When you’ve spent over 12 years massaging people, there is an animal-like magnetism towards anything therapeutic and spa-like that you happen across in your travels. As your hands readjust to what would be considered a normal idleness, the insatiable need to be rubbed, elbowed, pampered, pummeled, licked, walked on, scrubbed or wrapped in seaweed becomes alarming.
Like a drug-sniffing retriever at the Schipol airport in Amsterdam, I too can sniff out anything that is intended to induce bliss, coma-like sleeps and deep sighs—the kind usually reserved for melodramatic comic strip characters.
I will subject my body to anything unusual, as long as there is a slight promise of satiation at the end. My frequent trips to Chinatown in Toronto have fulfilled just that. The treatment is never the same, but I have never interrupted the session. I’ve been straddled, had my breasts massaged and found myself with eight suction cups sucking the very flesh off my back in hopes of remedying a concussion from a colossal wipe-out while running in the winter.
In Uganda I was massaged on bed on top of a checkered Italian restaurant-esque tablecloth while the “masseuse” turned my hair into a bird’s nest. She performed strangulation techniques and covered me in so much oil that I was actually repelling water in the shower after the treatment.
In Nairobi I was covered with a facecloth and had hands in places usually reserved for intimate lovers, not a Tuesday afternoon massage. I was slapped and punched in the heels and her flat palms on my bare ass sounded like a standing ovation in a concert hall.
And still, I seek out further “pampering.”
Imagine my delight when I read about the sand baths in the Siwa Oasis, Egypt, in the Lonely Planet. Local doctors boasted that a strict treatment plan of three to five days could cure rheumatism and arthritis. A simple 20 minute “sand sauna” in the searing hot sands of Gebel Dakrur was the prescription. As I read the sidebar, I learned that I would be buried up to my neck. Would I be standing in a pit five to six feet deep? Would I be lying down? Both sounded like a claustrophobia attack waiting to happen. But, I was game.
Mummy-style sleeping bags put me over the edge at the best of times. Unless I’m full of whiskey, I start squirming and breathing heavy. Like a kitten in the arms of an over-affectionate child. Set me free! Similarly, I am not a fan of bed sheets tightly tucked in at the end of the bed. Another easy way to make me hyperventilate in less than a minute. However, my partner Kim was also a willing participant in the sand sauna, and she has asthma. I figured if she could hack being buried in 500 pounds of sand, then I could suck it up for twenty minutes. (But when I found myself completely buried, with Kim beside me, a good mile from our dear donkey, and ten miles from our hotel, I realized her inhaler was far, far away. I wondered if she thought about this, and thought very wisely to not broach the topic).
When we first arrived in Siwa, I dove into the must-do’s with our donkey cart handler, Mohammed. We expressed our desire to eat camel, we wanted to be buried in sand at Gebel Dakrur and where could we smoke an applewood sheesha (water pipe with scented tobacco)?
We found our man. Mohammed shrugged off the suggestion of going to Gebel Dakrur. If we wanted to have the authentic sand bath experience, he could do it. He had buried many tourists before. Great! A time was established, our camel was put on order at the hotel we were staying at (Al Babenshal), and we could smoke sheesha, all in the same night. Our stars and camels had aligned.
Mohammed was prompt, and picked us up at the hotel two hours before sunset. Ali Baba, fuelled on his daily intake of alfalfa and three pounds of figs, galloped down the dark desert highway. Actually, it wasn’t dark and it wasn’t a highway, but I heard that soundtrack in my head as we did so. Cool wind in my hair.
As the town of Siwa became a faint blur and we pushed further into the dunes, Kim and I realized that we probably should have brought water. Mohammed offered us some figs, which were great distracters, but not exactly thirst-quenching. Some twenty minutes later, after stopping to haul some dead wood on to the top of the donkey cart for our fire and sheesha after sunset, we pulled over.
We were told to wear bikinis for our sand bath, and had flip flops that we quickly abandoned as we hiked across the dunes. Mohammed sped ahead, to begin digging our baths, as Kim and I did 360 spins, marvelling at how surreal the moment was. It was still hovering around 100 degrees. The sand was surprisingly cool enough on our feet though, and firmly packed, unless we were scaling a dune. Then it crumbled and was like walking through flour.
My heart was already racing as I anticipated being buried. Mohammed toyed with us, joking that he might leave us behind, like he did to the last couple. We could find our way back, right?
The sun was already finding a lower position in the sky, transforming the horizon into a tangerine soup.
The holes were dug. I thought of my parents and how they would so not approve of this. We were in the middle of the desert, with some guy named Mohammed who had agreed to bury us in the sand, up to our necks. We had nothing but our towels, surf shorts, my Canon and bikini tops. I clearly was a Girl Guide drop-out.
Kim went first, because she was feeling braver. I watched as she sunk herself into the shallow grave. Mohammed, grinning wickedly, began scooping the sand over her legs and stomach. Soon her skin had disappeared. The wind whipped across the dunes and we both had about half the desert in our already arid extra dry mouths.
Mohammed fashioned a turban/windblocker out of Kim’s towel and then proceeded to walk on top of her, packing the sand down further.
When she was completely buried, I assumed my position. The weight of the sand on my chest involved a lot of self-talk, but Kim hadn’t had an asthma attack, so, obviously I could still breathe. Mohammed walked on top of me and the added pressure seemed to pack the sand into a tomb-like shell. My hands were at my sides, my palms on my outer thighs. I tried to move and felt a bit of panic when I realized that there was no movement to be had.
Mohammed wrapped my t-shirt around my head and lit a smoke. He put the cigarette to my lips and did the same to Kim, cackling the entire time.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the serenity now type moment that was happening.
When the buzz in my head subsided, and I slowed my breath, I could feel the sweat trickling down my ribs. I was beginning to bake, but there was an unusual coolness inside the sand bath that made me think that maybe I was passing out at the same time.
Mohammed snapped pictures of us and pretended to start walking away. When he returned, he walked on both of us a second time, increasing the intensity of the bath.
When Kim announced that it must be time, I was ready to be unburied too. Mohammed suggested we try to break free. It was like trying to sit up with a Sumo wrestler on top of me. I probably could have powered my way out, but, he assisted us in climbing out more quickly. Thank god.
The wind sent goosebumps racing across our skin. The sand was like talcum, sticking to our sweat. I had never been thirstier in my life. Kim and I felt like we were truly in an oasis when we started imagining coolers of cold beer at the top of the next dune.
Exhausted, we followed our footprints back to Ali Baba. We drank Mohammed’s local water, which probably gave us the diarrhea that haunted us for the rest of our stay in Egypt. Turning the cart around, with the sun on fire before it slipped from the sky, we made our way to a friend of Mohammed’s who owned a hot spring.
As hibiscus tea was made, we bobbed in the spring and felt the healing powers of the desert. We took long pulls on the sheesha pipe and felt our spent muscles beg for sleep.
Camel stew under the stars on the rooftop terrace of Al Babenshal.
Gallons of water.
Wake up call: 4:15am for sunrise on Siwa’s salt lake.