March 21, 2009:
Woke up after a surprisingly restful sleep on a camel blanket at Al-Karm to set out on a "high mountain" hike with Badri [my Egyptian guide for those of you just joining us]. We ate breakfast with Hoder and said goodbye to the disproportionally large number of Bedouin men manning the camp [there was a 2:1 ratio of workers to campers]. Hoder drove us about 20 minutes in the datsun to the base of a very imposing looking stretch of mountains. After Badri got his morning prayers complete we set out heading right towards a seemingly impassable wall of rock and sand. After walking for about half an hour or so the mountains seemed to shuffle aside visually, allowing us entrance to a narrow pass in between two of the silent sentinels. The TaylorCAM was up and running and after Badri got over his initial laughing fit at a very odd American I explained to him the way it took pictures at an interval of every 5 seconds. I haven't compiled the video yet, but from sampling it looks to be mostly about 2 hours of Badri's backside and a bunch of rocks. Now that's good television.
Just as the batteries on the TaylorCAM were shutting down, we got to our first destination and concurrently, the first break of the day. We had reached one of the inner valleys of the high mountain region known to contain many of the gardens of the Bedouin. The valleys are higher in elevation and protected from much of the harsher winds, and therefore lend themselves to cultivating small amounts of trees and food. The first part we stumbled on was an oasis of sorts, not containing any visible water, but with lush high palm trees providing shade and a stopping place for food and water. This part of the Sinai desert is truly one of the most remote reaches, with access being limited to foot or donkey, even camels have a hard time going up many of the steep trails. Walking on I was struck by the way the gardens were contained. Worried about protecting the precious crops from bored and hungry donkeys, fences and walls are constructed around many of the small fields. Since materials are such a valuable resource in this area, even the boundary conditions are created with a care for the management of the limited means available. A fence is created with scraps of wood held in place by a rock with a single strand of barbed wire connecting them at the height of a donkey's head. After a little bit further we got to a place with a larger number of Bedouin in habitations, meaning you could almost see two within eye shot. Here Badri told me it would be a bad idea to take pictures, but I managed to snap one of a traditional Bedouin traveling garb.
This guy was trucking, and even walking at close to my full speed he easily outdistanced us in a matter of minutes, to veer off to another distant path invisible to my eyes. At around lunch time we stopped at an encampment headed up by strangely enough, Hoder's brother. They invited us to sit down for the customary tea and then we played the very popular "how old do you think I am game". It blew their mind that I was older than all of them except for Hoder's brother, with them quoting my age anywhere from 15-19 and I grossly overestimating their own. They offered to walk us the next part of the way, as they were going to try and make a phone call anyway, with telephone service being about as rare as an ice cream stand in those parts. The next part of the trip was pretty hilarious, as it consisted of four Egyptian men and myself wandering aimlessly around a series of rocky outcroppings holding cellphones up to the sky and shouting at each other. When someone finally got signal, everyone would crowd around their location like an invisible desert phone booth.
We parted ways and a little bit further on Badri showed me a marker he had placed on a previous voyage to show the right path in the barren wasteland. It was a set of rocks stacked on top of each other reminiscent of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, equal parts nature with the odd hint of human interaction. Before making it back to camp a few hours later, we stopped at Badri's father's convenience store to chat and stare at the open desert road, occasionally raising our hands to the odd passing truck.
March 22, 2009:
Woke up at the Bedouin camp to a grinning Badri greeting me as I sat down to my early breakfast of beans, cheese, boiled egg, bread and honey. I had asked him to take me by a "Nawamese" village east of St. Catherine on the way to Dahab. Hoder was busy that day, also being a teacher at a local elementary school [Arabic and Math], so it fell to another of Badri's friends, Muhammad, to drive us to our locations. Since we were going outside of St. Catherine's, we had to pass by a series of police checkpoints. To ease the process along Badri came running out of his house with a light purple Jabaliya headdress for me to throw on to avoid questioning. I didn't think it looked convincing, but apparently my darker tan was starting to have some benefits, we cruised through all of the police checkpoints with just a casual wave and me tugging my lilac covering down closer around my non-Egyptian eyes. I learned later this might not have been the best idea had we gotten caught, but luckily everything went on without a hitch and in my head I could almost hear people starting to call me el-awrence like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia [By the way, I asked numerous people what they thought of the movie in Egypt, and no one had seen it, which definitely shot me down].
Arriving at the site of the Nawamese I was struck by both their size and orientation. A cluster of about 30 or so low stone cylinder structures greeted us on entry. The entrances were all turned to the west, with none at all being visible when walking up. Once you get around to the back side though, the twinkling of dark eye sockets stare back at you in the form of the portals of the Nawamese structures. They are all about 7 feet tall, with many of the entrances having to be crawled through in order to be accessed. The buildings seemed to bubble up from the earth they rested on, low to the ground with thick clay colored walls, they resembled a barnacle on the Earth's crust. One of the things that struck me so mightily when visiting many of the parts of the Sinai peninsula was my inability to trace where buildings started and stopped. So many of them interacted with the landscape in such a primal way I began to question whether the sandy dunes arrived first or the raw stacking of stones to form walls. Even after thousands of years of blowing winds and stinging sand, the Nawamese still stand unmoved, indifferent to the changing governments, floods, and droughts. All past materials in the form of wood and reed forgotten to leave the bleached carcasses of stone with their backs turned, gazing out towards the setting sun.
The sandy plains of Egypt have a near and dear place in their heart for me, and even now I can hear them calling me back with their ancient, raspy voices. I hope to go back there someday to soak in even more of the Bedouin's care for their surroundings and in habitations.