Diving in the desert

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

He Said:

During summer break in 2003 I visited Egypt as the final stop of a journey through the Middle East. One of my favorite spots on that trip was the Sinai Peninsula town of Dahab. The great food, comfy accommodations, and world-class scuba diving, all at super low prices made it a must-see for us this time around. Casting a shadow over our plans was the fact that about six months ago a terrorist group from the northern Sinai set off a series of three bombs here that killed over twenty people.

It seems like an underlying issue of this trip is the quandary of going to or avoiding places solely based on security. I'm beginning to think that most worry far more about becoming a casualty of political/terrorist violence than about being a victim of personal crime. Have you ever checked personal crime statistics before deciding to visit a destination? Before departing, we told lots of people that our travel plans included Arab nations. They gave us no warnings about murder, robbery, or other types of personal crime rates in those places; we only heard numerous generic cautions about terrorism. Someone getting pick pocketed, mugged, or hit by a drunk driver isn't significant enough to be international news, but bombings and terrorist plots will always make the headlines. Almost everywhere the statistical danger of being a victim of a personal crime is far greater than the threat of becoming a terrorism victim, but most don't give that a thought in planning their travel. Case in point, less than two years ago we got married Jamaica, which has the highest murder rate in the Western hemisphere (but no terrorist activity thus far.) Nobody voiced concern that we were putting our loved ones in too much danger by choosing that location. Although personal crime rates in the Arab world are miniscule compared to the US, the perception still exists that you are putting yourself in the line of fire by coming here. I guess the rationale is that one can't do much to avoid being victimized by random personal crime, but you can easily stay away from "terror hot spots". A problem though is that terrorist targets are everywhere!

Whew, enough on that whole tangent!!! Back to the travels: Taking it all in stride, we came to Dahab on a bus from Cairo. Since the bombings, the Egyptian government is taking the terrorist threat very seriously. Last time I was here there were no security stops on the bus ride and it took about eight hours. This time there were seven security checkpoints on the route where we had to show our passports to officials. Explosives sniffing dogs checked the bags once as well. All those stops combined with a number of other smoke-breaks made the ride stretch to almost twelve-hours.

Dahab is a very strange town of only three streets. The first is a charming palm-lined pedestrian promenade that hugs about a one-mile stretch of coastline and full of cute cafes, bars, small shops and tons of guesthouses. The second street runs parallel to the promenade and is a dusty, shabby row of grocers, barbers, auto repair shops and abandoned buildings in various states of decay. The third street again runs parallel to the first and is the dividing line between the town and the Sinai Desert. Yes desert, blowing sand, rocks, no vegetation, roving camels, Bedouin goat herders and everything else any reasonable desert would contain. It is surreal how quickly the scene changes! The thing that has been drawing people to Dahab since the 60's is the amazing underwater life, as well as everything a weary traveler might need at incredibly low prices. For instance, our large hotel room has A/C and a large balcony overlooking the sea for only US $20.00 per night! The prices for SCUBA are an amazing value as well, so we are also doing a number of dives. Katie is combining her dives with a course for advanced certification so we can both be qualified to do deeper dive once we get to SE Asia and Micronesia. The dives we have completed thus far have been great for spotting all kinds of fish and corals. On land, the seafront promenade is lined with cafes serving great food and having seating areas of low tables and tons of pillows. This is the perfect spot to burn a few days doing absolutely nothing at all. We are going to spend some very chilled-out time here.

We made the tough choice to skip going to Jordan once we figured out the myriad of transit connections and extra expenses we'd have to incur. So we probably won't have much to report for the next week other than mundane stuff like what fish we saw, book we read or the status of our suntans. We'll put together some final observations on Egypt and get them posted in about a week when we arrive in Dubai.

She Said:

So, we had quite an interesting bus ride to Dahab. It felt like we were getting the "behind the scenes tour" of the Sinai. With the exception of 2 other backpacker couples, the other passengers were entirely Egyptian men likely returning to work at the beach resorts in Sharm El Sheik after a weekend in Cairo. The bus ride was supposed to take 7.5 hours to get to Sharm, and another 1.5 to our destination in Dahab.

Since the bombings on the Sinai in April 2006, security has been dramatically increased. Our bus went through 8 security checkpoints, 7 of which officials boarded the bus and checked each passenger's identification. The officials could not have cared less about our passports and barely gave them a second glance, while they literally matched up pictures and names with all the Egyptian passengers along with little "mini-interviews." In fact, there was a man sitting behind us that must have had the same name as some wanted criminal, because he got harassed at each checkpoint. At several of the stops, everyone had to get off with their carry-on bags while the officials searched through them. At the 6th stop, everyone had to get their luggage out from under the bus while bomb-sniffing dogs checked everything. While the tight security is necessary, we started to feel bad for these men that probably have to do this bus ride twice a week and continually get harassed as they go to work. But all of the passengers seemed to take these checks in stride (with a "whatever, we will get there when we get there type attitude), and actually seemed to enjoy them because it increased the number of smoke breaks. Regardless, we arrived in Dahab a full 12 hours after leaving Cairo.

It became evident on the bus ride that a cell phone is a definite status symbol. About half of the men had one, and they made sure that everyone on the bus knew it. All ringers were turned to the loudest possible volume, and rings seem to have been painstakingly chosen. Some of our favorite rings were: sound of a baby crying, crickets, and "Don't Cry for Argentina." Over the course of the 12 hours, we were able to match the ring with the passenger because everyone that had a cell phone received at least 50 calls. And each person waited at least 4 ring cycles to answer the phone, even if they were holding in their hand when in started ringing. Very strange....

Anyway, Dahab is a really relaxed beach town and is certainly the polar opposite of Cairo. It is nice to walk around and not be hassled by anyone, the food is really good (and really cheap!!), and the locals are pleasant and nice. It is nice to be in a place where no one expects a tip (in Cairo, baggage handlers would posed as bathroom attendants and hand you toilet paper for a tip). Even though we are still in a Muslim country, the majority of people are in Western dress with plenty of women in shorts and tank tops (which is a relief!) The town is really geared towards diving, with over 50 dive shops. I have been taking tests and doing two dives a day to get my advanced certification (Todd already had his), which I am supposed to complete tomorrow after two more dives. I have been diving with Ahmed (an Eqyptian Divemaster) and Phil (a Brit who is also traveling around the world but has "gotten stuck" in Dahab for 2 months). Phil and Ahmed kept joking that each time I accidentally touched the bottom of the ocean floor or messed up my buoyancy (or any number of other skills) that Ahmed would bite me. Phil has been on over 60 dives with Ahmed and said that he got bit all the time for the first 10 dives or so. I really thought they were kidding. Turns out they weren't, and Ahmed actually bit me this afternoon, and I have the bite marks on my hand to prove it. I couldn't believe it.
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