Maybe once in a lifetime, everything comes together to make a memory so profound that the very experience returns to us as adults, that sense of wonder long lost in childhood. This happened to me after taking a random decision to turn left. At the T-junction at the end of the desert road from central Sinai, the driver stopped, waiting for instructions. Right or Left? His shoulders punctuated the question. ‘Right’ would take me to the tourist resorts of Dahab and Sharm el Sheik. I chose ‘Left’.
Sign language helped me convince the driver that I wanted simple camping accommodation. His initial disbelief was strong opposition, but after a few shouted questions to people on the dirt track, he proceeded, muttering, avoiding kids and camels and a dead cat, to stop outside an enclosure of reeds. The entrance revealed a space of neatly swept sand, three tiny reed huts, a large black Bedouin tent, and a well. Through the palms, the water of the Gulf of Aqaba gleamed cool and still. This was the place for me.
The driver, intrigued to see a westerner willingly choose to stay here rather than at the Nuweiba Hilton, and infected by my enthusiasm for this basic place, helped inspect one of the huts. The single mattress on the gritty floor had a lumpy pillow and a huge heavy bright red blanket. A candle wedged into a bottle would be my light. The toilet was behind the black tent. A crowd had gathered. All eyes were fixed on me. The deal was negotiated, again in sign language. I would stay two nights. I would pay a pound. Everybody looked happy. The driver hurled my bag at me, slapping my shoulder in a brotherly way, and drove off in a cloud of dust. I moved in, gratefully closing my sore eyes against the glare of the day, seeing again the miles of desert road, the Valley of the Gazelles, and the inspiring grandeur of the Biblical mountains.
It was dawn when I awoke. I walked over the sand to the shaded roof at the sea wall. Some Bedouin lay rolled up looking and sleeping like logs. Others were facing towards Mecca, bodies moving in a language of prayer and thanksgiving. A mist half shrouded the mountains of Saudi Arabia, 12 kilometres across the Gulf. There was absolute stillness in the silver flatness of the water.
As the warmth of the day reached him, a young boy unrolled himself from his blanket, and stood scratching and stretching on the sea wall. Suddenly, he shouted out in excited grunts, sounds that came from his abdomen. He clapped his hands and slapped his thighs, and waved his arms wildly. Before I had fully realised that he was dumb, there was an almighty leap of metallic muscle out of the water, just metres away, vanishing as suddenly into menacing invisibility.
The boy launched himself into the water, and a dolphin surfaced next to him. I looked for signs of panic from the others. They smiled reassuringly. I watched entranced as the boy and the dolphin played, mimicking each other's moves, connected by such love. Baffled, I turned to the group. Everybody tried to explain, and I was surrounded by a Babel of sounds, not Arabic, but the unmistakable lingua of the deaf/mute.
Out of this surreal happening, I learnt that the boy was capable of calling to the dolphin. She had been cast out of her tribe, and lived with the Bedouin now. She was the answer to a prayer. The Bedouin had been desperate with no hope for their future. Fishing brought no money. The children could not go to school. The young men could not afford to marry. Other villages had attractions for the tourists, but El Muzeina none. Abdullah had befriended the dolphin far out in the Gulf. He noticed that she was alone, and wounded. Out of compassion, he fed her scraps of bait. She had taken to following him back to shore, and now lived in their water, responding to their calls, swimming with them all day, and allowing them to rub her tummy.
The word spread. Suddenly tourist buses were stopping at El Muzeina, and tourists paid to see and swim with Oline, the dolphin. Israeli Marine biologists had visited. Their report was shoved at me to read. It was a plea on how to behave in the presence of a ‘tame’ dolphin, and honoured the tribe as the family of Oline.
Intermarriage had rendered 47% of the villagers deaf/mute.
It was the will of Allah.
Just as it had been to send Oline to El Muzeina.
Just as it was meant that I should stay for 10 days to swim with Oline.
First published in the BBC Wildlife print magazine in June 2003
Bio: Gill Joyce I really love travelling in Africa and the Middle East; have taught Yoga for 20 years, and have been in jail only once......xx Gill.