Thursday, January 4, 2018

Siwa.

Of all the places in all the world I've had the pleasure of seeing with my own two eyes and feeling with my own bloody heart, the oasis of Siwa in Western Egypt is one of the top, tippy-top best.  One day, a few years back, I attempted to start writing about my experience there and found it too difficult to sum up.  I was rambling, trying to put every detail into words, the smells, the sights, the feelings, the people, and I couldn't do it.  Siwa affected me so deeply and was such a joy of a place to be that it was impossible to write a blog post about it.  I have always wanted to write about Siwa, and the other night I had the idea of one experience I had there that would be a good story to share.  

Let me set the scene.  Siwa lies in a deep depression in the Sahara desert of Western Egypt with an altitude well below sea level, hence its access to ground water to create life in the sand.  There are palm tree groves as far as the eye can see.  There is a large salty lake west of the oasis, fittingly called Siwa Lake.  In the center of the small town the remains of an enormous, centuries-old mud brick village still stand.  Partially destroyed by heavy rain decades ago, the mud brick village is largely abandoned, but some families still live on its outskirts near the more "modern" town.  Open air markets vending fresh fruits and vegetables, donkey carts(taxis), veiled women milling about, the echo of the prayer call coming from minarets, and ample sunshine add to the enchanting nature of this delightful place.  Hundreds of miles away from anything, Siwa Oasis is special.
A portion of the mud brick village.
The "modern" town lies at the center of
the photo.



Market at night.


More common than any other form of transport.
The Desert Rose hotel where I stayed was about a mile or so outside of the main town, down a dusty road.  Being disconnected from the rest of the grid of the town, Desert Rose did not have electricity.  Water was gas heated and all food was cooked over gas as well.  At night we used candles to light the rooms.  So charming.  The courtyard was open air allowing for the sun to pour in onto the white stucco and tile mosaic.  Behind the hotel lies a vast set of dunes, appropriately called the Great Sand Sea.  These dunes went on for hundreds and hundreds of miles.  Straight out of a movie.

Desert Rose courtyard.


Edge of Great Sand Sea. View from Desert Rose rooftop


Ali is the name of the man who was in charge and he embodied the friendliness and gregarious nature that Egyptians are legendary for.  This guy could cook a fierce meal, guide a desert safari, and run errands for the hotel all in one day.  I felt blessed to be in such a gorgeous place, in the company of such a gracious host, with the backdrop of the stunning dunes shimmering in the full moon light.  Ali loved the desert and sold safaris in his well equipped 4-Runner; deflate the tires a bit and head out into the endless dunes.  I took him up on this two separate days and those safaris are some of the most beautiful memories of all my times visiting Egypt.  Along with sharing his knowledge and love of the desert with me, Ali would come to save me from great harm at one point in the few days I spent as his guest.

Ali in his beloved desert.
During one of the afternoons I was at the Desert Rose, I wanted to get into town to enjoy the evening and buy some fruits for my bus journey the next day.  Ali was not at the hotel to give me a ride so I decided to go into town on foot.  The walk was an isolated road of sand and dust, lined with tall grass on either side and passing the occasional structure.  There was nobody and nothing on this road besides me and the desert, or so I thought. 


At one point as I was taking in the breathtaking serenity I heard some growling.  I stopped and quickly noticed not far off the road was a pack of desert dogs.  Four or six of them, large dogs, intensely staring at me and slowly inching forward, baring their teeth.  Their faces were bloodied adding to the terror.  They were eating a dead donkey and my passing was certainly a threat to their meal.  In an absolute state of overwhelming fear, I froze.  The following moments were consumed with thoughts of, "If I run they will chase me.  I have no where to go.  There is nothing here to protect me.  I am a dead woman."  Those moments felt like an hour.  Paralyzed with fear, I literally did not know what to do.  I knew I was gonna get attacked.  It was over, life was gonna end for me like it has for so many, in the Sahara.  Then suddenly Ali pulled up in his 4-Runner and with this thick accent was like, "Do you want a ride into town?"  Do I want a ride?!  I jumped into that truck for my life! 

I couldn't believe his timing.  I couldn't believe that as my life flashed before my eyes I was suddenly picked up by this upbeat Egyptian, you know, just on his way into town.  I got into the truck and said something about the dogs, about how scared I was and that they were gonna eat me.  Ali chuckled and said, "Nothing would have happened."  Easy for you to say, you are a badass, desert hardened Egyptian who could have fended them off with one hand tied!  I'm a soft, pasty American with zero desert survival skills that I'm sure would have been quite the treat for those desert dogs dining on stringy old donkey.

Ali dropped me off in the town square where I enjoyed my last evening in this fascinating oasis that had touched my soul.  I purchased some fruits, watched life go by and eventually got a ride back to the Desert Rose for my final candle-lit evening.

Still alive!  Siwa town square in the full moon light.
Siwa was a profound experience for me in so many ways, this dog story being just one of those ways.  Siwa was the furthest away I had ever been from myself and everything I had known.  A deep love for the desert began to blossom for me in Siwa's Great Sand Sea.  I was seeing a very real part of Egyptian culture that was far from the famous history of the Nile.  And it is the only place in Egypt that I ever rode a bicycle.

For years I carried an intense fear of all dogs, not realizing it was born that day, on that road faced by those bloody faced wild dogs.  A dear friend helped me realize the fear came from that experience and it was a great revelation that helped me get over it.  I love dogs now, but I don't ever want to be in another situation like that.  There's a big difference between domesticated, well-taken-care-of dogs and wild African desert dogs with a mission to survive.  All of that said, Egypt is, and will likely always be, my favorite country.