The Shaolin Letters: Genesis

If you’ve missed reading about my little adventure leaving it all behind and pilgriming all the way from Egypt to the Shaolin Temple in the north of mainland China to learn Kung Fu, Qi Gong meditation and zen Buddhism, here’s a recap:

That Awkward Moment in Kung Fu camp 

Shaolin Temple Kung Fu School

Snapshots

Kung Fu Cuteness

Breaking Through

Xiao Hong Quan – first form

They Don’t Sell Deodorants in Dengfeng

Post-It: Time On My Hands

World Knowledge in Dengfeng

Bridges Make Me Smile

It’s All Relative

Post-It: Gunfire and Whips

A Glimpse Into My Training

Post-It: Kung Fu Graduates

Buddhology

Shaolin Humor

From the Center of Heaven and Earth (aka Shaolin China)

Dress Rehearsal

Mànhuà-inspired Silliness

Post-It Shaolin Tip

A Documentary on Shaolin Wushu and Zen Buddhism

Snakes, Maspero and Shaolin Dreams

Post-It: Rain

Post-It: Qi Gong

These were all posted less than two weeks into my journey, and I have been here 10 weeks and very prolific. Take a look at the entire archive of my Shaolin China posts if you’d like to jump forward to a date and see my May and June posts, or to get the whole batch of letters I’ve written to the world from ‘the Center of Heaven and Earth’: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com/archive

Hope you enjoy reading them, please do send me your feedback, here or via email at pakinamamer at yahoo dot com.

Love and light x

Sahl Hasheesh – Not for Explorers

I gave my camping gear — a clumsily folded dusty tent, sand-riddled sleeping bag that I suspect still harbors that dead spider from my last desert trip, oversized torch and an ear-piercing whistle suitable for emergencies — one last look before I pulled an empty suitcase out of my closet and packed it.

I’m a nature-loving girl who’s gotten a bit too used to camping and finds sleeping under the stars familiar but never unimpressive. But this time I was breaking ranks with tradition and heading to a five-star hotel: Premier Le Reve in Sahl Hasheesh.

Sahl Hasheesh had often brought to mind a picture of seclusion — it remained for years a faraway land where those who had just tied the knot enjoyed a pristinely azure sea walking hand-in-hand. I firmly believed that the law of the land forbade the single, heartbroken or formally non-committed from going anywhere near it. I thought it would be scandalous and frowned upon to plan a trip with friends there or, God forbid, with family.

But recently, the area has slowly gained some prominence and become increasingly popular as a weekend getaway, with event organizers taking their DJs, booze, party spirit and rowdy customers to Sahl Hasheesh, only 20 kilometers away from Hurghada’s international airport.

It’s easy. Spend one hour on a plane (the flight costs less than LE 1,000, even in the high season), arrive, check in, throw your bags in the room, tan by day and party by night.

Fun? Not to me. I always loathed places like this with a passion, and I secretly judged people who could have “fun” staying in a fancy hotel and living it easy. In recent years, travel for me has become an adventurous affair. If there’s no risk of being stung by a scorpion or pillaged by rogue Bedouin gangs on the road, it’s not fun enough.

But here I was — the desert girl— heading to the airport with my sister and mother and actually looking forward to staying in a hotel with a French name that offers deluxe rooms with king-sized beds, pillows softer than a baby’s skin, delightful buffets and premium service.

Once I set foot in Cairo airport’s departure hall, something looked awfully wrong. It was unnaturally overcrowded as queues of travelers zigzagged toward empty stalls, members of staff on site were very few and shouts could be heard in the distance.

It turns out that air-traffic controllers had halted their work in protest of their low wages. Negotiations were underway while the airport was left in a half-crippled state.

Flights were delayed for days, planes took off or landed every few hours, instead of regularly and many were caught up in the mess of it all — one woman even wailed to airport staff telling them she’d been stranded with her kids in the airport for two full days waiting to go to Syria, afraid to leave lest her flight was suddenly announced. Some of the male passengers had started to become violent, cursing and pushing staff and throwing around threats left, right and center.

Three hours later than scheduled, our plane took off. An hour later, we were in Hurghada’s airport, where a hotel chauffeur carried a sign with my misspelled name scribbled in pencil in tiny font on plain A4. It took several minutes and a few calls back and forth between me and the hotel to actually realize that, indeed, this was my driver.

The road to the hotel would have been scenic if Hurghada’s streets weren’t stacked with concrete resorts and big hotels lined side by side crowding the clear skyline left and right. We finally arrived at Le Reve in a secluded spot in Sahl Hasheesh, which literally means “the grassy plain.” The hotel was pretty traditional in its general architecture. If you spent your childhood years vacationing in Alexandria’s Montazah or summers in its famous Palestine Hotel, you’ll know what I mean.

The lobby of Le Reve was vast — with a small pool of red flower petals right in the center. The feel of the place — its design and the art it carried — were modern albeit with an exotic piece here or there.

We were escorted to the VIP lounge and offered cold beverage as we waited for our rooms to be prepared. I had previously informed the hotel that I would be quickly reviewing their resort as part of my travelogue. But armed with two pre-paid Visa cards, I said I’d pay for everything myself. It pleased me as a writer, because I didn’t feel an obligation to be too nice — though a tinge of guilt did creep up when the hotel assistant informed me that they’d decided to bump me up to a deluxe room instead of the standard one I picked.

I took the keys, thanking him warmly. But as I looked around the hotel, humungous and stacked full with rooms along a U-shaped structure that hugs two large pools and opens up onto the sea, I suspected I would not like the place. The rooms’ terraces were narrow, and only very few rooms had a proper view of the sea.

When I was taken up to my room, my doubts were confirmed. The room was small, and quite plain for a deluxe room, and the only thing I actually liked was the spacious bathroom.

And, mind you, it wasn’t an inexpensive stay. A double room costs a little over LE 1,200 per night. Even the minibar had few options, which did not include nuts, chips or any of the requisite calorie-packed snacks that any self-respecting hotel fridge should have. Considering that more often than not I snuggle up in a sleeping bag under a curtain of stars with only a sheet of rubber beneath my bag to protect my back from the harsh ground, my standards are not high. Still, I couldn’t get myself to like the place.

My mood steadily plummeted until dinnertime, and I became slightly hopeful again. Perhaps I’ll get my money back in food, I thought.

My sister, mother and I took a small tour of the hotel’s restaurants. There were good Japanese, Chinese and Italian options, but it turned out that we had to book in advance for these. So we settled on the main restaurant, Turquoise, and the open buffet was not bad after all.

There was an explosion of color in the salad area and the choices were quite inventive. I went straight to the salmon and tuna wraps then stacked my plate with cold cuts and fresh, neatly chopped veggies. By the time I got to the main course I was already full, so I nibbled on some chicken kiev (delicious nonetheless), then went straight for dessert and a medley of fresh fruit.

The breakfast menu was no less satisfying — with an impressive variety of baked breads and mouthwatering pastry.

On my last evening, the friendly staff managed to squeeze in a table for me at Bella, the Italian restaurant — as an exception since I had forgotten to reserve a table in advance — and, as promised, it was a deliciously appealing gourmet experience. The hush, classy and cozy atmosphere of the small and tranquil diner was a nice change from the spacious noisy restaurant hall, echoing with the clickety-clack of tens of knives, forks and plates. They don’t offer pizzas, but they have an indulgent array of pastas and other savory traditional dishes.

If I ever go back to Le Reve, it’d be for the food; it’s consistently terrific.

As per the tradition of out-of-Cairo relaxing laid-back holidays, I spent my mornings and afternoons lazing by the pool, sipping on a cocktail or taking a swim while trying not to immerse my entire body in the water to protect my eyes. Only a day earlier, I had to undergo an invasive eye surgery that left me almost blind in one eye. The other eye was watery and my vision was blurred. I had to keep my shades on at all times, including at night, and had to shop for goggles so that no water would touch my eyes in case I went for a swim during the trip (and of course I was going to, corneal transplants be damned!).

The staff around the pool were friendly and quick to deliver on any request.

The hotel also carries a well-equipped gym, but I was in no mood for vigorous training. I felt that if I wanted a brisk walk or some exercise, I would have rather done that in the open.

I was quick to notice that during my stay, in the second week of October, my family and I were the only Egyptians at the hotel. All around me there were tourists, and when I inquired at some point at reception, I was told that it was a full house. Impressive, I thought, considering the tourism scare we experienced following the January 25 Revolution.

Following one of my dips, I decided to splurge on a spa treatment. Le Reve promotes itself as a spa hotel, and, in this regard, it does not disappoint. The Egyptian and Asian staff at the spa are passionate and professional. There was a long list of massage therapies and packages on offer that include sauna and jacuzzi use, scrubbing and a variety of Turkish baths.

I went for a hot stone massage which cost around €70. I can attest that the therapist that was assigned to me knew exactly how to tenderly release my stress and lengthen and stretch my fatigued muscles. She had a magical touch and I came out of that spa rejuvenated and feeling fresh.

But nights in Le Reve are not exciting.

There are a few bars — one a few meters from my room, whose emanating noise guaranteed I didn’t doze off before midnight. There’s also an “oriental show” that features a classic belly-dancing routine, which I found stale and unimaginative. Tourists sat perched up on plastic chairs around a small make-shift stage watching “whirling dervishes” dance and a belly dance show.

Sahl Hasheesh itself seemed like a cluster of resorts and hotels, without a bustling town center except for the one in nearby Hurghada.

Ridiculously bored one night, my family and I decided to take a limousine into Hurghada, which is rowdy and much more lively. It’s a $25 car ride to Hurghada and around $40 to Gouna, so not for the traveller on a tight budget. There’s a shuttle bus that goes to town, but it’s not regular.

Hurghada, its famous marina and Gouna have numerous shisha seaside cafes, bars and night clubs. If you’re a crowd and are up for a late night of raving or dance music, take yourself to Little Buddha on the Village Road, a safe option. If you prefer a more intimate atmosphere or if you’re a fan of Italian food, head straight to Divino diner and bar.

By the end of my stay, I grew restless and increasingly disenchanted; Le Reve failing to either impress or provide engaging activities — except for those few hours by the pool and in the spa. I remember thinking that whoever did the photography for the hotel’s website is a genius, because he or she made it look more beautiful that it actually was.

On the last day, I took my beloved Visa card and paid one last visit to the spa, which was truly the highlight of my experience, and I treated myself to another relaxing massage.

I was happy to leave, but I showered the staff with praise for bending over backwards to give me a better experience, with wide smiles and a friendly disposition.

Would I ever go back? Maybe. Next time I may pick a cozier hotel though; its sister boutique hotel, Premier Romance, perhaps?

But honestly, I’m not making plans to return any time soon.

What I learned from this trip? Luxury is an art, so no, modern decor, a grand pool, supreme service and a comfy bed might not be enough to impress even the roughest of travelers, if the setting and ambiance are not right. And if I’m paying a hefty sum, I expect a lot.

I also learned that my payment cards are slowly becoming my new best friends. Love big corporations or hate them, you have to admit, swiping your plastic for fancy services is deliciously fun, and for a traveler like myself, very practical.

 – Pakinam Amer 

In next installments of the “Visa Explorer Series,” I try another luxury resort, albeit one that doesn’t disappoint and leaves me wishing I had ten more loaded debit cards so I could take myself there every week. Then in my first Visa-related adventure, I take it all the way down south for a road trip that saw me and a friend driving more than 11 hours from Cairo to Aswan to spend a few nights on a charming island in the heart of Nubia. Stay tuned!

Originally published by Egypt Today Specials here: http://specials.egypttoday.com/travel/visa-explorer-sahl-hasheesh/

Feb 2012 Update: Unfortunately, due to personal reasons and travel plans, I’ve decided to halt this project. However, one day, when I feel like it, I promise I will come back here and blog about both the Ain Sokhna, and Cairo-Nubia road-trips. And I’ll have amazing pictures for you! Until then, love and light xx

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.

I turn my hourglass …

… and lose myself in thought about the journeys we make.

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love –a book which I was fiercely cynical of until I started leafing through and relating to the author Elizabeth Gilbert– I wondered about my own personal journey.

During a ride back from a festival in Wadi El Gemal, down south, I began a brief conversation (more like a monologue where I was reciting the lines) with a travel companion, one which later continued on in my head, about the nature of travel, and the kind of people it attracts. I came later to the loose conclusion that the people who travel cannot be classified, simply because everyone does — in one way or another. Gilbert traveled to forget a man, to connect with God, to eat and to find love. Others do it to escape war, death or poverty. Some do it to bring those three on others.

We travel, therefore we are.

I thought of my own journeys in the now aged 2010. The Cairo-to-Shalateen trip was about the conflict near the borders with Sudan, the mystery of tribes I have not met and the companionship on that trip — I was curious, not about destination per se, but the prospect of discovering myself in the process of talking to people and seeing a place that, as me and my co-writer have put it, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps, on some level, I related to Shalateen’s demise and innocence. On another I related to the journey — to the idea of crossing points on a map but not stopping on each for too long; the “not belonging” feel of a roadtrip was part of its magic. All the better, I didn’t feel the need to belong anywhere.

On my return to this spot earlier this month where the tribes of Beja (now more familiar to me) lived, I confess, part of it was about tasting again that bitter sweet Jabana coffee made with ginger, seated on the ground, in wadis between the mountains. It was also an exercise in familiarity, or rather the flaunting of it. The pride of feeling or saying that “yes, yes, I’ve been here before. I know the laws, and the dances, and the coffee — I even have my own Jabana set.”

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

Recently, a friend talked about a “treasure hunt” he had done with the Bedouins using a metal detector in the Sinai desert. The prospect immediately fired me up, and suddenly Sinai was not just a place to observe the mountains as they hug the sea, but a place perhaps to explore and search for hidden things. If he keeps his promise and takes me with him to hunt for shiny metals, it won’t be for destination –like always– but the very, very small and rare possibility of finding something precious beneath the sands. And it’s more about the process of finding, the hunt if you will, than the object sought.

Same with the desire to explore the Gilf, that stretch of remote land elevated over a plateau whose name means “The Great Barrier” and who’s been enchanting travelers like Lazlo Almasy and Mohammed Hassanein with tales of lost armies and a dried oasis hidden from our eyes. For me, it’s about the caves that have yet to be discovered, not the ones that already are. It’s also about the silence — another reason I go to places. I search for it in the hope that the silence without will create a silence within, that the gibbering voices in my head will finally decide to let go and move out.

Am I the kind of traveler who wants to stumble into places, get to know the culture and people, eat local food and take pictures of temples and revered walls? No. At least not at this stage.

A new travel idea I’m developing — a rather personal and private one which, surprisingly, I’m willing to share — is to go to Munich, where my father lived for six years as a young man. There, he knew a woman, who I believe was his first love (a very unfounded conclusion reached after listening to accounts and snippets of stories from aunts and uncles who recite them like family lore and profess knowledge that I think is beyond them, but nevertheless find entertaining).

My father (on the right, black shirt) in 70's Munich

I heard of letters (whose fate is unknown), and the investigator inside of me wants to find those letters, track down the woman in Munich and meet her — it’s a small journey inside the mind of my own father, as it is inside the city which shaped a lot of his beliefs and world-views. Needless to say, my father doesn’t get personal with me, and he would probably go berserk if he knew I’d want to go on such a privacy-inflitrating personal assignment (especially that I ritualistically lecture my parents on respect for privacy and the need for space even within a small, tight family).

It’s such an offensive on privacy, I know, to sift through someone else’s decades-old secrets.

But my nose-poking and shameless prodding is justified by one thing; I feel that my father’s history is also a part of mine. In a way, it’s part of my heritage. And yes, that includes his secrets. Even the ones that he doesn’t care about anymore. And perhaps his own father’s secrets, if I knew of a way where I could ever come to those.

It’s a flimsy argument, very shaky. And I might not even find those letters with the 35-plus-year-old-address of a woman, who might have moved out of the country, changed her name or gender, or died. It also carries the prospect of not hearing anything from anyone, having a door slammed violently in my face or ending up meeting an over-weight, foul-mouthed German who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t recognize my father’s name. The city itself has been reshaped over the years — perhaps it gained weight too, or lost it, in a manner of speaking. The Munich that my father loved is no more, and that “thing”, that needle in a haystack, which has made up a part of his inner him, may be lost even on a passion-filled, genuinely enthused, ever-optimistic seeker like myself.

My father as a young man, with his camera. He wrote letters too.

But this remains a small travel fantasy, that has nothing to do with “discovering a new place” or “flying by the seat of my pants.” Perhaps the fact that I blow its cover here, and talk about something personal to me and my father, has more to do with wanting something about my father to be exposed to the world — something that may stay on after the two of us are gone, and would keep us both alive. Perhaps it’s for my future kids, or his grandchildren. Here is something about your grand-dad, his story. The storyteller in me wanted something about him to be out there, something personal, a testimony to his presence.

“Here’s a man who loved and lived” kind of thing. “And this man is my father.”

In Wadi El Gemal, I listened to this astronomy session beneath the stars (one which helped me know where the direction of Mecca is at night for the following two days, and which works well when you want to boast about basic knowledge of star alignment to strangers). I looked up at the stars, and I wondered whether I travel because I can’t commit. My temperament is ever changing — this has been my constant– and so are my ideas. I wonder if the idea of “home” is one of them. I wonder if curiosity about new places, is actually a search for something else entirely, perhaps for a certain brand of commitment.

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

But I don’t know yet what makes them so.

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

Some time has passed since I began my musings. I turn the hourglass.

Listening to: Girl, the Beatles
Favorite bit: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story … All about the girl who came to stay? … She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Mood: Happy and hopeful, perhaps without reason.
Wants from the Universe: Travel with purpose, with love.