Egypt - Touring and diving
Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
We awoke and packed for the trip to Hurghada, with a stop in St. Catherine's. We knew it would be a long day, but just how long we had yet to find out. After another mediocre buffet breakfast, we checked out and got into the minivan with Issam and the driver Algo.
The drive through the Sahara is eye-opening. We didn't see the vast expanses of sand dunes we expected - the terrain was quite rocky. The heat and barrenness made it just as forbidding as we had imagined, however. Occasionally we were surprised to see a bedouin riding a camel across seemingly trackless wasteland, but mostly we didn't even see other cars. We did go through at least 3 security checkpoints, one of which required our passports and other information.
After a relatively boring 2.5 hours we reached St. Catherine's Monastery, a Greek Orthodox community of monks that have been living there since 550CE. We enjoyed seeing the mosaic from 600CE, as well as the icons on the walls, some dating from that same century. We also saw the location of the burning bush from the book of Exodus, complete with a thorny bush purported to be transplanted from the original. The monastery is at the base of Mt. Sinai, from which Moses brought the 10 commandments.
We did not have a guide (Issam had obviously never been there before), and felt the lack, listening in on groups in Spanish and Italian to figure out what we were looking at. We did manage to visit the library, with an impressive collection of hand-written sacred manuscripts, many over 1000 years old. There, we met an American monk, who was very friendly and told us a great deal about the monastery.
We left around noon, with the heat not quite so bad because of the elevation (5000ft). This means just "bake" and not "broil". After a hungry 2.5 hours driving through the desert, we reached the Gulf of Suez, and stopped at a tourist restaurant for lunch. We had reasonably good kebabs and kofta, and stretched our legs a bit, then got back in the minivan.
We read, napped, read, chatted, and just zoned out looking out the window. The scene never really changed - stony, barren hills on one side, and occasional glimpses of the Red Sea between oil refineries on the other. We did sit up and take notice 2 hours (and about 5 checkpoints) later when we drove under the Suez Canal. It was strange to see the stacks of cargo ships seeming to move through the desert.
5 more hours later, at nearly 10pm, we finally reached Hurghada. We drove right past our hotel into town to pick up another Amigo Tours representative - and Issam lied to us about what we were doing. We took advantage of the stop to grab some late dinner from McDonald's. Finally, we went back to check in. Once we got Amigo Tours out of the way, the folks at the Intercontinental were extremely helpful, even calling the dive shop manager at 10pm to arrange diving for us in the morning.
We were hungry and tired, so we went directly to our room. Issam immediately called us, needing to see us urgently about our payment dispute - never mind that we had been with him for 10 hours today! We listened to Issam's doubletalk for a while, but couldn't seem to communicate the gravity of our unhappiness. Finally, after Issam said "there is no problem" once too many times, we both exploded. We told him on no uncertain terms that we did not want to do business with him or his company any longer, and that we would do the rest of our tour by ourselves.
Exhausted and drained, we went back to our room and fell into bed.
Had breakfast at the hotel buffet. We were tortured not to eat the fresh fruit, but feared "Pharoh's Revenge." We headed out to the dive center and soon had all the equipment we needed. We were on the boat and ready to go by 9am.
The day was gorgeous - blue skies, lots of sunshine, deep blue water, and a slight breeze, but not rough water. We headed out to sea, quite content.
First dive was at Abu Ramada South. The site is for the wildlife there, and it proved true. We saw a couple of blue spotted rays, big moray eels some large crocodile fish, lion fish, a huge Napolean wrasse, several kinds of puffers including one with a black band across the eyes like a raccoon, and an entirely red fish with bulging eyes that the locals call "big-eyes". There were also other tropical fish like sunfish, butterfly fish, and triggerfish, as well as tiny bright blue and orange ones. We spent our safety stop inspecting a small ship wreck. Quite good, although sometimes there were more divers than fish.
Abu Ramada South
During the two hour surface interval they served a decent lunch, we slept and read. Second dive was at El Aruk, chosen for the coral and colors. The fifty minutes underwater was beautiful! Each pinnacle of rock was covered in many kinds of coral with fish swimming everywhere. Again, we saw great marine life with more rays, a large fish feeding on smaller ones, stonefish, swimming lion fish, and a huge (body volleyball size) octopus. We even swam through a natural underwater arch (twice!) lined with gorgeous coral.
The hotel responded to our travel agency problems beautifully. They gave us a great rate, helped find an new, respectable agent, and played the intermediary with Amigo Tours. In particular, one manager named Tarek was especially helpful.
We headed into town to see what it looked like, and check email. We took a local minibus to and from the hotel which was our first bit of "being local." As we walked along the street we realized that we were 'shell-shocked' from the Amigo Tours fiasco. We reacted to every Egyptian selling his wares, or inviting us into his restaurant, as a con-artist, Very sad state. Acknowledging our condition helped, but we decided to return to the hotel for dinner.
We returned to our room to find our laundry there. Hysterical! Each item (including t-shirts) had been ironed, folded, with mortar boards, and individually wrapped in plastic. We laughed at the Egyptian laundry. It was great to end the day with laughter.
The day started at 7:30 with the donning our bathing suits, eating at the hotel's breakfast buffet and collecting our diving gear. We were on the boat and ready before 9am. During the cruise to the dive sight, we chatted with a British man and his son who had been diving for the previous 4 days.
The first dive site was Abu Hashish, supposedly named for the drug traffic that went through the island. The dive was great. We dropped in at one end of the coral reef and drifted with the current to the other end where the boat picked us up. Along the way the huge stems of table coral, room-size brain coral, a giant sea turtle directly underneath us, and a large variety of tropical fish entertained us. We also saw scribble filefish, an octopus, and some huge puffers. After a relaxing and colorful 45 minutes we got out and were greeted with a delicious lunch.
All of the divers snoozed while the captain took us to the next dive site, Ras Disha. We swam around giant pinnacles covered in many kinds and colors of coral. One pinnacle had a tunnel thorugh it filled with 1000's of fish. We saw two huge and handsome lion fish, more puffers and rays, and other kinds of brightly hued tropical fish. The water was so clear we forgot we were diving and seemed to be floating above a colorful moonscape. Honk, the dive master, called us over for the best view of an octopus yet. It was on top of an outcrop of rock and seemed to be eating something. It mesmerized us for 5 minutes. We were about out of air when we pulled away to end another great 45 minute dive.
The heat seemed to turn it on a little more today, so we retreated to the room for awhile. Before dinner we received a fax from Amigo Tours... will it end? The hotel's Fish Market restaurant has you pick out our fish and vegetables which they grill to your taste. It was quite fun. We looked onto the Red Sea as we listened to the live Egyptian muscians. Quite nice. After handling a few more travel details and writing in the journal, we headed off to a deep sleep.
We've got the routine down now, so we got up a few minutes later, and still had plenty of time for breakfast before heading down to the dive boat. It was clear even at this early hour that somebody had turned the oven up to "broil" - it was hot!
We picked up some snorkels this morning, to use before lunch. We got good seats in the shade on the upper deck, and enjoyed reading and relaxing for an hour as we cruised to El Fanadir. We dove with the divemaster Elsa, just the three of us, so we had a very nice, relaxed dive. Tom dove with much less weight and had a real breakthrough in buoyancy control - it's great to feel like we're getting better at diving.
The dive was along a reef wall, with a small but amazingly lush pinnacle. We saw incredible soft coral like squat baobabs, tiny winter birches, dark green tubules, waving fingers of anemones, stubby finger-like ones, flowers with intricate sworls, long tubes like fluted vases, lettuce-like purple ones, lobed brains, others as delicate and white as snowflakes. The variety of fish was unbelievable - huge schools of tiny orange and red fish, purple ones with long noses, lionfish with manes of spindly fins, tiny jet-black ones with a glowing blue stripe, brown and orange stripes with purple polka dots (clash city), almost every color and combination you can imagine. Nothing particularly big, but color and life in profusion wherever you look. We also saw a couple of octopus on this dive, even more in the open.
After getting out of the water, we grabbed our snorkels and headed back in. We just hung out over the reef edge, watching the tiny colorful fish eat and swim around. Louisa found a big lionfish that lives in a crack near the surface, and it peeked out at us as we hovered over it.
Soon lunch was ready, and we filled our plates with excellent Egyptian food. We went back for seconds, but the platters were licked nearly clean. Then we settled down for a nap as we steamed to Abu Nogel. On the way we saw some turtles on the surface.
Once again we had a relaxed dive with Elsa, lazily exploring every crack and hole. We swam around several patch reefs, looking through caves and tunnels at an explosion of color and life. We followed a white-tip reef shark, fairly small but a big deal to the divers here. On the way, we saw some tiny fish with incredibly bright colors - in dark caves they almost look like lights. There were coral like waffles fresh from the iron, room-size table fans, delicate tracery like embroidery, maze fans confusing the eyes, fragile white ruffled skirts, feathery thin ones that curl like ferns, anemones like blow-pops on thin sticks, even a strange mound of tiny "eyeballs" on threads - animal or vegetable? And we saw clownfish among the stubby fingers of the anemones, stonefish hidden in cracks, and more porcupine-like lionfish.
After the dive, we dried off and relaxed on the way back to Hurghada. We debated diving again tomorrow, but Honky told us that tomorrow's would be the best spot, so we decided to go ahead.
We returned to the room and showered, then headed out again to walk along the main street to find a haircut for Tom. After passing several huge resorts under construction (it seems like the whole coast is one big unfinished resort), we reached a small set of stores. There we found an internet cafe for Louisa to wait in, and a barbershop. After bargaining the barber down from 40 to 25 egyptian pounds (probably still getting ripped off, but it's only $7.50), Tom got his haircut. Not the greatest, but passable.
We walked back to the hotel for the overpriced (but decent) buffet dinner. After dinner we worked more on arrangements for the rest of our Egypt tour - we have had more problems traveling in this country than any other to date. We sure are enjoying the diving right now, though.
The usual morning routine was elongated a bit with a stop at a shallow shipwreck. Another diver needed the wreck dive for certification. We relaxed and read with the extra half an hour.
For our first dive we slowly drifted along a wall off the shore of Little Giftun island. It was a nice dive, but not as spectacular as the documentary through which we swam yesterday. We started out deep along a wall, with a few giant napolean wrasse, then crossed some deep blue sections to rise onto a sandy plateau. We saw lots of colorful hard coral, and some absolutely giant fan coral, like trees 20-30ft tall. We were surprised by a big free swimming moray (usually they're hidden in the coral), and delighted in a big school of "raccoon" puffers during our safety stop.
During afternoon dive at Sabina we swam in a coral garden on the flat sea floor. It was pleasant with a distant sighting of some large manta rays, some huge Napoleon wrasse and a few blue-spotted rays. As always, there were plenty of colorful angelfish, butterfly fish, and triggerfish, as well as many different varieties of coral. The dive master lent Tom his camera, so Tom spent the dive snap happy, taking pictures of everything in sight. Unfortunately, an air bubble got into the lens, so most of the pictures aren't very good.
The late afternoon was filled with final travel details and payments. We had dinner at the fish market, more fresh sea bass and delicious grilled vegetables. We walked down the road to the internet cafe for a quick session then headed to bed.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on