Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sinai: Or, How I Climbed in the Footsteps of Moses and Swam with Tropical Fish

"When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)

Interestingly, my latest excursion outside of Cairo actually began on the 6th of October, 1793, thirteen years before I was born. On this date, the Egyptian army recaptured parts of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in a brief war that was more of a political victory for President Anwar Sadat than a laudable military achievement. But Egyptians take great pride in this day. The 6th is a national holiday, and one of the major highways through downtown Cairo bears its name. Because the 6th was a Saturday this year, the government announced a national holiday on Sunday the 7th in order to give people a three day weekend. Although the government has known since 1973 that the 6th would fall on a Saturday in 2007, it announced the extra day off less than a week ago. Oh, how I love Egypt! Nontheless, I jumped on the opportunity to take a weekend trip to Mt. Sinai.

Getting to Mt. Sinai is not easy. The best way to get there is to fly to Sharm al-Sheikh and catch a bus to the mountain, but most AUC students take the cheaper option and go by bus. I left Cairo at 12:15am on Thursday evening and arrived in Dahab after nine hours, three passport checks, and four hours of sleep. Dahab is a popular resort town popular among divers because of its world-class coral reefs. After a relaxing lunch by the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, I went with three other AUC students to Mt. Sinai. The drive itself through the majestic deserts of Sinai was stunning. Huge rock formations shoot up from the flat desert floor in dramatic fashion, deep canyons of soft sandstone appear suddenly after bends in the road, and the sands constantly change color and texture, advertising how diverse and beautiful the desert can be. The sublime grandeur of the landscape transcends words, but if metaphor could do justice, imagine the Pyrenees, steep and sharp, but one-tenth the size. Replace green forests with wind-sculpted stone, and snow-capped peaks with sprinkles of course sand. This is one image of the desert carved by time.

Upon arriving at the base of Mt. Sinai, we met up with another group of four AUC students and began the climb to the top. We moved steadily up the mountain hoping to arrive to watch the sunset and grab blankets and mattresses for camping overnight. The walk was beautiful as we wound our way up the path and climbed the steep steps to the summit. We made it in time for an amazing sunset and ate a rough dinner of crackers, bread, and dry cereal that we brought with us up the mountain. Bedouins rented blankets and mattresses, and we all settled down for bed at about 6:30pm. I was surprised how many other tourists were there, and it was difficult to find a spot to sleep. To my displeasure, the other six guys found a spot only big enough for five people to huddle close and keep warm at night. I, after climbing down part of the mountain to find one of the girls who had not returned after buying a cup of coffee, was the odd man out, and my efforts to make extra room were treated with a frustratingly stubborn attitude from the other guys that somehow my efforts to find a place to sleep were nothing but a rude inconvenience to everyone else. I finally chose to take my blanket and mattress to another location and sleep by myself. I ended up in the same area as the two girls in our group, and we shared blankets in losing battle to fight off the cold.

I knew Mt. Sinai would be cold, but not this cold. I was uncomfortably cold despite wearing two pairs of jeans, two pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a long sleeve t-shirt, a jacket, and two blankets with the assistance of extra body heat. The cold was unfortunate because it distracted me from the amazing view of the night sky: thousands of stars, the rich white band of the Milky Way, a crescent moon, satellites moving tranquilly across the sky, and the occasional spotting of a shooting star. Most nights in Cairo, I can see maybe five stars, and that is no exaggeration. Sinai was beautiful, but tired and cold, I failed to fully appreciate the experience.

The same was true for the sunrise. Most tourists take a 2am hike up the mountain, see the sunrise, and then head down again. The 5:30am sunrise was dramatic, but I feel that I was incapable of absorbing everything to its potential. Only after looking at my pictures did I fully realize what an amazing experience Mt. Sinai truly was.

After hiking down the mountain along a different route than we climbed up, our taxi drove us back to Dahab. The other three guys wanted to stay late and take the night bus back, but I had no interest in doing that again. After hardly sleeping for two nights, I wanted to be back in my own bed, so I took the 2:30pm bus. But before that, I took advantage of Dahab’s coral reefs and went snorkeling. The reefs are literally just meters from the beach. A rainbow of colors meets the eye: coral and fish in every shape and size. I was inches from fish wearing colors of bright yellow, fluorescent blues, bold oranges, and rich reds. I felt as if I were swimming in the aquariums of a world-class zoo.

The drive home was fitting for my weekend. The bus broke down twice, which cost us another hour, and my seat on the replacement bus would not recline. I spent 8 hours with a straight chair, my knees hitting the seat in front of me. And then at the Sharm passport check, the security guard did not accept the photocopies of my passport and residence visa, so I had to get off the bus and explain the situation to another guard, all of this after not having any problem at any of the previous three checkpoints.

I finally arrived back in Cairo at 12:30am on Saturday night, and got back to my hotel at 1:15. In the end, I was glad I made the trip to Dahab and Mt. Sinai, but the trip was exhausting and inconvenient. I spent 23 of my 49 hours in a bus or car, and was generally tired or cold the whole time. I’m just glad I have my pictures, because now I can fully appreciate my experience in a warm room with a comfortable chair and a few extra hairs on my chest. Amen to that.

St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
A Bedouin camel guide.
The view from the top.

A man sits on a ledge and takes a photo of the stunning scenery of Mt. Sinai.

Tourists wait for the first rays of sunlight to peak over the mountains.

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