Just Say Yes

How many times a week do you say no to something? No, I can’t go. I have work. I can’t afford it. It’s just not going to work out. And why is that? That it won’t work out? Because of prior obligations? It can work if you make it work. “Just say yes.”

This was a phrase said to me by Becky Cook, professional traveler and co-owner of Vagabond Ventures Travel, the adventure agency that gave me the trip of a lifetime. As simple as it is and as many times as I’ve heard that three-word sentence in my life, it wasn’t until this trip that it really resonated.

A mere three days after arriving in Ashland, I received a mass text from Becky stating that a dear friend of hers couldn’t go on the Red Sea/Egypt/Jordon adventure (a trip I’d been fantasizing about for the better part of the year) due to health concerns, but would like to give away her spot already paid for. The first person to respond would get the trip. Nearly completely paid for. No strings attached. For free.

Immediately, I said no. I was broke. I’d just gotten out of student debt, I didn’t need to dip back into that pool. I needed to find a job. But what an opportunity. This was meant to be. My dream job was to travel, and then write about it. I wanted to freelance and here was the perfect assignment at a humongous discount. It was Zach’s affirmation. Hearing another person say, “What are you waiting for, you should do it,” was all it took to convince me to just say yes.

The woman, Debbi Paden, received a double organ transplant and her life was saved. Rather than getting back what money she could, she gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

After four plane rides and one long bus ride totaling roughly 30 hours of travel time, we arrived in Port Ghalib long enough to check in and eat a meager dinner of breads, cheese, cucumbers, and tomatoes (four things we would be eating a lot of in the coming weeks).

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The marina in Marsa Alam.

Port Ghalib is located in Marsa Alam, Egypt, a small resort town on the Red Sea. The next morning the eight of us jumped in a zodiac and dove two short check-out dives with the dive company from the hotel. The Red Sea is extremely salty and these dives were intended for everyone to feel comfortable with their weighting and gear before getting on the Aggressor. Still, even a short distance away from the beaches, we saw a diverse array of marine life such as sea turtles, crocodile fish, blue-spotted rays, eel, parrot fish and trigger fish.

At the resort, we could wear shorts and tank-tops, even some of the locals wore bikinis. But what really threw me were the women in the pool still wearing their burkas. For the most part in Egypt, women dress conservatively and wear head coverings, but some wear tight clothes and no head dressing, and some are completely covered, as in burkas, gloves, and a separate veil over the slit for the eyes so nothing is showing. And they’re all black, always black. The weather does vary depending on where you are, but it is usually always hot.

“I couldn’t help but wonder if they were jealous that we were able to enjoy the warm sun rays and the cool water on our bare skin or if they thought we were disgusting pigs for showing so much skin.”

At the pool, some of the Muslim women stared at us as if we were on display. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were jealous that we were able to enjoy the warm sun rays and the cool water on our bare skin or if they thought we were disgusting pigs for showing so much skin. Every time I felt lingering eyes either peeking out of a hijab or probing from the face of an older man, I felt so much appreciation to be an American woman. This isn’t to say that we didn’t dress conservatively in the city, because we all donned our long pants, head coverings and quarter length sleeves in the 105-degree heat when necessary. But when we could, we took advantage of swimwear.

The next afternoon we boarded the Red Sea Aggressor, a luxury live-abroad. Their motto, “Eat. Sleep. And Dive.” Our beds were decorated with clean towels, robes, a chocolate on the pillows, and a fish identifier pamphlet. The cabins each had their own bathroom and were very spacious and clean. After boarding, our shoes were taken from us and stored away. But, we were each given a flute of champagne and a welcome briefing, then an exquisite dinner was introduced by the chef.

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The Red Sea Aggressor docked for the first night.

Most days started with a 6 a.m. wake-up call and continental breakfast, 6:30 dive briefing and dive, followed by breakfast and a 9:30 dive. Then lunch, a lengthy break perfect for logging dives and napping on the sundeck, and an after-lunch dive normally around 1:30. After surfacing we’d have a snack and get back in the water around 4:30. Usually we would surface as the sun would set over the water bathing everything in shimmering pastels. Sometimes we’d jump back in for a night dive around 7 and have dinner after, depending on travel.

The food was magnificent, plentiful, and surprisingly diverse. Usually something local, there were recognizable dishes as well. Soups and artfully crafted desserts accompanied each meal, and at dinner the wine flowed freely.

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A friendly pirate ship, (there’s not much to photograph at sea).

After returning from a dive, a glass of fresh-squeezed juice is served, and once you’ve rinsed some of the salt from your skin on the deck shower, a warm towel straight from the dryer is discreetly wrapped around your shoulders before you’ve even fully caught your breath.

The crew helps you put on and take off your gear, soak your wetsuit in a detergent, rinse your cameras and leave them to dry, they help you in and out of the zodiacs, and keep on the lookout for exciting marine life. They literally make it so you don’t have to think. As if they’re reading your mind, one crew member hands you a cup of water after you’ve pulled on your wet, wet suit for the third time that day and another grabs your mask and defogs it, leaving you to sit and calculate your dive computer without rush. They are kind and respectful, playful and nearly invisible. I’d never been pampered so much in my life.

Once, I walked into our cabin, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel from the last dive to find the items I’d left on my bed before the dive had been rearranged to form a person wearing my sunglasses, Rachael’s hat, and reading my dive log, even wearing my shirt wrapped around a fresh towel under the covers. The crew was always very professional, but they enjoyed a good laugh every now and then, which made the awkwardness of having multiple people cater to me a little less weird.

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The crew unmade my bed, but someone else was asleep in it when I came in.

“It swam towards me, and I thought, “What in the hell was I thinking, jumping in the water with a shark. This is where I die.””

Once, an oceanic-white-tip shark was spotted as we were readying for our next dive. Someone yelled “shark” and the deck was awash with frantic excitement. The seamen were rapidly speaking Arabic, English forgotten in the hurry, and rushing to help us get into the water, smiling and furiously eager. “Yalla, yalla!” they yelled, “Let’s go, let’s go!” I waited until two other divers jumped before jumping myself. Descending only enough to be on the shark’s level, my ears filled with water and the silence was deafening compared to the enthusiastic uproar from the ship. The shark weaved around underneath the boat, unsure of the strange animals plunging in around it. It swam towards me, and I thought, “What in the hell was I thinking, jumping in the water with a shark. This is where I die.” It seemed like such a good idea 30 seconds before when everyone was smiling and laughing and ushering me towards the edge of the boat, nodding in encouragement. But under the water was a different story, this was a wild shark and it wasn’t behind a pane of glass at the Atlanta aquarium. Anti-climatically, it slowly swam away into the blue as I realized I’d been holding my breath.

There were a couple of other times I realized I was holding my breath during this trip. Once, a very large and very old Napoleon wrasse was spotted exploring under the boat. Rather than being frightened away, he swam hesitantly around us, his giant eye on either side of his head darting in all directions, as if trying to count all of us as large, curious fish.

Another time an algae-covered sea turtle glided down a coral plateau to exactly where we were all grouped and began munching on coral as if she wanted to be photographed. I’d seen plenty of sea-turtles in my diving career, but never had I seen one plant herself in the middle of a group of divers to eat breakfast.

“I was at the ocean’s mercy, swallowed up by a historic body of water and darkness.”

On my first night dive, I strayed behind the bunch and dimmed my dive light by pressing it against my stomach to see what darkness under water felt like. I could still see in front of me due to the 10 other lights, but behind me was a depth filled with poisonous sea creatures come alive at night. A single purple jellyfish swam by. I gave him a wide berth and swam the couple of feet back to the throng of lights. I was at the ocean’s mercy, swallowed up by a historic body of water and darkness. What a different world it was in the day than it was at night. On two different night dives, I saw three Spanish dancers, the size of footballs.

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The view from the bathroom window.

We snorkeled with a wild pod of dolphins, freediving and copying their movements to encourage their curiosity. There were a handful of babies breaking the surface in sync with their mothers, attached by invisible magnets, and sometimes swimming upside down under their bellies.  The dolphins stay near the reef in the shallows during the day for protection against sharks. They lost interest with us quickly, much like all the other large marine life had, probably so used to seeing divers in their backyard.

An eel swimming freely outside of its cave, a school of barracuda, masses of turquoise trigger fish, their blue scales fading into midnight. An anemone shelf twice as large as me brimming with assertive clown fish, their faces set in a permanent scowl. Soft coral and hard coral mixed with a plethora of parrot fish, tiny sand scabs, rays, nudibranchs, all living together in one giant ecosystem broken down into miniscule neighborhoods. Masked pufferfish chased each other in circles, scorpionfish and crocodile fish blended into the sands and corals awaiting their moment to strike. Every minute spent under the water was a breath-taking experience. We dove a total of 22 times on the boat that week.

The current was minimal. The marine life, although seemingly bountiful, is sadly over-fished. According to Mahmoud Ebdella, one of the dive masters. The government used to pay fisherman a stipend to freeze fishing in the summer months, however; after the revolution in 2011, the fishermen are still expected to not fish, yet receive no allowance. Ebdella said there is only 10 percent of the marine life he saw as a child on his father’s fishing boat, and when he was a child, his father told him that there was only 10 percent of the fish he saw as a child on the Red Sea. Aside from the overfishing problem, a lot of the coral has been bleached, as well. Elevated water temperatures due to climate change is considered the number one cause of coral bleaching. Bleaching is due to the loss of a healthy algae that lives within the coral tissue, without this symbiotic relationship, the coral dies and is no longer a viable home for its diverse residents.

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Mahmoud Ebdella, dive master, readying for a dive.

“The sea is decreasing,” Ebdella said. “The people will die.” It is people like his brother who work with HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association) that will make a difference to the life-span of the historic ocean and the people who depend on it. For more information on the movement to care for the Red Sea visit their website at http://www.hepca.org/.

I could go on and on about how spectacular my diving experience was, how I would highly recommend any Aggressor fleet, but especially the Red Sea Brothers, Daedalus, Elphinstone route. I could write about the wrecks we saw, the lighthouse planted in the middle of Daedalus Reef, and the people I met on the boat, but for now I will end the first portion of the trip here with the human footprint fresh in your mind, and hope to find time to write smaller articles on the more adventurous aspects of the dive-week later on.

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A dilapidated bridge leading to the original lighthouse on Daedalus Reef.

But, please if any questions arise, feel free to contact me. I’m open to article suggestions. What does it feel like diving with nitrox 4-5 dives a day? Why can you dive with sharks, but not snorkel? How do you deal with bacterial infections while on a live-abroad? Even if you don’t have questions, I would love some feedback, so feel free to leave comments also.

Vagabond Ventures Travel is a local adventure club and travel agency located in Phoenix, Oregon and owned and operated by Becky and David Cook. Becky and David also teach dive classes at Rogue Aquatics in Medford, and plan roughly 4 large adventures such as this one, a year, with smaller group outings sprinkled between. They are travel junkies, medical professionals, and just overall excellent people to adventure with. “Always say yes,” is their motto. Find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/VagabondVenturesTravel/ or at their website http://www.vagabondventurestravel.com/.

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