After climbing Mt. Sinai I figured I’d spend a couple of days in Sharm El Sheikh. One thing I had to do was switch my 15-day Sinai only visa to the 30-day Egyptian tourist visa so I could visit the rest of the country… and I could only do this in the Sharm El Sheikh airport (when I landed I mistakenly got the free 15-day Sinai only visa as opposed to the other one). I’d heard good things about how fun “Sharm” was from others, and after a bit of relaxing in Dahab and the trip to, up and back from Mt. Sinai, I was looking forward to maybe letting loose a little bit (and maybe meeting some of the lovely russian girls known to frequent the place). Figuring out rides from St. Catherine’s to Dahab, and Dahab to Sharm went pretty smoothly… I arrived mid-afternoon on a Friday. First thing I notice… it’s hot… much, much hotter than Dahab despite only being about 100 kilometers away. Second, it’s a bit spread out… there are three main tourist areas with Naama Bay being the most popular, but each one is about a ten minute cab ride from the others. After going to the seemingly obligatory visit to see my driver’s friend’s house for rent, I had him drop me off in Naama Bay so I could find a hotel… and… well… let’s just say it was a bit of a shock for me. Dahab, despite being touristy, still somehow manages to have an Egyptian feel to it… Sharm El Sheikh on the other hand, feels like a suburban shopping mall in an upscale, but not too upscale, American suburb.. Chili’s, Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Friday’s… all mixed in with what appeared to be approximately one-million hookah/shisha cafes and souvenir shops (the big three of egyptian souvenir shops are papyrus, oils and clothes). Well… okay I thought… still gotta go find some hotels. Naama Bay is much, much bigger than Dahab was, and after about 10 minutes of wandering around in the hot sun, I thought the better of it and sat down in a wifi cafe to look up places and prices online. Shock #2 (although I should have expected this)… shit was expensive… even the dodgier budget hotels were in the 250 Egyptian Pounds per night range… mind you I’m coming from Dahab and Mt. Sinai where nice rooms were 50-80 Egyptian Pounds. I found a couple of places in what appeared to be decent locations, checked them out, and picked the one that was closest to the beach and what appeared to be the main area to go out. I settled in, got some writing and e-mailing done and got ready to go explore at night.
Shock #3… very, very aggressive and pushy sellers. I figured I was used to these guys from Dahab… but Dahab has nothing on Sharm El Sheikh… now I like talking to people, so I give these guys some conversation to see what they have to say if I’m just wandering around, but these guys will try to physically drag you into their stores… and if you did get pulled in you would hear some tales and see some sales tactics that would make the best used car salesman in America blush. My favorite was a guy who said he was an artist and he had just opened up his own shop (I think that sounds pretty cool and would be something I’d like to see), after some persuasion I agreed to go see it… and outside he introduced me to his dad, who said he spent 6 years in America and was always glad to meet Americans in Sharm El Sheikh (there’s not very many here… a common question was why don’t americans come to Sharm). When I asked where he lived in America he named a town in Iowa that I’d never heard of… I asked him what it was near… and listed all the major cities I know (seriously… how many do you know?), but he looked a bit confused and switched the topic back to his son (should have been a clue right there, but he was actually very smooth about it). He said come on in and see my son’s “gallery”… it just opened tonight… sit and have some tea with me (the tea gambit/egyptian hospitality thing is common from these guys and something I’d seen before in Dahab). So, we head towards the store… first thing, the windows are covered in newspaper… hmmm… well, it’s new right…maybe he opened in a rush for the weekend? And then we go in the shop and… and… and… it’s a papyrus store. By papyrus, I mean pictures painted on sheets of papyrus… and not original pictures… the same fucking pictures I’ve seen in every single papyrus store in Egypt so far (again, there are a million of these stores around). You’re son’s an artist…? What town in Iowa did you say you lived in…? We sit down and brings me tea… and he says because I’m an American he’s going to do something special for me… he’s going to have his son write my family’s names in Arabic script on a papyrus sheet… for free of course. He writes down my family’s names and hands the paper to his son who exits the store. He asks me to look around and asks which ones I like… I know where this is going… but I point to one and say this is nice… so he sits me down and brings out a copy (original artwork right?), actually several copies, as I have three sizes to choose from. I said I would never get anything to big to carry around in my bag, so he hands me the small one. He then hands me a huge stack of small prints and asks if I see anything else I like… I say I’m not going to buy anything and he says to just flip through them and see what’s nice. Alright… I thumb through them and pull out two that look pretty cool. He takes the three I like and then starts going through the prices… and how he can get me a special deal… and would I like some more tea… and how am I liking Egypt… and where do I have plans to go… and he can make me a good deal on car rides if I need them… and I should take his card… but I can do that after we take care of the “art”… and on and on and on. I remain firm and tell him I’m not going to buy anything and that’s when he pulls out all the stops… going into how it would be bad luck to refuse him on his son’s stores opening nigh,t and that he’s making a special deal for me because I’m American, and blah blah blah blah blah. I say I’m not going to buy anything again, so he turns sideways in his chair and just stares at the wall… and now I’m kind of pissed off because it has dawned upon me that this is a total scam… so I just sit there and start asking him personal questions. He doesn’t answer… just sits there in silence looking off at the wall… so I just sit there in silence a bit longer (somewhere around 45 seconds) just to make him more uncomfortable. I ask him for his card because maybe I could use a ride to Cairo at some point… silence… then I ask him about my “free” gift just to needle him… more silence, so I get up and leave. Outside I see his “son”, who immediately turns around and stares off into space as I walk out… whereupon I immediately here another guy begin with the standard hey…where are you from opener? Fucking Egypt… dealing with these people just sucks. Now I report this incident because a) I feel like I at least needled him a little bit (believe me, I lost way more than I won… not in the sense that I bought crap I didn’t want… but in the sense of losing time when you’re actually trying to do/buy something you want) and b) it’s very typical here… I couldn’t walk down the street for more than 5 seconds without a hey, where you from coming at me.
So I walk around a bit at night… have a drink, smoke some shisha, talk to a few people… but for a big resort type place Sharm is pretty dead. There’s a lot of Egyptians out and about, but Egyptians go out in family groups… and they like to sit in open air cafes and smoke shisha… and that’s pretty much it. They don’t party… they don’t do much but sit there really… so there’s like 75% of the population I’m not going to be speaking with. The rest of the tourists are mostly Russian families… again, all going out as a family… I resort to asking the guys pushing hashish on me where the parties are (I figure the guys selling drugs should know what’s going on) and they mention the two large nightclubs (there are two Ibiza spin-off clubs)… and, of course, note that if I want tickets they can get me a special rate (sure you can). I head by the clubs at midnight and just watch the door for about 10 minutes… nobody going in. There’s just nothing going on… there’s lots of people walking around, but apparently not the kind that actually go into places to socialize… I chalk it up to it being a Friday (Friday is the Islamic Sunday) and head home. I get up the next day figuring I’d hit the beach and get some sun. Shock #4… all the beaches are private. I can get a ticket from my hotel to hit my hotel’s beach, which I do… but of course since I’m staying in a budget hotel their section of beach sucks. There are a couple of private beaches where I can buy a bed (this is not counting what may be accomplishable by bribing somebody), but there’s nobody really at any of those beaches anyhow. Ouch… whatever… I get some sun, swim a bit and eat some good food. Going out again the next night… same thing… it’s just dead. I talk to a couple of people… but no good connections. The next day I got my visa sorted at the airport and hit the beach for an hour or so… I figured I’d take a cab over to the other part of town which is also supposed to be fun… but again, nothing. I come back, cancel the other night I booked at the hotel and got on a bus for Cairo the following morning.
The only things I can say positively about Sharm El Sheikh were that it is likely very fun if it’s packed with people (height of summer season) and that it’s clean (for Egypt). Other than that, tacky buildings that make it look like an American shopping mall, check… inflated western prices for drinks/food/nightlife in Egypt, check… beach location based upon how nice your hotel is, check… Multitude of non-partying Egyptians, check. Suffice to say that I doubt I would come back here. Onto Cairo…