For a desert, there has been lots of swimming…

This post has a little bit of a bittersweet feel to it; I’m feeling a little bit conflicted as I think about the latest excursion on which Amideast took us. As usual, it was an awesome trip, my sadness comes from it being the last one that I have to look forward to, while my excitement stems from the knowledge that in less than a month I will be home with my favorite people in the world and ready to annoy the crap out of them by starting countless stories with , “Well when I was in Egypt…” I know that some of the people in my program are really dreading the day that they have to leave Cairo, and I know that it will be hard, but at this point I am really looking forward to stepping off my plane and being on the same continent as my best friends.

But that is getting a little ahead of myself; the most pressing issue at hand is the trip that we took to Siwa Oasis. As its name subtly suggests, this is an oasis in the middle of the desert to the West of Egypt; at its closest point about 40km from the Libyan border, where there are apparently still lots of unexploded land mines left over from World War II. But that’s not really important.

As you can see here, Cairo is separated from the oasis by a fair amount of sand, so our bus ride took about 8 hours, heading north east to Marsa Matrouh and then south to Siwa. Little bit of back story; Siwa has a long tribal history that remains to this day distinct from the rest of Egypt; they speak their own language in addition to Arabic and have little involvement with the national government, instead relying on a tribal system. The entire area is Islamic and more conservative than Cairo, due to the combination of tribal norms and Islamic interpretation. On the drive to our hotel we stopped to check out a small military museum that had some of the creepiest/ funniest military mannequins in addition to the largest tickets that I have ever seen, as well as the Commonwealth cemetery for servicemen that died in the battles for North Africa. I have visited some military cemeteries back home, but this was the first I have seen that was the final resting place for soldiers who were fighting on the other side of the world. It was honestly a very sobering experience. After we arrived at the hotel we took a quick dip in the pool and explored town a little bit, then headed to bed to get ready for the two days of touring that we had awaiting us.

The first stop on the tour was the Shali fortress, which was built at the high point in the town to keep a lookout for the roving bands of Bedouins that sometimes attacked. It is now mostly in ruins, but you can still climb up and see a lot of the remains, as well as get a good view of the surrounding greenery, a rare sight these past few months.

The next stop was a place called the Mountain of the Dead, a bit creepy sounding, but just the site of a number of Egyptian style tombs that we were able to visit before heading up the mountain to check out the view. Unfortunately it was starting to get kinda dusty at this point, so we didn’t have the clearest horizon, but  you could see how the trees just end suddenly and then there is nothing but sand. After here we headed to a small museum of Siwa culture and the single wall that remained of an ancient temple.

And then this, the temple of the Oracle. Unlike the sexy little thing that told fortunes in the movie 300, the oracle here was probably something along the lines of a statue of the god Amun, and the prophesies were either told by priests hiding in a secret chamber or interpreted by the wobble of a statue being held by four men, kinda like an Ouji board. Legend has it that Alexander the Great visited this oracle to question if those who killed his father had been sufficiently punished. In the afternoon we headed to a natural spring called Cleopatra’s well to chill out, during which we got hit by a bit of a sandstorm, and then some of us decided to go visit a nearby salt lake.

After crossing a tiny little land bridge to a small island, we found a spot to wade and were eventually overcome with a need for a spontaneous swim, so most of us decided to dive on in mostly clothed. Oddly enough the water was only about waist deep, even a hundred or so meters out, but it was extremely salty. Kinda like the Dead Sea, we were able to float with ease, though the high amount of salt did burn some small cuts on my hand. This impromptu dip was one of the high points of my trip, one of the benefits of such a small and flexible program, even if it did leave me with pants that dried stiff with caked on salt. That night was pretty chill; I got to do some shopping at a number of the small shops and enjoyed the vast night sky that you don’t get to see in Cairo.

The next day was our desert adventure, so we loaded into off road truck to go powering up and down dunes, at what seemed to be 90 degree angles, but were probably more like 60. Similar to the previous desert trip we took, we quickly lost sight of anything that wasn’t sand or rock, but this trip differed because it was mostly straight up sand dunes, no fun rock formations or other landmarks besides sand and more sand. Did I mention there was sand?

Despite this, out drivers seemed to know exactly where they were going, and somehow managed to take us to see some tiny little sights, like these starfish fossils or the petrified coral that now stands in the middle of the dunes. Apparently the entire area used to be underwater and evidence still remains, along with several Roman footprints that we found embedded into the stones at the top of a rock formation.

Possibly the thing I was most excited about during this trip, and definitely one of my favorite parts, was the chance to go sandboarding on the dunes of the Great Sand Sea. With the wind whipping and sand blowing, this was a little intimidating, but I managed to rely on natural balance and years of experience in semi-pro snowboarding in my backyard, and managed to be the only one in our group able to stay up on the board the entire way down, accomplishing that feat several times! (insert applause and compliments here) A video can be found of me shredding it up right here. I highly advise that you watch it.

As this post’s title suggests, we actually had a lot of opportunities to go swimming on this trip; it seems like most of our desert wanderings had the goal of taking us to swimming holes. In the course of one day I managed to visit a cold salt lake, a natural hot spring, and a cold freshwater lake, all of which were extremely refreshing in their own way. This pic is from the last lake, which was seriously in the middle of nothing but dunes, but was clean and deeper than I could reach. These water sources were definitely a great break from the heat of the desert and a good way to wash off all the sand that manages to stick everywhere, including inside your ears, though the combination of the water and the wind managed to send my hair into another picture-ruining mess.

In the evening we headed to a high dune to find a good place to watch the sun set and apparently to take lots of glamor photos, cause that’s what we pretty much all did. Prepare yourself for vanity

I told you my hair was interesting.

I could basically be a desert person; I know how to wear a kuffiyah and am able to stare of into the distance and ponder things. Anyways, after the sunset we headed to a camp to eat an awesome dinner by candle light while we sat outside and looked at the stars, then headed back to the hotel for the night. The next day was pretty uneventful, we just took the long drive back home and are now settling in for the last few weeks of the program. I might not have as many fun pictures to show off, but I will do my best to keep everyone updated on my o-so-important feelings as the semester wraps up. At the very least, its a good way to procrastinate from studying.

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

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