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Merry Christmas from Bethlehem, Palestine to all of our friends, family, readers and just plain strangers! We hope you are enjoying the holidays as much as we are, and that this post finds you happily stuffed with your favourite holiday snacks. I, for one, have just enjoyed a lovely Christmas falafel.

For you Canadians reading this, please shovel a load of snow for us – we (strangely) kind of miss it.

We’re having a great time in the Holy Land and already have a few good stories for you, the first of which is written below. We’ll try and keep things up to date over the holidays, though internet access here may be spottier than Egypt.

Best Wishes,
J and J

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All in all, I would say our detention was quite professional.

– Jason to Janine, afterwards.

In my very first post on this blog, I listed all the technological equipment we’re traveling with and said that I had taken to calling Janine’s backpack “Radio Shack”.

Until now, our sacks of camera equipment, remote shutter control cords, power cords, batteries, spare batteries, battery chargers, power converters, palm pilots, portable keyboards and satellite phones have caused few problems for us beyond a few questions at Toronto’s Pearson Airport security desk.

In Egypt, at least for cherry-cheeked Canadians, metal detectors and x-ray machines are a formality, though they exist at just about every public transportation hub and antiquities site. Half of the time, the Egyptian police officer manning the metal detector will wave us through, backpacks and all, smiling and ignoring the sirens and rapidly flashing red lights we inevitably set off. The other half of the time, he’ll watch the packs go through the x-ray machine with an expression similar to that of a bored cat.

At the Egypt-Israel border, the Egyptian side was the same old song. The only ruckus was caused by the Egyptian border officer’s confusion over our Canadian-issued multiple entry visa. Once this was resolved via a huddled conference with a senior officer and an obscene number of vigorous passport stampings, we quickly walked across the no-man’s land to the Israeli side.

Here, things went a little differently.

Here, the bored looking Egyptian officials were replaced with bright and hawkish young people, all pretty good looking and not one of them over the age of 30. They carefully examined every passport and asked a number of questions on itineraries before directing people to the x-ray machine and metal detector.

No one gets waved through the metal detector at Israeli Customs and Immigration. Moses wouldn’t get waved through the metal detector in Israel. In fact, if Moses had a pacemaker and told the Israelis that going through the metal detector would make his heart explode, he would still have to go through the metal detector.

Janine and I walked through the metal detector without incident while our bags were loaded onto the x-ray machine belt. First through was Janine’s bag, containing the entire array of our travelling show of mechanical wonders, in addition to our half dozen small nalgene bottles full of various shampoos and liquids, in addition to our collection from the Libyan desert of iron pyrites that look remarkably like spiky ballbearings.

We stood on the other side of the x-ray machine, waiting patiently for the bags.

They didn’t come.

Finally, a security officer came around from the other side of the x-ray machine. “May I have your passports please?”, she asked.

“Sure!” we said, handing them over. She disappeared behind the machine again.

A few minutes went by and she came back. “Please tell me what is in your bag,” she ordered Janine.

“Sure! There’s my camera battery, my universal cord adapter, a palm pilot, a cord used for connecting the palm pilot to a satellite phone….”

Janine never got to finish the long list of all the technology she had in her bag. Because Israeli Customs and Immigration didn’t look at her bag, chuckle, and think “Radio Shack”.

Israeli Customs and Immigration looked at Janine’s bag and thought, “Radio Bomb”.

Janine was still innocently listing cords and plugs when we were each grabbed from behind by a plain-clothed, sunglasses-wearing security officer and whisked from the building. “Come with us please! Right now!” they said loudly and clearly as a general shout went out and everyone in the building started running briskly for the exits.

Janine’s camera lay sitting on the inspection table before us. I thought for a brief second that Janine might try to judo flip her security guard to get to it. But for the first time in recorded history, she left it unattended.

Outside, we continued to trot with our escorts away from the building to a bench about 50 meters away. Another plain clothes man, with an M-16, ran backwards in front of us speaking to our officers in Hebrew. I assumed he was requesting permission to execute us now while the crowd was in a state of confusion and would ask fewer questions. Apparently, permission was denied and he left to secure the perimeter against a confused horde of Holy Land Pilgrims from Hong Kong.

“Sit here,” our guards said, pointing to the bench and releasing our arms.

“No problem,” I said. “And please feel free to re-engage the safety on your firearm,” I thought.

A few minutes passed and the customs building emptied. I pictured a machine similar to the Mars Land Rover crawling over our luggage while a crack Israeli Intelligence team pulled together everything they had on the oncoming Canadian jihad.

Someone said something to Janine’s guard (who, I really must say, was quite good looking). He looked down at Janine through his Ray-Ban’s. “Come with me, please,” he said, escorting her back to the building.

I generally don’t like men with guns taking my wife away. But since I had my own man with a gun ready to prevent me from doing anything about it, I elected to show my displeasure with icy silence. I contemplated shouting out some useful advice, but the only thing that came to mind was to advise Janine that she was entitled to request that a female guard perform the cavity search to which I was pretty sure she was about to be subjected.

I remained on my bench with my security guard. It was a beautiful day and from my seat, I could see clearly across the calm waters of the Gulf of Aqqaba. I thought of trying to make conversation with my guard, but every topic I could think of seemed clinically retarded in the circumstances. Instead I watched the evacuated Israelis mill about the compound, chatting with each other and on cell phones, remarkably relaxed after their dash for life. I was the object of a number of stares, laughs and pitying glances.

A 50’ish lady with fire engine red hair, sporting a leopard print top and walking a small white dog, strolled by me. She looked down at me over the rim of her huge sunglasses as she went by, bright lips pursed.

“Welcome to the club,” she said flatly.

A short while later, I was taken back inside and reunited with Janine and her security guard. I noted suspiciously, that the two of them now seemed to be getting along famously. He even apologized to her for the inconvenience. She apologized to him for walking around with what apparently looked like a cold fusion device on her back.

Our bags were searched a few more times each. The most attention mine got was a detailed flip through my “Guide to the Ancient Temples of the Nile”. Luckily, the security officer who inspected it did not realize that if he read it backwards, it contained a detailed plan for bringing down the zionist state.

With the Toronto Intifada averted, we proceeded to the now empty customs line (all the non-terror suspects being held outside still). I had a witty line prepared for when they asked me “Anything to declare?” but no one bothered. Instead the two young girls at customs asked us some perfunctory questions about where we were staying in Jerusalem and waved us on with a kind of grimacing smile.

“Welcome to Israel,” they said.

 Janine, on land, in happier times

Janine, on land, in happier times.

That was a great day.

– Janine, weakly

Here is a story about my wife Janine that will help you to understand the kind of resilient, funny, overwelmingly optimistic person she is.

If you think otherwise at the end of reading this post, you’re stupid.

We are in Dahab, on the east side of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. It’s an outdoor person’s paradise. If you like mountains, they jab the sky within walking distance from the beach. If you like the water, there’s the beach. If you like the desert, there’s the Sinai desert.

We know mountains, and we’ve had a bunch of fun in Egypt’s deserts. So that meant it was time to get wet.

With only a few days here before we leave for Israel and Palestine, we don’t have time to do a scuba diving course. That will need to wait for our post-Christmas return to Dahab. So snorkeling was the name of the game today.

We’d never done this sport before either. To get the best introduction possible, we chose to take a quick trip out of town to Dahab’s famous Blue Hole. It’s a giant coral donut located just a few meters from shore. Snorkelers enjoy the innumerable species viewable from the surface while divers drift down the Hole to depths of 30 meters and more.

A dusty blue jeep takes us over a surprisingly rough road, past modern resorts, beduin camps and camels for 15 minutes to the Blue Hole beach. We store our backpacks at a beach side cafe, rent flippers and masks and are soon flopping down to the shoreline. We’re offered but pass on wet-suits.

“Are you sure?” the cafe owner asks us dubiously.

Someone has told us that the water is about 12 degrees. Balmy for Canadians, we figure. Moreover, two Swiss people have just emerged from the Hole without wet-suits and we’ll be damned if we let the Swiss make us look like wussies.

“We’re good!” Janine tells the cafe owner cheerfully. Janine is also reveling in the fact that for the first time on our travels in Egypt, she can feel comfortable flouncing around a perfectly good swimming area in a bikini. Covering up that bikini unnecessarily with a wet-suit would be wrong. I agree.

Soon, we’re bobbing and kicking over the coral and I’m dumbfounded at the array of marine life on display just meters from shore. It’s like swimming in a very, very expensive fish tank. Parrot fish, lion fish, grubers, fat, skinny, triangular and tube-like (as you can see, my marine terminology runs out pretty quick); they dart in large schools in every direction past a coral backdrop straight out of a Cousteau movie.

Janine is having a great time, but it’s not meant to last. When she first puts her head beneath the water and sees all the fish, she smiles so wide that she lets in a sizeable mouthful of salt water. Then her breathing tube starts giving her trouble, constantly twisting in the wrong direction and filling with more water. The wind picks up along with the chop on the surface of the water and the temperature drops a few more degrees. When I look up at one point, I see Janine bobbing nearby, roughly the same colour as the aquamarine waters, curly hair strung limply across the face of her mask.

“I think I need a break,” she says weakly.

We swim back to shore and walk gingerly over the pebble strewn path to the cafe. Janine almost makes it there before all the salt water she’s imbibed demands to be set free. Quickly. From her mouth.

“This is embarrassing,” she mutters between shivers and wretches, as a kindly cafe owner hands her a napkin and a lime. “The lime helps,” he says as he hands it over.

Most people would call their introduction to snorkeling quits right there. But if you think a little vomit and mild hypothermia are going to stop my wife, you’re wrong. “I just need to get warm and get my stomach settled,” she says from beneath a pile of towels.

After 10 minutes, she’s able to suck on the lime. After 20, sip on the cup of tea I’ve ordered from the cafe. And after 25 minutes, she’s even nibbling on the German vanilla wafer cookies I’ve brought for a snack, throwing some sugar into her system for the afternoon swim that she’s determined to enjoy.

“I will not let this ruin the day,” she says very matter of factly. “It’s too awesome out there.”

Soon, Janine is ready to take on the water again, though with a few adjustments. The key one is a wet-suit, which I also adopt. We try to avoid the Swiss but almost run into them just as we go out the door.

For our final swim of the day, we walk a couple of hundred meters down the shore and swim back to the Blue Hole along the coral shelf. The numbers and variety of fish and coral are incredible and we hold hands contentedly as we swim, pointing out different species to each other. The wet-suits are comfortably warm. Janine’s breathing tube is no longer giving her trouble and even my own earlier difficulties with achieving a seal on my mask seem to be resolved.

When we get back to the Hole, we break off from each other to explore the reef separately for a little while. When I surface from a dive, I spot Janine a little distance a way treading water. The chop is too much for communication this far away so I swim back towards her to check in.

As I get closer to her, I’m amazed at a sudden flurry of dozens and dozens of blue and gold tetras that seem to swarm all around Janine. “Look at all of them!” I think to myself, delighted with the numbers.

“It looks like they’re feeding on something!” I exclaim silently, watching the tetras dart and snap at a cloud of off-white bits around Janine’s mid section.

“It looks like they’re feeding on German vanilla wafer cookie chunks!” I shout to myself.

“I think I’m swimming in Janine’s puke!” I cry internally, changing direction seamlessly.

Evidently, swallowing salt water is not the only thing that upsets Janine’s tummy. It’s the motion of the ocean, baby.

We swim back to the beach. Once we establish that Janine is basically okay, we both start to laugh as I relate the Jason-cam view of the whole incident. “Not so loud!” Janine shushes me, chuckling tiredly as she looks over her shoulder at a rather put out looking Spanish man sitting behind us on the dock.

“Whatever! If I can laugh at it, so can he.”

Still dizzy from the nausea, Janine relaxes on the shore while we wait for our return taxi. Thinking that this may be both my first and last snorkeling trip, I head out for one last swim.

When we get back to the hotel an hour later, Janine still looks pale even as she excitedly discusses all the days sights with me. I ask if she thinks she’s going to be sick again. “I don’t think I have anything left to heave out of me,” she says.

She’s wrong.

Within a few minutes, the poor bugger is back in the bathroom, expelling all remaining snacks, German and otherwise, from her system. Thankfully, that’s the end of it. Exhausted, Janine crawls onto the bed beside me, wraps herself in a blanket and falls into a light doze, her head on my chest.

“That was a great day,” she sighs, weakly, no trace of sarcasm in her voice. “Where should we snorkel tomorrow?”

And that’s my wife.

Nile Fishermen

Nile fishermen work their nets (more pics).

So long as I sail, I bless God and care not.

– Luke Foxe, Hudson Bay Explorer, 1631

It’s amazing how effective the soft sell can be.

We’ve overcome a lot of our ingrained Canadian politeness and have become used to negotiating like hell for things in Egypt. Janine, for one, does not consider agreeing to a purchase until the prospective seller’s head is bowed in a genuine sulk by his final offer.

So when we decided to take a 2 day felucca cruise down the Nile from Aswan to the temple of Kom Ombo, we were prepared to be tough customers. Of all the things that you hear bad stories about in Egypt, sailing trips on feluccas, are near the top. From bad hygiene, to bad food, to overcrowded boats, to passengers left floating face down in the Nile (just kidding Mom) there are many ways to have a bad time.

We had heard that the impartiality of recommendations from the Aswan tourist office is questionable. But, you’ve got to start somewhere and I’d rather have a good trip on a boat that gives a “finder fee” to the tourist office than take my chances with the mob of felucca touts down on the Aswan corniche. Therefore, we asked the director of the tourist office, Mr. Hossein, to make an appointment for us to meet with a Captain Ahmed at a nearby restaurant.

Ahmed is an hour and a half late for the meeting. That’s late even in Egypt and immediately sets our negotiating stance to a high defcon. But he has a quiet and confident manner and answers our barrage of questions, follow-up questions and three part questions with patience and good information. In fact, we’re so happy with his presentation that when he quotes his price, we don’t even haggle. The cost is within the sanity benchmarks we’ve established through our research and I suppose that sometimes it’s nice to just get a description of a good service and agree to purchase it.

We do insist on two things though. First, we want to see the boat. We’ve been on the bad end of a switcheroo just enough times to learn that. Second, we want to meet our actual captain. Ahmed’s family owns a fleet of feluccas and he won’t be doing the actual sailing. Not a penny, not even a deposit, will change hands until this happens. This requirement poses some difficulty for Ahmed. He’ll have to get his people to sail the boat here from his village a half hour away early tomorrow morning for the pre-departure inspection with no guarantee of getting the sale/sail.

But at the sight of Janine’s “bow your head in resignation” face, Ahmed agrees.

***

“Watch that your book doesn’t flip overboard,” I tell Janine, as the felucca tilts at a 30 degree angle, tacking across the Nile.

“For that matter, watch that I don’t flip overboard,” I mutter, taking a firmer hold of the ship railing, which pretty much lies flush with the comfortable foam mattress I’m lying on. Once I’m convinced that gravity will maintain a safe level of ass-foam contact, I let one hand trail down into water and enjoy the speed at which we’re moving.

The morning’s felucca inspection went off smoothly. Our boat, Washington, is 50 years old, dating back to the time when feluccas ferried freight, not tourists, up and down the Nile. She may not be Katherine Hepburn yar, but despite her age, she looks neat as a pin, freshly painted in the unofficial orange and white colours of all Aswan feluccas. Our crew also meets muster. Mahmoud, our 21 year old cook, is a shy but cheerful business student, working this month during university holidays. The captain, Jaber, is not much older, but is as boisterous as Mahmoud is quiet. Despite Ahmed’s reassurances the night before, neither speaks great English, but has enough to get by when combined with the international language of smiles and hand gestures.

In the face of a stiff late-morning wind, the Washington zigs and zags amidst the usual Nile traffic of cruise boats, motorized ferries and fellow feluccas. Despite the other ships, it’s surprisingly tranquil on board. This close to the water, the water’s about the only thing you hear besides the creaking of the ship’s rigging and Jaber’s frequent off-key excerpts from his favourite Nubian folk songs. Before long, Janine and I start to slip into a pleasant Nile daze. Lying face up on the mattress, our heads propped against a pile of pillows, we read contentedly from our books, looking up occasionally to catch a glimpse of the slowly changing river views.

At one point, I glance over the rim of my novel, just in time to lock eyes with a man doing the same thing on a cruise boat passing nearby. We both lower our books, smile and exchange the lazy, happy wave of two people instantly united in a shared appreciation for true sloth.

***

It’s not high season for wildlife on the Nile. But the river is nonetheless patrolled by many birds. U-necked egrets give an ugly croak completely at odds with their physical elegance as they glide low and white over the water. Herons and cranes stalk patiently along the weedy shore. Mallards congregate in the dozens before continuing their flights further south.

When we pause for a tea break, two jersey cows graze the shore nearest the Washington. In the bushes, a donkey scares the beejezus out of me with an insolent bray timed perfectly with the dropping of my pants for an afternoon pee. On the opposite shore, a Nubian man, dressed in glistening white and mounted on a pale donkey, trots amongst a herd of 40 goats.

You don’t get wilderness on the Nile. Throughout its Egyptian course, it’s banks teem with all the good, bad and ugly of civilization. Drinking well, fishery, garbage can, this is a working river. Besides the tourists, every life form on it is using the Nile to live; to get by. It’s not always pretty, but the Nile still gives you as much a snapshot of Egypt today as it probably did 4000 years ago.

***

I’m not tired all day, though Janine dozes on and off through the afternoon, reading from a collection of Margaret Atwood short stories between naps. Then, just as sun sets, I drift into a deep sleep, waking up as we drift onto the beach near Mahmoud’s family home, where we’re invited to dinner.

After such a great start, the dinner is a huge disappointment. We spend most of our time sitting ignored in the men’s social room, while they smoke and watch football. After an awkward 2 and a half hours, we’re finally served a basic meal of rice and potatoes in a sparsely furnished bedroom isolated from the rest of the family. Besides one friendly marijuana smoking cousin of Mahmoud’s, no one makes an effort to talk to us or make us feel at home.

But the anti-social stuff is secondary to me.

I’m mostly pissed because I feel a growing certainty that we’ve been ripped off on food.

We make our way back to the boat as soon as tea is done. Once on board, we feel better, though we speak our mind to Mahmoud and Jaber about dinner. Leaving them with instructions on a early start time for tomorrow, we bed down in a pile of blankets that are tattered but warm. Jaber, who stayed at the Washington to guard our bags while we ate dinner, heads home to eat and sleep. Mahmoud sleeps in the cramped cabin beneath the bow.

Despite the lights of the nearby villages, the stars still gleam brightly, reflected in the river’s calm night waters. The mirror image is occasionally rippled by a passing dory, rowed silently by a Nubian fisherman. Two streaking meteors are the last things I see before falling asleep.

***

“Oh my God!” cries Jaber, laughing. Jaber says “Oh my God!” at almost everything. This particular “Oh my God!” is aimed in the general direction of Crazy 8’s.

We’ve had another magical day of sailing. A Nile sunrise is the first thing we see, waking from a comfortable sleep on the Washington’s deck . The weather is perfect – warm and breezy – and we make steady progress downstream, past kids playing a soccer game that’s as noisy as it is dusty, young men setting and hauling fish nets, and old men driving cattle down to the Nile for a drink. I ignore the risk of catching several nasty diseases and jump in the river at our lunch break, enjoying one of the best bath/swims I’ve had in a while. At sunset, the banks are a black row of palms and mango trees against a custard sky. The ancient temple of Kom Ombo gleams not far away on the opposite shore.

Now we’re all gathered around a driftwood fire, joined by an exuberant farmer friend of Jaber named Mustapha, as well as Mustapha’s donkey, Anna. The Washington is anchored just a few feet away, tethered to a 4 foot long spike driven into the bank by our crew. Through a mixture of broken English and hand-holding, Mahmoud has taught me how to play an Egyptian card game called “Sure/Not Sure”, which I lost spectacularly. Now I’m returning the favour by showing the boys how to play Crazy 8’s.

While Mahmoud and Mustapha catch the gist of the game quickly, I think Anna would be slightly easier to teach than Jaber. And this is even assuming Anna was as high as Jaber, who immediately upon seating himself next to Mustapha at the beginning of the night, lit a giant doobie.

Jaber’s main problem is distinguishing between spades and hearts. Despite their differences in shape and colour and Mahmoud’s patient translation and re-translation of my explanations of the game rules, our captain sees no reason why they cannot be laid one on top of the other. To his credit, he’s consistent and every time he’s corrected let’s out a loud “Oh my God!” to the delight of Mahmoud and Mustapha, who are laughing at him hard enough that accidentally rolling into the fire is a real danger.

After a few hands, I need to take a break. Mustapha offers to let me take a ride on Anna while he continues to play cards with the boys. I accept right away – after a month of being pestered by just about every tout in Egypt, I still have not yet ridden a camel or donkey.

Anna looks at me dubiously. I know that animals smell fear so I approach her confidently and attempt a quick hoist into her stirrup-less saddle, promptly sliding off and nearly onto my ass. Pardon the pun.

Once Mustapha leaves the fire and gets me properly mounted, I find Anna to be a patient, though reluctant steed, and she takes me for a trot down the dark, sandy banks of the Nile with a minimum number of “ya donkey!”s, “ha!”s, “git along little donkey!”s and whacks on the backside with Mustapha’s borrowed cane (Anna’s backside not mine).

As we go, I think about the very different kind of travel that lies ahead of us beginning tomorrow. In the course of 36 hours, we’ll travel more than 1500 km by taxi, sleeper-train and bus, from Kom Ombo to the Sinai peninsula town of Dahab on the Red Sea. It will be a severe change of both pace and technology from the leisure we’ve enjoyed over the past two days.

Anna and I get back to the fire just as another hand of Crazy 8’s is ending. “Finito!” Jaber proclaims, triumphantly laying down his last card, a 2 of spades, on a Queen of hearts.

Mustapha laughs so hard he has to go pee.

 

 

 

Abu Simbel

Jason ponders what happened to all the tourists at Abu Simbel.

Few tourists stay in Abu Simbel.

– Our Guidebook

I don’t know if we needed more encouragement than this sentence from our guidebook. But in case we did, the standard arrangements for getting tourists to and from Egypt’s most famous temple provided it.

Abu Simbel, site of Ramses II’s monumental house of worship to the sun/himself, sits near Egypt’s southern border, a 4 hour drive from Aswan. Most tourists get there by joining a convoy of private tour buses and taxis that leaves Aswan at 4:30 a.m. Everyone in the convoy visits the temple for two hours and then returns directly back to Aswan.

It sounds horrible. Even forgetting the terrible driving-to-temple-time ratio, when you do it this way you will inevitably share the place with hundreds and hundreds of people.

We opt instead to take the public bus down to Abu Simbel and overnight in town before coming back to Aswan.

Catching the public bus (which immediately gains points with us by leaving at the far more civilized hour of 8 a.m.) we are deposited at the temple’s ticket kiosk by noon. The few other tourists on the bus with us run to buy tickets. They hope to see the temple in an hour and then catch the bus on it’s return trip to Aswan. Since we’re under no such restraints, we decide to find our hotel first and see the temple at our leisure later in the afternoon.

Here, a small problem with our plan becomes evident right away. We have no map of town and no idea how to find our hotel.

But once in a while, Egypt’s heavy police presence comes in handy. Within minutes of approaching a tourist cop, we are taken to the “man in charge.” Dressed in plain clothes and seated behind a desk surrounded by various police officers seeking his assistance, he’s courteous and invites us to sit until he can give us his full attention. Once we explain our problem to him, he smiles and quietly asks for our hotel’s name. When we give it to him, he picks up his cell phone and immediately starts punching in a number.

Janine offers him our guidebook. “The number for the hotel is written down right here,” she says, holding it out.

He smiles again. “I’m the chief intelligence officer for this area. I know the number.”

“Oh,” we say together.

A few minutes later, with friendly goodbyes to the quiet, helpful, slightly scary man, we are in a taxi headed to our hotel, Nubia House. It’s a vintage, large mud-brick home, featuring comfortable rooms surrounding an open courtyard eating area. A large flagstone deck backs onto an organic garden beside Lake Nasser. Here, the staff harvests all the produce served in the hotel’s traditional Nubian meals.

We drop our bags and enjoy a lunch of fresh fish in the courtyard before making our way to the temple. Because it’s carved into a mountain that faces Lake Nasser, the temples of Abu Simbel can’t be seen from town or even the ticket kiosk. As we approach, I’m anxious about whether Ramses’ temple will live up to billing. After all, in addition to being on the one pound note, it’s featured on every second piece of tourist paraphenelia in the country.

But familiarity has not bred contempt here. When we reach the other side of the mountain, we immediately understand why people are willing to get up at 3 in the morning to see this monument. Four 25 meter tall collossal statutes of the Pharoah, one partially destroyed by an earthquake, sit side-by-side, gazing out over Nasser’s azure waters. Between them, a single door leads into the temple’s sanctuary, where twice a year (Ramses’ birthday and the anniversary of his coronation) the rising sun sends a shaft of light to illuminate a statue of the Pharoah, seated amongst his patron gods.

The interior of Abu Simbel, when compared with the artwork featured on some of the other temples we’ve seen over the past weeks, is not overly impressive. Ramses focussed on getting things built quickly, it seems, and not on fussing with the small details of making them pretty on the inside. But these four collossi can’t fail to impress. Their faces carry a fascinating expression – a mixture of benevolence, serenity and preening self-confidence. This was a man who truly thought he was a god; who truly thought he’d live forever.

So far, he’s doing pretty well on the second count.

***

You may not need more than two hours to visit Abu Simbel. In that respect, showing up with the convoy of tourists isn’t so bad. But our way has an additional, unexpected benefit.

When we stand before Abu Simbel’s grandeur that afternoon, we virtually stand alone.

Besides a small group of Japanese people heading back to their cruise ship, there’s really no one around. We stroll around the temple feeling like VIP’s, lingering over any carvings that interest us, snapping pictures from every angle. Eventually, a few small groups show up, but not before we’ve had the temple completely to ourselves for as much time as we need.

It’s a huge treat and easily the best part of coming down here out of synch with everyone else. The rest of our Abu Simbel trip may not be much to write home about – the hotel develops some “issues”, the sound and light show is a little kitschy and the bus ride back the next day is crowded and hot. But all of those things will fade from my memory long before those quiet few moments at the feet of the colossi.

Feluccas at sunset on the Nile

Feluccas at sunset on the Nile, near Aswan.

I’m giving them three more pulls on that rope and then we go.

– Janine

“It’s the curse,” I explain to my wife, watching the captain work fruitlessly on his broken engine.

I’m cursed when it comes to motorboats. Once, on a trip to Labrador when I was about 14, the fishermen hosting us offered to take me out with them to check their nets. When they tried to start their boat the next morning, the engine gasped and died. When they finally switched to a neighbor’s boat, they got out to the nets and the neighbor’s boat’s engine died. The neighbor’s neighbor had to come get us. 

Another time, I started out on a great adventure down the Yukon River by drifting out into the choppy, glacier-fed headwaters of Bennett Lake, uselessly hauling on the start cord of my boat’s 10 hp outboard motor. Unbeknownst to me, one of my passengers (who because I’m a nice guy shall remain nameless, but he’s a cousin and his name rhymes with “Beff”) had over-primed the engine, flooding it with gas. So I hauled and cursed for half an hour, a train-load of tourists looking on with amusement, until I floated to a hunter’s cabin on the opposite shore. The hunter helped me. But my pride was mortally wounded for a few days.

I therefore conclude that I am cursed when it comes to motorboats.

*** 

Today, we are in Aswan, near the shores of Lake Nasser and a 3 hour train ride south of Luxor.  It’s a smaller town than Luxor but has an energy of it’s own to rival it’ s northern neighbor. Some of this energy is good. For example, the exuberant friendliness of the Nubian people who dominate the population. Some of this energy is bad. For example, the exuberant sleaziness of some of the merchants who populate the Aswan bazaar. 

After running this kilometer-long gauntlet of spice merchants, jewelry hawkers and souvenir sellers, we’re tired of men jumping in front of us to shout, “Hassel free shopping!”, or to ogle Janine’s chest and tell me what a lucky man I am, or calling us cowboys because we happen to be wearing brimmed hats (don’t these people know a good Canadian Tilley Hat when they see one?).

“I need to get out of here before I punch someone,” I tell Janine. I’m seriously worried about hitting a tout and then getting shot by one of Egypt’s ubiquitous heavily-armed policemen before the whole thing is sorted out.

So we head to Aswan’s corniche, a tiled walkway running beside the Nile and the cruiseships that ply the waters between here and Luxor. We barely have time to lean against the walkway’s railing when we are approached by a tout selling sunset rides on feluccas, the flat-bottomed sailboats that have been a common site on these waters since antiquity.

Normally, I’d blow this guy off. But after the bazaar, an hour in an environment where vendors will need waterwings to bother me sounds perfect. So after we haggle the “captain” down from his starting offer of 120 pounds to 35 pounds (I’ll spare you the details of his hand-wringing and our two walk-aways), we make our way down to his motorboat, which will take us over to the island in the middle of the river where the feluccas are anchored.

It’s 4:15 p.m. The perfect time to watch the sun set over the high sandy hills of Aswan’s west shore.

The captain pulls on the outboard motor’s start cord – a tattered piece of orange rope.

Damned if the thing will start.

The engine cover is pulled off the outboard and the innards are carefully inspected. The rope is detached and reattached several times, all ending in unsuccessful starting attempts. As we start to drift out into the river, a consultant from another boat is called over. Then another. The three men stand over the motor, gesticulating, arguing and instructing. I hear Allah’s name invoked several times. A couple of other parts are pulled off the outboard and examined. It’s all to no good. The motor spins and putters for a moment, then dies. We drift into the side of the local ferry, crowded with Aswanians headed home from work, triggering further shouts and recriminations.

For the first few minutes we watch all this with bemusement as I explain my theory of the curse to Janine.  But after 15 minutes, we realize that we’re losing prime sunset light. “I’m giving them 3 more pulls on that rope and then we go,” Janine says.

After the 3 more pulls expire without effect, we get up to leave. This gets the captain in a tizzy and he calls on a neighboring captain to help out. Within 2 minutes we’re on a new boat crossing over to felucca island. Once on his sailboat’s deck, the captain quickly loosens the moorings, hoists the single “mutton shoulder” sail and shoves us out into the sluggish shallows of the winter Nile. 

Janine and I make ourselves comfortable on a pile of pillows spread over the bow. The rigging creaks as the sail stretches in the breeze. The sound of the water gurgling past the hull brings an immediate rush of memories from the past summer’s canoeing trip down the Thelon and we look at each other right away with a smile.

It’s great to be back on a river.

We glide past a boat full of Nubian teens, singing and dancing to the beat of three large drums. The sun sinks behind a sandstone hill, honeycombed with the tombs of ancient egyptian nobles. As it falls, it silhouettes a single domed mosque, the “Dome of the Winds”,  against a rusty orange backdrop.

Our captain works the rudder nervously, anxious about the fate of his tip due to the motorboat fiasco. He needn’t worry. The tranquility of the river, the beauty of the sunset and the warmth of the memories, have already combined to wash away all the tension of the day. I’m done haggling and I’m done bitching.

For the rest of the night anyway.

The captain catches my eye as I look back over my shoulder at a flight of egrets skimming low over the water. “It’s good?” he asks, nodding excitedly.

“It’s good.” I tell him.

 Temple of Karnak

The Obelisk of Hatshepshut 

This is why we travel independently.

– Janine

The great temple complex of Karnak is so big, you could take St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and St. Paul’s in London and plunk them right in its middle with room left over for Notre Dame.  Bells and all.

The temple’s fame and the fact that it’s located in Luxor, one of the busiest tourist hubs of Egypt, means that for most of the day, even this massive space is engorged with the contents of dozens of tour buses and school groups. Bunches of 15, 20 and sometimes 30 people trundle past the wonders of the ancient world, following flags, umbrellas or ankhs held aloft by their guides.

Dealing with the plodding crowds, waiting patiently for the girls in the short shorts to get out of your picture of the avenue of sphinxes and dealing with an uncountable number of touts who try to wheedle baksheesh out of you for pointing to a column and saying “Ramses” or “Mummy” are all par for the course in these situations. You can’t steam and fuss over sharing this space. You’d steam and fuss all day and not get anything for it, besides steam, I suppose. You definitely don’t get much concrete for fuss.). Instead, you use the crowds as an excuse to adopt a measured pace; you listen in when a particularly good guide is explaining some heiroglyphs or is relating a historical tidbit and you laugh at the kids trying to take a picture which makes them look like they’re sitting in King Tuthmosis the Third’s lap.

Around 5:30, an hour before the temple closes, we are rewarded for our patience. Almost as if a switch has been flicked, the tour groups drain out of the temples and head for the massive bus parking lot. We’ve just finished making our way to the very back of the complex. In singular contrast to the slow pace of that journey, the walk back is through a temple that feels something like it must have when the first Europeans walked through these ruins.

Fading yellow sunshine highlights a 350 ton obelisk of pharoah Hatshepshut. After stopping to admire this giant red granite needle, we stroll on towards the temple of Khonsu, son of the great sun god Amun, to whom the temple complex is dedicated. We enter a side door of the temple and find its massive collonaded courtyard completely empty in the grey twilight. A pair of owls gaze down at us from the roof. 

Although the darkness is deepening, we are in no hurry to get back. Leaving the temple of Khonsu, we are trailed by a desert fox, emerging from a small stand of acacia trees to start his night’s work.  When we arrive back at the great collonade of the main temple, with it’s massive forest of 134 columns, we find it deserted. The 12 centre columns are 70 feet tall, completely covered in hieroglyphs. Each one ends in capitals on which 50 people could comfortably seat themselves. In their heyday, they would have witnessed processions of the gods.

Now they’re bird nests.

We exit the temple complex, walking down a road lined on either side with 20 ram-headed sphinxes. It’s almost completely dark now and the bus parking lot is long empty. Time to haggle with a cabbie for a ride back to the downtown, find some food and deposit ourselves at an internet cafe. But for a last few minutes, we savour having great Karnak, what the pharoahs called “The Most Select of Places”, to ourselves.

This,” says Janine taking my hand, “is why we travel independently.”

 Camel

 Sometimes I wonder why we don’t just stick with these guys.

Pass the window handle please.

– Janine

 Yaher’s offer is a pretty tempting one.

We’re standing in the dusty streets of Dahkla. It’s near midday and the heat is really starting to pick up. Our safari with Yaher and Sayid is at an end, but it’s still about 500 km from here to Luxor. A private, air-conditioned car all the way there can be had for 500 Egyptian pounds, he says. The other option is to take a blend of public transportation to the midway point of El-Kharga and then bargain for a cheaper taxi ride the rest of the way to Luxor.

We’ve already splurged on the safari. So, with a little trepidation, we decide to take option 2.

“Look at it this way,” I say optimistically to Janine as we walk over to the taxi stand. “It might make a good story!”

 ***

Do you know how many people can physically fit into the  back of a 1985 Toyota pick-up truck? I do.

In order to reach Dahkla’s mini-bus terminal, we need to get a ride to the oasis capital of Mut, about 15 km away. We pile into the covered back of the yellow pick-up with three other people, our giant backpacks taking up two additional spaces on the benches beside us.

“Well, this is pretty good,” Janine says, looking around the passenger cabin. I agree.

But I’ll say this about the Egyptians – they know how to car pool. Before our driver pulls out of the parking lot, he’s picked up another 4 passengers, making the flatbed a little cozier, but still liveable. We barely drive 500 meters before we’re flagged down by a burly man in overalls, who amiably shoves his way to the last available space in the back. So I think.

A young lady and what looks like her sister jump in around the next bend in the road. At the next curve, a husband, wife and their little boy waits. I take a deep breath and shimmy a little tighter against the wall dividing the passengers from the driver cabin, making room for the wife, who takes the little boy on her lap. There’s no room for dad, so he simply stands on the back fender, holding a handrail designed for this purpose in one hand and the family’s shopping bags in the other.

Two more guys join him a couple of miles down the road.  At one point there are 16 passengers in the truck.

To the Egyptians, who glance at us with friendly curiousity as they board, this is commonplace. Women chat on cell phones, the kids pick at candy bars and the men chat amiably and exchange handshakes. It’s noisy, crowded  and I can’t convince myself it approaches anything resembling western motor vehicle safety standards.

 But it’s more fun than the Toronto Subway.

***

“Here come the fisherman,” I mutter to Janine as we pull up to the El-Kharga station.

After all the passengers exploded out of the pickup truck in Mut, it was no problem catching a 12 seat minibus to Kharga. The only problem was the multitude of police check points that are a fact of travel in Egypt. At each of them, the police were interested in us, causing small delays to the doubtless irritation of our fellow passengers. The cops could usually be fended off by giving the name of a hotel in Luxor (we didn’t have a reservation anywhere but any name seemed to do)  or giving an uncomprehending smile to their questions. As soon as they either (a) made the required note in their record book or (b) threw up their hands in frustration at trying to talk to us, we were off.

Arranging the drive had been relatively cheap and easy so far. But at El-Kharga, we knew it would be different. For some unfathomable reason, there is no direct minibus service between Kharga and Luxor. This meant we would need to negotiate for a private taxi. The only other alternative is to take a 5 hour minibus to the mid-Nile town of Asyuut, which is then a 6 hour train to Luxor. Not fun.

In Egypt, they often call tourists “fish”. And as we pulled into El-Kharga station and the taxi drivers started taking note of us, I sensed as much as saw the net start to tighten.

Cinching our backpacks around our waists (you always have to look like you’re ready to walk away), we are slowly surrounded by a group of men.

“Taxi? Mini-bus to Asyuut?” I hear half a dozen voices ask.

We play coy. We might spend some time in El-Kharga and then go on to Asyuut. Unless of course we could get a cheap ride direct to Luxor.

“I take you to Luxor!” says one man, stepping forward. “500 pounds!”

We laugh with ridicule as we inwardly cringe. We could have gotten a ride all the way from Dahkla for that. We tell him so and start to walk away, saying we’ll look at going to Asyuut.

He comes down right away to 450. But it’s still in the “we’re idiots for not getting a private ride all the way from Dahkla” range, so we walk.

The general rule in Egypt, is that when you walk, unless you look behind you (in which case you’re screwed), someone will follow you. Sure enough, a man breaks away from the pack of drivers and approaches us as we start to chat up the bus drivers to Asyuut.

“350,” he says.

“No way. We’re going to Asyuut. 250.”

 “300.”

Grumble, grumble, consultation. “Fine.”

The price actually was fine –  it’s a damn long drive to Luxor. I only made two mistakes. One – I didn’t look over the car. Two – I didn’t check out the driver too carefully. You’d think after some of our previous adventures in the desert, I’d have learned better. But I was tired and stupid.

The man who cut the deal for us, probably too smart to make the journey himself, quickly hands us off to another driver, to whom he explains the finances of the deal and the destination in a flurry of Arabic. Our new driver, a clean cut, middle-aged Egyptian man, looks at us with a mixture of fear and incomprehension (a look we’d grow to know well over the next few hours), before showing us to his relic of a car – a crumbling 1970’s era, 3 bench seat, Pueguot station-wagon; stick shift on the wheel, original apholstry long-disintegrated, only one window handle in the whole rig, which is shared between passengers and driver as needed.

As a group of men push a double-parked car out of our way, our driver gets the engine going and we putter out of the parking lot in a cacaphony of pats on the hood and last-minute instructions from the other drivers.

Altogether, it feels like we should have a “Just Married” sign on the back window.

Janine and I share an anxious look before resigning ourselves to whatever lies ahead.

“Could you pass the window handle please?” she says politely.

***

I really can’t tell you much about the drive to Luxor. It’s mostly made in the dark, periodically relieved by a police check point appearing out of the darkness. The road is officially closed after 5:30. But our driver takes care of this with a little bribe for the guards at each stop. He’d be a truly smooth operator if he could remember what country we’re from. But instead he gives the cops a different nationality each time.

 The real adventure begins when we see the glow of Luxor’s lights on the horizon for the first time.

Feyn Luxor?” he asks as we stop just outside city limits.

He knows absolutely zero English. But that’s okay. I know that feyn means “where” (thank you Lonely Planet Arabic Phrasebook).  “Happyland Hotel,” I tell him.

He stares at me without a trace of comprehension. Then suddenly turns and re-starts the car.

We run into another police check-point. The police look in and ask him a question. He turns back to us. “Nationalitee?” he asks us for the eighth time that night.

We remind him and he passes the info onto the cops before asking for directions. We can see on our guidebook map that the hotel is pretty centrally located in the downtown. The police seem to echo the sentiment and give brief directions, beginning with an explicit hand gesture to take a left when we pull out of the checkpoint.

Our driver takes a right.

A few km later, we’re pulled over asking more directions. These get our driver 5 minutes down the road to the next police check point before he’s lost again.

This time he tells the cops we’re from Holland.

We stop for directions no less than nine times before making it into Luxor proper, which we’re now convinced our driver has never visited before in his life. At his last stop for help, the group of teen-aged boys make him repeat the directions back to them twice before letting us go with a laugh, looking in at Janine and I with a “God help you” kind of grin.

He’s just pulling over for more help when I spot the sign for the hotel.

“Oh thank you Jesus,” Janine sighs gratefully.

***

A tourist mecca, Luxor is  all bright lights and big city along the banks of the Nile. It’s a far cry from the peace and deep quiet of the desert. As I walk down the street hunting for dinner, I’m assailed by touts and vendors trying to sell me everything, it seems, except food. Still, there’s an energy to the place that’s appealing. In the days to come, there’s legendary temples to see, felucca boats to sail and a trip down the world’s largest man-made lake to arrange. I just need to get out of my desert skin and climb back into that slightly grimier Cairo epidermus that all that sand has scrubbed off.

I finally find the kushaari take-out restaurant that my hotel manager recommended. The smell of the food makes my stomach rumble insistently.

“So,” I say cheerfully, stepping up to the man behind the counter, “what’s kushaari?”

agabat.jpg

Sunrise over Agabat 

Don’t forget to eat your mummy! 

 – Sayid

It’s nothing against the camel hair. I just can’t sleep.

At 5 a.m., I wake up beneath the crushing warmth of 4 camel hair blankets and a crescent moon shining brightly enough to drown most of the stars in its quadrant of the sky. Only Venus holds out in its halo.

I don’t know what it is, but as soon as my eyes open on that moon, I am wide awake. I fight the inevitable for half an hour before giving in, wriggling out from beneath the blankets and tramping off to watch the sunrise over the Agabat Desert.

I tread as carefully as I can over the chalky stone, avoiding tripping on the tent of our guide Yaher and the prone form of our cook Sayid, who prefers to sleep without a tent.  In the dark, I climb the highest hill I dare, clambering up to its flat top with a quick prayer to whichever god is awake at this hour as white tiles break off beneath my feet. 

I feel like I’ve seen a lot of different geology in my travels in Canada. But when the sun comes up over Agabat, turning the sky and white hills shades of rose and lemon, I feel like I’m on another planet. We have nothing like this back home and I never even knew places like this existed in Egypt. My vision of the desert as a uniform sea of sand dunes has been blown away forever. In the last 24 hours I’ve seen more variety than I could ever have imagined.

And I think this might be just the beginning.

My contemplative mood is broken by Janine, who by now has scrambled up the hill to stand beside me. After spending some time sitting on the chalky ground, the seat of my pants is covered in white dust.

“You’ve got Aga-butt,” she says, slapping my ass.

***

After breakfast, the boys efficiently pack and get us on the move. We drive to the southern edge of the Agabat depression, where Yaher deposits us and Sayid for a hike through the dramatic end of this landscape.

The conic hill tops give way to a valley of limestone monuments. Knife-edged walls and natural obelisks rise up a hundred feet above tope dunes. Sayid walks barefoot through the sands, pointing out interesting rock formations and telling us a story about an American client who once tried to pet a horned viper near this spot. One monolith resembles a massive sleeping camel, another, called “the window”, a 70 ft wide empty picture frame.

Yaher has parked the truck in front of this last impressive feature and when we’ve snapped our fill of pictures, he soon has us zipping up and out of Agabat to a point where we can survey the landscape ahead. White limestone dominates a flat plane, this time in rounded chunks the size of school buses and houses. “It looks like the clouds fell from the sky,” I murmur to Janine, gawking.

The desert continues to change rapidly as we approach the Magic Spring, which allegedly only flows into its series of 4 cascading pools when people visit it. Near the top pool, beneath the shade of a massive palm, Sayid whips up 2 kinds of fresh potato salad for lunch, garnished with fresh herbs and cucumbers, along with the usual vegetables, fruits and breads.

Yaher doesn’t rush us, but we sense he’s anxious to get moving again. Our next few km take us through the White Desert, renowned for its beauty but also crawling with tourists out on one-night safaris from Baharaya. We agree to make our tour of this natural phenomenon quickly, since we’ve already spent a night there with Mohammed and Ibrahim during our safari out of Siwa. Still, we can’t help but be awestruck again as we blitz by this seemingly unending forest of limestone pillars, eroded by the wind into fantastic shapes resembling mushrooms, sphinxes, chickens, camels and hawks.

White Desert

Walking amid the weird shapes of the White Desert 

“Look,” Yaher points out his window to a group of 20 tents in one campsite with a mixture of bemusement and pity. “That is not desert camping.”

Our driver’s mood improves as he accelerates out of the White Desert, across the asphalt highway and into the mountains of the Western Desert. “Now, I will show you my favourite place,” he says quietly.

We push into a rugged environment that seems to combine the best of all the desert landscapes we’ve seen in the past two days. High, flat-topped mountains frame Grand Canyon-esque valleys that are peppered with limestone monuments towering hundreds of feet above the desert floor. Yaher pushes the Landcruiser up a steep mountain pass, stopping in a cloud of dust that, when it clears, reveals a stunning panoram of the whole area.

“The Western Desert.” he says with satisfaction.

***

I’ve decided that Sayid and Yaher are trying to kill me.

Their weapon is food. Everytime I convince myself that it is not physically possible for me to eat any more, they trot out another course. First there was the irresistable jumbo bag of peanuts handed around the campfire after they encouraged me to stuff myself full of the delicious fresh vegetable stew they made for dinner.  Then, after gorging myself on way to many of those, they haul out four giant sweet potatos, which they wrap in foil, jokingly call “mummies”, and bury in a pocket of hot sand beneath the campfire until they’re baked to perfection.

“Dessert!” Sayid says triumphantly, tossing me two of the silver bundles.

“What about the peanuts?!” I protest, holding down a burp.

“Peanuts don’t count,” he says.

Good thing they’re delicious. I eat one mummy but Janine’s no help to me on the second, the true monster of the bunch. I hand it back to Sayid, who watches me carefully as he smokes sheesha from a battered hooka pipe.

“Breakfast.” I explain. “I’ll eat it for breakfast.”

***

The 3rd morning’s rise is an early one, not helped at all by the fact that we were up extra late as I tried to teach the boys to sing “Row, row, row your boat” in the round. We have a lot of driving to do and Sayid has promised us a special treat – beduin bread baked underneath a layer of hot sand and coals. Spiced with cumin, it’s a delicious steaming treat to start the day. I’m just finishing my eighth piece when Sayid brings out the giant sweet potato from behind his back with an evil grin.

“Don’t forget to eat your mummy!” he says, slapping it down on the table.

“Lunch,” I weakly protest. Sayid laughs and gets up from the table, humming a song happily as he collects the dishes. Yaher smiles and starts to fold the camel hair blankets.

I have a feeling that damn mummy is going to follow me all the way to Dahkla.

***

We drive out of the Western Desert and make the remaining few kilometers to the mid-way oasis of Farafra on the asphalt road. Here we briefly stop for supplies before heading back out into the desert, the only delay coming from the local police, who make me write a waiver excluding them from responsibility for our safety on the desert route to Dahkla.

“If I charged them my hourly rate for this, I could pay for a good chunk of this trip,” I mutter to Janine handing the paper over to the cop with a tight smile. Still, I suppose it’s good to practice your lawyering every once in a while when you’re on an extended vacation.

Leaving Farafra, we crest the highest dune we can see and exit the truck to look out over a brilliant golden landscape. The only greenery is two palm trees and a camel skeleton in an endless sea of sand at the bottom of dune.

“And so we begin!” Yaher laughs, sweeping one arm out over the dune dramatically.

Then, a little more quietly as he gets back in the truck, “We are somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but no one knows where.”

***

Yaher is in his element on the sand. Singing along to each song on the tape deck with head bobbing and hand gestures, he winds and fishtails with the happy ease. Desert driving is an art form and he’s displaying the casual excellence of a master.

Two great series of dunes rise up parallel to the each other; a mile apart, 100 feet tall, across a trough of firmer brown ground, peppered with black iron pyrites. To drive to the very top of either wave’s serrated edge would be impossible, so Yaher opts for a route one third of the way up. The truck rolls smoothly and rhythmically on the railing of this giant cradle and soon has my head nodding. This scenic highlight is one I’ve been waiting for, so a nap is the last thing I want. But I fight drowsiness all the way to lunch. There, next to a massive raised sinkhole where it looks like God has pulled the plug on the desert, we munch on 3 different eggplant dishes, fresh fruit, sausage, zucchinni and tomatoes before motoring on.

The route leaves the dunes to wind through a waste of small gray stones that, all together in the slanting afternoon sunlight, look like melting tinfoil on the sand. After a few kilometers, the small stones morph into irregular pressure ridges of tire-tearing teeth as the track winds up and through broken foothills.

“This is the most difficult part of the journey.” Yaher says, following a row of cairns lining either side of the route for the next 25 km. “The rocks are called the ‘hrafish. You can get lost here. If you do, you must turn back to the next cairn, or phoof,” he finishes with a soft snap of his fingers.

I assume “phoof” is the sound your tire makes when it meets a particularly nasty bit of ‘hrafish.

Yaher carefully rolls over the serrated edges of the ‘hrafish. In places, the hills close in so tightly around us that I expect to hear the scrape of stone on metal as the truck rolls through. It’s an utterly inhuman environment, but exotic and strangely beautiful in an intimidating kind of way. We take a break at a place where the grey ‘hrafish turns to a perforated off-white colour. It breaks off in our hands in rods and chunks. “Like bones,” says Sayid, holding up a vertebrae shaped piece.

The small grey stones re-appear, but now they roll up in great rounded piles and ridges, making us feel like we’re driving through an open pit mine. The rock glistens in the sun before gaining a red tinge, signalling yet another change in scenery and our entry into the high Kasr mountain range that bars the way to Dahkla.

There’s one pass through this area and Yaher heads straight for it, winding expertly through towers of rust-coloured stone. A great sand dune has been cresting in this area in the past few years. But for now, while it laps at the feet of the pass, it doesn’t block it.

Still, when we go through, I can sense Yaher relaxing. This is an intense drive, even for an expert.

***

We camp at the bottom of the valley marked by the pass. The sun set turns the clouds over the Kasr peaks a light violet as Sayid tends a fresh chicken stew over the campfire. I listen to him sing to himself quietly as he adjusts logs and stones for optimal flame.

The mummy has indeed followed me to Dahkla. But once he’s had his laugh, Sayid doesn’t give me too hard a time about not eating it. I think he’s content to see me plow through three bowls of the stew instead. 

It’s a gusty evening by the campfire. Tired from the long day, we forgo music for the first time on the trip. Yaher and I let Janine and Sayid dose in their camel hair blankets while we enlighten each other on everything from the Koran to polar bears over multiple pots of tea.

Dahkla is only a few kilometers away. We’ll be there by midday tomorrow at the latest.  Crawling under the camel hair blankets for the last time that night, I realize that Talaat was not completely right.  We had seen the desert. But before this trip, we hadn’t truly experienced it – its moods, its music, its food, its people.

That difference was everything.

I wish someone would describe my beauty with a Kalishnikov. 

– Jason 

“You have not seen the desert,” Talaat promises us, leaning forward over the campfire to look us dead in the eye.

Janine and I listen politely as we munch fire-roasted chicken at a low table across from the director of Eden Garden Safari Tours. A sprawling meal of chickens, salads and fresh breads has been brought out gurney-style on the table and laid before us by two of Talaat’s well-trained staff. It all smells so good that we tuck in without much hesitation, despite stomachs still tender from a recurrence of our “Egypt gut.”

I’m a little skeptical of Talaat’s statement. After all, we’ve just come back from two day’s of safari with Mohammed and Ibrahim in Egypt’s famed White Desert, Western Desert and Crystal Mountain areas.  We’re now back in Baharaya to spend a night or two at Eden Garden’s private oasis of thatched huts and hot springs. While we’re here we hope to arrange an off-road expedition to the final oasis on our Great Western Desert Circuit, Dahkla.

Any car can drive the asphalt road to Dahkla. But Talaat is reputed to be the man to see in Baharaya about the difficult desert route.  Unfortunately, we think, his programme includes time in areas we’ve already travelled through in the Millenium Falcon.

Talaat is unconcerned. “I know the route you took with those men from Siwa,” he says confidently, listing the sights we saw with uncanny accuracy. “I know what you saw and what every other tourist who does that package sees. My route is different. My cars are different. My people are different. You will see.”

We figure that this is all part of the bargaining dance. Fluent in english, well-travelled and accustomed to dealing with westerners, Talaat is a cagey negotiator.  But after two days of lounging and haggling with our gregarious host, we finally reach a price for a 4 day off-road safari to Dahkla that my minister of finance and I can live with.

Still, I wince as I hand over the thick wad of Egyptian currency to Talaat.  This is definitely a splurge. But everything we’ve heard about Eden Garden, together with the great service at their camp over the past few days, has convinced us to take the leap of faith and let Talaat’s crew take us to the end of our desert journey.

It’s the right decision.

***

“Well, Talaat was right about one thing,” Janine says as we seat ourselves in our car on the first morning of the safari. “His cars are different.”

Our new Toyota Landcruiser is as different from the Millenium Falcon as, well, a new Toyota Landcruiser is from the Millenium Falcon. Comfortable seating, air-conditioning, doors made of metal, shocks, a roof. This thing’s got everything. Yaher, our 31 year old driver has been making this drive for 6 years now and gives his vehicle a final check-over with an expert eye. Our young cook, Sayaid, places a few crates of eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables carefully in the hatchback area next to our packs before closing the trunk door. 

Yaher, flicks the ignition and the Landcruiser’s 24 valve engine responds with a deep purring growl.  “Are you ready?” he asks, looking back over his shoulder with a confident grin. 

At our thumbs up. Yaher tears out of the Eden Garden parking area and we fly down the dirt highway access road, rolling softly over bumps that, in the Falcon, nearly knocked my molars loose a few days earlier.

 “Oh, ho ho!” Janine grins as she grips my hand tightly with rolled eyes. “This is going to be fun!”

***

Beduin music blares from the speakers as we head across a volcanic wasteland known as the Black Desert. Extinct volcanos rear up out of a scorched brown desert floor, speckled with marble-sized black iron pyrites. Most day trippers from Baharaya (including us when we camped with Mohammed and Ibrahim), only see the Black Desert from a highway vantage point. But Yaher is out to prove Talaat’s boast of a unique tour experience right away. We only see the highway long enough to cross it to an off-road track that soon has us surrounded on all sides by cones of ripling black rock.

We pull up at the feet of the highest volcanic mound. Yaher explains that this is Col Siwa, or, The Black Mountain. From here, in the days before mechanized travel, Baharayans would scan the northwest horizon for camel trains from Siwa. Now, this is the starting point for our trip southeast.  Janine and I hike around the Col, picking up globs of iron pyrites heaved from the mountain during it’s cataclysmic birth, before rejoining Yaher and Sayaid on its other side. Our guides recline in the sand, soaking in the early morning sun as it gains heat.

We climb into the back of the truck and get our second taste of how nice it is to have such a new vehicle. “Oh crap,” Janine says, shuffling amongst our day packs, “I think we left our books back in Baharaya.”

Did I mention that Yaher’s truck is fast?

***

“It is a love song!” Yaher shouts over the music. The driving beat of drums, strings and wailing vocals is accompanied by an occassional burst of gunfire on the soundtrack. “Now they talk about the bride!” Yaher says as he and Sayaid sway back and forth to the sounds of the AK-47, Yaher occassionally pumping both hands in the air rythmically as the truck hurtles down the desert track at 100 km/h.

I lean back in my seat and sigh dramatically to Janine, “I wish someone would describe my beauty with a Kalishnikov.”

After backtracking to retrieve our books (could you have left an engrossing novel with only 150 pages left to go?), we have returned to the desert. We soon leave behind the stark wasteland of the Black Desert and, after a brief pause to observe a herd of 100 camels, we transition to a completely new landscape, known as the Agabat.

White outcrops of jagged limestone begin to rise from the sands; small at first, but then growing dramatically to the size of tall sailing ships. After a few kilometers, these shapes soften to rounded lumps, 10 – 30 ft tall. They’re mostly a dusty brown in colour, but with streaks and patches of white  showing beneath, like vanilla cake under melting icing. As we drive on, the lumps increase in height and girth until they are giant pylons of meringue. The Landcruiser weaves up, over and around with ease until we finally arrive at a white plain the size of a baseball diamond, surrounded on all sides by the most dramatic of the hills. It’s a perfect campsite, with plenty of time left to take maximum photographic advantage of the setting sun’s yellow light.

After snapping our standard obscene number of pictures, we climb the highest hill around our camp site. We look to every point on the horizon – no roads, no campfires, no people to be seen.

Chalk up another point to Talaat. This is true desert solitude.

***

When we return to Agabat camp after our walk, our 3 walled shelter is already set up securely, back to the wind. Inside it, sits a low table surrounded by comfortable mattresses and topped with a bowl of fresh fruit. The shelter opens out towards the campfire, where Sayid crouches over a grill occupied by roasting chickens and two large pots, a limestone reflector wall directing the flame’s heat over the food as efficiently as any oven.

We stuff ourselves with spicy roasted chicken, brown rice and a delicious zucchini stew, all served as artfully as in any restaurant we’ve visited in Egypt, before rolling over to the campfire to whittle away the remaining hours of the evening. While Yaher prepares the first of several pots of strong beduin tea (in which sugar is measured by the handful, not the spoonful), Sayid fetches two drums from the back of the truck. With no hesitation, guide and cook launch into a foot-tapping, call-and-answer beduin love song that has Janine and I clapping and whooping at its end.

“And now,” grins Yaher looking right at me as we finish our applause, “it is your turn.”

Janine, delightful creature that she is, has told these boys that I like to sing the odd song myself.

And so begins one of the most awkward cultural back and forths I’ve ever witnessed. Beduin drum music meets Newfoundland sea shanties.  I take revenge on my wife by telling the guys that she always sings along with me. Bowing to the inevitable, Janine dutifully chimes in on “Sara” and “Heave Away”, which our guide and cook applaud politely, before taking back up their drums. But we’re not off the hook. After every song they do, they insist we give one back and by the time the concert is over, I’ve exhausted my repertoire of eastern music and am singing Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” to our companions.

“I don’t know if this is the best stuff to be singing to nice muslim boys,” Janine whispers to me at one point. “Have you noticed that all our favourite Newfoundland and country music songs are about drinking and gambling?”

But neither of our companions raises an objection. On the contrary, the concert keeps rolling until the late hours, when we finally decide to enjoy our third pot of black tea with mint quietly under the staggering starscape. The only other place I’ve seen night skies like this is in the Canadian winter wilderness. The stars are so numerous that it’s difficult to pick out the constellations. The broad band of the Milky Way stretches brightly from one horizon to the other and I spot two shooting stars within seconds of my night vision recovering from the firelight.

With this kind of scenery to appreciate, Janine and I decide to sleep in the 3 wall tent. Any fears we had of being cold in the desert night are quickly put to rest when we attempt to crawl under the 4 camel-hair blankets that have been rolled out on our mattresses. They’re so heavy we feel like toothpaste attempting to get back in the tube.

“It’s like there’s an actual camel lying on top of me!” Janine laughs, giving up on her attempt to meet me in the middle of the mattress for a cuddle.

I lie on my back, my rib cage straining to lift the weight of the blankets.

“Can’t talk… too hard… to breathe,” I gasp. “Love you… good time tonight… happy.” 

 Camel Rider

“Ride to victory my dromedary friend! Or better yet, baksheesh!”

The purpose of this post is to advise you that pictures are coming. Specifically, the pictures of our travels in Egypt so far. Over the next few days, we’ll be loading and labelling like good little beavers. I’m even going to try and add a few to the blog posts they inspired. So check back. And if you don’t see anything you like, write a strongly worded e-mail to Janine.

For what we’ve uploaded so far, click here.

 Falcon in the Sand

Uh oh

Georges Paul Gregor Henri David (Mustapha)

One arabic phrase that’s been easy to pick up in Egypt is “Insh’Allah”. It essentially means “God Willing”, something a lot of people say back home in Newfoundland. Like home, some people here in Siwa, including our safari guide Mohammed, use it with almost every sentence.

“So, Insh’Allah, we will have a fantastic trip,” he smiled shyly, nodding at the 6 faces in our group of travellers bound for the oasis of Baharaya, as we all shivered in the cool desert morning.

“Insh’Allah,” we all murmurred back with a little laugh.

Allah must have laughed too.

***

Baharaya lies 420 km from Siwa along a sandy track that follows the northern edge of the Great Sand Sea.  Rumour is that they plan to complete a fully paved road all the way between the two oases by 2008.

But this is Egypt. So if you put a “1” before that “8” you’re a lot closer to the actual finish time. For now, about 15% of the road is complete. The rest varies between wheel-rutted sand of differing depths, single and double tracks of something resembling rough asphalt and hard-packed, ridged dirt that approximate driving on a giant ruffled potato chip.

It’s not an easy drive and the vast majority of travellers to Siwa simply return to Cairo the way they came and then go south to Baharaya on an actual highway. 

To make the trip, you need two things – a good group of companions and a good truck.

 We had an interesting group and a piece of shit truck.

 After a week of keeping an eye open for fellow travellers to share the costs of renting a truck with, we suddenly locked on to two couples within a few hours (see our “Mr. Hweiti’s Stories” post). Hsu and Jin were a husband and wife team from Taiwan in their 50’s. Their English was a little rough but their easy going smiles and adventurous spirit had us liking them immediately, and within the 1st hour of the drive we were discussing plans to visit each other’s countries.

Rounding out our group Monique, a soft-spoken, retired Belgian school teacher. Her companion was a bombastic, 6.5 ft tall German named Georges Paul Gregor Henri David, who insisted that we all call him “Mustapha”. By the end of the trip, I had several other names for him.

Our truck, a battered white Land Rover, puttered up to the Palm Trees Hotel at 7 a.m. Informed that it would be an extra 15 minutes before we left in order to get all the bags properly loaded, Georges Paul Gregor Henri David exclaimed that this left him sufficient time for morning tea at his preferred cafe and took off down the street at a dead run, his lanky lower arms whirling like windmills, as if to give him greater speed.

Meanwhile, I dubiously inspected the truck, feeling a little like Luke Skywalker when he first sees the Millenium Falcon. “This is it?” I asked Mohammed skeptically.

“Insh’Allah, yes,” he smiled, introducing me at the same time to our driver Ibrahim. Like Mohammed, Ibrahim is in his late 20’s. He shakes my hand with a sparkling white grin before turning to work on something beneath the hood.

Janine is also feeling a little dubious about the Falcon. Looking up from her inspection of the rusting manufacturer’s information plate, she raises an eyebrow at me. “This thing was built in 1976. It’s two months older than we are.”

The Millenium Falcon is from that era of car making when a good off-road vehicle consisted of a big engine and a shit-load of metal. On her roof lies a 3 ft deep pile of tents, carpets, baggage, firewood, gerry cans of fuel, gerry cans of water and a second spare tire to match the one sitting on the hood. Altogether, it reminds me of the Beverly Hillbillies moving car. In the driver’s compartment, little of the original interior remains. Two flaps on the dashboard lift to reveal a grate which opens over the hood – our air conditioning. Rough carpets panel the doors. Otherwise, it’s just the wheel and a battered stick shift.

The passenger compartment is little better – two benches running legnthwise down the flatbed. An assortment of blankets and foam mattresses cover their surfaces but provide little actual padding and I find myself rather intimately probed by an underlying iron bar as I take my seat.

“And now, Insh’Allah, we go,” smiles Mohammed, rolling down a plastic flap over the back of the compartment and zipping it closed.

I have since added the following statement to my repertoire of worldly wisdom – cars with doors that zipper are probably past their prime.

***

Being only half an hour into our drive, few of us take much notice when Ibrahim pops the hood of the Falcon during our stop for breakfast at the Abu Sherouf spring near the edge of the Siwa depression. Merely a conscientious driver who knows his vehicle I convince myself, as I watch him pour a large jug of water into the radiator. Fine tuning.

Our departure from Abu Sherouf also marks the end of reliable road. The asphalt gives way to rough-packed dirt, strewn with sharp, sun-baked stones. Supposedly, this is the future bed for the road between Siwa and Baharaya. We rattle down it off and on, occassionally diverted into the desert proper by a road block of large rocks. At these times, Ibrahim hauls on a plunger switch on the floor, and the Falcon kicks into 4 wheel drive with a coughing jerk. Her wheels spin for a second before catching the sand.

Then, a lurch forward, and we’re off-roading.

Amidst a steady and thickly accented stream of consciousness from Mustapha, the Falcon chugs past dunes and mountains. We have no idea how fast we’re going (the spedometer gave out on the Falcon long ago, together with the fuel guage, dash lights and the radiator temperature guage). But it’s fast enough that when we veer off the road into some particularly deep sand, all six passengers slide forward heavily until we’re pressed together against the driver’s compartment like a bunch of groaning bananas. Slowly, the Falcon lumbers up the back side of a cresting dune, its speed decreasing rapidly in proportion to the softening sand.

Ibrahim’s furious gear shifting comes to a halt at the same time as the Falcon itself. Mustapha stops in mid-discourse on the snobbery of Hanoeverians. He turns his big head and looks over his shoulder, out the side window into the sand.

“Uh oh,” he says.

A flurry of arabic flies between our guide and driver. Mohammed exits the driving cabin and makes his way to the back of the Falcon. He unzips our back door and looks in at us with an apologetic grin. “So, we will take a break here for pictures of the dunes. And if you will exit this will make the car lighter so we can move out of the sand.”

But the Falcon doesn’t want to move out of the sand. She wants a push.

The tires hiss and blur in the drift, turning the sand to smoke as everyone shoves the Falcon’s rear. For an instant, there is elation as she surges forward. This is immediately followed by horror as we realize that the forward momentum is actually carrying her deeper into the drift.  Everyone scurries to the front of the truck and now heaves in the opposite direction as Ibrahim searches for a firmer purchase down a new path. The Falcon dips to her left on a 25 degree angle, half her tires sinking deeply, the pile of gear on the roof swaying like a drunkard. Then, as if hooked by an invisible cane, she tears out of the drift and whips back down the dune to firmer ground below, leaving us panting but relieved under the late-morning sun.

“This air,” muses Mustapha, “we must breathe more of it. It is really like skiiing. 

***

I have rust dandruff. Each rattle and bang on the desert track’s assorted lumps and potholes releases a shower of red and white flakes from the Falcon’s decomposing roof. Jin has begun to breathe patiently through a scarf.

Apparently, the roof isn’t the only thing giving way. We are eating lunch in the shade of a massive sandstone butte, its face covered in ancient sea shells, when Mohammed explains why we’ve been popping the hood at every stop. “We have a small leak in the radiator. But, Insh’Allah, it is not serious.”

“Insh’Allah,” we all mutter.

***

There are no services between Siwa and Baharaya, only 4 or 5 isolated military checkpoints. These are manned by young conscripts doing their mandatory one year of military service. They look over our travel permits with a slight show of seriousness. Once this formality is over, they have a smoke with Mohammed while Ibrahim refills our watering cans for the radiator. 

 At one such stop, I crawl past a dozing Hsu and out of the truck to chat with two of the soldiers and stretch my legs. They really are just boys, smiling and joking in ill-fitting uniforms. I can’t speak arabic to Mosi and Saddam, but through a mix of basic words and mime, we get a few laughs in about the various sports they play at this middle-of-nowhere post. Apparently, I ascertain as they sweep their arms out over the flat plains and kick stones emphatically, this place makes a great soccer pitch. When I pretend to tee-off, they agree that a golf course would also be a good idea (“Tiger Woods! Tiger Woods!”). And if all else fails, they gesticulate towards a couple of stray dogs panting warily in the dirt, there’s always target practice.

I think they’re kidding on the last bit, but the dogs do keep their distance.

When we pull out into the desert again, Saddam and Mosi wave to us with a grin as they finish rolling back the oil barrels that make up the road block. For some reason that I can’t quite articulate, I feel after this one encounter that I’ll never think of wars in this part of the world the same way again.

***

The rubber lining that holds the Falcon’s back windows in place disintegrated long ago. In its place, a carefully balanced system of toilet paper and candy bar wrappers wedged between the glass panes and the body of the truck, holds the windows in place. We’re in the middle of an enlightening conversation with Jin on Hsu’s dietary philosphy (“No meat, no power!”) when we run over a stone almost big enough to rattle every piece of glass out of the Falcon’s battered carcass. Ibrahim soon pulls over to the side of the road. Mohammed, exits and walks around to the back of the truck, his tired but still smiling face soon appearing in the unzipped door.

“So, if you will all exit and take a rest here, we will change the tire and then, Insh’Allah, go on to Baharaya.”

Outside, our left back wheel hisses air in almost perfect harmony with the overheated radiator. Wielding a tire iron and a flashlight, Ibrahim unscrews a spare tire from the hood of the Falcon and sets to work with the jack.

Mustapha and Monique begin to discuss their memories of camping. Monique hasn’t done it since she was a little girl. In Mustapha’s view, “It’s a filthy business.” Jin strolls the road peacefully in the dark, hands behind her back, ocassionally stopping to pick up an interesting stone that catches the light of the nearly-full moon. Hsu leans over the radiator with Mohammed.

***

15 minutes later, we’re barreling down the road once more, Mohammed hanging out the passenger window with a flashlight to keep an eye on the back tire. Though he says nothing to Ibrahim, we soon roll to a stop again. Mohammed brings his head in from the window and consults with his partner briefly before turning back to us, his face illuminated by the glow of his headlamp. “We shall just take a minute, Insh’Allah, as we are out of fuel.”

No one says “Insh’Allah” back. Allah’s Insh seems pretty clear at this point.

***

 The Millenium Falcon hisses and sputters into Baharaya Oasis an hour later, to a scattering of relieved sighs and one tired “Yahoo!” from the ever-optimistic Janine.  A saner party would have disbanded here, wishing Han, Chewie and the Falcon the best of luck with getting back to Siwa in one piece. But only Mustapha and Monique stick to their plan of ending their trip in Baharaya. The rest of us, decide to go on with our plans to spend 2 nights camping in the desert. Maybe its our sense of adventure, maybe its our pity for our hapless but hardworking guides, or maybe we’re developing some kind of Stockholm Syndrome towards the Falcon.

Whatever the case, we’ve made it this far and we’re not quitting on our tinny little prison now.

***

Mustapha passes on two hotels before we find one to his liking and budget. I volunteer to throw his bags down from the roof, hoping that they might tragically collide with their owner.

Mohammed then leads us on an hour long walking tour of the chaotic night streets of Baharaya while Ibrahim fixes the radiator and plugs the tire hole. Mohammed promises us that there is a tea house with our name on it, “Insh’Allah”, just around the bend. But after 45 minutes of circular wanderings, he admits he’s lost and we plunk ourselves on the steps of an abandoned hotel to await pick up by Ibrahim.

It’s midnight before we finish dinner before a crackling olive-wood fire. A large 3-walled tent strung off the side of the Falcon shields us from the wind. Above us looms a massive sand dune, crowned with a brilliant moon that nearly drowns the light of the surrounding stars. If our guides got nothing else right today, they found a nice camp.

“So, tomorrow we will go to the White Desert, Crystal Mountain, the Agabat Mountains and, Insh’Allah, have a fantastic trip.”

We can only laugh. Insh’Allah, he’s right. 

Hi Everyone. We are safe, sound and silly in Luxor, tout capital of Egypt.  We had an incredible and funny time in the desert and have some (we think) pretty good blogging to share with you.  We’ve found a decent internet cafe and starting tomorrow, you should begin to see new posts.  But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some temples to gaze upon…

Jason

Screw this, I’m taking off my shirt.

– Janine

 It was our last day in Siwa. But it was one more day than we thought we’d have. So we just milked it.
 
Our excursion to the next oasis on our Great Western Desert Circuit was all arranged for the next day. This was a day later than we hoped to leave, but allowed us to cut the cost of the trip by 2/3rds. And Siwa isn’t a bad place to kill an extra 24 hours.
 
After a week in this town, we’d pretty much seen all of it’s major sights. So we decided to spend our last day leisurely soaking in (sometimes literally) some of our favourite spots.
 
We grabbed two bikes from the hotel and made a bee-line for the azure waters of Cleopatra’s pool. It was a gorgeous morning. The cafe speakers played a medley of easy listening arabic tunes and Bob Marley classics while the bartenders made fresh juice from mangos and pomengranates. A few kids on their mid-morning break from school wrestled on the wall of smooth riverstone encircling the pool. It didn’t seem to matter who won, as long as at least 3 or 4 bodies fell in at the end of each bout.
 
Eventually the boys finished their play and piled into a donkey caretta heading back towards the school. Janine and I took advantage of this moment by ourselves, trading our backgammon game for swim gear. Bathing in public is still a bit of a touch and go issue for women in Egypt – you sort of need to feel out each situation before deciding whether you feel comfortable. Since the Cleopatra’s was often frequented by tourists, Janine decided that she would take a dip with me. Her first few laps were made with one of my t-shirts over her bikini. But as the sun grew hotter and the waters of the pool grew ever-more enticing, she said to hell with arabic propriety and got as close to naked as she could.
 
As we say in Newfoundland, proper thing.
 
The rest of the morning was pretty much a variation on this theme. Into the pool and out of the pool. Chat to the new tourists who would occassionally wander by the pool. Jump in the pool with those tourists. My personal favourite was Borg (“Like Bjorn Borg! Tennis Player ya!”), a 75 year old retired dutch sailor. Looking like something straight out of the nordic pantheon, Borg spends 8 months of the year travelling, after a lifetime on the sea. His English isn’t perfect, but whatever can’t be explained with words can usually be bridged with by a muscle pose.
 
“Look!” he shouts, climbing out of the pool, flexing one arm while squeezing the water from his great white beard with the other hand. “Can you belive? I am 75 years old!” He then turns with a laugh and, displaying an inordinate amount of one ass cheek out the side of his tattered blue speedo, cannonballs back into the water.
 
“Did you notice,” Janine says calmly, treading water next to me, “that he’s wearing my sunglasses?”
 
***
 
When we have reached the limits of human osmosis, we reluctantly quit Cleopatra’s and head out of town to catch the sunset. Our destination is Jebel Dakhrour, the high point of land in the oasis on the east side of town. We scramble up its sandy sides, past beds of quartzite and fossils and arrive on top in time to see the whole sky turn red over Siwa. In the fading light, the donkeys are braying for dinner, the smoke of a hundred charcoal fires is floating into the sky and the loudspeakers are calling good muslims to prayer.
 
For us, it’s Siwa’s swansong. A melody of old ways and new playing out against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen. We came here meaning to spend 3 days and doubled that.
 
And if we had to double it again, we’d be fine with that too.  
 
Jason 

http://www.elfyourself.com/?id=1126585759

 Hehehe – 

Mission Control, Ottawa… out!

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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