A couple of years ago, an Egyptian millennial with the unlikely name of Omar El Galla predictably quit his lucrative job in pursuit of entrepreneurial adventure. Fast forward to 2019, and this gambler is still taking risks, only this time, he is eyeing a Guinness World Record for the longest swim ever attempted in the Red Sea.
It all began with the financially ruinous decision to quit his family’s exceedingly successful jewelry business. “I was good at what I did and I made good money. I thought maybe that would sustain me and make me happy, so I continued to do it, but I have always wanted to go out into the world and experience things, rather than just sit somewhere and make money,” he says. “When I turned 30, everything came to a head. I started my own business and lost a good chunk of my money. I was depressed, and I ended up just isolating myself and watching a lot of Netflix. I have probably watched everything on Netflix, really, at some point.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that El Galla traded his sweatpants for a bike and a pair of sturdy running shoes. Surviving on 50 EGP a day, he cycled across Egypt in 65 days, traversing 6500 km. Later that year, he ran from Abu Simbel to Alexandria in 36 days, averaging 42 km a day. “When I cycled, I didn’t get to do it along the Nile, and 90% of the population lives around the river. I wanted to see Egypt and get to know its people, but I didn’t want to cycle” he explains. “Sometimes people would host me in their houses, sometimes I would sleep in mosques or at cafes, but mostly I would sleep on the side of the road.”
Now, El Galla finds himself seabound. On September 15th, he will make history as the first person ever to attempt to swim the length of Egypt’s eastern coastline, all 900 km of it, from Suez to Shalateen. “I have cycled and I have run across the country, so I thought, why not complete a triathlon? …The plan is to swim 12-13 km everyday, so I think it would take me 90 days,” he says.
The historic swim was a long time coming, according to the adventurer. Partnering up with ‘if’, an environmental initiative launched by Egyptian adventurer Omar Samra and record-breaking diver Ahmed Gabr, El Galla aims to raise awareness about the plastic pollution crisis ravaging marine life everywhere. “When I was cycling across Egypt, I could always tell there was a village or a city nearby by the plastic bags floating in the air. …I spent a month swimming in Dahab, I found so many plastic bags in the water, next to the reefs,” he says. “This partnership will see me take on this 900 km expedition with sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic. Because if I can survive 90 days [at sea] without single-use plastic, then it will show that we can do the same in the heart of the city.”
In a world headed towards an environmental disaster that threatens to wipe out humanity and a global capitalist economy that grows more ruthless by the day, millennials like El Galla have the temerity to hope and take on such fateful issues. “I think [my generation] is more interested in experiences than money. I think they are looking for happiness and meaning in what they are doing, rather than just buying things or making money,” he remarks. “They might want to do this by adding value to their lives or to the lives of people around them. This is what drives a lot of people nowadays, adding value. This has become a bigger incentive than money for many people.”
Of all the ‘air quotable’ millennial things, is there a bigger cliché than quitting one’s job to travel the world and announcing it on the internet? To the unsuspecting observer, it dovetails snuggly with the bigger media narrative that millennials are spoiled brats dead set on destroying the economy. But a quick Google search is all it takes to understand that millennials are the burnout generation for a reason.
In addition to being dubbed the ‘loneliest generation’, studies have shown that depression and anxiety are also on the rise among millennials. These mental health issues are compounded among their peers in developing countries, especially in the face of rising political turmoil and economic hardship.
In El Galla’s case, millennial nonconformism is indicative of having overcome generational trauma. It hallmarks the cultural, social, and political shifts he wishes to see realized in the world. “You start to not care about the future. I was good at my ‘normal’ job, and I know that I’m capable of subsisting, and I know I can survive on very little money. So it’s fine, I have got it covered. I don’t have to worry about anything else,” El Galla explains. “It is addictive in a way, you have this thrill of never knowing what’s to come. Interesting and exciting things happen when you put yourself out there. It’s actually helped me overcome my depression, I get up in the morning just to see how the day will go.”