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So Long, Sahara

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

I stumbled out of our tent with the sun two fingers above the horizon and found the camp staff groggily moving about. The trash had been collected into large woven plastic bags and a couple of tents had already been collapsed. They were being folded and thrown atop one of the Toyotas where they were tied down for transport. I went to the water tank hoping to wash up before breakfast and found the reservoir empty. Not a good sign, but there would be running water soon enough. Jamie emerged soon after me and we were dunking tea bags in hot water when Ashari walked over and told us that we would be leaving for the highway and our ride back to Cairo in fifteen minutes. Jamie objected to the short notice and, with his superior Arabic skills, negotiated an extra quarter hour for us.

Neither Ginger nor Joelle had yet made an appearance and Zohair had just arisen, looking for some water so he could meet the day with a clean face. I roused Joelle, who immediately began packing up her bag. I called to Ginger and told her we needed to move and then set about stowing my own gear. Once I had completed that minor task, I went and had something to eat with Jamie and Zohair. When Ginger still had made no appearance, I went back to the tent and nudged her. She awoke with a start and I told her we were going to be on the move very shortly. She explained that she had had earplugs in and hadn’t heard a thing until that moment, but started gathering her stuff together.

Within half an hour, we were all packed up, bags stowed either on the Toyota’s roof rack or next to the seats in the back of the 4×4. We made one last check of the tent for wayward items and then mounted up. Ashari obviously had a schedule to keep, for we made a beeline for the road in complete disregard for established tracks. We rolled across the landscape for a short ten minutes or so and arrived at the appointed rendezvous in no time. There was the Badawiya van awaiting us with the computer projection team already ensconced in their seats and plugged into their various electronic devices. Abd Allah, the same driver who had driven us down from Cairo, waved a cheery greeting.

We packed our bags in the back and climbed in. With the four computer people, the five of us and our constant companion, Omar, (the quiet Egyptian who had accompanied us on every excursion with Ashari and was, in truth, our body guard, complete with nasty-looking automatic weapon discretely carried under his jacket), the van was full. We set off on the macadam, having expressed to Ashari our individual and collective (i.e. monetary) thanks to him. He and the Toyota disappeared across the desert in a cloud of sand. Our van climbed out of the depression that held Farafra and rolled over the desert toward the Bahriya Oasis. We passed the Crystal Mountain site and the now recognizable landscape that had captured our attention on the way out. Now, the prospect of returning to our routine lives directed my attention to other matters. I had promised Zohair that I would read his draft of an article on Egypt that he was planning to submit to the English language “al-Ahram” weekly and I worked on that for a while as we drove. The conversation among the passengers was desultory and intermittent; some people slept, others listened to their iPods or played cards.

In Bahriya, we stopped for a lunch of rice and vegetables. We dropped Omar off at the police station and thanked him for his service before resuming our journey. The trip back to Cairo seemed shorter than the trip out. We made the obligatory stop at the grungy rest area, tanked up and continued on our way. Before long, we were on the outskirts of Cairo, swinging around 6th of October City, the big new suburb of Cairo that nestles up against the pyramids. Traffic was light for a Sunday and it was not yet dark when we pulled up before the British Council building on the west bank of the Nile. The four Fulbrighters and Jamie got out and we said our goodbyes to the computer people who were driven away to their drop off. Zohair and I snagged a taxi and rode across the Nile to his apartment in Garden City.

We flipped a coin to see who would get to shower first and, in turn, we washed off the desert dust. Zohair cranked up the washing machine afterwards and washed the Sahara out of his clothes as well. I unpacked and crammed my dirty laundry into a plastic bag. My laundry would wait until Monday when I would move quarters. I called Belle Gironda, who was to be my host for the next few days, and we settled on a convenient time or me to make my appearance at her place. Dinner was a simple omelette and a cup of tea. The long drive and three nights under the desert sky had us longing for the comfort of a good mattress and clean sheets. I fell asleep to the whisper of traffic on the Corniche fourteen stories below.

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