x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Driven to write my own story in the great unknown

I don't know when I stopped fearing the horizon and instead wanted to know what was beyond it.

Having spent the first years of my life along the shores of Alexandria, I often stared into the Mediterranean captivated by the world that lies beyond the curve of the earth. But we neither had the means nor the desire to explore it. To a child, the world was massive, foreign and hostile. You don't venture even inches away from your family, let alone into that unknown world.

It was a dichotomy that I still cannot understand. We felt threatened by this great beyond but there was also an unexplainable fascination. I guess that is the power of mystery. Fast forward two decades, and I am officially a man consumed by wanderlust. I come alive when I am roaming the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, or trekking through the Everest region of Nepal. There is nothing that stimulates my senses as much as Marrakech or triggers my imagination as the caves of Turkey's Cappadocia.

By the time this column appears in print, I will be somewhere in Eastern Europe fulfilling a personal goal: travelling to as many countries as my age. This latest trip will be a run to the finish line by visiting five more countries. A few weeks ago, I convinced two of my closest friends to join me on this week-long expedition. I was shocked when they agreed, as I had no concrete plan nor a set itinerary. Our wives all agreed on the condition that they would have a week-long sleepover. Seems like a win-win situation.

I admit, this is a rushed trip. It's a race with myself to fulfil this unquenchable desire to see the world. There is something about travelling that makes me feel much bigger and the world much smaller. I have come to crave that feeling of being in an unfamiliar place. I am not an adventurer by definition. I don't fancy jumping off bridges with a bungee cord attached to my feet. I get my adrenalin boost from a treacherous Pakistani bus ride from Multan to Lahore or riding the okadas on the streets of Lagos. I would much rather spend a week in Khartoum than I would in Bora Bora, although I haven't been to either.

I am naturally inquisitive. During a journey up Mount Meru in Tanzania, while writing a story about Aids, I wished I could enter every hut along the way and talk to the families, see how they live, ask them questions or observe a day in their lives. Nothing has captured the essence of my travels more than the collection of pictures I have taken along the way. This fascination I have for photography fuels, as much as it proves, my travels to some of the most random locations.

Portraits of people are the most captivating objects to capture. If you are a seasoned traveller, a portrait is the equivalent of a map. It pinpoints within a 100km radius where the portrait was taken. Masai, Berbers, Bedouins, Sherpas and even monks are a map in and of themselves. In my parents' dining room in Vancouver is a massive map of the world pinned with places we have all travelled to. I cannot pinpoint when I began to embrace the horizon rather than fear it, but I owe much to a Canadian passport, which has opened doors for me to see the world.

Travelling has set me free. Free to form my own opinions of people and the places I visit. Free to explore ideas that differ from mine and witness lives that I have only read about in books. The world doesn't need a map of where I am going. These territories were charted long before I stepped foot here. Still, in my world, I am an explorer, not a tourist. I write in detail of the countries I travel to, its people and their stories. I paint a picture of my surroundings with words, hoping that someday these thousands of pages will give a glimpse of the world we live in to my children and their children.

If this were the 1920s, I might aspire to be someone like the British trailblazer Colonel Percy Fawcett, but it's not, so I explore to write my own story. A story that began on the shores of Alexandria. myoussef@thenational.ae