May 14, Safaga, Egypt. Located in the northeastern corner of Africa, Egypt is mostly desert. There is the western desert, located west of the Nile, and as you might have guessed, the eastern desert located east of the Nile. Then there is the Sinai desert on the Sinai peninsula, home to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The southern half of Egypt is called ‘upper Egypt’ since it sits at a high elevation. The northern half of the country is called ‘lower Egypt’ named for its low elevation.
For those who are just plain tired of sand, there is the Nile river and its fertile valley. This productive region comprises just a small percentage of this country’s land mass. As a famous waterway, the Nile is not only the longest river in the world, it is also very easy to rhyme with other words. Try it sometime, or better yet try writing a limerick about it.
In 1971 the Aswan High Dam was built to control this mighty river and it is now considered one of the modern wonders of the world. River cruises here are quite popular among tourists.
Tomorrow we will begin visiting the many temples, tombs and tall pointy buildings known as pyramids. But for our first day in this historical country we drive to an undisclosed location in the middle of nowhere. After about 90 minutes of riding across a bumpy path in a rugged old Toyota Land Cruiser, we arrive at a Bedouin village, situated in a flat desert valley floor, surrounded by unnamed rugged dry mountains.
This Bedouin culture is quickly disappearing and we learn that this village would not exist at all if not for the tourist industry. Today only the very old Bedouins cling to their true nomadic ways, insisting on sleeping in tents from which they can see the night sky, or as they call it, their 100-star hotel. They still drink only spring water, raise goats, travel by camel, and use herbal medicines instead of pharmaceuticals. But the government is successfully converting these ancient nomadic peoples into more modern settlers, setting down roots in new government housing, assimilating into modern society. It’s a slow process, succeeding mostly by the passing of the older generation, as the younger Bedouins learn the currency game.
Bedouins in other middle eastern countries are also being phased out as their way of life clashes with the settled world. The young Bedouins sell their handicrafts to tourists, but more importantly showcase their nomadic heritage to curious travelers. We visit one of these villages and see the very primitive way in which these people lived for thousands of years. They are clever in using nature’s gift to sustain themselves. For example, they use camel dung to fuel their cooking fires, as shown in the photo of the woman cooking flat bread atop this page.
Overall however, the village seems semi museum-like, not real. Water has all but disappeared, threatening their nomadic livelihood. I peek my head into one hut and notice a television, then see a satellite dish on the roof. A Toyota pickup truck is parked under a reed hut. One of their problems is their shrinking population, which reduces the gene-pool to unhealthy levels, especially since they rarely marry outside of their group. They do have a working well, some 130 feet deep, operated by a long rope with a bucket, though they’ve also added modern piping and pumps.
I ride a camel, which is required for all first time tourists in Egypt. To me these Bedouins appear as a mere shadow of their former selves. Our tour guide speaks a bit about the long history of Egypt, with its many dynasties, its pharaohs and conquests by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Arab empires, not to mention French and British influence.
Then he talks about modern Egypt. I’ve learned to read between the lines for similar speeches by glass-half-full tour guides. He speaks openly about the new revolution that began on January 25 this year, in which regular Eqyptians managed to oust Mubarak and end his 30-year reign. Mubarak and his sons are now in jail, according to our guide. He admits that this revolt virtually stopped tourism for 2 months, but that business is now picking up. He claims Cairo is very safe today. He is clearly proud of the revolution and says he and other guides physically protected the famed Egyptian museum in Cairo during the protests. The missing piece of his story however is that he cannot explain any clear path to replace the ousted Mubarak. The protesters ‘threw the bum out’ without a plan of how to replace him.
So we keep our fingers crossed for Egypt as well as other populations in the middle east that are striving for reforms. We return home to the ship, getting just a brief introduction to this country. Tomorrow begins a three-day tour of pointy buildings, temples and other attractions.
Caravan at the Bedouin village
Guide talks about Egypt
Man peers down water well
Real loom for making camel-hair rugs
I ride a camel