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Deep in the Sinai dessert, I was bedeviled by moisture-seeking desert flies buzzing around my eyes and nostrils, and incapacitated by the 120 F temperature. I’d neither eaten nor had anything to drink for days. While I was desperate for food, the craving for water was absolute. But water, when one could even find it, wasn’t free. And my wallet had been empty for some time.
I was listlessly roasting under a thin date palm when a voice startled me. My eyes opened to searing light and a Bedouin boy, perhaps four or five years old. He reiterated something incomprehensible. Thinking him a beggar, I gestured to my empty pockets apologetically. He pulled my arm, indicating I should follow. Wobbling like a newborn colt, I lurched up. The ground undulated. My legs gave and I dropped to the hot sand.
With shock, I realized how seriously ill I was and waved the boy away. Undeterred, he clapped at my fly-swarmed face and kept prodding me to get up. Eventually cowed by his determination, I again attempted to stand. He held my hand and slowly led me around a vast dune.
We came to a tent that made fine snapping noises in the wind. Its walls were parchment-colored; the ground inside was covered with woven blankets onto which I sank gratefully. It was such a relief to be out of the sun. With nimble fingers the boy unwrapped and offered to me the contents of a canvas bundle: dates, nuts, a bit of pungent cheese. I saw the poverty in which he lived (the tent, blankets and scrawny camel staked outside were likely all his family owned) and pretended not to be hungry. They had so little; it seemed patently wrong to take from them. In response he mashed a sweet date against my lips. Then a man with deep-set eyes and a serious face entered the tent and handed me a pot of brackish tea water. I was unable to decline and guzzled it with irresistible greed. He watched me intently and finally smiled.
Much later, I stood and said “thank you” – one of my three words in Arabic. As I began to leave, the boy untied a leather bag from his waist, withdrew its contents – a tattered Egyptian pound banknote – and pressed it into my hand.
I was mortified. Ostensibly an adult at the age of 20 — and from one of the world’s richest countries — I was pursuing “adventure travel” that had become life-threatening because of my own stupidity and poor planning. The boy read my face and insisted that I keep the money, pantomiming its use to purchase water. The man looked at the child with pride.
They packed and vanished that night.
For my part, acute dehydration sickness ensued. I was unable to use that Egyptian pound as mere currency. Nearly 30 years later, it remains a potent symbol of generosity in its purest form: giving freely, to whomever is in need, with no expectation of reciprocity.