Travels in Hurghada, Egypt - Part 2

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Sekala possesses certain etheral qualities soon after the sunset. Walking through it on narrow sidewalks, yard after yard of them clattered with hookas, spice sacks and tapestries, as if imminence of an earthquake compels shopkeepers to leave their utensils outside for preservation, and casting a glance on unfinished hulls of concrete buildings that now and then heave into view as one proceeds to explore the place, brings a feel of the utter fragility and surrealism to the whole area. The bustle you see around you occurs not in the here and now, but in a bout of déjà vu at some point in the past, while the eternal springy breeze of the place wafts in the potent evocation of scenery of days gone by, such as one can see on ghoulish early Victorian engravings of city life. Bleating horns of passenger vans share in this vision and make it what it is: a deliriously happy and precarious pipe-dream.

The illiteracy rate remains high in Egypt. As many as 40% of people can neither read. nor write. Government corruption is rampant, and problems innumerable. 22 percent of Egyptians can't reach the breadline. All this is important in order to understand why the native people of Hurghada have become a population of caterers. Essentially, Hurghada is two worlds in one. The glitter of seaside resorts that flank both sides of the Hurghada centre is essentially a smokescreen behind which lies the tightly-packed squalor of those Sekala quarters where hotel caterers live. Basic salary for room-cleaners appears to be in the region of $30, give or take. The administrators of the hospitality industry, such as receptionists and others, earn a bit more like $50-150.

Herein lies the explanation as to why everything is so fabulously cheap in the bric-a-brack shops of Hurghada. Most of the supermarkets are run on the fixed-price footing and their prices are representative of the least common purchasing power denominator; while on the other hand, trinket shops jostle and tread one another on the toes. There is more of them than you can imagine, probably more than in other popular tourist destinations of the East. So their terms are most competitive, provided of course that you can haggle over the price well enough.

Necessity is the best teacher in the art of haggling, and a few bashful blunders of those tourists inexperienced in it will urge them to get hang of it in the best manner and taste imaginable. Tactics vary as to their efficiency, but one that can be described as having a good effect is as follows: walk in to the shop briskly, aim at a thing you want to buy, snatch it up indolently, approach the shopkeeper, who will no doubt be anxiously eyeing your every manoeuvre and languidly inquire the price of him. Press his hand warmly and in your other hand grasp the item, saying how fine it suits you. Then, and here we come to the most important part of all procurement operation, spot a defect of any nature in whatever constitutes the object of the bargain and ostentatiously draw the attention of the shopkeeper. Nothing is perfect in the world, so finding the blemish is never a problem in all the mementos on offer. Whereupon you name your terms, never allowing the cash out of sight.

For all their outward hospitality, the Arabic psyche seems to be prodigiously immune to any outlandish influence. So if you think that it will be no problem to catch up with current news in print or have something to read in Hurghada, you are on the erring side. In fact, there are only two places where foreign magazines can be bought. Finding them is a Holmesian task, one that can lead to many different places — mostly to Sekala. But one can be assured that apart from Arabic broadsheets energetically peddled by street-boys or laid upon a dusty kerb-side for display, nothing is obtainable in those quarters. Shouting street-boys are a landmark not unprominent in evening Hurghada. One of them kindly offered me a hand in my crusade for a newspaper in Sekala. As we walked through the maze of side-streets, getting progressively less populous and shadier for want of garish street-lighting, our conversation turned from a "how nice it is here, and where is my promised newspaper?" agenda to more oblique topics of why I consider kaljan puffs to be befuddling, all that culminating in the offer of "them rooms", that I gently declined. I twigged that it was high time to terminate my wild goose chase. After all, Arab traders are subtler in their marketing strategies than tourists with their easily-detectable gimmicks tend to think.

Believe it or not, finding a newspaper is a labor of days, not of hours. On the next day, the blazing sun now setting, I started out afresh in my crusade for the paper, which led me through a stretch of a desolate sidewalk of the crescent now and then littered with unattended rubbish skips. My crusade ended on the doorsteps of the Marriott hotel, but not before the "battle" with security gentlemen, my belligerent stance manifested by the fact that I was angrily swishing an old paper in their face and going through the mantra of "new newspaper... newspaper shop". At length, it dawned upon them that I was soliciting for admittance to the newsagent's. I got my prize in the end: The Economist, just as glossy, instructive, respectable and misleading as ever.

Beauty abounds in Hurghada. The Red Sea is the pride of the place. The area itself has been turbulent throughout its history, and more so after the Suez Canal was opened for traffic in 1869, on scale never before seen. Though most ships passing through it were British, the country initially had no shareholding in the enterprise. Britain was eventually hooked by its imperial ambition, promising a retreat from the land 66 times over the forty years following 1883-1885 occupation. Though Egypt became a member of the League of Nations in 1930, the Canal was still firmly under British control and it was not until the Suez crisis of 1956 that Modern Egypt came into its own. One hardly is able to respect a guest who overstayed his welcome by so many promises of departure. Controversially, from my utterly subjective experience on the ground, British visitors even now are not warmly welcomed in Hurghada (though I am aware that Egyptian holidays are becoming more and more popular in Britain and that things are changing).

I undertook a series of exercises whereby in an attempt to estimate fair market prices for a number of trinkets on display in Hurghada, I made a point of going into souvenir shops in various parts of Sekala, pretending to be hailing from a different part of Europe than that in which I have pleasure to live. The natural assumption on my entry to those shops as a rule being that I am Russian, which is true. And on that assumption I went in for bargaining straight away, though on some occasions I tried to establish myself as a British resident or a Finn or as a citizen of a former Soviet bloc country. While British, it was hardly ever possible to bargain prices further down. Crude as this test was, it illustrates the variety of pursuits one can indulge in so vast a merchant town as this.

I have not seen British planes in the Hurghada Airport, and my guess is that 70% of flights thence are to Russia, while the rest are shared by planes bound to Germany, France or Eastern Europe.

The beaches of Hurghada are for the most part not segregated, if only by an occasional pier or groyene that makes climbing or wading around it an amusing experience. They are best to be seen and promenaded in the light of a setting sun, when for a brief hour the thirsty yellowness of sand is visibly infused with the veil of slanting sunlight, not unlike the color of a red-hot poker. By now it is near-dusk, so the color-scheme is inherently misleading and a revitalizing breeze brings much desired chill in your face. Sun beds are depopulated and the packed-like-sardine feeling of the beach which is the order of mid-day is not hurting the senses. The Red Sea is not restless like its bigger neighbor and the susurration of the surf is barely perceptible, but a distant sound of music and traffic is sure to command the rhythm of quietness — with hotel jostling hotel, civilization is never far away.

The Red Sea is very placid and welcoming indeed. The beaches are sandy and even in November the water temperature never drops below 25 C. I believe that balmy weather remains unchanging throughout winter, before it gets unbearingly hot with the onset of summer days. If you cast your eye across the water, distant specks of land on the horizon assail the eye (you can even see a pyramid there!).

It is not a vision or mirage. My first explanation of the fact — that the Red Sea, by virtue of its oblong shape, was just a natural adjunct to the Suez Canal — belied my rudimentary knowledge of the geography of that part of the world. It turns out that coastal areas of the Sea are prodigiously shallow, so that even passenger ships are not allowed to enter the waters and undulations of the seabed .This is the cause of an archipelago of sand islands at a distance easily mistakable for the opposite shore of the Sea. One can even take a day trip to those isles; you will travel on a whimsically-named motor yacht among a dozen other tourists. No fishing is allowed because the area is a protected wildlife sanctuary, but lunch is served onboard.

Though the seabed is sand for many miles ahead, it is interspersed with numerous coral reefs, some of them so close to the shore that one can reach there by swimming. It is a miraculous realm teeming with sea life. While the tops of many reefs are abundantly covered with water 6-10 feet deep so that it is safe enough to float over them, what a density of fish population is to be found there! They are congregated as densely as people in a square, and just as sociable: indeed, some tourists attempt to feed fishes with bread from their hands or stroke them while swimming over the reefs!

You do not even need SCUBA equipment for diving — a snorkel and mask will be enough. Reef swimming is the primary diversion and activity on isle-bound yacht-trips. Reefs tend to lie close to each other — a conglomerate of a dozen reefs is not a rarity. These can be likened to a small town, where each reef is a house in its own right and the space between reefs is full of the travellers of various nautical species and people of many creeds peacefully rubbing shoulders together. No ammount of superlatives will suffice to describe bliss as harmonious as that, the Red Sea being the main reason why I set down my encounter with Hurghada on paper in the first place.

Egypt seems to be stuck on the timeline. Square-shaped brown metallic Peugeot bangers, copiously employed as taxis on the streets of Hurghada, serve as a mournful reminder that since the end of the de Gaulle days, material economic progress in the land has petered out. No wonder the government has turned to the tourism industry in an attempt to improve general well-being. Be the talk about Egyptian backwardness justified or not, all that is woefully inadequate when one faces with understanding that Egypt is not for now, but for all times.

Hurghada, for one thing, can abundantly illustrate that when natural reaches are in abundance, making the land look glorious in springy blossom.

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