Hershey to Siwa

It's been just less than a month since my Greyhound trek across the country and just under two weeks since I left Hershey. Still, I feel like I've been in Egypt for at least a month. When I first arrived, I wasn't sure whether I would find a cheap hotel or just call the phone number I'd been given. But I decided to go for the free couch over the cheap bed. This proved was a wise choice.The phone number belonged to Clay Adair, an AUC student living with his friend Curtis. During those first transient days on their couch, these two locals showed me around Tahrir, introduced me to some of the best koshari joints and gave some valuable advice on getting around Cairo. In speaking with several Egyptians that week my confidence was at times reinforced and at others shattered. Usually I was too afraid to even attempt a real conversation in Arabic.

My course here at ILI began that first Sunday, despite the disappointing riots that everyone was talking about, and after filling out a couple forms they handed me a key to the ILI residence. At first I wasn't sure what to do with it, but when it dawned on me that I'd be sleeping in a bed that night, my own bed, in a room of my own, I felt much like Said from Awladna fi London. After crashing on floors and couches since December 19th, it was a strange feeling to enter the room and actually empty my bag, not to be repacked the same day. Also in the ILI residence are two friendly Italians girls and two happy Swiss guys. Tonight we shared some pizza. One of our first nights here we all went out to Zamalek, and I've decided I'm pretty happy with these roommates. But mostly I'm thrilled to have a room, a key and a bed.

Still, being new in Egypt with so much to see, I'm rarely at the apartment. At first I just roamed the streets for hours aimlessly; taking the subway, buses, walking, or even crab-legging my way through town. There were a few days where I had a mission to accomplish in my wanderings, like finding a certain book, the perfect backpack, or a can opener. With only three hours of class per day, four days per week, there's plenty of time to wander.

This last weekend I was getting antsy in Cairo. I'd already been here an entire week. So I thought I'd wander a bit further. As soon as my class got out I packed my "Rapido" backback, bought in crowded Ataba, and got myself to the Ramses train station. I wanted to go to Alexandria and perhaps further. It had been seven years since my last and only visit to Alex and my vague memories from that trip included a 1st class train ride with a certain Zeleka Yeraswork, a wander through the old catacombs, Pompeii's Pillar, and the few other sites worth seeing. Little remains of the ancient city. Someone decided to burn the library down along with all its scrolls, and then over time others decided to use the other great buildings as quarries for ugly inferior buildings.

It was dark by the time I arrived at the station in Alexandria after a pleasant 2nd class train ride. I walked the corniche up and down again. It was filled with people, mostly teenagers, gathering in noisy clusters along the boardwalk. As I ate my twister that night on a corniche bench I watched a mother getting food all over her long, drooping sleeves as she helped her kids with their sloppy food. The image of those wet, droopy sleeves and the kofta from back at the train station weren't sitting well with my stomach, so after checking into my cell at the Hotel Crillon, I quickly took care of business, funneling out half a liter of molten lava. I thought I might want to start balancing out my greasy, street-vendor diet and start buying water like other expats do. Probably not though. Stretching out that night in my tiny room, my head and feet both easily touched the opposite walls. I only slept a few hours, waking up with lots of sweat and mosquitos

Needing to get some air, I walked the now deserted corniche as the sun rose. I thought I'd get a better view from out on the rocks, so I climbed down the wall and took a couple of pictures. As I was strolling along, enjoying the cool ocean breeze, having an overall sense of enjoyment and even of thrill at being alone in Alexandria on this impromptu vacation, I must not have seen the step to my right and slipped hard - my shoulder broke my fall onto the wet rock below, and my jeans and jacket were soaked on one side. Naturally, I got up I looked around behind me to see if anyone caught my ridiculous fall. Just one man was around, and he came running, but I soon found it was only to extract some baksheesh for lending me a hand up the wall.

That morning I took a bus to Marsa Matruh, four hours west along the coast from Alexandria. I was now on my way to Siwa. The bus only stopped in the town for an hour and a half, but the coast was beautiful and the town extremely quiet - this was definitely low season. I could have been happy to stay and enjoy the beaches for the weekend, but the Desert Oasis pamphlet I'd picked up in Alex was too tempting. Four more hours through the Sahara and we arrived in Siwa. It was extremely obvious as we approached: after hours of nothing but sand stretching to each horizon, there suddenly appeared strips of dark green: palm gardens.

Dropped off in the center of town, I circled the sloppy set of ruins on the hill that rises right behind the market, having some short conversations with locals. I told everyone I was American, hoping for some entertaining reactions, but no one really seemed to care. Once again I was excited to be in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't think to find a place to stay until the sun was going down. I was denied room in the inns near the market since I didn't have a passport (a rookie traveler's mistake), and by the time I decided to rent a bike and try to find the Desert Rose Hotel (3km from town) it was fast getting dark. It was a long road out, made to seem longer by long swathes of sand that covered several stretches and the lack of streetlights. Just a kilometer from town I started having trouble seeing the track. There were no lights to be seen as far as the horizon, and so I wondered about this supposed hotel in the middle of nowhere. But I kept riding. On the edge of a remote Saharan oasis riding a rickety old bike into the blackness, far from the lights of the town, I felt both extremely vulnerable and extremely excited to be where I was at that moment.

I did end up finding the hotel, tucked away behind a field of palms and having no lights aside from a couple candles in an empty courtyard. I put them back in business - as their only guest. They had mosquito nets, a natural spring pool, and no electricity. I sat outside by a fire with one of the two Siwans that ran the place, speaking some more halting Arabic as he puffed his water pipe. In an effort to be polite, I waited until I'd been practically eaten alive by mosquitos before leaving him alone and heading to bed. In truth, he was probably wondering when the annoying American kid would finally leave.

The following day was amazing, the best I've had for a very long time. After riding 6 extra kilometers just to get the proper change for my hotel, I continued past the Desert Rose for another couple km to reach the "Sea of Sand", as my map read. It was just as it was described. I rode back into town thinking that I would measure the distance I rode that day on this ancient bike. I soon forgot about my idea, but it probably came to about 30km by the time I had to return the bike. I took an extremely enjoyable ride through a few miles of palm gardens to visit the Temple of Amun - built during the 26th dynasty and famous for Alexander the Great's pilgrimage to the place. Supposedly the oracle confirmed that he was divine and called him Pharaoh. Surrounded by the much later ruins of a fortress complex, the temple was impressive and the views of the oasis in all directions were stunning. At another part of the ancient complex a few hundred meters away, a single wall remained in tact. An Ottoman governor had blown up the entire monument just to get some building material! It was midday, hot yet breezy, and after riding a bit further, conditions were perfect for a dive in some cool water at Cleopatra Spring.

To dry off I hopped back on the bike, put my shoes in the basket in front, and kept riding. Through deserted mud-brick villages, barren mountains, and empty stretches where the road was mostly buried in sand, I slowly took in the day. I visited a few more sites, including some tombs dating from Roman times, and had some good Arabic conversations before making the loop again, taking some more pictures at the Oracle Temple, and this time relaxing a little longer at Cleopatra Spring. I stopped in town again to get a bus ticket for 10pm that night. I was running out of money (I had only brought about fifty dollars for the entire trip) and probably couldn't afford another night if I wanted to eat as well. Also, but less importantly, classes started the next day in Cairo.

After 12 hours and three bus trips, I made it back to Cairo just an hour and half before class. All we did was review passive verbs: I probably should have stayed in Siwa another day. But insha'allah I'll be heading off again to somewhere new this weekend.


MadMardigan said...

Awesome. Don't be afraid to speak that Arabic. Have political and religious conversations and don't worry about how you sound. This is the kind of practice money can't buy. Looking forward to your next post. Get some pics of you, too--you'll want them later, trust me...

shereen said...

WOW! I don’t know what to say. I knew it, you’ll explore it Right:-)

I read your post two times, i can visualize some scenes and places, there are lots of amazing details, and I feel as if I am reading an interesting novel. Seriously, i am super impressed & embarrassed, you visited places in Egypt that I ( being an Egyptian) have never been to. Also, it's so great that you use your Arabic with people, keep doing that, your Arabic is so good and will get better & better:-)

Pics are just wonderful, but yeah we want some pics of you too.

Can't wait to read your next post.

By the way, why don't you write some of your posts in both Arabic and English?

Enjoy the rest of Egypt and try to keep mosquitos away from you.....

ASL at Provo High said...

cool. like your writing style, too.