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Relaxing Above and Below the Amazing Underwater World of the Red Sea

Sept 9-14

We were really beginning to regret having set ourselves up for two whole weeks in Egypt by the time we got to Luxor. The lying, sleeve-tugging touts, the tourist hustle, the filth on the strets, the heat! It all began to take its toll on us. Just one week in Egypt had given us a firm conviction: we would never come back here again! We had seen the ancient sites; once in a lifetime would be enough. It was in this state of mind that we flew from Luxor to Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort town on the Sinai Peninsula. We had actually heard good things about the Sinai from other travelers. We hoped going there for a week would help rejuvenate our frazzled nerves.

Egypt redeemed itself quite a bit thanks to the Sinai. It's a world apart from polluted, crowded Cairo and hassle-prone Luxor. A region of vast, rugged desert mountains surrounded by the living waters of the Red Sea, this is the land of Moses and ancient Bedouin tribes. It bears no resemblance to the mess of the rest of the country, which lies to the west across the Gulf of Suez.

Dahab Street

Relaxing downtown Dahab

We came to the Sinai for two reasons: to relax and to enjoy the spectacular coral reefs which lie just offshore here. The southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula is widely regarded as having the best diving in the world, and after diving and snorkeling here, we have to agree. Much of the coastline of the southern Sinai region has been declared one vast national park, and the Egyptian government actually does quite a bit to enforce the protection of the reef and sealife here. Access to many areas is controlled, and fishing of any kind is outlawed here. The results are mile upon mile of unspoiled tropical reef, full of healthy, multicolored corals, fish and invertibrates. Mike enjoyed diving at Ras Mohammed National Park, where a coral-encrusted wall drops some 800m (2400 ft) straight down into the depths of the Red Sea. We both snorkled a lot as well -- all you have to do is get in the water anywhere to enjoy the abundant reef life.

We stayed three nights at Sharm El-Sheikh, a fancy, upscale resort town. Sharm is nice, but it's growing too quickly and it seems that it may soon descend into the depths of package tourist hell, a la Cancun or Kaanapali Beach, Maui. Just ten years ago, Sharm was a small, quaint town which attracted mostly divers. Today, the coast is one long development zone, full of half-finished mega-resorts, rapidly creeping northward, threatening to engulf every little town along the way. Sharm is also expensive; we stayed here just long enough to take advantage of its position next to the best dive spots in the country.


The waterfront at Dahab

From fancy, glitzy Sharm, we took a bus 1.5 hours north along the coast to the relaxed little seaside town of Dahab. If towns were people then Sharm El-Sheikh would be a rich, Rolex-flouting Yachtie, and Dahab would be his perpetually-stoned beach bum cousin who jumps from odd job to odd job to support his diving habit. They're that different. We had truly entered another world in Dahab and we immediately loved it! This is a backpacker's paradise where people come for a few days and leave after a few months. We were amazed that there weren't ATM machines here or fast food chains (yet). What a relief! There is absolutely no hassle here about anything. You only come here for one chill out. This must have been what Santa Cruz, California was like 30 years ago. We were completely disappointed to only have three days here. We could've stayed for at least one week. It was just what we needed to unwind.

Goofing in Dahab

"Peace, man!" Jen goofing off in one of Dahab's laid-back cafes

A typical day in Dahab goes something like this: sleep in as late as you wish because you can get breakfast any time, then relax under a palapa on bedouin-style cushions with a view of the Gulf of Aqaba at one of the many outdoor cafes along the waterfront. You can hang out in the same cafe all day if you so desire, no one ever pressures you to leave. There aren't any set schedules for anything. Locals and tourists alike enjoy smoking traditional "sheesha" pipes in the cafes here. A sheesha is a large water pipe using either m'aasil (molasses) or tofah (apple) flavored tobacco which is sweet but mild. The effort of inhaling leaves you a bit light headed and very relaxed. We really got a kick out of this old custom, and we're not smokers!

Hanging out in Dahab was just what the doctor ordered to get us back on a relaxed track. After three days here, we grudgingly hopped on a plane back to Cairo, where we spent a night before moving on to our next destination, South Africa...

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