This was the plan: leave at 8pm Friday night from Turgoman station in Cairo. Arrive in Siwa at 5.30am and meet my friend Gwen from France at the Siwa Inn Hotel. Bestow copious hugs and kisses before finding Vivek, a Couchsurfing buddy who traveled from Alexandria. And then, after introducing my friends, relax in this beautiful oasis just 30 miles east of Libya before taking the Sunday overnight bus back to Cairo.
Here’s what really happened: the bus showed up with a broken belt, but I and a handful of other passengers, including a couple from Sicily, climbed on anyway. We were driven to a greasy junkyard, where we were given a bus that I was sure had not seen the light of day in months but that pacified a group of now grumpy Egyptian passengers. Finally, three hours behind schedule, bus #2 with the wheezy engine finally hit the road… and then broke down the following morning one hour shy of our destination!
Siwa is a colorful, sleepy town that lies in a depression roughly 30 feet below sea level. In the summer, fair-skinned people need not come by. But in November, the sun eases off during the day and the evenings are cool enough for a camp fire.
The area is known for its dates, olives, olive oil, and a few other cottage industries. It is also renowned for its green building techniques (more on all of this to come). Because of its remote and tranquil location 350 miles away from the hustle and bustle of an increasingly-tense Cairo, it has become a popular destination. But this isn’t necessarily great for the locals, who are beginning to face serious water shortages. Although there are signs of destructive tourism operations, we received a rare look at the same soporific inner workings that have sustained this community for hundreds of years.
The population currently stands at roughly 23,000, comprised mostly of Berbers. While theyshare the same gentle, hospitable attitude of the Berbers that Karin and I met during our respective stays in Morocco, the Siwi language here is distinctly different.
Gwen and Yehia, a prominent local man whose 19 brothers and sisters (from two mothers, I should add) own a lot of agricultural property in and around Siwa, came to my rescue at the side of the highway at 9am on Saturday morning. Bus #3 showed up two minutes later, but we didn’t care. We left that bus in our dust!
It’s easy to lose track of time wondering among the dusty streets alongside donkeys and tuk tuks, watching young boys and men completing their daily chores, or else sipping sugary chai in the shade.
A short climb up the melted Shali fortress made of mud-brick and salt provides a wonderful sense of perspective. From the top, there are views of two small salt lakes, a valley full of leafy green palms used for pretty much everything, and the necropolis or mountain of the dead rises in a lumpy mound on the outskirts of town.
The planned group of three turned to six: the couple from Sicily joined our party, I called them Juicy and Crunchy, Vivek met Pierre from Quebec on his bus, Gwen spent the day meandering through town with us before leaving on Saturday night, and then there was me.. happy as can be away from the city again.
Stay tuned over the next few days for a peek at a group of woman in Siwa who make carpets under the army’s watchful management, the man who lost an eye to salt crafts, Siwa’s veteran green builder, and the man who makes olive oil that is good enough to drink…
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