Cairo: the value of being there

A week ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about what it would be like to travel to Cairo, Egypt to see the protests there.

Is that really a form of travel we’d want to have?

We talked about the practicalities: logistics, safety, health, etc. Sure it might be interesting to see, but would it be worth the risks? Especially after the pro-Mubarak forces began clashing with the protesters last week and even foreign journalists became targets of harassment and assault.

And then yesterday occurs.

In ways we still don’t understand, Mubarak is out, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is ruling the country and the people in Tahrir Square are going absolutely nuts. And despite all the chaos, I realize that those who traveled to be there in that square yesterday – some from a few blocks some from thousands of miles away – will experience firsthand something that will truly change their lives.  

Ask anyone who has participated in these history-making events: marching with Dr. King during the civil rights movement of the ‘60’s, standing on the other side after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or, in my case as a kid, watching my friend Billy race down our street on his brand new bike, the fancy one with the banana seat and genuine, grown-up-like hand brakes. In his enthusiasm to try out the new bike, he hadn’t bothered to test the brakes so as he sped toward the end of the street he just squeezed the lever on the right which – bad toss of the coin for him – turned out to be the front brake.

The almost full 360 degree flip he made as a result brought an initial stunned silence from those of us in his pre-pubescent audience. That was quickly followed by a cheer when we realized that a) our friend was not dead, b) his new bike was virtually unscathed, c) the blood on all knees and elbows was kind of cool, like a battle wound or something, and d) we had just witnessed the greatest action stunt any of us had ever seen live in our entire eight or nine years of existence.

Being more than a witness but an active participant in such events changes you. The experience gets deeply imprinted into your memory and psyche not just because of what you saw or even felt, but because you shared the event with others.

We’re created for community and we become most aware of this in times of trial and struggle and in times of joy and celebration, all of which occurred this week in Tahrir Square. We can vicariously appreciate some of that exuberance from a distance, but we’ll never understand it fully without being there.

I found that out once when I happened to be in Florence, Italy on the day that Italy won the World Cup. I knew virtually nothing about soccer or who was playing whom. But I will never forget the infectious, riotous celebration that swept through the crowds and affected even a soccer newbie like me. For that day, I was one of them, welcomed as if a life-long fan, lost in the exultation not of the game, but of the people for whom this day had such great meaning.

You can’t always time your travel to be in such places at such times. But if you are, these moments become the travel stories you tell your grandchildren. These are the tales you will be able to recount forty years later as if you were there because at one time you were: fully there, fully engaged, fully alive and fully a part of history.

Not a bad way to travel.

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