siwa i saw
i haven't posted much lately, so here's something i wrote on November 6th, 2001:
another weekend, another adventure ;) we're trying to fit in as many trips before ramazaan begins, so this time we trooped off to siwa, a gorgeous oasis in the middle of the western sahara desert, very near the libyan border. stretching about 80 km across, siwa is famous for its thousands upon thousands (upon thousands) of date palm trees. located as it is in the middle of the desert, isolated until the 1980's from most contact with any other cultures, siwa had until recently completely retained its uniqueness. although arabic is spoken, the original berber language remains. i found that my ears, so tuned to the way egyptian arabic sounds, picked up immediately on the difference in accent. the first moment one of the siwans spoke to us in egyptian arabic, i felt as though i had once again left the egypt i know. here were words i recognized but spoken in such a way as to seem almost foreign.
perhaps it will never cease to amaze me how many different worlds exist in egypt. how completely far away last week's trip, with its pharaonic universe of tombs and temples and statues, seemed when i entered this lush oasis of date palms and donkey carts.
as is often the case, getting there was half the fun. there were only three of us, alex, maria and i, and we had a whole minibus to ourselves. so we popped in tape after tape of cheesy road-trip music, rifled through grocery bags full of junk food, and sang ourselves to siwa. ten hours of the bee-gee's and backstreet boys and cat stevens. ahh, heaven :P
you know, there is quite a difference between the desert as seen on a map, a very large beige smear sitting there looking rather boring, and the desert as this presence all around us as we traveled on a minibus through it, a tiny speck making its way through a vastness that would take days to drive completely across. at one point the moon was low to the ground and very red- alex said this is called 'a hunter's moon'. i've never heard this phrase, but it gave the moon a sort of legendary quality which i liked. it was a nice effect, the music and the moon and the dark desert around us- we were wandering out there. wandering forth.
sometime during the ten-hour drive to get there, our bus driver pulled over on the narrow road and made some tea. right there in the bus, he made tea. just started a fire on this tin thing and produced cups and sugar and made tea. of course considering all the food we had brought we had biscuits and pastries to go with the tea, so that it ended up being a very sweet little teatime there on the bus in the sahara at ten pm. very sweet indeed :)
our first morning, we walked into the main square of siwa town, fresh-eyed and ready for adventure. we asked the first shopkeeper we saw about where to find a taxi, and he told us that there were no taxis. but there were plenty of little donkey carts. ahh, donkey carts. of COURSE donkey carts! i, for one, was tickled. taxis are boring! i take them everyday! the prospect of sitting in a little donkey cart led by a little gray donkey, driven by a boy of about ten- well, that was just the kind of adventure i was talking about! let's go, then!
and go we did. it wasn't quite the fast ride i might have been expecting, but we did go. and it was fun- we had so much TIME getting to our destinations that we had plenty of opportunity to get to know our driver, sayyed. his donkey's name was ali baba, by the way.
ali baba and sayyed brought us first to the temple of the oracle, built around 525 BC. alexander came to this oracle once to be blessed as conqueror or some such. it was just really neat to be at an actual oracle- i felt like it had dropped right out of greek mythology. from this temple the view of siwa was just incredible. imagine this: looking down, i saw the village itself, kind of beige-colored. then beyond that the acres of date palms, bright green. beyond that the deep blue of the salt lake itself. and finally beyond that the great endless white of the desert. it was a breathtaking array of colors.
our next stop was cleopatra's bath, a hot spring in which there were some locals taking a bath. sayyed, our driver, jumped in too, before finishing our little tour and eventually returning us to the center of town.
we did a bit of wandering then, climbing and exploring and looking. i recall thinking that i was fond of places like this, where stalking through ruins was sort of an everyday thing.
at this point we took a desert safari. we piled into a 4-by-4 jeep and set off for vistas unknown. the point was to see the sun set in the desert, but first we were in for some crazy dune driving. at this point i'd like to stress that this desert was unlike any i've experienced in egypt yet- with the exception of the view i had from the plane window last week, this was the most sahara-like desert scenery i've ever seen. and for once i was in the thick of it. usually the desert is not perfect, combed sand- it's endless, sure, but scattered with rocks and plants and buildings and fences and people and garbage- once i even saw a sunflower growing there. it was a nice sunflower but i groaned inwardly at never having yet seen the "real" desert. well, here it was. in siwa i found the stereotypically English-Patient type of scene i always imagined when someone mentioned the sahara.
ahh, not a soul to be seen. not a rock to be seen. not a plant or a building to be seen. certainly no sunflowers. this was just uninterrupted sandiness, dunes upon dunes of it. perfect fine sand, all around me, with not a single landmark to tell me which direction i was facing, which way to head to reach town, which way to head to watch the sun set, even. it was infinite. it was amazing. this was one of those moments in which i believed everything i've ever heard about the power of the desert. about its ability to pull down planes. i read somewhere the phrase, "gaze... farther than the desired rains of africa." oh how i understood this, standing there in the middle of the only thing i will now honor with the title, the Desert. it was amazing. everything else is just sand.
and finally the sun set. we settled down to watch it. it's interesting, in the last year and a half, living in egypt, i've taken the time to just sit around and wait for the sun to set, and then watched and savored the sky slowly turn red, more times than i ever had before in my entire life. i know it's maghrib here by checking the sky-that and the azaan. what a concept to not even know what TIME maghrib is. i really don't know. when it's time, everything but the clock tells me.
anyway. returning from that desert safari, i didn't think we could top the experience. but as it turns out we almost did- we rented three bikes and biked all over siwa (several times- it's a tiny place). everyone was out and about, most of them on bikes, and the three of us cycled amidst them, expertly dodging cars and carts and fellow cyclists. it was so fun- as we went along in our little trio we even sang "doe a deer, a female deer..." and with some outfits made out of flowered curtains i think everything would have been just perfect :P
with its constant flow of visitors, i hope siwa manages to retain some of its original identity. it's one of the places i've found in egypt that is worth traveling through lots and lots of beige-smear to reach.