For those whose home is the road: What happens when the journey tries to kill you?
A few weeks ago something happened that I’ve gone back and forth about sharing. Traveling the world has become a way of life and the majority of my writing revolves around how the danger of travel is outweighed by the beauty and I didn’t want to deter those on the brink of leaving. The past five years have been spent mostly in motion and through this there are plenty of hiccups that have occurred. Crashed motorbikes in Thailand, angry Haitians throwing rocks, robberies in Havana, poisonous islands in Mexico, collapsing bridges in Borneo, going flat broke in Laos…the list goes on but bad things happen everywhere and through it all my travel companions and I have always managed to get out mostly unscathed. As much as i’d like to say the events of early February didn’t make me rethink my approach to travel, it did.
“The past five years have been spent mostly in motion”
When I set out I tend to avoid plans and when I traveled to Europe in October Egypt hadn’t even crossed my mind. After journeying south to Morocco in December and meeting travelers in a hostel that were Cairo bound come the New Year I decided to jump on board with their trip. I knew Egypt had been popping up from time to time in the news as an area best not to visit but I figured things would be fine, after all, the media always blows things out of proportion. As my flight date approached I sat across the dinner table from friends in Serbia as they tried to convince me not to go. I smiled and laughed, explaining that I was an experienced traveler, that I’d be fine because, well, I always am. Within a week of my flight I started having doubts and did something completely out of character… I called my dad and asked him if I should detour to another country. We talked it out and while he expressed that he would rather have me not go, that the choice was ultimately my decision.
“As my flight date approached I sat across the dinner table from friends in Serbia as they tried to convince me not to go. I smiled and laughed, explaining that I was an experienced traveler, that I’d be fine because, well, I always am.”
My plane touched down in Cairo after dark and the driver that my friend sent to collect me from the airport was nowhere to be found so I tracked down a cab to begin the slow crawl into the city. While Cairo was hectic it wasn’t anything worse than i’d experienced in streets of other countries and I begin to relax. Over the next three weeks my friends and I traveled through the country and while the military checkpoints and ever present AK-47s were strange to get used to I felt safe. Even through Sinai Peninsula which is hyped up as a red zone for international travel in the media we met beautiful people, had amazing experiences and had the areas we would visit almost entirely to ourselves because of the fall in tourism. As we traveled through the rich history of the country we made our way through Upper Egypt (which is actually the southern half of the country) and stopped first in Luxor and then continued on towards Aswan. When backpacking in foreign countries it’s many times easier and more affordable to skip booking accommodation online and instead speak to people in the streets to secure a deal for the night and that combined with our take as it comes nature we hadn’t planned anything other than making it to the city. After arriving in Aswan by microbus we found a taxi driver and stopped off at three different hotels that were entirely booked up and our taxi driver gently explained that although he’s never done this before his family has an apartment building with an extra room that we are welcome to rent for 20 pounds each a night which comes to about 2 dollars. Everything else in town was out of our budget and while I felt reservations about staying with him it was getting dark and we were exhausted. We drove to his house and laughed and joked along the way, things seemed like they would be alright. After all, there were three of us, what’s the worst that could happen?
“After all, there were three of us, what’s the worst that could happen?
When we arrived I felt another slight pang of discomfort and asked my friend if I could use her phone to pin his location on google maps just in case something were to happen. I am not normally one to worry but something felt…off. As we made our way to the house I asked her to sneak a photo of his license plate as well. Even at this point I felt like the worst that could happen is we could be robbed of our things and I had my laptop with me which had nearly all of my writing and photography from the past few years, I didn’t want to take any chances. We met his parents who lived on the first floor and they smiled and the taxi driver, Ibrahim, told us to make sure to tell them we were friends of his and not strangers. His apartment was on the fifth floor and when we finally made it up to the room it seemed just big enough for the three of us and much nicer than the little hotels we had been staying in previously. The evening passed without incident and as we made our way through the city we stopped in a shisha cafe and made friends over tea and dominoes. When Ibrahim picked us up for the night the mood had changed entirely and the man who was initially friendly became quiet and as silence filled the car my friends and I exchanged eye contact and tried to decide if everything was okay. We stopped off at a gas station and when he got out of the car we debated whether or not we needed to make an exit plan. We made it back to the apartment without incident and before bed I did something for the first time in all my travels, I put my small knife in the pocket of my sweater.
“I asked her to sneak a photo of his license plate… Even at this point I felt like the worst that could happen is we could be robbed of our things”
The next morning breakfast was waiting for us in the fridge and I felt a wave of guilt for assuming this man meant us harm. My friends and I went out into the city once again and spent the afternoon with a wonderful family we had met the previous night and they asked us to stay with them instead but received a phone call during our visit saying that their nephew had died and we parted ways so they could mourn. At the end of our day we met up with Ibrahim once again and although we were tired he insisted that we go out with him since it was our last night in Aswan. Although we said no he persisted and we decided to agree in sake of keeping the peace and having a place to sleep. Ibrahim wanted to drive us around the city and while doing so he stopped at a bottle shop and started drinking. While this was extremely uncomfortable it was a very delicate situation trying not to upset the man who had taken us out to the middle of nowhere. As the night went on the atmosphere in the car became more and more uncomfortable and turned from joking in the back seat about how this guy was going to kill us into serious concern. After my friend in the front seat had to physically take the wheel so we wouldn’t hit an oncoming car we decided to speak up and explain how we did not feel comfortable and asked if we could please just get home. Ibrahim responded in anger and began verbally abusing my female friend who was in the backseat with me and as the situation started to snowball out of control it was clear we were going to have to make some sort of escape.
“Before bed I did something for the first time in all my travels, I put my small knife in the pocket of my sweater.”
We made it back to the apartment and Ibrahim, who at this point was very intoxicated, continued to insult and berate my friend and I’s worth as women. Unfortunately in Egypt a portion of the population see women as lesser and traveling there as a foreigner you are simultaneously met with objectification and disrespect. Being cat called, whistled at or talked down to had occurred almost on a daily basis but this was different…as he mumbled on my male friend whom i’ll call “L” decided to try and talk it out with him in the kitchen as we packed our bags. While my female friend, V, and I packed and talked about how crazy this all was I thought I heard the sound of a knife being picked up off the counter in the other room and feeling uneasy decided to go check on my friend in the kitchen. L’s back was towards me and when I asked if everything was alright he calmly said yes and told me to go back to the room. I asked one more time and he repeated the same thing so I uneasily left…little did I know that Ibrahim had a knife to his crotch that was soon placed at his throat. Unaware of what was happening V and I continued to pack and about ten minutes later L came back in the room and frantically asked me if either us of “had anything” while he looked around the room. Luckily my knife was in my pocket and as I handed it to him Ibrahim slowly walked into the room with a kitchen knife and L told V and I to get back. V’s phone was on the desk next to the door and Ibrahim picked it up calmly, put it in his back pocket and said in a way I will never forget “No police now.”
‘V’s phone was on the desk next to the door and Ibrahim picked it up calmly, put it in his back pocket and said in a way I will never forget “No police now.”’
What V and I didn’t know at the time was that while in the kitchen Ibrahim had told L that one of two things would happen. Either he and his friends would kill L and rape my female friend and I and then kill us or L would let him have us. When L tried to reason with him (all the while with the knife being held to his throat) he offered him the money that we had but Ibrahim refused and explained that it wasn’t about the money and that he would have us regardless.
As Ibrahim backed us further into the corner of the room he made a move towards my friend V and L was able to get him in a headlock. Luckily, Ibrahim’s arms went over L’s head and I was able to get the knife and then phone from his pocket as they fell to the bed. V took the phone as L held down Ibrahim and I ran down the five flights of stairs in the dark into the street and called for help. Because it was now close to three in the morning people were slow to wake but as I frantically yelled for someone to please come out of their home many merely looked at me through their windows and shut them or told me to “calm down and be quiet.” As I continued to plead with people who just stared at me the noise I could hear from the apartment’s open window fell silent and I thought the worst.
In full panic mode I went to go back upstairs and as I entered the building Ibrahim’s parents came out into the hallway and while I tried to explain to them what was happening they smiled and and told me to be quiet while trying to pull me into their apartment to have tea. With them between myself and the stairs I had to push the mother to the ground and ran back towards the apartment as they followed. When I entered the apartment with them following soon after L still had Ibrahim pinned to the ground and exclaimed that we have to get out now. We grabbed our bags and went for the door as Ibrahim attempted to get up and follow but was dazed and drunk. His parents blocked the door and insisted that everything was okay and that we should just come have tea with them. They smiled and tried to hold tightly to our arms and as the situation escalated more and more into what felt like a horror movie we pushed them out of the way and ran down the stairs. By the time we got to the street the men of the neighborhood had come out of their homes and circled around us while explaining that everything is okay and that we don’t need police, that it’s all just a little mistake. L screamed that we needed to get away and as we walked they continued to make a wall between us and the rest of the small dirt street. We pushed through them and went for the train tracks that were between us and the main part of the city. At a full run with our backpacks on and L with my knife still in hand in the back we ran through the dark and looked back to see who was following us.
” …it was now close to three in the morning – people were slow to wake but as I frantically yelled for someone to please come out of their home many merely looked at me through their windows and shut them.”
After finally making it across the no mans land of train tracks and dirt we ran along the side of the street and moved towards the wall anytime a car would approach in fear of it being men from the neighborhood. After what seemed like forever we made it to a twenty four hour cafe that we had visited the previous night and recognized a young man we had played in a game of chess and frantically made our way to the back of the restaurant to be as far away from the entrance as possible. As V tried to explain what had happened to us in Arabic the remainder of men in the cafe circled around us and a few joked and asked to take selfies with us. Initially they were hesitant to call the police but after explaining that if we were three foreigners and this still happened, what would or has already happened to Egyptian women? By five in the morning a detective met us at the cafe and began recording our story. It wasn’t until seven that we were taken to the station to give our statements and by eleven a.m. the police had located Ibrahim, whose real name turned out to be Osama, with the help of video V had taken when L had him pinned down, the license plate number, and google location. A team of police asked L to accompany them back to the neighborhood, where they then knocked down Osama’s door and brought him in to custody. After his arrest the detective asked with a smile if we would like some time alone to beat him or what bones we would like to be broken. While I’m not proud of this for a moment I almost took him up on the offer but later decided to let the court system take care of it.
“… the detective asked with a smile if we would like some time alone to beat him or what bones we would like to be broken.”
It wasn’t until almost two in the afternoon that everything was settled and the detective took us to his home to let us nap in his children’s beds before escorting us to the train station that would take us back to Cairo. He and his wife begged for us to stay for one more day so they could show us the beauty of the city but because of the threats of Osama’s friends we decided it was best to get away from the city where we didn’t know who was on which side. Over a fifteen hour train ride we drifted in and out of consciousness that was difficult to hold on to after the adrenaline of the previous night and came to realize that through this entire situation, because we did not have wifi, no one even knew that we had traveled to Aswan, nonetheless nearly died. I thought about my parents and thought about the thanks I owed my friend who gave me the knife over the summer in Alaska. I thought about my brother and friends that I loved dearly and as the train chugged along, between asleep and awake, I thought about all the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet and the experiences that I feel so fortunate to have had.
“….because we did not have wifi, no one even knew that we had traveled to Aswan, nonetheless nearly died. I thought about my parents and… my friend who gave me the knife over the summer in Alaska.”
As the month of February passed it has taken me a few weeks to process what this experience meant and I would be lying if it hadn’t set me on edge. After everything in Aswan occurred an Egyptian friend asked me not to share this story because he was afraid it would scare people away from visiting the country and for a while I decided not to speak up. It wasn’t until arriving back to my apartment in Washington D.C. that I remembered that walking home at night in an “up and coming” neighborhood still feels far more unsafe than almost any city in the world I have ever found myself. While this event occurred in Egypt it does not represent the country and when I think of my time there I think of the new friends I’ve made and the rich history. I think of riding horses at full speed around the pyramids after dark, awe-inspiring hieroglyphics, the Red Sea and Mount Sinai. This one person does not represent Egypt just as a single American does not represent America.
“While this event occurred in Egypt it does not represent the country… This one person does not represent Egypt just as a single American does not represent America.”
So, what happens when the journey tries to kill you?
As this experience moves further behind me I am able to see the story more clearly. Everything that occurred was avoidable and while I fully condone trusting strangers I believe more so in trusting your own intuition. Over the course of the past five years I have stayed with families I have met for no more than a few minutes and traveled to remote islands with people met in hotel lobbies. The majority of individuals that you will come across in your journey are going to be good but when your gut tells you something isn’t right, listen. After chasing adventures for so long I had traded listening to my better judgement for getting a good story and it almost ended up killing myself and two others. Because I consistently share the beauty I’ve experienced along the way I feel that it isn’t fair to leave out the bad. Travel isn’t this one sided experience of pretty Instagram sunsets and inspirational blurbs, it’s uncomfortable bus rides, good and bad strangers, dirty hotel rooms and a whole lot of food poisoning along the way. It will be both beautiful and terrible and for those of you about to set out into the world, listen to your heart, it will lead you to people and places more amazing that you could possibly fathom. As you follow your heart listen to your strength, you are so much more capable than you realize and when the sticky situations arise, you will find a way to make it work.
“Because I consistently share the beauty I’ve experienced along the way I feel that it isn’t fair to leave out the bad.”
Cheers to the adventure and staying alive through it all,
Author: Alana Nason
Alana Nason is an adventurer in her twenties that has biked, walked, backpacked, sailed, flown and traveled by train through nearly 30 countries and much of the United States over the past four years. Through a mix of photography, short stories and poetry she shares the lives of the people she encounters and how these run ins have shaped her journey. Follow her at artofleaving.com