Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Day 8: Bus Ride to Siwa Oasis

The day was younger than a weaned kitten when we disembarked from our hotel in Alexandria and made our way toward the corniche where we would make an attempt to flag down a micro bus. We were able to stop one van, whose driver let us know that we were doing the sign wrong. There is a special hand signal for each route, and for the bus it is holding your hand up beside your face with your palm facing out and moving the hand up and down as a driver passes. Most of the drivers held up one finger as they went by, which I did not know the meaning of. The finger that was held up was the index finger, not the middle, at least.

We eventually were greeted with the grin of a taxi driver who quoted us 20 EGP to get us to the bus station. Even though the microbusses are 1 EGP each, we figured that it would be worth it to pay the extra and just get there quickly. It was still only about $3, so not really a big deal. The taxi driver let us into his yellow and black chariot and we raced along the corniche toward the bus station, which is on the south side of town. Even though the taxi driver was quick about getting us to the bus station, the ride was not too crazy, as it generally is in a taxi.

When we got to the bus station we were about an hour and a half early, so we sat down and watched kids sell tea and shoe shining. It's like something out of Oliver Twist here. While we waited I decided to grab some snacks for the bus and to check out the bathrooms. When I made my way to the potty, I noticed one has to pay 1 EGP to use it. I paid, wondering if it was even worth it, and when I walked out, I realized that I didn't even to go in the first place. It was more of a donation than anything.

I picked up a couple bags of chips (small bags), a couple hostess type chocolate snacks, a big bottle of apple soda, and a bottle of water. It all came to 17 EGP, which seemed spendy compared to other small shops, but it was the bus station, so it is expected.

Beverly and I decided to play a game called “I spy a tourist looking guy” since there were none around. The bus station was full of buses and there were a lot of people present, but we were the only tourist looking people around. Beverly said that she saw a girl tourist when I was in the bathroom, but I did not see her. It is still very strange to me that so few people are visiting Egypt now.

The bus area was a bit confusing, as the buses are not marked very well and a few companies use the bus station. When it was getting close to time to leave, we made our way up to a couple busses that were loading passengers, and asked if they were the bus to Siwa. The second bus driver nodded and put our bag under the bus. We got on, noticing that the bus that we would be taking was less fancy than some of the others. It was a cramped ride and the seats were not soft by any margin, but it was at least our bus and that meant we were on our way. Our tickets assigned our seats, but on the bus the numbers are only in Arabic. I have gotten pretty good at quickly reading Arabic numbers, but it can still be confusing.

We eventually pulled out of the bus station and made our way through the delta area. There was a huge oil refinery that we passed through and then the green areas began to slowly disappear. Later we passed through some towns where there were houses sitting on hills overlooking the water. Some of the houses were crazy compared to others. There was one house that was huge and pink that looked like a castle. There were also some newer style condo buildings being built. It was a pretty interesting ride.

After getting out of the area around Alexandria, it quickly grew more dry and the only things growing were small bushes. At one point we saw a couple of camel herds next to the road. Later on we passed a couple of military checkpoints and about three or so hours into our bus ride we stopped in the city of Mersa Matrouh. We got off the bus, as we really had to use the potty at this point. The bus itself was air conditioned and I brought a sweater just in case. I was glad I did, because it was very cold on the bus. Anyway, being that it was cold, the soda had moved through me and at this point it was worth finding a bathroom. I was not sure how long the bus ride would be, as we had read it was 10 hours total with up to 3 stops on the way.

The bus station area was confusing, and we noticed that nobody really knew English where we were. So, it was very hard to communicate with people. A few taxi drivers knew enough English to be able to tell me that they could drive us to Siwa instead of taking the bus. Another guy kept telling me over and over that Siwa was no good. I was not sure how much time we had at this bus station, since the driver did not speak English, so Beverly watched the bus while I went to find a restroom. After looking around a bit, I was able to find one. I went back to her and showed her where it was. The bus didn't look like it was going anywhere anytime soon, as everyone had left and disappeared somewhere. So we went and bought some snacks afterwards and then went to sit on the bus. The bus was at the stop for about an hour and a half until it left. Many people got on and some had to stand or sit on the floor.

We then left Mersa Matrouh and took the turn to Siwa, which leads into the deep desert. A sign said that it was 296 km to Siwa and about 300 to Alexandria, so we knew we were over half way. I spent the time reading while the bus made its way into the Sahara. I was finishing Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea while Beverly tried to avoid car sickness due to the bus moving all over the road. Eventually she took a nap and I joined her. After a while I awoke noticing that we were deep in the desert. I listened to some music and watched the scenery pass us by for a while and after a couple more hours I noticed that we were in a very hilly area of the desert. I woke Beverly and told her we might be close. We passed a military checkpoint where a large assault rifle was aimed at the bus by a guard next to us. That was interesting. Then we entered the Siwa area. The landscape quickly turned green with date palm trees and we came to our bus station rather quickly.

We got off the bus and made our way toward where we thought our hotel would be. At first, we went in the wrong direction, but we turned around and found where the center of town looked to be. We walked in that direction as young boys driving donkey carts and men on motorcycles passed us by. A sign at the bus station warned women to dress modestly. Siwa is even more traditional and conservative than other areas of Egypt, especially Cairo and Alexandria. Men are not allowed to show their shoulders and women must cover as much as possible. Even when swimming, women are expected to wear pants and cover most of their arms. Many of the women here in town are fully covered, including their faces.  Although Beverly wears an abaya and hijab (the scarf), she feels that she is underdressed.

We came to our hotel and checked in. We were not able to reserve a room, so I was somewhat worried about not getting one. However, there seemed to be nobody else staying here when we checked in and there were plenty of rooms. A regular room without a bathroom costs 30 EGP for two people and a room with a bathroom inside costs 50 EGP for a double. We decided to pay the extra for the bathroom and noticed that our room also had a balcony, which is nice. It views the city and the park that is nearby. We also have a great view of the ancient city of Shali, which is inside the modern town area. The city of Siwa itself is only populated by about 25,000 people and it is much better looking in person than the pictures that I had seen before.

The person who checked us into our room told us about some tours and showed us the rooftop balcony. There is an amazing view from the top of the whole city and the desert and oasis lake beyond. There are many hills to the west and to the south is a sea of palm trees before ending where sand dunes begin. The hotel is also very close to the old city of Siwa, which is made of mud and rises out of the earth like a mountain.

We settled in our room and then went out for some dinner across the street. After dinner we returned to the roof top deck to watch the sun set. The sun set so fast over the water of the oasis lake that you could actually see it moving. It was a gorgeous sight. The clouds and water turned crimson red as the large disc of the sun slid over the horizon. The city then lit up beyond and the call to prayer from the nearby Mosques filled the air. In the distance we could see a group of people at the old city, climbing the hills. In the streets below, donkey carts and motorcycles passed as the evening came over the town.

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