Camel trek

Ok, back from a 2 night 3 day trek into the deserts of Egypt. This odyssey began on the car ride to Adel’s house from the air­port, when he asked me what I’d like to do and I told him “camel trek”. Hav­ing worked with camels a very lit­tle time in the US I did­n’t have much expe­ri­ence to go on, but from what I did have I was stoked to go.

The first day we start­ed mov­ing around noon, tak­ing a mini-bus (the pre­ferred method of trav­el in Cairo for locals, these mini-bus­es run up and down the main drags with slid­ing doors open. You clam­ber in, pass your fare through the oth­er pas­sen­gers up to the dri­ver, wit­ness a few Arab-style yelling match­es dur­ing your voy­age as var­i­ous par­ties dis­agree with each oth­er, and pop off wher­ev­er you’d like) to Adel’s friend Mous­sad, who owns 2 camels and a donkey.

Mous­sad had the ani­mals ready to go, so I hopped on and rode it up about 8 feet. The first day Mous­sad kept my camel tied to the back of his; they weren’t sure how expe­ri­enced of a rid­er I was and it end­ed up being a good intro to riding.

There are three seat­ed posi­tions for rid­ing. First was strad­dling the camel, as on a horse. Sec­ond was the usu­al Egypt­ian style of rid­ing, where you cross your legs at the ankle in front of the horn of the sad­dle and rest your feet on the camel’s neck. A wel­come relief from the strad­dle method. Third, once on open/flat ground, was to sit side sad­dle, an enjoy­able way to trav­el as you talked with anoth­er rider.

This first day I found the ride to be jerky and lurch­ing, but by day three I had begun to feel the rhythm and set­tle in to the gen­tly sway­ing glo­ry of the “ship of the desert”.

By the time we had walked through a war­ren of dirt roads and back alleys and past the pyra­mids it was already 4 o’clock, so we rode about anoth­er hour into the desert through what looked like a huge sand­box where bull­doz­ers and earth mov­ing equip­ment come to gath­er the major­i­ty of Cairo’s build­ing mate­r­i­al before we stopped and set up camp in a windbreak.

The camels were cushed (down posi­tion) and tied to a sad­dle, then A&M pulled off the sad­dles and laid out the camel blan­kets mak­ing them into the floor of an open air liv­ing space. The first order of busi­ness when mak­ing camp is to feed the camels, then to start a fire and make tea. Tea is a spar­tan and delib­er­ate affair con­sist­ing of mix­ing, heat­ing, tast­ing, adding sug­ar and then del­i­cate­ly pour­ing out a hot, strong, and very sweet tea into large shot glass­es. Delicious.

They had hon­ored me with a huge stack of very thin burg­ers for the first din­ner, brought out under the (cor­rect) assump­tion that I would enjoy them. They cooked these over an open fire (wood was also car­ried in) and along with an incred­i­bly stinky salty cheese (at first smell I thought, “Fuck it, I ain’t gonna like it but I am going to eat it”, end­ed up being well suit­ed to the occa­sion) and a mix­ture of chopped toma­toes, cucum­bers, and spicy pep­pers all eat­en with pieces of fresh pita bread we feast­ed under the stars.

By 6:30 the sun had set, din­ner was over and I had a good han­dle on how the tea cer­e­mo­ny was run (slow, hot, and with­out end), so with the temp drop­ping and after a envi­ous eye to Adel’s thick abaya (a tight­ly knit and well craft­ed heavy wool robe) I made for the sleep­ing bags. I was the first to go bed, and as I drift­ed off to sleep under the stars did not real­ize that I would be the only one to sleep that night. Through their own cul­ture and sen­si­bil­i­ty, they believed that 4 eyes were need­ed to stand a watch, and they were damned if they’d wake me up. So they did­n’t go to sleep.

Upon ris­ing in the morn­ing I saw both of them by the fire and asked how the slept. They said they did­n’t. I asked why not. Adel said, “We did­n’t come here to sleep.” Was­n’t sure what to make of that, but it sound­ed pret­ty tough. Hav­ing gone with­out sleep before in my life due to var­i­ous com­mit­ments, I ful­ly appre­ci­ate the val­ue of a good night’s rest, but if they had made it to 37 and 48 years old and had decid­ed to hold with a dif­fer­ent phi­los­o­phy then my own I was hap­py to let them.

Adel is a devout Mus­lim, and prayed the req­ui­site 5 times a day. I hazi­ly recall his first prayer at 0430, the phrase “Allah hu Akb­har” being repeat­ed over and over brought me out of a light sleep. Expe­ri­enc­ing this devo­tion is impres­sive. As a non-believ­er, how­ev­er, I’m just as glad I haven’t ded­i­cat­ed my life to the Mus­lim method.

After I awoke and had the “no-sleep” talk with the two of them, Adel decid­ed that he would sleep after all, and laid down for an hour. I was hun­gry as I walked bleari­ly eyed over to the still burn­ing fire and Mous­sad. I knew we would­n’t eat until after Adel had wok­en up, so I was hap­pi­ly sur­prised when Mous­sad rum­maged through one of the many bags they brought and came up with a plas­tic sack full of what looked like small red chili pep­pers but were actu­al­ly dates. He pro­ceed­ed to roast them on the coals, and they made an agree­able appe­tiz­er for the break­fast which followed.

Once Adel woke up he made prepa­ra­tions for break­fast, which was a small wheel of pre-wrapped in tin-foil wedges of cheese, hon­ey in a shal­low bowl, a deli­cious con­coc­tion called Halavah (can be bought in the States under the name Hal­vah) and pit­ta bread to scoop it all up in, all fin­ished up with 3 cups of tea. The first cup is sweet yet still car­ries the heavy astrin­gent qual­i­ty of the “dust” tea they make. The sec­ond cup is sweet­er still, and the third cup, mixed with mint, is a superb fin­ish to this ancient desert ceremony.

The trash from our trav­els so far was thrown about the camp at ran­dom. Incom­pre­hen­si­ble to me but seemed to be SOP for them. Indeed, all of Egypt (and the Mid­dle East that I’ve seen) is blan­ket­ed to a more or less degree with the detri­tus of the mod­ern age; plas­tic bot­tles, tin foil, old san­dals, and any­thing no longer use­ful. When I made an attempt to pick up some lit­ter they went along with it, putting it all into a small garbage bag which Adel then care­ful­ly car­ried to the oth­er side of the wind­break and deposit­ed on the side of the path. Rather than do the eco­log­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate thing and insist on them con­form­ing to my ways, I fig­ured, fuck it, it’s their coun­try and if they want to trash it they can. This is the prob­lem of the mod­ern and pam­pered trav­el­er like myself; do we impose upon oth­er cul­tures what we “know” to be right, or do we allow them to make a mess of their own prop­er­ty and trust that in time they will come to the same con­clu­sions we have? Is it even appro­pri­ate to think that a civ­i­liza­tion old­er than ours (Amer­i­ca being only a few hun­dred years old and the Mus­lim world hav­ing uni­ver­si­ties dat­ing back 1,200 years) knows less than we do?

With the food and drink set­tled until din­ner (they only eat twice a day), we packed, sad­dled the camels and were off. The sec­ond day they decid­ed to let me ride free rein, which increased both my par­tic­i­pa­tion and enjoy­ment tremen­dous­ly. We walked in that slow and lan­guorous mile-eat­ing way camels have through the rest of the rough sand­box we had stopped in the night before, skirt­ed the Cairo dump (a har­bin­ger of the jour­ney ahead) and spilled out onto a wide plain with a view of the ancient bur­ial ground of Saqar­rah and the famous Step pyra­mid in the dis­tance. This day we would cov­er about 30 miles, and aside from a small sad­dle sore I would be none the worse for it.

This was the best part of the trip; wide open desert, great long views and few signs of civ­i­liza­tion around. There were the pow­er lines far off to the West that car­ry ener­gy from Aswan dam up to Cairo, and the fringe of civ­i­liza­tion that exists on the edge of the Nile to the east, but oth­er than that we were out of touch with the mod­ern world. All that would change on the return jour­ney, but for now I was total­ly hap­py with being in the desert with Bedouin and camels, car­ry­ing every­thing we need­ed with us. It was glorious.

After about 3 hours of rid­ing south we turned back to the north and began to re-trace our steps. With only a few days to be in the desert due to my fre­quent­ly chang­ing work sched­ule they had decid­ed on an out-and-back trek. We re-entered the rough sand-hill area and began weav­ing our way through small wadis and roads that criss-crossed the whole area, evi­dence of human activ­i­ty in the recent past. Incom­pre­hen­si­bly to me, the two men decid­ed that a view of the pyra­mids from a dif­fer­ent angle was worth a trip through (NOT on the out­skirts off) the Cairo dump. It start­ed off inno­cent­ly enough, and in real­i­ty I think they just took a wrong turn and did­n’t want to admit it, but we began to wend our way around a huge canyon sys­tem toward the heaped up and steam­ing piles of refuse that mark civ­i­liza­tions everywhere.

Grad­u­al­ly the piles of trash became big­ger and big­ger, the stench stronger, and the sounds of large equip­ment grew from dis­tant groans and sirens to the close up high pitched beep­ing and deep growl­ing of huge chunks of machin­ery as they plowed their way through, around, and on the trash of a city. Hav­ing not eat­en since morn­ing and hav­ing been in the sad­dle for 5 hours by the time we start­ed at the dump I was not in the best of moods, and the change from tran­quil and clean desert to the fuck­ing dump began to arouse in me a right­eous anger. I had to remind myself that, A: maybe we were lost and they just did­n’t want to admit it, which I could under­stand, B: I should have had more to do with plan­ning, and C: This was, if I stepped back and looked at it, pret­ty god­damned fun­ny. In any event I got much bet­ter at direct­ing a camel through uneven terrain.

We picked our way through the dump emerg­ing after a full hour to a view of the pyra­mids from the east, a fact tri­umphant­ly expressed to me by a beam­ing Adel. I let him know in the most cour­te­ous of ways that I would rather not ride through a dump again, even to be graced with the most glo­ri­ous of views, which this side of the pyra­mids were def­i­nite­ly not. Due to the nature of their con­struc­tion, pyra­mids look remark­ably sim­i­lar from every side. He apol­o­gized, first blam­ing it on him­self think­ing I would enjoy it, and lat­er on that day blam­ing it on Mous­sad’s opin­ion that I must see the pyra­mids from every angle.

While only a lit­tle over an hour long, this detour changed the dynam­ic of the trip enough that I decid­ed that fur­ther camel (or any treks) with Adel would be dis­cussed in much greater detail pri­or to depar­ture. It was some­thing I should have known and planned for and did­n’t, so I could real­ly only be upset with myself.

After break­ing free of the foul stench and sight of the dump we emerged again into sandy hills, and climbed up them in search of a camp­site for the night. Along the way we picked up bits of dis­card­ed wood for the night’s fire, hav­ing used up all we had car­ried in the night before.

As Mous­sad led us from poten­tial camp­site to poten­tial camp­site I deter­mined to take a more active role in the expe­di­tion, and indi­cat­ed that one wind­break was much the same as anoth­er after 7 hours in the sad­dle, so we set­tled down in one that hid civ­i­liza­tion and the pyra­mids from our view and made camp again, fol­low­ing the same pro­ce­dures as before.

The dif­fer­ence came after night fell. Mous­sad had decid­ed to take a two hour nap, and it was in the mid­dle of this that two youths approached the camp out of the dark­ness. One had his face hid­den with a black cloth, and as soon as Adel dis­cerned they were com­ing to us he woke Mous­sad. Adel walked toward young men with the usu­al greet­ing of Salaam wah Aleikum, which was returned in kind. Hands were shak­en all around with that pecu­liar limp grip com­mon to the Mid­dle East, and the four talked for a minute, with voic­es grad­u­al­ly grow­ing loud­er. This being a com­mon occur­rence in Egypt I took no notice of it, but stayed behind Adel & Mous­sad ready to jump in and lend a hand in whip­ping the shit out of these two punks, as it became quick­ly appar­ent that they had noth­ing pos­i­tive to offer our expe­ri­ence. This clar­i­fi­ca­tion occurred when Adel asked the one whose face was cov­ered to uncov­er so we could look upon him, and the youth declined to be iden­ti­fied. With a quick hand, Adel reached up to grab away the cov­er­ing, but the young man held it up. After a brief strug­gle Adel ripped the obscure­ment away and looked upon the now lit face. Soon after this, both men dis­ap­peared back into the night, and Adel proud­ly let me know they were bad men and he had sent them away.

I stayed awake long enough to par­tic­i­pate in the first of what I assumed to be many night tea cer­e­monies, and then, after offer­ing my ser­vices as a watch­men and being round­ly denied, again went off to bed to leave the two of them to stay up as long as they want­ed. As before, nei­ther of them slept until the next morn­ing when I woke up.

The mon­strous wail­ing that is the sign of the call to prayer arose from the dis­tant city, seem­ing to sig­ni­fy the awak­en­ing of the hordes. This is per­haps an over state­ment, but to one unac­cus­tomed to an entire cul­ture loud­ly pro­claim­ing their faith at the same time it had all the sound of an impend­ing bat­tle. I stayed in bed through Adel’s morn­ing prayers, then we fol­lowed the same pro­ce­dure of break­fast, tea, and sad­dling the camels for our return to the city.

As we rode back I saw in the expe­ri­ence how my time in the sad­dle had increased my rid­ing skill, and felt com­fort­able as we walked back through the dirt roads and alleys that before I had been led through, end­ing up at Mous­sad’s door. Unsad­dling and feed­ing the camels took all of half and hour, then Adel and I caught a tuk-tuk (3 wheeled cov­ered scoot­er) back to his house, and I head­ed to my quar­ters for a show­er and recon­nec­tion with the elec­tron­ic world.

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