Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Red Sea and Mount Sinai

Oh, what a wonderful two days we have had! Friday morning we woke early and arrived at our language school on Zamalek by 8:00am. We met with all of the other students that attend the school for our journey to Mount Sinai. Including teachers, we numbered right around one hundred. We all packed in on two very nice coach busses and departed. Four hours later we drove unceremoniously through a tunnel, under the Suez Canal and turned south along the Red Sea. Shortly we arrived at a resort where we had seven hours of fun and relaxation. The resort was on the beach of the Red Sea where the waters were amazingly blue, the weather was very pleasant and the air smelled faintly of salt. We changed into our bathing suits in the restroom and headed for the water. We played for hours by throwing the Frisbee around over the water, and playing various games our Arabic instructor concocted on the spot such as, “Hide the Frisbee under the sand and see who can find it,” “Swim between the legs of five men standing in a line,” and the ever-popular, “Sit on someone else’s shoulders and wrestle the other two guys.” My Arabic teacher was amused with my large, pasty-white, American tummy. I told him variously that it was a solar panel soaking up lots of energy from the sun, something to keep me afloat, and used it as an excuse when he successfully attempted to hoist two men on his shoulders, one on top of the other. We ate, we played, we laughed, and we rested in the cool breeze. And six hours later it seemed like the trip organizers let us enjoy all of this relaxation as a cruel joke.

We wrapped up our time at the beach, and left just as the sun was setting. We boarded the bus and I experienced what night in the desert is truly like. There was nothing around us in any direction for miles. The inky blackness all around us sent a shiver up my spine. For some reason drivers in the desert do not use their headlights at night, which made the trip just that much more nerve-wracking. You know how there are two settings on your headlamps… all the way on, and the one that’s halfway, that just turns on the amber lights to the side of the headlamps? They use just the amber lights, right up until they are close to an oncoming vehicle. Only then do they turn on the headlamps. Also, for some reason our bus driver thought it was a good idea to straddle the middle line for long stretches of road. All of this, and we still survived. That’s how I know your prayers are working.

The best way to get through the trip was to completely ignore what was happening. One of the organizers provided a great distraction by playing a movie called “Kingdom Come,” which starred Liam Neeson, Orlando Bloom and several other fine actors. It was about the crusades. It was a bootleg copy, so the quality was not great, and was missing sections of the movie, but turned out to be a pretty good film. I would highly recommend it. Some day I would like to watch it again in its entirety.

The film ended and I was back to looking outside the bus. The peripheral light of the headlamps (which were actually on at this point) cast an eerie glow on the landscape around us. The view reminded me of numerous photos of the Apollo moon landings. The view outside looked so foreign we might as well have been on the moon.

Five or six hours after leaving the resort we arrived at Saint Catherine’s monastery, which sits at the foot of Mount Sinai. After a short walk we came to a rest area where we waited for about half an hour to make our last preparations. I stretched and made sure I had plenty of water. At two o’clock in the morning we began our ascent.

As we began to climb, the half-moon rose from behind the mountain range casting a muted gray light over the terrain. Large boulders rested in the valleys on either side of the inclined, gravel-laden path. We trudged along the path with our flashlights searching out hazards ahead of us. Occasionally we could see the green glow of camel eyes ahead of us. We would pass the camels hearing the camel drivers’ repeated attempts at our business. “Camel? Camel? He’s very nice. It is a long way. He will take you up. He’s very nice. Camel? Camel?” The camels just sat there silently with the rare exception of a belch sound. The stars shone brilliantly above us. Constellations I hadn’t seen since my college astronomy courses hung brilliantly in the clear sky. I pointed out constellations and remembered star names for Jennifer along the way. She is a Gemini and I managed to point out the constellation for her. Every twenty minutes or so we would come across a small shack lighted by a propane lamp. The kind you use on camping trips. The Egyptian men inside the shacks sold refreshments, colas, and candy.

At one point I had to stop in the middle of a hill for about fifteen minutes of rest. I told Teri and Jennifer to go ahead, that I would catch up to them in a few minutes. I sat on a rock overlooking the moonlit valley below, pulled out my water and sat there in complete silence. Shortly I heard a voice from the valley, coming from a window of a house that must have been a mile away. I heard a voice respond, and it was so clear that if I understood Arabic, I could have understood the entire conversation… from a mile away. That’s how quiet it was. I sat there for another few minutes, took another swallow of water, then slung on my backpack which pressed my chilly, sweat cooled T-shirt into my back. I caught up with Jennifer and Teri who were waiting for me at the next snack shack. They too had taken a break and were ready to press ahead. For the next two hours we trudged up the switchbacks, took a water break every now and then, declined repeated offers for camel rides (one of which my Arabic instructor took up, the same one that was so interested in my large American tummy) until we got to the last snack shack.

The last snack shack was where all camel rides ended. The remaining third of the hike was too steep for camels. Most of the remaining path was made out of roughly placed steps that had no handrails, and at times dropped twenty or thirty feet on both sides. I had become so tired that I was having dizzy spells and had to stop often. We ascended the steps for nearly an hour before coming to a group of Egyptians lending out blankets.

As we climbed the last third of the mountain, the air had become increasingly cool. I was even wearing a long-sleeve shirt by this point. But the blankets were being lent out for a few Egyptian Pounds because we had reached the top and we still had two hours till sunrise. Teri and Jen got a blanket and our Arabic instructor, whom we had met up with again, sought out a place for us to settle. He chose a place he claimed was the best place to see the sunrise. He said he had seen the sunrise from that very spot every time he had climbed the mountain. It was next to the rock-walled chapel, and was just on the eastern edge of a precipice that looked far down to the path we had just taken to the top. The only thing that protected us from falling over the edge was a twelve-inch high row of stones that lined the edge. The four of us sat down in the small area, which could only hold four people, leaned back against a large rock, covered ourselves with the blanket, and tried to sleep for the next two hours. I had put on my fleece jacket, but after sweating so much, the cool breeze made me so cold I was shivering uncontrollably. The warm beach of the Red Sea was a distant memory. I slept periodically, each time waking to more and more people crowding in to our left, between the chapel and us. I heard the repeated calls of the blanket lenders offering their dusty covers to the people that were just arriving. The stars sparkled over our heads. I had never seen that many stars at one time. It was a dreamy, surreal sight.

An hour passed and I opened my eyes and saw a faint, silvery glow appear on the eastern horizon in front of us, the first indication of sunlight. Slowly it divided into faint colors that grew more and more intense as the minutes passed by. The inky black of the night sky gave way to a deep, penetrating blue, and an orange bulge appeared on the horizon indicating the imminent location of the sun. Then the top edge of the sun appeared, just below the brilliant colors on the horizon. It began as a dim brown-orange sliver. I must have been the first to see it because I shouted out, “There it is!” and then people murmured and shuffled to get a better view. As the sun rose little by little, I could see a tiny mountain in silhouette against the steadily brightening orb. Steadily the sun rose, bit by bit, producing the most beautiful morning I have ever seen. A soft orange light cast all about. On the faces of the people around me, on the rocks and hills around us, making craggy slopes stand out in high relief. The sun eventually crested the bright band of colors, becoming too bright to look at directly. We all stood up and began our day, greeting one another. We tracked down members of our group we had been separated from during our climb, commiserated about the climb and rejoiced at the beauty of the sunrise. I took pictures of some folks in the distance who were sitting and standing on ledges that dropped to oblivion, of the shadow of Mount Sinai that was cast on nearby mountains, and the chapel that sat impossibly on the edge of the mountain. Seeing the mountaintop in the sunlight for the first time, my mind began to wander about how Moses had heard the voice of God at this very site, had seen the burning bush and received the ten commandments, right there. I then said a prayer for my grandfather who just two days before had gone through triple bypass heart surgery. I know God is always with us, always willing to listen to us, but if there’s a place you can FEEL close to God, it is the top of Mount Sinai.

Shortly the temperature climbed to normal Middle-Eastern temperatures. The layers came off and we began our trek down the mountain. We met the same camel drivers on the way down that we saw on the way up. Jen and Teri took up the Egyptian men on their offer, but Jennifer and I opted to walk down. A nearby camel made the characteristic camel-gargling noise. I commented how the camel spoke perfect Arabic. I got a good laugh from Jennifer, but my Arabic instructor, who was just with in earshot gave me a glare. I guess I can kiss that passing grade on my upcoming Arabic test goodbye. It took less time to descend the mountain and within two hours we arrived back at Saint Catherine’s monastery. It was much larger than I thought now that I could see it in the daylight. It was a giant walled structure that contained a Coptic chapel and the bush traditionally believed to be THE burning bush. It wasn’t burning when we saw it, but it was truly of biblical proportions! I took a few turns in the monastery before I was completely worn out. Teri and I found a quiet spot in the shade outside and waited for the rest of our group to finish up. We boarded the bus and I fell asleep within five minutes. I slept the entire 9 hours back to Cairo. It was a difficult journey, but worth every minute of hardship.


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