Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What I Learned in the Middle East

by Jenna Finch of A Home Away From Home

Jenna is a Southern California girl who currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa where she studies at the University of Johannesburg. At her blog, A Home Away From Home, Jenna records her many adventures in the Rainbow Nation. Her passion for life and love of travel radiate through her posts so if you're looking to feel inspired, head on over her way. Today, Jenna is sharing her experiences in the Middle East. 

In the Fall of 2006 I had the opportunity to go on Semester at Sea.  We departed from Mexico, made our way through Asia, stopped in India, and then headed for the Middle East with Croatia and Spain being our last stops of the semester before heading back to the United States.  India had been a wonderful, but physically and emotionally draining trip and I was quite worried that the Middle Eastern countries {Egypt and Turkey} would be no different.  I was worried that people wouldn't be friendly towards us due to the fact that we were a group of Americans and that locals wouldn't want to talk or engage with us since our skin color and accents gave us away as westerners.  I even remember considering the possibility that some people could be outright hostile towards us since the Iraq War was in full swing and our President wasn't known to be very popular in that part of the world.  

In other words, I hoped for the best, but braced myself for the worst.

But, once we arrived in Egypt all of my skepticism and uncertainty melted away instantaneously.  

The Egyptian people were amongst the friendliest I've ever met with locals volunteering to help us find our way around whenever they spotted us standing with a map or gathered on a street corner looking confused.  My time in both Egypt and Turkey was filled with kindness, generosity, and meaningful connections which crossed all language and cultural barriers.  A group of Egyptian women in Cairo even offered to take us into a Mosque one evening and showed us where and how we could pray.  It was a very special moment I will never forget - my friend and I, being allowed to practice our own faith in a Mosque in Egypt alongside Islamic women practicing their own faith - crossing all traditional boundaries and stereotypes.  

When it came time to leave it turned out that I really didn't want to go, in fact I felt like there was still so much more I needed to learn and experience.

What made my time in the Middle East so amazing wasn't seeing the Pyramids, or riding a camel, or browsing through the spice market (though all of these things were great). It turns out that what made my time amazing was the people - and getting to participate in their way of life and experience their culture in such a positive way.  I felt as though my eyes had been opened for the first time and that the world had suddenly become a much smaller and more inviting place.

In short, the Middle East taught me that the very fact that we are human is  powerful enough to create meaningful connections and relationships that transcend any barriers that language, politics, media, culture, or religion can create.  It taught me that stereotypes can be wrong and it lit a fire inside me to continue to learn and grow and take in the world around me.  It taught me that childlike curiosity should be valued and pushed me to become more open to new experiences.  But, more than anything else, it taught me that (in most cases) humans are innately good and that it is up to us to look for the goodness that exists around us and be willing to engage with those who are different that we are.

Thanks so much, Jenna! You've reminded us of a very important travel truth: to listen, learn from, and love the PEOPLE.


Redheaded Daybook said...

girl! you are super inspiring!!! i love all your travels.

Jenna said...

Thanks so much for having me Catherine! I had so much fun looking back through old photos for this post :)


Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said...

Beautiful! This a part of the world that I'm hoping to explore more of soon.

Tiffany said...

This is fantastic! I love that you were able to pray in the Mosque--what a beautiful picture of how different cultures and religions really can work together!


Leighana said...

Mmm. That sounds like a great trip that i'd like to take someday!

christine donee said...

Loved. This.

Liesl said...

Yay for travel and the Middle East, love this! :)

natasha {schue love} said...

Jenna is definitely inspiring!!

Niina - It seems pretty obvious. said...

I loved this post Jenna! Really inspiring :)

Marshall said...

Catherine, as always, love this series.

Jenna, love you and your travel bug! We have a heart for the ME too. And it's exactly due to what you're talking about (: