The Marvelous Red Sea

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February 13th 2006
Published: February 13th 2006
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As-Salam Aleikum osratee wa asdikaee (Peace upon you family and friends),

Hello loyal readers, its been about 8 months since my last entry. I'm sorry for the delay but several things prompted me stop posting entries. First, people in Fes, where I was living, stumbled upon this blog, and I discovered that several complete stranger moroccans knew just a little more about me than I felt comfortable with. Then I had a couple complete stranger Europeans who had been reading the blog randomly show up to visit me, and they turned out to be.. well... weird (not you Rain). So I took a little break.
I left Morocco, after an amazing 11 months, and went home in August for 6 weeks, after which I relocated to windy crowded Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria is a boring city, but I met some good people and bumped into an old friend. There I studied for three months at a school run by some seriously religious muslims (I.E. music is the work of satan etc.), where I had a good time arguing the yankee cause to a surprisingly receptive audience given the circumstances. I cant' say I loved it, but it was definately the most educational experience I've had in the Middle East.
I went home again for the holidays, then relocated here: beautiful, tropical, Dahab, Egypt on the West Coast of The Sinai Penninsula. Dahab was a just tiny Bedouin village nestled betwen the mountians of the Sinai and the Red Sea until about 15 years when it grew into sort of a hippy colony and stop-over for travellers on the there way from Asia to Africa. It has built-up considerably since then, and there aren't any hippies left, but its still a sort-of legendary haven for backpackers, divers and windsurfers, and I meet people everyday who came for a one-week stopover and are still here 3 years later.
The scenery on the surface is beautiful. The mountains set an amazing backdrop at sunset, the bedouin boys ride there camels across the shallows at low tide in front of the town, and when its clear the Mountains of Saudi Arabia, 15km across the bay of Aqaba, look close enough to touch.
Even more spectacular however is the scenery below the surface. Just meters off the coast of the town are spectacular coral reefs on par with with the world's best. Swimming out from any place in the town with a snorkel and fins is like dropping into a tropical aquarium. Just outside my apartment I can find giant purple clams half a meter wide, giant gorgonians 2 meters tall, black and white spotted puffers the size of a basketball, moray eels, electric skates, tube worms and enough rainbow colored fish to make a gay pride parade look grey by comparison.
I decided last week, since its the low season and prices are dirt cheap, to do my open-water certifcation course. I teamed up with a group of three Aussie guys and our Egyptian instructor for the course. We did four days of skills, such as disconnecting and reconnecting equipment underwater, swimming without a mask and practicing emergency situations, then did some really nice open water dives right off the coast off the town that were enjoyable when was I wasn't too busy worrying about my buoyancy and watching the instructor.
Then this weekend I did my advanced course which was the most enjoyable thing I've done in Egypt by far, and among the top 4 or 5 travel experiences of my life. On the first day we did a naturalist dive, spotting fish and examing beds of sea weed for small critters, and learning about cleaner fish and cleaner shrimps. Then I did a solo dive with my instructor during which we did under-water navigation skills with a compass. I learned about spotting surface currents and using the sun for orientation and about plotting dive courses. At the end my instructor took me to the middle of the bay pointing out landmarks underwater, then pretended he was lost and had me lead him back along the same path to our exit point which I accomplished without a hitch.
The second day was even better, and honestly, without exaggerating one of the most-exciting things I've ever done. We started with our deep dive at a place called the canyon. We entered the water at completely barren spot byt the side of the road in the middle of the desert and descended into a really choppy bay where we saw alot of small corral outcroppings. Then we descended towards a spot in the ground that was spewing bubbles of warm water from the center of the earth and frolicked around for a bit. it was sort of like swimming in warm soda. the was descended deeper until came to a chasm in the earth, just a 2 meter crack in the sea bed. Hovering over it I first got fright feeling like I was about to fall in, then relaxed a bit and stared down into the darkness that had no bottom from my point -of-view. Then my instructor looked at me, and my partner and give us the thumbs down (which in scuba signals is the down-we-go sign) and plunged head first down the into the chasm. I followed (feet-first) into the cold for what seemd like an eternity to the floor at 30m and when I looked up I couldn't see the sun. Around us the walls towered over-head and the we could see all kind of strange critters hiding in them. The water was siginigantly more-chilly at the bottom, which just aded to the feeling of complete exhiliration. I swear I was smiling so much that my mask was leaking.
Walid, the intructor, then came over to me when I was settled and standing on the bottom and did math problems on his fingers for me to solve. Then he turned around so I couldn't see him and rearranged his equipment, then faced me again and asked me what was wrong, and after about 3 seconds I noticed he had taken his regulator out his mouth and his put his snorkel in its place. It sounds very strange, but these were exercise to see if I had nitrogen narcosis. Since I solved the math problems and felt completely sober, we continued. we swam through the canyon about 30m then came to a tunnel which we climbed up through into a coral formation called 'the fish bowl', which you might have guessed is bowl-shaped and full of fish, then swam back through the bay against some rather strong currents to the exit point.
As if that wasn't enough, the second dive that day was just as dramatic. We took a jeep a few kilometers north to a place called The Bells, where a lot of people do snorkel trips from Dahab. We swam out just a couple meters from shore to the top of a long vertical crack in the front of a coral wall. We deflated or vests entirely and dropped directly down through the crack, which became a vertical tunnel just one-and-a-halfs meter wide at the bottom, to 28m where we exited and turned around to face the wall. It was sort of like dropping down a tube slide.
The wall at that point is an incredable coral formation that apparently has no bottom. They know this because really serious divers come here with ten or fifteen tanks on a rope and dives to and ascend from 350+ meters over the course of 16 hours (it takes so long because you have to stop for hours at a time ever 20 meters on the ascent to allow the nitrogen to diffuse from your blood). We didn't go deeper than 28m, but that was enough for me. For the next 40 minutes we simply drifted along the wall with the current, floating upright gazing at the coral, slowly ascending to 5 meters where we did our safty stopand exited. While drifitng we saw loads of sea ananomeas, parrot fish, coral groupper, and a tiny electric ray that apparantly gives off 220 volts when it gets angry.
Tonight I did my final dive, the night dive. We swam into the bay in the middle of town and poked around the sand in the shallows where I saw some weird things I hadn't seen at all during the day. There were baby octopi, cuttle fish, stone fish, devil scorpian fish and a grey-spotted moray eel hiding in a wrecked car that somehow ended up in the ocean. Then we swam over to the reef and saw that all the coral had sprouted colored fans which only come out at night. When we shined our flashlights on them they retracted slowly into the coral again. The neatest thing was saw was a Spanish Dancer, which is a kind of bright red gelatinous blob with little blue chimnies sticking out of it. When Walid tickled it, it did a kind of dance during which its colors changed and it kind of shimmered for several minutes. The joke is that the Spanish girl dances when you tickle her bottom.
Diving at night was a little intimidating at first because visibility is so limited and you have to really watch where your going and take care not to lose neutral buoyancy, but its also a really big confidance builder because the pressure to do the skills right refines everything you do under-water. Now that I have advanced certification, I can do some of the other dives in the area. The two that really pique my interest are the shark reef down near Sharm Al-Shiekh, where apprently lives a family of black-tip reef sharks, and the Thistlegorm, a wrecked World-War II cargo ship. Apprently you go out on a boat trip to the wreck and do three dives, including one inside the ship where one can see motorcycles, boxes of rifles, and even a whole locamotive.
So anyway, I've sort of caught the scuba bug, which is great because there's no where in the world where it can be done so cheaply, and very few places that can rival it in terms of magnificance, variety of dive sites and sea life. I am still studying Arabic. I take an hour and half of private lessons everyday, and when I'm not diving, snorkeling, or eating delicious seafood, I work my way through the Arabic newspapers. I can really read quite well now, and speak rather fluently, and to be honest, despite the tourists here, I speak very little English. I'll probably stay here until the end of April, unless I decide to spend a couple weeks in Jerusalem before coming home. I have a couple visitors coming soon too, including my my Egyptian friend from Alexandria, my beautiful girlfriend from St. Louis, and an old friend from Kuwait whom I haven't seen in three years. All of you, of course, are welcome to visit and stay with me anytime. I miss you all!

M'a As-Salaama,
P.S. I do have some photos, but I don't have the proper cable to connect my camera! Argghhh


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