Dreaming of a Desert Garden

320393_163934253730761_359809319_nThe beginning of 2016 still finds me living in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt wondering what I should be planning for the future. This time it is an oriental carpet of a thousand knots that has been pulled out from under my feet  to leave me wobbling in the middle of rocky track in a mountainous desert. There have been definite points in my life where there were stop signs, forks in the road and crossroads but this one is not so clear. However as Led Zeppelin sings in Stairway to Heaven, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

The tourist market in Sinai, atrophying since 2009 when the European financial crisis hit, followed by the revolution, the Icelandic volcano cloud, the military coup, the backlash of insurgency, finally hit the dirt along with the Metroliner in October last year. It remains wallowing in dust.

The traditional tourist market for the whole of South Sinai – Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba – has been strangled to a harsh breath that one hopes is not a death rattle. I was in Sharm el Sheikh over New Year and I stayed in a 90 room hotel that struggled to fill 9 rooms. Dahab lovers still manage to come in small numbers, very small numbers, but some are shocked to see such empty restaurants and few joyous parties as before. Foreigners living here are leaving in droves to return to European countries to survive. Many of my friends dislike being back in the material led “West” but they know it is their best option for now.

10400166_70827490814_4429309_nI have heard said, that for true love, it is best for one to not know the whole reason to be in love, there should always be some mystery that cannot be described or put in to words. That is how I feel about living here. I have good reasons to stay or go but my final heart desire remains hidden within me, even from me. I just know when I search inside myself to see where I truly want to be at this point in my life, it is here in South Sinai. I cannot, in my heart make the decision to leave.

It is time to search my “Dream Book” – a scrap book with pages dedicated to things that I want in my life where I add small pictures and words as I want. I created it some years ago when another rug was pulled and I hit a wall on the road of my life. One of the pages has pictures of plants – herbs, flowers, vegetables, trees because some years ago I decided I want them back in my life despite the fact I live in a desert. They had been prominent in my life in Aotearoa New Zealand where my last property had been six hectares of green organic garden many moons ago. I miss the sensuality of growing stuff – getting my hands dirty, the smells, the feasts for the eye and the mouth.

Mohamed, my Bedouin boyfriend of some years, told me he has found a place in the desert where he wants to grow fruit and vegetables so I have decided that this is the time and this is the opportunity for me too. Others have asked before if I was interested in “doing some business” with other gardens or bringing tourists but I could never see a green light.

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Beautiful gardens at St Katherine’s monastery

The garden is on the edge of Wadi Sa’aal just off the road that leads from Dahab/Nuweiba to St Katharine’s area. It was laid out and producing vegetables and fruit for some years previously but when the coup of 2013 happened the military got permission from Israel, against the agreements of Camp David, to have a greater presence again in Sinai so they decided in their “wisdom” that the garden could no longer produce so was abandoned. I won’t expound further but one can see satellite pictures of the garden and actually see where the trees were planted. There is still a functioning water well and holding tank so we know it can produce.

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Trekking in nearby Wadi Arada

The local Bedouin owner went though civil courts and now has his land officially designated as a garden but he no longer wishes to be involved in the day to day replanting of the garden. The deal is profit share and Haj has gifted Mohamed some land to plant as he sees fit, most likely in fruit trees. Everything has been done according to Bedouin law, not with paper but in discussion with witnesses. Bedouin tribal law is as strong as any and they respect it more than any other. They don’t even use paper for the toilet. Continue reading

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The Current Situation – Life in South Sinai

I, the Queen of Procrastination have decided to follow Blog assignments on WordPress to build a better habit for blogging, and writing in general.

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A winter’s day at the end of a camel race in Wadi Zalaga

When I first came to Egypt I was on a six week exploration holiday that initially extended to three months followed by a decision to live in Dahab, South Sinai and work in scuba diving. I wasn’t even keeping a diary but I did write a few stories that I shared with friends who said they enjoyed the revelations. Lindainlalaland started as a way of documenting and commenting on my life here in South Sinai.

I am aware that my life is viewed unusual, more from others’ perceptions than my actual life, but maybe by writing this blog I may inspire others to step outside and follow their dreams. It is also a way of communicating to my friends and family with whom I love and appreciate dearly but do not have regular contact. Thank goodness for Facebook ‘life bites’. Write emails? No way!

Many challenges have risen from my life here and I am not even able to share all of those as yet if I wish to remain safely living here, “in sha Allah” as they say. I have already written about some events so I won’t delve into the past at this point. The goal of this assignment is to state why am blogging, and what my goals are so I’ll stick to the current situation.

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A friend and I enjoy a shisha in an open air bar, Dahab

Quite frankly ‘The Situation’ in South Sinai – essentially Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba is economically dire. It was Ok after the revolution in 2011, difficult after the army coup in 2013, and is almost impossible after that Russian Metroliner fell out of the sky for one reason or another in 2015. That investigation continues but that didn’t stop all sorts of knee jerk reactions by foreign countries, especially Russia and Britain who insisted on evacuating holiday makers and banning flights from Egypt until now. Since then Russia has contracts to build nuclear power plants and sell new Russian aircraft to Egypt… manipulation much?

Islamic “State” gleefully jumped on the opportunity bragging they shot it down but then when it was revealed that was not the case, they conveniently rolled out photos of a soft drink can that was apparently placed in the hold. Why did they change their story and wait some days before releasing the ‘evidence’? And Britain said their security had received ‘chatter’ indicating something was up days prior to the crash which supposedly proves there was something going down but not enough to stop the tragedy.

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One of the desert rides I used to guide frequently.

And the Egyptians? Well the rumour mill spun into immediate action, the pilot supposedly reporting all was fine then problems which turned up to be complete gossip as the orange Black Box revealed all completely normal in the cockpit until an explosion followed by silence. The investigation, which is continuing has released no conclusive report one way or another as yet but media are told to spin “that no evidence of an explosive device has been found”- as yet.

There is no doubt that something instantaneous and tragic happened as planes do not just fall out of the sky unless they are attacked or they have major structural failure. There were red herring tales in The Daily Fail and the like, about passengers being able to bribe and pay whomever, from police to airline staff to jump queues or take extra luggage. These are moot points as hold luggage in most airports is not scanned until after it has been checked in. You can jump as many queues as you like before that. And Sharm’ staff do actually check all luggage before check in so anything entering in luggage would be rare…Geesh! They don’t even let you take cigarette lighters!

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Enjoying open air lunch before one friend leaves.

Any explosive device was, in my opinion placed on the ‘secure’ side of the airport not by any of the boarding passengers. Consequently there are rumours, denied by the Egyptian authorities, that some airport staff are in detention and likewise some security staff were immediately transferred; I met one of the latter who was not there that day, who got to stay. Now there is a company from the UK consulting on airport security in Sharm but why it took over two months to instigate this is ridiculous. However I think only good can come from this – there is no harm in having an update on the whole system to find out where the breakdown may lie, pun intended.

However not all flights into Sharm are cancelled so how come it is fine for some planes to fly in and not safe for others? Do they know something we don’t? In that case, they owe it to their foreign nationals living here to warn them too, but they don’t. Which essentially means they know “sweet f.a”. Since this debacle I have personally flown internal flights from Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh and security seems pretty comprehensive in both airports – right down to the physical frisking by forbidding Egyptian female security staff with weird make-up. (What is it about those creepy painted eyebrows?)

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A light moment at the inaugural “Stitch’n’Bitch’ meeting.

Life continues in the ‘Orange Zone’ as Dahab is designated “essential travel only” by various Foreign Offices. We have been Orange Zone for over two years while Sharm itself actually still remains ‘Green’, only the airport being the pariah. This has made some too cautious to travel here but many who have been to Dahab on return occasions know that there are no unusually unsafe situations here. The problem at the moment with so few direct flights to Sharm el sheikh, the closet airport about an hour away, people are reluctant to spend a lot more money and time to get here for short holidays.

A short note on ‘safety’ – I have lived most of my life in various parts of New Zealand and I feel safer walking the streets here sober or slightly intoxicated at any time of day than I would in eNZed. Egyptian people are generally very polite and non violent unless provoked although they do have noisy “dousha” disagreements. Be discerning about what you see or hear in the mainstream media.

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Selling stuff at the local Dahab Friday Market

The local South Sinai economy continues to atrophy at a disconcerting rate. When the tourists don’t come, shops, restaurants and dive centres close down. As they close down staff, Egyptian and foreigners leave the area or the country. As they leave the hotels and rental properties remain empty and even the shops servicing locals suffer. The spiral is emphatically downwards.

Many of my friends have already packed up and left for various reasons, some economic mixed in with ‘the children need better schooling options’, ‘my parents are ageing’, ‘my marriage has broken up’, ‘there is not much social life’, ‘work permits are too expensive’, etc etc

However daily life in Dahab goes on as normal – it is cooler in winter but the sun usually shines and there are still plenty of comfortable places to share a coffee and good food. Without the horses I struggle to get motivated to exercise so I make a point of walking everywhere I can – to the shops, to friends’ houses, to the apartments I care for. This means walking through dusty streets, past houses with delicious smells of Bedouin baking bread, through small mobs of milling sheep and goats, petting street dogs at every opportunity and being stopped by people I know for short chats. Village life.

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D’for (Dog) surveying his beach, south of Dahab

I spend time with my five rescue cats, they all have a story, and yesterday even ‘my’ rescue dog, that I found a better home for in a beach camp, decided to run ten kilometres to visit though he was not unhappy to go back with his new carer.

I frequently ask myself do I want to stay here? My heart replies, “Yes” while my head rolls eyes and goes, “Oh really? Better get my Resourceful Hat on – again!” So living here in Dahab what do I do to survive? I’ve been a scuba diving instructor, a stable manager and guide, a hotel reservations clerk, dabbled in restaurant management, sold second hand stuff at the local market, cleaned houses and guest apartments, done reiki and massage, lead group tours and written stuff. I am currently still doing the last four and I want writing to feature.

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Where my heart is leading me – the Sinai desert

My major current writing project, aside from my blogs, is to ghost write an autobiography which I am just over half way through. I probably could not have chosen a more difficult task as a first attempt at a book but I think I am doing fine – the client is happy. I have also written text for a couple of websites, written a few magazine articles and have just taken on another blog for a small business. Onwards and upwards.

I also have another hopefully life changing project in the throes of ‘start up’ – joining my Bedouin partner to develop a market garden in the desert. It is called Mazra’a Saida which translates to Happy Garden and that covers the intention – happy people, plants and animals in the South Sinai desert. Watch this space!

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The sun goes down on another day in Dahab.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Road to Peace – Peace Road that is!

Gelabeya dresses recycled into awesome handrafted handbags,

Gelabeya dresses recycled into awesome handrafted handbags,

Peace sisters! Peace Road that is, the brand name of bespoke handbags dreamt up, designed and made in Dahab from beautiful recycled gelabeya by New Zealander Bronwyn JonesThese gelabeya are long dresses worn by local Bedouin women daily for work and for special occasions alike. When walking on the street they cover all with a black abeya and schall so tourists would hardly ever get to see these sometimes stunning clothes unless invited into a Bedouin home. The gelabeyas, usually made in India or China, have beautiful beadwork and embroidery decorating the neck and sleeves and Bronwyn incorporates these into pockets and other features on her truly original bags.

For a “win, win” situation, Bronwyn believes in supporting the local community through women and buys the old gelabeyas that would usually end up as rags or covers around the women’s’ homes. She even has a couple of women now who source the used garments for her for a small commission and so far the supply keeps up with demand.

Peace Road workshop, Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt

Peace Road workshop, Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt

When she has a new delivery, Bronwyn washes and displays the gelabeyas in her small central workshop hanging them along the wall. Decorative as they are, these give the whole workshop a festive feeling when you enter. She also photographs each gelabeya and posts them on her Facebook page  so customers can choose via the internet. Choosing is not easy, one usually wants them all!

The customer selects the gelabeya of her choice

The customer selects the gelabeya of her choice

The finished Peace Road item ready to travel the world- this one went to Switzerland.

The finished Peace Road item ready to travel the world- this one went to Switzerland.

Together with the customer, she selects the base fabric, usually a bright canvas that compliments or contrasts the gelabeya colouring. Currently there are three main patterns to choose; smaller shoulder style with lots of zips and compartments perfect for travel and daily handbag use, a larger hand bag variations with end compartments large enough to fit drink bottles – ubiquitous item here in hot Dahab, and another large shoulder bag that takes practically everything a girl could need. I used one of this style when I last travelled and used it for my carry-on luggage; it swallowed my netbook, reading book, scarf, travel papers, etc with plenty of room to spare. The advantage of a shoulder bag (the trap easily fits across the body) is that I can access everything without removing it – unlike a backpack. I also feel they are more secure as you can keep the bag close to me; I have had my wallet stolen out of a backpack style bag on the Paris Metro when I only travelled on it for about 2 minutes! – another story.

Unique shoulder bags from Peace Road

Unique shoulder bags from Peace Road

Bronwyn Jones first came to Dahab to establish a casual restaurant in the bay area. She successfully grappled with the mire of Egyptian bureaucracy, recruited and fired numerous staff members finally succeeding in making the restaurant one of the most rated on Trip Advisor. Such are the personal skills and aptitude that she brings to any business, it is revealing that once she left the business its popularity plummeted and now no longer exists.

She left Dahab travelling through Asia on her way back home to New Zealand, attended to personal and family matters but always felt she had unfinished business in Dahab. They say that once you have drunk form the waters of the Nile you leave part of your heart forever in Egypt and that you will always desire to return. Dahab is like this too – a special little oasis with a big magnet.

Smaller size Travel Bags, perfect for passports, wallet, camera, e-reader, etc

Smaller size Travel Bags, perfect for passports, wallet, camera, e-reader, etc

The magnet varies for everyone – some it is the scuba diving, the technical diving, the free diving, the snorkelling, the yoga on the beach, the almost constant sunshine, the clear starry skies, the full moon over Saudi Arabia, the inexpensive accommodation , the camels and goats wandering the streets, the horse riding in the desert, the camel safaris. Bronwyn loves the beach life, the palms, the friendly community and the ambience of Dahab.

Peace Road is an actual main road here in Dahab – running from south to north through this small seaside village on the Gulf of Aqaba. Peace by name, peace by nature if you ask the majority of inhabitants of this town – a mixture of Bedouin (mostly  Muzeina tribe), Egyptians from the Nile valley or delta,  and foreigners who are drawn to the idyllic shores.

A trained fashion designer and skilled pattern maker, Bronwyn is able to bring her professionalism to every personally made bespoke bag. The first Peace Road bags were made of fabric printed with Egyptian Kayameya patterns that have been printed from the intricate appliqué that lined the insides of the fabulous tents hand made by the tent makers in Cairo. She still makes these popular bags as well in various designs but it is the gelabeya bags that really catch the eye. Every bag takes on a life of its own as she builds a relationship with each customer when considering which parts of the gelabeya to recycle where; every gelabeya bag is unique.

These bags are infused with life, starting from the original artisan’s beautiful hand work adorning clothing items turned into functional and stunning accessories carrying Peace Road proudly throughout the world.

Colourful make-up purses  made from Kayameya fabric.

Colourful make-up purses made from Kayameya fabric.

 

 

Iftar under the Stars

There is no moon like a Dahab moon.

There is no moon like a Dahab moon.

So it is over half way through Ramadan; the full moon having waxed, now wanes leaving less than two weeks until Eid. This year Ramadan has fallen in the middle of summer so some days have been extremely hot, 40oC plus, and the longer daylight hours mean longer fasts. Summer in the Scandinavian countries must be extreme tests of endurance, however I think they adopt times of more southern climes, maybe German. I have been invited to share iftar – literally breakfast – on a number of days for which I am grateful even though I am not Muslim and not fully fasting. Food I can easily forego but restricting fluids would just make me ill especially if I have to work riding the horses in this desiccating heat. As it is, I often add electrolytes to my water as a precaution measure; sweat dries off immediately so I don’t even realise how much fluid and salts I am is losing and the minimum result is a smacking headache.

Street decoration for Ramadan, Dahab

Street decoration for Ramadan, Dahab

I have seen many a tourist complain of food poisoning when I suspect they are actually suffering the effects of dehydration which include vomiting and diarrhoea due to severe electrolyte imbalance. Drinking only water exacerbates the problem because the body voids water to try to keep the salt balance. They rapidly end up on drips administered in hotel rooms by the experienced local doctors. During daylight, those fasting try to stay as quiet as possible, sleeping in the shade until late afternoon. I often see Bedouin men lying in the palm covered beach arishas built close to the waters’ edge to catch any breeze. Luckily Dahab, as a renowned wind surfing spot usually has wind and the men lie on stripy blankets with their heads completely covered by their shaals to keep any annoying insects at bay. Women generally remain at home as they have the doubly difficult task of fasting and preparing food for everybody, however the men do contribute, helping prepare meat, shopping etc.

It's a free life for Bedouin children in Dahab

It’s a free life for Bedouin children in Dahab

Children, who are not expected to “do Ramadan”, play unattended on the streets or the beach. They have about four months summer holiday a year during which time they become progressively more feral and problem causing. Late in the afternoon, people start to stir and wander home to prepare for iftar. Even in Dahab there is a pre iftar rush which in Cairo is apparently manic – everybody rushing to get home, ready and out to wherever they have been invited for iftar. In this respect it is a social month of reciprocal meals at friends’ and family houses. In Dahab things are on a much quieter scale but there is still noticeable tension. This irritation could also have something to do with the fact that they are strung out from no liquid, food or smoking during the day as nothing should pass their lips. By late afternoon they are like grumpy lions. Even the driving becomes more erratic, which is saying something considering how badly many drive on a normal day.

Minaret of Mosque Sheikh Jameer, Dahab

Minaret of Mosque Sheikh Jameer, Dahab

The mosques call quietly as people go to their respective places. Mohamed invited me to eat with him at the local communal breakfast. The women’s circle of privacy is sacrosanct and as I do not know any of the women in this area, I ate with the men. The meal took place on an open sandy space in front a house under construction. I didn’t see any signs of current work so maybe it will take a year or so to complete. The owners live in adjoining properties linked by small gates and there is one double door opening on to the sandy lane where the goats congregate during the day. One evening a few of the cheeky kids actually hopped through the door and started to nosey about. They were efficiently shooed back to the lane, skittering and leaping about.

Sheep and goats loitering in the lane waiting for any opportunity to find food.

Sheep and goats loitering in the lane waiting for any opportunity to find food.

Rectangular rugs are laid out to sit on in a five metre square centred by a small charcoal fire. These are not matching or in any particular pattern although Bedouins often use colourful striped rugs hand woven out of goat and camel hair. Each person leaves their shoes outside the square and sits cross legged facing inwards. Food is served on large metal platters, usually a main course on a bed of rice or circled by bread. These vary depending on which woman made them –vegetables, chicken, meat, fish – there is no requirement. You essentially share what is in front of you with those next to you although in my case, Mohamed always tries to find something he knows I prefer, but I don’t want to feel privileged. However Bedouin do pride themselves on hospitality so certainly take no offence by it. He also placed me close to the elder men because, again as a privilege for guests. Boys and younger men poured cold drinks into plastic containers and distributed these around everybody – you end up with water, tamrahindi, juice and cordial on the sand in front of you depending on what has been contributed. The group changes every night with the local family interspersed with visitors. One night the men who drive trucks of animal food from the Nile Delta were breaking fast in the group and Mohamed managed to negotiate that I purchase their remaining bales of hay at a cheaper rate. Another night an old man with an opaque eye who wanders the streets begging for a coin here, a coin there joined the group – probably one of the richest men in town!

Dates ripen on the palms over a Dahab street.

Dates ripen on the palms over a Dahab street.

As the sun sets, dates are distributed and it is customary to have a few in your hand to break the fast as the prayer starts in the mosques; dates followed by a drink then food. It is idyllic to sit in the open air at dusk with palm leaves swishing, people grateful for their first drink and food in more than twelve hours as sohour, the last meal before dawn, had been at about 3a.m. When the meal starts everybody gathers around the platter of their choice, moving off the rugs if necessary. There is little talk and I know from experience Bedouins eat fast – even faster after a fast! However there is absolutely no pushing or aggravation. It is extremely bad manners to eat from any area of the platter other than that directly in front of you. No picking the choice bits. For guests, the hosts surreptitiously watch what you like and place extra pieces on your section of the platter so it never seems like you finish. 189   None of the food is strong flavoured and some cooks are obviously better than others but I enjoy the simple food. I tentatively try anything new because swallowing is obligatory but I certainly never go away hungry. Bedouin eat most things with the fingers of their right hand but I usually use a spoon to avoid looking completely inept at feeding myself otherwise Mohamed is tempted to put a bib on me. Last night there was a shallow dish of what looked like reddish coloured porridge. It was served with rayeb, the yoghurt drink that helps keep intestines happy. The dish, I later discovered is made with wheat kernels, was quite bland but not unpleasant. I preferred the Bedouin style vegetables directly in front of me with farisheer bread tucked around the bowl. The meat in the dish had a slightly kidney flavour which I didn’t feel like so I just ate the potatoes (Egypt has great tasting potatoes), peas, carrots, onions, etc cooked in a tomato based sauce. Next to me Mohamed ate some freshly grilled fish on a bed of rice.

Sunset over the pink granite mountians of Sinai

Sunset over the pink granite mountians of Sinai

As soon as anyone is finished they stand away from the platters and go to wash their hands and mouth out. I am always one of the last eating and Mohamed admonishes me if I finish too soon out of politeness. He says no one will notice if I am the last but I don’t believe him; they quietly notice everything, not that they would judge – they know how fast they eat! After iftar some of the men pray facing Mecca on the clean sand next to the rugs, while others relax smoking and drinking shai . Bedouin tea is made from a mixture of black tea and herbs, usually mint flavoured hbac or sage like marmareya. Last night some of the little girls who been eating next door with their mothers wandered through to see their dads. At about 3 or 4 years they are cute and cuddly. Mohamed gave me some coin to give to them, a custom to promote generosity and luck. I am not sure about that desired outcome though as sometimes I see it translate to expectancy and rudeness in the older children on the streets when dealing with tourists.

Date palms still tower over homes although less than before.

Date palms still tower over homes although less than before.

The fire flares a little, the tea is offered around, the stars are shining and the palms still swishing as most of the young men and boys slope off to do whatever young men and boys do. Cushions miraculously appeared for the remaining men to recline with their elbows resting on them. Topics of discussion ranged from politics to making a living in this difficult recession. I only got the gist of conversations but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Mohamed talking about supporting Egypt and local manufacturers; that afternoon we had had a discussion about buying local and not supporting the likes of Swiss Nestle! That company is in the process of buying access to water rights all over the world denying free access to locals. There is even a perfectly drinkable Sinacola but not many of the shops stock it. It was another happy evening outside under the Sinai night sky.

Lighthouse Bay, Dahab at sunset.

Lighthouse Bay, Dahab at sunset.

Cheque Points

293661_10150349543930815_6933405_n (1)I went for another ‘Visa trip’ to negotiate the minefield of Egyptian security cheque points (this confirms British English has it over USA English) and obsolete British system Egyptian bureaucracy that allows me to live here in Dahab. Now this is complicated, so pay attention!

As foreigners we are lucky that we can get Visas that allow us to live here for years as pseudo tourists. Some of us work in small time jobs, earning a pittance like most Egyptians that allows us to rent an apartment and buy food and bring what is left of our foreign exchange to pump in to the bleeding Egyptian economy.

I had been to visit my son in Europe the previous month and leaving Egypt had invalidated my year visa that would have expired in six months. When I re-entered Egypt, I had to purchase the only visa that is issued at airports, a pretty hologram silver sticker which is stamped valid for 30 days and costs US$20. (Even the Egyptian government doesn’t trust its own money!) I had intended to leave again before this 30 day Visa expired but delayed my departure which meant I had two options; I could apply for another year Visa or be up for the 150Le fine for overstaying when departing Egypt.

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Clinging on for dear life in Dahab.

The fine is not exorbitant but as I planned to return to Egypt in a few months I would then have to purchase another 30 Day US$20 visa, and then apply for another six month /year Visa within those 30 days. Are you with me so far? We haven’t even left Dahab yet… “Complication and confusion are the weapons of corruption” (yours truly); they give power and money to those in the know. That’s why it pays, literally, to be ‘in-the-know’, closely followed by ‘in-the-zone’.

STOP HERE and don’t read this section if you want to avoid confusion. Skip to…

There is also another visa available to visitors who just want to come and lie on the beach in mainly Sharm el Shite oops, I mean Sharm-with-no-Charm – get it right! Sharm El Sheikh! The all-you-can-eat-and-drink-and-make-yourself-a-dick type without actually spending any money that will enter the Egyptian economy because some crony of the higher powers has managed to wangle it so money spent in a resort is immediately siphoned off into private pockets or foreign owned companies. The type who arrive, get a taxi to the resort, drive through the security guarded gates (another Egyptian oxymoron?), plonk themselves on a sun bed for a week, stuff themselves  at the resort restaurants because they are too scared of contracting food poisoning outside (that they are more likely to get from eating the rice on the hotel’s day after day buffet unless the hungry Russians eat it all first), get back in a taxi, drive to the airport, fly home with a tan saying they were in Egypt for a week.

For these types there is the South Sinai visa which costs nothing and allows the tourist to visit Sharm’, Dahab, Nuweiba and Saint Catherine’s Monastery area. However… should one of these types become a tourist, venture out of the resort and fall madly in love with Egypt within two weeks (it does happen) and decide to extend their stay, this visa does not allow a trip to El Tur, the small town which is the government administration centre for South Sinai, and where one needs to go to get a new visa!

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Indication of driving attitudes here – and this is a rental company!

This now tourist has to go back to the point of entry, usually Sharm’ to purchase the pretty 30 day all Egypt visa sticker, get it stamped, then within those 30 days go to El Tur. One friend with the South Sinai Visa just tried to wing it from Dahab to El Tur hoping he could just skip the pretty 30 day visa and get one for longer stay. It was easier times, so he made it through the check points but El Tur office was above bribes (or he didn’t offer enough) so he returned to Dahab, decided to overstay and pay a fine.

…after skipping, RESUME HERE.

Anyway I was on my final days before departure so was attempting to get it all done and tidied up before I left.  El Tur the government administration centre doesn’t have many foreigners visiting, other than those renewing visas or the occasional one who lands in the jail awaiting trial. I had originally planned to go on Wednesday but then realised it was the second day of the contentious voting for the “New Egyptian constitution”.

The passport office in El Tur is at the rear of the Police Station and had already suffered blown out windows from a bomb attack some months before so I guessed correctly that the office was closed on Election Day. I was also concerned that it might be closed on the Thursday just for good measure, as Friday and Saturday are Egyptian weekend. I was not concerned about bombs – unless standing next to security personnel.

“Thank Zucker” for Facebook, I was able to join four other women wanting to share transport to El Tur so we arranged to leave Thursday morning at 9am. This would allow us to call the passport office before leaving just to make sure it was open. It was. Clarify and confirm, clarify and confirm – the only way to survive in Egypt – then say in sha allah (God willing).

“I’m a good driver. I’m a good driver” Rainman

We travelled in a minivan, an official Dahab taxi – not a private car – driven by a Bedouin called Sabah who was a reliable and calm driver, el hamdol allah (thanks to God), not hooting the horn at every passing car or pedestrian like some nervous locals are inclined to do.

The trip to El Tur normally takes just over two hours. We negotiated three police check points with no problem between Dahab and Sharm’ but got stopped at the larger official looking check point on the west side of Sharm’ ; the one with the big ugly concrete monstrosity that stretches overhead that is probably meant to look like an impressive gateway but looks more like a bridge to nowhere.

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Priceless. Says it all really. Such honesty.

Of course there were no explanations when we had to pull over, just surly men standing around looking bored and suspicious. I counted more than 20 doing nothing in particular, sitting outside behind desks, in cars, leaning on walls staring at us five stranded women. I had to stop myself from physically snarling – the Fb quiz did say the dog I am most like is a pitbull.

A request to use a toilet was of course, rebuffed as I knew it would be: I just wanted to annoy them. It could also be some hours on a bare desert road at this rate, so best be prepared. We were told to go to the petrol station back across the roundabout, so three of us wandered over. We were given permission to use their toilet el hamdol allah but was told there was “No water”. Not sure what that was about though, as the tap ran water and the toilet flushed. On a scale for disgusting toilets in Egypt, I gave it a 5/10.

The petrol station over the roundabaout. I didn’t photograph the toilets but you get the picture.

On returning to the van we climbed in and Sabah did a 180o turn to park facing Dahab. For about a minute of long faces we thought maybe we would have to return to Dahab but then the police said something to Sabah and we did another 180o back to the direction of El Tur. Psychological torture maybe? We were on our way again about an hour late but still able to make the office providing there were no more holdups. Let’s not be too literal here.

Sabah muttered something about “Egyptians not good”, essentially expressing his dislike for Egyptian Security Personnel.  They had been trying to tell him he didn’t have the correct car to take tourists to El Tur but who knows? Egyptians are not allowed to drive their cars of different licence everywhere –there have to be special licence plates to do different things and go different places. For example, only certain cars are allowed to enter the Sharm’ town roads so if you get the wrong car from Dahab, you effectively have to get another car to enter Sharm’ or break the law or pay a fine or pay a bribe, or all of the above.

This used to be a small bank branch with policemen guarding outside. The branch has closed but the police still sit here.

We were stopped again at the cheque point just outside El Tur. Oh no! So close but yet so far… A young (looked early 20’s) policeman asked to see our passports. There were three “Katherine”s in the van and he mixed up the passports; we didn’t correct him. He also missed that one of them had an expired visa; we didn’t point it out. After lots of false smiles (on his and our parts) and leering (on his part), and probable desire for silver to cross his palm (unrequited), he allowed us to continue to El Tur.

The Police station was a hive of inactivity – just the usual police and military men hanging around looking for a war. The patriarchal inverse big guns, small penis syndrome – facetious yawn.

I have been applying for these Visas for six years and every time is a little different; part of the confusion technique. This time we had to have our names and passports registered at the outside gate; the extra security measure incorporated after the last bomb. When will it ever occur to these people to fix the problems that are encouraging these people to blow themselves and others up? Easier than trying to catch them when they are already past desperation; not rocket science really (she writes with tongue in cheek).

Let there be light in Sinai …

There is one polite happy lady who works in the passport office. She was sitting behind clean new windows, the previous ones having been blown out – saves on window cleaner I guess.  We all went to her window to get our forms. I was applying for a year visa of residence and a re-entry visa that would be valid if I left and returned within 6 months. You can only get the re-entry valid for the first six months of a year – outside that you have purchase a new re-entry before you leave or just go through the whole process I was going through…

The updated bureaucratic process now dictated that all passports would not be returned until after 1pm so with an hour to fill, Sahbah to dropped us in the souq shopping area. El Tur is not a tourist town so everything was authentically less expensive. I bought some shoes for M and we all had sandwiches for a lunch – tamaya and fool – cost me 2.5Le – about 25 pence; same food in local Dahab area would have been 5Le, tourist Dahab maybe 10le. Doesn’t seem much in foreign exchange, but convert this to percentage on all goods and you get the picture of the of a tourist town rip off; happens all over the world.

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… and peace in Dahab.

We returned to collect our waiting passports, paid our money – 152.5Le for visa with re-entry – and headed for home. The same young cop who had stopped us on the way into El Tur, stopped us again; at least this time all our visas were current. All the check points now have a mixture of police security and soldiers – most ‘packing’ as they say in the movies. If only they were ‘boys with toys actors’ but these real machines designed to kill humans in the hands of… shall we say, unworldly lads? We had to negotiate more than 14 check points to get to El Tur and Dahab return. Oh, I felt so much safer in the Sinai for that!

 

Peaceful Desert Storm

Let the race begin - I am with Muzeina.

Racetime

When there is a combination of Bedouins, racing camels, speeding vehicles, sandy wadis, desert mountains and a forecast for thunder storms you have recipe for excitement and chaos. For the past fifty or more years in midwinter, upper Wadi Zalaga in central South Sinai becomes a twenty-seven kilometre racetrack for camels representing the south eastern Muzeina and north eastern Tarabin Bedouin tribes.

En route to central South Sinai

En route to central South Sinai

My second trip to the race started midday prior from Dahab on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba,.My companions were a  mixture of foreign guests and Bedouins travelling in moderately comfortable Toyota Landcruisers towards the central desert highlands of St Katherine.

Over the years I have made numerous forays into this desert and it has never ceased to positively affect and uplift my spirit; full of light and delight it is no surprise biblical tales emanate from the Sinai. However again ominous grey clouds stretched theatrically across the vista as I recalled last year’s sleet with almost freezing overnight temperatures. I felt mentally and physically prepared however I was not so sure about some of my travelling companions in their lighter beach clothes.

On route our Bedouin organiser, Mahmoud pointed out the small rocky ravine where he had been born some thirty years before in a beit shar, ‘house of hair’ tent made from hand woven fabric of goat, camel or sheep wool. He added proudly that most women now chose hospital to deliver.

Riding to the race.

No camel transport – ride to the race

Reaching rocky rolling highlands about 1000m altitude we turned off the tarsealed road on to a rocky and sandy track which would take us to the head of Wadi Zalaga (wadi translates to valley). This is where the real fun began as Mahmoud, friend Clair and I transferred to his open Jeep. Part of the track is literally solid sandstone, the track visible only by tyres etching a white trail through the oxidised yellowed rock, testing new and old suspensions alike.

We dropped down off rocky outcrops to golden sands at the upper reaches of Wadi Zalaga as the sun lowered below the blue grey clouds delineating the skyline with golden light and long shadows.

“Everybody out and collect firewood!” For desert newcomers this sounded ridiculous as there are no trees, only scrubby sparse bushes that look like nothing to burn however we were soon out gathering.

“Nothing green!” they admonished. Again surprised looks as nothing looked green but what they meant was nothing still growing, just desiccated wood lying on the sand.  The men found remains of old bushes poking from small sandy hillocks and by digging around these with hands and the ubiquitous Bedouin “whatever else is available” revealed half a meter of reasonably thick dry branches. These they kicked and hacked loose adding to the pile stuffed in the back of the Jeep.

Golden minutes.

Golden minutes.

In the fading light we searched for a suitable campsite. ‘Campsite’ had led guests to imagine an organised camping area with maybe even toilets. The reality was any topographical site that sheltered us from the elements as much as possible. Every Bedouin group likes privacy too, so it is only polite to be at least a hundred metres from the nearest group and definitely not in line of sight; a residual tradition from living in wide open isolated areas perhaps.

A clear sandy area was chosen to pitch the beit shar.

A suitable clear sandy area was chosen to pitch the beit shar.

A perfect spot was chosen tucked away from the main wadi, sheltered and private. The beit shar was given pride of place in the small sandy hollow beneath a sentinel of rocks. It had definitely seen better days, almost double lined with patches of plastic sacking. Mahmoud remarked “This is probably the one I was born in”… thirty years ago. Poles were a mixture of planks and straight branches transported on the back of the pick-ups; tent pegs were any large rocks that could be moved into position and wrapped with guy ropes. I took my small tent, pitching it on the only other relatively flat smooth ground that I could find about twenty metres away from the beit shar yet close to the vehicles.

???????????????????????????????Within half an hour we had a cosy three sided shelter with fires blazing, inside for warmth, outside for cooking. The small twigs and resinous branches proved very effective fuel, burning surprisingly hot and long. As a mixed group of a dozen guests none of us knew everybody so we quietly gathered more firewood, gazed at the fading golden light, took photos and let the desert quiet entrance us.

Not like the Bedouin. They never stop talking when they are together and this was no exception. There were about ten Bedouin men with us – drivers, young teenage boys and other members of Mahmoud’s family – no women. Bedouin women do not come these events; they would not be permitted by their men folk and probably have no interest in coming.

In camp, the men do all cooking and huge pots of food were prepared as night fell. It was dark by 6.30pm as we sat around camp fires, lying on thick synthetic blankets that serve modern Bedouins as sleeping bags. In all seasons, they can be found covered from head to toe by these blankets; the only hint a person underneath is the shoes placed at his feet.

Warming the body and soul.

Warming the body and soul.

Most guests had bought their favourite tipple and cigarettes of various plant substances were smoked; drugs of choice. Huddled around the fires we watched lebbe bread being prepared. Dough was kneaded in a shallow metal basin then flattened on a large platter to a thickness about 1.5cm. With fire embers pushed sideways, it was placed carefully on the ashes, the embers scraped back over and left to bake. Ready in about fifteen minutes the loaf was lifted out, tapped gently to remove any sand and ash, then broken by hand into serving size chunks; Lebbe – crusty, dense and delicious.

Desert solitude, good for the soul.

Desert solitude, good for the soul.

It had been quite some hours since we had eaten anything more than a handful of snacks so the plates heaped with chicken, potatoes, mixed vegetables, rice, tahina,  tomato cucumber salad were gratefully devoured. Anywhere in the world there is nothing like eating al fresco.

“Was that lightning?” a guest asked. With low cloud cover it was not immediately obvious if we had just glimpsed the lights of late arrivals. Crashes of thunder confirmed it, “10 miles away…17 miles away…right overhead!”

It was already late evening when the first drops of rain fell so I decided to make a dash for my tent; I had a sense of possible impending chaos with city bred foreigners and laissez-faire Bedouin grappling with the elements. By the time I was tucked up inside it was raining heavily. I slept fitfully from fear that I had pitched the tent too close to runoff from the rocky walls but I decided there was no point moving unless I had to.

Steam drying clothes over the smoking fire.

Steam drying clothes over the smoking fire.

Morning revealed that water had been flowing about one and half metres from my tent; not deep enough to be dangerous but it would have made things very uncomfortable. Two extra tents had been pitched on a slope, one with a gaping hole in the side.  The beit shar had leaked and water seeped down the sandy area it had been pitched on; it was not smoothed clear by accident. A fly had been rigged between two pickups and the young boys emerged smiling from piles of blankets. Guests and other Bedouin had taken refuge in any vehicle they could find space.

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A bright day dawns on Wadi Zalaga

No one complains about rain in the desert so we joked with each other while steam drying clothes over the smoking fire. Personal tales of disrupted sleep were regaled, “You kicked me in the head”, “I slept OK except for the steering wheel against my temples” and “My feet kept sliding out the bottom of the tent”. Damp blankets were laid out on the slopes to dry in the weak sun. A soggy, sandy headscarf was picked off the ground. “Does this belong to one of the men?” A Bedouin replied, “No way a Bedouin would ever drop and forget his head schaal.” Turned out it belonged to one of the women guests.

Baking farisheer - team work.

Baking farisheer – team work.

Breakfast was quickly prepared – feta cheese, fool (fava beans mashed with tahina and spices), halawa (sweet sesame seed fudge) and jam served with the remains of the lebbe and freshly cooked farisheer bread. Farisheer is my favourite bread in the whole wide world! (not stated lightly considering how much I love bread). I could never understand why the Lord’s Prayer says “Give us this day our daily bread” until I tasted farisheer. It is made from fist sized balls of dough that are worked by hand into thin large ‘pizza’ rounds then placed on a ‘upside-down-wok’ (or the lid of a forty-four gallon drum) over an open fire. The dough blisters and chars slightly taking on a chewy texture and distinct flavour.

The race was ‘scheduled’ – scheduled being a difficult concept for Bedouin – to start between 7.30 – 8.30am because, being Friday, everything should have been completed by midday Islamic prayer. We clambered into vehicles and drove up wadi passing vehicles and blanketed camels heading to the blue start flags.

On the way to the start.

On the way to the start.

???????????????????????????????Contrary to popular belief camels store fat not water in their humps, so humps are almost nonexistent on racing camels, their tight abdominal muscles tucking up their flanks like greyhounds. I was told even their water intake is limited during training yet I doubt that is advantageous, but on race day, most likely. The small utilitarian saddles with no colourful trappings or fringes are fitted across their loins, double girths around their bellies, some with cruppers and breast straps. The saddles are padded in such a way so that jockeys wedge their bent legs between so as not to be bounced off.

Unlike track racing in some parts of the Middle East where the camels run without human jockeys because of alleged and proven human rights abuse, these camels are proudly ridden by young tribal boys, mostly aged between 8 -12 years, tiny and tough. They wear no colours, no helmets or protective gear and the only distinguishing marks are dark blue markings painted on their camels’ necks.

???????????????????????????????As the highly strung and prized thoroughbreds they are, some camels were cool, calm and collected others feisty and eager to get going. With their jockeys perched at the back and only one long rein attached to the halter that has a metal plate and chain under the chin, some camels do not heed much direction control. I saw one determined camel break away from the group dragging his handler, with jockey on board about fifty metres before they could stop and turn him back to the start.

???????????????????????????????A hundred plus vehicles gathered around the flags and across the wadi revving engines in anticipation, not leaving much space for the animals. The event is as much about skilful driving; in front, beside, in the middle and behind the racing camels for the entire race, avoiding rocks, ruts, camels and other vehicles. One might think the event is sponsored by Toyota; their vehicles far outnumber the Jeeps, Nissans and occasional Isuzu.

Before long all were off, full speed ahead choosing their own line down the wadi. It would take just over an hour for the first camel to finish.

I was at the back of Mahmoud’s open Jeep waiting about two hundred metres down wadi. I wedged my right foot against the tow bar so with my left hand clinging to the top frame I could swing free with my right hand to take photographs with my small Canon S110. I wasn’t game to handle an SLR and enjoy the race at the same time. It is an ill wind that blows no good; the rain meant there was no dust, just a few mud clods. On drier years one only gets glimpses of camels through the choking dust clouds.

Also in back were Sulieman and Mahmoud’s brother Firaj who kept up a constant stream of directions about where and how Mahmoud should drive. I do not know if he paid any attention but I can attest to his driving skills despite it being the first time he had driven in the race.

???????????????????????????????Before many kilometres the camels were well strung out, some racing on the left, some on the right, others veered off track completely. I do not know if there was much forethought or strategic race planning or whether it was just go all out for as long as one could. Most of the camels were cruising in their long legged pace – legs on either side moving in unison, not a trot where legs move diagonally. Some were in a gallop which looked energy sapping and more difficult for the jockeys to ride.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Firaj had won the race for Muzeina as a ten year old about twenty-five years ago and I am sure he relived the entire race over every bump and sand hill as we sped along. As a foreign spectator most of the excitement is in the vehicle ride – hanging on for dear life as vehicles raced and overtook within metres and vice versa. By the end I joked that I was probably one centimetre shorter from a compacted spine.

Whereas Bedouins perched nonchalantly on the back of pickups, three abreast in perfect balance. Dressed for the chilly air, head schalls de rigueur – mostly red and white check but there were a few other colour combinations all tied or draped according to individual choice. Most wore traditional jelabeya, the ground length shirt styled garment, mostly white but some in grey, brown or black. Some, like Mahmoud had western jeans and tops and some even overalls that looked suitable for arctic temperatures.

Traditional winter coveralls looked like a cross between large overcoats and open capes, some ancient tattered fine woven wool with a thick lining of lambskin where nowadays it is often synthetic fur.

???????????????????????????????After last year’s dispute as to which acacia tree had been the finish line, this year a white line had been marked across the wadi. After twenty-seven gruelling kilometres on heavy sand it was impressive to see two camels still within racing distance of each other, foaming at the mouth, racing neck and neck, both representing Muzeina. A thrilling finish watched from the natural terrace lined with Bedouins who did not partake in the vehicle rally.

The race won, both boys dismounted quickly into surrounding supporters and were whisked to the presentation area. There was no dais, no pomp and ceremony, no weigh in – just Bedouins and the few foreigners crowding in a circle, those in the forefront crouching down on their haunches. I am envious of how they can do this for long periods without developing painful hips and knees. Short speeches in English and Arabic were made, congratulating the winners, the participants and the supporters.

There had been some doubt as to whether the race would take place this year, 2014 because of an ongoing land dispute between the tribes that threatened to escalate into violence. It is traditional for Bedouins to celebrate by firing rifles but this year firearms were noticeable by their absence, only a few random shots fired. It is a tribute to tribal wisdom and ability that customary Bedouin are best able to police themselves without any interference from outside security forces.

The camels were seemingly quickly forgotten however the winner’s value would have increased for sure. They were probably happier away from the gathered melee, recovering their breath and heading off for a well earned rest, food and water.

I did overhear a remark from a Dahab visitor, not a local tribal member, that “We should organise this a lot better”.  Without knowing exactly what he was alluding to, I suspect he envisages formal advertising and more tourists but I think this would be a pity. We were there as a welcomed guests, not as a tourists expecting display for our benefit and I would not want it any other way. No whinging about the sleeping arrangements, the rain or cold. I appreciate the cultural authenticity of the event: it is about Bedouins, their culture, their traditions and their pride.

The return journey was time to catch up on sleep, to stare out the window at spectacular desert vistas, for quiet contemplation. It had been a full and satisfying twenty-four hours that left impressions far greater than time actually spent. In fact I will think about it all year and hope I get another opportunity to be a guest at the Wadi Zalaga camel race, in sha allah.