Under my Skin

Looking over a residential skyline in Cairo, Egypt.

Looking over a residential skyline in Cairo, Egypt.

I boarded my flight at Cairo’s airport with bricks of sadness pressing against my shoulders. My backpack became soggy from the overbearing weight of my reluctance to leave this ancient city. People of all walks of life clambered into their seats before me, to either return home to loved ones, fly to Abu Dhabi for a long weekend away or to make the life-changing haul to Australia to start a new life for themselves.

As I clicked my buckle and eased into my seat, a Pakistani lady nodded at me with a gentle smile. She was travelling with her little daughter, who was perched excitedly by the cabin window. The lady was returning to Pakistan after living in Cairo with her family for a few years while her husband worked for a petroleum company. Now, it was time for her and her daughter to return home. As our plane thrust into maximum speed for take-off, the little girl peered out over Cairo’s dusty skyline, waved it goodbye and whispered sweetly: “Goodbye Egypt, you’ll always be in my heart.”

The Middle East is an impressionable part of the world and my time travelling through Syria, Jordan and Egypt made me suffer from the worst bout of post-travel depression I have ever encountered. Within a day of being at home, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of detachment from Australia. The traffic was anally organised and the food was over-hygienic. I was waking up between 2 and 3am in anticipation for a call to prayer. My suburb felt like nothing more than an unknown country town and I was a random body passing through. I had arrived home but I didn’t feel like I was actually home.

My blues hit a low point when I was craving many of my "home-away-from-home" comforts like shawarma, koshery, Fayrouz, wandering souqs for groceries, exploring ancient ruins and speaking a handful of Arabic phrases I had learnt.

Returning to work was a debacle. I rebelliously kept logging into Facebook to look at my photos. Speaking English with such ease made me feel lazy and disenchanted. Going to a supermarket felt sterile and fake. I truly believed I wasn't home and the rest of me was still pacing Palmyra or climbing into a pyramid in Cairo. I was longing for home and familiarity. There was no way this depression was shifting anytime soon.

My newfound affection for the Middle East led me to a series of events which helped me battle my post-travel depression. My husband and I met up with a couple we befriended in Syria for an evening of dips, targine and belly-dancing at Mosq. I went shopping for food supplies at Oasis Bakery. I started a beginners Arabic course at Tafe and started listening to Australian Arabic radio station 2ME.

Despite my efforts to relieve my post-travel depression, I encountered a harsh u-turn when Egypt started its revolution to call for the resignation of their President Hosni Mubarak. My emotions swung out of control again. My husband and I were glued to every media outlet in Australia, pining for updates on our beloved Egypt. We were worried sick for those we had befriended there and we shed tears when we heard stories of deaths and brutality. We decided to take part in Amnesty International's Day of Solidarity for Egypt at the State Library of Victoria in the hope that Egypt would reign victorious. On the morning of Day of Solidarity we awoke to the ecstatic news that Hosni Mubarak finally stood down. We smiled with tears of joy. It felt like Christmas morning. Day of Solidarity still went ahead, and it morphed into a day of celebration for Egypt; Egyptians who call Australia home chanted “La Mubarak!” as they handed out celebratory lollies to complete strangers like us.

It's now four months since my life-changing trip and I'm pleased to report that my post-travel depression is under control. My Arabic skills are growing and I'm about to enrol in a Middle Eastern cooking class at, you guessed it, Oasis Bakery.

There are some trips that leave you with a sense of achievement and insight, but there are others that leave you a changed person. A country or a region can get under your skin and you can suffer from post-travel depression but it's all worth it in the end.