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The Modern Oasis

THE NEXT DAY, OUR GROUP SETS OFF ON A TREK into the Great Sand Sea, as the Sahara lying beyond Siwa is known. It's said to be one of the least explored deserts in the world. Our leader is Abdullah Baghi, a handsome 46-year-old Siwan, who graduated from the university at Alexandria. Currently superintendent of the area's 28 schools, Baghi is also head of the Siwa Heritage Conservation Committee, which maintains the museum there. His highest accomplishment—for which he has been recognized by the United Nations—has been to organize the local craftspeople, to help them sell their goods to the outside world at fair market prices. In addition to all this, he heads up the ecolodge's excursions.

"Each time I go into the desert, I enjoy it like it's the first time," Baghi tells me as we climb into his Land Rover. "Many people fear the desert—some are even afraid of the word. But when they see it, they fall in love with it. Of course, you have to deal with it very carefully; you can't control it. The desert is the desert."

As we race across the dunes, the experience of flying up and down powdery peaks and valleys is totally exhilarating—somewhere between skiing and barnstorming another planet. But it's not all sand. We stop for a swim in a pristine lake, fighting off sand fleas on the banks, and explore a crusty plain where we discover fossilized shells, sand dollars, sharks' teeth, and coral from a geological age when the Great Sand Sea was part of a greater Mediterranean.

Our last stop is the best, the top of a towering dune overlooking a spectacular bowl that, if it were snow, any skier would kill to cruise. All it takes is a glance exchanged between us: soon our entire party is bodysurfing down the slope. Getting back up is a nightmare—a case of two steps backward for every one forward. Eventually, I figure out that crawling on all fours, basic-training-style, is the only way to make any progress. I have sand everywhere: in my shoes, my pockets, my underwear, my mouth! "The English Patient," Baghi dubs me when I collapse at the top.

During our frolic, Baghi has built a small fire of olive wood and is preparing mint tea. The sun starts to set, casting long gentle shadows across this weird, almost alpine landscape. We take our tea and find a spot to watch the sky as it glows purple, gold, then fades. Baghi puts out the fire, covering the embers with sand, and we climb into our vehicles. Soon the wind will erase our footprints and tire tracks. I'm reminded of a line from of Arabic poetry: "The camel spits, dogs bark, and the caravan passes." Or, as Baghi said earlier: "The desert is the desert."

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