Sunday, November 05, 2006

Our first evening in Bahariya, Samir and Mahmoud drove us all over the depression, out to Pyramid Mountain, to a stinky salt lake whose shoreline was caked with sulfur-smelling salt deposits, through a grove of date palms (Mahmoud stopped the vehicle, hopped out and grabbed us some dates…which are, incidentally, perhaps the only fruit M does not like). Then we arrived at the part of our journey where we rode camels. All day, Samir had been mentioning this camel ride, intermittently and vaguely, seeming to oscillate between promising us an adventure and telling us that it would be “okay.” Samir’s English is good, but not so good that he could answer our questions about how long we would be on said camels, and where we were going on them. “It’s okay,” he said, and we shrugged and said to ourselves, “He’s the expert. It’s okay!”

We stopped at a small grove in the oasis, where some Bedouins tended a small herd of camels. We saw camels grazing on the grass that grew, improbably, from the sandy dirt. I will say that camels generally are possessed of a facial expression that conveys bemusement. In truth, they are grumpy sons of bitches.

M was, shall we say, skittish about riding a camel; I took this as an opportunity to put her at ease. I think I shrugged my shoulders and made a strange, lippy frown, and said how everything would be “fine.”

Some of you reading this may recall the ill-begotten horse trail ride trough the mountains of Colorado many years ago. This may have been the final vacation for the nuclear family unit into which I was born, and excepting this horse trail ride, it was quite nice. But the horse trail ride was a nightmare; I was a shrimpy, knobby-kneed, hyperactive child, given dominion over his own horse. We got a couple hours into the mountain trail when it began to hail and we decided to return to the stables. This did not stop each of us from taking quite a beating, to get very wet, and for my horse to get so freaked out that it started walking backwards.

I have never felt the comfort of a hotel bed as keenly as I did that evening.

Back in Bahariya, M initially attempts to convince me to take the camel that has been brought for her. It turns out that this camel is just cranky in the way all camels are cranky, and once she climbs aboard, it behaves very well. My camel is a different story. My camel would rather be grazing with its buddies, and it makes every attempt to wrangle free of the rope that is tied around its head, which my Bedouin guide uses to pull the poor fellow away from his buddies (who are now being shepherded into the stable), and out into a desert flat in the direction of Pyramid Mountain.

Here are things I am observing as the camel waddles its grumpy ass across the desert floor. First, the camel saddle is different than the horse saddle. It makes generous room for the emergence of the camel’s giant, hairy hump, which was pressing uncomfortably into my ass. Second, M’s camel is farting a lot. Also, my camel keeps trying to wrangle free of its ties, and every so often it will release a deep, angry bellow and twist its head, its mouth wide open—full with a green foam and pieces of grass. Then, I look to the left. Before us is a large, empty expanse of the desert floor. The day had been overcast—perhaps our first overcast day in Egypt—but now the clouds have thinned just as the sun reaches a mid-point in the sky, halfway between its noontime apex and the horizon. The clouds were indistinct, just a thin, translucent sheet. The sun spread against this gray sheet, widening, brightening—until there was no sun at all, just an ethereal white light. I suppose I now know why and how those trudging through the desert in Egypt could come to believe in such a thing as heaven.

Such were my thoughts when my camel—remember him?—had had enough of my burden and set about, I’m certain, getting me off his back. For those of you who don’t know, the camel sits in the following manner. There is a moment’s hesitation, a warning, as the camel stops what he is doing and prepares to do…something. For me, the quick onset of the realization that something was about to happen was as strong as the nasty breath and flatulence of the camels themselves. Then, abruptly, the camel bent his front legs and dropped to his knees. This put me quickly at a 45-degree angle in reference to sweet, sweet Planet Earth, which loomed, dangerously now, directly in front of me. Seriously, if I hadn’t been holding tightly onto the saddle, forearms bulging and glistening with sweat, I probably would have been tossed, or met with some other equally embarrassing fate. Fortunately, said forearms were indeed pumping, and I me with nothing worse than rope burn on my palms. And a delightful view of the ground. Then the camel sat down the rest of the way, folding its rear legs underneath, and steadfastly refused to move until our Bedouin guide “encouraged” him by slapping him on his long neck with a pole. So, the camel stood again, reversing the process I just described, and pranced all the way to the drop-off point, with Bedouin guide poking him on the haunches with a long wooden stick. Of course, none of this is quite as good as M’s camel refusing to sit at the end of the ride. She had to jump off.

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