The middle-aged woman in the burqa giggled and offered me a joint. I shook my head. Sarah and I glanced at each other – this was so weird. I was surrounded by a group of women all covered head to toe in black cloth trimmed with colourful beads and they were dressing me up the same.
English Pete had to wait outside under the harsh midday sun. This was women’s business. He had no idea what was going on in this weather-beaten shack and neither did we. It was hilarious. I’d wanted to (excuse the cliché) get off the beaten track. In search of that mystic un-travelled-to-place we had stumbled upon something we had never expected – a Bedouin hen’s party.
We were on the coast of the Sinai Peninsular in Egypt – just across the water from oppressive Saudi Arabia and heading for a place called Ras abu gulum. It was meant to be how former hippy hangout Dahab had been in the 70s before the glut of Red Sea dive shops opened and the backpackers arrived. It wasn’t in the Lonely Planet. All we knew was that the only way to get there was on foot. No cars here. No tourists either. Nor, we found out when we arrived, were there any places to stay or eat. We should have guessed – Dahab itself wasn’t that developed and was itself a mission to get to (12 hours on a dodgy bus from Cairo). Its main take away joint was a hamburger shop with a fake Mc Donald’s logo painted above the door.
Following the black shapes from the distance they had looked like dutiful Egyptian women, walking along the desert path that traced the meandering coastline. They were 7 in total. We were just 3. By then we had left the crowds behind. It had been a two hour horse ride from Dahab to the Blue Hole where we snorkelled amongst the masses of colourful fish and now we’d been walking under the relentless sun for a couple of hours.
The scenery was spectacular even though there wasn’t a tree or shrub to be seen. Steep bare mountains plunged straight into the clear water renown in scuba circles for its endless visibility. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would survive out here for long – it was so desolate. Occasionally young boys on camels would pass us. They almost looked regal, sitting so high on the pile of rugs cushioning the bumpy ride. Ah those rugs…
I have no idea how we ended up with the women in the shack or how we understood them but we did. They were on their way to a party and they had stopped to doll themselves up before they arrived. I could appreciate that – women all over the world do it. It was just so unexpected that they were lighting up joints and smoking like chimneys in their burqas. This was Egypt after all, where many women won’t even go outside without a male escort.
After 20 laughter-filled minutes of dancing around in our burqas and taking happy snaps Sarah and I knew Pete was getting impatient so I took off my black veil and we said farewell to our new friends. ‘We might see you at the party’, we gestured as we set off again.
We arrived at Ras abu gulum after another hour or two. Far from a town, it was a series of perhaps 20 indistinguishable straw shacks set amongst the barren flats of soft ochre sand that formed a wide beach between the mountains to the north and the Red sea to the south. Apart from a couple of camels roving freely there was no sign of life, nor a sign for a place to stay or eat. We were in a Bedouin camp.
A man in long white robes emerged from a near by tent and stumbled towards us. His eyes were red and glazed. Using universal sign language for sleep and food we tried to explain what we wanted. He understood and took us to our accommodation that had a spectacular view of the shimmering ocean just 20 metres away. But it had no furniture, no bathroom, no doors or windows. It was a 3-sided open shack with rugs on the sand for beds. Brilliant! I’d made it. I was officially off the beaten track.
We were exhausted from our journey and sat down on the sand to relax. Soon our new friend returned and joined us, followed by another couple of his friends. They planted themselves in the middle, took out a pile of leaves and made themselves quite at home. A random woman then came and started fossicking in the sand around the poles of our shack. I didn’t know what she was looking for – it was all very surreal. We had no idea what was going on until it occurred to us that they were all high. In fact the every person we came across in that village was stoned. It was like being at Woodstock but there was no music and no hippies (although now I know why they used to flock to Dahab).
Whilst I’m all for mixing with the locals when travelling, the situation was a bit too much for me so as soon as our dinner of tender goat stew had finished I feigned tiredness in a bid for the Bedouins to leave us be. They got the message after an hour or three. Using my sarong for a sheet and my daypack as a pillow I was swept quickly in the land of nod. It had been a long day.
In the morning when I roused I realised my sleeping mat reeked of camel sweat and it felt like the scent had permeated my skin. I raced to the water for a swim in the sparkling Red Sea. I knew I was over it. I wanted to get back to the beaten track.