In 1989, I accepted a two-year job teaching English in Egypt. The school offered $50/month and a place to live. The city of Cairo offered everything else, a theater of sound and spectacle, and a small part for me to play alongside seventeen million other residents, all acting out their lives on a stage twice as crowded as Tokyo. None of this felt comfortable.
Growing up in Maine, I was nurtured in a world of careful distances, social and spatial. This was exactly the point, I guess, in going to Cairo: to push beyond the boundaries of comfort, to come up against the hard-to-digest, to learn truths not accessible in the coffee shops of Portland or the classrooms of Boston.
Still, everyone has limits. When I reached mine, we, my roommates Joe and Alex (also American teachers), would head for Dahab, a dusty Bedouin village on the East coast of the Sinai Peninsula – about as remote and sparsely populated a place as you could reach from Cairo on our salary.
Dahab was the anti-Cairo, a place of self-indulgence and open spaces. It was our refuge from work in the city, a world of scattered huts and ex-pat dive shops, a place that always smelled of grilled fish, motor oil, and hashish, where daily calls to prayer had to compete with Sinead O’Conner’s Nothing Compares 2 U.
We spent most of our time there underwater. When we weren’t snorkeling, we were reading, or writing, or drinking warm beer in the bars that lined the beach. One time we arranged a ride to the Blue Hole, a coral lagoon just outside of town.
From the front seat of a Fiat, the Blue Hole did not look like much. It was much like the rest of the Sinai coast, arid, brown, and rocky, devoid of life. Two things stuck out though: a giant gouge of blue water in the long shallow shelf of coral that hugged the shore, and a set of improvised memorials for dead divers on the rocky beach.
I put on my snorkel and flippers and swam towards the gouge, the tip of which was only a few feet from the shore. What I saw there made me flinch: a vertical wall of coral that dropped straight down, hundreds of feet, out of sight into blackness. The wall extended in a rough circle the size of a stadium.
Beneath me were schools of fish, angel and butterfly fish, clown fish, and beneath them, anemone fish and coral groupers, and beneath them, other fish that I couldn’t see clearly because they were so far away.
To swim in the Blue Hole was to hover at the top of a giant underwater atrium, the walls of which were alive and moving with color, a column with no bottom, no reference points except void and sky. It was unnerving and disorienting, an effect that became more pronounced the further I swam away from shore and towards the outer edge of the reef. There, I felt as if I was swimming through an electric current. My limbs felt twitchy and my heart raced. I felt exhilarated and ebullient and, strangely enough, like I was about to die.
Joe and Alex were also deeply moved. We spoke about it back in Dahab, wrote about it, continued talking about it back in Cairo. It entered our discussion of books — The Razor’s Edge, On Human Bondage, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Fountainhead — , which we swapped back and forth, the young man’s library of self-discovery.
Swimming into the Blue Hole, “the abyss” as we now called it, became a metaphor for this quest of meaning, a measure of authentic experience. Real change, it seemed to us, had to evoke fear and present dangers. It could not be controlled and would always exact something as payment. After I started graduate school in the 1990s, I laughed when I discovered that a long tradition of Romantic self-discoverers had already thought through this sort of experience and named it “the sublime.” We were only 250 years behind Edmund Burke. At twenty-three, I had the hubris to think it was something new.
But I didn’t care and don’t care much now. If the questions were not historically unique, the experience was, a moment seared into our collective memory. It still is. And the questions raised by Dahab still linger: does authentic, change-provoking, experience always come through such electrifying moments? Does it have to produce terror and exaltation? Or is this a young person’s enlightenment, only one of many paths to discovery? Perhaps are there different, more incremental experiences that etch change more indelibly on the psyche: a decade of grading papers, reading bedtime stories, tying shoes, changing diapers.
Twenty years after Dahab, I have different questions. What are the elements that most affect us when we travel? People buy guide books and travelogues and maps on the presumption that places have qualities that are important, durable, and thought-provoking, that a meaningful tour of New York City requires stops to the Statue of Liberty, Nathans, and Broadway. Historians tend to see the larger forces at work: our trip to Dahab came only seven years after Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt – and was only a few months removed from the beginning of the First Gulf War.
Yet maybe these features of landscape, culture, and politics are not always so important – the catalysts at best to a process of change that is latent, subliminal, primed for expression. Perhaps my moments of discovery — Boston 1988, Dahab 1990, Copenhagen 2009 — are about people rather than places. Perhaps Joe and Alex were the key features of this Sinai landscape, not deserts or coral reefs. Or maybe the peoples, places, and things of any trip always take on changing levels of importance, values of meaning that, like schools of fish, are always in flux.