May 7, 2007 – Siwa Oasis (via Marsa Matruh)

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Siwa Oasis, have you ever heard of it? Well, we hadn’t. When Tor was scouring the Egypt guide book, he had highlighted this particular spot as a MUST to see. And right he was!

But before I tell you about Siwa and our adventures there, let me tell you what happened on the way there. Siwa is about a 7 or 8 hour bus ride. We thought that this time we might like to take a break along the way and stop and spend some time on the ocean and get our feet and bodies back into the salt water. The last time we had done this was in December in Thailand. It seemed like Marsa Matruh would be the perfect spot for this. This is supposedly a holiday town for local Egyptian people from Cairo and they flock here in the summer to cool off and spend some relaxing time. The Lonely Planet warned us that the town was kind of dead in off season and only really comes alive in July and August. Well, Ger didn’t necessarily believe the Lonely Planet and we all thought that o it might be okay and even better to visit in the off season. If there were a few less people spending time at the ocean, that would be okay with us. Well, what we didn’t realize was that not only was there a few less people there really weren’t any people at all around. Just a couple of locals. The whole water front area was boarded up and nothing was open, no restaurants, no shops, no anything. It really was kind of eirie walking along the sea walk. Then to top it off we ended up in a hotel that was absolutely horrible. Probably the second worse place that we have been in. Even though it was low tourist season, the hotels that were open were still charging an arm and leg and hence the reason for being in this horrible place. At first glance the place looked okay but once we settled in, we realized how filthy it actually was. The worst was the bathroom, it was disgusting and on our last night, the water was turned off. I guess they were doing some work on the hotel (which is a good thing) but we couldn’t flush the toilet and so as it filled up, it absolutely stank. Ooooo, yuck! Well despite our circumstances, we turned on some tunes and I managed to get Ger to dance and wiggle his bum just for a few minutes. See what can happen in less than perfect situations. Hahaha!

As in everything in life there is always a positive and we did manage to go for a dip in the most beautiful blue green ocean waters. Tor got a chance to try his new goggles that he hopes to use for snorkelling and I got some treading in and Ger and Tor had some big father/son wrestling matches in the sand and water. The next morning, very early, we were out of there. So all was good!

This being our first time in the desert, the bus ride to Siwa was totally mezmerizig as we stared out the windows into the vast expanse of sand. About two thirds of the way there we noticed the wind increasing and the sand blowing around and even covering parts of the road. The bus shook a bit from side to side but seemed unhindered by the weather conditions, so we didn’t worry at all. When we arrived in Siwa, we decided that we were going take our time to find a comfortable, clean place to stay. We really wanted to relax and get some good night’s sleep for a couple of days at least. So Tor and I in and amongst the sand storm, went scouting around checking at least 5 or 6 different places, while Ger guarded the back packs. We found one that was not ideal but would suffice. While we were checking that one out, the hotel owner asked us if we wanted to join a desert tour that afternoon with three other people, who were standing in front of us in the lobby. It would be offered at a cheaper rate because we would join this group. We thanked him for the offer and told him we would be back to let him know.

After a little thought and consultation with Ger, we felt that the wind was still blowing pretty hard and it was kind of cloudy so we wouldn’t really see the desert sunset and Ger didn’t really want to go on a tour on the day of our arrival so we decided against joining the offer for the cheap excursion. This was to be one of those VERY GOOD DECISCIONS you make while travelling and you don’t realize how good until later.

There was one more upscale place that I wanted to check out before we made our final decscion on where to stay, in hopes that they might offer a reduced rate for a very special Canadian family, hahaha. Well they didn’t but along the way we found the most peaceful, clean and charming little mud hut in the midst of a grove of palm trees and although not cheap, it was within our price range and we settled in.

The next day we learned how good our decision about not joining the desert tour actually was. The story around town was that there had been an accident in the desert and one foreign tourist was killed and the two other tourists had serious injuries. The driver got away scott free, with no injuries at all and the other local fellow that was with him had two broken arms. This was the first time that something like this had happened in Siwa. Having thought we would evetually like to go on a tour of the desert, I tried to find out what went wrong. There were three mistakes made by the tour. The first was that they shouldn’t have gone on a tour in such bad weather, (which was the worst sand storm that the locals had ever seen in May). The second was that the main driver, a very large local Siwa man, had let a younger untrained boy drive the jeep (this really was illegal). So the story was that he was driving a bit too fast over one of the sand dunes, I guess the jeep went flying over and took a nose dive into the sand. The third is that supposedly they were driving in a military area, which was also not allowed. As a result a beautiful young Austrailan girl somewhere between 24 to 28 lost her life and her husband ended up in the hospital with serious injuries. The story hit me kind of hard because I saw her and her husband and the driver making the plans to go. So there was a face, a real person for me. I guess it is hard to predict what life what will present itself with at any given time, but it seems so unfair that this young woman had to lose her life so unnecessaarily. The future for the young Eygptian fellow and the main driver are also bleak as they will be in alot of trouble for the mistakes that were made on that day.

Siwa, is the most fascinating little oasis town, especially if you have never been to an oasis. At first glance, I felt like I was in a town of rubble with sand blowing and dust everywhere but as we began to explore it, we came to learn that there are over 300,000 palm trees growing here and loads of olive and date farms for which the town is famous through out Egypt for. We soon developed a fond affection for the people or should I say men (will explain later) and the town. The first day we rented bikes, crappy bikes but yes bikes and made our way to Gebel Mawta, which means Mountain of the Dead. Here we wandered around, completely on our own, adding to the solemness, gazing at all the tombs that were created about 3,300 years ago. The one tomb that was of particular interest was the one that contained a mummy. We all gasped a little as we entered the tomb and found ourselves looking at a complete preserved body of bones and a skull with actual hair on it. Tor was pretty excited about witnessing this little piece of history. We also saw one of the most famous temples that Siwa is known for, the Temple of Amon. It has only one remaining wall with some hieroglypics on the top of it, which are beautiful, to say the least. But the most fascinating part is that these are the remains of what was created in 360 BC. Now that is ancient history.

We ended off our bike tour with a climb up Dakrur Mountain. Dakur is a mound of light reddish brown rock in the middle of reems and reems of sand. It looked a bit auspicious as we rode our bikes up to the base as once again, everthing around it was deserted. There was absolutely no one around and so we took the liberty to climb to the top, to the most spectacular desert scenery. Tor and Ger had so much fun just taking pics and more pics and I enjoyed standing at the top with the wind blowing through my hair and as often the case, being the subject of their photography.

We were later to find out that the reason the area around the mountain is so deserted is because it is only in July and August in the heat of the summer sun that things become alive. One of the main reasons is that tourists find their way to Siwa is to experience the healing powers of the sand. And it is around Dakkrur Mountain that they come in droves to have a sand bath. Supposedly, you take off all your clothes and lower yourself into a dug out tub of sand and they cover you up which makes you sweat profusely. You lay here for about 20 minutes, with them changing the sand and putting a new hot dry layer over you whenever it gets to moist from your sweat. After this sand bath you go into a Bedouin tent to sweat some more and drink hot tea. Following the treatment you are not allowed to take a cold shower or have cold drinks for three further days. The thinking behind this is that you are ridding yourself of all the toxins in your body. It is said to be true that people have come with a variety of ailments, including being in a wheel chair and after are once again able to walk. Unfortunately we were in Siwa to early to experience this but I do for sure have this on my list as something I would love to try out.

All in all it was a truly fantastic day of sightseeing in Siwa and we enjoyed it so much that next day we rented crappy bikes again and went off to see if we could reach the edge of the Great Sand Sea. This piece of desert is part of the eastern Sahara and is aptly named because it is the third largest accumulation of sand in the world. Spanning the 600 km between Siwa in the north and the Gilf Kebir Palteau in the south, the Sand Sea forms a natural barrier between Egypt and Libya. From west to east, this barren but extremly beautiful land is about 250km wide, though it reaches 400km in the south. Nothing lives here but the wind, and nothing moves here but the sand.

So since it was only about 6 kilometres from town, we thought it would be fun to try and get their on our own. Although it was just a tad warm, we covered ourselves up with sunscreen and hats and long pants and cycled and walked as far as our legs would carry us beyond the oasis to try and get some pictures of only people (that would be us because once again there was not a soul in sight) and sand and sky. I know I know you are beginning to think there are no people in this town, well there are but they are in the middle of town and they are mostly only men. All the women, that are married women are not allowed to expose one iota of skin to the rest of world. That’s right they wear a black full cloth veil over their face. Over their head and body they wear a heavy large cloth of blue and white pin stripes with with some stitched on decorations in bright orange somewhere down the middle of the shawl. It so large that they actually wrap it around the front part of their body as well. They also don’t show their feet and put on socks as well. And get this, this is only the outer wear. Underneath all this cloth they still have another scarf covering their head and they have another dress on and who knows what kind of undergarments yet. All this cloth and clothing in 30 plus temperatures. So to us it looked like they were ghosts, non humans walking around town. Often we saw them being carted around by their husbands and/or sons in a donkey cart. It was really weird and eerie not to see women being a part of daily life and the community. They really do hide out in their houses cooking, looking after the household and having babies and raising the babies. The young fellow who worked at the guest house we were staying at was one of 12 children and at the end of our visit in Siwa, I found out from Alie that his mother was now pregnant with her 13th at the tender age of 38. Absolutely unbelievable,huh! It is still common practice in this town for men to have not only one wife, but many wives and we were told of one that has four wives and 32 children. Needless to say, Ger was aghast as he can’t imagine in his wildest dreams dealing with 4 wives. Hahahaha! Ger also says that I probably couldn’t imagine having three competitors for my husband’s attention. I have to say he is probably right. Not sure I would want to share him either. As this is so unusual for us as westerns, I had many discussion with other tourists and other Egyptians and learned that underneath all that cloth the women are often the ones in control of the household and have a huge say as to how things are run in the family. I however, can’t help wondering that if there are women who are being mistreated, who would ever know about it. Hmmmmm……

Having told you all this, we were so fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a local wedding and I had the lucky chance to see all their smiling faces and watch their personalities and observe them talking, sharing and laughing with other women and their children. The owner of our guest house, Alloush, a charming handsome guy of somewhere between 30 and 37, we could’t really figure out his real age, was getting married during our stay and invited us to come and be a part of the festivities. But since women can’t been seen by other men, they were all gathered in the groom’s house and the men gathered in a tent set up in a parking lot just metres from the house. So I went in the house with the women and as I entered as the only foreigner, I was watched and greeted by probably about 60 or so women. They were all sitting cross legged on the floor on straw mats, one right beside another. There was no room to be walking around as it was completely filled with women. Not one of them spoke English and I didn’t speak one word of their Siwa language or Arabic, so communication was minimal. It was pretty exhilarating experience to walk in upon this scene. I was a bit nervous but the children in the house globbed on to me like glue and it was easy to sing and count and play hand games with them. I was guided to a room in the upstairs part of the house and here a 12 year old girl, who had pretty good English was able to chat with me and translate a little bit, enough so that I could learn some names and ages and that’s about it. As for the rest of the women they just looked at me and I looked at them and I explained repeately how beautiful their floor length dresses with detailed colorful sequins sewn on were. The shawls that they covered their heads with were lacy, delicate with long fringes and in variety of light colours of blue and yellow and pink, adding to the beauty of their faces. Many of women had very black wavy curly hair that I could see peering out of their shawls. This is typical of the Berber people that live in the town of Siwa. There were also a gazillion babies and so I tried to communicate through their children but sometimes the little ones would scream out in fear when they saw my face. Can’t imagine why? Unfortunately I do not have any picture of this experience because the women of the town are hesitant to be photographed and I wanted to respect their wishes, so the experience was only for my eyes and I hope that I can describe it adequately enough for everyone else to get a glimpse of this hidden part of the world.

Ger and Tor hung out with the men in the tent and chatted and ate.

Since Alie, the worker at our guest house was helping out with serving the food, he grabbed Torin and next thing Tor knew he was a waiter, serving local Siwan men dishes of rice and big hunks of meat. The tradition for Siwan weddings is that the day before the wedding a cow is slaughtered and cleaned and cooked for about the approximately 1000 guests that will attend the wedding over a period of three days.

Towards the latter part of the evening the bride and groom arrived, the bride was from Marsa Matruh, that awful town we spend two nights in, remember? The groom went to pick her up in the morning and they arrived quite late into Siwa because the bride was still getting her hair done up at 5:30pm. Yea, I know, no one can really see her hair, so we weren’t sure why that was so important but eh, who are we to say anything.

Just before they arrived all the children at the wedding crawled onto the back of two pickups and drove around town honking their horns and shouting and hollering. A tradition that is quite similair to ours.

The bride was then ushered into the house and there was some dancing and chanting amongst all the women as she entered what is going to be her new home. At that point, it was like 10:30pm and I joined the boys in going back to our mud hut, to get some shut eye.

The next morning we were once again invited to attend the festivities. In the large the tent the groom, Alloush, was now sitting in the back with his groomsmen beside him as other men came into congratulate him on his marriage. We were ushered in as well, yes, me a foreign woman sitting amongst all the Siwan men, just havin’ a chat. You gotta luv it.

After giving a wedding present of $5 US, we left and Ger went for coffee, Tor back to the room to watch some TV and chill and I entered the house of women for some more wedding experiences. This time I was given the chance to sit on the floor in the bedroom with the bride and her bridesmaids. It was again, so unususal but with the language barrier, I could only observe actions and behaviours. I did manage to find out that the bride was only 16 years old. Just a baby! Oh, my goodness, I don’t think that she really had a clue of what she was getting into. So I sat in this bedroom for about three hours during which time the bride changed from her white lacey wedding dress into a gold, yellowish dress, over which she put the traditional Siwan wedding dress. A white dress covered in sequins and then she doned the traditional shawl which is black and covered in sequins, under which she had her lacy shawl covering her head. All in all it was very strange at least to me that she had to sit in these mounds of clothes in a bedroom with a closed door with only her friends around her for such a long chunk of the day. There was the odd woman that came into congratulate her and her friends by shaking their hands. During this time though we were served a lunch of spaghetti, pita bread and salad and beef and liver and Dahsheesh, a local dish. The girls ate only a pittance, as I think that there was definitely some nervous energy about this whole event. Oh, they did take some pictures with a very old fashioned camera and I happened to be on some of them along with the bride. Don’t think that I will ever see them but it truly was an experience of a lifetime for me.

Our time in Siwa was definitely peaceful, relaxing and culturally enriching and as a result we ended up staying an extra two days longer than we had expected. We enjoyed lazy mornings, sleeping in and waking up to sip on a Nescafe coffee, while reading a book followed by a brunch meal of an omelette with some falafel and a fresh orange juice or a honey and banana pancake. Hmm, so delicious! The heat of the day would usually encourage us to head back to our mud hut for a late afernoon nap and by the early evening we were out again to find a spot to enjoy the desert sunset and beautiful it twas.

Siwa is a town on the rise and tourists are definitely flocking there to witness the charm and quaitness of this oasis community. It already has changed drastically in the last three or four years with the onset of SUV’s for the desert tours and motorbikes. But the majority of travel and taxi service is still done by donkeys and their carts. It’s kinda of slow but certainly entertaining to watch. There is definitely a air of things about to explode even further here and so we feel fortunate to have visited this little town before tourism really overtakes and change the essence of their very unique culture.

By the way there was the most exquisite hotel for sale in Siwa. We couldn’t help taking a peak just to see what it was like and what the possibilities would \ could be. Just kidding, we are coming home – back to Canada on July 13 (Friday!). However there’s no harm in dreaming.