Camel Speak

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Mwaurrgghhh,

That is the closest transliteration I can get for hello in Camel lingo. It's a fun language I must admit--very guttural and bellowing.

Yes, you guessed it. This episode is about the camel trek across the desert. First the prelude.

Shortly prior to the camel trip, I was joined by my friend Travis. His companionship was of course an integral part of the trip, so he will be mentioned often. As per his take on our adventures, well, I can only speak for myself. Besides, I may be nothing more than a singular consciousness, and thusly would never be able to assert the experiential validity of other life forms or objects. Right, Travis?

I had been trying to arrange the camel trip from America, but e-mail negotiations had not progressed to a copacetic point before I jetted to Egypt. Hence, Travis and I had no confirmed desert trekking reservations. Plans were up in the air.

We could do a once-in-a-lifetime trip, lumbering on hairy backs across scorching sands, or we could go to Alexandria and Siawa (a very interesting isolated oasis that came highly recommended). We figured that on Thursday we would go and physically negotiate with the camel people (they were right up the block from the hotel), and if unsatisfactory, we would go to Siawa.

Well, the "quick" negotiation turned into a whole day ordeal. It started out with a random and rather dense guy "helping" us to locate the office. We asked a group of men on the street if we had found the right building. Our Joe perked up with an entrepreneurial light scintillating in his beady little eyes. So with seed shells spitting from his lips (Egyptians seem to have a penchant for eating seeds and projecting the remains on the ground), he took us (or actually followed us) to the office.

Such help is common in Egypt where back streets and hidden buildings are a rule, and when the destination is reached the "guide" will usually go his way once given baksheesh (note: many people will help you just to be nice, and are not at all baksheesh-mongers). Not this fellow. Not only was he practically useless in helping us find the place, but he stuck around after the baksheesh in hopes to draw us away with his own camel trip (highly doubtful if he had the brain power to run one of his own--but maybe a cousin). Anyway, to make a long story short, he was a great nuisance who refused to leave. It took four men to finally, and literally, drag him out of the place.

Back to the negotiations. Like I said, it took all day. Prices couldn't be agreed upon, hotels for the beginning and the end of the trek were unavailable, transportation arrangements were unacceptable, different options kept being brought up and then nixed, etc. From a process that started at about 9 or 10 am, we didn't fork over the money until about 5 or 6 pm. We were exhausted with the effort of it all. An entire day wasted, but there was the adventure to which we looked forward.

So at 7am the next morning we were picked up by our driver. Surprisingly the streets were deserted. Cairo, unlike NY, is a city that sleeps. The effect was depend by the hazy fog--yes fog. At first we thought it was extra thick choking Cairo smog, but it was indeed fog. I never thought I would experience something like fog in Egypt, but always expect the unexpected I suppose. What was even more surprising was that the fog lasted well into the desert, so it had no basis on river proximity.

It was a good 7 or so hour trip to where we would meet the camels at the side of the road. En route we passed through some lovely desert scenery. Of special note was Crystial Rock (a concentrated cropping of rock where all geological formations were comprised of giant geodes), and the Black Desert. The Black desert was indeed mostly black, but it was not the structural rock or the sand that made it that way. The ground was completely coated in tiny black stones. This was the interesting result of wind erosion. As the rest of the earth was blown away, these stones were heavy enough to be left behind.

At this point, the major pitfall of the trip occurred--Travis and I came down with that wonderful malady, travelerís diarrhea. I don't think I have ever thought or talked so much about shit in my life. It is truly a sad state of things when one is jealous of a camel and its nice firm fecal matter.

We became unfortunately well acquainted with the cesspools that stood for toilets in country roadside stops. Fortunately the eastern style toilet (imagine a urinal set in the ground) is common in the country. When it comes to unsanitary/hold-your-breath-from-the-stench kind of restrooms, you couldn't ask for better. You don't have to worry about touching anything--you just squat.

I do have to give you one last gruesomely cute detail. If you have to get travelers diarrhea on a trip abroad, having it in the desert isn't such a bad deal. Imagine--one giant litter box. All you have to do is duck behind the nearest dune or rock. You are still in abject agony, but at least you are in a clean non-smelling environment.

So now, finally, I get to the camels. They are the dammed cutest things! Cuddly kissable faces (at least until they open there mouths and you see their teeth--camels don't brush), diplodocus-like swaying necks, disproportionately long spindly legs, soft padded feet (I thought they would have been hoofed, but they aren't--better equipped for sand that way), scratchy wool (the wool is harvested and woven into various items), and of course the hump. The saddle we rode was designed to fit over the hump, so you are actually riding at the beast's apex.

I had always heard that riding a camel was an ordeal. It is one of those things you can't fully comprehend until you do it. First you have to get on the camel, which is a trick in and of itself. I'm a tall girl, and even I found it challenging. The camel is sitting on the ground, and you have to clamber aboard with the combination of a gigantic swoosh of the leg and a jump.

Once you have settled yourself, you have to survive the camel getting up. They raise their ass in the air first, and then the front. The problem is that when their back legs extend, they suddenly create an angle of at least 45 degrees. So if you are not holding tenaciously to the saddle, you most assuredly will be pitched in a clear arc over the camel's head. No matter their biology, I am convinced that the camels purposefully do this in hopes of turning any unwary/unworthy fools into derisory projectiles. Getting back down is equally tricky.

After the camels have fully erected themselves, you have to learn how to ride them, and for this I was very glad to be a dancer who understands the concept of isolation. You see, you have let you lower half sway all over the place while keeping you head relatively steady. Getting used to that was easy enough, the problem was the saddle sores. You are bobbing around so much, that you can't help but suffer abraded skin. For this purpose, Travis and I chose to walk most of the time.

Our guide was great! He did not know much English, and we didn't know much in the way of Arabic, so communication was pretty minimal and basic. Whenever he didn't understand a personal question he would smile and shake his head like a shy little boy--it was very cute. He was infinitely patient with us as we dashed behind dunes turned latrines, took pictures, or walked too slow to keep up with him and the camels. He was also a fabulous cook, though everything tasted of dill.

Our guide was very kind, except that he showed no compunction in smacking the camels around. True, camels can be very stubborn, but I still winced whenever he struck them. Fortunately that wasn't all that often, for we had very well-behaved camels (they didn't even spit at us). One was a bit cantankerous though. At night the camels' legs would be bound so they couldn't go anywhere (picture your ankle being tied to your thigh so you could only hobble on your knees). Well, this camel didn't care about his fetters. Hobbling on his front knees he would try to make his break for it, slow as it was. By the morning, you might find him a good 100 yards off hiding behind a rock.

Our camp was not what we had expected. No tentóit was an open-air encampment. We put a heavy woolen blanket on the ground, around the perimeter of which would be placed all of our things--the cooking material on the left, our bags on the right, and the saddles made a nice barrier in the back against which we could lean.

Our guide cooked using a tiny little fire. He would use three stones to prop up the kettle or cooking pot, and feed the fire underneath with local dead brambles. Fascinating! As an eastern-woods camping girl who is used to roaring bonfires, I had never seen such an efficient use of fire/fuel. Itís all about adaptation to the environment.

We slept on mat padding that was far to thin, and under woolen blankets that just weren't enough to ward off the desert night deep freeze (within 20 minutes of the sunrise/set the temperature would change drastically). By the third night Travis and I figured out how to be "comfortable." We folded our mats in half and put them one on top of another, combined our blankets, and slept huddled against each other to retain body heat. Under that arrangement, it was a sudo-decent nights sleep.

It was amazing camping out under the desert sky. We could watch the sun set in its colorful regalia, and then observe as each star twinkled into sight. And what a sight! It has been few times in my life that I have seen so many stars. Travis and I pooled our limited knowledge of astronomy, and tried to pick out the various constellations. We saw a few shooting stars streaking across the night, and a few more satellites making their steady orbit (probably recording every little move we were making).

The really amazing thing to see was the moon. We got to watch the full moon rise--right after the sun set! At first Travis and I were befuddled about the growing light on the horizon--not a town, and the sun just set, so--my god, the moon! It was beautiful, and the light it cast was so bright as to be almost annoying. It obscured the nearby stars, and made it difficult to fall asleep.

At first glance the desert appears devoid of life, but it is teaming. Our first night we had a darling little family of desert mice sharing our meal. Sandy brown with huge black eyes, they would timidly sniff at the camp's edge, and cautiously make their way to the breadcrumbs we left for them. As soon as the prize was acquired, off they would scamper as quick as a flash. There was a scarab beetle. Although revered by the Pharonic Egyptians, it is actually a common dung beetle (of which the camels were leaving plenty for them to collect). In the middle of the night I awoke at just the right moment to observe a desert fox trapesing across the landscape--it was ineffably beautiful. There were hawks in the sky, lizards under bushes, and bunny prints in the sand. And of course there were the flies that were so numerous and so thick that it was useless trying to shoo them away.

We experienced a low-grade sandstorm. Although probably in no real danger, it was enough to wonder what would happen to us if the winds really decided to become aggressive. You had to cover everything, for the biting sand would sting any exposed skin. We also swathed our faces in cloth like Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheek" (though we looked no where near as romantic). It was an exhilarating experience to be reminded that you are in fact at the mercy of nature's whim.

The geology of the White Desert was astounding. I'm guessing it has to be a result of the long extinct Teathus Sea. It is called the White Desert because of the dreamlike forms the wind has carved out of white calcium-like deposits. Dali could not have dreamt up anything more surreal. It was other-worldly. An extra-terrestrial landscape on earth.

Out of the sands erupted stark white curvilinear forms. Some were barely nubs, others rose about 10 stories tall. The "stone" was fairly soft, and not very dense. It had no taste (yes I tasted it, but only after I saw a camel eat a chunk--of course camels eat a lot of things), and was hollow sounding when struck. As evidence of its marine past, there were actual shells imbedded in the stuff--not fossils mind you, but shells.

The ground was also littered with what I believe were iron pirate formations. They were oxidized and black on the outside, but if broken, quite silver metallic on the inside. They came in all shapes and sizes: globular, cubical, spherical, cylindrical, starburst crystalline, etc. I would expound at greater length, but I know my passion for geology is not necessarily shared by all.

Although there are many things left unsaid, I will stop here. I have yet to write about our sojourn to Luxor, a few final notes on Cairo, and general observations. Hopefully it will not take me too long to produce said items. I am now working at a hopping-busy branch, which leaves the library little opportunity to pay me for personal pursuits.

Be well,
Rachel