Sunday, November 19, 2006

My desert safari

Finally! I know, it's been too long since my last post, and I apologize, but, truly the delay was purely technical. My computer decided that it doesn't like Egypt at all, and only occasionally charges when the device is completely turned off, which gave me maybe 40 minutes a day to use. Not exactly conducive to homework, communication, and general web surfing. I realize that the issue is probably battery related, and the situation may or may not be ameliorated by a new battery, but I suspect that Compaqs are just not built to handle 220 v, no matter how many transformers I use. So, I steeled myself, ignored my friends' comments about the shadiness of computer dealers, and visited the Acer store in my basement, as it was somewhat recommended to me. Now, the dealer was a bit sketchy and avaricious, and he spoke limited English, but his location was darn convenient and I had to start somewhere. So, I ordered a laptop on Wednesday for pickup on Thursday, but, wait, that model was actually not available, as I found out Thursday morning, so would another, slightly cheaper model be ok? I concurred and paid the deposit (to give you an idea of the cash society that Egypt is, I paid for a 900 dollar laptop in bills, not with a credit card), then talked to my parents and realized that 40 G is just too small, so took a quiz in Fusha class, stepped out, and called the computer guy, who tried to convince me that 40 G is fine. I believed him for awhile, but around 3 that afternoon, I went down and had a stern conversation with him in which I demanded more space; he was actually fairly accomodating and added 40 more Gigs onto the computer (of course, it cost more) and had it ready for me by 6 that night. My computer is so beautiful and lightweight! I love it and am currently in the process of transferring my ITunes library from the old to the new computer, somewhat hindered by the fact that a) I only have two blank CDs and B) my old computer shuts down after only two CDs worth of processing.
But enough about computers, they're not really that important, right ;-) Unfortunately, I was going slightly insane without one, but now ana mebsoota (I'm happy)! I'm going to have to brush over the details of a wonderfully epicurian week so I can expound on this past weekend in the White Desert. I think I left you all on a Friday evening; about an hour after I signed up, Nicola and I met up and went to this superb Thai restaurant, Sabai Sabai, in Zamalek, and lounged on the cozy couches for several hours munching on grilled calamari, roast duck, and jasmine rice, and sipping lemongrass juice. For Egyptian standards, it was expensive, but for the quality of food (that duck was, bar none, the most succulent red meat I've ever had) it was very cheap, less than 30 dollars per person. Another acheivement of the night was that I led Nicola to and from the restaurant, which is a bit of a trek from my building, without getting lost once! And I even took her to an ice cream place on Ismail Mohamed Street on the way back.
The next day, oh yes, the next day was an ALI walking tour of Islamic Cairo with Chahindra, our intrepid guide. Personally, I was not sure if our group would be entirely safe wandering through an extremely conservative district area of Cairo and staring at the buildings, but we found fortitude in our size, and I felt alot safer, especially if I stayed in the middle of the pack. Besides, I think the denizens were just as fascinated by us as we were by them.
Until we pulled up to them, I had not ever fathomed that Cairo had once been a walled fortress city contained behind stolid brick walls with moat, gates, and everything, but I guess it just shows I have alot to learn. Indeed, although they have fallen down in many places, Cairo was once ensconced by soaring walls complete withguard towers, arrow slits, areas for pouring oil upon the enemy, and latticed metal grills to admit te fellahin and nobles alike. Let off at the gate by our bus, we piled out and admired the gates and walked inside, awed by their thickness, although, these were relatively new gates, only dating back to the 13th or 15th century; the oldest ones are no longer standing. Although Cairo was never attacked, its rulers, particularly the Fatimids, or was the Mamluks?, I'm not sure, feared attack from the stronger kingdoms to the north so thus prempted the attack with the fortifications. After entering, we walked a little ways and visited the mosque of Sultan Hakim, a rather interesting figure in history. Apparently, the Druze religion is based on his teachings and his eventual return to this world due to his disappearance after a visit the the Muqadam hills outside of Cairo. Of course, the man had a far more ruthless side, slaying his political opponents and issuing a number of strange edicts, among them a ban on the manufacture of women's shoes to force them to remain inside the home. As I said, interesting. The mosque itself was beautiful and architecturally different than many we'd seen, with the most similarities to the Ibn Tulum mosque. With arches instead of pillars, it was more 'crowded' inside with less open space than many, but the whitenes of marble and the luscious curtains outlining the central courtyard made for a unique appearance.
After the mosque, we walked through the streets for a while, avoiding those that were entirely torn up due to the sewer work occuring in this quarter. Although I've been to parts of Islamic Cairo, it was fascinating to visit it with a guide and realize that it was once an airy, fragrant boulevard bordered by nobles' and rich merchants' houses and two palaces that have given it the epitet 'Palace Walk' made famous by the novels if Naguib Mafooz. We toured an amazing house tucked away down a side street built in, I think, the 14th or 15th century for a rich merchant. As I'm learning, most houses have courtyards on the inside and windows that face inwards towards the serenity of a garden rather then the crowded streets. It was a mansion by anyone's standards, with two courtyards graced with palm trees, grinding wheels, wells, and other implements, and the inside was commodious indeed, with numerous sitting rooms, bedrooms, reception halls with exquisite tile and woodwork, and even a sauna. Yes, a sauna, complete with colored skylights in geometric patterns, a massage bed, and an shower. The doorways of the house posed a bit of a challenge for those of us endowed with vertical reach, as I had to duck through just about every one.
After the house we stopped in an ancient trading house that merchants used to sell their goods and use the upper floors as a hotel of sorts to stay until their wares were dispersed. I ran around the upper floors and discovered one of the duplexes that had a least three floors to it and a lovely roof top area for the traders' families to reside while the man conducted his business. Walking through the streets, I was again struck by the disparate lives that men and women live in modern day Cairo. Egyptians would say hi to our group, and alot of the guys would reply back, but I've become so horrendously cold that I turn away from anyone who greets me, which is, I've learned, the only thing you can do, but still...
Chahindra pointed out many of the remarkable mosques, sebeels (fountains that provided free water to the poor and had schools above) and other buildings that lie scattered and crumbling against the encroachment of today's world, some in better condition than others and some in the process of restoration. The tour ended at the Khan El Khalili, and I learned that, indeed, it was originally constructed as a merchant's trading house like the one described above, but then a ruler named Khalili expanded the area into what it remains today-a confounding concoction of alleyways, deadends, staircases, and courtyards that comprise a souk.
I returned home and later visited with Akshaya another excellent restaurant in Zamalek, L'Aubergine, specializing in vegetarian dishes but with an excellent carnivorous menu as well. The week itself is rather fuzzy to me, as my computer became increasingly frustrating and I had several presentations to prepare for and quizzes to take. Frances' boyfriend, Chad, who unfortunately left us on Saturday for India (poor boy ;-), had a belated birthday celebration on Tuesday night at yet another tony restaurant, this one on a Nile boat named Le Pacha 1901. Famed for its fusion Asian food, the restaurant Asiatique it certainly deserved its repuatation for its service (attentive bordering on obsequious), and the desert menu was truly divine, with everything from cheesecake to mousse au chocolat to meringue to ice cream creations to date tarts to...well, you get the idea. I felt slightly awkward being the third person on the date, but Frances insisted I go, and who am I to refuse a food invitation? By the time I left, I was very happy I had not let my trepidations impede my decision. On Wednesday night I met up with Daia and discovered a delightful bakery/ice cream shop near our houses that is more expensive than Al Abd (the ridiculously cheap 2 LE ice cream), but not by much. Throughout the week my classmate, Alex, and I had been planning a desert safari out the White Desert for the weekend, and we really only formalized the plans on Tuesday and the guests late Thursday night. You see, the problem with the safaris is that one travels in jeeps, 4 people per vehicle, so you are charged by jeep; thus, it is necessary to recruit in multiples of 4 but difficult to acheive the selfsame results, as not everyone wants to go and you cannot un-invite someone. Eventually, via a flurry of text messages, we persuaded 10 of our friends to particpate in the 8 am departure on Friday morning.
I actually went out on Thursday night, first to the Opera (Romeo and Juliet, the ballet), then to a lovely restaurant on the Le Pacha 1901, and then to a party for a bit, so I actually didn't get home until around 2:30, but it was well worth the lack of sleep. Because the Opera is a very formal affair, I got to wear a black evening dress (and used this as an excuse to visit the salon ;-) and look semi-decent for once.
Anyway, I rolled out of bed at around 6:30 on Friday, showered, packed more swiftly than I have in a long time, raided the 24 hour Metro for pop, chips (I splurged and bought Tostitos with Lime, they're 45 LE!), chocolate, and other munchies, and walked to the dorms to pick up the mini bus our group had chartered to bring us to Baharayia oasis. As I rounded the corner, I was slightly baffled by the apparent dearth of our vehicle, but then I realized the bus was the slightly beaten up van parked in front of the dorms that seated 14. By the time everyone had arrived from their various residences, it was a bit after 8:30 (no names will be mentioned ;-) so we stowed our luggage on the roof or below our feet, piled in, and pulled away. I feel obligated to comment on the pollution that has permeated every square inch of Cairo for the last few days; I could literally not see the end of block in the morning, so opaque were the clouds of smog drifting through the city. Looking from our balcony across the Nile, I could only see a green smudge of light from the mosque Thursday night. Currently, there is a bit of relief from the pollution as the winds have dispersed the ignominous plague away from Cairo. Back to the trip, though.
As I mentioned, there were 12 of us, 4 guys-Colin, Alex, Steve, and Omar- and 8 girls-myself, Nicola, Lesley, Annie, Amira, Sarah, Nicole, and Eliza, al very relieved to be getting out of Cairo and onto adventure.
Four uneventful hours later, our van pulled into Baharayia oasis, a town very similar to Siwa in many ways, with mud brick buildings, donkeys, narrow streets, and a profusion of palm trees. We enjoyed a meal at the 'office' of the company we were using, Samy safaris, and threw our things into the jeeps-I got the red one ;-) In case any of you are wondering, this safari was indeed a camping trip out in the absolute middle of nowhere, and yes, Laura went without a bathroom for almost two whole days and lived to tell the tale (and lived happily, let me add). Any hamam outside of Cairo, I've learned, is just a hole in the floor, and most are not very pleasant, which is why most of us girls actually preferred the open desert and a sheltering rock, and why a pack of kleenexes is essential to any expedition.
Fed and watered, we piled four to a jeep and headed out on the desert road, passing deserted army posts and several checkpoints and watching our cell phone reception go from strong to weak to emergency calls only to no coverage. Ahh, vodafone, they need to start building towers in the Sahara...About an hour outside of 'town', our jeeps suddenly pulled off road and began buzzing up and down the sand dunes and over rocky ridges in the Black Desert, called thus for the basaltic black volcanic rock that lies strewen across the yellow sand like chocolate chips on a yellow angel food cake. Unitl you raced through the desert, sat shotgun and watched the driver shift gears, frown, shift back, toggle a few buttons, and then proceed, you will not harbor a true appreciation for Toyota LandCruisers. Despite the fact that each vehicle broke down briefly, at least once, these babies kept on revving over the sands and sliding down sheer sand hills at breath-snatching speed without once truly dying. Of course, some of the credit also goes to Samy and the drivers who calmy tore wires out of the engine ("guess those aren't needed any more, eh?") with precision. After pausing for a few photo ops, and mechanical consultation, we headed back onto the main asphault road and continued to the White Desert. Dozing lightly in the front seat, I cracked open my eyes wearily to see a magnificent panorama spread out before me-white sand dunes merging seamlessly with chalk rock outcropping and ridges carved and transmuted into fantastic shapes by wind, time, and elements. The White Desert, I soon learned, is white because of the strange proliferation of chalk deposits scattered throughout its domain, some protuding suddenly from sand as the the earth had suddenly, and noisomely, thrust an extra appendage into the heavens. Although there are no maps, and each rock looks the same after awhile, our guides drove adroitly to our campsite in time for us to catch the sunset. I've described enough scenery in this blog to sufficiently bore you; however, trust me when I say that our campsite was ideally positioned on a slight sand ridge over a stunning valley of occult chalk formations, sculpted sand dunes, and rocky mountains that required days to adequately explore. Given that we only had an hour of illumination, many of us were too busy climbing to appreciate the sunset, and we looked up to see the light fading quickly and the flicker of a campfire guiding us back home. Chalk is an interesting material to climb upon-not only do your feet leave vestiges of their form in it, but it also leaves traces of chalk on you, so that our hands, feet, and butts all were suspiciously white after awhile. Returning to camp, we plopped down around the campfire, held hands, and sang gospel songs. Well, not exactly...Sarah had brought marshmellows and a roasting stick, so we took turns enjoying her creations and chatting, eventually delving into the stash of alcohol several people had wisely brought along, and, let me tell you, mixing rum and cranberry juice by firelight is far more challenging than you think. But, happily, I had remembered to pack to single most valuable item of the trip, my flashlight from the Mt. Sinai climb, which was irrefuatably useful for digging things out of the jeeps, trekking into the vast desert, and generally causing a nuisance.
Our guides supplied all of the food, and eventually they brought out a grill to set over the coals and covered it with juicy haunches of chicken; at that point, everyone's tummy rumbled a bit when we remembered out last, long ago meal. But before the food was done, I laid down on my back, a wee tired, and became distracted by the absolute enormity of the heavenly splendor above me. Siwa didn't hold a candle to this. We were about as far from civilization as one could possibly go, one small spark of humanity engulfed by the consummate shroud of night, a tiny pinprick of light so miniscule in size compared to the stars above us. I could actually see, with amazing clarity, the breadth of the Milky Way and every constellation ever discovered by man and even those left undiscovered. Engrossed as I was with the stars, I did not realize that almost everyone else had already gone to eat (creeps! I was hungry ;-), leaving myself and two friends to contemplate the night. Scurrying over the the table, I nudged my way into a spot, grabbed a leg of chicken, and very un-lady-like chomped down, eventually adding rice to the meal. Almost sated, we broke out my chocolate for desert and settled down for a long fireside chat. Before too long, however, Nicola, decided it would be more fun to run away from everyone else into the night, so I grabbed my flashlight and readily conceded. I think we sat and at talked for three hours, all alone and far from camp. At some point, I think people realized we had been missing for awhile, and we heard our names being shouted, but we signaled back and they left us alone. We returned to camp around 11 to find most people bedding down for the night in the protected area formed by the perpendicular jeeps, but of course, Nicola and I were the youngest, so we had the brilliant plan to sleep away from everyone a bit outside of camp. After a bathroom trip, we dragged our sleeping bags and mats a little ways from the fire and curled up next to each other. I was, I'll admit, a bit cold, but I survived and woke up around 5:30 or so, turned to Nicola, who was also awake, and whispered bathroom, so we scurried away into the pre-dawn gray to use the hamam. At that point, there was no point in trying to sleep, so we found our stuff, hid behind a camel-shaped rock and cleaned up and changed clothing and watched the sunrise brush the meringue-like dollops of chalk hills with rose and marigold.
Trotting back to camp, and feeling much cleaner, we paused to look at the prone forms of our companions still slumbering soundly in a pack, decided to leave them be for a while, but, unfortunately, bumped one of the jeep horns (I swear it was an accident!) while stowing our gear. Frightened of an angry mob crying for our heads, we quickly went for a long walk, returned, again, to camp, found our comrades still laying down at 7:45, and talked loudly in their presence. A few of them stirred, fluttered a hand threateningly in our direction, cursed us to hell and beyond, or snuggled into the sleeping bags more tightly, so we decided it was time for another hike. Honestly, we weren't there to sleep! We had to head back to Cairo soon and wanted to absorb as much of the desert as possible. After observing, from our far off vantage point, a few souls stumble out of bed and congregate on a rock, we decided to chance a visit to camp. Such hostility and general wrath were we met with that I pulled Nicola away, again, and went to climb a mountain (which was, by the way, very cool), finally returning when it looked like breakfast we being served. Everyone was more sedate by this point (at 10), so we broke camp and headed off to explore the desert. Our guides showed us some fascinating shells and marine fossils, raced the jeeps through the desert, took us sand dune diving (i.e. rolling down an almost vertical dune with or without jeeps), and eventually brought us back to Baharayia. By this time, all of the bickerings of the morning had been forgiven and we morosely piled into the mini bus for the drive back to Cairo. This bus was much nicer than the previous one, and Nicola and I comandeered the choicest seats, so the ride back was actually quite pleasant, and we all finished my Tostitos, chocolate, and Tootsie Rolls with plenty of amiable banter.
And then, of course, back to the apartment and school, and a long shower, but today Frances and I bought a microwave. No more heating things up over the stove, no more store-bought popcorn, just genuine goodness!