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DISPATCH: Oases, Egypt
May 15, 1997

The oases loop of a month ago seems light years and sandstorms away, but here's the story...

I set out for Alexandria on the afternoon train with Jamba, a grad student from CAL whom I barely knew from my auditing days in the Near Eastern Department, feeling a paradoxical mix of great trepidation and compelling curiosity. Would I have enough time to write, I feared, or would he drag me around to see one ancient site after another? Would he be 'spiritual' enough? Would he pressure me to sleep with him?? (Okay, okay, maybe I have been in Egypt too long...) Well, humble pie can be very sweet when served by the ironic hand of my universe. Jamba not only wrote more often than I ever have, he wrote better. He was agenda-less in the site-seeing department, and while I was wallowing yet again in Amis, he was reading Rumi. When I found myself sitting on a little resentment, he would dive into an articulate and uncharged processing of OUR shit, and the personal vibes between us were blissfully and mutually friendly: what a revelation. This is just the obvious stuff - the subtle he-is-me lessons were Ph.D. level material that I still ponder in amazement.

What about Alexandria? 'Cairo on Valium,' somebody said. Durrell? Jamba? Me? Mediterranean sea salt flavors the air while tram lines, patisseries, elegant old hotels, and below ground-level bars are all vintage reminders of the town it might have been. We were just falling under its slow charm when two friends arrived from Cairo en route to Siwa Oasis. With wistful vows to further explore this enigma named Alex, Jamba and I left on the late morning bus: now we were four.

With us was Anne, a friend from my Cairo days at Pension Roma, who lives in Egypt nine months of each year to study Arabic and teach French. As a Parisian, she is in possession of one of those ageless Gaelic faces that is obtained only through nefarious teenage pacts with unnamed powers. Accompanying her was Davaagni, an Italian sanyasin fresh from a month in Poona, a compact version of Antonio Banderas with heart and libido to burn.

For seven days we made the most of Siwa: biking to ancient sites, four-wheeling to dunes and hot pools, donkey-carting to Fatnas Island for sunset, and roaming restaurants and Bedouin shops with consumptive glee. In fact, shopping emerged as the major theme of this oases loop, and once Anne and Davaagni returned to Cairo, Jamba and I began a series of raids on the local villages, trading money, which the Bedouin need and like, for old stuff they'd rather not have. Gold has replaced silver as the fashionable metal, so out came the cuffs and rings and amulets. Raggedy old kilims were gladly offered up, some of which we gladly snagged. It was great fun, and a wonderful peek into village life.

The journey from Siwa to Bahariya is billed as a five-hour scenic drive through gorgeous desert terrain. Once our guide, Abdullah, finally got his imitation 4x4 benzened, watered, patched and packed, six of us innocent travelers left our favorite oasis in the midst of a bizarre afternoon sand/rainstorm, his fourteen year old apprentice driver practically sitting in my lap. Visibility being at an all time low, sand and dust blasting in from every crack and crevice, we crawled down the tarmac. There were no complaints of insufficient potty-breaks during this fifteen-hour ordeal, with five passport check-points, four flat tires, innumerable jump-starts (sand in the carburetor), and two road-devouring sand dune stalls. The young Aussies and Brits in the back were either entertaining themselves or delirious, singing off-key nursery rhymes in a nearly unintelligible language. It was a blessed opportunity to practice ahimsa (non-violence), which I did with a vengeance.

We arrived in Bahariya during the Eid, a springtime remembrance of the near-sacrifice of the son of Ibrahim. The blood of thousands of sheep and goats streamed into dusty streets littered with Cairene kids on holiday (read: obnoxious). Mercifully, the old ladies were anxious to part with their silver cuffs and I gathered up another quite beautiful and burnished collection. It still took us four days too many to figure out we'd been there too long: the heat and the fly population quickly became oppressive.

Optimistically, we booked a rather comfortable mini-bus for the three-hour drive to Farafra, the smallest oasis in the chain, and probably, we discovered, small for good reason. There is nothing there. No pharaonic sites, no choice of places to stay, no restaurants to speak of, but I will anyway. We called it Chez Mohammed: what it was was a Bunsen burner, a charcoal grill, a few pots, pans and plates, and a seductively clean outdoor eating area. With extravagant entrepreneurial swagger, it was commandeered by chain-smoking Mohammed, thirteen years by the calendar, thirty by experience, and staffed with his younger sisters and brother as sous chef, waitress and busboy. We were charmed into eating most of our meals there as the food was rather tasty, Mo having discovered the secret of hot spices. I should have gotten a clue about the dubious employee hygiene when the waitress' eye swelled into a weeping crack in her head. The flies swarmed thickly, even though the floor was swept, and malignant populations of microscopic organisms were exploding in the heat, ramifications soon to follow.

Our proposed camel excursion was disappointingly scotched by a sandstorm in the nearby White Desert. By the afternoon of the day before departure, the wind had pulled a white veil over the face of Farafra and we decided it must be a sign. We opted to flee on the next truck out of Dodge.

Dakhla Oasis was a welcome sigh of relief. The Garden Hotel was pleasant and cheap, the people friendly and generous, and the village shopping was divine. Jamba and I spent four days in this relative paradise, even though the heat soared well into the 110s. I had noticed a strange and somewhat amusing phenomenon back in Siwa; here was the quintessential occurrence:

We were sitting outside Hamdy's Restaurant one evening joyously sipping our cold, non-alcoholic Stella beer when two little girls ambled up and shyly stood before us, poking each other in the ribs and giggling, doing the 'you - no, you - no, you' routine. Finally, the smaller one found her courage and said, really fast, "What's your name?" This is the standard opening line for kids upon encountering any even remotely accessible tourist. Since she was looking at me, I replied with a slow smile, "Zena." Well, I thought her reaction only happened in old movies or to old movie stars: her jaw dropped, her eyes popped and she covered her mouth with one small hand, the other fluttering over her heart. After staring helplessly at her similarly dumbstruck friend, she gazed incredulously back at me, faint little hee-hees bubbling out on her rapid breath. "Really? Really?" Their eyes met again as they gulped the hot air. I glanced sideways at Jamba - he was dying inside trying to keep a straight face. "Yes, really. I'm on holiday." The older girl was now flapping her hand up and down, eyes rolling with excitement. "You're really Xena, really?" "Yes, I swear, this heat makes my hair a little curly." They retreated in quick hops as though a ghost had appeared and went into a full nervous giggle fit. I guess if this very popular TV series were watched on a postage stamp-sized black and white model, I could pass for Xena to a six-year-old. The older one finally stammered, "Pleased to be you here in Dahkla!"

And we were. We were also very pleased to leave, both of us by now praying that our Imodium would kick in by the morning bus ride to Khargha. Jamba's did, mine did not: I had to beg the driver to make an emergency stop while I ran, not walked, to a distant stand of eucalyptus. Since we were the only tourists on a bus full of Egyptians, it was quite the event. As we neared the oasis, the call of comfortable Luxor was so great we gladly switched to an Assiut-bound taxi, even though blowing sand was again our constant companion.

The peaceful evening train ride, where I treated myself to a delicious chicken dinner, was the last stretch of well-being I was to experience for the next week. By the following morning, every morsel of food in my system had flown out of my body, and then some. The chills, which I found perversely enjoyable in the heat, were followed by a scary full-blown fever. A sore throat and nasty cold followed. Then literally by some fluke, I discovered I was now host to a multitude of nematodes, this being the ludicrous last straw. I was more than ready to book my flight home.

 Links to other Egyptian dispatches:   CAIRO  | SINAI  |  LUXOR

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