Typed up: in our apartment in Cairo
Posted from: nameless Internet cafe in Cairo

At 11pm on September 29th we sped through busy Cairo streets with Morad at the wheel, Amany and Mimi in the navigator's seat, and Merna, Danielle and I in the back seat. We hit some traffic, but it didn't take terribly long to get out of the city and onto the main freeway. There was little traffic, enough lanes, and smooth straight tarmac that let us drive up to 160km/h. Once we hit the coast the road got a bit smaller and more curvy, but there was still plenty of fast road which let us see oil tankers and refineries. We took a break about half way, and ended up arriving in Hurghada at 4am.

In Hurghada we'd rented a furnished flat together. Everything was very new. We had our own bedroom, and each room had AC. It was a nice place, but only came with 1 key. That was a bit annoying but not a real problem. Across the occasionally quite busy street was a fancy super market that even stocked such exotic imports as apples.

The first day we slept late. Because it was still Ramadan we went off in search of food around lunch time. We took a bus to Sigala, where we walked around a bit (it was hot) before settling on the restaurant in a Russian hotel. A lot of Russians come to Hurghada so the menu here was English, Russian and Arabic. In the evening we visited Morad's friend Mohammed, who he knew from when they lived in the same neighborhood in Cairo. We also met his parents, his sister and her little boy. We enjoyed breaded fish and sun bread among other things. Sun bread has that name because it's baked in the sun, not in an oven. Just lay out the dough and pick it up when it's done. Very tasty.

Mohammed was the local friend, and Morad basically left the week's activities up to him. Danielle and I said we wanted to snorkel, and they told us we would go on a snorkel trip the next day. After TV we took a driving tour of the area with Mohammed's sister (whose English was very good). We stopped at a beach to sit and just relax next to the black water. The beach was much harder than we're used to at home, and the water much calmer. We sat maybe 6 feet from the water, and had some drinks.

Everybody was talking in Arabic and I was not enjoying just sitting there. On top of this I was getting increasingly worried that we would not be on a boat to go snorkeling the next day. We were waiting for Mohammed to get back from his work and he would tell us about the trip. I decided that at 11pm we would leave and organize our own thing. But at 10:50pm we started to leave, and at 11pm Mohammed showed up. We went to a grocery store to buy lunch food for on the boat which still hadn't been confirmed yet. Both Morad and Mohammed assured me not to worry. At a bit before 1am we went to bed, with Morad promising to wake us up in time for the boat.

That didn't happen. We woke up (earlyish) on our own, and heard that we'd be leaving for the boat at 2pm. Skeptical that anything would happen that resembled a snorkel trip as we think of it, we went downtown to organize a trip for the next day ourselves. Our skepticism proved justified when we got back, and the afternoon activity had changed from going snorkeling to hanging out at the beach. I decided not to go, and instead practiced some Arabic, went for a run, and visited an Internet cafe. That made me feel better, but I wouldn't be really happy until we were seeing fish in the water.

As an aside, Muslims don't drink alcohol. So when I refer to having drinks, we're talking fruit juice, tea, and coffee. Not being much of a drinker, I think it's great. There's no societal pressure to drink alcohol, and instead we get to try different fruit juices, most of them blended freshly right there. (Favorites so far are lemon and strawberry (often canned).) Hole-in-the-wall fruit bars are everywhere, and they usually have fresh sugar cane juice which I like a lot as well. Another aside, about half the men in Egypt are called either Mohammed or Ahmed. Between friends, they will often refer to each either by middle or last name to avoid confusion. It's an interesting difference coming from a culture where people go out of their way to give their children unique names.

And some more background info, we hadn't actually started to study Arabic yet, but being the impatient person that I am I had bought a book and did some self-study. I'm using a program called mnemosyne which in theory makes you review words at the optimal interval for learning. The main nicety is that I recorded Morad saying the words, so that every time I see it on the screen, I hear his voice. It's a lot more sophisticated than the program I wrote back in middle school to help me learn Latin. I wonder if that still exists somewhere...

Anyway, no snorkeling that day. But the next day, finally, we would snorkel. We were picked up from our flat and then ferried to a resort to rent fins (we packed masks and snorkels) and wander onto a boat. It looked like tour guides just delivered people to whichever boat still had space, and would then pick them up later. The boats were leaving, our boat fired up its engine, and we went nowhere for an hour. Finally we took off. The crossing over was pretty rough and took 2 hours, but we made it to Big Giftun Island and tied up next to another boat, at which point we finally, really, went snorkeling.

I was the first one in the water and made the "wow" through the snorkel sound. Danielle was in just a few seconds later, dove down, and under water pumped her fists in the water. It really was awesome, and we stayed in until I got cold. Since the water temp is about 80 degrees, that was a while. Danielle knows what fish we saw, all I know is I saw a ton of fish in all kinds of colors, clams which were green and purple inside, puffer fish, parrot fish eating coral, a stone fish, and even a 2' puffer fish. We also saw a great big trigger fish.

Then they moved the boat just a little from the coral reef to a few pinnacles where we jumped out again. As we entered the water, a napoleon wrasse swam maybe 30-40 feet below us. Danielle dove down to check it out. From up where I was Danielle and the fish appeared to be about the same size. Sadly I can't clear well enough to get much below 10 feet, but it was still great to see. At the under water cliffs we tended to see greater schools, while in the coral reef we'd see more individual fish. So here we saw big groups of the black and white fish, as well as of the orange fish and the greenish blue ones.

We were one of the last back on the boat, and they ran out of food before I could get my lunch. Luckily I had a packet of Stereo cookies (guess what those look like) and some nuts on me to tide me over until we returned. Because we didn't return right away. First we had to moor somewhere else and get ferried to the island. There was nothing on the island besides beach, sand, and overpriced drinks. We had an overpriced drink and then lay down on the shaded benches next to our table. Earlier than expected we were called back to be ferried back to the boat. After 20 minutes of waiting we did get ferried, and the boat returned home. The snorkeling on this trip was good, but the organization left much to be desired.

Still, being in the water until you're cold takes a lot out of you, so we did not snorkel the next day. Instead we joined the family on a quad ride through the desert. There was more waiting, but the ride was a lot of fun. The desert scenery was also pretty incredible. The entire ride I don't think we saw one twig, leaf, or any evidence of life. Just sand and jagged peaks. We rode to kind of a Bedouin entertainment camp, where we got to ride a camel (briefly), eat some food, but then rode back. The ride back was in the darkness, which sounded pretty scary but turned out to be fine. The biggest problem we encountered was some kids who didn't understand what "single file" meant.

Before that trip, though, Danielle had called a few places from our book, and decided to go snorkeling with Aquanaut the next day. They picked us up in a bus that actually had the company name on it, and drove us to their office which is right by a harbor. I got a wet suit to be able to stay in longer, they gave us fins. None of the giant herd of people all yelling their size and getting fins. We actually talked to the people behind the desk here as we were the only ones renting equipment. Then we went on the boat, and maybe 15 minutes later we left. There were 6 other people on the boat, 4 from Holland and 2 from Bulgaria. They were all diving. We were the only ones snorkeling.

We headed straight for a huge coral reef in the middle of the sea. There were boats there but not as many as 2 days earlier. The dive master did a dive briefing and explained to us where the good snorkeling was. We went in and the snorkeling was even better than the day before. This site was not as damaged as the other one, and seemed to have a greater variety of fish. We saw pretty much what we'd seen, plus a school of large butterfly fish, some gorgeous angel fish, little green fish hiding in coral...

Then the boat moved to a second site while we ate lunch. There was plenty of food, and it was very good. The second site consisted of several pinnacles, but only 2 were tall enough for snorkeling. That was plenty, though. This was the best place we've been yet, with large schools of fish hanging out on the down-current side of the pinnacles. I saw a lion fish swim around. There was a 3' file fish (grey with bright blue spots) just hanging out. More of the same, but the same is pretty awesome. We spent our time just going back and forth between the 2 pinnacles and it was great.

Then the boat returned to the harbor, the bus brought us back and that was that. This trip cost us about $70 (including wet suit rental) instead of the $40 we paid 2 days before, but it was totally, totally worth it. The crew was friendly and spoke English. The boat wasn't crowded. It left on time. We didn't waste time going to a crappy restaurant on an island. I highly recommend Aquanaut for diving/snorkeling out of Hurghada. My only regret is that I did not manage to get a disposable underwater camera to take along.

On the final day we ate home-made koshari at Mohammed's house for dinner before driving back to Cairo. It was good again, and nice to glimpse another little bit of Egyptian family life. Back in Cairo at 1am the streets felt deserted. What a difference from Ramadan! It was so quiet in Morad's apartment that we could hear crickets. Overall, the snorkeling this trip was great, the ride through the desert was good, but I think we've learned a lesson regarding going on vacation with people. Make sure you have the same goals.