Moments in Sinai before Coronapocalypse
By Shanna Fuld
This writing was done upon my return from Sinai. Coronavirus fears had only just begun to circulate. The severity was unclear.
Early March 2020 —
If the world becomes an apocalyptic mess and nothing functions and everyone goes into quarantine and no one is allowed to leave their home again… I say it’s worth it that I went to Sinai.
— Facts and figures about travel costs are posted at the bottom. —
Before I left my cozy and sterile home in Tel Aviv, Israel, things were just beginning to go haywire. A week prior I covered the Tel Aviv Marathon, which was nearly canceled due to Coronavirus fears. People were nervous, but the threat was still distant.
By the following week, things intensified. Pedro’s* office decided to cancel their Purim party and with that measure taken, we decided to go through with a plan from weeks prior to make a journey to Sinai. Pedro is my boyfriend and for months he had enchanted me with visions of Sinai. Pedro described it as being peaceful and beautiful. In a last minute move, he called me in the middle of the day and we agreed. We were going to Sinai in two day’s time. We called the Coronavirus hotline in Israel the night before departure to ask if there would be penalties for leaving the State. After waiting for an English speaker to pick up the line, we gave up, called back and pressed the line for Hebrew. Pedro would speak in Hebrew. The person on the other line told us Sinai was a fine destination, and that we would not have to self-quarantine upon our return. It would be ok. We relaxed. Things were going to be great.
After the call, we then left for the supermarket to stock up with treats for the trip. Thank Gd we did. Nuweiba, a resort spot in Sinai, Egypt was a ghost town. And since we keep … relatively Kosher, we wanted to have food with us for din din. And it was going to be Shabbat. So we wanted to be self-reliant. At the grocery store, I grabbed some extra cans of corn, tuna and those canned rice things that are wrapped up in grape leaves. Love those. Don’t judge. Pedro told me there was no rush to do a Coronavirus stock up and that we should just focus on the weekend ahead. Good thing I never listen to him because upon our return we were quaran-fucking-teened. Quarantined, bitch! Beedood as its called in Hebrew. At least I had canned stuffed grape-leaves in my cupboard.
So Pedro and I drove down to Eilat. We sang songs on the way and I discovered that he liked some of the same music as me — including old school Chris Brown and Lil Wayne. I knew I liked that guy. He introduced some Latino songs to me that he says were very popular in Argentina when he was growing up. I usually like whatever music he puts on.
We arrived in Eilat after passing Mitzpeh Ramon. I wanted to stop, but we were short on time and Pedro promised me we would stop for the view on the way back. I drove by it, peering down at the crater over the rail that was meant to protect cars from falling off the mountain. Pedro told me to keep my eyes on the road and I blew it off — don’t worry! I’m good! But I nearly killed us. What can I say? I can only do one thing at a time and I wanted to see the crater. Merp.
When we arrived in Eilat, Pedro dropped me off at the border to Sinai with all our bags. He pulled away to park the car somewhere nearby. I waited for him while I watched the Red Sea move about. The next thing I know a large coach bus pulls up with a literal busload of tourists. Corona!!! Stay away from me!! I laughed at the thought and sat patiently with all my things. Only the Lord can help me now.
Pedro eventually made it back and we crossed the border. There were several stops, a few questions about if we had been in Europe recently. We showed our passports a million times. Good thing mine is real, because if I was trying to fake that shit I would have been nervous as hell. It brought me back to my clubbing days when I used to pretend to be my older cousin. Good thing I only had to flash that bad boy once at the door. Thanks baby! I’d say to the big man at the front. And my friends and I would giggle our 18 year-old asses into the spot.
As soon as we crossed into Egypt everything was different. The weather seemed warmer, the air thicker. The paint on the walls at the border crossing was dimly colored. Anybody want to give the Egyptian border crossing building a touchup? They need it bad. It felt like 1979. Everything from their outfits, to the signage felt old. I always thought that forming a line in Israel was bad. Try Egypt! When we arrived to the building there were no instructions, lines or help. Officers lazily sat at their desks while tourists were visibly confused. The crossing point had three tables, each with advertisements on them for different resorts. I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to be on a line that matched the name of the resort, or if they were plain old advertisements. Pedro and I decided to be Israeli about it and we moved around asking questions and then re-entered the line when we realized it was all just one unending blob of a line.
Someone held a corona gun (thermometer) to our heads to test us for Corona on the Egyptian side. We must have been clear because we moved ahead. At the next stop we showed our passports to some border officers standing in the middle of the room at little podiums. So weird and disorganized. The officer said Shalom. I smiled and said Shalom back. He kept his head down and said “shekel.” I thought we had to pay a sum of money, but I didn’t move. “20 shekel. 10 shekel?” he muttered. Pedro said we didn’t have money. Then the officer muttered something under his breath that I didn’t catch. “You are all pigs,” he said to Pedro in Hebrew. Pedro stood for a moment while the officer completed the stamping and signing of our paperwork. When we walked away, he told me what the officer had said. My blood boiled — and his did, too. But nevertheless, we were on our way to paradise, right, guys?!
We exited the pitiful border building and to the right was a lot of old cars and some new cars. Standing about were a bunch of older, smelly taxi drivers in long white outfits and head coverings. They all had deeply stained and rotten teeth. Pedro asked for Ahmed and the other drivers immediately and graciously pointed him out. Ahmed presented himself, spoke to us in English and made us feel comfortable. I was buggin out. This was my last few moments on Earth (in my mind). I was ready to fight, flee, scream, run and die for my passport. I tried not to be the scared American I was… but that just forced me to become silent and pensive. I’m sure anyone could see it on my face.
Next came the money we had to pay to get into Egypt. Instead of paying at an office, you pay the officer through the window of your taxi as you leave the parking lot. Seems normal. Pedro, who at this point is my savior, suddenly pulls out a wad of Egyptian Pounds (or Lyra as it is commonly called.) Who are you, Pedro? And why do you have all of this money? And Thank Gd for you!
Paying in half Lyra and half in dollars, our great taxi driver pulled up to the gate and handed money to the officer. There was a sign stating how much visitors owed, so I knew it was legit. We were on our way! The ride was pretty. We passed a lagoon where the sea filters out into a cove. The blueness of the water amazed me. The rest of the way from here was full of rocky mountains and sand dunes. It was ugly, but I said it was beautiful. “How you guna be mad on vacation?” — Kanye West.
We passed through multiple army stops where we had to show our passports. Each time I was nervous the soldier (adorned in classic camouflage) was going to confiscate my passport and leave me in a bad situation. How will I call the U.S. embassy to save me? I have no service on my phone here? — I’m so American.
We arrive at our destination. It is a resort on the beach. We passed nothing on the way there except for a small community that is being built with some new homes and some bungalow parks where apparently Israelis come to vacation in the summer. Our hotel, the Coral Resort in Nuweiba, Egypt, is empty. We pull up and a bellhop takes our belongings. We struggle to agree on how we will pay using dollars, shekels and lyra. We get out of the car and the resort is deserted. The resort shops are closed and not a soul is around except for the bellhop and the receptionist, Mahmoud. I give Pedro a big side hug and laugh. My laugh represents many things. My fears, panics, me letting go of a fight we had earlier and my admiration for the effort he put in to make this random vacation happen. Where the H-E double hockey sticks are we? I laugh again. He doesn’t know why, but he hugs me back. Thanks, babe.
Mahmoud at the reception is very handsome. His hair is gelled back and he has a big white toothy smile. He acts like he knows English very well and his smile makes it seem like he understands us. But he doesn’t really. Their credit card machine is down, apparently. How unusual. And we have to take out money from the ATM. And when I say we take out money I mean Pedro takes out money.
Mahmoud tells us he has done something special for us. He has upgraded our room to the sea view! Whoa! There’s literally no other guests on the resort, but I pretend that this is a huge favor and thank him profusely. You rock, Mahmoud! And don’t forget it.
We head to our room, where our bags have been taken on a trolley. Pedro tells me I can tip him 10 Lyra. I take out the money from my bag and gladly hand it over as he leaves the doorstep of our new weekend home. We stayed for two days and two nights.
Pedro and I get ready for the beach, but it takes a little while because we are preparing ourselves sandwiches. We miss the best part of the day and I am a little bummed about it. But we make it there and even take a swim. It was a bit cool, but we submerged ourselves anyway. The water, it turns out, is warmer than the air. It was only cold when we came up.
We took some photos, felt the love and went to prepare for Shabbat.
I cut salad and decided we would eat our prepared dinner of heat-up shnitzel like dignified people. So I put everything in bowls and made the table look as nice as possible. I had tried to get Shabbat candles from the reception because I forgot to bring my own, but Mahmoud said there were none. Then I realized he just had no idea what I was talking about. I showed him a photo of candles. Then he understood. He left for a while, came back empty handed and apologetic. Later, two candles were brought to our hotel room. It was well past candle-lighting and the sun had been down for nearly an hour, but I was pleased to have the candles and thought it was so kind he found them. I committed to using them for havdalah the following night.
We made kiddush, hamotzei, ate a salad course, a main and wafer cookies for dessert. My cookie choice was superior to Pedro’s cookie choice and everyone knows it. We went for a walk outside and found ourselves on the dock. There was a very luminous light hanging off the muelle (dock in Spanish) and look! There were amazing fish swimming around. Fish we had never seen before in our lives. They were deep blue and purple with a million fins. Some had crowns on their heads. One was long and skinny and had a scary narrow nose that Pedro believes is used for eating insects that fly above the water. We were enthralled. We stayed for a while.
The following morning was glorious. We opened the curtains to a beautiful sunny day. We had breakfast in the dining hall at the resort. Every table was set with clean silverware and napkins. But we were the only guests. I asked for yogurt. The waiter said they didn’t have any. I asked him if he knew what yogurt was. He said no. I politely said “thanks anyway.” Then he came back one minute later and asked me if I wanted yogurt. I said yes. He brought me a deep bowl of yogurt. I dumped honey in it and was happy as a pig in shit.
Pedro and I spent a good part of the morning reading Torah and discussing our ideas about the way different people attack life. We discussed different kinds of people — those who need the material, those who don’t and which type of mindset we envied the most. Those who are detached from what matters? Or those who feel with so much intensity that life can be more difficult because they have their eyes open. Pedro says he pities the man who doesn’t have faith. I said I pity myself for having too much understanding.
From our ground-level patio, Pedro says he sees something in the sea. He points at the horizon. Dolphins? I asked. “Ballenas” he replies. Whales. We bolt from our seats and run toward the horizon. We think we see a pod swimming off. We stand there winded. Perhaps we imagined it? I looked it up…and there are, in fact, whales in the Red Sea. You’ve got Humpback, Minke and Bryde.
We then hit the beach. We played matcot and feared that at any minute there would be an ISIS takedown. Or maybe that was just me. There was a construction site nearby filled with workers yelling and screaming. Were they being murdered by members of ISIS? And were we next?
We got warm enough to go swimming. And then we did. We swam close to the muelle and saw the long skinny fish with the scary nose. Pedro shrieked. I laughed. We both swam away.
I, at some point went to get some cocktails from the bar. The 17-year-old behind it showed me the menu. I chose a piña colada and another fruity drink that involved grenadier. It took this young man a very long time to mobilize. He presented me whiskey for the piña colada and I told him it needed rum. He rifled through the cheap 80-year-old liquors on the shelves until he found the bottle that matched the word “rum.” I told him just to make two of those. I didn’t want him to hurt himself. I brought the drinks down to the beach. Pedro said there was no liquor in them. I have no idea what was in that bottle, but that young man showed me he had put in one whole shot and a half of the rum into the juice.
As the sun came down, we both got cold and went for hot showers. Afterward, we said goodbye to Shabbat and made havdalah. Shabbat had been magical. And I’m sure it would have been even if we had not both been extremely high the whole time.
In the evening, we went to the reception to accomplish some work (there was only wifi in the reception) and then had fish and chips and a bowl of spaghetti for dinner.
The following morning we got up, raced over to breakfast and the server brought me a bowl of yogurt again in addition to our eggs, bread and beans. Then we headed over to the beach for our last hoorah. We laid out to catch the sun. It was warm by 11. We played some matcot, took a swim and then it was time to pack up. We showered and went to the reception to close out our account and get into our mini-bus taxi to go back to the border.
The border was quiet. An Egyptian officer asked me to change four 5-shekel coins into a 20-shekel bill. We were tight on time and I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of trick. I said nothing even though I had a 20-shekel bill in my wallet. I still feel bad that I didn’t hand it over. Going through was fairly easy and just about no one was crossing. We were told nothing about the Coronavirus as we walked through to the Israeli side.
We took a local bus back to where our car was parked, BH it was where Pedro left it, and we started our drive back up toward Tel Aviv. We crossed at 2:30 p.m. At some point, my roommate Michelle sent me a news article. It was announced that the border to Sinai was being closed off indefinitely to travelers starting at 5 p.m. We missed the closure by 2.5 hours. Pedro and I wiped the virtual sweat off our brows and continued on. We did make a pit stop to Mitzpeh Ramon where we ate some tuna sandwiches, took some photos and continued on. The crater was dark, beautiful and grand. We saw a series of Israeli jets wisp through the sky before we got back into the car.
Back in Tel Aviv and before bed, we learned that Egypt was being added to the list of countries that visitors would have to self-quarantine if visited. Uh oh. We discussed what we would do. The next day we would wake up and the world would be different. The stakes were suddenly higher. Now, anyone who had been in any country outside of Israel would have to self-quarantine. Pedro and I started to realize all the ways this would affect us. He would have to call work and explain where he had been the day before, I would have to cancel my pedicures and mahjong games and we would have to decide where we would stay and what we would do. I’m totally kidding about the pedicures and mahjong. I am a writer, TV presenter and I host events. I don’t play mahjong or get pedicures in Israel. They cost $60!
We have both been in quarantine since Sunday night and will be for another 9 days. I’ve been writing, reading and looking for my next freelance gig. I also had time to pen this account.
Cost of crossing the border out of Israel — 102 NIS/person
Cost of entering Egypt — 405 Lyra/person
Cost of taxi — $30 USD each way (to Nuweiba)
Cost of resort — $128 USD for two nights
Cost of cocktail on resort — 65 Lyra
Cost of bowl of spaghetti — 100 Lyra
Cost of rental car from Tel Aviv — 450 NIS/4 days including insurance
We filled up the tank twice.
Where we parked? On the side of the road in Eilat near a hotel. We took the bus to the border and it cost 4.20 NIS/per person