I am 10 years old and I can barely contain my excitement as I run down the stairs ready to rip open my presents underneath the Christmas tree.
When I reach the tree, I find nothing. Not a single gift in sight, just the raw feeling of disappointment. Unexpectedly, however, my parents are standing behind me with an intangible surprise.
Instead of buying gifts for the holiday that year, my parents had decided to take our family to Egypt, our homeland.
We spent two weeks vacationing on the beautiful beaches of Alexandria and visiting the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Every day was a new adventure filled with family and friends eager to show us all that Egypt has to offer.
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One day, one of my mother’s friends took us to the outskirts of Cairo to see a church in a slum settlement known as Garbage City. The area is completely filled with garbage the inhabitants collect and recycle. It’s one of the poorest areas in Egypt.
Yet within this downtrodden “city” is The Cave Cathedral, a magnificent church literally carved inside a mountain. While my family was visiting the church, my sisters and I met two young boys from the area. They didn’t look like they had much and their clothes were oversized and hanging off of their small bodies.
Yet they had the warmest smiles and spoke to us in Arabic as if we were one of them. We spent some time playing tic-tac-toe with the boys, using their shoes to form the board and bits of debris to represent the Xs and Os. We played this game for what felt like hours, just laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
When it was time to leave, I couldn’t help but look back from the car window, watching as the little boys waved goodbye with smiles on their faces.
Those young boys did not have many material possessions. They grew up surrounded by garbage, yet they seemed happy. To me, they resembled the Cave Cathedral — in the midst of, yet unaffected by, the chaos of the surrounding garbage.
That day, I learned money does not necessarily buy happiness.
Those boys did not need fancy Christmas gifts or a family vacation to be happy; they created their own happiness out of almost nothing.
When we returned home from our vacation, I couldn’t help but look under the Christmas tree again. But this time, instead of feeling disappointed by the lack of presents, I smiled and thought about my friends in Garbage City.
Even though that trip took place almost eight years ago, the lesson I learned in Egypt has stayed with me. Each year during the Christmas season, I remember those boys and our time in Garbage City.
They taught me that life is more than boxes of clothing and fancy toys — it’s about the true friendships created, memories made and lessons learned.
Those boys taught me a valuable lesson about what is truly important in this world: I believe money doesn’t buy you happiness.