Arabian nights

So it was time to hop on a bus and head for the west. To the desert, to the sand dunes, to the area I most wanted to see of the middle east. I really wanted to see the pyramids – of course that goes without saying – but I’ve wanted to see those huge rolling sand dunes I have seen in movies and documentaries my whole life in person and in the flesh (errr…sand), as it were. So I got up early and headed for the bus station. I got there too early and waited around before trying to fortify a position in the mob waiting in “line”. Finally a guard came and angrily forced everyone to get in line (his loaded AK47 probably helped sway the crowd) and then we all waited nice and comfortably. One thing you notice about poorer countries is that everyone cuts and tries to play it off. So I just get right in the cutter’s face, look him in the eyes (confidently, not aggressively) and put my foot in between him and the guy in front of him. When they guy in front moves, I step in. It works every time. The other thing you notice in Egypt is that there are guards with big guns EVERYWHERE. This place is on constant alert.

So I got my ticket, got on the bus and was off – through the desert to the Farafra Oasis. It was quite a trip, indeed. Miles and miles of sand for hours at a time, with the occasional stop at the tourist police so they could count the foreigners on the bus, which were…me. Egypt has tourist police checkpoints set up about every 70 miles or so and their sole purpose is to make sure the tourists are okay. It’s incredible. The drive was comfortable though, and the scenery was great, although I was a bit hungry. One of the coolest effects I’ve seen to date was the sand lightly blowing over the surface of the road in front of the bus with the wind, giving it a mystical smoke-like effect. The sky was perfectly blue and it was hot. Damned hot. But we finally made it and I was dumped out of the bus in middle of nowhere. Well, technically, it had a name: Farafra, but it might as well have been nowhere. The way the Egyptian desert works is like this. Sannnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…Sannnnnnnnnnnnnd…Sannnnnnnnnnd, greenwatertown…Sannnnnnnd………..Sannnnnnnd…greenwatertown.

So they dropped me off in greenwatertown, but I had no idea where to go. A man with a gun came and escorted me to the hotel of my choice and I sat and waited for someone who spoke English so I could see what my options were for getting into the desert. A guy named Hamdi finally showed up and sat around looking at me for a while. Then he said, “Come, we go to my house and eat. Then business.” Godfather music started playing and he walked through the town kissing babies and giving old ladies money. Well, not really. But we did go to his house. And his mother served us food and we made a few jokes. He told me how he was sexually frustrated and needed a woman. There were none in his town to choose from unless he wanted to marry into the family. Hmm…sex, or a baby with two heads. Tough choice, I know!

“CK (he couldn’t get my name right). These houses here are all for my family. We are 400. How many people in your family?”

“…5…,” I replied.

After a few minutes of silence, I added that, “but, you know, that doesn’t include me…”

He nodded in approval. We went to the office and chatted about numbers and options. I decided that I would opt for a one night stint at the sand dunes, which would allow me to photograph the sunset and sunrise and sleep under the stars, gazing up at the Milky Way. An hour later, we were driving around town, picking up supplies and stuff (like firewood and food) and before long, we were in a 4×4 Jeep romping through the desert.

Man, the desert is cool. I grew up in the desert, but I still love it. I say that, but really my desert was a bunch of concrete and palm trees. I didn’t get to play in any sand dunes. But I’ve always really wanted to. I was excited at the prospect of sleeping in front of it with the sand blowing all over me and even moreso the opportunity that I would have to snap some incredible photos. Sand dunes are magical for a photographer (and aspiring ones, too!). So we finally arrived and I was out the door snapping photos before the Jeep even stopped. My assistant (my driver’s nephew) followed me and posed for lots of pictures and I came back after dark to a fire and tea. The driver, his “assistant” (a guy to talk to so he wouldn’t get bored) and I all sat around drinking tea and chatting. We talked about the American sponsored Israeli genocide of the Palistineans and how America pays for little children to be murdered in Iraq. We talked about how peaceful the Iranians and Sadaam were.

Actually, I don’t know if you’ve gathered this, but by “we”, I mean my driver. It was more like him telling me. Seeing as he probably had a gun somewhere, I just kind of thoughtfully listened. Israelis don’t travel too far in Egypt except for Sinai (which was only recently handed back to Egypt in a peace deal). I don’t think you’ve ever seen antisemitism until you’ve come here. But regardless of my views on the topic, I listened and tried to get a grasp on the Arab perspective. It wasn’t so much enlightening as it was scary, but hey, that’s all part of the adventure of traveling! But to be fair, I’m sure that’s not everyone’s perspective (God, don’t be so politically correct). I can’t really sort out who really likes the U.S. and who doesn’t, but there have got to be a few that do. I’ve gotten “You from US?? Good US! It help Egypt a lot!” many times. Who knows what the average Egyptian thinks – but seeing as this place is quite a mixture of Christians and Muslims, it’s got to be quite varied.

We eventually had our dinner (cheese, bread and watermelon) and I pulled my mat out, bundled up in my sleeping bag and listened to some music as I gazed up at the stars. They were brilliant. The majority of the people in the developed world have never seen the Milky Way and that is a shame. Have you any idea what it’s like to stare up at the sky and see a million stars shining everywhere you look – and behind that, a dense cloud-like band of stars splashing from one horizon to the next?

It’s breathtaking…worth a trip to nowhere just for that! My buddy Nick told me a story of how he and his friend went outside one night in Riverside and said that they would smoke one cigarette for every star they saw. The smoked four that night…What a shame.

In the morning, I woke up covered in sand at sunrise and commenced the snapping of yet more pictures. I’ve taken so many pictures in Egypt that I can’t believe it. I just want to photograph everything – it’s like a feeding frenzy! Eventually, I went back to camp, had breakfast (bread and jam) and hopped back in the Jeep for the ride back to town. Once we arrived, I paid, tipped the guy and went to sleep in the hotel for a few hours before my bus south was to arrive. I took a shower and headed out to the bus stop/cafe. This town is pretty small, and it didn’t take long to walk the length of it to where I was to wait. The bus eventually showed up and I was off to Dakla. I was going to catch another bus in Dakla but it turned out that it was too late to continue on so I stayed the night there.

I really am glad that I did. In the middle of Dakla, there just happens to be a 1000 year old “old city” made of mud and clay bricks perched up on a hill. It has trails woven throughout it seeing as many people still squat in a lot of the ruins and they just happened to be perfect for wandering around and snapping photos. I walked around at sunset and check it out so I would know where to go for sunrise the next morning. Kids ran after me screaming hello and with huge smiles pasted on their faces. Our conversations would follow this pattern, more or less:

“Hello!” they would say.
“Hello!” I would reply.

At this point, the conversation would go in one of two directions. The first option was “hello” about 15 more times, with me responding in kind. They knew no other words, but loved communicating with a foreigner. The smiles made it worth it.

Or they would say, “What is your name?!”, to which I would respond, “Mike!”

But Casey, your name is Casey. Don’t you remember? Why would you say Mike? Well, it just so happens that “Casey” sounds a lot like the Arabic word for “vagina”. So I try to avoid it. Thanks mom and dad.

So that was cool. And the old city was nothing short of incredible. I grabbed a 13 cent falafel sandwhich (my god, what incredible food!) on the street corner and headed to my hotel for some sleep. But before I could get to sleep, I spent about an hour picking at the huge callous on my foot. It started as a little bump and is now huge, getting bigger every day as it wears against my flip flops. I tried sanding it down but finally just busted out the pocket knife and gashed away until I hit blood. Hopefully it will go away now. But the other problem I’m having is that my feet are so dry with the weather and calloused from the flip flops that the thickest skin is starting to get deep cracks (gashes) in it on both heels. I don’t know if I am describing this well enough (haha), but it’s quite painful to walk. The only shoes I have were the ones I bought in China (which are way too small for me and hurt my toes) and I don’t like wearing them unless I absolutely have to. Let’s just hope my feet don’t fall off.

So in the morning I woke up at sunrise again and wandering through the old city for hours snapping photos. I was in heaven. You could see how these people lived in these houses from so long ago and there is no way that the pictures could ever capture the feeling of wandering through a three story mud/brick house at sunrise amidst hundreds of others. Imagine one of the most random and adventurous things you’ve ever done and multiply it by 5. It was like that. I didn’t even know this place was there until I arrived! I got lost and asked a guy with a huge knife which way my hotel was. He walked me through a few narrow mud walled alley ways and pointed toward my hotel.

I got my luggage and headed for the bus station (*ahem*, corner of the street). I waited and waited and waited but to no avail. No bus appeared. Finally some guys walked by and explained “No bus!” “Why not?” I asked. “Don’t know,” they replied. Makes sense. We took a mini bus, and before I knew it (and after many tourist police stops), I was in Karga. There, I tried to get another bus. A tourist police man helped me out.

“Get in this car,” he said as he pointed at a car. I put my bag in the back and stood beside it.

“No more. Now get in this car,” he said. I was confused, but obeyed. The previous car was full, so it seemed. I put my bag in the new car.

“Ummm…car full. Wait,” he said. I waited. “Get in THAT car!” he told me.

“No, wait. No more.” I took my bag out.

“Okay, this has got to be a joke,” I thought. But what could I do? I really needed to go. I waited around for a while and he finally came back with a grin and pointed at a van. “Okay, this one.”

I ran to it, threw my bag on top and hopped in before anyone could take my seat (even though the story might have been funnier had I been told that this one was full too). I got a seat and we were off. The driver was crazy and nearly flipped the van a few times, but we eventually arrived to Asyut and were greeted by two police cars.

“Oh great,” I thought. “Interpol finally tracked me down…” I took off my watch so the handcuffs wouldn’t scratch it and they came up to me and tapped on the window.

“Where you from?” they asked me.

“America,” I replied.

“Okay,” they said and left. The escorted us into town with siren and all. When we arrived at the bus station, I got out and they got out and they asked me what I wanted to do. Do I take bus? Train? Walk? I opted for the train. No problem, they replied. They would escort me to the train station. The taxi driver had to follow quite close behind them and every time a car would cut in between, the cops would motion frantically for them to move aside (with their guns). When we arrived at the train station, they escorted me to the ticket office, bought my ticket for me, escorted me to the train, escorted me to my seat and with a big smile said, “Enjoy Egypt!” They wouldn’t take any tips, they just were doing their jobs. One explained to me why.

“14 Years ago we have problems with people kill dee tourist. My boss say we always stay with tourist ever since.”

Egypt has a very clear understanding of how much they need the tourist dollar. And they defend it with every opportunity.

I hadn’t eaten all day and a girl on the train gave me a Twinky and some chips. I was soooo thankful, you wouldn’t believe. I hadn’t eaten all day.

And so here I am in Luxor after the long train ride down here. Lots of crazy things have happened since, but that is another post in and of itself.

And so now the random observations…

I’ve forgotten how to speak English. One of the Americans I was traveling with noticed immediately. I have forgotten the proper usage of the following things:

Maybe: I use maybe with everything. I have forgotten how to use “might”. A common thing you might hear me say is the following, “maybe we do this tomorrow”.

I use the present tense way too often.

I just speak in the present tense now. “So where do we go now?” or “I go here now” are very common examples of things I might say.

I use “this” way too often. “What is this?”, “How is this possible?”, or “have you seen this movie?” are things I say regularly. Does this make any sense?

I use many way more often than “a lot”. “There are many cars on the street tonight”, I might comment.

I have visions of getting back home and trying to chat up a girl, only to have her ask me, “So…which country are you from?”

“Well, I’m from here,” I would reply.

“Yeah, but…originally?”

I wonder how long it will take for me to get back to normal once I get back home…

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