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June 19, 2005

To Dahab

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Cairo to Dahab, Egypt:

Cairo's main long-distance bus station isn't particularly large, nor populous at 7 in the morning, but it nevertheless manages to be painfully confusing for the non-Arabic speaker. I sat on a bench in the bright sun near the road where the buses were lining up and loading. Every minute a man would hop off the next bus in the line and holler a long list of destinations and instructions so rapidly that the chance of actually catching the name of my destination out of the mess was zero. Fortunately, I was able to strike up an arrangement with one of the guys hawking over-priced drinks at a nearby concession stand: I buy one large and extra-gritty Turkish coffee at a ridiculous ten pounds and he lets me know which of the many buses is actually mine. I decided to throw in an extra two pounds backsheesh just to be absolutely sure he wouldn't suddenly decide it might be amusing to ship me to Libya.

There was only one other westerner on the bus. Tracy, an Australian, was traveling for a year and soon to head to Spain for a few months. For now she was also heading to Dahab to do some diving. She had a tour package booked, however, and was apparently staying at a hotel that was way out of my budget range.

As the bus left Cairo it made several other stops and filled to capacity. At one stop I noticed something disturbing while looking out the window: "Egyptian Airlines Hospital," said a sign on a large squat stone building. Call me unreasonable, but I don't want to fly on any airline that maintains its very own hospital. That tells you something. And in fact, Egyptian Airlines has one of the world's worst safety records. It seems like they've just accepted the inevitable.

Shortly after leaving Cairo we were smack in the middle of the desert, which makes up most of the country. Egypt is, in terms of habitable land, the most population-dense nation in the world, at least according to Lonely Planet. It looks big enough on a globe, but 95% of the land cannot sustain human life, leaving just 5% for more than 70 million people. There are plans in the works to irrigate and develop large portions of the Sinai desert, however --- the very place I was heading.

Our crossing into the peninsula was marked by an on-board military/police inspection of identity documents. Many middle-eastern nations like to point to Israel's restrictions on the movements of Palestinians living in the west bank and Gaza, but the fact is (without commenting one way or another on Israel's practices) that many Egyptians are themselves limited in their abilities to move to and from certain areas in their own country. As a western tourist, I am not entirely ungrateful for the Egyptian government's restrictions, which are a part of their relentless --- some would say brutal --- efforts to stop the Islamic militants (acting within their borders) they fear will (1) kill and drive away tourists, Egypt's Number One source of income and/or (2) sieze power. But these practices are another indicator of just how far Egypt will have to go to become a democracy. And the Catch-22 involved is that in transitioning over to a true democracy, as President Hosni Mubarak has claimed he is to some extent in favor of (to much skepticism in the streets), the nation opens itself to the militant coup its current leadership fears. Its still very risky for Egyptians to criticize their own government. As one Egyptian in Luxor told me: "You can say you hate Bush in your country, but I can't say I hate Mubarak or I will disappear."

As the bus made its way down the western coast of the Sinai Peninsula it made several stops to drop off and pick up passengers. At each stop another official got on to check documents. My passport and Tracy's barely merited a glance. The agents were much more interested in questioning certain Egyptians. At several points the luggage hold was opened and bags were opened and inspected for arms, explosives, live terrorists, etc... With over ten inspections on the road to Dahab I can certainly say that the Egyptians seem serious about security (and keeping an awful lot of people employed performing redundant tasks).

The landscape was surreal. With yellow-gold sand plains and jagged mountain peaks rising up under the hot sun, the impression was one of a world in which all other colors had ceased to exist. Except when the highway ran alongside the Red Sea, that is. The Red Sea is a brilliant shade of blue and turquoise which jars against the monotony of its desert coast. Looking at the mountains and then at the water, I thought of a black and white film to which color had been added in only one or two places. The contrast couldn't be any greater.

Tracy thought she had read that our trip would take six hours. I was counting on it taking eight. In the end it took ten, in no small part due to our many security checkpoint stops. But the air-conditioning kept up remarkably well through it all, which was enough to be thankful for. Stepping off the bus in Dahab at about 5 PM, I began to sweat immediately. Although the various cab drivers and hostel touts that swarmed around me contributed to this phenonemon, no doubt.

Oddly enough, however, one of the guys touting was one of the owners of the place I actually wanted to go to --- a small budget hotel called Divers House which, also, unsurprisingly enough, has its own scuba dive center. The man, Mohammed, helped me load my bags into a pick-up truck and we drove five minutes down to the long and lazy stretch of budget hotels, bohemian cafes and dive shops along a beachfront boardwalk that is Dahab.

For $11 per night, I received a clean room with private bathroom and air-conditioning. Just outside my door was a balcony looking out on the beach and the boardwalk. After a shower and change of clothes, I stood there looking down on the backpackers walking back and forth down the road and some people lounging around on floor-cushions in the Jasmine Restaurant across the street, a few of them smoking sheeshah pipes. There were a few people lying on the beach, which lay just a few feet past the Jasmine. With the tide most of the way out nobody was swimming and I could see swaths of the golden-yellow seaweed that gives Dahab ("gold" in Arabic) its name.

More surprising was the view out across the Gulf of Aqaba. Ten miles away, looming up out of the water, stood a series of rocky desert cliffs marking the Saudi Arabian coast. A sliver of moon hung overhead. This was as close as I was ever going to get to Saudi. I hadn't expected to ever have a view of it. I felt a mixture of awe and antipathy, wondering who might be looking back across the sea at Dahab and scowling at the thought of groups of western infidels carrying out their infidel ways so close to the land of Mecca and Medina.

This infidel found Dahab's only Chinese restaurant before finding a nice spot on the cushioned floor of the Jasmine Restaurant to have coffee and read. Every so often little girls would pass by and stop in trying to sell me bead bracelets and necklaces.

"Would you like to buy?" they would ask sweetly.

"La shukran. No thank you," I would respond.

"WHY????!!!!!" they would scream, their voices rising ten times over in volume and deepening several octaves.

But otherwise, Dahab seemed remarkably mellow, quiet, relaxed. Few people tried to lure me into a shop or restaurant when I walked down the boardwalk. The bedouins trying to offer horse rides would accept a simple "no thanks," rather than follow after me for ten minutes as the horse-and-cart drivers did in Luxor.

There were a number of cafes and restaurants that seemed worth investigating, and a number of the better hotels (in the $30 to $50 per night range) advertised use of their pristine beachfront swimming pools for $3 to $5 for non-guests. I didn't get to do too much exploring, however, because I needed to get some sleep to be up fairly early. I was going to start diving first thing in the morning.

Posted by Joshua on June 19, 2005 11:15 AM
Category: Egypt (Again)
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