Sinai loafing and last thoughts on Egypt

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

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

He Said:

Not a lot of exciting news to report since our last update. We spent nine days in Dahab hanging out in its relaxed environs, SCUBA diving, and sampling the tasty food on offer at the dozens of beachside cafes. Katie breezed though her Advanced Open Water Certification course. Now we have a lot more options available as to the types of dives we can do later in the trip.

The Sinai, and Dahab in particular, is definitely less hassle and more relaxed than the cities along the Nile. At the Pyramids and literally every ancient temple we visited anyone working at or near the site will pretty much treat you as a walking ATM. You are generally barraged with sales speeches and for the most part, people expected a tip for almost every service, from snapping a photo to giving you a square of toilet paper as you entered the bathroom. I even had a security guard toting an AK-47 at the Temple of Horus request a tip! (I used the strategy described below to safely wriggle out of that one!) Not to say the hassle prevents you from seeing the sites, you just have to be very perseverant in ignoring the onslaught before you get left alone. We found the best response to fend off a persistent sales pitch is by pretending to be brain-dead, i.e. glazed-eyes staring straight ahead, slight feeble smile on your face with mouth slightly agape, being totally mute, and never, I repeat, NEVER stop walking or respond to their entreaties. Coincidentally, this technique to also works like a charm when approached by panhandlers in New York City!

Please don't mistake my contempt for high-pressure sales tactics to be a dislike of Egyptians. For the most part we have had wonderful interactions here. The genuine hospitality, teasing humor, and genial banter with many Egyptians will be some of my fondest remembrances of the visit. Even the sales speeches can occasionally be quite entertaining. For example, here is one exchange we had outside a souvenir stall in the Khan-al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo.
Salesman to Katie: "Madame, what can I sell you today?"
Katie: "Nothing"
Salesman smiling: "I have nothing! What color would you like? I have blue, red, green..."
It is tough to walk away from that without at least a slight grin!

So from my observations thus far, the pattern seems to be this: If the locale is often visited by "easy targets" (group tours), then expect high-pressure sales, beggars, and constant hustling for tips. Once you are out of highly touristed areas and get to places that are only frequented by "hard targets" (locals and budget travelers), then the hassle factor drops to almost zero. For example: When we departed Cairo last week, the hotel shuttle dropped us at a crowded, dusty, bus terminal in Heliopolis, a northern suburb of Cairo. We were the only non-Egyptians in the place, nothing was in English, and we stood out like sore thumbs. You'd think this would make us the obvious target for every hustler, vagabond, and con man in the place right? Wrong! Whether it was interpreting a schedule, finding the bathroom, or determining which bus was ours, locals preemptively looked out for us and nothing other than a "shokran" (Arabic for "thank you") expected in return for the help. In fact since leaving Cairo nobody had asked us for a tip. (For more blabbing on the impact of mass tourism, look back to my travelogue entry for Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria.)

We departed Dahab yesterday morning in order to stay a few nights in the town of Sharm-el-Sheik and to break up the long bus ride back to Cairo. The Israelis originally developed Sharm-el-Sheik as a resort after seizing the Sinai during the Six Day War in 1967. The Camp David Accords in 1978, led by Georgia's own Jimmy Carter, returned the Sinai to Egypt. Development has continued rapidly since the peace agreement. Now with dozens of charter flights arriving daily, it has become a premier destination for beach tripping European package tours. So, as you'd expect, it doesn't really have any "local flavor" and is pretty much just a long sprawl of beachside big name hotels with luxurious grounds. Using frequent guest points allowed us to stay at the Sheraton Resort. It is a step up from the $20 a night room in Dahab, but since it isn't really near anything and all the food and beverages are outrageously priced (New York prices), both Katie and I think of it as "hotel jail". Funny how sterile it feels compared to the friendly vibe of Dahab.

Tomorrow morning we are heading off on a bus back to Cairo to catch our evening flight to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Look out for our next update this weekend.

She Said:

Okay, so we just spent 10 days completely loafing around. Well, if you want to get technical, it was more like seven days, because I was a very attentive dive student for the first three. Once the Advanced Certification class ended and we didn't have to be anywhere at a certain time, we turned into two extremely lazy bookworms. There were actually days that we didn't walk more than 1000 feet, and that was only because we had to, as that was the closest available food! Most days we spent our afternoons at the hotel next door, where for $3 each you get a really comfy padded lounge chair, fluffy beach towel, shady umbrella, and the use of the town's nicest beachside pool. Not bad, huh?

Dahab is really built for hanging out, and as a result most people on longer trips end up changing their plans to stay even longer than they originally planned. It is such a relaxed, friendly, and cheap place that it is hard to convince yourself to leave, especially when you know what hassles await you just on the other side of the desert. Most of the restaurants are built right at the waters edge, and are set up with lounging in mind. The tables are one foot off the floor, and the "chairs" are nothing more than long logs on their sides wrapped in soft carpets that you lean against. On top of that, the entire place is covered in comfy cushions, pillows and soft rugs. All of this is built outside with nothing more than a "roof on stilts" over you. At night, these places all have candles on the low tables and really warm lighting strung from the ceiling. When you enter, you take off your flip-flops and place them with the pile of flip-flops (the exclusive footwear of Dahab), pick your spot and proceed to basically lie down and watch the waves while the warm breeze moves over you. And when you look around, everyone else in the place is doing the same thing. Now the food is also really a treat. Most of these places have extensive fresh juice menus in which they make a big deal about decorating the glasses with fresh fruit slices and toothpicks with grapes on them (like martini olives), and you just feel really special when you are drinking one (all for about $1). Breakfast is extremely tasty and so cheap - for $1.50 you get a warm croissant, fresh fruit salad, a hard boiled egg, 2 pieces of toast, jam, butter, cheese, and plain yogurt and honey (which you pour in the yogurt because plain isn't a flavor). After reading this, I'm starting to understand why we gained weight - tons of eating, no exercise, and lots of sitting and reading!! We are trying to enjoy it all now, because less than 8 days from now, we enter Kenya and will probably not recognize our food until we arrive in Cape Town in December.

All of the people working at our hotel were very friendly, and Todd and I spent a lot of time chatting with Mohammed, a 26 year old cutie/Rico Suave type that simultaneously ran the front desk, translated everything for everyone (fluent in English, Italian, French, some Spanish and of course Arabic), and was the self proclaimed social director of the place. He new details of all the guests lives, and really tried to "get a party started" every night by introducing guests to each other. He spoke English with a British accent (because of the language tapes he used), and was a master at colloquial sayings and slang used by Australians, Brits and Americans. Todd taught him a few terms, like "rad" and "the bomb," and of course I promptly told Mohammed that those words were "old school," and that he really shouldn't use these new words unless of course he was making fun of them while saying them. One night, Mohammed introduced us to a Palestinian female guest in her 20s, and they joined us at our table at the hotel restaurant. Mohammed wanted her to "practice her English" by speaking with us, but she ended up being quite shy. She was modestly dressed (head covered, long sleeve shirt and long pants), and sat quite uncomfortably pulling her knees to her chest. Normally in Egypt, she would blend in with all the other women, but in Dahab among scantily clad westerners, she really stuck out. After reading a few books on Middle East politics on this trip, I was absolutely dying to ask her a million questions about her life as a Palestinian, but I sensed that she already felt awkward here, that I held my tongue.

Anyhoo, speaking of "old school," we celebrated Todd's 37th birthday in Dahab a few days ago at our favorite restaurant, Funny Mummy. We had eaten a Funny Mummy at least 10 times, the whole staff recognized us, and really rolled out the red carpet for Todd's birthday. They played an Arabic/English birthday song over the stereo system, and the whole staff sang and clapped and gathered around our table (did they know they were playing out a scene that happens daily at TGI Friday's?). Todd was presented with a giant piece of homemade chocolate cake and ice cream, and was sufficiently embarrassed when the staff was successful in getting all the other diners in the place to join in on the clapping.

After 10 days in our budget accommodations, I was growing tired of the salt water shower (we learned that soap actually doesn't lather in salt water), the coral reef growing in the toilet (not kidding - something was growing in there), and worst of all, waking up and realizing that I was laying directly on a dirty mattress, having managed to pull the too small sheet out from under the mattress during my sleep (no mattress pads or liners here). But all in all, for $20 a night, it was a great deal - a/c, soft bed, relatively clean, in room fridge, and a private balcony right on the water. It is really all about expectations - it was nicer than anything I expected for $20. So needless to say, I was looking forward to moving on to a nice resort in Sharm El Sheik for 2 main reasons: a freshwater shower/bathtub and soft linens, both of which should be standard, right? WRONG!!!! I can't believe it, but we actually have brown hot water at the Sheraton!!!! What is that about??? See the attached pic of the bath I was trying to take!! I won't even further bore you with the story of the 4 hours we spent yesterday trying to get it fixed with the hotel staff!!! Again, it is all about expectations, and I find myself longing for Dahab and its genuinely personable atmosphere, tasty cheap food, absence of tipping, and ability to constantly exceed my expectations.

We Said:

On Egypt: Our closing comments, observations, and a few questions.

Egypt can be costly or cheap depending upon how you choose to travel. Large chain hotels and private transport costs are cheaper than the US but much more expensive than budget options. Local bus and train transportation is very cheap (but can be slow and uncomfortable), and budget hotels are an amazing value. Almost every price is negotiable.

People who regularly deal with tourists speak at least some English, but knowing a few words of Arabic is always appreciated.

The Egyptian people were very friendly and hospitable but remember that when you are in heavily touristed areas the sales pitches can be relentless.

Egypt is a poor nation. Once you are outside the major cities most people live in "third world" conditions. Mentally prepare yourself for this.

Egypt is a Muslim nation but in the large cities and resort towns can seem quite secular. Modesty in dress for both men and women is necessary (and respectful) when outside the resort and tourist towns.

The security at sites and large hotels is pretty tight. The Egyptian government knows that tourism is a major source of earnings and don't take chances in allowing terrorist activity to take place. Don't be surprised at seeing contingents of police with automatic weapons at the places you visit and stay.

A cruise is an amazingly relaxing way to see the wealth of sights between Aswan and Luxor. We highly recommend taking one, but shop around since boats vary dramatically in quality and amenities!

Two days is more than adequate to see all the major sites in Cairo. Don't stay there longer than you have to. Be sure to include a Sinai resort visit in your plans.

Some of the things we couldn't quite figure out were:

Why do waiters at restaurants would say, "yes please" after almost any request and how come anytime you said, "thank you" to an Egyptian the reply was without fail, "welcome".

Who buys all those unbelievably tacky souvenirs (Large King Tut statues, stuffed plush camels, cast brass coffin paperweights, polychrome Nefertiti carvings, etc) that fill the shops surrounding any touristed area in Egypt?

Why don't vendors diversify? Outside most tourist sites is a long line of souvenir stalls all selling the exact same merchandise. Every restaurant in Dahab had almost the exact same menu.

Anytime we were asked to wait for something, without fail we were told "5 minutes". Whatever it was though, it always took longer.

Why is ketchup served with any food you order? Bottles of ketchup were brought to the table when we ordered anything from cheese sandwiches to pizza.
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