The Egyptian Oases March 17 - 25, 2006 (without bikes)
THE SIWA OASIS
Settling-In in Siwa Town
Our bus from the coastal city of Marsa Matruh unceremoniously unloaded us at a dusty, almost deserted intersection in Siwa ("see-wah") Town--deserted except for the throng of shouting young boys who all but assaulted the few tourists with donkey-taxi offers. Most spoke some English and the tussling over our business was overwhelming after the brain-dulling ride through the seemingly lifeless Sahara Desert. Bill finally contracted with one of the older, quieter boys for our ride to a hotel and with us being the only paying customers, the small crowd of drivers and their donkeys dispersed.
Our young driver in his full-length caftan was working hard to be a professional in this traditional village and waited patiently while we inquired at the B&B at the top of our list. Surprisingly, they were fully booked but our driver reassured us that he would accompany us until we found a hotel. The male receptionist recommended another place and we, our driver and donkey headed back on the dusty road at close to sunset. The young man informed us that this second hotel wasn't in our Lonely Planet guidebook. Our pages were torn out of the book, but he either recognized the pages or knew it was a good guess. Being animal lovers, we appreciated that rather than beat on his donkey with his stick as others did, he prodded it with a threat by clicking his stick against the wooden roof of the cart.
We were the only guests at the relatively new establishment with a half dozen individual cabins that were clearly designed for Western tourists. The dimly lit bathroom had an open shower area in one corner and the tiny hot water heater with a dial for us to watch as we bathed. Good beds, a private bathroom, and electricity made this a better choice for us than some of the other options in town.
As much of the lodging in the village, it was overpriced at
$40 a night--we paid $12 a night in Alexandria for a similar class of
accommodations. Some critter was enjoying burrowing into the date palm trunk
ceiling and we moved the beds a bit to keep from getting a mouthful of sawdust
in the night. The screens on the small windows were intact but the gaps
between the frames of the windows and the walls would let
mosquitoes pass through holding hands. We hoped our electronic "bugger" that we plug into electrical outlets
would be up to the challenge of the high ceiling to minimize the amount of DEET
we'd be dabbing on through
the night. Malaria and a worse disease, leishmaniasis, were unlikely but
possible Egyptian souvenirs from nocturnal bugs that
we wanted to avoid.
The list of diseases available to one in Egypt reads like the index in a tropical medicine text. Egypt is hardly my idea of tropical but it is the warm waters of the Nile that support the tropical parasites, even miles from the river itself. The risk to tourists is pretty low as Egypt isn't the hotbed of most of those diseases, but our risk was high compared to being at home or in most of Europe. And too many of those nasty diseases aren't easily or effectively treated--knowledge that made us all the more vigilant.
Realigning Our Notion of an Oasis
Though the Siwa Oasis was the most fascinating place we visited in Egypt, it hardly lived up to our TV-enhanced spin on the word. Granted, it is a haven because of the wealth of the water in the middle of a vast expanse of parched land, but there was nothing pretty or particularly pleasant about it. The groves of date palms, olive, and fruit trees weren't lovely lush, green places that beckoned but dusty and chaotic looking. Concrete lined irrigation ditches crisscrossed the Oasis; trenches and depressions were dug to flood root systems; and a jumble of downed branches and trunks gave it no chance of being mistaken for a groomed garden or manicured orchard. The groves we peeked through rush fences to see didn't tempt us at all and walking in them looking like it would be a tedious task with little reward.
But despite the generally dry, scruffy look, the Oasis statistics were impressive with 300,000 palm trees,
70,000 olive trees and many fruit orchards in its more than 20,000 square miles. Wheat is also grown in the
though we didn't notice any cultivated fields. It
has 4 large lakes, at least one of which is saltwater (and probably all 4) and
more than 300 fresh water springs and streams. They have 2,000 new wells and a
new drainage system.. The drainage system is necessary to decrease the salination of the soil
which occurs from irrigating without an outflow below the level of the water table. Most of the Oasis is 40' or more below
sea level and Siwa is the oasis with the longest, continuous habitation history in
Egypt. Alexander the Great was Siwa's most auspicious early visitor and he came
to have his status as the son of Zeus confirmed by one of the top oracles in
The water and vegetation of the Oasis attracts egrets and many other birds, none of which ate enough of the plentiful mosquitoes and flies to make sitting outside for long pleasant. And on some days the wind kicked up the dust making the town look like it was shrouded in smog. Like elsewhere we had been in Egypt, there was a futility about bathing and washing clothes. The patina that one accumulates in minutes or hours depending on the day doesn't feel or look good, but washing it off with soap and water was but the briefest of remedy.
With the help of rented bikes, we surveyed one of the many spring-fed pools that our
guide book recommended for a dip and we were not the least bit tempted by it as
a antidote to the dust.
Cleopatra's Bath was just a straight-sided, stone-lined round pond of water that
encroached on the dirt road. The local young men were rinsing off with
most of their clothes on and we didn't feel at all welcome. Here as in the next oasis, public bathing seemed to be
the norm and it was always done partially clothed. We gather that the women bathe
after dark, but we only saw men at the roadside bathing areas.
Renting the bikes was in itself an adventure. The flashy, sort of new, low-budget mountain bikes were already in disrepair. Both Bill and the helper gave up on Bill's bike as one pedal was dangling at an odd angle. The other bike available to him had no brakes but we were quickly told that one didn't need brakes in Siwa. Indeed, I did remember seeing the men in town doing odd little circles before stopping with their outstretched feet. I felt quite lucky with my bike's lingering braking ability, especially when we when down a short hill. We did the best we could clanking, whirling and wobbling along on these overpriced machines for an afternoon of sightseeing.
But being in this rustic village setting with just enough tourist features to meet our needs was a huge relief after the stresses of our first 2 weeks in Egypt. It turned hot our first full day in Siwa, but it was nice to be warm, to breath unpolluted air, and to be free of the high decibels of the cities. At last we could relax a little bit outdoors in our enclosed hotel compound despite our own gritty mix of dust, sunscreen and DEET and the need to swat at flies. (We guessed that the compound enclosure was as much to spare the locals the sight of seeing the offensive non-Muslims as it was for our privacy.)
The Siwa Oasis is home to about 20,000 people with
most of them living in or near Siwa Town. Most Siwans are of Berber origin (a
native people of North Africa) and continue to speak their own Berber language
and adhere to their conservative traditions. The oldest part of the old town
dates from the 13th century and has mostly been abandoned due to its basic
building material--salt--dissolving. Yes, the labyrinth of 4 and 5 storey
buildings was constructed with chunks of salt mixed with rock and then
plastered over with local clay. Life in the fortress enclave of Shali was
apparently the stuff of movies with its long-standing reputation of allowing few
outsiders in and
allowing even fewer to exit.
After centuries of habitation and mystique, much of Shali unceremoniously dissolved in a 3 day downpour in 1926. Most of the residents moved out and the shell of the ancient community shrinks with each rainfall. There does however appear to be a bit of a revival along the narrow streets within the disintegrating mound as newer mud brick or stone homes covered with mud were occupied. Most were very meager and without electricity or running water, though a few were well camouflaged, well built homes that blended in with the ancient town's architecture.
At the mosque in Cairo where we were endlessly remonstrated for more baksheesh from our uninvited guide, I was given a booklet entitled "Women in Islam" written in English. The author's premise was that if you stripped away the cultural interpretations of religion and instead went to the source documents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that you would find that Islam was the most favorable towards women. Given that Islam is the youngest of the 3 faiths, it wasn't hard for me to believe that its attitude towards women was more evolved. Not being well versed in any of the three religions however, I could only be an interested but not critical reader of the booklet.
But of course, regardless of the content of the ancient texts, what matters to women is how the documents are interpreted and in Siwa Town we saw the harshest version of Islam we have witnessed. It certainly isn't as severe as what the Taliban proscribed, but it made me shiver nonetheless. It appeared that in Siwa married or mature women weren't allowed to propel themselves by other than walking. No woman we saw rode a bike, drove a car or truck, nor did they drive a donkey cart. Seemingly dependent upon the services of their young boys--perhaps 6 or 7 years old--we saw women sitting in the carts driven by little boys or adult men.
Of course, we had to guess that they were women in the backs of open donkey carts. Only a gesture to tighten the hold at the top of a slumped heap of fabric suggested that a person was underneath. We saw no skin, no form recognizable as human, only a slight movement gave away the secret. The convincing observation that indeed a woman was giving shape to these compressed little piles was that the final layer of blue plaid fabric was identical to the fabric we saw covering a few faceless women on foot.
It would be easy to conclude that there were no women in
Siwa Oasis, that it was only a community of men and children. Unlike the
Egyptian cities we visited, only men staffed the hotels, shops and produce
stands. And only men did the shopping. Men lounged about on stairways and doorsteps
and socialized in the village center,
but not the women.
Reading the posted information at the tourist office painted a grim picture of life for Siwa women. The birth of a boy was a joyous event but there was no comment about the birth a girl. (My brochure on Islam was very reassuring that the Koran urges an equal reception for either sex of baby.) The marriage ceremony includes several days of socializing for the groom and his friends but isolation for the bride.
Should the woman be predeceased by her husband, her life is all but over. She is confined to her home for 40-some days and isn't allowed to change her dress or bath for the duration. (The confinement was about 130 days in the past but had been revised.) When she is allowed out, whomever she first glazes upon is cursed with misfortune, so someone stands guard and verbally warns others of her approach. From then on, she is treated as an ostracized person. This was especially interesting as my little comparative religions booklet took pains to explain how much more charitable Islam is towards women, especially widows, at least in the original text.
TV arrived in Siwa in 1988 and I wondered what impact it was having on the local women. Previously we'd read that in the more conservative parts of Turkey that the suicide rate is rapidly rising among young women in strict households and I could imagine the same is or will be true in Siwa. Not many of the women have the opportunity to see non-Siwan women for themselves, but TV certainly gives them an eyeful (if they are allowed to watch it) and the Siwan young girls are out and about enough to see foreign women.
I wasn't left to wonder long however as the next day the volunteer at the tiny museum happily answered my burning questions about the local girls and young women. He was quite clear that there was no problem brewing. I was told that the girls do go to school but couldn't possibly go off to Cairo or other cities to study at the university because of the criminals there. And why would women want to work outside the home when they have a nice life in their home. However, they aren't allowed to participate in the community outside the house walls; they aren't allowed to shop, go for walks, or work in the family garden but instead entertain themselves indoors with their household duties, making baskets, and doing embroidery. They are allowed to visit family members in other households but apparently not friends. He equated the situation of Siwan women to that of upper class married women in the Western world that arrange parties rather than have a career. Of course, his analogy left many openings for discussion, which I didn't pursue.
Siwa is by far the most conservative place we visited in
Egypt, though I can imagine that some other Egyptian women live under similar
constraints. Scrupulously covered heads were the norm in the cities and veiled
women were an every day sight there too. Some urban women had their faces covered except for eye slits,
others had a flap of mesh fabric completely covering their faces. Black gloves were another
common covering used, being the final piece to completely encase some women in black
fabric. But of course, it doesn't matter which of the major western religions
you look at, they are all repressive in their attitudes towards women in their
most fundamentalist forms. Some of the more conservative Christian groups in the
US demand that women be completely covered except for their faces and if the
local cultures would tolerate it, I'm sure some of them would push for covering
Women Tourists in Egypt
Never before had our Lonely Planet guidebook itemized and repeated their cautions to women as they did in their Egyptian edition. With apologies, they flat-out recommended that women not travel in Egypt without a male companion and that the relationship be presented as a marriage whether it was true or not. There was the general list of what women should not do or wear and the narrative was frequently peppered with more specific admonitions.
In the Siwa Oasis section there was about a tip per page for women travelers. Their comments included that a woman walking alone in the palm groves may be viewed as extending a sexual invitation; not to take a dip in particular bathing pool during the daylight; not to swim in another one without a male companion; and to only enter another spring-fed pool fully clothed.
I was a bit perplexed by all of the cautions as I am very vigilant about reading the body language of others for signs of mischief and no behaviors in Egypt had rung my alarm bells (even the inappropriate touching in Cairo didn't feel dangerous.) I could believe that the book's warnings should be heeded, but had trouble reconciling them with my own experience. Bill suggested that perhaps that was precisely the problem--that the cues Egyptian men send might be totally different and that Western women may miss them entirely. The society is so conservative that I could believe he was right and that my threat-o-meter was far too insensitive and perhaps even calibrated for the wrong indicators.
Especially in Siwa, I did reign in my behavior and I moved about like I was on a leash. I watched that the distance between Bill I didn't get too great as we dodged piles of sand, donkey poop, and passing vehicles on the road. In exploring a ruins I found myself out of sight of Bill as I often am and decided that I best not proceed without him. And 30' from our Siwa hotel grounds door I was going to send him in while I snapped a last photo but thought better of it--it was probably best for me to have a chaperone on the quiet road at the edge of town. In the Egyptian cities I did venture out alone a few times for a quick errand without any problem, but I decided to be more conforming in much more conservative Siwa Town.
Of course, loosing my independence was not pleasant for either of us. I was always having to calculate the appropriateness of my behavior in public and Bill was stuck being our representative for almost all of our joint chores. Among the conservatives, all commerce occurred between men and so, except in the most touristy settings, Bill did all the talking and buying.
We surmised that we gave a cluster of Siwan men an eyeful of Western culture the morning we stepped into the shade to have a "discussion." It was as close as we come to arguing and even though there were no shaking fingers or raised voices, we got thoroughly stared at. Several men moved closer and a few gave us their undivided attention for the duration. My list of transgressions must have been enormous: I was hanging around out in public; my face and hands were exposed; and I was taking equal time in the discussion. The fact that Bill was participating in all of this must have been puzzling too. I can imagine my behaviors would have been grounds for divorce or punishment for a Siwan woman. One young man was even bold enough to interrupt us to inquire as to whether we were married or friends and how long we'd been married. We figured that by that evening the information had probably made its way around to all the men lounging in the square. But we did what we needed to do and I'm sure they considered it a full day's entertainment.
Public Health Issues in Siwa
We are no experts on the matter, but we've been amazed as we travel how boldly some community health issues jump out at us. In the first months of our cyclotouring in 2001 we were taken aback at the large number of Germans who had obviously suffered from strokes and it didn't take many weeks of reading menus to understand why. In the former communist block countries of Eastern Europe, it was the untreated birth injuries seen in adults and the number of people with symptoms of advanced alcoholism that made us gasp. (And many Europeans are happy to remind us that the US population is known world-wide for obesity.) But in the Siwa Oasis, it was the number of albinos that caught our eye.
These pale skinned men (the women weren't seen) had faces that were always too red topped by white hair and had their eyes squinted down beyond recognition. The desert is a terrible environment for albinos who lack the protective pigment the rest of us enjoy to some degree. Bill was quick to add that the unusually high number of albinos was likely a reflection of inbreeding in this very closed society.
Inadequate health services were likely the cause of the large number of cross-eyed men we saw everywhere in Egypt. Usually it is a muscle imbalance that can successfully be treated if spotted early but it clearly was being missed in many Egyptian children, resulting in a lifetime of compromised vision for those individuals. And we continued to see the high incident of traumatic blindness in 1 eye throughout northern Egypt that we first noticed in Cairo.
While in Siwa I was reminded of an alarming statistic from a travel health website, which was that Hepatitis C was endemic in some parts of Egypt with as many as 67% of the older villagers having the disease. We had no way of knowing if they were talking about Siwa but the "other world" quality of the village brought it to mind. It was quite shocking to me as I've only known of 2 people with Hepatitis C in my expanded circle of friends and both died in a matter of a few years from the disease.
The good news in Siwa was the health of the cats. We didn't see any fat cats cruising the streets for a meal, but whatever is endemic in Cairo and Alexandria isn't a such a problem in Siwa. These felines looked a little underfed but were clean and healthy looking, which was a relief to us.
ON TO BAHARIYYA
Siwa Oasis to Bahariyya Oasis
Not By Camel But 4WD
Traveling between the 2 oases as we began closing our loop eastwards back to Cairo was Map Man's high-drama segment of our Egyptian trip. The road was only paved intermittently, there was no bus or train between the 2 oases, and there were no services en route. There were 3 hotels in Siwa that would arrange passage across the desert with an aging 4-WD vehicle and a local driver. The flat rate started at a little over $200 for the 5-7 hour trip.
The ritual for wannabe's is to announce their desire to make the trip to the next oasis to the 1 tourist info man and the staff at each of the 3 hotels. When you make your declaration of intent, you are then told if there are others inquiring and when they want to go. Everyone's goal is the same: to get the day you want with enough companions so as to get the per-person cost down to your price point.
We were lucky: our first full day in Siwa we were told that there were already 2 people who had been waiting for several days to hook-up with others. We were given a cursory description of a Swiss man with a beard that was younger than us and an American woman about our age. Not to worry--we would surely bump into them in town, we were told. Of course, my thought was how many days would it take to find each other with those sketchy descriptions. But on our return trip to the tourist office that day to reread the posted information on women, a man with a beard walked by. I was only a little slow in registering his description and called out to him before he had gotten very far.
Sure enough, he was the Swiss man and he had recently found a 3rd person for the trip. Five people met his price point and since our 2 preferred travel days fit his schedule, he would take it from there. He and the American woman dropped by our hotel that evening and the next morning their trio began the shopping for a vehicle. We bumped into them at noon the next day and after 2 hours, they'd only been able to check-out one option.
We were all using Lonely Planet's guide of Egypt, which recommended inspecting the vehicle for road-worthiness as a part of the selection process and that is what they were doing. Three bald tires eliminated the first option and we tagged along as following up on the other 2 rigs unfolded more quickly. Tread thickness, number of spares, and seating arrangement for our 5 and possibly 6 people became the criteria and the final choice was effortless. With its rusted-through sheet metal and long since worn out seat springs, the old Toyota Land Cruiser wasn't anyone's ideal, but the treads were good and the motor turned on for a demonstration indeed purred.
The vehicle inspection had occurred on the street corner as did finalizing the date and time for the crossing. Copying our passports and paying the 10EŁ and an unexpected US$10 per person in permit fees were done at the copy shop about to close for afternoon prayers. There were no receipts, no contracts--only handshakes and hopeful smiles. The only remaining question was whether the young Dutch man who wanted to cross a day earlier would be joining us. His alternative was like ours if we couldn't get a group together, which was to retrace his steps back to Matrouh, Alexandria and then Cairo. No one said it out loud, but 5 people was just right for the pricing issues and a 6th started to make the Toyota look too small.
We were quite pleased--the trio that included a young German man were all experienced travelers that so far had presented a nice balance of expressing their preferences yet being willing to compromise enough to make the deal. Everyone gave up a preference, but we all got the trip we wanted for a good price. So far the bizarre process of lining up the vehicle and other people had exceeded our expectations.
The desert crossing would be a long, uncomfortable day and yet one that should be a memorable adventure. The weather had just turned hot so the 5 or more hours in the desert would likely be toasty. Open windows would be the only source of our cooling, so dusty grit would likely impregnate our skin in the process. It would be cramped if the 6th person joined us and none of the seats had good cushioning for the sure to be bouncy ride. Even our bus rides on asphalt had been jarring, so this was likely to feel like an athletic event even though the legs weren't moving. There would be compromises to make, such as how long and often to stop for taking pictures and who would sit in the most undesirable places. And toilet breaks for the 2 woman would be a challenge with no vegetation to hide behind and the company of our driver from ultra-conservative Siwa.
Departure time was a compromise at 8 am, so we were amused that the person pushing for a 7 am start wasn't even ready at 8. The driver had picked us up at our little hotel at ahead of schedule at 7:40, so we were surprised that we didn't get underway until almost 8:30. The driver kept urging us to put more belongings on the roof of the car, but we were all wedded to the same strategy: only our big bag went on the roof and a day pack stayed inside. Extra water, sunscreen, snacks and hats we the common reasons, but we had also stuffed our most precious and most heat sensitive items in our day pack. Belongings would get hot inside or out, but we figured our sensitive electronics would travel better inside and we also set aside medications that we feared were less heat tolerant.
Despite the delay, everyone was still in good humor as we got underway and Simon the Dutch man (and the 6th traveler) initiated a round of inside-the-car photos. In minutes we were at the army station to pick up the permit and there was a problem--an army man would have to ride with us--for free. We were 6 paying riders plus a driver and one more person would make it very cramped. Protests instantly went out. The driver said he had told them "No" but there was no compromise. His broken English made it hard to decipher if the guy just needed a ride or if he was there as a security precaution, though unlike previous security guys, he had no gun. It also wasn't clear if this always happened and the driver was fibbing about his protests.
The most vocal in our party demanded we go back to the tourist info office and protest. It seemed like a strange place to lodge a complaint, but I cared less about the free-loader and was more interested in watching the multicultural dynamic unfold. Several of our party emerged from the tourist info office with the report of their phone conversation with officials in Cairo--the army man was riding with us. We all agreed he would be relegated to the worst seat, which was over the transmission hump, as the middle person in the front seat. By this time, he didn't want to go with us either but accepted his assigned seat and made himself as small as possible. Moving back a row or 2 would risk putting him in contact with infidel women, so I'm sure his spot looked like the only option to him.
It was 9:30 before we finally left town and our margin for other problems was shrinking if we were to complete the trip in daylight as is recommended. Even the paved stretches of road were rat-a-tat rough and the unexpected big bumps were down right dangerous for the 2 of us in on the bench seats in back with less head clearance. The driver sped along at about 60 mph on roads that we would have driven at 25 or 30 mph. Of course, there weren't enough daylight hours to do it at our prudent sense of speed. No seat belts, bad road surfaces, and sudden changes to off road riding made it look way beyond our comfort level. But the crazy driving style at least looked experienced so we shifted our attention to the scenery and turned our fate over to Allah as do the Egyptian drivers.
scenery was interesting but not outstanding. Riding along I was reminded of the
difference between desert and dunes, with only the later being mostly sand. We drove
past a corner of some sand dunes but most of what we saw otherwise was a mishmash of rocks
in an assortment of formations and scant bits of vegetation. As we drove down
into a huge depression we realized the blackened area in the distance was one of
the numerous salt lakes in the area and we saw one other marshy area. There were
just enough birds to remind us that overnight campers in the desert would likely
be pestered by mosquitoes and other insects.
This desert area was clearly an ancient ocean bottom, which became indisputable during our lunch break. Our driver stopped under a mushroom shaped outcropping that was a loose conglomeration of sea shell fossils later carved by the wind. There must of been millions or billions of shell fossils, many still perfectly formed and no larger than lentils. These little loose shells carpeted the desert floor and were imbedded in the outcroppings, along with shells the size of a silver dollar.
In my innocence, I was startled when after eating our light lunch of pitas, canned tuna, feta cheese, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, the driver neatly clustered the packaging garbage under a few rocks. Some of the Styrofoam was already blowing away before we departed. It was beyond my comprehension as to why there wasn't a tradition of packing out garbage in this barren land with little capacity to absorb debris and yet even at the military outposts there seemed to be little provision for garbage.
The half dozen desperate looking military checkpoints
concentrated at the beginning and end of our journey broke
up the monotony of sitting. Though we weren't required to get out, the process
of greeting the driver and our army man and the shuffling of papers took long enough at
most stops that we were all eager to stretch our legs. Looking at us seemed to be
the high point of their day too as often 4 or 5 men meandered out of the crude
block buildings that were their homes to talk to the driver and roll the empty
oil can blockade out of our path. With days passing without a vehicle making the
journey we were doing, it must be terribly boring duty.
Other rituals unfolded as we traveled, such as the front seat passengers carefully retrieving the handle for the window whenever calls came from the back to readjust the balance between the cooling effect of more 60 mph air flow against the unpleasantness of being sandblasted by the sometimes grit laden air. The handle was carefully returned to the depression in the dashboard when the adjustment was completed. At one stop the driver obliged us by disconnecting the ceiling light that became dislodged and was dangling between the middle seat passengers.
The smell of burning rubber triggered a chorus
from our group at the first whiff. The driver must have been shocked to
have such an alarm system on board.
Passengers next to the doors jumped out to
help the driver with the tire inspection, but no problem was found. Bill noticed a
missing belt when the driver lifted the hood but we went on without any repairs.
We all assumed that when the smell disappeared that the burning fan belt dropped
off, but Bill noticed the temperature gauge was staying high. Shortly the driver
stopped again, pulled out a hammer and a couple other tools, and fiddled under
the hood. Apparently the stinky problem was something to do with the steering
, water pump and/or fan and was easily
repaired as we continued into Bahariyya without any more alerts.
Arriving in Bahariyya (ba-ha-reeh-ya) Oasis
The Oasis With Less
It was about 5pm, only an hour before sundown, when we arrived in Bawiti, the largest town in the Bahariyya Oasis. I was happy we had finally made it and was desperate for a shower to remove the heavy film from my skin and now straw-like hair but I clutched at the sight of the town. It wasn't the calm feeling Siwa Town with its large open market square at its center, flanked by its picturesque though disintegrating old town. Bawiti was instead a conglomeration of meager and dusty back-alley scenes. Dry, dusty, mud brick Siwa was becoming elegant and stately in my mind and I wished I could be swiftly transported back to it. I realized that after a long, tiring day I didn't have the resilience to look upon this new town as an adventure.
Bawiti didn't improve with getting to know it. Siwa Oasis is
a destination because it is special; Bahariyya Oasis is a destination because it
is only a few hours bus ride from Cairo and is a good jumping off point for
overnight trips in the desert. Had we not read about the mini-safaris that leave
from Bawiti, we would have guessed it from the many vehicles roaming the street. We were
rarely out of sight of a newer Toyota Land Cruiser readied for an outing. It was the
piles of roof-top gear covered with colorful woven fabrics that gave them away.
Some vehicles were dedicated just to gear, with stacks of thin foam sleeping
mats, coarsely woven blankets, and cooking equipment on board. Others were piled
high on top with baggage and stuffed with people on the inside. No wonder our
driver headed back to Siwa (with the army man) without trying to solicit return customers--everyone
in Bahariyya was accustomed to much later model vehicles than those originating
Bawiti was the first Egyptian town that wasn't crawling with taxis, either powered by an engine or a donkey. In all other Egyptian towns we would literally be hounded by taxi drivers wanting a fare, especially in Alexandria and Siwa. They would follow us for blocks, asking in coarse English "Where you going? Where you going? You take my taxi." In Bawiti we were actually eager to spot one to spare us dragging our flimsy wheeled suitcase for close to a half mile over mostly unpaved, dusty roads to catch the bus to Cairo on our last morning in town.
Bread In Bahariyya
The ritual for buying bread directly from the bakery was more arcane in the Bawiti than in the cities or in Siwa but given that bread represents 60% of the average Egyptian's diet, the customers didn't have much choice. In Bawiti, we spotted the bakeries by the long line of men standing at a blank wall. When the press of men at the wall momentarily broke as one departed with a stack of bread in hand, we could see a small hole had been chipped out of the wall at about chest level. We took our turns pressing into the crowds to hold our positions as we moved closer to the hole and when in reach, thrust a hand with exact change inside.
Usually 3or 4 waving hands were reaching simultaneously into the unknown . One time one of the louder and more aggressive old men gestured at me to relax, there was no more bread for now was the message. Those of us at the front held our position in line, but withdrew our hands and waited for the next batch of steaming hot pitas to appear. I never saw anything beyond the hole, but some of the men periodically stuck their heads partially into the hole to monitor the progress and chide the employees. When the agitation level in the group escalated, I again thrust my hand back through the hole, hoping to swap my 4˘ bill for 5 pitas.
switched the hot bread from hand to hand to keep from burning my skin as I
dashed back to where Bill was waiting. Of course, the
other people buying bread would linger to cool the pitas so they didn't get
soggy by spreading them out along the top of a stone wall, on rocky bits of the
sandy, unpaved sidewalk, or occasionally on newspapers.
The pitas were slow to cool and dry and would have to be flipped several times in the process. The pita resellers were easy to spot as they had rough hewn, open racks upon which they spread their bread. Their racks were perfect for both cooling and displaying their product. A few customers didn't cool their bread and just clipped them to the spring loaded rack on the back of their bike or put them into a bag and took off.
The Bugs Finally Won
We were relieved that the sight seeing in Bahariyya was as slim as we expected. We wrapped it up in about 2 hours the next morning, just in time to get us out of the increasing heat of the day and to get me back to our hotel. As we walked in the morning heat I knew all was not well with my gut. My GI system hadn't been particularly happy in Egypt, but I was getting by better than Bill. He had had to take Imodium on 2 different travel days because of the shortage of toilets and had been awake most of 1 night with GI distress. It was apparently my turn and I was sinking rapidly. I reluctantly took a Cipro--the 'big gun' antibiotic for traveler's diarrhea--before I got much farther than the extremely belchy and weak stage of the illness.
After stopping to rest several times and Bill progressively relieving me of my share of the groceries and even the weight of my fanny pack, we made it back to our room. Sitting and occasionally lying down was all I was good for that hot afternoon, though I managed to complete my hand washing by resting several times during the process. By dinner time my strength had returned and I cautiously ate a light dinner and was grateful I had escaped without any mad dashes to the toilet.
Bill's gut also had been rumbling often in Egypt though he never got really sick--until the day we left Egypt. That night he suddenly felt ill and popped a Cipro. His recovery was slower than mine, and he took another. During the course of the next week he took a total of 9 tablets to control the recurring symptoms.
WRAPPING IT UP
Back to Cairo
Returning to Cairo for our flight back to Europe gave us a chance to check our initial reactions about both the good and the bad of our first experience there. We were instantly reminded of the bizarre driving rituals as we were once again in the thick of swarming, honking vehicles in traffic. We still gasped at what looked to us like near misses when front bumpers stopped inches from our back seat doors and we tried hard to remain as detached as the driver did when we were gently rear-ended.
The hassling over money began right away when we hired a taxi to take us in to town. (Our scheduled, full-sized bus had broken down before arriving at Bahariyya Oasis and the substitute and much less comfortable microbus left us off in the 'burbs.) Fortunately we had paired up with a young Singapore couple from the bus for a ride into town and the man was even more adamant than I about not being overcharged. We rejected 4 cabs before our 30% lower offer was accepted.
It was an unexpected pleasure to be greeted with "Welcome Back" by the friendliest of the hotel staff when we checked in after 6 hours on the road. Our very average room looked delightful after our 2 week loop in northern Egypt. The room looked bigger, cleaner and better appointed than we remembered. And once again we felt the deep relief of being off the streets of Egypt where it was quieter, cleaner, and no one would hassle us over money.
After a pause to savor the comfort of our hideaway, we headed out to the streets of the other Cairo we had come to know. We had been in the huge swaths of hectic traffic that were now iconic for us; now it was time to immerse ourselves in a scene that still reflects a way of life that is hundreds or thousands of years old--the little back streets. The transition between scenes takes but a couple of minutes of walking and made us feel like we had stepped into a movie. Every glaze was an eyeful of disbelief.
We walked down the familiar street with its rows of shops ranging from fire fighting equipment and light fixtures to fried food stands. Then we turned down a street which we hadn't walked before and an even more bizarre stage unfolded, which was several blocks of shops selling empty bottles. First were the almost blackened, hole-in-the-wall places selling used bottles, most without lids. They looked like junkshop items from 40 years ago in the US when bottles were more precious and imaginative. A few tiny bottles were in an eye-catching display on a small crate out front of one small shop, and the rest of the shop's inventory was stacked on their sides in big piles. The contents of the shops gradually transitioned from dirty old bottles to dusty new ones with lids. Endless arrays of glass and plastic bottles were for sale with a slant towards what must have been ones for perfume. Occasionally the sweet scent of perfume lingered in the air, masking the stronger smell of these forever darkened streets.
Soon we were past "bottle land" and the hodge-podge mix of
shops returned. We were in search of better looking produce, so we were drawn to
turn down the more food-oriented streets. Fish being grilled in free-standing
stalls and other cooked food vendors narrowed the already tight street. Here too
we had to dodge traffic, but usually only 1 or 2 vehicles at a time, and usually
only going in 1 direction. The too-loud beeping of motorcycle horns, the clopping
of a donkey drawing a cart or the hissing sound of a person carrying a load that
wanted to pass by would shift our attention from staring at the merchandise to
looking for a notch in which to stand out of the way.
Most of the people on these pulsing back streets ranged from being totally indifferent to us to doing their own staring at us or drawing our attention with a friendly "Hello, Welcome to Egypt" in hopes of making a sale. The fish griller nodding approvingly as I gestured to photo his elaborate stand and another young man pegged us perfectly as he called us back to admire his chickens cooking on a spit. They were the tiniest chickens we'd seen and joked later that they might be pigeons, but at $1.30 and steaming hot, it was too good to pass up. He made it clear that he'd be there tomorrow too. The women seated on the pavement were happy to make a sale of their strawberries. At 14˘ a pound we could afford to throw out about 1/3 of them that weren't fit to eat.
We walked much farther than we had planned as what was to be a quick trip out for dinner essentials became a fantastic voyage into an exotic dream world. At 5 pm these residential and retail back streets pulsed with a lively energy that we didn't often find and wondered if it was supercharged by this being the last night of the work week or perhaps because the day was beginning to cool from being unusually hot. Whatever the cause, the mix of the energy from the people and our engrossment with the bizarre vignettes surrounding us was intoxicating. I didn't want to leave as every look was astonishing.
Even though not everything our eyes fell upon was odd, it was the intense conglomeration of the unexpected that had us enthralled. A neat stack of ancient fan blades on a bench; skinned pigs feet hanging off a stand; piles of garlic with 3' long greens attached; a closet-sized operation where several men were hand binding books and applying gold leaf lettering; soot-covered men backing out of a machine shop with 10' long metal rods; gold threaded upholstery rolls; a rare horse (rather than donkey) drawn cart with shiny brass fittings and a thick padded leather collar could all be seen in the slightest turn of the head.
When we finally headed back towards our hotel and made that transition from these magical back streets into the honking swarms of cars on the thoroughfare, we had that same shocking reality adjustment as when one walks out of a movie theatre when you've been totally absorbed in another world for a couple of hours. I slowly shifted from the heightened awareness of absorbing fascinating details all around me to the narrowed focus of navigating between weaving cars to cross back over to our hotel. That would be our last look at what for us had been the most delightful side of Egypt and soon we'd be flying back to Europe, back to a more predictable and familiar world.
Looking Back at Northern Egypt
Visiting Egypt was a wonderful bit of closure for some of the many history lessons we've learned. We'd seen Egyptian artifacts in the most unlikely places, like Zagreb, Croatia and Torino, Italy and so it was satisfying to actually see the place that they had come from. Now when I see Pharonic finds in far away museums, I'll have my own mental snap shots of the Nile, the oases, and the deserts from which they came.
When in Turkey in 2002 we visited ancient Hittite ruins and
learned of their battles with the Egyptians and now we'd physically looked at
the story from the other side. While traveling one year, we'd read about the salination of soil from
irrigation and how it destroyed the agricultural land in ancient Mesopotamia and
had seen the salt crystals on the soil in Siwa Oasis that also has no natural
drainage. I wondered why ancients in Anatolian Catal Hoyuk leveled their mud
brick homes every 100 years or so and built anew on top of the growing pile, gradually
raising the city up on a human-made hill. In Siwa Town we looked at the full
length cracks in the modern mud brick homes and it was crystal clear--they can't
be repaired, tearing them down and starting over is the only sensible thing to do.
Like Catal Hoyuk, Alexandria was a place I wanted to be even though little that made it famous had survived. But there is something magical about being where it happened: seeing the very ocean, standing on the hillside, feeling the winds and anchoring a sense of the scale of the site. In both of those places and many others, having a kinesthetic experience of a place makes a satisfying framework within which to stash the facts and figures.
Amusingly as has happened in Europe where Bill plotted a course and later learned that it was a Roman route, in Egypt Map Man stumbled onto Alexander the Great's route. After Alexander founded his new Hellenistic city and gave it his name in 332 bce, he traveled west to Marsa Matrouh. Like Alexander, we traveled from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh. From there, Alexander traveled for 8 days through the desert to Siwa Oasis--we made the same trip by bus in under 4 hours on a new asphalt road. He came on the sacred mission to ask one of the most famous oracles in the ancient world if indeed he was the son of Zeus. (Who would say "No" with Al's buddies waiting outside the door?) We also visited the ruins of the oracle, though only as a curiosity.
For all of these reasons, being in Egypt was a thrill but it was a harder trip than we expected. In hindsight, we realized the Europeans that have so casually talked about Egyptian trips likely have done the resort and snorkeling scene on the Red Sea rather than independently touring the cities and villages as we had done. We intentionally came in low season when the prices, crowds, temperatures and hopefully the risk of terrorism were low. We will return to Egypt in a couple of years to visit the grand historic sites like Luxor on the southern reaches of the Nile that we knowingly missed this time.
When we return to Egypt, we'll be a little better prepared. Dealing with the dust and few but persistent bugs will still be a nuisance but they'll be expected. We will arrive with our more advanced skills in deflecting aggressive baksheesh bids and be more alert to the health hazards beyond bird flu and terrorism which had been the focus of our concerns. And if you want to know more of the nuts and bolts details about traveling in Egypt that we'll be referring to on our next trip, take a look at Egypt - Northern in our Country Details file.
For those of you who saw the news of the perils we were lucky enough to avoid while in Egypt, we missed them by about a month. The small bomb that exploded in Cairo on April 10 was a month after we left Cairo, though in an area we visited. The bombing at the Red Sea resort at Dahur that killed 18 (mostly Egyptians) at the end of April was far from where we visited. And there were 4 deaths from the H5N1 virus in Egypt after we left, though we weren't able to local the area relative to where we were.
Where We Are Now 5/18/06
We are in northwestern Italy in the small city of Chivasso, northwest of Genoa. The sight of an internet shop across from our pleasant hotel encouraged us to lay over a day to get caught up on our "paperwork," which included finishing up this update. In a couple of days we'll enter the vast Val d'Aosta, a major alpine valley in the foot hills of the western Alps. It will lead us to Mont Blanc on the border of France and Italy were we will linger.
We've been enjoying scenic riding through the hills to avoid the busy roads, especially around Genoa. We've just hit the pollution of the Po Valley which is always disappointing but a predictor of soon-to-come Alps. We will be arriving in the Alps well conditioned for the mountain grades as our backs road have been dishing out challenges stretches for weeks.
We've been enjoying warm weather in the 60's and low 70's with a shower about once a week. It has however turned just enough warmer and more humid to slow us down in the afternoons.