Never has sitting in the St. John's International Airport felt so good as it did recently. It meant I was one step closer to returning to my home country of Egypt for an overdue visit after making do with seeing my friends and family on screens for the last 2½ years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I arrived in St. John's in November 2019 and I live with my two sons. In Egypt, I have one brother, two sisters, nephews, nieces and two beautiful granddaughters. Before the pandemic, I had plans to visit Egypt every six months to see them.
That was thwarted, of course, by what we now know as COVID-19. Egypt's population tops 100 million, with about 20 million people in Cairo alone. But many people in Egypt don't believe in the negative health impacts of coronavirus and instead believe the pandemic to be a war game between the U.S. and China.
So I considered it risky for me to travel during a pandemic when there were restrictions in Newfoundland and Labrador while life in Egypt continued relatively normal(ish) — even during the height of the spread of the virus. Many people went out without wearing masks, except for when they were in offices and other workplaces.
But after more than 7,000 kilometres and 24 hours of travel time, I arrived in Cairo and the tears came easy. I was struck by how a virus can hit us so suddenly and change the things we take for granted so drastically. The two years of the pandemic felt like a slow-motion horror movie of sorts, and at times, I can't believe I've been through it — a feeling likely shared by others.
While I was happy to be reunited with family and friends in Egypt, it wasn't until my sister pointed out that I was talking a lot about St. John's that I really noticed it. I felt lucky to have ridden out (hopefully) the worst of the pandemic there and even being continents away, it was almost like I never left Newfoundland. It was with me, in my heart and mind — my new home.
And I felt and saw it all around me.
Food, jewels and mummies
I was mesmerized by the golden chain trees that bloomed in St. John's last spring, and I was surprised when I saw the same trees blooming in Egypt. I didn't notice this kind of tree in Cairo in the past, but I think COVID-19 and its subsequent lockdowns taught me how to observe and cherish the small details in our everyday life.
Street food is popular in Egypt, and for me, the flavours are wrapped up in childhood memories, especially koshari, which is a national and traditional Egyptian dish. It consists of cooked white rice, brown lentils and any kind of pasta, topped with spicy tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions.
You will find local vendors selling grilled corn and roasted sweet potatoes on wooden carts on the road. This time, when I ate Egyptian street food, it gave me the same vibes as if I was eating at the St. John's Farmers' Market. It was such a delightful experience in the long haul of COVID-19 when the market reopened, and it taught me to treasure the gathering spaces we have.
I have a deep connection with my ancient Egyptian history, mostly stemming from my childhood and youth in Egypt. That's why visiting the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was at the top of my list. This became the new home of 22 of Egypt's prized mummies last year during a gala parade.
Another beautiful draw in the museum is the first floor display of various Egyptian women's jewelry and accessories from different historical eras. It was here that I found myself thinking fondly of The Rooms museum in St. John's. There is a painting of an Inuk woman, Mikak, and her young son Tutauk, and she is wearing dramatic long earrings. The painting makes me stop and stare every time I visit the facility.
Finding the small pleasures in home
After 30 months of not visiting Egypt, I spent my best 30 days on vacation with my family and childhood friends. I took in the sights and the sounds — particularly of people laughing, singing, and dancing while I dined in a docked steamboat on the Nile river. Like everyone else in the world, Egyptians and Egypt's economy were heavily affected by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, leading to further inflation of prices.
Despite that, you'll still see Egyptians enjoying the small things in life. There is a popular song in Egypt and its lyrics include can be summed up that there is something sweet about [Egypt] that just attracts you, regardless of how tough things can get.
I believe something the same can be said about Newfoundland, too.