How a Spontaneous Travel Decision Landed Me in Egypt for Life

spontanous travel

How a Spontaneous Travel Decision Landed Me in Egypt for Life

“I am going to live in an oasis on the far side of the Egyptian Sahara.”

I had never imagined that a spontaneous decision would result in moving from Australia to Egypt in 2010, just before the Revolution.

I first travelled to Egypt in 1993, sure this was going to be my “once in a lifetime” trip. It was my first big solo trip and I was in my early 30s, with thoughts of “settling down” ahead. I really thought this was my one and only chance to see the country I had wanted to visit since I was twelve, looking at photos in an old encyclopedia.

I first travelled to Egypt in 1993, sure this was going to be my “once in a lifetime” trip.

My first visit convinced me it could not be my last. There was too much to see, to experience. I worked and saved hard to return. During my second visit, it happened.

Three days before flying home I felt frazzled by Cairo. I decided to visit an oasis, not one nearby like Fayoum, but 10 hours away – Siwa. Now comfortable, air-conditioned buses run daily to Siwa. Then, you caught a desert-beaten bus with holes in the floor, which ran only a few times a week. I intended a there-and-back trip with no overnight stay, a 20 hour trek and being the only foreigner and only woman on board.
view from Shali, Siwa

We bumped through eons of desert, the Siwan men chatting and entertaining themselves. After a tea stop with a hole-in-ground toilet so horrific that I chose to hold on three more hours, we finally arrived. The exhilaration of coming into Siwa, the lush greenness after the desert, is something you can’t explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

Siwa now has far more infrastructure for travelers. The tar road from the coast was completed in the mid-1980s, and until then reaching Siwa was tough, though some did the trek. Siwan dates and olives were traded out of the oasis, and it had military visitors during the World Wars. Noted visitors included Alexander the Great, who had his future as ruler of the known world confirmed by the Oracle of Siwa; you can visit the remains of the Temple of the Oracle not far from Cleopatra Spring (which actually has no connection at all to the ancient queen).

My decision was split-second, a flash of feeling “I must do this!”, erasing the thought “but, you will miss your flight!”

Some people came to enjoy therapeutic sand baths, or the mineral rich waters of the hot and cool springs, which are the source of growth and existence of the oasis. But in the early 1990s there were few hotels and cafes. I ate at Abdu’s café in preparation for a day of seeing the monuments, spring water pools, and date and olive gardens.

“You’ve come for the festival!” a young man declared.

“What festival? I must go back to Cairo. I have a flight….home.”

Siwa harvest festival feast

He told me that every year for three days, at the time of the October full moon, Siwans celebrate the harvest. The men and children share a feast outside the town around Dakrur, a mountain that is small but has a definite spiritual energy. In the evening the men form a circle and chant as part of a spiritual tradition here, their white robes glowing in the moonlight.

The festival is a time of forgiving disagreements with neighbors, important because Siwa has been isolated for so long, Unlike most Egyptians, the people are Berber, have their own language (Arabic is their second language), and belong to two tribes. Few marry from outside and everyone seems to be inter-related, so you wouldn’t want to be in an ongoing disagreement. The festival also has religious significance and on the final day, there is a procession from Dakrur to a mosque in town.

I would have known and experienced none of this if Mohammed, the man in the café, had not insisted, “Stay! You must stay!”

My decision was split-second, a flash of feeling “I must do this!”, erasing the thought “but, you will miss your flight!”

Mohammed declared on his mother’s life that I would make it back to Cairo on time. So, I stayed.

Siwa harvest festival (2)

During the evening walk to Dakrur with hundreds of Siwan men and children, I was again the only foreigner. I was mesmerized by the chanting circle, and watched one man fall into a trance.

During the next day, I walked out to watch the feast, which is prepared on communal fires and distributed among the families who are seated on the sand. The colors of the girls’ holiday dresses and red ribbons fastening their long plaits, along with the shared happiness, were overwhelming. The women were at home; Siwa is a conservative society where women are covered when they go out and never reveal themselves to anyone but family members and close female friends, as I would become years later.

Cleopatra Spring, my daily swimming pool
Cleopatra Spring, my daily swimming pool

I vowed to return the next year at harvest time. The Siwans remembered me and were delighted. I kept coming back every few years, taking a 20-hour flight from Australia and then a 10-hour bus ride across the Saraha. Siwa, and Egypt, became my heart home, and in 2010, I moved there.

I had fallen in love with the place and people. I then had the unexpected joy of falling in love, not with a Siwan but an Egyptian who had a business there. Unfortunately the Revolution meant my partner and I had to leave Siwa to find work by the Red Sea. But Siwa continues to draw me back, and by next year I hope to make my home half year there, half by the Red Sea.

I had always been a cautious planner. That spontaneous decision to stay for the festival was not like me at all. It was the start of a new me. It took 10 years of coming and going to Siwa to realize it, but that decision had made me a more open, go-with-the-moment person, and opened me up to a whole new life in Egypt.

About Susan Ryan

Susan RyanI am an Australian born writer and photographer based in Egypt, with a passion for and focus on environment, design, travel, and cultural exploration and exchanges. I also run writing workshops in wonderful locations throughout Egypt. I moved to Egypt in late 2010, just before the Revolution, and continue to love living here. Egypt is my heart home.

One thought on “How a Spontaneous Travel Decision Landed Me in Egypt for Life

  1. Avatar
    August 24, 2016

    What a great story ! I will be visiting Egypt in the next several months and hopefully moving there eventually . Thank you for this !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *