Trouble on the Border
We left our taxi driver and he promise to wait for half an hour in case we were denied entry - optimistic thinking on his part - and set off down the path to the Jordanian border control. It was the single most relaxed border I'd ever crossed, manned by two people. The first one gave our bags a cursory glance-search and he then pointed to 'door 7' where his wingman was waiting with the stamp already out. He took one look, bang-bang stamp-stamp, asked (for some reason) if we were going to Israel and then sent us on our way. Arriving, the differences between the borders were pretty clear - men crawling all over the place in aviators, trainers and wielding M4s, officers stationed at every point indicating where you should go next, there were even pavements with arrows drawn on and pedestrian crossings on the road. We went in to the building and there were propaganda posters all over the place, Clinton with various ex-Presidents and leaders all smiling together. We were pointed to the passport office. Grand, we thought, stamp and go. Not so, of course, we had to wait for ages after having given in our passports, sitting down whilst counting out our shekels and watching the time go by. After about twenty minutes, we were both hauled up and had to go through a huge interview - what's your father's name, what's your grandfather's name (which one? - glower), phone number, email address, why did you go to Syria so many times, do you know anyone in Syria? Who did you stay with? Talk me through your entire trip... and so on. Exhausted, we sat down only to wait again for an hour or so whilst one man in his curtained office kept our passports, obviously seeing what he could find when putting 'Kit Weaver' into Google, or whether my phone number is ex-directory and so forth. At long last he decided we weren't national threats and so we were allowed through, tentatively watched by the M4-toting lad brigade.
We picked up a taxi, and typical, it was the Shabbat, so we had to pay more to get 10 minutes away to the next border. The driver seemed saddened that on our first visit to Israel we were heading straight through, and announced that Jordan was "like Gaza" before snickering. The short drive through Israel was pretty interesting, it was only Eilat but it certainly gave off some as yet inexplicable feeling. Maybe it was just relief in road organisation after months of hecticity, or perhaps the stunning yet incredibly cold girls who were manning the border control and exchange desk, I can't pin it down. Either way, I'm pretty excited to go back there. We arrived at the next border paid a huge exit tax - apparently, it would have been cheaper to wait and get the ferry. Never mind, we were nearly there, so we plodded through to the Egyptian end.
There was even more of a difference here than before, it was absolutely crazy! The place was absolutely bustling full with confused tourists milling around, about one or two guards in little shack-offices dressed in deeply colonial uniforms and guys trying to sell us 'travel agents letters' for $50. We went straight in and walked past the bag scanning and metal detector security post as nobody was manning it, yet all the tourists were seemingly going through the motions anyway as if hoping to make the system more organised by sorting it out themselves on the receiving end. We went to the 'bank' to get our visas, $15 dollars we'd be told, and were jumped by one of those travel-agent-$50-jokers. No thanks, we know the deal, I'm not giving you anything. So back to the bank and he tells us that unless we have a visa in advance, we have to have a tour guide, and considering we're traveling alone we can get the equivalent for just $50 from one of these guys. Oh no, not government sponsored corruption, come on, this is 2010. So, a little frustrated and still swatting away the swarm of these profiteer-merchants, we head to the head officer who was stamping away and barge in front of a bunch of miffed French tourists - the British innate queuing desire had being torn out long ago - and start demanding to know what was going on, so he slowly explains to us that we need a letter, and it's only $50, and without it we can't get in. The visa costs $15, we snarl, not $65, this is a joke. We look for people higher up than the man in the office-shack but apparently there were none, so we localise it and start harassing the guys trying to sell us the letters, swearing in Arabic (half of my vocabulary is unusable until occasions like this, when it becomes masterful) and generally mouthing our dislike for such an openly corrupt system. Well, he suggests, you can go back to Eilat, stay the night (as it of course was still Shabbat, everything remains closed until Sunday) and then get a visa, pay the exit tax again, and then come here again and not pay $50, but he reckons it will be cheaper for us to just pay now. We stomped about and tore out our hair to find a way out of this totally unseen corruption-net we'd found ourselves in but there was no obvious escape except to succumb and pay. But of course, we didn't have enough dollars so we pay the ATM to let us take money out there, realise that 200 EGP is about $30 and therefore not enough so pay again to let us take out more, then be scammed on exchange rate to the $50 for the letter which we patently do not need anyway. We were raging.
Out we get, rehearsing our grievances once again with Egypt, and a man pops up and offers to take us to Dahab for just 100 each. NO we snarl, I'll give you 20 and not a fucking penny more! Several more come up and start arguing amongst themselves, so we kept it up as long as possible for entertainment's sake by baiting them with various loaded questions about distances and petrol costs and so on, until the original guy pipes up that they apparently have formed some sort of cartel and they will all only take us for 100 each. And if that wasn't enough, a kilometer up the road we get stopped to pay 'entry tax', as described on some makeshift sign by some makeshift policeman. No look, it says vehicle 35, we're in a vehicle so 35 it is, get the driver to pay. No, the policeman says, tapping his holster surreptitiously, its 35 for the vehicle AND 75 for each passenger. The steam from our ears nearly fogged up the windows, as we worked out how much more expensive it was to come this way round rather than come by ferry. Well, about 150km later and we arrive in Dahab, ready for the paradise that we'd heard so much about, and the driver asks for a tip. No chance.
Well, we calmed down quite a lot after a few days in Dahab, which turned out to be somewhat paradisiacal after all. 30 EGP for a night at the hostel, which is around $5, right on the seafront. The whole town, though incredibly touristic, is quite cool, comprised mainly of tat shops, restaurants and dive schools. By this time, about 10 days later, we know most of the restaurant proprietors and know our favourites, and have singled out one (El Mundo) for fun and games, constantly passing him by with promises of 'later, later' until he's finally cracked and now just glowers as we walk by. The sun here is fantastic, and being touristic it is always very liberal, meaning that beer is aplenty and it is perfectly normal to walk around barefoot in nothing but board shorts. We spent several days just sitting back and relaxing by the sea, tanning and reading and generally lounging around to make up for the long break from lounging we'd experienced since Talal. We looked around for a dive school who could train us and came across a place called Octopus World, classic name, and the Canadian guy who runs the joint named Bob won us over before we had a chance to even look at the other places so on a cursory walk up and down looking at the outside of other places we took a view and just went back. We swiftly got gear together and read the typically condescending manual, before taking to the water the next day. It was incredible, the combination of weightlessness and underwater breathing, as well as the proximity to coral and tropical fish, but the first dive was made up of just drills which we nailed, along with the rest, to prompt Bob to squeal with delight underwater and call us naturals. We finished the course pretty quickly and had our pictures taken for the photo-IDs (stash, of course) whilst chanting 'qualified, qualified'.
After a day off where we slept heavily after several 9am starts and did some binge reading, I decided to carry on and do the advanced, whilst BJ was to do some kiteboarding as we'd found a place that rented out gear. Agreed on a price with Bob, set off for a dive and had a bit of ear trouble so only did the one dive in the day, followed by a pub quiz in the evening which our dive school won, of course. The next day I went back, excited to be carrying on and free of the trouble but of course it began again - I aborted the dive and went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with 'otitic barotrauma' - that is to say, too congested to equalise the air in the ear so the sinus wall breaks in a body-sponsored safety measure, filling the cavity with blood which then flows freely from the nose. Medicine prescribed, diving banned for 5 days. Gah, well, to Cairo tomorrow and then back for the course!