A clipboard and pen were poised in the hands of the young man standing in the hotel lobby. He wore khaki shorts above strong, tanned legs, anchored by dusty hiking boots and a whistle on a cord around his neck.
I watched casually across the lobby of the hotel. He was speaking to a group of senior tourists splayed sloppily in leather lounge chairs around him. In stark contrast, they were not only old, but also somewhat resembled deflated balloons. He was busily making some sort of list. “Who wants to be waked up at 4:30?” A few unenthusiastic old hands were slowly raised. The man made notes on his clipboard. “Who wants to be waked up at 5?” Even more hands. “Remember to have your bags packed and ready in the hallway by 5:30.”
Ye Gods, I thought, how in the world can those old people keep up with him? 5:30???
It was 1961 in Cairo. The busy lobby, lushly decorated in turquoise and gold, was an oasis of cool air, which accounted for the numbers of people there. I was there for the same reason, having grown up without air-conditioning in Texas I recognized the uncomfortable heat outside the hotel as an old companion. Regardless, I was where my heart had led me since early childhood, since being mesmerized by such movies as “The Mummy” and “The Ten Commandments,” and the books of C. W. Ceram. Here is my future I thought. Here is where I am meant to be.
Outside, the heat was in triple digits. Still, there was the faint smell of tuberoses in the air. Men in gallibayas, the loose, ankle-length shirts worn by Egyptian men, or fellahin, walked the streets with strings of the fragrant flowers hanging in clumps from their arms, calling out to tourists to buy them. The cacophony of sound was of a world crowded with movement and struggle; cars beeping, bells jangling from horses pulling wooden carts, tasseled camels growling, masses of people calling to each other in languages undecipherable to me. It was a world both exotic and magnetic.
I had applied to attend the University of New Mexico, a school I had learned had a good archaeology and anthropology department. To please my family, I had also applied to a university close to home, a university my twin sister had decided she would attend. I had been accepted to both schools but my family didn’t want me to be so far from home. The ultimate leverage was my grandmother who had cancer who begged me to stay close. Going to the 50 mile away university would be taking the easy path. I wanted to be brave, I wanted to follow my dream… but ultimately I was afraid to dare. I chose the cowardly path, the easy path and have been regretful ever since. I went to a school I didn’t care about, to study things I didn’t care about, to be someone I didn’t want to be. How very different my life could be today if I had followed my heart. Instead, I sabotaged myself, even marrying a law student at the school to escape from a place I didn’t want to be…into yet another place I didn’t want to be. Too late, too late.
Now, more than fifty years later, whenever I smell tuberoses, I am reminded of my youthful hopes. And still in quiet moments and in my sleep I wander back to my “dream.” When I awake I realize I have, instead, become one of the deflated old people in the Egyptian lobby, a tourist to a life that could have been.