A Travellerspoint blog

Dahab

Dahab proved to be the perfect antidote to five months of exhaustive travel. “Is that unappreciative and pampered turd attempting to coerce sympathy by implying that five months of leisure is a gruelling and unforgiving affair? What an outrageous! Let’s greet him with stakes at Tullamarine!” Undoubtedly, my brazen portrayal of travel as an arduous imposition must have provoked many readers to retch in disgust by assuming that it exhibits a dire lack of gratitude. But please temporarily halt the expulsion of partially digested food and consider; what would you desire if you maintained essentially the same routine for half the year, regardless of how privileged the routine was? For most people, “a holiday” would obviously be the answer. Contrary to popular belief, even yours truly has failed to attain a faultless identity as I have always been plagued by a complete ineptitude in puzzling out the meaning of riddles. Prior to this year, I was similarly befuddled by the notion of taking a “holiday within a holiday” as it seemed like a rather paradoxical concept. As the trip progressed however, I became increasingly understanding of the idea. Constantly moving to new places can become wearisome and the cyclical nature of sightseeing partially inhibits the original purpose and the experience of visiting new sites. To circumvent these constraints, I decided to abandon my routine and recharge in an appealing beachside resort town for an extended period of eight days. The opportunity to swim for the first time in three months and meeting such a brilliant group of people made this easily one of the most enjoyable weeks of my trip.

Dahab is located in the purportedly precarious province of Sinai in Egypt, although the only characteristics indicative of its Egyptian status are the kushari carts and the occasional black-outs. The town occupies a magnificent stretch of the Red Sea coast and the reclusive Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can be sighted from its shores across the Gulf of Aqaba. Dahab is oddly reminiscent of Byron Bay, as its evolution from a hippie hideaway to a tourist town mirrors the experience at Byron. While both towns have gentrified in the past decade, they retain a sense of isolation from the corporatized West as expansive resorts, high-rise apartments and international brands have been kept out. Similar to Byron Bay, Dahab boasts a remarkably diverse culinary scene with Thai, Indian, sushi and Russian restaurants present (in Egypt!) and there are numerous casual bars along the waterfront. The town is defined by a primary thoroughfare that follows the coastline and on either side there are restaurants, shops, travel agencies, hotels and bars. Consequently, the natural beaches are almost entirely occupied (I’m not sure why, but that word is stuck in my head as I type this from Jerusalem) by decking; although the unpleasant few remnants suggest that this was probably a prudent development. Visitors can easily purchase just one beverage from a bar and occupy (there I go again!) a table or deck-chair on the respective premises throughout the day. The identity of Dahab is most quintessentially associated with recreational diving and every second business seems to be affiliated with the industry. The waters around Dahab feature several small coral reefs and there are more pristine environments located nearby. Dahab is a unique pocket of the Arab world which is fundamentally un-Arab like; with chaotic traffic and Islamic conservatism completely absent and an abundance of Western tourists or workers.

In Dahab, I was fortuitous to meet an eclectic group of people who were so eccentric they made even me appear normal. I stayed in an apartment which consisted of a male and a female dormitory, which was a brilliant arrangement for the accommodation as a communal atmosphere developed. I shared the male dormitory with Chinese Sunny and Malaysian Lew, who I completed the Open Water diving course with. Extraverted, gleeful and whacky Sunny revealed to us that he had never lit a match and was forbidden from using knives or jumping down from a table. Even at thirty, mothers in One-child China exert domineering influence on their precious offspring. It seemed somewhat contradictory that he enthusiastically enrolled in a scuba-diving program while nursing an aversion for sharp utensils. Each morning, diminutive Lew baffled us by nonchalantly consuming his own body-weight in food at breakfast, while more egotistical eaters became bloated much earlier from the (diabolical) buffet. The consistent members of the female dormitory included British Robyn, American Casey and (Confederate) American Lindsay. While I was bemoaning a minor ear irritation from scuba diving to five metres, Robyn was preparing to free dive (i.e. without air) to at least thirty metres. I was most impressed by her adventurism and determination to seek new depths (see what I did there?), although I thought she had an unhealthy obsession with a concern about developing a tan line from the diving mask. Casey was vacationing from her job in Cairo of resettling refuges (if I have remembered correctly). I previously suggested that “a touch of insanity would be necessary” to enjoy Cairo and perhaps that explains Casey’s adoration for the sprawling metropolis. Casey was exceptionally inclusive and considerate of other people, although she did display a self-identified penchant for excessive inquisitiveness in people’s movements (preferable to a lack of interest). Lindsay from Arkansas expressed the thickest Southern accent I have yet to encounter (although apparently it was quite mild) and thus provided a suitable candidate to mockingly imitate regularly. She repeatedly revealed perplexing information about her life story, such as (apply Southern accent when reading); “When I was yoooooung, I grabbed fireflies and squished ‘em on my shirt so that it would glow in the dark! Didn’t y’all do thaayat too?” “My sister tasted her own poo when she was a kid. My mooom screamed.” She bizarrely determined that, “Would you never brush your teeth again or never pick your nose again?” was an appropriate dinnertime question, while everyone else was engaged in sophisticated conversation. Additionally, I also met British Oliver, British Charlie, Finnish Tia and American Mandy while in Dahab. Oliver is the second-most famous celebrity that I have ever encountered (after Australia’s beloved morning television astrologer, Karen) as an actor who has appeared on a potpourri of British programs that I’ve never heard of (although his IMDb account lists him as appearing on EastEnders). Charlie exposed a complex interest and understanding of European economics, which I hadn’t expected from a helicopter pilot in the British Navy. Charlie geekily partakes in mental arithmetic while driving, by deciphering the time it would take to reach destinations on signs (by the listed distances and speed limits) just for kicks. Tia had the honour of being the first Finn that I had ever met and she revealed a cultural insight to her country; that the Finnish are all alcoholic because they drink to cope with the long winters and drink to celebrate the short summers. Mandy was previously working in a place she described as a “shithole” in South Sudan and was excitedly (genuine or feigned, it wasn’t quite discernible) awaiting transfer to another one in the Niger Delta. Surprisingly, she failed to coax me to alter my itinerary to include a detour through said region. She determinedly followed a routine of beer and shisha every day and diving every second day.

I apprehensively decided that I would enrol in a scuba diving course in Dahab regardless of any qualms. After four tiring and stressful days, I officially qualified as a licensed Open-Water diver; although not a talented one. Initially I harboured fears about the golden requirement to continuously breathe while underwater (if you lose a mouthpiece, you must continue to exhale by blowing small bubbles), especially since I discovered that your lungs can explode if you hold your breathe. However, I became relatively comfortable with breathing underwater as I gradually improved practicing the required technique. I found controlling buoyancy to be considerably harder and I certainly failed to master that skill. On multiple occasions I completely lost neutral buoyancy and ascended to the surface unintentionally and rapidly. This can potentially be rather dangerous, especially if ascending from a depth of below five metres, so I became most fearful of being unable to remain at depth underwater. The first two days were excruciatingly boring affairs as the instructor simulated emergency events and I had to apply the appropriate safety procedures. On the final two days of the course, we went swimming (more like gliding) to depths of eighteen metres around the coral wall at Lighthouse reef. I saw dozens of lionfish, a school of vivid orange fish, sea horses and luckily a huge turtle. I found diving to be an incredibly fatiguing activity, which seemed nonsensical as you barely exert any intentional energy while underwater. The scuba diving course was a fulfilling and enjoyable experience, although I was pleased when it was finished because I was eager to go swimming in the traditional sense and unrestricted by equipment. Sunny and Lew were delighted to complete their courses. Sunny played the role of the hyper enthusiastic photographer throughout the final day.

Immediately off the shores of Dahab are pockets of reef, which consist of corals that exude a multitude of vibrant colours. Exploring the reefs with my kids-sized goggles satisfied my months long craving to swim and was thus the highlight experience during my time in Dahab. The reefs were not remarkably spectacular in comparison to the underwater wonders around Australia and the South Pacific because the coral has significantly eroded from the crowds of people swimming in the area (although there are apparently more pristine diving and snorkelling sites near Dahab). Nevertheless, it was magnificent to swim in open water in the hot weather of Sinai. As an exceptionally modest character, I generally prefer to avoid writing in a self-indulgent manner. However, Casey incessantly begged me to reference an incident where I supposedly “saved” her from a wall of jellyfish by guiding her through the perilous (though entirely harmless) cluster of pink blobs. I know that they were harmless because I was stung at least a dozen times and survived the ordeal.

Western governments strongly advise against travel to the St Katherine Protectorate in Sinai because of the supposed terrorist threats from driving through the region. Bizarrely however, most tourists staying in Dahab or the nearby resort city of Sharm-el-Sheikh, backpackers and big-spenders alike, continue to make the obligatory trip there. Hiking up Mount Sinai is a religiously significant experience for many people, as it was the site where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. For souls with slightly less spirituality, the purpose of visiting is to witness the sun rise above the dramatic Sinai landscape. Of all the aforementioned people, only Oliver and I were capable of summoning the courage to pull an all-nighter to hike. We departed Dahab at 11:00pm, dozed briefly on the minibus there and arrived at the Protectorate two hours later. It was rather challenging to be woken up and ordered to immediately start hiking. The full moon that night made it surprisingly easy to see, although it was still a startlingly surreal experience of hiking in the dark. The trek was physically easy as we ascended up a gradually sloping path for the first two hours without any other tourists in sight. Our seclusion did not last indefinitely however as it was revealed to us that the hordes had followed the main path up which we were forced to join for the last forty-five minutes. The last stretch of steps to the summit was thus excruciatingly slow moving since there were many unfit Westerners blocking the way. We reached the summit at around 4:00am and I celebrated the achievement with the thickest and meanest block of putrid chocolate that you’re ever likely to see. It was so colossal that I needed to scrap the chocolate off with my teeth; biting was not possible. The sunrise was absolutely spectacular and completely justified the effort to reach the summit in the morning. The light revealed a mountainous landscape stripped of all vegetation. The mountains illuminated dark colours of orange and red as the sun rose. The summit of Mount Sinai did not strike me as the most practical or sensible location for Moses to be bequeathed the Tablets of Stone; unless he created a replica at the base. Unfortunately, a group of Christian Indian pilgrims opted to spoil the ambience for everyone else there by chanting hideous sounding verses and by performing abnormal dance moves. We descended Mount Sinai on a path of three thousand steps which most people naturally avoided. We visited the World Heritage listed St. Katherine’s Monastery at the base of the mountain in the early morning. From the exterior, the monastery looked like a highly fortified compound located within a forbidding environment. The interior though was somewhat underwhelming, with only a miniscule church, the (no longer) burning bush and souvenir shops. We returned to Dahab at noon, totally drained but resolute not to sleep.

Probably the most memorable experience from Dahab was just chilling at the bars and restaurants with the group of people that I met. The ritualistic initiation to the group dynamic was answering a series of personal questions; “What would be your last meal?” “What is your preferred method of execution?” and “How would you like to be disposed of?” This confronting catalogue of queries initially made me reconsider my need to hang out with this group of peculiar people, although I persisted with them. Lindsay insisted that she should be cremated since her uncle produces urns (and is disconcertingly obsessed with hunting). I was introduced to a new form of Rummy and once I had learnt the idiosyncrasies of the game I was virtually unbeatable. Interestingly, in response to the question, “What city would you choose to live the rest of your life in?” I was one of only two that named my home town; Marvellous Melbourne!

I had a brilliant week in Dahab from a culinary perspective, although my meals weren’t always authentic Egyptian. Nevertheless, I’ll limit discussion to the Egyptian or Middle Eastern dishes. Many people travel to Egypt specifically to witness the structural masterpieces of the Pyramids of Giza. I did not anticipate that another Egyptian creation would supersede these marvels; the humble and omnipresent dish of kushari. I probably ate inexpensive bowls of kushari on at least a dozen occasions in Egypt and the variety served by the cart which wheeled along Dahab’s main thoroughfare was definitely the best. I had excellent falafel sandwiches, which were stuffed with salad, pickles and fried eggplant, and beef shwarmas, which are the Middle East’s (inferior) equivalent to the Turkish doner kebab.

Unfortunately my week in Dahab was bookended by staying one night in the wretched city of Hurghada and then two horrendous days of attempting to reach Aqaba, Jordan by ferry. It was such a shame that the latter affair transpired immediately after that brilliant week in Dahab. I wish to avoid those days from tainting my memories of what was ultimately one of the best weeks of the year and will consequently limit discussion of such periods to this.

Thus concluded my fantastic week in Dahab, where I became a qualified Open Water diver, swam through the tropical waters of the Red Sea and recuperated after overdosing on sightseeing. Definitely the most rewarding aspect of my Dahab experience was hanging out with the group of people I met and I sincerely hope I cross paths with all of them again somewhere in world (except for another American I haven’t mentioned!).

Finally I have finished this bloody entry,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 00:53 Archived in Egypt

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.

Login