Because I Did

This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.

This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?

Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.

I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.

This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.

I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.

In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.

My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.

Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.

Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.

I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.

I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.

But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.

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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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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.