At 10 PM, we boarded the public bus from Alexandria to Siwa, about 50 km from the Libyan border. It was mostly men packing the 48 seats and the group near us seemed to know each other, as they greeted one another and joked together early in the ride. The man across the aisle from me kept looking over at me as if he wanted to flirt, but I put in my headphones. The driver played music and prayers over the speakers and the bus got colder and colder as we drove westward. I covered myself with my shawl and tried to nap between stops, when the lights would come back on and the noise of travelers exiting and boarding would disrupt my already fragile sleep. Past Marsa Matrouh my body finally gave in to fatigue and I slept soundly until we pulled up in Siwa at 6 AM.
People at school warned us to pack warm clothes for the cold nights, but I didn’t actually realize how cold it would be. I tried to control my chattering teeth and shaking hands as I thumbed through the guidebook to find the map of town. We made it to the Youssef hotel fairly quickly, but in the few minutes we stood waiting for the proprietor to open up I had a flash of a “no room at the inn” story of us wandering around in the cold and the dark for a place that would let us in. No such worries, though. We followed the manager up the stairs to a sparse but functional room with two beds and a nightstand. Not even changing out of my day clothes, I rolled up into the most fantastic bear bedspreads I have ever seen and fell asleep.
In the morning we crossed the street for breakfast at Abdu’s for falafel, veggie and chicken tajine, and sweet mint tea. A cat sniffed around our table, hoping for scraps.
At the next table were two men, one dressed in traditional white galabia and a camouflage kufia and the other one a French tourist who bore a befuddling resemblance to a leathery Alec Guiness. The Siwi man, Zait, chatted with us and invited us for tea with his French friend, then invited us to his cousin’s wedding to which almost the entire town would be coming, and then informed us that he runs a safari company and would be happy to take us into the desert and to the sites around. We agreed on a price and went to check out of the hotel.
Half an hour later we were racing through the Great Sand Sea. Zait was a master driver, taking us on a trackless rollercoaster ride up one dune and down another, sweeping over slopes and flying around bluffs.
We pulled to the stop of a high dune for a little sand surfing and a vista. Although the slope down was fine, I had trouble maintaining my balance at the bottom of the dune and I faceplanted into the sand. The second run I flipped over on my back and the board flew up over my head and flung sand all over everywhere. I swear I’ll be shaking the desert out of my clothes, shoes, hair, ears, and fingernails for weeks.
To wash off we drove to Bir Wahid, a hot spring about 25 minutes from town. The water was deliciously balmy and bubbling with a stream of slightly sulfurous gas that heated the spring from below.
We picked up supplies and one of Zait’s friends, Aadil, in town. We drove back into the desert and broke camp in a valley. Zait set up the tent wall and seats, made a fire, and started cooking.
I wandered up one of the dunes to take a look around. With the music off and the lights of the fire out of sight, I could feel the vast expanse of the desert. The moon was bright and the stars out clear in the indigo sky, making the dunes glow blue all around. With good reason, our guidebook describes the Egyptian Great Sand Sea, which is part of the Sahara Desert, as one of the only places left on earth where you can be truly alone. Only the sounds of the wind and my own breath resonated in the air. Silence itself seems bigger in a place like this.
I made my way back to camp, following Zait and Aadil’s soft conversation in percussive and lilting Siwi. Aadil showed us a Siwi game called Limada that is a lot like tic-tac-toe.
Zait pulled the pots out of the fire and we chowed down on hot fried rice and vegetable stew, thick and rich, with carrots, potatoes, hot green peppers, parsley, dill, saffron, cumin, carrots, and zucchini. Zait taught us a few words in Siwi:
Bitinsuiitamin? What’s your name?
Iraan Stars (iree star)
Lihilaal Crescent Moon
Next Aadil and Zait took turns drumming and dancing while singing traditional Siwi songs. We laughed and clapped late into the night. Zait jokingly asked if we’d ever stayed in a million star hotel before. It’s true, you can see stars and constellations with total clarity out in this place, lending even more weight to the feeling that, apart from the car and some of our gear, this could have happened any other time in history. Zait chided me for checking my cellphone, as he explained that in the desert there is no time as we conceive of it in city life. In a place such as this the only truths are the sun, the sand, and ourselves.