How can one even begin to sum up a month like this? I guess I say it was one of those dream come true trips for me. The longer you travel, the harder it can be to feel that wild rush you got the first time you got on a plane. Lately, I felt like I’d really begun to lose touch with my adventurous roots — those crazy trips where you throw your cards on the table and really put your heart on the line.
Diving into a region that challenged me with some truly crazy adventures was just the six week trip that I was craving. It really was, despite months of planning, a super down-to-the-line spontaneous trip, in a lot of ways. All of it really came together as it happened, and I often had no idea what was going to be next.
Three countries, eighteen dives, a hundred smiles, and possibly the most bed-slept-in-per-month record for Alex in Wanderland. This was my trip to the Middle East (well, the first month of it anyway.) Wow, did it ever hit the spot.
Where I’ve Been
• Two nights in Kuwait City, Kuwait
• Four nights in Cairo, Egypt
• One night in Luxor, Egypt
• One night in Aswan, Egypt
• Two nights sailing down the Nile, Egypt
• One night in Luxor, Egypt
• One night in Cairo, Egypt
• One night in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
• Three nights sailing on the Red Sea, Egypt
• Five nights in Dahab, Egypt
• One night in Ras Abu Gallum, Egypt
• One night in Dahab, Egypt
• One night in Eilat, Israel
• One night in Ein Bokek, Israel
• One night of overnight transit in Israel
• One night at the Sea of Galilee, Israel
• Two nights in Tel Aviv, Israel
• Country number 36. Simply getting to Kuwait, one of the least touristed countries in the world, was an exciting milestone in itself. Once inside, the highlight of my brief time there was surely the aptly named Grand Mosque tour — talk about tile envy.
• Kuwait, there’s more! Okay, yeah, so I’m not ashamed to say it — making Kuwait puns to myself was a true source of joy.
• Mad about Maadi. I was obsessed with my dirt-cheap, design-magazine-esque Cairo Airbnb. Leafy, modern, chic Maadi was no hassle, no stress, and I felt this crazy surge of energy walking through its streets — that familiar rush of being on the road alone again. I couldn’t have picked a better base.
• A quirky day at a site built by aliens. Okay, so the pyramids weren’t built by aliens (OR WERE THEY) but I did have a very eccentric day here nonetheless. Lunch at Egypt’s Pizza Hut with a million dollar view, sweating in and sneaking photos from the belly of the Grand Pyramid, and a hooptie ride across the desert. What more could a girl ask for?
• Acting like a local. It’s the little things in life — I can’t tell you how much pride it gave me to figure out how to ride the Cairo metro and get myself from Maadi all the way to my day of sightseeing for a whopping eleven cents. People watching in the women-only carriage was a blast, and the sights on the other end — the gorgeous Egyptian Museum and the surprisingly authentic Khan Al-Khalili Market, were incredible.
• Valley of Kings. Wow, was I ever blown away by this place. I honestly didn’t even know what these underground tombs were before arriving in Egypt (hi, who am I and what have I done with the version of myself that over-researches EVERY aspect of a trip before departure?), but I was totally entranced by them. I can’t stop thinking about the one Egyptian King who’s tomb has yet to be discovered!
• Sailing the River Nile. Wow, guys — not just a highlight of this month but of my travels, ever. From the days spent lazily watching the world go by to the nights of circling around a bonfire on the banks of the river, this is a memory I’ll never forget. Watching a local boy bathing a baby camel and waving to us excitedly from shore, hanging onto a rope behind the boat and shrieking with the joy of it all, dancing to the crew’s drum circle, tipsy on Egyptian wine — these are the moments I travel for.
• Turning a frown upside down. So without question, Egypt’s heartbreaking trash problem, and our single-use-plastic frenzy on my tour, were slated to end up in the lowlights column. And then this happened. Y’all, we can make a difference.
• A night to remember. So, Egypt is not much of a “nightlife destination” — but we still managed one killer one. In fact, seeing the Temple of Luxor all gorgeously lit against the starry night sky is one of my favorite moments from Egypt. After touring it, I went out to dinner with my tour BFF Erica and my Thailand BFF Shannon and her man Sam, and we had such a blast swapping Egypt travel tales and filling them in on our tour drama. (I love tour drama. It’s like a reality show!) After, Erica and I found some of the boys from our group and wrangled everyone to Luxor’s lone Irish bar, where we proceeded to take over the music and eventually the drink-making as the bemused owner air-cheersed us from the other side of the bar (fear not, we tipped him handsomely, especially when he stayed open an hour late for us.) It was worth the hangover.
• Pomegranate-flavored Schweppes. Yes, this is the first time a soda has been featured as a Great Escape Highlight and yes, it will probably be the last. But I can’t explain how much happiness every can of this sugary, fizzy joy brought me in the dry desert heat — it will be my very first purchase upon my inevitable return to Egypt.
• Lifelong friends. Along the same lines as soda, (just kidding), I made some truly incredible friends on my tour in Egypt. Even months later, with that new friendship glow long since worn off, there are several that I can’t wait to see and squeeze again in another corner of the world.
• An airport reunion. How lucky am I to have friends willing to go on such amazing adventures with me. Kat is one of my friends I always seem to be planning something with — we were so giddy when we found each other in Cairo and realized woo hoo, we made this happen!
• Seeking our own Sharm. I kind of knew ahead of time that Sharm El Sheikh, our liveaboard departure point, wasn’t going to be our favorite place ever. Yet we found some things to genuinely love there — our charming guesthouse, Sinai Old Spices, the jaw-dropping Farsha Cafe, and a cheap but chic hammam spa treatment at a beachfront resort.
• Four days at sea. Seriously, the vibe of our liveaboard was 100%. Dive, nap in the sun, eat yummy Egyptian food, repeat. I CANNOT WAIT to start tackling my liveaboard bucket list again. It was just so great to totally disconnect from the real world. This totally fired up my love for them.
• The little mermaid. With ten dives in four days, some clear winners emerged — I loved our cleanup dive for obvious reasons, I was shockingly obsessed with The Thistlegorm, and I had two of the coolest animal encounters of my life with both the dolphins we swam with and a bold octopus on one of our reef dives.
• Darling Dahab. This was it! The place in Egypt I loved not for a certain sight or activity but for the vibe. Dahab is simple, charming, and bohemian. Yes, the diving was amazing (getting my teeth cleaned by some wrasse and descending into a heart-shaped canyon were two highlights) but I honestly would have loved it just for the topside. It is (well, probably alongside Cairo) the one place in Egypt I know I’m going back to.
• Gone glamping. Could I have possibly asked for a dreamier end to Egypt than our trip to Ras Abu Gallum? Wow, it was so magical! Some of the most beautiful diving I’ve ever done, with one of the most talented photographers I’ve ever buddied with, in one of the dreamiest, end-of-the-earth paradises I’ve ever found. And there were SEMI-WILD CAMELS EVERYWHERE! I couldn’t stop pinching myself that I’d found this place.
• Crossing over. Truly, I feel like I fell in love with Israel from pretty much the moment I walked over the border. I felt oddly at home, immediately. (Maybe it was the fact that I put on shorts and ate a burger, ha!) But on a serious note, I was long intrigued by this place and so are all of you, based on the feedback I got from my trip both on social media in real time and in retrospect, as I’ve blogged about it. It’s just a magnetic, fascinating country that even after nearly three weeks, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of.
• A unique stamp in my dive log. Mere hours after arriving in Israel, I set off on one of the most unique scuba trips of my life — three seas in three days! It was super exciting to get to be the first to experience this trip that I think has the potential to change the face of the diving industry in Israel. Everyone knows about Eilat, and there’s good reason for that. But there’s so, so much more, like…
• …diving in The Dead Sea! It was one of my proudest moments of my entire scuba career. I was sick with anxiety over diving with a full face mask, with so much weight, in one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water, and yet I overcame it. And I’ve never felt like such a badass.
• Seeing the Sea of Galilee. Again, my trip was so unplanned and spontaneous, it just kind of unraveled as it happened. I hadn’t thought I’d get to see the north of Israel, on this trip, and so what a delight it was to get practically all the way to the border of Lebanon, take a wild boat ride alongside dramatic sea cliffs, visit an ancient city, sleep in a kibbutz, and even swim in the Sea of Galilee. All in the course of about 24 hours. Wild!
• Arriving in Tel Aviv. I feel like it was a city I’d been waiting to visit for years, and I felt right at home the moment I arrived. I didn’t do much, in these first two nights (um, did you see the month I had before it!? I was exhausted!) but I did have some great food, meet up with an old friend, soak up amazing city vibes, and get super excited for my return later in the trip.
• Arms wide open. My overwhelming highlight of the Middle East? The hospitality, almost unlike anywhere else I’ve experienced in the world. The tour guides that I spent quality time with were incredible — Ahmed was the greatest dive guide I’ve ever had, and Sam was hilarious and personable. But even those we met in passing were the warmest, most wonderfully welcoming people we’d ever encountered. Sinai in particular is worth traveling to just to experience the congeniality alone.
Lowlights and Lessons
• In the “things that were missed” category. So, it’s inevitable on a long trip you won’t get to see everything you want to see. I succumbed to a jetlag nap and missed my chance to visit the House of Mirrors in Kuwait — oops. Shannon, Sam and I were all super excited to have a night out in Cairo — we researched a cool jazz club, a bellydancing show, and all kinds of fun. Then we realized it was a Muslim holiday and no bars were open, nor was alcohol being sold. Womp womp. In Aswan, I missed visiting Philae Temple because I felt certain I’d die if I spent one more second on the tour bus (more on that in a hot minute.) Also, I mean, I mean, I did miss a Katy Perry concert in order to go to Kuwait — but just kidding, it was the right call.
• In the “things that were underwhelming” category. So, um, mummies are gross. I was genuinely excited to see them at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, until I remembered that mummies are shriveled little dead people, and then I wanted to throw up. Definitely could have skipped paying extra for that ticket. In Sharm El Sheikh, Sahaba Mosque and Naama Center Old Market were both very underwhelming. In retrospect we shouldn’t have tried to sightsee in a beach town, and I’m not sure why didn’t just post up on sun loungers instead.
• In the “transportation things that went disastrously” category. Thankfully I had that new country buzz and so it didn’t get me down, but I had what was objectively a very frustrating airport experience upon landing in Kuwait — waiting over an hour in line only to be told I needed to go on a ridiculous wild goose chase through the airport to get some paperwork approved before I could enter the country. It was a confusing and chaotic mission that could have been cleared up with a few well placed signs, but I made it eventually. In Cairo, I had an Uber literally break down on the road and had to apologetically call a new one while my driver tried to put out a literal fire under the hood. And departing Cairo for Sharm El Sheikh, I was given an extremely hard time about trying to carry on my diving regulators — I got held by security and worried I might miss my flight. Upon landing, our luggage came out on the international rather than domestic side and we had to fight with security to be able to get in to get our bags, and then were on the wrong side of the airport from our irate driver.
Mostly, all those paled in comparison to how much I loathed the bus on my mainland Egypt tour so much I dedicated several paragraphs to ranting about it — I still have nightmares. That was, far and away, the major lowlight of the month — I. hated. that. bus.
Sharm El Sheikh
• In the “things I could only blame myself for” category. Let’s just start with the fact that I flooded my new (well, used, technically) strobe. I was rushing and I paid dearly for it. Such a bummer — though one that almost every underwater photography enthusiast will face at some point! Also, I really packed the wrong wetsuit — which meant I was basically cold on 17 out of the 18 dives I went on this month (the Dead Sea was pretty toasty!) Frankly, I was sometimes cold on land too — we were shocked by how chilly it got in the evenings in late April when the sun went down and the wind picked up.
Finally, I really wildly overpacked in general. It was just such a diverse trip and I was also essentially in transit home for the summer, so it was a complicated situation, but dang. I was constantly straining under the weight of my stuff, trying to stash a bag here or there that I could circle back for, and just stressing about how to get from point a to point b with all my crap. I’ll try to learn from this for my next big backpacking adventure!
• In the “things no one can control” category. So, the Dead Sea Dive is a once in a lifetime opportunity… and I didn’t get once in a lifetime conditions. Extremely unusual flooding left the sea’s visibility at an all-time low, with a thin layer of ash covering all the normally glittery salt formations. The crew acknowledged that this was about as bad as conditions got, for taking out guests. Ah well, what can you do? I still got the high!
And of course, I was pretty devastated not to get to dive in the Mediterranean — those dives sounded as badass as they were intimidating. Next time!
• In the, “will I ever learn? The answer is no,” category. Clearly, I ran myself pretty ragged this month. I got a tiny bit of a breather in both Cairo and Dahab, which I desperately needed… but yeah not really. My work definitely suffered a bit, but I had such a blast I’m not even sure I really regret it — other than the part where I actually made myself physically ill.
• In the, “ugh, yup, I couldn’t escape it completely” category. I had two moments of discomfort that I bring up mostly because so many women have asked me about sexual harassment in Egypt, and I feel like to answer the question honestly I need to address the two unpleasant experiences I had in the country (which, over three weeks, was a infinitesimal fraction of what I’d braced myself for.)
The first was in a luggage room at a high end hotel in Aswan, when I was digging around for my suitcase to start pulling the things I needed for our felucca ride into my day bag. There was a guard in the luggage room, and just as I was thinking, gee, wouldn’t it be nice if this guy would help me move all these heavy suitcases out of the way, I heard a camera click while I was bent over. I whirled around in disgust and found the guard holding his cell phone up. I glared, shook my head and walked out, very shaken up. It was 1000% not okay and bothered me for a while.
The second is pale in comparison — the last day of the liveaboard, one of the crew came up to me in broken English and told me that another one of the crew wanted a photo with me while they both stared me down. I was wearing a bikini, was the youngest person on the boat, and was a woman traveling alone — I felt uncomfortable. I deflected by saying that we were about to take a group photo — and put some clothes on. They did drop it immediately when I politely turned it down — but I’d noticed the same crew member watching me a few times and I just didn’t feel comfortable so I declined.
• Okay so in general, this was a hilarious month — I’m just narrowing this down to a few stories that stand out in my mind. I absolutely loved my Egypt tour guide, Sam, but our group was tickled by how wound up he would get at the conspiracy theory that the pyramids were built by aliens… a theory that not one person in our group brought up. Completely unprompted, he’d go on really long rants full of evidence to disprove this thing none of us believed, to the point that we started joking that maybe he doth protest too much!
• I know one thing Americans are often perplexed by abroad is the lack of ice provided in drinks. I don’t even really notice it anymore, though in super hot destinations, like the middle of a long day of sightseeing in Egypt, I wouldn’t mind a little extra cooling cube. Anyway, when my friend Kat twisted her ankle dancing by herself to the song Dancing By Myself — pause for a slow clap — I rushed to the bar. “We need ice!” I cried, pointing to my helpless tipsy friend. The bartender looked flustered flitting around the kitchen, but returned triumphantly with an outstretched hand — holding one, single, precious cube of ice. I died.
• Our driver in Sharm El Sheikh hated us — like really hated us, which we found kind of hilarious, since we seemed to be his only customers and paid him the rate he set without protest or negotiations. We could only laugh when he greeted us with exasperation when we emerged from the airport later than we would have preferred — due to delays out of our control, of course. It’s not like we wanted to be chilling in the airport! From there he was always chiding us for something or the other. The service was so exceptional in Sinai and this was such a glaring exception, it cracked us up. The customer is always right… unless it’s us standing in the wrong location for our driver to swoop us up in Sharm.
Ras Abu Gallum
Best and Worst Beds of the Month
Best: This is a tough call! Between my adorable Airbnbs in Cairo and Dahab and my cute guesthouse in Sharm El Sheikh, it would be a tie. But nothing could compete with sleeping under the stars, floating along the nile on my felucca ride.
Worst: So this is kind of a cheat since they weren’t really meant to be accommodation, but I’m going to have to say it was the many, many uncomfortable vehicle rides that were meant to substitute for actual sleeping destinations. Those were gnarly.
Best and Worst Meals of the Month
Best: Surprisingly, some of my favorite meals of the month were the ones included in my Travel Talk Tours trip — think falafel and beans and fresh chopped veggie salads for breakfast and think more falafel and beans and fresh chopped veggie salads, plus various grilled meats for lunch. They brought us to hole-in-the-wall restaurants I never would have found on my own and ordered dishes I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own, and I developed a real love for Egyptian food in the process.
Worst: Shannon, Sam and I had an epic travel disaster meal at a cute cafe in Cairo. We sat down already starving, placed an obscenely large order, and then got lost in conversation. Eager as we were to not be demanding American/Canadian/Brits, we couldn’t help but notice even our drinks had not arrived. I went to investigate and found no evidence of our order being prepared. After a long, laborious translation provided by another customer, we realized that half the order was being delivered from some sort of sister restaurant somewhere, and the other half was just never really placed.
At this point, we had been waiting an hour and the hanger levels were off the charts. Sam had enough and left to head back to the hotel, and thankfully I somehow managed to convince Shannon to grab McDonald’s french friend (we were in a weird commercial area where our options were literally that or the cafe where we’d just escaped) and continue onto the market so our day wasn’t totally ruined. It was a major meltdown though — another reason I need to always travel with an emergency protein bar!
Honestly, I kind of paused on work for the month. I kept up with the very basics of putting up my scheduled blog posts and updating my Facebook and Instagram accounts, but even that started to fall off towards the end of the trip. And I definitely wasn’t staying on top of my inbox or being proactive with my business. Wifi was terrible and hotspotting from my phone wasn’t always possible.
But these long backpacking trips for me are so rare, I really wanted to cherish it. And you know what? I’m glad I did. I had stressful days where I felt so behind and guilty I wanted to cry a little bit, but for the most part I really enjoying getting lost in my Middle Easter travels.
The Dead Sea
Health and Fitness Update
So, this is a rarity — I did not work out once the entire month — not at a gym, not at home, not nothing. Whoops. I mean, again, did you see my travel itinerary above? I did attempt to go to one workout class in Dahab… and read the schedule wrong. Womp womp.
The good thing is that I stuck to a pretty healthy local diet and didn’t drink too much alcohol, so I didn’t feel too off the rails. Still — I’d love to develop a personal fitness routine that I can do anywhere, rather than rely so heavily on gyms and classes, for future months like this.
What Was Next
Eleven more days in Israel, followed by a return to the good ‘ol USA for my yoga teacher training.
North Coast of Israel
Thanks for coming along for the ride! What were your favorite parts of the month to read about?
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.