This is the conclusion of the 2nd article in a summer series on the life lessons that traveling has to teach us. You can Read Part I here.
We had been in the air for a while and were nearing the end of our plane ride when my boyfriend leaned over to me and told me that we were over Africa. What happened next is something that I could never have planned for. I looked out of the window and there it was, Africa. It was as recognizable as it was on globes, maps and books I had seen in classrooms, but as the clouds danced about I could see it. It wasn’t being told to me or shown to me in print or on television—it was there, beneath the sight of my own eyes.
I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion and could not stop the big, silent tears that were crashing down. This was where the human story began and I was going to put my feet down on its soil. My ancestors’ beginnings were here and now I was too. My heart felt a great love and something in me changed. This wasn’t just a lucky break any more—this was a homecoming that I needed to be present for.
We touched down on the tarmac and it was straight out of the sixties. There wasn’t some air-conditioned tunnel into the airport. You were to leave the plane and walk down the stairs from the runway to the building. It was very hot, but I didn’t care because it all was an experience. We would soon be on the air-conditioned bus on the way to the hotel, so no time like the present to get used to the kind of dry heat I would be in for a week.
We got through processing and I collected another stamp for my passport. I was beginning to feel like a celebrity with all of this movement and even pretended in my head that I was, just for an inside giggle to myself. We hopped the bus and made it to the City of Peace, Sharm El Sheikh. It was beautiful. The architecture was a fascinating blend of modern and archaic. The police presence at the checkpoints didn’t even detract from the scenery.
Once in our hotel in the Na’ama Bay area, we were welcomed with creatively folded swan towels and a nice cool room. I was surprised at the firmness of the beds. It took some getting used to, but by they end of our stay I have to say my back felt better than it had in years. We went out and walked through the streets that evening, enjoying the perfect night air perfumed with the heavenly earthiness of incense and sheesha. We went to the Camel Bar, owned by a German man my boyfriend’s family knew and settled in on the rooftop for our own authentic hookah experience and two ice cold Sakaras beneath the Egyptian night sky. I was all at once in love with night and Sharm. I was in love with the stars, the music, the carefree friendliness of everyone I met, the colors, the smells, and the man who made it all possible.
The next day we cut through the big open air mall that wrapped its coolness around us before we went out into the main strip once more. It was beautiful inside with all of the marble and the best wares coloring, sparkling and their minders calling out to you. I was learning to navigate the merchants that wanted me to buy everything and escape with my money reserved for only the things I had come there to buy. I wasn’t ready to souvenir hunt, as I had days to decide and feel one with the place I now found myself in.
We walked down by the water and scheduled a snorkeling trip that we would go on the next day. My boyfriend agreed to teach me the basics in the pool beforehand. This calmed my nerves a bit about being in the middle of the Red Sea, a place I had only heard about up to that point in church sermons.
That night we dined in a Bedouin tent style restaurant. Lucky us, we had the tent to ourselves, with the exception of a mother cat and her kittens who kept their vigil in the corner of the tent until, as if on cue, they knew we had finished. They milled around us as we sat and talked—staying respectfully away and earning a few scratches and pats before we left for the evening. It was as if I was a different person—no longer worried about the things I would normally fret about when at home. I soaked up everything as if my senses were on overload. We walked back to our room slowly and I didn’t think about what came next. I didn’t think about what if. I intertwined my fingers with his and danced around him as if an angel with gossamer wings and he willing to oblige me. I was alive with the essence of history and the here and now. I had no fear, no longing for what would be or what would not be. I didn’t have a care in the world at that moment. It was only him and me and the City of Peace.
On the way back, my eyes were captured by the greenest grass I had ever seen. It looked like a plush chartreuse carpet and I wanted nothing more to lie down upon it. It was the front garden of the Ghazala Gardens Hotel and I was instantly taken to it. Not wanting to embarrass my boyfriend who had brought me to this place of wonder, I settled on taking my sandals off and walking about for a little bit. The cool of the grass was transitioning into the dew that would be there until morning but it had not yet soaked the blades. I walked in circles with my eyes closed, feeling each blade, feeling the thick, plush rug of green beneath my feet. It was a place I would look at and touch each time we passed it on our daily walks. It was beautiful.
Over the course of the week, we went snorkeling in the Red Sea and stood feet away from the grounds of Saudi Arabia. We lived in the pool by day and got baked by the sun. The merchants that wanted my money at the beginning of my trip had become friends, ready with handshakes and smiles every day when we passed by. I realized that smiles truly mean the same thing in every language. We went to the 5-star hotel that his father had worked at with his scuba invention—one of the few with a topless beach, where I decided to take the plunge. I had spent the past five years surviving and now I wanted to live out loud.
After a refreshing swim and nap in the sun, we decided to get back to our hotel room. To our dismay, the roads were a blockade of cars due to then President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Sharm. We hailed a taxi–which turned out to be a mid-90’s deep purple Hyundai–and sat with the seemingly thousands of others in traffic just waiting for the go ahead. We knew we were going to be there for a while. Instead of getting mad, everyone just set themselves to chill mode. It was hot, but our driver tried to keep us cool in the air. But after a while we just got out to walk around in the street like everyone else. Our driver had a personal stash of Twinkies in the car and only one left so he gave it to me, which I shared with him. It wasn’t the typical road rage, rush hour scene as even people on horseback weaved in and out of the used car lot the road had become. People who didn’t even know each other sat on cars and struck conversation. After a while, our driver told us to be ready for the signal to go, since it would be a madhouse. So we got back in the car and buckled up for the starting of the engines.
We got in the car and as the Mubarak motorcade passed it became pandemonium–everyone went everywhere and we were no exception. Next thing I knew we were doing 90mph, off-roading in a purple Hyundai in the desert. We were passing and dodging boulders in the way and racing fellow drivers. I was belted in but howling in joy like a wolf set free. My hands were in the air and I was encouraging the driver to floor it and get us to our room in record time! It was hilarious! My boyfriend was freaking out, but I didn’t care too much—having always been more of a daredevil. He was mad at my stirring the driver to go faster but I had lived through hell in my life—this was nothing by comparison. This was living! The driver and I kept up lively conversation while my boyfriend tried to keep everything he ate during the course of that day, neatly tucked in. I screamed and laughed and yelled like a banshee. Every fiber of my country girl sensibilities showed off that day. We got back safely as I knew I was with a professional. For future reference, anyone who drives a Hyundai through the desert as a job, most likely knows what they are doing.
During the first part of the week, we had made friends with the young man who worked at our hotel pool. He had told us that he owned a shop in another part of town and would be happy if we would stop by. Since my boyfriend and I decided to play everything low-key and see what the days would bring, instead of trying to be tourists with schedules, we chose to take him up on his invitation to go to his shop in Old Sharm.
Abdul and his friend Mohammad owned the shop and it is there where I bought all of my souvenirs—with the exception of my ring. It was a lovely time. We all walked arm in arm down the streets of Old Sharm like kids, laughing and enjoying life. When I told Abdul about my silver ring collection and said that the only thing I wanted was a silver ring for myself he was the one who bargained heavily for the ankh ring I wear on my thumb to this day.
Once back at the shop, we drank rose tea and they helped me dress up as a belly dancer for a laugh. It was great fun. Old Sharm was definitely more for the local tastes. Yes, tourists went there, but most stayed in the more shiny, tourist-looking places. Old Sharm reminded me of Main Street, USA before the new malls rolled into town and because I am all about small business, it was only right for me to spend my money here. I bought my dad a fez and a scarf for my mother. I bought a scarab beetle necklace for my grandmother that I knew she would love—since I was now her full time, live-in caregiver. I couldn’t wait to show her. The evening couldn’t have been any better. As we drove home in the dark in our taxi, I noticed that every car had their headlights off. As each car would get close, they would flash their lights and then put on their turn signal without turning. I asked our driver why this was so and found out that the turn signal was a help to the motorists to see the sides of each others cars as they passed. I don’t know if it continues to this day, but that was the case where I stayed in 2005.
During the course of the week, I also made friends with the hotel’s gift shop owner. He was typically the first face I saw in the morning when I went to get the paper and finish waking up before breakfast. Before I would leave, I would speak to him about something I had wondered for years. A saying made popular during the 60’s/70’s Black Power movement that I heard from my father were the only words I knew in my friend’s language, so I decided to try them out and wait for the inevitable teaching moment that I loved. The exchange went like this when I went down for my daily morning chat:
Me: Good morning! I don’t know if I will say this right, but my dad taught me this when I was a little girl. As-Salaam Alaikum (Peace be unto you)
His face lit up.
Gift shop owner: Wa-Alaikum-Salaam (And unto you, peace.)
Me: You know, I honestly didn’t know how people would treat me here with the war going on and my being from America. But I have met the most wonderful people who have treated me in amazing ways.
Gift shop owner: You know, we get the same kinds of news that you do. We don’t know what is true and what is meant to make us angry and hate, so most of us just live our lives and deal with people as people.
Me: I can understand completely. I feel the same. I believe we must meet each other as people and always move from there. You know, I am glad I met you. You have given me so much food for thought.
Gift Shop Owner: I feel the same.
Me: See you later.
GSO: See you when you get back.
We shake hands as if we are lifelong friends and wish each other well during our day.
That day was a walk through all of our favorite places. I shook hands wherever I went with the merchants who knew me by my face by then. They no longer hustled me to buy. It was like we had reached a place of understanding. We cut through the mall with its coolness and marble and wares that dazzled. We passed the Ghazala Gardens Hotel with its plush green lawn that enchanted me. We walked the promenade past the Moevenpick—where the dervishes whirled. We sat near the beautiful blue and looked at the architecture. We watched the people and wrapped each other in our arms. I hated to even think about leaving, but knew the time was coming fast. We went to all the places we loved to eat and talked and laughed with familiar faces. I had found peace in this city that was aptly named and was treated like royalty. However, my heart hurt to know that within a day I would leave it—possibly for the rest of my life.
On this final evening, we sat in high-backed booths and watched a football match in the Irish Bar and had a Guinness and listened to The Pogues until it was closing time. We made friends with an interracial couple from Birmingham and had a great time. The next day we were due to fly back to the UK and I thought that I would carry this precious time into my future and see where it would land when I no longer felt the Egyptian sun on my face, heard her waves in my ears and felt her ground beneath my feet. It was April 23rd, 2005, and it would be my last night in the City of Peace. I went to bed begrudgingly, my mind racing before finally drifting off to sleep.
The next morning I said my goodbyes to everyone I could before it was time to get on the bus heading back to the airport. I was heartbroken to leave these friends—these once strange faces I had come to know for a week. I reluctantly got on the bus that day—looking at every face and every palm tree—every building until it all faded out of sight. I was quiet and my boyfriend knew why and just let me come around in my own time.
When we got back to the UK, we met up with his parents for a Fish and Chip dinner at Mother Kelly’s. After that we went to their local to watch Southampton and Pompey get it on after the defecting of Harry Redknapp from Portsmouth. It was a rivalry and the police were keen to stop any shenanigans should they develop.
Everything went well and it was a quiet after game situation with only a few arrests. We went back to my boyfriend’s flat to watch Sky TV and prepare for my leaving to go back to the States. I stayed close to him as if I knew that our time was winding down. I couldn’t sleep well that night because I wanted to stay up to memorize everything. After some time, I finally drifted off into a type of rest—though it was not as deep as I had hoped.
We woke up and went to the airport. I was quieter then—steeped in a knowing that blanketed my heart and tied my tongue. I had no time for words with the exception of a few of gratefulness. When we got to the terminal, I hugged him tight and we both shed tears as if inside we knew that this was it for us. By all accounts we had a wonderful run, but something was different. I was going back to take care of my son and my grandmother, and he was going back to his life with British Rail. I hugged him one last time and walked and waved until I had to go. Somehow, I knew that I wouldn’t see him again.
Once on the plane, I watched recognizable land formations become patchwork quilt. I thought about him and silently thanked him in my heart for such a life-changing adventure. After we were above the clouds and my tears turned into a deep, reflective stare, I put on my headset. The “Streets Have No Name” by U2 was playing. I looked at the clouds that seemed to stretch onward with no land in sight and thought it an apt song for the moment.
When I got to customs, the jet lag was starting to kick in. I knew had to stay focused until I was able to get to Pittsburgh. I was jolted from my flight stupor when the customs officer welcomed me home. It hit me in a way that made me smile warmly at him. I thanked him and thought, I really am home.
My layover in Newark was shorter this time but still long enough to find the most remote corner of the airport and do some journaling. I didn’t have far to go and this marathon that I was running would soon come to an end. All I could think about at this point was seeing my son’s face and hugging him. I would be happy to see my family, but I was on a mission to see that face I had missed for eleven days—the longest I had ever been away from him.
My family came to pick me up and get me something to eat once I had arrived in Pittsburgh. I was so happy to see them, but after eating I could hardly keep my eyes open during the drive. I fell asleep in the middle of discussing jet lag to my brother and woke up just as we were close to home. Upon arriving home, my second wind came and I ran to my son—showering him with kisses. I gave him his gift of papyrus prints which he loved. I gave everyone the gifts I bought for them and spent as much time as I could, telling them about my trip. They could see for themselves, I was a changed woman.
I settled back into my U.S. life and got down to taking care of my grandmother and my son. Conversations between my boyfriend and I slowly began to taper off as we grew into different people with different lives that were lived thousands of miles apart. We had shared a moment in time that was all that it was supposed to be—nothing more and nothing less. It was the most intimate of adventures that I would always be grateful for.
As I picked back up my routine, my weeks were pretty busy, but family would relieve me and take over for the care of my grandmother so I could get a break. During one of these breaks, I found myself on my parents’ front porch. We were doing our typical sit down and talk, but in the background the television was on and broadcasting the news. It was late July, and I was to hear news that would leave me frozen, speechless and in tears:
“A bombing has taken place, on July 23rd, in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh.”
“The official government death toll is being reported as 64, but the hospital death toll has been put at 88, including one American girl and her British boyfriend.”
“The first blast happened in the Old Market Bazzar in downtown Sharm, killing 17—mostly Egyptians.”
“Six tourists were killed at the Moevenpick Hotel.”
“A truck bomb was driven into the Ghazala Gardens Hotel—45 people died.”
“Local businesses were damaged from the power of the blasts, as they shook windows for miles.”
What do people think at times like this? ‘Had it been three months before, my boyfriend and I would’ve been there. We would’ve been in the middle of the attacks. We would’ve just gone to bed in our hotel, the Ocean Bay.’
But then my self-protective feelings turned to sadness. I could still see the faces of the people I had met who lived and worked there. I would never know who was still alive. Watching the scenes on the news, I could see the areas we walked through. Were Abdul and Mohammad still alive after the attack on Old Sharm? The mall that enthralled with its marble and cool refuge was damaged terribly. The Ghazala Gardens, where I had taken my shoes off to feel the soft, green grass beneath my feet and marvel at its beauty was now a grave. Our hotel gift shop window had been shattered in the blast.
Sharm changed me. I look at my ankh ring and think of those smiles. I think of how easy it was to love Sharm El Sheikh and its people. I think of the beauty of Na’ama Bay and the Sinai Peninsula. I think of how my throwing the dice in love may not have made me a winner, but if I hadn’t taken a chance I would’ve lost much more.
Sometimes something takes me back there in my head and my heart. I am transported back to a place when all seemed right in the world even though it wasn’t. I miss Sharm. I miss the City of Peace. I find myself missing the cool of the Sakara I drank, the sheesha perfuming the breeze, the music and most of all the people. They taught me to continue to see people as people—even more so than before. They taught me that in order to truly understand someone you must meet mind to mind, smile to smile, hand to hand and heart to heart. And they taught me one final lesson: In order to know, you must go.
I lovingly dedicate this to all of the lives that were lost and the lives that were forever changed under Egyptian skies. – Love Always, Trina Noelle
Image Credit: Nana/Soynanii/Pixabay