Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Kidnapped in Egypt

I woke up at 5 am on Monday morning with the sudden realization that we've been highjacked. No, I wasn't dreaming, my mind continued to work during the night and put together many puzzle pieces. The only question was the correct term. I made my instant coffee and I got out on the balcony. The sun was rising behind the mountains of Saudi Arabia, across the gulf. It was quiet, nothing was moving, another glorious morning in Sinai. I checked the dictionary, we haven't been highjacked, we were kidnapped. I started to laugh. There were few questions left, I had to make a plan and organize our escape. The Internet wasn't working, so with no additional information I had to make several alternative plans and figure out a strategy. Kidnapped without even knowing. An uncomfortable feeling was settling in, but there was still something funny about the whole story:

With the Arab spring revolutions, security in Egypt has been in question. From outside, there are concerns about safety, but many travelers have reported a nice experience, "it is safe without the crowds," touts have sold their camels because of lack of tourists.
This is the Sinai peninsula from the air

The cheapest way to get to Egypt was through one of the tourist resorts, for us was Sharm el Sheikh, in Sinai. A few days before our flight the Egyptian military foiled a plot by terrorists to blow up Sharm. It happened before, in the recent years, and reviewing our guidebooks there is a long list of major attacks all along this coast, in Sharm, in Dahab, in Taba. The British Foreign Service issued a warning, their tourists should limit their travel to Sinai only to Sharm and Dahab. Popular touristic destinations, like the famous St. Katherine Monastery should be avoided, as well as other trips in the desert. There were a couple of tourists kidnapped last year on the road to the monastery so it can be serious. The American Department of State seems to be behind, they don't mention the events of the last few days and only warn about avoiding demonstration sites in Cairo. We, the parents, talked in a hushed voice, considered forfeiting the flight tickets and staying in Europe. In the end we decided against it, we'll go and we'll be careful.
Modern and beautiful airport in Sharm El Sheikh

As the plane arrived in Egypt we got in line for the visas, but we still haven't made our plans. We could enter the peninsula of Sinai for 14 days without a visa, we would travel from here to Jordan, then return and obtain the regular entrance. It was a long line, plenty of time to think, we got the visas for Egypt for 30 days anyway. Even if we lost the $75, we decided to play it safe, we might not go to Jordan after all.

The first few days in Sharm were for rest and research. The plan was to take a flight from here to Luxor and get to the major Egyptian objectives this way. The trip to Jordan would have been to visit Petra, one of the most fantastic monuments in the world, but would have implied several border crossings, going through Israel, taking local buses, paying a myriad of fees and facing a lot of unknowns. I knew all the steps involved and we could have done it. The time would have been short, intensive, most likely exhausting. Consistent with what we did on several other occasions we decided to make the most of what we have, we'll visit Egypt, we cannot get everywhere. Not going to Petra is a disappointment, but we both took it well. We started to focus on getting out of Sinai, finding out our options. There is no flight from Sharm to Luxor. There was, until a few weeks ago, but nobody knows when and why it disappeared. Touristic agencies organize charter flights with return the same day, but the cost is high and we want just the one way trip. There was a ferry to Hurghada, a few hours away from Luxor, easy bus connections. It stopped running a couple of years ago. There were plans to resume it this summer. I went to the port, it took me an hour to get there, there is no ferry. There are buses to Cairo. They take 7 to 9 hours, crossing all the Sinai. Because of some security concerns the schedules mean little now, the police or the army would collect the buses and run them in a convoy. It could be cheap but we decided not to consider this option. On the Egyptian airlines website I bought flight tickets to Aswan, through Cairo. I got a decent price, took the cheapest option and left a few more days for us here, we need more rest and we have to visit the monastery.
Catering to the Soviet Union's tourists in front of a new mosque
Sharm el Sheikh is considered the jewel of the Sinai, one of the best resorts in the world, certainly the most fantastic in the Middle East. I have no idea why. There are some elements that might make it good, but I cannot understand it. The guidebook says there are two kinds of people in the world, the ones who love Sharm and the ones who hate it. It recommends Dahab, 100 km north, a more laid back place with good diving and snorkeling, nicer people, no crowds and also a more authentic feeling. What's that? History again, the traditional inhabitants of the Sinai are Bedouins, nomadic populations of the desert, but since Sinai was returned to Egypt (after the peace with Israel in 1979) a lot of Egyptians from the continent moved here and they control most of the businesses in Sharm. In Dahab there are Bedouin restaurants and hotels...It is also 100 km closer to the monastery, an easier day trip.

Our hotel by the bazaar, they raised the Romanian flag among others
We didn't stay in Sharm after all. We stayed in Na'ama Bay, six kilometers away, in the middle of the bazaar, in a nice hotel. We didn't pay for breakfast, but they gave it to us free anyway and it was probably the richest breakfast we had anywhere on this trip, second only to what some of us had in Scotland. We ate late, well enough that it held us until dinner.
The hotel had a pool - none of us made it there, it looked nice, but was in the shade for most of the day. The major reason for our choice was the advertised sauna. "The engineers are working on it, it should be good in five days." At this point in our trip we laugh at this sort of statements. When we get somewhere and they don't have what they said and it looks completely different than what we expected, we just take it in stride. The hotel had free access to a private beach 500 meters away, we made it there for a few minutes at the end of our last day, on Thursday. Miserable experience. It could have been a slightly better one in Sharm, but the hotel options would have been worse. After three days we were done, I reserved a hotel in Dahab.
Beach in Na'ama Bay

Getting in the water
Friday we went to the bus station for the 2.30 ride. They wouldn't sell tickets until the bus from Cairo came (hopefully at 3!), we were looking for a place to sit for the next two hours, we were approached by a very young man who offered a good deal on transport to Dahab. We ignored him, he came back a little later with an older guy, firm, loud, helpful. He reiterated the good deal, showed me the car, I hesitated for a moment. He took our luggage without our consent and started to pile it in the trunk. We followed him, had a good chat. "Do you have a place to stay there?" "Yes, Yasmina hotel!" "Ah, I know Jasmine, my friend Tito is there, the driver will take you to the hotel!" As we get ready to leave he calls the hotel to clarify the directions. The first call didn't get through, I gave him the number I had, he called some more people, spoke in Arabic, gave the driver all the instructions, we shook hands, we thanked him, we left.


I know now how it will look when they will built highways and power lines on the moon. Just like the highway in Sinai, maybe with a little bit more traffic. The ride was nice, few particulars to look at, but the mountainous, deserted landscape is something to admire. The road was in perfect condition, the speed was more than 120 km per hour, we made it quick. A couple of security checks, otherwise nothing. We got on the main street, a couple of questions, and there we were at the Jasmine pension. I had a reservation on booking.com for Yasmina hotel, different pictures, I remembered a much bigger place with a huge pool, it said 200 meters from the beach. But the hotel was waiting for us, they knew we were coming, the rooms were to be ready in just 10 minutes, we were invited to have a welcome drink and wait a few minutes on the terrace by the sea. The first reaction I had was of disappointment. I expected a beach, there was none. There was very shallow water with a lot of little rocks. Ok, the add said 200 meters from the beach, I started to look for one. I went right for 500 meters, just hotels and restaurants by the sea, but no beach. I went left for 2000 meters, abandoned constructions and deserted former businesses, rusted lamp posts, but the paved wide walkway was inviting. I reached at some point something that might be called beach, but no sand to speak of, just little rocks. A group of ladies fully covered in black abaayas with a handful of children were sitting under an old straw umbrella. A pickup truck driven by an old guy dressed with a white thobe and a checkered ghutra came to pick them up. Two sunburned old Italian men in minuscule bikinis were talking with their hands in the middle of the walkway. Three middle aged Britons were discussing China's rise and Dubai shopping experiences as they walked a few feet behind me. It was afternoon, there was nobody else around, I decided to return and look for the beach later.
When did they have time to go to ruins?

The magic of photography, these are dirty pebbles, rocks by the water but it looks great, doesn't it?

At the hotel, there was a lot of activity with our rooms, my family found some books and was reading slouched on the pillows on the terrace. Tito showed us that they were cleaning our rooms, apologized for the inconvenience, explained that they were freshly painted and redecorated and would be ready soon.
When we finally got to get in a few hours later, we walked from the terrace to the front desk and Tito said heartily: "Welcome to Paradise!" It could have been a good joke, the only problem was that he really meant it. He asked again for my reservation, he wanted to make sure that he gave us the correct discounted rates. He told us that we had everything we might want, cold water, hot water, fridge, TV. And we got the CVU! We looked at each other puzzled, we didn't ask for CVU. "Mmm, sorry, excuse me, what is CVU?" asked Ileana very politely. Tito was taken aback, "CVU" ... "C v u" ... "C view" SEAVIEW!!!
Three bed "three star" room
We were content in the end, we had little rooms with a little balcony with nice sea view, in the far back that must be Saudi Arabia, the sun was going to bed behind us in the Sinai mountains. The furniture didn't resemble what I remembered and for a split second I envied those photo artists that can make a hotel room picture look so nice on the web. But we slept in far worse places and we got the CVU for free. I still didn't find the pool and for another split second I wondered if it's fair for them to advertise the neighbors pool. I needed to ask Tito next day if we had access to it. But for Saturday we had more important plans, a trip to St. Katherine Monastery. The oldest continuous active church in the world, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was 127 km away, in the desert. Tito arranged for a 14 people minibus just for us, they opened the kitchen early to give us breakfast and we were gone. When the girls went to the States, one daughter got a long ride from one of our friends at our church. There is no way to pay for their time, and we couldn't even contribute with some gas money. Instead, they gave us a donation to use however we see fit during our RTW adventure! It paid this voyage. Thank you Adina & Calin!
St. Katherine Monastery

Somewhere around here is the Mount Sinai
We liked our trip. There is little to visit, but there is so much history all around. The monastery is kept in shipshape condition. Its library, not accessible to mortals, has some of the most valuable writings in the world. The little museum has 5th to 17th century icons, some Bible covers and cult objects from Romanian princes, some pages of the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest near complete bible in the world. Interesting, a German "borrowed" 337 pages in 1859 and "forgot" to return them, he left them in Russia. Stalin sold them in 1933 to UK, we saw it in London's British Library. Neither there nor here any mention of the theft. We saw the Codex much closer here, as well as a copy of the Ahtiname. That is an official declaration of protection signed by Prophet Mohammed. He was one of the famous visitors of the monastery over its history and if someone is wondering how this settlement could have survived in the middle of the Muslim world, this is the answer. It might also give a message to Islamists that their prophet was respectful of other religions. One of the Turkish sultans wanted to see Mohammed's signature, the letter was taken to Istanbul for viewing and a copy was returned instead...

We had special treatment here. "Romanians!!!" "You're orthodox!!! Welcome!" The gatekeeper gave us a special short tour, asked Ileana to get permission from one of the monks to take a couple of pictures, kept guard for her to take the two photos without any of the other tourists noticing. His distraction helped her gain some control over her emotions, she was so overwhelmed to see those originals that it took the four of us to keep her on her feet and help dry her tears.

The only other place to visit is the interior of the Church of Transfiguration. Access is limited to the first quarter, there is no way to get close to the altar. There is a famous mosaic of Transfiguration behind the altar, from 551 AD. It might be one of the most valuable in the world, but viewing is obstructed by the forty plus chandeliers, the cross over the altar and the altar itself. No pictures are allowed, of course, but they let us use our binoculars!
A glimpse into the Church of Transfiguration
It was good to spend some more time around, the girls even went to the gift shop, we looked at the mountains, the old 6th to 12th century fortifications, the remnants of the Burning Bush, the Well of Moses. It was good just to be at the foot of the Mount Sinai, where all Christians, Jews and Muslims believe that God delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses. With the dangerous world that we have these days and all the religious fighting it feels good to me to see that we all have something in common after all.

Maybe if we learn about some rocks and some myth that we all share, who knows, we could come closer together?

I mean, I know we have the same God and all, but that doesn't seem to be enough.

A convoy is formed behind us
It was a good trip. The driver was waiting for us and after a few kilometers he stopped by a checkpoint. The soldiers didn't let us pass until 1 pm. The road was unsafe because of the bedouins! When we came in the morning it wasn't an issue, maybe they wake up late and at 1 pm they go for siesta? We would wait for other cars and buses to make a convoy, for security reasons. The driver mumbled that they are paranoid or something, but then he explained that the army needs to create the sense of insecurity so they can justify their presence and their job. Yeah, I know, like everywhere else in the world. Forty five minutes later we were the first in the long convoy and the driver took off without looking back or without waiting for anybody. Anyhow he stopped a little later at a control post and took two hitchhikers with us. They were soldiers going on leave and he needed some conversation. We don't take pictures at security check points, I am sorry. But I will remember one of these in Sinai: they blocked one lane with little flower pots with little cacti. The traffic was restricted to the other lane and the reinforcement was one little fence with a stop sign on it. The barrack for the three soldiers had white gravel arranged around it like a childish copy of a Japanese zen garden, a few more pots with cacti were spread around.
Some camels in the desert
We got back to Jasmine Saturday afternoon, we already decided to stay there another night, but it was good enough that we would stay the next four... Some bits went through on the Internet and one of my email messages was from booking.com: "No Show notice" - "We're sorry to hear that you were not able to complete your stay at Yasmina Hotel... Total cancellation cost US$61.2" Funny, this Tito guy might be trying to skip paying his share, I thought. I replied immediately, explaining that we did show up, took our rooms, we even liked it and extended our stay. I was actually writing to them from the hotel itself!
Quiet morning at Jasmine
Sunday morning everything was quiet, we took our time with breakfast, then found some interesting books. Ioan got bored after a while and came to invite somebody in the water. By the time his mother got dressed I heard something about rain. Rain in the desert??? No way!

It was a mythical storm and it was amazing to witness it on our balcony with CVU. We filmed, took pictures and encouraged the locals the best we could! They were fighting to save as much as they could. Hundreds of pillows from the double-level terrace were flying toward a huge pile. The TV and all the other electronics were disassembled and taken inside. It was raining inside as well, through what we thought it was a roof. Not in our rooms, just in the hallway. The water was accumulating on the roof in front of the balcony, it had no way to go down. They don't have gutters here and why would they? The roofs around us were mostly flat, but even if they were slanted down as it would seem normal, they ended going up, making for a pretty sizable puddle, maybe enough to buckle and break the roof. So a couple guys came up on the roofs with squeegees pushing the water in the alley. Some other, including Tito, were trying to save some furniture stocked on another roof.
Water on the roof at Jasmine
The rain seemed to stop for a minute, then the hail came. Ioan collected ice and wanted pictures taken... Of course, by now, there was no Internet box anywhere, even the power was out for the next few hours. When Ioan came later to charge his iPod, I realized that I didn't need to charge my thing all day! Amazing! Ileana shouted "IT'S A BOOK!!!" She was right, it was a thriller paperback that got me for all of the day. In the evening I slipped out to one of the small stores and bought some white sliced bread. There was no power in the store and back at the hotel it turned out to be one of the darkest breads I ever bought. It was good. We finished whatever leftovers we still had in the fridge, butter and salami from Italy and manchego cheese from Rodica from Geneva. We kept reading and writing, our usual stuff, there was no chance of Internet. Probably sometime after midnight some Internet signal somehow appeared and another email from booking.com:
"The hotel has reported a No Show for your reservation and is confused regarding your reservation. Additional information was requested by the hotel." and a long list of required documents followed. I went to bed thinking that I really need to talk with Tito tomorrow.

So here I am, Monday morning, alone on the balcony with CVU, all the pieces are coming together. There must be another hotel with a similar name, my assumption that it is one Arabic word with two different transliterations has been wrong. And the trust that we had in our host has been lost, hopefully we would be able to get out of here without any major problem. I know we promised to stay another two nights, at first look the worst case scenario is that I lost $61, but who can we trust? By 7.30 Ileana is up, she wants to know what's on my mind. I tell her the truth "We have been kidnapped without our knowledge!" She laughs, but the second reaction is same as mine, we have been fooled and misled and what can we expect next?"

An hour later I get in the street, find a taxi driver and ask him to take me to Yasmina hotel. He first looks back toward Jasmine, checks with me, Yasmina? and asks for 10 pounds, sounds fair, I don't care. A minute later the taxi stops in front of the hotel! Yeah, he could have just pointed it to me, he could have charged just 2 pounds, it doesn't matter. The manager is sleeping, maybe I can find him later in the afternoon. The young man at the reception recognizes my name! They have been looking for me in their hotel for the last three days! I explain the whole story, I say that if they void the charge I can move to their hotel and stay for two nights! He says no problem, OK, they had this issue before, but we still have to check with the boss. I'll be back at 11.

We wake up the children and we tell them that we've been kidnapped. It sounds funny, maybe a bad joke, but that is the truth. They have the same first laugh then concern, what's next? "We pack our bags, go get breakfast and then leave!" We make our luggage, go downstairs and eat in peace. Then we ask Tito to join us for a little conversation. I tell him I found Yasmina, that is the hotel where my reservation was made, and because of him I lost $60. He is concerned, defensive, he doesn't think he did anything wrong, we came to him, he also gets people from the booking.com system and he expected us because a guy from the bus station in Sharm called him to say we are coming!

We thank him for our stay so far and ask him to prepare the bill so we can leave. He goes and we discuss with the children what we learned and what we think. Nobody believes Tito, he probably didn't know how much penalty I would incur and he is right, his place has sea view. (By this time he learned to say it our way and we are the only ones who say CVU). But there is no question in our mind that he knew we were in the wrong place.
Our Jasmina hotel

We are glad to get out of there without any problem and walk the kilometer to Yasmina. The manager is up, he is at the front-desk. His biggest concern is that booking.com thinks that he is lying and skipping the commission and he wants me to make it right. By the evening booking.com confirms that all is good. Meanwhile, we have bigger rooms, a little better Internet, a lot of street noise, a disco and a mosque somewhere too close, a pool that is nice and cold, the sea is far away and we have no CVU. We miss Jasmine.

I went back to take a picture with Tito - Stockholm syndrome?



1 comment:

  1. Great description! Had fun reading it!

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