Siwa Siwa Ahtunah! Siwa Siwa Kiwaho!
[youtube width=”940″ height=”560″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qaQxLB_2YU[/youtube]
A lot has happened in the last two weeks, leaving me little time to tell you all about it. So, November 15 was the beginning of the Islamic calendar – the Islamic New Year! Of course, it’s a national holiday, giving folks time to be with family, friends, etc…because unlike the famed Chinese New Year the Egyptian Islamic New Year is just another day off. I’d signed up a while ago on CouchSurfing.com (I’m not endorsing this website, just it’s a way to connect with a place to stay without traveling to hotels) when a fellow classmate Thoma went to Siwa with a CouchSurfing group. I got an email notification that there was a group going to Siwa through CouchSurfing, so I signed up to go along. Woot! Bus there overnight to arrive early Thursday morning, stay two days, bus back to give me Saturday in Alexandria before classes start. Sweet.
Well, I arrived at the bus station after drawn out dramatics from several directions concerning me going off with an unknown group alone to a strange place. My argument: yeah, but I’m not stupid, these are educated folks catering to an international crowd, and I need to get through the tacit barriers restricting the terms on which I interact with the broader Egyptian world. It ended up being four Germans, two men from Cairo, me, and the Alexandrian organizer and his wife. Anyway, I got to the bus station on probably my best taxi ride ever – new Honda taxi, iPod hooked into the sound system and the driver had me pick music, then didn’t charge me as I was “a guest of Egypt.” What? But I got there an hour early and wandered around asking random people where I was supposed to be…that was fun. The bus was too air-conditioned and packed, so I could’ve had better sleep, but the environment I arrived at was totally worth it.
We arrived in Siwa around 6:30 am, too early for much to be open. We got to our hotel (open air again!) and the others slept, but I took the opportunity to walk around city center, buy some water (2.5 LE – cheap!), and come back to read and read and read. Mmmm. (I’d bought some novels by Middle Eastern authors that keep popping up in class, and finally had time to settle into reading them.) I also didn’t know what was going to happen when, so when we didn’t leave for the desert until 11 am I was slightly frustrated by the slow pace. After we returned from a visit to Siwa’s ancient city fortress (now eroding into a hardened mud-brick mush pile), I studied Arabic (re-writing stories corrected by my language partner), started engaging the others in some conversation…and poked around to find dates drying and falling off of trees everywhere. Wow Siwan dates are good.
The day in the desert was so much fun. We took Land Cruisers first to “Mountain of Roman Tombs” – the tombs were empty and nondescript so I climbed to the top and looked around. Next was the mountain “Footprints” – apparently several million year-old footprints “discovered” in 2007. What?! Awesome! Next was a stop at a wind-blown area where fossilized sand dollars littered bare rock. Then it clicked. I’d read/heard about an area in western Egypt where fossilized whale skeletons were scattered around the Sahara. I must have been near to that area, as the limestone (calcium carbonate, compressed shell bodies) “mountains,” fossils freaking everywhere, and footprints (in ancient hardened mud) at the top of one such mountain all suggest water. The Germans in the group (three young women, one young man, all student teachers at a Franciscan German Institute) were surprised to find fossils, and were even more surprised at my explanation.
We reached these and the rest of our sites after leaving the main road and by driving along sand, punctuated every so often by cresting dunes. Sand driving reminds me a lot of driving over snow and drifts, especially when we stopped to help two other Land Rovers out of their predicament. One vehicle was stuck to the axle, and the one tugging was progressively getting stuck. Manpower (they didn’t let women help) added to the engine power, and soon it was free! Coming from the snow-driving background, I appreciated how skilled our drivers were in recognizing where sand dipped in formations or where the hard sand was, especially as evening turned to night and differentiating between tiny dune crest and next dune became nigh impossible without lights on. The German women were definitely not used to either sand driving or snow driving and were subsequently freaked out when our vehicle began driving down the crests of dunes – often we were at a 60-80% slope compared the “flat” ground. The German young man, Aaron, and I looked at it like “sweet. Egyptian roller coaster!” and wanted to go faster, but the young women clutched at headrests, squeaked or squealed in happy fright, and were very much relieved to be driving flat again. I thought it was so cool.
We stopped next at a large, shallow, saltwater lake, where we were to have lunch. I hadn’t realized that we were supposed to bring swimming suits, so I waded around, delighting in the tiny snails, the water’s clarity, the slightly saltiness of the water, the squishiness of the ground, the landscape, and the salt crusts on dead trees. When I got tired of being in the sun and watching the men cavort in the water (they admittedly didn’t swim for long) and the German women suntan, I cozed up into some shaded sand to read before lunch of bread, tuna and onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, and chips. Desert came next, made by the organizer’s wife, and Siwi version of black tea. Yum. We sat on a cloth, around a low table set up under a “pavilion” whose ceiling was grass mats. Again, so cool.
We drove around a lot more, coming eventually to a hot spring pool filled with people from other such safaris. Instead of sitting on the edge of the hot spring (other women did that, until one slipped and fell completely in), I climbed a date palm in search of dates. Again, yum. Our next stop was a cold lake, again surrounded by other groups. Aaron dove in, but the Egyptian men in our group were far more tentative. Lots more driving later, we stopped at a big dune and the drivers pulled out sandboards. Yes! I’d been looking forward to this all day, and had at several points been disappointed they’d not made an appearance earlier. But this turned out incredibly fun. My first attempt at standing (I was the first, as the others were all more tentative) ended in an epic crash, so I tobogganed down sitting on the board. Everyone else tobogganed the rest of the time. The second time I went down I crashed halfway down and stood up the rest of the way. The third time I crashed earlier and stood up the rest of the way. The dune face was really steep for some length, than eased into a nicer slope. I had no luck standing on the steep part, so I crashed on purpose to give me a nicer slope on which to stand. The walk up the dune face was really hard, as the sand continually gave way underneath pressure.
After sandboarding, tea and chatter on the dune crest gave us time to watch the sun set and for the rest of the group to get chilly – I was perfectly fine in a t-shirt and thin pants. We drove back in the dark, had a filling supper at the hotel, and chatted around a fire of date palm and olive branches before some went to a hot spring – I went to bed. I shared a room with two of the other young women, who burrowed under blankets with many layers on for warmth. I slept in a t-shirt, shorts, under one blanket. I point out the difference because their desire for warmth colored much of their experience. The temps during the day maybe hit 80˚F; at night the temp inside the city was mid-50s. Perfect, as far as I was concerned.
The next morning, Friday, we spent much more on the town…not really. Again, at 11 we set out, which gave me morning time, which I used to read in bed. Again, wonderful. We went renting bikes, which is a general tourist attraction and where I found out how picky I am with bikes. I trail bike through Luther’s hills, and love challenging myself through biking, running, swimming, slacklining, and hopefully soon in bouldering. But, biking means I’m used to more than a functioning bike – I want one that grips the ground, has inflated tires, good handlebars, responds well, and basically doesn’t fight me. The bike I had fought me, had flat tires, and the handlebars gave me a blister. Near the end of the day, Walid (one of the Cairenes) and I nabbed a ride with our bikes on one of the ubiquitous motorcycle-trucks that constantly cruised through Siwa. Anyway, we biked to the Mountain of the Dead – take a limestone mountain and dig enough tombs into it that it is seriously honeycombed with hollow spots that used to hold bodies from pharaonic times. Two tombs had some paint remaining, so much that you could see the globs of paint and the gridlines used to keep proportions perfect. In the first, a Greek man was painted as well as Egyptians, because the tomb owner had married both a Greek and an Egyptian. The second tomb was not nearly as exciting, with only some painted sculpture fronting the doorway to the sarcophagus room.
The next stop was the Oracle of Amun. Once again, the Classics minor in me dutifully went along, but there was nothing to see. I have successfully stood in the room that Alexander the Great had kingship and godship equal to Amun bestowed upon him by the Amun high priest in early 330s BCE. The stone of the temple, being limestone like everything else, has seriously eroded over time, and is poorly shored up by classic Siwan construction – baked mud brick…though I think it’s illiteracy in Hellenistic styles rather than actual construction that is so glaringly obvious to me. No one had mentioned how long we’d expected to be biking, so there wasn’t nearly enough water to go around the group, and the organizer’s wife was beginning to suffer from heat stroke. So, while she sat (in the sun) to rest, I had more than ample time to clamber around, look at the landscape (same on all sides) and get bored. I felt I was chained to this group (the Germans were more than content to sit and watch time click by) when I wanted to go explore the actual people-scape of Siwa. So I was happy when we only stopped for a perfunctory visit to the destroyed Temple of Um Obaydi, again associated with the anciently powerful cult of Amun. (To be clear, Siwans generally are super conservative Muslims now, and it’s only through tourism that such edifices to gods other than God remain intact.)
We had pretty much the rest of the day, since our bus left at 10 pm. As it was 3 pm or so after lunch (an incredibly filling roast beef stew, the main differences from Midwestern beef stew coming in the size of chunks and lentils instead of peas. I had to pull the beef out and cut it to fit in my mouth, but it was severely succulent.) Everyone else more or less used the time to sunbathe more; I walked around Siwa, following my sense of curiosity down small alleys than anything else. I’d been out enough to get my bearings straight – I could navigate easily to the main roads, so I was comfortable walking through random residential neighborhoods. Or, I was comfortable when either no one was around or everyone was talking to me. When I get stared at with no words, I don’t quite know how to react. Anyway, I took some pictures of the actual town/city of Siwa, which is more than an oasis, to show a different side that most tourists never see. I also at one point turned onto a street the end of which was filled with men. Before I could turn away, I was nearly mobbed by fifteen or more young girls from 4 or 5 to 15 or so, all with sparkly, sequined dresses and fresh henna on their hands. All wanted to know the stereotypical questions: name, location, age, married?, name, location, name, name, name! I shot back as many questions as I got, getting many girls’ names. Oh yeah, this was all in Arabic, although the native tongue of Siwans is an offshoot of the Berber language spoken in western North Africa. Soon, older young women – my age and up – leaned through windows of the building from which the girls’ came, asking age, name, and inviting me in. Apparently, they were in the early stages of a wedding. Wow!
I didn’t accept the invitation, though I sorely wanted to, because the group was leaving in fifteen minutes to watch sunset on a nearby salt lake. We ended up getting seriously squished in a tiny van – apparently they’d not accounted for the number of people going. But it was fine, because we were more or less fine with the situation, laughing over Walid and his dates, and why Walid wanted to learn Russian. Yes, the double entendre was intentional. And the sunset was incredibly gorgeous. I loved the own space that I found there, as I waded into the lake and watched the sun set with a crescent moon hovering overhead, as well as the fun of introducing fun photos with the sun. Soon, Walid and his friend Omar were playing soccer with the sun and encircling it with their arms, while two of the Germans played volleyball and showed the sun off like Vanna White.
Afterwards, we went shopping in downtown Siwa, which is a large market square. I have some restaurants I want to hit up next weekend, when I show Ben and Brannon around and we’ll camp out in the desert. I walked around downtown twice before the others were finished purchasing dates, olives, and herbs from one shop. I chatted with Omar and Walid while walking around, speaking in Arabizi (Arabic and English creole). Later, we killed time playing hand games, talking, and me studying new words that appeared in the Egyptians’ language. Aaron and I bought falafel (1 LE for 10 falafel! – super cheap) just before heading on the bus home, which was another “fun” ride. I was too much on a high from being in Siwa to mind much, and I successfully haggled my taxi from the station to my usual tram stop from 50 LE to 15 in 5 minutes by actually beginning to walk away from the taxis. I felt good, even about that taxi ride and the fact that I sat outside the apartment for 15 minutes eating falafel and reading a book before someone opened the locked door, about the entire trip. I had a huge confidence boost from going against the complete desires of everyone concerned about my safety and having a safe and awesome time. Of course, getting out of the city seriously helped as well.
The video is chronological and without music or words because I had issues with iMovie and to give you a sense of the utter quiet I found on top of mountains and the noise within the Cruiser. Also, I Skyped with a good friend, told her about going to Siwa, and her first reaction was this twist on a familiar camp song “Fewa.” I’ve had that song stuck in my head ever since!