x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

My breathtaking dip into another world

Dahab has some of the best reefs and lagoons in the world, with colourful fish swimming between your legs as you wade into the water.

In the almost four years that I have lived in Egypt, there were two attractions that I had not visited, and should have. The first is the Red Sea coast in Sinai, while the second is the Egyptian Museum here in Cairo. I still have not been to the museum, which is a 15-minute walk from my workplace. But I can now say that I have been to the Red Sea coast, and am a much better (and more tanned) person for it.

Taking four days off work, my friend and I travelled to a town called Dahab in the Sinai. Most people living in Egypt, particularly expatriates, will have gone to Dahab several times, so I felt a little embarrassed that this was my first visit. Our flight landed at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Sinai city best known for being the president's playground - where his family spends his holidays, and where important meetings with world leaders are held, especially if they involve leaders from Israel. From Sharm, we took a bus filled with tired travellers coming from Cairo, and arrived to Dahab an hour and a half later.

We were staying with my friend's cousin, in an apartment in a complex literally on the beach. From the main street, we could see the waves crashing onto the shore from the distance as we walked towards the home. White clouds in the air, the wind whistling, desert on one side the sea on the other - we were definitely not in Cairo anymore. Dahab, the Arabic word for gold, is a small town on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula. It used to be a Bedouin fishing village, and while Bedouins still live everywhere in the town, the majority now work in tourism, providing Europeans, Russians and Arabs with a relaxing holiday.

Dahab always had a reputation for being extremely laid-back, filled with hippies smoking on the beach. While it still retains its relaxed nature, these days it is more family-oriented, with people of all kinds visiting from all over the world to take advantage of the superb diving and windsurfing. Dahab also has some of the best reefs and lagoons in the world, with colourful fish swimming between your legs as you wade into the water. After spending most of the first day sleeping and enjoying the clean air, my friend and I took to the sea on the second day armed with snorkelling masks. It was the first time I had been snorkelling, and not being a very strong swimmer, it was a little frightening to dunk my head in deep water and actually breathe.

My reflex was to stop breathing when my head went under water, and for the first few tries I couldn't get used to the snorkel. But once I relaxed my breathing and began to focus on the wonder I was swimming over, it became so enjoyable and calming. Being on the surface of the water, slowly breathing through the tube and swimming an arm's length from a reef was a life-changing experience. It was like swimming in an aquarium of tropical fish, sea anemones, strange underwater plants, eels, but also with divers way below on the sea bed. Turn one way and the reeds extended for miles, with fish wriggling in and out of the corals. Look the other way, and the vast darkness of the cold sea went on and on like a blinding curtain of dark blue.

Watching the divers learning their movements and signals, and swimming so close to the fish at the bottom of the sea was breathtaking. Their hand gestures were slow, the small bubbles escaping their breathing equipment tickled my arms as they rushed up to the surface. As I became more and more comfortable with the underwater breathing, I was able to swim longer and further, finding it harder, however, to hold in muffled gasps or laughs when I bumped into a fish as it swam past me, or an eel as it slithered in front of me. The closeness was surreal. It was as if I had been dumped into an Imax movie about the underwater world.

When we were not swimming, we were relaxing. That is what Dahab is all about. Indeed, some of the restaurant touts would call out to prospective customers, "You want to chill out?", trying to get people to come into their lair of cushions, sheesha smoke and dim lights. I am not sure when I will finally get to the Egyptian Museum, but I am very happy to have ended my record of not visiting the Sinai.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.