Monday, March 19, 2007

Desert trekking

It has been a while since I last posted, and I apologize, but school has suddenly become more intensive than usual, or perhaps my perception of it has altered to now care about each assignment and quiz. Either way, I'm behind on my Lost episode-watching, I'm ill with another cold, and I'm counting down the days to Thailand with restive anticipation. I do enjoy informing my profs that I'll be missing those two days before break; I think the rest of the class rolls their eyes as Colin and I relay the info about our inpending absence, which, thankfully, has been received favorably or at least neturally with all of the midterms scheduled before we go. Life in Cairo has been fairly mundane, and not in a bad way, with the exception of last weekend. Most days I arise early, hit the snooze button on the alarm, bolt up 15 minutes later, stumble into the kitchen to scrounge up some breakfast, shower too long, brush my teeth and dress, rush out the door in a frantic state of wet hair, wait for the carpool group to arrive, take the taxi and pile out on Sheikh Rehan street in front of campus, enter the classroom for a grueling day of edification, rest between classes with a pop, fruit cup, or chocolate treat, head home or occasionally hit the gym, attempt a brief nap, awake disoriented, call my friends to study, surf the net for a bit, muddle through homework when they arrive, order dinner from, enjoy that, chat with one or both of my roommates, Skype or call my family, and eventually tuck in for the night. Yup, that about summarizes my life along its current progression. There's slight room for alteration, but the general trend of my life adneres to this schedule. Last Saturday, Frances and I decided to rekindle our relationship (actually we just wanted to scandalize our male friends) and strolled around Zamalek, finding ourselves at the Mobacco Cottons store on the island, where I purchased a few clothes for my upcoming voyages, stopping on the way back at the flower merchant near Hardees, an organic food store we suddenly encountered, and the Morocco treasures store in our building.
It is difficult, sometimes, to reconcile my normal life with the realization that mom has terminal cancer, to be walking down the street on balmy Cairo evening with the traffic blaring around me and the Nile racing past towards the sea and be suddenly hit with the notion that somewhere, across continents and oceans, cancer is slowly eating away at Mom's body, that a few months ago in Africa, jolting through the Serengeti in search of lions, it was first gnawing away with vicissitude at her insides. It's bizarre, because life doesn't change, the flow of existence doesn't meld itself to my present concerns, but my mind, my traitorous mind, will sometimes murmur dire phrases into my consciousness and distract my mind from a prof's lecture. Was that the last trip I'll ever take with Mom, the grand safari-if so, it was one for the record books, but I can't believe that it was, that my favorite travel partner and planner will never again see the world together. When I was sitting in my living room on Monday evening, wagibating (doing homework) and surfing the net with some friends (total chislers, by the way ;-), I called home to see what the results of mom's liver test were, and Andrew answered and told me they found more cancer. At that moment, I guess, the true gravity of the situation did not so much reveal itself to me as trample me like a charging bull elephant. Why is the news always the worst possible? Why does she have to have both the fasted spreading type and the most advanced? Why does it have to be diagnosed as terminal, as if there will be a termination at some point in the future? At this point, at least hope and prayers still mean something, and her chemo has just started, so there is that slender stalk of a miracle nudging its way through the mire of our minds to, inshall'allah, burst into bloom at some point in the future.
Other than this, though, as guilty as I may feel saying it, life is good. Cairo is wonderfully aggrevating, with daily protests against the regime's constitutional amendments, snarling traffic, frequent elevator malfunctions, vernal blossoms on the trees in Zamalek (the rest of the city doesn't have trees), days both miraculously clear of pollution and others choked with it, Cairoians still wrapped in scarves and sweaters against the chimerical chill in the air, endlessly bemusing cab stories (our driver today had an air freshner advertising Viagra), afternoons lolling in the courtyard at AUC drinking in the sunlight as if we had just survived a MN winter. On Thursday, I awaited the end of classes with more eagerness than usual, as a friend and I planned on riding horses at the pyramids to catch the sunset. Dawning bright, if blustery, Thursday swiftly descended into a Trojan war between the forces of rain and sun, as patches of sun triumphantly poked out through the clouds, only to be beaten into submission by the overwhelming clouds that churned with virulence and rain. Even I was slightly chilled as I sat in the courtyard during my break studying for my quiz (which I aced, mom ;-) Needleless to say, I could not convince anyone else to join Jon and myself for a gallop through the desert, so the two of us hopped into a cab at about 4:30 and headed out to Giza, discovering that the Egyptain misaal, or proverb, patience is beautiful, rings quite true when drivers turn there cars off to wait for the traffic to ease. Eventually, we arrived to pyramids area and told the driver we were searching for stables. Almost immediately, he pulled over to the curb and the car was literally swarmed with touts and obnoxious stable boys clamouring for our business. Well, that wouldn't do, so we told to driver to continue, but then someone got into the front of the car, I'm pretty sure some baksheesh exchanged hands, and we drove a little further, down some twisted alleyways, and out onto the main stable road. There, we all got out of the car, ignored the driver's repeated demands for more money, and talked with the stable men. As Jon and I were observing the scene, he looked at me, looked at a camel walking past, and asked if I wanted to ride camels instead. It had been too long since I'v gone camel riding (now isn't that a funny little phrase), so I readily acquiesced, asked for two camels, climbed on, and walked over to the owner to discuss prices. In retrospect, we probably should have discussed prices before mounting the camels, as they are quite gangly beasts that are difficult to dismount under one's own volition, but I allowed Jon to handle to bargaining, always best to give the man the power, and after a good twenty minutes of Impossibles! and Let us off!, we headed off towards the pyramids. One of the guys wanted to have the guide ride in the saddle with Jon or me, but I dismissed that idea, so our guide rode on a horse and tugged my camel along.
By this time of night, the area ringing the pyramids was closed, so our guide paid a small bribe to allow us to enter and trotted off with the obdurate camels labouring in his wake. Honestly, it was a blast! The guide was young, mayb 7-10, and spoke very lucid Arabic as he described the history of the area to us; perhaps it was because I understood him, or that I was trotting on a camel by the pyramids in the descending darkness of the night, but I enjoyed myself too much. We paused for a photo, the boy attempted several pictures, and then he hustled back to the stables and a jarring trot. I had only just settled into the rhythm of the gait when the hooves of the camels left the soft Sahara sand for the grinding concrete of the road. We soon returned to the owners, paid them our money, and wandered a bit around Giza, eating at a small restaurant before returning home amid the crawling traffic. I had a lovely evening to myself when I got back, curling up in bed with a bowl of popcorn to watch one of my Christmas movies on Africa, A Far Off Place. It made me quite nostalgic for the days of my own safari and the breathtaking vistas of the savannah coated with the confluence of incredible diversity.
The next morning I arose too early! to catch the minibus to go to the White Desert. If you will recall, I took this same trip a few months ago, back in November, was it really that long ago? but I could not resist another chance to run around in the desert and lose myself under the stars. As we were celebrating two birthdays that day, Colin's and Lesley's, I purchased the appropriate amount of food from the Metro, confiscated a bottle of vodka from Cary's leftover stash, and met our group of 14 downstairs. I was quite a sight in my VS scottie-dog pajama pants and black cardigan and tank top, and my volume of luggage was slightly obscene, but they let me on, so I curled up in on of the choiciest seats on the bus between my two birthday buds. I knew everyone but two of the people very well, as they were all ALI and we had suffered through numerous trips and other excursions together, so we had an animated four hour ride through the bleakness of the desert to Baharayia Oasis getting caught up on everyone's lives and watching the interminable sand pass by the window. Arrving at the oasis, we gratefully filed out of the van and lunched at a hotel that was the staging point for our company, Samir Safaris After a light lunch (I could eat potato chips only ;-), we gathered our stuff and went out to find our jeeps, the vehicles that would take us offroad into the desert. There were...two of them. Hmmm, and there were 14 of us. The guides did not foresee any issues, and so they crammed seven of us in the back of each jeep, seated on benches along the wall, along with all of our luggage. It was cozy, and I got to know everyone in my jeep-Lesley, Colin, David, Ian, Keira, Matt, and Max-quite intimately, but, until we devised a system to stow the luggage properly, clambering in and out of the jeep was onerous. I was slightly abashed at the vast quantities of food I had brought, as the food bag took up alot of room, but as the day waned, everyone in my car was indubitably grateful for the chips, chocolate, peanuts, etc. that I had brought along. The poor other jeep, they had nothing to munch on.
Anyway, our first stop was the Black desert, and a large stretch of sandy dunes perfect for catapaulting your body off into the abyss and then bouncing off the soft sand and rolling to the bottom. Sand is so wonderful to walk in; I didn't wear sandals the entire time I was there, just wandered around barefoot. The only problem with jumping off sand dunes is climbing back up, as sloughing through sand is utterly enervating, and I was gasping for breath by the time I had climbed back up the second of third time. We then hiked up a bigger sand dune, I lagged a bit behind with bated breath, and the the guides shouted for us to hurry, so we sprinted down it and squeezed back in the jeep. Then it was off to the ancient core of a volcano (very cool) and Crystal Mountain, a thoroughly unexciting stop that has one good picture op and lots of rocks. At this point, due to a stop for firewood and Stellas, the sun was listing heavily toward night and we had not yet reached the White Desert, so we sped down the nice paved road (we only off-roaded to the campsite and in the Black Desert) until, finally, we pulled off the highway and sped through the desert. At this point, I need to mention with greater clarity the state of our vehicles. Not only were they 'cozy' but also quite archaic, with no radio, no working speedometer, no working control panels of any kind, actually, and a frame that creaked and groaned ominously over every rut in the sand. At one point, when I was sitting near the door, I could not help but wince as the car sped over some uneven terrain and moaned piteously as the floor bent slightly and the doors ratttled. Occasionally, they would fly open, and that caused for great consternation, as we would pile stuff against them. Needless to say, the ride itself was an adventure, and one we all enjoyed thoroughy, surrounded as we were by friends and the intermittant music from David's guitar. Against the setting sun, I once again cast my gaze upon the molded sculptures and windswept plains of the White Desert, running down the long hill with everyone else while the guides puttered around with the jeeps. My first instinct when I reached the botton-what can I climb? Happily, I was not alone in my proclivity, and several of us mounted one of the chalk hills to survery the land with greater clarity. Due to the soft and often unstable (as in crumbling in your hands as you try to find a grip) nature of the chalk-like rock, I could climb anything in bare feet and return with unshredded soles, al-hamdulil'llah. Also, almost the moment we left Cairo, I stripped down to my cami, much to the hoots of my male friends, because the minibus and desert were quite warm, and I was no longer quelled beneath the pressure of msogynist society. We were not really afforded the opportunity to watch the sun set, unfortunately, as we were herded back into the jeep and carried away into the impending darkness of the desert. I'm not sure how long we drove, but it seemed to take hours, reaching the camp only after the sun ceased to provide even a muted glow of illumination. As we were passing through the desert, we also passed a number of camp fires before reaching our own sites, which was slightly disconcerting, as I felt more like I was in campground than the vastness of the desert. However, we could still wander in most directions without hitting a soul, and when the fires were banked at night, I felt utterly alone beneath the twinkle of ageless splendor.
The guides rigged up camp while we all stretched our aching muscles, and then I proposed a night hike into the darkness, leading the way with my supercool flashlight that served duly as a guiding light and a blinding punishment ;-) We climbed a softly glowing white hill to survey the land in starlight and sprawl across the top like sprinkles on whipped cream. A select few of us, including me, of course, pushed onwards, finding The Bunny, a peculiarly shaped object that resembles nothing so much as a big-eared rabbit. Returning to camp, we discovered dinner was stil a long ways away, so we had a few drinks to celebrate Lesley and Colin's B-day and awaited impatiently for the food to come. When it did, we gobbled it down like ravenous desert foxes, not realizing that the chicken has been riding on top of the jeeps, uncovered, since about 2 in the afternoon. Ahh, ignorance is bliss, no? Roasting some of the marshmallows I had brought around the fire, we also ate the Rice Krispie treats that Lesley had made, sang a few songs, did a little dance, and got down, if only for bed. I'm a quaint creature, I realize, and I chose not to sleep in the jumble of everyone else sheltered a bit from the cold by cloth walls and instead bedded down by myself about ten feet from them by myself. Wrapping myself in my jacket, and covering with a blanket and sleeping bag and a scarf for a pillow, I thought I'd be warm enough, but I always underestimate the numbing chill of the desert. When you're moving, the temperature is quite plesant, but when you lie sedentary upon the sands, the cold trickles slowly into your bones and caresses your skin with a icy touch. Before I went to sleep, I chatted with the guides for a bit, who were picking up camp, and, unfortunately, banking the fire that I wanted to keep burning all night long. As the night drifted slowly on, the chatters of my companions subsided into gentle breathing and a few heavy snores, while the patter of footsteps (I later found out it was David photographing the sky) nearby send me burrowing in my bag for warmth and security. I woke up sometime in the middle of the night and peered out into the bitter cold at the magnificant dome of stars glittering around me, and felt somehow comforted by my insignificance. If God can create such splendor, and still care about such a pitiful being as myself, then his power truly is omnipotent. I wished upon a shooting star, watching its fiery tail arch across the heavens and blaze out, then huddled again in my sleeping bag for a little more sleep. Restless all night, distracted, somehow, by the beauty in which I was encompassed, I finally awoke for good at about 4:20, giving up on sleep, gazing at the deep darkness for awhile, and then unfurling myself, standing on the still-warm remains of the fire, and scuttling off into the darkness to change and wash up a bit. It was a tad chilly, changing in deepest black before dawn, but I succeeded, relinquishing my pj's for jeans. Colin had asked me to wake him up for the sunrise, so I returned to camp and dropped my bag off, walking over to the sleeping area to observe the prone figures slumbering peacefully. I almost didn't wake him, but I summoned the courage and nudged him up, and he came, albeit in a bit of a stupor. We spent the pre-dawn hours climbing hills and photographing the transmuting light over the desert, eventually mounting a large structure to shiver and wait as the first edge of the sun rose over the curve of the horizon and ascended into its heavenly abode. After sunrise, we had to regain circulation, so we spent the next several hours wandering around the dunes by camp, climbing and walking gingerly over the itinerant sharp rocks that manifest themselves amid the shifting sand, achieving one particularly challenging hill that required some vertical skill and spying the camp waking up for breakfast. We returned, 'feasted' on cheese and bread (well, I on chips), and got ready to head out for the day. Only in the light of day was to the true nature of our camp site revealed. At one point, Colin and I espied at least 8 different camps in the vicinity, tucked a ways away but still not far enough to feel entirely comfortable using the restroom or changing, as hiding behind a rock from one camp put you in line of sight with another.
Eventually, we were all ready, and we piled into the jeeps again, drove to the mushroom, where Colin and I had walked earlier, a bizarre structure shaped not unliked a fungi, snapped a great group photo, and continued through the desert, occasionally stopping a a random spot, admiring the scenery, and returning. We visited a beautiful desert oasis with pure spring water ensconced amid waving palms and verdant greenery in contrast to the stark desert surrounding it. We took lunch at another spring, enjoying an after-meal foot soak or swim, depending on if you brought your swimsuit or not. I abstained from full immersion, allowing the boys and two girls to splash around in the pure-if slightly rusty from the pool-water. Heading back to Baharayia, our jeep suddenly listed slightly to the right and thumped at each turn of the wheel. Still in the middle of the desert, we pulled to the side of the road, piled out, observed the blown out tire, and settled down to wait, expecting the guide to use the spare tire and have us on the road again. Of course, because there were no radios in the car, a fact that slightly perplexes me, as we had no means of communication out in the desert, the other jeep had sped on ahead and took awhile returning. When both of the spare tires proved insalvagable, I gave up and lay down in the sand while some of the boys played soccer/football. Luckily, people are friendly in Baharayia, and another truck drove by, saw our predictment, and offered us his spare tire, which, alhamduli'llah, worked, so we were on the road again fairly soon.
Reaching Baharayia, we regrouped at the hotel, drank some tea and bought provisions for the bus ride home, and headed back to Al-Qahara, steeling ourselves for the onslaught of pollution, chaos, and dirt that is our home ;-) That night I attempted to do some homework, but I ended up miserably failing and otlobing food in instead, greeting Frannie when she also returned late from her ALI trip, talking to Akshaya and mom, and then finally taking some rest.

This is the link to my photos-I went a little crazy with the sunrise, but it was so breathtaking; something about the desert just makes everything more clear, more tangible.

As I'm finishing this a few days later then when I started, I'll give you some updates on life here. Today is Mother's Day, so Happy Mom's Day to you all, in Egypt anyways. I helped Deya pick out flowers for her mommy on the way home from school and an hour ago visited the gorgeous salon Mohammed Sareer to inquire about appointments for this weekend. As males may read this, I won't go into elaborate detail, but suffice it to say there is some work that needs to be done before I can be seen in swimsuit. Actually, it has been a very good day. The maid came this morning, so I was forced to vacate the apartment early and hit the gym, making it to campus early to study for a class that happened to be cancelled. During my opportune break, I wandered around a bit, bought some new headphones and a movie, The Yacoubian Building, and then spent a very pleasant hour and a half in Amia class discussing life. When Sherine asked us if we wanted to start work on the book lesson, I quite truthfully replied no, and I sensed that she felt similarly, as we instead discussed the constitutional amendments, slums, Laura's love life (always an interesting topic), among other things. In case any of you have followed the news, Cairo has been experienced unrest in the past week or so due to the proposing of new ammendments essentially creating an Egyptian Patriot Act to protect against...The Great Devil, I guess, the West, banning any political groups from forming based on religious foundations, a direct blow to the Muslim Brotherhood, and also a few other things I am unaware of, but, according to the Arab news I listened to yesterday, will facilitate the transition of power from Mubarek to his son, Jamal, when the H-meister passes away. The goverment also recently razed one of the slums in Cairo, Said Al-Zeinib, leaving numerous families homeless and making Al-Jezira due to the virulence of the act. Less than seven days, people, less than seven days, and they cannot come soon enough!