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.

ethiopia-559130_1280

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

 

 


 

41 replies
  1. Hitch-Hikers Handbook
    Hitch-Hikers Handbook says:

    What a great experience! Visiting local people’s homes and being invited for dinner is one of the best things that can happen to you while travelling. I remember when we were invited to a conservative Muslim house for dinner in Malaysia for the first time and also had to split during meal time. It was strange yet heart-warming to be welcomed by people with such different culture background and in our case we found women much more welcoming than the men.

    Reply
    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      I think the focus on being welcomed is the key! There are always going to be differences when travelling but when people open their homes and hearts despite that? It makes for a pretty great story!

      Reply
  2. Jen Seligmann
    Jen Seligmann says:

    Firstly, what a great idea for a series and I’ll be interested to read many more of these posts in the future.

    Mar, what an incredible story. One of the reasons I travel is to discover the lives of others around the world. It is truly a privilege to be welcomed into the home of a person from another country and eat with them and their family. It seems to me that you handled the cultural differences perfectly and respectfully. It doesn’t always occur to people to research local customs before they visit a new place, so it is nice to know that you had.
    Jen Seligmann recently posted…5 Must-See Landmarks in the MediterraneanMy Profile

    Reply
  3. Kimberly Erin @ walkaboot.ca
    Kimberly Erin @ walkaboot.ca says:

    This is a really cool and unique cultural experience to have. I think some of my best times have been when I have had the opportunity to visit with someones home and family… Once you pass that awkward state you can learn sooo much, especially about the women and their rights and laws over there.. very cool

    Reply
  4. Kathrin
    Kathrin says:

    It´s fascinating how different cultures are and I try to be open to everybody. But it is also a bit intimidating for me, thinking of my self-image as an European woman. Kudos to you for being so open-minded. I hope I can learn a lesson from you 🙂

    Reply
  5. Gabby | The Globe Wanderers
    Gabby | The Globe Wanderers says:

    Loved reading this post. What an experience to remember.
    I’m always amazed by the generosity of others when your travel and how they welcome you with open arms, into their homes and to meet and sit with their families. Would love to have a experience similar to yours someday. To share such an important celebration with locals must be very special. I’ve couchsurfed a fair bit but mainly in English speaking countries so far.
    Really want to visit Sudan. Nice to hear its more open-minded than other neighboring countries.
    Gabby | The Globe Wanderers recently posted…13 of the Best Shipwreck Dives that’ll have you Reaching for your FlippersMy Profile

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Very interesting story. When we travel there are so many different aspects to a country working, traveling and visiting a family’s home all show you different aspects. Sometimes just talking to the locals shows you glimpses of what you don;t see as a tourist. Not speaking the local language is always frustrating as there are so many thing you want to ask. Luckily for English speakers more of the world is learning English,

    Reply
  7. Julie @ Girl on the Move
    Julie @ Girl on the Move says:

    One of my favorite classes in college was a Cultural Anthropology class where we studies customs and norms in a variety of cultures around the world and I found the subject absolutely fascinating! I would love to hear more stories from other travel bloggers about their experiences related to this!
    Julie @ Girl on the Move recently posted…Denver FoodieMy Profile

    Reply
  8. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    What an amazing experience to sit down with these people and experience their culture and discuss issues and hopes with them. I remember going for dinner with an english teacher in China during one of my first weeks there and learnning so much about life in China…and that was just the start of it!
    Sophie recently posted…Dinner with a view at Capital MMy Profile

    Reply
  9. Gemma Two Scots Abroad
    Gemma Two Scots Abroad says:

    This is such a charming story. To have the opportunity to see a glimpse of the women’s lives, as different as it seems to ours and as hard as it was to take for Mar! It must have been a privilege and compliment to hear that they wanted to be like Mar and further their education. I hope that works out for them!
    Gemma Two Scots Abroad recently posted…Gibsons: Not Just a Film SetMy Profile

    Reply
  10. G. Maria
    G. Maria says:

    Hi, guys 🙂 First of all – your new website format looks awesome. Yikes. That may date when I last checked it out :/ Anyway, thanks for sharing this. Very, very interesting. I think one of the biggest things we learn as travelers are cultural norms. And they are everywhere, even in Peru – my home country. Even though locals would spot you a few miles away, they’re often impressed when you practice (or show respect for) one of their traditions. Looking forward to checking out more of your posts. In the meantime, here’s the Peruvian “ciao” – Chau! G.
    G. Maria recently posted…10 Peruvian Foods You Must Try before You… Eat a Guinea PigMy Profile

    Reply

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