January 9, 2008 1:55am

It is cold.  Still.  I left Nancy with my blanket and jacket, trying to warm up.  Everyone here on the bus is about twice their normal size with all their layers.

We are a jovial group, and everyone laughs at the camels on each side.  Do we know what we’ve gotten into?

continued, 2:01pm

It turns out that the answer is a nearly unequivical NO.  We were naive little puppies heading blindly into a 7km (each way), 5-star hike – topped off with more than 750 “stairs” (actually loose rocks and boulders arranged in a shape suggestive of stairs.

The walk at the beginning seemed punishing, but we were all fresh and filled with enthusaism, and Lauren and I set a very slow pace.  The group really wanted to stick together, but it became apparent pretty quickly that that was simply not going to be possible – particularly considering the number of people who decided (most wisely) to take camels up to the stairs.  At $18 american, it was too expensive for me, but in retrospect a camel would have been cheap at any price.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Youss ef took the precaution of hiring a Bedouin guide, Ahmed, who has been making this trek 5 days a weeks for the past 25 years.  At 45, he claims to feel like an old man – and has 4 grown children to prove it – but he has the lung capacity of a deep sea diver (and broke into song occasionally) and the stride of a very active 11 year old.  He is quick and confident, and when we realized that Edvard and Youss ef would be fully occupied taking care of Lauren and me (primarily me, actually), he was able to take charge of a very difficult group and get them all up and down the mountain.

It was extraordinarily dark, which seemed like a curse (but was actually a blessing – for reasons I’ll describe later), and the trail consisted of loose rock fill and giant boulders covered in very coarse sand, so the trail was quite dangerous.  Partiularly for those who had not taken the precaution of bring or buying a flashlight (I believe they were something like 25 pounds egyptian, including batteries, at the surprisingly fantastic minimart which was the last rest stop on the way into Sinai).

Eventually my knees weakened to the point that I could barely move, even after the rest stops both in and out of the clever little shacks which partly lined the way.  Youss ef then offered me his hand, and Edvard took the rear as a precautionary measure, and they essentially hauled me up the mountain, step by excruciating step.  About halfway up the stairs, Lauren fell prey to a combination of cold and altitude (we had about 3000 feet beyond the 4000 foot head start to make up in altitude, and we’re all accustomed to nearly sea-level altitude at home), and began to breathe in gasps and starts.  Between the two of us, the pace fell to: climb 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds.

Perhaps fifteen or so vertical feet from the first summit, I very nearly gave up, telling the others to just head up themselves and collect me on the way back.  Youss ef simply would not allow me to quit, and Edvard said that if I stopped, he stopped.  I knew his wife was already arrived – and that I’d been crippling him all morning – so I let myself be pulled up those final few steps.  (Also, I did want to see the sunrise properly, and eat my breakfast someplace warm.)

We arrived just as the first strips of coral began to appear on the horizon, and I put my sweaters and bits back on.  The hike is so grueling that one should estimate removing a layer of clothing at least every forty five minutes or so, but the summit is bone-peneratingly cold (and the air so painfully thin that even warmer temperatures would feel chilly).

One look at the sunrise and you feel like a different person, baptized in your own sweat and bottled water, and tested by trust and pain.  It it almost a promise of paradise, and you can’t help feeling both grateful and overwhelmed.  The higher the sun rises, the more you can see what you’ve just accomplished: the light displays vistas of apparently sheer cliffs and startling heights.

On the way back down, Youss ef again escorts me along, adjusting my path towards the safer, shallower steps and the more reliable rocks.  We decide that the reason you make the climb in the dark (rather than coming up the previous afternoon and camping out) is that if one could see what they were doing – or about to do – they’d never do it.  Even going downhill we must stop to rest, and are astounded at the treachery of the trail.

continued 6:52pm

We are about an hour from the resort at Ain Sukhna, and we are briefly stopped at the Suez Governate, and the blue stars painted there rather remind me of Stars of David, which is most intriguing considering the events of 1973.

continued 10:34pm

We’ve moved into the Shangri la of hotels, and I am supremely comfortable (and Nancy seems happily unconscious).  Look up the Stella Sea Club (Stella di Mare – Star of the Sea) in a guidebook and you’ll see precisely why.

To finish my day’s accounting of activities, we did make it to both the summit and the bottom.  Apparently the singing that I heard off and on during the descent was the Bedouin response to my holding Youss ef’s hand – they thought we were in love.  Now, I adore him for all his help and patience, but he is happily affianced and I am not exactly alone either, so sadly we have to disappoint our seranaders.

Directly after the hike we were meant to go to St Catherine’s monastary (and since we ended up there, it was not entirely inconvienent), but I ached in ways that defy description – and desperately needed a shower.  Also, my second pair of tights had migrated, in a deeply uncomfortable manner, to about mid thigh, and there was nothing to be done about it until I got back to the hotel.  Therefore I got onto the bus that was to pick up the non-hikers and figured that I would catch another back to the monastary later and meet up with the group.  Alas, it was not to be, as due to a variety of circumstances the timeline failed, but for me it was almost inconsequential.  I climbed back into bed and slept, occasionally waking to see the mountains through the open curtains before muttering “beautiful” and turning over to conk out again.

Apparently the monastary and library were beautiful, and at least a few people (Edvard and Sabrina for sure) got samples of the burning bush, for which the monastary was first named.  The evolution of the name, in fact, is facinating, as it started out dedicated to the burning bush as the site of the manifestation of God, was changed to the Church of the holy Virgin (apparently this worked nicely because the burning bush is a symbol of Mary – just as it burned yet remained green, so she gave birth yet remained a virgin.  Perhaps we should rename it the church of the holy paradoxes?), and upon the angelic disposition of the remains of St. Catherine there, finally became the monastary we know today.  It is an intense place, truly international – it’s current patron is, I believe, the Prince of Wales – and truly ancient, a site dedicated to both faith and self-protection for thousands of years, and I look forward to exploring it next time.

What remains of this loong day, then, are the overhearings on the bus:

~Steve and Cameron both were headbutted by camels within five minutes of each other (much to Cameron’s dismay, I had to tell him that Lauren and I were simultaneously butted by camels between our shoulder-blades.  Camels have remarkably strong skulls).

~In discussing quitting smoking and/or drinking, Edvard said there was some proverb (probably american) ‘Never trust a man who doesn’t drink’ and Youss ef replied, somewhat out of the blue, with an Arab proverb ‘For a woman to trust a man is like storing water in a net’.  Regardless, I rather think he has a point.

Before we left Morganland, Dr. Gabra invited me to lunch, but having my arms full of happy cat for the first time in over a week, I declined, asking for dinner instead.  This evening when we arrived, dinner was all I could accomplish, so we had a lively conversation and then he rescued me when I couldn’t find my hotel room.  It wasn’t in the main buiding at all, but was in one of the villas down the road.  I might never have found it on my own.

Tommorrow I have to be ready to visit the monstaries of Anthony and Paul. Aiee!

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~ by heycarahe on January 17, 2008.

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