As I have mentioned many times, and will probably mention many times more, travel makes you perceive a place differently after you’ve been there. (Please read my 2009 essay on Travel and Tragedy and the corresponding quote from Adam Smith.)
Last week there were riots and political protests in Tunisia and I watched the events as a detached observer. I’ve never been to Tunisia and I don’t know any Tunisians.
Then the riots spread to Egypt and my attitude changed.
I spent almost a month in Egypt. I traveled from Cairo to Alexandria to Aswan to Luxor, around to Hurgada and up through Suez and St. Catherine’s. I got a good feel for the country. I’m not an Egypt expert by any means, I but I was able to see some things for myself.
- I usually avoid talking about politics with locals, but in Egypt I had no fewer than five Egyptians go out of their way to tell me how much they disliked Mubarak. In a tightly governed country, you will seldom find people going out of their way to bad mouth their rulers to foreigners, but I saw more of it in Egypt than in any other country I’ve visited.
- Hardly anything in Egypt looks like it has been built in the last 40 years. (the exception being the Biblotechia in Alexandria, which was a foreign project.) I’m not a construction expert, but it was obvious even to me that the construction of most residential buildings was extremely shoddy. Some walls were literally curving. I hate to think what might happen if there is an earthquake in Egypt.
- The soliders you’d see stationed as guards often wore uniforms that didn’t fit. Their guns looked old and I often saw signs of rust.
- During my entire time in Egypt, I only spoke to a handfull of Egyptian women. Most notably, two teenage girls at a McDonald’s who wanted to practice English. (McDonald’s in Egypt is the best bet to find free wifi in the country).
- In the evenings, I’d see men huddled around the window of mobile phone stores all ogling the latest models. I’d see boy’s and girls studying and surfing the internet on small netbook computers at McDonald’s.
- I visited other Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and Jordan. I was able to see the relative difference in the standard of living between Egypt and some other parts of the Arab world.
- I had a fascinating conversation on a train with an Egyptian man who worked for the UN and lived in Switzerland. He told me a lot about the modern Egyptian psyche.
In a nutshell, I’m not really shocked by what is happening. Signs of discontent were everywhere when I visited. I had no idea something would be happening now, but I’m not surprised that something is happening.
It isn’t just Egypt of course. This effect kicks in any time something happens in a place you’ve been before. A place where you’ve met people and seen things first hand on the ground. Protests in Thailand, floods in Queensland, or even renovations in the Vatican all mean a little more to me having been there.
There are many reason to travel, but the empathy you develop for other places might be the greatest. It converts a news story from anonymous people in an unknown place to people with a face. Ultimately, if you want to understand the rest of the world, to really understand it, you have to visit it yourself.
That can only happen by traveling.