Published: March 2nd 2012February 22nd 2012
Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, it probably wasn’t the best plan to spend my second-to-last week in the Middle East alone on the beach in Sinai, with my nose stuck in a book; isolated from reality both geographical and mentally. I was stuck between here and there – between the Middle East and India – vacillating between a nostalgic desire to stay longer and a growing anxiety to be gone already. And I had no one to bring me back to the now.
I left my private beach and went to Dahab. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being just another tourist, but it’s there that you’ll find some of the best dive sites in the Red Sea – and it had been far too long since I had accumulated nitrogen in my bloodstream. As I submerged myself into the azure waters of the famous Blue Hole, I saw clearly. I saw hundreds of brightly colored fish, odd-shaped corals and giant clams. And I saw a future for myself – one where I returned to Egypt after traveling in the East, found a job diving, and learned how to belly dance. Then I surfaced,
and the fierce Dahab wind snatched away all of my body’s heat, along with any desire I had to live there. The deal was sealed later that day when I couldn’t find any fresh fruits or vegetables to eat, and couldn’t drink the water from the tap. I’d definitely visit the Sinai again, but I’d never stay for more than two weeks. I left Dahab to catch the ferry to Jordan, where I planned to meet my travel buddy from Lebanon, Ada.
The ferry was delayed four hours, setting the tone for a day that quickly turned into the worst day of the past five months. It’s only 45 kilometers to cross the Gulf of Aqaba from Nuweiba to Aqaba, but they were some the slowest, most uncomfortable kilometers I’ve ever traveled. As a blondish, blue-eyed female in these parts, I’m used to attracting a certain amount of attention, and I’m normally not too bothered by it. But as the only unmarried woman onboard – with my hair uncovered and my forearms exposed to boot – I had to deal with a continuously circling parade of gawking, photo-snapping men that there was no escape from. No one tried to
engage me in conversation or treat me like a human being. Instead, I was the freak show at the circus, an animal on display. The only place I found some respite was crouched behind the boat’s exhaust stacks. Three hours of breathing in the fumes left me with a bad headache and a worse temper. When we finally docked in Aqaba, I had to beat back the crowd of eager taxi drivers shoving each other to get my fare. Poor Ada got an earful of my bellyaching, but she took it like a champ, laughing at all the appropriate places and calling me out when I started getting ridiculous. We shared our favorite, “You know you’re in the Middle East when…” moments, and pondered the Arabic customs that continued to elude us. I felt much better.
In the end, one bad day out of 150 is a pretty good track record. And, if I haven’t already made it clear enough, I’ll reiterate here: I’ve absolutely fallen in love with this part of the world. What I will miss most of all about the Middle East – besides the food, which should go without saying – is people’s hospitality and eagerness to please. Before you have a chance to thank them for the tea they’re always offering, they’ve already said, “Welcome.” Everyone always welcomes you to the country, town or home you are in, “You are welcome to…” And it’s more than just words. I truly felt welcome – and safe. I may have been stared at and offered money for sex, but I never once felt that my body, my life, or even my things, were in any danger. I urge you to turn your news off and go see for yourself.
I’m sending out a huge çok teşekkülar, toda raba, shukran jazilan
to all the wonderful people I’ve met over the past five months and five countries who have shared their lives with me and opened my eyes, ears, nose and mouth to new experiences. Thank you. Wherever I go, I’ll never be far away.