Camels. Taxis. Feluccas. Water taxis. Ferries. Hot air balloon. Private 4×4. Planes. Donkey.
When I think back to all our modes of transportation across Egypt, our donkey (and the hot air balloon) proved to be the most reliable.
After the exhausting frenetic pace of Cairo, we welcomed slowing the day down to donkey speed in the Siwa Oasis. We had no ambition to rent bikes as the heat barely allowed us to walk more than 10 minutes at a time without feeling like we might faint. And riding through sand? It would be like touring the town with two flat tires and a heart ready for a bypass. Besides, the careta (donkey cart) drivers were desperate for business and Mohammed insisted that he was the best. His powder-white speckled donkey, Ali Baba, was trustworthy and ready to work after a fig-heavy breakfast (three pounds worth!).
Mohammed was gentle with his donkey, guiding him with light brushes of a stick on his hindquarters, indicating right and left turns. To encourage him to “giddy up,” Mohammed made a clicking sound and we were off, a trail of desert dust in our wake. Apparently donkeys can match the speed of a horse, and Ali was a steady runner with enviably chiselled legs.
In Egypt, the donkey is the symbol of the God, Ra, and is highly respected. In 2003, the tombs of two of Egypt’s first pharaohs were excavated, revealing the skeletons of 10 donkeys. They were buried in a manner usually reserved for high ranking humans.
Donkeys have been used as pack animals for over 6,000 years. Folklore suggests that coming in contact with a donkey, or using hairs from the cross-shaped pattern on the donkey’s back, were used to cure whooping cough and measles. A Jewish physician in 1,000 AD believed that riding a donkey backwards would cure a scorpion sting. I hoped that we wouldn’t have to attempt either remedy.
Portrayed most often as stubborn asses (Eddie Murphy’s take on “Donkey” in Shrek) or as a melancholic loner in Winnie The Pooh (Eeyore), Ali Baba had his own distinct personality far from stubborn and sullen. True, he did voice his opinion as we let night fall, absently enjoying hot mint tea and conversation by Fatnas Island. His bray suggested that “just in case you forgot your watch, the sun has set, and I’d like to start heading back.”
Ali Baba made pulling the careta seem effortless, and if we did find ourselves in a sluggish section of “road,” where the sand was too loose for the cart to gain purchase, we hopped out, and sometimes gave a running push to help him along.
Mohammed had pimped out the wooden cart with a tiny mirror, a Christmas tree-shaped air freshener, plush heart pillows, sun-bleached cushions and tacked up photos of tourists posing by his careta with Ali. The Polaroids had faded almost completely, with the faces nearly ghost-like, but the spirit of each traveller carried on in the animated stories he shared. Mohammed shyly told us that he would like to redecorate his cart. Once tourism picked up, he had several ideas as to how he would jazz up the interior. He talked about a cart that he admired, and how he would model his after it. His cart would be the talk of the town.
We logged a lot of hours in Ali Baba’s cart. Kim and I sat facing each other in the back, protected from the searing sun by a canopy finished with a pom pom fringe, with enough leg room that we only occasionally bumped knees. We toured all of Siwa, with Mohammed and Ali patiently waiting in the “shadows” (shade) as we explored the temples and tombs of the Mountain of the Dead. We stopped at Dakrur mountain, the spring of Cleopatra and soon became lost in the smooth rhythm of a day by donkey.
The night we returned late from the hot springs, stars had already taken their place in the sky. Nearing the market square, Ali let out a bray that startled us and in turn, made Mohammed laugh. Still clipping along at a canter, Ali continued his excited bray.
“What’s that all about? Did he see another donkey?” I asked.
Mohammed explained that they were close to his house, and that Ali thought his work was done for the day. I wanted to hop out and walk the rest of the way back to Al Babenshal Hotel so Ali could get to his figs and barley already. And take a load off.
On our last night in Siwa, Mohammed asked us to wait while he retrieved a copy of his address. I stood by Ali and massaged his neck. I had taken a horse massage course while I was out west, and knew all the sweet spots to hit on a horse’s neck. He leaned into the pressure with closed eyes. As I kneaded the contracted muscles at the base of Ali’s neck, I wondered how I could transition careers into a full-time donkey massage therapist.
Mohammed returned, boyishly grinning, as always. He handed photocopied sheets to Kim and I with his address in English and Arabic.
Name: Mohammed Soliman Baheeg
Address: Siwa Next to Hospital—Marsa Matrouh, Egypt.
We promised to send photos of us with Ali for his new 2012 cart. We embraced and said we would look for Mohammed when we returned in the future.
“I will be an old man, then. People don’t come back like they say. Not for many, many years.”
We watched as they turned around in the market square and headed back towards home. One day we would be one of those ghost-like faces tacked inside his cart. And I hoped that our story and time with Mohammed would live on longer than the ink in the photo. Indelibly.