'I have a dream'
Ahmed Haggagovic writes about his mission to hoist the Egyptian flag around the globe
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Clockwise from top: Orinoco River, Venezuela; trans-Siberian train; Hero Stone, Great Wall of China; a group of Chinese students holding the Egyptian flag; the Red Square, Moscow, Russia
The Egyptian traveller and adventurer Ahmed Haggagovic arrived in the Chinese capital Beijing to raise the Egyptian flag, as part of his plan to raise the flag around the world. He came with a message of "Freedom, happiness and peace" -- CCTV, China
A young Egyptian adventurer on his way through Siberia to raise his country's flag in the coldest city in the world says: "Having Plan B distracts from Plan A" -- Metro Moscow Journal , Russia
The late Pope Shenouda III received the unusual ambassador of Egypt Haggagovic in Abbasiya Cathedral. The Pope signed his name on the Egyptian Flag Haggagovic is carrying around the world -- Egyptian press, March 2012
It was 23 years ago when a four-year-old, coming out of the pool at his local sports club, was asked by a presenter of a children's TV programme: What do you want to do when you grow up?
"I want to go to Japan," the child responded spontaneously without hesitation.
"Why Japan," his grandfather asked later.
"It's the farthest place I can imagine going," the boy said.
"You have to protect your dream and don't let anybody ever tell you can't do something. People who can't do something themselves will try to make you fail, just as they have," his grandfather advised.
Ten years passed and the boy travelled with his swimming team and met swimmers from the four corners of the world; different colours, races, religions, backgrounds, languages, but I felt we were like one big family.
Germany was my maiden voyage at the age of 15 into world travel, when for the first time I asked my family's permission to travel alone. They were shocked, but after relentless negotiations they agreed that I should go to stay with my grandmother's friend there. I chose Germany to challenge the stereotype of Germans being unfriendly and aloof.
My experience was incredible; I would leave the house of my grandmother's friend, write the address on a piece of paper, and walk for long hours every day. Sometimes I would take the bus and when I saw something that caught my eye from the bus window, I would hop off, see it, and then take the next bus. I always had a smile on my face, because I believe a smile is the key to the heart.
Unlike the stereotype, the Germans I met were kind, friendly, and went out of their way to help me even if they didn't speak English. That was my foray into breaking cultural barriers and stereotypes, and I returned to Egypt with a heart filled with passion, memories and appreciation. After this trip, my mission was clear: I want to travel the world with a message of freedom, happiness and peace -- one world united. Without borders; without racism; and loving Egypt.
My father cherishes a special photo in his room of a small Egyptian flag that was raised on the east side of the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition against Israel. That made me understand how precious the Egyptian flag is, so I decided to hoist it in every country around the world in the name of freedom, happiness and peace.
After I graduated from Ain Shams University with a degree in computer science, I decided to kick off my travels around the world by going to Europe. However, when in Portugal I decided Europe was not the most titillating starting point to begin my adventure. Instead, I headed to South America.
There, I experienced many exploits, feats, difficulties and good times. I broke through the stereotype of South America that usually brings to mind football, Latin music, or drug cartels. My experience there began in the largest country on the continent and the world's fifth largest, and only Portuguese- speaking state in the Americas: Brazil.
It's true what they say, Brasil un pais de todos (Brazil, a country of everyone). There, I saw all races, colours and religions united under the same flag. I travelled around the country and saw stunning spectacles such as the local carnival in Ouro Preto -- which I thought was much more exciting than the tourist carnival in Rio De Janeiro. Jubilant locals sing, dance and feast without a worry in the world. That day, I raised the flag and my heart fluttered with joy.
I raised the Egyptian flag in many locations in Brazil's Federal District, even inside the parliament Congresso Nacional, with the Independence Dragons who are the special presidential forces, and the Elite Squad of the special police forces. The most memorable encounter was meeting then Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in September 2009 while he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were celebrating Brazil's independence day. Knowing that my mission was to raise the Egyptian flag around the world, Da Silva told me: "If you were a Brazilian citizen, you would have my full support and we would build a statue of you carrying the flag of Brazil."
Another wonderful stop in Brazil was Foz da Iguaçu, the stunning waterfalls, in the south along the border with Argentina and Paraguay. I crossed on foot to Argentina from Puerto Iguaçu in the north, through the great city of Ushuaia (the end of the world), passing by Patagonia (the magnificent city of whales and penguins), and resumed my travels to Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Cuba, Columbia, Chili, Equador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Venezula, which are all in South America.
One of the most exhilarating stops on my travels was going to the world's largest country, Russia, and my escapades in Siberia in extreme cold temperatures. Spending December 2011 and January 2012 on the Trans-Siberia train was unforgettable. My companion and cameraman Ahmed Yehia (nicknamed as Zoky) at times found it difficult to document our trip in biting cold since temperatures that sometimes dipped to -47 degrees Celsius. Even our professional camera protested against the climate, and would only display the error message: "very low temperature, can't access media".
But that didn't stop me from raising the Egyptian flag in the Siberian city of Yakutsk, the coldest in the world. In Moscow, I hoisted the flag in the presidential palace the Kremlin, and the Red Square which is home to Lenin's mausoleum. It wasn't easy since it is forbidden to raise foreign flags at these locations. I generally choose locations either according to their importance and also the extremely difficult ones. Sometimes I would manage to raise the flag without getting official permissions. Other times, I would just leave the flag, and sign it "long live Egypt, Haggagovic."
Russia was where I was nicknamed as Haggagvic. It was a Russian friend of mine who called me that after I started my trips around the world. He was working in Radio Moscow, where they interviewed me about my mission, and that is how they introduced me to the audience. Afterwards, this name kind of stuck with me, and I loved it so much. Moscow is a sprawling city but is well connected via 12 underground metro lines which I used to commute around the capital, since it is the most efficient mode of transportation for everyone. Interestingly, most commuters were carrying iPads or e-Readers -- actually, just about everyone of all ages would be holding a book in their hand.
The Trans-Siberian Railway (the longest in the world) took me across the unspoiled wilderness of Siberia to the farthest city in East Russia, Vladivostok near North Korea. I crossed six time zones passing the Baikal Lake -- the oldest, deepest and largest freshwater lake in the world. It took me nearly 10 days by train to cross this terrain without hot water, surviving on only canned food, and an indoor temperature of -2 Celsius. This train trip marked the beginning of my Mongolian and Chinese adventure.
Mongolia is south of Russia and north of China, with very kind and friendly people. I travelled from north to south Mongolia through the capital Ulaanbaatar. One of the memorable events there was when a group of locals were so impressed by my mission that they slaughtered a horse for my and Yehia. We ate grilled horse in weather -37 degrees Celsius, and it was delicious. I found out that eating Mongolian horsemeat while drinking special Mongolian horse milk called Airag is a favourite meal there on cold winter nights, since locals believe horsemeat keeps you warm and is also low cholesterol. Since the temperature is so cold, the meat is not put in a freezer.
Eventually, I crossed into China from the Erlian border. During construction, the Great Wall of China was known as "the longest cemetery on earth" because so many people died building it -- reportedly more than one million. I was awe-struck by its splendour and was able to raise the Egyptian flag at its highest point. While the Great Wall is benevolently famous worldwide, the more notorious Great Firewall of China -- put up by Beijing to block most Internet access, especially social networks and streaming video sites -- is also well known.
China was tantalising; like a treasure box full of jewels and precious nuggets. I saw Tiananmen Square, the third largest in the world, located in front of the Forbidden City -- where I also raised the Egyptian flag. This hoist was especially unique because nothing like this had been done before due to heavy police presence. In Beijing, I also visited the Bird Nest Stadium, the Water Cube, the Lama Temple, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and many more landmarks.
I had yet another unusual train experience in China when riding from Jan Ja Kor City in the north to Shenzhen City in the south. It took me nearly three days standing up in an overcrowded train where I couldn't sit or sleep through three exhausting nights. I'm not complaining, it was another novel experience for me. Others stood between train carriages, slept on the floor or even leaning against the wall. My fellow riders were very kind, however, and I was touched by their gestures offering to share their food of noodles and spicy donkey meat.
I'm no Forrest Gump -- who ran from ocean to ocean just for the sake of "running". I have a dream, vision, mission and conviction. While you read this, I am preparing for my Asia trip into the wild.
Wish me luck -- and don't forget to carry your own must-do dream list in your pocket at all times.
AHMED Haggag is a 27-year-old, well-travelled, system analyst, who started travelling with his dream of raising the Egyptian flag in the whole world in 2007. He travelled so far to 80 countries, and 150 main cities around the world. Haggag funded all of his trips, however EgyptAir started to be his official carrier, on the leg of his trip from December 2011-February 2012, and ongoing. Haggag intends to raise the flag in Jerusalem, before the last leg of his journey, which is going to be on top of the Egyptian Pyramids.