In Egypt with a British adventure travel group, I was considered odd for wearing pajama bottoms that did not look like pajama bottoms that I had bought at Old Navy before the trip. I was sure they would be cool in the heat and would not be recognized as pajama bottoms unless I said they were, which I made the mistake of doing.

I was soon sorry about this though I need not have been, since most of the people on the tour, especially young and inexperienced travelers, did not last long in Egypt. Like the victims in that famous Agatha Christie mystery that disappear one by one or, in this case, two by two, we seemed to lose at least a couple of people every day. First to go were two plastic-sandaled girls of seventeen who boarded the train with us in Cairo but never made it to Aswan. They flew home next morning it was said though I do not remember by whom.

We had not yet met “Bob”, our guide, a first-time tour leader and former London cook, who knew less than nothing about Egypt. Moments after his arrival in the hotel lobby in Aswan, he sent us off in a caravan of cabs that stopped along the highway outside town. The drivers motioned us out.

“What’s here?” I asked, standing with the others before large slabs of stone.

The drivers shrugged, they did not speak English. Under boiling sun, as we climbed over rocks, looking for something–anything–that might merit our attention, a Brit in the group who called herself a Physical Geographer and had her Rough Guide handy, pointed out a giant obelisk partly cut in the granite quarry.

Back in Aswan, the bus had just left the hotel when someone–other than Bob–noticed the Scottish teacher running after us. A girl from Manchester said, “That Bob is in way over his head.”

Bob was happiest lying on deck in the felluca, sleeping or reading a soggy American novel. He let the sullen Nubian crew take charge. At night, Bob and the Nubians crept under mosquito nets to sleep while we slept under the sky at the mercy of mosquitoes.

At dawn before the others awoke, I took long walks by the tall reeds along the shore and inland on dirt paths through palm groves with ripe dates and coconuts, unfamiliar flowers, fields of corn and sugar cane, grazing cattle and canals gleaming with sun while herons, egrets, doves, bee-eaters, kingfishers, and birds unfamiliar to me, crisscrossed the cloudless sky, calling to one another. This is the real Egypt! I thought and breathed in the potent perfume of flowers. Just then, a man rose from the bushes a distance away. I tried to keep calm and continue my walk but after only a few steps, I told myself, Don’t be an ass! I raced back to the safety of the waiting boat. Didn’t I join a tour of Egypt to avoid such dangers?

At night the felluca docked near shore. This was not the case during the day when we made bathroom stops. The phrase “walking the plank” and the word “bathroom” assumed new meanings. My fear of heights made descending the long, narrow wobbly wooden board over stagnant muddy water–probably rife with parasites–the equivalent of walking a tightrope in the upper reaches of a circus tent. The Nubians looked on while a tour mate helped me down. On shore, the pit Bob dug could be anywhere and, like a children’s game, required a search since he conveniently disappeared after digging it.

The day the Nubians provided a make-shift potty was not much better. Perched on the side of a rather steep hill above a village, the contraption, which consisted of a rotted board with a round hole in the center, held up by four sticks behind a little cloth skirt, required us to sit at a severe slant while we did our business, watching water buffalo wading below. Despite my objections, the Nubians refused to let us step back on board unless we washed our feet first in buckets of dark water the crew had scooped from the river while we were gone.

An officious British magistrate of fifty-something, named Antoinette, an experienced traveler like myself, laughed at me when I, alone in the group, declined a swim the Nubians allowed us one day, in 115 degree heat. Not that 115 degree heat was exceptional. We were kept informed of every degree change by one of two Long Island Ladies, as I called them, though only one was from Long Island. Old college room-mates, both sixty, they made yearly trips together. The real Long Island Lady had a thermometer in one of the many pockets of her safari vest and clutched a thick notebook with multi-colored tabs where she had written down and alphabetically categorized before the tour everything she could possibly need to know in Egypt–or so she thought.

How had she managed to overlook bilharzia? I wondered, as I warned them all before their swim about the parasitic illness caused by worms that live in snails found in the Nile. “They burrow into human flesh to lay their eggs,” I told them, but no one listened to the woman wearing pajama bottoms.

Whether it was the water, the heat, the unpasteurized ice cream I warned them not to eat when we stopped in a village, or the fish the Nubians left stinking in the sun each day before cooking, the group was drastically reduced in size after a few days on the river though the magistrate and her daughter’s bouts with illness were brief, and the couple from Alberta taking doxycycline daily, which I warned them would kill good bacteria as well as bad, did not get sick at all.

By all accounts, I should not have been spared the fate of those who were no longer with us, having picked a strange green fruit one day from a bush along the Nile and, after tearing it open, lived to describe the milky substance and silky white seeds inside which the Nubians claimed was so toxic, Antoinette told me later, that touching it should have killed me.

Nine of us remained to scream our way down the road in two speeding cabs on the harrowing ride from Edfu to Luxor, which prompted Antoinette to say to Bob who was seated upfront beside our driver, “Can you tell him to make the ride a little bit less hair-raising?” In a flat voice, Bob replied without turning his head that this was the driver’s revenge for the paltry tips we had given the Nubians.

Among the survivors were the Long Island Ladies. In Luxor, when the real Long Island Lady said to her dear friend, “You know in Egypt when Harry drank coke from a can like you just did, he developed painful pus-filled sores all over his mouth that didn’t heal for months.”

Still holding the empty coke can, the Midwest Long Island Lady looked horrified and yelled, “Why are you telling me this now?”

Her frightened face made me burst out laughing, which did not endear me to them or to the others.

What a relief it was to leave the frantic tourist-mobbed sites of Luxor, Karnak, Valley Of The Kings and Hapshepsut’s Temple, and board an air-conditioned bus without Bob on an add-on extension to the trip across hundreds of miles of uninhabited sand and rock in the Western Desert even though our new leader, James, from California, was nearly as clueless as Bob had been. A young and inventive Egyptian guide named Wael accompanied us on the way to several desert oases with stories about a deadly snake that could leap thirty feet in the air. Our armed police escort which protected us from pirate raids was the only other vehicle on the highway.

North of the first oases, Karga, where we stopped for the night, was the ancient Bagawat Necropolis rising on a ridge with 263 mud brick chapels used for Christian burials from the 3rd to 7th centuries, my guide book said, as I wandered off from the group to explore dozens of them on my own, disbelieving Wael’s warnings about poisonous creatures hiding inside the vaulted ruins, which were rife with graffiti, some dating from Roman times. Was it my imagination or did Wael look a bit disappointed when I returned intact?

After two nights in El-Karga and Dakhla, with its medieval mud brick village of Al Qasr, we drove with Bedouins in battered 4-wheel drive vehicles through trackless rock and sand and stopped in what seemed to me the middle of nowhere.

While waiting for the vehicle to return that was depositing two sick tour mates to the nearest Bedouin outpost so we could resume our journey, I began talking to Mohammed, one of the drivers. Despite his bad English we seemed to understand each other. Wearing pajama bottoms as usual–I had several pairs–which the Bedouin of course did not recognize as pajama bottoms, I climbed alongside him, this time surprisingly unafraid, up a steep stony hill. At the top, we sat down and he told me about his wealthy father and that he was one of sixty-four children. “I have two wives.” he said. I do not recall how many wives his father had. I only recall looking out over the vastness of the desert, believing that Mohammed and I were the only human beings in the entire world, and that the entire world was nothing more than sand and stone. And the sand and stone were alive with a pulsing life all their own, more beautiful in their aliveness than anything I had ever seen. My eyes embraced the myriad forms. Like the browns and grays and purples and mustards and mauves that dissolved at the horizon, the forms, too, gradually gave themselves up and hugged the earth’s edge.

It was only when my eyes wandered that I noticed down below the little figures of Antoinette, her daughter, the Long Island Ladies and the couple from Alberta. I did not know then that my brief awakening on the hill was only a prelude to the deeper awareness I would have in the White Desert where, after a night in a Bedouin camp, we spent the day wandering in a white chalky world of huge unearthly sculptures that could only have been carved by God. The great stones rose in profusion from a dusty white floor strewn with fossilized shells and corals from a long vanished sea and thousands of small but heavy black iron pyrites resembling broken twigs. I bumbled around, drunk with wonder, almost getting lost, collecting specimens in disbelief, making my tour mates laugh, as I held in my hands those weighted morsels.

Later, when the others, with sleeping bags like mine but also without tents, scattered in all directions to spend the night wherever they wanted, as the guide had ordered us to do, I, the only one without a partner, chose not to move, and was rewarded by the rare sight of a jackal, a small nocturnal creature, as delicate and transparent as a glass figurine. Innocent and unafraid, it watched me while suckling the string of my sleeping bag cover before vanishing like a dream. While I handled the still moist string, Antoinette came running out of nowhere to inform me that the jackal was probably rabid, which meant that I, too, would probably get the disease.

Her prediction, however, failed to spoil my time alone with the stars which either lowered themselves or lifted me up, as I lay in pajama bottoms over my sleeping bag in the heat. While the stars and I stared at one another and I felt safe from the imaginary leaping snake and the real horned viper, from scorpions, beetles, and larger creatures whose tracks I would see in the sand circling my head when I awoke next morning, I was unaware that a screeching 4-wheel-drive emergency vehicle with flashing lights, which was seen and heard by all the others, had come for the violently retching couple from Alberta and taken them away.