Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mt. Sinai

Famed as the place where God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, Mt. Sinai receives thousands of visitors each year from around the world. It's also known across the globe to be, well, really fucking hot. So the best way to ascend its 7,500 ft peak is overnight, just in time to watch the sun rise over the Sinai peninsula and the Red Sea.

Our journey began with a two hour midnight drive into the desert. No sooner had we arrived and made it through the passport checkpoint did my stomach begin to hurt miserably. Perhaps a Chinese food feast was not the best pre-hike meal.

We stumbled along the rocky path under the cloak of a moon-less sky. Hundreds of giant boulders appeared to be scattered about, until we'd approach and come face to face with a resting camel. Touts tried to convince us that the route was too difficult, so that we'd accept a pricey ride instead. It was surreal, making our way up the face of a mountain in utter darkness, narrowly sidestepping 10-foot tall animals sharing our steep path.

The entirely uphill trail became increasingly more painful, and the unrelenting stomach pains made it nearly unbearable. I considered taking a tout up on his camel offer, but pressed on nonetheless. Just after 4:00am we reached the infamous "700 steps", the final horrendous acsent to the towering peak. The sun would begin to rise within the hour, so we pushed ourselves to the limit in order to make it in time.

Heart pounding, sweat dripping, stomach aching. We made it, just as the last moments of nightfall were retreating into the east. We opted to forego the highest plateu where hundreds of other hikers were battling for a prime sunrise-watching seat, and instead found an clifftop ledge about 30 feet below where we could have the view to ourselves.

And then this happened.

The scenery up there was beautiful, surely. The experience of being somewhere so rich with history was powerful, definitely. Did we enjoy it as much as we could have, after an excruciating hike and on zero hours of sleep? Honestly, probably not.

A mere twenty minutes after daylight enveloped the surrounding mountains, it was time to turn around and begin the hike back down. Now you see, I'm a big fan of hikes that have one way in, and an alternate way out. Hike up Table Mountain in South Africa, take the cable car down. Hike the four-day Inca Trail to Macchu Piccu, take the train out. Even walking a loop back to where you started is okay with me. But turning on your heel and going right back the way you came, that bothers me.

There must have been a thousand other people descending the steps in a precarious single file. 

When the "700 steps (of pain)" were over, so was the shade.  For two hours in the already unbelievable heat, we made our way down the dusty path, our bodies tense and straining not to slip down the sliding rocks. Our skin was burning despite the sunscreen, our muscles were aching, our stomachs were rumbling. Again, I resisted the camel temptation. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Maybe I just like torture.

At 7:30 in the morning we made it down to St. Catherine's Monastary, the oldest functioning monastary in the world and home of the biblical burning bush that spoke to Moses. An impatient crowd gathered waiting for the wooden doors to open. I like 2,000 year old bushes as much as the next guy, but I was in no mood to battle the sea of sweaty camera yielders. I sent Reece on the mission while I reclined in the shade with an ice-cream bar waiting for our shuttle back to Dahab.

At 9:30am, the heat was sweltering and it was time to go. We considered buying another bottle of water before departing, but didn't have the energy for the haggling (that's required for EVERYTHING here), and figured half a large bottle was plenty for the two-hour drive home.

Fast forward one hour. Extra-long semi truck transporting three GIANT blocks of concrete, broken down lengthwise across the highway. Seriously, it looked like this guy was trying to make a u-turn on a two-lane road en route to build the Great Pyramids of Giza. Four blown tires. Destroyed trailer hitch. And the three of the heaviest objects this side of the Nile perched on top.  There was going to be no towing or jacking of this beast.

We must have arrived just after it happened, cause only a few cars stood between us and the wreck. Quickly, dozens of vehicles carting cranky tourists piled up on both sides. Men swarmed the semi, scratching their heads and making cell phone calls. We weren't going to be going anywhere for a WHILE. Suddenly, a bit of panic struck. We had hardly any food or water. We were overwhelmingly exhausted and outrageously hungry. The temperature was rising every minute, as twelve of us roasted together in the tiny van.

Our driver just sat there, apparently unmotivated to do anything about the situation. Make a phone call, turn on the A/C, go chat with his fellow drivers? Nope. I expressed my wish that if only some passengers on the Dahab side of the obstruction could trade vehicles with us, we'd both be on our merry way.

In no time, another driver approached ours, and while their concersation was in Arabic, I gathered it was about just what I had suggested. Our driver turned him down. The man moved on. Before I knew it, the passengers in the van behind us were pouring out, walking down the highway to their traded ride waiting on the other side. I was furious, convinced our driver just passed on our chance at salvation. I jumped out and pleaded with the man to take us too, but he said no. It was time to take action into our own hands.

I was certain that for the right price, someone on the other side would take us to Dahab. Our driver insisted the obstacle would be cleared in "5 minutes" (HA!) and didn't want to let us out. The other passengers went around and around about the best plan of action. I told Reece to jump out and run for it to see what he could negotiate. Another guy in our group followed. I stood outside of the van, my hand through the window on our backpack in the passenger seat. After five minutes, I felt certain Reece was making progress, and knew I needed to be nearby if we were gonna get out of here. I bid a hasty farewell to our upset driver and rushed down the steep shoulder around the wreckage to find Reece.

Sure enough, the guys had found a taker and Reece was so relieved I had arrived when I did. For a hundred pounds total (about $20 bucks), he'd take us the remaining 100 kilometers to Dahab. But it was a scurried transaction and we had to jump in immediately. I felt badly about not being able to go back for the other passengers in our van. But in the middle of the sweltering desert after no sleep and lacking supplies, it's every man for himself!

An hour and a half later, we were back in the oasis of our hotel's swimming pool, awaiting a giant plate of spaghetti and a milkshake and a nap under our blasting A/C unit. If we knew how hard it was going to be, would we still have done it? I'm not really sure. Now that it's comfortably behind us, we can certainly say that we are glad we did it. However, I think I'd have to file it under 'things that are cooler to say that you have done, than to actually do'.

In my oh so humble opinion, Moses should have probably asked God to just meet him at the bottom.

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