10 Things To Do In Dahab If You Can’t Swim (or even if you can)

I do believe that I’m the only non-swimmer in Dahab, and as it is essentially watersports mecca this does become a bit of an issue. Everyone around me is bustling with all the tasks they need to do pre- and post-dive (looks way too much like hard work to me), and they sit together in excited groups at sundown, drinking Sakara and sharing stories about what they’ve seen.

But what am I doing?

I love Dahab (you may have noticed) and it’s become my Happy Place in the last few years. These are my top ten Best Bits that I’d recommend to anyone coming here for the first time:

Stay at Sheikh Ali Hotel

This is a Bedouin-owned and run establishment in Mashraba that is beautifully run and gives a really good taste of that legendary Bedouin hospitality. The rooms are quite simply huge, and are the best I’ve stayed in in Dahab. Glossily tiled, with a brick cupola in the ceiling and a huge bed, they are luxurious but not too expensive. There are only 22 rooms so it’s quiet – I come here to get a good night’s sleep and to feel safe and among friends. It is a two-minute walk away from the sea via a shortcut. I use Acacia Hotel pool if I want to see the sea but I will always stay at Sheikh Ali.

The cupola in my room at Sheikh Ali

The cupola in my room at Sheikh Ali

Have breakfast at Everyday Café

There are a few Everyday Cafés quite close to each other in Dahab. The one I prefer is the oldest one, just south of the bridge, in Mashraba. It has windows made out of old doors and they make the perfect frame for staring out at the sea and watching local Bedouin boys trying to catch puffa fish. Plus they tend to give you free things such as slices of brownie, if you stay there long enough. They have full-to-bursting bookshelves, and a great Bedouin vibe.

A Bedouin boy fishes outside Everyday Cafe

A Bedouin boy fishes outside Everyday Cafe

Spend a day at the lagoon

You can easily get a cab (for about £2) from Sheikh Ali to the Swiss Inn – a large resort on Dahab’s glorious lagoon beach.  You pay £10 to use the beach and towels for the day, to get access to wifi and their beach bar, which is perfectly placed for enjoying a cocktail as the sun sets behind the Sinai Mountains. The lagoon has to be seen to be believed – you can walk out along the whole stretch of it, watching the windsurfers stud the bay (or if there’s no wind – the wakeboarders and paddle-boarders are out). In front of the Swiss Inn there is a swimming area that allows me to go into the water and keep my feet on the sand – little fish swim around your legs. It really is beautiful.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

Do the submarine trip to Napoleon Reef

Just along from the Swiss Inn on the lagoon you can take a submarine boat out on to the Napoleon Reef. You are beneath the boat in a glass capsule and if, like me, you’ve never dived, you will see the fish you’re missing out on. I cried the first time I did it. There is a guide on board to explain what you’re seeing, but his commentary was mainly in Russian as I was the only British guest. I didn’t really need it, to be honest. You can book this through any of the hotel trip guides, or from the main town. I recommend my friend Hawash, who works at Swiss Inn arranging all sorts of tours.

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Have lunch at Time Café

This place is run by my friend Nadja. It is in the trendy Bedouin area of town – the Lighthouse – where all the divers hang out. Nadja serves great pizza and pasta and serves them to you on chunky wooden tables by the sea. You can also use the café sun loungers to hang out for the day (as long as you buy something).

Time Cafe sunloungers

Time Cafe sunloungers

Visit St Catherine’s Monastery

This is the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited monastery, and it is said to be the place where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush (said bush is still there). Over seventeen centuries old, it is a fascinating historical site, at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the galleries showcase its stories and collections really well – especially it’s ancient manuscripts and books. You can walk up the mountain to the side of the monastery to get a really good aerial view of the site. You can also couple this trip with a sunset/sunrise trip to Mount Sinai. I have also visited the White and Coloured Canyon trips – they’re great, but be prepared for a scary climb out of the White canyon at the end. Worth it, but best to know in advance!

St Catherine's - the oldest monastery in the world.

St Catherine’s – the oldest monastery in the world.

Go into the mountains at night

On this trip, I was driven into Wadi Qunai by hotel staff for Bedouin breadmaking and stargazing. We put rugs and cushions down and I was able to see the Milky Way, framed by the mountains of Sinai. I thought I could see some shooting stars, but they turned out to be satellites in orbit. Still, the experience was beautiful, and I’ve never ‘heard’ a silence so profound. There are more organised trips involving Bedouin feasts, but I preferred this simpler version. Fewer couples being romantic…

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Have dinner at Sea House

This is a fairly new place on the seafront of Masbat in downtown Dahab, and it where my friend Vigo Pushkin works. He is a real star and will make you feel so welcome and cared for. This restaurant has tables that overhang the sea and you can look out at the twinkling lights of Dahab seafront. Vigo used to work at Friends, another favourite, which is great for rooftop views and shisha smoking.

Dahab's restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.

Dahab’s restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.

Shop at Why Not/Gypsy

This is a gorgeous shop on either side of the road just before the bridge in Mashraba. It’s run by Mohamed Ghareb, who is great to follow on Instagram for a little slice of Dahab life. At night, the shop’s lamps are a sight to behold and inside there’s a treasure trove of trinkets, jewellery, furniture and lighting. I know people who live here who love buying something from this shop for their homes because he always has ‘something a little bit different’.

Why Not lamps at night

Why Not lamps at night

Take a boat to Ras Abu Galum

This beautiful Bedouin national park is only accessible by camel or by boat. I went with a group last time I was here and we had a fish lunch by the sea. I hung out in the shallows while my friends dived. Tranquil and away from everything. Time to contemplate the beauty of the world.

The beach at Ras Abu Galum.

The beach at Ras Abu Galum.

I haven’t ever tried the Quad-Biking, Camel/horse-trekking or Jeep Safaris into the mountains but these are other non-swimming-related activities you can do in Dahab. You can also easily visit Luxor, Jerusalem or Jordan – Petra is on my list  of places to visit next time.

So much to do, so little Egyptian time…

Might just head to the beach.

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You’ve Been Mangoed

As I write at the breakfast table, my iPhone is in the hands of a Bedouin who is skilled in taking phones apart, cleaning them, and putting them back together again. I’ve been told that he can get anything out of them. My phone has been mangoed.

I knew it was going to happen, too. I’d been carrying round a slightly leaky carton of mango juice in my bag for a day and knew it would spill on something. It spilled into a pocket of my bag, into which I unwittingly thrust my phone. Lovely. It carried on working as normal for a few hours so I thought I was in the clear, until it started saying NO SIM and suddenly trying to delete apps without me telling it to. I tried the old ‘bag of rice’ trick overnight to no avail.

I asked a range of people about my options – everyone mentioned the guy in Asilah Square with the magic touch so we went there last night. If he fixes it, I will be astonished. I’ll update you in my next post…

Poolside view, Acacia Hotel.

Poolside view, Acacia Hotel.

So this meant that I had a day without my iPhone and it turned out to be blessing. I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the pool of the Acacia Hotel, which is closer to the sea than the one I’m staying in (I checked out one of the rooms – pretty cool – around £30 per night). It has a relaxed poolside vibe with some interesting people busying themselves with dive trips, and a gorgeous restaurant overlooking the sea. I’ve just found a spot among the Bedouin cushions and stared at the Gulf across to Saudi Arabia.

The view from the restaurant over the Gulf of Aqaba across to Saudi Arabia.

The view from the restaurant over the Gulf of Aqaba across to Saudi Arabia.

As you do. I’ve also been joined by a variety of animals – Bufra’s daughter, Fatty, and a load of cats. NB. Don’t order the tuna salad unless you have a water gun by your side. They appear like something out of Dawn of the Dead.

Fatty is sleeping, with the trademark Bufra smile on her face.

Fatty is sleeping, with the trademark Bufra smile on her face.

You may have noticed that I’m a tad obsessed with the animals of Dahab, specifically the dogs. I have a theory that it is the Dogs of Dahab who rule the town, the humans are just incidental. There are street dogs, pet dogs, dogs that run gangs who literally hound each other around town, dogs that smile, dogs that can’t bear it if you stop stroking them, dogs covered in battle scars from a hard life, puppies that pull the hem of your dress. I heard that people often adopt dogs they like to save them from living on the streets. Sniff.

Yesterday I met my friend Sara’s little puppy and had a cuddle. I needed it after the iPhone fiasco. Puppy cuddles are the way forward, it seems. And a little retail therapy – I bought a couple of dresses from a guy I know who never hassles me and a bangle from quiet Mohamed Ghareb in the gorgeous Why Not shop (I ‘know’ him via Instagram). If only Egyptians learnt that the way to the tourist dollar is by NOT asking them to come into their shops. I make a point of only shopping in the quiet places.

After spending the day watching people prepare snorkelling and diving equipment at the Liquid Dive Centre next to the hotel I realised I must be the only person not doing it in Dahab. I can’t swim. I keep asking around for boat trips I can go on that don’t involve getting in the water. Why do I have to? What happened to just being on a boat? They seem to think it would be boring – not for me. The sea is never boring.

If I go on a dive boat I know I’ll be hassled to death, “Just wear a lifejacket! You will love it!” No. No I won’t. I will panic and you will have to save me. I’ll spend the whole time being a dickhead in front of everyone and having to explain myself. I almost feel bullied in these situations, to be honest. If one thing could improve my Dahab Days, it would be a simple boat trip into the Gulf. Just with my book and some drinks. Surely someone can provide that?

Until then, this is where you’ll find me…

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The Sound of Silence

The other night two Egyptian football teams were playing each other. I found this out after hearing intermittent roars echoing around the hotel before I left to walk into town. It was probably the best walk past all the shops I’ve ever had, in that no one was interested in selling anything to me – they were all crowded around a series of tiny television sets on the street and punching the air with glee.

After a frustrating night trying to find a restaurant with wifi, we ended up on the roof terrace of Jasmine, lounging on cushions, listening to the soft crash of the waves and looking at the stars. Santana’s Oye Como Va came on the sound system. What a perfect soundtrack to this hippy heaven, I thought. The restaurant manager said Carlos Santana was his all-time favourite musician. Can’t argue with his choice.

This cat is a regular at Sheikh Ali - he decided to join me poolside...

This cat is a regular at Sheikh Ali – he decided to join me poolside…

Yesterday I thought I’d have a lazy day by the hotel pool, just reading and chilling out. At around 10.30am the sound of one voice singing started coming from a mosque near the hotel. It was quickly joined by another from a different mosque. It was so beautiful, and I did try and Periscope it, but the wifi wasn’t enough for the app to register the sound. After a while the singing turned to impassioned declarations, then singing again before it stopped at midday. I was later told that this happens every Friday. This is the equivalent of Sunday morning church bells – every Muslim should attend the mosque, if they can, and they are excused from work to do so if they need to.

I began to think about all the sounds of Dahab and how I love all of them. The music, calls to prayer, the dogs barking at each other, the crash of the sea at night, the cat fights, the sound of the wind in the flames of a fire in the desert, the friendly shouts between Dahabeyans (if that’s the word for them), even the fake bird tweets in restaurants that signify a dish to be picked up from the kitchen.

And then there’s the silence of the mountains. I visited Wadi Qunai in the evening with a Bedouin guide and once the air-conditioning in the 4×4 had switched off, there was a profound presence in the air. I realised that the silence was almost a sound in itself. I could hear the buzz of my own circulating blood in my ears just above it. It wasn’t until it turned dark that the desert black beetle started up its peeping, joined by others round the canyon. We drew our cushions up on our rug and lay down to look at the stars. I could see the Milky Way, and track satellites passing across it on the same orbit.

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Before this, our Bedouin guide had made bread for us, the traditional way. He had been taught how to do it by his father, who still lives in the mountains, and when I asked if he’d taught his sons the same method, he said that they were too interested in their phones… This sounds familiar.

First, he put a handful of salt in a bowl, added water, and swished it around until the salt was dissolved. Then he added flour – a special one for baking in sand, apparently – and began to knead.

The Great Bedouin Bake Off begins.

The Great Bedouin Bake Off begins.

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Once the dough was in a soft, but tight ball, he flattened it out on a tray. The fire he’d built had calmed down to glowing coals, which were slowly sifted until he’d moved the top layer away. Then the bread was placed on top and covered over with coals using a stick.

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After about ten minutes, the coals were removed, and the loaf scraped, wiped and banged to remove any traces of sand or gravel from it. He cut the bread into pieces and we dipped it in soft feta drowned in olive oil.

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He showed us how to slurp sweet tea with the mixture still in our mouths. The combination of this sweetness, with the salty, chargrilled bread, and the savouriness of the cheese tasted like the best pizza I’ve ever had. Eating it below the stars was an added bonus.

As the guide baked, I told him about Nadiya Hussain, who has recently helped to change perceptions of British Muslimhood through her baking abilities and good nature. We talked about Islamophobia and he suggested that ISIS are the problem, “They have given Islam a bad name”, he said. “I don’t know what book they are reading. Mohammed lived like this [gestures at fire and bread] – the simple life. He would not even kill an ant if it walked by. He tells us we have to let it go by. To let it live.”

Live and let live.

That seems to be a pretty good mantra to me.

Poor You!

I’ve just come back from a trip to Dahab in Egypt (an hour north of Sharm El Sheikh in South Sinai) and one of the fun parts of the holiday was teaching my friend silly English words and phrases in exchange for Arabic ones.

I told him a story about a person I know who loves it when things go wrong in my life, so I’ve stopped saying anything negative about what’s happening to me on social media. If I post something really positive, with only an iota of negativity, she will pick up on the latter and exclaim, ‘poor you!’ This makes me feel angry.

The Egyptian, as he has become known, seemed to pick up on this phrase and repeated it back to me randomly the next day, pulling the pseudo-sympathetic face that goes with it, that I’d obviously used the day before. It made us laugh so much – everything that didn’t go to plan came with an explosive ‘poor you!’ and we’d collapse into giggles.

This happened on a day when the British were exercising their right to vote (well, 66% of them were) and I was struck by the ridiculousness of The Egyptian exclaiming ‘poor you!’ when I told him of the horrific result. Just the fact that we are allowed to choose our own government and vote in a democratic and free society is something of a privilege. Yes sirree, I checked my privilege.

The election happened to be in the same week that disgraced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was due to find out his fate: just three years’ imprisonment for embezzling millions of pounds of state funds. His earlier life sentence for the deaths of 800 protesters in the 2011 Revolution had been thrown out the previous November. The month before my trip, Egypt had seen its first democratically elected head of state in Egypt sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mohamed Morsi had used his status to grant himself unlimited power, resulting in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Egyptian said that the freedom everyone felt after the Revolution was so sweet, but so fleeting. There was no follow-up plan, so corruption and power-wrangling quickly set in.

The Egyptian had been working in one of the restaurants in Dahab where three anti-Mubarak nail bombs went off in 2006. He’d been lucky, but he stumbled outside to see bodies everywhere and people running into the sea. The emergency services were not quick enough to save all the casualties. Twenty-three people died, mostly Egyptians.

Now, the police crawl all over Sinai, ostensibly to protect the tourists from the threat of terrorism, but the reality is that they prefer terrorising innocent Egyptians. There are two checkpoints between Sharm and Dahab, but the police are only interested in who the drivers are, not who’s in the back of the cab. They make a huge deal out of making people wait, checking ID, being suspicious. If they think that tourists don’t notice what they are doing, then they are very wrong. It stinks.

The general consensus is that the police are bored, just making stuff up to give them something to do. Their directive is to leave the tourists alone – even if they’re the ones committing a crime in public, they will pick on the Egyptian with them and ignore the foreigner. It’s horrible but a fact of life and the locals’ response is a chilled ‘what can we do?’

I ended up going on a glorious day trip with a group of women of all nationalities: Egyptian, Swiss, Austrian, Anglo-Greek and me, Welsh. One of the main topics of conversation was the ‘woman problem’. Apparently the women of Egypt are rising up in a way that is making the male population uncomfortable. Of course, being a feminist, this was music to my ears. Some women are not happy with the deal – just staying in and looking after children and cooking for their men. (Some of them are, it has to be said, and some of these aren’t Egyptian. Russian women seem to enjoy it and many Egyptian men in Dahab marry them. It’s a good match.)

One night, I saw two Egyptian women having a ‘ladies night’ out – their kids were running around outside while they sat in a restaurant, chatting and drinking tea. One was breastfeeding. One was sitting alone with her child. It was so great to see that.

Initially it wasn’t as great to see little local girls running around the town all day selling homemade bracelets. I’d see them walking on isolated roads carrying their wares from town to town, and worry for their safety. No, the women told me, this is their moment of freedom and they are completely safe. As soon as they start their periods they are confined to the house, drinking tea with the other adult ladies of the family. It seems as though some mothers have started hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the men in the house, just to prolong their freedom, even to the point of trying to make the girls look younger. It seems to work.

As I sat there in my bikini, being served Bedouin food by a woman fully covered except for her eyes, I checked my privilege again. I could stride into Dahab and into this beautiful Bedouin isolated beach settlement (Ras Abu Galum, in case you’re interested) and literally let my hair down, wearing a bikini.

I may never say, ‘poor you!’ again, unless in jest with The Egyptian. Poor, poor us, and our democratically elected government who aren’t embezzling millions of our pounds to fund their palaces (I’m sure someone will point out that they are doing this), or killing 800 protesters who happen to disagree with their policies. Poor us, and our freedom as women to go about as we choose after we become adults, to have jobs, wear what we want and have sex outside marriage.

Yes, yes, I know everything is relative, but it is worth putting things in perspective every now and again.