Saturday, April 07, 2007

Gebel Musa
(Mt. Moses)

When I was first rationalizing a move to Egypt, one of the things I would say was, “It’s not like we’re going to Sinai or anything.” I started saying this because we were making the decision about moving in April 2006, about the time a town called Dahab was bombed. Well, I just fell in love with Egypt a little bit more this week, and it was because we were in Dahab. J will write more about this beautiful, friendly town on the southeastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, but, obviously, my perspective on this region has changed, which would take more than a blog entry to explain.

Before a climb up Mt. Sinai, at the Bishbishi Garden Village, our hotel:

On our first full day in Dahab, we went snorkeling, rested a few hours, then set out for an evening climb of Mt. Sinai. At around 11:30pm, we were herded into a minibus with nine other people – five Swedes, a few Chinese women, a couple of British isles chaps, and three Americans – J, me, and J’s visiting friend Mike. We slept for most of the two-hour drive from Dahab to Mt. Sinai until we pulled up to the first checkpoint outside of St. Catherine’s Monastery, where all of us relinquished our passports for inspection by a stern man in a Cosby sweater. There were a few more checkpoints before we arrived at the monastery, which sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Now, I’ve never climbed a mountain before, and I have no idea what constitutes a high mountain, but I found myself inspecting mountains along the way and thinking, Yeah, I could handle that one, or No, if Mt. Sinai is that big, I’m not doing it – no way, no how.

Mt. Sinai is about 2,300 meters high, or about 7,500 feet. If you’ve climbed a mountain before (I’m talking to you, Sari and Marge), you’ll probably just laugh at the rest of this entry, because it seems that for some people (again, you know who you are) this would be cake.

When we pulled up to the monastery in the wee hours, I still couldn’t tell which one was the infamous mountain from which Charlton Heston descended with stone tablets. After paying 5 pounds for the use of the abnormally clean bathroom, we set off through a metal detector, where two soldiers gave a cursory glance through our backpacks, the luggage we would grow to despise the higher we climbed. It was here that we met our guide, an intrepid young Bedouin who climbs this mountain seven days a week and would be climbing it twice in the next 48 hours. He named our group “Ramses” and insisted that each time he called out this name we all respond so he could make sure that we hadn’t fallen down the mountain. He didn’t actually say the part about falling down the mountain. This kid was texting on his mobile the whole way, and he literally bounded from rock to rock in between smoking cigarettes. I remember at one point when I was lagging a bit, he came swooping down, grabbed my hand, and got me going like he was a personal trainer. Then he moved on to the next few people who were lagging behind.

We found out we would be going on the camel path, a lengthier but less steep route to the top – it was supposed to take 2-3 hours. It turns out that ascending the other path – 3,000 Steps of Repentance carved out by a self-flagellating monk – was not an option at night. We would see why in the morning. I can only say that I was elated to not be able to see the extent of what we were about to climb. And I fear I would have been cursing rather than repenting, anyway, if I had taken those 3,000 Steps.

The first part of the climb involved weaving through a camp of Bedouins and their camels. “Camel? Camel? Camel? Very long way. Camel?” Most of the camels were sacked out and masticating and, I imagine, thinking grumpily about how this was the day they would feign an itch and “accidentally” shake a tourist from their backs. I would have thought them adorable if I didn’t already know better. Later, one of the women in our group would try to pet a seated camel as we passed, and it would try to bite her. Don’t mess with camels. The ones in the camp seemed docile in the light of the full moon, though, and the Bedouins were adept at making a camel ride seem like a good idea. In fact, as we climbed throughout the night, we would periodically pass other small groups of camels, and the Bedouins’ suggestions about getting a camel ride were more and more seductive: “Camel? You look very tired. Camel? Camel make it easy.”

Now commenced the real climb. There was a strange logic to each group member’s approach that reminded me of when we had to run the mile in gym class. (Here comes my flashback of Miss Randall’s disappointment in my finish time.) A couple of people in the group were steady and quick the whole way. Others tried to make out like “men” and started off too fast, eventually pooping out. I took the slow and steady approach, and one of the Chinese women joined me. She is taking a year off from teaching social studies in Taiwan to travel the world by herself. J took the steady approach as well but was much quicker. However, all of us made it to the top, and no one fell off or sustained any major injuries.

For me, this first leg of the ascent was hardest because my brain was at its most practical. I was doing things like singing little inspirational ditties in my head with lyrics like, “Come on! You’re only 29!” Once my sense of logic crumbled to fundamental instincts, I was golden. I lost all sense of time and only cared about watching out for camels and keeping my eyes to the uneven ground.

The Bedouins have a beautiful system, though. Along the way are pit stops, where you can go into a hut, sit for a few minutes, and buy drinks or snacks. The higher you go, the more expensive the food and drink. About halfway up, sweating through our clothes, we realized that water alone wouldn’t cure the inevitable dehydration that was coming, and we bought a couple of Sprites for ten pounds apiece (normally you can get a can of Sprite for a few pounds), which had amazing, immediate results. Our guide had a wonderful way of making it seem like the next pit stop was right around the corner.

There came a point when I realized how far up we were and stupidly glanced over to see the sheerness of the mountainside. The camels we passed hugged the edge of the path, and I couldn’t imagine being up on one of those unwieldy humps, swaying toward the side of the mountain. We then decided it was time to turn on the flashlight we had bought, an enormous lamp that thereafter became the envy of all Bedouin guides. This was a fun reversal because I was asked numerous times if I would give such-and-such guide this flashlight, and I always responded with an exorbitant price.

Finally, we reached the spot where the camels will go no farther. The camel path meets up with the Steps of Repentance for a final 750 steps to the summit. On this last leg, some people literally crawled. We met a group of three ancient women coming down these steps on their canes in the dark – no guide, no flashlights. I shone my flashlight down the stairs for them until they went out of sight, but I think this just annoyed them.

There was one last spot before a final 50 steps. Because our group had become several individuals, each going at his/her own pace, our guide instructed us to meet him at “Coffeeshop #5.” J and I were proud to make it up there just after the Swedes, who proved to be the fittest people in the group. We waited a while and rented a ratty, never-been-washed blanket for ten pounds, because it was getting windy and cold. It was around 4:30am. The sun would rise at 5:50, we were told.

Finally, a last tiresome bit before the summit of Mt. Sinai. Our guide secured a spot for us which involved climbing up a “ladder” that was actually part of a fence tipped on its side. It was, indeed, lovely to watch the sun rise out of the haze and become apparent little by little.

As this happened, Nigerian groups on a different part of the summit began to sing quite beautifully. Something about this (probably the repetition of hearing this singing every day) irritated our guide, who remarked: “See? We are a good group. No Nigerians!” It was at this point that I recognized a bit of irony in the dependency of so many Christians and Jews on the Muslims who will get them up this mountain. As we left the summit, pushed by our guide to hurry, we watched people praying, preaching, photographing.

We were deliriously fatigued at this point, but we were halfway through. Theoretically, going down should have been easier. For this lady, it was the most excruciating part of the trip. Let me put it this way – my kneecaps? I lost them somewhere on the crazy monk’s steps. And today I've developed bruise stripes on the backs of my calves. The 3,000 Steps of Repentance are a jagged, steep, zigzagging path of uneven rocks, and the distance between some steps can be a few meters.

Despite my fight with the hobbling, quivering things I call my legs, I found the descent to be absolutely gorgeous. We finally got to see the thing we had been battling all night. And about three-fourths of the way down, we spotted the monastery. As soon as he could get a signal, J called his father, who was the only one we knew to be awake in the States, on our borrowed mobile. You wouldn't believe the signals you can get in the desert.

The Descent:

The view of Mt. Sinai from Elijah's Hollow, a spot about 3/4 of the way up:

St. Catherine's Monastery:

At the bottom, we discovered that the monastery was closed that day. Do you think I cared? I had been looking forward to seeing the Burning Bush, but as we walked down an endless road to the parking lot where we would be picked up, and a police truck approached us, and I said to J, “He’s just going to have to run me over” because I no longer had the capacity to veer to the right, and I watched a woman try to leap onto a ledge for a photo and fail because her body literally crumpled beneath her, I thought, monastery schmonastery. I fell into the minibus and slept the whole way back.

There were probably lots of revelations on the summit of Mt. Sinai – some imagined, some real. I didn’t have one until that next day. I was grimacing at my sore calves and sipping a lemon juice in a café called The Funny Mummy that looks out over the Red Sea. Then one of the waiters said something to me about how Egyptians understand that the American people are different from their government. For a moment, I had that relief I have always had in hearing that comment – that people can understand that citizens don’t necessarily bear the responsibility for their government’s actions. Later, though, I realized that it is extremely generous for people to go so far as to say they understand that American citizens are not to blame. Just because I didn’t vote for So-and-So doesn’t mean I don’t bear some of the responsibility for the things I wish our government wouldn’t do. Complacency can be a considerable fault. But Marx says all of this better. It's just that I started to feel like my relief at the comment I've been hearing since I've gotten to Egypt is actually part of the problem. I'm not sure what this has to do with Mt. Sinai.

In conclusion, if you visit me, I will be glad to take you to Dahab. And I'll gladly steer you toward Mt. Sinai and see you when you come back down in the morning.



Sari said...

If at all possible--I'm so coming to Egypt next year! You sold me with the mountain climbing and the cranky camels. Seriously! If I have a job, I'm coming!

kate said...

This was such a wonderful post, A. It made me tingly-those photos, imagining it all. It also made me long to travel again.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! My heart skipped a few beats. I want everyone I know to read this--and I can say --"that's my daughter".

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Stephanie said...

I loved reading this (both the mountain part and the not-related revelation part). And keeping in mind your much more trying (but, it seems, lovely too) mountain experience, I'll try not to complain this summer if my out-of-shape muscles at some point betray me when we hike through Missouri mini-hills and mountains. :)

Karen said...

I love the photo of James on the cushions. He's totally rocking the casbah.