16 Jun 1999
Fly to Egypt, ancient land of pharaohs and pyramids. A land of mystery, intrigue and unknown internet connectivity.

17 Jun 1999
Egypt-- where to start? This is definitely the most "different" place I've been in my travels. Things are done very differently, there are not so many English speakers and 3/4 of the signs are in Arabic only.
Could be tricky.

Let's start at the beginning. They applauded when the plane landed (and it wasn't that good a landing). Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

There are two kinds of people in Egypt. Those who are incredibly friendly and helpful and those who are trying to rip me off. The latter are really a pity, because it's making me be rude to the former and it takes at least 15 minutes to tell the two apart. I've been dragged to perfume shops and papyrus "museums", charged $10 for a can of tang and a guy who claimed to be one of the infamous "English teachers" tried to show me the notorious back entry to the pyramids.

On the other hand, a huge number of people just want to chat and be friendly. Practically everyone on the street yells "Hello. Welcome!" as I walk by. I'm getting a big dose of what it's like to stand out in a crowd.

I will forever be indebted to the guy who drew me a table translating the Arabic numerals. Given that almost all the buses are marked in Arabic only, without his help I'd no doubt still be sitting in front of the pyramids.

About the city buses, they don't stop. They just roll up to the curb where you quickly have to read the Arabic numbers and decide it you want on. If you do, you sprint up to the back door, grab hold and climb in, like something out of a cheesy James Bond movie.

Once aboard, you pay and work your way up to the front to prepare for your exit move. I haven't figured out how to signal you want off, I just wait for it to slow down a bit in the vicinity of where I think I might want to be and then jump off.

Of course, for 8 cents, it's probably unreasonable to expect them to stop.

18 Jun 1999
Bail on Cairo to the easier to handle Alexandria.

I was totally proud of myself that I managed to get myself and my 60 pound pack on an inter-city bus to Alexandria. Unfortunately, I took a nap and when I woke up I had no idea where we were. The only thing I knew is that my bus stop was on the coast. so when we pulled up to a stop where I could see water, I gathered my stuff, tipped everyone is sight and got off. As the bus rolled away I pulled out my book and a knot formed in my stomach as I realized the map didn't match where I was. I started walking -- aimlessly.

Nobody asked for a passport while I was sleeping, so I figured I was still in Egypt. Other than that, I had no clue, and I was still too proud to stop someone on the street and ask them in pigeon Arabic what town I was in. Instead, I flagged down a cab.

"Midan Orabi?" I asked.
"Midan Orabi?" he said.

"Midan Orabi?" I asked.
"Midan Orabi?" he said.

And so on for five minutes. I pulled out my map and pointed.
"Ahh, Midan Orabi!" he said.

"How much?" I ask. He pulls out a 10 pound note and motions that he wants two. Now, from what I know about Egyptian cabs, 20 pounds should get me half way to Pakistan, so I tell him 10 only. He refuses and I storm off in huff pretty discouraged and still not sure if I'm actually in Alexandria.

I flag down another cab and go straight to the map. "How much?" I ask, he responds "6 pounds." I forgo the whole bargaining thing and pile in. The cab ride takes over half an hour and includes an offer of cigarettes and a guided tour of the city. I'm getting a bit nervous that we are going to have a discussion about the difference between "six" and "sixty," but no, he turns out to be one of the good guys. I give him 10 pounds and wander off to my hotel, the best three bucks I ever spent.

Any sense of success I have is lost at dinner, as I am hustled (again). A guy with the "I just want to chat English with you" line shows me all over town. I then tell him I'm looking for a place to eat, and of course he knows one. After the meal I'm presented with a ridiculous bill.
Sigh. Not being able to trust anyone really sucks!

19 Jun 1999
Explore Alexandria and reconnoiter the bus station before tomorrow's trip to Siwa Oasis. It's a good thing I check on the bus station, because it's moved. Instead of being a few blocks from my hotel it's 10k away. With more than a bit of trepidation I board a tram and head off for another adventure in Egyptian mass transit.

As soon as I get on, a guy carrying a rug befriends me and starts asking questions about where I am going, etc... I'm guarded after yesterdays deception, but it turns out I've stumbled onto another one of the good guys.

All he wants to do is talk my ear off about the relationship between the drug trade and the cruise ship industry. Either that or he was trying to give me directions to the shop where he bought the rug, I couldn't quite tell.

He buys my ticket, gets me off at the right stop and appoints another guy to guide me to the bus station, all without asking for anything other than a handshake.

ok, maybe Egypt isn't so bad after all.

20 Jun 1999
Bus to Siwa Oasis in the western desert near Libya.

21 Jun 1999

Siwa, the land time (almost) forgot

Fed by freshwater springs, Siwa is a 160 square km patch of fertile ground in the middle of the desert. At 200 kms from the Mediterranean coast and 50 kms from the Libyan border it is an oasis of sanity as well as water.

Siwa was settled by Berbers thousands of years ago and received only a few European visitors until Rommel came to town in WWII. It seems they have been bemusedly watching tourists come and go ever since.

On the 10 hour bus ride from hell through the desolation between Alexandria and Siwa I hooked up with a really nice Australian couple, Chris & Anne. We decided to hire out the Siwan, Abdullah (king of the desert), and his truck for a (semi) organized tour.

At noon, the three of us piled into the back of the dilapidated 4WD and cringed when the transmission make it's first bone shuddering scream of the day as Abdullah searched for a gear.

We cruised out over a narrow causeway along the salt flats adjoining Lake Zeitun and ended up at this fresh water spring. While we swam and a soaked, Abdullah got fire going and made us a fabulous lunch. A salad of locally grown vegetables, fresh baked bread and potatoes sauted with tomatoes spices followed by Siwan tea. Yummy, and by the far the best food I expect to have in Egypt.

After lunch we went to visit the abandoned mud brick village of Az-Zeitun. At left is the press that was used to extract oil from olives. Dates and olives have been foundation of the Siwan economy for over two thousand years and only recently has tourism finally sunk in it's poisonous talons.

Many Siwans though still live mostly as they always have. Sure, there may be rubber tires on the donkey cart, but their lives are not that much changed.

Exploring the ruins, we asked Abdullah when we should leave. "Oh, whenever you like," he replies. The contrast between the Arabic and Berber cultures is dramatic. No hassle, no worries, no problems. Abdullah's easy going nature is contagious and throughout the day we all find ourselves smiling for no apparent reason.

Finished at As-Zeitun, Abdullah took us to explore some Roman tombs.

As we were about to poke our heads in, he noticed a dangerous snake slithering by. "Oh, wait one minute..."

He threw rocks into the tomb at the snake for a while and then declared it safe for us to go in as he conspicuously waited by the entrance. We graciously declined.

Standing in the desert, ogling the bones of Roman legionnaires, it is hard not to imagine what their journey must have been like, and how far from home they must have felt. All in all, it's a sort of an odd place for a bunch of Romans to be buried.

We returned to the spring for a final dip and to give the desert time to cool before heading out into the Sea of Sand for the sunset.

All day, Abdullah told stories about his exploits in caravans to the Sudan and far off oasises and now we would get to see him in action. Hitting the sand he cranked up the speed and soon we were sliding and skittering all over the desert. Targeting a tall dune he blew a shift and we stalled out. Unperturbed, he got out and asked for a metal bar that had been floating around the back of the truck. With it, he hand started the engine and then backed us down the dune quickly gathering speed. At the bottom he did a doughnut and then he rocketed us backward up the dune, smoothly making the shift into the 2nd reverse gear.

Driving the dunes is really intense. Maybe Abdullah knew, but none of the rest of us had any idea if the dune ended in a gentle slope or a cliff. It's not obvious it mattered to him though, because he did drive us off this cliff:

Sitting on these dunes, looking out over the Sea of Sand as the sun set and Abdullah brewed us a final glass of tea it was easy to forget the difficulties of traveling in Egypt. In fact, it was easy to forget everything, except how good the tea tasted and how wonderful the warm sand felt between my toes as the night air chilled.

22 Jun 1999
Ten hour bus ride from Siwa to Alexandria.

Kill a few hours in shisha bar waiting for my train.

My 3 hour train ride to Cairo, arrives at 1 a.m.

23 Jun 1999
All the nearby hotels are full so I grab a few hours shut-eye at the Cairo train station. Just me and a few of my favorite Egyptian homeless people. I thought this might be sketchy but it didn't turn out to be all that bad. There were a fair number of people about till around 4 a.m., when things started to thin out. Then, they started playing Islamic chants at maximum volume over the PA system. Maybe to discourage people from sleeping there? Anyway, major drag...

At 7:30 a.m. I (just barely) catch my 11 hour train to Luxor. Turns out I was standing on the wrong platform which someone noticed 10 minutes before the train left. On the train, I got befriended by some teenagers who wanted to practice their English and chat about American culture. Unfortunately I was getting to the stage of exhaustion where my English wasn't much better than my Arabic.

7 p.m. Arrive my hotel in Luxor. Yeah, I'm tired now.

24 Jun 1999
As a child, I was a voracious reader. One of the first "big" books I can remember reading was a collection of adventure stories from around the world. Climbing Mt McKinley, descending the ocean's depths in a bathysphere, capturing Komodo Dragons, and Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb, this book told the stories, and I read them over and over again. I wonder how much my sense of adventure comes from sitting high up a tree in my parent's backyard reading those epic tales.

I think these thoughts as I stand in Tutankhamun's tomb. He wasn't much of a pharaoh, so it isn't much of a tomb. Just two small rooms and a couple of chambers. It is famous only because it is the sole tomb of the ancient pharaoh's discovered unplundered.

I stand on the modern wooden floor in the glare of the fluorescent lights and listen to the fan hum. What sounds might Carter have heard, other than his heart beating, as he realized the seals on the door were unbroken? What was it like to be laborer digging this tomb 3,200 years ago?

Maybe it's just my childhood memories, but I found the Valley of the Kings to be powerful and spiritual place. Summer is not prime tourist season in Luxor and I had many of the tombs I explored to myself. For the most part, I just sat in these ancient places and listened to the walls speak. So much time, history, and energy have gone by.

Other than Tut's they are fascinating edifices. False walls, plunging shafts and secret rooms all failed to stop the century's thieves. Even Carter is said to have snuck in and secreted out a few goodies before the official opening of Tut's tomb.

Many of the tombs are decorated with text from The Book of the Dead a sort of pharaonic guide to the afterlife, an instruction manual for immortality. The text decorates the wall above Tutankhamun's sarcophagus, within which his mummy still lies, riding out the ages.

For me, I imagined each painstaking stroke of the artist's brush, and wondered whether they dreamed of their work being looked upon thousands of years hence.

25 Jun 1999
Bus to Aswan.

It turns out today is Moulid an-Nabi, the birthday of the prophet Mohammed, an Islamic Holiday. As a result of this my bus got stuck in a parade. Not practical for getting around, but pretty cool to be in the midst of a huge crowd out people dressed up in funny hats, yelling, cheering, etc... Fun.

26 Jun 1999
Explore Aswan.

Not a very productive day, but I had a nice time in the market. I went out late in the afternoon during full heat of the day when the shopkeepers wouldn't have the energy to give me much guff.

At this time of the day they seemed more interesting in sitting and chatting than haggling. I spent an hour with one guy talking about different places we'd been. Just when I thought maybe I'd caught the hang of life in Egypt I asked him a few questions about his wares, and ... Well, one thing led to another and a special something will be on it's way to a special someone sometime soon. It's amazing how low you can bargain, when you don't really want a thing.

Despite (I'm assuming) getting hustled again, I do feel like I'm finally "getting" traveling in Egypt.

27 Jun 1999
I'd come to Aswan to see the temples of Abu Simbel or Philae. Both of these temples were relocated at huge expense when they were threatened by the rising waters of the new Aswan High Dam.

Although everyone and their brother wanted to take me for a felucca ride on the Nile, no one seemed to be pushing temple trips. Today, I finally went to the tourist office to find out why.

I could have gotten to Philae, but it was going to be a pain. And, with taxi, ferry and entry fees to negotiate it just didn't seem worth the effort.

The Abu Simbel story is more interesting. It turns out that you can only get there now by plane, as the road is closed for security reasons relating to the terrorist attacks of a few years ago. And in fact, the tourist office guy explained to me, that foreigners are not allowed to take the bus from Aswan to Hurghada, also for security reasons. As the alternative is a rail & bus fiasco back through Luxor it's a good thing nobody told the bus folks I'm a foreigner.

Bus from Aswan to Hurghada.

28 Jun 1999

The price was double what I was paying in Greece, but the equipment was really nice. For example, this is the first rig I've ever used that had padding.

The launch here is out a little cove with concrete jetties that I was pretty nervous about, but everything went pretty well.

29 Jun 1999
I came to Hurghada hoping to do a live-aboard dive trip down to the pristine reefs by the Sudan. Unfortunately, that only seems possible if you have brought your own group of eight people, or find someone else who has. I didn't, so I'll do two days of boat dives on the fairly thrashed reefs off Hurghada.

At the first of today's dive spots I counted 22 other boats each with around 10 divers. The diving wasn't spectacular, but pretty good. Lot's of blue spotted rays, which are one of my favorite fish. On board we had four Russians, four Germans, three Egyptians, and one American (me).

30 Jun 1999

Use a Modem, Go To Jail.

In the smaller Egyptian towns, pay phones aren't scattered about, instead, they are all located at the telephone office. Early this morning I went down to check my e-mail before going diving.

I velcroed on my acoustic coupler, got connected and had just started downloading my e-mail when a short pudgy Egyptian man came over to me and announced, "That's not allowed." A good first line of defense against all the annoying things in Egypt is to ignore them and see if they go away. This time that didn't work, as he pushed into my field of view and announced more emphatically, "That's not allowed!" "It is allowed," I replied, "I've done it all over Egypt." "No," he said, "phone for talking only, no computer." I glanced down at my machine, only two of seven messages downloaded. "Listen," I tried, "I am leaving tomorrow, let me finish and I won't come back." "No, no," he insisted in an even more agitated voice, "You finish now!" "Why? I am doing nothing wrong," I stalled, four of seven messages. "My supervisor say not allowed." "But why?" "Supervisor say!" "Why?"

At this point he seemed to catch on that I was just stalling and waved to the police station across the street. Three guys in smart white uniforms toting AK-47s came trotting over. My petty bureaucrat then tried to explain the situation to them. Even though he was speaking Arabic, I heard him use the word "internet" several times. That was a huge relief to me because it showed he knew I really wasn't doing anything wrong and so put to rest my visions of being arrested as a spy. Five of seven messages.

The police didn't seem to buy his story either. Like me, they seemed baffled as to what the big deal was. This really set the little-big-man off, and he launched into an Arabic tirade at the officers. This got them all excited and they started shouting back and waving their guns around. He finally seemed to convince them that even if he was speaking nonsense, he was vaguely in charge, and they should do what he said. They started gesturing angrily at me with their guns, more out of annoyance with the situation than anything else I think.

Being American, I'm not used to having crowds of people with big guns telling me what to do. But, I can now safely report it is a fine intimidation tactic. I glanced back to my machine. Seven out of seven messages downloaded. I unplugged and beat a hasty retreat, still dumbfounded as to what this guy's problem was.

It was still before 8 a.m. though, and my day has just begun. I went for a tea to try and settle down, and got fleeced. The guy demanded five pounds for a tea that usually costs one. To frazzled to complain, I paid him and headed off to the dive boat.

I should have smelled a rat when there were only two divers, myself included. Yesterday there were 10. As the boat left the harbor, I figured out what was going on. High winds and rough water lead to bad conditions for diving. Despite the poor visibility though, the first dive was fairly pleasant.

If It's Ebola, Kill Me Now

After lunch and a few hours surface time we suited up for the second dive. I knew something was wrong as soon as I hit the water. I was cold, and I never get cold diving in warm water with a wetsuit. By the end of the dive, my hands were numb and I started to feel groggy. I crashed for the boat ride back and managed to stumble my way back to the hotel and into bed.

I didn't stay in bed long though, as my gastro intestinal tract fairly exploded. After an hour or so of quality time on the throne I tried to make my way back to my room. The third time I bounced off the wall it sunk in that I wasn't walking so well. I flopped into bed and the cycles of hot and cold flashes began. I flailed about in the sheets for a few hours until I was coherent enough to gulp down half a bottle of Advil and some Imodium. After few hours the fever broke and I started to feel human again. I got out of bed and checked my temperature, 103. I got back in bed. Around 8 p.m. I dressed and went for a walk down to the phone station. I was hoping to find my favorite Egyptian public servant and have him to take my to his supervisor, but he was nowhere to be found.

On the way back to the hotel I started stumbling again and realized things still weren't quite right. I took a few more Advil with an Imodium chaser, assumed my position spread eagled on the bed and began hallucinating.

The last book I read was a Tom Clancy thing featuring Ebola. Here is a valuable tip for travelers: if your plan is to spend long hours lying delirious on a sweat soaked mattress wondering if you'll live or die, Ebola is not what you want on your mind. At one point, I actually crawled out of bed and tried to scrawl a note for the discoverers of my unconscious form, "If it's Ebola, kill me now."

The night passed with the blur of the fan blades above my head. I have only one vivid memory. That of waking to an imminent digestive crisis without really knowing where I was. I floundered around the room until I found the light switch. "Ahh, Egypt," I thought as I collapsed onto the floor and contemplated messing myself where I lay.

After a few minutes I recovered enough balance and energy to stand and totter once more down the hall to the toilet. As I sat there, taking in the now familiar stains about the room, I vowed that no matter how bad things got, I would not sleep on the bathroom floor.

Around 4 a.m. I awoke lucid enough to break out my "Travelers Guide to Health" book and make a diagnosis: dysentery, no doubt. Luckily, I had the prescribed antibiotic, ciproflaxin, with me. I took a few and returned to my hallucinations.

1 Jul 1999
Surprisingly enough, I awoke alive, and although I wasn't feeling chipper, it no longer seemed as though my internal organs were apt to flee via the nearest orifice at the merest thought of food.

Glutton for punishment that I am, I made a final check at the phone office for Mr. Egyptian Congeniality and his supervisor. No sign of them though, so I returned to my hotel and packed.

Of course, Hurghada had one last bit of insult to pile atop injury. As I checked out, the hotel people tired to insist that I pay 25 pounds a night instead of the 15 we'd agreed on. Their argument was that I'd been in a double room. But, that was only because they had no singles, and they had never mentioned a higher rate to me. As I was already late for my ferry, and didn't have the money they wanted on me anyway, I just turned and walked out leaving them in shock for once.

Note to tourists:

Hurghada Sucks!

The fast boat to Sharm el-Sheikh takes about 90 minutes but didn't leave until Saturday, so I loaded my bag and my turbulent stomach onto the slow boat for a 9 hour ferry ride.

Upon arriving at my new hotel I had another highly unsatisfying go at the world record for the 100 meter toilet dash. Declaring the situation out of control, I took the "I'll give this to you, but I really don't want you to use it" pill that my doctor had all sorts of unremembered admonitions about. Then, figuring I'd already thrown caution to the wind, I went out for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine, my first food in 32 hours.

2 Jul 1999
Better living through chemistry, I feel fine.
Egypt: 90 million or so.
Evan: one.

3 Jul 1999
A three dive day in Ras Mohammed National Park.

Dive #1, nice, pleasant, yawn...
Dive #2, nice, pleasant, a bit murky.
Dive #3, wow!

The final dive of the day was Shark's Reef. No sharks were to be found, but it was a fabulous dive anyway. We descended 15 or so meters to the bottom of the reef, taking in the beautiful soft and hard corals. With visibility of at least 30 meters there was an amazing amount to see. Once stabilized we set out across the blue chasm to the next reef.

It's incredibly disorienting to swim without sight of the reef or bottom in such high visibility conditions. There is no frame of reference, just cobalt blue in all directions. Like a pilot flying at night, you have to ignore your senses and swim by depth gauge and compass, tracking the diver in front of you. Looking out into infinite blue my mind couldn't decide whether to be agoraphobic, claustrophobic, or just plain scared.

After a few minutes in this dimensionless void Yolanda's reef shimmered into view. I struggled trying to resolve features in the reef, but it seemed to fade in and out like a mirage. Closer still, I realized what I was seeing wasn't the reef, but a wall of fish. Big fish, colorful fish, the kind of fish that seeing one or two of makes a great dive. There were thousands of them, all around us. Several different schools intertwined and intermingling in animated whirlpools that parted to let us through as we swam towards the reef. Fish close to a meter long would swim by an arm's width away turning a laconic eye at their ugly, clumsy cousins spilling bubbles.

Over and over I would spot something of particular note, say a meter and a half long Napoleon fish. I'd turn to point it out to my buddy only to find him desperately trying to get my attention to show me something equally interesting. "Look here!" "No, look here!" Over and over, there were wondrous sights in all directions.

Turning the corner of the reef, another surprise: the cargo of the wrecked Yolanda, hundreds of toilets, spread out across the bottom of the sea. As a recent authority on the availability of the Egyptian toilet, the irony of finding an entire boatload of them on the bottom of the Red Sea was not lost on me.

A really tremendous dive, one of the best I've ever done.

4 Jul 1999
More Ras Mohammed.

A new (and average) site, and then the Shark's Reef dive again. Not as many fish this time and the visibility wasn't as good but still a nice dive.

I must be in touristville, because they are actually having 4th of July parties down on the beach. I blew them off though because I have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to:

5 Jul 1999
Dive the World War II wreck, Thistlegorm.

Hand on the anchor line, I slowly descended into the murky depths. There was no 30 meter visibility this day, 10 at most. As our dive boat disappeared from view, the Thistlegorm slowly emerged from the gloom. She was a large transport ship fully loaded with war supplies when a German bomber stumbled across her anchored here in the Red Sea. The bombs blew her nearly in half and she sunk quickly, joining her anchor on the bottom.

I'd never dove a wreck before that still looked like a ship, and a big ship at that. Floating down the gangway I almost forgot I was in water. Instead, it seemed like I'd learned to fly and was exploring a boat trapped in some timeless extra dimension. Everything was quiet and still, like a frozen moment just waiting for the magician to wave his wand again.

On our first dive we circled the wreck, starting at the bow, swimming past the railroad cars still lashed to her deck, floating over the open cargo holds and then drifting by the twisted steel confetti where the German bombs hit. We then swam in the open the short distance to where the stern section lies at a crazy angle, the propeller pointed upward like a piece of random modern art, her anti-aircraft guns pointing down into the sand past where purple, broccoli-like coral now grows.

I really enjoyed this dive a lot, despite the poor visibility.

On our second dive we entered the wreck, swimming through the cargo holds. Crate after crate of old, Indian-style Harley Davidson motorcycles lie in the dark. After the motorcycles, are trucks and then trucks full of motorcycles. There must be hundreds of them there, all slowly disintegrating.

Another really interesting dive.

6 Jul 1999
Typical day in Egypt.

I head downtown to check my E-Mail. None of the five numbers I have for Egypt are working, so there will be no messages this morning. It's time to check out of my hotel so I try to get some cash. There are four ATM machines in town, none of them work either. I go to a bank and manually take 1,000 Egyptian pounds out of my account. The guy gives me 100 10s.

I'm in too pissy a mood to deal with the cab drivers so I take a mini-bus to the station and arrive with 15 minutes to spare before my 2 p.m. bus. Or so I thought, it turns out the bus wont be here till 3:30 p.m. I settle in to wait, trying to decide which are more annoying, the flies or the cab drivers. They want 60 pounds to take me to Dahab, I offer 20, they storm off in a huff. Over and over. Finally, tired of both the game and the flies I offer 30.

A huge Arabic shouting match ensues. I can't decide if they are fighting over who gets to take me, or going on amongst themselves about how stupid I am. Whichever it is, they resolve it and one of them leads me off to a pick-up. I hop in and he drives me around the corner where another shouting match ensues. The new guy gives my driver 10 pounds, and then, they both tell me to get out. Apparently, I've been sold. I load myself and my bag into the new cab, already packed to the gills with two Egyptian families. They sit three layers deep so that I can be comfortable alone in the back seat, but then, they are probably paying a 10th of what I am.

After an hour of unmitigated terror on the Egyptian roads I am miraculously dropped on the doorstep of my hotel in Dahab. For 15 pounds (US$5) I get a concrete hut sans bug screens and secured (so to speak) by an ancient padlock,

Ahh, life on the road...

7 Jul 1999
Windsurfing in Dahab. The guys last admonition to me: "Don't go all the way to Saudi Arabia."

8 Jul 1999
Windsurfing in the morning, but there was almost no wind so it wasn't that exciting.

In the afternoon I dove The Bells and The Canyon.

One of the problems with doing activity-based travel alone is that I am constantly being paired up with strangers. Some of the random dive buddies I've gotten have been great, some have been awful, but most are very inexperienced divers who someday might be safe and fun to go under with.

I didn't want deal with that in Dahab. On my Thistlegorm trip I talked to some people who did a lot of diving in Dahab and from them I knew exactly which dives I wanted to do and how I wanted to do them. Instead of showing up at 9 a.m. and getting added to a group, I showed up at noon and paid a premium to go out with just myself and a divemaster. It cost US$20 extra but it was worth it for the quality of the diving. As a completely unexpected bonus, my fearless leader was Sumi, a wonderful Japanese woman who for several years has been traveling the world alone working as a divemaster. She was a fabulous source of information and entertainment.

Our first dive was The Bells. From the shore, we dropped through a two meter wide crack in the reef and then descended through an underwater arch at 30 meters. We then ascended to 15 meters and swam along the reef taking in the life, large schools of small colorful fish and beautiful hard corals. Eventually we rose to 7 meters and swam into the Blue Hole, a 30 meter wide and 300 meter deep hole in the reef just a few meters off shore. Unfortunately the visibility in the hole wasn't great so we couldn't really get a visual sense of it's dimensions. It was a very nice hour-long dive though.

Our second dive was The Canyon. From shore we swam across a sandy lagoon at 3 meters. The sinking sun created a myriad of rainbows that flickered across the white sand. We then made another 30 meter plunge into the depths of The Canyon, a narrow passage through the reef. As I followed Sumi down, the walls only 5 or so meters apart, I was struck by how much it reminded me of places I've rock climbed. I have so many memories of rappelling in misery down narrow passages just like this, wishing more than anything that I could fly. And here I was, in such a similar place, myself gently drifting down, my bubbles quietly floating up.

After a brief exploration at depth we ascended to the fish room, a sandy bottomed chamber filled with hundreds of small glass fish. We decreased our buoyancy to kneel on the bottom and watch them surround us. Sumi pointed out the finger sized cleaner wrasse she'd mentioned might be here in the briefing. I took my regulator out of my mouth and bared my teeth. Sure enough, it darted in to floss me. of course, you can't expect much from a 3 inch long fish, when Sumi tried the trick it swam into her ear.

Exiting The Canyon Sumi came across a free floating sea cucumber (a spongy sort of creature, about the size of a French bread loaf). As she passed it to me, we founded two shrimps crawling across it's back and then it latched onto me giving me quite a fright for a moment.

A final swim through the rainbow filled lagoon and we surfaced to twilight and our waiting driver. Diving the way it should be!

9 Jul 1999
Another morning windsurfing with almost no wind. I managed my first jibe (downwind turn), but it was pretty unfulfilling. To jibe, you bring the board around until it is pointed straight downwind. Then, when done correctly, the sail is flipped over in a beautiful balletic motion and you shoot off in the other direction. Without enough wind or skill though, my jibe looked more like something out of professional wrestling then ballet. But, it was still nice to finally get the board turned without the indignity of falling off and having to pull the sail back up.

In the afternoon, I joined a group of seven and our deaf-mute guide Kharmed for a (semi) organized trip to see the sunrise on Mt Sinai.

After a two hour minibus ride through a scorched wilderness of desert dunes, rocky outcrops and the occasional Bedouin encampment we were dropped at the gate of St Catherine's Monastery and the fun began.

As we donned our packs for the three hour hike to the summit Kharmed mimed his way through the situation. Usually there are two guides it seems, but on this trip he is here alone, and he will have to carry all the provisions to the summit himself. Although he is fabulously expressive with his face and gestures we can't figure out if he is asking for help or not.

A few hours and a couple of hundred meters of elevation gain later it was clear he was going to die. One of the guys from the tour finally took pity on him and carried the monster pack up the final brutal steps to the summit.

We hired camel hair blankets from Bedouins on the summit and made a nest to relax in as Kharmed prepared us a feast. Fresh bread, salads, baked vegetables, and roasted chicken. It took several hours to prepare over the open fire, but the end result was wonderful.

While Kharmed cooked, my companions pulled out an ample supply on marijuana. As I've never smoked anything in my life I abstained, but I did lend them my book for a flat surface.

Sitting on the summit of a mountain sacred to three religions while our deaf-mute guide made dinner and a mountain chill took the air, I watched them roll joint after joint on my copy of Discovering the Buddha Within.

10 Jul 1999
As evening turned to night with legs weary but stomachs full, we watched for shooting stars and talked about cosmology before drifting one by one into sleep. Slumber took me a bit after midnight, but didn't hold me long. Around 3:30 a.m., the first group on the "hike all night" plan noisily arrived and began staking out positions for dawn's big show.

We'd had evening and night to ourselves on the mountain but hordes hike through the dark for the sunrise. One of the groups apparently brought a choir and they began belting out hymns from somewhere out of sight of our aerie as the tourists clamor over the rocks jockeying for the best camcorder positions.

As the sky warms, the mountain ridges cycle through their colors. From the foreboding dusky grays of night through the pink and crimsons of the dawn into the stark granitic grays of the day. There is a collective gasp from the crowd accompanied by "ooos" and "ahhs" as the sun's claret disk bursts from behind the haze and the day is here. It is over in an instant, and with the moment go the crowds.

Almost all of them have left by the time we settle down for breakfast and we are again alone on the mountain as we hike back down to St Catherine's with Kharmed pantomiming his way though the story of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments here. The "highlights" of the St. Catherine's tour are the large bins containing the bones and skulls of the Greek Orthodox monks who lived and died here. It was the final thing on this outing that I didn't quite understand.

Catch and all-night minibus back to Cairo (not recommended).

11 Jul 1999
Groggy from two nights of little sleep but with only a short time to take in the tourist sights of Cairo, I checked into my hotel, got some lunch, and caught a bus out to the pyramids.

To reach the actual entrance of the pyramids site, you have to run a gauntlet of hustlers all trying to convince you that you are in the wrong place and need to buy a ticket, rent a camel, etc... from them. These guys are completely shameless and would continue their stories even after I made it clear I knew where I was going. The scams are so effective because the actual ticket office is a small innocuous hut far up the road.

I knew I only had an hour or so before the interior of the pyramids closed, so I immediately set about trying to figure out how to get inside. Asking five different people (including the tourist police) produced five completely different stories and five offers to assist me in going where I should really want to go. No thanks.

To wander the inside of these grand monoliths was to have been one of the highlights of my visit to Egypt. I felt completely defeated as I slumped onto a block of stone, realizing it wasn't going to happen this day. With my agenda in a shambles I sat down to observe the "tourist culture" of Giza.

You can't take a step without a belligerent camel driver following you around demanding you take a camel ride to somewhere you don't want to go. At 1.5 pounds the bottled water being sold from ice buckets seemed like a good deal until I looked closely and saw that the seals had been broken, just tap water in fancy bottles. A closer look at the "tourist police" revealed they too weren't quite what they seemed. Sure, they have the police uniform and insignia, but they were missing one essential piece of Egyptian police gear, the ubiquitous AK-47. Obviously Egypt doesn't even trust these guys, they are merely government sponsored swindlers here to make everyone miserable. As I watched, I saw them make their rounds and shake down the water vendors and camel wranglers, lots of money furtively changing hands. How the tourism office can allow this situation exist at what is supposed to be one of the of premier destinations in Egypt, if not the world, is beyond me.

With my feathers now fully ruffled I decided to walk over to the Sphinx, only to be confronted by a new scam. A well dressed man officiously blocked my path and demanded to see my ticket. Here is how not to make friends in foreign countries: I jabbed him in the chest with my fingers and pronounced, "you are a liar," then took a step backward and pointing at him yelled, "and a thief!" A look of worry came over him as he stepped forward still thinking he might con me. I kept pointing at him and began shouting more and more loudly, "Thief! Thief!" That of course being one of the worst things you can call someone in a Muslim country. Panic finally overtook him as people started to stare and he ran off to find someone a bit more predictable.

Sphinx I joined the throng at the Sphinx, shot some photos and fed up, went looking for a bus back to central Cairo.

I totally blew the urban navigation on the bus and ended up lost in Cairo. Surrendering, I flagged down a cab, and was flabbergasted when he flipped down the meter (Cairo cabbies never use the meter). Of course, my relief turned to resigned dread as drove me all over town and then tried to charge me double what the meter indicated. I threw some cash through the window and stormed off to get some well needed sleep. Welcome back to Cairo.

12 Jul 1999
Determined not to be defeated, I got up early and made the now familiar trip back to the pyramids. Speaking only to heavily armed soldiers I found the camouflaged office where they sell the tickets for the inside. It was closed, but only for lunch. An hour later I had my ticket and was climbing the steps to the entrance.

There are three "Great Pyramids of Giza" two are 130 meters (245 feet) tall and the third is half that size. The largest pyramid, that of Cheops, was originally 9 meters taller, but it has lost its capping pyramidion and the original smooth limestone casing. Chepheren's pyramid is slightly smaller, but retains a bit of the casing giving you a better sense of how it must have looked over 4,000 years ago. It is said to have taken about 30 years for 100,000 slaves to build the ramps and place the 2.5 million blocks that form the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

Those numbers do nothing to describe the grandeur of these ancient monuments. It is hard for something so hyped not to disappoint, but the pyramids don't. They rise off a desert plateau, towering above everything around them, a nearly eternal statement, "I was here." As you walk up the road, they appear perfect, mystically aligned and seemingly impossible edifices.

Up close they are different, the ages have taken their toll. The blocks are irregular and they seem haphazardly placed. There are cracks and gaps with missing pieces, none of the celebrated precision is evident.

Pyramid of Cheops Pyramids, Don't climb sign
The pyramids from afar And up close

All that changes when you go inside. Beyond the reach of vandals and nature the surfaces here are smooth and the joints seem painted on. The incredible craftsmanship is obvious and it's impossible not to be astounded.

The passageway leading to The Great Gallery is height of a child and narrower still. It runs 40 claustrophobic meters (131 feet) before opening into the gallery. Now the ceiling towers above, beyond the reach the three adults atop each other, and the floor slants steeply upward between the narrow, tapering walls. It's a 47 meter (154 foot) climb through the gallery to reach the final crawlway to the king's tomb. The chamber, the size of a middle class living room, is empty save for a battered sarcophagus, but it is full of presence.

I subscribe to no new-age theories but there is a wonder and strength about that room in the heart of the greatest of the great pyramids. I stood quietly in a corner and watched people's faces as they uncrouched from the entry. Awe, delight and wonder as they stared at the blanks walls. Some yodeled, some whispered most took a turn lying in the sarcophagus. I dwelt on what it would be like to spend a single night here never mind a supposed eternity.

Pyramid of Chephren

It was With a new sense of ancient Egypt that I left the pyramids and hailed a cab to take me back to the chaos of today's Egypt.

I spent the afternoon shopping at the Khan al-Khalili market in Islamic Cairo, one of the largest bazaars in the Middle East.

At 8 p.m., back in my room, I make a rather startling discovery: 2:45 a.m. is not late tomorrow night, it's early this morning. In fact, my plane leaves in just a few hours! So much for my plan to visit the museum tomorrow, it's time to pack for Africa.

As I packed I wondered if I'd been too hard on Egypt, if I hadn't been open minded enough about the culture? But soon, it was midnight and I was in a rush for my plane. The guy at the hotel counter insisted on getting a cab for me, the price he quoted was double what I'd paid on my way from the airport but nervous about the time I acquiesced. Of course, he wanted a pound tip for placing me in his friend's overpriced cab. In the cab with a bit of time to spare, I thought I could relax, but the driver wasn't content with the already inflated fare we'd agreed to.
If 25 pounds is ok, then 30 is ok as well, yes?
Then you give me 25 plus 2 for parking and 3 baksheesh(tip), ok?
How about 5 baksheesh then, that will be fine, yes?
And on and on for 30 minutes, with me trying to be firm while at the same time stringing him along so that he actually takes me right to the airport. Argh!

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