It wasn’t that long ago visitors to the remote Siwa Oasis (literally in Bum Fuck Egypt, thirty-one miles east of the Libyan border) would more likely find themselves fearing for their lives than being shown a table at one of the palm-shaded cafés dotted throughout town.
To say that has now changed is a laughable understatement. In a country where you are already treated as an honored guest by even the most casual of strangers, Siwis will simply blow you away with their kindness. In fact, it was the only place during our trip where I barely had to utter the phrase la’ shukran (no, thank you), something that had seemed like a mantra during the previous four weeks in Egypt.
Our Siwa experience hadn’t started out so sanguinely however. After a nine-hour, 850-kilometer dusty drive from Cairo, we arrived to what can only be described as a scene right out of Children of the Corn (except instead of corn, it was dates and olives).
Young kids were everywhere. Running in the streets. Standing in groups out in front of shops. Even driving the ramshackle donkey carts. Until we got closer in to town (a stunning place with its old salty mud brick dwellings dissolving majestically in the smack middle of the square), I had to search to find anyone over the age of eleven. As a first impression, it was just strange. And of course, it didn’t help that soon after we got lost.
It’s not a big place, but we only had a crude map to our hotel on the outskirts of town and our drivers, who were absolutely wonderful, but who had also never been here before. So we drove our comically oversized van through narrow streets, honking at the carts and kids in a way that made it clear we were sorely out of place.
But after the dead ends and backtracking and asking half the town for directions, we make it unscathed to the Siwa Shali Resort, which I would not recommend. (Not to sully this post, you can read why Siwa Shali Resort is terrible here .)
In contrast to the resort, everything else about Siwa was the dream I’d been imagining since I’d read Kenneth Heiber’s mention  of it in the September 2006 issue of Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine.
Siwa Oasis is so mysteriously beautiful that you feel a bit lightheaded and shy exploring its treasures. Spend your first morning trying to imagine living within the old city of Shali as you traipse up and down the salt-encrusted remains.
As far as other “official” sights to see, there is the famed Temple of Amun, where Alexander the Great is said to have gotten the Oracle’s official nod to rule Egypt. Gebel al-Mawta (the Mountain of the Dead) is a hill pitted with tombs of the 26th Dynasty, the Greek (Ptolemic) and Roman periods. And Fatnas Island is where you can take a dip in a fresh pool and smoke sheesha while watching the sunset.
My favorite excursion was an afternoon Travel Boyfriend and I spent cresting the knife-edged dunes of the Sahara desert in a 4×4, floating in an invigoratingly cold lake in the middle of nothing but sand and then finishing it all off with a deep soak at Bir Wahed, a hot-water spring about twelve kilometers from town.
Practically everything about this town is a unique and memorable sight to see, including the people.
Little boys on their way to school dress in uniforms of beige with white neckerchiefs and caps to round out the look. The effect is that of 1940s sailors off to fight a little Pearl Harbor. Girls wear their hair in braids with long red scraps of fabric blousing from the ends. Married women, a rare sight to see in public, sit like upright bolts of black fabric on the back of donkey carts, not even their eyes visible (although a few did have dark peepholes jutting out like proboscis, which they used to stare as furtively at me, as I did them).
And unlike destinations where locals and tourists occupy the same spaces, but ne’er the twain shall meet, Siwis go out of their way to welcome visitors to their town. We had an entire cast of characters who helped make our trip memorable:
- Our local driver, Abdallah, who invited us to his home for dinner.
- Goma, a charming young donkey cart entrepreneur.
- Achmed, who sat me down for tea while I contemplated purchases in his handicraft shop (fixed prices!).
- Bojana, the Slovenian writer interviewing locals for an article about magic.
Although only in Siwa for four days, we had so many positive experiences I actually started daydreaming about moving here. When asked by Travel Boyfriend if I was ready to head back to Cairo, it was then I remembered the phrase I hadn’t had to use for days: la’ shukran.