Outside the tent it’s bright. Very bright. The rock formations I could barely make out last night are chalky white, jutting skyward from the sand. Everything gleams in the light diffusing through a hazy cloud cover. The tents form a huge circle around the firepit in the center.
It looks another planet. Rock faces are worn smooth and bleached, the sand is blond, and the sky is hazy but simultaneously bright. Salty rock shavings blanket the ground in patches like snowfall. It’s a sci-fi movie set from the 1950s where the passengers of some ill-fated space expedition are marooned on a barren planet.
We gather around the low tables for breakfast. Pita, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and croissants. Nescafe is popular here. It’s a blend of hot cocoa and coffee that comes in packets stirred into boiling water. It doesn’t have the kick of the Turkish coffee, but it’ll do.
Yesterday one of our guides told us about our stops. I thought we were going to visit a “flower shop” and a “mushroom shop”. But when we stop the trucks at a couple of large rocks shaped like a mushroom and a bird, I realize that something “shop” was “rock”. There’s a spot where little black pebbles are scattered across the sand. On closer inspection, they look like little flowers. I gather pictures of the martian landscape and little black stones that look like they were dropped from the sky.
We visit the Black Desert where the landscape is covered in black gravel. The wind kicks up and the sand stings our skin. We drive back to El Bawiti in the Bahariya Oasis. The oasis is actually a network of oases, and El Bawiti is one of Bedouin villages. We have a hotel for the night and everyone is happy about it. El Beshmo is less a hotel than a motel. We have a lunch and get the chance to shower.
The shower heads are set up on the wall directly across from the toilets in our bathrooms and all of the water pools into a drain on the floor. When we arrived I used the common bathrooms by the dining hall. They are rough. Toilet paper is not really a thing here. There’s a bucket with a pitcher for washing and, most of the time, there isn’t even soap at the sinks. Sometimes, like at the truck stop, there is only a hole in the ground. Gladly, our bathroom has a clean functioning toilet.
I’m second into shower and I have trouble adjusting the temperature. The water pressure and temperature fluctuate. This seems to be the case everywhere in Egypt. The temperature is scalding.
I twirl the taps and finish up, but the water won’t stop. The left handle comes off in my hand and water pours through the opening. Then the right one freezes up. It won’t stop. I get dressed and go into the courtyard. While our water runs, others in the complex don’t have any. One girl got stuck covered in suds. I fill an empty water bottle so she can rinse.
We pack back into the Land Cruisers and the guides take us to a salt lake. The sun is a white disk in the hazy sky. The lake is surreal, dark and mirrored, rippling under a heavy wind with little waves breaking quickly against the sand. It looks like a giant pool of mercury: dark and reflective, seemingly shallow but covering a giant area. There is little vegetation around the water, but we drive through dense palm groves nearby, where clear streams furrow the shadowed ground.
Our Bedouin guides take us on another thrill ride through the desert. We zoom over sandy hills. The trucks are agile in the hands of our experienced drivers. They goad each other on. From a ridge over a steep dune, we pitch up and over the next. It is an unchoreographed dance at high speed. Yassir spins the wheel and slides to stop dangerously close to the others. His timing, estimating speed and resistance, are spot on. Any miscalculation could be dire.
We queue up again and stop at a hot spring. The water pours from a pipe and smells like sulphur. It stands waist-deep into a concrete cistern with a sandy bottom. I am the second in. I stand under the pipe where the water is the hottest and let it pummel the back of my head and neck. Others disrobe and hop in. Some are pulled. Beers get passed around and we soak while evening sets in. The air is chilly and the water rejuvenating.
It’s dark when we get back to El Beshmo. This is the last night for about half of our group. Some are leaving tomorrow, and the rest of us will go on to Luxor. We have dinner: stewed tomatoes and onions flecked with egg, cucumber/tomato salad with cheese and yogurt, sliced cheese, fresh cucumber and tomatoes, chilled mashed potatoes with dill, and pita bread.
Afterwards the party starts in the dining hall. People break out liquor and beer, crush ice, and stir mixers. We sit around the long dining table and chat the move into a thatched room. There’s a fireplace in the middle of a room flanked by more low-slung tables. The Bedouins break out their musical instruments. A hookah gets passed around. They sing and play. We all dance.
Tomorrow we will head back to Cairo. About twenty of us have a nighttime flight to Luxor and the others will be leaving. Traveling together creates a unique bond. I didn’t know most of these people last week, and now we share a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Friendships are formed. Though I may never see some of them again, others I believe I will know for the rest of my life.