Siwa: An Egyptian Oasis

11 Nov

Last weekend, Egyptians celebrated Eid Al Adha; A Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son for God. Of course, God intervened and supplied a sheep for sacrificing instead at the last minute. Thus, on these two days, Muslims around the world slaughter a sheep (or a goat or a cow) and give to a portion of the meat to the less fortunate, a portion to their families and feast on the rest.

With all that feasting and celebrating it is easy to forget the real meaning of this holiday, which of course is two days off work making a nice long 4 day weekend with which to travel. 🙂

Shaun and I packed up our sweatshirts and swimsuits and headed to Siwa with a group of about 10 other people; mostly other expats. Siwa, as it happens, is a very difficult destination to get to. There is no airport there, and they only built a paved road to the town within the last 30 years. The only way to get there from Cairo is by making the 10 hour desert drive via bus or car.

We decided to take public transport because A: a one-way ticket cost about $12 and B: the bus was scheduled to go over night, giving us maximum use of our time off.

So, we arrived at the bus station at 7:15 pm, with guarded optimism. We knew the quality of the public buses in Egypt were, um, sub par and that the desert roads are a bit…in need of repair, but what was the worst that could happen?

$12, 15 hours, and several panic attacks later, we arrived in Siwa….

To make a long story short: Our first bus filled with smoke, veered of the road and eventually broke down on the side of the road about 3 hours outside of Cairo. An hour later, a new bus showed up, but with very limited capacity, meaning we were forced to ride standing up in the aisle. 10 minutes after that, at a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, I realized I had left my purse (passport, camera, and cash) on the broken down bus 10 miles back! (You know that feeling of losing your purse? It’s like immediate, intense, all-consuming panic? Yeah).  Thanks to the fluent Arabic speakers in our group, Shaun was able to hop in a random pick up truck to make the journey back to the first bus while the rest of us worked to stall the second bus from leaving. After some heated words between one of the passengers and the bus driver, Shaun finally arrived, my purse in hand, and we continued for another hour and a half in the over-filled second bus. At 4:30 AM, we arrived at the bus station halfway between Siwa and Cairo. We were told to get off the bus and wait for a new one to take us the rest of the way. Everyone we asked assured us the bus was coming in 30 minutes, even when we asked 30 minutes later. Just as we started to lose all hope and began negotiating a rate for a driver, the “new” bus arrived! New to us but definitely not new to the world. This bus looked questionable at best. (wish I would have taken a picture) But, regardless, it got us the rest of the way to Siwa without issue and we arrived at our final destination no worse for the wear.

Once in Siwa, we got right to soaking up every minute of hard-earned rest and relaxation. We spent the morning of the first day recuperating (swimming in the hotel pool and/or reading). Then, we rented some bicycles and rode into town for a late lunch in the center of the town of Siwa. This lunch was amazing. The restaurant is built in the ruins of the city center, and had great views and even better food.

Historically, Siwans built their homes and businesses from a combination of sand, salt and water. It’s beautiful and completely eco-friendly but doesn’t hold up well on the off chance that the town gets a torrential down-pour, which is what turned the city center into ruins years ago.

Our late lunch extended into the sunset, and we soaked in the amazing views of the Oasis while eating chocolate cake with date syrup filling (the Siwan take on chocolate molten cake) and drinking Turkish coffee.

After lunch, we did some shopping in the craft market while our friend Amr wheeled and dealed with about three different companies, getting us the best price for a desert safari the next day! We met our soon to be tour guide, Youssif, had some Siwan tea, and then headed back to our hotel for dinner and a camp fire.

The second day was spent on a desert safari. This was, by far, the coolest thing we did on the trip and definitely my favorite thing I have done so far in Egypt. Two old Land Cruisers came to our hotel to bring us on a day-long adventure through The Great Sand Sea. Our itinerary included stops at a saltwater lake, a fresh water lake and a hot spring with plenty of time in between to enjoy the sand dunes in the car, on foot and on sand boards!

Shaun fishing at the fresh water lake in the middle of the desert

Learning a Siwan dance from Youssif at the Salt water lake

A few people running down a sand dune in The Great Sand Sea. My new favorite pass time!

Attempting to sand board, but mostly just sinking into the sand

This desert is what you picture when you think of a desert. Endless beautiful white-sand dunes. There is nothing like it, and the pictures just don’t do it justice.

Our driver, Ibrihim, has been driving through the desert for over 25 years, and his driving skills are impressive! We were ripping up, down and sideways through the dunes with ease. He would often slow down on the top of a sand dune holding the car in an inverse position as we all squealed with fear. Then, he would let go of the breaks and send us sliding down the dune as he cackled a sinister laugh obviously taking great joy in our fear. It was like being on a 60 kilometer roller coaster with no lines and no creepy carnies. Just. Amazing.

Ibrihim and Youssif made great tour guides. They were joking around with us all day. It was obvious they love what they do.



At one point, Ibrihim pulled Shaun aside to tell him that he should eat 7 dates every morning to….uh….make him “very good”. At which point he winked, and said “Trust me. I have eight kids. I know.”

I could go on and on talking about how great this day was, but I have already made this post too long. More on Siwa later!



One Response to “Siwa: An Egyptian Oasis”

  1. mschristiner November 12, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Wow! This place looks beautiful.

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