January 8, 2008 11:06am

Have been on the bus for about an hour now, and determined to get completely caught up today – travel writing may be the only kind you can’t get ahead in.

It seems to me that I’ve said as much as I can about the service – at least, I haven’t at all, actually, but a whole book could be dedicated to the complex intersections, and I simply don’t want to go there.

Just as communion started, we were escorted back out, as there were 45 minutes left of the service, none of which non-Coptics could participate in.  Having sent the bus away, two taxis were hailed for us, and as we said our goodbyes I got to see just how full we could cram those taxis.  With the de regueir hired gun in the front, center seat, someone’s back would be fully pressed up against the passenger window.  Have I mentioned yet just how small Egyptian cars (particularly Cairene taxis) are?

We came back and crashed – some for just five hours, some until 10am or so, depending on whether the individual was sticking to the itinary or taking the day off to revisit Giza and the Egyptian Museum and Khan el Kahlili – all of us beyond exhausted, but very satisfied.

The next morning,  Nancy and I were up a 7:30 so we could prepare for what looked to be a very long day of both driving to Wadi el Natrun (Scetis) and visiting monasteries.  We both wanted additional time at the bazaar, but had (quite happily) resigned ourselves to living with what we had rather than missing the day’s sites.  Actually, I was sorrier to lose the opportunity to negotiate on my own than I was about the actual scarves.

We began, then, at San Marcarius, which is notable both for the protected archaeological sites within the new enclosure wall (the monastary only fully reopened about 30 years ago) and the acres upon acres of organic farming carried on there.  The road is lined with oleander, hibiscus, pine and date palms – quite closed in and so different from the way around Luxor, with its vast open sugarcane fields, or the serpentine farm plots outside of Cairo.

Inside we see a covered gazebo blocked at the corners by planters of basil, and apparently the adage about basil warding off flies is true, which we will apreciate later in the day.

continued 3:33pm

Back on the bus after the second stop of the day, and we are running with the Red Sea (beautiful, choppy, and smelly) and a very strong sun at my back, and the mountains of Sinai ahead.  It is barren, golden, and serene.  The guidebooks (and Mary, our travel writer) seem to agree that this is one of the most dangerous areas.  Given the size of the guns at the checkpoint towers, I’m inclined to throw my opinion in with theirs.  The tower windows are about the same height as those one the bus, so I’ve had the disquieting experience of staring into the barrel of one gun and knowing that from behind another was pointed at the approximate region of my head.

continued 4:38pm

I have now mooched my second pen of the trip, and this diary is in daily jeopardy.  I wish to somewhat amend my earlier statement about Sinai, because honestly my first thought on looking around was (and is), “Drop me off here”.  I want to stay and walk and just be here.  The sense of solitude matches and enhances the expansive freedom.  Mary pulls me over to a back alley and we watch goats – the adults hobbled with their right front and left back legs tied together – cavort in a fertile entertainment, as the tiny, tiny kids run over to their mother and head butt her groin to get her milk to drop, then latch on.  They rub heads in their enthusaism for their meal, and their tails wag just as a puppy’s might.

Yesterday’s amusements were more esoteric and less earthy than watching Youss ef teach Edvard and Andrew to tie a khafyia, or seeing Edvard’s (surprisingly good) attempt at belly dancing with Sabrina, who keeps trying to buy one of the costumes and almost succeeded at the last rest stop.

It has become quite clear now that once we establish a group dynamic, our experience comes to depend greatly on the mood of the group.  We are friends, in whatever fashion.  Steve and Mary have invitied us to their house in New Orleans (and invitation I fully intend on accepting), some are planning to host dinners when we get back to the US, others of us have concieved joint projects to undertake.  We have a sense of who will enjoy different jokes or stories or arguements.  We know that Jackie likes to take pictures of bizarre signs and Christine likes bucolic scenes, Marirose likes to discuss Mary as pagan, as Mother of god, as feminist.  We know to tread lightly around Richard and Prinny, who are expecting their first child and thus are being extra-cautious.  I myself like oddities, very stark beauty, alone time, and mystic expressions: “Rest in the holy oasis”.

We know that as appallingly outspoken as Marirose and Patty were to both priests yesterday, on discovering that women could still not enter the sanctuary (an outrage exacerbated by the fact that the men went straight in without a second thought of showing some solidarity), they express opinions which all the women here share on principle.  It is wrong.  I, personally, was angry and frustrated at being excluded.

That said, it is not my personal fight to take up.  Those were private churches belonging to a religion not my own.  My right to protest only extends so far, particularly as a visiting scholar and an honored guest.  At any rate, we were invited into spaces much more exciting and meaningful to me – the rare books preservation rooms of the libraries, which were jewels.  That made me feel incredibly privilaged.  Well, that and the newly uncovered Mary and Christ enthroned in the left-hand niche of the khorus.  The colors, the technique, and the expressions were absolutely unique to my experience.  Probably 8th century and unrestored (and unpublished, so I’m a bit worried about using the images we took).

Afterwards, after all the icons and all the architecture, after the claustraphobia of the 18th (19th?) century monk’s cells and oratories, with their tiny doors and windowless rooms, the monks gave us excellent tea and opened the bookshop so we could get silver crosses, cards of the holy kiss and the black Mary, and pamphlets on the Rights and Obligations of Women in the Coptic Church (Betty got a copy for the library, and I’ll have to review it when we get back).  The priest had a coptic cross tattooed on the inside of his right wrist.

Heading back to Cairo, everyone seems to be sick in one way or another, and most of us figured we had one activity left in us, so after dinner , Nancy, Betty and I caught a taxi back to Kahn el Kahlili (Yea!!) where I negotiated so hard and so well that the shopkeeper said I bargained like an Egyptian rather than an American.  So.  Fucking.  Cool.

As an aside, Nancy just observed that, “there is a surprising lack of cactus and a surprising preponderance of guns in this desert.  If there were, as there should be, cactus, then when Aaron made the golden calf, God could simply have whacked him on the head with a saguaro arm and be done with the whole thing right there.”  Yes, that is how Nancy thinks.

continued 8:46 pm

We’ve arrived at the “hotel” for St. Catherine’s, a place so spartan it makes the Cosmopolitan look luxurious.  We are so cold we’ve not only turned on the heater (and it only took an hour to go from ‘cold’ to ‘approaching room temperature’) and have resorted to piling on sweaters and and scarves, and draping  jackets over the allotted 1(one) blanket each. Thank God we’re sharing a room rather than trying to go it alone.  Extra bodies mean extra heat.

The food is also deeply questionable – how does a place manage to ruin the potato (Jackie: “If you can’t respect the potato, don’t ‘cook’ the potato”) and pasta (food even I can manage) and the baklava (it’s pastry, almond, and sugar for Moses’ sake – Steve: “It tastes like dampened paper.  Damp paper in the same room as a cook *thinking* about honey.  It’s not acquainted with honey. It hasn’t even been briefly introduced to honey.”).  The pre-dinner entertainment, however, was fantastic.

Dean Susan, Patty, Sabrina (and briefly Andrew – Edvard: “Now there’s a man in love”) learnt belly dancing from a fantastically lithe man, while the rest of us gathered about the fire, Robin at the drum with a very good rhythm, Edvard smoking a hookah, and others taking incriminiating photos.  The whole area was set up like a Bedouin camp, hanging rugs forming tents and cushioned floors and benches.

Have to get up at truly god-awful in the morning for the hike, so have set out clothes and checked alarm and am off to sleep.

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~ by heycarahe on January 17, 2008.

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