Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Incident in the Khan

Well, I’m sitting in Sharm right now, curled up on my lovely bed and hoping to find an internet café somewhere to let me download this to the internet because the Hilton charges 60 LE per HOUR for access. Ahhh, this is going to one of the more difficult entries due to the fact that I was robbed of my entire life in the Khan and am dangling on a fairly tenuous thread of sanity right now. But, to backpedal a bit-my family arrived last week on Saturday. The airport pickup I arranged went smoothly, but I ended up waiting with the drivers for 3 hours because my family’s plane was delayed a half hour and three of their bags were lost, or, as they found out after waiting in a horrendously long queque, stuck in Paris and not due to arrive until the next day. Nevertheless, they were here, and after hugs and greetings, we piled into two cars and drove to Zamalek while they gazed wide-eyed at the Cairo metropolis. Unfortunately, they chose one of the worst days of the year to arrive in Cairo, the first day of Eid El-Kibeer, one of the holidays in Islam that celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram instead of his son Isaac, and, to commemorate the holiday, most families slaughter a sheep or other beast right in the street. Having risen early that morning to hit the gym and some last minute shopping, I saw some of the more baladi (lower-class) streets running red with blood and several freshly killed animals being sliced for eating. Although I was prepared for the sight, it still was a bit of a shock to splash through a puddle (in the taxi, thank God) and realize the red tinge to the water sloshing against the sides was blood.
By the time my family arrived in the evening, the streets were fairly purified of the vestiges of the feast’s sacrifices. After checking into the Flamenco hotel across the street, we entered my apartment building, and they gawked for a moment as they stepped into the elevator that has no door and a single bare lightbulb for illumination. “I thought you lived in a luxury apartment building?” my mom asked as we stepped out onto my floor and were greeted with the familiar sight of bare wires, crumbling walls, and detrius on the floor.
“Don’t worry, I do,” I assured her with a smile as we entered my apartment that I had tidied and filled with flowers earlier. I must confess, I don’t think they were very impressed. Yes, it was certainly nicer than the hallway, but a luxury apartment in the States and one in Egypt are two entirely disparate entities. For one, Egypt is cold this time of the year, or at least not terribly warm, with temperatures in the 50’s in the evenings, and, as apartments are constructed to release heat and retain coolness (for the atrociously hot summers), mine was slightly chilly. To conserve electricity, my roommates and I only heat our bedrooms when we’re in them, and never the common areas, so the living room wasn’t heated, although I like to think that the joyfulness of our reunion provided enough warmth for us all ;-)
I had dinner reservations at Abu El Sid’s scheduled for 8, so, due to my parents’ delayed flight and luggage, we had to head for the restaurant about an hour after we arrived in Zamalek. After a hasty belated Christmas (lots of new movies, books, and jewelry to enjoy!), I led the weary troops into the streets of Zamalek for their first outing in Egypt. I knew they’d be astonished at my audacity, but I didn’t think they’d be quite that frightened by it. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to walk in the streets because they are less uneven and more direct, although my family views this predilection as a death sentence and thinks I’m crazy. Of course, they could also not fail to notice the occasional piles of garbage lying about and comment on the filthiness of Cairo while I reassured them that Zamalek is one of the cleanest districts in the city. After an observant walk laden with commentary, we reached the restaurant and, despite my reservation, waited a few minutes and were then seated. I’ve become accustomed to smoky buildings with hazy, cloying inside air, but my family is not, so they immediately noticed the laden air somewhat choked with cigarette smoke. However, Abu El Sid’s is quaintly Middle Eastern, with mashrabiya windows, dark corners, metal lanterns, gilded divans, ornate tables and Egyptian art, so they were fascinated by the atmosphere enough to overcome their aversion to the smoke. Unfortunately, the service was extraordinarily slow, even for Egypt, and they had just flown half way around the world, so they were falling asleep for much of the meal, but they did comment on the quality and tastiness of the food; we even managed to have Andrew sample some Middle Eastern cuisine. After that, it was another walk through the streets where they observed the soldiers standing on the corners and in little boxes outside the embassies (and I instructed my family NOT to talk to them) and bedtime, but not before my mother learned my shower only produces lukewarm water (another complaint to add to the list). I even let her sleep in my bed in the nice and toasty bedroom while I half-bunked in another room. Anyway, we threw in a load of clothes, as she didn’t have her luggage, and settled in for a well-deserved night’s rest.
The next morning we all rose from our separate bowers and assembled downstairs to meet our driver and discuss the next four days of Cairo activities. We swiftly arranged what we thought was a suitable itinerary, paid for it, and set off for a day of pyramids! First, we visited Saqqara, an often-overlooked site some kilometers past Giza that harbors pyramids and temples older than Giza. Our driver for the day, Abdul Fariq, works in Saudi for a princess (he showed us his i.d. card) 10 months out of the year and regaled us with tales and jokes while we drove through the countryside to reach the rather remote site. Passing donkey carts, bellowing water buffalo, barefoot children trotting after their veiled mothers, white-garbed men walking to the mosque for prayer, and other sights of rural Egypt, I realized that my family, and my brother especially, was experiencing their first taste of an impoverished culture, and it forced me to view the familiar vignettes with a perspicacious gaze. Pulling up to Saqqara (and paying a 5 LE bribe to the police man), we were suddenly granted a stunning view of the step pyramid of Djoser, the main pyramid of the complex that pre-dates the Giza ones and is almost as impressive. Instead of smooth sides, it is literally a series of consecutively diminishing square blocks, or mastabas, leading skyward. Of course, my family happened to choose one of the busiest times of year to tour Cairo, when major Christian and Muslim holidays coincide, as well as the non-denominational New Year’s, so many of the sites were fairly teeming with Arab, European, and Japanese tourists, with a few other nationalities scattered in there.
After walking around the site for a bit, we wandered back to Land Rover and piled in to visit a carpet factory. As you can imagine, the tour was succinct with brief demonstrations of how the carpets are all hand-woven and the different materials involved in the creation of each and then finished in the showroom heaped with thousands of beautiful carpets for sale. At the end of a long period of deliberation, elimination, and negotiation (conducted by yours truly ;-) we ended up purchasing a beautiful woolen carpet of the tree of life for, hopefully, our living room. Managing to bargain the salesman down from half of his original price, I exited with a slight smirk due to the amelioration of my nascent haggling skills, borne from lots of Khan trips, mind you. Anyway, we drove back to Giza, where we stopped at a perfume factory, experienced a similar set-up, sniffed the redolent essences of flowers and spices (I’m such a sucker for Egyptian perfumes), bought a bit, and realized the day was waning and the pyramids were waiting. Abdul nimbly transported us through the clogged back streets of Giza, deposited us in front of some stables, and turned us over. Previously, we had agreed on three horses and a camel to guide us over the Giza plateau, so, after a bit of muddled conversation, mom found her camel and the rest of us mounted up and trotted off. I’m going to gloat a bit, so steel yourself-for once, I bested Andrew at a sport-like activity! He was led on the horse the entire time while I guided my horse with the faculties I’ve acquired through numerous equine encounters, and my horse was white! Granted, given that I used to take riding lessons, I should not really be boasting…either way, I think mom was the biggest trooper, riding the camel, which never ceased to make farting noises and emit slimy substances from its slobbery mouth.
The Giza plateau closes at 4, so we rode up to the main pyramid, dismounted, and rushed to buy tickets to go inside the medium one. As cameras are not allowed inside, although a lot of people conceal theirs, I offered to wait outside when the guard thwarted our first entry and hold the cameras and my still-unused ticket. They returned, breathless after the humid, choking air of the pyramid, were duly unimpressed (“There was a bunch of stone”) and we hurried back to the steeds to ride to a vista appropriate for a photo op (it was) galloped or walked back to the Sphinx (dad and I galloped, the other two plodded along behind us while our horses switched their tails in annoyance) ducked into the entrance right at four, snapped the requisite pictures of funny Sphinx poses, and admired the occult feline from numerous angles. Rain leaked from the murky skies, so we rode back into town, found our driver, and headed back to Cairo for a well-deserved and late lunch.
At some point I need to comment on the incidence of my parents’ impressions of Cairo. All in all, I think they enjoyed it, especially before the theft incident, but I feel that, having actually seen where I live, they now retain a greater fear of my safety. Before, they had never actually walked down Ismail Mohammed late at night or galloped in the Sahara or crossed a Cairo street, but having done these things, they simply cannot fathom how I can walk alone at night, tumble off a galloping horse (three times!), or cross the street with such ambivalence with regard to traffic. Perhaps one of the problems is that they saw me four and a half months ago when I boarded a plane bound for Cairo, and, aside from Skype, have not been with me since that time. Now, suddenly, a woman greets them at the aeroport who is both like and unlike their daughter-in that short of time, one does not become a new person and forget the roots and foundations of her past, but she does change, especially when confronted by the challenges of life in Egypt (or any foreign country). But they did not see the process of transmutation, or the reasons for it, just the results-how my life has suddenly expanded from the confinement of Minnesota to the expansiveness of the world, and, how, suddenly, my family in Cairo consists of roommates and friends and not blood relatives. Of course, the adjustment goes both ways-because I have gone through so drastic a lifestyle change, I also expect them to have altered, and become overly frustrated when they make small mistakes in Cairo that I myself once made but now have learned to avoid. I am sure it is far more frustrating for them to hear me speak Arabic with someone and not understand a single word, especially when a joke or other amusing comment is shared between myself and the speaker and all they can do is conjecture as to its nature. As mom likes to point out, there is a mystery shrouding me that is difficult to penetrate, layers (just like Shrek ;-) that do not peel off easily under interrogation because they were formed with such impregnable materials as the dust of Talaat Harb street and the sunfire of a sunset in Siwa and the stars of a night in the White Desert and the grainy sand of Dahab and the craggy peak of Mt Sinai and the towering pillars of Karnak Temple. Alright, before I become too Naguib Mafoozy and wax into lengthy analogies and inner dialogues, let me get back to the tale.
Perhaps I should have mentioned this was New Year’s Eve, and we returned after a scrumptious lunch somewhat drained but determined to stay awake for 2007. A few of my friends are still in Cairo (lots of them have friends and family visiting too!), and so a few of us arranged to have a felucca ride on the Nile for the evening. Putting my parents in their first Cairo taxi was a tremulous moment for me, but they survived, and we arrived downtown to pick up the boat amid hordes of people, traffic, flashing neon New Year’s signs, and firecrackers. The boat ride was quite pleasant and an excellent way to enjoy Cairo without the jostling inherent in the streets, although my parents were a bit chilled because they had only one jacket between the two of them and a beach blanket from my place. Blinking lights and a loud generator festooned our boat, but it chugged around the island of Zamalek readily enough.. After disembarking, it was around 10, and Andrew was, as always, hungry, and we also wanted to find a sports bar that was playing the Eagles’ game, so we all piled into cabs to the Marriott and ended up in the Country Kitchen restaurant there without sports but with homestyle cooking ;-) Loitering until the clock struck midnight, we amused ourselves with the kazoos and party hats and paper horns the staff provided us and released true mayhem at 12 with silly string, bouncy balls, and all of the above implements. Anyway, after that, we were boring and went home and slept.
The next morning we awoke in time for our 9:30 am tour that began in Coptic Cairo and ended at a restaurant on the Nile. Our guide for the day was a woman, Shima, which somewhat surprised me, but she was very sweet and provided an excellent tour. It was quite wonderful to have our own licensed van drive into Old Cairo and drop us off directly in front of the Hanging Church, rather than having to walk there from the subway stop or a taxi at the main entrance. I had visited all of the sites previously, but Shima more than held my interest with her explanations of the Hanging church, built on one of two ancient towers built several thousand years ago by the Babylonians with over 100 icons inside; the Greek church with its vaulting dome and altars to St. George; the Jewish synagogue initially built as a church but converted to a synagogue; the narrow streets lined with ancient dwellings still providing shelter for residents; and the Church of the Holy Family, in who’s crypt Mary supposedly hid for several days from soldiers. After this, we traveled to the Citadel to visit the Mohammed Ali mosque along with much of Cairo, it seemed, as we streamed through the deserted streets of the Citadel and approached the silver domes of the mosque. Although Mother and I were prepared to cover our heads, we were not entreated upon, so we all entered together and sat down on the floor of the main hall with our guide while she instructed us on the history of the Citadel, the mosque, and Islam itself. I found her explanation if Islam most enrapturing, particularly as it came from the perspective of an unmarried working woman of the middle class. Of course, she still lives with her parents, and will until, if ever, she marries, and marriage itself is still quite different from the West. Most are arranged, but now many of the couples are allowed to meet, go on a few ‘dates’ and approve or reject the suitor. A lot of what she told me I had already known, but, I must confess, yearned to challenge her from a feminist perspective on statements like, because women stay home with the children, they are allowed to pray anywhere, whereas men should go to the mosque. Or her defense of the veil as a mechanism to protect a woman’s beauty. Anyway, I really enjoyed conversing with Shima because, after she learned I am studying Arabic, engaged me in Arabic conversation for awhile. Before we left the mosque, I was transformed into a trophy for someone when a niqabbed (fully veiled with only her eyes showing) woman placed her child in my arms and took a picture of me. Moving onto another mosque below the Citadel, we explored the Sultan Hussan mosque with amazement at its sheer size and beauty. Our guide even cajoled one of the Quranic readers to recite some lines in his pure, mellifluous voice to demonstrate the tremendous acoustics of the place.
By this time, Andrew was feeling hungry, so our guide took us to a lovely boat along the Nile with an excellent buffet near Roda island in Garden City. After that, the tour was finished, so we were dropped off near AUC to tour the campus and pick up some insulin from a nearby pharmacy. Well, the campus was closed for the holiday and the pharmacy did not carry the correct type of insulin, so we returned home at bit early, dejected and with the jet lag catching up with them. Mom napped, dad worked on the computers, and Andrew and I went out to the Coffee Bean with some friends to escape the stifling atmosphere of the apartment and show him what a real Egyptian café looks like (not really, cuz Coffee Bean is an American Import cut out of the fabric of Americana, but still…)
Later in the evening, we were picked up by Selim (one of three brothers who works for the company we used) and drove to Maadi to board a Nile dinner cruise, Le Memphis, where we met our two dinner guests from Norway and crowded around a small table in the main dining room to await departure. It was a full ship, with as many Egyptians as tourists celebrating the holiday, and the meal passed quickly and unmemorably until the entertainment commenced. Regaled with all forms of Middle Eastern dance, we saw belly dancers, whirling dervishes (and he twirled for a good 15 minutes!) folk dancing, and everything in between. Dad was pulled out of his seat for one of the songs and handed a tambourine and fez and partied like, well, a white guy trying to get in touch with his Arab origins. I was also dragged out of my seat, fezed, and forced to sing العنب with the performer, because, unfortunately, he noticed me humming along. The belly dancer attempted to visit many of the tables in the room, and, during her gyrations and shimmying, pose with most guests, including mom, but, since she wouldn’t cooperate, the dancer sat on her lap ;-) Afterwards, we headed back to Zamalek for the fateful Khan day.
Dawning cheerily, the day went, for me, from miserable to horrid. First, we visited the Egyptian Museum and crowded into the unorganized exhibits with rambling packs of tourists pushing and shoving there way through the place. I tolerated the museum until the King Tut exhibit, which is located in a rather small chamber with one door for exiting and one for entry. Entering the exhibit was somewhat challenging, and involved a bit of shoving, and the room itself was snarled with traffic like Zamalek at rush hour, with pileups in front of each item, particularly King Tut’s famed golden mask. To leave the exhibit required joining an unruly throng that, once entered into, snared you in its hot, pressing grasp until it snaked out of the blocked doorway and dissipated into the hallway. Had I wished, I could have easily balanced on any of my neighbors and been carried out on their momentum. As you can tell, I really don’t like the Egyptian Museum, despite its collection of magnificent wonders, and, after consulting with my parents, left for a blissful hour of quietude and comfort food at the Nile Hilton. We met up an hour and a half later at the appointed time, called the driver, waited a bit, and were whisked away to the Khan. Honestly, for the first 3 or so hours, we had a grand old time; I treated the family to a truly Egyptian meal in Medan Hussein in a sketchy café with greasy chicken, questionable lettuce, and puffs of rice, and then we delved into the Khan and I attempted to bargain for them. Throughout the course of the day, we purchased a beautiful wood and mother of pearl backgammon set (for me), alabaster plates and vases, a King Tut replica, hand-woven camel rugs (for Andrew), and had just purchased two gold charms for mother and me when, near the end of the day, we ventured down one final alleyway. Passing a store selling belly dancing costumes (why, why, why did this intrigue me, why do I have to be such a stupid blonde?), we continued on and looked at a few other items.
While everyone else was deliberating, I told mom I was going back to that store and ducked back inside. I looked at a few costumes, chose my favorite, and slid my purse off my arm to try the skirt on over my pants. Well, I’m a little fat, so it was slightly tight, but the proprietor offered to enlarge it for me, and I accepted, so I waited while his sister (or so he claimed) sewed the clasp on for me. At some point, the rest of the family arrived, peeked their heads into the small shop but were shooed out by the sleazy owner. Soon, the skirt was ready to try again, so the owner himself ducked out (we think this is when the purse went missing) while Mom, the sister, and I tugged and adjusted the skirt to a comfortable fit. A bit later, while the sister was making more adjustments, Mother wandered in, looked around, and wondered aloud where my purse was. Turning to my side, where I had left my bag, I was about to utter, “right here,” but it was gone. I thought it had just gotten buried or pushed aside in the tumult, so I poked around a bit but still could not find it. Panic began to course through my veins, but I was still calm, thinking it was somewhere in the store or with my parents or in a bag of purchases. After frantic consultations, and more searching the store, we concluded it was missing, and then the owner offered to bring me back to the jewelry store where we last were (probably to get me out of the store) so we raced through the crowded alleyways of the Khan, didn’t find it there, and returned to the store. At that point, I think it finally sunk in that the purse was gone, stolen, purloined, and wasn’t simply lying in a forgotten corner.
Standing in the shop and pondering what to do next, I borrowed the cell phone from the too-eager-to-help owner, called my phone, and received the recording that states the number is currently not in service. Ahh! Frustrated, we followed the advice of the shop owner and visited the police station/room in the Khan where I proceeded to file a police report citing the stolen items, After a few minutes of my insignificant Arabic clashing with the officer’s lack of English, a translator was brought in to facilitate the situation. I explained several times the items that were missing and my actions up until that point, and, as I did this, my certainty burgeoned that the owner had snatched my bag at some point, as he had stepped out for a significant amount of time and acted suspiciously helpful. Plus, throughout the interview, he loitered in the station and heard every word I said, always denying that I had the bag with me when I entered his store. Hmmm…I basically lost my entire life in that purse, everything that identified me as me: billfold with money, 4 credit/debit cards, passport, camera, cell phone, gold jewelry, guidebook, insulin, sunglasses case (but not the glasses, thank God), and apartment keys. Of all of the items to lose, the keys were the most immediate concern, as I had no way of entering my apartment, and, because I had to give the police my address, the man who had likely stolen my purse also knew the building in which I lived. Without a phone, I had no way of contacting our driver for a ride back to Zamalek or to even contact our tour company and let them know our situation.
While the police were colluding among themselves, I slipped out to talk to my parents, who decided it would be best to send Dad home to guard the apartment door; he slipped away while mom, Andrew and I were sent to the main police station near the Khan to do something. To give you an idea of how the Cairo police operate, the officer who accompanied us stopped at Xerox store on the way there to make copies of some sheets, as, apparently, the police don’t have copiers. Treading down several dark alleys, we eventually found the station and stepped into the dingy lobby area. As I was advancing, I noticed a large pool of some viscous, vermillion substance pooled on the floor and edged around it, realizing it was blood, and, standing at the counter, noted many red blotches of dried blood besmirching it. The three of us waited for awhile there, without any clear explanation of why, and were eventually led back to the Khan along a route that directed us through dank tunnels of hollow darkness that echoed with our footsteps, dark alleyways flooded with a slimy liquid that stank of sewer and blood (we tread carefully on the narrow curb above it), and deserted streets patrolled only by stray mutts and the ghosts of our imaginations. Finally, we reached the lighted paths of the Khan, slid into the constant stream of humanity pressing its way through, and returned to the police station, where we sat and waited for at least two, maybe three hours while they prepared the report. Receiving the report after the interminable wait, I glanced at it with grim bemusement-a piece of notebook paper neatly handwritten with an account of the incident, and, at the bottom, stamped with a blue ink seal that, apparently, made it official.
I had harbored little faith in the police before this, but, after this, I held none and even suspected they assist in the robbery of tourists, perhaps providing addresses and other information to the shopkeeper. Anyway, the three of us left the Khan exhausted and dazed, found a cab home, and went to relieve Dad of his guard duties. I also needed to find a way into my apartment and did not cherish the idea of breaking down the door. Borrowing the bowab’s mobile, I called my landlord but learned he was at the Red Sea for the holiday. Fortunately, the maid was in Cairo and, after explaining my situation in broken Arabic (she doesn’t speak any English), she insisted on coming to let me in even though it was after 10. My family had developed an intriguing system of security for my apartment, placing my brother up on my floor with a walkie talkie while my dad waited on the ground floor with another walkie talkie and escorted anyone who entered the building up in the elevators. To be honest, it was rather comical, and one of my friends who was passing through called everyone a bogie who tried to get past our system.
My very sweet maid arrived soon and let us all into the apartment where we began to really access the situation. First, we collected all of the credit card information that we could in order to freeze/cancel them and made those calls and realized that our upcoming safari trip is now in jeopardy without a passport to leave the country and enter Kenya. Ineffably miserable and subjected, we went to bed with alarms set early to get to the American Embassy.
Unfortunately, we had planned to visit Alexandria the next day, but, because of the theft, had to find my identity instead, so, after once again explaining our situation to the concerned tour company who thought we had disappeared, used the car to drive us on our errands instead. Our first stop was the American Embassy, where we learned, much to our dismay, that passports usually take 10 days to process, and our safari leaves in 8, so we filled out the paperwork, pleaded our case, and are hoping for a miracle. After that, I stopped at AUC to get a new i.d. and then returned home to keep the apartment guarded (the maid was cleaning in the morning). Next on the agenda was a new mobile, which I needed my dad to purchase because a passport is needed to obtain a SIM card. With that in hand, I felt slightly more normal, and then tackled the next task on the list-new locks for the door. With my keys floating in the netherworld of Cairo criminals, I did not feel comfortable leaving my apartment or even sleeping inside of it. Luckily, there is a locksmith in my building, and, after receiving the landlord’s permission, had the locks changed and new keys made in less than half an hour. Then, of course, I needed to devise a method of delivering the keys to my roommates, as I was heading off for Sharm the next day and they were both arriving in the coming week. After conversing over e-mail, I left their keys with a mutual friend in the building (love you Jeff!) who agreed to meet them and relinquish the keys as they arrived. At some point during the day, we called the credit card companies again to verify that no transactions were completed and issue new cards (happily, nothing was charged).
In the evening, after a stressful day of errands, I took them to Sequoia at the end of Zamalek where we finally rested, enjoyed the tranquility of the Nile, and feasted on quality Middle Eastern food. On the way back, we popped into a pharmacy to pick up insulin (I think they were rather amazed at the lack of prescriptions necessary to purchase medicine ;-) and headed home to pack for 6 nights in Sharm. It was to have been 7, but we had to return a night early to be back in Cairo on Thursday and visit the embassy in hopes of getting the passport (knock on wood). Actually, an update on that-I called the Embassy this morning and they claim to have my passport in, so the safari’s a go! Thank God for American efficiency!
And now, Sharm. To be honest, I rather dreaded going there (in retrospect, a foolish and vapid fear) after falling in love with Dahab, but also wanted to escape the leaden skies and heavy cares of Cairo, so I somewhat eagerly climbed into the van that was to drive us to Sharm. After a bit of thought, we decided that a private van was the most efficient method of transport between Cairo and Sharm, rather than flying, because, by the time one arrives at the airport, waits for the inevitable Egypt Air tardiness, lands, and waits for the onerously slow baggage handlers to release the luggage, it takes about as much time as driving. Besides, the van permitted us to bring bags of snacks and an obnoxious amount of luggage and still have room to repose. Although I didn’t have my passport for the checkpoints, our drivers were slick enough to talk their way through each checkpoint with no hassle, and we arrived in Sharm only five hours later to the late afternoon sun just sinking below the horizon.
The Hilton Waterfalls Sharm was a truly beautiful resort, with a stately, white pillared lobby tiled with marble and alabaster, a tram through the center of the resort to carry guests between the complex and the beach, waterfalls and susurrus streams wending through the resort, numerous large pools (although all but one were unheated), at least five restaurants, verdant foliage sprawling across the grounds, an amazing reef just off shore, a health club and spa, and excellent rooms with every modern amenity. As Mom says, “You know you’re in a classy place when the bathroom has a telephone.” Attentive staff gave us our choice of rooms (we chose the oceanfront ones), and I promptly fell into bed with a high fever and aches; yes, at some point during our adventures in Cairo, I either ate a compromised something or attracted germs from some foreign bug. Anyway, after a restive night, I awoke feeling revived and read for a few hours on the balcony and then explored the resort a bit, finding Andrew beached by the pool and roasting to a lovely milk chocolate shade. For several days, we lazed around the resort, taking short walks to the nearby supermarkets for water and pop and ogling the Alf Leyla wa Leyla ‘palace’ with disdain; at least for me, the tawdry concrete walls and garishly bright colors signified the utter commercialization of Sharm and the shallowness of its glitzy veneer. I loved Sharm, as long as I did not venture outside of the resort too much. Sun, a beautiful beach, crystal clear water, and decent accommodations are all I need, not the falsehood of the many attractions or the glittering lights of Naama Bay. Of course, I am a bit of a hypocrite, because the Hilton epitomized all of this, but at least it was tastefully done and incorporated the natural beauty of the landscape.
For one evening, we ventured into town, Naama Bay, and ambled down the main promenade underneath the flashing signs advertising Hard Rock Café, Back in the USSR (a lot of Sharm, especially our resort, is full of Russians), T.G.I. Fridays, Vodafone, Bedouin Traditions, and a juxtaposition of numerous other cultures. I wanted to take the family to Dahab for a day but was having issues finding transportation. All of the tour companies could not fathom my desire to visit just Dahab and only offered to put us on a tour to Mt. Sinai that included a brief stop in Dahab or offered a private van and guide for exorbitant rates. As all of my phonebook had been lost along with my phone, I had no way of contacting Jimmy to have him send us a minibus, so I took advantage of cheap internet rates, looked up his hotel’s number online, and reconnected with him. Very amenable, he agreed to send us a minivan in two days to bring us to Dahab.
Mission accomplished, we dined at the T.G.I. Fridays (the food was comfortingly American) and then paid the ridiculous cab rate to get home, 25 LE for a maybe 7 minute ride. Because the next day was Monday, and Coptic Christmas, we rested in the resort and tried the snorkeling in front of the place. Jumping into the shimmering blueness that allows visibility was at least 100 ft., my dad and brother were unprepared for the underwater garden awash in color and movement; bright blue corals nestled alongside deep purple sea fans which abutted mounds of grayish, rippled brain coral, and, through it all, schools of silvery fish darted in and out, chased by brilliantly patterned parrotfish, while more timid clownfish, angelfish, blue tang, and other species hovered near the protection of the reef. When they finally emerged, I think they finally understood a bit of my fascination with the Red Sea. That evening, we ate in a quaint little Mexican restaurant near the shopping and that bastion of hegemony, Alf Leyla Wa Leyla (well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea) and bedded down for the next day in Dahab.
Jimmy’s driver arrived punctually at 10 in a nice van, much to the horror of our hotel, who could not understand why anyone would travel in uninsured vehicles (money? Mumkin) and headed off for a day of Dahab. Pulling up to the Sphins hotel in Dahab, I felt a bit like I was coming home, and was greeted with a gregarious hug and “Bunia” from Jimmy, who then met the rest of my family. We chilled in the Funny Mummy for a little while, and mom learned just how well I do get around ;-) and then took a jeep to the Blue Hole for some snorkeling. Although the seas were choppy and roiling like the hips of a belly dancer, the three of us plunged in while mom waited with the stuff. The Blue Hole still astonishes me, the sheerness of its walls descending into a curtain of opaque blue that beckons divers and inquisitive characters like myself. Paddling around for awhile, we eventually admitted defeat to the cold and clambered out to head back into town. Dahab, as I’ve mentioned before, is quite small, but is expanding with new resorts along the route to the Blue Hole and several residential developments in the works. Thoroughly famished, we all ordered big meals at the Funny Mummy and settled back in the cushions to admire the cats that prowl the restaurant. Mom in particular became attached to one that resembled her old cat Peanuts, and we fed several of them our table scraps and fended off the bolder ones with spray bottles (but not before one grabbed some meat off of dad’s kebab). As the sun began its daily journey to the other side and ceased to provide us with its blessed warmth, we headed towards the shopping area to replace my purse, find a billfold, and buy a few other little things, soon returning to the crackling heat of the fire pits at the Funny Mummy. I played Jimmy in backgammon (he kicked my butt royally), bought some chocolate for him because of it, lounged a bit, and then said good-bye to Dahab and Jimmy and headed back to Sharm. During the few hours we were there, my parents learned simply how often I do frequent Dahab, because many of the staff commented on my prodigious number of visits and, apparently, the internet guy told my dad how excellent my Arabic skills are. It’s a strange world, Dahab.
Back in Sharm for one more day, we took advantage of the sun and salt water and soaked up each ray we could, especially Andrew, as he returns to Minnesota soon (I head down south, where Tanzania’s in the heat of its summer right now ;-) We took one final dinner in Naama Bay again at T.G.I. Fridays (they had smashing good potato skins), shopped a bit but found the lack of willingness to bargain deterring, and returned back to the Hilton. And now, here I am, sitting in the van on the way back to Cairo, typing furiously while everyone else slumbers peacefully, waiting to download this when I get back to the apartment and extremely excited for the safari! Africa here I come!