The last week has been all about relaxation and has kind of felt like a vacation from the vacation.
Sharm El Sheikh – Hilton Style
From Luxor, we had pre-booked a flight to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula. This way we avoided taking a ferry across the Red Sea. You might remember a couple of months ago, hearing about that ferry that sank in the Red Sea. Sharm El Sheikh is a resort town for Europeans and Brits (kind of like a Caribbean island) and we were treating ourselves to 4 nights at the Hilton Fayrouz Village Resort in Na’ama Bay on Paul’s reward points (yes, that means a 5 star resort absolutely free!). We checked in and were treated like royalty due to Paul’s Hilton HHonors Diamond status – receiving a free upgrade to a bungalow, fruit basket and many letters of welcome. The Sinai peninsula is on the Red Sea and is a very harsh environment, dry, desert plains for miles. After feeling like we had seen the real Egypt over the past couple of weeks, Sharm made us almost forget we were even in Egypt. The area has been extensively developed by the government with
5 star resorts everywhere and pretty promenades along the sea. Security is at an all time high and access to the resort areas is heavily monitored. Since, we have left, we can tell you than in July last year, there were a series of terrorist bombings in Na’ama Bay and Sharm and since then secruity has been even tighter.
We spent most of our days lounging on the beach and relaxing. It was a tad difficult keeping to our backpacker buget in a resort town, but we managed. We found a cheap bakery for breakfast, ate lots of veggie meals and pizza and of course treated ourselves to a sundae or two at McDonalds. We also had our first Egyptian beer (see how cheap we are!), and each day looked forward to Happy Hour. Even though Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country, they have been brewing their own beer Stella for over a century.
The Red Sea is know worldwide for its amazing diving and snorkelling. We indulged in a day trip to the Ras Mohammed National Park snorkelling. The park (just ike the rest of Sinai) is extreme desert, but as soon as you jump in there
are reefs teeming with amazing corals and fish. It really was surreal to look out from the boat and see this lifeless desert, but then to see the amount of life underwater. Paul thinks the snorkelling is even better in the Red Sea than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
On the day, we were to depart, we both got very sick with the traveller’s sickness. Not sure what caused it, but it was pure misery and since we weren’t both up for travelling, we decided to stay an extra night in the Hilton, watching endless movies and fighting over the bathroom!
We thought we’d talk a little bit about the food we have been eating. Egypt is not really known for their cuisine, which is mostly a peasant type of diet, consiting of beans cooked different ways. The two most common are fuul (boiled and mashed fava beans, usually with tahine) and ta’amiyya (mashed, deep fryed fava beans). We like the ta’amiyya, but aren’t crazy about fuul. We have been eating mostly vegetarian, since we are little scared of the dodgey meat. However, this has also saved us quite a bit of money. Another
type of food, taken from the Labanese is mezze, which is a selection of hot and cold appetizers. Mezze can consist of dips (hummus, baba ghanoug), dolmas (rice wrapped in vine leaves), borek (pastry with cheese inside). Everything here is served with shammy (pita bread). Desserts are extremely sweet and usually consist of baking soaked in syrup. The Egypians love their tea and coffeehouses (ahwas), however they do serve Nescafe for us western travellers. There are ahwas on every street – little hole in the wall places with men drinking their tea and smoking sheesha (huge water pipes).
Chilling out in Dahab
We headed northeast on the Sinai peninsula to Dahab by public bus. After beeing sheltered from “the real Egypt” for a few days, we had to get back into the swing of things. Security is very tight on Sinai and we would go through numerous passport checkpoints, making travelling very slow. Dahab is a place well known to backpackers and Lonely Planet calls it the wannabe Ko Samui (Thai island) of the Middle East. It is on the Gulf of Aqaba and you can see Saudi Arabia across the water. You stay in camps along the water
in Dahab and the town revolves around diving and “chilling out” (we will discuss this in more detail below). Paul had planned on diving in the Red Sea, but in Sharm it was very expensive and by Dahab, he had a cold, so we settled for lots of snorkelling.
As you stroll along the promendade in Dahab, you immediately notice that this place is a bit different. You still encounter the restaurant, hotel, shop, taxi touts, but people are more relaxed. The promenade consists of many restaurants and lounge areas, each playing either Bob Marley or Jack Johnson (this gives you an idea of the feel of the place). The lounge areas consist of low tables and cushions, where you sit on the ground. The first day, as we strolled along, the restaurant touts kept asking if we wanted to come in and “have a chill out”. Apparently in Dahab, “chill out” is a noun. We learned very quickly how to “have a chill out” and got very good at it in the few days that we spent there. You would pay for some cheap drinks or lunch and you could lounge all day. Also rented snorkelling gear and
since there are reefs all along the coast, we would walk awhile and then go snorkelling, walk a little, then go snorkelling, have a chill out, snorkel, chill out….you get the idea. It was unbelievable how amazing the reefs were right off the beach – the best I have seen (and I’ve snorkelled a lot!). Many people plan to stay a few days in Dahab and get stuck there for weeks. The food is unbelievable (loved the banana pancakes!) and its cheap and everyone is just so friendly and chilled out. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend a lot of time there because we had to head back to Cairo for our flight to Nairobi.
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round…(hopefully!)
The bus to Cairo was supposed to be 9 hours, but of course we arrived an hour late. Riding the public buses in Egypt has proven to be quite an experience, a kin to a sociology class. The buses in Egypt are extremely ancient and demonstrate Egypt’s aging infastructure. The bus ride goes as follows. All the tourists (and a few female muslims) get on the bus early and a wait the timely departure of the bus.
The Egyptian men wait outside chain smoking cigarettes til the very last minute. The bus driver hops on and honks the horn, a few men get on, it isn’t till the bus driver actually starts moving that the remaining men get on. Now starts the boredem of the bus ride. For Egyptian men this is the best time to peruse through the various ringtones of their cell phones at maximum volume. (literally this happens for every bus ride we have taken!) The favorite ringtones are high pitched electronic versions of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and Beethoven and Mozart melodies. My ultimate favorite is “Hero” by Enrique. Next the driver turns on the Arabic music/books on tape again at max volume. You think on a bus this old the tape player would be broken! Between the constant passport checks, the 30 minutes smoking breaks taken every hour we finally managed to make it to Cairo in 10 hours, covering 600 km. (Paul actually wrote this whole paragraph since he loved the buses so much).
Back in Cairo
We had one last day to see Cairo and that was more than enough. The air pollution is so severe here, its makes
sight seeing a challenge. It was also Friday, the Muslim holy day, which enhances the chaos. We headed to an area called Coptic Cairo, a Christian area. Although 90% of Egypians are Muslim, there is a small population of Christians. We toured around some churches and it was interesting to see crosses and churches in such a Muslim country. We then headed to Islamic Cairo and walked around the markets there. Being Friday, it is very difficult to get around as everyone is out and about and at mid day, every one convenes outside the mosques for the call to prayer.
Egypt In Review
We have been in Egypt for nearly 3 weeks and fly out tonight to Nairobi. We have really enjoyed our time here and felt that we have really seen “the real Egypt”. So many tourists come here and stay at these sheltered hotels, are ushered onto coach buses and taken to the various sights and never really get to get a feel for “the real Egypt”. It has been unlike any other place we have visited and at times, challenging and frustrating. However, we have also met some great people and are always welcomed with
the multiple times a day, “Canada Dry never Dies” greeting. Just as we were walking here, we met an Egyptian who asked where we were from, welcomed us and chatted with us for a few minutes. We have found everywhere we go, children and adults shout “hello”, “welcome”, ask where we are from and just love being friendly and practicing their English. Egypt would probably be considered a 2nd world country and it has been interesting to see the balance between past and present and the push for modernization. Although we will be sad to leave, we are really looking forward to starting the next chapter of our adventure, Africa. Until then…