Oasis, Finally

March 21-25, 2014

The road through the Western Desert stretches nearly 1,400 kilometers, heading out towards Libya and back to meet up with the Nile again near Luxor. Even though we’d cycled less than 400 kilometers through the desert to arrive in Bawiti, we had a new sense of the word oasis.

It must be love.

It must be love.

Seeing the groves of palm trees in the distance, the first green we’d seen in days, gave us a boost to hurry to Bawiti. The town and the other oases along this route were sites of hot springs, allowing these little settlements to survive. Staying at Ahmed Safari Camp, surrounded by palm trees and other greenery, could only be described as lush.

We were in contact with Nico and Julia via text messages. Even though they’d left a few days after us, they hadn’t suffered with the headwinds like we did and would probably arrive before we left Bawiti. We were looking forward to seeing them again.

It was Rich’s last day in town and we spent some time talking with him and Wilhem before jumping on the bikes and exploring the town a little. Rich had told us that the people weren’t nice here, but we found the exact opposite. We made friends with a fruit seller and enjoyed strawberries, melon and whatever else caught our fancy.

Palm trees were a welcome change from desert sands.

Palm trees were a welcome change from desert sands.

I’d tried Egyptian strawberries before in France and always found that they weren’t very good, but the ones we ate in Egypt were some of the sweetest, juiciest, most flavorful strawberries I’d ever eaten in my life. They were picked and sold perfectly ripe, nothing like the Egyptian ones sold in France.

We stopped by a tailor when I noticed my longsleeve shirt was getting a tiny hole at the elbow. His shop was no bigger than a large closet. He carefully selected a pink thread, an almost perfect match to the color of my shirt. In a few minutes he’d sewn up the hole and refused any payment for his services.

Ever since we’d left Alexandria, Ramy and I had been in contact, sending regular text messages to each other. I enjoyed hearing about his work and the preparations for his upcoming marriage. When I tried to let him know how we were enjoying Bawiti, the message wouldn’t go through. I tried calling and received a recorded message telling me that our service had been suspended and we needed to go to our nearest Mobinil store.

We stocked up on dates stuffed with almonds, the perect cycling snack.

We stocked up on dates stuffed with almonds, the perect cycling snack.

If we had been in any other place, this wouldn’t have been a problem. In Bawiti, there were no Mobinil stores. We weren’t even able to call customer service to sort it out. Our phone was completely blocked. We found a store that sold phones, sim cards and used their phone to call customer service. Even though we’d already registered in Alexandria, we needed to register again. Scott was able to give his passport details over the phone and we were assured that our service would be turned on again in a few hours. If this had happened out on the desert road, it could have been a big problem.

After Rich left, we started spending a lot of time with Wilhem. Originally he’d been a little quiet but as we were there longer he opened up and we had some great conversations. He told about how he lived in Farafra, the smallest of the oases, for a few years to learn Arabic and how he tries to come back for a few months every year. We also visited Karen at the house she and her husband had built to spend the cold German winters in the sun and warmth.

Mahmoud Twist's tea house.

Mahmoud Twist’s tea house.

Every day we tried to learn some new words and were surprised at how quickly our vocabulary was growing. Before leaving we went back to the store where we’d gotten directions the day we arrived. The man there had been so helpful, we wanted to thank him by patronizing his store. When we pulled up on our bicycles, his face broke into a huge grin and he remembered us immediately. A few Landcruisers pulled up and some foreigners got out to stock up on last minute things before heading out for a night in the White Desert.

We paid for our supplies, happy to see that we were charged a correct price. As we first learned in Egypt, foreigners in Africa are often charged considerably higher prices than locals for just about anything. As we were about to hop on our bikes and cycle off, Mahmoud (we’d learned his name) invited us for tea. At first we refused, but he insisted and it wasn’t hard to convince us.

Mahmoud Twist and his youngest son, Abdu.

Mahmoud Twist and his youngest son, Abdu.

He led us behind his store (called Twist, after his last name) to a traditional Bedouin structure. He’d built this beautiful cafe with his own hands and often welcomed tourist groups there. Mahmoud prepared tea while we played with his young sons and daughter. We spent the afternoon talking in broken English and Arabic. When it was time to leave, he wouldn’t accept any money and told us we had to come back for lunch the next day. This time it didn’t take long for us to agree.

That night a group of university students arrived from Alexandria. They were studying tourism and as their senior project had come out to Bawiti to study the possibilities of promoting eco-tourism there. There weren’t many foreigners in town for them to interview, so Scott and I were popular subjects.

Even the local students enjoyed dressing in traditional bedouin garb.

Even the local students enjoyed dressing in traditional bedouin garb.

As we were getting ready to go to sleep, we heard some music coming from outside. I was curious and went out to investigate. Next to a small bonfire were a small group of traditional musicians and the students were listening and dancing. Their teacher had recently married and this trip was doing double duty as his honeymoon. Everyone was in a festive mood and we were invited to join in.

When the women called for me to come dance with them, I jumped up immediately. I didn’t have the same graceful moves they did but everyone was smiling, laughing, including me in their group. We stayed out until our eyes hurt from lack of sleep and drifted off to the distant sounds of music. Before the students left, we enjoyed one more night of music and festivities.

We enjoyed a few nights of music and dancing.

We enjoyed a few nights of music and dancing.

Nico and Julia had arrived in town by now and we arranged to meet them after our lunch with Mahmoud Twist. We arrived at Mahmoud’s to find him busy in the kitchen. Again, a surprise to see a man cooking. Before opening his store he’d been a teacher at one of the local schools. His wife was a teacher too.

Now when she’s at school, he takes care of the shop and cooks for the groups that come to his tea house. It felt a little like a secret garden. Looking at the front of his store, nobody would ever imagine that just behind it was a traditional Bedouin paradise. Even though it was scorching hot, the construction gave shade and the cooling breeze passed through the reed walls and ceiling.

We enjoyed one of the best meals we had in Egypt, and perhaps one of the best meals on our whole trip thus far. We were treated to a spread of foul, shakshuka, salads, and fried eggplant. Everything was salted and seasoned to perfection, especially the homemade sauce for the salad. He crushed raw garlic, hot pepper, cilantro and lime juice together with salt. A very refreshing combination.

Fresh, healthy and delicious--a winning combination for lunch.

Fresh, healthy and delicious–a winning combination for lunch.

As we finished eating, he interrupted lunch to go pick up his wife and daughter from school. Most of the women in Bawiti wore niquabs, covering their whole face except for a slit for the eyes. Mahmoud’s wife, Safaa followed this custom. She stayed in the kitchen and I was invited to join her there where she could uncover her face. Except for a brief glimpse, Scott never even saw her.

While her English wasn’t as good as Mahmoud’s we could still communicate and spent a few hours laughing on the floor of the kitchen. It would have been easy to spend the whole day there. Mahmoud insisted we come visit them again after the end of our bike trip, but this time we would stay at their house, as family.

Shortly before dark, we met Nico and Julia in town for some tea. They’d had to battle some headwinds also on the way out, but had made it to an ambulance station where they spent the night. They raved about the hospitality of the ambulance drivers. These guys rotate on two week shifts, living in the desert and waiting to get a rare call. Mostly they just sit around the station and are glad for the diversion of guests.

Ahmed Safari Camp at night.

Ahmed Safari Camp at night.

We were leaving the next morning, and made plans to meet up into Nico and Julia somewhere further down the road. We hadn’t cycled with anyone else since leaving Gernot and Jakob, so we were happy to trade travel stories again. On our way out of Bawiti we stopped at some stands that sold almond stuffed dates, and we bought a case to take on the road so we could introduce Nico and Julia to our new favorite snack.

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