Cook chicken like a Bedouin — in the heart of the desert!

By Amr Bassiouny
Along The Watchtower Guest Writer 

This is a companion post to Amr’s account of his solo sand adventure where he unveils another side of him. Follow him via @AmrBassiouny

This is a recipe I learned from one of the Bedouins of South Sinai, a kind fellow and a cook named Saleh.

If you’re travelling with a group, cooking a meal from scratch is a fun activity as people take up tasks and sit together, chit-chatting and socializing around the fire. If you’re alone, it’s still a good way to pass the time and hone up your cooking skills. As you finish and garnish the meal in the open, under the sun or stars, with minimum resources, a sense of accomplishment is sure to follow.

This is what you’ll need to get this meal done: Large potatoes, tomatoes, onions and chicken cut in quarters. You can add pepper, salt and cumin to add some taste as well as any other herbs or spices to suit your own taste. All the ingredients in this meal contribute to the cooking process, as the chicken contains fats/oils while the tomatoes, potatoes and onions contain water, and all the natural juices will mix and steam the chicken into tenderness. The juiciest ingredients are placed closest to the foil (tomatoes), as they will be the least damaged if burnt. Whenever you’re out in the desert cooking remember: Tomatoes = water. You can cook a whole pot of dry rice with just a few tomatoes.

1. Light a fire, burn as much wood as necessary at first to create as much coal as necessary.

2. Lay the foil flat on the ground, be sure to keep it clean of any sand.

3. Slice the tomatoes and onions in 1.5cm thick slices sideways in order to get the widest cut possible, while doing the same for the potatoes cutting them in a way to give the largest surface area.

4. Lay the tomato slices side by side, place the potato slices on top of the tomatoes, then the onion slices on top of the potatoes, and the chicken finally on top. Keep them neat in rows and just wide/long enough to be covering the chicken. Also, cut the tomatoes on the foil NOT in a different plate to avoid losing any of the water inside.

5. Next step is to cover the top of the chicken in the opposite order, first putting onions, then potatoes then tomatoes, and then sprinkle the spices/herbs on top.

6. Extend the foil on top of the dish, and wrap it in 2-3 layers while constantly tightening the sides in order to create a rectangular shaped wrap with the sides tightly closed. If it’s not tightly wrapped then you will lose the moisture and it won’t cook as well or be as tender and tasty.

Saleh, the Bedu, showing off his cooked chicken meal -- Sinai

7. Be sure not to put more than two chicken quarters at a time in each foil wrap, or else it will get too bulky and possibly break the layers of thin foil when you move it.

8. Put the fire out, place any unburnt wood on the side and keep the hot coal all together and flatten the coals out to create a little bed for the meal.

9. Place your meal on the coal and don’t touch it for 45 minutes, then carefully flip it over and leave it for another 45 minutes. It should take an overall 60-90 minutes depending on the heat of the coal.

10. Once the time is up, open up the foil and dig in! You don’t need plates or forks/knives, it’s best eaten with bare hands straight out of the foil.

Feel free to share this post on Twitter using the hashtags #travel and/or #Come2Egypt and mentioning @AmrBassiouny and/or @ME_Traveller

One more solo adventure?

By Amr Bassiouny
Along the Watchtower Guest Writer

Amr is a dear friend, a revolutionary (by night) and a traveller who believes in the Bedouin traditions, the power of vast deserts, and in talking to fire and the stars (even if he’s too macho to admit it). This is a post he has written several months ago, but was obviously too lazy to publish. I decided to enterprise and steal it for my blog — it’s a thorough meditation on solo desert travel with loads of useful tips, and a personal touch. It also makes my blog look nice. The post makes a reference to Bandora, an extremely feisty Wrangler that has decided to take a different path than Amr’s (Don’t worry, he’s now got himself a black Hillux beast in place of it). Follow him on #Twitter via @AmrBassiouny.

Let’s say you decide to be a badass one day, and instead of driving 150km on road to reach Fayyoum from Cairo, you think 35km through the desert would be a lot more interesting. The only thing that separates you from the fresh waters and ancient history of Fayyoum is a series of cliffs extending for over 100km in length and 10km in width, and there’s no clear way through. It doesn’t matter though, it’s an adventure, and you’re on your own.

As I looked around the deserts surrounding Cairo on Google Earth, I found a group of sand dunes about 70km West of Cairo, starting just north of the Wahat Road. These are the Qataneyya Dunes. The whole affair looked easy and straightforward, possibly a good place to check out. I started looking around a little more and realized the whole area is relatively flat and the sand is soft, which isn’t too fun for long because if the wind picks up I’ll have a combination of soft sand and scorching sun (no mountains = no shade!) making any prolonged stay quite uncomfortable (not to mention getting sand in all my food). So I started looking around for mountains nearby. My attention went south, and I found a long range of cliffs extending about 100km, and beyond those cliffs is the beautiful Fayyoum area.

That would make things a little more interesting than just a set of dunes, I thought.

The following plan started brewing in my mind: I will take off early from Cairo, head along the Wahat road, breaking off north to Qataneyya to arrive just past noon. There, I’ll have some fun and check out the area and then head back south to meet up with the asphalt one more time before 4pm, I thought. Then I can just cross the road, and head further south off-road and make my way past what seems to be a 13km stretch of open desert, a fairly easy cliff or two, then I should arrive at a group of lakes, old whale fossils and who knows what else I could run into. I also decided that if it gets late along the way, I’ll just camp out along the cliffs then head off to Fayyoum the next morning.

No matter how fearless my thoughts were at the time though, deep inside I was still worried. I was going to do all this alone, with no more than a cheap Nokia phone that has GPS and a free promotional compass I got when buying outdoor supplies. I didn’t even have a phone charger in case the battery ran out. Also, as well-maintained as my car may be, it’s still a 17-year-old model, and you never know what might go wrong.

The solution I reached was easy: I packed plenty of extra bread and a lot of Halawa (sugar-infused sesame paste) just in case I had to walk my way back, as well as a good 12 litres of water.

I left my house late at noon, much later than planned, so I decided to save some time in the city by purposely taking a U-turn in the wrong direction along the Haram street. But police stopped me, took my license and car registration. I had to do some haggling and ended up paying an LE400 “fine” instead of a full 1,200LE fine at the police station which would’ve ruined my trip (the perk? I saved 800LE!). Leaving the policeman behind me, I took a deep breath and I told myself, as I always did in these situations, to “keep calm and carry on.”

I arrived to the spot where I needed to go off-road to Qataneyya without any more incidents, but it was already 3pm by then. Off the road I went. The dunes were beautiful, albeit spotted with plastic bags and trash thrown around everywhere which ruined the semblance of remoteness it exuded. In addition, the garbage attracted insects. When I arrived, there were a few groups of Egyptians spread out along the dunes, playing with rented ATVs and dirt bikes, waving as I drove by. I played around with my car as well going up and down the dunes (and getting stuck on top of one of them, wasting a good 20 minutes digging myself out).

At about 4pm I was back to the road as planned, and went across heading south with the thought of lakes on my mind. I drove along the smooth sand at 80-100km/h with the cool wind blowing against my face. I kept driving for about 10km, until I ran into the cliff-face.

Amr's camping spot among the golden sands of the Fayyum

One thing I realized standing there was that a series of cliffs 100km in width and 10km in length looked like a significantly more serious hurdle in real life than they did on Google Earth. There was a heavily used dirt road going parallel the cliff face, mainly used by trucks (most probably for mines nearby) so I decided to follow it until I found a safe way to cross down.

About 5km later through fairly rough terrain, I found a smooth way down. By then it was already sunset, and there was a beautiful spot to camp out at, I stopped there and decided I would continue for the city of Fayyoum in the morning. That was possibly one of the best decisions I made to this day, since what was coming the day after might be far more complicated and dangerous than a 10km drive through a few pretty cliffs. Something that I learned through experience is to never drive after the sun has gone down if you don’t already know the road well, even if there’s still light.

Keeping true to what I learnt from the Bedouins, I never used a tent, and it was my first time to use a sleeping bag. I normally keep a couple of Kleem carpets in my car that I lay on the ground to sit/lie on, and then one or two blankets to wrap myself in just to stay warm and keep any insects/rats/snakes/scorpions from crawling in. Pillows are nice but optional. Tents are a complete waste of space in my opinion (apologies for all the tent-lovers!), you might as well bring an inflatable bed and a teddy bear to cuddle up with.

Nothing beats waking up in the middle of the night and seeing nothing but a sky full of stars then dozing off again to that serenely beautiful view.

The night was amazing but perhaps in equal proportion to its beauty was its freezing cold. The stars were out like never before and the moon was out of sight.

I had become accustomed to following the basic order of things to do when I settle down temporarily in the desert. Set the carpet, light a small fire, then put the teapot against the hot coal and flames to let the fire take it to a boil. Add tea, sugar, measuring quantities by the handful rather than using a spoon. Take a break, drink the tea, have a smoke, relax.

As I started preparing my dinner, I smiled as I remembered my bedouin friend Saleh, a fine cook from El Muzeinah tribe in Southern Sinai, and the first to teach me how to prepare a meal without oil, water, fuel or even ready-packed coal.

“Kollo Tabi’i” as he always said, meaning “everything is natural.” Owing to the bedouin traditions, which I value deeply, I allow myself only the bare essentials, a match box and some wood. If I wasn’t in a completely unknown area, even bringing wood from the city would be unnecessary.

After eating and drinking, I laid down to rest.

The blanket of darkness and deafening silence could carry with them a threat of hidden dangers for many travellers, although in reality they are nothing less than assurances of safety and comfort.

There are two dangers one may face in the desert, pillaging Bedouins familiar with the surroundings or creeping animals. Humans cannot see you in the darkness, and this provides safety even if you are in a completely open area. The complete silence on the other hand allows a person to hear the faintest move in the grains of sand around the camp area, setting an alarm in case any wildlife is coming closer.

As morning came, another fire was lit to make breakfast and tea. Fava beans (Fuul), halawa, cheese and bread satisfied my appetite beautifully. And since I travel lightly, in no time, all was packed, and I was well on my way.

The impassable cliff

I drove south for about 10 minutes before I found myself facing another cliff, unable to find my way down — an early hurdle on the road but it wasn’t a big deal. I had to drive along the new cliff face again for a while until I found a clear way down. Another 10 minutes of driving south and there was another cliff, and then another, and another. After about 30 minutes of driving in a zig-zag pattern it started to feel like I was lost. Just south of where I was lied Fayyoum and north was the road. But how to get to either one of those through the labyrinth of cliffs I just got stuck in between was unclear. I started becoming rather worried and suspected I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. Moreover, the fact that my phone battery had just died and I had no more GPS didn’t help.

At one point, I couldn’t find my way down a cliff, and there were barely any tire marks which meant the area was rarely visited by others, hence if I am lost there I won’t have any luck getting the attention of any passersby for a long time.

I had to crush my ego and accept defeat. The cliff won, I couldn’t make it through! Or more correctly, I was too scared to keep trying; if I fail repeatedly I may have to walk my way to Fayyoum instead. I had to find my way back, and once again the relaxing mantra I use to reassure myself came back to me “keep calm and carry on.”

How do I get back now? Where did I come in from? I had no idea, but I had one thing, my tire tracks. I followed my car’s tire-print back for a long time, feeling more confident as I got past one familiar sight after the next.

Once I reached the top of the cliff, I had to follow the heavily used dirt road again east until a certain point where I would turn north to reach the road. At times there were so many other tire tracks I’d have to stop, get out, spend some time comparing tracks until I recognized mine in order to be sure I didn’t miss a turn.

With a little bit of luck and a lot of concentration, I got out. I drove back to Qataneyya to spend the rest of the day just to feel I didn’t fail completely. I drove up to the highest dune I could find, made myself some chicken soup and enjoyed the view until I packed up and went home.

Lessons learned: Always have a phone/GPS charger in the car, never underestimate a series of cliffs and don’t go exploring alone again thinking Google Earth will be enough to help you make informed decisions. It’s the desert. It will always win.

Warning: NEVER drive into the desert in only one car, and if there is no other option than going out in one car, be sure to have at least one other experienced person with you. NEVER drive into the desert unless you have been to the same place through the exact same road at least 3-4 times before. ALWAYS let somebody know exactly where you’ll be and when they should start worrying.

Feel free to share this post on Twitter using the hashtags #travel and/or #Come2Egypt and mentioning @AmrBassiouny and/or @ME_Traveller

Into the Petrified Forest (not the one in Hogwarts)

Download the PDF version of this story with pictures here: The Petrified Forest – pdf

In this city, sometimes I feel like I’m watching people through a giant fish tank, one that I’m trapped in. Through the glass, I can see their lips move but I can’t hear a word. Other times, I feel like a solid object floating in a sea of noise — an incessant chatter. And I could hear neither my soul nor God. The universe is closed to me.

The Bedu, those who roam and wander in the desert (and we all know thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost”), are very silent people. When I meet some of them in journeys that go into the depth of the Sahara (Arabic for desert), I always regard their “silence” with a mix of envy, reverence and dread — the latter resurfaces when I remember my own episodes of silence. It’s not easy, sometimes, to be alone with your thoughts. We have also been conditioned to associate silence with loneliness, waiting — and worst of all– with separateness.

A pot of hot red tea mixed with "marmariya" herbs

Silence is a presence, and on that day less than a month earlier, I felt I craved it.

I was at a rowdy party with some friends, including a young avid traveller who takes frequent sojourns with his ghosts into the desert, when the notion of going away popped up. It began with the both of us saying that we miss the desert. “Do you want to go now?” He suggested. “Right now?” I asked, with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. We managed to find two other friends who would join on the spot, and a couple of hours later, we were heading to the nearest strip of desert in the vicinity of the Greater Cairo: The Petrified Forest.

It was a small spur-of-the-moment decision, and all we needed was an able 4X4, which my friend owned, some food, drinks and enough water. One of us had an iPhone to track our route once we’re on sand, and the friend with the car provided jackets for everyone. His car already carried a blanket, a head-torch and two carpets. A matchbox to light a fire using wood from the small ‘desert’ was all we needed.

Mind you, we were not all dressed for it — but this turned out to be one of the fondest memories of this small adventure.

In ‘V for Vendetta’, both the Graphic novel and the movie adaptation, there’s a scene where V’s girl Evey Hammond –played by Natalie Portman in the movie– ventures out on a balcony after a horrifying albeit liberating episode in her life. Under the pouring rain, Evey stretches her arms, soaking wet, and announces, “God is in the rain.”

I pondered.

God is in the darkness, I thought as my friend maneuvered traffic in Cairo with his bulky Wrangler, the music of Dream Theatre emanating from the vehicle’s stereo.

No, I corrected myself moments later, he’s in the singularity which encapsulates both the darkness and light, and all the opposites, the feminine and the masculine, space and sea, Yin and Yang, good and evil. He’s in the silence. And the silence is Him. Whoever is your God — even if it’s yourself– you’ll find Him in the desert, the silent womb that hides us from the world when it becomes too mundane, too un-God-like … too loud.

We were soon driving through the ‘circular road’ (al-da’ery) heading to what is crudely known in English as The Fifth Settlement or al-Tagamu al-Khamis, which the Petrified Forest is near. The ‘forest’ itself is a small protectorate surrounded in the distance by gated communities and some roads. But some parts of the forest are less elevated than others, drowned between small hills, so they hide any sign of civilization from view, including the nearby dirt roads.

The area is void of any flora or fauna — but insects and small snakes, and perhaps fennec foxes, have made appearances to visitors of this area. There are of course petrified trees, which the forest is named for — and if you are lucky, like my friend, you can find an ancient log of wood which you can carry or pocket (depending on its size) for keepsake.

Entering into the forest was a bit tricky, since the strip of desert was surrounded by small hills of rock. We scoured for a suitable entrance for a few minutes, driving along the stretch of sands on both sides of the road, before we found a small passage (for those of you who would like to visit. These are the coordinates of the entrance: 29°59’22.33″N  31°28’6.58″E. Use Google Earth). We were solo, and getting stuck alone was something we tried to avoid — our friend who was driving was confident he could press past a rather nasty-looking pile of rocky sand, very well near the entrance, which was what stood between us and the desert ahead.

But of course, the desert mocks in its own peculiar ways, and we were soon stuck, a minute later actually. Mind you, we left the party back in the heart of Cairo and went straight to the desert — without changing. So you can imagine how out of place I might have looked in that barren area, digging out sand from beneath the tires, in my short dress, coat, and ballet shoes, pushing and shoving rocks, along with others, and trying desperately not to make a hole in my favorite pair of pantyhose or chip off my fiery red nail varnish.

Four people, and it took us around 20 minutes to get unstuck, the last five of which, we were pushing the feisty vehicle like there was no tomorrow. Then again, the remote area near the suburbs of Cairo is infamous for thieves and pillagers, and we didn’t want to catch their attention so close to the road — where only a dull-looking tractor passed in the time it took us to release the car.

But the God who lived in the silence of deserts was generous, and we merged our wills with His, and after a thrust of force, the car moved past this spot reeling into the desert, its engine roaring triumphantly. Cheers and high-fives followed — the stress we all seemed to mask so well while we wondered minutes earlier “What if we can’t get out of this?” was released from bondage, and we were laughing with relief again.

Two kilometers in, we chose a nice spot to set camp — the flatest ground we could find– since sitting near a small hill or rocky pile meant insects and creeping lizards could pop out. One of our friends kept insisting that the area had ‘vipers’ — not a good thought when you’re already there. We soon brushed off the image of ‘vipers’ from our heads, instead diverting our attention to making a bonfire. We used wood from the area. We started brewing aromatic tea with “marmariya” from Sinai — its smell bringing sweet peace to our small gathering. The stars twinkled above, and the silence was … beautiful.

Nearing dawn, a fog started to creep in. So did the cold. I pulled a blanket tightly around me and was soon lost in thought.

A fog tip-toeing from all directions was a different sight in the desert — the white clouds created a surreal dreamy atmosphere as it hugged us and concealed everything else from view. At this point, we were all huddling in a small circle around a dying fire. The friend –the traveller– was struggling to keep the burning timber alight. He had once told me he liked looking at the light of fire. And it looked like, as he turned the wood, blew at the flames, and just watched it grow, that this was his form of meditation.

Bouts of silence punctuated the quiet chatter, and the stillness was a field of energy in its own right.

The desert, and its elements, teach you to love your mind, I thought. But you have to hate it first. You have to endure its venom, before you learn to forgive it. Unlike the heart, it’s the only piece of us that feels like someone else’s — like a different person. Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote that, “one must have ruined oneself for generations keeping a crumbling chateau in repair before one learns to love it.” My mind is this crumbling chateau, and in those hours, when I’m blessed with a friendly encounter with stillness, is when the repair takes place. I tell my thoughts I forgive them, and I love my ghosts, like Saint-Ex, “with the only love that matters.”

At some point, looking at the fog (or failing to look through it) as we sat in its stomach, I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, God was in the fog after all. Or maybe like religions profess, he’s everywhere — and the fog is his hand, reaching out.

Listening to: Radio in the a.m.
Useful tip: this trip can be made in Wadi Degla, however the gate closes at 5:00 pm there
Wants from the Universe: more travel, more stillness, more inspiration, Love and Light, as always. Friends.

Clockwork

On the Zaafrana road, the darkness over the Red Sea brings back memories that I thought were far away. Time is a mysterious thing.

And you become responsible forever for what you tame.

Listening to: Muhamed Munir and Aida el-Ayouby
Mood: Dreamy

p.s. A shooting star just fell into the sea.
p.s.s. I love being driven off away from my small world back in Cairo. Roads make me “travel inside my head” as someone told me lately.

Fresh Air, Quick Press

This Amy Mowafi girl! What a character! I read her booklet Fe-mail last night, and then dozed off, thinking “Must, must, must blog about it.” And I will do write a proper blog entry — since I’m posting this one from my cell phone, on the go, getting out of Cairo for fresh air- and it should be dedicated to her, and perhaps called “The trials and tribulations of being a changing girl.” Yup, I discovered that this is, right now, what defines me: I change.
Therefore I am.
Or not.
Well, maybe.
Exactly.
I don’t understand myself. I woke up this morning, ready for another blogpost, that I’d written in my head while sleeping, and another book. I had also intended to go to the refugee film festival. But one phone call from a friend (more like a pleasant surprise) changed that. The friend suggested we travel for the day, it was already after prayers -a bit too late for hitting the road and getting out of Cairo- but dangerously craving fresh air, I said “Yes” immediately, almost without thinking, at the risk of sounding desperate … plans for supporting human rights, blogging and reading like a good nerd were thrown out of the window, in less than a second. Spontaneity ruled; a fresh change considering how uptight I had become lately. I packed two, or three books (just to convince myself I’m still sophisticated), put on my blue desert scarf (unwashed since the Sinai trip and carrying someone else’s sweat, but who cares? Gives it a distinct personality) and tied my hair back, put on my new aviator shades and decided that as a tribute to Amy (a girl I never met, but almost clashed with on twitter because of @sandmonkey), I’ll write a short blog post from my phone, telling people how this time I’d chosen the sea over the desert, and chosen sad French love songs (that come with instant translation from the driver/friend) over sobby refugee survival stories. Shame on me? I don’t feel so. And I’ll elaborate on that where I’m back to the city that kills, conquers and makes you lonely. But before I fall back into my thoughts, disappear into the backdrop of the real world, and float away in my head, I’d like to tell the desert that it will always be my first love, the love unforgotten, even though I’m now trying to love the sea and reconnect with it again. My love for you is romantic, poetic, indescribable, your silence scares and awes me, it’s both enigmatic and inspirational, but my desire to enjoy the sea is pure biology, biophilia, to be precise. (will later link to my post about biophilia, and if you’re too curious, google it)

Listening to … Valerie Lynch (allegedly spanish, no one understands), air and cars rushing by
Mood: adventurous, grateful, thoughtful, contemplative, smiling softly (perhaps nostalgically) in my head
(Yup, I’m a girl so I’m allowed to mutli-feel)