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The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Ryan Rivera. He recently returned from volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
You have the heavy traffic: congestion that can be slower than the pedestrians walking by and taxis constantly driving by, seeing if you need a ride. Lane changes are spontaneous, car horns are used more often than blinkers, and the only limit on speed is how well you can maneuver through traffic. You have the shop keepers: various people selling almost the same thing but still finding a way to convince you that theirs is better than the other guy’s. You have uniformed officers policing the public areas and streets, be it on foot or in a vehicle. No, I’m not referring to Cairo here, although such descriptions could hold true. If anything, there are only two conditions that control the taxi drivers of New York and Cairo. One is that New York has stop lights and cross walks and the other is that Cairo has innumerable cars, people and animals occupying the streets. But this anecdote about the similarities I’ve noticed after returning from Egypt is but one of many. As days passed and I resumed my routine at Columbia, more and more of the comparisons become apparent, both similar and dissimilar alike, between life in Egypt and life in the United States.
And even still, it is near impossible for me to communicate every minute detail of comparison. When I am asked, “was Egypt cool?” or “how different was Cairo?”, I find myself stumbling over the various reasons I could give for why I liked it. There are the little things, such as how relaxed the atmosphere felt. It was not uncommon to see people smoking from a Shishah outside at the tea shop at all hours of the day, nor was it stressful for the students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to come spend an evening with us, eating Koshari and drinking tea, the night before they had a midterm exam. But there are other things, such as how friendly the Egyptian people were. When we met with the NGO groups and the university students, we were welcome every time. Not once were we rushed through a meeting, unless we ourselves were running behind on a schedule, and the AUC students who we were originally only supposed to meet with on one evening, offered to meet up with us again throughout the week, and suggested some great places for us all to meet for dinner.
Nowhere else though did I feel more welcome than at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage. Although the women caretakers did not understand at first why a group of Americans wanted to work in their neighborhood, it was clear that they appreciated the extra help. Thankfully we had Aiya on our trip who was able to speak in Arabic to the women we were working with, explaining what we were doing in Egypt and why we were volunteering. We were an extra pair of hands to feed, pick up, sooth, and play with the children since there were usually only 2, maybe 3, women in a room of almost 20 kids. We were able to form bonds with the children of the orphanage, communicating not with words but with tones, expressions, and actions, and a few of the children would cry when we had to leave at the end of the morning. Our volunteer project not only taught me how to feed a baby without making a mess, or to say “Bring me the ball” in Arabic, but it allowed for a personal interaction between us, the children, and the staff of the Sisters of Charity Orphanage.
As I reflect upon the amazing experience I had in Egypt, I realize how easy it is to forget about the world outside of Columbia, outside your immediate happenings. I find my self returning to the busy schedule of classes, work, exams, meetings, etc., and I realize how New York and this ambitious, fast-paced culture, could learn from the Middle East. Everyone has work, and everyone has obligations, but at the same time we should be able to slow down and breathe every now and then, to sit on the side walk with a mint-flavored shishah, a pot of tea and bread, and talk with friends. It is in revisiting my thoughts, pictures, and discussion of the trip that I keep contemplating what my next experience will be, what area of the world presents an interesting opportunity to learn and grow, be it Egypt, the Middle East, or elsewhere, and how can I get people involved and have the opportunity to have a similar experience as I have had.