An Egyptian Holiday

4 Oct

– or – “Say, is that a monk on my arm?”

The past few days have been the Eid el-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan (the holy month of fasting). I had Tuesday through Thursday off work, so we decided to get out of the city for a few days and do a little snorkeling. We recruited some of our new friends, the Heisses and Sharps, and set out for a fun three-day trip to Hurghada, a popular resort town on the Red Sea coast.

Instead, we had maybe our worst vacation experience ever.

We had booked rooms at a nice resort through an online travel agency, agoda.com. They are based in Thailand. Travel lesson #1: Never use an online Thai travel agency to book a vacation in Egypt. Waaaay too many variables there. Although all three couples had, at the time of booking, clearly selected “1 room, 2 adults,” the hotel voucher came out reading “1 room, 1 adult.” Melissa called the agency two days before we were set to leave, and about went apoplectic dealing with their customer “service,” who would not admit any problem on their end and refused to change anything without a ridiculous fee.

So our friend Andrew, the only Arabic speaker in our group, called the hotel directly to ask if the voucher, reading “1 adult,” would cause any problems. The person at the hotel, obviously just trying to get him off the phone, said, “No problem.” Travel lesson #2: When an Egyptian says “No problem,” there is a very high chance of there being a problem…probably more so than when they do not utter said phrase.

So all nine of us piled into an 11-seat van (6 adults and 3 babies, all under 18 months — I won’t bother explaining “Travel lesson #3” here since it is brutally obvious). Those eleven seats include two up front for the two alternating drivers. Eleven minus two is nine. We were squished.

On the way to Hurghada, we stopped at the Monastery of St. Anthony. Anthony was a fourth-century Egyptian who is regarded as the “father of Christian monasticism.” The guy abandoned his middle-class lifestyle, gave all his money to the poor, then went to live in a cave and pray. He did this for about twenty years, then went up to Alexandria to minister to some Christians being martyred by the Romans (although some documents suggest the guy, like all Egyptians, really just wanted a vacation on the North Coast), then went back to living in a cave, then went back to Alexandria to settle some theological disputes (again, the vacation theory has some strong proponents here), then went back to his cave until dying at the age of 105. Anthony was so popular and renowned for his piety–think Britney Spears meets John Paul II–that living in a cave became all the rage. Aspiring monks (his groupies) flocked to him and set up camp below his cave, and thus the origins of the monastery and Christian communal monasticism.

The monastery, which of course has undergone a number of expansions and restorations over the centuries, is still very active, with a community of about 120 monks. It was a beautiful and well-kept complex set at the base of a mountain in a very stark desert setting. It features a fifth-century keep, where the monks would retreat when attacked by Bedouins and others, and a great little church with incredibly preserved medieval Coptic Christian frescoes.

We were given a tour by Father Ruweis Anthony (all the monks there take the last name of Anthony, after their “father” the saint), who spoke excellent English and had spent a couple of years doing church work in Seattle (sound familiar?). He was a little touchy-feely for the women, in a non-threatening but still uncomfortable way, so we didn’t request the extended tour.

Naturally, the first stop was the gift shop–they may be monks, but they ain’t stupid–where Fr. Ruweis asked me to kneel and extend my arm. (We had just told them we were Mormon, so I was thinking that maybe I would go through some kind of ceremony reclaiming me for the Holy Mother Coptic Church.) He whipped out a pen and started drawing…and drawing…and drawing…until I had my very own portrait of St. Anthony covering my forearm. I was surprised at how good the drawing was, until Melissa reminded me that he’s a monk, so he’s probably had lots of time to practice while sitting in his cell. (For some reason I just had the image of little monk kids sitting in class doodling St. Anthony and other Christian heroes while they’re supposed to be meditating or copying manuscripts.) Two things I regret: I never really tried flexing my forearm to see if St. Anthony’s mouth opened and closed or his beard did any funky dances; and I felt a little blasphemous when I finally washed it off.

We also stopped at the natural spring where St. Anthony got his water almost 2000 years ago, and which still supplies all the water for the monastery. We figured if we dipped Finn in it it would cure him of some as-yet-unknown ailment.

By the end of our walk, Melissa nearly collapsed from the heat (for the second time in as many weeks). We made a quick stop at the monastery’s clinic, where a monk-doctor (sounds like a TV show on Fox) was all too eager to have a patient to diagnose. I think he gets a little bored and was a tad disappointed it wasn’t more serious, but he was very gracious and prescribed some juice for her. That, and the sliver-of-meat-in-flatbread-they-called-a-hamburger we bought at the canteen, helped her bounce back.

After the monastery, we proceeded to Hurghada and found our hotel, the Dana Beach Resort. When we tried to check in, the front desk refused our vouchers, saying they were only good for one person per room and we would have to pay an extra 80 Euros (approx. $120) per night per person, on top of what we had already paid. We tried everything, but neither the travel agency (in Thailand–remember lesson #1) nor the hotel would budge. With it being the Eid holiday, literally every room in town was booked, so after a couple hours of deliberations and negotiations and pleadings, we had no choice but to call our van, which by now was already some 100 kilometers away, to come back and pick us up to take us back to Cairo. To add insult to injury, we got stopped at the first security checkpoint on the way back, and they made us wait until we could get a security escort. (In the meantime, Andrew, our token Arabic speaker, was inside with the police negotiating while they had a dirty movie on in the background.) Probably to rub it in, the security escort decided to go about 60 km/h (40 mph), which meant we arrived at home in Cairo around 3am.

So…no resort, no beach, no snorkeling, no Russians in speedos. But I did get a sweet tat.

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6 Responses to “An Egyptian Holiday”

  1. Dre October 5, 2008 at 12:56 am #

    Did you not realize that Father Ruweis divined your ancestral ties to St. Anthony, albeit a little podunk town in Idaho? And what were you thinking, washing off your tattoo? You could have had serious bragging rights over your little brother. It might also have earned you free admission to the next Fishermen’s Breakfast. Oh, I forgot, it’s free admission for everyone. But the city fathers would be might impressed……..or not.

  2. Aprillee and Mark October 5, 2008 at 3:26 am #

    Oh my! Really guys, he may not be good at returning calls but Ali above La Rosa is the way to go! Sorry about the trip. Finn is growing up so much! Hope school is going well.

  3. mom October 5, 2008 at 4:53 am #

    Add another page to your travel adventures! Mel, almost fainting/collapsing twice in as many weeks?
    Is there something we need to know? Do Dre and I need to come over again?

  4. Javi (not the brother) October 5, 2008 at 9:16 am #

    Patrick,

    Making St. Anthony do stuff on your arm by flexing? Dude, were you making a Pete and Pete reference the way Little Pete would make Petunia dance?

    I would say that’s blasphemy, but it’s just awesome!

  5. Melissa DM October 5, 2008 at 10:42 am #

    Mom, sure, you can come back over, but it’ll be to babysit Finn while we go traveling.

    We went to Ali first but all he had was a dumpy place that had roaches and open manholes according to TripAdvisor. We just need to learn our lesson and go to him more than a few days before we leave on the trip.

    Wow! I totally forgot about Pete & Pete. What a great show that was! Javy (the brother) and I used to watch that all the time.

  6. Casey M. November 21, 2008 at 12:15 am #

    OH MY GOSH… isn’t the real lesson, that nothing is what is seems? Sounded so familiar at the beginning, choosing a place from the internet and going there… but at least in Nuweiba, ghost town though it may have been, we got to stay somewhere and have a vacation!

    I laughed so hard when I read this! I have to start reading your blog more.

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