Lessons From a Week in the Desert

A few months ago I invited people to apply for an 11-day camel trek in Egypt. I had never formally led a group trip before. I had never been to Egypt. And I had never met Georgina, the woman with whom I was organizing this event. I had no clue if people would apply, if we would pull it off, or if it would be successful.

A few days ago I returned home to Colorado after 5 incredible weeks in Egypt—the last week and a half was the camel trek. People applied. We pulled it off. It was successful.

The word “successful” is a low-resolution way to summarize this trip. It was stunning. It was unexpected. It was inspiring. It was filled with lessons and breakthroughs. It was hilarious. It was intense. It was slow and dry and heart-warming.

In order to give you a good hearty feel for this trip, I’ll give you a practical overview and then I’ll summarize my most memorable moments and takeaways (with photos).

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Photo by Anurag Gupta

The Overview:

The camel trek itself was 7 days. The two days before were for participants to arrive in Dahab, catch up on sleep, enjoy the ocean, and gear up. The two days after we spent relaxing at restaurants, visiting the blue lagoon, snorkeling, and soaking up our last days in paradise.

The 7 trek days in the middle were full-on: no bathrooms, no rest stops, no beds, no tents, no modern comfort—just 9 participants, 8 Bedouins (natives who are more comfortable in the desert than the city), a seasoned guide named Joyce, and 20 camels.

For the most part we just spent time together. We played. We talked some but not much. We climbed rocks, rode camels, walked, laughed with the Bedouins, ate, spent time alone, meditated, reflected, sat around the fire, and appreciated the planet.

Thanks to the simplicity of the trip, reflection and introspection were more productive and powerful than usual. Whenever I felt tension or misalignment I became immediately (and non-urgently) aware of the stuck point. And due to the nature of this trip, I had the spare time and energy and bandwidth to focus on cleaning up whatever was clouding my experience. With less noise and distraction, the relevant lessons were loud and clear.

I should also note that the group of participants was no ordinary bunch. Georgina and I were surprised when Bentinho Massaro and Anurag Gupta applied to join our trip in addition to 5 other terrific guests. The group was awesome.

Here are a few memories, lessons and takeaways that stuck with me:

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Memories, Lessons, Takeaways:

Don’t Preach. Be Authentic and Share.

The first night of the trip we were sitting around the fire, laughing and small-talking, and I felt the uncomfortable responsibility to do something; say something; lead; make it intentional; get people talking. I said something like this: “Okay hey guys, welcome, here we are! So I would like to just have everyone go around and say their intention for this trip. Who wants to start?” Crickets.

Finally Ruth spoke up and said “well I want to finish my dinner first but then I can go first.”

Eventually everyone went around and said their intentions but the activity felt dry and heavy. I was uncomfortable the whole time. Bentinho was laughing knowingly. I was eager to go find somewhere to set up my sleeping bag.

The next day I asked Anurag for some coaching around the situation. He was quick:

“Yeah why weren’t you just authentic?”

What?

“Why didn’t you just say what was up for you? Something like ‘Hey guys—I feel some responsibility to get more of an intentional discussion going just to set us up for an awesome trip, but I’m a little nervous and I’ve never done this before. Is that something you guys want too?’

When he said that I facepalmed. Obviously.

I realized that by trying to direct traffic and make something happen ‘over there’ I wasn’t being responsible at all for the thing I wanted to generate. What makes an intentional dialogue unique is that it’s real and transparent and open. By instructing people to go around the circle and say their intention, I was role-modeling the opposite. 

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Thinking Is For Doing.

The first few days my thoughts felt disproportionately out of sync with my experience. There were more of them than necessary. There were more thoughts than made sense for what I had to think about each day. I’ve never had that happen before. In my day-to-day life I don’t notice trivial thoughts because there’s lots to do and lots of variety. I get messages and notifications and updates on my phone, I run into people while I’m out. I have to make decisions about what to eat, what to wear, what to do with myself. As a result, my redundant and unnecessary and counterproductive thoughts get camouflaged by all the diversity of experience.

In the desert there’s not much to do. You get on the camel. You ride the camel. You get off the camel. You eat. You pee. You poop. You clean up after yourself. You set up your sleeping bag. You walk around. You look at stuff. You talk to people. You play. You sleep. And everyone else does the same thing. There’s no urgency or pressure or problem solving. There’s not much to think about.

It reminds me of a quote my mom often says: Thinking is for doing. In the desert, thinking for thinking’s sake gets old. In the desert, the only thinking you need to do is the thinking that precedes doing. 

On the second or third day I told Musa, one of the Bedouins, that my brain was too fast. He laughed and told me that everyone’s brain is too fast and I needed more time in the desert. A couple days later he followed up and asked how my brain was. I was glad to tell him it had slowed down. By the end of the trip I felt steady and mentally aligned with the circumstances.

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Humans are resilient and adaptable.

On the first night we ate Bedouin bread—a delicious stretchy homemade bread they make from scratch and cook on on an upside-down pan over the fire each night. The next morning Allison and I woke up with puffy faces. That’s something both of us expect to happen when we eat too much bread (worth it). That night we ate the same amount of Bedouin bread again, expecting the same symptom. The next morning we both woke up looking normal. Quick adaptation.

Same thing with my sleep. After one day of waking up with the sun I was switched over to a new sleep cycle.

I noticed the same adaptability in lots of areas. After one night we were happy and comfortable sleeping outside on sand and rocks. After a few days we were able to walk or ride camels long distances without getting sore. Even the solitude and the silence was easy to adapt to—by the end of the trek most of us felt like we could go another week or two roughing it in the desert.

I like this lesson because it contradicts a bias I tend to have about us humans: that we’re slow learners, stuck in our ways, and many of us just can’t change. On the contrary, we’re instant learners with a strong capacity to adapt when placed in environments that require adaptation. 

This motivates me to be picky about my environment(s) and intentional about what I’m adapting to.

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Be Like The Bedouins

If I had to summarize what I learned from the Bedouins in one sentence, I’d say this:

Do less, play, be a good person, pray. 

Do less. The Bedouins are minimalists who lack nothing. They use what they need and nothing more, and as a result they seem masterful. They’re precise and tidy and attentive. When they make a fire, they burn exactly as much wood for exactly as much time as is needed to heat the water and cook the food. Then they let it go out. They don’t gather more wood than they need and they don’t burn more wood than is required to heat food.

Play. The Bedouins are funny and playful and chattery. They’re goofballs. One thing Musa kept saying was that they liked us because we joked with them the entire time. We made fun of Ataiwi’s habitual single-cough that produced no mucus. We made fun of our tragic inability to pronounce “bhabecumculco” (definitely not the right spelling) which means “I love you guys.” They made fun of us when we failed over and over to toss bedouin bread. They taught us to play backgammon. We tried to teach them to play a rock-toss game but they turned it into a sprinting-tackle match. The mood was perpetually, authentically light. Even around heavier topics, the Bedouins sustained and shared genuine, contagious joy.

Be a good person. This reputation preceded them. We spent several weeks in Dahab before meeting the Bedouins or beginning the camel trek, so we’d met other Bedouins and heard others describe Bedouins. The Bedouins are good people. Plain and simple. They are lighthearted and honest and generous. They have integrity engrained in their culture and their identities. Before the trek I asked my friend Ammar (a local) if he ever hears Bedouins making fun of western tourists in Arabic. He looked surprised and shook his head. “No. Bedouins are so nice.”

Pray. Every day, five times a day (each on their own, not all together), the Bedouins pray. But they don’t just do a quick prayer before they start eating and continue on—they leave the group, prepare a space, wash themselves, and repeat a physical ritual several times. They are fully present from start to finish. Undistracted and dutiful. Watching them pray was meditative—you can feel the devotion and the honor and the love.

Watching them pray uprooted an assumption I had about religion. My belief before was that Muslims were lost in the religion part of spirituality (the dogma and the judgment and the rules); that they were more radical and therefore less connected to the universal source that is independent from religion. But watching them pray—seeing that their connection was real—made me realize how alike we all are in spirituality. Their prayer is my meditation is an atheist’s intuition. Their connection to Allah is my connection to source is a Christian’s connection to God. I had a bias that stricter religions and belief systems necessarily correlated with a weaker connection to source. What I learned was that someone’s connection to source is not determined by how they got there. 

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Jump On In.

Toward the end of the trek I felt especially available for people. I felt clear and aligned and happy to share. But whenever we were having group discussions, it was painfully obvious how much more skillful Bentinho and Anurag were at making a difference for others and causing breakthroughs than I was.

At moments when I felt like I had a useful model or strategy or insight for someone, I would stay quiet and observe Bentinho or Anurag jump in. Then I would watch as the entire group up-leveled. Instead of just answering their question or reframing their concern, these guys would do alchemy. That’s really how it felt—what used to be a paradox was now resolved and packaged into something that’s useful for each person in a distinct way. Whenever that happened I was grateful that I hadn’t shared when I felt inclined to share. 

I told Anurag this and he retorted: “You think I started out like this? You’re going to suck in the beginning no matter what so jump on in.” 

Touché.

Happy Camel, Happy Trek.

I was paired up with Tunesi. The happiest, strongest, smartest, most affectionate camel of the bunch (in my opinion). Musa (Tunesi’s owner) loves Tunesi and has had him since he was a young camel. You can hear Musa in the background on the video below telling me to “give him more” (cant stop at just half a bottle of water). I think this made a difference—the fact that Tunesi was treated well, had been with the same human for his whole life, and understood his job made for an awesome experience for me. Some of the other camels were just recently traded or purchased from traders and you could tell that they were hesitant or untrusting.

Joyce, our guide and the owner of Desertjoy, runs a foundation dedicated to camel health and happiness. One thing this foundation does is buy camels out of the trade and gives them to Bedouin families so they can get personalized treatment, care and training. This also gives the Bedouins more sustainable income. 

By trekking with her and her team of Bedouins we were supporting a bigger mission.

For your pleasure, here is a video of me giving Tunesi some water.

5 thoughts on “Lessons From a Week in the Desert

  1. Tim

    Hi Awesome trip leader,

    I enjoyed reading your post. Loved your honest reflections and skillful summary of the trip. Those bedouins are wonderful.

    And the word bedouin sounds very similar to my last name (beduhn). Interesting. 😀

    Have an epic day!

    Tim

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Cory,

    Your Egypt trip sounds amazing. I would absolutely LOVE to join you on your next one… or maybe your Peru trip… or maybe both? Thank you so much for your openness, honesty and authentic presence in the world. You inspire me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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