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Khaled cranked the wheel to the left, sending the Land Rover skidding in the powdery Saharan sand. Half-digested fish and bits of flatbread rumbled in my stomach as nausea climbed up my throat, threatening to upend our first day abroad. In the seat next to me, Rachel focused on the dunes ahead, her skin ashen. The windows were down, allowing our cheeks to be peppered with sand as we drove, and the sound system competed with the roar of the engine as we crested each ridge and began the next descent.
“What do you think?” asked Mahmoud.
“Beautiful,” I replied. “Never seen anything like it – the landscape is stunning.” With each word I could feel my stomach revolt, my tongue tasting clay and bile. “How much farther?”
“We are close,” said Khaled, keeping his eyes trained on the next rise. “Another few climbs, maybe more.”
My watch was buried in my backpack, but I knew we’d left anything resembling a paved road long ago. Since then, Khaled had weaved his way through the desert, accepting directions occasionally from Mahmoud, who rode shotgun. The sun dipped low, the wind grew cold, and then we stopped.
We exited the car. My feet sank into the sand as I took a few steps around the valley where we’d be camping for the night. Mahmoud climbed atop the car, and began tossing down rugs, duffels, and camel-hair blankets. Khaled watched each item fall, a cigarette perched between his lips.
“Should we begin unpacking?” asked Rachel. “How can we help?”
“Go now,” Khaled said, smoke following each syllable. “You are guests. We will prepare. You will explore. Discover.”
I looked around – nothing but sand and clouds turning pink in the evening sky.
“Do not worry,” Khaled continued. “Only the stupid get lost. Your footprints will lead you back.” He finished his cigarette.
That night, the four of us sat around a fire. Peanuts roasted underneath the flames, a pot of tea cooked on scarlet coals. “This is very serene, the desert,” said Rachel, her hood pulled snug over her head.
Mahmoud smiled, the firelight playing off his beard, making it grow and recede in the shadows. “Quietest place on earth.”
“And you both grew up here, in El-Wahat el-Bahariya?”
Khaled nodded. “We are both Desert Men. We know the secrets. Few can travel here, as there are no maps, no roads. But there is beauty.” He added a few slim sticks to the fire. “Maybe, if we have time, we will take you to our secret museum – much better than those in Cairo.”
“Will there be long lines for admission?” I leaned into Mahmoud, who laughed and flicked sand onto my shoes.
Khaled chuckled. “You and your wife will get the V.I.P. pass.” He leaned back, his face half hidden by scarf and night.
The wood crackled as I held my hands closer to the flames. “So, Khaled, apart from you and Mahmoud, what else should we expect to see in the Sahara?”
“The desert fox,” Khaled said. “The camel. But you will not see them, at least, not tonight.” He poured us another cup of tea, strong and heavily sugared. “Drink. You both look tired. America is far away.”
“South Korea,” I said. “We’re American, but living in Asia. I’m a teacher. She’s a librarian.”
“Like I say,” Khaled continued, “far away, and the sun comes before we want. Finish your tea, I shall prepare for tomorrow.” He rose as Mahmoud began digging the peanuts out of the sand, storing them in a dish for the next morning. We walked the short distance to the tent: a rug on the sand, a rug suspended above and on three sides, the front open to the wind and the stars. I grabbed a blanket and lay down, the bristles of camel hair itchy and musty. Rachel lay to my left, Mahmoud plopped down to my right, smiling in the flickering light as the flames melted away.
The next morning as Mahmoud prepared breakfast, Khaled pointed back into the dunes. “Go. Discover.”
I grabbed my backpack and we left, our tire tracks swept clean from the night before. We waited until camp disappeared before I spoke to Rachel. “So,” I said as we skidded down the first dune. “Is that what you imagined?”
She didn’t respond until we had reached the bottom. “No. But remember what Khaled said when we first left the highway? ‘Welcome to Mars’? He wasn’t wrong. This landscape is just … alien.”
“Yup,” I shook the sand from my right shoe as my left shoe filled back up. “Maybe this is where Kubrick filmed the moon landing. Sure looks otherworldly. Just us and the dunes. And those rocks. Surprised we didn’t hit those yesterday.”
I pointed at a trail of white stones that littered the valley floor. I trudged over to the closest one and bent to pick it up, but my fingers met paper, not rock. “Huh,” I said, picking up the ball of paper and smoothing it out, “it’s a sack. Says ‘cement’ in English at the top, the rest is in Arabic. Wonder why anyone would bring cement out here. Take it back to Khaled?”
We climbed up the dune, the scent of breakfast meeting us as the wind switched directions. I waved the sack in the air, and Mahmoud jogged over to meet us. He took the sack from me, his face scrunched in concentration as he inspected each side. Khaled watched from a distance, then pointed to the ground.
“First, we eat,” he said. “It is the way of the Desert Man.” He took the bag from Mahmoud and tucked it away under a rug. We ate, attempted to help in the breakdown of camp, and climbed back into the car. Khaled and Mahmoud spoke in Arabic, their voices rising and falling as they pointed in different directions. Finally, Khaled turned the key and swung us around, climbing the dune from the day before. We descended into the valley, the bags still there, and Khaled let the engine idle as he stepped out to investigate. He snatched up several more bags, opening each to look inside. The first two were empty, but from the third he produced a cigarette. He held it to his nose, inhaled deeply, then clamped it between his lips and lit up. Khaled motioned for us to return to the car and he began to drive over the next dune.
The next valley contained no white lumps, but we could see dusty cubes of red before we reached the bottom. Again, the engine idled, but this time Khaled motioned for us to get out. Five gas tanks lay next to the remains of tire tracks just visible in the shifting sand.
“We had visitors last night,” said Khaled, “But it was not the desert fox.”
“Smugglers,” said Khaled. “Heading east from Libya. They refueled. These are their gas cans.”
“But the cement bags…” said Rachel.
“Not cement,” said Khaled. “Deception. To hide their wares. Here they met others, they traded cargo.”
“Ammo?” I asked. “Drugs? Guns?”
“Tobacco,” laughed Mahmoud. “Perfume. Cologne.”
“Oh,” I responded, relieved and a bit deflated. “Of course … well, I’m glad we’re safe. We are safe, right?”
“They are gone, yes?” asked Khaled, his eyes still on the empty containers. “I say in my email, months ago when you ask about embassy warnings, I say you will be safe, yes?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You did. And we still feel safe.” Beside me, Rachel nodded. “I just didn’t think we’d be sleeping so close to smugglers.”
Khaled looked up, his face windswept, the valley silent. “We leave,” he said, and we did.
More driving, a stop for a simple lunch of fish and flatbread, then back in the car. As we drove, the landscape slowly began to change. The sand gave way to pebbles, the pebbles turned into rocks, and the rocks rose up in the air as we arrived in the Black and White Desert – a National Park near Farafra. Khaled parked the car, we exited, and he pointed away from camp.
“Really, Khaled, we can help,” I started, but we held up his hand.
“Go. Discover. There is excellent climbing here. Hunt for fossils. Dig.”
We left, our feet crunching on the stones. The clinking of tools as our guides erected the tent echoed off the strange formations as Rachel and I turned over chunks of ivory and black-colored rock, searching for shells and petrified wood. We leaned against a stone column, above us a bulbous heap of chalk ballooned out against the dusky sky.
“It’s OK we’re here, right?” I asked as the silence of the desert settled in.
“You mean in the National Park?”
“No I mean here. In Egypt. With smugglers that drive by in the night. Khaled and Mahmoud are cool, but I guess I didn’t realize how close the Libyan border was until now.”
Rachel inspected rocks as she thought. “Well,” she began, “like Khaled said, they were transporting goods, not weapons. Plus, we’re a long way from Cairo – it’s not like we can call a taxi to pick us up. We’re having a good time, let’s put our trust in our guides.”
“Yeah, but like … real smugglers.”
We worked our way back to the camp as purple overtook the sky. Without the soft sand, we used the formations as our breadcrumb trail. Straight towards the chicken, go around the toaster, the camp is directly behind the bunny ears. Mahmoud served blackened chicken as we sat around the fire, sweet potatoes cooking on the coals.
We ate, and soon conversation joined the four of us. Mahmoud brought out his phone, the screen cracked, but unable to hide the beauty of his family. Khaled sang a song as he stoked the fire, the lyrics fanning the flames as the potatoes crisped, their skins cracking in the heat.
“Do many come here, to the Black and White Desert?” Rachel asked as she accepted a tin cup from Mahmoud.
“Not in this exact location,” said Khaled. “It is ours. It is special.”
“How long until you take out the next tourists?” I asked, sipping my tea.
“The day you leave – that night,” said Khaled as he flung the steeped leaves into the rocky landscape.
“And where are they from? The next group, I mean.”
Khaled looked at Mahmoud, and they conversed in Arabic. “They are Dutch,” said Khaled. “The Dutch appreciate the desert.” He paused. “The Dutch are brave. As are the Germans. And Swedes. All looking for adventure.” He poked at the coals.
“What about Americans? Do they visit often? Do they seek adventure?” I smiled at Mahmoud who grinned back.
“Americans,” said Khaled. “Not as many, not anymore … they are OK.” He continued to stir the coals, then reached in and barehanded a potato, tossing it to me as the skin popped and smoked.
I bounced it off my palms and let it fall, smoldering on the desert floor. I looked up at Khaled, traces of laughter played along the turn of his lips.
The coals died down, we gathered up our blankets, and we slept.
I woke to the sound of an engine, the first I’d heard since leaving the highway days ago. Wheels churned up rocks as it skidded around pillars of rock. My skin felt sticky with sweat against the animal pelt, and I folded it back, my eyes adjusting in the dim morning light. Khaled and Rachel continued to sleep, but Mahmoud stirred, then sat up next to me. We continued to listen as the car approached from behind the Bedouin tent, our view blocked by a wall of rug. I turned to Mahmoud and saw his eyes – wide and fearful. He shook his head and gestured for me to quickly cover up. I slid down into the stack of camel hair just as the car pulled around the front of the tent, and I listened as a door opened, then closed.
I felt Rachel stir against me, burrowed deep beneath the blankets, and she opened her eyes. I held a finger to my lips and she nodded, both of us still. The bottom rugs shifted as a person entered the tent. Silence. A growl of Arabic, then another. Our guides remained still – Khaled asleep, Mahmoud pretending – until the man called out again, stamping his foot.
This time the muffled voice of Khaled could be heard as he unearthed himself. The visitor replied, louder this time, and we could hear Khaled struggle to his feet and respond in kind. Mahmoud joined the fray, and soon all three men could be heard shouting, as I trembled under the blankets. Smugglers. This is it. I should have listened to the embassy. We should have gone to Guam. My body gave a turn as I heard the men stomp outside to continue shouting at each other.
And then, it stopped.
Feet re-entered the tent, and our blankets were thrown back. Mahmoud grinned down at us. “Time to eat,” he said.
I stared. Moments ago I was ready to be murdered in my bed, to be captured and sold, or ransomed. Now it was time for breakfast? Outside the tent, a man with a green hat hopped into his car, then waved at Khaled and sped away. Next to me, Rachel pulled on a sweater to ward off the chill of the morning wind.
“What … what the hell was that?” I asked, my mouth dry, my legs still trembling.
“Park ranger,” said Mahmoud as he helped me to my feet.
“A park ranger? But … but you told me to hide!”
“I did not,” said Mahmoud. “I wanted you to go back to sleep. You should not have to deal with these issues.”
“But you looked terrified!”
“I was uncertain I had renewed our permit to camp in the park. I did not want us to be fined. That would be an embarrassment.” He ducked out of the tent, leaving us standing in our pajamas.
As we ate, Khaled went over the itinerary for the day. “We go north, then west towards Cara. I know of a hill. There are secret mummies only we know of. Romans. You will find them.”
“You scared of mummies?” joked Mahmoud as he began breaking down camp.
“No,” I said.
“But you are scared of park rangers?” He and Khaled laughed, and my nerves had calmed enough to laugh along.
“Ok, I’ll admit, I was pretty freaked out.”
“What were you thinking?” asked Mahmoud. “Where did your fear take you?”
I leaned back on the rug, my fingers curling over the edge, burrowing into the cool sand. “I mean … I figured he could be a smuggler.”
“But he came alone,” said Mahmoud. “Smugglers drive in groups here.”
“Yeah, but we hadn’t seen a car for days, and he sounded so angry when he arrived.” I twisted my fingers in the sand. “Sounds pretty foolish now.”
“A little,” said Mahmoud. “But there are smugglers that come here often. They hide behind the rocks. You were foolish, but not dumb.” He tossed a rug onto the roof of the car. “Plus, if they were smugglers, we might know them.”
“You might know them?” I asked.
“Nobody can cross the desert unless he is a Desert Man,” said Khaled as he kicked sand over the dying coals. “Egypt suffers, we suffer, and my friends need money. Maybe they take trips to Libya, bring back goods … I cannot say. But there is nothing to fear. Man simply does what man needs to do, but violence is not a necessity.” He stopped, then spoke to Mahmoud in Arabic before turning back to us. “And Americans always think we are angry when we speak, but we are not. Know this, when speaking Arabic, we are passionate. Not as many whispers, not as much fear, like English. You see?” He clapped me on the back. I nodded, and we finished our breakfast.
The final rug was placed on the roof rack and the four of us circled up at the car. Khaled knew of a place where wild camels could be found – somewhere near the secret Roman mummies, just past the oasis.
“If the interest is there, you will discover.”
The interest was there.
Aaron Menzel lives in Queretaro, Mexico. He has worked as an editor, a canoe instructor, and currently teaches English and Creative Writing. Recently, he has been published in Popshot Quarterly, Selah Magazine, Hwearf, and Flash Fiction Magazine. You can reach him on Twitter @A_P_S_Menzel.