30 April 2015

Safaga, Egypt 2013

A visit to the tiny village encampment of Um Dalfa made an interesting contrast with a previous expedition in the Sinai. Our leader is Mahmoud. At the port of Safaga on the north end of the Red Sea, about sixteen people from our cruise ship pile into the usual jeeps for the brutal two-hour ride into the interior. But wait, we get a break. A stop at a tree. It's unusual to see a tree standing alone in the desert. The terrain here is quite rocky underfoot; the landscape always surprises in its variety from one dune or outcrop to the next. We can climb about a bit and acclimatize to the immense space around us.

The villagers are well prepared for us. An inviting shelter promises tea. Waiting for fellow tourists to exit the toilets the only permanent structures here I'm approached by my driver Hani who wants to beg a cigarette for another driver with no English. The exchange takes a while to interpret because Hani's communications with western women were apparently learned from pickup lines in Hollywood movies. The distraction is fine because socially one rarely broaches the intended subject in a direct manner. 

Our on-site guide is Mohammed who plans to take us to a village home after his introduction. There's no school here, no mosque; the tent homes are all naturally portable for seasonal movement. There's not much around to support a community for long. Most of the men are gone, doing whatever it is they do the expected herd of goats is absent, so that's my guess. Or away to pick up supplies. Mainly women and kids take care of the tourism investment; they have taken pains to accommodate us amicably. Subsistence-level living in this particular spot means the women regularly trek with camels over the mountain next door to bring drinking water back.

As the others troop off to the selected home, just below that little dip yonder the camels (and the kids) are waiting. Another semi-complicated exchange takes place between me and Mahmoud who introduces me to Hassan, a young man ...

... who is in charge of camel arrangements. They are receptive as I suggest paying for extra camel time, starting with like now. Shockingly straightforward, I know. The jeep drivers creep closer in curiosity. My attempts at negotiating a price elicit obscure responses so I'm going to have to extemporize with the honorarium.
There are six camels waiting with their young handlers. I choose what looks like the tallest camel and with it comes a girl small in stature but old enough to be swathed in head covering. We head away toward a small wadi, soon out of sight of habitation. Glorious to be swaying in that unique silence on a comfortable saddle with no thought in mind but to watch the wind sculpting the sand.
"On s'assoit sur une dune de sable. On ne voit rien. On n'entend rien. Et cependant quelquechose rayonne en silence." Antoine St Exupéry, Le Petit Prince.

Eventually in my selfish solitary splendour I realize we have to take turns on the six camels because most of the group wants to try it out. The others begin joining me so I feel obliged to relinquish after hogging one for forty minutes. While we wait we play with some of the kids; we take pictures of them, and hallelujah, some of us find candies in our bags to hand out. Plus more cigarettes to the guys; they are not pushy. Then I get another ride!

Hosting a tour group is an irregular event for these villagers but we have plenty of interaction with them. Hassan is very pleased with his extra camel money and insists I meet his mother who clutches me to sit and have our picture taken. Broad smile behind the veil. Perhaps Mama was the mastermind behind the display of sale items ― a weaving loom with a work in progress stands in the background ― simple Bedouin jewellery; woven scarves; small carpets; camel-wool bags. I'm incensed when I hear someone in our group turning her nose up at the naive crafts so I proclaim loudly, "We want to help support this village!" Thus another small carpet joins my collection.
Hassan and his friends give us a song of farewell; it's an unpolished performance and all the more fun for it. A very good day of memories ... shukran (thank you) for the warm welcome and assalamu alaikom (peace be upon you).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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