The Siwa Oasis: Deep inside the Sahara desert (travel update)
(Today's video is in English, but has a brief segment in Arabic when I chat to my jeep driver. The entire video, as always, is subtitled using Youtube's captions option).
Don't worry, next week I'll get back to language updates, including a video where I do most of the talking, all spontaneous, so you can hear what my Arabic level truly is. For now, I wanted to share my favourite place on my travels in Egypt: the Siwa Oasis!
It's a 10 hour or so bus ride from Alexandria (where I ended the first leg of my travels), through a road that has only been paved in recent decades, and as you can see it's a huge area of fertile land covered by palm trees, rather than our stereotypical image of an oasis being a single watering hole.
While there I almost felt like I was in another country; it's so different to the rest of Egypt, especially since this time I got to meet another ethnic group (the first ones being the Nubians), this time the Berbers.
Siwa is way more peaceful, and even though it's definitely a touristy area (lots of signs in English, and tourist-options like Safaris and day-trips), I didn't feel the kind of pressure of people trying to sell to me I would have elsewhere, even when I ditched my Egyptian attire to be more comfortable, and definitely stood out as a foreigner.
Walking through town
My first day I walked around a lot, first to get a better view of the whole area, and then to try and see the sunset from an island on the oasis lake. I had to walk through village areas far from the town centre and many kids would come up to me and speak… Modern Standard Arabic. It was curious because it was the first time I had ever heard “mā ismak” outside of tape recordings, since people in Egypt have been generally using the dialect version, “ismak eh” for What's your name?
The reason for this, is because the first language of a lot of these people was actually Berber, not (a dialect of) Arabic. So any Arabic they would use with people, would tend to only be that they learned in schools.
It was fun to chat to a couple of the kids there, but I definitely noticed a big difference in the women I would see. Very few of them were out of the house, and the few that were, were completely covered up. Even their eyes were covered with what I presumed (or hoped) was black see-through cloth. In the rest of Egypt I'd see an equal spread of younger ladies whose hair you can see, a lot wearing hijabs, and then some wearing a completely full black covering, that had slits cut through it for the eyes at least, but this was the first time I saw even the eyes getting covered.
I found it strange to find such traditionalism alongside tourists walking around showing way more skin. I have to admit, after this long in Egypt, most of the time outside of more international Cairo in more traditional areas, I got quite distracted when three German girls walked past me and I could see their… knees and elbows! It really stands out!
There were no tourists in this remote part of town though. After walking for about an hour, I was finally getting close to the lake when I got overrun with the annoying part of life that springs up near water sources: insects. There were so many of them that there were flying into my mouth, ears… and even into my eye. I had to retreat, and find a high mosque back in town to watch the sun set from.
Also, it was quite random, but I found that the fortress in the centre of town reminded me a little of the 16th century depiction of the Tower of Babel.
Into the desert
The next day, I rented a bike to go further around the area. Alexander the Great actually came all the way here over 2,300 years ago, specifically for an oracle to tell his fortune. I saw that temple, and then went on to the Cleopatra Spring, which was such a relaxing place to chill out at, that I hung out for a few hours talking to the guy who runs the restaurant beside it.
After this, I joined a 4×4 jeep Safari into the desert. It was great to see sand dunes stretching off into the horizon, because it was kind of part of my stereotypical image of being in the Sahara that I felt had to experience (the bus to arrive went across a very flat dry plane, without many sand dunes in sight).
It included driving like crazy up and down steep dunes, going sand boarding (well, not really since I had done sand boarding in Brazil and when you have grips for your feet you can do a lot more; on this one you just sit on the board like you would on a sled down snow), seeing ancient fossils and being surprised to find out that many millions of years ago all this desert was under the sea, checking out some hot springs which are super relaxing, and then finally watching the sun set.
I took this chance to sit down with Ali, the jeep driver and have a nice chat with him, segments of which you can see in the above video.
It was just so peaceful here, especially compared to chaotic cities in Egypt. My stay was also very cheap (you can get rooms right in the centre of town for 50 Egyptian pounds or so [€5.60/US$7.40]), and there are a lot of varied restaurants with tonnes of local options and international ones.
As I said when I talked to Ali, it's a pity their business is down so much with much fewer tourists, as political demonstrations occasionally taking place in one particular square in the country… is happening a more than 800km away. You just can't help but feel really safe and welcome when in Siwa though.
I can definitely recommend you consider visiting this oasis if you're nearby! I was sad to leave, but I had one last place to visit in Egypt before heading back to Cairo, which I'll tell you about in my last Egyptian travel update next week!