When one visits a new environment first impressions are important to document. It is even more important to analyze what they tell you something about. Sure, they offer an interesting perspective, not yet desensitized by habituation, on the new environment. But they tell you at least as much, if not (much) more, about the place you come from. I passed through Bangkok on my way to Phnom Penh (more about Cambodia in another post). Now, Bangkok isn’t a new place for me, and that I had very strong first impressions, indicated that it was mainly my current home environment that was talking. My receiving canvas certainly differed from previous visits.
Bangkok taught me three things about Cairo:
I was struck, blown away actually, by the attentive service I received wherever I was a client. Went for a medical check up at Bumrungrad hospital and was always noticed immediately, told how long things would take, briefed when there was a small delay, given plenty explanations for every procedure I had to follow, and every result that I was given. Very different from the multitude of staff milling about upmarket Caireen clinics (I’ve visited a couple), their tasks unclear to visitors, and mostly very busy with each other rather than clients. Admittedly I would have had this impression also when my canvas had been prepared by a longer stint in The Netherlands, but less overwhelming.
I was struck by the absence of the male gaze, the streets being not a male dominated space. As a male I’m not subjected to harassment in Cairo, I don’t have to adopt a body language and mental stance that disengages me from my surroundings, but that Bangkok felt like a relief taught me that public space that is male feels different, also for males, from public space that is gender neutral.
The third observation was that most Thai looked as if they were comfortable with their body. Something about how they move, not that much overweight. Very different from many 40+ Caireens who look as if moving about is difficult, tiring, even painful.
Mmmm, sounds like I like Bangkok better than Cairo. Probably the effect of nostalgia, many good memories. So give it some time and Cairo is bound to stand out more positive. Another of those experiential regularities (my favorite illustration is the mysterious way in which the shittiest pop of my teenage years, stuff that I loathed back then, seems to give me nothing but warm feelings when I hear it now).
And there are certainly things Thai that are not so positive. The war in the South is a real civil war but the world seems strangely uninterested, although the death toll (5000 since 2004) is substantial. A reality that doesn’t fit the land of smiles imago? It’s a bit like Thaksin’s war on drugs which resulted in several thousand extrajudicial executions but received only scant international attention. And my friend Ron Gluckman, a journalist who has been based in Asia since 1991, with whom Marjan & I stayed in Bangkok, told us that the better he gets to know Thailand, the more he is amazed at the kind of extreme class society it is, more extreme even than Cambodia, but without the outside world taking much, if any notice.
To end on a happy note after the above dark musings, happy for those in the right age group, an example of the experiential regularity described above: