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november 10, 2004 -> red sea respite 

A few weeks before we arrived, a series of bombs had exploded in the Red Sea resort town of Taba, killing 40, injuring 160, and shearing an entire wing from the Hilton Hotel – popular with tourists from nearby Israel, who had obviously been the targets.  Holidaymakers had fled for home in what one tourist darkly termed “the second Jewish exodus from Egypt.”  Actually, there were at least three.  The first was Biblical - the event that gave its name to the second book of the Bible, Exodus - when Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and across the momentarily parted Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula.  In 1967, during the so-called Six Day War, Egypt was humiliated by the better-armed and trained Israeli army, which then annexed the Peninsula.  Only in 1978, following the signing of the Camp David Accord did Israel withdraw from the Sinai.  The current Egyptian President – Hosni Mubarrak – had quickly condemned the latest terrorist attacks, and Israeli leaders had sworn that it would not threaten Israel and Egypt's much-improved relationship.  Still, when our bus to the coast made a brief stop in Taba, and we saw the devastated hotel, it was hard not to feel a little uneasy. 

The Sinai Peninsula splits the Red Sea into two narrow fingers: the Gulf of Suez (linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal) on the west, and the Gulf of Aqaba (shared by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan) on the east.  The Sinai is dry, mountainous, and altogether inhospitable, save a few oases and the coastal fringe.  In the Old Testament, the Israelites wandered the Sinai for 40 years, searching for the Promised Land - Zion.  It was not a pleasant sojourn.  One can almost sympathize with the Israelites' intermittent idolatry, though Moses (and God) clearly did not.  On his descent from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments in hand, he was so enraged by the resumption of pagan practices that he hurled the stone tablets to the ground.  Today, large numbers of religious and secular tourists clamber up Mt. Sinai in the dead of night, reaching the summit in time to catch the sunrise (please see my Rambling, “The Sunrise Scam.”)  At the base of the mountain sits St. Catherine's Monastery, which claims to enclose the floral progeny of the original Burning Bush – a flaming shrub through which God spoke to Moses. 

If the Sinai is part of the Holy Land for Christians, it is most definitely an Unholy Land for Muslims.  Unlike other parts of Egypt, where it behooves tourists (particularly women) to dress conservatively, almost everything goes on the beaches of the Egyptian Riviera.  The local men may pretend to be completely blasé about the dissolute Western lifestyle, but a white woman in a thong bikini still induces a stupor that takes an hour to clear.  One gets the very strong impression that bedding a foreign girl, not earning a decent wage, is the primary goal of their employment.  Beer is widely available, marijuana only slightly harder to find.  Even the mosques are built away from the beachfront promenade, though that may reflect real estate values rather than disgust at impious behavior.  

Most tourists come to the Sinai Peninsula for its beaches and water sports.  The Red Sea is an iconic scuba diving destination – like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, or the Bay Islands in Honduras.  Diving enthusiasts are effusive about the amazing marine life, excellent visibility, and fascinating shipwrecks.  Hundreds of divers arrive daily on direct flights from Italy, Germany and Russia to Sharm el-Sheik's new international airport.  The resort town of “Sharm” has grown in lock-step with the scuba diving industry.  Not surprisingly, the government has placed a huge amount of energy and money on developing the tourism infrastructure along the so-called Egyptian Riviera – “Where the Sun Always Shines, Every Day.”  Unfortunately, much of the development seems to have come in half-finished “sugar cube” resorts with poorly executed dolphin statues adorning very tacky entrance gates.  Aesthetics is one problem, but providing the future guests with enough water seems like the biggest issue.  Even the transplanted palm trees looked ragged and thirsty. 

We stayed in Dahab, an old hippie hang-out that has slowly morphed into a resort town to rival pricier Sharm el-Sheikh, a few hundred kilometers to the south.  Some of the most popular dive sites on the peninsula are just a short drive from Dahab, such as “The Canyon,” and “The Blue Hole.”  Dahab had an excellent laid-back feel, with an unbroken line of al fresco seaside restaurants and amazing views of the mountains of Saudi Arabia across the gulf.  The Dahabites love to malign Sharm el-Sheik for its shameless commercialism.  They have a point; the new “Old Market” is a nauseating grid of gimcrack souvenirs, and the tumult of the marina is enough to disillusion the most ardent diver.  However, Sharm has a few things going for it.  First, it is much closer to the Ras Mohammed Marine Reserve, where we did our best dives.  Second, it has a much wider selection of mid to high-end hotels and resorts.  Dahab may be much cheaper, but the frequent wafts of improperly disposed sewage can be dispiriting, particularly during dinner. 

Our diving experience was mixed.  The famous Dahab dive sites were dangerously overcrowded.  We spent most of our time avoiding a large (and apparently, blind) group of Italian divers that tried to overtake us in the narrow “Canyon.”  As our friend Alissa commented, “I had to keep reminding myself to look at the coral and fishes.”  It was not just bad luck; our dive master said it was like that every day.  In fact, the best diving in Dahab was the snorkeling, on the reef just a hundred meters or so from the shore.   There, an astounding variety of fish frolicked above a 20-meter drop off.  Unfortunately, the reef's proximity to the hotels and restaurants of Dahab puts it at grave risk – every time I went snorkeling, I observed tourists standing on the edge of the coral shelf. 

Probably the most famous dive site in the Red Sea is the wreck of the HMS Thistlegorme, a large British transport vessel that was sunk during WWII in the waters off the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.  On our first dive, we reconnoitered the outside of the ship, pausing to inspect the giant anti-aircraft guns, and marveling at the size of its giant screws.  On the second dive, we spent almost the entire forty minutes inside the ship, gliding through narrow passages, weaving from one compartment to the next.  Inside the cargo holds, we floated over eerily intact trucks carrying motorcycles and spare parts.  Plastic boots were scattered everywhere, as were tires.  In one compartment sat a spare aircraft wing, in another a partially destroyed tank, recognizable only by its plates of tread.  Getting to the Thistlegorme from Dahab had not been pleasant, and the dive site was predictably overcrowded, but it was definitely the most exciting dive that we had ever done. 


Diving aside, the nicest thing about Dahab was relaxing and spending time with our new friends.  We had met Steve (NZ) and Pascuale (Ireland) at our hostel in Petra.  We met Abi and his wife, Virginia (Belgium), on the bus ride to Wadi Rum.  We met Alissa (USA) on the ferry from Jordan to Egypt.  Somehow, we all ended up in Dahab around the same time.  Life was good: cool evening breezes, the reflection of the restaurant lights on the water, great seafood, amusing conversations, and mango-flavored tobacco in the sheesha.