The hulking ferry lurched forward into the Red Sea. We left behind the historic port city of Aqaba, made famous to Westerners by Lawrence of Arabia (picture a heavily made-up Peter O'Toole dramatically exclaim, "AK–AH–BAH! ") Pious Arabs wearing robes and skullcaps sauntered into the aisles of the ship, dropped to the floor and prostrated themselves in the direction of Mecca, which I suddenly realized was right on the other side of this body of water, so close you could almost touch it. After a short journey our vessel docked. We had reached the Sinai Peninsula. I stepped onto Egyptian soil and braced myself for the ensuing chaos of landing transport to my destination. Aggressive Bedouins spotted myself with another Westerner who I had befriended on the ship, and rushed forward with their sales pitch. Soon, we were surrounded. It seemed a fight would break out amongst them as they quarreled with one another as to whom would have the honor of transporting us for heavily inflated prices. We finally ended up in a minibus, but my new friend discovered that she was missing her bag. I wouldn't be surprised if some unsavory character snuck away with it in the commotion of moments earlier. I felt sorry for her but also grateful that I still had all my possessions. The bus pulled away and I stared out the window as jagged mountains ebbed in the fading evening light. As dusk turned to dark, I finally arrived in a place where the air is freshened by the sea, time seems to slow, and many a backpacker find themselves happily stranded.
|The Sleepy tourist town of Dahab, Egypt|
Dahab is famous for being a launching point to explore some of the most magnificent aquatic life in the world. This side of the Red Sea is teeming with thousands of different species of colorful and exotic fish. When I went for a swim off shore I felt as if I was in a gigantic aquarium. But Dahab is also known for its laid-back vibe. To spend a long time here is to increasingly feel disconnected from the Planet Earth...in a good way, of course. I planned to stay and relax in Dahab for as long as it took my ankle to heal, living for cheap, soaking up the sun, and plotting out my next moves. I eventually checked into a hostel which happened to be full of fellow musicians. Some invited me to come check out the weekly jam session at a local outdoor bar, and I happily joined. When I ended up being the last one up on stage at one a.m., playing for a table full of inebriated middle-aged Brits, I knew I'd found something special.
I returned to play in every jam session that followed, and felt my comfort and stage presence growing each time. At first, I was perfectly content to receive a couple of free drinks in return for playing. But when appreciative strangers in the audience began urging me to turn this into a paying gig, I decided to speak with the bar manager. One "tryout" later and I was booked for my first-ever paid job as a musician. For the princely sum of 200 Egyptian Pounds I hosted the following week's jam session. A group from the hostel came to watch and support me, and in a small way I became the Rock Star of Dahab that night. It felt great to know that I was getting paid to do something which I loved!
Unfortunately, while I was putting my energy into music, my injured ankle was stubbornly refusing to show signs of progress. As Christmas and New Year's passed in Dahab with barely a hint that my healing was on the right track, I made a decision to move on and seek more medical advice. After my disappointing experience with Syrian and Jordanian care, looking for someone in Egypt was out of the question. I struggled over my options until a good friend living in Dubai suggested that I visit him and be treated there. I'd been planning on visiting Ben for my last stop in the Middle East, but why not go now? Afterward, I could return to Egypt, explore Israel, and revisit Jordan to see what I'd missed, I told myself. So, when I discovered that a highly-qualified Swiss physiotherapist and an American orthopedic surgeon were both based in Dubai, I let Ben know that I would take him up on his offer. I'd had some memorable times and met some great people in Dahab, but it was time to push onwards. I left the town where time had stood still for the last four weeks of my life, said goodbye to the world of the ancient, and prepared to enter the world of the future.
|Metro Station, Dubai|
Ben and I greeted at the airport and took off driving through the city of Dubai. Endless rows of fluorescent skyscrapers whizzed by in the night sky. It was both exhilarating and incredibly disorienting to be suddenly plopped into this hyper-modern city, after spending the last several months in the "old world" of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Dubai is one of two major metropolises in the United Arab Emirates: a small gulf nation which is the most developed country in the Middle East. Dubai is a city of dreams; dreams made reality by endless amounts of black gold. Riches from oil have allowed the ruling Sheikhs of the UAE to build-up their nation at a breathtaking pace. Everything here is larger than life. A giant series of man-made islands shaped like a palm. The tallest building in the world at over a half-mile high. A super-futuristic metro system with visually-striking terminals that appear lifted straight from science fiction. A place where entire cities of skyscrapers seemingly spring up overnight in the middle of the desert. But for all its visceral impact, one can be left with a hollow feeling that this is a place without a soul. Not surprising, given how new everything is, and the fact that locals make up less than 20% of the population.
I can't express clearly enough what a relief it was to finally see quality medical care. After 10 weeks of frustration, I finally began seeing improvement in my ankle's condition. An MRI test revealed that in addition to the sprain, I had indeed suffered a fracture of an ankle bone. I had also partially torn a tendon. So it was no surprise that I was not healing quickly. In fact, the American doctor told me that had she seen me right after the initial injury, she would have put me in a boot for 6 weeks! Given how poor the Syrian ER doctor's first diagnosis was, I was fortunate not to have further injured myself. The whole experience has given me a new-found appreciation for the high level of health care in my own country. For all the problems with our system...well, at least our doctors weren't trained in Syria.
I've also been reminded how blessed I am to have great friends. After months of being around new faces and making the short-term friendships common when backpacking, hanging out with Ben, someone I've known with for years, was fantastic. He showed me the Dubai high-rolling lifestyle. We went dune-bashing in the desert, witnessed Eric Clapton play live in Abu Dhabi, joined up with a group of friends for a surprisingly-economical night out in a stretch-Hummer limo, and did what us fellow musicians tend to do when we get together: just jam out. Ben generously put me up in his apartment for six weeks while my ankle was being treated, which allowed me to cheaply stay in a city that is definitely not suited to the backpacker budget. And last but not least, seeing my buddy wake up early to trudge into the office five days a week has reminded me how fortunate I currently am to be able to travel and see the world!
|Adam of Arabia|
Oh, lest I forget to mention, I also paid a visit to the Dubai Camel Racetrack to shake that gambling itch.
|One Thousand Dirhams on Humpy McGee!|
Two weeks after I departed Egypt, the nation erupted into revolution. I was transfixed, and eagerly supported the people in their cry for rights that so many of us take for granted. But at the same time, I wondered what it meant for my own plans. I had intended to return to Egypt after being treated in Dubai. I still hadn't seen the Pyramids. I still hadn't visited Israel, or Petra. Due to my injury, I hadn't gotten to see many of the major highlights which had drawn me to the Middle East in the first place. Now that my ankle was ready to start backpacking again, I was sorely tempted to return west and seek those experiences which I missed. But, at the same time, after being in the region for much longer than originally anticipated, I felt ready to move on. Apart from simply visiting tourist sites, the experiences which I did have while in the Middle East allowed me to develop a greater, deeper, sense of this part of the world. So, after seven months spent in a region where political unrest is spreading like wildfire, I turned my attention eastward. One day I hope to come back and see what I missed. But as for now...
As an adventurous soul, I find myself drawn to exotic places which I know little about. And there are few places on this Earth which are more exotic than Burma. This plane ticket to Rangoon is burning a hole in my pocket. I can't wait to see what I find upon touching down. Culture shock, here we come...