It was 45 degrees outside, humid as hell. I had just gone for a run in the gym on the ex-pat compound I was staying at in the Middle East. As I walked back to my friends Colleen and Mike’s home, I was thinking about how I would describe what it was like here when I got back to Canada. And then I heard Vincent Vega’s voice in my head (John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction). “It’s the little differences.”
In this classic scene from the 1994 cult movie favourite, Vincent tells Samuel L. Jackson’s character about the little differences between Europe and America. How they have “all of the same shit over there as do here. It’s just that there, it’s a little different.” How in France a Quarter Pounder with cheese is a Royale with Cheese. How you can buy a beer at McDonald’s. How in Holland they like mayonnaise with their fries. And so on.
When I told people I was taking a vacation in the Middle East, many people reacted as if I was going to another planet. Perhaps because it’s so far away, and perhaps because the Middle East suffers (deservedly so) from a major PR problem. I repeatedly heard from friends and colleagues: Is it safe there? Do you have to cover your head and body? Are there things to do? Why would you want to go there and not some place like Paris??
In response: Qatar and United Arab Emirates (the two countries I travelled to) are relatively safe. You have to cover your shoulders and knees. There is LOTS to do. And why would I want to go to the Middle East? Well….why WOULDN’T I want to go there??
As Vincent Vega suggests, it’s the little differences that make travel so interesting, addictive and rewarding. And the Middle East was full of little differences. The local women wear burkas and men wear ghutras (head covering) and thobes (white cotton dress-like robe). You will find camel and ostrich crossing signs, instead of moose and deer like you do here in Canada. Women have their own line in the grocery store, right alongside people with disabilities. You can’t drink in public or order alcohol in a local restaurant, unless you are in one of the hotels that can sell alcohol in an effort to make tourists feel like they are at home.
And forget PDA. Kissing, holding hands and affection in public is not tolerated. You can buy gold from an ATM. The government warns you to not fill your vehicle gas tank full when the temperature exceeds 50 degrees, for fear the tank might expand in the heat and explode. You can eat at Iraqi, Irani and other Arabic restaurants till you understand the difference between all the cuisines.
And while things are very different, they are also the same. Tim Hortons is taking a prominent location in the Dubai Mall, with Arabic and English signage. You got Gap, Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret. But just fragrances for sale…no lingerie. There is McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme. All the same, except they also deliver. The locals emphasize the importance of family, like to hang out at the mall on the weekend and shop in the high-end, luxury designer stores. Even though their every day dress is uniform. Traffic never seems to end, people get confused by traffic circles there too, and construction delays are everywhere.
10 hours time difference. 16 hours of air time. It would be easy to think when you travel that far, to a place marked by instability, it will be nothing like home. That those little differences will overwhelm and shock. But ironically, it’s those little differences make our big world feel small. Because when you see difference, if you keep your eyes and mind open wide enough, you’ll also see all of the things that are exactly the same.