Keeping up with tradition I wrote the following in a stream of consciousness Jack Kerouac style — so please forgive run-ons and typos.
“Let’s never come here again because it will never be as much fun.”
I said these words once to a girl I chased after to Egypt 10 years ago in a naïve attempt at romance. Frighteningly, I had meant it at the time.
Falser words were never spoken.
Because as perfect as that trip was a decade ago . . .
. . . You were even better.
You’re going to miss the initial introductions at an appropriately Egyptian themed and group leader’s favorite lounge in NYC, quickly matching the faces to the names of people you’ve only heard of in passing, and not knowing whether they’ll remain strangers you’ll be quick to forget, or become a new family of future friends you’ll hold onto long after it’s over.
You’re going to miss the trickle of messages in the group chat leading up to the trip, the tease of photos and prior stories in the periphery, and then departure day when a group of strangers congregated altogether at Terminal 4, Gate 4 at JFK Airport to begin a trip of a lifetime.
You’re going to miss landing to the rush of hailing for cabs, acclimating to the Cairo traffic as you went on an unplanned foray to the Middle East’s oldest market, losing your way and somehow still making it back to a hostel located in the epicenter of the Arab Spring, finally reuniting with your excited and overly nostalgic group leader freshly exhausted from a trip in Yemen but ready to hit the ground running and lead 17 other strangers around a country that changed his life 10 years ago.
You’re going to miss the frazzled attempt to order sandwiches for your first dinner in Cairo, confused over bread in a confused bakery, buying fruit salad for another traveler dismayed by his cab driver as he arrived late to join the group, and waking up to both unfamiliar ceilings and familiar laughter shared at orientation.
You’re going to miss the gallivant through the Egyptian Museum, the welcome espresso afterwards to get you ready for the Uber race to Ibn Tulun mosque — Cairo’s oldest — and the tranquility there after the oversized crowds of the Egyptian Museum.
You may not miss the feeling of being “mosque’ed” out by visits to the crowded Citadel, the calm Al-Alzhar, and the brief look at Al-Hussein . . .
. . . but you will miss forgetting just how many mosques you’ve seen after finally sitting down for our welcome first lunch together and your first taste of Egyptian shisha at Naguib Mahfouz.
You’re going to miss the feeling of exploring alternative Cairo — the desolate streetscape of Qarafa and The City of the Dead, playing frogger to skip over a highway into the post-apocalyptic maze-like alleyways of Manshiyat Nasir aka “Garbage City,” the initial pangs of anxiety for feeling like you’ve intruded upon a forbidden neighborhood, only to have those fears dashed away by hundreds of curious onlookers greeting you with a million smiles welcoming you to their home, and then hollering from their balconies only when you’re walking down the wrong way.
You’re going to miss the gaggle of laughing children dancing and leading you through fascinating streets you wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise, and their joy when you give them money for accompanying you all the way to the jaw dropping cliffside reliefs of Der Sama’an Kharraz aka the “Cave Church” and Cairo’s largest.
You’re going to miss jumping from one extreme to another, from Garbage City to the Ritz Carlton afterwards, taking it all in while realizing it only has been day one.
You’re going to miss waking up at 4am in the morning to find 16 horses waiting to take you on a ride into eternity, with the sun rising over you as you have some of the most filling breakfast and authentic Egyptian tea, while tears well up in our eyes the same way that peaks of the pyramids begin to reveal themselves above the haze.
You’re going to miss coming up and sitting on the Great Pyramids themselves, group photos by the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser, and playing Indiana Jones by climbing into the Red Pyramid before a lazy lunch over crack bread and then taking the long awaited and seemingly mythical Cairo Metro back to your hostel.
You’re going to miss the frenetic rush of diving through holes into the maw of Ramses Train Station looking for Platform 9 & 3/4, hearing the story of what had happened here 10 years ago, and still through all the chaos, arriving to your correct train ahead of schedule.
You’re going to miss turning your wagon into the “barcarpartycar!” on a nearly late night bender and impromptu dance party/karaoke session that was only made sweeter by the fact that you still were able to fit in a full night’s sleep afterwards on the romantic sways of an overnight sleeper train.
You’re going to miss waking up to the continued rocking motions of the railway, looking out to a beautiful morning of southern Egypt, disembarking with all the time in the world to another unfamiliar city.
You’re going to miss feeling the warm friendly hospitality of a place so far away from the capital filled with Nubian pride, the carefree abandon of Mostafa having marked you for adoration, the first ferry ride over to our new home for 2 days, and the welcoming meal on a balcony overlooking the Nile River.
You’re going to miss setting off for the optional journey exploring the West Bank of Aswan, raiding a bat colony at the Tomb of the Nobles, the hike up for views from the “Dome of the Wind”, buying bracelets from curious teenage locals, the solitary walk towards a seemingly abandoned monastery in the distance, climbing over a wall to get inside instead of taking the legal way in, being caught anyway but leaving with only a slap of the wrist, then doing the same at Egypt’s second largest cathedral back in town, and finally making the group whole with the latest arrivals of 2 who felt like they’ve been with us all along.
You may not miss the time where suddenly you’re back to work on your day job, treating a deep hand laceration for one of your travelers, creating a makeshift pressure dressing with the medical team you just formed on the trip, before formally sending him to the hospital to get treated. That was not fun.
You also might debate whether you’ll miss the 3am wake up call to catch a lonely dinghy across for a 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, and the spurious naps you tried to take to shorten the arduous journey.
But you will miss suddenly waking up to tell stories on the van anyway, enticing fellow strangers to join, and then arriving to the temple just to tell a guide off so you can fully take in the awe-inspiring majesty of the Temple of Abu Simbel on your own — a place that has dodged your travel dreams for 10 years until today.
You’re going to miss the seemingly quicker ride back to Aswan, boarding a ferry that felt taken straight out of Jurassic Park, visiting the beautifully restored Philae Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, and taking group photos with random local families curious to your presence.
You’re going to miss satisfying the unbearable cravings for overdue lunch back at the hostel, the relaxed free time afterwards in the West Bank hunting for souvenirs, tea, coffee, and dessert, and the first series of goodbyes to the premature departure of some of the most joyful travelers you’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know followed by drinks, shisha, and soul-churning conversations while overlooking the Nile River.
You’re definitely going to miss finally “sleeping in” and waking up to a relaxed breakfast for your last meal in Aswan.
You’re going to miss the comfort of your own private passenger van to your next destination, trolling 2 random men who jump in claiming to be your personal travel agents and satisfyingly wasting their time right before arriving at your destination, your first impression of a much better man named Ahmed who more than makes up for all the doubts you had about Luxor, and the relaxed private felucca ride along the Nile to catch the world’s largest ancient temple at sunset.
You’re going to miss diving into bartering and negotiating with a ticket man to let us in past closing, the million new profile picture possibilities inside, and then the jaw-dropping visual of the world’s largest outdoor museum at night before saying goodbye to 2 more travelers and realizing that no trip can last forever.
You’re going to miss the rush of your first hot air balloon experience over the West Bank at sunrise, your balloon pilot’s impromptu comedy set, the thorough breakfast spread afterwards, and the tomb scavenger hunt for all the oddities that include an inexplicable depiction of a kangaroo in ancient North Africa and a pile of castrated man parts, which suggested what could have been otherwise a dull day ended up becoming a little slice of wonderful thanks to Ahmed.
You’re going to miss the only time you relent to souvenir shopping, only because Ahmed himself was guiding you with his endorsement, the gorgeous alabaster pieces you’re taking home with you, and the hearty lunch afterwards to finish the day right before you were about to hit your temple limit.
You’re going to miss the lazy late afternoon afterwards, the dramatic dash from a ferry to taxis to the train station, the gall of telling a police office to bugger off, the pleasant surprise of receiving a special memento for the trip from an overly sentimental doofus of a leader who already feels a certain sense of saudade that his anniversary trip will soon end . . .
. . . and the following celebration together again on the train over mixed mojitos, mint juleps, whiskey sours, all with another overly eager wagon master.
You’re going to miss waking up one more time to the rocking movements of the train, the lazy morning during an expected delay towards Ramsis train station, the baffling restriction of being allowed to buy only 4 tickets at a time for your next stop, the team working together to grab breakfast in the meantime while the rest of us waited at the food court upstairs, and the serene 3 hour train ride towards the sea and relaxing coasts of Alexandria.
You’re going to miss the ironic hustle of a coastal seaside northern city of Egypt that despite its traffic, the odd visual of 14 very conspicuous backpackers, and after a week of being hustled left and right just for looking different, nobody here bats you an eye.
You’re going to miss an equally conspicuous undercover police officer following you from the train station, disappointing him when you’re not terrorists at all, paying a kind hostel owner for a room to temporarily store our bags, the delicious taste of French pressed coffee, the leisurely stroll along the corniche from the Death Star of the Alexandria Library to the medieval citadel sitting on top of the remains of the lighthouse.
You’re going to miss the kenopsia of visiting your ancestral home of your father and grandmother that evokes nostalgia for a life you’ve never had, the side trip that leads you inside the home of a family that now lives there, the paradoxical feeling of chrysalism while smoking shisha on an elevated outdoor platform overlooking the sea while listening to the adhan at sunset, a special box of pastries that quickly overshadowed that special ice cream you had only a few hours prior, the group splitting up for an impromptu “amazing race” to Cairo, keeping up the bad luck that monsoons have with catching the wrong trains, the sudden gasp when you see one of your comrades take a stumble, and the relief afterwards seeing him quickly get up for us to all be finally led to the correct train that will take us one step closer to inevitable.
You’re going to miss one final early wake up call, this time for 5 hours coasting towards a desert oasis, and a romantic tranquil rest stop in the middle of nowhere for morning coffee/tea and a treasure trove of date-covered-chocolate-covered peanuts.
You’re going to miss driving from a barren desert to a patch of countless trees that rise above this endless stretch of sand, fresh al dente pasta lunch, and the switch into 4X4 jeeps portending 24 hours that will lead you towards the rest of your life.
You’re going to miss the starstruck wonder when you lay your eyes for the first time upon gleaming unreal white chalk pillars of the White Desert, realizing that the biggest adventure you could ever take was to live the life of your dreams, the 30 seconds of complete silence to tune into your own frequency, the fresh fine sand between your toes, the best dinner of the trip under the stars, and then the onism you can’t shake off after late night conversations with your new Bedouin friend over travel, romance, and love.
You’re going to miss waking up to the eternity moment of a different night sky filling you with stars and occhiolism, the top of the sun peeking over an alien horizon, our last breakfast together, and fresh warm solar rays painting your face as you confront with the bittersweet reality you may never set your eyes on such a sight ever again.
You’re going to miss the last lunch together in the oasis, the final long drive back to Cairo, the last dinner toasting to lifelong memories, and the soft looks of those around you with whom you’ve just shared these experiences back where it all began at the very same hostel, and the subsequent goodbyes and final hugs leading to oblivion — a postscript to a chapter that many of us were trying to close for good but didn’t know how. . .
. . . until now.
Because you’re going to miss most of all, each other; the company of diverse personalities that waited 10 years to be united by 10 days of camaraderie and wanderlust, and the way we’ll all look back one day and ask yourself: “did we really do all that?”
“Yeah, we did.”
So I came here 10 years ago searching for someone, returning a decade later only to learn whatever it was I had been looking for, found me instead.
Because long before we had said goodbye, I was already missing us before we said hello.
“On the way to the airport now. It’s been real.
2 weeks ago on my birthday I was lying alone on an isolated beach in Socotra Island, Yemen. There was a group of 10 other strangers traveling with me, none of them knowing that it was my birthday; it would be the first time I celebrated “alone” by not celebrating at all. And so that day came and went without much fanfare and I decided I had to be okay with that — There’s a first time for everything after all.
However, as if the universe was dancing to the familiar tune of irony, I felt that the past 10 days have instead become that delayed birthday celebration I didn’t know I was supposed to be waiting for all along.
And as this monsoon already becoming another memory, I’m grateful for having the best birthday I could have ever asked for, feeling like I had been celebrating it the whole time the past 10 days with so many wonderful individual souls from around the world.
As my decade of life, love, and travel fittingly also wraps up the 2010s, it’s only fitting that I close a chapter to 10 years by saying thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To everyone who believed in me early on in 2010 when I started this crazy little thing (and I still remain unsure what to call it exactly), and to those who feel they’ve just joined: Thank you thank you thank you.
Thank you for the best birthday this hopelessly nostalgic little boy full of both melancholy and wonder could ever ask for.
- At time of posting in Cairo, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear