Postcard from Abroad: Thank You, from Egypt
By Brandon Neely, Contributing Writer
CAIRO – As any student who travels abroad knows, there are moments when you suddenly become aware of yourself. On my first day in Egypt, wandering through the streets, trying to find a place to buy water, it was a terrifying, overwhelming realization. I’m in Egypt, I remembered. I’m an ocean away from home, and I don’t know where to get drinking water, and I can’t handle how much sand is between my toes.
I didn’t know then, sweating and watching boxy cars with Arabic license plates, that within 24 hours, I would not only have water and groceries, but also the first of many friends who would define my study abroad experience. This I realized two weeks in, as I took a break in our daily beach volleyball game. I’m in Egypt, and I have friends from across North Africa and Europe, and we are traveling to the pyramids tomorrow, and there is still sand between my toes.
This moment of re-realization happens constantly these days. Sometimes it occurs when things are quiet, and you finally have a chance to catch your breath after jumping to a rushing train. I’m in Egypt, and I made it onboard, and in three hours I’ll be standing in the Mediterranean with sand between my toes. Sometimes it happens when things are loud and overwhelming. I’m in Egypt, and trying to cross a street downtown in the 6th largest city in the world, and I don’t understand more than a few words being spoken around me, and there is still sand between my toes.
In these moments, there is a desire to try and give voice to what your heart feels, but this is an impossible task. No article could capture what it means to be standing at the foot of the pyramids, with millennia of history staring down at you. There are no words for the Coptic church, or the Fatimid mosque, or the Karnak temple. The wordlessness is felt most deeply when you find yourself surrounded by people you never expected to meet, much less to call friends. I’m in Egypt, and I’m sharing a meal with the most interesting, thoughtful people, from every walk of life and corner of the globe. Perhaps the laughter of good company exists to say what our languages cannot.
There is only one phrase I know of which comes close, and the response I find myself coming back to in these moments. Thank you. It is not eloquent or fancy, no, but it is humble and honest, and that is better. When I am lucky enough to be pulled out of my own head for a moment and soak in this experience, I become grateful. Thank you, friends, for your patience as I meet each of you and learn about myself in the process. Thank you, history, for letting me appreciate this world around me, these ancient stones under my feet. Thank you, Egypt, for welcoming me, challenging me, growing me.
If you haven’t studied abroad yet, or aren’t sure you will, I encourage it greatly. After just a few months, I have more stories and photos and lifelong friends than I know what to do with. It is loud and quiet, overwhelming and calming. All of the clichés are true. If nothing else, it is worth it for these moments of thankfulness, cultivated through a semester in new places with people and ideas different from yourself.
There is too much to write about these months in Egypt, and too few words, or time. Instead, I hope you’ll settle for my moment of awareness, and an expression of gratitude. Soon I’ll be home, then back at Gettysburg, and I can’t wait to have more of these moments. I am in the US, and sharing the same old meal with my family, and there is no sand between my toes. Thank you, thank you, all of this.
This article originally appeared on page 17 of the December 6, 2021 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.