When I found out we were maybe going to have an extra week of vacation, I started considering my options. I’d originally planned my March outing to be a weekend trip to the iris fields outside of Riyadh, but since that tour was the weekend before our holiday, I decided I’d take a longer trip outside Saudi again instead. Turns out I got to see some pretty beautiful flowers anyway, and a whole lot more.
I went to my friendly Saudi expat Facebook page for advice on where I could go for a week and not spend a fortune. I felt like I was pretty much done with Dubai for the moment, plus it is not cheap there. I thought about Bahrain, but the airfare was becoming prohibitively expensive. Then several folks suggested a place called Sharm el Sheikh. I did some research and found out that this is a beach resort town on the southern part of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. Although our holiday hadn’t been confirmed yet, I found a resort online that was going to cost me less than 300$ for the whole week, and was all inclusive and had a waterpark on site. Since it was free to cancel, I booked it.
I then went through the dance that results from nothing being sure until the last minute. By the time we were confirmed for our holiday, ALL flights going anywhere from Tabuk were sold out. It was literally impossible for me to fly out of Tabuk. I further found that it’s not allowed for women to take the public intercity buses without a male escort. I remembered one of my co-teachers had hired a driver to take her to and from Jordan, so I asked her for the contact information and began to arrange a private car to Aqaba. But the resort is not in Aqaba, it’s in Sharm. So then I had to figure out how to get from Jordan to Egypt. I looked at flights, but they were more than 600$ and went through 2 stops on the way, Amman and Cairo. I thought about giving up my great resort deal and just spending my vacation in Aqaba, but Jordan is much more expensive than Egypt, and I could not get anything like the accommodation for anything like the price, so I’d probably end up paying just as much to fly and stay in Sharm as I would not to fly but stay in Aqaba.
Finally, my searching led me to discover the existence of ferries that run from Aqaba to the Sinai peninsula. For some reason, tourism websites for the Middle East aren’t well maintained or updated, so I found a lot of false leads and no way at all to book a ferry ticket online, despite finding several places that said that tickets had to be purchased days in advance of the trip. After many emails and phone calls, I finally found a company that would arrange the boat, as well as the car drive from the ferry terminal to my resort. It was almost as expensive as the flight, but I was running out of options. So I agreed to pay the fare and asked them to confirm the booking… then never heard from them again. I hadn’t actually given them any money, so that was pretty strange. At nearly the last minute, I found another company with much better prices and booked with them instead, saving myself several hundred dollars. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
You can read about my days in Aqaba here.
Friday evening, I left my Aqaba hotel and headed down to the marina to meet my boat to Egypt. I couldn’t find the slip, but was able to call the company who told me where to go and sent the ship’s captain out to meet me. They made me some coffee while we were waiting, and we had to run up to the immigration office since the official decided not to come down to the slip. There I paid my exit tax for Jordan and was allowed to board the boat. The captain showed me up to the bridge, saying I got the VIP seat.
The captain talked to me for a while about the change in Egypt over the last 5 years, the fall of the Mubarak regime and two revolutions. The collapse of the economy and the death of the tourist trade that made up 34% of their economy before. He was not a young man, and I can only imagine all of the things that he has seen Egypt go through in his lifetime. He seemed to love his country despite all it’s problems and he was proud that they had learned from other democracies and finally arrived at a limited term presidency. He told me about the new capital city that’s being built outside Cairo, and he seemed genuinely hopeful for Egypt’s future.
When his attention was required to navigate the international waters, he returned to his instruments and doused the light in the room. I stepped into the doorway that led onto the deck, remembering the advice of another captain I know “one hand for you, one hand for the boat”. So it was that I found myself crossing the Red Sea by starlight from bridge of a yacht. As I looked up at the stars, I found the familiar constellation of Orion, and then reminded myself that here he was known as Osiris. I am so glad I didn’t fly.
As we reached the far shore, the bare rock mountains of Sinai loomed suddenly out of the water, lit by the streetlights along the narrow road between the sea and the cliffs. In no time at all we were pulling into the port at Taba. I bid farewell to my host and joined the shuffling mass of tourists heading toward customs and immigration. We passed through with little ado, but when I got clear of the border post, tourists were being rounded up into buses by tour guides. I asked several if they knew where my bus was, but no one did. I think before coming to the Middle East this situation would have made me really nervous, instead I was just exasperated. I called the company back and explained the issue, they gave me the name of the driver I should ask for and I proceeded to. Another driver said he knew the man, but that he wasn’t there that night, so he called him for me. The driver who was supposed to collect me denied that he had been scheduled, so I called the company again. After a few more calls and some offers from other drivers to buy a seat on their bus (not an option I wanted to pursue, since I’d already paid one company for a round trip), the Jordanian manager of my company arranged for another driver to take me that night, effluving apologies and making rather disparaging comments about the Egyptian workforce.
Take home lesson, if you’re lost in the Middle East, make your tour guide sort it out. I’m not a huge fan of tour guides in most situations, but these guys were really helpful in navigating the paperwork and arranging the transportation that would have definitely been more expensive had I tried to simply take a taxi from the port. Plus they do trips both ways, so on my way back a week later, I was amid a group that was headed to Petra for a day before returning to their resorts in Sharm. Shameless plug, but the countries need the tourism and the Sindbad guys really were nice, efficient and well priced.
The drive from Taba to Sharm is 3 hours according to Google maps, but took us more like 4.5. Not only are the roads in terrible repair, making it very hard to rest for all the bumping, but we had to stop at every checkpoint and wait for the entire caravan of vehicles to catch up before we were allowed to move on. I understand this is a security measure to keep isolated vehicles full of tourists from being lost on the road. I don’t know if it’s a normal thing, or if we got extra security because of the 26th Arab Summit that was going on while I was there.
For the first couple of hours, I actually didn’t even mind. The view was really beautiful with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The stars overhead were stunning so far from any large urban areas. But after a while, the stars disappeared and the weariness of the day began to sink in. We stopped at a little gas station/rest stop to get coffee and use the bathroom. There was a fee for the restroom, and I hadn’t had a chance to change any currency since leaving Saudi. The employees there were accepting British pounds and US dollars in addition to Egyptian pounds, but looked shocked when I told them I only had Saudi riyal. Not to be deprived of money, they figured it out, and I got a few Egyptian pounds in change and access to the the toilets. Considering the exchange rates, I think they were charging us less than 20 cents each, but they must have made out like bandits having several busloads of road weary tourists with nowhere else to pee.
After a further couple hours, we finally arrived. The driver took us around to all the resorts on his list, dropping a few tourists off at a time. Most of the people on my bus were Russian. It seems that Sharm is a very popular vacation destination for Russians. I later learned that all of the vacation literature is published in English and Russian, and most of the staff speak one or both languages as well. I finally got to the Radisson Park Inn around 2am. When I told the gate guard I was there to check in, he asked about my luggage and was really surprised that I only had a backpack. Apparently most people arrive with loads of bags (I often saw piles of luggage outside the reception area awaiting delivery to rooms) and leave with even more, since shopping is a popular Arab pastime.
After a full day that had included scuba diving, crossing the Red Sea and driving the Sinai coastline, I was totally worn out, but I knew I had a full week ahead of me and so I headed to my room and zonked out.
To be continued…
Explore the resort, the beach and the people of Sharm el Sheikh with me in the next installment of the Royal Decree Holiday.