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Tales of a thirty-something wannabe backpacker in Egypt: An unexpected Part 4

Written by Jesse Wilkinson

What is a soulmate?

Is it someone you meet when you’re young and spend most of your life with? Is it a friend who’s always there for you?

I think both of those qualify, but I think a more common example of a soulmate is someone who comes into your life briefly and makes a lasting impression. I think there are people you meet who you are drawn to and feel comfortable around for a reason you can’t quite explain. It’s not necessarily of the brain or of the heart, but something more ethereal – possibly the soul, whatever that is.

It was explained to me by my new friend, Wassam, that the soul is the centre and exists on a different plane than the mind and heart. I’m still trying to sort that all out (with help from writers like Thich Nhat Hanh). It’s probably going to be a long-term unfolding of an esoteric nature, but it’s become an important one for me.

When I met Wassam in Thailand, she seemed to know me better than anyone I had encountered in a long time. She knew things about me that she shouldn’t have known. I began this blog by saying I had been in a bit of a daze this past year – she knew that. She told me that quickly. She had insight into some of the things I’d been struggling with over this past year without me saying one word about them.

She told me how important Sangha was for her – to consciously surround herself with the right community. What Thich Hnat Than refers to as the boat that can keep a stone buoyant that would otherwise sink. I had been thinking a lot about community lately myself so I was instantly engaged by her thoughts.

It made me think about the commune farm my parents lived on in the seventies. I had recently attended a reunion with them where a filmmaker was doing a documentary on the experience. Every evening during their years there, the twenty friends sat around the kitchen table to eat dinner together, a dinner harvested by their own hands. That is the kind of sangha I’ve never known, one that I wish I had have, but there are little things happening around me these days that I would consider sangha-like and I’ve come to recognize the importance of them.

So, after I said goodbye to Wassam after our short but impactful day together in Bangkok, I arrived home in Canada and we kept talking. She invited me to Egypt to stay with her and her friends and I told her I would try for October. But something inside me said: ‘Don’t wait. Go now.’ I was letting the idea rattle around in my brain. I knew there was a chance that I would never actually go if I waited until October or December.

And then I went surfing and it all became clear.

See, I had been eating dinner at Casero’s in Owen Sound and the owner, Beth, came by and told me the waves were swelling at Sauble. I hadn’t even thought to check my wave-tracker app since I’d gotten back, so I raced home and grabbed my board and went out to surf for a couple hours. My arms weren’t used to the exercise, I’d only used them to lift Chang Beers and steer my bike the past month. They burned as I paddled out beyond the messy break of Lake Huron, but when I made it past the swell, I lay on my board and contemplated things for awhile.

That’s a part of surfing that rarely gets talked about – the waiting, the quiet contemplation on the board. It’s only when the right wave comes along that you take it, and there can be long waits sometimes. There is a lot of patience involved in surfing. You watch others take a wave they feel is for them, but you know ‘your’ wave when you see it. It’s the right one for you. It was then that I realized that Wassam’s invitation was just like a wave I was sitting and waiting for. Her invitation was the right one for me. I had to take it.

So I did. I got home and booked a flight in two days.

I left for Egypt, a place that every website and person warned was dangerous. But I had a guide, someone who lived there who had organized everything, from picking me up at the airport in Cairo to dropping me off seven days later. At least I hoped she would be there when I landed. It was not something I was used to doing, but sure enough, when I stepped out into the sweltering heat of North Africa, her blonde curls and ripped jeans could be seen through the crowd and we hugged and she led me to her black Jeep that she drove deftly through the bustling and frenzied streets of Cairo.

Cairo is called crazy-Cairo for a reason – it’s madness. ‘Organized chaos’ as she called it. Driving to the pyramids was my first glimpse into this chaos as the four lane highways were actually just one huge lane where people disregarded painted lines completely. I was worried for my life most of the time until Wassam told me to stop thinking and that there was nothing to fear – this was Cairo and I was in good hands.

She often told me to stop thinking so much, which is important for me, a person who is always in their head. I’m constantly analyzing every little thing and it can be exhausting. I needed someone to tell me to ‘stop thinking so much.’ She did that. I think that’s why I like hiking and surfing and paddle boarding so much – it’s a time when I can turn my brain off.

We made it to the entrance of the pyramids on our second day and this was when I realized how much Egyptians love to argue – after the guards checked our ID’s thoroughly (they did not like that she was with a white Canadian guy) and she argued with them for awhile about letting us through.

Five other Egyptians tried to tell us that the parking lot ahead was closed and we’d have to park in their lot and take the camels up to the pyramids, so she argued with them and told them she didn’t believe them and of course she was right – they just pull that on everyone so they can charge for camel rides. There would be times when she would talk heatedly to security guards or officials about the way one of their peers had insulted her or called her terrible things based on the way she was dressed. She didn’t conform to the traditional, conservative ways of Egyptian culture and neither did many young people she knew, but it didn’t stop the older generation from attacking her for it. It was all done in Arabic, so these were times where I felt rather useless. But it was fascinating and she always told me what was said (except the names they called her).

After lunch at a glamourous hotel resort by the pyramids, we walked into the most beautiful historical site I’d ever been too. Yes, it was a desert, but the pyramids were unbelievable. I used to read a lot about them in my youth, so this was a big deal for me. It was an even bigger deal to go inside them. Wassam had a bad neck from an accident, so she stayed outside and waited as I walked through the ancient passageways that at times were twenty feet high, and other times were only four. But some of the chambers I spent time were a true definition of the word ‘awesome’ – that word should be reserved for times like these. They filled me with complete awe. There are so many fascinating theories as to how they were built and why, and even if we never understand their true intention, there is something to be said for raw power of their magnitude and precise architectural design.

In awe of the Great Pyramids of Giza

We avoided the camels

One of my fav shots from that day

Did a little climbing

A little perspective

That’s crazy Cairo in behind her

We spent few more days in Cairo floating down the Nile and enjoying the nightlife. It was difficult for her to go out to bars as progressive women usually got berated by Egyptian men if they went to public places for drinks, but there were a few spots that she could go to that were safe for women like her to be social. It was typically the upper class Egyptians who were more progressive and open-minded, and that was who you found in these bars. There was a door person to ensure that the place remained safe and filled with these wealthier progressives.

The Nile at night

After our time in Cairo, we took a flight to Sharm el Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula and drove through the desert for hours until we reached a camp on the Red Sea owned by her friends Hessam and Sara. It startled me at first how isolated and arid the camp was but it was August (low season) and the only reason we could go was because Hessam and Sara had built air-conditioned huts to sleep in.

The air conditioned huts in the desert

There were actually many other young Egyptians and Israelis there. This was an area that had been fought over for centuries between Egypt and Israel, Egypt taking it back in 1973, but many Israelis still vacationed here and everyone got along with only subtle tension. We spent the days swimming and snorkelling in the Red Sea and I wandered the coast line meeting others and talking with the Bedouin people. I chatted with a young Bedouin boy named Hadr who later gave me the finger for taking a picture of his home in the sand. The Bedouin women walked the beaches selling jewellery and the men would deliver things you couldn’t get at the camps. They were a fierce people and feared by the Egyptian government. They owned the land and the government left them alone. They weren’t even considered citizens.

The camp didn’t sell alcohol, so if I wanted a cold beer, I had to ask a Bedouin to deliver one when he returned from Sharm el Shiek. Most people who came to camps, came to get away from crazy Cairo and to relax. This usually involved smoking hash, as I could discern. Most people lazed around under canopies near the water smoking hash and hand rolled cigarettes, chatting in Arabic or Hebrew, and swimming.

Walking the beach at dusk

I often preferred to walk the coast line and take treks up into the hills. On one steep ascent, as the sun was just going down, I reached the peak and found some cushions that had been left for meditative purposes and in my own meditative fashion, I listened to music for a while and when Strand of Oaks sang the line ‘Comfort doesn’t mean you’re better off’ I realized that happiness doesn’t come with attaining enough money to live a comfortable life, it comes by taking the opportunity to get unsettled for awhile, or taking risks. It reminded me of a Hunter S Thompson line that “Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.” I hadn’t been doing enough lately to get my blood racing. I had gotten too comfortable maybe. This trip woke me up from that daze and definitely got the blood pumping again.

Later I attempted meditation  there and even though I didn’t know what I was doing, it was still one of the more spiritual moments of my trip. Talking to Wassam about it that evening under the meteor shower that her friends referred to as ‘sex in the sky’ was another eye-opening experience. I left the desert feeling more ‘of myself’ if that makes sense. I had looked inward a little more than I usually do, and with the help of Wassam, came away with a stronger understanding of who I was and what I wanted.

The ascent

View of the Red Sea

Sunset over the Sinai Mountain Range

Outside of my deep conversations with Wassam, a few other discussions impacted me strongly. One was with an employee of the camp, a guy they called Jimmy (everyone had an Arabic and an English name). Jimmy had invited me to sit and eat with the employees when he saw me walking late at night. They all sat on a rug on the ground near their quarters, with a small television set on in the background playing an Egyptian program. Jimmy told me how he had married an Italian girl, but the Egyptian government denied his requests to visit her there. He told me he would never be allowed to leave Egypt. He said it is very difficult for any Egyptian to leave their country, and often comes down to the amount of money in their bank account. As I sat and accepted the generous portions of chicken, rice, and pita bread, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to be Canadian. We are free to travel almost anywhere. Jimmy had accepted that he would never leave his borders, and even though he was a very good-natured guy, I could tell this pained him.

Another conversation that affected me was with Wassam’s friend Elsa, who used to work for a bank. When I first met Wassam, she had told me how the Egyptian economy had worsened over the past year and made her Egyptian Pounds worth less when she traveled. She didn’t know why the economy had nosedived. So I asked Elsa if she had insight and she said that after the Revolution (that Wessam was on the forefront of), that investor’s had pulled out of Egypt leaving them reliant on the IMF (International Monetary Fund), who imposed certain stipulations, one of which was a devaluation of the currency. One Canadian dollar was worth 14 Egyptian pounds. It hurt me to think that the Revolution that the young generation held as a point of pride was the reason their travels were much more expensive now. They were only able to travel because they were upper class Egyptians, but it still made things much more expensive for them.

The crew at the Castle Zaman

 

An evening at the Zaman Castle near the camp

When we returned from the Red Sea, it was time to go home. We said our goodbyes and she reminded me to stop thinking so much. It has been good advice for me. I look forward to seeking out some ways to do that – yoga and meditation are two avenues I want to explore. I’m coming into surfing season in Ontario, so I know I’ll have more time on my board to shut off the brain.

As I was sitting in the airport in Cairo, waiting to fly home, I realized that I would never see Wassam again. She was someone who came into my life for a reason and we had a short time to spend together and that time was over. I wasn’t sad, because she told me we would meet again someday in another life, maybe again for just a day or a week. And maybe that was what a soulmate was – someone who you keep running into in all the lives that you live. Maybe it’s not someone you give your heart to in one life. Or your mind to. Those are all separate things: the mind, the heart and the soul.

I think you can connect with someone’s heart – and I have before and I hope I will again. It’s a great feeling, maybe the best feeling in the world. And you can connect with someone on an intellectual level – and I have many times and the conversations are great and intoxicating and extremely important for developing the mind.

But you can also connect with someone’s soul and it’s different. There is an unspoken understanding. You have something to learn from each other and then you go on your separate ways. There is an impact made. Sometimes you realize its importance in the moment, and sometimes it comes later on.

I don’t pretend to understand any of this. I’m only trying to negotiate what I’ve read and the conversations I’ve had with what makes sense to me. But this experience happened and I’m trying to understand it. I had felt a little lost and our conversations helped me find my way back to my centre a little. I’m headed in the right direction again. She presented me with a wave that I knew was just for me. And every wave ends. It has to. Sometimes you have a brief time with someone and it’s best to accept it.

I made the metaphorical paddle out into the open water where waves present themselves, where you don’t have to take any waves at all if you don’t want; you can sit out there enjoying the solitude. But if there’s a wave that you think is for you, then get up on your board and take that proverbial ride.

I took one to Egypt and that has made all the difference.

 

 

Written by Jesse Wilkinson

 

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Jesse Wilkinson

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