Dahab, Egypt: Incense And Squirt Bottles

We arrived in Dahab after a long 18 hour overnight bus ride from Luxor and the difference between this seaside scuba haven and the rest of Egypt was immediately apparent. The sea breeze was a welcome respite from the dry desert heat, the men wore T-shirts, shorts and sandals instead of dark-colored robes and skull caps and for the first time we met a woman who was actually in charge of something. Dahab sits on the Gulf of Aqaba directly across from Saudi Arabia and is a laid back corner of Egypt, a virtual paradise…except for the flies and the cats.

We knew that we wanted to have our kids get their scuba diving certification while near the Red Sea but we had to decide between the European tourist hotspot of Sharm el-Sheik and smaller Dahab. Dahab was the easy choice -- it was less touristy, less costly and more laid back – and we set up a dive course for the kids beforehand. While the kids went off to their daily lessons, Mom and Dad each prepared to cross an item off their respective bucket lists: my wife wanted to dive “The Blue Hole” (“The World’s Most Dangerous Diving Site”) and I wanted to visit Petra in nearby Jordan.

Dahab is a small town located on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. When we arrived by bus, a smiling Hosni Mubarak waved to us from a large billbord in the desert that said "Welcome to Dahab." Formerly a Bedouin fishing village, located approximately 50 miles northeast of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab is considered one of the Sinai’s most treasured diving destinations. Following the Six Day War, the town was occupied by Israel and is known as Di-Zahav, a place mentioned in the Bible as one of the stations for the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt. The Sinai was restored to Egyptian rule in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in 1982.

These days tourists are flocking to Dahab for its warm weather, clear waters and excellent diving. It is a paradise with the two exceptions mentioned in the first paragraph. I remember visiting the Balinese town of Ubud 24 years ago, a town with a reputation as a cultural and artistic center set amongst beautiful rice terraces in the center of Bali. I also remember that the town, for all its beauty and art, was plagued by dogs: dogs digging through garbage, dogs prowling the streets and dogs barking all night. The Balinese just shrugged and said that “Even paradise needs balance.” Perhaps that’s why Dahab needs the flies and cats. Sit down to breakfast or lunch and as soon as the food is set at your table, the flies are everywhere. Kick back on your cushions for dinner and cats will arrive with your meal. In Ubud I never walked anywhere without a large stick for fending off any aggressive dogs and likewise, Dahab has its unique solutions to the fly and cat problem: incense and squirt bottles. The waiters at the seaside cafes bring several smoking sticks of incense with every meal, strategically placed around the table, creating a forcefield that keeps many of the flies away. While occasionally you inhale some frankincense while eating, it does seem to keep the majority of the flies away. At dinner, waiters bring you squirt bottles to keep the cats away from your food; after every few bites you can perfect your aim by hitting a feline between the eyes. Our kids loved the target practice and within minutes water was flying everywhere. After a few minutes we had to insist that they hand over the bottles. Like the incense for the flies, the squirt bottles kept the cats mostly at bay.

Despite these twin nuisances, Dahab was a peaceful and enjoyable stay for us. Our point of contact for our kids’ diving was Hanan, who very competently dealt with all our questions and concerns. Aside from a female doctor working in a Cairo pharmacy, all businesses we'd seen were run and staffed by men and we had virtually no interaction with women. Hanan was from Cairo and moved to Dahab with her husband several years back when she got married. She was drawn to Dahab for the same reasons that tourists love it. If you haven’t been to Dahab, I suggest that you plan a trip there. Just don’t forget the incense and squirt bottles.

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