In the fall of 1997 – days after the death of Princess Diana and before the death Mother Theresa – I waved to my apprehensive parents, boarded an airplane and embarked on my first journey overseas.
For seven hours I sat on the left-hand side of that plane, surrounded by soon-to-be-friends that I’d met just hours before. As the plane banked to land I looked out the window and saw… sand. Lots and lots and lots of sand. The first profound thought to cross my mind was, “Whoa… this is a desert!” Because somehow, in all the preparations and decisions that had preceded this day, that had escaped my attention before?
The airport that met me was filled with voices speaking strange words in a strange language, as we followed a strange man who we could only hope was really there to help us through customs and not selling us to a traveling caravan. I boarded a minibus and looked out the window at square apartment blocks, and street vendors, and traffic unlike anything I’d ever seen – people, donkeys, carts, scooters, CARS.
And so I met Cairo.
Al-Qahira. Home of the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, seat of the medieval Fatimid caliphate, an ancient, modern civilization with dusty streets and the most gracious people in the world. I lived on Zamalek, an island in the middle of the Nile – less than two miles from Tahrir Square, home of the protests that have rocked this beautiful city.
It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly this semester affected me. As the weeks passed, it became increasingly clear that what I perceived as my own college-student poverty was actually wealth on a scale that only a few of the richest citizens of this metropolis of 20 million could even comprehend. The paltry $70 I had to my name at the end of the semester – not quite enough to pay for the much-hoped-for trip to Petra, in nearby Jordan – was nonetheless a princely sum in Egypt, two months’ salary for most. I’ve never felt poor since coming home from Egypt.
Yet when I think of Egypt and her people, it’s laughter that I think of. Oh, I remember the smells of Garbage City, and the ickiness of men getting a little too touchy-feely on the street, but those things have been papered over in my mind with time. Instead, I think of friendly faces, and offers of sweet hot tea in a perfume shop. I think of my homestay mother stuffing me so full of food that I couldn’t eat for three days afterward. Egypt, for me, is defined by true hospitality and a cheerful, indomitable spirit. And in spite of all the cards stacked against this beautiful country, that gives me hope for her future.
In the midst of all these big things, there was also a little thing that Cairo opened my eyes to.
Zamalek was the first walkable neighborhood I’d lived in since my early elementary days. And although public transportation wasn’t an option for me as a woman and a fair-haired foreigner, taxicabs were also cheap (for me) and plentiful. For the first time, I didn’t have to bum a ride off someone if I wanted to go shopping or to the library. I enjoyed the volunteer work my classmates and I did with young girls in Garbage City, and thought I’d like to do something similar when I returned to the States. I was enjoying real mobility for the first time in my adult life.
And although I struggle with this sometimes – that I encountered poverty and came away from it advocating for walkable neighborhoods – mobility is powerful in a way that we can’t quite realize when we’re accustomed to it. Corny as it sounds, I felt an internal flowering, an opening up of possibilities with the knowledge that I could go anywhere. While it may not compete with stopping human trafficking or bringing an end to poverty itself, it matters. Being able to fully participate in our communities – this is a thing that matters. It’s a thing that’s worth working for, and a thing I’m thankful to have learned in Egypt.