Monday, November 29, 2010

Dahab - Diving, Electronica music and Pillows

I first read about Dahab through travel blogs - it's smaller than Sharm el Sheikh, famous for diving - sort of a traveller's mecca. I have been interested in coming here for years. Coral reefs surround the town on the red sea, and every restaurant on the water has pillows where you sit on the ground with low tables. There are no sandy beaches, but in its own way, it's paradise!

Crazy fabrics are also for sale, everywhere. I have a fantasy of decorating my entire apartment with Dahab fabrics. In reality, it will probably end up in my closet. But anyhow, this is where I am going to pull all the stops out on the salespeople and unleash buyer Sara. The salespeople here are all kind of annoying. Hello friend! Where you from? Because you are the first customer of the day, I give you special price! But I think at the end of the trip I can buy some cool stuff here and ship it home if I offer them a price for bulk. The more annoying they are, the more annoying I will be within the boundaries of still being polite. Everyone wins in the end with a sale. This is what I do for a living. How cool is this?! I love it! I could look at this all day long.

Remember when I told you how I laid on some pillows at Sawa beach all day and got devoured by mosquitos? Well, they really itch. We have ourselves a little situation:

Sorry for the gross picture. But this is my reality. I talked to a pharmacist, where I picked up some of this:

It stopped itching and is clearing up nicely.

Dahab is small. When you walk a few blocks, you just come up to desert:

Here is my balcony at Penguin Village, for only $22 per night. The shower is right next to the toilet, so when I shower, I am cleaning the entire bathroom along with myself. But whatever!!

View from my balcony of the Penguin restaurant, red sea and Saudi Arabia in the distance:

I came here to conquer a fear. I have never been diving before. I am not afraid of TOO many things, but the thought of breathing underwater terrifies me. I am pretty claustrophobic and really, really don't want to drown. I signed up for an introductory dive and went today. They remembered me from inquiring yesterday, and greeted me by saying "are you ready to drown?" which I actually thought was hillarious. I will not lie, It was every bit as terrifying as I pictured, perhaps more so. I had a really nice teacher, Abraham. He literally had to hold my hand every second. But I did it (didn't go TOO deep) and it was FUN!! Many people come here to get their PADI certification. It's tempting, but I don't think I'm there yet. Because I have 4-5 days, I am just doing my own version of an open water course. Beginning dive today, tomorrow practice snorkeling deeper to get used to breathing and reduce the anxiety of the ocean, day after tomorrow another dive with Abraham. I worked out a deal with a dive shop for reduced rates for three days of stuff. We dived around a coral reef not far from shore, and I saw neon fish, a few big fish. It is so peaceful under there. The thought of my mask filling with water and not being able to see or accidentally having the regulator slip out of my mouth is so scary to think about. There are things you can do in every situation, and I have to not think too much and just not be a spaz. I kind of can't wait to do it again! I'm making friends with the ocean bit by bit.

The Bates motel at Mt Sinai

Dear reader, you are lucky. I seem to be getting more picture-happy with each post. I remember when I used to upload one or two pics for each entry, but with the fast internet here I can't help but upload 13 or 14! The above picture is one of my favorites from this entire vacation. Of course someone else took it, Portuguese George from the camera club. Thanks, George!

Next on our itinerary was Mt Sinai and St Catherine's monastery. St Catherine was a martyr who was tortured and thrown to the top of a mountain in the spokes of a wheel. Monks apparently found her body and entombed it. There is a very famous monastery there and some very famous religious artifacts, plus the one descendant of the burning bush:

This is the only kind of this particular bush. They tried to plant it in other places, but it died. People more familiar with bible stories can correct me on this stuff...

St Catherine's monastery. One thing that has really surprised me about the Sinai peninsula is how mountainous it is. Dry mountains everywhere! I don't know what I was expecting:

Brett, Sharon and Isabel took camels while the rest of us took a two hour (very vertical) climb to the top of Mt Sinai. Here is George, Kathryn and Helen sharing a laugh and Marie Antoinette in the background:

Husam #2, "Sam":

My God, it was exhausting. We kept asking Sam how far we were, and he kept saying "2%" or "4%". Thou shalt not lie, Sam!

At the top were a few stores selling fanta and candy bars. Not exactly a hypoglycemic's ideal, but I had some kebab-flavored chips in my bag!

This man, named Sala, made me hot chocolate for 10 egyptian pounds (about $1.75). He had a daughter named Sara. So far in Egypt, I have met 5 people who either have a daughter or niece named Sara(h). A good Egyptian name! they all tell me.

Me at the top. I like this picture. I was happy and it shows my contentment with the day and the trip in general:

We stayed until sunset, where the camera club had a field day. My little kodak easyshare did a sufficient job. Then walked down a different way (more switchbacks, less steps) in the dark with flashlights.

After this exhausting climb, most of us went for a buffet down the street. This is a SMALL town. Sam arranged for a restaurant to make a big dinner for us. It was delicious! I love the one salad they have everywhere - it's a version of greek salad. Middle eastern tomatoes are so delicious, red and sweet. We were alone in the restaurant and they put on some lite rock (i.e. Celine Dion) for us. Far more popular than Celine was "I want it that way" by the backstreet boys, which inspired a little impromptu sing-along when it came on.

We only had one more day - a 7 hour bus ride to Cairo where the trip ends. Because I have one more week, I told Sam that I was coming back to Dahab and he told me it was completely crazy for me to backtrack all the way back to the peninsula. I could save a 7 hour bus trip and a $100 plane ticket by just having his friend drive me the 1.5 hours to Dahab. So I decided to ditch the last day of the trip and just do that, making this my final night with the intrepid tour people. Here is the room I shared with Helen, on the very end. I put a diet coke outside the door, knowing it would be cold enough to enjoy in the morning. Note how deserted it is:

The group was picked up at 5AM, so that they could have a long afternoon in Cairo. It is dark until almost 6AM. I woke up along with everyone and bid them goodbye. I was really sad to see them go. Then, I walked back in the dark to my room at the end of the corridor, where I was the only one now staying at the motel. Cue horror movie music. EEE! EEE! EEE! EEE!

There was no moon, no stars, no lights, just creepy silence. If I heard anything, it would be a tumbleweed blowing across the dirt yard. There is no feeling like being alone in the dark in an Egyptian motel you don't know the name of, at the edge of a town you aren't entirely sure the name of, with a promise that a guy named Ali is "coming to get you at 8". I turned my light on and tried to read, giggling at the absurdity. Then I heard shuffling outside the door. The Egyptian Norman Bates? I was still groggy so my imagination was working overdrive. I peeked outside the door when I felt it was safe. Egyptian Norman had stolen my diet coke! When it was finally light outside, I walked outside to find the coke thief. Instead of Norman Bates, I just found a friendly guy named Mohammed who apologized profusely for taking my coke. And he has a daughter named Sara. Good Egyptian name! Here is Mohammed's office:

Ali came right on time. He drove me to Dahab while he listened to classical music.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sawa Camp - welcome to Egypt!

After packing up the Bedouin camp and taking some glamour shots by one of the old Jeeps, we headed to Jordan's port city of Aquaba, where we would catch our ferry to Egypt. We would have a new guide in Egypt, so we had to say goodbye and take the ferry without Husam. The ferry was enormous, and was just like a Greek islands ferry only with people in veils and robes. Half of our group went to sit in the First class section, but I chose to slum it by the men's bathroom, where I met these rambunctious little boys:

Every so often, people would kneel on mats and pray. We were able to go through Egyptian customs on the boat, but the customs man got annoyed and told us to be quiet at least three times, because we were chatting with some Argentinians and practicing our spanish. Near my seat, there was a long line for the bathroom, and one guy who had apparently been holding things up came out with wet arms, fanning the back of his robe, which was also wet. Sprayers are used in lieu of toilet paper here. But you can b.y.o.t.p., which I definitely do at all times. Actually that guy can be seen at the top of the above picture. The women's bathroom had a large puddle of water as well. When we arrived to the sketchy port area of Nuweiba and disembarked, we saw some little boys playing with some rifles that looked a little too realistic for my taste - but they waved at me like an old friend. It turns out they were my little rascals from the boat in the first picture! hey guys!

After a 20 minute ride with our new guide, also named Husam - a younger and taller version who preferred we just call him Sam, we arrived at a lovely beach camp - a pretty beach, restaurant with pillows and reed huts with mosquito nets.

Thanksgiving dinner (white bean stew and pita bread) with my fellow Americans:

The next morning, most of the group went diving. I was going to save that for Dahab anyhow, and was completely wiped out so I spent the entire day on a pile of pillows with my books and some turkish coffee:

I spent about 9 hours in this same spot:

Every so often, I would go chat with Sharon, Isabel and Marie Antoinette. It was a beautiful, peaceful quiet day. Here is the hut I shared with Helen, who went diving with the others:

the huts:

After a day of complete comatose relaxation, I discovered that I was completely covered with mosquito bites. They itch like mad. While I was laying on the pillows, the mosquitoes had quite a meal of me. We had a nice group dinner on the pillows, and I went to bed embarrassingly early.
The next morning with all that rest, I bounced out of bed at a quarter to six and saw this lovely sunrise:

Saudi Arabia can be seen in the photos across the gulf of Aqaba. I did some yoga on the front porch to stretch out my back. Then I inspected my mosquito-bitten feet:

yeah, I'd go back.. for sure.

Wadi Rum - Bedouin fever!

After Petra, our group had a fun dinner at a place called the red cave bedouin restaurant - to try Beduoin cuisine and to get us in the mood for our night with the Bedouins. I had some chicken stew I sadly forget the name of.. to accompany the meal, most of us tried a lemon-mint tea drink, which I loved. Below from left: Lori, Brett, Pirko, Helen, Annabelle, George, Husam, Kathryn:

A few of us went to the one bar in town (closes at 11!), then fell asleep early after walking miles and miles at Petra. Early in the morning I jumped out of bed because I had a secret plan..

Mocking our ghetto (but perfectly fine!) hotel down the street was the Movenpick. Movenpick is a fancy swiss hotel chain. When Kathy and I had reached our limit in Dar es Salaam, a movenpick buffet came to our rescue. After three or four mornings of hard boiled eggs and pita bread for breakfast and a night of sleeping outside ahead of me, I knew exactly where I was going for breakfast - the Movenpick buffet! After going through a metal detector to get into the hotel, I had not one but an embarrassing TWO omlettes, fresh fruit, two kinds of juice, amazing coffee, yogurt.. The Movenpick isn't really my scene of people - everybody there was 55+ and I would certainly not be seeing them in the desert later. But I love mass amounts of food, and I need a little luxury now and then. Luxury Sara loves the Movenpick and isn't afraid to admit it!


Generally I am not a huge fan of group travel but I chose to do this group because I could do a lot of difficult things in a little time - and there was no way I could go camping in the desert by myself. This was an intrepid "basix" tour, which means really rustic accommodation, so I figured it would weed out the novice travellers. I had done group trips before to the Inca trail and Thai hilltribe villages that I enjoyed very much. And I was correct, this group has been nothing but fun. We range in age from 22 to early 60s - everyone is pretty adventurous. My roommate Helen (from the middle of England) is just great - low maintenance, she puts up with my flashlight-reading and has good sense of humor. No particular nationality dominates this group either. I have my other two americans - outgoing girls from NYC who make me laugh every day - Suvi (of Finnish nationality) and Lori. We have a good mix of introverts and extroverts as well. Roommates Brett from England and Joel from Australia are a little quieter but share their own special sly witty commentary with me daily. Isabel, our french canadian, told me all about the rastafarian lifestyle she had been a part of after living in Jamaica and marrying a musician that played with famous reggae bands. Marie Antionette (French but lives in Quebec now) lived briefly in central America during the 80s (crazy times for central America) and Lori volunteered with orphans in El Salvador. Everybody is well-travelled and interesting. I spent time with Pirko while descending Mt Sinai, who told me about living in Finland and Brussels. I really had no reason to fear group travel with an interesting crowd. We could leave and do our own thing whenever we wanted. I spent a bit of time solo at Petra which if you think about it, is a really good place to be alone and reflect. There are some serious photographers in the group - Kathryn, George and Anabelle - who we called the "camera club". Those jealous of the camera club formed the "chocolate club", and a few unfortunate people made up the "I keep losing things" club, which was the most successful club of all.


After my embarrassing feast at the Movenpick, I tried to go further into town to look for a sheet - because most everyone brought a sleeping bag but me. Who knows what Bedouin sheets and blankets are like? I wanted to wrap myself up in something clean. I walked though town with a stick drawing of a bed and an arrow pointing to a sheet or blanket. People were extremely helpful with ideas, pointing me here and there - but there was no bed, bath & beyond in the town of Wadi Musa. I would have to snuggle up in whatever bug and dirt-infested nasty blanket I could find at the bedouin camp. The one shop that might have had a sheet (according to one man) but did not - had a fantastic grocery store section so I bought snacks from two completely veiled and covered women for the next few days: almonds, dates, dried apricots, turkish delight and pomegranate juice:

We split into three groups and headed off into the desert in jeeps. First it was paved, then we went off-roading in red sand.

Our guide for the Jordan part of the trip, Husam, was in my Jeep. I really liked Husam. He is a palestenian who was living in Kuwait until the Gulf war, then had to uproot and move in those painful times - he chose Italy. Now he lives in Jordan as a tour guide. He was quite professional but "got" our senses of humor so we enjoyed him. Sometimes he would double over laughing at us.

From left - Marie Antoinette, Helen, Lori, me:

My Jordanian headscarf provided some entertainment. Later that night, I wrapped it around my head to keep warm. We took turns posing with it in the desert like Lawrence of Arabia, which happened to be filmed right here. Red & white scarves are Jordanian, Black & white are palestinian, plain white are worn in the Gulf. Actually no woman wears it the way I have it - only men wear it down like that with the black rings on top of the head, but I liked it that way for photo opps.


We stopped to climb a big sand dune, then got to camp at sunset:

A few of the Bedouins made us mint tea, which I have really taken a liking to:

They made us dinner in a pit underground. Everything was cooked together - spiced chicken, potatoes, onions. Served with rice:

Most of us chose to sleep together outside, under the stars:

My bed:

The blanket wasn't exactly clean, but cleaner than I expected and I was so cold that I didn't care. No insects of any kind, except for a giant beetle that kept trying to crawl over. I have a thermometer on my clock, and it got down to 50 degrees that night. There was a little bathroom for us that was much, much better than any bathroom on the Inca Trail.


Most of us sat around a little campfire after dinner with Husam and the bedouins. Bedouins were desert people who now live in little towns. They used to live this way, but still keep some tents out in the desert for tourists. There was an old Bedouin code of conduct that said no matter who you are, if you need shelter, a bedouin would feed and shelter you temporarily, friend or foe. They are really friendly people, who answered all of our prying questions and shared broken english laughs with us. After I returned from Petra the night before, I learned that Kathryn, Lori and Suvi got sidetracked with a couple of bedouins after the sun went down (it goes down at 5PM, so not late...) A few of the guys showed them a tomb or some structure (what was it?), and took them back in a car after dark. They all agreed that it was a slightly risky move, but all was fine and they shared some nervous laughs when they returned. It was just one of those situations where they were talking to them, the sun went down and they just went with the advenure of it all. But nothing to worry about with these Bedouins. Suvi and Lori have a way of getting any story out of a Bedouin - Suvi even interviewed Bdol at Petra for her love-themed podcast. Bdoul has been married 6 times, so he was a fun subject for her. I will try to get her podcast and link it here. When we arrived in Egypt, Isabel and Lori could not put my Jordan lonely planet book down "I know I'm in Egypt but I still want to read about the Bedouins!" Isabel said. We were fans, big fans, of the Bedouins. And with 12 out of 14 of us either single, divorced or travelling solo, the joke about hooking up with one, marrying one and staying in the desert never got old.
We had morning laughs about snoring, giggling and being cold before we left for Egypt. It was a fantastic experience!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Petra - it's just crawling with camels!

Today we had the entire day to run all over Petra. For sustenance, I bought some yummy dates with almonds inside!

Picture this lit up with just the full moon and candles. Incredible!!

Here I am with my "I don't want to touch the smelly large animal" face!
This camel's name was Daisy. Note the Johnny Depp pirates of the Caribbean look-alike to my right. He was the camel-keeper. Camels and donkeys were runnin' all over the place.

After hiking and climbing for hours, we made friends with the last living resident of Petra, Bdoul Mofleh, who signed my lonely planet because he is featured on page 229. Here is the flag in his yard:

Bdoul's back yard, where he brought us mint tea:

Bdoul, below. What a friendly guy! He loves visitors up in his rocky home. Bdoul's backyard is a breathtaking rocky cliff of red rock formations, it looks just like a music video where the artist stands on a rocky cliff and the camera pans around. He never wants to move. I can't blame him.

Sorry but on this post, I'm just going to let the pictures do the talking. I have to get ready for dinner. See you in a few days after camping in the desert!