Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Egyptian minute

Spices for sale on the street, Dahab.

Not only is Egypt a different county, it is also a different time zone.

Now, when I say ‘time zone’ I don’t mean it in the way you’re thinking…I don’t mean it in the GMT sense, where it might be 4:15 in Israel and 5:15 in Egypt, or something of that sort. Instead, I mean that when you enter Egypt from Israel, you are entering a zone where time operates differently. Similar to how you must exchange your Israeli shekels (NIS) for Egyptian pounds (L.E.), traveling to Sinai involves inadvertently exchanging one’s Israeli minutes for Egyptian ones.

Rumor has it that there is a somewhat semi-established exchange rate. Fernando told me -- while we were sitting and waiting at the border crossing in Taba -- that he had heard it was currently around 5 Egyptian minutes for 45 Israeli ones. This figure, in my limited experience, seems to be a reasonable approximation.

Time to travel from Lotan to Dahab: 6.5 hours
Fernando, Bryan and I met in Lotan late Thursday night. I took the bus down earlier in the day, spent the afternoon hanging out and doing some site research, and slept outside under the Bustan’s geodesic dome. Waking up Friday morning as the sun was rising over the Arava was amazing. The whole experience made me wonder why I don’t sleep outside more often…but then I realized that I actually do spend quite a bit of time sleeping outside.

Jennifer in the Bustan, Lotan

Friday morning I met with Alex about the Library project, went to the pool, and grabbed some lunch in the dining hall before Fernando, Bryan, and I headed down South. We left Lotan around 3, after hitching a ride with some friends of friends who were on their way to Eilat. On the way, we stopped for ice cream in Yotvata [Ilan: we tried for black cherry, but they were out] but still managed to make it to the Taba border crossing a little after 4.

Time spent under the control of Israeli officials: less 10 minutes
[basically, just long enough to pay the 94 NIS exit fee.]

Time spent in the Egyptian ‘Arrival Hall’: around 10 minutes
[for basic security check, passport control, and a swine flu screening…yes, I’m serious… they took my temperature.]

For the record: if you want to bring firearms and/or ammunition from Israel into Egypt it’s not a big deal, you just have to tell the authorities. Pornography, on the other hand, is strictly forbidden...end of story.

Time spent trying to get a cab to Dahab: 3 hours
This was partly our error. Since we missed the last bus from Taba to Dahab, we had to take a service taxi. It didn’t seem like it should be difficult; there were, afterall, a fairly steady stream of tourists arriving into Egypt and several Egyptians employed, in one way or another, in the tourism industry. Yet somehow, actually securing ourselves a ride – which involved bargaining over a price, negotiating between ‘official’ agents [largely from Cairo] and Bedouins drivers, and finding other people to fill our service taxi [van] --turned out to be a very long process. Thankfully, we had some entertainment in the form of Egyptians in uniform moving thousands of pages of paper documents from the Arrival Hall to somewhere else using something that looked like a shopping cart. As if the site weren’t strange enough on its own, the wind kept blowing the pieces of paper away and periodically everything would fall off of the cart altogether. I don’t mean to be judgmental here, but it really didn’t seem like the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand.

Fernando in Taba, waiting for a taxi.

Time spent driving to Dahab: 3 hours
The first part of the drive down the coast was really incredible – dramatic views of the Red Sea coast, framed by rocky peaks to the West. We made a few stops along the way [Basata, where apparently Israelis are not allowed, and Ras, a nature preserve with thatch huts on the beach for tourists to rent.]

Huts for rent in Ras.

After the sun went down, any boredom I might have felt during the long drive was overshadowed by my constant wondering if our insane driver was going to inadvertently kill us before we made it to Dahab. Thankfully, we made it to our destination, and with some advice from a British traveler we met on the way, found an excellent and cheap hostel right on the beach.

Time spent at breakfast Saturday morning: 4 hours-ish
Our hostel [The Red Sea Relax] offered free breakfast from 8-11, so I got up at what I thought was 8:30 and headed downstairs. Turns out that in Egypt they set the clocks back one hour for Ramadan [which coincidentally began that day] and so it was actually only 7:30. I had some coffee and hung out in the lobby, where I made the acquaintance of a fellow American traveler who happened, also, to be a Ranger in the U.S. army [?!]. In comparison to other Americans, I usually feel like a fairly adventurous traveler, with a decently long list of exotic locales under my belt. Not so in this particular case. As we swapped travel stories, my experiences – Europe, India, Morocco, Mexico -- seemed quite tame in comparison to his. Rwanda, he assured me, was beautiful, despite it’s bad rap; Columbia, Burundi, and the Congo were apparently amazing. And, given how nice the people were, he was glad to have made it to Iraq as a tourist [really? Do people do that?]. Anyway, all and all I was just reminded of how cool it is that traveling affords one the opportunity to meet totally random people who do all sorts of crazy things. I mean, who knew I would find myself in Egypt, discuss the merits of vacationing in the Congo over breakfast with an Army Ranger from Texas.

Eventually Bryan and Fernando got up and joined us downstairs [breakfast had since been served] and we all spent another couple of hours discussing Israel and Jews and Middle Eastern politics. I think in the Middle East people talk politics with the same frequency that Midwest farmers discuss the weather, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the point in mentioning all of this was to demonstrate another way in which Egyptian time works differently from Israeli. See…the slowed pace is partly due to a general inefficiency [this is what we got into at the border] but it’s also a function of the generally relaxed atmosphere. This, it seems, is particularly apparent in a beach town like Dahab. When there isn’t really anything to do besides sit at the beach and go snorkeling, there also isn’t really any need to rush though breakfast.

The Roof deck of our hostel.

View of the beach from the roof deck.

Dahab was great – super-chill vibe, gorgeous beaches, and restaurants literally on the water where you can get a sheesha [hookah] for 5 Egyptian pounds [less than $1] and sit for hours without anyone bothering you to leave. Bryan, Fernando, and I did our fair share of lounging at these establishments in between trips to the beach and the hostel’s pool. In addition we spent some quality time playing pool on the roof deck and poker down by the water. All the locals we interacted with were very nice and helpful and while there was, in my opinion a fair amount of leering on the part of Egyptian men, it seemed pretty harmless.

Seaside dining.

Time spent trying to get back to Lotan: 8 hours
We left the hostel at 9:30 am in a ‘cab’ headed for the bus station. The bus was later than we were expected, but by 10:45 we were on our way North. We made it back to Taba in 2.5 hours or so at which point we joined a bottleneck of people at Egyptian passport control. With two officials and maybe a hundred people in line, getting through the ‘Departure Hall’ took some patience…but it was nothing compared to the Israeli security we encountered next. I don’t really understand why 8 different people had to check my passport, but it’s not as if you can argue with the Israeli border patrol. All I know is that waiting in that series of lines, for the right series of stamps and customs validations and security checks and whatever else, took forever…hours and hours of forever. Bryan suggested that maybe the original conversion factor of 5 Egyptian minutes for 45 Israeli was incorrect; maybe the time scale and levels of inefficiency were actually more similar than we had thought…they were just opposite types of inefficiency. In the case of Sinai things just didn’t get done very fast; in Israel things got done, but there was so much bureaucratic craziness that even though it was all getting done, nothing else was.

I just kept thinking about how weird it is to have left one country, but not yet entered the next…waiting in line in a kind of geo-political nowhere.

Me in a 'taxi' leaving Dahab.

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