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We are on holiday in Beirut and Wendy has been having some problems with a cramped muscle in her shoulder. So we got an appointment with an Osteopath today and went along. I had a conversation with the osteopath treating Wendy while she was resting under the heating blanket. He was talking about the American University in Beirut, normally called AUB or even just Aub, were he works as a sports injuries specialist. He was saying, when I commented on the number of cats we had seen in the grounds of the university, that they have a welfare committee, with an annual budget, specifically for taking care of cats in the university! Absolutely brilliant. He also said that any student who is involved with injuring one of the cats will have a demerit put on their university record and if one of the cats is killed, the student, or students responsible will be expelled. My kind of university!
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[livejournal.com profile] dalg and I went off on a diving trip in the Red Sea today. It was an 8:30 pickup at the Happy Diving Center (this is how they spelt it) which we got to at 8:10. The dive instructor (Khaled) and his entire family arrived at 8:20. He appeared to be much impressed at how early we were. We had gone along to the diving centre the evening before and selected what equipment we were to use on the dive. I had a “shorty” wetsuit, A BCD (Buoyancy Control Device, which is similar to an inflatable jacket), fins, mask and a diving regulator Octopus. All of this was packed into something like a milk crate and it was your responsibility to make sure it all went out and came back together. We then all jumped into a small minivan and drove off to the dock where we would be going out to the dive boat.

We got into a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, sometimes called generically a Zodiac or a RIB just at the end of a pier in shallow half meter deep water. We had to transfer all the crates over into the zodiac as well. This was my first time in one of these boats and it was difficult to keep your balance. Eventually we had about eight to ten people on the boat balanced on both sides, with me holding on to the rope on top of the inflatable bit for dear life. We had a real Sea Arab (and I mean that in the nicest way) piloting the Zodiac and he also helped with kitting out, preparation of the food, making sure the anchors were secure and once or twice piloting the dive boat. He was crew, but appeared to be first mate. He was swarthy with a fine black beard and a perpetual, disapproving expression, maybe even a slight sneer for the paying customers. He never wore shoes and just had a tennis shirt and trousers which stopped half way between knee and ankle. He could have walked into a casting room and got the job as Sinbad in any movie without even opening his mouth.  

Off we went out to main diving boat which was a big cabin cruiser about 60 to 70 feet long. Sinbad, when navigating from the dock and getting to the dive boat demonstrated his complete professionalism in handling a full zodiac without even splashing us once. There was then a 45 intermission while the boat moved to the dive area. This was called “Marsa Abu Gallawa” and was a coral reef with a small lagoon where I was to get re-certified for my Open Water Diver (OWD) qualification. [livejournal.com profile] dalg kindly agreed to join me in this even though he had a Dive Master certification although he had last dived 6 years ago. 

We checked out all of our equipment and connected up the diving regulator to the tanks and the BCD, put on our wetsuits, got on the weights, tanks and mask, got down to the back of the boat and put on our fins. I was just about knackered by this time. My fins were the kind where you put you feet into the fin like a slipper, [livejournal.com profile] dalg had boots which then slotted into the fins and strapped round the back of the heel. I stood on the edge of the boat with about a four or five foot drop in front of me and thought “I haven’t dived since 1997 and I have NEVER stepped off of a boat at sea”. So I took the “big step” out and promptly left one of my fins on the deck. I hit the water like a ton of bricks and lost my regulator out my mouth, basically a complete fuck-up on entry. Here is a good image of someone doing it right from the back of a boat (bottom of the page). 

I was bobbing up and down choking (and without enough air in my BCD to stay afloat) and trying to get a bead on the instructor who was grinning suspiciously (fortunately it turned out later that he grinned like this all the time). He handed me a grab line hanging off the end of the boat, pumped up my BCD while I looked up into [livejournal.com profile] dalg surprised and amused face on the boat. Naturally he stepped in without problems while someone handed down my missing fin and I put it on.

We sank down to about 2.5 meters and moved off towards the lagoon. I was not looking forward to this bit as I remember the mask tests from Lanzarote which I hated. We had dropped to about 3 meters when we started the tests. The first one was to let a little water into your mask and then clear it by blowing out the mask through your nose. I did not like this as I appear to be a nose breather rather than a mouth breather so I had a tendency when my mask was partially filled to suck in water through my nose. As you can imaging coughing three meters underwater with a plastic brace in your mouth supplying the only air your gonna get is not a nice feeling. I flaked out at the second test which was to half fill you mask and clear it. So the instructor when through the same process with dalg (perfect, of course) and then moved on to the more complex tests, which comprised taking off your weight belt and then putting it back on (more difficult than it sounds as this is the main thing keeping you underwater). Then taking off your tanks and BCD (trying not to rip the breathing regulator from your mouth) and putting them back on. No problems for me with this. Then we went back a step and the instructor wanted me to take my mask off and put it back on and clear it. Now, strangely this was not a problem for me as I have some kind of hindbrain thing where my nose would just seal off when I took off my mask underwater. So I did that and was left with dalg and the instructor staring at me in puzzlement. Then we went off past the boat, round the reef and out into the Red Sea to see what we could see. The reef was a four to five meter wall to our left (on the way out) and was alive. We saw tiny, white moray eels, endless small fish and a number of parrot fish of different colours. We swam out into deeper water down to a depth of 11 meters and saw a number of garden eels that formed a well defined field where they looked like question marks dotted across the sand. It was quite amazing. 

We returned back along the reef with it now on our right and watched the amazing wildlife on the reef wall. We also saw some spiny fish in small caves towards the bottom of the reef. We came back to the boat and did the compulsory 3 meter, 5 minute stop (not really a stop you just swim around at that depth) and then climbed back onto the boat. This was actually pretty difficult. I handed up my fins and assumed that the climb up the ladder would be OK. Instead you are trying to drag all your weights, a wet wetsuit (obviously) and your BCD and tank up a vertical, slightly swaying ladder. Fortunately, one of the helpers (I think maybe Sinbad) took off my tank and dragged that onto the boat which made it much easier to climb. 

Once we had been debriefed by Khaled (still expressing surprise at my poor performance at the simple tests and no problem with the more complex ones) we then had a complete laze about boat for a couple of hours. The crew also prepared lunch, which was mostly Egyptian style food (lentils, aubergine, small kofta sausages, chicken and rice). [livejournal.com profile] dalg had to finish my plateful as I was still nervous about the second dive and then... second dive which was a lot more accomplished from my point of view and just amazing viewing along the reef. We saw Trumpet fish, yet more spiny fish as well. I noticed at one point when we were at the reef wall with Khaled pointing out interesting things how much the dive actually felt like one of these wildlife programs on diving in the Red Sea, except much, much noisier. You are  breathing from your tank and normally the breath goes out through the regulator. This is pretty noisy in itself but I was being a bit casual and letting the air bubble around my mouthpiece and also through my nose (which had the handy effect of keeping my mask clear. The bubble noise in my case was pretty loud, and as I was sucking in air like there was no tomorrow, I was blowing out much of the time.

There was also the high pitched wine of other dive boats and smaller fishing boats passing overhead. If fact during the second dive it was like Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour. 

One the second dive we also saw a white sea snake on the bottom beside the reef with black stripes which we could not immediately identify. We also saw what we think was a couple of Octopus entangled together, what they were up to I can't imagine. I began to get into the zone on the return from the far side of the reef and felt a lot calmer and relaxed. However, once aboard the dive boat I had the embarrassment of finding out that Khaled still had 140 bar in his tank and [livejournal.com profile] dalg  had 100 and I had less than 50. I was, unfortunately, the weak man of the team, a theme which was to persist throughout the diving on this holiday. 

I was really tired when we got back and went for dinner, although dalg seemed OK. After dinner the four of us lazed about the bar and then dalg and I walked down to dive centre to book for Monday. I’m a glutton for punishment.

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Minor hiccup with timings this morning as I had thought that my phone had sync'd to the local time zone, as it had presented me with a message to that effect after arrival, but when we woke and went down to breakfast at the time we had agreed to meet, it turned out to be an hour after. This meant that we had missed breakfast. Except for the kindness of the manager of the main restaurant room we would not have had anything to eat, but he got the serving boys to find us some pastries and rolls from the breakfast stuff they were clearing away as breakfast had just finished. This formed the hallmark of the good natured, helpful Egyptians we met throughout the holiday. As we hadn't turned up for breakfast [livejournal.com profile] dalg and K had gone down to the beach for a swim and a wander around. We met up about an hour or two later.

The hotel has three swimming pools. One main one in the centre courtyard along with a smaller one for what appears to be water polo and a secret one which few people seem to know about, off a corridor on the first floor which Wendy and K. found on the first full day. We went down there for a quick dip and sunbathe but the sun was actually too hot, even at that time in the morning so we decided to roam around the town and see what we could see. I should say that one of the things I like about the two bigger pools is that the depth starts at about 1.4 meters and goes down to 2.3 meters. This is so much better than pools in the UK which appear to be getting shallower and shallower. I never got the chance to check out the water polo pool.

The hotel room was brillant, we got a family room with three beds, only one a double, so no problems if Wendy and I fell out. This is a panorama of the view out of the window.

Everywhere in Hurghada seems to look like a building site which we think is due to the local regulations of not paying tax until the building is complete. So they just never finish it! 

As we were at the front of the hotel there would have been a problem with the traffic noise. Not the actual sound of the traffic passing, but the horns going at all times of the day and night. It will talk more on this particular subject later. However, we were saved by the air conditioner which we kept on at all times. This effectively drowned out all noise from outside the room.

While wandering about the streets we booked a trip into the desert (Saturday) 'cause it sounded interesting and another to Giftun island (Tuesday) which is not far off the coast and a nature reserve. Dalg and I also booked our first day of diving which he has been planning for quite some time and I was still a bit nervous about. I hadn’t been diving since 1997 when I did an Open Water Diving course while on holiday. The streets were difficult to navigate as everyone greeted you, and the natural tendency was to answer. This gave the street sellers an in and you were immediately invited into their shop. We had been warned about this as [livejournal.com profile] dalg  and K had been to Egypt before. But it was still difficult to compensate.

We then went back to the hotel and hung out beside the 1st floor pool reading and occasionally taking a dip and then went down and drank at the reception area bar. Basically we had a hugely lazy day, just right for a chill out holiday. We (or rather the girls) found a little clothing store beside the hotel entrance where we heard some excellent Egyptian music and met Fathy and his musician brother Shahed in their shop June (Don’t ask me why, they didn’t seem to understand either). They were really nice and we spent a long of time with them in the evenings over the next few days.
We originally ventured in there to get me more shorts and they were not too bad on the hard sell. So we used them a lot when we needed things.

We went down to the beach later at Triton Empire beach resort which was part of the same chain as the hotel and we had full access to (along with free drink) where we swam in the Red sea for the first time. Later on in the bar we saw someone pass out from heat stroke which was a bit disconcerting on your first full day on holiday. We (rather [livejournal.com profile] dalg  and I) drank lots and lots of Orange (which turned out to be Fanta) and Lemon (which turned out to be Sprite). The Orange was a virulent, bright Orange colour and has so much sugar in the carbonated water that it started rotting your teeth before you managed drink it. We coined the name “toxic Orange” and started to ask for it by that name by the second day.

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[livejournal.com profile] dalg , K, Wendy and I, after our great success of going away together in August last year to Paris and not actually killing one another decided to try a longer experiment and go off on holiday together to Egypt. All arrangements were in the hands of K and [livejournal.com profile] dalg , so without further ado, we left on a jet plane, today in the middle of the afternoon.

We flew with GlobeSpan. A four and a half hour journey from Hell with one of the original Witches of the Gorbals sitting just two rows behind us giving everyone on the back half of the plane the benefit of her huge experience of Egypt and by the way what she thought (which was astonishing in itself) of Globespan. All nicely delivered with a voice which could cut glass without effort and easily ward off any boats heading for Beachy head on a foggy night. One could not help noticing that she appeared to be talking with a throat full of broken glass. I also discovered that this was the woman who had the most remarkable way of blowing her nose in such a fashion that it sounded like she has just covered one nostril and blew hard. I hope that was just that it sounded like that, because otherwise I suspect she had just managed to spread swine flu throughout Hurghada and most of Glasgow once we returned. She did not strike me as a very nice person.

I forgot to mention that we kicked off with an extra £52 charge for our luggage to go with us which our travel company had not bothered mentioning to us or paying for. Something for K. to get her teeth into with all the relevant companies once we get back.

Once we arrived at Hurghada Airport we were ferried to the arrival hall by bus. The arrival hall itself was strange. The Police guards outside the door held their berets to their faces and other airport personnel had face marks on. We then discovered we were at the back of a queue which had a woman in a hajab and medical facemask at the front taking the temperature of all passengers with an electronic ear thermometer, presumably checking against swine flu, but nothing was explained to us.

We were cleared for visas very quickly as it appeared our hotel had a specific hotline for the visa distribution. We then joined a queue which we thought was to change money, which seemed reasonable at the time as these were all bank booths. It turned out that these were also for visas which caused the guys who were waiting for us to clear immigration and customs great confusion. I could almost hear them thinking “What are the stupid foreigners doing?”

Interestingly most of the rest of the people in front of us in the immigration queue were Russian who appeared to have come off the plane immediately before ours although K. said that she had heard several Russian speakers near the back of our plane, which is a bit puzzling, why would you fly all they way to Glasgow to transfer on to Egypt?. Once we had waited in the queue for immigration to let them check that we had just bought our visas (?) we handed off the form we got for the ear examination to the next guy in line and finally collected our luggage from the long stopped carousel. I began to think that the stories about the amount of bureaucracy in Egypt were true.

We had one mini adventure when K. found this guy who just said to her, “this way” and naturally she started following him before [livejournal.com profile] dalg  pointed out that he wasn't from our hotel or package company and actually had nothing to do with us. Minor embarrassment all round as we had all dutifully started following him and K. assuming all was well.

We got to the Hotel by minibus which appeared to be for us only. Just us four guests and the three staff sent to pick us up, very strange. When we dropped off one of the staff the others apologised profusely because he could only speak German. By this point we just smiled.
The Hotel; Empire Three corners, is great, It turns out that we were booked on the all inclusive option, presumably because we booked so far in advance, which was a surprise to Wendy and I (which is the good kind of thing which happens when you let someone else do the booking) and meant that all food and drinks in the hotel just need signed for and we are not charged! Brilliant!! To mark us as having this option we were given white wristbands with the name of the hotel chain emblazoned on them similar to the kind of identification bracelet you get when you are in Hospital. We wore these for the next seven days which became a bit of an irritation at times.

With a quick meal in the restaurant off we went to bed to wait and see what would happen tomorrow.


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March 2012

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