Chill-axing in Dahab (photos by Patrisha Mclean)
Chill-axing in Dahab (photos by Patrisha Mclean)
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Checking in at a dusty hotel, 2 a.m. and 6,000 miles from home, knowing no one in the country and my phone not working, surrounded by men in caftans drinking tea and smoking hookahs and speaking not a word of English, I had a few minutes when I thought I would cry.

I guess that’s what’s called getting out of your comfort zone.

I was traveling by myself in Egypt, starting off in the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. That evening I was boarding the Snefro Spirit for a week of scuba diving in the Red Sea with 16 other divers from around the world.

Since snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef 30 years ago I’ve envied scuba divers but never, ever, thought I could be one. I finally tried it this spring in Cozumel, and four days later I was flying through the sea, swooping up and dipping down like Peter Pan showing off for Wendy, mesmerized by the world that had all this time been under me.

The Red Sea in Egypt popped up online as one of the top spots in the world for diving, for its clarity, reef health, and hundreds of species of coral and fish, and I love Middle Eastern food. So, with a week-old diving certification, here I was.

“You’re very brave to take this trip with such little diving experience,” said Wazoo from Kuwait. Brave was possibly a euphemism for nuts because after booking the trip I read that the diving sites, very deep and with strong currents, are recommended for advanced divers. Every other passenger had logged hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dives.

Twelve-year-old Archie from England and I were matched as diving buddies, and Ash, the owner of Eagle Divers that organized the trip, dove close to me all week.

They say a liveaboard is “eating, sleeping and diving” and indeed it was dives before breakfast, mid-morning, mid-afternoon and at night, pulling on wetsuits and gear to the blaring of the songs “Happy” and “Mambo No. 5.”

The eating, with buffet feasts, was better than I had hoped for. With a pillow and blanket on the upper deck, sleeping was rocking gently under a zillion stars. And the diving? I only worry that every dive in my life after this will be a letdown.

At Small Crack in Ras Mohammed National Park, a sandy white path is flanked by coral garden borders as sumptuous as any flower border in England. A metal arch (remnant of a sunken container) was like an underwater rose arch, but crammed with all manner of otherworldly coral, and aflutter with fish instead of butterflies.

The Alexandrian eye surgeon who was my tablemate with two bankers from Paris told me he never misses night dives (you descend with a flashlight), and after watching an octopus sweetly leading another by the arm over the coral, all the while changing color for camouflage (turns out they were mating), I see why.

Things I learned about scuba divers:

They like marine creatures that are either very big — sharks!— or very small — much excitement about colorful worms called nudibranches.

They have a lot of marine tattoos. For my first, I am deciding between a bluespotted ray and a jellyfish.

They smoke heavily and the men sometimes have pot bellies: With arms folded on chest and legs barely kicking, scuba diving is an activity more than a sport.

Archie’s father was lying on the couch watching “Hangover 3” and munching from his home stash of Pringles when a call of “Manta ray!” came out and he leapt over the footrest like an Olympian jumper to join the other passengers leaning against the railing on the upper deck. Same excitement with “Dolphins!”

On the last day, my logbook showed 20 dives and sightings including tortoises, reef shark, cuttlefish, Spanish Dancer (nudibranch), triggerfish, and giant Napoleon fish and moray eels.

On the hour drive from Sharm to Dahab the only signs of life on the desert road were police officers with guns sometimes gaffer-taped together. I received my one and only security warning in that country: Do not photograph the police.

As we entered Dahab, what I thought were roaming packs of large dogs turned out to be goats.

The first day, the flies and the loudly mewing cats that converged from nowhere to slink against my arms and legs when I ate any food outside had me wondering if I could last the night.

After two days, I was in harem pants, my wrists and ankles festooned with colorful cloth bracelets woven and sold by children, zooming on the boardwalk around divers and shopkeepers on a pink, rusty, no-gear bike, drinking Bedouin tea on cushions whenever I had the chance, and wanting to stay forever.

“Welcome!” was the response, accompanied by a bright-eyed smile, when I was asked where I was from and answered, “The U.S.A.” Twice, shopkeepers ran after me to return money I had overpaid. After one meal when the bill was 30 Egyptian pounds ($1.25) and I gave the restaurant owner a little extra, he said, “It is 30 pounds I want, not 50,” and invited me to join him and his wife for tea.

The Bedouin who drove me to a camel ride on the beach, giving me the name Fatima because he could not pronounce Patrisha, recoiled when I told him flying time from the U.S. is 14 hours. “I am afraid of planes,” he said, and when I answered, “And I am afraid of camels!,” we laughed together.

Diving in Dahab, you set up at a funky, open air, shorefront hut in the desert. You leave your purse and iPhone on a seat cushion while you dive, with no worry of theft, and when you emerge from the sea a Bedouin in patterned turban and white robe lays out fresh orange juice and a rice-and-stew feast on the low table.

Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to sundown for a month, started the day I arrived in Dahab and my Scuba Seekers guide Salem invited me to his family’s home to share the iftar, or feast breaking the fast.

In a narrow concrete courtyard, on floor mats, his pregnant wife, sister-in-law and sister placed huge platters of rice topped with fried and grilled whole fish, sliced eggplant with yogurt and garlic, and bowls of meat-and-potato stew. Sitting cross-legged in a circle around the food, we held dates to our lips, and when chanting started from a nearby mosque we dug in with our hands, Salem’s sister-in-law placing chunks of fish on my plate and pouring me guava and carrot juice.

Then, while the women cleared the plates and Salem’s brother heated water over burning coals for tea, Salem showed me the family’s goats, sheep and baby camel.

After the women washed the dishes they changed into chadors and headed out to shop in the neighborhood.

“Do you cook?” I asked Salem. Yes, he said, but why should I when the women do it for me. I asked him if he didn’t think women wanted to have jobs outside the home and fun pursuits like scuba diving. He said change would come, but slowly.

At a sidewalk restaurant, Allaa, the same age as my daughter, told me she was in Dahab to clear her head, after her life in Cairo was turned upside down from her Facebook post about the sexual harassment she encounters from walking down the street. “It’s not easy being a woman in Egypt,” she said.

Dahab’s Blue Hole is the most dangerous diving site in the world. I reassured my son after I told him I planned to dive it, and he uncovered that detail, that I was only diving 75 feet deep, and deaths come from divers trying to cross an arch 180 feet down, then missing it and continuing to descend with a syndrome Jacques Cousteau poetically dubbed “rapture of the deep.”

As mesmerizing as the expanse of blue were the free-divers hovering on top, mermaids and mermen in only skin suits and fluttering monofins, who, relying on breath-holding, descended and ascended on vertical lines, faces perfectly serene. “You should try it,” another guide, Fedel, told me when I remarked how beautiful they were, and on my last day in Dahab, I did, descending 35 feet and holding my breath for two minutes and 15 seconds.

Cairo is the exact opposite of Dahab.

It was a shock to see virtually all of the women in head scarves, with a fair number of them in the black niqab with only a slit for eyes.

Also a shock was the way pedestrians snaked across the traffic without getting killed. “Close your eyes, put up your hands, and cross,” was one suggested technique, but I learned to wait for someone stepping off the curb and follow right behind.

Mina, the owner of the Holy Sheet hostel, where a lovely private room and bath is $30 a night, set up a half-day tour of the pyramids at Giza for me.

It was a jolt to see the Great Pyramid, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world still existing, peeking from behind the bustling town of Giza. It was an even bigger jolt to open a door to the 4,500-year-old complex and see right in front of me the Sphinx.

My horse-cart driver told me that in 2010, 14 million tourists visited Egypt. The revolution in 2011 brought that number down to virtually zero. Tourism has been climbing back since. But the rebound is hampered by periodic bombings in tourist areas by Islamist militants. This, added to the fact that Egyptians don’t travel during Ramadan, gave me the pyramids pretty much to myself.

A smattering of tourists on camels were on a rise, where, backs to pyramids, they held up arms and pointed down fingers for a photo of their hand cupping the top of the pyramid.

Heading out that evening, Mina cautioned me not to respond to men trying to converse. But a man asking me where I was going looked respectable so I told him I was in search of a non-touristy boat to take me down the Nile. “Follow me,” Mohammed said.

A three-mile walk later, we came to a port with long, open-air boats flanked by bursts of colorful neon. He haggled with a captain in Arabic for about 15 minutes, then asked me for the 600 Egyptian pounds to pay him ($25 and about twice the going rate I later learned) and followed me on board. We were alone but for a DJ. Mohammed told me he was a commander of an elite counter-terrorism brigade called Task Force 777. Floating past luxury hotels, Arabic disco music throbbing and neon flashing, we played a game of scrolling images of his brigade on my iPhone, with me guessing which of the heavily armed soldiers in armor, with only eyes showing, was him.

He dropped me off at my hotel, and I was supposed to call him the next morning to see about a walking tour of his favorite neighborhood. But when I woke up, I scrolled through the contacts in my phone and saw five Mohammeds and had no idea which of them was him.

Mina told me Islamic Cairo is the place to be Ramadan nights, but “You need to go with an Egyptian.” I had to be up at 4:30 a.m. to catch my flight back home so decided I would grab dinner at Kazan restaurant around the corner and turn in early. The menu was in Arabic. “Do you speak English?” I asked a friendly-faced young man and woman. They ordered for me and, after we talked a bit (Yostena blamed her halting English on subpar public schools) invited me to eat with them.

We brought our take-out sacks to one of the many long tables set up in a side street. Yostena is Christian, so we ate while Mohammed held off. I went back to my hostel to drop off a book.

When I returned, the street that earlier took 10 minutes to cross was empty. As I turned the corner into the side street, the dozens of tables were filled with people and heaped with kebobs, rice, stuffed grape leaves and cabbage and squash, hummus and baba ganoush, rice pudding, and tamarind and hibiscus juice. A sea of waving arms and beaming faces greeted me. “Welcome!” said Yostena. “We missed you!”

They are all college students or recent graduates. Yostena works with Syrian refugees and showed me photos of the children playing with Legos. Mohammed won a coveted spot for a university semester in the United States. He was worried because he was assigned to Texas and heard they do not like Muslims there.

Rehab and Sara said in their hometown of Assawa women do not travel or work out of the home, but their parents supported this for them. They are winning all kinds of scholastic and countrywide awards.

The group says they will take me to Islamic Cairo after the crowd heading there thins out. So we settle in at another bustling side street for backgammon and dominoes and tea. When I say I want to try a hookah, Omar says that he will break a personal rule to smoke with me, so I don’t have to alone.

At 10 p.m. we all walk together to the subway, through streets packed with revelers and shoppers.

The old quarter is a riot of colored lights and tinsel and traditional lanterns, flashing balloons, children in Pharaoh costumes posing for parents’ iPhones, baa’ing sheep that will be slaughtered for a post-Ramadan ritual commemorating the trials of Abraham, vendors selling brass coffee makers, sketches of Egyptian actors, peaches and dates.

Omar lags behind to sift through a bin, then catches up and hands me a calligraphy ring, “So you will remember your time in Egypt.”

At 2:30 a.m., the crowd barely thinned, we are sitting at sidewalk tables drinking tea and three little girls shyly approach our group and ask if they can have a photo with me, and I realize I was probably the only blonde in the tens of thousands of people at the festival.

Never in all my solo trips since my divorce three years ago, when the fulfillment of travel dreams of three decades has taken me to many exotic lands, have I felt so cared for, or cared about, by strangers. Insha Allah (God willing), I will be back. And next time, I will be among friends.

Postscript: On May 19, four days after I was at the Giza pyramids, a roadside bomb injured tourists on a bus from the Cairo airport to those very pyramids. Newspaper articles reporting the story added that a roadside bomb killed three tourists and an Egyptian guide in Giza in December. I might not have gone if I had known that. I’m glad I didn’t know.