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Kavitha Dispatch

Camping Out in the Sinai Desert
December 8th, 1999



"...And there's camel spiders that eat dead animals...and can bite you while you're sleeping at night!"

"I heard that they can go under your skin and plant eggs and stuff..."

" they can't, but you can get all kinds of gross diseases from them."

"And what about the poisonous sand vipers--you can't even see them. They hide under the sand and all you can see are their beady scary eyes."

"If you're lucky...they normally see you first, and you don't notice them until after they attack...a poisonous deadly attack!"

"I'm not going out there...I can't believe Mr. Neff is making us sleep out in the desert...he must be crazy!"

"Yeah...there's not even toilets there...I heard we have to just poop outside and bury it ourselves!"


What would you do if you had to live and sleep in the middle of the desert? Do you think you could survive? Do you think you would like it?

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Christina, Monique, Amira, Sara, Jessalin on the Red Sea coast after snorkeling

Well, Mr. Neff's 8th graders from Cairo American College (CAC) just got the chance to find out what it's like in the beautiful Sinai Desert and they let Jasmine and me tag along! But we didn't dare go it alone...are you kidding me? A bunch of city dwellers like us would have had a tough time at the mercy of the harsh Sinai Desert without the help of our wonderful Bedouin guides.

The Bedouins are the nomadic peoples that have inhabited the Sinai Peninsula for thousands of years. While empires fought over control of this strategically placed land, the Bedouins continued to live exactly as they always have. Life for the Bedouins involves herding their sheep in the mountain valleys and roaming the desert on their camels in search of the next place they can dig a well for water. They know the desert better than most know their own neighborhoods, and are more than happy to share their beautiful land and culture with you. The Bedouins are known for their hospitality and generosity...wouldn't you be kind to strangers in your land too if you lived in a desert and knew how difficult it can be to get by there?

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Bedouin guides playing game in sand of rocks and camel dung (Salaam in Nike hat)

After arriving in southern Sinai and spending the morning visiting the Sinai Wildlife Project and snorkeling in the Red Sea, the 23 CAC students, five chaperones, and two Odyssey world trekkers drove out to the middle of the Sinai desert. The landscape was amazing...layers of jagged mountains rose from the desert sands. Granite and sandstone rocks of pinks, reds, and browns cooled under the setting sun. It was a beautiful area, but barren and harsh.

After we all ran around to explore and climb some of the rocks to see the views, Mr. Neff gathered everyone together. He brought out some shovels that he stuck in the sand. "When we pack up to leave here tomorrow, of course we have to pick up any trash we, unless you want to be picking it up, you better make sure you bury EVERYTHING when you go to the bathroom!," Mr. Neff exclaimed to the grossed out looks of all the students. "Another reason you want to be sure to bury EVERYTHING well is that flies like feces. And flies attract mice. And you know what are attracted to mice don't you? Yup! Unless you want to attract snakes to the camp sight, bury everything well!"...more uncomfortable side glances amongst the students…"It's going to get very cold here tonight, so if I were you I would start looking for fuel right away. There aren't many trees around, and you may not take anything that is still planted and alive, but what do you see around that could be great fuel in the fire? Yes, camel dung!"...more disgusted side glances..."So, go set up your camp and remember this side for boys and that side for girls," he said pointing east for the boys and west for the girls.

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Jazz with some boys at their camp site fire

Jasmine and I walked westward to scope out the perfect place to camp for the night. I could already tell that it would be a cold, cold night once the sun left us for good. I felt vulnerable and completely at the mercy of the great forces that be. Then I noticed a group of boys and men squatting around a fire. They were chatting and telling jokes and making tea. They didn't seem in the least phased by the coming nightfall and the cold, by the potential danger of snakes and spiders, by the unknown of the desert. It was as if they were right at home out there in middle of nowhere. These were our Bedouin guides for the next few days!

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One of the girls' campsites

Their fire looked warm and inviting and it was getting colder by the Jasmine and I moved a bit closer. The Bedouins immediately invited us to take a seat next to the fire and gave us a cup of hot tea and a blanket to keep us warm. Most of them spoke pretty good English so we talked while they prepared dinner for the group. There was Hussein, who has lived out in the desert all his life. He and his brother, Shatooi, have been guides for years for tourists that want to visit their land and he spoke very good English. Yasser, who is only 7 years old, also guides tourists in to the desert. His father had died, and since he is the only son, he is now the man of the family and has to work to bring home money for his older sisters and mother. But judging from his big grin, and the way he sings as he guides the camels through the desert, it doesn't seem like he minds this type of work very much. Even though he misses many days at school working like this, he already has a good grasp of a number of foreign languages because of his close contact with foreigners. With or without a formal schooling he can teach all of us a thing or two about living in the desert. Hussein and Yasser were joined by about five or six other Bedouin guys who were going to help lead our big group through their beautiful home on camels. Salaam, also a Bedouin who has moved to one of the bigger towns on the coast, was also there to help. Salaam is a perfect example of the modern changes the Bedouin people are becoming accustomed to with the influx of tourism and commercialization. Wearing his Nike baseball hat and his long flowing Bedouin galabiyya, he went ahead of the rest of the camel caravan in his jeep bringing along all the food and water supplies that were too heavy to carry on the camels. Camels have always been sufficient to carry whatever the Bedouins needed in to the desert because the Bedouins live simply and don't need much. When you bring 23 teenage kids from the city into the desert, on the other hand, you need a bit more. Sure, we all slept outside in the cold night and ate the food prepared by fire, but Mr. Neff was smart enough to bring along boxes of juice and other small treats to keep complaining to a minimum.

nomadic - roaming about from place to place without a fixed pattern of movement
accustomed - familiar though use or experience
ecosystems - complex community and its environment functioning in nature
sparse- few and scattered elements; not thickly grown or settled
commercialization - development of commerce; management on a business basis for profit

After the cooking was done, we all shared a lovely meal trying to huddle together under blankets for warmth. It's amazing that the desert can be so hot by day and so freezing at night. But as much as we all complained about the cold, one look up would put a smile on anyone's face. I have never seen stars like that in all my life. More and more stars kept emerging through the thick of the night sky until the cloudy streak of the Milky Way was visible stretching over the great expanse from horizon to horizon.

The sparse wood and brush that people had collected were barely enough to keep much of a fire going, so most people resorted to burying themselves in their sleeping bags to stay warm. With the stars twinkling above in the peaceful night sky, we all resigned to sleep. Jasmine looked at her watch and laughed, "It's only 8:30 dude!" Neither of us could believe was so dark and seemed so late!

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Whoooohoooooo! We're movin

The next morning we woke shortly after sunrise. After our Bedouin friends prepared us a lovely breakfast with their homemade Bedouin flat bread that they role out and cook right there on the open fire, we were met by a herd of 30 camels. We mounted the large awkward animals and set out on the bumpy ride through the desert. Let me tell you, riding a camel isn't as easy as it looks! They are huge animals so you have to spread your legs wide apart to fit on the uncomfortable saddles. Everyone tried a number of different positions: side saddle, backwards, legs crossed, but nothing seemed to calm the overall complaining. It amazed me that our guides knew where to go. Sand and mountains on all sides...I could have been walking in circles and would never have known!

We stopped for lunch to stretch our legs, climb some more rocks and for the students to have time to reflect on their time so far and write in their journals that Mr. Neff had assigned them. In the afternoon it was more trekking with the camels until we reached our new home for the night. Night number two, there was no fooling around. The second we got off the camels the students were all looking for fuel. Where picking up camel dung seemed gross the night before, today whole bags of dried camel dung were being collected.

The lucky 8th graders from Cairo American College get to spend five peaceful and memorable days like this out in Sinai. Days exploring the beautiful canyons and mountains of the desert ecosystem, riding camels, rock climbing, and learning about geology; and nights sitting by the fire exchanging questions with the Bedouins, learning about their culture and enjoying their delicious and simple foods. I never got to do anything that cool when I was in 8th grade! Bob Mason and Greg Neff, science teachers at the school, have been taking students out on trips like this for the past five years to show them the beautiful desert and coastal ecosystems that are currently at risk and to experience a completely different way of life. As much as the students may complain about the freezing nights and uncomfortable camel rides while they are there, it is an experience none of them will easily forget. We originally found out about the field trip when we went to visit the 9th graders at CAC who couldn't stop raving about the amazing trip they all took last year.

I know those days wandering through the beautiful Sinai desert with our new friends from CAC and from the local Bedouin villages are not ones Jasmine and I will ever forget. But don't just take my word for's what some of the student's had to say for themselves:

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Sarah, age 13, U.S.A.

If I lived here I would make sure that it was always this beautiful and calm. The reason why I would do this is because coming here has made it possible for me to open up to myself and make new friends I never would have if I had not come here. If I lived here I would want it to be like it is now. With the Bedouin's living the way they do. With the mountains practically untouched. With the peacefulness of no buildings or city noises. Also being able to see all the stars at night. Being able to hear and be one with nature. If I lived here it would be such a privilege to be able to enjoy it. The mountains protruding from the flat desert sand. The cool breeze blowing in your face. The sun beating down on your back. But then at night the coldness takes over completely except for the small fire in the middle of a group of freezing people. Then the howls of the desert foxes in the distance. If I lived in the desert I would feel right at home.

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Dana, age 13, Egypt

If I lived here I would definitely want to try to adapt to the desert like the Bedouins have. I would want to try to understand their culture and understand how they survived living in the desert, and maybe get some pin pointers and advice. In order to live somewhere with people you must understand their history, culture and traditions. Second I would like to find an adaptable, livable place to live in the desert! I would like to find somewhere, where the weather is good and away from the camel dung, and preferably away from dead animals! I would like to find an area most suitable for me. I would also like to find a place near the Bedouins so I could have help if I needed it. I would also want information on what to do in case of emergencies and where to get food and the things I would need. For the days that we've been here I have been wondering what the Bedouins did when it rained or there was a storm. Where do they get their food? What happens in a natural disaster? Or where do the women give birth? These are all questions I intend to get answers for by the end of this trip.

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David, age 14, Canada

We take many paths in life. Some are well traveled, others are not. I like to use new paths or make my own. You can always be a follower but not always a leader. It might be more dangerous, but let's face it: taking risks is what life's all about. Going on the less traveled path. Maybe it means going on the dirt road instead of the freeway. As the millennium comes ...there's life, and it moves faster than ever before. Try to find a dirt path in your own life.

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Melissa, age 14, U.S.A.
Path Poem

As I sit up high on my back,
I look back at the Sinai camel track
And I wonder where my camel's been
And how it got the scar on his chin.
I walk through this well beaten path
And wonder if I'll ever come back.
Mountains high on all side's
And then we go down again,
I turn to see the looks on Chris and Jake's face,
And wonder if more had been through this place.
As I sit up high on my camels back,
I turn once more to the old Sinai camel track.

If I lived here I'd build an economically safe house. It would look like it's part of a mountain. And everyday on my drive home I'd stop for 30 men and pick up trash. With the trash I would use the pieces I could to recycle what I couldn't and burn the rest. I would try to build a little garden but if I couldn't I would buy vegetables. I would herd little goats and sheep but I'd never eat them. I would be ecologically safe.

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Lee, age 13, Korea

If I lived here I would look for those bombs and mines. I would take one of those camels and go to everywhere in Sinai to make a perfect map. I would eat those delicious Bedouin foods everyday. I would welcome those 8th graders who come on the Sinai trip and guide them through the desert. And I would help people who are working on Sinai Wildlife Project.

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Amira, age 13, Egypt

Sinai is a wonderful and exotic place but it has drastic changes in weather between day and night. It would be hard to get accustomed but I think I could manage after building bathrooms and getting a huge tent......I would take pictures of all the amazing animals I'd see and then eventually make a Sinai web site titled "The Animals in my life." I think any place can be a person's dream although this life wouldn't be my fantasy.

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Stefanie, age 14, Canada

If I had to live here I don't think I'd survive. No showers, no TV, no music and no beds. Not to mention the temp change. The good thing about it would be the fresh air and the stars in the sky at night. It is so peaceful (when no one is talking) I think that if I lived here I'd be a lot more independent because I wouldn't have an easy way out of just about anything. I would have to ride camels for transportation and climb mountains for fun! Everyday would be an adventure because I wouldn't know what might happen. I would have to drink a lot of water (which I hate) and I would hardly ever have a cold drink ( Oh and no pop! )...I think that if I lived here I would become a photographer and take pictures of Bedouins and of course the mountains...even though life in the Sinai for a week will be fun I wouldn't consider it home-sweet-home!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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