This weekend we took quite the trip: to the Sinai, with our Arabic school (Dar Camboni). Dar Camboni is a Roman Catholic school that teaches Arabic--both classical and Egyptian Colloquial--as well as a variety of other courses in things like "Interreligious Dialogue" and "Islamic Studies". In addition to our colloquial class and the very large classical class, there was a group from the local Catholic parish (to which the school is attached) called St. Joseph's. So we were two large tour buses, headed out of Cairo. Each bus was completely full--47 seats, 47 people. We drove about two hours before reaching the Suez canal, which we went under. I didn't even know there was a tunnel there, but there is. About an hour later we stopped at a hotel/beach for the afternoon. We swam in the Red Sea (the Gulf of Suezpart), hung out on the beach, people-watched, and some of us (girls) got ogled and asked for photos and conversations. It was clearly an Egyptian vacation spot, because we were the only westerners there. It is also quite possibly the place (or very like the place) where Moses and the Hebrews crossed into the wilderness. It's a pretty long way across there--we could only barely make out the cliffs on the other side of hte gulf. It's amazing to think that even happened (or sort of happened) and that we have been to the place! it was a pretty fun afternoon, but long. We were at the beach for nearly 7 hours! "Hot" and "exhausting" are the two words besides "fun" and "gorgeous" that I would use. I like the beach, but not for seven hours at a time. Anyway, at 7pm we got back on the bus and headed for St. Catherine's. We stopped for dinner and everyone at our table got spaghetti (the cheapest thing on the menu) which did NOT make our server happy! It was good, but several of us had some issues with it later (stomach cramps and such). At that moment, though, it was very tasty!!
We arrived at St. Catherine's at 11pm, after two checkpoints--one that included passport checks--and we hung out in the little cafe area for a while. Jen and I had a definite restroom experience there at the monastery! We paid one pound each (about 20 cents US) to go in the restroom. Inside we found three stalls, each equipped with a lovely tiled hole in the ground. As we were both wearing pants (not skirts--who hikes up Mt. Sinai in the middle of the night in a skirt?) we had some difficulty with this. Luckily, I've experienced this before (anyone ever been to the bathroom at the Damascus airport? gross.) so when Jen called to me "uh, Teri, how do I do this?" I was able to call back "brace yourself using your arms and the walls. and pray." It was...ummm...gross. Luckily, neither of us peed on ourselves, so we survived. The scary part is that we paid to use this bathroom. anyway...
we began the hike around 1am. Several of our group members took off at high speed, while Jen, Jason, and I (accompanied by one of our Arabic instructors, Ashraf) took a more leisurely pace. Last year our group took camels up the first 2/3 of the mountain, when it's a sandy trail, so I had no idea what a hard hike it would be in the first part. We definitely had to rest several times. While it might be trail, it's sand and rock and goes at a pretty steep incline some of the time. The trail is about 6 kilometers long. It's a good workout, I can tell you that! Part way up I REALLY needed to use the restroom again (dang extra water bottle at the bottom! I was so dehydrated after the busride and beachy afternoon that I succumbed and bought a water bottle and drank it all before we climbed). I was contemplating going behind a rock somehow (I know I complained about the hole, but whatever) since we were pretty alone on the trail, when magically one of the bedouin cafe's had a toilet sign. I was so excited to see an outhouse about 100 feet down a little path behind the cafe, and simultaneously scared out of my mind that there might be a hole out there that I'd have to squat on. Luckily, Jen went with me and held a flashlight and sang a little song while I was inside. Also luckily, there was a compost toilet so I could cover it with tissue and sit down. Whew! It was dark out there, though! wow. after that I felt much better and hiked in the dark more cheerfully. I know a lot of this has been about bathrooms, so I'm done with that now (FYI). Anyway, we were hiking in the middle of the night and Jason (our resident astronomy expert) kept telling us what was in the sky. It was a convenient excuse to stop and rest frequently, because the sky is so clear and so dark and so beautiful that not to stop and enjoy it seemed like a crime. Absolutely gorgeous--we could see the seven sisters, every star in Orion, several of the astrological constellations, and thousands of other stars. We saw Jupiter too, very near the horizon when we began climbing. The higher we got, the more constellations we could see, too. The moon was pretty bright, though, so there were some that weren't very visible. Anyway, we kept on trucking (well, walking), occasionally being accosted by camels and their bedouins asking "camel, camel? very good camel. 4 more kilometers..." etc etc etc. Many times we were tempted but we resisted. However, we often turned around to look at something and found a camel literally inches away from our faces! The camels are sturdy pack animals, very sure footed and whatnot, but they do NOT avoid people. They walk wherever they're used to walking, and if you're in that spot than you're going to find a camel in your face, or a camel rider's foot brushing you, or something. So funny. Camels are simultaneously beautiful and awkward looking. They have cute faces with big eyes and long eyelashes, but they have spindly legs and a gait that looks like they're going to break something with every step.
After the camel trail ends there are 750 steps to the top of the mountain. Ashraf (who rode a camel halfway up the trail because of "leg cramps") kept saying that we should just go now, no more resting, etc etc etc. We just laughed at him. Jason still has a cough from his cold of two weeks ago, and I was fast nearing the end of my second bottle of water (I only took two up with me). We rested several times. As we got to the top, I waited for Jason to recover from a coughing fit and we took hands and took the last step together. It was about 4 am when we reached the summit. We took the "best spot" at the edge of the top, near the chapel, rented a blanket, snuggled up (Jen, me, and Jason, anyway), and attempted to sleep against a rock. It was so cold, and so uncomfortable, that not much sleeping happened. At 6 we were awakened by Ashraf's phone alarm and we sat up and watched the first light creep over the horizon. It was beautiful. So orange and blue. Jason was the first to see the sliver of sun come up, and after that everyone was taking pictures like crazy. I looked around and discovered that there were hundreds of people standing behind and around us, watching the sunrise. I could hear people singing on another part of the mountain top. We had no idea where the rest of our group was, but they were obviously (according to Ashraf) in an inferior location despite their early arrival. I took quite a few pictures, as you can see in my photo album, but I opted to watch the sunrise this time because last year I'd taken so many photos that I missed the watching. It was gorgeous and SO FAST! It takes only a few minutes for the whole sun to appear over the horizon. As light crept into the southeastern sinai, we could see in vivid relief all the mountains around us, and it was completely gorgeous. Incredible, really. It was worth the hard work to get up there, the scary bathrooms, the stairs in the dark, the sleeping on a rock in the cold, to see that.
Once the sun is up, people immediately head down the mountain. We stayed a few extra minutes, taking pictures, looking around, seeing how Mt. Sinai casts a pyramid-shaped shadow on the neighboring mountain, getting some pictures of ourselves up there, etc. Then we started the trek down, with the 900 other people who'd come up. It was crazy and slow going, with so many people on the stairs. When we finally came to the bottom of the 750 stairs, there were lots of bedouins around trying to get people to ride camels down, or offering their guide services for those who wanted to take the Stairs of Repentance, or selling things. One bedouin offered to take Jen down on a camel for 60 pounds, which she refused and asked for 40. He stood around and finally offered 50, and she asked me if I wanted to go too. My response was, of course, "not for fifty!" I had been thinking of riding a camel down because last year's camel experience was so much fun. There was no way I was taking those stairs again, so the options were walking or riding down the camel trail. The guy continued to stand around even after we'd refused, and finally he came down to 40, at which point Jen and I took him up on his offer. Jason, Jennifer, and Ashraf walked down and Jen and I got hoisted onto camels. My bedouin put me on a camel, gave him a pat on the rear, and left. My camel and I were, once again, leaderless, and he went peacefully on down the trail without any help. So now both my camel riding experiences were sans guide, and I've survived. I threw my leg over the front and hooked my foot on his neck, I made all the right noises (clicking and slurping) whenever he stopped, and down we went! I was even able to take some photos from the camel because I didn't need to hold on. The only thing about coming down that was different from going up (aside from it being light and all that) was that down is much rougher. You bounce more in the saddle coming down, because they have to take steps down rather than up so it's just not as smooth. I definitely have some bruised thighs and lower back from the saddle. Having said that, riding a camel is SO FUN that it was completely worth the 40 pounds and the minor bruising. As I had no guide to ask, I named my camel myself--his name was Hawaby. He was a very good camel--"camela kwayes awy". Near the end of our trip--maybe 300 or so meters from the camel corral--the guide for the two british women behind me (on two camels linked together) came up to me and handed me the lead for their camels and walked off! So here I was, guideless, and now in charge of two more camels besides my own! I may be a minorly experienced camel rider, but not this experienced! The front camel of those two stopped and my left arm went behind me as my camel went on and I clung to the lead for their camels. I clicked and slurped and finally her reticent camel came on--partially, I think, because my camel wasn't about to stop! He could see the food and water ahead and was going straight there, not stopping GO or collecting 200 dollars! Anyway, we got to the camel corral safely and some other bedouin came up to help us down. My camel went straight for the trough, only to be rebuked by a slap on the neck and told to sit down first. He sat down and I got off, at which point the front british woman (who'd been commenting for quite some time that I seemed to know what I was doing..."she's even taking photos" etc) said "she can even get down by herself!" It was so funny, as I watched her try to finangle herself out of the camel saddle. Anyway, the bedouin who'd handed me the ropes was saying that my camel just wanted baksheesh (water, I thought, but whatever). I asked him if the camel did or he did, and he just smiled. I gave him a pound. I hope he gets some good bread or something. Anyway, it was a good time.
By the time we got down, Jen and I needed another trip to the hole-in-the-ground bathroom. On our way there, we passed Sister Enrica (the nun who runs our school and who organized this trip) as she was about to enter the monastery. When we came out of the restroom we passed her again on her way back to her room! Granted, there was a line in the bathroom, but still! She was quick. We went into the monastery and found HUGE crowds there, which explains her quick exit. we glimpsed moses' well, did a walk through of the church (avoiding the glare of one of the brothers whose job was obviously to keep people from touching or photographing any of the hundreds of really old icons in the sanctuary), visited the burning bush, took some photos, and got out. We were exhausted, and tired of people, and hungry and thirsty and ready to go. The monastery was packed with people, which made me sad. Also, the icon gallery costs 25 pounds, so we decided not to go in because we were too tired to enjoy it for 25 pounds. So out we went...we waited a little while, had some snacks...my trail mix (pretzel sticks, dried apricots, golden raisins, almonds, and chocolate chips) was really good both on the mountain and at the bottom...then walked back out to the bus and were on our way. I was so exhausted that when I tried to look at my pictures on my camera I couldn't keep my eyes open. I was so glad I'd brought my travel pillow (mm...Fom...)! I slept almost the whole way back. Uncomfortable though I was, crammed in my little bus seat, I leaned against the window and barely even woke up when we had to show our passports at a checkpoint. We stopped for a long while somewhere, and I woke up then because it was hot with the sun coming in my window. There are conflicting reports about that stop--whether it was a flat tire on the other bus or a checkpoint inspection. In any case, it was half an hour with the a/c off. Later we made another stop for food, and boy was I glad that I brought so much food with me! The menu at this little cafeteria showed a price of 9.95 for some of the sandwiches, but when you asked for one at that price they refused and charged 20 pounds! A can of Sprite, a bottle of water, a small ice cream bar...these things all cost 10 pounds! It was ridiculous. I refused to buy anything when they were so obviously overcharging. In Cairo you can get a 1-liter bottle of water for a pound. You can get a liter of seven-up for 2.50. you can get a cup of the best ice cream you've ever eaten for 1.50. tameyya sandwiches are 60 piasters at the place down the street from us. It was insane, the prices these people were asking from the people on the tour bus. What made it worse was that a large percentage of the people on the buses paid it and ate there! I got back on the bus and ate my pb&j, my pear, my remaining cereal, some trail mix, a box of mango juice, and some water--all in air conditioned comfort (unlike the cafeteria) and all for less than a coke would have cost me inside. Crazy.
I tried to stay awake for the last part of the journey, but I just couldn't. I missed the tunnel under the Suez canal on the way back, and I woke up somewhere around Heliopolis. I watched our bus pass by Ramses College (where we live) and head back to Dar Camboni (on Zamalek, an island in the Nile). When we finally got there, we got in taxis and headed home. Once home--at about 8pm--a few of us ran out for food (mmmm...tameyya and fuul sandwiches!) and ice cream (two sandwiches and a scoop of ice cream for 3.70 LE), ate, showered for a long time (to get off the beach/ocean/sweat/dirt/mountain/bus/sleeping ickiness), and went to bed. I went to bed at 10, the earliest I've gone to sleep since arriving here, and I got up this morning at 10 when the sun coming in my window was finally unbearable. I studied not even a little bit this whole three-day-weekend, so tomorrow morning after our breakfast meeting I'll be studying like crazy! I know I'm either the best or second-best student in my class and our main teacher assigned me some homework: to write (in arabic, obviously) a narrative about our journey to Mt. Sinai. I need to do that tomorrow morning. I only hope I know enough words to do it without having to constantly look things up. :-0 send me happy thoughts and good brainwaves...I need them!
This post is so incredibly long that I'm stopping now. I hope you got a glimpse of our trip into the Sinai wilderness....goodnight!