Sunday, January 13, 2008

Final Day

Go figure, that I'd really start to like a place the day before I leave.

Got back from a trip into the Sinai interior with a group of students from Cairo. We had two amazing days, and one superlatively hellacious night.

Day one we hiked the white canyon, a narrow slot canyon a couple hours drive into the desert. One of the guys was 200 kilo, at least, and the girls were all city girls - so that one hour excursion took 2.5 hours. We ate lunch at a small oasis that was home to five Bedouin families. The land was so incredibly arid that it was a relief to see this small valley with trees and life. The afternoon we switched to a 4x4 and went tearing off into the wilderness. That ... was an adventure ... though it left us all bruised.

One of the Bedouin showed me videos he had downloaded onto his phone. There were exactly three types: Lebanese girls belly dancing in their rooms from You Tube, camels fighting, and guys doing spin-outs on sand dunes in their 4x4's. And there you have Bedouin Culture, in a nutshell.

Then we drove into camp.

I can't put enough quotation marks around that word camp, so you'll just have to fill in the irony yourself.

Camp was a few pieces of lumber hastily nailed together, with a few moth-eaten camel blankets on the roof and one side, ripped plastic sheets on two sides, and the third side open. The floor was rocks with think blankets placed over them. The sun went down, taken it's meager heat with it, the moon brought a cold wind with it, and we suffered the night. I can't recall ever being so cold and uncomfortable. And angry - I had specifically asked about blankets, reminding the tour organizer that I was from the tropics. He assured me there would be plenty, that we'd be taken care of. What he meant was, you get one blanket each, hope you survive.

The sun came up, and it took as a few hours to warm up. Next stop: St. Katherine's Monastery. The Bedouin told us to tell the military police (there were lots of check-points) that he had come from Dahab that morning. I guess we broke the law that night. Ooops. Yeay. That made me feel better.

The monastery was absolutely packed with tourists from the mega-resorts at Sharm, so it was hard to enjoy - but it was still a fascinating place. It was founded in the 6th Century by the Empress Helena of Constantinople - though it might have still been Byzantium then. It had already been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, as it was the reputed site of both the burning bush and Mount Sinai, of the Ten Commandments fame.

It was another Bedouin lunch in the desert, which took a few hours - Cairo Time is worse than Hawai`i Time. It was late in the day before we finally started heading up the mountain. No picture I've seen has done this place justice. Past the monastery the land opens up into a great plane surrounded by craggy peaks. One crag, taller than the rest, looking impossibly sheer and laying behind the setting sun, was Mount Sinai - our destination.

We're taught "Moses went up the mountain for forty days" without giving it much thought. Staring at this crag rising to the sky you realize how absolutely pagan the whole idea was. You're people are starving in the desert? Climb a mountain and wait for the sun god to send you a message.

The climb wasn't too bad, until the end, and the Steps of Penance. Some unknown monk had made it his life's labor to carve out a stairway to the final summit. The "stairs" were more rough rock. 750 of them, we were told. It was at a 7500' elevation, the air was thin, and we hadn't slept the night before. It was incredibly hard - I had to stop every three or four steps to catch my breath.

The 200 kilo guy didn't make it, but the girls did, just in time to see the sun finally set behind the rows of mountains in the distance. Twilight lasted just long enough to get back down the steps, and we walked by moonlight the rest of the way. It was fantastic. I forgot to be cold until the end. Down below we could see the fires in the monastery. Above, rocky peaks outlined against the stars. I almost forgave our organizer for the night before.

It was also great finally meeting normal Egyptians, girls without veils, and one's who seemed more aware of the world around them. They're not sure what happened to Egypt any more than the author's I've read. Their mother's used to wear mini-skirts. Then ... what? Somehow most of the country reverted to 7th Century styles.

So now I'm back in Dahab. The sun is out, although there is still a cold wind. I ate breakfast with some of the guys from the hotel, and listened to their stories of seducing Western girls. The girls don't have a chance here. These guys are used to seducing women hidden behind veils and jealously guarded by their families. Western girls are easy pickings compared to them. These guys can smell a lonely girl from 50 meters. Though, sometimes, they get more than he bargained for. One was trying to pick up two Slovenian girls the night before. He used all his best lines, and they worked. On both of them. He didn't know what to do, and panicked. When one of his friends started teasing him in Arabic, he told the girls that the friend was his boss, and that he's ordered him back to work. And then he ran. These guys are so macho, and then so suddenly innocent.

Still glad to be going home, though. Tomorrw night I'll be in Munich again. I plan on taking a long hot shower. Then I'll take another one. I'm going to eat pork. Lots of pork. And then, home.

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