Friday, August 28, 2009

Untold Stories - The Curse of the Blue Hole

Industry guidelines told me keep my first book around 100,000 words. This meant that every incident in my two years worth of travel experiences couldn't be told.

I had to pick and choose. Often, I left out stories because I wanted to maintain flow. Little day trips and stops were often discarded because I didn't want the book to sound like, "I went here, then I went there, then I went there..."

I left the following part out because it sounded almost unbelievable. I was also in a rush to finish the book, and, aside from this one incident, it was a typical week at the beach drinking and laughing and playing cards with other travellers.

In order to tell it properly I'd need to develop several characters, build up to the critical incident, and finally have the awkward goodbye that I fear became a cliche in my book.

Here's one of many untold stories.


This story, my last in Egypt, starts off on a frustrating note. A good looking group Dutch travellers sat in front of me on the bus. A loud, obese, and irritating American sat next to me and decided to strike up a conversation. With the entire bus able to hear his loud disposition, he talked about smoking dope, about checking out the girlies, and about how he just wanted to par-tay in our destination, Dahab, Egypt.

I managed to ditch that guy shortly after arriving, and met up with the good looking group of Dutch travellers. They were wary of me at first, associating me with the loud guy, but in realizing I was trying to escape the loud boob's clutches, they took pity on me and welcomed me into their clique. We went on to spent several days vacationing by the beach.

One day, five of us hired a driver to take us to the infamous Blue Hole. The driver was sad, one of his colleagues had died while deep diving in the Blue Hole earlier that week.

The Blue Hole is a submarine pothole of coral reef that goes straight down 130 metres into the sea. It is said to be the most dangerous diving destination in the world.
"Egyptian authorities claim that 40 divers have died at this site since records began; however, many local dive guides believe that the authorities are deliberately underestimating the numbers and that there have actually been at least twice that many fatalities."

Deep sea diving has never appealed to me. The Blue Hole, and the plethora of gravestones littering the mountainside next to it only enhanced my hesitance for the sport.

Instead of dive, I joined Erik, a thin Dutchman with spiky blond hair. With a mask and snorkel in hand, we hiked two kilometres along a rocky path through the low, reddish seaside cliffs that ran along the Sinai Peninsula. After a kilometre, we descended toward a low point in the rocky cliffs and slipped into the Red Sea.

We swam out and away from the rocks, letting the strong current push us back toward the Blue Hole. Staring down through our masks at the bluish reef below, we saw an enormous school of jellyfish starting to form below. They were sparse at first, but thickened as we continued. The current pushed us forward at a steady pace. "Aren't some jellyfish poisonous?" Eric asked. I felt a ripple of fear at the thought.

"Some are," I said uncertainly, returning my head to the sea and looking down at the increasing density of twinkling blobs. They became so thick that we couldn't help but touch a few as we tried to snake our way through the masses.

After some time, we made it through the imagined danger and arrived at the Blue Hole.

Eric's head was down, and I took a moment to look up and see our friends at the shore. They were waving and shouting at us. I wondered if they were trying to warn us to get away from the jellyfish? One girl put her hand over her head like a triangle, I managed to read the word she kept repeating with her lips. "Shark!"

I grabbed Eric, he looked up and I yelled, "Swim!"

We raced toward the shore, me swimming for precious life, and Erik thinking I was being competitive and trying to impress the girls. For all I knew, the shark could be at my heels. I arrived at the dock and I pulled myself up before reaching to pull out Erik as he arrived after me.

Not far away, at the edge of the Blue Hole, I saw the fin of a black tip shark come out of the water.

Disaster averted, I went back to lazing on the beach. Car problems awaited me in Jordan.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Canadian Immigration - Culture of Distrust

The recent passport scenario, where Somali Canadian Suaad Hagi Mohamud was arrested at the airport, had her passport confiscated, and was sent to a Kenyan jail for alleged passport fraud, is just one of a growing list of embarrassing screw ups by Canadian Embassies, and related immigration and passport services.

I'm reminded of my time in Egypt, where the pages in my passport were all full, including the page extension, and I needed to apply for a new one.

The various pieces of identification and papers I needed for a new passport included: my birth certificate; and a letter from an Egyptian official (Doctor, Lawyer, Police officer, etc.) whom I'd known for two years, and stating that I was who I claimed to be.

To have known an Egyptian official for two years was a silly demand for three reasons.
1) I'd only just arrived in Egypt, how was I supposed to know one for more than a few days, let alone two years.
2) For the bribe of a few bucks, an Egyptian cop will swear he's your long lost brother. For much less, he'll sign something saying you are who you are.
3) Many Egyptian officials don't understand English or French and would have no idea what they were signing.

Moving on, how many people travel with their birth certificates? I HAD my old passport. I COULD have gone back to Canada with it. What was the need for all the extra documentation?

The way I saw it, the Sept 11 terrorist attacks occurred, Canada got criticized for border issues, and our response was to have a bunch of Public Service gits pass incompetent, ineffectual, and irritating passport application legislation.

While I was going through this ordeal, (it took me six months to get a new birth certificate issued from Canada,) I met an American embassy worker who issued passports. I asked him, "What's the process for issuing new passports to Americans overseas."

He said, "After they fill out their application, we interview them and ask them a handful of questions like, "What street did you grow up on? Where was your first school? What was your first phone number?"

"That's it?" I asked.

"Yep," he said. "People lose their passports all the time."

"No, no," I said. "What if they already have a passport, but the pages are all full."

He looked at me like I was an idiot. "Then we just issue them a new one. What kind of idiot would question an already valid passport?"

Canadian immigration could learn a thing or two from their American counterparts.