1928

Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.

How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.

I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.

I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…

Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On  a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.

I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.

I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.

And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.

And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.

And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…

 

 

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Goodbye to Dahab

I’m writing this in my final few hours in Dahab, once more struggling with the idea of leaving this amazing town. The wind is softening the heat of the sun today, and I’m just sitting by the pool, hearing my last call-to-prayer (I think) and mentally preparing for the trip back to Sharm El Sheikh airport.

Whenever I say I’m coming here people say to me, “ooh isn’t it dangerous?” No. No, it really isn’t. I’m pretty sure it’s more dangerous living in London, where only recently someone got shot on a road near to mine, and various members of ISIS in Syria have been recruited from a local school.

To get to Dahab you have to get a taxi from Sharm airport and drive for about an hour through the mountains on quiet roads. There are two police checkpoints on the way, and depending if your driver is friends with them or not (or well known) then you simply pass through after the usual Arabic pleasantries. Given that the queue for passport control is about a tenth as busy as at a London airport, I’m fine with this. At one point, you had to join a convoy of cars to drive through the checkpoints, now this is not the case.

Southern Sinai is perhaps the most security conscious of all the Egyptian governorates because it houses the all-important tourist industry. Hence the police presence. ISIS are active in one tiny corner of this 1 million-square-km country, in the northernmost part of Sinai, bordering Israel. Whenever I mention this to a local friend, they express surprise that it’s even a consideration to tourists given that it is so far away.

I fly with Easyjet to get here and at 4hrs 45mins outbound, it feels quicker and quicker every time I do it. Almost always, I’m the only passenger going to Dahab – thankfully – but I always think, “Oh you have no idea what you’re missing out on…”

I’ve written a lot already about how scared I was of everything here, and how those fears have eroded over time. I now know that I am incredibly safe here, from walking alone in the dark, to leaving valuables lying around in a cafe or by the beach. People respect my person and my belongings and I know that they would drop everything to help if I found myself in a ‘situation’.

It’s all too easy to translate the shopfront ‘hassle’ as something more insidious, as I did previously when I had a panic attack inside one, but it’s just the way things work here. However, even the locals are learning that the less they hassle, the more likely it is they’ll get tourists to come in to their businesses.

Now I’ve just got to adjust to the culture of nothing quite being what you think it’s going to be. This applies to the timing of things, the cost of things, and what you expect things (like day trips) to be. At first you think you’re being taken for a ride, but you soon realise that this is just the way things are here. Nothing is quite what it seems at first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s often an improvement, if you let yourself go with it. You can save yourself a whole lot of bother if you just adopt the local, ‘what can you do?’ shrug and get on with it.

So once again I’m leaving here knowing full well that I’ll be back. The only fear is that something will prevent me, but I somehow know I’ll find a way to return to this magical place.

I’m stopping now because a cat wants to climb on my keyboard… See you on the other side.

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I’m writing this on the other side, filled with horror and sadness at the news about the Russian Metrojet plane crash. Not only for the deaths of innocent people and the grief of their families, but also for my friends in Dahab who rely on tourism for their livelihoods. As they say, I hope all will be ok, inshallah.

Windy City

Featured image © Peter Truckle

As I write this the wind is buffeting my hotel room windows. I’ve just left the lagoon beach during a storm, and my taxi driver said he did a U-turn on the road to Sharm because it’s too dark and dangerous in the mountains.

Earlier today I gaily told the hotel staff that I was going early to the beach because rain was forecast at 2pm. Then came the standard response whenever I say this. “Rain? In Dahab? No – it will not rain today.” They simply look skywards and if they see blue, then it’s not happening.

I get to the beach and it is all blue skies, golden sands and glittering water. I feel happy because I’m there early enough to enjoy at least five hours before the rain comes. The guys I know at Dolphin Water Sports say ‘no rain today’. I know better, but still arrange to go out on a wakeboarding trip (I can ride on the boat while someone else wakeboards).

I fit in two dips in the sea, lunch and a good read of my book. Then I look up and suddenly it’s cloudy over the mountains. I don’t feel miserable about it because I knew it was coming. I retreat to Dolphin Water Sports to sip tea and say ‘I told you so’ and they are happily standing about in the rain.

I watch the lightning out across the Gulf of Aqaba while the boys suddenly start up a game of football in the rain. I count the number of miles away the storm is – about 15 by my ‘one, Mississippi’ counting system. All the Swiss Inn staff are out watching it and smiling. All the guests are in the beach bar, ordering cocktails.

It’s raining bit fat drops out there (I’m nursing a Pina Colada) but the sky is turning pink over the mountains and the storm appears to be out at sea (I think it’s now right over the town if the wind is anything to go by). I take a taxi and head back to the hotel.

Dahab is known for being windy – it’s famous in particular for windsurfing – but this is the strongest wind I’ve experienced. It’s whistling through the buildings and even drowning out the multi-voiced call to prayer. Friends are cancelling meet-ups in town so it must be bad. “Full power,” as they say here.

At least I feel safe in my hotel room and there is half of bottle of just-about-drinkable Egyptian wine in my little fridge. They’re saying the wind is going to last for three days (suddenly Egyptians are checking the forecast)  so I’m slightly concerned about my flight on Tuesday, but hey, what’s the worst that can happen?

*hunkers down*

Featured image © Peter Truckle

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.

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.

Al-Hamdulillah

Last night consisted of a reunion of sorts – I met up with some of the friends I’ve made during my numerous visits to Dahab. Most or all of them have worked in the restaurants along the main seafront but now one of them has a new job in a new place – Sea House – so we thought we’d meet there.

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.

As I walked alone from the hotel in Mashraba (south of the bridge) to Masbat (north of the bridge), through the brightly lit shops hung with clothes, lamps, and bits of Egyptian ephemera, I laughed to myself about the first time I came here, in the daytime. I’d got the shuttle bus from a hotel outside town and was scared to death of the place with all its hustle and bustle. Mainly hustle.

Cats playing outside Why Not - a great little shop in Dahab.

Cats playing outside Why Not – a great little shop in Dahab.

Now, I feel no fear whatsoever. In fact, it’s almost gone in reverse. This time, I’d been worried about getting into town via an alley behind the hotel. It snakes behind some housing and a café and brings you out on El Mashraba Street. I was terrified of walking it in the day, never mind in the nighttime but when I asked around everyone seemed astonished that I would be scared of it. “It’s completely safe!” they cried. So I tried it. And it was.

This happened on my last visit when I pulled back from a moonlit walk towards the lagoon because it was dark, and ‘you never know who’s out there’. Again, my friend couldn’t believe I was scared. Here, walking around in the dark is just what you do. It’s when it’s coolest, of course.

So last night I strode out in the full knowledge that I would be completely safe. And no matter what hassle I got, it would always be about trying to tempt me to buy something, not an assault on my physical being. I mused on the fact that at home, I get unwanted catcalling on a regular basis – on average every half an hour on a walk along the canal from my house – and recently, I was flashed at. I suppose I’d thought the hassle I got here would be the same, but I’ve realised it’s retail-related hassle – the best line I’ve had so far is, “Come and look! It’s cheaper than Asda!”

We were joined in the restaurant by one of the guys and his one-year-old son – his wife has just had a baby and he seemed stunned with happiness, repeating “al-hamdulillah” (‘thanks to god’) whenever he was congratulated. Toddler Abdullah was taking it all in his (wobbly) stride and I was incredibly touched to see a group of men compete for Abdullah’s attention, wanting to pick him up, kiss and cuddle him and take him for a walk round the restaurant. It transpired that a few of the guys had stepped in to look after Abdullah while his parents were otherwise occupied – it’s a real ‘framily’ support network down here, especially as nearly everyone is away from home and family.

Today I went back to the glorious lagoon beach, a long strand of golden sand that I fell in love with at first sight. I bagged a day pass to use the Swiss Inn Resort (£10) which gives you use of a sunbed, towel, and all the facilities in this lovely hotel. If you want a good all-inclusive, I recommend it, and the Jaz Dahabeya next door. Both good quality, family friendly hotels with the best spots on the lagoon and good food.

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I met Bob – one of the ‘framily’ who works on the beach – he calls me ‘sister’ now. He looked at my whiter than white skin and told me I should use his failsafe way of getting a tan. Going into the sea, not showering the salt water off, dry out for 15 minutes, then repeat. I fear my Welsh skin would object so I stuck with Factor 50.

I spent the day reading the first book in Elena Ferrante’s quartet, My Brilliant Friend. I was initially put off by the cover but I am riveted by the Neapolitan saga.

I must be the only person in Dahab who can’t swim so I gingerly walked into the azure water for a quick dip a few times. I generally just sit on the sand (it’s in a shallow bit) and watch the fish swim by me. I get so much pleasure out of this simple act. I’m scared of the water but I’ve managed to find a way to enjoy it that suits me.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

A slow peeling away of ingrained fears has characterised my visits here, from being too scared to walk in the dark to too scared to go in the water, but I am hopeful that the latter, like the former, will slowly fade away.

If ever there was a place to learn to swim, I believe that this is it. In my own piece of paradise.

What Can You Do?

I am spending two weeks in Dahab, on the Sinai coast in Egypt, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I’ve decided to blog about it while I’m here, giving you a daily insight into the town and its inhabitants.

I arrived last night at the wonderful Sheikh Ali hotel. It’s run by a Bedouin family and it has their trademark hospitality. The rooms are huge, clean and their beds are the comfiest I’ve ever slept on. There is a brick cupola in the ceiling that can be lit as a lovely nightlight, if you need one.

Anyway, I spent my first evening catching up with a friend in Crazy Mummy restaurant (formerly Funny Mummy), on the look-out for Bufra, the infamous restaurant dog. She didn’t make an appearance, but her progeny are everywhere. My friend tells me that most of the Dogs of Dahab (as I call them) are related to her. She’s like the Barbara Windsor of Mashraba (the area south of the bridge).

Bufra - the Mother of Dahab

Bufra – the Mother of Dahab

Dahab is a Bedouin settlement on the coast of the Sinai Peninsula that started its tourist life as a hippy hangout for Israelis in the ‘70s, with nothing more than a few shacks on the beach. (The name Dahab is Arabic for ‘gold’.)

The town is 50 miles north of Sharm-el-Sheikh and is most famous as a windsurfing and diving destination. Its popularity grew as Sharm became bloated – Dahab offers a much more peaceful retreat. It is backed by the glorious Sinai mountains and fringed by golden sands. Watching the sun slip behind the mountains has to be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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However, the tourism here has been hit by a downturn since the three bombs that went off here in 2006 and then again by the Revolution in 2011. It’s struggling to get back to its former glory. Tourist fears of terrorism are currently rife, exacerbated by recent attacks in other North African and Middle-Eastern countries.

Everyone I’ve met here who works in the town talks animatedly about the town’s former buzz. Teeming restaurants and cafes, plentiful work and tourist money – a town in the prime of its life. I’ve only known Dahab in the last three years and I can see the devastation that the terrorist threat has caused. Although Russian tourists in particular are still coming to the area, the town is fringed with half-built hotels and apartments, and half-closed restaurants and cafes are a regular feature.

Downtown Dahab

Downtown Dahab

It makes me so sad to see it because Dahab has a magical feel like no other place I’ve been to. Well, maybe certain coastal towns in west Wales or Ireland – it shares an other-worldliness with those places and a sense that anything can happen as long as you sit and wait for it. Time slips away while you are staring out over the Gulf of Aqaba.

View from Everyday Cafe in Mashraba

View from Everyday Cafe in Mashraba

My friend was working in one of the restaurants close to one of the bombs and he told me about the day it happened, and the devastation he witnessed outside.
He also told me about the brief few days of freedom following the Revolution and how that was quickly curtailed.

He, and all his friends, are still trying to make a living, but many have moved away, usually with foreign girlfriends or wives who can offer them opportunities outside the town. But they always say that they would never even think of moving if they could earn a decent living here.

Conversely, non-Egyptians are moving in, working in the dive centres and the restaurants, attracted by the laid-back lifestyle of Dahab and its hypnotic draw. I said ‘the grass is always greener’ to my Egyptian friend – a new British phrase for him to learn. There must be an Arabic version of that, involving sand or something.

We got to talking about the loneliness of living in a town, even though you’re surrounded by friends; of the importance of an ‘in case of emergency person’ – a ‘loved one’ who will always have your back. I was struck by the fact that we’d both been musing on the same thing in our respective countries, living away from family and friends who’ve moved away, and having friends who have other ‘loved ones’ who are more of a priority than we are. Who are my loved ones? We’ve both asked ourselves this same question.

And then there’s the safety-net thing. I’ve long been aware that I live a safety-net-free life. No one’s there to bail me out, there’s no mega trust fund or wealthy relative to step in just when I need it most, and I’m not a saver. I live for the day, because I might not be here tomorrow. My friend lives in the same way, but it’s enforced, because there really isn’t another way for him.

One thing that always strikes me every time I come to Dahab and meet more and more of its residents is how we are all basically the same. People living a life in a place. Some of us luck out in terms of opportunity or wealth, some of us make it happen. For some it refuses to happen despite their best efforts.

I always think of my friend’s response to this circumstantial stuff, accompanied by a trademark shrug:

“What can you do?”

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.