I flew to New York December 29th and could hardly believe I was actually headed into the Sahara. The trip is so routine by now. Even showing up to Cathedral Gardens at 110th and Manhattan Avenue to meet Ellen and running to Central Market for some peanut butter before hopping in a car to JFK felt pretty run of the mill (minus the heartfelt send-off from Sev and Jules, that was just heartbreaking). We met everyone at the airport and after having to go back and put said peanut butter (and Ellen's alcohol... "for gifts" she says) got on Egyptair flight 39 to Cairo. I sat next to Megan (my roommate and all over buddy from Barnard) and we both tried some drug-assisted sleep to marginal sucsess. At one point she woke up, asked me to open her water, and when it sprayed a little due to the pressure change said, "It was happy to see you!" in a high pitched voice. She laughed for about a minute afterward before fading off again. Ambian works in mysterious ways I guess.
On the first day of 2009 we went to "The Mugaba", a government building that we had all been warned was beaurocratic hell on earth, to get our visa extensions but it proved to be almost empty and very naviagable on new years day, el hamdu lellaeh. ("thanks be to god" and "god willing" are phrases we have learned to add to the end of almost every sentence, and to use whenever one doesn't know what to say. They are, of course, also extremely pertinant in a place where things like the police showing up in the middle of your arabic lesson and needing to see everyone's passport for allah knows what reason!) We spent the rest of the day exploring and doing errands before heading out to the oasis. Megan and I very proudly changed money and bought bread and vitamins all by ourselves. The bread shops, which can be found in every block, smell incredible and the bread litterally spills out onto the sidewalks. There are fruit vendors just as often and nuts spilling out from the bodgea like convience stores and juice places. Men with giant boards of pita on their heads ride around on bikes, motercycles, and any other imaginiable kind of moving vehicle. It's impossible to imagine not being hungry at all times in this city!
Happy City Hotel nightstand console
When we landed in Cairo the next morning, we were all bit groggy but the city woke us immediately! What impressed me on the way down was the way bits of the city are interspersed with true desert... dunes and all. It is a loud and busy place that proved itself to be so right from the beginning. The baggage claim was a crowed mass and the bus ride to the Happy City Hotel gave us a decent taste of Cairo traffic (we would soon have to navigate on foot!). We took a desperately needed nap at the hotel and then made our way to a traditional restaurant for dinner, then went back to the hotel roof top for drinks and shisha until midnight. Sana saaida! Happy New Year!
Happy City Hotel nightstand console
The rest of our day in Cairo was spent dodging traffic, crossing the Nile (surprisingly like any other river in a big city), and going to the Cairo Musueum. If I had died and gone to heaven, I would have gone to that place. It's an imposing building but inside is a nearly dingy, poorly lit, treasure trove of all things Ancient Egyptian. Amulets, statues and all number of other old thing are stuffed into glass and wood cases strangely remincient of those in Schermerhorn hall at Columbia. We spent some time in the king Tut and adjanct rooms and barely scratched the surface of all there is to see. Hopefully when we're back in Cairo in March we'll get to spend more time there. By dinner time I was so exhausted it was almost all I could do to grab soup in the Hotel restaurant, pack up my bags, and get to bed. We did manage, however, to find a place that sells (and delivers to your door!) whiseky for my 21st birthday... we figured that a little American tradition should be upheld. Haha.
The next day we rose bright and early, gobbled gibna bitta (a great cheese somewhere between feta and cream cheese) on crossiants, and piled into the little bus that would take us to Daklah Oaisis... 12 hours (though it proved to be 13) into the Sahara. I sat in the back, but thanks to dramamine the tales of upchuck Annie will have to stop somewhere around 2008! From the highway on the way out of Cairo we saw the Giza pyramids. Another died and gone to heaven moment. Many people had told me they were disappointed, but from a crowed bus of archaeology nerds, they seemed pretty much up to snuff.
Ashraf, our lovely egyptian guide for the entirety of the tripe, and our liason that manages said problems like the police showing up at the dig house and getting us safely through checkpoints along the road to the oasis, kept us updated on what we were seeing as we headed out into the desert. That is to say, he pointed out the pyramids as we left Cairo, and the fact that we were in Daklah when we arrived! I kid, a bit, but most of the LONG LONG ride was desert -- flat, tan desert. We stopped a few times to use the bathrooms (only one squat!) and streach and take photographs.
Regardless we were more than ready to leave that bus far far in the past when we arrived at the dig house after dark. I was not prepared for how beautiful the house is. It's rustic, to be sure, but arriving at night to the mudbrick courtyards illuminated by hanging lanterns was too picturesque for words. (pictures that do it justice soon!)Delicious hibiscus drink and friendly house-staff greeted us and we ate a much needed dinner, unpacked, and hit the sack with huge grins on our faces.
This morning we woke early and cold. Breakfast was yummy cheese, honey, pita and hard boiled eggs. After we set-up the library and computer lab we had some time to explore around the house. The fields and palm groves surrounding us are exactly what you think an oasis should be. Muddy and green and lovely. Climbing palm trees and catching grasshoppers ensued. We sat for awhile just in awe of the commanding view of the desert scarp and town. But, turn around and there is the distance is the Sahara. A strange substitute for the pacific ocean, but just as expansive feeling. The night grows old now so I'll save more dig-house antics until another time. Suffice it to say I know realize an oasis paradise really exists.
[Photos of dig house, etc delayed due to really SLOW connection]