An island in the desert


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Africa » Egypt » Western Desert » Siwa Oasis
May 11th 2008
Published: May 29th 2008
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Disconnected is one of many words that could be used to describe the Egyptian transport infrastructure (hopelessly inefficient is another good way of describing it). We were lucky to score a night train ticket out of Luxor and into Cairo although we had to pay extra to catch the train originating in Aswan (even though we were boarding in Luxor) as the train originating in Luxor had been sold out (makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?). Regardless, we were fit to say our goodbyes to Luxor and hustle our way to Siwa along what amounts to a big “L” shaped series of tracks and roads. The first leg was an overnight train to Cairo, followed by an afternoon train from Cairo to Alexandria then a series of two buses (one from Alexandria to Marsa Matrah, and one from Marsa Matrah to Siwa) in order to reach our final destination in the far west of Egypt. In retrospect, I think a camel ride straight from Luxor to Siwa would have been quicker and, quite possibly, more comfortable.

Small Nile villages gave way to big, uninviting Cairo which then gave way to hippish Alexandria which melted into beachy Marsa Matrah and, finally everything turned to desert before turning lush and green as we approached Siwa, a breezy 40-some hours later. Our trip was long and exhausting, however, it didn’t take long to realize that Siwa was something special and well worth the arduous journey. Greeting by over-zealous boys driving donkey taxis, we slumped off the bus and threw our luggage up on Mohi’s donkey taxi and began the 200 meter ride from the “bus station” to our hostel (hmmm, perhaps we should have just walked that one). Our hostel (Palm Trees) was a fabulouso little establishment with balconied rooms and a nice little date palm grove out back…the cleanliness of the bathrooms may have left a little to be desired, however, the staff was friendly enough to offset the excess dirt.

We set out for a tick to get a peek of the town on our first day, expiring the little bit of energy we still had left. The center of Siwa is dominated by the Shali, which is basically a fortress-looking complex of buildings constructed out of muddy salt-brick and supported by date-palm trunks. The structure, being located in a desert, wasn’t built to tolerate heavy rains, and, was significantly melted away 20 years ago during a freak, extended rainfall. What remains is a fascinatingly jagged and angular complex of decaying compartments struggling to stay upright. After looking around the Shali for a while, we decided to roam around some of the streets in the center of town to get a closer look at how life played out. Old men lounged, kids ran about playing, older boys and young men were tending shops, and women remained mysteriously hidden behind closed doors. Occasionally, a pile of walking blankets appeared (this would be a woman), revealing that the Siwan population was sustained by human birth and not by storks dropping off human babies. The lack of the woman element in the streets was a bit odd, however, people were incredibly friendly, and the atmosphere of the town was laid-back and seemingly care-free.

We eventually made our way over to a little souvenir shop where we made friends with Fahim, Fathi and several other Siwan guys who either worked in the souvenir shop or one of the other businesses nearby. Fahim and Fahti were much like any other 19 and 20 year old guys we had met in the past…concerned with making some money and finding some chicks. Fahti was particularly keen on connecting with women travelers and repeatedly asked us to talk to any girls passing and encourage them to browse the souvenir shop…this would, of course, provide Fahti an opportunity to work his “moves”. Our fishing turned up nothing for Fahti, but we did have a good time discussing Siwan life with the guys over numerous tiny glasses of incredibly strong mint tea. From our conversations we learned that dates and olives are the key to male strength and longevity in Siwa. Fahim informed us that his grandfather lived to 150 years old and fathered 20 kids; his secret was to drink a shot glass of Siwan olive oil every morning for breakfast, and, a healthy serving of dates throughout the day. We also learned that both Fahim and Fahti worked their way up through the tourism ranks beginning as donkey-taxi drivers when they were younger; this also happened to be where they picked up their English. They were both good kids living the simple life in a small oasis town in the middle of nowhere.

The desert was calling our name and Rozy and I answered that call by booking a desert tour that included a night camping out on the sand beneath the stars. The “tour” was actually just Rozy, myself and our new buddy Samuel who was flying solo as he had been divorced from his wife for 15 years. Samuel was a bit of a character and happened to be considerably forthcoming with the details of his life…snippets of his world that I received included:

· He paid his wife $1 million in the divorce settlement in order to “get out” of his marriage to have sex with other women
· Sam calculated that it cost him $10,000 each time he had sex with his wife
· Sam’s philosophy regarding children is that they grow up, leave the house, and there really is no need to talk to them anymore
· In his travels, three women in South Asian countries (my guess is Thailand) offered to marry Sam “not for money” as he put it but “for companionship” as they were lonely in their homes
· Sam no longer views cars as a useful allocation of money (he had a penchant for expensive Mercedez-Benz) and would prefer to bike and use money for traveling

Sam was pretty unique and seemed to possess a significant amount of mojo for a man of 63. He had led an illustrious life as a successful attorney, prosecuting big names in the international drug scene in a number of high profile cases; however, Sam now spends his retirement short on cash, without a wife and traveling the globe in search of “love” and adventure…ironically enough, I think Sam may be leading a life similar to some of those his put behind bars that managed to bargain for parole…I guess we are all chasing something in life.

Right-O, the trip to the desert…certainly one of the highlights of the trip! Our talented driver-cum hotel owner Mohammad, tackled the dunes head on in his beat-up Landcruiser, delivering our stomachs to our mouths and back again as we laughed and bounced around to the sound of the roaring engine. The scenery was incredible...as we pulled out of the oasis, our green backdrop slowly disappeared and eventually, sand was all that could be seen to the horizon. Flowing dunes snaked all around us and capped to sharp ridges that kicked off a cloudy haze as the desert wind blasted them at all angles. The monotony of the landscape was surreal and the vast emptiness to the horizon gave off a worrisome solitude that was occasionally shattered by another 4x4 cresting a dune. After slaloming the dunes for a while, Mohammad pulled into a tiny hot spring sitting in the middle of nowhere for a *refreshing dip. Certainly a first for me, I sat in the hot spring, sweating and looking around 360 degrees at nothing but desert…it really made no sense whatsoever so I won’t bother with the words.

After the hot spring, we cruised around the dunes a bit more then pulled into a cold water spring lake, once again, sitting like an island in the middle of nothing but sand all the way to the horizon. We splashed around in the clear-blue (and strangely, COLD!) water until the shivering became too much, then ran to the top of the nearest sand dune to take in a panoramic view. This being my first experience in an oasis, I couldn’t exactly connect the polar opposites to a semblance of reality, therefore all seemed intangibly surreal as if staged for our tourist experience.

Refreshed and ready for more, we all jumped back in the ‘cruiser and hopped dunes until we came to a particularly tall dune where we stopped to watch the sun sink into the sandy horizon. Burnt orange sky turned the sand a rich golden hue to the west, while the deep blues of the east starkly contrasted with the light-reflective sand. As the sun completely disappeared into the night sky, Rozy and I retired to our desert campsite while Samuel hitched a ride back to Siwa, presumably, in search of women.

Our campsite consisted of a spring water pool, several canvass tents and a makeshift kitchen where our hosts (Usman and Mohammad) cooked us a rather decent meal of rice, kofta and salad. We spent the evening lounging around the campfire listening to Usman and Fatih (same Fatih from the souvenir shop) smack on the drums and sing Siwan love songs (they claimed anyhow). Eventually we retired to our tent under a blanket of ridiculously brilliant stars, rivaling those we had seen in the Australian outback. In the 20 minutes I spent staring at the sky, I must have counted 10 shooting stars…amazing! Worn out from the day in the desert, we collapsed inside the tent where we struggled to find a slice of comfort atop lumps of sand and a pile of dirty blankets.

The rest of our time in Siwa was spent wandering around the outskirts of town on bicycles checking out some of the sights. We peddled in the shade of date palm groves, bathed in a massive, crystal-clear spring pool dubbed “Cleopatras Bath”, visited the famous Temple of Amun, and watched folks go about their daily lives. The pace in town was extremely slow and it was easy to sit around and relax without worrying about being pounced on by touts. One guy we approached for directions invited us into his house for tea, however, we had to decline as it was growing late in the day and we were hot/tired and seeking dinner. We also made a couple more trips back to the souvenir shop to hang out with our new mates and drink more mint tea. We did our best to blend into Siwan life, and sat back just relaxing, observing and striking up random conversations. As it was the shoulder season, the weather was rather accommodating and the number of other travelers around was relatively low. Siwa was an
A rest area in the middle of nowhereA rest area in the middle of nowhereA rest area in the middle of nowhere

On a desert road roughly 2 hours from Siwa
excellent retreat from the madness of Egyptian tourism and definitely one of the highlights in our overall trip.

As a postscript, Rozy and I were getting a bit annoyed with everyone asking where we were from, and, more importantly, not believing that she was Malaysia. People continued to persist that she was Indian. Given this fact, we both decided to play around with our identities and morphed into Fijians, so, as far as Siwa is concerned, Rozy and I are both Fijian (wink, wink, Rani, Shivani, Krishna). Rozy had tested out Fiji as a possible country of origin on a couple folk back in Cairo, and, fortunately for us, nobody had heard of Fiji or even knew its location. This was excellent because when she would say Fiji, people would appear confused and much of the questioning/harassment disappeared (along with insistence on being Indian).

Our situation in Siwa was a bit complicated as we had to provide our passports to the hostel manager, and, everyone in town seems to know one another (as an example: the souvenir shop also conducted desert tours in conjunction with the hostel who also worked with the desert campsite). This being the case, we both developed detailed back-stories to explain why two Fijians (Rozy and myself) held Malaysian and US passports. My father was a diplomat and had been serving the US government in Fiji for 30 years, that being the case, I still held a US passport but was born and raised in Fijian making me much more Fijian than American. Rozy’s parents, on the other hand, migrated to Fiji from Malaysia when she was just 1 year old in search of work in the sugar cane industry (Fiji produces lots of sugar, right?). Rozy and I met each when I feel off of my bicycle and broke my arm next to her father’s sugar cane field….Rozy came to my rescue and the rest of our relationship is history.

Our story seemed to work, however the only trouble we encountered was when people were interested in knowing some of the details of Fiji…details like the population, currency, government, and exports. We fielded the questions rather elegantly, stringing together a web of lies and taking turns to fabricate all that is Fiji. Fortunately for us, the Internet connection in Siwa was 36.6 kbps (for those of you who aren’t nerdy, that is
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incredibly slow and researching all of our lies could take a while for someone lacking search skills) and I seriously doubt anyone figured us out before we left. After getting back to Alexandria, we got online to see how accurate we were with regards to Fiji…we nailed the fact that Fiji uses the dollar, got pretty lucky with regards to the sugar industry, but completely botched the whole government thing, forgetting that the military recently took over the republic (we knew it was a former British colony so we assumed parliamentary democracy). Additionally, we both knew that Fiji was small, however, we figured even being a small country it would have a few million people there (we went with three million)…nope, less than 1 million. Whatever, we were quite close and saved Rozy from having to defend her Malaysianness.



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