Thursday, February 26, 2009

Not your ordinary scout camp

While Nancy is feverishly getting caught up with all the posts from our trip to Luxor, I figure now is a good time to catch up a little myself.

A few weeks ago Brother Hall made an announcement in church about a future scout trip. This is a weeklyish occurrence and generally elicits some jealously from the elders who aren’t connected to scouts. A few months ago the scouts went out to the Red Sea to go boating, snorkeling, and scuba diving, and a few actually swam with real dolphins. On another campout they spent a few days in the mountains of Sinai, backpacking and camping on Mount Sinai and Mt. St. Katherine’s.

Our branch is pretty small scoutwise, so our young men are part of the community-based troop that meets at CAC (Cairo American College, the American school here in Maadi). Since the troop is not exclusively an LDS one, and because weekends in the Middle East are reversed (church on Friday, Saturday on Saturday), most of these excursions happen on Friday. The members that are connected with scouting, though, have permission from the Branch President to participate, though, since it’s the only scouting opportunity available in the area.

When Bro. Hall announced that the scouts would be taking a weekend to ride horses from the Pyramids of Giza down to Saqqara, and then camp at the base of the pyramids, the general reaction was something like “Oh wow, that’s cool. Only in Egypt, eh?”

I looked over at Patrick, who returned my furtive glance. Our unspoken exchange cried “No way. Never. Ever.” Despite the inherent orientalist romanticism found in a long horse ride through a huge, rolling desert between two ancient pyramid complexes, our previous equestrian experience was too traumatic. In summary: we had rented horses for a nighttime ride around the Giza complex; the horses were stupid; Patrick’s stopped mid ride and laid down in the sand, nearly crushing him; my horse tripped at a full gallop, sending me headfirst into the ground; our “guides” still tried to take as much bakhseesh (tips) as possible. In a word: ugh.

Later that night we had the Schillings and the Williamsons over for dinner and games. Aden being an adventurous type (check out his blog and website), I mentioned that the scouts here are also adventurous—they were going on a crazy horse ride through the desert. He immediately lit up and asked if it was possible for non-scout people to go, too. Neither Josh nor I thought it was possible, so we kind of forgot about it.

On Monday or Tuesday, Josh called us. Nancy answered the phone. Josh had just talked with the Hall’s and discovered that the scouts were looking for a few more adult leaders to come—apparently some had bailed out in recent days and they needed help. Josh had already volunteered to go and was checking to see if Aden and I wanted to go, too.

I overheard Nancy mention from another room that I wouldn't be interested in something and asked who was on the phone. She told me that there were possible spots open on the horse pyramid campout and that Josh and Aden would probably be going, but that she didn't think there was any way I would go.

She was right. I didn’t want to get thrown from my horse again. I was lucky the first time...

Somehow, though, five minutes after Josh’s phone call, I called him back to say that I wanted to go.

How? I don’t know. Nancy was cajoling me, calling me a chicken, or something like that. My inner orientalist was screaming “You’ll never get another chance to do this! Just go!” That scream somehow overpowered my rational self, who was saying “AAAAAAAAAAAGGH!!!”

Friday morning came. We all met outside of CAC and set up a car caravan out to Giza. There were only a few members of the branch there: Bro. Hall, Ian, and Chapin, Kevan and Jacob, and Josh, Aden, and me. We drove to a large stables outside the main pyramid complex and all went inside. There were dozens of horses waiting patiently. None of them were biting each other, bucking up and down, or making weird noises (like the last time we went). The stables were clean and big. This was promising!

The Egyptian stable owner divided us into three groups: people who had never ridden a horse, people with some experience, and the experts. I joined the intermediate group, supposedly to get an intermediate horse (I was terrified, but wasn’t a wimp. I couldn’t take a beginner horse :) ). We all mounted and then headed out in groups.

As we headed out, I tested out my horse. I made it go left and right, made it slow down and stop, and I was pretty happy with it. My last horse didn’t respond to me at all; no matter how hard I pulled on the reigns the horse just kept going where it wanted. This one, though, was promising. I weaved as much as I could between the other scouts and leaders and was having a blast. We had been riding for 3 minutes and I could kind of control my horse.

Once we got on the desert path, though, the horse went into autopilot. It stopped listening to me and tried to stay at the back of the pack of horses. All the horses did the same, except Aden’s, who insisted on being alone. Whenever the pack caught up to Aden his horse would bite any horse, or rider, that was near its head.

Autopilot was okay, I guess, for navigation purposes. We were in the desert on a semi-well-marked path, so staying together was important. For velocity’s sake, though, it was horrible. The horses would only walk or slow trot unless an Egyptian rider was cracking his whip behind us. Upon hearing the loud snap of the whip, the horses would start trotting fast, tempting a gallop, for a minute or two, when they would then decide to take it slow again. The only way they would move was if there was a whip.

The Egyptian riders, however, were apparently unaware of this. They kept yelling at us to go faster, telling us to kick the horses. We’d all kick, which only made the horses mad. My horse would protest and stopped walking altogether quite a few times. The Egyptians would get frustrated, crack the whip, and we’d all start going again. As we were trotting, the main Egyptian kept yelling “Up and down! Up and down! It’s an English saddle! Up and down!” What this cryptic phrase meant I’ll never know. Were we supposed to bounce up and down? Did that make the horse go faster, like one of those old-fashioned train cars with the see-saw pump on it? The more I pumped the more the horse went?

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Kevan getting angry at his horse

The horses would inevitably slow down and stop, giving me a chance to recover and readjust myself from the pain of hard trotting and to take in my surroundings. We were in the desert; a very barren desert. The desert near Cairo doesn’t have the “standard” rolling dunes that people imagine. There is sand, yes, but there are more rocks and garbage that speckle the semi-dunes. We were only about 2 miles from the Nile and the rest of the city of Cairo, but there were few signs of civilization where we were riding, apart from the one asphalt road we had to cross.

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After 2.5 hours of riding these unresponsive trotting horses we arrived at our campsite: the backyard of a large villa near the Saqqara Country Club. Miraculously I did not fall off. Nobody did. We all survived.

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Horses resting after the long ride

Apparently a South African man rents this property in the middle of nowhere and runs a homeschool (and offers his property to visiting scout troops). His back gate overlooks the Abu Sir pyramids in the north part of the Saqqara complex. Walk for five minutes from the gate and you can touch a pyramid.

IMG_7794View from the guy’s backyard

We dismounted our horses and watched as the Egyptians riders rode them all back (each rider took a pack of 8 or something), except for two, which stayed behind so that the scouts could work on their horsemanship merit badge. When not in a pack, the horses where a lot more responsive, which was good for the scouts since they had to demonstrate their prowess in controlling horses.

While they all worked on their skills, Kevan, Aden, and I went exploring at the pyramids. Because it was Friday the pyramids were free of tourist police. Technically the whole place should have been closed to tourists, but there were a couple unofficial guards waiting for the occasional horse or four-wheeler to come by and look at the site. One guy approached Kevan and said that he basically had to pay a tip or get kicked off the compound. These bakhsheesh guys would not go away. Even after we had finished looking at the pyramids, they followed us back to the campsite, demanding that we leave immediately (or pay them something). The South African guy called his landlord, who came and told the bakhsheesh guys off.

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Josh, Aden, and I sat with the other leaders and watched the scouts work on their merit badges. It was fun to sit back and not have to do anything at a scout camp—years ago I was working on the same merit badges, having to set up and clean up camp, just like these guys. Now I was free. I sat and listened to Kevan and the other “real” adults tell Army and Marine stories about Iraq, Afghanistan, and training camps in the States. Pretty much all the adults on the trip had real jobs either with the embassy, military, or oil companies, leaving me, Josh, and Aden feeling alone in our unemployed student world.

After a few hours of chatting we got a couple charcoal fires started and everyone started cooking. The scouts all had little portable stoves with tiny pots of boiling water, for Ramen, while the leaders had steaks, baked potatoes, and corn on the cob. The three of us were more Egyptian—we brought foul, ta’amiyya, koshari, and a whole bunch of pita bread. I even brought some flour, butter, and baking powder and tried to make some biscuits. That failed miserably. Grilled pita with foul, though? Delicious.

It started getting dark at 6:30. While the scouts entertained themselves by stoking the fire and burning random things, like Chapin’s sweatshirt, the three of us and Kevan went to take some shots of sunset at the pyramids. I brought my tripod, anticipating a beautiful photogenic sunset, and was not disappointed.

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After sunset, the three of us hiked out into the desert, away from the rest of the group, to find a place for the night. Aden had a one man tent for himself and Josh and I borrowed his fly for our ground cover. I’d never slept under the stars before; Egypt was probably a good place to do it for the first time.

We set up our little camp and settled in, since it was getting cold. We all phoned home to our wives, who were all having dinner at Carolee’s house. At one point all three of us were calling or texting at the same time. I never realized how much I could miss my family until now—I’ve never left Rachel overnight and I left Nancy overnight two years ago for my NSA interview. After talking with Nancy and Rachel, I laid in the sand in my sleeping bag and read Taha Hussein’s autobiography, Al Ayyam, for my history class while Aden read something and Josh watched a movie on his iPod.

Eventually I fell asleep, but only for an hour. The Lewises and the Halls came up to our little camp so that we could have a mini-sacrament meeting, considering it was Friday and all. It was a powerful experience to take the sacrament in the shadow of ancient pharaonic pyramids while listening to an extra long ‘isha’ evening call to prayer. It’s amazing that we could use our priesthood and renew our covenants even in such an exotic, far away place. We had a short testimony meeting after the sacrament and then dispersed, happy and spiritually filled.

I then settled in again, trying to get comfortable. It was impossible. Although we were in a really soft, sandy desert, the sand was rock hard. I didn’t bring a pillow; I used an extra t-shirt. It got really cold as the night passed. Fortunately I had a keffiyah and extra socks. Socks went on my hands, keffiyha around my head.

Once I had a perfect system to protect myself against the cold, two mosquitos decided to join me. Mosquitos love me. I hate them. They spent the night biting my nose, since that was the only part of my body exposed. Despite the lack of surface area, they dove and attacked all night, meaning that I had to stay awake to keep the keffiyah on.

I was in a weird daze halfway between sleep and consciousness throughout the whole night. The mosquitos attacked until like 3 AM. An extra loud and long fajr morning call to prayer started at 4:45. A pack of semi-wild dogs charged us at 5:30. A crazy windstorm started at 6, blowing sharp sand everywhere. I wrapped myself as tight and deep inside the sleeping bag as possible and finally fell asleep.

At 8 I woke up to the sound of the wind and sand blowing against the sleeping bag. I laid there for another half hour, trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the sleeping bag without getting covered in the sand. By the time I got up Josh and Aden had already packed up their things and were down at the fire eating breakfast burritos. I packed up as fast as possible, mostly with my eyes closed, since the sand was so bad.

IMG_7868 That’s me, sleeping.

After breakfast, we all went over to the Abu Sir complex to have a better look at the pyramids and the surrounding temples. The three of us started climbing the main pyramid, but a couple of scouts followed us and somehow got in front of us. Ten seconds after Aden warned them that the number one cause of death in rock climbing is getting hit by falling rocks, one of the scouts accidentally dislodged an ancient pyramid block. It fell down the side of the pyramid, bringing other rocks with it, and headed straight towards us. We all ran down as fast as we could. I got hit in the arm with a smaller rock and Aden got hit in the back by the huge stone just as he got out of its way. In the end we were all okay, with the scouts a little shaken up.

The Abu Sir complex was neat. It felt a little bit like the temples in Luxor and was pretty well preserved.

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To get to that last tomb we had to slide down a narrow marble shaft. Quite cool.

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After a few hours we were sick of the blowing sand, which hadn’t subsided yet, so we packed up and headed back to Ma’adi. It was only a 30 minute drive until I was in the shower, getting all the sand out of my nose and ears.

I wish my scout camps had been like that when I was younger! Camping in some random forest in Utah? Camping in the desert at some pyramids? Which would you choose?

6 comments:

  1. you know that I work for the Boy Scouts? I really enjoyed reading this post.

    I would LOVE to get a job for a few years with the Transatlantic or Far East Council (which is Egypt in?)

    -Paul

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  2. Great story! Is it safe to say you won't be sleeping under the stars again in Egypt?

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  3. I choose not camping! I like beds and bathrooms too much. But I am glad that you could have a fun time doing this!

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  4. I choose camping in a forest. The desert = Hot and sand. Yuck.
    @Paul: It might be a "lone scout" group, not under a council. Neither TAC nor the FEC seems to cover it. Though things may have changed in the last few years.

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  5. I lied. you'll find it at www.directservicebsa.org (sorry, with four Eagle Scout brothers, I take some interest in the interest of others about scouting! :) )

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  6. Hi! I came across your blog doing a search on CAC. My family and I are likely going to be moving to Cairo this summer. We are in Amman right now. We visited the branch back in October so we may have met face to face already. Anyway, I have TONS of questions--especially about schools for my kids and areas of Cairo we should/shouldn't live. We have 7 kids ranging in age from 13-1. I would SO appreciate being able to contact someone that could perhaps answer my questions. Maybe you? Maybe someone else in the branch who has kids near the same age or has experience with the schools there? Please feel free to pass along my email to whomever may be able to help us. Our email is bubstac8 @ yahoo dot com I've enjoyed blogstalking your blog the last couple of days. Thanks for putting it out there.

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