“I was no longer stressed. Instead the sea of drifting sand gave me inner peace — a peace so perfect, I knew only God could bestow.”
I was supposed to venture out to the “White Desert” to revere the mushroom-shaped limestone formations.
I heard about the legendary white limestone cake icing that glows magical and mysterious in the faint moonlight.
Further, Atef told me that I would be camping out with other backpackers from different parts of the world. This sounded like a lot fun to me — staying the night in an unfamiliar landscape with people I just met, but hopefully become good friends before the night had passed.
But there would be a sacrifice…
The stuffy 5-hour bus ride from Cairo to the Baharia Desert with the windows rolled down was dusty and disconcerting.
Since I was traveling alone to an unknown location, I had no idea who, if anybody, would meet me at my final destination, some 360 km southwest of Cairo.
The thought did cross my mind several times that this was all a scam and I would be marooned in an unfamiliar land where only danger thrived. Certainly, there was a reason Atef from the Regent Hotel was pushing this tour on me. Not just once, but ten times. I didn’t want to hear the eleventh, so I relented.
“Come, I have a nice tour for a good price,” Atef insisted showing his buck teeth with his tobacco stained smile.
I was not even staying at Regent. I had a decent albeit noisy place to stay at the Qabana Hostel and my host, Haitham was extremely cordial and trustworthy. And during my morning runs that started at 6 in the morning, I would run into Atef as I was running back on Maruf St.
But why did I have to get up so early? Because Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and I am becoming increasingly convinced that it should be ranked #1.
The level of air pollution in Cairo ranges from 10 to 100 times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization.
The cars are centuries old, many of them held together by chicken wire and duct tape, squeaking by with horns that scream all night long, only to be interrupted by the sound of prayer at 5:30.
The drivers are even more edgy — they don’t stay in their lane, they don’t stop for pedestrians and they completely ignore the sea of traffic cops that are meagerly attempting to keep things in order.
The noise is deafening, especially if you have to sleep through it. And Cairo doesn’t go to sleep until 4 AM, and by 6 AM, the thick cloud of smoke and dust has finally cleared allowing one to saunter out in the predawn darkness with some hope of running in tranquility and respiratory peace.
I even had the great pleasure to run with the Cairo Hash House Harriers during one of their weekly jaunts through the desert. You meet people, have fun, do wild and crazy skits while trying not spill your beer, and perhaps most significantly, you get a chance to run out wild in the mountains and desert and see and breathe the real Egypt, as it was in the time of mythology and Hieroglyphics.
But after spending four hectic days in Egypt, almost been run over twice and seeing everything from the Giza to King’s Tut tomb, I was ready to head out of this confusion to someplace more tranquil, someplace where I could breathe and not feel like I’ve just smoked a cigarette.
Sadly, I didn’t even have enough Egyptian pound to buy me a hot dinner, let alone a place to stay. I was not ready. I should have not have gone.
Similar to the Haiti trip, I was definitely going on Faith. Someone told me this was something I had to do, and Atef kept bugging me — I wouldn’t find out until the next day, the full reason why.
Five hours later, when the bus made a big stop, and everyone got out, I suddenly started to feel real stupid. The idea that I would be spending the night alone in the shifting sands of this mysterious desert became took on credibility. Finally the bus took one last turn and entered through the gates of Ahmed’s Safari Camp. Great, I wouldn’t be dying tonight, at least not just yet.
I was immediately relieved to see Ahmed. Ahmed knew Atef and appreciated the steady flow of clientele that flowed from the city. Then Ahmed handed me over to my guide, Mahmoud, who drove me around for over an hour and showed me different spots around Baharia that were beautiful and picturesque.
“Nice,” but in the back of my mind, I wish he would hurry up.
View Bahariya Oasis in a larger map
Then all of a sudden, Mahmoud stops in the middle of this sand dune.
Was the jeep broken? Did he have a flat tire?
“What are we doing here?”
“We stop here,” he said. We camp here for the night.”
I reminded Mahmoud that I insisted on visiting the legendary white desert. I surely did not ride on a van for 5 hours just to sleep on a sand dune all by myself.
After making a phone call, I discovered that there was never any intention of taking me to the White Desert. The hostel manager, Atef, just wanted to swindle my money and have me camp out on a sand dune instead. $120 US, it seemed like a good deal for him — and a way to squeeze every last cent out of the unwitting tourist.
At first, I was rather disappointed — I had no desire to spend the night on a sand dune alone with my guide — one who didn’t speak much English, one who spent virtually the entire time talking to his wife on the phone.
But as the night wore on, I started to think differently.
As the crescent moon rose bright and strong, it flooded the surrounding desert with a beautiful moonlight — so graceful and tranquil, I felt at peace. It was quiet, deathly quiet — the only noise was the weeping of the wind over the fine, desert sand.
For a moment, I felt like I was marooned on a desert isle. The experience –completely peaceful and carthatic.
It was then that I realized that was no better place to be than in Egypt’s Western Desert and live the simple camping life of the ancient Egyptians, surrounded by sand dunes.
I couldn’t help but start to reflect on my life, my story and the lessons I have learned. I thought about my family, my beginnings, why I was here and what the future held for me and my loved ones.
What started out as a lie to trick me to believing that I would be camping with other people in the legendary White Desert became a golden opportunity to revitalize, reflect and renew.
I knew that this was the right place to be — it was no accident that I would be alone on a sand dune with nothing on the agenda dune but to think and reflect.
What was truly amazing was that for some reason that night, I felt totally at peace. Despite staying in hectic Cairo, my blood was no longer boiling; I was no longer stressed. Instead the sea of drifting sand gave me inner peace — a peace so perfect, I knew only God could bestow.
Soon, it was past midnight. I gracefully fell asleep in the sand, so comfortable, it felt like a sea of soft, white goose feathers. Suddenly I was jolted awake. A 4×4 Land Rover came roaring up the sand dunes trying to climb it, only a couple hundred feet from crushing my lifeless body. Somehow, it just couldn’t muster enough steam. The jeep was not really that close to hitting me, either, but it was close enough to jolt me up as I wondered whether I was simply lucky, blessed or both. Whatever it was, it was not my moment to go. There was something else I needed to know.
One close brush with death was enough that night, so I quickly gathered my stuff and rolled down hill towards our jeep. Surprisingly, my guide, Mahmoud, was still up. Thankfully, I was so tired, I immediately went right back to sleep, as if this shocking event never happened.
The sun was already up for a couple of hours, when I awoke. I felt so refreshed and my back was not in pain despite sleeping on the sand dune. I had a simple breakfast of eggs and bread while my guide started packing up the gear. By 0900, we departed — the sand was already feeling hot and the sun shone brightly adding to my deeper, desert tan.
As I had expected, the bus ride back home was once again long and hot, but I was glad to be heading to a real bed, a bathroom and a hot shower for a change. I was sitting by Amy from Boston who was also getting her MBA but from Darden in Virginia. Across the aisle was Ayaka, who was traveling alone from Japan. Somehow the bus ride got to her and she began to feel nauseous, a puke bag at the ready. They were backpackers like me who spent the night in the desert. But unlike me, they had the fortune to experience a night in the legendary White Desert.
The bus stopped at Giza, within sight of the mythical Pyramids. I was tempted to go pay another visit — I’m sure glad I went straight back to the hostel instead.
When I returned back to the hostel, I took a super long hot shower. The entire room got super steamy and when I walked out steam rose from my pores.
I poured a hot cup of tea with a pungent scent of cinnamon. Then I turned on my computer and read my email. An expected note from Mom and one from Japan from my cousin Awei who I had not seen in years.
—– Original Message —–
From: 鄭 偉閣
Sent: Sunday, May 23, 2010 3:34 PM
Subject: RE: Grandma
We just took Grandma from the hospital to the funeral home in Nishinomiya. We dressed her in the designated gold color outfit, and she is now resting in peace. I just returned home to get ready for tomorrow’s funeral. First thing in the morning, I will need to go to the city office to acquire the death certificate, fill out more papers, and make a reservation at the crematory.
The funeral will start 6pm today (5/24, Japan time), and Grandma will be cremated tomorrow (5/25) at 11am. After the cremation, we will bring Grandma’s ashes back to the Ashiya home. Therefore, we advise you not to come back to Japan due to such short notice. I don’t think you will make it back on time.
I spilled my cup, the blazing-hot liquid ran down my bare legs. I read and reread, hoping it was just my imagination. Then with gritted teeth, I wondered why the hell I was here and what if anything I could do. Then at that moment it occurred to me that the trip that wasn’t meant to be was every reason I was supposed to go When all alone in a strange and peaceful world, you hear the voices, from those who are close to you and those who are passing away. Even my close brush with death had a whole different meaning now.
My sweet Grandma will be dearly missed in her tight-knit Kobe community as well as by relatives in Hong Kong, UK and the US.
I just returned from a night camping in the desert to hear this very sad news.
I’m very sorry for the loss of Grandma. My condolences also to Kim, Uncle, Auntie, Awei and cousins. She was an amazing woman who was loved by many. She lived an incredible life and I’m sure touched many hearts.
I’m happy that you got to spend some time with her last month. Those moments must be now extra special and the pictures of the both of you together look great.
Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.
I leave Cairo tomorrow for Athens.
|tosh peppler to me||5/24/10|
Just remember her in your heart that the reason we’re all here is because of her. It is her legacy that we make the most of our lives to make her proud. I am at peace knowing that her spirit is free, no longer a prisoner of her declining body. Enjoy the rest of your trip for her but stay safe.
I will always appreciate what my Grandma has done for my family, and I will never forget that one special night in the desert when both life and death together shone brightly in the moonlight over the sparkling, drifting sand.