A few years ago, I found I had some extra money, an occurrence as rare as the appearance of Halley’s Comet and lasting a fraction of the time. I was feeling in need of a break so decided to book a week-long, last-minute package holiday. I went into the travel agents and asked what was available and a young thing with hair that made me think of a chickens arse recommended Sharm El Sheikh. The hair really should have warned me.
I got it cheap, or it would have been cheap if I had been two people but as I am only one I had to pay the Single Punishme…ahem Supplement, as if living in a society designed for couples and children, putting up with comments like “Its alright for you and your stress-free life!” from Princess Mummies with husband-in-harness and dealing with large spiders and bumps in the night weren’t enough punishment.
The upside is that I don’t have to change my underwear too much though the money I save on knickers would hardly get me on the bus to Waterford(they’d kick me off at Katie Reilly’s), still, I figured, to hell with it. All I wanted to do was lie down for a week. I bought myself a couple of rings with which to fend off eager Egyptians boys and set off.
An intrepid friend of mine was in Sharm(as old hands call it) 20 years ago. At that time there were only tents on the beach. Now the coast is a nondescript road of identi-kit all-you-can-eat-hotels. I ended up in a place called the Coral Sea. My room was huge, tiled for hosing down and extremely uncomfortable. There was a jacuzzi bath on the terrace which looked out onto a well used path. I spent the first night trying to fill it but even with the help of a man I found behind a bush(there were a lot of gardeners about)there was just wasn’t enough water in the place to fill the thing. Damn you Moses, I know you had something to do with it.
The food and drink were all in with the price. There were a couple of pools and a beach with a jetty. After 3 days I began to go off my head. The pools were filled with screaming children and the nightclubs pounded out music until three am. I was starting see how couples with children sometimes get fraught. You call this a HOLIDAY?
They did try to vary the dining experience by having a different theme each night but for some reason seeing Egyptians dressed as Mexicans wrecked my head. Why it should be stranger than seeing white people dressed as Mexicans I don’t know, but of course one rarely sees anyone dressed as a Mexican these days.
ASIDE:I did personally, as a child, dress as a Mexican for a Feile Na Scoileanna(Festival of Schools)for reasons lost in the mists of time. I had a sombrero and poncho and lots of brown make up. I even loaned a sombrero to Antoinette O’Hanlon. We were a two sombrero family. I was fortunate, if a little odd as a child
The beach had all the character of a breeze block and the jetty was short. At least the water was clear so you could see the sea snakes. I did take a long stroll along the beach picking up nice pieces of coral to bring home.
Now I bet a lot of you know, as if it was engraved on your chromosomes, that apparently you cannot bring coral out of Egypt. All my friends, as they told me later, somehow just know this the same way they know their names or not to crap in public. I did not know this or even suspect it. If I was trying to bring live coral home I could see how there would be a problem. Dead stuff?No. I remained blissfully unaware of the danger of my innocent (and cheap)souvenir gathering and carried on regardless.
Despite what people will tell you, I am not the kind of person to go off my head for long. The only entertainment I had up until now was chatting with Saber in the Egyptian Picture shop, regaling him with stories of my two marvellous and entirely imaginary children left at home with my adoring husband. Saber, in turn, put in an order for a woman with me, swearing he would treat her in an extremely western manner. I promised to send him one immediately on my return. I assume she is well, no news is good news as they say.
Still, I decided some distractions were in order. I booked myself onto an overnight trek up Mount Sinai, after all, it wasn’t like I was getting any sleep. I had long wanted to visit Sinai as it features in a favourite novel of mine. You won’t have heard of the author as she is only read by mad old people who live in castles on lochs or in small picturesque cottages in Devon. Suffice to say I was looking forward to it.
First though I decided to go horse-riding. Why I decided to do this I don’t know. I suspect I initially had a romantic idea of me galloping through the desert with some swarthy sheikh. I was probably wearing a red chiffon scarf and jodphurs. Then I realised that, as I can’t ride, it would be nicer to visualise myself with a group of nice but equally incompetent people plodding away in the desert with me on a small and docile pony. This I duly did.
Unfortunately, in this case, the visualisation didn’t work very well. I think my two fantasies got a little mixed up and I ended being the incompetent one sitting up on a large arabian style horse with, not one, but two swarthy sheikh like beings to accompany me, only one horse between them. There was no red scarf.
The first part went surprisingly OK, most of it being through building sites of new hotels and the horse and one of my companions had to walk. After about three-quarters of an hour we reached some vaguely deserty looking place and the most ill-favoured looking chap, all squinty and rat-like, asked if I would like a rest. As my legs were already aching I eagerly got off the horse and sat down on a rock at which point he fell to his knees grabbed my thighs and asked would I like him to massage them for me.
I felt strangely unthreatened by all this as somehow it seemed he was making a pass at me because that was what was expected of him. I would also have to say it wasn’t a very enthusiastic pass. I was not, in short, convinced. I removed his hands and politely declined.
I was thankfully ignored for the rest of the excursion. One of the sheikhs galloped off into the distance on his horse and the other tried to make my horse gallop after it. This, from my point of view, was not going to happen. My horse was very determined that it was. After a long struggle I won the day but ended the trip in a lot of pain. I did give the boys a small tip though, for making an effort.
A few days after this was the Sinai trip which was a much more satisfying venture. I was picked up at the hotel in the evening and joined a group of maybe 10 other people from various hotels and our guide, Ashraf, a very modern young Egyptian. Ashraf immediately wanted to know where my male companion was so I blithely invented a sick one back in the hotel room. So easily did these lies trip from my lips that I felt quite bad for the poor dear left behind with a dose of the shits.
The drive to Sinai took a few hours even though the mini-van was driven at high-speed. It took me a while to figure out that we weren’t on a two-lane high way and for most part of the trip we were on the wrong side of the road. I shut my eyes and let the manic Egyptian music playing tinnily on the radio soothe my nerves.
We arrived at St. Katherine’s Monastery at the foot of Sinai in the dark where we met with a second guide, a Bedouin. When travelling in The Sinai it is a rule that any groups or individuals must always employ a Bedouin, in this way they manage to survive. Ours was a lithe young goat like creature dressed in a track suit and tea towel.
It was a wonderful walk up the mountain. The stars were out, the mountains shadowy all around and occasionally a bedouin would emerge out of the dark with a camel or two asking if anyone wanted a ride, which, if you had an imagination, added to the romance of the whole venture.
The going got a little tougher near the top and a Liverpudlian member of our group kept likening the rock formations to sastrugi. For those less educated amongst you they are long wavelike ridges of snow, formed by the wind. He had recently experienced sastrugi in Greenland, which he was eager to share this with us, offering to tell us exactly what sastrugi were. Unfortunately for him, I knew already and no-one else was interested so he eventually lapsed into a sad silence.
Ashraf kept me company for most of the climb, undeterred by my unfortunate sickly boyfriend. The whole thing bored the hell out of him and he spent most of the climb complaining. He climbed Sinai with a group every Tuesday, he explained, when he would rather be in a night club.
I loved it. We reached the top before dawn and it was utterly freezing even thought there were blankets to rent. We waited for the dawn. The light spread slowly all around, revealing huge, silent rocky mountains in hues of pink , purple, sandstone. Only as the sun rose did I realise how many hundreds of people were there but still the silence was immense. It seemed to come off the desert in waves. Thousands of years of silence. It was one of the most wonderful things I have ever experienced. Even though the daylight revealed the numerous stalls and a rickety toilet nothing could take away from the silence. I would heartily recommend it.
I was full of my old beans on the way back down and practically ran the whole way with the goat like bedouin leaping worriedly around the rocks after me. It was cold at first but the day warmed up and soon I was baking hot. I was the first to reach St Katherine’s. When the rest arrived, we toured the monastery which was milling with pilgrims and tourists alike, many of whom were kissing a lot of the icons which were wet with spittle. Yucks. We saw the Burning Bush(no longer burning).
It was a nice group of people and I enjoyed the trip. The drive home was the same manic experience as before but we arrived alive.
Two days later I was at the airport. It was utterly packed with queues everywhere. I was unconcerned though and was eager to get home, in my bag at my feet there were eight nice pieces of coral. Suddenly from out of the crowd I hear a shout. “WHERE IS YOUR BOYFRIEND?!!!” and Ashraf, dressed every snazzily in a pink shirt and black suit tumbled out of the crowd. “WHERE IS YOUR BOYFRIEND?!!!”. He was outraged. I explained that my boyfriend was actually sick back home in Ireland in a hotel. Not here in a hotel. Silly. But I could see he didn’t believe me and he disappeared in to the crowd in a huff ending one of the longest relationships of my life. I felt strangely unmoved.
A while later I was through security. Or so I thought. As my bag travelled through the operator stopped the conveyor. He said something about coral. Why yes I said, I stayed in the Coral Sea. How on earth did he know that and wasn’t everyone very friendly?
The next I knew I was being hauled aside by a giant soldier who looked very like Saddam Hussein, all bristly moustache and swathed in guns and man-stuff. “CORAL!”he shouted, probably believing, like my mother, that shouting at foreigners helps them understand you better. “IN YOUR BAG!!”
Oh THAT coral. I was beginning to realise I might be in a little trouble. I understood somehow that my most favourite response, getting bolshie, was probably the wrong move. All I could do was stand and stare at him with pretended incomprehension on my face while my brain ran though my options.
Suddenly, he presented me with a way out. “WHERE IS YOUR HUSBAND!!”he yelled at me, sick of trying to deal with mere chattel. “WHERE IS YOUR HUSBAND!”and with that I knew what to do.
Occasionally, I have found that bursting into tears, when properly done(around a nervous man) can actually work quite nicely. Years ago, after I made a massive screw up at work, the same screw-up at that had gotten my predecessor fired, I avoided the chop with a well placed bout of weeping. But what was Egyptian equivalent of weeping?And I knew.
I looked deep inside myself and gathered everything I could. The smug marrieds, the suspicious girlfriends, the expensive lone holidays, the mother and child parking(surely they should be furthest away from the Supermarket for the working off of baby fat?), the rude questions, the unshared bills, the funny looks at work, the family packs of everything, the take-out meals, the crumbs of friendship from other people’s tables, the long evenings alone and I bunched them all together and clenching my fists to my screwed up face, I threw it all into one massive, eastern-type wail which I let rip across the crowded concourse..
“I HAVE NO HUSBAND!!!!!!!!”
Readers, I was on that plane with my bag containing eight pieces of coral before you could say “WHERE IS YOUR BOYFRIEND!”.