The Bedouin Jewel of Egypt

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Thursday, April 6, 2006

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.

At last I have gone somewhere, adding a fresh dot on my travelpod map that has remained monotonously centered on Cairo. Maple and I had made a pack when joining crew that if we persevered and made it through the race we'd take a trip to celebrate. So with the race and all those early morning practices forever behind us, we set out two days ago looking for an adventure.

From the start, the weekend promised to be sleepless and improvised. Our original plan was to take the overnight bus to Dahab and spend the day on the beach. From there we were going to take a taxi to Mt. Sinai, sleep on the summit, and head back to Cairo after catching the sunrise. But once on the overnight bus we realized our first mistake in judgment. As a westerner we had both imagined that on a nine hour bus ride that leaves at 12:30 am everyone would be sleeping. That way you'd arrive the next morning well rested and ready for action. But the driver started blaring Egyptian pop music at 1:00am. When that ended he put on three different Egyptian movies. The seats were rather cramped even for my short legs, so I bobbed back and forth drowsily as we headed East.

About four hours into the trip our bus came to a halt. I thought for a moment that we had arrived. A guard came onto our bus and started checking IDs. He was less than thrilled with Maple and I because we had only copies of our passports instead of the originals. After some "mish famto" and some sweet talking in Arabic on my part he moved on. This was only the first of many checkpoints in Sinai. Every time we switched to a different highway our bus was boarded and everyone's ID was checked. I had a few problems because I had only copied one page of my passport and not the visa stamps as well. But my strategy of looking confused and innocent worked again and they let us through. I don't know why they wouldn't have considering we were traveling from Egypt to Egypt, not some Palestinian refugee camp. All in all, between the five or so checkpoints and the blaring TV, Maple and I got little to no sleep.

Sinai is the name of the whole peninsular region between Egypt and Israel. It has changed hands a couple of times but in 1978 the Israelis returned it to Egypt as part of the Camp David Agreement. It is a very popular tourist site for Europeans who come for an inexpensive "fun in the sun" holiday on the Red Sea. Also, many pilgrimage groups stop by on their way to Jerusalem in order to see Mt. Sinai and St. Katherine's Monastery.

I fell in love with the region when I first saw pictures of its rugged terrain on travelpod. The waves of crinkled mountains fascinated me and after months on the flat river bed of Cairo, my heart was longing for a different landscape. I had promised my mom that I wouldn't go to Sharm el-Sheikh because of the bombings that occurred there last year. When I saw the exorbitant prices of this beach town I was even more committed to honoring my mom's request. So, Maple and I headed instead to Dahab, a tiny beachside town on the Gulf of Aqaba.

Because of the checkpoints I was awake as our bus laced through the mountains of Sinai and I saw the sunrise from the bus window. It filled me with peace as the mountains shed their dusty, grey cloaks of darkness and turned a welcoming pink in the soft dawn light. The whole scene reminded me of Land Before Time, a terrible movie that is redeemed only by its beautiful, geological backgrounds.

At last, groggy and half delirious with fatigue, we arrived in Dahab. We had barely stumbled off the bus before a dozen eager Egyptians approached us asking us if we needed a taxi or a hotel. After a nine hour bus ride with no rest stops the only thing I needed was a bathroom. After taking care of this necessity I realized that we were a bit unprepared. The bus station was remote and I had no idea how to get to the beach.

"Maple, what are you thinking?" I asked her as I shooed away another taxi driver.

"I'm exhausted. How do we get to the beach?" She said sitting down. I opened up Lonely Planet. We needed a plan. There on the first page was listed The Penguin, a back packers hostel located on the shore. At ten bucks a night we had noting to lose. Two Moroccans who were equally confused shared a taxi with us and we all arrived at last at the Penguin.

At the desk was a man named Emed who turned out to be our salvation that weekend. We gave him a brief description of our goals for the weekend. With true Arab generosity he arranged for us to have a king size room, beach side meals, and two tickets to Sinai that night. He gave us the king size room for the price of a regular and even bought our return tickets to Cairo for us. When I spoke some Arabic to him his smile only widened, and for the next two days we had an unofficial Arab uncle looking out for us.

An hour or two later we were resting on the beach, listening to 1960's music as we sipped on tropical juices. This is Dahab, a hippy community where the young and restless come to scuba dive and soak up the sun. It is everything that Cairo is not with clean air and stars that will take your breath away. A one street town, no one is ever in a hurry or trying to get anything done. It's a town where a weekend away quickly becomes a week long holiday and any ambitions beyond scuba diving or snorkeling disappear as you gaze at the azure waters of Aqaba.

Sitting on the roof of the Penguin's restaurant we did small bits of homework in between naps. I was distracted by the view, gazing constantly across the Gulf of Aqaba to the mountainous shores of Saudi Arabia. The cruisers that were moving along the horizon reminded me of Semester at Sea and the rocky shore made me think of Rosemary Steig and the years she spent in Saudi. That would be a true adventure.

Our actual hotel room was a bit interesting. It was equipped with four beds even though we only needed two. The bathroom was typically Egyptian, tiled with the shower head fixed in one corner so that while you bathed you simultaneously hosed down the toilet and sink. The water was painfully salty and smelled a bit like dead fish. But it was a cool relief to our sunburnt bodies. The beds were comfortable even though I found a two inch cockroach sleeping under the covers. He didn't bother me so I didn't bother him.

At eleven we took a two hour bus ride to Mt. Sinai. The goal is to be on the summit at sunrise which completely flips the sleep schedules of Dahab's drowsy tourists. Our little bus contained the two Moroccans, who we had become friends with, a Venezuelan, a German couple, two cheerful British girls, and a more serious French man. Once again we were winding through the enchanting mountains, this time as they glowed in the soft moonlight. Everyone was quiet and pensive, thinking either of the beauty surrounding us or the arduous climb awaiting us.

At 2:30am we began the trek. To say Maple and I were ill prepared would be a gross understatement. Maple was feeling sick, slightly feverish and not at all energetic. I had more excitement than was needed but had forgotten warm clothes and a flashlight. So since we had only one light and no idea which mountain we were even climbing, we quickly fell in behind the other members of our bus. Unfortunately, once I started translating the French and a few Spanish curse words I realized that they had no idea where they were going either. We bumbled down two paths before finding the correct one. It just took some logic, the camel path we were looking for could be found by its smell if nothing else.

There are two ways up the mountain, the Steps of Repentance and the wider, more gradual Camel Path. We copped out and took the easier road, winding our way up in the great sea of tourists and their flashlights. It looked like the final scene from Field of Dreams. Along the way there were countless Bedouins offering coffee, tea, or a camel to anyone who was lagging. Maple was making a bold effort, but she could barely breathe and was growing quite pale as we tried to cover the 6,855 feet to the top. When we reached the final stretch, a tortuous path of steep steps, I decided to go on ahead and meet her at the top.

This decision proved a bit foolhardy as Maple had our only flashlight. I waited until I heard some German tourists and fell in behind them, memorizing the path they lighted before me as I traipsed behind. They were cheerful, energetic folk dragging even their seven year old daughter up the holy mountain.

Again and again I thought I had reached the summit only to see another fifty feet of steps appear as the Germans pointed their flashlight ahead. So, when I reached the summit I was incredulous at least until I realized that what I thought were more rocks were actually clusters of tourists, shrouded in blankets and trying to stay warm as they waited. The group of Germans disappeared behind some bend I stumbled in the dark over the soft mounds of sleeping people. With my great sense of direction, I eventually sat down facing West where I would see nothing of the sunrise. Luckily a Bedouin guide took pity on me and told me to follow him. He took me down some narrow stairs to a small house that was carved into the face of the mountain. A ladder led up to the roof where he laid out a mattress and blanket for me. I thanked him and relaxed, happy to be away from the noisy throngs up above.

The beauty and solitude of those moments are indescribable. I tilted my head back and saw a night sky so brilliant and crowded with stars that I shed a few tears. You cannot see stars in Cairo, there is too much pollution so my eyes were starved for this natural beauty. When I shifted my gaze outward I could see a planet glowing brightly on the horizon as a hopeful pink appeared in the East. To the West I could see the dark expanse of the Red Sea and a cluster of lights that marked Sharm El-Sheikh. Silently, I began to pray and listen for the voice of God. I opened my Bible to Psalm 33.

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
And by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
He puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
He commanded and it stood firm.

The Lord looks down from heaven;
He sees all the children of man;

Behold the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
On those who hope in his steadfast love...

These last verses pierced my heart and I whispered them again and again. Here I was completely alone in a foreign land but I felt no loneliness because I was so certain of God's presence. A half hour passed as I sat meditating on this psalm and watching the drama of dawn unfold before me.

Just when I was starting to worry about Maple and miss not only her company but also her body heat, I saw her blond head appear below me. She soon climbed up and shared the blanket. She had made it just in time to see the sun's golden fire burn off the grey mist of dawn and dapple the rolling mountains in apricot hues. We didn't linger long after taking pictures; it was too cold and windy.

We took the Steps of Repentance down and I realized the trek up could have been a much more strenuous affair. I was filled with so much joy at the beauty I had just witnessed that I went bounding down the mountain, hopping from stone to stone. Now we could see the beauty that had been hidden in darkness during our trek up. The mountains were silent and brooding, strange geological swirls and patterns adorning their sides. Occasionally the path would narrow and we would pass under and archway that framed the breathtaking view before us. It amazed me that a place so rocky and barren could be so beautiful.

In the valley below sits St. Katherine's Monastery, one of the oldest churches in the world. It supposedly houses the Burning Bush and also the remains of one of Egypt's most famous martyrs. Originally just a pilgrimage site, it later became a refuge for Christians who were persecuted by the Bedouins in Southern Sinai. Despite the crowds of tourists, I was still able to enjoy the ancient church and take a picture of the bush.

Finally we were all packed into our minibus again, ready to return to the lazy routine of Dahab. Maple fell asleep but I was too curious about the international travelers in our bus. The Venezuelan behind me chatted excitedly about his home country, especially when I told him how much I had loved visiting it. Soon the Moroccan was describing the beautiful waterfalls of his home village. One of the British girls had been to Pittsburgh and remembered seeing the Cathedral of Learning. The conversation changed sporadically from English, to French, to Arabic whenever someone couldn't think of the right word. Eventually fatigue won over, and we all fell silent as the bus sped crazily around the tight curves of the road.

The bus ride back to Cairo proved as difficult as the one to Dahab. At one point our bus broke down for about an hour and another checkpoint took over twenty minutes as they decided to search everyone's bags. But I was entertained as I listened to the Moroccans rant and rave about it all in French.

When we finally pulled into Cairo I had never been so happy to see the city. A short taxi ride later and Maple and I were collapsing in our good old dorm rooms. There is nothing so great as a trip to make you appreciate your home.
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