Mrs. Sedovic and yours truly have recently spent eight nights in Egypt at the Elphistone resort in Marsa Alam. This was our first classic beach holiday together as well as our first time in Egypt and Africa. I wanted to write down some impressions.
My wife had never been to the sea before this. I’ve been on two short hols when I was a kid and nothing since. I have visited a few coastal cities during my work travel as an adult and I’ve grown enamoured with it. So we wanted go visit the sea properly.
We’d been talking about this for literal years so one day mid-spring we sat down together, looked at some of the options and finally booked a vacation. The process… was not flawless.
We had to go during the summer holiday (my wife is a teacher) and anyway, I worried that going in the spring or autumn might be too cold. So we went to Egypt in the middle of August
We had also not realised certain aspects of the destination until it was much too late. We both kind of assumed it would be a normal-ish (for us Central Europeans) place with a different language, slightly different customs but mostly the same standards regarding food, hygiene, medicine, getting around and so on.
It was only after we talked people who’d already visited the country when we learned about some of the less-desirable aspects.
The Beach itself was amazing. We purposefully selected a sandy beach just to have the most classic beach holiday experience and it was fantastic.
Mostly clean and beautiful. The first ~1000 metres is mostly flat with water reaching to your ankles (low tide) or up to your waist (high tide). This flat part ended by a Coral. Fucking. Reef.
I um… either never knew or forgot about that. So I was not expecting this at all, but it totally made the trip.
At that point, the sea had a depth of about 10 metres. We did not swim far at all, but I’m guessing it just gets deeper very quickly.
The beach had large parasols and chaise longues available. They were free of charge and plenty enough that we always had one for ourselves.
(if some of the terms here are a little off, please excuse me. English is my second language and I’m not versed in the sea vocabulary at all so I’m fishing a little here)
Crucially, there was also a cool water dispenser installed right on the beach so we didn’t have to go back to the hotel for drinking water.
I was really looking forward to the sand – I love the sensation of walking barefoot on it. Unfortunately, it was so incredibly hot that I was in (beach) shoes the whole time there.
I was also a little worried that (this being the Red Sea) we might see the Arabian Peninsula from the beach. There would be nothing wrong with that per se, but I wanted my wife to experience the feeling of seeing the sea extend to infinity. Having a land mass in the distance would spoil that feeling somewhat. Luckily, though they look close on the map, the distance is great enough that the curvature of the Earth does its thing and you just see the great blue vastness ahead.
When we announced to our friends an family we were going to Egypt in August, there was a lot of head-shaking going on. And for a good reason.
The temperatures in the shade easily achieved high thirties and sometimes low forties (Celsius of course). Under the Sun it was even worse. Being in a place that has a higher air temperature than your body is Not Pleasant.
It could be worse though. While the temperatures were high, the air wasn’t terribly humid (apart from one day that was just murderous). The hotel room had an air conditioning which thankfully worked.
The first 3-4 days were the hottest, then it went down to balmy 35°C or so. Which was actually pretty decent.
Other than the temperature, it was quite lovely, actually! The slight breeze helped, so did the parasols.
Of course (or so we’d thought) you could just cool down in the Sea! There’s this massive, incomprehensibly large body of water right there! Surely not even the Sun can keep that warm all the time. Surely!
The sea was really warm. Not hot like a hot bath. But about as warm as those little paddling garden pools for small kids. The ones that have like 10 centimetres of water. On a really hot summer afternoon.
Naturally, it was cooler during the high tide and cooler still in the “depths” past the coral reef. But geez, I did not expect the sea could warm up that much.
Not that we minded terribly, but it was strange. I normally have to steel myself to get into any sort of swimming pool or a natural body of water because I really don’t like stepping into cold water. This was perfectly fine, but it did mean you didn’t cool yourself up much.
There were pretty much never any clouds or rain. Surprisingly (to me) even the nights were really hot. Leaving the air-conditioned room around midnight, you still got slapped by the heat wave outside.
All this meant we’d spent maybe about two hours under the sky every day. Of course we’ve been outside longer than that, but we kept to the shade.
I have never put on sunscreen more religiously than there. Which I’m delighted to say worked swimmingly! My skin has only two states: pale and deep sunburnt red. Thanks to our judicious adherence to the UV dangers, sunscreen and the shade, I had not been burnt even once.
The Coral Reef
Our friends urged us to get some snorkelling equipment and really try it there. Neither of us ever snorkelled before and we weren’t really sure it was going to work, but hey.
I bought a mask that covers your entire face (nose and mouth) and has a tube that automatically locks when under water so you don’t end up with a mouth of salty water at the exact moment you need to take a breath. I’m a poor swimmer and did not want to find out what happens when in that situation.
I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was so fucking amazed. I could breathe and swim easily and the coral reef is just so gorgeous! Different brightly-coloured fish everywhere not to mention the corals themselves being fascinating.
I’m not a water creature in general (the aforementioned poor swimming skills likely have something to do with it) but the mask gave me a freedom I’d never felt in the water before. I felt instantly at home and in awe at the same time.
It actually gave me a motivation to learn to be a better swimmer as that will directly influence any future snorkeling events. This is similar to how I’m now open to training and exercise as it helps in my climbing. I could never bring myself to do any sort of physical training before I discovered climbing.
The reef was teaming with life. I’ve seen a stingray (or some kind of a ray at least), cute little starfish (which we mistook for cracks in the rock first), moray, a positive craptonne of beautiful fish of all colours and sizes including my favourite poisonous fish ever: the lionfish.
I was particularly excited to see that one (from a safe distance) – I’d been reading about these as a kid and they’ve always fascinated me deeply.
While we had seen the most scary-looking sea urchins there (the ones I’d seen until then were quite small with short spines whereas these ones had looong really scary-looking spines), they were embedded deep in the reefs in places that no one would walk.
And finally, we saw um… no idea what, really but the sea floor was lousy with them. They had a base like say anemones might, but they did not have tentacles. Instead they had what looked like leafs. I’m not even sure whether they were plants or animals (I’m guessing the latter). One thought was maybe they were coral polyps because they look kinda sorta similar, but I thought those were super tiny. These were around 20-30 cm in diameter.
Or maybe they really were some weird anemones with weirdly-shaped tentacles that don’t sting (humans). I dunno.
Thankfully, we had no seen any jellyfish either. I’d love to see some, but the stings if they were in the water with us are probably not worth it.
The Elphistone Resort
We stayed at the Elphistone Resort. It’s a little fenced (they all are) hotel in the middle of a desert. You’re not allowed to leave the premises. For your own safety, which for once, I actually believed. Egypt as a whole is not necessarily friendly everywhere.
The place is a combination of comfort and decay. There was a huge variety of food there (including hummus and pita every day – yum!). It was certainly built to be luxurious. Wide places, decoration, comfortable housing, several outdoor swimming pools in addition to the beach. In addition to the shops, it had its own well-stocked pharmacy and even a doctor on staff.
And yet, it was not all polish and gleam. The place had a little bit of a run-down feel. Like something that’s been built to be gorgeous but was not maintained to the level it needed to be. Which did not really bother us but it was noticeable.
What did bother us were the ants and earwigs in our rooms, the holes in the bathtub, the fact that the room service never refilled things such as the soap or toilet paper unless we explicitly asked them.
And that they just took our dirty towels and folded them as if they were new. That one took us longer than I’m comfortable to admit to realise.
Of course you can ask them to spray the bugs, change the towels and put in a new TP roll – for a tip.
It may have been a four-star hotel once, but we kind of expected more based on the glowing reviews. Still, none of this was horrible (other than the ants) and we had quite a pleasant stay.
The tap water tended to smell faintly of sewage. We knew we weren’t supposed to drink it, but that was not a great feeling. At least we never drank it by accident.
The air conditioning worked thank goodness.
The food situation was a little strange. We had the all-inclusive option, thinking it meant we could get food whenever we felt peckish. My wife is perfectly happy with stuffing herself three times a day and coasting between the meals, but I tend to eat smaller portions more often.
That didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. The main courses were buffet-style all you can eat with an excellent choice and an impressive dessert offering.
But if you wanted to eat in-between the meals, there were three one-hour slots spread out throughout the day where you could get some sweet pastry and that was it.
While we did plan to just go for a beach holiday, we were offered several options for travel and we decided to spend one day on a trip to Luxor.
Following the hotel theme, this was a roller-coaster of emotions. We were told the travel there and back takes about 4.5 to 5 hours by the bus each. That was about the upper limit we were willing to go through. A trip to Cairo (and the pyramids!) was estimated at 9.5 hours one way so we opted for this more accessible version.
Well. The way there took 7.5 hours and the way back whooping 8.5. There were two bathroom stops on the way there and one back. The bus itself was free of such luxuries as bathrooms, reclining seats or seat belts. On reflection, I’m glad the drivers didn’t rush.
The road itself was literally through the desert. Completely barren. You could see occasional five walls that just barely made a dwelling or an abandoned city, but it was gruelling. On my wife’s suggestion (probably wise but still) I did not bring my laptop on the bus, the one physical book I had was finished already and I’m unable to sleep in the horizontal position.
It is times like these where Cory Doctorow’s Ninja Travel company idea (they break into your house, put you to sleep, pack you and your cargo up and wake you up at the destination) feels extremely appealing. Alas.
We’ve passed through several checkpoints – all manned by laid-back folks with (semi?-)automatic weapons.
But we also drove along the Nile river and that’s been an absolute sight for the sore eyes after hours of desert and ridiculous poverty and decay. We even sailed across it (just from a bank to bank) and even that far from the delta, everything became alive there.
And the sights themselves. Oh my god.
We’ve been to see Karnak (a beautiful “open-air museum” with several sphinxes, gorgeous pillars and so many hieroglyphics), the Valley of the Kings – a post-pyramid burial ground including the tomb of Ramesses II a.k.a. Ozymandias (sadly, almost all of them robbed and this particular one inaccessible) and the Temple of Hatshepsut.
But in addition to all these being fascinating sites in their own rights. And I mean absolutely gorgeous. They had a special deep connection to our hearts. The Egyptian mythology and visuals inspired works I hold very dear in my heart.
First, obviously, Stargate. One of my dearest sci-fi movies (the original) and shows. It is heavily inspired by Egypt and the pyramid era and so these places felt like being on a real early Stargate mission.
Second, maybe less obviously: Spelunky. This little platformer game took over my life for a period of roughly two years and in addition to featuring a literal Egypt-inspired level with a hidden City of Gold as well as Anubis as an enemy, in order to access the hidden extra bonus area that is the real game, you need two items.
And the Eye of Horus a.k.a. Udjat Eye:
These hieroglyphs for these two symbols were everywhere. It was a spelunker’s heaven.
And finally, Watchmen. The best comic book I have ever read. I wasn’t even thinking about it – it’s one of my travel books. As in, a book I bring with me on travels.
And bringing it to Egypt was wonderfully beautifully thematic. One of the main characters is called Ozymandias (the Greek name for Ramesses II.) and is heavily inspired by Egyptian mythology. Especially the final chapters were an absolute joy to finish in Egypt. Reading about Karnak in the book and going to see Karnak within the space of hours was absolutely brilliant.
This section will mostly be complaints. Please understand that we’d only met a handful of people, in very contrived situations (guides, sellers and so on) and we are both very strong introverts who in almost all situations prefer to be left alone and not disturbed.
None of this is passing any judgement on the Egyptian populace as a whole or even any well-defined subset.
Everywhere we were in Luxor, we have found the people we interacted with extremely unpleasant. They were very pushy, sneaky and greedy. They approached you seeming innocent and friendly, but there was always a hidden agenda: to get as much money out of you as they could.
For example, when we were in Karnak walking among the pillars, a man approached us and showed us a nice view to take a picture of. Which we did, thank him and were considering to tip him (we were told this is to be expected) when he offered to take a picture of us. So we handed him our phone, he took a few pics and we gave him some money.
Then, transaction completed we wanted to wander around at our own pace, but instead of leaving he kept following us. When we tried to make some distance he grabbed one of us by the arm and showed us a different sight. Again, gorgeous and we were glad to see it but we started to get very uncomfortable (I really strongly dislike when someone touches me) he took another picture and managed to call up two other men who, having done nothing whatsoever of use, also demanded a tip.
At that point he was still holding the phone he took the last picture of us with. Now feeling surrounded, we coughed up some more money (clearly less than they were hoping for), took the phone and got the fuck out of there.
The whole experience only took a few minutes but it was extremely unpleasant and frankly, frightening. And things like that were happening all over the place. We soon wisened up and cut off even any attempt at a conversation before it even started, opting for being rude and passing up possibly meaningful conversations for a piece of mind.
I cannot stress how unpleasant having to use rudeness as a defense mechanism is for me. I always try to be really polite, but that seemed to just invite being pushed and taken advantage of in here.
Sometimes people literally stood in a doorway or a hall, seemingly barring the way through unless you’ve interacted with them. I just held my wife close, said loudly “No thank you” and kept on walking. They always relented.
And that’s the thing. It is perfectly possible that this is just the expected behaviour – if you stop for a chat, you’re fair game and it’s your fault that you didn’t just walk on. But Jesus Fucking Christ that is extremely impolite and just so uncomfortable.
Also, all of these people (indeed everyone we did actually interact with – including drivers, shopkeepers, guides, cooks, servers, room service and so on) were men. Sometimes quite scary-looking men.
When we go sight-seeing, my wife and I have very different patterns and rhythms. She has her phone out, snapping picture after picture walking at a slow pace, looking at everything. I tend to just observe, walking quickly and taking a general view and then stop for ages at something that catches my fancy.
So we tend to walk independently, reuniting at the end.
What this meant in practice was that I was mostly left alone to count the relative occurrence of the Ankh and Udjat Eye hieroglyphs whereas she kept being stopped and harassed for money every few steps.
As soon as I’ve realised, I’d stopped what I was doing and went into a bit of a bodyguard mode. A woman alone is an easy mark. Especially a small friendly looking one like Mrs. Sedovic.
So instead, I had to be constantly on her side, shooing off any advances (which just by mere presence dropped considerably anyway).
And again, this did work nicely. We were bothered much less. But still, we simply could not enjoy ourselves as much as we hoped.
To a lesser degree, we’d encounter the same behaviour at the beach. After swimming, we both lied down on our lawn chairs, reading in the lovely sea breeze. Every few minutes we were interrupted by people trying to sell us a fishing trip, camel ride, massage or quad bike ride. They disappeared with a firm “No thanks”, but your place in the book was lost already, not to mention your inner piece.
And of course the whole thing repeated the next time you went to the beach.
I’m sure there are people who delight in this. They have a nice little chat and in the end they either buy whatever they were offered, or not. As far as I could tell, that was all perfectly okay.
But we just wanted to read a damn book in piece, thank you very much.
Oh and guess what: as soon as I left (to bring drinks or go to the bathroom), my wife attracted all the attention immediately.
The Pharaoh’s Curse
Another thing we’ve only discovered after booking the trip: it is apparently pretty much given that at least any Czech visitor will experience strong diarrhoea while being there and there’s not really that much you can do about it.
There’s actually even a term for the Egypt-induced gastric distress in my native tongue: the Pharaoh’s Curse (not sure whether other countries have this – all the search results talk about legends of actual curses).
We’d visited our doctor ahead of time, had some meds prescribed, read about what to eat and what to avoid and all that. And until the very last day, nothing happened! We were a little queasy but that was it.
I was gradually feeling more and more smug, thinking it’s the idiotic habit of overeating that many Czechs have and that if you don’t do that, you’ll be just fine.
So of course it hit us really hard on our way back. Which was not pleasant. I don’t even know how we managed to get back home, but we’ve been very sick for about three days after and then it slowly started to get better.
I’ve never (in my memory) had fevers as high as that (and as seemingly resistant to NSAIDs and the like). Eventually it passed and we got better but yea, that was bad. Like really really bad.
The silver lining here is that it didn’t happen on the first day (which would have kind of ruined the whole trip).
But still, especially in my condition I absolutely have to avoid anything that triggers the immune system unnecessarily. This means avoiding infectious diseases, curing them fully and properly when I can’t (no ignoring them and pushing past) and of distressingly, not getting any unnecessary vaccines (which makes me disgusted and frightened not to mention genuinely threatened by the seemingly rampant vaccine denial).
In the end, we are both really glad we went there. But, if we knew what we do now, we probably would not have gone an it would have been for the better.
I can deal with the haggling and pushy attitudes towards the tourists if I know what to expect (which I do now). But the lack of freedom and more importantly, the health risks this poses are too much.
Next time we’ll do what we were supposed to and spend more time researching the potential destinations.