I was so excited to get out of India, I didn't care that our flight left at 4 in the morning and that we spent all night in the airport; which, incidentally had the only mopped floor in probably the entire country of India. We arrived in Doha, Qatar for a long layover, and I was excited to see that the small airport had an A&W Restaurant. I love Root Beer. Unfortunately, the place still only had the same standbys on tap, notably Coke, Fanta, and Sprite; and the A&W only came in small, exorbitantly priced, imported bottles. We did eat our first hamburger in weeks, and somehow passed the whole day staring out a the sandstorm in the desert.
March 2-5 - Cairo and the Pyramids
Finally we made it to Cairo and walked out of the airport wondering if Egypt could possible be as bad as India. To our luck, it wasn't nearly. We walked out of the airport onto a real sidewalk, with a real road along it, and no trash in sight. Then we tried to find the bus into town. That wasn't so easy. We asked quite a few people, all of which were friendly and pointed us in as many different directions. We finally ended up at the other airport terminal's bus stop, where we sat for a peaceful hour wondering if our bus was ever going to come. We finally concluded it probably wasn't, asked some more people, and walked even farther to the real bus stop looking for bus 356. That's about when we realized that all the bus numbers were written in Arabic.
When we did get on the right bus, instead of giving Rob change for his money, the bus driver handed him a pita sandwich, for some odd reason, and we cruised for an hour on the bus into Cairo. Immediately we were lost again, and a pedestrian pointed us through a confusing mass of multilevel, intersecting roads and onto the correct street. The entire way, I kept exclaiming things like "It's so clean!" and "Look, there are curbs and sidewalks!" and "Hey, the streets are actually paved!".
We found a hotel on the 5th floor of an apartment building on an upscale shopping street. There weren't many tourists anywhere, but there were plenty of city-dwellers walking the streets and shopping. It literally seemed like every second store was an Italian shoe store...we passed hundreds of them. We decided to spend a couple of days in Cairo to catch our breath after India, and got a room with a balcony to watch the people streaming by. Except for the fact that every woman had her head covered with a scarf, it could have been a clean street in any European city.
The streets of Cairo were a relief after the congested mess of Asia. To our great surprise, there were no motorcycles or rickshaws at all, and only the occasional bicycle; the lanes are marked and only cars fill the road. Crossing the street is still something of an adventure, as the traffic moves a lot faster than we've seen lately. Pedestrians cross anywhere they feel like it, and cars are constantly swerving around them. We took to hiding behind the locals and crossing when they did, and well, we're still alive to tell about it. At night it gets even more hazardous, because normally cars don't use their headlights except to flash other drivers. They sometimes have their parking lights on, but that doesn't make it easier for them to see us or the street around them. With the streetlights in Cairo, it wasn't so bad, but on darker streets and in smaller towns it was pretty scary. Parking does seem to be a problem in the downtown area...the main thoroughfares are kept open, we walked down a side str
eet that was about 4 lanes wide, and it had 3 rows of parked cars on each side of the street, and one narrow lane left down the middle for moving traffic. I have no idea how all the cars get out each afternoon.
In the morning we took a walk around the city and through the large market of Khan el-Khalili. The Cairo bombing happened close to here just a week or so ago, but life seemed to go on as normal. In the narrow, dirty streets of the old city, we acquired a "friendly" young man who stuck like a bur to Rob and ended up showing us around a little. Rob got excited when he offered to lead us to a mosque tower, where we could climb up and look over the abandoned sections still devastated from an earthquake back in 1992. Once in the mosque, we found out that it would cost us about $40 to climb the tower, which is more than a visit to the Pyramids! We haggled a little, but couldn't bring the caretaker down to a reasonable price, so we left...and finally lost the friendly guy as well, after tipping him too little (in his opinion) and too much (in my opinion). But next to India and the constant beggars, it was still a relief to be in Cairo.
However, my sudden confidence in the city was temporarily shattered when we passed a tiny restaurant on a dirty street and spuriously decided to go in. Instead of letting us choose a dish or meal, the waiter started piling plates of french fries, pita bread, homemade potato chips, dipping sauce, and smelly fish paste onto the table in front of us, culminating a giant platter of deep-fried green somethings that looked like grated potatos but weren't. He even tried feeding Rob the fish paste with a fork, but I wouldn't let him get near me. When we asked the price of such food, we were told only "no problem, no problem", which means there is a problem, of course, and finally they wrote down an amount in Egyptian pounds that could have purchased an entire donkey. Remember, the place was a dump with only two chairs and a table, and we laughed and stood up and tried to leave. They waved us back down and we settled on a much, much lower price, but still higher than it probably should have been. We did try a litte of everything, but for me the whole situation was so uncomfortable that I just wanted to escape, which we did after giving a little more as a tip for the demandng, crazy waiter.
This seems like a good time to mention that the entire culture of Egypt seems to run on baksheesh (otherwise known as tipping). It's not reserved for the tourists, either; the locals are accustomed to tipping the grocer to give them the freshest vegetables, or the guy that puts down the beds on a train. To an unprepared tourist, the constant demands for baksheesh can be unnerving. I took to stuffing my pocket with a stack of 1 pound bills (worth about 20 cents), so that when an outstretched hand came in our direction, I could pull one out easily. (Opening a wallet full of large bills sometimes invited greater demands for baksheesh). Luckily a bank had exchanged a whole wad of 1's for us, because I went through them quite quickly; to the camel driver who posed for a picture, to the guards at the tombs, to the guy who delivered towels to our hotel room, and to, well, just about anyone that does anything for you except give directions.
The very ambiguity of the country seems to be connected to this penchant for baksheesh. There are very few signs or directions, bus stops are not marked, and good luck finding a price on anything. We concluded that if it was easier to figure out what you are doing and where you are going, then less people would need to help you arrive at your destination, resulting in less baksheesh. Hence, no signs for anything.
We tested this theory by trying to get to the Pyramids of Giza, which are just 15 kilometers south of Cairo. First we took a Metro ride to the city of Giza, then figured we would catch a taxi out to the ticket gate. Immediately after getting off the Metro, a man attached himself to Rob and told us of a bus out to the pyramids which was cheaper than the taxi. He also tried to convince us that there was a cheaper "local" entrance instead of the main tourist gate. Egypt as a whole tends to see tourists as "dollars with legs" and has inflated the price of all of its tourist sites, until we probably spent more on entry fees than anything else. I had read about this particular pyramid scam in the guidebook, and wasn't taken in, but Rob fell for it altogether and went along with the guy. He told us he was a professor and was late for his class at Cairo University, and handed us off to another waiting man, who just happened to be taking the same bus that we needed. He rode with us to the pyramids and led us to the back gate, where a whole host of horse and camel handlers were waiting to take us for a ride around the place, at a fee that was 6 times a normal camel ride, while trying to convince us that we wouldn't have to pay the entry fee (I'm sure they would pay it for us and just not admit it, that's why their rate was so high). When we finally convinced our impromptu guide that we didn't want to take a ride and that we were going to buy tickets the normal way, he seemed apologetic, and led us to the ticket gate and left without any demand for baksheesh. So we really aren't sure, even now, if he and the schoolteacher had been genuinely nice guys, or if they were in cahoots to find tourists and bring them to the camel entrance for a cut of the profits. Egypt is like that a lot...you're never quite sure what's happening.
Well, we finally made it into the pyramids, and they truly were huge. We spent all day walking around them just staring. On the East side of the huge complex, the sprawling suburbs of Cairo butt right up to the gates, but on the other side the desert starts and never seems to end. It was a sunny day, but luckily not to hot or windy, as the whole place was just a huge sandbox. We spent a lot of time saying no to more camel drivers offering rides, and walked out to a couple of places that gave good panoramic views of the three massive pyramids. And they really were gigantic. Up close, the individual stone blocks were stacked in levels that were each about 3 ft high, and we felt like tiny ants next to them. I read that the largest pyramid was built using 2.3 million limestone blocks each weighing 2.5 tonnes. That's impossibly huge. The Sphinx, on the other hand, wasn't quite as big as imagined.
Each of the three pyramids is of course, a tomb, and the burial chambers can be reached by a steep claustrophic tunnel into the bowels of the rock. Since each pyramid had a separate entrance fee, and the largest one a visitor quota that was already full for the day, we entered the middle-sized one via a waist-high tunnel down below even ground level. After a short walk past a couple of closed off side-tunnels, we duck-walked back up more stairs to the burial chamber, where a tout demanded baksheesh for shining a flashlight into the empty tomb. We were soaked in sweat by the time we emerged back in the daylight, and gave more baksheesh to the man who had guarded our camera.
On our last day in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum, which is literally crammed with artifacts from every period in Egypt's history. The place is literally so crowded with stuff that it is impossible to see it all, even though the building isn't that large. The labeling was terrible, with yellowed 3x5 cards sometimes attached to the cases and sometimes not, and half the time written in French. Rob was disappointed that cameras weren't allowed, and the sheer clutter of things left us feeling a bit of "Pharonic Fatigue". We did see quite a few curiosities such as; a mummified crocodile and cow, an old chariot, King Tut's golden death mask and sarcophagus, and more stone carvings than we could count.
Egypt is a large country, but most of it is a widespread desert, and the majority of the population lives in a densely-populated narrow corridor along the Nile River. Our next destination was the town of Luxor, about 700 kilometers down the Nile. For comparisons sake, that is about the same distance as between the cities of Delhi and Varanasi, India, yet the whole population of Egypt was stuffed into that distance. Since the terrorist attacks in Egypt a few years back, the authorities have decreed that all tourists must travel in police-escorted convoys, which drive really fast and tend to leave at inconvenient times. It seems that all they accomplish is ensure that would-be terrorists know exactly where and when a large group of foreigners will be every day. The only way to escape the useless convoys is to travel by train, so we booked an overpriced, overnight, two-person luxury compartment to Luxor. It was a big improvement from the India trains, they fed us supper and breakfast, and the beds folded down with real sheets and pillows, so we got a little sleep to the rocking of the train.
March 6-7 - Luxor and the Tombs
In the morning when we woke up, the train was still rolling along the green fields of the Nile River Valley. Gone was the big city sophistication of Cairo, and instead, farmers with donkeys pulling hay wagons rolled by next to canals, while women worked out in the fields harvesting grain.
The budget hotel we found in Luxor was clean and nice enough, but continued the trend of attempting to talk us into taking an over-priced tour booked through the hotel. We are mostly tour-phobic and of course said no to the sail-boat ride on the Nile, the private taxi out to the tombs, and the bus tour to the ruins. And then every time we left the hotel, we had to either sneak out, or repeat over and over that we were still thinking of doing a tour but hadn't decided which one yet (yeah, right).
The tourist situation in Luxor was similar to what we had seen in Cairo, which was a general lack of foreigners and the normal infrastructure that follows behind them. We had trouble finding internet cafes, restaurants, and other tourist-friendly places. We didn't really understand why until we walked down to the Nile River and saw at least 40 cruise ships parked in rows along the quay. It seems that the vast majority of visitors come as part of package tours, with hotels, Nile cruises, bus tours, and everything else already included. We had to laugh when we saw about 35 horse-drawn carriages all in a row, driving a whole cruise-ship's worth of tourists from a temple site back to their boat. We had wondered how so many drivers could make a living with the few tourists walking around. I'm sure the tour itinerary says something like "romantic horse-drawn carriage ride along the Nile River" (driver baksheesh not included). Now I don't mean to demean such travelers...package deals make life really easy on the traveler, as long as you are willing to constantly be surrounded by 40 of your newest friends, following a guide carrying a pink umbrella.
After the touts and beggars and sly demands for money in India, we figured we were ready to handle anything, but the smooth talking Egyptian salesmen made even the Indians seem straightforward. Their tried-and-true tactic is to ask (as you are walking by), "Hey, where you from?" If you stop and reply, or even say the answer as you keep walking, it is an invitation to continue the conversation, usually with another question like "Which hotel you stay at?" Why they want to know that, I have no idea, maybe to get an idea of your financial status (and their starting price for souvenirs). If you do actually stop and talk, or reply to their questions, they are masters at never letting a conversation end. Saying "No, thanks" brings a "Why, not?"; telling them "I don't want a carriage ride" brings a "But it's a very cheap price". Making eye contact with a shopkeeper is perhaps more dangerous than staring down a monkey in Rishikesh, and I've taken to wearing dark sunglasses even into the evening. If you do walk by them and ignore their questions, quite often they shout rude retorts after yo like "What, you don't like talking to Egyptians?" or "You're arrogant". Since there are sometimes up to 20 such salesmen in a city block, it's a no-win situation, and of course their whole tactic is just to get you to stop, however they can, and finally enter their shop.
Now, we are used to haggling in the souks for souvenirs, that is normal in quite a large part of the world. But here, it seems almost everything is fair game, including food at the corner market. As a test (ok, and we were thirsty, it's the desert) we bought a liter of water from 5 different vendors in 5 similar shops. ($1 = 5.6 Egyptian Pounds) The prices of 4 shops were quoted as 3, 5, 8, and 10 pounds, and the 5th vendor asked us "How much you want to pay?" In the 3 shops that were trying to overcharge us, we had a choice of paying the quoted price, haggling for a lower one, or putting down the bottle in disgust and walking out of the store. In which case the shopkeeper would normally run out after us saying, "Ok, ok, 3 pounds!" When I named my own price in the last place, invariably the shopkeeper would raise it by a pound or two, in which case I was back around to the same options listed above. Keep in mind, all this was for a bottle of water. And the next day, we found a bottle for 2.50, and concluded that all 5 shopkeepers had ripped us off!
For whatever reason, asking the price of anything is an admission of innocence and an invitation to get fleeced. Take the taxi drivers in Cairo for instance. They don't have meters, and the accepted policy is to just jump in the car, arrive at your destination, get out, and then pass the correct fare to the driver through his window. Invariably he will argue about what you give him and ask double your amount, but if you know it is fair, you just walk away and continue on. But, if you get in and immediately ask the price, what you are really asking for is to pay double or quadruple the normal fare.
It seems almost impossible to memorize the correct prices of everything, but I think the locals actually do just that. Or perhaps we have it worse because we are foreigners, look rich, etc. Buying multiple items in a grocery shop is even harder...if you ask the price it takes forever, and if you don't, then the total will invariably seem higher than you think it should be, but arguing and trying to add it up yourself takes forever and there are usually people waiting behind you. And if you do pay what is asked and give a large bill and expect change, it is best to count your change immediately because often it will be quite short of what you should be handed. That being the case, we have walked out of quite a few stores now, shaking our heads and wondering how a soda, chocolate bar, and a bag of chips could cost so much. We now suspect almost everyone of trying to cheat us, whether it's true or not....and it's probably true.
While the culture of present day Egypt provided us an endless source of frustration and story material, most visitors to Egypt come to see the remains of the ancient civilization of the pharoahs. The area around Luxor is crammed with just such remains, and a true history buff could spend weeks (and a ton in entry fees) in visits to all the sites. Each temple, ruin, and tombs has its own substantial fee, and it was hard to decide between them all. We opted for the speedy tour, and just hit the highlights. The desert sun was stronger than in Cairo, but still managable, and on our first day we walked around (but not into) Luxor Temple, and then north out of town to the massive Temples of Karnak. Now, while the Giza Pyramids are immense, the ruins at Karnak defy any attempt to describe their size. The main hypostyle hall of Karnak is filled with great stone columns, 12 feet in diameter, dwarfing the humans walking around between them. Every inch of each column is carved with Egyptian reliefs and fantastic hieroglyphs, and in places the original paint is still colorfully evident. The columns stretch 70 feet in the air, and unbelievable, balanced on top of them are more great stones left from the collapsed original roof. The biggest temple in the world truly was grand, and Rob gratefully took pictures of the carvings that he had been denied at the Egyptian museum.
The next morning, after escaping from our hotel again, we walked down to the Nile and took the ferry to the other side. Now, locals are charged 25 Piastres (cents) to cross, and foreigners are supposed to pay 1 pound, but it took an argument on our part to convince the ticket guy that the price was 1 pound and not $1. It is on the West Bank of Luxor than most of the tombs and ruins can be found. Starting on the ferry and continuing as we got off and walked down the street, a succession of taxi drivers hassled us to take their vehicle for a tour of the sites. We finally settled on a price and got a ride to the Valley of the Kings.
Ancient Egyptians revered life so much that they went to elaborate lengths to ensure that life (at least for the pharoahs, queens, and nobles) continued even after death. They constructed ever-more elaborate tombs and filled them with mummified remains, treasures, carvings, and favorite mummified animals. To protect them from grave-robbers, the tombs were dug into remote hillsides by a secret group of villagers and then sealed back up. Of course, most if not all of them were eventually found and robbed, and many artifacts now reside in the crowded Egyptian Museum. The Valley of the Kings is located in a narrow desolate band of hills just out of town. Away from the canals and life-blood of the Nile, the sandy hills are stark, dry, and devoid of any vegetation. The Valley, once we braved the ticket queue and hordes of tour groups, was suprisingly small, given that there are more than 60 tombs carved into the hillsides there.
Our ticket was good for just a couple of tomb entrances, and we choose two of the bigger ones. The tomb of Tuthmosis III could only be reached via a steep staircase up a cliff in the the far corner of the valley, and once inside, had a steep descent ending at a large well (we crossed it on a new wooden bridge) to deter grave robbers and flash floods. The tomb walls were coated with multicolored paintings and the ceiling was covered in blue stars, and the empty tomb was elaborately worked in marble stone. The tomb of Ramses IX wasn't so elaborate, but the hallway entrance was big enough to drive a pickup truck into, and we saw even more paintings and reliefs (and even risked a picture when the guard wasn't looking).
To leave the Valley of the Kings, we walked boldly past a sign stating "Attention: No walking on the mountain", and slowly climbed the rocky hillside up to the ridge overlooking the Nile. This was something of a shortcut, and the views were amazing. The dry tan-colored hills clashed mightily with the deep green fields bordering the Nile, and the desert hills stretched far into the distance. From the ridge, we made our way down to the other side, past even more walled-up tombs and around to the Temple of Hashephut. This one we didn't actually go in, because we had gotten the best views of it from above, and continued walking back to town. Our route took us through the Valley of the Nobles, with hundreds more tombs showing as cave entrances in the hillsides. We didn't make it over to see the Valley of the Queens or the Valley of the Workers, along with other ruined temples. When we were still several kilometers from town, we came to a pair of gigantic statues standing lonely by themselves along the road. The Colossi of Memnon stood 60 feet high, and even in their ruined state posed quite a shock to passerby.
March 8-10 - Safaga on the Red Sea
When ancient tombs and temples lost their appeal, we caught a local bus out of town to the Red Sea. Since there were less than 4 foreigners on the bus, it didn't require a convoy and police escort, and we drove through hours of flat desert sceens and dry, rocky hills. It looked something like Nevada, except that we knew Las Vegas would never appear over the horizon. The downside to the local bus was that the driver was attempting to save gas by not running the air-conditioning, and since it was a luxury bus (in theory), the windows didn't open either. We spent the hours sweating copiously in the breathless air, and at the end could almost wring water out of our shirts.
Unlike the green border of the Nile, when the blue waters of the Red Sea appeared, the sandy desert went right down to meet it. The small port town of Safaga was just a long strip of buildings with one street running down the middle. Up on the north end was a small strip of luxury, all-inclusive resorts. We found a hotel downtown, and then caught a shared minivan down to the Holiday Inn Resort, where there was a kiteboarding center.
For the next two mornings, I caught a minivan to the resort, then took a boat trip out to a lagoon where the kiteboarding was supurb. For those of you unfamiliar with this new sport, it involves a large kite propelling one around on the water by means of a wakeboard, and lots of wind. Even after a couple days of learning and practicing, I still found it a confusing mess of kite lines and flying techniques. I'm sure I entertained my instructors with my accidental flying leaps through the air, leaving my board 10 feet behind me in the water. I can't say I really caught on very fast, and the constant howling wind (necessary for the sport) kind of got on my nerves, but having started to learn it, I was determined to acheive at least some proficiency before calling it quits. Rob spent the two days crashing the party at the resort pool, and exploring the town.
There wasn't much going on in town, but a jovial restaurant owner next to our hotel convinced us to try his place, where he didn't have a menu, just a set meal for the evening. His quoted price went up each night we ate there, as he invented a "special fish" and then a "special stewed beef" in addition to the normal fare, but the meal included salad, soup, bread, dipping sauce, rice, a choice of meat, and "special" tea. We were stuffed three nights running, and the food was really good, as it was the first time we had eaten true egyptian style. The cold bean and pita bread breakfast back in our Cairo hotel didn't count....
March 11-14 - Hurghada
Just up the coast an hour from Safaga was the big resort town of Hurghada, and when the wind dropped (no kiteboarding), we moved up there, intending to catch the ferry across to the Sinai peninsula. Once again, the town was really just a huge strip of resorts along the coast, and inland were more barren, dusty hills. What really surprised us on the short trip was the vast amount of unfinished construction projects. We saw literally hundreds of empty hotel and apartment shells, some with just the cement structure and no walls, and others with bricked walls but lacking finishing plaster and paint. All of them had gaping empty windows, and they seemed to stand forlorn along the highway, each with between 20 and 100 unfinished rooms. We could see very few signs of ongoing construction, and most of them seemed to be abandoned halfway through and left to topple. In fact, the number of unfinished hotels seemed to be greater than finished ones, and the whole scene left us with an odd feeling, as if the rules of society were no longer in effect.
What we noticed again in Hurghada, more than anywhere else, was a curious lack of infastructure to match the pace of hotel construction. The empty hotel shells weren't matched by the equal construction of grocery stores, restaurants, shops, nightclubs, and tourist paraphenalia that most people love to hate, but invariably seek out while on vacation. We found a hotel downtown, and walked through a tourist shop area, and then through a street with a couple of restaurants, but there didn't seem to be much character to any of it, certainly not enough to make it feel like a resort town. There were plenty of all-inclusive resorts, and perhaps the package tourists keep themselves entertained inside,and just don't feel the need to leave very often. I don't know. The whole place seemed sort of dysfunctional, lacking the friendly vibe of a comparible place like Cancun, Mexico, or Ko Samui, Thailand.
The touts in Hurghada were some of the rudest we had met yet, and we attempted to ignore most of them. When we did actually answer "Where you from?", many of them were amazed at our answer, and claimed that they had never met an American before. Judging by the amount of Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Russian greetings given us by the touts as they tried to guess our nationality, that might actually be true. But I'm not sure I want anyone thinking I look French.
After arriving in town, we discovered that the ferry boat (there's only one) had broken down and quit running several weeks before, and we were faced with a 10 hour bus trip up to the Suez Canal and then back down to the tip of Sinai. Remembering the un-air-conditioned misery of the bus, we were dreading the long trip around, when suddenly the travel office guy said, "Hey, the flight across the bay only costs $4 more than the ferry would have!" We immediately booked the earliest flight available.
Which left us with a few days to kill in Hurghada. Our room had a balcony where we could see the Red Sea, but we discovered that it was almost impossible to actually get down to the water. It seems that each beachfront hotel or resort actually owns the beach, too, and jealously guard their little areas with walls, gates, and wristbands. There is a tiny public beach, but it is so crowded with rental beach chairs that the sand is covered up. We took the next best option, and crashed another resort. Well, Rob crashed it, and I did another day of kiteboarding, which was enough of a reason for the guards to let us both in at the front gate. I managed to go for a wild ride across the water, for a brief moment, but also managed to spectacularily crash my kite in deep water and need a rescue from the speedboat. When I stepped on a bit of coral and cut my foot, I called it quits for the day and slunk back home.
Getting to and from the kiteboarding resort was another adventure, as it was quite far out of downtown. Both minivans and buses ply the whole strip, but all of them attempt to overcharge ignorant foreigners at every opportunity. We finally determined that the bus cost 3 pounds, but paid 5 each the first trip, and the second time we were told 10 each, although the driver backed down to 5 after we threatened to get off and wait for the next bus. Unfortunately his bus broke down (I think) after a couple of blocks, and he flagged the next bus that came along, handing the driver a few bills and telling us that he had paid for our ticket. We boarded the second bus, and the driver and passengers told us the true cost was 3 pounds each, but insisted that the first driver had only given him enough for one fare, pocketing the other 7 for nothing. Rob did some arm-waving and demanded that the bus let us off, but the driver eventually waved for us to sit down. However, the bus route stopped well short of the resort we were heading to, and we had to get off and find a minivan to go the rest of the way. Welcome to life in Egypt.
We eventually did find a sort of tourist strip in Hurghada, with tons of tourist shops, a McDonalds, and everything else catering to travelers. But for the amount of construction all around, it still seemed woefully inadequate for the possible 20,000 extra tourists that could descend on the area if the hotels were ever finished and filled.
March 15-19 - Dahab
Well, since I am writing this after a time of being back in the USA, I may be noticably short on details for this last Egyptian section. Our week in Dahab was mainly a time to escape the craziness of the rest of Egypt, anyway. But first we had to get there. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and they checked us in without even checking our photo IDs, and it was barely a 15-minute flight over the Gulf of Suez and into Sharm el-Sheik. Sharm is the most touristy spot in Egypt, and the prices are artificially high because of it. We paid more for the short taxi ride to the bus station, than it did for the 3 hour bus to Safaga from Luxor. When we got to the bus station, we learned that the morning buses to Dahab had left, and there weren't any more for 4 hours. So we caught a shared minivan down to this posh resort strip (it really did look like Cancun or Ko Samui), and ate at the McDonalds really, really slowly. Finally, the bus ride only took an hour to Dahab, but when we got there we were mobbed by taxi drivers, hated all of the fuss and pressure, and ended up walking the windy 5 km into town. When we walked into a hotel, we ran into one of the same guys who was at the bus station trying to catch people for his hotel, and we all had to laugh...it was like an hour later. He was nice, they all are really...it's just that deep down we think they are all trying to cheat us somehow, because of course they probably are.
Dahab itself was a very small, quiet town on the Gulf of Aqaba, mainly popular because of it's excellent windsurfing opportunities, meaning that the wind was usually very steady and consistent. I had a passing thought of doing more kiteboarding, but I was still limping from the coral, so I turned to a much more relaxed sport; diving! Back in Thailand I had heard that the scuba diving was excellent in the Red Sea, so I had to try it. My first couple of dives were at a bay in town sheltered from the howling winds and ocean currents, and the water was indeed clear and blue, although the reefs were somewhat damaged due to the promitiy of the town. Then I did a night dive, just to see what it would be like swimming in the darkness. We each took a dive light down with us, and swam in inky blackness with just the small lights brightening sections of coral. A lot of coral really only comes out at night to feed, so it was colorful and waving little tentacles. We stopped out in the middle of the dive, and covered our dive lights so we could see phosphorescense. I waved my hand like crazy to see the bright little sparks appear in the water.
Our hotel in Dahab was called a camp, and all the rooms were built in a circle around a sandy section of ground with palm trees giving a lot of shade. There were cushions and rugs all around the palm trees, and we also noticed that the roof of our roof was just wood slats with sky showing through. I asked a local if it ever rained, and found out that it almost never does. "Ten minutes every other year or so" were his words, and then it leaks through inside the houses and everything needs to be dried out again, but since it happens so infrequently it causes minimal damage. The town water supply seemed to come from a well, but the water in our shower and tap was slightly salty, so it seems the well has some sea water seeping into it also.
So the diving in the Red Sea didn't really impress me until my last dives. The incessant wind finallly dropped for a day, and it was safe enough to head out of town to more exposed dive sites. Our first site was north of Dahab, called The Canyon. I was doing a couple more instructional dives for my Advanced certification, and on this particular dive we were going deep, to 30 meters, or 90 feet. The coral started right on the shoreline, and then just a little ways out dropped off into this slot canyon, which we swam down into with cliffs on both sides. Even down to as deep as 30 meters, the water was just as clear and bright as ever, and it was an amazing place. I wish my camera could handle being underwater so I could have taken photographs, so you'll just have to take my word for it, or go see for yourself someday. What always suprises me when I dive are the brightness of the colors when we come back up to the shallower depths. The spectrum of light slowly disappears in deeper water, first red goes, then orange, yellow, green, and finally only dark blue is left in very deep water. The wavelengths of light in those colors just can't penetrate as far as the blue tones. It happens gradually so you don't really even notice, but then when they reappear again on the way up, it's like stepping from winter into spring.
But the most beautiful water I've ever seen yet was in a spot called the Blue Hole. Rob came along and went snorkeling while we dived, and he just had no words for it all. The Blue Hole is a semi-circle of coral just off the shore that is just below the surface of the water. But the coral drops adruptly into the hole at least 80 meters straight down, and the water is amazingly blue and clear. We started our dive in a tiny slot called the Bells, going headfirst down into the chute to 25 meters deep, then leveling out and letting the current carry us along a huge coral cliff. Above me I could look up and see shimmering water on the surface, and below us, the coral dropped down as far as the eye could see into the dimming water. We followed the wall of coral and spotted some very crazy species of animals, including a lionfish, a starfish, and a hissing moray eel. Finally we swam up and over the wall of the Blue Hole, and below us was just a blue nothingness. We floated in midair for a while and just soaked in the surroundings. The Sinai Peninsula is mostly a vast mountainous desert. The hills are reddish, sandy, rocky bumps with no obvious life anywhere; no trees, no bushes, and no shade. Yet just below the surface of the sea, there is this fountain of life, and the contrast between the two is huge.
March 20 - Mt. Sinai
Our final destination in Egypt was the climb up to the top of Mt. Sinai, where it is thought that Moses climbed up to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The area is revered by pilgrims from several religious groups, and the climb is a popular one, especially for the sunrise. We had a little trouble getting to the town near St. Catherine's Monastery, thought to be the oldest monastery in the world, and the start of the climb up the mountain, because it was a holiday and the museum was closed. But we found a taxi to take us up there with another couple from Russia, and by noon we were walking up to the gates of the mountain. There we were told, but didn't believe, that we needed to hire an expensive guide to take us up the 3,750 stairs to the top of Mt. Sinai. At that point in our travels in Egypt, even if the guide was free, we wouldn't have wanted someone walking up with us, hinting about how big his tip should be at the end, and changing the whole pace of our walk. And thousands of people went in every day, so it wasn't a hard trail to follow, but we didn't have the heart to either try to force our way through the men at the entrance station or suffer the hired guide, and we left. So we didn't climb the mountain, instead we wandered around the hills near the town and adopted a wandering dog for a few hours. It turned into a beautiful sunset evening, and the village was so quiet that we enjoyed a very peaceful sleep.
March 21-22 - Cairo
The next morning we bussed back to Cairo, passing under the Suez Canal along the way. The Canal is so narrow at times that it can't be seen from any distance, and so close to the sandy desert, that passing ships look like they are just cruising through sand dunes instead of water. Once back in Cairo, we were happy to see a familiar place, and took the Metro back to the same street for a last hotel stay. Our flight out was at 2 in the morning, so late the next evening we caught a bus to the airport (after a nail-biting wait to see if the right one would actually come), then went to the wrong terminal, and finally got on the plane. Nothing is simple in Egypt.
***From here we are doing a week blitz through France, Canada, and the USA, before heading down to Guatemala***
Obviously the photos below are not mine. Lacking an underwater camera, I have stolen them off of the internet to show you how cool the diving is in Egypt!