Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Last Days

IMG_7748 I’m really beginning to feel the end drawing near for my stay here in Egypt, and I am not really looking forward to leaving. Sure I miss my friends and family back in the States, but living there is just…not the same. Especially in Utah. I rather dread the bubble. It makes people have such a limited world view, and understanding and open-mindedness are so important to me. All that aside, I just really like Egypt—the people, the language, the unlimited opportunities for adventure. I have learned and grown so much, and I look forward to sharing my experiences firsthand with everyone when I get back.

Anyway, enough of the sentimentality. I’ve decided that the best way to blog is to simply give summaries of the interesting things in my journal. Interesting things, mind you. Not everything.

IMG_7727 The last few days have been quite awesome. First off, I visited Abu Seir, via public minibus of course. When I arrived, I was informed that the site was “closed,” but that if I gave money to the caretaker, I would be allowed to go inside and take a look. Well, he came over and we discussed how much I would pay. He said the usual price of a ticket is 6 LE, but since it was closed, he wanted fifty. I replied that I couldn’t pay fifty, and told him I could pay fifteen. I then proceeded to take everything out of my “small change” pocket, being careful not to reveal the fact that I had a 100 LE note in my other pocket, and ended up getting in for 17 LE. However, I was required to have a guide so that I didn’t wander off alone into the site. (Which I most assuredly would have done…dang it.)

IMG_7731I really liked the pyramids there. There are three at Abu Seir, all of them in worse repair than those at Saqqara and Giza, but closer together than at the other sites, so it made for some great scenery and photo ops. Was also able to walk around in some of the temples and look into opened IMG_7735mastabas. My guide was a worker at the site, and pretty much just told me the names of things. But, I think it was still worth the trip, though I didn’t get to wear my desert getup and all. At the end, he wanted a tip, too, of course. And I pulled out the money I’d saved for the cab, and ended up giving him the 2 LE. Haha. Not bad, really.

IMG_7739 Was able to get a three-wheel taxi on the way back, and pay them after getting change at a local butcher. (Which I’m sure makes the money, and hence my pockets, rather unsanitary as a result.) But they were all nice people, and I got to see my pyramids, so it was OK. Also walked back to the freeway through Abu Seir village, and chatted with a few people along the way. I really like Egyptian villages. People are really more friendly out in the country. But, I still like the city, too.

IMG_7766 I’ve actually had a lot of opportunities to travel around in the “outback,” as it were, lately. My next trip was to Siwa, with a Muslim friend of mine from South Africa, Ayesha. We had both never been there before, and she saw a facebook comment I’d made and mentioned she had always wanted to go, so I invited her along.

We arrived in Siwa about 6 AM on Saturday morning and found our way without incident to the Palm Trees hotel, which was highly recommended by Ann, another friend who’s been to Siwa. The only problem was that the proprietor was in the middle of a deep sleep. We tried everything. Knocking, shouting in English and Arabic, setting off the alarm on my cell phone, and trying to call with the number in the guide book (which didn’t work). Finally, I found a card with the hotel number on it and he woke up after about 5 rings. We rented a room and slept for 3 hours, then arranged our dune safari and night in the Bedouin camp before heading out to see the sites West of the town.

IMG_7757 We decided to walk, as it was fairly nice out and we assumed there would be shade from all the palm trees. Well, there was, just not so much over the main roads… Good thing I wore my Kofia. Anyway, after a while we struck off through the date plantations and just stayed parallel to the road. (As much as possible. Every so often there’d be a deep, water-filled canal that we couldn’t get across and we would walk along it till coming to a bridge. Considered swinging across on a palm branch once, which would have been uber cool, but common sense took over… )

IMG_7763Reaching our first site, Cleopatra’s spring, we dangled our feet in the pure, clear water and enjoyed watching an Egyptian family teaching their younger brother (stark naked and with a gourd tied to his waste for flotation) how to swim. They were full of encouragement, and it was cute to see.

IMG_7784 After that we went to a ruined temple to Amun Re, which we thought was the Oracle that Alexander the Great visited, but turned out not to be. That was further down the road, and we walked boldly into the Oracle room, where I asked it what my name was. I got no response. The Oracle, apparently, hates me. Or only responds to questions posed in Ancient Greek or Heiratic (in both of which I am seriously lacking…) Got some good pics regardless.

IMG_7799Hitched a ride on a donkey taxi with Thomas from France, a trip of about 10 minutes and 5 LE (a dollar) and got back in time to catch our desert safari. We were with about 4 other people, most of whom also spoke Arabic, but much better than we did, so I especially didn’t do much talking.

IMG_7859 However, the safari was AMAZING! Our driver, Ahmed, seemed to have all kinds of fun careening through the desert, and we all enjoyed this as well. Some of the dunes that we went over were about 50 feet high and had a more than 45 degree drop on the other side. It was rather like a natural roller coaster going up and down them.

IMG_7817 I was struck by the raw, awesome beauty of the desert. It’s amazing how many different shades of sand can be together in the same area, and even the most subtle differences add to the harmony of the endless tracks of shifting dunes. Dunes come in many shapes, but most of those in the Great Sand Sea (a part of the Sahara covered by dunes which encompasses an area greater than the size of New York State.) are crescent or sword shaped. Some of the most mobile ones move around 14 feet per year, and can even drop over ledges and reform at the bottom.

Aisha and I also tried sandboarding for the first time. Pretty much like snowboarding, but on sand. Which makes it dirtier. And grittier. And easier to lose things (like my student ID card…) But is still definitely worth doing. I actually started to figure it out and was able to stand up all the way down for 50 feet or so. Until the bottom. When I promptly crashed. But you can be assured, it was with excellent form. Except for the headache I had from the repeated smashing of my butt into the hard sand.

IMG_7820 The windward sides of the dunes are crusted over by a half-inch layer of congealed sand which is at times strong enough to hold my weight (about 140 lbs) without breaking. The leeward sides, however, are very difficult to walk up as you are likely to sink a foot with each step you take.

IMG_7834 We also visited a cold water spring. Way out in the middle of the desert, with nothing for miles around it. I really wonder what kind of geological process allows things like that to form. There were several local families swimming, and most of us joined them. I, for one, stayed in the shade of the reeded banks as much as possible, and entertained myself with catching the fish that lived there. Now there’s a question. How did fish find their way out there? I mean, grass I can understand, as seeds travel by wind. But fish??

IMG_7841 Then it was off to a hot spring. I was not so sure that I wanted to sit in a hot spring in the desert, but I was there, so might as well. It actually wasn’t that bad and was rather refreshing. Except for the gooey green algae everywhere. A group of Spanish tourists joined us, the larger ones gracefully belly flopping into the pool after slipping on the slimy steps. They were good humored about it though, and everyone had a good laugh. Also met Dave and Kevin (briefly). More on them later.

IMG_7852 More dune hopping and a fossil bed followed (the Sahara used to be an ocean, which has since, obviously, dried up/receded. We saw tons of shell fossils and even the fossil of a larger fish.) We headed to the top of a tall dune to watch the sunset. It was quite a surreal experience, watching the dunes turn first to gold, and then vermillion, then crimson, as the sun sank slowly behind the horizon. It was made all the more poignant by the small steams of sand blowing from the tips of the dunes, continuing the onward migration which has pushed them across the desert for millennia. I put my hand down to feel the fine particles blowing against it, and wondered at the minute striations covering the dune on which I stood.IMG_7888

After that, it was time for a short tea break (I was sad they had no herbal tea.) and then we headed to the Bedouin-style camp where we were to spend the night. Officially met Kevin and Dave. They both work in the entertainment industry, Kevin being a storyboard artist for South Park, and Dave an aspiring movieIMG_7914 director. (His movie is mostly in the post-production stages.) We had some great conversations in the firelight about the effect of media on society and what makes a good movie. The fact that Dave is an avid Sci-Fi buff didn’t hurt either.

In time, I felt the need to sleep (around 2 AM) especially since I wanted to be cognizant for the rest of the adventure in the morning. I lay down on the small mattress I had pulled out into the open and gazed up at the thousands of stars strewn across the sky. It really is amazing, looking at the stars right before one drops off to sleep. I miss seeing them. In Cairo we have perhaps two at any given time. One’s a planet, and the other is…moving? Oh wait, that’s an airplane…

I can’t say I slept well, but it was a good experience (especially after I found the stack of blankets for the taking.)

Woke up around 8 AM and shortly thereafter returned to the hotel. Aisha and I dumped our stuff and then headed to the bus station to change our tickets. As we’d seen everything we wanted to in Siwa, (and Aisha needed to get a good night’s sleep before work tomorrow.) we decided to go to Marsa Matrouh, a famous beach town with brilliant blue water. Had to pay a fee to get our tickets refunded, and there was no big bus today, but we planned to take a minibus instead.

IMG_7921 Having about an hour or so, we went to explore Shali fortress, an ancient mud-brick castle where most of Siwa’s population used to live. If I remember correctly, the earliest parts date from around 900 AD, and the lower areas still boast inhabitants and a few bazaars. It is built on a hill overlooking the rest of the oasis, and there are some great views from the top. Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and the heat…) we didn’t get to see the mountain of the dead, a rock formation riddled with old Roman era tombs.

Grabbed a guava milkshake and then climbed into the mini bus. There was a bit of a disagreement with the driver about where we should sit, but Aisha finally figured out the problem. The driver wanted her in a corner so she wouldn’t have to sit by anyone she didn’t know. It’s part of the whole man-woman relations thing here, which I still don’t get, but thankfully Aisha is a lot more savvy than I in that regard. So we crammed into the side of one of the seats (which had almost 0 leg room) and waited for the bus to fill (which it did, completely) while sipping our guava shakes.

IMG_7935 The trip to Marsa Matrouh was long, and rather uncomfortable, but I enjoyed seeing the endless expanses of desert, interspersed by herds of camels, Bedouin tents, and the occasional cell phone or radio relay station. (In spite of that, dead zones abound. It would really be not cool to get stuck out in the middle of the desert without phone service…) At about 2 PM, we stopped for the midday prayer at a small café, with a mosque to the side, in the middle of the desert. Getting stuff out there must be a bit ridiculous. Most people disembarked and prayed, and then it was on the road again.

IMG_7939 Got to Marsa Matrouh around 4 PM, and bought a bus ticket to Cairo for 6:30, then high-tailed it to the beach for an hour or so. The beach, of course, required changing into swim suits. Which involved the exceptionally pungent facilities which we were charged to use.

IMG_7943 And then we found a vacant umbrella and set up camp for a bit. The water was cool and very blue, and I found a fish egg, which I enjoyed showing the Egyptian family we made friends with. You could see the eyes, yolk sac, and even the brain. It was sweet, and after they all looked and were amazed I cast it back into the sea with a shout of “Aieesh!” (“Live!” in Arabic.) We all laughed.

IMG_7948 In time, we changed back again, (And I somehow managed to drop my retainers into a pile of I have no idea what. Definitely not wearing them until after a few days of bleach…) paid for the umbrellas (I had been approached by the people who collect the money, but hadn’t recognized some of the vocab they were using…but Aisha figured it out. J) and then returned to the bus station. The trip to Cairo was fairly uneventful, except for the first decent Egyptian action movie I’ve seen, and we arrived about 20 after midnight. I even managed to catch the last subway back to Maadi, which made me very happy. (In spite of the 10 minute random wait at one of the stations. I have no idea why that happens so often…this was the longest one yet, though. I’d prayed for the train to be running, cause I didn’t have much change for a cab…)

Stay tuned for more adventures from the land of Fusha, Fuul, and Pharoahs.


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