That's Just Fine
Jean pulled his bike up in front of Ali's Shop and took a seat at a table.
“You're back,” said Ali.
“Yeah,” said Jean. “How are you? Can I have some lunch?”
Ali served a large plate of mincemeat balls in a thick tomato sauce, and when Jean had finished, he asked, “So what are you doing?”
“Well,” said Jean, “I wanted to get into Egypt, to take the ferry from Aqaba to Nuweiba, to meet my friends. I knew it would be a big hassle. I got to Aqaba but the man told me, 'It's very expensive to take your motorbike. I wouldn't do it.' I need a report filed back in France, and a deposit in a bank account. I said, 'Don't worry, I'll pay.' But he told me, 'I'm not letting your bike on my boat.' So now I need to find a place to store my bike.”
Ali did not have to think. “Not a problem,” he said easily. “You can store your bike at my house. Some French climbers are keeping their gear there as well.”
Jean trusted the man, had heard his praises from other Frenchmen, and said, “I'll only be gone two weeks.”
Ali laughed. “Two weeks, a month, it does not matter. I think you will probably stay a month.”
Arab men ask about politics; Arab women ask about family. This husband knew much less English than his wife, and so she turned around in the passenger's seat of their old Mercedes, which had picked up Amelia and I on the road to Aqaba.
“His father have twenty-three children,” she said. She was a plump, cheerful woman in a hijab, on her way from Ma'an to Aqaba for Sunday shopping. “Have nine wife. He is good. Have one wife. He have more, I—,” and she mimed his murder with a thrashing fist. Her stalwart husband laughed and attended the road. “You are married?”
“No,” we said. “Just friends.”
“Oh. Amelia, you have children?”
“I have three children. One girl, two boy. I expect another boy soon. I do not want twenty-three. Maybe six. How many you want?”
“Mmm,” she said demurely. “One. A girl.”
“Yahyah,” she said to me, “you must have a girl. Amelia, you have love in your heart for Yahyah?”
“Yahyah, you have love in your heart for Amelia?”
I blushed but laughed and echoed, “Inshallah.”
In Aqaba we found the ferry office, then took a taxi to the port. The one hour ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba to Nuweiba scheduled for noon really left at one. The Princess slogged across the straits, bypassing the Israeli toehold on the Red Sea, and then tread water outside the Egyptian port while the slow ferry from the day before disembarked its passengers, twenty hours after leaving for a three hour tour.
To save time, the Egyptians stamped passports there on the ferry. Most of the passengers were Egyptian, marked by their dark skin, kinky hair, and sallow Berber features, and they lined up behind a little kiosk in the front of the boat, while some prostrated themselves before Mecca even on the moving boat. “How do they know which way to face?” asked Amelia. A guard saw we were white, and he gave us what we needed and took us around the line and the prayerful and had our passports taken, to be returned in the port after we payed for a visa. We shrugged and sat down and whiled away a few hours. The crowd grew anxious looking out the window.
Announcements in Arabic interrupted a marathon of music videos of pop sensation Elissa (lucky us—Jean had to watch Egyptian snuff torture movies). We got up, sheep to the mob, and moshed back towards the exit. Guards told all to sit, and six senior whites pushed through the parted crowd with roller bags in tow. “Follow them,” said Amelia and I to each other. We tagged behind, along with a few other Whites and an Asian traveler, into a back room near the exit, where another guard told us to sit down. Outside the Egyptian crowd was riling itself into a lynching frenzy at this segregation, and they glared venom in through the door before a guard slammed it shut. We heard them shouting terribly as a security officer entered and had his noble picture taken with one of the tourists. Sometimes the door would open to worry and shame us with their maddened faces.
Soon we descended and followed the mob through a pyramid that said, “Welcome to Egypt,” inside, and onto a bus that took us 500 meters into a wild courtyard. A hundred coolies bustled carts of luggage around and screamed at each other and us. In a tranquil shack that said BANK on the front we bought visas for 11 Jordanian dinars, and we went around the corner into an office to retrieve our passports, praise Allah for their safe delivery, and have them stickered and stamped by a grinning and corpulent official. While waiting we met two Czechs and a Dutchman and Jordanian also heading up the beach to the campsites. The Jordanian took it upon himself to guide us all.
The outdoor courtyard was ravaged but vacant in the early dusk; its bustle had moved into a warehouse with a single working X-ray. We pushed between the howling Egyptians and their colorful cloth bags, stuffed big as two of the coolies put together, and put our bags on the conveyor between pieces of a man's furniture set. As we picked them up, he was trying to shove a loveseat into the machine, and everyone was trying to help by pushing on it or shouting advice from a circle of spectators.
The Jordanian found us a young Bedouin taxi driver in robe and turban, who led us into a van and insisted that we get inside before agreeing on a price, lest the police assault him for haggling with tourists. Like most Egyptians, he drove with the headlights off, to save petrol. His haggling more than matched the Jordanian's, and we did not hear a price until we payed. The Bedouin wanted $30 to take us out to Sawa, the campsite at the end of the strip where Skip was staying, and though we pushed this down to $15, it was still too much for Amelia and me, who got out with the Dutchman and Jordanian at a nice hotel, with a lobby of teak and leather and earthy brown tiles and cool-lighting.
We followed the owner around for a sampling of the rich lifestyle—comfortable lounge chairs, fruit cocktails, snorkeling gear for the nearby reef, a pair of lesbians studying some modern dance on a projector screen—and said, It's very nice, and we are very poor. Down the way we found a cheaper hotel, and further down the beach a place called Sababa with $4-per-night reed huts that were more our style. A place to rest our weary feet, cracked by the desert dryness; our empty wallets, spilled into the tourist soil, where so much blood has been spilled before.
Nuweiba was an ideal place to begin our ensuing lethargy. Small hotels and resorts stretched along the strand in all directions, all as empty as ours. Sababa Camp had rows of huts with fans and beds and mosquito nets inside. The covered lounge had a bar and a stereo and squares of floor-level cushions for couches, and outside across a path of sand was a shelter just alongside the lapping water, with more couches and tables. A reef kept the water shallow, but it was beautiful and warm.
Amelia and I were nearly alone. The Sababa staffers were too high on hash to care much, although they had a young puppy that rolled all over us. There was an Egyptian with his French girlfriend. An Israeli couple was staying there, but they left the morning after we arrived, and left us a joint in exchange for checking the weather on my laptop. The wadis were flooding, and it would be a difficult road.
Egypt was the first Arab state to accept peace with Israel—Jordan is the only other—and is ostracized by the region's regimes that take legitimacy from that conflict. Until the treaty, Sinai was in the hands of the Israelis, who say they did not develop the Red Sea coast because they knew they would give it back—though the Bedouin laugh at this. One condition of the peace was that fifteen-day Sinai visas are free, and up until a bombing a few years ago, Israel was the nation best represented on the beach.
Our first full day there was very empty and relaxing. We sat around the shelter on the beach, ate bananas and yogurt, read, swam, played backgammon, and tried to contact Jean or Skip. Jean finally arrived at 9 that night, and we put together a salad and enjoyed the cool of evening and the full moon.
Our reunion offered an excuse to sit around for a second day: swimming, reading, and laundering. The dust of the desert was part of our clothes, and it turned the basin water brown. We were the only ones in Sababa. The stoned bartender turned on a full five hours of Yanni music, so we swapped in an iPod and played Sunny Ade and Toots and the Maytals. Jean took us down the strand to Soft Beach, where a French couple he had met was staying, and Amelia and I sat on the sidelines while he told stories in his native tongue. Listening to a story you know told in another language is intoxicating.
Wednesday we took a taxi into the desolation of Nuweiba City and, as there were no buses, bargained a ride to Dahab down to $7 a head, though the driver took a friend and stopped to get German pamphlets in a Bedouin town called Bir Israel. We drank tea with them on a shaded porch. Children peeked around the buildings, an an old mother laid out what jewelry and trinkets she had to sell.
Dahab lined the arch of the coast with tourist spots, like a lacy fringe between the bleak desert of Sinai and the calm blue of the Gulf of Aqaba, between the hot sun and the cool sound of beating waves. The cafes had couches on the floor with colored pillows under a thin roof of reeds or umbrellas, and padded lawn chairs out in the sun. They all played the same music, and the hawkers said the same thing. “Hey, you want drink? Happy hour!” Cats with long Egyptian features wandered through, and we scratched their backs.
Most cafes were around Banner Fish Bay. South they dwindled out into construction projects and ghost villas, all the way to the blue lagoon. North were resorts all the way to Blue Hole, a hundred meter deep dive mecca. Lonely Planet recommended Seven Heaven, and we followed the Bible because we were cheap—nay, faithful! though these are often the same. The roof, three stories up, had a line of rooms like garden sheds that were $4 a night, and the restaurant had good deals on big meals. The showers sometimes had hot water, which emerged in a drip; the beds had bed bugs that left trails of red welts wherever they drank, and they seemed to prefer my blood to others'.
We sat down in a bar called Friends for tea and shisha, and saw in the street the fighting Spaniard who we met in Petra showed up that first night. He and an obnoxious American joined our table to complain about the Israeli border crossing. You see, Jean's ferry from Aqaba was canceled at some point, and the Spaniard and the rest of his group went to take a bus across the Israeli finger on the Red Sea, a route with a heap of trouble. Jean waited with a French couple who were having their exit visas revoked, and while waiting heard that the ferry cancellation was canceled.
Bedouin girls with covered heads came around selling tassels of colored thread. One annoyed us with how funny she was, and any endearing qualities lent themselves to her business acumen. She had a happy cherub face, and said, “Buy one. Buy five. Five for twenty. Come on, you need them.” The American kept offering to buy her beer and said, “I'll buy one if you take your headscarf off.” Amelia had her sit on the couch and showed her how to braid hair, though the girl tugged painfully at it and was hopelessly inept. I bought one of her tassels, and she got it in her mind that I had stolen another. She called me a thief and threatened to stab Jean in the back several times before she found the missing ornament under a cushion.
We started talking about Michael J. Fox after the girl had left. His condition was tragic, but, “He married a fox,” said Amelia.
“What?” cried Jean. “He married his cousin or something?”
The next morning Jean came running back into the room and said, “Hey I ran into this Japanese girl. I met her in Venizia Hotel, in Amman. She's taking SCUBA lessons, and she got me a good deal. I'm taking SCUBA lessons.” He grabbed some things and left.
Amelia and I shrugged and got up an hour later. Time in Dahab gently dawdles forward, as it did in Ohrid or in the Garden of Eden; for eighteen days we were there. We were downstairs in the restaurant by noon and lounged patiently around one of the three low tables against the windows until Mohammed came to us. “Two Turkish coffees,” he said. He knew I would order a Spanish omelet and Amelia the English breakfast, but he let us order them ourselves anyway.
Jean's class lasted a week, and by the end he would be a certified advanced diver. He would dive down thirty meters to the HMS Thistlegorm, a British transport ship sunk during World War Two, along with its load of motorcycles, tanks, jeeps, a railroad engines, and leather shoes. The dive-bomber thank sank her was shot down, and lies on the flat, shallow grave of the sea floor a few hundred yards away. “It's one of my dreams to do this,” said the Frenchman.
Amelia and I could not help but be unenvious, though we appreciated the excuse offered by Jean's quest, to stay in Dahab and wait for him. We sunbathed in one of the cafes around the bay. The water crowded with SCUBA divers and snorkelers on the calm days, and on the windy ones with windsurfers and kitesurfers who jumped and sailed. We went to the azure lagoon and swam, and sat in the dust to watch the windsurfers practice on the bend in the coast, and looked up on the barren ramparts of Sinai and the sky that watched over the Exodus. We snorkeled off the coast and saw confetti-colored reefs, partially bleached by sun and chemicals, and aquatic schools and lone wolf fish with rainbow scales and strange features. The rolling shimmer of the sea let in rays of light that glittered off the dim coral.
We went and sat down on the carpeted cushions in a restaurant called Sphinx, overlooking the still shallows, and the waiter said, “Jug beer? Shisha?” since that's what we always ordered. There was a felafel shop on a side street, and a bookstore and fruit stand. At King Chicken you could get a half a bird with rice, salad, pickled vegetables, potatoes and gravy, baked beans, tahina, and bread for about $4. We smuggled $3 vodka into restaurants and mixed it into fruit drinks. We watched movies on my laptop, and sought out free Wi-Fi and cheap beer.
At night a gang of us walked up the arcade and talked to the street hawkers to see what kind of deals we could get. It was off-season, and everyone was offering something. A place called Friends had a cool, multicolored, tasseled atmosphere, and they played more than Bob Marley and Tracey Chapman—usually afrobeat or chillout music. They knew us there and always gave us a good bargain.
During the day we set goals for ourselves: buy fruit, get a haircut, mail that package. Sometimes, we accomplished one. Amelia sat in a chair while a barber went to work shaving off a month's mane and trimming my beard with a folding razor. He held the blade in front of my face and said, “See my hand? It shakes,”—laughing, razor at my throat—“How much you like your boyfriend?”
Jean was around only a little. We saw him in the lounge, working furiously with a French diver's manual with his dive partner Yui. Her career ended when its intensity contributed to a mental breakdown and she realized that life is more than advancement. She travels to France to learn French and hopes to dive off the coast of Yakushima, the smokey, forested island that inspired the western wilds of Miyazaki's Mononoke-hime, when she works there next year. She could fold her eyelids inside out and twist her tongue around. She shared movies with us and showed us pictures she took, and she joined in a massage train we started one night in the restaurant with a Portuguese guy.
The world is small, the Middle East smaller, and people usually run into each other. Keith arrived soon after us, and we met him at Sphinx for beer and shisha and went to a chicken place for dinner. He had gone through Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and told us crazy stories of Hebron and Jericho and Jerusalem, which got Jean and I into a big argument about whether it was right for young women of Israel to deal with Arab elders who considered interaction with women to be disgraceful. The Kiwi left the next day, his trip faster than ours.
And one day Adam Leo popped his head through the window and said, “Hey! What was your name again?” I met this Aussie in Rhodes, the Reader may remember, and since then he had traveled to France, picked up a Parisian girl, and came to Egypt.
Seven Heaven hosted as interesting a cast of characters as any hotel I've stayed at—Danes and Brisbaners and Nipponese, Tae Kwon Do champions and optometrist dive masters and Dutch singer-songwriters—but we held true to our own. Amelia and I felt out of place among the divers, and bashfully answered, “No, we are not doing a SCUBA course, and yes, we have been here a long time.” They say that three is company.
We were as dependent on each other as we had been autonomous when traveling alone. We knew the asymmetries of each others faces and grew used to each others ticks. Amelia's lips pursed rampantly and she made a gentle hmmm when she thought, and she rubbed her feet together. Jean had a habit of making a French poot noise and saying, “Forget about it,” a phrase gleaned from Donnie Brasco. I emitted a hoarse ahhh when confused and said, “Sweet,” when excited, and my eyes were curious and unsubtle. We cultivated inside jokes.
And so we fall into a familiar habit, a Walden Pond state of mind: walking, swimming, thinking, talking, reading, writing, eating, and drinking, in "sublime uneventfulness."
One night at the Chinese restaurant across the street from Seven Heaven, Amelia and I gorged on noodles and rice and spring rolls and lay back on the cushioned palette while I sipped the rest of my beer. There's something to be said about that eastern style of eating. You eat more and digest better lying on the floor, though you become very lazy, and leave the table only with a tremendous effort.
“Twenties are your best years,” said Amelia, “but I like being thirty a lot more than I thought I would. Before, you care what other people, what strangers think about you, and try to impress them and make them like you. Now I just be who I am. If people don't like it, then I don't try to impress them. My friends like me for myself, and know who I am.”
When we came back to Seven Heaven, Jean and Yui were sitting with their chins on their bags and their bags on the diver's table, waiting for their expedition to the HMS Thistlegorm. Adam was supposed to go with them, but had at the last minute been driven to the hospital, an oxygen mask strapped across his face. “It's 99.5 per cent sure it's not decompression sickness,” said Jean, “but it could be. It's scary, man.”
Adam, we found out after Jean and Yui had taken the plunge, had an amalgam case of exhaustion, the stomach flu, and minor decompression. When Pauline found out, she fainted in the courtyard. When the doctor found out how much medical insurance Adam had, he prescribed a dozen IVs and pill cocktails. When Adam's insurance found out, they booked Adam and Pauline into a fancy, recuperative hotel. He was back in the Seven Heaven lounge the following day, looking at expensive cameras. “It's so boring there,” he said. But his hotel had high speed Wi-Fi, and we accepted his invitation to use it.
Unintentionally, our visit intersected a fight between Adam and Pauline, which submerged itself just under the skin at our arrival. He had met Pauline in Paris and invited her to tour the Middle East, without any serious intentions, and now Pauline was, as the Aussies say, cracking the shits. “Why do girls always think that just because you sleep with them, you're in a relationship?” Adam queried later, when he came alone to Seven Heaven. “Yeah man,” I said. “They're nuts.”
Yashar showed up that same day, having hitchhiked from the border. “At one point,” he said, “I was totally alone on the highway, no cars in either direction, and I just turned on this Depeche Mode song, Sound of Silence, and danced in the middle of the road.” Amelia met the Iranian-born Canadian in Damascus and Petra, and Jean and I in Dana. He had a good humor and an inexhaustible energy and interest, though he was so tired on arrival that all he wanted to do was drink a beer and scratch a cat he named Mes—My Egyptian Sphinx.
There were a number of cats about Seven Heaven. Black and white Taxi was the only one that Mohammed owned. Two tabby twins were eternally curled up with each other. Mes became a constant and energetic guest, as did a ragged little creature that looked like he had gone through a vacuum cleaner, and which at one point we attempted to save by force feeding with a straw. A huge ginger tomcat attended dinner every once in a while to check on his harem and chase away the odd stray bachelor that wandered in. This Ottoman of the Alleyways did not deign to beg, but sat on the sidelines waiting for an offered meal. He held his tail up high as he passed, and Amelia remarked, “That's what I don't like about cats, is that they flash their poop chutes all the time.”
Jean had finished with his program, so went snorkeling with Yashar the next day. His heavy duty camera was waterproof up to 10 meters, and we used it to take a few snapshots. He loved the life of the reef, and soon after he was signed up for a dive course, looking for hash, and courting a Dutch girl.
Yashar's Danish friend Denniz arrived a few nights later, with a liberal Israeli girl named Rachel, from Tel Aviv. Their relationship was fast as a whirlwind and twice as disorienting, though they both enjoyed it. Yashar and Denniz were both avid Couchsurfers and had met on an organized road trip in Syria. They had a few arcane things in common, a shared interest in photography, and a common itinerary, so that after running into each other repetitively, they agreed to travel together.
My sister was co-hosting a radio show called Common Sense on her university radio station, and she had invited me to call in and share my glorious presence with her. Flush with pride and vodka, I accepted, and at 11 p.m. Cairo time, 1 p.m. Pacific, I connected with KBVR via Yashar's Skype account. “Hello?” said a voice. “Hi, umm,” began my presence of mind, “I'm calling for Katy McDonald, for Common Sense? I'm her brother?” “Oh,” said the radio. “Katy, it's your brother. Okay, you're on the air.” My first line was, “What?”
For my sister, whom I love, I had organized an excellent program. I spoke about the joys of traveling in such a place as Dahab, cheap and warm and interesting. Yashar got on and impersonated an Iranian immigrant: “Hello America! I love Osama, I mean Obama! I am Persian, like the cat. Prrr.” Jean described Eurotrash fashion for my sister's upcoming birthday bash and sweet talked her in French as I averted a terrible glare. Amelia introduced some fair dinkum Aussie slang and explained some of the ways we passed the lazy days in Dahab, including our recent invention, Waxed & Wasted Wednesdays.
I was vastly hungover the next day. In the wake of my victorious debut, all the weight of vodka hit me like a truck, and I ended up very drunk and pleased with myself. We went out from the hotel courtyard to the arcade to get koshary boxes from a handcart stand there.
Koshary is a wonderful dish which, if served at home, would be taken for leftovers or whatever was left in the fridge. Fried onions and a spicy red sauce is served over macaronis and short noodles, sometimes with mincemeat mixed in. It is, however, delicious, and admirable hangover food. Like most Egyptian food, it is a cheap dish, simple but well-spiced, and served in huge portions. Jean, Amelia, and I ate ours on a concrete wall overlooking Banner Fish Bay, and then went back to Seven Heaven, where I got fried eggs and toast and coffee.
We had planned to leave that day or the next but decided multilaterally to stay when one of the divers, a Danish girl named Maria, proposed going to the Blue Hole site the next morning for some good snorkeling before all the tours arrived. Divers are not creative cartographers in their guileless names. Blue Hole was a circle 100 meters across and 150 deep, formed by a curve of coral on the coast just north of Dahab.
Our group entered at the Hell's Bells, a fissure that sloped down into the open sea outside of Blue Hole. From the wall the bank fell to 200 meters, and the clear water on that still day cut out to blue at fifty. Looking forward was looking into an empty void, though shafts of light played at the edges of your vision and made it look as a tunnel. Glittering ribbons of fish in their millions traced down the rolling walls of jagged marine life. Larger shapes, pale and indiscernible, flickered in the deeper shadows.
Five free divers gathered around three weighted guide ropes. They wore nose-plugs and wetsuits and long flippers. The less you move underwater the less air and energy are consumed, and these divers trained to swim deep for upwards of three minutes. They knew that when your stomach clenches with its need for air, you still had half your supply, and they were relaxed enough to use it all.
One diver wore a silver suit with a single flipper like a dolphin. Another dove down into the haze and reappeared thirty seconds later. He could dive deeper than a SCUBA diver, over a hundred meters, since he did not have to worry about a gas mixture or changes in the density of the air in his lungs. We watched them for a while—a squad of bobbing heads in the middle of that wilderness.
Jean, Amelia, and I swam back along the length of the wall to Hell's Bells to exit. We practiced free diving as deep as we could, holding our noses to equalize the pressure in our ears. At the cleft, Jean got out first, and Amelia second and frozen stiff. “Are you okay?” said the Frenchman, and he went over to rub her shoulders warm. “Dude,” said Amelia, shivering as she backed away, “I think you need to take care of something.” A great mass of blood and snot was plastered to the side of his face, in a ring where the mask had been. “I think I went too deep,” he commented later.
We dove later and saw two divers with huge boxes on their back, in addition to the air tanks strapped to their sides. They had masks on their faces like fighter pilots. The boxes were of some silent make that emitted no bubbles, though sometimes they turned to the conventional SCUBA tanks and sent up a shower.
One night, as we sat in the Chinese restaurant, a Russian baroness led two local coolies out between two cafes to the surf and had them unload the two lobsters they carried stacked together into the saltwater. Set them free! spake this savior. Her charges were not young red pups hardly deserving their boiled fate, but huge, black crustaceans whose old and tired bones might appreciate a good hot bath.
She waved them a tearful goodbye, I imagine, and then turned and headed back to the road and whatever man sponsored her idiocy, and soon as she rounded the bend, the two coolies jumped in the water and dug around for the runaways, too fat and healthy to let fly. Their boss showed up to monitor the search. A few minutes later, they walked back to the road, lobsters under arm, and their feet left damp footprints in the dirt.
The greater world was not so sleepy as we, enjoying a venture into the Abyss and the taste of slimy noodles—the World Cup this way comes, and Egypt had a bare-boned chance at a slot in its brackets. In the days before the first contest with Algeria, we heard baseless rumors of an Egyptian holiday, and the day of saw locals wearing the red, white, and black of their flag on T-shirts or cheek-side tattoos. Those colors flew from flags on every restaurant and bicycle and truck, and exploded like napalm when Egypt beat Algeria 2-0.
We watched the end of the game with Adam and Pauline and Yashar in some cafe that projected it on the wall and sold cheap beer, although we spent the duration taking photographs, learning French sweet talk, and coming up with our own: Of the cross-eyed sort of expression that Amelia could assume, and of the roll her tongue could perform, I said, “When your eyes vibrate, it is like electric massage. When your tongue rolls, it is like the rolling waves of my heart.” And her lips moved coyly when she thought, so I said, “When your lips dance, I feel they are inviting me to the party,” and thought myself very clever.
The clap and howl of a human tempest signaled the Egyptian win. We filed up to the backstreet that King Chicken occupied and fell in with a honking parade. Victorious patriots danced on trucks slowed to a stop by the dancers in the street. They banged garbage can lids and waved flags and shot fire out of spray cans. They sang and cheered. “Allah ackbar!” God guide our footballs and destroy our enemies! We followed the riot down the street to where it focused in a massive demonstration, and then flew in the back of a truck to King Chicken for a satisfying dinner.
A few days later, Egypt lost to Algeria in Sudan. “The Egyptians are the sorest losers,” someone later told me. Rumors say they threw stones at the Algerian players so that three could not attend the match, then blamed the Algerians for the violence—they beat themselves up to make Egypt look bad! When Egypt eventually lost, chaos consumed Cairo for three full days, then sputtered out into a stupefied, hungover dismay.
In two weeks in Dahab I had drank more bottles of vodka than I had snorkeled, and with this deficiency of cold hard adventure in mind, we set out to do the Mount Sinai hike that all the Bibles of Travel will speak of. Thou shalt leave the hotel before midnight, and arrive at the base of the Mountain of Moses at two, and thou shalt climb it, alongside masses of tourists of Korea and Russia and Italy and Spain, and thou shalt freeze, even in summer, and then the holy light of dawn will pay for all those labors, for so the Lord hast decreed.
In our ragged little bus, Amelia put my borrowed coat against the window as a pillow, and I fell asleep on her shoulder, to wake only just before our arrival. The windows had frosted over, and the metal walls of the van were icy cold. We bought our tickets at a stone shack and continued driving. Outside we saw a great wagon circle of tourist buses, and in the middle a huge crowd of pilgrims and seekers, and vendors hawking scarves and gloves and hats. Their stalls lit up strangely the clearing, and the hushed crowds and the chill made it surreal as anything.
Jean, Amelia, and I disembarked with Nishanti, a Sri Lankan adopted by Holland, and a small gang of other Dahab travelers. Amelia was so wrapped up in clothes borrowed from a Dutch girl that she looked like an astronaut. Our driver ran up to us after Jean and I had bought checkered kefiyehs and told us we had a tour guide, and, hey, where are all the others? Somehow he tracked down the young couple from the bus, but the Austrian, the Chilean, the Dutchman, and the two Russian girls eluded us. We met the first three under the imposing stone walls of St. Catherine's Monastery, where the tourist police were holding them for lack of a guide. We had Abdul!
Abdul had his wide kefiyeh tied around his head so it covered his neck. He wore only flip-flops, and had a jacket tied around his waist. He chatted pleasantly with us as we came out into a wide valley beyond the Monastery. The shadows of Bedouin rustled in the gloom of that moonless night. Some of them huddled around fires that bloomed red in the night. Our eyes picked out the shapes of camels lining the trail, and every once in a while a torch passed over dozens of the beast, and there were thousands in the valley. We smelled them and heard their groans.
The path led up and twisted back and forth, and we thanked the deep night for hiding its challenge from us, and for showing us a glimpse of the galaxy overhead. Every few minutes a camel would charge out of the dark toward us, attached by a leash to a fleet-footed Bedouin, and someone would shout, “Camel!” so everyone had time to get out of the way. Abdul taught us some words in a strange language, but he did not know enough English to tell us what language it was. On the slopes, he left the path for the rocks alongside it so he could rush ahead of us and the pilgrim line, and after waiting on a rocky perch shouted, “Sinai!” This was our group name until we came to another group using it, and then we were Cleopatra.
At tea houses on the road we took short breaks and sipped the water we brought and counted shooting stars, then Abdul waved us onward. In the valleys below, a thousand flashlights marked a long trail back to the parking lot. Soon our camel trail joined the Stairs of Repentance, those 3,750 steps lain by a most penitent monk. We climbed the last 500 of these, in the midst of a huge section of Korean pilgrims.
The top of Sinai was a plateau. We found a seat, wedged into it, and shrouded ourselves in sleeping bags. God spoke law to Moses here. We enjoyed his other gifts. Our bottled whiskey, altitude and exhaustion made us drunker than we should have been, so we took a lot of pictures of ourselves and made a lot of noise. The stars had fled, and the eastern horizon was a line of red and gold. We watched it forever, and then someone cried, “There it is!” A pinprick of light appeared between two peaks. It grew into a disc, and emerged rapidly as a chariot into the open sky, as if from beneath the world.