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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Snorkeling off of our front porch

Ok, a bit dramatic, but it is true. On our first full day in Dahab I had managed to pick up some snorkeling gear from our hotel's temporarily closed dive shop. It was a really hot day and I asked Catherine if she would be up for a swim to cool off. I had seen a map of the area and new there was a huge reef about 20-50 meters off the shore which ran the length of town. I also happen to notice earlier in the day where the reef tapered back and disappeared into the rocky beach.

We left our key at the reception desk and walked maybe 200 meters up the shore from our room. The "beach" consist of large rocks that are pretty difficult to walk on but the water was crystal clear and we were hot. I went in first and placed by head in the water to take a look around. I could not believe it, just feet from the shore and literally having stuck my face in the water for the first time, the waters were full of an abundant variety of colorful reef fish and some other cool critters like flute fish. I pulled my head out of the water and shouted to Catherine--wait till you see this!

Gently kicking our flippers we drifted away from the shore along a reef wall that extended down 10-30 meters just off the shore. The water is so salty you just float like a duck and don't have to do much other than give a light kick to move forward. It was simply gorgeous and I think we were both taken back by how untouched the reef and the aquatic life seemed. About an hour later we made our way back up the rocks and agreed there would be a lot more snorkeling while we stayed in Dahab.

After the first experience we have set about making this a daily activity. Around 5pm each day we set off to snorkel the reef and see what it has in store. We haven't strayed too far from our front porch reef but have plans to hit at least another 3-4 reef walls in the coming days.

Finishing our second day of snorkeling Catherine mentioned what a shame it was that we had forgotten Steve's waterproof camera which he had generously offered during our month in Nassau. She wondered if there was any way to find another camera so we could share some of the beautiful scenery on the blog. I agreed and set about checking a handful of dive shops over the next day to see if there were any affordable options. Eventually I came across a Taiwanese made waterproof bag that could accommodate the over-sized Leica lens on my Panasonic DMC-TZ3(aka best point and shoot ever). Catherine thought I was crazy to trust my beloved camera to a $30 bag, but after thoroughly inspecting its construction I was willing to take it for a swim.

With that, I present to you real pictures taken by my own hand (no stock photos!) of the reef that sits a stones throw from our bedroom door. They also help explain why we have extended our stay here in Dahab (well, that and the $30/night hotel).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

First Couple of Days in Dahab

I'm not sure if it's because we're at the beach, which is my favorite place on earth (doesn't matter where, just "the beach" somewhere....except maybe Galveston) or if Dahab really is that cool. As I mentioned in my previous post, our room is nice and really close to the beach. It's also only $25/night. Outside of Cairo, Egypt has been incredibly inexpensive....I kind of feel like we shouldn't leave.

Anyway, our location here is fantastic and Dahab is just a nice little beach town. We haven't quite figured out where everyone's from. It seems like maybe about a quarter Egyptian with the rest made up of Brits, Germans, French, Australians, and Americans. It also seems like a bunch came to visit and never left.

Even though the water is amazing, the beach itself isn't that great. It's rocky and littered with quite a bit of garbage. Diving and windsurfing are the main draws here. However, we went snorkeling right of the beach yesterday and the reef was absolutely beautiful. I've only been snorkeling in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, but those are supposed to be prime spots, of course. This definitely tops that. Yann is currently on his second dive of the day. He said the first one was pretty cool, but it wasn't that far from where we snorkeled yesterday. Right now, he's somewhere south of here.

The diving is also extremely reasonable. For that reason, Yann considered getting his rescue diver certification here, but in the end decided he wanted to just enjoy the pretty scenery. Also, since he just finished his advanced open water, he figured he didn't need all of his certifications to be back to back.

And, no, I am not planning to dive here. I'm not sure if more diving would make me more comfortable, but right now just the thought of going under with all of that gear makes me panicked. Luckily, Yann has made me feel better by saying that the snorkeling is so great that there's really no need to dive.

This morning, I wandered down to one of the resorts to see about kite surfing lessons. Unfortunately, the wind forecast doesn't look good until Tuesday. If I started then, I wouldn't get up on a board until Thursday and then we leave early on Saturday. For the cost and not being sure if I'd have the opportunity to try it again anytime soon, I think I'm going to skip it. However, I think I may take a windsurfing lesson or two. It's been almost twenty years since I've been on a windsurfer, but I figure it's less of a commitment than kite surfing!

They also have a bunch of yoga here. I've found a class for every day except Friday. I actually managed to drag Yann last night and it was beautiful. It was in the courtyard of one of the hotels. The teacher was from California and had been living in London when she visited Dahab and decided not to leave. I can definitely see the draw. The class started at dusk and by the end, we were under the stars. Gorgeous!

Luxor to Dahab

I have to start this entry giving major kudos to the guys as Nefertiti Hotel in Luxor (I suppose I'd do them better to write a review on tripadvisor). Their hotel is neat and clean with surprisingly spacious rooms at only $17/night. The internet is free, the laundry inexpensive (oh how I've learned to appreciate clean laundry), the food in their restaurant delicious (best falafel ever), and the view of the Nile (and the sunset) from their rooftop terrace spectacular. More than anything, the staff there are super-friendly and helpful.

We hadn't been able to decide what we were going to do regarding the beach in Egypt, but we knew we wanted to go for about a week. Closest was Hurghada, which is on the east coast of the mainland on the Red Sea and SW of Sharm el-Sheikh. Sharm el-Sheikh itself is at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula and the diving is supposed to amazing. However, it was supposed to be very expensive. About 80 km north of Sharm on the Gulf of Aqaba and directly west of Saudi Arabia is Dahab which was supposed to have great diving as well, but also supposed to be more laid back.

Our tentative plan was to take the bus to Hurghada (about 5 hours), spend a day or two there, ferry over to Sharm, spend as much time as we wanted there and maybe go to Dahab if the mood struck us. Regardless, we had a flight to Istanbul leaving Sharm on July 31.

As we were about to go to the bus station to buy our tickets, we happened to mention this plan to one of the guys at the hotel and we found out that the ferry to Sharm wouldn't be operational for the next two weeks! However, he offered to see about getting us a flight to Sharm (the bus would be 15-18 hours) and then arranging transportation to Dahab. He highly recommended hightailing it to Dahab immediately. We discussed a couple of alternative plans, but finally decided to go with his proposal. He also recommended and booked a hotel for us. It later turned out to be his cousin's place, but, whatever, best when everyone wins.... We figured if we didn't like Dahab, we could always return to Sharm since we were flying out of there anyway.

Anyway, on Friday night, everything went perfectly. A driver picked us up at the Nefertiti Hotel and we caught our flight out of Luxor at 10:30 without incident. A driver picked us in Sharm and delivered us to Shams in Dahab by about 12:30. The room was nice, clean, surprisingly large, and about 50 m from the beach. Score!


We definitely got a bit of a rough start in Cairo, but once we arrived in Luxor, things were looking up. Our train was about an hour and a half late arriving on Wednesday morning, but that worked out pretty perfectly since I didn't love the idea of trying to find a hotel at 6:30 AM. And it gave Yann the opportunity for a few more ZZZs...

We caught a cab to the Nefertiti Hotel which had high marks with both tripadvisor and the Lonely Planet. Luckily for us, they had a room available in about 45 minutes. In the meantime, would we like to get on the shuttle with 6-8 other people to see the sights on the West Bank? With nothing else to do and for 15 bucks apiece, why certainly!

I quickly changed into shorts for the first time in more than three weeks. I felt kind of guilty, but hey I still had my shoulders covered and I had heard that Luxor heat, especially on the West Bank, was absolutely brutal. Even the guys at the hotel assured me that I'd be fine since I'd be around tourists all day.

[Note: Egypt is far less conservative than Morocco in many ways and the more relaxed dress for me was SO refreshing!]

We spent the morning checking out the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Hapshepsut's Temple, and the Colossi of Memnon. In the Valley of the Kings, we saw three tombs, and I wish I could remember which was one of the Ramseses, Tuthmosis I (I think), and Horemheb? Between seeing the size of these tombs in Luxor and seeing their contents in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, it is unbelievable how highly the ancient Egyptians thought of their royalty. Or actually, once we got to the tombs in the Valley of the Queens, how highly they thought of their kings! The tombs of the queens were still impressive, but not *nearly* as large as those of the kings.

My favorite of the morning was Hapshepsut's Temple. It was brutally hot walking around, but it was incredibly impressive. It's also interesting that so many of her statues have been damaged, possibly as an attempt by her son to have her reign removed from history.

We met an interesting Calgarian woman on our tour as well. She had been traveling for about seven months with the intent to travel for the rest of the year. Pretty inspiring: she'd never left North America before she started her trip in Hawaii and she was doing the trip solo. She also had a Southeast Asia LP and we had a Croatia LP (since we decided not to go), so it was a convenient book swap over kushari later that afternoon. (kushari is a bowl of pasta, rice, garbanzo beans and spicy tomato sauce that you can get for about a dollar)

The next day, we decided to explore the East Bank on our own. We started out at Karnak Temple which is a complex of ancient temples and ruins. In lieu of a guide, I read Yann the highlights from the trusty LP. When we visited the Luxor Temple that night, I did the same--I'm not sure he loves this unofficial tour guide, but at least I'm free! The temple was really beautiful and eerie (and probably much less crowded) lit up at night.

All of the ruins that we saw were really cool, but also kind of sad. It's unfortunate to see how much damage has been inflicted by looters and vandals. But on the other hand, I guess it's also pretty impressive that everything has held up as well as it has, considering the human damage and environmental elements. Regardless, it's amazing that all of this construction occurred during ancient times.

On Friday, before we left Luxor, we went to the Mummification Museum. Despite the fact that the collection was pretty small, it was very interesting and well-displayed. Unlike the Egyptian Museum, everything was labeled, so Yann didn't have to listen to my commentary!

Before we left I needed to buy a couple more desert friendly shirts. We stopped into a shop where the owner brought us in for tea while I tried on shirts. Midway through our shopping he quickly paused everything and decided to play dress up with Yann and I--do we look better as Egyptians?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I will readily admit that I have longed to see the pyramids of Egypt since I was just a young boy and have been very excited for this one stop on our journey. We took a red-eye from Casablanca to Cairo (and swore-off 5 hour long red-eyes for the umpteenth time) and made it through customs without any major hiccups. We even managed to negotiate the onslaught of dudes offering us a taxi with little frustration and find our way into an airport sanctioned cab! Within two hours of touch down, we were checking into the Mariott in downtown Cairo very excited to have a clean space rest and shower.

My stomach was feeling a little unsettled and we were exhausted having not slept well on the flight. Going against our own travel policy it was agreed that a morning nap was in order. It was at some point during this nap I became aware that something horribly wrong was running amok in my gastrointestinal system. In my head I could hear the rallying cry of my white blood cells as they drew a target on my innards and marched in droves to locate and conquer the invading species. While my immune system waged war I spent the entire day lying in the fetal position, clenching my sides, and wishing for a quick painless death. Catherine kindly attended to bringing me fluids and making arrangements for us to visit the pyramids the next day. I survived, made it up the next morning for sight-seeing, and then managed to pass a less severe version of the bug onto Catherine whom also spent the better part of the next day in bed. We had wondered how long it would be before we crossed paths with something stronger than our own stomachs—now we know, 5 weeks.

Amidst our ailments, we managed to get up and meet with our driver/guide to spend a day touring the pyramids at Giza as well as the step pyramid at Saqqara. Ahmed introduced him self with a broad smile and got us loaded into the van. As our driver wound through the chaotic streets of Cairo Ahmed explained the history of Egypt (in excellent English) providing us with a quick rundown on each of the three periods of the Pharaonic age and the associated who’s who of pharaohs along with their accomplishments. Perhaps more interesting was his genuine commentary on modern Egyptian life and what it was like to live in the bustling city of 20+ million people where it rained on average twice a year and was always hot.
We arrived at Saqqara and Ahmed gave us two pieces of advice before we stepped out of the car: 1) Do not accept any offers for camel rides. You will be offered a price of 10E£ and then required to pay more than $100US to get back out of the desert. 2) Do not let anyone take your pictures or have your picture made with anyone. This is a classic scam to pick your pocket. We smiled and told Ahmed that we had lots of good practice in dealing with hustlers and set out to visit the worlds oldest known pyramid—the Step Pyramid. Ahmed gave us an excellent overview of the site along with some recommendations on where we should take pictures. We spent about a half our walking around the pyramid and checking out the restoration efforts that were currently underway at the hands of a Polish firm. At the top of the main court we were pleased to see the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid lingering in the distance across the desert landscape.

After the Step Pyramid, Ahmed took us to a nearby crumbling pyramid (which resembled little more than a large pile of broken rocks) but promised to delight with its intact burial shaft, chambers, and well preserved hieroglyphics. We made the decent down a long passageway about 1.5m square which opened into a central rooms with a burial chamber to the right, complete with sarcophagus, and a second room to the left for a wife and children. Although this little trip is made by thousands of tourist each year it was still very cool to descend into the middle of a pyramid and try to imagine what it might have looked like 4000 years ago. Before leaving the site we stopped into the mastaba (tomb of the noble man) and marveled over the stone reliefs depicting life and the afterlife in brilliant detail . Back in the van we relished in the air conditioning and set off for Giza.

I never would have guessed it, but the great pyramid at Giza is nestled (surrounded really) right in the metropolis of Cairo. As we pulled into the sprawling visitors entrance to the grounds we were immediately joined by hundreds of other vacationers all eagerly awaiting to see the pyramids first hand. I was mildly disappointed that we weren’t in the middle of the desert with maybe a handful of other tourist, but then again, what should I have expected from one of world’s seven wonders?
Crowds of tourist or not, the great pyramid is a sight to behold. Absolutely mammoth and mind boggling when you stop to consider its construction over 4000 years ago! We took Ahmed’s advice and skipped the extra ticket which allowed you to walk down the burial shaft of the great pyramid instead walking around and taking in the sheer size of the monument. I snapped a lot of pictures and was surprised when we were asked by two different middle eastern groups if we would stand in a picture with them. At one point a couple of the tourist police (armed with automatic rifles) motioned me to come over and take a picture from their vantage point. They proceeded to woo Catherine and I into all sorts of poses and take our picture then handed back their camera, held out their hands, and asked for their tip! We handed over a few pounds and chuckled when we looked back through the pictures—none of them turned out.

Next stop was up the plateau where the infamous “National Geographic” photos are all taken. This is the vantage point we are all used to seeing which tricks us into believing these pyramids lie in the middle of the desert. Nonetheless, it was definitely a Kodak moment and we took advantage.

Last stop was the famous Sphinx and just like the pyramids it was a big heap of awesome. We ran into another American couple who had also left their jobs to travel the world and spent several minutes swapping stories and exchanging information. We both joked that you don’t meet too many Americans who do this type of thing.
On our way home we asked Ahmed if he would assist us with obtaining train tickets on the sleeper car to Luxor the following day. He warmly obliged our request and even went in to the train station with us to buy tickets. Thank goodness he did because I’m not sure we would have found the remote trailer where sleeper car tickets were sold.

At this point the heat and our battle against the evil stomach bugs had both of us drained. Returning to the hotel we spent the remainder of our evening indulging in rest, room service, and some bad movies.

After a long a restful sleep we were both feeling better and spent our final day in Egypt touring the Egyptian Museum. It was really neat but also completely overwhelming. There are so many artifacts from Pharaonic Egypt that the museum (nor the country) really doesn’t know what to do with them all. The museum displays some of the finest pieces but oddly enough things still seem cluttered , unlabeled, and improperly stored. Living in the DC area, it is weird to walk in and see a huge un-air conditioned building filled with wood and glass cabinets that house thousands of ancient relics. We both wondered why the facilities had not been improved given the continuous tourist traffic that claims at minimum $10/pp—but perhaps that is part of its charm. Catherine kindly acted as my guide reading the Lonely Planet highlights as we strolled along. We paid the extra 100E£ to see the mummies and were very impressed—extremely gruesome and cool!

Back at the hotel we collected our bags and grabbed a taxi for the train station. At 9:45pm we boarded train 82 and were comfortably settled into our private little sleeper car. We were served a dinner (very reminiscent of bad airplane food), our bunks were then lowered with beds made, and we laid back for a decent night sleep while the train made way on its 12 hour journey to Luxor.