Hello from the Dakkhla Oasis, deep in the Egyptian desert! We are staying at the Anwar Hotel, in the town of Mut (the Muths in Mut — haha), and have been relaxing here for several days now, though we just finally found an internet cafe late yesterday afternoon. It was a bit hard to find since there wasn’t any sign in English, but a friend of our hotel proprietor gave us a ride and showed us where it was located, so that made our lives much easier. First, some brief computer stuff, and then onto the details of what we have been doing for almost the last week: Youtube seems to be working fine now, and hopefully we will be adding more videos tonight if we have time, otherwise in the near future, but many more will be coming soon, we promise! Also, the tagboard that was on the side is no more, our emails to the company have bounced back, so we are pretty sure that they went under. Perhaps we will fine a replacement eventually, but obviously that is not exactly the pressing priority. Before we get into the details, everything has been going wonderfully since we left Cairo, the people and vibe of the rural oasis’ is much more to our liking, and we will be staying here in Mut for at least another 4 or 5 days, through the end of Ramadan and the 3-day feast/party that follows. We figure that the celebration will be more authentic here, and certainly more accessible since we are the only tourists even staying in town right now (the tourist season doesn’t really start for another week or two, after Ramadan and once it is a little cooler out). But before Mut, we spent a few days in another oasis, Bahariyya, which possessed a lot of natural beauty, though the town itself was rather filthy. However, we left you hanging about what happened at our hostel during our last night there, and though it wasn’t anything too terrible, it involved some shady behavior by the hostel owner, which means we are certainly not returning to the Pension Vienna once we’re back in Cairo, which we had previously planned to do.
Basically, Mr. Ramadan, the hostel owner, confronted us outside the hostel when we returned from wandering about with Hassan (and booking our trip to Bahariyya), and told us that we needed to pay for all of our internet usage, 3 EGP per hour, of which there had been many hours spent uploading photos, videos, emailing, etc. However, the problem was that this had never been mentioned to us previously, not in our agreement with Hostel World, nor by Mr. Ramadan himself during the several times he had chatted with us while we were on the computer, and there was definitely not any sort of sign, in English or Arabic. The other problem was that he had semi-coerced us into filling out our rating of his hostel under his supervision, which of course meant we had to give him high ratings across the board (we are currently waiting on a reply from Hostel World concerning that), but that then afterwards his attitude towards us completely changed. It seemed that he just wanted the rating from us, and then it was back to trying to suck as much cash out of the “rich Americans,” which is how most people, particularly in Cairo, view us. Obviously, he doesn’t know how to use a computer, since he would then know that ratings can be changed, as well as the fact that his explanation of why we needed to pay for the internet time in the first place just didn’t quite make sense. But we blew him off, and the half-hearted crony that he sent up to our room shortly afterwards, and we of course used the internet as planned later that evening (which the night worker had nor problem with, since he was even using the computer at the time), which pretty much proved that he was just trying to scam us out of even more money – he had overcharged us for an additional night, which Anderson didn’t realize at the moment he gave him the money, since it was late and we had initially paid in euros via the internet, and were then paying in EGP – plus, we hadn’t expected our seemingly-kindly host to turn money-grubber, but we learned that lesson quite quickly. Fortunately we left early the next morning to catch our bus, and Mr. Ramadan had not yet arrived for the day, so that is how things have ended, though if you ever go to Cairo, do not stay at the Pension Vienna Hostel!
We will be putting together a comprehensive list with explanations about the differences between American & Egyptian culture, of which there are many, but that will be a separate post, in the meantime we want to get you all caught up on our adventures, since we left Cairo early Monday morning, and it is now mid-afternoon on Saturday.
At 7 a.m. Monday morning then, after staying up until 2 a.m. the night before updating things, we met Sayed from the travel agency (whom we had met the night before for tea and sheesha with Hassan) outside of our hotel, and he kindly escorted us to the bus station, via taxi, got our tickets, and waited with us until 8-ish when the Upper Egypt Bus Co. bus arrived to take people to Bahariyya. Sayed was very nice, he gave us his mobile number and email address so we can contact him when we are back in Cairo, and he earned “extra points” as the first Egyptian to refuse baksheesh, saying that friends don’t accept money from friends! A small victory perhaps, but at least it put us in a good mood for the 5+ hour bus ride, of which most of the time we spent in some state of semi-sleep, though by the time we arrived in Bahariyya, we were reasonably refreshed despite the often bumpy ride through the desert. We were picked up at the bus station by representatives from Ahmed’s Safari Camp, where we were staying, though we mistook them for hotel touts as first, being used to the pace of Cairo, plus our guide book had forewarned us that we would be attacked, but after a minute or two of confusion things got figured out. The room there was fine, and we enjoyed a nice lunch of tomato-and-egg stew-like stuff, with pita bread, and a plate of fresh cucumber, tomato, and fresh cheese which was like mozzarella crossed with yogurt – all very fresh and very good. We then went on a tour of the surrounding area, with 2 Australian girls who had spent the previous night out in the White Desert, which included stops at the nearby expansive salt lake, an abandoned “English House” which was more like an army post built out of rocks – but it did provide an excellent view of not only the town of Bahariyya, but also all of the countryside, before heading to a rather dirty and sulfur-smelling hot spring, which we only dipped our feet in, though that in itself felt wonderful!
Bahariyya (and Dakkhla as well) is very, very rural, with almost as many donkeys and donkey-carts providing transportation as beat-up old Fiats and Land Rover 4x4s. Many people still live the traditional Bedouin lifestyle, of gathering palm fronds to make baskets, using mud-brick to build houses and pottery, riding donkeys, and harvesting dates and apricots from trees, in addition to the grains, beans and other field crops that much of their diet consists of. The standard meal, which is amazingly tasty (fortunately, since we have eaten it at least once every single day!), includes a large portion of rice, a bowl of cooked down vegetables – primarily squash, with tomatoes or something else occasional added, and a quarter of half of chicken for the meat, which sometimes is not even available. A fresh salad is sometimes the mezze (appetizer/starter), which would be cucumber, tomato, and a little lettuce finely diced, and often a bowl of clear soup with a thin bean (of some sort) is included as well. But everything is wonderfully flavored, seasoned properly, warm, and satisfying, so we have no real complaints about the food, though at the same time when Ramadan ends, and then more variety of food will become available, we are certainly not going to complain! At that point, falafel, pizza, and kushari (a noodle & rice dish that is amazingly good) will all become available again, much to everyone’s delight we are sure.
Anyways, after our guided tour of Bahariyya itself, we had dinner (you can guess what it was) with the 2 Australian girls (Kaddy & Jess), and a German guy whom we had ridden the bus with, and then the 5 of us spent several hours relaxing, talking about cultural differences, and listening to a wide variety of music. A “Western” night in many ways, but we were the only people staying there, and it was nice to have a conversation without either a language barrier or salespitch involved. The main room at Ahmed’s Safari Camp was quite nice, with a ping-pong table and a billiards table, plus ample room to lounge. After a nice long sleep, we chilled in our room reading for a while (since the desert heat is oppressive around noontime, even in “autumn”), before joining everyone for a quick lunch, and then a departure for the desert. It was just us, our guide named Ismed (probably spelled incorrectly, but he spoke just the minimum of English), and a nice Korean guy named Kwan. Our itinerary was filled with natural marvels, so make sure to check out the photos to get the full scope of things, but first we went to the Black Desert, where the rocks and sand are appropriately colored, before heading to the Crystal Mountain, a lone outcropping of an entirely quartz rock pile in the middle of the barren desert, though it did lay directly off the road we were traveling on. We rode in a Land Rover, fortunately, since we often trekked a bit into the desert, and a car would probably have not made it! The desert is relatively rarely traveled, we saw very few cars, and only a few other tourists, mostly once we had arrived in the White Desert. It should be noted that the deserts in general are quite mountainous, and although the are obviously very sandy, they are in most places rocky as well.
The White Desert appeared in the distance, shimmering, as it is filled with huge rock formations, made of a white chalk-ish mineral, and all shapes and sizes rise out of the desert, often looking like mushrooms, camels, faces, or anything else that the imagination might desire, really. We camped amongst these outcroppings then, with a very organized Ismed setting up first a wind-block, then a fire, and we watched the white rocks change colors from white to pink to orange (like a moving Salvador Dali painting), before darkness descended. There is little life in the desert, and yet there were footprints and droppings everywhere from desert foxes, though despite our efforts we did not manage to ever see one, though several of their former sleeping holes were reused as latrines. Our dinner was excellent, and the fact that it was predictable made no difference whatsoever, and honestly the chicken was probably the best we have had yet, since it was slowly char-broiled over a well-kept flame. We then chatted (well, with Kwan) about America, Korea, Egypt, football, etc. and listened to our mp3 player (which is a life-saver at times, when at least the music can be familiar, if nothing else is), so Hunab Ku, just know that you have been rocked out to in the White Desert in Egypt! After a bit of stretching (very nice in the sand), much stargazing (the night was amazingly clear and we could see tons of stars, as well as the band of the Milky Way), and some relaxing after our very filling meal, it was time for bed, as the sun and the subsequent heat would be waking us up around 6 a.m.
Shortly after retiring, in sleeping bags on sleeping pads and blankets, Liz asked our guide if he had ever been rained on, since we had seen some lightning on the horizon in the distance. He laughed and said no (in his own Egyptian way), but lo and behold as soon as we settled down to sleep, we felt first one, and then several drops of rain. So we had to burrow under our sleeping bags and sweatshirt pillows, and eventually the wind was whipping enough sand our way that Anderson actually had to put on his sunglasses to protect his contacts, but we did eventually manage to fall asleep, as although the rain showers continued for part of the night, they were infrequent and it never poured or anything, it is the desert after all. We awoke throughout the night, it is definitely a little disorienting sleeping outside in the desert, but the storm abated within a few hours and the night sky was again crystal-clear.
The sun did indeed wake us up early, and the sun rise was just as impressive as the sunset, though our typical Egyptian breakfast of bread, cheese, and jam lacked the usual tea since all of the matches had gotten soaked the night before. We later found out that it actually only rains on average twice a year, so in some ways we received quite the rare treat by experiencing a desert rainstorm. After breakfast, Ismed quickly packed up the Land Rover, and we headed to a nearby fossil bed (though we actually thought he was saying “flowers” for the longest time), which had once been an ancient sea. The fossils were everywhere, and the landscape was just littered with their black fragments. We then took the over-an-hour journey back to Bahariyya, which included stops at a few patrol booths (rather hilarious and unnecessary, as barrels blockade the road), and a stop at a steaming hot spring for Ismed to wash the dishes. The spring was far too hot for even our toes to be in for more than a few seconds, and steam was constantly rising off the water, and so although we couldn’t bathe in it, it was nice to relax there for a few minutes at least. We had been debating on whether to stay in Bahariyya for another night (or longer), and then if so whether to stay at Ahmed’s Safari Camp (which was 4 km outside of town), or to venture into town and stay elsewhere, but we eventually decided (after returning and enjoying wonderful sand-removing showers), that our best bet was to take the bus that day to Dakkhla, another oasis, where lodging was cheaper and more plentiful in the town of Mut. Included in the tour we got in Cairo was the bus ride, but we figured it would be smarter to use that right away, rather than complicate things, plus the general dirtiness of Bahariyya didn’t exactly encourage us to stay much longer. So another lengthy bus-ride was endured, this one around 6 hours, but fortunately the bus wasn’t very crowded, and we not only had seats near the air vents, but we could also actually lay down in the back and get some slightly-higher-quality sleep.
We arrived in Mut at dusk, and picked the Anwar Hotel from about 2 or 3 low-priced options in our Lonely Planet guidebook as our first choice, and after getting briefly turned around (since the bus dropped us off at a different location than the bus station), we ambled over to the hotel. After meeting the proprietor (who we quickly learned is named Sameh, and is the owner’s middle son), we examined the room – 3 beds, a balcony, and a fan – and haggled for a price (80 EGP, about $14 since $1 = 5.7 EGP) for 3 nights for both of us, and settled in. A typical, and typically tasty, meal was brought to us quite quickly, and some semi-cold mineral water was acquired for us as well. Ramadan in these small towns means much of the usual comforts are not available, and when they are the hours are very different, with things opening later or not at all, so when we walk the streets here in Mut, everyday it seems that a whole different set of shops are open! The town here is very relaxing and friendly, with everyone waving and saying “hello,” of “welcome,” and we are often mobbed by groups of school children (there is no school during Ramadan either), asking us “what is your name,” “what is your age,” and “what are your hobbies,” all full of excitement, and curiosity, before a quick “goodbye” before they scurry off, laughing and smiling. It is all very cute and enjoyable, which makes the repetitious nature very tolerable and enjoyable. Our hotel owner, the elder Mr. Anwar, worked for the government for 35 years, so pictures of him with the president adorn the hotel walls, and it seems the family is quite successful within the town, as they own a restaurant and pizzeria next to the hotel, and Mr. Anwar’s brother owns a coffeeshop and another business as well. Life here is simple, so we sleep late, read for a while, before taking brief tiring walks in the desert heat, and end up fasting ourselves most days due to the difficulty in finding food when no restaurants are really open. The nights are totally different, as the weather becomes just about perfect, a slight breeze brings a slight chill, but we play dominos at the coffeeshops (usually Mr. Anwar’s brother’s), smoke sheesha (tobacco from a hookah – which the older men do constantly, while the younger men alternate between sheeshas and cigarettes), and drink numerous glasses of shai (tea, both regular, with mint, or hibiscus, all served painfully hot at first, but very tasty after they cool a little bit). The hotel has a stereo, so we listen to our mp3 player through that, much to the delight of Sameh, who always wants to dance with Liz (who he most undoubtedly has a crush on – imagine that – but like all Egyptian men he acts somewhat like a 15-year-old even though he is our age). Mr. Hampdy (?), a local schoolteacher, hangs out with us as well, he is older, and has given Anderson some rides on his rumbling and ancient Fiat motorcycle.
Since we are the only tourists in town, Egypt is turning out to be very good preparation for India, much more so than we really initially thought. As we said we will remain here in Mut for at least 4 or 5 more days before heading back to the land of the tombs and tourists in Aswan and Luxor, but between now and then we will hopefully get to experience the post-Ramadan feasting and partying. We’ll post more details on our time here in Mut later, but things really are quite simple, so they have already been summed up fairly well. Pictures are slowly uploading from our time in the desert, though they are certainly taking a while, but at least some will be up before we leave the internet cafe this evening.
Peace & much love from the Egyptian desert – Anderson & Liz
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