Thursday, 29 October 2009


Things I love about Dahab:

the blue hole
the water (Red Sea)
the fish
the men love me (blue eyes)
the heat
the sunset
the stars
NZ$0.75 ice creams (think Trumpet)
camel-jambs (I actually saw a real traffic-jamb involving only cars the other day)

Things I hate about Dahab:

the smell (think open sewers)
the water (brown & bacteria ridden)
the inconsistent & unpredictable bodily functions
the rubbish (everywhere)
the dust
the dirty feet
the incompetent snorkellers (how to destroy an ancient coral reef with several easy steps: walk on it)
the men love me (for all the wrong reasons)
the heat
90% of local men
“buy one”
“taxi?” (if they haven't run you down getting to you first)
compulsory prayers (mosques with loudspeakers), especially the 4am version
“Dahab time” juxtaposed with big city impatience (maybe this should be teamed up with the “90% of local men” and their general arogance)
the smokers (again maybe this should be teamed up with the “90% of local men” and their general arogance)

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Freediving in Egypt

Training in Dahab has been a bit average to date. I've had a lot of issues with equipment but have managed to replace, find or repair everything, so it's not the end of the world. I've been slowly working through my panic at depth issues and finally it all seems to be coming together. I've had further problems with small squeezes, not necessarily coughing blood, but just feeling like there is a little fluid in my lungs. I think I might have always had this but wasn't aware of it as I am now. I'm very flexible through my chest but it's the panic that makes me tense up. I've started setting my dive alarm at a “safe” depth so if I'm having trouble relaxing that's about when I should turn back, but I still get a decent dive in, if I'm relaxed I continue onward. It's improving gradually and I've had some very nice relaxed constant no fins dives between 45 and 50m and down around 60 with my monofin. The large contractions are now subsiding too which is a relief. Once I've done a few more comfortable ones then I'll start to work on increasing the depth slowly. The Blue Hole is wonderful to dive in. It's a short swim out and so sheltered. I can look at the wall on the way down to distract myself. The dives are becoming more natural and I don't have to focus quite as hard to keep everything together.

I spent 10 days in Sharm el Shiekh diving with the Russians and Bill and living in total luxury in a hotel where I had a whole huge room to myself (first time since I stayed with Elisabeth in Aarhus in early August) and they had buffet meals three times a day so I could just relax and do nothing. I actually got bored when I finished my book.

I messed around with doing warm ups for a week but they really didn't work for me. I didn't get enough time between the dives to reach the total relaxation state I like to achieve before my dives and as I struggle psychologically it is easier to just keep the focus and relaxation of a single dive rather than four. There was a competition at the end and it was a pleasure to witness Natalia doing her very clean new world records in constant weight and free immersion. It was also nice to get to know her a bit better. She is a very shy, creative and intelligent woman who writes her freediving blog in the form of poetry (only in Russian unfortunately), setting some of her poems to music and video to share the beauty of freediving with a wider audience. I think she has struggled with the depths too, though you wouldn't believe it now. I didn't really feel ready for the competition, but managed to do a couple of very relaxed and enjoyable constant weight dives to 52m and 61m (dive time 2:02). It wasn't a personal best, but I had plenty of air left and it was one of the nicest feeling deep dives I've done, which is an achievement in itself as that was one of my main goals for my time in Egypt.

Middle Eastern adventures

Patti and I have just been on a bit of an adventure to Petra in Jordan and through Israel. We left home (Dahab) on Tuesday morning with a great plan in our heads as to how the next 6 days would go. We took a local bus to the Israeli boarder. The security guards ohhed and ahhed as I was 3 days overdue on my visa, then they just stamped it. We walked through to Israel. Everything was going fine until they discovered Patti's Iranian visa and had to do a security check on her. They asked her all sorts of really random questions and then we just had to wait. The woman said it would be between 1 and 8 hours! We only had to wait about 1 hour and 45 mins, so it wasn't too bad. Patti was a bit stressed out by it and had a beer. Everyone else at the boarder seemed to get through ok. We taxied through Israel and made it to the Jordanian boarder just before it was due to close at 6pm. So much for spending the afternoon at Petra. I think we over-estimated the public transport in the Middle East. The sun was already setting. Two hours later our taxi driver dropped us off in Petra and couldn't understand why we didn't want to tip him despite smoking in the car after we asked him not to and charging us extra just because we were late at the boarder and had no other options.

Our hostel (Valentine Inn) also stank of old cigarettes as everyone there smokes inside. They made us a great dinner though and provided us with breakfast and packed lunches for Petra. Noisy Muslim prayers and boxy pillows awoke us before sunrise. We had an early start, taking the hostel's first free bus to Petra at 7am after breakfast to avoid tourist buses. Petra was amazing. I would have been happy if it was only the walk in! The first 1.2km is through a huge seismic gap in the mountain. The rock face is multicoloured and was lit by the morning sun creeping down through the gap high above us. Every now and then a horse and carriage would charge past us giving their elderly passengers a very bumpy thrill ride. The narrow path ended ubruptly opening up to the Treasury in front of us. The treasury is famous thanks to it's appearance in Indiana Jones, which they like to play every night at the hostel. The buildings in Petra have been carved from the rock face. There were originally freestanding buildings as well, but there's only really one left plus a few foundations.

We walked up the many steps to the High Place, a sacrifice area. It took us about an hour to reach the summit for a spectacular view down over the entire site. It must have been a pretty large city 2000 years ago when it was flourishing. We took some time out and had tea with one of the locals who has a stall there under a tree, selling handicrafts. Hannah was our age and had worked there half her life. She had a son to her cousin at the age of 14. She is the only divorced Bedouin that I've met so far. She spoke about 5 languages pretty well just from spending time with tourists. We took the steps back down the other side past some pretty areas where there was almost vegetation. I imagine that 2000 years ago Petra would not have been in the middle of the desert. There were lots of systems in place to deal with stormwater but I don't think it rains there any more. Once we made it back down we went straight back up another mountain of similar height to see the monastery. We climbed even further up to see a view, but it was out the other side, not over Petra itself.

In a state of incredible fatigue we accepted tea with a couple of Bedouin guys on the way back down the mountain. They were very keen to invite us for an authentic Bedouin chicken BBQ dinner in Petra, under the stars that evening. We headed back down and along the colonnaded street and back through the gorge out to catch our bus back tot he hostel arriving back very tired after our 11.5 hour adventure. Luckily they fed us so we didn't have to think for a while.

We managed to go out again in the evening to the Turkish baths, which involved a steam room, some lying around, some exfoliation and a soapy massage. I felt so clean and relaxed after.

Our taxi left for the boarder at 5:30am. It was a 3 hour trip along the length of the Dead sea. We had re-organised our trip so we could have the whole day in Petra and were attempting to make it across the boarder in good time to catch a bus up to Heifa to meet a fellow Kiwi and explore the Galilee region. Unfortunately you have to take a bus between the Jordan and Israel boarder, which they made us wait ages for. Then the Israelis seemed to have forgotten that they had just security checked Patti and we had to wait another couple of hours while they did it again because it was a different boarder (they didn't really like it when we reminded them it was the same country). We finally emerged in Israel about 2pm, and they are an hour behind Jordan We gave up on the Heifa idea and headed over to the Dead Sea in a taxi with the intent of staying over night. The rooms were
expensive and once you've floated for an hour or so it gets boring so we changed plans again and decided to head to Jerusalem in the evening. A guy working in the hotel offered us a lift to the adjacent town and suggested we look at a room he has available with a pool, spa, steam room, ensuite, air-con and massage. It all sounded very dodgy when we discoved it was at his house, but we agreed to look at least. After seeing the small sleep out and the very nice pool we decided we were too tired to make our way to Jerusalem and took a chance. It turned out that we chatted to his family a bit and learned more about Jewish culture, which was pretty interesting. We went across the road to the mall for dinner. They have metal detectors and bag checks at all the entrances. We had a spa and the slightly dodgy massage but turned down the offer of heading to town to drink, and slept very well instead.

The bus to Jerusalem was pretty quick, but going through town to get to the Old City was crazy. It was just a few hours before the Shabbat (Sabbath) started and the Jews were out en force. I never really imagined it – there are two types and in one sect the men wear a kind of uniform of wide brimmed black hat, long black coat and pants and a white shirt, plus the ringlets by their ears if they are un-wed. It was a strange experience. We found our baackpackers in the middle of the old city. The city is small and there are no cars inside. There are four quarters: Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. The Muslim was probably the most exciting with lots of little shops underground, and lots of hustle and bustle. We tried to explore the Jewish Quarter before everything closed for Shabbat, but failed. We wandered around and saw the city from a vantage point on a roof above the Arab markets. Then we went to see the parade of the Franciscan monks along the Via Dolorosa which is believed to be the path that Jesus took to carry his cross up the hill. They stop at the 9(?) stations of the cross to pray in three languages and sing between them. They now make so much more sense. At the fourth station, where Jesus stopped and met his mother we got bored and visited the church that's been built there and had tea with some local guys who working in a cafe there. Italian tourists popped in carrying their own hired wooden crosses, but they looked much to light and small – not enough of a burden, plus there was no crown of thorns and I don't think they had to be nailed to it at the end so some of the effect was lost.

We visited the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (wailing wall). It was just before sunset so we witnessed all the Jews coming in to pray at the start of Shabbat. It was pretty interesting and weird, especially when the Muslims started broadcasting their prayers on the loudspeaker from the Dome of the Rock above. The men and women are seperated by a diving wall. People write their prayers on paper and stuff them into the cracks in the wall as then they are more likely to be answered. The Temple Mount is an interesting place. It used to be a massive and very important Jewish temple. The remaining walls are the original temple perimeter retaining walls. The Turks (Islamic) destroyed it at some stage when they took over the city. They built the Dome of the Rock mosque there. When the Crusaders (Christian) took over the city they used the mosque as a cathedral. Now it is a Mosque again. It is believed that this is the location where both Jesus and Mohammed rose to heaven. The Jews want to remove the mosque and rebuild their temple and will continue to wear their black suits and hats or mourning until this occurs. The Palestinians only really have control over this piece of land in all of Israel. The Jordanians guard it as they provided the gold for the dome. We could not access it at all as it's closed to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, we were out of town on Sunday when evidently there was a violent protest so they decided to close it to the public for the rest of the week, during the Jewish celebration of Sukker.

On the way back to the hostel we stumbled upon the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which was still open. I don't think I've ever visited a historic church at night. It was so eiree. This church houses Jesus' tomb (not sure if there is a body inside or not, I thought the story or the resurrection would require there to be no body). Anyway, the church was amazing. It had obviously been altered a lot over the years and unlike European cathedrals which have big facades, it was pretty well surrounded closely by the neighbouring buildings, so you could not walk around it's external walls. There was a central chapel with lots of little chapels around it. There was a little chapel underground that was essentially a cave. Also some cave like areas that seemed to be tombs. It was pretty spooky. There were tourists singing and a huge queue to kiss the tomb of Jesus. Someone told us that it used to be a Roman prison. Not sure how true that is.

We were invited to a party with some locals and thought we'd go along for a bit. They ended up having to work about 2 hours later than expected by which time we felt old and tired and decided to just chat with them for a bit then head back to the backpackers. They did feed us really well at their restaurant though.

We really planned it poorly arriving on Friday as everything seemed to be closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Our plan was to head back to Eilat in the south on Saturday afternoon, but that didn't work either as the buses don't run on Shabbat and need to be pre-paid for the few in the evening. We instead booked a bus trip to the north for Sunday and extended out stay in the country until Monday and we found it so interesting.

Saturday morning we dropped back into the church and saw it from the roof. It was much better at night though. We visited the Tower of David museum which outlined the history of Jerusalem, conveniently disregarding anything that happened from about 1950 onwards. It made things a lot clearer and really helped us understand why it is such a special place to so many people of different backgrounds. After lunch we walked along top of the city's ramparts (wall) from Jaffa gate to Lion gate (about 2km). It was really hot but it gave us a good view over the city. We then went outside the walls to the tomb of the virgin Mary, the garden of Gethsemane where some of the olive trees dating back to the time of Jesus still stand. Perhaps one of these trees is the one he sat under to contemplate his crucifiction. We visited the Gethsemane Bascilica of Agony then climbed up the Mount of Olives behind the Jewish cemetery to get a good view over Jerusalem as the sun set.

We took a bus tour to Nazareth and Galilee on Sunday. It was pretty average. We stopped where all the other tourist buses stopped. The tour stopped at the Basilica of the Annunciation that had a cave where it is thought the angel Gabriel visited the virgin Mary. The church was quite modern and I actually quite liked it. There were some old excavations underneath from previous churches on the site including 4th century Byzantine mosaics. In Cana we visited the church of the first miracle where it is believed Jesus turned water into wine. Then the church of Tabgha on the shore of the Sea of Galilee was closed so we visited the one next door instead. This is the rough location where it is thought that Jesus fed 5000 people with 2 loaves of bread and 5 fish. It was kind of cute. All churched out we went to another in Capernaum that was modern and built over the site that is believed to have been the home of Peter. It is believed that Jesus taught in a synagogue in Capernaum and remains of a synagogue have been found there from that time. I think they forgot to take us to the other church on the Mount of Beatitudes. We convinced the driver to not take us to the flash hotel for an expensive lunch so we got a shawerma and then went to the free beach at the Sea of Galilee for a swim. It was really dirty but refreshing. Patti tried to walk on water (like it's believed Jesus did there) but failed miserably when she fell off the rock. When Patti got out we discovered a medium sized dead animal floating amongst the rocks. Not really sure what it was. It kind of matches a description of a groundhog. Then we were taken to a baptism site on the River Jordan which is in a location believed to be close to where Jesus was baptised by John. It was pretty but highly touristic. Lots of cattle run type fences to push the tourists through who wanted to be baptised there. Tourists were filling up their water bottles with “holy water” from the river. There were lots of catfish and a big duck that tried to eat one of the Japanese. We made it back to Jerusalem early (probably because the driver forgot one of the destinations) and despite being pretty exhausted had a great falafel and headed into the New City to explore a little. There were lots of Jews out celebrating Sukker.

On Monday we got up early to be at the gate of the Temple Mount when it opened at 7:30am but they turned us away. We tried a few times in different places just to check, but to no avail. So we packed up our stuff and headed to Tel Aviv to try to get me another 30 day Egyptian visa. Unfortunately the embassy was closed until Thursday so we just wasted more time and money and had to change our plans again. We jumped on a bus to Eilat (4.5 hours through the desert) but their embassy was shut aswell and would be closed the next day too. We decided to chance the boarder and managed to buy me a visa for an extra US$50, so I did that. Didn't really have a choice in the matter. We made it back to Dahab under the light of the full moon at about 8pm. It was a good trip when we didn't have to deal with the inefficient bureaucracy.

Photos can be found on Facebook