“Dozens Are Killed in Street Violence Across Egypt”

“U.S. to temporarily shut down embassies around the world”

These were the headlines as I was flying to the Middle East for my birthday in August, 2013. I was supposed to be sampling whiskey in the Scottish Highlands but plans changed quickly and here I was, flying to Cairo with a plane ticket I had purchased five days earlier to meet my friend J, amid news of al Qaeda threats and the closure of the closest 22 U.S. embassies and consulates.

Stupid? Possibly. But I’m an optimist. I had been in Istanbul during their protests two months earlier and, at the time, I didn’t think the situation in Egypt would escalate beyond tear gas and protest marches, both of which are usually easily avoidable. I was five months into a 14 month solo trip around the world and had experienced an outpouring of kindness and generosity from nearly everyone I met. In fact, I had nearly missed a connection in Cairo a week earlier and had been rushed across terminals and through back rooms in security by cheerful smoking officials exclaiming, “Send my regards to Obama!”

But things had changed since then.

When I landed in Cairo my taxi driver seemed anxious and chatty, pointing out a few famous sights from the highway as we zipped through traffic and peppered him with questions.

J and I convinced him to detour to Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, although he wouldn’t stop and asked us to refrain from taking pictures. It looked worse than we thought it would — a mess of rags, smoke, and policemen. We would later find out that 638 people had been killed there the night before.

We arrived at our hotel with a riot of emotions swirling inside us — fear, confusion, excitement, self-doubt — and simultaneously marveling at the purpose of this trip: the Pyramids of Giza. J was on a quest to see every Wonder of the World, but we didn’t know until arrival that the entire Pyramids of Giza complex had been closed due to terrorist threats. So, while we were there, within sight, we wouldn’t be able to get closer.

Or so we thought.

Travel is the ultimate lesson in letting go of control. We tried to change our flights but the airline insisted we go to their main office which was — truly — one block from Tahrir Square. We couldn’t get there; the taxi refused to drive us anywhere in the city during the protests that afternoon. So what was there to do in a foreign city with a daily “March of Anger,” strict curfews, and martial law?

We let go and watched the world swirl around us. And, by doing so, we got our second lesson:

Things often aren’t as they seem.

We started to see more pieces of the story. I called my mom while a wedding party walked through the hotel, clapping and boisterous. I saw a celebration and my mother heard a terrorist attack. While our television showed people being pulled from cars and buildings on fire, we ate hummus and smoked cigars on the rooftop, watching feisty old women march up and shake their fingers at the military manning the nightly blockades, who could not touch them.

I spent a lot of time with the hotel staff and the (few) other guests. We snuck out to the edge of the roof to watch the road blockade after curfew and had a whispered conversation with a nervous waiter. He had no sympathy for the people shouting below. “Everyone knows about the curfew,” he said. “If they’re out late they are just asking for trouble.”

And that is how it looked: people defiantly pushing against the system, politically and physically. They were choosing to be there and, sometimes, were let through. It certainly wasn’t the image of the “war zone” on the news back home, although the threat, and the fire, was very real in other parts of the city. Humanity and honesty revealed themselves in the moments on the rooftop overlooking the pyramids.

Despite the conflict, we couldn’t be deterred from our goal of seeing the pyramids. We had heard about a village where a few people were still leading groups up the dunes behind the pyramids, from an English-Pakistani family that safely brought their young children there the day before.  After a lot of discussion and with lingering reservations, we decided to go.

We left early in the morning before any protests began. A short cab ride brought us to a square in a dusty low-rise part of town that was decorated with tinsel like a used car dealership. We were brought inside a dark room with carpets on the walls and floor and served tea while the driver translated. We intended to walk, but it was quickly clear that wasn’t an option. I insisted on camels instead of horses because they looked slightly healthier. Mine was tattooed with geometric patterns along his neck and named “Mickey Mouse.”

The ride to the dunes revealed far more than we’d observed from the hotel rooftop. What had been a healthy tourism-driven business for the community a month before was now completely depleted. Horses and camels had been shot and left in the street by owners who could no longer afford to feed them. People shouted at us from their porches, “Americans no good! Go home! Obama no good!”

We told our guides we were from Canada, not the United States, and the shouts changed, but we still felt unwelcome.

Like the people at the blockade, the people in this village were pushing. We stopped thinking of them simply as swindlers. They believed in the need for change and the ability to speak out so strongly they were willing to lose their businesses, their livelihood. Did I know anyone at home that passionate, that desperate, for anything? The awareness of life, and how powerful and delicate it is, was thick in the desert air.

We did see the pyramids, and even glimpsed the Sphinx through a locked gate. But even that immortal face couldn’t distract us from the smoke rising across the vast city. We left with photos and an understanding of the conflict we couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

We got to the airport the next morning without incident, but I wasn’t able to relax until I was in the air. We travel to learn more about ourselves — our beliefs, our desires, our limits — I had come close to my limit on this trip.

To push yourself out of your comfort zone is a life well-lived. But to discover the parts of the story you can’t find on the news, to experience a culture changing and how that changes you, is a life well-traveled. We had pushed our psychological limits, but afterward everything seemed possible. We brought that fragile sense of living with us.

In the end, high above the Sahara, J and I both decided, without hesitation, that for the perspective we had gained, we would do it all over again.

Some photos for this story were contributed by Nicole Eryan.