We spend a day in Cairo before we head into the Sinai Peninsula. We pass by the great Al Azhar mosque, one of the oldest centres of learning in the world, dropping in for a quick look. Women visitors must not be wearing trousers and must keep their head covered. No shoes are allowed inside the marble courtyard and dim prayer area. We then head to the Khan El Khalili, a sprawling souk or bazaar in the heart of Old Cairo. It is a Sunday when we go, so many of the shops, especially the jewellers in the famed Street of Jewellers, are closed. However there are still many shops open and the atmosphere is jovial. In Cairo, as in the rest of Egypt, touts and hasslers are the norm. The best way of dealing with it is with an Oriental kind of laissez faire. Let their wolf whistles, pleas and cajoling wash right over you, ignore them, smile always and be polite – it is what the locals would do. Liyana and I are there in the Khan for one purpose and one only – to purchase some kakaday, the ruby red hibiscus tea drunk in cafes everywhere in Egypt.
We find a spice shop manned by a calm, smiling older man. He speaks not a word of English, but his neighbour, a younger man selling statues next door, comes in to translate for us. We greet him with the traditional salaam mulaykum, the Arabic for “peace be upon you” and he responds graciously. The smell of spices stain the air, his shop is filled to bursting with all kinds of produce. Kakaday petals, heaps of cinnamon sticks, and bright orange paprika sit in hemp sacks, stacked by the walls. There are two scales on the serving table, and behind, in hole-in-the-wall cabinets that line the entire back wall, traditional medicines wait to be dispensed. We pay for half a kilo of the blood red kakaday tea, and leave, clutching our spoils triumphantly.
Determined not to give in to the blandishments and entreaties to “step into my store, many beautiful things to see”, Liyana and I side step the many shops in the narrow lanes of the Muski and find El Fishawi, the old cafe of fame. It is a creaky, graceful establishment. The insides are decked out in dark woodwork. Lamps and coloured light bulbs provide illumination. Waiters in flowery blue uniforms serve the clientele, most of whom are tourists. It is a cafe that harks back to colonial times – I can see, too easily, writers, explorers and society ladies sipping Turkish coffee here. We set up at a table outside, on the sidewalk and order coffee, then settle in to watch the bustling, hustling life of the Khan around us.
A Tourist Police sits in a corner, resplendent in his whites, chatting to a French family. Shoe shine men dressed in dark gray robes and white turbans follow leather shoed men, hoping for custom. Young girls sell colourful scarves edged with bells and metal discs; young men hawk watches, cds, cheap jewellery. All around us, Cairo is bursting with life, light and sound. Later, after we’ve had our fill of coffee, Liyana and I head to one of the many hotels that line the banks of the Nile. On the terrace, we order breads, dips, a mixed grill and later, after dinner is over, an apple flavoured shisha. We watch the feluccas, ferries and cruise boats ply the dark river as the neon lights of modern Cairo light up around us.
The next morning we are off to Dahab, a laidback, charming town on the Gulf of Aqaba. The journey takes eight hours on a bus that hurtles along dark grey ribbons of straight tarmac, plowing through dust whirls and a desolate landscape of rock and sand. We pass the Suez Canal and numerous checkpoints along the way. The Sinai has long been an area of contention and in the wake of the Israeli settlement and subsequent desertion of the area, the Egyptian military has no presence here, although the local police man the regular checkpoints.
It is a relief to leave the early wake up calls behind. Liyana and I spend the next four days in Dahab alternating diving, snorkelling, eating fresh seafood, soaking up sunshine and reading on deckchairs, smoking shisha and watching the full moon rise over the water. The lights of Saudi Arabia glitter at us from across the gulf at night, and the mountains glow purplish-rose in the setting sun.
The best dive was at the Blue Hole. I’d snorkeled at the site the day before, but being 20m underwater with the expanse of ocean surrounding me, with only the sheer face of the reef for orientation was a calming, humbling, fabulous experience. The big blue beckoned.
There is a richness of the tropical fish one expects from coral reefs, but the colours here are less bright compared to equatorial waters. We saw lionfish, stonefish and on one dive, a giant eel hiding in his hollow rock. I like the lifestyle here, I don’t ever want to leave. Dahab’s quiet charms snake around my soul and there is a peace here, underneath blue skies and by dark waters.
Excerpt from my travel diary:
November 5th, 2009, apx 4:30pm
“Riding back to Dahab from the Blue Hole in the back of a pick up truck, hair a mess, oxygen tanks clanking over every rut in the dusty path. We passed camels and teased poor Baka, who was shivering, feeling the cold. He’s so cheeky, yelling out “Taxi?” at random people we drove past, an ironic take on the constant Egyptian hassle, of course – Baka has no intention of touting a ride to anyone and is merely teasing us all. I peeled off the top half of my wetsuit, gripped the edges of the truck – the road was bumpy and dusty. The sun was in my eyes and there was a blue blue sea, the sound of laughter ringing in the air. Perfect. Moment.”