Lesson 2: Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder

I have always been fascinated by the pyramids, just like millions of others around the world. In the summer of 2019, I got the opportunity to visit Cairo over a long UK bank holiday weekend. At this point, I was based in London working and therefore, could only travel over weekends and holidays.

As part of my research before exploring, I refer to established travel guides such as the Lonely Planet. In the Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt, I came across a small note that referenced a neighbourhood called ‘the Garbage city’, also known locally as Manshiyat Naser.

It caught my eye and increased my sense of curiosity.

It is quite weird to call any place ‘Garbage City’.

What was this place supposed to be?

What exactly does the Garbage city mean?

The neighbourhood is populated by a community of mostly Coptic Christians (also called Zabbaleens) who collect garbage from all over Cairo and then work on recycling.

In the same neighbourhood, there is also a tourist attraction called the Rock Church. I decided to explore the community on foot en route to the church.

The note mentions the poverty of this neighbourhood. I had to be mindful about my approach. I was born in Mumbai. Mumbai is one of the most dynamic and beautiful cities in the world. Millions of people live in this vibrant city, and thousands migrate to Mumbai to fulfil their Indian dream. It is a large cosmopolitan city buzzing with sights, sounds, and smells unseen anywhere in this world. Within Mumbai, you have wealthy people living next door to people living in deplorable conditions.

I am very well aware of the issues in India. I am also sensitive to one-dimensional focus on Indian poverty by the world press and international organisations. As expressed in the Chapter ‘Be Curious’, on perceptions of developing nations and poverty, India’s view as being only poor strongly permeates the Western media, psyche, and tourism. The reality is a lot more nuanced.

I do not like it when tourists focus on the poverty of a place. I have experienced tourists in South America, Asia and Africa take pictures of poor people and go to slums and favelas to get a sense of how poor people live. However, it is unfortunate that poverty attracts tourists and locals, too fuel the demand for this type of tourism. I am quite uncomfortable with this form of tourism, though I understand how tourist dollars can help in many poor communities’ development and sustenance.

Therefore, to respect the locals’ sensitivities in Manshiyat Naser, I made the conscious choice not to photograph a single person in this neighbourhood. I did not want to be that person who saw poverty photography as a tourist activity. I had seen enough of these tourists in Africa, where they shoved their cameras onto locals taking photos of candid, sometimes, intimate moments, more often than not, without the subject’s consent. I wanted only to understand this unique dimension of a small slice of Egyptian society.

Here in the ‘Garbage City’, buildings were in an impoverished state: like a war zone (to some extent). The buildings lining up the streets looked like they were about to collapse at any moment. Some of the buildings were incomplete, with partially covered bricks and iron rods protruded through the walls. Heaps of garbage lay on the sides of streets with trucks lining up, to load and unload, to the numerous merchants trading on the streets.

Life carried on. Men and women worked on collecting the garbage, sifting through the heaps of waste, and separating recyclable materials from potentially landfill waste. They were working hard in the intense Egyptian sun. It was forty degrees celsius, but it did not matter to them. It was just another day. Children were running around, playing with each other, avoiding the waste that lay on the streets. They stepped over food waste, plastic and at some places dead rats. On some level, the whole area looked like a well-oiled machine, going about its business with very little care or time for the outside world. The people here, after all, were trying to survive and maybe even thrive. They didn’t have time for anything else in the wider world.

But there was a sense of unfiltered joy on their faces which felt quite humbling. Life is indeed hard here. As far as I understand, the community is widely discriminated against by Egyptian society. If you knew where to look, you would find joy and smiles in many nooks and corners of the neighbourhood. I have got that sense wherever I have visited during my travels.

Here too, there was immense beauty on display: A community living to the best of the abilities, children playing and smiling, men and women going about their business. Neighbours were chatting and smiling while sifting through the garbage. Young kids played football, dodged the rubbish on the streets and the trucks and cars that drove by. It was a sight that will not feature on any tourist brochures on Egypt. The simplicity of the view made it extremely beautiful.

That simplicity took me back to my time in Malawi. I had travelled across Southern and East Africa as part of a group tour organised by G Adventures. We got to Malawi, on the day the 2016 English Premier League was about to start. The opening game was between Liverpool and Arsenal. As an Arsenal fan, I was keen to see the game. In the UK, I would usually go with some mates to a pub. We would get some beers, banter a fair bit and enjoy the game.

In Malawi, a few of us wanted to see the game. Our guides, Darlington and Boombastic, asked around and found a place which showed the game. The site wasn’t a pub, well at least, a pub-like we have in the UK. It was a makeshift pub: a shed converted to a pub for the sake of football fans. There was a small television in a corner. Hard benches lined up in the rest of the available space for the customers. Two hundred of us crowded the shed. We sat on the benches, tightly packed, with a beer in hand and watched the game, keenly focused on the small screen. I remember Arsenal starting well. The whole pub erupted with joy. Then Liverpool started dominating and scoring.  There was a frenzy in the pub. The locals were jumping, singing, hugging each other, and giving Arsenal fans a lot of grief. It was a shame that Arsenal lost that night. But it was a big win for unfiltered joy and beauty: in a simple shed in Malawi. It was also a moment of awe. Here, in almost the middle of nowhere, I got to experience a deep sense of humanity.

It was the same feeling in Manshiyat Naser, where I got to experience that deep sense of humanity all over again.

I had got lost in the lanes trying to get to the Rock Church. A young boy gave me directions in Arabic and sign language. I tipped him a couple of Egyptian pounds, and he gave it back, indicating that he didn’t want money: he just wanted to help a lost traveller. Here, among the filth and smell, possibly living in abject poverty, there was a kid who wished to help out a fellow human just because he wanted to. It was utterly contrary to my experiences in Cairo to that point. Everywhere I went, people wanted tips for helping and wouldn’t stop asking. It was frustrating at times and infuriating at other times. I remember a person getting very upset with me because I did not want to tip him for pointing me to the right entrance door to a mosque. But here this kid just wanted to help.

Though the young boy was materially poor, he was extremely rich in values. Values that bind the fabric of human society: Helping each other and being part of a community. It was such a beautiful moment which I shall always cherish.

There is nothing more exciting than taking local transport in many countries. While there are challenges with the quality of public transportation in many countries, it is also a great way to get closer to the locals’ culture. Being huddled together on a long journey is one way of building the closeness. I experienced this in Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. In Laos, I took buses to many parts of the country. For almost every journey, we had to cut through the mountains along winding roads. The trips were long, the days were hot, and the rides were not the most comfortable. During these journeys, the bus drivers gave us plastic bags, and I had no idea why they would do so. After a couple of hours into the trip, I understood, as every other local started to puke in their plastic bags, unable to deal with motion sickness brought by the winding roads. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was one that got you close to the local way of travelling – huddled together in a bus smelling of vomit. Eating on the bus was optional.

In Vietnam, the buses are called sleeper buses, with each seat designed to be a sleeper. Unfortunately, the manufacturers designed these for a small-bodied Vietnamese, and not for a large body frame Asian. Here too, they gave you plastic bags – these were for my shoes, and flip flops to walk around the bus. For some reason, Vietnamese love their buses cold, astonishingly cold. It was a respite at times from the heat and humidity outside, but I felt like I was in an ice cooler for most of the journey. I was being punished, but I did not know why. Everywhere I have been, the everyday life seemed to be the most beautiful. Local bus travel, non-tourist neighbourhoods and simple food places have been the most cherishable. We travel to escape and immerse ourselves in the beauty marketed by the brochures, travel guides and travel agencies. But sometimes, you do end up in places such as the shed in Malawi or Manshiyat Naser, away from the traditional tourist sites. And in those places, you find hidden away beauty.

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