It took me a long time and many wonderfully dreadful experiences to understand the mettle of my soul, but the heart of it came to me in an instant when I watched a man get stabbed to death in the outskirts of Cairo one cool and frightful summer morning. Caught between paralysis and action, cowardice and foolhardiness, I recall watching the blade plunge into the man’s chest over and over again better than I can remember my first kiss, fuck, or favorite movie.
I was a Soldier who’d never been to war, had the picture perfect Christian family I despised, a beautiful Russian girlfriend I couldn’t connect with, and was a university student without a plan. In short, I was lost. Having just ETS’d from the National Guard after serving with 19th Special Forces Group, I knew I needed a change and adventure to shake the crippling black dog of depression which thoroughly consumed my soul at that point in my life.
The year was 2013. I’d always promised myself I would travel somewhere new as a reward for completing my enlistment. Travel was the biggest growing and learning experience of my life, and the promise of a new adventure invigorated parts of me which had been lost for some time. As a small town Utah boy who thought he’d never travel further than southern California’s Pacific Ocean, my mother sent me on my first backpacking trip through Europe at age sixteen. She sent me with my cousin Josh, a wild man, pro snowboarder, adventurer, and certified badass for a trip to get me out of my shell. I embarked on that journey as a shy kid who had never kissed a girl or tried alcohol. All that changed during the magical unsupervised month in Europe as I realized how big the world really was, and that I could carve out a life larger and grander for myself than I was raised to believe back in Utah. Since then, I’d made it back to Europe and backpacked through Mexico, Central America, and the American West, all before turning nineteen.
I saved money for months leading up to my ETS. There were so many places I wanted to visit. Full moon parties in Thailand, island hopping in Greece, a trek through the Himalayas…. it all sounded so enticing. But one place that had been in my imagination since childhood was Egypt and the Middle East. My grandmother, a woman ahead of her time, had traveled to Egypt by herself several decades before and told me stories of giant pyramids, enormous temples, and rich mythology. Egypt was cheap and I could stretch my dollars far. Additionally, as a Soldier who never deployed, experiencing some of the Middle-East’s history and culture outside the war zones many of my friends fought in seemed like an appropriate end to a career I fought so hard for and never got to use.
When I booked my tickets in advance, Egypt was relatively safe. The Arab Spring of 2011 had long passed, and while casual protests rose here and there, tour companies still operated and American expats lived in safe peace. Yet as the months ticked away, protests in Tahrir Square filled up with angry mobs organizing against the government and army. July rolled along, and I had two options: cancel my trip for safety reasons and try to get a partial refund on airfare, or brave the danger, use my common sense and situational awareness to stay out of trouble, and make an exfil plan incase shit goes tits up. I chose the latter.
After a delightful overnight layover in Amman, I arrived in Cairo right at noon, the hot desert sun blaring intently overhead. The arrival was chaotic and set the tone for the rest of my time in Egypt. As soon as I exited the terminal, I was bombarded by desperate taxi drivers trying to extort a toll on the rich, white foreigner. I turned on my “fuck off” face and left the crowd to find a bus to Giza, where I would finally see the majestic pyramids I’d dreamed of. En route to the bus station, a bald, toothless taxi driver pulled up and asked in broken English if I need a ride. So I negotiated a fair price (according to my guidebook) and told him to take me to the pyramids.
I quickly learned that Egyptian driving was the absolute worst in the world. Traffic lanes were more like guidelines, and bumping bumpers was the norm. After a few minutes of driving, the toothless taxi driver started yelling at me in Arabic as if I’d insulted him. I was confused, and gave him the universal “shrug.” He rolled down his window and started talking to people on the street, and had another man come in the cab who spoke English.
“He wants you to pay him,” the man from the street said.
“But we’re not there yet!”
“He wants his money so he knows you will pay.”
So I handed the agreed-upon fare to the driver. He looked disappointed.
“This is not enough money.”
“It’s what we agreed upon!”
The man spoke with the driver again.
“He says his English is not good, and he made a mistake. He will need a lot more money.”
“My guidebook says this is on the higher end of fair for a ride to Giza. I showed him the cash before getting in the car, and he said it would be fine. I can get out and find another ride if he wants.”
The man conversed again with the driver.
“We do things differently here, you know? It is hard times in our country. You must understand. He thinks you are a very rich American. It is normal, this fare, for a tourist such as yourself during these times, you see?”
“Alright. Tell him I’ll pay this now, and the rest when we get to the pyramids.” The driver agreed, and my ten-dollar ride became eighteen.
After a tense and dangerous ride past the Baron Empain Palace and the dazzling minaret of the Al-Fath Mosque, the driver stopped near a big crowd of people and demanded more money, or baksheesh, a word I’d get vehemently more familiar with. Having agreed on prices twice and swindled once, I refused to pay any extra, and he demanded I get out of the cab. He drove closer to the crowd and past a sand-colored armored personnel carrier topped with a uniformed soldier and heavy machine gun. At this point, I was pretty uncomfortable.
The bald, toothless cab driver exited his car and yanked my door open, pointing for me to exit the vehicle. The crowd chanting was much louder than I’d expected, and all of a sudden I realized where I was. The asshole cab driver had taken me to the protests at Tahrir Square to try and intimidate me. So I called his bluff without paying the rest of the money and exited the cab, straight into the mob. Behind me he yelled, pointing, “American! American! Visa card,” and other Arabic slurs. A few men from the street took note and stared at me with anger in their eyes, so I walked away from them to avoid trouble. They followed me as I walked away, shouting, and I started feeling my fight or flight reflexes kicking in. But then a small, petite man with a big smile gently grabbed my arm and asked me where I was from.
“Uhh, I’m from Scotland,” I lied, thinking it would be best to disassociate myself from former imperialist powers during a political protest.
“Come with me,” he gently commanded, and shooed the angry men away.
The petite man led me into his shop where he made and sold papyrus souvenirs to tourists. He sat me down and served some sweet, looseleaf red tea. The liquids, air conditioner, and cozy chair were a nice reprieve after my chaotic arrival. I purchased some papyrus bookmarks as a thankful gesture. A few moments later, a large, old man with short-cropped grey hair entered the shop and chatted with the petite man who took me in. The three of us started conversing, and the large man, named Abu, said there was a van station nearby which ran to Giza, and he’d be willing to walk me to it.
In Cairo, there are three main methods of transportation: taxi, van, and bus. The white van lines cost less than taxis and are faster than busses. I took Abu up on his offer, and we walked toward the van stop underneath a nearby overpass. As we approached the van stop, Abu asked me for a tip since he walked me all two-hundred yards of the way there. Dollar signs shone in his eyes. Here we go again, I thought.
When traveling, I keep a throw-wallet in my front pocket in case of an awkward financial situation or robbery. The bulk of my cash, ID’s, and passport go in a money pouch I wear underneath my pants. My throw-wallet typically contains an expired ID and no more than twenty US dollars or the equivalent. I opened my throw-wallet to fish out some Egyptian pounds but Abu spotted the Jordanian dinar from my previous night in Amman.
“Give me those,” he demanded, preferring the more valuable dinar to the worthless pounds.
“That’s like eight bucks, man. I don’t have a lot of money.”
“I walked you all the way over here, and you owe me those monies right now!” His loud, booming voice caught the attention of every passenger-to-be at the van stop. Not wanting any trouble, I pulled out a bill of five Jordanian dinar and dropped it on the ground, and angrily walked the rest of the way to the van stop without looking back.
When I boarded the van toward Giza, I held my backpack tight on my lap and sat next to a young, thick Egyptian woman wearing a pink hijab. The woman struck up a conversation with me.
“You look like you’re not from here,” she smiled. “How long have you been in Cairo?”
“I arrived just today,” I replied.
“How do you like it so far?”
“To tell you the truth, it’s been pretty wild!”
“Well you came at an interesting time.”
We came to a quick stop and were rear-ended by another van. I was a bit startled.
“Don’t worry, they are professionals at driving badly,” she quipped, giggling.
The young woman’s name was Avie. She studied English and Chinese at a local university in hopes of joining the Egyptian Foreign Service. She used her phone to add me as a friend on Facebook and told me she’d like to meet up. Unfortunately, I never received the add and we never saw each other again. But I still remember her ambition and kindness. She departed the van shortly before my arrival to the pyramids.
The mountainous, ancient Great Pyramid of Giza dwarfed the small Cairo suburb raised around it. When my eyes first met its jagged stair-like edges, I was bewildered by the last remaining wonder of the ancient world which millions of eyes have laid upon throughout time, from Moses to Alexander the Great, to Napoleon, and now to my own. I disembarked the van and started walking to my hotel. I passed an internet cafe and figured it would be a good time to drop my pack and take a break from the heat. When I connected to the wifi on my phone, I had an email from my father saying the U.S. Embassy was shut down and an American had been stabbed in Alexandria. Great.
At the internet cafe, I met a teenaged boy named Reza, who invited me to break the Ramadan fast with his family. He seemed very happy to meet a foreigner and asked me all sorts of questions about America. He wanted to study geology after high school and had a very optimistic, refreshing spirit. I liked the kid, and took him up on his offer.
This decision was far more impactful than I could have ever anticipated. Because I met Reza, and trusted him, I would come face-to-face with a terrorist in mere hours and watch a man get murdered before sunrise. Fate, and the butterfly-effect of decisions can often cause us to reflect. We imagine our ghost lives and alternate realities where we acted differently or avoided certain paths altogether. What would happen in the next few hours had an impact that would change my life and the way I see the world forever…#OAFscout