Thursday, October 2, 2008

Even in a tropical paradise, sometimes its the strange people you meet -- not the sunny place you're in -- that sticks in your mind the most.

This is true of Dahab, Egypt.

This beach town on the Sinai peninsula, near the Gulf of Aqaba, boasts some of the bluest, bluest waters in the world, and an elaborate seascape of coral reef.

It's my first time snorkeling and my first glimpse of coral reef. I'm identifying an entire new world underwater of puffer fish and parrot fish.

The town feels more like a Thai island than Islamic Egypt. We can freely swim in bikinis while staring across the gulf at Saudi Arabia. It's amazing to realize that a tiny stretch of sea separates a beach where women can deep-sea dive from a country where women can't drive.

Of course, snorkeling, coral reefs, reflections on freedom -- blah blah blah. None of this is as colorful as Mickey.

Mickey is a middle-aged Danish woman who's been living in Egypt for the past 7 years.

When I call her "colorful," I mean it literally. She's bright red, head-to-toe. Her color might come from sunburn; it might come from her excessive alcohol consumption. We suspect it comes from both.

She looks old for her age, with saggy, wrinkled skin and an incessant cough from a lifetime of cigarettes and hash. Her cough sounds like water hissing as it hits a pot of hot oil.

She's our neighbor at Camp Sabry, a Bedouin camp overrun by cats.

None of the Camp Sabry residents can sit in our musty, unclean rooms in the evenings, so we all converge under the woven canopy in the center of the campsite.

This space has become our "living room." The cats outnumber the people at least 3-to-1. They seem to multiply hourly.

Sitting in Camp Sabry's "living room" last night, Mickey -- in her usual drunk state -- tried to tell us a story. She made it through "Once upon a time," before devolving into a coughing fit. She sounded like the muck of ancient earth was lodged in her lungs.

All the other guests began laughing at this old woman's failed state. She looked around angrily, then tried again. "Once upon a time -- " she began, before her words dissolved into fitful coughing.

She managed to tell the story -- a fictional tale about a fish with a golden head -- though she told it in a rambling, convoluted way, like Sarah Palin trying to answer a foreign policy question.

Then she walked off, defeated.

Half an hour passed. It seemed like the night was calming down. Even the cats had disappeared.

Then I noticed everyone staring at me. What? Wait, no, they're not staring at me. They're staring at some spectacle behind me.

It's Mickey, completely topless, drunk beyond her skull. Her body is as red and saggy and wrinkled as her face. Her breasts, somehow, are perky and creamy milk-white.

She walks past all the practicing Muslim boys, who are vacationing in Dahab to celebrate the end of Ramadan fasting. They glance, look away, glance again, then look away with vigor.

She stumbles toward the bathroom, then back toward her room. But she walks through the wrong door.

We watch as she enters someone elses' open bedroom door. We wait for her to realize her mistake and leave. She does not.

After some hesitation, the guests crowd the doorway. Mickey is passed out asleep on someone's bed. Four feet away from her is an innocent man, sleeping, oblivious to his intruder.

The Muslim men aren't sure what to do. One grabs a towel and places it around her, covering her skin. They try to pick her up.

She wakes up, falls over. Shoots a look at the innocent man asleep in the next bed.

"WHAT'S he fucking doing in my fucking room?" It begins as an angry bellow, then falls to a mumble. By the end of the question, she's asleep.

The sleeping man wakes up from of the commotion. Screams.

Just another night in tropical snorkeling paradise .....