Israeli philosopher Martin Buber once said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” I have never entertained that notion until my family and I traveled to Alexandria, Egypt in August of 2009. My father had obtained a teaching position on a university-level study abroad program called Semester at Sea. Students and staff lived on a ship, the MV Explorer, while it traveled to nine countries. I benefited from the class I audited on that ship, and equally as much from the experiences in port.
In August, we arrived in Alexandria, the zaniest city I have seen. Make no mistake, I am very well traveled for a teenager, but I was used to Europe.
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I was used to pale complexions, romantic languages, and cobblestone roadways with a few street performers and vendors. Here, people looked to be made of dark leather. You saw FedEx and Pepsi logos in Arabic. Cute, rustic paths became intimidating, crowded thoroughfares. Beggars and aggressive merchants ambushed you at every turn. Here, you watched your step and watched your wallet. I did not know what to expect, and that may be why I was open to making a discovery.
On our first day at port, my family joined Mike and Jo-Ellen Pearson. Mike insisted on finding a carriage driver named Yusef he had met in Alexandria on a previous voyage. With the help of another driver named Ibrahim, Mike found Yusef. After the American and Egyptian embraced, the drivers resolved to show us the city.
Before climbing into the carriage, my father wrote down a price equivalent to twenty-five dollars in Egyptian pounds to show Ibrahim. They agreed on that price for the day, and we delved into the city. We explored catacombs and libraries. We marveled at Egyptian jewelry, clothing, and food. We gawked at the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria as we zoomed down the street. When the day was nearly done, our deeper adventure was about to begin.
We concluded that it was time to call it a day and go back to the ship, so Yusef and Ibrahim drove our carriages back toward the dock. Mike paid Yusef, and my parents tried to pay Ibrahim; however, he refused and demanded more than the previously settled price. As the argument began to escalate, the most irritating merchant I have ever met approached me with magnets shaped like Egyptian gods, pharaohs, and symbols. Normally, such chachkies would excite me, but I was tired and thirsty. Alas, he was persistent until I screamed in his face to leave me alone. He was startled but surrendered and turned to the argument.
He immediately began shouting at Ibrahim and came back to me because none of the adults paid him much attention.
“Leesen to me. Do not leesen to dat mahn ova dare. Dees mahn, good mahn.” He gestured to Yusef. “Dees mahn,” he turned to Ibrahim, “Bullsheet.”
That night after payment was settled and we returned to the ship, my parents informed me that Ibrahim was illiterate. That is why he was confused about the written price. Such a thing has never bothered me so much. I had seen poverty and studied war. However, to think that basic knowledge and education has been denied to this man disquiets me. Since that day, I have valued my education so much more. My school may not have wonderful resources or an adequate budget, but every time I remember Ibrahim, I think about the fact that I can read and write and he cannot. To me, that is bullsheet.
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