Published on 8/1/2010
It was the day after our exciting night-time adventure at the pyramid and my friend and I were staying on a five-star cruise boat further up the Nile near the city of Luxor.
We decided to take a skiff across the river where we found a group of young boys playing soccer and joined them for a game. They may have been younger than we were but they definitely out-played us. Afterwards, we followed one of the boys as he made his way across the desert on his donkey, back to his village. Both my friend and I loved to climb mountains and there was one nearby that we particularly wanted to try. Our new young friend showed us the best way to get up the mountain but was reluctant to go up there himself. We could understand that there was something at the top he didn’t like, but we couldn’t tell what. So, we said good-bye to him, thanking him for all of his help, and set off up the mountain.
A little below the summit we found a group of about fifteen teenagers and children. They were dressed in clothes halfway between uniforms and rags, and many of them didn’t have shoes. We couldn’t tell if they were part of the official Egyptian army or some other militia group, but it seemed their instructions were to sit up there and await orders. Hanging out under a tarp with one machine gun between them, they weren’t as intimidating as I think they were supposed to appear.
They were cautious at first but we struck up a friendship of sorts despite the language barrier. We shared some bubble-gum with them that we had brought with us from home, and they even let us hold their machine gun. One of the most fascinating things for me was finding nautilus shell fossils up there. I would have loved to know whether findings fossils from the ocean on top of a mountain was fascinating to them too, but I didn’t know how to ask. The panoramic photo below is the view we had from the top. You can see the village where we started our climb below, and the Nile in the distance.
When we got back down to the bottom of the mountain we found our friend with the donkey again, and he invited us to eat dinner with his mother and sisters who lived nearby. I was worried that we were going to miss our boat but we decided not to worry about it and stayed anyway.
The boy took us to the mud hut they lived in. One of the daughters worked in a larger town about five or six miles away and spoke a little English, but otherwise we got by with gestures and a few words. They had a tiny black and white television with the back missing that sat in the corner of the room. For someone who grew up in the US, this was old technology, but even still it looked strange against a mud wall. I’d never seen old and new contrasted so clearly. I wondered what programs they watched, but again, I wasn’t able to ask.
They shared their dinner with us, and gave it to us generously. I wish I could say it was delicious but it was cucumber and bread cut up on the dirt floor, to be dipped in a raw egg from one of the pigeons roosting in the rafters. I was worried I was going to get sick later, because in the US we eat mostly cooked and highly sanitized food. I wasn’t sure my body would be ready for this. But, I really wanted to share the experience — they were so generous to share their food with us when they had so little for themselves. We ate and sat and chatted with them as best we could manage.
The mother told us how difficult it was raising four children without a father. That much we could understand, although we couldn’t work out what happened to him. Only two of the daughters worked and what they earned had to provide for the whole family. Even they had to travel seven or eight kilometers across the Nile to get to their jobs. Despite not have a man’s income it didn’t seem as though they were any worse off than their neighbors, and they seemed to be a very happy family.
By the time we had finished our evening of food and conversation we had already missed our boat home so they invited us to stay the night. Because they all had to live together in the two-room hut, there wasn’t enough room for us inside and probably, by local customs, it wouldn’t have been appropriate. They gave us blankets and tried to make us comfortable on benches of dried tree branches that were about two thirds the length of my body. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well, but I didn’t care. I smiled up at the full moon, thankful for such an experience, and hoped for many more moments like it. At 6 A.M. the next morning one of the daughters who worked in town across the Nile let us walk with her on her commute so that we wouldn’t lose our way. Our tour group was moving on to another town that morning and we knew we would not have much time to spare before they left. We bought her breakfast and stopped in to see where she worked before rushing to rejoin our group.
For the rest of my trip and my journey home my head was filled with one thought: “How can I keep doing this?” My experience with both the families of the taxi driver and the boy with the donkey had opened my eyes to a new way of traveling. I had gone to Egypt seeking something interesting. I hadn’t even been sure what. I had wanted adventure, but it was the first time I had ever traveled outside of North America, and I was nervous. I hadn’t known if people could be trusted, but the people I met there had taught me what I thought to be true but had never really articulated. That people are naturally curious and kind, and that they are as interested in meeting me as I am in meeting them. I had shared with them as much as I could about my own culture and it had been received with warmth and enthusiasm.
It would be a few years and many more adventures before I started to get a clear picture in my head of what CouchSurfing would look like, but at the end of my time in Egypt, I knew this: I owed my adventure to the people I’d met. Interacting with real, everyday people had made what could have been just a vacation into something inspiring and life-changing. I decided right then that I would always make it my mission to find real, personal interactions with the people of the places I visited.