About seven years ago, I found myself with a few days to kill in Cairo, Egypt. Before getting there, my understanding of the North African nation could probably be summed up in a single sentence: There are pyramids, a sphinx, and lots of sand.

And I was right, for a change. It was the rest of the country, and my experiences as a tourist there, that surprised me.

Anyone who does a fair amount of traveling will begin to draw parallels between where they are and where they’ve been. Patterns begin to emerge, and although the longitude and latitude may change from place to place, it’s my experience that people don’t. Often, that’s a positive thing: When you find common ground with people from the opposite side of the globe, it makes it easier to interact and get along. Unfortunately, it also means that the same shady, selfish, or villainous types you know in your neighborhood can be found in every clime and place, and when you’re visiting an impoverished nation, they’re that much more desperate.

Egypt wasn’t the first time I’d been faced with poverty and desperation, but it was the first time I was able to glean a real sense of it. For many of us, poverty is a story we’re told from those who have been there. We may speak to those who’ve lived without clean drinking water or food to eat and can sympathize with their strife, but we can never get a real sense of the danger that coincides with that type of poverty unless we’ve lived it.

As I strolled down the street in Cairo wearing the most foolishly American-looking polo shirt I could have possibly chosen, I realized quickly that the area I was in wasn’t commonly traversed by tourists. Unfinished but occupied apartment buildings towered above me on all sides, with extension cords spanning across them from windowless openings in the upper floors.  The moist mud clumped on either side of the street, I quickly realized, was a mix of gasoline, oil, and human waste. I bought some bottled water from a man on the street, who explained that the owners of these apartment buildings didn’t need to pay taxes until they were complete, so they had opted to never actually complete them. The downside to their scheme was that utilities like running water and electricity would only be activated when the owners started paying taxes. As a result, some people simply throw their waste out the window to avoid the long hike required to dispose of it responsibly.


Failing to find the Egypt I'd seen on TV: A Marine at the Pyramids of Giza

In an effort to find the Egypt I’d seen on TV, I signed up for a touristy bus trip that would bring me to Giza. The air-conditioned bus was clean and well kept, and any concerns I had about looking too much like an American tourist suddenly seemed foolish as I took my seat among the heavy-set, fanny pack-wearing westerners. The trip was only 10 or so miles, but heavy traffic stretched it out to nearly 45 minutes.