it may seem like your whole world can be warped and inverted in just one day; but in reality, every day, and every experience, is the inescapable product of an infinity of other choices, attitudes, and experiences that extend indefinitely into the past- sometimes unremembered or spurned, but never broken. we cannot control the flow of life, but we can enrich and thereby help direct it. that’s why our consciousness, not of who we are but of why we are, and how we are, is so important
I am failing abysmally at this blog thing. As a friend of mine bluntly reminded me, one of the expectations of keeping a blog is at least semi-regular updating, and yet a full week has passed since my last post. This hiatus in writing is not due to any dearth of experiences: the past week has yielded some of the most enriching and transforming moments of my life. But for some reason, every day I return from work in the evening so divested of energy that I do not feel at all inspired to ponder, write, share anything. Even when I am awake, I feel as though I am slumbering, enshrouded by a malaise that only more intensely smothers me as the week wears on. And the heat, hanging languorously in the air with an almost palpable heaviness, deepens rather than dulls my stinging nostalgia. I feel so fickle to at one moment be gushing and vibrant, having discovered a new sweets shop or successfully bargained for some bauble, and at the next be lifelessly floating in a vast ennui. There is no spectrum of emotions but only a pair of extremes, that has buffeted me in the last week. I have mused that I might simply be approaching that time of the month and still be disoriented by a new environment. Or maybe I am sleep-deprived, with no similarly sleepy suitemates dispensing shots of laughter and caffeine to keep me company. But most likely, I am finally grasping how profoundly alone I am: I work with several colleagues, frequent cafes, exchange cross-cultural platitudes with the hotel staff, but still I feel as if I am living in a separate world from what I knew before. Sometimes I forget entirely that part of me is awaiting my return in another existence, another layer of reality; and at other times I feel completely and utterly alien to what is going on around me. I wonder, if I have changed, as a consequence of living and learning alone. My mom says that I am ridiculous and that there is no way I could have changed in four weeks, but I think there is something to be said for becoming more self-perceptive (at least I fancy myself so), and more conscious of one’s own consciousness. For what I see, what I experience, what I accept as reality, I have realized is really a differentiated expression of my own self-consciousness. And thus as I discover hidden elements of myself, I also unlock secrets of the world around me: secrets that I ironically help create. A timeless awareness in a timebound existence— this is what travel has enabled me to intermittently experience, and it is through my awareness of this ability to dynamically shape reality that I feel myself changing and evolving.
When You Come Back Down, The Duke’s Men of Yale
Ahi estás tú, by Chambao— what was playing in the café as I typed this
I am working on a health care consulting project for the National Bank of Egypt (NBE), and so I reside in the NBE House—a kind of hybrid between a guest house and a hotel for NBE employees in Nasr City, Cairo. (Wikipedia has more on the district here.) There is not much to do where I live except walk to the mall CityStars, which incidentally is the largest shopping center in Egypt. Sporting five stories, three international hotels, a luxury apartment complex, a 13-screen cinema, three food courts and swanky restaurants, and of course ample “boulevards” of high-end stores (those ones in which 70% off still means paying $100 for a skirt), CityStars is the affluent tourist’s paradise. It is the one place in Cairo that I can walk around and momentarily delude myself that I am back in America, lounging at Starbucks and H&M with an earthy palette of cosmopolitan cohorts. I patronize the mall’s restaurants and cafes nearly every day, choosing always those places that allow me to play on the internet uninhibitedly.
I am sitting at my favorite café, Café Supreme, right now as I type this entry, quaffing a slender glassful of freshly squeezed guava juice still lush and cool and viscous with fruit pieces. I make the same order every time because it is as delicious as drinking melted kulfi, and the waiters know to expect me. They call me “Miss Sunshine” here, maybe because I goofily smile whenever I try one of their desserts (at every sitting), I don’t know. My probing produces only grins in response. Usually, I remain at the cafe for up to four hours, ordering a drink when I arrive and a snack toward the end. But today, I am here only for an hour, because I have to do grocery shopping and then take a cab to a laundromat with a friend.
What strikes me about the mall is how both relentlessly busy and intensely private it is, such that I never feel alone but always independent when I frequent its stores. That is one of the best but often unanticipated benefits of crowded shopping malls: they can be some of the most private, public places one visits.
Update: When I was leaving the mall today, I realized I had forgotten my hat and my sunglasses in the hotel room. It was 2 p.m. and the sun scorched the sky from directly overhead. Because I was determined not to become sunburned, I removed my laptop from its sleeve inside my backpack and pulled the flexible flappy cover over my head. I looked absolutely ridiculous, with my mammoth black backpack—those of you who have seen it, know what I mean; black slacks; Yale t-shirt; and a big black flap over my head walking back from the most lavish mall in Egypt. Not a few people stared at me as I passed by them, but I told myself that despite my embarrassment, I would be happier in the long run. Please don’t call me silly. And Mommy, I will think ahead next time, I promise.
I am gushing with love right now. I don’t know where this bubbling zest for life suddenly came from, but if anyone from anywhere for any reason at this moment approached me, I would probably engulf them immediately with a creamy embrace that both smothered and revitalized them from my brimming stock of energy. I feel love, probably because I have been given it, countless times in the past two weeks. The people of Cairo have shown me so much warmth and affability that already I feel the incipient pangs of nostalgia to be leaving in just one month.
Another experience this evening again reminded me of the power of shared human emotion. I was sitting in the company car, in the backseat this time since others had been dropped before me, en route to the hotel. A tender love song was playing, and as tragic Arabic love songs are wont to do, this one recalled several sad thoughts that brought tears to my eyes as I brooded over them. I was by no means sobbing, but the driver Magdi must have seen my tears; for, though he could not ask me in English what was wrong, he stopped the car along the side of the road, nudged a tissue box into the backseat, and asked, “Miss Sejal, one minute?” I had hardly been paying attention to the roads outside my window and so a little dizzily replied, “Sure.” Magdi left and returned a few minutes later to offer me a soft plastic bag bulging with freshly peeled teen shouky, the guava-like fruit of the prickly pear cactus sold as a refreshing treat here during the summers. I had tasted teen once before, and told Magdi how much I loved it, and so my heart melted immediately when I realized that he had stopped the car and dedicated those five minutes to trying to make me feel better. I know nothing of Arabic, and Magdi cannot communicate in English, but here we were able to understand each other, showing that the language of empathy and compassion is boundless. It is these gestures, the smallest acts of unexpected care and kindness, that mean the world to me; and I could not refrain from smiling brilliantly with gratitude all the way back to the hotel. Upon entering the mini hotel lobby, I hesitated but then tentatively approached and offered the receptionist one teen. She giggled, murmured something, and then took the fruit from the bag. We both bit down into the juicy pulp. There it was again: sharing food, sharing happiness.
What my experience reflects is that it is a self-perpetuating cycle of kindness, one circle of humanity, that every moment our attitudes and choices build together: when I brighten the day of one person, I bring joy to the lives of dozens more, and thus I exponentially enrich my own. This is the magic of the ripple effect, and it is one that has become ever more vibrant to me in the several days I have spent with the people in Cairo.
It is encouraging to think how some of life’s most powerful lessons can be imparted by people one barely knows.