Only sand, except for Siwa

Siwa is a small community of some 25.000 people. It is a village built around an oasis in the Sahara desert, only 120 km away from the Libyan border and quite isolated from pretty much everything in Egypt. Our guide Yussef, a son of one of the eleven Sheikhs that rule Siwa and a pretty big deal in town, explained that Siwa’s isolation made it have its own culture, which is something one quickly notices when walking around. For one, the people in Siwa are Muslim but do not rigorously practice their religion. They drink, smoke, joke about Ramadan and pray much less than regular Egyptians. Women here are completely veiled, even their eyes, which is a strange thing to see, but that is more because of culture rather than religion. One would suspect a small village far away from civilization to be much more conservative, but that is not the case in Siwa, where they are surprisingly liberal, giving everyone the freedom to dress and act in their own personal way. Also, something that came a massive relief for yours truly: Siwan time means on time, which is very different from Egyptian time, where being two hours late is custom.

Day one:
Monday morning, 9AM at the bus station of Alexandria. A few interns and I had decided to finish our six-week stay in Egypt with a three-day trip to Siwa. We were on time for the 9AM bus and mucked around until the bus arrived at 9.45. We slept on the way to Matrouh, a city some 300 km west of Alexandria where we ate the absolute best foul and falafel for just one meagre pound per sandwich, changed buses and drove for another four hours to Siwa, where our guide Yussef picked us up. In two 4×4’s, he and his friend drove us to our hotel, “Dream Lodge”. As it was only 25 pounds per night (some €3), we expected it to be dirty, small and generally not an agreeable place to stay. This is how it looked like:

Dream lodge Dream Lodge 2 Dream Lodge 3

Being such an incredibly beautiful place, the hotel defied everyone’s expectations. The rooms were large and clean and there was a swimming pool and a stunning garden. We were all quite exstatic and took advantage of the garden and shower for a small hour before Yussef drove us to an idyllic paradise of palm trees and sand with a stunning view of the lake. We relaxed, drank fresh juice and watched the sun drown in the lake. Afterwards, we went to the town’s restaurant, which was owned by a friend of Yussef. It was quite cheap and the food was very good. To finish off the evening, Yussef and his friends drove us to a place in the desert where we sat around a bonfire, made music, smoked and drank, covered by a blanket of the brightest stars.

Bedouins singing

Day two:
Dead Mountain

We are standing on the highest point of Siwa. The green of life is followed by the yellowy white of sand. How life thrives with that blue drop, how quickly it dies without. It is midday and we are all standing on what is called the Dead Mountain, a mountain perforated by many ancient Egyptian tombs, some of which were very significant discoveries, with mummies and treasures. We take our time for some panoramic pictures, me with my Xperia Arc S smartphone, the others with professional cameras, sip some tea in front of the mountain, return to the hotel, where I went for a refreshing swim, and start the focal point of our Siwa trip: an SUV tour through the desert.

SUV tour

I hang out of the open window of our SUV, deflated tires. Sand is stinging my face as we race through the desert, 100 km/h. The sand dune in front of us grows at an alarming pace, I imagine it opening its mouth and swallowing us, like one of the sand worms in the Dune novels. But no, we swoop on top of the dune and suddenly stop before a seemingly impossible descent. Yussef grins, gives gas and we scoot down the hill. We race like this for over an hour before stopping on a big dune.

Pictures
Pictures
Pictures
“Thomas” written in sand, immortalized until the wind blows me away.

Lake desert

Above picture shows our next stop. A lake in the middle of nowhere, where we swam between little tadpoles. It seemed so unreal swimming while surrounded by rough sand, harsh desert. I swam to the other side, spoke Italian with another small group of people that was there and got scared of a little scarab beetle that I thought was chasing me. Before long, we left for our next adventure, which was something I quite enjoyed: sandboarding. The same concept as snowboarding, except you do it from a sand dune and cannot turn, or at least I couldn’t. Very enjoyable and a good workout running back up the hill with the sandboard. The hill offered a good view of yet another stunning sunset, after which we moved to a valley between sand dunes, where we would eat and spend the night. Yussef and his friends prepared grilled chicken with rice and potatoes, something that tasted like heaven after a day full of gritty sand. Peace and quiet, everyone satisfied. To finish the evening, we left our stuff at our sleeping place and drove to a hot spring that relaxed everyone’s tense muscles for an hour. We drove back and prepared ourselves to go to sleep. There were so many shooting stars that I ran out of wishes, although my primary wish was lying next to me.

Day three:
We woke up at around 8.30 and ate a quick breakfast before turning back to Siwa. On our way back, we had to drive through a protest, which was something unsual for Siwa, as Yussef told me Siwans did not generally care about Egypt’s situation. They were shouting “Get out, Sisi” as well, which struck me as particularly strange. I had never expected pro-Morsi protestants here. We quickly heard about the army cracking down the protest camps in Cairo, resulting in hundreds of deaths and chaos throughout the entire country. Public transport was nonexistent either, which was a problem for a few people on our trip, including me, that had to catch their flights. Luckily, Yussef could arrange a car for the people with urgent flights. It would drive us to El-Alamein, where someone else would drive us back to Alexandria. Four of us left, the others were stuck in paradise. On our way back, we got stopped multiple times by soldiers that searched our luggage and asked for our passports. Twice, we were being held under gunpoint by a stationary machine gun. We also saw a gigantic plume of smoke over Matrouh, blackening the air, blocking the sun.

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