A drive to Dahab, or six hours of French immersion

Back home, most people wouldn’t drive six hours to get to the beach for a weekend. Cramming into the back seat of a car, contorting your body into bizarre and unpleasant angles, and trying to maintain a comfortable balance between hydration and bladder control do seem to pay off when you arrive at your breezy hotel, but the idea of repeating all of this a mere 30 hours later is a deterrent for many.

It’s much the same in Egypt; throw in a few military checkpoints and the added risk of possibly being kidnapped and you have yourself an Egyptian road trip to Dahab.

From the beginning, the road trip brought with it a decidedly Egyptian feel. This would not be a trip down the Parkway, pockmarked with your usual toll booths, traffic signals, and western order. I recognized this just minutes before setting off, when my Gmail account notified me of an e-mail from the BCA, the British expat club. (Note: I receive my security warning messages from a British expat club because the US appears to be deeply resentful of my leaving it and never e-mails me security warnings concerning my safety, despite having registered myself on the list three times since I’ve been here and once before moving to Buenos Aires.)

There, sandwiched between news of thieves operating in the area and a desert shooting, I found this message:

Kidnapping:

The embassy also reports the kidnapping of 2 US nationals in South Sinai last night. They understand the incident to have taken place near Nuweiba and they also report that there have also been incidents of robberies and roadblocks on Sinai roads. The embassy therefore urges you to exercise caution when traveling outside resorts in the Sinai, and to take advice from local security authorities as well as tour operators where appropriate.

This I read with increasing alarm, which only worsened when another e-mail arrived as an almost afterthought, mentioning that the desert roads leading to resort towns – such as the road to Dahab – were currently dangerous. I glanced at my packed bag and weighed my options. Diving…staying home. Getting kidnapped…staying home.

The obvious answer here is “diving,” so I hopped in a cab to meet the first of my French travel friends at the airport. Georges had just spent a leisurely week in Aswan and thought he’d throw in an additional leisurely weekend at the Red Sea.

It may seem counterproductive to many of you to drive 45 minutes to an airport only to meet someone and to leave again, but Georges insisted on accompanying me to the “meeting point,” and I’m glad he did. Instead of picking a gas station or, I don’t know, an especially unique watermelon stand, Kilian arranged to meet us in the middle of nowhere, and that is not an exaggeration. We were to rendez-vous at the 84th kilometer marker on the Suez Road. I had no idea where this was, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the kilometer marker was invisible to me. Fortunately, Georges was very familiar with the area and easily guided our driver, a man called Omar who’d offered his shiny company car at the airport, to the roadside where Kilian claimed he would find us within ten minutes.

Omar would not allow us to stand on the side of the road, and rightly so. The area was dangerous, he told us as a semi plowed by, the force of its wind shaking our car in its frame. Omar began to appear panicked, clutching the steering wheel nervously and staring out the back window. I began to worry, but Omar calmed me down.

“Sometimes the drivers of this big trucks, they are asleep or they drink, and -” he clapped his hands together and shook his head.

Feeling so much safer, I watched as Omar’s anxiety increased with every passing minute. He asked us to call Kilian. He told us about Mubarak. He showed us how a dam worked by emptying my water bottle. He mopped the sweat off his brow and gnashed his teeth wildly.

By the time Kilian arrived thirty minutes later, Omar was ready to abandon us to roadside perils and find a notably steep cliff to drive his car off of. And so began our six hour road trip.

desert driving

Aside from the danger involved, what makes this trip exceptionally unusual is the amount of French people involved. I spent much of the trip shrouded in my own silent bubble while my friends chattered excitedly in French. I took French for seven years. It’s a cruel and frustrating thing, thinking you know the language. You derive a certain confidence and pleasure from being able to read and write in another language, but when it comes to understanding it spoken orally, you are sorely unequipped.

The French tapes do nothing to prepare you for what French actually sounds like. All those years of listening intently to a conversation casually taking place in some kind of crowded public venue did nothing to improve my listening ability. Pierre and Claire would be having a chat in the middle of a busy intersection or at a football match or directly in front of a subwoofer. They would ask, in enunciated, mellifluous voices, whether or not it might be a good idea to join Guillaume at the park or perhaps get an orange juice and steak at the corner cafe. They would calmly repeat their questions, and you would happily describe their exchange on your test, feeling confident that if you were at that intersection in Paris with Pierre and Claire, you too would be able to offer your opinion.

In fact, you’re capable of no such thing. The French speak so quickly with a more guttural, nasal twang, blending their words together in one long, indecipherable string. You don’t need an intersection to complicate dialogue; you just need two actual French people. A word you are entirely familiar with, like mieux, may actually have three extra syllables you didn’t know about. I found it best to just shut up and save them from having to deal with me. (I’ve also found that the few times I mispronounce a word, I end up saying something unforgivably dirty.)

But the trip wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Some people might find the miles of monotonous desert to be boring, but I enjoy spotting the occasional scribble of scrub popping up amidst the sand, and the desert sunset never gets old. If there is ever a place to see a sunset, the desert is it. All those flat miles of sand, that receding horizon, the massive parabola of sky overhead, all of it just swallows up the sun, and you get to watch from the moment it begins its descent to the moment it drops, dusty and dimmed, beyond the horizon. You’re not really watching it so much as you’re a part of it.

With the sunset came a sudden peppering of stars overhead; the horizon and the sky inkily mingled, and the gentle sounds of Booba, a very angry French rapper hailing from the “Ouest Side,” filled the car. (I made out a few words, such as ‘pedophile’ and ‘Glock,’ and Georges politely whispered, “I can translate, if you wish.” I later learned that Booba did have a pretty rough life, and that a large portion of his fan base is comprised of twelve-year-olds. He also threw half a bottle of Jack into the audience at a recent concert. What a waste!)

In the last hour of our drive, we reached a dark ribbon of road unraveling through foreboding, mountainous crags. This was apparently a Bedouin hangout spot. Kilian turned the radio down.

“What do we do if we get kidnapped?” he asked. Surprised – partly at the question, partly because it was one of the first English phrases I’d heard in a while – I thought.

“What, just me?”

“No. All of us. What should we do?”

“Hmm. I think we should probably try to barter something. Make a trade.”

“Ah, excellent idea.”

I mentally sorted through the contents of my backpack. No Rolexes, but perhaps the Bedouins wouldn’t mind some Sudafed or prescription sunscreen.

“We will give you and Marie,” Kilian announced.

We followed the road deeper into the canyons. I half expected sand people to come pouring down from the hillsides; I am certain this is where George Lucas got his inspiration for the rogue attack featured in the first Star Wars film.

It was with relief that we turned into the parking lot of the Mercure, a lovely Egyptian hotel that lacked both air conditioning and English speaking receptionists. We were shown to our rooms by a positively inclined man whose answer to everything was “yes.”

Marie and I turned on our air conditioning and put down our things. I mentally added this room and this bed to the long list of things I’ve been elated to see, showered, and fell instantly asleep.

view from the hotel

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