the Long's Strange Trip

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Questing into the unknown...
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~  Under the Deep Red Sea ~
May 27 through June 12, 2000
$1 U.S. = 3.4 Egyptian pounds
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Hurghada, Egypt
May 27 through June 1, 2000

How's the walrus steak tonight?  (ccl) As a native Tennessean, I have many times been the lucky recipient of any negative comments people have to share after visiting the Great Smoky Mountains.  Granted, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, with their numerous putt-putt courses, NASCAR museums, and taffy kitchens, are some of the worst examples of out-of-control tourist development, but it's somehow comforting to know that the my beloved home state doesn't have the corner on the bad taste market.  In this case, it extends well outside the boundaries of the United States, clear over to the shores of the Red Sea in Hurghada, Egypt.  

At first, it's not really obvious.  You find yourself thinking, "Wow, there sure are a lot of hotels here.".  Then you realize that there are also a lot of hotels in various stages of being built.  So many hotels that you can't imagine  them ever all being even 75% full.  Then you take a stroll around town, being careful to step over one of the numerous piles of building materials and trash that are everywhere.  Finally, you've had it up to HERE with pressure from the copious aggressive shop keepers selling t-shirts, Nefertiti heads, and acrylic pyramids, and you find yourself longing for the quiet of the hills of Tennessee and the chance to get your photo made in a Civil War uniform.

Relaxing on the shores of the Red Sea  Despite this, we stayed in Hurghada for six days.  Inertia took over, and as our bodies were at rest, we tended to stay at rest, true to the laws of physics.  This is a phenomena we've started to notice on the trip.  After ten days of keeping up a brutal sight-seeing pace, we'll stay just about anywhere with sand and water.  It's not really all that bad, actually.  The Red Sea is quite beautiful, and we got a great hotel room for 100 pounds right across the street from the beach, with a nice balcony, air-con (key), and a fridge.  We had access to the beach at the hotel across the street, which had an astounding number of jellyfish washing ashore each day we were there.  Fortunately, they were the non-stinging kind, but they were pretty gross to brush up against, let me tell you.  Attack of the docile jellyfish

Apparently, Hurghada is a big package vacation destination for the eastern Europeans.  I've never vacationed with those once trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and it's a little strange.  Everywhere there are very large men with a disproportionate amount of body hair in bikini bathing suits, menus have Russian translations, and the hotel TV shows Polish TV programs.  Especially hilarious are the shows that were originally in another language that have been dubbed in Polish.  Repeatedly, we heard one man doing the voices of everyone on the program - men, women, children - in the same monotone.  We watched a very large man in a very small bathing suit laying on his lounge chair at the beach, with his arm raised towards the sky, tanning that hard-to-reach spot on the underside of the forearm.

With apologies to those who have small, impressionable children reading along, and at the risk of making Wiley and me sound like we have drinking problems, I will relate to you an event that will probably turn out to be one of the more memorable of our time in Hurghada.  I have mentioned the difficulty of getting alcohol in Muslim countries.  In Egypt, quite a few of the restaurants have beer and wine, and there are a good many bars, but it's always fairly expensive.  In every town there's a store that sells Egyptian beer, wine, and spirits, but while Egyptian beer is pretty good, the wine is horrible and according to our guidebook, Egyptian liquor has caused some deaths due to lead content.  We wouldn't dare drink it, but some of them have really hilarious names that are obvious rip-offs of well-known products, like "Garden's Gin", and "Fineland Vodka".  These stores are usually down a back alley somewhere, and you feel like you've done something wrong just by walking in the door.  It makes you want to shout, "Hey!  I'm a Christian!  We've got no rules against this - I know the secret password!".  We've seen no stores that sell any imported alcohol, so you're pretty much left with drinking the local beer, unless you're in a bar.  Usually, the cost of that is prohibitively high.  When we got to Hurghada we found out that they have something called an "Egypt Free" store there.  At these stores you can buy all types of merchandise, from luggage to watches, and yes, imported alcohol, duty free.  Upon hearing this, we took off for the store.

From the outside, the Egypt Free store looks like a large, tacky pyramid.  Kind of like what Dolly Parton would have chosen to be interred in, had she been an ancient Egyptian.  Inside, there are five floors of merchandise, and we headed straight for the beer, wine, and spirits section in the basement.  After two months of having restricted access to alcohol, we were like the proverbial kids in a candy store.  There were cases of Beck's, Heineken, and Carlsberg, along with multiple brands of vodka and other liquors, wines from California, and even a room devoted solely to French burgundies.    We filled up a shopping cart, and headed gleefully to the check out line, planning our private party on the way.  I handed over my passport when asked for it, and the clerk shook his head and said, "No.".  Panicky, I said, "No?  Why 'no'?".  He explained in broken English that you can only shop in the Egypt Free store for the first 24 hours you've been in the country.  Another clerk took me upstairs to see the manager.  Wiley urged that I do my best Southern belle impression, but it was lost on this guy.  Maybe if I'd had  $20 bill to stick in my passport, he would have gone for it: I don't know.  We walked out of the pyramid, dejected.  We hailed a cab and told him to take us to buy some beer.  He took us to a restaurant and we explained that we wanted beer "to go", using the universal hand signal for "to go", both hands extended together in a sweeping motion.  He assured us that yes, there was beer "to go" in this restaurant.  We walked in, asked for six beers, paid the money, and left.  It wasn't Heineken, but it would do.

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt
June 1 through June 3, 2000

(ccl)  People come to this part of the world to dive.  The reefs here are incredible, and we had read that the area around Sharm el-Sheikh had some of the best diving in the world.  Jacques Cousteau discovered a German wreck from World War II here in the 50's, and there are other great sites as well.  Sharm el-Sheikh is a short ferry ride from Hurghada, and the dive sites are closer, so we decided to go over there and spend a few days, with one day devoted to diving.  

Sharm (as the locals call it) is just across the Red Sea from Hurghada on the tip of the Sinai peninsula.  Originally settled by Israel, it's now a thriving resort village, with almost as many hotels as Hurghada, and more on the way.  Sharm seems to have maintained some of its charm and character, unlike Hurghada.

There are two ferries that go between the two towns, one takes five to seven hours, the other, a high-speed ship that also ferries cars and takes about an hour and a half.  We were lucky to be traveling on a day when the high-speed ferry was running.  I say lucky because I cannot imagine having been on that water for any longer on any smaller of a boat.  Halfway across, the boat personnel were positioned around the cabin, sickness bags in hand, ready to pass them out to those in need.  Let me tell you, there were quite a few takers...

Where's Mr. Roark?  As we travel more, we continually learn about how the game is played.  When we disembarked from the ferry, the cab drivers at the dock wanted 20 pounds to take us to a hotel we had picked from the book.  So we walked 50 yards until we found another cab driver who would take us for 10 pounds.  Sharm is an expensive area, so we knew we'd need to try to bargain to get our price on a room, unless we wanted to stay at a youth hostel, and I think I've already expounded on the virtues of air-conditioning when traveling through Egypt in the summer.  The first place wanted 120 pounds, had no pool, and wouldn't come down.  The next place wanted $80 USD, so we walked on.  The third place looked too nice as soon as we opened the door to the lobby.  We were hit with a blast of ice cold air-conditioning, and I figured we might as well go in and ask and enjoy the air-con until we were forced back into the oppressive desert heat.  We could see a huge, amazing pool, complete with swim-up bar, through the restaurant.  The guy at the front desk told us that the price was $50 USD for a double; Wiley asked if he'd take 120 pounds (about $35), he made a phone call, and the next thing we knew we were filling out the reception cards.  The hotel was almost brand new and nearly empty.  They had an incredible pool, and everyone waited on us hand and foot (there was no one else to wait on).  The owner even invited us for a day out on his boat snorkeling free of charge, but we had already made plans to go diving.  So if you're ever in Sharm el-Sheikh, check out The Rock Hotel, and be sure and bargain until you get your price. 

On our second day in Sharm, we got up early to go diving.  Our dive outfit, Action Divers, picked us up right on time at 8:25.  Once we got to the shop, we discovered that we were the only non-Germans on the boat, including both of the dive masters.  They spoke some English, and certainly the majority of diving takes place under the water, where you can't talk anyways, so why should any of this be a concern?  Because I'm no Jacques Cousteau.  I've done maybe 15 dives in my life, and let's just say that the while I'm a competent diver, it's not as easy as tying my shoes.  Plus, in the U.S., we learn to dive using pounds and feet, and everywhere else they use kilograms and meters, which adds a new dimension to the confusion.  Typically, there's a briefing from the dive master before each dive, where he explains where you'll enter and exit the water, the different underwater life and formations you'll be likely to see, and the depths you'll be diving at.  There was talk before we went down of a "weight check", where the dive masters would ensure that we had sufficient weight on our weight belts.  When diving, you wear a device called a "buoyancy compensator", or B.C, which is a vest that can be inflated and deflated, and which helps you to float when you're on top of the water, and also gives you enough lift underwater to keep you off the bottom comfortably.  But you must also wear lead weights around your waist to help you sink, because the wet suit makes you more buoyant than normal, plus salt water adds to your buoyancy, and the Red Sea is about as salty as it gets.  So Andy, our dive master, explained in somewhat broken English that we would get in the water, then all go down and he would check our weight, then we would come up, then go down again.  

OK, so if you don't dive, let me explain to you what's involved.  First, you've got to get a full body wet suit on.  Wet suits are made of a fabric called neoprene, and they are designed to keep a layer of water between your skin and the suit, which heats up and keeps you warm.  Getting into a wet suit is similar to sealing yourself in three layers of Saran wrap, and once you get it on, you're hot and you want nothing more than to get in the water.  But you can't, because now you've got to put on your weight belt.  Weight belts are a strap with a buckle through which you've threaded lead weights.  Mine had ten kilos on it, which is a little over 20 pounds.  Then you put on your B.C., to which is attached your tank, to which is attached your regulator, which lets you breathe the air in the tank.  Now you're ready, mask, fins, and snorkel in hand, to stagger to the back of the boat, where you get the fins on (try standing on one leg with all that gear on while the boat is rocking!), then the mask and snorkel.  Finally, with your regulator in your mouth, and one hand over it and your mask, you take a giant stride off the back of the boat and into the cool waters of the Red Sea.  It was here that I discovered that my regulator was extremely hard to breathe out of.  I told Andy, and he laughed and said, "Well, we could change it, but the other regulators are probably all bad, too.".  I spent a few frantic minutes floating and trying to clear the regulator, to no avail.  Finally I announced that I couldn't go down with that regulator.  I swam over to the boat, and the other dive master hauled me out and changed out my regulator.  The new one worked great, much to my relief.

going_down.JPG (46698 bytes)  We did two dives that day, with a nice break in between for lunch and relaxing on the boat.  The sites were pretty close to shore, and there were a lot of people there.  While we saw a lot of beautiful sea life, including a giant Moray eel, several very large sea cucumbers, friendly tropical fish of all sizes and colors, and a massive school of barracuda, Wiley and I both felt like the colors of the coral and sponges were much less dramatic than those we had seen when diving off the coast of Honduras.  The Red Sea has been over-dove, and the local dive shops have been trying to curb usage in order to allow the reefs to re-populate, but it may take awhile for some of the sites to return to their former splendor.  Also, close to shore, where the water is full of people and suntan lotion, the reefs take a lot of punishment.  Perhaps if we had been able to dive farther out in the water, we may have seen more.  But it was still a lot of fun, and the water is absolutely crystal-clear, varying in color between emerald green and turquoise.  

Dahab, Egypt
June 3 through June 12, 2000

the laid back life in Dahab  (ccl)  As I write this I sit looking out the picture window of our hotel room at the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Aqaba crashing on the sandy shore, just 25 feet from the front door of the hotel.  Across the water I can see the craggy mountains of Saudi Arabia.  The sun is shining, the sky is clear and robin's egg blue, and a gentle breeze is coming off of the water.  Have I died and gone to heaven?  No, I'm just in Dahab, where the livin' is easy.

Wiley makes new friends  Dahab is Egypt on tranquilizers.  There are still plenty of t-shirt shops, lucite pyramids, and guys selling camel rides, but the volume has been turned way down.  When someone asks you to take a look in his shop, and you say no, thanks, he says, "Thank you, and enjoy your stay.".  Wow.  The town, which is literally on the beach, is full of restaurants serving delicious healthy food at low prices.  People had told us that Dahab was laid back, but we didn't expect that to be the seating position at the local dining establishments.  Each one of them has communal seating, with large, comfortable pillows and hand-loomed rugs on the floor, and palm tree trunks as backrests.  Red and green light bulbs with tie-dyed shades dominate, reminding me of the way my sisters decorated the basement of our house in the early 70's.  You can show up for a huge breakfast of sausage and eggs or chocolate pancakes at 10:00, and stay through the afternoon, eating lunch, lounging, and soaking up rays or playing backgammon.  Friendly cats, kittens, and puppies come for visits, especially when you have some tasty food to share.  Local children sell bracelets made of string, and challenge you to games of backgammon.  When you get ready to leave, you tell the "money man" what you had to eat and drink, and you pay.  There's no pressure to vacate your seat for other customers, or to have more in the period of an entire day than a glass of tea.  Everything is "as you wish".  Through it all, the sun shines and the waves crash.  I've never been more relaxed.  Somebody better take my pulse...

There are a couple of Bedouin villages close to Dahab, and the many of the residents make their living from the tourists.  Young boys and men offer camel rides along the beach, and some of them sell beautiful Bedouin hand crafts.  Young girls scamper between the beach-side restaurants, selling colorful bracelets made out of string.  They learn English in school, and some of them speak it better than some guides we've had.  They are all beautiful children, with skin the color of milk chocolate and brown hair highlighted blonde by constant exposure to the sun.  After a day of selling to the tourists, you'll see them frolicking in the surf in their underwear, with not a care in the world.

Lest you think we did nothing in Dahab but eat, sleep, read books, and stare out at the horizon, let me tell you about our trip to the top of Mt. Sinai for sunrise.  The famous mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God is a little more than an hour's drive from Dahab, and the local travel agencies make nightly runs to the foot of the mountain.  You leave Dahab around 11:30, get to Sinai around 1:00, and it takes about two hours to get to the top, if you move pretty quickly.  That puts you at the top around 3:00 or 3:15, leaving a good 2 1/2 hours until sunrise.  

At a height of 2280 meters, it's cold on top of Mt. Sinai at night, so you can spend the time until sunrise reflecting on just what made you leave for this excursion at about the time you should have been going to bed, only to get to the top and jockey for position on the small outcropping of cold, cold, rock there.  There are a couple of Bedouins at the top who sell tea and rent blankets, and we gladly did business with one of them.  We heard one of the Swedish girls in our group trying to bargain with the guy on the price of a blanket (slightly more than a dollar).  She was definitely not in a good bargaining position.

Here comes the sun  If you've never seen the sun come up from a vantage point like the top of the tallest mountain in the area, you should really try to do it.  First of all, the stars in the sky are incredible.  With no light pollution, you can see the Milky Way clearly, plus all the constellations you can name.  I myself saw at least five shooting stars that night.  About two hours before sunrise the sky in the east began lightening, from inky black to deep blue.  Two planets became visible, and then things really got interesting.  From the vantage point at the top of the mountain the curvature of the earth was visible, so we were able to see a huge solid band of colors, from fiery orange to soft pink to deep blue.  As things got lighter, we could begin to make out the peaks of the mountains below, which were dramatically shown in relief against the horizon.  Sun's first appearance 

We've been here all night!  By the time the sun came up, there were hundreds of tourists crammed into the small space that is the top of the mountain.  Because we were some of the first people up there, we got a great ledge right in the front.  There were people trying to meditate, and a Japanese group was holding a communion service in the small chapel there, but some people were making so much noise, it wasn't a very reverent environment.  On the way down, in the light of day, we were able to see all the trash that people had left behind on the trail.  Since Muslims, Christians, and Jews all use the Old Testament of the Bible, each of these religions considers Sinai to be a holy place, not to mention the fact that it's a very spiritual place of beauty to people who aren't members of those faiths, and it's very sad indeed that some people choose to defame it.  Long way down

Wiley celebrated his 37th birthday on Friday, June 9th, while we were in Dahab.  Definitely a great place to kick back and reflect on the past year and the changes that he has upcoming in his life and, subsequently, our lives.  We celebrated that night with dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, a little resort just down the beach from where we were staying, which happened to be famous for their steaks.  I bought Wiley a new tie-dyed t-shirt for his birthday, which he loved, and which I thought looked great on him.  Birthday boy and Lucy, the cat

For our last three nights in Dahab, we moved to the other end of the beach, which was quieter and even MORE laid back than the area we had been in before.  Both places were really nice, and the staff members at both catered to our every whim.  There was even homemade cake in the refrigerator at the second place we stayed - help yourself!  The little guy who ran the front desk at this place stopped us before we went into town on the second morning and told us, in broken English, that we had something dangerous in our room, and that the manager said we had to get rid of it.  Somehow, we understood that he was talking about the locks that we keep around our backpacks.  Typically, when we leave our hotel room, we'll put the computer in one of our daypacks, then lock the daypack up in the Pacsafe, which is a mesh cage with a cinching lock.  It's really for a large backpack, but you can make it pretty small then lock it down to a piece of furniture.  On this morning we had put the computer in the bag and locked it in the Pacsafe, and we had left it plugged into the wall so that the computer would charge while we were gone.  The hotel employees thought that it was some type of electrocuting device, and they were scared to touch it!  Note to future travelers: Pacsafe will keep EVERYONE away from your bags!

Dahab was a great ending to our trip through Egypt.  By the end of our week there, we knew many of the restaurant and shop owners, the girl who ran the Internet cafe, and the man who sold the USA Todays.  We were tanned, rested, relaxed, and ready to plunge back into civilization, or lack thereof, in Cairo.

Click here to continue in Egypt with "Going Postal"





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