I spent a great Friday afternoon in Zamalek this weekend.
I walked along the Nile and took videos of the river peeking through the wild foliage that lines the riverbank. I visited the Aquarium Grotto Garden and saw a tree with dangling orange seeds that I’d never seen before. And then I ran – afraid – through the park’s bat cave. I later stopped at a street stand selling used books and picked up an old copy of Hemingway.
It was a rare day out for me, as I’m still very cautious about going out amid this relentless pandemic.
And perhaps because I haven’t been out in so long, this little trip felt very special. My senses were heightened and I took nothing for granted. I felt more pleasure and curiosity in exploring this small district of Cairo than during far more epic and Instagram-worthy trips.
And it’s made me think about having too much of a good thing.
When we go out every weekend and spend our vacations in a hurried blur between major landmarks, our experiences feel far less special and we hardly ever appreciate them.
Like the confused tourist on a cruise ship that I once read about, we hardly know which country we’re in as we disembark, shop, consume, and move along to the next attraction.
In our modern world, we can have almost anything. The ironic result is that fewer things ever bring us real joy anymore.
We’ve become difficult to please.
A trip abroad was once a long affair spent absorbing foreign cultures. But now it’s a weekend city break for shopping and photo ops.
Our numerous experiences are quickly packed away, undigested in massive folders of smartphone snapshots, while we’re already bored and moving on to the next adventure.
Last Christmas, I watched some children opening their presents. The gifts were stacked in piles under the tree and opened methodically. Then they were carted away by the mother in a huge shopping bag and stuffed into the trunk of her car.
I remembered a plastic yellow duck I’d received one Christmas growing up in Poland, and how it remained my favorite toy for years. We received far fewer gifts under the Iron Curtain than children do in modern-day America. But this made our gifts far more treasured and, dare I say, our holidays more joyous.
And while I’m not advocating a return to Soviet rule, or a monk-like denial of pleasure, we have tipped the scales far too much towards irrelevant excess.
In our modern age, we (the privileged minority) can order almost anything online. We can travel anywhere cheaper than ever, and there’s almost no corner of the planet where humanity hasn’t tread.
In our modern age, savvy algorithms are trained to never leave us bored, and streaming services have the next TV episode lined up so we don’t even have to hit “play.”
A simple day in the park just doesn’t do anything for us anymore.
Like an addict, we must constantly increase our dose of stimuli to get that same high.
When the pandemic put many of our usual entertainments on hold, some complained that their boredom drove them insane. It made them crazy and desperate enough to sing Les Miserables with their family or bake banana bread – amusements that were pleasurable for our grandparents, but far too slow-paced to captivate our attention.
Though if we want off this roller coaster of fast, cheap and unfulfilling fun, and a return to the days when we could enjoy a complex novel or a walk in the park (without feeling anxious or bored), then we can’t wait for social norms to change.
We must become more intentional and selective in how we spend our time.
We must become connoisseurs – not gluttons – of experiences.
And as much as I enjoyed my afternoon in Zamalek, I won’t be going back anytime soon.
I’ve been reading lately about the history of the grotto garden, diving into the Hemingway novel I picked up and trying to sketch that strange orange tree.
And I’ll be savouring those experiences over the next few days until I find myself eager to venture out again.
And then maybe I’ll wait a few days more.
About the Author: Dee is a freelance travel writer and photographer living as an expat in Cairo, Egypt. She writes about slow travel and loves exploring off the beaten path.