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Buried alive
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 12 - 2005

Under the Safaga sand, Rasha Sadek is physically and spiritually cleansed right to her bones
Socrates proves right again. It was he who, shortly before he died in 399 BC, advised people to flock to Egypt to be cured of ailments often caused by Europe's colder and more humid weather. The wise man, creator of climatic physiotherapy, wrote in Egypt and Climatic Therapy that many parts of Egypt have what it takes of favourable environmental phenomena fit for healing where medicine failed. Over two millenniums later, physicists of the world nod in agreement. This kind of therapy has become a big hit with holidaymakers who come to Egypt in search of better health.
Little did Socrates know that he had established the most entertaining kind of treating illnesses. Safaga in turn grabbed the opportunity to be a healing zone and an internationally renowned centre for therapeutic tourism by healing psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis and numerous other ailments. Legend has it that Queen Hatshepsut frequently travelled from Luxor to Safaga to be treated from psoriasis. Not only for treatment, but Safaga also promises an unforgettable vacation. It's got it all.
You don't have to be ill to pack up and head to Safaga, for the same conditions fit for climatotherapy (treatment combining the natural elements of a specific geographic location) definitely make for a holiday extraordinary in essence. The picturesque white beach with the silhouette of gigantic mountains in the background and pure azure water -- unparalleled anywhere else -- along with a sky detoxified of so much as a stain the size of an atom, grant Safaga an excellent place on the map of tourism. A winter resort for travellers and a summer retreat for patients, the permanent sunshine and dry weather of the city make it a busy hub for a wide range of activities.
In order to understand how nature can do wonders in healing, some facts about Safaga are coming your way. Situated some 60 kilometres south of Hurghada, the Red Sea city is cloaked with a series of high mountains that act as a barrier against wind and sand storms, hence the air is pure of suspended stains that divert or absorb the ultra-violet rays which are basic in psoriasis therapy. And since the beach of Safaga takes the shape of a sheltered bay, the sea is quiet of high waves thus further reflecting the ultra-violet rays from the water surface to land. Moreover, the abundance and excessive existence of coral reefs that the Red Sea is famed for, increase the saline in water up to 35 per cent, in contrast to the 22 per cent saltiness of the Mediterranean. As the water density increases, the gravity decreases, so bodies float on the surface. This improves the blood circulation, hence increasing the flow of blood to the limbs and skin, further helping cure psoriasis (a chronic skin disease, the cause of which is still unknown and appears as red scaly itchy patches on different parts of the body with ensuing psychological disturbances).
Safaga's black sand, a composition of clay collected from tidal areas and sand from the Red Sea mountains, consists of three radioactive elements moderate in concentration: uranium, thorium and potassium -- highly effective in controlling rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic, progressive form of arthritis causing inflammation in joints. Minerals, especially gold salt, are present in safe amounts in Safaga's black sand, enhancing rheumatoid control. The sand has proved useful in treating acute and chronic arthritis, joint oedema, joint effusion and skin inflammation.
The core of Safaga is the Menaville Resort where I headed for three days of sheer self-care (read relax, laze, nourish body and mind, and enjoying the luxury of a four-star hotel). The people at the resort make sure the word "care" is executed to its ultimate. Treated like a queen from the moment I stepped into the resort to the good-byes of Mahmoud El-Gaied, the front office manager who made sure all my requests were met, I was ranked nothing less than royalty.
The 770-metre-long beach of the Menaville quickly invites for a plunge in the tranquil sea. I captured the "perfect moment" as I let the waters float me up the surface to stare at the cloudless blueness of the sky and catch a glimpse of the mountain tops. Such an untainted view and moment.
Hurrying back to laze on shore, it was all what it takes to cure oneself from psoriasis. Instead of steroid ointments, artificial ultraviolet rays and powerful drugs with serious side effects on the skin, liver and immunity system, the sunlight exposure and sea water bathing is the healthy alternative. Sounds like a vacation instead of treatment.
Of course, the psychological status is crucial to psoriasis patients, as Menaville General Manager Faisal Negm points out. "Some clients have been socially shut out from the world because of their condition. When they come here, however, they find a welcoming community because we understand their case. When they get better, more of their personality comes out and they fall in love with the place. Then simply, they come back." The Menaville Resort has devoted an isolated area right on the beach for those who want privacy during psoriasis treatment.
Dust to dust. I yearned for mother earth and I wanted to be buried alive. At 10.30 in the morning, a well-trained nurse who's been in the business of burying people still breathing for 14 years at the Menaville, prepared me for a decent burial. I laid down in the hot sand pit and Um Mohamed, a nurse, covered me with black sand. Except for my stomach and chest that was topped with a towel, I was down there, my body cemented with heavy, yet bearable, sand that had been absorbing the sun heat for days. Invigorating I must say.
Ten minutes later, I felt like my legs were pulsing. "Is this a good sign?" I asked the woman sceptically. "Of course it is. That's blood rushing through your veins, it's nice, isn't it?" I tried to nod a yes but my neck was sand- frozen. "Well, yeah, it's stimulating."
I was in one of four solariums dedicated to treating rheumatoid (two for men and two for women), and it was also on the beach next to the psoriasis solariums. "Here, let me wipe the sweat off your face," Um Mohamed said. "Do you want some water or juice?" Not while I'm down there but I loved being pampered and attended to all the same. It was incredible the amount of heat that had accumulated in the air in this area alone. It was an indication that climatotherapy isn't just a hotchy-potchy in Safaga.
It was back in 1991 that some tourists reported to the Menaville management that they noticed an appreciable improvement of their illness with rheumatoid arthritis. Thereafter, the National Research Centre (NRC) conducted a field survey of Safaga which revealed the extreme rarity of incidence of rheumatoid among its inhabitants -- 0.014 per cent as compared with the international one per cent, while psoriasis's inhabitant patients were 0.08 per cent as opposed to the international average of one to three per cent. A case study was later conducted by the NRC in which 16 rheumatoid patients were treated in Safaga. The 15-day study revealed that by being covered with Safaga's black sand -- a 5cm layer -- for three hours a day (two hours in the morning and an hour before sunset), a clinical improvement was seen among 75 per cent of the patients. "Moreover, about 60 per cent showed a significant fall of their erythrocyte sedimentation rate," the NRC report stated. Some time later, Safaga was put on the American Rheumatism Association's list as meeting the criteria needed for curing rheumatic diseases. And as long as we're talking about scientific research conducted on Safaga, the NRC studies also showed that 90 per cent of 80 patients ill with psoriasis and on no medical drugs were cured over a duration of four weeks. Nature does have wondrous healing powers, doesn't it?
The Dead Sea is Safaga's closest competitor but it has a number of drawbacks. The permanent sunshine in Safaga is basic in healing ailments, while at the Dead Sea there's no sunshine during autumn or winter. In addition, because the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, being 400m below sea level, patients suffering from heart, liver and kidney diseases, tuberculosis, hemorrhea, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, epilepsy and nerve diseases, will be affected conducting their therapy there. Moreover, the Dead Sea water contains high concentration of bromine, a substance that causes skin sensitivity and allergic outbreaks to some people.
So how come, after all this, the Dead Sea is better promoted as a healing zone? Mohamed Leheita, vice chairman of Menaville, the sole resort managing climatotherapy on a scientific basis in Egypt, has exerted much effort promoting his spot since it was he who started therapeutic tourism in Egypt in the late 1950s. "At the company, we funded research and held seminars and national and international press conferences, yet there's still much to be done. There should be further cooperation on the part of the Ministry of Tourism and Tourism Development Authority in order to compete with the Dead Sea, because we are far better," Leheita says with a tone of sorrow. "In order to have a successful climatotherapy zone, you must have specific factors: altitude, atmospheric pressure, humidity, ionic ratios, soil composition, temperature and strength of ultra-violet rays. All these factors are perfectly suitable in Safaga," he adds.
The Karlovy Vary Spa at the Menaville, a branch of the Czech Republic-based Termal health centre, extends over 800 metres and is a complete healthcare clinic. It includes Jacuzzis, saunas, massage parlours and a complete gymnasium to drive tension, anxiety and stress away. Facilities for electro-therapy, mineral water therapy, natural treatment by the inhalation of pure oxygen, and wax therapy for the treatment of ailments associated with ageing are also available at the spa. I promised myself a day for a revival. And what could have been better than a whole body massage with scented oils amidst candles and smooth music?
It's the hydrotherapy that Karlovy Vary is known for. This kind of therapy depends on water manipulating the body with comfortably high pressure, thus releasing tight muscles, relieving pain, aiding blood circulation and the mobilisation of fats. An hour of hydrotherapy session at the spa costs LE75. If you add mineral salts for the session, it's LE90.
Other ailments that haven't yet been studied properly have been cured in Safaga. Bronchial asthma, for instance, is cured after 36 hours are spent in Safaga, this according to personal encounters of patients with the Menaville management or with myself. Also present at the Karlovy Vary is the ultrasonic nebuliser for treating bronchitis, sinusitis and bronchial asthma (one session costs LE50). Some go as far as to joke that even a mosquito bite is healed in Safaga in no time. I believe it.
HOTELS: There are a range of one- to five-star hotels and resorts in Safaga. Along the line of the four-star Menaville resort are the four-star Lotus Bay, Holiday Inn and the three-star Shams Safaga hotels. A few kilometres to the north is the five-star Sheraton Soma Bay and Sol Y Mar resorts.
Downtown Safaga doesn't have much to show. Except for a few low-budget hotels like Cleopatra and Aida, and the city's port that is busy only during the pilgrimage season, Safaga is basically one long street of baladi cafés and modest grocery stores.
The Menaville, however, is a resort designed for your comfort and rejuvenation. Comprised of 301 spacious rooms, superior with a spectacular view of the sea, standard overlooking the pool or garden and suites, the resort takes care of those little details that make anybody's stay simply delightful. The crew at the resort make sure you're entertained to the hilt while you laze on the beach. Speedball, volleyball and handball courts are played on the sand, while the little ones, in the kids care centre, will be a burden taken off your shoulder.
The main restaurant serves a variety of the world's favourite cuisines very much depending on vegetation in the ingredients. The shisha bar, with an oriental atmosphere, is not to be missed at the resort along with Nabil, who had a most unfortunate incident straining his neck during my visit, but who nevertheless sings Western oldies to requests. The Cactus Pub is a spacious elegant bar while the discotheque starts at 9pm with a most dynamic animation team performing to the world's various traditions before the DJ takes over.
Wind and kite surfing are notorious in Safaga and at the Menaville there's a school for amateurs.
The Menaville Resort offers discounts for travellers who come to Safaga for treatment. Superior double rooms, sea view, cost LE225, while standard rooms overlooking the pool or garden are offered for LE195. Prices include the stay of an attendant and the cost of treatment. However, if you're not being treated you'll be booked a superior room for LE350 or a standard for LE300 on half-board basis.
CORALS BENEATH AND MOUNTAINS ABOVE: The unspoilt nature of Safaga preserves it as a treasure under the Red Sea. Safaga is a destination competitive with Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada when we speak of diving and snorkelling. Tobia Island is the magic word for snorkelling. That was one trip I couldn't help but embark on since I'm immensely in love with the vibrant colourful corals of the Red Sea and diversity of marine life and fish flying in various sizes, colours and species. Only half an hour by boat from the Menaville shore, it was another "perfect moment" recorded as I laid flat on the boat deck devoid of human traces and nothing but a picture tainted in different shades of blue. As we made it to the island, the scene was more like those movies shot on white sandy islands vacuumed of objects. Tobia had literally nothing on its surface but a couple dozen people. If you would like, you can bring your own bottled water, drinks and snacks.
Many of the world's top reef scientists have predicted that coral reefs will be destroyed by the middle of this century. Today we've already lost 25 per cent of these precious natural resources, an indication, perhaps, that the next generation will only know about corals from documentary films and photos. I say, not this spot, not Tobia.
The virgin underwater world of Tobia is like a sunken city or huge mountains of corals extending eight to 10 metres deep. Imagine an island entirely surrounded by this vast amount of corals in all colours and forms, not to mention the high visibility enhanced by the calm sea. And of course, generally, the visibility of the Red Sea is famed for being better than most other places (ranging from 20m to well above 40m).
Trips to Tobia Island are managed through the Menaville daily from 10.30am till 3pm for LE35 for Egyptians and foreigners alike.
Around Safaga are many diving sites: Cannon Reef, Gamul Kebir, Ras Abu Soma Garden, to mention but a few. Mena Dive manages diving trips to whatever site you want to be diving in, day or night. At the centre, a package of five days is offered for 190 euros, while one-day diving trip stands roughly at 47 euros.
If by then you've had your share of flying quietly beneath and want to exploit the adventurous side of yourself, then it's safaris time. Kharaz Malky is a site 25 kilometres in the heart of the Eastern Desert and 75 kilometres north of Safaga. Located amidst the Red Sea Mountains series, which are a fascination in their own right, the site introduces vacationers to Bedouin families who chose the harsh nature of the desert to live in. A huge tent, roofed with goat wool, is set opposite to a panoramic view of dunes and enormous mountains. How about hiking your way up one of those mountains to watch sunset? Well, it's doable. Perhaps a camel ride or a quadbike. The desert is yours and all options are open.
Here's a little tip to entice your trip: When in Kharaz Malky, work your imagination to visualise animals in the shape of mountains. I spotted a dinosaur's back. Will you, too? If you visualise a camel's head, it's not your lively imagination playing tricks -- it's as close to real as you can get. It's rock, a wonder in the Eastern Desert, carved with the minutest details of a camel's face -- its eyes, lids, mouth and nose.
Treat yourself to a Bedouin dinner afterwards before you head back to Safaga. This trip starts at 12pm till 7pm from Menatours next to Menaville for LE100 for Egyptians and 20 euros for foreigners.
There's more to the Eastern Desert: star gazing trips with technologically advanced telescopes, Roman ruins, oases and springs. But that will just have to wait for another trip. It was time to put behind relaxation, spas, health and adventure and head back to the office.

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