Those were the most beautiful dunes I’ve ever seen. There were countless, almost perfectly similar dunes in front of us – me, my mother, the driver and the guide – and we started getting closer as we naturally felt attracted by them. Up and down we went on our 4×4, and it was oh-so-beautiful. There was no other car around, the desert was all ours.
Now I know that in a car crash, there’s a fraction of an instant when you still don’t know something’s wrong, and the next one when you realize you’re crashing and your body keeps colliding with different parts of the car compartment while you can’t control it. I felt like a ball in a pinball.
An instant later for me there was silence and my main thought was something like
Am I alive? Can I move my legs? Why do I have blood in my mouth?
I don’t have clear memories of those moments. I have been told that I kept asking my mother what happened, and I remember she said
We got a knock, Giulia.
She looked calmer than me, but I guess we were both shocked. I could see blood on her teeth as she spoke, but I didn’t tell her.
I immediately realized my right arm was broken. I could clearly feel the bones moving when under the weight of the forearm. Instinctively, I held it up with my left arm so strongly that for a good half hour I thought both arms were broken. I just couldn’t let go and it felt as if I couldn’t move any of my arms.
I started to scream.
My arm is broken!
The car was stuck in between two dunes. I don’t know how I got off the car but I realized I did when I felt someone touching my arm: the driver was apologizing and rubbing some funny smelling cream on my arm. It hurt. I didn’t want any cream. All I could think was I wanted to get out of there.
To the many apologies I replied with a simple
It’s ok, let’s go now, please
as I started panicking when I realized I hit my head so hard that my forehead was swollen and deformed.
Will I fall unconscious, will I even remember these moments? I want to get out of here!
At first, the steering wheel didn’t turn. The car wouldn’t move. But luckily the driver fixed it and we soon left that place. I looked at the clock: it was about 9.15 am and for some reason I thought by 12 I would be in a hospital and fixed… I had no idea what I was going to face.
I expected the driver to go back from where we came. We were not far from the asphalt road after all, maybe just about one hour. I don’t know why, but he started driving the opposite way, and of course we didn’t complain as we were sure he was doing the right thing. He told me we would be on the closest road in 2 minutes… but this didn’t happen.
Hours started to pass, and we didn’t find any road. We were stuck in an ugly spread of rubble, and we failed to find the way as we always found mountains blocking our way. And so we kept going and getting further and further away from where we actually had to go.
Everyone was getting very nervous. Not that we didn’t trust the driver, but why the hell didn’t he just go back? He refused to answer our questions, and kept going and looking for the way pretty furiously. He was probably feeling guilty, responsible and very, very uneasy. Psychologically, I think he had the hardest time.
My arm was hurting and at every bump or hole in the ground I started to scream. Deep inside my mind I knew I had to keep calm, as there was no use in crying or freaking out.
My mom’s arm looked like dead, and apart from my moans and groans everyone was in silence: silence of expectation, especially every time we reached a point that was somehow higher and we all looked beyond it hoping to see the asphalt road… and saw nothing but more desert, as far as we could see.
This didn’t happen once and didn’t happen twice… it happened for 6 hours in a row. Everyone was too worried to speak, no one wanted to upset the driver, and I could feel that everyone felt awful every time I cried my pain out.
In case you’re wondering, yes we had a satellite phone but… there was no signal and the GPS looked lost too. Nobody spoke but I know we were all thinking the same kind of thing. What if the sun sets? What if the gas runs out? What if we never find the way? Time kept passing and by no means what I thought about being fixed by 12 o’ clock turned out to happen.
What time does the sun set?
This was what everyone wondered as time passed, but the guide was the one who finally had the guts to ask. Of course the real meaning was ‘will we make it out of the desert before it’s dark?’. It was almost 4 pm and the sun was getting lower on the horizon. We had only about 1 more hour left before sunset.
Every time I thought I was going to freak out, I reminded myself things could be even worse, and ended up being thankful we still had enough gas and the car worked properly. There was a moment when I completely lost it – I asked the guide to tie my scarf tightly around my neck to hold my arm, but my arm fell in the process and that was when all the fear and pain came out and I bursted into tears screaming my frustration out:
I want to get out of the desert!
The moment I screamed and the guide hugged me trying to calm me down, the satellite phone finally started working. We got in contact with the travel agency and asked them to alert the closest hospital: the one of Mut (which dangerously reminds me of the word ‘dead’ in Arabic, but I didn’t dare asking about this assonance), the capital of the Dakhla Oasis.
We finally found some tire tracks in the desert and started following them. I felt relieved as I thought those had to take us somewhere, even if I didn’t want to rejoice too early – what if they led us to an abandoned camp or construction site?
About 1 hour later, there was the asphalt road! I was so exhausted I didn’t even feel anything special. All I said was
We got a call from the travel agency. They called the hospital and were told that Dr Ahmed was waiting for us.
It was 10 pm when we reached the hospital. I couldn’t believe it. I was afraid they were going to stretch and twist my arm and torture me as if I didn’t suffer enough during the day. Luckily the doctor’s touch was very delicate and competent. I suffered, but I thought it would be worse.
In less than ten minutes I was standing in front of the X-ray machine, and I was immediately after told I broke my humerus in three points. A nurse gave me and my mother an injection of painkiller. They even gave me a CAT scan and then transferred me to the plaster room.
I was told Dr Ahmed was a Salafi and didn’t know what to expect from him. How was he going to deal with me, would he even accept to treat my fracture? The answer is that he was extremely professional and helpful. When my body needed to be moved on the scanning tables etc, the female nurse would intervene. I could tell men were trying to avoid physical contact as much as possible, but I honestly didn’t care and didn’t feel ashamed even when I had to take off my bra and they left the room.
I saw hundreds of ants crawling on the plaster room’s floor, bu I didn’t care. I was looking forward to finally having a cast holding my arm tightly. It meant the end of my pain. In the meantime my mother was told she didn’t have any fracture so everyone was just waiting for me to be done in order to finally reach the hotel and rest.
While a nurse and a young doctor held my arm after cutting my t-shirt, Dr Ahmed rolled the cast around my arm. It was painful, but shortly after it was over.
The staff at the hospital didn’t ask for any money as they were happy to help. Not only our nightmare was over, but we even experienced some authentic Egyptian kindness that is a beautiful travel memory and a good story to tell after all.
It took us 3 days to go back to Cairo. We went through some wonderful territories and of course avoided the desert, but followed the original itinerary taking advantage of the beautiful hotels where we had reservations. At least we could rest after long days on the road and take care of ourselves.
I am now in Italy and I must say the worst part was a sort of nervous breakdown I had when I reached Cairo. I guess when I finally felt out of danger I suddenly felt all the stress at once. I practically kept panicking for 2 or 3 days, but I feel ok now.
I can’t complain, we were lucky and it could’ve been worse. Can you imagine if the driver hurt himself and couldn’t take us out of the desert? What if the car broke and we couldn’t move? Again, we were lucky.
And I will take advantage of this forced relax to organize my life a bit.