Egypt was an unforgettable experience in many ways. I was able to experience it in my usual stop-and-talk-to-the-local-people way but I also experienced it as a tourist.

Being a tourist is not my favorite way to see, hear, and understand a culture.

Being stuck in crowds, shuffled along from site to site, and pushed into tourist-trap stores with keychains and coasters is not a good way to understand a culture. I love to hear from regular people. I like to ask the deep questions about traditions, customs, and beliefs. I want to hear about people’s lives, hopes, and fears.

So it was an adjustment for me to have the regular tourist experience in Cairo, Egypt. But even with all that, I worked hard to look past the surface and take in the ancient history that is so fascinating to me.

Egypt has a rich ancient history that needs to be explored and understood.

I am so thankful that I got a chance to hop off the tourist track and take a trip to a hard but unforgettable area outside of Cairo where the Zabbaleen people live, work, and thrive. These people, made mostly of Coptic Christians, pick up trash and sort it. They recycle what they can and repurpose the rest. I saw rugs made from rags, fixed and painted plastic chairs, wire bent and twisted into art, toys made or mended, and jewelry created from magazines.

But the most amazing part was the people themselves. They were a thriving and resourceful community.

I also experienced their most loved and celebrated building, the Monastery of Saint Simon, also known as the cave church. This breathtaking church was carved out of a mountain and reflected the people and community in a way that the piles of garbage didn’t. It was clean, organized, and beautifully built. The Zabbaleens were truly an unforgettable people.

I had so many mixed feelings about this trip. I experience things that are only found in this ancient civilization; the pyramids, the Nile River, all the artifacts from the pharaohs, and one of the oldest cultures in the world. But I also experienced feeling like cattle as I was bussed from one site to the next.

But what connects a place to my heart is always the people.

And the Zabbaleen people, even in the midst of their hard way of life, could have joy and be so successful. It was the highlight of my trip.

Learning about Egypt helped me understand that I have so much more to learn. But that is the joy of the journey I am on.

I love seeing the beauty of each place I visit, but the joy of learning and understanding is what keeps me going.