Nuweiba Part II: Lethargic Boogaloo

29 March, 2010

*Note: I’m attaching a bunch of photos in this post, click on the pictures for bigger ones.

I woke up extremely disoriented and a stiff neck with a thin layer of sand coating my nose. I sat up and looked around- the tourist bus that we had been on was stalled in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cars, buses and trucks in every direction and a thin orange haze obscuring everything. A quick inquiry revealed that we’d been stuck on the outlying edge of a sizable sandstorm for the past hour, and there was no end in sight as to when we’d be moving again.

It was less than 12 hours since my last student handed in their final exam, and I was en route to the run-down paradise of Nuweiba with Set, our friends and fellow teachers Jake and Sara and the unofficial mayor of Nuweiba, Stevie. We’d been planning our trip for some time, and had decided to have an all-night grading marathon in order to board the 7am train to Cairo. From there, we would take a frantic taxi ride through Cairo’s jammed streets to the bus station, and take a seven hour long bus ride right to Nuweiba.

Things had started off pretty well. I got all my grades in earlier than I thought (around 2:30am) and was able to pack my gear and clean our apartment before we departed. Alexandria is a frantic, bustling city at most times during the day, but walking the streets at 6 am presented a wholly different experience. There were no people on the streets and few cars, and all you could hear was a distant adhan echoing off the buildings. (Fun fact: my favorite part of the morning call to prayer is the line that says “Prayer is better than sleep.”To me, this is thoroughly debatable, but hey, to each their own.)

Stevie, Set and myself walked to the train station and met up with Jake and Sara. We spent a half-hour waiting for our first-class train to Cairo watching dilapidated train after dilapidated train pull in, and blast off 2 minutes after they frantically unloaded their cargo. We watched a woman grab several heavy bags of something and place them on top of her head prior to scrambling across the tracks and depositing her cargo on the other side. She made five trips, racing against time before the next train would pull in, and got her last load across just before another rusted train took over the tracks. As one train prepared to depart, a massive crowd of people were swarming to the station’s exit- even as the train was beginning to move and blaring its horn. The last people made it across with inches to spare, and I saw one woman’s abaya brush against the front of the train. Her only response was to shoot a quick glance back to make sure she wasn’t caught on the train’s grill.

The train station’s demographics were extremely stark. There were sleepy bankers, lawyers and military officers with briefcases preparing to commute to Cairo bumping shoulders with galabeya-clad peasant men and women with their burlap sacks of things. I thought about taking my camera out and taking some shots, but given the police presence and the fact that I was one of four foreigners on the entire platform convinced me to do otherwise.

The actual train ride to Cairo was uneventful, as I slept most of the way. Arranging a taxi from the train station to the bus station was the exquisite dance of a thousand daggers we’ve come to expect, and finally we found a rickety cab to take us to the station. We arrived at the bus station in time to catch our bus, and I promptly got into a one-way shouting match with the bus driver about taking my backpack on the bus. My Arabic isn’t at the level where I can easily respond to a hirsute bus driver bellowing at me, so I was thankful for Sara’s fluency in Arabic in helping to defuse the situation and getting my backpack under my seat. After settling in, we pulled out our travel pillows and racked out on our seats with expectations of waking up right in front of Soft Beach Camp.

So, you can imagine the surprise and frustration we felt when we woke up to find ourselves mired in a sandstorm at a military checkpoint. The road was closed for another 2 hours as road crews blew sand off the roads with water cannons, so I got off the bus and walked around a bit with my camera.

In the back, you see a bit of the enormous traffic jam caused by the sandstorm. This guy’s exasperated-but-resigned demeanor was a common sight.

And for scale’s sake,  a panoramic shot that shows some more traffic and a weird yellow haze.

After what seemed like a short eternity, we were moving again. I promptly fell asleep, and woke up to the pinkish hues of the sun setting behind the Sinai mountains. We were less than 20 minutes out from Nuweiba, so we hurriedly stashed our travel pillows, books and iPods into our packs. Finally, we pulled up in front of Soft Beach, and began our walk to the camp.

Soft Beach Camp is a little compound situated right on the beach. It is composed of a series of small one or two-person bungalows, pictured here:

The entire camp would be considered spartan by those who are used to hotels and resorts- the bungalows are small and lit by a single light bulb, and consist of a single bed and mosquito net. Infrastructure in the Sinai is fickle, so the tap water (when it works) tastes of sea salt and chemicals. Getting the hot water to work in the shower is more complicated than operating the Large Hadron Collider, and each shower shares a space with a toilet. However, for those of us fortunate to escape from the frenetic metropolises of Egypt, it’s a paradise beyond measure and offers authentic relaxation for a fraction of the cost of the more pricey hotels in Dahab or Tabaa.

The main social area of the place is the thatched-roofed building that makes up the main restaurant and administrative office. It’s adorned with with a bunch of seating areas that can each accommodate anywhere from 1 to 10 people- or for five people to sprawl out and relax on the Bedouin-style cushions that make up the seats.

Here’s a poorly-lit picture of one of the seating areas.

Upon arrival, we threw our bags into our bungalows and retired to the seating areas. Nothing soothes the frazzled nerves of frantic traveler than a Greek salad, margarita pizza, and a large Stella (note: not Stella Artois, but Stella- the indigenous Egyptian beer of surprisingly better quality than one might expect), so we dined and promptly passed out in our bungalows.

We awoke to warm temperatures around 7:30 the next day. The sun was bearing down on us already, and Set and I were gleeful- the last time we were in Nuweiba, frigid winds and a constant cloud cover dashed any ideas of swimming in the Gulf’s waters. After breakfast, I donned my “uniform” of board shorts and went for a swim. The lack of any real surf action meant that it was merely waist deep 200′ off shore, so it was perfectly mellow and easy to stroll around with your thoughts. Rather than try to shower, taking several dips in the sea a day became my preferred method of bathing.

Jake and Sara had never been to Nuweiba before, so Stevie (the unofficial Mayor) took them on a tour. We strolled past many shuttered shops until we reached town, and decided to pay a visit to Stevie’s good friend: Dr. Schish-Kebab.

While I doubt the good doctor’s qualifications to practice medicine, he does make a good asir limon (lemon juice) topped with mint leaves.

Afterward, we walked along the beach, picking up worn pieces of sea glass and pretty shells. Even though we’d walked up and down the beach before during our last visit, it was hard not to gawk at the sheer number of cabanas and bungalows that lay vacant and ruined after years of neglect. In the past, Dahab/Taba/Nuweiba were magnets for tourists from Israel (due in no small part to Israel’s occupation of the Sinai until the early 80’s- Nuweiba originally had the Hebrew name of Neviot) but a spate of terrorist bombings earlier in the decade all but killed tourism in the area. As a result, many of the formerly bustling resorts and beach camps were abandoned, and tourism- the lifeblood of the local economy- ground to a halt. Although the Egyptian government brought down its iron fist on the suspected perpetrators (some disaffected local Bedouins and a previously unheard of radical group), the area has yet to recover in the four years since the last attack. Some of the local Bedouin turned to drug smuggling, and the majority went back to the way things were for time immemorial: raising herds of goats, and eking out a living through whatever means necessary. Walking through the dilapidated sections of town reminded me of my experiences in New Orlean’s post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward two years ago- although here, the disaster had nothing to do with nature and more with mankind’s infinite capacity to visit cruelty on others.

Reminders of Nuweiba’s untapped potential lay everywhere. Later that afternoon, we walked down the other side of the beach to visit one of Stevie’s friend’s bakery. Many shops were completely closed or simply abandoned with their wares still displayed outside, such as this one:

Here’s a weathered, abandoned pool table, never again to feel the weight of a cue ball:

The few shops that had managed to survive were always fully stocked, with shopkeepers who would typically all hang out together at someone else’s place, drinking tea and chain-smoking until they heard the flip-flops of tourists padding down the dusty road. Then, they would sprint– not walk- back to their shop and begin their pitch, which uniformly went like this:

“Hello, my friend, would you like to have a minute to come into my shop? Maybe drink some tea with me?”

We’d respond, “No thanks, some other time. We’re on our way to our friend’s place.”

“Okay. I’ll be waiting for you.”

To me, it was akin to the bedraggled beggars I’ve seen in Alexandria who hang around outside of mosques during prayer time, plaintively stretching out their hands for alms or anything to help them make it to the next day. Although I felt bad, I’m not in the habit of buying touristy stuff for the sake of it. However, I’ll admit that I bought a damn fine checkered scarf the last time I visited- one that I still wear frequently.

Unfortunately, the weather reverted to windy and chilly after the end of our first day. Any ideas that we had about sunbathing for hours on end and sleeping on the beach were quickly snuffed. However, this didn’t deter us from still having a great time. Our days were mostly spent lounging around the main area, sipping sage-infused pots of Bedouin tea, playing half-court games of soccer, and playing blackjack. Jake brought a deck of cards and Set and I brought a set of dominoes (one of the many random treasures we’ve discovered in this black hole of an apartment), so we created a 5-person casino with sea glass, dominoes, and sea shells as our gambling chips. The daily blackjack matches were great- we’d pull out a table and chairs to an area sheltered from the wind, and bask in the sun while bellowing and cursing at whoever happened to be the dealer.

In her last entry, Set briefly mentioned Charlie Farley, the “one-eyed chocolate Lab with no self-control” and his girlfriend, Charlene. Charlie is a completely crazy yet adorable dog, and Charlene is far more reserved and intense than her beau. Here’s a picture from the last time we were here that accurately portrays this.

Here, we have Charlie eating a crab, while Charlene gazes on.

Anyhow,  given the… ahem, erotic… performances that these two would put on (usually in front of French or German tourists eating their dinners), it was no surprise to us that Charlene was now pregnant. Her demeanor had changed- she was now more protective of not only Charlie, but of the other people staying at Soft Beach and her territory in general.

This was really driven home one day after we’d gone for yet another walk up the beach.  We had stopped to visit Stevie’s friend Yasir (a man with four wives- not kidding), and while Set and Sara tried on Bedouin jewelry, I befriended a small, pretty white dog who I named Snowy. When we left the camp, Snowy had decided that she wanted to adopt me, so she followed us as we took the long way back through town. Here’s a picture of her waiting for us outside of a shop.

And here’s another one of her guiding us home.

When we crossed back onto the beach, Charlie and one of the other dogs in his pack were strolling around the shoreline. When they noticed Snowy, it was barking and a lot of feigned growls, but Snowy held her own. Eventually, Charlie decided he liked her, and Snowy crossed into camp unmolested.

Until Charlene saw her.

All of a sudden, there was barking and snarling as Charlene and four other dogs attacked Snowy. She yelped and moved faster than I’d ever seen any dog move before, and I thought for a fleeting second that little Snowy was about to get torn to pieces in front of Soft Beach Camp. This compelled me to pick up a palm frond from the beach and run headlong into the fray, bellowing and waving the leaf over my head in order to disperse the dogs. Set recalls my performance as something like a rabid bear encountering a Boy Scout troop, but in any event, the dogs left Snowy alone- for then. Snowy basically became my shadow for the next few hours, sitting next to me in the cabana areas and occasionally softly pawing at my leg to ask for a tummy rub or a head pat. Charlene even came over and sat down on the other side of us, and regarded the newcomer cautiously, but seemingly receptively.

That is until Charlie came over and started paying Snowy too much attention for Charlene’s liking, and the barking and snarling commenced again until Snowy was driven away from Soft Beach. We saw her again a few more times, and each time, she followed us back to camp, only to be met with a receptive Charlie Farley and an enraged Charlene who promptly drove her back.

Dogs in the Sinai don’t exactly have an easy life, and if it were the right time in my life and if I had the means to care for her, I probably would have adopted Snowy and taken her back to Alex with us.

We also paid many visits to the Baked Shop, the bakery run by Stevie’s friend Jack. Jack, an American expatriate, is a thin and wiry kind of guy who seems like he’s got a lot of stories- and trust me, he does. He runs the Baked Shop with his wife Marcia, who teaches at a language school in a nearby town. They offer an amazing selection of excellent food, but the general consensus is that there’s a few dishes that simply can’t be missed:

1. The cheesecake. Cheesecake may be a complicated dessert to prepare, but Jack makes it with the skill of a master. The filling and crust each have their own distinct flavor- both of which compliment the other.

2. Olive bread. Spread some feta on it, and profit.

3. The ginger and carrot bread/cake. There’s some debate as to whether or not these loaves classify as bread or cake. They’re sweet, but not so sweet as to be overwhelming.

Jack also has American-style drip coffee, which can be refreshing after weeks of drinking ahwa turki (Turkish coffee) or Nescafe all the time.

Other highlights of the trip included:

Seeing the pelican Set mentioned in her Nuweiba entry out of its “shed.” The hotel’s manager brought him out, and we watched him strut about as pelicans seem to do so well. He also “attacked” a few people by opening and closing his massive beak on their legs.

Here, the erstwhile pelican attacks the Bedouin friend of the manager. Hilarity ensues.

And finally, our new South African friend and blackjack cardshark Anton, leaning in for a smooch from the bird. As my mother commented on my Facebook page, this truly seems like a great way to lose an eye, but it makes for some compelling photography.

Sadly, all vacations have to end someday. After nearly a week of relaxation, good times and good company, we boarded the bus back to Cairo, and the subsequent trip back to Alexandria was uneventful.

There are several upcoming things that we’ll be blogging about- this Friday (2 April) is Orphan’s Day. Some of the other teachers and ourselves have volunteered to spend the day playing with orphans in a park, and we plan on extensively documenting the day’s events. On Saturday night, we’ll be attending Sara’s cousin’s wedding- our first Egyptian wedding.

Looming on the horizon is a long break, and we’re planning our first sojourn out of Egypt. It looks like we’re going to Lebanon for hopefully a week and arriving in time for the arrival of Amanda, one of Set and I’s dear friends from our Brooklyn days. In short, we have a lot to look forward to, but for now, I’ll leave you with a composite photograph I took in Nuweiba- a half-hour long time lapse that shows the movement of the stars.

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2 Responses to “Nuweiba Part II: Lethargic Boogaloo”

  1. laura nisbet said

    I always love reading about your adventures. Great narrative and photos! I love the time lapse of the stars! Too bad there isn’t some way to get Snowy back to the states! Dad and I miss not having a barkley!!

  2. Elizabeth Rath said

    Now I know how you spent your 26th birthday, Kenny! Looks (and reads) like you’re having some wonderful, exotic adventures. Love, Aunt Bebe

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