The sun has set, releasing its stranglehold on the peninsula. The warm gentle breezes blow the Arabian night air around as people who have waited out the hostile day prepare at last for the reprieve. The smells of salt and the fishy goodness of the sea float gently upon the warm winds; not overpowering as in Liverpool or Bangor – just a suggestion, a reminder really that close by, beyond the dunes, lies the life-saving waters of the Red Sea.
Let me back up a little bit. “Daddy, daddy – I want a beach vacation!” my little boy told me after discovering the small sand in Dubai during our last outing. But where to go? In West Africa – the Atlantic is hostile and the beaches dirty; the service inhospitable; the facilities sub-par. Turkey? Kenya? We settled on Egypt – mostly because it is a direct flight. I am not the adventurous kind who flies for 30 hours with my little boy; I committed no sin to deserve that class of punishment. Sharm, because it was cheap and famous for its beauty – my little boy wanted sand, warm water and fish. How could I refuse?
Sharm El Sheikh is a strange little town, one long road really hugging the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. Resorts; exotic and beautiful. The most amazing reefs I’ve seen – and I’ve been around. Delicate Arabic cuisine and music that pirouette and dance together; alluring, casting a spell like a visiting djinn from the hot sandy mountains which sit in ominous supervision over the town, as if saying “Beyond here, you must not pass.” I can’t help but think of Moses and his ragtag group of Israelites fleeing from slavery in Cairo for decades to roam the dry harshness beyond. Sharm was trying to be perhaps a cross between Las Vegas and Cancun – returned only recently to Egypt during the Camp David Accords, it was growing in a sort of mini-boom, until tragedy hit. Booms and busts leave scars in the forms of dead buildings and abandoned stores too heavily leveraged to survive the lean years. In Sharm you will see many of those; condos which might have been sold to Brits or Russians, cafes which could not endure the years waiting for the tourists to return.
Egypt is a land in recovery; a perfect storm of political instability and terrorist attacks that were mutually reinforcing at the tail end of a tired dictatorship wreaked havoc on their greatest source of foreign exchange, tourism. But Egypt is an old land – for six thousand years it has weathered the ebbs and flows of civilization. Invasion, drought, famine – corruption and civil war, occupation and revolt. And yet Egypt does abide. There is a story in the Bible about Joseph, who is sold into slavery only to become the greatest advisor to the king – warning him as he does of seven years of prosperity to be followed by seven years of death. And the ancient Egyptians got to work. For this reason, Egypt does last – and just as in the Biblical days, modern Egyptians know that it is their lot to put their heads down and wait for the tribulations to be over; that the tourists are again venturing into the sands to see the Pharos, the Sphynx – to float in the Red Sea.
They know that wiping away anxiety is a task which requires a collective national effort. Which was what made our trip to Egypt so encouraging. It started with our Egypt Air flight, which was an hour late taking off from West Africa (shocker – and to no fault of Egypt Air I might add). Landing, we taxied and finally stopped, allowed to disembark onto one of those little busses. I looked at my watch – 10 minutes until our connecting flight to Sharm. It was 10:00pm; and I cursed silently under my breath. “No worry, you will make it!” the flight attendant said, and I just shrugged. Arriving in the terminal, a man with a badge was yelling “Sharm??” to those staggering through the door. “Yes!” I answered – and we were swept away. Ebola tracking (thanks again West Africa); visa purchase (all you need to do with a U.S. passport is purchase a $30 visa at one of the many banks); immigration; security; and rushing – 10 minutes, from airplane to airplane. For those who travel often, you know this is unheard of. All the while our badged minder slicing like a hot knife through lines and pushing our passports to the top of piles.
Sharm El Sheikh – there are many resorts, but we chose Sunrise Arabian Beach Resort. Anthony Bourdain I am not (though, apparently – and sadly – neither was he). I have no problem with an all-inclusive resort; cocktails on the beach and endless buffets of food. The resort was beautiful; entertainment and pools for my little boy; a spa for my wife; a gym for me. Snorkeling at the private beach, food that was quite good considering it was made for so many guests (sometimes resort food is sub-par, but this was excellent. The resort was probably about half full). “This is my best vacation ever!!” my little boy told me – filling the hole in my bank account to overflowing (it wasn’t much of a hole, Sharm is affordable these days). And how could it not be the best? Go-carting; submarines to look at the fish; swimming with dolphins; snorkeling; water slides? His beach vacation, in technicolor.
Incidentally, we also took advantage of some services. A dentist for me; my wife needed some ‘woman’s attention’ (none of your business, but yes she’s fine. How is it possible that West Africa, the size and population of the United States, has no decent clinic where a woman can ease a pressing concern?). Clean clinics, excellent service and friendly people – medical tourism is one of the reasons people come to Sharm. My only complaint was to not have taken advantage of the night-life – though Arabs start their gaiety at midnight, by then most of we westerners are long abed. Especially those of us with little boys who at the crack of dawn await with exuberant anticipation for the day’s program. But I digress.
Yes, Sharm is coming back. For a moment in time she was a hashtag: #NewYork (before social media was even a thing); #Bamako; #Brussels; #Istanbul; #JeSuisCharlie – #SharmElSheikh. Who has not suffered from the arbitrary evil of the jihadis? It’s what they want after all – poverty and prejudice in a mutually crippling spiral into extremism.
For Sharm, that moment extended as tourists panicked. But these things also fade into the past. There are more Arab tourists now (from Saudi and Jordan and Algeria and Lebanon). Soon the Russian flights are rumored to be returning (remember, it was a Russian airliner that ISIS knocked from the sky). The Brits; well Her Majesty’s government is still dithering on direct flights from Heathrow – to the dismay of both the Egyptians and the Brits who do not want the annoyance of a transfer in Cairo. But this is the year that Egypt turns the corner, it would appear. A land with that much too see cannot stay lost forever; and the surging tide of tourists brings money and understanding and rewards those seeking to build a better life for their families and their country.
We wish Egypt well and thank them for an amazing vacation! I sign off with this, #VisitEgypt. You won’t regret it.