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Travel Egypt Andrew Stelzer

Sifting Sands

On the trail of tourist trash, an ancient culture is discovered

For the Bedouins who live here, it's as normal as riding a camel. For everyone else, it seems a little crazy to head out into the desert, in the middle of western Egypt, to walk around in 115-degree heat. And scan the sand for garbage. It's not for everyone, but this past May, about 150 people spent a week doing just that, in what's become an annual cleanup to counteract the trail of trash that 80,000 tourists leave behind each year.

I had never been to what's called the White Desert; in fact, I had never been to Egypt until I arrived in the capital of Cairo, the staging area for our adventure.

The next day, a six-hour van ride brought us into a vast sea of sand, seemingly empty except for its curious eruptions of white rock, scattered around like so many Martian toys. A twisted pillar over here, a giant mushroom shape over there. Surely, some speculated, people who come to this place must be environmental types. They wouldn't be chucking a lot of litter everywhere.

Two days later, we compared notes on some of the junk we'd found buried in the sand. The most unusual was definitely the fishing twine, but also on the list were a couple pairs of pants, one Birkenstock, a set of plastic silverware, a broken watch, a few used condoms and a toothbrush.

My finds: lots of cans and bottles, including some that once contained British pear cider, several packs of cheese from Greenland, a bunch of cigarette cartons ("Cleopatra" being the favored brand in Egypt) and an endless stream of toilet paper.

Most days, we headed out in teams of six or eight, to different heavily touristed sites. The land is protected by Egyptian law, but with limited resources, the government doesn't do much on enforcement. A recent training course for tour guides has improved the responsibility of safari groups. For starters, says Tareq Elqanawaty, director of the protectorate, there are fewer incidents of SUVs driving over, and leaving tire marks on, the pristine white formations that give the desert its name.

We found most of the rubbish close by those bizarre giant figures. Tour guide Ahmed Badawy (who carries a mechanical grabber to help him collect trash without bending over) tells me the mushroom-shaped stones are easy to hide behind while burying your rubbish, and for toilet purposes, the rocks function as the desert equivalent of trees.

To learn about the trips to Egypt

For more information about the cleanup trips and other travel options in Egypt, contact the Badawiya Safari agency at www.badawiya.com.

A major point of pride for the cleanup is that it was started by locals, and is still overwhelmingly Egyptian, a pleasant surprise, as it gave the rest of us an opportunity to talk with lots of natives and learn a little Arabic, as well as a few Bedouin dance steps when the music got going at night.

Cairo city slickers like Amal Huzzan, who came with one of her daughter's college friends, turned out to be some of the hardest workers. Huzzan, a retired engineer, had never seen this part of her country, and as we talked about the small but growing environmental consciousness in Egypt, she vowed to return next year. Cairo used to look like Paris, she said, but today it is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and seeing the beauty of the desert made her determined not to let the same thing happen.

A group of archeologists who joined the cleanup told me that 3,000-year-old mummies and 6,000-year-old knives have been found in the area. "Every day she gives you new information. Every day you go into the desert you learn something," said Yasir Zaloot, an inspector of archeology with the Sovereign Council of Antiquities.

Many in the group are tour guides and four-wheel-drivers, who are volunteering their time as well. Sa'ad Ali, whose Badawiya Safari agency started the cleanup in 2001, says an NGO (non-governmental organization) he recently founded pays for the food and 2,400 bottles of water the volunteers consume, but it's only fair for the cooks, drivers and guides to volunteer. "They make money in this field the whole year from the people," he says. "They should at least give their time."

Despite the heat and the flies, the rewards were rich: Night skies full of stars, otherworldly landscapes as far as the eye could see, and a chance to learn about the culture of the Bedouins who have lived in this desert for thousands of years. Formerly nomadic, most Bedouins are stationary these days, but their traditions of hospitality remain. (My favorite is that you always must offer food to strangers and invite them into your home to rest, because you never know when it will be you needing the same.)

In the end, we collected more than 3 tons of trash. Though most people felt good about what we had accomplished, major problems remain. There's no recycling in the local oasis villages, and not enough money to haul it up to Cairo. Instead, the garbage was simply carted off to a dump in the desert where, thanks to a fence built by Ali, it probably won't blow away and end up right back where we found it.

Did we make a difference? As one Hungarian foreign-exchange student said, "Even if it's not that much, we have to start somehow."

Andrew Stelzer is a freelance writer. He can be found at www.andrewstelzer.com.

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