I was eating hummus earlier today and from the first bite, it tasted like Egypt. I’m not sure I can explain that in a way that makes any sense, but the flavors reminded me of the months I spent in Cairo. As I ate my hummus and cucumbers and tomatoes, I was transported back to one of the most memorable times of my life.
Egypt was so good to me, even if I couldn’t fully see that at the time. I am who I am today because of the few months I spent there, immersed in a culture foreign and a temperature I was not prepared to handle. I attempted to learn Arabic, but found for the first time in my college career, that there are some things I am just terrible at. I wore a hijab and experienced the Muslim call to prayer, in awe of an entire city taking time out the day, no matter what they were doing, to pray to God. I stayed with a family who gave me their bed and special bottled water to keep me from getting sick and tried to feed me the brains of an unidentified animal. I cried, leaving my tears on the city that had carved its name on my heart, and even today it is hard to find a way to write about it. I don’t know where to begin, and I know there are some things I’ve forgotten.
How do you condense a crossroads in your life—an indescribable before and after moment—into words? I couldn’t even learn the language of the city – how can I explain it in my own?
There are a few moments that always stand out when I think of Egypt, or in this particular case, an emotion that I seemed to carry around with me in my suitcase, packed accidentally and hard to leave behind. And that was terror. Pure, unadulterated terror.
Traveling to Egypt at the age of 20 was the first time I left the country. Ever. I had never been to Mexico or Canada, and the farthest east I’d been was Phoenix, AZ. So at the end of August, I boarded a plane to Washington, DC, and began my journey. I was petrified, though I wouldn’t admit it at the time. Here I was traveling halfway across the world with a bunch of people I’d never met to a country I couldn’t truly imagine, and all I wanted was my mom and maybe my bed.
I wanted something safe and familiar, and from the first plane ride, I lost that. I left it behind and was left to recreate a new sense of security. And that’s not exactly something I’m good at. I like what I know, and have no problem staying in my comfort zone. Because while I enjoy spontaneity and being impulsive, I like it on my terms. I like to be in control, I suppose, and Egypt took that away from me.
For the first few weeks, my goal was to not do anything that was uncomfortable or scary. Which doesn’t sound like the best way to experience a new country and culture, and it wasn’t. I probably missed out on a lot of opportunities because all I wanted was to make it through the semester without having a panic attack so I could go home.
But life is funny and doesn’t always give you what you want, and sometimes you realize you have a strength inside you that you never noticed even though it was probably there all along.
One day, I walked to the corner store on my own to buy a can of soda and bag of chips. I wasn’t even particularly hungry, but I wanted to go outside. I wanted to walk around in this city that I probably would never have the chance to step foot in again. So I grabbed my keys and money and bought my groceries on my own. It was a small thing, but it was liberating. I made small talk with the store owner, even though we communicated more with smiles and pointing than with words.
Then a few weeks later I had to transport myself around the city during homestays. This meant negotiating taxi fare, taking the Metro (subway), and a microbus (which is a van that drives about with the doors open). I was in my nightmare: having to get around this enormous city on my own without a cell phone or handle on the language, praying to God that I could just get to school and back without getting lost. I felt sick the entire week. I cried every night. I hailed taxis, ignored the men who called at me like some sort of object or animal, I bartered taxi prices, I rode the subway for about an hour each way, and I rode the microbus – the one method of transportation we were told to never get on.
And I survived. I lived to tell the tale. I went through my most trying week in Egypt (though it might sound like a piece of cake to you) and I felt invincible. I had conquered the city. There are absolutely no words that can describe the pure sense of accomplishment that rushed over me when I stood in my flat for the first time at the end of that week and realized I had literally traipsed about Cairo on my own. I smiled that entire day, a smile that erased my tears and lightened my soul.
I can say, with every piece of my being, that the woman I am today grew out of the girl who sat on the microbus fervently praying that insha’allah, she got home safely. (God willing.)
Because I believe that we are all stronger than we think. We were not created to live in fear of the world God placed us in. We were created to go into that world and live in it, to experience it, and to love it. We are an amazing people with a sense of adventure. We are curious and like to explore. And there is no room for fear in such a life.
You are meant for more than a life that leaves you afraid and scared and paralyzed. You deserve to go to new places and revel in the strangeness of it. Life isn’t always safe or comfortable, but you have the strength to conquer what terrifies you most, because you are destined for great things and fear has no place in your story.
So go out and try something that is a little scary. It just might be the best decision you ever made.
Thank you for reading! And maybe (definitely) follow me on Twitter >> @cassiclerget.
I’m pretty entertaining.