This week guest blogger Bernadette Simpson from Don’t Mess with Dahab shares her story about living with less plastic in Dahab, Egypt.
The small town of Dahab, nestled between the majestic mountains of Sinai and the beautiful blue Gulf of Aqaba, has inspired visitors for many years now. Artists and athletes alike have drawn on the beauty and serenity of Dahab to create and enhance their practices. For me, Dahab is the place that inspired me to a deep appreciation of nature and an awareness of our responsibility to care for our earth. This has led me to be more conscious about my consumption of disposable plastic.
I moved here seven years ago from the chaotic and charismatic city of Cairo. The fresh air, the spectacular sea and mountain vistas, the closeness to nature – it was the medicine my soul needed after too many years in a big city. But as I explored further the surrounding shores, nearby wadis, and our own neighborhood streets, it became impossible to ignore the amount of trash littered about. And, no, it’s not because we are all litterbugs. (Although some of us certainly are.)
Dahab is infamous for its windy days – a surfer’s dream, but this wind only adds to our troubles with trash by blowing it into the sea and deserts where it is being ingested by the local wildlife leading to internal damage and ultimately death. The wind is only one of many complex factors that contribute to our local rubbish problem. But the easiest one for me as an individual to tackle was a simple one – cut down on the amount of trash that my household produced. And seeing that plastic was the most abundant item in my bin, I began my journey to reduce the amount of disposable plastic in my life.
I read a lot of blogs and online articles about the perils of plastics – how they aren’t only bad for the environment but also for our health. I learned from others who shared their own journeys on the path to a plastic-free life. Most of the bloggers and books I read were based in America and I was often envious of the options and plastic-free alternatives available to them. Milk in returnable glass bottles, thrift stores and organic cotton clothing, drinkable tap water. Without these available alternatives, I wondered how difficult it would be in Dahab to live with less plastic.
Over the years, I have discovered that the journey in Dahab is easy in many ways. And I have learned to count our blessings, the most fundamental one is that life here is simple. Many of us who have chosen Dahab as our adopted home chose it for this very reason – the simplicity. Time moves more slowly here and allows us all a chance to explore and learn and grow.
We have some of the best role models for leading a simple life in our Bedouin neighbors, people who have led a sedentary life for only the last thirty years. Prior to settling in towns, the Bedouin were nomadic, traversing the deserts of Sinai with their herds of goats, sheep, and camels. We learn from them that contentment comes not from the possessions you own but from the time spent around the fire with family and friends. We learn to be grateful for regular electricity and a connection to the city water supply. We learn that a simple meal of freshly baked bread dipped in olive oil and desert herbs makes a satisfying feast when it’s shared with others. We learn to consider mindfulness over convenience and to make do with what we have. And sometimes, honestly, it’s simply because we have no choice – local shops and markets provide the basic necessities and not too many extras. Our lack of choice is a blessing in disguise for those of us wanting to reduce our plastic waste. If it’s not on the shelves, we can’t buy it.
In general though, this simple and laid-back approach to life, our greatest blessing, permeates everything about our town. Our supermarkets are all locally-owned independent shops averaging only about 50 square meters in area; several sell a variety of dry goods in bulk. Our supermarkets are all tiny, locally-owned independent shops; several sell a variety of dry goods in bulk.
Once you begin to frequent your favorite little shops, you get to know the one or two clerks who are more than happy to help you when you explain your reason for refusing the plastic bags they offer or your request to use your own container for your purchase of bulk goods. Even if your Arabic is limited, Egyptians are friendly and outgoing – a smile and a nod go a long way. There are no store policies against reusable containers for hygiene reasons, as I learned there are in many stores in America. Thank you, Dahab, for your small size, supermarkets offering bulk goods, customer-friendly shopping policies, and amiable store clerks that together make my plastic-free journey easier.
While it may not be a big hassle to refuse plastic bags and packaging at the supermarkets and green grocers, refusing plastic water bottles can be quite a challenge here. In Cairo, this part was easy – we simply had a charcoal filter installed on one of the incoming pipes in the kitchen and we had access to drinkable water 24 hours a day! Dahab is a seaside desert town; the water that is provided by the city is desalinated sea water.
Every household has their own water tank for storage; the city water is turned on a couple of times a week for several hours and we fill up our tanks with water then. If we’re lucky enough to have a connection to the city water. (I’ve only had one for two years.) Otherwise we must call a truck to have a load of water delivered to the house.
In theory, this desalinated water is potable. But no one drinks it willingly. The sanitation and general state of the pipes, hoses, and trucks used in the process of transporting this water are questionable. So while it may be fine for general household use, no one risks drinking this tap water, at least without a proper filtration system. We don’t have one of those (Yet! It’s on the never-ending list of things to do.), but fortunately there are also many wells in the area. These wells provide water with a range of salinity and minerals, but much of it is drinkable and delivered straight to your house for a mere fraction of the cost of bottled water. That’s possible because these wells are generally considered a community resource; they are not owned by a company but maintained by a particular family or tribe. Anyone can visit these wells to get water. We are, therefore, not paying for the water but rather its transport and delivery since many of these well are a half-hour or more drive away. No, it’s not as convenient as filtered tap water or bottled water that can be purchased at any time of the day, but it’s clean, inexpensive, local, and plastic-free!
Along with Dahab’s many blessings also come many challenges and they can get frustrating and tiresome, but our blessings always outweigh the obstacles. I treasure the opportunity I’ve been given to live in such a special place and it is my dream to help others learn about the problems of plastic pollution and how easy it is here in Dahab to live a life with less plastic.
Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle
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