20 years ago this month, I embarked on my first journey abroad. I was so young, and so inexperienced. Until that cold March day, I had never gone beyond 100 miles of my birthplace. I remember walking through Terminal 1 at the Toronto airport knowing that everything I had ever known and believed about life was about to be irrevocably changed. One might wonder why I would choose Egypt as my baptism into the world….?
This past weekend, I dug up an account that I wrote a few years after the trip for a college assignment. That assignment was based on some notes and photographs I had kept from the trip. It struck me when I re-read it that I had described the trip as a ‘physical journey into the soul of the world’.
In the passages and posts that follow, I will be sticking fairly closely to that original account from the mid-1990’s and adding elements that the limits of the assignment forced me to edit out. I had never entertained the idea of becoming an artist before this journey and I am certain that it played a role in forming that part of me. I hope you choose to follow the story and that it delights you as much as the memory of it does for me.
Life has a funny way of teaching us about itself. The metaphor of the experienced hero emerging from innocence always requires a journey – often a tour of one’s own soul. The Universe invades and shatters what we hold as ‘Truth’ and forces us to fill the vacuum or learn to live with the void. Since truth might seem to be a relative thing depending on your cultural perspective, youth and a blank slate are good companions to embark on a physical journey into the soul of the world.
At 18, I was ‘old’ for having never stepped onto a plane. I had never been to Florida nor had I left Ontario for that matter. To choose Egypt as a first encounter with travel might seem surprising, but, I craved adventure. I painted an imaginary picture of myself standing next to Indiana Jones and a camel. The camel was the only character from this fantasy to actually show up.
Early on a Sunday morning in March of 1988, I waved good-bye to my parents and entered the gate with the rest of my youth tour group realizing that there was no turning back. I felt a simultaneous rush of excitement and a deep fear of the unknown.
After a brief stop-over in Paris and four more hours in the air, the lights of Cairo began to emerge out of the darkness. As we descended over the gently flickering glow of the city, the reality of what I was doing began to set in. It was close to midnight, Cairo time when we finally exited the plane for the last time and I remember disembarking into the night greeted by a warm, heady smell of smoke. All of my senses were heightened. Each moment provided a completely new sensory experience. To this day, a hint of that smell reminds me of Cairo.
Exhausted, the bus dropped our group off at the Hotel in Giza, a kind of ‘suburb’ of Cairo. My memories from this point are vague with the exception of the fact that the fourth floor is not high enough off the street if you like to sleep. At 3 am I crawled out of bed to see what was with all the horns. Pulling the curtains back, I was surprised to see that none of the passing vehicles had their headlights on! Our hotel was at a bend in the road and as the cars approached it, they honked and flashed their headlights to warn of their passing.
When I was awakened 3 hours later, I was buzzing from a lack of sleep. Breakfast was intended to provide the jet-lagged group of teenagers with the energy to begin our tour. We were provided with bread and a juice that reminded me of the stuff they give you after you pass out at the blood donor clinic.
I had passed so much of the city of Cairo the night before while it was still shrouded in darkness, therefore, in the morning, the blanket of illusions and expectations would begin to lift. Cairo was modernizing. The old sat very close to the new here.
The first couple of days were filled moving from one part of the city to another. I remember being stopped at a traffic light at a very large crossroads. I looked out the window of the bus toward the sky. High above the roofs of the buildings were highway overpasses. There were several of them, many were filled with traffic. I followed some of the larger vehicles with my eyes as they passed overhead and then disappeared out of sight. Perhaps 100 feet past this point, the overpass abruptly ended in mid-air. I waited for the inevitable disaster to strike.
As we continued out of the downtown area, apartment buildings emerged, cars mixed with mule carts and fires were emitting a heavy black smoke, black smoke so heavy, I never saw flames.
The old city of Cairo was surrounded by warm grey stone walls, from which the people seemed to directly emerge. The streets were covered in market stalls. Many of them were full of oranges. The streets were dirty. The curbs buried in wet muck strewn with peels from oranges crushed beneath the wheels of carts. Their still fresh skins like beacons of newness surrounded by the decay that they would, inevitably, become a part. It looked as if nothing had changed here in centuries…The poverty was striking. Children grasped at the windows of the vehicles filled with tourists. Some tried to sell things to the people in the buses if they slowed down enough for them to get close. Stopping wasn’t necessary. The buses were what felt out of place in this ancient world. Here, I felt more like a time traveler than a tourist.