What they do not tell you about the Pyramids is that, grand as the monuments may be, the surrounding area smells profoundly of camel piss. I arrived in Cairo ungrounded: no apartment, no friends, no Arabic, not even my own luggage. I was anchorless to the point of adrift---weightless to the point of exhilarated. Over time, Cairo became filled with the buoyancy of firsts and the gravity of love. It was the first place where I worked with the United Nations and, in many ways, where my passion for gender advocacy and conflict management came alive. Cairo marked my first attempt to live mindfully in the present, an endeavor that ran counter to my inclination to wander in the memory of the past or anticipation of the future. And on the first day of Ramadan that year, I met someone on a boat on the Nile in the kind of way that will make it impossible for me not to consider the river blessed, the city magical, and my time there transformative.
We drank strawberry juice in a street alley across from his apartment building. Pronouncing "Mumkin asir faroula?" became a small victory. The strawberry juice gave way to tea and to coffee and to domino and when we ran out of non-alcoholic drinks and board games, he would deposit me into a taxi and I would employ the only other Arabic I spoke at the time: "Five pounds. The fare is supposed to be five pounds." The driver would argue, I would say no emphatically, habiiiiibiiii would bellow from the radio, we'd run a red light or five, and my head would hit the pillow just as the first call to prayer of the day echoed from the nearby mosques. The realm for a public romance was limited and filled with mines, so our budding love was rife with the kind of companionship that prepares you well for retirement: conversation, domino and tea.
And I had yet to see the Pyramids.
This was a point of contention among my friends. It did not matter that I was filling their inboxes with the cautious enthusiasm of a young love. Everyone would write back asking how Cairo is and "have you seen the Pyramids yet?" "No, but there's this little alley that I love . . ." stopped cutting it as an answer.
Four months of alleys and domino later, I had eight hours before I had to be on a plane to Uganda. I asked the cab driver to take me to Giza for the trip that almost wasn't: the pilgrimage to the Pyramids. The postcards create an impression that the Pyramids exist in a vacuum. They do not tell you that there are apartment buildings poking the air around the area of the Pyramids. The guidebooks do not mention the all-piercing smell of camel piss.
They also do not mention that great memories are not always made in the shadow of historical grandeur. Future travelers should take note of the unmarked alley off the map (which, to be fair, also occasionally reeks of urine). After standing in awe in front of the Pyramids for a few minutes, and waving off the salesmen asking me to buy papyrus, I went back to my alley, for one last whiff of nargileh smoke, sip of strawberry juice, and exhale of gratitude for the memories that were.
In Guatemala, I failed to make it to Lake Atitlan. In Colombia, I never saw Villa de Leyva. In Uganda, I missed Murchison Falls. This was neither my criminal inability to traipse to remarkable places nor a snobbish rejection of the kinds of experiences that inspire universal awe. Rather, I learned in Cairo to allow myself to be attached to the alley---and, like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, to leave a trail of crumbs to come back to. "The trips that weren't" give me an anchor in a home that once was. They supply a reason to retrace the steps to a self I left behind. Seventeen conflict and post-conflict zones after Egypt, I favored the sites of memories over those in the Lonely Planet, saving the latter as collateral to the promise that I would return.
Jerusalem was meant to be the last stop for a while. After my work there, I would fly across the ocean to the United States to return to an academic study of gender and conflict. I would unpack the bags and own what is gratuitous simply for the sake of not worrying about how to pack it for the next trip. I would own wine glasses and more than one pair of sheets and I would get excited about things like latte art and permanence. This time, I was not interested in leaving any item unchecked. A month before our departure, I made The List: walks, food, experiences to have before we leave. We ate nostalgia for four weeks, stuffing our stomachs with all the food we thought we would miss and our days with itineraries. I thought we did a good job this time, that we did so much and saw so much and felt so much that we would leave Jerusalem with a sense of satiation---as though that could vaccinate us against future nostalgia.
Two hours before we had to hail a cab to the airport, we lit a coal for our nargileh and breathed apple-flavored smoke into the street. We had recreated the alley. Everything else may have shifted, but it was still him and I and the apple-flavored smoke. We looked over The List and realized that "the trips that weren't" had become the trips that were. I was afraid that we had done it all, that there would be no more Jerusalem to discover in the future. We had crossed off the items.
All except one: The YMCA was his favorite building in town. It became mine as well. We never made it to the top.