes were quite baggy on my frame, so I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as the farmer’s get-up probably appeared. I waited patiently and a few minutes later the maaseuse knocked quickly and entered the room. Upon seeing me, he gave me a look of what I can only describe as true and complete genuine confusion (mixed with a bit of horror).
I was confused, what had I done wrong?! I reassured myself that I followed his instructions to the T, and forced myself to relax. He proceeded to barely touch me (or technically barely touch the baggy clothing that I was wearing) for the next hour. The moment the clock struck the fated hour of completion, he mumbled something and darted out of the room quickly. I shrugged, hung the clothes back up and put my own back on. As I paid him, I gave him a friendly smile, despite him still looking completely horrified by me.
I then returned to my friends as they were discussing their massages. I proceeded to innocently tell my girlfriends what had occurred, and how I had assumed that I was asked to wear the clothing due to some modesty rule that I wasn’t familiar with. Needless to say, howling laughter erupted. I quickly learned that all friends had all treated the massage as you would in the States and undressed to the level they were comfortable with. (One of them going so far as specifically asking whether she should get undressed… twice).
But, not me. Nope.
I quickly came to the realization that the overalls and t-shirt that I put on had to be the masseuse’s personal clothing.
Yep. Definitely NOT spa clothing…
Turns out, I had completely misinterpreted the situation and traumatized the poor man (who probably is still wondering why on earth that strange American girl got naked and put on his clothing).
From this experience, I leave you with this small pearl of travel wisdom: don’t try too hard to act like a seasoned world traveler (even if you are). No one expects you to know everything. And, if you just take the time to ask questions when faced with an unfamiliar place or unusual situation, you will avoid the possibility of getting arrested in your massage therapist’s garb.
This Guest Post was written by Britt Wegner (pictured above with Sphinx). Britt currently lives in Milwaukee, WI with her husband and two cats. She enjoys traveling and wine, but hates belly buttons. Britt recently returned from a trip to Peru and plans to explore the rest of the world.
CC Header Image: Sphinx by David Stanley.