In February, I spent a lovely week with SwimTrek swimming in the Red Sea. My experience with SwimTrek a year ago (Long Distance Training in Gozo) was an extremely physically and psychologically intense one. That is not what I was looking for in this trip, as it was my first time swimming long distances in open water since my October shoulder surgery. I saw this more gentle adventure as a way to test out my new, improved shoulder, which felt strong and pain-free the whole time. (Yay!) What follows is a journal of my week in Egypt.
Unprecedented contrast: Newark – Geneva – Sharm El Sheikh
On the evening of February 18th, I flew to Egypt for a swimming holiday—a planned mid-winter escape from what turned out to be an unusually temperate New York City winter. My trip began at the shamelessly ineffectual Continental International terminal of Newark Airport, where, after much ado, I eventually boarded one alarmingly shabby Boeing 767. I dove into a stack New York Times articles I’d printed out about Egypt’s political affairs—but had not yet had the time to read—and then I slept for most of the trip. I opened my eyes to the sight of the sun rising over the snow-capped Alps as we landed in the cheery and accommodating Geneva airport. Happily, I was worlds away from Newark. After a brief stopover, I boarded a comfy, well-maintained SWISS jet, fell asleep again, and just a few more hours later, I was worlds away from Switzerland. I woke up as we flew over the tip of the Sinai Peninsula and then turned around to fly in to the sunny desert runway of Sharm El Sheikh.
Egypt-American Relations on the Rocks
A tourist stepping off the plane in Sharm, before reaching immigration, encounters an onslaught of men in ill-fitting suits offering resort stays, desert safaris, Mt. Sinai tours, and other packaged holidays. As it turned out, it was from these resort-pushers that one also procured a visa. Having already arranged a transfer from the airport, and with no checked-luggage, I obtained a visa and was through immigration and out of the airport very quickly. Waiting on the other side of a barrier was the charismatic “Henny,” holding a sign for “Caitin Rose.” Henny’s English was impressive—he explained that he is a documentary filmmaker in Cairo—and he eagerly engaged in conversation, answering my questions and telling stories all the way to Dahab, the small town where I would be staying for the week, about half way up the east coast of the Peninsula.
Having only just read about the decades-old alliance between the US and Egypt taking a serious blow, I was surprised to find Egyptians in the airport smiling and clapping when they learned I was from the United States. The conflict? Egypt had arrested 19 Americans operating international aid-organizations in Cairo, charging them with operating “democracy building organizations” responsible for inciting instability and infringing upon the country’s sovereignty. Statements from top Egyptian officials suggested that Egypt’s problems were “the work of American agents handing out cash to sow chaos in the streets.” Washington responded by threatening to cancel over $1.5 billion of annual foreign aid. (Source: NYTimes). According to Henny, none of this conflict made its way to the common people. Egyptians still saw America as a great place, he said. In my short stay I only ever felt Henny’s words confirmed. Of course, it is important to note that I avoided Cairo entirely on this trip, and so cannot comment on the atmosphere there.
I had also read about some American tourists who had been kidnapped only a week or so before, and not far from where I was headed in that van with Henny. But Henny assured me that the kidnappers were not Egyptian. They were Bedouin, and the Bedouin “do not think straight.” The article had referred to “Bedouin gunmen” storming the tour minivan from Sharm. According to Henny, the Bedouin were upset about some other Bedouin who had been arrested for selling drugs. In protest, they kidnapped Americans. The Egyptian government, upset that the Bedouins could further damage the tourism industry, which had been bad since the revolution a year ago, worked quickly to get the Americans freed. Henny said he had tried to make sense of this in a conversation with a Bedouin man, who explained to him that it really wasn’t so bad, because the kidnappers tried to show the Americans a good time. They threw them a barbeque! The Bedouins didn’t understand that the Americans would not be happy if they were not free, Henny explained. When he told me that another tour minivan had been attacked a few days later and a group of Korean tourists had been taken, I asked if they also got the barbeque. His response: “Oh no. The Bedouin knew they had to do even better the second time. It was like, Kidnap-Safari!”
Upon passing the many check-points along the road (which I continued to see throughout my stay), Henny explained that the Sinai Peninsula was particularly safe right now, as all points were guarded by the military and the police.
The Revolution Was Not Good for the Sharks
I asked about the shark attacks in the Red Sea a few years back. Henny explained: Sharks stay away from animals that are large, like humans. They can tell by the “electricity” emitted by the body. If there is a lot of electricity, the sharks stay away. But a ship traveling from Saudi Arabia transporting sheep had thrown many dead sheep overboard. The sharks came and feasted on the sheep, which were larger than the sharks would usually eat, but didn’t give off the electricity because they were dead. But then they became accustomed to eating large animals, and so when the sheep were all gone, and the sharks went swimming past Sharm, they attacked swimmers for a similar-sized meal. But when the revolution came, the tourists left, and so the sharks left, too. The revolution, he said, was not good for the sharks.
Day 1 — Testing the waters
Arriving in Dahab early, I got in a short swim before the tour officially started. Upon first arriving, it was uncomfortably windy. Apparently the wind had been blowing for weeks, and so despite the bright sun that burned its way through layers of sunscreen, it was cold. Along with my roommate Carole and her friend Ali, also early, I wandered down towards Laguna where windsurfers and kite-boarders were having a heyday, slicing back and forth across the bay with impressive speed. It was clearly not a day for beginners in either sport. We found a spot around the bend where there was less wind, and so less chance of folks on boards slicing through the area at decapitating speeds. An abandoned boat on shore provided a spot to stow our stuff. As soon as I put my face in the water, I was stoked. I had known I was going to be swimming in beautiful waters in Egypt, but I had not pictured this. Or maybe I had at some previous point, but since landing on the peninsula, my eyes had been feasting on interesting but lifeless, drab, dusty, ochre-colored desert. On this cold and windy day, I suppose it became hard to imagine that such a glamorous world of color and life lay right below the surface of this choppy ocean water. We swam out, staying on the inside of the reef–not fully understanding the topography beneath the surface yet—so the water was shallow, and you had to adjust your catch so as not to scrape your fingers along outcroppings of coral or the elegant black sea urchins. It was a delicious little taste of what was to come.
That night over dinner and drinks, we met the rest of the group.
Alice and Huseyin
As was also true on my last Swimtrek trip (a year ago in Malta), the guides were exceptional. Huseyin, a swim coach from London, and Alice, a lifeguard from Brighton, made a great pair, each bringing different strengths to the table that complemented each other brilliantly. They ran a really special trip that was safe and fun, and as differentiated for different swimming levels as they could manage within the limitations of time and boat support. I had the sense that everyone felt supported and well taken care of, even though our group had a wide range of swimming abilities, travel needs, and personalities.
Day 2 – Laguna
After a large “Egyptian breakfast,” we piled into Jeeps and headed back to the Laguna area for two swims. The first swim was in the clear, flat water of the bay and was intended really only as a way for Alice and Huseyin to see us swim. A quick Jeep ride later we started our first proper swim on the tour. Not far from where Carole, Ali and I had swum the day before, we entered the water at a designated entry point for SCUBA divers, this time walking out over the reef so we could swim along its outside. Donning our three different colored swim caps which grouped us by pace, we met up with escort boats, handed over our reef shoes, and started the swim along the reef east of Dahab. The reef was spectacular, but what I really remember from this swim was the swell. The wind was still quite a force, and although gusting in the same direction we were swimming, it created an impressive chop. Lifting my head to spot the others in my group, I found them obscured by the white-capped waves, and I was surprised to see how much we were being sloshed around. The less experienced swimmers in our group found this swim very challenging, and a few got quite sick. Those of us who were more comfortable with the ocean played like fish, timing breaths at the tops of the waves so the following stroke was a dive back down into the water below.
When we finished the swim, we were greeted with tiny teacups full of sweet Bedouin tea and a tub full of cookies. That afternoon after lunch we were filmed in the hotel’s beautiful, ice-cold pool, and that night after dinner we had a chance to watch the videos and get feedback from Huseyin.
Day 3 – Blue Hole & the purple jellies
We woke up to minimal wind this day, which meant calmer seas and warmer air. Another “Egyptian breakfast,” and we were back on the Jeeps, this time headed up the coast to the “Blue Hole.” We dumped our stuff on a lovely balcony lined with cushions overlooking the water and headed out for our first swim of the day. The Blue Hole is a major attraction for SCUBA divers (coral walls plunge down 80 meters), but even swimming around the surface was an amazing experience. Bright purple jellyfish hung around near the reef, their glowing elegance impossible to capture with my camera. If nothing else, the Blue Hole made me feel tiny, the giant walls of reef seemed to go on endlessly, and farther down than the eye could see. Over the course of the swim, although awed by endless shapes and colors of coral, the charm of the purple jellyfish disappeared nearly entirely. They were out in impressive numbers and I found myself pretty constantly weaving in and out to avoid swimming into large clouds of them.
Jeeps picked us up at the Canyon dive site and took us back to the Blue Hole for lunch where we lounged and ate and did some swimming and snorkeling around the hole. After lunch, the jeeps took us back to the Canyon dive site and we continued swimming along the coastline to Abu Tahlah. Another beautiful swim with endless reef to watch go by, and lots more jellyfish to dodge.
Day 4 – Camel safari & first dolphin sighting
On this morning we climbed onto the backs of photogenic camels and were led by Bedouins to RAS Abu Galam village, about an hour’s journey-by-camel away.
After a bit of a trek along the coast, we arrived at a flat stretch of desert land spotted with open shelters– the village. We dropped our stuff in a shelter and enjoyed some Bedouin tea before heading out by boats to be dropped off down the coast for our first swim of the day.
After we ate our Bedouin lunch and while we sipped on Bedouin tea, a group of women and children from the village set up their tiny shops around us and competed for our attention with what felt like a game of charades in which everyone is acting out “buy this!” and is allowed to say just one word over and over: “hello!” I was shocked to see the determination and skill with which the youngest of the group, a tough little four year-old with piercing bright eyes, hawked her wares. I watched her and a less enthusiastic girl who said she was 15, and couldn’t help but imagine the children I know in their places. It was a strange and unsettling mental game. At some point it also occurred to me that, aside from Gloria, the woman who arranged our hotel, jeeps and boats, these were really the first women we had interacted with on this trip. As one Egyptian man explained to me later, most of the Egyptians in Dahab are men who have come to make money in the tourist industry so that they can send it back to their families in Cairo.
A Unifying Dolphin
While sitting and watching the young girls, somewhat lost in thought about the state of women in our world, I saw a dorsal fin out in the water, and felt my heart skip a beat. I called out in excitement and we all stood and stared as a sleek, shiny, dolphin swam slowly by, a few meters from the shore. What struck me perhaps more than the dolphin itself was that the local Bedouin women and children also stood and stared with excitement and awe as it swam by. For just that brief moment, we stood united by the sudden shift in the “us/them” dynamic; the glaringly contrasting Westerners/Bedouins dynamic melted away to make room for a meeting of two completely different worlds: humans/dolphins.
Please excuse my butt on your back, camel
After the morning camel ride and a long day of swimming, I have to admit that I was not so excited to climb back on a camel for the ride back. They were probably the least comfortable hours of the whole trip. Also, in my tired sore body, I started to think about this creature laboring under me. I got the distinct impression that he would rather not be there—under me. While I thought, with great appreciation, of all the pack animals across the globe and over the millennia of human history who have carried us and our things, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I did not have a very good reason to sit on this camel and make it carry me. Perhaps I was over thinking it, but had my shoes been more appropriate for hiking, I would have gotten off and walked with Alice.
Day 5 — Dahab swim and free diving
We started the day north of Dahab and swam down the coast to end in the middle of Dahab, a short walk from our hotel. It was very different to swim along the edge of town, as we had walked along the same strip so many times. Swimming alongside Tom, the highlight of that swim was a large sea turtle we watched swimming below us some 5 meters down.
In the afternoon, as there were no SwimTrek-planned swims, Tom, Jeremy, Katia and I hired one of the Jeeps to head back to Laguna. Preparing for the upcoming launch of their new open water swimming brand, Selkie, they used this free afternoon as a chance to take some photos of themselves in Selkie gear hanging out by an old Jeep. After a bit of a photo shoot, we went for a swim in the Laguna at the spot where Kite-boarders and windsurfers had been whizzing around on that first day. With considerably less wind, it was now a calm, inviting pool.
I had been thinking I’d like to try free diving for some time and Tom was kind enough to share some basic instruction with me. After some discussion about breathing, and relaxing, I put on his mask and headed for the bottom. I didn’t recognize just how deep I was until I reached the bottom and looked up. (Tom estimated about 10 meters.) Aside from years SCUBA diving as a teenager, I’d never been able to venture so deep in the past, in part because I’m always wearing swimming goggles, and you don’t have to go very deep before the pressure in those start to gouge out your eyeballs. With the mask on, which can easily be equalized with air from your nose, I was finally free to go down, down, down. When I reached the surface again, I experienced a most amazing after-sensation: it was as if my whole body, every square inch of it, had received a firm squeeze—a full body hug. I was immediately hooked. I did a few more dives on this trip, and feel inspired to go get some real instruction. My feelings on the subject could change, but for now I’m drawn to what I can do with minimal equipment. I’m less interested in achieving great depths with wetsuit and fins, and more interested in what I can do with a swimsuit and a mask.
Day 6 – Swimming with Dolphins!!!
Our last full day of swimming involved a trip South to a place called “Happy Life Village.” After dumping our stuff and relaxing a bit on the beach, we headed out for one of my most memorable swims to date. The coral was amazing, as always, but this time our support boat stopped us and pointed back behind us, “dolphin!” A little in disbelief, we swam towards them and in under a minute I found myself a few feet from these sleek, slippery-looking creatures. There were two of them, perhaps a mother and a pup. The smaller of the two stayed always right under the belly of the larger. Keeping (what I thought to be) a respectful 5-6 feet to the side, I started swimming along with them. I switched to dolphin kick (duh!) and marveled at how slowly they looked like they were moving (I was basically sprinting to keep pace with them). I was not swimming with my camera, but the image is burned into my mind.
The Cats of Dahab
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Dahab –aside from the ocean crashing right up along the boardwalk restaurants, and the vast blue waters– were the cats. They were everywhere. Alice had a particularly close relationship with the cats that lived in and around our hotel, the Acacia. In addition to making sure the cats got fed meat (which she wrapped up in napkins and fed to them after a meal, even though she herself was a vegetarian), she had taken a few to the vet for infections, and had inspired the staff at the hotel to start a collection to pay for the fixing of the animals. They were pesky guys with impressively fast paws – they could swipe food from your plate in an instant— but I loved them, and really enjoyed being surrounded by them. They were elegant creatures, with particularly long limbs, and pointy faces, not unlike my own cats. And of course, I didn’t miss my own cats so much, as there was always a cat to cuddle within arms reach.
Each day Carole and I returned to our hotel room to find our towels had taken on new shapes. Here are a few:
Fabulous, Caitlin! Reading your journal makes me feel as though I were with you. What a wonderful adventure you had and, moreover, what a fine writer you are. Thanks for the entries along with the lovely photos.
Thank you, Jane. That means a lot.