May 142008

I mentioned in this my previous post how impressed I was with Dahab. Well, I should also probably mention that Dahab is in reality quite a tourist trap. Ordinarily I hate tourist traps, preferring instead to experience the true feeling of a country. But there are certain situations in which tourist locations are okay. Morro de Sao Paolo, Brazil for instance – it’s safe, clean, beautiful, and most of all, fun. Likewise, despite its tourist status, Dahab is so inexpensive that you can live the life of luxury for pennies a day – eating fresh fish, lounging on pillows in a seafront restaurant, and diving in some of the world’s most magnificent waters. Dahab would be the perfect place for a traveling programmer to just kick back for a few months and get some work done without breaking his bank to do it. There’s even WiFi internet right on the beach (although the speed can get pretty painful at times).

But after a few days, I did start to see Dahab’s shortcomings. First of all, unlike Morro, everyone there is either a package-tourist or a couple, making it quite difficult to socialize. The dive sites can get overcrowded and the restaurant “hustlers” are constantly trying to pull you into their restaurant (of course promising that it’s the best, cheapest, and most comfortable in the entire city). I’m sure if I were a long-term resident they’d get to know me and stop, but for a new arrival it can be a bit much. “Please, just let me walk the promenade without pulling me aside to show me your fresh fish.”

So if Dahab is just the touristic face of Egypt, what is it that lies outside that well-kept waterfront promenade? Mike and I saw it firsthand for the first time yesterday when we rented bikes to ride out to the “Blue Hole,” one of the most famous dive sites in the area. Remember how I mentioned that the Red Sea’s magnificent coral lies on the wall where the shallow reef drops off like a shelf into the deep blue sea? The Blue Hole is a place where, instead of a shelf, the coral drops off into – you guessed it – a massive blue hole, probably a hundred yards or so in circumference. Exploring the walls on the way down is…well, amazing.

(Actually, I forgot in my last post to mention another really spectacular divesite: The Eel Gardens. We expected to see some coral with a couple eels hiding here and there, if we were lucky. What we saw were massive underwater fields of seaweed inhabited by more moray eels than we could count. When you swam by they’d stop feeding, pick their heads up, and gaze at you as you drift past. And if you can freedive deep enough, you can reach the sand banks where you’ll find so many eels sticking out of the sand that they actually look like blades of grass. Get closer and they pull back, turning the grass into flat sands once again. Pretty incredible).

Anyway, on the ride back from Blue Hole Mike and I took a quick detour through the “local” section of Dahab.

And how did it feel?

Poor. Very poor. Few roads were paved, and most were covered with garbage and excrement from wandering camels, goats, or chickens. Most houses were simple four-walled brick structures, often unfinished, none with doors or windows. Goats would wander in and out of the dirt-floor homes as camels picked away at rotting garbage piles. And as most places I’ve been thus far in Egypt, the cats were countless (interesting when compared to the countless dogs I saw in Brazil).

To say that Dahab’s local neighborhoods feel different from its tourist center would be…well…comparing apples and oranges I suppose.

The poverty also seems to lead to a somewhat higher propensity for ripoff than in Jordan – it hasn’t yet been quite as bad as Brazil, but there’s no question that it happens – we’ve had a few guys try to charge us outrageous prices, assuming that our whiteness translates to richness/foolishness. I guess it’s unavoidable to a certain extent when traveling in third-world countries. At least things here are so inexpensive that even if you do get ripped off it’s usually only a few bucks. And on a whole, people here have been just as nice and welcoming as in Jordan – everyone smiles and waves when you walk by, and if you stop and chat, they’re always willing to engage in some pleasant conversation or just help you find your way.

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