Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sinai notes

A morning black coffee and two passers by. There's nowhere like Sinai.

A cheap plane ticket can whisk you from the hypertension of Tel Aviv to the tranquil shores of the Red Sea in about two hours, including the swift processing through the almost empty Israeli and Egyptian border terminals. From there on, you're in Sinai and time slows down upon arrival. Sa'id, the Bedouin taxi driver who transported us in his classic 1979 Peugeut 506 to Tooti Cofi, said that he'd met Adam who runs Tooti in the market in Nueiba and that Adam had told him that he had guests coming. So much for anonymity, but the fact that our arrival was even being mentioned is an indication of how hard up the tourist operators are for business since the terror attacks began.

Within two minutes of arriving Adam, the Sudanese manager, was serving us tea with marmarilla (sage) under the big shade in Tooti's restaurant and we were beginning to make out scenes like this (they turned out to be the only other guests). Within half an hour we were ensconced in our own chushas (little huts made out of palm fronds) about three steps from the water. 30 seconds later we were luxuriating in the sea. Crabs scuttled back and forth along the shoreline. The hot sun, the perfectly transparent water, the salt on your lips, the sea plants and little fish tickling your toes. It was good to be back

The sophisticated wind-cooled ventilation system needed some fine tuning but soon we were ready to eat.

Meals are prepared in Tooti's ultra-modern kitchen (right) which meets the most rigorous international hygienic standards. While the staff rustled up a late lunch Adam brought us up to date with the news . Muhamad, the previous Sudanese manager had married an Austrian woman and was living in Vienna! AnotherAdam, also Sudanese who used to be Muhamad's chief cook, has moved to America! Business could be better but now that we were there everything would be all right.

And so it was. Eventually appearing from the black hole behind the counter: freshly baked laffot, tehina, salad , some bamya in tomato sauce, an aubergine salad and some feta cheese. In the evenings the kitchen produced freshly caught fish (shuri and locus) and on an off day for fishing, maggluba (Bedouin style chicken and rice on a big platter). Everything was meticulously prepared and presented with aesthetic flourishes. The cook signed the tehina with someone else's initials and the grilled fish was decorated with limes and a massive onion placed over its eye .

The next three days of swimming, snorkeling, reading, eating, walking, playing sheshbesh and gazing with awe at the stars, flowed into each other and all the times we have been to Sinai flowed into this time.
This lady is one of scores of old women and young girls selling light cotton clothes and simple jewellery along the beach. Today supply far outstrips demand, they push pretty aggressively for a sale and , if you're not interested in going through the contents of the black blanket, you have to be firm. Along our stretch of beach (from Ras Burka to Bawaki) there were maybe 30 tourists dispersed among hundreds (maybe more) of chushas. Our children and the children of our friends happily spent most of their childhood holidays in Sinai. Apart from being a wonderful , cheap place to reconnect with nature and 'clean your head' it was also one of the few places that Israelis and Arabs could interact naturally and comfortably, even if only over a friendly game of sheshbesh.

What a pity that the terrorists seem to have won and have frightened away the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who used to flock here. The worst things that happened to us were one upset tummy and a few scratches. We had a wonderful time again and only something awful will keep us away.

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