Sunday, October 08, 2006

Dahab and Mt. Sinai

Another truly amazing weekend...I got back at 12:30 last night after an arduous 10 hour bus ride, and I had to do some homework before going to class at 9:30, so this is my first chance to write.
As I had mentioned, we left for Dahab at 12:15 am from the Ramses bus station; the four of us-Frances, Akshaya, Phil, and I crammed into one cab with all of our luggage. I, of course, brought prodigious amounts because I have never learned the concept of traveling light. Maybe the safari will teach me...Anyway, the bus ride to Dahab, a city on the Sinai pennisula an hour past Sharm El-Sheikh, was uneventful, especially beacause I slept much of the way. I don't think I've ever been cramped into such a small space for so long; the seats are smaller than an airplane's, and not as comfortable. Anyway, we arrived in Dahab around 10 in the morning, having passed through numerous check points (these take awhile, as they check everyone's passport each time) along the way. Security in the Sinai region is extremely tight due to the slew of bombings in the area in the past few years. Sharm's been hit several times and Dahab just once last year, and, throughout our stay, we noticed a significant paucity of tourists in the town, at least compared to most coastal cities. My roommates and I had reserved two rooms at a place called the Christina Beach Palace for 220 LE per room per night, but, the 'taxis', i.e. back of a flatbed, had drivers that pushed their own lodgings on you. As my companions were willing to look into these (I'm a bit of a hotel snob, but I tagged along gamely), we ended up staying at a place called the Spinx hotel for 60 LE a night. The old Sphinx, mind you, not the New Spinx hotel, which is much nicer. Our place was adequate, on the ocean, and had a private bathroom, although the shower did not have a curtain and the toliet had an annoying habit of draining to fast. Thus, I had to race against the toliet and fill the tank up with water from the sink, very exciting, mind you. Frances and I have progressed far enough in our relationship to now share a bed, as the only room available with an ocean view had one large bed. We only slept there one night, so no problem, I try not to snore too loudly. Dahab itself was a divine mix of laid-back beach atmosphere and Bedouin tradition. We knew when we got on the bus, surrounded by younger white people and older hippies, that Dahab appeals to a different sort that Hurghada. But, honestly, I preferred the atmosphere of Dahab to Hurghada. Short, tank tops, bikinis, anything was acceptable, and you were not restricted to your hotel, but could wander along the corniche with the ocean lapping gently a few feet away. Recently constructed, the corniche is one of the aspects that made Dahab wonderful-it's a cobblestoned walkway that runs along the shore from the tip of the laguna to the end of the row of stores. Oh, yeah, and the hotel only had saltwater spouting from the taps, so I didn't actually shower for three days ;-) I figured, what's the point, I went swimming multiple times each day, and I wouldn't even be washing the salt off. The first day, I changed into my swimsuit and ambled down to the beach cafe and sprawled out onto one of the incredibly comfortable chairs right by the shore. The cafe, the Funny Mummy (the best name in the town, in my opinion), was one of the typically 'Bedouin' cafes, with low cushions propped on the ground for chairs and quaint little tables for eating and drinking. The staff were, as always, very attentive, and found us highly amusing, as I speak some Arabic and Frances can carry long conversations in Arabic. They also had succulent, fresh fruit juice smoothies in giant glasses with fresh slices of fruit adorning the sides for only 12 LE. We swiftly concluded that the owner, Jimmy, was either always high or ADD because he never failed to shout amusing things and us or laud our presence with racuous applause. The beach was not a true beach, but a corally beach with tide pools at low tide and calf-deep water at high tide, with a sudden, precitpitious, 100+ meter drop to the depths not far from shore. Still, it was fun to wade around and cool off. Lounging around for much of the day, we sunned, dozed, browsed the shops in town, and eventually split up. I flagged down one of the men selling horseback rides and took off at 4 with him.
Now these were not the typically docile nags by the pyramids. No, the horse he put me on was a half-broken 3 year old filly (by his own admittance, too, he kept on saying she was 'new' and not fully trained) named Amira. She was definitely Arabian, and a truly beautiful grey-coated horse, but was simply too much for me to handle. Learning that I am not an expert rider was slightly painful, but, I suppose, necessary to my pride. We took off riding down the road, and she kept breaking into a trot, but I reined her in, slightly uncomfortable with the fact that she didn't always respond to me. We reached a stretch of deserted beach, and he asked me if I wanted to gallop. Of course I said yes, and kicked Amira after my guide's horse, thinking her gallop would be the rolling gait of every other horse I'd ridden. No, her muscles bunched beneath her, and we flew! Her legs churned the sand faster and faster, and the beach became a blur, and I soon realized we were charging at a full gallop down the beach towards a wall, and tried to rein her in, but she just surged forward, skirted the edge of the wall, brushed up against it, stopped and threw me. Well, alright, I didn't fly so much as pop out of the stirrups, over her neck, and into the soft sand. Neither of us was injured, although I was peeved at myself, and I got right back on her, brushing off the guide. We continued down the beach in a slower fashion, although I still could barely control her. She certainly wasn't bolting, but she wasn't obeying me either. We met up with my friends at the laguna, a swimming sandy beach, and they tried to pet her, but she shied away, tossing her head and prancing. Finally, after many frustrated attempts to have her stop for a picture, I succeeded, dismounted, and switched horses with my guide, and enjoyed a much more pleasant ride back. He had to deal with Amira's incessant recalcitrance, and I could enjoy splashing in the surf. We even galloped a bit, and, although my horse took off sprinting extremely fast, I did manage to stop without hitting anything. I made it back to the hotel, famished, and let Akshaya and Phil have a dinner to themselves while Frances and I found another cute little cafe seaside at which to dine. The seafood in Dahab is superb, freshly caught, and I enjoyed a pleasant meal of snapper, rice, ice cream, pop, and several other items for under 20 dollars. Our dinnermates, seated in the square of cushions next to us, were always rather fascinating. They were employees on the Norwegian cruise ship that sails Hawaii, and they regaled us with tales for hours life from a staff's perspective. We also enjoyed fending off the proverbial cats that would patrol the restaurants in search of a dropped morsel; all of the cafes provided squirt bottles full of water to fend off unwanted felines, and we waged a successful war against roving kitties.
After a good night's sleep, very chaste, we both kept to separate sides of the bed ;-), Frances and I were up early to eat and do a bit of homework. We booked an excursion through the hotel 'concierge', i.e. Jimmy, but it was only 25 LE and worth every piaster. We excursioned to the Blue Hole, an amazing reef area about 25 minutes from Dahab via the covered back of a jeep or switchback and pot-holed, unpaved roads. It was, bar none, the best snorkeling I've ever done, and if anything were to ever convince me to dive, this was it. The best way to see the Blue Hole is through a scuba mask, but I still enjoyed the snorkeling immensely. A ring of coral with a center shaft of blue nothingness, the Blue Hole lived up to its reputation, with fantastic, pristine walls of never-ending coral encircling a slightly eerie 'blue hole', the bottom not even visible in the crystal clear water. On either side of the blue hole, as one part was sunken to allow access into the ocean, walls of coral stretched up and down the entire coastline, even more spectacular than the Blue Hole. The coral here was unlike any I'd ever seen in terms of species, variety, abundance, and color. Blues, purples, pinks, greens, sea fans, elkhorn, brain, everything was there, phenomonally healthy and teeming with beautiful fish. On one side lay the vast ocean, a muddled shade of blue extending down and outward farther than I cared to discern, and on the other side grew the reef. Among other things, I saw another lion fish and a school of scintillating silver fish. I wish I had purchased a camera, but that means I'll just have to go back ;-) After a successful arguement with the transportation, who wanted us to sit at the Blue Hole for several more hours, we caught the jeep back home, again sharing it with two Canadians, an Australian, and a Norwegian, minus the two Swiss guys who rode over with us.
I am rather stupid person at times, and that afternoon was no exception. I had run into my horse guide earlier, and decided to go riding again that afternoon, I thought on the gentler horse. Mentioning, apparently while he was within earshot, that Amira was crazy (she was!), I had mortally offended him (as he told me later), and so he gave me Amira. I wanted to tame the beast, so I obliged and got on. I figured it would be about an hour and a half ride on the beach again, so I wore stretchy capris, a bikini top (like I said, I'm a idiot), and, of course, shoes. No, this time we would ride into the mountains for two hours, which I agreed to, not really thinking properly. Passing the outskirts of Dahab, I realized that we had left the touristy area and were now in place where the Egyptians live. Well,that was fun, I even posed for a random guy's cell phone camera so he can now have wonderful fantasies about the blonde girl in a bikini astride a horse. I never felt unsafe, though, or I would have turned around. The horses made it off the road without getting spooked, although I worried slightly when a cavalcade of dune buggies roared passed, and we even managed a gentle canter without any issues. We tried to stop for a pictures, and then Amira started acting up. More aggressive about my desires, I dismounted without being told and handed the reins to the guide. Switching horses, we continued into the mountains themselves for a good hour, eventually reaching a canyon where we had to turn around. The guide took a few pictures for me, and, as he was handing the camera back, asked me if I wanted to do anything else. I'm a bit naive, I'll admit, so I looked around, saw a lone tree, rocks, and dirt, and said no and turned my horse to the exit. It wasn't until later that I realized, I think, that he was asking if I wanted to have sex. Honestly, what else was there to do? He couldn't eat (fasting), and my bikini top probably gave the poor man too many fantasies too control. Anyway, we turned around and headed back into town, now over two hours into the ride, with another good hour left to go. Amira bolted a few times, and my horse followed suit, so I wasn't terribly inclined to give them the signal to gallop, so we marched slowly down the highway; I seemed to attract horns and random stares like a magnet, which didn't help my horse's nerves. The sun had set and the moon was beginning to rise before I reached the beach, paid the man, and scurried off to meet Frances, to whom I'd promised to meet before sunset to go swimming in the laguna. Well, we had a moonlight swim, which was actually very enjoyable, especially after the hot horseride, and grabbed some grub before the trip to Mt. Sinai.
The best way to see Mt. Sinai is by sunrise, so most climbing trips arrive at the area around one in the morning to begin the trek up. As Dahab is two hours from Mt. Sinai, we left to hotel around 11, curled up for a nap in the mini bus, and stumbled out at around one to gaze at the craggy black mountains outlines against an etherally blue night sky pinpricked with stars. I hadn't really considered the fact that I was going to climb Mt. Sinai. Until we arrived there, it was just another thing to do. Then, as we gazed at the range of mountains enveloping us with blankets of deep blackness, I began to realize that this is THE Mt. Sinai, where God had spoken to Moses thousands of years ago, where the burning bush had appeared before him, where he had received the 10 commandments at age 80. Of course, we were not the only climbers, there were plenty of tourist buses to fill the parking lot, but there was enough mountain to spread us out. Alright, I should probably confess that I did not actually climb Mt. Sinai, but rode a camel up most of it. Many entrepeneurs hark there wares here, and camel men are no exception. Supposedly, our fee that we paid to the hotel included a 'guide' for the night, but when three of us told him we wanted camels, he responded ok, 65 LE per person. That seemed a little steep, so we brushed him off and 'negotiated' down to 50 LE with little arguement. Phil and Akshaya were wavering over whether to walk or ride, but there was no way I was going to walk ;-), so I let a camel boy pull me along and find me a camel, leaving my friends behind. For a moment, it was comsummate chaos, walking up the slope to the mounting point, jostled by camels, camel boys, hikers, and pilgrimers singing songs of praise to the Lord. I mounted, met the boy who would lead the camel (see, I really didn't have to do anything ;-), waited for a British woman to join us, and set off. For awhile I felt like I was walking through time, swaying to the gait of the camel, watching Mt. Sinai slowly come into focus, and imagining that Moses had himself trod these same stones, and I almost, almost, felt a spiritual ephiphany, but realized that I was waxing too cornily, and returned to the moment. Eventually, we reached the end of the trail, having passed the poor souls who were walking with their own power, got off, rested from the exertion of riding (I rode Bedouin style, kind of like sidesaddle ;-), and looked for the summit. Oh, wait, there were 753 more 'steps' that we had to surmount before we could achieve the top. And they were, of course, not normally sized stairs, but jagged, twisting, turning stairs that taxed me a bit, I must say. I reached the summit at about 4:15-4:30, and bundled up in my sweatshirt until the first glimmers of light peeked over the horizon. I was not alone at the summit, but had arrived early enough (although Frances, Phil and Akshaya, the latter two who rode camels, had beat me) to secure a seat right at the edge of the mountain, facing east, for an unobstructed view of the sun. The top or mountains are never flat, and Mt. Sinai was no exception, but a tilted slope of several precipices and even a small chapel to welcome the sun every morning. Despite the numerous perches one could find on the summit, I happened to find one that was on top of Phil and Akshaya's feet, bundled as they were in a Bedouin blanket they had rented from the ubiquitious hawkers even at the top. As much as I love words and loquaicity, words simply cannot describe the sunrise from Mt. Sinai, only my pictures can do it any sort of justice, and not much. Frances found us not long after sunrise, and we waited for the crowds to trickle down before we began our descent.
There is a monestary near the base of Mt. Sinai, St. Catherine's, that is Greek Orthodox. At some point in its long history, a monk, in repentence for some sin, had carved a series of steps most of the way up the mountain, different from the sloping path I rode up. After descending the intial 753 stairs, we found the Steps of Repentence, and my calves began to repent ceaselessly about halfway down. Whatever sin the monk had committed, it must have been truly grave to warrant such torturous treatment. The climb down these steps took about two hours, and then we waited for about half an hour to go inside the monestary. Entirely enervated, I dozed briefly, but jostled my way into the monestary, thinking that I'd bop in, see the church, and bop out, as visitors are not allowed to visit much of it. Then, Frances mentioned that the burning bush was over there. The burning bush? But there it was, still thriving after all of these years, its vines dangling into the pathway with nonchalance. Now, of course I cannot confirm that this is The Burning Bush, the selfsame plant that blazed with God's voice in instruction to Moses, but, at some point, faith must endure, and it did. After the bush, I wandered into the entrance of a little museum of rare icons and relics with Phil and Akshaya. The fee was five LE, and they weren't that interested, but I was intrigued, so I paid the fee and walked in. It wasn't huge, but the museum contained items dating back to the 6th century, the paint still unfathomly vivid and striking. Old Bibles, translations and other things occupied me for a little while, and, on the way out, I stopped to thank the father. We had chatted briefly earlier, about where I was from, etc., but he told me to wait a moment, and he left to front desk and took me on a little tour and gave me the history of many of the artifacts. Then, he asks if I have a camera, and he invites me to take pictures of whatever I want, even though photography is strictly forbidden. I think he was truly fascinated by the fact that I was interested in the stuff, and actually paid to enter, as most everyone else there was on a package tour with tour groups. He was extremely kind, a bit monkish with pepper gray hair and a long beard. Then, I realized it was after 10, and my shuttle bus was going to depart 10, thanked him again and promised to return, and ran out to catch the bus. From there, we went back to the motel, checked out, went for a quick swim, and caught the 2:30 bus back to Cairo.

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