- Life Style
The ongoing petrol crisis in Egypt left its impact this Easter/Sham al-Nessim holiday on Sinai- and South-bound holiday travelers, who were left stranded in (or on route to) their holiday destinations, when petrol stations reportedly dried up in Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada, Gouna, Nuweiba, Taba, Suez and Sharqiya. I was one of the lucky stranded few.
My friends and I had made our way to the Southern Red Sea destination of Marsa Alam just before the Easter break, hoping to avoid the crowds and enjoy some much-needed solitude and peace of mind. This little town by the Red Sea is a healthy eight-hour drive from Cairo but well worth the trek for its almost untouched white beaches, mangroves, beautiful coral reefs, dolphin houses, shipwrecks and incredible marine and birdlife. And while Marsa Alam has seen its share of urbanization and overdevelopment — further expedited by the construction of an international airport nearby — it still has the beautiful natural landscape and sea that have been eroded from the more urbanized cities of Hurghada and Gouna.
We were fortunate enough to be staying at Deep South, a low-maintenance camp perched on a desert hill in al-Tondoba Bay with quaint African-style huts — each of which has its wall adorned with Salah Jaheen poetry — an open dining area and a lounge area under the open sky. Deep South is run by a group of affable and down-to-earth personalities whose company we had the pleasure of keeping throughout our stay, where they went out of their way to help us in our crisis, supplied us with cold drinks and chocolate bars to calm our fraught nerves, and borderline babysat us when all nearby petrol stations ran out of fuel days later.
The fact that our camp used fuel-generators for electricity meant that we were at risk of being stranded without cars, electricity and running water. Although the city girl in me trembled at the thought of a very primitive stay in Marsa Alam, we were nonetheless delighted. Our respective families were completely mystified and wondered — rather correctly — why we seemed to have enough fuel to get us to dive spots and thoroughly enjoy our stay when we should be stranded and miserable. A few frantic fathers suggested ingenious escape routes that finding a boat to take us back to Cairo or sending cars with fuel to supply our car (thus also getting stuck in Marsa Alam without fuel to bring them back). As we couldn’t leave the car behind — despite a supermarket owner’s generous offer of paying for it in cash on the spot — we succumbed to our fate of more languid, sun burnt and blissful days in Marsa Alam.
We were supposed to spend four days. We ended up staying in ten. Thank you, petrol crisis. No, seriously, thank you. I had initially planned to dabble in a little scuba diving and ended up diving five times, and vowing to sign up for their open-water course as soon as I made enough money. Our days fit into a blissful pattern of waking up to an early breakfast of white cheese and pancakes, then diving at the camp’s dive center by the bay, which has a house reef and a sea grass bed, where you might spot a giant turtle or two. We spotted three in total — not rubbing it in or anything — and giant sting rays and a guitar shark. Because we had our own car, a sturdy and trustworthy 4x4, we drove easily nearby dive spots at no extra cost, including to Abu Dabab, where my friends spotted a dugong, a rare sight even in Marsa Alam, and to Abo Ghosoon, where they went wreck diving. I was not allowed to tag along because I hadn’t actually studied diving to qualify for open-water dives. Technicalities; technicalities.
As our trip was extended, we were lucky enough to join a boat safari trip to Samadai Dolphin House, a protected spot in the sea where schools of dolphins sleep and is surrounded by spectacular house reefs and marine life. Even though I had zero experience in diving, my super cool dive guide (who was worn down by my constant pleading and whining to let me dive with him) took me for a short, 7 meter-deep dive around the reef with its incredible marine life. The downside of being an uncertified diver in open waters is that you feel like a toddler on a leash in a supermarket — my dive guide held onto my tank firmly and steered me away from the fish I wanted to play with, and ignored my rude hand gestures when he refused to let me swim into a cave.
Marsa Alam is dominated by Italians, who have created a self-sufficient system, where Italian agencies supply the tourists to the hotels, which hire only Italian nationals for their top-ranking diving jobs, while local workers get the more menial jobs of packing and handling diving gear and transportation. It’s definitely not fair, especially considering that Egyptian divers lack a union and any medical insurance to protect them in what is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
The town of Marsa Alam consists of low-rise buildings of basic structure. Derelict skeletons of ambitious hotels and mall projects lie abandoned along the coastline, due in part to dried out funds and also to corrupted government schemes, at least according to some locals. Though the whole town operates on fuel generators — the sole solar panels were spotted on military grounds. Interestingly, the military would be the only entity unaffected by the fuel crisis; not the profit-generating tourist hotels and diving spots, upon which the whole community’s livelihood depends.
The town centre has two petrol stations and a handful of restaurants, the most noteworthy being Al-Mashrabeya Restaurant, which supplied our grilled meats and dinners every evening. Dolce & Salate, an Italian diner next-door is run by Mara, an amiable Italian who makes delicious tiramisu, pasta and homemade gelato. It’s a quasi-surreal but delightful experience; to be lapping up stagliatelli ice cream while debating how long we can last without petrol and if there’s a sustainable way to stay in Marsa Alam forever and never return to the harsh urban reality of Cairo. Alcohol is available, though limitedly so at a local liquor store, which faces its share of pressure by its conservative neighbours. The walls of Marsa Alam carry campaign posters of Abu Ismail and remnants of local Muslim Brotherhood MPs, but as a driver told me: "Here we’re not that concerned with politics. You have your political party, your candidate, and I have mine; so let’s live in peace."
After six days of nagging every petrol station worker, neighbor and driver, our friend eventually managed to score black market petrol at the insane price of LE4.50 per litre for Benzene 90. Despite a series of complicated networking and phone calls, he never met his petrol dealer face to face; instead, we scored 60 litres of black market petrol after trolling as far as Quseir and Port Ghalib. Our friend said that scoring acid would have been easier.
Miraculously, the petrol station received a full supply of petrol the next day, and after queuing for six hours, our car was eventually refueled. Operation stranded vagabonds was over. Relieved? Yes. Ready to return to Cairo? Definitely not. Over the past extra seven days of unforeseen holidaying, we swam with stingray eels and guitar sharks, indulged our gluttonous fantasies with funghi pizza and crispy grilled chicken wings, played with desert dogs and meditated under the sky, counted shooting stars and discussed business endeavors that would keep us living and breathing the simple life of Marsa Alam. It is a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by the down-to-earth and easy going people of the desert, to find yourself easing into a routine of early morning dives, late sunny lunches and long evenings spent languishing. Being disconnected from the fretting and fussing of Cairo its chaos of turbulent politics, stagnant traffic and social malaise was a much appreciated relief.
However, bills had to be paid, jobs, responsibilities and families awaited us impatiently, and so we shuffled forlornly into the car, and drove reluctantly northwards, only to stop in Hurghada for lunch and fuel. Then, thankfully, a sandstorm swept down the coast from Cairo to Hurghada, and we just had to stay the night. You know, with visibility being so poor and stuff.
Somehow or other, we found ourselves aboard the MV Tala, a plush and impeccably comfortable 37-meter steer hulled vessel docked at Hurghada port that belongs to Red Sea Explorers. The company offers unique liveabroad diving experiences in the Red Sea, including monkey diving, technical diving, night dives and kite-surfing. While we didn’t get to experience any of these adventures, their promotional videos had me contemplating which kidney or family member I could sell to take up a permanent post on a boat in the Red Sea, and kite-surf/monkey-dive to my heart’s content.
The juxtaposition between the basic, low-paced lifestyle of Deep South and the adrenaline-high, sophisticated realm of boating in Hurghada was not lost on me, but if it hadn’t been for the petrol shortage and the sandstorm; we’d never have discovered these two worlds and come to appreciate the diversity of joy and discovery that the Red Sea has to offer.
Hopefully, next time there’s another petrol crisis, I’ll be stuck there.