One of my formative travel experiences was a low, low, low budget trip to Egypt with my best friend Fiona. We were typical, poverty stricken London University students, but that didn’t stop our adventuring ways.
I toiled away in pubs, restaurants and shops all through the academic year to save money for travel adventures in the summer holidays. Looking back, it’s a wonder I ever got my degree in French and English because studying was not my priority. Travel was, and I worked long hour pulling pints, mopping floors and serving customers to fund my travels.
That summer, after many wacky adventures travelling around Egypt and visiting all the major tourist attractions, we finished our trip in the Sinai. I hear that Dahab is quite a sophisticated holiday destination now but in 1988 it was not. Back then the entire town lacked basics. Little things like electricity had not yet made it to the tiny desert village on the Sinai peninsula. Still Dahab had a sense of romance and adventure which was the reason we were there.
Night time saw us and a few other hardened travellers huddled round candles stuffed inside crude lanterns made from plastic bottles filled with desert sand. The only accommodation options were “cabins” consisting of a string of windowless concrete boxes. Our cabin looked like a concrete bunker and didn’t even have a proper floor, just sandy ground with a mattress on top.
Fiona and I had brought our own sheets and the shower block was a short walk away across the cabin grounds that were as bare and brown as the desert behind the ocean. We were happy though because it filled our main criteria for travel accommodation. It was cheap.
We took a camel trip and went on an overnight trip to Mount Sinai where we slept under the stars on top of the mountain. But other than that we just wanted to relax.
After a stressful time being harassed almost constantly during our tour of the ancient Egyptian archaeological ruins and artefacts, we were relieved to be able to finally chill out in Dahab. Unlike their high energy, entrepreneurial Egyptian brothers, the Bedouin people who live in the Sinai are laid back. They never tried to sell us over-priced souvenirs, smear our eyes with kohl or insist we visit their uncle’s restaurant.
What it lacked in basic services and fine accommodation Dahab made up for with its laid back atmosphere and natural beauty. Dahab fronts the Red Sea which is famed for its clear water and rich ocean life. It’s a sharp contrast to the arid Sinai desert behind the town. There’s nothing much to do in Dahab except snorkel, sunbathe and eat.
The coral and fish are prolific and the sun always shines so snorkelling and sunbathing were always on the cards. However, eating was problematic. While we enjoyed the mellow Bedouin lifestyle and attitude, we got hungry at meal times.
The restaurants in Dahab line the beach and are filled with low tables surrounded by carpets and cushions for guests to lounge on. It’s fortunate that you can lie down because restaurant service is slow. Dead slow.
The typical wait for your meal in Dahab in 1988 would be two hours. We got used to that and, like the travellers, soon learned to play backgammon to pass the time. Modesty aside I play a mean game of backgammon and it is all thanks to those long hours I endured waiting for food in Dahab restaurants.
On our final evening we were scheduled to catch the night bus from Dahab back to Cairo and thence onto our budget flight back to London. Sad as we were that our travels had come to an end, we were looking forward to getting back to a sand-free bed, lighting you could read by and a meal with fresh vegetables which we could prepare ourselves, whenever we wanted.
In anticipation of a long wait for food and knowing it would be our last chance to eat until our bus got to Cairo, we arrived at our favourite restaurant with plenty of time to spare. The restaurant was close to the edge of the village and the bus stop but still on the beach with that timeless view of the Red Sea.
Our waiter, a young Bedouin gentleman in traditional pristine white robes, eventually wandered over and took our order. We started to play backgammon while we waited for our meal. Then we waited, waited and waited some more. Occasionally we’d catch a glimpse of the waiter and call him over.
“Is everything all right?” we asked. “Will our meal arrive soon?”
“Yes, yes,” he promised. “Soon, soon. You wait. Just wait.”
So we did.
The restaurant was alarmingly empty. We were the only tourists because most people would eat later and the waiter seemed to have vanished. We got up to explore but there was no one to be seen.
Now we were held hostage with only two hours before our bus left. We didn’t dare decamp to another restaurant. We knew we’d never get served in time at this short notice.
So we waited. We just waited.
Outside the restaurant, waves lapped against the sand. A boy walked by leading a goat on a short length of rope. The sky turned orange then deep purple.
Inside nothing happened. Two hours had gone by and our bus was due to arrive in an hour. Still we never gave up hope.
Then there was a commotion in the kitchen. We grew hopeful. Maybe the chef had arrived. Maybe he had found some beans and flour and was about to start cooking our ful medames and flatbread. Judging by the shouting it wasn’t going well.
More waves lapped at the shore. The moon rose and the stars multiplied. Still our food did not arrive.
Sometime later a pickup pulled up on the beach. My friend and I watched with growing concern. Two policemen got out and entered the restaurant. They disappeared into the kitchen and joined in the general fracas. We had no idea what was going on but it seemed increasingly unlikely that it would turn out well for our rumbling tummies.
The policemen reappeared, flanking the waiter and leading him firmly out of the restaurant. We watched, our hearts sinking, as they loaded our waiter into the back of the pickup. One policeman got in the back with our waiter who seemed to be the chief suspect in a nameless crime. The other policeman got in the cab and the trio drove off down the beach.
We watched until both the pickup truck and our waiter disappeared from view. We would not be dining that night.
My friend and I picked up our backpacks and trudged off to the shabby store where the bus would soon arrive. We bought a couple of packets of stale biscuits, some Cleopatra cigarettes and two large bottles of water in preparation for a long, sleepless, hungry night.
We’d been getting used to the bad restaurant service in Dahab but this was different. We got on the bus and took one final look back at Dahab’s restaurants strung along the beach. Our waiter and food were nowhere to be seen.
Despite the terrible restaurant service I went back to Dahab again a few years later after running away from the worst job in the world (that’s another funny travel story).
Then I sorely tested another travel friend’s stamina and patience when I suggested a trip to Jordan then got us stranded there with no money. Not good.
We got back to Dahab eventually though where I met my husband, the Mucho Man Rich. Happy days!
Read more funny travel stories.
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Photo credit: Many thanks to Lily Leung at Explore for a Year for the gorgeous photo.