Thursday, November 19, 2009

I heart Dahab


Goats in the rear view mirror.

We got off the bus in Dahab and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The ride from Cairo took 11 hours. The bus wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected; offering a/c, comfortable seats, and a collection of slap-stick Arabic movies, played continually [and at an alarmingly loud volume]. The scenery we drove through was pretty spectacular – empty desert-scapes, majestic rocky mountain views, and the impressive sight of the Suez Canal.

We got a room at the Red Sea Relax [which might be the nicest place I’ve ever stayed], went for a walk along the beach, and found a restaurant on the water to eat and smoke sheesha.

Then…we got stuck.

The Red Sea Relax

Hedonism

We only intended to stay Dahab for one night; after all, we had things to do, places to see, rocks to climb! But somehow, we decided to stay another day…and then another….and….another…Matt changed his gmail status message to: ‘In Dahab, contemplating not leaving.’

As we spent more time in Dahab, we also met lots of other people who had gotten stuck there for varying amounts of time. Preston had come for 2 days and stayed 8; two Australian girls had come for a week and stayed 3 months; Lorraine had come for a two week diving course and was still there…4 years later. [Lorraine, a British podiatrist-turned-scuba-instructor, and I had a really nice conversation one afternoon about how the grass is always greener, choosing to live outside of ‘normalcy’, and the difficultly of having both things and time.]

It’s pretty easy to understand how people get stuck in Dahab. A laid back international beach community, it offers stunning scenery [rocky mountains plunging into the Red Sea], rock climbing, world class scuba diving, near perfect weather, and excellent food that is shockingly cheap.

I mean…sure…there’s also some downsides: an unstable political status and uncertain future, an incomprehensible and corrupt legal system, rumors of terrorist activity…bomb scares. But really, who’s thinking about any of that when you’re laying in the sun, or staring out over the Red Sea at the breath-taking view of….oh right, that’s Saudi Arabia in the distance.

Hmm.

We only did one day of climbing while we were staying in Dahab. We went to a place called Wadi Gnai, about 20 minutes from where we were staying. We hired Mohammad, a Bedouin guide, to take us out in his 4WD Toyota truck. He insisted on making us tea and cooking us lunch. [?!! How can we get a system like this going in Rumney? Pay for a ride to the crag and it comes with a Bedouin who’s psyched to cook lunch? Don’t worry, I’m just kidding…I’m not really advocating ethnic exploitation…although it was a very enjoyable, and cushy, day of climbing.]

Wadi Gnai.

Mohammad cooking lunch.

The routes we did were fun -- single pitch, on well-bolted granite with super technical balance-y moves. I don’t know why we only did one day…partly out of laziness, I suppose…but hanging out at the beach doing nothing was surprisingly fun. Oh right, so this is what normal people [i.e. non-climbers] do on vacation…I get it now.

We went snorkeling at a place called the Blue Hole, which was amazing. It’s apparently a pretty famous spot for scuba diving and for free diving. [A quick Wikipedia search reveals that a number of the world records for free diving have been set either at Dahab or Sharm-el-Sheik, an hour south.]

I didn’t know that much about free diving before our trip to Sinai, but I’m now convinced that it is one of the more impressive and absolutely insane things that people do voluntarily. The pursuit, also called competitive apnea, involves diving down to absurd depths, under water, with no oxygen. Apparently competitive free divers can put themselves into a meditative state that, when combined with an instinctual survival reflex, initiates several physiological changes [drop in heart rate, constriction of blood vessels, release of oxygenated red blood cells], allowing people to achieve mind-boggling depths…more than 200 m below the surface. 200 m!!??

Here is a video of someone free diving the Arch at the Blue Hole [where we went snorkeling].

I suppose, free diving shares something with free soloing [climbing without a rope] – the drive to push the human body to it’s physical, mental, and emotional limits, the meditative aspect required to attain those limits, the completely non-existent room for error, the face-to-face confrontation with fear…and death.

All I know is that, while some people think rock climbing is scary, it’s got nothing on this. But then again, maybe it’s partly a personal preference…I don’t even really like to be underwater. And I always sucked at that game where you try to hold your breath and swim across the pool.

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More goats.

We met a lot of cool people Dahab…3 girls from New Zealand who we, randomly, ran into again a few weeks later in Bethlehem [weird], and several guys who were on epic-ly long backpacking trips…10 months, a year, etc. A bunch of us had dinner one night at this fantastic roof-top seafood restaurant, where we swapped stories about bizarre adventures in random places over a shared mountain of calamari.

I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I came away from the meal feeling like I had somehow really changed a lot in the last couple of years without realizing it. In college I was perfectly happy to wander around Europe or Mexico or India, not knowing what I was doing there or why...just looking around and meeting people. But there on that beautiful restaurant rooftop in Dahab, in the company of a cadre of travelers, I really thought that I might be done with aimless backpacking.

I don’t know what happened…but I just don’t have the same desire to go somewhere for that long unless I have a reason to be there: a project to do, or people to visit…or rock climbing. I’m also just not as psyched about staying in the typical backpacker jaunts, i.e. really gross places – places where you know how dirty the sheets are, or where you put something over the drain at night to keep the roaches at bay. I liked our room at the Red Sea Relax. And while it was really cheap by American standards, it wasn't 10-month-backpacking-trip-cheap.

Oh no…does this mean I’m getting old?

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