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Cultural Encounters of the Unexpected Kind

We’ve taken a particular interest in differences across cultures as we’ve travelled and decided to reach out to fellow travellers and travel bloggers to hear about what cultural customs and taboos they’ve run into during their travels. We compiled our first post on what not to do in 12 different countries and are prepping a follow-up with even more countries and their interesting customs.

While it’s great to research and learn what to do, and not do, before entering a country, it’s not possible to learn it all and oftentimes this can lead to some awkward or unexpected encounters. Mar from Once In A Lifetime Journey had a particularly interesting experience in The Sudan. She was kind enough to share with us the full story of her run in with the cultural customs she encountered. You can also read more about her incredible time in the country and her “Memoirs of Two Springs in the Sudan”

A “Once In A Lifetime Journey” In The Sudan

By Mar of Once In A Lifetime Journey

the sudan desert

I had been working in Sudan for a very long time when one of the Sales Directors at my client invited us for Iftar at his home.

He wasn’t part of a team that I had much interaction with, I was mostly involved with the Marketing and Network departments of the largest mobile operator in the country but, as part of the consulting team and, as the most senior person, I was also gracefully invited.

As we drove to his home after work, the sun started to come down. Iftar marks the end of fasting every day during Ramadan and Muslims around the world gather together with their families to break the fast, usually with some water and dates first.

The time for Iftar changes every day, as it moves with sunset, so theres is usually an announcement on TV playing Allah’s message.

We arrived at his modern mud hut in the outskirts of Khartoum dressed as we usually did, with our suits, laptops and, in my case, as the only female in the team, in my high-heel shoes.

My male colleagues, who were interacting daily with the client, followed him into the house and I walked behind. But, as soon as I stepped inside, he gestured for me to go right as they disappeared to the left. I was not sure what he meant, but he was engrossed in conversation with my colleagues so I didn’t pay much attention and did as I was told.

To the right of the house, through a couple of corridors, I walked across the kitchen and onto the courtyard where the wife, the teenage daughters and a baby were waiting for me.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Was I meant to help bring the food out? Was I sent there to feel more comfortable surrounded by the women?

After a few seconds it became obvious that I was expected to eat there, while the men sat in the comfortable sofas in the living room and enjoyed their food.

His family was lovely, but the situation was awkward at first. I was wearing a suit and a jacket and we were outside, under the heat of the summer Sudanese desert with only a mat for table and chairs.

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I took my jacket off and tried to sit on the floor as best I could while food and more food was placed in front of me, on the mat. Initially, conversation happened in hand gestures and looks. My Arabic is limited and their silence told me their English was too. I am not sure when Iftar time started, but I was given lots of food, no cutlery, no napkins, just my hands and a large tray from where to make little morsels of rice and meat and eat. All of the cultural tips I had read about were finally useful. Do not use your left hand, do not finish all the food you are given, and so on.

The girls were amused and extremely curious and, despite the fact that they had not eaten all day, waited for me to eat before they started to tuck into the feast that was laid in front of us.

We eventually started talking. It turned out they could speak a little English and were fascinated by the fact that I was not covered and working with men all day. Sudan was much more open minded and less conservative than most of the Gulf. After all, Sharia Law was only imposed in the 70s with Bashir. Before that, the country was one of the most liberal in the Middle East and so women continued to wear their colorful African inspired shawls and too many UN and air workers set the tone for the average Western woman. I dressed conservatively, always with long sleeves and no sign of cleavage, but I never had to cover my hair.

The girls wanted to travel and to see the world but, above all, they wanted to go to university, to study business and be like me. We had fun, took a few selfies and enjoyed a delicious meal.

After we finished eating, we joined the men in the living room, gathered in front of the TV, to enjoy a warm and sweet glass of tea and watch Bab al Hara, the soap opera that is played every year across the Middle East and Northern Africa during Ramadan

The experience was unique and enriching. More than anything, it was heartwarming to be welcomed into their house. The girls were excited to meet a foreign woman who worked, but I couldn’t help but feel inferior, despite being the most senior person in the group. In that home, my seniority, experience, salary or education did not matter, all that mattered was my gender.


once in a lifetime journey

Mar is an ultra-frequent traveler. In the last decade, she has lived in six countries and traveled to almost ninety. Almost two years ago, she started documenting her experiences at www.onceinalifetimejourney.com. But she is no regular traveler. Her curiosity usually takes her to out of the ordinary places. From overlooked destinations like Djibouti, Sudan, Pakistan or North Korea to remote Pacific islands, luxury resorts and extraordinary journeys. In her spare time, she hoards travel books and frantically plans her next adventure