Friday, March 5, 2010

White and Black Deserts

March 5, 2010
Very cold during the night, very hot during the day. Clear.

The last two days were spent in the Black and White Deserts to the west of Cairo. After our night in the Oasis’ Hotel, we left in four safari vehicles. We set out away from the Oasis, and the landscape rapidly transitioned from palms and fields to completely barren desert. I’ve never seen anything so lifeless – in every direction, there was just sand and rock formations but no plants or animals.
I have a knack for choosing the vehicle with the most irritating guide. He played loud, Hitler-like Arabic propaganda for a few hours, and then switched over to loud, grating Egyptian music. I almost couldn’t stand to get in the car each time we got out to look at something. But even though I wanted to rip my ears off and I constantly bumped my head on the ceiling of the jeep, the desert thrilled me. Huge volcanic structures emerged from the desert, forming massive sand dunes on the windward side.
Our head guide brought us to one of the largest dunes in the area, and led a hike to the top. It was stunning to see such a gigantic pile of sand. The only track that marred the pristine slope was footprints of the scarab beetles, which wound their way up and down the dune. Once we took our group picture at the top, we took huge leaps down the side of the sandy hill.
The rest of the day we toured the two deserts, driving over rough sand and rock and then getting out to take pictures of a notable site. At the end of the day, our guides brought us to the White Desert National park, which is a surreal and vast collection of huge white sand sculptures. We arrived just in time to watch the sun set, and the guides set up cushions surrounded by curtains, light a campfire, and pulled out a stove set and began cooking dinner. We were ravenous.
Not surprisingly, shortly after we arrived, many people wanted to use the restroom. When asked where the bathroom was, our guide pointed to two large rocks nearby. “That one is for the women. That one is for the men.” After visiting the toilets, it became clear that we were not the first people to squat behind these rocks; dried up poop littered the landscape because there no insect or bacteria could survive long enough to decompose this organic material. Ancient toilet paper decorated the base of the rock. Later in the dark night, I left my own mark behind that rock and hoped that I wouldn’t fall onto anything too gross.
Dinner finally was ready around 9:30, and we fell onto the fire-grilled chicken and rice and potatoes like we hadn’t seen food in years. After we tidily polished off pretty much everything put in front of us and were getting ready to roll out our sleeping bags, our guides told us that they were going to put on a Bedouin Party for us. The part consisted of a drum, a plastic container, and a singer who came from a nearby camp. They desperately wanted to get us involved, and started by leading hand-clapping, then getting us to sing repeated choruses, then finally grabbed us and tried to make it a dance party.
Undoubtedly, it was fun to dance around a fire to a drum beat. But when an old Egyptian guy grabbed my hands and hip thrusted at me, I was less amused. Everywhere we go, I feel like our guides cross the delicate boundary between introducing us to their culture and being overly familiar. If you try to shimmy against me without invitation, that’s probably too familiar. I ran off and enjoyed dancing far away from the creeping hands of our guides. The Bedouin Party ended around eleven, and we got out our sleeping bags and went to bed.
Denny always tells us that the desert is a place of extremes; I have a feeling that he planned this camping adventure to really make sure that we got that point. The temperature had been dropping since the sun set, and the thin pads did not protect us from the cold sand underneath. My sleeping bag is rated to five below, and after lugging it through the hot hot tropics for a month and a half, I was so thankful for all that heavy insulation.
The next morning, our head guide beat his drum at six in the morning, about forty-five minutes before the sun got up. We shivered as we got out of our sleeping bags, and ran for the smoldering fire. We ate breakfast around six thirty – it doesn’t matter if you’re in a hotel or in the middle of the desert – breakfast always involves pita with fig jam and honey. And it doesn’t matter where you’re eating, the food is always going to have the extra crunch of a little sand. We packed up the jeeps once again and set off to see a few more of those white rock formations. Honestly, most of it was a blur for me. “A bird!” “A seahorse!” “ A whale!” our guide exclaimed, pointing to the rocks like clouds in a tan sky.
Our final stop in the White Desert was a flat-topped mesa composed of calcium carbonate deposited from a small spring underneath the sand. Subsequently, this was one of the only areas of the desert with any plant material – a little dry shrubbery and some grasses. I was dehydrated and sleepy as we climbed up the steep side of this mesa, and I sat down at the edge to wait to go back to the jeeps and sleep a little bit more. I picked absent-mindedly at the flakey rock, and underneath the top layer I found orange and green algae growing. Immediately, I was cheered up. Nate held up a rock he found with a fossilized sea shell, and I practically skipped down the rocky edge back to the jeep.
And then I promptly passed out until we got back to the Oasis and here I am back on that same big orange bus heading back to Cairo.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that you have had time to post your blogs--I have been waiting for the new entries and then when they were posted I had to set time aside to read them.

    We are interviewing grad students this week at Stanford--leads to a pretty hectic week.

    Looking forward to talking with you.