Trying to wrestle my way through all that's been happening without making this the longest epistle since records began.
Soz. I left you in Cairo, and this is going to cover most of the desert experiences.Sarah & I had to get up early to catch a bus out into the desert. Luckily Sarah has a preternatural ability to sleep whenever she's moving, so was soon safely ensconced in the land of nod as we thundered out past the Pyramids, despite the Qoranic chanting turned up, as usual, to the edge of distortion.
I've been to a lot of deserts this trip, but this first stage of the Sahara was unequaled by any save perhaps the Eastern Desert of Jordan in its emptiness, flatness, and hostility to life. I would doze off for an unspecified time, and awake to see nothing had changed but the position of the mighty southern sun. Black stones over yellow sand reflected its brilliance whitely; colour could get no purchase.When we finally dropped down into the Bahariyya Oasis it was a relief, visually if nothing else.
Suddenly the plain was dotted with small mesas all of roughly the same height - the depression used to be a mangrove swamp similar to the Florida everglades and they had been islands poking above the primordial ooze. Then there was the oasis itself. Sarah had never been to an oasis before and had picture book visions of 2 palm trees next to a small pool.
As we arrived at our hotel next to a hot spring and overlooking acres upon acres of palms I think she was suitably impressed. When we went for a wander in them at twighlight she kept having to remind herself she wasn't in the paddy fields of Cambodia and that she didn't have to worry about landmines.
The next day we wandered around the dusty little town, meeting its somewhat eccentric inhabitants. The most interesting of these was one Mohammed, who invited us into his house for a tea after he got back from praying. After a few initial formalities, such as the offering of dates, he got down to business:
"In Islam, we are allowed 4 wives.""
Oh right, as long as you treat them all equally, yeah?"
"That is not important. We are allowed 4 wives - I only have 1. There is a problem."
"Oh dear.""Yes, once a month she bleeds. You understand?"
"I really hope not."
"When she bleeds, I cannot have sex. This is problem. You understand?"
"I t h i n k so."
Explain to me."
"Ummm, perhaps you should run it past us again."
"Once a month, blood. No sex. I need new wife."
"So you could have a different wife and you would be okay at this time of the month."
"Yes. She must not bleed."
"Not ever?""Yes. I need a western wife."
"I think most western women may have that er.. problem."
"Find me a western wife - age is no object."
"Well, we might be able to find an older lady for you."
"Age is no object, unless she is over 40.""How old are you?""36" " What do you think of the conflict in Gaza?"
After a brief discussion on this Sarah was taken for a tour of the women's quarters, and I listened out for her voice to make sure she hadn't had Rohypnol inhected into her dates (really bad joke itching to come out there).
Mohammed came back in a few minutes later.
"In the West, if you have sex with a woman, does the father not mind?" "Generally not if the girl is old enough, and she wants to. Do they mind here?" "Oh YES! HAHAHHA. That is why we have sex in the oasis gardens. Do you have sex in the garden in Britain?" "Umm, well, normally the weather is very cold and" [Sarah walks back in] "there's a lack of privacy so we tend not to have sex in the garden." [Look of puzzlement on Sarah's face]
The next item on our itinerary was a trip out into the desert proper. After hustling around for the best price (which involved riding donkey carts round some camps seeing who would do it cheapest) we finally went with the guy from our hotel, who didn't speak much English apart from "Me crazy driver." He had a shock of henna-ed ginger hair across the top of his head and Sarah drew attention to his over manicured eyebrows which he shared with his cross-eyed brother who ran the hotel.
Our journey took us out across the so called black desert, past many of the afore-mentioned mesas, one of which we climbed much to Sarah's distaste. In places the black stones drew together leaving the yellow sand to form into great drifts. But the trip really came alive as we entered the white desert.
Here the rock is all chalk and limestone, with a thin covering of beige sand in places. The wind has eaten it away into odd shapes, varying from the mad mirangue land we started off in - where the ground was littered with 'flower stones', which resemble petrified pine cones but are weirder - to areas where the bizarre protrusions have names such as the Mushroom, the Chicken, or the Rabbit. It's described as Dali-esque, but this does a disservice to the infinitely more inventive brush of nature.
The day had a thin covering of cloud, which with a wan sun shining through it gave the impression of being on some Venus like mass. It's been described as lunar but the difference is like chalk and cheese (oh God I am sorry).
We set up camp under the open sky, which cleared to reveal Orion and some lesser known stars, whilst Magdi our driver built a fire and sang a song which later transpired to be a nonsense song about his friend Haani. He cooked on this flame what turned out to be the best rice I may have ever have had, all spicy and partially fried, and transcended the usual meal of chicken and vegetables in a lovely stew.
You may wonder why I'm drawing attention to this but for some reason all the chefs in Bahariyya had agreed to cook exactly the same meal at each time of the day. I got thoroughly sick of chicken, vegetables and rice and am still distrustful of it, but this meal was something else.
After that we headed out over the sands, past fox cries and footprints, to find Haani's fire. It wasn't hard, as he was in the middle of teaching an Australian family how to dance Bedouin style, and his beats echoed round the softly glowing shapes. It turns out that Bedouin dancing involves raising your arms, shaking your ass, and marching on the spot.
Advanced practitioners can go up and down which makes it look a bit like skanking. The Ozzie parents were fairly hippy and obviously game; their son ("Ahm thee mayn serfer een thee fahmeelay") was not quite so up for it - "Ahm sexteen, Ah onlee dahnce to bass meeyusic - ye knaw: [insert highly embarrassing bass solo here]"
Sarah took fairly well to the moves (little would we know the consequences) and we saw a fox skulking across the sands. The whole trip was amazing.Back in town we put our new moves to practice when we met little Yusuf, a 4 year old who enjoyed playing a pretend flute, and enjoyed our response to it even more. If there are any celebrities looking to forcefully adopt an ethnic, might I recommend a candidate. We also went to the local artist Naagla's workshop. She's very naive, and only a couple of her paintings could really be described as much cop. However, the whole experience was awesome, particlarly when she started playing a slowed down tape of an easy listening version of Wind Beneath My Wings.
We decided you could enter the whole thing into the Turner Prize and get an honourable mention: in this context everything started taking on extra meanings - why the Donald Duck amidst a plethora of local scenes, is it symbolic of the way America has become a cultural hegemon? etc. etc.
We were also invited to/crashed a wedding, with some great live music on the percussion tip with the haunting sounds of the arghul droning clarinet over the top. They were all very keen on Sarah, and were determined to get her to dance. Eventually an old fella dancing with a stick got her up, and she dragged me onto the floor as well. Our tutoring in Bedouin dance certainly came in handy, though horrifically they were not only videoing it, but relaying it onto a telly so you could see our pained expressions as we minced around live, Live, LIVE!
Our dancing may have been helped by the vodka that a couple of Australians we'd met had slipped us. At first I thought they were joking when they kept badgering us with "Do you wanna go and listen to some Actual Tunes?"; repitition plus the promise of gin finally won us over.Up on the roof, playing us Air and the soundtrack to Donnie Darko, Kate began reeling off the never ending train of unhappiness that their trip had been.
They had managed to be miserable in every part of Egypt, bar Sharm el Sheikh. When Sarah said she'd only been in Egypt for 2 weeks the response was "Bet you can't wait to get home now, eh?" They bristled at every approach from Arabs, hated Egyptian culture, and managed to find the cloud in every silver lining. They had basically come to the Middle East for a piss up, and were angry that it didn't seem conducive to these ends.
Eventually, it was time for Sarah to go. It had been so good to see her, like having a holiday of homeness, as well as recasting my eyes as fresh, as to what things would be like if I'd been in Bedford but a few days before. Of course, you are all cordially invited to come out and visit - it'd be good to see all of you. You're running out of time if you want to see Egypt, though, and I'm guessing Sudan isn't on too many of your must-see lists, though everyone I've met who's been through has raved about it.
Having said that, it's now looking like the ICC will push forward with their trial of Omar al Bashir, and Obama is looking to Get Tough with Sudan, which may mean stormy times ahead. Does anyone fancy starting a few 'Fuck Darfur!' protests, at least till about Junetime? I stuck around for another day to see a couple of temples, and have a soak in a hot spring. Sarah & I had been wanting one all week, but the large number of local males and passing donkey traffic had meant that it wasn't advisable if Sarah wasn't to become a tourist attraction in her own right.
Anyway, it was absolutely rubbish to soak in the naturally hot minerally waters in the midst of plam groves, as the sun set behind me and the moon arose afore.The next day I moved onto the next oasis, Farafra. Everyone warned me against it. It was apparently boring, dusty and horrid, accordinf to the Bahariyyans.
As I was preparing to get off the bus an Italian man grabbed me and told me he'd come yesterday and gone straight back - I should continue on to the next oasis, Dakhla. "The people here, they are... strong!" I tried to grasp the prejorative sense of this, but decided to try my luck anyway.
After initial troubles because no-one was in the hotel I wanted to check into I went and photographed a beautiful pipe graveyard, where all the old pipes had gone to die. DON'T WORRY, photos on facebook soon. Ish.
Who said there was nothing to do?I went and visited the local artist Badr, who's built a rather grand museum to himself, which is pretty good. He's actually pretty talented, if a little over influenced by the surrealists. His bizzare back garden of driftwood mud sculptures was pretty awesome though, almost aboriginal in its inspiration - he described it as one of his dreams, a never ending one. Unfortunately he's been forced down a bit of a commercial path doing sand paintings of the locality, but as he confided to me, he can't help making them a bit modern.I then wandered through the old mud citadel which has been collapsing and being patched up since Roman times, had a lovely evening meal of Kofta - meatballs with nothing chickeny at all about them - before heading of into the desert for a moonlit soak in another hotspring.
THERE'S NOTHING TO DO IN FARAFRA.
I sometimes wonder if other people are visiting the same country.Having said that, the next day I headed onto the next oasis, Dakhla, and it's just one of the most beautiful, wonderful places ever. The first place I stayed, Al Qasr, is perhaps the most fantastic Islamic monument I've ever visited throughout all my travels, whether on the silk road, in Turkey, Pakistan or Morocco. It's an incredible mud brick village from Ottoman times, complete with a couple of mud brick mosques, numerous shady corridors and passageways, and with many of the homes and buildings still having their original beautifully carved accacia lintels.
What's even more remarkable is that many of these homes are still lived in, so you can be winding your way though the labyrinthine lanes when someone'll step out from a low wooden door, or a donkey cart will push past, or you can be stopped in your tracks by the heartbraking sound of an old woman singing to herself as she grinds corn on the other side of a wall. I just don't think there's enough superlatives to cover this one.Before you worry for them, mud is actually a great building tool.
The houses are cool in the summertime, and warm in the winter - the shade from the winding, high, tall passagways between them keeps the sun at bay as well as preventing sandstorms from hetting in. Inside, they're spotlessly clean and generally very pleasant, from what I've seen. Their only slight problem is their tendancy to collapse. You can't have everything though, can you?The whole oasis is dotted with similar villages, though none quite of this magnificence. I rented a (really old, low seated, flat tired) bike and rode out to check out another one. The scenary was bucolic, idyllic. I rode down quiet country roads past farmers in straw hats and hot pants (I said it was bucolic), waving at the donkey carts that passed by and gazing after the fantastic birdlife.
If you've never seen a Hoopoe before I suggest you google it so you can see why I got so excited. It flexes that crest when it gets excited, which seems to be all the time.The countryside was dotted with technicolour villages, often done out in the abstract, geometric prints the Egyptians do so well, though in eyebleeding tones. Between them you run down quiet lanes lined with handsome eucalyptus trees, before veering closer to sand dunes.At one time I thought I saw something in the desert so pulled over to have a look. As I trudged over the nearest dune I found I was walking through sand sown with pottery, and that as far as the eye could see the sandscape was dotted with the skeletons of an old settlement, bricks clawing desperately out of the drifts to prevent their oblivion. As I stumbled round this dream a grey haired man in a white galabiyya shimmered out of the haze towards me."[This is Amheida]" he told me in Arabic, "[Yes, it's Roman]"Memory is like the desert, what is not faught for is lost. The slow waves of the dunes are as inexorable as any ocean. He was one man, and old.Continuing on my way I saw the next mud village, this one from Mamluk times and slightly more tumbledown, though still lovely. It was a pretty long roundtrip and due to the unfriendliness of the bike my knees were shot the next day. So I decided to climb the escarpment which towers above the oasis.Even reaching it took an hour across a crazy desertscape of red through green (copper?) with bits of the black desert & white desert thrown in for fun. It also turns out that the desert is hot at midday, particularly if you choose to climb a mountain. The views were awesome though, but more fun was running all the way down via a sand dune. 90 minutes up and 10 down. I did have vague fantasies about starting a sand boarding resort here - the dunes were certainly bigger than most slopes in Scotland.I then moved onto Mut, the biggest town in the oasis, with a mud citadel at its core. The main gateway is pretty impressive, and the walls look like they'd withstand much bar a spot of rain. I got into a nice daily routine where I'd go and get some Falafel & bean mush for brunch, have a few teas, go and do some philosophy on the roof of our hotel, have a quick walk about the old town before heading back to the hotel for sunset.Now, not only was the sunset, over dunes in the distance with the old town and plam groves before me, quite lovely in its own right, but the palm groves at my feet were the dormitory for quite literally thousands of geese who came back from all round the oasis at sunset. This was the real David Attenborough shit. Squadrons of birds would come flying in from all directions, sometimes gliding in sedately, occasionally pulling some sick-assed moves and just avoiding death whilst coming in to land. Every now and again the whole lot would take flight and play a game of musical trees, whilst hundreds more would be spilling in around my head to join the fray. I was content in my soul.I think I'll end there for now as otherwise This E-mail Will Not Die and also because upon leaving the paradise of Dakhla things took a darker turn. OOOOOOH! How's that for suspense? Eh? EH?Love to you all for ever and ever,Simon