September 22, 2010 by jessperriam
We were getting to the end of our two week odyssey of Egypt: the two Victorian sisters, the young German married couple, our local tour leader and me, the fifth wheel.
Our trip notes were laced with warnings of ‘dress conservatively’ and ‘act with cultural sensitivity’. Ok, they’re not direct quotes but they may as well have been.
We were warned that the Siwans were especially conservative when it came to women. They wear ornate clothes, hidden under black clothing. Siwan women are never to be photographed. If you ask you will be refused.
We’d spent the better part of the last ten days travelling by train, felucca, mini bus and 4WD. There were no air-conditioned luxury coaches for us mere mortals.
Our second last stop was the Siwa Oasis in western Egypt, rather close to the Libyan border. Here’s a map just so you can get an idea:
We all clambered up an hill in the old part of town with homes, shops and a mosque carved into the side. We were there to watch and photograph the sunset over Lake Siwa and get our bearings for where we could visit the next day
Gandhi pointed out the Mountain of the Dead, the Temple of the Oracle and Cleopatra’s bath across the landscape before us.
“You can take a donkey cart, hire a bike, or walk your way between these,” said Gandhi.
After much discussion between the five of us, it was sorted. The Germans would take a donkey cart, us Aussies, we’d walk it.
“As you wish,” Gandhi responded in a more bemused tone than usual.
You see while walking was an option, it was one no-one had taken before.
Over dinner, Gandhi told the waiters at the restaurant what the sisters and I were planning on doing.
Their reaction was a little more surprised than Gandhi’s “As you wish.”
“Do you know how far that is to walk?”
We shrugged our shoulders. Their guesstimates ranged between five and 12 kilometres for the round trip.
The locals were incredulous, why wouldn’t we at least take a bike to make the journey a little easier? We shrugged it off with a “We’ll drink lots of water and look forward to the promise of a swim at Cleopatra’s bath.”
I honestly don’t recall why we didn’t hire bikes. But I do recall the locals thought we were crazy, in a cute, amusing ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ kind of way. Not a ‘they offend us kind of way’.
If they were offended at our hairbrained schemes, they wouldn’t have drawn us a mud map. I love a good mud map.
We left early to avoid the eventual heat. The walk to the Mountain of the Dead was simple.
Yet the Germans’ donkey cart driver was giving us funny looks, as though we were completely mad. We didn’t care, we followed the mud map’s directions and kept walking…
And we made it to the Temple of the Oracle (that’s the place where Alexander the Great had some divine confirmation).
By then it was hot. We couldn’t wait to get to Cleopatra’s bath and have a swim.
But before we went for a swim, we got lost.
It was getting hotter as each minute and every step brought us closer to midday. We walked past every stagnant pond, wondering where on earth Cleopatra had hidden her bath. The fact that the turn of the century styled street lights had disappeared from the dirt track was probably the biggest clue.
“Never lost… just looking,” we kept saying to each other as we hoped for some locals to come past so we could ask directions.
Finally a bunch of children came past on a donkey and cart. They too looked bemused at the western women walking sweatily in the midday sun. They pointed us in the right direction, ends up we’d missed a right turn somewhere early in the piece.
But finally we’d made it.
We changed into our bathers and jumped into the refreshingly warm spring.
The locals were out there having a swim too. The boys and tourists swam in the main pool while the local women and girls had their own designated pool to the side. The young ones who weren’t quite confident in their swimming were thrown in the water sporting Egyptian floaties – a two litre plastic bottle tied to their body.
Every time a foreigner went for a dip, the local women made their way to the main pool to have a bit of a gander at the scene, scope them out. It was kind of cool.
The boys then started mucking around, doing trick jumps into the pool. They dragged over a chair and did flips off it. Later they grabbed a palm frond and held it like a bar for the daring ones to flip and somersault over. If there are some surprise diving contenders from Egypt in the 2012 Olympics, you’ll know they did their training at Siwa.
But then one of those air conditioned, luxury tour coaches rocked up.
And they had a videographer with them.
Yes. A videographer.
Some people got off the bus. Others couldn’t be arsed. Their loss.
A crowd from the bus had gathered around the pool. And all of a sudden the tomfoolery subsided.
And out from among the tour bus mob tottered a white blonde, fake tanned, short shorts wearing woman who clearly wanted to steal the thunder from the locals having a good time.
She stood on the very edge of the pool, and shrugged off what precious little clothes she had on to reveal a tiny bikini. By this time the local ladies were sauntering over, wondering on earth this woman was thinking.
She delicately tiptoed to the first step in the pool, slipped off her sandals and went in for the dippest of dips.
Over on the other side of the pool, the other tourists who had covered up, worn t-shirts and board shorts in the pool were staring in disbelief. We couldn’t believe anyone on the luxury buses neglected to tell people to wear something more appropriate when they left the hotel that morning.
We also couldn’t believe that someone was filming it all for them.
But the luxury bus invaders left as quickly as they arrived, leaving everyone else to breathe a sigh of relief. Out came the chair, out came the palm frond. The Olympic diving trials were back on at Cleopatra’s bath.
This is the second outing for Travel Tales Thursday. Last week we went on a mid-’90s round Australia road trip.