BEDOUINS, BERBERS AND BOOZE
A tour of Egypt
Friday March 31st
Woke up from the phone buzzing about. Who am I? Where am I? I’m Cator, I seem to be in London and it is Jo on the phone. She helps me organize my thoughts and we make a breakfast date to speed up my morning routine.
Lets back up a bit. I arrived in London last night after a glorious day flight. Watched two movies and read lots of fodder, the most exciting being Flaubert’s Egypt Diary. His tales of dashing up pyramids to watch the sunrise, bonking hundreds of exotic woman and lazily cruising up the Nile with his best friend Maxim du Camp filled me with excitement and wonder at what lay ahead for me. After my day in London I will be heading to Cairo with fourteen other people where we will meet up with Rod and PHJ for a 10-day tour of Egypt. Another dream come true thanks to Philip Hewat-Jaboor, my Mame.
After a great catch-up breakfast with Ms. Bowlby I head to Westwood where in a moment of folly I purchase a bag, shirt, scarf and pin. How could I resist? My dear friend Catherine gives me a whopping discount and snuck in one piece at cost! Love you darling. I then meet up with a pregnant and glowing Charlotte for lunch at Patisserie Valerie. Soon it is time to gather my bags and head to the airport. Flight 155 to Cairo departs at 5pm.
Most of the gang I am traveling with I met in India but there are some new faces as well. Sarah Miles spots me and waves me over. She introduces me to the rest of the group and I have a good catch up with her and Briony. On the flight Briony and I fondly recall India and all the great moments there. It was that trip that changed my life; helped me realize I could be a writer and what roads I needed to take to achieve my goal. Here we are two years later and I am writing about Egypt for the New York Times. So who knows where the dusty roads of Egypt will take me.
All I know is that the sun God Ra better be hospitable and there better be at least one massage that rivals the hot oil drip in Nemrana…
Saturday April 1st, 2006
Hardly slept. Arrived at Mena House at 12:40 last night. PHJ met us in the gilded lobby, Rod was fast asleep. He ushered us to the bar and we all barked out drink requests faster than the poor waiter could whip out a pad. After a brief chat we all wearily took flight to our rooms.
Upon arriving in 280 my bell boy turned on the lights, silently showed me around the room and then unlocked the door to the balcony and threw open the door. There it was, the Great Pyramid.
I tipped him, shut the door and tears came on full force. The pitter-patter of the ambient Egyptian music was oozing out of the radio harkening back to my room in Agra gazing at the Taj. There I stood, me and him, old Cheops tomb, just the two of us.
Of course I had to channel surf all the oddball Egyptian stations before passing out at 2am. I was woken at 4am from drunken Aussie’s singing in the garden and at 4:30 from the morning call to prayer! Note to self: keep all doors and windows shut in Muslims countries. I gave up and took a hot bath, darkened and waxed my near perfect moustache I had carefully grown out for the trip and relaxed on my balcony watching the sunrise from behind the mystic pyramids.
At 6am I toured the hotel, a former hunting lodge that was built in the 1860’s. It has hosted mounds of celebrities and dignitaries through its glorious history. It is the closest hotel to the pyramids and every room has a view of them. The interiors of the main building were reminiscent of the Fox Theater in Atlanta, mounds of gold, smoky mirrors and Moorish doors, chandeliers and seating. Afterwards I enjoy a quick breakfast and then realize I am absolutely exhausted. Shit. I disco nap in the room until 9am and then join the rest of the gang for their breakfast.
At 10am we pile into the coach and head south to Memphis and Saqquara. Our guide, Ahmed, gives us a rundown of Egyptian history on the road down. Ahmed, a big burly teddy bear sort of man is an Egyptologist and a great prankster. He manages to pull one over on each of us at some point throughout the trip.
Today is unseasonably cool and rainy which has all of Egypt in a tizzy. It only rains twice a year in Egypt and our luck, it is while we are there! There is not even a drainage system in Cairo, rain is so scarce, and so our trip down was one big slosh through puddles.
Memphis was the first capital of unified Egypt created by King Mena. (Did you know Upper Egypt is the southern half and Lower Egypt is the top bit? Because the mountains are at the bottom so it is higher.) Nothing really remains of Memphis, or it is all buried far underground due to the silt that the Nile has deposited for millennia up to 1964 when it was damned at Aswan. There is an open-air museum that seems a bit sad when one thinks there was once a thriving metropolis in this spot. The alabaster sphinx of Hatshepsut was amazing and we got our first view of the amazing hieroglyphics and statues, which would become almost mundane by the end of our trip. The rain was irritating but I guess it was better than scorching heat. The statue of Ramses was thrilling. Found in a field by a farmer while plowing, it originally had a twin and they stood at the gates of the palace. His twin is still somewhere underground and yet to be found. They both collapsed after a massive earthquake and have been sleeping in the earth ever since.
It was here that I got my first ‘baksheesh’ request, which would irritate me throughout the trip. If you even look at many Egyptians they hold out there hand and ask for $. And they don’t stop. This isn’t all Egyptians of course, mostly just the ones who work at tourist sites. I bought a pack of Cleopatra cigarettes for James and had my first conversation with Gillian. She is an amazing woman with schoolgirl bangs and ponytail. Her voice reminds me of Vreeland’s. She oohs and ahhhs and mmmm’s a lot and it is all very lulling. She is English but now lives in LA. She spent most of her life buying 18th century antiques for J. Paul Getty for his museum. Not a bad deal if you ask me. Somehow we were discussing the Met and she looks at me and Rod and oozes, “You know I was at the Met for a grand bash wearing Stephen Sprouse with ostrich plumes on the shoulders. In a moment of folly I found myself shagging a man in the elevator.” And that was that. I think I’m going to like her.
We pile in the bus and head to Saqquara and Zozer’s step pyramid. The presentation of the pyramid is almost Spielberg-esque. We were guided through a narrow passageway, through a pillared hall and ended up in a massive square.
Looking forward you don’t see a thing and then you take a glance to your right and see this massive pile of bricks 5 yards away. The ancient Egyptians had such flair for dramatics! The highlight was when I saw a camel and took its picture. Before I knew what was happening I had the guides head wrap on my head, I had been heaved onto the camel and with one spank we were off through the desert. Befuddled and amused I gaze out at the leaning pyramids and others that are dotted about. I see from the corner of my eye Richard Miles bouncing along on a mule. He got the short end of the deal obviously. I got the required picture on the camel in front of the pyramid and then tottered back to safety. Well worth the $15. When Richard and I were walking back to the group he says in his very dry English tone, “Cator, you know why camels are called the ships of the desert? Because they are full of Egyptian seamen.” Wasn’t expecting that one and we both had a hearty chuckle.
Afterwards we headed to the pyramid of Teti. It is now just a pile of rubble, like so many others thanks to the English who blew up pyramids hoping to find gold. They never found anything and ruined so many ancient monuments. We climbed into it backwards and then walked hunched over down a long shaft until we reached a vestibule. We straighten up and take in the cool ancient air. We then tuck under a mammoth rock and enter a 20x40 foot room with a vaulted ceiling where we saw Teti’s sarcophagus (long since plundered). The hieroglyphics looked as if they were freshly etched and the ceiling was dazzling with starfish shaped stars on a royal blue background. I got a good chill out of all this. When one realizes this room is older than Jesus and it still looks this good. I don’t think Donald Trump’s buildings are going to be looking that swank in 3,000 years.
Next up was a random lunch where Rod and I ate outside in the rain, why not? Then an irritating tour of a rug factory where the kids were adorable but then we got the sales shpeel. This made us get to Giza so late that we couldn’t poke around the Sphinx and such because it was closing time. We ran through the solar boat museum located behind one of the pyramids in the wonkiest building I have ever seen. That was fascinating to see how they could construct such massive boats back then and had the cedar shipped in from Lebanon. But hey, they built the pyramids so nothing should really amaze me. We then perched at an open-air bar in front of the Sphinx, ordered drinks and watched the sun setting behind the pyramids. That was a ‘life is great’ moment save the insane kids who pestered us relentlessly to buy their post cards.
Having had hardly any sleep the night before I fall into a mummy coma for two hours before dinner. We all meet for cocktails in the upstairs lounge with a man tinkling an electric keyboard in the corner. The group orders gin, lemonade and seltzer- YUM! My new favorite drink. Terribly refreshing. We then glide through the dark hallways of the old lodge and arrive at a two story room that is the grand banquet hall of the Mena House. I had delicious lamb and for dessert, a flaming banana (!), which caused much amusement from my dining, partners. This stemming from our earlier conversation about gay Siwa. After that discussion bananas were on my mind! Leila, who I adore, with her over the top drawn out accent (lotus is Lowwwwtus and really is reeeeeeelly) said that she googled Siwa in front of all of her coworkers to show them where she was going and the first thing that popped onto her screen were window after window of naked Egyptian boys. This raised many an eyebrow with her co-workers from the V&A and every time she clicked one closed another popped up. We all got a big kick out of that one.
During most of the evening there was a singer on stage, an older Egyptian man, who sang a random mix of songs from Kenny Rogers to Ray Charles. Then came the big time entertainment. Three men came out in traditional garb and danced about, clapping and shouting, beating sticks and jumping about. This was interspersed with three ladies in high camp Lycra dresses and traditional-ish costumes jiggling about and yelling. The climax for me was the whirling dervish. How he did it I will never know. He spun around a good 5 minutes (you try it). He spun one layer of his skirts off, pulled it over his head, and resembled a human top. Then the skirt came off and he swung it over his head like pizza. He really got my goose. Loved him. For the finale the ladies came out in these Galliano like massive skirts with fan like discs mounted to their backs and twirled about in all their petticoats and glitter. Yes, it was tacky, highly amusing, weird, long and thoroughly mind-boggling. Vanished into bed at 11:30.
Sunday April 2nd
Crashed with gusto last night and awoke at 6am for my ride gallop around the pyramids. My guide is a trainer for a senator in North Carolina so I felt OK with his direction for the morning.
We left the paradise of Mena house and into the morning bustle of Giza and over to the stables. He picked out two scrawny Arabian horses. We mounted and took off. We tottered through the village, which was a great way to see the real local way of life. It was also a great way to see the backsides of the pyramids, which are littered with garbage! Adults were preparing for their days and little kids, even the poorest, were dolled up in school uniforms to catch the bus.
Once we finally reached the Sahara my breath was a bit taken. We trotted up a hill to view the pyramids, as they should be seen- untouched by time, swathed in sand and sunshine. After the per functionary snapshot we toured the desert and gazed at the dunes, rocks and deep holes that could very well lead to new discoveries.
The guide was very kind and gave me a lesson in posting in an English saddle and then we took off into a gliding gallop which was fantastic- sweater flying off my shoulders, sand in the ‘stache. After a bit over an hour we head back through the village and into the stable where piles of military men were stretched out doing their morning exercises. Job well done.
After a quick breakfast we bid Mena house farewell and head to the Egyptian Museum. Oh if Ms. Havisham were to have a museum this would be it! The pink palace built in 1901 has not seen a Swifer or Murphy’s Oil since opening day. You could easily write your name in the lap of many a pharaoh with the dust that has collected. And the signs were a riot. Some were hand written from the 20’s, others typed out on a crooked card from the 50’s.
The rooms of Akhenaten and Nefertiti were my favorites. Akhenaten was the total kook king who decided to eliminate all Gods but one, the sun God. He demanded to be portrayed as he was- big lipped, high cheeks, skinny and almond eyed. Kind of resembled Jocelyn Wildenstein. Nefertiti on the other hand was stunning and the sculptures we saw of her were still glowing with beauty thousands of years later.
Upstairs we toured King Tut’s treasures that filled an entire floor. Gold! Glass! Gilding! Rooms of jewels and pieces of his life. Truly dazzling. Seeing his Death Mask was almost disappointing, the gold looked so thin! I thought it would be a massive, thick old thing. Rod and I poked through all of this with much delight.
Last stop was a tour of the mummy room. 6 mummies are kept in an intimate, quite room to rest in piece. Many still had hair, teeth and toenails. You could see where they would poke their brain too hard and pop the top of the skull during mummification. They would delicately cover those areas up with linen. The entrance ticket was fab- a close up of a gnarly, rotten old Ramses. Can you imagine?
Next stop is Sultan Hassan’s mosque. Breathtaking in height, we took off our shoes and wandered through the inner sanctum where we all sat on the floor and Ahmed gave us a brief speech on the Muslim religion. We then entered the main room and marveled at the porphyry and alabaster inlays and the soaring gilded dome. For a real treat, Ahmed asked the Imam whom he knows, to chant a prayer for us. He was very young and quite a celebrated sheik. His voice quivering under the dome was mesmerizing.
By now we are starving so we weave through the grand bazaar and eat at a famous old café of literary note. Now owned by Oberoi it is a bit posh and the food wasn’t really up to snuff. Afterwards Rod and I bought scarabs from some cute boys next door who were so excited by my moustache that they took pictures of me with their camera phones. The scarabs will look great on a new summer chapeau.
Now off to Luxor! Excitement dwindles when we find our flight 2 hours delayed. We nap, chat and smoke. Arrive in Luxor at 9. Enter the hotel at 10:30. Very late dinner, lots of wine and into bed at 12. Wait until I describe Al Moudira. I’m already to move in….
Monday April 3rd
Woke up in Paradise.
Al Moudira is Heaven.
A compound of 1-story pink stuccoed villas surrounding lush courtyards awash in pink, white and peach bougainvillea. My room is cavernous with a wooden column at the center and saturated in robins egg blue paint with hieroglyphics painted along the walls. The bathroom resembles a hammam with a dome dotted with multi-colored glass. Sun saturates the room and gives me a perfect view of my house pet, a little lizard that has decided to spend the next couple of days with me.
I finally sleep until 9! How exciting. I am totally recharged. Breakfast is served in the main courtyard around the bubbling fountain filled with bougainvillea buds. I sit with Rod and order a lemon and sugar crepe and a peppermint tea and lull in the sun for a bit. Then we load the bus for a trip to Karnack. I have really been tooted about seeing this site with its massive lotus columns that dwarf all mankind. The site was indeed spectacular with its rows of sphinx’s, obelisks and fab secret rooms. Ahmed took us to one chamber that was pitch black. When he spoke a man opened a skylight and the statue of Mut was staring at us with a glare. Originally she had ruby eyes, which would sparkle in the light, but those are long gone.
We then toured several temples that were originally inside the main temple but through the years had been buried and forgotten about. The rule was, once something was brought into the temples it could not be taken out by another pharaoh or they may not make it to the afterlife, so alters/temples were dismantled and stored under the big temple floors. Now some of these live in an open-air museum. One had raised relief’s that were incredible. A kindly (or well paid off) guide let us past the velvet ropes and into the temple to see the relief’s up close. Too our surprise we found numerous images of a god with a raging hard on. His name is Amun-min ad Leila asked all the men to whips theirs out to see how we compared to Pharonic Phallus.
I then bought some fun tat for friends and we headed back to our slice of heaven for lunch. After lunch at the pool and a siesta we boarded the bus again and headed into town. We parked at the docks and boarded a felucca for a sunset tour up the Nile. There wasn’t much wind but the cruise was quite chic all the same, watching the sunset behind minarets and palm groves. We unanimously decided we would never take a Nile cruise. The boats were tied up 4-5 deep so if you were in the middle, your view was of someone else’s cabin!
We debarked in front of the temple of Luxor and walked to the temple from the docks, which was quite old skool (hey, it’s the little things). Hard to imagine this towering temple was a discovery in the 1800’s. It is at least 4 stories tall and right on the banks of the Nile. But after several thousand years the silt of the Nile took it back and covered it completely. It was so well covered that a town was built on top of it and all that is left is a mosque, built in 800AD that’s front door is now 3 stories above ground. The most exciting part to me was the interior temple that Alexander the Great built to prove his power. It was still mostly intact and pretty spectacular. Leila and I then strolled down the grand alley of sphinx’s waxing poetic over the meaning of life and camera film until we reached the bus and greeted the over excited driver. He LOVES me. He always wants to shake my hand even if I have been gone for 5 minutes. He gets a great kick out of the whole Abu Chanab thing.
We changed for dinner and I sat with Sarah Miles, Gillian, PHJ and Ahmed. I think Ahmed must find us just fascinating. We guzzle wine like its Bacchus’ last stand and he being Muslim, just sits back and sips his non alcoholic beer and watches us loose our minds. Tonight was the booziest to date. We had madcap conversations about cocaine, PHJ retiring and building in Egypt, and hysterical stories from Ahmed of his travels. One American really thought Egyptians laid eggs. Another had no idea she was in Africa and asked where all the black people were. I can’t wait for his book! PHJ and I split some DIVINE mango sorbet and then I swiveled off to bed. GREAT DAY
Tuesday April 4th
Woke at 4am still drunk. Time for ballooning! We gather for tea and coffee at 4:45 and cross paths with late night revelers just leaving the bar. Now why didn’t I think of that? We took a bus a good 40 minutes into a remote village and watch the sunrise. The horizon is a perfect Schaperelli pink. We arrive at a big field and watch the balloons get inflated and then pile in and took off. Our captain was amusing but spent too much time in Camden town in London. Everything was “Wicked!!” How unromantic to hear the Nile valley at sunrise as ‘Totally Wicked Man!’ I have to admit I was a bit scared flying into the air in a wicker basket but hey, what a way to die!
“Awful news Mrs. Sparks, your son fell out of the air in Upper Egypt from a hot air balloon and was found spread eagle on the staircase of Hatshepsut’s temple.” She would hardly be surprised.
I took a load of pictures of fiery fields billowing smoke, lush green lands of the Nile abruptly ending at the sandy desert and Howard Carter’s home from above. To think he stayed there through the stress and triumph of looking for Tut is thrilling. In a moment of total kiddy camp I whipped out my I pod and played the Willy Wonka soundtrack from when they are sailing over London in a glass elevator. Such fun.
Post landing we get a certificate that declares we did indeed sail over the Nile in a balloon. It is getting framed post haste. The 20 boys who blew up our balloons and followed us via truck were there awaiting our descent. They collapse the balloon and bid farewell in a singsong chant.
Back to Moudira for breakfast and then we are off to the Valley of the Kings. A real highlight! We traipse through the mountains of limestone in searing heat and view three tombs. The first one was near the end of the Valley and we had to climb 80 steps up a mountain and then creep down a massive cave that smelled like old socks. Eew.
Once at the bottom it was ASTOUNDING. Oval shaped, like a cartouche, the entire tomb was painted in exquisitely detailed hieroglyphics. The ceiling was a radiant Azure with starfished shaped star floating about. Little Egyptian men were there to babble about in broken English, fan you off and ask for a tip. It was quite sweet actually.
The next two tombs were even more exciting to me. The hieroglyphics on the first one were life size as you walked in and down the incline. A repeating pattern of vultures, wings fully extended, was in full flight on the ceiling down the entire corridor. The tomb to this one was not too exciting. It was all just chipped away stone. Turns up this Pharaoh died unexpectedly and they had to rush the job! The final tomb we entered was a bit sad but magical. It is the only one known to be open since antiquity (biblical times). Because of this it is much desecrated with names of Victorians and earlier tourists carved into the paintings of Anubis and Foth. Rod and I found a unique God that had a human body with two sprigs sprouting from its neck, we named him Ramen Noodle.
I must admit I felt a bit privileged to see these tombs. I asked Ahmed how much longer these relics could be open to the public with the amount of pollution, humidity and sunlight they are exposed to. Not surprisingly he said he doesn’t think they will be open in 10 years. The colors are already fading and paint is peeling and therefore must be preserved.
Back to the hotel for lunch. I had booked a massage and was very late for my appointment. I dashed off to the hammam and couldn’t find anyone. I walked over to the bar and asked if they knew where I could find the masseuse. At that moment this massive man stood up, smiled and said, “I am your masseuse, please come this way.”
I thought I was going to have to cancel. He was the most gorgeous Egyptian man with a big smile, dark eyes and fantastic eyebrows melding into one ever so slightly. He requests that I shower and then I come back in and he whips my towel off of me and dries me off himself. Am I in heaven or what? After one hour my wish had come true, I had a massage as memorable as the one in India!
Totally relaxed, I join the rest of the crew for lunch next to the pool and then we spend a bit of time sun bathing before, surprise, time to get back on the bus! I was so relaxed that I fell asleep in the bus and missed half of the papyrus-shopping spree. No worries there. Then we went to a fragrance store and tested some amazing oils with a bunch of cute boys who were dashing about with oils, glass bottles and scent testers. The guy who helped me was the hipster with a massive mullet, tight shirt, flared pants and completing his look were socks with toes in them and flip-flops. Luxor definitely has it going on in the cute boy department, that’s for sure. I load up on rose, gardenia and myrrh oils and then we head out for a night tour of the Luxor museum. Very well laid out and amazing artifacts. Ramses mummy was a high light. Donated to Egypt from the people of Atlanta! It was kept at Emory for quite some time for tests and preservation and before that it was found in the closet of some Canadian museum before they realized who they had wrapped up in there.
For dinner we all hosted a grand dinner outside at Al Moudira for Rod and PHJ. I sat next to Briony and Pauline and Cornelia and we had a great chat. Food was amazing and at 12 I crept off to bed.
Wednesday April 5th
Exhausted and ready for a day of nothing but that ain’t happening. Can I complain though?
First stop is the temple of Habu, a memorial temple to Ramses III. More amazing hieroglyphics. I learned that many wigs from non-royals were made from papyrus, linen, wool or cotton. That’s why some of the illustrations remind me of Dolly Parton- masses of blonde curled hair. The scribe’s tomb was especially amazing. Down in a rocky ditch an old Egyptian man opened a door and the room was pitch black. Then he brought in a shield covered in aluminum foil and angled it toward the sun. This illuminated the room naturally and was a brilliant way to see the artwork.
Next stop was the Ramessuem that Ramses built for himself. He built his palace next to the temple to observe the work. The illustrations were a bit more modern showing more movement than the earlier works. Much more animation. It only took 2000 years for them to learn how to arch the foot!
We also visited the workers city. These were the homes and tombs of the people who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Their tombs were much more festive since they were for themselves and not the pharaoh.
Headed back to Al Moudira for a farewell lunch by the pool and a bit of tanning, then it was off to the airport but not before a final shop stop at the Winter Palace. Hot Damn! Jackpot! All the galabayya’s I could dream of. Rod bought 4 amazing canopic jars (which he then had to carry for the rest of the trip only to find them in the gift shop in Alex). Airport was irritating and the flight was delayed 2 hours but it gave us time for a disco nap.
Arriving in Cairo we were driven to a Las Vegas looking Hyatt right on the Nile. A far cry from charming little Mena House. There were waterfalls, a tiki bar and a Lucite piano (!) The room was freezing but the balcony over looking the Nile was fab.
We all met for a massive buffet in the dining room and watched an Egyptian movie being filmed on a yacht. There were belly dancers, disco lights and fog machines. Highly amusing.
Afterward Susanne, Simon and I hailed a cab for Khan al-Khalili, the grand bazaar! It is always nice to remove oneself from the glass bubble of a tour group and see a city on ones own. The madness was winding down at 11pm but there was still a bit of mayhem. I saw my old friends who took my picture with their phones and bought some trinkets from them. Suzanne scowered for jewelry but to no avail. Simon on the other hand made up for it by buying out half the gold in Cairo. I asked my friend where we could find a good spice market and he snapped his fingers and a boy arrived and took us through dark dingy alleys until we arrived at the main drag with flashing lights, go carts and the biggest spice market I have ever seen. Thanks kid.
Simon strolled behind the bar and began sampling spices out of the giant pots stacked all about us. It was sensory overload for sure. Suzanne and I bought two big, hard circular cakes for the trip to Siwa tomorrow. We called them bird food pie. We then wandered across the street and found great galabayyas. Yes more. I am obsessed. Suzanne oozed over a navy wool one that was embroidered in white and red from top to toe- sold!
Now that we were on a total shopping high we decided to have tea in the main square next to Khalili. We were escorted to a center table and ordered three teas and a shashish. I was a virgin smoker but it didn’t take long to appreciate it. The long elegant pipe connected to the sturdy base alight with coal. The tobacco was flavored with jasmine and tasted dry and crisp. It went perfect with the peppermint tea. A man would come by with a metal basket red hot with new coal. He would pull out some tongs and place a new piece on the pipe if it was burning out.
We chatted and observed the locals doing their thing. We were every beggar’s first stop and some just sat next to us waiting for us to give up, but we didn’t. We were mesmerized when an older man began playing a mandolin with great gusto. In a moment of playfulness his young boy snaked out of his seat and performed the sexiest hip swiveling belly dance any of us had ever seen. We all felt very perverted and promptly returned to tea and chatting. At 1am we found a dilapidated cab and headed back to the hysteric Hyatt. We were to leave at 7am for Siwa. Up and at em!
Thursday April 6th
Wake up call at 5:30. Ugh. Breakfast in the room and watched the Nile come to life outside my window as I repacked the horror that is my suitcase. Meeting the group at the bus I was thrilled to see Stephen Cox. He is a well-known sculptor who I met on the India trip. He is working on a commission in Siwa and joining us for the trip out there. We pile in the bus, bid Cairo a fond farewell and head off across the Sahara. I change into my recently purchased galabayya and get cozy in my seat with iPod and journal. Western clothes are thrown to the wind for the next 4 days! Ahmed gives is a lecture on Egyptian history, which, fascinating as it is, lulls us to sleep until we reach Al Amein, a major battlefield in WW II. We stop here and tour the museum as well as the massive graveyard of fallen soldiers. Very humbling. We even see the wreath left by Prince Charles and Camilla that they placed there only last week. The desert around the area is completely desolate because of the many mines that are still active out there. Fences are abundant to avoid children playing in the desert and stepping on one.
Walking to the graveyard from the museum I pass our armed guards. They all begin cackling and I wonder why. I ask Ahmed and he shouts, “Cator you are wearing a woman’s dress!”
“But Ahmed why would they sell me a woman’s dress?”
“Because they never thought you would wear it in Egypt!”
We both roar with laughter.
The next stop was a Club Med like resort where we stop for lunch. When we reach the pool we realize we are right on the Mediterranean! How chic. The water is a perfect turquoise and the sand is linen white. I haven’t seen colors like that since my scuba diving days in the BVI’s.
We get totally snozzled at lunch and then drift back to the bus and pass out. Not before I decide to taunt the guards. I walk over to their bus and they are totally silent. Then I offer all of the cigarettes and I am now their best friend. After waving and laughing I walk back to the porte cochere and lay on my back to soak in the sun with my legs propped against the wall, galabayya falling to the ground. I hear Rod sigh and groan and then the guards completely crack up. What a moment.
An hour later we stop by a bus stop/café for a coffee, more for the bus driver than for us. We get out for a stretch and there in front of us are 20 Berber’s squatting on the dry desert land smoking cigarettes and staring at me. Here we go again. We have a staring contest and then I crack a smile, wave and the ice shatters. How wonderful they all looked in their robes and turbans, squatting in a circle with the orange tint of the sun illuminating their sand worn faces.
15 hours since our start in Cairo we creep past massive mountains, down a dirt road and realize we are lost. Lost in the desert. The driver gets out with a flashlight like that could help anything. We stop at a shack and knock to see if someone knows the way to Siwa. Finally we figure it out and arrive at a gatehouse with a lantern and a massive tree branch as the gatekeeper. We pass through and come across a torch lit path with 12 Berber men clad in white turbans and robes waiting for us. We have arrived at Adrere Amellal, the White Mountain.
The men take our bags and escort us to our huts. My escort heaves my weighty bag onto the table, lights the beeswax candles of my room and leaves me to change. I rifle through my clothes by candlelight and find seersucker pants and white polo to wear. OK, western clothes just for tonight. We all gather in front of the bon fire pit and take the bus over to Michael Hue Williams mud brick maison he shares with his 3 kids and angelic wife Ali. Michael owns a respected modern art gallery in London, The Albion, and his recently finished Siwa home is to be filled with contemporary art. Like a little Marfa Texas!
We arrive; have drinks in the sunken living room and Ali gives me and Rod a quick tour of the house before dinner. I sit next to Ali during dinner with Gillian on my right. We have a delightful time getting to know each other and listening to Gillian’s gossipy stories. Dinner, prepared by Henri, their French chef, is bountiful and delicious. The chocolate soufflé was the best I have ever had.
Afterwards we say our goodbyes and Rod/PHJ and I walk back to the hotel by moonlight with a torch boy leading the way while the rest take the bus. Uli runs into the mountains and pretends he is a wolf, howling at the top of his lungs, much to the amusement of the staff.
We arrive back at our huts, say goodnight and I pull up a chair on my balcony, dim my lantern and stare at the stars reflected in the vast oasis.
Friday April 7th
Wake at 6am to a salmon pink horizon, gaze, realize I’m gazing with one eye awake, one asleep, snap picture, back to bed. Re awake at a reasonable hour, slip on my galabayya and head to the open-air dining room. Everyone has a new glow, glitter and sparkle. Yes, this place is magical. Salaman welcomes me and the Berber’s swirl around me with tea, juice and jams. Heaven? After a gorgeous omelet we rally the troops and head into town in three rugged land cruisers. Our’s is driven by Abdullah, a tall, handsome and gentle man who is a pillar of Siwanese society. He is a leader of the Zamainah tribe and the guide on all excursions. He knows the sands of the Sahara like the back of his hand.
In 1999 he was awarded the Race Against Poverty Award by the United Nations. An amazing man in many ways.
We meet Ahmed in the village center and drive onto the Temple of Amun. This is a special place for me. I don’t know much about him but I have always been quite fond of Alexander the Great. The gay rumors? The Greek heritage? Whatever it is I find him fascinating. Here at this temple he consulted the Great Oracle who he traveled across the desert to meet. Legend has it that he was lost and two birds appeared steering him in the right direction. The Oracle blessed him and told him that he would rule more of the Earth than any other man and that he would die at a very young age. Both prophecies came true. To stand in the ruins of this temple, high over the village was truly awesome.
We then popped by another temple now in complete ruin and very desecrated and then drove back to the lodge for lunch by the pool. Another amazing meal of organic delights grown on the property. Afterwards we jumped back into the Land Cruisers and headed into the desert for some fun.
Abdullah took us far out into the sands where one could easily get lost and confused. There was no sense of distance or proportion, just dunes and sky! The real McCoy! We stopped at a massive dune and climbed to the top, sand biting our hands, face and feet. Now I know why those desert men are always swathed in cloth. The men pulled out snowboards and Briony and I climbed again to the top and flew down, fancy free, past the other guest until our boards slid to a halt. What a rush! Pictures revealed that I gave the entire world a view up my robe. Everyone took a turn and Rod went down like a robot, legs together so as not to repeat my sprawl down the dune. I went down a second time on my stomach and bingo! This was the way to go. I won best slide down.
We then drove to a fresh water oasis in the desert where we all donned swimming costumes and jumped in. Taking a small gulp, it tasted just like Evian. We lulled here for a bit taking in the scenery then drove to an amazing sulpher warm spring nestled in a palm grove. We again dipped in and relaxed in the warmth of the bubbling spring. I, jackass numero uno, decided to sit on the pipe that was anchored onto the spot where the water gushes from the bowels of the earth. Climbing on I about got shot out of the spring and got the biggest thrill I had the entire trip. My friends roared with laughter, the German tourists promptly left.
We headed back to the lodge as the sun set and we had a bit of time to change before cocktail hour at 7pm. I changed into a new galabayya I bought in Luxor, all rayon, so static central, but the white swirly embroidery was quite fun. The bar is carved out of the mountain so it is dark and cool. I order a G&T and wait for the rest of the crowd to trail in. Simon and Leela too got into traditional garb and we all drifted about in out long robes while Ahmed rolled his eyes.
Dinner was served in a cozy circular dining room (this place houses too many bars, dining rooms and random nooks, so as to avoid that dining hall experience. The result-ultra coziness) and I sat with Sarah Miles, Richard and a fun crew. We gorged on kebabs and couscous. The food here is some of the best I have ever tasted, honestly. I keep on forgetting though, that they serve everything twice and it is rude to refuse so I pile up on two of everything and then realize there are three more courses. We end with a fig soufflé that PHJ promises he has mastered if I come to Jersey this summer. I glide off to bed at 10pm and pass out in my salt brick bungalow.
Saturday April 8th
Woke up with Rod knocking on my door saying that we were late for our horseback riding adventure. What happen to my Berber man wake up call? I charge out of bed, dress and head out to find them. Rod and PHJ are nowhere to be seen. I am slightly cross when I see Salaman and tell him I never got my wake up call and have now missed my morning ride. He coolly looks at me and says, Mister, it is 730am, and you requested a wake up call at 830am. Rod had mis-read his watch!!
I never find them, and can’t imagine what happen to such a simple plan of meeting to ride at 9am. Briony cools me down and we walk out to the stables. There I see Rod and PHJ far into the desert with a guide. More miscommunication lead to them heading to the stables and thinking we were meeting there. I chatted up a gorgeous mare in her stall until they arrived back. End up they didn’t even know they were an hour early and had woken our poor guide from bed!
They dismount and I get on and, frustrated, we all part ways. I head out into the desert with Ammi, the sexy, dark guide. He speaks little English and plenty of Spanish which helps me none. My horse was a bit of a wild cannon and there was lots of jerking and kicking involved but the desert ride was pretty all the same. He had the horses bound together but I quickly asked him to set me free so I could do my own thing. The highlight was on our way back to the stables I rode right past the lodge entrance and right up to the breakfast terrace and announced, “Now this is how to arrive at breakfast!” I got a round of applause from the group and then headed back to the stables with my wild child horse, Izizi.
After saying good riddance to Izizi and good bye to Ammi I walked back to the lodge, had a quick breakfast and jumped back into a land cruiser for a trip to Cleopatra’s Bath and the Mountain of the Dead.
Cleo’s bath was amazing. Like our pool at the lodge, the natural spring had been enclosed by a stone ledge and true to its name; Cleopatra apparently dipped a toe in the waters in her day. Today locals, including a bevy of beautiful men lull around the circular algae covered stones and dip in to cool off. We couldn’t park the jeep fast enough that I had ripped off my robe and dove in. It was so refreshing and pure and deep! As soon as I got out 4 boys grabbed me and asked me to come with them. YEAY! Well, we kept walking down a gravel path and I was wondering where they were taking me. All of a sudden they stop me, turn around and yell, “One, two, three, go!” and we all race to the bath and dive in. Of course I was last to make the jump, all those rocks and gravel could cause serious toe stumping! But it was fun all the same and very nice of them to include me in their lazy day games.
I waved goodbye to my friends and we headed to the Mountain of the Dead, which is basically a mass burial ground for villagers. We tour a small tomb and then walked about on our own. Rod and I took pictures like I was excavating a tomb. I got on my knees and searched for bones and oddly enough I found one. Thinking nothing of it I slip it into my bag and head off, the perfect gift for Justin Giunta! I assume it is a mule bone or something, no human bones would be laying about but at lunch at the lodge, I pull it out and one of the tribesmen looks at me and says, “My friend this is no bone of an ass!”
Sure enough, John, the doctor in our group holds it to his arm and says, “Yep, that would be an arm bone, that part would pop into your shoulder.” Crickey.
This being our last day in Siwa I opt out of any more excursions and tour the property, search through the open air library, tan at the pool and imbibe a fare share of cocktails. I had reached Nirvana. I camped out on a bed that was set up next to the pool and there I sat for hours, reading, writing, listening to the wind and the natives and just soaking it all in. Gradually people joined me until there was a group of us who were bold enough to make use of the nearby outdoor bar to fix us all cocktails. And there we sat, relaxed beyond belief watching as the sun set over the blustery and cooling desert. I asked the great dung beetle in the sky to slow down, I didn’t want him to roll the sun away just yet, I needed this moment to last forever. He didn’t listen though and once the sun set we gathered our things and headed back to change for our final dinner in Siwa.
Tonight’s dinner was held in yet another chamber of the lodge, this one quite grand with two story ceilings and frescos adorning the back walls. We were all in a bit of a frisky mood and were lead fisted with the cocktails. We were honored to have the owner of the property join us, Mounir Neemtallah. A kind, conservative looking Egyptian businessman with a heart based in saving the environment and local traditions. We gorged on what we knew would be our last organic feast of the trip and many speeches were made. I continually teased Leela that I would give a speech about what I saw floating about in front of her room today- white panties hanging in the breeze! Just like a welcome sign for a bordello! She was mortified by my story but laughed hysterically all the same. Like clock work, at 10pm I retired to my little hut, lit some candles and soaked in the last night in the oasis.
Sunday April 9th
Packing two weeks worth of booty was a task I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. My bag nearly popped from the obelisks, canopic jars, alabaster urns and the multitude of galabayyas. We had our last leisurely breakfast and Gillian and I decided to tour the lodge one more time. There were many little turrets and terraces we had yet to explore. We climbed the mud staircase that wound around the dining room and up another story to a picturesque rooftop where one could see the entire oasis sparkling in the distance. Behind us was the Adrere Amellal or White Mountain that stoically shot up hundreds of feet in the air. As we gazed upon this white wonder, Gillian announced in her soothing English accent, “Life is Wonderful!”
Yes, Gillian it certainly is.
Sadly, we boarded the bus to Alexandria and the Berber men all waved and smiled as we took off down the dirt road. Our trip back was a quiet one of reflection and rest. We stopped again on the Mediterranean and dined at an odd ball 1960’s Wallpaper-esque hotel and spent some time sunning on the white sand. I stood gazing out at the bonnie blue sea for a long time in deep meditation when Cornelia approached me and asked, “what are you thinking about out here, Cator?” “You know those ads you see in the subways in London and New York of pictures of paradise that read ‘Wish you were here’?” I reply. “Well, I am just soaking up the fact that I am here.”
“Spot on Cator, spot on,” Cornelia coolly replied.
Back on the bus and we slowly creep back into civilization. Traffic lights, buildings, fast cars. I woefully slip on some pants and remove my galabayya that I have been wearing for so long. Luckily I had a Westwood shirt I had yet to wear that I bought in London, so the transformation was bearable.
We reach Alexandria and make a pit stop at the port where the famed library of Alexandria stood in Antiquity. Ahmed treated us all to a unique ice cream that is made in Alex from pure gum. We eat our treats and watch the locals strolling along the corniche. Simon finds a jewelry store and we all dive in. I find a gorgeous gift for mother and a little obelisk for me. We head to the Hotel Cecil, which in its heyday was host to tout le monde of café Society. Noel Coward and Churchill are two names that ring most clear to me. In its current state it is still quite amusing, with its centerpiece being a massive brass elevator that’s churns up and down the floors through its metal cage. I did a quick tap dance in mine to see if it would go any faster in ode to Thoroughly Modern Milly. It didn’t work.
While the others had a leisurely afternoon exploring the town I had to find the local Internet café and file my New York Times piece. The issue was closing in two days so I had no choice. After I spent an hour typing it out I hit ‘Send’ and the computer horrifically said, “you have been idle for too long and are logged out.’ I had to type the entire thing over again. So much for that relaxation I felt in Siwa.
After all of this I head back in time to change for dinner. We go to some massive high end Captain D’s and are served so many creatures on platters that I could hardly sit at the table without getting queasy. Of course it just had to be Mohammed’s birthday on our last night in Egypt so there was no alcohol being served anywhere. Not even to tourists. We all scoured the mini bars but no luck. The same thing happened in India when we were there for Gandhi’s birthday but at least the mini bars were filled to the brim.
After our disappointing dinner, PHJ, Rod, Steve, John and I decided to take an evening stroll around Alexandria. We had a nice time observing the once grand painted ladies that are now crumbling and the hysterical window decorations of the shops. We were even approached by a nice gay boy who was eager to show us a bar where they served booze. But we passed him up on the offer. Our sense of adventure was dwindling On our last night in Africa, in Egypt, walking down the Corniche, with a cool wind blowing and jovial conversation flowing we decided to pass up this last possibly bizarre bar adventure and call it a night. How could it possibly compare to camel riding at Saqquara, hot air ballooning over temples, racing with the boys into Cleo’s bath or trotting about military men in women’s clothing? These are the moments that are embalmed in my mind. This is my Egypt.