How I Survived My Egyptian Vacation

16 Oct

This weekend was Eid El Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. During Eid, all businesses shut down for 3-4 days, classes are cancelled, and most people get the heck out of Cairo. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about what goes on in the city during Eid. Most of these stories include debauchery, rioting, and sexual assault. So we decided to get the heck out of Cairo.

We waited until the very last minute to decide where to go. We had been planning on Greece but changed our minds at the last minute. We then considered Alexandria on the Mediterranean and Taba on the Red Sea. Finally, two days before Eid, we picked Nuweiba. Nuweiba is described everywhere as a backpacker’s haven, a pristine stretch of Red Sea beach and Bedouin culture, unsoiled by the grubby hands of tourists and large resorts. How romantic, how bohemian, we thought. We don’t need the Hilton or to deal with throngs of people, we thought. Yes, do let’s book this quaint little “cabin” on the beach.

We hired a driver from AUC to pick us and another couple, Casey and Joe, up in the morning and drive us the 6 hours across the Sinai peninsula to Nuweiba. The driver, Adel Aziz, was very nice and went nuts for the chocolate chip cookies I had made for the trip. We set out across the desert, driving under the Suez Canal (we could see a boat floating over the top as we were going in, it looked like it was sailing on desert), over roads almost completely covered in sand, through barren flat desert that looked like Mars, between winding colored canyons. Finally we saw the deep blue and aqua of the Red Sea.

Driving along the beach on the road to Nuweiba, we saw little straw huts on the beach and laughed. Ha ha, we joked, that must be Habiba Village (the name of the place we were staying), and drove on, glad we weren’t in such shabby accommodations. As we got closer to Nuweiba though and everything we saw seemed to be in the vein of straw huts, roofs optional, our laughter and jolly moods died down a little, first to a little chuckle, and then nothing. Patrick kept looking at me with skeptical eyebrows as I nervously giggled while scanning the beach. Finally we pulled up at Habiba Village…Egyptian trailer park.

There was no reception area, just a collection of tiny mismatched buildings about the size of my college dorm room. We piled out of the van and looked around until finally a guy came running up and seemed completely surprised that we had reservations. Not a good sign. He asked us to wait on the beach while he got our rooms ready. After a good half hour sitting on the two inch stretch of rocky sand in front of the buildings, we were shown to our rooms. I’ll spare you the details except to say that there was a lot of head shaking and four bodies piling back into the van and telling Mr. Adel to drive away quickly.

Luckily Mr. Adel was the most amazing person ever and took us to a hotel whose owner he knew. The place was perfect, set against the mountains, with a broad soft beach and Bedouin sitting areas under shady palm trees where I could picture sipping lemon juice and reading all day. Of course, the place was totally booked and despite Mr. Adel having tea and bargaining in the Egyptian way with the owner, it just wasn’t possible to get a room (there was a Christian conference going on so they were maxed out). The owner called around though and hopped in the van with us to take us to another hotel owned by a friend. The owner at this one bent over backwards to accommodate us. He had his stuff moved out of his own private suite and gave us the best two rooms, with perfect beach views, for no extra charge. We were homeless no longer and had rooms at a decent looking resort.

Food was included in our bill so we changed and headed for the dining room. We opened the door…and walked into a Russian gangster movie. Seriously, if there had been music playing, it would have stopped with an abrupt screech as every person in the room looked up and stared at us. We stared back. The women were in super tight clothing, platinum blond hair, the men in shirts with cutoff sleeves and depressed looking eyes. We knew instantly they were Russian, probably very rich Russian. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from living abroad, it’s that you can spot a rich Russian a mile away. Their eyes followed us as we made our way to the food and then as we sat down. I started to wonder if there was something going on that we didn’t know. We ignored them and enjoyed our dinner and a swim afterwards.

On Saturday we were determined to do nothing. We grabbed a few books and threw on our bathing suits and headed for the beach where we claimed a few lounge chairs under a giant straw umbrella. We spent the next few hours alternately reading, sleeping, and taking a dip in the water. We took pictures of all the fat Russians in Speedos and laughed at them every time the girl from the beach bar would walk down the beach yelling “Yalla yalla! Don’t sleep, vodka, whisky, yalla, yalla!” and lines of Russians would silently rise and follow her.

While playing in the water, we spotted a Bedouin on a camel riding down the beach. We rushed to shore and asked if Patrick could have a ride. You can see the pictures on our Flickr page. He was quite good and chatted with his new friend for awhile. (Note: despite being in Egypt, our first camel sightings were on this trip, first along the way in the desert, and then as we turned onto the only street in Nuweiba, a stray camel jumped in front of the van and proceeded on its way).

That afternoon we decided to try snorkeling with a guide from the hotel. Sharif was a divemaster and took anyone who wanted to learn out to the reefs in front of the hotel. I had only snorkeled for a few minutes before and in shallow water so I was pretty much a total newbie, as was Patrick. What that meant was that as soon as we got to where we couldn’t touch the bottom, we started gasping and choking and swallowing very salty water. Patrick was fine, I was a wreck. I was quickly exhausted from constantly getting water in my mask or tube and having to keep myself afloat while fixing those problems. Sharif was very patient though and eventually I got the hang of it. We saw some amazing colorful fish and beautiful coral. The reef dropped off on one side and the ocean floor was so far down you couldn’t see it anymore, despite how clear the water was. It was a little eerie. At one point I scraped my ankle on some coral and thought “oh crap, now the sharks are going to smell my blood and eat me!” Seriously, I’m never watching Shark Week again.

We had a great time and were exhilarated by the experience. The next day we had been planning a jeep trip out to a famous canyon but had the guide check with the hotel doctor to see if that was safe for me, as the terrain would be rough. It’s a good thing we asked because he gave a stern no. So we had to rethink our plans. I felt bad for Joe and Casey at this point. Because of our hotel problems the night before, they missed a midnight trip to Mt Sinai that they were planning and now they were looking at higher prices for the canyon trip since there would be less of us going. That on top of the cost of accommodations doubling (ok, ok, so $18/night for a room is a sign that it’s an Egyptian trailer park, hindsight is 20/20 people) and the fact that they were poor students, had only been married a week before they came out here, and thus were living on love, stressed them out a little. We all decided to ditch the canyon tour and instead booked an all day snorkeling trip that the guy at reception recommended.

The next days plans taken care of, we asked the reception guy for a recommendation for good seafood. He suggested a place and called a driver to take us there. He told us to pay the hotel driver $10 US which was a lot of money for a ride, but we figured the place was probably pretty far, as we had since realized that Nuweiba was a barren wasteland. Well, the driver decided he didn’t want to take us far and instead dropped us at this tacky little restaurant called Cleopatra. He clearly knew the owner and probably got a kickback, but on first glance the place looked decent and the owner assured us he had the freshest fish. So we stayed. And the food was decent, not great, but okay. It was the ambience though, that started to make us think we were in an episode of The Twilight Zone. There were blinking Christmas lights and a well next to our table that had shriveled up fish skeletons hanging from it, looking like demonic little aliens. The street was silent and we started to wonder why all the hotels in town were booked but we hadn’t seen anyone around besides the Russians. In short, we freaked ourselves out a little bit. When the driver dropped us back off at the hotel, we gave him 20LE, a fraction of the $10 he expected, but there was no way we were paying that. So we walked away while he yelled at reception that he hadn’t gotten paid what they told him.

On Sunday we woke up, had breakfast, and hopped on the van that was taking us up to Taba to catch the boat. At this point we had realized that while in Egypt you just can’t escape Egypt, so we should be wary and on our toes. About five minutes into the trip, the van pulled over and picked up a hitchhiker carrying bags of vegetables and wearing a t-shirt that said something about “the orgy of Satan” on it. This was it, the perfect twist in our Hitchcock-esque vacation. We were all going to die at the hands of a tomato-wielding wanderer on our way to a boat that we would probably have to row ourselves. After about an hour, we reached Taba and quickly relaxed. The boat was actually a big yacht and the psychopath turned out to be the cook who probably couldn’t read the English words on his shirt.

Hysteria behind us, the rest of the day was pure heaven. The boat was filled with more Russians and Ukrainians, all of whom were wearing speedos, but even that didn’t bother us. We set out and sailed past Pharaoh Island, where an ancient fortress by Salah al-Din was still standing. We gawked over the turquoise water that was crystal clear all the way to the sea bottom. The boat stopped at three dive sites, where we put on our gear and flopped into the water. A guide was leading us around pointing out all the amazing things under the water. I can’t even describe it except to say we felt like we were in a National Geographic special. I couldn’t describe the beauty or the colors if I tried. The variety of coral and fish was stunning. It really was like paradise. We didn’t have any trouble breathing or swimming this time, so there was no panic, just total peace. We dove at two sites and then had lunch that the psycho cook prepared. It was a feast! Fresh seafood and tons of good Egyptian fare. We ate until we were all beached whales laying all over the boat. The crew was a little giddy and cranked up the music and started belly-dancing! It was so much fun to watch, they were having a ball and trying to coax the Ukrainian babes to join them. After that died down, we put our masks back on and jumped back in for a lazy after-lunch swim. It was so relaxing!

We sailed to one last dive site, this one right off of Pharaoh Island and enjoyed more beautiful things. The water was way colder there, but it was still pleasant. I didn’t want the day to end, but the sun was dipping down behind the mountains and it was time to go in. After a painstakingly long attempt at docking, the captain finally got us back in and we all reluctantly but tiredly climbed off the boat and back onto our van. Our driver would be waiting for us back at the hotel to get us back to Cairo, so once we got to the hotel we rushed in, grabbed our bags and headed back to the lobby to meet him and go.

But….that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? As we were preparing to leave, the hotel told us we couldn’t leave without a security escort. Apparently Americans getting kidnapped on the way to Cairo looks bad for a resort and puts a damper on your TripAdvisor rating, so they insisted we travel with a policeman. Our driver wasn’t happy about that and neither were we since it meant we’d have to wait around while they found someone willing to drive six hours to Cairo with us. Finally our driver came back with a policeman and a guy in a suit. They all piled into the front seat and we in the back and we settled in for a bumpy ride on the pitch-black and sand covered road to Cairo. We arrived home about 2:30 am, salty and exhausted. We dropped our bags and got ready for bed, then checked our computer and saw that a bunch of our friends had called us on our new US Skype number while we were gone. (E-mail us if we haven’t given it to you and you’d like to call us). Hearing their voices on our voicemail was wonderful and sent us to bed with smiles on our faces.


10 Responses to “How I Survived My Egyptian Vacation”

  1. Robann October 17, 2007 at 1:01 am #

    Never a dull moment! Thanks for perking up a dull & rainy South Bend Tuesday. Such excellent descriptive writing, your English teachers would be so proud. I love seeing the world through your eyes and hearing your riveting narration along with it. Keep up the good work.

  2. Stacy October 17, 2007 at 3:53 am #

    What a vacation! I am living vicariously through you and love the pictures. You taking pictures of Russians in speedos reminded me of 9 year old Madeline on a trip to Niagra Falls. We gave her a disposal camera and all she took pictures of were “lovebirds” (people showing public affection) and fat men with their shirts off. Believe me, it quite a picture show when we got that film developed!

  3. tracy m October 17, 2007 at 6:14 am #

    You guys are going to have the best life for all these adventures! And think how much more exciting your baby-book will be than all the other boring kids!

    Again, I just love reading this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Melissa October 17, 2007 at 9:53 am #

    Stacy, Madeline was our inspiration! We actually took the pictures with the intention of sending them to her, but then realized how grotesque and perhaps not for a a 12 year olds eyes they were. We dedicate our Russian photos to her though. When she’s older, we’ll send them to her. 🙂

  5. umiRYU October 18, 2007 at 2:07 am #

    eid mubarak

  6. uncle Joel October 18, 2007 at 4:33 am #

    WOW! Here your family was all worried about the two of you being in the war torn Holy Land!… Jeez it’s been nuthing but a GREAT VACATION since you got there! AWESOME… Keep up the great posts & especially the great pic’s (see some baby belly starting to show), Love,Uncle Joel & Aunt Betty

  7. Amanda Standiford October 27, 2007 at 4:46 am #

    Hey guys!! I’m at school studying like crazy for a test and I looked at Mickey and Kelly’s website and found a link to your’s and started to read. What amazing things you’re experiencing! That’s so awesome! I’ll have to read about your adventures more often!

  8. becca October 28, 2007 at 5:12 pm #

    glad you guys survived your vacation! another thrilling adventure!


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