العين السخنة – Ain Sokhna
Note about the pictures: just in case you want to blow the pictures up, click on the link to “My Pictures” and click on the picture you want there. One of the cement-block pictures doesn’t blow up…and I’ve not spent the time to figure out where I put that one…This is for clarification purposes, not because people have contacted me.
As you might have known, IFSA planned an excursion to the Red Sea. Unbeknownst to us, however, the planned excursion was to a Red Sea resort town called Ain Sokhna. We complained before hand that we were spending what seemed like a whole day to travel round trip to spend only one day (from 12:30 pm Thursday to 4 pm Friday), but then we saw the going room rates and realized the expense induced for our pleasure. I’m not going to lie: having time to be in a place without trash lying around, near utter silence early in the morning and a far lower decibel level at any time in the day, an easily-accessible sea not 400 m from my balconied room, and not cooking yet eating at a supper and breakfast buffet was a great experience.
Early Thursday morning we went to the Sidi Gaber train station and stood on the platforms for around 45 minutes to wait for the direct train to Cairo. In the meantime we watched cross-city trains come and go, gathering people and dumping enormous numbers off. We had to remain on the platform because the terminal itself remains under construction. I have my doubts that the terminal will be used as a waiting room when/if it ever is complete, based on our experience in Cairo. Anyway, the first class direct train is very similar to general class Amtrak in the States. At the Cairo station (where we were hit with a blast of hot wind – I’d forgotten how hot Cairo is) we hopped into a waiting travel van and crawled out of the city (Cairo traffic: ugh). Soon we were on the Army-made, nearly empty road through the Eastern Desert (think Badlands with no grass and rock in hues of brown and black), replete with random decorations and statues.
Pulling into the hotel was like pulling into a fantasy of villas on the Mediterranean, your stereotypical white/cream stucco buildings with open-air staircases, two stories, overlooking a blue sea and tan-white sand. What. But, it turned out we had rooms not in a separate building (I’m guessing those were either really expensive or private residences) but in a hotel-like building built on the same lines. It was kind of a shock to realize that you could, seriously, build something for year-round use that was not fully enclosed. Wow…later I looked up our latitude and realized for the first time that Egypt is roughly on par with Florida.
Views of the Cairo Train Station. Leftmost: The decorated but unappreciated lobby that’s a passthrough room. Middle: close up on the ceiling. Right: The platform shed space that captures engine pollution but assumedly keeps out sun.
Getting checked in was interesting. Only Jeanette and I had our actual passports with us. She was the only one with an Alexandria University student ID, having had one made after her US IDs were stolen a couple weeks ago. We were still on tourist visas but we’d been booked as if we had our residential extension, and convincing the front desk to still let us in took some time. During the process, however, we stood around in the massive lobby, wondering what was taking so long. Brannon convinced Ben that the two of them had to go back to Alexandria that night and return with their passports. Jeanette thought, since she’d been singled out for the extra ID, that she was the one who had to go back. I laughed at the guys and tried to comfort her, while trying to get Moutaz to give us the truth.
Left: these approximately 20′ murals are part of the lobby. Right: our room, taken from the balcony.
Anyway, after getting in and finding our rooms, we had to find lunch…it’d been something like 6 hours since we’d eaten. My pizza was huge and hot…not bad for LE 30 at a resort! Then, after more stress as Moutaz and Mariam tried to distress Jeanette while I grew more frustrated at vocal tones…it was hit the water time. There’s an artificial pool between the arms of the hotel, used by little kids. Everyone else just goes to the sea, where the beach is filled with chaise lounges, wooden umbrellas, and periodic rope boundaries. On either side you could see mountains, but even though the Sinai Peninsula was close, particles in the air restricted visibility. That afternoon/evening we played Frisbee, bounced in waves, swam out almost to a buoy, and marveled at the tiny seashells, sand dollars, and bits of dead coral washing up on the sand. The slope into the water is incredibly gradual, and afternoon is an obvious low tide – tidal differences are something like 30 feet or so.
By the late afternoon, Brannon, Ben, and I set up the slackline between pylons of a long cement and metal wharf (holy mussels Batman!) that extends far into the sea. Brannon showed off for us, doing backflips into the sea; Ben tried standing up. I refrained for healing purposes, though moving through the sea eased joint pain that had flared while sitting in the train and van for so long. We ensured that we took the slackline down early enough to make our reservation at the dinner buffet. (Also, showering was fun until Jeanette figured out how to make the tub flow turn into a shower…I was dry by that time…) I was definitely one of the more spiffed up eaters in a long-sleeve shirt and scarf (ironic considering the reminder on our room cards). Because we ate outside, by the time I ate the hot food, I was far warmer than the food itself. As for the food, the diversity was incredible, but having had mallard roasted after it was shot that morning during a break in Minnesota (thanks Craig and Urs!), I avoided the roasted duck offered. Instead I had boring beef stroganoff, tried fried calamari, rice, LETTUCE!!!!, fruit, and succulent chocolate on cake. I also had my first piece of kunafa, which Egyptians call something different.
Everyone conked early, though I went on a walk – it was marvelous walking through the dim lighting at night and not a thought for my security. I woke up to Jeanette working with her phone – the only sound except birds. Wonderful! I walked around for a bit on the beach alone, enjoying the time to myself, than ate with Jeanette: lettuce salad with carrots and dried apricots, then a couple pancakes with chocolate syrup, strawberry jam, and pear/apple fruit salad. Next step? Go swimming. The water was so awesome – I entered the water just before 8:30 am – I had my watch to prove the time. Imagine stepping from a slightly sloping empty beach into perfectly calm water. Looking ahead into the water, you notice there is no horizon. That’s odd; looking down you can see your feet resting on tiny sand dunes through the water’s greenish/blue filter. Look forward again, and ahead the water is a white/grey, with the tiny wavelets differentiated as only slightly more blue. The sky above continues the water’s continuum of blue at your feet to white at eye height to a purer blue straight above, but the edges of that spectrum are completely indecipherable. Start swimming. Your hands in front of you create small green/blue wavelets, but farther out the spectrum is undisturbed. I swam through that color for around 45 minutes out, until I was midway between the end of the wharf and the buoy – high tide lent more swim time to that distance. On my return, I just floated for a while; the salt content and altitude lent the water a higher density than pool water, so the tiny waves (they continued to get bigger until we left, but the highest wave was only 5 inches then) could rock you without getting your eyes wet. That was probably my favorite hour of the excursion.
Night views. Left: from the pool looking at the main hotel building. Middle looking from a staircase at the open floors. Unfortunately I could see no more stars than in Alex due to the lights, even along the coast. Right is through a fabricated waterfall that on my way back to the room shut off. Weird, but very cool.
Later, Ben and I set out on a double kayak and Brannon took a single kayak (ok, these were not kayaks, they were large plastic toys) for a bit…Ben was not at top game and I wanted to shower, so while we turned in, Brannon took off for a tank in the far distance. Next I saw him, an hour or so later, he was as big as three periods stacked on top of each other. We ate on the lounge chairs on the beach (fries and a schwerma that was excellent with ketchup). For the last hour, we set up a long slackline that frustrated Brannon until just before we left. Waiting for the van to pull up, Jeanette played about 3 minutes on the lobby’s 6’ grand piano, which was a huge stress reliever. I am really proud of our conversation on the train ride home; I learned a lot. The day we spent at the resort was a stress reliever, and I look back on it with a lot of pleasure. We played around with Arabic word games on the way home, which also was fun.
Left: Brannon returns his kayak. Middle, Brannon right before falling. It sounds like I have a preference for taking pictures of Brannon, but believe me, I have a lot of pictures of Moutaz posing, Ben watching the sand, and Jeanette relaxing. I choose my pictures for clarity of storytelling and aesthetics, with a good dose of respecting the person involved. I was so happy to get the smile that crept along Jeanette’s face in the right photo as she played!
Medical update: I still feel joint pain, now concentrated mainly in my elbows. But it’s inconsequential compared to earlier. The pain in my right hip flexor has decreased significantly over this week, and a couple days ago I went slacklining at the British Embassy Gardens. I can balance on one foot for up to 45 seconds and I took two steps fully. Yay! All pain went away overnight at Ain Sokhna, but I remembered to be careful on Friday. En route home, however, my stomach informed my brain that my GI system was not happy…my diet had caught up to me. I’d been eating mainly rice and pancakes, since the stress of getting diverse groceries was a little beyond my problem-wracked body. Then, I hit my system with diversity at the resort, and it rebelled with diarrhea. I’m currently working on diversifying my diet in reaction to this latest situation.
Academically, I had a seven-eight page paper due in ICH on Friday last (I turned it in on Saturday before noon, ahead of the boys) and a presentation to give in PSM. Forgetting to look over my notes before the presentation, I took far more than the 10 minutes allotted, but I don’t think Dr. Heba minded much. And I had good information – I learned a lot about the political landscape of Libya before and during its “revolution” to establish whether I thought the incredible violence there was inevitable. I have to say that I think it was, due to Qaddafi’s pre-2011 policies, his reaction, and his rhetoric, though even the original protestors didn’t come to the table without stones and gas bombs. This coming week, as we slide into the Eid al-Adha holiday (Feast of the Sacrifice, Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac or Ishmael, depending on your religion), I have a presentation in Dr. Naglaa’s PSM…on a subject that is currently super vague. My Arabic seems to improve on a daily basis, and I know my vocabulary is expanding because in two hours with my language partner, Dina, I spent nearly as much time talking in Arabic as in English. I’m pleased with my progress, though I could come more prepared to classes, like skimming readings before class and continuing to organize, find, and learn vocabulary.