Egypt is a country reliant on the Nile. It’s easy to see this when looking at a map of Egypt. For a fairly large country, it’s striking how compact the cities are. A vast majority of the country lives along the banks of the Nile, leaving most dots on the map in a squiggly line and around the delta. The exceptions to this are the cities along the sea and a few absolute jewels of little villages that have grown around oases. One such jewel is the town of Siwa in western Egypt.
Our group of intrepid explorers left our home city of Alexandria at night and took the 8 hour bus first along the sea and then into the Sahara. That put us into the town at about 6 o’clock in the morning. This by itself isn’t the worst possible thing to happen. It is, unfortunately, made worse by the knowledge that we don’t know where in the town our hotel is. We wander around for a while since the town isn’t very big at all but don’t have any luck until we get the hotel manager on the phone. He tells us that they’re a short way out of the town and not to worry because he’ll send someone to pick us up. Egypt is warmer than Minnesota but the nights are significantly cooler than during daytime, and it was winter. So it’s 6 a.m., we’re cold and tired and standing in the middle of the street in an unfamiliar village watching for our ride. After a short time, a guy shows up in what I can best describe as a motorcycle-truck mermaid. All six of us fit, barely, in the truck back end and somehow the motorcycle front pulled all of us to the hotel. After talking with the manager for what felt like forever about our plans for our stay and what it would cost, we settled in finally to sleep.
Our first day was our day in the desert. In the morning after breakfast we met our driver for the day and set off for the desert. Our way took us through most of the town and we got our first taste of rural life in Egypt. There were very few modern buildings, and the ones that were there looked pretty neglected. The simple buildings were better kept and housed more life. It almost seemed as if the people were saying that they did not need nor did they want to emulate city life. And just like that, we passed from town to desert. 100 feet off the road and onto the sand, our driver stopped in order to check our tire pressure. I thought this seemed a little excessive but was proven oh so wrong in about five minutes. That was when our trip to the desert turned into a Jeep commercial. In order to not get stuck in the sand, we had to keep up a certain speed. That is, we did until we approached the top of a dune and would lean over the edge until we got over and hit the gas again. I’ve been on a fair number of roller coasters, but I can’t guarantee I didn’t sound like a little girl while looking straight down at a sea of sand from 30 feet up.
It was on top of one of these dunes that we stopped for a chance at sand boarding. Sand boarding is exactly what it sounds like, a simple board in the general shape of a snowboard is used to surf the sand dunes. It’s as much fun as it sounds, too. What they don’t tell you is that making your way back up a sand dune is both difficult and humiliating.
We also stopped to admire the small oases that seemed so out of place in the sea of sand. There was also a place where you could see evidence of how that area used to be at the bottom of a sea. Seeing sand dollars and fossils of fish in the middle of the desert put me in awe of how much things can change over time. Our last stop was to catch the sun setting over the Sahara.
After seeing the sunset, we made our way to our camp for the night. Even though we didn’t leave the desert, our arrangements were more comfortable than I thought sleeping in the desert could be. There were tents with sleeping bags and multiple blankets for the cold night. There was a hot spring to swim in and stay warm in while stargazing. There was even a small house for our hosts that had toilets for us to use and a kitchen for dinner. We were served a traditional Berber meal of chicken, bread, hummus, and molokhenya, all by candlelight. And then the candles burned out. The desert gets dark at night, too. What followed was a shamelessly (nobody could see) hands-on meal assisted by one cell phone. In my opinion, going primal on the food made it taste even better. After dinner, we gathered in a big tent in the center of the camp with the other guests at the camp. A local musical group was among those staying the night and they were going to put on an impromptu performance. The group consisted of drummers, a few wind instruments, dancers, and everyone sang. It was a cool scene with us and a bunch of Egyptians sitting around the circle of performers on the ground in a tent, everyone clapping along. The dancers even got a couple of us involved on a few songs. I can’t think of a better end to our day in the desert than an authentic meal followed by local music.