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.