Another World

A participant on the expedition stands two rock towers which stand at the entrance of the desert.

At the hot spring of El Haize, a small valley in the Western Sahara, Osam Ahmed rested against a white brick
wall under the thatched stick roof of a makeshift hut. His black and white
kaffiya, the traditional headdress of the Bedouin, faded gray shirt and dirty blue jeans reveal
— along with an emerging beard and sand-streaked face — that he hasn’t bathed
or changed clothes for days.

“If you see me with a shower, shaved, with nice clothes, you
would say, ‘Who is that man?’” he laughed, responding to a guess that he is 30
years old. Born in 1985 in the oasis town of Bahariya, Ahmed has spent his entire life in
the desert. For the past five years, he has led tour groups through the Sahara, including our group of American study-abroad
students on the weekend of Oct. 6.


Some spots still impress Ahmed. “Welcome to the second
planet,” he said.

At the White Desert’s
opening, where Jeeps parked between two cliffs atop a sprawling dune. The group
then climbed a hill to get the full panoramic view.

The sand pouring into the valley crashes into immense stone
monuments, shaped by years of heavy wind.

While some in the group descended, others climbed up the
side cliffs and gazed upon the smooth skyscrapers of rock jutting out of the
earth below. Tracks in the sand marked where Jeeps had passed between the
towers and headed off into the vast expanse of horizon.

Ahmed has been all over Egypt
— to the Black and White Deserts, to the Great
Sand Sea
in far western Egypt
and to the Gilf el Kabir in the southwest. He leads groups north to the Siwa
and Gara Oases, to the Qattara Depression in the central north and to Fayoum
and Giza just outside Cairo. He travels to Frafra and Dakhla Oases
in central Egypt and to the
southeast Kharga Oasis just west of Luxor.

“In November I am going for 22 days from the White Desert,”
he said. “We will go by camel. This is a fun trip. It is a good time to be
going.”

Ahmed never worries about spending long spells in the desert
or about getting lost in the endless sands.

“It only happened once,” he said. “A group of three
Japanese; they drank all night and in the morning [the guide] was not clear, he
headed off the wrong way. We know this man is supposed to be back, so when he doesn’t show everyone gets their
Jeeps and goes out. We found one man, he was far from the others and he led us
to them. It happens, but never to me.”

Outside the hut in El Haize, several trucks pulled into a
dirt lot. They were newer than those of Ahmed Safari Camp, the tour and hotel
management group run by the Ahmed family, and no gear was strapped to the
roofs. The Ahmed family’s three Jeeps hauled stacks of sleeping mats, sleeping
bags, oriental rugs, low-lying tables and firewood — all the luxuries of a
desert camp.

The other tour group, made of two families, climbed out of
their air-conditioned trucks and gathered around the hot-spring pool while
Ahmed, his three fellow guides and 14 student tourists rested in the hut’s
shade. The 3-foot deep, 8-by-12 concrete pool is filled by the pressure of the
spring fed through a large black pipe, spilling its water into an aqueduct and
through the middle of the hut, finally draining into the gardens behind.

An hour earlier, Ahmed had swum in the pool. The desert
guides dunked their tourists under the water and splashed around beneath the
desert sun. The silky, light blue water filled up with disturbed slick sludge
from the pool walls.

Children from the quiet, rustic village nearby gathered to
swim, play and fill water bottles in the spring as the second tour group
departed. When approached, they smiled and put up their thumbs. They asked for
money and then, giving up the pursuit of cash, asked for pens.

Ahmed grew up in the desert, living a life similar to the
children at the pool. He now leads safaris among the soft bleached rocks of the
White Desert, the jagged mushroom-shaped
stones and waves of clay resembling wind-blown sand. He finds home’s comforts
in the echoing silence of the desert night. The environment practically raised
Ahmed; he never received an education beyond what the desert has provided him.

Resting under their shelter of reeds and thatched sticks,
the American students consulted guidebooks and discussed future weekend travels
to Turkey, Jordan and Greece. Chatting about Egypt, the previous night spent in the Sahara dunes and the luxuries of home, we rested and
waited for our meal.

Alongside the trickling water of the shelter’s aqueduct, we
dined on warm pita bread, platters of grapes and a freshly made tuna salad
chopped with tomatoes and onions. After the meal and another round of lounging,
Ahmed called out to the group, “Yalla” or “let’s go” in Egyptian Arabic.

The Jeeps pulled out from the hot spring and drove past the
kids of El Haize, who waved from the side of the road, saying goodbye to
another group of tourists on their way to a camp in the midst of the “second
planet.”

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