Friday, November 03, 2006

Happier times in Cairo

Well, if you read my last post, you are probably a bit depressed and are thinking that I hate Cairo. Trust me, I don't, I really like Cairo, in fact, it may be time to use the l word, well, maybe not yet, but Cairo never ceases to enthrall me. For instance, today I did not venture beyond the confines of my apartment, yet I still had a great day. And last night....we'll talk about that later ;-)
I just got back from a trip down the amazing convenient Metro grocery store in the basement grocery store, open 24 hours! As much as I love candy, I am realizing that it does nothing for my figure, so I'm trying to limit myself and eat more fruit, which really shouldn't be a problem. Having just purchased some lusciously succulent plums, which were ridiculously cheap, as well as some grapes, I think I'm well on my way. My phone also just ran out of minutes, and so, across the hallway from the Metro is a store that sells miscellaneous office supplies and phone cards, and, since everything stays open in Cairo until at least 2 am, I stopped there. Before you think this story is starting to get creepy, remember that I've lived in this building for about 2 months and have met and conversed with most of these people, albeit briefly. Leaving the Metro, the owner of the phone shop and his friend started talking to me; to be polite, I responded, and sat down in the chair he offered me. Although the friend, I found out later his name was Mahmoud, spoke excellent English, I always answered back in Arabic, so eventually we fell into a Arabic conversation. I ended up sitting there for a good half hour sipping tea and talking to them.
It was one of the quintessential experiences you are supposed to encounter when you study abroad, just talking for the sake of talking. For once, there were no ulterior motives, neither of them asked me if I was married (they were both older men), told me I was beautiful, or made any sort of sexual advances. They retained an honest curiosity in me and in my reasons for being in Egypt. At first, Mahmoud could not understand why I was studying Arabic, and, actually, I had a difficult time explaining it to him, because, why am I here? There are myriad explanations, of course, but to articulate those, in Arabic, was a challenge. Then we discussed what I thought of Egypt, and what people in America think of the Middle East. I actually told a joke, in Arabic, and they laughed, which meant they understood me. You have no idea of the elation I felt when I realized that I had been comprehended. It was wonderful! At that moment, I finally knew why I was studying Arabic, for random moments like that, when you can communicate with people within their culture, within their context. Ahhh, and those plums are very good; if this blog were multi-sensual, you'd all be getting sprayed with plum juice right now ;-)
Last night...was about as different as today was as the Minnesota River is to the Nile. I only have one class on Thursdays, so my weekend starts nice and early, so yesterday I sat around in the courtyard and chatted and mingled until about 2, when some friends and I strolled over to a cafe/bar start out of Naguib Mafooz. With the ground-in dirt of half a century, broken mirrors and dingy wooden chairs, and 6.75 Stella beers, the establishment is definitely the place to wind down after a stressful week. After several hours of drinking (although I didn't partake, that whole gluten thing gets in the way alot) (we in the Arabic Language Institute get started early), I left the bar famished, grabbed food from my favorite restaurant, MD, and attended a friend's birthday party on a felucca. Veritably, this must be about the best way to celebrate another year of your life, sailing down the seemingly immutable Nile in a boat with friends gathered around you, although, due to a lack of breeze, we didn't so much sail and stall ;-)
But my night was just starting to heat up, as I left the party, went home to rest for a hour, got dolled up and put on makeup for the first time in two months, and went to visit my buddies over in Cairo Khan. Unfortunately, the hotel is not the most venerable of establishments, and I had to call my friend for directions, re-orient the cab driver, yell at him when he wanted to drop me off on Talaat Harb, and eventually find my way there. Dina, my old RA (the best RA ever, by the way) had organized a group of a few girls to go clubbing at this great disco named After Eight, one of the hottest spots in town. Because of the massive rape that occured a week ago a few blocks from the hotel/dorm, she made us take taxis to the club rather than brave the 10-minute walk, which was probably best becuase, although most of us (me included) were wearing scarves to shield our natural sinfulness, a bit too much skin (i.e. part of our arms) was showing. Although we hadn't arrived until about 11, the place didn't even start hopping until 11:30, when Wust Al-Belad, one of the most popular bands in town, started playing. The 100 LE minimum charge was very much worth it! By 12:30, when the band took a brief hiatus, the entire restaurant had turned into the dance floor, even some of the tables (although I only danced on some chairs, I didn't make it up to the table level ;-) Deliciously hot, After 8 was the first place I found where the rules of Cairo didn't apply, with the alcohol flowing freely and the slick (when I say it was hot, it really was quite sweaty ;-) skin of just about every girl glistening in the dance lights. I wore a tank top! Whoa, I know, pretty scandalous, but when Shakira's hips don't lie, I just couldn't help myself. Plenty of random Egyptian guys, as well as foreigners, frequent the place, and I danced with a few of them, but I stuck mainly with my group of 7 girls and three boys, and finally left at 1:30 to a still throbbing club.
Before I put away the keyboard for the night (sometimes, I long for those days when you could say before I cap the pen, but then none of you would be reading this, so...), I should mention that the temperature in Cairo has been considerably cooler the last week or so. Perhaps I should elucidate, when I say cooler, I mean upper 70's and maybe lower 80's with nights in the 50's, which means that I actually feel comfortable in a jacket in the evenings. Can you imagine what it will be like when the temps maybe drop to 70 during the day? What will I do? If you're sitting in frigid MN right now, shivering in you parka, sorry ;-) Of course, I can always go to the Red Sea, where temps are regulated by that balmy breeze riding over the aquamarine waters and warmed by the omnipresent sun gilding everything with a bronzed tint...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I shouldn't be writing this right now; there is no point in telling any of you this story. Nothing about my situation will change, I'm not leaving the country, yet I know it'll cause you to worry unduly. It's been churning in my mind all day, ever since I heard about it last night, and, at first, incredulously, did not believe it. While I was tackling mountains in Siwa, there was a mass rape on Talaat Harb during the first day of Eid. Funny, isn't it, how news is hermetically supressed in Cairo? Yes, on the main thoroughfare in Cairo, in broad daylight, gangs of hundreds of men, angry because there were not enough available at the Metro movie theatre, turned into a salacious, salivating, perverted creature that moved as one and pounced on any female nearby, veiled or unveiled, Muslim or Non-Muslim. Tearing her clothes, they groped and violated her and then left her and moved on to the next victim. Here is a link to a more detailed account:

Some will claim this is fabricated, despite the overwhelming eyewitnesses and photos of the assault. Many, many things disturb me about this story, perhaps because I walk on that street, AUC walks on that street. The Cairo Khan hotel/dorm is about 5 minutes walk from the movie theatre, and one of the easiest routes to campus is down Talaat Harb. Yes, there is a shuttle bus to campus, but it runs infrequently at best, but did AUC choose to inform anyone about this egregious act, no! I, like almost everyone else, learned about it from the Egyptian blogosphere, and only today were there two very small articles in one of the 'indepedent' newspapers about the incident. Did Al-Jezeera report on it , no did CNN or BBC, no, because the inane and utterly corrupt Egyptian government threatened all of the news agencies. How do you function in a society that condones mass rape, that, rather than punishing the officers who turned a blind eye to the events, claim it never happened because there were no reports filed? Does this cycle ever end? How has the Egyptian government so effectively stymied all opposition that a women's talk show guest has to be the first person to actually discuss it on television?
What do we do from here? How can you here those incessant catcalls and not wish to throttle the harasser's throat? Yes, Muslim society is extremely sexually repressed, and, as sex is not just frowned upon, but almost non-existent, outside of marriage, there are lots of lonely men out there. Where do you lay the blame-on Islam, on Egypt's government, on men themselves, on the police, on anyone who watched but did nothing?
We read a poem today in Arabic, dealing with the Palestine/Israeli conflict, and the author asks where does it all begin? And where will it all end?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Siwa Oasis and Marsa Matrouh

Sorry, as I'm writing this, I realize it's more like a novel than a blog entry, but do remember that I'm an English major and this is the only way to keep up with my English. Another two days of vacation...bummer, at least in my opinion. I returned late last night, on Saturday, around 10:30, to my apartment, unpacked, ate, threw in a load of laundry, and collapsed into bed, exhausted with what, I thought, was pure exhaustion. I slept restlessly all night to wake up in the morning feeling like a coprolite (a petrified piece of poo ;-). Despite my prodigious break over the past week, the doctor prescribed two days of rest and a pharmucopeia of antibiotics to banish my fever (102.2 F) and sore throat. Personally, given my symptoms and the appalling number of bug bites on my feet, I think I've got malaria, but that's also probably why I'm not a doctor.
Before you become too bored reading about my ailments, I should probably begin the chronicle of my trip, which was extremely superb in just about every way.
My bags were almost all packed from the failed trip to Turkey, so I threw in the extras and rushed out the door with Frances early on Tuesday morning. Our itinerary had us leaving from the main AUC campus at 9 in the morning, and we kept to the schedule, more or less. The bus was filled to absolute capacity, which made for a slightly cramped ride, but, looking back, I would not have traded anyone on that bus for an empty seat. Because the trip was ALI-sponsored, most of the students were ALI, and a few were from other areas of AUC. I knew many of my fellow travelers, and by the end of the fifth day, I had strengthened my friendships and developped many new ones. But, anyway, before I get too sappy, let me launch into the vacation. Our first stop was fairly banal, a rest area for half an hour to stretch our legs before the drive to Al-Alamin, although rest areas in Egypt are far more exceptional than those in the States; this one had a 'zoo', park, several restaurants, bathrooms, stores, and various other amusements. Too soon, we piled back onto the bus and drove the the Mediterranean coast, which appeared suddenly on the horizon as a soft smudge of turquoise against the stark beige of the desert.
Following the coast for a while, we eventually encountered the seaside resort town of Marina, an exclusive gated community. Adjacent to it were the memorials and battlefields of Al-Alamin, where Rommel and his Italian troops confronted the British Army in World War II for many months. The irony of the location did not fail to move me, as the posh villas of Egypt's wealthy wealthly overlooked the massive graveyards fallen soldiers, most who died in desert wastelands so foreign to their native European soil. Our bus stopped briefly at the British memorial and graveyard, whose immaculate grounds sheltered the marked and unmarked graves of thousands of young men. With sparse vegetation and a few gnarly trees to shade the parched ground, the white gravestones and crosses appeared all the purer in the sunlight, although we didn't venture beyond the confines of the graveyard, as much of the area is still riddled with land mines. Before pushing onwards to Marsa Matrouh, we stopped at the war museum to use the washrooms; well, most of ALI used the washrooms, I and a few others toured the courtyard cluttered with menacing tanks, artillery, and other machinery from the war. There were a few genuine history buffs in the group, but I'll confess I was just there to admire the big guns ;-) I had to pay five pounds to use my camera, but it was so worth it, and I even straddled a few guns and climbed a few tanks. Well, that was techincally against the rules, but I figured the soldiers in their graves would rather have a couple of young girls (I had a partner in crime, Lesley) climb on their vehicles then just a few older guys photograph them. The bus was leaving soon, so Lesley and I sprinted back to it, giggling all the while, and appalling a few people who actually appreciated the history of the area. Driving on the long road to Marsa, we also passed the German and Italian war memorials, the latter of which was the largest in the area. Eventually, around four in the afternoon, we approached the town of Marsa Matrouh, a seaside resort hibernating in the offseason. Honestly, it was rather eerie to drive through the streets and see entire blocks shut down and watch the rare person scurry along a sidewalk and down an even bleaker alleyway. The Mediterranean sparkled like the aquamarine gem that it is, and the bus arrived at the Beau Site hotel, one of the few still open. I roomed with Frances for the entire trip, which was very easy, since we both know how to deal with each other's idiosyncracies and she always makes sure I get my insulin put in the fridge right away. Anyway, I got into the room, threw off my clothes and scrambled into my swimsuit and ran out into the ocean. Ahhh, the first splash of clean ocean on your skin feels divine after weeks of Cairo's suspicious puddles, and the pureness of the air sears all of Cairo's foulness from your lungs. Most people also had had a similar idea, so we plashed around in the ocean, hoping the barrels under the water were just that, and not toxic waste, and took turns jumping off the floating dock anchored out from shore. As the sun set, the water became a bit chillier, and our tummies were rumbling, so we had our first meal together in the dining room, before which, several friends and I had wandered for a ways into town to find some drinks for later. It took a while to find an open store, but we were determined and succeeded, so, after dinner, we watched Melody Hits for a bit, became bored with that, and ambled across the street to discover, of all things, a bowling alley and pool hall. I bowled, was swiftly beaten by some boys, and realized it was only about 10. Not ready to tuck in for the night, even though we had a 7 am wake-up call the next morning, Lesley and I went for a walk on the beach while the rest of the group finished pool, and then we sprinted (literally) back up the beach to catch cabs to the only bar in town, a rather random Greek restaurant that doubled as a bar. One of our guidebooks recommended it, and the Stellas (that's the local Egyptian beer) were only 6.75 LE, so we hung out there for a few hours; remember, I can't drink beer, that whole gluten thing, but it was a good night, and we had a cab race back to the hotel around 1 in the morning (we won!)
On to Siwa...Siwa is literally in the middle of nowhere, on the western edge of Egypt close to Libya, and until 1985, had no road connecting it to the outside world. When I pictured an oasis, I envisioned a large pool of water surrounded by a few palm trees, but this perception was far from the reality; at 62 km across and about that long, Siwa is an expansive depression about 60 km below sea level with hundreds, if not thousands, of natural springs bubbling across the valley. Because of its low elevation, Siwa actually has a unique problem of an overabundance of water, unlike the rest of Egypt. With much of the surface water brackish or salty, Siwa's lakes are verrrrry salty and are killing the vegetation around them. Several solutions are being implemented, including water bottling factories appearing in the valley, which draw water from a depth of 900 m. That's pretty far down! Siwa is unlike any place on earth, with its own language, Siwi, its own tenacious culture, and its relative seclusion from the rest of the world. Even with the road built from Marsa to Siwa, few tourists actually traverse it, as it is arduous and long and difficult to reach. Most of the tourists that do visit are part of a bus group, like myself, and a few brave souls hire drivers to tackle to long road from Cairo to Siwa.
Before reaching Siwa, we stopped, as always, at a rest area, this one much simpler with only one lonely store and a bathroom shack into which I did not venture. I did, however, go for a nice run in the desert and collect a handful of white snail shells, yes, snail shells. I think that the area was once covered by an inland sea, as the desert was littered with them. I've discovered that I enjoy running in the desert, whether it is over hard-packed dirt, like the rest area, or soft sand dunes, like later in the tale. There is just something about pounding across the earth toward an endless horizon and feeling your lungs gasp for breath that takes you back to a primordial world of instinct and survival. Anyway, as we approached Siwa, the deathly flat landscape, peppered by the occasional Bedouin tent and herd of camels, rose up into plateaus and mountains as the bus descended into the Siwa valley. The actual town of Siwa is quite small, and there are numerous little villages dotted around the valley, but my first impression was trees! There are over 2 million date palms and 700,000 olive trees in the valley, and the vast majority of its income is derived from agriculture, with each family owning a swatch of earth and cultivating the trees together behind palm-thatched walls lining the road. Despite the late season, Siwa was also exceedingly hot, and, because the area is very conservative, I wore long pants or a skirt touring the various sites.
As I climbed down from the bus, my olfactory senses were introduced to the quintessencal Siwa smell-donkey and camel. Although plenty of people own cars in Siwa, the main method of transportation is still by donkey cart, and all of the taxis are these, which are quite quaint, but a little unnerving. Everything in Siwa is verdantly green, and our hotel, Siwa Safari Paradise, was no exception. Although not perhaps the nicest place I've stayed in, it more than sufficed, as the shower pretty much worked, the toliet usually flushed, and the sink flowed. Our room was on the ground floor, so it was exciting to walk out onto the veranda and observe the flow of people through the central courtyard; of course, the fact that many of my friends were also lodged nearby or next door didn't hurt, either ;-) After another buffet lunch (those came pretty much standard for our trip), we piled on the bus again to visit some of the sites not accessible by walking. Before the tour, we had a bit of free time to wander in the town, which was rather fascinating. At the center of the town is a square, around which is arrayed shops and restaurants, some touristy, but most not. On one side of the square looms a large mount littered with ruins dating from the 12th century. Siwa has always been a bit of a rebellious territory; even in ancient times, they resisted the occupation and governments ruling Egypt, sequestering themselves in a walled city on the hill and successfully avoiding occupation until at least the 1800s. Always wary of foreigners, there are many stories told of Siwians driving out visitors from the area, destroying entire Persian armies, and even, on occasion, killing a few tourists. All of this, of course, occured before 1985, when Siwa first was introduced to electricity, TV, and all of the other modern amenities we take for granted. Many of the houses are not equipped with these features and still exist much as they did in ancient times, although people are slowly switching from mud brick buildings to the more aesthetically displeasing cement block housing. You see, Siwa only gets rain once every 20-30 years, but when it rains, down comes the mud brick and up goes a new house-a great way to redecorate, but rather aggrevating as well.
However, we left with me staring at the hill lurking in the center of town, crisscrossed with crumbling mud brick ruins, strangely intact walls and serpentine alleys leading the top. Every mountain exists to be conquered, and this was no exception, although I only made it about 3/4 up this time, as the reek of donkey and rotting garbage invaded my faculties and I did not want to miss the bus. I climbed back down, stopped in a few shops to discover that Siwans do not haggle (this concept was so foreign to me, I'm sure I'll go back to the States and haggle over the exorbitant price of clothing), and got on the bus to visit Alexander's temple, otherwise know as the Temple of the Oracle. It was here that Alexander the Great voyaged from Macedonia to consult one of the world's most powerful oracles, and here he was crowned ruler of Egypt in 320 BC. The temple now consists of a few crumbling walls, but the power invested in the space can still be felt if you're really quiet, close your eyes, and imagine Alexander's retinue prancing through the date trees and up the mountainside, a glorious king mounted on a swift steed surrounded my the people of Siwa waving palm branches...As the historian Herodotus notes, Alexander was received with great fanfare by the Siwians, which makes me doubt his sources, given the general distrust of Siwa toward foreigners.
Anyway, we explored the temple ruins constructed on a hillside (everything of interest required a climb;-), admired the soon familiar vista of date palms sprouting in profusion with the occasional plateau, vast lake, or tiny spring interrupting their growth, and trekked down the hill, through the usual crowd of children selling wares, staring, and asking for money, through a grove (we saw thousands of dates just sitting on the ground, drying, yum yum!) and to the Temple of Amun. I'm going to have to be honest, many of the ruins, with the exception of the Mountain of the Dead and the town of Shali (that's the hill in the center of town) were not terribly spectacular. Perhaps I'm spoiled, and I've seen enough truly amazing ruins (think, Rome, Pompeii, the Pyramids, etc.), but many of the sites were just a pile of crumbling pillars and short walls. Apparently, in recent history, an earthquake destroyed several of the places of note, and left other sites completely effaced. Even so, it was fun to wander through Siwa as an obnoxious group of 50 or so and stare back at the bold Siwians staring at you. After the Amun temple, we drove to another site across town where a Greek archaeologist 10 or so years ago supposedly unearthed Alexander the Great's tomb. Now, most historians think he is buried in Alexandria, although his body's never been exhumed, and so instantly discredited the finding. The archaeologist had a bit of a falling out with the Egyptian government and is now no longer allowed to dig at the site, so the mystery of Alexander's final resting place may never be discovered. After this, it was almost sunset, so we took the bus out to an island in the middle of a salt lake to enjoy a peaceful evening under the stars. As everywhere in Egypt, the sunset was breathtaking, illuminating the water and framing the hills with a golden patina that made you stop and gape.
As I mentioned before, the salt water problem in Siwa is a very real one, and the island we visited is slowly dying because the water level of the lake is rising and choking the life out of the palm trees and vegetation on it. It was very eerie to wander through the island's paths and come across fallen trees or half-dead ones scratching the sky with spiky, dry branches. Now, during my wandering, I came to the opposite of the shore of the island, and saw across the lake to another, smaller, unihabitated isle, and the sillhouttes of three persons standing in front of it. Well, if they could walk on water, then so could I. So, to the relative astonishment of my companions, I stepped out of my sandals, rolled up my jeans and waded into the water. I had invited anyone else to accompany me, but they seemed hesitant, so I set off across the lake all by myself with the setting sun to my right, revealing a safe path across the salty bottom. Never reaching above my thighs, the water was both very salty and warm, quite soothing on my various cuts and scrapes. After about a twenty minute walk, I acheived my island, clambered over the sharp rocks on the shore and gazed in true wonderment at the rocky walled ruins turned to solid gold in the fading glow of the sun. After exploring a bit, I encountered the island's other intrepid adventurers, who snapped my picture, and then, in semi-darkness, I set off back to the main island. Returning was slightly more difficult than going, as I had to squint to discern where the bottom was, but I returned triumphant, and, as I surmounted the bank, a few people expressed their concern that I made it back. My solo expedition put the entire evening in a rosy glow for me, and even the exceedingly slow dinner was great fun, as my table christened my island Lauralopolis. I think my pictures made them regret the decision not to accompany me ;-) You all probably think I went straight to bed after we got back to Siwa town, and you are most wrong, because Siwa has an amazing nightlife (big wink).
Actually, women lead lives confined entirely in their homes, and the few times that they emerge, they are entirely draped in blue cloth, with gloves on their hands and a black veil over their faces not unlike the mask of the Scream character. It is entirely disconcerting when they ride by, hunched in a donkey cart, and their faces turn to you, but all you see is a fathomless, entirely opaque black hole that regards you with utter eqanamity, if not disdain. Thus, the only females you see in the street are girls who are entirely ebullient and playful without a bit of bashfulness about them. I find it difficult to see how they, dressed in sparkly, bright clothes for Eid turn into the wraiths that are Siwan women, but each one does, eventually.
After meeting up with some guy friends for tea at a cafe, and guiding Frances there as well, we went searching for a place to play backgammon and ran into Yousef. One of my friends, Jon, told him he was French, and so we all adopted fake nationalities (I was German), told him how much we detest America, followed him to his uncle's restaurant, and chilled there for a few hours. By then, it was about 11:30, and time for any sensible tourist to turn in, but I was just getting started, so two of my friends (Frances went to bed) climbed the central ruins in town, this time reaching the top. Let me tell you, the difference between day and night is truly black and white; in the day, the ruins were sweltering, a bit smelly, and shining beige in the sunlight. At night, amorphous shapes floated in and out of the arching doorways and disintergrating building and disembodied shrieks filled the air from the city below. Truly, these sounds were like anything else I'd ever heard, and we finally realized they were donkeys, but these poor donkeys could not have been having a good night. We slowly circumnavigated the hill, ducking into various interesting towers and eventually made our way home.
The next morning we arose again to our 8 am wake up knock (like I said, Siwa's an interesting place), I attempted a shower, and got fairly clean, munched on some trail mix for breakfast (I was too slow to grab anything from the buffet) and headed to the Mountain of the Dead. They had mummies! Riddled with ancient Greek and Roman tombs, the mountain is an archaeologist's paradise, or a morbidly curious student's. Our guide for the Siwa portion of the trip was Siwian, so he explained some of the meanings of the paintings in the tombs, showed us a few dessicated mummies, and let us explore at our leisure, which meant clawing through dirt passageways and discovering bone fragments and other evidence of previous denizens (and I was wearing a light-colored skirt). Of course, I could not leave this mountain unconquered, so I raced to the top, found the highest point to pose for a picture, enjoyed the breeze and views, and then skittered and slid my way to the bottom with the help of the 'Egyptologist' (he's been an undergrad for 7 years ;-) of the group, Ahmed, who is about 2/3 my size and much skinnier. I told him if I goes he goes, but we both made it to the bottom safely and went to visit a Bedouin village. Thinking that this would be a touristy stop, I was a bit startled to pull into the village about 1/2 hour out of town at, literally, the end of the road, and step into someone's home. Bedouins have maintained a way of life separate from the Siwians; their women do everything, from the shopping, cooking and cleaning, to the tending of the animals and crops. Basically, the men do nothing, and for once, we saw only women and no men. Hardened by the desert, many of the older women were crinkled and carved by the sun, with brilliant white teeth and dancing eyes. They were certainly not timid; some of them hawked their wares, although most of them stood around watching us play with their rampaging baby camel (he was so cute); as I left, I felt that they enjoyed us as much as we enjoyed them, especially as Frances, Hope, and I talked with them female-to-female for a little while about desert life (well, Frances and Hope talked, I listened ;-).
After that, a tour of the water factory, since it wasn't operating, extremely boring! Finally, after all of that sweatiness and hiking, we went to Abu Sherif spring, a rather small, extremely pellucid fount of coolness. There was some seaweed growing on the bottom, but the water was so ridiculously clear and deep that I plunged right in (to be modest, I left my tank top on over my bikini top) and paddled and dove around. I am so accustomed to the ocean that it was strange to actually exert myself to stay afloat. I'm not sure why, but the rest of our group surged out of the pool after about 20 minutes; I however, along with Meredith, my British swimming buddy, and two others, submerged ourselves until the tour guide ordered us out. I wiggled out onto the algae ledge rather mournfully, but the bus ride home was delightfully cool, as I was delightfully damp (I don't really believe in towels). After another buffet lunch and stroll through town, it was time for the desert, and I mean real desert, the undulating sand dunes rolling as far as the eye can see kind of Sahara. Mumtaz! We took a bus to the edge of the Sahara and then proceeded to walk through the soft, pliable dunes for about an hour, eventually reaching a superb place to watch the sun set. I could not resist just sprinting up and down the sand hills, pausing for a moment to catch my breath, and then racing off in another direction just to see how far I could go. Most people thought me a little crazy (well, I am ;-), but I reveled in the sensation of the sand brushing against my bare feet and that sublime moment when I crest the dune and see the last rays of sunlight pierce the horizon. I am not indefatiguable, and I soon plopped down, sated, only to learn we had to walk to another location for dinner. The walk wasn't too strenuous, and I soon found myself seated around a low table on the ground with four of my friends for a candlelight/bonfire dinner in the desert with a tapestry of stars stretched out above us. After that, the 'folkloric party' began, with a few Siwian men drumming and singing for us. Quite soon, some of them began to dance, and of course, asked me first (I know it sounds as if I'm always the center of attention (I'm not, thankfully) but I do often get singled out for my blondness, as I was by far the blondest of the troupe) if I wanted to join them. Seated on the ground, I refused and they moved on. Now, Siwa has a reputation, for, eerrm, gayness, homosexuality if you will, and even alot of the guidebooks warn visitors (I've heard a few stories that I choose not to reveal here) about this certain characteristic of Siwa. At least one of the dancers was not, because, as they night wore on, I stood up and was swaying (not dancing!) to the music with some friends outside of the firelight when I found myself dragged into the light and forced to move my hips provocatively for the man. I acquiesced for about a minute and then scuttled back into the group. Funny, though, later than evening, in town, one of the dancers rode by on a bicycle and told me I danced very well (how comforting)! Before I left the desert, nature, um, called, so my friend Lesley and I trekked far out into the desert. Unfortunately, I had chosen to wear white for the evening, I glowed like a star unless I went aways. After deciding we had gone far enough, Lesley and I were just about to use the facilities when a jeep arrived in camp, far enough away, we figured, but then its head lights turned directly toward us and we squealed like little kittens until it manuvered away from us into the darkness, following the trail of tire markers. As we came back to camp, everyone remarked on a) how far our voices carried (I'm pretty loud) and b) how white I truly was, although they did say they couldn't see us at our maximum distance.
After that exciting excursion, we drove back into town, where Frances and I did a little shopping. I purchased (big surprise, I bought something ;-) a beautiful handsewn black throw with bright orange embroidery and neon tassles. Actually, as Frances and I tallied our purchases before we left, she bought way more and spent way more than I did; it was a bit depressing ;-), but I'm mature enough to handle it. Thurday night was fairly mundane, we went to the cafe of Sherif's uncle for a bit and then wandered back to the hotel and sat around and chatted into the night.
The next morning was a tour of the Shali hill (which I'd already climbed, twice, and a carpet factory). My neighbours and climbing buddies has been eyeing another, much larger mountain to conquer a bit farther away, so I happily went with them. The ascent certainly was a bit more straining, but, to quote me, "I climbed it in sandals and a Diet Coke" so it only took a little bit of scrambling up sheer scree slopes to reach the top. And, wow, that view was more than worth it! We waved to the tour group on the much lower hill (suckers!), having their heads filled up with knowledge, gloated over our acheivement, and then scooted down in time to catch the bus leaving Siwa. Hastily throwing my things into my suitcase and duffel bag (Hawaiian flowered, of course), I ran to the conveniently placed native crafts shop next door and bought a beautiful white scarf/throw with black and orange embroidery and a horribly ostentatious basket that is the symbol of Siwa.
The bus ride to Marsa wasn't too unbearable, and we checked in efficiently, threw our things int the room (this time, we had a sweet green marble bathroom, and the toliets worked beautifully) and I went for a swim with a few equally tenacious friends. Granted, the water was slightly chilly, but I plunged right in, diving under the waves with wild abandon. I love the ocean! We remained in the water until the sun had almost set, four girls and one very brave boy, formed a synchronized swim team to ward of the cold, and finally admitted defeat and returned to shore. To be honest, the worst part of the swim was the biting breeze whistling around our exposed heads and snatching away our body heat. I took a warm shower, or drip, as the shower' s was mish mumtaz, wandered into town to buy some pop, and sat outside in the courtyard to read for a while. Those two hours of relaxation were very soothing after four days of climbing and going incessantly, and the lap of the waves against the shore almost put me to sleep. After a moonlit stroll on the beach and an amusing chat with my friends, I was almost ready for the hotel's version of a 'folkloric party', which was, I must say, interesting, but it was a little chilly outside, and my stomach was grumbling from lack of fodder. This time, several females shook their bon-bons for the audience, while the men leapt and twirled through the air like ballerinas. Again, interesting, but not enough so to utterly captivate me.
I realize that I am, at 20, one of the youngest ALIers out there, as most seem to be grad students or periapatetics searching for a place in life (or spys ;-), but still, does everyone have to go to bed after dinner. At 10, most people turned in for the night; now, I wasn't suggesting a hedonistic party until the wee hours of the morning, but something more exciting then turning in. Eventually, I found some people to go bowling with, and then we talked on the beach for a bit (unfortunately, the hotel does not allow swimming at night ;-( and then I, too succumbed to slumber. The next morning our itinerary had arranged a tour of Rommel's cave and several beaches in the nearby area. As you've learned, I'm a beach girl, and when I heard that the beaches were not to be enjoyed, just admired, the tour bus pulled away without me. Of course, the fact that the ubiquitious 8 am wake up call didn't actually occur did not ameliorate the decision, but I'd decided the night before to skip the tour and play mermaid with, I thought, half of ALI. But, when I stumbled down the breakfast room at around 8:50, almost everyone I encountered claimed they were about to board the bus. This was only about half of ALI, but I assumed everyone else had eaten and was waiting to leave. Only later did I learn that alot of people mysteriously slept through their 'wake up' call and saw them rise and head to the beach at about 10:30, rested but a bit confused. My good friends, Sarah, Meredith, Frances, and and few others also remained at the hotel, and we had a delicious morning of swimming, floating, jumping on the rather buoyant raft that shuddered with every wave, sunning, and gossiping with no boys to disturb us. Blonder than ever! The tour returned at about 12, and the beach filled up with students, but I was pleased to hear the musuem/cave was rather pathetic (most are in Egypt) and the beaches were non-swimmable. I had to return to land for lunch at 1:30, but right after that, I went for a quick plunge before the bus left at 4. As always, I was in a rush to get packed and absentmindedly through the room key into a bag with several of my new purchases that didn't fit into my luggage. Oh, and since I had stupidly packed only shorts and a tank top for that day, I ended up returning to Cairo in my pajamas-pants with VS bunnies all over them, a blue sleeveless shirt, and a bright teal towel to cover myself. I was quite the spectacle! In my haste, I had tossed my room key into a bag with my new purchases that didn't quite fit into my luggage, and, as the bus was just about to pull away on time, for once, the hotel manager stopped it and demanded the key for room 253. Thinking I had left it in the room, I rushed back into the complex, searched in panic mode, and then remembered it was on the bus. We were only a few minutes late because of me...
On the way home, we halted briefly at another rest area, and this was far superiour to anything I'd ever seen! They had a wonderful store stocked to the ceiling with American and European junk food and, right next door, the music store was blaring "Eye of the Tiger"! Mumtastic! It also had the usual culprits, including bathrooms, multiple restaurants, mini marts, a music store, a toy store, fountains, a zoo, a children's play area, etc. Our bus' gear shifting had suddenly decided to break down about an hour out of Cairo, and every so often the lights in the bus would flicker and we'd all start praying that the bus would not break down so close to Cairo we could taste the pollution. Ahhh, but we made it, and I've only been deathly ill because of it, and that is my saga of Siwa and the beach.