share this article

The entire street gathered suddenly because of the fight, and I couldn't believe any of this was happening to me. I grabbed my bag and ran away, and I ran until I couldn't remember just how far I'd gone or where I wound up. I found myself somewhere dark and damp, beneath a bridge and just above a stream of sewage water. I put down my bag and pulled out a blanket to cover myself with, and I was so exhausted and terrified that I fell asleep.I would wake up to the sound of rats running by, but it was too dark for me to see anything.

Of course, the story doesn't begin here; to find out how it begins, we need to backtrack a few days.

FROM CAIRO TO JAKARTA – OR IRAQ, DOESN'T MATTER

It was my first time packing my bags; it was my first time going to the airport; it was my first time getting on an airplane – it was also my first time feeling so terrified I felt like I could barely see or hear or feel anything. It felt like an out of body experience. My dad let go of my hand and jokingly asked, "So where are you off to? Iraq, was it?" He didn't approve of the concept of traveling, but he also didn't get in my way of doing it. He wasn't interested in any of the details beyond that I was traveling. I laughed and responded, "Yeah, maybe." Deep down, I'd lost all feeling of excitement or happiness amid my state of fear. I passed through the gate, holding tight to my bag. After getting through security, a luggage handler leaned over and whispered, "Aren't you going to give me a little something?" 

Some people say it's good to hit rock bottom because you know it can only go up from here, and that was true for me; in this case, this situation was my rock bottom. 

I waited in the terminal for a long time, or at least it felt that way – I had lost track of the time, anyway. I was caught in a stare, watching a man from the Gulf wearing a heavy gold watch and a stylish, well-ironed galabeya while carrying a leather suitcase. I imagined it must have a ton of money in it, and my fear dissipated as my mind wandered, creating countless narratives and trying to imagine what this man's story might be. Why is he going to Indonesia? Why am I?

My childhood friend was heading to Indonesia with me, but she was going to Jakarta, the capital. When she got to the airport – late, as usual – the whole roller coaster of emotions about travelling vanished and was replaced by this sense of serenity. It felt like we re going on a school trip.

We got on the plane and sat next to each other, telling jokes and stories as the plane gradually took off from the ground. I regained my excitement for my first ever plane ride. We watched Egypt from above as it grew smaller and more shrouded in clouds, away from sight. As it grew further away I felt a small sadness in my heart but chose to ignore it. As the flight attendant asked, "chicken or beef?" I leaned over and whispered to my friend: "Are we seriously about to pay money right from the get-go?! I'm just going to say I'm not hungry." When I found out food on the plane was free, I ate; actually, I didn't just eat, I licked my plate clean. I convinced myself that I'd paid for this with my money, that way I wasn't anxious or embarrassed as I asked for my fifth cup of Pepsi.My first layover was in Jakarta, where my friend Reem grabbed her bags and took off; that's when I started being overwhelmed with that sense of fear again, as though holding me back from seeing or hearing or being in the real world. My second flight took off to Makassar, a small village on Sulawesi Island that was two hours away. The entire plane was filled with Indonesians, and I began feeling overwhelmed by strangers’ looks and being surrounded by a foreign, strange-sounding language. I tried eating on the plane but the food smelled like rotten fish and I started dreading the food in Makassar being like this. I opened the packaged food and quickly closed it again with a gasp for fresh air – oh God!

I arrived in Makassar; it was late and everybody at the airport was staring at me – at my face, at my features – in a way that was pretty uncomfortable. I got out of the airport to meet the girl I was supposed to be staying with the whole time; her name was Hosnia, but it was difficult for them to pronounce so they just call her  Nia. She held me tight as if she was waiting for me her whole life. We drove off in her friend's car, and I looked out at how wide the roads were, with fields and gardens on both sides. 

"What do you think of Indonesia so far?" she asked.

"It's very clean, Nia."

She and her friend laughed.The streets got narrower and narrower until we reached her house at 3 AM. I couldn't go out and explore because it was late and I was exhausted from my trip and all I really wanted was to go to sleep! Despite her parents' old age, they waited for me outside as if I was part of the family – they even carried my bag inside for me, since I was their guest. I hugged them both and went inside.

Their house was a wide single-storey home painted brown and orange, with a driveway at the front that parked a car and two motorcycles. I looked up and saw six geckos on the walls and ceiling, but I was too exhausted to do anything. The house was simple and coz – it felt like being in your grandma's house, and there were verses from the Quran hung up on the wall. They served me tea and biscuits (somewhat like petit-fours) in the living room; I reached out and put a teaspoon of sugar in my tea, then a second, and as I reached for the third I felt them looking at me funny so I put it back. Oh, God.

As I walked into the room, another girl got up coldly to greet me; Nia introduced her as Katrina from Russia, and we were all going to live together in the same room... and sleep on the same bed. I could tell by the way she looked at me that Katrina didn't really like me, and she asked me to stop making so much noise so she could turn the lights back off and go to sleep. She kept waking me up in the middle of the night, yelling at me because I was turning around in my sleep and crossed into her territory.

EVERYTHING HERE IS STRANGE!

When I decided on going to Indonesia, I had wanted to volunteer and teach at any school that might need me, and so I did. I volunteered at Athira Islamic Language School, a school for rich kids, where I wanted to teach English. When they found out I was an Egyptian Muslim, they insisted I teach Arabic – and not just Arabic, either, but also Quran! I met a couple of Moroccan girls who were also volunteering at the school, but they were teaching friends. I had to learn Indonesian because the kids understood such little English, so I worked by day and studied by night. 

When I'd walk into the school, the kids would run up to me and kiss my hand and put their forehead to my hand. It was cute so I would let them, and I would kiss them on the cheek as a greeting instead of having them kiss my hand, until I was told by several teachers that this wasn't okay. This was a bit frustrating, especially after they had me teaching Quran instead of English, but it's okay.

In Indonesia, you have to take your shoes off before going inside the house and walk around barefoot; same goes for classrooms – they consider them sacred places. This might explain why one day I was sitting on top of a desk explaining the lesson to the kids when they all started looking at each other and laughing. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was going on. 

Three weeks later, a wealthy woman came to me and told me that her kids aren't doing well in school and, since she knew I was living with a modest family, offered me to stay with her throughout my duration at the school. I didn't hesitate for a second and said yes. 

Trouble started raining on me after I made the move, mainly because I didn't quite understand their culture and because it was so different from my own. Just 10 days after I moved, the school administration started giving me warnings because I didn’t wear a veil while teaching, telling me it wasn’t allowed. When I refused, I went home and found some of my clothes thrown outside the villa and was told to pack my bags and leave immediately. I begged her to give me some time to figure where I’ll go. It was humiliating and I felt helpless, especially since I didn’t have any money so I wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay until my trip back. I stayed at their house locked up in my room for two days, not knowing what to do or where to go. I reached out to Katrina, although I felt like she didn't like me, but was surprised to find her putting me in touch with people from the company she was working with. 
I arranged for a friend of hers to pick me and my bags up; I explained that I'd been kicked out of the school I was working at and, since I was kicked out of the school, I was also getting kicked out of my place of stay. Her friend came to help me move my stuff, when suddenly I found the homeowner's brother banging on my door to the point that he almost knocked it down. I opened the door and he was immediately in the middle of the room, screaming about something – I have no idea what. He was searching the room and under the bed for something; I thought maybe they thought I had stolen something from them, so I ignored his presence and went back to handing Katrina's friend my suitcases. Once the brother saw him helping me, he started yelling because he thought the guy had come into their house and into my room, which isn't allowed in their culture – he can't even stand at the doorway of the house without asking permission from the owners.

The entire street gathered suddenly because of the fight, and I couldn't believe any of this was happening to me. I grabbed my bag and ran away, and I ran until I couldn't remember just how far I'd gone or where I wound up. I found myself somewhere dark and damp, beneath a bridge and just above a stream of sewage water. I put down my bag and pulled out a blanket to cover myself with, and I was so exhausted and terrified that I fell asleep.I would wake up to the sound of rats running by, but it was too dark for me to see anything.

Now we're back where we started.

Some people say it's good to hit rock bottom because you know it can only go up from here, and that was true for me; in this case, this situation was my rock bottom. From there, things started to look up. I woke up at sunrise and took my bags and started moving, but I felt like I was going the wrong way so I backtracked.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I didn’t have an Indonesian phone line.

I went to KFC where I ate, used their WiFi, and changed into a galabeya and covered my head. I was beyond exhausted and I felt unsafe. Katrina had reached out to a few people when she discovered that I'd vanished, so I found Nia trying to reach me online, as well as the girls from Morocco, and an Egyptian guy who was volunteering at the same village. The guy was staying in a place by himself, so he came and picked me up and took me to his place. He was so bashful that he'd leave the whole place at my disposal for the day and come home just to sleep. I'd hear him tiptoeing around the place so as not to scare me or wake me up. And since the bathroom was in my room, he used would go downstairs and use any bathroom there. I felt bad for him, so I took my bags again and left.

I spent another night under the bridge, but at that point I'd lost all sense of fear – I'd lost all sense of anything, really. I'd grown numb and desperate, until the next morning I was at KFC and got a message from Katrina's friend who'd helped me move. He found me a job at his company, so I grabbed my bags and went; they wanted someone to teach young journalists some English. In exchange, I’d be paid in dollars and I could sleep and leave my stuff at the office. It was a huge building, not just an office; one of the biggest buildings in Makassar, belonging to the Fajr Foundation.

I worked for two weeks and, right after getting my second paycheck, I called Reem and told her everything that happened. We booked flights to Malaysia and met there. I didn't think we'd actually make this happen, but we booked our flights and I saw her for the first time after three months of pure torture. We spent our 10 days in Kuala Lumpur doing absolutely jack shit, but that's a story for another day.