Each city possesses a distinctive smell that is completely its own. When I stepped into Cairo for the first time as I exited the airport, the air smelled like warmth and earth. It was a stark contrast to the crisp clean scent of the home I had left behind.
Many things are different. The way drivers high-beam each other to indicate displeasure. The way pedestrians cross the streets holding out their hands as if that is enough to stop a 3 ton vehicle from hitting them head on. The setup of the stores and shops and small kiosks. The random fruit stands on the side of the road. The annoying donkey carts blocking traffic. The city is thriving all hours of the day.
It is the people, though, who truly light up the city brighter than lamps in darkness. The cute young boy grinning wildly as he runs after me with something to sell. The hunched old lady squinting her way across a busy intersection as drivers honk in protest. The school girls walking with linked arms through crowded sidewalks. The city possesses its own rhythms of life.
Egypt has captured my heart. The juxtaposition between history and modernity, between urban landscape and natural vista is enchanting. The architecture of Old Cairo is beautiful with intricate calligraphy adorning old walls in desperate need of repair. Mosques can be found on almost every corner of the city and the call to prayer can be heard above the din of life.
Whether I am walking the streets at 1pm or 1 am, stores will be open and cafes and restaurants will be full. Sheesha or hookah is a part of the social experience in Cairo. Much like Mosques, sheesha cafes can be found at almost every corner and everyone partakes – men and women, the wealthy and the poor.
The city and its crowds can be overwhelming, but a short drive out of Cairo, and I am accosted by the stark beauty of the desert. The granular yellow sand beneath my feet and the bright blue sky arching above, decorated with white, pillow-like clouds, has deepened my understanding of Quranic imagery. The sky is used as an example of the perfection of God’s creation. Often, in urban environments we only snatch glimpses of portions of the sky. In the desert, the sky stretches out clean above me from horizon to horizon. And when the sun goes down and the night deepens, the blanket of stars that emerges defies description.
Words cannot accurately articulate how happy I am that I chose to travel to Egypt. The places I have been, the experiences I have had, and the phenomenally nice people I have had the honor to meet, have saturated these few months with vivid memories and provoked deep reflection. International travel is an excellent teacher.
Many students who are traveling outside of the U.S. for the first time comment on the noticeable differences between Egypt and the U.S. They are shocked at the poverty they sometimes encounter, and the struggle for basic necessities which they have never had to live without.
Living in an advanced Western nation, we are insulated from so much. When you step out, the flood of color, perspectives, values, views and standards is so different from what you are used to. The immediate reaction can sometimes be to begin comparisons with “back home” and throw up barriers of thought and preconceptions of how everything “should be”. But one of the most valuable lessons you can learn is to be understanding and respectful of every place and every person you encounter. Don’t compare. Every place and person has their faults. Every place and person has aspects that make them shine. No place or person is perfect. That’s what heaven’s for.