When I first traveled alone to a fundamentally different culture I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just knew that trips in Europe were not enough anymore, and I wanted to see something that shocks the hell out of me. I started to browse the net for an opportunity that wouldn’t bring a financial burden for me, and where I can go as soon as possible. I found a project in Cairo that was launched in order to educate the Egyptian youth that is struggling to come up in life (like basic IT skills or fluent English) and they were looking for people around the world to participate. The cost of living is cheap, accommodation is provided. Was it perfect for me? I don’t know. Was it totally different from anything that I had done before? Definitely yes –and it was enough reason to go. Within one month I was sitting on the plane with all the needed papers, packed for two months.
I left before someone could tell me: It is not possible. It is too risky. You can always find something similar later. And a long list of what ifs.
Every one of us is an expert in listing reasons and being “rational” when we want to prove we are doing the right thing –especially when we fear. I can’t leave my job right now because I carry a huge responsibility in this position. I don’t have enough savings. I can’t leave my family for such a long time, and my partner surely wouldn’t come with me. I don’t know how these things work, and I don’t know anyone there. It must have been easier for those people who have done this before.
No. It wasn’t.
After I landed my phone was not working, the guy who was supposed to pick me up from AIESEC was nowhere (because I told him the wrong time-zone, my bad), and a bunch of taxi drivers started fighting about who will take me downtown. Later on I realized that people in shops and on the street are not speaking the language, my clothes are too warm or fail to cover my body appropriately, and it is 40 degrees non-stop. Besides, barely anything is open during daytime in the month of Ramadan, but dare you complain to the man who has not drank a drop of water since he opened his eyes in the morning.
(Oh, and have I mentioned that the second Egyptian revolution started just fifteen days after my arrival? My roommates booked early return tickets. I started having conversations with people, which turned into a 7 months research and my graduation thesis.)
But isn’t that why we start a journey in the first place? To challenge ourselves and to let go of inhibitions and welcome new perspectives? To face our biggest weaknesses, to be questioned about our principles and to understand where we come from? To make an impact on other people’s thinking and remind them of the things that really matter?
I had little expectations upon my arrival to Cairo, and I remembered only a few things from my history books about the Arabic culture. I went through the ‘honeymoon phase’ and I started minimizing the differences of everyday life. My local friends were from the new generation, they were wearing jeans and t-shirts, and they were watching the same sitcoms online. The city was a metropolitan with McDonalds and KFC branches everywhere, and my flatmates were foreigners who filled the house with their own customs and lifestyles. I met people from countries I hardly heard of before and had a chance to listen to true stories prior to hearing them from the media. We had conversations about religion, war, and politics over our morning coffee in such an innocent way as we would discuss whether we prefer our beverage with or without milk. I spent just enough time to get a grasp of culture shock, which made me restless to travel again.
And there I was in India. I patiently listened to people with the best reasons why it is a mistake, why it is the wrong time or place to go. I just didn’t believe them anymore. It took me around 3 weeks to get all vaccinations, a business visa, some good and some bad advice, and I started learning the rules of a new game again. I understood the logic behind Indian addresses, I learned how to bargain with rikshaw drivers and got used to spicy food. I understood the meaning of gestures, rituals and their form of speech. Two months passed without any major emotional break-down, the longest period I ever spent abroad before, and I thought: Maybe there is only one cultural shock in life. Maybe I have too many friends from all around the world and just cannot be shaken anymore by cultural differences.
But there it was… it felt like someone just pulled the rug from under my feet. If the Arab world was upside-down for me, then it has even turned around. So many questions came to my mind: am I a selfish person or just holding on to my individualist western lifestyle? Is this the culture or I shouldn’t trust this person? How do I find my way in an enormous country which has different rules and customs in every region and which at times discriminates its own people?
There were days when I didn’t know where I would sleep at night, and there were times of illness and sorrow during traveling. But every time I needed help it came to me before I asked for it, and I learned how to accept it from friends and strangers alike. You may say I was just lucky. I would say I deserved it. I was open to change because I had faith in that everything will be all right, so whatever I needed came to me through the law of attraction. When you start a journey you need to leave some security, certainty, and comfort behind, and every time you start a sentence with but what if, you have to stop and say: It will work out somehow. This is how you gain memories worth remembering, and this is the experience that cannot be replaced with anything.
After so many months had passed, things have changed. I still have questions and I am still breaking through my own limitations –but I have built up a life in a different dimension. No matter how many people I meet and how many places I go, I will always feel that itch that only travelers can understand. I will face obstacles and confusion on the way, but I will embrace it all because it is what will define me and make me a better person after all.
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