Saturday, August 26, 2006


When I got to Sharm, the first thing I did was go to the dive center to set up a Thistlegorm dive. The response was that they could only do dives if there were at least six divers interested and so far that week they only had three. Not good. This is a wreck mecca and I was dying to dive it, even though I’m really a big girl’s blouse and petrified of wreck penetration. And anyway, I had bounced around my dive club crowing about the Thistlegorm all last week, and knew that if I didn’t actually dive it, it would cost me a fortune in drinks.

I dived Shark & Jolande reefs (gorgeous) and Gordon & Jackson reefs (stunning) and really enjoyed the local house reef in spite of the damage done to the close-in corals, but in the back of my mind was still the lust for the wreck.

Long story short, on the last possible day of my diving holiday (given pre-flight deco penalties), I got the pleasure of catching a bus at 4 am, paying out 200 of my hard-earned dollars, and watching folks get seasick on the four-hours-out and four-hours-back trip, all for a total of 65 minutes on a WWII wreck rusting away in 30 meters of water at the bottom of the Red Sea.

And it was worth it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The driver let us off at Khan el Kalili. From M’s description, I was expecting an old market square with a flood of tourists. What we got was a dark alley with a few locals. We were immediately picked up by some young man named Hassan who insisted that he was “not looking for a tip –I am a good Islamic scholar. In Islam, is good to do kindness” who told us Khan el Kalili was right around the corner and he would show us. OK. It was early evening and there were other people around, so following was easier than shaking him.

We turned down a small, dark street lined with poor looking shops and women peeling vegetables in front of their apartment buildings. The little streets were stereotypically Egyptian – full of potholes, mud, and broken bits of rubble and stone. We turned down another street. Then another. And another. This was getting uncomfortable. I could only imagine what was going through M’s rather less travel-savvy head. Suddenly, she stopped and said she’d broken her shoe. Perfect excuse to get rid of Hassan I thought (thank you, M). He of course wanted to take us to a shoe repair shop; I said I’d deal with the immediate problem and then find one, thank you very much and goodbye. He smiled and said he would wait, but I was a bit insistent. He actually left. I thought the whole shoe thing was a ploy on M’s part to get us out of an awkward situation. Unfortunately, it was not.

We were so far into the old souk and the streets were so filthy that giving her my shoes and walking barefoot was not an option, so she hobbled along and I started searching out a shop for flip flops. I found a cramped little stand that sold camel-leather sandals and dug for something that would fit one of us. The shop was owned by a man in his sixties with black teeth and cracked hands, who spoke as much English as I do Arabic. He quickly saw our problem and snatched away M’s broken shoe, giving it to a wizened little man crouched over a workbench who must have been his father.

The shopkeeper fluttered around us making sympathetic noises, trying very hard to make us comfortable on the broken concrete slab he used for a bench. His sandals were hanging on strings all around the little stand, and he took down every one that looked as though it might fit. As we tried on every large-sized sandal in the tiny shop, I watched the old man tackle the broken shoe. He studied it and studied its mate, looking at it from all angles, pulling and poking. Clearly he’d not seen anything quite like it before. Of course I had no faith that he’d be able to do anything with it. The sole was a rubber wedge in two parts with a leather upper. Nothing there to nail anything to. The old shoemaker attacked the upper sole with rubber cement, but I didn’t think it would hold. After a few minutes of patiently waiting for the cement to get tacky, he obviously thought the same. He got up, searched around for a little spirit lamp, and lit it. Meanwhile, M paid a pittance for the only pair of sandals in the shop she could get on to her feet, and we got up to go. After all, her original shoes were a write off, it was going to take us some time to find our way out of the maze of the souk, and we were grumpy and frustrated at the loss of M’s nearly new shoes. The old man signaled us to wait. I suppose because we didn’t know how to refuse, we sat back down. He took the lower sole and melted the inside surface over the spirit lamp. He ran his calloused finger over it to make sure it was molten and then slapped it onto the upper with the edge of the leather strap between the pieces. He pressed the pieces together and grinned. Perfectly sound.

M tried to pay him for coming to her rescue, but he refused, bowed his head and put his hand over his heart, smiling and speaking to us. I imagine he said something like “In Islam, is good to do kindness.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Since everyone I know who has ever been to Cairo has warned me about how everyone is on the take, I arrived here suspicious of everyone and everything.

The guys who met us were overly solicitous – kept taking our passports, filling out forms for us, going to get our bags – and I of course followed them around, keeping a close eye on things. I am uncomfortable when my possessions are long out of my own hands, especially in an airport with an evil reputation.

We checked into the Nile Hilton and immediately went to see the museum, which was next door. After dinner, we decided to visit Khan el Kalili. M had been before and was anxious to go back, so we piled into a taxi (after asking someone else how much it should cost) and were duly taken toward the souk.

Traffic in Cairo is madness. Every time I go abroad – India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and now Cairo – I understand the traffic chaos in Dubai a little bit better. Our driver whizzed round a roundabout and was stopped midway through by a cop demanding to see his papers. He handed them over, slipped down a side street, triple parked, and left us to our own devices, shouting into the traffic as he went. We looked at each other. He came back disgusted, mumbled about how much he had to pay off the cop and returned his papers to their convenient home above his sun visor. In hushed tones in the back seat (though why we bothered I don’t know, as the bone shaker we were in was deafeningly loud) M felt sorry for him (of course) and indicated we should pay him above the fare; I sniffed a scam and refused, later explaining that it could have been something cooked up with the cop to milk the dumb tourists out of some baksheesh. M didn’t see it, but it seemed plausible to me: cop hangs around until he sees a cab filled with blondes, stops the driver and makes him pay a bribe. The softhearted American ladies see this, bridle at the injustice that the nasty cops are hassling the poor working man and give him an exorbitant tip to make it up to him. The driver then goes back and splits the take with the cop.

Did I mention I was suspicious?

Thursday, August 10, 2006


I consider myself fairly culturally aware and tolerant, but there are some things that just should go beyond culture and into the world-wide realm of consideration for your fellow human being and his nose.

Why is it that everywhere I fly in the Arab world, someone perfumes himself as soon as he gets on the plane? Occasionally he’ll wait until after the meal or just before disembarking, but it is inevitable nonetheless that someone on that plane will at some point cause my eyes to tear and my nose to drip.

It seems to be predominantly men who are afflicted with this crisis of grooming. Why’s that then? Are they compensating for the fact that their spotless dishdashas invariably become wrinkled during the flight, and they feel a need to impress those who will greet them on the other side in any way they can? Do they fear that the fresh, clean soap they used in the morning may have worn off? Are they jealous of the girlies who can just paint on a bit of lippy and call themselves freshened-up? Or do they believe that the rest of us enjoy spending a flight weeping into our beef and rice entrees or sneezing onto the in-flight entertainment screens on the backs of the seats in front of us?

‘Tis a puzzlement.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


One great thing about scuba diving is that everyone sees you in your bathing suit and no one gives a damn. Including you. It’s very liberating.
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