Welcome…Welcome home brother.
Those were the first words I heard while walking the streets of Cairo. My very first international trip abroad. Exploring Egypt was the commencement a transformational travel lifestyle journey that started years ago but still lives on in my heart as if it were yesterday. As an 18-year-old undergraduate student, I had no idea what to expect. Up to that point, the furthest I had been from home was a short, family trip to Canada at age 10—of which, many details I scarcely recall. In the subsequent years that have passed; however, I finally realize what those words of welcome truly mean.
Where is home for me?
Home is Africa. And on a much grander scale…home is the world.
It’s always fun to look back on past travels and highlight the elements that stand out. Before visiting, I had studied the ancient civilizations of Egypt and pharaohs and pyramids, but still did not completely know what to expect. Although I had never been to New York prior to traveling to Cairo, much like The Big Apple, the Egyptian capital had the electric energy of a city that never sleeps.
What stood out the most during my entire journey was how warm and welcoming the people of Egypt were. Sure, there were the occasional hagglers that were only out to make a quick buck, but in venturing down alleyways off the traditional tourist path and embracing the local way of life I found friendships that formed the foundation of my approach toward all travels that have followed since. Wandering and walking through markets, the conversations captured were far more valuable than any items that could be bought and transported home. Of the individuals encountered, perhaps the person that stood out most was a young boy by the name of Mohammed. He oversaw his parent’s small shop and our initial conversation went something like this.
“Mr. please come my shop.”
Not wanting to be bothered, I dismissingly replied, “No hablo ingles.”
To which he responded without hesitation, “Hablo español. Entra por favor.”
Both shocked and impressed, I laughed, admitted I was American and went in to have a look and talk a bit. It turned out that, although he never received any formal language training, English and Spanish were not the only languages he spoke. He learned the basics of several languages in order to effectively communicate with a wide range of customers. On days when his parents were unable to run the shop, as the eldest son, the duty fell upon his shoulders. What I appreciated most about young Mohammed was the fact that he did not pressure me to buy. Instead, we humbly answered each other’s questions. In turn, what we both learned in the exchange was priceless—knowledge and a deeper appreciation of our respective cultures.
Ironically, the biggest disappointment for me were the pyramids. Now don’t get me wrong, they are STUNNING structures, I just naively believed that I would have to venture far out into the vast desert to reach them; however, their proximity to the city was a complete retrospect to that belief.
In preparation for the journey, I visited The Nile, not the river…but an Egyptian restaurant in Chicago. While the food was quite delicious, it in no ways compared to the dishes dined upon while in country. Meals that included staples such as: pigeon, YES pigeon, falafel, molokhiya, and fatta all combined uniquely delicious flavors I had not previously been exposed to.
If you had told the 17-year-old, high school senior version of me that, less than one year removed from receiving my high school diploma, I would be dining on exotic foods and walking the streets of a foreign land I would have laughed and said, “Psssht…the only land I’ll be walking on is the football field!” But just as the saying, “When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade” goes…it can also be said that:
“When life gives you a glass of lemonade, go ahead and have a drink.”
In the comments below, share the story/destination of your first international trip and the memories that stand out most.