As we continue eastward on our year of adventure; we have now left behind the part of the world that we are the most familiar with in terms of family history, culture, language, food, religion, etc. Our first destination in these stranger waters is Egypt. For the record, Tiffany and Scarlet did travel to Egypt this past spring. Scarlet chose Egypt as the place that she wanted to visit for a 10 day mother-daughter bonding on her 10th birthday. The girls were with a pre-arranged tour group run by an Irish woman (who goes by the nickname Mara) and her very capable assistant, Fatma. By all accounts, their trip was an incredible adventure that created indelible memories. Tiffany decided then and there that she had to return to this fascinating place with her whole family and so here we are.
What comes to mind when you say that you will be visiting Egypt? Pyramids, pharaohs, King Tut, hieroglyphics, the Nile River, Cleopatra, Moses, the Red Sea. Of course, all of these things and much more! The largely desert country straddles the Middle East and Northern Africa. My knowledge of bible history is a bit rusty but I vaguely recall that Egypt is the land where the Israelites where held in captivity and servitude by the pharaohs for many years. The ‘Exodus’ from Egypt of God’s chosen people was a 40 year arduous trek thru the desert until they reached the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. Moses ‘parted’ the Red Sea (with a little help from above no doubt) and the Israelites crossed into the ‘promised land’ of Israel. This is my very much abridged version of the famous bible story and I am sure that I have left out many important details.
We arrived in Cairo very late on December 28 (3:00 am in the morning) and booked the first few nights in the Le Meridien Hotel which is connected directly to Terminal 3 at the airport (there are 3 terminals). We had promised our girls a swimming pool and room service (a welcome change from our austere Airbnb’s). Le Meridien was great and we enjoyed a relaxing few days as we eased into our Egypt experience. I was able to get some work done as we allowed our girls a small break from homeschool as well and the girls (especially Scarlet) enjoyed the large outdoor heated pool.
It was time to move on to the Airbnb that Tiffany had found for us. The residence is located on the shore of the Red Sea in the town of Dahab (in the Sinai Peninsula). The trip required a short plane ride from Cairo to Sharm El Sheik and then a 55 minute drive by car to Dahab. The house had an idyllic location literally on the shores of the Red Sea but as it turned out, it did not have much else going for it! The online photos (and description) did not seem to match the house much. We had expected that ‘the beach house’ would be quaint but also comfortable. The water stopped working after a few hours and the internet connection which I need for work was very poor. The kitchen area also had a nauseating sewer smell that we tried to air out by opening the front and back door. But our efforts did not seem to help matters much. It was already dark but we needed to be able to at least flush the toilets (we had some drinking water). We called the property manager who initially greeted us at the house when we arrived. About 10 minutes later, a truck pulled up to the house and a man jumped out and pulled a hose into the yard, opened a wood door and proceeded to fill the water tank that was buried in the front yard. Apparently the tank had run dry. (We did not even know that there was a buried water tank in the first place.) After the tank fill-up, the water was working again and we went to bed. The next morning, we discovered that the water had stopped working again! We waited until about 8:00 am and called the property manager but could not reach him. About an hour later, we finally got thru to his cell phone and he came over to the house. He did not come inside but simply turned on an outside spigot and water gushed out. He looked at me somewhat puzzled and left. I went back inside the house and sure enough the water was working again for about 20 minutes and then it quit again. The internet still was not working very well and the odor in the kitchen still hung in the air. The water shutting off again was the last straw for me and Tiffany proceeded to find us another rental in the area. She cancelled our reservation at the ‘beach house’ and found a vacancy at the Red C Villas literally about a 1 km away. (FYI…for anyone booking thru Airbnb, a decision to leave a rental should be made within 24 hours of arrival but the decision should not be made lightly as many Airbnb owners have a strict policy of no refunds for cancellations. We assume that Airbnb owners do not want to risk getting a bad review and will often offer a partial refund to unsatisfied tenants). We had not completely unpacked so it was no big deal to pack up, find a taxi and head to our new temporary home in Dahab. We knew that we could not check in until later in the afternoon but we counted on at least being able to drop our luggage and perhaps hang out at the outdoor pool. When we arrived a the Red C Villas, we met the owner, an English gentleman formerly from London. He graciously allowed us to store our luggage on the premises. We also upgraded our booking to a 2-level unit that was just being vacated by a Russian couple who had spent 2 months in the villa. The owner (Stephen) is a very pleasant fellow and we got to know him quite well.
Dahab, Egypt is an interesting place indeed. I looked up the meaning in arabic which is ‘gold’ or ‘golden sand’. Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt. Five times a day (starting at sunrise) we heard the ‘call to prayer’ from the mosques. The ‘call to prayer’ is a deeply moving and melodic chant if you have never heard it before. We walked the dusty streets of the town near Asala Square. This is what all the locals were doing since there were no ‘walkable’ sidewalks as such. There were roving packs of goats wandering the streets in search of food oblivious to the human and vehicle traffic. We were informed that it was ok to feed the goats any food scraps and leftovers. And so we did…several times. One morning when I was headed out to find ‘Ralphs’ German Bakery’ in our neighborhood (an authentic ethnic bakery and cafe) started by an expat from Munich in 2009. I saw a small pickup truck drive by with four camels sitting into the back, calmly looking around – probably happy to be riding for a change instead of lugging a saddle pack and tourists around on their humps! Definitely something you don’t see everyday in the states especially on Maui!
There is not a single vehicle stop sign, yield sign or any street sign for that matter. There is honking (of course). It seems that everyone and his brother is a ‘taxi cab’ driver and they will honk at anyone walking down the street to pick up a fare. This was the only place in our travels so far thru Europe where the ‘taxi’ drivers hail you instead of the other way around. We had done our homework in advance and somewhat knew what to pay for taxi rides (very inexpensive, usually 10 to 20 Egyptian pounds which is roughly 50 cents to a $1.00). We really liked one of the taxi drivers that we met, Mostafa Mahmood. Mostafa is 23 and moved to Dahab with his mother and father about 5 years ago from Luxor. He speaks a little bit of English and always had a great smile and disposition. We called on him whenever we needed a taxi to go somewhere that was too far to walk. Mostafa also arranged a special trip for us to “the blue hole” which is a well know diving and snorkeling spot about 5 kilometers from Dahab. The trip also included a long camel ride for all of us which was quite the experience. This is what ‘tourists’ do in Egypt and the camels for the most part seem pretty agreeable. The use of camels by the nomadic Bedouin tribes for travel across the desert goes back centuries.
We spent a lot of time at an area in Dahab known as ‘the lighthouse’. The area is popular with expats and travelers primarily for the diving and snorkeling. There are many seaside restaurants, all very affordable and friendly. The total bill for a satisfying meal for all five of us (including milkshakes or ice cream and Turkish coffee or Bedouin Tea) was always less than $25 USD (500 Egyptian pounds). One can find pretty much any kind of food (Russian stuffed cabbage rolls, pizza, fresh fish, vegan, Thai curry, baba ganoush, shish kebab and everything in between). We had a late dinner at one of the restaurants that we especially liked (Jays) and we noticed the lights in the distance across the water. I asked our server about the lights and he told us very matter of factly, ‘that is Saudi Arabia’. I must admit that hearing this from the server was kind of ‘mind blowing’ as to exactly where we were. Saudi Arabia was literally 14 kilometers away (less than 10 miles) from where we were having dinner. All of the restaurant proprietors were extremely friendly and made us feel very welcome. We were always greeted with ‘you are welcome’ . Whenever anyone anywhere meets us we hear a minimum of three ‘you are welcome’, ‘you are most welcome’, ‘first time in Egypt?…Welcome’. The Egyptian people are not only very hospitable, but it is apparent that they sincerely want us to be pleased by the food, service, camel ride, and will go to any length to ensure this. We were always asked where we were from. While Dahab seems to be popular with tourists from Russia, Germany and Japan, American tourists are apparently rare in this part of Egypt. The food staples at the small local markets (no supermarkets in Dahab!) were also very inexpensive. There are also inexpensive fruit and vegetable markets as well that we frequented to keep our ‘seemingly always eating’ children and the neighborhood goats well fed.
I even got bold enough to get a haircut in Dahab as I was starting to look a bit like a mad scientist with my crazy hair. My ‘barber’ spoke no English but the proprietor of the ‘spa’ which offered the ‘mens haircut’ and a full menu of every other type of facial and massage that you can imagine translated for me.
We were pleased with our visit to Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula and the friendly people that we met. We are excited that Devin (Tiffany’s oldest daughter) on break from college is rejoining us on Saturday and will be spending the next month traveling with us. We are off to Luxor in a few days and then back to Cairo for the next leg of our Egyptian travels. There will be much to report about in the coming posts!