Gray Areas in the Orange Zone: Egypt’s Western Desert — By Jennifer Shipp
Africa Egypt North Africa Trips

Gray Areas in the Orange Zone: Egypt’s Western Desert — By Jennifer Shipp

It’s an otherworldly place and one that’s still technically off-limits to foreigners as of 2016.

This trip has been hard. All of us agree. It’s nothing specific but everything in general. Lydi and I have classes three days of the week. Last week she made friends with some girls at the park, which means that this coming week will be busier yet. And tomorrow we’re going into the Western Desert on a trip that’s probably going to be visually stimulating but otherwise fairly low-key. But subconsciously, I’m worried about it. This was the place where the carload of Mexican tourists were accidentally killed by Egyptian military a few weeks? months ago? (I can’t remember now). It’s in an  “Orange Zone” and I’m hoping it will be better than the Orange Zone experience we had in Tunisia last year.

We opted to do a day-trip rather than spend the night in the desert for obvious reasons. Though a night in the middle of the Sahara sounds really amazing we didn’t feel like putting ourselves through the ordeal. But still, I imagine that the stars are bright and the sand is soft. I can also imagine the sleeping bags: raggedy things that have been used by hundreds of tourists before me. I can imagine the goat-head stew for dinner complete with eyeballs, and other Bedouin favorites. I can imagine the starvation, the cold nip of the desert winter wind at midnight, and that communal sleeping bag coaxing me into it as a seedy last-resort escape from exhaustion and hypothermia.

But a day-trip into the desert shouldn’t be a big deal. I’m excited to see this surreal landscape of sculpted sand dunes that take strange poses and the yin-yang line that supposedly separates the white sands of the White Desert from the black sands of the Black Desert. We’ll see the Black Desert first; where the land is black from mountain-scapes that have been eroded into fine sand. And then, as I understand it, we’ll visit the Crystal Mountain where quartz crystals grow out of the ground (apparently). And finally, as the Black Desert recedes, the White Desert emerges. They blend into each other (or so I’ve been told), but still they remain separate and distinct overall.

The White Desert has featured heavily in my dreams for the past few nights probably because the symbolism of the white sands and the black sands and the crystal mountain lends itself so well to dreams. Two nights ago I dreamed that I took a boat along a river into the White Desert. The pure white sand was blown up along the riverside like giant snowdrifts. And somehow Lydi and I had gotten separated from John, my cell phone, and all my credit cards. She took a nap while I sat nearby and worried. The plot thickened when Lydi and I arrived officially in the desert (which was actually an ocean) and she and John somehow left without me to go to a rocky island some distance away in a canoe. The only single-person canoe I could find looked like a Moroccan belgha shoe and I argued with the canoe rental men about the safety of the shoe. “I don’t think it’ll make it.” I said, but I had no other option but to try it and hope for the best.

But the dream wasn’t ominous. It didn’t seem to portend anything disastrous in the desert. Rather, it captures the tenor of our trip. John and I haven’t had a lot of time together. Jogging together at the Orman Gardens (which is usually when John and I talk) is a social affair that’s become increasingly party-like (last Tuesday, three different groups of kids jogged with us for three different stretches at the park). Lydi and I go to classes for three days of the week. Starting next week, she’s going to be tutoring some kids her age in English in the afternoons and she and I will go alone to the University for that. Cooking dinner is arduous and isolating. I don’t have a lot of the supplies here that I have at home, so it takes quite a bit of time out of every day. And this weekend, we’ll be spending a full day in a car with a guide taking us through the desert, which will be interesting, but not especially relaxing. John will sit up front and Lydi and I will sit in the back (it’s considered taboo for women to sit in the front with taxi drivers).

Yesterday, I reluctantly booked the Southeast Asia leg of our trip, a process that took the entire day and much fretting (do we go to Myanmar or Laos? Or Malaysia?…Who cares?). And I looked into a trip to Luxor and Aswan, though I couldn’t bring myself to book anything for these cities just yet. The idea of taking a 10 to 12 hour train ride through Egypt sounds relaxing in some respects (trains tend to be roomier than planes and the schedule for boarding is a lot more laid back) and anxiety-provoking in others (the trains in Egypt derail a lot and sometimes they’re bombed). We could take a plane from Cairo to Luxor, but then we’d miss all the small towns in between along the Nile. None of them are safe enough to visit right now, but if we could peer out through the window of a train, I’d love to see them because I’ve heard that in Egypt, there’s Cairo and then there’s Everywhere Else. And I’d like to see just a little bit of the Everywhere Else.

This morning John said, “We know that booking a flight to Luxor would be easy. Nothing would happen. We’d just go and come back.”

And I said, “I know…” pausing to think for a second. And then, in the same breath we both said, “Then why bother going?” And then we nodded to each other knowingly.

Staying safe is always a goal, but it isn’t the only goal.

Relaxation is a nice goal, but relaxation is boring without periods of heavy work preceding it.

This trip has been hard, but we don’t regret coming here.

After we cross the ocean and we walk back into our house in the U.S. months from now and I see something small that I left out of place: a hair clippie, a note to myself about something that no longer matters, or an item I chose not to pack at the last minute, I’ll be awed by where we’ve been and what we’ve done and how enormous the details of our lives in the U.S. seemed while we were there before and how small all those details seem upon our return.

Doing something difficult makes difficult things seem easier.

No one dreams of a visit to the gray area between the White Desert and the Black Desert.

Related Posts:

Good News for Jealous Friends: Culture Shock in Egypt — By Jennifer Shipp

Not American. Just Human. — By Jennifer Shipp

John’s Big Bad Day — By Jennifer Shipp

Arabic Encounters at Orman Park — By Jennifer Shipp

The Sport of Street Crossing — By Jennifer Shipp

Not Exactly a Bombing in Cairo, Egypt — By Jennifer Shipp

Finding Chocolate Amidst the Piles of Poop and Trash — By Jennifer Shipp

Sexual Frustration and World Peace — By Jennifer Shipp

You Recently Viewed ...

Fez, Morocco: Photo Gallery

Pilanesberg Self-Drive Safari Near Johannesburg, South Africa: Photo Gallery

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa: Photo Gallery

The Tunisian Washing Machine

Flight from Egypt to Jordan: John Makes a Friend


Bruised Banana