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Egypt: Under the Suez into Asia

After Steph left, Tracy & I descended upon her room like a pack of rat terriers looking for MA. T took the bed & I moved the extra mattress to the floor. I had it to myself but I noticed I still slept carefully so I wouldn't kick T in the head. And we closed the door - no canine bed companions! But I still got more flea bites - it's just my lot in life.

We were getting up at 5 so MA could take us in to Maadi where we'd meet our drivers at 6 - we felt awful about her getting up so early to do this,not to mention her arranging this whole trip for us - but that's MA.

I didn't bring an alarm, so I set my inner alarm for the muezzin's 5 AM call to prayer. He started chanting at 4:50 AM. When I took out my earplugs there were several of them, and they weren't all finished till ~5:20. Does this happen every AM? Maybe it does, and the recycling plant, which was quiet this morning, normally drowns it all out.

It was so cool hearing the layers of chanting in the dark.By the time we got out of the house and picked up Hortense and got to MA's house in Maadi it was 6:30 AM. Nabeel and driver Shoki (same guy) were waiting for us. We loaded up in his 6-seater beater Pugeot wagon, & headed east out of Cairo for Suez.

Suez - on the Suez Canal! Jackie fell asleep in the front seat, Hortense crashed in the back (she's been to Sinai once before), and nearing the city of Suez, Tracy closed her eyes.

How could they sleep?!

Highway 33 took us east to Suez through the bare desert. Looked much like areas of the Nevada desert - bare flat sand, sometimes with minimal scrub, a few sand hills to the left, tall bare desert mountains in the distance to the right. Major power lines from Suez to Cairo following the road.

You wouldn't want to just rake off riding here though - lots of military 'bases' or 'stations' and firing ranges. Hey - just like Nevada.

Just think - east ahead of us is Sinai, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan (I have got to come back here), north is the Mediterranean Sea (!!), south is Sudan and the rest of Africa, behind us west is the Libyan desert & Sahara (!!) - all the way across Northern Africa. I just can't believe I'm here.

Tracy said "Merri - we're in Egypt!"

After around 1 hour we stopped at a gas mart - just like an AM/PM - used the clean bathrooms (no attendant to tip - and I must say, clean free bathrooms are so pleasant) and got a cup of Nescafe espresso - just like the espresso machines in AM/PMs - and gee, I thought this one was pretty darn tasty, maybe because I'm in Egypt, and got back in the car.

Nabeel was a little antsy because he's got us on a schedule. We are stopping at St Katherine's monastery and Mt Sinai on the way, and he wants to be there by 11 AM. He also wants to climb Mt Sinai - for him as a Christian this is very important and sacred. He was concerned about Hortense (or "Amina" as he calls her - when you become Muslim you take another name) being Muslim and going to the monastery, but I guess they worked it out.

We came to a checkpoint before Suez where we were stopped. Shoki talked to one man - who confiscated a pen from Shoki, and then paper, and talked to Shoki, and wrote some things down. I heard "Amrikan" and "St Katherine." Right out Hortense's window was the magazine of an AK47 slung beside a loafing soldier.

The scribe talking to Shoki did something strange; he sort of threw the pen on the ground as if he dropped it, then bent to pick it up, and glanced in at the rest of us. Why he didn't just look in, I don't know -[ they've got the guns. I didn't feel any animosity - apathy rather. Too many soldiers with nothing to do. The most nervous I've ever been was crossing Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin in '89. But this is Egypt.

The closer we got to Suez the more billboards there were - too bad I can't read Arabic - or rather, glad I can't, because anywhere - except Vermont where they are thoughtfully banned - billboards are annoying.

Reading Arabic is hard, say MA and Hortense. I've got the numbers down, and I can recognize Cairo, but that's it.

We got to Suez, went under the canal in a tunnel (didn't actually see the Suez Canal - the sides are elevated) - into Asia.

Tracy said, "Merri - we're in Asia!"

After Suez we turned SE along the Gulf of Suez and the west coast of Sinai. Oh my god - I'm in the Sinai. The blue gulf was on our right, bare hilly desert to our left. In 10 minutes Shoki turned off the road at a spot marked only by some mud shacks and little stands like a flea market. This is(supposedly) the spot where, after Moses led 600,000 of his people out of slavery in Egypt across the Red Sea,they got to this hot dry godforsaken desert (as opposed to that hot dry godforsaken desert they left, but they were told they were going to the promised land,and I can see they might've been a bit skeptical), and they whined and complained (as Tracy said, not much has changed!) and they were dying of thirst because the water was bitter, and God told Moses to strike a rock or throw a tree in the spring, and he did, and there was good water.

They they complained more and God sent them food. (For those of you wanting historical accuracy, check your Bible, because I learned this long ago, and Nabeel is telling me some of this, and the other bible - the Lonely Planet Egypt - says another, and remember, we are in Egypt).

Originally there were 12 wells; now there are 3. Nabeel said since this is a Muslim country they don't care about preserving it. There's not even a sign on the road marking it. The Lonely Planet calls this Oyun Musa, "springs of Moses", & also says there's one at St K's monastery, but I expect Moses had to strike alot of rocks for water because I sure see no evidence of any water anywhere.

I know I would've been the loudest whiner in Moses' group, because I bet they didn't have ice cubes back then and for me it was already terribly hot, maybe 85*, and it's early spring here.

Following the gulf of sparkling blue water - very polluted I bet - was an insane explosion of condo cities, most under construction. It looked like Florida beachfront. Between these sprawling condo tracts would be a little mud hut and maybe a Bedouin walking.

We turned inland and climbed just a little, into wind or once-upon-a-time water carved desert canyons, hills pushing up to mountains. Hortense pointed out a dirt road winding up one in the distance. Where for us that would be a BLM road for 4-wheelers or an old mine road, she said "Wherever you see a road, there are people living out there somewhere." Tough desert Bedouins.

The landscape looked alot like Death Valley and a little like the Badlands. I sure hope they never discover gold or silver here.

Nabeel brought us homemade fuul and falafel - on man - that was THE best falafel I've ever had. We had to stop at a few checkpoints - only showed our passports at one on the Sinai side of Suez - they are mainly interested in Israeli's coming to Cairo. At each, Nabeel told them we were 3 Americans and 1 French. He said here they are more concerned about our safety as Americans. That's why, when I travel, I often say I'm Canadian. Being Canadian inspires alot less animosity in people, depending on where you are.

Poor Nabeel wanted badly for us to get to St K's before noon, when it closed. Naturally, we women had to pee and there happened to be a little checkpoint and gas station at the inland turn to St K's.

Nabeel asked us to please hurry. When we got back in the hot car, one of us said, Why don't we just go on to Sharm and spend the day on the beach, and leave tomorrow early for St K's. Sounds better. I'm not much of a beach person, but a plunge in the water sure will feel good now.

This has been, I think, Jackie's goal of the trip - lay on the beach at the Red Sea. It got hotter...water bottles frozen solid when we left Cairo were melted by noon. The flat sand stretched to the turquoise and green Suez gulf on the right; dry stark Death Valley-like mountains rose on the left through the haze which was - sand? Pollution? Humidity? A few oil wells in the sand on the water side; a few rigs out in the water.

One road sign was an outline of a camel - Watch for camels, like we Watch for elk. Nabeel said "Sharm 1 hour." It took 1 hr 45 minutes, me sweltering in the sun in the back seat with cigarette smoke and now gas fumes from when we stopped for gas (90 piasters a liter).Gotta love it! When we got to Sharm el-Shaikh spread by the sea, it was a lovely place of pink and white modern villas and hotels on the blue Red Sea. Nothing at all Egyptian but for the Arabic writing.

Americans and Europeans love to come to obscure foreign countries and build replicas of their vacation homes and insulate themselves from the country and call themselves exotic travellers. And here we are. :)

Nabeel was supposed to call MA when we got to Sharm... and here we come to the typical Egyptian man - organized American women - 6 people in a car with important to say - beach-craving people scenario.

Being a man,and an Egyptian man, Nabeel wouldn't call MA. He preferred trying to follow the directions written in Arabic - and either the directions were bad or he couldn't follow them - and have Shoki pull over so he could ask directions. Shoki just kept driving driving driving no matter what, no matter if you said Slow down or Turn right, he just kept driving.

Soon he would pull over, and while still always rolling forward Nabeel would lean out his window and ask a guy directions, and Shoki would lean out his window and ask another guy directions. Hortense tried calling MA on the phone, but it kept cutting out,and she was having to shout, and the 2 guys kept pulling over and asking directions.

T & J offered suggestions and I sat in the hot smoky gaseous back seat beating my head against the window while suffocating. Finally Tracy got the phone and talked to MA, who told Tracy what road to take; T would say it in English, Hortense would say it in Arabic to Shoki, and he wouldn't follow the direction, like "Turn right here!", either because he was an Egyptian man or just wanted to keep driving, so Hortense would yell to turn right, and Nabeel would say to turn right and he'd turn right at the last second.

We finally got to the entrance gate, where MA talked to the guard on the phone - then Nabeel got the phone, listening to MA's directions. At the first intersection we obviously took a wrong turn. Finally Nabeel says "Somebody who understands English talk to MA."

Well by then we are lost, and we FINALLY get Shoki to stop happily driving aimlessly through the condos and to turn around, only it's a 1-way street, and he can't. Now, with all of us offering helpful advice so that Tracy can't hear MA on the phone,she tries to describe where we are so MA can figure it out.

We just can't get Shoki to stop driving, so Tracy finally hops out of the car and starts walking so that Shoki has to follow her the correct way on the winding streets through the little villas.Now the men know,or think they know,where they are, so we're all calling to Tracy to get back in the car; a guard is yelling at us not to proceed so Shoki is listening to him and not to Tracy; I am near suffocation in the back seat and it's so hot my brain cells are bubbling.

FINALLY we turn into the correct cranny,and MA's place is the 2nd on the left. Gratefully we crumble out of the car after that 1/2 hour misadventure, unload our stuff, and send our 2 directionally impaired Egyptian guides off to their hotel. We walk in the 4-bed/bath condo, with a back-door view right out over the sea, and whose picture is on the cover of the only magazine in the place, as if to welcome us?

Viggo Mortensen on the cover of Vanity Fair - gotta be a good sign.

It's now 1:15 PM, thanks to our guides, and people are dying to get to the beach, but we have to wait for the guys to come turn on the water. Finally we walk down to the beach below the layers of thousands of villas and condos.

Hotel/resort chairs and umbrellas cover the beach; here you can ride a camel, learn to belly dance, learn to jazzercise to some loud bad Eurodisco music, shop, eat, suntan, get a massage, go topless, or snorkel. This beach covers the whole point of Sinai, is part of the Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park, Egypt's 1st(and so far only) national park (in '89). It's 480 square kilometers of land and sea, and has some of the world's most spectacular coral reef ecosystems.

In fact you can't even swim right off the beach; there are 2 pontoons you have to walk on to take you past the coral reef where it drops off. First thing we saw in the water (and we were reprimanded for walking out in it - I touched the Red Sea!!) was a stingray!

Jackie laid down to read a book by the Red Sea; Tracy, Hortense and I walked up the beach. Tracy & I walked out on a pontoon, and oh my god - the colorful fish - unbelievable! It was like being at the Newport Oregon aquarium. There are over 1000 species of fish and 150 species of coral in the Red Sea - this is one of the 7 Underwater Wonders of the World as of '89. I decided oh heck yea, I had to snorkel.

Tracy and I ate first, and a table full of 5 Italians stared at us... We walked back through the lobster-fried people,mostly Italian, and stopped to get the snorkling equipment we brought from the house. I tried the facemask on - hey I forgot I wear glasses. Wait - this isn't going to work! and I can't see shit without my glasses - so what's the point! Ay yi yi.

Tracy snorkeled and I just looked off the pontoon over the coral. My favorite fish was an irridescent green and blue. I walked back up the beach and wandered around, found nothing interesting, so went back out on the pontoon and sat with my feet in the water. After around 10 minutes a few big fish swam by - 2' long ones that swam with their mouths in O's half in and out of the water. A few turned into a dozen, to several dozen, to a hundred to a thousand. Back and forth, splashing under water, back to mouth the air and water surface. They swam within 3' of me - cool!

The guy ran us off the pontoon at 5 PM, and we walked back to the house. I hung out on the nice grass in the beautiful backyard overlooking the sea (and I had to lie down in the grass) till it got too dark to read, then we watched a Discovery channel show on the Sphinx. That's here! I was there!

We made dinner, and MA called to check on us, and to tell me my friend in LA emailed me (and this coincidence must be another good sign): "She says to tell you she's going to the premiere of Hidalgo and to a party afterwards to meet Viggo Mortensen." ... Bitch!

But I looked out the glass door as I said that, past the patio out over the Red Sea - the Red Sea!! I am in Egypt - who needs to go to some movie premiere with Viggo Mortensen! After dinner we went outside in the backyard, under the near-full moon, Mars also out there, looking over the sprawling condos of Sharm el-Shaikh on the Red Sea - I can't believe I'm in Egypt!!


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