Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
21 - 27 December 2000
Issue No.513
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Fish out of water

By Nyier Abdou

My taxi driver was inching along the empty road with the white-knuckled tension of blizzard conditions. Approaching a murky puddle, he slowed to a halt, downshifted to first, and proceeded with aching slowness through the water; the only sound between us the moderate slush of the water parting from the tires and the futile swish of windshield wipers shocked into use. Through the streaked glass, I peered out at a foreign city: rain-soaked Cairo.

The air smelled cleaner, the trees looked greener -- there was a skip in people's step that comes with the unexpected. At the office, we clustered around the window, sticking our fingers out to feel the drops and pointed at people scurrying from the streets, electricity was in the air. "You see," one colleague beamed triumphantly. "It rains in Egypt."

But I don't live in Egypt for the rain, thank you. I've seen rain. I packed up my things and headed south with the swiftness only dire conditions can inspire. At the airport, it felt like an expatriate bar, with foreigners lounging around, eating and drinking, as everyone waited for a heavy early-morning fog to lift. Egyptians mingled among the crowds, but I was counting the hours of hot Sinai sun that were being subtracted from my weekend getaway and growing grumpier by the minute. My travelling companion propped me up with promises of seaside lounging and snorkelling excursions soon to be under way, and at last, after more than a five-hour delay, the last mobile ring was silenced and we lifted off.

At the Sofitel in Naama Bay, just beside Sharm Al-Sheikh, we entered the brave new world of Sinai tourism. (As an aside: remember to tell your hotel that you're arriving by plane if you want a shuttle to pick you up. Otherwise you are stuck with the extortionist taxi drivers outside the airport.) Aside from the odd lantern, we were astounded to find that Ramadan barely exists here. Europeans ambled past us in the exquisite lobby, looking tanned and perfectly at home. It was us, the Cairenes -- the Egyptians -- who seemed out of place. From the doorway off the lobby, I caught a glimpse of the sparkling bay -- all of which is visible from the bungalows of the Sofitel -- and urban winter blues melted away. The sun was hot and the mood was decidedly relaxed. The elegantly tasteful mashrabiya (interlaced woodwork) in the rooms was refreshing and the private balconies make you feel as though you are the only guest.

At the hotel clubhouse by the pool, we booked our excursions like dutiful tourists. The woman quickly covered up a look of surprise when, pulling out our wallets, we asked how much it was in Egyptian pounds. She grabbed her calculator, a bit flustered, and apologised that she didn't have any change. Change, in Naama, seems to be the most valuable commodity. This is a "charge-it-to-my-room" culture, so if you're going to do as the Romans do, prepare to be floored when you see the checkout bill your smiling and friendly concierge hands you. Try not to strangle him; he's just doing his job.

We were up bright and early the next morning for our boat excursion to Ras Mohamed (US$36 -- no "discounts" if you're an Egyptian, by the way, in Sharm everyone's a tourist). We picked up our snorkelling gear, stumbling sleepy-eyed through trying on enormous multi-coloured flippers (mask and flippers, $10 each -- "Sorry, I don't have change, I'll just charge it to your room.") and headed for breakfast. At this sumptuous feast, we enjoyed fresh-brewed coffee and custom-made omelettes amid the quiet murmur of Italian and German conversations. The waiter stared at us curiously, as if we had arrived from Mars, and finally decided on speaking in English anyway, just to be sure.

The cure for winter blues: Sinai's Red Sea coast is famous for its reefs, sapphire blue waters and, more importantly, year-round warmth -- the perfect escape
photo: Ayman Ibrahim

As we were enjoying the morning sun on the restaurant balcony, we were rudely interrupted by the assiduous maitre d', who brought the curious news that we had a phone call. It seems that we were 10 minutes late for meeting our group in the lobby and we had been explicitly told at the clubhouse that we were to be in the lobby at 8:30a.m. sharp. The boat sails at 9.00a.m. We gathered up our things hastily and huffed up, up, up the white stucco steps that give the upper landing its fabulous view, but in the lobby there was no one. They had left. You can't wait 10 minutes for every guest, you know. Germans are very punctual, after all.

We sat dumbfounded in the lobby, snorkelling masks and big, stupid flippers sticking out from under our arms, feeling very lonely indeed. We argued with anyone who would listen -- what else to do? -- and finally, we managed to get the tour company on the phone. I apologised profusely, with the obeisance of a naughty child and begged them to come back. It was our only shot.

To their credit, they scolded, but grudgingly returned. The prodigal Egyptians were deposited at the docks, where the rest of the tour waited, and no sooner had we stepped on board than the boat pulled away from the dock and headed for the turquoise horizon. We skulked up to the upper cabin nodding encouragingly at everyone, and stripped down to our bathing suits. It wasn't long before the clothes were back on and I was wrapped up in my towel though, because it's damn cold in the shade. The wind cut into my flesh and I started worrying about how I would bring myself to plunge into the water, no matter how clear, blue and inviting it was. A group of Germans seemed unfazed by any of this, lounging in their bikinis and apparently trading stories of trips past. When a couple of dolphins came along to play with the boat, jumping and whooshing underneath us, the sense of a surreal twilight zone was complete. This is a whole other Egypt.

Wondrous things to be seen at the reefs of Ras Mohamed, once you coax yourself into the water -- and if you're in good enough shape to swim over from the boat, parked what seems to the unhealthy and mediocre swimmer a ridiculously long way from the shore. The Germans and another European couple leaped into the water as if it were a warm bath and snorkelled off as if they had finally been released into their natural environment. I was still dipping my toes off the side of the boat and grimacing when I lost sight of them completely. Once in the water, all was well and warm, but I marvelled at the lack of safety precautions and dreamt up every danger (strong currents, sharks, exhaustion). Sadly, supervision in these cases seems to be only an embarrassing suggestion.

A few more reef stops (of course, the only time we were parked safely close to the shore, we were ordered inside to eat lunch) and we finally headed home. We were returned to our hotel at 5.00p.m. sharp, as promised, but not before an additional LE5 each was demanded from each of us for entrance into Ras Mohamed National Park ($5 for foreigners) as a parting farewell. If it's your first time, a half-day safari by jeep might be a better inauguration. It can take a while to get the hang of it all. A day offshore can make you hungry, by the way, and when you get back someone is likely to try and sell you an "authentic" dinner and "oriental" show in the desert. You may be weak with expended effort, so be warned: authentic is hardly the word to describe this bizarre cabaret served up in the pale shadow of desert life. But I suppose for those with a twisted sense of humour, seeing some pale and uncomfortable tourists forced onto stage to sway behind a belly dancer could be worth the money. For me, I was too busy trying to escape under the table.

Sunning and swimming filled our next day, which we rounded out with a trip into the desert on the ever-present "quad" (a four-wheel-drive desert buggy). We opted for the two-hour sunset excursion, for the outrageous price of $70 for a double ($50 each for singles, although they are exactly the same vehicle). We grumbled that we had spent a day on a boat and eaten lunch for half the price, but the lean and tan guys playing Bob Marley behind the counter just shrugged and only seemed surprised when we wanted to pay in cash. Once on the quads, racing into the wilderness of jagged, rusted hills, we immediately decided it was all worth it. Our guide was a fellow who mysteriously identified us as journalists from Cairo. Taken aback, it turned out he remembered me from quite a while back, when he was my guide on a previous trip. It's a small world in Naama.

We were joined by an Italian fellow with his small son. As we sped along the desert sands, we felt rugged and adventurous. Then we spied the little Italian boy, barely holding onto his father and looking bored and unimpressed. The two of them conversed smoothly with our Bedouin guide in Italian when we stopped for tea and we felt left out, so we decided to scramble up one of the rocky hills and take in the view (it's easier going up than coming down). Before sunset, and just as some persistent drops of rain started to pelt our sunglasses, we stopped and watched the sun slip behind a small mountain range into the wadi (valley) behind us. It felt like we were the only creatures on earth, bonding with raw nature. Then a Peugeot station wagon rolled past us, followed by a long caravan of brightly clothed tourists with sandy goggles and wide smiles on their buggies. Just another authentic day in the desert.

Is it all too contrived? I wondered to myself as we walked and walked along the lovely cobblestone boardwalk looking for a place that would serve us dinner before 7.00pm. At the hotel, we settled for scandalously priced cappuccinos at the lobby bar as we waited for a shuttle to the airport. My body felt tired and sore, jogged into action from some undetermined but certainly unconscionable period of physical inactivity. The sniffling cold I'd left Cairo with was gone, and I breathed cool, sweet air deeply. A few hours later, as we inched our way back from the airport towards Cairo, the windshield streaked with mud, I looked at the furrowed brows and angry gestures of drivers caught along the flooded road. A bus was trying to make a 12-point U-turn to avoid the traffic, and long sonorous honking accompanied the endeavour. I sank back into my seat, shut my eyes and thought of rainbow-coloured fish.

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