One of the more poignant trips I’ve taken, granted me an experience that has dictated how I travel and have come to immerse myself within this vast planet. Three chaotic weeks were spent traversing Israel, Egypt, and Jordan in a warm January. I’d been looking forward to the historical splendor that is Egypt since, honestly, the womb. Many a past life was lived in its wide, plushy embrace. Allow me to regale.
We arrived in the land of the Ancients to immigration agents insisting that we hire an armed guard for our stay, due to our overt Americanness. We graciously declined and walked out into the sweaty, dusty, sticky aroma that is Cairo. The cabbie talked to us in rapid, yet broken English about the state of affairs in the country, without even nodding hello. He was impassioned and hot, ready to burst at any mention of the President or his minions. Over the next week, it became clear that we were in Egypt in a supremely interesting time. Cabbies, vendors, tour guides, Grandmas, and the like provided me with conversations that have remained seven years later. Conversations, that would be way too touchy in the States right now.
The Egyptians were angry and relished having someone to vent to without worry of it getting back to their villages, I imagined. They wanted change, terribly, and each felt that they weren’t getting a fair piece of the pie. They wanted a more, democratic pie to munch on, if ya feel me. They wanted more from their government and for their voices to simply be heard. Ideas that most of us can relate to I’m sure. Something heady was on the horizon.
Rewind! A week prior, I’d been walking aimlessly around the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, Israel seeking a necessary black coffee. I was approached by what I thought was a man readying to hustle me, when over the course of a few errant sentences, it became clear he was a knowledgeable guy that might had more to say than either of us anticipated. My instincts were spot on. We went on to talk animatedly about the Israeli Palestinian conflict as it relates to the United States, at that time and historically. For over an hour, we stood face to face, hands jutting out at every other word for emphasis, talking world politics and economics. He was shocked that “an American” would “know anything” about Middle Eastern politics or be interested in their tribulations, as is the usual response when I travel. After I casually mentioned that international development was my course of study at uni, he almost fell down! #ForTheWin.
Fast forward! to Egypt, I felt that my Israeli, Jaffa Gate dialogue, primed me for the social climate in Egypt. Our conversation had touched upon the deep disease and unrest that this particular region of the Middle East was feeling. It struck me, viscerally, that I hadn’t engaged in these types of taboo yet constructive cross cultural conversations on a typical basis. What was I doing when I was on the road, I started to wonder. What, truly, is the point of traveling if one isn’t getting to the nitty gritty? It’s not the daily “hello” or “how ya doin” to the regulars on the street that you pass every morning and evening on your ways to and fro the Airbnb, hostel, hotel, resort, whatever. They’re the times you make a left that one day instead of your usual right and walk into a different shop, where the shop-owner starts up and instead of thinking they’re heading to scam you, you accept the Turkish tea they’re offering and sit down. Delaying your itinerary by two hours and not giving a fly because you just had the realest two hours in recent memory. That’s the type of investment travel can make on you, and will, if you let life lead.
By the time our plane hovered over Cairo in the opposite direction, back toward NYC, Arab Spring had just begun and life as Egyptians knew it, had changed drastically.