Would Dahab be my new Kanchanaburi? The place I go to escape and learn to love a country?
When I arrived into the maddening chaos of Khao San road in Bangkok, back in Jan of this year, I escaped a few days later to the peaceful town of Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai. There, I learned some Thai culture , caught my breath, and focused my chi. I am hoping that the small backpacker town of Dahab on the Red Sea would serve the same purpose.
So far, the rip-offs here make Thailand or Cambodia look like Disneyland. No one has the correct change (so they keep the difference). Taxi drivers ask for more than the quoted price once they stop, then act offended that you would call them a liar. I am essentially a walking target, a tall, white, blip on their financial opportunity radar. I know that there is a learning curve, and that the bleeding of scam money will eventually slow to a trickle, but for now I am getting my butt kicked. Egypt: 3 Greg: 0 This morning, at 09:30, and with a single knock, the stronzo that owns the hotel opened my door with his key! Luckily I was up, dressed, and packed. I fought off the anger as he lifted my backpack without asking and carried it to the reception desk, then stood waiting for a tip. I ignored him. I carried the thing across 3 continents this year, I think I can carry it to reception.
I had a falafel for lunch and at 10:00 it is already well over 33 degrees C. There are so many Italians here, that many of the Egyptians speak Italian and English. When I ignore the touts as they start with English, many switch to Italian, and then even Russian and German. I was wondering where all the Russians went for holiday, because I encountered very few in SE Asia, it seems that they are all here! Good for me, I can finally practice the Russian I learned in university…which should take all of 2 minutes. 🙂 I am learning that things open late, and stay open late. Don’t even think about eating before noon. It seems the Egyptians take their breakfast around noon, lunch around 17:00, and then dinner at 22:00 or later! I did stumble across a KFC here, but no McDonald’s. To make up for it, the crafty corporate bastards there have placed golden arches on all the trashcans around town. There is blaring loud music coming from all directions, but it’s upbeat and Arabic and I actually love it. Between the sounds and the smells, I know that I am no longer in the West. I watched today as hundreds of Arabs went down in prayer at 17:00, and they played painfully loud prayers from the loudspeakers above the mosque. They do the same at 05:00am, but I was so dead to the world that I missed it all this morning.
I took a taxi to the East Delta bus terminal, which is a shack to provide some shade sitting in a gravel lot. There are as many stray animals as there are taxi drivers. I prefer the cats. I arrived 3 hours before my bus to Dahab, thinking I could sit and read in some corner. Forget it, I was an instant celebrity. I was constantly surrounded by people wanting to be my “friend”. I really wish that it was sincere, but after the first 10 words of conversation, it was obvious that they were trying to talk me out of the bus and into their shop, hotel, or taxi.
I eventually gave in, and took a taxi to the Sharm old market to escape the heat and bantering. I walked around the market, which was the site of a huge terrorist bombing last year, and was once again a celebrity. I finally chose a place to eat off the beaten path, full of only locals. I wanted something real. Please? There was no English menu, so that was a good sign. The cook and owners spoke no English, so they had a young customer translate for them. For 16 LE (Egyptian pounds), about $3 US, I received half a baked chicken, lentil soup, spiced rice, bowl of red soup and vegetables, a plate of cucumbers and tomatoes, and a bowl of hummus and unlimited bread. Damn! There wasn’t another inch left on the table. My plan was to loose the 5 KG I gained in Italy here, but maybe not as easy as I thought. 🙂
After I finished my wonderful meal, the pleasure was short lived as yet another scam surfaced. The guy wanted 30 EP because I was not Egyptian and the young guy had quoted me an Egyptian price. Of course, the young translator had already finished and left, so we argued for a while, and he eventually snatched a 20EP note from my hand and I left. Bastardo.
As I left, a brown-toothed but smiling man approached me. I immediately put up my force shield and said “sorry, no money”…but he returned in perfect English, “where are you from in the States?” I told him Kentucky, and it turns out he lived in Nashville, TN, about 2.5 hours from me, for 16 years. He invited me into a cafe and bought me tea even! My first real, Egyptian friendly experience, was there hope to be had? I waited for the scam to come, but it never did as we talked for almost an hour. He had been deported thanks to the new immigration laws in the US, and had lost everything. He loved the US, but was booted out because of paperwork – my distaste for government grew yet a little more after we had finished. We exchanged emails and he sent me on my way…..without taking a single piaster from me.
I bought a bottle of water, and an old man asked me where I was from. I told him America and he gave me a thumbs up, and showed me a tattoo of a cross on his forearm. “I am Christian” he told me proudly. Wow…that takes guts around here in Muslim land. There is obviously friction between the Muslims and Orthodox Christians, and the Muslims believe that once you have a tattoo that cannot be washed off, you are no longer clean enough to pray. (Women even have to remove fingernail polish to pray properly.) I shook his hand, and left with newly opened eyes. There was definitely more to Egypt than getting robbed one scam at a time. Egypt: 3 Greg: 1
I got back to the bus station and met a girl traveling from the Czech republic named Miro. She turned out to be a lifesaver and she spoke perfect Arabic, having studied it in university and lived in Alexandria. She gave me lots of advice, and we connected with 2 Swiss guys also traveling to Dahab. One of which lived in Kentucky for one year and speaks English with a Kentucky accent, a welcome sound from home. Our bus had apparently broken down, we waited for an additional hour to make sure it wasn’t a taxi scam, and eventually hired a guy for 20LE each to drive us the 120KM to Dahab. Not a bad deal, seeing that the slow and crowded bus would have been 11LE. The car struggled with our weight, but we made our way across mile after mile of golden desert. The road was new and smooth, but there was nothing but waste on both sides of us as far as the horizon. We passed herds of camels, and huge rock mountains and dunes rose up out of nowhere sometimes when we came around a bend.
I never knew so much “nothing” could be so beautiful.
We encountered an army roadblock and our driver nervously slowed the car to a stop and put it into park. There was nothing for 50KM in either direction, and this guy was acting like a criminal….great. He spoke no English. Miro translated and said that he did not have the proper paperwork to cross between towns. He nervously put it into gear and stopped for the armed guards that walked over. They exchanged some words in Arabic and we were off again. Miro said it depends on what mood the guards are in, sometimes a bribe or two, and sometimes luck. We had one of the three, and I could tell by how fast the driver fumbled for a cigarette after the incident, that he was sweating it too.
We rolled into Dahab at dark, paid our driver (which of course asked for more money but we refused) and hiked into the main strip which overlooks the Red Sea looking for a place to call home. I could feel the new-place tingles in my chest and could barely wait to go exploring in the morning. Life is good!