In this instalment of The Past Lives of Habzyz III, our Pharaoh-in-residence recalls that pleasant summer when he was sentenced to two months of hard labour while fending off killer bears…
There is a common misperception amongst many a visa-hankering Egyptian that Canada is the Promised Land, where the roads are paved with gold, glamour, and job opportunities abound. This is true. Especially if you’re into tree-planting on the backside of nowhere while fending off wild animals.
In a past life, somewhere in Northern Ontario, on a desolate tract of land in a patch of forest that does not appear on any map known to man, Habzyz III could be found earning his way through yet another life battling bugs and bears.
There, I joined a sea of students, all hoping to make a little extra money over the summer to help pay the ridiculously expensive college tuition fees. It is a grueling backbreaking job involving long hours, physical labour and getting your hands very (and literally) dirty – certainly not the ideal career option for your average Egyptian.
The job entails giving up two months of summer break and…
Living in a tent - a real-life tent, not the cute little hut with a bathroom and ceramic flooring that those young Egyptians who like to pseudo-rough it for the summer in Ras Sudr or Nuweiba would refer to as a ‘tent’.
Living in very close proximity and sharing everything with dozens and men and women so hairy you’d think they were card-carrying members of the Brotherhood.
Slaving away for 12-14 hours, six days a week planting trees on unforgiving terrain in the vast bushy wastelands of Northern Canada with no after-dark beach parties by Ganzoury to break the monotony.
The lands were deforested by logging companies, who are now required by law to replace them. With the passing of that law, tens of thousands of university student jobs were created for bold and adventurous outdoorsy types. When I first heard about the job, I was captured by the idea of reconnecting with nature, living in the wilderness and coming out stronger at the end of the experience. I also heard you could make anywhere from $3,000-$11,000 for two months work. With little opportunity to spend said money, the opportunity seemed a lucrative one.
I arrived to camp just before Spring when the weather would still dip close to, if not below, 0°C most nights. There was even a sprinkling of snow on the ground. After a brief introduction we settled in for the evening. My tent snugly fit a single air bed mattress, and the only things the brochure advised to bring - a sleeping bag, tree-planting gear, a couple of books, a CD Diskman, three dress shirts, four t-shirts, three pairs of pants, a lantern, and a lot of duct tape.
In a attempt to stay warm, I threw on all the clothes I’d brought, and promptly fell asleep snugly tucked in my super-insulated sleeping bag. But as I slept, I began to sweat through the layers, and beads of sweat froze to my body in the cold frigid Canadian night. I awoke that morning to my boss starting a chainsaw right outside my tent. It was shockingly effective in waking everyone up, yet I was slow to react, due to the fact I was possibly dying from frostbite.
Once defrosted, I quickly gathered some lunch and gear and headed to the bus that would drive us to our own patch of desolate wasteland. With no time to prepare I grabbed the essentials: a loaf of bread, an apple, two oranges, and eight gallons of water. The bus wound deeper into the woods, until the road stopped. From there we continued on foot, carrying our water and gear for an hour. Eventually we reached our destination, where we were each allotted a piece of landscape that would stretch a couple of square kilometres.
The crew boss then duct taped my index and the middle finger together, filled my bags with 300 tree-lings (the size of a hand-span) and told me to plant trees using a shovel in one hand (to make a hole) and my duct taped hand to bury the tree every 6 feet. He then gave me a whistle and told me to blow it in case of trouble (which meant bears).
I had barely begun working when I was introduced to the bugs – swarming my entire being like Egyptians on a June 30th protest. I was engulfed in a black swarm of flies. I quickly duct taped all openings in my dress shirt, and did the same to my pants. By the end of the 12th hour I felt an ache in my muscles like never before and my body was covered in bite-marks (scars which remain till this day).
It took weeks to learn how to “turn off” my brain, and get to the point of planting a tree every 10 seconds for 12 hours. Each tree planted was worth 8 cents (50 piastres), and by the end of the day I would make about $100 - $200. I’d heard of people making upwards of $300-$400 a day, and I was determined to match that. So I loaded up my Discman with an MP3 CD, put on my headphones, and set off to break a record.
I was planting a tree almost every seven seconds, and was so focused that I felt I was more machine than man. With my head down and Hamdy Baachan blasting in my ears, I felt like nothing could stop me, when all of sudden two little bear cubs almost bumped into me. And cubs only mean one thing; an angry mother bear is lurking nearby.
The second I took off my headphones, I heard an unholy growl coming from behind me. I turned around and about 30 metres away, lo and behold, the cubs’ mother standing on her hind legs, clearly yelling at me for getting in between her and her baby bears.
I immediately start clutching for my whistle (which course I had left it in yesterday's pants) and struggled to recall what we were told to do if we met a bear. Staring at her straight in the eye, I slowly walked backwards, hoping to reach the makeshift road. My thinking at the time was that everyone's lunches would be on the road, and that maybe the bear would spare me in exchange for a buffet. As I kept walking, the family of bears advanced, but as time passed by, the distance between us grew. I decided to make a run for it shouting at the top of my lungs “Bears! Help! Bears! Fuck! Bears! Help!”
The bears picked up their pace but luckily I made it to the road. Just as I predicted, the bears forgot about me once they saw the feast available to them. But as they ate, my boss and I were blocked from the rest of the crew. One of the guys hopped on a beach buggy, and drove towards them to scare them off. It worked but unfortunately for my boss and I, the path they ran on led straight to us. We were both running for our lives, attempting to trip each other up, willing to make any sacrifice in a bid for survival. Luckily the beach buggy caught up with us before anyone had to be accused of murder.
This would be our last day at this particular site, and my boss was insistent that we finish the job. I insisted on planting with a partner, and insisted that he had to be a heavy smoker so I could outrun him if need be. They brought me a smoker named Jon, who puffed more cigarettes than a group of youth spotting. Together we began planting the bear-infested land. After about an hour we encountered the bears again. Rather than attempting to use each other as a sacrifice, we decided to link arms and make a racket. Thankfully, we were threatening enough to scare away the bears into another crew's land. As far as we were concerned, it was no longer our problem.
This would not be the only time I encountered bears, but it was definitely the closest I had come to being lunch. Tree-planting was by far the hardest job I had ever done. It was draining physically, emotionally, and for a while, it psychologically messed me up. I never made as much money as I was promised, but I did come out of the experience tougher. The only thing I knew for sure is that when all was said and done, I planted a forest (over 20,000 trees) and survived two months in the wild with bears and wolves and maddening amounts of bugs.
So, anyone for a Canadian visa?