Valentina Primo talks life changing travels and eye opening journeys that don't break the bank with 20-year old Ahmed Shehab, who runs an AIESEC-affiliated organisation that has already hosted tens of backpackers from across the world.
“Whenever I talk to anyone in university about travelling, their first instant issue is of its expense. And to be honest with you, traveling is expensive but that is only in their case since traveling for them is about going to El Gouna, for example, and spending their nights in luxurious hotel. Each one of us thought the same when it came to traveling, because we didn’t know anything different; however, when I first traveled to Asia, I had the pleasure of meeting lots of backpackers who have been to more countries that I could ever imagine possible. They are not billionaires nor millionaires; they are just normal people who might not even have a fixed job or salary but just know how to travel smartly." The thought comes from Ahmed Shehab, a 20-year old student and passionate traveller who manages the Backpack Egypt project, an initiative power-driven by the world’s largest youth-run NGO, AIESEC.
Forget about scented hotel sheets, king-size beds or room service. Forget about the pampering flavours of a continental breakfast served to the sound of a live pianist playing in a shimmering lobby. Backpacking means getting rid of unnecessary luxury to taste the real flavours of a culture, to soak your ears in a different language; to dive into the unknown adventures of a public transportation you didn’t think even existed; to let yourself be guided by nothing by the local advice, given by the hilarity of a spontaneously developed sign language by a local resident.
“To actually taste smart traveling, you must immerse yourself within the culture, live as people there live, eat what they eat, and experience what they experience. The point is, there are tens of ways of doing that today by either staying in hostels, Couchsurfing, or even camping in some areas,” says Shehab. “You only have what you need and your aim isn’t to go shopping but to actually explore and connect with these people with different backgrounds, connect with the nature, and connect with yourself,” adds the young traveler, whose initiative not only aims at fostering backpacking among youngsters, but also smashing prejudice and driving international tourists to come back to Egypt.
The initiative offers AIESEC interns a one-week stay in Cairo, after which they travel across Egypt for two weeks by bus. After going around, they arrive back to Cairo and stay for another week or two. “We are growing significantly as we started by hosting seven students, and we have now reached 28 interns with a vast diversity of nationalities,” he says.
Breaking down stereotypes and swimming against a stream of negative news is not an easy challenge for the young project manager, who views travels as a means to bring people closer. “Backpackers are constantly told by media that Egypt is unsafe, and they actually exaggerate. So this is a challenge that we face when we start publicising this project to host backpackers. But it just takes a video call and to correct their views and show that Egypt is not the way it’s being showcased in their media,” he explains, although he admits the recent incidents – referring to the recent shooting of 12 Mexican tourists in the Western desert - do not help portray the stability he wishes to see. “But it’s really important to break false stereotypes of Egyptians, and foreigners will learn about Egyptians when they get truly involved in our culture and go out in the cities to observe. No, we don’t ride camels as taxis, we do have internet, traveling isn’t dangerous, and not all women are veiled,” he says with irony.
Born from the ashes of the revolution, the project conceived as a way of countering the decline in tourism ever since 2011. Two years ago, AIESEC GUC (German University in Cairo) crafted the project aiming to showcase the country through youth exchanges, travel, and social networks. “A question I often get asked is: what is the point of just bringing interns and traveling around Egypt? Well, they create material such as photographs, blogs, and video blogs, which show a different side of Egypt than that portrayed by media,” continues Shehab.
For the intrepid backpackers, surprises are at the turn of every corner. “They obviously face some challenges, or I’d say differences, which include the culture of women covering themselves up –especially when it’s a woman wandering around in central areas - something they are not used to, especially considering our hot weather. It might take them some days in the beginning to adapt to the madness of Egypt but at the end of their stay, that’s what they like the most: the madness and energy these cities give them,” says Shehab.
Beyond showing the beauty of his country, the young student aims to encourage Egyptian youth to travel, explore other forms of living, and embrace difference. “It's essential for us as youth to open up to new cultures and experiences. Traveling makes the person break out of their shell and comfort zone. Traveling tests your limits and tells you more about yourself. Traveling opens doors and opportunities and the traveler becomes a global citizen by creating global connections."