Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
Here in Ascoli we have had a long run of unusually warm weather during the last half of December and most all of January and February. I have to admit that I sort of freaked out when it was in the 30’s and we got our first snow in November. I figured that it was going to be a long, cold winter. It seems that I overreacted because, as I mentioned before, when we returned from Rome in mid-December it turned warm (50’s during the day and 40’s at night) and it has pretty much stayed that way since. We’ve had a few nights in the 30’s and a couple days it was near 70 degrees. The low pressure fronts bringing the very bad weather to the UK and surrounds is bringing warmer air up from Africa to this part of Europe. This quite lovely weather made our planned trip to a warmer climate mid-winter to thaw out seem uncalled for. Oh well, we’ve never have needed a reason to take a trip.
Our research found that actually there is no place in Europe that is warm this time of year. People recommended only two options within a reasonable travel distance – the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa (with temps around 70) and Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt (with temps averaging in the mid to high 70’s). Egypt was not on our very long list of places we hope to see, mostly due to safety reasons. Currently there are travel alerts discouraging Americans from traveling anywhere in Egypt, except, Sharm (what those who have been there call it). That is because there is the very large Sinai Desert between the the cities with the political unrest and terrorist troubles and the Sharm area on the Red Sea where the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba converge. The Egyptian government is protecting this last bastion of tourism in their country with everything they’ve got. Never-the-less tourism is down over 40% in the area and made a trip there very economical. Plus we decided it might be our only chance to visit Egypt should their situation continue to deteriorate. This was very out-of-character for Larry (Mr. Security), but like most of what we are doing these days we did not want to say “what if.”
I was excited to travel to a Muslim country – yet another culture to experience – and imagined the smell of exotic spices, curry dishes to savor, the distinct sounds of their music, the calls to prayer and, maybe, a camel ride. All of these imaginings were realized except the calls to prayer – I never heard a single one the entire week. When I asked, one guide said if we were in the city at just the right time we’d probably hear one. Otherwise, in tourist areas there are special rooms provided off the main paths for the service workers to pray. As for the calls, it seems these days a reminder on a cell phone works just as well. That’s progress!
Larry booked us on Egypt Air out of Rome departing at 11:40 AM on 31 January. Taking the bus from Ascoli to Rome/Fumicino airport with a safe enough margin to board an international flight the same day just didn’t seem practical. Since we have the luxury of time and it is off-season, we decided to take the bus to Rome the night before and stayed at a nice little Best Western Hotel near the airport for under 50 Euro a night with a breakfast buffet. I’m sure their rates are higher in the summer, but it was a good hotel and a great option for us. They have an airport shuttle for 6 Euro per person each way.
Egypt Air was quite comfortable and we were even served a hot meal in Economy on a three-hour flight, like in the good-ole-days of air travel. When I realized there was no alcohol available on-board (duh), I momentarily paniced thinking of the possibility of a week without wine. I’m sure I could do it, but this was a vacation. Then I remembered the hotel we booked had a swim-up bar in the main pool. Whew! Another difference was the safety video. Prior to the video, a picture of a mosque came on the screen and a prayer was said in Arabic, I presume to bless the flight, which is fine with me. Then the safety video is presented in both Arabic and repeated in English with a British accent. In the isle seat next to me was a very pleasant young Egyptian woman who lives in Cairo but travels to Rome frequently, as well as other places in the world including New York. She works for the United Nation’s World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian agency fighting global hunger. She was very smart and, in addition to answering my questions about her very interesting job, she gave us many good tips for our trip.
The security checks were what we expected in the Rome airport and we arrived in Cairo, that has only a one-hour time difference from Italy, in a bit over three hours. In Cairo the security checks were, understandably, frequent and thorough. Between the arrival gate from Rome and boarding the plane to Sharm, we went through at least three checks, the last one located in the boarding area for the flight. I got busted for a wine opener that Larry had purchased in Rome and I didn’t know was in my carry-on bag. The score was quickly evened when, at another check, he got busted for a can of hair mousse I put in his. Our flight to Sharm was less than an hour long and only about 60% full. It was about 8:45 PM when we arrived at Sharm’s small airport and it looked almost deserted with much of it locked for the night behind a glass wall. As we patiently waited at the only baggage carousel we could get to, it started moving but little luggage was coming out. Then we noticed that the carousel on the other side of the glass wall was moving and the majority of luggage for our flight was arriving there. Along with the other passengers, we were gesturing to the only two people we could see in the closed area that we needed them to unlock the doors so we could retrieve our luggage. A mirthless guy walked over to the carousel, looked at the luggage and then looked at our impatient group. We all gestured again in case he didn’t understand the doors were locked. I’m no expert on Egyptian culture, but let’s just say his gesture back to us did not indicate empathy for our situation. We watched our luggage go round and round for about 15 minutes until someone with the proper authorization arrived and opened the doors.
The shuttle van from our hotel was waiting just outside and we were the only passengers. I thought it odd that all the curtains on the van were pulled closed and immediately opened the one by my seat so I could see Egypt. Sharm is a tourist area that has risen practically out of nothing, born when the Camp David agreements gave Sinai back to Egypt in 1978. As we traversed the city it looked a bit like a mini Las Vegas with large hotel complexes side-by-side, tourist restaurants and entertainment. We passed Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels as well as many more locally based ones. The Hard Rock Cafe, KFC, Starbucks, Burger King, Baskin-Robbins, TGI Friday’s, Chili’s and ,of course, McDonald’s were also represented. Then we passed some very large lighted letters spelling HOLLYWOOD, no joke, that apparently was a Hollywood-themed fun-zone. Not what we were expecting – yikes! For security purposes, every mile or so there were a pair of speed bumps in the road requiring vehicles to slow almost to a complete stop to cross. Entering and leaving the towns there were check points with bunkers manned with flack-jacketed military and a mounted machine gun. Well-armed local authorities handled the actual checks.
All this made us more confident in our choice of a hotel on Naama Bay, a few miles down the road from mini “Las Vegas.” It was apparent that before the 1-2 punch of the world-wide financial crisis and political unrest knocked the wind out of their tourist trade, there was great anticipation and lots of money spent on infrastructure for expansion. We traveled several miles of beautiful new lighted roads with no development in sight. As we got closer to Naama Bay, sadly, everywhere you looked there were building projects abandoned at various stages of completion. As we arrived at our hotel we were glad to see the complex was gated and guarded. We always felt we were safe.
We found our hotel, Stella Di Mare Beach Hotel & Spa rated #2 of 224 hotels in Sharm, on TripAdvisor. Listed at #1 is The Four Seasons Resort at $390 per night. The hotels rated #3-#5 were all over $200 per night. Our hotel rate was listed at only $83 per night for this 5-Star hotel, and it had a spa! It reminded me of a grounded cruise ship with three restaurants, some shops, towel sculptures and free activities planned each day. Considering it was a strange country, the security concerns, food issues and the incredible price, I’m sure even Rick Steves would agree it was a lot of bang-for-our-Euro, and a wise choice. Since the hotel was only about 60% occupied, we got an upgrade on our room when I requested a room facing the sun. The hotel is Italian-owned but, surprisingly, we did not meet any Italians there. The guests were mostly Russians (good to see them out enjoying the world) and British who were escaping real winter weather. The days were sunny and the temperature was pleasant in Sharm – mid 70’s. I’m not complaining but a couple days it was too windy for us to be comfortable on the beach and it was frequently cool enough at night to require a wrap (but thankfully not a down coat). You can go to the hotel site here.
The staff could not do enough to make us comfortable. The mostly Egyptian staff, down to the cleaning crew, spoke some English, Russian and Italian. The beach staff not only set up your beach camp for the day but periodically brought cups of water, slices of melon and even cleaned your sunglasses. The job market there, as you might guess, is in the toilet. The kind gentleman who cleaned our sunglasses was an out-of-work teacher.
Our first full day there we needed to decide what we wanted to do/see other than relaxing on the beach. Not to mention our skin was so pale (I hadn’t sunbathed since I left the U.S.) we had to take the sun in small doses. Which reminds me, I do not recommend the Egyptian Miracle Oil being sold in one of the shops that promises “a deep, lasting tan in just a few days without burning.” I figured the Egyptians had been dealing with the sun at this latitude for several millennia and should know what they were doing. I neglected to factor in the base skin color from which they are starting. Fortunately, after the first couple hours in the sun I realized they actually did know exactly what they were doing, but insuring I did not burn was not part of it, so I purchased a lotion with a 30 SPF in another shop. The word sucker comes to mind, and it won’t be the last time.
Not coincidently, I think, our room was on same floor as the SPA. A big smile took over my entire face when I saw a large outdoor heated therapy pool for which there was no charge, but you had to go into the SPA to get to it. With no other plans set for the week yet, we succumbed to the sales pitch (which included a five minute massage) and signed up for a three-massage/treatment package that was very reasonably priced. Plus, he gave us a special deal! So I’m pleased to say we enjoyed being roasted, steamed, boiled, stretched, hot-stoned, scrubbed and rubbed like royalty all during the week – what a treat. In addition to being very skilled and customer-oriented, the spa staff was playful and funny.
The food at the hotel and it’s restaurants was good but not distinctive enough to warrant individual write-ups. We saved a bundle on food by booking only bed and breakfast with the hotel and enjoyed their cruise-ship-style buffet each morning. For other meals we ate only when we were hungry and where we felt like going. We enjoyed very nice meals (I recall a seafood platter and a lovely steak) with live entertainment (think belly-dancing) at two of their restaurants and the other days frequented the beach-bar for light fare. The majority of the guests booked half or full-board allowing them to dine at the buffet two or three times a day.
We’ve never claimed to be adventure travelers and we were well aware that the Stella Di Mare Hotel was not “real Egypt.” Like when we went to Costa Rica with our dear friends Linda and Garry, we had no desire to live in “real Costa Rica” but we did want to see it and then return to our safe/ultra-comfortable accommodations. So it was time to leave the reservation and sample Egyptian culture. Another comforting thing the hotel did was to take down your name and room number each time you left the complex, I assumed for security reasons. Our second night there we took the shuttle into the small city area of Naama Bay armed with information on what was not worth seeing by two very experienced British ladies we met on the beach. The tourist part of town was totally walkable with two story shopping areas and a sort of strip where most of the restaurants were.
I know people who love to barter and shop where they can play the negotiating game to get the best price. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this place. However, I am not one of them. I will state here that most of the Egyptians we met were polite, kind and friendly. To be fair, times are tough and the tourist trade is down, so that could account for some of the aggressive tactics.
The shuttle dropped us off and picked us up on a side street in front of, I kid you not, the Lionel Richie shops with Lionel’s picture prominent on the signs. This is a row of four shops – spices, jewelry, tennis shoes and clothing named Lionel Richie 1, 2, 3 & 4. As you might suspect, these are all name-brand and designer knock-offs. One shop keeper explained to Larry that the watches were, “authentic reproductions – the best anywhere.” The only difference was they were gold plated, everything else was identical to a real one. “And at such a price!” Even the TripAdvisor sticker they pointed out, to give you confidence in shopping there, was a fake – I checked.
I thought I might purchase a small trinket to remember our trip, but we came home empty-handed. If there was anything there that I wanted to purchase, I’ll never know. If you show even a glancing interest in a shop you can be assured the shop owner will approach you – I’m okay with that. However, some (but not all) of the shop owners stand out front and, with quite a variety of aggressive tactics bordering on badgering, try to get you to come into their shops to see their wares (also known as Step 1 in the art of closing a deal). Consequently, one cannot even window-shop without risking an aggressive sales pitch requiring the equivalent of a verbal boxing match to escape.
This whole environment was not to Larry’s liking and he was on high alert. I, on the other hand, was trying to remain open to this new experience. So I accepted an offer to enter one spice shop, as I had never seen spices displayed so beautifully. The nice shopkeeper thanked us for our interest, gave us his card, and asked us to come back to him if we decided to purchase spices. See, that wasn’t so bad.
A few doors down the proprietor of a nice looking oil/essence/perfume shop asked us to come in. We knew we were not interested in any more Egyptian oils and we politely declined. But suddenly he looked offended and said, “you won’t accept my Egyptian hospitality?” Then he saw Larry’s expression and said, “what, are you afraid of me? I am just like you. Please, accept my hospitality and come in for a cup of tea.” Of course, I’m thinking of the book Three Cups of Tea and how not to further offend this guy (had we?). As I accepted and entered, I could sense Larry was having a fairly well concealed conniption fit as he followed me in.
As we sat down on the couch a gentleman in the back of the store brewed us some tea, which, in retrospect, I’m glad was too hot to drink. Larry explained that we had to meet another couple very soon for dinner. He ignored Larry and asked me what scents we used. He grabs a bottle of oil that, oddly, was very close at hand (mind you he had two walls with shelves ceiling-to-floor full of oils, and can my scent be that popular?). He put some on my hand and said, “now doesn’t that smell just like it?” With the first sniff it did (the power of suggestion?), but with the second I came up with nothing. He had already moved on to Larry’s scent, ultimately with the same result, leaving me wondering if anyone really falls for that.
Larry was rightfully over and done with humoring me, and got up to leave while reminding me that it would be rude to keep our dinner companions waiting. I agreed and as we backed out I told the proprietor his shop was beautiful and thanked him for the tea and his time. I was certain we had redeemed ourselves by accepting his hospitality while proving we were not afraid of him. Larry was kind enough not to state the obvious, as I had already figured out that all we had really done was to prove my naiveté. We, okay I, was feeling a bit used realizing that this man took the knowledge that Westerners are raised to be polite and not offend and used it as his sales ploy to get us inside. We wandered around some more looking for a place to eat and, without thinking, walked back down the street near that oil shop. Then we heard someone yell, “You lier! I knew you didn’t have people to meet, you lied to me!” Newly enlightened, I had no qualms about totally ignoring him and we both just kept walking.
The restaurants worked the same way. I couldn’t even look at a menu or seafood display without being, what now seemed like, accosted. So we went to the only restaurant I recognized from TripAdvisor, the Camel Bar & Roof. Luckily we got a seat on the roof overlooking the main street below and, what do you know, it was Curry Night (is it ever NOT curry night?) $9.90 for either Chicken Tikka or Masala w/Rice and a glass of wine – we got one of each. The curry was okay, not memorable, but it was the perfect place to safely watch the action until time to meet the hotel shuttle. Although almost every restaurant table had them, a tradition I did not try was smoking flavored tobacco from a shisha pipe (or hookah). Since I’m an ex-smoker, it just didn’t seem wise. Plus I read smoking tobacco from a hookah was twice as bad for you as smoking cigarettes.
Other than the great weather, the beach and the shopping, we decided there were two very special things about this area we wanted to see – the extensive coral reefs and St. Catherine’s Monastery. Since Larry’s sinuses won’t allow him to snorkel, we booked a trip to the reef by “submarine” through the hotel. (My seat-mate on the plane said you couldn’t see anything from the glass bottom boat tours.) The tour was okay, but the “submarines” are really boats with a very deep hull with windows. They keep you above deck in the hot sun until they have sold enough hats (who brings a hat to a submarine ride?), then take you below deck to the “submarine” once they arrive at the reef. There were so many “submarines” at the reef that I’m sure no self-respecting sea creature would hang out there very often, plus all that activity made the water murky. So if you go and can snorkel or, better yet, dive – that’s the best way to enjoy the reefs.
A funny thing happened on the “submarine.” Well, actually sort of a sad/funny – you decide. The submarine had benches lined up along the windows and some chairs down the middle to accommodate overflow. The benches were far enough from the windows that you really had to lean over to get a good look at the fish. Sitting on the bench next to us in the submarine was a woman about my age and size with her grandson. She apparently was anticipating a very warm day and was wearing a tube top with one of those plastic bras and a pair of mid-rise white cropped pants with a white thong. TMI – you betcha. She spent almost the entire submarine ride bent waaaay over to point out the fish to her grandson. Not only was the tube top stretched so the entire back of her bra was exposed but, most notably, the waist of her pants was well below her butt crack and way too much of her thong was visible. That’s the funny part! The sad part is that sitting on the chairs directly behind her were a Muslim couple and their child of about five years old. The young mother was dressed in black and wearing a hijab. For almost an hour, unless they looked at either the ceiling, the floor or each other, their view was of this lady’s butt crack. At least I had the option to look at the fish, had I chosen to. I felt so sorry for them!
Much more interesting than the butt crack and a few fish was the chance to see the beach where the locals go, use the same restroom the locals do, and pet my first camel. No surprise, the local beach looked nothing like the one at the hotel. Much like our public beaches, everyone brought their own stuff, the beach was shallow and crowded. The Egyptians must be incredibly agile as their “couches” really are on the floor – more like sitting on pillows. The couches we see in most of the restaurants and lounging areas are for the comfort of the tourists. When I was directed to the restroom by one of our tour guides he made a point to tell me it was “no charge.” Good thing because the young man who was mopping the floor in the ladies’ room the entire time I was in the stall, was adamant that his presence had value. Alas, I brought no money. The locals do bring their camels to the beach with them. I guess they can’t leave them tied up at the curb.
Our trip to St. Catherine’s Monastery, or
How we almost froze to death in the middle of the Sinai Desert
The hotel was unable to assist us with a tour to St. Catherine’s Monastery. The number of tours now were few due to the drop off of the tourist trade and the travel restrictions. St. Catherine’s was about the only place we were allowed to go outside of Sharm. I found a few really cheap tours that spent less than an hour at the monastery and then dropped you for “shopping time” in the coastal town of Dahab. After our shopping experience in Naama’s town, that had zero appeal to me. Another option was to be picked up at 10:00 PM the previous night so you could hike up Mount Sinai (Moses’ Mountain), the last part of the hike is 700 steps, and be at the top to watch the sunrise. Then you come back down the mountain and tour the monastery before it closes at noon. If we were twenty years younger, I am sure it would be an amazing experience. This tour mentioned it would be cold high up on the mountain in the middle of the night but, since we were not taking that tour, that little tidbit of information did not stick with me. I finally found the perfect tour for two control freaks, a private tour with pick up from our hotel at 7:00 AM, approximately a three-hour drive to St. Catherine’s Monastery spending as much time as we want there, lunch in Dahab midway on the return arriving back at the hotel about 4:00 PM. As with everything here in Sharm, the price was very reasonable. I also wanted to ride a camel, and from all I read that would be possible at St. Catherine’s.
We were picked up the next morning in a small van (again with all the curtains closed) by our very knowledgeable, and may I say enthusiastic for such an early hour, English speaking guide, Allam (who has also studied French, Italian, Russian and Polish). With him was our very capable driver, Atef, who spoke no English but had a wonderful smile. I explained to Allam, as I had to the booking agent, that we did not want to be rushed at the monastery, nor want to shop in Dahab and I wanted to ride a camel if possible. It was comforting to hear Allam say that the aggressive sales tactics of the shopkeepers in Sharm and Naama Bay were embarrassing to him and he thought not good for business. He also said it is not that way everywhere in Egypt. Interestingly, he commented on what a shame it was that with so much sunshine, Egypt did not choose to generate solar energy – and couldn’t they then sell it to others for revenue for the country? However, fuel prices are extremely low in Egypt, so there is little incentive.
So, what to wear touring and camel-riding in the middle of the day in the desert in Egypt? Shorts? No, silly, you might get camel-chap (emphasis on the h). Light-weight pants, linen shirts, tennis shoes for traction and a hat, of course. Since we left so early in the morning I did throw our light jackets in the van along with our huge “to go” continental breakfasts the hotel prepared for us, confident I had thought of everything. By now Larry’s stomach was not enjoying the new microbes he was ingesting and he was not at all hungry, so I immediately gave his breakfast box to our appreciative guides.
At our first comfort stop/cigarette break, that was a little too “traditional” to entice us to use, it was chilly and the tourists were in warm coats. I wasn’t too concerned as I was sure they were folks returning from climbing the mountain, plus it was still overcast and a bit windy. It was then that we encountered the first of several Bedouin children beggars that we would see that day. He was about 8 years old and came to my window of the van. We didn’t give him money but then I saw him point to my box of food so I gave him an apple. He walked away looking disappointed, and now I was feeling like a miser, so I had our guide take him the meats and cheeses before we left. He smiled and waved as we drove away.
Around 10:30 AM we arrived at the entrance/parking/restrooms to St. Catherine’s. My heart sank as everybody, except one or two couples who looked just as surprised as we, were dressed in winter coats, scarves, hats and gloves because it was cold and very, very windy. Oh crap! Speaking of which, by then we needed those restrooms badly and fortunately our guide warned us we would have to pay. It seems there was an enterprising Bedouin woman at the entrance charging for toilet paper. We paid our money which got me about 5 sheets of paper, and Larry none.
As we stood in line shivering, I just kept thinking about our down coats and gloves languishing in our hotel room closet. I recommended to our guide that a heads-up would have been helpful. He said he had been there the last two days and it was warm, so you never knew what the weather would be. With the sun out I knew we wouldn’t actually freeze to death, so I refused to purchase one of the funny smelling handmade blanket/cape sort of things the Bedouins were tying to sell us. No thank you, we’re really not as cold as we look. So we zipped up our light-weight jackets, jammed our hands into our pockets, and hoped it was warmer inside the monastery walls. There was a bit of a walk from the parking area to the entrance, but it was welcomed at this point. Thankfully the sun stayed out the whole time but, since the monastery is at an elevation of 1570 meters at the end of a narrow valley, the cool wind was constant.
The Monastery of St. Catherine belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. The smallest dioceses in the world is at the same time the oldest Christian monastery still in existence in the world and houses also the richest collection of icons and precious manuscripts. It is chronicled that Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, remained so impressed by the sacredness of these places that in the year 330 she ordered the construction of a small chapel on the site where Moses is believed to have encountered the presence of God in the form of a Burning Bush. The monastery is at the foot of Mount Sinai where the Old Testament records that Moses received the Ten Commandments. In a curious architectural and symbolic contrast, the monastery contains both a Basilica with a bell tower next to a Mosque with a minaret. Today it serves not only for the pilgrims of the Islamic faith who visit, but also for the Muslim personnel working at the monastery. You can learn more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site and how it survived over the centuries here.
Once there I understood why the tours spent so little time at the monastery – it is very small. I seems the tourists cannot be trusted to treat the area with respect. You are allowed to enter the Basilica of the Transfiguration, but must view it’s art and treasures from behind a rope not far inside the door. Likewise, you can no longer get close to the area where the “burning bush” was as previous tourists tried to see if it would still burn – really? You could, however, touch the well where Moses reportedly met his future wife. Once again I was struck by the good fortune of traveling off-season, as I can’t imagine what this small site would be like when crowded. Larry wanted to get to the side of the exterior walls where the sun was shining to take some photos and, again, a walk in the sun was welcome.
Then, coincidently (I think not), along comes a Bedouin man in his early 20’s, Mohamad, riding his camel. We cleverly negotiated him down on the price for two camel rides for the price of one but for a shorter length of time. I asked Mohamad if his camel had a name and he said, yes, Michael Jackson! Before now I didn’t realize that even sitting down camels are pretty tall and, with my short legs, no styrup and no stool in sight, it was a bit of a struggle to get on. But at this stage in life I’m more concerned about results than form. Michael Jackson, who was radiating some welcome heat, was lead by Mohamad up the path toward Moses’ mountain with Allam and Larry following. After a short while I asked Mohamad if it was time for Larry to ride, and he assured me I had a couple more minutes (in his pretty good English). We passed very few people on the path so it was a relaxed, quiet ride while admiring our beautiful but stark sourroundings. By now Mohamad had left Michael Jackson to lead himself and is behind us walking with Allam. This continued until I had ridden Michael Jackson for about 30 minutes – Mohamed’s no dummy. I was a bit worried about Larry having now treked up-hill on this rocky dirt path for 30 minutes in the sun, but he was fine. It seems Mohamad and Allam had decided to go far enough for us to see the top of Mount Sinai. As I got off, I don’t think anything that clumbsy could be called a dismount, I noticed that Michael Jackson was packing heat of the semi-automatic variety. There are no police to call on if you run into trouble out there so it makes sense the Bedouins must take care of themselves. Fortunately, I got to walk downhill as Larry rode Michael Jackson back to our starting point. Clearly we are now indebted to Mohamad for more than the negotiated price – and he afforded Larry the opportunity to make amends – but it was worth it.
Satisfied, we walked briskly back to the parking lot and found our warmed-by-the-sun van a welcome relief. As we headed back toward Dahab, we admired the many rocky mounds carved by the wind and sand into unusual shapes with intricate designs that were fascinating – miles and miles of nothing but sand and rock. We passed some Bedouin camps but there were few people to be seen that time of day. Just a few camels and, in a clear sign of a changing world, pick-up trucks. Allam told us that many Bedouins now have nice homes, large televisions and vehicles.
About 100 km north of Sharm is Dahab, a small center of informal tourism – very small. There are no large hotel complexes but a sign on what looked like a very small B&B called “Camp David,” no fast-food chains, and not a single shop owner approached us as we passed by. Larry was feeling that he really needed to get some antibiotics and wondered aloud if there might be a pharmacy in Dahab. As luck would have it, not only was there a pharmacy right near the restaurant, but the pharmacist spoke English. So now Larry was set with two kinds of antibiotics, a general one and another specifically designed to handle the local microbes. We were in Dahab to eat a traditional meal at their best restaurant, Ali Baba, located right on the water. We asked Allam if he and Atef wanted to join us, but they declined and ate at another table. Not the least bit reluctant to join us were the local felines. There seemed to be one under each table and we had an adorable adolescent Abyssinian under ours. The restaurant does not encourage or like their presence, but with an open restaurant there isn’t much they can do. We did not mind at all meeting one more Egyptian resident.
The restaurant was very sympathetic of Larry’s situation and brought him a lovely soup. They brought me fresh Egyptian bread (a grilled pita bread) with a selection of yummy dips: yogurt and cucumber, eggplant, tahini, hummus, cheese and tomato, and Baba Ghannoug. Next came Kofta (tasty minced lamb on skewers and grilled) with grilled onions, zucchini and carrots on a bed of greens. The meal was ample, so there was plenty to share with our young guest under the table. Another young guest came by the table, a girl about 12 begging for coins. The look in her eyes told a story that broke my heart, so we gave her some coins. When we walked back to the van, in the parking lot was the same young girl with her younger brother. We gave them the remainder of our breakfast box which they were digging into as we drove away.
We felt satisfied that we had experienced some of “real Egypt.” I can only see us returning to this country if sometime in the future the terrorist attacks and political unrest allow a visit to the Pyramids in the Valley of the Kings area where tourism has been reduced to a trickle since 2011. That is a bit of history that would be very interesting to see one day. Allam gave us his email address in case we do return and need a guide. I finally succumbed to the microbe invasion the night before we returned home, so Larry and I both finished off a round of antibiotics over the next few days, but it was worth it. That’s the adventure part! We are very glad we had the experience to see such a beautiful part of the world, experience the culture and meet its people.
P.S. – I am sorry to have to add that on 16 February, a week after our return, a terrorist group set off a bomb in a bus of Korean tourists in Taba. Three Koreans and one Egyptian were killed plus 13 Koreans an 3 Egyptians injured. The Islamist group Ansar eit Al-Maqdis said it carried out the bombing and has told tourists to leave Egypt, threatening to attack any who are still in the country. Of course, their motive is to reduce the revenue stream of the government they oppose. The last attack on tourists had been five years ago and since then any attacks had been focused on the military and government buildings – and all of this in the north of the country. Although Taba is over a three-hour drive north of Sharm, the terrorist’s ultimatum is sure to affect what remains of the country’s tourist industry everywhere. So sad for the Egyptians just trying to eek out a living.