Well, it's been one helluva fortnight!
The pilgrimage started in Pittsburgh with a very lovely week and a half with Ann & Cody (follow their adventure here). We celebrated their six month wedding anniversary and spent many evenings on their patio talking about things I'm assuming most post-college adults in their mid 20's talk about. Conversations about experiencing the "sea legs" of joining the workforce while trying to be meaningful and intentional. About our relationships with our parents and with each other. About being terrified and ecstatic about what the future holds for each of us. About trying to keep God's purpose for our lives (if you know what it is, will you let us know?) at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. But most of all, how we're peering over the brink of what will be huge adventures for each of us and how grateful we are to have the friendships with each other that we do. Also, we went to a Pirate's game.
After spending a few days in NYC, I flew to Nairobi. I had a 14-hour layover in Cairo and was not looking forward to camping out on the floor of some empty terminal wing until my 1 am flight connecting flight. However, Egypt Air had some surprises up their sleeve. They intercepted all the transit passengers as we were milling about the terminal looking horribly foreign and lost. Turns out they offer a free transit hotel for anyone with a long layover. And free meals for as long as you're at the hotel. AND they take care of all the paperwork and fees for the transit visa. AAAAND they wake you up and shuttle you around so you don't miss your return flight. But wait, there's more: I didn't have to go through customs, immigration, or security once. Jackpot! (Did I mention the transit hotel was also a casino? There were FIVE Egyptian weddings the evening I was there. I slept a few hours, only to be woken up by the pumping of a Pitbull song playing full blast in the courtyard outside my window.)
The only other Arab culture I've been in was Morocco, where they tended to be very direct--to the point of rudeness. On the flight to Morocco last year, I had a woman push me square in the back because she thought I was going too slowly down the aisle. Another woman punched my friend's arm because she didn't want my friend reclining her bus seat. We saw a middle aged man get into a fistfight with someone that looked like his father at a cafe. I was a little hesitant about the Egyptian culture since I didn't know a single thing about it, but again, my cynicism was all for naught.
Every single person I encountered in Egypt was perfectly friendly and willing to smile through the two Arabic words that I kept mispronouncing as we scrapped together a conversation containing whatever English words we mutually knew. Granted, most of the people I met were in the hospitality business, but that doesn't always guarantee they'll be hospitable. Hospitable though the Egyptians were, efficient they were not. An Iraqi man who was also waiting for his passport in the transit area of the Cairo airport pointed out that every single employee was milling around either smoking or on their cell phones. It was true. The guy holding our passports went through three cigarettes and goodness-knows how many texts before he called us back to his booth. Nevertheless, I can't wait to go back to Egypt and spend more time there.
This trip has already made me realize how little I previously interacted with people I encountered. Now, I try to strike up conversations with everyone I'm near. Maybe it's to avoid feeling lonely, or maybe it's to feel a little more connected with the culture; to have little memories of people and conversations and ideas to keep in your pocket long after you leave. Or maybe just because it's so damn entertaining. When there's a language or culture barrier, it makes me feel like we've all regressed back to being children on the playground as we over-exaggerate emotions and have simple conversations about elementary topics. Like dessert and gum.
While poking around the dessert buffet at the hotel, I asked one wandering waiter what his favorite was, what he thought I should try. He led me to a back corner display I hadn't noticed for a traditional Egyptian dessert that was like bread pudding. It had a name I could not repeat or pronounce to save my life. The young concierge at the business center asked me if I wanted some tea while I was working. Expecting him to have a beverage station of some sort close at hand, I said yes. Instead, he handed me his own half-full mug of black tea. It wasn't until I brought it up to my face and inhaled the bitter brew that I realized this probably wasn't the best idea. The Iraqi man at the airport gave me a high-five when he heard I was from Texas. I attempted and failed at a one-sided miming conversation with a silent straight-faced Thai woman who was also a transit passenger in Cairo going to Nairobi. She didn't speak a word of English, so I helped her as best I could with her visa forms. She thanked me by incessantly following me around through both airports. Everyone shared gum with each other. It was great.
While it's wonderful being reminded what a smile can lead to, I've had the most fun remembering how invigorating travel is. Yes, of course it was hard to leave people and places and things (and offices!) that I love behind, but this, this is what I live for. Exploring a new environment and navigating through different cultures and languages is challenging and exhausting, but the learning never stops. Travel forces you to be so present in the moment; you have to be when you struggle to do something as simple as ordering lunch. But it also puts things into perspective when your proudest moment of the day becomes that you ordered lunch without having to ask the waitress to repeat herself. I don't remember the last time I've been this excited about every passing hour. I don't claim to be necessarily good at any of this, especially since I tend to believe that having meaningful travel experiences is more of a mindset rather than a practiced skill. And I know that I'll get unbearably lonely, and tired, and hungry, and lost, and willing to promise my firstborn to anyone who will let me take a hot shower, but I'm not nervous. God has a hand in every step I take and every interaction I have, and I'm beyond excited to see what He has in store for tomorrow.