Monday, October 22, 2012

An Unexpected Respite: An Extended Weekend in Ain Sokhna

An Unexpected Respite: An Extended Weekend in Ain Sokhna

Before coming to Egypt I made a choice to keep myself ignorant of the country had to offer. I hoped that my willful ignorance would make my adventure more…adventurous. Had I done the proper due diligence, I would have known that Egypt has world class coastlines, on the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and a reef that supports some of the best scuba diving in the world. But I didn’t, and much to my surprise, I spend a lovely extended weekend in paradise.
In order to conduct a follow up session regarding international student orientation, The American University in Cairo sponsored an all-inclusive trip for the international students to spend a weekend at a four-star hotel in Ain Sokhna.[1] This generous offer was a poorly disguised bribe. Without the promise of a weekend at the beach, no one would voluntarily participate in this ‘important’ follow up session.
To this end, the AUC created a strict itinerary for our time at the Red Sea, trying to insure no one could shirk the obligatory session. We would arrive in the early afternoon on Friday, eat lunch, and spend the afternoon at the beach. In the evening, and in order to get a ticket to dinner, the mandatory follow up meeting. The next morning the AUC would take us on an expedition to one of the oldest monastic orders in the world, and return us to Cairo by Saturday night. Needless to say the event organizers wanted to transform a relaxing weekend at the beach into a perpetual bus ride by packing too much fun into two days.
Concurrent with the trip was a student protest that had shut down the AUC Campus, causing classes to be canceled. Unfortunately, the administration alerted students about class cancelations around 10:00 AM. Being a student of the Arabic Language Institute, my classes began at 8:30 AM, so I had to show up to school every morning to find out for myself if I was locked out of my class. Knowing that there was a distinct possibility of being locked out of school, a couple of buddies and I decided it would be a good idea to extend our trip to Ain Sokhna by a day.
Thursday morning, I packed my backpack with the bare essentials for school. I packed the folders, flash cards, text book and pens, necessary for a day in class, and filled any remaining space with underwear, T-shirts, bathing suit, flip-flops, toiletries, and a couple of bro-tanks for the beach. My intention was to go to class and learn, my hope was to go to the beach and relax.
As expected, the gates to the AUC were chained shut, and entrances barricaded by the BMWs of the student protestors.  A large crowd of students, teachers, administrators, and on lookers amassed in front of the main gate as buses continued to deposit their loads. After snapping a couple pictures of the mess, and not wanting to get lost in the crowed, I wound up at a coffee shop a couple miles down the road where I was going to meet my buddies and head to the beach.
In a moment of supreme wisdom and drunk on the promise of adventure, I allowed my nineteen-year-old friend to take responsibility for planning the trip. As a result we had absolutely no plan. But we piled into the small taxi of a cab driver willing to make the hour and a half journey to the Suez, filled any available space with backpacks and overnight bags, and headed across the desert anyway.
For the most part I was at ease with the situation. Ain Sokhna is located only about an hour and a half east of Cairo, however, to get there we would have to cross the endless, and at times lawless, Sahara. As I gazed across the vast wasteland I began to wonder, ‘how far I could walk through that land right now with the amount of water that we have in this car.’ My musings became less theoretical when I suddenly realized that we had not stopped for gas before leaving, and the taxi’s broken gas gage made it impossible to know how much was left in the tank.
The freeway was littered with burnt out and wrecked cars. They were strewn across the shoulders, and looked as if they had been in their final resting position for no more than a week. At one point we came a cross truck and trailer that had tipped over and smashed into a concrete support structure. The driver, bloody and battered, sat on the cab of his truck in the shade of the road sign he had hit. Looking back I noticed another man, still in the cab of the truck, just as bloody, he looked like he was sleeping, I am sure he wasn’t.
Except for the occasional military checkpoint, there was very little human presence along the highway, especially in the form of gas station and emergency assistance. I must admit that the combination of potentially of running out of gas, the carnage of twisted steal, and the crushing emptiness was a bit unsettling. There is nothing like staring out of the window, watching the world fly by, on a long car ride to get the imagination going.
When the desert finally ended it was not gradual. The impressive mountain range that rims the Read Sea fell sharply into the crystal clear water. Similar to Highway 1 in California, this part of the freeway into Ain Sokhna traced this dramatic coastline. Except on this stretch of highway were are no lanes, or center divider, and cars and truck and buses passed each other around blind turns, and it was closer to the water, and a thousand times sketchier. 
My previous knowledge of seaside vacation areas led me to believe that Ain Sokhna would be a sleepy village on the water filled with wind chimey tourist traps, and overpriced restaurants. Nope. Ain Sokhna is actually a major port for ships passing through the Suez Canal. Down the coast from the port is a string of luxury hotels, some offensively large, but most in a state of perpetual construction.
It was not until we arrived in Ain Sokhna that I realized the extent of our lack of planning. Since, to my surprise, we did not have a hotel reservation, we ask the driver to stop at countless hotels so we could inquire about availability for the night. Everything was either, under construction, booked, or asking an astronomically high price. Even the biggest hotel I have ever seen in my life seemed to be completely booked for the night, though I supremely doubt that that could have been the case. As we became more desperate we began to ‘joke’ about sneaking in and spending the night in one of the construction sight. We eventually found the hotel that the AUC trip had booked, and, for a reasonable rate, we checked in a day early.
The rest of the trip was a relaxing blur of swimming in perfectly refreshing water, eating delicious meals, and hanging out with good friends. The mandatory follow up season turned out to be as useless as it was boring, and, aside from the oil tanker explosion that eventually kept us in paradise a day longer, it was the only unpleasant part.

Pro Tip:
1. Teenagers are not as responsible as I thought. Never rely on one to have a solid plan and you will never be disappointed.
2. Since there is real town in Ain Sokhna the hotels are islands for accommodations, food, and water. When staying in them, you are completely at their mercy, and their prices let you know that they know it. I don’t have any advice for dealing with this predicament. It sucks. But in the grand scheme of things, its not actually that much money especially compared to a similar experiences in other parts of the world.

[1] Ain Sokhna, one of the many beach communities designed to draw tourists and wealthy vacationers that dot Egypt’s Red Sea coastline.

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