Thursday, December 12, 2013

Desert Silence

Originally posted May 24, 2004

On the 17th I woke up pretty early to go on my first run of the trip along a winding desert road. It was still cool but very, very dry. I enjoyed looking out in to the nothingness beyond the town. I got back to the room, packed an overnight bag for Sinai, went down to enjoy the most incredible breakfast buffet of all time, and then we set off into the desert.

Mt. Sinai
We took a 4x4 to get there because part of the road (yes there is only one road) is being fixed. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride but driving through the desert was worth it. The emptiness of the landscape is incredible. As we neared St. Catherine’s, another town that survives on tourism, we saw the mountains surrounding the monastery and were explained why this is acknowledged as the area where Moses and the Israelites in Exodus got lost for 40 years, and the mountain is the one where Moses met God. We arrived at our hotel, not the nicest of our lodgings but still a good place to lay one's head, and got checked in. Then we acceded to our guide's suggestion of “cooking something” for lunch. So we drive to this Bedouin camp about 5 minutes from our hotel, bring groceries and give them to a Bedouin who then takes them into the kitchen and commenced cooking lunch. We sat around a very low table on cushions and rugs underneath a shelter of straw until it was ready, two hours later. We sipped tea and talked about movies and various other things to pass the time. When lunch was finally ready we were pretty hungry and everything smelled incredible. We started off with the classic salads: tahina, and marinated cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots. Then we had a light lentil soup which is also traditional, then they brought out the main course, a tray of beef roasted in spices and marinade with potatoes, carrots, zucchini, onions, and parsley, served with a bowl of basmati rice. It was delicious. The brown pita bread was also wonderful, served fresh from the oven.

Ben having a snooze at the Bedouin camp
     We sat around on our cushions a little longer waiting for the food to digest before we started our trek up Mount Sinai. We arrived at the camp at 12:30pm and didn’t leave until 3:30pm. We had a great time just talking with our guide and getting to know him a little better. Then it was time to start climbing so we could watch the sun set on the mountain.

Sinai scenery

We arrived at the monastery and walked to the base of Mt. Sinai which is also a Bedouin camp. Our guide bargained with the camel owners for a few minutes and then Ben and I mounted up and started the trek. Riding a camel is very uneven. You have to learn to fall into their rhythm and sit correctly in the saddle. They were very obedient and docile though mine was a whiner and was always groaning. I enjoyed watching their feet because they are squishy and spread out into the sand, not like regular feet. The first thing that came to mind was those squish balls filled with silicon gel that were so popular a long time ago. This is what their feet looked like in the sand. It was nice to be able to sit and enjoy the scenery while the camels carried us 2/3rds of the way up. Mount Sinai just kept getting closer and closer. I couldn’t believe I was going to stand and walk where Moses walked. We rode camels up to the bottom of a 700-step staircase that leads to the top. The camels cannot go any further than this so we said goodbye and started the climb. It took about 25 minutes and we passed Elijah’s oasis (the spot where he hid when God walked by him) which was pretty incredible too. Prince of Egypt was on in our hotel room today and we were looking at the animated scenery thinking “yeah, that looks about right…”. We reached the top and looked out on the surrounding mountains. Sinai is different from all of them because it has a flat top and is encircled by the others so that it is hidden from view until you are right in front of it. The flat top has not been explained by scientists other than they say there must have been an extraordinary pressure exerted on it at one point in time to make it so different from all the rest. *

Riding camels up the mountain
My camel
Climbing the stairs up to the top

After we had looked around and rested a little, taken it all in, we started the climb back down the steps. In the waning light the mountains of red granite seemed to glow, casting their color into the atmosphere and tinting everything a hazy rose. We passed the bottom of the steps and continued on the foot path picking up rocks with plant fossils in them and enjoying the scenery, trying to imagine what it must have been like in Moses’ time.

Elijah's Oasis
Sinai Sunset
I was glad we did the sunset because there were only 6 other people on the mountain, not including the Bedouins who try to sell you stuff every 50 meters. Apparently at sunrise there are many, many more people and it’s crowded. When we were there, if you stopped walking and crunching the rocks under your feet, all you could hear was the light breeze. That’s it. It was totally silent. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a place so wholly without background noise. No wonder the Desert Fathers retreated into places like this. There is nothing to distract you.

Narrow steps up - Red Granite Path
Mohammad, Ben and I at the top of the mountain
We hiked back down the footpath and reached the bottom just as night fell. We were pretty tired and we walked back to the jeep, grateful for the short lift back to the hotel. We met a little later for dinner at the hotel, again with our guide, and then I retired for the night while Ben and Mohammed stayed up to shoot a little pool. I didn’t even hear him come back to the room later, I was out cold. In the course of the night I managed to gain precisely 23 new mosquito bites on my face, neck, and legs. I spent the whole next day yearning for a remedy to stop the itching but I didn’t get it until that night.

The next morning we woke up, got breakfast at a buffet that paled in comparison to the others we have had, and then headed to St. Catherine’s monastery to see the chapel that houses Moses’s burning bush and also one of the oldest working monasteries in the world. It has survived the crusades, numerous political and religious conquests and has gained the protection of many figures ranging from Napoleon to the prophet Mohammed. It houses and extensive collection of ancient icons, dating back to the 6th century. There is a room that you see from behind iron bars that holds the bones of all the monks and bishops that have ever lived and worked there; piles of skulls, arms, legs and ribs, in a storage room.

St. Catherine's Monastery 

Obviously, viewing of the burning bush is not allowed, but there is a bush of the same type outside which you can look at. It is always green, year-round, even in the desert. It has been tested in other areas nearby but will only grow in this one spot. It was really interesting to see and hear about the history of the monastery too. They used to build a tower and stack every floor one on top of the other, then had the entrance above ground so as to protect from attackers. They built another tower to be able to get into the main one, with a drawbridge to be closed against enemies.

We wandered through the museums and around the monastery a little bit more, trying to comprehend the scope of its history and its importance, but really only succeeding in becoming more awestruck. After we left the monastery we drove a little while on asphalt, then we suddenly turned off the road and started plowing through sand.

Rock of Inscriptions
We were headed towards the Rock of Inscriptions which is a rock where travelers have been leaving names, directions and their mark since the time of Moses. The earliest marks are from the people of the Exodus. It was amazing to see. The silence in that part of the desert was even deeper than in Sinai. There seemed to be no other life around for miles and miles. It was the deepest and most profound silence I think I have ever “heard”. When the wind picks up a little it seems to whisper of the past and the many travelers who have stood where I was standing.

Seaside dining
We drove in the sand a little further to get a view of a real desert oasis, the El Wadi oasis. We were told that only the head of the Bedouin tribe may live at the Oasis and he controls it, passing it down to his eldest son when he dies. After the foray into the desert, we got back onto the asphalt and drove to Naweid, where we stopped at an open air restaurant directly on the beach and had a fantastic lunch listening to the ocean, watching the crystal blue waves lap at the shore, and camels pass by. We started the lunch off with a glass of fruit juice that had five different layers of color, each being a different fruit pulp. There was strawberry, peach, melon, mango and guava. It was as thick as a milkshake and tasted divine. I took a picture of the glass because it was so pretty. Lunch was a buffet with grilled chicken and fish and a salad bar to die for. We were very happy at the end of it and the owner told us to take our tea underneath the straw shelter on some cushions right on the ocean. It was an idyllic afternoon. We were sad to leave.

Beautiful fruit juice. 

But leave we did. We headed back to Sharm El Sheik and I felt drowsy the whole time but never slept as it was very hot and very bumpy. We arrived at the hotel, went to get some cash, then crashed in our rooms to watch a movie. After a restorative two hours in air conditioning, we headed down to dinner at the Italian restaurant in our hotel, then met Mohammed who had promised to show me where to buy this specific cloth I had seen and liked very much. We went to about 4 places before I found the perfect design and bought a big square of it. It’s just blue and white but has an intricate woven-looking pattern in it and I think it will go quite well in my freshly painted navy blue room when I go home.

Chatting seaside with Mohammad. 
Our guide has gone above and beyond the call of duty numerous times here. When I lost my CDs he went to the bus station to look for them. He makes sure we find everything we want and negotiates fair prices for us. He picked us up in his own car on his own time to show us the markets where I wanted to buy some fabric. We met his wife and baby girl too. It is really amazing how personal this tour is.

Everything is tailor made for us. We only have two nights left. Tomorrow we are doing an all-day diving trip which I am really looking forward too. But it’s also our last full day in Egypt. Thursday night we leave, very very late at night. It’s hard to believe it’s all coming to a close and that I will be home on Saturday. I still have two days left to enjoy.

*God's presence?

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