(This is an old article which has been posted by request. My wife and I were in Egypt when the Iraq war started.)
Our intention was certainly not to go to Egypt; the worsening situation had steered us away from that idea, particularly the Red Sea area. We would instead go the Canary Isles. However when we tried to book, we found that everyone else who takes holidays at this time of year was also going to the Canary Isles. We desperately needed to get away, and it was whilst I was looking at holiday sites again that The Red Sea once more caught my eye. The price was unbelievable, two for the price of one, fully inclusive, 5 star hotel. The hotel was situated on the Gulf of Aqaba.* Israel (Eilat) would be just to our left a little way up the coast. This was too good to miss---we booked up with seven days to go.
Arriving at the airport we collected our tickets, booked our seats and cleared security, we then made our way through to departures. We both noticed it at the same time---it was quiet! not many people around. Were we in the correct place? Yes we were. The flight was called, we boarded the plane a new 737-400 and took our seats. I hate being kept waiting by late comers when ready to leave, so obviously did our pilot---the doors were slammed shut, and we taxied out to the runway. We had three seats between us; excellent, we could stretch out for the 5-hour flight. This plane also unusually had plenty of legroom. We enjoyed this flight. We also soon found out that we had not left any passengers---the plane was only half full.
The weather was superb for flying; we had fantastic views all the way. I took some excellent digital-camcorder shots of the snow covered Dolomites, and Venice. I then got some wonderful shots of Athens; it really is gorgeous from 40 thousand feet. We then passed over the Mediterranean and the Greek islands---breathtaking views. When we entered Egyptian airspace everything changed, we were now over the Sinai desert, and this was also beautiful in its own way. We landed at Taba in Egypt. This was also used as a military airport so security was very tight. I thought my camcorder was going to be confiscated, but it turned out they just wanted the details, model-serial numbers etc. There were armed police and soldiers everywhere. We got in our coach, which was about half full and set off for a most delightful drive down through the Taba mountain range to the Red Sea coast about 2,000 feet below. The temperature rose considerably on our descent. As we cleared the mountain pass we were stopped by a roadblock, yet more uniforms, and more guns. About an hour after leaving the airport we arrived at our hotel. Only a few people got off the bus. We checked in and were shown to our room. It was a superb room with a six-foot wide bed of luxurious comfort, and a balcony that looked across palm trees to the Gulf. We had to advance our watches by two hours and it was now dark, however we could clearly see the twinkling lights of coastal Jordan and Saudi over the water. The Border between the two countries was directly in line with our hotel. After a shower and a change of clothes we went for dinner. We thought we were in the wrong place, there being no one else in the restaurant---
We soon realised we were in fact in the right place, when a host of waiters descended upon us and we were invited to take a table. Have you ever experienced how extremely difficult it is to select a table when there are at least 40, and all of them available? We eventually selected one and were helped to our seats. Our water glasses were immediately filled with ice cool water, and we were asked what we would like to drink. We chose a white wine, it arrived speedily was cold and very acceptable; it was in fact Egyptian wine. There was always a nice soup or salad if required to start with, then at least four choices of main meal---fish, beef, lamb, and chicken were usually available cooked in various ways, they also did local food and Mexican dishes. The desserts were also superb with plenty of fresh fruit.
It was towards the end of our meal before we saw the next couple arrive in the restaurant.
We awoke early the next morning, opened the door to our balcony and were presented with a glorious view of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was slightly misty over the Red Sea and only just possible now to pick out the opposite side. We went for breakfast, would you believe---we were the only one’s there. Once again there was every thing one could possible want, all kinds of cereals, omelettes or fried eggs with mushrooms and tomato’s. Lots of different kind of bread and fruits, and it was all superb. The waiters were once more at hand with tea or coffee.
It was now about 8-30 am. The sun was hot enough to sit out and we left our room for a look round. I now saw that there was at least one other guest, I said good morning to a gentleman in the next block. We went down to the pool area and were offered two large fluffy towels, and then laid out on two sun beds with comfy mattresses on them. There was no one else to be seen. It was hot enough for just swimming costumes. The man I spoke to earlier now appeared with his wife; my wife and I struck up a conversation. After the usual small talk and comments on the lack of people, he told me he had just retired. Naturally I asked him what his work had been. He had in fact worked for the same company as me ‘Siemens’. He had also worked in the same division ‘Medical’. He had also worked there for over thirty years, I had also. When he told me his name I recognised it immediately. Although I had never met the guy we had worked only 100 miles apart for over thirty years, now we had met in a deserted hotel on the Red Sea in Egypt—none of us could believe it.
There were in fact about sixty people in the hotel; its capacity was seven hundred. Whilst we were there staff were being laid off, and the manager a Swiss guy called Conrad became very worried about the situation. Most of the staff were from Cairo, and many were heading back there. I went out running about 6-30 most mornings, and encountered wild dogs, herds of goats, and camels. I must have looked rough one morning, because a Bedouin offered me a ride back on his camel. I refused of course.
There was a jetty running from the beach about fifty yards out into the gulf. It was a floating jetty and was used as a starting point for scuba diving and snorkelling. It was also possible to view the lovely range of fishes from the jetty. We actually saw and filmed from the jetty---two different snakes, sea scorpions (look just like land scorpions) Lion-fish (beware of the barbs) and lots of different kinds of tropical fish. There was one particular fish about three foot long, and of the most glorious colours, who used to float around us as if to say ‘just look at me’ indeed a star performer… I bought some snorkelling gear, which is very cheap in Egypt, and went swimming down the coral reef. This was an amazing experience, and one never gives any thought to the dangerous creatures that are around, I honestly don’t think they bother if you just look at them.
One week after we got there, the war in Iraq started. We heard on the television that American submarines were operating in the Red Sea. We could by now clearly see Jordan only a few miles away across the Gulf. After Jordan of course is Iraq. You will now realise why the hotel was virtually empty. There was just one person who gave us a hard time and we made it clear we were not having it. This particular person was half-Canadian and half-Egyptian. A case of ‘large chip on shoulder’. Most of the Egyptian staff were perfectly okay although they were obviously worried about their jobs. We did hear aircraft noise across the gulf, and we knew there were riots in Cairo but apart from that there was nothing to tell us just how near we were to the war zone.
We went to buy souvenirs in the hotel shop one morning. The young man working there was from Cairo, he was in fact a geography undergraduate working there in his out of term time. He was charming guy with a great sense of humour, and he was eager to know our opinion on current affairs. We had some interesting discussions. The owner of the shop was apparently an Egyptian Christian; there are indeed many Christians in Egypt. On the shop counter was a book I at first took to be the Quran, but it turned out to be a Bible Printed in Arabic. I then told the young man in the shop that I could read Arabic He offered me the Book, which I opened, and started to translate. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form and darkness was---” 'Wow I am so impressed' he exclaimed 'that is amazing, there is just one thing though' he took the book from me and turned it over. I had remembered to read from right to left, but I had the book upside-down. I had been caught out again, but it gave us all a laugh.
We bought a number of items from the young student, one of which was a plaque made of soft leather with Arabic calligraphy lettering in gold leaf. He told us it was ‘The Lords Prayer’ we had no idea if it was, but it was really stunning so we bought it. It was certainly very unusual. We also bought a lovely papyrus scroll depicting an ancient Egyptian death and resurrection scene hand painted and with hieroglyphics. Among other things I bought was a Fez. I think we were his only customers and we felt a bit sorry for him because business was so bad. We never went far from the hotel complex because of the war situation, It would have been nice to visit Israel and other parts of Egypt, but clearly very silly at this time.
Because of the relatively few people staying at the hotel we got to know them all, and they were all very nice people. Our two weeks then were spent eating, drinking wine, and sipping ‘San Francisco’ cocktails (delicious), swimming in the large hotel pool, swimming and snorkelling in the Red Sea, watching fish from the jetty, and sunbathing in the beautiful sunshine. We did have one storm, when the jetty suffered some structural damage, (I got some superb film of this) but even then the sun still shone on us. We were sorry to leave Egypt, and returned to England in a half empty plane. Would we return? Yes we would, the Red Sea is a beautiful area with nice people. Hopefully though our return will be in happier circumstances.
* Aqaba. The destination of Lawrence of Arabia’s epic desert crossing.