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Archive for April, 2011

The "traditional" desert from my time in Morocco

Before I studied abroad in the Middle East, I could only picture one type of desert – an endless sea of dunes extending out into the horizon. Traveling around the region however, it became clear that this is only one of the many types of deserts, some of which even have specific names in Arabic. Our most recent expedition to Egypt’s famed Western Desert has shown me yet another beautiful variation of this arid landscape.

After a four-hour trip from Cairo, we met our guide, Wagdy, with his 4×4 in Bahariya, the main town in the area (in fact the only town in the area), and after a quick lunch, we set out for the desert.

After a short while, Wagdy engaged the four-wheel drive, pulled off the road and quickly had us bouncing up and down in our seats as we raced across the alternating patches of rock and sand. We first passed through what is known as the Black Desert, which is blanketed with small black rocks and whose flatness stretches out in all directions, with only a few hills to break up the monotony.

When we crossed over into the white desert however, things started to become more interesting. Soon the landscape was broken up by hills and small rock formations rising up out of the sand. These quickly turned into cliffs made from an incredibly white almost chalk-like stone. Wagdy said that we were making our way toward the ‘Agabat or miracle mountains. Not quite sure what we were looking for, our question was answered when we crested a dune and saw a field of huge stone mountains, all seemingly growing up individually out of the sand. I cannot imagine how these were formed but it certainly took an incredibly long time.

As if these were not scenic enough, Wagdy drove us out to the “New White Desert” (labeled such because it only really became accessible with the introduction of the 4×4). In a few short minutes, we went from Egypt to the moon. We were driving through a forest of oddly shaped rock pillars shooting up out of the ground. Some had large bulbous tops balancing on thin bases, which our guide referred to as mushrooms, and there was even one that looked like a chicken! We set up our first camp amongst the incredible formations and the twilight gave the landscape a pronounced otherworldly feel.

The morning found us romping across the dunes of the Western Desert, Wagdy’s favorite location, and we could see why. The Western Desert seems to be the brilliant combination of all the places we passed through before, with rock-strewn ground giving way to large dunes that butted up against beautiful cliffs studded with veins of quartz. We even found some small shells and other fossils, prompting you to think about the crazy notion that this place, currently so lacking in moisture, was once the sandy floor of a vast sea.

Although it seems that it would be easy to get lost in the vast expanse, our guide confidently told us that he could wander out in the desert for days without a map or GPS. And he has apparently done so; often walking at the head of multiday camel trips out into the desert. If you have ever ridden a camel for more than an hour however, you will know why we chose the decidedly comfier 4×4!

We emerged from the Western Desert in the early afternoon and made our way back to Bahariya for lunch. Spending the last 24 hours in a desert gives you a tiny taste of what many ancient travelers must have felt when they caught sight of the seemingly miraculous oasis after spending days, if not weeks, crossing a very hostile landscape. We passed fields of date palms, pomegranate trees, watermelons and olive trees, all watered by a number of natural springs in the area and in great contrast to the rocky hills just a few miles away.

Leaving Bahariya once more, we made our way out to a series of dunes on the outskirts of the city. Sitting in our camp under the fast-appearing stars, we were struck by the tranquility of our current surroundings in comparison to our lives in Cairo. Silence had replaced the ever-present motorized cacophony outside our apartment window, the air smelled refreshingly clean and the clear nigh sky was a wonderful replacement for the pollution of the city. Coming from a Cairo, where everything is constantly in motion, driving toward some unknown future, it was comforting to stare at the cliffs and dunes, which possessed a clear sense of timelessness and permanence.

The view from our camp...not bad eh?

That deep calm is a feeling you don’t realize you miss until you experience it again and it certainly made it harder to come back to Cairo the next day. We made it back with our pockets and pant legs full of sand, tired but satisfied. We then took advantage of the one thing our beautiful desert excursion did not provide: a nice warm shower.

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We had a great trip planned. We would take an overnight train down to Aswan in Southern Egypt, spend a day touring the sites before getting on a cruise down the Nile and lazing about in the sun for a few days until we reached Luxor, where we would explore the ancient Egyptian ruins before heading back by train. We had even partially paid in advance.

There was only one problem. We were set to leave on February 10th. Instead of taking a train down to explore the ruins, the protests put us on a plane out of the country on February 3rd, bound for Kenya and unsure when we would return. The mummies would have to wait.

When we finally received the green light to come back to Egypt, it was the end of March. Knowing that Southern Egypt gets brutally hot in the summer (ranging between 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 130!), we decided to dust off our February travel plans and head down to Aswan before the heat made the trip much more uncomfortable.

Although we had lost half of our initial payment, we were still able to use the same itinerary and just two days after returning to Cairo, we were rattling south in an overnight train. Our guide met us at the station and took us to our hotel and then out to lunch before we set out to tour the area.

It was at the restaurant that we realized that something was certainly not right. This was Egypt’s high tourist season and yet we were the only people sitting in a silent restaurant that should have been bustling with hundreds of tourists. Sadly, this was the unfortunate trend wherever we went over the next five days. Spots that should have been crawling with hundreds, if not thousands, of camera-weilding, sunscreen-covered tourists, were occupied by a tenth that number of visitors. At some spots, we practically had the place to ourselves!

As our guide explained, although the revolution led to positive political changes, its economic consequences were being sorely felt by the tourist industry. Of the over 500 cruise ships that should have been chugging up and down the Nile at this time, only about fifteen were currently active. The rest were parked on the shore in stacks six deep and running for blocks.

Although it was hard to see the tourist economy in this state, the lack of people certainly did not diminish the beauty or impressive nature of the sites we visited.

Looking out over Lake Nasser

The first destination was the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1970 under Nasser, the High Damn was a monumental project that used eighteen times the amount of material of the great pyramid of Giza and created the world’s largest artificial lake, which runs all the way back to Sudan! The damn finally regulated the Nile flooding and significantly increased the available agricultural land as well as providing an incredible amount of hydropower.

Not all its effects were positive however. The creation of lake Nasser forced over 120,000 Nubians to resettle from their traditional land and also stopped the Nile’s annual process of renewal, when floods deposited silt on the riverbanks, readying the ground for next year’s planting (increasing the need for chemical fertilizers). The creation of Lake Nasser also endangered a number of archeological sites, some of which had to be moved to higher ground stone by stone by UNESCO in what must have been an incredibly painstaking project. We visited two of those spots, the Philae Temple and Abu Simbel, and I almost could not believe that the entirety of both of the sites had previously been located someplace else!

The rest of the trip took us through some of the most incredible temples and monuments that ancient Egypt has to offer. Even though I had grown out of the Egyptology phase that many children seem to go through, I was blown away by the size of the statues and columns, the beauty and complexity of the art and the symbolism that seemed to permeate every site we visited.

Some of the highlights:

-The massive statues of Ramses II (who not only built an incredible amount but claimed things built by others so you see his name everywhere!) in Abu Simbel, which tower sixty feet above you and are carved with great detail.

-The amazing color inscriptions in the Valley of the Kings, which provide fanciful imaginings of the Pharaoh’s daily activities in the afterlife and are still beautifully colored, 4000 years after their construction!

-The epic stories that come with the monuments, such as the life of Queen Hatshepsut (our guide said to remember her name by saying “hot chicken soup”) who ruled as Queen for twenty-two years in an era dominated by men. Based on the massive amount of temples and monuments she was able to finance, she did quite well too! She also had a Romeo-style lover, so enamored with her that he built an entire temple in her honor, and a son so jealous of her power that he demolished or defaced significant portions of what she left behind. Her life was a drama worthy of Shakespeare!

-A relaxing cruise down the Nile on a boat filled with old German tourists. Since most Egyptian’s first guess is that I am German anyway, we fit right into the group (not counting the forty-year age difference!). The trip down the Nile is incredibly scenic, with farms and ruins all along the way and it certainly didn’t hurt that there was an incredible buffet for every meal.

-Learning more about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. Although much of what we associate with the religion is the famous mummification process, through which the ruler was prepared for life in the next world, the fundamental beliefs are quite similar to many world religions today. Ancient Egyptians placed significant emphasis on the afterlife, especially in relation to how one’s actions in this world were weighed in the hereafter, determining the soul’s final destination. If one’s heart was heavy with bad deeds that it weighed more than a feather, you should not be expecting royal treatment! Anticipating the advent of monotheism, Egyptians also tended to raise one god above the others, often giving that place to Ra, who was associated with the sun. Even the imagery of Isis and her suckling son Horus, two of the most preeminent gods, is very reminiscent of Mary and Jesus. Certainly the religion’s longevity and great influence on Egyptian culture, as well as on the surrounding peoples, point to its divine origin.

With a history longer than most countries, Egypt has seen many civilizations and rulers rise and fall. Much has changed since the time of Queen Hatshepsut, with more change on the horizon. Back in Cairo, Mubarak, who many are calling Egypt’s modern pharaoh as his thirty-year reign lasted longer than many of his ancient predecessors, is being called to trial. 

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A week after we returned from our sojourn to Uganda, I received an email from the Director of the Egyptian Fulbright Office saying that he was “delighted to welcome us ‘home’”.  It appeared that our time in East Africa had finally come to an end.

The wonderful children of our gracious hosts

While we were looking forward to returning to Cairo, it was not easy to leave our new friends in Nairobi. The local Baha’i community welcomed us so warmly, especially the Soltani family, who we had met shortly after arriving, and who graciously hosted us for almost a month and a half, despite our having no idea exactly how long we would be staying with them. In fact, with all the invitations to return, it seems that next time we are evacuated to Kenya, will have no problem finding a place to stay!

I certainly miss the ever-present greenery that definitely did not greet me when I stepped off the plane in Cairo. And we also miss some of the freedoms we enjoyed in Kenya. It was hard to pack up our shorts and tank tops, knowing that we would not be wearing them outside again until we returned the States, no matter how hot the Egyptian summer turns out to be.

The one thing I will not miss however, is being called “mzungu” almost everywhere I went in Kenya. Although the word technically means “someone who moves around” in Swahili, it seems to have become synonymous with “white person” and is used liberally by everyone from hawkers on the street to small children playing in alleys. Coming from the US, where race, and especially the names one group gives to another, is a bit more charged and tense, it was hard to get used to. In an effort to communicate my frustration, I once responded to a man by saying “mwafrika, sasa?” which is the linguistic opposite of “mzungu” and means roughly “African, what’s up?” He didn’t quite know how to take that :)

All things considered, I think that we will be coming back to Kenya. Next time however, it hopefully won’t be amidst a revolution.

***

Being evacuated from a country makes returning a somewhat odd experience. Some of the first things you notice such as, “there are no longer tanks in the streets” or “the burn marks on the side of police station are gone” and “you can find bread and milk in the supermarket” tell you a lot about the state of the country when you left.

Other signs of the recent unrest still remain however. The graffiti that sprang up during the revolution calling for Mubarak’s removal can still be seen on many walls throughout the city and almost every subway car has the “Mubarak” stop on the map scratched or blacked out, often replaced with “martyrs” scrawled in thick black permanent marker.

There are even some small pockets of protesters in the streets. Around a hundred or so people continue to protest in Tahrir square daily, (with an even larger protest this past Friday) calling for the worst offenders of the previous regime to be brought to justice. The success of the revolution seems to also have emboldened those with long-held and unexpressed grievances to take to the streets and demand change. I recently passed a mass of chanting people blocking a main road with signs and when I looked up expecting to see that they were in front of a police office or the Ministry of the Interior, I instead found that them protesting in front of the Egyptian Academy for Science and Research. It seems that they have had enough of the long years of study that result in a job with a meager salary.

There are even those who have seen the vastly popular protests as a great business opportunity. Tahrir square is now covered with men and women selling a variety of red, white and black hats and pins or shirts with “I <3 Egypt” printed proudly on the front. Even the American University of Cairo Press recently came out with a “Tahrir!” calendar you can purchase and hang on your post-revolution wall. Although some of these items may have existed before, there is certainly an enlivened sense of national pride that has made them vastly more popular.

Not everyone is profiting from the revolution however, and among those hardest struck is the tourist industry. We experienced this personally by being forced to cancel a trip to Upper Egypt because of our evacuation, but we were certainly not the only tourists affected.

Lots of boats, no passengers...

When we returned to our travel agent, whose office is on Tahrir Square (a great spot for business until two months ago), he told us that he was closed for a full month. Once we finally made it up to Aswan and Luxor, we were struck by how few foreigners we saw, especially since this is supposed to by Egypt’s high season. One of our guides told us that of the 500+ boats that normally cruise the Nile packed with tourists, only fifteen are currently operating, a statistic we could easily believe as we were almost always the only customers in every restaurant we visited.

Despite the heavy blow to Egypt’s economy, people seem to be happier. The shouted greeting of “welcome to Egypt!” that we commonly hear walking down the street seems warmer, as if people are telling us “welcome back, we missed you”. There is also a new sense of vitality here, of greater productivity. I have seen areas that had not changed for months now suddenly have shops under construction, repaired sidewalks or new carts dotting the road.

Everyone is also constantly reassuring us that it is ok to be back in Egypt, that things are back to normal. One example that comes particularly to mind is of the woman who owns a vegetable stand near our apartment. After seeing me for the first time in two months, she happily welcomed me back saying, “Egypt is good now, in fact, it’s better.”

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