Saturday, 6 February 2010

Blog 5: Dahab

We all loved Dahab. After just two days we decided to extend our stay there and skip Aqaba in Jordan, where we believed the water would be colder, the coral and fish less good and living more expensive. Unlike the other parts of Egypt we had experienced on our past trip, in Dahab there was no constant badgering to buy this or that or to go here or there. We were able to enjoy a very relaxed, laidback holiday.

Wonderfully Ken's ear was recovered and he was able swim from the first day. Although the days were lovely, sunny and pleasantly warm the water was a little cold and the guys were only able to stay in for about half an hour. After the first swimming venture Huds used a wetsuit. Ken tried using one, his second hand one is much newer and thicker than Huds, but the suit was too buoyant and he had to work very hard to free dive so he decided to be content with shorter swims. It was great to be able to swim to the coral from the beach. Our favourite spot was Eel Garden (about 200m from our apartment) where the coral was colourful and the fish varied and plentiful. We particularly enjoyed watching the very beautiful lion fish. I loved diving low and looking up at the schools of small fish above me. I'm sure that had King David been a swimmer and near the Red Sea there would be wonderful psalms celebrating the creative genius of God found under the sea.

We did go to the world famous Blue Hole. It's like a big deep circular hole of water surrounded by a coral shelf and the shore. Its claim to fame is that it's deep blue water is about 110 metres deep; and at about 55 metres there's a natural arch where experienced divers with advanced training, and preferably using Nitrox, can go through a 25 metre tunnel. You can tell it's for experienced divers as the bodies in the tunnel belong to inexperienced ones who decided to go against all the advice and give it a shot anyway. Being snorkellers, we didn't get to see the arch and we didn't even see the turtle that others encountered. So, happy as we were to see the Blue Hole, we decided one visit was enough since the snorkelling was at least as good near where we stayed, which meant we didn't have the hassle and expense of using 'taxis' (which included workers' pick-up trucks, private vehicles and the occasional genuine taxi).

We took a day trip to see The Coloured Canyon

and The White Canyon.

I was invited into two homes while in Dahab. An Egyptian woman, who had been a history teacher but now has two young children invited me into her apartment. She took me around her apartment pointing to things and getting me to echo their Arabic names.

A young 17 year old Bedouin girl also invited me in. She lived in a much more basic home.

Ken and I returned to her home just before we left to give her family the food we had left over and some clothes. We sat on a thin foam mattress on the floor while Ken enjoyed several cups of Bedouin tea and chatted with the father, I chatted with the daughter and the mother, who had no English, breast fed her baby.

There were many mosquitoes in the house in the evenings and while we did not have to worry about Malaria or Dengue Fever we did want to try and keep bites to a minimum. After a night of buzzing and swatting (we did have mosquito nets over our beds, thank goodness) we bought mosquito coils and let one smoke throughout the evening. The next day I woke with a tongue like this

and a congested chest. Thinking at first it was a flue I didn't swim that afternoon but when we lit the coil again that evening I realised I had been poisoned by the fumes so from then on we simply had swatting sessions every hour.

Dahab has its tourist strip along the waterfront with many dive centres and restaurants. On the beachside the restaurants have their tables and sun lounges. The restaurant kitchens are located on the other side of the esplanade. Our apartment was close to the waterfront but also very close to the Arab quarter. Away from the tourist strip Dahab is a very much an Egyptian town with the characteristic flat roofed, grey brick buildings (cement rendered and painted if money permits) surrounded by high walls and accessed by wooden gates.

Some people have toiled to grow trees and shrubs but there is no grass.

There are very few motorbikes or bicycles here. Instead cars and utes are the go. The latter are the most common type of taxi. With the tray at the back there is never a problem with the size or number of bags or with the number of passengers.

The streets are wide. The ones in the town proper may have a little tar down the centre but are mostly dusty dirt roads. Where there are footpaths they are of the walk 10 m, step down 30 cm, walk a few steps, step up 30 cm, repeat, repeat, repeat, variety. Since you share the streets with many herds of goats the footpaths are sprinkled with goat droppings.

After walking these pavements we always left our shoes at the door before entering the apartment. Rubbish is another feature of Egyptian streets.

There was one small, neatly tied bag of rubbish in the bin above. People either burn their rubbish in the street, put it in the bins so that it can be taken away and burnt in the dessert, put it in large plastic bags and leave in the street where the bags will broken open by goats and the contents devoured (and goats do eat anything - look carefully at the photo below and you will see they are munching on cardboard. We also saw them seeking their nutrition from cement bags), or just drop it where they finish with it.

Not only goats but sheep and camels are to be found in the streets and alleyways.

One morning we saw a runaway camel hurtling down the main road with the traffic. Shortly afterwards an Arab astride a camel, whip flailing, galloped by in hot pursuit. Minutes later the scene reoccurred with the runaway and the pursuer headed in the opposite direction. 'Very Keystone Cops,' said Ken.

The men of Dahab are seen at all times of the day sitting drinking tea and playing board games like backgammon. At night they would sit in the open, cinema style, watching TV. The women are seen in the daytime shopping and dealing with children but are invisible at night time. The children played in the street using scraps from the building site as playthings or playing marbles.

I also saw a game of beach volleyball and a game of knucklebones being played with small, smooth stones. And, of course, there was PlayStation 2 for the boys, youths and young men.

'Super' is the operative word in 'Supermarket'. Really they are just corner stores, each selling their own particular array of varied goods. Visit enough Supermarkets and you will pretty well get what you would get in our Supermarkets, but a whole lot cheaper, of course. This was the local butchers.

We played safe and bought frozen meat. The fruit and vegetables, though obviously trucked in from elsewhere, as Dahab is bone dry, were very tasty. I was really pleased because I was able to use my Arabic to find the local bakeries, one that sold freshly baked bread and one with those delicious Egyptian sweets that drip with honey. I'm afraid we frequented both.

The tap water comes from a desalination plant and is not fit for drinking. Water is trucked in from Mt Sinai and, like the home ice cream man, men drive the streets tooting their horns delivering water.

We used this water for tea and coffee and cooking but again, for safety's sake, stuck to bottled water.

As I said, Dahab is bone dry, or was until we experienced the first torrential downfall in four years. Dahab did NOT cope. Our phone line had been out since about the fourth day when the builders working nearby cut the lines for the area but when the rain came everything was out - electricity, internet, ATMs, roads. There are no drains in the streets

and when the water came down from the mountains this area

went to this

The day after the rains was Ken's birthday and Huds was shouting him to breakfast but, where in the days before the waterfront restaurants were competing for our custom, on this morning we had to search for a restaurant that was open, for the others were mopping up water and mud and drying out carpets and cushions.

We heard that two expat diving instructors had their cement roofs fall on them during the night and we met some tourists who had to swap rooms during the night to escape their flooded rooms. So the little rain that came into our hallway and the dribble landing on the end of the Huds bed were small issues compared to what others experienced.

During our time in Dahab, on the basis of his exam results Huds decided to take the opportunity to change his Uni preferences. When the offers came out we were all excited to find he had scored a place in Honours Psychology at Flinders Uni. So that is where he'll be headed this year.

We were a bit lucky that the road north to Nuweiba re-opened on the Wednesday, the day we had planned to take the ferry from there to Aqaba in Jordan. A Jordanian guy we met advised us not to go on Wednesday because it was the day when Egyptian workers crossed en masse to Jordan, but when it became clear we'd take our chances anyway he suggested we put ourselves right at the door where the buses took people from the departure lounge to the ship so we didn't get overwhelmed. As it turned out that wasn't really an issue as the staff there ushered the foreigners through first.

Other things, however, were issues. We'd been told that it was certain there was an 11 a.m. and a 2 p.m. fast ferry, so we turned up at Nuweiba at 9 a.m. after our usual traumata associated with getting up early, only to find that the slow and fast ferries both left at 3 p.m. So we tried to buy our tickets, only to have the US 100 dollar bill that the bank had given us the day before was an old type and the bank wouldn't accept it. We didn't have anything else, were supposed to pay in 'US dollars etc so it was pretty annoying. The ticket staff, who up to now could be described as at best indifferent, suddenly came good and rang the bank and convinced them they should take it, which was a big relief (and surprise).

We'd decided to take the small ferry, which for 10 bucks each saved about four hours. Later, we noticed that anyone well-dressed, female or under 16 was taking the small ferry so were that way avoiding the masses of single guys who had filed through customs all day. Incidentally, passport control gets slowed down a lot when the frustrated immigration officer has to fill out most of the cards.
We killed six hours with regular visits to the cafe for junk food and drinks, with playing cards, reading or staring out of the heavily guarded gate to see if somehow this time we might happen to get a glance of anything that indicated the ferry had arrived from Jordan. It finally did, around 4 p.m., so we didn't leave until after 5. If there is a next time, we'll book air tickets early from just about anywhere in Egypt to anywhere in Jordan.

The ferry trip and the Red Sea were smooth enough. The hardest bit was trying to lug our luggage onto the buses up about five steep stairs at either end of the journey with young staff 'helping' by continually telling us, in Arabic, to hurry up.

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