It was dark when I arrived at the Coral Coast Hotel in sleepy Dahab on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. A quiet, too chilly night in February. I sat down at the free space on the communal wooden table and the crazy eyed woman to my right said ‘who the f… are you?’, I thought I was in the wrong place. I wasnt. This was the get to know each other first night dinner before a week of yoga. The woman preceded to insult most people at the table including myself and several amongst the group of divers at a neighboring table. She made lewd suggestions to one of the few males in the group (who happened to be with his girlfriend) before deciding I was her new best friend and repeatedly asking to share my room instead of with the allocated Scottish woman to whom she had taken an instant dislike. I had paid a single supplement (and if ever the value of this was apparent it was then). Much local wine was drunk and I slept like a log. I drew my curtains in the morning to reveal the brilliant desert sun and the sparkling Gulf of Aqaba stretching to the shores of Saudi Arabia. A young man rode a majestic prancing grey along the path between the pool and the open sided tented cafe on the beach. Here I would later sample many delicious freshly cooked dishes washed down with local red and accompanied by the sound of the sea. All was tranquil and calm. The room was simple and beautiful, a big dark wooden head board, lanterns and a balcony to enjoy the magnificent view and refreshingly no TV.
On the third windswept and startling bright Dahab morning I tore myself from the cushioned and shielded sanctuary of the Bedouin pavilion overlooking Gulf of Aqaba to rejoin the dawdling chatty yoga group at the big wooden breakfast table. I had had my fill of the delicious foul and salty white cheese, the peppers and freshly cooked unleavened bread and prefered to drink my tea away from the rajastic chit chat of my new yogic companions. I dragged myself back to these starlings swathed in soft natural fibres against the underlying desert chill to hear what the much heralded (and money spinning I cynically appended) visit from the local guide had to say about a possible desert trip. The guide invited me to sit down, testily I refused. He sat high and lean in his wooden chair in his grey djellaba and spoke about possible adventures and utterly charmed. With his clipped moustache and thickly waved hair he looked like a like a grease-painted silent movie star version of himself. The sun, high over head felt damaging and the sea sparkled and shimmered all the way to the menacing mountain walls of Saudi Arabia. Someone waived to me as I reached the busy diving hub and I ate more hummus with two of my new acquaintances before setting off again alone along the sea path and between the hard selling restaurateurs and hawkers of bric-a-brac stood the charming guide, the purveyor of Bedouin dreams. About six feet six he stood shrouded in robes sipping daintily on the straw in a small carton of juice. He smiled and said hello and asked me if I wanted a tour of the surrounding area, to see the canyon and the views. Cynically, I thought afterwards, I asked him the price of the tour and affronted he told me it was free.
Our Bedouin driver sped through the bare sun bleached desert mountains for two hours, the scenery varied little but mesmerised in its stark inhospitable magnificence. Circa AD330 the Roman empress Helena built a refuge for hermits next to the burning bush where God was believed to have spoken to Moses. St Katherine’s monastery is named after a Christian martyr who exemplifying the shocking job of the martyr was tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her faith. Onlookers were also killed when the horrific device spun out of control. Visitors flock to what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and to climb or ride a camel up Mount Sinai. I wandered away from the group to look at ancient works of art and outside was asked by one of the camel herders if I was American. I later found out that two American tourists had been kidnapped here a couple of weeks previously, apparently to have been released unharmed after a couple of hours of drinking Bedouin tea. Later we clambered down some rocks and walked between the mighty stratified eroded sandstone walls of the white canyon. I trudged far ahead of the garrulous group, hatted against the piercing sun. At the end of the path I found a smallholding and met a beautiful Bedouin boy Mohammed who showed me to a big cushioned tent and gave me sweet black tea.
Over dinner Dirk expounded upon all he had read on the coptic church and when he mentioned a pope I ventured ‘so it’s Catholicism?’ ‘No Coptic Orthodox’ he corrected. Is the pope a Catholic? Not if he’s Egyptian he isnt. Arriving alone for a second visit to Dahab on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula I had a solitary dinner of hummus and baba ganoush washed down with Egyptian red wine in the big tented open-sided cafe by the sea and listened to the waves. After the journey there, the intention had been to do a bit of unpacking before an early night. We drove and we drove and ahead of us the rocks gleamed white in the jeeps headlights. The road became bumpier and we closed our windows against the dust and I wondered how he was going to return me safely to the hotel before his late dinner with his brother. When the road could not be described as a road anymore and all round was pitch black I dared to venture ‘we’ve come a long way..’. ‘You think I kidnap you?’ he laughed. Eventually after manoeuvering up a steep incline with an startling drop down to the sea on one side and alarmingly after our kidnap talk we saw the lights of a stationary car. We parked close by. I looked behind me at the stark moonlit white mountains all around and then lay down on the blankets and cushions and watched the black sea shimmer and ripple with the luminescence of the moon and the stars. Any given part of the black black sky gave up its stars after a few moments of focused attention.