Okay, so Egypt and Malaysia aren’t that close, but, I’m dreaming of that side of the planet…So, from the archives:
Saturday March 6 2004, Egypt
I am in LOVE. His name is Asa’il (or Harry).
We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning. This was My Day – to finally ride a horse in the Egyptian desert. Maryanne dropped me off at Morad’s. Denise was riding with us and Julie (and her black stallion) and Hortense and Morad and Christina.
A groom leads out into the sunshine my mount Harry: a huge magnificent flaming red stallion with a flowing mane and white-rimmed eye. My eyeballs popped out, and when I climbed aboard my jaw dropped. He turned into a fire breathing dragon - he tried to savage the groom holding him and tried to bite my leg several times, and he lifted me out of my saddle (English saddle, not used to this!), and lunged, mouth wide open into the palm branch we walked under as if he could devour the whole piddly little date palm itself.
When he walked he bowed his beautiful neck to his chest and his mane rippled over both sides of his neck and his forelock covered his face. His steps were light but he was so terrifically powerful I was like a mosquito on his back.
I noticed the reins were extra double duty thick - probably because he pulls so hard he’s broken a few. Great! As we walked a short distance down the paved road, he shook his mighty head and jerked it down again, and I knew he could launch me to the moon if he wanted.
Oh, Morad, what have you done to me, putting me on this monster??
We turned into the mango grove which drops you right onto the desert at the Sun Temple. Harry was walking calmly but I could just feel him ready to explode. I remembered the first racehorse I rode just bolting away with me at a dead run (or so it felt) and I had no control and I was scared. If Harry took off on me, I’d be completely powerless.
This is why I love endurance riding - it’s my speed (slow), and lots of it. We got to the sand, and there were maybe 7 or 8 of us, and I thought Oh God, we’re all going to take off like a cavalry charge, or Morad’s going to come charging by me, and Harry’s going to deposit me neatly in the sand (thank goodness it’s sand).
But everybody just walked on, chatting; Morad trotted near me, and I said "Morad, you might’ve put me on too much horse." He gave me a big grin and said, "He’s the lightest one I have," over his shoulder as he cantered off to some other riders on a hill. His lightest one? Right. I was going to die out here. Visions of getting my face smashed again popped into my head - I wanted to gallop in the desert!? How 'bout just a pleasant little canter on a quiet little gelding instead of this colossal mighty dragon?
Morad came cantering back toward all of us, and then he and Pal took off galloping up a little wadi. Hortense said to me, "Come, we can go up this hill." I thought, well, if he bolts off at a dead run, at least it’s sand and he’s going uphill. I had a cross on Harry’s neck if I needed it though so far out here on the sand, I hadn’t touched his mouth. I was ready though, I knew it was coming.
I moved my hands just a little, and thought Forward, (but please not too fast), and Harry bowed his head and floated into a trot. I could feel every powerful bone and muscle of this horse beneath me; I wanted to canter in the desert!? Heck this trot is pretty darn nice, and fast enough, thank you.
At the top of the hill where it flattened out, I thought Oh Shit, here we go - and Harry did nothing but continued floating over the sand at the trot awaiting my command. I did notice I was still barely touching his mouth. He had a big smooth trot and was ahead of Hortense, so she moved Maximus to a canter to catch up with us.
I thought, OK, THIS is where Harry bolts off, and what the hell, it’s time to find out if I’m going to hit the sand or get scared or whatever. I gritted my teeth, I touched my legs to his sides every so lightly - and Harry bowed his flaming head and touched his nose to his chest and broke into a canter the same speed as his trot, and I still had never touched his mouth. Oh my God, I thought, what is this thing I am riding!?
We cantered on, trotted on, and came to another group of people, and Pal joined up with us from another direction. Mohammed said, "Come with us," and Pal said "Let’s go!" and he took off. I said to Harry, "Let’s go!"
Harry tucked his nose to his chest, picked up the right lead I asked for and we cantered along the western Sahara desert (or the Libyan desert, or Egyptian desert), past the pyramids of Abu Sir. We came to the top of the little wadi we were in and the desert flattened out - acres and miles and countries to ride through - anywhere! I could ride from here straight to Morocco if I wanted to! Morocco!
The group cantered onward; my wonderful mount and I cantered by ourselves 50 yards away. Much of the footing out here is not as deep as you’d think - a galloping hoof leaves an impression as deep as one on a groomed racetrack, though the sand’s just a little harder. A lot of the sand is also rocky, and it almost sounds like a gallop over cobblestones. The consistency/footing of the sand changes: from the harder sand to the rocky sand with firmer footing, to soft sand where they do sink down. I could feel the change in the footing and the adjustment in Harry’s stride - I’m sure the horses quickly learn to read the footing - though he never bobbled. I could’ve drunk a glass of champagne from his back. And I still didn’t touch his mouth - the reins just sat on his neck.
Harry and I drifted further from the pack; I urged him to a gallop, and my magnificent steed and I flattened out into a gallop, past the pyramid and temples of Saqqara, and it hit me: oh my God, I am GALLOPING A HORSE IN EGYPT BY THE PYRAMIDS!! I could have cried.
I did cry, many times that morning. This couldn’t be real, I was in another world and another time.
Walmart-but-not-Walmart-but-worldly-cancerous-plastic bags rolled across the desert like Nevada tumbleweeds. One was heading our way and would intersect us if I didn’t change course. Maryanne said these Egyptian Arabs didn’t spook at flying plastic bags. I noticed none of them had in our rides in the countryside. We continued on course, and Harry galloped right on over the plastic bag without blinking an eyelash.
Harry and I veered back toward the others; we climbed another hill and looked around us. It was a beautiful partly cloudy and cool day with a slight breeze - just perfect. We walked/slid on Harry’s haunches down the hill, and Pal said “Let’s do the Back 40," or something like that, and we all took off again. Pick your path - anywhere, any direction, any speed, any company - just go!
Pal and I fell behind the others, and slowed down to a walk. He said "I read some of your stories on EnduranceNet - I just can’t wait to see how all these Eccentrics you’re meeting are going to flesh out!" He also read about mine and Steph’s tea with the Sun Temple guide. Yes, he said, we did eat his lunch. No matter how poor they are they pride themselves on sharing whatever they had. To have refused to share his tea and food would’ve been impolite. But geez, I didn’t have to pig out! Pal's wife is the Norwegian ambassador to Ethiopia. He talked about his wife’s job, and Addis Ababa and Ethiopia. "You have not seen, nor can you imagine, the utter misery and poverty in Ethiopia. I’ve been to slums in Mexico City and Bogota - they don’t compare." It sounded absolutely hopeless with no light on the horizon - not to mention completely depressing: civil war, famine, disease, millions of refugees, an unbreakable cycle. I said, "Then there’s no solution." Pal said, "Short term, no. Long term, yes. You just have to keep hope and keep pushing forward."
We talked about ruins in the area - he said there are hundreds of known sites buried out here - they just aren’t excavating them. A lot of it’s political and a lot of it is Egypt’s treasury - to be dealt out over time.
Pal told me Harry had another name: Asa’il. It means "Honey." Julie of the new black stallion had previously owned him, and couldn’t quite pronounce Asa’il. “It sounds like Asshole,” she said, “I’m giving him a new name!" And Harry he became.
By now we’d lost the others - here riders can cover a lot of ground and they quickly become spots on the horizon - they’d swung east around a string of sand hills. We walked till we got out of the deeper sand, and Pal said "Let’s see if we can find them."
As we walked along, I couldn’t keep my hands off Harry. I patted his beautiful neck, I ran my hands through his mane, I patted his big red butt. No queen had ever had a more beautiful seat on a golden throne than I had right here. "How do you say 'You are beautiful’ in Arabic?" I asked Pal. He said "'Enta gameel.’ It means not only physical beauty, but beautiful from the inside." Oh, yes. I leaned over Harry and put my arms around his neck and I hugged him. "Enta gameel, Asa’il."
Pal moved his horse to a trot, to a canter. Harry graciously bowed his head and floated to a trot, and bowed his head again and glided to a canter. Pal was now galloping, full out running ahead of me. Harry asked me - asked me! - if he could go. "Meshe Harry!" Go on!
Harry spread his wings, and we ran through the desert. The wind roared in my ears and whipped his mane in my face and drove the tears out of my eyes and across my face. If I cocked my head to the side I no longer heard the wind but the 4-beat of his hoofs on the sand. I dropped the reins and put my hands on that golden red neck and felt his strength through my fingertips. "Enta gameel Asa’il!"
Maybe it lasted a minute, or maybe 10 minutes - but I’ll never forget it. We rounded the corner and saw nobody, so we cantered on to the top of a hill. Still no other riders, so Pal said "Let’s go that way. I’ll show you something." And so we cantered on, down one row of hills into a little wadi and back up another hill. Harry adjusted his strides perfectly to the uphill or downhill, softer sand or hard. We crested the hill that Pal had picked out - and we met Maryanne, Jackie and Christina coming from the opposite direction. On top here was a big hole about 20 feet deep and maybe a car’s width all around with a hint of remains of a wall, with sand piled all around the hole. "It’s a tomb. They just aren’t bothering with it because there’s so many other big things. There’s hundreds and hundreds of them."
Can you just imagine what this area looked like 4000 years ago before sand buried everything? You just get the feeling out here that you are riding over ancient treasures everywhere. We walked down the hill, and walked and trotted along a while, talking. Harry had a big walk and we were out in front, when I spotted 5 or 6 riders off in the distance. I wondered if it was Morad and Hortense and Denise.
Wait - why wonder? I can zip on over there and find out! I lifted my fingers and Harry confirmed with a bow of his head and we cantered a mile across the desert. As we got close, I could see it was nobody I knew - it looked like a slow plodding tour group. Boring! Harry and I arc’d in a big circle and cantered the mile back to our group.
Pal then trotted up to me. "You want to go?" He read my mind! Off we cantered to the distant Japanese Hill, near Saqqara. And cantered and cantered and cantered, over buried remains of Egypt’s 4000 year old history.
Japanese Hill is where the Japanese are excavating a huge site a little distance, maybe ~1/2 mile from the Saqqara Step Pyramid, which is all likely part of Saqqara. It’s the highest hill around, and you can see the 3 Great Pyramids of Giza, Abu Sir, Saqqara, and the Bent and Red Pyramids from Dashur, stretching north and south as far as you can see. The pollution wasn’t so bad this morning after yesterday’s bit of rain. (Maryanne said that last year Cairo surpassed Mexico City as the worst polluted city in the world.)
Harry posed with me up top for pictures, then we slid our way down and galloped around the hill to meet the others. I took pictures of everybody, and kept handing off my camera to people: "Take my picture!" Usually I prefer to be behind the lens. Not here - not with my new gorgeous Egyptian boyfriend! (Who was quite photogenic I might add.) Please - nobody tell Stormy about this. He gets very jealous.
And OK, now I understand a little the Egyptians’ love affair and addiction to stallions. I think this is the first time I’ve ridden one. They are different! We trotted on past the Abu Sir pyramids, heading back home. I was looking at a nearby hill, and thought - why look, just go! I turned my hand, and Harry picked up a canter, loped to the top, and we stopped and looked around one last time, then trotted back down to join the others, to the Sun Temple, and exited the desert at the mango grove.
I was so happy I cried all the way home. I didn’t have to say anything to Morad when he and Hortense and Denise got back to the stable a short time later. He laughed. "See? I told you!" I gave him a big hug - thank you, that was the best ride I’ve ever had in my life. I’d’ve given Harry a kiss on his big red nose but he’d’ve probably bitten my face off. (And Stormy would’ve been REALLY jealous, because he loves the nose kisses.)
Dinner was at Janie’s. We had a great dinner with everybody and a last visit (this trip) with my friends in Egypt. When we left the full moon was shining straight down on us. I said a silent goodbye to my Egyptian boyfriend Harry as we drove past his stable the last time (this trip).
Enta gameel, Asa’il. Shukran.