The Western Desert
We had to stand on the bus, since we had no tickets. The 7 a.m. was full to bursting with Cairenes and their belongings, and we waited with Yashar, who had just returned from Aswan, for the 8 a.m. departure to Bahariyya in the Western Desert. Three of our gang got seats on the bus, and we alternated between these and the aisle for the five hour trip. We were six, including myself: Jean of Paris, Amelia of Melbourne, Sven the East German, Denniz from Copenhagen, and Yashar of Vancouver, B.C. This diversity confused the Egyptians when they asked, “Where are you from?” They called us a cocktail or the United Nations.
A mob of them met us when we stepped off the bus in dusty Bawiti, chief township of the Bahariyya Oasis. They shouted at us in a pack, then picked us out individually as we moved to get our baggage—touts for desert safaris and sand dune tours and hotels with swimming pools, men in robes and turbans or jackets and jeans. We set our bags up under the hot tin roof of the bus stall and each ended up talking to one or two guides, receiving prices and business cards, until Yashar announced:
“Alright, we're all talking to separate people. At this rate, we're all going to be on different tours. Let's go eat lunch.” At lunch, in Popular Restaurant, we discussed our options, and a crowd of desert dundees listened outside. “This one has a pool,” said Jean, and a tout shouted, “No it doesn't,” through the latticework.
Yashar wasn't hungry, so while we ate he left to bargain. He got prices from one of the guides, a Mahmoud, proposed the plans to our table, and we chose the 300 pound option—two jeeps, two nights in the desert, and home in time for Yashar's 7 a.m. bus back to Cairo. Yashar left to try to wheedle the price down and returned shortly after. “Alright, so it's still 300,” he said, “but I got us each two free postcards.”
Our guides and drivers were named Mahmoud and Mahmoud. One was the owner, with a vest over his long robe and a kefiyeh wrapped around his hawkish face. He had the dignity of a sheikh and alternated between liberal humor and pious faith. The second Mahmoud was a small, energetic Egyptian, ill-tempered when he got too little sleep or food. Presently, he had not eaten lunch—our contract interrupted his invitation to Boss's house for a meal—and that made him grouchy and taciturn. The back of his 4x4 read: “Desert Safary For Ever Of Road.”
Day 1: We left late as Mahmoud & Mahmoud had to buy supplies. A jeep bearing three Koreans in desert garb is following our convoy, even though we said we'd rather be alone. The driver's name is Hamad. His marriage to a Korean girl netted him all the tourists from the southern end of that peninsula.
Mahmoud the Greater led our train out of town through the desert, to avoid the police checkpoint that would have assigned an officer to our car, a service they provide to any and all citizens of America or Israel. The convoy took the road to the edge of the Black Desert, where volcanic cones have caked the sand with ash. We drove off the highway and angled up on top of a dune to use the sandboard from the Korean carriage. There were no foot straps, so we just sledded down, except Amelia who had some experience with it. Yashar wrestled Mahmoud the Lesser and won, using dirty skills learned from having two older brothers interested in martial arts. We watched the red sun set amid mazy clouds.
Getting away from the dune proved difficult. Mahmoud the Greater topped easily a steep sandbank up to the highway that nearly rolled Mahmoud the Lesser. His jeep stalled halfway up that high slope, and he turned to his passengers and said, with a subtle but profoundly infectious terror, “Get out now.” They left in a hurry and got the jeep down off of two wheels and pushed it out of the sand, though the crew demanded to ride with Mahmoud the Greater the following day.
“I taught him to drive,” said the Sheikh Mahmoud. “One year ago, he had never touched a wheel.” We drove on down the highway for ten miles or so, then turned off and whirled onto more sand dunes, weaving up and down at the whims of nature and Mahmoud. “You know,” spake the Greater, weaving his stick like a wand, “this is our job, but we do it because we love it. But you must drive out here, in the deep desert, not on asphalt. That is no fun. You must be quick to drive out here. Not quick with strength, or you will break off the shift, and then you'll be stuck. You must move fast and control it.”
Mahmoud the Lesser and Hamad the Other followed as well as they could. In a valley between rock and dune, the three guides parked their cars to make three sides of a box, so that the corners were touching and at right angles. They unloaded rugs and mattresses from the rooftops and used them to seal the inside of the wagon circle in a kind of wall, with Eastern couches around a small table, and a gas stove just outside. We all took off our sandals and curled up under camel wool blankets that still smelled like those strange beasts, and the guides passed around some rolled cigarettes of some strange Eastern herb.
Amelia began to interview Sven, whose fascinating history was largely unknown to our group. The German was born under the mothering aegis of East German communism and the German Democratic Republic. He was seventeen when the wall came down. His parents brought him over to West Berlin, and he spent his 100 Deutschmark gift on a tape recorder and bananas. “Yes,” he said, “the stories are true—we never had bananas.” He spoke of the good and bad aspects of communism deplored the way the former are usually swept under the rug of the victors.
His father was a mayor under the Soviets and a construction entrepreneur under the capitalists. His uncle had made his way up in the diplomatic circuits of the People's Party, only to have governments change on him. He only recently returned to the field—to the secretarial job he first held when he was seventeen years old. Sven was training to become a mechanic during the change and had to move to Bremen for three years to finish his schooling. Presently he works to travel, though he feels lonely in this vocation and detached from his friends and his home. “I'm really glad I met you guys when I did,” he said. “It's good to travel with other people.”
Mahmoud & Mahmoud made a pan of red coals and pressed a grill down on it to sear carved chicken. Hamad cut up the salad and cooked the soup. “Isn't he a good cook?” said Mahmoud. The Bedouin feast they served was excellent—soup and salad and bread and rice and chicken in deep dishes. Yashar ate so much he felt sick and had to lie down to settle his ballooning gut.
The rest of us took seats around the renewed fire and wondered at the stars and the moonscape of the desert. Waxing Luna resembled Yashar in the fullness of girth, barely splintered at one side, looking down on our proceedings with a streaked face. Mahmoud the Greater officiated the pouring of tea, and Mahmoud the Lesser drummed on a plastic water can with talented fingers. He sang songs in Arabic and called on us to dance by country.
“I love the desert,” he said, in a still moment,—“the sky, the earth. Whenever I am sad, I come to the desert, with friends, not tourists. We stay for days and nights. We drink tea and Coke, and sometimes cry.”
In his wanderings and workings, he had dealt with many tourists from the Islands of Japan, and he showed us an impression of the Nipponese that I will endeavor to transcribe:
“'Ohhh,'” he began. “'I am from Japanese. How motch for des-sert tour, kudasai.' Five hundred. 'Prease, wait, matte kudasai.'” (He mimed using a calculator watch, then he writhed as if in mental anguish. “'Ohhh, ohhh—takai desu! Too much. Prease, student discount.' Four hundred fifty. 'Ohhh, ohhh, sank you, sank you, arigato gozaimasu—hai, hai.'”
The Koreans shared the tequila and beer they had the foresight to bring, and Mahmoud lit a small shisha with coals from the fire. The wood had burned out and the red coals were scattered in the sand like stars. Jean and I took a walk up to the dune's slithering apex, and along it to scrabble drunkenly up some rocks to the top of a cracked peak. From there we could survey all the wonders of the landscape by the light of the moon.
Day 2: Hamad and Mahmoud the Lesser played a trick on our Sheikh the next day. They flicked off his four-wheel drive so that when he started, he spun out in the sand. They got out to laugh at their master, though the passengers who had switched cars to escape from Mahmoud the Lesser's inexpertise were not humored when they found themselves again pushing a jeep from the sandbox.
Hamad and the Koreans left for a longer tour, reducing our convoy to two vehicles as we proceeded through the White Desert and into the forest of mushroom rocks that the Bedouin call Aish el-Ghorab. The bases of the stones have been sandblasted away over eons, leaving rocks on tiny legs, and strange, extra-terrestrial formations.
“Look,” said Mahmoud the Lesser, “there is a camel!” We saw heads and chickens, and when Yashar, Denniz, and I were riding on top of our jeep, clinging to the empty rack as we sped through the rocks, Mahmoud the Lesser leaned out his window and pointed at something, a rock he titled “Cleopatra on a horse.” Yashar said, “I'm going to need to be on mushrooms to see that.”
We got off the roof at Al-Santa, a 500-year-old acacia tree that has grown in a tangled, solitary way deep in the desert. Next we moved north to the oasis spring at Bir Regwa, the forest divided by fences into little rooms canopied by the arbor, with fire pits and tea pots ready. Jebel al-Cristal (Crystal Mountain) is a hill formed of fake crystalline structures, and while we were peeling off bits of it we saw a giant arachnid, the camel spider. That was where Mahmoud & Mahmoud told us we had to pay additional money for park entrance fees.
The convoy stopped at a hot spring for bathing and a late lunch. The sulfuric mineral water, opaque and aquamarine, fed a steaming concrete pool, and drained on the other side into a aquaduct that led out to the fields. We swam in it and splashed around until the food was ready.
Back in Bawiti, there was cause for alarm when Mahmoud the Greater told us our 300 pounds only covered one night, and he would need 50 pounds for a second. Yashar said he could not remember what he had agreed on. We all entered varying states of anger and dismay, and sat there for long periods of awkward silence, spent staring intently at points on the carpeted floor of Mahmoud the Lesser's dwelling, while we waited for the supper his wife was preparing. I was of a mind to pay less than we agreed on and go to a hotel, but Denniz's cooler head prevailed. The Dane assured Mahmoud the Greater with platitudes and negotiated a second night, close to the oasis, for 25 pounds more.
Mahmoud the Lesser served us massive plates of rice and noodles and bread and beans. We thanked the chef through the husband. (Amelia reported from the kitchen all the abuses the women railed at their husband, who deflated like a squeezed sponge under them.) As per the terms of our renegotiated contract, we would only take one jeep out to our campsite that night. Four crammed in the back, two on the passenger's seat, and Mahmoud the Lesser drove us a short ways out of Bawiti to a fenced enclosure with two yurts and a fire pit at the edge of the palm groves. We set out carpets in one of the yurts and mattresses around the fire, and sat there enjoying the cool night.
There was a story in Bahariyya that six years before, the largest skeleton of a dinosaur ever discovered was found in the Oasis. Americans funded the paleontological project, and Germans dug up the bones; but when the Egyptian laborers found out that the Americans would be taking the skeleton home, they stole and hid two of the largest bones. Mahmoud had worked on the project, and when we asked if he knew where the bones were hid, he only showed us a sly grin.
We had to get up early the next morning to take Yashar back into town for a 6:30 bus to Cairo, so he could catch his flight to Morocco that afternoon. “When I do not get enough sleep,” said Mahmoud, “people ask me, 'What is wrong with you? You seem different than before. Are you angry?'”
Yashar received our farewells, a sadness for Denniz especially. The two had first met on a Couchsurfing road trip out of Aleppo, and despite being complete opposites had formed a connection on the strength of similarities, both their fathers being refugees, from Turkey and from Iran. They had run into each other regularly on the road south—but no longer, since they would be on different continents. “Or,” said Denniz, “maybe you'll get home for Christmas, and I'll be having tea with your mom. Surprise!” Yashar went to the bus station, and we went to Popular Restaurant to drink coffee until the sun rose. The rest of us had decided to continue on through the desert to Luxor.
From the roof of a building across the street from Mahmoud the Lesser's house, you could see the whole spread of the Bahariyya Oasis. It was no mean thing, no little puddle ringed by palms like the columns of some Hellenic dome, but a vast island of densely cultivated forest in a sea of sand. Our vantage looked over the verdant and jagged roof of this hall, the date-bearing, orange-growing canopy, and toward the dry, sandy hills on the far side.
Our bus to Dakhla Oasis left around noon, and in the time we had, our band walked down to a grotto in the jungle of the palm grove. The stream that ran through it was clouded with minerals. We talked about the difference between a sleaze and a slime, and explained to Sven that he could call a girl easy-going, but he shouldn't call her easy. Denniz's mom was in the hospital with meningitis, and he went back to check his e-mail for news. Amelia went with him, and Jean, Sven, and I continued deeper into the oasis.
We walked under the date palms and orange trees, between the fences and streams, until we were well lost, and then turned back into a field full of newborn butterflies. A white egret landed and strutted around the place, picking for worms. “What do you miss from back home?” asked Sven. “Food,” said Jean and I, though we later added other things worth missing. We got to talking about separation, and how it is to reconnect with friends on a return.
“I'm gone six months,” said Jean, “and that's a long time, but fifteen months? You go home, and what do you have to talk about? Your friends have had jobs, some of them have had children, they have done lots of things, without you. And you, you have been doing crazy things, going all over the desert and to Pyramids and India. Do you just tell them what happened, and then it is like before?”
“Yes, I experience that, too,” said Sven. “When I go home after my ozzer trip, the one-year one, I feel like I am different. My friends zay I am stranger to zem. I feel very—what is the word?—disconnected?”
When we eventually found our way back into the town, and after we had eaten a breakfast of rice, potato stew, and pickled vegetables at Popular Restaurant, and had moved to the bus station to wait for our coach, I asked Amelia about it. She said, “You change, but, well, you're still the same person. Your character is still the same. It's just what you're into that changes. I'm into travel and seeing live bands, and I have friends who aren't at all. I have friends who are into very different things, but we can always get together for dinner and a beer.”
The desert between Bahariyya and Dakhla looked like a construction zone or a parking lot at a fairgrounds, with trees and stone pillars on the horizons. Past the small, dusty Farafra Oasis, the bus rode down around a sand sea, vast and flat. Sprinklers sprayed water over the rebellious parcels of green that disturbed the contemplative monotony. We passed through another small oasis, and then down onto the waste, and through it to the oasis.
We arrived in Al-Qasr after dark, but just in front of the Tourist Rest House, the only hotel in that small town. Our caretaker Mohammed had a reputation as an upright, trustworthy sort of chap. He set us up in two rooms around a lounge on the second floor. There was a sort of veranda outside on the stairway with a picnic table, and the stairs went up to the roof, where we sat for the large dinner that Mohammed served—great tubs of rice and boiled things. The abolition of hunger ceases all discourse.
Al-Qasr is an old city, and the next morning we investigated its oldest part. A mudbrick minaret, 800 years old, stands as dilapidated watcher over the entrance. There a man in a blue robe and white turban met us and led us on through a maze of crumbling and roofless buildings, shaded by the three story walls and high bridges of bisected palm trunks. The slim windows had posts in them like prison bars. The dusty air had a stale, sour quality, as if the same air had been current since the city's ancient founding. Few people still lived there.
At the Madrasa Court we found stairs up to the rooftop, as dusty as the road, and it sagged like a trampoline under our weight. In courtyards off the main road, our guide showed us an olive press and a filter for oil, and a grain mill to grind flour—all bound from branches and metal and stone. He walked us to the entrance and we paid him his due backsheesh.
The Rest House is the only place to eat in Al-Qasr, so we took our lunch there, then hired a car out to one of the hot springs. The water that bubbled out of the ground into a concrete cistern, then down into a second cistern and out into the soil. It was smaller than the one in the White Desert but much hotter; it took a while and a slow entry to adjust to the heat. Palm bushes fenced one side in and the dirt road ran along the other, looking over a fallow grain field.
Two boys rode up on a donkey cart and stared at us, slowly moving closer until I got them to pose for a picture. More people trickled closer, until there was a scattered crowd of them milling about in robes, waiting for the Westerners and the White Woman to leave so they could partake in an after-work bath. Amelia wore a black T-shirt over her swimmers out of modesty but could not help attracting attention.
While the others were drying off, I went over to the two boys, who were climbing all over their donkey cart, to ask them how much it would be to Al-Qasr. Five pounds, they said, and we shook hands. Somehow we loaded the four of us in the back of the donkey cart, putting our weight over the wheel so as not to overburden the beast or tip its carriage, and the two boys sat on the frame whacking the donkey with a stick. We felt bad for it, so we got out where the road to the spring rejoined the highway and walked back the last ten minutes.
Denniz had caught some cold or flu bug and stayed behind to rest. He felt a little better when we returned. Sven and I were hard into a chess game on the roof when Denniz arrived with a backgammon board tucked under his arm to challenge Amelia. His Turkish father had made him familiar with every aspect of the game.
“The Western ones are all padded, but they make the boards out of wood for a reason. You're supposed to slam the piece down, to make a noise,” he said. “There's tactics, but there's only so much you can do. At a certain point, it's all about the dice roll. You have to take risks, and then hope for the roll you need. It's about taunting.”
He blew on the dice, slammed down pieces, and laughed maniacally. When Amelia lost her third game in a row, he told her, “Put the board under your arm. Now, kum parğına git!” — Get to the playground!