Hadeer Maher’s suitcase is still packed and perched on her bed, ready to fling itself onto a baggage carousel at a moment’s notice. True to form, her luggage carries some great stories. She had a devout Buddhist lodge keeper heal her knee injury with incense and herbs and had her chakras pressed with a burning stick. She went to the bathroom in a straw hut with no door in the middle of prairies of Kenya and tasted Time magazine’s best chocolate cake in Asia. There is also that one time she was stung by a sea lice shoal that got caught underneath her wetsuit. Her philosophy can only be summed up by the words of John A. Shedd, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
For the 28-year-old social entrepreneur-turned-social worker, solo travel was a long time coming. After graduating from Ain Shams University’s storied Alson School with a degree in Sinology, Maher sought a career in public service. “I was slated for a career as a translator or as an interpreter, but I guess everything changed after the [January 25th uprising]. I started to veer more towards social development and social entrepreneurship. I started working with NGOs on women’s rights and empowerment,” she says.
Maher then completed her postgraduate studies in women’s health and human rights at Stanford University, which then took her to India for a six-month fellowship during which she volunteered with local women’s rights organizations. After a short academic stint in China, Maher went to western Kenya, where she worked with communities to raise awareness about young girls’ health. “I realized that this who I am. I don’t travel as a tourist, I travel to do something. I go to places to learn about people and culture, not like a tourist,” she says.
By 2017, Maher was living everyone’s career goals, holding down three jobs in development – one of which took her to New York every three months and the other two here in Egypt. She is that overachieving cousin your Gen-X Egyptian parents wish you were more like – with the added ‘winning at life’ markers of landing a good husband/wife, and buying an apartment in Tagamoaa, and a beach house in Sahel, of course.
Hadeer Maher at Annapurna Base Camp (photo: Hadeer Maher)
But Maher is not a Gen-Xer – hers is the generation that toppled a dictator, not the one that put him in place. So she did what any self-respecting millennial would do when handed a real estate brochure to choose the unit that best props up your self-esteem: she quit, went backpacking across Southeast Asia for six months, and trekked to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayan mountain range. “When I go to Europe I don’t actually have a lot of fun because I feel like more of a tourist than a traveler. I seek adventure, I like to explore communities that are so different than mine, I like to understand people that believe in things I’ve never heard of. And Asia is very rich in that sense,” she explains. “In India, I let go; in Nepal, I connected with myself; and in Vietnam, I played!”
In India, she spent 45 days in an Ashram in West Bengal, where a nun taught her intensive yoga and meditation, before couchsurfing her way across Bangalore and Delhi. But it wasn’t until she reached Nepal, Buddha’s birthplace, that real estate and societal expectations really faded into the rearview mirror. With her heart set on trailing the perilous Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Maher could almost hear Captain Kirk narrating her ascent, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Clearly many men have been to the Annapurna Base Camp before, but few, if any, have embarked on the 11-day hike alone. “There were days when I’d wake up at six or seven in the morning and I’m in a forest – no clue which way to go! So you have to trust your instincts or trust the dogs to come and guide you,” she recounts. “Many guides told me to go back because it’s dangerous to go it alone – one woman has been missing for two months, and they can’t find her, despite extensive search. But I trusted my research so much.”
One bout of altitude sickness, an avalanche, and a knee injury later, Maher was still on top of the world. “I’ve never ever been more connected to my soul and my body than I have on the trail. The trail is like life. It’s like everything in life is just metaphorized in the trek – you learn to deal with strangers and the fact that you have no one but yourself to count on in the middle of the wilderness,” she says. “But you also make friends along the way. I’d tag along with people I’d just met from one village to the next, and when we get there I’d make more friends. I never felt alone. The people I met throughout those 11 days, I now call my friends.”
With the exception of a few casually racist comments here and there (you speak English?!), it has been relatively smooth sailing for this staunch Muslim hijabi feminist and social justice warrior. It was back home where people took liberties with her. “What I need is totally different from what society thinks I need,” she says, slightly rolling her eyes. “I’d often get asked, ‘aren’t you afraid?’ or ‘shouldn’t you have a Mehrem [a male guardian/travel companion in Islam]?’ They would also ask me why I’m traveling instead of getting married.” But it was in Vietnam where a palm reader saw “lots of adventure and no money” in her future.
Hadeer Maher in her hometown of Alexandria (photo: Safareya/Mohamed Gendy)
Vietnam is also where Maher was reintroduced to the catalyst that sparked wanderlust in her in the first place. Perhaps it was memories of Tahrir square chanting in unison that made Vietnam’s resilience throughout her tumultuous history and the many foes who failed to break her all the more irresistible to this Egyptian millennial. “Vietnam has such a rich culture and history. Reading about how these people actually won the war [makes you appreciate it even more]. They’ve been colonized for most of their history – first the French, who then gave it to the Americans on a silver platter – but they still came out the other end,” she says.
You will never see Hadeer Maher posing at the beach of an exotic island, sipping on a coco loco, while fake reading a ridiculously-titled book. Her travels are the kind that doesn’t make it to the internet – not because they’re not worthy of your Instagram fawning and envy, but because she is one of those rare travelers who travel for the sake of travel. “Travel to me is not about the stamps on my passport, but rather getting to know people and living with them and understanding how they live,” she says.
She travels with such authenticity and breadth, impelled by a desire to wander, no doubt, but also by an insatiable urge to view the world beyond the borders that confine her. “I’m a citizen of the world, I don’t bind myself to one place. I think the world is bigger than our culture and what’s going on in our country, bigger than what we think should or shouldn’t happen,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t believe that age is a limitation; I don’t believe in labels, or anything that limits us.”
NB: Safareya does NOT condone taking on Annapurna Base Camp alone; always go with a skilled guide or porter.