- After travelling to dozens of countries, I’ve found that the best experiences I’ve had have not come from fancy meals or tourist attractions but from saying yes to meeting new people.
- On a recent trip to Egypt, I contacted a distant acquaintance for tips and ended up being offered a place to stay in a beautiful Red Sea resort town and attending a feast of homemade Egyptian food.
- While being a good judge of character is essential to trusting strangers while travelling – particularly if you are a woman – I have found that I have been rewarded time and again by saying yes to opportunities.
Sometimes, I look around while travelling, pause in awe for a moment, and wonder, “How did I get here?”
There was the time I belted “Mr. Brightside” at 5 a.m. to a packed karaoke bar hidden in a Tokyo alleyway that gave out free Jägermeister. There was the time I started a night exploring Vienna’s world-class museums until past midnight and ended it making friends with Austria’s national hacky-sack team. And there was the day I spent trading stories with a troupe of Moroccan gnawa musicians while eating homemade fish tagine near the beach.
When I think back to those experiences – which were far more memorable than anything else I did visiting those countries – I see one commonality: I said yes. Yes to a Couchsurfing meet-up to see an obscure electro-rock band while alone on a business trip in Tokyo. Yes to not booking a hotel for my one-night layover in Vienna. And yes to taking a ride down the coast with a musician I had met hours before in a coffee shop.
Without fail, when I’ve said yes to some crazy proposition while travelling, I have found the universe has paid back the good karma. In December, my partner, Annie, and I had an experience in Egypt that drove home for me how transformative saying yes can be.
Shortly before arriving in Cairo, I messaged an acquaintance on Facebook that I had met briefly seven years before. She is the only Egyptian I know, an activist lawyer I had met when I first moved to New York. At the time, I was sleeping on my brother’s couch post-graduation. She was staying there a few nights, too, while she found a sublet to live in during her summer internship. We had hung out one day, and that was it.
We hadn’t spoke since, but I knew she lived in Cairo so, a couple weeks before I arrived, I asked her for a few tips on the city. It turned out she had moved after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power to a resort town on the Red Sea, a few hours from Cairo. She couldn’t help us with Cairo, she said, but why not come to the Red Sea and stay with her a few days.
Why not? I wasn’t sure what to expect since we’d spoken only a couple of times, but we ended up hitting it off. She took Annie and me to a pub for karaoke night, got her friend who ran a nearby coworking space to gift us visitors’ passes, and even worked in a tennis lesson.
On our third night, we went out for drinks at a swanky cocktail lounge. I was tired, but she wanted us to meet two of her friends, so we took a cab to the couple’s house. It turned out that her friends had developed several businesses since the Arab Spring Revolution and talked to us deep into the night about the state of Egypt.
Her friend turned out to be an incredible cook and had been toying with opening a catering business. She asked if we had we tried molokhia yet.
She went on to whip up a hearty bowl of the rich, leafy-green traditional Egyptian soup, and added rice, spiced chicken, and locally produced whiskey to boot. The hospitality was a bit shocking at first. But in truth, we had seen nothing yet.
As we ate the molokhia, she quizzed us on Egyptian delicacies we had yet to try. By the time we left, she had told us to come back around lunchtime the next day and she’d have cooked all of the dishes she’d mentioned.
When I woke up hungover the following morning, I had half-assumed she’d been joking, one of those grand promises you make that seem brilliant at 3 a.m. but are soon forgotten. I was wrong.
I received a text with “the menu.”
When we arrived in the late afternoon, we found that she had arranged an entire dinner party with her friends and family in the span of 12 hours. And just as she said, every dish she’d talked about was cooked.
From Alexandria-style chicken livers ….
… to Baladi salad, homemade potato chips, and roz bil sh’reya (white rice mixed with golden-brown noodles) …
…. and, who could forget, the entire roasted lamb.
Now, I should note: There’s a risk to saying yes. Sometimes, you end up in a village in China and have to persuade a taxi driver who doesn’t speak English to drive several hours away to a city whose name you can’t pronounce. Sometimes you end up crammed in a Egyptian minibus with 14 people for six hours and no bathroom breaks. Occasionally, you might find yourself on a 12-hour hike that your guide told you was six hours.
If you are a woman, the sad reality is that you have to be doubly or triply careful. Often, the risk isn’t simply a boring or annoying encounter but a dangerous one. Having a sharp BS detector and being an expert judge of character is essential, as is having a backup plan.
But as we sat around eating, watching Egyptian football, and talking about the politics of the Middle East, I had that feeling. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t taken the leap to contact a person I had met once years ago.
I said yes.
- More tips from Business Insider’s international correspondent:
- I switched to Android after more than a decade with the iPhone, and I’m not going back. Here’s why.
- I use the same trick in any city I visit to make sure I find amazing food
- Couchsurfing has a hidden feature that helped me have the wildest night in Tokyo partying until sunrise
- I found out the hard way that one of the best strategies to save money on flights can end up costing you big time
- The single best piece of advice I can give you for any trip you take
- I’ve travelled to more than 30 countries, and here are the dumbest mistakes I made on the road that I’ll never make again
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