Oasis in the desert

Trip Start Dec 04, 2006
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Trip End Aug 05, 2007


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nathan here: So we eventually left Luxor for Alexandria (via Cairo). Yes, this time we had first class seats and what a difference (read: no domestic violence other than Tara and I fighting over leg room). Anyway, it was a much needed bit of luxury.



Sadly, we didn't have much time in Alexandria. Located on the Med, the city's waterfront is stunning and reminded us of Havana, Cuba in a way. We stayed in a quaint little hotel with a room that opened up over the corniche so we had a great view of the sea. We spent our one day visiting an ancient Greek amphitheatre, some underground burial chambers and the city's new library. (Some may know that Alexandria used to house two of the seven ancient wonders of the world: the lighthouse and library). With respect to the latter, nothing remains and the city was without one until 2001 when the new one opened. It was quite stunning. Alexandria is also known for its fabulous and cheap seafood. We had an all-you-can eat seafood feast (it was all-you-can eat as we ordered until we couldn't eat anymore) for about $10 each. And boy did the owner know how to cook all that fish and shellfish! Clams, crab, shrimp, calamari, fish, you name it! No PEI lobster though :( Yes, one could spend many days in Alexandria, but sadly we had to move on the next day bright and early.



With some reluctance, we left Alex for Siwa Oasis in Egypt's Western desert. The bus ride was 10 hours and left a lot to be desired. Principle among the many discomforts was the fact that the driver played a recording of a man singing the Qur'an for hours on end. Only one speaker worked on the bus so the driver pushed the volume to the limit so that everyone on the bus could hear. Unfortunately we were all located pretty much directly under the speaker. God we hate buses.

So after a long drive through the endless desert, we reached Siwa. Imagine several hours of monotonous driving (Canadians: imagine driving through Saskatchewan prairie) through flat, sandy terrain and then finally life appears before you in the form of palm and olive trees. Siwa is one of five oasis' in Egypt and is now home to 25,000 people. We spent our one and only full day here touring some of the local sights via a donkey carriage / tuk-tuk. Fun.



Tara here. On our second evening in Siwa, we got the chance to visit and have dinner with a local anthropologist/author who is the only Siwan who has published literature on Siwan culture. Siwan culture is very much a closed-culture and male-dominated society which values a traditional lifestyle. The women marry at about the age of 17 and usually have children right away. Women and men lead very separate lives within the culture. Until the turn of the century - and still to a certain extent, Siwans were very closed off to the rest of Egypt and even to the rest of the world. Of course, like many other traditional cultures, they are now being affected by progress (globalization if you will).

The anthropologist's wife and her sisters prepared our meal, but did not eat with us as Siwan culture stipulates that married women do not associate with men other than their husband or close family members. They also don't go out of the house without wearing a full veil. After the meal the women from our tour group were allowed to go inside the house and meet the wife and other Siwan women. The anthropologist's wife is expecting her third child in a month and she and her sisters/cousins were as lovely and friendly and outgoing as you can imagine. The time with the Siwan women was a chance for us to talk to them about their culture, asking questions about their dress, their customs, their children, etc. Of course this was all through our tour guide - who luckily spoke Arabic and was able to translate.



One of the best parts was that the women were as curious about us as we were about them. They had questions galore and were particularly interested in me and the other married girl in our group. In my case, they wanted to know why Nathan and I were married for two years and had no children. Specifically, they were curious about how, exactly, we did not have children - ahem. Yes, we laughed and joked and the night seemed to end much too soon. The evening was really a highlight for me. Nathan on the other hand, had a very different experience. He stayed outside in the garden with the anthropologist and the other guy in our group. Let's just say that the anthropologist had some questions/messages of his own which he shared with the men. I won't go into detail but it was a little awkward to say the least!

Nathan here: Sorry folks, can´t go into detail here. You´ll have to hear it first hand when we return.

The next day we left Siwa and drove West to al Bawiti by 4x4 across the desert. Another long drive and a driver who liked his Qur'an sung. Bawiti was the launching site for a trip to see both a black and white desert. The landscape was impressive as we went from predominantly soft brown sand to coarser sand covered in black remnants of a volcanic eruption. We finally came to a white desert which looked very unlike any other landscape we have ever seen before. See the pics. It actually looks a bit like snow. The 4x4 jeeps were essential in getting to the sights and the ride was a real highlight in itself.



We were fortunate enough to camp out one night under the stars. Our guides set up a simple screen wall of cotton to provide some relief from the wind and prepared a delicious meal of BBQ chicken and cooked veggies. The food was so good it attracted a small desert fox, which came within a few feet of us, hoping to get a free meal. Nope, not from me. So we eventually fell asleep under a blanket of bright starts. Too perfect.

After an amazing sunrise, it was back into the jeeps as fast as we could to catch our return transport to Cairo. This involved another "oh-so-fun" bus trip. This time there was no music, but there was no a/c either - which meant some pretty nasty smells considering the six-hour ride in 40+ weather. Should mention that the bus sells more tickets than seats so it was standing room only for quite a few. In Cairo we had one last night before our early-morning flight to Amsterdam the next day.



Fellow travelers: This is the first organized trip either one of us has taken so we can´t make comparisons. However, here´s a small final verdict if you will on the Intrepid Travel Middle East Basix trip which we just concluded. On the whole, we both give it the thumbs up. On the plus side, our tour leaders were friendly and incredibly helpful in getting us from a to b and in providing advice on what to do and making our plans "happen" for us. Intrepid has some great contacts on the ground so although many of the activities were extra, the local guides provided were amazing and represented great value for the money.



On the minus side, we had some issues about the quality of transportation provided. In some cases, I question why the company did not secure the services of a minibus which would have been more comfortable and often a lot quicker. The other issue for me had to do with the quality of acommodation. In some cases (Aswan and Luxor) it was extremely good. In other places it was pretty basic considering the cost of the trip. I guess in the end, a person could easily do the same trip for less if they did it themselves. However, there would be considerably more stress involved in doing it yourself.

It´s been go go go for the last few weeks so we´re really looking forward to some down time with friends in the Netherlands. With a little more than 2 months to go, we´re looking forward to the home stretch. Promise to keep the blog a little more up-to-date.

That's it for us - we're off to Europe to visit friends. We look forward to sitting on couches and drinking safe water from the tap. Stay tuned for more stories.
T and N.

P.S. Nathan's sister-in-law Patti and his brother Jon are having a baby any day now - hence the message in the dessert rock.

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