Maybe it was because I grew up with a playground of 20 odd acres of woods behind my house, that I feel most at home in nature. Having lived in big cities, and now in choking, chaotic Cairo, I know more than ever that nature, to me, is a necessity, if only for a day hike or an afternoon in the park.
Spending time outdoors in an environment with clean air and open space is like a karmic kidney, filtering out the angst and mental crud that builds up in the city-bound soul. Not to mention, it’s good for the lungs.
So I feel a lot better here in Cairo now that I’ve had a couple of extraordinary trips to the desert and the sea.
Three weeks ago, I went with six others on a trip to the Bahiriya Oasis and the amazing deserts nearby. The journey began with a white-knuckled four hours in a van from Cairo to the Oasis town of Bawiti, and as we sped down the highway, finally free from the logjam of Cairo rush hour, one of the first things that came out of J’s mouth was “How do you say ‘Try not to kill us, you crazy bastard’ in Arabic?” There’s something I noticed when I arrived in Cairo in the middle of the night: drivers don’t use their headlights. They seem to think, wrongly, that it will run the battery down, so they only flash their lights when they see (or sense) oncoming traffic. On a dark, desert highway (with no cool wind in my hair), with a lot of trucks and buses, this can be more than a little harrowing. There was a Morse-like code to the flashes of high beams, as signals to oncoming vehicles. It seemed to work; we arrived unscathed at the Oasis.
At a hotel there, we were met by a Bedouin guide named Ahmed. He also happens to be a musician, playing a guitar-like instrument called — and I’m spelling this phonetically – a sinsimiya. After dinner, we climbed into 4×4 vehicles and dropped by Ahmed’s house for some last minute provisions. He grabbed a fistful of mint from a plant near his front door as he dashed back to the car. As he sped down the highway, he clapped his hands to the music on the car stereo and steered with his knees.
Soon we were off road, dashing across the sands under a star-filled sky. Ahmed geared down and revved the engine to climb up an embankment, four wheels digging into the sand and bringing us to a halt on top of a 20-foot high dune beneath a hill.
The moon rose on the horizon, and as the Bedouin crew set up camp, with colorful material as a windbreak between two land rovers, the seven of us scattered to explore the nighttime desert scene. D and I climbed to the top of the hill, digging our feet into the sand for traction as we trudged a few dozen paces at a time. Looking out from the hilltop, the stars were brilliant, a half-moon lighting up the desert for miles. Soon we could see the crew had lit a fire. And then we heard music.
All of the men who work with Ahmed are musicians, too. And they each took turns playing drums or playing flutes – doing circular breathing techniques so they’d never stop the note to take in air. The folk songs were all about love and loss. I was in heaven. Nature AND music. It was the first time I felt truly happy since I got to Egypt.
They played for hours, stopping every once in a while to drink tea (with the freshly picked mint), or answer my questions about what the songs were about. They got us on our feet to belly dance around the flames. They played into the night, even as we all trickled off to our sleeping mats and tucked ourselves in under woolen blankets. When the fire was out and the crew went off to sleep, the moon was directly overhead, and so bright it kept me awake for another hour. But the crisp, cool air was a balm to my lungs. To inhale was exhilarating.
In Cairo, I often feel the need to floss after breathing.
As we sat in the shade of the jeep, some dung beetles came to check us out, and I mimicked them in an anthropomorphized, crusty Brooklyn accent: “hey, I’m just askin’ but, any of you guys gonna be poopin’ any time soon?”
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Finally up and at ‘em , we hopped in the jeeps and went to the Black Desert, with its conical mountains of extinct volcanoes. Black basalt formations jut out from the sides of the hills, and the loose pieces leave dark patterns on the tan desert floor.
After lunch under the trees at an oasis, where the local kids offered us green oranges (see a certain frail white female’s blog for photos of that), we napped, then took a dip in a spring. Then we jumped in the cars and headed further out, with a detour to see this, called Crystal Mountain:
Then we arrived at the White Desert. White magic is what it is. With the sun setting as we drove over the bleach-white chalk of what was an ancient seabed, the mushroom formations, sculpted by wind erosion, stood scattered across the landscape like lost giant travelers in suspended animation enchanted by a jinn’s spell.
The chalk desert floor gives up fossils of shells and also iron pyrites. Those are heavy black crystals that can look like the business end of a medieval mace, or the long Tibetan Buddhist scepters called vajra.
We camped in the lee of a white hill and were joined by five men from Spain, childhood friends all celebrating their 40th birthdays together. They drank rum and coke and sang Spanish songs around the fire while the Bedouin guys prepared dinner.
A sky ablaze with stars. A small campfire. The cool, desert air. And more music from Ahmed and the others.
We all went to bed earlier than the night before. In the morning, there were footprints from a fox all around the camp. I rose just after dawn to take some photos:
On the way back, I noticed what looked like it could be a fox den. I looked in but didn’t see anything, but there were hundreds of little prints in front of it (and the boot prints of more than a couple of other curious visitors).
After breakfast, I asked a couple of the others if they wanted to go see the den. I retraced my steps in the white sands and found it again. But this time, I could see a little face looking back at me. As the others approached, I motioned to be quiet. The approached and the four of us stared in at the little critter, sitting in the shade just inside the crevice. He must have just as curious of us, because he walked out and had a look for himself. It appeared to be a Rueppell’s Sand Fox, rather than the more common, and smaller, Fennec Fox. CA and J had a camera, and a few of the shots are posted on her blog.
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The rest of the morning was a mad dash back to town, stopping quickly at a spring with Roman ruins nearby, and at a lone and ancient tree, sipping from a trickle of oasis water, its limbs abuzz with pollinators.
After another quick dip in the oasis spring, we had lunch and climbed into the van for the manic dash back to Cairo. Back at my bare apartment, I was refreshed enough to think that maybe I can handle Egypt after all.