(Part I of a three-part entry!)
In a way, elections in Cairo are the antithesis to Jaws: Jaws sent folks running from the beach, while election days and long weekends result in a mass exodus of Cairo’s expat community to swanky Red Sea resorts. It’s something of the same effect Memorial Day Weekend has on the BENNYs, except expats don’t trash the beaches and subject uncomfortable locals to their spray tans.
For me, the four-day weekend was a blessing; four weekends spent living out of a now musty-smelling North Face backpack earned me one weekend curled up on the couch with a book. When my friends mentioned a diving trip, I considered it for a while before declining. I was 100% ready to spend four days in the confines of my apartment, and I announced this with all the conviction I could muster.
“Are you coming?” Kilian asked at rugby.
“No,” I told him.
“Well…I need to rest…” (Already the argument sounded vastly pathetic.)
“So, you’re coming?”
And so, after spending Wednesday running errands and weaving my way through optimistically long lines at the polls with a stack of books tucked beneath my arms, I was off with the best of them. Kilian, Annie, Judson, and Thomas piled into Kilian’s car while I followed with Toshi and Reiko in their mandated company car. (Toshi’s company will not allow him to drive anywhere on his own, providing him with a posh car and slightly conservative driver.) The five hour ride to Hurghada could have been much worse, but I was fortunate enough to be in the company of two very cool people. Reiko, who started rugby in January, is a tiny, ebullient gal who’s speedy on the rugby pitch and consistently peppy off it. At a rest stop on the way, she was overcome with excitement at spotting an Amr Diab CD. It provided the soundtrack for a good hour or so of the trip, and that was fine by me.
Everyone on the trip, apart from Judson and me, was an avid diver. In fact, this weekend’s trip marked Reiko’s 200th dive, which she accepted with the usual smile and a modest cheer. (No big deal. Exploring the sea floor 200 times is as normal as going grocery shopping on Sundays.) Here I thought diving was a sport to be enjoyed sporadically and on holiday; for most of them, diving is a serious hobby, a fact I learned later through conversation and after flipping through their diving logs.
The trip to Hurghada was almost uneventful until Kilian experienced an oil leak about 30 km outside of the city. Fortunately, Toshi somehow arranged for us to get it fixed at a shop in a shantytown on the outskirts of Hurghada, and all was well. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant where we ordered obscene amounts of seafood and met Ahmed, a dive master.
[Side Note: Ahmed is employed by the military here in Egypt. When we asked who he voted for, he shook his head and said, “I’m not allowed to vote. Military and police are not allowed to vote.”
This sparked quite the conversation, with many of us protesting pointlessly that all people are “citizens first,” and therefore deserve the right to vote. But democracy is new to Egypt, and many Egyptians feel like they didn’t get the right to vote until after the revolution anyway, so baby steps. (Ahmed also believed that this was true in the UK and the US as well, and it took quite a bit of naysaying on mine and Judson’s part to convince him otherwise.)]
Ahmed took us to the “new marina,” a glitzy avenue lined with pubs and overpriced bikini shops, and informed us that the boat would be arriving shortly.
Let me take a minute to describe exactly what I expected from this boat. The only boat I’ve really been on is a small, cozy vessel belonging to Jenny and Greg. Before embarking on this trip, Annie and Sarah had reassured me that this would be a five-star boat; each cabin would include two beds and one shared bathroom. At this point, I was basically picturing a yacht. As we walked along the marina toward our boat, passing massive schooners with exotic names, tinted windows, and sleek exteriors, I eagerly searched for the name “Happy Boat” (which should’ve been a red flag right there) and finally found it.
Our boat was small by comparison, but I was optimistic. Annie and I descended into the cabin area and proceeded down a short, narrow hallway to locate our room. Instead of a room, we found this:
Where was Captain Quint? This seemed like a vessel fitted for Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws team. We wrenched open a tiny porthole, frowned, decided we’d sleep on the deck, and then left to find the bathroom.
There would be no private bathrooms on this trip; the sole toilet on the floor was located at the end of the ‘hall’ and required manual pumping and switch flipping if you were hoping to flush it. Reiko showed me how to do this, but we both gave up when the water came back up and splashed us in the face.
By the time we’d unloaded our things and joined the captain outside, I’d begun to question my decision. There was still time. I could feign illness and catch a cab back to Cairo if I wanted.
The conversation that followed seemed to suggest that this was a good idea.
The captain was shaking his head.
“I thought we were going to Thistlegorm. That was the plan. I don’t like the Salem Express. I won’t dive there, I’ve never dived there. It’s against my religion. I’m not happy about this.”
He continued talking about the itinerary for the next two days, but I was still hanging on these words. Why wouldn’t he dive there? What did this mean? Judson seemed to have the same questions and asked the captain to elaborate.
The captain explained that it’s against Islamic belief to enter a “tomb yard,” and that was precisely what the Salem Express was. While a shipwreck can be a Mecca for diving enthusiasts, the Salem Express is widely regarded as a controversial dive site because of the amount of fatalities involved and the fact that it sunk so recently. (Also because many of the bodies are still entombed in the ship.)
“I can still remember when it happened,” the captain went on. “It was in the ‘90s, and everyone died. Those who survived the sinking of the ship were eaten by sharks. I can still remember friends who were sent out on the rescue mission, and how they described the fresh bodies…”
The captain went on to describe the wreck, and his story checks out (mostly) against what I found online. A ferry boat, the Salem Express shuttled passengers from Jeddah to Safaga until December 17, 1991, when the ship struck the Hyndman Reefs and sunk in less than twenty minutes. It sunk fairly close to the shore; over 100 passengers were actually carried to shore by the current – and nowhere can I find evidence of anyone being eaten by sharks. But here’s where the controversy comes in. The Egyptian Navy were sent to locate and retrieve the bodies of the 600 who perished at sea, but as time went on, the search became too dangerous, so officials sealed the ship and left it a designated graveyard.
Meaning the remaining bodies are sealed in the ship. Spooked yet? Add to that the lingering unease and sacrilege involved with diving into a “tomb yard” and you’ve got one seriously eerie patch of sea.
As if this wasn’t horrifying enough, at that exact moment, the Titanic theme song began to play from God knows where. I kid you not. Panicked, I frantically scanned my friends’ faces for mutual looks of terror, but no one seemed to have heard it.
A bit shaken, I accompanied my friends to the other end of the marina to have drinks. Keeping with the theme of the night, Kilian and Thomas regaled us with equally horrifying tales of divers who panicked at the bottom of the sea. One diver lost his companions while swimming through an underwater tunnel and couldn’t find his way out the way he’d come in. He decided to ascend through a chimney and got stuck. He removed his BCD (the vest that allows you to float to the surface over a controlled amount of time) to free himself and then swam to the surface with no regulated timing. He survived. Thomas told us a story of a diver who panicked and knocked his regulator off, couldn’t breathe, and “sank like a stone.” He was rescued. He’d also been drinking beforehand.
I returned to the boat seriously questioning my decision to join the trip and why diving was even appealing at all. I joined Annie at the bow of the ship, where we dragged our pillows and blankets out to create makeshift beds. Kilian, Judson, and Thomas joined us later, presumably after concluding their creepy diving ghost stories, and we all attempted to fall asleep beneath the stars, the boat snug in the harbor, the jarring sound of bass pumping through the night from a club across the water.