|The Red Sea Coast|
|May 30 -- Red Sea -- Sinai Peninsula -- Sharm el-Sheik -- No Women
We arrive late in the night in Hurghada, then get up at 2:30 am to catch the ferry across the Red Sea to Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The winds are high and the sea rough. Many passengers get sick, but we do fine, and even get a little sleep. We ride our bikes down the ferry ramp toward town to find breakfast.
We take a leisurely ride around Sharm el-Sheikh, and Tass notes we do not see a single woman anywhere, not on the streets, in any of the shops, nor in any of the vehicles that have passed us. Not that unusual but just starting to get old. After 30 minutes we spot a perfect sidewalk cafe with a smorgasboard of delicious food artfully displayed in a glass case. As we eat, the town comes to life, the streets and sidewalks fill...with men. Tass notes she still has not seen another woman. After a huge breakfast we sit, drinking coffe and studying our guidebook, trying to decide where to stay. Still not a sighting of another woman. Finally at 9:30 am just as we get on our bikes to leave Tass spots a woman walking down the sidewalk.
It is hard not to wonder abut the total segregation of men and women, and how that effects many social issues, not just freedom and equality, but the preponderance of militarism, nationalism and the propensity toward religious fundamentalism. Men work together all day long, and at night they fill the coffeshops till 2 and 3 am. Whether single or married, many men spend virtually no time around women. The bonds of affection foreign men create with their wives or girlfiriends, men here get from each other. It is common to see men walking, hand in hand or arm in arm, or sitting, almost cuddling each other, arms cast over each others shoulders, leaning against each other languidly. The men also have elaborate greetings, holding hands and kissing each other 3 or 4 times on the cheeks. Yet most men won't sit with their wives in public.
We ride north out of town against a fierce, hot wind. Suddenly tired from a lack of sleep, our speed drops to 10.4 km per hour, dangerously close to our 10 km per hour minimum speed. Unless we are super motivated to cross a difficult section, 10 km an hour or less, just 6 mph, in non-mountainous terrain, means it is time to consider taking a bus. But we never drop the last .4 km an hour so we keep riding. We take a wrong turn, twice, and have to backtrack. Not far, but enough for us to dub our efforts "Hell Day."
Early afternoon we arrive at Sharks Bay, check into a little reed hut with a thatched roof, electric lights and a fan. We rent masks, fins and snorkles and head for the reef, just off the beach. Within moments the heat and stress of the day dissappear. The reef is fantastic, the fish colorful, the beach chaise lounges and shaded awnings cool and comfortable. And the beer is icy cold.
|May 31-June 1 -- Shark's Bay -- Snorkling Red Sea -- Coral Reefs
We are staying at Shark's Bay Bedouin Camp, which we had envisioned being a quiet, isolated "camp" on the shores of the Red Sea. However, the last few years a rush of development has occured all along the coast, and the once remote camp is now surrounded by condos and hotels. The large dock is busy with boatloads of snorkelers, divers and sight-seers from other resorts along the coast.
The Red Sea has some of the best diving in the world. So we have rather high expectations. Still it is startling when we first put our heads under the crystal clear water. The stunning array of brightly colored fish is astounding. Schools of three-inch Fairy basslets, neon orange with striking purple eyes, swim past. Nearby, a solitary three-foot Bluespine unicorn fish, bright green with a flashy blue racing strip across it's back, a pointy, kissing mouth, and a thumb size horn sticking out between its eyes, nibbles on the coral. Below us, Stripped butterfly fish, electric yellow with black zebra strips, dart in pairs wherever they go. Each is ten inches long, eight inches high and just over an inch wide--they go from being quite large to nearly invisible depending on the direction they swim.
Equally impressive is the color and variety of coral, every shape imaginable in white, yellow, blue, lavender, green and gold. It is so odd to think the coral are not plants, but tiny animals, polyps, and that together they form the huge living reef. I carriend our heavy Nikonos underwater camera for a month through the desert on our bicycles, and at last we put it to good use. We take turns, snorkeling one at a time with the camera, each of us going out for an hour while the other warms up on the beach.
We had planned on staying two days but stay three. Partly because the snorkeling is so fun, but also because Tass is not feeling 100%. The antibiotics for her tooth have helped the pain in her jaw, although she can still only chew on one side of her mouth. But she has also caught a nasty cold, and has a horrible, wracking cough that shakes her whole body and burns her lungs. She has to pop her head out of the water every few dives and pull out her snorkel to have a coughing fit out in the ocean. She jokes that the ocassional salt water snort up the nose actually helps to clear her sinuses. We are afraid the much harder exertion of biking would send her into permanent coughing convulsions.
|June 2 -- Cycling to Dahab
Tass feels ready to face the headwinds, but not mountains AND headwinds, so we take a short taxi ride to get us up the initial climb from the coast and into the mountains. Of course, the first thing we do is ride down into a valley and start back up another climb. But the scenery is striking. We are in a errie landscape surrounded by steep mountains of weathered, crumbling rock. We pass occasional Bedouin villages, stark cinderblock houses interspersed with huge hand-woven camel hair tents, some 60 feet long, all surrounded by goats and camels, tended by little kids with sticks, who wave and yell out "Welcome" as we pedal past.
The temperature hovers around 100 degrees as we start up yet another climb. But the headwind suddenly dies. We ride at a leisurely pace taking our time, and it is not too bad and Tass only has a few coughing fits. Finally we crest one last pass and begin the promised "downhill all the way to Dahab," back on the coast. In town we ride through streets filled with litter, with huge piles of garbage everywhere, along with goats and camels, unattended, walking up and down each block searching through the refuse for food, or just lying in the dust beside the road, unconcerned with our passing. This is by far the dirtiest town we have seen in all of Egypt. Dismayed, we work our way through town until we see a sign for a Bedouin camp/hotel.
Once through the gates of the camp everything is very clean, with small rooms to rent and a cheerful, friendly staff. But the big surprise is when we walk out the opposite side of the camp toward the beach. We pass through a hallway and come out onto an immaculate, wide, patterned cobblestone pedestrian path, lined with restaraunts and tourist shops. It is like we have stepped onto another planet, or a Hollywood movie set erected for the benefit of tourists, while the real town is hidden behind the facade. Obviously we came into town via the back door. Before us is a totally fun and happening little beach oasis, filled with independent travelers. A Sinai version of Bali, Indonesia, or Kho Sumoi, Thailand.
Since it is already mid afternoon, we take a quick jeep ride up the coast to snorkel in the Blue Hole, then return to eat a deliciious supper of fresh fish in one of the restaraunts, our table just a few feet from the waters edge, with stunning views of the Red Sea and the mountains of Saudi Arabia in the distance on the other side.
|June 3 -- Snorkeling the Blue Hole
There is only one thing we want to do today, and that is return to the Blue Hole for more snorkeling. The hole itself is impressive, about 120 feet in diameter and 240 feet deep, but more spectabular is the wall beyond the hole, which drops off nearly 2,000 feet into the Red Sea. The top of the wall is only 15-20 feet below the surface, and covered with the largest variety of coral we have ever seen, along with plenty of tropical fish. The water is so clear we almost get vertigo as we swim along the drop-off as though we could suddenly fall over the edge and into the abyss. Huge varities of soft coral gently sway beneath us. Many coral names give an accurage description of their form: lime green salad coral, three feet in diameter, broccoli coral, two fee high; red and pink finger coral in balls two feet wide. Other corals don't begin to match their names: organ pipe coral looks like a giant tangeled mass of thin starfish; table coral looks like four-foot high white bonzai trees; and grass coral resembles of boquet of golden daisies.
|June 4 -- Muslim News -- Cycling through Israel
Our 30-day Egypt visa expires tomorrow. No time to cycle further northward, we have to leave the country today. The ferry to Jordan is very expensive, so we decide to save money by going overland through Eilat, Israel. On the bus to Taba I sit next to an Egyptian man who works at the airport. "What do you think of all the Russians?" he asks. Russians are coming to this area in increasing numbers. Most restaraunts in Dahab have menus available in Russian. "They are ruining the Red Sea!" he tells me. "We always find coral in their luggage at the security x-ray. They always act surprised, like they didn't know it is illegal to take the coral." When he discovers I am an American he congratulates me for traveling to Egypt. "It is good for people to see that not all Americans are arrogant like George Bush."
The newspapers lately have been full of stories about anti-American protests throughout the Muslim world over the deliberate dessecrating of Korans, the Muslim holy book, at Guantanamo prison, and a variety of other foregin policy complaints. The difference in news reports is startling. An American paper might headline three GI's killed in Irag, with the last paragraph mentioning "a number of civilians were killed." Here in Egypt the headline says 30 civilians killed. The article then describes who they were, sad quotes from bereaved family members over the deteriorating security situation, and an account of the wounded. The last paragraph mentions that three GI's were also killed. Both stories are factual, but each gives an entirely different perspective.
One editorial dismisses the Guantanamo issue, stating "Why should Muslims be surprised when the US government, who are all infidels, does not respect Muslim culture and would desecrate sacred scriptures? Muslims should instead be protesting the violence in Iraq and other areas where Muslims are killing other Muslims." Another article describes giant shopping malls being built in Malaysia to lure Arab shoppers who are tired of "the security and visa hassles of travel in terrorism obsessed western countries" (i.e. the US). Another article is about the huge drop in Muslim students going to the US for education. Instead, many now go to India (which is becoming a major competitor in the high tech field) or Malaysia. I am afraid the increased isolation between US and Muslim people will ultimately lead to less understanding between our cultures, and in the long term make us much less safe.
In Taba we load up the bikes and ride to the Israli border at Eilat. Tass is thrilled to see women working at the checkpoints and customs. We thought we could zip across Eilat in 30 minutes, but the road does not follow the coast to Jordan. We zig-zag for a couple of hours before finally arriving at the Jordan border. We don't have time to bicyce both ways to our destination, Petra, so we cross the border and catch a ride into the mountains. We'll bicycle back out, hopefully with a tailwind.