Travel Blog

by Bob Francescone

EGYPT

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OCTOBER 10 – OCTOBER 30, 2020 by Bob Francescone

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2020-10-08   FAYOUM, EGYPT

We lean, then bang hard thirty degrees to the right as the dune grabs the left wheels of the car and wrenches us up off the flat. It has been 4 hours since Ramdan wrapped us in Egyptian welcome at Cairo Airport Arrivals, one hour after we finally left the sprawling lights of Cairo behind us. We are in the desert, off-road, deep into the tunnel of our headlights through night. Then we tilt, level. And stop. Below is sand, above, only stars. The dark in between is all around us. A headscarf, dark face, white smile, lead us across the sand, through a small door. The sand floor and reed walls are covered with rag rugs. The bed is narrow, but big enough to carry fatigue.

2020-10-09   FAYOUM TO MARSA MATROUH

We wake in Egypt. Our hut is high above the desert on the edge of a worn escarpment. Behind us is a wall of rock. In front there is sky, then a drop straight down to sand and rocks, pebbles from this height. Towards the sun is a lake, fresh water, and largest in Egypt, trivialized by distance. The air is cool, not yet wrenched from the night by the rising sun. 

We are in Egypt for Ramdan’s three-day ‘wedding party’ in two weeks. Until then we spend most of the time in the desert before we turn east and south to his village on the Nile. Ramdan has arranged it all with his best friend, Abdul. “Egyptian price. You not worry anything, car, hotel, food, nothing. You don’t need any money.” The ‘Egyptian price’ is a fraction of what we would pay, even at our ‘bottom of the food chain’ travel style.

There are a dozen other huts and cabins here, of reeds, like ours, or stone, or adobe, and holding onto this ledge. Our neighbors are friendly refugees from the noise and light of Cairo. Some are camping, and invite us to share breakfast. Our driver and Ramdan are calling from across the sand, so we thank our would be hosts and join two international families in the shade over low tables, pillows and rugs. The husbands are Egyptian, the wives European, and Bangladeshi, the kids, just kids, precocious, and fluent in unaccented English. We haven’t seen any face masks since Cairo airport, and there are none here. Corona comes up, then, as usual “What has happened to your country?” We have no answer.

The talk turns to the Nile. We talk up Ramdan’s felucca trips then pull out our first surprise gift for our friend. “Here, these will help.” And drop 250 business cards that match the 4×6 foot banner he knows we have for him. The grin is as wide as the stretch of arms he wraps around us. Then we pull out the banner and matching tee shirt. 

Abdu is a genius on the road. We fly north and west. By nightfall we have travelled hundreds of kilometers and break the long drive in Marsa Matrouh, Egypt’s ‘riviera’, miles of beach and condos along the Mediterranean. My memory of Matrouh from our first pass through in 2011 doesn’t include any of this. I remember dust, and grilled fish, a small shop where I replaced my dust-destroyed sedate black camera for a cheap tarty one in lurid pink. There’s not much here in this 2020 Matrouh for us desert-seekers, but we thank the hot shower profusely, and the many-colored waters of the bay are beautiful.

At night, Abdu takes us to visit a friend—he and Ramdan know, or are ‘cousin’ to, everyone in Egypt. Friend’s Waterfall Park, actually has one, falling over an ambitious mural, and a cage with ostriches and gazelles. ‘Nuff said.

2020-10-10   MARSA MATROUH TO SIWA

We’ve been laughing for two days. 

Old friends, Abdul and Ramdan are a comic duo. Abdul is a Bedouin, desert man, from Bahariyah (“two palm trees and one goat”, says Ramdam.) Ramdan is a Nubian from the Nile (“one crocodile, some water” is Abdul’s dismissal) and they laugh, slap palms, and hug. And us, when Box Number Two of business cards arrives.

Not much gets between Egyptians and a good time. Not even hours of driving across this uninspired landscape. This part of Egypt is not pretty. The coast road is too far from the Mediterranean to catch any of that blue. The landscape is bleached grey by the sun, and flat. We drive for hours, but don’t seem to move. The view is the same. Inside, Ramdan reminds Abdu that even just two palm trees would be welcome relief, and we drink water. We turn southwest towards the oasis of Siwa and the Great Sand Sea, into the Egypt and desert of imagination and memory.

Its dark when we bump over baby dunes into Hassan’s camp outside of Siwa. He has a spring, so water, and dates, comfortable adobe houses that will thwart tomorrow’s sun. Hassan welcomes us with tea. He is a warm, smiling, articulate host. We are ‘home’ at once. Out beyond the date palms, he builds a fire We lounge on cushions spread on adobe coerced into a continuous ring-divan circling the fire. It doesn’t rival the stars, but holds off a bit of the dark. Around us is silence. 

2020-10-11   SIWA OASIS

Not everything that goes ‘Bump’ is in the night….

At 6:12 am. I step over the last thin black hose that carries water from the well way behind me at Hassan’s camp to the last row of young date palms, and step into the Great Sand Sea. It rolls in waves of dunes for hundreds of miles south to the next great oasis and west, a great tsunami sweeping across the artificial line separating Egypt from Libya, and onward. We will sail on it and around it in our Toyota 4by4s for the next 10 days. We will sleep some nights under its stars.

I walk now, up a gentle slope, into the true desert.

The light is soft, the air cool. The sun is still below the horizon, firing the sky red then orange, then yellow. Then claiming the sky, white hot, photons scattering the cool. Sunrise and sunset don’t linger in in the desert. Dawn erupts. Dusk plunges. In between there is heat and light, and strong shadows. At noon, in the glare, the thermometer races upwards, nibbling at, then leaving that upstart, 100, behind. The noon sun is voracious. Even then, there is always a breeze, and in the shade at noon we are comfortable. And now, just after dawn, the air is perfect.

I return to camp, strip and climb over the wall to sink into Hassan’s spring. It’s just right, my private Goldilock’s Zone. We are the only visitors here, among the few in Egypt. Unrest and Corona have stripped Egypt from travel itineraries. Hassan’s camp suffers, but Hassan is a realistic optimist. We have learned his mantra: ‘today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow’. 

Today is for harvesting dates. His palms are young, the dates hanging low to the ground. Boys shake them onto canvas, then full hands pour them into rough baskets. Some make it to our breakfast table, but don’t last long. 

Box Number Three of Captain Ramdan business cards is dessert.

By late afternoon we are surfing the sand waves of the Great Sand Sea. Abdu and our 4×4 Toyota surfboard are fearless, and airborne. We crest the dunes, then stop, then plunge, thirty degrees, forty five, sixty, “oh sh*t”, down, down, down. How is underwear?” says Abdu, wrenching the car sideways, then up another wall of sand to stop, teeter, then drop.

He leaves us at the top of the highest dune yet, drives down ahead. Elfie follows down the slope. She’s a tiny drop, way below. I start down.

Then I fall down the dune and land on my head.

2020-10-12   SIWA OASIS

Elfie says she heard the loud thud even from way down at the bottom of the dune. My forehead is sandpapered, and a bit oozy. My left arm, shoulder, and hip twinge a bit, but I am fine. One of my rites of passage in the dunes is to scope out just the right slope, lie down, wrap my arms and roll down until the dune flattens and I bump to a stop. Yesterday’s ugly duckling swan dive will have to count.

Abdu, Ramdan, and Khalid, our cook, set up camp last night in the dunes, then a fire, and dinner. The desert is silent and cool. The mats and sleeping bags are enough to keep us warm. The endless stars hypnotize me to sleep.

The sun doesn’t just rise over the desert. It claims it. Even if it has to obey the laws of the universe and dance to the harmony of the spheres, here it reigns supreme, its power distilled in every grain of sand. It wills us awake .

Siwa is the most isolated of Egypt’s 5 oases, 800 flat and dusty kilometers west of Cairo. That distance did not stop Alexander the Great from crossing the desert 2300 years ago to listen to an oracle confirm that yes, he was the son of the god Zeus. That temple still stands, even the tubes that carried the booming ‘voice of the oracle’ from the hidden priest to the willing, hopeful ears of the man who conquered the known world of his time, and still needed reassurance. 

The heart of Siwa is the great hill of Shali, pile upon pile of nested, folded, collapsed adobe houses. It has deteriorated since our trips here in 2011 and 2015, and we can’t climb over the rubble for the view over the oasis. Down on the flat, the town looks much the same. There may be a few more trucks but the streets still belong to the donkey carts, motorcycles, and three wheeled putt-putters. Fully covered women, heaps of black, ride in the backs of the putt-putts, or on the backs of donkeys. Their young daughters wear backpacks and sneakers, but not for long in this deeply conservative town.

We find our friend Fahmi’s garden, but it is locked up and neighbors don’t know where he is. We’re sorry to miss him. We have been in contact since we ate in his garden 9 years ago. 

Siwa is an oasis: water, palms, people. Note: to Egyptians if there are no people, it isn’t an oasis, but something else, usually a ‘spring’. Siwa has a lot of water, most ‘sweet’, some salt. At Salt Lake the sun drives the water away and leaves vast plains of pure salt. I taste it. 

Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel is both ‘very Siwa’ and very much a desert paradise, adobe draped with bougainevillea . We are the only guests to wander its cool courtyards and gardens. 

Box Number 4 of business cards hasn’t dulled Ramdan’s reaction.

2020-10-13   SIWA BACK TO FAYOUM AND TUNIS

The great diagonal route from Siwa southeast across the dunes to Abdu’s home in the next oasis is semi-closed to traffic. The 28 checkpoints and the miasma of Egyptian bureaucracy defeat even Abdu’s fount of optimism. Bahariya oasis and Abdu’s camp are now very, very far, three times as far. We will have to go the long way, first back east, then south, and break the trip in Fayoum, near where we started a few days ago. Thats 800 kilometers away through flat, pebbly nothingness. We did the dune route in 2011 so know we are missing a repeat of one of the planet’s great adventures. But we have Ramdan, Abdu and Khalid and laugh the heat- flattened, unresponsive landscape into irrelevance.


Cook Khalid, is tiny and looks 14 (OK, maybe 17), and is shy and quiet. At first. He turns out to be 24, and neither. He is always smiling, and knows exactly when we need a cup of tea after we land at camp or wake up in the morning, pouring it from two feet above the small glass so it foams, as it should. We have it tonight before, after, and with spaghetti when we break those 800 kilometers in the garden of Sarah’s traditional house in the Fayoum town of Tunis. 


Sarah is German, and addicted to rural Egypt. She grows her own food, and rents two rooms in the house. Old friend Abdu brings guests, a win-win all around. Our room has a traditional domed ceiling with scattered holes for ventilation. At night stars peek in. Once again, Abdu and Ramdan have unpacked an Egypt that makes this, our fifth stay, new and wondrous.

2020-10-14   FAYOUM TO BAHARIYAH OASIS

We visit an ancestor. 

It’s our son’s birthday. There is no internet — hasn’t been for many days– but we piggy back on Ramdan’s hotspot to croak ‘Happy Birthday’ up into the Internet and down to Ethiopia.

Sarah’s house is on the edge of Tunis, not the one in Tunisia, but this one, here in Egypt, deep in the Fayoum. Tunisians are potters, magicians of clay. Their workshops string along the narrow street of the village. Abdu has a friend — of course — and friend has a workshop. We watch his young apprentices practice making wide-mouthed jars/vases/pitchers, dragging lumps of clay upwards and outwards into graceful, solid shapes. The clay, gift of the Nile, and delivered an alluvial brown, is transformed by hands, fire and glazes. The small hand painted tiles are tempting, might even still keep us under our 7kilo limit on baggage, but we are in ‘divest mode’, simplifying things. The tiles stay in Tunis. We have tea, watch the boys do their magic, then leave Tunis for the desert. 

The Fayoum is the bottom of the long-gone Tethys Sea. Ancestors of Moby Dick, and their huge cousins, swam here. Earliest known ancestors of monkeys, apes — and us — may have watched from the trees along the shore. That was 33 million years ago, but their bones remain, huge lengths of spine, with ribs and fearsome teeth, true sea creatures, front limbs already fins, no longer useful for walking. Our ancestor, Aegyptoplthecus (‘Egyptian Ape), is a tiny face, not even a nibble for the teeth of those whale cousins, but a face nevertheless, with the wide eye sockets of our branch of the tree of life. They all lived here when this was wet and lush, one the apex of life in the sea, the other a delicate start of something new in the trees. Descendants of the tiny have almost destroyed all the descendants of the mighty. 

We visit in the sand and dry wind. And wonder. An almost invisible lifeless chunk of DNA has brought much of human life to a standstill. What comes next? 

We continue south through epic dunes, cliffs, plateaus, mesas, monoliths, geology sculpted by wind, sun, and the soft, insistent, kiss of abrading sand. The landscape is time-less and time-full. 

It’s dark when we pull into Abdu’s camp, home for the next three nights before our expedition into the White Desert. 

2020-10-15 AND 2020-10-16   ABDU’S CAMP IN BAHARIYAH OASIS

Abdu’s camp, aka El Haez Lodge Wellness Retreat, is 40 kilometers from Bahariya, the heart of the oasis, isolated and totally quiet. Our rooms are large and high, thick walled against the sun, so cool. The sky is so clear, town lights so far away, that an astronomer friend of Abdul’s has a small observatory here and brings sky-folk to gaze. Orion stares back.

We laze, off the road, and on the terrace. In the shade, the 100 plus temperature is comfortable. The air is so sucked of moisture that even here in the shade laundry snaps dry in a few hours. Inside, fresh dates shine reddish, then slide smoothely over our tongues, sexy alone, or with fresh cream cheese, or Khalid’s tea…or both. 

It takes work to get them from palm to tongue.

The harvest is men’s work. The lucky men shake them from the low palms. The others are aerialists, suspended against the blue sky. We watch an expert climb the trunk, stop, brace his feet against the trunk, hold on with one hand and saw off the date plumes with the other. The women sort the fallen dates, by feel as much as sight, some for market, some for storage, some for fodder. We see some doing it by twilight, sitting in a circle, chatting, their fingers fast. They wave, nod, smile. Every date we eat has been touched by such hands. 

The days slide smoothely in the quiet, blue sky above, yellow sand below, green date palms between, then tea, another of Khalid’s meals, more tea. And always… laughs. And the last box of 250 name cards. We have more surprises for Ramdan to come.

Abdul has a plan. We’re on the flight path for migrating pigeons headed for Europe. Some get only as far as Abdul’s ice chest, headed for stew tomorrow night in the White Desert.

2020-10-17   BAHARIYA TO WHITE DESERT

6000 cigarettes!

We are off-off-off road and in two 4x4s for insurance, heading south from the camp and towards the White Desert. There are tire tracks in the yellow sand and crackled, parched surface and not much else. Abdul whoops, speeds up, slides to a stop, jumps out, bends down and up, waving a pink box. “Cigarettes!” Ramdan and Khalid, puffers all, add their whoops, and high 5. Ten packs might get the three of them through a few days. The ciggies are Libyan smokes, probably dropped by smugglers, illegal in Egypt — and not as good as the Egyptian Marlboros and L&Ms the guys prefer — but the price is right, and the story is good. 

We drive on. Abdul is a Desert Cowboy, spinning off track on a whim. But he spots another spot of pink straight ahead and stays on course, stops, corrals it, and hops back in. By the third carton Abdu doesn’t bother to stop, just slows down, opens the door, leans out, one hand on the wheel, and scoops it up and in. Four and five follow. LIke ET following the trail of Reese’s Pieces, we’re hooked, sucked along the trail. Then, there is a pile, then a bigger one. This deserves a full stop, and two hands. We all get out, fill our arms, stuff the car with our contraband swag. The last trove is a heap spilling out of a burst plastic bag and bringing our total to 60 cartons, 6000 cigarettes, 5900 illegal Libyans, and 100 legal (“not so good”) in a different package, Egyptian, and inevitably, draped with the letters CLEOPATRA, and the expected images. 

We guess that the 6,000 started out tied to the top of a 4×4 and bounced off, unnoticed. Abdul is sympathetic. Our find will be a big loss to the smugglers. “Smugglers here don’t do it to get rich. They do it to get by”. There are no check points out here. The smugglers know their stuff. So does Abdul. Our back up vehicle will be with us while we are in the White Desert, then take our loot back to Abdul’s camp. Cleo, and only Cleo, may come with us. That will save us having to explain 5900 contraband Libyan cigarettes to some bored check point guy in the Back of Nowhere.

We have been here before, twice, in the White Desert, but Abdul finds a route new to us. It’s no misnomer, or exaggeration, this whiteness. It’s total, chalky, laid down at the bottom of the ancient sea, now sculpted by wind, whipped, frothed, into monoliths, towers, ‘Hen and Egg’, ‘The Camel’, ‘Rabbit ‘, The Valley of Tables’, all searing white. They rear from a flat, rocky, more solid, less imaginative ex-seabed dappled with white fossil shells, and black fossil seaweed. I found a fossil shark’s tooth here on our first trip, a small thing now on a string in Florida. 

Abdul picks a campsite amidst a fantasy of white shapes, at the base of a narrow monolith scores of meters tall. It grabs the colors of the late afternoon sooner than the others, but soon they, too, turn soft cream then yellow, richer as the sun sinks, then suddenly orange, then deeper colors silhouetted against brighter ones in the sky. We eat Khalid’s pigeon stew by firelight, roll into our sleeping bags. Around us the light of stars and the sliver moon have bleached the desert’s shapes. 

We sleep amidst ghosts.

2020-10-18   WHITE DESERT

The tire is flat.

No problem. We have everything we need to fix it. The jack? Oops. Forgot to stow it. Sh*t. Not funny anywhere. In the desert less so. It’s hot. There is no shade. Where is a camel, desert back-up of choice, when you need one? The other Toyota rolls in, lacking a bit of camel charm, but sporting a jack. We don’t complain.

Our second campsite in the White Desert is popular. There are tracks all around. Some we recognize. The tiny paw prints of the big-eared desert foxes are easy. The complex braided designs in continuous loopy sine waves are a mystery until we spot a tiny dung beetle scurry out of our way, all those legs frantic. There are bigger paw tracks. We haven’t seen any dogs in the desert or anywhere where there are no people. “Wolf”, says Abdul. 

The fire holds us close. We spread around it on the mattresses. Ramdan throws a light blanket over me….

I wake up. It’s pitch black. My nose is cold. I’m flat on my back, and warm. And a camel is sitting on me.

2020-10-19   WHITE DESERT TO DAHKLA OASIS

Well, not a whole camel, just some weight, and a whiff.

Not that ‘days in the desert special pong’ (that’s probably me) but that fresh from Ahmed’s Star of the Oasis Walk Through Scrub and Fluff (One Hump or Two, I’ve Got A Deal for You) Weekend Special, With Desert Rose Rinse. My ‘camel’ is a goodly bunch of what used to be camel outside, shaved, and woven into a heavy, heavy, warm blanket pinning me to my mat and the sand. I’m too comfortable to mind. And it doesn’t eat much.

Orion is straight up. I’ve never had the imagination to flatten the cosmos and make those fanciful star pictures. My mind goes all 3-dimensional, exhilarated, then numbed, by the size of it all and those distances. I’ll give the imaginative ancestors Orion, though. Him I recognize.. And, the Milky Way. And right now it feels like me and my camel are the only things in it. Well, us and the wolf. Morphius takes care of him. 

Morning is brilliant. The ghosts of the White Desert grow substantial, then solid, then white, then stark against the blue sky. Abdul has promised us ‘sand bread’. Yesterday we gathered the dry contorted branches of a desert shrub that burns very hot. This morning he heaps it and lights it while we drink Khalid’s tea. Abdul makes a dough, then flattens and pounds it — to drive out the air — into a large round. The shrub is hot ash. He clears it away, digs a flat hole in the hot sand, spreads the dough, then covers it with more hot sand. Fifteen minutes later he brushes off the sand (it doesn’t stick), slices pie wedges and sits back to watch. It’s delicious. 

We leave the White Desert for the next oasis, Dahkla. Abdul has a stop planned. ”He has 3 wives and 34 children” . I think all 38 of them welcome us to sit with them in their courtyard. The patriarch is a handsome man with a flamboyant mustache and panâche to spare. His profile belongs on coins. Abdul gets corrected “34?” “Only 21. The rest are my grandchildren. I don’t remember all their names.” They climb all over him anyway. Two run up and down the courtyard pushing a toy made from a tree branch and 2 lopsided wheels, one a tuna can, the other a bigger plastic lid. They’re not Toyotas but they raise dust, and make noise, essential little boy requirements. 

Four of the sons (2 from each of 2 wives, late teens through late twenties, are spectacularly handsome. The 17-year old hugs one of the girls and holds up two fingers close together. Twin? Sister? And equally gorgeous. (Papa’s genes are strong.) She is tall, graceful, and looks us square in the eye. The other wives and daughters-in-law are more shy, but shake our hands and smile. The wives are probably younger than they look. The youngest looks about 40. She is still beautiful, her startling light eyes and face framed by her black headscarf. Two of the handsome boys are hers. (Papa’s genes had some help here.) 

Google translate keeps the conversation going, tea lubricates it. Older brother is proud of the array of solar panels that keep the house powered. I hope it runs a washing machine. The clotheslines stretch way across the courtyard. 

We reach our digs, outside the town of Dahkla Oasis, and surrounded by fields just in time to see the house in afternoon light. The owner is another of Abdu’s strategically placed friends, dotted off-road across Egypt. It’s a thickly textured, harmonious update of an oasis house using traditional materials, great imagination, and the common sense distilled by generations of desert life. Thick adobe walls, high ceilings, tile floors, and narrow windows with shutters keep the heat at bay. The rest is woven rugs, reeds, palm rib and wooden furniture, and the thick pillows that keep head, butt, and back comfy on the floor or hard-angled traditional benches. The colors bring the desert, sky, date palms inside. The shower is sun-heated and cool/warm. The beds are vast, soft plateaus, with room for us and processed camel. We make do with cotton. 

 2020-10-20   DAHKLA OASIS 

Dahkla Oasis is huge. Like Siwa, and Bahariya, it spreads out as far as the underground water wells up, naturally, or with help. The water has succored people for millennia. 

El Kasr, the ancient core of the oasis still stands, abandoned, but only recently. Its last inhabitant left just a few years ago. She was over 90 and wanted nothing to do with the new digs the government had planned for her. Our guide remembers her sitting in her doorway and inviting the rare visitors to share her tea. We accept in her memory. Inside we wander through narrow alleys and tight rooms, dark, linked, stacked several stories up to flat rooftops. There is no one pressing olives into oil, but the wooden corkscrew in the press still turns, and the woven mats that caught the oil are flexible. There could be life here still, and the living might maintain the crumbling walls. The government has decreed elsewise. El Kasr will tumble as the Shali of Siwa has. That old lady remembers home. Future visitors will see only rubble.

Pigeons tonight. In the dunes.” Abdu’s hunting buddies set up camp, build a fire, no rival to the one in the sky.  The night takes hold. Web lounge on mats. Khalid stirs the pigeons. 

Then the wolves begun to howl. We can’t see them, but they must be close. The guys leap up, shine lights towards the sound, hoping to catch a reflection from the eyes. Puppies add their yips, a few managing an octave lap into full howl. Then they all stop, and we hear no more from them. We return to the mats, and fire, but a bit of the wild stays with us. 

What can follow that? Abdu manages.

He has BIG news. His friend the astronomer tells him that tomorrow at sunrise, the rising sun will penetrate directly through the narrow door into the inner sanctum of the great monument at Abu Simbel. It happens only twice a year, as it has for 3200 years. And tomorrow we can be there. At 05:30. If we skip Kharga oasis, drive many hundreds of kilometers straight to Aswan, and Kopaniya, Ramdan’s village, dump our stuff, and catch a late night convoy south to Abu Simbel. We’ve all been to Kharga, so can skip it. We’ve all been to Abu Simbel, too, but this we will not skip.

 2020-10-21   ABU SIMBEL

In his village edging into the desert on the west and overlooking the Nile on the east, friend Ramdan has our week here leading up to his three-day ‘wedding party’ all worked out. We’ll do the Agatha Christie ‘Death on the Nile’ thing and stay on one of the great 19th century dahabiyas that sailed Hercule Poirot and Company into murderous mayhem. Ours is a reproduction, of course, but accurate in the details… murders optional. It moves only by the push of the wind against its huge sails. But not now. There are no tourists, so the owner has furled the sails and anchored it at the foot of the hill Ramdan’s village sits on. The care taker is — of course — a Ramdan relative. It’s ours for as long as we want it. But, first we have to get there. Down the hill. In the dark. 

A horde of cousins disappear with our bags. We have headlights casting small puddles of light for our feet. We follow Ramdan’s from our car into the trees, over sand, through a field, past a growling mother dog and her yipping babies, then along the narrow ridge along an irrigation ditch, through more trees, over some pipes and wires, down a sudden slope, then down an even steeper slope, onto the sand and the shore of the Nile. The river laps below us as we cross the gangplank. We spread through the 5 double staterooms, each with a private bathroom, dump our stuff, head topside for Khalid’s tea and our view of the Nile. Ramdan’s felucca is moored alongside. That’s for tomorrow. 

Now, we wait for our convoy car to Abu Simbel, but that’s back up the hill, through the night and more puddles of light. Another batch of cousins lead us up a different path. There are no pipes to climb over, more sand, and broad paths, so this path is much easier. Maybe different hordes of cousins have different path-proprietary-rights?

I sleep most of the 4-hour drive to the very southern edge of Egypt. Sudan is just ‘over there’. We’ve been to Abu Simbel before, once from the north down Lake Nasser for 6-days on a tiny putt-putt, and once up from the south by 4×4 for two weeks across the desert of Sudan from Khartoum. It’s remote from either direction. It was far distant, far beyond imagining, for the ancient Egyptians, but here is where Ramses ll built his colossal temple with its 70-foot images of himself and arranged it so it would capture the sun twice a year. (Note: please never let Donald Trump see these statues.) Alone among all Egypt’s pharaohs Ramses built a temple to his beloved wife. He wrote of her death: The light has gone from my life. There was heart in that ego.

Abu Simbel, the morning, and the universe deliver as promised. The crowd is smaller than we expect, and Abu Simbel’s colossal figures of Pharaoh Ramses II, bigger than we remember, and enough reason to come. We see ‘the phenomenon’, just, over the heads of the more committed and decide it’s enough to trust that it happens. Those calculations 3200 years ago impress us. As do the imagination and calculations of the engineers in the 1960’s who rescued the temple from the rising waters of captured Lake Nasser, cut it into pieces, built a mountain for it, and reassembled it above the lick of waves, perfectly, to capture the sun as Ramses intended.

We wait. The sky lightens. There are no clouds to block the sun. It rises, brilliant, first on the 4 faces of Ramses. Then it finds the shaft to the images deep in the mountain, touches the central image, and moves on. It has no time for human hubris. The crowd applauds. I wonder what the people did 3200 years ago when they saw that fleeting patch of light. Most likely only priests saw it. Maybe everyone else trusted the universe, too, and didn’t have to see it to believe it happened.

We drive back north to Aswan, spread out in a comfy van. Ramdan has arranged all this: ”Egyptian price, not tourist price.” (Cousins are involved.) The driver would get no votes from Desert Cowboy Abdu. He pokes along at Half Abdu Speed, no wheelies, no off-road, no whoops, no thrills. Maybe itis because the Tourist Police have added a ‘guard’ to keep us safe. From what? He has no weapons, wears a suit, not a uniform, and is either asleep or running to a bathroom. “Diarrhea” says the guide included with the car. Otherwise, our guard doesn’t seem to give a sh……or so they tell me. I sleep most of the way back to Ramdan’s. And wake for Khalid’s tea.

2020-10-22   RAMDAN’S VILLAGE AND FELUCCA

MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob

Husky Cousin Dougu makes the biggest splash, leading the cousins over the gunwales of the felucca, barreling through the air, and slicing down into the Nile, then hand over hand back up the rudder, for the next plunge. Tiny, sweet Ahmed barely makes a dent in the river, but it accepts him anyway. 

On land, still glistening with Nile drops, they lead us back up yet another path from the river. The mother dog and her puppies no longer acknowledge our passing with even a sniff or a yip. We cross the dusty road that connects rural Kopanniya to urban Aswan, 40 minutes drive south and across the river. From here the going is steep, but easy, through a twist of narrow lanes. The air is hotter than in the desert, thicker with moisture from the river. We sweat. Ramdan’s family compound is at the top of the hill, good to catch a breeze. 

And filled with family. They know us from our visit in 2018 and our video calls. Ramdan gets his rolling walk, charm, cinemascopic smile, and encyclopedic arms from his father. Dad calls “MisterBob, MisterBob, MisterBob” over and over, and then some more, and grabs me into those arms, with traditional air kisses, close at both cheeks. He patches together enough English words to remind me about his video call to America from the dim light of the night train to Cairo a few months ago. His laugh is like Ramdan’s too, deep, and filling his face. Then, Mama, the three younger brothers, baby sister, and a horde of cousins spring from the house and give it a go, with gusto. The universal little kids hello/hallo chorus morphs into chants of MisterBobMisterBobMisterBob.

The double weddings begin in 3 days There is more work to get everything in place than there is time to do it. That’s why Ramdan left us a few days ago in Dahkla and came home ahead of us. 

They make time for us. We sit on mats, drink tea, tear chunks of thick bread, and squeeze lemon over beans, beef stew, and fresh tomato salad. And laugh.

Back down the slope the top deck of the dahabiya is an acre of glowing, polished wood. Agatha and Monsieur Poirot sit in the shadows but we have eyes only for the Nile and Ramdan’s felucca anchored next door. So, we go. We jump the gunwales, duck under the canvas ‘tent’, and sprawl on the mattresses just a few feet above the water. Khalid, a Bedouin, desert born and raised, has never seen the Nile, or any river. The Nile is the only one in Egypt. He’s never seen a felucca or ridden the wind across water in one. We know the look. He’s hooked on the spot.  

We spent ten days like this with Ramdan on another felucca, ‘Rendez-vous’, almost 2 years ago. But, this one is Ramdan’s, not rented, and it will be his future, and the family’s. His father, grandfather, uncles and ‘the cousins’ hand stitched thick cotton cloth into the two immense triangular sails that define the graceful felucca beauty. It was night work, out of the scorch of Egypt’s summer sun. Ramdan called us several times and panned his phone to show them squatting and sewing on the cloth. Dad waved to MisterBob, of course. 

The felucca has no name yet. None of our suggestions take hold. Ramdan wants ‘something with a story I can tell’. He suggests ‘Five Friends’, and that feels just right. There’s a story there, and we’re part of it, 3 of the five friends, plus Ramdan to make 4, and our friend Renate who could not join us this time, to make 5. So be it.

The sails catch the winds from the north and push us south against the current carrying the power of the river’s drop from thousands of meters up in the highlands of Ethiopia thousands of miles to the south. Ramdan works the rudder with his feet and turns us into a long tack into the wind and across the river. We are silent. The Nile grants us passage. It whispers of memories and promises. 

The felucca and Nile are all Ramdan asks of his world. We understand.

2020-10-23   RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

“I am Nubian.”

And glamorous. Egir billows up the stairs to the deck of the dahabiya, all floating clouds of color, wispy over her tight bodysuit, perfect setting for her mahogany face, lights eyes, and gold earrings, big as tiaras. The lady knows how to make an entrance. I check the deck. Nope, the cousins did not deliver a red carpet while we slept. 

We never quite figure out how she winds up here, other than she is a friend of Abdu’s…like half of Egypt. She’s in Aswan for a “photo shoot”, no details. Overnight train and 600 miles for a photo? When her ‘photographer’ arrives it clicks. Think a younger George Clooney, tawny, trim in tight jeans…and on deck. I wonder what the local women think of these dazzling apparitions, two of their own, but so different. We never find out. We’re caught up in the wedding, curiosity about the bride trumping the Diva.

Ramdan does not know his wife-to-be, though he has met her. “I will be on felucca. It is my job. My wife does not take care of me. I want wife to take care of my mother and father in house, not me. My mother find a girl she like. She is a cousin (and he laughs), but not close. I don’t know her. Her name is Fatima.” Young people here have little or no experience with the opposite sex. Elfie tells him he must be kind and patient with his wife on their wedding night. “Yes” he says,”my mother told me.”.

Ramdan is frazzled. The three night ‘wedding party’ starts two nights from now. This is all new to him. He’s the eldest of four brothers and their baby sister. He and the next brother, Mansoor, are the first to marry. The wedding was supposed to be next year, when the new couples could move into their own houses. Ramdan still needs to paint, and tile the floor, in his. The family has pushed the weddings up a year “for my father. You understand? We do two together. Cheaper.” Dad has serous effects of ‘sugar’. He is bouncy and spry, and looks about my age. But, I could be his father. So, Dad will see his two eldest sons get married this year, and if biology cooperates, a brace of grandkids in the next. They picked these specific days at the end of October when we told Ramdan we were coming to Egypt. They want us here for the weddings. 

The double wedding will save money, but it’s still a big expense for him and his family: three all- night parties, food? ( they’ll buy and butcher a cow), plus make-up, photos, culminating in an all night dance party on the third night with lights, music, DJ. “ Maybe a thousand people. Everyone in village, maybe more”. 

The three of us have prepared a monetary wedding gift for him, and know he can use it now. His eyes tear up, and he hugs us, his “thank you” soft, deep and real. But he is still frazzled. 

We leave him to his tasks, retreat to the decks of the dahabiya and the felucca, and the quiet of the river. Khalid brings us tea, delivered with his smile and question: “Mia mia?” OK? Very.

The others go below to sleep in the staterooms. I lay out a thick mattress, pillows and blankets on the deck, and crawl in, suspended between the stars above and the Nile below. 

Across the river, a mule brays its harsh song into the night. 

The night has sung to us before. A few days ago on our last night in the desert before coming to the river….

Abdu’s hunting buddies set up camp on a high dune, and build a fire, no rival to the one in the sky.  The night takes hold. Web lounge on mats. Khalid stirs the pigeons. 

Then the wolves begun to howl. 

We can’t see them, but they must be close. The guys leap up, shine lights towards the sound, hoping to catch a reflection from the eyes. Puppies add their yips, a few managing an octave lap into full howl. Then they all stop, and we hear no more from them. We return to the mats, and fire, but a bit of the wild stays with us. 

2020-10-25    RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

The Wedding Party Day 1 

“She’ll be smokin marijuana when she comes….

Ramdan lies on his back, arms and legs stretched out and wrapped in plastic bags. Black goo seeps from the bags. It’s henna. Friends have wrapped white tape in complex designs around his fingers, ties, soles and palms, hands and feet and left henna to do its magic. It will color the roman alphabet R on one palm, F, in the other. Ramdan and Fatima. ”He has to stay like that all night and not move” says Abdu. Then he leans in and whispers in Ramdan’s ear. 


The ear -spanning grin, giggles and whoops hint this is raunchy guy-advice from the thrice married best friend of the groom. Across the courtyard and surrounded by women, Fatima lies flat, too, wrapped, dyed, and coddled, prepared for married life by giggles, shrieks, and whoops. We are banned, from the women’s party, but Elfie is welcome —she is a woman—there and stays for a few hours, returning to the men’s side with all the details of the party on the other side of the walls. She joins us, welcomed by the men—she is a guest. 


Two am has come and gone. We are all still awake, and thriving. The kids are lining up to get henna-ed, ‘’for fun’’ says Abdu. Us, too, we say! Henna Guy tapes Elfie’s hand with a design like Ramadan’s paints, layers on the henna, then wraps her hand in plastic. He tries something different with me, piling henna into my palm, folding my fingers over it into a fist, then warps it all in plastic. Dennis passes. “Don’t wash it off in the sink. Wash it in the Nile” Now, we, too are immobilized.

The room is packed and still in serious party mode. The men dance, weave, sing, wail, laugh, And drink.

And smoke. Noses don’t lie, but… Surely not THAT…Here in a Moslem country? Then the tall, handsome village troubadour sets the rhythm with his tambourine and starts a song we know, in English. The lady starts out coming round that mountain, but by the time she gets to Ramdan’s wedding party  “She’ll be smokin marijuana when she comes….” Indeed.

We do manage the walk back down to the river about 3am and sleep very well. Indeed.

Only two more nights to go. 

2020-10-26    RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

The Wedding Party Day 2

Wheeeeeeeeeee!”

We slam right, into the car door, shoulders digging into metal, then left, muscle and bone slamming into bone and muscle, then back again. Desert Cowboy Abdu, in whirling ‘round em up and head em out mode’, cops a wheelie into a tight turn, 360 degrees then back again, spaghettiing all over the road, then back again, his arms a blur on the steering wheel. We know this manic assault on desert dunes, and have whooped with him up and down the slopes of the empty Great Sand Sea. But, we are on the main road through the city of Aswan. And it’s filled with other cars— including the ones with the grooms, brides, and their families, cousins stacked and stuffed– doing the same, spinning around one another, up over the curb, backwards, forwards, sideways. 

I’m in the front seat, expecting death. 

No problem”, grins Abdu, looking my way aa the car hurtles that way. “This is wedding!”. Right. I’m seeing the film about us: ‘Two Weddings and a Funeral’….

The night began quietly hours ago in the photo studio in town. Ramdan and Mansour are in suit and tie, coiffed, made up, eyes lined, a subtle glint of glitter washed over their glowing dark faces.  Mansour is more comfortable and convincing in this, his professional drag (he works in a hotel, so is used to this get up). Ramdan puts up with it. They’re good-looking guys, would look even better in galabeya and head dress. But, weddings à la mode mean weddings à la western mode. The brides are glorious. Fatima is wrapped in red silk. Mansour’s bride is in a spectacular silver creation draped over a hoop big enough to câche the flotilla of younger sisters and cousins in attendance. We never do learn her name, but Elfie dubs her ‘Maria Theresa’, as in the Empress. It fits the dress. 

The photo shoot of the couples is staged by the young photographer. À la western mode. The bride and groom— who barely know one another— look dreamy and captivated by the stranger they are holding hands with. These photos don’t record a real present, but a hopeful future. We’re happy to be in them, even though by our standards we are under dressed…. but welcomed and honored nonetheless. There are no bridezillas here. No one is an outsider. We are just family. 

We finally meet Fatima, who is sweet and pretty, and not at all non-plussed by the 3 western apparitions in her wedding photos.  She has a wide grin like Ramdan’s. Mama has done well by her son. 

Everyone piles into the fleet of cars, even Maria Theresa and her cousin-hiding hoop, for the drive to a park by the Nile for more photo-ops. The drivers rev up the horns and speakers, announcing their intent to defy the laws of physics, and inviting one and all to join in the mayhem. Many do, especially a bunch of kids weaving around us on three-wheel tuk-tuks, waving, not guiding, eyes anywhere but on the road.

They, and we, all survive the drive. 

And, yes, we washed the henna off in the Nile,. Elfie did it when she got back to the boat after the party last night. I slept on it. Her hand is tattooed in lace, pretty, delicate, and red . Mine festers in zombie make-up ebony. “You left it too long. It will go away…maybe”. And Abdu grins.

Only one more night to go. 

2020-10-27   RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

The Wedding Party Day 3

Bob Marley whirls by, eyes glazed. He grabs my hands and sucks me into the ear-numbing rhythm of the music and the crowd. We dance. It’s 2 am. Three hours into his marathon dance, he spins still through the crowd dreadlocks flat out from the spin.

Months ago Ramdan video called me. “We signed the marriage contract. I am getinig married. You will come.”

And, so we came.

That signing was a legal thing, small, quiet, private, between families. Now it is time for the people of Kampaniya to welcome the marriage, embrace it, weave it into the life of the village. 

It is taking three days, one for Ramdan’s friends to mark him as married, one to help the future to remember the day, and now the last day, one for the village to seal the deal.

Now, on day three, there are big doings up in the village. It’s too far to hear down here on the river, but we know. Everyone is up there except for a splash of younger cousins in the Nile, and Khalid and his tea. Ahmed, already a handsome sprite of 8, and two burlier cousins rig up a ‘mini felucca’ using a derelict small skiff to ride just above the water and odd pieces of cloth to catch the wind. They sail Elfie off across the Nile, a fluttery blip on the blue, and then back. It’s not Cleo’s gold barge of Roman—and cinema– memory, but it’s anchored just as strongly in ours.

We’re due up in the village about 10 or 11 tonight, “maybe finish at 3 or 4 in morning”. Three am is a long way off. We nap. 

Then, it’s time. 

On Day One, Abdu approved Dennis’ simple deep blue galabeya as wedding garb, but vetoed my scruffy green one. He dropped his own elegant embroidered gray one over my head. It’s a perfect fit top to bottom, a bit tight across my shoulders, but sooo elegant. His Bedouin headscarf is one size fits all. He wrapped it around my head and tied it into elaborate swirls, stepped back, flashed a thumbs up. Tonight, I tie my own head scarf “Good”, says Khalid. Then he whisks it off and reties it. “Very Good”. 

There aren’t many Bedouin headscarves in the crowd, just hundreds of men in white galabeyas dancing. Egyptian men have the moves shaking their shoulders, and undulating their hips. For hours. Elfie is the only adult female. Ramdan’s father takes her hands and dances with her, his grin as wide as his son’s. ‘Bob Marley’ grabs me and we whirl through the crowd under the waves of his huge Marley ‘scarf’, table cloth size for a banquet table. 

We’ve been dancing since midnight, taking breaks on mats and leaning against the wall of the village square to rest. The singer has been singing for three hours, straight. The fireworks explode over Ramdan and his brother, high on the shoulders of their friends. ‘High’ seems to be an operative word here. 

Then, at 3:15, it all stops. The singer wraps up his gig, robes flow out of the square. Abdu grabs me. “We leave at 12 for Cairo. It’s only about 10 hours to drive.” He’ll have about three hours sleep. “No problem”…and there is that rumbling laugh. We believe him. 

2020-10-28   TO CAIRO

Four hours later we are up. By 11 we visit Ramdan and his wife in their new house, lent to the couple by Ramdan’s uncle until his son gets married. Ramdan introduces us to Fatima. She smiles, shakes our hands and rejoins her mother in the kitchen. “Fatima’s family will make the kitchen. I do this…” and he points to a new washing machine and new refrigerator. We sit on spanking new and lovely padded furniture, probably the very first people to do so. Fatima and her mother serve us cake and drinks, surely a first for them. Ramdan and Fatima  can have visitors, but they can’t leave the house for a week or “the village will think the marriage is not good”.  There’s probably another time-tested reason. Time will tell. In about 9 months.

Ramdan hugs us, and stops at the door as we pass through it to the car. He waves, now a married man with a wife, mother-in-law, and house, a new man saying goodbye to old friends.

Khalid also stays behind. He will take the bus back across the desert to Bahariya. He laughs that now that he has seen the Nile at Aswan he has to change his name to Khalid Aswani, Khalid from Aswan! Next year is his wedding. Who knows, maybe we’ll be back for that.

The trip to Cairo is slow because there are police checkpoints along the obvious road, tarmac and smooth concrete all the way up the Nile. Abdu laughs. “I know how to go”. Abdu’s way involves bumping through villages, snorting over gravel, a lot of sand, and the occasional camel. Close to midnight Cairo sucks us in. Abdu is still perky. We are not. Plans have formed to go with him to the far southwest of Egypt as soon as it opens again, to Sinai in the northeast, and to the far southeast to the border with Sudan and the best beaches on the Red Sea. He’s off in the morning back across the width of Egypt to Siwa to visit with Hassan’s family. He couldn’t get there for the funeral, but now is OK, too. We hold him close as we say goodbye, but only for now.

Dahab Hostel sprawls across the roof, way above the streets. If there is traffic we don’t hear it. Sleep is a knockout punch.

2020-10-29 AND 2020-10-30   CAIRO

We share the roof with trees, flowers, a posse of cats and kittens, and no other guests. Elfie and I do a walkabout while Dennis sleeps. Trees shield some of the streets from the sun in this part of Cairo, near the Museum. The Nile is right there. Even walled in and bridged it’s the river of the desert, feluccas, village life. 

We will be back.

EGYPT

OCTOBER 10 – OCTOBER 30, 2020

%name Travel Blog

2020-10-08   FAYOUM, EGYPT

We lean, then bang hard thirty degrees to the right as the dune grabs the left wheels of the car and wrenches us up off the flat. It has been 4 hours since Ramdan wrapped us in Egyptian welcome at Cairo Airport Arrivals, one hour after we finally left the sprawling lights of Cairo behind us. We are in the desert, off-road, deep into the tunnel of our headlights through night. Then we tilt, level. And stop. Below is sand, above, only stars. The dark in between is all around us. A headscarf, dark face, white smile, lead us across the sand, through a small door. The sand floor and reed walls are covered with rag rugs. The bed is narrow, but big enough to carry fatigue.

2020-10-09   FAYOUM TO MARSA MATROUH

We wake in Egypt. Our hut is high above the desert on the edge of a worn escarpment. Behind us is a wall of rock. In front there is sky, then a drop straight down to sand and rocks, pebbles from this height. Towards the sun is a lake, fresh water, and largest in Egypt, trivialized by distance. The air is cool, not yet wrenched from the night by the rising sun. 

We are in Egypt for Ramdan’s three-day ‘wedding party’ in two weeks. Until then we spend most of the time in the desert before we turn east and south to his village on the Nile. Ramdan has arranged it all with his best friend, Abdul. “Egyptian price. You not worry anything, car, hotel, food, nothing. You don’t need any money.” The ‘Egyptian price’ is a fraction of what we would pay, even at our ‘bottom of the food chain’ travel style.

There are a dozen other huts and cabins here, of reeds, like ours, or stone, or adobe, and holding onto this ledge. Our neighbors are friendly refugees from the noise and light of Cairo. Some are camping, and invite us to share breakfast. Our driver and Ramdan are calling from across the sand, so we thank our would be hosts and join two international families in the shade over low tables, pillows and rugs. The husbands are Egyptian, the wives European, and Bangladeshi, the kids, just kids, precocious, and fluent in unaccented English. We haven’t seen any face masks since Cairo airport, and there are none here. Corona comes up, then, as usual “What has happened to your country?” We have no answer.

The talk turns to the Nile. We talk up Ramdan’s felucca trips then pull out our first surprise gift for our friend. “Here, these will help.” And drop 250 business cards that match the 4×6 foot banner he knows we have for him. The grin is as wide as the stretch of arms he wraps around us. Then we pull out the banner and matching tee shirt. 

Abdu is a genius on the road. We fly north and west. By nightfall we have travelled hundreds of kilometers and break the long drive in Marsa Matrouh, Egypt’s ‘riviera’, miles of beach and condos along the Mediterranean. My memory of Matrouh from our first pass through in 2011 doesn’t include any of this. I remember dust, and grilled fish, a small shop where I replaced my dust-destroyed sedate black camera for a cheap tarty one in lurid pink. There’s not much here in this 2020 Matrouh for us desert-seekers, but we thank the hot shower profusely, and the many-colored waters of the bay are beautiful.

At night, Abdu takes us to visit a friend—he and Ramdan know, or are ‘cousin’ to, everyone in Egypt. Friend’s Waterfall Park, actually has one, falling over an ambitious mural, and a cage with ostriches and gazelles. ‘Nuff said.

2020-10-10   MARSA MATROUH TO SIWA

We’ve been laughing for two days. 

Old friends, Abdul and Ramdan are a comic duo. Abdul is a Bedouin, desert man, from Bahariyah (“two palm trees and one goat”, says Ramdam.) Ramdan is a Nubian from the Nile (“one crocodile, some water” is Abdul’s dismissal) and they laugh, slap palms, and hug. And us, when Box Number Two of business cards arrives.

Not much gets between Egyptians and a good time. Not even hours of driving across this uninspired landscape. This part of Egypt is not pretty. The coast road is too far from the Mediterranean to catch any of that blue. The landscape is bleached grey by the sun, and flat. We drive for hours, but don’t seem to move. The view is the same. Inside, Ramdan reminds Abdu that even just two palm trees would be welcome relief, and we drink water. We turn southwest towards the oasis of Siwa and the Great Sand Sea, into the Egypt and desert of imagination and memory.

Its dark when we bump over baby dunes into Hassan’s camp outside of Siwa. He has a spring, so water, and dates, comfortable adobe houses that will thwart tomorrow’s sun. Hassan welcomes us with tea. He is a warm, smiling, articulate host. We are ‘home’ at once. Out beyond the date palms, he builds a fire We lounge on cushions spread on adobe coerced into a continuous ring-divan circling the fire. It doesn’t rival the stars, but holds off a bit of the dark. Around us is silence. 

2020-10-11   SIWA OASIS

Not everything that goes ‘Bump’ is in the night….

At 6:12 am. I step over the last thin black hose that carries water from the well way behind me at Hassan’s camp to the last row of young date palms, and step into the Great Sand Sea. It rolls in waves of dunes for hundreds of miles south to the next great oasis and west, a great tsunami sweeping across the artificial line separating Egypt from Libya, and onward. We will sail on it and around it in our Toyota 4by4s for the next 10 days. We will sleep some nights under its stars.

I walk now, up a gentle slope, into the true desert.

The light is soft, the air cool. The sun is still below the horizon, firing the sky red then orange, then yellow. Then claiming the sky, white hot, photons scattering the cool. Sunrise and sunset don’t linger in in the desert. Dawn erupts. Dusk plunges. In between there is heat and light, and strong shadows. At noon, in the glare, the thermometer races upwards, nibbling at, then leaving that upstart, 100, behind. The noon sun is voracious. Even then, there is always a breeze, and in the shade at noon we are comfortable. And now, just after dawn, the air is perfect.

I return to camp, strip and climb over the wall to sink into Hassan’s spring. It’s just right, my private Goldilock’s Zone. We are the only visitors here, among the few in Egypt. Unrest and Corona have stripped Egypt from travel itineraries. Hassan’s camp suffers, but Hassan is a realistic optimist. We have learned his mantra: ‘today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow’. 

Today is for harvesting dates. His palms are young, the dates hanging low to the ground. Boys shake them onto canvas, then full hands pour them into rough baskets. Some make it to our breakfast table, but don’t last long. 

Box Number Three of Captain Ramdan business cards is dessert.

By late afternoon we are surfing the sand waves of the Great Sand Sea. Abdu and our 4×4 Toyota surfboard are fearless, and airborne. We crest the dunes, then stop, then plunge, thirty degrees, forty five, sixty, “oh sh*t”, down, down, down. How is underwear?” says Abdu, wrenching the car sideways, then up another wall of sand to stop, teeter, then drop.

He leaves us at the top of the highest dune yet, drives down ahead. Elfie follows down the slope. She’s a tiny drop, way below. I start down.

Then I fall down the dune and land on my head.

2020-10-12   SIWA OASIS

Elfie says she heard the loud thud even from way down at the bottom of the dune. My forehead is sandpapered, and a bit oozy. My left arm, shoulder, and hip twinge a bit, but I am fine. One of my rites of passage in the dunes is to scope out just the right slope, lie down, wrap my arms and roll down until the dune flattens and I bump to a stop. Yesterday’s ugly duckling swan dive will have to count.

Abdu, Ramdan, and Khalid, our cook, set up camp last night in the dunes, then a fire, and dinner. The desert is silent and cool. The mats and sleeping bags are enough to keep us warm. The endless stars hypnotize me to sleep.

The sun doesn’t just rise over the desert. It claims it. Even if it has to obey the laws of the universe and dance to the harmony of the spheres, here it reigns supreme, its power distilled in every grain of sand. It wills us awake .

Siwa is the most isolated of Egypt’s 5 oases, 800 flat and dusty kilometers west of Cairo. That distance did not stop Alexander the Great from crossing the desert 2300 years ago to listen to an oracle confirm that yes, he was the son of the god Zeus. That temple still stands, even the tubes that carried the booming ‘voice of the oracle’ from the hidden priest to the willing, hopeful ears of the man who conquered the known world of his time, and still needed reassurance. 

The heart of Siwa is the great hill of Shali, pile upon pile of nested, folded, collapsed adobe houses. It has deteriorated since our trips here in 2011 and 2015, and we can’t climb over the rubble for the view over the oasis. Down on the flat, the town looks much the same. There may be a few more trucks but the streets still belong to the donkey carts, motorcycles, and three wheeled putt-putters. Fully covered women, heaps of black, ride in the backs of the putt-putts, or on the backs of donkeys. Their young daughters wear backpacks and sneakers, but not for long in this deeply conservative town.

We find our friend Fahmi’s garden, but it is locked up and neighbors don’t know where he is. We’re sorry to miss him. We have been in contact since we ate in his garden 9 years ago. 

Siwa is an oasis: water, palms, people. Note: to Egyptians if there are no people, it isn’t an oasis, but something else, usually a ‘spring’. Siwa has a lot of water, most ‘sweet’, some salt. At Salt Lake the sun drives the water away and leaves vast plains of pure salt. I taste it. 

Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel is both ‘very Siwa’ and very much a desert paradise, adobe draped with bougainevillea . We are the only guests to wander its cool courtyards and gardens. 

Box Number 4 of business cards hasn’t dulled Ramdan’s reaction.

2020-10-13   SIWA BACK TO FAYOUM AND TUNIS

The great diagonal route from Siwa southeast across the dunes to Abdu’s home in the next oasis is semi-closed to traffic. The 28 checkpoints and the miasma of Egyptian bureaucracy defeat even Abdu’s fount of optimism. Bahariya oasis and Abdu’s camp are now very, very far, three times as far. We will have to go the long way, first back east, then south, and break the trip in Fayoum, near where we started a few days ago. Thats 800 kilometers away through flat, pebbly nothingness. We did the dune route in 2011 so know we are missing a repeat of one of the planet’s great adventures. But we have Ramdan, Abdu and Khalid and laugh the heat- flattened, unresponsive landscape into irrelevance.


Cook Khalid, is tiny and looks 14 (OK, maybe 17), and is shy and quiet. At first. He turns out to be 24, and neither. He is always smiling, and knows exactly when we need a cup of tea after we land at camp or wake up in the morning, pouring it from two feet above the small glass so it foams, as it should. We have it tonight before, after, and with spaghetti when we break those 800 kilometers in the garden of Sarah’s traditional house in the Fayoum town of Tunis. 


Sarah is German, and addicted to rural Egypt. She grows her own food, and rents two rooms in the house. Old friend Abdu brings guests, a win-win all around. Our room has a traditional domed ceiling with scattered holes for ventilation. At night stars peek in. Once again, Abdu and Ramdan have unpacked an Egypt that makes this, our fifth stay, new and wondrous.

2020-10-14   FAYOUM TO BAHARIYAH OASIS

We visit an ancestor. 

It’s our son’s birthday. There is no internet — hasn’t been for many days– but we piggy back on Ramdan’s hotspot to croak ‘Happy Birthday’ up into the Internet and down to Ethiopia.

Sarah’s house is on the edge of Tunis, not the one in Tunisia, but this one, here in Egypt, deep in the Fayoum. Tunisians are potters, magicians of clay. Their workshops string along the narrow street of the village. Abdu has a friend — of course — and friend has a workshop. We watch his young apprentices practice making wide-mouthed jars/vases/pitchers, dragging lumps of clay upwards and outwards into graceful, solid shapes. The clay, gift of the Nile, and delivered an alluvial brown, is transformed by hands, fire and glazes. The small hand painted tiles are tempting, might even still keep us under our 7kilo limit on baggage, but we are in ‘divest mode’, simplifying things. The tiles stay in Tunis. We have tea, watch the boys do their magic, then leave Tunis for the desert. 

The Fayoum is the bottom of the long-gone Tethys Sea. Ancestors of Moby Dick, and their huge cousins, swam here. Earliest known ancestors of monkeys, apes — and us — may have watched from the trees along the shore. That was 33 million years ago, but their bones remain, huge lengths of spine, with ribs and fearsome teeth, true sea creatures, front limbs already fins, no longer useful for walking. Our ancestor, Aegyptoplthecus (‘Egyptian Ape), is a tiny face, not even a nibble for the teeth of those whale cousins, but a face nevertheless, with the wide eye sockets of our branch of the tree of life. They all lived here when this was wet and lush, one the apex of life in the sea, the other a delicate start of something new in the trees. Descendants of the tiny have almost destroyed all the descendants of the mighty. 

We visit in the sand and dry wind. And wonder. An almost invisible lifeless chunk of DNA has brought much of human life to a standstill. What comes next? 

We continue south through epic dunes, cliffs, plateaus, mesas, monoliths, geology sculpted by wind, sun, and the soft, insistent, kiss of abrading sand. The landscape is time-less and time-full. 

It’s dark when we pull into Abdu’s camp, home for the next three nights before our expedition into the White Desert. 

2020-10-15 AND 2020-10-16   ABDU’S CAMP IN BAHARIYAH OASIS

Abdu’s camp, aka El Haez Lodge Wellness Retreat, is 40 kilometers from Bahariya, the heart of the oasis, isolated and totally quiet. Our rooms are large and high, thick walled against the sun, so cool. The sky is so clear, town lights so far away, that an astronomer friend of Abdul’s has a small observatory here and brings sky-folk to gaze. Orion stares back.

We laze, off the road, and on the terrace. In the shade, the 100 plus temperature is comfortable. The air is so sucked of moisture that even here in the shade laundry snaps dry in a few hours. Inside, fresh dates shine reddish, then slide smoothely over our tongues, sexy alone, or with fresh cream cheese, or Khalid’s tea…or both. 

It takes work to get them from palm to tongue.

The harvest is men’s work. The lucky men shake them from the low palms. The others are aerialists, suspended against the blue sky. We watch an expert climb the trunk, stop, brace his feet against the trunk, hold on with one hand and saw off the date plumes with the other. The women sort the fallen dates, by feel as much as sight, some for market, some for storage, some for fodder. We see some doing it by twilight, sitting in a circle, chatting, their fingers fast. They wave, nod, smile. Every date we eat has been touched by such hands. 

The days slide smoothely in the quiet, blue sky above, yellow sand below, green date palms between, then tea, another of Khalid’s meals, more tea. And always… laughs. And the last box of 250 name cards. We have more surprises for Ramdan to come.

Abdul has a plan. We’re on the flight path for migrating pigeons headed for Europe. Some get only as far as Abdul’s ice chest, headed for stew tomorrow night in the White Desert.

2020-10-17   BAHARIYA TO WHITE DESERT

6000 cigarettes!

We are off-off-off road and in two 4x4s for insurance, heading south from the camp and towards the White Desert. There are tire tracks in the yellow sand and crackled, parched surface and not much else. Abdul whoops, speeds up, slides to a stop, jumps out, bends down and up, waving a pink box. “Cigarettes!” Ramdan and Khalid, puffers all, add their whoops, and high 5. Ten packs might get the three of them through a few days. The ciggies are Libyan smokes, probably dropped by smugglers, illegal in Egypt — and not as good as the Egyptian Marlboros and L&Ms the guys prefer — but the price is right, and the story is good. 

We drive on. Abdul is a Desert Cowboy, spinning off track on a whim. But he spots another spot of pink straight ahead and stays on course, stops, corrals it, and hops back in. By the third carton Abdu doesn’t bother to stop, just slows down, opens the door, leans out, one hand on the wheel, and scoops it up and in. Four and five follow. LIke ET following the trail of Reese’s Pieces, we’re hooked, sucked along the trail. Then, there is a pile, then a bigger one. This deserves a full stop, and two hands. We all get out, fill our arms, stuff the car with our contraband swag. The last trove is a heap spilling out of a burst plastic bag and bringing our total to 60 cartons, 6000 cigarettes, 5900 illegal Libyans, and 100 legal (“not so good”) in a different package, Egyptian, and inevitably, draped with the letters CLEOPATRA, and the expected images. 

We guess that the 6,000 started out tied to the top of a 4×4 and bounced off, unnoticed. Abdul is sympathetic. Our find will be a big loss to the smugglers. “Smugglers here don’t do it to get rich. They do it to get by”. There are no check points out here. The smugglers know their stuff. So does Abdul. Our back up vehicle will be with us while we are in the White Desert, then take our loot back to Abdul’s camp. Cleo, and only Cleo, may come with us. That will save us having to explain 5900 contraband Libyan cigarettes to some bored check point guy in the Back of Nowhere.

We have been here before, twice, in the White Desert, but Abdul finds a route new to us. It’s no misnomer, or exaggeration, this whiteness. It’s total, chalky, laid down at the bottom of the ancient sea, now sculpted by wind, whipped, frothed, into monoliths, towers, ‘Hen and Egg’, ‘The Camel’, ‘Rabbit ‘, The Valley of Tables’, all searing white. They rear from a flat, rocky, more solid, less imaginative ex-seabed dappled with white fossil shells, and black fossil seaweed. I found a fossil shark’s tooth here on our first trip, a small thing now on a string in Florida. 

Abdul picks a campsite amidst a fantasy of white shapes, at the base of a narrow monolith scores of meters tall. It grabs the colors of the late afternoon sooner than the others, but soon they, too, turn soft cream then yellow, richer as the sun sinks, then suddenly orange, then deeper colors silhouetted against brighter ones in the sky. We eat Khalid’s pigeon stew by firelight, roll into our sleeping bags. Around us the light of stars and the sliver moon have bleached the desert’s shapes. 

We sleep amidst ghosts.

2020-10-18   WHITE DESERT

The tire is flat.

No problem. We have everything we need to fix it. The jack? Oops. Forgot to stow it. Sh*t. Not funny anywhere. In the desert less so. It’s hot. There is no shade. Where is a camel, desert back-up of choice, when you need one? The other Toyota rolls in, lacking a bit of camel charm, but sporting a jack. We don’t complain.

Our second campsite in the White Desert is popular. There are tracks all around. Some we recognize. The tiny paw prints of the big-eared desert foxes are easy. The complex braided designs in continuous loopy sine waves are a mystery until we spot a tiny dung beetle scurry out of our way, all those legs frantic. There are bigger paw tracks. We haven’t seen any dogs in the desert or anywhere where there are no people. “Wolf”, says Abdul. 

The fire holds us close. We spread around it on the mattresses. Ramdan throws a light blanket over me….

I wake up. It’s pitch black. My nose is cold. I’m flat on my back, and warm. And a camel is sitting on me.

2020-10-19   WHITE DESERT TO DAHKLA OASIS

Well, not a whole camel, just some weight, and a whiff.

Not that ‘days in the desert special pong’ (that’s probably me) but that fresh from Ahmed’s Star of the Oasis Walk Through Scrub and Fluff (One Hump or Two, I’ve Got A Deal for You) Weekend Special, With Desert Rose Rinse. My ‘camel’ is a goodly bunch of what used to be camel outside, shaved, and woven into a heavy, heavy, warm blanket pinning me to my mat and the sand. I’m too comfortable to mind. And it doesn’t eat much.

Orion is straight up. I’ve never had the imagination to flatten the cosmos and make those fanciful star pictures. My mind goes all 3-dimensional, exhilarated, then numbed, by the size of it all and those distances. I’ll give the imaginative ancestors Orion, though. Him I recognize.. And, the Milky Way. And right now it feels like me and my camel are the only things in it. Well, us and the wolf. Morphius takes care of him. 

Morning is brilliant. The ghosts of the White Desert grow substantial, then solid, then white, then stark against the blue sky. Abdul has promised us ‘sand bread’. Yesterday we gathered the dry contorted branches of a desert shrub that burns very hot. This morning he heaps it and lights it while we drink Khalid’s tea. Abdul makes a dough, then flattens and pounds it — to drive out the air — into a large round. The shrub is hot ash. He clears it away, digs a flat hole in the hot sand, spreads the dough, then covers it with more hot sand. Fifteen minutes later he brushes off the sand (it doesn’t stick), slices pie wedges and sits back to watch. It’s delicious. 

We leave the White Desert for the next oasis, Dahkla. Abdul has a stop planned. ”He has 3 wives and 34 children” . I think all 38 of them welcome us to sit with them in their courtyard. The patriarch is a handsome man with a flamboyant mustache and panâche to spare. His profile belongs on coins. Abdul gets corrected “34?” “Only 21. The rest are my grandchildren. I don’t remember all their names.” They climb all over him anyway. Two run up and down the courtyard pushing a toy made from a tree branch and 2 lopsided wheels, one a tuna can, the other a bigger plastic lid. They’re not Toyotas but they raise dust, and make noise, essential little boy requirements. 

Four of the sons (2 from each of 2 wives, late teens through late twenties, are spectacularly handsome. The 17-year old hugs one of the girls and holds up two fingers close together. Twin? Sister? And equally gorgeous. (Papa’s genes are strong.) She is tall, graceful, and looks us square in the eye. The other wives and daughters-in-law are more shy, but shake our hands and smile. The wives are probably younger than they look. The youngest looks about 40. She is still beautiful, her startling light eyes and face framed by her black headscarf. Two of the handsome boys are hers. (Papa’s genes had some help here.) 

Google translate keeps the conversation going, tea lubricates it. Older brother is proud of the array of solar panels that keep the house powered. I hope it runs a washing machine. The clotheslines stretch way across the courtyard. 

We reach our digs, outside the town of Dahkla Oasis, and surrounded by fields just in time to see the house in afternoon light. The owner is another of Abdu’s strategically placed friends, dotted off-road across Egypt. It’s a thickly textured, harmonious update of an oasis house using traditional materials, great imagination, and the common sense distilled by generations of desert life. Thick adobe walls, high ceilings, tile floors, and narrow windows with shutters keep the heat at bay. The rest is woven rugs, reeds, palm rib and wooden furniture, and the thick pillows that keep head, butt, and back comfy on the floor or hard-angled traditional benches. The colors bring the desert, sky, date palms inside. The shower is sun-heated and cool/warm. The beds are vast, soft plateaus, with room for us and processed camel. We make do with cotton. 

 2020-10-20   DAHKLA OASIS 

Dahkla Oasis is huge. Like Siwa, and Bahariya, it spreads out as far as the underground water wells up, naturally, or with help. The water has succored people for millennia. 

El Kasr, the ancient core of the oasis still stands, abandoned, but only recently. Its last inhabitant left just a few years ago. She was over 90 and wanted nothing to do with the new digs the government had planned for her. Our guide remembers her sitting in her doorway and inviting the rare visitors to share her tea. We accept in her memory. Inside we wander through narrow alleys and tight rooms, dark, linked, stacked several stories up to flat rooftops. There is no one pressing olives into oil, but the wooden corkscrew in the press still turns, and the woven mats that caught the oil are flexible. There could be life here still, and the living might maintain the crumbling walls. The government has decreed elsewise. El Kasr will tumble as the Shali of Siwa has. That old lady remembers home. Future visitors will see only rubble.

Pigeons tonight. In the dunes.” Abdu’s hunting buddies set up camp, build a fire, no rival to the one in the sky.  The night takes hold. Web lounge on mats. Khalid stirs the pigeons. 

Then the wolves begun to howl. We can’t see them, but they must be close. The guys leap up, shine lights towards the sound, hoping to catch a reflection from the eyes. Puppies add their yips, a few managing an octave lap into full howl. Then they all stop, and we hear no more from them. We return to the mats, and fire, but a bit of the wild stays with us. 

What can follow that? Abdu manages.

He has BIG news. His friend the astronomer tells him that tomorrow at sunrise, the rising sun will penetrate directly through the narrow door into the inner sanctum of the great monument at Abu Simbel. It happens only twice a year, as it has for 3200 years. And tomorrow we can be there. At 05:30. If we skip Kharga oasis, drive many hundreds of kilometers straight to Aswan, and Kopaniya, Ramdan’s village, dump our stuff, and catch a late night convoy south to Abu Simbel. We’ve all been to Kharga, so can skip it. We’ve all been to Abu Simbel, too, but this we will not skip.

 2020-10-21   ABU SIMBEL

In his village edging into the desert on the west and overlooking the Nile on the east, friend Ramdan has our week here leading up to his three-day ‘wedding party’ all worked out. We’ll do the Agatha Christie ‘Death on the Nile’ thing and stay on one of the great 19th century dahabiyas that sailed Hercule Poirot and Company into murderous mayhem. Ours is a reproduction, of course, but accurate in the details… murders optional. It moves only by the push of the wind against its huge sails. But not now. There are no tourists, so the owner has furled the sails and anchored it at the foot of the hill Ramdan’s village sits on. The care taker is — of course — a Ramdan relative. It’s ours for as long as we want it. But, first we have to get there. Down the hill. In the dark. 

A horde of cousins disappear with our bags. We have headlights casting small puddles of light for our feet. We follow Ramdan’s from our car into the trees, over sand, through a field, past a growling mother dog and her yipping babies, then along the narrow ridge along an irrigation ditch, through more trees, over some pipes and wires, down a sudden slope, then down an even steeper slope, onto the sand and the shore of the Nile. The river laps below us as we cross the gangplank. We spread through the 5 double staterooms, each with a private bathroom, dump our stuff, head topside for Khalid’s tea and our view of the Nile. Ramdan’s felucca is moored alongside. That’s for tomorrow. 

Now, we wait for our convoy car to Abu Simbel, but that’s back up the hill, through the night and more puddles of light. Another batch of cousins lead us up a different path. There are no pipes to climb over, more sand, and broad paths, so this path is much easier. Maybe different hordes of cousins have different path-proprietary-rights?

I sleep most of the 4-hour drive to the very southern edge of Egypt. Sudan is just ‘over there’. We’ve been to Abu Simbel before, once from the north down Lake Nasser for 6-days on a tiny putt-putt, and once up from the south by 4×4 for two weeks across the desert of Sudan from Khartoum. It’s remote from either direction. It was far distant, far beyond imagining, for the ancient Egyptians, but here is where Ramses ll built his colossal temple with its 70-foot images of himself and arranged it so it would capture the sun twice a year. (Note: please never let Donald Trump see these statues.) Alone among all Egypt’s pharaohs Ramses built a temple to his beloved wife. He wrote of her death: The light has gone from my life. There was heart in that ego.

Abu Simbel, the morning, and the universe deliver as promised. The crowd is smaller than we expect, and Abu Simbel’s colossal figures of Pharaoh Ramses II, bigger than we remember, and enough reason to come. We see ‘the phenomenon’, just, over the heads of the more committed and decide it’s enough to trust that it happens. Those calculations 3200 years ago impress us. As do the imagination and calculations of the engineers in the 1960’s who rescued the temple from the rising waters of captured Lake Nasser, cut it into pieces, built a mountain for it, and reassembled it above the lick of waves, perfectly, to capture the sun as Ramses intended.

We wait. The sky lightens. There are no clouds to block the sun. It rises, brilliant, first on the 4 faces of Ramses. Then it finds the shaft to the images deep in the mountain, touches the central image, and moves on. It has no time for human hubris. The crowd applauds. I wonder what the people did 3200 years ago when they saw that fleeting patch of light. Most likely only priests saw it. Maybe everyone else trusted the universe, too, and didn’t have to see it to believe it happened.

We drive back north to Aswan, spread out in a comfy van. Ramdan has arranged all this: ”Egyptian price, not tourist price.” (Cousins are involved.) The driver would get no votes from Desert Cowboy Abdu. He pokes along at Half Abdu Speed, no wheelies, no off-road, no whoops, no thrills. Maybe itis because the Tourist Police have added a ‘guard’ to keep us safe. From what? He has no weapons, wears a suit, not a uniform, and is either asleep or running to a bathroom. “Diarrhea” says the guide included with the car. Otherwise, our guard doesn’t seem to give a sh……or so they tell me. I sleep most of the way back to Ramdan’s. And wake for Khalid’s tea.

2020-10-22   RAMDAN’S VILLAGE AND FELUCCA

MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob MisterBob

Husky Cousin Dougu makes the biggest splash, leading the cousins over the gunwales of the felucca, barreling through the air, and slicing down into the Nile, then hand over hand back up the rudder, for the next plunge. Tiny, sweet Ahmed barely makes a dent in the river, but it accepts him anyway. 

On land, still glistening with Nile drops, they lead us back up yet another path from the river. The mother dog and her puppies no longer acknowledge our passing with even a sniff or a yip. We cross the dusty road that connects rural Kopanniya to urban Aswan, 40 minutes drive south and across the river. From here the going is steep, but easy, through a twist of narrow lanes. The air is hotter than in the desert, thicker with moisture from the river. We sweat. Ramdan’s family compound is at the top of the hill, good to catch a breeze. 

And filled with family. They know us from our visit in 2018 and our video calls. Ramdan gets his rolling walk, charm, cinemascopic smile, and encyclopedic arms from his father. Dad calls “MisterBob, MisterBob, MisterBob” over and over, and then some more, and grabs me into those arms, with traditional air kisses, close at both cheeks. He patches together enough English words to remind me about his video call to America from the dim light of the night train to Cairo a few months ago. His laugh is like Ramdan’s too, deep, and filling his face. Then, Mama, the three younger brothers, baby sister, and a horde of cousins spring from the house and give it a go, with gusto. The universal little kids hello/hallo chorus morphs into chants of MisterBobMisterBobMisterBob.

The double weddings begin in 3 days There is more work to get everything in place than there is time to do it. That’s why Ramdan left us a few days ago in Dahkla and came home ahead of us. 

They make time for us. We sit on mats, drink tea, tear chunks of thick bread, and squeeze lemon over beans, beef stew, and fresh tomato salad. And laugh.

Back down the slope the top deck of the dahabiya is an acre of glowing, polished wood. Agatha and Monsieur Poirot sit in the shadows but we have eyes only for the Nile and Ramdan’s felucca anchored next door. So, we go. We jump the gunwales, duck under the canvas ‘tent’, and sprawl on the mattresses just a few feet above the water. Khalid, a Bedouin, desert born and raised, has never seen the Nile, or any river. The Nile is the only one in Egypt. He’s never seen a felucca or ridden the wind across water in one. We know the look. He’s hooked on the spot.  

We spent ten days like this with Ramdan on another felucca, ‘Rendez-vous’, almost 2 years ago. But, this one is Ramdan’s, not rented, and it will be his future, and the family’s. His father, grandfather, uncles and ‘the cousins’ hand stitched thick cotton cloth into the two immense triangular sails that define the graceful felucca beauty. It was night work, out of the scorch of Egypt’s summer sun. Ramdan called us several times and panned his phone to show them squatting and sewing on the cloth. Dad waved to MisterBob, of course. 

The felucca has no name yet. None of our suggestions take hold. Ramdan wants ‘something with a story I can tell’. He suggests ‘Five Friends’, and that feels just right. There’s a story there, and we’re part of it, 3 of the five friends, plus Ramdan to make 4, and our friend Renate who could not join us this time, to make 5. So be it.

The sails catch the winds from the north and push us south against the current carrying the power of the river’s drop from thousands of meters up in the highlands of Ethiopia thousands of miles to the south. Ramdan works the rudder with his feet and turns us into a long tack into the wind and across the river. We are silent. The Nile grants us passage. It whispers of memories and promises. 

The felucca and Nile are all Ramdan asks of his world. We understand.

2020-10-23   RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

“I am Nubian.”

And glamorous. Egir billows up the stairs to the deck of the dahabiya, all floating clouds of color, wispy over her tight bodysuit, perfect setting for her mahogany face, lights eyes, and gold earrings, big as tiaras. The lady knows how to make an entrance. I check the deck. Nope, the cousins did not deliver a red carpet while we slept. 

We never quite figure out how she winds up here, other than she is a friend of Abdu’s…like half of Egypt. She’s in Aswan for a “photo shoot”, no details. Overnight train and 600 miles for a photo? When her ‘photographer’ arrives it clicks. Think a younger George Clooney, tawny, trim in tight jeans…and on deck. I wonder what the local women think of these dazzling apparitions, two of their own, but so different. We never find out. We’re caught up in the wedding, curiosity about the bride trumping the Diva.

Ramdan does not know his wife-to-be, though he has met her. “I will be on felucca. It is my job. My wife does not take care of me. I want wife to take care of my mother and father in house, not me. My mother find a girl she like. She is a cousin (and he laughs), but not close. I don’t know her. Her name is Fatima.” Young people here have little or no experience with the opposite sex. Elfie tells him he must be kind and patient with his wife on their wedding night. “Yes” he says,”my mother told me.”.

Ramdan is frazzled. The three night ‘wedding party’ starts two nights from now. This is all new to him. He’s the eldest of four brothers and their baby sister. He and the next brother, Mansoor, are the first to marry. The wedding was supposed to be next year, when the new couples could move into their own houses. Ramdan still needs to paint, and tile the floor, in his. The family has pushed the weddings up a year “for my father. You understand? We do two together. Cheaper.” Dad has serous effects of ‘sugar’. He is bouncy and spry, and looks about my age. But, I could be his father. So, Dad will see his two eldest sons get married this year, and if biology cooperates, a brace of grandkids in the next. They picked these specific days at the end of October when we told Ramdan we were coming to Egypt. They want us here for the weddings. 

The double wedding will save money, but it’s still a big expense for him and his family: three all- night parties, food? ( they’ll buy and butcher a cow), plus make-up, photos, culminating in an all night dance party on the third night with lights, music, DJ. “ Maybe a thousand people. Everyone in village, maybe more”. 

The three of us have prepared a monetary wedding gift for him, and know he can use it now. His eyes tear up, and he hugs us, his “thank you” soft, deep and real. But he is still frazzled. 

We leave him to his tasks, retreat to the decks of the dahabiya and the felucca, and the quiet of the river. Khalid brings us tea, delivered with his smile and question: “Mia mia?” OK? Very.

The others go below to sleep in the staterooms. I lay out a thick mattress, pillows and blankets on the deck, and crawl in, suspended between the stars above and the Nile below. 

Across the river, a mule brays its harsh song into the night. 

The night has sung to us before. A few days ago on our last night in the desert before coming to the river….

Abdu’s hunting buddies set up camp on a high dune, and build a fire, no rival to the one in the sky.  The night takes hold. Web lounge on mats. Khalid stirs the pigeons. 

Then the wolves begun to howl. 

We can’t see them, but they must be close. The guys leap up, shine lights towards the sound, hoping to catch a reflection from the eyes. Puppies add their yips, a few managing an octave lap into full howl. Then they all stop, and we hear no more from them. We return to the mats, and fire, but a bit of the wild stays with us. 

2020-10-25    RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

The Wedding Party Day 1 

“She’ll be smokin marijuana when she comes….

Ramdan lies on his back, arms and legs stretched out and wrapped in plastic bags. Black goo seeps from the bags. It’s henna. Friends have wrapped white tape in complex designs around his fingers, ties, soles and palms, hands and feet and left henna to do its magic. It will color the roman alphabet R on one palm, F, in the other. Ramdan and Fatima. ”He has to stay like that all night and not move” says Abdu. Then he leans in and whispers in Ramdan’s ear. 


The ear -spanning grin, giggles and whoops hint this is raunchy guy-advice from the thrice married best friend of the groom. Across the courtyard and surrounded by women, Fatima lies flat, too, wrapped, dyed, and coddled, prepared for married life by giggles, shrieks, and whoops. We are banned, from the women’s party, but Elfie is welcome —she is a woman—there and stays for a few hours, returning to the men’s side with all the details of the party on the other side of the walls. She joins us, welcomed by the men—she is a guest. 


Two am has come and gone. We are all still awake, and thriving. The kids are lining up to get henna-ed, ‘’for fun’’ says Abdu. Us, too, we say! Henna Guy tapes Elfie’s hand with a design like Ramadan’s paints, layers on the henna, then wraps her hand in plastic. He tries something different with me, piling henna into my palm, folding my fingers over it into a fist, then warps it all in plastic. Dennis passes. “Don’t wash it off in the sink. Wash it in the Nile” Now, we, too are immobilized.

The room is packed and still in serious party mode. The men dance, weave, sing, wail, laugh, And drink.

And smoke. Noses don’t lie, but… Surely not THAT…Here in a Moslem country? Then the tall, handsome village troubadour sets the rhythm with his tambourine and starts a song we know, in English. The lady starts out coming round that mountain, but by the time she gets to Ramdan’s wedding party  “She’ll be smokin marijuana when she comes….” Indeed.

We do manage the walk back down to the river about 3am and sleep very well. Indeed.

Only two more nights to go. 

2020-10-26    RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

The Wedding Party Day 2

Wheeeeeeeeeee!”

We slam right, into the car door, shoulders digging into metal, then left, muscle and bone slamming into bone and muscle, then back again. Desert Cowboy Abdu, in whirling ‘round em up and head em out mode’, cops a wheelie into a tight turn, 360 degrees then back again, spaghettiing all over the road, then back again, his arms a blur on the steering wheel. We know this manic assault on desert dunes, and have whooped with him up and down the slopes of the empty Great Sand Sea. But, we are on the main road through the city of Aswan. And it’s filled with other cars— including the ones with the grooms, brides, and their families, cousins stacked and stuffed– doing the same, spinning around one another, up over the curb, backwards, forwards, sideways. 

I’m in the front seat, expecting death. 

No problem”, grins Abdu, looking my way aa the car hurtles that way. “This is wedding!”. Right. I’m seeing the film about us: ‘Two Weddings and a Funeral’….

The night began quietly hours ago in the photo studio in town. Ramdan and Mansour are in suit and tie, coiffed, made up, eyes lined, a subtle glint of glitter washed over their glowing dark faces.  Mansour is more comfortable and convincing in this, his professional drag (he works in a hotel, so is used to this get up). Ramdan puts up with it. They’re good-looking guys, would look even better in galabeya and head dress. But, weddings à la mode mean weddings à la western mode. The brides are glorious. Fatima is wrapped in red silk. Mansour’s bride is in a spectacular silver creation draped over a hoop big enough to câche the flotilla of younger sisters and cousins in attendance. We never do learn her name, but Elfie dubs her ‘Maria Theresa’, as in the Empress. It fits the dress. 

The photo shoot of the couples is staged by the young photographer. À la western mode. The bride and groom— who barely know one another— look dreamy and captivated by the stranger they are holding hands with. These photos don’t record a real present, but a hopeful future. We’re happy to be in them, even though by our standards we are under dressed…. but welcomed and honored nonetheless. There are no bridezillas here. No one is an outsider. We are just family. 

We finally meet Fatima, who is sweet and pretty, and not at all non-plussed by the 3 western apparitions in her wedding photos.  She has a wide grin like Ramdan’s. Mama has done well by her son. 

Everyone piles into the fleet of cars, even Maria Theresa and her cousin-hiding hoop, for the drive to a park by the Nile for more photo-ops. The drivers rev up the horns and speakers, announcing their intent to defy the laws of physics, and inviting one and all to join in the mayhem. Many do, especially a bunch of kids weaving around us on three-wheel tuk-tuks, waving, not guiding, eyes anywhere but on the road.

They, and we, all survive the drive. 

And, yes, we washed the henna off in the Nile,. Elfie did it when she got back to the boat after the party last night. I slept on it. Her hand is tattooed in lace, pretty, delicate, and red . Mine festers in zombie make-up ebony. “You left it too long. It will go away…maybe”. And Abdu grins.

Only one more night to go. 

2020-10-27   RAMDAN’S VILLAGE ON THE NILE

The Wedding Party Day 3

Bob Marley whirls by, eyes glazed. He grabs my hands and sucks me into the ear-numbing rhythm of the music and the crowd. We dance. It’s 2 am. Three hours into his marathon dance, he spins still through the crowd dreadlocks flat out from the spin.

Months ago Ramdan video called me. “We signed the marriage contract. I am getinig married. You will come.”

And, so we came.

That signing was a legal thing, small, quiet, private, between families. Now it is time for the people of Kampaniya to welcome the marriage, embrace it, weave it into the life of the village. 

It is taking three days, one for Ramdan’s friends to mark him as married, one to help the future to remember the day, and now the last day, one for the village to seal the deal.

Now, on day three, there are big doings up in the village. It’s too far to hear down here on the river, but we know. Everyone is up there except for a splash of younger cousins in the Nile, and Khalid and his tea. Ahmed, already a handsome sprite of 8, and two burlier cousins rig up a ‘mini felucca’ using a derelict small skiff to ride just above the water and odd pieces of cloth to catch the wind. They sail Elfie off across the Nile, a fluttery blip on the blue, and then back. It’s not Cleo’s gold barge of Roman—and cinema– memory, but it’s anchored just as strongly in ours.

We’re due up in the village about 10 or 11 tonight, “maybe finish at 3 or 4 in morning”. Three am is a long way off. We nap. 

Then, it’s time. 

On Day One, Abdu approved Dennis’ simple deep blue galabeya as wedding garb, but vetoed my scruffy green one. He dropped his own elegant embroidered gray one over my head. It’s a perfect fit top to bottom, a bit tight across my shoulders, but sooo elegant. His Bedouin headscarf is one size fits all. He wrapped it around my head and tied it into elaborate swirls, stepped back, flashed a thumbs up. Tonight, I tie my own head scarf “Good”, says Khalid. Then he whisks it off and reties it. “Very Good”. 

There aren’t many Bedouin headscarves in the crowd, just hundreds of men in white galabeyas dancing. Egyptian men have the moves shaking their shoulders, and undulating their hips. For hours. Elfie is the only adult female. Ramdan’s father takes her hands and dances with her, his grin as wide as his son’s. ‘Bob Marley’ grabs me and we whirl through the crowd under the waves of his huge Marley ‘scarf’, table cloth size for a banquet table. 

We’ve been dancing since midnight, taking breaks on mats and leaning against the wall of the village square to rest. The singer has been singing for three hours, straight. The fireworks explode over Ramdan and his brother, high on the shoulders of their friends. ‘High’ seems to be an operative word here. 

Then, at 3:15, it all stops. The singer wraps up his gig, robes flow out of the square. Abdu grabs me. “We leave at 12 for Cairo. It’s only about 10 hours to drive.” He’ll have about three hours sleep. “No problem”…and there is that rumbling laugh. We believe him. 

2020-10-28   TO CAIRO

Four hours later we are up. By 11 we visit Ramdan and his wife in their new house, lent to the couple by Ramdan’s uncle until his son gets married. Ramdan introduces us to Fatima. She smiles, shakes our hands and rejoins her mother in the kitchen. “Fatima’s family will make the kitchen. I do this…” and he points to a new washing machine and new refrigerator. We sit on spanking new and lovely padded furniture, probably the very first people to do so. Fatima and her mother serve us cake and drinks, surely a first for them. Ramdan and Fatima  can have visitors, but they can’t leave the house for a week or “the village will think the marriage is not good”.  There’s probably another time-tested reason. Time will tell. In about 9 months.

Ramdan hugs us, and stops at the door as we pass through it to the car. He waves, now a married man with a wife, mother-in-law, and house, a new man saying goodbye to old friends.

Khalid also stays behind. He will take the bus back across the desert to Bahariya. He laughs that now that he has seen the Nile at Aswan he has to change his name to Khalid Aswani, Khalid from Aswan! Next year is his wedding. Who knows, maybe we’ll be back for that.

The trip to Cairo is slow because there are police checkpoints along the obvious road, tarmac and smooth concrete all the way up the Nile. Abdu laughs. “I know how to go”. Abdu’s way involves bumping through villages, snorting over gravel, a lot of sand, and the occasional camel. Close to midnight Cairo sucks us in. Abdu is still perky. We are not. Plans have formed to go with him to the far southwest of Egypt as soon as it opens again, to Sinai in the northeast, and to the far southeast to the border with Sudan and the best beaches on the Red Sea. He’s off in the morning back across the width of Egypt to Siwa to visit with Hassan’s family. He couldn’t get there for the funeral, but now is OK, too. We hold him close as we say goodbye, but only for now.

Dahab Hostel sprawls across the roof, way above the streets. If there is traffic we don’t hear it. Sleep is a knockout punch.

2020-10-29 AND 2020-10-30   CAIRO

We share the roof with trees, flowers, a posse of cats and kittens, and no other guests. Elfie and I do a walkabout while Dennis sleeps. Trees shield some of the streets from the sun in this part of Cairo, near the Museum. The Nile is right there. Even walled in and bridged it’s the river of the desert, feluccas, village life. 

We will be back.

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